CHAPTER ONE

WAR

The barrel of the shotgun wavers slightly but remains pointed squarely at my chest.

Blood surges through my veins and roars in my ears. My hands squeeze around the grip of my .45.

Pull a fucking gun on me? This won’t end well for you…

Staring down the business end of a damn shotgun was not on my to-do list today…or any day, for that matter. But in this profession, it was inevitable.

I can’t do this type of work and expect everything to go smoothly all the time. After five years on the waters, hijacking ships and stealing cargo, it was bound to happen. Someone was going to fight back with more than a few lamely thrown punches eventually.

 

Beating someone into submission is just part of the job. Using steel is too.

 

But this—she—is unexpected.

 

Cargo ships don’t usually have firearms on them, which makes hijacking them a fuck of a lot easier.

This time should have been the same…yet the reality is right in front of me.

My stomach churns slightly at having to point my gun at my would-be assailant. But the tiny, redheaded pixie, who looks as pure and innocent as a fresh Wisconsin snowfall, seems rather fucking intent on blowing a hole in my chest.

What’s a woman like her doing on a cargo ship in the middle of Lake Michigan?

 

The shotgun dips slightly. She struggles to regain control and re-center the barrel. That thing must weigh seven or eight pounds—a lot for a small thing like her to handle—and she’s been holding her aim for almost three minutes.

 

This standoff won’t last much longer. Rion will notice my radio silence and come looking for me. Either the pixie will give up, or she’s in for a big surprise when he makes an appearance.

 

The warm breeze drifting through the open door to the bridge whips her wavy hair around her pale face in crimson swirls. Her green eyes narrow, and she flicks the tip of her tongue around her cupid’s bow lips.

 

Jesus. Fucking. Christ.

 

Under any other circumstances, I might take her against the wall of the bridge and screw her until the sun goes down. Too bad she’s a giant pain in the ass and the one thing standing between me and what I need.

 

She squares her shoulders and raises the gun slightly. “I said, drop your fucking gun.”

 

Despite the shaking in her body, her command is strong and unwavering.

 

Too bad it’s all a fucking act. She’s scared shitless. And she should be.

I smirk, and a red flush creeps up her throat and across her lightly freckled cheeks. Yet, she stands her ground.

 

She has balls. I’ll give her that. But the blush of her pale skin proves she isn’t immune to my charms. That should make this easier.

Scare her or seduce her. Either way, I’m getting what I came for.

A single step brings me closer to her, and the damn gun. At this range, I’d be fucking toast.

 

“Sweetheart, you and I both know, there is no way in hell I am going to lower my weapon.”

 

Her giving me orders might be adorable if we weren’t in such a time crunch. We’ll have hell to pay if the Marconis don’t get their shipment tonight, and the incoming storm front is already threatening the job. Choppy waters and swells will make the trip to Chicago a real bitch once we get what we came for. The last thing we need is some princess wanna-be Annie Oakley trying to stop us.

 

She presses her lips together and clenches her jaw so hard, the muscle at the side tics.

 

Red has some attitude, that’s for sure.

 

The shotgun repositions, and she makes sure it’s aimed directly at my face this time.

Trying to intimidate me, little girl?

 

Another step forward and I’m close enough to catch a faint whiff of something floral—lilacs, maybe—and I shift my shoulders back and puff out my chest to provide the maximum effect.

 

If my gun isn’t enough to intimidate her, maybe my size and proximity will.

 

She stumbles back a step, shaking her head and sending her red locks floating around her face. “Don’t you fucking move, asshole.”

 

Another command? Cute.

 

But she also just showed I’m a hundred percent right. It’s all an act.

 

False bravado.

 

I stop my advance, but my smirk widens to a full-blown smile despite my best efforts against it.

 

A crack in my armor is never good, which is why smiles don’t come often for me. In this profession, it’s essential to assert dominance, to let people know you are in charge and won’t back down, that you are unbreakable. Smiling shows you are human, and being human means weakness.

 

Weakness can’t exist here. Not with her.

 

But, since the moment I stepped onto the bridge and found her with that shotgun pointed right at me, I haven’t been able to keep the corner of my mouth from twisting up with just about everything she says.

 

That’s dangerous—for me and her.

“For such a pretty little thing, you sure curse like the big boys.” Having her bent over the captain’s chair screaming four-letter words into the air while I plow into her briefly crosses my mind.

 

Too bad. Such a waste of a tight body.

She scowls, her eyes focusing on the barrel of my gun, currently pointed directly at her surprisingly ample chest.

 

I’d rather not shoot her, but if it means getting what I came for, then I’ll do what I have to. She needs to know who’s in charge here, and, despite what she may think, it isn’t her.

 

Over her shoulder, through the open door, Rion silently climbs the stairs to the bridge.

 

I school my expression. Poor thing has no clue she’s about to lose that false sense of power in her hands.

 

Sorry, Red.

“I’m not telling you again, drop your…”

Her words trail off the moment the barrel of Rion’s gun touches the back of her head. Standing six foot five, his two-hundred-seventy-pound frame dwarfs her maybe five foot one, one hundred pounds.

 

God, she’s tiny.

Everyone looks small next to Rion—even me—but next to pixie, he looks more like something from the Marvel Universe.

He grins in my direction.

 

I take another step toward her as I holster my gun. The situation is under control now. I won’t be needing it again. My hand wraps around the barrel of her shotgun, and I tug it from her hands and set it on the console next to us. The desire to fight flashes across her face, but she’s smart and lets her hands fall to her sides.

 

“Sorry, sweetheart. Valiant effort, though.”

 

She glares at me, clenching her small, empty hands.

 

There’s something else I would love to have those fists clenched around. Maybe in another place, another time.

 

I understand her seething rage. We came onto the ship with clear malcontent, but as long as she and the rest of the crew cooperate, we’ll be on our way quickly and she can go on with her life, forgetting we ever existed.

 

The insurance will cover the cargo we take, and, more than likely, the owner of the vessel will file false losses anyway so they’ll end up ahead. That’s the way it always goes. No one has any integrity anymore. But in the end, it’s a win-win for everyone. We get what we need for Il Padrone, plus whatever’s in the safe, and the owner gets some extra cash for a few hours of inconvenience and some added paperwork.

 

Rion yanks her arms behind her back.

“Oww!” She looks over her shoulder at him while he secures her wrists with a zip tie. “What the fuck?”

 

When her eyes return to me, they blaze with the fire of a thousand suns.

 

“Sorry,” I turn to look for the logbook on the bookcase behind me, “but you’ve already proven you’re too ballsy for your own good. If you tell me what I need to know, this will be a lot quicker and a lot less painful for you.”

 

Making threats and being willing to follow through are necessary evils in this job. Each and every one of us will do whatever’s necessary—some, more easily than others. That includes getting rid of anyone in our way, but I’m not totally heartless. These people are just employees doing their jobs, trying to make a living. They don’t deserve to get hurt or to die…as long as they don’t do anything stupid. Then…all bets are off. The job and the guys come first and always will.

 

My radio crackles to life, and Cutter’s voice cuts through the static. “Secured the deck and holds. We have six hands on deck. Offload started.”

 

Good.

Recon indicated there would be a crew of seven; that means there isn’t anyone lurking beneath us, calling for rescue or waiting for a chance to pounce on us as we offload the cargo.

 

“Bridge secure,” I reply. “We have one. No sign of the captain, though.”

 

I glance back at her, hoping she’ll fill me in on where the man in charge might be. He must be with the crew Cutter and Elijah rounded up.

 

Anger glints in her eyes, and she squares her shoulders. “I won’t tell you anything. When I get free, you’ll pay for this.”

 

The bravado in her voice is fake. We both know it, but I’ll let her cling to the comfort her act of defiance holds for a while. It makes people feel better to talk back, to think they have any say or ability to control what’s happening around them—even when it’s all in their heads.

 

Rion covers his mouth to hide his laughter, and I chuckle to myself.

 

She glowers at him over her shoulder then focuses on me.

 

This girl is a piece of work.

It isn’t often we find a woman on a cargo vessel. I can only think of one, and she was nothing like pixie over there. Suffice it to say, women working on cargo ships generally don’t look like swimsuit models.

The tiny redhead, on the other hand, is every man’s wet dream. At least, any man who likes redheads, and, God knows, I have a weakness for those of the ginger persuasion. Which means keeping my guard up is even more important. I can’t let my dick get in the way of what needs to happen to get out of here safely with what we need.

 

Her forest-green eyes bore into me, and I have a sneaking suspicion she can see into my soul—a terrifying prospect for someone like me. Someone who depends on people’s fear to succeed.

 

She’s ready for a fight and is just looking for an opportunity to get the upper hand again. I may not want to use that gun, but I will if I have to. There’s too much at stake. And Rion, Elijah, and Cutter will pull the trigger before there’s even time to consider it. She needs to know we’re a real threat.

 

An unusual tightness forms in my chest, but I ignore it in favor of returning my attention to the bookcase.

 

A blue logbook sits on the second shelf, exactly where it should be. I grab it and carry it across the bridge to the captain’s chair in front of the console, the metal floor creaking with every step. I drop onto the seat, and plush leather cradles me. I prop my feet up on the console and open the book across my thighs.

 

“Get your damn feet off the console.”

 

I glance over.

Those damn eyes drill me again as she looks between my boots and my face, like a mother annoyed her kid has his feet on the coffee table.

 

Why does she care so much where I put my damn feet?

“Where is the captain?” I tap my boots against the console intentionally, letting little bits of dirt and who the hell knows what else drop off them onto the clean surface.

 

Tipping her chin up, she snarls. “Fuck you.”

 

Her non-answer almost brings another smile, but I’m finished with games.

 

Whoever manages the logbook has impeccable penmanship. The names of the six crewmen appear below that of the captain. “Captain G.A. Albright, where is he?”

 

No women on the crew list.

 

So, who the fuck is she?

 

“And who are you?”

She presses her lips together until they’re white. I radio to Cutter. “Bring me a member of the crew.”

 

Her shoulders tense, and the fear finally begins to show in her eyes despite her best efforts to appear unaffected.

 

She gets points for that, at least.

“Roger that, Cap. Two minutes.”

 

I raise an eyebrow, waiting for some verbal response from her, but she remains silent. “Still have nothing to say? That’s okay, I’ll get what I need from someone else in about two minutes.” I flash her my best panty-dropping smile. “I always get what I need, from someone.”

 

She clenches her jaw, clearly picking up the innuendo in my comment.

Good. I was laying it on fairly thick.

Footsteps on the metal stairs alert me to Cutter’s arrival. He doesn’t bother sneaking up here the way Rion did. He nudges a zip tied and terrified man into the room. Sweat beads the crewman’s weather-beaten forehead and temples, and his eyes immediately fall on me, then move to Rion, and then the feisty redhead.

This guy will be easy. I’ll have my answer in no time.

Cutter nods at me then disappears back down the stairs to help get what we came for loaded onto the boat.

 

“Thank you for joining us.” I drop my boots to the floor, rise to my full height, and toss the logbook onto the chair. “I’m hoping you can answer a few questions for me.”

 

His gaze immediately flicks to the pixie, and I don’t miss the subtle shake of her head.

 

Now, this is interesting.

Men rarely look to women for permission or direction, especially on the water. Most are misogynist pigs who believe women belong barefoot, naked, and pregnant in the kitchen. In reality, women are probably better than ninety percent of men at seventy-five percent of the things men try to do. Most men are too macho to ever publicly admit they look to women for guidance. That is doubly true for seamen.

 

“Don’t look at her, look at me.” I step up to him, putting my face, and my chest, mere inches from his own. “Where is the captain?”

 

For a flicker of a second, his eyes land on her.  I follow his gaze.

 

She shakes her head at him.

 

He quickly recovers, looking at me and shaking his head, but it is too late—I saw it and he knows.

“I…uh…I don’t know, sir.”

 

I step between him and pixie and force her back until she hits the wall. Her face barely comes to the middle of my chest. I look down at her, and she tilts her head up, rebellion in her stance and eyes. A glance over my shoulder at the crewman tells me I’ve hit a nerve.

 

His tense body and skin shining with sweat scream he doesn’t want me anywhere near her, but his tied hands and Rion towering over him prevent him from making whatever move he’s clearly considering.

 

I turn to face him, step to her side, and put my right hand on the butt of my gun. “Who is she?” I point at her with my free hand.

 

His eyes beg me to stop, to leave, to move away from the woman.

 

Curious. Is he afraid of the pixie or protecting her?

 

I grasp a strand of her silky red hair, twirling it around my finger.

“Get your stinking hands off me!”

 

She tries to yank it from my hold by moving her head, but I tug until she yelps. The crewman lunges forward, but Rion grabs his zip tied arms, jerking him backward.

 

“Leave her alone!” He struggles against Rion’s grip.

 

Crews who have worked together for a long time are tight, often willing to defend each other, even if it means endangering their own lives. Maybe that is all this is, maybe they are romantically involved, or maybe he just has a death wish. Whatever it is, this guy is just itching to get shot.

 

He’s lucky none of us have twitchy trigger fingers.

 

“Tell me what I want to know and I will.” I tug on her hair gently again and bring it up to sniff it.

 

Sweet. Flowery. Almost like lilacs in summer bloom.

 

She tries to jerk away again, but I tighten my grip and meet the eyes of the crewman.

 

He huffs out a breath, frantically searching her face for direction. She shakes her head no.

 

“I’m sorry, Grace. I have to…”

 

Grace.

Finally, I have a name for the woman who is as beautiful as she is a pain in my ass.

 

“Darren, don’t.” Her voice finally cracks and shows signs of her distress.

 

“I’m sorry.” He turns to face me fully, takes a deep breath, and shakes his head. “She is the captain.”

 

What?

 

I recoil slightly, accidentally pulling her hair with me.

 

“Ow!” She jerks and yelps, leaning toward me to take the strain off her red tresses. “Watch it!”

 

She’s the fucking captain?

 

I look down at her, meeting her determined gaze. I clamp my jaw shut, trying to hide my shock. “Captain G.A. Albright? Well, well, well, isn’t this interesting.”

 

A female captain?

I should have suspected, but it’s just so…unbelievable.

 

Dad would roll over in his grave if he heard about this. He always said “women aren’t made for the water.” And, given what I’ve experienced in almost three decades on the Lakes, I know exactly why he thought that.

How this tiny woman ran an entire freighter is beyond me, since most seamen would never see someone like her as an authority figure, but my respect for her just went through the roof.

 

Clearing my throat, I release her hair and take a step back. My eyes meet an astonished Rion’s, and I return to the captain’s chair. “Captain Albright, care to tell me what the A stands for?”

 

She sneers at me, and I’m sure she would have spit if she were close enough to hit me. “Fuck. You.”

 

Under normal circumstances, I would have come back with some witty retort—told her I would love to, because a lot of girls actually respond to that asshole shit—but, I hold my tongue.

 

I nod to Rion, and he ushers her forward until she’s standing directly in front of me.

 

“Well, Captain, if you would be so kind as to unlock the safe over there,” I point to the large safe in the corner of the bridge, “we will be on our way.”

 

Anything in that safe is icing on the cake for this job, and there’s no way we’re leaving without opening it.

 

“Over my dead body.” She hisses the words at me, throwing them with a fury I would never expect from such a tiny woman.

 

“That can be arranged.” I pull my gun from the holster and lay it across my lap, barrel pointed directly at her.

 

If that doesn’t get her attention, nothing will.

My radio, and our only lifeline to Preacher back at the warehouse, crackles to life. “Cap, we got a problem.”

 

Shit.

If Preacher thinks we have a problem, we definitely have one. He isn’t one to sound the alarm unless the house is really and truly on fire. The man rarely leaves his cave full of toys, and his concern over the approaching storm front interfering with our equipment almost forced us to call off this job, but the Marconis wouldn’t take no for an answer. This cargo had to come off before the ship reached the Milwaukee port.

I glance up at the darkening sky. A storm is usually great cover for a hijacking, but this one looks to be nasty.

 

Fuck. What else can go wrong?

“What is it?” I look to Rion while I wait for Preacher to relay the bad news. Rion just shrugs.

 

The radio crackles. “Coast Guard is on its way. We’re going to have unwanted company.”

 

“Fuck!” I slam my feet to the ground and crowd Grace until she backs into Rion and can’t retreat any further. “How did you call the fucking Coast Guard?”

 

Preacher’s jamming device prevents ships from calling over the radio for backup while still allowing us to communicate on our dedicated channel. The tech is top-of-the-line. It hasn’t failed in five damn years. No way it failed now.

 

So, how the hell did she manage it?

 

Her glare pierces me, with a smug tilt of her lips.

Holy shit. Red was buying fucking time.

If I weren’t so angry, I might actually be impressed.

 

“Distress beacon. Before you even got up to the bridge. I hope you enjoy prison, dickface.”

 

“Shit!” I scrub my hands down my face and groan.

 

We can usually work our way on board and get everyone away from the bridge before they realize it’s a hijacking and can activate the beacon. This one is smart. She knew something was off despite our ruse.

 

One final glance at the safe we will never have time to open now is all I get before I kick the captain’s chair and storm toward the door. “Bring them to the deck.”

 

The metal stairs creak under me, and I slam my way down them to the main deck where the offload continues. Cowering crewmembers from the ship help deposit the cargo they’re supposed to be delivering to Milwaukee onto our boat.

 

If I hadn’t been otherwise occupied on the bridge and had to drag Rion and Cutter away, this would have been done already with the help of the hauler’s crew.

 

Elijah approaches, his brow drawn down. “What’s the plan?”

 

I glance back at Rion wrestling Grace and Darren down the stairs. “You and Cutter take the Destiny with the cargo and hightail it out of here. Head to the cove. This time of day, it will be foggy as hell and with the storm rolling in, you can disappear there and lie low until you can make it back to the warehouse. Rion and I will leave on the Calista and meet up with you later.”

 

He nods and takes off, yelling something to Cutter as he heads toward the starboard side of the ship, where the Destiny is anchored.

Turning to our captives, I meet Rion’s gaze. A question darkens his eyes.

 

He knows as well as I do, the second we leave the deck and get far enough away for the jammer to stop working, Grace will be on the radio, telling the Coast Guard exactly what we look like and which direction we left in.

 

Our plans have been well and truly fucked. Board, tie up the crew, unload, and get the fuck out. It’s worked flawlessly for years. By the time the Coast Guard finds them, we are long gone and safe.

 

Damn woman fucked up everything.

My throat burns as acid rises from my stomach.

I have to do it.

 

“You…” I point to Darren. He jerks slightly, and Rion shoves him toward me. “You are going to be left with the rest of the crew. We will try to call them off, but if the Coast Guard comes, you’ll tell them nothing. The distress beacon was a mistake. Everything is fine. You know nothing. Do you understand me?”

 

He doesn’t respond, just glances at Grace.

 

Grace snort-laughs. “What’s to keep him, or me for that matter, from telling them everything we know?” The edge in her voice hangs in the air.

 

She doesn’t grasp what’s happening here.

 

What has to happen.

 

The words I have to say sit like rocks in my throat.

 

It has to be done, War. So, do it.

 

I swallow past the regret and unease and turn to her. “Because we are taking you with us.”

 

“No!” Her knees wobble slightly, and her pale skin turns even more ashen.

 

Darren cries out. “No, take me instead!”

 

Gallant. But no.

 

“You do nothing for me. She, on the other hand, is an insurance policy. If we get away and get the cargo where it needs to go without interference, I will release her, unharmed, within forty-eight hours. If, on the other hand, you don’t shut your trap and the Coast Guard finds us, I will kill her before I ever surrender or let her go. Do you understand me?”

My words cut through him like knives. His shoulders sag, and he nods, his entire body shaking and his lip quivering.

 

When my eyes connect with Rion’s, the shock and sympathy there darken his brown eyes. He knows what it means for me to do this.

Fuck.

 

Lie. Steal. Maim. Destroy.

 

Do whatever it takes.

 

Except this.

 

I’m breaking the only rule. I’m taking a fucking hostage.

                                                                                   

I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek at the first chapter of Squall Line!  If you want more of War and Grace's story, grab your copy of Squall Line today!

© 2019 by Gwyn McNamee