SEAL the Deal
Book 4 in the SEAL Brotherhood Series
Special Operator Nick Dunn gets the call he has been dreading since before his last deployment. His sister is in her final stages of cancer. He and his Team 3 roommate drive up to Sonoma County from Coronado to help her shut down her failing nursery business and tie up her final affairs.
Nick only vaguely remembers Devon Brandeburg, his sister's best friend, but boy has she grown up. Last time he saw her was five years ago when he graduated BUD/s and completed SEAL qualification to obtain his Trident. Sparks begin to fly between the two of them, but not in the normal way for Nick. The woman wants nothing to do with him.
Devon Brandeburg has created a small financial fortune through her success in real estate. Her career is her main focus, but a closely guarded secret is her total lack of experience with men. After all, who needs them? Especially when their testosterone-stuffed egos suck all the air out of the room, like Nick's does.
Nick's sister requires two things of the both of them as her dying wish. 1. Nick and Devon must find a buyer for the nursery together, not allowing to her nasty winery owner neighbor next door to get his hands on her piece of heaven. 2. They date at least five times before she passes on.
What starts as a deathbed promise turns out to be a hot affair neither one expected. Nick becomes Devon's teacher in her journey to womanhood. As she comes alive in his arms, the student brings the teacher something he's never allowed himself to want, and now knows he needs.
As his sister's life is ending a sinister plot to take over her property comes alive. Nick finds out both the women he holds most dear to him are in jeopardy. He's too late to save one of them, but will he be able to save the other?
READ AN EXCERPT
Special Operator Nicholas Dunn shed his shoes and shirt and dove into the waters of San Diego Bay to scrub the left over grit and sand of Afghanistan from his body. It was his first day back ritual. He didn’t stop until he’d skinned his knee and taken a serious hit on the chin bodysurfing. The shedding of blood hammered the reality of being home straight to his brain. He’d seen way too much blood this last tour. Friends died. Innocents died too. He couldn’t save them all.
And now his sister was dying at home. Not a damned thing he could do about that, either.
He’d stashed his bags at the apartment he shared with Mark “Marky Mark” Beale. Marc had been his best friend ever since they met almost six years ago at the Great Lakes Training Camp, long before they were invited to try out for the Teams. In those days, they were more afraid of marching out of step or getting written up for not having something properly polished, buffed, folded or pressed.
While Nick was swimming, Marc was out scouting for Day One dates. Day One was an automatic Frog Hogs night. Had been their tradition even when they came back from training exercises. Just like having brews at the Scupper and watching the coeds parade by hoping to snag a little Frog interest.
Although he’d agreed, Nick wasn’t really sure he was up to it tonight. He looked at his cell phone. No call yet.
Girls on the beach watched him as he dried off, slipped his cargo shorts back over his wet trunks, kicked into his flip-flops and headed for his bright yellow Hummer. The attention was always welcome, and on any other day he’d have reveled in it.
He was interested, all right. Nothing wrong in that department. But the fact was, his sister—his beautiful, outgoing big sister, who loved him like the mother they’d lost to cancer when he was still in high school—his sister was dying. And there was no easy way to deal with it. Death claimed innocents as well as warriors. And all that Sophie would leave behind, thanks to her entrepreneurial streak of independence, was a failing nursery. No grieving husband. No kids. Not even parents to grieve over her. Only Nick.
He knew it would come one of these days soon. That call.
He’d worried about her all during his last difficult deployment in the Middle East. Every night he said a prayer for her. He Skyped calls to her as often as he could, and watched the grey rings under her eyes grow as her hoarseness increased.
He’d worried about it today as he boarded the plane to San Diego from Virginia. So he should have been prepared for the call that came as he drove along the Strand. Knew it would come. Hoped it might come a few days or weeks from now, so this one could be a casual, “Hi, welcome home.” But it came today, the first day he was back, and that was bad. Very bad.
“Hey, Sis. How’s it going?”
“Not well, Baby Brother. I’m in a lot of pain all the time now.”
“You want me to come up?”
“Not right away. Enjoy your homecoming. You deserve it, Nick. Come up when you can. I need to make some final decisions and I would appreciate your help. I’m going to close the nursery down.”
Nick was actually glad to hear it.
“But I can’t do everything I used to, so need to work on it while I still can.”
Nick was not glad to hear that.
“I’ll be up tomorrow, Sophie. Hang in there. Captain America will save the day.”
“Normally, I’d give you hell for that kind of sexist comment, but today I’m just grateful for the help.”
Sophie was still pretending to be tough. If she said come in a few days, it meant there weren’t more than a few days left. “You can nail me as much as you want on my attitude, Soph—my word choices, and my friends. But I’m coming to help you out, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“There’s the Nick that charms the pants off all the ladies. By the way, you’ll be working with a good friend of mine. Actually, you met her before. Devon. Remember her?”
Nick was scratching his head. He vaguely remembered some noodle-armed high schooler with braces. Knobby knees and ashamed of her tin grin. He was surprised he remembered anything about her.
“And why are we talking about this Devon person?”
“Because you’re gonna need someone to spar with when I’m gone.”
“Does she wrestle?”
“She’ll kick your ass. Little bit of a thing, but I think she knows karate.”
“Then she doesn’t stand a chance.”
If it made Sophie feel better, he’d play along. Last thing he wanted to do was start running around with a female who thought she was Bruce Lee-La, regardless of Sophie’s wishes. “I’ll be up tomorrow. Can I bring a friend so we can get more shit done for you?”
“You’re bringing a girlfriend? Thought I’d never see the day, Nick.”
Nick laughed. “Hardly, Soph. I’m going to ask my roommate, Marc. You mind?”
“Sounds good, no problem.”
Sophie had never been one to depend on or need anyone, but Nick could tell she was looking forward to his visit and his help.
Yup, it was definitely time.
* * *
Nick cruised down the Strand in the Hummer, scaring birds, squirrels and tourists with its roar. He was looking for Marky, who’d said he would be at Duckies having an ice cream. When Nick found him, six blonde coeds with legs as long as telephone poles surrounded him. The accumulated glow from their super-white, perfectly straight teeth darkened his convertible sunglasses.
Marky jerked his chin in greeting. “And here he is, the stud of Coronado, ladies,” he said to his harem, who obligingly parted like the Red Sea. Marc was wearing an aloha shirt and holding his favorite banana nut crunch ice cream cone dipped in chocolate with sprinkles. Some of the chocolate had migrated to his upper lip.
Nick tried not to make eye contact with any of the lovelies, but damn, it was hard. He was trying to confine his eyes to above the neck, regardless of the signals he was getting from the girls.
“Marky, you up for a road trip north?” he asked.
“North? As in LA, or north as in where you—”
“Sonoma County. Got to go up to Santa Rosa to help my sister.”
Nick heard several “ahhs” in the background. He was scoring points he’d only be too happy to collect on any other day. Not today.
He nodded toward the street to give Marc the idea he wanted a private discussion. He didn’t want to offend the ladies in case Marc had plans.
“Excuse me. I shall return,” Marc said to the crowd.
The two muscled SEALs walked out into the sunlight and stood on the sidewalk facing Oceanside Drive. Marc planted his arm around Nick’s shoulder.
“Sorry, man. She that bad?”
Nick inhaled to keep from allowing moisture in his eyes. “I think this is the beginning of the end.” He tore his eyes away from the rows of Spanish-style bungalows across the street and peered into Marc’s face. “I hate to ask you on our first day back, but would you go with me? She’s going to close down the nursery, and I’m thinking she could use another set of arms.”
“Gotcha. Well, I didn’t make any plans I couldn’t break. I’m all yours.”
“So we leaving tonight, then?” Marky squinted into the sun as he slurped dripping ice cream from around the base of the cone.
Nick laughed. “Of course.”
“That’s what I thought. Thank God I washed my underwear, at least.”
* * *
The trip north was long, but Nick distracted himself with Pashto language tapes. Marc was rocking out to country music on his iPod.
Ten hours later, they turned down a dusty driveway flagged with the Matanzas Creek Nursery sign on the corner fence. They drove past rows of black plastic gallon containers filled with young grape vines and shrubs. Several larger containers held bushy, multicolored flowering clumps. Laid out on black plastic, the ten-acre parcel was stuffed to capacity with neat rows of living plant material. The office was a tin-roofed wooden structure near the back of the parcel. Connected by a breezeway in the rear sat his sister’s three-bedroom bungalow.
Nick noticed only one car in the lot in the front parking lot. Sophie’s.
“Geez, Nick, it’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’d expect things to be slow, but damn, I’d think the nursery would have more than one customer here,” whistled Marc.
“That’s Sophie’s car. I don’t ever see any paying customers. I think she’s too far out into the country, and she probably doesn’t price her things like the big stores.”
Nick looked at the greenish gold hills of Bennett Peak and Annadel State Park, where he used to run for athletic training in high school. The valley floor was painted with the beautiful colors and designs of his sister’s nursery in a setting that looked pretty much like Heaven itself.
“I’d come for the view,” he said to Marc.
“Yeah, but most people only show up for the deals,” Marc said as the Hummer stopped. He got out to unkink his long frame, stretching back and then down to touch his toes.
Nick began to do the same. The long ride had been uneventful, even boring. The Hummer was so noisy it made conversation impossible, and so they’d both just zoned out on their electronic devices.
Sophie appeared at the doorway of the nursery office. Her jeans were loose and her sleeveless blouse gaped at the armpits. Nick was shocked to realize she had probably lost another twenty-five pounds. But, characteristic of Sophie, she wore a bright smile accentuated with hot coral lipstick.
She ran up to Nick and threw her arms around him. “Thanks for coming.”
Nick squeezed her in his usual bear hug and noticed Sophie hitched a bit in obvious pain. He carefully released her and took a good look at her face, which was turning the hue of grey sand. He knew she wore her lipstick bright, as if trying to convince everyone she was really okay.
Marc was shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. Nick saw him look down at his feet and clear his throat. Sophie looked up at him.
“Welllll… Hello there, sailor,” she said in a low, sexy voice, extending her hand. “I’m Sophie. And you must be Marc?”
“Yes, ma’am. Marc Beale.”
“Thought he could help out,” Nick offered.
“Sweet. Good of you to come,” she said in mock British accent. She abruptly turned to Nick and motioned for them to come inside.
Oldies music was playing in the corner, accompanying the numerous water fountains trickling in several sections of the shop. He smelled lemons and realized she was burning lemon candles in the sunny window frames. Under each candle was a mirror. He remembered her little superstition about keeping out evil spirits this way. Even the windows with no candles had mirrors on the ledges. Sophie was taking evil seriously these days, he noted.
“You want some coffee?” Sophie asked as she slipped behind a curtain into the galley kitchen.
“Whatever you got,” Nick replied.
“Okay, then. I’ll give you a steaming glass of fish oil. How’s that?”
She handed him a mug of coffee. From the smell, it must have just been brewed.
“And you?” she looked at Marc.
“Alcohol. Anything with spirits in it.”
Marc was served a long-necked microbrew as Sophie brought out reheated minestrone soup with French bread, and the trio sat at a rustic plank and beam table built on metal sawhorses.
“Afraid this is all I’ve got right now. Tomorrow I go shopping at the farmer’s market.”
“You make this?” Marc asked.
“I’m not very domestic. Haven’t you told him anything about me?” she smacked Nick on the forearm with the back of her soup spoon.
“No, this started with a can, but added all my own veggies.” She lowered her gaze and spoke to the soup. “Supposed to be good for me, and soup is one thing I can keep down after chemo.”
The little office suddenly felt cold to Nick.
The three of them ate in silence. Afterward, Sophie gathered their bowls and plates, rinsing them in the sink and setting them on the drain board. “I’ll clean the rest of this up later.”
“No worries, Sis. We’ll do it. You taking off?” Nick asked.
Sophie took off her blue bandana, revealing bald spots on her scalp. She untied the knot, flapped it like a wet towel, and tied it about her head with the bow on top above her forehead. “Time for my beauty treatments. But the good news is, this is the last doctor visit. You know, on the off chance I’ve had a miracle like the finger of God curing me. This is the last one until they—”
“I’ll take you, Soph,” Nick interrupted.
“Nope. I want you here in case I don’t get back on time. I got that friend coming…you remember, Devon Brandeburg…she’s coming over to help me put a price on this place. I want you here when she comes.”
“Then I’ll drive you,” Marc said as he stepped toward her and extended his palm. “Come on, lady, hand over your keys,” he said, mimicking a gangster.
Just as Nick expected, Sophie responded with a soft smile, and, if he wasn’t totally bonkers, perhaps even a little blush.
Good for you, Sophie. He was also proud of his randy roommate for stepping up and doing the right thing.
After the two of them left, Nick had a chance to look around the place.
Though Sophie’s house was behind the little shed office, it looked like she did most of her living, and bleeding, here. With a kitchen sink, a hot plate and microwave, along with a back storage room that had a cot with blankets folded on it, he’d bet that some afternoons, when she had no customers, she’d just slept here.
The space was decorated in eclectic, neo-nursery chic. Recycled timbers made up the underpinnings of an L-shaped countertop covered in hammered aluminum. Various wind chimes and bird houses hung on long fishing lines and tinkled in the breeze.
He imagined the place would be cold in winter, but noted a small pot-bellied stove in the corner with a neat pile of recycled magazines and shredded cardboard boxes, covered with a few pieces of kindling and several round logs.
The oldies continued playing in the main shop, making the picture cozy and complete.
But depressing. Like some of those places overseas. The battle zones.
Looking through the doorway at the nursery beyond, seeing that its dilapidated wooden crisscrossed slats were occasionally missing a piece, and parts of the dark green fabric protecting the plants drooped down in ripped sections here and there, he knew his sister had worked hard to keep this concern going.
And it had killed her. Unlike his team buddies, Nick couldn’t save her from herself, rescue her from a life cut short, just like he hadn’t been able to save his mom. Maybe it wasn’t safe for him to get close to a woman, since all of the most important ones in his life left him. Permanently.
Sophie was one of those women, just like his mother, who refused to go to see the doctor until it was too late. Both women would not be told what to do, or how to do it. Besides being fiercely independent, they were both very strong physically. He remembered wrestling with Sophie until he was in his teens, and his mother always rooted for Sophie. The day he was able to pin Sophie was the last day. She got up and told him never to wrestle with her again.
It didn’t surprise him that she hadn’t settled down and had a family. She liked men, and dated a few. But mostly she said it just wasn’t worth the trouble to have them around. He knew it was because she didn’t want to change for anybody, or had never met anybody she wanted to change for. And love? They’d never discussed the topic.
It wasn’t on either of their radars.
© Sharon Hamilton