Abducted by a drug cartel, scientist Jessalynn McCoy's orders are simple—release a deadly toxin, or be killed. Trapped with no options, she's desperate for help…she just never expected it from Will Gumble. The boy who let her down years ago is now a navy SEAL. She trusts his skills, his experience. Yet trusting him is a struggle. Will's Christmas wish is to heal their damaged relationship and get them to safety. But time is running out and someone is on to their escape plans. Any mistake could mean the difference between facing the holidays together or apart. Forever.
Petty Officer Will Gumble could have gone his whole life without seeing Captain Sean McCoy again.
In fact, he’d been counting on it.
But he wasn’t about to risk ignoring a summons from the brand-new executive officer of the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Even if it was worded as a request and asked for a meeting at The Cue, a pool bar well off the base and away from the regular SEAL watering holes.
Will tugged on the sleeves of his civilian jacket and took a deep breath before jerking the door open. Noise and the smoke of electronic cigarettes surrounded him as he stepped inside, scanning the hazy room for threats, exits and friends. In that order.
Two guys next to the pool table by the wall pushed each other, knocking a row of empty glasses onto the green felt. They’d had too much to drink, but weren’t worth a second look. A girl, who didn't look old enough to even be in the bar leaned against the juke box and flirted with the gray-haired man beside her. She looked up and caught Will's eye. Hers brightened, a slow smile forming on too-red lips.
Will looked away fast.
The last thing he needed was a girl latching on to him in front of his new XO.
He slipped between two tables, pushing toward the back of the room, finishing his survey. The place wasn’t particularly crowded, given the weekday night, but the green and blue neon lights made faces almost unrecognizable.
What if he couldn’t identify the captain? He hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, and McCoy had been none too happy on that occasion. In fact, the last time they’d met, McCoy had been downright red in the face to see his little girl sneaking into the house at zero dark hundred. Will hadn’t exactly meant to drop Jess off so late, but he’d been a reckless kid, cocky and assured. And when the old navy man had clamped a hand on his shoulder and stared hard at him, Will had nearly buckled. Would he be able to recognize McCoy without the searing anger and disapproval in the older man’s expression—or would both still be there, even after all these years?
When he reached the last booth in the farthest corner, all concern about recognizing Jess’s dad vanished in an instant. Captain McCoy hadn’t aged much. Still broad, with an angular jaw, and barely a wrinkle around his narrow eyes. He kept his black hair in a traditional military cut, and in the light any hint of gray was indistinguishable. But there something different about him. McCoy, who had always stood so proudly, slumped in the vinyl booth, head bowed over a half-empty glass. He seemed intent on examining the surface of the table, but his mind was clearly engaged elsewhere.
Will walked over and waited for the other man to acknowledge him. When McCoy glanced up, his eyes turned into slits, a frown firmly in place. “I don’t need anything.”
Maybe Will was the one who had changed.
Ten years, thirty pounds and a SEAL Trident pin would do that to a man.
Or maybe it was just the haze hanging over the room.
“Captain McCoy?” Will kept his words short, in case he reverted back to that eighteen-year-old kid whose voice had had a habit of cracking under pressure.
McCoy squinted harder before jumping out of the booth to assess him more closely. After a long pause, he said, “William?”
“Yes, sir.” He held out his hand, expecting a shake, but McCoy clapped him on the back, nearly hugging him.
“It’s good to see you, son. I almost didn’t recognize you out of uniform.” Not the reaction Will had been expecting, but it was a far cry better than the alternative. McCoy motioned to the table and slid back into the booth. Will sat down opposite him. “How are your parents? Still living in the area?”
“They’re fine, sir. Dad just retired, and they moved closer to the beach so he can surf more.”
The captain chuckled silently, his shoulders bobbing and a few wrinkles forming on either side of his mouth. But the humor never reached his eyes, which were pained. He wrapped his hands around his glass of soda and gazed into the dark brown liquid.
Will opened his mouth to ask about Jess, but snapped it closed before the words could pop out. He had no right to ask how she was doing or what she’d done in the last decade. Not even if she’d ever gotten married, settled down, had a family.
The pain wasn’t as acute as it had been at first, but the idea of his childhood best friend married to someone else still hit him like a punch in the stomach. At least he knew she hadn’t married his brother, Salvador. That’s why they’d stopped talking—because Jess had said she was thinking about accepting Sal’s promise ring. And because Will had decided that ignoring her phone calls was the best way to deal with the pain those words had caused.
Well, that and because he’d done the only thing he could think of to get away from having to watch Jess marry his older brother. He’d joined the navy, shipped out for parts unknown and made no effort to keep in touch. He only knew that she hadn’t married Sal—hadn’t even accepted his ring and had broken Sal’s heart in the process. His mom had told him that much.
Will didn’t have any right to ask how Jess was doing, so he canned the small talk and asked the important question.
“You wanted to meet me, sir. What can I do for you?”
McCoy released a breath that deflated his shoulders, the dim light in his eyes vanishing altogether. He glanced toward the front door before clearing his throat. “I need your help.”
“Yes, sir.” Will bit his tongue to keep from asking why the captain hadn’t asked for this meeting to take place in his office on Coronado.
Turning his glass in endless circles, the older man stared hard at the bouncing ice cubes. The seconds ticked by as the ambient noise built around them, a group singing their hearts out by the jukebox leading the charge.
“I need this conversation to stay off the record.”
Will leaned forward, his elbows spread and arms resting on the sticky tabletop. “All right.”
“You’re under no obligation to agree to what I’m about to ask you to do.” Will nodded, but McCoy continued as though he hadn’t noticed. “If this goes badly, it could cost me my commission and you your place on the teams.”
Will swallowed a lump that had lodged somewhere below his Adam’s apple. This was his chance to walk away. McCoy was giving him an out before he knew too much. If he stuck around, he’d be privy to information that was bound to get them both in trouble.
But he hadn’t been summoned by chance. None of the other men on his boat crew had been invited. McCoy had called him specifically.
If the tingling of his spine was any indication, it had everything to do with their past acquaintance.
“Something happened to Jess.” It wasn’t a question, and as the words tumbled out of Will’s mouth, his stomach rolled. His Jess. His best friend from junior high to graduation. If she needed him, she was in trouble, and the situation was worse than he could imagine. Batting down the accompanying nausea, he squinted across the table. “Tell me everything.”
Jabbing his fingers through his hair, McCoy let out a slow breath. “Jessalynn is working on her PhD in bioengineering and had a grant to study an air-borne pathogen at Southern California State University.”
Will let out a low whistle, the sound involuntary and ill-equipped to convey how impressive he found her achievements.
“Three days ago she was working late in the lab. The security alarm went off about oh one hundred, and when the guard arrived, the lab had been ransacked. Jess and her bioweapon had vanished.”
Fire shot through Will’s forehead and he covered his face with his hands, praying this was some sort of sick joke. But the XO sat in equally stunned silence, as if this was the first time he’d spoken the truth aloud.
Massaging his temples, Will growled low in the back of his throat. “Who took her?”
“The DEA thinks that it’s a Panamanian drug cartel.”
“And they want what?”
McCoy’s face crumpled in silent agony. Just seeing it made Will’s chest hurt, and he clawed at his T-shirt, searching for air, the smell of alcohol and perfume catching in his throat. He could picture Jess’s bright grin and the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. But he could not picture her in Panama, fear etching her facial features until they were unrecognizable.
This was a hoax. Someone was playing a cruel joke.
His Jess couldn’t be at the hands of some drug cartel. She was safe and sound. And probably long-ago married to someone who actually deserved her.
Except the tortured voice of a father unable to save his only child wasn’t easily conjured. It carried with it the pain of broken hearts and lost dreams.
Sean McCoy wasn’t tricking him. He was a man in need of help.
Will closed his eyes, pursed his lips until they almost touched the tip of his nose and released a pent-up breath. “Let me guess. They want to use the pathogen and need someone to release it for them.”
“A friend at the DEA says there’s a bitter land war going on down there between two cartels. Bringing in a biological weapon seems very in character. Unfortunately, since they’re only attacking each other rather than targeting civilians, the DEA isn’t interested in getting involved, as long as it’s not crossing over our borders.”
“Doesn’t kidnapping an American count as crossing our borders?”
He shook his head. “They can’t definitively prove who was behind the abduction. And they’re about as eager to poke around drug cartels as a mouse would be to wake a snoring bobcat.”
“What about the government? Why don’t they send a team down to extract her?”
McCoy closed his eyes. “There’s not enough intel to know exactly where she’s been taken. They’re searching all of
now, but the jungle is dense, and it could be weeks before they have enough
info to send in an extraction team.” Panama
The captain’s unspoken words hung between them. Jess didn’t have weeks to spare.
With folded hands pressed to his wrinkled forehead, Will pinched his eyes closed. Someone had to go after Jess. She wouldn’t survive for long after the cartel got what they wanted. Once she’d served her purpose, they would have no need for her.
His middle clenched, as if he was preparing for a blow from an opponent in the boxing ring. The truth hit harder than any fist.
The cartel would dispose of her. Soon.
He’d always thought he’d have a chance to end their decade of silence. And a bunch of drug-slinging bioterrorists weren’t going to take that chance from him. He owed her an apology, and he would make sure he had a chance to deliver it.
Pressing flat hands to the tabletop, he gazed into McCoy's haunted eyes across the table. “What is it you want me to do?”
Another sigh. Another droop to the wide shoulders. “The United States Navy has no official jurisdiction in this situation. Officially, they have no information about it and absolutely no plans for a rescue attempt.”
“Do you?” Bushy eyebrows pulled together, and a flicker of something akin to hope appeared in the captain’s green eyes, so much like his daughter’s.
“Yes, sir. I’m going to need approval for a short leave of absence.”
For the first time that evening, the corner of McCoy’s mouth quirked upward in a true smile. “Done.”
“I’ll be out of touch. Completely.” He stared hard at the older man, wishing he could come right out and tell the tough truth. But now that Will had agreed, McCoy needed to set up some plausible deniability. The captain couldn’t know the details. If a superior officer started asking questions, he’d have to tell the truth. No details meant no lies.
The XO hadn’t asked Will to do anything. No orders. Not even a suggestion. Just a conversation in a seedy bar far from the base and further from their norm. No one would recognize them enough to pinpoint that this was the night their lives changed.
But they were about to.
“I understand,” McCoy said.
Eager tension built in his legs, and Will nodded toward the door. “I’d better get going.” He slid across the bench and zipped his jacket as he rose.
The captain followed his movements, trailing him between the pool tables and into the starlit parking lot. Gusts of fresh air were like a lifeboat to a man who didn’t know he was drowning. The sweet scent of the breeze wrapped around him, and he took deep breaths through his nose until his mind was clear of everything but the mission ahead of him.
“Thank you.” The older man’s voice was lower, more gravelly.
Will nodded, but didn’t directly respond. Instead he said, “Please, let her husband know that I’ll do everything I can.”
McCoy shoved his hands into the pockets of his blue jeans and cocked his head to the side, his ear almost to his shoulder. “Her husband?”
His palms suddenly sweaty, Will rubbed them against his pants. Was McCoy just pulling his leg or was it possible that she’d never settled down? Jess marrying someone—anyone—else had been the reason for ten years of silence. Was it possible she’d never gotten married at all?
The questions running through his mind must have been broadcast on his face because the captain let out a low chuckle. “Oh, Jess quit dating about the time you disappeared.”
Will nodded, confusion mixing with an unnamed emotion in his chest and leaving him speechless.
“She said she’d rather focus on her education. I tried to talk to her about it, but she didn’t have much to say on the matter. I wish like fire that her mother had been around for that. She’d have known what to say. Instead I bumbled through, and Jessalynn told me not to worry about it, so I let it go.”
The words tumbled around Will’s mind as he tried to make sense of them. Finally, they reemerged as a question as smooth as sandpaper. “Then Jess is—she’s not—she's never gotten married?”
“No. She’s not married.” The captain offered a fraction of a grin. Maybe it was just a twitch, but it sure looked like more. Like an invitation to be a man instead of running like the boy he’d been all those years before.
McCoy clapped him on the back before striding toward his car. Halfway there, he spun around with a loose shrug of one shoulder. “Try not to start a war, son.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
But no promises. If it took a war to save Jess, he’d start and end it.
By day Liz Johnson is a marketing manager for a Christian publisher. She finds time to write late at night and is a two-time ACFW Carol Award finalist. Liz makes her home in Nashville, TN, where she enjoys theater, exploring local music, and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nieces and nephews. She loves stories of true love with happy endings.
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Off to read another great book!
Sandra M. Hart