Book 3 in the Whidbey Island Series
She saved a baby, but can she save her marriage?
Navy commander and pilot Gwen Brett is shot down in a disastrous mission—and survives six months in terrifying circumstances. She manages to escape with an orphaned baby she rescued and is determined to bring home.
Devastated when she was presumed dead, her ex-husband, Drew, is overjoyed by her survival. He offers Gwen and the baby a place to stay, to recover. Gwen accepts, convinced their love is gone. But almost losing her for good makes Drew realize he wants her back—and Gwen feels the same… However, this rescue might be the hardest one yet!
Heat Level: Smooth Sailing
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Commander Gwendolyn Brett adjusted the power levers on her P-3C-Orion aircraft as another gust of wind racked the airframe. Lightning lit up the night sky over the Philippine Sea and she wished they’d finished the mission hours earlier.
Terrorist insurgents in the remote southern islands of the Philippines hadn’t shown their hand until the last possible moment before she had to turn the plane around while there was still enough fuel to make it back to base. Besides streaming live video to government troops on the ground, her crew got their location, captured excellent photos of their camp and transmitted them via satellite to be disseminated to the intel weenies who’d figure out what it all meant.
They’d completed the mission; now she had to get her crew back to base.
Thirteen souls, including herself.
That awareness kept her from letting the monotonous drone of the four turbo-prop engines lull her into drifting off—into thinking about anything other than the flight..
For some reason, the image of Drew as she’d driven off just before deployment had haunted her all day. She’d wondered why he’d bothered, why he showed up at the hangar. He’d said “no one should go off on deployment alone.” He’d given her a friendly hug.
They were friends, in spite of all the hell they’d put each other through as young junior officers. So why had his platonic hug been worse than if he’d tortured her with a kiss, reminded her of all she’d lost when they’d divorced five years ago? More important, why was she allowing thoughts of him now, during a key mission?
The old mesh fabric pilot’s seat gave little support to her spine, and she shifted her position, trying to stretch her lower back.
“You’ve got to do those ab moves I told you about, XO.” Her copilot’s gentle chiding made her smile.
“No amount of exercise is going to shave the years off me, David.”
“Aw, ma’am, you’re still young.”
She chuckled, even as the sharp stab of a lower back spasm made her wince. Simple tasks that she’d managed through brute strength as a junior officer were becoming more difficult as her birthdays added up.
Thirty-seven was young in the civilian world, but not in the navy.
She was tired of the constant reminders of the years passing too quickly. When she got back from deployment she was going to follow her best friend, Ro’s, advice and get herself back into the dating scene.
Not that she’d ever been in the dating scene. Because of Drew. Because they’d been together since flight school in Pensacola, Florida.
From the beginning they knew their marriage faced more challenges than most—long deployments, geographical separation, war. Hurdles that wouldn’t go away until one or both of them resigned from the navy. Drew didn’t have the passion for flying that Gwen did and they’d agreed that she’d stay in while he got out. They both assumed Gwen would eventually resign her commission and fly for a commercial airline.
They’d survived three intense years after Drew got out of the navy and went back to school to earn his doctorate in Physical Therapy. His PT practice had thrived after only a year.
As his career took off, so did hers. Unfortunately, their marriage tanked.
She still mentally kicked herself for not seeing the inevitability of their divorce. That would’ve saved them both so much emotional distress. Very few dual-active-duty couples made it for the long haul. Factor in how young they’d been when they got married, and the odds had never been in their favor.
The long deployments and wartime assignments had been hell for both of them, but her performance earned her top marks and led to this tour. The ultimate goal all career officers chased after—the command tour.
Serving as the Executive Officer of Patrol Squadron Five-Two, the Grey Sharks, she had two more months until she’d become the commanding officer. A coveted twelve-month stint that had taken her entire career to reach and taken her marriage with it.
Her squadron’s mission was to conduct reconnaissance and antisubmarine warfare all over the globe. They provided real-time intelligence to operational ground forces and operational commands, no matter which theater they flew in. Often her missions kept civilians safe from unspeakable terrorist events. Sometimes it was simply reconnaissance. Other times, Gwen’s aircraft carried weapons, or helped others aim their weapons on the enemy target.
“See the flashes, XO?” David pointed starboard of the nose, to where sharp points of light lit up the not-distant-enough horizon.
“They’re not happy. Good. That’s our job.” She referred to the insurgents who were shooting off AAA, antiaircraft artillery, in an effort to take her aircraft down.
“We’re too far away for those triple-A rounds, Commander,” one of the radar operators said over the ICS or intercommunications system.
“And we’re going to keep it that way, crew.” Gwen spoke into her microphone as she eyed her fuel levels.
She glanced over at her copilot, his profile relaxed but alert in the starboard seat. Young and super-smart, he reminded her of Drew and of herself. Once again she lamented that they’d been so young when they started out in the navy and in life. Too young to know how to make a marriage work.
She contracted and relaxed her abs and her glutes. It eased the discomfort in her lower back.
At least she and Drew had remained good friends. That was more important than a marriage, in so many ways.
Drew hadn’t been impressed with her selection to command. He was proud of her, unquestionably. He’d supported her through the wartime deployments—by getting her mail, doing basic admin stuff a spouse often did, handling household responsibilities. But they’d been divorced for five years when she left last month. Neither of them had remarried, but she expected he’d be the first one to make that leap.
He’d wanted to start a family. She’d wanted to wait.
Tonight, at the end of a long mission, flying through a hell of a storm, she wondered if she’d been nuts to stay in the navy, to go through so much, for this last operational tour. Had it been worth it, giving up so much to become a commanding officer?
Lately she’d begun to suspect that she’d lost more than her marriage in the process. She didn’t know who she was anymore, except for her military vocation. If she hadn’t screened for command, would she have stayed in to make the twenty-year mark required for retirement?
“Shit! Incoming starboard, three o’clock! Probable missile!” The aft observer’s scream in her headset shattered her thoughts.
“Confirmed surface-to-air. Son of a bitch!” The radar operator validated that the sighting wasn’t another aircraft or fireworks.
Cold dread gripped her.
“I see it. Hell, it’s closing, XO!” Her copilot had his hands on the yoke, his head swiveled around to the right as he sighted the missile off their starboard side.
Preflight intel confirmed the existence of AAA during their mission brief, but never mentioned manpads—portable surface-to-air missiles.
They had an incoming that could blow them all to bits.
She heard screams and shouted curses over the ICS.
Shudders buffeted the fuselage of the P-3, and Gwen’s operational instincts pushed anything else out of her mind. The plane rolled alarmingly to port and she threw a quick shout at her copilot. “Help me out here, David!”
“Engine number four, gone. Wing on fire.”
She never lifted her gaze from the control panel where she confirmed that they’d lost an engine. Annunciator lights in the cockpit also indicated that number three, the other engine on the starboard wing, looked like it was going to quit at any moment.
“We’ve lost both hydraulic systems,” the FE shouted.
“Roger. Pull the boost out handles!”
The FE leaned down and pulled the three yellow and black striped handles by his feet.
This left them with only manual control of the aircraft.
“What’s next, XO?” David yelled into his mic, even though he was right next to her. They’d never hear each other over the roar of the aircraft as it struggled to maintain altitude.
It was a losing battle. The altimeter showed they were dropping at an alarming rate.
One, maybe two minutes was all she had to prepare her crew.
They’d trained with the hope of three minutes.
“We’ll never make it to land, David.” She tore her gaze from the instrument panel and looked at him. His profile was set and determined, but she recognized the same fear she felt.
No one wanted to die. Not like this.
“You with me?”
He turned his stare on her and an understanding passed between them.
Whatever it takes.
Yells and shouts mixed with expletives over the ICS as the crew went through their trained-for responses.
The flight engineer pushed the button that issued the deadly warning—one long ring on the command bell. The sound she never wanted to hear while flying a P-3 reverberated through the entire aircraft.
They were going to ditch.
“Prepare to ditch!” She yelled what might be her last command—she had no choice. They’d lost two engines and were damned lucky they were still airborne.
The controlled panic of the crew aft of the flight station was palpable. Gwen heard swear words, prayers then silence as the country’s best-trained professionals prepared to fight for their lives.
Lives in her hands.
“Everyone got their LPAs on?” She referred to the survival vests that would be their only flotation device, other than the three life rafts, once they were in the harsh seas.
“Condition One set!” Lizzie, the TACCO or tactical communications officer, confirmed that everyone was prepared to ditch.
God help us all.
Ten thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, approximately five miles off the southwest tip of the Philippines, they were about to ditch. The condition of the sea was abysmal, with waves that were ten feet and higher, And it was quarter past midnight.
Her worst nightmare come true—a nighttime ditch in rough seas, miles from land, oceans from the nearest naval vessel.
Robert “Mac” MacCallister, the flight engineer, worked in sync with the copilot to complete the ditching checklist. It was standard procedure they’d all practiced and prayed they’d never need to use.
I’m ditching in the ocean.
She’d practiced it in the flight simulator countless times, mentally rehearsed the most undesirable event for any naval aviator.
“I’m here if you need relief, XO.” The voice of the third pilot rose above the rush of air that swept through the cabin. He clutched the back of the co-pilot’s seat as he shouted in her ear.
Gwen couldn’t spare him a look.
“Go back to your station and strap your ass in, Aidan!” If any of them were going to survive they had to be properly secured. She had to bring the bird onto the water safely and in one piece so they could get out before it sank.
“But ma’am, if you—”
“Take the freaking order!” Before she even finished her statement, Gwen had to grab the yoke back after it was wrenched out of her hands.
“Help me out here, David!” she shouted to her co-pilot.
“I’m pulling as hard as I can!”
Gwen didn’t have to see David’s face to know the young officer spoke through clenched teeth.
“Come on, gal, give us one more break!” Gwen yelled at the old bird then groaned as she stretched her shoulder and back muscles to their limit in her effort to pull back. Losing hydraulics after two engines had been blown apart by the surface-to-air missile wasn’t just bad luck.
It was fatal.
She had to beat it.
That was her crew’s only chance.
“Five thousand feet.” Scott reported each time the altitude dropped another thousand feet. Soon it would be every hundred feet.
“Wind direction is two-four-five at 45 knots,” her navigator, Bryce Griswald, shouted from the nav station, aft of the cockpit.
Gwen checked the compass heading and was grateful for one small miracle in this hell. She was taking the plane down at the right angle of descent to keep the waves from becoming brick walls lying in wait to destroy the aircraft.
Forgotten images of her life appeared before her in quick succession. The first time she rode her bicycle without training wheels, her dad’s smile, Mom’s hugs, Drew’s first kiss, her graduation from Annapolis.
“This plane is coming down in one piece. We’re all getting out.” It might be the last thing she ever did for them.
“Two hundred feet!” David hadn’t missed a beat.
“One hundred feet!” David’s shout reached Gwen just before she saw the last glint of white-capped waves through the night darkness.
“Hang on!” She pulled back on the yoke with all her strength.
David’s last report.
“Hands off power levers!” Gwen shouted the order for David to join her in letting go of the power levers and gripping the yoke. They’d lose their fingers if they didn’t release the levers.
For the length of an indrawn gasp, the world stood still as she waited for touchdown. Her mind struggled to convince her that this was like any other landing, the end of any other mission she’d be able to walk away from.
That delusion shattered when the plane hit water. What remained of the two operating engines’ combined ninety-two hundred shaft horsepower screeched to a halt as metal propellers met the ocean surface with such a violent impact she was sure they were finished. Panic threatened to drown them before their greatest enemy did. The sea.
Water sprayed against the windshield and blinded her. It took all her mental discipline to ride out the ditch, hands on yoke. Each creak, groan and shudder as the aircraft broke apart echoed in her bones.
After interminable moments, the aircraft’s forward motion stopped and the race for their lives began.
“Out, out, out, let’s go!” Gwen used her deepest shout, the one that had its origins in her plebe summer at the Naval Academy, to motivate her crew. Not that they needed any motivation—their quick decisive actions flashed in front of her as if they ditched regularly.
Mac crouched next to her, shoving the copilot out the upper hatch. They were up to their chests in water and jet fuel, so every movement became slow and difficult. Her flight suit provided no protection from the ocean or the thousands of gallons of aviation fuel that had spilled from the torn wing tanks.
“Anyone else?” Mac yelled as he pointed directly above his head to the cockpit hatch.
“No, everyone else will exit the over-wing hatches.” They couldn’t go back to help anyone now, and she had to trust that the rest of the crew had survived the ditch. Her toe met a hard, unmovable steel bulkhead as she fought to hang on to the hatch rim while Mac, the flight engineer, prepared to egress.
Gwen prayed the crew who’d been strapped in back were out over the wing hatches, along with the life rafts. She wouldn’t know until she was out.
The fuselage tilted dangerously forward. They had precious minutes to get out and away from the sinking wreckage.
“Go ahead, Mac.” She gave him a shove and watched as his body disappeared up the hatch. Seconds later Mac’s hand reached down and grabbed the top of her helmet.
“Up here, ma’am! Let me pull you.”
Gwen complied and allowed him to save her life. As the plane commander, Gwen was responsible for each crew member’s life. She had to be the last one out.
She grabbed the edge of the hatch as soon as her arms were past the entrance and pushed herself up into the raging storm. The sting of salt water and the howl of the wind shocked her, and she had to take several gulps of air before she could ascertain where the life rafts were. In doing so, she breathed in the aircraft’s fuel fumes. Her eyes and throat burned and her stomach heaved. She had no choice but to vomit on the spot.
She saw David’s face, illuminated by his flashlight. The copilot was safe with the navigator and the second flight engineer. She couldn’t see any farther into the menacing darkness.
“How many?” Gwen screamed across the waves and the rapidly sinking P-3 to the first of the life rafts.
“All here, XO.”
Gwen couldn’t allow time for relief. She sought out the second and third life rafts.
“We’re missing the TACCO!” The shout from the second raft elicited immediate action from Gwen. Lizzie was still stuck in the aircraft.
Gwen had to go back in and get her.
Going back the way she’d exited was risky, especially if Lizzie was unconscious. Gwen couldn’t inflate her LPA or she’d never get back in the fuselage. She made a quick guess as to where the over-wing hatch was positioned on the now-sinking aircraft.
She had seconds.
Gwen took a deep breath and dove into the thrashing sea, holding on to the aircraft as a guide. She found the over-wing hatch and went in.
Total darkness meant that feeling her way through the fuel-filled cabin was a challenge, but Gwen knew she had to get Lizzie. Get your shipmate or die with her.
She ignored her need for air and felt forward to the TACCO station. Lizzie was still strapped in her seat, only her face above the waterline.
Gwen drew in great gasps of air as she struggled to release Lizzie’s seat belts.
“C’mon, Lizzie Lady.” She used Lizzie’s call sign and grimaced with relief when her fingers managed to unbuckle Lizzie’s straps.
“You with me, Liz?”
“I’m here. Hit my head.” The whispered reply was all Gwen needed. Lizzie was still alive and had a chance if Gwen could get them out of the destroyed fuselage.
“I need you to take a deep breath. Hang on to me and I’ll do this as fast as I can.”
“Okay. One, two, three.”
Gwen went under with her arm around Lizzie’s chest, pulling her through the totally submerged aft cabin. Their progress was excruciatingly slow and Gwen sent up a prayer that they’d make it to the over-wing hatch.
The fuselage groaned with each wave that hit the steel frame, sounding deadly, final.
Gwen’s fingers caught on the rim of the hatch and she pulled both herself and Lizzie through it. Something scraped her arm and a piece of metal clanged on the top of Gwen’s helmet.
She didn’t stop. She couldn’t, wouldn’t. She was Lizzie’s only chance.
Her own lungs burned and she was afraid that Lizzie had sucked in fuel or seawater in an effort to breathe. Gwen felt the tug of the aircraft’s drag once they were free of the fuselage. They had seconds to clear the area. She reached over to Lizzie’s LPA handle and pulled. Lizzie left Gwen’s arms as though a great arm and stretched down and pulled her up. Gwen grabbed her own beaded handle and yanked. Her LPA inflated and bolted her to surface.
The black spots that she’d tried to fight off dissipated as she gulped in the salty, wet air. She blinked. Lizzie floated a few meters away from her. She swam over and wanted to scream when she saw Lizzie’s closed eyes and blank expression.
Please let her be unconscious, not dead.
She tried to hook their LPAs together but the rough seas only allowed her to clutch Lizzie’s vest collar as they were tossed like pieces of trash.
“XO, over here!”
Gwen couldn’t tell whose voice was behind the flashlight beams as she started swimming toward them, Lizzie in tow.
Get away from the aircraft. Get away. Get away.
Hours of training in simulated ditches had drilled into her the necessity of putting as much distance as possible between her and the ditched craft. It was moments from sinking and would take down everything around it.
She pushed and kicked and hung on to Lizzie. After what seemed like hours, they arrived at the side of life raft number two. Number one was attached to the right of it. She couldn’t see the third raft.
“Get her up—she’s injured.” Gwen pushed Lizzie as hard as she could, watching as the hands of two crew members reached over to haul her up.
She saw Lizzie’s boots go over and into the life raft.
She’d done her job. All crew members safe, in their rafts.
“Grab my hand!” The second flight engineer leaned over the raft and held out his arm.
Gwen prayed it wasn’t too late. Exhaustion weakened every muscle and she couldn’t lift her arm out of the water.
“Go, report it.” She wasn’t sure he’d heard her, and the sea spray threatened to choke her each time she opened her mouth.
She had to fight, to get back, to get home. A sob escaped her throat as she willed her booted feet, so heavy, to move, damn it! Her life, her hope, was on Whidbey Island.
Not lost at sea.
“Please. Let me get there.” Her words came out as the tiniest of whispers.
She focused on the FE’s outstretched hand and dug deep for the core of her will, her remaining physical strength, to grasp it.
To save her life.
A wave crashed over her and made it impossible.
If she was going to survive, it would be on her own. She didn’t have control over the ocean any more than she did the memories that clawed at her.
The family room with its woodstove burning while the Christmas tree twinkled… She and Drew wrapped in each other’s arms in front of the fire.
Six months later
“You’ve gained twenty-six degrees in your mobility over the last six months, Helen.” Drew smiled at his prize patient and snapped his protractor closed. Helen Burkoven was sixty-two, and had presented with a frozen right shoulder, due in part to her competitive tennis practice of the past fifty years. She made a lot of his younger clients appear lazy.
“I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to pull weeds again, Drew. The brambles had taken over my rose garden!”
“As long as you keep doing the exercises we’ve gone over, you’ll be fine—but take it easy on the tennis court, okay?”
Helen grunted and walked over to the chair, where she waited while Drew got an ice gel pack out of the chiller.
He arranged the pillow under her arm to make her more comfortable before he placed the gel pack over her injured shoulder.
Helen groaned in pleasure. “Oh, that always feels so good after all the work you make me do.”
“Sit tight and enjoy. You’re free to go in fifteen minutes.” He set the timer near Helen’s chair and went to see his other client, Tom, who was doing leg exercises for his knee on a wheeled office chair.
Drew relished the modern layout of his clinic. One large room held the equipment and therapy tables for up to six clients at a time.
“How’s it going, Tom?”
“Fine, doc. But I feel like a crab on the beach, walking around while I’m sitting on this stool.”
“It’s going to help your knees, trust me.”
“Drew?” Serena Delgado, his receptionist, interrupted him.
Drew looked at her sharply, but his annoyance dissipated at the stunned expression on her beautiful face. Whatever it was, she wouldn’t express it in front of his clients. Serena didn’t normally interrupt his consultations. The last time she’d burst in like this—
Gwen’s plane had gone down.
That was well over six months ago, but damned if he didn’t tense up and expect Serena to give him more bad news.
There isn’t anything worse than knowing Gwen’s never coming home.
“You have some visitors. It’s very important.”
The dread that had simmered in his gut since the minute he’d learned Gwen was missing erupted into an all-out boil.
They’ve found her body.
As much as every piece of naval intelligence that he’d been told about, not to mention logic, indicated that Gwen had perished in the South Pacific six months ago, he’d held out hope. That she’d survived—that she’d come back. That, somehow, against all the odds, she’d made it.
He shook off the fantasy.
If she’d lived, if she came back, they’d only be the friends they’d become since the divorce.
“Drew?” Serena stared at him. He swung his gaze to Helen, his rotator cuff patient. She hadn’t said a word, but she wasn’t deaf. Her eyes sparked with knowing. Hell, the whole town knew what he’d been through. The P-3 ditch. Gwen’s role in it—she’d saved her crew. The entire damned crew had returned safely to Whidbey Island. To their families.
Gwen didn’t have a family to return to anymore. Only him, her ex-husband, and their shared pets. The island newspaper had detailed Gwen’s naval career as well as her personal bio, including their divorce. Her MIA status had been picked up by the national news, as well.
While locals like Helen knew an awful lot more about his personal life than he’d choose, they didn’t know the half of it.
“Go ahead, Drew. You’re done with me.” Helen’s eyes didn’t twinkle any longer, and her expression was gentle. Motherly. “We’re all praying for you.”
After a quick nod at Helen, he followed Serena to the back office, behind the therapy room.
He stopped at the threshold when he saw the occupants.
Lieutenant Commander Roanna Mikowski, his wife’s best friend since they’d been midshipmen at the Naval Academy, stood with her hands clasped in front of her. She was still on active duty, but had put in her resignation so she could remain in the same place as her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Miles Mikowski. A stab of envy broke through his shock as he saw the obviously happy couple.
Why couldn’t Gwen have resigned, too?
It wouldn’t change who we both are. We’d still be divorced.
Miles stood next to Ro and offered Drew a slight smile. “Drew.”
Silence stretched between them. They’d shared an awful lot of grief these past several months. Tension seemed to crackle off Ro and Miles. They were going to confirm his worst fears, the news they’d all dreaded.
“Do I need to sit down?” His voice sounded sane, steady, but he couldn’t feel his mouth move with the words.
“Yes.” They spoke in unison, then glanced at each other. It was the kind of look that only a couple who knew and deeply loved each other exchanged. Drew missed that kind of intimacy.
He sank into the leather office chair, unable to relax.
“Spit it out.” He wanted to run away, leave the office, leave Oak Harbor, charter a flight off Whidbey Island. Destination: Anywhere But Here.
It wouldn’t change the truth.
“Drew, they’ve found Gwen.” Ro’s voice was low and steady. He gave her credit for being so strong.
He couldn’t stop the tears that squeezed past his closed eyes. “Where?”
“Drew, look at me. You don’t understand.”
He opened his eyes and saw that Ro’s eyes glistened with unshed tears, too.
“She’s alive, Drew. She made it.”
“She—” His voice crapped out on him. Miles nodded in affirmation. Relief bloomed in his chest. And then common sense shut it down.
“Ro’s not kidding, Drew. She’s alive! She was caught by insurgents but escaped from their prison camp after two weeks.”