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Authors: Julie Ann Walker

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BOOK: Hot as Hell (The Deep Six)
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Oh, and she also needed to keep from revisiting the corned beef sandwich she’d had for lunch all over the beach…

When Louisa glanced at her, Maddy rolled in her lips and nodded, hoping to convey confidence.
Concerned
confidence, but confidence nonetheless. She must have come close to hitting the mark because Louisa dipped her chin, squared her shoulders, and tightened her hold around Sally Mae, who was quietly sniffling and trying her best not to flat-out cry.

“Stop blubbering!” one of the four men who’d stormed the island thundered at Sally Mae. For a couple of seconds after the fishing vessel dropped anchor, Maddy and Ranger Rick had simply stood there like a couple of lollygaggers wondering who the new arrivals could be. Well…
Rick
had stood there wondering. Something had told Maddy it wasn’t Bran. And since it
wasn’t
Bran, any curiosity she’d had about the newcomers was overshadowed by the large crack of disappointment that opened up in her heart.

That large crack of disappointment had quickly been replaced by a huge fissure of terror when, through the gathering darkness, she’d watched four hooded figures board a dinghy and zoom toward her, white water rooster-tailing from their outboard engine and the sound of gunfire echoing across the beach as they aimed their weapons in the air.

“Get to the ranger’s station!” Rick had yelled.

Despite a heart frozen with fear, Maddy had sprung into action, racing after him to the spot on the beach where the girls had been in the process of setting up their gear. She’d herded them in front of her on the mad dash to the tiny cottage at the end of the beach. They’d just piled through the front door—Rick making a beeline for the satellite phone in the corner—when the scary-looking masked gunmen wielding even scarier-looking machine guns burst in and ordered them all to halt.

“Run!” Maddy had screamed to the teens, throwing herself in the line of fire as the girls raced for the back door. But Louisa was the only one who made it out of the cottage. After a ten-minute chase around the tiny island, she’d been marched back to join the group already under guard. A few minutes after that, the gunmen had paraded them all back to the beach. Now the girls were huddled together, kept in a tight mass by two of the balaclava-wearing assailants.

They’re just kids!
Maddy wanted to scream, rage boiling in her chest like a teakettle getting ready to blow.
Stop pointin’ those things at them!
But she wisely kept her mouth shut because a third gunman was keeping her dead center in his sights. As for the fourth masked man? Well, he was busy aiming the business end of his weapon at Rick.

“On your knees!” Masked Man Four yelled at Rick. “Get on your fucking knees!” He punctuated his order by jabbing Rick in the kidney with the barrel of his weapon, causing Rick to cry out.

“Lord Almighty! Take it easy!” Maddy yelled, unable to stop herself. “He’ll do what you say! Just give him a chance!”

She nodded at Rick as he sank down, hands still raised above his head. Each of her breaths came hard and fast. Her knees felt as liquid as the tepid wave that crawled up the beach to swirl around her ankles for a couple of seconds, leaving a crab to scuttle after it when it retreated back across the sand.

“All of you, put your hands behind your backs!” Masked Man Four bellowed. Then he sucked his teeth like he had something stuck in them. It was a tic. A disgusting habit that left a sour taste on Maddy’s tongue.

Or maybe that’s just fear
, she decided, complying with his command.

When she felt her captor tighten a zip tie around her wrists—his hands were warm, sweaty, but his touch chilled her to the bone—she was brought back around to her original thought…

I can’t believe this is happenin’ again!

“I said
shut up!
” The guy—correction: the
asshole
—who’d yelled at Sally Mae bellowed at the teen again, causing Sally Mae’s mouth to gape open like an ugly wound even when no other sound emerged.

“Don’t you holler at her!” Maddy shouted. Then she winced when Masked Man Four left Rick to take a menacing step in her direction.

Full darkness had fallen. The only light on the island glowed from the crescent moon, the few spotlights on the seawall surrounding the moat, which in turn surrounded the fort, and the small lighthouse atop the garrison that warned away passing vessels. But all combined, it was enough illumination to show the threat in the man’s eyes as he leaned close.

“In case you missed it, honey…” His words were slightly muffled because the balaclava he wore was ninja style. The kind that covered everything but his eyes. Even so, she heard him clearly enough and thought,
Oh, no, he did
not
just honey me!
“You’re not calling the shots here.
We
are. So keep that pretty mouth of yours shut, or I might be tempted to put it to better use.” He sucked his teeth again, and Maddy was reminded of the sound a rattlesnake made when it readied itself to strike.

“Don’t you h-hurt her!” Rick gritted.

Masked Man Four—apparently he was the leader since he was doing most of the talking—looked over at Rick, his eyes cold and dark and devoid of any human emotion. Rick swallowed and tried his best to hold the masked man’s gaze. In the end, he couldn’t manage it. He dropped his eyes to the sand in front of him, his dark hair shadowing his face.

“That’s what I thought.” Masked Man Four nodded, his voice cold enough to freeze an open flame. Then he turned his attention to his cohorts. “I think we’re finally ready.”
Suck, suck.
Maddy was fairly certain she was going to hear that sound in her nightmares.

“Time to head out to the boat?” The other man who was guarding the girls spoke for the first time, his Southern accent thick and telling of a youth spent south of the Mason-Dixon Line. If Maddy had to make a guess, she’d say Georgia or Alabama.

Of course, where he grew up wasn’t important because…
The boat? Oh, sweet Jesus!
She knew the worst possible thing she could do was allow the masked men to take them to a secondary location. That was pretty much How To Survive Attempted Abduction 101.

“Please,” she beseeched Masked Man Four. Like the Temptations sang, she wasn’t too proud to beg. “If it’s money you want—”

“I warned you what I’d do if you didn’t keep your pretty mouth shut, didn’t I?”
Suck, suck.
The barrel of Masked Man Four’s machine gun was suddenly an inch from Maddy’s nose. Her eyes crossed when she attempted to stare down its black throat.

It was hard to determine if the
whooshing
sounds she heard were the waves shushing against the beach or her own blood pounding in her ears. She stopped trying to figure it out when the strangest thing happened. Movement in the surf caught her attention. And if her hands hadn’t been tied behind her back, she would’ve used them to rub her eyes.

Suddenly he was there.

Like the great god Poseidon himself rising from the sea, water sheeting off his dark head and broad shoulders. Her friend. Her hero. The man who had stormed into her life like a hurricane.

Bran…

Chapter 4

7:15 p.m.…

“Throw away your weapons, dickholes!” Bran bellowed, aiming at the guy who was drawing down on Maddy’s head.

Seeing her in mortal danger made something click inside him. Something that was black of heart and sharp of claw. Something he’d inherited from his bastard of a father.

It was a side of himself he tried to keep hidden, keep buried. But there were times like this when he gladly let it go free. It roared and slashed, filling him with deadly purpose.

Battle mode
is what LT called it.

Bran simply called it his monster.

It consumed all the light and laughter in him and left only darkness and death. But it was what had kept him alive through too many blood-soaked missions to count. And
hopefully
, it was what was going to help him save the five innocent people on the beach.

“Bran!” Maddy choked, her Texas accent splitting his name into two syllables:
Brae-yan.
Her wide, heavily lashed eyes threatened to suck him in like a whirlpool when he gave her a cursory glance. “You came!”

I will always fly to your side with all the courage and destruction in my heart!

Whoa. Where the hell had
that
come from? But he knew. It was his monster. The thing was pure, red-eyed emotion.

He forced himself to ignore the catch in her voice and instead slid his gaze to the two men who’d been guarding the girls. They’d swung their SCAR-L rifles in his direction the instant he issued his command, and the way the dick-lickers handled the assault weapons told him they weren’t amateurs.

But he already knew that.

For the first ten minutes after stealthily making landfall, he and Mason had slunk around the island, watching. Watching as the mysterious team assembled their hostages. Observing the way they carried themselves. Cataloging all those details both big and small that would eventually give them the advantage. Like…the short, mouthy dude favored his right knee.
There’s an injury there that can be exploited
. Like…the asshole with the Southern accent had trouble using his nondominant left hand.
So if it comes down to CQB—
close quarters combat
—always approach from his weaker side.
All of this they’d filed away. And all the while formulating a plan.
This
plan.

“You drop
your
weapon!” the dude still drawing down on Maddy thundered. Bran knew two angry, red laser dots glowed on his chest. He imagined he could feel them there, boring, burning, inciting the darker side of him until his blood was a conflagration coursing through his veins, his heart a fiery fist that pounded flames through his chest.

“I’ll give you one more chance!” he yelled, feeling the warm waves crashing against the backs of his calves. A blade of seaweed slipped by his ankle, slick as an eel. “Drop your weapons and you might live!”

His finger twitched on the trigger. It would be so easy. Just a couple of pounds of pressure. Just a gentle contraction of familiar muscles against familiar resistance and
bang!
Done. One less evil piece of shit on the Earth.

“Ha!” The guy who seemed to be the leader cracked a laugh that echoed over the dark water. “In case you haven’t noticed, asswipe, you’re outnumbered!” He made a weird sucking noise against his teeth, like he was trying to remove a piece of stuck spinach.

Asswipe, eh? Careful,
gavone,
or I might make you eat that insult along with that spinach.

“I count four against one.” Bran hitched one shoulder casually. “Which means you’ll overwhelm and kill me in the end. But not before I take one of you with me.” He jerked his chin toward Lead A-Hole. “I’m thinking I’ll make
you
that one.”

The man must have heard the truth in Bran’s tone. Bran could see his throat work over a hard swallow behind the fabric of the balaclava.

That’s right. Go ahead and make my day.

Before Lead A-Hole had a chance to respond, a red dot appeared on the chest of the man with the bum knee.

Mason.
Impeccable timing, my friend.

“Uh-oh.” Bran tsked. “I hate to hafta tell you… No, wait. I
love
having to tell you that the odds just swung in my favor.”

“What the—?” The guy glanced down at the gleaming dot centered directly over his heart. Bran watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened. “What’s going on here? Who
are
you motherfuckers?” He lifted his chin to Bran. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask
you
the same questions,” Maddy piped up. And
there
she was. The loudmouthed dynamo Bran had come to know and…lust after. Only, right now she needed to shove a sock in it. “Who are
you?
And what do you want with us?”

“None of that matters,” Bran insisted. When Maddy turned to him, he sent her a look. Her lips flattened, the upper one protruding just past the lower. But she kept her mouth shut. That big, beautiful, Julia Roberts upside-down mouth of hers with the top lip plumper than the bottom. The mouth he’d kissed on that hot night three months ago. The mouth that…

You stupid
pazzo, he scolded himself.
Now’s not the time!

“What
matters
,” he continued, “is that you find yourselves in the middle of a crossfire situation. And judging by the way you jackholes carry those SCAR-Ls, you know a little bit about military tactics. Which means you
also
know that being caught in the middle of a crossfire situation means you could be dead as shit in about ten seconds if you don’t
drop your weapons
!”

Maddy blinked rapidly, and then she did the damndest thing. She grinned. At him. And it was all blinding and brilliant and
you’re my hero.

Well, shit.

He watched as the leader glanced over at the guy sporting a shiny red dot on his chest. Bran decided to throw in a little more incentive. “Look. We don’t wanna hurt you. We just want you to let these good people go. And then we’ll let
you
go. No questions asked. So what’d’ya say you toss those rifles on the sand, hightail it back to your boat, and we’ll forget this ever happened,
capisce
?”

Lead A-Hole darted a glance around, seeming to search for another way out. Part of Bran hoped he’d try something—the dark, angry,
bloodthirsty
part of him. But Maddy was downwind of a Category 5 shitstorm—a.k.a. having a full auto aimed at her cute nose—so the other part of him just wanted to get rid of these mysterious hooded men as bloodlessly and expediently as possible so he could run and gather her in his arms.

Which, when he took a tick to think about it, scared him spitless. That need to protect her. That need to touch her. That need to…

If I get my hands on her—
when
I get my hands on her—I won’t ever wanna let her go.

A hot sense of possessiveness gripped him, which immediately sent a cold, spidery feeling crawling into his chest. He might have fallen victim to old memories if Lead A-Hole hadn’t picked that moment to make a move. It was subtle. Just a slight sliding of his left foot behind his right. But Bran recognized the stance. His internal warning system flashed from yellow to red.

Sonofabastard’s in a hurry to be a dangerous man.

Combat training and years of dodging bullets kicked in. Bran dropped to his knees in the surf at the same time Lead A-Hole swung his rifle in Bran’s direction, pulling the trigger. A bullet whizzed by Bran’s ear with a dull-sounding
zzziiippp
followed immediately by the booming report of the SCAR-L.

The trigger on Bran’s M4A1 rifle was worn smooth. It felt like coming home when he squeezed it and the weapon bucked against his shoulder. The familiar smell of spent cordite perfumed the air as his bullet left his barrel.

He wasn’t labeled one of the best sharpshooters ever to go through BUD/S training for nothing. His aim proved true, and his round buried itself in Lead A-Hole’s wicked heart. The man’s eyes flew wide, the whites shining eerily when he realized he was dead.

He had the wherewithal to wheeze “Can’t breathe,” and yank off his balaclava before he fell to his knees, gripping the hole in his chest. Dark blood spurted between his fingers with every ineffectual beat of his heart. And a face that was all-American GI Joe stared at Bran, mouth going slack, eyes going glassy. Then he tumbled onto his back, staring sightless into the star-studded sky.

I warned you
, Bran thought.

The guy with the bum knee gaped at his fallen comrade. “You sorry
sonofabitch!
” he screeched at Bran, his lips moving behind the fabric of the balaclava, his eyes narrowed and filled with fury.

Bran wished he could say he was sorry. But he wasn’t. The death of men who tried to kill him had ceased to make a dent in his psyche years ago. Not to mention he was completely convinced that any rat bastard who took women and children hostage at gunpoint deserved nothing better than a dirt nap.

He readied himself to dive beneath the surf to escape the bullet sure to leave Bum Knee’s SCAR-L in the next second. But Mason came to his rescue, lighting up the sand at Bum Knee’s feet. Mason didn’t dare try for a body shot for fear of hitting one of the teenagers. And Bran was left with no clear line of sight either.

Damn!

“Get down! Get
down!
” Maddy screamed at the girls as she dropped to her knees.

Unfortunately, her call came too late. The remaining men each grabbed a girl, using her as a human shield against Bran while they turned and opened fire on Mason’s position behind the seawall. Their rounds chewed up the aging masonry like it was made of Play-Doh. And Mason was left with no recourse but to do the ol’ D and C—duck and cover.

Bran, on the other hand, surged through the surf toward Maddy in an attempt to gain a better firing position and, you know,
save the girl

* * *

7:19 p.m.…

Chaos…

That was Maddy’s world. Even so, time seemed to slow to a lame man’s crawl and she felt like she was seeing everything through one of those children’s 3D View-Master toys. She wasn’t pressing the little handle on the side to spin the disk of pictures, but the frames were still flicking in front of her unblinking eyes.

The body of the unmasked man lay on the sand beside her. Blood slowly seeped from his lifeless corpse and headed in a gruesome red river toward the waiting arms of the ocean.

Next picture…

The three gunmen rained lead death on the seawall as they pulled the girls with them up the beach and toward the narrow bridge that led across the moat into the fort.

Next picture…

Bran raced through the surf. His broad shoulders, exposed by his black tank top, flexed and bunched. His big thighs churned as he halved the distance between them.

Even in the chaos, she was struck by the sheer impact of him. Long, lean muscles made for endurance. Big, thick bones designed to keep him standing tall for decades. Deeply tanned skin that glowed with health and vigor and highlighted his Italian-American heritage. Her mind touched on a line she’d read from an Italian poet in college, Francesco Petrarca. He’d written,
Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together.
But he couldn’t have been more wrong. At least when it came to Brando Pallidino. Because Bran was all things beautiful and virtuous, a real-life, honest-to-God hero.

Glory be and hallelujah!
She
needed
a hero to help her get the girls away from those awful men.

He skidded to a stop beside her. And then her world stopped doing that weird stop-action thing. Everything sprang into high definition. Including Bran’s face.

Before he turned to take aim at the masked men, she caught a glimpse of his dark eyes, and her thundering heart ground to a halt, her blood turning to ice water in her veins. She recognized that look. It was the same one he’d worn the day he stormed her father’s yacht and put a bullet in the brain of the terrorist holding her hostage. The look of a man who
had
killed and
would
kill again. A man filled with dark purpose. A man who…frightened her.

Which was silly. Bran was all things good and valiant. And yet…

She shuddered at the difference between
this
Bran and the one who talked her through her bad times, the one who liked to tease her and taunt her and fill her inbox with videos of Meat, the bulldog, snoring so loudly it vibrated the canine’s jowls. It was almost like there were two Brans: Darling Bran and Deadly Bran.

“Flat on the ground!” he bellowed over his shoulder at her and Rick.

From the corner of her eye, Maddy saw the young park ranger face-plant. Bran in full-on SEAL mode was not the type of guy you ignored. And as much as she despised getting sand stuck between her teeth, she belly-flopped right alongside Rick. The beach was cold and wet and smelled of fish. The tiny, crushed shells interspersed with the sand scratched her cheek when she turned her head to keep her eyes focused on the helter-skelter scene.

“Let ’em go!” Bran thundered, his deep voice echoing over the dark water and bouncing against the brick walls of the fort and the seawall.

“Go fuck yourself, you sonofabitch!” the tyrant who’d been terrorizing Sally Mae, and who now held her in front of him, shouted between the intermittent volleys his cohorts sprayed at the seawall in an effort to pin down the Deep Six Salvage crewman who was obviously hiding there.

“Let the girls go, or end up like your friend here!” Bran yelled.

As if to punctuate his point, or else simply to add insult to injury, he nudged the dead man’s body with his foot. The move caused fresh blood to erupt from the wide hole in the corpse’s chest. More dribbled from his slack mouth to pool in the ear closest to Maddy. It was so dark and thick that it reflected the glow of the moon.

BOOK: Hot as Hell (The Deep Six)
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