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Seal of Honor
By Tonya Burrows, Heather Howland, Sue Winegardner
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Tonya Burrows
All rights reserved.
God help him if he didn't make it to the airport by seven.
Bryson Van Amee checked his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes and frowned. Armando, his usual driver, was as prompt and reliable as the sunrise, and just as cheerful, which was why Bryson — who was not a morning person — always requested him.
Of all the days for him to be late.
Bryson tamped down a hot surge of fear-laced irritation. He had to meet his incoming cargo in Barranquilla and make a three p.m. appointment in Cartagena, and he did not want to piss off this particular client. Just thinking about it made him sweat. Yes, he should have known better than to dip his toes into the murky pool of the gray market, but with that first not-quite-legal gun shipment, he had jumped in with both feet. Now, as he sank into the deep abyss of the black market, where all manner of nasty predators lurked, he couldn't find a life vest. No wonder his heart had been acting up over the past several months.
He tapped his foot, checked his watch again, checked the street. A skinny tabby cat perched on the edge of a dumpster in the alley behind him, but there was no other soul around. Even the vendor that sold handmade knickknacks, who always set up his rollaway shop on the low stone wall across the street, hadn't made it out yet.
Bryson normally enjoyed that Colombian attitude of I'll get there when I get there. No mad dashes through morning traffic with a Starbucks cup sloshing mocha frappe crap all over his Porsche. For a man used to the impatient get-up-and-go of American cities, visiting the laid-back country of Colombia was always a nice change of pace.
Except when his driver was running late.
Another quick check of the watch, street, watch. Twenty minutes late. Damn, he should have bought Armando a cell phone last time he was in town. At least then, he would have been able to call and find out what the holdup was.
He reached into his pocket for his own phone. He hated to report Armando to the limo company when the man had been so good to him, but he needed another car. Now.
Just as he swiped away the photo of his wife and kids on the iPhone's screen, the phone rang and his sister's grinning face popped up on the display. Audrey.
He considered ignoring her call — but, God, what if she'd gotten herself into a mess again? He thumbed the answer button and her face filled the screen. Make-up free, her golden brown hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, she looked so much younger than her twenty-seven years.
"Hi, Brys," she said with a bright smile. She'd always been a disgustingly chipper morning person, even as a baby.
"Something wrong, sweetie?" he asked. "Are you okay? Do you need more money?"
"I'm fine." She rolled her eyes and raised a coffee mug to her mouth.
God, coffee. He'd forgotten to grab a cup in his rush to get out the door and his mouth watered for a taste.
"And I've told you a thousand times," Audrey added after taking a sip, "I don't need or want your money."
The hell she didn't need it. "You can't tell me you're making enough doing caricature sketches for tourists."
"Uh, well, no. I'm not doing caricatures anymore."
Bryson suppressed the groan rumbling inside his chest, took off his square-framed glasses, and rubbed his eyes. He loved his baby sister, he truly did, but dealing with her was tiring and not what he needed this early in the morning when he was stressing out about the missing —
Ah, there it is.
The shiny black limo rounded the corner at the top of the street and cruised to a stop in front of his apartment complex. Instead of short, balding Armando, a tall dark-haired man got out of the driver's seat.
"Señor Van Amee?"
"Just a minute, Audrey," he said before addressing the driver in Spanish, "What happened to Armando?"
"His son is very sick and had to go to the hospital. I apologize for the delay. It took some time to find a replacement," the driver answered, hustled around the car, and opened the back door. He wasn't dressed in a suit, but Armando didn't always wear one either. "I am Jacinto. I'll get you to the airport in no time."
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He'd used this limo company for years now and had never seen Jacinto before. "Are you new?"
"Just started, Señor."
Bryson shifted on his feet, checked his watch again. The idea of using a driver he hadn't screened made him itch but, dammit, what other choice did he have? Barring any morning traffic or an incident at the airport, he should still make both his appointments on time if he left right this very second.
He climbed into the limo.
"Audrey, you still there?" Bryson asked as the driver slid behind the wheel and put up the privacy partition. A moment later, the limo started with a purr and pulled away from the curb.
So maybe Jacinto would do just fine as a replacement. Professional, friendly, and discreet — all excellent qualities in a driver. If his background check came up clean, it wouldn't hurt to keep him in mind for the future in case another emergency cropped up with Armando's family.
Bryson made a mental note to find out which hospital Armando's son was at and send a get well gift. Or money if the family needed it.
"I'm here," Audrey said and reappeared on the screen. "Ran for a coffee refill. Are you busy?"
"On my way to a meeting."
"I won't keep you then. I just wanted to make sure you remembered my opening next weekend at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. You said you'd come."
Uh-oh. Her art show in San José, Costa Rica. He'd forgotten all about it. He checked the schedule on his phone. Could possibly move a couple meetings around, but that would take a lot of shuffling just to indulge her and her silly hobbies. "I'm sorry, Audrey, but — "
She set her coffee mug on the table in front of her with a hard thunk. "Brys, you promised!"
"Sweetie, I have some very important business deals happening that weekend, none of which I can shove back, and I have to be in L.A. on Sunday morning for ..." He shook his head as his train of thought slid away. What was he saying?
Audrey. Paintings. Work.
It was an old argument, one he could have while gagged and blindfolded, and he settled on one of his pat responses since his mind was suddenly, strangely blurry. "If you want to stay in that condo, I need to work and that means meetings."
"Well, guess what?"
No, he really didn't want to guess. She had that petulant look on her face — drawn brows, a poked out lower lip. The same look that had gotten her anything she wanted as a child. The one that told him he would not like the next words out of her mouth.
"I don't live in the condo. Never did. I sold it the week after you left and gave the money to a charity. I gave your accountant the receipt for your taxes."
"You what?" Oh God, then where was she living? Hopefully not in another beach shack with no indoor plumbing. His parents would roll over in their graves if they knew their precious baby girl enjoyed living one minuscule step up above a homeless person.
"I told you I didn't want it in the first place," she continued. "I was happy in Quepos. I was happy in my little hut. Don't you get that?"
"No, I —" His vision blurred. He blinked a couple times and when that didn't clear away the fuzziness, he pressed his fingers into his eyelids. Boy, was he tired. All of his time zone hopping was catching up to him. Maybe he should ask Jacinto to stop somewhere for a cup of hot, bold Colombian coffee.
On second thought, if he drank some, he wouldn't be able to sleep on the short plane ride to Barranquilla. A nap hadn't been in his original plan — he intended to review contracts on the plane like he always did — but with the way he felt now, a nap was probably the best idea. Last thing he needed was to be sluggish around the people he was meeting this afternoon.
"Are you even listening to me?" Audrey said, and he blinked her blurry face into focus. Had — had she been talking? He opened his mouth to answer, but his tongue wouldn't wrap itself around her name.
Something was wrong. He tried again and only managed to croak out, "Aw-ree."
"Bryson?" Her tone sharpened with worry, but he could no longer make out her features on the little screen. "Are you okay?"
No. No, he was not okay, but when he tried to tell her, the words slurred off his lips and barely made sense to his own ears. Was he having a stroke? He was only forty-three, but it wasn't unheard of. Or an aneurysm? His head pounded and the inside of the limo spun around him. He'd had that scare last summer, a mini heart attack, and his doctors had warned him to slow it down a little. They said if a clot broke off, it could travel to his brain and —
"Aw-ree," he gasped and fumbled the phone in hands that felt as clumsy as catchers' mitts. It landed hard on the floor. He scrambled after it, clutched it like a lifeline. "Eh nee ... elp."
Jacinto. He had to get the driver's attention.
Gasping, dizzy, Bryson crawled across the soft leather seat and pounded a weak fist on the partition. The tinted window slid down, and at first, he thought he was hallucinating. Huge bug eyes stared back at him. Some sort of insect now drove the car and — no, not an insect. Jacinto was wearing a gas mask.
He collapsed face-first on the seat and turned his head to the side, staring through hazy eyes at the mini fridge across the car. He reached out a hand. Maybe there was something in there ... Something he could use to break out the window ... Something ...
Tranquilo," Jacinto said, his voice warped by the mask, but still as friendly as ever. Like he was talking about a fútbol game. Or the traffic. Or the weather. "Let it happen, Señor Van Amee. Go to sleep now. I won't hurt you. You're worth too much money."
* * *
DOMINICAL, COSTA RICA
Audrey watched her computer screen in horror as her brother's face went slack and his eyelids fluttered closed. The phone slipped out of his hand and sent her on a jarring ride to the floor of a limo. Or what she assumed to be a limo. She leaned closer to the screen, saw a curved ceiling, part of a black seat, and the toe of Bryson's Italian loafer.
Scrambling. A thump. The picture wobbled and she caught disjoined glimpses of his face, a mini-fridge, the seat, his face again.
"Aw-ree, eh nee ... elp"
Her heart thundered blood through her ears and she barely heard his mumbled whisper. She leaned closer. "What? What's wrong?"
His face slipped away and the picture tumbled into another jerky freefall. White shirt sleeve. Gold watch. White shirt sleeve. He must be crawling across the seat, still hanging onto the phone. And then —
Audrey leapt to her feet, her coffee splashing out of its mug, her chair crashing backward. Vaguely, she registered it knocking into her easel across the kitchen, heard the half-finished painting she'd been working on last night crash to the floor. But she didn't give a damn. Her whole world centered on the computer screen, where a tinted partition slid down and a man in a gas mask told her brother that he was worth too much money.
The screen blanked.
No. Audrey shook her head in denial and turned around in a slow circle. Her kitchen, with its eclectic mix of art and cooking supplies, looked exactly the same as it had when she woke up an hour ago. The coffee pot hissed as the last of the new pot brewed. Her dolphin-shaped cookie jar, which chirped like the dolphins that hung out by her dock when opened, grinned at her from the countertop. Sheet-wrapped paintings waited propped against the wall for their upcoming trip to San José.
All the same. And yet, she must have just stepped into a Twilight Zone episode.
She refocused on the computer screen. Skype had ended the call and now rested on her homepage with her list of contacts. Bryson's name sat at the top of the list.
She straightened her chair, sat down, and tried to call him. The ringtone buzzed. And buzzed. And buzzed.
No answer. Would she like to retry the call?
She blinked back the tears burning her eyes and jabbed yes.CHAPTER 2
Gabe Bristow never thought he'd live to see his own retirement party. Never thought he'd have a retirement party if he did live that long, but this black tie soiree was so typical of his mother. If Catherine Bristow couldn't find an excuse to entertain, she made one up. Wedding? Throw a party. Funeral? Throw a party. Global disaster? Throw a party in the bomb shelter. Personal disaster? Throw a party and invite the who's who of D.C. politics.
This forced medical retirement definitely qualified as a personal disaster in Gabe's book, so of course, every Tom, Dick, and Jane on Capitol Hill were arriving downstairs in their best monkey suits and gowns.
Standing in front of a mirror in his boyhood bedroom, Gabe straightened his cuffs and then just stared at his reflection. Man, he always figured the next time he wore all of his medals, he'd be in a casket wrapped in an American flag. He'd have preferred it that way. This whole retirement thing felt wrong on so many different levels.
"Oooh, bro, lookin' good. I do love a man in uniform."
Gabe lifted his gaze to see Rafael, his youngest brother, propped in the doorway, wearing a hot pink vest over a black shirt, black trousers with a pink satin stripe down the outer seams, and a pink and white striped tie. He carried a black wool jacket over his shoulder and wore a pair of dark shades against the afternoon sunshine. One bright pink highlight streaked his dark hair over his left eye.
Their parents would have a conniption when they saw Raffi today. God love him.
"You're trying to give the Admiral a heart attack, aren't you?"
Raffi waggled his brows. "That's the idea. Why else do you think I act so fabulous when he's around?" He stepped into the room and performed a quick turn, topped off with a fanciful flourish of his arms. "Like?"
"No, it looks ridiculous. And you're not doing yourself any favors by perpetuating this" — Gabe waved a hand to indicate the pink monstrosity of a tux — "stereotype whenever you come home."
"But it's so much fun to see that vein throb next to Dad's eye."
"Raf, c'mon, man. Drop the act. I know exactly how much his prejudice hurts you, and beating him over the head with a rainbow stick every time you see him won't make it any easier for him to accept you."
"I don't want that man's acceptance." His tone said he'd rather lick a platoon of combat boots clean than admit he needed anything from the Admiral. He pointed an accusing finger. "And neither should you."
"Stubborn," Gabe muttered.
"Hard ass." Raffi plopped down on the edge of the bed with a long-suffering sigh. "Dad raised his little sailor so well. It's sad."
"Hey, I like —" No. Past tense. He had to use past tense now. Gabe paused, drew a breath, and corrected himself, "Liked being on the teams."
"Okay, you liked it. Though God knows why anyone would like being a SEAL." Raffi propped his chin in his hand and lifted his brows in question. "So ... you're going into private soldiering, then?"
"Soldiering? Are you trying to insult me?"
"Soldiering, or sailor ... ing?" He waved a hand. "You know what I mean. Are you going into the private sector?"
Gabe stifled a groan. This again. He'd already told his best friend and former SEAL teammate, Travis Quinn, that he was not going merc. Several times. In fact, just about every day since the car accident that ended both of their careers last year. "Lemme guess. Quinn talked to you."
"Mm-hmm. A minute ago, downstairs. And let me just say, it's a damn shame that guy's straight."
This time Gabe did groan. "Raffi, man, I love you, but please don't talk about my friends like that. It puts pictures in my head and weirds me out."
"That's why I do it." He grinned. "Anyway, for some reason, Quinn thought I'd be able to talk some sense into you. As if anyone can talk ol' Stonewall Bristow into doing something he doesn't want to do."
Excerpted from Seal of Honor by Tonya Burrows, Heather Howland, Sue Winegardner. Copyright © 2013 Tonya Burrows. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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