Next to Die - Marliss Melton

Next to Die

Next to Die book coverNavy SEAL Lt. Commander Joe Montgomery did not die for his country, but he almost wishes he had after returning home the sole survivor of one of the worst disasters in SEAL history. As he embarks on the long road to forgiving himself, as well as recovering from a severe fall, he has the help of his neighbor, Penny Price, who also serves in the Navy as a physical therapist. It is with Penny’s support, confidence and healing hands that Joe is pulled from the darkest period of his life. And it is his turn to repay the favor when Penny finds herself embroiled in a mystery centered around the “accidental” death of her father in a car accident five years earlier.

Armed with her father’s private diary, Penny, and her younger sister Ophelia, seek to have the man whom they believe murdered their father put behind bars. But when that man turns up murdered himself, the race is on to catch a killer before the two Price sisters become the Next To Die.

(Courtesy of M. Kanbi, reader/reviewer)

NEXT TO DIE

Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Forever (August 1, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0446618349
ISBN-13: 978-0446618342

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Note from Marliss:

Dear Reader,

The tragedy behind Commander Joe Montgomery’s facial disfiguration is finally revealed as the fourth book in my Navy SEAL series, NEXT TO DIE, hits the shelves in August.

Joe’s character came to me when I read about the Navy SEAL who survived the disaster in Afghanistan that killed nineteen of his fellow warriors. That Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, has just published his memoirs in a New York Times Bestseller, LONE SURVIVOR. His book, like mine, is dedicated to his buddies, whom he watched die in a deadly confrontation with over a hundred Taliban. Marcus, with the help of God, managed to escape and be rescued. LONE SURVIVOR is a gripping, factual recounting of heroic feats. I highly recommend it.

My story is fiction. For one thing, my hero, Joe, is a lieutenant commander, with too high a rank to be thrown into the field. But Joe is a golden boy, a super-over-achiever who misses the adrenaline rush of active missions. Thus, when one of the four original platoon members spikes a fever, Joe jumps at the chance to take his place.

In NEXT TO DIE, Joe is evacuated from Afghanistan to recuperate at home. He is overwrought with grief, back pain, and–yes–survivor’s guilt. After all, he’d taken the place of a younger, enlisted SEAL. Would circumstances have been different if he hadn’t been thinking of himself?

Joe drowns his misery in whiskey and women. Only his next door neighbor and physical therapist, Penny Price, suspects the truth behind his sudden fall from God’s-gift-to-man to wounded warrior.

Having had a crush on Joe for years, Penny sets out to heal him, body and soul. But the tables soon turn, and it is Penny who needs Joe as her father’s killer, faced with the possibility of exposure, threatens to silence her forever.

There’s nothing like the threat of murder to make a person realize what’s important to him. With her tender touch and unconditional friendship, Penny changes Joe for the better. For the first time ever, he’s in love. The opportunity to be her true-life hero could heal him forever. But if Joe’s too late, then Penny will be “next to die.”

Critics have loved this fast-paced thriller tempered with romping good fun. Hurry to make your purchase and let NEXT TO DIE become your favorite book of the summer!

Yours Always,
Marliss Melton

 

Extras

Lone Survivor book coverTo read the true story that inspired NEXT TO DIE, click here. This is the eyewitness account told by Marcus Luttrell, “the One” as he’s known by his comrades, the sole survivor of the worst disaster in SEAL history.

Read articles about Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of the worst disaster in SEAL history here:

Washington Post “The Sole Survivor”

“Marcus Luttrell is The One” – Read more

Read Fresh Fiction Review of Lone Survivor

Reviews

Here’s What the Critics are Saying about NEXT TO DIE:

The characters are raw yet real, gritty yet passionate. The antagonist comes from the least likely place – but isn’t that the sign of a really good mystery? Well done – I can’t wait for the next Marliss Melton offering!

Lori Graham ~ OnceUponaRomance.net

If you enjoy red hot romances with likable characters and just enough suspense to keep the pages turning, then you don’t want to miss out on Next to Die or any other of Melton’s fantastic military series!

Maame Kanbi ~ www.suspenseromancewriters.com

Top of the line romantic suspense! Ms. Melton blends danger, romance, and military intrigue to weave an unforgettable story. Next to Die is not to be missed!

Kathy Hendrickson ~ A Little Romance Book Group, Peoria Public Library

Definitely pick this one up next time you’re at the bookstore, you won’t be sorry!

Angela Keck ~ Reviewer, Writers Unlimited

Grabbed me from the beginning a passion-filled thriller with an authentic military history. This chilling suspense will keep you guessing until the very end.

Kathleen Rowland ~ Romance Junkies

A highly enjoyable, nail-biting read.

— Vickie Denney ~ www.NewAndUsedBooks.com

A gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller!

Nancy Davis ~ Novelthoughts.com

Excerpt One

Prologue
Northern Afghanistan
“Break contact,” Joe whispered through the interteam radio, and he and the three SEALs in his command stepped off the trail to descend as quietly as possible into the wooded ravine. Wending through the cypress forest that glowed green through his night vision goggles, Joe counted the seconds that elapsed before the staybehind–the claymore that he’d placed on the trail–exploded.
“…nineteen, twenty.”
Bang! The loud crack was accompanied by the screams of Taliban insurgents, the same men who’d surprised them four miles up the trail when they swarmed from an underground cave. The SEALs had retreated, taking and returning heavy fire. It was a long way back to the landing zone, made longer still with forty men or more, equipped with night vision capabilities, raining bullets at them in a firestorm that echoed off the surrounding mountains.
The SEALs had dropped their backpacks on the trail to speed their retreat. And with just six rounds of ammo per man, they were running low on both ammunition and energy by the time the landing zone, or LZ, came into view.
There it was, on a plateau on the adjacent mountain, the side of which had been riddled by aerial cannon fire that had incinerated the scrub brush and cratered the earth. The only way to access the LZ was to pass through a precipitous, wooded ravine and climb the other side.
Now deep within the ravine, the SEALs remained hidden and, for the time being, safe. In the wake of the claymore’s destruction, gunfire gave way to moans and shouts. Wind whistled eerily through the boughs of stunted evergreens.
If the SEALs were lucky, the explosion and their subsequent disappearance would send the insurgents back into their caves, away from the LZ.
This reconnaissance mission, thought Joe, darkly, had been cursed from the moment Chief Harlan spiked a high fever, prompting Joe to take his place. The spectre gunship that had swept this mountain an hour prior to their drop off had completely overlooked the presence of unfriendlies on the trail. Worse still, the gunship was nowhere within range of the four SEALs, now. If it were, one simple radio call would bring the AC130 screaming to their rescue like a mother eagle protecting her fledglings. Its mini gun was capable of knocking out the forty or so insurgents with the precision of a surgeon’s blade.
Driven into retreat, Joe’s squad had only one option remaining: to call for extraction. If the insurgents didn’t leave before the helicopter’s arrival, and if–god forbid–they were carrying rocket propelled grenades in their arsenal of weapons, then this cursed mission would fall into the classification of a goatfuck.
At the bottom of the ravine, Joe checked his watch. The window was open, the satellite in position, for Curry to get on the SATCOM radio and request a hot extract.
“Bravo, report,” he said into his mouthpiece.
“Curry here,” whispered the corpsman.
“Smiley,” acknowledged their sniper.
“Nikko,” said their gunner. “Shit!”
Joe hesitated at the swearword. “What is it?”
“I wondered what the fuck was running down my leg. Oh, shit!”
That didn’t sound good. “Rally up,” Joe instructed, bringing the squad into a tight perimeter.
Four shadows drifted together. Nikko was breathing hard. He collapsed next to Curry the corpsman, who kneeled to assess his wound. Joe did the same, taking in the severity of the hit that was illuminated by Curry’s penlight. “Shit” was not the expletive that leapt into Joe’s mind. Nikko’d taken a bullet in the thigh, close to the femoral artery. Given the gunner’s pallor, he’d lost a lot of blood already. Didn’t it figure, since they would have to climb with the agility of mountain goats to make it up to the LZ?
They needed to call for extraction immediately, or Nikko was a goner.
With Curry frantically staunching the gunner’s wound, Joe took the radio from him, set it up a short distance to one side, and made the call to their task force Commander, Captain Lucas.
“Helo’s on the way,” Lucas assured him.
“Blackhawk?” Joe requested, praying for a sleek and stealthy craft.
“Can’t get one in the air,” Lucas admitted grimly. “We’re sending in a Chinook.”
With a sinking sensation in his gut, Joe dismantled the SATCOM. The thunderous arrival of the Chinook helicopter would not be overlooked by the insurgents they’d left on the trail, who–given the way this mission was going–most certainly carried missiles.
“Let’s go,” said Joe, infusing optimism into his tone. As the Officer in Charge, his most important job was to keep the squad motivated and functioning smoothly.
The men scurried to obey him. Curry pulled Nikko to his feet and propped him under one arm. Smiley stepped forward and relinquished the gunner of his M-60, which would lighten Curry’s load, but the corpsman still faced the daunting task of getting both him and Nikko up to the LZ.
Armed with Nikko’s gun, Smiley, took point. Lean and agile, the twenty-year-old darted out of the cover of trees to tackle the near-vertical incline. Ascending fifty meters, he ducked behind a boulder and shouldered his rifle, covering Nikko and Curry, who hobbled painstakingly after him, leapfrogging his position and pausing farther up the ridge.
Then it was Joe’s turn. Physically, he was as fit and robust as the younger men, but the soil slipped beneath his boots. His raw-boned body strained for speed as he dug his toes in, scrambling hand over hand to reach his destination, an outcropping of stone that resembled a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Over the pounding of his heart, he heard the whop-whop of the approaching helo.
No doubt the insurgents could hear it, too. Come on, he urged both the helo and his men. It wouldn’t take the enemy long to spy the four SEALs clambering up the opposite mountain, not with a 4-ton helicopter landing at its height. To make matters worse, the first hint of dawn was silvering the sky.
It was Smiley’s turn to take off. He pushed to his feet and bounded up the incline, seemingly unhindered by the weight of Nikko’s M-60. At the same time, the Chinook surged closer, its blades chopping the air like the wings of a thousand angels. Any minute now its shape would materialize out of the charcoal canopy above.
Yet Nikko and Curry struggled now to make their ascent. Joe was about to abandon his position to give Curry a hand, when both men slipped and took a tumble that had Joe scrambling after them in consternation.
The Chinook thundered into view, yet they were no where near the LZ yet.
“Curry, Nikko!” Joe called, reaching them, at last.
“I couldn’t hold him, sir,” Curry explained. Nikko had passed out.
“Get his feet,” Joe urged. Together they heaved and struggled to carry Nikko uphill.
But then half-a-dozen missiles streaked overhead. “Son of a bitch!” He and Curry threw themselves on top of Nikko. Grenades punctured the very earth around them, sending up spumes of rock that peppered their backsides as they succumbed to gravity.
Finding himself in tact, Joe peeked up at the helo. It was still awaiting them, rotors whirring impatiently. “Let’s go!” he yelled, preparing to haul Nikko, without stop, to the ridge.
Neither Nikko nor Curry made reply. Joe nudged aside his NVG’s. “Curry!” he cried in disbelief. Curry’s skull had been crushed, presumably by falling rock.
He thumbed his mike. “Smiley,” get down here. “Both men are down.”
He glanced up again, praying the Chinook would linger and not leave them. Smiley’s shadow made a quick and steady descent, as four more missiles sizzled across the ravine at them.
Joe gritted his teeth and ducked, bracing himself. Boom, boom, boom, boom! The mountainside trembled. It vomited rock and dirt, all of which fell in a merciless rain on Joe’s back. When he looked up, Smiley was gone. Joe groped for his NVGs, but they were gone, too.
His last hope was the Chinook. Its ramp was down, with reinforcements pouring out, bearing grenade launchers. Joe pushed to his knees and waved them down. He needed hands to pull his men up, get them into the belly of the Chinook, and bear them home again–dead or alive.
But it wasn’t to be.
Another missile shot across the ravine like a falling star. And there wasn’t even time to make a wish.
In the next instant, the helicopter exploded into a giant fireball that mushroomed outward, blasting Joe with heat and flaming shrapnel. The force of the explosion thrust him backward, tearing him away from Nikko and Curry.
He felt himself falling.
He hit the ground and rolled. The earth beneath him was vertical. He grappled to slow his descent, but he was moving too quickly, glancing over rock and shrub. He tucked and rolled, protecting his head and extremities. He crashed through the bows of an evergreen, struck the base of a tree, bounced off of it, and rolled again.
He dropped, hit the ground, and spun around, sliding on a carpet of foliage.
At last, he skidded to a stop.
Cracking an eye, he found himself peering through evergreen boughs to see the flames dancing from the remains of the Chinook. Spumes of smoke darkened the brightening sky. Joe sucked a slow and painful breath into his lungs. The stench of burnt flesh made him cringe.
Jubilant cheers floated over the ravine followed by volleys of gunfire as the guerillas sounded their victory.
Oh, Jesus. Oh, God.
Not a soul aboard or near the Chinook could have survived that explosion. His men were either dead or dying.
So this is defeat, Joe thought, losing consciousness. It was worse than anything he’d imagined.

Excerpt Two

Penny slipped inside Lieutenant Commander Montgomery’s front door and shut it quietly behind her. Not only was the foyer as dark as pitch, but his house was bigger than hers, the layout unfamiliar. She pocketed his key alongside her own and waded into shadow.
A light, shining from deep within the recesses of the home, was her only beacon. As she felt her way past a flight of stairs, something silky rubbed against her calf, emitting a yowl. “Felix!” she breathed, her heart hammering.
The hardwood under her slippers transitioned into steps that descended to a sunken family room, a room scantily illumined by the light, which she now saw was coming from the kitchen. Across the distance, she spied broken bits of glass glinting on the countertops amid a spattering of blood. The potent scent of whisky reached her nostrils. “Commander?” she called in consternation.
A shackle seemed to close around her right ankle. It startled a hoarse screech from her throat as it yanked her off her feet. She threw out her arms out to break her fall and landed across the hard body of a man lying concealed in shadow.
He wasn’t content to bring her down, either. He grappled and rolled her to the floor. In the next instant, she was lying on her stomach with her right cheek embedded in the carpet and her left arm locked behind her back. A heavy weight pressured her spine. Her legs were immobilized.
“Who’re you?” he growled in her ear, his words slurring together.
Something warm and wet plopped upon her cheek.
“Lieutenant Penny Price, sir,” she said breathlessly, “from next door.” He was bleeding on her, she realized, catching the scent of blood.
“Penny.” Some of the pressure eased from her spine. “Copper penny,” he mused on a strange note. “Never knew your eyes were blue.”
There was no way he could see her eyes in the dark, which meant he’d noticed them the other day. “Sir, I believe you’re hurt. I’m in the medical profession. I can help you,” she added in a no-nonsense voice.
“Cut my hand on glass,” he corroborated. He grew abruptly heavier, and she feared he was passing out on top of her, in which case, she might never get out from under him.
“Commander!” she said sharply.
He lurched to attention. “Hmmm?”
“You’re hurting me. Do you mind getting off me, sir?”
“Sorry.” He withdrew his weight, and she rolled to one side where she made him out, struggling to sit back on his heels. A dark stain streaked down one side of his face, coming from a cut above his right eye. He hadn’t gotten that by picking up glass.
“Let me help you,” she repeated. Clambering to her feet, she sought to help him rise. “Up you go, sir, before you bleed all over your carpet.”
He went up easily enough, but then he nearly pitched over again, and she had to muscle him upright, propping herself beneath his armpit. “Which way to a bathroom, sir?” she asked, wanting to avoid the kitchen and all that broken glass.
“‘hind you.”
Sure enough, there was a door in the opposite wall. “Okay, let’s get you cleaned up.”
She half-dragged, half-carried him toward the opening in the wall. It was impossible not to notice how hot, how big and lean his body felt, draped heavily over hers. “Watch your eyes,” she warned, fumbling inside the door for a light.
As he flinched and groaned, she took in the room beyond her with second thoughts.
Oh, dear, this was his bedroom.
And what a bed he had, she marveled, her gaze momentarily glued to the California king. It was covered with a thick black comforter that reflected the rest of the room’s décor–black and khaki geometric patterns. His dressers and bed were of Scandinavian design, with clean, uncluttered surfaces.
He started toward the wide, inviting bed.
“Oh, no, in here,” she urged, tugging him toward what had to be the bathroom.
As she wrestled him into the room and flicked on the light, she noticed more blood dripping from his right hand. So he had cut himself picking up glass. Was that before or after he cut his brow ridge?
She positioned him in front of the vanity, noting through her peripheral vision the burgundy wallpaper and handsome brass-and-marble fixtures. “Let’s have a look at you.”
Propping him against the sink, she craned her neck to assess the cut just beneath his eyebrow. Blood still pulsed in a sluggish trickle. Meanwhile, two fingers on his right hand were bleeding all over the tiled floor.
“We’re going to treat your hand first,” she decided, cranking on the water.
“What happened?” he wondered, squinting at his reflection. He touched the cut. “Ow!”
“Help me out here, Commander,” she said crisply. Pulling his hand under the water, she lathered him with the liquid soap found in the dispenser, noting the number of scabs and calluses. Could he have damaged his hands like this in a car accident? How, trying to pull someone from the wreckage? “Do you feel any residual glass in your fingers?” she asked, patting him dry.
“No.”
She grabbed up a handful of tissues and applied pressure.
“Feel stupid,” he admitted. Closing his eyes, he swayed on his feet.
She threw an arm around his waist. “Don’t fall again, sir. Here, do you want to sit down?”
“Yes.”
She helped him settle onto the closed toilet seat. “Keep pressure on your fingers while I take a look at your eye.”
His whisky-laced breath could have lit a fire if she’d had a match. Oddly the scent of it was not unpleasant as it rose into her nostrils. If anything, it made her feel a little intoxicated, herself.
She wet a clean washcloth and gently dabbed the blood from his face while he sat in a silent stupor. “You really ought to get a stitch or two,” she commented, stifling her awareness of him. “This cut is deep.”
“No medic,” he insisted, coherent enough to make his wishes known.
She pursed her lips in disapproval, but she didn’t argue. The cut would leave a scar if it went unattended, but compared to the virulent burn on his left cheek, who was going to notice?
“I don’t suppose you have a first-aid kit–“
Her request was cut short by the sudden weight of his head against her breasts. He’d nodded off, burrowing his nose into the deep V of her bathrobe.
Her heart leapt. Only in her wildest fantasies had she imagined her neighbor nuzzling her breasts. She cupped his face and forcibly brought his head up. “Do you have a first aid kit?” she inquired firmly.
His deep green gaze tried to focus on her mouth. “Under the sink,” he said.
“Sit still,” she told him. “Don’t move.” She took her hands off him long enough to locate the box beneath his sink, marked with a red cross. “This is good,” she praised, finding it well stocked. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the SEAL assessing her figure in the frumpy, velour robe.
“How’d you get in here?” he asked her, sounding suddenly more sober.
“Let’s not worry about that now,” she said in her best bed-side voice. “Hold still while I put this bandage on you.” As she affixed it across his handsome eyebrow she examined the wound on his cheek. “How did you burn your face?” she asked him casually.
“Shrapnel,” he said, without giving it much thought.
“Not a car accident?” she queried. It wasn’t any of her business, she knew. But the only way to really comfort him was to know what he’d been through.
“No,” he said, his eyes growing glassy.
She sensed dark memories rising up inside of him and wondered if there was anything she could do to dispel them. Perhaps if he talked it through… “Let me see your fingers.” As she taped bandages over his cuts she dared to ask him, “I take it you had a pretty tough day, huh?”
Moisture put a glitter in his bloodshot eyes. “Yeah,” he rasped.
“Where’d you go this morning?” she asked, keeping her tone light.
He was quiet so long, she thought he wouldn’t answer. “Funeral,” he said at last.
Her breath caught at his pain-laced admission. “Who died?” she asked with gentle concern.
“One of my men,” he said in a hollow voice.
“I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for you.”
His Adams ‘s apple bobbed. To her dismay, tears flooded his eyes, only he was too drunk to care or notice. But the sight of them tore at her heartstrings. She should have realized that Mighty Joe would be the kind of leader to take the loss of a junior SEAL seriously. “How old was he?” she asked, encouraging him to unburden himself.
“Like…twenty,” he answered as tears streaked his face.
Penny found herself smoothing a curl on the top of his head. Soft and silky, it was the color of maturing oak leaves. “He was just a baby,” she commiserated.
“Yeah.” With a start, he noticed that his face was wet. He wiped the tears with an impatient swipe of his hand. “Shit,” he swore, clearly perturbed that she’d caught him crying.
“Why don’t you get some sleep?” Penny recommended. “Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning. Where do you keep your pajamas?” she asked, eyeing his blood-stained, button-up shirt.
The question seemed to confuse him. “My what?”
“Pajamas,” she repeated, checking the hook on the back of the door.
“I don’t wear any,” he said, preparing to push to his feet.
“Oh. Well, you can’t sleep in that.” She tackled his shirt buttons with efficiency, steeling herself against the thrill of baring his shoulders. He wore a sleeveless T-shirt that highlighted the breadth of his torso, making him look like a superhero, or every girl’s wet dream.
She filled his sink with cold water and left his shirt and washcloth soaking. “Would you like some privacy?”
He was squinting at her. “What for?”
“Never mind,” she said, hot in the face. “Let’s get you into bed.”
She helped him to his feet and, keeping a firm grip on his elbow, steered him toward his mammoth-sized bed. He’d lapsed into silence-embarrassed, no doubt. She pulled back the covers and moved him closer. “In you go.”
He put one hand on the mattress, but with his world still reeling, he lost his balance and grabbed her to slow his descent.
Penny ended up sprawled on top of him for the second time that night. Only he didn’t wrestle her down. Instead, he groaned with pain, his grip on her arm almost painful.
“Are you okay?” she asked in consternation.
“Don’t move,” he begged with his eyes squeezed shut.
She did, loath to cause him any more discomfort, but she couldn’t help but note that she was sprawled across his dense body like they were lovers.
Bit by bit, the grip on her arm eased, and then he gave a sigh, as if a spasm had passed.
“Go to sleep, sir,” she whispered, thinking he’d just passed out.
He rolled without warning, causing her to slip into his embrace as he turned onto his side, captured her face in one hand, and lowered his mouth.
Penny’s adrenaline skyrocketed. She let it happen, stealing a purely selfish moment to gauge whether her fascination with this man was warranted. With stealth that made her gasp, he swept his tongue between her lips and kissed her, with one purpose only. Penny’s adrenaline skyrocketed. She told herself she would pull back shortly.
But the whiskey-laced kiss intoxicated her. It went on and on until the encroachment of his palm on her breast roused her to reality. “Good night, Commander,” she muttered, squirming away from him.
To her relief, he let her go. She slipped off the bed and scuttled to the door. Snapping off the light, she shut it behind her.
He didn’t say a word back. Perhaps he’d passed out already.
Penny tottered into his family room. Mercy! No wonder women flocked to his door in droves! The man had skills that would make the devil jealous. Too bad that would never happen again; she was sure he hadn’t known he was kissing the lieutenant next door.

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