Sunlight reflected off the clear blue water of the Gulf of Mexico in the distance, making the surface sparkle like it was covered in a blanket of diamonds. I peered at it from the staircase leading into the hotel before pushing my sunglasses to the top of my head before I turned to go inside.
The bay was calm, there was barely a cloud in the sky, and there wasn’t so much as a lick of wind. Not that the weather was always to blame for a catastrophe at sea, but it boded well for a peaceful party this afternoon.
After cutting one last glance over my shoulder at the water, I headed inside, smiling when I saw the bright, multicolored Happy Retirement banner hanging in the lobby. Underneath it was a picture of Captain David Jones—his real name—our guest of honor for the day.
Everyone who was anyone in the Coast Guard had come out to Pensacola for the occasion, and there were people milling around everywhere. Some were sipping drinks while others simply stood around the cocktail tables, chatting but keeping an eye on the bay. It was instinct, even for those who had long since retired.
As much as we knew there were others on duty today and as unlikely as it was to see something happening with the naked eye from this far away, we still looked. Watched. Guarded.
As I walked in, I saw plenty of familiar faces between the unfamiliar ones, and I grinned when the first of the familiar faces approached me. Lulu Jones, David’s wife, had been part of the administrative staff on the Station prior to her own retirement a couple years ago, and she’d also been the Station’s self-appointed mother hen.
“Santiago Cortez! I was wondering if we were going to see you here today.” She clasped my hand warmly, folding both of her hands around mine as she smiled. “Congratulations. I heard you were promoted to Instructor after Ron’s retirement. I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were going to make a big name for yourself in the Coast Guard. I’m glad to see I was right again.”
“Are you really surprised?” I asked jokingly as I shook her hand—or hands, as it was. “I, for one, have learned that you’re always right, but thank you. We miss you on the Station. It just hasn’t been the same since you left.”
She arranged her aged features into a stern expression as she pointed at my chest after releasing my hand. “Don’t make me come down there to set you straight now that you’re a big shot Instructor, Cortez. You take care of those new babies of ours during training, you hear?”
I chuckled. “I have been and I intend on doing it again and again. Every year until I get myself one of these fancy parties.”
The wrinkles around her mouth deepened as she shot me an approving grin. “That’s what I like to hear. You Search and Rescue guys are too hard-nosed for the kids in my opinion, but I know you’ll keep them safe, at least. Just don’t make them cry too often while you’re doing it.”
“No, ma’am,” I said obligingly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
She sniffed before she winked at me. “Well, I know you’re lying, but I’ll accept it. A bit of crying makes them better, or so my dear husband tells me. As long as you’re not too hard on them, I’ll let you do your thing.”
“You’ve still got your ear on the ground at the training center, huh?”
She batted her lashes at me and clutched the strings of pearls around her neck. “Are you implying that I’m nosy, young man?”
“Nope, I’m implying that you’ve always been incredibly invested in the future of the USCG and that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you’re keeping tabs on us even if you haven’t been around in a while.”
“Someone has to keep you on your toes,” she said, then waved and walked away just as another familiar face approached me.
“Santiago,” Ron said, nodding as he shook my hand. “It’s good to see you, son.”
“You too, sir.” I meant it, too. “How’s retirement been treating you?”
My mentor shrugged his broad shoulders, humor flickering behind his light green eyes. “Well, if I wasn’t afraid to put you out of a job, I’d have been back by now.”
I laughed. “I doubt Mrs. Perkins would’ve been too happy about that.”
“Mrs. Perkins would’ve allowed it,” he said lightly. “I think she’s getting sick of me being at home. Apparently, one cannot view your household as your command when it’s been hers for over thirty years.”
“Yeah, I can see that causing some tension.” I grinned. “Have you done any of that traveling you were looking forward to so much?”
“Some.” He straightened one of the many pins on his jacket even though it’d been perfectly straight to begin with. “We’re staying home for the next few months, though. The missus wants to be in town for the duration of her baby’s training.”
“Your daughter’s in training?” I asked, a little taken aback. “What’s she training for?”
In my head, the Perkins girl was still a kid. Ron had been my mentor for many years—pretty much since my first day on the Station a dozen years ago—and these days, he was a good friend. When I’d started, his daughter had been in middle school or something. Since we didn’t talk about her often, I had no idea how old she was now.
Ron narrowed those intense green eyes on mine. “You don’t know? She’s going to be in your next class, Cortez. I’d have thought you’d know that by now. Didn’t I teach you to be prepared? Shit, maybe I really should come back.”
“She’s going to be in my class?” My eyes widened. “When did she get old enough to do that?”
He chuckled. “Twelve years is a long time, son. She’s grown up a lot since those family picnics she used to come to.”
I blinked hard. “I remember seeing a Perkins in the paperwork, but I didn’t put two and two together. I honestly didn’t realize she wasn’t a child anymore.”
“I tend to forget it myself sometimes,” he said with a good-natured smile. “Since we’re on the subject, though, I’m going to speak freely.”
“Don’t we always?”
He nodded. “S’pose we do nowadays.”
Shaking his graying head, he dragged in a deep breath and fixed me with a serious look. “I don’t want you to go easy on her just because she’s my daughter, Cortez. If anything, I don’t want her getting any special treatment at all. I want you to be harder on her than you are on anyone else. She’ll be a diamond one day, but she needs the pressure to get her there.”
My heart started thudding in my chest. “Are you sure? Training is pretty intense already and you know I don’t go easy on anyone, so I’d never go easy on her, but being harder on her is going to make it tough for her to get through.”
“She’ll get through,” he said confidently as he lifted a hand and squeezed my shoulder. “I’d rather have her quit than be unprepared for any situation she might face out there. You need to help me keep her safe and the only way to do that is to put her through her paces.”
I nodded. “Sure thing, sir. I can do that, but only if you’re not going to come after me if she runs to you, crying her eyes out about her mean instructor.”
“That girl hasn’t cried to me about anything in a long time,” he assured me. “I doubt she’s going to start now. Trust me, she’d have faced much worse from me if I’d still been there than anything you can give her.”
“Challenge accepted,” I joked, but I also wasn’t really joking.
The fact of the matter was that the salt-and-pepper-haired behemoth in front of me was the reason I’d gotten as far as I had. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for this man, and if he wanted me to put pressure on his daughter, I’d do it. Especially because I understood his reasoning.
To keep her safe, she had to be the best she could be. It was my responsibility to get her there, and it was one I took seriously. I took it seriously with each and every one of my cadets, but there was no way I was letting Ron Perkins’s daughter get hurt just because I’d made things too easy for her.
I respected her father far too much for that.
Ron shook my hand again. “I’m glad you were there to take over when I left. She couldn’t be in better hands than she is with you. Call me if you need anything, okay?”
I nodded, and after he left to mingle with some other people, I did the same thing. A bunch more people came to congratulate me and more than a few wanted to know about my plans for this next class, but I wasn’t really thinking about the class as a whole right now.
I was thinking about the Perkins girl. Layla? That’s her name, right?
I was sure it was, but if it wasn’t, it was definitely something with an L. Either way, after staying at the party for a respectable amount of time, I made my excuses to head back to my office. Evidently, I needed to take a closer look at my incoming class and there was no better time than the present.
As soon as I sat down behind my desk, I pulled the file containing the cadets’ paperwork closer to start getting my things in order, but before I could even open it, knuckles tapped at my door. I looked up to find Neil Patton grinning at me from the threshold.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as I stood up to shake his hand. “Has there been an incident I should be aware of?”
He chuckled. “Does there have to be an incident for a Coast Guard Military Policeman to drop by to visit his best friend?”
“Usually, yes,” I said as I shook with him and then waved him in after releasing his hand. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much.” He dropped into the chair I’d waved at and kicked his legs right up to cross his ankles on my desk.
As I walked back to my chair, I knocked his feet off and glared at him when he smirked at me. “I know you didn’t stop by just to annoy me, so what’s going on?”
He made a show of looking around. “It’s so peaceful when there’s no one here. I thought I’d pop in before the class comes next week. After that, it’s going to be pandemonium around here again.”
I laughed. “And by that, you mean you’re not going to risk being here if you might be asked to help us out with the cadets more than you’re already going to have to?”
I shook my head. “Being lazy is going to be the death of you, man. We went through training together. I’ll never understand why you chose the route you did after that.”
Neil smirked some more. “Lazy isn’t so bad. You should try it sometime. Doing what I do is less work and I don’t have to deal with all the bullshit you do. I think you’d love it once you got into it.”
I snorted. “No, thanks. The action is where I want to be, and that’s right here.”
“You just like thinking of yourself as Tom Cruise in that new Top Gun movie. The old, awesome guy who imparts his knowledge to kids who will never be as good as he is.”
“I’m not that old or that awesome,” I countered. “Besides, if memory serves, those kids in the movie turned out to be every bit as good as he is. That’s the dream, Neil. That’s the dream.”
He laughed. “As always, let’s agree to disagree on that one. Hey, you want to go grab a beer after work? While you still can, I mean.”
“It’s a new training class, not the apocalypse. It’s not like I’ve only got a few days left before the zombies come. We can grab a beer anytime.”
“You know as well as I do that’s out of the question once they get here,” he said. “You’ll be way too exhausted to go out after work. It’s early to bed these days, am I right?”
“I’m thirty-two, not sixty-two,” I countered. “Let’s get a beer tomorrow night. My paperwork and I have plans for tonight.”
He sighed but nodded as he got up. “Fine, but I’m going out anyway. Call me if you change your mind. There’s a sorority thing going on in town tonight. You may be able to score if you decide to meet me at the bar.”
I groaned. “With a sorority girl? Again, no thanks. What am I supposed to do with a twenty-one-year-old?”
“Uh, I can think of a few things,” he suggested jokingly before he shrugged. “Have it your way, Cortez. Your loss is my gain. Without your pretty face in the running, I might just have my pick of the litter.”
“Implying that they’re puppies isn’t going to make me change my mind,” I said. “In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I’m definitely not coming out with you now.”
He laughed again, threw his hand up in a wave, and then left my office. My head shook as I watched him leave, and I wondered what he saw in hooking up with people who were so much younger than us. Maybe I was just getting grumpy in my old age, but the early twenties crowd irritated the shit out of me these days—unless I was training them, that was.
Speaking of training. I pulled the file closer again and opened it, paging until the name Layla Perkins jumped out at me. There were no pictures of the cadets, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t care what she looked like. I cared about who she was related to.
As I thought over everything her old man had done to make me better, I vowed to myself that I would do the same for her. By the time I was done with her, she was going to be the best she could possibly be and then some.
No matter how much she was bound to hate me by the time she left here, I was going to turn her into that diamond Ron thought she could be—and that was a damn promise.