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"Turn around, lady. I can't see what the hell you're saying!"
From the deck of the Nemesis, Michael Wright attempted to lip-read the conversation onboard the Serendipity four hundred yards away while his boat pitched and yawed with the swell of the waves.
Tally Cruise and Arnaud Bouchard.
The daughter and the right-hand man of his archenemy, Trevor Church.
Now here was an unholy alliance.
The high-powered binocs brought the woman up close and personal. Plain little thing. Stubborn chin. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Surprisingly sensual mouth.
Her timing sucked. Hell, Church wasn't even around. Yet.
Michael had three days before Church's return. Three days to bait and set the trap. Three days, after eleven months of meticulous planning.
Anticipation had kept him motivated. But he wasn't alive. Lieutenant Michael Wright had died on Paradise Island last October. Now the living ghost of the man occupying his shell was ready to write the last chapter and close the book on Church once and for all.
It was as personal as it was unofficial.
Even off the books, this would be his last mission for Uncle Sam. He needed no accolades, no medals, and no acknowledgment. He and his partner had started this a year ago.
Now he was back. Alone.
Failure was not an option.
He was ready. Focused. Intent. A heat-seeking missile targeted on Church's destruction. The long months of preparation had come down to mere days. The hours ticking away like a metronome in his brain.
Bouchard grabbed Tally about the waist and tried to kiss her. Ms. Cruise pushed out of the guy's arms, then hauled off and slapped him. Hard.
"Ow." Michael winced. "That's gotta hurt."
Apparently it did. She shook her hand, her slender shoulders stiff as she turned away. Gait unsteady because of the rough seas, she continued gesturing as she paced.
Talking. Animated. Pissed.
He readjusted the binoculars for a better view. "Better" being the operative word. He almost didn't notice the absence of his left eye.
The increasing swells three miles out from Paradise Island sent the two yachts bobbing like opposite ends of a teeter-totter. The cork action didn't help Michael's lousy depth perception. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, things were about to get worse.
Considerably worse, if NOAA's prediction of category three monsoon winds slamming into the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands by late afternoon was accurate.
As soon as he'd learned of the approaching typhoon, Michael had integrated it into his plans. What he hadn't incorporated was the presence of the young woman on the other boat.
"Damn. Turn around again, honey, so I can see what you're saying," Michael complained. "Not that you don't have a sweet ass." The view from the back, in fact, was prime. Her slender hands punctuated her words. She stormed all the way to the rail near the bathing platform at the stern, then made an about-face with military precision and started the circuit all over again.
Her curly black hair bounced around her head in the gathering wind. Navy slacks hid the shape of her long legs, but did great things for a truly spectacular ass. The wind pressed her neatly tucked white shirt against small, high breasts and a flat stomach.
His libido had flat-lined way back. But it wasn't dead after all. Not if he could still appreciate a great ass. The shrinks had talked to him about depression before the navy cut him loose. Hell, he wasn't depressed. For months nothing had held his interest for long. If he'd had the energy to be anything, it would've been pissed.
At least now he was doing something about it. He lacked the official backing of Uncle Sam, but he had other players on his dance card if he needed them. None of whom had to play by the rules.
Michael's fingers tightened on the binocs as he readjusted the focus on Bouchard's reaction to the boss's daughter's harangue. Bouchard laid a conciliatory hand on her shoulder. She swatted it away. "Honest to God, Tal, I do" his hand went up to sweep hair off his face"believe me?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah," Michael bitched, wedging the fishing pole between his feet to keep it from sliding to the deck. "Whatever you're selling, she's not buying, pal. Kiss her ass and call it a day."
Michael had taken time early that morning to batten down the hatches and trim the sails in preparation for the building storm. He anticipated nine- to twelve-foot storm surges and hundred-mile-an-hour-plus winds. The sooner he got out of the direct path, the better.
He'd made a huge pot of coffee, stored it safely in a large Thermos, and had built a pile of man-size sandwiches and sealed them in a waterproof Baggie.
The Nemesis consisted of forty-five feet of high-tech beauty. Built of fiberglass, with an Airex foam core, she was lightweight and strong. While he prepared for this trip, Michael and his inventor-of-cool-gadgets-brother-in-law, Jake Dolan, had outfitted the Nemesis with some exceptional toys. Consequently, Michael was ready for anything.
He'd meticulously scripted the next couple of days: limp into port, drag out repairs, reconnoiter the small island, find his target, and wait like a fat, hairy spider to ensnare Church in the web he'd meticulously woven.
Running into the daughter and the second in command, like ducks in a shooting gallery out here, might prove to be a bonus. Especially if they'd cooperate and say something interesting.
"Come on. Come on. Come on. Give me a frigging clue what you two are up to, would you?" Ten minutes. If they didn't reveal anything useful, he'd call it a wash and head into the shelter of the harbor, and go from there.
He wasn't prepared to risk the Nemesis. Church had already taken way too much from him as it was. If those two wanted to sink in the coming storm, they could have at it. Two less people for him to keep tabs on later.
Michael had intentionally positioned the Nemesis to be as inconspicuous as possible as a silhouette against the horizon. And although it was only early afternoon, the low, dark sky gave every appearance of dusk. He slapped the binocs up to his eye.
"Say something worth listening to, damn it. I don't give a crap if you drown. But it's my frigging worst nightmare. So turn the hell around and talk to me."
He attributed his accelerated heartbeat and sweaty palms to the relentless approach of the typhoon. The wind felt cool on his wet skin. Hell. Even a rational man would give pause when faced with a monsoon.
Thanks to Church it was fucking more than that for Michael. He kept his gaze locked on the other boat and not on the broody, malevolent, almost black water that stretched into infinity. The sea wasn't a woman to him. It was a man-eating, man-mutilating monster.
Christ, he'd lived with night sweats and day demons for months, and in the process developed a phobia bigger than the Titanic.
Michael snorted. A Navy SEAL afraid of the sea. . . .
Well, screw that for a joke.
"Danger, danger Will Robinson," Michael muttered, getting a firm grip on the seat of his chair as the Nemesis went up one side of a wave, and down into a deep trough before bobbing back to the crest. The fishing pole clattered to the deck as a frothy wave washed over the side, dousing his legs with water.
An icy sweat formed on his skin. He ignored it.
Que sera sera.
If this trip didn't cure his irrational fears, nothing would. He'd purposely surrounded himself with what he feared the most: water.
It was a last-ditch, drastic act. The sea was either going to kill, or cure him.
And right now the former was a distinct possibility. . . .
Water foamed across the deck and drained back into the ocean, leaving a malevolent gleam on the boards. He swallowed hard.
Tally turned. Michael could once again see her face. "So full of it," he repeated, reading the lady's furiously moving lips. She had a pretty mouth. A mouth that was going to be sucking up seawater if they didn't hurry up and do whatever-the-hell they were going to do before this storm hit.
Tally fell into her erstwhile lover as a wave broadsided their boat. She shoved away from him as soon as she caught her balance.
"Six minutes and counting," Michael guesstimated aloud. "Then I'm outta here. What the hell kind of name is 'Tally,' anyway?" he asked the three-legged cat, who'd jumped onto his lap, walked the plank of his thighs, and now stood, legs braced, on Michael's outstretched legs. Sharp claws dug into his shins. Black fur combed by the stiffening breeze, Lucky's ragged ear twitched in response.
Michael repositioned his feet on the teak railing; Lucky adjusted his weight accommodatingly. "Tally Ho? Tally up to the bar? No, that's belly up to the bar, isn't it? Which is where the hell we should be right npull in your claws or get off my damn leg, Cat!"
Tally Ho said something. Bouchard shook his head and put an arm around her shoulders. The lady didn't like the contact and shoved him away.
Bouchard abruptly left her side and went below. Tally braced her arms on the brass railing of the Serendipity and glared up at the grayish purple sky. The movement did interesting things to her breasts. Michael let the rising wave shift the binoculars to where Bouchard had disappeared.
He'd be a hell of a lot happier watching this storm from inside a comfortable hotel room than this up close and personal. He had a few other kinks to work out over the next several days other than recon.
The hatch on the other boat opened. Tally ignored Bouchard as he emerged and skulked around the wheelhouse and out of sight. What was he up to? And where was the crew needed for a boat the size of the Serendipity? There had to be at least one, preferably three, hands aboard. Probably below, keeping out of the danger zone. The Serendipity's sails should've been set an hour ago, but they billowed with the force of the wind, straining at the anchor and mast. Those poor fools. They should've headed back to the island before now. It didn't make any sense for them to be this far from shelter for no reason. Not in this weather.
"Dumbshits," Michael muttered, standing up. "No reason why we have to be out here risking our asses to keep tabs on morons, is there, Luck?"
But, damn it, Bouchard was up to something. A sixth sense prickled. Pins and needles for Michael's atrophied soul. He leaned forward, raising the binocs for a final look before heading out to sea to race the storm.
With no warning, a ball of flame erupted from the sea, blowing the Serendipity to smithereens.
The boom of the explosion beat back the wind a fraction of a second later. With a screech, Lucky flew off Michael's legs as the Nemesis leaped in the violent backwash caused by the explosion.
Flaming wreckage flew high and wide, until the luxury yacht was nothing but floating debris burning on the water.
Michael braced himself as the Nemesis rocked violently with the impact. "Sonofabitch!" He sure as hell hadn't seen that one coming.
Dazed, Tally fought her way to the choppy surface, lungs burning, vision blurred, heart pounding. She rode the swells gasping for air and trying to figure out what had just happened.
One moment she'd been standing at the railing, waiting for Arnaud; the next . . . she was in the water. "Arnaud?" she shouted. "Hey! Arnaud!"
Chunks of flaming boat bobbed several yards away. She kicked off her remaining shoe and frantically scanned the charcoal-colored waves for a sign of Arnaud's bright head. And what about the crewman who'd been below? With his black hair and dark skin the other man was going to be almost impossible to spot. Oh, God. What was the other guy's name?
"Lu! Haere mai!" Oh, God. Oh. God.
Tally did a full circle, riding the waves, trying not to panic as she searched for the two men, and kept as far away from burning bits and pieces as she could. She didn't want to think about how deep the water was, or how high the waves had become. Or what might be swimming in the murky depths beneath her.
Terrified, she swam as close to the fiery wreckage as she dared. Cold water chilled her body even as the fire heated her face. There was no piece of flotsam bigger than a surfboard. And pretty much everything that wasn't burning was sinkingfast. Most of the flames came from floating fuel, which did not reassure her.
She spat out a mouthful of water, coughed, and pushed her hair out of her eyes. A thrill of trepidation shivered through her at how tired she was already. She hoped to God there weren't any sharks around. She might not be a good swimmer, but she was a strong swimmer. Of course that didn't mean she could outswim a hungry shark.
Tally drew up her legs reflexively. Waiting for a wave to crest, she kicked upward and tried to spot Arnaud and Lu.
Both men might very well have died in the explosion. And if she trod water much longer, she'd be equally dead. Since Arnaud's favorite expression was "every man for himself," she reluctantly started swimming toward one of the boats she'd seen earlier. With help, she'd try to find him. If the adage "only the good die young" held any truth, Arnaud Bouchard was healthy, happy, and already swimming to shore. Tally hoped the crewman was with him.
By the time she reached the other boat she was exhausted and out of breath. Dark, storm-tossed waves pummeled her as if trying to shove her away from the boat. Salt spray blinded her; water rushed down her throat. She reached out, smacking her arm into the side of the craft.
With numb fingers, Tally gripped the rim of a porthole. Now what? She couldn't scale the side of the boat without assistance. She cried out as a wave dashed her painfully against the hull, then dragged her beneath the surface. Coughing and spluttering, she fought her way back to the top, lungs on fire.
"Help!" Futile. The wind howled, the waves slammed against the hull, and the world sounded like it was ending in a roar. She spat out a mouthful of salty water and held on. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the flames and black smoke of the Serendipity smudging into the low, dark cloud cover.
Tally shuddered, really, really frightened now as the waves buffeted her and the muscles in her arms trembled from the strain of holding on. Her fingers were beyond numb. She couldn't hold on forever.
She did a visual search of the length of the boat, trying to figure out how she was going to climb aboard. Where the hell was the ladder? Her grasping fingers slipped off the porthole. She kicked frantically to stay afloat, ignoring the ache in her thighs. Should've kept up that gym membership.