They were going to drown.
Kelly Jacobs could already see the headline on the front page of the weekly Coronado Eagle community newspaper: Riptide Kills Teen and Lifeguard. The cold water had her by the throat. Six minutes had passed since she’d last seen the boy bobbing in the swells, and they were being pulled out to sea at a horrifying clip.
She had a lifetime of experience in these Pacific waters off San Diego, numerous rescues, but nothing like this. The water in early May, warmer than usual from La Niña, was still only sixty-seven degrees, inducing hypothermia, and the swells, while technically classified moderate, dropped her four feet down in the troughs. If she didn’t find the boy soon, she wouldn’t have the ability to get them back to shore. And this was a big ocean for a search party to cover in the darkness—to her left the sun had already set and the twilight was fading fast.
Kelly thought about her husband as she fought the cold of the sea, and she wondered: Nick, did you die because you drowned? They had never told her.
Three years ago she had said good-bye to her husband Nick at the gates of the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base, half a mile down Highway 75 from their home in the Coronado Shores subdivision. It had been a typical good-bye—loving but rushed—Nick had been slipping away from her ever since his pager had gone off forty minutes before; his attention already on the upcoming mission. She had stolen one last hug, been lifted off her feet for his kiss good-bye, and then watched as he strode with purpose through security to join the other members of Navy SEAL Team Nine gathering to hear why they had been paged to assemble at 8 p.m.
A confident man, her husband, serving in one of the elite branches of the U.S. special forces, a Navy SEAL: from the sea, air, or land, they would get the job done. Fluent in three languages, a competent backup medic, he was accustomed to being sent to deal with crises around the world where force had to be brought to bear rapidly. They called him Eagle because he saw everything. A useful trait, since he walked point for one of the two squads in Golf Platoon.
She had dropped him off at the base and returned home, knowing neither where he was going nor how long he would be gone.
There had been no welcome home.
A training accident. That was what the Navy officially said as it buried her husband with full military honors and handed her the folded flag.
She knew they were lying. A training accident didn’t bring her husband home in a sealed coffin and bring Nick’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Joe Baker, home nursing a bullet through his shoulder. She had never tried to break the understood code of silence to learn the truth. They were SEALs, and she had been a SEAL’s wife. The truth was classified. Looking into the eyes of the hurting men of SEAL Team Nine, she had been assured that her husband had done his job and not let them down. Nick had died doing what he loved; under her own grief, she had been grateful for that.
The medallion she wore, Nick’s eagle, slapped against her in the waves. She reached for it with one hand, grabbing hold, grateful now she had secured the chain so she could wear it in the water. It had traveled with Nick through five years of missions. Now it was her closest reminder of him.
“People drown because they panic.”
The reassuring words Nick had often said helped calm her rising anxiety. During Navy SEAL training the instructors had tied his hands and feet and dropped him into the deep end of the pool for thirty minutes doing various tasks—the drown proof test. Nick knew what he was talking about. He just hadn’t told her how hard it was not to panic.
Relax. Do your job.
She put her energy into judging the swells, riding them up to scan the surrounding water. The boy had been south of her the last time she had seen him.
She surged toward him with a hard crawl, willing to use the last of her energy, knowing this might be her last chance before darkness fell.
The teenager had been surfing with a friend; both boys had gotten into trouble in the heavy surf. She had gone into the water to back up her partner. Alex had reached them first, securing a hold on the boy bleeding from a gash on the forehead, pushing his float board to the other. As Alex headed toward the shore towing the injured boy, she went for the other teen, not surprised when in his panic he tried to fight her. At the same instant she got hit in the eye, they hit the riptide. The sea tore them apart.
The sea helped her this time, tossing her the last few feet. She snagged the boy’s arm as she slammed past him, then spun into him; the wave breaking over her head and into her face. She coughed hard, struggling to clear her lungs, as she held on for all she was worth.
The fight had gone out of the teen. The straps of the float board were around his left wrist, his right arm hugging it. Even though she desperately needed a few brief moments of rest, she was careful not to put any of her weight onto the float board.. It would never support them both.
Sandy blond hair, blue eyes, slim, younger than she had originally thought, 14 or 15, long, skinny arms and lanky, still trying to fit into his sudden growth spurt. Both his fear and fatigue were obvious in his face. “What’s your name?” She had to lean close to him to be heard.
He was swallowing water, coughing and his voice rasped. “Ryan.”
“I’m Kelly.” Fighting fingers that were stiff, that did not want to do as she asked, she unwrapped the nylon rope at her waist and maneuvered the buddy line around his waist, securely tying the line. She wasn’t going to take a chance on the sea once again tearing them apart. She put her hands on his face, smiling at him, even as she studied his eyes, assessing his condition. “That was a pretty impressive wipeout you did on the surfboard.”
He gave a glimmer of a smile back. “My dad is going to kill me. I wasn’t supposed to be surfing.”
Hypothermia. She could hear it in the dragging words, see it in his eyes as he struggled to keep them open against the sting of the salt water, and the cold induced fatigue. She wasn’t in much better shape herself.
She looked to the east. The twilight was almost gone; the shoreline appeared only by reflected lights on the horizon. Getting them back to shore was no longer possible—even if she had the strength, she would not be able to judge the location of the beach and the dangerous rocks in the dark. There was little she could do but keep the boy talking and hope help arrived soon. She knew the rescue crews would be out looking. As soon as Alex had reached shore, the call for help would have gone out.
“Who’s your dad?” The conversation was as much to distract her as to distract him. Waiting was almost harder than searching.
“You live here in Coronado?”
“Across the water on the Point Loma peninsula. Dad bought a place on Hill Street.”
A wealthy man’s son. Somehow that fact didn’t surprise her. The homes on Hill Street bordered Sunset Cliffs National Park. That stretch of shoreline had the most beautiful rock formations carved out by the sea she had ever seen. “Those are beautiful homes.”
“The house is okay.”
“Just okay?” she asked, amused at the perspective of youth.
“Our home in Hong Kong was more exotic, but we had to leave three years ago when the lease expired.”
“On the house or the country?”
He laughed; it was weak, but there. “The country actually. Dad’s British. He had to move his company headquarters to San Diego when Hong Kong reverted back to China.”
Having never traveled outside of California, Kelly felt a little envious; Hong Kong sounded intriguing. “That must have been fun for your mom.”
“It’s just Dad and me.”
“It’s okay. I barely remember my mom, Amy. She died when I was little.”
Even though his words were matter-of-fact, she heard the wistfulness in his voice. He missed not having a mom. “My mom died about five years ago. It’s rough.”
“Did she—” his hand slipped from the float, momentarily dropping his head below the surface. His panic was instantaneous.
Treading water, Kelly suddenly found herself pulled down as Ryan tried to claw his way back to the surface using her. She broke to the surface behind him, grabbing him from behind, wrapping her forearm under his chin. “Easy!”
“We’re going to drown out here!”
She yanked the float board back by its rope. “Hug it across your chest and stop moving,” she ordered tersely, treading water for both of them, knowing just how precarious their situation was.
Ryan went still, but he was crying now, the sound of his sobs carrying across the water, the fear overwhelming him. Kelly’s heart broke at the sound, knowing for a boy his age, tears would be the last thing he wanted someone to see. She smoothed her hand over his hair, trying to comfort without embarrassing him. “It’s going to be okay. Just relax. I won’t let you drown.”
His grip on her arm finally eased enough so circulation could return. “How can they find us in the dark?”
She looked around, deciphering in the flickering moonlight that the waves were increasing in size. There had been a low front coming through this evening and its front edge of wind was already reaching them. “Spotlights. Searchlights. The boats will be out, even helicopters.” She didn’t add what she knew and feared. Even with the resources, finding them before morning would be difficult if not impossible.
No. She couldn’t let herself doubt.
Joe would find them.
“Kelly, I would like you to meet my new boss, Lieutenant Joe Baker.”
She turned at the touch of her husband’s hand on her shoulder. Standing beside Nick, Joe seemed dwarfed, a good six inches shorter, the same powerful muscles but less bulky. But then Nick at six feet four broke the rules for what made a good SEAL physique. Joe could have been the prototype. He was a triathlete if she had ever seen one. He had the warm copper tan of a man who spent most of his days outside.
Joe had nice eyes. She always looked there first because nothing told her more about a soldier than his eyes. Joe’s were blue, like the sea she enjoyed watching at dawn, and they were calm; he held her gaze as she looked at him, doing his own study. She knew the man was brave. He was known in the SEAL community as one of the best, and that said a lot among men who didn’t give accolades until they were earned—he also looked kind. The fact he was taking time to come and meet the families of his men said a lot. She offered her hand with a smile. Her husband would be in good hands.
“Lieutenant. Thanks for coming to the cookout.” She felt the warmth as his hand closed around hers and could feel the texture of calluses, the strength of a man who could fight hard and yet still touch with tenderness.
“I never turn down an invitation to good cooking, Mrs. Jacobs.”
Kelly was very happily married, but she wasn’t immune to the man; she felt the impact of being the focus of his smile and the warmth in those eyes. Her still single friends in Coronado would certainly take notice of the new boss. She was going to enjoy introducing him around. “Please, it’s Kelly.”
“If you’ll make it Joe.”
“I’ll be glad to. No handle?”
The eyes she liked twinkled with his smile. “Occasionally I get called Bear, but that’s only if I’m in a bad mood.”
A grizzly bear—oh, it was perfect. She laughed at the image. “I like it. Nick goes by Eagle, unless he doesn’t see something, then the guys call him Buzzard.”
“Kelly...” Nick winced, but Joe just laughed.
Joe had been her husband’s commanding officer, but he had also become her husband’s best friend. Nick had led Joe to Christ. She had often thought of Nick and Joe as her example of a modern day David and Jonathan. Best friends. Warriors. Men passionate about their God. Joe’s grief over the loss of Nick was different than hers, but just as deep. Since Nick’s death, he had been watching out for her.
Joe would find them.
The sea, for years his friend, was tonight his enemy.
Joe checked the compass on his wrist and then the GPS readout. The longitude reading as marked by the Global Positioning Satellites made him frown...this current was moving him rapidly out to sea.
Almost an hour had passed since word had come that Kelly was in trouble. Neither he nor the other members of SEAL Team Nine’s Golf Platoon had felt like leaving the search up to just the Coast Guard. Normally the Coast Guard asked for the help, but in this case, who asked and who offered would get blurred in the reports. The Navy understood what made good public relations—and it didn’t look good if a civilian lifeguard and a teen drowned within the immediate vicinity of one of the largest naval bases in the country.
But even if there had been no formal protocol for the help, the military brass would still have backed their involvement, for they understood taking care of their own. Not to help the widow of a SEAL who had gone down in combat would be to insult the honor of an entire SEAL community. For Joe, it was much more personal. He had to find Kelly.
He had elected to become a human buoy, to find out firsthand where the riptide began and which way it moved. It had been easy to find, and it was vicious. He had felt the sudden pull of the water about forty feet from shore.
Once in the riptide, a swimmer could struggle until his strength was gone to swim back into shore, and he would never get any closer; if he stopped to tread water, he would be pulled out to sea at a rapid clip. The only way to break free was to turn and swim parallel to the shore until clear of the unpredictable current.
Finding the boy, pulling him with her—Kelly would never have been able to get out of this current. Joe prayed she had been smart enough not to try. If she had already burned through her energy…
Joe activated the waterproof microphone. “Boomer, I’m getting pulled into grid six.” Boomer, given name Chet Walker, was the AOIC—the Assistant Officer in Charge—of Golf Platoon.
“The riptide is still holding together?”
“It’s still intact. They’ve been pulled out much farther than we assumed.”
“I’ll redirect the boats and come pick you up.”
Joe saw the spotlight of the search helicopter veer west, move farther out to sea. Fifty minutes. It was an eternity. The search area expanded with every minute that passed. Kelly was out in this somewhere, unprotected from the cold, trying to save her life and the boy’s. They had to find them soon. The cold was already reaching through his wet suit, and he trained for these conditions. He could only imagine what it was doing to Kelly and the teen.
He heard the Zodiac slow as it approached his coordinates. The boat appeared abruptly from the darkness. He reached up with his right hand and was pulled aboard by Boomer. Joe perched on the side of the craft, the taunt, thick rubber familiar to his touch. There were no lights on board the six-by-fifteen-foot Zodiac. They were accustomed to working in the darkness, and a light would only destroy the distance they could see naturally and with the aid of their Night Vision Goggles. “Take me to grid nine.” The SEAL manning the muffled outboard motor nodded and turned the craft west.
Boomer handed over a pair of NVGs. “We’ll find them.”
Joe accepted the Night Vision Goggles and simply nodded. Sixteen volunteer SEALs plus the Coast Guard—not finding them was inconceivable. Whether they would find them in time remained to be seen. They could already be too late.
It was his job that was supposed to be life threatening, not hers. He had to force himself to relax and unclench his jaw, something he didn’t have to do in combat. He was lousy at accepting a civilian in danger, especially a friend. Feeling helpless was an emotion he worked hard to avoid, and getting it flung at him tonight was hard to take.
Kelly was going to be embarrassed when they found her. It would sting her pride a bit, knowing Alex had been able to get back to shore with one of the surfers and she had not. Joe held on to that image, of the small laugh and the flushed cheeks that were hallmarks of Kelly when she was the center of the attention; it was better than the alternative.
He prayed she lived long enough to be embarrassed.
“Ryan?” Kelly grabbed for the float board as it slipped from Ryan’s hand.
He didn’t answer.
“Ryan, wake up.” She shook him hard, trying to rouse him. “Ryan!”
She couldn’t bring him around. The cold had finally won. She felt for his pulse and found it slow but steady. How long before that changed? Twenty minutes? Thirty? She struggled to secure the float board against his chest with the straps, using it to ensure Ryan would float on his back.
His slow, steady kicks had been helping in the fight to keep them steady against the current. Kelly felt the strain almost immediately. The effort to keep treading water for them both was exhausting. The muscles in her legs burned from the strain, adding a painful agony to the mix as her skin grew icy cold. It felt like she was trying to kick through thick cement; there was nothing gentle about the water now. She wanted so desperately to take a break.
How had Nick ever made it through Hell Week? She had always known her husband downplayed the effort required by his job. She had never realized how seriously he downplayed it.
Anyone who wanted to be a SEAL had to first get through six months of training known as BUD/S, and the basic underwater demolition/SEAL training routinely eliminated most of the candidates. The fifth week had earned being called Hell Week. After four weeks of pushing the men in intense physical training, the instructors for those who would be SEALs set out to find out who in the class intended to be a SEAL and who only wanted to be one.
For five days and nights, with only four hours of sleep, the men were pushed to the limits—cold surf, ocean swims, constantly lugging a telephone pole or carrying their rubber boats over their heads, conducting explosive ordinance drills, night landings in the pounding surf through the rocks off the historical Hotel del Coronado—all the while the instructors pushing, encouraging them to quit.
By the end of Hell Week, 70 percent of Nick’s class had voluntarily withdrawn.
Nick had made it. Kelly could still vividly remember him walking through the door that Friday, given forty-eight hours of liberty. He had collapsed on the bed—sand, grit, grime, and all, and had not moved for twenty-two hours. Blisters, torn muscles, sunburn, exhaustion—her husband had survived the first step to becoming an elite warrior. She had been so proud of him.
She wished she had better understood then what it felt like to be pushed to the limits of your endurance. Her appreciation for what Nick had accomplished had just escalated, and she would never be able to tell him. She was hitting the wall of what she could endure. Nick, how did you do it?
SEALs never give up. There is no secret. SEALs simply never quit.
She would love to give up. Closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, Kelly forced herself to find a rhythm for her kicks. SEALs trained to be able to take this kind of physical punishment. That had to be part of their secret. All the mornings she had blown off running, all the days she had ignored her normal exercise routine, were delivering their revenge without mercy. She would never tease a SEAL again about the constant workouts.
“I thought you were going shopping with Liz.”
Kelly looked up from the clothes she was putting away to see her husband Nick leaning against the doorjamb to the master bedroom. She smiled. “We’re going later. I thought you and Joe were going running.”
Nick didn’t move out of the doorway as she joined him. She slid under his arm and wrapped hers around his waist, taking him with her, enjoying the closeness. She loved this man. It wasn’t often he got a few free hours on a weekday. The guys were going out to the Chocolate Mountain Test Range later in the day for a nighttime training op. Nick didn’t have to report until 1300 hours.
Her husband chuckled. “Honey, we’ve been. I left two hours ago.” His arm dropped across her shoulders as they headed toward the kitchen.
“I can tell. You’re wet.” She said it with a grin, for it was more saltwater than sweat. Joe and Nick must have been doing their five mile run on the beach down at the surf line—SEALs trained, played, and lived in the sand and sea like it was their second home. From the lifeguard tower she would often see the men in the early morning silently challenging each other, racing each other up the sand, turning everything into a competition—the best friends among them were the worse. “Who won?” She picked up a clean T-shirt from the laundry basket of folded clothes on the counter still to be put away and tossed it to him.
Nick’s grin was quick. “I let him.” Nick stripped off the wet shirt, then took one step back into the hall and tossed it into the laundry room. He pulled on the clean one. “We’re heading to the gym to work the weights. You want to come spot for me?”
“Thanks, but I’d be invading a guy’s domain.” She joined him and rested her hands against his biceps, leaning into him to share a kiss. “Go get back to work. And don’t come home till you out rep him or something.”
He grinned. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Kelly forced herself back to the present. She couldn’t afford to let herself drift down memory lane, hypothermia-induced sleep would overtake her too. And it did her no good to remember, for the memories were too bittersweet to enjoy. Nick would never again be around to flirt with, to tease, and that realization cut inside, in her heart, every time she had to face that fact.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to get a stronger grip on Ryan. If she timed the swells, she could make two strong kicks and ride a crest down, giving herself a pause before she needed to make the third kick. It helped, but not enough; she could feel her kicks growing weaker, no matter how hard she tried to keep them steady. She needed help to come soon.
She didn’t realize at first that it was a rescue light. It came from the east, traveling west toward her, so slow it appeared almost not to move. Then the sound of the helicopter rotors reached her. She frantically searched for something to signal with. She had nothing shiny. She untied the float board and took on Ryan’s full weight, keeping him out of the water with one arm while doing her best to wave the float board with her free hand, using all the strength she had left in a desperate attempt to get noticed.
She watched the light trace over the water.
They were drifting away from where the light would pass over.
With that realization came fear. If the helicopter crew didn’t see them, it could be hours before this grid was searched again. Ryan would never make it, and it was doubtful she would, either. She struggled to swim against the current into the path of the light, pulling Ryan with her. The spotlight passed five yards beyond them, the helicopter moving steadily on. Kelly lowered the float board when it became obvious they had not been seen.
She started crying.
THANK YOU FOR READING CHAPTER ONE