For as long as she can remember, Ember Maxwell’s life hasn’t been her own. A world-renowned influencer, she’s a brand unto herself, created by her parents—who also want Olympic glory for their only daughter. Years of grueling training have led to Seoul, Korea, and a spot on the modern pentathlon team. It’s a turning point for Ember in more ways than one. Chafing against her parents’ tight reins, she opts to stay in the Olympic Village, a decision that leads to a gravely harrowing event…and a man unlike any she’s ever met.
Craig “Doc” Wagner has actively avoided the spotlight since childhood, a trend that’s continued with his career as a Delta Force soldier. Falling for someone whose entire life is splashed on social media is possibly the worst idea ever, though his attraction to Ember won’t be denied. It’s not long before he discovers they have plenty in common where it really matters…but he lives in Texas, and her life is in California. So Doc will take every stolen moment they can get.
When Ember makes a few life-changing decisions, Doc is thrilled. The same can’t be said for some of her biggest fans, including one who sees Ember’s new direction as the ultimate betrayal…that should cost her the ultimate price.
** Shielding Ember is the 7th book in the Delta Team Two Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Release date: September 14, 2021
Publisher: Stoker Aces Production, LLC
Print pages: 350
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Craig “Doc” Wagner sat at a cafeteria table in the dorm they’d been assigned to in the Olympic Village. The guys on the team had been looking forward to this assignment for months. Delta Force teams were brought in for the Olympics to supplement the local security forces. Their job was to protect not only the US athletes, but everyone who lived and worked at the venue for the month or so that the Olympics were going on.
This year the Summer Games were in Seoul, South Korea, and the Deltas were on high alert because of the proximity to North Korea. Intelligence reports indicated the leader of the communist country was desperate to show the world he was a force to be reckoned with. And what better way to do that than to make a move on the Olympics? Everyone’s eyes were on Seoul and a terrorist attack would be huge news.
“You look tense,” Trigger said to Doc as they ate their lunch.
Doc shrugged. “Conditions aren’t ideal to keep everyone safe,” he told his team leader.
“The athlete village has some of the highest security on the complex,” Lefty said. “No one is allowed inside the buildings without proper credentials. No parents, no reporters…only the athletes and trainers are allowed.”
“Right, and no one has ever forged credentials before,” Doc said sarcastically.
The dorm they’d been assigned to was basically a large luxury hotel. There were several located in the Olympic Village, built to hold the thousands of athletes who’d converged on the city to compete. The South Korean government had outdone themselves in building the living quarters. There were thirty floors in each building, with countries and teams divided by floor. It wouldn’t be a good thing to put two highly competitive teams near each other, so the assignments were well thought out in advance.
Doc and his team had been assigned rooms on the twentieth floor of their building, along with the US water polo and modern pentathlon teams. Including the Deltas, that was around twenty-six people, and most had checked in already.
Trigger had gone around to each room, introducing himself and informing the athletes the team was there for their safety, requesting if they saw anything suspicious to please report it immediately. They hadn’t advertised the fact they were Delta, just said they were in the US Army, brought in to help out with security.
“Anyone seen Ember Maxwell yet?” Lucky asked.
“No. Is she even staying here?” Grover asked. “I just assumed she and her entourage would be bunking in one of the five-star hotels in the city.”
“She’s listed as a resident on the paperwork I was given,” Trigger said.
“Hard to believe she’ll be here. On the same floor as us,” Lefty said, the excitement easy to hear in his voice.
“Who’s Ember Maxwell?” Doc asked.
Five pairs of eyes turned to him in shock and surprise.
“You seriously don’t know?” Trigger asked.
Doc shook his head. “I wouldn’t have asked if I did.”
“She’s only the most popular social media influencer out there. Word has it that if you can get her to post something on her Instagram account, whatever you’re selling immediately goes up about four hundred percent. Her brand is that powerful,” Brain said.
“How the hell do you know anything about how social media works?” Doc asked. “We aren’t even allowed to have accounts.”
“How the hell do you not have a clue who Ember Maxwell is?” Lucky fired back dryly.
“Because I don’t give a shit about that kind of thing. I’m not trolling Instagram or any other social media site. They’re a waste of time, and I prefer to talk to my friends to find out what’s going on with them, not see what they’ve posted on the damn computer,” Doc grumbled.
“You have friends? I mean, other than us?” Lefty teased.
“Fuck off,” Doc said, balling up a napkin and throwing it at his teammate.
The truth was, he didn’t have much of a life outside his Delta Force team. But that was fine with him. He loved these men like brothers, and now that most were married and starting families, he was content to have expanded his circle with their wives and girlfriends.
“Seriously, Ember Maxwell is like royalty,” Trigger said. “Everyone wants to be noticed and mentioned by her, and she’s beautiful to boot. Not only that, but she’s an amazing athlete. Only two women and two men make the Olympic team for modern pentathlon, and she’s one of them.”
“Some people say she bought her way onto the team,” Brain stated.
Doc didn’t hear any censure in his friend’s tone. “Did she?” he asked curiously.
“I don’t think so,” Lucky interjected. “I’ve seen her compete. Fencing isn’t her strongest sport, but she’s a decent swimmer and okay at riding, and her running and shooting are almost always excellent. The modern pentathlon is interesting because an athlete can be weak in one area, but still come out on top since everything is based on a point system.”
Doc had never taken much notice of the lesser-known Olympic sports. He was more of a baseball, basketball, and football kind of guy.
“Anyway, she’s supposed to be staying here,” Trigger said. “Because there are only four members on the pentathlon team, they each get their own room. She’s the only one of the four who didn’t participate in the opening ceremonies the other day, and the only one who isn’t here yet.”
Doc nodded absently. It didn’t matter to him where the pampered athletes stayed. He was here to make sure no crazy terrorists infiltrated the village to cause mass mayhem.
“Can you believe how crazy this place is?” Grover asked, changing the subject with a shake of his head. “It’s like a sexual free-for-all.”
“Right? There are bowls of condoms everywhere. In every common room, right inside the entrance of the building, and I even saw a bag attached to the railing inside the elevator,” Lefty said.
“It’s pretty insane. I mean, I would’ve thought everyone would be more concerned about getting quality sleep and preparing to compete…not getting their rocks off,” Brain commented.
“Some people use sex as a coping mechanism,” Trigger said with a shrug. “It gives them an outlet for their stress and nervous energy.”
“And after they finish competing, all bets are off,” Lefty added.
Doc tuned his friends out—he honestly didn’t care if the athletes had sex or not—and concentrated on his lunch. One thing he had to say for this mission, the food was much better than their usual fare. No MREs for them in Seoul. They could choose just about any kind of meal they wanted. High carbohydrate, high protein, gluten-free. And from a wide array of cuisines, including Asian food of course. In the evenings, there was even a McDonald’s that set up in one corner of the cafeteria.
The building they were assigned to held the American, Canadian, and British athletes, so it was fairly homogeneous. Athletes were constantly coming and going, based on their competition schedule. From a security standpoint, the village itself should’ve been a nightmare, but the South Korean police and military did a good job of making sure no one got into the dorms who didn’t belong. There were several checkpoints where credentials were confirmed and reconfirmed.
Tomorrow, Doc and the rest of the team would tour the sports venues they were assigned to, and hopefully the security would be just as strict. He knew there was always a chance someone would be able to infiltrate off-limits areas, or slip explosives or weapons past security in the venues where spectators were allowed, but hopefully that wouldn’t be an issue this year.
“Anyone have any idea how we’re going to find Shin-Soo Choo for Logan?” Lucky asked.
Everyone shook their heads.
“The baseball players have space in this dorm, but none are staying here,” Trigger said. “They’re all in a hotel nearby.”
“Shit,” Grover swore. “That’s gonna make it almost impossible.”
“We’ll get it,” Brain said. “We promised both Oz and Logan that we wouldn’t leave Korea until we had it.”
Oz, the seventh member of their team, had been allowed to remain stateside with his very pregnant wife, who was due any day now. Logan was his nephew, and Shin-Soo Choo was the boy’s idol. When Choo made the US Olympic baseball team, Logan had begged the guys to find him and get an autograph while they were over here. But even though the Deltas were part of the security force, they didn’t have carte blanche to go wherever they wanted at the Olympic venue. It was going to take some creative thinking to figure out how to get anywhere near the extremely popular baseball players.
Just then, there was a slight commotion in the cafeteria. Doc looked toward the door and saw a woman had entered—and literally everyone was staring at her. But it didn’t look as if she noticed. She went to the beginning of the buffet and grabbed a tray and began to work her way down the line.
Doc shifted in his seat. He had no idea who the woman was, but just looking at her made him uncomfortable.
First off, she was beautiful. Her brown skin with warm orange-red undertones reminded him of the penny collection he used to have when he was a kid. He’d loved running his hands over all that copper…and it was surprising that he felt an urge to do the same with her. The woman’s black kinky curls were pulled back in a low bun at the nape of her neck, exposing the muscles in her shoulders and back, further highlighted by the tank top she wore. Her jeans hugged her muscular thighs and her curvy backside.
Everything about her looks appealed to Doc.
Despite that, the attention she was getting—while not even trying—made his lips draw down in a scowl.
He’d spent his entire life trying to fly under the radar, starting from a young age. He’d been the object of too many people’s curious and downright offensive stares while growing up. He stuck out like a sore thumb in his family, and even now, he preferred to fade into the background. His job as a special forces soldier catered to his need to go unnoticed. Get in, get the job done, and get out. That was what he lived and breathed.
But this woman would never be someone who faded into the woodwork. She seemed to light up a room simply by entering. She drew everyone’s gaze without trying. Just imagining that kind of attention made Doc uncomfortable as hell.
Grover whistled under his breath. “She’s even more beautiful in person than in her pictures, if that’s possible.”
“For the record, Doc, that’s Ember Maxwell,” Lucky said with a smile, nudging his friend with his elbow.
Doc studied her, curious about the woman who everyone but him seemed to know. He’d expected her to be pretty, and she was. He’d expected her to be in shape, and her strength was obvious. And admittedly, he’d expected the woman to revel in the spotlight her social media fame had garnered.
But instead of finding someone thrilled to be the center of attention, Doc noticed her eyes were firmly glued to the floor…as if that would help her pretend everyone wasn’t staring.
The more he watched, the more curious Doc became. He recognized some of mannerisms in Ember Maxwell that he himself had adopted when he was younger to avoid being noticed. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, even the servers. When someone in line spoke to her, Ember ducked her head further and simply shrugged. She wasn’t acting like Doc had expected she would—which surprised him.
When a man at the table next to theirs took out his cell phone, called her name, and took a picture when she turned around, Doc saw her shoulders hunch inward as she quickly looked away.
This wasn’t a woman who reveled in the spotlight.
When she’d made it through the line and turned again to face the cafeteria, biting her lip and looking extremely uncomfortable as she studied the room, Doc was sliding his chair back and moving before he even thought about what he was doing.
This was extremely out of character for him, but he didn’t think twice about it.
Doc walked up to Ember and, without a word, took her tray from her hands. She looked at him in surprise.
“You can sit with us,” he said quietly, before gesturing toward his table with his head.
“Um…okay,” Ember said.
The warm honey of her voice didn’t do anything to make Doc more comfortable in her presence. Everything about this woman unsettled him, but it was too late to turn around and pretend he hadn’t intercepted her. He turned without another word and led the way back to the table where his friends sat.
The friends currently staring at him in shock, probably wondering what in the world had gotten into him.
Not only that, but every other eye in the cafeteria was on them as well.
Internally squirming and berating himself for doing exactly what he hated most—putting himself in the limelight—Doc was even more brusque than normal as he turned to Ember.
“You can sit here,” he told her, putting her tray down between Trigger and Brain.
“Um, okay, thanks,” she muttered.
Doc turned to see all the men at the next table now had their phones out. He stalked toward them and leaned over the table, speaking in a low, menacing tone. “If you don’t put down those fucking cameras, you’re gonna regret it.”
As far as threats go, it was kind of weak, but Doc wouldn’t actually hurt the men anyway—even if he wanted to.
The three guys immediately lowered their phones.
“Thank you,” he bit out. “It looks like you’re done eating, so I suggest you be on your way.”
Without a word, the men gathered up their trays and headed for the tray-drop and the exit.
Doc should’ve felt better, but he could still see the majority of people in the cafeteria looking in his direction. He turned toward the table where he’d deposited Ember and saw her staring at him with huge brown eyes. She looked nervous and confused.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to sit at the table with her and have a normal conversation. Not with everyone in the room staring at them. It made his stomach churn to even think about finishing his lunch.
Without a word, he stalked over to his place at the table, grabbed his tray and headed for the exit.
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