Thursday, October 20, 2022

A Soldier's Honor (The Riley Code Book 2025) by Regan Black



USA Today–Bestselling Author: A soldier fights to protect his ex—and win her back—in this action-packed novel of romantic suspense.

One soldier’s fragile secret is hidden and safe. Until the information is leaked . . .

When a security snafu turns his world upside down, Major Matt Riley reunites with his long-lost son. And fourteen years later, the military man is still captivated by his ex, Bethany Trent, who insisted on keeping her distance after she got pregnant.

Matt must convince her that their new family bond is for keeps—but first, he must keep them alive, in the first novel in the exciting Riley Code series exploring revenge, family, and a code that can’t be broken.

Chapter 1

Bethany Trent pulled into her driveway and checked the clock on the dashboard. Her son, Caleb, still had thirty minutes of soccer practice. She’d arranged for him to have a ride home so she could swing by the grocery store and get a head start on dinner. Overhead, tall white clouds puffed slowly across the rich blue of the October sky, and she paused to appreciate the view as she unloaded the car. This was her favorite time of year, with the heat of summer gone and winter still weeks away.

If she hustled, she could get chocolate chip cookies—his favorite—into the oven before he made it home. Motherhood had taught her that teenage boys were easier to manage and more prone to chatter over food, particularly when their mouths were full. She figured the two of them had earned hazard pay for surviving his angst-ridden year of thirteen, and she was grateful that the sharpest of those edges had smoothed out over the past year.

As was the habit of children, change was inevitable. With Caleb, the changes and growth spurts often happened before she was ready. With his fifteenth birthday just over a month away, he’d started pushing back and, in some instances, shutting her out. His grades were still good, and he hung out with the same friends, but something had shifted. A girl, maybe? She didn’t know because so far she hadn’t found the key to open him up.

While putting away the groceries and gathering the ingredients for the cookies, she let her mind wander through the various approaches. She understood the logic and timing as Caleb asserted his independence. She’d been a teenager herself and recalled that internal tug-of-war between wanting to be autonomous within the steady framework and safety net of her wonderful parents.

She set out the butter to soften, preheated the oven and stirred dry ingredients. Cookies would never make up for the fact that Caleb was still one parental unit short. The pang of guilt she hadn’t felt in years prickled under her skin. As a single mom, she’d counted herself blessed with Caleb from day one. He was an amazing kid, who was growing toward a remarkable adulthood. He was a wonderful teenager, who had never met his father.

Beating the butter and sugar, and then adding the eggs, she coached herself a bit. It wasn’t as if she’d hidden everything from him, only the name. Through the years, when he’d ask, she’d assured Caleb his father was an upstanding man, who was committed to his Military career. She’d told him over and over that his father cared and provided for him; he just had to do it from a distance.

Caleb had never demanded to learn his father’s identity. He’d never thrown a fit, insisted on a meeting or raged at her about the situation. All things she’d heard other mothers cope with, usually in the case of divorce. Yes, she had an amazing kid.

Still, as she finished mixing the cookie dough, the scent of chocolate wafting up as she stirred in the chocolate chips, she worried. If having a father-in-absentia was the source of his recent withdrawal and curt moments, what would be the best next step?

She cut short the litany of “what-if” scenarios that crowded her mind. Caleb had given her no signals of the precise trouble weighing on him. Jumping to conclusions wouldn’t help either one of them. Please let it be girl trouble, she thought.

Well, the cookies were her strategy for today, and with luck, they would soften him up. Dropping the dough on baking sheets, she reminded herself she’d been strong enough for everything else, from giving birth to teething to sitting through the Alien movies while he recuperated from wrist surgery. She slid the first dozen cookies into the oven and set the timer. Telling Caleb the whole truth about his father was likely to expose her to a world of hurt, but she’d do it.

She’d do anything to ensure her son continued to feel safe, valued and loved. Maybe rather than aching over the past, explaining the circumstances and their choices would grant her a sense of relief and closure. And maybe pigs would sprout wings and put on an aerial display in that pretty afternoon sky.

The oven timer went off at the same moment the security system chimed and announced that the front door was open. She’d count that perfect timing as a good sign.

“I’m home,” Caleb called out as the door closed with a thud.

“Kitchen,” she replied, pulling the finished cookies from the oven and sliding the next baking sheet inside.

She turned as he walked in, his backpack slung over one shoulder, cleats dangling by their laces. There were grass stains on his knees, the side of his shorts and one shoulder of his T-shirt. The ripeness of his practice gear almost overpowered the aroma of freshly baked cookies. With his hair mussed and damp with sweat, he took a deep breath and a smile bloomed across his face. The one dimple, inherited from his father, creased his cheek. Here was her heart, her whole world. Today, her normal influx of love and pride was overshadowed by the lingering remorse that she’d kept Caleb to herself all these years.

No. She would not presume to know the trouble. She’d wait for him to confide in her. And she would answer his questions honestly and completely—if he asked. The answer to “why” had been rattling around in her head since the beginning: leaving his father out of the equation had been the best decision for everyone at the time. At twenty, they’d both been too young, with too much on the line to try to build a life together. It would have been a disaster.

Every year around this time, she debated broaching the topic first and asking Caleb if he wanted to extend an invitation for his father to become involved in his life. Every year, she managed to pull back before she blurted out the words and changed everything.

The idea of sharing her son wasn’t the problem. It was the potential for a disastrous fallout that scared her. Opening herself to those old emotions made her feel vulnerable in ways she’d never learned to overcome. She and Caleb were a family of two, a team where the dynamics were clear. For years, she’d chosen to give Caleb that familiar stability over the unsettling unknowns of a father on a high-profile Military career path.

After dropping the mail on the counter for her, he kept going toward the laundry room, where he dumped his cleats and backpack and stripped off his sweaty socks and shin guards. “How much longer on the cookies?” he asked.

She checked the oven timer. “Give this first dozen another minute before I take them off the cookie sheet. Then they’re fair game.” She plucked a spatula from the utensil carousel on the counter. “Did you have a good day?”

“Pretty much.” He shrugged and eyed the bowl of raw cookie dough.

“Don’t.” Bethany laughed. “I saved you the beater. It’s in the fridge.”

“Sweet!” He lunged for the refrigerator and pulled out the treat.

She pounced on his good mood and stole a hug before he could protest or dodge. Leaning away, she fanned her face. “Whew! Finish that and go grab a shower. You stink.”

“You always say that’s the smell of hard work,” he joked around a mouthful of cookie dough. He hooked a finger around the beater, dragging another chunk of dough into his mouth.

“It is when the smell isn’t a foggy stench in the kitchen. Go.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll try not to eat all the cookies before you get back.”

He dropped the beater into the sink with a clatter and dashed off, his feet pounding on the stair treads. Hopefully the promise of hot cookies would encourage him to keep the shower brief.

She flipped through the mail, part of her mind sifting through dinner choices to go with the cookies. The timer went off and she swapped out cookie sheets again. Returning to the mail, she’d decided on spaghetti for the speed and ease, as well as the sheer volume, when her hands landed on an envelope with an official government agency seal in the return address corner.

Seriously? Alone, she let loose an aggravated groan. As a contracts officer for the federal government, she’d heard about the breach of Military personnel records. Last week, it was all anyone could talk about at the office. Since she and most of her coworkers had security clearances at one level or another, they were aware their information had likely been compromised, as well.

This must be the formal confirmation that her information had been part of the breach. Good thing she’d taken precautions against personal identity theft years ago. Resigned, she opened the envelope and unfolded the single sheet of paper. Not an official notice at all, despite the proper agency letterhead. The two handwritten lines in the center of the page offered up a message far more sinister.

Your bank records don’t match your income.

Your secret will soon be common knowledge.

Blood rushed through her head, making her feel hot and cold simultaneously. She slumped to a counter stool, the single paper fluttering in her unsteady hands as she tried to bring her racing thoughts into logical order. She only had one secret and Caleb deserved to hear it from her, not some sneaky outsider with a gift for breaking through firewalls.

Addressing a threat like this was outside the scope of any standard identity-theft service. Clearly someone had discovered the banking discrepancy, courtesy of the support Caleb’s father sent her each month, but who would bother to look for something so benign in the first place?

She reached for her phone and snatched her hand back. Through the years, he’d practically begged her to call. Anytime, and for any need, his early letters and voice mails had vowed he’d be there for her and Caleb.

Did the two lines on the letterhead really warrant this phone call? Better to ask her attorney to reach out to him through the security office, except that wasn’t her primary concern.

Keeping her hands busy with the last of the baked cookies and then the dishes, she forced herself to think before calling anyone. First and foremost were Caleb’s rights and feelings. The people in charge of her clearance status already knew what the author of the note threatened to expose. Although the extra money might appear questionable to an outsider at first glance, an inquiry would quickly prove that everything was above board.

As a single mom with a daily routine leaning dangerously close to boring, she was hardly scandalous headline material. Good grief, her last promising date had been at least six months ago. None of the contracts currently on her desk were particularly sensitive. No one with any authority would care about her financial life or the private support agreement.

Why would anyone put in the effort to try to frighten her this way?

She dried the mixing bowl and measuring cups, stacked the cooling cookie sheets for Caleb to finish when they were done with dinner, the question stewing. Personally, her concerns revolved around how the news would impact Caleb and their extended family. Temper was a given, she’d known that deep in her heart for years. Her son would likely hate her for keeping the truth from him this long. Once he had the facts, she would be facing the very real possibility that Caleb would think the grass looked greener on his father’s side of the fence. And he was old enough now to speak for himself if his father—or his father’s family—pushed for custody rights.

Bethany scrubbed at her cheeks, wiping away a tear as it slid down her cheek. She would not let her mind run so far ahead and tumble off that particular cliff. She would think, assess and be logical about the next steps.

Officially, she supposed it was possible that this threat posed a real problem for Caleb’s father, putting a dent in that stellar career he had going. Yes, she would have to make the call.

Hearing the water shut off upstairs, she sighed.

It was time to tell Caleb everything about his dad and that side of his family. She couldn’t let him hear it from anyone else. Better if she and his father could do that together.

As she heard him moving around upstairs, she thought maybe the phone call to Caleb’s father would be a cakewalk compared to the challenge of hanging on to her son’s trust in the aftermath.


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