Hot SEAL, Sweet & Spicy

Copyright 2021 Cynthia D’Alba

Chapter One (Special Access for Newsletter Subscribers)

The thrum and vibrations from the cargo plane had almost lulled Navy SEAL Eli Miller to sleep. Or maybe it was the fourteen days of getting a maximum of two hours of sleep each night. Either way, he was drifting off when someone tapped the toe of his shoe.

“Wolf. You asleep?”

Eli, aka Wolf, opened his eyes and watched Romeo team leader Ted Brown, aka Bear, drop onto the seat beside him. “Nope. Just resting my eyes,” he said, his tone dry.

Bear handed him a beer. They popped open the cans and took long swallows.

“You sure about your decision, Wolf?” Bear asked. “The Lieutenant can swear you in for another hitch right here, right now.”

Eli chuckled. “Bear, you are without a doubt the best team leader I’ve had the pleasure to serve under. Romeo team is the strongest SEAL team of the bunch because of you. However, I’ve been at this, man, for twelve years—seventeen, if you count the years in the Navy before I joined the SEALs, and I’ve loved every minute. But you know when the time comes to move on, and my time is now.”

“You’ll be hard to replace,” his team leader said with a frown.

Eli chuckled. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that command has lined up Nomad to take my place until you find my replacement.”

Nomad, aka Sawyer Becket, was a SEAL floater who moved from team to team as help was needed. Rumor had it that every team asked him to stay, but floating was his choice. Eli had heard the man could shoot the wings off a butterfly from hundreds of yards away.

“True,” Bear said and took a long gulp of beer. “However, he won’t be you.”

Eli laughed. “You mean, he won’t have a house with a big yard for all the parties?”

“Yeah, and I’d be willing to wager he won’t know the first thing about bacon-wrapped-cheese-mashed-potato-stuffed-meatloaf.”

Eli snorted. “Are you going to miss my SEAL expertise or my cooking more?”

Mars, aka Jack Marsten, dropped onto the bench on the other side of Eli. “Both, but man, I’m going to really miss those cookouts. I will not miss the extra miles I have to run to use up the calories.”

“What about staying in the area and opening up a SEAL-focused bar and diner?” Brian Anderson, aka Heartbreaker, said as he joined the group.

“Interesting, but there’s already McP’s, Danny’s, and the Little Club. Can’t see taking on that competition. Besides, I’m headed home to the ranch. Now that my brother Zane is married and my parents are spending winters in Florida, I feel like I’m needed there.” He shrugged. “It won’t be the same as living on the coast, running in the wet sand—”

“Doing HALOs,” Mars added.

“And holding your breath underwater as the minutes tick slowly by,” Heartbreaker said.

“And don’t forget getting your ass chewed by command when you fuck up,” Bear said. “Never mind. That’s just me.”

The guys laughed.

Eli studied his SEAL team. Bear, Mars, Heartbreaker, Joker, Zig, Gator, and Cash. Zane was his biological brother, but these guys were the brothers of the heart. He trusted them with his life, and they trusted him. He doubted he’d ever have a group of men around him again like these guys. Strong. Trustworthy. Honest. And he knew, if he called anytime to come anywhere and meet him, every one of them would make that happened.

He hadn’t been around Zane for more than a few days at a time in years. Zane had left for college in Chicago when Eli had still been in high school, and he hadn’t come back from Chicago until a little over a year ago. Zane had committed to staying in Gardiner, Montana and running the family horse ranch.

Last winter, his parents took off for Florida for five months, leaving Zane in charge. His mother was so thrilled with the Florida weather and all the new friends they made, they’d bought a place in Titusville at a gated community named The Great Outdoors, and were planning to establish residency there, meaning they’d be gone at least six months from the Grizzly Bitterroot Ranch. That also meant Zane had a lot on his plate, including having a new wife. In fact, seeing his brother and his parents at Zane’s wedding almost a year ago was the last time Eli had been with family…or at least his biological family. The men sitting around had been family for so long, he worried he’d be lost without them.

“So, you’re gonna cowboy up?” Joker asked. “Yee haw and all that shit?”

Eli laughed with the rest of the Romeo team. “I don’t know about the yee haw, but that’s the plan.”

“Can you even still ride a horse?” Zig asked, his face furrowed with concern. Ever since Zig had married the widow of a fallen SEAL hero and taken on the role as stepdad to her son, his father gene had taken over.

“Yes, Dad. I can still ride,” Eli answered with a grin. “But thanks for being worried about me.”

Zig snorted. “Hell, Son. Not worried about you, but if you fall off and break somethin’, it’ll be inconvenient for the rest of us havin’ to come check on you way up there in Montana.”

The team laughed as Mars slapped Zig on the back. “Spoken like a true dad.”

“Listen up, men,” the commanding officer shouted over the roar of the plane.

The men straightened on the bench and turned their attention to the Lieutenant addressing them.

“Good work over there, men. Not only did you find Adeel Saade, you brought him in alive and with his laptop. The brass is extremely pleased with your hard work and wanted me to pass that along to you, and you know me…if the brass is happy, I’m happy. I know the hours were long and the work was stressful. You’ve definitely earned some time off, so the team is approved for ten days leave, starting tomorrow.”

Loud cheers and whistles filled the belly of the cargo plane as the guys high-fived each other.

Their commanding officer waited until the celebration died down to add, “Go only far enough away that you can be back on base within twelve hours should the team be needed. But you have my word, you’ll only be called back if all hell breaks loose.”

The team chuckled and clinked cans of beer.

“Okay, we’ll be landing shortly,” the Lieutenant said. “One more item of business. I’m going home to be with my family. I do not want to have to bail any of you out of jail, so bear in mind that you do not want to pull me away from my wife. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” came the replies.

“Miller,” their commanding officer said. “A minute of your time.”

 “Yes, sir.” Eli pushed up from his seat and the two men stepped away from the team into an empty area.

“You sure you want to leave us, Miller? You’re a hell of a SEAL. An integral part of this team.”

“Yes, sir. It’s time.”

“You have some leave accrued. I checked before we boarded. Go ahead and go to personnel for termination. They’ll walk you through all the various offices you have to visit to officially leave us. You’re shy twenty, right? You could still earn that retirement. Transfer off teams if you feel you can’t keep up and the Navy can find other ways to use your skills.”

Eli wanted to laugh. He knew the Lieutenant was busting his balls with the “can’t keep up” dig, hoping to push buttons to make Eli want to reenlist. He fought back a grin as he replied, “Thank you. It’s a kind offer. I do have three more years, but Air Force Reserves will let me complete my commitment in Montana.”

“Chair Force. Cushy, Miller.”

This time Eli chuckled, knowing what the other branches of the military thought of the Air Force.

“Thank you for your leadership,” Eli said. “I’ll get with personnel today.”

“Damn. I hate to lose a good SEAL. Best of luck.”

“Thank you.”

Eli rejoined his team.

“A little subtle pressure to stay?” Joker asked.

“Nothing subtle about it,” Eli said as he pulled out another beer from the cooler.

It was close to seven in the evening by the time Eli reach McP’s to join his team for his official going away party. He parked his truck loaded with items he wanted to keep in the back lot and walked around to the entrance. He paused on the sidewalk and studied the building. The American and Irish flags on either side of the McP’s sign whipped in the breeze. The green evening lights were on even though the sun had yet to set. The flowers in the window boxes nodded toward him, bent by the wind.

He’d lived at McP’s for what seemed like forever. There probably wasn’t anything on the menu he hadn’t ordered at one time or another. He’d learned to cook the ones he enjoyed, although, in his opinion, his version of shepherd’s pie beat theirs hands down. Over the last couple of years, he’d also dabbled in making his own microbrews. The ones he’d produced had been good, but not great. Maybe he would perfect his craft once he was home in Montana.

His team waited inside for him, and yet, he stood frozen in place. He didn’t want a party. Didn’t want to say goodbye to the men he’d been closer to than his own biological brother. For a minute, he contemplated turning around, getting in his truck, and leaving.

He had a couple of weeks of vacation coming, and he could have hung around Coronado with the team, but that felt like putting off the inevitable. Good-byes sucked whether he left today, tomorrow or next month. The next phase of his life was waiting, and he decided he might as well get to it.

“You better not be thinking of walking out on your own party,” his team leader said from behind him.

Eli whipped around. “Bear, I didn’t hear you walk up.”

Bear threw an arm around Eli’s shoulders and forced him to walk toward the door. “You’re the guest of honor. You have to go in.”

Eli chuckled. “I guess so.”

For the next couple of hours, beers were poured and stories told, some more risqué than others. Eli laughed and drank, but inside his soul, he’d already begun the hard task of breaking his emotional ties with the team. He’d always be there for them, just as they would for him, but he was ready to move on.

After a couple of hours, Eli stood and lifted his glass. “To the best damn SEAL team.”

The men clicked bottles and drank.

“And I’m gone,” Eli said, setting his empty mug on the table. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Well, hell, Wolf,” Heartbreaker said. “That leaves the door wide open.”

After a final round of back-slapping hugs, Eli walked out, followed closely by Zig.

“Man, you’ve had a lot to drink. Maybe you should sleep it off before getting on the road.”

Eli loved Zig’s dad gene. “I’ll be fine.” He leaned in close. “Don’t tell the guys, but Ray the bartender has been serving me near-beer all night. So other than a full bladder, I’m good to go.”

Zig slapped his back. “Take care, man. Stay in touch.”

“Will do.”

He climbed into his truck, ready to put some miles behind him. As he left the parking lot, he couldn’t help but reflect. Damn, he would miss Romeo Team. The guys on the team had changed over the past couple of years, but they’d always had his back, and always would, he assumed, just as he would die for any of them. But their last few missions had been rough. Losing a Romeo team member and good friend during a mission had hit him harder than he’d expected. He’d spent the last year waiting for his bullet, but it never came. A couple of months ago, he’d decided the time had come for him to go home, and he’d put in his papers to the joy of his parents. His brother’s reaction had been a little harder to read.

All the bright lights of Las Vegas welcomed Eli as he neared the gambling capital of the west. A hot, dry arid breeze blasted his face when he climbed from the driver’s seat of his truck for gas. He stretched his lower back as fuel filled the truck’s tank. He was in excellent condition, but after being in the same position for the past five-and-a-half hours, the muscles in his back had tightened.  

After filling his truck, he went inside the truck stop to use the men’s room and grab coffee. Instead of caffeine to wake him up, he decided to pull his truck between a couple of idling eighteen-wheelers and sleep. Lord knew he’d slept in worse places than the front seat of his truck. There was no reason to push himself until he dropped or had an accident.

He chuckled at the accident thought. Daddy Zig was living in his head.

Home would be there whether he got there in one day or three, or even two weeks from now, when his family actually expected him. He hadn’t told them he was leaving early. When the team had been called out for this last mission, he’d had no idea how long they’d be gone. Completing the mission early had given him the opportunity to get a jump on his new life.

After four hours of sleep, he woke feeling like a new man. Coffee for the caffeine jolt, along with some sausage biscuits and a cinnamon roll from the store inside the truck stop, and he was ready to face the long drive to Grizzly Bitterroot Ranch.

After twelve more hours on the road, he was over halfway to the family ranch between Gardiner and Emigrant, Montana. The remaining portion of the drive would be on tight, two-lane, state highways, not to mention the fact he’d be travelling through Yellowstone National Park. At this time of the year, the drive from the West Entrance to the North Entrance could take anywhere from two to eight hours, depending on the traffic. Given it was the middle of July, his money was on eight hours. His timing for hitting Yellowstone could have been better.  

It was early evening when he stopped for gas outside of West Yellowstone. The temperature wasn’t as high as he’d faced in Last Vegas, but the humidity was distinctly higher.

As the gas flowed into the tank, he leaned against the truck’s bed and studied the area around him. The town of West Yellowstone had changed in the years he’d been gone. It’d grown and added more tourist stops. People walked on the sidewalks and in and out of stores. Business appeared to be going well for the town.

With West Yellowstone full and busy with visitors, he knew the Yellowstone National Park tourism would be heavy. He worried about the wildlife in Yellowstone. Some tourists were idiots when it came to getting too close to the bears, buffalo, and elk.

On the other hand, the wildlife did like to take the path of least resistance, which meant walking on the paved roads, and blocking traffic for hours. For tonight, he hoped all the wildlife stayed in their glens and valleys and left the roads to the cars. It sure would make his trip easier and faster. Given that it was early evening, and figuring he would be facing a slow drive through the park, he found a café that was producing delicious aromas and parked. A maddening drive would be so much more pleasurable on a full stomach.

He lucked into a small table in the corner and let his mind drift to his brother and the family ranch. Zane had married a little under a year ago to a doctor from Texas. He’d bought out a couple of smaller farms and enlarged their ranch holdings. Their horse breeding and boarding businesses were growing in leaps and bounds. The cabins Eli and Zane had planned to use as lodging for a dude ranch were staying booked as vacation rentals, which was excellent, but required some hands-on housekeeping from Russ’s wife Lori with each flip. With his parents in Florida every winter, Zane was facing a lot of work with just his wife, Wendy, and their fulltime ranch hand, Russ and Russ’s wife.

Plus, Wendy had bought into a small medical practice, so she was pulling double duty. And if that wasn’t enough, Zane had broken the news that Wendy was pregnant with their first child, and his brother was insane with happiness.

To Eli, it felt like it was past time for him to pick up his share of the load.

Would he like being a cowboy again after being away for so many years? Would he miss the adrenaline rush of jumping from an airplane? Would he miss the ocean? The missions? His California friends? He had so many questions and so few answers. Only time would tell.

After dinner, he grabbed a Coke to go for caffeine and a couple of candy bars for sugar and got back on the road. At the rate he was going, he could be home around midnight and wake up in his own bed tomorrow. The idea spurred him to drive on.

When he reached the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, he was glad he’d killed some time. Now early evening, there appeared to be more cars leaving than entering. July at Yellowstone was a traffic nightmare. Crazy to think he had to drive through this park to reach home, but straight through from the West entrance to the North entrance was the fastest route. At least at this hour, the traffic should be reasonable.

It was nearing ten-thirty when he rolled through the north exit of Yellowstone and into the city of Gardiner. Thirty minutes later, he turned off the highway and down the drive of Grizzly Bitterroot Ranch. A smile broke over his face, and a sense of peace filled his soul. He was home.

He parked his truck in the drive and slid out. His back cramped as he stretched his arms over his head and twisted from side to side. As he stretched, he studied the area. The lights were off at his parents’ house. In the distance, he could see his brother and sister-in-law’s new house. From where he stood, he couldn’t see any lights there either. Cowboy Russ’s house adjacent to the barn was dark. Ranch work started early, he remembered that, but he’d forgotten how early everyone turned out the lights.

When his parents built the newest, small feed storage barn, his mother had included a small apartment for her sister, if and when she came to visit, which wasn’t often. The small, one-bedroom efficiency apartment was almost never occupied. His parents hadn’t wanted to use it as a vacation rental because of its close proximity to the main house, so his coming home plan had included bunking there until he could get his house built, not that he had any idea of what he wanted to build or where. But there was no hurry.

Because their ranch was so far removed from the main road, the small barn apartment was rarely locked, and he doubted it’d be tonight. If it was, he knew where the key would be hidden. He’d surprise everyone at breakfast.

He stepped into the dark storage barn, stopping long enough to enjoy the aroma of hay, oats, horse liniment, and saddle leather. He smiled. Surprisingly, he had missed those scents.

The door that led into the hallway to the apartment was unlocked. He dropped his duffle bag in the laundry room and tried the apartment door. To his surprise, it was locked. He retrieved the key from the laundry room, unlocked the door and entered. Lights were on, which he found surprising, but maybe someone had left them on by accident. Or perhaps this was Zane’s work. He had hinted to his brother that he could be home sooner than he’d planned. Inside the refrigerator was a six-pack of his favorite beer. Eli pulled one out, popped the top and took a long gulp. Bless his brother.

A woman’s scream startled him and he dropped the beer onto the hardwood flooring. His head jerked toward the door of the bathroom and his mouth dropped open. Wrapped in an undersized towel, her left thigh exposed, and her hair wrapped in another towel stood the last woman who’d ripped out his heart and made him question love and marriage.  

What the hell was Addison Treadway doing there?