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Hot SEAL, Single Malt (SEALs in Paradise Book 9) by Kris Michaels, Paradise Authors (1)

Chapter 1

Gunner "Iceman" Kincaid stepped out of his Chevy King Cab and ambled up to the keyless entry panel on the garage door of the squat, stucco covered cement brick bungalow he'd purchased from his father about ten years ago. His father had built the three houses tucked away in the secluded cove of Half Moon Bay when Gunner was a kid. The land on the cove was inherited property that Gunner’s grandfather had left to his father. The property nestled at the south end of the bay with a panoramic view unimpeded by structures of any kind. The looming cliff line that bordered the small inlet his family owned stood as sentinels against the dynamic and sometimes unforgiving forces of the Pacific Ocean. Dark and looming in the twilight, they never failed to make him feel small. Yet those twin guardians welcomed him back home. He glanced out the garage door to the other houses. Pops still lived in one of them, but the windows were dark. The rental unit sat next door, quiet and dark. He took the time to eye the surrounding natural beauty with an appreciation he’d lacked as a child. The places the Navy had sent him weren’t nearly as picturesque.

He keyed his mother's birthdate into the device—she’d died years ago but he still held her memory close—and watched the garage door open, smiling at his 2011 Heritage Softail Classic, now draped by a tarp. He’d missed his fucking Harley almost as much as he missed his old man. Okay, not really, but he loved the bike, too. Gunner chuckled and headed back to pull the truck into the garage. Everything he owned was wrapped up and strapped down in the bed of his Chevy. Not that he’d acquired much in the last twenty years. He hoped to change that now.

Gunner hit the button beside the door that led to the kitchen, and the garage door slid down almost soundlessly. He stopped three steps into the house without turning on a light. The evening view of Half Moon Bay through the kitchen windows snagged his attention and held it. The moon was still visible, sending a swath of pale lemon colored light onto the surface of the water. Further out, he could see the fog bank hovering. The waves were minimal in the cove, but the motion of the water against the sand and pebble beach projected a hypnotic sense of well-being. A sense of calm overtook him as he watched the rhythmic ebb and flow of the waves. The water called to him like a siren's song. Fuck it, he'd play sailor to the seductress. He needed to exercise after last night’s generous consumption of alcohol and today's eleven-hour and thirty-minute drive from Coronado, California. He tossed his keys in the air, turned on his heel, and headed to his truck. It took him five minutes to change into his wetsuit and find the box that held his goggles and fins. Then he headed out the side door of the garage and padded down to the beach. A fog bank hovered just outside the bay. Gunner refreshed his mind about the cliffs and an old tree, twisted from years of Mother Nature’s abuse that he used as reference points before he entered the water. The small rocks that littered the sandy beach reminded him to step carefully. He tucked his fins under his belt, snugged his goggles to his face, and dove in. Shit! He’d forgotten how fucking cold the water was. The intense, heart-pounding jolt woke his ass up. He pulled his fins out of his belt and slipped them on his feet. He lowered his goggles and once again confirmed his landmarks. The fog progressively consumed the expanse of ocean water as it rolled onto land. He'd welcomed the seclusion the thick clouds brought. The combination of fog and the currents that lurked outside the bay could be dangerous for an inexperienced or inattentive swimmer. A smile tugged on his lips. Twenty years as a Navy SEAL guaranteed he was neither. He leaned forward, inhaled deeply and submerged, silently pulling himself through the water with strong strokes. He controlled his heart rate to extend his time underwater. Normally, due to his extensive training, he could push closer to three minutes before he had to resurface.

Here, in the embrace of the ocean, peace enveloped him. The small stroke his old man had suffered nine months ago was the crowning factor in his decision to retire. When he hit twenty years and was eligible, Gunner submitted his paperwork, completed his last mission and headed home to Half Moon Bay and the Wayward Walrus, the bar his pops had started in a house he’d reno’d on Main Street. His old man was going to be pissed he’d retired. Pops would think he had sacrificed his career to come home and work in a bar. He didn't feel that way. He was moving on with his life. The decision was solid, and he had no regrets. He needed to package his retirement in the right light and sell it to his old man.

His lungs burned before he resurfaced. Silently, he broke through the water, took a cleansing breath, then two deep breaths, marked his location, and submerged. The cold, black, water enfolded him and left no trace of his presence.

* * *

A.J. Ericson's hands shook violently as she pushed the three numbers on her cell. She paced at the water's edge. This could not be happening! "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! Pick up!"

A woman answered, "Nine-one-one do you have—"

"Yes, I have a fucking emergency! This guy just walked into the bay. It's fucking pitch-black outside. He floated there for a while. I called as I ran down to the beach, but he went under! He never came up! I can't swim well enough to go after him! Oh, my God, I think he drowned!"

"Ma'am I'm going to need you to calm down. Exactly, where are you?"

A.J. sputtered out her address, and the woman repeated it. A.J. acknowledged, "Yes, that's right."

The polite, steady voice continued, "Alright ma'am, I have a deputy en route. What is your name?"

"Amanda Jean Ericson. A.J." She cast her eyes over the surface of the water. Dead people floated right? She clenched her eyes shut and threw that thought away. No, that... just no.

“Can you give me a description of the person who went under water?" The woman sounded as if she was asking for the time of day.

How in the hell was this woman so damn calm? "No..." A.J. shook her head and lifted her free hand in the air waving it at the heavens as she spoke, well…okay, maybe yelled, "He was tall and big, I think, but I was so far away! I'd just come home. I wasn't even supposed to be here tonight. I came home for five minutes to grab some paperwork because the inventory was off. I look across the back to the water and see this guy I don't recognize, walking straight into the freezing cold water, and then he just disappears!"

"Alright, ma'am, can you describe his clothing?"

"Seriously, lady, what part of I didn't see him well didn't you hear? I was..." A.J. spun around and looked at the three houses nestled into the coastal landscape at least a thousand yards from the bay. The mist from the bay had started to sneak ashore and transformed everything into a setting from some horror story. She pointed at her house. "I was all the way up there, and the fog is coming in. I can't even see out to the bay anymore." She swiveled back toward the water and shivered. It was maybe fifty degrees tonight. The water temperature was always so freaking cold here, nothing like the waters off the coast of Texas where she'd played growing up.

"I understand. Ma'am, we have people en route to help you. Now, do you see anything on the beach? Clothing, a wallet, anything unusual?"

A.J. rolled her eyes at the woman's placid attitude. She drew a deep breath and scrutinized the sandy, pebbled beach. Small round pebbles scattered around the sand made up the beach on this stretch of oceanfront property, and she didn't see any footprints. She couldn't even tell from which direction the man had entered the private property. It was getting so damn dark. A.J. searched the beach she knew so well, but she didn't see anything. The man had left nothing that would indicate he would return. The reality of what had happened hit her. Someone had walked out into the water with the intention of not returning. "No. There's nothing here."

A distant high-pitched wail from the direction of the highway drew her attention. She swallowed hard, pushing back the emotion that threatened to swallow her. Her voice trembled as she responded. "I hear them. Tell them to use the access road south of my house. They can pull down to the water."

"Thank you, I'll relay the information. Are you alright? I can stay on the phone with you if you need." This time the woman's voice seemed almost motherly.

A.J. shook her head as she stared into the fog that had obscured the water. "No, I'm okay. I'll wait here."

She disconnected her cell phone and dropped it into her jacket-sweater pocket. What would drive a person to such an act of desperation? It wouldn’t matter how rough things got, she’d never commit suicide. She’d fought hard not to die. The siren of the responding police car cut off as it approached the houses. She watched the blue lights bounce off the low hanging mist and the arc of the headlights when they cut through the darkness. She knew the instant the car started its drive down the faint access road Silas used to get the massive lawnmower to the lower forty, as he called the expanse of land between the houses and the water.

She shielded her eyes against the glare of the headlights as the vehicle pulled to a stop, spotlighting her. She heard the door open rather than saw it, thanks to the temporary blindness from the headlights.

"A.J., what's going on?" That voice she recognized immediately.

She blinked repeatedly trying to clear the spots from her vision. Before she could see him, she vomited the information she'd already told the 911 operator. "Delmont, there was a guy. I saw him from the street as I getting in my car to leave. He walked straight into the water. I could see him floating for a moment. Shit, it scared me, you know? We had those two tourists die from the undertow outside the bay a while back, and I freaked, so I came running down here. I yelled at him. Either he didn't hear me or ignored me. He went under the water, right there." She pointed to a spot about ten yards away from shore. "He never came up. I waited and waited. God, maybe three or four minutes before I called 911. Did I wait too long?"

"No, you did fine, A.J." His voice carried a professional edge to it, and for once it didn't get her back up. She welcomed it. Delmont Johnson was one of the first people she met when she arrived in Half Moon Bay. A meeting neither cared to talk about. He glanced down the beach. "Did you see who it was?"

"No, I couldn't, it was too far away. He was tall and big." She lifted her shoulders and held out her arms indicating a big chest and arms.

She watched as he lit the searchlight attached to the driver's side door. The powerful light barely cut through the fog over the water. The blue flashing lights of his light bar bounced against the mist following the swirls of cotton candy thick clouds that pulsed onto land from the ocean.

"Stay here, I'm going to take a look." He slid into the vehicle and moved his car forward slowly, sending the searchlight in a pattern along the beach. She watched as he cast the illumination as far out into the water as the beam would penetrate. A.J. shivered. The moisture of the fog coupled with the cool climate of the coastline dampened her clothes, making them useless against the elements. The trembling was also from the emotional shock of witnessing what might prove to be a suicide.

Delmont turned the car and slowly worked his way back to her, searching as far as he could see. He parked the vehicle, leaving the spotlight aimed at the ocean. A.J. could hear him talking on the radio, just the low rumble of his voice and the distorted reply of the same woman she'd spoken to earlier. He opened the car door and headed her way. They were both illuminated by his headlights and highlighted by the bouncing blue lights. He took off his cowboy hat and rubbed the back of his neck as he did a three-sixty of the area. "The fog is too thick to launch Search and Rescue. I had dispatch call the Coast Guard and the County team. Everything is grounded."

She understood keeping the first responders safe, but... "Then what do we do?" Her voice cracked. Damn it, someone was out there.

Delmont put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed, offering support. "I can't see more than three or four yards into the water. All we can do is pray the guy decided he wanted to live and came ashore somewhere else. Other than that, we wait until we can see, and then we launch a recovery operation."

"Recovery and not rescue?" AJ swallowed hard.

"What the fuck is going on?"

AJ nearly fell on her ass as she spun back toward the water. A colossal, super-sized man wearing a black wetsuit marched out of the water. He held fins in his left hand, his right-hand snatched goggles off his forehead.

"Del? Man look at you! A deputy sheriff, who the hell would have thought that could happen?"

"Iceman? Holy fuck dude, do you know how much you scared us?"

AJ spun toward Delmont and then back toward the asshole that had taken ten fucking years off her life and left her a quivering wreck.