by Jack Wilder
Ex-Navy SEAL Stone Pressfield has a bad feeling about the proposed church missions trip to Manila, Philippines. The college-age church group plans to go to Manila and help victims of the sex-trafficking industry. Stone's lingering nightmare memories about the sex-trafficking industry have him warning church leaders that the trip is a bad idea. He knows all too well that it could end in violence, and those involved aren't to be trifled with.
When beautiful Wren Morgan goes missing, he has a sick feeling that he knows exactly who took her, and for what purpose. The problem is, Wren isn't just any other student. She's someone he's close to, someone he cares about. Now she's in the hands of cruel, evil men, and Stone is the only one who can rescue her before the unthinkable happens.
Jack Wilder—aka Mr. Wilder—is one half of the writing team "The Wilders." You might know his wife, Jasinda Wilder, as the author of bestselling books such as Falling Into You, Falling Into Us, Stripped, and Wounded, among many others. The Missionary is Jack's first solo work, but you can bet it won't be the last. The Wilders live in the suburbs outside of Detroit, Michigan with their five kids, a dog that vaguely resembles a coyote,and a manny.
THE MISSIONARY TEASER
~One month earlier~
Stone Pressfield didn’t consider himself a musician. Not even close. He knew enough guitar to play simple chord progressions without screwing up, and he had a pretty decent singing voice, but that was the best that could be said. His voice was deep and smooth, and had a fairly unique quality to it, but he wasn’t really a singer.
He’d only really ended up on the stage leading the eighty or so college students in worship because he was the only one with even a modicum of musical skills. To be truthful, he hated leading worship. He hated the attention, all the eyes on him. It wasn’t his nature. He would have preferred to be in the back of the small, overcrowded sanctuary, running the sound and projector equipment, and the PowerPoint presentation Pastor Nick would use during his message. But, Nick was Stone’s buddy from way back so when the previous worship pastor got a paid, full-time offer at a bigger church, there was no one to lead worship for LifeBridge, the college-age ministry of Charlottesville Nondenominational Community Church. Nick couldn’t carry a tune to save his life, so he asked Stone to fill in and Stone knew he couldn’t say no. The college ministry was new, and had next to zero staff to speak of. Just Nick, who ran the program, doing the message, picking out the worship songs, and about 80% of everything else. There was Nick’s wife, Amy, who supported Nick in everything, organizing the activities and outreach. There was Jimmy, the recent college graduate who did the sound and helped stack the chairs at the end of the meeting. And there was Stone, who was currently the worship leader. Four staff members, and eighty students. A tad unbalanced, but it was better than having no staff, or no students.
But, the kids were there every Sunday night, and they brought friends. They soaked up Nick’s messages and sang with energy. They were eager and honest and passionate, and that was good enough for Stone.
Letting the last note hang in the air, Stone offered the students a small smile. This was where he was supposed to say something to them, something wise and Jesus-y and inspiring, the kind of platitudes that came to Nick as easy as breathing.
Stone, though, just wasn’t comfortable with it. He unslung the guitar and stared out at them, his throat clogged with nerves. He could sing without getting nervous, for some reason, but ask him to talk? Yeah…no.
He had to try, though. “Um. I—”
Nick stepped up beside Stone and clapped him on the shoulder. “Our God really is an awesome God, isn’t He?” The students cheered noisily, and Nick clapped with them.
Stone breathed a sigh of relief as Nick saved him from embarrassing himself. He stepped off the stage and put his guitar back in its hard black case.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe, it was just that he always felt stupid when he tried to say things like that. It came easily to Nick, and he sounded so natural, so right. It always came out smooth, and he could segue into his message smoothly.
When Stone thought about saying stuff like that, he always felt like a hypocrite. Like the students would look at him and know he was a fake.
He wasn’t a fake. He wasn’t. He just…sometimes he felt like one. He wasn’t good and holy and whatever, not like Nick. He didn’t have the earnest, eager personality of Jimmy, either. Nor even the kind, sweet, nurturing nature of Amy. He wasn’t that kind of guy.
He was quiet, stoic. Words didn’t come easily to him. They never had, and they never would.
Stone Pressfield was a soldier. A warrior. He’d graduated from high school at 17, gotten permission from his dad, and applied for the Navy SEALs. He’d taken the physical screening test and passed with flying colors, aced the ASVAB, got a SEAL Challenge Contract, and within months of graduation, was mucking in the mud in Bootcamp. By the time he was 21, Stone was a hardened combat veteran.
He’d seen and done things no one in the sanctuary could ever comprehend. That was what made him feel like a fake, when he was up there leading worship. He wasn’t a worship leader. He wasn’t a pastor. He wasn’t a good Christian. He was a soldier, and he believed because he’d seen the truth. He’d experienced death and felt the presence of God. He’d witnessed miracles. Bullets that should have taken his life, missing without any explanation. Grenades landing at his feet and not exploding. He’d seen the worst in humanity, and dealt death to the scum of the earth. He’d also seen the best in people, seen true heroism and courage, seen sacrifice and the power of faith. He’d seen the Gospel change lives. He’d seen acts of kindness transform entire villages.
So yeah, he believed.
But it was the kind of faith grounded in gritty reality, and it was tempered by an awareness of what went on in the world beyond the narrow field that these kids experienced.
Most of them were only a few years younger than him. Some, like Jimmy the sound guy, were basically his peers, within two or three years of his age. But Jimmy, at twenty-three, was still a kid. He’d never left Virginia. He’d attended the private Christian school connected to the church where he now volunteered. He’d gone to a Christian college, graduated with a Christian degree. He was so innocent and well-intentioned and eager and sweetly ignorant, that Stone almost couldn’t stand him for it. He was a good kid, a great kid. But Jimmy wasn’t even on the same planet as Stone, it sometimes seemed.
With a sigh, Stone rested his spine against the back wall of the sanctuary, near the doors that led out into the foyer. He crossed his arms over his chest and listened to Nick’s message about being genuine in a world where falsity was king.
When it was over, Nick dismissed the students, and they gathered in the foyer and the sanctuary to socialize. Stone watched them, listening in to conversations, and wondering what it was like to be so innocent. He’d never been like that, even as a kid. Not growing up with the parents he did.
There was one student who always caught his eye. Stone had to make himself think of her as a student, because that was safest. He kept his back to the wall and watched her laugh with her friends, and he had to work hard to keep his thoughts pure.
Wren Morgan. She was the epitome of sweetness and beauty and effortless grace. Short and curvy, thick hair cascading in a loose cloud of ink and raven wing black down her back, dark, happy eyes, tan skin. Wren was a joyful person. She exuded sheer happiness, no matter the situation, and she always, always had a brilliant white smile for everyone.
Wren was the girl who would sit in the back with the awkward new kid and make them feel at home. She would befriend the lonely ones, and she would do it with the kind of easy grace that made it seem like she was the one benefitting. She would volunteer to do the things no one else wanted to, stayed late to help out, showed up early.
Stone never let himself get too close to her, talk to her too much. It wasn’t smart, or ethical. He was staff, she was a student. Sure, she was only a few years younger than him. Twenty-two, he was pretty sure, to his twenty-six.
It wasn’t easy, but he kept his distance.
His phone went off, and he checked it, answering the text from his buddy Sam, who was a Recon on leave in DC. When he shoved the phone back in his pocket, she was approaching him with that delicious sway to her hips.
Knock it off, Stone. He forced his eyes to her face, and fixed a small polite small on his lips. “Hey Wren. What’s up.”
She graced him with a smile so genuinely happy and bright that he couldn’t help smiling wider at her. “Hi Stone! I was wondering if you’d help me figure out the chord progression for ‘Mighty to Save’. I just can’t get it right.”
A few months ago, Wren had asked him to teach her to play guitar, so every Wednesday night they’d sit on the stage together and he’d teach her. More recently, she’d grown proficient enough that he couldn’t teach her much else, but every once in awhile she’d get stuck and ask for his help.
“Sure. Show me what you’ve got.” He set his case on the floor between them and lifted out his beat-up old Taylor, handed it to her and crossed his arms over his chest again.
He didn’t miss the way her eyes followed his arms, watched his chest as it flexed. He had to resist the urge to flex for her. He did his best to keep his gaze where it belonged, on her fingers as she worked the simple guitar chords of the song she was trying to learn. Within minutes he’d identified her problem.
“Hold up,” he said. “You’ve got the chords right, but your rhythm is wrong. Here, lemme show you.” He bent toward her and took the guitar from her, and couldn’t help stealing a quick glimpse down the front of her V-neck shirt as she leaned over to hand it to him. He averted his eyes immediately and mentally chewed himself out. She had on a small silver cross necklace, a delicate piece of jewelry with a tiny diamond in the center of the cross. It fell free from her shirt as she leaned forward, and she immediately tucked it back in between her breasts.
Forcing his attention to the guitar on his lap, Stone showed Wren the correct rhythm, and then watched as she played it through a few times.
“Looks like you’ve got it,” he said. “I should go, though.” He had to get away from her before he stole any more glances at her, at places he had no business looking.
Wren seemed almost disappointed as she tucked his guitar away and locked the clasps. “A bunch of us are going to grab some dessert,” she said, glancing up at him. “You should come. Jimmy will be there, and…you should come.”
Her eyes were locked on his, and he knew he should say no. But dammit, he didn’t want to. And then he chastised himself for swearing. “I need to hit the gym,” he said. He’d already worked out that day, but it was a good enough excuse. And he’d go again, just so it wasn’t a lie.
“Oh come on, Stone. It’s not like you’re gonna get any less buff if you skip one workout,” she teased.
Or, at least, her tone was teasing. Her eyes were clearly appreciative though, and Stone found himself reaching behind his head to scratch his shoulder in such a way as to flex his arm. It was stupid, he knew, but he couldn’t help it.
“I really should just go home,” he said, telling himself as much as her.
“You never hang out with us,” Wren said, pretending to pout. “Don’t you like milkshakes?”
He tried not to laugh. “No, I like milkshakes just fine.”
“Then come have a milkshake with us.”
He glanced at the now-empty sanctuary, where Jimmy was stacking chairs and rearranging them for the prayer meeting on Wednesday. Nick was gathering his notes and chatting to his wife in low tones, then leaving with Amy holding onto his elbow. The foyer was mostly empty too, as most of the students had either gone home or out with their various groups of friends. A cluster of six cars sat idling with their headlights on. Waiting for Wren, obviously.
“Fine, I’ll come,” he said. “But I’ve gotta help Jimmy first.”
“Yay!” Wren stood up, clapping her hands. “I’ll help, that way we can go sooner.”
With three people, the work went quickly. Stone couldn’t help watching Wren stack the chairs, couldn’t help admiring her toned physique. He also noticed Jimmy ogling her rather openly, and that put a damper on his emotions. Jimmy was better for Wren. He was nearer her age. He was like her, too, from her world.
Stone resolved to step back and let Jimmy have his shot, and even adjusted his pattern in stacking chairs so Jimmy and Wren would end up next to each other. Except, Wren never even seemed to see Jimmy. Every time she looked up from the line of chairs, her gaze locked on Stone.
And this didn’t escape Jimmy’s notice. He waved at Stone halfheartedly, then cast one last wistful glance at Wren, who waved cheerfully at him. Cheerfully, but platonically. When the last chairs were stacked and the remainder rearranged in the requisite semicircle, Wren gave a resolute nod, then shut off the lights, leaving Stone in the middle of the sanctuary, bathed in darkness only lightened by moonglow from the windows.
“Milkshakes!” she yelled at her friends as she jogged out into the parking lot.
Stone followed more slowly, summoning his reserves of resistance. It was easy to keep it kosher in a group setting. He could revert to sitting back and listening. Wren would draw him into conversations every once in a while, but since he was sitting several spots away from her—intentionally—it wasn’t as hard to keep his hands busy with shredding napkins and sipping his black coffee.
It was late when the group began to disperse, well past midnight. Stone pretended not to watch Wren discuss something with her best friend Emily, glancing at him every so often. Stone paid for his coffee and milkshake, and Wren’s surreptitiously, then stood and made his way to the door, offering a wave to Wren as he pushed through the two sets of doors. He was about to start the engine of his ’83 Monte Carlo SS, which he’d been restoring himself over the last year. The tranny needed replacing, and the exhaust manifold left something to be desired, but it was a work in progress, and one of the few things he enjoyed anymore.
And then the passenger door opened and Wren slid in, slamming the door closed after herself. “You don’t mind giving me a ride home, do you?”
Stone was flustered by her presence in his car. His ride was his sanctuary, the one place he could be himself. He left the engine off and twisted slightly to face her. “Um. What about your car?”
“Emily wanted to stay for a while,” Wren said with a too-innocent shrug. “She’s got that thing going on with Brett, you know. So I figured she could drive my Honda home and you could give me a ride. It’s not out of your way is it?”
“Well…I mean—sure. Why not.” He couldn’t say no, not with those bright brown eyes fixed on him so hopefully, rife with innocence and naive desire. “Where do you live?”
“Not too far. UV apartments.”
Stone suppressed a sigh. The University of Virginia student apartments were on the complete opposite end of Charlottesville from Stone’s loft. He didn’t say anything though, and he was careful to keep his expression neutral. He didn’t want to give away the turmoil inside him.
He wanted to spend time with her. She made him feel…alive and present in reality, which was a huge improvement over most of the time, when he felt like he was loose and drifting and disconnected. Ever since his disability discharge from the SEALs, he’d been at odd ends. Being around Wren grounded him, somehow.
But yet, he shouldn’t spend time with her. He wasn’t the right man for her. He was too messed up for a sweet girl like Wren. He had too much blood on his conscience.
He shook his head and started the Monte Carlo with a throaty rumble. The 350 small block idled with a powerful grumble until Stone backed out of the parking spot and headed towards the university.
The silence was awkward. Now that he was alone with her, he had no idea what to say. He glanced at Wren, who was clearly trying not to stare at him, and barely containing a grin.
“This is a cool car,” she remarked. “What kind is it?”
“1983 Monte Carlo.”
“So is it a muscle car?”
Stone’s lip quirked in an involuntary grin. “Yeah, I guess so.” Another long, awkward silence. Then, Wren laughed, shaking her head as if bemused. “What’s funny?”
She rolled her window down, slid down in the seat, and rested her bare feet on the side-view mirror. “Just you. You’re funny.”
Stone frowned. “Why? What’d I do?”
She glanced at him, holding her loose hair in place with one hand. “Nothing. That’s the point. You’ve got the whole strong-and-silent act down to a science.”
Stone rubbed his forehead with a knuckle. “It’s not an act. I mean, I’m not trying—” he cut himself off, not sure what he was even saying. He tried again. “I’m just not good at conversation.”
Wren giggled. “No kidding. Getting more than four or five words out of you at a time is like pulling teeth.” She shoved at his bicep playfully. “I’m pretty good at talking, so maybe I can teach you.”
Stone lifted an eyebrow. “You’re gonna teach me how to be a better conversationalist?”
She quirked an eyebrow back at him. “Yep. You definitely need help. So. Here’s how this works. I say something, and you say something back. But, you can’t just answer the most basic part of what I said. You have to leave room for more…I don’t know, more stuff to be said. You can’t just grunt yes or no answers, you know? You have to keep things open for us to have a conversation. And…you could always try something really daring, like asking me questions about myself. That’s how we get to know each other.”
Stone did sigh then. “Wren, I didn’t say I didn’t know how to have a conversation. Just that I’m not very good at it.”
“Well, the only way to get better is to practice. So, give it a try.”
“Give what a try?”
“Conversating with me.”
“Is that even a word? And, isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“Conversating is a word if I say it is. And I say it is.” She dug in her purse and brought out a ponytail holder, tied her hair back in a tight bun, then stuck her hand out the window and adjusted the plane of her palm so the rushing wind lifted and lowered her arm. “This is where you ask me something about myself. I’m an open book, so ask anything.”
“What am I supposed to ask you about?”
Wren gave him a wry glance. “Whatever you want to know about. Duh.”
The problem, Stone reflected, was that he wanted to know everything. “Fine, I’ll play along. Um…what’s your major?”
“Well that’s kind of a boring conversational gambit, but you’re new at this, so I’ll let it go for now.” Wren gave him a warm smile that made something in his belly shiver. “I’m majoring in elementary education.”
“So you’re gonna be a teacher? Which grade?”
“Third, ideally.” She shrugged. “But they’ll put you where they need you, and as long as I’m teaching, I don’t really care too much. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. Ready?”
“As ready as I can be.” Stone tried to ignore the squirming nerves, knowing she was going to ask a question that didn’t have an easy answer.
“What do you do besides lead worship on Sunday nights?”
“Um. Well, I work on this car. I work out. I do some personal security jobs.”
Wren gave him a look that told him she knew he was omitting some information. “But what do you do? For a career, I mean.”
Stone sighed. “That’s complicated.”
“Meaning you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Pretty much.” He watched Wren out of the corner of his eye, and felt a niggling sense of unease. She looked disappointed in his reticence, perhaps hurt that he wasn’t willing to share the truth with her. “Look, Wren. It’s just…it’s complicated, okay? I don’t really have a career anymore.”
She pulled her feet in and twisted in the seat to face him. “What’s that mean?”
Stone rubbed at his face with his palm. “Where am I going, anyway?”
Wren just waved vaguely. “Why can’t we just drive around a little bit? I live on campus.”
Stone turned the car onto a narrow dirt road, away from the city, away from the university, out into the countryside. “I used to be a Navy SEAL.”
“But now you’re not?”
He shrugged. “Nope.”
Wren rolled her eyes. “See, now we’re back to one-word answers. What happened?”
“Disability discharge.” He didn’t want to have to explain, but he was going to. She was persistent, and had a way of drawing answers from him.
“And that means?”
“It means…disability discharge is when you’re no longer fit for active duty.”
“Well that explains it all, doesn’t it?” Stone watched her thinking through it. “So something happened that made you have to stop being a SEAL?”
“So what happened?”
Stone cursed under his breath, then sighed in frustration. “It’s a long story, and not one I really want to tell. It’s…not a good memory.”
Wren nodded, but he could see the disappointment on her features. It made him feel cowardly and guilty, but he also knew it wasn’t a story a sweet girl like her should hear. Just no, on so many levels, just no.
That didn’t stop Wren from giving him a look akin to silent pleading.
“Stop looking at me like that, Wren. Here’s the short version, and it’s all you’re gonna get. I was wounded in combat. My leg got fu—messed up so bad I’m not fit enough for the SEALs anymore.”
“You don’t limp, though.”
“Yeah, well, that took a lot of PT. SEALs are like olympic athletes. We’re the best of the best. So I might have been able to stay in the Navy, but I’ll never be a SEAL again. So I chose retirement.”
Wren gave him a long, considering stare. “You were wounded in combat? So do you have one of those Purple Hearts?” Stone just laughed, and Wren frowned. “What?”
“The Purple Heart. Yeah. I’ve got one, plus like, four clusters. You get one anytime you’re hurt in the line of duty. And when you’re a SEAL, that’s pretty common. All the guys I served with have one. They don’t mean much to us.”
Stone waved his hand. “You get an oak leaf cluster for each injury received after the initial award.”
“So you’ve been injured in combat five times?” Her eyes were wide with awe.
Stone forced himself to sound nonchalant. Don’t play into it. “That’s just what got reported. You have to meet certain criteria, and it has to be a matter of official record. Not everything we do as SEALs is part of official, public military record.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You know the difference between Navy SEALs and regular servicemen?”
“Special Forces, right? It means you’re more trained.”
He nodded. “Well, yeah. But it means, because we received special training, that we get sent on special missions. A lot of what I did, meaning, pretty much all of it, is is classified. Meaning, I couldn’t tell you specifics even if I wanted to. And when we’re on those special missions, if one of us gets wounded, it’s not likely to get reported in such a way as to meet the criteria for a Purple Heart. And we don’t really want them, anyway. We don’t do what we do for medals.”
“Do you have any other medals?”
Stone shifted in his seat, slowing the car to drift around a wide turn. “Yeah.”
“Really? Which one?”
Stone sighed, not wanting to talk about it, but knowing he couldn’t just clam up now. “Silver Star.”
“Is that the highest one?”
“No. The highest is the Medal of Honor. The Silver Star is the third highest.”
“So what did you do to earn it?” Wren’s eyes were getting wider with every exchange.
It made Stone uncomfortable, but it also had the egotistical part of him swelling up and wanting to keep impressing her.
“Look, we’re getting into territory that I’m not comfortable with. I’m sorry. Do you know any other combat vets?” Wren shook her head. “Well, we don’t really like talking about our experiences. Combat isn’t something we like to relive. As to how I received the Silver Star…it’s a classified mission. Meaning I can’t tell you much about it. What I can tell you is it’s the same mission that got me wounded and discharged. All that’s really important is that I did what I had to do to save a few of my buddies. It was a tight spot, and I…had to get us out of it. It was my job, so I did it. I’d trade the medal a hundred times over to have my guys back. To have my career back.”
“You lost friends on the mission?”
“Yeah. More than one. The whole thing went FUBAR.”
“Effed up beyond all recognition. It means it went really, really bad.” Wren colored at the vulgar acronym, and Stone had to laugh.
“So have you ever—”
“I’d rather not talk about that,” Stone interrupted. He hated that question.
Wren kept going. “I was going to ask if you’ve ever told anyone that story. I wouldn’t ask…what you thought.”
“Oh. Sorry. No, I never have.” He’d brought them onto the U of V campus, and Wren pointed to a cluster of residence buildings. He parked in front of the one Wren indicated, and then left the car idling. “It’s the kind of thing you’d rather forget.”
“Would you ever consider telling anyone? Someone really special, maybe?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t quite look at him, toying with a rivet on the pocket of her jeans. “Someone you were with.”
Stone let his head thump against the headrest. He had to head this off before it got to a place he couldn’t handle. “Wren, I don’t know if I’m—if I could be that guy for you.”
She didn’t respond right away. “Why not?”
“Why do you want to know what happened so bad?”
“It’s not about that. I just…I’m curious. About you.” She ducked her head. “I like you. I want to know what makes you…you.”
“Well, like I said. I’m not sure I’m—”
“Isn’t that my decision?”
“It’s a two-way thing, I’m pretty sure.”
“So do you like me?”
Stone laughed. “Should I check yes or no, too?”
Wren blushed, and then her expression tightened into anger. “I’m not a little girl, Stone. Excuse me for putting my feelings out there.” She shoved open the door, slid out, and slammed it behind her.
Stone watched her walk away, feeling bad for having hurt her feelings, as well as mixed up about what he should have done differently. He wasn’t right for her. Maybe it was for the best that she got mad and left. Maybe she’d move her interest to someone more appropriate.
But, as he drove home, Stone couldn’t help the disappointment from bubbling up. He did like her. He just didn’t think that was a good thing for her.
He ended up back in the gym, lifting free weights until his arms trembled, and then running on the treadmill until his legs were jelly and his scarred thigh was throbbing with hot aching agony. And still, despite the physical exhaustion, Stone couldn’t fall asleep for the longest time.
Dark eyes and bright smiles and thick black hair haunted his dreams, when he did finally fall asleep. It was a damn sight better than the recurring nightmares he usually experienced, dreamed memories of the mission that went bad.
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