UPDATE: Everyone’s a winner!
I loved writing my Uncharted SEALs series. All those rugged, alpha heroes and strong heroines. Humor. Action. All the ingredients that make stories fun for me to write, and hopefully, fun for you to read.
With Uncharted SEALs, I experimented a bit. For the first time, I did sequels with the same characters—for the simple reason I couldn’t say goodbye to them. I wanted to see inside their Happy Ever Afters. Through Her Eyes and Between a SEAL and a Hard Place share the same main characters, as do Dream of Me and Heart of a SEAL. Big Sky SEAL gave birth to my Montana Bounty Hunters, introducing Jamie and Reaper, who as a result of their work in Big Sky earned their own satellite office of MBH.
A fun theme I used in two of the stories was a cruise ship. Both Before We Kiss and Hard SEAL to Love are set on the same ship, and have the same supporting characters. You’ll meet the crusty veterans who were part of those stories in the scene below. Hope you enjoy it!
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POST COVID: If you could go anywhere in the world, what would be your cruise destination?
Before We Kiss
Navy SEAL, William “Wiley” Coyote, should have known his “piece of cake” assignment would go sideways in a hurry. But he’d been lured by the promise of an all-expenses-paid cruise. A nice “fluffy” assignment after the last one spent escorting freighters through pirate-infested waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
A general’s daughter, Poppy Shackleford, wasn’t some spoiled daughter of a man made famous for defeating insurgent forces. She’d endured her own tragedies—the loss of her mother when she was young and her father stationed in Afghanistan, and the loss of her fiancé after he’d sustained wounds in Iraq—not from the physical wounds that had claimed his two legs—he’d taken his own life. His death was why Poppy was involved in Soldiers’ Sanctuary, a non-profit that helped disabled soldiers adjust to their new circumstances. Her mission in life is to see that no veteran of war would ever feel so alone, so hopeless he’d choose her dead fiancé’s path. Which was why, despite the current threats against her father, she was on this cruise, assessing the ship’s ability to accommodate the soldiers rather than sending a surrogate.
However, the first threat doesn’t come from terrorists with an axe to grind. Mexican banditos stop her tour bus heading toward Mayan ruins to shake down the passengers for their money and belongings. When one snaps a picture of her, he soon figures out there’s a much bigger payday. She knows she’s going to be kidnapped, but she didn’t know someone was on that same tour bus who had her back.
Wiley’s unconventional takedown of her would-be kidnappers exposes the fact her father didn’t honor her wishes to fly under the radar. And now that the cat’s out of the bag, Wiley’s made it clear he’s moving into her suite for the rest of their time at sea to keep her out of harm’s way.
Excerpt from Before We Kiss…
William “Wiley” Coyote should have known the “piece of cake” assignment his team leader, Deke Warrick, offered him would go sideways in a hurry. But he’d been lured by the promise of an all-expenses-paid cruise. A nice “fluffy” assignment after the last one spent escorting freighters through pirate-infested waters in the Strait of Hormuz. He was due a vacation, and he’d envisioned slipping into a chaise on the cruise ship’s deck while his target sunbathed nearby. Something his team leader had warned him might not be in the cards. After all, Deke’d had a similar, simple assignment when he’d been tasked with protecting a girl. And look what it had gotten his buddy. Shot at. Then married. Happily, it seemed.
Not that Wiley had marriage on his mind. No, sir. Not him. Everything he owned was stuffed into a duffle bag. He lived in hotel rooms, tents, and, now, a cruise boat cabin. No, he had nothing to offer a bride. Marriage wasn’t something in his cards. And certainly not to some celebutante who couldn’t keep her picture off multiple social media sites on a daily basis. That sort of exposure, even by association, would be deadly in his line of business.
He’d listened intently when Deke outlined his assignment, determined to keep this job all business, despite the photos that had spilled from the envelope during his initial briefing.
“Every time she steps out of her suite, the room attendant will buzz you. You keep on her tail, but not close enough she notices. Her daddy said she’d raise hell if she knew he’d hired security after she refused a special detail.” At that point, Deke had grinned. “I think he’s a little afraid of her.”
Wiley hadn’t smiled. Instead, he’d grunted. General Shackleford wasn’t any lightweight desk-jockey. He’d seen his share of action.
The ship had barely left the Port of Miami before Wiley understood. The woman never stopped moving. Or talking. Sometimes loudly, if she didn’t like what she heard. If he could have worn earplugs, possibly his first impressions of her would have been very different.
Poppy Shackleford was a pretty little thing. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, lightly tanned, curves in all the right places. And maybe five-foot-two in her espadrille sandals. He’d had a girlfriend charge two pairs to his credit card years ago, so he knew darn well what they were and how much the cork-heeled things cost. Although he could appreciate the sexy curves the three-inch heels gave her toned calves, he wasn’t risking getting any closer. So far, he’d managed to operate under the radar. He had no doubts she’d know exactly what he was there to do if she got one good look at him. Nothing escaped her attention. Not the too-steep ramps leading onto the ship when they’d embarked. Nor the undercooked steak she’d been served last night in the dining room.
He’d begun to think she was deaf because she talked so loudly, but then he’d realized her complaints were on behalf of her fellow passengers, and this cruise had been billed as senior-themed. Most of the thousand passengers on board were over seventy. The dinner conversation surrounding him last night consisted of tracking blood sugar levels as his companions pricked their fingertips and fed droplets of blood into their readers. Afterwards, their conversation drifted to the best fiber to promote healthy bowels and where the captain would store their bodies if they happened to pass during the night.
“No kidding?” Deke had said after Wiley’s status update early that morning.
Wiley’s jaw ground shut at the snickering no hand over a receiver could muffle. “The Countess cruise line’s security seems pretty tight. Someone is always nearby, although they’re better at blending in than I am.”
“You mean you didn’t pack any Hawaiian shirts?”
“Don’t own one,” he’d gritted out.
“How are you keeping from blowing your cover?”
Wiley grunted. “I haven’t shaved, and I have on my cowboy hat and boots.”
“So you’re sticking out like a sore thumb.”
“She won’t expect a security detail to blend in quite like I do.”
Deke grunted. “Just remember you have people positioned around the ship. Channel two if you need them.”
Which would be great if his assignment was actually aboard the ship. The farther into the jungle their tour bus drove, the deeper his concern grew. They were on an excursion to view Mayan ruins. Anywhere along their route would be a great place for an ambush. The two security people provided by the cruise line to accompany his target were in good shape, but he could tell neither was armed. Conventional weapons were impossible to smuggle aboard the ship, and the weapons kept under lock and key aboard the vessel wouldn’t have been permitted for this little jaunt.
And why were they out here? If he remembered right, the pyramids weren’t exactly wheelchair-friendly. But he knew Poppy was thorough, that she took her tour coordinator job seriously. No stone would be left unturned. No tour unvetted, personally, by her.
He’d read the dossier Charter Group had put together. Poppy Shackleford, daughter of Lieutenant General Randall Shackleford, wasn’t some spoiled daughter of a famous man. She’d endured her own tragedies—the loss of her mother when she was young and her father stationed in Afghanistan, the loss of her fiancé after he’d sustained wounds in Iraq, although not from the physical wounds that had claimed both his legs. Frank Sutton, who’d been despondent over the loss, had killed himself.
His death was why Poppy was involved in Soldiers’ Sanctuary, a non-profit that helped disabled soldiers adjust to their new circumstances, whether supporting wounded vets with additional therapies the VA was slow or unable to provide, or seeking the latest in prosthetics and mobility devices. And the organization provided mentorship, one wounded soldier to another, to ensure no veteran of war would feel so alone, so hopeless, they’d choose Frank Sutton’s path.
Wiley understood and admired her for not simply crying then moving on, but embracing a cause that might help others. However, today he wished she wasn’t quite so determined to make it impossible for him to protect her. Not that she had a clue he was there. If she’d glanced toward the back of the air-conditioned bus, all she might have noted was one dark head amid a sea of white, gray, and blue.
The fellow seated next to him gave another narrow-eyed, flinty glance.
Wiley aimed a frown his way, hoping the old guy would mind his own business. The man was burly, surprisingly muscled for an old dude.
He leaned sideways in his seat and whispered, “Name’s Joseph Olinsky, but you can call me Joe. I’m a Marine.” He nodded toward the head of the bus where Poppy stood beside the tour guide, asking questions. “She someone important?”
Not as invisible as I thought. Wiley blinked. “No, sir. I think she’s just another passenger. A noisy one.”
Shaking his head, Joe grunted. “She has a detail. That guy with a clipboard ain’t a cruise director. I’d say he’s ex-Navy, probably a SEAL. Has a trident tattoo on his upper arm. Saw it when he was stowing her backpack into the overhead.”
Knowing there was no use convincing Joe he was just a guy on a trip to see a pyramid, Wiley gave him another look. He recognized the type—his dad had been the same steady, patriotic sort. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Maybe he did need backup, should shit go sideways. “You’re right,” he murmured. “The cruise line provided her security.”
“What about you?” his gray-haired companion asked.
“Name’s Wiley, and I was Navy.”
“A SEAL,” he said, nodding. “Can’t hide that look. Everyone else, besides her, has been taking a nap. Not you. You’ve been watching the road ahead. Expect trouble?”
“Not expecting, but prepared.”
Joe nodded. “Don’t get along as well as I used to,” he said, patting his right knee. “But I can be another set of eyes. And I do know who she is, son. She’s the daughter of that general ISIS wants taken out. They had his face and his daughter’s plastered all over Facebook faster than Homeland and the FBI could take down the pages.”
Wiley almost smiled at how in tune the old guy was. “Nothing much gets past you, does it?”
Joe lifted his chin toward two older gentlemen seated across the aisle from them.
Wiley glanced over to find both old codgers staring back.
“We were in the same division, the 3rd, during Vietnam. We’re all that’s left of our company. Try to take a trip every couple of years. Went to Nam five years back. There were eight of us then.”
Wiley nodded his understanding.
“That’s Morty,” he said, pointing at the thin one with a round belly. “The other one’s Sly.”
Sly gave him a grin that displayed unnaturally white teeth.
Wiley gave both men a nod then turned his attention back to the front of the bus.
“She know you’re tailing her?”
How had the old guys figured out he was there for Poppy? He remembered how the old men had jostled him, cutting him from the rest of the group when they’d boarded the bus. He’d thought it unintentional, but now knew they’d meant to be seated beside him. Admiring their cunning, he shook his head. “She doesn’t know. Not yet, anyway.”
“Need a better cover,” Joe said, eyeing his boots and the scruff on his chin. “Could tell folks you’re my grandson.”
Wiley chuckled. Sounded like a better plan than the one he’d started with. “Just don’t get in the way. If things go down…”
“You could use another set of eyes—between the three of us, we might just make one good pair.” Joe tilted his head toward his buddies.
This time, Wiley laughed.
Joe grinned and gave a slow nod to his companions, who settled back in their seats and now directed their attention to the job at hand—and the woman wearing the pretty blue dress at the front of the bus.
Suddenly, the bus shuddered and slowed. Cries arose from those seated near the front.
“Fat’s in the fire now,” Morty said, pointing forward.
Wiley cussed. A pickup was parked sideways in the middle of the road. He began to rise, but then he noted the four men standing in front of the truck. All dark, but with features that were clearly Mestizo. So, bandits rather than terrorists. He settled back in his seat. He’d let this play out a bit before he gave himself away. As long as no one was hurt, he’d keep his cover.