Chapter 1 Excerpt © Margaret Madigan 2019
Grady “Buck” McCormick sat at the table on Wolf Steeles back patio, sipping a beer with his brothers in arms, but thinking about his girlfriend, Mindy.
The little velvet box he’d carried around in his pocket for the last few weeks weighed heavier every day he waited to propose to her. He wanted it to be perfect, but that moment just hadn’t come yet. Maybe he’d have to plan something instead of waiting for it to happen naturally. But he hated the thought of some crappy, fake romantic moment.
You’ve been twitchy as hell lately, Tank said. What’s up with you?
Quentin Tank DeCoteau, a tall Native American version of his nickname, had joined Bucks SEAL team when Wiley Coyote Strickland had nearly killed himself in a motorcycle wreck and had to quit the military. Last Buck had heard, Coyote lived in Houston with his fiancée, trying to get a new protection and security business off the ground.
I’m not twitchy, Buck said, sounding defensive even to his own ear.
You do seem nervous, Wolf said, leaning back in his chair.
Wolf’s teammate Cookie nodded and grinned.
“Fine. Maybe I’m a little nervous,” Buck admitted. Reluctantly. But if he couldn’t talk to these guys, even knowing they’d give him shit to start with, who could he talk to? He just had to hold on through the shit to get to the good advice.
“Why?” Ross “Groom” McBride asked, his brown eyes and disheveled hair adding to his earnest appearance.
Instead of blurting his plans, Buck dug the ring box out of his pocket, placed it on the table, and opened it. The ring inside had been his mother’s—the one his father had used to propose—and now that his mother had been gone for a while, he’d asked his dad about using it to propose to Mindy. At first, his dad had been reluctant to let go of the ring, but he still had Mom’s wedding ring, the piece that bound them together despite being parted by death, so he’d finally warmed to the idea of sharing the engagement ring with Buck and Mindy. Buck had taken it to a jeweler and made a few changes so it would be unique to their relationship. Now all he had to do was the hard part.
Whistles and laughter filled the evening air as Buck drained his beer bottle, waiting for them to finish then start in with the shit.
“Oh, Buck,” Tank said, batting his long black eyelashes. “We hardly know each other. It’s just too soon.”
Buck waited out the roaring laughter.
“Fuck you, asshole,” he said, but couldn’t help laughing along.
“Congratulations,” Wolf said.
“Dude, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s still got the ring,” Tank said. “That means he hasn’t asked her yet.”
“What’re you waiting for?” Jackson “Little Bro” West asked. As younger brother of Cory “Compass” West, team lead for another SEAL team, Little Bro hated his nickname because it meant he was constantly compared to his older brother. So of course they used it relentlessly.
“The right moment,” Buck said.
“Big mistake,” Tank said, shaking his head like Buck couldn’t have disappointed him more if he’d tried.
“You married?” Cookie countered.
“No,” Tank said.
“Then how do you know?”
“I mean, don’t ask her while she’s taking a dump or anything,” Tank said. “But trying to manufacture the perfect moment? Seems like it won’t be honest.”
“Guys who go for the big splash like skywriting or whatever are only doing it for themselves,” Groom said, agreeing with Tank’s assessment.
“Yeah,” Little Bro said. “What if she said no?”
“Never ask the question unless you’re sure the answer will be yes,” Tank said.
“What makes you such an expert?” Buck asked. Tank’s confidence usually came in measures commensurate to his size, so the rest of the team had wised up to his tendency toward hyperbole.
Tank shrugged and gulped his beer, avoiding eye contact.
The group scented blood.
“Tank,” Little Bro said, goading the man. “Answer the question. What makes you an expert in proposals?”
“Did you propose without knowing the answer and get rejected?” Groom asked.
“Hell no,” Tank said. “When I ask a woman for anything—and I ALWAYS ask—she says yes.”
More laughter circled the table.
“Then what?” Little Bro asked.
“I watch a lot of TV, okay? Bachelor. Bachelorette, that kind of thing.” The realization on Tank’s face that he would never, ever live this shit down made Buck sublimely happy.
“Like, Bridezillas?” Buck asked.
Cookie snorted beer out his nose.
“Say Yes to the Dress?” Little Bro asked, piling on.
“Married at First Sight?” Groom asked.
“Marriage Boot Camp?” Wolf added.
“The Proposal?” Little Bro asked. “It’s stupid, but on point for Buck.”
“They’re all stupid,” Groom said.
“You all laugh but listen to yourselves. You actually know all those shows. What’s that say about you?” Tank sounded defensive, and just a step short of pouting.
Buck snort-laughed. “He has a good point.”
“So what are you going to do?” Wolf asked.
“Mindy’s in Houston right now at an Alzheimer’s science convention, but I’ll ask her when she gets back. No more waiting for the right moment. I’m just going to do it.”
“Good man,” Cookie said, nodding.
“When’s she get home?” Little Bro asked.
“Her flight’s tomorrow.”
Everyone nodded, satisfied apparently that he’d soon be engaged.
“How’s she doing after the Siberia mission?” Wolf asked, alluding to Mindy’s struggle with PTSD after that mission had gone badly sideways. She’d had to find a cure for a supersoldier serum that had killed one of Buck’s teammates, and nearly killed both Buck and Wolf, and a couple others. “And your jungle vacation?” he added, referring to the debacle of a research trip that had ended in kidnapping and an epic forest fire in the Amazon.
“Better,” Buck said. “She’s just a civilian scientist. She wasn’t equipped for any of it. But she was smart enough to know she needed help, so she got it. And it’s working.”
Cookie’s nod was sober. “Good. Too many don’t get help.”
“So,” Tank said, changing the subject. “You gonna stay in the service after you’re married?”
It was a question Buck had been asking himself a lot lately, not just because he planned to propose, but because the shelf-life of a SEAL was traditionally short. If injury didn’t take a guy out, like it had Coyote, or death, like Dozer in Russia, then burnout often did. There were a lot of career SEALs, but Buck was beginning to wonder if he wanted to be one of them. He’d recognized and ignored the first signs of burnout a while ago, but he couldn’t ignore them anymore. And the last thing he wanted was to be a liability to his team, or to fuck up his new marriage.
Problem was, he’d been a SEAL so long he didn’t know what else to do. He wondered if that’s how Coyote’d felt after his accident.
“I don’t know,” Buck said. “I love the Navy.”
“But?” Groom asked.
“I love Mindy, too. So maybe it’s time to get out and do something else.”
“Like what?” Tank asked. He sounded disgusted. “Civvy life’s not easy for guys like us.”
“True that,” Little Bro said. Buck gave him side eye for his slang, and for the fact that he was barely shaving, so what would he know about being out in the ‘real’ world.
“I’ve got skills,” Buck said. “I grew up on a horse ranch.”
Tank yawned with his typical exaggeration, expressing what he thought about Buck’s upbringing. “I don’t see SEAL skills transferring to horse ranching.”
It irked Buck, but he agreed. He didn’t really want to go back to raising horses. He’d become addicted to the adrenaline of his job.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m sure I can find something.”