StaFf Feature: Hope Welborn
John Ramos crouched lower into the bush, balancing his weight on the balls of his feet. Relentless rain dripped from his helmet and onto his night vision binoculars.
Why did it have to be Thailand? And monsoon season.
He clawed at a bug bite on his neck, then adjusted the focus on the binoculars, zeroing in on the building a few klicks ahead.
When he’d taken the assignment, he hadn’t thought about the location. Senator Grant’s son Alex had gotten mixed up with dangerous people while on vacation with his college buddies. Wanting to avoid publicity, Grant had hired John’s private security agency to find Alex and bring him home.
Boots squished in the mud to his right. Natalie Baker, the newest member of his team, squatted beside him in the dark. “What’s the plan, Rambo?”
Her nickname for him irritated more than the mosquitos. John bit his tongue on a snide retort. “We need to act with subtlety. Go in quiet. Get Alex out before they know he’s gone.”
“Won’t be easy. Four armed guards out front, and Franklin said there’s more in back.”
His other team members, Franklin and Moses, had taken position at the opposite end of the clearing, leaving him alone with Natalie.
She elbowed him. “Who do they think they’ve got in there? The Queen?”
“Guess they figured a U.S. Senator’s son is worth more in ransom than what he lost to them in that poker game.”
“I wonder what kind of poker player you’d be,” Natalie said.
Too dark to see, but he pictured that tilt of her head when she was thinking, those gray eyes that pierced his soul. “I can hold my own.”
She leaned close, invading his space. “You might not be as good as you think you are.”
The scent of the strawberry candy she always ate wafted toward him. He swallowed, pulse quickening.
She snagged his binoculars and peered through the bush.
The woman turned his brain into scrambled eggs. From her first day on the job at Ramos Security, he’d regretted hiring her. On paper, she was perfect. Former military, like the rest of them. Special Ops training. Tough as nails.
But they butted heads on everything.
His team loved her. They called her Nat. He did, too. Except he spelled it G-N-A-T.
Because she got under his skin.
In a way no one had for a long time.
“I’ve got a plan,” she said.
He resisted rolling his eyes. John was commander of the team. He made the plans. A point she always forgot. Or ignored.
She handed him the binoculars. “The window on this side. It’s a blind spot. We breach there, find Alex, and sneak him out.”
“That window is too small.”
“Not for me.”
She wasn’t suggesting–? He grit his teeth. “Go in alone? Absolutely not.”
Her whisper turned to steel. “I can handle myself.”
“That’s not the problem–”
“Then what is?”
She waited for an answer. And the only one he had was that he couldn’t lose her.
John made split-second, life-or-death decisions all the time. But when it came to Natalie…
“It’s our only chance,” she said.
Every instinct told him to say no. But, she was right. They had to get Alex out. Tonight.
“Fine. Go in quiet and locate Alex. Keep your coms on. If things go sideways, code word is giraffe. And we’ll come in, guns blazing.” He hoped it didn’t come to that. For a lot of reasons.
He radioed the plan to the others, who positioned themselves to cover the guards. His job was to cover Nat.
“Time to get lean.” She stripped off helmet, vest, and rifle. The window left no room for bulk. Only a side arm and a knife tucked into her belt.
She would be exposed, vulnerable. His heart stuck in his throat. “Ready?”
“Just one last thing.” She grabbed a fistful of his shirt and jerked him close, her lips colliding with his.
Surprise lasted only a second. Nature took over. John cupped her neck, deepening the kiss. Her body molded into his, awakening a hunger he hadn’t felt in ages.
Her fingers entwined in his hair. His chest heaved, needing air, but he couldn’t let go.
And then she was gone. Slipped out of his grasp and into the darkness.
He leaned against a palm tree, his breath catching up to his racing heart. Holding the rifle with shaking hands, he watched through the scope as Nat sprinted to the building.
She grasped the windowsill, shimmied up the block wall and through the opening.
His pulse counted the seconds.
“I’m in.” Her voice was almost inaudible through the coms in his ear. “I see him. I–”
A wave of static cut her off.
“Nat? Nat!” He hissed into the mic. Nothing.
Alarms went off in his head. Should he follow? Send in the team? Rush the guards?
Time stood still. The wait was agony.
He couldn’t lose her. Not now.
An explosion ripped the night, pushing him backward. He crawled to his feet. Flames licked the side of the building.
“Nat!” His roar drowned in the noise.
Shouts and gunfire erupted as his team took out the guards.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the building.
“I see her!” Franklin’s voice bit through the chaos. “She’s got the kid. They’re coming at you, boss.”
Through the smoke, Nat emerged, pulling Alex with her.
John stepped from the shelter of the trees to catch her as they stumbled into the bush. Relief overcame his anger. “What happened?”
“No choice.” She gasped for air. “They were about to take him out. I had to blow them up.”
He wrapped arms around her. She was safe. Nothing else mattered. “So much for sneaking in and out, huh?”
Nat looked up at him, face smeared with soot and dirt, and shrugged. “I was never good at subtle.”
The corners of his mouth tugged upward. “Roger that.”
He pulled her close for another kiss.
She serves as President for her local ACFW chapter and is a member of the Suspense Squad. She is the Website Manager for Spark Flash Fiction. By day, she masquerades as a Digital Content Marketing Technologist, and by night, she stays up too late putting words on the page.
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