Born To Be WildeBy: Janelle Denison & Erika Wilde
“I need your help.”
Startled by the desperate request drifting through the phone line, Joel Wilde’s fingers tightened around the cordless receiver pressed to his ear. It had been one helluva long time since he’d heard that voice, but he recognized it instantly. A friend. A comrade. The man who’d literally saved his life.
“Zach?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah, buddy, it’s me.” Zach Marshall’s forced chuckle fell flat. “It’s been a while, huh?”
Over four years, to be exact, Joel thought as he sat down on one of the bar stools in his kitchen. As Marines they’d been assigned to the same Force Reconnaissance unit, and after serving their country for four and six years respectively, they’d both opted not to re-enlist. Their last mission in Baghdad had been harrowing, and one that neither of them had been eager to repeat. In fact, most of the men who’d been a part of that assignment had walked away with either physical or emotional scars. And for some, both.
Joel was a man who’d always thrived on risk and adventure, but his tour of duty in Iraq had been much more than he’d ever bargained for. After watching good men die and nearly losing his own life, as well, Joel had wanted nothing more than to join the real world again and live a normal life, free from strict rules, relentless, rigorous missions, and being responsible for other men’s lives.
He’d tried to keep in touch with Zach over the years, but Zach was a wanderer, always seeking action and adventure. He was a good guy at heart, but he was also a drinker and a gambler and usually found trouble instead. Which brought Joel back to the reason behind his friend’s call.
“What’s going on, Zach?” Joel was compelled to ask, but dreaded the answer.
“I’m in trouble. Big trouble.” Zach’s voice cracked with the faintest hint of despair. “I owe a bookie a shit load of money that I don’t have.”
Joel wasn’t surprised, just disappointed that his friend hadn’t changed his ways. Obviously Zach hadn’t learned his lesson after one of their comrades, Bruno, had beat the crap out of Zach when he’d neglected to pay up the five hundred bucks he’d lost to the big, burly Marine during a poker game.
Joel blew out a rough stream of breath. “How much?”
A noticeable pause ensued before Zach finally answered. “Over fifty-grand.”
Joel’s mind reeled with disbelief, and a ripe curse escaped his lips before he could stop it. “Jesus, Zach, I don’t have that kind of cash to give you.”
“I know, and I swear I’m not asking you for it,” Zach tried to assure him. “But this situation involves more than just me. Remember my sister, Lora?”
They’d never met personally, but Joel did, indeed, remember bits and pieces about Lora Marshall. Zach had openly shared the amusing letters his sister had written to him on a weekly basis, and the occasional picture she’d sometimes include along with the correspondence.
It had been a very long time since Joel had seen any of those photos, or even thought of Lora Marshall, but as he closed his eyes her features easily filled his mind. She’d possessed a lovely face with soft, pretty features, which was framed by rich, shoulder-length brown hair that looked shiny and silky to the touch. In a bleak, war-filled existence, he recalled being drawn to her laughing, inviting blue eyes, and a smile that was both sweet and sensual in an understated way.
Joel’s gut clenched at the thought of Zach putting her life in jeopardy somehow. “What does your sister have to do with any of this?”
“I need you to make sure she’s protected,” Zach said on a quick rush of breath. “These people I’m dealing with… they might be looking for her.”
Joel jammed his fingers through his too long hair and frowned, not liking the direction this conversation was taking. “And why would they be looking for Lora?”
The silence that followed was deafening.
“Dammit, Zach,” he bit out harshly, his own anger rising swiftly to the surface. “You can’t just drop something like this on me and not tell me what the hell is going on. If your sister’s life is at risk, in any way at all, I need details, all of them, in order to keep her safe.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” Zach’s tone was more subdued now. “Just promise me that no matter what, you’ll look after her until I get this mess taken care of. She doesn’t have anyone else, and I need to know that she’s in good hands. You’re the only one I trust to keep her safe from any harm.”
Joel absently rubbed a hand over his jean clad thigh, right where a puckered scar resided, an ugly, glaring reminder of how Zach had once risked his own life to save his during a covert mission. Joel owed him, and while Zach hadn’t come right out and said as much, Joel was certain that his friend was counting on that return favor now.