There was no moon, just stars speckling the sky. The hull of the Saudi Arabian yacht was a pale smear up ahead. The hijackers had dropped anchor a mile offshore, surrounded by water, probably thinking it would keep them safe. That they’d be able to see anyone coming.
The little rubber raft with the three Navy SEALs moved silently across the black water. When Max lifted his hand, JB and Rusty pulled the paddles inside the small dinghy and prepared to make it the rest of the way by hand.
Quieter that way.
They could have taken the guard out from right where they were.
Hell, they could have taken him out almost anytime since they hit the water. He was standing on the deck of the yacht smoking a cigarette, the red glow of the ashes like the dot in the middle of the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. JB had closed one eye and pretended to aim and squeeze the trigger. The bastard would be over the railing and in the water in less than a second.
So the directive was to take him out silently once they were onboard.
That was Max’s job. JB’s was to get downstairs and find the girl, while Rusty was responsible for her boyfriend, the rich asshole who’d thought it was a good idea to bring the family yacht and his young, blond, American girlfriend on a cruise of the Mediterranean in the middle of terrorist season.
JB hadn’t been surprised when he heard about the hijacking. What had surprised him, was the information that the rich asshole had negotiated the release of the yacht’s crew. The hijackers had put them in a lifeboat instead of just killing them, and they had made it to shore near Tripoli, and from there, had notified the authorities of the hijackers’ demands.
That was when Alpha Squad of SEAL Team Sixteen had deployed from Little Creek, Virginia.
The crew had said there were three hijackers onboard, plus Kareem Khan el Balushi—the rich asshole—and Tansy Leighton, the young, blond, gorgeous, American heiress. The jury was out on whether Kareem or Tansy was worth more money. Kareem’s daddy was a Saudi oil sheik, while Tansy’s great-great-however many greats-grandfather had owned a sizeable chunk of the North American railroad. And while railroad baron Leighton had been dead for a hundred years, the current Leighton—Tansy’s father—was worth a pretty penny in his own right. And was ready and willing to pay whatever it took, to get his daughter back in one piece.
But there were no guarantees that Tansy would make it out in one piece even if Walter Leighton paid the hijackers, and the money would disappear directly into the coffers of Al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever the big dogs were, at the back of this little caper. And the United States Navy was loath to see that happen.
So the plan was for JB, Max, and Rusty to get onboard the yacht. Max would take out the guard upstairs. JB and Rusty would go below, and take out the guards there. The hope was that Tansy and Kareem were still alive and could be rescued, but either way, Walter Leighton’s all-American money wouldn’t be going to finance terrorist organizations in the Middle East.
They drifted close to the yacht, and tied the rubber dinghy in place. It’d really suck to get back out here and find it had drifted off and they had to swim the mile back to shore, carrying the hostages on their backs. Not that they hadn’t done worse, but that didn’t mean either of them particularly wanted to do it again. JB checked the knot twice before deciding it was good.
Someone had very considerately left the ladder hanging over the side, so getting onboard was easy. In fact, it was so easy that JB halfway suspected a trap. But no, Max surged silently to the top, and nothing happened. He melted into the shadows, and JB started climbing.
Rusty followed, and then they were all standing on the deck. The guard was oblivious. They could still see the glow of his cigarette in the bow of the yacht.
The guard, that was. Mad Max would probably enjoy it.
The door opened silently, and they crept down the short stairs to the cabin level. If it’d been one of them in charge of this op—on the hijackers’ end—there’d have been a guard stationed there too. But the area at the foot of the stairs was empty. Until they got out here, he’d wondered whether they were dealing with amateurs or pros. Between the smoking guard on deck and the lack of any kind of security down here, he wasn’t wondering anymore.
The SEALs stepped down into the dining area, with a bar along one wall and a couple of tables and chairs, as well as sofas and TVs along the perimeter. All empty. At the far end of the room was a short hallway where the hostages were supposed to be—or at least where they’d been when the staff was set adrift. Kareem and Tansy had been quartered in the owner’s cabin, with three empty staterooms across the hall.
The two SEALs moved soundlessly across the floor and paused at the entrance to the hallway.
Three doors on starboard side, owner’s cabin on port side.
Rusty arched a brow.
They had two options. Open the door and take out the hijackers, who were clearly together and awake, probably playing cards to pass the time.
Not until they realized their leverage was gone, anyway. Along with any chance of getting their ten mil.
JB signaled Rusty to stay where he was, beside the door to the owner’s cabin, while he moved to twist the knob on the nearest stateroom door.
It opened, silently.
Outside in the hallway, Rusty still stood beside the closed door, testing the tip of his diving knife against his thumb. The hijackers were still laughing and celebrating behind the closed door.
He hesitated in front of the third door. Tansy or Kareem? Or both?
Alive or dead?
Only one way to find out. He tried the knob. It turned, but the door didn’t budge.
The key was in the lock, though, so that particular problem was easy to fix.
He unlocked the door, and pushed it open. And slipped through into the darkness of the room.
It hit his shoulder with enough force to fell a moose. JB closed his teeth on a curse even as he swung around and slammed the offender up against the wall, his numb left hand reaching for the blunt object that had come close to braining him, the other forearm pressed against her throat.
The realizations that she was female, that she seemed to be naked, and that she was worth millions, hit him simultaneously. And it all had to wait, because between the sound of her back hitting the wall and the heavy object in her hand hitting the floor, this op had just upgraded from a walk in the park to slightly more dangerous.
He hissed the words into her face through gritted teeth, and emphasized the command with an extra push of his forearm into her throat. She nodded, her eyes wide. Her heart was beating so hard he could feel her pulse trip against his arm. He’d probably scared her to death.
“Any time now,” Rusty said from out in the hallway. JB could hear the edge in his voice. He could also hear movement from inside the salon. Chairs moving and steps coming toward the hallway.
“Coming.” He left Ms. Leighton holding up the wall in her stateroom. “Stay.”
It was over almost before it started. Rusty took out hijacker 1 as he came through the door. JB took out number 2 a second later, when the guy didn’t have the sense to fall back when his buddy bought it. Then they both turned into the owner’s cabin, guns blazing, and took out hijacker 3 before he could get up from the card table.
Except—oops—JB saw it just as the bullet left the gun, but too late to call it back... that wasn’t a third hijacker sitting there. That was Kareem Khan el Balushi, with a highball glass in front of him, half full of some amber liquid.
For a second neither of them spoke. Then—
“Guess the intel was wrong,” Rusty said. “Not three hijackers, but four.”
“Can you hijack your own boat?”
Rusty shrugged. “You want me to do something about that?” He glanced at JB’s shoulder, which was screaming like a soul in torment.
Rusty nodded. “I’ll let Max know we’re all clear. You grab the girl.”
He headed out. JB holstered his pistol and went back to the stateroom where Ms. Leighton was.
She was still standing where he’d put her, her back against the wall. And now that he could see her more clearly in the light from the owner’s cabin, he could see that she wasn’t naked after all. She was wearing a bikini. A couple of strings and tiny triangles of fabric.
When he appeared in the doorway, she cut her eyes to him—and only her eyes—but she didn’t speak.
She shuddered. He tried—hard—not to notice what the move did to her almost naked body, but it wasn’t easy.
“Do you... um... have something you can put on? It’s the middle of the night. It’s too cold for what you’re wearing.” Not to mention what the authoritarian Muslim country where they’d put her down would do to a woman dressed so immodestly.
She arched a brow. “Do you think, Petty Officer Walton, that I’d be sitting around here like this if there was something I could put on?”
He had no answer for that, and she added, “My luggage is over there.” In the owner’s quarters on the other side of the hall, indicated by a slender finger with a pink-painted nail.
She gave him a look, but didn’t comment. And when they got into the hallway and she actually saw the bodies, her bare feet faltered for a second, before she squared her shoulders and went on, moving carefully around the dead and the blood.
She didn’t notice Kareem until she was halfway across the salon, and then she did stop, with a distressed sound. He watched, still from behind, as she took in the scene. The table, the three glasses, the two hands of cards carefully laid down, and the third scattered across the floor as they’d fallen from Kareem’s hand. An eight of spades was caught in the blood on his chest.
When she turned back to look at him, JB saw the realization in her face. There was nothing to say, though, so he didn’t try. After a second, she moved past the carnage and into the bedroom.
He didn’t follow. There was nowhere else for her to go, and anyway, she probably needed a minute to get herself together.
It took less than that. When she came out, she was wearing a pair of white, cropped pants, a pink silk blouse, and was carrying a pair of sandals and a big bag. “Sorry,” she told him. “I don’t have any shoes without heels.”
“And my passport is here.” She lifted the bag. “My wallet. My phone. You know what a pain it is to report all your credit cards lost.”
She was clearly trying to keep her chin up, so he played along. “It’s no problem.” Without Kareem, the rubber raft would be one person short anyway. Plenty of room for some luggage. “Grab whatever you need. Somebody’ll pack up what’s left and bring it to the hospital.”
She stopped. “Hospital?”
“You’ll have to get checked out. And people will want to talk to you.”
JB could relate. The Navy had a counselor on staff that the men could talk to after missions, but most of them only went when they were forced to.
She gave him a look over her shoulder as he trailed her across the salon to the stairs. “They didn’t talk to me. Just locked me in the stateroom and left me there.”
After a second she added, “I guess it could have been worse.”
A whole lot worse. JB didn’t say so, but he figured she already knew.
“What’ll you do if I can’t? Carry me?”
She didn’t look like she weighed a lot. Although with the way his shoulder throbbed, he’d just as soon not have to. “I’ll take the bag and shoes. You see what you can do on your own.”
She handed over the pink bag and sandals, and made it down the ladder without help. JB slid down after her, and they were away. Without discussing it, Max and Rusty took the paddles and began moving the dinghy toward shore. JB sat in the back with Tansy. He figured she had questions, and leaving her to sit on her own probably wasn’t a good idea. Not that she wasn’t remarkably composed about this whole thing.
At first she didn’t say much. Just breathed. It probably felt good to be outside, in the fresh air. They hadn’t kept her locked in the stateroom very long—a couple of days—but even just a few days locked up could be hard on someone who wasn’t used to it.
“I grew up in a coal mining town,” he told her. “My dad was a miner. So was my grandfather. They spent their lives underground, pretty much. Hardly ever saw the sun.”
“Sailor.” And yeah, that was why he’d joined up. One of the reasons. Anything was better than life in another West Virginia coal mine. “When I first enlisted, I did two tours on a sub.”
He nodded. “Talk about claustrophobic. When I came off the second six months, I swore I was never going back. That’s when I applied for the SEALs.”
“And now you get to rescue damsels in distress.” She managed a smile.
“I mostly get to crawl through the dirt shooting at bad guys, but yeah. Sometimes there’s a silver lining.”
They sat in silence a minute. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” warred with “Just doing my job, ma’am,” in his mind.
It wasn’t a question, but JB nodded anyway. “Looked that way.”
She sank down in the boat until she could put her head back to look up at the stars. “I’m so stupid.”
JB scooted down next to her, ignoring the pain in his shoulder. “He probably talked a good game.”
“They all do.” She rolled her head to look at him. “I thought he was different, you know? He had plenty of money of his own, so I figured he wasn’t interested in mine. I thought he liked me for me. And then it turned out to be about the money after all.”
With someone like her, it would probably always be about the money. Not about her, but about whatever someone could get out of her.
She smiled. “If I ever get down that way, I may take you up on that.”
She put her head back and looked up at the sky.
After a second, JB did the same. He knew he’d never see her again after he dropped her off to the brass when they reached shore. She’d never make it to Little Creek, Virginia, and if she did, she wouldn’t be having a beer with him at the FUBAR. The only reason she even deigned to speak to him now, was because she was out of her element and in shock and she didn’t have a choice.