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Authors: Julie Ann Walker

Hot as Hell (The Deep Six) (9 page)

BOOK: Hot as Hell (The Deep Six)
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Okay, so Bran or no Bran, she was going to make this experience a great one. For the girls. For herself. Because they deserved a vacation. An adventure. And, by God, after what she’d gone through three months ago, so did she.

And maybe you can use this time unplugged from all your gadgets and away from your empty email account to reassess your feelings for one former Navy SEAL turned treasure hunter
, her conscience whispered.

Sure. Okay. That’s totally what she’d do, and—

“Were you expecting company?” Rick asked.

“Why? What’s…”

She didn’t finish her question. When she turned in the direction the ranger was looking, she spotted a small deep-sea fishing vessel slowly sailing toward the island.

Her heart leapt. Actually
leapt.
If it weren’t for her rib cage, she was pretty sure the thing would have burst from her chest
Alien
-style. One word, one
name
, seemed to whisper on the wind.
Bran.

So much for reassessing her feelings…

* * *

6:23 p.m.…

“They’re on the island. My guys are in position, advancing slowly and waiting on your signal to go in strong,” Tony Scott told Gene Powers.

Sitting on the sofa beside Gene on the small sixty-foot motor yacht they’d rented under a false name with false identification, Tony watched the older man try to swallow the lump in his throat. And not for the first time, he wondered if Gene had the stomach to go through with their plan.

Just keep your shit together a little while longer
, he thought, impatience gnawing on his backbone like a junkyard dog.

“Once we cross this line, there’s no goin’ back.” There was a tremor in Gene’s voice. It matched the one in the man’s hands as he absently picked at the stitching on the edge of the blue pillow tossed into the corner of the molded seating area at the back of the vessel.

Tony had always respected Gene for his courage and sense of adventure when it came to business—and to living life, for that matter—but the old fart was proving to lack the intestinal fortitude to get down and dirty when the occasion called for it. And this occasion definitely called for it.

Which is where I come in.

“I know there’s no going back.” He reached out to squeeze Gene’s wiry shoulder. “I’m ready. Are you?”


No
,” Gene spat. “I can’t help but think there’s got to be another way.”

Tony bit the inside of his cheek, girding himself to have the same argument they’d been having for the last week. As patiently as he could, he said, “Gene, we’ve been through this a million times. No venture capitalist will touch us. We’ve exhausted all our reserves and the reserves of our investors. We need cash.”

“Maybe I could ask him again,” Gene said, something close to desperation in his eyes. They both knew to which
him
Gene was referring.

“He’s already told you no three times,” Tony reminded him. “He thinks it’s a bad investment. He’s grown risk averse over the years. Too risk averse. And he’s pushed you to this.”

“No.” Gene shook his head. “It wasn’t him. It was OPEC. Goddamned OPEC!” Gene cursed, taking off his Stetson to run a hand through his gray hair. His droopy handlebar mustache quivered when he glanced out at the open ocean, hoping to see a way out. But Tony knew that nothing but endless, undulating waves surrounded the vessel. Certainly no other solution to their problem.

If they wanted to save the oil business, this was it. A Hail Mary pass in the final minutes.

“Goddamn OPEC,” Gene said again, pounding his fist on the arm of the molded fiberglass sofa before replacing his cowboy hat. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—made up of the twelve most oil-rich and least American-friendly nations—was a cartel that kept a stranglehold on the world through its control of the majority of the earth’s crude oil reserves. And right now it had a stranglehold on their company. “I don’t know why we didn’t bomb the shit out of all of them when they first incorporated sixty-five years ago.”

“We didn’t ‘bomb the shit out of all of them’ because leveling entire nations just to make sure they couldn’t profit from their own natural resources would’ve been frowned upon by…well…pretty much everyone,” Tony explained, noticing the time on his gold GMT-Master Rolex and getting increasingly antsy as the seconds ticked by.

“Well, now they’re tryin’ to stop
us
from controllin’ and profitin’ from
our
natural resources,” Gene snarled. “How’s that fair?” Before Tony could respond, Gene answered his own question. “I’ll tell you how. Plain and simple, it
ain’t
.”

“That’s why we have to see this through,” Tony said. “If we do this, we’ll have enough cash to get a couple of the new ventures up and running. Once they are, they’ll fund the rest. And then when everything is online and we’re pumping out hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude a day, the United States will be safer than it’s ever been. And that’ll be thanks to us. You and me, Gene. Just imagine it.”

The only reason Gene had finally agreed to this scheme was because Tony had couched his arguments in a bunch of flag-waving hoopla. It had worked like a charm then. It worked liked a charm now.

“You swear to me no one will get hurt,” Gene demanded. His bottom lip, visible beneath his ridiculous mustache, quivered.

Oh, for God’s sake.
If the man started crying, Tony would be hard-pressed not to slap his face.

“My guys’ plan is sound and every scenario has been accounted for.”

“Your guys.” Gene shook his head, sounding so much like Foghorn Leghorn that Tony was surprised he didn’t start his next sentence with
I say, I say
. “You keep callin’ them that. Where did you find them anyway?”

“You’d be amazed at how many ex–armed forces types are willing to sell their services for the right price.”

Gene grimaced.

Poor Gene. Always thinking the best of people.
It was genetic. Everyone in the Powers family suffered from the same affliction.

“Come on, Gene.” Tony sighed. “It’s just three girls, one woman, and a wet-behind-the-ears park ranger. It’ll be a breeze.”

“A breeze, huh?” Gene smoothed his mustache and wet his lips with his tongue. “Then tell me again why there are guns involved.”

Tony smiled, but the expression held no humor. “Surely, since you’re a born-and-bred Texan, I don’t need to explain that to you.” When Gene scowled his impatience, Tony elaborated. “Shock and awe, my man. Shock and awe. Besides, we need to make this thing look legit if we want him to pony up the cash and do it quickly.”

“Shock and awe better be
all
it’ll be.” Gene pressed a hand to his chest as if his heart was hurting. That’s all Tony needed, for the waffling old cuss to have a heart attack.
Although, on second thought…
If Gene keeled over with a coronary, Tony would be left at the helm. Which would make things
so
much easier.

“If anything happens to Maddy,” Gene said, shaking his head, “I’ll never—”

“Nothing is going to happen to her,” Tony assured him. When Gene searched his eyes, he made sure his expression reflected one-hundred-percent sincerity.

Gene turned to stare out at the ocean again, a muscle ticking in his jaw. Tony simply sat and waited. Gene had donned his decision-making face, and Tony knew better than to intrude. Finally, Gene blew out a breath. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

Tony flashed Gene a reassuring wink before lifting the satellite phone in his hand and barking two words: “Go time.”

Chapter 3

6:35 p.m.…

“I don’t think I’m
always
right,” Mason said. “I just think I’m hyper-fuckin’-competent, which leads to a higher-than-usual occurrence of being right.”

“Well, I guess you really put me in my place, didn’t you, Mr. Muscles McSmartypants?” Alex countered. “But I’m telling you, I heard somewhere that—”

“And here comes the useless trivia.” Mason’s exasperation was evident to Bran, even though he was high above the deck of the catamaran in the captain’s chair, busy keeping the mainsail full of the warm wind blowing across Hawk Channel and trying to read the fast currents doing their best to pull the sailboat off course.

“Just so we’re clear,” Alex huffed, crossing her arms and glaring at Mason, “I think I like you better when you aren’t speaking.”

Bran frowned down at the two of them. They’d been trading insults since he weighed anchor and set sail for the Dry Tortugas. It was amazing how two people could take such extreme delight in rubbing each other the wrong way.

Amazing and annoying.
Definitely
annoying.

“Remind me again why you two are here?” he called to them. Then, on second thought… “Remind me again why
I’m
here?” There had to be a reason. Although, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what it was.

Alex turned and shaded her eyes against the glare of the running lights he’d clicked on after the sun sank slow and lazy into the sea to the west. The moment it had touched the water, however, it was as if something hungry was waiting for it there, sucking it down quickly and leaving nothing but a reddish-orange smear in its place. Stars were breaking through the darkening sky overhead, and the blue waters had turned a silvery gray in the deepening dusk.

Bran loved being at sea. Out here he was so free and…removed. Out here he could forget who he really was.

“You’re here because your pride wouldn’t let you back down when LT started making
bok-bok
noises at you after I told him about Madison Powers’s invitation,” Alex called to him, a grin kicking up the corners of her mouth.

Roger that.
Now he remembered. His best friend
had
always known how to goad him into doing things he didn’t want to do.
The rat bastard.

“I’m here because I’ve never been to the Dry Tortugas and the historian in me considered that a crying shame,” Alex continued. “Plus, there’s nothing any of us can do to prepare for the search dives tomorrow. And if I stayed around Wayfarer Island, I wouldn’t get any sleep. I’m too amped up.”

Amped up. Because after carefully cleaning the hilt of the cutlass, they’d discovered markings that fit the description of a short sword belonging to none other than the great Captain Bartolome Vargas himself. Which meant Alex’s theory about the
Santa Cristina
having gone down in the waters around Wayfarer Island might actually prove correct.

Bran should’ve been vibrating with excitement too. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get more than half his mind to focus on the amazing find. The other half remained stubbornly obsessed with the distance that separated Wayfarer Island and the Dry Tortugas. With the distance between him and the wonderful, wise-cracking, completely
off-limits
Maddy Powers.

So close.

And getting closer by the minute.

He lifted a set of field glasses to his eyes. Through the magnified lenses, he could just make out the few spotlights on the seawall that separated the moat and Fort Jefferson from the gulf waters surrounding Garden Key. Now that the sun had set, a soft yellow glow flashed from the little lighthouse built atop the edge of the fort’s curtain wall, illuminating the white hull of what appeared to be a deep-sea fishing vessel that was in the process of anchoring itself a few dozen yards from the little beach that ran along one side of the islet.

So damned close.
And he hadn’t the first clue what he was going to say to her once they were actually face-to-face.

Long time, no see
was too flippant and trite considering the hell they’d been through together and all they’d since shared.
Sorry I didn’t respond to your email; the satellite dish went down
while technically correct still sounded like a big, fat excuse. So that left…what? The truth?
I didn’t wanna come ’cause you scare the shit outta me. You make me want things I shouldn’t want and contemplate things I shouldn’t contemplate.

Like
that
was going to happen.

And damnit, now those ridiculous butterflies were back. He reached for the bottle of Gatorade in the cup holder near his elbow, determined to drown the fluttery little suckers.
Again.
But before he could lift the drink to his lips, he got distracted by the fact that Alex was
still
talking.

“…so when you add all that up, it was pretty much a given I would tag along. But I have no idea why
he’s
here.” She hooked a thumb toward Mason. When Alex wrinkled her nose, the zinc oxide smeared across the bridge caught the running lights and glistened. She was the only person Bran knew who still used zinc oxide. “I say it’s because he couldn’t stand to be away from me,” she finished impishly.

Mason’s expression called Alex ten kinds of crazy, but he didn’t say a word.

“Oh, goodie!” Alex clapped her hands. “He’s gone back to being nonverbal. Happy, happy, joy, joy!”

Bran opened his mouth to tell them to stop poking at each other like children. But before he could say anything, a dull
pop, pop
echoed across the water, barely discernible above the snap of the mainsail as it tugged against the boom basket when a particularly strong gust of briny-smelling wind pulled the fabric tight.

The fine hairs on the back of Bran’s neck stood on end, his adrenaline spiked, and hundreds of missions to the ass-ends of the earth flashed through his brain. If he lived ten thousand lifetimes, he’d recognize that sound for exactly what it was…

Automatic gunfire.

Pop! Pop, pop, pop!
Another barrage carried over the waves and slammed into his eardrums like percussion grenades.


Maddy!
” He hadn’t realized he’d roared her name aloud until he saw Alex jump straight into Mason’s lap and turn to stare at him with wide, frightened eyes.

“Huh? What?” she asked, then squawked when Mason hopped from his seat and bobbled her like a hot potato. Once Mason set her on her feet, she smacked him on the arm and glared. “What the heck was
that
all about?” she demanded. “You could’ve launched me overboard and—”

But that’s all she managed before another unmistakable
pop
sounded over the water.

“What
is
that?” she asked, pushing her glasses up the medicated bridge of her nose.

“Gunfire,” Mason gritted
.


Gunfire?
” Alex’s face went so white it was hard to see where the zinc oxide stopped and her skin started. “Wh-why? There isn’t hunting on the Dry Tortugas, is there? I mean, what could anyone possibly hunt? There are only seabirds and turtles and…it’s
dark.

“That’s not the sound of a fuckin’ hunting rifle,” Mason grumbled between clenched teeth, lifting his eyes to Bran. The look on Mason’s face was one Bran knew all too well. It said one thing and one thing only:
Trouble.
The kind of trouble that separated men into two distinct categories: the quick and the dead.

Without conscious thought, Bran turned the key and engaged the catamaran’s dual engines, adding their man-made horsepower to Mother Nature’s wind power. The butterflies in his stomach grew lead wings and fell like rocks.

“Get the M4s!” he yelled, disgusted to hear his voice was nothing more than a reedy bark of sound, barely discernible over the roar of the engines and the
hiss
of the waves against the twin hulls as the sailboat picked up speed.

It must have been loud enough. With a hitch of his chin, Mason disappeared inside the cabin.

“What are M4s?” Alex called, blinking against the salt spray splashing over the deck as the catamaran plowed up one wave and down another.

Bran didn’t answer. He couldn’t. His pounding heart was sitting in the back of his throat, strangling him. He once again lifted the field glasses, but he couldn’t see much of anything beyond the spray of white water kicked up by the outboard engine of a dinghy that had detached itself from the fishing boat and was now plowing toward the shore of Garden Key.

When Mason reappeared on the deck—two minutes later? Ten? Bran couldn’t say; time was moving at a snail’s pace—their trusty weapons were strapped to his back.

Now, it wasn’t unusual for a boat to come equipped with firearms. The open oceans were the last great frontier, and it behooved a smart captain and crew to always be able to defend themselves. What
was
unusual was for a boat to be carrying fully automatic, gas-powered, 5.56 mm NATO round-firing pieces of death-dealing machinery, the kind of weapons strictly off-limits to civilians unless you bought them out of the back of a van or, in Bran’s and Mason’s case, unless you appropriated them from good ol’ Uncle Sam—with the blessing of their CO, of course.

“Oh! My!
God!
” Alex screamed when she saw the rifles. “Where the heck did
those
come from?”

Bran barely spared her a glance. “Come on!
Come on!
” he yelled, punching the throttle as far as it would go and willing the sailboat to move faster.

It wasn’t long, three seconds maybe, before he felt Mason’s bulk on the steps leading to the captain’s perch. Mason placed a hand on Bran’s shoulder and leaned over him to kill the running lights.

Good idea. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it.
Oh, right. Because all he’d been thinking was
Get to Maddy! Get to Maddy!

“You need to ease off, bro,” Mason said.

“Screw you,” Bran grumbled, shrugging off Mason’s heavy palm. “Maddy’s on that island.”

“I’m not trying to be a cocksucker here,” Mason said, the next-to-last word sounding more like
cocksuckuh
. “But we go in there full tilt and guns hot, and we’re likely to end up deader than fuckin’ doornails.”

“But Maddy—”

“I know, man.” Mason nodded. “But we need to do this the right way. The
SEAL
way.” Mason gave Bran’s shoulder a squeeze that conveyed a million things at once:
Get your shit together. Don’t worry, I got your back. Once more unto the breach, dear friend…

Roger that. The SEAL way.

Bran managed a nod and throttled back the engines despite all his instincts screaming at him to do the opposite.

“Good.” Mason said when the catamaran was no longer plowing hell-bent for leather toward Garden Key. “Now how do you want to play this?”

“Don’t know,” Bran admitted, his scalp on fire like every single one of his hairs had ripped out of their follicles. His lungs attempted to crawl into his throat to join his heart—
apparently it’s a party in there
—and his mind was spinning out of control. “I don’t—”

“Okay, okay.” Mason hit the side of his heavy fist against Bran’s shoulder. “So the way I see it, we got two options. Option one is we use the marine radio to call back to Wayfarer Island and tell LT there’s a situation on Garden Key. We
should
still be within hailing range.” His face said he wasn’t sure about that last part. Truth to tell, Bran wasn’t either. Marine radios weren’t built to carry signals over great distances. They were meant to be used for close ship-to-ship communication. “Then LT can use the satphone on the island to call the Coast Guard on Key West.”

“And after that?” Bran demanded. Each second they sat flapping their lips felt like an eternity. “We wait out here and twiddle our dicks until the authorities show up while who knows what happens to Maddy? Hell no. Plus, there’s always a chance that they”—he punched a finger toward Garden Key and whoever the hell was firing off those weapons—“are monitoring the marine channels. If we use the marine radio to hail back to Wayfarer Island, they’ll know help is on the way, and they could…” He couldn’t even
countenance
the end of that sentence, much less voice it. If only they had a satphone onboard, they could make the call to Key West themselves and no one would be the wiser.
I wish.
But there was that old saying about wishing in one hand and shitting in the other and seeing which one filled up faster. “No way,
paisano
.” He adamantly shook his head. “We hafta maintain radio silence until we know what we’re dealing with.”

“Hey!” Alex called from the deck. “What are you two talking about? Shouldn’t we be—”

“Alex!” Mason bellowed, which was so unlike him that Bran actually flinched. “It would be wicked awesome if, for once in your life, you shut your chowderhole!”

Alex wasn’t one to let something like that slide. But she was as taken aback by Mason’s outburst as Bran was. She snapped her mouth shut, blinking rapidly behind the lenses of her glasses.

“Okay, so that leaves us with option two,” Mason continued as if they hadn’t been interrupted.

“Which is?”

“We need to get eyes and ears on that island. And I think I have a plan for how to do that.”

“I’m listening” was what Bran said. What he was thinking was
I can’t believe this is happening again!

* * *

7:10 p.m.…

I can’t believe this is happenin’ again!
Maddy silently screamed.

She’d already been held hostage once. Surely that was enough for any one lifetime. And later—that is if she lived through this and
had
a later—she planned to have a very stern conversation with Fate or Destiny or the Big Man Upstairs, whichever one of them was responsible for this horseshit. But for right now, she had to concentrate everything she had on staying strong for the girls. Staying calm so they would cue off her and stay strong too.

BOOK: Hot as Hell (The Deep Six)
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