What started as a mission, soon becomes fate. Since nearly dying on a previous op, Beckett “Ace” Morgan has no time for regrets. Life is far too short. So when he learns the brave, beautiful, selfless woman he’s rescued has a better chance of getting three orphans out of the country if she’s married, he doesn’t hesitate. Ace marries her then and there, instantly gaining the family he’s always wanted. With time, he knows his respect for Piper can grow into love, and meanwhile, he’s saved both her and their new daughters from a fast-spreading rebel incursion.
Protecting his girls on foreign soil turns out to be the easy part of the team’s mission. Protecting them from a threat waiting at home may be the biggest fight of Ace’s life.
** Securing Piper is the 3rd book in the SEAL of Protection: Legacy Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Release date: August 20, 2019
Publisher: Susan Stoker
Print pages: 358
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Piper Johnson was going to die. She had no doubt about that.
When her friend Kalee had talked her into coming to visit her in Timor-Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia, she’d been excited about the adventure. At thirty-two, she’d spent way too much of her life sequestered in the various apartments she’d rented, stuck in her own head as she created her well-known cartoons.
Now, all she felt was terror. She was crouched in a crawlspace under the kitchen floor of the orphanage for girls that she and Kalee had been visiting three days ago, with three orphans who were looking to her to save them. But the truth of the matter was, Piper had no idea what to do. None.
When they’d heard the shouts and gunshots from outside the kitchen, Kalee had pushed Piper and the three little girls into the crawlspace and said she was going to go outside and grab more children before returning.
She hadn’t come back. They’d known rebels in the area had been organizing and causing issues for the security forces. Kalee’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers had sent out a message to be cautious, and she’d been checking in every other day with her boss down in Dili. But neither Kalee nor Piper had been too concerned. Piper, because Kalee had assured her the rebels had been dissatisfied with the current government for a while and nothing had happened thus far. Kalee, because she’d lived in the country for six months and had gotten used to the grumblings and warnings of uprising.
The rebels had finally decided to act on their rebellion while Kalee and Piper had been visiting an orphanage, a few miles from Kalee’s house and regular assignment for the Peace Corps.
While they’d been hiding under the floor, Piper had heard enough scary sounds to turn her off horror movies for the rest of her life. Yelling, gunshots, crying. She’d wanted to go out and help her friend, but knew that would be signing her own death warrant.
She was fairly sure Kalee was dead. She had to be. Why else hadn’t she returned? Tears formed in her eyes, yet again, but Piper refused to let them fall. She didn’t have time to grieve for her friend at the moment.
Four-year-old Rani was hungry. As were they all. Piper had gotten desperate enough a day and a half ago to sneak out of their hiding place and find some food, but it had literally scared her so badly she wasn’t ready to do it again. The kitchen pantry had been ransacked by the rebels, and the blood everywhere she looked had been terrifying. She’d managed to find a few cans of fruit and some stale bread, and they’d been making their stash last as long as possible.
But soon she’d have to make a decision. Try to get back to Kalee’s house, get her stuff, and find a way to get off the mountain and to the airport, or stay put until someone from the Timor-Leste Defense Force came to rescue them. Neither option appealed.
Besides the fact she figured it would be extremely dangerous to just wander around in the mountains, she had no idea which way to go. She’d always been a bit directionally challenged, and while she could probably get back to Kalee’s house, which wasn’t too far from the orphanage—if there weren’t rebels waiting to kill everyone they came into contact with—she was still about a three-hour car ride from the capital city of Dili. Finding a way to get from here to there by herself, safely, was extremely daunting.
And then there was Rani, Sinta, and Kemala. Piper had already begun to bond with the three little girls throughout the harrowing days during which they’d been hiding. They were completely vulnerable and would be killed or captured by the rebels if she left them, so that wasn’t happening. But having three young children, who were probably traumatized by what had occurred, would make the trip from the orphanage to the capital even more difficult.
“Piper eat?” Sinta asked in broken English.
The people in the area generally spoke Portuguese, a throwback to when they were a colony of that country. But Tetum was also spoken quite widely. Indonesian and English were spoken here and there. Kalee had been visiting the orphanage regularly since being stationed in the country by the Peace Corps, and had spent some time teaching the children English. They weren’t fluent, and they understood more than they could speak, but they’d picked up enough words to be able to communicate.
“I’m not hungry,” Piper told the seven-year-old. That wasn’t exactly true, but she wanted to save the little food they had for the girls.
Kemala, the oldest of the girls, was thirteen going on about twenty-four. She had what Piper would call “old eyes.” She’d seen and heard way too much in her short years, and most of the time Piper had no idea if the girl even liked her. Tolerated, yes. Liked? The jury was still out on that.
Sinta was at the age where she was still a little girl, but rapidly maturing because of her circumstances. She was also the worrier of the group. She worried if they had enough to eat. If they were going to die. About the friends she hadn’t seen since they’d had to hide. About Kalee.
The youngest of the girls, Rani, was still young enough to be easily entertained. Piper had passed the time with her by playing tic-tac-toe in the dirt. She was as sick of the game as she could be, but it kept Rani occupied and happy, so she’d play it as much as the little girl wanted. Rani didn’t talk at all. Piper hadn’t heard her say one word since she’d met her. She watched everything, was very observant, but no words passed her lips.
Piper wasn’t sure anyone would consider her mother material. She was too introverted. She didn’t have a lot of friends and was perfectly happy not leaving her apartment for days on end. But she loved kids. She just hadn’t really thought she’d have a family of her own.
First, though, she’d want to be married…and that seemed just as unlikely. She’d had little luck with men thus far. She’d tried meeting them the usual ways—online dating, chatting them up at the grocery store. She’d even gone so far as to let Kalee set her up a time or two. But she’d yet to meet anyone she’d even remotely consider spending the rest of her life with. The kind of decades-long marriage her grandparents shared.
She’d grown up with her grandparents, since her dad had left her mom when she was still a baby, and her mother had been killed during a convenience store robbery when Piper was five. She’d gone to live with her elderly maternal grandparents and had a fairly normal though very staid upbringing.
It was crazy how the smallest decisions in life could lead you down life-changing paths. Her mother had stopped to get gas though her tank was still half full, and ended up dead. Piper decided to pay a brief visit to Kalee and got herself mired in the middle of a rebel uprising.
She handed Sinta the last piece of bread and watched as she immediately split it in thirds to share with Rani and Kemala. That was so like her, to want to take care of others.
Piper felt as though she wasn’t taking care of the girls even half as well. They were still trapped, hungry, and dirty. What she really wanted was to climb out of the crawlspace under the kitchen, get them back to Kalee’s shack, and bathe them all. She and the girls were covered in dirt and sweat. Timor-Leste was a tropical country, and it was hot, even up in the mountains where the orphanage was located. Being in the shade basically underground kept the heat manageable, but it was still quite warm.
Piper was wearing a pair of lightweight khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt. She’d also put on her sneakers before coming to the orphanage, much to Kalee’s amusement. Her friend had taken to wearing flip-flops almost twenty-four seven. Even though her shoes made her feet hot, Piper was glad to have them, just in case she came across any of the multitude of creepy-crawly things Kalee liked to tease her about.
Thinking about her friend made Piper want to cry—again—but she took a deep breath and controlled herself. She couldn’t cry now. Sinta would want to know what was wrong, Rani would get scared and start crying herself, and Kemala would look at her with a worried expression on her face.
Forcing herself to focus on the children, Piper had to admit even though she wanted to take the girls and run, they weren’t exactly dressed to go tromping around the jungle. All three wore shorts and T-shirts. It seemed that was what most of the children at the orphanage wore. They also had thin flip-flops, which were currently sitting near the hole they’d entered to access the crawlspace.
Despite being dirty, smelly, and in need of a hot shower, the children were absolutely beautiful. They had black hair and light brown skin and the most gorgeous brown eyes Piper had ever seen. She hadn’t thought about how much her blonde hair and blue eyes would make her stick out like a sore thumb in the Southeastern Asian country. Back home in Southern California, blondes were a dime a dozen, but out here, she and Kalee were quite the anomaly. Piper with her blonde hair, and Kalee with her auburn locks.
Thoughts of her best friend snuck up on her yet again, and Piper turned her head so the girls wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. She had to snap out of her melancholy. Decisions had to be made. They couldn’t stay here forever, and it was past time to figure out what to do next.
It had been a while since they’d heard the rebels. It was hard to judge time while huddled in the dark, but she estimated it had to have been at least a day since they’d heard any sign of anyone else.
Just as Piper decided they had to see if they could make their way off the mountain—what other choice did they have, really?—she heard the boards above her head creaking.
It was the sound of someone—or several someones—walking through the first floor of the orphanage.
She immediately turned to the girls and held a finger to her lips. All three nodded. Kemala moved silently so she was between Rani and Sinta and put her arms around them. They’d been through this before, and Piper knew none of the girls would make a sound. They were unnaturally quiet for children in the first place, but ever since they’d listened to the rebels attacking the orphanage, they hadn’t made any unnecessary noises whatsoever.
Piper held her breath and placed herself between the hatch and the children. With any luck, whoever was up there would never know they were here. And if they did find them, she’d do everything possible to make sure they had all they could handle with her, so maybe they wouldn’t search the crawlspace and find the girls.
Swallowing hard, and feeling completely vulnerable, Piper held her breath.
What she heard made her both excited and scared at the same time.
The voices above their head were speaking English. And if she wasn’t mistaken, they were American.
* * *
“What the fuck happened here?” Ace asked as he and his team entered the ramshackle building. There were several wooden huts on the orphanage property. They’d searched the others—the larger hut that had been filled with bunk beds, where the girls had obviously slept; a classroom of sorts; and a couple of other smaller storage buildings. The two-story structure they were entering at the moment was the only one they had left to search.
They’d been pointed in the direction of the orphanage by some of the townspeople a few miles away. They’d first stopped at the house Kalee Solberg had been assigned by the Peace Corps, but it—and most of the other buildings in the small village—had been burned to the ground by rebels. There was no sign of Kalee or her friend.
When they’d finally located one of Kalee’s students in the small village, the girl said that Kalee liked to visit the orphanage nearby. Since they had no other leads, the team had made their way to the building they were now standing in.
It was almost eerie how quiet and still the place was. It should’ve been teeming with children, all laughing and playing, but instead there was nothing but the wind blowing through the trees.
“Nothing good,” Rocco said quietly, in response to Ace’s question.
“I’ve got blood over here,” Gumby said.
“Here too,” Rex added.
“Any sign of Kalee or Piper?” Bubba asked the group.
“No. And worse, there’s no children here, either. We need to split up. Phantom, you, Rex, and Gumby head outside and scope things out,” Rocco said. “Carefully. After our trip up here, we know the rebels are all over this mountain. We’ve got about five minutes before we’re gonna have to split. I don’t like the vibe I’m getting.”
“Will do,” Phantom answered. “And I agree with you. It feels as if the shit’s gonna hit the fan any second.”
Ace had to agree. There was no reason to feel that way. The rebels had obviously already been through the orphanage. But they’d all been in enough combat situations to be able to sense when something seemed off. As they’d walked through the jungle to get to the orphanage, Ace had felt as if they were being watched. They hadn’t seen or heard anyone, but the hair on the back of his neck was standing up. It was obvious his teammates felt the same apprehension. The faster they found Kalee and got the hell out of there, the happier and safer they’d all be.
Ace watched half the team head out the kitchen door, which was hanging on one hinge, then turned his attention back to the room. Gumby and Rex were right. There was blood everywhere and the kitchen was a wreck. He had no idea what had happened in this building, but it hadn’t been good.
“Anyone find any sign of the kids who should be here?” Bubba asked. “I don’t know how many were being housed here, but it’s hard to believe that they’re all gone.”
“I don’t think they just ran away,” Rocco answered with a grim tone. He was standing in the doorway of the kitchen looking into what Ace figured was a dining room. He turned around—and the look on his face made Ace’s stomach clench. “Three bodies in there,” he said with a tilt of his head.
“Piper or Kalee?” Bubba asked.
“No. They look like local women. They were shot.”
The three men were silent for a long moment. It was one thing for the rebels to kill members of the Defense Force or anyone with weapons. But to shoot defenseless women was a whole ’nother level of evil altogether.
In the silence, a tiny sound in the kitchen had Ace spinning around and pointing his weapon without thought.
He stared in disbelief as a small section of the floor was slowly pushed upward.
Glancing to his right and left, he saw Rocco and Bubba had their weapons trained on whoever was about to pop up from beneath the floor.
The first thing they saw was a small hand pushing up a trapdoor at their feet—then a blonde head slowly peeked over the edge of the floor.
The woman’s eyes were huge in her face and she looked absolutely terrified.
“Don’t move!” Rocco ordered. “Show us your hands.”
She placed her other hand on the door and rose until they could see her shoulders and upper body. Ace had no idea if the woman was standing or kneeling on the ground below her. But the fact that she’d been hiding in the space meant there could definitely be others. This could easily be an ambush, which was why Rocco was being extremely cautious.
But Ace recognized the woman immediately—and he couldn’t help but feel oddly relieved.
From the first moment he’d seen her picture in the file they’d been given, he’d been curious about this woman. The disheartening thing, of course, was the blonde he’d seen in the picture was nothing like the one in front of him right now. Yes, she essentially looked the same, apart from the dirty face and hair, but he could tell just by looking into her eyes that she was no longer the carefree woman she’d once been.
Whatever had happened up here in Timor-Leste had changed her.
“Piper Johnson?” he confirmed.
Her brows shot up and she nodded vigorously. “You know who I am?” she asked.
“Yeah. Is Kalee down there with you?” Ace asked.
He hated the look of anguish that crossed her face, telling them what her answer was going to be before she said a word.
“No. You haven’t found her?”
“Not yet,” Rocco said. “Is anyone else down there with you?”
“The last time I saw Kalee, she told me to hide while she went and got some of the kids. There were gunshots and everyone was screaming. I hid and waited and waited, but she never returned.” Piper’s voice broke.
Ace didn’t miss that she hadn’t answered Rocco’s question. He figured the others hadn’t either, but he didn’t call her on it, just made a mental note to be very careful. At the moment, they could still see both her hands, and she looked way too relieved to see them to be faking it. But that didn’t mean someone else wasn’t down in the hole, forcing her to put them at ease enough to lower their weapons, so they could be ambushed.
“We’re still looking for her,” Bubba said.
“Good,” Piper breathed, voice shaky. “I’m sure she’s fine. She’s really smart and knows this place like the back of her hand. She’s probably got all the kids somewhere safe and is just lying low like I was.”
Ace didn’t take his eyes from her as he nodded. He didn’t think that was the case. Not with the amount of blood they’d seen, not to mention the bodies of the women in the next room. But he recognized a person at the end of their rope when he saw one. He had a feeling that, deep down, Piper knew her friend’s fate, and was merely saying what she hoped was true.
Her brow furrowed as she asked, “You guys are American, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bubba said. “Navy SEALs.”
“Wow,” Piper whispered. “What in the world are you doing here? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful, but I’m confused. Wait, you are here to rescue us, right? You’re not here just doing exercises or training, are you?”
“How well do you know Kalee?” Rocco asked.
“She’s been my best friend since we were in junior high,” Piper said.
Ace shifted on his feet. He was feeling antsy. He felt like a sitting duck in the dilapidated building, and he definitely didn’t like the idea of just standing around shooting the shit. But one of the things they’d learned in training was when dealing with someone who was being rescued, the most important thing to do was establish trust. Once that was there, extraction would be five hundred percent smoother.
“Then you know that Kalee’s father has some pretty influential connections,” Rocco told Piper.
She nodded. “Yeah. I think he flies to Washington, DC, like once a month or something to have meetings with some politicians.”
Ace wanted to snort. “Some politicians” was a bit of an understatement. Paul Solberg was a multimillionaire who was on a first-name basis with the President of the United States and regularly had lunch with the vice president and half dozen other influential congressmen and senators.
“Right,” Rocco said with a nod. “The Peace Corps had already sounded the alarm when they hadn’t been able to get about a dozen of their volunteers back to Dili safely when the rebels began their attacks, but Kalee’s dad pulled out all the stops to get us here, and to get his daughter evacuated.”
Piper didn’t say anything for a moment, then she nodded slowly. “That makes sense. Even after all the years that I’ve known Kalee, her dad still intimidates me. I can totally see him pulling strings to do what he can to get her out of here. Kalee means everything to him. After her mom died, when she was a freshman in high school, he got even more protective than he already was. She’s everything to him. He’d do anything to keep her safe. Spend any amount of money. She’s extremely lucky.”
Ace didn’t like the wistful tone he heard in Piper’s voice, but he didn’t have time to figure it out. If she was jealous of her friend’s relationship with her father, that was her issue. His concern at the moment was getting her the hell off the mountain in one piece and on a plane back to the States.
“Who’s down there with you?” he asked point-blank.
To her credit, Piper didn’t try to lie to him or evade his question again. She met his gaze straight on. He could tell she was terrified, but she didn’t flinch from his hard tone. “Since you guys didn’t come here for me…are you going to help me get down the mountain to the capital?”
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