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Kidnap victim Alex Throne literally drops into the arms of security specialist Reese Holt, pulling Holt into a battle against a ruthless drug cartel, personal betrayal, and a specter from Holt’s CIA past.
Holt agrees to put his team of specialists on the trail of Alex’s assailants while he takes on the personal job of protecting the life he inadvertently saved, motivated, in part, by a romantic attraction.
Keeping his mind on protecting Alex could prove difficult, especially when he can’t keep his mind off Alex’s body.
The wetsuit fit snug against his muscled torso, the weight belt a reassuring heft that offset the chaotic pitch and toss of the choppy waves bitch-slapping the port side of the Stranger. The sleek ninety-foot yacht heaved and rolled, but she was made for rough waters and held her position; a ton of specialized search equipment adding to her already impressive 145,000 pounds.
Reese Holt shifted his weight to steady his footing on the cockpit, leaning into the wind. On the inside, he was the poster boy for any special ops officer–controlled, cold, meticulous, intelligent, and focused. A shadow of ruthlessness flickered in his steady gaze. On the outside, Holt was a cover model for GQ –rugged, handsome, chiseled features, physically fit without excessive bulk, toned and tanned, his movements fluid with a contained grace.
He pulled his scuba mask into place in one practiced movement. Details of the mission flashed through his mind, checklists ticked and points of action outlined one last time. Holt ran a glance over the increasingly croppy sea, calculating the odds of success for the day’s adventure. A smile tugged up a corner of his lips, the fifty-fifty odds making the day a little brighter with the coming challenge.
Five miles off the coast of New Jersey, the four men on board the Stranger knew they were flirting with the possibility this retrieval dive could end up in international waters. Current and drift could push both divers off the mark and into murky waters.
Deadly as that could become, the client was willing to take the risk. That meant Reese Holt and Max Avery, Reese’s partner on the current dive, were taking the risk. They were aware their client would deny any knowledge of the events happening today if things went south. But that was one of the reasons clients paid premium dollar for Overlap Security Services, Inc.’s expert help. Responsibility always remained in Overlap’s — well, lap.
When your private client was the U.S. government, the operation usually skirted the unethical and immoral, if not illegal, edges of circumstances. If it didn’t, they’d be using their own Special Forces and not a private resource, ex-special ops or not. That meant it was a D3 assignment–dirty, dark and dangerous–just the way Reese liked it.
His blond hair wasn’t quite cropped, the thick bang sprinkled with silver gray, a touch more at his temples than his thirty-six years deserved. He smoothed it down as he adjusted the strap of his mask giving him an opportunity to observe the other three men, unconsciously mapping their positions and actions before he popped the mouthpiece for the regulator between his teeth.
At the wheel, ex-Navy Chris Wells, the weathered, agile captain of the Stranger, gave Holt a nod. Holt had trusted the man with his life on too many to count occasions. No matter what the circumstances, Wells was unflappable. Even now, he was at home in the sway and pitch, smoothly handling the large yacht in the chaos of the building ocean surge. He made it look like a Sunday afternoon sailboat ride.
Under growing dark clouds, the fourth man on board, Ryan East, helped Max muscle an oxygen tank onto his back. East was beefy, but graceful, like a pro wrestler who had wandered out of the ring and decided to tag along with the older, cooler kids. The blond ex-SEAL had a quiet confidence about him that Reese had liked from the first moment they had met.
Satisfied, Reese gave Max a gloved thumbs-up, waited for a microsecond for the answering nod and rolled backward off the side into the turbulent water.
Icy cold enveloped Reese, but he was prepared for it. It was late October, but it would be weeks before the Atlantic was cold enough to warrant extreme protection. He could almost enjoy this dive if there weren’t a job to do. He felt the water pressure to his left shift and knew Max had appeared ten feet away in a halo of air bubbles. A quick visual check reassured him his partner’s decent had been routine then Reese focused on finding what they had come for.
A diver’s flashlight cut through the murky haze just enough to let Reese see the navigational readings on the GPS. Wells had done it again. On target, almost exactly at the coordinates they had been given for the downed plane. The captain was without a doubt one of the best.
Not that they expected to find the plane. It was sitting on the bottom of the ocean. Or parts of it were. The last coherent communication from the pilot told them an explosion had crippled the plane, and he was going down. He had tried to make for the nearest possible open space on land just a few tantalizing miles away. Landfall never happened. No survivors had been acknowledged by government sources. In fact, the entire event had been erased. The plane was too light to survive intact.
But then that was the beauty of retrieval tasks, the unfortunate human factor not included. Breaking up on impact allowed the flotation device contained on the plane to break free of the debris and wait patiently to be found. No evidence was floating on the water’s surface for anyone to see. No radio signal to attract discovery by unwanted parties. All Reese had to do was search one square mile of raging seas for a twelve-inch by twelve-inch black box attached to a red floater one hundred feet under the ocean’s surface. Simple. Or as simple as life got for Reese.
A quick nod at Max and they both set off to work a well-practiced grid search. Ten minutes into the retrieval, a thin strip of silver caught the beam of his light. The harness line connecting the box to the balloon glittered, easily missed by less keen eyes. Reese felt like Christmas had come early.
He deflated the balloon, wrapping the box in the remains to keep it from flowing away with the undercurrent and into marine life stomachs. Max joined him, helping secure the box and balloon in a net bag Max had attached to his utility belt.
Reese triggered the radio signal on his watch letting Wells and East know they were returning. Wells would bring the boat within ten yards of the signal to lessen their exposure to the frigid temperature and turbulent surface water. If delivery went as smoothly, they would all be back in the warmth of the New York City by nightfall.
Beginning his ascent, Reese looked up as he rose, searching for evidence of the Stranger. At the thirty-five-foot range, the water above him suddenly churned with masses of air bubbles that came straight down to meet him. Reese braced as well as he could as displaced water pressure rocked him back. His knife was in his hand before the figure stopped rocketing downward, but Reese hesitated a moment, a possibly fatal move.
That moment made all the difference.
Blue eyes stared into his, blinking rapidly against the clear, cold water. Whoever it was, he was alive, no doubt about it. Alive, but not for long in these temperatures.
In the beam of his flashlight, panic, terror, and then hope raced across a battered face. Reese could see the man was young, slim, his chest and arms outlined by a thin, stained, once white dress shirt. His upper body was well-defined, arms restrained behind the younger man’s back. The jeans were dirty, his feet bare, ankles crossed and bound together with nylon wire ties. Dark hair swayed around his head, not long but not as short as Reese’s.
Reese knew the man would be desperate to gasp for air if only his mouth weren’t sealed with duct tape so wide it obscured his lower face. The areas not covered in the tape were bruised and split in places.
Somebody really didn’t like this man.
Odd, because Reese did. It was the eyes. Icy blue but with a fire behind them. He didn’t understand why but ‘innocent’ popped in his thoughts like a neon sign.
His throat tightened. His eyes narrowed. Something told him to swim away. This wasn’t his problem. He was in the middle of a top secret, clandestine mission.
Training said to turn around. Nothing should interfere with a mission. The odds that this man was an innocent were a long shot. Logic said body dumps, even live body dumps, weren’t his area of concern.
Instinct said this situation was trouble, not only with a capital “T”, but in three additional languages to the eight Reese spoke.
The unfamiliar tight feeling in his throat said “to hell” with all the other voices. He went with his gut.
Reese’s assessment took, maybe, three heartbeats. Long enough for Blue-eyes to react. One look at the knife in Reese’s hand and hope turned back to panic. He struggled against the water, kicking himself up, desperate to escape whatever fresh hell he’d plunged into.
Shit! Reese hated it when he couldn’t bark a command or use a lethal glance to let people know what he needed from them.
As fast as Blue-eyes reacted, Reese was quicker. He sliced through the man’s wrist restraints, sheathing his knife in a rapid, highly-practiced slash. It took him less than two seconds to grab the floundering man, pull him in, his back to Reese’s chest. Once close enough, he ripped the tape from the man’s mouth in one brutal move. He didn’t have time to play it any other way. He knew from experience it hurt less that way. What he needed now was for the man to quit fighting him. But that didn’t look like it was going to happen.
He had to hold on tighter than he anticipated as an unexpected head butt almost caught him by surprise. Only almost. He felt the move telegraphed through the man before it hit. The body in his arms was lean and firm, but this man had never been a soldier. Civilian all the way, but here he was–beaten, trussed up, dumped into a watery grave and still fighting. Reese liked him even more.
Fire and innocence wrapped together. Innocence. Granted it wasn’t something he saw much in his line of work, but that made it all the easier to spot. For a microsecond, he wondered if the man was a virgin as well, a total innocent. He kicked the thought out of his head faster than it appeared. Christ, he was going to drown them both.
With a forceful twist, Reese yanked the man closer and pinned him to his chest, so they were face to face. He disregarded the way his scuba straps and gear cut into the man. He’d apologize once they were safely on board the vessel. If they got on board. Nothing said the people who had thrown this man in the water were gone. Reese didn’t even know how they had dumped him. A boat was out of the question. He’d been propelled too far under to have just fallen off a boat. That left a plane or helicopter as promising candidates. A part of his brain played with calculating how high up the plane or helicopter would have had to have been for the depth of the body drop he had witnessed. Twenty feet, tops, or he’d be hauling a corpse. Curiosity would never be sated if he didn’t get the man to cooperate.
He grabbed a handful of dark hair and shook. Brutal, but it had the desired effect. The man froze leaving Reese staring into those wide, anxious eyes again. Deep, sharp, innocent, attractive eyes. Something tugged in Reese’s chest, and he looked away. He swore into his mouthpiece. That had to stop. He couldn’t very well avoid the man’s face when facial expressions and hand gestures were the only way they could communicate at the moment.
He looked back. This time, he saw panic again, but Reese could also see the man struggling to gain a measure of control. Jesus. This kid’s eyes really were the windows to his soul. A soul in danger of drowning.
Taking a deep, controlled breath, Reese pulled the mouthpiece out of his mouth, held it inches in front of those staring eyes for half a second and then pushed it between a pair of split and bleeding lips. He had no idea if the man knew how to scuba but everyone knew how to breathe. Without wasting a moment or loosening his grip around the man’s waist, he shot toward the surface in a steady, powerful thrust. A forceful tug on his right side and Max was suddenly beside them, helping to propel them upward.
Daylight, weak and grim, filtered down as they neared the surface. Reese was hyper alert. He scanned the surrounding waters, looking through the last few feet of the ocean before surfacing for signs of whoever was responsible for the man in his grip. They might come back to make sure they had done their job. He would if he had dropped a still breathing body into the ocean.
Max flashed an open palm in front of Reese’s mask, and they both halted their ascent. A thin layer of red colored the water; an oily residue floating around them. The dark shadow of the Stranger’s hull loomed reassuringly only a few yards away. Red was their customary signal for the men not to surface without extreme caution. There was trouble topside as well as underwater. Reese fanned one hand open, signaling something was wrong, then pointed up. Max took over the job of watching for an opening to surface.
Reese tapped the dial of his mouthpiece still in the blue-eyed man’s mouth then gestured at himself. The man sucked in a deep breath then nodded as he released the lifeline. Reese took several measured breaths then returned the piece to the stranger. Both men shared breathing over several tense minutes; eyes locked together. Hard gray to bloodshot blue. Reese had never stared into the eyes of another man for so long unless he was preparing to take the guy out. He couldn’t look away.
Hurting this guy was the last thing he found himself thinking about. Someone else had already done that plenty. The guy’s eyes were bloodshot, worn out with fatigue, surrounding tissue bruised with a split high on one cheekbone. Reese was damn good at reading what kind of man was behind a gaze–where the deceit lay, what calculating move was up next when a trigger finger was tightening–but this stare was trusting, dependent –and that made him harder for Reese to evaluate. A challenge. He didn’t have much practice with trusting. And he never did dependent. Not in his wheelhouse. But Reese Holt never turned away from a challenge.
He concentrated on the feel of hands entwined in his suit’s straps. No body heat radiating, but firm pressure, hanging on for dear life. Reese could feel the man’s heart beating against his hand, the body trembling from the cold, breathing ragged.
Adjusting his grip, he pulled the man closer. Reese told himself it was so he could gauge how the man was handling things. If he was honest with himself, which he usually was, he couldn’t look away. But if he were honest then he would have to explain how the tightness in his throat had moved to his chest with just a glance from this man. Or how that ache was now in the pit of his stomach. For now, he was just thankful the water was cold in case the ache moved even further south.
That fleeting thought disappeared as the constant shivers that had racked the man’s body from immersion in the icy water suddenly increased intensity enough to make the oxygen mouthpiece fall from his tightly pursed, blue lips and silently chattering teeth. Reese jammed the mouthpiece back into place, signaling Max they had to go up no matter what. But he was too late. The body in his arms suddenly went limp. With limp came the reflex to breathe in any way a body can. Very inconvenient under water.