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The colonel had angular features, light-brown hair of military length, and a matching, neatly trimmed mustache. At forty-eight, he was seventeen years Desh’s senior, but despite their different ages each man had an aura of fitness, competence, and easy self-assurance that was typical of those who had undergone the rigorous training demanded of the Special Forces.

“Thanks for coming, Captain,” said Connelly. He raised his eyebrows. “I guess I should be calling you David nowadays.”

Desh sighed. “Disappointed?”

“What, that you left the service?”

Desh nodded.

“After what happened in Iran, who could possibly blame you?”

Desh had been found nine months earlier in a bloody heap just on the Iraq side of the Iraq/Iran border, the only surviving member of his team after an operation in Iran had gone terribly wrong. He had lost three men who had each been like a brother to him. Desh found himself revisiting the horrific mission often, cursing himself for not being smarter, or faster, or more careful. He blamed himself for the deaths of his men and was consumed by guilt for being alive when they were not. The psychiatrist the military had provided insisted this was a natural reaction, but this knowledge brought him little comfort.

“I’m not sure you answered the question,” persisted Desh.

“Okay then,” said Connelly. “As a Special Forces colonel, I am disappointed. You’re as good as it gets, David. Bright, decisive, innovative. I hate to lose a man like you.” He opened his mouth to continue but thought better of it.

“Go on,” prompted Desh.

Connelly stared at his visitor for a long while and then sighed. “As a friend, on the other hand,” he said earnestly, “while I’m sorry the decision was brought on by tragedy, I think you did the right thing. And I’m happy for you.” He paused. “As good as you are,” he continued, choosing his words with great care, “you didn’t belong in the service. Not because you’re irreverent and don’t suffer fools gladly—which is true—but because you think too deeply. And you’ve never gotten numb to the necessity of taking lives. You may be unmatched as a warrior, but nothing will ever change the fact that you have the soul of a scholar.” Connelly shook his head. “The military was sapping your natural optimism and sense of humor. Even before Iran.”

Desh’s eyes narrowed as he considered Connelly’s words. He had always had a knack for seeing the humor in anything and everything. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized the colonel was right; this key facet of his personality had been steadily eroding for years.

After leaving the service he had joined Fleming Executive Protection, the largest bodyguarding service in Washington outside of the Secret Service. But while the protection business was thriving and the pay was good, Desh knew his heart wasn’t into this type of work anymore. He was in the process of deciding what would come next in his life, and while he wasn’t sure what this might be, he knew it wouldn’t involve guns or adrenaline or life and death challenges.

In the final analysis, the colonel was right. Just because you were good at something didn’t mean it was a match with your personality or psyche.

“Thanks Colonel,” said Desh earnestly. “I appreciate your honesty.” He waited a few seconds and then added, “But how are things with you?” signaling he no longer wanted to be the subject of conversation.

Connelly shrugged. “Nothing much has changed since you left. We’re still winning the war on terror hundreds of times each day.” He frowned and added, “The only problem, of course, is that we have to win every round and they only have to win once. Which means I don’t have the luxury of ever making a mistake.” There was a long pause. “But I didn’t ask you here to burden you with all of my troubles,” he finished.

Desh raised his eyebrows. “Only one of them, right?”

Connelly laughed. “True enough,” he said.

There was an awkward silence in the room for several seconds. Finally the colonel lowered his eyes and let out a regretful sigh. “David, as good as it is to see you,” he began, “I wish it were under different circumstances. But you know I wouldn’t have asked you here if this wasn’t of the utmost importance.”

“I know that, Colonel,” said Desh. He forced a smile. “That’s what worries me.”

The colonel opened his desk drawer, withdrew a brown accordion folder, and slid it across the desk to Desh, who dutifully picked it up. At Connelly’s request he pulled out a separate file from within the folder, which contained a series of 8-by-10 photographs, and examined the one on top. It was of a woman who looked to be about twenty-five, wearing well-worn jeans and a simple V-neck sweater. Cute. Desh’s physical taste exactly. Fresh-faced. Girl next door. He glanced at Connelly and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Kira Miller,” began Connelly. “Twenty-eight years old. Five foot seven. Weight: 122 pounds.”

Desh glanced back at the photo. The girl’s blue eyes sparkled almost playfully and she wore an unselfconscious, relaxed smile that conveyed a down-to-earth, friendly personality—although Desh knew better than to judge someone’s personality based on a single photograph.

“Born in Cincinnati Ohio, attended Middlebrook High School,” continued Connelly mechanically. “Parents deceased. One older brother, Alan; also deceased. Valedictorian of Middlebrook High at age sixteen. Graduated from the University of Chicago, summa cum laude, with a BS in molecular biology—at nineteen. Obtained a Ph.D. from Stanford in molecular neurobiology at twenty-three.”

“When do most people get their doctorates?”

“Twenty-seven or Twenty-eight,” replied Connelly.

Desh nodded. “Cute and geeky-brilliant. Just my type.”

“I forgot to mention, star of her high school track team as well.”

“Maybe not so geeky at that,” allowed Desh. He turned to the photo once again and found himself hoping that this Kira Miller turned out to be the damsel in distress in Connelly’s unfolding story rather than the villain.

Desh was almost six feet tall, with green eyes and short brown hair. And while he had never thought of himself as particularly handsome, the open, friendly nature of his face seemed to appeal to women far out of proportion to his looks. But while the most beautiful of women were often attracted to him, a woman’s intelligence, confidence, and sense of humor had come to matter to him far more than her appearance. He couldn’t stand to be around an empty-headed woman, no matter how beautiful, or one who didn’t have a down-to-earth personality. He wondered what Kira Miller might be like.

A part of him realized that this primitive, lizard brained interest in a girl who was nothing but a picture and a profile was foolish—but perhaps it was also a sign of returning health. He had felt numb inside since Iran, during which time he had lost all interest in starting any type of relationship. On the other hand, perhaps nothing had really changed. Perhaps he allowed himself a glimmer of interest in this woman because she was just an inaccessible two-dimensional profile, and one sure to have some unusual baggage at that, rather than a relatively safe, flesh-and-blood women whose picture wasn’t inside a top-secret military folder.

Despite this, Desh found himself hoping that this newfound spark, tiny and foolish though it was, would not be extinguished immediately. It was time to find out. “She sounds too good to be true,” he said pointedly.