Coast Guard Vessel Valkyrie, Two Miles Northwest of Wainwright, Alaska. Tonight.
A chill breeze whistled through the open window, brushing across Ryan’s cheeks. Patrolling the eerily calm Arctic waters, he steered the Valkyrie through the Chukchi Sea along the Alaska coastline. Ryan scanned the area for anything that stood out, any sort of unusual activity. Not an ordinary Coast Guard vessel, the Valkyrie and her crew ran a covert mission to protect humanity from their darkest fears.
Ryan wasn’t the captain, nor did he have any intention of becoming so. Just over a year he’d been assigned to the Valkyrie. After several years of making his way up the Coast Guard ranks, he caught wind of trouble off Dutch Harbor… the sort that scared the hide off even the roughest fishermen. Realizing he had the perfect opportunity to use his inherited skills, without finding a new team, he presented an idea to his captain.
Miraculously, Willa Price hadn’t had him committed when he’d told her about the very real monsters that threatened their world. As the captain of a ship that had sunk for no good reason a few years back, having lost most of her crew to a mysterious tragedy, she was all ears. Nor had the idea for coastal patrol targeting the paranormal surprised Admiral Jenks, as he’d been considering something similar for years. Sailors were a suspicious breed, and for good reason. It had taken a lot of time and planning, but about a year ago they had recruited the best of the best, well, the most open-minded anyway, and shipped out on their first deployment.
“How’s my favorite demon hunter this evening?” Ryan didn’t jump at the sound of Willa’s voice, but he was surprised at the interruption from his captain in the middle of the night.
“Keep it down,” he mockingly shushed her, scanning the empty bridge, raising his eyebrow in jest.
Despite her rank, she was casual with her XO and the rest of the crew. She had to be on this boat. They saw the weirdest shit in the Coast Guard and were as top secret as they come. Without the tightknit camaraderie, they’d drown fast in their one-hundred-percent sink-or-swim expedition.
Willa handed him a hot cup of coffee in his favorite mug, massive and lidless. He braved a testing sip as the steam billowed in turbulent spirals out the top of the cup. “Not many awake tonight. Besides, they’ve already figured out you’re different. Ryan, it’s time you just told it to them straight. After the Kappa you took out in Bristol Bay last month when it went for Manuel… that was incredible. Remarkably super-powered. I didn’t know you could move that fast. Or tear a creature’s head off with your bare hands.” Amazingly, the pride in her voice outshined any alarm. He’d been so damn lucky to land this position.
Not bothering to hide his scowl, Ryan gratefully savored the bitter heat of the coffee to avoid responding directly, instead muttering, “What are you doing up at this hour?”
“Couldn’t sleep. There’s something in the air.” She tilted her head, gesturing to the still ocean, the calm breeze, the cloudless sky. She looked quite the captain tonight with her dark, salt and pepper hair wild from tossing and turning, sleepless in her bunk.
Turning the ship ten degrees south-southwest, Ryan scanned the horizon and nodded. “I feel it, too. You know, for a human, you’ve got some good instincts.”
Scrunching up her nose in delight, she quirked her head to the side in consideration. “Maybe I’ve got a distant demon hunter in my pedigree.”
He gulped too big of a swig of the scorching coffee and cringed as he burned his throat. Distant would be fucking fantastic. His demon blood ran thick as lead through his veins. Briefly running a hand through his military short, dark brown hair, he set down his drink and scanned the starry sky. Something was up alright.
A minute speck in the distance was rapidly morphing into something threatening. “Shit… do you see that?” he asked, squinting to catch a better glimpse of the bizarre phenomenon.
Moving to the window in a flash, Willa followed his line of sight. “Is that… water?”
Rapidly adjusting course, he tried to turn away from the massive jet of water that was headed straight for them like a ballistic missile. No more than ten yards starboard, the projectile crashed into the ocean and abruptly terminated.
Leaving Willa to take the wheel, he tore down the ladder and shined a floodlight on the landing site.
Dean ran up beside him to check it out. “Is that…?” The newest member of the crew couldn’t even finish the thought; it was too farfetched to consider.
Glowing in the spotlight, Ryan could just make out the figure of a woman. Against protocols, but what the hell, wouldn’t hurt him any, he dove into the water. A shock of icy razor blades lashed across his skin as he plunged into the Arctic. Within a few quick strokes, he reached the body.
Floating on the surface like an otter taking a peaceful nap, a pale, wisp of a woman lay before him. Chest slowly rising and falling, she wasn’t dead. Yet.
Ryan’s pulse thundered more against the startling realization than the cold. Somehow, before he’d even reached her, he’d known she was alive… despite the frigid temperatures and crazy trip through the air, across what he suspected had been hundreds of miles.
Wrapping his arms around her in a safety hold, he swam them both carefully toward the ship as Dean lowered the hoist. On deck, Dean reached out to take her.
“No, I got her,” Ryan abruptly responded. Helpless in his arms, impossibly fragile considering what she’d survived, he just couldn’t seem to let go.
Any jostling, and her heart might pump faster; the rapid influx of colder blood from her extremities could trigger cardiac arrest. No doubt, she was inhumanly tough, but not immortal. Holding her close against his chest, he pulled them both up the ladder.
Carrying the vulnerable ice cube as steady as he could, he felt the slow movements of her lungs expanding and releasing. He breathed a long sigh of relief, willing her breaths to match his own, her pulse to beat steady with his.
Harry, the resident medic, came sprinting ahead of them to the infirmary. “How’s she doing?” he demanded as he quickly set up his hypothermia treatment equipment.
“I think she’s going to be fine once we warm her up. Toss me those scissors,” Ryan nodded to Harry, gesturing to the supply cabinet.
What the hell? She was dressed in dark cargo pants, a bulletproof vest, and wore holsters for daggers strapped to her legs.
A deep pit formed in his gut. He knew exactly what she was. No other way she could have survived travelling by a massive waterspout, landing in the Arctic. Alive.
Where had that massive jet of water come from? Clearly, she was in the midst of something big. A major op that must have gone terribly wrong. For a moment, as she’d crashed into the sea, he’d thought her a demon. No, he had no doubts now that she was a hunter.
Shaking off the dread that muddled his thoughts, he unstrapped her vest, cut and peeled off her frozen, sopping wet clothes, and carried her to the medical bed where the heating system waited.
Harry had heated IV fluid going before Ryan could even step out of the way. Within minutes of being warmed from the inside and out, color began to return to her pale cheeks.
Before she awoke, he needed to ditch her and leave Harry to take over. He wanted nothing to do with a damn demon hunter.
Heading for the exit, he moved to alert Willa of the true nature of their stowaway - if she hadn’t figured it out already. They’d stop at the nearest port and drop her before she knew what they were about. If necessary, dump her with the closest vessel. Throat constricting, he fought the impending panic attack.
Nearly to the door, her soft whimper stopped him dead in his tracks.
Turning, he saw her brow scrunched in fear, anguish. Fury. In pain or reliving the moments before her arrival here, he couldn’t be sure.
In a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching instant, he was back at her side.
Without realizing what he was doing, his hand was gently cradling her cool cheek, whispering that everything was going to be ok. That she was safe and in good hands.
Moron. Like so many foolish men before him, he was suddenly a sucker for a pretty face and a helpless cry. Even though he knew she wasn’t vulnerable in the least, he couldn’t help but feel protective instincts drenching him like a monsoon.
Berating himself and his initial hatred towards a total stranger, he remembered that Sunshine Hunt hadn’t raised him to turn his back on someone in need. No matter his personal feelings against other demon hunters, this woman was barely holding on and needed his help.
At least until she was back on her feet. Then she was gone.
Even a demon hunter deserved a fair chance at life.
With worry in his eyes, Dean shifted from left foot to right foot and back again in the medical bay doorway, finally speaking up. “You staying with her?”
Another damn sucker.
Puffing his cheeks up with air as he held his breath, Ryan nodded. “Yep.” He managed to exhale slowly, fighting the dizzying internal battle over whether he should throw the damsel back in the water or hold her hand all night. Torn between the ruthless hunter he was born to be and the peace-loving man he was raised to be.
Finally, he knew couldn't ignore his deeply ingrained upbringing and pushed his fears to the back of his mind. Voice dry as the damn Mojave in August, he found himself asking, “Mind grabbing me some dry clothes? And maybe some for the stowaway?”
Obedient, Dean disappeared down the hall.
Yawning so wide Ryan could see straight down his throat, Harry rubbed his sleepy eyes now that the urgency was over. A seasoned medic, poor guy had seen way too much death and near death to get worked up over a late-night rescue. “She’s stable. If you’re parking here for the night, I’ll grab some rack time,” he smacked his lips with fatigue and scratched his half bald head. “You’ll call me when she wakes? I think she’s going to be okay…” Harry stared at their patient, his gray unibrow furrowed in deep, stuttering concentration. “Amazingly. She… she’s like you, isn’t she?”
Yeah, Ryan knew he ought to have spelled it out sooner. Better than the not-so-discrete rumors from the crew. “Yep.”
Nodding, Harry backed away and walked slowly out the door. Ryan knew that despite his fatigue, he was bursting with questions, but the medic knew better than to ask now. No way he would have missed Ryan’s indecision in how to handle the situation.
Ryan was left alone, dripping and pacing around the infirmary, revisiting his ridiculous internal dispute, even though he knew exactly how this would end.
Efficiently, Dean returned with a pile of clothes and a dry towel. Maybe the kid was worth keeping around. Pulling off his sopping shirt, Ryan started to dry off.
Dean stepped closer to their patient, sappy eyes admiring the innocent-appearing face. Without looking away, he informed Ryan, “Leah’s not your biggest fan anymore. She looked to be about the same size, so I woke her and convinced her to lend some clothes. She was pretty stingy.” Dean winced, like he was almost as terrified of Leah as he was of Ryan.
Amused, Ryan nodded. Although hand selected by Willa, Dean had only been on board a few weeks, since they’d left port for their current deployment. He didn’t yet realize that Ryan talked tough but was a total softy. Thanks for that, Sunshine.
After changing into dry clothes, Ryan pulled up a chair and parked himself at his patient’s side. Plopping his feet up on the side of her bed, he crossed his arms and settled into his chair at her side.
As Dean’s footsteps faded in the distance, Ryan began to quiet the incessant worries that cluttered his mind. Panic continued to bubble under the surface, but as he settled, curiosity and interest stirred more strongly. Blinking his eyes slowly, he let his gaze rest on the intruder, hoping he could figure her out before she awoke.
She was ridiculously attractive. For a demon hunter. As her hair dried, he could see the fiery red waves. Not a freckle to be found on that porcelain skin. Not very big either, compared to the handful of other demon hunters he’d met, but she’d be stronger than she looked.
Incredible body, too. Not that he’d looked, of course. He’d been delivering emergency medical care. Now that he knew she was ok, he wouldn’t be a total cad to remember how perfectly pert those breasts were, how she had some serious muscle from training, not just genetics.
Not going there, he tried to convince himself. Tried and failed. Miserably.