As leader of a covert unit of rescue swimmers, following the mission plan is a matter of professional survival for seal shifter Nate Landry. But recent closure on a colleague's death has Nate recalculating his own trajectory.
It could use a little nudge and a whole lotta juice, and he only has to glance across the cockpit for just the right source of turbulence.
Following orders has kept him sane – until the guy giving them goes full throttle.
Chopper pilot Gil Espinoza has kept his thing for Landry on cruise control for eight long years. That the guy once chose a fellow shifter over Gil stung like hell but kept him on course.
Problem is: the good lieutenant just laid down new coordinates, a radical turn into uncharted waters.
And if there's one thing Gil can't do, it's ignore an order from Nate Landry.
CW: one hero's parent living with cognitive decline; depictions of sea rescues; missing person situation
COURSE CORRECTION is the 1st novel in the ROGUE RESCUE series, steamy paranormal romances featuring marine-shifter heroes:
1. COURSE CORRECTION
2. CRUSH DEPTH
3. ENTRY SHOCK
ROGUE RESCUE Series
Saving lives is their mission.
Saving each other will be far more dangerous.
ROGUE RESCUE is a companion series to GRIZZLY RIM.
Release date: October 17, 2018
Print pages: 203
Content advisory: one hero’s parent is living with cognitive decline; depictions of sea rescues; missing person situation
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The long corridor of the cutter stretched out before Gil, bathed in blue security light.
He paused, letting the deep, subsonic rumble of the ship’s engines vibrate through the soles of his shoes. They gleamed, indigo into black, as if he stood in a comic book frame. The pleats of his uniform pointed him where he needed to go—where he needed to be. So did the growing pressure behind his zipper.
So why was he hesitating?
Maybe because they hadn’t been stationed offshore for a while, not since… Well, not for a while. It wasn’t like he didn’t know his way around the maze of the ship’s belly. He did, and he knew this corridor as well as his own dick. Always quiet but for the thrum of the engines, always narrow and blue, always ending not at the hatch on the far side but at the door just six down on the right, smack in the middle.
Everything seemed to balance on that door. The ship. Their unit. His whole fucking life. It was like a fulcrum on top of which everything teetered precariously. On the upslope, things had been one way. After the tip, which had happened though he couldn’t remember how or why, everything had been different. But here, at the very apex…here was possibility. Here was his chance.
The nonskid surface of the floor scuffed his shoe as he stepped forward. Glowing sconces slid past him as he approached the door, and then he stood before it, staring at the number stenciled on its industrial paint. Something about the number made him angry, but he ignored it. Raised his hand and rapped it lightly—fuck you—with his knuckle.
He waited, fingertips pulsing, and then the door opened. Soft eyes blinked at him from the dark within. Perfect teeth flashed. Stunned by them, he stood rooted to the corridor until Landry’s long fingers reached out and grabbed Gil’s shirt, pulling him into the cabin.
The door clicked shut behind him. Its closure sealed them away from the blue—all the blue—away even from the sound of the deep workings of the ship, so that all he could sense was the firm warmth of Landry’s muscled back under his hands and his hot breath at Gil’s ear.
“What took you so long, Espinoza?”
He didn’t have the first fucking clue. His progress here had taken ages. In fact, he’d never gotten this far. He hushed the thought right away, superstitious that just thinking it would end this. After a few breaths, he still stood in the dark cabin, well within what had always been the invisible barrier of Landry’s personal space. He wanted to crow about it, strut and shout over it, but the Lieutenant had asked him a question. And when the Lieutenant asked a question, he responded. Always.
He wrapped a hand around the back of Landry’s neck. The skin was soft there, with just a hint of the fade leading up into the soft spring of his buzzcut. But there were no regs here, no rules, not even any fucking precedents. Only a soft chuckle that brushed Gil’s lips, a syrupy-sweet bit of crema he was going to lick every last sticky drop of. His answer came out as an involuntary growl, and he leaned in—
Suddenly Landry strobed red, and then the blare of the emergency sirens pounded Gil’s skin. He jerked back, blinking at the pulsing light, shrinking from its stabbing invasion. Landry stepped away, leaving him further unmoored. When Gil reached for him, Landry only stared at him, expectant. As if only Gil needed to answer the alarm. He turned toward the door, hoping against hope it was a false call, or just a drill.
When he opened the cabin door, the sound changed: no klaxons after all. Only his name.
Gil bolted upright. He sat in his bed, in the same room he’d always had, lit by the same street lamps since forever. Nothing was blue here or pounding, except his startled heart. He fought the sheets tangled around his legs, then thumped clumsily across his room to the door.
The shouts were louder in the hallway. The other door—only two away, not six—opened, and Oscar stepped out to meet him.
“Sorry, I couldn’t quiet him.”
“’S okay.” He pushed past the nurse and crossed to the bed. Pop sprang up and rushed him, his strong arms circling Gil’s ribs. He was shaking and crying. “I got it,” Gil said to Oscar.
“I’ll be in the hall.”
“Thanks.” He wrapped Pop up. “Shh, shh. What was it?”
Pop mumbled something against his chest, then broke again.
Gil laid his cheek on Pop’s head and swayed with him in the dim light from the street. After a few minutes, though, he was too heavy. “Ven, acuéstate.” Leaning down, he pushed the covers aside.
“I will.” He eased Pop back into bed. Then he crawled in with him and, drawing the blankets over them, pulled his father close. From here, in the bed his parents had shared, in the house they’d lived in since Gil was born, in the old, lived-in neighborhood that had made him who he was, the long blue corridor of the Coast Guard cutter felt far away. Far behind him, as it should have been.
He knew better than to hope, and had given that up years before.
He knew better than to want, and mostly he’d subverted that too.
Dreaming, though. Sometimes the dreams found him. Didn’t matter that he knew better than to indulge them. Knew better than to imagine heat pushing off Landry’s body against his own or how his plush lips might part for Gil’s.
The dreams were all he’d ever have of something he’d once wanted badly, hoped for fiercely. They left him feeling hollow as a ship’s hold. But he could survive them.
And that would have to be enough.
Nate nodded to the security guard at the entrance to headquarters, then parked in his usual spot. Turned off his headlights, slipped on his duffel bag, and plucked his coffee mug from its holder. Locked his door. Checked his headlights, unnecessarily. Waved to Mackey, just pulling in in his Jeep. Just another calm California morning at Rogue Rescue.
It was a lie and not just because of the heavy cloud on the horizon. He could also look forward to an earful from Brackett.
The alarm sounded before Nate even set his duffel in his locker, and a shot of adrenaline spiked through him before the rational part of his brain reminded him the world of search and rescue was bigger than his own reckless actions. Brackett wouldn’t dress him down in front of all of HQ. She was ruthless, not vengeful.
“Morning, gentlemen!” he called as his team hastily stowed their own belongings. Everyone but Espinoza and Nichols, but they were at the chopper, he guessed. His men followed him at a brisk walk toward the helipad.
Brackett joined them from her office, hustling alongside Nate. “Lieutenant. Welcome back from vacation.” Vacation dripped with irony.
“Pleasure cruiser. Overestimated its stability in high seas.”
And underestimated the sheer power of the ocean. Even a swollen creek could take out a semi, easily.
“Two washed overboard, a third called it in. Capsize probable.”
“A conventional unit will meet you there.” Her heels clacked on the concrete floor for several steps, then, “Kenner’s in the pilot’s seat.”
Nate almost tripped. “What? Where’s Espinoza?”
“Not here, Lieutenant. Adapt.”
A rescue call without their pilot? That had never happened since Espinoza had joined the unit. “Which chopper?”
Nate felt a dark chuckle rise in his chest. Espinoza was not going to be happy about this. Then again, if he didn’t want someone else touching his precious bird, he shouldn’t have left the unit in the lurch. “You tell Espinoza?”
One silver eyebrow rose. “She’s Rogue Rescue property.”
So that was a no.
“And, Landry, I want to see you in my office when you get back, so don’t do anything heroic.”
She peeled off, leaving him with a reminder that he’d also recently called in—only he hadn’t waited to get official leave. Talk about leaving everyone in the lurch. He’d had reasons—good ones—but he’d have his own sit-down with the guys later to apologize. He opened the heavy door to the stairwell, and his team pounded up the metal stairs ahead of him.
The chopper stood by with Nichols, their flight mechanic, waiting at the side bay door to see them in. Ito and Sutherland got there first and hopped in effortlessly. Mackey pulled himself up after them.
“Where’s Espinoza?” Nate hollered to Nichols, but the guy only shrugged.
He climbed in and made his way forward, slipping into what in a real Coast Guard chopper would be the copilot’s seat. He still didn’t know why Brackett had formed their team without a copilot, had always chalked it up to their numbers. A USCG rescue unit used a pilot, a co, a mechanic, and one swimmer, but they had four swimmers, chosen for specific abilities; their helicopter—not the typical Dolphin or Jayhawk class to begin with—had been customized for their purposes.
But the logistics aboard the chopper weren’t what concerned him just now. He buckled up and put on his helmet, where the sound of Kenner’s sharp breaths greeted him.
Nope, nope, all the fuckin’ nopes. Nate was no pilot, but he’d watched Espinoza do these preflight checks for the better part of a decade, and Kenner was all out of order.
“You got our headings?” Nate asked.
“Yeah, yeah, got ’em.”
Oh, son. “Sir,” Nate prompted.
“Sir,” Kenner added, his jaw tight.
Everything he did was tight. A grating comparison to the calm certainty of Espinoza, whose hands moved over the controls in a smooth pattern Nate had come to think of as a dance, if someone as beefy as Gil Espinoza could be considered a dancer. He executed a hundred steps to prep for flight and never broke a sweat.
It was a beautiful thing to watch.
Kenner, though. White knuckles and all.
Heaven help him if he fucked up Espinoza’s helicopter.
“Nichols!” Kenner called, prompting several curses in Nate’s earpieces.
“Intercom, Kenner,” Nichols growled. “No need to shout.”
The pilot lowered his voice marginally. “All clear?”
They lifted off at a steep angle Nate suspected Espinoza would feel down his spine miles away, and headed out over the water. Nate touched base with each of his men verbally through the mic, then checked over his shoulder for good measure.
Mackey, their shark, sat in the rear, portside. Other shifter units existed—every branch of the armed forces had top-secret contracts with several, whose members’ animal forms offered advantages in extreme situations. The ocean-based units always employed a shark shifter. In the water, Mackey had one job: keep the survivors and rescuers safe from wild sharks. And he did. He often came back more beat up than when he left, sometimes with gashes that required tape stitches in the chopper. But he kept reporting, kept signing on for more. Nate didn’t know what drove him but also didn’t plan to ask. As reliable as Mackey was, he had a dead stare that didn’t invite personal questions.
He was balanced by ItoSu, who sat facing each other, on the starboard side. Jay Ito and Pete Sutherland were the unit’s dolphins, partners in the water, and cousins and best friends out of it. Like best friends. BFFs, if anyone still said that. They couldn’t have looked more different, what with Ito’s dark hair and angular lines, and Sutherland’s red hair and freckles, but they’d grown up in the same pod and were joined at the hip. They might turn up on any given day with matching purple mohawks or matching temp tattoos or matching frilly panties.
You could count on them to match, and on Mackey to grumble about non-regulation underwear.
In fact, Nate had an inkling they did those things just to get under Mackey’s skin. But while all the matching made them somewhat obnoxious on land, they were formidable in the deep. ItoSu seemed almost to share a brain, communicating seamlessly. And they were fast. Always found the most vulnerable among those the unit was rescuing and buoyed them until they could be attached to the hoist.
Tom Nichols, who sat behind the pilot’s seat, facing Mackey, was their flight mechanic and primary in-flight EMT. He worked the side bay door, seeing the guys into and out of the water using the hoist cable. If anyone came back injured, Nichols saw to them. He’d put more temporary patches on Mackey than Nate could count, and had done so for a while—they’d both already been with the unit when Nate had come on eight years before.
They’d had a few other team members over the years, including the two for whom Nate had recently put himself in hot water, but these men were their core now. Plus Espinoza.
Where the hell was he?
When they neared the rescue site several miles offshore, Nate and his guys stripped to their skin. A conventional rescue swimmer wore a wetsuit, dry suit, flotation, mask and snorkel, fins, and a harness that clipped to the hook on the end of the hoist cable. Nate’s team went into the water naked so they could shift right away, so their cable had a loop of strapping attached to the hoist hook. At his turn, each man would step into the strap, grab hold of the cable, and ride it down. They did the same to return, unless injury or exhaustion called for the basket.
Mackey went down the cable first, as usual, and was halfway into his shark form before he splashed down into the heavy chop. He circled below while ItoSu entered the water. Nate came down last, letting go of the cable about fifteen feet above the swells to avoid the worst of the entry shock. If there was anything he envied Mackey, it was the efficiency with which he shifted. Nate hadn’t achieved it, so the water was always a bit of a slap, even without the static electricity that built up in the hoist cable by the chopper. As soon as he attained his seal form, he took off after the others.
The cruiser was a hot mess. As Brackett had predicted, the craft had capsized and was taking on water. Mackey prowled close under the boat. He normally kept his distance, so he wouldn’t get shot by someone on deck, but with the boat on its side, there was little risk of that. Nate could make out Ito and Sutherland, swimming hard under the hull for the far side. Nate surfaced long enough to get a breath and then dove toward the submerged cabin.
He was the unit’s in-water leader, but this was why he’d come to be on the crew in the first place. As a seal, he could navigate the tight underwater spaces of a capsized or sinking craft to search for survivors. Sometimes they were already victims by the time he reached them, but he preferred to keep a positive mindset. He was edgy from the unexpected presence of Kenner in Espinoza’s place, but he pushed it out of his mind to focus.
He found the pilot house of the cruiser half-filled with water, and a man floating there, unconscious but face clear and breathing. Grabbing the man’s life vest in his teeth, Nate pulled him out through the cabin’s door.
The conditions outside were nasty, but the other unit had arrived, its suited swimmer descending to the water. Cradling the unconscious man on his belly, Nate barked to get the rescue swimmer’s attention. Used to Nate’s call, the swimmer retrieved the man, giving Nate a thumbs-up. Two other survivors bobbed nearby, the slick backs of Ito and Sutherland shining under them.
Nate turned and made one more quick check of the cruiser’s interior and then got the hell out. It was sinking fast. As it was, he didn’t duck under a doorway quickly enough and got a good knock to his skull. When he surfaced again, he could feel his scalp bleeding, warm against the chill of the sea. He raised a flipper to the second unit. On his signal, the swimmer began his ascent into their helicopter. ItoSu would be surging under the waves back to their own chopper, hovering a good distance away. Mackey would be prowling under Nate.
With a deep breath, he dove and swam after the dolphins.
Time to head back and face Brackett.
She stared hard at Nate. “What happened to your head?”
“A steel door casing.” He resisted the urge to touch the bandage Nichols had applied above his left eye. He’d insisted Nate sit across from him, sending Mackey up front to the copilot’s seat. Poor Kenner.
“You got everyone?”
“If there were three, yes.”
“As far as we know.” She sat back in her chair and sighed. “What the fuck, Landry?”
He didn’t look away. He’d known this was coming. It had been a sure thing as soon as he’d checked the remains out of the crematorium and booked his flights north.
“Your unit had two calls on Thursday. Your guys depend on you to be there for them—to lead them—and you weren’t there.”
“Charlie Beauchamp was a friend. A colleague.” Hell, a former lover, briefly, not that Brackett needed to catch wind of that. Good Lord, he could only imagine the blow-back. “He was one of us, Commander, and so was Denny. I didn’t want Charlie to find out from a telegram that his brother’s remains had finally been found.”
Denny’s death had sent a shock through the team unlike any he’d experienced before or since. He’d recruited the Beauchamp brothers himself. As otter shifters and former swim champs, they’d been natural additions to the unit, and they’d rivaled ItoSu for uncanny teamwork. Then, one morning while they were stationed on a cutter for cross-unit training in deep water, they’d all woken to find Denny missing. Best they could figure, he’d fallen overboard in some state that had prevented him from being able to shift.
Charlie had been inconsolable and left the unit soon after. He’d driven north, in a long solo haul that still made Nate’s chest hurt to imagine. Nate had practically begged Brackett to track Charlie’s pickup until they could determine where he settled. When he stopped in a village in Alaska, and stayed through a winter, Nate had breathed relief.
Then, two weeks ago, Denny’s remains had washed ashore and undergone DNA testing.
Brackett leaned forward onto her elbows. “What do you take me for, Landry?”
“Do you really think I’d have notified him by telegram?”
“Screw procedure. I’m not heartless, you crawfish-belching pinniped.”
That was a new one. Nate couldn’t help but smile.
“I was going to call him myself,” Brackett said. “Give me some credit.”
“I do, it’s just…it was his brother.”
She sighed, the air puffing her cheeks. “I know. What a damned thing. How is he?”
“Thriving. He’s a river guide up there.”
“He doing any S&R?”
“Just in a volunteer capacity.”
Brackett shook her head. “That’s a shame. He was good.”
“Still is, Commander. He was keeping his search and rescue background under wraps, but I kind of blew his cover. Seems to have good friends there, though.”
“Glad to hear it. How’d Kenner do?”
Typical turn on a dime by the commander. “Stiff as a board, but everyone survived.”
He cleared his throat, then asked, as casually as possible, “Is Espinoza sick?”
They looked at each other for a long moment, him waiting for more, Brackett probably daring him to inquire further. “Anything I should know?” he asked finally.
He ground his teeth together. “About Espinoza.”
“Nope. He called in. Had a reason. I told him to play it by ear. He could miss a few days, so you’ll have to be flexible as well, Landry. Understood?”
Understood, but hell if he was going to accept it. “Yes, Commander.”
“All right. Dismissed. And don’t let Kenner wreck the fucking chopper.”
Nate nodded and shut Brackett’s office door behind him.
Kenner’s flight skills were the least of his priorities. At the top of that list was getting Espinoza back in his pilot’s seat where he belonged.
Even if Nate had to play it a touch underhanded to get him there.
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