“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.”
They thought all the men were in tents for the night, but those first tentative steps into the campsite made Henry’s heart race. He was glad to have spent several hours in reconnaissance before entering this space blind.
A small campfire smoldered in the center of the campsite, which seemed to be the remains of a city square. The river to the north was closer than he’d realized but he didn’t think they’d be affected by it. What looked to be a citadel loomed on the other side of the campsite, which could serve as a place to hole up and become a stronghold if necessary.
The first team of boys crept carefully along the edge of the campsite toward the truck. They each stabbed their hunting knife into a truck tire then tucked themselves into the surrounding forest near the road leading to San Ignacio. The four teams assigned to attack the tents simultaneously separated and skirted the edges of the campsite on the north and south sides, effectively surrounding the four tents. Once all four teams were in position, Henry, Xavier, and Machudo each took one tentative step into the campsite and waited.
They took another step.
Still no response from any of the tents nor from anywhere else in the campsite.
The tents each only had one opening, all facing in toward the fire, all flaps shut.
Henry gave the sign and all four teams advanced quickly to the tents, surrounding them. In a flurry of confusion, the boys used hunting knives to slit through the backs of the tents, not bothering with the front flaps. Multiple hunting rifles fired off almost simultaneously, girls screamed, and men swore.
All around him, Henry heard the boys calling out in Spanish, “We’re here to rescue you. Follow the white woman.”
Girls began scurrying away from the tents, most of them clutching some sort of clothing or blanket, none of them wearing shoes, one girl was completely naked. One of the boys near Whitney quickly removed his shirt and draped it around the naked girl, offering her some comfort and protection.
Only eight girls were recovered.
Henry’s heart sunk, knowing the others had already been taken further down the line to the trafficking ring in Belize City. He caught Machudo’s attention from twenty feet away.
Machudo shook his head with sadness in his countenance. His girlfriend wasn’t among the eight.
Within minutes of cutting open the tents, all eight girls, Whitney, and an entire platoon of amateur soldiers had disappeared down the path toward El Pilar. The girls would be offered immediate care. Whitney had brought shoes, hoodies, sweatpants, food and water, enough for all twenty-one missing girls. Only eight would be needed. That angered Henry and he attacked more ferociously.
Taking the men into custody was not so easy. Although unprepared for the attack, some of them partially dressed, and all of them wounded, they were larger and more experienced in a fight. Seventeen teenage boys who were shaken and scared were no match for six hardened criminals. The boys had no idea what to do. This was a mistake.
Henry had two choices; retreat or kill the men. They couldn’t retreat down the footpath back toward El Pilar because they needed to lead the men away from the girls. That meant they needed to retreat toward the citadel. But first they had to give all they could.
Most of the boys had already lost their knives when throwing them at the men or stabbing them. There was only one hunting rifle for each team of four. They were unarmed, untrained, and terrified. There was only one real choice.
“To the citadel, now!” Henry yelled and all seventeen teenage boys ran to the far end of the campsite. None of them were wounded in their legs and they ran hard.
All of the kidnappers had at least one wound but none of them were incapacitated. The men also had found their weapons and shots were fired. None of them hit their mark and all seventeen boys made it through the zig zag pattern at the entrance to the citadel, up the stairs, and two of them used their rifles to shoot back at the kidnappers.
The citadel was designed in a way in which any enemy trying to climb the stairs would be sitting ducks for the boys above to kill them easily. The men would have been stupid to attempt an attack, even if they weren’t injured.
The boys were safe for now.
But they were trapped.
Hemmed in by the sheer cliff down to the Belize River on the north and the kidnappers just out of shooting range with the hunting rifles, the boys could hold their position within the crumbling stronghold, but for how long? Even if they called back the platoon that had left to escort the girls back to the reservation, there weren’t enough soldiers. Although not outnumbered by the enemy, young boys were no match for grown men who likely had unlimited ammunition and no motivation to keep the boys alive.
With dwindling supplies, and few options, Henry locked eyes with Machudo, hoping to convey a confidence that didn’t exist in his heart. He pulled out his cell phone and connected immediately.
“Aaron, time to call in reinforcements.”
The two teams watched from the ridge for another forty-five minutes before Henry received word that the remaining members of the company had stopped at the clearing. One team of four would stay in the clearing with the two girls who had guided them this far while two squads of eight each, plus Whitney, would arrive to help rescue the remaining girls.
Each of the seven teams would have their assignments. One team would protect the entrance to the trail, one would surround the truck, slashing the tires and preventing anyone from leaving. One team would be in charge of protecting Whitney and herding the rescued girls toward the footpath leading back to El Pilar. The other four teams would simultaneously attack the four tents focusing on incapacitating the kidnappers without killing them. Henry, Xavier, and Machudo would be in charge of the raid.
After the girls were secured, Xavier and Whitney would take one full platoon plus the rescued girls and high tail back to El Pilar, only stopping if absolutely necessary.
Henry, Machudo, and the other platoon of sixteen boys would stay and take command of the kidnappers. The boys were instructed to wound the kidnappers in their right arms since there was a statistical probability that the men would be right-handed. Next, they were to immobilize the men by shooting or stabbing their legs.
This could work.
Could being the operative word.
When Whitney and her two squads of eight boys came into view, a physical weight lifted from Henry’s shoulders. He met her gaze and saw Whitney take a deep sigh. They were both relieved to see each other. She strode to her boss, Xavier, gave him a quick hug, then came to Henry and hugged him as well. Then she unexpectedly laced her hand with his and whispered, “Hi.”
Henry squeezed her hand in recognition of her presence and then started giving instructions. The boys were told to memorize the lines, “We’re here to rescue you. Follow the white woman.”
Whitney had worn a white shirt that seemed to glow in the moonlight. In addition to her white skin, her bright white shirt would leave no doubt in the girls’ minds who the boys were pointing to.
As the teams made ready to enter the campsite, potentially exposing themselves to the enemy, Henry whispered to Whitney, “After you leave with the girls, I won’t see you for a few hours. I just wanted to remind you that I have every intention of taking you out on a date very soon.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” she whispered back, then turned to face him. “Stay safe, Captain Henry Stephenson.”
“You as well, Whitney Olson.”
Whitney lifted her heels and rose up to kiss his cheek. “Good luck.”
“Oh, honey, I’m going to need more than that for luck.” Henry pulled her close and pressed his lips to hers in one brief kiss, saying goodbye and not knowing how soon they’d be reunited. When Henry tried to release her from his arms, Whitney pulled him closer and offered him one more kiss, this time with a bit more passion. If he died in battle, that kiss would be his last thought on earth.
They stepped apart and straightened their packs, preparing to leave the safety of the woods and enter the campsite. Henry hoped this plan worked, because he had someone very special to look forward to.
The makeshift company had a total of twelve cell phones between the thirty-eight of them. Not enough. But each team of four had a cell, plus one for each of the leaders, Henry, Whitney, Xavier, and Machudo.
All twelve cell phones were linked with coms and GPS tracking, and Prince Aaron acted as ground control at the reservation. He had clear instructions about who to call if anything should go wrong with the mission.
The plan was to have Xavier and Whitney lead one platoon back to the reservation along with the kidnapped girls, once they’d been liberated.
Henry planned to keep Machudo and an entire platoon with him to suppress and take the criminals into custody. The kidnappers needed to be kept alive in order to conduct a full interrogation and learn the location of the remaining human trafficking ring.
Although twenty-three girls had been kidnapped from the tribe, they were unaware how many girls were still in the area, and how many of them had already been trafficked to another location.
Henry’s superior officers would eventually be notified of his involvement, but he hoped to get a slap on the wrist and demotion rather than a direct order to stand down.
Coming home having rescued twenty-three kidnapped Mayan girls would go a long way to receiving forgiveness for subordination. Coming home with dozens of wounded or slain teenage boys would not. He needed this mission to be a success. Failure was not an option.
A real concern was losing their path back to the kidnappers’ basecamp. Thankfully, the two young guides remembered how to traverse the woods leading to the makeshift footpath cut by their abductors. Less than a mile from the reservation, they arrived at an actual trail that the kidnappers had been using to brazenly sneak close enough to skirt the unmarked boundaries of the reservation. From that point on, all the company needed was to keep marching and follow that path.
Another challenge was the unknown timeframe between leaving that morning and arriving at the basecamp. The two girls who escaped ran as fast as they could to get away from the kidnappers. Even with a head start of several hours, they knew their captors could easily overtake them if they stopped to rest. They had arrived at the reservation exhausted, dehydrated, filthy, and terrified, yet less than twenty-four hours later they were trekking back to the very place from which they’d fled.
Adrenalin only lasted an hour into the trek and the teenagers dragged for a few hours. To their credit, they never stopped marching. They barely paused long enough to step behind a tree and relieve themselves, and they marched through lunchtime, satisfied with protein bars and sips of water.
At one point in the afternoon, the youngest and smallest of the two teenage girls climbed on the back of her older brother and clung to him like a monkey. Henry wondered if the connection was almost a relief for the brother as well as his little sister. The physical aspect of holding a person in your arms after losing them is powerful and healing. The move even seemed to boost morale for others in the group, especially those young men whose sisters and girlfriends had been ripped from their lives. They were motivated by the desire to hold their loved ones as well.
When evening fell and darkness shrouded the trail, Henry ordered a much-needed break. Most of the kids sat on the ground to eat and rest their legs, and some even rested their heads on each other’s laps, closing their eyes for a quick nap. Henry and Machudo each took a protein bar with them and kept walking. They promised not to engage the enemy until the full company arrived as backup, but at least they could give a heads-up to the other leaders how many more hours were left to travel.
Machudo showed a determination unlike anyone Henry had seen. He loved this girl he was trying to rescue and nothing else in the world mattered other than finding her.
Henry wondered how that would feel to love a woman so strongly. His mind played back to the moment twenty-seven hours ago when he’d first clasped hands with Whitney. Could he someday fall in love with a woman like her? Could she ever love a man like him? The possibility was worth pursuing. She seemed interested. And he was definitely interested in her.
After two more hours of walking, Henry and Machudo seemed to sense a change at the same time and their footfalls paused. Listening to the sounds of the night, they held perfectly still. Hearing nothing but insects and the occasional soft coo of a night bird, they continued forward slowly and with softer strides, keeping to one side of the trail.
Within ten minutes, Henry smelled the unmistakable whiff of a campfire and he led Machudo off the path and into the cover of the forest. Creeping forward with controlled footing, they climbed a rise and lowered to their bellies, gaining a vantage point over a makeshift campsite that closely resembled the one their girls had described.
Henry sent a quick text to Whitney relaying the time and GPS location of their whereabouts. She and Xavier would pass along the message to Aaron and the tribal leaders back on the reservation. Communication was the key to their survival.
For almost an hour, they waited and watched, taking inventory of the number of tents, the number of visible men, the number of campfires, the number of weapons. There was no evidence of any girls but that didn’t mean the girls weren’t hidden in the tents. There was one SUV designed for off-roading and covered in fresh mud.
The men didn’t seem to be prepared for, or expecting, an ambush. They sat around the fires, talking, eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes, relaxed, not a care in the world. Good. Henry and his company would have the element of surprise to their advantage. But only if the rest of the company could approach the campsite without making any noise.
From texts he’d received from Whitney, he knew that Xavier and one squad of eight had taken off at a full run from their last position in an attempt to provide immediate backup for Henry and Machudo.
Almost exactly one hour from when Henry and Machudo had called in their location, Henry received word from Aaron that the GPS signal from Xavier’s squad was approaching Henry’s position and that Aaron had already notified Xavier to halt progression and wait for Henry to meet them.
He and Machudo crept back down the rise and cautiously approached the trail where they came upon Xavier’s squad. Without preamble, all eleven guys slipped into the woods and gathered close to share intel.
“There’s a stone ridge to the right of the path where we have a vantage point.” Henry spoke low and fast. “The ridge must have been a structure at one time, because the four corners are symmetrical. We haven’t seen any girls, but we’ve seen six men, all armed, none on high alert. They seem to be winding down for the night and if we wait another half hour or so, they will mostly be in their tents and we’ll have the element of surprise on our sides. Let’s lay low on the ridge, watching until more backup arrives. We don’t want to go in unprepared. Machudo, take one team back to the ridge where we just were. Xavier and I will climb the ridge on the opposite side with the other team. We can talk strategy as we watch. Do not engage the enemy without my command. Is that clear?”
The eight teenagers nodded with wide eyes and terror that they’d come this far and were within sight of the targets.
“Once the rest of the company arrives, we’ll skirt the campsite and take up position around the tents and near the road leading out of the campsite. There’s a large SUV over there with fresh mud on the tires. We don’t want them to get away, but we also need them alive. We have to find a way to get eyes on the location of the girls and the rescue needs to be fast in-and-out.”
“There was a clearing back there about half a mile,” Xavier said. “The young guides and one team will wait there while Whitney and the rest of the company join us here. She wants to be on the ground immediately when we get the girls into our custody. She and one team will help with the rescue so that the girls can see their brothers immediately rather than you and I. As white men, we are still the enemy in their eyes. We don’t want the girls fleeing from us.”
“Yeah, that would be bad.” Henry nodded, then looked around. “Okay, everyone understand their orders? Let’s move.”
Refreshed from a decent night’s sleep in one of the finest suites at the San Ignacio Resort, Henry repacked his backpack, focusing his energy on this mission as if on assignment from his superior officers. He had taken the time the previous evening to train the teenagers in some basic reconnaissance skills and strategies.
The poorly organized and cocky teenagers were under the mistaken impression that knowing how to shoot a Brocket Deer with a compound crossbow or stalk and kill a gibnut qualifies them for tactical guerrilla warfare.
Henry saw disaster ahead if he didn’t take action. He divided them into teams of four and assigned each team a sergeant. Not knowing the kids in advance, he operated on instinct, eyeballing which of the four boys was most likely to take charge.
He made sure each team had at least one hunting rifle or compound crossbow. Thankfully every young man owned a hunting knife and knew how to spear an iguana from twenty yards away.
Henry grouped two teams of four into squads and assigned a staff sergeant, then pulled together two squads into platoons and designated a lieutenant to each platoon. Those two platoons made up his company of thirty-two hot heads ready to take on the world and rescue their girlfriends and sisters.
What could have been a logistical nightmare quickly organized into his dream team of soldiers. Inexperienced soldiers, but soldiers, nonetheless. Confidence replaced cockiness and the boys were motivated by love and duty.
Each squad was in charge of one woman or teenage girl, performing the double duty of bodyguards and carriers of provisions. These exhausted girls who’d returned the previous day from trekking this very path were risking their lives to return to the same place they’d recently escaped. He refused to ask them to carry any weight. They should have been convalescing.
Once the remaining girls were rescued, one platoon would escort the girls home immediately and the other platoon would stay and take down the kidnappers.
Machudo was designated as Henry’s first lieutenant and asked to watch everything he did. If something happened to Henry, Machudo needed to take charge. No pressure there.
This could work.
Or this could be a disaster.
By the end of the day, they’d know one way or the other
Henry swung his organized backpack onto his shoulders, clicked the chest strap into place then headed out of his suite to go find the lovebirds and humanitarian aid workers.
“You look battle-ready.” Whitney’s voice welcomed him when he stepped into the hallway from his hotel room.
Henry turned to find her leaning against the wall wearing sturdy clothing and a backpack of her own. “You as well. Where the heck did you get the change of clothes?”
“We have gear in the Jeep all the time in case we have to pick up and move in a hurry.”
“Your organization is impressive.”
“Keep those bars on your shoulder, Captain,” Whitney said. “We need you right where you are.”
“Yeah, well, if I lead a company of amateur soldiers into battle, I may not have a choice. Those bars might be ripped from my shoulder the minute I step on U.S. soil.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when or if that happens,” Whitney said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but you know where to look for us if you find yourself out of a job.”
“I’d be honored to serve at your side.” Gone was the flirting from the night before. This was a serious conversation and declaration of commitment to one another. Henry hoped he lived through the next few days so he could explore the potential relationship he felt developing between himself and Whitney Olson.
Before the discussion could get any deeper, Kisa and Joab emerged from a suite down the hall, Felicia and Aaron from another, and Xavier from the third. His team of vigilantes headed down the hotel elevator intent to make use of the full service breakfast before driving back up the mountain to lead a team of young men into the wilderness guided by two frightened girls.
What could possibly go wrong?
“You’ve been busy.” Whitney wiped her brow and sighed, the weight of the world on her shoulders. The community center where Henry and the teenage boys had gathered and organized supplies in preparation for their early departure the following morning was strewn with overflowing backpacks, weapons, and provisions.
Whitney had been holed up with the Mayan girls most of the evening and was finally done for the night. Henry handed her a recently boiled and filtered bottle of water and pulled out a chair for her.
She took the proffered water bottle and sank onto the folding chair. Propping her feet onto another chair, she leaned back and drank heartily. “Thanks, I needed this.” She recapped the bottle and closed her eyes.
“I know you just sat down but you won’t want to get too comfortable. Aaron and I arranged for you and Xavier to each have a hotel room at the resort in San Ignacio, compliments of his highness.”
“Let me get this straight—” Whitney opened one eye but didn’t lift her head from where it slumped on the back of her chair. “—that kid with you is seriously a prince?”
“Uh… yeah.” Henry pulled up a chair, turned it backward and straddled the seat so he could lean on the back and face Whitney. He glanced to the side to where Aaron and Felicia were sitting on similar folding chairs across the room. Not sure how much Aaron could hear, Henry spoke quietly. “Aaron sort of abdicated his throne, but I’m not sure it was ever really his to begin with. Another civil war on the opposite side of the world I’m glad I don’t have to fight. I suppose if the people in Madain Saleh were kidnapping and raping young girls I’d be more concerned.”
“Where the heck is Madain Saleh?” Whitney opened both eyes.
That caught Aaron’s attention and his head lifted. Henry spoke a little louder, knowing there was no reason to try to hide his snarky response. “Somewhere in the Arabian desert. I don’t know. The country barely exists anymore.”
“I resent that,” Aaron called from across the room.
“Go live in the desert then, Your Highness,” Henry called back.
“I’m good. I’ll stay here in the jungle where the heat retains its humidity.”
“This is a forest, not a jungle, but good try,” Whitney teased, getting in on the banter.
“Are you guys about ready to head to the resort?” Aaron stood and helped Felicia off the chair where she’d been sitting. “My bride and I are exhausted.”
“Is that what you’re calling it now?” Whitney smirked. “Earlier today you were bored and now you’re exhausted.”
“Yes, well, we haven’t had a chance to be bored yet today so let’s get a move on.”
“Are all newlyweds this sappy?” Whitney asked.
“I don’t know,” Henry teased back. “I’ll let you know a few days after our wedding.”
“Oh, you will, will you?” Whitney laughed. “Help me up so you can take me to your hotel. And don’t get any ideas about which room is yours.”
“Why, Ms. Olson, I’m shocked at your insinuations.” Henry helped her to a standing position and fought the urge to wrap his arms around her. “You think just ’cause we flirted in a Jeep for three hours that I’m going to invite you to my hotel room? What kind of a man do you think I am?”
“Think? Or hope?” She raised her eyebrows and smirked.
The sound that emerged from the back of Henry’s throat was almost a tiger purr. He met her gaze and spoke low enough for her ears only. “Ya know, after we get all done rescuing teenagers, you and I should go out to dinner or something and continue this conversation.”
“Something to look forward to, Cap’n Henry.” Whitney winked at him and walked away, shifting to Spanish to ask Felicia if she’s coming with the rescue team the following morning.
“Wait—” Henry hurried to catch up to the ladies as they walked through the door out into the near blackness of late evening in the middle of a forest shrouded with a thick canopy and noticeable lack of modern electricity. He was glad they were heading to a hotel. “—are you coming on the trek with us?”
Whitney turned to face him. “Uh, yeah.” The word sounded more like ‘duh’ and Henry felt silly for asking. She was the aftercare aid worker in charge of treating the girls once they’d been rescued.
“Right. Of course, you are. What was I thinking?”
“I dunno. What were you thinking?” Whitney looked him up and down with flirty eyes.
“I’m thinking you’re a little punch drunk and we need to get you a good night’s rest so you can save the world tomorrow.”
“Saving the world is so overrated.” Whitney turned and followed Aaron and Felicia out to the trail where they met up with Xavier, Joab, and Kisa.
“Who’s riding with whom?” Joab held up his car keys.
Kisa was the first to respond. “I’ll leave my car here and ride back with you and my niece and her prince charming.”
“You might want to drive fast, Joab,” Henry stage whispered. “Who knows what might happen with two bored newlyweds in the back seat of your Highlander.”
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?” Aaron pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Nope.” Henry popped the P in emphasis.
“Fine then, I’ll own it,” Aaron said, turning to Joab. “Might want to drive fast.”
“I’m a driver for a living,” Joab said. “I can handle fast. Besides the faster I drive us to the hotel, the faster I can get Kisa alone for a few minutes of our own.”
Henry turned to Xavier and Whitney. “I’m riding back to the hotel with you guys.”
They all chuckled and turned on flashlights so they could navigate the uneven forest path up the hill to El Pilar.
Henry barely waited for Xavier’s Jeep to stop in the tourist parking lot at the archaeological site of El Pilar before opening the side door. He swung his pack over his shoulders and clipped the chest strap in place. Joab’s Highlander pulled up beside the Jeep and Aaron, Felicia, and Joab climbed out. They headed into the woods past a no-trespassing sign.
The trail was barely evident until they were upon the unmarked trailhead and only if a person knew what to look for. Felicia had mentioned that the tribe was well hidden. At least from this direction, she was correct.
An Hispanic woman in her late twenties hurried toward them up the path. “Thank goodness. I thought you’d never get here.” Without introductions, the woman kissed Joab, hugged Felicia and hurried back the way she had come.
Felicia turned to Henry and explained the woman was her aunt Kisa. They all followed Kisa another few hundred feet until the forest opened into a small clearing not much larger than a basketball court.
All around the clearing, homes had been built in such a way that they were almost hidden in plain sight. The forest shrouded a village that seemed much larger than Henry expected. Now that he knew what to look for, he realized there were homes dotted throughout the woods as far as he could see.
Several tribal women approached and spoke hurried Spanish intermingled with another language Henry didn’t recognize. Again, with no introductions, Henry and the rescue party followed the women. The paths through the forest were more pronounced here as if worn down by countless feet.
Finally, they arrived at an area that was bustling with activity. Dozens of teenage boys seemed to be arguing with their parents and tribal leaders in that same garbled mix of Spanish and a native language Henry didn’t recognize. He tried to pick out Spanish words in an attempt to understand. Sister. Going. Do nothing. Fight. Retaliate. None of it made sense.
Felicia seemed to understand the language and spoke with several of the tribe members. She turned toward them and her eyes searched for Whitney. “You need to come talk to the girls,” Felicia said in Spanish.
Whitney stepped forward without hesitation and followed Felicia and several other women into a nearby home.
Henry and Xavier approached Aaron and Joab where they spoke with several men.
“What’s going on?” Henry asked.
“The boys want to retaliate,” Aaron said, turning to a man who must have been a tribal leader. “They want to break the treaty and go after the kidnappers.”
Most of the teenagers stopped arguing and turned their attention to the newcomers.
Henry spoke directly to the tribal leader. “I am Captain Henry Stephenson with the United States Army. How can we help you rescue your daughters?”
“Tell our boys not to fight!” The man spoke in impassioned Spanish, pointing behind him with exasperation. “We took an oath. We will not break the treaty.”
One of the young men stepped forward. “Kids in our generation were babies when you made that agreement. We did not take an oath, father. We will not be violating your treaty.”
“Besides, those are our sisters out there,” another boy said.
“My girlfriend.” Another young man lifted his chin with tears fighting to surface. “We were to be married next month.”
Henry’s heart broke for these boys. He understood the need to help, to do something, to rescue the girls. This was inherent in men to be protectors. “Do we know how many kidnappers there were?”
“Fewer than ten, the girls said.” The tribal leader’s shoulders sagged in defeat or exhaustion. “They weren’t sure exactly how many.”
“Do you know how the girls escaped?” Xavier asked.
“They… got the men drunk… and…” The tribal leader lowered his voice. “You can probably figure out the rest.”
All the boys and men within earshot quieted or grumbled or shuffled their feet. No one wanted to voice what they all knew happened.
“They snuck out of the men’s tent and ran through the night”—the tribal leader continued— “And all through the following day.”
“They must be exhausted,” Henry said.
“We have insisted they rest tonight, and a search party can leave at first light, allowing the girls to lead the way.”
“Who all is going on the search party?” Henry raised his hand to encourage others to volunteer, inadvertently offering himself as a volunteer also. He looked around at the men and boys.
Every one of the teenage boys raised their hands, lifted their chins and stepped forward. Some called out affirmations.
“We’re not afraid to fight.”
“My mother’s been crying for days since my sister was kidnapped.”
“My mother also.”
“Our fathers have been obedient to their oath. We need to defend them.”
“What kind of supplies do you have?” Henry asked. “You each need food and water, and basic necessities, enough for three days. Plus, we need to bring enough provisions for the women, our guides and the girls we plan to rescue. Do you have any weapons?”
“We have hunting rifles, compound bows and hunting knives.” The boy who was planning the wedding stepped forward, then turned and took on a leadership role to his younger friends. “Guys, bring all weapons here to the community center along with all ammunition, and start packing supplies. Let’s take inventory of what we have and figure out what else we need.”
As if accustomed to taking orders from this young man, the teenagers scattered, already on task. Impressive.
“What’s your name, son?” Henry asked the boy. “And how old are you?”
“My name is Machudo, and I am nineteen.”
“Consider yourself my second in command.”
“Yes, sir, Captain Henry. I won’t let you down.”
“Let’s go rescue your future bride.” Henry placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and they looked one another in the eye. Henry had never seen such courage in all his years in the Army. He vowed in that moment he would put his life on the line for these boys.
Henry clicked his seatbelt into place, settling into the middle seat of Xavier’s Jeep since he had insisted Whitney sit in the front.
Although he wore jeans and a T-shirt, Henry felt as if he was starting into a mission without his weapons. Even with a backpack full of gear including food, water, and supplies, he felt bare without forty pounds of Kevlar, a Beretta 9 mm clipped to his belt, a knife in his boot, and a M16 rifle strapped on his back.
Walking unarmed into a fight was less than comfortable, but officer training had taught him that his most valuable tools were his brain and his radio. Maintaining communication with his team would keep him alive, and the guys in Operation Freedom Warriors had just become his team. Including the lovely Whitney Olson.
Whitney turned in her seat so that she was facing Xavier but frequently glanced back at Henry as if she couldn’t help herself. Her professional façade kept slipping and she would show a hint of a smile, then pull her features together again or glance down with a soft blush.
Dang, she was beautiful. Henry knew he needed to focus on the mission and finding the girls. He decided to ask about their organization and see if he could glean more information.
Xavier was a strong man of pure muscle. If Henry had to wager, he would guess some branch of the military or CIA. He pulled his Jeep out of the parking lot at the headquarters of his organization, and headed for the Western Highway toward San Ignacio.
“Tell me more about what you do,” Henry said. “And how can I help? Whitney mentioned that I should be careful not to jump ship because you may need me to hold my rank.”
“She’s right,” Xavier said. “If these guys are indeed Americans, and we have a Captain in the U.S. Army involved, we may need you to call in your higher-ups. On the reservation, even we don’t have permission to do our job.”
“When you say, ‘do your job’,” Henry asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Operation Freedom Warriors is made up of dozens of retired and discharged military officers, ex-CIA, Homeland Security agents, undercover officers.” Xavier explained. “We took off our badges in order to remove the jurisdictional restrictions that were holding us back from doing our jobs with Freedom Warriors.”
“Which is what?” Henry asked, wondering if he’d ever feel compelled to leave his commission.
“We conduct undercover sting operations to purchase children who are being sold into slavery.”
“Wait, purchase children?” Henry gulped. “That’s wrong.”
“Someone’s going to purchase them,” Whitney said. “Better us than the pedophiles and sex traffickers.”
“But you’re still giving money to the criminals.”
“Briefly,” she explained. “And then we immediately arrest them.”
“Why can’t you just arrest them without purchasing children?”
“Because we wouldn’t have any reason to arrest them,” Xavier explained. “We couldn’t prove that they had committed any crimes. Whereas if we purchase a child from them then we know that they’re selling children. We have proof and we can put them in prison.
“If we can get close enough to the ringleader of the group, then we can rescue hundreds of children rather than just the one or two that we are purchasing. So, it’s important that we get close to them, to get into their inner circle, not just be a one-time purchaser, but someone who’s willing to bring other buyers down from America.”
“Do you arrest the buyers also?” Henry asked.
“The buyers are all working for us. But at the time of the sting operation, yes, we allow everyone to be arrested so we can maintain our undercover status.”
“So, you’re able to do this more than once with the same group of individuals?”
“Yes, because we’re trying to weed out the corrupt judges. So rather than posting bail, we allow them to go through the judicial system here in country and learn what it takes to get them back out. Then we can discover who the corrupt judges are.”
“How can this be happening right under our noses?” Henry asked. “How come it’s Americans that are buying the children?”
“Child sex trafficking is more prevalent than you think it is,” Xavier said. “This is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.”
“Really? More than drugs?” Henry had a hard time believing that.
“It’s the fastest growing,” Xavier clarified. “The difference is you can sell a bag of cocaine once, but you can sell a child ten or twenty times in a day.”
“That’s disgusting.” Henry felt his stomach churn and wondered if they would need to pull the car over to the side of the road.
“Yes, it is. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s modern day slavery. These kids are being used as a commodity. There are estimated thirty million slaves in the world today, and about ten million of them are children. About two million of them are sold into sex slave trade and the rest of them are used as child labor.”
“But if you are in slave labor,” Whitney said, “it’s just a matter of time before they use you for sex. Once they own you, you’re a product, and they can do whatever they want with you.”
“Is this something you have experienced?” Henry asked with compassion.
“Just as an after-care humanitarian aid worker serving alongside survivors.” Whitney’s voice lowered and became emotional. “They tell some horrific stories.”
“Are there slaves in the States too?” Henry asked. “Or is this mostly international?”
“People would like to think it’s happening somewhere else,” Xavier said. “But Americans are the biggest consumers of child pornography worldwide. Which means we are the market. We are the sex tourists.”
“United States is one of the top three destination countries,” Whitney said.
“What do you mean by that?” Henry asked.
“The traffickers are trying to bring their slaves into the U.S. They see the market and realize if they can get into our country, they can make a lot of money.”
“So that the United States people won’t have to travel?” Henry guessed.
“That’s right.” Whitney nodded.
“Where is this happening? In big cities?”
“Well, in developing counties, where the infrastructure is not that great, and the law enforcement struggle, you can see child sex slaves being sold on the street,” Whitney said. “You’re not going to see that in the United States. It’s mostly online. We have warriors trained to infiltrate dark net groups to find kids.”
“I’ve worked as an undercover operator in some capacity for almost nineteen years,” Xavier said. “And I have bought and sold a child on every social media platform.”
“It starts on social media and then leads to private phone calls, then suddenly you’re negotiating for a child.”
“In person? No way.”
“How did you originally get into this?”
“I started in the CIA fighting terrorism. Then I was recruited to Homeland Security as an undercover operator. There’s a lot of criminal activity at the ports of entry. I would have been busy for years fighting drug trades and human trafficking, but they called me in and told me they wanted to start a child trafficking unit. I had no idea child trafficking was a thing.”
“No one wants to talk about it,” Henry agreed.
“I didn’t want anything to do with that. My wife agreed. We had just started a family. We didn’t want to bring that darkness into our home. I didn’t want to know what people are doing to kids.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want that either, and I don’t even have a wife and kids… yet.” Henry didn’t mean to hesitate on the last word, somehow implying the possibility wasn’t far off. Henry met Whitney’s gaze. “What about you? Married? Kids?”
“Not yet,” Whitney said softly.
Xavier didn’t seem to notice their exchange nor the electricity hanging in the air between them and continued with his story. “I planned to turn down the job and I was practicing my speech in the mirror wondering how I was going to tell my boss, and my wife walks into the bathroom and she’s crying. She said she didn’t sleep at all that night and then she told me that for the same reason we didn’t want you to do this was the reason we had to do this. Because we have children. Because if there really are millions of kids being trafficked, we allow this to happen.”
“So, you started in the States?”
“Yes. Then in 2006 the U.S. passed a law called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act which changed the statutory requirements for secondary sex traveler statutes.”
“You can’t travel to have sex with a child,” Xavier said. “Prior to that we had to prove a perpetrator had the intent to have sex with a child while standing on U.S. soil.”
“That’s impossible to prove,” Henry said.
“Prior to 2006 we had zero prosecutions,” Xavier said. “But the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act changed the law, so we don’t have to prove the perpetrator was thinking about sex with a child while in the States. Now all we have to prove is that he left the States and that he committed the act. If we can prove that, we can hold him accountable as if he committed the act on our soil and we can put him in jail in the States. Homeland Security put together a team and basically said okay guys, go out and find Americans who are doing this.”
“But how do you know where to go to find these guys?” Henry asked.
“They sent me to undercover school to teach me how to be a pedophile, how to think like one, how to talk like one. I became an undercover operator and because I speak Spanish, they sent me mostly into Latin America, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, Colombia. Once I get overseas, I can basically sit on the beach and the traffickers come to me. It’s like they know that’s what I’m there for.”
“What do you mean? Sit on the beach?”
“Trafficking is so prevalent that they expect an American guy sitting on the beach alone is waiting for them to come offer what they have for sale.”
“Usually young girls. Preteens or early teens.”
“Are you talking prostitution? Of little girls?” Henry gulped, knowing his nausea had nothing to do with the bumpy roads.
Henry balled his fists. He had seen some horrible things in the world, but imagining little girls having their innocence stolen in such a way was more than he wanted to envision.
“Hey, we can stop talking about this if you need.” Whitney’s soft voice pierced through Henry’s shell and he met her gaze. Her compassion was probably what kept her pushing through this job.
“No… I need… to hear this.” Henry spoke through clenched teeth. “I need to know the truth so I can help stop this from happening to anyone else. Keep talking.” Henry sat up straight, forced back his emotions and put on his game face.
“Anyway, I don’t want to just meet with the pimp on the beach. I want to get to know his boss and his boss’ boss. You know what I mean?”
“So, we put together this whole plan where we want to bring a group of guys down from the States and I convince them to get a party together.”
“And they fall for that?”
“Oh yeah, they do these all the time.”
“All the…” Henry forced back his emotions and swallowed hard. “Keep going.”
“I have to become friends with these guys, and they’re showing me pictures on their phone and they’ve got ten-year-old girls and I’m smiling and pretending. My stomach’s churning and I want to reach across and strangle this guy but I know I’ll never find the kids if I do.”
“Do you ever worry about becoming a pedophile after looking at all those pictures?”
“Actually, it’s just the opposite,” Xavier said. “If anything, you become less interested in sex. I mean, not to divulge too much information, but my poor wife. I have to go through a period of desensitization just to come back to the real world after an op.”
Henry decided to change the subject after that very awkward question. “How did you transition from meeting these jerks on the beach to quitting your job and starting a nonprofit?”
“Remember how I said that we had to follow jurisdiction rules and laws when we’re representing the government?” Xavier met Henry’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “I was in deep with these guys and we were running out of budget. We couldn’t find an American involved, but we were about to intercept about a hundred kids. And the order was given that we were out of money and I had to come home.”
“You went all that way for nothing?”
“I went all that way and found a hundred kids.”
“But you couldn’t arrest the guys because there weren’t any Americans?”
“Not working for the United States government.” Xavier shook his head.
“What did you do?” Henry leaned forward and put his elbow on his knee, completely engrossed in Xavier’s bravery.
“I took off my badge.”
“Just like that?”
“Well I talked to my wife first. She said, do it. We’ll figure out a way to feed our family. God will provide. Save those kids.” Xavier’s façade broke and his voice cracked.
“And you saved the kids?”
“We saved the kids.”
“But not your job?” Henry guessed.
“We started the nonprofit.”
“And the rest is history?”
“Not quite. For that op we already had the local government involved. We didn’t have that kind of relationship with other governments. We won’t go into a foreign country unless we have the local law enforcement involved, and until we have the aftercare program in place.”
“Which is where you come in?” Henry nodded to Whitney.
“I’m in charge of the aftercare program.” Whitney nodded.
“So, you’re in charge of the hundred kids after their rescued?”
“Things are a little more complicated than that,” Whitney said.
“The aftercare is the most important part,” Xavier said. “More than half the time there’s not a family member at home waiting for their missing child with open arms. Some families are part of the problem. There are families who are so poor they’re selling their kids into slavery.”
“The first thing we do,” Whitney said, “is to let the kids know they’re safe and we’re not the bad guys. Because they’ve just witnessed a raid, and people getting arrested, and chaos and shouting, and they’re traumatized. They don’t know what’s going on. We have the aftercare team right there on the ground as the raid is happening.”
“How could a parent sell their child?”
“I think some people are just so poor and desperate, selling themselves and their children becomes part of the culture, generational. Parents tell the kids, this is what I had to do when I was your age, so this is what you’re going to do. And that’s part of the problem. When something becomes culturally accepted, the laws reflect that as well. We can’t help a country until they establish laws making that illegal.”
“If I’m understanding this correctly, we have more than one problem,” Henry said. “We’ve got the people selling kids for sex, but we’ve also got the pedophiles paying for sex.”
“The guys don’t even have to be paying for sex for us to arrest them. Even looking at child pornography is illegal, and we’d like to catch them before they become a contact offender.”
“What’s a contact offender?” Henry asked.
“Someone who is actively seeking sexual interaction with a child,” Xavier explained. “Usually child pornographers will eventually want to take action and that’s when they become a contact offender.”
“How many of these guys do you think there are?”
“Well, if there are two million children in sex slavery, consider what kind of number justifies that demand.”
“Switching topics for a minute,” Henry stopped them. “You don’t normally have a billionaire prince walk up and hand you a couple million dollars. How do you get enough money to do these raids?”
“We have a few big donors, plus fundraisers. We never have enough money though. Although we now have law enforcement units in 26 countries, we can’t keep up with the demand. With each new request for assistance we have to evaluate whether that country is able to handle the stress of taking on this magnitude. We can give them all the tools and training but they have to have the infrastructure to sustain the program. With limited resources, we have to go wherever we’ll be able to make the biggest difference.”
“For today let’s go make a difference for a couple of girls on a Mayan reservation in Belize.” Henry felt a sense of peace even after hearing those horrific details. If he could save even one child, it was worth the risk to his life and his job.
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.
“Tell me more about the situation in Guatemala.” Army Captain Henry Stephenson pulled up a chair between Monroe and their grandfather, Senator Cohen so that they could face Aaron and Felicia. He spoke in Spanish and directed his attention to Felicia.
“The problem is actually in Belize.” Felicia seemed relieved to speak in her native language, but also to have everyone taking her seriously. “I live in a border town between Guatemala and Belize. Our two countries have been in a civil war for many years and the Mayans agreed to stop fighting in exchange for a reserved land for them to live.
“The reservation spans across both borders and neither country seems to want to claim jurisdiction of the reservation. When some of the girls started going missing on the Belize side of the border those of us in Guatemala just assumed that it was men in Belize who were stealing the girls. But when we went up there to talk to the Mayans, we found out the people stealing the girls were not Belize but from America.”
Both officers took a soft gasp at that revelation. Now maybe they understood why the United States needed to get involved.
“What is the Belize government doing about it?” Monroe asked.
“So far they haven’t done anything,” Aaron said. “I’m not even sure they know what’s going on. If they do, there are corrupt people within the government who are stopping them from accomplishing any sort of intervention on behalf of the girls.”
“Where are the Americans taking the girls?” Henry asked.
“We think they’re taking them to a port town called Belize City where they are either selling them or using them as sex slaves right there at the resort town.”
“Well, my experience is with refugees,” Henry said. “But I know of a nonprofit called Operation Freedom Warriors who help take down human trafficking rings. I’ll try to get in touch with the people on the ground in Belize. Why don’t I fly down there with you and assess the situation and then we can go from there.”
“Can you get the time off from the Army like that?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, I have some paid leave available right now, and we’re not deployed so I can take a few days off.”
Aaron had never known what it was like to depend on a paycheck. He wondered how hard that must be. He wished he could figure out a way to use his money in a more philanthropic manner. He would keep an eye open for his opportunity to be of service.
For now, the best way he could help is to rescue these young girls and bring them back to their families.
He was thankful to have Monroe and Henry assisting.
Krystina Stephenson, Alex’s mom, had taken it upon herself to tuck Felicia under her wing and stay by her side the entire wedding and most of the reception since Aaron would be busy with the wedding party.
Aaron watched them from the head table, wishing he could be the one introducing his wife to all their friends and family. Sometimes they would point over toward Aaron and the person would smile and wave and congratulate Felicia.
Finally, when dinner was over and the cake had been cut and the wedding party was free to disperse, Aaron went to find his bride, and then his grandfather.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Felicia said when she was finally in Aaron’s arms. “I thought I’d never get you back.”
“You have me forever, my darling.” Aaron leaned closer and lifted her chin delicately, afraid if he kissed his bride with too much passion, he’d end up sneaking her away somewhere and doing things that needed to wait until later that night. He forced himself to remember the kidnapped girls and lifted his gaze to search the room for his grandfather, Senator Alejandro Cohen.
They found the senator at a table with Aaron’s cousin, Monroe, who was dressed in full uniform, having recently promoted to the rank of Captain in the United States Army. He was receiving almost as much attention and congratulations as the bride and groom.
Monroe kept standing up whenever someone approached him to shake his hand or thank him for his service.
Aaron was surprised to find two open seats beside their grandfather, and he led Felicia to sit closest to the senator while he tucked up behind her practically wrapping her in a little cocoon of his loving arms.
“Greetings my young prince,” his grandfather said. “All grown up and brought your adorable wife to meet me.” He reached out and held Felicia’s hand between his own, a peaceful smile breaking through his political façade.
“Hola, Abuelo,” Aaron said. “Esta es Felicia.”
“My dear, welcome to the family,” their grandfather answered in Spanish, taking Aaron’s cue.
“She’s sort of already part of the family,” Aaron said. “Felicia is your brother, Santiago’s granddaughter.”
“Well, how extraordinary.”
“Grandpa, we need your help.” Aaron heard the desperation in his own voice. “Some girls near where Felicia lives in Guatemala have been kidnapped from their refugee camp and we found out they’re being trafficked as sex slaves. We need to get the U.S. government involved somehow.”
“You should talk to our cousin, Henry,” Monroe interjected. “His position in the Army specializes in helping refugees.”
“Really? I didn’t know we had a cousin named Henry.” Aaron was trying to mentally search back in their family tree. His paternal grandfather, Prince Benjamin, had only one son, his father, Prince Marcos. His maternal grandfather, Alejandro, had two children, his mom Hazel and her twin brother Mateo, who was Monroe’s dad. He didn’t have any other cousins, that he knew of. “Are you talking about Alex’s cousin?”
“Yes, Henry is Alexander’s cousin.” Monroe glanced across the room to where Alex was dancing with Ellen on his lap, on his wheelchair, in the middle of the dancefloor, cheek to cheek, swaying to the soft beat of a love song. “Son of Alexander’s dad’s brother, Frederick. He’d be, like, our second cousin twice removed or something weird like that. We’ll just call him our cousin and be good.”
“Is he here?” Aaron asked, looking around the room.
“He’s on the dance floor, fighting off every eligible bachelorette in the reception hall. He’s the guy in uniform.”
“Another officer,” Aaron said. “I’m impressed.”
“Another captain, actually,” Monroe corrected him.
“Double impressed,” Aaron said. “Congratulations on your new commission, by the way.”
“Thank you.” Monroe nodded his head with subdued humility. He was the epitome of what every serviceman vowed when taking the oath to defend all enemies, foreign and domestic.
“Thank you, for your service. I’m honored to call you my cousin.”
“Likewise, Your Highness.”
“Now, now, none of that,” Aaron said. “I abdicated my throne, remember?”
“Whatever. Once a spoiled little prince, always a spoiled little prince.”
“Once a cocky older cousin, always a cocky older cousin.”
“You know it.” Monroe reached over for a fist bump then stood and straightened his uniform. “I’ll go drag our other cocky older cousin away from his harem and you can explain the situation to us like only civilians can. We’ll put our heads together and see if we can’t brainstorm some ways we can be of service.”
Phoebe didn’t look pregnant. Of course, what did Aaron know about anyone looking pregnant?
She looked happy.
Gus looked happy.
The rehearsal dinner went off without a hitch Friday night, and Saturday evening all the guys stood around in the backroom of the chapel waiting to go into the sanctuary and stand beside Gus as he took his wedding vows.
“Who would have thought less than a year ago when Phoebe slapped Gus across the face for trying to get her into a compromising position at Logan’s party that they’d be getting married?” Aaron stage-whispered to his brother, Owen.
“Who would have thought that you would be married to a feisty little girl from Guatemala less than three weeks after you met?” Owen replied.
“Wait, who got married?” That caught Gus’ attention and inadvertently all the other guys in the room.
“Aaron did.” Their brother, Hayden, patted Aaron on the shoulder and smirked at Gus. “Our oldest brother beat us to the altar.”
Aaron puffed up his chest and lifted his chin. “And I didn’t even have to get her pregnant to convince her to marry me.”
“Oh! Burn! He got you!” Jeers from around the room teased Gus and he stood there turning beet red.
“I did not get Phoebe pregnant on purpose,” Gus grumbled through clenched teeth. “Besides, that’s not exactly common knowledge.”
They all looked around the room at one another. The four brothers, Alex Jr., Alexander Sr., and Prince Marcos nodded and shrugged as if to say, we all knew.
“I’m a little offended I didn’t know until yesterday and had to find out from mom,” Aaron said. “You could have warned your oldest brother.”
“Not exactly the kind of thing you make an international phone call to admit.” Gus looked down at the floor. “Imagine my embarrassment having to tell mom and dad.”
“Son, no one’s judging you,” their dad said, then gave Aaron a pointed look.
“Shoot,” Alex Jr. said. “At least you can get your girlfriends and wives pregnant. I hope someday I’ll regain the use of that particular part of my body.” Alex placed his hands on the wheels of his wheelchair, and everyone grew quiet again.
“We all hope that too, son,” Alexander Sr. said, patting Alex on his shoulder. “For now, let’s all pull ourselves together and get this show on the road. Gus’s bride awaits.”
“And her morning sickness won’t kick in until tomorrow morning, so you should be able to have a fun night,” Owen said with a smirk.
That caused the taunts to start up again and they all teased Gus a few more times.
“Hey, guys, can I have a couple of minutes with my brothers and Alex?” Gus grew serious for a moment, glancing at Prince Marcos and Alexander, Sr.
“Sure, we’ll give you some privacy,” their dad said. “We need to get out there and help with the ushering anyway.”
Their fathers left the room and Gus led his brothers and Alex over to a little grouping of seats where the they could sit down and be at eye level with Alex.
“I just wanted to thank you guys,” Gus said. “The five of us are the only people who experienced the full trauma of our accident and I just wanted to thank you all again for sticking together. I don’t think I could have gotten through this past year without you.”
“I know I couldn’t have,” Alex said.
“We pulled each other through the past year,” Aaron said. “And things are only going to continue to improve. Alex, I think you’ll eventually make a full recovery, and I’m pretty sure Ellen will stand beside you even if you don’t. Owen, maybe you’ll find a girl crazy enough to date you. And, Hayden, don’t get the Princess Miranda pregnant.”
“Are you kidding?” Hayden feigned a gasp. “I do not want to feel the wrath of her father. It’s going to be hard enough to stand before the king of Madain Saleh and ask permission to marry his daughter?”
“Good luck with that,” Aaron said then turned to Gus. “And seriously, man, you’ll be a great dad. Things will all work out.”
“On that note, let’s go get Daddy Warbucks here married so he can give that baby mamma his last name, and a small fortune as an inheritance. You did get a prenuptial agreement, right?” Aaron asked.
“Very funny.” Gus stood and the brothers followed his lead.
He held open the door for Alex to wheel through, then Aaron, Owen and Hayden took their places at the front of the sanctuary. Alex followed in his wheelchair sitting beside Gus as his best man.
At the last minute, Aaron and Gus each took an arm and helped Alex out of his chair while Owen pulled the wheelchair back and out of the way so Alex could be on his feet for the ceremony and photos.
A lot had changed in the past year, but a lot had stayed the same. The four brothers and their honorary prince side-by-side in solidarity, lucky to be alive and ready to face this next phase in their lives.
“How on earth are we supposed to stay dressed long enough to sit through tonight’s rehearsal dinner?” Aaron mumbled close to Felicia’s ear, pulling her hair aside to trail kisses along her throat.
“They don’t actually need us there, right?” Felicia reached for the buttons of Aaron’s shirt. “Let’s just stay here.”
“Your Highness, need I remind you that you are in mixed company?” the limo driver called from the front seat. “You may want to wait until later tonight for any further… uh… entanglements.”
Aaron groaned and reluctantly shifted Felicia so that she was no longer straddling his waist and set her on his legs sideways. A much less compromising position. She snuggled into his arms like he was holding a baby. He could still feel every inch of her body where a regrettably present article of clothing draped between him and his new bride. He admitted the limo driver had a point. He needed to calm down and wait for later tonight. As tortuous as that would be.
“My father warned me that we needed to be there, and be on time,” Aaron told Felicia, not expecting the limo driver, Dalton to answer.
“Which is why I’m breaking the speed limit on your behalf because I had to drag you out of bed by your ears,” Dalton said.
“I could fire you for that,” Aaron said.
“No, you can’t. Your father has been paying my salary longer than you’ve been alive. And I’d bet a million dollars he’d take my side over yours on this one.”
“You don’t have a million dollars,” Aaron said.
“How do you know? Your father pays me handsomely to be at his beck and call. And unfortunately, your beck and call,” Dalton grumbled.
“I usually drive myself,” Aaron said. “It’s not my fault he made you come back for me.”
“He knew you wouldn’t get out of bed on time and you’d ruin your brother’s rehearsal dinner. There are going to be senators, royalty, and dignitaries at this wedding, you know.”
“Yes, I’m very aware of that,” Aaron said. “Present company included.”
“Are you mad at each other?” Felicia asked with true concern on her face.
“Yes,” Aaron said.
“No,” Dalton said simultaneously. “Your husband is very easy to tease. He always has been.”
“He calls it teasing,” Aaron said. “I call it torture and abuse.”
“You don’t know the definition of torture and abuse,” Dalton said.
“Actually, I do.” That sobered Aaron right up and calmed his body down. Thinking of all those girls who were still in captivity made him feel guilty that he and Felicia were in America rather than trying to rescue them. He gently moved his bride off his lap and held her hand. “That’s why we need to make it a point to have a conversation with Senator Alejandro Cohen at the reception. We need to see if we can get some help from the U.S. government.”
“Do you think he will help us?” Felicia asked, biting her lower lip. That was very distracting, but Aaron attempted to focus his thoughts.
“I hope so,” Aaron said. “He is my grandfather, after all.”
“Is there anything the senator can actually do to help though?” Dalton asked.
“I don’t know,” Aaron answered honestly. Aaron’s first thought was how forward the limo driver was to butt into their private conversation, but then remembered that Dalton knew way more than Aaron did about pretty much everything. By sitting in Dalton’s limo, Aaron had de facto included Dalton in their conversation. Plus, he and Felicia needed all the help they could get.
“Your Highness, may I have a word with you?” Aaron paused at the entryway to his parents’ bedroom early Friday morning. He seemed to stand in entryways frequently of late.
“Son? What can we do for you?” His father, Prince Marcos Sayid, once again serving as crown prince to his cousin, the recently coronated king of Madain Saleh, sat at his roll top desk in the corner of the bedroom suite he shared with the most beautiful princess in the world, Aaron’s mother, Hazel Cohen-Sayid.
His mother stepped out of her adjoining bathroom with a cosmetic compact in one hand and a make-up brush in the other. Her eyes amused, she grinned and predicted correctly. “Let me guess, you’ve come to raid my jewelry closet.”
There wasn’t even a question to her prediction, merely an acknowledgement. She stepped back into the bathroom and set her cosmetics on the counter then entered their large walk-in closet and began turning the dial on the safe.
“After that two-hour make-out session last night, this was inevitable.”
“That was less than an hour and the door was open the whole time.”
“Yes, I know, son. I’ve been around this block a few times. At least you didn’t get your girlfriend pregnant like your brother did.” She glanced up with apprehension. “Or did you?”
“Wait, what? Who’s pregnant?” Aaron felt like he’d been punched in the chest.
“Oh, oops, didn’t realize he hadn’t told you. Kinda thought you kids were closer than that.”
“I have been out of the country for three weeks,” Aaron said, his head swimming. “No one tells me anything. Is the Princess Miranda pregnant? Or Phoebe? Or… did Owen somehow get a girlfriend I don’t know about?”
“Seriously? You have to ask?” His mom raised her eyebrows. “Who’s getting married tomorrow?”
“Gus and Phoebe…” Aaron whispered.
“Why else would someone get married a month after high school when they were barely eighteen?”
“Uh… Princess?” his dad interrupted. “You and I were married less than two months after your high school graduation, and you had just turned eighteen.”
“Eh, you just married me so you could force a crown on my head and give me a title.” She waved her hand dismissively.
“Don’t forget a gleaming white palace and free reign with a paintbrush,” his dad reminded her.
“You guys aren’t making any sense. I’m extremely disappointed in my youngest brother, and can I please raid your jewelry closet? I’d like to take Felicia over to the courthouse this afternoon so tonight we will be legally allowed to close the door to the guest bedroom and hope that the rush of water from the waterfall drowns out any sound that may escape that room.”
“That was way more information than your mother wanted to hear. But I’m glad you’re doing things in the correct order for the first time since you realized you were a man, and that girls existed.” She stepped back and held open the door to her safe. “Take your pick.”
“Thank you, Mother, for that grim reminder of my not-so-distant sinful past.” Aaron stepped into the closet, kissed his mother’s cheek, and leaned closer to the gleaming selection. “Got any suggestions?”
“Well, girls love diamonds, but Felicia originates from a humble neighborhood so she’s not going to want something too ostentatious…” She perused the selection then picked out a simple but elegant diamond ring that could have been a hundred year’s old. “This belonged to your great-grandmother, Princess Lyla Sayid, and is one of only a few surviving Le Vian diamond rings crafted in Persia in the late seventeen hundreds. She found this at a jewelry bazaar and paid next to nothing for it—a few thousand dollars, I think—took it home to New York City the next time she visited her parents, and the jeweler said the value is inestimable.”
“Mom, I can’t take that!” Aaron stepped back and lifted his hands in the air lest his mother try to force the priceless piece of jewelry into his hand. “What if it got lost?”
“What if it got left in a safe for hundreds more years and no one ever relished its beauty?” she asked, holding the little ring out for Aaron’s inspection. “Someone should enjoy this ring. Your bride deserves to be treated like a princess even though we won’t be holding a coronation at the courthouse, and even though she will probably never understand its value. She’s marrying a prince, for heaven’s sake. Let her wear the jewelry of a princess.”
Aaron carefully lifted the priceless diamond ring from his mother’s hand with tears pricking the corners of his eyes. “Are you sure about this?”
“Positive.” His mom’s whisper was husky with emotion. “Now go marry that woman before you do something stupid like your brother did. Attempt to make it to the chapel in time for the rehearsal dinner tonight.”
“If I’m getting married this afternoon, I make no promises that I’ll be presentable in mixed company for the rehearsal dinner tonight.”
“Son, I expect to see you there and on time,” his dad said, never having risen from his chair at his desk where he was typing something on his laptop.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Aaron said with apologetic remorse.
“And, come here, son.” Prince Marcos rose from his seat as Aaron crossed the room and his dad pulled him into his arms. “I’m proud of you. I don’t think I tell you that enough.”
“Love you, Dad,” Aaron whispered.
“Love you too, my boy,” his dad said. They pulled away and looked each other in the eye, man-to-man. “Oh, and don’t forget to bring a couple of your brothers with you to the courthouse. You’ll need two witnesses.”
“Hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for the reminder.” Aaron crossed the room and gave his mom one more hug. “I going to get married.”
Aaron hurried from his parents’ bedroom suite more excited than he could remember ever being in his life. He was getting married.
“What do you think of my parents’ house?” Aaron asked Felicia. He leaned against the doorframe of the nicest guest bedroom of the tree house. Aaron had insisted his new girlfriend should have the largest room with the most luxurious bathroom suite, the best view of the waterfall, and most importantly, the largest bed. He wanted her to be pampered beyond her limited imagination.
“This is incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Most people had never seen anything like the tree house that had been built literally over a waterfall on the Landsman River in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.
“How do you like America?”
“I love it. I never thought I would ever have a chance to come here.” Felicia pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees like an excited little girl stuck within the incredible body of the woman he’d fallen in love with. The king-sized bed where she sat surrounded by pillows and comforters was larger than her entire bedroom back home. The bedroom she shared with two of her sisters.
“Any chance you might like to make America a more permanent location to live?” Why was he nervous all of a sudden? Felicia had been the one who had instigated their meeting. She had called Aaron all the way from her father’s small, crowded home in Guatemala practically insisting that they were meant to be together. She had followed him to America to attend his brother’s wedding and hadn’t stopped smiling since the private jet landed.
“I would love that.” Felicia’s voice softened as if she could tell the conversation had shifted from the excitement of visiting his family’s home to an invitation for them to take their relationship to the next level. “Any chance you would be interested in having me here on a more permanent basis?”
“I think I would love to have you here. But I think I would want you to be my wife first.”
She gulped but didn’t answer him, the expression on her face both expectant and stunned.
“I’m having a really hard time with you here in that bed and not being able to climb in next to you.” Aaron’s voice lowered to a frustrated huskiness.
“I’m having a really hard time not inviting you to climb in next to me.”
“I don’t like the idea of taking you back to your parents’ house and dropping you off and then going to my hotel room and not seeing you again for a whole night.”
“Then don’t.” Her eyes beckoned him to take her with him to his hotel room.
“You would need to be my wife in order to spend the night with me.”
“Then make me your wife.”
“How would your parents feel if you came home to Guatemala as a married woman?”
“They would probably throw a feast in celebration.”
“They wouldn’t be angry with you?” Aaron hesitated. “Or angry with me?”
“They would be angrier if you defiled me before we were married,” Felicia said. “And the way I feel right now, all I want is for you come here and lay with me.”
“Did you bring your birth certificate and passport with you?”
“Of course, I would not have been able to come into America without it.”
“Would you like to come with me tomorrow down to the courthouse and apply for a marriage license?”
“I would very much like that.”
Aaron could barely breathe. “I want to marry you, Felicia.”
“I want to marry you too Aaron.”
“I should probably do this correctly.” Aaron walked forward toward the bed, lowered himself to his knees and took her hands in his. “Felicia Cohen, will you do me the honor becoming my bride?”
“Yes, Prince Aaron Sayid, I will.”
Aaron didn’t hesitate. He climbed up into the bed with her and held her in his arms and pressed his lips to hers.
He kissed her for almost an hour, wishing he could do more, looking forward to the next few days when he would be allowed to do more. When he would be allowed to show her physically everything he had wanted to tell her emotionally.
Aaron wanted to finally make love to a woman who he loved instead of having a one-night stand, or worse. He now knew that sex was not meant to be casual; it was meant to be shared between two people who loved one another and were joined in legal matrimony. He never dreamed he would think this. A lot had changed in the past year, and Aaron was a changed man.
Felicia was the woman that Aaron wanted to be with for the rest of his life, and he wanted to start his life right now. But he loved and respected her enough, and he respected himself enough, to wait another day or two.
Aaron dragged all the willpower he had inside himself in order to leave Felicia’s bed and walk down the hall and climb into his own.
“Look at you, stud,” Aaron said as he walked into the tux shop where his youngest brother Gus was getting fitted for his tux. “You’re all grown up.”
“Aaron!” Gus turned to his oldest brother, causing the tailor to poke himself with a straight pin. He swore under his breath but that didn’t stop Gus from hopping off the low podium and rushing over to hug his brother.
Owen and Hayden also came over to hug Aaron, then their father, and finally Alex, Jr. all of whom were already dressed in their tuxes. Seemed Aaron was the last guy to be fitted.
Aaron’s plane had been delayed by a thunderstorm over Guatemala City, typical for summer in Central America. He was cutting things close arriving two days before Gus’ wedding anyway. Having come straight from the airport to the tux shop, Aaron brought a guest.
He glanced carefully around the dressing room before asking, “Is everyone fully dressed in here?”
Not waiting for a firm answer, Aaron ducked back out the curtained dressing area and re-entered holding Felicia’s hand. Walking into a room full of mostly strangers, Felicia clung to Aaron’s arm with an unusual and temporary shyness.
“Felicia!” Owen stepped forward and pulled her into a hug, as did Hayden. That helped break down her shell.
She hugged them back with a big smile, already relaxing into her bubbly personality.
Most of the guys knew enough Spanish to hold a full conversation but Aaron didn’t worry about their ability to understand her. He focused his attention on Felicia, introducing all of them in her native language.
“This is my father, Prince Marcos Sayid,” Aaron said in Spanish, gently pulling her forward.
“A pleasure to finally meet you,” his dad answered, also in Spanish, pulling her into a hug.
“You as well,” Felicia said, allowing herself to be engulfed in his father’s warm embrace.
“And this is my youngest brother, Gus,” Aaron said, pulling her away from his father. “He’s the one who’s getting married.”
“Congratulations,” Felicia said, also hugging Gus.
“And over here is my brother’s best friend, Alex.”
Alex and Felicia shook hands rather than her trying to awkwardly lean over his wheelchair.
“Alex is also your third cousin,” Aaron told Felicia. “His father, Alexander, was the only son of Alexandria, who was your grandfather’s sister.”
“So many cousins.” Felicia laughed with a shake of her head. “How will I remember everyone?”
“You don’t have to remember anyone.” Aaron wrapped his arm around her and rubbed her shoulder. “We have a big family.”
“We also have a big day ahead of us,” his father said. “So, let’s get you fitted for your tux. You two are probably exhausted from your flight and want to get home. Can I help you find a couple of bottles of water and some snacks?” He guided Felicia over to a settee near an elegant refrigerator stock full of drinks and finger foods.
Aaron left his girlfriend in good hands and followed the tailor into a nearby private dressing room. He stepped into his tux and re-entered the main dressing area, then stood on the low platform for his fitting.
He watched the guys fussing over Felicia and knew she would blend in just fine with his family. This confirmed what he already had decided. He planned to marry that girl, and soon.
“Let me see if we’re all on the same page,” Aaron said, glancing around the table at his brothers and friends. “The six of us pile into Joab’s Highlander—”
“If we all fit with luggage and everything,” Hayden interrupted.
“—if we all fit,” Aaron acknowledged. “Then we’ll drive to Flores and drop Hayden and Owen off at the airport so they can return to the States.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m looking forward to some good Middle Eastern cuisine.” Owen rubbed his belly in anticipation.
“Maybe we should stop at the Garden House down in Rosendale on our way home,” Hayden suggested. He and Own reached out for a fist bump.
“You guys can do whatever the heck you want once you return to the States, but let’s get back on track.” Aaron was excited to get this planned. “The rest of us will drive south to Guatemala City, find the passport issue center or embassy or whatever they call it, get Felicia fingerprinted, photographed, and issued a passport—”
“Which is going to cost a small fortune,” Felicia said in a hesitant voice.
Aaron considered her hesitancy for a moment. He knew she was excited to come with him to the States. But that was about the fifth time she’d been concerned about money since he’d met her. He’d have to look deeper into that one of these days. For now, he needed to get her onto an airplane and take her home with him.
“I have plenty of money, darling. It’s okay.” Aaron lifted their adjoined hands and kissed the back of hers, then continued, bringing a little humor into the conversation. “You and I will board a jet in Guatemala City and Joab and Kisa can ride off into the sunset together and live happily ever after.”
“Until you return to the Republic and require my services again to drive you around so you can solve all the problems in Central America and bring about world peace.” Everyone chuckled at Joab’s joke not acknowledging Aaron’s insinuation that Joab and Kisa we officially a couple.
“Exactly,” Aaron said. “Everyone on board?” They all nodded.
“Let’s get packing.” Owen stood and pushed his chair back.
“Uh… I don’t own a suitcase,” Felicia said.
“Guess it’s time to go shopping.” Aaron stood and offered her his hand.
“I don’t have a lot of money.” Felicia spoke softly, turning her head as if speaking to just Aaron even though there were four other people in the room.
“Let’s you and I go take a walk out to the pasture and check on Lui,” Aaron whispered. He took her hand and pulled her gently away from the table. This had been a stroll they’d taken several times in the past few days since Aaron arrived in Guatemala. The goat pasture was within view of the house, but away from listening ears.
“Okay.” Felicia allowed Aaron to lead her out the back door.
“Do you remember when we first spoke on the phone?” Aaron asked when they were far enough from the house. “You told me you could never afford to come to the States. Remember?”
“Yes, I remember.” They had reached the fence where Lui hurried over to have his nose rubbed.
“And what did I do?” Aaron asked.
“You came here instead.”
“Now that I’m here, I want to bring you back with me.” Aaron reached out a finger and lifted Felicia’s chin so that she met his gaze. “I invited you to come with me and I intend to pay for everything we do, everywhere we go, everything we eat. I want to spoil you like the princess that you are.”
“I’m not a princess, Aaron.”
“When you’re on the arm of a prince… you’re a princess.”
“Are you my prince charming?” Felicia had a tiny smile playing along her lips.
“If you’ll have me as your prince charming.” Aaron’s heart raced with happiness and love and devotion wrapped up in the mysteriously colorful eyes of this Hispanic beauty standing before him. “For now, let me buy you a suitcase, and an airplane ticket, and take you home with me so you can meet my parents, and see if you like the United States as much as you think you will. Heck, you might hate it there and decide I’m not such a charming prince after all.”
“I doubt that.” Felicia playfully slapped Aaron on his chest and he took the advantage to pull her into his arms.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to do for hours.” Aaron’s voice lowered to a husky whisper.
“What have you wanted to do?” Felicia lifted her face to his as if she already suspected.
“I want to kiss you again,” he whispered.
“Do you think anyone’s watching from the house?” she whispered back.
“I really don’t care.” Aaron closed the distance between them and molded his lips to hers, pulling her body close until every nerve ending in his body connected with every nerve ending in hers. He wanted to kiss her every day and night for the rest of his life, but one hurdle at a time.
Lui pushed his furry nose between them, demanding attention from the girl who feeds him every day. Aaron and Felicia both chuckled as they were separated.
“Someday, I’m going to have the chance to kiss you and no one will interrupt us,” Aaron said.
“Someday,” she whispered back.
“For now, let’s go shopping.” He raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to agree.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Let’s go shopping.”
Aaron and his brothers received a group text simultaneously and pulled their cell phones from their pockets. A family group text was often life-changing news, like someone has died and we’re flying to Saudi Arabia. Get packed. This one was just as shocking.
They stopped the game they were playing with all the little cousins in the street outside of Felicia’s house. They were losing anyway. The cousins thought it was funny that they could beat Aaron and his brothers at Chasumcas because they knew the rules better or maybe they kept changing the rules. The brothers had a tendency to play the game as if it were soccer, which it wasn’t. They weren’t really playing to win, just to keep the little cousins busy while the ladies prepared an evening meal.
Aaron, Hayden and Owen walked toward one another with their phones in hand and when they were far enough away from the kids, Aaron read out loud,
“You are cordially invited to attend the wedding of your brother, Prince Augustus Sayid to the lovely Phoebe Harris on Saturday, June 26th at 3:00 p.m. Please prepare to return from your vacation.” The text was from Alex Stephenson, Junior, Gus’ best friend.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Owen’s jaw dropped.
“I’m declaring the wager right now,” Hayden said. “Pregnant? Or not pregnant?”
“Pregnant,” Owen said confidently.
“Not pregnant,” Aaron said. “Gus wouldn’t do that.”
Owen and Hayden both snickered.
“Have you seen the way they look at each other?” Owen asked. “This was inevitable.”
“I thought he had turned his life around.” Aaron’s heart sunk.
“A man only has so much willpower,” Hayden said. “Believe me, I know.”
“You had better not get the king’s daughter pregnant,” Aaron warned.
“The Princess Miranda is in New York City attending college under the watchful eye of her older brother, Prince Ethan. I don’t think there’s any danger of that.”
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to make the wrong choice under the right circumstances.” Aaron glanced across the yard as the beautiful Felicia Cohen set a stack of paper plates on the picnic table. She looked up and smiled back at him. “Too easy.”
“Well, it looks like we’ll be packing up and heading home to America,” Owen said.
Hayden wrapped his arm around his brother’s shoulders and followed Aaron’s gaze. “What’cha gonna do about that?”
“Find out if she has a passport.” With his phone still in his hand and the text message still on the screen, Aaron strode with purpose across the yard to where Felicia was helping her mother and aunt lay out food for dinner.
“Ladies, can I steal Felicia for a moment?” Aaron didn’t wait for them to answer just snaked his arm around Felicia’s back and pulled her gently away. When he had her sufficiently out of earshot, he whispered, “I need to speak with you and your father.”
“My father?” Felicia’s purposely innocent expression and batting eyelashes told Aaron she knew exactly what he wanted to ask her father. “He’s probably in his office.”
Perfect. Dominic would be ready to talk business if there was a desk between them. The first part of this conversation needed to stay professional. Aaron took Felicia’s hand and led her into the house to the office where her father ran their business and household finances.
“Padre?” Felicia knocked on her father’s open door, and Dominic lifted his head, pulling his attention away from the ledger on his desk. “Can we interrupt you for a moment?”
“Of course.” Dominic removed his reading glasses and tucked them into the collar of his shirt. “What can I do for you?”
“Sir, I just received a text asking us to return to the States because our youngest brother is getting married in a few days.”
“You’re leaving?” Felicia gripped Aaron’s hand tighter.
“Well, that’s the thing, I wondered if… maybe”—Aaron glanced at Felicia and then squared his shoulders and face her father— “if maybe Felicia could come home with me to the States. There will be a lot of extended family at the wedding and she could meet her cousins.”
“Oh! Please, Daddy, can I go?” Felicia sounded so young begging her father’s permission to leave the country even though she was twenty-one years old.
Aaron felt just as old fashioned asking her father’s permission, but these were the traditions he needed to respect.
“He’s very young.” Dominic’s brow creased. “Are you talking about Augustus?”
“Yes, Gus and Phoebe, his high school girlfriend.” Aaron let his statement hang in the air, waiting to see what Dominic would say.
“Do you plan to return to Guatemala?” Dominic asked.
Aaron wasn’t sure if Dominic was asking Aaron or Felicia. He decided just to answer in the collective. “We still need to help rescue the Mayan girls who have been stolen from their families. So, yes, we’ll be back.”
“True…” Dominic tapped his pencil against his lips.
“We’ll also have the opportunity to talk to my grandfather, Senator Alejandro Cohen,” Aaron said. “He might have some suggestions on how to get help from the U.S. government.”
“Your grandfather is my uncle.” Dominic raised his eyebrows. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“Maybe you’d like to come with us also?” Aaron suggested.
“I have a business to run here. But thank you for the offer.”
“Can I go, Padre?” Felicia asked.
“You don’t have a passport.” Dominic sounded like he was looking for a reason to forbid her to go but didn’t really have one. After all, his daughter was an adult.
“There’s time. I can get one.”
“Well, let’s see if that’s possible before I make any promises.”
“Oh, thank you daddy!”
This was almost an admission of acceptance. But there was one more thing that Aaron needed to do. He turned to Felicia.
“Could I have a moment alone with your father?”
“Of course,” she said, lifting from her chair. “I’ll just go help with dinner.” She leaned down and kissed Aaron on the cheek. He wanted more than a kiss on the cheek, but he would have to wait until later for that.
As Felicia left the room, Aaron stood and pulled the door shut so that he had Dominic’s attention all to himself and privacy for this part of the conversation.
“Sir, I think you know why I want to speak with you, so I won’t beat around the bush. I’m not going to presume that Felicia will be willing, but I would like your blessing to request her hand in marriage. If, while we are visiting America, I get the impression that she would like to be my wife. I don’t want to take away her right to choose by asking you exclusively for your permission, but I would like your blessing to ask her if she wants to marry me.”
“I have no doubt in my mind what Felicia’s answer will be,” Dominic said with a chuckle.
“Nor do I,” Aaron said with a relieved, shaky breath. “But what are your thoughts on the subject?”
“I can’t think of a better man to take care of my little girl.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Aaron lowered his gaze and wrung his hands in his lap. “I haven’t always been the kind of man worthy of your daughter. But I will do the best I can to make myself worthy going forward.”
“I know you will, son,” Dominic said. “We all have a past, and not one of us is perfect.”
“Thank you for your grace.” Aaron felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders now that he’d admitted to Felicia and her father that he had made some bad choices as a youth.
“Now, go do some research and find out what it’s going to take to get that girl a passport,” Dominic said. “It’s time you introduce her to your family and ask their blessing as well.”
“Right away, Sir.” Aaron hopped up from his chair and reached for Dominic’s hand in a show of respect. He thanked the man he was certain to be his future father-in-law and hurried from the room.
“Oh my gosh! You have this whole bed to yourself?” Felicia climbed up onto the king-sized bed in Aaron’s hotel suite. Aaron had made good on his promise to take the girls to dinner at the resort and show them their ostentatious hotel rooms. Felicia was particularly drawn to Aaron’s bed. “I want to sleep on this bed.” She sprawled her arms and legs across the bed as far as she could reach in all directions.
Aaron’s jaw dropped and he groaned in frustration, bumping his head against the side of the door jam. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Good luck with that, dude.” Owen patted Aaron on the shoulder as he brushed passed to enter his own hotel room.
Hayden paused and draped his arm around Aaron in mock solidarity. His voice was low and sympathetic. “How long’s it been, man?”
“Too long,” Aaron squeaked out. “Help.”
“This is all you,” Hayden said. “I’ll echo Owen’s sentiment. Good luck.” Hayden did the unthinkable. He walked away. Leaving Aaron alone with the most beautiful girl he’d ever met lying across his bed.
“You should come sit with me,” Felicia said, maneuvering up to lay her head on one of the pillows. “This is the greatest bed I’ve ever seen.” If she knew how tempting she was, she wouldn’t be encouraging him. Then again, maybe she would.
“I respect her. I respect me. I respect her father,” Aaron chanted softly as he thumped his forehead against the doorframe again. “Her father would kill me. My father would kill me. My mother would kill me. Her mother would probably feed me. Okay, that decides it.”
Aaron pushed away from the doorframe, leaving the door wide open just in case his body didn’t realize he was joking. With controlled strides he walked across the room reminding himself with each step that nothing was going to happen.
He would keep his hands to himself. He would keep his thoughts as pure as he possibly could. He would calm himself down so he could concentrate on getting to know Felicia as the beautiful human being she was and not the beautiful body that was lying on his bed.
Sitting cautiously on the edge of the bed, he swung one leg up and then the other, maintaining distance by sitting facing her rather than beside her. She wasn’t having that. Felicia sat up and reached for him, tickling him beneath his arms. That set him off and he had to retaliate, tackling her in the process.
Felicia squealed playfully as Aaron tickled her and nuzzled his face against her neck, placing a quick kiss there before she could object. Not that she would have. He could easily take complete advantage of her in that moment and she would have been willing to get carried away.
He reigned in his own desires and stopped tickling her, instead he lay beside her and propped himself up on one elbow, gazing down into her now serene face.
“You like my bed, huh?” Aaron asked, reaching up and lifting a strand of hair off her face.
“I’ve never slept in a bed this big,” she said. “Heck, I don’t usually get to sleep in a bed by myself.”
“If you slept in this bed, you wouldn’t be by yourself.” Aaron was aware his voice lowered, and his breathing increased.
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” she answered, her lids heavy and more sensual than they’d been the moment before.
“Are you?” Aaron pulled his bottom lip between his teeth knowing from experience what his sultry gaze did to women. “And is that something you want?”
“I want”—she paused for dramatic effect— “a lot of things.”
“Most of which you are not going to get right this moment.” Aaron lifted his hand and tapped his finger on the end of her nose. “Because I respect you.”
She sighed playfully. “Darn.”
“My sentiment exactly.” Aaron scrutinized her as if from afar and twisted his face in mock consideration. “There is one thing I can give you right now.”
“What is it?” Felicia’s hand wrapped into the fabric of Aaron’s shirt and she pulled him a little closer.
“Your first kiss,” he whispered.
“How do you know it would be my first kiss?” she asked.
“Will it be?” he baited her.
“Good guess then.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”
“What do you think?” Aaron averted his eyes.
“I think you’ve probably kissed many, many girls.”
“Does that bother you?” He toyed with the hem of her shirt where it rested just over the side pocket of her jeans, still avoiding her gaze.
“Have you kissed any girls since you met me?”
“Since you called me last week?” Aaron returned his gaze to hers. “No, I have not kissed any girls since you called me.”
“Do you want to kiss any girls besides me?” she asked.
“No ma’am, I do not.”
“Then what does it matter how many girls you’ve kissed in the past?”
“What if I’ve done a lot more than just kiss girls?” He wondered if this was the moment she would push him away and run from the room crying, discovering that the man of her dreams had defiled himself. Repeatedly. Had not waited a day beyond puberty to begin experimenting with any girl he could get his hands on. Had done things he’d be embarrassed to talk about, even with his brothers or his best friends.
“I’ll repeat my previous question,” she said in all seriousness. “Do you want to be with any girls besides me?”
Aaron shook his head softly, not daring to speak, not daring to believe that she would offer forgiveness that readily.
“Then what does it matter how many girls are in your past?” she whispered. “Everything from your past made you into the man you are today. The man I’m sort of crazy about.”
“The man you’re crazy about is sort of crazy about you too,” Aaron said.
“I know.” Felicia gripped her hand into his shirt again, pulling him down to meet her lips.
Drawing from years of experience, having learned what women want from a man, Aaron took his time, softly, gently, a feather touch before molding his lips to hers, deepening a kiss that could arguably be the best first kiss a girl could ever want.
“Oh, heck no! Get your hands off my niece,” Kisa said from the doorway.
Aaron was glad he’d left the door open and simultaneously frustrated that he’d left the door open. He groaned and pulled away slightly, his eyes unapologetically locked with Felicia’s. “Don’t worry, Aunt Kisa,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done anything.”
“Yeah right.” Kisa huffed and turned to leave the room. “Come on. Let’s go to dinner.”
“She wants to go to dinner,” Aaron whispered down to Felicia, who still lay in the crook of his arm, still gazing up at him with bedroom eyes.
“She must be as hungry as I am,” Felicia answered, also in a whisper.
“I doubt either of you are even close to being as hungry as I am.” Aaron leaned forward and placed another sweet kiss on Felicia’s lips then reluctantly pulled away and extricated himself from her arms. “Come on. Let’s go to dinner.”
“Felicia!” A woman came running as Aaron and his brothers entered the plaza with Felicia, Kisa, and Joab.
“Xpiayoc!” Felicia finally released Aaron’s hand and ran ahead to give her friend a hug.
Aaron discretely shook out his hand and wiped the sweat on his jeans. That was the longest time he’d ever held another person’s hand. Ten seconds later he longed to hold her again. He was becoming increasingly addicted to Felicia Cohen.
He approached the reunited childhood friends, staying a few feet back until Felicia realized he was there and pulled him close to introduce him to Xpiayoc. The woman pulled him into a hug and said something in a language he didn’t understand.
“She’s welcoming you to her village,” Felicia translated into Spanish. “They all understand the ancient Mayan language even though they mostly speak Spanish.”
“Do you know how to speak the Mayan language?” Aaron asked Felicia, realizing a little more how smart she was. Her childlike jubilance hid her intelligence well and he wondered if she used that to her advantage.
“Just a few phrases,” Felicia said. “That one’s easy because it’s so commonly used.”
“Thank you for that warm welcome,” Aaron said in Spanish, turning to Felicia’s friend. “Do you understand me?”
“Of course, I understand you,” Xpiayoc answered in Spanish. “Although, you are not very good at speaking Spanish.”
“No, I’m not,” Aaron acknowledged. “But I’m learning as quickly as I can. I have the best teacher in the world.” He pulled Felicia close and wrapped his arm around her back.
“And I am learning a little bit of English,” Felicia said in Spanish, pride creeping into her voice.
“Is this your husband?” Xpiayoc asked Felicia.
Aaron realized he hadn’t introduced himself. “I am Aaron Sayid, Felicia’s future husband.”
“Oh really?” Felicia looked up at him with a playful grin. “You have finally resigned yourself to the inevitability?”
“Honey, I resigned myself the first time I looked into your eyes.” They locked gazes for a few seconds and something passed between them that was powerful. Then they were interrupted.
“Let me get you some food and we can explain the situation with our missing daughters,” Xpiayoc said, waving them along.
He and Felicia followed, once again holding hands. Aaron felt whole again just connecting with her. He was keenly aware of his brothers behind him along with Kisa and Joab.
The food was delicious and abundant. A spicy meat with rice and homemade tortillas. Aaron’s mouth watered when the plate was placed before him.
He lost his appetite once the tribal chief began speaking.
“There is a stream nearby that we use to bathe and wash clothing. The first time one of our girls went missing we believe she went down to take a bath. She never came back. We insisted no one travel outside the immediate village alone. The second time, two girls disappeared at once.”
Aaron looked around the area they referred to as the village and couldn’t find any clearly defined boundaries. The trees were dense, the ground uneven and rocky, houses were built haphazardly and without design. The ancient structures of the Mayans were covered in hundreds of years of vegetation until the beauty that likely reigned in this area was shrouded and unrecognizable.
“Do you know for certain the girls were taken by people rather than wild animals?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, one of the younger girls in our tribe saw the two teenage girls being stolen by two men. The little girl couldn’t even scream fast enough to get anyone’s attention. She ran back to get help but by then there was no trace of the girls or the men. They had disappeared.”
“Did the little girl give a good description of the men?” Aaron asked.
“She said the men’s skin was light, very light compared to the girls.”
“That doesn’t sound like Belize,” Owen said. “Sounds more like Americans or Europeans.”
“Americans are the people paying big dollars to purchase sex slaves.” Joab’s statement was so matter of fact he could have been talking about the weather. “Dark skinned beauties are in high demand. Especially virgins.”
“That’s terrible.” Felicia tucked herself into Aaron’s side as if afraid she’d be the next person kidnapped if Aaron didn’t protect her.
He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close hoping to reassure her that he’d never let anything happen to her. He wished he could make sure nothing happened to any other girls.
“How many girls total have gone missing,” Kisa asked.
“Twenty-three,” the tribal leader said. There was a collective gasp between Aaron, his brothers, Felicia and Kisa. Joab didn’t seem surprised. Or if he was, he didn’t let his face show his emotions. “We are at a loss what to do.”
“Let us give it some thought and consult with our families,” Aaron said. “Our grandfather is a United States senator. He might have some ideas as well, especially if we can somehow prove that Americans are involved.”
“If we don’t know where they’ve gone, or who took them, how can you prove there are Americans involved?” Xpiayoc asked.
“I suspect we do know where they’ve been taken,” Joab said. “There is a thriving sex-trade and human trafficking operation in the harbor town of Belize City.”
“Good, we can go find our missing girls,” Felicia said with excitement.
“It’s not so easy.” Joab shook his head with sympathy. “You can’t just go walking up to the men and ask where they’re keeping their slaves. Especially a pretty girl like you.”
Felicia tucked herself close to Aaron again.
“Why isn’t someone doing something about this?” Aaron was beyond frustrated and having trouble keeping his anger at bay.
“There is a great deal of corruption within the Belize government,” Joab said. “One of the many reasons why Felicia didn’t want you to come to Belize. You are patronizing the enemy.”
“You sure know a great deal about all of this for just being a limo driver,” Aaron said with suspicion.
“Yes, I do.” Joab grinned with pride. “You’d be surprised what people say in the back of your limo when they don’t think you’re listening and assume you don’t understand English.”
“Huh… good point.” Aaron thought back to some of the things he and his brothers had done in the backseats of limousines. He glanced at Hayden and Owen and all three of them cringed. “Well, this has been an enlightening conversation.”
“How about if we take you for a tour of the village and you can get a better idea of where the girls were taken from and possibly interview some of the families involved,” the tribal leader said.
Aaron wanted to remind the man that they were not detectives but decided to follow the leader’s direction. Maybe later, he and his brothers could brainstorm with Felicia, Kisa, and Joab. He was determined to help somehow.
“Explain this to me as if you were my tour guide,” Aaron asked Joab and Kisa, who sat in the front seat of Highlander. He asked in English because this was too important for his limited vocabulary in Spanish.
“That is what you hired me for, yes?” Joab grinned at Aaron through the rearview mirror. “To be your tour guide.” He kept his hands on the steering wheel as they moved away from the Guatemala border and into Belize.
“I actually know the history better than the rest of you,” Kisa said.
“Hey, I know the history,” Felicia said, in Spanish, her brow creased. She sat in the middle row, her hand permanently attached to Aaron’s since the time the guys picked her and Kisa up from their house.
“You’re too emotionally involved.” Kisa waved her hand dismissively at Felicia, switching back to Spanish in order to chastise her niece. Aaron wondered why Felicia was emotionally involved but didn’t want to interrupt Kisa. He needed to understand where they were heading and why. Kisa switched back to English. “The Mayan reservation is mostly within the adjacency zone between the borders of Belize and Guatemala.”
“You’ve lost me already,” Aaron said. “What’s an adjacency zone?”
“Kind of like a buffer zone on either side of the border between the two countries so that people won’t be shot for crossing into the country illegally.”
“That’s a thing here?” Hayden asked from the third-row seat. He sounded frightened.
“Not that often.” Kisa cleared her throat like she was nervous. “Anyway, the situation goes back pretty far in our history because of some treaty made between Spain and Portugal in the late fourteen hundreds, and then a different treaty between Spain and England in the eighteenth century.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the only people who really belong there are the Mayans,” Felicia said with a huff, grumbling in Spanish. Aaron was beginning to believe that Felicia understood a great deal more than they gave her credit for. She seemed to listen in English but answer in Spanish.
Kisa continued. “Anyway, the Belize government claims they own the land. The Guatemalan government claims they own the land. But like Felicia said, the only people who have ever lived in the area were the Mayans.”
“Now the Mayans are forced into this tiny reservation,” Felicia said with such passion that Aaron could see what Kisa meant about her being too emotionally involved.
“Do you have family up there or something?” Aaron squeezed her hand gently. “This seems really important to you.”
“My best friend growing up is a member of that tribe and she was forced to go live up there.” Felicia almost sounded like she was going to cry. “I haven’t seen her since she moved.”
“Will you be able to introduce me to her today?” Aaron asked quietly.
“Maybe.” There was hope in her eyes.
“Do you talk to her or text or Facetime or anything?”
“She doesn’t have a cell phone.”
“What’s her name?”
“Xpiayoc,” she said.
“Really? Spee-i-ick?” Aaron tried to recreate the pronunciation of that very strange name.
“Her name means the mythological goddess of matchmaking,” Felicia said.
Aaron leaned closer to Felicia and whispered near her ear. “Do you think she’ll be able to predict if you and I will ever get married?”
“I don’t think we need a goddess to predict that,” Felicia whispered back.
Aaron wanted to pull her close and press his lips to hers, but he was aware they had a very captive audience. Instead he kissed her neck right behind her ear and she let out a tiny noise that was almost a whimper.
Aunt Kisa cleared her throat from the front seat where she had turned her body in order to glare at him.
Aaron sat up, forcing his most innocent expression. “What?”
“Hmpf,” Kisa said then warned under her breath. “Watch yourself.”
Owen and Hayden both snickered from the backseat.
Aaron didn’t let go of Felicia’s hand.
“Hey, we’re really close to our hotel,” Aaron said as they slowed the Highlander through the city of San Ignacio. “We should stop there for dinner on our way home. I’d love to show you ladies our obscenely large hotel suites before we abandon them for something smaller and less ostentatious.”
“Yes! I want to see where you sleep!” Felicia was practically bouncing on the seat. That brought more suppressed laughter from the back row and another stern look from Aunt Kisa.
“She didn’t mean anything by that,” Aaron told Kisa through clenched teeth. “And anyway, I’m a gentleman. I’m not going to take advantage of her youthful innocence.”
“I don’t trust you, Aaron Sayid,” Kisa said, narrowing her eyes.
Aaron gulped. The woman saw right through him. How was he supposed to reconcile the man he had been a year ago with the man he wanted to be? He couldn’t go back in time and change his checkered past, but he could temper his own desire for this adorable girl holding his hand. The best he could do was try to stay worthy of her hero worship.
They turned north out of San Ignacio and climbed the foothills toward the reservation. The Highlander took the unpaved mud paths without trouble. The limo would have gotten stuck two minutes up the road. They’d made a good choice waiting.
The dense forest hid secrets from the past, concealing ancient Mayan ruins that were still under threat from looters even though El Pilar had a thriving tourist business and a modern-day tribe of Mayans living just off the beaten path.
That beaten path didn’t have access by Highlander, so they needed to hike from the tourist parking lot. Few people knew where the entrance to the reservation began and the posted signs for private property kept the tourists at bay. But Kisa had been here before and had called ahead to one of the tribal leaders she’d known for years. The tribe knew exactly why the three Americans had hiked down the hills to their home, and the brothers were welcomed with a feast.
“El Pilar is a Mayan reservation that sits along the disputed border between Guatemala and Belize.” Felicia held her pet goat, Lui, by the harness and petted him absentmindedly, averting her gaze from Aaron.
“Which country claims them?” Aaron leaned against the fence that separated the yard from Lui’s pasture.
“Neither. They all made an agreement not to fight over the land. Guatemalans can’t fight with them, Belize people can’t fight with them, and the Mayans can’t fight with either of them.
“What happens if they fight?” Aaron asked.
“If any of them breaks the treaty, there may be a civil war,” Felicia said. “But now the people from Belize are kidnapping the daughters and wives of the Mayans, and they are threatening to leave the reservation and fight the Belize government to get their women back.”
“And do you think that’s what they should do?”
“Well someone has to do something.” Felicia was either angry or on the verge of tears. “So far nobody’s doing anything.”
“What about the Belize government?” Aaron asked.
“The government of Belize has been taken over by a corrupt military leader, Kaiah Amali,” Felicia explained. “Kaiah is even having an affair with the president’s wife.”
“Sounds like an all-around good guy.” Aaron made a half-hearted joke. “But getting back to the main topic here. Where are they taking the girls? Joab said something about human trafficking being a problem and they’re kidnapping the girls to use as slaves and sex slaves.”
Felicia shuddered and placed her hand over her face. “That just makes me sick.” Her voice wavered with unshed tears.
“Hey, come here.” Aaron pulled her into his arms and held her. “We’ll figure this out. I have friends in some pretty high places, including the United States Senate. Maybe we can get others involved and help solve this problem.”
“Thank you,” Felicia said into his shirt, her face still pressed up against his chest. “I feel so helpless.”
“You’re not helpless.” Aaron took a half step back and looked her in the eye. “If you hadn’t been brave enough to tell me, I would never have known this was happening. Now that I know there’s a problem, I can help.”
With her looking up at him with those big brown eyes filled with vulnerability, Aaron had a strong desire to lean down and kiss her. He didn’t want their first kiss to be standing in the middle of a goat pasture while discussing stolen Mayan girls being sold as sex slaves. Instead he kissed her forehead and pulled her close to his chest again.
“Take me to El Pilar tomorrow, introduce me to the people, let me see what I can do to help.”
“Okay,” she said softly. “Thank you, Aaron. I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too.” He gave her one last firm hug then led her toward the house.
“Buenos dias,” Felicia said with her playful childlike enthusiasm. She tucked herself into Aaron’s arms and reached up to kiss him on the cheek. He was tempted to lean down and kiss her lips to return the good morning salutation but reminded himself they were too early in their budding relationship to go that far.
“How are you this morning?” Aaron asked in Spanish. He was getting more comfortable with his new bilingual environment and predicted he’d be fluent in Spanish before he climbed on a plane to return to the States. He pulled her into a full hug in response to her smile.
“I’m good.” Felicia pulled herself back from his arms and nodded toward her aunt. “This is my aunt Kisa. She wanted to come meet you. Kisa is my mother’s youngest sister so she is not related to you.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Aaron said, reaching out a hand. “These are my brothers, Hayden and Owen. And this is our local guide, Joab. He will be our driver and companion for the duration of our stay.” Aaron pulled Joab closer to shake Kisa’s hand.
“I hope you’ll stay a long time.” Kisa’s sultry Spanish voice was more mature than Felicia’s and she looked Joab up and down with a subtle message of interest. Aaron re-evaluated his original assessment of her age to be closer to thirty. Perfect. Perhaps she’d want to come along on some of their adventures.
“Have you eaten?” Felicia asked. “My mother always has food.”
“We ate at the hotel,” Aaron told her. “Breakfast was complimentary with our suites.”
“What is a suite?” Felicia creased her brow.
“A suite is usually larger than a hotel room and has a living room, plus a bedroom, and sometimes a kitchen,” Aaron explained.
“All that space for just the four of you?”
“Well, no”—Aaron gulped— “We had three suites between the four of us because two of the suites had more than one bed. And we each wanted our own… bed.”
“A whole bed by yourself?” Felicia asked. “That seems like a waste of space.”
Aaron was growing uncomfortable with this conversation. “Well, we paid for all the space.”
“I can think of more important ways to give away money.” She seemed completely serious, as if she were averse to the idea of paying for something unnecessary.
“You’re probably right.” Aaron cleared his throat.
Owen stepped up beside Aaron and draped an arm over his shoulder. “Maybe we should get a smaller hotel room tonight.”
“I’m not sharing a bed with you,” Aaron said quietly in English through clenched teeth.
“I’ll share a bed with—” Owen answered in a similar fashion and gulped. “—Hayden.”
“Why do I have to be the one to share a bed?” Hayden asked.
“Did I mention—” Felicia’s aunt Kisa said in perfect English. “—that I attended college at the University of Arizona?”
“You hadn’t mentioned that.” Aaron gulped and met her gaze. “What was your major?”
“K-12 education with a concentration in English as a second language.” Kisa folded her arms and smirked.
“That… is an honorable career choice.” Aaron pulled at his collar.
“I agree.” Kisa pulled Felicia closer. “That’s why I’ve been teaching my family how to speak English, particularly my young niece here who thinks this hot guy from America is going to marry her someday.”
Aaron started coughing and Hayden laughed so hard he snorted.
“Here, I’ll get you a water bottle from the refrigerator,” Joab said, ducking into the back of the limo and returning with a cold bottle, which Aaron took gratefully.
Aaron thought quickly about a way to save face on this conversation. He looked right into Felicia’s eyes. “Shall we just go ring shopping today then?”
All of them laughed and the ice was broken. Dodged that bullet.
“How about a tour of my city instead?” Felicia asked with a grin, switching back to Spanish.
“Sounds wonderful.” He followed her lead and resumed her native tongue, assuming she hadn’t learned enough English yet to feel comfortable speaking long term.
“Would you like me to drive?” Joab held open the door to his limousine. “I can wait until after lunch to go pick up my Highlander.”
“You have a Highlander?” Kisa asked, taking a step closer to Joab. “I’ve always wanted to go off roading in one of those.”
“I could take you sometime,” Joab said, breathless like he’d been smitten by her charm.
“That would be great,” Kisa said with a subdued excitement. “Could I sit up front with you? We can let these kids sit in the back.”
Joab seemed to forget he was holding the door for his financier and strode to the front of the limo and opened the passenger door for Kisa.
“Why thank you, Senor,” she said, slipping into the leather seat. “Ooh, fancy.”
“Thank you.” Joab sighed with a cheesy grin then shook off his stupor and hurried to the back door. Before Aaron and Felicia entered the car, Joab asked, “Where are we heading?”
“Well, around town would be an easy answer,” Felicia answered, continuing in Spanish. “But I promised Aaron I would tell him about my frustration with the people of Belize so I think we should drive up to El Pilar to see the Mayan reservation.”
“We have to drive into Belize to get there.” Joab hesitated. “I thought you didn’t want to go to Belize.”
“This is too important.” Felicia lifted her chin, one of the few times her features were firm and resolute.
“Maybe we should wait until after I pick up my Highlander,” Joab suggested. “El Pilar is up in the hills and the roads might be impassible with the limo.”
“Good point.” Felicia sighed. “Okay, around town then.”
They all climbed in and Joab slowly pulled the limo away from the Cohen’s home and wound his way down from the residential neighborhoods into the city.
There was nothing beautiful or impressive about Melchor de Mencos but Felicia pointed out this and that marketplace, church building, or restaurant.
Aaron held her hand and tried to pay attention. But what he really wanted was to hear more about the Mayan reservation. Maybe after lunch they could take a walk and she could tell him the story without any distractions.
Finally they made their way back up to her house under the auspices of hunger and the need to use the bathroom.
Felicia’s mother, Yris, had food ready for them and they enjoyed a hearty afternoon meal. Then Joab took off to Flores to pick up his Highlander and promised to be back in time for dinner, upon Yris’ insistence.
After Joab was gone and the kitchen was cleaned, Aaron asked Felicia if she would like to introduce him to her pet goat out back.
Thankfully, Owen and Hayden took the hint that they weren’t invited because they made excuses about staying inside where there was shade and little cousins to play games with.
Aaron held Felicia’s hand all the way back to the pasture where Lui was happily crunching on grasses. She held him by the harness so Aaron could pet the goat. They were in full view of the house which meant they had plenty of chaperones, but no one could hear their conversation. Aaron petted Lui and asked the question that had been hanging between them for almost twenty-four hours.
“Tell me about El Pilar and Belize.”
“Why do you think Felicia and her father didn’t want us to come to Belize?” Aaron asked at breakfast the following morning. “This place is incredible. What’s not to like?” He gently speared a chunk of mango with his fork and dipped the fruit into his yogurt parfait.
Since they’d arrived at the San Ignacio Resort, they’d been treated like the royalty they were. But it was more than that. The people seemed genuinely kind and hospitable to all the guests. The rooms were spacious and clean, with more amenities than most typical hotels. The views from their private balcony looked out over the jungle canopy, the rolling foothills, and beyond. And if the dinner menu was as delectable as the breakfast, Aaron wanted to bring Felicia for a date. He just wasn’t sure he could drag her across the Mopan River.
“We have had a border dispute for a hundred years or more,” Joab explained. “The people in Belize think they should be their own country. Guatemalans feel they should be part of our country.” Joab had become a fourth member of their group over the course of twenty-four hours. He was like a local guide, providing valuable information most tourists didn’t receive.
“But why do they hate each other?” Aaron asked, setting aside his fork and steepling his hands. “Why did Felicia call the Belize ‘bad people’?”
“I don’t think the Belize hate the Guatemalans,” Joab said. “I think the Guatemalans hate the Belize because someone on the Belize side of the adjacency line has been kidnapping women and children from the El Pilar Mayan reservation.”
“Kidnapping?” Hayden’s eyes were wide. “Why?”
“Probably as slaves or sex slaves. Or both.” Joab shrugged as if that should be obvious to the brothers. “Human trafficking is a problem worldwide.”
“True.” Hayden nodded.
“Do you have a different car?” Aaron asked Joab, changing the subject.
“A different… car?” Joab cocked his head to the side and creased his brow.
“Yeah, other than your limousine.” Aaron was forming an idea.
“I have a sturdy Toyota Highlander,” Joab said. “Good for back roads and hills.”
“How would you like a job for the next few weeks?” Aaron asked. “As my driver and tour guide. I can pay for your nightly hotel room here at the resort, and you can drive us back and forth to Felicia’s and take us wherever she wants to go. I will continue to pay you double.”
“Are you serious?” Joab asked, his bite of cinnamon roll halfway to his mouth.
“Yeah, do you have any family at home? A wife? Children? Something that would keep you from being available over the next few weeks?”
“No, I live with my big family, much like your Felicia does. I am not married.”
“I really don’t want to take public transportation or hire a taxi every day. And I don’t want to rent a car and try to drive myself around. Once my brothers leave, you and I would just be friends hanging out, and a chaperone for me and Felicia so her father doesn’t follow us everywhere we go.”
“I will need to think about this,” Joab said. “And I would need to go home and switch vehicles and pack some clothes.”
“Take all the time you need,” Aaron said. “I’ll reserve your room for tonight in hopes you’ll return.” He took another bite of his eggs, seeing that the other guys were nearly done with their food.
“That’s very generous. Thank you.” Joab had been overcome with emotion upon seeing the regal accommodations the night before, but the brothers assured him money was no object.
The guys finished their breakfast and left the restaurant to return to their suites and prepare for the trip back to Felicia’s house. They had gone overboard with booking too many rooms and suites so that the brothers could each have their own bedroom within adjoining suites, and Joab was in a separate room down the hall.
Between the three living spaces they had a total of six beds and sleeping available for fourteen people. No wonder Joab had been overwhelmed. They would need to re-evaluate those arrangements, especially after Hayden and Owen returned to the States.
The drive back down from the beautiful mountainous resort would have been almost depressing slipping into the reality of city life below had Aaron not anticipated his reunion with Felicia.
Joab would be dropping them off at her house and heading back to Flores. He hadn’t confirmed yet if he was planning to return and take Aaron up on his offer to pay Joab for his continued service as their driver and tour guide.
Until they pulled up to the Cohen’s home and found Felicia’s slightly older aunt sitting on the front porch swing beside Felicia. The woman had to be at least twenty-five and a classic Hispanic beauty with dark eyes and skin, and long, brown hair. She rose from the swing along with Felicia and together they descended the porch steps. Joab turned to Aaron and said through the slider window between the front seat of the limo to the back, “If she’s single, I’ll return in a few hours with my Highlander.”
“Thank goodness,” Aaron said with a conspiratorial grin and reached over to Hayden and Owen for a quick fist bump. He may or may not have texted Felicia to ask if she had a single aunt or cousin to entice Joab to stay. With one quick text he had secured himself a driver. He hoped the rest of his vacation in Guatemala would be that easy.