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Her Beautiful Assassin
By Virginia Kantra
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe was a big, badass Navy SEAL in command of a squad of warriors, and he didn't know what to do.
Lieutenant Marcus Evans hated that.
He wasn't too crazy about the fact that at any moment the ship they were on could smack into a mine and blow up, either.
Of course, it wasn't his ship; the frigate was on its way to a routine refueling in the Persian Gulf when it had picked up his team after a successful recon mission. But these were his men.
Marcus made eye contact with each of them, trying to be as honest and reassuring as he could.
"The captain's lowered the APUs." The auxiliary propulsion units. "Chances are we can tiptoe out of the mine-field along our own wake."
"Backward." That was Garcia, the weapons specialist, dark and skeptical.
"In the dark."
"They've focused all floodlights on the starboard bridge onto the surface."
"It's not the surface mines I'm worried about," said Buzz, the squad's explosives expert. "It's those suckers under the water. We kiss one of those, they'll see the fireworks all the way to Baghdad."
"Maybe Clark here could go up there and offer them his X-ray vision," Petty Officer First Class James Robinson said.
He meant Marcus. Aka Clark aka Clark Kent aka Superman.
James Robinson was one of the few men entitled to use the nickname to Marcus's face. But then, they'd pulled each other through BUD/S training. Clark and Jimmy. They could have been paired together as Ren and Stimpy or Tom and Jerry or even Dr. Evil and Mini Me.
Although unlike Dr. Evil and his sidekick, they looked nothing alike. Robinson was a brilliant, wiry, black enlisted man, and Marcus was none of those things.
Marcs smiled wryly. "I think if I get in their way right now, they'll just toss me overboard."
"Might as well," muttered Garcia. "We couldn't be any more out of our depth."
Marcus sympathized with his men's frustration. Hell, he shared it. But he said, "That's the way it's got to be. This SEAL team is not assigned to this ship. We have no specific duties during a damage control evolution."
"Slick went to sick bay," Buzz said.
"Slick's a medic," Marcus said unarguably. "He went where he could do some good." Again, he met each man's eyes. When general quarters sounded, all hands without assignments reported to the mess desk in the relative safety of the center of the ship. Marcus and his men sat at a table apart. Jimmy and Garcia, Jacobs and Buzz - they were all watching him, prepared to live or die or even sit one out on his orders. "But once we boarded this frigate, the rest of us are strictly along for the ride."
Some ride. Because at that moment the deck bucked up and the bottom fell out of the world.
The force of the blast slammed Marcus off his feet and hurtled him through the air.
Just like Superman, he thought in the instant before he came down hard. He twisted to take the impact on his shoulder, which might have worked if the ship wasn't still pitching under him.
His head thumped onto the metal deck. Flares went off inside his skull. His blood roared. His vision grayed.
But he was obviously alive and more or less whole. He spread his palms on the gritty deck and levered himself up to see how bad it was.
It was bad.
An officer's job was to think big picture, but it was difficult to see past the bodies and debris, difficult to think through the groans. If the mess deck was hit this bad, then the frigate had to be taking on water below. Which meant ... Blood ran into Marcus's eyes. He blinked to clear his vision, but the air was thick with dust. Or smoke. He staggered to his feet on the pitching deck, looking for the rest of his team.
There. His chest squeezed. Lying there, under the twisted piece of steel that used to be the chow line. Wasn't that -
The lights below decks flickered and died. The square yellow battle lanterns mounted on the walls snapped to life.
"Lieutenant? Clark?" The voice came from around his feet.
"Here, Jimmy." He dropped to his knees. He had always had excellent night vision. But even without it, there was enough spill from the battle lanterns to see that Robinson wouldn't make it out on his own. "How are you doing?"
"Can't move my legs. Think I broke my back?" he inquired, like he was asking whether Marcus thought it would rain tonight or something.
Marcus drew a deep breath - mistake - and glanced again at the improbable angles of his best friend's body. "No. I think you broke both legs when you came down on the chow line. Let me get you looked at." He raised his voice. "Garcia!"
"Behind you, sir."
Garcia and Buzz materialized from the dark.
"Where's Jacobs?" Marcus asked.
"Jacobs busted his arm. Maybe some ribs. We took him to sick bay."
Marcus nodded. "We need a corpsman here. And a stretcher."
"Hoo yah, Lieutenant." Garcia melted away.
It took five minutes for the hospital corpsman, nicknamed Doc - they were always nicknamed Doc - to make his evaluation and get permission to move Robinson to the weather deck.
He got off the phone with the locker officer and handed Marcus a piece of paper with a string of scribbled numbers. "There's your route out of the fire. Can you read it?"
Marcus glanced at the tack numbers, each one denoting a different passageway, hatch or door. He smiled in reassurance. "Good to go."
The young man's face relaxed. He was probably relieved he didn't have to explain coordinates to a dipshit officer. "Yes, sir. And, uh, DC central could use four bodies on fire seven."
"We can give you three. Buzz."
His explosives man rose and went to find the damage control officer.
"Garcia and I will report as soon as we get Robinson to the weather deck," Marcus said.
Robinson was already cocooned in the flexible canvas stretcher designed to maneuver through the hatches.
Marcus wrapped the lead rope around his arm. "Time to roll, Jimmy."
"I'm gonna hate this, aren't I?" Robinson asked.
"Beats drowning," Marcus said lightly, and lifted him.
Their route was planned to keep them out of the fire's way. But the metal passageways echoed with the groans of stricken sailors and tortured steel, the rush of the fire mains, the roar of fire, the shouts and rapped commands of men and women fighting for their ship. For their lives.
The emergency diesel engine shuddered and clanked as Marcus and Garcia navigated up a ladder and through the watertight doors, trying to keep the stretcher clear of the sides. They had to step over hoses snaked through the passageways. In every section, pumps with tubes and switches sucked water from the bowels of the ship and forced it up and over the side. Each small connection shot a spray of oil and water onto the decks, making their footing treacherous.
Marcus pulled the stretcher after him up a ladder and onto the flight deck. Bits of fiery debris rained down from the superstructure. For a second, he stood transfixed, pierced by a vision of burning and black water and the memory of someone - a little girl, her face white between streaks of black hair - depending on him.
Excerpted from Her Beautiful Assassin by Virginia Kantra Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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