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Captain Mark King, USCG, possessor of a PhD in marine biology, has just taken on his first command, the polar ice breaker, Northern Lights. Haunted by dreams of a beautiful Russian woman, he doesn’t know when he sets out that he and his hand-selected crew are part of a special team whose mission is so secret, they will not receive the details until far from shore. Perhaps the Pentagon thinks they’ll abandon ship when they learn about their quarry. After all, some things cross the line between science and fiction. And who ever heard of a woman on board a Coast Guard ship? She’s sure to cause conflict and chaos, and probably bad luck.
Doctor Anya Vanikova’s Soviet superiors have sent her on yet another wild goose chase. Since turning down the marriage proposal of her Dom, a prominent man in her department, her assignments have become more and more outlandish. With an empty place in her heart and no career satisfaction, she has taken to sleeping away the hours when she’s not working. A joint cruise to the Arctic with a capitalist ship may be the final straw. Especially with the captain’s attitude. At least back home they treat men and women scientists the same… well, those who haven’t crossed someone powerful.
The heat between a US Coast Guard Captain and a beautiful, brilliant Soviet scientist might do a better job of melting the polar ice than the ship when they combine forces to hunt down a possible sea monster in Cold War Era Alaska.
Publisher's Note: This is a newly edited, expanded and revised version of a story previously released in the USA Today bestselling Hero To Obey box set, which is now no longer available.
*** Currently available exclusively at Amazon ***
US Icebreaker Northern Lights
Longitude 65.8938° N, Latitude 168.3954° W
Today we begin the mission which will tax all our training. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the permutations of this duty. Not only are we taking the almost unheard-of step of joining the Soviets in a mission, at a time when our two countries can barely speak without threats of nuclear proliferation but if anyone less serious than our admiral presented it to me, I’d have thought it a bad joke. But it’s all too real. And President Nixon’s behind it. I have nothing but respect for the Commander in Chief, and far be it from me to question the decisions of those of greater rank and experience, but sometimes I wonder if the Russians or their allies had slipped some LSD into the D.C. water supply.
Maybe they used it to spike their cocktails.
Mark held up the bottle of vodka—premium Russian fire water, clear as crystal and deadly as sin—and squinted at the level. “There’s still half left.” Who’d have thought his superiors could believe in ancient Inuit fishermen’s tales… much less expect them to coordinate with the enemy? The thought had echoed in his mind every hour since they’d set out for the cruise to Alaska. At the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, entire courses taught about the USSR and its spies and weapons. He’d sat through a number of them. The instructors spoke as if a gang of Russian spies sat outside the classroom, sexy women in trench coats named Natasha waiting to steal the virtue of America’s next generation of military heroes.
Sometimes his instructor, an old salt who’d served in the Navy during the Normandy Invasion during WWII then stayed ashore after the conflict for several years during the spread of Communism, described her to them so often and in such detail, some of the cadets began to think “Natasha” might be more than just a figment of the man’s imagination. Mark, for one, hoped so. The old man had been young once. Maybe he’d met someone then and had to leave her behind. Something about his voice when he told the tale had a sentimental ring.
His vivid description affected at least one lonely, homesick cadet. Active in sports in high school, Mark had never had a problem getting a Saturday night date, and spent his senior year with a pretty cheerleader at his side.
A pretty cheerleader who’d dumped him over winter break.
At one point, he’d dreamed of her every night. Then, as winter gave way to spring, and his mother wrote him with news of Charity’s engagement to his former best friend, the face in his dreams changed.
It went something like this…
He found himself on a street in Berlin. East Berlin, although how he got there, he had no idea and never wondered about until he woke up. The damage from bombings was still prevalent, crumbling buildings surrounding him in the fog as he marched down the road on his way to report in. No one else was in sight, which suited him fine, as he needed to get the message to the captain before he could go find his supper.
As he rounded a corner, the fog thickened swirling in an odd fashion that made him uneasy. With the war only weeks over, Nazis and their sympathizers were still out there, as well as lots of hungry Germans who would do almost anything for a meal. He could only see about a foot in front of him. Somehow, the fog also muffled sounds, so he strained his ears, hoping to hear someone coming before they got too close.
One of his buddies had been hit over the head for the bag of apples he carried the week before.
The white puffs twined around streetlights, few of which actually were lit, and softened the edges of the broken building to his right. Slowing his steps, he rested a hand on his sidearm. On high alert, he caught her before she had a chance to act out and with a step had her arm tight against her back before her soft laughter reached his ears.
“Tell me, American soldier, is it your habit to assault women in the streets? If so, I would hate to visit your New York City.” She wriggled her shoulders. “But your action is making me quite uncomfortable. Will you release me if I promise not to…”
He waited, but she said nothing else. “If you promise not to what?”
She tilted her head back, her smooth blonde page boy sliding against the gray trench coat she wore, her heavily fringed blue eyes meeting his gaze. “I do not know what you seek, but perhaps if I promise not to… kill you? Steal your wallet?” As he loosened his grip, she turned to face him, her breath warm on his cheek. “Or perhaps your silly American virtue?”
Her accent told him the woman he encountered was a Russian, but he hadn’t met one face to face before. And this one… even in the dimness and fog… this woman was everything he’d ever dreamed of and more. The trench coat was belted tight at her trim waist and ended just at her knee, drawing his gaze down to a pair of shapely calves bare of any kind of stockings at all.
He knew nylons, especially silk, were hard to come by, but the nudity of the curve of her ankles seemed illicit, somehow, and when he slid his hand into the placket of her coat to close it on a handful of sweet, rounded bottom, Mark forgot everything but the armful of warm woman.
“And what is your name, sailor?” she inquired, standing still and not objecting to his intimate touch as he’d feared. “I am Natasha.”
“You can call me Mark. Or stick with sailor, if you prefer.”
“Sailor Mark. How intriguing.” The woman, Natasha, planted a hand on the front of his uniform, fingers curling under. “Tell me, Sailor Mark, where are you going in such a hurry?”
He shrugged. “Nowhere special.” Although the Russians were allies, he knew better than to give away any secrets. Even if his message was not marked Top Secret or even Classified.
“Then perhaps you would like to come with me and have a drink?”
He considered her offer, although a warning klaxon sounded deep in his mind. Their allies during action were gradually being pushed back, held in less trust, and perhaps he shouldn’t interact. Although no orders to avoid had been given… Her scent flooded his senses, blocking out the smells of burnt wood and general damp destruction for a welcome moment. He shifted her closer, brushing her lips with his. “I would, but I have a small errand to perform first.”
She smiled up at him, this close, her features in sharp relief. High cheekbones, a small straight nose turned up at the tip, the sparkle in her eyes an invitation to more than kissing, but when her lips parted, he accepted, using his grip on her bottom to bring her against his stiff cock. Her tongue touched his then backed away and he followed it into the hot cave of her mouth, tasting her sweetness while grinding his groin against her, leaving no doubt of his desire. Finally, they paused for breath. “Must you leave me?”
“Yes,” he panted. “Where can I find you?” He had to be crazy to let her get away. Unlike a lot of his fellow conquerors, he’d yet to sample the willing, or, sadly, unwilling women of Berlin. Probably that was why he held back. So many soldiers were rumored to be taking what was not offered and it sickened him. These women had nothing, many watched their children starve. Or had lost them in the bombings, or had seen them crippled. When war was fought in your city, not only soldiers were affected.
“Can’t I come with you?” She kissed him again, sending his head spinning, while sending off more red flags. “I don’t want to lose you after I’ve found you.”
He lifted his head and took in the pea soup fog. True, it might be hard to find anyone. She’d appeared so magically, but surely he couldn’t take her to HQ. Not that the location was a secret… “I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”
He couldn’t take her inside without clearance even if he wanted to and leaving her outside put her in a whole different kind of danger.
She rose on tiptoe and brought her soft lips to his ear. “Please, Sailor Mark.”
“All right, you can walk with me but not all the way to headquarters, okay? It’s not safe.”
She snuggled into his chest, nodding. “I understand.” She probably did.
So many of his buddies said it didn’t matter, claimed they were just as bad as their husbands and deserved no better treatment. And, sure, some were. Nobody could have been unaware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and everyone was responsible for turning their back and not protesting. The US, the Brits, and the Soviets were all holding trials of Nazis and their sympathizers.
But that did not excuse rape. While everyone knew the Soviets were the primary criminals, others among the allies had no problem with rape or what amounted to it. Food packages from the States were not enough to save them all and a woman with small, hungry children would do almost anything for some flour and sugar… beans. He’d taken a vow not to lay a hand on any German woman for fear she only offered herself out of fear or desperation.
But Natasha, a member of another of the conquering forces, or was she?
“Are you a soldier, Natasha?” He took her arm and strolled through the fog, the woman next to him driving back the depressing landscape and replacing it with the pleasure of a female at his side for the first time in a long time. A woman who, unlike the miserable residents of this benighted town, could say yes or no to a man just because she wanted to.
“In a way, Sailor Mark. I am here with the forces, but in a clerical capacity. I am taking down statements from those brought in for questioning. I believe it’s called a stenographer in your language? My superiors feel a woman might be more open with another of her sex present. Sometimes, if they are particularly reluctant, they allow me to ask the questions while they watch and listen from another room.”
“Valuable work.” He dropped a kiss on her shining hair. “We need to find everyone who contributed to the Nazi horror.”
“I do my part.” She lifted her face toward him, a rueful smile curving her lips. “Little though it is.”
“I rather hoped you were a spy.” For the excitement, although if she had been, he’d have had to walk away and miss out on what his heart, and cock, insisted was going to be a night to remember. “My buddies see a broad like you out to seduce a Yank around every corner. But then they’re all doll dizzy.”
“How ridiculous. Do I look like a spy?” She batted her lashes at him. “I am merely a woman doing her duty for her country who is looking for an evening’s company. Why? Are you a spy?”
He snorted. “I believe spying is far above my rank.” As they stepped off a broken curb, Natasha stumbled and he gripped her arm. “Don’t fall. You’ll scratch up those gorgeous bare gams.”
He flashed her a grin, unable to be anything but cheerful with the direction his night took. “How could I not. Now, my office is just up the block. Can you step into the shadows here and try not to be noticed while I skedaddle in and out of HQ?”
She smiled at him and moved back into a doorway—a doorway to a building consisting of only half a front wall—and he raced toward the front door of headquarters to drop off his message. But when he reached into his pocket, he found nothing. And when he turned and paced quickly back to where he’d left the beautiful Russian woman, she was gone.
For a long time, the dream ended there, and he woke questioning his qualifications to be a Coast Guard officer. If his dream self could fall for a beautiful spy, could his waking self be any better?
Then, one very lonely night when he’d been into town with a bunch of other cadets and spotted a woman so much like Charity, he’d almost approached her, his subconscious took over and pushed the dream to another level.
Unfortunately, his quick delivery took over an hour. The captain kept him cooling his heels in his outer office until he was ready to slide the missive under the door. He would have but was pretty sure that might land him in trouble. Maybe enough hot water to have him remanded to barracks in his off hours.
And since life had dealt him a blonde doll to spend that time with, he feared taking the chance. Would she wait in that doorway so long? He sat on the edge of the hard wooden seat then jumped to his feet and paced from one side of the room to the other, counting his steps.
“What’s your problem, mac?” asked the captain’s clerk, looking up from the typewriter where the man had been hunting and pecking the whole time, adding to the headache building behind Mark’s eyes, along with the urge to spew. Where had the short, balding man with glasses been while he’d helped drive the Hun out of Europe? While his brother lost his life at Normandy? Sitting in a comfortable office, warm and fed. Clean.
When the corporal picked up the phone and leaned back in his chair to gossip with another clerk, chuckling over something the other man said, it was all Mark could do not to punch his lights out. He strode to the desk and slapped his palms on the wooden surface.
“Could you check with the captain and see if I can get in with my message? I’ve got places to be. I’ve got places to be, people to see…” He winked. “If you get my drift?” Maybe appealing to the man’s baser nature would get his help. Treating him like the buddy he hadn’t earned the right to be.
Unfortunately, the wise guy waved him off. “Ease up. I’m on the horn here. Sit down and wait. The cap will let us know when he’s ready for you. He’s a busy man.”
She wouldn’t wait forever. Mark reached out and depressed the hook switch, disconnecting the man’s call. “Check with him.” He loaded his tone with threat, hoping to intimidate the clerk.
Beady brownish eyes glared from behind the round glasses. “You shouldn’t oughta done that, Sailor. Cap’n doesn’t like his business calls interrupted. Now you’ll have to wait even longer, I’m afraid. Since you interrupted me in the completion of my duties.”
He should have known better. These guys acted like they ran the show. But by hook or by crook, he’d get back to Natasha before she gave up on him and went home or, worse, found someone else to pass the hours with. Time to switch from stick to carrot. But what could a clerk—with their connections to the supply chain allowing them to get anything they wanted—lack? “Listen, mac, I got a dame waiting. I think she might have a friend…” He let that trail off, implying what he wasn’t promising. With no reason to believe Natasha had any single girlfriends in Berlin, he also had no reason to believe she did not.
But he’d hit on the right carrot, orange and crunchy to the little weasel. The dim, watery eyes developed a sparkle and he sat straighter, hunched shoulders rising unevenly. “Hotsy-totsy?”
He bought the line!
“You know it. But if I make my baby doll mad, she’s not going to be in the mood to help us”—always use the friendly “us”—“out here. So, if it’s not too much trouble, think you might just peek in the cap’s door and see if he can accommodate me long enough to take my message? You know, so I can get to my doll and tell her about my friend in need of a friend of his own?”
How desperate was the man? He was out of his chair and tapping on the inner office door so fast, he almost left burn marks on the ancient wood floor.
Five minutes later, as Mark beat feet for the dame he’d left in the shadowy doorway, he knew he’d have to come up with either a woman or an excuse, or the pistol behind that desk would find a way to have him transferred to the worst posting possible posting. As it stood, he’d be back on shipboard in thirty days. He might be able to put him off that long. But he’d fret about that later.
Right now, he had a date with a Russian doll, and every part of his mind and body thought a posting in the back of muddy beyond was a fair price to pay.
The fog had lifted some, allowing him to find his way with ease to the doorway fronting the crumbled building, but not the woman he’d left there. About to flip his wig, he noticed a flash of movement a little farther down the block. As he approached, he heard a shriek and sped up.
“Captain?” At the voice from behind him, Mark jerked from his reminiscences and turned back to his duties. “You’re needed.” The man pointed to the opposite side of the ship.
“On my way.” What now? Spilled vodka upsetting one of their guests? Not what he signed on for, but a Coast Guard officer must be ready for anything. Even commies and fictional creatures.
He hadn’t thought of those dreams in a long time. But he hadn’t had a ship full of Russkies before, either. The only Russian he’d met before now was a defector who’d addressed some of the officers in San Diego the winter before on the topic of hygiene and syphilis among enlistees in the Russian navy. And he was anything but a beautiful blonde spy… or stenographer. A lot closer to the clerk in his dream, now that he thought about it. Amazing how vivid a dream could remain after several years.
Mark skirted a pair of sailors—one of his and one of theirs—sharing a bottle of that premium vodka and singing a song in some combination of their languages. Seemed to be the same song even if their versions of the actual words differed. Sailors the world over shared a love of the oceans, and some of their sea chanties had roots older than either of their countries. At least everyone remained on their feet and somewhat alert, so far.
Despite their instructor’s experience with one groovy Soviet chick, or what they assumed was more than just the man’s imagination, the relations between United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated quickly after their joint victory in Europe. By the time Mark signed up, everything about his dream would be illegal.
With such suspicion among their superiors, it was worth a cadet’s commission to be caught bowling with a Russian immigrant who was under the slightest suspicion. Much less tumbling in the sheets with a stunning woman from Moscow. A level of paranoia not seen since World War II permeated their culture. With good reason. They’d almost lost everything during the Bay of Pigs, and if his superiors’ hints were any indication, several times that the government had managed to keep out of the newspapers. Russians and Americans were not friends. Not even nodding acquaintances.
Yet, on this beautiful day in the Bering Strait, where the sky stretched from the North American continent to Asia directly across the way, a crowd of Soviet sailors and scientists were invited guests on the decks of his ice breaker. The confusion among his crew was only exceeded by his own, although he would never let them see it. Calm control remained the order of the day, each visitor greeted with courtesy and watched carefully. Orders from above demanded a level of professionalism from each of them beyond that they’d been asked for before. His crew had been hand selected for this mission. Solid, grounded men with excellent records and an above ordinary level of clearance for their ranks. With what they would soon face, if they faced anything at all, such qualities were required. With the constant bad news from Southeast Asia, the military could not afford to look foolish. And, boy, could this mission make them look ridiculous to the American people.
An additional, extraordinary factor contributed to his unease.
The possibility for a drunken brawl. Something he’d never dreamed possible on a ship under his charge. How a by-the-book officer like him had been selected for such an extraordinary mission was a question for the ages. Unease prickled down his spine, and he tapped his right hand against his thigh, a habit he tried to suppress but which sometimes reappeared during stressful situations.
As he approached the starboard side of the ship, the dream still hung over him like a cloud.
He’d approached the spot from which the shrieks emerged with quick steps, but also with caution. Was it his Natasha? His. He shrugged that away. He’d met her only a couple of hours before and had no reason to consider her his girl. But whoever it was, she was in trouble and he would do his duty as an American serviceman to protect innocent civilians everywhere. And he was sick to death of those derelict in that duty. The dark and foggy night obscured his vision until he was only a handful of feet away from the pair grappling against a broken wooden door. Heavy breathing, punctuated by an outraged female growl, cut through the silent night air.
It wasn’t someone else, a strange innocent civilian. The man in a ragged German uniform had his hands on Natasha. My Natasha. Mark pulled his sidearm and moved in.
A shout broke his concentration and brought him back to the moment again. What the heck? Seemed his hope for a peaceful end to this drinking game might be moving out of reach. Unlike the cordial songsters on the port side, two men stood face-to-face, arms flailing and faces red as they argued… in Russian.
Mark blew out a breath of relief as another Soviet approached them, one with more rank, apparently, because when he barked out a series of staccato words, the two immediately fell silent. The ensuing lecture stilled more than just the guests. All those nearby stopped and waited until the two combatants slunk away and boarded their own ship. Mark had not had to act at all, and his command self wasn’t pleased at someone else giving orders on his vessel, but since all had gone well, he’d let it slide until he had the opportunity to speak with the commander of the Soviet group a bit later on. Then he’d clarify how things would go whenever any of their personnel boarded his ship. Especially since the change in plans an hour before.
Despite his admiration for the officer’s smooth handling of a possible bad situation, everything in Mark demanded he clear the decks of the foreign personnel. And their “gifts.” More vodka than a liquor warehouse would likely hold. The unseemly enthusiasm displayed by all parties did not bode well for the start of their joint mission. His crew would be sluggish and hungover in the morning, not exactly what he looked for in those who reported to him. And not an excuse he planned to allow. Every man on board would do his job, be at his post, and the first one to complain would be the first one in the brig.
Standing firm, legs slightly apart to take the roll of the waves lifting and dropping the ship, Mark was frustrated enough to take a drink himself despite all regulations to the contrary. In fact, he had the bottle someone thrust into his hands halfway to his mouth before he regained command of his senses. It didn’t help he recognized the label on the bottle. A premium vodka unavailable in the States. Rumor had it the distillery’s limited output went entirely to the Kremlin but, apparently, some had made its way to the Soviet navy. Or maybe they were just showing off, assuming he would tell his superiors about their top shelf booze. The Russian sailors’ eager enjoyment of the fancy fire water exceeded what he would expect of men who enjoyed such quality on a regular basis.
He couldn’t judge them too harshly, however. The military deserved the best of everything. They put their lives on the line for God and country. In his experience, the lower ranks were the same type in every country. Hard workers who spent months away from their families and often faced danger and deprivation. Better these sailors get their homeland’s best than a bunch of fat guys named Boris who sat around enjoying luxury while the rest of the people waited in line all day for toilet paper. Made him appreciate the “John Wayne TP” issued to US personnel. Rough, tough, didn’t take shit from anybody, as the saying went… but at least they didn’t have to stand in line for it.
Maybe he should have someone check the departing crewmen for rolls of TP from their facilities. Was their military supplied with the basic necessities of life? Certainly the men laughing and joking didn’t seem to be walking funny.
Until this moment, he’d been more concerned about spies, but if not for the language differences, any one of these young men could be a member of his own crew. Somewhere, their families worried about them and probably sent them care packages. What would they send? Socks? Cookies? Borscht? Probably not more vodka. At the moment, his ship was awash in the stuff.
An icy wind poured over the rail, chilling his cheeks and nose. Behind him, the friendly bilingual chatter of the combined crews of the USCG polar ice breaker Northern Lights and the Soviet scientific research vessel rose above the skree of gulls circling overhead. To his knowledge, the coasties spoke no Russian and the Soviets spoke no English, but it didn’t seem to matter. Nor did the Cold War their governments continued to wage. A truce existed for the moment, and for this mission, in 1970. Perhaps they would have a small hand in ensuring the misunderstandings and nuclear standoff did not last another fifty years. But then, it was only one joint expedition; he probably expected too much.
Despite the alcohol warming the company, the fifty-one-mile-wide Bering Strait’s gales could freeze a man’s soul in minutes. Mark longed to return to the wheelhouse and get warm, but he also wanted to maintain a presence on deck as long as the other crew remained on board. And the vodka.
The warrant office, Charlie, appeared at his side and laughed. “Come on, Skipper. Drink it down. I warned you when we left port—”
“When we encounter the Russians, and they open a bottle… it has to be finished,” Mark chanted. “Leaving their national beverage undrunk is a high insult.” No matter that the US military, including the Coast Guard, had been dry for almost a century. An exception must be made for the unusual circumstances. “And we don’t want to create an international incident.” What a first command. “But is the rule one bottle one man?”
“No, most of them are sharing, passing them around.” The warrant officer lifted the bottle in his own hand and poured the clear liquid down his throat. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth. “But I will do my best to keep up with the best of our friendly enemies. It’s a small price to pay.” Mark’s father’s old rival had drunk his way through half the bars on the West Coast, as well as in some other countries. He’d just returned from Southeast Asia to take his place on the ship, one of those added for this mission. Few were aware of the active Coast Guard presence there, but men in their branch of the service faced every bit as much danger in Viet Nam as any other.
“Do you think they are approaching the limits of their good behavior?”
Charlie Harrigan had seen active combat in more than one war and feared nothing except disorder. Therefore, despite his jovial demeanor, Mark didn’t expect him to drink more than he could handle. Some of the younger men, however…
“Sir, would you like me to keep an eye on things? The other guys should be heading back to their ship shortly if they want to make it to shore by dark.”
“I’d rather not have to slap anyone into the brig tonight, so see what you can do.” The engine troubles of the Soviet ship would hurt their pride, but Northern Lights carried no parts compatible with the aging vessel.
“Aye, sir. And you need to drink some of that vodka to avoid insulting our guests, sir.” A step away, Charlie hesitated. “Your father would be proud to see you here.”
Throat tight, Mark watched the warrant officer head across the deck toward the loose groups of men still enjoying their beverages before turning his attention to the bottle he still held. Charlie would know how to ensure nothing untoward happened. A word here and there should settle them down. In a time of an unpopular and heavily protested “police action,” those aboard Northern Lights appreciated their posting.
Twisting off the cap, he eyed the bottle as if it were a cobra. Not that he minded a drink, but onboard ship? Against regulations? He took a swallow and let it slide down, smooth as silk and deadly as that snake. Continuing his promenade, he kept an eye on the antics of the men while sinking into thought again.
Many facing the draft believed the myth signing up for the Guard would not land a man in Southeast Asia. Besides Charlie, his brother Paul had been over there since the previous summer and could vouch for the danger he and the other coasties faced on a daily basis. Mark would have accepted any duty, but his unique qualifications had helped land him the position of captain on the polar ice breaker Northern Lights. The Guard’s duties in the polar waters included providing support for many scientific expeditions, and his doctorate in marine biology from a prestigious Southern California university had led to his current post.
Boarding the nearly three-hundred-foot ship, he’d been unable to take in his good fortune. His two great loves in life, the Coast Guard—serving his country, and science—serving humanity. In fact, the Guard also served humanity, rescuing people from all nations as a matter of course. But no sooner had they set sail than their mission to open a channel through the thick polar ice for cargo ships was changed. In fact, their orders changed, but the cruise to meet the Soviet ship and clear the way north on a joint venture had been set up before he set foot on the decking of his new command. Those wiser than him had chosen to wait to inform the captain and crew of Northern Lights of any details until they’d left port.
He hoped his training in officer’s candidate school would give him the diplomatic tools he’d need for his current sail, balanced between the rules of the military and international relations. Clearing his throat, he pushed down the emotions the man’s comment brought up. If only his dad had lived long enough to see him take charge of this ship…
Charlie had served with Mark’s father for over twenty years, and had seen Mark grow up. But the warrant officer never forgot who was captain of the ship, and his loyalty was as notable as his sense of humor and love of military discipline. Mark lifted the vodka and took another swallow. As good as its reputation, but he needed his wits about him. Maybe an unopened bottle would find its way to his cabin to be enjoyed at a later date. A man could hope.
Stepping backward toward the rail, Mark prepared to empty the bottle in a less traditional way and ensure he maintained his dignity and his post.
“Such an action would not be in the best interests of your country, Captain. Or should I say Dr. King?” The sultry voice, perfect English with only the least trace of a Russian accent, rolled over him, and he froze, his arm suspended above the gray, choppy waves, sea spray chilling his cheeks.
Had the few swallows from the bottle left him delusional? Turning on a heel, he found himself facing not one of the men who had boarded some hours earlier from the Russian research vessel but an improbable sight. The person attached to the voice looked like a propaganda poster for happy, beautiful Russian women.
And almost exactly like the woman in his dream. As if the sight of her flicked a switch, the dream turned on again and watched a fast action version of himself pistol whipping the Nazi who dared lay a hand on his Natasha. The man started to crumple then turned and stumbled away. He disappeared into the fog while Mark supported the trembling female. Her coat was open, her gray dress torn over the bosom.
With main force, he brought himself into the present.
How had a woman come on board and without anyone making a stink? His father had told of a time when a congresswoman toured a cutter and the skipper insisted on a bow to stern cleansing, not beforehand out of respect, but afterward to get rid of the bad luck. Of course, Mark didn’t buy into that. Superstitions from the ancient days had no place in the modern US Coast Guard. Technology and discipline would guide any ship safely through even the roughest seas.
Still. No way any female belonged on the deck of Northern Lights. Had some Russian brought along his wife? With a voice like that, how could her looks match?
He brought his arm back over the rail, slowly, as if the bottle of premium firewater might explode if he moved too fast. A chocolate-brown parka swathed the woman next to him, from the fur-lined hood around her face to her hips, disguising most of her form. Below that point, her khaki-clad legs went on forever, her slacks finally tucked into boots topped with the same sable. Under straight blonde bangs, long, dark-gold lashes fringed eyes the blue of the Caribbean, the one bright note of the gray day north of the Arctic Circle. Her high cheekbones and the almond slant to her eyes gave her an exotic look, and her full lips needed no cosmetics to enhance their rosiness. A crinkle between her brows reminded him she waited for him to answer her.
What had she asked?
Of course, an introduction. The fumes must be making him drunk. “Captain will do. And you are?”
As they faced each other, neither moving, a Soviet crewman clutching an empty bottle stumbled into her, shoving her against him. The chill dissipated with her warm body flush to his, and he grasped her waist to steady her. If it had been one of his men, he’d have had him disciplined for disrespect. Vodka or no vodka.
Even through their layers of thick clothing, her breasts lay heavy against his chest, and his heart responded with a low, weighty thudding. He hadn’t been at sea long enough for such an extreme reaction. But then he’d failed to find any time between his last assignment and this to pay a visit to his club, upping his tension and awareness of such an attractive person. Warm, she was so warm, and so familiar. Ridiculous, he’d never met her before, nor anyone like her.
She lay against him for only a moment before he set her away, but it was long enough for his cock to join the party.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
Her gaze cast down for a moment, a hesitation that added to his instant lust, before she lifted her eyes and nodded. “I am o-kay, thank you, Captain. I wish I could say the same about our ship.”
The Soviet ship would be lucky to limp the few miles back into its own waters where it could be assisted to port. The WWII era vessel’s engine had well and truly gone FUBAR.
“It is a shame, indeed. But your scientific representative will proceed with us, so no more time will be lost.” The vodka party alone had cost them hours. Sometimes military traditions could be trying, especially when the most extraordinary scientific discovery in this century, or greatest waste of time, waited. “I see your countrymen are heading toward your ship.” He crooked his arm. “May I escort you?” Imagine, walking a woman back to her ship as if leaving a dance floor at a high school prom. Or ushering her to her seat at a military ceremony. Or to his spanking bench in his private room…
The best way to lose his command was to lose his focus.
Nothing about this mission was ordinary, though. The highly unusual joint trip into polar ice to investigate the dubious sighting had led to their orders to guide the Russian scientific vessel farther north than the Soviet ship would have been able to manage on its own. Although the Soviets had ice breakers, none were in the area, or near enough to arrive within a reasonable amount of time. Also, they would have to cross US territory to get to their destination. The sighting by one of the Soviet Air Force’s pilots over US waters contributed to the decision to work together. First, it nearly led to a nuclear crisis. Luckily saner heads prevailed, and startling cooperation replaced a possibly world-ending event.
The mechanical failure of the Russian ship changed things yet again, resulting in the offer from the US to allow a Soviet to travel with them to the area where the sighting occurred. Moscow wanted more personnel, but the Pentagon agreed to only one. A minor response to the violation of US airspace that led to the spotting of the object of their search.
The Soviets had protested, demanded they wait until another ship could arrive from Provideniya to accompany them, but how could they linger? The US government insisted they continue on without delay, reminded them of both the possibility of losing their quarry and of the fact the pilot had been “blown off course” into airspace where he had no business.
At that, the Party representatives conceded to the urgency of the mission.
But before they could proceed, the Soviet crew, including this female person, must be returned to their vessel. Grasping the woman’s hand, Mark tucked it firmly into his elbow. A faint scent of flowers, maybe spices, blew past his nose before the sea wind carried it away. Despite his urgent need to remove her, she felt so right at his side. What was the proof on that vodka, anyway?
“I will tell you my name, Captain, when you release me.” One corner of her sensual lips quirked. “I admire a strong man, but we are in a public place.” Her voice dropped so he could barely hear it over the engines and wind. “Perhaps later.”
He jerked his hand back, as if burned. There would be no later. She’d be gone in two minutes, back to her own ship. Causing trouble already. Women belonged on land.
Or cuffed to the foot of his bed, if she desired. She held his gaze, and he pictured her there, naked, a collar closed around the smooth white skin of her neck. Would she have the pale skin he imagined? Her breasts, full and heavy, dark tips he could suckle while stroking the welts on her ivory hindquarters and she moaned her pleasure at his dominance… Would she beg him to take her, to pound into her until they both screamed in release?
He’d never know. Another couple of yards and he’d hand her off to the Russian sailor at the rope ladder leading to their dinghy. Then never see her again. Why did that make his chest ache?
“I am Dr. Anya Vanikova.” She tilted her head, and the hood slid back to reveal a long, golden braid disappearing into her jacket. “If we have time before setting out, I would appreciate someone showing me to my quarters so I may prepare for our assignment.”
She couldn’t be serious.
He took her in again, from the top of her shiny hair, pausing at her too-blue eyes, high cheekbones, and stopping on her sensual lips, which were forming words he didn’t want to hear. A furrow in her brow appeared when he didn’t respond.
“As I just stated, I am Dr. Vanikova, assigned to your ship. The one person allowed by your superiors.” The woman watched him through narrowed eyes, waiting for him to have one of his busy crew usher her to some sort of guest quarters. Did her misconceptions about the US people extend to thinking their military ships were pleasure vessels? “As I understand it, the serpent spotted by our pilot bore a sharp resemblance to a creature described by the Inuit peoples of your Alaska as well as our Siberia.” Removing her hand from his arm, she brushed out imaginary wrinkles in her parka. Interesting. Although she spoke with authority, her actions showed something else. A touch of nerves, perhaps? Did she feel what he did?
“Ma’am, that is, Dr. Vanikova, there has to have been some sort of misunderstanding. The Northern Lights does not now, nor will she ever, have women’s quarters.” What would his father say? Or do? Of course, as the first commissioned officer in his family, he was the first one to make a call like this. His father would have left the decision to the captain. A college education before enlisting had seemed like a good idea at the time, and his interest in his subject led him as far as that education could go, but he’d never expected to face sea serpents and Russian women on his first mission as captain. “I am afraid you will have to reboard your ship and, if your government would like to participate in this mission, send over a male scientist.”
She lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Nyet. I am the leading expert in the USSR—in the world—on the phenomena of this type, Captain. I will not be dismissed like some… some shluha vokzal’naja.”
He was afraid to ask what that meant but also fascinated by the flush traveling from her cheeks to the collarbone just visible above the parka, and also by her small, leather-gloved hands fisted at her sides. Feisty. Gentling his tone, he said, “I understand you are disappointed, but we have no accommodations for a lady. It’s just not done.” He took her elbow again, so small in his big mitt. “I will escort you back to your ship and explain to the captain why other arrangements must be made. So no one blames you.”
What were the odds such a beauty would be a biologist? Okay, attractive maybe, but so polished, and speaking such good English. But then, if she had no scientific knowledge, it would show quickly with her as the only representative of her ship on board his. Perhaps she also held qualifications for two careers? Biologist and spy? Sweet-smelling, busty, blue-eyed spy. And scientist. Looks counted more in the spy biz, if the many women he’d spent time with while acquiring his PhD offered any indication. They’d been okay, some prettier than others, but a goddess like Anya? Few and far between. Beautiful enough to turn the head of any unwary—and many wary—man.
Silly, though, to assume her a spy. They already had the details on this cruise, had been in on the planning to all accounts. So why would they send a spy. Unless, they’d made up the whole “sea serpent” story just to get a KGB operative onboard the Northern Lights. They had nothing like her in their fleet so far. The ship. Not the goddess.
Would the Soviets be interested in the technology they carried? What else could it be? If they’d wanted to make off with the Northern Lights, wouldn’t they have made a move while they were all on deck? Most of the crew had already debarked. And the smoke coming from their own ship would be hard to fake. Possible, he supposed, but would they be ballsy enough to attempt to steal an ice breaker?
But, as he’d already considered, they’d let that chance go by when they left the ship. Only a handful of sailors and a couple of the other ship’s officers stood waiting their turn by the ladder.
“I think I am not speaking clearly enough. So I will repeat. I am the premier expert on the subject of our quest. In the world. There is no one to blame me unless we do not complete the mission, which I will not allow to happen.” She almost vibrated with tension, so passionate about her work. He recognized that. Marine biology, even the “real” kind he studied, could certainly captivate any legitimate scientist. She didn’t look like the kind of nut case who pursued fairies and leprechauns and sea serpents, though.
“And you believe if we continue north we will find a mythical creature.”
She nodded, her hood bouncing at her neck. “I do. Just because we haven’t run into one yet, does not mean they don’t exist, Captain.”
“I admire your dedication, but our ship is not equipped for female personnel. Despite your persuasive argument, you must leave.”
She laughed, a low sound that traveled down his spine and woke his cock again. “I’m afraid it is no longer up to us, Captain.” She waved toward the dot disappearing off the port bow, a trail of black smoke on the horizon telling the tale of its engine troubles. “My ride has already headed for home, and you are, I believe you say, stuck with me.”
He parted his lips to shout an order to follow the ship then his shoulders sagged. They were already close to Russian waters and the other ship well within them. To enter without permission or prior arrangement could lead to a career-ending incident. Or a war. Not the way to handle his first command. He might be the first officer in the family, but he didn’t intend to be the first to receive a black mark on his service record.
“Don’t look so tragic, Captain. I can sleep anywhere. I require no special space.” She lifted a hand then dropped it. Where would she have put it? His chest? It would have burned through his uniform. This is why women belong ashore. If I’m ready to burst into flame, what affect will she have on my crew?
Put her anywhere. And wouldn’t that just be dandy? He pictured his men heading down to their racks to find a gorgeous Russian woman hanging out her dainties in the head. “I’m afraid the crew is already going to be unsettled to have you on board. I cannot violate their privacy by asking them to share quarters with a woman.”
“But of course.” She arched a straight brow. “Then I suppose I will have to roll up in a blanket here on deck.” A light snow had begun to fall while they spoke, dusting her hood, the deck, and everyone and everything else. By morning, she’d be a sexy snow woman. “If you can spare a blanket?”
Gritting his teeth, Captain King held back his thoughts on her ridiculous remark and made the most difficult decision of his command so far. “I can’t waste any more time on this. Dr. Vanikova, please accompany me to my quarters.”
“Captain, what are you proposing?” The sparkle in her eye took away the sting from what could have been an implication of impropriety and stopped him just short of barking a response.
“Giving up my quarters during your stay on the Northern Lights. Giving you the only privacy available on this ship.” He leaned in close. “And I will ask that you keep to them unless I or one of my officers is with you. I will not have my crew disturbed in their work.” Or you wandering the deck, snooping.
“I apologize. How generous of you to share your accommodations with me.” Share… he chose to ignore the implication. There’d be no sharing. She had the cabin. He would sleep elsewhere.
What was the woman up to? Surely she didn’t expect him to join her there? A woman that beautiful would have her choice of men. Was she a seductress? The type his mother warned him about who made conquests and broke hearts.
He’d doubled up with laughter at the time. Surely only men treated women in such a way. But his mother’s serious expression left no doubts she meant what she said. He’d written it off as overprotective, but also wondered how much of that warning had colored his dream about Natasha.
Double timing along the deck, he dragged her behind him toward his quarters near the wheelhouse. “I will bunk with another officer until we are able to restore you to the ship your government is sending behind us.”
The doctor dug in her heels, and he jerked to a stop, amazed such a delicate-looking woman could be so strong. “So I am to peer out your pothole and hope to make observations in that way?”
“Porthole and yes, ma’am. My men are busy all day and into the night training and practicing procedures, and once we hit the ice, everyone will be twice as busy. I cannot have them distracted and endanger all on the ship.”
She lapsed into silence. He observed her flushed cheeks and the dangerous glint like sunlight in the Caribbean blue of her eyes, and considered his options.
He didn’t have any, did he? With the Soviet vessel limping out of sight, he would be stuck with the distracting, possibly espionage-prone female for at least a few days. “Let’s get you settled in then we’ll talk to Washington and find out exactly how they want us to handle the situation.”
“Or I could accompany you now.” Did all Soviet women have husky voices like hers? Like dream Natasha’s? Of course they didn’t, but every time she spoke, his cock jerked in response. How unprofessional of him, both as a captain and a Dom. If only he could get the image of her, cuffed to his bed, out of his head. Control was his watchword.
“No, the less the men have to deal with you on board, the safer we will all be.” He gripped her wrist. “To my cabin.”
She stared at his hand, but he held steady. “Are you in the habit of manhandling women, Captain?” She licked her lips, the nervous tell a contradiction to her sharp tone.
He eyed her from head to foot, taking her measure. Despite her strong words, he sensed something else lay underneath. “I am in the habit of having my orders obeyed on my ship. If you find that impossible, there is one other option—the brig. For the moment, it is unoccupied.” And had been for the entire mission. His men displayed impeccable behavior. Even after their interlude with the vodka, they seemed to be handling themselves as usual. And he wanted to keep it like that. However, while the barred enclosure would get her out from underfoot, she would be too close to the men and still able to talk to them and be visible for any err… private actions.
His cock liked that idea even better, although he knew gratification of his particular interests would not be possible on board the ship or, to his regret, ever, with the woman who tapped her booted toe in impatience. He’d never be able to snap his cuffs on the wrist he gripped and spend hours tormenting her with pleasure and a little pain before giving her the orgasm of a lifetime. Wasn’t she the perfect type to seduce a hapless captain, though?
“Tell me your secrets, Captain…” she’d purr, rubbing her palm over the late-day scruff on his chin. “I want to know them all. Betray your government and find paradise between my thighs.”
To which he’d have to tell her the truth. “I have none.”
He would make some up, the more ridiculous the better, to get her strapped to the back of his door, spread wide and vulnerable. Her pink pussy open to his inspection.
A young lieutenant approached and saluted, and Mark dropped his hand from the woman’s arm, shuddering away the fantasies she brought with her. The man passed him a clipboard, and he reviewed the contents. A safety drill was about to commence, one he had planned to observe, but circumstances made his attendance impossible. “Please ask the XO to report to me in Communications upon completion of the drill.”
“Aye, Captain.” The lieutenant saluted again and spun on a heel with crisp military precision. Very crisp. Very unlike most of his respectful but just a little casual crew.
As the junior officer marched off, Mark rolled his eyes and returned his attention to their guest. “Ma’am, Doctor, please follow me to the communications center. I may have been too hasty in suggesting you go directly to your temporary quarters. It is imperative we both report in to our respective governments and receive their direction.” He had no procedures in place for accommodating a woman on board the Northern Lights. Perhaps his superiors did. Surely it couldn’t be the first time a woman came aboard. Coast Guard vessels often rescued women, but usually were able to take them to shore quickly. They did not bring them along on missions of any nature.
She bent her graceful neck in a nod of agreement and strolled at his side on the rolling deck toward the bridge. The waves had increased in height as dark clouds rolled in and together with the rising wind made “strolling” difficult for any but an experienced seaman, yet, she walked in those heeled boots as if born on shipboard. Of course. She’d mentioned being an expert in sea life. She probably spent most of her time on a research vessel. “Perhaps our superiors will have helpful advice.” Was that sarcasm in her tone? “Thank you, Captain.”
“Perhaps they can indeed offer guidance.” He watched her carefully.
She flashed a grin that lit up her face as the sun broke through the thick clouds and showed the handful of pale freckles on her creamy cheeks. “They are government officials, Captain. We cannot hope for too much.” She shrugged. “However, it is not us but the mission that matters. If there is indeed some sort of serpent slithering along under the ice, we must put aside our differences to find it.”
“Wise words, Doctor.” As he held open the hatch leading to their destination, he chuckled. “Do you really believe in this thing? You make it sound like some sort of monster of myth. Most likely your pilot who reported it had been exposed to solar radiation that affected his vision, and, of course, there are no pictures.”
“Do you find it so difficult to believe that our pilots can report accurately what they observe? Just because your bloated capitalist government doubts us does not make us less than competent—”
A sailor approached down the passageway, and Mark held a finger to his lips. “The actual objective of this mission is on a need-to-know basis. Meaning, until we get a lot closer, only a few of the officers know what we are looking for. That is unless they learned it from your crew?”
“No, most of them also were not informed. Those who were would not mention it.” She subsided until the man had passed, saluting before disappearing through the doorway behind them. As they started on again, she murmured, “My hunt for yet another creature of myth.”
Unsure whether she’d intended him to hear, he continued on without responding to either comment. “Our original orders were to clear the way for your ship with all its equipment but, under the circumstances, we will have to make some changes to ensure the safety and efficiency of the voyage.”
“Certain items were brought aboard the Northern Lights, as you know, but many items were too large to move and we must make do.”
They arrived at the communications center to find the two-man watch busy and efficient as usual. Mark’s luck in obtaining this command amazed him every day. He accepted that the increasing number of scientific missions in the polar seas had led him to receive this assignment. There were a number of officers with seniority who would have liked it, but a word from his former commander convinced the powers that be of his value as a scientist as well as an officer.
He’d been promised a lot of very dull trips—if being on an ice breaker could possibly be dull—escorting scientific missions taking water samples… With him on board, they might be doing some sampling on their own.
The oil companies were beginning to show great interest in the northernmost areas as well.
And, of course, the USCG stood ready to uphold US marine law and come to the assistance of ships in danger either in US or international waters. “How am I going to contact my government?”
The husky voice returned his attention to the moment and the twist his already out-of-the- ordinary journey had taken. Snapping alert, Mark issued orders, and within a half hour, they received instructions to motor with all speed to the location where the serpent had been spotted, to extend every courtesy to Dr. Vanikova, and to report their findings as soon as possible. They did not give quartering directions. But what options did he have but his own cabin?
Anya—Dr. Vanikova—was unable to be patched through to her government due to some weather issues, but she agreed to follow the directives given for the Northern Lights and its crew for the time being.
“To your cabin, then, Captain?” She gave him a smile that melted his brain and apparently those of the two men in the compartment, who stared at her, slack jawed. “I believe my things were brought on board before my comrades departed?”
“This way, ma’am.” Mark stepped back and allowed her to walk ahead, his eyes—and his men’s no doubt—on the twin globes under her tight slacks. Did they teach that walk at KGB headquarters? If they did, the rest of the world had better watch out.