Like Rome’s Lost Legion, a SEAL platoon goes on a mission and vanishes without a trace...
After walking into a trap on a covert op in Russia, the men from top secret SEAL Team Nine are presumed dead. Not knowing whom they can trust, and with war hanging in the balance, the survivors must go dark and scatter around the globe.
Marine ecologist Annie Henderson joins her new boyfriend on a trip to the Western Isles of Scotland to protest a hazardous offshore drilling venture. When she realizes that she may be swept up in something far more dangerous than she’d intended, there is only one man she can turn to...
She and the mysterious but sexy dive boat captain haven’t exactly gotten off to the best start, but something about his quiet confidence makes her think that he’s the kind of man she can depend on. Because he’s gruff and guarded, she can tell Dan Warren has secrets. But she could never imagine how high the stakes are for him to keep his cover, even as he risks everything to protect her...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Monica McCarty
Two months later
Annie Henderson definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Or Louisiana, for that matter. Edge of the world was more like it.
Seated in the guest house pub (or more accurately, the pub with a few rooms above it) in the small seaport village on the Isle of Lewis—at least she thought it was the Isle of Lewis, but it could be Harris, as the two islands were apparently connected—after three flights, including a harrowing, white-knuckled forty-five-minute ride from hell in a plane not much larger than a bathtub, Annie was feeling a long way from home and distinctly out of her comfort zone.
But that was good, right? Doing something important and making a difference couldn’t be done from her living room couch by getting upset with what she saw on TV. She had to get out there. Do something.
“It will be an adventure,” her boyfriend, Julien, had assured her. “Don’t you want to help? Do you want to see more dead dolphins and seabirds covered in oil?”
The memories brought her up sharp. Of course she didn’t. What she’d seen on the Louisiana shoreline after the BP oil disaster had moved her so deeply it had changed her life. The wide-eyed Tulane freshman who thought she wanted to be a veterinarian had switched her major to environmental science, and after graduating pursued a PhD in marine ecology. When Annie hadn’t been studying, most of her free time was devoted to the ongoing cleanup effort and the attempt to return the local habitat to its natural state.
She never wanted to see anything happen like that again. Which was why she was here. Although initially when Julien and his friends announced plans to go to Scotland to join a protest against North Sea Offshore Drilling’s exploratory drilling west of the Scottish Hebrides, Annie had refused. Activism wasn’t new to her, but it wasn’t like her to follow a man she’d known only a short time four thousand miles away from home to a place she’d never heard of before.
But after Julien had shown her pictures of the white-sand beaches of Eriskay, the rocky promontories and seashores of Lewis, and giant granite rock outpost in the open waters of the North Atlantic such as Rockall and Stac Lee near St Kilda that served as nesting places for fulmars, gannets, and other seabirds, she knew she wouldn’t be able to enjoy the vacation she’d planned to visit her mother in Key West. So she’d thrown caution to the wind and joined her new boyfriend and his friends.
Just because so far her “adventure” wasn’t exactly what she’d expected didn’t mean she should overreact. She hadn’t made a mistake in coming. So what if she felt a little bit like Dorothy wondering how the heck she’d gotten here? Scotland wasn’t Oz and Jean Paul La Roche wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West—even if right now they both kind of seemed that way.
She supposed she couldn’t really blame the Islanders for not holding out the welcome mat to the activists who’d descended en mass to the remote island. Oil brought jobs, and the Islanders considered the drilling a local matter. The activists were outsiders—who were they to interfere? But Annie hadn’t expected to feel quite so . . . conspicuous. Which was a nicer way of saying pariah. Her group stuck out even in the height of the summer tourist season. The dour, unsmiling locals had turned to stare at them as they entered the bar, and although they’d eventually turned away, it still felt as if their eyes were on her.
But it wasn’t just the locals. The man whom Julien had been so excited for her to meet, his mentor, and the person he spoke of with such reverence she’d half expected the pope to walk in, had been a shock. She didn’t know Jean Paul well enough to dislike him, but her first impression of a weasel or a ferret hadn’t improved any in the two hours since they were introduced. “Bad vibe” was an understatement.
She also didn’t like how he was staring at her. It was as if he was sizing her up for something. Coldly. Mercenarily. In a way that a pimp might size up a prostitute.
It made her uneasy. He made her uneasy.
Julien Bernard, the French graduate student who’d swept her off her feet when she met him two months ago, seemed to have picked up his former teacher’s disapproval as well. He seemed to be trying to “sell” her to Jean Paul by singing her praises. If he mentioned her “brilliant” PhD dissertation—which was the last thing she wanted to talk about after just defending it—one more time . . .
On cue, Julien said, “Did Annie tell you about her research—”
Annie looked around for a distraction—any distraction—and her eye caught on the headline of a newspaper left behind by the prior occupants of the wooden booth. “Look at this,” she said, holding it up and cutting him off. “The story has made it across the pond.” Did people still say that? She started to read from the article, “The Lost Platoon. Like Rome’s famous lost Ninth Legion, the secret SEAL Team Nine has disappeared into thin air.” Annie put the paper back down on the table. Allegedly the navy didn’t have a SEAL Team Nine, although suspiciously they acknowledged the existence of every other number from one to ten. “I wonder what happened to them.”
“Who cares?” Julien said. He gave her that charming and oh-so-French shrug and raising of the brows that made him look even more like his countryman, the actor Olivier Martinez. She’d always thought Halle Barry’s ex was incredibly sexy and could admit that that might have been what initially had caught her eye at the fund-raiser a couple of months ago. But it had been their shared passion for the environment and horror at the devastation wrought on the Louisiana coastline after the disaster that forged the real bond between them.
“You shouldn’t read that trash, ma belle. It’s all lies and gossip.”
At least it was entertaining. Which was more than she could say about the independent newspapers and political publications that he and his friends devoured. Annie did enough scholarly reading for her research; she didn’t need it for her pleasure reading, too.
Although Julien’s European charm and modern-day beatnik intellectualism were what had drawn her to him—she’d never met anyone who seemed to know so much about everything—he could definitely be a cultural snob sometimes.
She couldn’t help teasing him a little. “I don’t know.” She flipped the paper back to the front. “The Scottish Daily News looks pretty good to me. And they have lots of pictures that make it so much easier to follow along.”
Only Julien realized she wasn’t serious. The others at the table looked alternatively appalled and embarrassed—except for Jean Paul. He looked . . . wicked.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”
Maybe if she tried imagining him with a green face and a pointy hat—he already had the long nose and beady eyes—she would stop thinking about far more nefarious bad guys from Mafia and cartel movies.
No luck. At least a handful of years older than the rest of them who were all in their mid-twenties, Jean Paul looked like a villain right out of a mob movie, even down to the slicked-back hair, mole, leather jacket, and gold chains.
Men shouldn’t wear bracelets. It should be a rule.
As for the others at the booth, she didn’t really know any of them that well. She’d met Marie, Claude, and Sergio at Julien’s apartment in New Orleans many times before they’d all traveled to Scotland together, but they’d never really welcomed her into their cabal. They weren’t rude or unfriendly, just not inclusive. She took it to be a foreign thing, as they were all were international graduate students like Julien, who was also a teaching fellow at the University of New Orleans.
Despite her eight years at Tulane, she hadn’t held that against him for too long.
Julien smiled and shook his head, reaching for her hand to bring it to his mouth. “Forgive me. I was being a little condescending, wasn’t I?”
She gave him a look that said, You think?
He laughed and picked up the paper. “Very well. We will discuss these missing soldiers.”
“SEALs,” she corrected, and then explained at his befuddled expression. “Soldiers are army. In the navy it’s sailor, but SEALs are their own breed.”
“Well, with any luck your SEALs are at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.”
Annie knew that Julien had strong feelings about the US military—some of which she shared—but it wasn’t like him to be so bloodthirsty. She frowned, noticing him sharing a look with Jean Paul. Was that it? Was he trying to impress the other man?
“Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?” she asked him.
Julien would have responded, but Jean Paul spoke first. “Harsh? I’d say it’s justice. SEALs are nothing more than hired killers. Just because the government is their employer does not excuse what they do.” He gave her a pitying look—as if she were either the most naive woman in the world or the most stupid. “Do not tell me you approve of their methods or the shadow wars that they fight? I thought Julien said you went with him to the recent rally to protest military action in Russia after your fighter pilots were caught spying.”
Allegedly spying. Although the “accidentally straying off course” excuse had sounded a little suspect to her as well. The incident had nearly caused war to break out between America and Russia—the situation was still precarious. It was a game of nuclear jeopardy with the two players ready to pounce on the button.
“She did,” Julien said, immediately jumping to her defense.
Though she knew the impulse had been well-intentioned, she didn’t need Julien or anyone else to speak for her. She wasn’t going to let his friend intimidate her. As she didn’t have a bucket of water—the thought made one side of her mouth curve—she looked Jean Paul right in his mobster hit man eyes. “Just because I do not want to see us embroiled in another war does not mean I want to see innocent men killed.”
Jean Paul smiled with so much condescension she was amazed he wasn’t choking on it. Or maybe that was just her wishful thinking.
“I assure you that if there is any truth to that reporter’s story, those men are not innocent. What do you think they were doing when they ‘disappeared’? If it was legitimate, why would your government keep silent? Perhaps they do not acknowledge these men because doing so would expose their illegal activity?”
He had a point, but that didn’t mean that American servicemen should be the ones to pay the price for the government’s failures. “I do not like the shadow wars being fought by our Special Forces in many of the hot spots around the world any more than you do, but that’s because I don’t want to see any more of our servicemen who think they are doing the right thing and are only following orders killed or destroyed by war and a government that has turned them into highly skilled machines who can’t adjust to real life when they return. The psychological toll it takes on them is horrible. War is all these men know how to do. Special Forces like SEALs only have it worse.”
She didn’t realize how passionately—and loudly—she was speaking until she finished and realized that more than just the people at her booth were staring at her.
So much for avoiding the “Loud American” cliché.
She felt the heat of a blush stain her cheeks. Pushing the painful memories of her father away, she filled the uncomfortable silence with a jest. “Anyway, who knows? Maybe Geraldo will have a TV special and get to the bottom of it.”
Unfortunately she forgot that her audience was too young and not American, and her attempt at humor was totally lost in translation.
Her ever-gallant boyfriend tried to help her out. “Geraldo?” He picked up the paper. “But I believe the reporter’s name is Brittany Blake.”
She shook her head, deciding it wasn’t worth explaining the overly hyped TV special on the “secret” vaults of Al Capone that were opened live and contained only a couple of empty bottles. Her father used to joke about it.
In the days when he knew how to laugh.
“It was a bad joke about conspiracy theories,” she said. “Forget it.”
“Ah!” He laughed belatedly.
“You speak very passionately on the subject,” Jean Paul said perceptively.
Oddly he seemed to approve. Not that she cared. Although for Julien’s sake she wished she could like his friend. But she didn’t. She’d felt as if a black cloud had descended over them since he arrived.
In response Annie gave a Gallic shrug that a French-speaking Belgian such as Jean Paul should understand. It was none of his business. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I will find the ladies’ room.”
Making a quick escape, she heard Julien explain behind her, “WC.”
She’d forgotten that Jean Paul hadn’t spent much time in America. She’d learned from Julien that “bathroom” and “ladies’ room” didn’t translate well in Europe.
For a Tuesday night the pub was packed, and Annie had to “excuse me” her way through the crowd of men in front of the bar—there were very few women—as she made her way to the “toilet.” Given the number of locals, she assumed it was a favorite hangout. Although from what she’d seen of the town, the Harbour (with a u) Bar & Guest House probably didn’t have a lot of competition.
She had nearly made it past the long, glossy wooden bar lined with taps of ales and ciders, when the door that she’d been about to go through opened, and she had to step back to avoid being hit. Unfortunately she stumbled over someone’s foot and knocked into—nearly onto—a man who was seated at the end of the bar.
Instinctively she reached out to catch herself before she fell on his lap. One of her hands found his leg, and the other . . .
Wasn’t gripping rock-hard muscle.
“Oof.” The grunt he made gave the location away. Even through the denim of his jeans, she could feel the unmistakable solid bulge of something else. She pulled her hand back as if it—he—were on fire.
Or maybe that was just her. Her cheeks flamed with mortified heat as she hurried to apologize. “I’m so sorry! I tripped and didn’t see . . .”
The man looked up from his hunched position over his beer, and the cold, steely blue eyes that met hers from beneath the edge of his faded blue cap cut off her breath like a sharp, icy wind.
Her first thought was how the hell had she missed him? Her second was What did I do?
He was a big guy. Tall—even with him seated on a stool, she still had to look up to meet his gaze—and broad-shouldered, he wore an oversize sweatshirt and puffy down vest that, had she not felt the evidence to the contrary, she might have thought hid a little extra bulk. But that bulk wasn’t fat; it was all muscle.
The guy was built like a tank. Or maybe a prizefighter. Beneath the heavy beard—what was with those anyway?—the face that met hers had the tough, pugnacious masculinity of a Tom Hardy or Channing Tatum. Sexy as hell, but maybe a little too much to handle.
She liked men a little softer. And there was nothing soft about this guy. Not just his body, but the way he was looking at her. It might be the middle of summer, but the iciness emitting from those striking blue eyes made it feel like the dark days of December.
Shiver. She managed not to do that, instead giving him a friendly smile. “I’m sorry again. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
Which hardly seemed possible, as he was about twice her size.
She expected an immediate denial, a few assurances that it was nothing, and maybe even a return smile. That was what would have happened in any bar in America. In the South it would have been given with a lazy drawl, a charming twinkle, and no doubt a ma’am or darlin’ or two. In New Orleans, it would be “cher” or, as it was pronounced, “sha.”
What she got was a shake of the head and a gruff grunt that she assumed was meant to serve as his acknowledgment, before he turned sharply around to hunch back over his beer.
She stood there for a moment staring at the broad back, hunched shoulders, and straight—maybe a little shaggy—dirty blond hair beneath the faded powder blue cap.
What in the world?
She shook her head at his rudeness. Maybe this was Oz after all.
The chilly exchange the night before was forgotten in the warmth of a sunny new day as Annie made her way from the guest house to the harbor along the sunny waterfront street, walking hand in hand with Julien. Ahead of them she could see the distinctly shaped ferry terminal, which looked a little bit like a sombrero, that Julien told her had once been the site of the original castle in Stornoway. The pretty Victorian stone castle that dominated the opposite side of the harbor had been built a couple of hundred years after the original castle’s destruction. When she’d asked about visiting the new castle, the innkeeper told her that Lews, as it was called, wasn’t open. On prodding, she’d reluctantly added that it was being converted from use as a college to a cultural center.
Annie couldn’t blame the Islanders for their standoffishness—or in the case of the man last night, outright rudeness—but she wasn’t used to her friendly overtures being rebuffed. She supposed it was something she would have to grow accustomed to. The activists were clearly unwanted, and the tension with the locals was only going to get worse with what they had planned.
Something big. Something that will make a difference.
Her stomach fluttered a little. The thought of what they were going to do made her even more nervous now that she was actually here. It will be fine, she told herself. Greenpeace did it all the time. Even Xena—Lucy Lawless herself—had done it. But climbing aboard a drillship in the middle of the North Atlantic to stage a sit-in had sounded much more exciting—and much less crazy—at home. But Julien was right. To draw media attention, they had to do something big. And sadly dramatic got attention—scientific articles didn’t.
If she was suddenly having second thoughts, she pushed them away.
Once they passed the ferry terminal building, another reason the locals were likely to become even more unwelcoming came into view.
She winced at the sight of the Porta Pottis, tents, and makeshift banners that filled the parking lot. With the daily influx of activists growing, and guest houses and campgrounds full, the camp was only going to get bigger and even more of an eyesore.
Julien must have been watching her closer than she realized. “Is something wrong, ma belle? You are not still upset about last night?”
“I wasn’t upset. I just hit the jet-lag wall,” she said, repeating the excuse she’d given him when they returned to their room for her unusual quietness. Not wanting to give him another opportunity to ask her impressions of Jean Paul, she motioned to the camp. “You have to admit, it’s a bit of an eyesore. We aren’t likely to rally the locals to our cause with that marring the chamber of commerce views around here.” She looked around at the blue skies, the boats bobbing in the idyllic harbor, and the green-covered hillsides that framed it. “All those tents and banners,” not to mention the toilets, “won’t make very pretty postcards.”
Especially if the drilling went forward, and this turned into a permanent camp like the one on the Scottish mainland at the nuclear plant of Faslane, which had been there since 1982.
Julien smiled reassuringly, perhaps intuiting that she needed it, and squeezed her hand. “The point is to be noticed, Anne.” She didn’t usually like her name, which was why she went by Annie, but if everyone pronounced Anne like Julien, she might change her mind. Instead of the hard a, it was soft with the emphasis on the long n sound. Ah-nnn. “The more unsightly and disruptive we are, the more they will be unable to ignore us,” he added. “That’s how it works.”
Annie felt silly. She looked up at him apologetically, a lopsided grin turning her mouth. “I know. It’s just that”—she shrugged—“I didn’t expect this place to be so pretty.”
“Which is why we are here. To keep it that way, oui?”
He was right. The unsightly camp was much better than black, oily water, a coastline of sludge, and dead wildlife. The exploratory drilling set to begin a scant seventy miles west of Lewis, Harris, and the dozens of other islands that made up the archipelago would be devastated by a spill. There were already over seven hundred oil fields in the North Sea east of Britain, but this proposed one to the west in the North Atlantic was too close. And she had the studies to prove it. But no one wanted to listen to her research when they had their own “experts.”
“Oui,” she agreed.
Julien waved to a group of activists he knew as they walked by, still holding her hand with the other. She supposed she should be glad they weren’t in such rustic conditions and that Julien had been able to find a guest room. But their time would come. They hoped to stay aboard the ship for at least a week. Long enough to bring attention to the issue.
Buoyed by the beautiful summer day and the relaxing presence of the man beside her, Annie felt her spirits lift. Whatever strange funk she’d been in since arriving, she willed it away. It would be fine. There was nothing different about Julien. He was still the exciting, smart, passionate man who had swept her off her feet. If she thought he’d been acting a little strange last night, she attributed it to her reaction to his friend. It wasn’t like her to make instant judgments like that. She vowed to give Jean Paul another chance.
Once beyond the parking lot, they turned onto the dock and moorings that fronted the town center. There were a few sailboats sprinkled in among the fishing boats and trawlers. It presented a charming picture, but on closer inspection she could see that many of them appeared to have seen better days. Chipped paint and rust seemed to be the order of the day.
She wrinkled her nose. “Who are we looking for again?”
“Island Charters.” Julien moved his head to the side to get a better look down the dock. “Jean Paul said there should be a hut and someone would be there to meet us.”
“I’m surprised Jean Paul didn’t come with us.” Especially as he was the one to set up the charter that would take them on their “dive” near the exploratory drillship. Not that she was necessarily complaining about his absence.
“He is taking care of other things—there are a lot of details to work out. With your experience, he thought you would be the best person to make sure we have everything we need. I know how, uh, particular you are.”
Annie took the comment in the teasing spirit of which it was given. Her mouth quirked. He was right. She was very particular about her dive equipment, as he’d discovered the few times they were out together in New Orleans.
But her diving and climbing skills were part of why Julien had been so insistent that she come to Scotland. They needed someone experienced, and according to Julien, the fact that she “looked like a model from that swimsuit magazine” made it even better. The cameras would love her. Annie didn’t like being reduced to a “pretty face,” but she was sure Julien hadn’t meant it the way it sounded. Subtlety could be lost in translation.
“Point taken,” she said with a self-depreciating smile. “Now, where is this boat?”
A moment later they were standing in front of the small wooden hut about the size of a phone booth. On the wall beside it was a chalk information board with Island Charters printed across the top and hourly rental information down below with various dive and snorkeling packages.
Docked in front of the hut was one of the most dilapidated-looking boats not resting on its side on a beach that she’d ever seen. With its chipped red hull and white wheelhouse, the MV Hebridean appeared to be an old tugboat that had been converted for dive use. Old being the operative word. She’d guess vintage early ’60s.
She turned to Julien. “I hope that isn’t it. If it is, Jean Paul is being robbed. Two thousand pounds for a couple days in that pile of junk?”
She caught a movement out of the side of her eye and spun back toward the boat. A man stood from where he’d been kneeling over the port side of the boat on what appeared to be a metal diver lift.
One glance was enough to figure out what he’d been doing. Her mouth pressed into a tight line as she took in the greasy piece of machinery, still dripping with oil, in his hands. He’d obviously been cleaning it in the water.
She reacted viscerally, prickling with anger that she knew was out of proportion to the offense. But anyone who’d seen what she’d seen the past eight years would understand. Oil didn’t wash away. Eventually it ended on the bottom of the sea where its decomposition rate slowed to almost nothing. And cumulatively it killed and destroyed.
She didn’t understand how anyone could look at something as beautiful as this water and treat it like a dump. Even before the spill, she’d been conscious of it. She’d never forget the visit to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco when she was eight, and she’d seen the seal with a plastic six-pack holder around its neck, cutting into it like a knife. The raw wound, and the knowledge that the seal would never be able to get it off, had made her burst into tears.
It had broken her heart. It still did. She cared too much, her mother said. Maybe. But Annie didn’t understand how other people didn’t. How they could be so oblivious or ignorant like—
She stopped—and jolted—finally looking up into the familiar steely gaze.
It was him. The rude man from the night before, looking even more unfriendly and imposing in the daylight. He wore the same faded blue cap, but the bulky sweatshirt and vest had been replaced by a grease-stained, once white T-shirt with Island Charters silkscreened in red across the chest. It was loose fitting, but unlike last night’s clothing, it didn’t hide the extremely muscular chest and arms.
The guy was built, all right. Like a longshoreman.
Why she was noticing, she had no idea. Big guys weren’t normally her thing. Not since high school, at least. A disastrous date with the captain of the football team had cured her of the primitive appeal. Since then, she’d stuck to intellectuals like Julien, who spent more time in the library developing their brain than in the gym developing their muscles. At five-eleven and a hundred and seventy-five pounds, Julien was tall, but not too tall, and lean without being overly defined. This guy, on the other hand, was at least a few inches over six feet and definitely defined, although overly wasn’t exactly the word coming to mind.
It took her a moment to realize that she was staring. Good Lord, what was wrong with her?
“Was there something you wanted?” He spoke to her, ignoring Julien.
From the sharpness of his tone, she wondered if he’d picked up on her anger and the reason for it. From his word choice, however, he’d definitely picked up on her staring, and she blushed.
“Yes, I—” She stopped, suddenly realizing something. He didn’t have an accent. She frowned. “You’re American.”
“Canadian,” he corrected, as if it wasn’t any of her business—which she supposed it wasn’t.
But there went the excuse she’d given him for his rudeness. It wasn’t because he was a local; it was just him.
Jeez. Weren’t Canadians known around the world for being nice? Clearly he hadn’t gotten the message.
Julien edged in front of her, apparently taking umbrage at the other man’s tone and attitude. He wore an expression she’d never seen before. It brought to mind a medieval nobleman haughtily looking down his nose at one of his serfs as if he were the lowly piss boy. “We’ve come to pay for the charter arranged by our friend. For Anne Henderson.”
Jean Paul had put the charter under her name? Annie supposed it was easier, as she would be the one ensuring that the tanks and diving equipment were up to snuff. Oddly, despite the disreputable appearance of the boat and its captain—if that was who he was—she suspected they were. This guy looked as if he didn’t mess around and knew what he was doing. Capable hard-ass came to mind. Grim capable hard-ass. He looked like a man who hadn’t had anything to smile about in a long time. She couldn’t tell whether it was sadness or general grumpiness. Maybe a little of both.
The captain gave no indication that he’d noticed Julien’s condescension, but something told her little got by those steely eyes.
“Must be some mistake,” he said, as if he couldn’t care less. Customer service obviously wasn’t his strong point. “The boat isn’t available.”
The lie was so obvious Annie almost laughed. “Yes,” she said, her gaze sweeping the empty dock. “I can see how busy you are.”
His eyes turned slowly back to hers. There might have been the barest flicker of surprise at her response. Clearly he wasn’t used to people challenging him.
“It probably isn’t what you are looking for anyway,” he said with a long, knowing stare.
He’d obviously heard her pile-of-junk comment. A comment that on closer inspection might have been premature. The deck and what she could see of the boat were spotless. The dive equipment and tanks arranged neatly on racks in the center of the deck appeared to be in good condition and looked after by someone who knew what they were doing. There was precision in the way the tanks were ordered and the masks and regulators placed. Even the fins were stuck upright in tight pairs, presumably by size. She’d been on too many boats where everything was just thrown in different plastic bins.
She studied the man before her with new, more appraising eyes.
“What do you mean it isn’t available?” Julien demanded angrily. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him lose his temper before, but he clearly was about to do so. He, too, must have realized that the guy was lying and refusing to rent to them because of who they were. Julien’s dark eyes were narrowed to pinpricks, and his mouth had curved into an ugly sneer. “We had a deal.”
“Not with me, you didn’t.” The man hadn’t moved an inch. There was nothing combative in his stance, but the threat was there all the same. Don’t fuck with me.
Annie picked up on it, even if Julien didn’t. She knew that despite the idyllic look of some of these harbors, some hid a booming illegal drug trade. Was Island Charters a cover? And if so, was he the muscle? It wouldn’t surprise her; he had dangerous written all over him. Nor would it surprise her that Jean Paul would have hired a less than reputable charter company. What they were doing would be much easier without someone asking a lot of questions.
“Come on, Julien. Let’s go,” she said, pulling him away. “There’s obviously been a mistake.”
Julien looked as though he was going to argue, but maybe her pleas gave him the excuse to back off without losing face. Although in a contest between the two . . . there wouldn’t be one.
Julien slid his arm around her waist and drew her against him protectively. But before they turned around to go, he had to get in one last comment. “Your boss is going to hear about this.”
Fucking douche bag.
The man the locals knew as Dan Warren watched the two protesters walk away, glad to see them go. For a minute he thought—maybe even hoped—that the feisty little American whose hand had landed in his lap the night before was going to argue with him. And even though do-gooder, antimilitary, idealistic graduate students weren’t exactly high on his list, sexy dark-haired, green-eyed, full-mouthed Vampire Diaries chick lookalikes—with the killer body to go along with the rest—definitely were. He could still feel the heat of her hand on him. The speed of his body’s reaction was a painful reminder that he’d neglected certain areas for too long.
The instant attraction had been as surprising as it had been unwelcome—especially after that “machine” comment.
He’d noticed her the moment she walked in. Hell, every straight man in the bar had noticed her. Long, wavy dark hair, big green eyes, flawless suntanned skin, sultry red mouth, and the previously mentioned killer body. Tight ass, long legs, and a good-sized rack—a winning trifecta in his book.
But he’d quickly lost interest when he realized she was with the protest group—and the French guy. Until she’d mentioned that damned article. And her boyfriend and his friends had started in on the “hired killer” crap. He might have appreciated her defense a little more were it not for the “programmed machine too brainwashed—and stupid—to realize what they were doing” angle.
The last thing he wanted to hear was some clueless academic give his or her point of view on what others did. On what others died for, damn it.
But what the hell was she doing with a little turd like that? Dan didn’t like the looks of him—Julien (talk about a “take my lunch money” name)—and not just because he was French. Although that certainly didn’t hurt. He didn’t usually rely on stereotypes—unless they happened to fit. Dan was good at sizing up people, and everything about that guy rubbed him the wrong way.
He knew the type too well. Smug and condescending, Julien thought, culture and education only existed in smooth-talking, upper-crust circles populated by people who liked to hear themselves talk and thought they were smart because they could quote Kierkegaard or listened to opera.
Dan had learned far more working in the real world. He had no use for passive, pretentious pseudointellectuals who probably couldn’t tell north from south on a compass and did nothing for all the freedom they took for granted and let others defend. A jackass like Julien would be the last person Dan would want in his lifeboat when shit hit the fan, but God knows the little prick would be the first one to knock everyone out of the way to get in.
He wondered what Julien and his buddies were up to. But it wasn’t any of his business. And minding his business was exactly what “Dan” was going to do.
Even if it was driving him fucking crazy.
But he was still pissed off. Probably because the douche bag had gotten the last word—and guessed correctly that Dan was taking orders.
Julien was right. The boss wasn’t going to be happy.
Which was confirmed a short while later when Malcolm MacDonald yelled down the hatch to the engine room where Dan was working for him to come up.
The man the locals referred to as “Old MacDonald”—you couldn’t make this shit up—had spent the better part of his sixty-eight years at sea as a fisherman. It was a tough life, and he wore the hardships of it on his face. Grizzled, about a hundred bills overweight—most of it in his gut—and rarely without a cigarette hanging from his mouth, in between coughing fits that made Dan think Old MacDonald would be buying the farm before he saw the other side of seventy, he conversed in grunts, curses, and glowers. Usually.
“You want to explain why I just got off the phone with an angry customer who said you refused to take them on the charter I told you about?”
Dan shrugged. “The guy was an asshole.”
MacDonald exploded. “An asshole who was about to pay two thousand pounds cash for less than two days’ work!”
Dan’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a lot of money. I told you I wouldn’t run drugs for you.”
It had been his one stipulation. What MacDonald did on his own time to make ends meet, he wouldn’t ask. The old guy’s less than stellar reputation in town had been one of the reasons Dan had sought him out for employment. People engaged in less than legal activity tended not to ask too many questions.
MacDonald’s gaze narrowed right back at him. “Who said anything about drugs? They want a ride out to the drillship.”
“Why?” Dan could think of a handful of reasons—none of which were good.
What was the feisty little American messed up in?
“I didn’t ask. And neither should you. Asking questions isn’t part of my business—you should know that.” The less than subtle reference to Dan’t own hazy background was well-taken. “They hired us to take four of them and an inflatable on an overnight dive. I hired you to captain the fucking boat, not make decisions. You got that?”
If this job wasn’t so good—pretty damned perfect actually—Dan would remind the old buzzard that any scrutiny into Dan’s background was likely to provoke scrutiny into MacDonald’s own business “enterprises.” But deciding not to press him, Dan nodded.
But he nearly reconsider when MacDonald added, “Then I will leave it to you to find them and fix it before they hire another company to take their money.”
Dan knew exactly what fix it meant, and every bone in his body balked at the idea of apologizing to that smug asshole. But if he refused, he had no doubt that MacDonald would fire him. He weighed the likelihood of finding another job as good as this one and swore.
Looked as if it was time for him to eat some shit.
This sucked. Dan stood in front of the door with a brass “2” staring at him. It hadn’t been difficult to find out where they were staying. When he hadn’t seen them at the protester camp at the port, he’d guessed that they were staying at the Harbour Bar & Guest House. He’d wager what he had in his pocket—which, as he’d just cashed a check, was about two weeks of work—that Julien didn’t do roughing it.
He lifted his hand to knock and hesitated. He didn’t need this shit. He could find another boat.
If the door hadn’t opened, he might have turned around.
The gorgeous brunette nearly ran into him. She gasped and then just stood there clearly surprised to see him, with her killer mouth parted in a way that made him think of all kinds of really inappropriate things.
“Hi,” he said a little more softly—and huskily—than he intended.
The simple greeting seemed to take her aback. It was as if she didn’t know what to do with it. He supposed that was his fault. He hadn’t exactly encouraged conversation in their prior exchanges.
She didn’t respond right away. Their eyes met and held—and didn’t let go. He felt the buzz of something hot and unwanted. But the physical attraction was there. From the uncomfortable pause, he guessed that she had felt it, too—and didn’t like it any better than he did.
“Hi,” she finally said.
Christ, her voice was insane. Low and throaty, and sexy as hell. She’d make a killing in phone sex.
The vaguely intimate moment was ruined by the arrival of Julien.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, stepping in front of his girlfriend. From the frown on her face, Dan took it she didn’t appreciate the show of masculine posturing.
Dan kept his expression blank. “I came to tell you there was a misunderstanding. The boat is available for you to charter.”
Julien didn’t disappoint, proving Dan’s ability to size people up quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, although he might be a douche bag, he wasn’t a stupid one. He’d quickly figured out that Dan wasn’t here of his own volition and was being forced to make amends. And from the slow sneer that crept up his face, it was clear that he wasn’t going to make that easy.
“A misunderstanding?” Julien repeated. “There wasn’t any misunderstanding. You told us the boat wasn’t available and the deal we had with your boss wasn’t good with you. So if that’s all . . .” He started to shut the door, but Dan held out his hand to stop him.
“That isn’t all. I have the paperwork. All I need is a signature, and a fifty percent deposit.”
“Don’t you have something to say first?” Julien demanded, clearly savoring the prospect of making Dan grovel.
But Dan didn’t engage in power plays with little girls—or men who acted like them. “I’m sorry for the confusion.”
Julien’s satisfied smile was punctuated by a single raised eyebrow. “I’m sure you are. But I’m afraid it’s too late. After your unprofessional behavior yesterday”—Dan’s jaw clenched at being scolded like a toddler—“we contacted another company.”
If Dan needed proof that Julien was lying, his girlfriend’s reaction was enough. Up until that point, he’d sensed her watching them both as if it were a Ping Pong match. But now her gaze stayed on Julien, a frown between her eyes. She seemed about to object, but then slammed her mouth shut as if she’d thought better of it. Oddly Dan appreciated that. The little bastard needed upbraiding, but not publicly.
“Look. Another company isn’t necessary. The boat is available if you want it.”
Apparently the woman had had enough. She didn’t wait for Julien to make another objection. “That will be fine,” she said. “We spoke to Mr. MacDonald right before you arrived, and he told us about the, uh . . . confusion. We were just on our way to the dock. He didn’t tell us you would be coming in person to apologize. Thank you.”
She smiled, and despite the fact that her boyfriend had just been trying to make him look like an idiot, he found himself smiling back.
It had been so long since he’d had anything to smile about. It felt wrong, and he immediately sobered.
“Annie Henderson,” she said, holding out her hand.
He took it, unable to ignore how small and soft her fingers felt enfolded in his grip—or the sudden heat that spread through him. “Dan Warren,” he said.
She removed her hand from his a little too quickly. The flush on her cheeks told him that she’d noticed the connection, too. She turned to her boyfriend. “This is my, uh, Julien Bernard.”
“Her boyfriend,” Julien said, sliding his arm around her waist to draw her closer. He might as well have lifted his leg and peed.
That little frown between her eyes deepened. She was looking at Julien as if he were a strange beast at a zoo that she’d never seen before.
It was called territorial male.
Clearly she didn’t like it. She shifted away from Julien’s hold under the guise of taking the paperwork. “Should we go downstairs and find a table? I have a few questions about the boat and the dive equipment before we finalize everything.”
Dan lifted his brow, a little surprised by her businesslike tone. But it was clear she took both very seriously, which he could definitely appreciate as he did as well.
He nodded. “Shoot.”
For the next hour she did exactly that, hitting him with dozens of questions about the equipment, the compressed air and other gas mixes he had available, the backups in place, the water temperature, wind speeds, lights, buoyancy compensation systems—pretty much everything he would have asked in her place.
Maybe even a few he wouldn’t have thought of.
After a few minutes of sulking—probably at being ignored—Julien gave up trying to follow the conversation and stuck his nose in his phone.
By the time Annie signed the paperwork and handed Dan the deposit, he was impressed—and not dreading the job as much as he had been. Annie Henderson knew how to dive, and what SEAL—even a supposed to be dead one, he thought grimly—didn’t admire that in a woman?