Wounded Warrior #3
Soul of a Marine
Wounded Marine veteran, MSgt Misty Beachy, is retired from active duty and has found a niche in civilian life. She trains sniffer dogs for U.S. Customs. Her life is going according to plan until an older officer, Jack Hawk, a hardheaded close-air support combat pilot reappears and turns her world upside down.
Misty Beachy is never far from Major Jonathan Hawk’s mind. They met during briefings in the heat of battle in Iraq. She commanded Marine ground troops but looks like a high school cheerleader. Misty — prickly, tough, and fearless. An intriguing mystery to him. He never expected to see her again, then suddenly, there she is.
Release Date: December 1, 2020
Genre: Contemporary | Military Novel
A PINK SATIN ROMANCE
Master Sgt. Misty Beachy, USMC (ret), pressed her fingers against her eyes and moaned. She looked forward to hosting the kids from the local continuation high school about as much as she longed for a root canal. Not that she’d ever had one thanks to her parents spending a fortune on her teeth while she was growing up, but she was best friends with a former Marine who’d recently undergone the gruesome procedure and was still whining about it.
“Continuation High School.” She sighed. Most of the kids there were one step away from juvie. She understood teenage rebellion. At thirty-three she wasn’t so far removed from that period of her life. She’d joined the Marines when her big brother got killed in Afghanistan, nearly destroying her parents. At the time she thought she was doing it to make them proud. How self-centered is that? She smirked at her young cluelessness.
What she’d accomplished was to make them sick with worry that they’d lose their only other child in the middle-east for no good reason. And she’d come pretty damn close to making their anxiety a self-fulfilling prophesy in Iraq eleven years ago.
“Quit acting like a baby, Beachy,” she chided herself between clenched teeth. “If you can handle a bunch of testosterone loaded Marines at a forward operating base in a war zone, you can handle a half dozen sneering, self-destructive loser kids for an hour.”
“Talking to yourself again, boss?”
“Kiss my ass, Jeremy.”
“No fraternizing allowed. Says so right in the employment contract, but if we both quit our jobs, I’d be happy to oblige.” She couldn’t help smiling at her sunny young assistant. How he could remain cheerful day after day of working under her supervision was a mystery.
She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not a child molester.” He was barely twenty-one.
“I have this thing for older women.”
“You’re very annoying, Jeremy.”
Instead of answering her accusation, he grinned bigger.
Beachy sighed and shook her head. This kid always looked like he’d just opened up a Christmas gift and discovered Santa had left the exact thing he’d been asking for, right down to the brand name and model number. A happy boy in a rangy man’s body. He had an annoying habit of making her smile, when she was enjoying a moment of self-indulgent funk.
“Your favorite high school kids are here, boss. Time to put a smile on your doll face, and a sparkle in those big brown eyes.”
She rose from her desk with weary resignation, flashed an obscene and very un-ladylike gesture before grinding out, “You’re fired.”
Jeremy laughed. “Again? That’s the second time today.”
“Go line up the dogs. It’s a shame we’re teaching them to sniff explosive and contraband instead of attacking a pack of kids only their mothers could love.”
“Don’t be too sure. I doubt some of them still have mothers.” He went toward the kennel and Misty took a deep breath, tucked a wisp short blond hair behind her ears and pasted a smile of greeting on her face. Might as well get on with it.
An hour later
The snarly blonde girl whose face seemed eerily familiar asked, “What’s that one’s name?” She pointed to a flop-eared beagle bouncing with eagerness to get out of his kennel and join the teenagers.
Misty looked over shoulder. “Oh, that’s Happy.”
“So why’s he locked up? Did he break the rules?” Her comment was directed at a fellow student who cracked his first grin of the morning. Hands in the pockets of his low-slung tattered jeans, he slouched and lagged behind his schoolmates. Stringy hair hung over his eyes, but not far enough to hide the silver ring in the corner of his pierced right eyebrow.
The kid reminded Beachy of a private once under her command in Iraq. She had no idea why Joey Hamilton had joined the Marines, except maybe to stay out of jail. By the time they returned from deployment he was one of her most reliable soldiers. The guys in his billet laid the nickname Boozy on him because he drank too much. Most of the Marines in the unit had stayed in contact over the years and Boozy was Joey again. Had a job, a girlfriend and was working on a degree in computer forensics. Misty Beachy was proud of him. Glad she’d had something to do with turning him around.
She hoped somebody would help this young man with some good direction for his future.
A couple of these kids looked hopeless. She faced the girl. “Happy is being retired from the service. He has trouble concentrating on his job and would rather play with every human, adult or child, he encounters in the commission of his duties.”
The girl snorted. “So, what’ll happen to him?” Her demeanor said...Like-I-care.
“He’ll go to a shelter. Hopefully he’ll get adopted before they have to euthanize him.”
Misty loved the little mutt, but he was hopeless as a sniffer. He belonged in a home filled with rambunctious children.
Like balloons filling with too much helium, the girl’s eyes expanded. Her sullen expression, the one she’d spent a lot of time perfecting, suddenly melted away, replaced by a look of any normal teenager who’d just seen somebody run over a kitten. Her next question squeaked out on a high note, “They’ll kill him?”
Well, well, well. There’s a sweet little girl hiding under the façade of snarky boredom. “It’s a possibility. I hope it doesn’t happen.”
“I’ll adopt him.”
“It’s not that simple.”
The teacher escorting the group stepped through the door. “Time to get on the bus, gang.”
“No! Wait!” Panicky as a bird caught in a net, the girl turned to Misty. “Why not?”
The teacher touched her shoulder. “Sorry, it’s time to go Ms. Hawk. We have to be back on campus before lunch.”
Misty pulled an official Customs Bureau business card from her shirt pocket and handed it to the girl named Hawk. She knew a man named Jack Hawk. Maybe this kid was related to him. Her eyes were the same odd color, and the shape of her jaw looked familiar. That’s what had been bothering her for the past hour, why the girl looked so familiar. “Take this. Call me later and I’ll try and explain the process to you. What’s your name?”
She grabbed the card. “Ellen Hawk.”
Unbelievable. This girl was Hot Stick Hawk’s daughter. Had to be. She was the right age. They lived in the area. Jack was currently stationed at Camp Pendleton.
The group cleared out. Misty checked her watch, picked up her office phone and entered a number from memory.
“Santos? Misty Beachy here. Is Mac home?”
“Yeah. Hey, Dad! It’s the Marine lady on the phone.”
“Hey, Mis. What’s up?”
The sound of her best friend’s voice always warmed her to her bones. “So, it’s Dad now, is it?”
“My sweet boy started calling me Dad when we all drove to Vegas the day I married his mother. He was my best man. Great, huh?”
Misty knew how much that meant to Mac but didn’t comment. “You still at home whimpering about your root canal?”
A soft chuckle brushed her ear as if he were in the room. “Yep, but I’ve been informed by my gorgeous pregnant wife that I’ve used up my sympathy quota. I’ve been ordered to go back to work tomorrow. The better part of valor would be to follow her orders.”
“You’re right on that score, Mac.” Misty pictured McPherson’s wife, Graciella. He’d fallen like an anvil off the back of a bouncing pickup for that woman. Physically, Graciella couldn’t have been more different from Misty. Exotic, willowy, dark hair and eyes, nearly as tall as Mac. Cluny McPherson was Misty’s best pal. A fellow Marine who’d briefly been her lover so many years ago in Iraq. Misty had never been in love with Mac, but to this day she measured every man against him, and they all came up wanting. He was her best friend in the world, and probably knew her better than anyone.
“I know you didn’t call me to ask about my dental work, Sarge. Not that I don’t love hearing from you. How about heading up this way sometime soon?”
“Maybe. The reason I called was to ask you whether that woman who married the hot undertaker still has that no-kill animal shelter in town.”
“She does. They just put on a big expansion. Dempsey and I got the building and plumbing contracts.”
“Hey, didn’t Gunny Dempsey and his wife recently have another kid?”
“Marla had twin girls. They’ve got three girls and a boy now. Gunny’s of the opinion they should go for one more boy, to even the odds.”
Misty couldn’t imagine ever having one child let alone four. “I can’t imagine.”
“Why did you ask about the shelter?”
“I’ve got a dog who flunked out of the sniffer program. He’d make a great family pet and I don’t want to send him to one of the shelters down here. They only hold them for about thirty days. Do you think she’d take an out-of-town happy beagle?”
“Are you kidding? Why do you think she expanded the facility? She won’t turn away a single dog or cat. Do you want me to call her and ask?”
“Would you? If she’ll take him, I’ll drive up there next Saturday. I’ll check on you and Gunny and all your kids. It’s kind of hard when the men I used to boss around are now taking orders from different women. A blow to my overblown ego, especially when they’re able to do it without carrying a side arm.”
Mac’s laugh was like a swallow of good whiskey. Fiery and mellow at the same time. “I’ll give her a call and let you know, Mis.”
“Thanks. If I don’t answer, leave me a text, or Jeremy will take a message for me on the office phone. Gotta run.”
“Hope to see you next weekend, sugar-lips.”
“Careful, the wife might be listening.”
“She’s cool.” His voice was directed away from the phone briefly. “Aren’t you, baby?” He was back. “I’ll call you.”
It was time to grab a bite while she had the chance. Misty slung her bag over her shoulder and shouted. “Jeremy! I’ll be about an hour. You want me to bring you back anything?”
He walked in holding a sandwich and pointed at his full mouth. “I’m good,” he mumbled through tight lips. Deep dimples creased both cheeks.
He must have a dozen girlfriends, Misty thought and shook her head. If I were ten years younger, I’d be all over you, Jere. “Okay, then, back around one.” She left the office and went to the Jeep parked out back. When the dogs spotted her they broke into a chorus of happy barks. She’d never been a dog person until she’d seen Queen, Mac’s service dog, calm him out of a PTS episode. Her admiration for them took off like a hot rocket and spurred her into her present job with the Customs Bureau.
She hoped she’d be driving her old Jeep north to Spring Grove and Simi Valley over the weekend with Happy on the seat next to her.
* * *
In spite of the coolness of the afternoon, Misty and Jeremy glowed heat and exhaustion by the time they called it a day. The dogs were super smart and they all had special abilities. Some were better at sniffing out drugs and others were super keen on explosives. A few of them probably should have gone into K9 Warrior training. They could sniff out a bad guy a quarter mile away, whether or not he had any kind of contraband on his person.
“Buy you a cold beer, boss?” Jeremy retrieved his keys from the drawer of the desk they shared. No frills, everything basic in their drab government office.
“Isn’t your girlfriend anxiously waiting for you to call?”
“You’re my only girlfriend, boss.” His dimples deepened when he grinned. “At the moment anyway.”
It only took a second for her to make up her mind. “I’ll meet you at Brazos, but we’re going Dutch as usual.”
“I’ll take what I can get.” Jeremy left through the rear door, turning off the back office lights as he went.
Misty took a minute to clear off her desk then go outside to check the kennel lights and gate locks. She waved at the night security guard as she drove past the kiosk on her way to the main road.
Brazos always had a healthy contingent of sailors and marines hanging on the bar and playing pool. She was very comfortable in the company of men. Especially military men. The more the better. Her with only one guy always turned out to be bad news.
The owner of Brazos, Jake McKillan, played nothing but Mexican music in his jukebox. On Saturday nights he had a Mariachi band to entertain his customers. A dance floor was cleared in the center of the rustic, noisy room and a full contingent of Mexican cooks cranked out the most delicious food this side of the border. Tonight he’d only have nachos and dips available, but the beer would flow cold and continuously from bottles and taps and cans.
She parked her car and went inside. Jeremy hailed her from across the room and pointed to a chair he was resting a foot on to keep anyone from taking it or sitting down. He’d already ordered two bottles of Corona, and Jake’s wife, Guadalupé set a large plate of nachos on the table.
Misty touched the woman’s arm. “Thanks, Lupe. Those look good. How about an order of guacamole and a bowl of your homemade salsa to go along with it?”
The short, plump, stunningly exotic beauty grinned, threw her long braid over her shoulder and nodded. “Pronto for you, Missy.”
Jeremy lifted his foot off the chair and Misty plopped down with a grateful sigh. “I don’t know what it is about those loser-kids that wear me to the bone. Two hours with them and I’m ready to drop.”
“Loser kids?” The familiar deep voice came from behind. Without being asked, Hot Stick Hawk plopped in the chair next to her and put his sweating beer bottle on the table then helped himself to a handful of nachos. He tipped his head to Jeremy whose smirk oozed amusement, and then took a deep swallow of icy beer.
Very few things ever embarrassed Misty Beachy, but being caught bad-mouthing his daughter did the trick. The heat level in her chest shot up so fast her ears burned. “Sorry, Jack. I wasn’t talking about Ellen. It’s just...um...sometimes those kids...from that school...they...” Better to clam up before she jammed her foot down her throat any farther.
“I get it.” He tapped the neck of his beer bottle against her nose. “Relax.”
What was it about Jack Hawk that always set her teeth on edge? He was a stand-up guy, a fellow Marine. They went way back. Jack had been there to save their asses in Fallujah when it counted. One of the top A-10, close air-ground support pilots in Iraq at the time.
What was it? He never uttered an opinion, but she was sure he didn’t like women in the military. Mac said he was old school, but the guy couldn’t be more than forty-five at the most. How could that qualify for old-school?
“I hear you met Ellen today.” He stared at her with eyes not gray and not brown. They darkened when he discussed something strategic and serious and got lighter when shooting the bull in a mess hall. Jack had never made a move on her, but he had a way of making her feel soft and feminine when she needed her steel in the company of her Marines. As a major he’d outranked her by a mile, but he’d always maintained a professional military attitude at the FOB. He may not have been in favor of women in the military but had always treated her like a fellow soldier.
“Look, Jack, I’m mortified you heard what I said. I wasn’t singling out Ellen. I have so little patience with slackers. Those kids drive me to the edge. Ellen isn’t as tough as she pretends to be. I didn’t know she was your daughter until a couple of minutes before they left this morning. I apologize. Let me buy you a beer.”
“You already did. I told McKillan to put this on your tab.” Hawk’s smile was special. He seldom flashed it, but when he did, it was dazzling and sincere.
Misty pointed an accusing finger at Jeremy. “If I find out you were in on this, you’re fired.”
“I gotta go.” Jeremy pushed back his chair. “Three firings is my quota for one day. My mother will be so disappointed in me. Again.” He snagged his denim jacket off the back of the chair and headed to the door. “See you tomorrow, boss.”
Hawk’s gaze followed his slim back. “Nice kid.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
“Ellen thought he was ‘steaming hot.’ Her words.”
“Does she say stuff like that to annoy you?”
“Too often. She likes to test dear old dad.”
“I don’t know how parents do it. Cripes. My brother and I were the worst. I’m surprised my parents ever got any sleep, worrying about whether we’d end up in jail or not.” Misty pictured some of the stunts she and Bill had pulled. Bill was her hero. He’d pulled her ass out of the fire more times that she could count. When he’d been killed in Afghanistan all she wanted to do was join the Marines and get revenge on as many bad guys as possible before one of them got her first.
* * *
Beachy had to be the most fascinating female Jack had ever encountered. Not that he encountered many in his line of work. He never did figure out his ex-wife. They’d been married for fifteen years, but with his deployments, had probably spent less than three years total under the same roof. Now Ellen. Another story. There had to be a vengeful god out there who delighted in torturing men. Make them love their women so much they’d be willing to die for them, but never giving them a clue as to what made them tick.
The play of emotions on Beachy’s face added to the mystery of her. They flitted from saucy to deep sadness in a flash. Her expressive brown eyes had always appeared oversize in her pixie face. Shit, she didn’t look much older than Ellen, but he knew she had to be in her early thirties.
Do the math.
She’d joined up in her twenties, done three tours in the middle-east, then rose in rank to master sergeant. She’d probably still be active duty if she hadn’t been seriously wounded in that last convoy ambush while she and her men were heading back to Baghdad, returning home.
Aware of the rumors that swirled around her and Cluny McPherson, Jack figured they were the only two people in the world who knew what, if anything, happened between them over there. McPherson was a good man. A quiet man. He and Misty had remained friends ever since then. Had to be going on eleven or twelve years by now. She had a relaxed way about her when with McPherson. It said a lot about what may have occurred between them.
“I’m retiring.” Whoa, where’d that come from?
The surprise on her face couldn’t have been faked. He doubted she faked any emotion. Hide them, yes. Fake them, no. “When did you decide to retire?”
He picked up his beer and took a swallow, pressed the sweaty bottle to his forehead and chuckled. “Just this minute. I’m as bowled over as you are.”
“Jesus, Jack. You can’t make a decision as big as retiring from the military just like that.”
“Appears as if I did.”
It was time for him to put some distance between himself and Misty Beachy. He couldn’t be in her company for very long before getting that buzz, that tug. Silly. Dangerous. The last thing he needed was another female complicating his existence. Ellen was more than he could handle at the moment. He shoved back his chair with a loud scraping squeak. It mirrored the loud scraping squeak echoing deep down in his belly where it had no business being in the first place.
Time to haul ass.
“Jack,” she called to his retreating back.
He raised a hand and kept walking.