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U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Clint Walker is on the run across the icy Alaskan Bering Sea. The Chinese operatives tracking him will do anything to retrieve the stolen military plans in Clint's possession--and kill him for their trouble. Desperate to safeguard the documents, he stows aboard a cargo ship--and comes face to face with the most beautiful--and determined--ship's commander he's ever encountered...
Captain Samantha Richardson won't let anything--or anyone--stand in the way of her career...especially now with her whole future riding on this latest run. Yet the sight of her brash stowaway's enticing bedroom eyes and his hard, muscular body has Sam fantasizing about indulging in a small indiscretion, just this once. After all, Clint Walker is her ideal man: hot, intriguing, and temporary.
But when Clint and Sam give in to their simmering passion, they emerge to face an exploding danger that threatens to put an all too permanent end to their growing feelings...and their lives.
Dutch Harbor, Amaknak Island, the Aleutians, Alaska
For a man on the run, the fog was both a blessing and a curse. It hid you from your enemies . . . but it could also turn against you.
For the past week, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Clint Walker had been grateful for the recurring blanket of mist as he’d scrambled to stay two steps ahead of his pursuers, island-hopping his way along the Aleutians toward mainland Alaska. So far he’d managed to evade the tangos hot on his trail—a Chinese black-ops team determined to retrieve the stolen military plans in Clint’s possession . . . and no doubt kill him for their trouble.
But that would only be the beginning of the trouble for the U.S. Navy—and for the country—should the Chinese succeed in stopping him from delivering those plans.
A severe storm had left Dutch Harbor under a dense shroud of gray that blotted out the pale rays of the midnight sun and cast the surrounding landscape in an eerie, impenetrable glow. It seemed like he’d been jogging through the thick soup for miles, getting nowhere.
As he ran, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. His grandfather would say it was the breath of the bear. But this was more like the breath of the dragon. Drawing on the lessons Grandfather had taught him during those long ago summers they’d lived on the land using only the gifts nature had given them, he focused every sense on the danger lurking out there in the mist. Clint even knew the dragon’s name: Xing Guan, commander of the Chinese black-ops team of trained assassins that had been sent to bring back, at any cost, the small data storage card that had been stolen from their navy.
Clint had yet to see Xing Guan’s face. But he knew his ruthless reputation from the scatter of reports that had come across his desk at Naval Intelligence regarding the notorious commander. The man was brutal, relentless, and smart as a fox. And he was out there right now. Close by. Stalking him. Clint could feel his pursuer’s menacing presence down to his very marrow.
It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to guess where he was heading. The biggest airport in the Aleutians was here in Dutch Harbor. The Chinese operators tracking him might already be hiding there, lying in wait for him to show up. But he’d have to risk it. He needed to get the micro SD data card containing the stolen plans back to Washington, D.C., ASAP.
If he could find the damned airport.
After four days of stinking hell working his passage on a fishing trawler, Clint was dead on his feet. All he wanted was to find a way back to Washington and his apartment, grab a steaming hot shower, and sleep for twenty-four hours straight.
He stopped jogging long enough to catch his breath. And listen. He could hear the shallow waves of Iliuliuk Bay sucking at the nearby shore, so he knew he was still on the right road. In the distance, a foghorn’s low, mournful moan did a duet with the distinctive metallic clank of anchor chains from the dozen or more ships that were moored along the piers lining both sides of the harbor. The sharp smell of raw fish filled the air but gave no clue as to whether he was closer to the airport or to cannery row. Of course, with just one change of clothes, it might be himself he was smelling.
Hell. He couldn’t see a goddamn thing in this fucking pea soup. He must have missed the turnoff for the airport. Maybe. He was on his last legs, and both his SEAL training and the hunting instincts learned at the knee of his grandfather were rapidly failing him tonight. He needed to focus.
He glanced around. Because it was the middle of the night, the airport runway lights had been turned off, and there were no other visual or auditory clues to indicate direction. The entire island seemed to be closed up tight as a clam and wrapped in cotton wool. Thankfully, it was the height of tourist season; by dawn the airport would be humming with activity. He had to be close.
Rather than risk running into the enemy black-ops team, he’d hunker down for the night. First thing in the morning he’d scout out a plane to hitch a ride on to Anchorage or Seattle.
Unless they found him first . . .
He froze. Footsteps?
No. Just the rustle of leaves.
He’d spotted his pursuers back on Adak Island. There’d been three of them, moving in concert through the harbor to hunt him down, a stealthy, efficient killing unit. The Chinese really wanted those plans back. That was when Clint had decided he’d rather face the wrath of a fishing trawler captain as a stowaway and work off his unplanned passage than risk being taken by Xing Guan. He could not lose that data card.
On it were top secret Chinese plans for a revolutionary new long-range guidance system for their ever-growing fleet of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs. Information crucial that the United States acquire, for the protection of our North American coastlines. We were already vulnerable. Without countermeasures to the silent, deadly, nearly undetectable UUVs, it would be open season on our coastal cities.
Pulling down a deep breath, Clint started to jog again.
Sonofabitch. He was getting too old for this shit. If he managed to make it back to D.C. in one piece, maybe he’d actually accept that Pentagon job the commander had been dangling in front of his nose for a few years now.
Even in his midthirties, as a former Navy SEAL Clint was not exactly enthralled by the idea of sitting behind a desk from nine to five. Although right about now, a warm, clean office sounded damn good, even if it did come with a ball and chain. Maybe he could even start thinking about a family. Grandfather was long gone, and there was no one else. No wife, no clan, not even a rez any more—not since the casino mafia had driven the honest folk off the reservation.
Suddenly the faint whisper of hushed human voices floated out from the fog. Not leaves. And not his imagination.
Again Clint halted in his tracks and listened. One, two, three speakers. Male. He couldn’t hear the language they were speaking, but it didn’t sound English. It sounded Chinese. And the men didn’t sound happy.
He swore silently and veered off the road. Folding himself into a patch of low juniper, he waited. Moments later, three mute black silhouettes glided stealthily past.
He swore again. So much for the airport.
He assessed his options. There was only one road off Amaknak Island into Dutch Harbor proper. The sea lapped at one side of it, and when the fog lifted, the stunted tundra shrubs on the other side wouldn’t hide a large cat. Going forward, an ambush awaited; to the sides, total exposure.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
There was only one thing left to do.
He turned and started to sprint, heading back the way he’d come.
Time for plan B.
Captain Samantha Richardson heaved the last insanely heavy box into place on top of a seemingly endless row of crates and cartons. She and most of her ship’s crew had spent the past three hours restacking them. Who knew biscuits weighed so damn much?
A freak summer storm had swept across the Bering Sea yesterday, pounding Île de Cœur with fifteen-foot waves and wreaking havoc in three of the seven cargo holds in the bowels of the old tramp freighter. They were only three-quarters full, and anything not nailed down had been tossed about like confetti.
Samantha had already fired and booted off the chief mate, the merchant marine officer responsible for overseeing the loading and securing of the cargo in Japan. Or rather, not securing it. She didn’t want to think his neglect had been deliberate, but she wouldn’t be surprised. There were those in the company who were diehard old school—men like her father and her ex-husband—and believed a woman’s place was raising children, changing sheets, and meeting a man at the door with a martini and a smile when he came home from three months at sea. Anything but being the captain of her own ship, spending three months at sea herself.
Her chest tightened briefly. What. Ever.
Île de Cœur was now a man down, but Sam would manage. If this was a sample of the chief mate’s handiwork, good riddance to him. In reality, she’d been glad for the excuse to fire him. The guy’d had a real attitude problem, and she desperately needed this transit to go smoothly. She’d put all her eggs in this single basket. Or rather, her father had. This transit would make or break her career.
Samantha surveyed the evenly distributed and well-secured stacks of crates that she and the crew were now standing on top of. “Finally,” she muttered. She tipped back the old-fashioned yachting cap she always wore and wiped the sweat from her brow with a sleeve. “I thought we’d never finish.”
Luckily, she’d spent three years as a chief mate herself en route to her captain’s license, and Île de Cœur’s second mate, Lars Bolun, was taking the captain’s exam this fall, so together they knew how to expertly redistribute the load so it wouldn’t shift again.
At her sigh of profound relief, a weary chorus of “Amen!” came back at her from the five men and one woman heading for the ladder up to the orlop—the lowest regular deck. Second Mate Lars Bolun, Carin Tornarsuk the oiler, and four able seamen, Johnny Dorn, Frank Tennyson, Jeeter Pond, and the old salt Spiros Tsanaka.
It was well past midnight, and if they all managed to climb out of the cargo hold, grab a bite to eat, and fall into their bunks without losing consciousness from exhaustion first, it would be a pure damn miracle. Before this, they’d cleaned up hold five, where three pallets of Sapporo Reserve had slipped their ropes and crashed into each other like cymbals, leaving glass bottles shattered and beer sprayed over everything. And before that they’d had to completely unload and reorganize hold two, which was filled with vehicle tires, spare machinery parts, and lethally sharp logging equipment, all of which were supposed to be neatly arranged according to purchaser, and had been, when they’d left Sapporo. After the storm, hold two had looked like a cyclone had gone through it. It had been a nightmare to match up the shipping labels—printed in Japanese, naturally—with the lading bills so the orders could be unloaded and picked up quickly when they reached Nome, Alaska, which was their last port of call before heading home to Seattle.
All this lifting had been done by hand without the aid of their deck crane, the top of which had been nearly ripped off during the storm by a killer wave. The crane was useless until the chief engineer, Shandy, could repair it. Hopefully he’d get it working by morning.
Either way, they had to shove off by oh-six-hundred. Sam absolutely, unequivocally, without fail, must get this cargo to Nome before noon on the Fourth of July. In hold three they were carrying the precious order of special fireworks she’d managed by hook, crook, and more than a few shady side deals to scrounge together last week for the new mayor of Nome and his self-aggrandizing election celebration.
The new mayor was the founder and owner of Bravo Logging Corp, Richardson Shipping’s biggest client, with eyes on the Alaska governor’s mansion. Sam’s father, Jason Richardson, had promised the mayor his fireworks—even though at this late date every firework in Japan and China had long since been spoken for and shipped out. Then dear old Dad had deliberately given Sam the assignment of fulfilling the order. Knowing she’d fail. Or so he thought.
But dear old Dad didn’t know her well enough. One thing father and daughter shared—“failure” was not a word in either of their vocabularies.
Well, other than in marriage. Neither of them had done so well in that department.
She swallowed down the spurt of unwilling hurt that shot through her. After a lifetime of hurts, you’d think she’d be used to it by now. But this last one, Jim’s betrayal, had really knocked the wind from her sails. But such was life.
She straightened determinedly and headed for the ladder.
Bringing in this cargo, intact and on time, would ensure at least one part of her life stayed on track—her career. Her father and his fossilized cronies would be forced to end her infuriating “trial contract” and hire her on permanently at Richardson Shipping. Those who wanted her gone from the family business would be effectively robbed of the ammunition they needed to convince her father to fire her—despite her being his only child. Even if he’d never formally acknowledged she was his, other than allowing her his name at birth.
He didn’t give a damn about blood ties. She knew better than to think he wouldn’t show her the door, with half a reason. She intended to see he didn’t have a reason. Not even a fraction of one.
Seaman Johnny Dorn’s expressive moan brought her out of her frustrating thoughts. “I am never, ever, ever going to eat another White Lover as long as I live,” Johnny Dorn declared, collapsing back against the steel bulkhead as the crew waited for her to catch up to them at the ladder. “Even after drinking a hundred gallons of beer.”
Everyone was too wiped out to laugh at the raunchy play on words. The inevitable ribald jokes about the unfortunately-named Japanese biscuits, combined with the spilled beer, had kept them amused for the first fifteen minutes of lifting and heaving cartons. After that, the humor had fizzled under the weight of the task.
“Hell, Dorn, maybe you ought to hang on to at least one White Lovers box,” seaman Frank Tennyson taunted with a grin as they climbed the ladder and he hoisted himself up through the man-sized hatch onto the deck above. “Might be the only chance you get to—”
“Okay,” Sam interrupted with a chuckle, really not wanting to hear where that conversation was headed. Frank was Brad Pitt to Johnny’s Bernie Mac, and their verbal exchanges were often hilarious, but always off-color. “Mixed company here,” she said dryly as she hung up the clipboard with the cargo manifest on a wall hook beside the metal bulkhead ladder.
She grabbed the ladder and followed them up. The cargo holds were down in the very lowest depths of the ship, below the orlop—or the engineering deck—which was in turn below the huge garage-like ro-ro deck where the roll-on roll-off cargo was parked and tied down. Above the ro-ro deck was the main outside deck, or weather deck, where five railroad containers were secured along with an old Malaysian trolley car headed for San Francisco. That was also where the currently disabled deck crane was positioned. Rising up amidships from the weather deck was the ship’s midstructure, which housed the crew deck, then above that the quarterdeck that housed the mess, galley, and lounges. Above that, perched atop the midstructure like a penthouse, was the bridge. Thank God the big stuff on the weather deck had all been tied down correctly. Talk about a potential disaster. She reminded herself to quadruple-check the railroad containers in the morning.
She reached the hatch and stretched up to grab the rim. “Hey, how ’bout someone up there giving me a hand?” she called up. Normally she’d rather chew off her own arm than to ask for help, but her muscles felt like limp spaghetti. She was actually afraid she might slip and fall.
Lars Bolun knelt and reached down, trying to slip his arm around her torso as she climbed up another rung and popped her head through the hatch.
“Just relax, Cap’n,” the second mate said with a lopsided smile. “I can pull you the rest of the way up.”
She snorted and batted him away. “In your dreams, mate.” She did, however, grab his hand to steady herself as she hauled herself up onto the orlop deck. She wobbled a bit, and he put a hand to her waist to keep her from toppling.
She straightened away from him, forcing her rubbery legs to carry her weight whether they wanted to or not. She adjusted her cap. “Thanks, Mr. Bolun. I’m good.”
He gave her an amused look. “One of these days, Captain, you’ll fall willingly into my arms.”
At that, everyone else snorted.
She rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t hold my breath, mister.” They all knew he didn’t stand a chance.
Not that he wasn’t a good-looking guy. Tall and muscular, with a shock of long, blond hair, and smart to boot. But she was his boss. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Besides, he was steady, earnest, and resolute. In other words, the kind of man who’d be looking for clean, folded clothes, a martini at the door, and a lifelong commitment from a woman.
Sam didn’t trust commitment. Not anymore. Men threw away commitment like it was yesterday’s newspaper. They were far better at betrayal, and her heart couldn’t take another one of those.
Suddenly, there was a shout from the top of the narrow stairway leading topside to the main deck. “Capdhain Richardson! You need dho come up here!”
The distinctive East Indian accent belonged to Matty, the wiper—the young greenhorn seaman who got all the dirty maintenance and gopher jobs on board. But Matty had turned out to be a natural mechanic, so Sam had unofficially elevated him to assistant engineer, which was why he was on deck helping Shandy with the crane instead of reloading the cargo with the rest of them.
“What’s going on, Mr. Shijagurumayum?” she called back. His full name was Mahatma Shijagurumayum. The others called him Matty for obvious reasons. She’d had to practice in her cabin for half an hour before she’d gotten her tongue wrapped around his ridiculously long and unpronounceable last name.
“Ginger just saw a guy climbing up dhe aft mooring line!” Matty singsonged excitedly. Matty’s accent always deepened when he was excited. Ginger was the cook, and a good one, too. “Some idiot must be trying to stow away.”
“What?” She stared at Matty for a second in surprise, wading through his accent. Then she made a beeline for the companionway—the main staircase running the whole way up the center of the ship. A stowaway? Hell, no. That was not going to happen, either. “You didn’t let him get on board, did you?”
“No, ma’am. Mr. Shandy’s waiting at dhe dhop of the line to grab him.”
“Good.” She bounded up the metal stairs two at a time. The sound of her footfalls echoed like a popgun. She hadn’t thought to post a guard on the dock—she hadn’t thought she needed one. With the threat of terrorism and piracy worldwide, security at all their ports of call was normally tight as a barnacle on a hull. No unauthorized persons should be able to get to the cargo docks.
How had this stowaway made it past the gate?
She burst up onto the weather deck, followed closely by the others. They all ran aft across the mist-shrouded deck where Shandy stood at the port rail peering down at the ghostly dock twenty feet below. His gaze swept from side to side, searching the thick black void between the ship and the cement dock. The mooring line cut like spider silk through the dark gap up to the hull. But no one was clinging to it like an insect. Or rather, a rat.
“Where is he? Did you get him?” Sam asked Shandy breathlessly, scanning the dockside. The dock lights were just glowing spheres of yellow in a shroud of shimmering gray. In the swirling fog, even with the feeble help of the midnight sun, it was impossible to see anything but the dim silhouettes of buildings and equipment.
Shandy looked up disgustedly. “Gone. He must have heard Ginger shout to me and taken off.”
Sam’s anxiety, along with her shoulders, notched down a fraction. “You’re sure?”
“Trust me, Cap’n, nobody got past me.” Shandy lifted a hand, which was clutching a big, oily wrench.
Sam winced a little but was grateful for his vigilance. “Okay. Good. But let’s set up a watch tonight, yeah? I’ll call the harbor cops and report an intruder.”
“I’ll take the watch tonight,” Lars Bolun volunteered. “I can sleep tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Mr. Bolun,” she said, grateful. She could always count on the second mate to step up when needed. “I’ll send Ginger out with a plate of food and some coffee.” She turned to the others. “Hit the hay everyone. We sail at high tide. That means six a.m., not six fifteen.”
They all groaned as she started back inside to the companionway that went up past the crew deck, all the way to the bridge.
“Maybe we should just let the fucker come on board and work him like a dog,” Frank grumbled. “We are a man short. . . .”
She threw him a withering smile and kept walking. “Right. Because we really want a desperate criminal or a terrorist working side by side with us.”
She made her way up the two flights to the bridge, where the ship-to-shore radio was located, and placed the call to the harbor police. Then she retired to her stateroom for a quick shower.
At last she sank onto her bunk and closed her eyes with a tired sigh. She was so exhausted her head was spinning.
Despite that, sleep refused to come. She just couldn’t put the intruder out of her mind. Who was he? An escaped prisoner? A terrorist? Or just some poor, homesick fishing bum or park rat who didn’t have money for passage to Nome or Seattle? Was he still out there somewhere, waiting to try again?
She shivered and pulled her blanket tight up under her chin. Of all the ships in Dutch Harbor, why had he chosen Île de Cœur to stow away on?
She thought about her sidearm, a shiny new Glock 23. It was stored in the bulkhead safe, and so far—thank goodness—had only come out for cleanings and her weekly sessions at the gun range. It was Richardson Shipping policy that all company ships keep a supply of firearms on board, so in addition to hers, there was also a gun safe with a half dozen pistols and three rifles in the officers’ lounge. Pirates were an ever-present concern. Okay, maybe not so much in the north Pacific. This was definitely not the South Seas—but better safe than sorry.
Finally she gave up, slid out of bed, and fetched the Glock from the safe. She even loaded the clip. But she drew the line at racking it. Setting the gun in a cubby next to her bunk, she got back into bed and firmly closed her eyes. She was going to get some sleep if it killed her.
She’d just sunk into that floaty twilight zone between waking and sleeping, her body relaxed and her lids heavy as lead, when there was a soft knock at her stateroom door.
She dragged up her eyelids and frowned. “Who is it?”
No one answered.
“Who is it?” she repeated, alarm creeping through her muzzy mind. She struggled up and groped for the Glock.
“It—It’s me,” a deep voice said softly.
She blinked, her hand hovering above the weapon. Who the hell would—“Bolun, is that you?” she snapped. Really?
“Open the door,” he said, his voice muffled, but more cajoling than demanding. “I, um, need to . . .”
Oh, for godsake. She rose from the bunk and grabbed her robe, wrapping it tightly around herself. At the last second, annoyance made her pick up the Glock. Padding to the door, she cracked it open and peeked out.
“What is it?” she asked. “I thought you were on watch.”
He was standing a few feet back. In the near darkness of the passageway, she couldn’t see more than the outline of his large body.
Except there was something wrong. His hair . . . it should be blond and pale, even in the dark. Instead it was black as the midnight sky.
Oh, crap. Not Bolun.
She gasped and slammed the door.
The man moved like lightning. He slapped his palm against the door, preventing it from closing, then pushed his massive frame into it so it flung open and she flew backward onto the bunk.
Suddenly she remembered the Glock in her hand. She whipped it up.
“Don’t,” he warned.
Her heart slammed to her throat.
A large, black pistol was pointing right back at her.
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