Excerpt: Moonshell Beach

Book 4 : Shelter Bay Series

Moonshell Beach (Shelter Bay Series) by JoAnn Ross

Chapter One

Belying the song lyrics about it never raining in California, a dark gray sky was weeping onto the black Suburban’s windshield as Marine captain J. T. Douchett drove through rain-slicked streets to carry out his mission. A mission he’d been catapulted into a year ago. A mission without weapons, which, given that every Marine was a rifleman, was not one he’d prepared for at Officer Candidates School, at the War College, or even during years of combat.

The rain was appropriate, he thought wearily, as he pulled into the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant. As tough as this assignment was, it always seemed a lot worse when a benevolent sun was shining and birds were singing.

The drizzle reminded him of home. Back in Shelter Bay, his father and his brother Cole would’ve already gone out on their fishing boat. Maybe his grandfather, who often missed his days at sea, would have gone with them. The small coastal town would be coming to life—shopkeepers down on Harborview Drive would be opening their doors and lowering their bright awnings, beachcombers would be walking at the edge of the surf, gathering shells and agates, locals would be sitting around tables at the Grateful Bread, enjoying French toast and gossip while tourists lined up at the pier to go whale watching.

Memories of his hometown not only comforted; they reminded him of family, which, in turn, drove home the significance of this mission for which he definitely never, in a million years, would have volunteered.

But the first thing J.T. had learned at OCS was that every Marine was part of a larger picture. And the tradition of “Leave no Marine behind” was a sacred promise that went beyond the battlefield.

He and his passenger, a staff sergeant who, despite years of marching cadences, still had the slightly bowed legs of a man who’d grown up riding horses in Abilene, retrieved their garment bags from the backseat. They entered the restaurant, walking past the tables to the men’s room, where they changed from their civilian clothes into high-necked, dark blue jackets, dark blue pants with a bloodred stripe down the side of the legs, and shoes spit-polished to a mirror gloss.

Although he could feel every eye in the place on them, J.T. put on a focused but distant stare and glanced neither left nor right as he walked straight back to the Suburban. Neither man spoke. There was no need. They’d been through this before. And it never got any easier, so why talk about it?

After he was waved through Camp Pendleton’s main gate, passing a golf course, a McDonald’s, a Taco Bell, and a veterinary clinic on the way to his destination, it occurred to J.T. how appearances could be deceiving.

The treelined streets he drove through, set on hillsides behind a lake shadowed by fog, with their manicured lawns and children’s play park, portrayed a sense of tranquillity. It could, he thought, as he turned onto Marine Drive, be any one of a million suburban neighborhoods scattered across the country.

What made his destination different from most was that these tile-roofed beige stucco houses were home to warriors. Another reason he was grateful for the rain. On a sunny day, more people would be outside and the sight of the black SUV with two Marines wearing dress blues inside would set off alarms that would spread like wildfire.

J.T. leaned forward, trying to read the house numbers through the slanting rain. He could have used the GPS, but found the computerized female voice a distraction in situations like these.

The house was located at the end of a cul-de-sac. A white Ford Escape with a child’s car seat in back was parked in the driveway. A bumper sticker on the small SUV read My Heart Belongs to a U.S. Marine.

Exchanging a look with the sergeant, J.T. pulled on his white cotton gloves and climbed out of the Suburban. The heels of his shiny shoes clicked on the concrete sidewalk.

A pot of red geraniums on the small covered porch added a bright spot to the gray day. A blue star flag, signifying a deployed family member, hung in the side window.

J.T. took a deep breath. He knew the sergeant standing beside him would be saying a prayer. Wishing he still possessed such faith, J.T. found his own peace by envisioning himself back home. The remembered tang of Douglas fir trees and brisk salt-tinged sea air cleared his head.

Although he’d rather be back in Afghanistan, facing a horde of Taliban, than be standing at this front door on this rainy California day, J.T. squared his shoulders and braced himself as he reached out a gloved hand to ring the bell and shatter yet another woman’s heart.