HERO Force Series, Volume 3
This ship is going down.
All of the HERO Force books can be read as standalone stories.
Navy SEAL playboy Leo "Cowboy" Wilson has done his best to stay away from Charlotte O'Malley, the sister of his HERO Force teammate, Logan. But when Charlotte books herself on a week-long cruise knowing Cowboy's there on HERO Force business, she'll get more than the fling she bargained for, with a terrorist cell placing Cowboy and Charlotte firmly in the path of danger.
This is a novella. It's more than half the length of a full HERO Force book.
Sweat poured from the man's face as his mind worked to remember the configuration of the bomb. He knelt down beside it in the dark room, his hands moving with stilted motions as he tried to reconcile his feelings with the beliefs he'd held dear most of his life.
It was he who had put this bomb here five days before, and he remembered the joy and pride that had surged through him when the timer began its countdown. It gave his life meaning. He was doing a great thing.
He closed his eyes tightly and a sob escaped his lips. The conflict he’d been wrestling with since he first saw the woman was eating away at him, consuming his most basic beliefs like a wild conflagration.
She'd been standing on the gangway, one hand in her husband’s. Her resemblance to his grown daughter had nearly knocked the wind out of him. While his higher sense of reasoning knew her death would support his cause, the father in him knew in that instant he couldn't blow up this ship.READ MORE
That single moment had started a monsoon of doubt that had laughed and crushed his dreams of destruction. The days since he'd seen her had only magnified his initial reaction, causing him to see the humanity in every man and woman around him on the cruise ship.
He had to do something.
He had to stop his comrades from blowing up the Gem of the Seas, and he had to do it without them finding out.
Stress was like a vise on the sides of his head, twisting and turning against the pressure of bone. He forced his eyes open and before he could stop himself, cut the wire to defuse the explosive. He began to pant, his breath coming in quick gasps as he forced himself to a stand.
There were many more bombs just like this one. If he truly wanted to save the passengers on board, he had much work to do. He could not think about that right now, could barely stomach what he had to do in this moment alone. He opened the door to the hallway and his jaw dropped. Another man grabbed him by the throat and pushed him back into the dark room.
“Having second thoughts?” he asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, to answer, to explain to his friend this new understanding that what they were about to do was wrong. But his voice wouldn’t work, and he slowly realized he was losing control of his body. There was blood on his friend’s collar, big drops of blood, then a stream, more than just a moment before.
And he realized. The blood loss was his. He was a dead man.
Charlotte O'Malley craned her neck and shielded her eyes from the sun, the bangles on her wrist clanging when she moved. “Well, sweet mother of God.”
The Gem of the Seas was sixteen stories tall and longer than the Eiffel Tower lying down and floating in the harbor. A smile spread across Charlotte's face. “Hot damn, this is going to be fun.”
She marched toward the terminal, dragging her wheeled luggage behind her in the hot Miami sun. Cowboy was somewhere on that boat, and she couldn't wait to get that man between herself and a mattress. Going on a cruise was the best idea her brother had ever had, though Logan certainly hadn't intended for her to go on the same exact cruise ship Cowboy was going to be on.
None of his fucking business anyway.
She was a grown woman. Hell, some days she felt like she was damn near over the hill, but of course that had a lot more to do with her ex-husband than with her chronological age. Rick had sucked the life out of her and traded her in for a nineteen-year-old model when he was through.
“Fuck Rick.” It was something she whispered under her breath several times a day.
She mentally resolved to stop saying that for the next week.
“Maybe I should change it to, ‘Fuck Cowboy,’ and then every time I think it, I should go and do it.” She giggled to herself.
Man, she needed this week to play and be free and enjoy the attention of a man who made her feel good, no strings attached. She didn't want anything permanent from Leo Wilson. Hell no. Not only was she unsure permanent relationships even existed, but she was pretty damn sure she was done ever trying to find out.
She was excited Princess Violet and Prince Hugo would be on the ship, and hoped for her own sighting of the royals. She read everything she could about the royal family in magazines and tabloids. Something about castles, princes, and princesses helped her to believe in happily ever after — no matter that her own life had tried so hard to wring that out of her.
She wanted it to be real. Wanted to believe that true love existed and some people got to experience it, even if she was not one of the lucky few.
Once inside the terminal, she ducked into a bathroom and eyed herself in the mirror. The humidity had done a number on her hair, but her makeup was looking pretty good. One more go-round with the lipstick and she'd be set. It wasn't very likely she’d run into Cowboy on the way to her stateroom, but she wanted to be ready just in case. She hadn’t come all this way to mess up the all-important meet-and-greet.
She pulled down the V-neck of her shirt and yanked the underside of her bra upward, settling the underwires back into place and pushing her breasts together. A middle-aged woman at the next sink surreptitiously glanced at Charlotte's reflection in the mirror.
“You excited to get on the boat?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes, of course. My husband and I cruise frequently, but it never gets old.”
“Oh yeah? I've never been. Always wanted to, but my ex-husband gets seasick. And he's an asshole, so there's that.” Charlotte smiled. “I’m meeting a friend on board. He got on in New York. How long is it going to take us to get on the boat, anyway?”
“Do you have a VIP card?
“No. Do I need one?”
“It lets you cut some of the lines. Without it, you’re looking at three or four hours.”
Charlotte’s enthusiasm sagged. Three or four more hours before she could even set foot on the boat, much less see Cowboy. “Ah, hell.”
By the time Charlotte set foot on the Gem of the Seas and got to the atrium, she was damn near exhausted. The sight of the bustling square revived her a bit, with its lush tropical plants, two stories of shops, and mirrored glass elevators rising higher than seemed possible onboard a boat. “Holy shit.”
It was crowded, and someone jostled her from behind, but she didn't mind. She was so relieved to be out of the terminal and onto the ship itself.
The tiniest drop of apprehension mingled with her excitement over seeing Cowboy. These last two years had been hard on her, mangling her self-esteem and twisting her confidence. Where she was once beyond comfortable with the opposite sex, she now seemed to be built up like a Wild West storefront — more façade than actual structure.
That was why she was here.
She could feel the chemistry between Cowboy and her, and she needed to fill herself up with that passion for a while — remember who she used to be so she could become that woman once again.
Fuck Rick and everything she’d been through. She would slay her demons with one giant dose of desirability. One week with Leo Wilson was going to go a long way toward fixing what was wrong with her life.
Toward fixing what was wrong with her.
Suddenly, she didn’t want to go to her cabin first. They’d taken her luggage already and she wanted to see Cowboy. She sucked in her stomach and flagged a passing steward. “Excuse me, honey. Can you help me find my stateroom?”
His eyes fell to her bosom and bounced back up to her eyes. “Of course. What's your room number?”
“Well, see, that's the problem. My husband and I got separated. He's the one who knows the room number.”
“Sure, I can help with that. What's your name?”
“Abby Wilson.” She was taking a gamble the other agent was posing as Leo's wife, a gamble that appeared to be correct.
The steward looked up from his cell phone. “Looks like you're in suites 8-358 and 8-360, Mrs. Wilson. Take the glass elevators to the eighth floor and turn left.”
“Thanks so much, sweetheart.” She winked.
Adrenaline zipped through her bloodstream as she turned toward the elevator. She’d been planning this trip for two weeks, and while she knew Cowboy was here, this adventure was about to get real. She pushed her shoulders back.
He wants you. You can see in the way he looks at you. He was damn near tripping over his own tongue at Logan's party, and here on the ship, he had no reason to play hard to get. What she was proposing was simple, really.
A fling for one week.
The elevator stopped on the eighth floor and she stepped out on shaky legs.
It's just these damn heels. They're too high, and I’ve been on my feet all fucking day.
But it wasn't the heels, and she knew it. Cowboy was down this hallway.
What if he turns you down?
Stop it. He isn’t going to do that.
She walked faster, determined not to let her second thoughts slow her down. She knocked on room 8-358. Her heart was beating wildly as the seconds ticked by. She bit her lip and knocked again. Should she try the other door? The steward had given her two room numbers. The suites must be adjoining.
Too much time had passed. She stared at the numbers on the plaque beside the door. Leo wasn’t here.
She blew out air and turned back just as Cowboy rounded the corner and entered the hallway. He was shirtless, the muscles of his chest and abs somehow obscene, his jeans hanging low on his hips. He stopped walking when he saw her, a cross between shock and confusion registering on his features before he smiled and moved again.
“Charlotte? What’s going on?”
She pulled her gaze back up his torso, meeting his eyes.
So. Fucking. Hot.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Oh yeah! Everything is great. Can I come in?”
He withdrew a card from his pocket, turning away from her to unlock the door, and the smell of his skin reached her nose. The earthy blend of spicy male and pungent soap made her muscles clench down deep in her body.
He held the door for her to enter first and she looked around the small stateroom. “Is the woman from the Academy here?”
“Abby. She's up on deck watching the royals.”
“Good.” Charlotte threw her purse onto the small couch. She could lie. She could claim it was some wild coincidence, or even include some semblance of the truth. Her brother had told her about the cruise, suggesting she needed a break and she should go spend some of Rick’s money.
Is that what you want? Do you want to pretend you didn’t deliberately seek him out?
She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. “How are you, Leo?”
“Honestly, I’m at a loss right now. What are you doing here?”
This is it, Charlotte. The moment of truth.
She licked her lips. “I have a proposition for you.”
“What kind of proposition?”
“The fun kind.” She walked toward him. “I’m in need of some recreation.”
Cowboy's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “The ship has all kinds. What are you looking for?”
“There's just one kind I’m interested in, actually.” She closed the remaining distance between them until she was standing just a foot away. “I'm looking for a fling. A no-holds-barred, no-strings-attached, out-of-this-world, completely sexual fling with a capital F for one week, and one week only.”
She was close enough to see his blue eyes dilate, to feel the shift in the air between them. A flush crept up her chest to her neck.
His voice was gravelly. “That’s why you’re here?”
The heat from his stare was intense, and she could feel his desire. They would be so good together. It would feel amazing to be wanted by this man, to let lust take over what love had destroyed. She needed to be a desirable woman. To have nothing but desire from a highly desirable man.
His gaze dropped to the floor.
All of her bravado began to crumble, leaving the steel structure of her insecurities standing tall. He was going to turn her down.
“Charlotte, I'm sorry. I want to say yes, I really do.”
This wasn’t happening. In her wildest imaginings she hadn’t even considered he wouldn’t want her. She forced her chin higher and tried again. “Oh, come on, Leo. Don't give me some bullshit answer about Logan and responsibility.”
“It's not bullshit. Your brother is my teammate on HERO Force. You know he doesn't want us to be together.”
“I don't give a fuck what Logan wants, and you shouldn't either. The only question on the table right now is do you want me, and I know damn well you do.”
That stare was back, making her knees tremble and her body needy.
“I’m attracted to you,” he said.
His words made her brave, like she hadn't felt brave in years. She brought her hands up to his shoulders and felt his muscles tense beneath her touch. His skin was warmer than she expected, and she kissed him. His lips were soft and full, puckering to return her kiss.
For a moment she could feel him teetering on the brink of giving in or pushing her away. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and she smiled against his mouth. He deepened their kiss, tasting her with his tongue.
He felt so good against her, the muscles of his thigh fitted between her legs and she pushed her hips against him. Cowboy made a sound that was part growl and part moan, the sound reverberating through her body and resonating there. It was every bit as good as she knew it would be, the physical intimacy and the way he made her feel just by wanting her like this.
She could see the week spread out before them, days spent in the sun, nights spread beneath him, glorying in his flesh.
Cowboy lifted his head. “I can't do this.”
She kissed him again. “Of course you can.”
He was fighting her, fighting himself, and she writhed against him using the only weapon she had at hand. He reached for her wrists and pulled them down. “No. I really can't.”
“Why the fuck not?” she snapped. “What difference does it make to you? You sleep with women all the time, and you want me.” She looked down at his crotch pointedly. “So what's the goddamn problem?”
“You're right. I do want you. I am so freaking attracted to you I can barely keep my shit together when I run into you. Like Logan's party? I had a hard-on the entire time just from one sniff of your perfume.”
His words encouraged her, and she touched his shoulders again. “A week, Leo. We can have a whole week together. You do anything you want to me, and I'll do anything I want to you.”
“I'm here on a job. This isn’t a vacation for me.”
“I know. And I also know you have Abby here to take a turn babysitting the royals. You'll have time to sleep, Leo, and I want to be with you in that bed.”COLLAPSE