“What’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a dive like this?” Stone slurred his words and leaned his arm on the bar beside the blonde with the crystal blue eyes.
The look she gave Monroe clearly shouted ‘help!’ and that was Monroe’s cue to jump into action. He slid off his barstool and strode confidently over to her. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders protectively and nodded to the bartender then focused his attention on his teammate. “Hey, Stone, I see you’ve met my date.”
“Yer date?” Stone took a step back. “I ain’t seen you with her.”
“We just met a few minutes ago,” Monroe told his buddy. In reality, he and the woman had been flirting across the bar for about twenty minutes and he was trying to work up the nerve to come introduce himself.
Just then the bartender presented a beer for Monroe and whatever drink the blonde had been nursing. “Here you are, Monroe. And another for the lady.”
“Thank you,” the blonde said to Monroe, then asked, “Is Stone a friend of yours, Monroe?”
“Yes, would you like to introduce yourself to him?” Monroe tried to communicate with his eyes that he couldn’t exactly do that for her since he didn’t know her name.
“I’m Bree.” She held out her hand to Stone. “Any friend of Monroe’s is a friend of mine.”
Stone pulled Bree’s hand to his lips for a kiss. “When y’er ready to ditch lover-boy here, I can show you how good a friend I kin be.”
Bree quickly pulled her hand away from Stone, wiped it on her jeans and leaned closer to Monroe. “That would be rude to my date. But thank you for the offer.”
“Hey, Stone—” Their teammate, Blake, came up behind Stone and pulled him gently away from Bree and Monroe. “Why don’t you challenge me to a game of pool. Raymond just isn’t enough competition for me.” Blake winked at Bree, rolled his eyes at Monroe, and led Stone over to the billiards table.
“Thank you,” Bree mouthed at Blake then turned to Monroe. “And thank you. Ugh, what is it with drunk guys hitting on ladies who just want to sit down with a drink at the end of a long day?”
“I don’t know.” Monroe unwrapped himself from Bree lest she think he was one of those drunk guys who hit on ladies. “I’ve never been drunk before.” Monroe took another pull from his bottle of beer and grinned at her.
“Yeah, right.” Bree’s playful eyes told Monroe she wouldn’t mind if he hit on her, but he was determined to be a gentleman. There was a clicking and thumping as the balls on the billiard table dispersed in a clean break that probably put Blake at advantage over Stone.
“Back to Stone’s original question,” Monroe said. “What are you doing in a dive like this?”
“I love Mexican food, and this looked like just the place to order some.” The joint was a Mexican restaurant in food only. Country music flowed from the speakers rather than Mariachi music, glasses clinked behind the bar, guys cheered each other on while throwing darts, and ladies showed up with one thing on their minds; meeting an officer from Elgin Air Force Base.
“Have you ordered already?” Monroe asked, hoping to escort her to one of the booths and sit down to buy her dinner.
As if on cue, the bartender set a Styrofoam box in front of her and she slipped him a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
“Taking your meal to go, huh?” Monroe tried to hide his disappointment. He grabbed a pen from the mug on the bar and reached over and wrote his cell phone number on the top of her Styrofoam box. “In case you need someone to talk to later while you’re enjoying your meal.”
Like a summons from Hades, Monroe felt the phone in his pocket vibrate and knew the text wasn’t from Bree. In his peripheral vision he watched as everyone on his team pulled out their cell phones with an identical text.
Monroe swore under his breath then looked up at Bree. “Duty calls.”
“Looks that way.” She smiled at him with feigned wistfulness.
“Sorry I won’t be able to talk on the phone tonight, but maybe you could send me a text and we could hang out when I get home from wherever it is the Army is sending me.” Monroe tapped the number he’d written on her to-go box.
“Stay safe, Monroe.” She pulled her cell phone from her purse. Good, maybe she would send him a text.
“I always do.” Monroe leaned down and kissed her cheek then lifted his focus and called out to his team. “Let’s go, guys, wheel’s up in an hour.”
“Comin’ Cap’in,” Stone slurred.
Blake called out to the bartender, “Can I get some coffee to go?” Blake pointed to Stone.
“Nice meeting you, Bree.” Monroe patted her on the shoulder as he headed over to help Blake drag Stone from the bar. “See you soon.”
“Maybe sooner than you think,” she said.
Monroe wasn’t sure what she meant by that but shook off her comment and balanced Stone between himself and Blake. The bartender handed Blake a Styrofoam cup of coffee, Davis fell in behind them, and Raymond held open the door. Time to get sobered up and hope wherever they were going was far enough away for Stone to get some sleep on the plane.
“Gonna be a long night,” Monroe grumbled. “Time to catch some bad guys.”
Whitney and the other aid worker walked in his direction and Henry’s stomach fluttered. The man’s eyes were friendly and scanned back and forth between Aaron and Henry. He smiled at Felicia then extended his hand to Henry first.
Henry reassessed the man with his confident, firm handshake and realized almost immediately that he was not one of the aid workers; he was the man in charge of the whole operation.
“Greetings, gentlemen”—the man nodded regally to Felicia, and continued the conversation in Spanish— “And senora. Welcome to Operation Freedom Warriors. Thank you for your willingness to be of service. My name is Xavier Fulton. I’m the director of operations here.”
“And founder of the non-profit if I remember correctly,” Henry said. “I’ve seen you on television.”
“I do show my face on television occasionally.” Xavier’s eyes flickered over to Aaron and he pursed his lips as if suppressing a smirk. “That’s one of the reasons I’m the director rather than one of the undercover operatives. Some of us are too well-known to blend in with society. Wouldn’t you agree?” Xavier patted Aaron on the shoulder, and the young prince with the playboy reputation cleared his throat and lowered his eyes.
“I would agree,” Aaron mumbled with humility. Henry found it hard to feel sorry for the kid since he was only compelled to be humble after a tragic accident that nearly took the life of his younger brother’s best friend, Henry’s cousin, Alex. Still, Aaron seemed to have changed his ways and Henry needed to be more forgiving.
Henry also reminded himself that moments ago Aaron had pledged a small fortune to help the cause, as well as encouraged his young bride to devote her time exclusively to helping find the missing girls.
“Have you ever participated in donating large sums of money to any philanthropic ventures?” Xavier asked Aaron.
“No, sir.” Aaron shook his head just slightly. “I’m sure our attorney can help us get some funds transferred to your organization. How much do you need right away? A couple million? I can get more. Heck, my wife’s wedding ring’s worth more than that.” Aaron chuckled nervously.
“W-what?” All eyes were drawn to Felicia’s left hand, which she held in front of her in shock. “I thought this was your grandmother’s ring.”
“Uh, well, my great-grandmother, actually. Princess Lyla Sayid. She found the ring at a jewelry bazaar in Dubai and tried to have it appraised in New York City.” Aaron paused and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Tried?” Henry asked, waiting for Aaron to explain.
“Apparently it’s one of only a few surviving Le Vian diamond rings crafted in Persia in the late seventeen hundreds.” Aaron spoke quickly as if not wanting to admit the truth.
“And…” Henry prompted. All of their eyes darted back and forth between the ring and Aaron’s nervous fidgeting.
“And… the jeweler said the value is inestimable.” Again, Aaron spoke very fast, then pulled his bottom lip between his teeth and glanced sheepishly at his wife. “Might not want to lose that.”
“I can’t wear this, Aaron!” Felicia slipped the ring from her hand and tried to give it back to her husband. “Donate the money to the organization.”
“No, no, darling, you keep the ring. I’ll get cash for the organization. Lots of it. Way more than the ring is worth. I promise.” Aaron took the ring from her and tried to hold her hand to slip the priceless antique adornment back on her finger.
Felicia tucked her hands behind her back and shook her head like a child refusing to eat her broccoli.
“Darn it. I never should have told you,” Aaron grumbled, then pleaded with his bride. “My mother wanted you to have this. The Princess Lyla would have wanted you to have this. Do you want the ring to sit in a safe or a museum? Xavier, tell her you don’t want the ring. I’ll transfer millions of dollars to your organization. Just tell Felicia you don’t want the ring.”
“Felicia, honey, I don’t want the ring,” Xavier said. “What would I do with a ring? I need money. Your husband’s going to give me money. The ring belongs on your finger.”
“We—we could s-sell the ring and do good things with the money.” Tears ran down her face.
“My love, we are doing good things with my money. I will give away every penny of my money if you want me to. But please don’t ask me to give away, or sell, this ring.” Aaron held up the simplistic little diamond. “This has been passed down in my family for generations. I want us to pass it down to our children. And our children’s children. Please? Will you please wear my great-grandmother’s ring?”
“You promise you’ll do good things with the rest of your money?” Felicia asked in a squeaky little-girl voice.
“I promise.” Aaron turned to Xavier. “You’ll help me do good things with my money, right?” Aaron nodded his head up and down as if the imply Xavier better answer in the affirmative.
“Of course.” Xavier nodded back with enthusiasm. “We will be able to rescue many, many girls with your husband’s money.”
“Like these Mayan girls we’re trying to find,” Aaron pointed out. “They’re waiting for us to rescue them right now and the longer we stand here talking about this ring, the longer they have to wait. Now, please, let me put the ring back on your finger, and let’s go rescue those girls.” Aaron held up the ring again.
“Okay,” Felicia whispered. She held out her hand and Aaron visibly relaxed as he slipped the ring back on his wife’s hand then pulled her into a hug.
While they were hugging, Felicia’s phone rang with a video chat call. She pulled back and glanced down at the screen. “It’s my aunt Kisa.” Felicia swiped her phone to turn on the chat window.
Before any of them had a chance to say hello, Kisa cried into the phone. “Two of the girls escaped! They ran through the woods from where the kidnappers have their basecamp. They said the men are Americans and the girls can lead us back to rescue the other girls! I’m already in the car, heading there now.”
Henry glanced at his watch, then met Whitney’s eyes and then Aaron’s. “How long will it take to get to the reservation from here?”
“I have no idea!” Aaron said, holding up his hands as if in surrender.
Joab, Aaron’s personal driver shook his head. “I’m not a local.”
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” Felicia said, shrugging.
“Where is this reservation?” Xavier asked.
“El Pilar,” Felicia said.
“The archaeology site?” Xavier asked as he pulled up a map on his phone.
“Yes,” Felicia answered. “The reservation is in the woods all around the archaeology site. They are well hidden.”
Henry grumbled, “Not hidden enough apparently if their daughters have been kidnapped.”
“We’re only about two and a half hours from there,” Xavier said. “We can take my Jeep.”
“We’ll follow you in my Highlander,” Joab said, holding up his keys.
Whitney put her hand on Henry’s arm. “Captain, would you like to ride with Xavier and me, you know, so we can brief you about procedure.”
“I would love that,” Henry said, then cleared his throat, trying to hide the fact that her touch made his heart race. “Let’s go rescue some girls.”
“My name is Whitney Olson. I’m the director of the aftercare program for Operation Freedom Warriors here in Belize. I understand you have some questions. How can I be of assistance?”
Henry was immediately tongue-tied, meeting the gaze of the beautiful, young humanitarian aid worker. Her tired eyes sat beneath a messy bun with strands of hair that had escaped and curled into natural tendrils haphazardly around her face. He wanted to tuck one of those stray hairs behind her ear, wrap his arms around her and take all the pains of the world off her shoulders.
His distant cousin, and the expedition’s financier, Prince Aaron Sayid, nudged his shoulder, waking him from his stupor.
“Hello Ms. Olson, I’m Captain Henry Stephenson, U.S. Army.” The minute Henry took Whitney’s hand in his, a current of warmth travelled up his arm and he couldn’t let go.
Whitney must have felt the current also because her jaw dropped, and her gaze lowered to their adjoined hands. Then she pulled her hand away suddenly and shook out her hand as if she’d experienced mild electrocution. She visibly gulped and directed her eyes elsewhere. “How can I help you, Captain?”
“We, actually, wanted to know how we can help you.” Henry shook off his temporary daze. “We’re trying to rescue the girls from the Mayan tribe at El Pilar.” He wasn’t sure if Whitney would even know where El Pilar was located. Heck, he had never been there either. He, Aaron, and Felicia had flown a private jet directly from New York to Belize City, where the Operation Freedom Warriors makeshift headquarters was located.
Dozens of other humanitarian aid workers milled about, leaning over large maps and schematics, talking on cell phones, planning something. Henry only knew a little about the organization, just that they rescued kids from child trafficking and may have insight into the missing girls from the reservation.
“Captain, we assist hundreds of girls and women who have been trafficked. I couldn’t possibly tell where all of them are from.”
“Is there anyone who can?” Aaron butted in. “Someone has to talk to the girls after they’re rescued, right? Don’t you have to figure out where they were stolen from so that they can be returned to their families?”
“Many of the girls were sold into slavery by their families,” Whitney explained. “We have to get them to safety first, treat any medical conditions they may have, get them cleaned up, fed, clothed, a safe place to sleep for the night, and then the process begins of figuring out where they’re from.”
“Can we talk to some of them? See if any of them are from El Pilar? Their families are terribly worried about them.” Henry felt his hope diminishing.
“Two American men? Not a chance!” Whitney took a step back with disdane. “You are the enemy. White American men are the primary purchasers of sex slaves. Bringing one of you into our safe houses would be the opposite of helpful.”
Aaron’s bride, Felicia, stepped forward and spoke in Spanish, “What about me? Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Maybe.” Whitney nodded, sizing her up and transitioning seamlessly to Spanish. “What is your nationality? Who are you?”
“I am Felicia Cohen-Sayid, married to Prince Aaron Sayid, a citizen of Guatemala, and descendant of Nicholas Cohen.” Felicia was pulling out all the name recognition she could.
“Never heard of him.” Whitney was not impressed. “How are you involved in all this?”
“I am sympathetic to the Mayan tribe who has been forced to live on a reservation these past years while dealing with the civil war between Belize and Guatemala.” Felicia’s impassioned speech showed her dedication to the cause. “When their women and children were stolen, I was among those who blamed the people of Belize. Finding out they were stolen by human traffickers was even more horrific than I could have imagined. I want to help rescue these girls.”
“Ms. Olson, I’m Aaron Sayid, her husband. Felicia will work tirelessly to find these girls. Let her help you.”
“Okay.” Whitney nodded. “I’ll see what I can do to get you involved. But you have to understand these things take time. This won’t happen overnight.”
“I understand.” Felicia held her head high.
“And you’re prepared to come with me right now?”
“Yes…” Felicia glanced back at her husband.
Aaron gripped her hand and nodded, encouraging her.
“Do you have identification with you? Including your passport?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Why would she need her passport?” Aaron asked, his brow creased.
“We often get called upon to cross international boundaries, Mr. Sayid,” Whitney said. “We go wherever we’re needed.”
Henry found it strange to hear anyone with the last name Sayid being called with the prefix Mister. All his life the royal family had been referred to with their titles.
Just in the past few months since Aaron renounced his title and stepped down as crown prince and heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Madain Saleh, he had also insisted that people stop calling him Your Highness.
“Is there anything we can do to help with the rescue operations, Ms. Olson?” Henry asked, referring to himself and Aaron.
“As long as you’re wearing that uniform, not likely, Captain.” Whitney nodded toward him with longing in her eyes almost as if wishing he wasn’t. He technically wasn’t wearing a uniform right that minute. More like jeans and an Army T-shirt with dog tags around his neck.
“Why?” He gulped. “Since when is wearing a United States Army uniform a detriment to a humanitarian rescue?”
“You’re limited by jurisdiction,” she explained. “The sting operations we conduct are more than just rescuing refugees. We’re taking down the criminals in the process. We work with local government jurisdictions within country. These people have their own laws and as long as you’re representing the United States of America, you’re bound by your oath.”
“Doesn’t that include all enemies foreign and domestic?” he challenged.
“Within your jurisdiction,” she acknowledged. “You’re on Belize soil now and you’re not sanctioned to be here.”
“She’s got a point, Henry, I mean Captain.” Aaron cringed. “Sorry. Old habits die hard. You’ll always be Henry to me. Alex’s cousin.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Henry said. “I mean, Aaron. Sorry, you’ll always be Crown Prince of Madain Saleh to me.”
“Touché.” Aaron held up a fist and they bumped knuckles.
“You know, you could help out a lot, Aaron,” Henry said. “Physically and financially. Not only do you have friends in some pretty high places, you have billions of dollars at your disposal.”
“Is that what you need?” Aaron turned to Whitney like a puppy dog wagging his tail. “Do you need money? I have money. A lot of money. I can help.”
“Are you for real?” Whitney’s jaw dropped.
“I’m a billionaire prince without a throne or a purpose in life, except to make love to my wife and she’s probably getting bored of me by now.” Aaron winked at Felicia. “Put me to work.”
Henry fought back a coughing fit trying not to laugh as Felicia smacked Aaron in the stomach and growled the words, “Bored of you?” She smacked him again.
“Let me get this straight, you’re offering me a willing volunteer to help identify our survivors, funding resources, friends in high places, and a newlywed willing to give up his wife to help?”
“Plus, an Army Captain willing to step down from his command if it means I can rescue these girls.” Henry’s voice grew husky as he lifted his chin to Whitney’s gaze with a passion he didn’t realize was inside him.
“Don’t give up your commission too hastily, Captain,” Whitney said with compassion in her voice. “We may need you right where you are.”
Henry gulped and lowered his eyes, vulnerability entering his heart from the intensity of her gaze. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
“Good to know.” Her compassion shifted to something else. Anticipation, perhaps. Whitney turned to Felicia. “Say goodbye to your groom. I can’t guarantee how soon you’ll have the opportunity to… become bored with one another again.”
Whitney winked at Henry as she turned and strode away. He kept his eyes on her on the other side of the room where she was talking to another aid worker and pointing in their direction.
Focusing on Whitney kept Henry from gagging at the sickly way Aaron and Felicia were kissing each other goodbye.
Bored. Henry chuckled to himself. Maybe someday Whitney would like to get bored with him.
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