Hunted:A Stepbrother Romance Novel

By: Olivia Long

“I’ve got the ugly one in my sights,” Seth said, and I looked over my shoulder to see him, still trembling, with his gun up and at the ready. I blinked hard and, in the next moment, Seth was gone. He was just ... gone. Of course, in my conscious mind, I knew where he was. He was sprawled in the grass, dead. But in this distorted dream world, he simply vanished, as my subconscious mind fought to assimilate its own truths with those of the physical world.

Even though I was not authorized, and even though it was not self-defense, I leveled my firearm and caught Marco in my sights. Maybe it was petty—after all, we had been told not to come—but I wanted revenge. I squeezed the trigger and blew Marco away. When I lowered the gun and scanned the land, I didn’t see him anymore. Like Seth, he was just gone.

And ... Keenan was gone, too.

Keenan was gone, even though I’d seen no gunfire befall him.

I stood and lowered my weapon to the ground. Unchecked fires raged in the distance. The white stallion had galloped away and was somewhere in the wild brush over the far fence. But Keenan—where was Keenan? It only made sense to finish this mission that was already so ruined ... but he was gone.

I tentatively approached where the two men had been. In my memory, Marco was there, bloodied and fallen, proof of my successful shot—but in this dream reality, there was nothing but dirt and a fallen pack of bitter tobacco cigarettes. The only thing that Keenan was going to let kill him.

I leaned down and picked up the crushed carton, inhaling it deeply. So sharp and acrid, so distinct, it was almost as if I was really holding it, almost as if I could feel the cellophane slide beneath my fingertips...

I lunged upright in bed and clumsily catapulted myself out of the sheets tangled around my thrashing ankles, slamming into cool tile. Soaked in sweat and gasping for breath, I drew my knees up to my chest and massaged my temples, trying to calm my racing heart using the tricks they had taught us in boot camp. Focus. Focus. Focus.

Slowly and steadily, the dark room around me settled and sharpened, becoming less fragmented and jumbled, less of an array of senseless shapes. I recognized this place. I wasn’t in Guatemala anymore. I was in my dad’s pool house. I was home—kind of. I’d never really lived here before, but I’d visited a few times a year. It was the house Dad had bought and shared with Irene Vaughn, Chloe’s mom.

I took a tentative sniff at the air and swore to myself that there was no hint of raw and acrid tobacco smoke. It had just been a dream. The worst type of dream a man could have—a dream from combat. There were no nightmares more visceral, no nightmares more tactile. It was almost indistinguishable from waking life ... and that had to be it. It was just the scent on the air of my dream, so real that it had lingered in my nostrils, so real that it had followed me into this world, haunting—but not real. Not real.

Keenan O’Connor was not here.

I swallowed, my throat parched, and blinked hard.

Of course ... that day ... that day on his property ... we hadn’t been able to find any trace of him after the smoke literally cleared. His entire guard staff had been slaughtered in the shootout, and his partner, Marco, was sprawled at my feet, felled by the ammunition from my own rifle. But Keenan—Keenan was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Disappeared into the bush.

Several of my own men died that day, and I found myself immediately filed away under “General Discharge” by my commander. It wasn’t quite as bad as a dishonorable discharge—but it wasn’t an honorable discharge, either. It was the way of the court telling me that they understood what I had done, leading my men into that situation, acquiescing to the pleas of the officers who had been put into a stranglehold by Keenan O’Connor and Marco Ramirez—but it had been against their policy and distinctly against orders nonetheless, and they couldn’t condone such behavior and allow me to stay.

A couple months later, here I was.

Back in my dad’s pool house like nothing had ever happened.

Like that day hadn’t turned my life upside down and—changed me.

I took another sniff at the air.

Tobacco. Acrid, raw tobacco. I was sure of it. And the dream—the dream had been over for a minute now.

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