Gus “Spike” Fowler frowned in irritation as he adjusted his large body in the too-small airplane seat and tried to calm his dark thoughts. Ever since he’d gotten a call from Bubba, a former Army teammate, asking if he’d heard from Woody, another member of their unit, Spike had harbored a bad feeling in his gut.
Spike missed his teammates, but not the shit they’d done as Delta Force Operatives. They’d put their lives on the line more times than anyone could count and it had been a relief to put all of that behind him and join Brick and the men at The Refuge.
But when Bubba called, telling him that Woody had gone down to Colombia after hearing from a woman who’d been a translator for them on a mission—and hadn’t been heard from since—the hair on the back of Spike’s neck had stood up. That feeling of trepidation still plagued him.
And it only got worse when he’d learned that Woody’s younger sister, Reese, was thinking of heading down to South America to find her brother.
Spike had always admired the relationship between the two siblings, even if he didn’t completely understand it. He wasn’t close to his own family. He hadn’t seen them in years, and the last time he’d gone home for the holidays, he’d regretted it. His parents didn’t know why he was “hiding out” in the backwoods of New Mexico, and he and his sister had absolutely nothing in common and therefore little to talk about.
Jack Woodall and his sister were extremely close, however. She was two years younger than Woody, who was overly protective of her. During down time on missions, he’d entertained their team with stories about Reese, and the pride in his voice when he’d talked about how great she was doing after she’d graduated college was easy to hear. For her part, Reese had constantly emailed her brother when they were out of the country, and when possible, she’d travel to wherever he was stationed to welcome him home from missions.
When he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, after getting out of the Army, Reese followed.
Spike envied the bond Woody and Reese shared. He’d also met her a few times, and had definitely been impressed by the woman personally. She was tall; only a couple inches shorter than his five-eleven. Her blonde hair was usually up in a messy bun and she always had a smile on her face. Her curvy body definitely made her stand out. She was friendly and bubbly and passionate about her work…and he had a feeling she likely brought the latter to the bedroom, as well.
She was gorgeous, inside and out. But Spike had never given any indication that he was attracted to the woman—nor had his teammates—out of respect for both her and Woody. Not that Woody would have minded if one of his friends dated his sister; it was more that their jobs had been so uncertain. As Deltas, they were deployed more than they were home, and they all knew any kind of serious relationship would be extremely challenging, both for them and their significant others.
Besides…when they were on missions, the team talked. About the women they’d dated, sexual conquests, the things they’d done, the thing
s they wanted to do. Given everything they’d revealed to each other during long nights in the trenches, it would be extremely awkward to date any teammate’s sister.
Still, he’d thought about Reese a few times in the years since he’d gotten out of the Army. Wondered if she was still living in Kansas City near her brother. If she’d gotten married, had any kids.
Apparently, the answers were yes, no, and no. After talking with Bubba, Spike learned that she was still single, still in Missouri, still very close to her brother.
Which was why he was currently on his way there. To meet with Reese, find out what he could about where Woody had been headed, and any other information she had, before reassuring her that her brother was most likely just fine and enjoying spending time with Isabella, the translator he’d apparently never been able to forget.
But deep down, Spike was worried. It wasn’t like Woody to go off the radar like he had. And that he’d not kept in contact with his sister just made Spike’s concern worse.
“Stop worrying,” Tiny said from the seat next to him.
Looking over at his friend and co-owner of The Refuge, Spike sighed. “I can’t help it. And for the hundredth time, you didn’t need to come with me.”
Tiny shrugged. “I did. Tonka and Brick weren’t going to leave their women, and we’ve had a lot of the same special forces training. If something is wrong, we can work together to find your friend and get him home safely.”
Spike couldn’t deny that having Tiny by his side would be welcome if he had to head down to Colombia. While Tiny had been a SEAL, and he was Delta, he wasn’t wrong that they’d had similar training.
“Tell me more about Woody, the translator he went down to see, and the sister,” Tiny ordered.
“Woody’s a few years younger than I am, but he was a damn good Delta. Always ready to do whatever it took to get the mission done. Sometimes he was impulsive, but we could usually rein him in.”
“So you aren’t surprised that he headed down to Colombia when he heard the translator might be in trouble,” Tiny remarked.
Spike shook his
head. “No, but it’s not because of his impulsive nature. He and Isabella had a connection from the start. We all saw it. But they both did their best to keep things professional. The mission we were on down there wasn’t especially dangerous. We were working with the National Army—specifically, their special forces branch, AFEAU—on a joint mission. Isabella was assigned to our group to translate when necessary. When we left the country, they exchanged information. As far as I knew before now, that was the extent of it.
“But now, Bubba tells me that they’ve been keeping in constant contact since then. Said Woody’s been studying Spanish, and he and Isabella always planned on meeting back up at some point. I guess when he heard she needed help, he didn’t hesitate to head down there.”
“Help with what?” Tiny asked.
“I’m not sure. Bubba didn’t know either, and apparently Woody didn’t tell Reese exactly what was wrong. Just that Isabella asked for his help on getting her and her brother out of the country,” Spike said.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Tiny said with a shake of his head. “How old is her brother?”
Spike frowned as he tried to remember. “I’m not sure, but I think eighteen or nineteen now.”
“So not a kid.”
“No, definitely not a kid. He was a young teenager when we were in the country, but I don’t remember Isabella saying much about him, other than she was raising him after their parents died.”
“So if she was translating for your team while you were in Colombia, she has to have some pretty high connections. The AFEAU is very secretive. Could she have gotten on the bad side of their government?” Tiny asked, keeping his tone low so no one would overhear. Not that it was likely. The seats around them were empty, since the plane wasn’t packed, which was a relief.
“Anything’s possible. I’m more concerned about the fact that Woody hasn’t contacted Reese. There’s no way—and I mean no way—he’d purposely worry his sister. They’re extremely close.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely not a good sign,” Tiny agreed.
They fell silent as they continued to make their way toward their destination. Until eventually Tiny asked, “So, what’s the plan?”
Spike shrugged. “Talk to Reese. Find out what Woody told her, if anything. Determine if she’s overreacting, maybe ask Tex to see if he can find the translator’s address and, if need be, head to Colombia to see for o
urselves that Woody’s all right.”
He wasn’t surprised when Tiny simply nodded. “Does Reese know we’re coming?” he asked.
Spike sighed. “No. I got her number from Bubba, but she didn’t answer when I called. She knows me, though. We’ve met a few times.”
“She’s probably gonna think you’re there to bring her bad news,” Tiny warned.
Spike frowned. Shit. He hadn’t thought about that. The last thing he wanted to do was cause her any angst. It simply felt…wrong that someone with her sunny personality should ever feel even a moment of fear. “In that case, the first thing out of my mouth will be reassurance that we aren’t there for a death notification,” he decided.
The two friends quieted once more, and Spike couldn’t help but let his mind wander back to Woody. Where was he? Was he in trouble, or was he simply enjoying time with the woman he’d gotten to know over the years? Spike couldn’t decide and figured it could be either option. He didn’t think Woody would be inconsiderate enough to worry his sister, but if he and Isabella were making up for lost time after being apart for years, it was possible the rest of the world just dropped away…or he didn’t feel the need to talk to his sister about his love life.
But given his bond with Reese, Spike’s gut insisted that wasn’t the case.
The plane ride seemed to be taking forever. And the longer they were in the air, the more stressed Spike became. The more scenarios went through his brain about why Woody wasn’t communicating with Reese and his friends.
By the time they landed, Spike felt jittery and off-kilter. It had been a long time since he’d felt nerves like this, and he didn’t like it.
When he first became a Delta Operative and started going on missions, he was even-keeled and nothing much rattled him. But with each mission, and given the death and destruction that came with the majority of them, he’d slowly changed. His steady nerves began to fray
and with each assignment, all he could think of more and more was all the ways things could go wrong.
He was assured by two different therapists that what he was feeling was normal…but it didn’t feel normal to constantly picture his teammates blown to hell, or wonder how it would feel to step on an IED. When he couldn’t shake the negative thoughts, and when his body literally began to break down on him before missions—shaking, vomiting, unable to concentrate—Spike knew it was time to get out.
He hated to quit. He hadn’t been raised to be a quitter, but the last thing he wanted was his mental state affecting the lives of his teammates. When he finally sat down with them to explain, he was surprised to learn they were all dealing with some of the same things. They weren’t experiencing the physical symptoms, but the reality of being a Delta and constantly being deployed and putting their lives on the line had taken a toll on the entire team.
They’d all gotten out of the Army around the same time, and while Spike didn’t keep in touch with his former teammates regularly, when he did reach out, he was happy to hear how well they were doing.
Spike took a deep breath. He needed to keep his shit together. For Woody. He needed to make sure Reese saw nothing in him to be concerned about. That she’d trust him to figure out what happened to her brother.
This wasn’t a Delta mission. He could do this. He didn’t have a choice.
“She’s not here,” Bubba said unnecessarily.
Spike’s former teammate had picked up him and Tiny from the airport, and they’d gone straight to Reese’s apartment. Except she hadn’t answered the door. Nor was she answering her phone.
Spike had a bad feeling about the situation. It was one thing for her brother to be missing, but the fact that Reese also couldn’t be reached wasn’t sitting well with him.
Bubba started making some calls to people he knew in town, trying to figure out if Reese was at work. They’d already talked to a neighbor, who didn’t recall seeing her lately. Spike knew in his gut that they weren’t going to find her in Kansas City.
One thing Woody had always mock-complained about was how stubborn his sister could be. How she was impulsive and acted without thinking, especially if she was concerned about someone else. Spike suspected that Reese had gotten tired of sitting around, worrying about her brother. That she’d made the decision to head down to Colombia to find out for herself if he was all right.
He took his own cell out of his pocket and dialed Tex’s number.
Tex was a former SEAL and a computer genius who’d always told the owners of The Refuge that if they ever needed anything—anything—to not hesitate to reach out for assistance. He was a huge reason why The Refuge even existed at all…he’d helped Brick, the former SEAL who’d originally conceived of the place, connect with all the men who had eventually become his co-owners.
“What’s wrong?” Tex immediately asked in the slight southern accent he’d never lost, even though he hadn’t lived in Texas for years.
As quickly as he could, Spike explained where he was and why, then said, “We can’t find Reese, Woody’s sister. Her car’s not at her apartment, she’s not answering her phone, and a neighbor said he hasn’t seen her in a few days.”
“You think she went to Colombia,” Tex said.
“I hope like hell I’m wrong, but yeah,” Spike agreed
“Okay, hang on…”
Spike resisted the urge to tap his foot as he heard Tex’s fingers clicking on a keyboard. Absently, he realized the hand holding his phone to his ear was shaking…and his heart rate was higher than normal. He hated his body’s physical reactions to danger.
Still, his current anxiety gave him pause. He hadn’t felt like this when Jasna, the daughter of a Refuge therapist, had been missing and they’d all frantically searched for her. And his heart rate hadn’t gone above a hundred when they’d found out a sexual deviant was prowling The Refuge property, attempting to kidnap Brick’s woman, Alaska.
He’d thought he’d finally worked through the shit in his head and gotten past all this. It was extremely disheartening to realize he hadn’t. That his b
ody was still letting him down when he needed to be at his strongest. He was particularly confused as to why he was feeling this way now, when he’d handled the recent harrowing events with Alaska and Jasna just fine.
But he didn’t have time to wonder long before Tex was speaking.
“All right, it looks like she left four days ago. Took a red-eye flight from Kansas City to Dallas, then to Colombia, arriving late the next morning. I’m texting the address of the hotel where she’s booked.”
Spike was relieved Reese wasn’t lying dead in a morgue somewhere in Kansas City, but less than happy to hear his suspicions had been correct. “Any idea where Isabella lives?”
“I’ve got an address for the translator, but it’s several years old,” Tex said. “I’m sending that too.”
“Thanks.” Spike took a deep breath. “No other movement on Reese? No return flights booked? Can you track her cell?”
“No, no, and no,” Tex said, dashing Spike’s hope for a quick resolution to the situation.
“Shit,” he swore.
“I’ve booked you and Tiny a flight,” Tex said. “It leaves in three hours. I’ll continue to do what I can from here to help, but I’m thinking getting your boots on the ground down there and going to her hotel to find Reese, or talking to the employees to see what you can find out, will get you a lot further than anything I can do remotely.”
That’s what Spike was thinking too. “Right.”
“Keep your phone on,” Tex said firmly. “I’ll make sure international rates are active and I expect you to check in with me frequently. I can also track you if you leave it on. If I don’t hear from you regularly, or if you go dark, I’m gonna send in the troops.”
Spike felt a wave of relief go through him. More often than not on missions, he and his team had been on their own. If the shit hit the fan, there was no expectation of any assistance coming because much of what they did was top secret. They went into countries they weren’t supposed to be in, like North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, and the US couldn’t risk an international incident if they got caught.
So knowing Tex had his back was a huge weight off his shoulders, though in no way a surprise. Tex’s mission in life seemed to be helping as many people as he could, in any way possible. He was known
in literally every military circle, no matter how covert. He was like Kevin Bacon, connected to damn near every single person in the country in some way.
“Spike?” Tex asked. “You hear me?”
“I hear you,” Spike told him. “And thanks.”
“Why do people always want to thank me?” Tex grumbled. “I’ll send any new intel I get. Be safe.”
Then the older man clicked off the connection. Spike took a deep breath and turned to Tiny. “Looks like we’re headed to South America.”
He didn’t seem surprised or even too concerned. He simply nodded, then asked, “What’d Tex say?”
“Reese flew to Colombia,” he informed his friends. “I’ve got the address of the hotel she booked and the last-known address for Isabella. But that’s about it.”
“Damn!” Bubba exclaimed, pocketing his phone. “What do you need me to do?”
“If you hear from Woody, or anything about what’s going on, let me know,” Spike said.
“That’s a given. You need any gear?”
Shit. He should’ve brought some of his own stuff. It was just another thing that proved Spike wasn’t thinking at the level he should’ve been. “Yeah, that’d be great,” he told his friend. “Our flight leaves in three hours,” he warned. “So we need to be quick.”
Bubba merely nodded and led the way down the stairs toward the parking lot.
“You think this is gonna go bad?” Tiny asked as they followed the former Delta.
“Let’s just say I don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling,” Spike told him.
Tiny nodded yet again, as if Spike had confirmed his own feelings about the situation.
Three hours later, after borrowing gear from Bubba and boarding the plane to Colombia, Spike opened his phone and clicked on the file Tex had sent. He scrolled past pages of text, stopping on a picture of Reese Woodall. If anything, she’d gotten even prettier since he’d last seen her.
She still had her long blonde hair and blue eyes, but she had even more curves than before. And Spike approved. Her body was fucking gorgeous. He’d always been a sucker for a well-built woman. He had nothing a
gainst skinny chicks, but in his opinion, there was nothing better than being able to dig his fingers into a woman’s fleshy ass as she bounced on his cock…seeing her tits shimmy and shake as she moved.
He liked a little extra meat on a woman’s bones, and between looks, personality, and smarts, Reese was literally the epitome of everything he wanted in a partner.
Reading the profile Tex had put together made a streak of pride course through Spike. He already knew Reese was smart, but she’d been moving up the ranks of her engineering firm and taking on increasingly difficult projects. She also spent her spare time volunteering at an animal shelter, a women’s center, and at a Boys and Girls Club. Tex had even dug up a video clip of her giving a speech at a fundraising event. She was funny, engaging, and her smile lit up the entire stage.
Of course, no one was perfect. Spike recalled Woody constantly bitching about how his sister didn’t care enough about her own safety. How she didn’t think twice about walking to her car in the dark after a volunteer shift at a homeless shelter in a not-so-great part of town. Of how she refused to admit when she was wrong. How she loved designer handbags so much, her collection was reaching ridiculous proportions.
Spike couldn’t speak to most of that, but considering he was on a flight to Colombia at that very moment, it was clear Reese’s disregard for her own safety was still alive and well.
He was almost embarrassed by how many times he’d watched that video clip. It was a good thing Tiny was seated a few rows ahead of him and couldn’t question his sudden interest in Woody’s sister.
But the more his admiration for the woman grew, the more worried he became. Where was she? Had she found her brother? Had someone hurt either her or Woody? He had too many questions and not nearly enough answers.
The quick trip to Missouri to reassure himself, and Reese, that his old friend was fine and not in any danger had morphed into something that felt far more urgent. In Spike’s mind, this was no longer a trip to find Woody—it was to make sure Reese was all right. That she hadn’t gotten in over her head.
He didn’t know why he was so worried about a woman he barely knew…but he was. He had the oddest feeling that if anything happened to Reese, he’d miss out on something huge.
It wasn’t normal, this attraction and concern for a woman he hadn’t spoken to in ye
ars. But his shaking hands, nausea, and pounding heart told him that if he didn’t find her and get her back to the States safely, he’d regret it for the rest of his life.
Taking a deep breath, Spike tried to control his body’s fight-or-flight response. He needed to get control of his emotions so he could be at the top of his game when they landed. Reese was relying on him. As was Woody. Maybe even Isabella and her brother too.
But something was wrong. Spike knew that as well as he knew his name. He and Tiny were going to find out what it was…and do anything necessary to get everyone home.
Reese questioned what the hell she was doing for the hundredth time. What had possessed her to come down to Colombia on her own?
Her brother, that’s what—or rather, who. When he’d been in the Army, going on countless missions, she’d worried about him constantly. At the time, it hadn’t been unusual to not hear from him for weeks.
But this was different.
Woody wasn’t in the Army anymore. And he had promised, promised, to keep in touch. He’d said he was going down to Colombia to meet up with Isabella, the woman he’d been in love with forever, and bring her back to Missouri.
The first day she didn’t hear from him, Reese hadn’t been too concerned. But when another day went by, then a third, and he hadn’t responded to her texts or voice mails, she knew in her gut that something was terribly wrong.
She’d even called Bubba, one of Woody’s old teammates who lived in Kansas City, and he hadn’t heard from her brother either. He’d done his best to reassure her that Woody was probably fine, ...