Marine’s Mission by Rebecca Deel

 

CHAPTER ONE

Virginia Warren glanced at her watch, wondering what delayed her friend this time. Although notorious for being late to every appointment, Toni Webster had asked Gigi to meet her at a restaurant outside their hometown of Archer, Tennessee. Her stomach knotted. Something was wrong, but what could it be?

A gust of rain-scented wind blew in when the door opened to Hawthorne’s, a family restaurant in downtown Cherry Hill. Toni dashed into the establishment and hurried to Gigi’s table. “Sorry I’m late,” Toni said as she dropped into the chair across the table. “Lots of accidents because of the lousy weather.”

“We could have chosen a restaurant in Archer. Now, we’ll both have to drive home in the rain.”

“This is safer.”

Safer? Gigi frowned. What did that mean? “What’s going on, Toni?”

The waitress walked up with her pen and pad. Toni scanned the menu quickly and placed her order. Gigi ordered her favorite meal at Hawthorne’s, then handed the waitress the menus.

When the woman left to turn in their orders, Gigi folded her arms. “Talk to me, Toni. What’s going on?”

Her friend glanced around, then leaned closer and whispered, “I’m in trouble, Gigi.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The bad kind.”

“There are degrees of bad. Be more specific.”

“I’ve been seeing a man for the past two months.”

Gigi stared. “You didn’t tell me. Who is he?”

“Someone I met in Las Vegas while I was on vacation.” Her cheeks flushed.

Oh, boy. “What’s his name?”

“Ellis Mathews. He’s amazing, Gigi, the kind of man you always encouraged me to date instead of the string of losers I’ve been involved with the past few years.”

Her lips curved. “A man with a job?”

Toni gave a watery laugh. “Ellis works for a defense contractor in Knoxville. He writes computer codes and programs.”

“Sounds great. So, what’s the problem?”

Tears filled Toni’s eyes. “Ellis promised to stay with me over the weekend. He never arrived. I thought he’d been in an accident. I called his cell phone over and over all weekend, and checked with the hospitals. I didn’t have any luck. This afternoon, I drove to his apartment.”

“Was he home?”

Toni shook her head. “His place had been ransacked.”

She sucked in a breath. “You’re sure?”

“Ellis is meticulous about his belongings. Everything has a place. When I walked into the apartment today, everything had been tossed. They even slashed the sofa cushions and ripped apart his bed. I’m afraid something terrible has happened to Ellis.”

“Did you see signs that Ellis was home when his place was broken into?” Although she hated to broach the possibility, Ellis might have been injured fighting off his attackers. Maybe he was in a hospital.

Color drained from Toni’s face at Gigi’s question. “No blood anywhere. Other than that, I don’t know what to look for to indicate there was a fight.”

“Maybe he’s on vacation, and someone broke in after he left.”

“We’re going on a cruise together next week.” Toni dabbed her damp cheeks with a napkin. She gave a pain-filled laugh. “Actually, I booked the cruise. Ellis promised to pay for his half this weekend.”

Gigi winced. “I’m sorry, Toni. Did you call him at work?”

“He didn’t answer his phone. Since I was in Knoxville, I drove to Huntington Technologies to see him.”

She frowned. “They’re a defense contractor. I’m surprised they let you in the door.”

“I didn’t get past the lobby.”

“Was Ellis at work?”

“They refused to tell me anything. Luckily, one of Ellis’s co-workers was leaving the building for a late lunch and recognized me from my picture on Ellis’s desk. Chaz said Ellis didn’t come to work or answer their calls.”

That didn’t sound good. “Want me to ask Owen to look for him?” Owen Montgomery was a deputy sheriff in Morgan County and a good friend. “Or would you prefer to forget Ellis ever existed and move on with your life?”

“Forgetting him will be impossible.”

“Why?”

“I’m in love with him, and I’m pregnant. He’s the father of my baby.”

Stunned, Gigi sat back in her chair. “Does he know you’re pregnant?”

“I planned to tell him this weekend.” More tears slipped down Toni’s cheeks. “I think someone has been following me today. I’m afraid for Ellis and my baby, Gigi.”

Gigi squeezed her friend’s hand. “Toni, we need to talk to Owen. He’ll look into Ellis’s disappearance.”

“There’s nothing to go on. I’ve looked everywhere I can think of and contacted Ellis’s friends and family. No one knows anything.”

“Owen has resources we don’t. If anyone can find Ellis, it’s Owen.” He’d also protect Toni and her baby. The handsome Marine had protection programmed into his DNA.

A slight smile curved her friend’s mouth. “You’re a little biased.”

Gigi’s face flamed. “Maybe.”

That brought a genuine laugh from Toni. “Definitely. Has he asked you out yet?”

“He’s been tied up with work.” Both of his jobs, one as a deputy sheriff and one as a new operative for Fortress Security. He was due to return to Maple Valley tonight following eight weeks of training with his brothers at Personal Security International in Otter Creek. Gigi had missed him so much.

“You’re crazy about that Marine.”

Gigi had been half in love with him since she met him after a high school football game. But Owen had already signed up to join the Marines and refused to start a new relationship when he’d leave for boot camp after graduation. Since he’d separated from the military and joined the Sheriff’s Department, though, Owen stopped by the B & B for coffee and conversation during his shift, sometimes twice if the shift was slow.

Owen passed plenty of other places open for coffee during his shifts, but he consistently came to the B & B. Gigi prayed that was a sign of his renewed interest in her. She looked forward to each visit and longed for the day when he broke down the barrier keeping him from asking her out.

The waitress returned with their drinks and meals, then hurried off again.

“Stop waiting for Owen Montgomery, and say yes to one of the men who has been asking you out.”

No way. “Don’t turn this around on me. This is about you and Ellis. If you’re right about his disappearance and being followed, you’re not safe. Will you talk to Owen?”

She nodded. “I have to protect my baby.”

Relief swept through Gigi. She didn’t want to add to her friend’s worry when she was stressed and, holy smokes, pregnant, but Gigi was concerned. The sooner Toni talked to Owen, the better. “Let’s eat and leave. We’ll call Owen from the B & B.” After they were locked inside. “I bought a new box of your favorite herbal tea today at the grocery store. Would you like a mug of hot tea?”

“That sounds wonderful. Please tell me you have blueberry or chocolate chip muffins to go with the tea.”

“You’re in luck. I made both kinds this afternoon. I have a room open tonight if you want to stay with me.” Gigi really didn’t want Toni to stay alone. What if the person who trashed Ellis’s apartment came to Toni’s place while she was sleeping?

“I’d like that. You’re a good friend, Gigi.”

“I’m also an honorary aunt. I plan to spoil my niece or nephew and claim the title of favorite aunt.”

Toni smiled. “I can’t wait to return the favor when you have children of your own.”

The way things stood, Toni might be waiting a long time. Gigi encouraged her friend to eat and kept the conversation light by talking about her guests and her parents’ adventures in Florida. Time enough for more serious discussions when they talked to Owen.

As soon as she and Toni finished their meals and paid the bill, they left the restaurant. “Where are you parked?” Gigi asked as they walked in the rain toward the parking lot.

“Beside you.”

When they neared their vehicles, Gigi frowned. Toni’s car was leaning, but the parking lot was level. A flash of lightning lit the night long enough for Gigi to get a good look at Toni’s car. Both driver’s side tires were flat. Goosebumps surged up her spine. She had to get Toni out of here.

“Oh, no,” Toni moaned. “I must have screws or nails in my tires. Getting someone out here to fix them at this time of night will take hours.”

Based on what she’d seen, those tires would need more than a patch job. Someone had slashed them.

Gigi unlocked her SUV, and glanced around the parking lot. A wasted effort since the rain was falling so hard she couldn’t see anything. “Come on. We need that hot tea.” And Owen Montgomery.

After she opened the passenger door for Toni and nudged her inside, Gigi climbed behind the steering wheel, cranked the engine, and drove toward Archer. The sooner they were behind locked doors at the B & B, the better.

Toni sighed. “I didn’t think this day could get any worse. Turns out I was dead wrong.”

Gigi flinched at Toni’s word choice. “Everything will be fine. We’ll worry about the tires tomorrow and turn Owen loose on tracking down Ellis.”

When her friend remained silent, Gigi didn’t press her to talk. If Owen had returned, Toni would spend a long time answering his questions. If not, Gigi would call Blair Hoffman, Archer’s chief of police. Although she trusted Blair, Gigi trusted Owen more.

Twenty miles from home, Gigi noticed the headlights of a vehicle racing toward them. The other driver was crazy to speed on rain-slick asphalt on a winding mountain road. Gigi changed lanes.

Instead of skirting around her as she’d hoped, the driver dove in behind her and kept coming. Was the aggressive driver responsible for Toni’s slashed tires and Ellis’s disappearance? “Is your seatbelt fastened, Toni?”

“Of course. Why?”

“We have an aggressive driver behind us.”

Toni twisted in her seat to look through the back window. “What are we going to do?”

“Call Owen and pray he’s close.”

Before she could use her hands-free device to call him, the dark-colored truck behind Gigi put on a burst of speed and slammed into the back of her SUV.

Toni screamed as Gigi sped up to create space between the vehicles, but she feared she couldn’t outrun this driver. He seemed determined to force them off the road.

Seconds later, the truck bore down on them again, the jolt harder. Gigi’s SUV fishtailed. She wrestled with the wheel and brought the vehicle under control only to have the truck whip out from behind her and speed up.

Gigi braked, hoping the driver would pass her and keep going. Instead, the other driver wrenched the steering wheel to the right, slammed into the driver’s side of the SUV, and shoved her vehicle off the side of the road.

With the heavy rain turning the dirt-packed edge of the road into a slick ribbon of mud, the SUV lost traction, slid over a steep embankment, and rolled over and over down the hillside.

Toni screamed.

Gigi’s head hit the driver’s door. The world went dark.