"What's going on?" Shannon demanded from the open hatch of her stateroom.
With a guilty start, Lily jumped back from the frogman and the mesmerizing caress of his thumb on her lower lip. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. My button was caught and he–– I mean, we––”
Shannon stood with her hands on her generous baby hips. "Where is your shoe?"
Lily shrugged. She didn't know what the hell was going on. Only that she'd somehow turned to Key Lime Jell-O with the lieutenant as her mold.
Her sister took a step toward her and wiped a smudge of greasepaint from her cheek. "This doesn't look like nothing. He," she cocked her thumb toward the frogman, "doesn't look like nothing. Since when did we hire another diver? I thought it wasn't in the budget?"
"We didn't." Lily rubbed at the greasepaint on her face. "He's not one of ours, okay. He just popped up out of the ocean." A nervous laugh escaped as she recalled the earlier conversation with her sister. There was no way he'd overheard that, right?
Not exactly your run-of-the-mill Handsome Prince. Not to mention my lack of charm.
Shannon looked the frogman over from head to toe. "What's with all the weapons?” she demanded. "Are you a pirate? Are we being hijacked?"
I don't know. Maybe. Yes!
"No, no," Lily tried to reassure her. "Lieutenant Prince is a Navy SEAL. I don't know any more than that." She shrugged as the enormity of the situation started to sink in. The Navy had control of her ship. And a toad–no, the Toad–had control of her. "Lieutenant Prince. My sister, Shannon Harper."
"Ma'am," he said. "I apologize for the inconvenience. I need you and your husband to gather your passports and bring them to the ship's galley."
Ma'am? Where did Mr. Courtesy come from all of a sudden?
"Why do you need our passports––"
"What's going on?" Rick appeared at his wife's side. Paler than usual from his recent bout of seasickness, his chestnut hair tumbled across his forehead. He wore boxers and a T-shirt with his lifejacket securely in place.
"My brother-in-law." Lily continued the introductions. "Rick, this is––"
"A gun-toting frogman making out with my sister in the passageway. Rick, do something!" Shannon shoved her husband forward. Rick stood stock-still.
The frogman was bigger, badder and better equipped.
What was an accountant supposed to do? Stick him in the eye with a pencil?
"Shannon, really." Lily felt the heat creep into her cheeks. "We were not making out. I told you––"
"My corpsman can give you something for mal de mer, Harper."
"Thanks." Rick nodded and then had to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Lily and Shannon both turned to stare at the man who'd refused their repeated offers of Dramamine.
"Rick?" Shannon scolded her husband. "He was all over Lily."
"It's not what you think." Lily ground her teeth. It was bad enough being caught up in the moment. What was that all about anyway? More embarrassing to realize she hadn't taken a step back until they were caught.
Hold me. Thrill me. Kiss me.
The title of their father's favorite song, the one that reminded him of their mother, came to mind. They'd heard the Karen Chandler version over and over again as kids. But it was the current Mel Carter cover climbing the charts that played in Lily's head like a skipping record stuck on thrill me. Was it possible to be this–furious and...frustrated–and still somehow find the frogman thrilling?
Or maybe her sister was right again and her ticking time-bomb biology had decided six foot two with eyes of blue would do nicely. She pictured little tadpoles swimming toward her and clamped a hand over her mouth to hold back a scream.
"He was all over you." Shannon persisted.
"That explains the long two minutes." An unfamiliar voice remarked from the end of the passageway.
The man joining them had Lily's sleepy-eyed niece and nephew in tow. Seven-year-old Joey in his superhero pajamas and five-year-old Crissy in her pink robe and matching bunny slippers clung to the man's hands. Both were wearing their life preservers––like their dad.
Lily's gut wrenched at the sight. The kids' room adjoined their parents' stateroom. This meant the frogman had gotten to them through the secured outer hatch, which she'd personally locked tight to safeguard against them wandering off on their own.
Shannon rushed to her children. "Are you all right?"
They bobbed their towheads as if they were woken up every day by a total stranger and didn't quite know what to make of their mother fussing over them. Lily only had herself to blame. Because fires and flooding were very real hazards aboard ship, she'd instructed her niece and nephew to follow any crewman who came for them.
How were the kids supposed to know these men weren't part of the crew?
Not that it would have done them any good to refuse the frogman.
Lily promised herself a talk with them about stranger danger. Right after she had that talk with herself. Although this stranger's uniform consisted of a white polo shirt stretched across a broad chest, khaki shorts and deck shoes, he was one of them. Thankfully, he had no weapons–or explosives–in sight.
"Lieutenant Junior Grade Mitchell Dann." He introduced himself, shaking Rick's hand and smiling with ease at everyone present. “They call me the Garbageman."
"He takes out the trash," Joey piped in.
"Looking for me, Dann?" The lieutenant asked.
"Couldn't reach you on your headset." Mitch Dann tapped his ear. "But we were listening in on some very interesting air time. Thought maybe the captain had swept you overboard, LT."
Lily's cheeks burned.
Taking the obvious hint, the lieutenant switched his transceiver to the mute position as he threatened the junior officer with a look.
Mitch Dann cleared his throat. But his smile held.
"Wow! You really are frogmen!" Joey scrambled over to the lieutenant. "He says you guys are Navy SEALs."
"Yup, we're really frogmen." The lieutenant hunkered down to Joey's level. His Tactical Board held the boy fascinated while the man patiently answered Joey's questions about the combination swim board, dive-watch, and compass.
Lily placed a restraining hand on her nephew’s shoulder. "Don't touch," she cautioned, wary of anything the frogman had in his position.
The lieutenant nodded toward the other man. "Go with the JG and he'll tell you all about it."
Joey glanced over his shoulder at the man in civvies and then turned back to the fully equipped frogman. "Will you show me more stuff first? Can I shoot your machine gun?"
"No!" Five adult voices rose in unison.
But the lieutenant's vehement protest rose above the rest.
Joey's lower lip quivered.
"Guns aren't toys." The lieutenant slung the weapon from his shoulder. He removed the ammunition clip and cleared the barrel. "This is a German made Heckler & Koch MP5N, 9mm semiautomatic submachine gun. With a maximum effective range of one hundred yards…”
The information flew right over Joey's seven-year-old head so the lieutenant started over. "All you need to remember is HK or MP5. And that it's the close-quarters combat weapon of choice for Navy SEALs."
He held it out for Joey's inspection. "See, nothing special. But if you point this gun..." He turned it over in large capable hands and sighted down the barrel. "And pull this trigger..." He showed Joey the mechanism. "It's not pretend like on Sea Quest. When it's loaded––even sometimes when you think it's not––it's for real, and somebody really gets hurt. Or even dies."
"Oh." Joey looked at the weapon and the frogman a little more cautiously. "Have you ever killed anybody?"
"You don't want to kill anyone, Joey. It's not something you can take back. Ever." The lieutenant broke the tension by mussing the boy's blond head. Then he nodded toward the junior officer once again. "Go with Dann. And you can hold on to this for me." He handed over his tactical board.
Lily hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until she let it escape.
She met the lieutenant's somber gaze head on as he pushed to his feet and slung the HK back over his shoulder. She hadn't expected the Toad to come with a conscience, let alone possess enough compassion to reassure a child.
Her heart leaped to her throat and stuck there.
"Folks." He gestured, indicating the Harpers should follow the other officer.
Shannon opened her mouth to protest, but Rick shook his head and sent her back into their compartment for the requested passports. She emerged a moment later with their passports and a pair of pants for her husband.
Rick hopped into his khakis. Together the Harper family and the JG headed toward the exterior passageway and the ladders that would take them up to the galley on the main deck. Joey ran on ahead. Crissy, still holding Mitch Dann's hand, turned and offered the scarred frogman a shy smile.
The pirate winked.
Lily reached for Crissy's free hand and offered a cautious smile over her niece's head to the man who would be escorting them to the ship's galley. His dimpled-smile enhanced the sparkle in his brown eyes. For the first time since frogmen boarded her ship, Lily believed things weren't as bad as they seemed.
Maybe she'd get some answers after all.