Steve Chambers stared at the leaderboard. Three days ago it had been his personal shrine of victory. He had led all the divers for recovery units and dive time for nineteen straight weeks.
At position two, his surname glared at him as if to say, Get your ass in gear, you slacker
. Now resting in his slot was the name Rodriguez. Who the hell is Rodriguez: another rookie?
Diving at these depths scared away most seasoned veterans. Those brave enough to retrieve treasure from an ancient Viking longboat in frigid, shark-infested waters at 300 feet were few and far between. Most quit after a week or two, if they lasted a day. New divers came on all the time, and Steve couldn’t keep track of them. He didn’t even try.
For the first time in his adult life, someone had bested him. He chewed on his lip as he stared at the name resting over his. He’d even had a good week, yet this Rodriguez clocked two more hours of dive time and six pounds, seven ounces more loot.
Whoever he was, he had to be cherry-picking. The loot was mostly bronze, so pound for pound, his rival was going after the heavy pieces. That would measure out in the long run. But the dive time was insane.
Steve could stay down longer than any of the others because of his superior physical endurance and lung capacity. His SEAL training and conditioning had turned him into an underwater machine. Like a pearl diver, he could slow his breathing and saturate his lungs, which allowed him to stay under longer and bring up more treasure.
This Rodriguez had to be pulling extra shifts to keep up. Yeah, that was it
. Doubling up shifts. This guy was going to burn out fast and fall off the board quicker than shit.
Steve nodded to himself, confident this was a temporary blemish on his reign as top dog. He sucked down a swallow of his spearmint and green tea mixture, and his cell vibrated. With practiced ease, he yanked it from its holster and flipped it open.
“Hey, Steve. Got a situation down at the Fifty Yard Line.” The voice of the skipper John Anderson, crackled over the line. The Fifty Yard Line was the staging and reequipping station they had set up at 150 feet. The divers would descend there and change out equipment after their bodies adjusted to the pressure, before continuing to the wreck site.
“O2 tank one is showing empty. Tank two is emptying into the ocean, and tank three seems to be stuck. Something’s broke down there. If there’s no diving--”
“On my way.”
“You’re the best, Chambers.”
“I know.” Steve shut his phone and cast one last sour glare at the name topping his. Turning on a heel, he headed to the aft diving deck to suit up. If Rodriguez was so good, why did they call him when the shit hit the fan?
Jack Louden looked up and cracked a snarled sailor’s grin as he approached. Steve flashed him a wink, seeing the diving assistant had his gear all ready for him.
“It’s Superman to the rescue, eh?”
“Well, they want it fixed right, don’t they?”
“You bet. This one sounds like a mess though. Good thing you got help this time.”
“Yeah, ya lucky dog. Rodriguez.”
“The newbie? Crap...” Steve slipped into his wet suit for the descent to Fifty and slung his oxygen tank into place on his back. “Well, the rookie better get here quick. I don’t have time to jack off while I wait.”
“Rodriguez is already heading down.”
“What?” Steve exclaimed. He furrowed his brow in disdain at the sailor. This rookie had to be educated in seniority. Steve was heading up this repair operation, not the other way around.
“Yep. Didn’t wanna wait for ya and headed down.”
Steve nodded but didn’t stick around to hear Jack finish. Stepping off the sandpaper-ridged footing, he plunged into the cold Atlantic waters. He flipped on his flashlight and dived down.
The arctic waters offshore of Faroe Islands darkened as he pumped his strong legs back and forth, using his power to catch the rookie before he fucked something up. It was a ten-minute dive to the Fifty, and the numskull had a two-minute head start.
He couldn’t see the faint glow of a flashlight in the dark depth, so he checked his watch. Eighty feet and no sign of the rookie. He was a fast swimmer then. Cursing into his mouthpiece, Steve doubled the churn of his flippers as the submersible dive station came into view. Its sixteen exterior lights formed a dull bluish haze about the octagonal-shaped underwater abode.
Swimming down to its belly, he reversed his angle and kicked hard to enter through the opening at the structure’s underside. The first chamber was for decompression. It sealed beneath and over, depressurizing the water to the normal scuba levels kept inside the station. It took ten minutes, and he could barely wait to chew this rookie out.
He finished his decompression, and the top gate swung open. The interior became a small pool inside the substation. The entire room was no more than a single chamber fifteen feet across.
He surfaced inside and looked around. The phosphorous emergency lights were on, which meant the power was on emergency reserves. The generator was roaring away, but the main power seemed to have failed. Most likely the breaker had flipped. Easy fix.
None of that surprised him. Turning left did. He blinked in disbelief as the world’s most perfect ass greeted him. Darkly tanned, curved like an upside-down heart that swept into a slender waist. Faint but visible ripples of muscle lined the sleek back peeking through the waterfall of silky black hair.
The woman there stole his breath, and he treaded water, unable to do anything but stare as he watched the girl finish pulling her pressure suit up and steal the vision of that ass from him. He flipped his helmet open and spit out the breathing apparatus.
The girl turned and noticed him. Equally perfect breasts met him, and her beautiful face registered shock, but she turned away nonchalantly. It was rude of him to stare like a lust-stricken teenager, but she acted as if she were unaffected by his presence. The noisy generators had covered the gurgling of his approach.
“You gonna stare at me the whole time, Chambers?” the girl said with a sting of sarcasm in her otherwise crystalline voice. It was flavored with a tang of Spanish accent--faint but distinguishable nonetheless.
“Never seen a woman before?”
“I... Yes. I just didn’t...” His tongue felt three times thicker than before he’d tried to answer her, and it stuck to the roof of his mouth. His normal baritone bellowed flatly as he stammered over his words.
“It’s okay. I get that reaction all the time.” She pulled the deep-sea suit up the rest of the way and secured the reinforced neck. The bulky, armored gear was designed to allow divers to withstand the ocean’s tremendous pressure to 300 feet, but it barely blunted her spectacular curves. He swallowed hard and swam to the edge.
She turned back to him as he pulled himself out of the water to the circular landing surrounding the large hole in the floor. “Rodriguez,” she said, extending her gloved hand. “Maria Rodriguez.”
“Steve Chambers,” he answered, shaking her hand. Her grip was firm. A lot stronger than he was expecting, but it was her eyes that staggered him.
They were a warm and brilliant russet and reminded him of cinnamon and spice. The chocolaty swirls of her irises were sparkling with golden flecks and streaks of sienna. They were luminous, large, and round and stole attention away from her pink, plump lips, high cheekbones, and delicate features. It was like staring into heaven.
Jesus, she’s hot.
“We finally meet.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting.”
“I get that a lot too.” Her full, luscious lips broke, widened into a crooked smile, and his stretched to return it. He’d never felt so affected by anyone. She mesmerized him.
“It’s cool. Look, we have a lot to do and there’s only about eight hours of O2 left in here. We’ve got to get at least one of the tanks online or we’re fucked,” she said.
. She’d just given the speech he had prepared on the dive down. At least she wasn’t stupid. A rookie, but not a complete idiot.
Steve moved to the carbon dioxide sensor and checked the reading. It was high but not yet toxic. “Five hours is more like it. Let’s get moving.”
She nodded, and Steve moved to the storage racks. He detached his tanks and started to unzip his wet suit. He had to change into a pressure suit or he wouldn’t last an hour at this depth.
Why was he nervous? He had a great body. Women adored him, and he’d never been modest. Yet his cheeks burned. His pulse raced, and the throb between his legs served to increase his embarrassment. The thought of her watching sent a shiver up his spine.
“Don’t worry about me. I don’t stare like some people.” Her barbed laughter stung his pride.
Cute and sassy. A deadly combination.
“Stare all you want,” he said, but he kept his back to her as he slipped out of his suit. Thankful she couldn’t see the pink glow of his face, he roughly jerked his pressure suit on and turned. She sat on one of the bench seats lining the walls, staring at him. Even now, encased in an armor-reinforced diving suit, he felt more naked than he ever had before.
Her gaze lifted and locked on his in a surreal stare. Her beautiful face was expressionless. An agonizing minute of silence passed between them. The lull was killing him with every passing second, like something unpredictable was about to occur.
Breaking the awkward moment, Steve opened the storage unit and pulled out the triple tank set he’d need for the extended operating time. He shot her a “don’t worry, I got it” look and pulled out a second set for her and put it on the grated flooring.
“You tank up by yourself?” she asked, breaking the placid calm of her expression with an arched eyebrow.
The deepwater tanks were heavy, but Steve was one of the few able to put his on without help. He usually worked alone.
“Yeah,” he said as nonchalantly as possible. Then a stabbing thought tore through his mind. Would his bravado be seen as bragging? Arrogance? That wasn’t how he wanted to come off. And why did he suddenly feel concerned about how he projected? “Need help with yours?”
Her eyes narrowed just a fraction, but her head swung side to side. He managed to fight off a laugh. She needed help. From the delicious view he’d been afforded of her curvaceous body, she was nicely toned but not that strong. Now he’d turned the tables, and she was on the ropes.
“Good.” Steve broke the staring match, allowing her that small victory, knowing she would have to ask for his help soon enough. He turned and grabbed his triple tank, armor-encased set with both hands. Breathing deep, he hoped his whole face wasn’t as red as it felt as he jerked the monstrous piece of equipment and slung it over one shoulder.
With practiced ease, he maneuvered into it, settling it on his back, bending his knees to absorb the weight and provide as much leverage as he could muster. He slipped the other arm in and quickly fastened the waistband.
He stole a glimpse of Maria from the corner of his eye as he began redoing all the straps to distribute the equipment’s weight evenly across his body. Bent over backward in the lowest limbo he’d ever seen, she was wiggling like a worm on acid. The cumbersome suit made it all the more funny until he realized what she was doing.
Maria was strapping the tank to her back while lying on top of it.
What the hell?
It had never once occurred to him to put it on with his weight on the equipment rather than the reverse. Clever
. She strapped herself in and rolled over with a grunt. Her lithe frame carried the tremendous weight slow and steady.
She tucked her long legs underneath, bent at the knee, and she rose, standing with the 170-pound tank in place. Amazing.
She turned and met his gaze with a nod. He returned it and grabbed his helmet. The tank’s weight was neutralized by its buoyancy once in the water, but it was draining even his strength and would continue to do so until they submerged. She wouldn’t last long standing there, and as much as it would thrill him to see her buckle, he needed her to help complete the repairs.
“All right, let’s start with tank three. It’s online and registers as full. Why it’s not working, we don’t know, so let’s find out. We have a half hour of air per tank. Times three, that gives us ninety minutes.”
“I can stretch mine by thirty minutes maybe, but we stay as a team.”
Steve waited, and she nodded. They put their helmets in place, locked them down, and stepped off the steel-grate landing, plunging into the cold water. It was almost a welcome relief from the fire coursing through his body and the heat his most recent memories brought.
He shook his head clear of the images of his naked partner. Thinking about her that way was a mistake, and he had to keep his mind on the task at hand. Diving at this depth, with welding equipment and tools for heavy machinery, was extremely dangerous.
They had to wait in the decompression chamber for ten minutes to allow their bodies to readjust to the ocean’s pressure. It was a long and silent ten minutes spent staring at her, trying not to recall her incredible nude body.
A check of his watch showed they had forty-five seconds left. Close enough
. He released the lower access door, and they swam out into the dark, cold waters.