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Not even the sound of footsteps echoed in the Naval Special Warfare Center as Lieutenant Commander Na-thanial "Nate" Peterson led his trainees through the corridor. Each exercise had grown steadily more dangerous, and even though they'd gone over every aspect in the classroom, actuality always heightened the senses. Made the tension more acute.
"Where's the party?" a trainee called laughingly from the back. "I hear you always know."
Nate's shoulders straightened. Strange thing about tension… some soldiers rose to the challenge, some men snapped and some, well, some of them bellowed smartass remarks to their superior.
"You're never going to live that reputation down." Riley laughed quietly beside him. Their steps slowed as they approached the locker area where the men would change into their wetsuits.
Nate shot a disgusted look at the man he'd known since their BUD/S training class. True, Nate had earned a reputation as a man who liked to play hard but he worked just as hard. Harder, actually. And yes, he always knew where the party was. But there was something all SEALs understood, and that was to keep priorities in order.
Something that smartass hadn't yet realized. Some men knew and understood from the beginning when to turn it off and on. Others needed that knowledge worked into their thick heads. Like the Ensign behind him. As it had been for Nate a few years back.
Nate stopped, and turned to stare at the man who'd called the question, not needing to see the man to know who he was. Harper treaded toward a familiarity he hadn't yet earned. "Maybe a party isn't what you should be concerned about, Ensign Harper. Yourswim time is slipping."
The younger man's back stiffened, and the other trainees hustled quickly into the locker room.
"So's your conditioning," Nate added. This next minute would be crucial. How Harper handled the criticism would prove to Nate if that man had what it took to earn his Trident. SEALs took evaluation and adapted and made themselves better.
The Ensign swallowed. "I've passed."
Eight years ago Nate was this guy, with his BUD/S, Hell Week and Jump School behind him. All that stood in the way between the Ensign and the Trident that turned a man into a SEAL was The Finishing School or the official name—SEAL Qualifications Training, here on Coronado. With the end prize in sight, that was something a man could get cocky about. But that cockiness would be a downfall… no question about it.
Although surely that had been long gone in Nate by the time he'd hit SQT Some hardass instructor had ensured it. A man lost his swagger when he was wet, cold and covered in sand. Lost the arrogance, because his life, and that of his Team, depended on professionalism not ego.
Now it was his turn to make sure these men thought only of focus and discipline, and each other, not themselves.
"Minimum standards are forty-two pushups in two minutes. You content with the minimum?" Nate asked.
Something stony and strong-willed flared inside the other man's eyes. Good. "No sir," he answered, with nothing but determination in his voice.
No sir was right. Harper might just be the best man to come out of this class.
"Suit up," Nate ordered and turned, not waiting for a response. Their next drill was in an hour.
Once the candidates were out of earshot, Riley glanced at him. "How do you keep a straight face during that?"
Nate let his guard down a little and smiled. "By counting the hours until I'm out of here," Nate told him as they continued down the hall, just the two of them. "Besides, if I'm not on the Teams, I'm damn well going to make sure my replacement can do the job."
"Still doing the physical therapy?" Riley asked.
Nate shrugged. Three months ago, he'd been injured while rescuing a pirated freighter with rigged explosives. Now another man had his spot on his Team. While Nate was teaching. The muscles of his right leg cramped, and he breathed through his nose. Control.
But as soon as he was healthy, goodbye settling for being an instructor, goodbye Coronado Island, goodbye San Diego.
"If it's any consolation, I've heard good things about the training you're providing. I guarantee your fresh-off-deployment perspective will save a life."
He knew what Riley was trying to do, and appreciated the effort but men didn't join the SEALs for a pat on the back. Most of the stuff he and his fellow SEALs had done was so covert the files wouldn't be opened until he was long gone. Little would ever make the history books.
But Nate's friend did point out a reality. In another year, these men might be beside him down range. Most of these men he'd be happy to serve next to as SEALs… but they weren't there yet. He might not like instructing, but he'd make damn sure the new guys wouldn't hold a Team back. They'd be ready on day one. "So is there a party?" Riley asked hopefully.
"After this exercise, I'm on my way to pick up the beer," he said, with a wink.
Whoo hoo! Naked!
The echoes of laughter flowed from the newly-repainted Tea Room into the modernized kitchen. Hailey glanced at her sister Rachel and smiled. "Those are the sounds of a good party."
"I have to hand it to you, Hailey. You did a great job with this wedding shower."
"As you've pointed out, I've had three. Glad something useful came out of those relationships." With a flourish, Hailey topped the last of the mousse with chocolate shavings. "Of course you can't really go wrong with chocolate and champagne."
"Or naked beefcake."
"I don't think The Sutherland is quite ready for that." Hailey lifted the tray and scooted backwards, pushing the door out into the Tea Room with her backside.
"The chocolate's here!" calledAmy Bradford, the bride to be. Although they'd been friends since school, they'd lost track of each other. Reuniting with old pals was another positive she could attribute to returning home.
"Wait," said a redhead, who Hailey had learned was the maid of honor. "The girls and I chipped in and bought you something to wear on your wedding night." The other guests met this announcement with everything from giggles to a few oohhs. In a flourish, she presented to the bride a large paper-wrapped box tied with a bright yellow bow.
"Five bucks says that box is empty," Rachel whispered.
Hailey glanced at the dozen or so women. Despite their pastel sundresses, these ladies looked like they were up for a little mischief. Hailey shook her head. "Not taking that bet."
Careful not to rip the ribbon, the bride did indeed open an empty box to the laughter of the group. With the last present now revealed, Hailey and her sister moved forward to serve the desserts. The rest of the guests made room on the table for the treat their little B&B had always been known for in decades past.
Amy glanced up toward Hailey. "I can't tell you how excited I am that you have reopened The Sutherland. When I was seven and a flower girl, my aunt had her shower here."
"Amy's had her heart set on this place ever since," the maid of honor added. "I couldn't believe my luck when I found out you just happened to have a free weekend."
The two sisters looked at one another. Yeah, they had plenty of free weekends. But it was nice to keep up the illusion of exclusivity.
"It was fate," Amy said with the kind of beaming smile only a woman about to be married could get away with.
Had Hailey ever worn such an expression at any of her wedding showers? She doubted it.
"And the Tea Room looks just as beautiful as I remember," Amy continued.
"Tell your friends," Hailey encouraged, ever the businesswoman, and ready to tear her thoughts away from her failed engagements.
After serving the ladies, and refreshing their tea, Hailey and Rachel began to discreetly clear away the wrapping paper. "I can't tell you how relieved I am," Rachel said quietly. This was the first real test of their hosting skills. While The Sutherland had been in their family for generations, and they'd performed their fair share of serving, their mother had always been the hostess.
Just to make sure the place shined, the last coat of paint to the Tea Room had gone up sometime around two that morning. Now looking around the beautiful banquet hall, Hailey experienced a swell of pride to see her home restored to as close as the sisters could remember it. The cypress wainscoting she was never allowed to touch gleamed. Prisms of light reflected around the room from the newly washed crystals hanging from the chandelier. The cornice molding gleamed with its new coat of papaya whip.
She just hoped no one looked under the crisp linens because the tables were a disaster. The management team apparently held an aversion to coasters. After hearing the delight of their new guests, the memory of all their hard work faded away. Grandpa Sutherland would be proud.
"This dessert is to die for," one of the ladies exclaimed.
Hailey winked at her sister.
"What's next?" asked another guest.
The smile faded from her sister's face.
The bridal party had already played Groom Trivia, Wedding Night Surprise, opened the presents and consumed dozens of champagne soaked strawberries. Hailey had heard so many off-color wedding night jokes, she could probably start a stand-up routine. "What's next?" her sister mouthed.
After being awake for nearly twenty-four hours, Hailey had hoped it was a nap.
The bride had mentioned something about fate, and ding ding ding, that little word triggered a memory in her sleep deprived and work fogged brain of a bookstore purchase not so long ago. So far fate had worked on their side, maybe they should keep it rolling. "Our last game will be ready as soon as we've cleared," Hailey told them demurely, then turned to race up the stairs two at a time to her bedroom. If her grandma had seen her run through the hallway like that…
Four months ago, the funding for her junior assistant curator position at the Dallas Museum of Art ran out, leaving her jobless. Back in San Diego, she'd reclaimed the bookshelf-lined room that had been hers. The corner room with a small window to the ocean had been her refuge from the oh-so-embarrassing job of working in her family's B&B when she was growing up.
While her friends were hitting the sandy beaches, she'd been learning the secrets to making spider web Grenache, or worse, taking care of the guests' laundry. She smiled at the memory of her teen angst. What she wouldn't give now to sit beside the large stove and talk to her mother as she made the delicious meals for their guests, or hear her grandma's lessons of how a real lady crossed her legs at the ankle.
A time when she didn't have to worry about bills. Hailey wouldn't lose the battle for The Sutherland before she'd really had a chance to implement her ideas. Growing up in a work of art, like The Sutherland, with so much history, it was no wonder she'd been drawn to preserving and showcasing the past. Now she was saving something infinitely more personal…her family's legacy. Though she had work to do on the first step— save this wedding shower. She scanned the various self-help titles that now filled her bookshelf, looking for the bright red packaging. There they were—the Fate Delivery cards.
She peeled off the plastic wrapping as she raced down the hallway, stuffing the cellophane wrapper into her apron. Hailey plastered on a serene expression reminiscent of their mother as she returned to the Tea Room where Rachel finished the last of the clean-up. Their guests were talking quietly, looking over the various gifts the bride had received.
Needing to set some kind of mood here, Hailey flipped the switch cutting off the light provided by the chandeliers. The natural sunlight filled the room with its warm tones.
"Okay, ladies, the time is now," she said, her voice low and laced with dramatic flourish. An instant hush fell over the room. Hey, they were into it. Maybe Hailey had finally found the silver lining of taking that acting class in college, which sadly had led her to Fiancé Failure Number One.
"Amy is about to embark on a new journey that fate has ordained. Now it's our turn to see what's destined for the rest of us." Hailey fanned the cards in her hand. "Pick your fate, but don't look at it."
Each guest in the circle took a card, holding it to her chest, giggling to one another about taking peeks. Hailey held out the deck to Amy.
"Maybe I shouldn't take a card," the soon-to-be-bride said.
"Oh, take a card, Amy," said the maid of honor with a quick nudge. "It's just a game."
With a good-humored smile, Amy slid a card from the deck and placed it face down on her lap.
Hailey returned the unused cards back in the cardboard box they came in and set them aside. "Now ladies, the bride will choose who goes first," she instructed, making the rules up as she went. "You will show your card to the rest of the group, then look at it yourself. Some of the fates are silly and fun, but others are true life-changing destinies."
Hailey backed away to the wall where her sister watched. "Fate had ordained?" Rachel whispered to her. "I've forgetten how dramatic you can be."
"If it works, it works. Did you catch my emphasis on the word last, when I talked about this game?"
"Here's hoping they did," Rachel said, hiding a yawn with her hand.
"Tori, you go first," Amy said, clearly fired up to get this game going.
Tori turned her card to show to the rest of the group. A few groans followed.
"Oh, you have an easy one," one of the ladies called out.
Tori twirled the card around and read aloud. "Kick off your shoes and run into the wind." Then she glanced at her friends, raising a brow. "Speak for yourself on that being easy. Once I get these heels off, they're not going back on."
"No, you can't get out of it," Amy insisted, now fully involved in the game. "The beach is right outside this window."
Floor to ceiling windows dominated one side of the Tea Room. Shrouded in beautiful lace, the curtains allowed natural sunlight to filter into the room. But sweep them aside, and the Italian tiled terrace beckoned, as did the beach. The perfect place to kick off shoes and run.
"I'll handle this," Hailey said as she pushed off the wall and walked to the curtains that hid the glass door to the terrace. After draping the heavy material in the ornate holdbacks, she unlocked the doors so the women could step outside.