Ballybeg, County Cork
Liam Ryan slung his duffel bag into the back of the rental car and forced down the lid of the trunk. An icy wind whipped around him, replete with the scent of seaweed and the taste of salt. Man, he was going to miss Ireland. After a six-month stint working as an undercover operative, he’d grown to love the country of his ancestors. But now that he’d completed his mission and wrapped up loose ends, it was time to get home to the good old U.S. of A.—and just in time for the holidays. He was due to spend five whole days with his favorite girl.
With a big smile plastered across his face, Liam slid behind the wheel and fired up the engine. He’d been afraid the gunshot wound he’d sustained during his last job would prevent him from flying home for Christmas, but his doctors had given him a clean bill of health yesterday. He’d booked his flight the instant the white coats had left his hospital room.
Liam had just reached the main road from Ballybeg to Cork when the insistent vibration of his phone alerted him to an incoming call. His face split into a grin when he recognized the number on the display.
A small, tentative voice sounded down the line. “Daddy?”
His heart clenched as he pictured Meggie’s huge blue eyes and wild black hair with the self-inflicted bangs. God, he missed his little girl. “Well, hey there, Miss Meggie. How are you doing? How’s Barnabus?” His hand went to the hideous necklace she’d made him for his birthday. It was felt daisies and a one-eyed fluffy duck dangling off the end like a man in a noose. Liam wore it with pride.
“We’re both good,” his five-year-old daughter said, drawing out the final word of the sentence in that adorable way of hers. “Are you really coming home for Christmas?”
“I told you I would, baby. I’m on my way to the airport right now to catch the night flight to JFK.”
“Mommy says I shouldn’t get my hopes up,” she said in a small voice, “in case you don’t keep your promise.”
The sadness in her tone slayed him. Liam swallowed a diatribe against his ex-wife and kept his tone even. “Have I ever broken a promise to you, baby?”
“I won’t this time, either.”
Thanks to his career, he’d missed so much of her life already. He was going to make the best of their time sailing around the Florida Keys. Once the New Year rolled around, he’d be off on another mission, destination unknown.
A pang of guilt hit him in the solar plexus. How long would the next job take? Undercover ops didn’t exactly allow for a typical father-daughter relationship. Seeing a child for a week two or three times a year just didn’t cut it. Maybe it was time he got serious about looking for a desk job, however much the notion of a staid nine-to-five existence made his skin crawl.
“I’ll collect you on the twenty-fifth and we’ll have five whole days together. Just you, me, and the sea.”
“Can I bring Barnabus? He’ll be sad if I leave him all alone.”
Liam refrained from mentioning that the dog would hardly be alone if he were left with Meggie’s mother, stepfather, baby brother, and a shitload of servants. “Of course you can bring Barnabus.”
“Whew! I’d be real sad without him.” She paused, and Liam could practically hear the wheels in her little head turning. “Will he need his own doggie life jacket?”
He chuckled. “I’ve already bought one for him.”
In the background, he could hear his ex-wife urging Meggie to end the call.
“I have to go now. I miss you, Daddy.”
“I miss you, too, baby. I’m sending you lots of kisses. See you in a few days.”
After she disconnected, Liam felt that hollow sensation he always had when he finished a call with his daughter. Despite what his ex thought, he adored Meggie. He wanted to be a good dad, even if he’d sucked at being a good husband. Why had he allowed Amy to demote him to the role of sperm donor with visitation rights? She’d thrown a fit when he’d shown up with Barnabus last Christmas. A mongrel rescue puppy didn’t match Amy’s designer lifestyle or her investment banker husband’s Shih Tzu.
Shortly after ending the call with his daughter, he passed Cork City and headed toward the motorway. He was approaching the turn onto the M8 when his phone rang again. The name Cash Kincaid flashed on the display. Liam smiled as he hit connect. “Hey, man. You afraid I’ll forget your duty-free whiskey?”
His former brother-in-arms and new boss was brusque and to the point. “We have a situation.”
A prickle of unease settled between Liam’s shoulder blades. A glance at the GPS told him he was still a two-hour drive away from Shannon Airport. “Go on.”
“A series of bomb threats have been issued to cities across the globe, all targeted at a sex toy manufacturer with its own chain of stores. One of the cities threatened is Cork.”
“What’s that got to do with Trident Securities? Unless influential strings are pulled, local law enforcement isn’t going to let me get involved.”
“Influential strings are being pulled. The caller claims to be The Ghost.”
Liam let loose a string of expletives, hit the brakes, and swerved his car around to retrace his route. “What do we know?”
“The C.E.O. of Blush Shoppe Enterprises got an email saying bombs had been planted in five stores. One of them is in downtown Cork. I’ve sent you the coordinates.”
“Blush Shoppe?” Fuck. Wasn’t that the company Jill Bekele worked for? Liam’s pulse pounded at the thought of his former girlfriend threatened by The Ghost. He pressed the gas pedal and sailed through a red light. “The bomb squad?”
“On their way. Once we establish if the threat is legit, you’ll liaise with our contact in Irish intelligence. Officially, a multinational task force has been established to capture The Ghost and bring him to justice. Unofficially, the agencies want him dead.”
“And they’ve hired us to do their dirty work.” Liam phrased it as a statement, not a question.
Cash’s laugh rumbled over the line. “Someone’s got to do it, and it won’t be the suits.”
“I have to be stateside by the twenty-fifth. I promised Meggie—”
“You’re the only person who’s ever eyeballed The Ghost,” Cash cut in. “We need you on this job.”
Liam’s hands tightened around the wheel. The Ghost represented the only failed mission of his Navy SEAL career. It still rankled. And now the asshole was threatening to hurt Jill and derail his holiday plans with Meggie. “I’m not breaking a promise to my daughter. I’ll do what’s necessary today and then pass the job on to someone else.”
“There is no one else,” Cash said with a sigh. “All the guys are away on jobs, and you’re right on site.”
“Right on site with two busted ribs and ten days’ leave due.” Liam gritted his teeth. “I’ll give you twenty-four hours max, Cash. And you’re responsible for rearranging my flight home.”
“Deal,” his boss replied. “I owe you one, man.”
“Did our supernatural friend elaborate on the reason behind the bombs?”
“Yeah. The usual shit. Blush Shoppe is encouraging immorality and extramarital affairs, especially with its new same-sex couples line.”
Liam swore beneath his breath. The Ghost, a terrorist with a skewed view of morality, had made it his mission to bring the world’s sex industry to a screeching halt. This involved murdering strip club owners, adult movie producers, and politicians with a penchant for prostitutes. The politician angle had landed him on several governments’ shit lists, including Uncle Sam’s. Despite their best efforts, he always evaded capture.
“Okay. I’ll be in touch when we have more intel,” Cash said briskly. “Stay safe.”
“I’ll do my best,” Liam drawled.
Traffic was heavy when he reached the quays and came to a complete stop on MacCurtain Street, a couple of blocks from the Blush Shoppe store. People from nearby stores and businesses had crowded onto the pavement to get a better look at the action, including a purple liveried doorman from the Sheldon Hotel, Cork City’s answer to the Plaza.
Liam hopped out of the car and peered ahead. The police had set up a roadblock, and the area in front of the store was deserted except for the Emergency Response Unit guys. He would pull the car over to the side of the road and sprint the rest of the way.
He was about to slide behind the wheel again when something out of the corner of his eye snagged his attention. A man wearing a hooded sweatshirt, baggy pants, and sneakers ambled down the sidewalk. The angle of his hood concealed his features, but there was something about that deliberately casual walk that struck Liam as…wrong.
Without breaking his stride, the young man walked past the preoccupied doorman and took the steps up to the mistletoe-festooned entrance of the Sheldon Hotel. When he reached out a hand to open the door, Liam’s blood turned to ice. Perfectly illuminated by a streetlight was the intricate vine tattoo Liam had last seen on the hand supporting the barrel of a gun. A gun that had been aimed at his heart.
Abandoning his car, Liam raced across the road and took the steps up to the hotel two at a time. Inside, he scanned the marble-floored lobby but could see no sign of the man. And then a sign caught his attention.
Blush Shoppe Launch Party, Oliver Plunkett Conference Room, Second Floor
From The Navy SEAL’s Holiday Fling by Zara Keane, Copyright 2015