by Nicole Blanchard
September 20th 2016
Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Suspense
A woman I’ve never met, whose name I don’t even know, gambled her own life to protect my child. In return, she was taken by a mad man.
I’ll put my career, my security, and my life on the line to get her back, even if it means facing the truth about my own mistakes.
The only thing she can’t trust me with…is her heart.
This is a FULL LENGTH, STANDALONE with a HEA and NO CLIFFHANGER.
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FULL CHAPTER EXCERPT
I wish I could say it was the sexy blonde who’d been wrapped around me like ivy on a pole all night who woke me, but it isn’t her sugar-sweet voice blaring through my cell-phone speaker.
“I swear to God, Gabriel, if you aren’t there at six o’clock on the dot to pick up Emily, I’m going to the lawyers to renegotiate custody.”
“Don’t threaten me, Taylor,” I say with a weariness now characteristic of all our conversations. What I wish I could do is bark orders at her. It’d be so much easier if I could deal with my ex-wife like I do the men under my command. It would have made being married to her a hell of a lot more bearable. Pulling on a pair of pants and choking down a swallow of coffee from a forgotten mug on my nightstand distracts me long enough so I don’t go off on her ass. “It’s not even seven in the morning. I know what time I have to be there.”
Behind me, the blonde stretches on the white cotton sheets, and I take a moment to admire the miles of tanned skin before I duck out the sliding glass doors leading from my bedroom to my back patio. My dog Rudy is hot on my heels and streaks across the pavers to water the bushes and dive in the pool with a gorgeous view of the beach.
She snorts, and I have to wonder what possessed me to marry her. “That’s what you said the last time, and I waited by the ferry for over an hour. This is why we got divorced. You never do what you say you will.”
“I told you, I had an emergency. You know I volunteer with the Coast Guard. Search‑and‑rescue missions don’t just fit into a schedule.” I keep my voice calm and level, but when Taylor’s pissed, she’s like a spooked Chihuahua—she can’t seem to stop yapping.
“Yeah,” she says in a tone I have heard way too often over the years, clipped with a dash of bitter. It’s about as appetizing as the two-day old coffee I’m drinking. “You can be there for everyone but your family, right? You’ve got a lot of lives to save, but you keep missing the ones right in front of you.”
I sigh into the phone. It’s too early for this shit.
Taylor gives a half laugh, devoid of humor. “Right. We’ll see you tonight at six o’clock.” There’s a pause, and I know she wants me to fill it with apologies and assurances, but I’m done with apologizing to her. As soon as the ink was dry on our divorce papers, I didn’t look back. “Don’t be late, Gabe. Okay?”
There’s static, some background chatter, and then a bright, bubbly voice comes over the line. One that melts the frown right off my face and makes the day seem brighter, even on this side of noon. “Daddy? Hi, Daddy!”
“Hey there, sugar plum.” My voice warms and the tension eases from my shoulders.
“Whatcha doing?” Emily laughs, causing me to smile.
“Watching Rudy swim.” Rudy lurches from the pool to bring me a ball, and I throw it back in the water for him. “What are you doing? Can’t wait to see you tonight.”
“Can’t wait to see you, Daddy,” she says and then describes her summer school, her friends, and any other thought traipsing across her five-year-old brain in vivid detail. I could listen to her talk for hours. She’s about the only female I can stand for any length of time.
As she chatters on, I amble across the sand-colored, concrete pavers and sit down next to the pool, my cup of coffee by my side. Rudy paddles over with the neon yellow tennis ball clamped between his jaws. I wrestle it from him and then throw the ball to the far side of the pool. He splashes in, ignorant of all of my human problems, and dog-paddles to his goal.
The sound of the sliding glass door draws my eyes back to the house, and I find the blonde posed in the doorway. The white sheet is draped around her body and offers teasing glimpses of her toned legs and ass. And she is toned. Everywhere. I spent many, many hours getting well acquainted with every part of her last night.
Her smile is seductive and would have any man on his knees begging for round two, but verbal sparring with Taylor left a bad taste in my mouth. As she sashays across the lawn, my sole concern is for the very expensive Egyptian cotton sheet she’s getting grass-stained.
Maybe I’m losing my touch. Six or seven years ago, it took only the slightest glance at a half-dressed woman to get me in the mood.
Now it almost seems like a production just to get off.
Emily wraps up her updates, and I refocus on our conversation. “I can’t wait for you to tell me all about the rest when you get here. Don’t forget Mr. Wolfie, okay? We’ll take him for a ride around the island.”
As if she could forget him. She clings to the stuffed wolf I gave her before my last deployment as if she’d die without it.
She told me once it smells like me, and when she has it with her, it’s almost like I’m with her, too.
Kids have a way of sucker punching you in the heart.
It wasn’t long after her admission that I decided to stick closer to home and retired from my long career with the Marines. I never thought I’d give that up for anything, but when there’s a two-foot-nothing, bleach-blonde little angel crying because you’re never home, your priorities change. It becomes about them instead of you.
I hope I didn’t realize it too late.
Volunteering with the Coast Guard seemed like the perfect balance between my need to serve my community and country and my desire to be closer to my daughter. Once I decided to leave the Marines, I moved back to Rockaway Island where I grew up and took over my dad’s tourist boating business. Weekends like this, when I know it’ll be hours instead of months until I see her again, make those sacrifices worth it.
“Okay, Daddy.” Her giggle fills my ears. “Loves you!”
I glance back at the blonde as Emily sends me her love. Maybe the reason I can’t commit to another woman isn’t because I’m not interested. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to disappoint the most important one in my life—my daughter. “Loves you, too, sweetheart.”
I hang up, and a small hand pulls me to my feet. The blonde reaches down and draws me against her. My fingers linger on her hips, but then they move to her arms, my touch causing her to shiver. She mirrors my movements and wraps her arms around me. There’s a slight pause where I’m tempted to take her back to bed, but the temptation is not enough to rip the blanket off her and get reacquainted.
“Thanks for a great time,” she says. Her voice is still hoarse from all the screaming she did. The cottage I inherited from my parents after they died is a good mile from any neighbor, which is a good thing. If it were closer, we would have kept them up half the night. I feel bad about turning her away. Almost.
I kiss her, taking care not to be too rough on her swollen lips. Because I enjoy the kiss, I lengthen it until her nails dig into my skin. I’m not an asshole, and I don’t use women, but I make sure they enjoy our time together. My dad taught me that much before I left at eighteen to explore parts unknown and take down bad guys. The women I spend time with know up front our relationships won’t go any deeper than twisting the sheets.
“Same time tomorrow?” she asks as she pulls away, gasping softly to catch her breath. Her chin is tipped up to face me, and she bites her lip as she waits for my response.
“Sorry, can’t. I’ll be busy.” I trail a finger down her arm and enjoy how she shivers against me. “But this was fun.”
“It was.” Her eyes flick down to my lips, and I have to hold back my own smile. “See you later?”
I take a step away as though to help her back up the steps, but really I’m just ready for her to leave. “Maybe.”
I give her a final kiss, and she walks back into the house to get dressed as I walk back to my previous spot by the pool. A little while later, I hear the front door open and close and then a car starts and drives down the gravel driveway.
Rudy paddles up to me, and I throw the ball back to him a couple of times. I check the forecast on my phone for the afternoon and note a squall spinning up west of the island. It shouldn’t take a turn in our direction, but I make a note to keep an eye on it.
Even so, I’ll keep my ringer on and my phone clipped to my belt for the rest of the day.
If I’ve learned anything from my years marching through deserts, hacking through jungles, and weathering waves the size of skyscrapers, it’s luck can change in an instant. In my experience, when everything is going well, things always take a turn for the worse.
“It will be fun!” my boss says. Her hands lift in a conciliatory gesture when I blow my bangs out of my face and frown. “Well, okay, maybe not, but there will be beaches and lots of sun. Maybe you’ll even get a tan!”
I throw my head back against my desk chair and stare up at a familiar patch of ceiling. “I don’t need a tan, Sienna. What I need is a vacation.”
“Does it count if the business trip is to a popular vacation spot? Vacation by association?” Her voice tilts up at the end, and I can’t fault her for trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“Why do you have to move again?” I ask, refraining from banging my head on the desk in frustration.
She smiles, but it wobbles around the edges. “You know you’re the best, right Chloe?”
“Sure, I am.” I glance with repressed yearning I hope she can’t see at the calendar on my desk with this weekend circled with hearts. I’d planned to veg out on the couch with a marathon of romantic movies and no phone, laptop or work-related web time, but I’ll just have to suck it up. “You so better love me for this.”
“I do, you know I do.” She rounds my desk and envelopes me in a hug. “You aren’t my best friend for nothing!”
“Just promise you’ll write whenever you get where you’re going. If your plans don’t pan out, you can call me. Whatever you need, I’m there.”
“I would say you should hook up with someone when you get to the island, but we both know it won’t happen.”
“Speaking of,” I say, and she groans. Papers rustle and flutter to the floor as I sort through the organized chaos on my desk. “What will I be doing at,” I squint at the fine print, “Rockaway Island?”
“The usual. It’s a potential investment opportunity for one of our clients. They’re interested in turning it into an upscale bed-and-breakfast. If they book through us, we get a twenty-five percent commission. You’ll need to take a look at the property, get pictures. The usual.”
“You owe me.” I’m the one who owes her. If it weren’t for Sienna, I’d probably be homeless.
When I graduated from college, I expected to move in with my boyfriend. When I moved all the way to Jacksonville, he informed me he’d had a change of heart. He’d realized he couldn’t compromise our friendship by marrying me. Once I got over the betrayal and shock, I realized I needed a place to live and a job to support myself as soon as possible. I couldn’t look at him, let alone stay in the same apartment we’d planned to live in together.
I’d met her through an employment agency and she not only gave me a position as a receptionist at her boutique travel agency, but also let me crash at her place until I could afford to save up for my own.
Whenever she needs a favor, I’m there. No matter what it is.
“Promise,” she says. “Anything you need.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
* * *
I was going to be late.
I hated to be late.
As a rule, I arrived at scheduled places ten minutes prior to being ten minutes early. My father always said, “If you’re on time, you’re late.”
Well, according to his philosophy, I was very, very late.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I hiss, as I whirl like a dervish around my apartment, tossing clothes pell-mell into suitcases. Most of them tumble to the floor in a heap guaranteed to cause me endless irritation when I get home and see it, but I don’t have time to obsess about the disorganized mess.
The ferry scheduled to transport tourist down the St. John’s River and then fifteen miles off the east coast to Rockaway Island is scheduled to leave in half an hour.
With a frustrated curse, I scrub my hands through my hair and glance around my apartment for anything I may have left behind. My eyes skip over random stacks of my belongings, not taking anything in. I have to force myself to slow my breathing to focus.
Extra SD cards. Check.
Phone, cash, suitcase. Check, check and check.
The essentials are tucked into Ziploc bags and then into their respective cases. I’m a natural klutz, and when given the opportunity, have ruined any electronic gadget in the vicinity. During college, I murdered countless phones, multiple laptops, and more cords, chargers, and small appliances than I can count. I take extra care with any work-related tech. It’s become a running joke at work and I don’t need to see the look on Sienna’s face if I ruin yet another phone or tablet.
As I walk out the door with my camera case slung over my shoulder and suitcase in hand, I shoot off a quick text to my neighbor to feed my goldfish while I’m gone. Those, I haven’t killed. Yet.
This is why I don’t see my ex standing outside my door and run right into him.
“Jesus, Chloe,” he says and, like he had a million times while we were together, he throws up his arms to steady me. “What’s the rush?”
My heart, the traitorous thing, hammers in my chest and I hope it’s from being startled rather than from the man himself. “I’m late for a work thing.”
I re-shoulder my camera bag and study him. He’s too handsome, with dark blonde hair, a firm jaw and straight nose. All-American. Clean cut. The man I always pictured I’d be with.
Thomas rocks back on his heels. “You look good.”
Nodding is the only response I can seem to come up with and when I realize how foolish I must look, I clear my throat. “Um, thanks. Look, I really—”
When I try to maneuver around him, he blocks my path. “I wanted to talk to you. It’ll just take a second.”
He has his hands in his jeans pockets and I know it means he’s feeling extra vulnerable. I have to clench my hands around my suitcase handle to keep from comforting him. Comforting him! He shouldn’t get to be vulnerable. He shouldn’t get to be the damaged one in this scenario. I was the one who lost everything. I lost my best friend and my fiancé all in one go.
If anyone deserves to be pissed or comforted, it’s me.
But I know it’ll be faster for me to just listen to what he has to say. Arguing will cost me precious minutes, and the clock is ticking. “What is it?”
“I don’t know how to say this, except for me to just come out with it.”
Now I’m wishing I had just walked right by him. My fingers clutch around the handle to my suitcase and I take an extra breath to stem any emotional reaction at all.
“I’m getting married.” He whispers it, like if he’s gentle enough, the words won’t feel like bullets aimed straight at my heart.
My grip on the suitcase keeps me from stumbling backward. “I—,” I clear my throat and then try again. “That’s great, Thomas. Wonderful. Congratulations.”
He leans forward like he wants to comfort me and I find myself taking an automatic step in retreat. His lips part in shock, then he checks himself, schooling his features.
I’d always been a demonstrative girlfriend, and then fiancé, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I doled out affection without a thought as to keeping it all to myself. Thomas was always a guy who never got enough and took everything I had to give without much in return. My mouth drops open and I shake my head.
I can’t believe it took me learning about his impending nuptials to realize I deserve so much better.
“Is there anything else?” I ask when he doesn’t say anything.
He frowns. “No, that’s it. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”
“Yeah, I appreciate it,” I say and then I start forward. “I really do need to go before I’m late.”
When he doesn’t make a move to get out of my way, I roll my suitcase right around him.
I don’t bother saying goodbye, I don’t even turn and look back. I learned my lesson and it’s not one I will forget: love and relationships are overrated. When I’m in the car, I focus on navigating traffic and checking the clock. Thomas and that part of my life are history and I’m putting them behind me.
According to the schedule Sienna printed out for me, I have ten minutes to make it to the ferry before it takes off and it’s the last one scheduled to go out before the long holiday weekend. The docks are packed with people. Families heading to the island for summer vacation, co-eds for the parties, and businessmen for exclusive retreats. I navigate through the crowd with practiced ease and make it to the on-boarding area with minutes to spare.
It’s a beautiful day and as I wait for the attendant to take my money and hand me change, I lift my face into the sea breeze, determined to enjoy the moment and put the past where it belongs—behind me. I take the change and roll my things to the gate where a crowd of people wait to walk up the ramp to the ferry. They haven’t started boarding, so I’m in luck.
While I wait, I give myself a few minutes of time to think about Thomas and his confession. I’m pleased to find I don’t feel like breaking down into a sobbing mess. If anything, a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and for the first time in a long time, there’s a bounce in my step.
As people in front of me move forward, I smile at a little girl holding a stuffed wolf who is in line in front of me and she smiles back, showing two missing front teeth. Her mother stands next to her, frowning into her cell phone.
She’s just redialing a number when a man bumps into her. The mother glances over and apologizes, but the man doesn’t seem to pay her much mind. In fact, he walks with grim determination to the boarding ramp, skipping everyone in line.
I step out of the line to express my indignation at his rudeness when he turns and I realize he’s holding a gun.
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New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Nicole Blanchard lives in Florida with her family and their menagerie of animals. She chooses each day to chase her own fairy tale even if they contain their fair share of dragons. She is married to her best friend and owns her own business. Nicole survives on a diet of too many books and substantial amounts of root beer and slim jims. When not reading, she’s lavishing attention on her family or inhaling every episode of The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory.