Wait, wasn’t that the Navy SEAL?
Yes, the man who was frantically waving his arms at the side of the road, trying to flag down one of the swiftly passing cars in the rapidly deepening twilight, was—absolutely—Shayla’s new neighbor.
She recognized him immediately, even here, several miles from their semi-suburban neighborhood, mostly from his impossibly fit physique.
Oh, really . . . ?
Yeah, okay, all right, in truth she recognized the SEAL specifically by his amazing ass. And sue her for being human, but when a man had a pair of shoulders that wide and a butt that was almost ridiculously proportionately not-that-wide . . . one’s eyes tended to be drawn instinctively down toward that seemingly miraculous not-wideness.
Truly though, it was the combo of what was covering that noteworthy derrière—a pair of very nicely fitting cammo cargo shorts plus his trademark flip-flops with a snug olive drab T-shirt—that had brought about her initial surge of recognition. She confirmed it—yup, that was definitely her local Navy SEAL—when he turned a head that was covered with regulation-defyingly shaggy, sun-streaked golden-brown hair to reveal his too-handsome face.
Those eyes had to be blue.
Even though he’d moved into Shayla’s neighborhood nearly two months ago, she still hadn’t gotten close enough to the man to be absolutely certain, but really, she knew. Neon blue. Had to be. And they probably twinkled and sparkled, too.
Still, even from a sparkle-obscuring distance, the man was hard to miss. And Shay’s curiosity had pinged when he’d pulled a U-Haul in front of the sweet little bungalow-for-rent across the street and her elderly and possibly omnipotent neighbor Mrs. Quinn had muttered, “Just what we need, as if it weren’t already too noisy here,” before darkly IDing him as a Navy SEAL.
Navy SEAL, hmm? So yes, Shayla had looked at him and his perfect butt a tad more thoroughly than she otherwise might’ve.
Tonight however, the man was hard to miss for another reason. He’d practically leaped full out into the middle of the oncoming traffic—and there was a lot more of it than usual for a Wednesday evening near the high school.
Shayla hit her brakes and leaned forward slightly to peer at him through her windshield, wondering if he’d been attempting to stop that one specific car in front of her, or if any old car and driver would do.
Bow chicka bow bow! Harry Parker’s irreverent voice-in-her-head now sang a riff that was supposed to imitate the porn-worthy wah-wah of an electric guitar.
Shut it, she told him silently since he was a fictional character and therefore invisible, and she wasn’t quite crazy enough to start talking to herself out loud. At least not yet.
And apparently, the SEAL wasn’t picky, because he didn’t wait for her to stop completely before he tried to open her passenger side door.
“I’m sorry, can you help me, I’m not dangerous, I promise,” he called to her through the closed window, but she was already hitting the button that popped the lock.
It was pretty clear he didn’t recognize her—probably because she’d never gotten around to bringing over a pie to welcome him, his sullen teenaged daughter, and their obvious lack of a Mrs. Navy SEAL to the neighborhood.
That was what Harry, in his infinite-yet-fictional wisdom, had recommended Shayla do. Wear a top with a neckline that plunged and bring her hot new Navy SEAL neighbor a homemade pie. It was a brilliant plan, except nearly all of her tops were crew-necked Ts. And then there was that tiny, pesky fact that she’d never baked a pie before in her life.
“I’m a SEAL, an officer.” It was the first thing the man said as he opened her car door and climbed in. He obviously understood the clout of that, particularly here in US-NavyLand, or as civilians called it, San Diego. “Lieutenant Peter Greene. Thank you for stopping.”
“You’re welcome,” Shayla said, oddly tongue-tied at their sudden proximity. Her small car seemed smaller than usual because those shoulders were broad. And his movie-star handsomeness stood up to this closer view. In fact, his evenly featured face could’ve gone into the dictionary next to perfectly symmetrical. Or maybe just plain perfect. Also, he smelled good. Like sunblock and fresh air and a scent she assumed was pure Navy SEAL hotness.
Even Harry was uncharacteristically silent.
And alas, even though she’d spent her career writing books where this kind of impromptu meet-cute would end with them having screaming animal-sex before the clock struck midnight, Shayla wasn’t as bold as her romance novel heroines. She didn’t look all that much like them, either. In fact, she was lucky that she’d showered and put on real pants before she’d crawled away from her computer in order to drive-and-drop Frankie at his high school debate club practice. Most of the time she just climbed into her car from the safety of the shuttlebay—aka their closed garage—wearing her plaid PJs beneath her jacket.
She cleared her throat and managed, “What’s, um, going on? Are you okay?”
But he was already talking. Explaining. “My daughter is missing, and I think I just saw her getting into a car heading north.” He gestured to the busy road in front of them.
With two kids of her own, that was a word to chill her to the very depths of her soul. Shayla could still work herself into a cold sweat by remembering that horrible day Tevin had gone on a class day-trip into Boston, but hadn’t been on the bus when it returned to the middle school parking lot. That was when they were still living back in Massachusetts, and it turned out that he’d run into his father near the State House. Tevin had stayed in the city to have dinner—and both he and Carter, now her ex, had wrongly assumed the other would call to tell her. Neither had.
Before Shayla had located the teacher who knew what was going on, it had been a very frightening few minutes—the likes of which she hoped she’d never again experience.
Now she immediately jammed her car into gear and surged back into the traffic amidst the blaring horns of the drivers she’d cut off.
“Whoa,” the SEAL said, quickly fastening his seatbelt. “Wow. Thank you.”
“This is what you wanted, right? Follow that car?” she asked as she jockeyed her way into the faster-moving left lane. Funny how that horrible word, missing, had magically turned him from too-hot-to-talk-to Navy SEAL to far more accessible worried dad. Hot worried dad, sure, but he needed both her help and immediate action, and accordingly her brain had unlocked. “Don’t worry, I’m a good driver.”
She really is. Great. Harry, too, had gotten his voice back.
Of course, the SEAL couldn’t hear him, thank God. “Glad to hear it,” he said as he grabbed for the oh-shit bar, which, yes, made his muscular arm do some very interesting and attractive things to his barbed wire tattoo. Maybe it would help if she imagined those strong arms holding a baby, except . . .
Noooo, that doesn’t help at all, Harry said.
Harry was married. Very married, to the man of his dreams, she thought at him pointedly.
He laughed. True, but I’m also very not dead, so . . .
Shayla hip-checked him out of her head and focused on the task at hand. “Which car are we following?” she asked the SEAL crisply, eyes on the road ahead of her. “Make, model, color…?”
“Maroon sedan. Buick, maybe?” said the real, non-fictional man sitting beside her. His voice had the vowel-sounds and musical phrasing of a California surfer. In fact, he sounded a little bit like Luke or Owen Wilson, as if maybe they’d all attended the same SoCal high school. “Older model. Extra large. POS with a peeling soft-top. Don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop!”
As she watched, the very stale yellow traffic light in front of her turned red, but she jammed down the gas pedal and blasted through it. Missing. If they got pulled over, hopefully the cop would be the parent of a teenager, too.
“How long has your daughter been, you know?” She couldn’t say that awful word, as if it were a snake that might bite her if she acknowledged it.
“Missing?” The SEAL said it in unison with Harry.
“Last time I saw Maddie was yesterday morning,” the SEAL added, “when I dropped her at school. She didn’t come home last night, and when I called the school to check today, apparently she didn’t make it to homeroom yesterday either, so…Yeah. It’s been about thirty-six hours. Jesus.”
“They didn’t call you yesterday when she didn’t show?” Shayla was surprised. She glanced over to find him looking back at her just as the headlights from a passing car lit his face. Eyes, neon blue. Check. But not so much with the twinkle, considering his current case of teenage-daughter-induced grim.
“They said they did, but no,” the SEAL reported as they both continued to search the traffic for the car in question. “There wasn’t a message on the home line or my cell.”
Yikes. That was pretty extreme incompetence for the high school administration—a dedicated team that Shayla knew and trusted.
Or, Harry said, Maddie hacked the system and changed her parental contact number.
“She good with computers?” Shayla asked the SEAL.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
If she had hacking skills, he’d definitely know, Harry stated. But really all she’d need is a hacker for a friend. Or boyfriend.
“How old is she?” Shayla asked. The petite, ghostlike, dark-haired, baggy-clothes-wearing girl she’d seen drifting mournfully from the house to her father’s truck early each school day could’ve been anywhere from twelve to eighteen.
“Fifteen,” he reported.
“Mine are seventeen and fourteen,” she told him. “Both boys.”
“Boys,” the SEAL said almost wistfully. “I could probably handle a boy. I understand boys.”
“Girls really aren’t that much different,” Shayla pointed out as Harry said, Nope, nope, nope, too early in this relationship for a feminist diatribe!
What relationship? She was helping out a neighbor. And how was that a diatribe? Still, all Shayla wanted was to help this man find his missing child, so as she continued to push ahead in the still-thick traffic, she asked the SEAL, “Have you tried tracking her phone? Does she have a smart phone?”
“Yes to both but she turned off her GPS.”
“Or her battery’s run out,” she suggested.
“Nah, she took her charger.” The SEAL seemed certain of that. But then he acquiesced. “At least it wasn’t where she normally keeps it in her room. As far as her phone goes, I texted and called her nonstop last night when she didn’t come home—right up until she blocked me. I thought about shutting her down, you know, canceling her number, killing her service completely, but . . . I’m afraid without her phone she’ll be even less safe, so . . .”
Ooh, he’s a deep thinker. No angry knee-jerking. I like that in a man who can probably kill you with just his pinkie finger, Harry said.
“Also,” the SEAL continued as he glanced at Shayla again with those ocean-colored eyes, “this way I can still use someone else’s phone to text her. Although she’s already blocked Zanella—a teammate of mine, and Eden, his wife. But I figure Maddie can’t block everyone I know, right? There!”
He’d spotted the maroon car. “Where?” Shayla searched the traffic but she couldn’t see it.
“Five cars ahead, right lane,” the SEAL told her. “Damn it, they’re turning!”
And she was still in the left lane. “Hold on!” Luckily there was no one directly behind her so she hit the brakes hard and waited for the line of traffic in the right lane to open up before stomping on the gas and taking that same right turn with squealing tires.
“Nice,” he said. “Thanks. You are good.”
“If your daughter’s in that car, then we are going to find her.” It was the kind of dramatic but heartfelt line that Shayla usually let Harry say in one of her books. It felt a little weird coming out of her mouth since, unlike Harry, she was neither courageous nor daring nor a highly skilled FBI agent. But she meant it. Sincerely.
She could now see the car in question. It was a piece-of-shit, indeed—a barge-like relic from the 1970s. There were two cars and a van between them, but this was a smaller road now, with a single lane in each direction. And there was a lot of oncoming traffic. Although maybe if she timed it right . . .
“Don’t even think about it,” the SEAL murmured. “No one’s that good of a driver. Also, I don’t want to get too close in case she sees me and tries to bolt. All I need is some inexperienced kid wrapping that car—and Maddie—around a tree.”
Smart, Harry murmured as Shay nodded. Have I mentioned I like him?
“Have you tried calling the parents of her friends?” she asked as they continued their now under-the-speed-limit car chase through this rather charming little neighborhood of tiny homes that had been converted into doctors’ and dentists’ offices, nearly all dark and shuttered at this evening hour. They were relatively close to the hospital and . . . the mall? She touched the screen of her GPS to see that . . . Yes, there was a mall not far from here—open until nine at this time of year. If she were a fifteen-year-old rebel, mad at the world, where would she go at 7:10 on a Wednesday night . . . ?
She glanced up at the SEAL, because he hadn’t answered and her question hadn’t been a hard one.
He was looking at her again with those blue, blue eyes, and he finally shook his head. “I’m embarrassed because . . . Well, I don’t even know the first names of any of her friends, let alone their last names.”
Shayla couldn’t keep her massively heavy judgment out of the disbelieving look she shot him.
“I know, right?” he said with a heavy sigh. “It’s shameful. But, she just moved in with me so she’s the new kid at school, and she’s in classes with kids way younger than she is because her mom half-home-schooled her—Maddie’s words. I think that means her mother let her cut as the mood struck. Anyway, whenever I push, all Maddie tells me is Everyone hates me, I’ll be in my room. And every time I picked her up at school, she was alone, so . . . When she said she didn’t have any friends yet, I believed her.”
“Except, if she’s really in that car up there, she knows someone,” Shay stated the obvious.
“Yeah, that’s currently pretty damn clear. Jesus, I’m overmatched.” And now his pretty eyes were twinkly, but with bemused disgust and disbelief as he glanced at Shay before turning his attention back to the maroon POS, and a yellow traffic light that was glowing in the distance.
Congestion at that upcoming intersection was what was keeping their current speed down.
The yellow turned to red and Shay braked to a stop behind the long line of cars as she again checked her GPS. There was a gas station on the closest corner of the intersection and some kind of fast food place across the street. That could be the car’s destination. Although, if they were going to the mall instead, they would have to take a right at the light. But they were still well back from it.
The SEAL, meanwhile, was eyeing their distance to the maroon sedan, and she knew he was calculating the time it would take for him to approach it on foot, and deciding whether he could get there before traffic started moving again.
“Have you checked her social media?” Shay asked as up ahead the light turned green. But seconds ticked by and the traffic still didn’t move and the SEAL swore softly, no doubt thinking he could’ve reached the other car by now. “As a potential source of her friends’ names? Maybe Facebook . . . ?”
He shook his head. “Maddie hates Facebook. She says she doesn’t even have a page . . .” He laughed his disgust. “And yeah, that was probably an intentional misdirect so that I wouldn’t keep tabs on her,” he realized. “Wow, I’m really going for Father of the Year here, aren’t I?”
Shayla glanced at him again as they finally rolled forward, but slowly since the light ahead was already red again. She chose her words carefully. “I’m guessing your stints of solo custody are still new, Lieutenant.” Subtext: the divorce was recent.
He laughed again at that and said, “Oh, yeah.” And now the maroon sedan was in range of a side street to the left that it could use to escape, so again he stayed in the car. But his frustration was palpable. “Very new. And it’s Peter.”
She realized she hadn’t introduced herself yet. “I’m Shayla Whitman. We’re neighbors.” She kept both hands tightly on the steering wheel because a handshake at this point would’ve been awkward and weird. “My boys and I live right across the street from you and Maddie.”
The SEAL was embarrassed again. “You do? Ah, Jesus, I’m so sorry—”
“Please, it’s more than okay. You’ve obviously been a little preoccupied since you’ve moved in.” She cleared her throat. “At the risk of overstepping my neighborly role, have you…called her mother yet?”
Just like that, he shut down, hard and fast. “No.”
Oh, dear. “If it were me,” Shayla said carefully. “I’d want to know. I’d want to help, I’d want to—”
“Maddie’s mother can’t help,” he said tersely.
“I know it might feel that way,” Shayla started as the cars up ahead began moving again. But again the light cycled back to red while the maroon sedan was still on their side of the intersection. It was now signaling to make a right—towards the mall, for the win! But it was blocked from doing so by one car in front of it.
The SEAL—Peter—was sitting forward slightly, watching.
“We’re okay,” Shayla told him.
“No, we’re not,” he said as that first car in line started signaling and then made a right on red. “God damn it.”
And just like that, the maroon sedan turned, too.
The two cars and the van directly in front of Shay’s car pulled forward but then sat there, essentially locking them in place just a few short yards from the driveway to that corner gas station.
“Shit!” She hit her horn, but of course no one moved.
Do it. Harry’s voice was back in her head, absolute in his conviction. Come on, Shay. Go! Trust me, you don’t want to have to watch while a Navy SEAL weeps. They’re known both for acting rashly and for crying like babies, you know, at the least little thing—
“Don’t be an idiot.” Oops, she’d said that aloud, and now said Navy SEAL was looking at her questioningly. “Don’t,” she repeated, saving her crazy, talking-to-invisible-friends ass by returning to their previous conversation. “You really need to let Maddie’s mother know what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, Harry was talking over her. Do it, he said again. There’re no pedestrians. Do it, Shay, or you’ll lose them!
“All right, all right, I’m doing this!” There were no pedestrians in sight, so Shay wrenched her steering wheel toward the sidewalk and hit the gas. Her little car was unhappy about the curb but it was rounded and worn so she finally humped up it and then carefully squeezed between a telephone pole and a row of hedges as the SEAL exhaled his appreciation and surprise.
But how well would it go, she wondered, when she informed the police officer who pulled her over that she only drove on the sidewalk because a fictional FBI agent had insisted that she should?
Not well, Harry agreed, even as the SEAL said, “You’ve got it! Go! Go!”
Her unorthodox move had brought them to the gas station’s entrance, and she now quickly zipped past the pumps to cut the corner and make the right turn to once again Follow that car.