He took a moment to force that image up in his mind. But all he could see was that sweet-as-sugar smile and all the sparkling joy in her blue eyes. He couldn’t remember ever hearing an inappropriate word come out of her mouth. She was conservative. Politically correct. A pleaser. A nurturer. Being raised by a single mother had given her a fierce independent streak, but Josh believed he knew Grace well enough to know that stripping was way outside her comfort zone.
“The guy was probably drunk off his ass,” Josh offered for lack of a better explanation.
“Probably, which is why this will be a snap for you, bro. All I need to know is that you set your eyes on her. If you could just go down there, pop in at the town house, talk to her, see her, get the real story, I’ll know she’s okay. I trust you, man. If you say she’s safe, I’ll know she’s safe. Then I’ll be square.”
Every SEAL had to be emotionally, mentally, and physically square before heading out on a mission. Distraction led to mistakes. Mistakes led to death.
Beck might be square after Josh put eyes on Grace, but Josh would be fucking skewed.
Then again, Josh wasn’t going out on a mission.
He sighed. “What club?”
“Thank you so much, man. I knew I could count on you. The guy said he saw her at Allure. It’s the same place that used to be Teasers.”
The name of the dive bar made Josh wince. They’d both spent years in San Diego, and while Josh didn’t frequent the strip clubs, many other navy personnel did, and he’d heard every story.
“It’s not the sleazy joint it was a few years ago,” Beck continued. “It’s been taken over by a new owner and gone high-class. But I googled the place and found out there was a murder in the parking lot just a week ago.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Josh dropped his head back against the seat again, mentally reworking his schedule. If he wasn’t going home for Christmas, he could take the opportunity to clean up his town house—one in the same development as Grace and Beck’s—now that the renters had moved out. He needed to get that thing up for sale. But he also needed this holiday with his family.
“Thanks, man.” Relief rang clear in Beck’s voice, even eight thousand miles away. “I owe you.”
“No.” A flash of memory tightened his throat—Josh lying on a pile of rubble drenched with his own blood in Aleppo, the deadliest city in Syria. Over eighteen months later, and he could still remember the feel of Beck’s body weight hitting him as his friend provided cover against enemy fire after the IED had exploded. He released a long exhale. “You’ll never owe me.”
Josh tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of Nickelback’s “Feelin’ Way To Damn Good,” wishing he could agree. But he was sick. And worried. And anxious.
The wipers cleared a path across his rain-spattered windshield, allowing the pink neon advertising Allure, a gentlemen’s club, to flash against the black sky, mocking him. He’d never believed he’d get this far. On the drive here, he’d convinced himself that this was all a misunderstanding. That this would turn out to be a case of mistaken identity. That Grace was still doing nothing racier than coaching high school cheer teams and was perfectly fine.
But when he’d reached her town house, he’d discovered Grace didn’t live there anymore. And when he’d swung by her forwarding address, he’d found himself in a neighborhood where young men loitered on the corners in small groups.
The realization that he was only yards away from Grace inside that club turned him inside out. There were ways he could get out of the duty while accomplishing the end goal, but the truth was, he craved the sight of her again.
He scanned the parking lot, searching for the high-end Jeep SUV Beck had given Grace their last Christmas together. The fact that it wasn’t anywhere in the lot meant one of two things—she either wasn’t here or she’d sold the car just like she’d sold the town house.
With stress building, Josh turned off the engine and pushed open the car door. The wipers stopped midswish, and the music cut out. He stood, locked the doors, and slipped the keys into the pocket of his blazer. Traffic raced past on the freeway with a soft whoosh, and the club’s music thumped through the evening mist. The chill December air swept in, turning his nervous sweat to ice, and Josh shivered as he started toward the club’s front door.
The parking lot was filled with high-end sedans, sports cars, and SUVs. Christmas lights lined the club’s eaves. He paused at the front doors, painted with sexy female caricatures in skimpy elf costumes, and replayed his cover story while dragging cash from his wallet. He’d only been to strip clubs three times in his life—all three for bachelor parties—but he’d only needed to go once to understand how they operated. He folded the bills and pushed them into his front pocket.