“Belay that order, helmsman,” Lily countermanded.
The startled subordinate glanced their way. “Sir?”
“STAND BY.” The frogman’s compliance surprised her. “We can’t both be calling the shots, Captain. It’s a navigational hazard.”
“Now there’s something we can agree on.” The shallow waters with their submerged sandbanks and coral deposits had to be navigated carefully. “So help me, if you rip a hole in her hull––”
“I’m not here to wreck your ship.”
“Why are you here?”
“Let me worry about that. You sit back and enjoy the ride.”
He returned his attention to the helmsman as if he expected her to hand him control of her bridge. Never mind he already had control. He was mistaken if he thought she’d let him.
If these pirates weren’t working for the Frenchman and his Cuban cohorts, what did they want?
The ship and equipment were old and outdated. Her cargo and stores were of minimal value. There was some cash in the safe––ten thousand dollars worth that her sister and brother-in-law thought went to pay the IRS––and some small arms for protection. All of which she’d give up for her family and crew.
For all she knew he’d found everything worth finding.
Obviously, he had the manpower––not to mention the gun power––to overthrow her crew, but all that was nothing compared to his physical presence. She sensed real danger in him.
Lily brought a hand to her throat.
He’d let her know in no uncertain terms what he was capable of. His touch had been both menacing and reassuring as if the man himself were a contradiction.
The knot in her stomach tightened.
But why? Why take her ship?
“I never knew the United States Coast Guard to be so heavy-handed without probable cause.”
“Rest assured, Captain, we are not the Coast Guard.” He bit off each word. “But I will be taking you up on that backhanded offer to search your ship.”
Lily swallowed hard. Not that he’d find anything incriminating. Not much of anything anyway. That didn’t mean she welcomed the intrusion. She’d known from the moment she laid eyes on the two frogmen they weren’t Coasties.
She’d only said it to get a rise out of him. Her father had done a stint in the Navy before she was born and she worked with enough old salts to know the military had attitudes when it came to other branches of the service. Even the far removed branches of the family tree.
“You’re not Army or Air Force.” These men obviously knew a thing or two about shipboard operations. “Marines, maybe. Or Navy.”
He crossed his arms with a scowl.
She felt smug in that knowledge but played along. “No, not military? You are government though, right? The IRS? After those back taxes? Wait here while I get you a check.”
At least she didn’t think the IRS would go to such lengths to seize her father’s assets.
He blocked her move toward the hatch with a quick sidestep.
Lily wanted to stomp her foot in frustration.
If she didn’t think it would show a total loss of control she would have.
“What does the United States Navy want with my ship? You can answer or get the hell of my Lily Pad, you––you toad! No pun intended.” She mocked his earlier words. “I know my rights. See that flag flying off the aft deck?” The pilothouse offered a panoramic view of the ship and the sun pinking the horizon. “It’s there to protect me and everyone on board. Do you believe in what it stands for or not?”
No commercial ship bearing the U.S. Standard had been hijacked in over 150 years and she’d be damned if hers would be the first. His gaze narrowed and for a moment she thought she’d pushed him too far.
“Petty Officer Stevens,” he called to his helmsman. “Hand me the ship’s log.” The frogman in charge kept his eyes locked on hers while his subordinate reached for the requested logbook and then handed it to him. “Your log, Captain.”
He made it a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” she answered just the same.
He took the pen tucked into the crease of weathered pages, and in a scrawling left-handed manner, he wrote the next entry and then handed her the book.
“Lieutenant Thaddeus Miles Prince, United States Navy. SEAL Team Eight, Alpha Squad Leader.” He recited the written words. “Feel free to call me Toad. Sooner or later everyone does. Captain Chapel,” he continued in that same formal tone. “I’m relieving you of your command. As for why, you don’t need to know.”
“I just did. I’m assuming you’re familiar with Maritime Law.” He crossed his arms again and had the nerve to cock that arrogant brow. Again.
I’m relieving you of your command.
The enormity of his words came crashing down around her.
Lily stared at the entry. Seeing them in black and white made it all unbelievably real. She ripped out the page and hurled the crumpled ball at him.
He caught the harmless missile and tossed it to his helmsman. “I would’ve had to do that anyway. WE WERE NEVER HERE,” he emphasized each word carefully. “Burn it,” he ordered his man.
The petty officer lit the paper ball and dropped it in the sand filled butt bucket where it quickly turned to ash. Lily felt as if he’d taken a match to her. Heat spread over her entire body. Anger made her words clipped. “Do you have some form of identification, Lieutenant?”
“Don’t exactly carry ID.” He patted down his wetsuit in a mock search.
“Never wear ’em.”
“That would make you a spy.”
“I prefer world traveler.”
“You’re Diners Club Card, then? American Express?”
The helmsman snickered at her impertinence.
The lieutenant wasn’t laughing. “Left home without ’em.”
Lily mimicked his crossed arm stance. “Then how do I know you are who you say you are, Frogman?”
She’d heard of Navy SEALs––commandos of Sea, Air, and Land.
Her father had been a UDT frogman with the Seabees––the Underwater Demolition Trained––predecessors to Navy SEALs. One of the proudest moments of Skip Chapel’s life had been when JFK called him back into service for a brief period in ’62 to train the first class of UDT/SEALs.
The best underwater demolition and salvage man in the business had raised her. As far as she was concerned, these guys were just demolition divers with attitude. But the last thing she needed aboard her ship was more testosterone.
“You’re going to have to trust me, Ms. Chapel.” His words were tight, controlled as if he wasn’t used to anyone questioning his authority.
Tough. Neither was she.
“Trust? Your actions don’t exactly warrant it, Lieutenant,” she emphasized his rank. Everybody knew a captain outranked a lieutenant. So what if there was no civilian to military conversion. Even he would have to concede that aboard the OSV Lily Pad she outranked everyone.
With a jerk, he peeled off both sets of goggles and his headset, which he then hung on the belt at his hip. Next came his hood.
Her heart slammed her ribcage as he finger-combed his wet crew cut. Jet-black hair stood on end. Dark and cold as the ice in his blue eyes promised. A scar from temple to jaw marred the left side of his face. Even the grease paint couldn’t hide the grotesque mutilation of perfection.
His jaw-dropping good looks stalled further comment.
Before her stood an open seas pirate.
“Not exactly your run-of-the-mill Handsome Prince. Not to mention my lack of charm. But at least I’ve left you speechless.”
Lily closed her gaping mouth.
“I’m definitely a United States Naval Officer with the authority to take command of this vessel. Like it or not, I’m here and you and your crew are not to interfere with my mission.” His mouth held a grim line. “Don’t ever forget I’m just as ugly on the inside.”
Ugly never entered her mind.
He was beautiful in a dark, demonic sort-of-way.
Shaking her head to clear it. Lily pushed the thought aside. She couldn’t possibly find this overbearing, marauder attractive. She opened her mouth to tell him to take a flying leap off the fantail when another frogman entered the pilothouse.
“Bud,” the lieutenant addressed the new arrival. “Escort Ms. Chapel to the ship’s galley and be sure not to let her around anything sharper than her tongue.” The lieutenant turned to her. “I’ll inform you if I need anything further, Captain. For now, just stay out of my crosshairs.”
“Ma’am.” The young man, no more than twenty––maybe, still in his teens––latched onto her elbow as if she were his maiden aunt who needed help crossing the street.
Lily jerked free. “Your lieutenant is mistaken. I’m not stepping one foot off this bridge.”
The lieutenant’s scowl deepened and his subordinates squirmed like worms on the end of fishing hooks.
“Captain Chapel,” he addressed her directly. “If you don’t cooperate, I’ll have you physically removed from the bridge.”
“That, Lieutenant Prince, is the only way you’ll get me off the bridge of my own ship.” She did stomp her foot then and didn’t give a damn what any of them thought. “There are women and children on board. I want your assurance no harm will come to anyone.”
“If I could promise you that I wouldn’t need to be here.”Return to Main Page