● BONUS SCENE ●
Hell or High Water
Family isn’t only determined by blood, but by those who stand by you, fightin’ for you. By those you stand beside and fight for…
That was the thought that drifted through Leo “The Lion” Anderson’s head when he looked around the warped wooden table at his men. Correction—the minute those five wild-ass SEALs snapped their final salute to the Navy and followed him to the Florida Keys to join him on his quest for high seas adventure and the hunt for untold riches, they stopped being his men. But they would never stop being his family. If they all lived for a hundred years, the bonds of the blood, sweat, and tears they’d shed together would never come unbound. They were too strong, forged in the fiery crucible of too many wars and missions to count.
“Yo, man!” Brando “Bran” Pallidino leaned close to be heard above the twanging voice and guitar licks of the singer on the stage. The six of them had spent the day in Key West, gathering supplies and finishing up some repairs on Wayfarer I—the leaking, rusty salvage boat Leo had inherited from his father. And now they were enjoying beers and dinner at Schooner Wharf bar, the open-air establishment that saw more than its fair share of revelers, crusty sea captains, and miscreants who’d come to the end of the road in a bid to fall off the map completely. “That brunette in the yellow bikini top and flowery skirt over by the taps keeps giving you come-and-get-me-big-boy looks.”
Leo glanced at the woman and sure enough. Slam! Her gaze collided with his and there was a definite suggestion glowing in her big, dark eyes. “I think she wants you to poke her hontas,” Bran concluded.
Leo scowled at his best friend as a subtle breeze drifted in from the water, mixing the smells of fish and marine fuel with the sweeter aromas of boat drinks and barley hops that continuously flowed from behind the bar. “How long have you been keeping that little gem in your pocket?” he asked Bran.
“Came up with it just this minute.” Bran grinned, wiggling his eyebrows. “My mind,” he continued, “is as nimble and as fertile as a…”
Leo held up a hand. “Don’t finish that analogy. I can already guess what your mind is as nimble and as fertile as.”
“Personally,” Doc said from Leo’s opposite side, twirling the ever-present toothpick in his mouth in a wide circle, “I would have gone with, ‘I think she wants you to engage her in a little gland-to-gland combat.’” Dalton “Doc” Simmons had one of those tough Midwestern faces. But right now it was split in a gleeful grin that made him look almost boyish. It was damn good to see Doc smiling. For too many years he hadn’t.
“She wants you to rock her casbah!” Spiro “Romeo” Delgado piped up from across the table, never one to miss an opportunity to toss in his two bits.
“Churn her butter,” Ray “Wolf” Roanhorse added after plunking his Budweiser bottle down on the table. He turned and slow-winked at the bird in the yellow bikini. Leo watched the brunette’s eyes widen, her head cocking like a cat considering a canary. With his Cherokee heritage, Wolf was the embodiment of the original American warrior. His visage equally fierce and—according to the lady at the hardware store this morning—beautiful. She’d breathed the word while staring all googly-eyed at Wolf.
“And you?” Leo turned to the last remaining man at the table. “What ridiculous euphemism have you come up with tonight?”
Mason “Monet” McCarthy was as big as a mountain, and just as silent. Usually. But even he couldn’t resist joining in. “She wants you to rumble in her jungle,” he said. His south Boston accent making it sound more like rahmble inna jahngle.
And that’s the thing about family, Leo thought with a shake of his head as he slid on his aviator sunglasses despite the fact that the sun had slipped beneath the western horizon. One minute they’re standin’ with you against the world. The next minute they’re bustin’ your balls.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Especially since the good-natured ribbing, immature as it might be, was proof positive they were all slowly crawling out from under the thick blanket of mourning that had descended over them, heavy as a death shroud when—
“Yo, man,” Bran interrupted his thoughts. “You better stake your claim. If you don’t, Wolf’s gonna stake his.”
“He’s welcome to it,” Leo said, leaning back in his chair and picking at the label on his Budweiser with the edge of his thumbnail. “’Cause I’m takin’ a pass on this one.”
Bran groaned and took a long slug of his beer.
“What?” Leo demanded, frowning. “What’s that uuuugh for?”
“Just that I coulda guessed as much.” Bran shrugged a shoulder, his holey tank-top accentuating the strength and sinew of his bare arms. According to Bran, if the sun’s out, the guns are out. Bran’s unending supply of tank tops had become a running joke between all of them. Leo’s balls weren’t the only ones that received a regular busting. Every man’s in the group were fair game.
“And why would you have guessed as much?” he raised a brow.
Bran leveled him with a look that called into question the validity of his IQ tests. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“No,” Leo shook his head, feeling his temper flicker to life. What the hell was Bran getting at? Luckily—or unluckily?—he didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“It’s just that this seems to be your new modus operandus,” Bran said.
“Eschewing the soft ministration and willing company of bar bunnies,” Doc interjected.
Leo scowled over at him, then swung his gaze around to each man at the table. They all wore the same expression of agreement.
Okay, and this is one of those times I wish these assholes weren’t my family. Because he could certainly do without them being all up in his goddamn business.
“First off,” he said in his own defense, “after all that runnin’ around today, I’m too tired to sweat, much less do anything else. Secondly, when you start talkin’ bar bunnies, I only have one thought.”
“What’s that?” Wolf asked, only giving him half his attention. The other half was securely focused on Miss Yellow Bikini Top who, having quickly picked up the disinterest Leo was laying down, was now giving Wolf all her come-and-get-me-big-boy looks.
“Hippety hoppety herpes is on its way,” Leo said, his lips twitching when Wolf blanched and swung around to attempt to fry his eyebrows off with a look.
“You really know how to spoil it for those of us not currently hung up on…” Wolf trailed to a stop.
The hair on Leo’s head tried to crawl off his scalp. Wolf didn’t need to finish. Leo knew where he was heading. “I’m not hung up on anyone,” he insisted, disgusted to realize he was trying to convince himself more than the guys. An image of Special Agent Olivia Mortier flashed before his eyes. Black hair. Blue eyes. A slightly crooked front tooth that never failed to make his dick twitch. There was just something about that tooth. That tiny imperfection amidst so much beauty only seemed to enhance her appeal. Maybe because it made her real. A real, live, hot-blooded woman with a mind like a steel trap, a wit that was as sharp as a tack and—
Fuck. Maybe he was hung up on her. The wall he’d built up in his mind, the one that was supposed to keep memories of her at bay, was proving frustratingly weak.
“If that’s what you have to tell yourself, cabron,” Romeo said.
Leo sat there, a muscle twitching in his jaw. He refused to respond for nearly thirty seconds. He knew it was thirty seconds because he calculated that for every two seconds that passed he came up with a new way to assassinate the men at the table. He’d totaled out at fifteen.
“You should see your face,” Doc said, the salty sea breeze causing the ends of his shaggy hair to riot. “You look like someone shoved a cactus up your ass.”
“And yo, man,” Bran slung an arm around his shoulders, “there’s no reason to get all hot under the collar.”
“The only reason my collar is hot is ’cause your sweaty arm is around it,” Leo grumbled, shrugging off Bran’s brotherly embrace and taking a hasty swig of beer. Thoughts of Olivia always made him feel punchy. Talking about her, even obliquely, made him feel…something. It was like if horny and confused got together with uncomfortable and had a threesome his current emotional state would be the unholy offspring of the encounter.
“I was born on a farm where we used lots of fertilizer,” Doc said, seemingly apropos of nothing.
Leo turned to him. “And that’s relevant to this because…?” He made a rolling motion with his hand.
“Because it means I know bullshit when I smell it.”
Bran grabbed his belly, crowing like the idiot he was. “You shoulda known better than to ask, bro.”
Leo was considering the most painful way to wipe the grin from Bran’s face when Mason said, “You fuckers need to back the fuck off and leave him the fuck alone.” The man rarely spoke, but when he did his sentences were littered with F-bombs. Mason once told them that was the Southie way. The word fuck could be used as every part of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs…
“Of course you’re the one to jump to his defense when it comes to rebuffing the babes,” Bran scoffed.
“Now what the fuck’s that supposed to mean?” Mason demanded, the vein running up the center of his forehead beginning to pulse.
“How long has it been since—”
Leo figured he better cut Bran off before he went any further. Number one, because Leo could see the bull’s eye was about to slide off his chest and attach itself to Mason’s. And since Mason had come to his rescue…well, then turn about was fair play. And number two, because Leo knew just how much talk of Mason’s past—and the effect Mason’s past was still having on his present—bothered him. “Gentleman,” he said, “I think it’s best of we table this topic of conversation.” To his great delight, right at that moment their waitress appeared with a tray laden with chicken wings and conch fritters, two of Key West’s official delicacies. “And speakin’ of tables, wait ’til you see what’s about to be laid on ours.”
With a flourish the waitress unloaded the tray. She’d barely stepped back before the feeding frenzy began. As the flavor of buffalo sauce mixed with hops and barley on Leo’s tongue, he once again looked around at the five men who’d been with him through thick and thin. The five men who’d bugged out of the Navy with him after they all made that soul-shaking promise to a dying brother to start living life. Ones that weren’t filled with death and destruction. These meatheads might be a constant pain in Leo’s ass, but they also happened to be a constant comfort and an unending source of entertainment.
Like family, his mind circled back to its original topic. And it gave him a sense of peace. A sense of contentment. A sense of…urgency. Because they were all depending on him to come through with the big score. He felt the weight of that responsibility as surely as an anchor chain around his shoulders. They’d all made that promise, and now it was up to him to help them make good on it.
Letting his gaze skim out over the marina, he watched as the boats bobbed gently with the tide. Their metal fittings caught the rays of the full moon and glinted as sweetly as the treasure Leo and the guys were ready to start hunting. The Santa Cristina, that legendary ghost galleon, the holy grail of sunken Spanish shipwrecks…she was out there. Somewhere.
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1HFf0IK