Authors: Julie Ann Walker
Jesus Christ and all his followers!
Once again her lunch was threatening an encore performance.
“I can knock the beak off a chicken at two hundred yards. Which means I’m gonna give you to the count of three to let that girl go! If you don’t, I’ll send you straight to your Maker with a bullet between your eyes! And then I’ll do the same to your two friends!”
“You’re bluffing!” the tyrant called, still easing Sally Mae backward. The girl’s eyes begged Maddy for help. And it killed her that all she could do was lie there and watch. Her hands, still tied behind her back, curled into claws with the urge to scratch the tyrant’s evil eyes right out of his head.
“I might be bluffing, you miserable, vomitous mass!” Bran yelled.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Really? He’s quotin’
The Princess Bride? “But if you wanna test me,” he added, “I’m your huckleberry!”
And now he’s quotin’
Tombstone. “Last chance to let the girl go!”
The tyrant ignored him and continued to backpedal toward the fort.
True to his word, Bran began to count. “One!” The word exploded over the beach like an atom bomb. “Two!”
Maddy bit her tongue to keep from crying out. In the next second, Bran would let his bullets fly and she prayed he was as good as he claimed to be.
The sand around Bran’s bare feet erupted with a hail of gunfire as the man holding Louisa suddenly turned his aim away from the seawall and opened up on Bran. Bran spun like a top just as the fabric on the left leg of his cargo shorts shredded.
“No!” Maddy screamed when something hot and sticky sprayed across her face. Then the world went black. All the air was punched from her lungs. And a terrible, suffocating weight fell over her.
For a split second she wondered if she was dead.
I get shot in the head? Is this what the afterlife feels like?
Dark, airless pressure?
But then familiar smells tunneled up her nose. Irish Spring soap and Tide laundry detergent. Bran…
He’d thrown himself on top of her, sacrificing himself to shield her from the melee of flying lead.
* * *
Mason McCarthy had seen his fair share of wicked bad situations. And this one here qualified as a top ten. After watching the men and the way they carried themselves, he and Bran really thought that once the fuckheads found themselves in a crossfire situation, they would accept the offer to leave the island, no questions asked. Obviously, he and Bran had given them more credit for smarts than they deserved.
“Fuckin’ hell,” he cursed when another barrage of gunfire bit into the masonry behind his back. But he couldn’t continue to take cover. Bran was in the open and needed his help.
Turkey-peeking around the corner of the seawall, Mason bellied out flat in the sand and gritted his teeth as he laid on his trigger, aiming for the ground at the feet of the masked men, hoping to draw all their fire in his direction and away from the trio on the beach.
The seawall continued to take a beating from the assailants’ lead as the end of his M4 flashed with orange lightning in return. The pressure against his shoulder, not to mention the growing warmth of the metal in his hands, felt wonderfully familiar.
Which just goes to show how far from
He shook off the thought as soon as it hit him. Not because there wasn’t truth in it. But because there
, and it had been one of his ex-wife’s biggest beefs with him. Right behind
you’re never home
you never talk to me.
Ya-huh! On account of me being a fuckin’ SEAL who goes on fuckin’ missions that are fuckin’ classified!
And she’d known that when she married him.
Of course, it’d all seemed very romantic while they were flush with hormones and having sex on every vertical and horizontal surface. But once the honeymoon was over and the hard part of being hitched to a covert operator set in, she’d quickly come to see how truly
romantic it was. He just wished she’d had the guts to divorce him before she turned to another. Because what her duplicity and faithlessness had left him with was a sore on his heart. An open, festering wound that refused to heal.
And what the fuck are you doing thinking about her at a time like this, chowderhead?
he doing thinking about her? She was the past. And his present required all his attention.
He released his trigger for a second, looking for an opening to take out one of the motherfuckers. He wasn’t as good a shot as Bran, but more times than not he could hit what he was aiming at. Unfortunately, the three assailants had made it to the bridge over the moat. And they were smart enough to keep the teenagers in front of them while they continued to lay down covering fire aimed in his general direction.
“Fuckin’ hell!” he cursed again
He waited, counting each round that slammed into the masonry above his head, each steady
of his heart, until the masked men stopped shooting to disappear into the arched entry of the fort. Then he jumped up and zigzagged his way toward the beach in a classic scoot-and-shoot crouched position. But there was no need to shoot. Nothing breached the deafening silence of the island except for the sound of the tide hissing against the sand and the gentle breeze teasing the fronds of the palm trees and making them rattle in delight.
“Bran!” he whispered, edging ever faster through the sand. “Headed your way, bro!”
Of their own accord, his eyes traveled out over the dark water. Out there, anchored far behind the fort, was the catamaran. With the intrepid Alexandra Merriweather on board—that is if she hadn’t already decided to set sail for Wayfarer Island like he’d told her to if she thought there might be any trouble headed her way.
Regardless of whichever outcome she was facing, she was alone in facing it. And the poor woman had to be terrified. She was a pocket-sized historian, for fuck’s sake, not some trained operator.
For one quick second, he was tempted to dive into the surf, swim out to her, and take her in his arms. But the impulse was fleeting. Firstly, because Alex might be a pocket-sized historian, but she was also completely brazen. So even if she
scared, she’d never let him see it, much less welcome his coddling. And secondly, because taking her in his arms, even for that brief moment on the catamaran when she’d jumped in his lap, had reminded him what it was to hold a woman. All soft curves and warm skin and sweet weight and…
He’d sworn off the fairer sex. Which was working out wickedly awesome for him, thank you very much. So he could totally do without being reminded of what he was missing. Especially when that reminder came with an adorable mop of curly red hair and freckles across her nose. Little Orphan Annie all grown up and ready for a man to show her what it was like to—
He shook the image of Alex away at the same time he skidded to a stop beside the people proned out on the beach. At first glance, he thought the blood on the sand beside Bran and Maddy’s pancaked bodies was coming from the corpse sprawled alongside them. Then he realized it was draining from a wound on Bran’s thigh.
“Fuckin’ hell,” he cursed for the third time.
If Bran’s thigh wasn’t barking like a bitch in heat, he was sure he would appreciate the feel of the plump ass wiggling beneath him. As it was, he couldn’t stop himself from growling impatiently, “Maddy! Stop squirming around, damnit!”
He was beginning to imagine himself a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bull. And if she kept gyrating, it wouldn’t be long before his eight seconds were up.
“Get off me, Bran!” she howled, her sweet breath brushing his lips when she turned her head to look at him. “If you get yourself killed bein’ all heroic and brave, I swear on my granddaddy’s grave I’ll murder you!”
He would have pointed out that what she said didn’t make a bit of sense—
How do you murder someone who’s already dead?
—but he felt Mason skid to a stop beside him, kicking cool sand onto the backs of his calves.
“Fuckin’ hell,” he heard the big Bostonian grumble.
Fuckin’ hell is right.
That’s exactly where this plan of theirs had gone.
“They made it into the fort,” Mason said. “Which means in about two minutes they’ll gain the high ground and we’ll be sitting ducks.”
“Roger that,” Bran agreed as he pushed away from Maddy. He immediately missed her soft, feminine warmth. And his eyes automatically pinged down to the…ahem…not insubstantial derriere that’d been giving him such fits.
So sue him. He was a
after all. And for a petite woman, Maddy had an ass that wouldn’t quit, the kind to make all the ’hood girls green with envy. Or as that pop singer Meghan Trainor liked to say, Maddy was
bringing booty back
Amen to that!
“Cut her loose,” Mason said, pulling the matte-black Smith & Wesson Tanto blade from the clip on his waistband and moving toward the park ranger still face-first in the sand.
Bran shook away thoughts of Maddy’s incredible ass and grabbed the K2 tactical folding knife from the sheath he’d strapped around his calf. Before he could put his blade to use, however, Maddy flipped on her side and pushed up to her knees, facing him. Her forehead and cheeks were speckled with blood.
If it was possible for a man to live after having his beating heart ripped out through his chest wall, Bran was doing it.
“You’re hit!” he croaked at the same time she screamed, “He
Her chin jerked back when she registered what he’d said. She looked down at herself, trying to locate her injury, then shook her head angrily. “I’m not hit, damnit!
the one who’s hit!”
blood on her face, numbnuts,” Mason whispered.
“Oh, thank God.” Relief hit Bran so hard he felt dizzy. When he let his head fall back, the stars overhead spun in lazy circles.
“Thank God?” Maddy said. He lowered his chin to find her eyes blazing. “Thank
? Are you crazy? For the love of… Someone cut me loose!”
Before Bran could gather himself, Mason did the honors, skirting around Maddy to slice through her restraints. The minute she was free, her little hands landed on Bran’s face.
The hairs on his arms lifted when her cool fingers smoothed over the skin of his cheeks, his lips, his chin. “Bran.” His name sounded sweet on her tongue. “Oh, my sweet Jesus!” Her Texas twang turned the word
into an adorable-sounding
Before he could suck in a breath, she gripped his thigh on either side of the deep furrow cutting through his flesh. A little pool of his blood was gathering on the sand, mixing with the blood of the man he’d eighty-sixed.
“What do I do?” she cried, her eyes beseeching. “Tell me what—”
“It’s just a flesh wound,” Mason said from beside them, having given the laceration a cursory glance.
“And who are you?” Maddy demanded, turning on the poor guy with a look hot enough to set his face on fire. “Monty Python?”
It hit Bran then. “Man, I really like you,” he blurted.
Maddy turned to him, upside-down mouth hanging open in a little
that was far more tempting than he would have thought possible at a time like this. “I—” She hesitated. “I really like you too, Bran.”
“You got a satphone in that ranger’s station?” Mason asked the young ranger, ignoring them.
Bran was still absorbing the fact that Maddy had admitted to liking him,
But she doesn’t know the real you
, he reminded himself.
She doesn’t know what you have inside you or what that means you’re capable of
—when her fear-tinged expression turned to desperation.
“The ranger’s station? But the girls!” She searched the exterior curtain wall as if she hoped to see the teenagers there. “We have to go get them!”
“First we hafta get off this beach,” Bran told her, hating the way the pulse was hammering in her throat, hating that she was caught in the middle of a hostage situation.
. “They could start taking potshots at us any minute, and storming the fort to save those girls will be a lot easier if Mason and I are both alive.”
“Storming the fort will also be easier once we stop your bleeding,” Mason added.
“Right.” Maddy turned back to Bran. “Can you make it? You’re bleedin’ like a stuck pig.”
He responded with a smirk. “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
“Would you stop doin’ that?” She curled her plump top lip like Elvis. It was a gesture he remembered well. One that made strange things happen to the butterflies that had recently taken up residence in his stomach.
“Quotin’ bad movies at a time like this!”
He gasped exaggeratedly. “You think
is a bad movie?”
Before she could answer, Mason told the park ranger, “Lead the way. But stay low.”
Apparently Mason wasn’t of a mind to hang around and discuss the merits of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s better movies. Considering their current situation, Bran couldn’t blame him.
Grabbing the dead man’s weapon from where it had fallen on the beach, Bran slung the strap over his shoulder before reaching for his M4 and tactical blade. Once he’d shoved the latter into its sheath, he lumbered to his feet and offered a hand to Maddy. When her palm landed in his, he felt a jolt of awareness, like two wires on a car battery suddenly making a connection.
“Are you sure you can make it?” she asked again. Er…
, really. With her eyebrows pulled in a vee and her hands balled on her hips, it was definitely a demand. An adorable,
Before he could reassure her, Mason barked, “Go, go, go!” and they were all suddenly on the move.
Bran lifted his rifle, keeping his sights aimed at the fort and the large embrasures—the openings built into the side of the garrison to allow cannon fire—that peered out at the island and the surrounding waters like dark, malevolent eyes.
The short trip to the little cottage that was the ranger’s station seemed to take an eternity. Bran figured that was partly due to the burning pain in his thigh. But it was also due to his acute—we’re talking
awareness of every move Maddy made. He sensed every stutter in her step. Was attuned to every breath she took. He imagined if he listened really closely, he could probably hear her heart beat.
was how he remembered her, this…hyperawareness. And it was just one of the many reasons he hadn’t wanted to come tonight.
In the three months since he’d last seen her, he’d been able to convince himself he had imagined everything. Chalked up his overwhelming reaction to her to the extreme circumstances under which they’d met. But now that he was back by her side? There was no denying it. That pull, that draw was still there. Still thick in the air between them like a cloud of superpowered pheromones or some shit.
When they finally made it to the ranger’s station, the quiet shuffle of feet scurrying up the stone steps sounded behind him. “Got you covered,” Mason said. “Up and in.”
When Bran turned to make his own way into the ranger’s station, it was to see two things. The first was Mason on the little porch, leaning against the rail that could really use a coat or two of paint—the salty sea air was hell on exteriors—M4 raised and at the ready to provide cover fire should Bran need it. The second was Maddy’s luscious ass at eye level. Had Bran not already been sporting a battlefield boner—adrenaline tended to make a man’s stick and stones perk up—he would have sprung wood at the sight. Her hips swung back and forth with an enticingly feminine
when she hustled through the front door.
“Bran?” She spun around in the threshold. “Hurry!”
To jostle his brain around enough that it could tell his eyes to stop bugging out of their sockets, he had to shake his head like a dog shaking off water.
Oh man. He was in so much trouble. And only
of it was from the dick-lickers in the fort.
* * *
Alexandra Merriweather didn’t know which was worse. The horrifying sound of a real, live, honest-to-goodness gun battle, or this. This oppressive, almost malignant silence that seemed to be spreading with each passing second.
“The silence is worse,” she said aloud, just to hear her own voice and not feel so alone.
When Mason and Bran had armed themselves to the teeth before diving overboard, she’d thought she’d be fine on her own. But now, in the midst of the eerie quiet, the solitude was starting to get to her. The vastness of the sea was daunting. The soft
of the rigging lines against the steel mainmast sounded strangely sinister. And the warm, humid air had become oppressive, pushing in on her until it felt like her lungs were caught in a vise.
“You wait here,” Mason had told her before donning a pair of swim fins, his huge back flexing as he bent at the waist. “The minute we know what’s happening and take control of the situation, we’ll send up this flare.” He’d shown her the flare stick before shoving it into a pocket of his cargo shorts. Then he’d slipped two large…er…what she thought were called
full of bullets into another pocket. Just…easy-peasy, as-you-pleasey. No biggie.
I mean, come on. I knew they were Navy SEALs. But the relevant word here is
“When you see it,” he said, straightening, “you sail on over and get us. You got me?”
She nodded vigorously, unable to talk. Which might’ve been a first.
He searched her eyes then, seeming to hesitate. In those few seconds, she was able to locate her voice. “I got you,” she told him, her tone full of bravado she certainly didn’t feel.
“But if you see another boat,” he continued, his South Boston accent dropping the
sound off the end of the word
“And I mean
boat headed your way, you start the engines and sail straight back to Wayfarer Island. On account of we don’t know who’s out here, and who’s friend or foe. You don’t take any chances—”
“But you and Bran—”
,” he insisted, his eyes like flames. “You don’t worry about us. We can handle ourselves.”
She wanted to argue, unable to stand the thought of turning tail and running, leaving them all alone to face whatever fate waited for them on Garden Key. But arguing wasted precious time. Time when who knew what horrors were being perpetrated on that island. So she nodded and squared her shoulders. But inside she was saying,
This can’t really be happening. This can’t really be happening. This can’t
When Mason chucked her on the chin with a scarred knuckle, she was forced to admit,
Okay, so it’s really happening. Crap on a cracker!
He pitched himself overboard. And she was left with nothing to do but watch him sink beneath the surface of the waves and contemplate the fact he’d
touched her for the very first time, and that their conversation had been the longest and most cordial of their acquaintance. Both struck her as unaccountably sad. Why did it take fully automatic weapons fire and a true life-and-death situation to make them stop taking digs at each other?
It was a question that filled her with a million conflicting emotions. On the one hand, Mason McCarthy was sullen and cantankerous and prone to growling at her like a lion with a thorn stuck in his paw. On the other hand, she couldn’t ignore the appeal of his handsome face.
Oh, not handsome in the traditional sense
. His forehead was too heavy, not to mention perpetually furrowed. His nose was too wide and listed slightly to the left—evidence of a break he had never bothered to fix. And his jaw? Well, his jaw was a mile wide. And if it were any harder or more angular, it’d need to be carved from granite.
But then there are his eyes.
They were crystal blue. Like the water around Wayfarer Island on a sunny, windless day.
And his hair.
She sighed just thinking about it. It was thick and shiny and inky black.
And that’s before you get to his body.
a body. He was so roped with muscle he could’ve been a contender for the WWE. She could easily imagine him throwing an opponent against the ropes or choking out an adversary with his beefy forearm. In short, Mason McCarthy cut a hard, forbidding figure. It was like he’d been built for destruction.
Or something far more pleasurable.
See? Conflicting. That one word precisely described their relationship.
Or in more expansive terms, her girl parts were super interested in his boy parts. But every time he opened his mouth—which, let’s face it, wasn’t very often; a rock communicated more than he ever did—her brain became very annoyed with him.
“Come on, Mason,” she grumbled, lifting the binoculars he’d pressed into her hand.
he’d called them. Through the magnified lenses, she could just make out the back of the fort—Mason had instructed her to sail the boat nearly two miles out to sea. Now she scanned the redbrick expanse for movement. But there was nothing. Not a damn thing.