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Flashback: Hard SEAL to Love (Contest–2 Winners!)
Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

UPDATE: The winners are…Daun Ann Corty and Laura!
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I loved writing my Uncharted SEALs series. All those rugged, alpha heroes and strong heroines. Humor. Action. All the ingredients that make stories fun for me to write, and hopefully, fun for you to read.

With Uncharted SEALs, I experimented a bit. For the first time, I did sequels with the same characters—for the simple reason I couldn’t say goodbye to them. I wanted to see inside their Happy Ever Afters. Through Her Eyes and Between a SEAL and a Hard Place share the same main characters, as do Dream of Me and Heart of a SEAL. Big Sky SEAL gave birth to my Montana Bounty Hunters, introducing Jamie and Reaper, who as a result of their work in Big Sky earned their own satellite office of MBH.

A fun theme I used in two of the stories was a cruise ship. Both Before We Kiss and Hard SEAL to Love are set on the same ship and have the same supporting characters. Plus, Hard SEAL to Love features a disabled female vet! Enjoy the excerpt below!

Watch Over Me   
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Baby, It's You Before We Kiss Special Forces: Operation Alpha: Between a SEAL and a Hard Place 
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  Head Over SEAL

Click on the covers to learn more!

Contest

Win your choice of one of my Uncharted SEALs stories! There will be 3 winners! All you have to do to enter is answer me this…

(IGNORE COVID) If you got two free tickets for a cruise, who would you take with you and where would you go?

Hard SEAL to Love

Hard SEAL to Love

Former SEAL, “Big Mac” McLane, is sure he earned all kinds of bad karma somewhere when his first mission with Charter Group is guarding the “Love Boat” and its activity director. Okay, so the cruise line is sponsoring a special cruise for wounded soldiers and their families — a great cause — but Big Mac doesn’t do well around families and children, and Kylie Hammond is cute, but he feels like he has two left feet whenever she’s around. But he’s going to do his job, keep it strictly business, fade into the background whenever she’s around, but it seems Kylie has other ideas…

Kylie knows the big SEAL isn’t exactly gung-ho for his new assignment, but she can’t be more pleased. The big man’s the yummiest thing she’s ever seen, and coaxing blushes and glares from him becomes her favorite sport. But then things begin to go wrong aboard ship, people disappear, and then someone’s killed. The thing her charity most feared — a terrorist attack at sea — appears to be underway. Now, she has to trust Big Mac and his team to keep her wounded soldiers safe.

Excerpt from Hard SEAL to Love

“Big Mac” McLane stood on the well-lit dock beside his team leader, Deke Warrick, and his teammate, Jackson Keller, as crewmembers and dockworkers rolled storage containers from the belly of the huge cruise ship. Soon, the refuse from a four-day cruise would be disposed of, and new provisions, along with a new group of passengers, loaded.

Waves lapped against the piers, the wheels of the rolling containers whirred and grated, and forklifts beeped. All familiar sounds but made surreal because he wasn’t waiting to board some Navy battleship, and the size of the cruise ship was astounding.

Mac admired the lock-step precision of the entire operation as the unloading continued. Despite the added pressure of law enforcement personnel crawling all over the ship, the Delphin’s crew didn’t miss a beat. Nothing would delay the ship from leaving the dock just after fourteen hundred hours that day. The cruise ship had a schedule to keep.

Stretching his arms, Mac stifled a yawn. The trio had taken a red-eye flight from Dallas to meet the ship in Miami. Due to the recent troubles, Charter Group wanted feet on the ground to make sure the Countess cruise line and law enforcement were taking seriously the string of events aboard their ships that had unfolded over the past weeks since the abduction of Poppy Shackleford. Although Charter Group’s people had successfully recovered the general’s daughter, everyone involved with the upcoming Soldiers’ Sanctuary cruise feared the problems would only escalate. Mac had been tapped to provide the program director protection during the special cruise which was scheduled to leave the Port of Miami the following day.

Although the time was just past O-five-hundred, the air this morning was warm and balmy. Temperatures would rise to a boil by mid-morning, so Mac didn’t mind waiting on the dock to speak to the Delphin’s captain while passengers set to disembark midmorning still slept. A Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s van stood by to remove the body of one unlucky soul whose cruise hadn’t ended well.

“And the ship’s doctor is sure the cause wasn’t a heart attack?” Jax murmured.

Deke’s lips tightened. “He smelled almonds, and the woman’s cheeks were cherry red. Her traveling companion described her as having a seizure and not being able to breathe. M.E. looking at the body now thinks it was cyanide, but we won’t know for sure until an autopsy’s performed.”

Jax scraped his palm across his stubbled jaw. “No one else was affected?”

Deke shook his head. “It happened while they were eating in the dining room. No one else’s plate was tampered with.”

“The traveling companion?”

Deke shrugged. “Her girlfriend of thirty years. The ship’s doctor had to administer a strong sedative because she freaked. He doesn’t think she did it.”

“So, another incident.” Mac took a deep breath. “How many does this make?”

“Three.” Deke lifted his hand and began counting off the list with his fingers. “First, a water system was tampered with on the Tethys. Someone flushed red dye through the ship’s fresh water. Passengers thought it was blood.”

“So they may have been testing methods of dispersal,” Jax muttered.

“Looks like. Or they could be assessing which method of attack will cause the most panic. Next, was the small explosion in the engine room aboard the Nereus. The ship had backup generators, so services weren’t stopped, and the crew effected repairs to continue to their next port. Other than a loud boom, the incident caused no injuries, and the passengers were no wiser. The cruise line can’t be a hundred percent sure whether it was sabotage or a malfunction. So their resistant to cancelling any voyages. But their security’s stretched. And now, we have last night’s poisoning…”

“Gonna be bad PR for the line,” Jax said, shaking his head.

“The company’s keeping the incidents under wraps,” Deke said. “And Homeland’s locking down this investigation here. Miami-Dade will help with interviewing passengers and crew, but they’re informing everyone for now that it was a routine death at sea.

“Just got off the phone with Jake Patton at Homeland. He says they want to catch whoever did this. They don’t want the culprits spooked and scattered to the winds. If their ultimate target is the soldiers’ cruise, we’ll be waiting. In the meantime, they do their due diligence, talk to every person on that ship who had access to the victim’s meal, and search every corner of the ship to see if any clues were left behind. He’ll have men with the ship when it sails today to continue the investigation.”

“Had to have been wait staff,” Mac said, frowning while he thought about the thousands of support personnel that worked on the ship. Homeland and the police had a small army ready to question all cooks and waiters and still wouldn’t be done before the boat sailed.

“Probably was some waiter,” Jax said, “maybe someone embedded, or someone bribed or threatened to get them to add the poison to her plate. And the next question is whether the victim was a random target—as in, just another test.”

“Or they’re taunting us.” Mac’s hands slowly curled into fists. He hated goddamn cowards who picked a fight but didn’t bother showing their faces. “Maybe they’re letting us know they can get to our guys, no matter how well prepared we are.”

Deke’s cheeks billowed as he blew out a long breath. His gaze darted to Mac. “You’re set to meet with Kylie Hammond at the Hampton Inn this morning. Have to warn you, she’s no happier at the thought of having a babysitter than Poppy was to discover we’d put Wiley on her detail.”

Mac grimaced. “Doesn’t matter if she’s not happy. I’m her date for the next four days. She won’t move without me one step behind her.”

As he leaned forward to look sideways, Jax’s mouth twitched. “Didn’t turn out so bad for Wiley and Poppy.”

Yeah, right. Mac gave him a blistering glare. A wedding at sea wasn’t in his plans. Nope. Didn’t matter if Kylie Hammond was a knock-out or not, he was immune to commitment. After transferring teams, all he wanted was to settle into this gig and prove his worth to Deke. “So, you two wanna tell me who I pissed off to get this assignment?”

Jax chuckled.

Deke’s grin was wry. “Thought you were ready for a vacation.”

Mac shook his head. Maybe he’d been too quick to accept Charter’s offer for an “easy assignment” after the last one where he’d spent weeks guarding freighters dodging Somali pirates. He’d been ready for some down time. Had even considered doing some house hunting or heading to his buddy Carter’s ranch in Texas. Although the last time he’d been there, he’d grown restless after witnessing just how happy Carter was with his new wife and little niece he’d adopted to raise as his own.

All that domesticity had made him itch. As a guy who’d spent his teenage years bounced around in foster homes, he couldn’t imagine any man willingly being leg-shackled to one woman or even planting roots to live in one place. Not that he couldn’t see the attraction. Carter had carved out a nice life for himself. Now that his father was on the mend, Carter wasn’t tied to the ranch, although he was always eager to return there after an assignment. He had a pretty wife, a great kid, and nice-sized piece of heaven in the ranch he’d someday inherit.

Family, a home passed down through generations of Texans—all that was as foreign to Mac as the thought of sitting on the “Love Boat” for a fancy cruise with a privileged society girl building her social media cred through charity work. “Hell,” he muttered. “Job’s just four damn days.”

“Five. The assignment starts today.”

Mac lifted his shoulder. “Whatever. She’s locked down in the hotel until the buses come tomorrow morning to take the soldiers to the ship.”

Jax slapped his shoulder. “You do know ships’ captains can perform marriages in international waters…”

“Hey, I’m happy for Wiley.” Mac shuddered. “But he has General Shackleford for a father-in-law. Wonder if he has to snap a salute before they sit around the table to eat turkey and cranberries at Thanksgiving.”

Deke coughed into his fist. “Having a powerful father-in-law isn’t always a pain in the ass.”

Mac winced, having forgotten that Deke’s father-in-law was a former Navy commander-turned-congressman, and was now in charge of special operations for Charter Group. “How’s old Commander Martir doing, anyway?”

“Still a badass,” Deke said, giving him a glare.

“Once a SEAL…” Shrugging, Mac didn’t complete the phrase.

“Stop bellyaching about the assignment, McLane.” Deke braced his feet apart. “You might be bunking in a stateroom but don’t treat this assignment differently from any other you’ve had. Kylie Hammond’s safety is your mission.”

 

Five hours later, Mac stepped through the entrance of the Hampton Inn. The lobby was a study in orderly chaos. Suitcases were lined up and stacked against one wall. Men and women, some in wheelchairs or walking with crutches and walkers, and missing limbs—some multiples—filled the space.

Mac tamped down a feeling of guilt for being able-bodied and whole as he walked through the throng, nodding now and then as he passed the veterans. He headed to the concierge and asked where he could find Kylie Hammond. After being informed which conference room Soldiers’ Sanctuary had commandeered to hand out welcome packets to arrivals, he headed down a hallway, relieved he didn’t have to push through a sea of bodies. He was ready to start this op. Sooner the better. Five days would fly by, and then he’d have the down time he needed to get his head on straight before the next assignment.

Stepping inside the room, he noted two long conference tables filled with plastic buckets of folders. Three elderly men manned the table.

One of them who sported a gray buzz cut and a surprisingly muscular build glanced his way. He lifted his chin in greeting.

Mac decided he was as good a place to start as any and strode toward him.

The old man held out his hand. “Joe Olinksy,” he said, in deep, loud voice. Then he leaned against the table edge and whispered, “You with Charter?”

Mac eyed him then glanced at his two buddies who were moving closer. His presence as part of the security team was supposed to be on a “need-to-know” basis.

Grinning, Joe waved a hand. “We’re part of your support. Eyes and ears only. We’re a little too long in the tooth to be the muscle, but we’re here to help. We’ll be staying in the stateroom next to yours.”

Skeptical that this band of elderly brothers could be of any service at all, Mac drew a deep breath and gave Joe’s two companions another look.

“This is Morty,” Joe said, pointing toward a thin man with a round, pot belly. “And that’s Sly.”

Sly smiled, and his teeth were blindingly white and little too large in his mouth.

“Ex-marines, 3rd Division during Viet Nam,” Joe said. “You a SEAL like Wiley?”

“Semper Fi,” Morty said, grinning.

Mac grunted, revising his original assessment. These guys had seen real action. “I’m looking for Kylie Hammond.”

“She’s out in the atrium,” Joe pointed toward the windows behind him, “getting a cup of coffee. She’s been manning the tables since dawn. And don’t worry about us. We can handle ourselves. After all our help on the last cruise, Poppy made sure to add us to the team. We’ll have your six.”

The three elderly men hadn’t been mentioned in any of the briefings he’d attended back at HQ. Wiley for damn sure hadn’t said a thing, but then again, Wiley had looked a little smug when he’d heard Mac was being assigned to protect his wife’s best friend. He cleared his throat. “Mac McLane by the way,” he said, giving a nod to all three men.

“We’ll see you aboard the Oceanus,” Joe said.

Mac left them and thought about calling Wiley to find out why the hell he hadn’t mentioned his geriatric buddies. Just to bitch because he was already dreading the coming minutes. He didn’t have a lot of experience with Ms. Hammond’s brand of womanhood. He’d served with women in the field, and slept with the women who swarmed bars outside Navy bases, hoping for a hookup with a SEAL.

Women outside those two categories tended to make him nervous. In his experience, women had served only two purposes, as support and/or stress-relief for a SEAL. Not that he looked down on them. He liked the women he’d known. But he hadn’t had to think much about what kind of impression he made or how to talk to them. He could be gruff and blunt. What the hell would he talk about for the days and nights he and the princess would be glued to each other’s sides?

Entering the atrium, he glanced around for someone who fit the picture he’d made up in his mind. She’d be pretty, no doubt. He couldn’t imagine anyone who was friends with Poppy Shackleford and attending her social functions looking any different.
Most of the small round, brightly tiled tables were filled with men and a few women. Probably wives of the wounded soldiers, who’d be accompanying their husbands on the cruise.

One woman sat alone, her head bent over her cell phone which lay flat on the tabletop, a tall Styrofoam cup beside it. Her hair was a mass of dark brown curls. Her body, what he could see of it hunched over the table, was slender. Her bare arms and the tops of her shoulders, revealed by an olive tank, showed well-developed muscles. She wore no jewelry, save for a watch on an olive-colored web strap. Faux military-issue? And now he wondered whether she was one of those who was so enamored of military men she wore cammo pajamas. He’d met a few like that. As he moved nearer, she must have sensed someone watched her.

The woman’s gaze lifted from her phone and locked with his.

As he took in her features, he slowed his steps. Wide-set green eyes whose gaze never wavered, tan skin, rose-colored lips, cheeks that were prominent and high. She was lovely, but didn’t wear a hint of makeup. She didn’t need it. Unbidden, interest flared inside him, heating his blood.

“Are you Mac?” she asked, her voice even and little husky.

His tongue felt thick as he gave a crisp nod and replied. “You Kylie?”

Her smile was a little tight, but she pushed up from the table to greet him, her arm reaching forward.

When he looked down at her hand, with its long fingers and short bare nails, his gaze dropped to her legs. Another shock stole his breath. She wore shorts which ended at mid-thigh, revealing one long, nicely turned limb paired with a shapely thigh that disappeared into the black cup of a prosthetic limb.