Claire staggered under the weight of her Marc Jacobs shoulder bag and her six-year-old daughter. Pushing aside her exhaustion, she looked over her arm to make sure her son still followed.
He trudged along, half asleep, his Iron-man backpack low on his back, pulling his sister’s Hello Kitty rolling bag. Now that was brotherly love.
Overhead she found the sign which indicated The Port Elizabeth airport baggage claim was ahead. Thank God. Twenty-two hours flying with a six and nine-year-old, by herself, was beyond normal endurance.
She tried not to take too deep a breath. The smell of unwashed humans was horrid. Hopefully it wasn’t her who smelled.
Nevertheless, they’d arrived safely. She wasn’t weak like she believed. Or as her parents believed. Or as her deceased husband had believed.
Nope, she’d proved she could handle her small family with international travel. A joyful aria phrase flicked through her mind. It never reached her lips. Sudden bursts of singing were a thing of her past.
“Jason, keep an eye out for our bags,” she said pointing to the carousel. She shook her daughter awake. “Madison, sweetheart, wake up.”
“Don’t want to,” she grunted through her dark-blonde hair covering her face.
Claire smiled and set Maddie down giving her a moment to get her feet steady. “Sorry, baby. We’re almost there.” She checked the bags rolling by on the slow carousel. Jason reached for a black one but pulled back when he realized it wasn’t one of theirs.
She checked the room for her sister Tessa and her husband Nate. They were supposed to meet her here. Maybe they went back to the ship in the harbor after finding out her flight was delayed in Johannesburg. Four hours in a crowded airport with cranky kids. She’d been terrified she’d fall asleep and miss the flight. Hadn’t that been fun?
This South Africa airport didn’t seem much different. Thank goodness she wasn’t staying in the country long. Once they reached Tessa’s ship they’d spend the summer of following the whales to Australia.
No bags were in sight. She sucked in a deep breath. God, she didn’t recall ever being this tired. She closed her eyes and let oxygen attempt to revive her. Unfortunately, she gagged at the smell assaulting her nostrils.
Jerking her head up, she looked to where she’d last seen Jason. He wasn’t there. She spun and saw two tall black men dragging her son toward a side door.
“Jason!” Heart pounding, she grabbed Madison’s hand, nearly pulling her off her feet, and raced after the men.
A flash of denim rushed past her. He sprinted after the men, practically jumping through the small door leading outside.
Her gut queasy, cursing her lack of speed, she continued to pull Madison toward the door. Who were those men? Why did they take her son? Oh God, where were Nate and Tessa?
Jason came back through the door, followed by the man in tight denim jeans and a dark polo shirt who’d gone after the kidnappers. Jason skin was alabaster and his sky-blue eyes wide enough to land planes. When he saw her, he rushed over and grabbed her so tight she could barely breathe.
Light headed, Claire used her free hand to touch Jason’s face, hair, and his precious ear. She pulled Madison closer to encompass her into the hug. The heat and sweat of them felt like home.
Shaking, she bowed her head and sobbed. “My babies. Oh god, Jason.”
Maddie was crying, too. Jason was repeating “Mom” over and over.
“Ma’am.” A gentle voice with a southern accent attempted to get her attention.
She looked up to find the man who’d brought Jason back standing about five feet in front of her, blocking them from the rest of the people in the room. “Thank you. Thank you for my son.”
He tilted his head in a small nod. “We need to leave.”
She blinked. He was tall, with dark chocolate hair, an eye patch over his left eye, and the left side of his face drooped a bit with scar tissue. “Who are you?”
The tips of his ears pinked. “Ma’am, Ty Cooper. I work for Nate and Tessa. Nate’s stuck at the dock with paperwork. He asked me to come and pick ya’ll up.”
She stared at him. Nate expected her to go with a complete stranger? She wasn’t naïve. “Okay. When’s he coming for us?”
He must have noticed her distress because he whipped out his cell phone. It took less than a minute before he spoke in a rapid-fire tense tone. “Nate, the delay at the dock is a set up. Two men just attempted to abduct Jason.”
Claire stood up, pulling her kids up with her. “Let me talk to Nate.”
Ty shifted to watch two men approach them. “Got it. We’ll be there ASAP. Nate, Mrs. Bernstein wants to talk to you.”
“Nate?” Claire clutched the phone. “Someone tried to take Jason.”
“Claire, I know you’re scared. We’ll get to the bottom of what’s going on. Please let Coop escort you to the ship. I’ll be waiting right here on the dock. I’m fifteen minutes away.”
She blinked back her tears. “Are you sure we shouldn’t go back to New York?” Admit her father was right. She wasn’t fit to take care of her children outside of her safe home.
“No. You’d have to stay at the airport for hours to get a flight. Let’s get everyone on the ship and figure out the next step.”
Unsure, she glanced at the police officers heading her way. They didn’t look reassuring. “Where’s Tessa?”
“There was a small fire in the lab she stayed to address, which you can yell at her about later. I look forward to witnessing it.”
“The ship was on fire?”
Nate choked an odd half-laugh and sigh. “No. A new lab assistant who broke some equipment.”
She peeked at - Ty? Coop? - putting their bags onto a cart. Jason instructed him which bag to pull off the conveyer by pointing. His small, sweaty hand still held her hand tight. She checked Madison and saw she was sucking her thumb.
She let it go. Now was not the time to discipline her child on bad habits.
“Okay Nate, we’ll talk on the ship.” She raised her brows when the phone turned off without her touching it. What kind of phone was it?
“Mrs. Bernstein, do I have all your bags?” Ty reached out and took his phone and stuck it in his pocket.
She counted and found they’d loaded three pink, three red, and her three matching Marc Jacobs bags. She nodded. “Thank you, ah, Mr. Cooper.”
He pushed the cart towards the exit. “Let’s move so the locals don’t keep us here.”
She followed Ty outside to find a long line of taxis. Jason was busy helping his sister and not paying attention to either the people or cars around them.
God help her. Someone had tried to take her son!
Hoping she’d made the right decision the ship would keep her children safe, she piled into the back of the van while Ty loaded the luggage with the driver.
Ty checked the surrounding area. The South African military provided security to the airport, and he saw a roving team with AK-47’s a few hundred yards down the road at the entrance.
The cops who regulated the inside area were standing by the glass doors watching them. Ty ignored both and moved to the side door. Madison’s big blue eyes watched him. “All set?” He didn’t wait for an answer but closed the door and hopped into the seat in the front.
“Guess I get shotgun,” he teased trying to lighten up the mood. “Doesn’t happen often. Thanks.” He turned from their startled looks and watched the road. “The private side of the Port Elizabeth docks,” he instructed the driver.
The driver nodded and pulled into the surging traffic. Ty didn’t relax until they passed the gun wielding guards and entered the city. The city wasn’t any safer, but it was harder to hit a moving target in the crush of traffic.
“Are you a pirate?”
Ty looked over his shoulder.
“Maddie!” Claire’s hand rested on her daughter’s head. She gave him a rueful smile. “You never know what they’ll say.”
He shrugged. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have a parrot, so I can’t be a pirate.” He turned back to the sites of the city, amazed at the child. Most kids feared his facial scars and loss of eye. She’d worked it out and came up with a possible reason.
He turned back with a sly grin. “If you want to meet one, I might be able to arrange it. Your Uncle Nate and I used to work for one.”
Jason sneered. “Uncle Nate used to work for the Navy.”
Ty nodded. “I did too.” He jolted when the van swerved and glanced at the driver and the road. They were still heading toward the docks, so he turned back. “Nate and I once spent our time off—.” He cut off his story realizing it wasn’t quite the right thing for kids. “Ah, helping to track down bad guys. We worked for a pirate to find them.”
He turned back to face the front. What the hell was he doing? He almost talked about an old mission. Six months on the ship with nothing to worry about but gummed up pistons had turned his brain to mush.
“Mr. Cooper, how long until we reach the docks?” Claire’s clipped New York accent filled the silence.
“Another ten minutes, Ma’am.” He resisted cranking his head over his shoulder. He didn’t want to look into those deep blue eyes again. He might drown. He couldn’t be rude. Turning he tilted his head. “I’d be pleased if you’d call me Ty, Ma’am.”
She smiled and this time it reached her eyes and he was nearly blinded. “Thanks. Please stop calling me ma’am and use Claire.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma—ah Claire.”
She reached over and brushed a hand over her son’s head. “Thank god you were there.”
Ty’s gut clenched at her words. Who wanted her son? Was it a random snatch attempt or was this related to the security measures Nate put in place for the ship? Ty knew Nate and Tessa had some trouble more than a year ago. Could this be related? The van bounced crossing from the badly paved road to the dirt leading to the dock.
Not like he had anything else to do. Not since the Navy cut him loose.
Ty didn’t socialize much with the scientists on board. He didn’t know exactly what they were looking for, but he knew it was going to take them into interesting waters. Nate talked him into signing on as crew, easily.
“Is that our boat?” The wonder in Madison’s voice had him smiling to himself. He looked to where she was pointing.
“No. Halo’s Dream is big, but not that big.” He pointed out to sea. “Our ship is anchored out in the bay. We’re going to take the tender from here to the ship.”
The van pulled to a stop. Nate strode up and pulled open the door. Claire and the kids piled out, everyone talking at once.
Ty slipped around and started stacking the bags. He paid the driver then grabbed the largest two suitcases and moved down the dock to the tender.
Family stuff was not for him. Ever.
“Mr. Ty?” The soft sweet child’s call made him pause the loading of the bags into the small boat and turning to look behind him. “Why is this called a tender? It’s a small boat.”
Admiration at Madison’s intellect had him grinning. Her blink made him to turn back to the boat. He’d forgotten how scary his face could get when he smiled. “Any small boat attached to a large ship is called a tender.”
She was so silent he’d thought she’d returned to stand by her mother, but when he turned around she was still standing there her head tilted to the right.
“You got hurt.” She reached up and touched his hand. “Will it get better?”
Ty blinked at her directness. God, this kid was a sweetheart. “No, honey. The muscles under the skin are permanently damaged.”
She nodded. “Is that why you talk funny?”
Ty laughed. It’d been a long time since someone commented on his accent. “Nope. I was born in Louisiana, we all sound this way.” He reached over and tugged one of her golden braids. “Just like you sound funny to me because you’re from New England.”
She pouted. “I’m from Connecticut.” She thrust her hands on her hips. “I don’t sound funny.”
Biting back another laugh, he nodded solemnly. “Would you like to help load the bags?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Can I?” She turned to her mom, who gave Ty a hard look then nodded.
Ty took Madison by the hand and helped her into the boat. “You stand here and tell me where there’s an empty space to put the next bag, ok?”
She looked at the pile and back up at him. He reached over the edge of the boat to the last few bags and pulled one forward. When he turned, she was ready and pointed to a space.
Ty filled the spot with the bag and reached for the last to find Nate had picked it up.
Claire was stepping onto the boat. Ty reached up and took her hand to guide her.
Electric shock streaked up his arm. He barely resisted pulling away. She felt it too; she jolted and stumbled.
“Careful. Are you okay?” Ty grabbed her waist, lifted her up and over the bags and set her next to her daughter.
Her eyes wide, she put her arms around Madison. “Guess I’m still shaky. Thank you.”
Ty turned away before he melted in her eyes. He helped Jason onto the boat working hard to ignore how good Claire had felt in his arms.
Nate jumped in. Ty moved to the pilot station, started the boat, while Nate untied them from the dock.
They moved smoothly over the bay waters to the anchored spot where Halo’s Dream waited.
Ty sensed a movement, looked down to find Madison stood on her tiptoes to see what he was doing. He squatted and met her eyes. With a quick look behind to her mother, who was leaning back with her eyes closed, he reached down and lifted her until she fit into the crook of his left arm.
Her weight settled with her arms loosely draped around his neck.
“How far are we going? How do you know you have the right ship? Is Aunt Tessa driving her ship to meet us?” Madison leaned forward and touched the control panel. “What does this do?”
Ty’s mind whirled figuring out which question to answer first. “See the big boat over there?” He pointed to the port side of the tender. “Your Aunt Tessa’s boat is over there. No, she won’t move it to meet us. Getting too close to the dock for a ship the size of ‘Halo’s Dream’ is against the rules here. Also, you don’t drive a boat, you pilot one.”
Maddie nodded solemnly drinking in his information. She opened her mouth again, but Ty quickly answered her last question.
“This button will stop the boat.”
Her teeth clicked as her mouth snapped shut. She stared at the button hard like she was memorizing it. She leaned and looked again at her mom. “Mama was real scared. She cried.”
Quicksand was safer. What was he supposed to say to ease her fears? “They were bad men. She was right to be scared.” To keep her from asking questions he didn’t want to answer he quickly asked her one of his own. “How old are you?”
She raised her nose and announced like it was the most important thing in the world. “Six. I had a princess party and Monica threw-up her ice cream.”
Ty threw back his head and laughed. “But not you.” He released the wheel and patted her arm. “You can hold your ice cream.”
She smiled slyly. “I like strawberry the best.”
“Maddie?” Jason moved next to them.
She shifted quickly and Ty nearly dropped her. “Whoa there, give a guy some warning.” He set her down next to her brother. “How you doing, Jason?”
“Better than my Mom,” he whispered with a quick look over his shoulder. “She didn’t want to let go of my hand.”
Ty nodded. “She was truly frightened.” With good reason. “Maybe you could give her some slack this time?”
Both kids gave him an odd look. Before he could figure out what was so surprising about his request they’d reached the ship. He pulled the tender next to the lowered ramp and Nate jumped over to tie it up.
Randy, pilot of the ship, waited, his gun slung over his back. He helped Nate secure the tender. Once it was tied, Randy moved back and continued scanning the water for possible threats.
Claire stepped from one boat to the other. Tessa ran down the ramp and engulfed Claire into a hug. The women cried into each other’s shoulders while Ty cut the engine of the tender. Moving aft, he started tossing bags to Nate.
Maddie and Jason moved over to the rail and looked at the ramp. “How are we supposed to get over?” Jason took his sister’s hand and glanced up at his Uncle Nate. “It’s too far to jump like mom.”
“What? You mean you can’t hop a little space like this?” Nate’s teasing caused Jason’s face to turn red, but Maddie pulled her hand from her brother’s and took a running leap.
“Christ!” Nate yelled dropping the bag he held and jumped to catch the flying girl. He took a deep gulping breath as she slid down his side to the ramp.
Claire and Tessa turned at his yell saw things were okay and returned to their quiet talk.
“It’s not that far, Jason.” Madison turned and moved to stand next to her mother up the ramp.
Jason shook his head and waited until Nate reached a hand over to him. “She’s a bit reckless.”
Ty grinned at Nate’s rueful look and ducked his head where Jason couldn’t see his smile. The kid had his sister pegged, but it sounded more like he was repeating someone else’s comment.
“Madison!” Nate motioned her back. “Wait.” He pulled both kids over and picked up two youth life vests he’d pulled out before they went landside. “Neither of you are to take these off while you’re on this ship.”
Jason didn’t move while Nate tied the vest in place and tested its sizing, but Maddie wiggled and kept trying to turn around to watch what Nate was doing.
“Not even when I take my bath?” Madison asked. “How will I get clean?”
Nate blinked. “Okay, if your mother is there with you, you can take it off to bathe.”
Ty turned to keep from laughing at Nate’s bemused face. Madison was a firecracker and he was grateful it wouldn’t be his job to keep up with her.
He’d be in the bowels of the ship where he belonged. Except for guard duty.
“Uncle Ty? Can I come with you?” Maddie’s question jerked Ty from his thoughts. Uncle? He was her uncle now, too?
She’d left Nate’s side and followed him back to the tender. “I’m going to bring this boat up the ramp. It’s too dangerous for you to stay here.” At her pouting lips, he reached over and placed a hand on her head. “Later, if your mom says it okay, I’ll give you a tour of your Aunt’s ship.”
She grinned and ran back to where Jason, her mother, and Tessa were working their way back to the deck where the personal quarters were located.
He’d hooked up the winch to pull the tender up the ramp to the hold when Nate returned and gave him a hand.
“Tell me what happened at the airport.” His terse command barely contained his rage.
“Two perps, black with brown, both under twenty.” He gave a sideways glance at Nate but quickly turned his attention back to the tender until it was safely settled into its rack. “I’d say too stupid to be the mind behind the kidnapping.”
Nate lifted fierce eyes. “Marshall.”
He’d never heard the name, but by Nate’s reaction it was evident Nate’s prior trouble followed them around the world. “You sound sure.” Fuck, he hated not having good intel.