Failure is not an option.
The words had been swirling through Jake Heath’s mind since he’d jumped out of the Black Hawk and hit the Pacific Ocean with a cold slap. Now he moved through the water, swift and silent as he closed in on his target.
Conditions for tonight’s mission were good. Better than good—they were damn near perfect. Clear skies, half-moon. Low wind, no chop. The waters around San Clemente Island were normally clear, but tonight visibility was especially high, and Jake tried not to get distracted by the otherworldly phosphorescent light show happening around him.
As Jake neared his objective, he reviewed the mission for the umpteenth time. Phase One, insertion. Jake’s sixteen-man team had been dropped off by helo and swum more than a mile through shark-infested water in order to approach the target vessel without being seen. Phase Two, assault. The SEALs would board the vessel—a dilapidated container ship controlled by three dozen armed pirates—and locate
the boat’s captain, who was being held hostage. During extraction, Phase Three, the SEALs would get themselves and the captain out by boat, hopefully before the enemy even realized their hostage was missing.
Tactically, the mission was impossible.
Which made it a classic Alpha Crew op. Tonight’s plan was so bold it bordered on stupid, and that was the beauty of it. The key was sending most of the team in as a decoy force that would board the ship via a cargo net on the starboard side and engage the enemy. Meanwhile, Jake and one teammate would slip aboard quietly and retrieve the hostage. Several SEALs had objected to the plan, but given the numbers tonight, it was the team’s best, if slim, chance for success. Jake gave the scheme a twenty percent chance of going off without a hitch.
Failure is not an option. The words swam through his mind again as he glided through the water.
Suddenly, the world went pitch-black. No trace of light anywhere.
He’d reached the target. Jake didn’t bother confirming with his compass, because the massive steel ship messed with the instruments. But this was it. Jake gave his buddy cord a tug. Petty Officer Kyle Marin, who lurked beside him in the dark water, tugged back. Jake swam closer and touched the hull. It took him and Kyle a few minutes to orient themselves and reach their designated position near the boat’s stern.
The gigantic ship was like a living thing, and Jake could hear the boat’s innards groaning and churning beside him. He visualized the layout, mentally zeroing in on the bridge,
where their intel said the hostage was being held in a room under armed guard. They knew the hostage was injured, which was one reason Jake, the team corpsman, had been tapped for the job of getting him out. Jake was in for some intense CQB tonight—close-quarters battle, a SEAL specialty—and his adrenaline was ramped up accordingly.
“Charlie, this is Delta,” a staticky voice said over the radio in Jake’s ear. It was Ryan Owen, one of Jake’s best friends. “We’re in position, starboard side. Do you copy?”
“Copy that, Delta. Charlie is in position.”
“Delta? You copy?” Jake adjusted his earpiece through the thick skin of his dive suit.
Jake felt Kyle moving nearby, probably readying his gear. Using the seam of the hull as a guide, they maneuvered to the surface, where they waited in the inky shadow of the ship.
Jake removed his mask and fins and let his vision adjust as saltwater seeped into his eyes. Kyle did the same. They took turns zipping gear into each other’s backpack as they waited for the signal.
And waited. And waited.
Jake’s shoulders tensed. His pulse pounded. He didn’t need to check his dive watch to know they were more than a minute behind schedule, which was an eternity on an op like this. He couldn’t see his teammate in the darkness, but he could feel his tension.
“Fuckin’ A,” Kyle murmured.
Jake gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. Failure was not an option tonight. It was a training mission, yes,
but a lot was riding on the outcome. Reputation, for one. Jake’s team was up against another elite unit from SEAL Team Three. But even more important, one of Team Three’s commanding officers had come up with the idea that the loser of tonight’s challenge would spend the weekend doing PT alongside an incoming BUD/S class. Tonight’s winner would be allowed to take the three-day leave they’d been counting on for weeks.
Jake had plans for the weekend, and they sure as shit didn’t include doing push-ups and beach runs with a bunch of tadpoles.
“What’s taking so long?” Kyle muttered.
Jake checked his watch. They were two minutes past—
At the first sound of gunfire, all hell broke loose—yelling, running, the loud pop of charges. Delta had been instructed to let all noise discipline go to shit the instant they were “spotted” by the enemy, and that was exactly what they were doing.
Jake pushed away from the ship and looked up just in time to see a line being tossed down. He caught a glimpse of the man’s greasepaint-covered face. Ryan. His teammate had come through, as he always did. Jake wasted no time grabbing the rope and climbing hand over hand to the deck, where Ryan waited for him. Jake grabbed the M4 he’d slung over his back. Ryan had the same weapon clutched in his hands, ready to hose down any hostile fighters with electronic bullets that would be registered by computer.
Even with all the greasepaint, Jake could see from his friend’s face that something was wrong.
“Hostage isn’t in the bridge,” Ryan reported.
“C deck storage room. Past the galley and the crew’s mess, third door, starboard.”
Ryan took off, and Jake ducked behind a steel drum, where Kyle was already hiding his gear for later. Jake did the same. If all went as planned, they’d be needing everything again for the boat extraction.
Signaling Kyle to follow, Jake kept low as he ran to the nearest opening. He pushed through a pair of doors, then grabbed a rail and slid one-handed down a ladder, landing in a dim passageway lit only by the faint red glow of a distant EXIT sign. Alert for threats, he jogged through the narrow passage, past the mess room to the third door. Why no guards?
All Jake’s senses went on high alert. This could be a trap.
Kyle grabbed his arm and nodded toward the door. Jake knew what the SEAL was thinking. According to the layout they’d memorized, this storage room connected with an equipment room. Kyle tried the equipment room door and shook his head. He immediately dropped into a crouch, ready to work his magic as the team’s lead breacher. Jake unzipped his pack and handed him a “baby boom,” a quiet charge that was just strong enough to get the job done. Kyle readied it and lit the fuse. He and Jake stepped back.
The door burst open. Jake went in low, scanning for threats. No people, just heavy equipment.
A loud squelch near the interior door told Jake the
adjacent room had people inside, hopefully including the hostage.
Jake jerked his head, signaling Kyle to follow him. He doubted the interior door would be locked, and his hunch proved correct as he slowly turned the latch.
Jake nodded at Kyle. Silently, he counted. Three, two . . .
Five people turned in unison as Jake kicked open the door. Four enemy, one hostage.
“Holy shit, four for four!” Kyle grinned at Jake.
“Hooyah!” Jake grabbed the startled hostage from a scowling member of Team Three. “We’ll be taking this package off your hands, gents.”
“Not possible, man. You’re dead, remember?” Another grin from Kyle.
Tonight’s hostage was a Team Three member who’d been sidelined with a broken arm and looked none too happy to be in custody of the rival team. Jake pulled the man into the adjacent cabin, then peered into the corridor to make sure the coast was clear.
Jake looked over his shoulder to see that Kyle had relieved their opponents of their radios, in case anyone planned to pull a Lazarus move and tip off their friends about the secret assault team.
“Nice work.” Jake turned to look the hostage over. “Hope that cast can get wet.”
“It’s not supposed to.”
Jake shook his head. “I’ll do my best.”
He led the man down the passageway, with Kyle bringing up the rear. Boots thundered above them as men raced back and forth. It was going to be tough getting off the ship and onto an inflatable boat with an injured hostage who couldn’t grab a rope. But they’d improvise.
As Jake reached the top of the ladder, he heard static over the radio, and then: “Charlie, this is Delta. Scratch the boat evac. I repeat, scratch the boat evac. Helo’s coming with a rescue basket. Get to the stern.”
“Roger that, Delta.” Jake looked at Kyle. “You got that?”
Jake peered out from the door and was pleased to see mass confusion. Men running, yelling, darting in and out of clouds created by smoke grenades. His team had pulled out all the stops with their diversion, but it wouldn’t be enough to distract however many hostile fighters remained if a chopper suddenly appeared in the sky.
As if on cue, Jake heard the whump-whump of the approaching bird. A rescue basket dangled from a steel cable as the chopper neared the ship.
“You take the hostage,” Jake ordered Kyle. “I’ll draw their attention away.”
“Just take him.” Jake handed off the hostage and sprinted for the bow of the ship, digging a flash-crash grenade from his belt. When he reached an open area, he pulled the pin and lobbed it into the center of the deck, then plugged his ears.
Fifty feet later, he lobbed two more.
Jake managed to dodge the enemy fire and ducked behind a giant winch.
“Heath, you there?” Ryan said over the radio. “We’re bringing the helo. Get ready to grab on.”
“No way. I’ll jump in and catch the boat.”
“Not happening. Boat is history. You copy? Look for the chopper. It’s—”
The transmission cut off. Jake glanced up, but the drifting smoke made it nearly impossible to see. He went by sound, running in the direction of the whump-whump of rotor blades. Looking up again, he spied the helicopter through a cloud of smoke. It was more than a hundred feet up, and the rescue basket had been reeled in.
Through the side opening, someone kicked out a rope ladder. It dangled over the ocean, though, at least twenty feet past the bow.
“Shit.” Jake looked around. A pair of enemy fighters spotted the rope ladder and started glancing around, looking for whoever planned to use it.
Jake slung his weapon over his back and made a sprint for it.
Gunfire surrounded him as every hostile fighter who could see what the hell was happening took aim at not just Jake but the helo swooping down to get him.
But the ladder wasn’t above the ship yet. Then it was above the ship, but it was too high. A jolt of adrenaline fired through Jake as he realized he had only one option.
Well, two, if he wanted to fail.
Jake pushed the chaos out of his mind and focused solely on the dangling lifeline as he raced through the smoke, timing his leap.
He launched himself into the air and grabbed on. One of the rungs slipped from his grip, but his right hand held firm. Jake’s stomach pitched as the chopper jerked up, snapping him into the air as it gained altitude.
Through wisps of smoke, he saw half a dozen angry men pointing their weapons at him. But they were out of range.
Pain fired through Jake’s shoulder as he clawed his way up the ladder. He’d injured something, but he couldn’t think about that now as he dragged himself closer and closer to the opening. Ryan leaned out, offering him a hand. Jake grasped it, and several more hands reached down to grab his arms and pull him inside.
Jake fell onto the hard metal floor, panting and cursing.
“Holy shit, Heath!” Kyle grinned down at him. “I thought you were in the drink for sure.”
Jake sat up, heart thundering. He looked around and recognized his teammates’ faces underneath the camo paint.
“Casualties?” he asked.
“None.” Ryan smacked him on the back. “Not a goddamn one. And we got the hostage, too.”
Jake scooted back and tipped his head against the wall. The aircraft vibrated around him, making it impossible to catch his breath and bring his heart rate back to normal. It wouldn’t be back to normal for a while yet. He was riding that wave of euphoria that always happened after a successful op.
Holy, holy, holy shit. They’d won. Their reputations were intact, their weekend leave secured. The team would head to O’Malley’s now to celebrate. He could practically taste the ice-cold beer.
Jake turned his attention outward as the glittery California coastline came into view. The Coronado Bridge sparkled, and he skimmed his gaze over the boats moored in San Diego Bay. He looked up the coast to the distant glow of Los Angeles. He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t keep from looking any more than he could keep thoughts of Alexa out of his mind. Some of Jake’s euphoria faded as he eyed the city where she lived.
Thinking of Alexa stirred up various emotions, and the primary one was regret. He’d messed up. All his life, he’d prided himself on his stubborn tenacity. His unwavering determination not to quit and to take on any challenge, no matter what the odds. That bullheadedness had gotten him through boot camp, and SEAL training, and then seven tours of duty and too many harrowing missions to count. And in all that time, never once had Jake given up. So what had happened with Alexa? And why was he still thinking about it, all these months later?
The helo swooped low over the base, nestled on a narrow peninsula right beside the posh beach known as the Silver Strand. Jake eyed the bars and restaurants that were already busy with Friday-night crowds. There were plenty of women out there. Jake knew that. So why was he hung up on the one woman who wouldn’t give him the time of day?
Jake returned to the team room, rolling his shoulder to loosen it. By the time he debriefed, stowed his gear, and
showered, half his friends had already left for O’Malley’s. Jake’s adrenaline rush was wearing off, and he thought about skipping out, but Ethan Dunn flagged him down before he could disappear.
“You’re coming, right?” Ethan asked.
“Mind giving me a ride?”
And there went his last hope of a covert exit. “Sure, hop in.”
They rode the short distance to the pub in Jake’s pickup with the windows down. It was a nice night, and Jake needed to snap out of his funk and have some fun, because his plans for the weekend weren’t likely to be enjoyable. He was going on a two-day camping trip in the San Bernardino Mountains with his dad and three brothers. Jake’s relationship with his brothers had never been great, but it had taken a nosedive when their dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. This weekend’s trip, which had been his mom’s idea, was supposed to be about healing. Jake doubted they were going to be able to heal decades’ worth of animosity in two short days, but for his mom’s sake, he was going to try.
The parking lot was full, and Jake created a space at the end of a row of pickups. He and Ethan jumped out of the truck and approached the bar, where a trio of jarheads was stumbling out the door, clearly shit-faced drunk.
One of them darted to the bushes and started puking his guts up.
Jake shook his head. “Pathetic.”
“Hey, there’s Ryan,” Ethan said. “Who’s that woman with him? Doesn’t look like Emma.”
Jake stopped cold.
The woman with Ryan definitely was not Emma.
Alexa Mays turned around. Something flared in her eyes when she caught sight of him. But then it was gone, just like that, and her expression stayed blank as he approached.
Long dark hair, pale skin. In her conservative black pantsuit, she couldn’t have looked more out of place at a dive like O’Malley’s. Jake’s pulse sped up as he neared her. How long since he’d seen her? Six months? Seven? Same length of time since he’d last heard her voice.
He stopped in front of her and gazed down into her cool blue eyes.
She smiled. “I was looking for you.”