THE FROGMAN, PRINCE
SEAL It With A Kiss
Somewhere between the Florida Keys and Cuba
Under the cover of darkness, Toad braced himself in the helicopter’s open hatch, marking time as seconds ticked away. His flippers tipped close to the edge.
Exactly the way he lived.
Adrenaline pumped through his veins. Perspiration gathered beneath his wetsuit. He ignored the discomfort like a hundred times before.
Flying low over the water to escape radar detection, wind-whipped backwash pelted his face as salty trickles ran into his eyes and mouth. Blinking back the sting, he scrubbed a gloved-hand over his stubbled chin.
What the hell was he doing here? Time spent in a Cuban prison still echoed in his nightmares.
What choice did he have?
It was his job.
He lived it. And he loved it.
“Listen up,” he shouted to compete with the whump–whump–whump of rotor blades. “You know the drill. The only easy day was yesterday!”
The Crazy Eights responded with a resounding, “Hooyah!”
Flashing the pilot thumbs up, Toad leapt through the hellhole at the bottom of the craft. He splashed down hard and fast. Sucked into the black, wet void he kicked out in a couple powerful strokes. From air to sea, seven men followed his lead, and the CH-46 SeaKnight veered sharply left and then out of sight.
In the eerie glow of chem sticks, he accounted for every last member of his team before fitting the breathing apparatus of the chest-mounted Dräger Lar-V to his mouth and setting a grueling pace for their two-mile ocean swim.
The rasp of exertion filtered through the rebreather like some sci-fi creature on The Twilight Zone. When a murky shadow stirred the phosphorescent algae in his path, he reached for the KA-bar strapped to his thigh, but the hammerhead moved on as if sensing a far more dangerous predator in the water that night.
Sixty minutes later, the frogmen surrounded their objective. The hull of the OSV Lily Pad measured two hundred and twenty feet from stem to stern.
As his team bobbed silently in the water, Toad waited to give the man nearest to him the signal to board. Once issued the command would pass from frogman to frogman without fail.
Lily Chapel stood at the rail of the weather deck in the predawn hours before her watch, straining to hear a distant drone. Another aircraft? Or the return trip of the one she’d heard earlier?
A shiver shot through her as she braced her hands along the weathered rail. Sound carried on the ocean. It could be miles away. Just so long as it stayed that way.
She had enough to worry about.
After a late afternoon start out of Key West, she’d dropped anchor at sunset rather than risk navigating the shoals at night. Once they reached the site, they’d have to dive round-the-clock to make up for lost time.
Lily stared out at the mast lights reflected off the inky ocean. As required by maritime regulations, forward and aft lights made the ship visible from all sides for some distance. Outside the spill of white light, stars had begun to wink out until the sky appeared pitch black.
The darkest hour before dawn?
She hadn’t attempted a night dive since the accident.
With plenty of sleepless nights since then. Guilt could do that to a person. Treasure hunting wasn’t an exact science. There were no guarantees the information she’d uncovered in Cuba would lead to The Golden Curse. Pirate wrecks were rare. Not a single one had ever been found that could be identified as such.
She tightened her grip on the cold steel.
It had to be Iron Henry’s ship.
Otherwise the risks she’d taken–was taking–well, she’d rather not think about it.
She had three days. Three days to prove her claim.
Three days to prove herself to Shannon.
“I had a feeling I’d find you up here.”
Lily turned toward her sister. “Think of the devil and she always appears. What are you doing up at this hour?”
“I think that’s ‘speak of the devil.’ And I could ask you the same thing.”
“Me either. The baby’s restless.” Shannon gathered the loose ends of her robe and tightened the sash over her expanding middle as she stepped up to the railing. “Thought I’d come out on deck to watch the sunrise.”
Lily met Shannon’s steady green gaze with her own, searching for signs of fatigue. What on earth had possessed her to allow her sister and her sister’s family to tag along?
But Shannon had never looked better. Her skin glowed in the soft artificial light. Short, sandy curls danced around her face in the slight breeze. “Pregnancy agrees with you.”
“You need a husband.”
Lily snorted. “That’s the last thing I need.”
“I’m just saying, don’t even think about having a baby on your own.”
“I knew there was a reason I didn’t want you along.”
“Well, you’re stuck with me, kiddo.”
Lily tucked a loose strand of hair–longer and lighter than her sister’s–behind her ear and turned back toward the darkness. “I never asked you for the money.” But she’d accepted it just the same, knowing full well her sister and brother-in-law must have mortgaged their home in order to come to her rescue. “I would have found another investor.”
After a year of begging and borrowing, the only man left willing to invest in her was the one man she’d never trust again, but even he was preferable to Shannon and Rick losing their home. If only her sister hadn’t insisted on coming along maybe she wouldn’t be feeling so guilty.
“Why did you insist–the money, being here? You’ve always hated this old tub.”
“Not true.” Shannon shook her head. “I just don’t love it the way you do.”
Lily sucked in a deep breath of salty sea air. “I do love it out here.”
She’d spent most of her thirty years with sea legs, working alongside their father until his death last year. She still had a hard time believing he was gone. Skip Chapel had built a semi-successful ocean salvage operation out of Key West, Florida, while raising two daughters on his own.
But his real passion was treasure hunting.
“You’re just like him, you know.”
“Why doesn’t that sound like a compliment?”
“When are you going to stop chasing a dream, Lil? It’s not even your dream, it’s his.”
“We’re not getting into this–”
“Dad spent a lifetime searching for a four hundred year old legend and never found it. Is that what you want to do with your life?”
“It’s my life–“
“If you were happy–“
“I’m happy.” Lily gripped the rail to keep from ringing her sister’s neck.
“Really?” Shannon’s gaze dropped to the deck. Not even a good swabbing could hide the worn tread, chipped and peeling paint, or the fact the Lily Pad needed a complete overhaul. “Is that why you went to see him?”
It was on the tip of Lily’s tongue to deny she’d been to see the man responsible for their father’s death. “It’s not what you think.” Lily turned away from the hurt in her sister’s eyes.
They used to share all their secrets.
“He’s not right for you.”
“It was business.” As in none of hers.
“Ah-huh.” Shannon shot her a look of disapproval, but then softened the accusation in her eyes with something much worse. Pity. “I listened to you putting the kids to bed. You should have a couple of your own before it’s too late.”
“Didn’t you just say I needed a husband for that? The men I meet tend to be drifters. Especially when I can’t afford to pay them.”
“I’m not talking about salvage divers.” Shannon let out an exaggerated huff. “You’re obsessed with this pirate ship. There’s a whole world out there not covered in water.”
“That would be Mars.”
“You need something more in your life or you’re going to find yourself alone.”
“I’m hardly alone.” She had her crew. Even if the majority of them were old enough to be her father and had been with the ship for as long as she could remember, they were loyal. They weren’t going anywhere.
At least not at this moment.
“Your biological clock is ticking.”
“Thirty’s not that old.”
“When then? Thirty-five, thirty-six? You’re wasting the best years of your life chasing after old junk and old dreams. A woman in her thirties is more likely to be taken hostage by a hijacker than to get married.”
“Where did you read that, Good Hostage Keeping?”
Shannon crossed her arms over her baby belly. “Fine. Mock me–“
“Maybe I don’t believe in the whole happily ever after fairy tale like you do, but there are a few frogs out there I haven’t kissed. When I’m ready I’ll go find one.”
“All I want is what’s best for you.”
“Then drop the subject. Pleeease…”
“Just don’t say I never told you so.” Shannon gave in with all the grace of a meddling older sibling. They’d been rehashing the same argument for years–ever since Shannon had married right out of college–but more so now that their father was gone.
“Speaking of handsome princes, how’s Rick?”
“Not quite so green around the gills. After praying to the porcelain god for the better part of the night, he fell asleep on the bathroom floor. With his life jacket on.”
Lily stifled a giggle. She could imagine her brother-in-law in a Mae West and rumpled pajamas with pens from his pocket-protector spilling out onto the tile, his glasses askew. “Why didn’t he just take the Dramamine?”
“You know Rick. The man won’t even touch an Aspirin.” Shannon cracked a smile and their pent up giggles turned into laughter.
“Poor me.” Shannon’s laughter faded as she covered a yawn. “Between Rick and this baby I’m the one going without sleep. Guess I’d better get below and join him for a few more hours of shut-eye while I still can.”
“What about watching the sun come up?” Despite the meddling, Lily didn’t want her sister to go. They had so few shared moments like this anymore.
“Tomorrow,” Shannon promised. “Have you even been to bed yet?”
Lily shook her head. “Missed my chance. I want the ship underway as soon as the sun hits the horizon.”
“I’ll say good night again then. Sleep tight.”
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” they finished in unison.
Lily leaned back and watched her sister walk away.
Shannon hesitated at the ship’s ladder. “Lil, promise me something. If you don’t find The Golden Curse this time, that’s it. You’ll give it up. Your handsome prince isn’t going to wait forever and you’re not going to find him way out here in the middle of nowhere. Men don’t just pop up out of the ocean.”
“You know I can’t promise you that.” Lily didn’t like disappointing Shannon. Why couldn’t her sister understand their father’s dream was her dream? He’d come so close to seeing his life’s work realized. She intended to see it through. “Besides, I owe you a return on your investment. I think you’d care about that at least.”
“Not as much as I care about you.”
Talk about your guilt trip.
Tell her now.
But she couldn’t bring herself to spoil the moment. They said their good nights once again. Shannon climbed back down to the freeboard deck and Lily turned back to the inky blue-black void. Lulled by the sea slapping against the hull, she slipped back into her thoughts.
Even though she managed to captain an Off-Shore Support Vessel with a crew of fourteen men, she still felt totally inadequate around her big sister. Lily didn’t know how much longer she could keep Shannon in the dark or if she even should.
She was running out of time and it wasn’t her biological clock ticking.
The ship’s bell chimed three times–zero, five thirty.
Scratching at a chip of peeling paint, she stared at the gunmetal gray fleck on her finger. Maybe Shannon was right. But she couldn’t just give all this up.
Dusting off her melancholy with the paint fleck, she leaned out over the rail to let the sea breeze caress her skin like a lover’s touch. The sea was her one true love. But not her only friend.
A purring ball of fur wove between her bare ankles.
“Hello, there.” Lily brushed back a strand of hair as she bent to pick up the mackerel tabby. The green-gold eyes of their recent stowaway stared back at her with little sympathy. “You see right through me, don’t you?”
Feline ears twitched. Turning toward the darkened aft deck, the cat twisted out of Lily’s hold to stalk her imaginary prey. “How many times have I told you? There are no rats on board.”
The tabby stopped her pursuit to meow at her. Glancing over at the cat, Lily caught sight of a puddle in the shape of a giant, man-sized boot print.
She shook her head at the trick of light on an overactive imagination. Nothing unusual about a wet spot on the weather deck. Checking her wristwatch, she headed toward the pilothouse. She still had several minutes before sunup, but she needed the company.
“French,” she called out to her crewman, “can I get you a cup of coffee?” Stepping into the pilothouse, she stopped to flick the light switch. Nothing. “Why is it so dark–“
She caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure in dripping wet scuba gear at the helm and froze. In that moment of hesitation, he turned a sub-machine gun on her.
A gloved hand clamped over her mouth from behind. She let out a muffled squawk. The vice-like grip pinned her to a solid frame. Lily twisted and turned, but her captor didn’t budge. Somewhere in her fear-clouded brain, she realized there were at least two unknown men onboard. Both held her motionless–one in his grasp, the other with a gun.
Where was her crew?
What about Shannon, Rick and the kids?
Her heartbeat pounded in her ears.
The frogman in her line of vision lowered his weapon. Lily watched in wide-eyed terror as he hoisted it over his shoulder and busied himself with the controls on the bridge.
“Mmmmm!” She strained against her subduer’s glove.
“Don’t scream,” he said close to her ear. “I’m not going to hurt you.” The masculine resonance held a reassuring quality, making her want to believe him.
“I’m going to remove my hand,” he continued in a low murmur. A shiver shot up the length of her spine, followed by the awareness that he held her close.
His whisper covered any discernible accent.
American? Russian? Cuban?
They were near enough to international waters that she’d reserve judgment. Three years earlier–the year before his assassination–President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba until Khrushchev pulled his Soviet missiles. Though the blockade no longer existed, embargoes were still in place. Give or take a few knots in either direction and she’d be breaking the law in two countries, a moot point since she already had to get here.
The unknown threat behind her lingered dark and dank. Danger stank of wet rubber and bilge water. His very essence seeped through to foul her clothes and she shivered.
“You won’t scream,” he ordered.
She shook her head. As he peeled back his gloved hand, she schooled herself to remain calm. Once he removed his hand completely, she screamed for all she was worth. “Frenchhhhh!!!”
His hand clamped back over her mouth. He leaned in closer, if that was even possible, and whispered in her ear. “You’re playing a game you can’t win.” An underlying warning replaced the earlier reassuring quality.
With a flick of his wrists he could snap her neck.
Clutching his neoprene-covered forearm, Lily threw her weight from side to side. She stomped his instep and kicked his shins again and again.
He pulled her tighter, until her flailing feet dangled above the deck, and she recognized the thing poking into her spine as something other than flesh and bone.
A tank of some sort.
She swallowed hard, thoughts swirling around in her rattled brain. A chest mounted O2 tank? Unlikely. A rebreather, then? Not exactly the scuba gear for deep sea diving. For swimming? Military?
Oh, hell no!
American? Russian? Cuban? Did it really matter?
“Mmmmm! Mmmmm!” She vented her frustration against his covered palm.
“Go ahead, scream.” He uncovered her mouth again. “It won’t do you any good. They can’t hear you below decks, Ms. Chapel.”
“You know my name.” Lily went as still as the muted darkness surrounding them. The moment he relaxed his grip, and her feet touched down, she spun around to face him. Her five-feet, three-inches, shrank in comparison to this six-foot-plus block of ice standing before her.
Not a single distinguishing feature gave away his nationality. A diver’s hood covered his head, with swim goggles perched on top like frog’s eyes, while some sort of night vision goggles covered his own.
Grease paint smeared what little she could see of his face. A microphone swung out in front of his mouth and connected to an earpiece, which disappeared beneath his hood. The abandoned breathing apparatus and chest-mounted tanks–black wetsuit, black paint–all served to conceal the man beneath.
“It seems we’ve landed on your pad, Lily. Pun intended.” His voice lacked any hint of humor and a renewed sense of fear ripped through her.
“Who are you? And what in the hell have you done with my crew?”
In the economic red glow of emergency exit lights, he pushed aside the NVGs. Pierced by the ice of his cold eyes. She stood riveted to the deck.
The chilling effect in those murky blue depths raised goose bumps on her flesh.
Thinking of her family and crew, she prayed her knees wouldn’t buckle, rendering her totally useless against this–this pirate.
Pirate! The word echoed through her head.
“What do you want?” She managed past the tightness in her throat.
He didn’t answer. Didn’t try to restrain her.
He didn’t have to.
Loaded down with weapons and gadgets the frogman posed an intimidating threat in his black rubber spy gear. Talk about dressed to kill. Overkill was more like it. She couldn’t begin to imagine a use for most of his hardware. How did he manage to swim weighted down with all that gear?
Lily let out a nervous laugh. At any moment, he’d unzip his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo–a dry tuxedo at that–and introduce himself as 007 or some equally impressive code name.
But this James Bond was no Sean Connery.
She’d sat through Goldfinger twice–the first time because of all the hype over a new Bond flick, the second to sigh over the sexy Scot’s accent and dimples. She did love a man with dimples. She could hardly wait for the Christmas release of Thunderball.
If she made it to Christmas.
Lily swallowed her laughter. Judging by the look in the frogman’s eyes she might not want to test his license to kill.
Rubbing damp palms against cutoff jeans, she mustered every ounce of courage she possessed. “Who are you and how the hell do you know my name?”
I know a great deal about you, Captain.” He dragged the syllables as if her title were an insult to his tongue. “Like what you’re doing here.” His voice remained low, his eyes chilly. “You just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He reached out and closed his gloved hand over her throat.
Emotionless ice-blue eyes would be the last thing she ever saw. Her last thought would be, her sister was right. She’d been hijacked out of a happily ever after.
Pre Order Now! Only $2.99