Authors: Julie Ann Walker
She swallowed, staring into his wonderful face, trying
to read the blatant affection shining in his eyes.
“That you would change my life.”
Oh, good gracious.
“Michael, I don’t want—”
“And not that I ever thought you were a uniform junkie or anything.” Unfortunately, there were women out there who chased soldiers just for the thrill or prestige of bagging a guy who bore his nation’s medals. Growing up an Air Force brat, she’d met her fair share of them. “But all the same, you have no idea how happy it makes me to hear it’s me—
, Michael Wainwright—and not the Navy SEAL you like so much.” He grabbed her chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Because you see, me and the boys are cashing in our chips after this mission.”
Harper’s breath hitched. Digging a finger in her ear, she shook her head. “I’m sorry. What did you just say?”
“You heard me. We’re bugging out. Finished. Done. Kissing the Navy good-bye and going back to live in Civilian-ville.”
No, no. It was just too good to be true. “But…
A shadow passed over his face, a subtle muscle flexing in his jaw beneath his beard. He dropped his hand from her face, and her chin immediately missed the contact. “It’s a really long story,” he sighed. “And I promise to tell you someday. But suffice it to say, there was a bad mission, a vow to a dying friend, and the realization that maybe there is more to life than sorties and submachine
As the words fell from his lips, the small spark of hope that had ignited in her chest at his first mention of cashing in his chips turned into a flame. “So y-you’re—” She had to stop and lick her lips before she tried again. “You’re really quittin’ the Navy?”
“Roger that.” And if there’d ever been two more beautiful words in the whole English language, she’d never heard them.
A million questions grew wings and flew through her mind. Which was why she was surprised when the first one she landed on was, “But what’ll you all do?”
For the life of her, she couldn’t imagine the seven SEALs she’d come to know over the past six months as anything other than gun-slinging, mission-taking, hard-assed frogmen. She cocked her head, trying to envision Michael in a polo shirt. It just didn’t work.
“Well, the other guys are headed down to the Florida Keys to take over the marine salvage business LT’s father left behind when he died. They think they’ll either make a go of it or else find a legendary missing treasure and as Chris Rock would say,
She blinked, did a double take, then blinked some more. “I’m sorry. Did you just say missing treasure? As in,
He laughed. She could feel the deep vibration in her chest, right where that flame of hope was burning bright. “I suppose it’s something like that.”
“But not you?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Not me. You know I grew up in Atlantic City, yeah?” She nodded. “Well, one thing that place taught me is that the odds are stacked against you when you gamble on the big payout. So, they can go try their hands at treasure hunting. As for me? I figure I’ll take some time off first. And then I’ll take over my father’s job as the head of the family ship-building business. The man has been on my ass for years to come home so he can retire and—”
The phone in the wall jangled emphatically, the little yellow light blinking its interruption.
“Hold that thought,” he said, walking over to pull open the door to the cubbyhole. Lifting the phone’s receiver to his ear, he barked one word. “Go.”
She watched his eyes sharpen as he listened to whatever was being said, still feeling a little numb and disoriented from the bomb he’d just dropped. But she didn’t have time to pull her spinning thoughts together, because he quickly hung up and walked to the door. Twisting the lock, the safe room opened up with a
. And there was Bran Pallidino standing on the other side of the door.
“All clear?” Michael asked him, turning toward the table to re-arm himself and don the rest of his gear.
“You betcha.” Bran nodded, his eyes quickly taking in Harper’s bare feet and the fact that Michael’s hair was sticking up every which way, proof her fingers had been buried there not too long ago. When the guy’s teeth flashed white against his dark beard, she felt her cheeks heat. Luckily, he refrained from commenting on the obvious and instead went with, “The TTP holding O’Leary hostage came out of the offices. I think they thought if they used the ambassador as a human shield, they’d be able to escape the embassy. They were quickly taken down.”
He made it sound easy. But Harper was smart enough to know it had probably been anything but.
Michael did, too. Evidenced by his next question. “All the guys okay?”
Bran winked. “No worries. We’re all as pretty as we ever were.”
“And the ambassador?” she asked. Because even though the yellow-bellied ol’ fart had been happy to throw her to the wolves, O’Leary was still her
“Safe,” Bran said, and she heaved a sigh of relief. “The building is clear. And the wounded Marines are being evaced. It’s over.”
Michael moved to stand beside her and, as always, his heat reached out to her in a soft caress. “That’s good,” he said, handing over her shoes. She dropped them to the floor, quickly stepping into them. “So then we’re ready to blow this popsicle stand, yeah?”
“More than that.” Bran’s grin widened. “We’re ready to blow this whole friggin’ country. Word from Washington says the embassy will be shut down immediately, and all personnel are to report back stateside. You know what that means,
? We’re outta here!”
Michael’s smile lit up his whole face, and he and Bran exchanged high fives. Then he turned to her, his expression sobering as he held out his hand. “Harper, I think you might want to keep your eyes closed while we exit, okay?”
She swallowed, knowing there were things out there she didn’t want to see—namely, the numerous bodies of the Taliban fighters that the Navy would no doubt take out to sea and deep six, Osama Bin Laden–style. Couldn’t leave them behind to be buried so that other radical militants could make shrines of their graves. Lacing her fingers through his, she screwed her eyes shut and nodded her readiness to be led from the room.
But he didn’t guide her toward the door. Instead he leaned close, his warm breath ruffling the hair near her temple. “So what do you say? You want to try being civilians together?”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” she asked, her heart so full of hope and anticipation it was a wonder the silly, lovesick organ didn’t burst wide open. “I say
And when she stepped out of the panic room with Michael at her side, she knew she was stepping into the future she’d always dreamed about…
Order Julie Ann Walker’s second book
in the Deep Six series
Devil and the Deep
On sale July 2016
Read on for a sneak peek of
Devil and the Deep
Named one of the most anticipated
romance novels of 2016 by BookPage!
June 9, 1624…
The silent cry rang inside his head as sweat slipped down the groove of his spine like a snake oozing along a vine. His cracked rib protested every laboring breath against air thick with humidity and the sickly sweet aroma of fallen vegetation that rotted in the baking sun. And his heart…
His heart screamed for the blood of his enemies.
Bartolome Vargas, King Philip of Spain’s most decorated sea captain, instinctively reached for the short sword he kept in a scabbard on his belt, malice swimming through his veins like a living creature. But his searching fingers found no blade, just dry, cracking leather. Two weeks ago, his trusty cutlass had been swallowed by the same ravenous seas that had gulped down his beloved galleon.
Just as well
If he attacked the trio of Englishmen who had rowed to shore, he would reveal himself and the remaining thirty-five members of his crew. Reveal that this small, deserted island held the secrets to what had become of the mighty
and the vast treasure she carried in her big belly.
Crouching just inside the tree line of silver palm, pitch apple, and mangrove, Bartolome took his eyes off the intruders and turned his attention to their ship. The brigantine jauntily flew the Union Jack and bobbed just beyond the reef that had protected this island from the worst ravages of the storm. Her sails were furled, her twin masts speared into the cloudless sky, and unbeknownst to the scurvy English bastards who crewed her, she was anchored a short distance from the sunken remains of the
The proximity made Bartolome’s skin crawl, so much so that he glanced down to assure himself he had not been overrun by sand fleas. Then, the tree the Englishmen had come ashore to cut down as a replacement for their cracked yardarm succumbed to their saws, the trunk letting out a painful squeal, and Bartolome quickly returned his attention to the scene at the edge of the beach. The tall, straight mangrove had withstood the ravages of the storm, but it could not withstand the brutal will of man. It tumbled onto the sand, its leaves scattering and rolling, pushed by the hot wind like flotsam and jetsam.
“Bloody hell,” one of the men cursed, wiping a hand over his sweating brow. “I got t’ take me a terrible piss, but when I do I feels like me cock is ablaze.”
“Ha!” another barked, his laugh like a blunderbuss, loud and obscene. “I told ye t’ stay away from that redheaded harlot in Tortola. She be riddled with disease.”
The first man grinned and shook his head, lifting his hands as if to say the lady’s pleasures outweighed the price he now paid for having sampled them. Then he walked toward the tree line, straight for Bartolome’s hiding place.
A leaf rustled behind Bartolome, and he slowly turned his head, giving his chin a subtle shake when Rosario, his midshipman, prepared to step from behind the bush that concealed him.
Bartolome told Rosario with only his eyes. He swung his gaze around the dense undergrowth of the forest, catching the attention of as many of his remaining crewmen as he could spot amidst the verdant foliage. Upon each, he bestowed the same look:
Hold steady, man.
Then he returned his scrutiny to his approaching enemy. Despite the heat, goose bumps peppered his flesh when the Englishman stopped beside a tree that was a gangplank’s span from the one Bartolome hid behind.
Close. Too bloody close.
Fear left a metallic taste on Bartolome’s tongue. Sweat dripped from his brow into his eyes, burning, but he dared not brush it away. He dared not move. He dared not breathe.
The bilge-sucking Englishman supported himself against the trunk with one hand, using the other to pull low his drawers and find his prick. “When I be on lookout duty, I spied me seven more privateers huntin’ these waters for that bloody Spanish galleon!” he called over his shoulder to his fellow crewmen who were busy sawing the limbs from the felled tree.
Bartolome had always thought English a distasteful language. So harsh. So hacking. But one word was worse than the rest.
It was a fancy term for pirates. Bloodthirsty, treasure-hungry savages who hid their thievery and murder behind their letters of marque, documents bestowed by their government giving them the legal authority to attack enemy ships, press the foreign sailors into service, and loot whatever booty they could find.
And they are hunting for us.
“She be deep in Davy Jones’s locker!” the man continued, grunting as he jiggled the last drop of putrid piss from his diseased member. “Else she be found by now! We should head toward New Granada! I heard tell there be easy targets there!”
“Ye want t’ be the one t’ tell the captain that, ye daft bugger?” the one with the blunderbuss laugh called back, shaking his head.
The Englishman muttered something under his breath before turning to rejoin his mates on the edge of the beach. When he had gone some distance, Bartolome let out a slow, ragged breath and watched the three men finish cleaning the branches off the tree before dragging it across the sand toward their skiff. The whole time his mind raced through the pitiful options left to him.
He had hoped King Philip would send ships from Havana to search for the
and her missing crew. Every day of the past two weeks he had scanned the oceans through the magnifying lens of his spyglass, yearning to see a ship flying the Spanish flag. But none had appeared. Now he knew why.
English pirates are swarming the seas like locusts.
The thought of what Spain’s enemies could do with the great ship’s treasure had Bartolome’s empty stomach swirling as if he had sucked down bad grog. Then he felt Rosario at his side. The midshipman hitched his chin toward the English sailors rowing across the lagoon. “What did they say, Captain?” Rosario asked.
When Bartolome told him, Rosario’s eyes rounded. “’Tis still possible for rescue,” he insisted. “We just have to remain patient, remain hidden.”
“But very soon the summer storms will be upon us. The winds will ravage this island and the seas around it, spreading the treasure and making salvage futile.”
“I know that too.” A pit of dread took root in Bartolome’s belly.
Rosario placed a hand on his forearm. “Then what are we to do, Captain?”
Bartolome swallowed, the task before him daunting. But if twenty years at sea had taught him anything, it was that all things were possible through determination, hard work, and the help of God. “We find a way to raise the treasure ourselves,” he said, his jaw stony with resolve. “And then we bury it.”