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Marine for Hire
A Front and Center Story
By Tawna Fenske, Heather Howland, Kari Olson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tawna Fenske
All rights reserved.
The chain saw snarled in Sam's hands. He plunged it into the log, rewarded by the spit of wood chips and a mechanical growl of protest from the machine.
Sam could relate. At least that was his sentiment as the unmarked black car crawled slowly up his father's driveway, drawing closer by the second. Government car, from the look of it. More military officials wanting to discuss what happened in Kabul? Like Sam hadn't already talked about it plenty.
Okay, fine. He hadn't. Still, that didn't mean he was in any mood to do it now.
He killed the chain saw, but kept it in his hands. Might as well look the part of a man who didn't want to be disturbed. He waited, tense but unmoving, as the car eased to a halt in front of him. Its tinted windows reflected the towering pines behind him, along with Sam looking like he'd spent the morning mud wrestling a tree trunk. The passenger took an unnecessarily long time opening the door, and he waited, breathing in the scent of damp leaves and fresh sawdust. The car door swung wide, and an expensive Italian loafer stepped onto the wet gravel driveway, followed by another.
In an instant, the tension drained from his shoulders.
"Holy shit, Mac," Sam said, lowering the chain saw. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Mac got out of the car and took three steps toward him. They clapped each other on the shoulders and conducted a complicated ritual that was equal parts hug and sucker punch to the gut.
Sam drew back first, brushing sawdust off the front of his T-shirt as he surveyed his old pal. Mac wore his usual dark sunglasses, despite the fact that it was an overcast afternoon in the forest outside Portland, as opposed to a beach bar in Jamaica on a summer afternoon. Mac's clothes were black — of course — and the whole suit looked like it cost more than Sam's car.
Sam looked down at his own dusty T-shirt and tried to remember if he'd worn deodorant. Or taken a shower.
"Sam," Mac said, straightening his lapels. "Nice to see you. You're looking good. A little shaggy and rumpled, but it works for you."
Nope, definitely no deodorant. Sam covertly sniffed his own T-shirt and grimaced. Oh well, it was just Mac.
"Military grooming standards weren't exactly required on my last mission," Sam said. "Figured I'd wait on a haircut 'til my leave is up. Not much need for starched uniforms or pressed fatigues out here."
"Good. That's good." Mac nodded with something that looked oddly like approval. "I heard you were up here helping your dad and stepmom get ready for winter."
"Yeah, doing a little caulking, cleaning out the gutters, stockpiling firewood, that sort of thing." He quirked an eyebrow at Mac, not willing to let the statement go unquestioned. "You heard?"
Mac waved a dismissive hand, and Sam did a mental eye roll. His friend had unlimited resources when it came to gathering information and pretty much everything else he wanted. It was no secret that whatever Mac did for a living was — well, secret.
They'd met playing football in college before the Marines, both ambitious young men driven by overbearing fathers and too much testosterone. Sam had stuck with the program, training as a sniper and making a pretty good career at it.
At least until Sam's whole world had come undone.
Mac, on the other hand, had gotten out of the military and moved on to some sort of top-secret government work that kept him out of the country a lot. Whatever it was he did now, it made him extremely wealthy.
Mac probably never forgets deodorant.
"So," Sam began, brushing his free hand over his dirty jeans. "What's up?"
"You're on leave for another couple weeks?"
He resisted the urge to grit his teeth. "I'm still considering getting out."
"But you haven't dropped your letter. You know damn well it takes a while, and all your shit is still in storage in Hawaii."
Mac cleared his throat. "So. What are your plans until then?"
"You're looking at it."
Mac nodded, surveying the property with a calculated expression. "A couple weeks of work. Probably much quicker work if Grant and I pitch in to help. Or we could always hire a crew to come out and —"
"Grant?" Sam asked, confused now. "Isn't your brother stationed in Benghazi right now? And why would he help my parents with yard work?"
Mac turned back to him, and Sam caught his own disheveled image in the reflection of his buddy's glasses. He had a streak of mud on one cheek, and he hadn't shaved all week.
"You like kids, right?" Mac said. "I mean, you have all those nieces and nephews."
Sam frowned. "Sure, kids are great. My sister's having another little girl in April."
He nodded as though making a mental list. "Can you operate an oven?"
"Microwave. Oh, and I baked brownies once. Laced 'em with Ex-Lax as a prank for some SEAL buddies at a party."
"How do you feel about Kauai?"
Sam raised an eyebrow and wondered — not for the first time — if Mac had gone crazy. "Is this some kind of psych exam where you're going to show me ink blots and ask whether I fantasize about badgers wearing men's underwear?"
Mac folded his arms over his chest. He didn't answer the question. "You remember my sister, Sheridan, right? I think you met her once at a party in college."
At the mention of Sheri's name, Sam felt several pints of blood drain from his brain and pulse toward other extremities. He thought about those thick, chocolaty curls and those huge brown eyes, and that perfect, heart-shaped ass and —
"I think I remember her," he said, straining to keep his voice casual. "Blond, right?"
"You know goddamn well she's a brunette, just like I know goddamn well you didn't stop staring at her that whole night at the party. That's not why I'm asking. Her douchebag husband left."
Sam blinked. "What? Didn't they just have a kid?"
"Two kids. Twins. Seven months old, and Lieutenant Limpdick ran off with a stripper he met in Arkansas. We're dealing with the situation."
He refrained from asking who "we" might be or what "dealing with the situation" entailed. Probably best not to know. "Weren't they stationed in Honolulu?"
Mac nodded. "Sheri's still there. Well, on another island now. Kauai. She has a friend there, and she just got a job as an accountant on the Pacific Missile Range Facility."
"Yeah. Great pay, good bennies. But she's a single mom, and she needs a nanny. A good nanny. Someone who can cook and who's great with kids and housekeeping and M40 sniper rifles."
"You got that job description on Craigslist?"
"And maybe black-belt level karate skills," Mac continued, ignoring him. "And the ability to use power tools."
"You can't be serious." Sam shook his head, propped the chain saw against a stump, and rubbed a smear of mud off his forearm.
"Why not? You're supposed to report for your new command in Hawaii in a couple weeks anyway. In the meantime, Sheri needs someone to watch out for the twins. And her."
He touched one hand to the utility knife on his belt and stared Mac down. Then he remembered it wasn't possible to stare Mac down, especially since the guy never removed his sunglasses.
He tried reasoning instead.
"Aren't there services for this sort of thing? There have to be a thousand people more trained to be nannies."
Mac leaned against a tree, his arms still folded. "No one with your unique qualifications. And not anyone who happens to owe me a favor."
Sam sighed, already knowing how this would end up. "I appreciate you saving my life in Baghdad. I do. But can't I just buy you a beer or a car or something?"
"I'm not following why you want me looking after your sister and her kids. Why me?"
"She's alone," he snapped. "For the first time in years with two little babies and a new job and a dickhead ex-husband I don't trust. Grant and I are going to be out of the country and our folks are all the way over in Honolulu and God only knows where Schwartz is. None of us will be around to keep an eye on Sheri in Kauai and make sure she's safe."
"Why wouldn't she be?"
Mac ran his hands through his hair, looking rattled for the first time in the whole conversation. "Lieutenant Limpdick is a real piece of work. The divorce didn't go well, and he's still harassing Sheri. His orders have come through, but he's got two more weeks before he has to leave."
"He's still attached to the command in Hawaii?"
"Yes. He'll be back in the islands any day now. While he's there, I don't want him getting anywhere near Sheri and her boys."
"He's never been physically violent with her, but he's unpredictable. I worry he'll try to win her back and won't take no for answer, or that he'll show up and make life hell for her. He's a manipulative prick and a threat."
"A threat you want controlled."
"Precisely. Look, it's not just the ex, Sam. There are bad drivers in Hawaii. And sharks. Plus Sheri's never been good about locking her doors or windows, and what if —"
"I've got it," Sam said, holding up his hand. "You guys have always been overprotective. This takes the cake, though, even for you."
Mac gave a curt nod. "Our family would feel better if someone we know and trust was looking out for Sheri and the twins." He hesitated, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. "There's one catch."
Mac ignored him. "Sheri has a problem with controlling military men meddling in her life."
"I can't imagine why."
"She can't know we're sending a bodyguard to watch over her, and she definitely can't know you're a Marine."
Sam shook his head. "Your whole family is military to the core. She'd peg me as a Marine before I got through the front door."
Mac stared him up and down, considering. "Not necessarily. This disheveled look you've got going on right now is working for you. You look like hell."
"Thank you," Sam said. "You're aware that this is insane, right? I don't know how to cook or change diapers or get baby vomit out of cashmere."
"It's Hawaii. No cashmere needed, and baby vomit blends nicely into floral-patterned shirts."
"You're missing the point."
Mac didn't respond, just stared at him through those dark lenses with his hair unruffled in the breeze. "This is your chance to make things right," he said. "After what happened in Kabul, it's how you prove to yourself again that you're a good guy — a guy who knows what it means to serve and protect and follow orders."
Mac's words sliced through him, and Sam's fingers clenched in an unexpected fist. He wasn't sure who he wanted to punch. Himself, mostly.
Sam swallowed. "Sheri needs someone right away?"
"Just for a couple weeks. I'll find her a real nanny when Limpdick's out of the picture. Oh, and there's one other thing."
Sam raised an eyebrow, resisting the urge to remind him that just one catch had already morphed into more.
Mac folded his arms over his chest again. "Keep your hands off my sister."
Sam blinked. "What?"
"You heard me. She's vulnerable. With Limpdick out of the picture, she needs time to recover."
He heard a rushing sound in his brain, not unlike the night he met Sheri at that party in college and she'd been wearing that huge, goofy smile and pink lipstick and that crocheted white bikini that hugged her curves and showed the perfect outline of her nipples and Sam had tripped over a piece of driftwood and fallen face-first into all that luscious cleavage and —
"When do I start?"
* * *
Sheridan Patton-Price set two mugs of tea on the table before retreating to the kitchen for the creamer she was pretty sure expired a week ago.
"Um, Sher?" called her best friend, Kelli. "I think you forgot something in the tea."
"Right." Sheri sighed and pulled two tea bags out of the cupboard. She trudged back to the table and plunked a bag into each mug before dropping heavily into a chair. It was the first time she'd had a moment to sit for — days? Months? How long had the twins been napping?
"You look like you could use this," Kelli said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a flask emblazoned with a Hello Kitty emblem. She splashed a healthy dose in both mugs and replaced the flask in her bag. "Bourbon. The good stuff. Were you up all night again?"
Sheri nodded, pulling off her eyeglasses. She used the temple piece to stir her tea, wondering if normal moms had clean teaspoons in the house.
"I think the twins are teething," Sheri said, taking a tentative sip of tea. "How do I know for sure?"
"When they get teeth?"
"Thanks. The only woman in the world who knows less about babies than I do, and I choose to ask her for advice on child rearing."
Kelli beamed. "You're welcome. I consider it my duty to make you feel better about yourself. Want me to show you the cellulite on my ass?"
"I'll take a rain check. Though I do like the idea of looking at an ass I don't have to clean with a baby wipe."
Kelli picked up her mug and knocked back half the contents in one gulp. Good idea, Sheri thought, and followed suit. She felt guilty drinking bourbon at noon on a Thursday, but there wasn't much that didn't make her feel guilty these days. For starters, she was pretty sure she was the most ill-prepared mother on the planet. She'd fought valiantly to hide it, beginning the moment the nurse handed her twin boys and Sheri asked numbly, "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Am I sure what's a good idea?" Kelli asked.
"You're talking to yourself again."
Sheri sighed and tugged at the string on her tea bag. "Sometimes I think there was a day someone handed out all the mothering instincts. All the women got in line, but I couldn't find my keys or my glasses, and by the time I made it there, all they had left was a box of day-old doughnuts and a penchant for complicated algebra."
"I must've been in line behind you then," Kelli said. "That's when they handed out the ability to take care of four-legged creatures instead of two. Makes me a pretty good vet, though."
"At least I can come to you if the twins show signs of ear mites or kennel cough." Sheri took another sip of tea, enjoying the warmth of the bourbon sliding down her throat. "I spent all morning thinking Jeffrey was Jackson and Jackson was Jeffrey. And then I got halfway through putting on their diaper rash cream before I realized it was toothpaste. What kind of mother does that?"
"Well, they are twins. And now their little backsides are minty fresh and tingly."
"I joined a Mommy and Me group last week, and the other moms made me feel guilty about using disposable diapers on an island that already has a trash problem. I'm trying to switch to cloth, but do you have any idea how much work it is to wash diapers for two babies?"
"I love you, Sher," Kelli said, touching the back of her hand. "And I'll gladly hold your hair back if you need to puke in a barroom toilet on girls' night. But there's no way I'm helping you wash diapers."
Sheri laughed and swallowed the last of her tea. "I'll keep that in mind," she said as she set her mug down. "God, I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too," Kelli said, squeezing her hand. "And I'm especially glad your douchebag ex is gone." She frowned. "Was that too insensitive?"
"Please. I spent three years married to Captain Insensitive. At this point you could tell me to go fuck myself and I'd feel giddy someone's talking dirty to me."
"Is he still harassing you?"
Sheri shrugged. "I stopped answering his calls."
"Maybe you need a big, burly boyfriend around to scare him off. I could fix you up with someone."
"No way." Sheri shoved her mug away. "The last guy you tried to fix me up with asked me to starch his dress whites on the first date."
"Lesson learned. No more military men for you, I swear."
"No more men, period. Not right now."
Kelli shrugged. "Sooner or later, you need to get your mojo back. I stashed a box of super-magnum-jumbo condoms in your medicine cabinet for when the time comes. You're welcome."
"You're hopeless." Sheri grinned. "I promise I'll let you know when I'm ready to embrace my inner slut. In the meantime, I'm just glad to be here."
Excerpted from Marine for Hire by Tawna Fenske, Heather Howland, Kari Olson. Copyright © 2014 Tawna Fenske. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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