“You know, with as much money as the Navy spent to send your ass to coxswain’s school,” MA3 Rhodes said as she put on her police belt, “you’d think someone would actually let you drive the boat once in a while.”
“No shit.” I scowled and slung the M4 rifle over my shoulder. “As long as Chief Lasby’s golden boy is running our section, though . . .”
She frowned but said nothing. What was there to say? Chief Lasby played favorites, Chief Lasby ran Harbor Patrol, and Chief Lasby thought MA1 Anderson was the Second Coming. The fact that Anderson was only a basic coxswain and I’d graduated Level II coxswain’s school at the top of my class and could drive that fucking boat in my sleep didn’t mean a goddamned thing, because the dirt bag was our lead petty officer. And the only reason he was our LPO was because he outranked us all, which was because Chief Lasby had given him a glowing eval he totally hadn’t deserved. Not that I was bitter.
Thanks to the extra chevron on Anderson’s uniform and how deeply his nose was planted between Lasby’s ass cheeks, he got to call the shots when we went out on patrol. And his call was . . . he drove while I carried the gun.
I adjusted the sidearm strap around my thigh. “Think we’ll at least get the Metal Shark up and running soon so we don’t have to bring the rifle anymore?”
Rhodes snorted with laughter. “Senior Chief Curtis has been after Port Ops for months to fix that stupid boat. At this rate, we’re going to break the little boat too, and then we’ll have to . . . I don’t know. Patrol the harbor in a kayak or something.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” I groaned. These days, there wasn’t much I’d put past our command.
I gazed out the Harbor Patrol Unit building’s second-story window at the boats below. The wind was brutal today, rattling the windows and even the walls of the mostly concrete building. The usually calm water of the harbor was rough as hell, waves slamming into the seawall and tossing our boats hard against the pier.
In the slip closest to shore was the Metal Shark—the biggest, most capable vessel we had. I loved that type of boat. They could turn on a dime, they hauled ass, and they were pretty stable even in rough waters. Unfortunately, ours had been out of commission for . . . hell, no one even knew anymore. I’d been here almost a year, and I was pretty sure I’d only seen that bad boy leave the pier twice.
With that boat still waiting for repairs, and the larger fast boat on reserve in case of emergency—and because it was too expensive to operate on a daily basis—we were stuck with the piece-of-shit smaller craft, which was currently out on patrol. It was tiny, rickety, and didn’t steer for shit. It could haul ass, which was good, but it didn’t maneuver nearly as cleanly as the Metal Shark. And that was in calm waters.
The best part? It was a small craft that couldn’t support a mounted machine gun like the Metal Shark. Since we had to have at least one large weapon when we patrolled, we had to go with the next best thing—the hand-carried M4 currently hanging off my shoulders. All eight-plus pounds of it. On top of the heavy vest. And the trauma plates. And my loaded sidearm. And my boots. And my police belt. I didn’t know why they even bothered having inflators in our vests. Didn’t seem like they’d really help when we were weighed down like fucking anchors.
I shifted my attention out to the mouth of the harbor and beyond. The green water was churning violently, the swells making me a little queasy even from here. I wasn’t prone to seasickness, but I knew what seas like that could do to a boat. My nausea was nerves and nothing else.
We shouldn’t be out on the boat. Not tonight.
I shifted my attention to the sky. We had about an hour and a half of daylight left. Going out in this weather was dangerous enough. As our visibility faded with the sun, it would only get worse. Going out for night ops in these conditions, on that boat, was suicide. Plain and simple.
But the powers that be insisted. After all, what better time for terrorists or something to infiltrate our harbor than while we were hiding from the elements?
Rhodes appeared beside me, gazing out the window as she fussed with something on her belt. “You know, it’s actually a good thing you’re the gunner today.”
I glared at her. “Why’s that?”
“Because if I had the rifle, I’d probably club Anderson to death with it.” She nodded at the parking lot below us, where Anderson was having a cigarette with Chief Lasby.
I turned away in disgust and pressed my back against the window. “One more year, and he’s not our problem anymore.”
“Yeah.” She sniffed bitterly. “Assuming he doesn’t get an extension and stay here. And even when he transfers, we’re still stuck with Lasby.”
I shot her another glare. “You are one gigantic ray of sunshine today, you know that?”
She smiled brightly and patted my shoulder. “That’s me.”
I couldn’t help chuckling even as I rolled my eyes. “Come on. The boat’s on its way back in.”
We didn’t speak as we clomped down the stairs and went outside into the vicious wind. Being February, it was cold as balls even without the wind and sea spray, and it was just getting colder.
“Holy shit.” I almost choked on the words as I walked. I’d been out here an hour ago, and damn but the wind hadn’t been this strong. We both had to shield our mouths and noses just to breathe. At the edge of the parking lot, the American and Navy flags were snapping and whipping in the wind, the chains pinging loudly against the poles. In this kind of weather, the flags shouldn’t have even gone up, but as with everything, it wasn’t my call to make. I just hoped neither of them broke off and wound up in the water. The seas were way too rough to try to rescue anything, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who’d be the one leaning over the side to fish out the ruined flag while Tweedle Dipshit was at the helm.
I shook myself and continued down to the pier. Up ahead, the boat was almost back to its slip, and I couldn’t help feeling a little better. My best friend was aboard right now, so we’d get a minute to cross paths while his crew turned over the boat to mine.
I stopped near the slip and watched them battle the waves to park the boat. As the ass end swung around, I caught sight of him, and my heart did a little flip.
There you are.
MA2 Chris Ingram and I had been close since coxswain’s school, and I’d secretly had the worst crush on him. Not just because he was the sweetest guy I’d ever met, but because dear God, he was gorgeous. Our base hadn’t yet switched over to the new green camouflage, so we were still wearing blue, and I loved how it looked on him. Something about the color made his black skin look even darker and brought out the warm brown of his eyes. The cut of the uniform made his shoulders seem broader and his arms seem bigger. The rest of us looked like shit in these things, but trust him to look good even when his police belt masked his narrow hips, which I’d memorized a long time ago anyway.
It didn’t hurt that he was built like a brick shithouse. He and I were about the same height—six one, give or take—but he was definitely bigger. And so, so hot. Especially with that black vest over the top of his camouflage and the laced-up black boots and—
I tore my gaze away before someone busted me. Last thing I needed was Lasby catching wind that I was checking out another MA. I was out and everyone knew it, but it didn’t hurt to fly under Lasby’s radar as much as possible. He was one of those homophobes who wasn’t obvious about it, but wasn’t all that subtle either. A few comments here and there about marriage equality, DADT, and our senior chief’s recent wedding had been enough for me to read between the lines. Besides, Chris was straight. I didn’t need him to catch me ogling him and get uncomfortable.
The boat was finally close enough to the pier, and Chris tossed me a line. Rhodes and I helped him and his crew tie the lines, and in a matter of minutes, it was secured. The crew disembarked, and they were all a little unsteady on their feet. None of them were new to being out on the water, either—Chris and MA3 Powers had better sea legs than I did. If they were that wobbly, I was fucked.
Well, this is going to be a fun watch, isn’t it?
I smirked despite my nerves. “You boys doin’ a little drinking out there?”
“I wish.” Chris’s dark skin actually looked a tad green, and he eyed the pier like he was trying to find a spot to heave over the edge. “Man, those waves are no joke today.”
“Great. And Mario Andretti over there is driving.” I motioned toward MA1 Anderson, who was sauntering down the pier.
Chris’s eyes widened. “You’re shitting me. Again?”
Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah. God help us all when he gets back from Level II school.”
Chris snorted. “They’ll boot him out of there the minute he gets out on the water.”
I held up my hand, my gloved fingers crossed.
He didn’t laugh. Stepping closer, he lowered his voice. “I’m not kidding about those waves out there. And with as fast as he drives?” His lips pulled tight. “Don’t let him go out of the harbor.”
“In this weather, only a complete idiot would try open seas.”
“But you know how Anderson likes to do his outer-harbor sweeps.”
“Fuck,” I muttered. “Well, hopefully even he’s not that dumb.”
The quirk of Chris’s lips told me he was pretty sure Anderson really was that dumb. “Be careful out there.”
Our eyes locked just long enough to fuck with my pulse.
Then he smiled, gave my arm a light squeeze, and headed up to the Harbor Patrol building.
I watched him go, but only for a couple of seconds. I definitely didn’t need anyone in our unit—least of all Chris—catching on. What I wouldn’t have given, though, for a chance to put my hands on those shoulders, especially without the uniform in the way. But he didn’t need to know that. No one in our command did.
I focused my attention on carefully boarding the wind-tossed boat, but part of my mind was still on Chris. I wished like hell I could go out on patrol with him more often, and not just so I could ogle him. He was a solid Sailor and a more than competent coxswain. We worked well together, maybe because we were both on the older end for our rank. Most people in our rate advanced to MA1—E-6—around the ten-year mark. We’d both been in fifteen years, and we were still MA2s. The last few advancement cycles had seen a lot of younger MA2s advancing while those of us who’d been in longer stagnated. Hence why we were both answering to MA1 Anderson—a cocky, ambitious kid who was great at kissing ass but not so great at doing his job.
As younger guys advanced past us, Chris and I commiserated about being ordered around by kids who couldn’t find their own asses with a flashlight and an anatomy chart. At least he got to be at the helm once in a while.
Joking and grumbling aside, we really did need to advance soon. Both of us. We had until our sixteen-year marks to make MA1, and if we didn’t, we could kiss our careers and retirements goodbye. Chris had been held back at his last few commands thanks to political and quite possibly racial bullshit. I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself. It had been ten years since my dumb ass had gone to Captain’s Mast and been summarily demoted a rank, and that incident was still following me around. At the end of the day, we each had two advancement cycles left to get promoted, or the Navy was done with us. No pressure.
So, as I settled in on the boat, I reminded myself to spend a couple of hours studying tonight after I came off watch. The advancement exam was coming up fast, after all, and I was going to own that fucker if it killed me.
Anderson and Rhodes came aboard, and after we’d pulled in the lines, Anderson steered the boat away from the pier.
The second we were clear of the slip, the boat rocked hard. Shit. The guys hadn’t been kidding—even inside the harbor, the water was rough. Bearable, though. It didn’t take me or Rhodes long to get our legs under us.
Half an hour into our watch, Anderson called me into the cabin.
Bracing myself against the metal frame and planting my feet wide on the deck for balance, I leaned in. “Yeah, boss?”
He shifted in the coxswain’s chair, gripping the helm tightly in one hand while he gestured with the other toward the mouth of the harbor. “There’s a disabled vessel about a hundred yards past the gate.”
I looked out, and there was definitely something out there. An indistinct shape that seemed to disappear between swells. Probably a boat, though I couldn’t fix my eyes on it enough to decide if it had lights or if those were just reflections from the half-moon or the base lights.
“Call in the Coast Guard,” I shouted over the wind and the engines. “There’s no way this boat can handle those waves.”
Anderson shook his head and throttled toward the open ocean. “We’ll be fine.”
“Uh, no. MA1, I’m serious.” I gestured at the violently rolling seas. “Even if we can get to that vessel, there’s no way we can help them without—”
“We’re going to help them, MA2.” He shot me a glare.
I stared at him, jaw hanging open. “It’s too dangerous!”
“And it’s too dangerous to just leave another vessel out there!” His glare hardened, and I could almost hear the accusation of insubordination.
Gritting my teeth, I stepped out onto the deck and made my way to Rhodes, who was trying to keep her balance near the stern.
“Hold on to something,” I grumbled. “We’re heading out into open water.”
Her eyes were instantly huge. “Is he insane?”
“Probably. He thinks we can do something about that.” I gestured at the possibly disabled boat.
She looked past me and scowled. “Shit. What do we do?”
I swallowed. So did she.
She said something I couldn’t hear, then grabbed her radio to call for a fast-boat response to be on standby and to get the Coast Guard mobilized. While she did that, I went out to the bow to watch for debris or other vessels; with swells that big, we were liable to crash into something without even knowing what we’d hit. Hopefully if I saw something, Anderson would be smart enough—and fast enough—to avoid it.
As soon as we crossed from the harbor into the open ocean, the ride went from rough to terrifying. The deck pitched hard under my feet. We crested a swell, and my heart lurched when I realized we’d almost completely cleared the water. We came down hard, the impact driving me onto the deck with a painful crack of kneecap to metal.
My eyes watered. It took a second for me to catch my breath, and by the time I did, we were going up over another wave. The second impact made my teeth snap together. Then we were going up again. A wall of ice-cold saltwater reared up over the side and slapped down hard on top of me, stunning me for a second and soaking me to the skin. Before I’d finished sputtering and regained my footing, the boat slammed downward again. More spray. More water. More violent pitching and listing.
Shit. We were going way too fast, and the waves were even bigger than they’d looked from the harbor. Maybe the Metal Shark in the hands of a competent coxswain could’ve handled these seas. The USS Minnow with Gilligan and his ego at the helm? Not a chance.
I motioned for Anderson to go back.
Through the windshield, he shook his head. The boat stayed the course.
For fuck’s sake.
“MA1,” I shouted. “Go back!”
“We’re fine, MA2! We’re almost there!”
“Go back, you fucking idiot!”
He glared at me with you’re going to hear about this later in his eyes. I didn’t give two shits about insubordination. Not when he was going to get us killed.
A wave tossed me hard enough I nearly lost my footing. At the stern, Rhodes stumbled and hit the railing. She nearly went over, but caught herself.
Our eyes met. The fear in hers echoed what was surging through my veins. This was insanity.
Fuck insubordination. Anderson was out of his mind, and he needed to be out of the coxswain’s seat. Fortunately, I was big enough by comparison that overpowering him wouldn’t be too difficult. I might not even have to cuff him, which I didn’t want to do in case the boat went down or he went overboard.
If it came down to it, though . . .
I took a step toward him, struggling to stay upright as the boat pitched and rolled.
But then the deck wasn’t under my feet anymore.
I was weightless for a split second.
Speeding away from the boat. Over the railing. Then down.
And as soon as I hit the water, I was the opposite of weightless. I sank. Fast.
I swam hard and managed to break the surface. As I gulped in air, I tried to inflate my vest, but I was getting thrown around too much. I’d get my fingers on the pulls just in time for the violent seas to toss me like a ragdoll, and I’d lose my grip. The rifle was simultaneously dragging me down and narrowly missing my face as the waves threw me around. I couldn’t get the strap over my head. Even when I surfaced, it was only for seconds at a time. Never long enough to breathe. Couldn’t pull the tabs on the vest. Couldn’t gain any purchase, any control, and each time I went under, it was harder to come back to the surface. Too much gear. Too much heavy, constricting gear, and I couldn’t get my hands on any of it long enough to—
“MA2!” Rhodes’s voice cut through the chaos. “Look out!”
I turned my head just in time to see a wall of gunmetal gray coming at me, and coming in hot. I put up my arm, but it caught on the rifle strap.
The hull slammed into me.
And everything went black.
* * * * * * *
Cold saltwater in my throat made me cough, but there was no air. Just more water. My lungs screamed. Pain exploded along the side of my head. Still no air.
Up? Where is up?
I opened my eyes. Bubbles were going . . .
I swam as hard as my numb, heavy limbs would swim, and followed the bubbles, but they were faster than me.
Heavy. Too heavy. Sinking.
Something jerked the back of my vest. Then a hard tug at my left side. Another at my right.
The vest’s air bladders inflated, and I was rising with the bubbles. Something was still pulling me, but it was pulling me up, so I didn’t fight it.
I broke the surface and gasped for air, but choked on more seawater. As I tried to find my breath, something loosened around my waist, and I wasn’t being dragged down so hard. A wave crashed into me, but I didn’t stay under as long this time. The rifle’s strap was no longer digging into my shoulder. The dead weight of the gun was gone.
Beside me, someone coughed and sputtered.
“Stay with me, MA2.” Rhodes’s teeth were chattering. “Help is coming.”
“What the . . .” Words. Couldn’t . . . too cold. Too much pain. Where was the boat? It was going to hit us again. Wasn’t it? Still not enough air. Everything was spinning and doubling and blurring, and my mouth tasted like copper and salt as I tried to ask what the fuck was happening.
A wave rolled us again. As I came up this time, I inhaled a mouthful of icy saltwater, and my stomach lurched. I puked so hard it hurt my guts and my violently throbbing head, and before I could take a breath, the freezing ocean pulled us under again.
The waves kept tossing us. The vests kept us more or less afloat, but the ocean was trying like hell to gain the upper hand.
Distantly, there was a rumble I thought were boat engines, but every time I broke the surface, things made less sense . . . came into fuzzier focus . . . doubled . . . tripled . . . cold . . . numb . . .
“MA2, come on! Stay with me!”
And once again . . .
The distress call came in, and before the transmission had even ended, me and MA3 Powers were on our feet and running. Several other MAs joined us, boots thumping as we sprinted down the pier. We vaulted onto the fast boat, and I stumbled on the wind-tossed deck. The water had been rough as hell when we’d gone out, and it was worse now. The wind wasn’t just whistling—it was screaming, battering boats against the pier and rocking this one so violently I could barely find my footing.
My heart was in my throat as we scrambled to pull in lines and get the boat out on the water. Cold as it was, we couldn’t afford to waste a second, especially not with the daylight running out and when we didn’t know how bad the situation really was. In the chaos, I hadn’t heard who was in the water, only that someone had gone overboard. There were only three people on that boat, and as much as I disliked MA1 Anderson, I wasn’t praying for him to be the one in the drink. I just prayed like hell we’d heard the report wrong and everyone was safe, warm, and dry.
But I could see from here that the boat was outside the harbor gate. From the looks of it, even though it was getting tossed by the swells, it was stationary. Which meant it was caught on something.
Fuck. A crippled boat and at least one person in the storm-tossed water. In February. Soon to be in the dark.
MA2 Simmons took the helm of our boat. She was only Level I coxswain qualified, but I didn’t argue. I knew from experience she was competent as fuck. Let her drive—I wanted my hands and focus free to get whoever it was out of the water.
As she drove, I gripped the side of the boat and squinted up ahead. The already shitty visibility was worsening fast, but I could see the crippled boat, plus a red-and-white Zodiac marked Coast Guard that was speeding toward it from the north.
I was sick at the sight of the patrol boat. The larger craft I was on could cope with seas like this, and even it would be tossed around plenty once we hit the open water. Of course, the powers that be wouldn’t let us use this thing for routine patrolling because it cost more to fuel and maintain, but at least we had it handy in the event the patrol boat needed a rescue.
Which it wouldn’t have if Dalton had been driving. I winced. MA1 Anderson had no business driving a boat at all, and no one had any business taking a glorified fucking dinghy out into storm-tossed open seas. There was no way in hell they’d have gone past the harbor gate if Dalton had been at the helm. None. And now people could be in very real danger.
I drummed my fingers and murmured, “C’mon, c’mon,” as we sped through the whitecaps and growing swells toward the floundering boat.
So help me, Anderson, if Dalton or Rhodes are fucked up . . .
I gritted my teeth and tried not to imagine it. Not because I disliked the idea of kicking that jack-wagon’s sorry ass, but because that scenario would mean something had happened to Dalton or Rhodes. That wasn’t something I could think about. Not now.
The closer we got, the clearer the situation was. The boat wasn’t just idling in the water. It was stopped dead. As stopped as anything could be in seas like this—the waves were still tossing it relentlessly, threatening each time to capsize it, but it wasn’t going forward. Every time a wave pushed it, the bow bucked and the boat snapped backward like something was holding it in place. It reminded me of an animal with a foot in a trap—trying like hell to escape, but inescapably restrained.
“Looks like they snagged on a fishnet,” Powers shouted.
I nodded. It had happened before. Civilian fishermen loved setting up nets near the mouth of the harbor, and it was just far enough out of our jurisdiction that we couldn’t stop them. The Coast Guard and Fish & Wildlife tried their damnedest, but the nets were still a very real hazard for us. Somewhere in my mind, I wondered how we were supposed to untangle the net from the props in this weather, but that could wait until after I knew my shipmates—my best friend—were safe.
My heart beat faster the closer we got to the boat. I craned my neck and squinted, trying to make sense of things. From here, all I could see was MA1 Anderson. He was out on the port bow, gesturing frantically at the Coast Guard boat, the water, then boat again.
There was no one else on the deck with him. As far as I could tell, no one on the boat. The coxswain’s seat was empty. Just MA1 Anderson.
No. No, no, no . . .
Second-class petty officers Dalton Taylor and Chris Ingram have been best friends since coxswain’s school. Now they’re stationed together in the harbor patrol unit of NAS Adams. They’re content as friends, but secretly, they both ache for more. Neither makes a move, though; while Dalton is out and proud, Chris is closeted—even from his best friend.
Then another coxswain’s negligence nearly drowns Dalton. After a taste of how easily they could lose each other, neither man can keep his feelings hidden anymore, and it turns out love and sex come easy when you’re falling for your best friend.
Things aren’t just heating up between the friends-turned-lovers, though. The Navy is investigating the accident, and the harbor patrol chief isn’t going to let his star coxswain go down for dereliction of duty, even if saving him means throwing Dalton under the bus.
As the threats and gaslighting pile up, Chris and Dalton need each other more than ever—as shipmates, friends, and lovers. But if their chief prevails, the only way they can save their careers is to let each other go.