Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

by Julie Ann Walker

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Overview

When the world is in chaos and the center cannot hold, the men of Deep Six are here to join the fight. Jump right into the action if you're ready for:

  • Former Navy SEALs who thought their fighting days were behind them
  • Fearless women who don't back down from Black Ops OR stubborn military men
  • A ragtag group of specialists who can solve any problem—even on the high seas
  • A hero who will risk everything for the woman he can't live without

New York Times bestselling author of the Black Knights Inc. series doesn't pull any punches in this action-packed romantic suspense.

Only two things could make former Navy SEAL Leo Anderson return to the world of weapons and warfare. First, a capsule of chemical weapons lost on the ocean floor, and second, a plea for help from the one woman he can't seem to forget—CIA Agent Olivia Mortier.

Now, working together to race against the clock, Leo and Olivia must find the missing capsule while battling the intense desire burning between them. If they can survive, can their growing attraction become more, or will everything go up in flames?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492608905
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 07/07/2015
Series: The Deep Six , #1
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 208,746
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Julie Ann Walker is the USA Today and New York Times Bestselling Author of the Black Knights Inc. romantic suspense series. She is prone to spouting movie quotes and song lyrics. She'll never say no to sharing a glass of wine or going for a long walk. She prefers impromptu travel over the scheduled kind, and she takes her coffee with milk. You can find her on her bicycle along the lake shore in Chicago or blasting away at her keyboard, trying to wrangle her capricious imagination into submission. For more information, please visit www.julieannwalker.com or follow her on Facebook www.facebook.com/jawalkerauthor and/or Twitter @JAWalkerAuthor.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Present day

10:52 p.m....

"And the Santa Cristina and her brave crew and captain were sucked down into Davy Jones's locker, lost to the world. That is...until now..."

Leo "the Lion" Anderson, known to his friends as LT-a nod to his former Naval rank-let his last words hang in the air before glancing around at the four faces illuminated by the flickering beach bonfire. Rapt expressions stared back at him. He fought the grin curving his lips.

Bingo, bango, bongo. His listeners had fallen under a spell as deep and fathomless as the great oceans themselves. It happened anytime he recounted the legend of the Santa Cristina. Not that he could blame his audience. The story of the ghost galleon, the holy grail of sunken Spanish shipwrecks, had fascinated him ever since he'd been old enough to understand the tale while bouncing on his father's knee. And that lifelong fascination might account for why he was now determined to do what so many before him-his dearly departed father included-had been unable to do. Namely, locate and excavate the mother lode of the grand ol' ship.

Of course, he reckoned the romance and mystery of discovering her waterlogged remains were only part of the reason he'd spent the last two months and a huge portion of his savings-as well as huge portions of the savings of the others-refurbishing his father's decrepit, leaking salvage boat. The rest of the story as to why he was here now? Why they were all here now? Well, that didn't bear dwelling on.

At least not on a night like tonight. When a million glittering stars and a big half-moon reflected off the dark, rippling waters of the lagoon on the southeast side of the private speck of jungle, mangrove forest, and sand in the Florida Keys. When the sea air was soft and warm, caressing his skin and hair with gentle, salt-tinged fingers. When there was so much...life to enjoy.

That had been his vow-their vow-had it not? To grab life by the balls and really live it? To suck the marrow from its proverbial bones?

His eyes were automatically drawn to the skin on the inside of his left forearm where scrolling, tattooed lettering read For RL. He ran a thumb over the pitch-black ink.

This one's for you, you stubborn sonofagun, he pledged, flipping open the lid on the cooler sunk deep into the sand beside his lawn chair. Grabbing a bottle of Budweiser and twisting off the cap, he let his gaze run down the long dock to where his uncle's catamaran was moored. The clips on the sailboat's rigging lines clinked rhythmically against its metal mast, adding to the harmony of softly shushing waves, quietly crackling fire, and the high-pitched peesy, peesy, peesy call of a nearby black-and-white warbler.

Then he turned his eyes to the open ocean past the underwater reef surrounding the side of Wayfarer Island, where his father's old salvage ship bobbed lazily with the tide. Up and down. Side to side. Her newly painted hull and refurbished anchor chain gleamed dully in the moonlight. Her name, Wayfarer-I, was clearly visible thanks to the new, bright-white lettering.

He dragged in a deep breath, the smell of burning driftwood and suntan lotion tunneled up his nose, and he did his best to appreciate the calmness of the evening and the comforting thought that the vessel looked, if not necessarily sexy, then at least seaworthy. Which is a hell of an improvement.

Hot damn, he was proud of all the work he and his men had done on her, and-

His men...

He reminded himself for the one hundred zillionth time that he wasn't supposed to think of them that way. Not anymore. Not since those five crazy-assed SEALs waved their farewells to the Navy in order to join him on his quest for high-seas adventure and the discovery of untold riches. Not since they were now, officially, civilians.

"But why you guys?" The blond who was parked beneath Spiro "Romeo" Delgado's arm yanked Leo from his thoughts. "What makes you different from all those who've already tried and failed to find her?"

"Besides the obvious you mean, mamacita?" Romeo winked, leaning back in his lawn chair to spread his arms wide. His grin caused his teeth to flash white against his neatly trimmed goatee, and Leo watched the blond sit forward in her plastic deck chair to take in the wonder that was Romeo Delgado. After a good, long gander, she giggled and snuggled back against Romeo's side.

Leo rolled his eyes. Romeo's swarthy, Hispanic looks and his six-percent-body-fat physique made even the most prim-and-proper lady's panties drop fast enough to bust the floorboards. And this gal? Well, this gal might be prim and proper in her everyday life-hell, for all Leo knew she could be the leading expert on high etiquette at an all-girls school-but today, ever since Romeo picked her and her cute friend up in Schooner Wharf Bar on Key West with the eye-rolling line of "Wanna come see my private island?" she'd been playing the part of a good-time girl out having a little fun-in-the-sun fling. And it was the fling part that might-scratch that, rewind-did account for the lazy, self-satisfied smile spread across Romeo's face.

"I'm serious, though." Tracy or Stacy or Lacy, or whatever her name was-Leo had sort of tuned out on the introductions-wrinkled her sunburned nose. "How do you even know where to look?"

"Because of this." Leo lifted the silver piece of eight, a seventeenth-century Spanish dollar, from where it hung around his neck on a long, platinum chain. "My father discovered it ten years ago off the coast of the Marquesas Keys."

Tracy/Stacy/Lacy's furrowed brow telegraphed her skepticism. "One coin? I thought the Gulf and the Caribbean were littered with old doubloons."

"It wasn't just one piece of eight my father found." Leo winked. "It was a big, black conglomerate of ten pieces of eight, as well as-"

"Conglomerate?" asked the brunette with the Cupid's-bow lips. Tracy/Stacy/Lacy's friend had given Leo all the right signals the minute Romeo pulled the catamaran up to Wayfarer Island's creaky old dock and unloaded their guests. It'd been instant sloe-eyed looks and shy, encouraging smiles.

Okay, and confession time. Because for a fleeting moment when she-Sophie or Sophia? Holy Christ, Leo was seriously sucking with names tonight-sidled up next to him, he'd been tempted to take her up on all the things her nonverbal communications offered. Then an image of black hair, sapphire eyes, and a subtly crooked front tooth blazed through his brain. And just like that, the brunette lost her appeal.

Which is a good thing, he reminded himself. You're gettin' too old to bang the Betties Romeo drags home from the bar.

Enter Dalton "Doc" Simmons and his nearly six and a half feet of homespun, Midwestern charm. He'd been quick to insert himself between Leo and Sophie/Sophia. And now her gaze lingered on Doc's face when he said in that low, scratchy Kiefer Sutherland voice of his, "Unlike gold, which retains its luster after years on the bottom of the ocean, silver coins are affected by the seawater. They get fused together by corrosion or other maritime accretions. When that happens, it's called a conglomerate. They have to be electronically cleaned to remove the surface debris and come out looking like this." Grabbing the silver chain around his neck, Doc pulled a piece of eight from inside his T-shirt. It was identical to the one Leo wore.

"And like this," Romeo parroted, twirling the coin on the chain around his neck like a Two-Buck Chuck stripper whirling a boa.

Their first day on the island, Leo had gifted each of his men-damnit!...his friends-with one of the coins, telling them their matching tattoos were symbols of their shared past and their matching pieces of eight were symbols of their shared future.

Leo tipped the neck of his beer toward Doc. "Maritime accretions, huh? You sound like an honest-to-God salvor, my friend."

Doc smirked, which was as close to a smile as the dude ever really got. If Leo hadn't seen Doc rip into a steak on occasion, he wouldn't have been all that convinced the guy had teeth.

"But even a conglomerate of coins wouldn't be enough to guarantee the ship's location," Leo added, turning back to the blond. "My father also found a handful of bronze deck cannons. All of which were on the Santa Cristina's manifest. So she's down there...somewhere." He just had to find her. All his friends were counting on that windfall for various reasons, and if he didn't-

"But, like you said, your dad tried to find this Christy boat for"-Leo winced. Okay, so the woman seemed sweet. But the only thing worse than mangling the name of the legendary vessel was referring to it as a boat-"like twenty-some-odd years, right?"

"And Mel Fisher searched for the Atocha for sixteen years before finally findin' her." He referred to the most famous treasure hunter and treasure galleon of all time. Well, most famous of all time until he and the guys made the history books, right? Right. "In shallow water, like that around the Florida Keys, the shiftin' sands are moved by wind and tide. They change the seabed daily, not to mention after nearly four centuries. But with a little hard work and perseverance, you better believe the impossible becomes possible. We're hot on her trail." Her convoluted, invisible, nonexistent trail. Shit.

Doc slow-winked at the woman by way of agreement, twirling the toothpick that perpetually stuck out of his mouth in a circle with his tongue. It must have dazzled poor Sophie/Sophia, because she sucked in a breath before batting her pretty lashes and sidling her lawn chair closer to him. Throwing an arm around her shoulders, Doc turned to wiggle his eyebrows at Leo. Just like the others, Doc was never one to pass up an opportunity to feed Leo a heaping helping of shit. Par for the course considering Leo was...fuck a duck...used to be their commanding officer, a prime target for all their ass-hattery.

Yeah, yeah, Leo thought, quietly chuckling. So, I pulled the Roger Murtaugh, I'm-gettin'-too-old-for-this-shit bit. And you think I screwed up royally when I turned down what she was offerin'? So, go ahead. Rub it in, you big corn-fed douche-canoe.

"Why do you need to find that old treasure anyway?" the blond asked. "You have a private island." She motioned with her beer toward the rippling waters of the lagoon, tipsily splashing suds into the fire and making it hiss. "Aren't you r-" She hiccuped, then covered her mouth with her fingers, giggling. "Rich?" she finished.

"Ha! Hardly." Leo rested his sweating beer bottle against the fabric of his swim trunks. Here in the Keys, shorts and swim trunks were interchangeable-unlike his possible bed partners, apparently.

Come on, now! Why can't you get Olivia Mortier out of your head?

And that was the question of the hour, wasn't it? Or more like the question of the last frickin' eighteen months. Ever since that assignment in Syria...

"But if you're not rich," the blond insisted, "then how can you"-hiccup-"afford to own this place?"

No joke, Romeo had better double-time her up to the house and into his bed. One or two more brewskies and she'd be too many sheets to the wind for what the self-styled lothario had in mind for her. Romeo may be a horndog extraordinaire, with more notches on his bedpost than Leo had sorties on his SEAL résumé, but like all the guys, Romeo was nothing if not honorable. If Tracy/Stacy/Lacy was too incapacitated, Romeo would do no more than tuck her under the covers with a chaste kiss on the forehead. And as their SEAL Team motto stated: Where's the fun in that?

On cue, Romeo turned to Leo, snapping his fingers, a worried frown pulling his black eyebrows into a V. Leo hid a smile as he reopened the cooler and dug around inside until he found a bottle of water. He tossed it over the fire, and Romeo caught it one-handed. Then Mr. Slam-dunk-ovich made quick work of exchanging the blond's beer with the H2O. "Try this, m'ija," he crooned, really laying his accent on thick before leaning over to whisper something no doubt highly suggestive into her ear.

The blond giggled, obediently twisting the cap off the water bottle to take a deep slug.

"We don't own the island, darlin'," a deep voice called from up the beach. Leo turned to see his uncle coming toward them. The man was dressed in his usual uniform of baggy cargo shorts and an eye-bleeding hula shirt. His thick mop of Hemingway hair and matching beard glowed in the light of the moon, contrasting sharply with skin that had been tanned to leather by the endless subtropical sun.

Bran Pallidino, Leo's best friend and BUD/S-Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training-swim partner, had once described Leo's uncle as "one part crusty sea dog and two parts slack-ass hippie." Leo figured that pretty much summed up the ol' coot in one succinct sentence. "My great-great-I've-forgotten-how-many-greats-grandfather leased the island for one hundred and fifty years from Ulysses S. Grant."

"President Grant?" the brunette squeaked, coughing on beer.

"The one and only," Uncle John said, plunking himself into an empty plastic deck chair, stretching his bare feet toward the fire, and lifting a tumbler-filled with Salty Dog, John's standard grapefruit, vodka, and salted-rim cocktail-to his lips. Ice clinked against the side of the glass when he took a healthy swig. "You may not know this, Tracy," he said-Tracy. Leo snapped imaginary fingers and endeavored to commit the name to memory-"but ol' Ulysses smoked 'bout ten cigars a day. And my great-great"-Uncle John made a rolling motion with his hand-"however-many-greats-grandpappy happened to be the premier cigar-maker of the time. In exchange for a lifetime supply of high-quality Cubans, Great-Grandpappy secured the rights to make a vacation home for himself and his descendants on this here little bit of paradise for a century and a half." Uncle John's familiar Louisiana drawl-the same one Leo shared, though to a lesser extent-drifted lazily on the warm breeze.

The Anderson brothers, Uncle John and Leo's father, James, originally hailed from the Crescent City. Like their father before them, they'd trained to be shrimp-boat captains in the Gulf. But a chance discovery during a simple afternoon dive off the coast of Geiger Key had changed everything. They'd found a small Spanish gunboat equipped with all manner of archeological riches, from muskets to daggers to swords, and the treasure-hunting bug had bitten them hard. The following year, when Leo was just five years old, the brothers moved to the Keys to use their vast knowledge of the sea to search for sunken riches instead of plump, pink shrimp.

Unfortunately, they never found another haul that could compete with that of the gunboat. Uncle John gave up the endeavor after a decade, settling in to run one of Key West's many bars until his retirement six months ago. But Leo's father had continued with the salvage business, splitting his time between jobs and hunting for the Santa Cristina until he suffered a heart attack during a dive. Leo took solace in knowing his old man had died as he'd lived, wrapped in the arms of the sea.

"Ulysses S. Grant? So that had to have been, what? Sometime in the eighteen seventies?" the brunette asked.

"You know your presidents, Sophie." Uncle John winked, taking another draw on his cocktail.

Sophie, Sophie, Sophie. Leo really should have paid more attention to the introductions. I mean, seriously? What was his problem? If a woman's name wasn't Olivia Mortier, it just went in one ear and out the other? For shit's sake!

"I teach history at the Girls' Academy of the Holy Saints High School in Tuscaloosa." She hooked a thumb toward her friend. "Tracy teaches home ec."

Leo nearly spewed his beer. It wasn't high etiquette, but it was damn close.

"Ah." Uncle John nodded sagely. "Well, that explains it. And you're right. It was in the eighteen seventies."

"So then"-Sophie's lips pulled down into a frown-"you're kicked out in, what? Five? Ten years?"

"Eh." Uncle John shrugged. "We can't really get kicked out because it was never really ours to begin with. Besides, this crew will have found the Santa Cristina by then." John had moved out to Wayfarer Island under the auspices of "helping" Leo search for the ship. But really Leo suspected the old codger was just bored with retirement and looking to take part in one last hoorah. "And," he continued, "they'll have enough money to buy whatever house or island they want. Am I right, or am I right?"

"Hooyah!" Doc and Romeo whooped in unison, lifting their beers in salute.

Leo didn't join in. He wasn't a superstitious man by nature, but the ghost galleon brought out the avoid-the-black-cat, throw-salt-over-my-shoulder in him, and he didn't want to jinx their chances of finding the wreck by treating it like it was a foregone conclusion. He also didn't like to think that in a few short years he and his uncle would lose the lease on the island that had seen generations of Andersons for spring breaks and summer vacations, for Fourth of July weekends and the occasional Christmas getaway. It wasn't until Leo arrived with his merry band of Navy SEALs that anyone had attempted to live on the island permanently; it was just too isolated.

"And speaking of the crew..." Uncle John said. Crew. Leo rolled the term around in his head and figured right. I reckon that's a label I can work with. "The other half of 'em just called on the satellite phone."

Because when Leo said isolated, he meant isolated. The nearest cell tower was almost fifty nautical miles away. Which begged the question: What the ever-lovin' hell had Tracy and Sophie been thinking to let Romeo sail them out here? They were damned lucky Romeo was a stand-up guy and not some ax murderer. Had Leo felt more obliging, he'd have given the women a well-deserved lecture about the ill-advisedness of hopping onto a catamaran for a four-hour sail with a dusky-skinned gentleman sporting a too-precisely trimmed goatee. But right now, he had more important things to discuss.

"What'd they say?" he asked his uncle, referring to his three friends who'd spent a week across the pond in Seville, Spain.

"They said they finished photocopyin' and digitizin' the images of the documents in the Spanish Archives yesterday afternoon and sent all the data to What's-his-name, that historian you've been talkin' to online."

Online via the Internet connection Leo had established using the satellite he mounted to the top of the house. Because while he and the guys might've been fine to forgo cellular signals, there would have been serious mental and emotional fallout had Mason "Monet" McCarthy not been able to watch his beloved Red Sox play on their lone laptop or Ray "Wolf" Roanhorse not been able to Skype with his bazillion loving relatives back in Oklahoma. And the satellite was one more reason Leo's savings account and the savings accounts of the others were barely in the black.

God, we need a salvage gig. A big one. Because they only had enough funds left to fuel the search for the Santa Cristina for two, maybe three more weeks. And that wasn't going to be enough.

Of course, before they could start advertising their services, they needed to actually incorporate their fledgling business. Which meant paperwork and opening accounts and coming up with a name for their company. Leo was not happy with Romeo's suggestion that they should call themselves Seas the Day Salvage. I mean, he enjoyed a play on words as much as the next guy, but, come on now, that was just bad.

Pushing his cash problems and the long list of things he still needed to accomplish aside, Leo got back to the point at hand. The historian he'd been emailing.

"Like I've told you twenty times before, the guy's name is Alex Merriweather," he scolded his uncle, not pointing out that John had no trouble remembering the names of Sophie and Tracy, two women he'd just met-the lecherous old fart. "And he assures me that if there's anything new to discover in those documents, he's the man who'll find it."

Treasure hunters die old and broke. It was a saying Leo sure as shit didn't want to see come true for him and the guys, which meant he was exploring every possible avenue he could. Including hiring an overpriced historian to go through all the old documents that pertained to the hurricane of 1624 and the fate of the Spanish fleet.

"Hmmph." His uncle made a face. "I doubt some library nerd is goin' to be able to tell you anything more than-"

"So what else did they say?" Leo interrupted, not willing to engage in that argument. Again. "After receivin' the digitized copies, did Alex gave 'em any indication that-"

"Hold on there, Leo, my boy." Uncle John raised the hand not wrapped around his cocktail glass. "Don't let your mind go runnin' around like a gnat in a hurricane. First of all, they didn't go into any detail with me. Second of all, I don't think they've got any details. The sorry sonsofbitches have been stuck on a transatlantic flight all day long. They just landed in Key West a little while ago. They're goin' to rack out there for the night and head here first thing tomorrow mornin'. You'll have to hold your questions until then."

Leo sat back in his chair, frustrated by the delay but comforting himself with another long pull on his beer.

"I need to run to the little girls' room," Tracy suddenly announced. "Want to"-hiccup-"come with me, Sophie?"

After a quick look at Doc, Sophie pushed up from her lawn chair. "Of course," she said, giving the back legs of her Daisy-Duke-style jean shorts a quick tug. It didn't do a damn thing to cover the lower curve of her ass cheeks peeking from beneath the frayed denim.

"I'll show you the way." Romeo bolted up from his chair. The guy knew an opportunity to move things along when he saw one. "You coming, vato?" he asked Doc, one black brow raised meaningfully.

"Be there in a sec," Doc said. The three of them still seated around the fire watched, heads tilted, as Romeo herded the women across the sand toward the house. What? They were all healthy, red-blooded, heterosexual males, and the sight of long, tan legs and sweet, heart-shaped derrieres was not something to be missed.

"Hey, LT," Doc said, taking the toothpick from his mouth, "if you've changed your mind about Sophie, I'll gladly hara-kiri myself."

"You'll what?" Leo turned away from the view.

"You know," Doc snickered. "I'll fall on my sword so she can, uh, fall on yours."

Maybe he really was getting too old, or maybe he just had other things on his mind-not Olivia, not Olivia...okay, probably Olivia-but Leo just couldn't force himself to feel any enthusiasm about the prospect of another meaningless one-night stand. "Thanks for the offer, even as distasteful as you just made it sound." He grimaced. "But believe me when I say she's all yours if you can get her."

"Don't you worry." Doc winked, pushing up from his seat, throwing the toothpick into the fire, and turning toward the rambling old house. "I'll get her."

Yes, sir, Leo figured Doc probably would. After all, a woman had once told him that Doc was the spitting image of some big French actor. And though Leo hadn't the first clue who she was talking about, he figured from her dreamy expression that the comparison was meant to be a compliment. "Me and Uncle John will hang out here. Give you all some time to do your wooin'."

"If that's the case, you may be here all night," Doc boasted. "My wooing has been known to last-"

"Yeah, yeah." Leo waved him off. "Get lost, will you? I'm tired of lookin' at your smug face." And sure enough, Doc's expression became even more...well...smug. Leo grinned because he knew just what to say to get rid of it. "Besides, you stay here too much longer and you may give Romeo time to convince dear, sweet Sophie that a little two-for-the-price-of-one action could be lots of fun."

Doc's grin melted away as he called Romeo a foul name beneath his breath. But to Leo's surprise, Doc didn't hightail it up to house. Instead he angled his head, his eyes searching Leo's face over the glow of the fire.

"Well?" Leo asked. "What are you waitin' for?"

"It, uh..." Doc lifted a hand to scratch his head.

"What's up, bro?" And, yes. More than his men, or his friends, or even his crew, the five guys who'd hitched their wagons to his mule were his brothers. In every way that counted.

"You know, the, uh, the way I see it," Doc said haltingly, "part of our pledge included no more pussyfooting around when it comes to going after the things we really want." Leo watched Doc unconsciously rub the tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. "And it's been obvious since day one that you want Olivia Mortier."

Damn. Just hearing her name spoken aloud made the hairs along the back of Leo's neck stand up.

"So, why don't you send her an email, huh? See if she'll take some time off from The Company to come down here for a little visit." And now that smug smirk was back on Doc's face. "Maybe after she's wobbled your knob a time or two, you'll stop mooning around like a lovesick teenager."

Sonofa-Sometimes it sucked ass living in such close quarters with a group of men trained and tested in the fine art of observation. "Wobble my knob? What are you? Thirteen?"

"Avoiding the question?"

Damnit. "For the record," Leo growled. "I don't want her to wobble my knob, as you so eloquently put it." A voice inside his head warned him his nose would be growing Pinocchio-style any minute now.

All right. So, if he was totally honest, he would have liked to see where things with Olivia were headed. He would have liked to know if all those not-so-subtle flirty looks and that one ball-tightening kiss could have turned into something more-knob wobbling included. Unfortunately, Fate had intervened in the form of the goatfuck of all goatfucks, which had precipitated his exit from the Navy and negated all chances that he'd ever again work in the same arena as one oh-so-tempting Olivia Mortier.

He was a civilian now. And civilians and CIA field agents weren't exactly known to find themselves in a position to mix it up. So even if he could convince her to take a vacation from missiles and mayhem, it's not like there was any real chance at a future for them. After all, the woman was all about the adrenaline high, and he was...well...retired.

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