BEYOND THE LIMIT excerpt

Griffin Caldwell groaned as his buddy—his exceedingly shitfaced buddy—Axel Adams stood up, waving around a flimsy plastic champagne glass in his meaty fist and slurred, “A toast. To the groom. The greatest guy ever to shove a grenade up a camel’s—”

            Griffin leaped up and slapped a hand over Axel’s mouth in the nick of time. But the sudden movement made his own shitfaced head spin and his stomach alarmingly threaten revolt. “Sit. Down,” he hissed to Axel.

            On Axe’s other side, Trevor Westbrook yanked on Axel’s massive arm. Between Trev and himself, they managed to wrestle the mountain of a SEAL back down to his seat.

            Axel grinned lopsidedly at him. “You look like a—“ he let out a yeasty belch that made Grif rock back in his seat, grimacing. “—like a jackass in that clown suit.”

            Grif grinned down at his powder blue tuxedo, complete with a chest full of blue edged ruffles. His baby blue bow tie hadn’t survived much past the wedding ceremony and hung, untied around his neck. He would’ve tossed the stupid thing entirely, but they had to return the rented tuxes tomorrow and he wanted his deposit back. It had been a joke for them all to show up at their teammate, Leo Lipinski’s wedding wearing the ghastly things. 

Janine, the bride, had been annoying bordering on bridezilla about the whole shindig, and they hadn’t been able to resist an urge to poke that beast. She’d been anal retentive about planning the wedding down to the last detail. Well not the very last detail. She’d forgotten to tell the groom’s brothers on SEAL Team Reaper to behave themselves.

            Wait till she climbed in Leo’s car and got a whiff of the vanilla extract they’d poured into the car’s air conditioning system. Every time the car ran for the next month or so, it would smell overwhelmingly like chocolate chip cookies. Or when she got her groom naked later and discovered that, after he’d passed out at his bachelor party, they’d doused his entire body with blue shoe dye. Only his face and hands had been spared. Poor bastard looked like a smurf and would for a couple of weeks.

            Chuckling, he raised his champagne glass to Leo, who scowled back from the head table, obviously worried at what else they had in store for him. Smart man.

            A vibration in Griffin’s pants pocket made him rock his front chair legs down to the floor and dig out his cell phone. His workcell phone. The other guys at the table were abruptly reaching for phones, too.

Crap. They were supposed to be off-duty tonight.

He looked at the caller ID. Their boss, Commander Calvin Kettering.

Either the old man was doing Leo a solid and pulling them out of the wedding reception before they could raise more hell, or the world was coming to an end. Off duty SEALs were, well, offduty, except in the most dire of emergencies.

“Aww man,” Ken Singleton complained from across the table. “I was just about ready to bust out with a new song.”

Ken was a wannabe country singer/songwriter and actually had a decent voice. But the guy’s talent for lyrics…that was another matter. Griffin grinned. “Let’s hear the chorus.”

Kenny drummed a snappy rhythm on the table and sang, “Run, Leo, run. Look what you have done. Don’t mean to be rude, but dude, you’re screwed. Janine’s knocked up and her daddy’s got a shotgun.”

The team’s baby, Sam Dorsey—barely into his twenties and straight off the gullible boat—gasped. “Is that why Leo married Janine?” 

Grif guffawed, registering with amusement the glares from guests around them. His cell phone vibrated again. Insistently.

“Party pooper,” Axel complained, glaring at his own phone, housed in a black leather case with a chrome skull mounted on it. “Reaper Team’s on leave.”

Griffin stood up, hauling on the larger man’s arm. “C’mon, big guy. We gotta go.” There were two kinds of SEALs: the lean, fast ones, of which he was one, and the slower, strong as an ox ones, of which Axel was the poster child. The guy wore a long beard, leather vest, and rode a chopper when he was off duty or not wearing a blue tuxedo at his teammate’s wedding.

“Don’ wanna go…”

Trevor picked up an unopened bottle of champagne. “C’mon gents. We’ll take the party with us.”

Griffin nodded gravely. “Now you’re talking. This is why you’re my favorite Red Coat wanker.” Trevor was a crossover guy from the British SAS, handsome, elegant in bearing, and a hell of a fine operator.

Joaquin “Jojo” Romero staggered to his feet, causing Griffin to double take. Jojo was a freaking incredible athlete—hell, he’d been drafted by the NFL—and was never clumsy. Although, come to think of it, Griffin couldn’t remember ever seeing the guy drink before, either. 

With his free hand, Griffin snagged the open bottle of whiskey Kenny had smuggled in earlier. Ken was the team’s ALPO—alcoholic libations procurement officer—and hella good at his job.

In a gaggle of baby blue, they piled out of the officer’s club and into the crew bus the text had said would be waiting for them outside. Passing around the bottle, they polished off the whiskey while the bus drove them to an airplane hangar on the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station flight line. It was raining tonight in northwest Washington state, and headlights and taillights sparkled outside like white and red jewels. Or maybe he was just more drunk than he knew.

With a start, Griffin realized this wasn’t just a ploy by Kettering to get them out of Leo’s wedding. A crew chief waved them over to a sleek Learjet parked near the hangar entrance. It was hooked up to a ground power unit, and the interior and exterior lights were on.

WTF? They were going somewhere tonight?

But…their kits…a mission briefing…their support team…crap, he was confused. And his head was starting to pound. He needed more hair of the dog.

“Welcome aboard gentlemen,” an Air Force pilot who looked about twelve years old boomed.

“Hush. Not so loud.” Trevor enunciated with breathy care. “We’re all very drunk.”

The copilot grinned. “So I gather. Technically, it’s illegal for you to bring that liquor aboard a military aircraft.”

Griffin winked at the kid. “If you don’t tell, we won’t have to kill you.”

            The copilot’s smile widened. “We’ll turn the heat up back here so it’s nice and warm for you guys. You’ll have a few hours to sleep it off before we get to our final destination.”

Grif jumped on that. “Which is where?”

“Classified.”

The copilot paused in the act of pulling the accordion-fold door across the cockpit entrance and bellowed, “Sweet dreams, ladies.”

Somebody launched a plastic champagne glass in the kid’s direction, and he retreated, laughing.

The engines wound up, their high-pitched scream splitting his eff-ingskull in two. A collective groan went up around him.

“More champagne, gentlemen. That’ll fix what ails us,” Trevor announced.

The jet taxied out for takeoff, and they passed around the bottle, taking turns chugging from it. As the plane lifted off the ground, climbing into the night, Griffin closed his eyes and passed out.

***

Sherri Tate looked around the World War II era army base and artillery range. It had long ago fallen into disrepair and was well on its way to derelict. Better this, though, than endless rounds of press conferences and cocktail parties with handsy senior officers and drunk Congressional staffers pawing at her. 

When Calvin Kettering had approached her a few months back and asked if she would consider trying out for the SEALs, she’d been all over any assignment that would get her out of Washington, out of nylons and high heels, and out of range of men who assumed that because she was attractive she was also stupid. 

She was stoked to finally experience the real military. She wanted sweat and dust, bugs and sunburn, honest physical exertion. Maybe here at this secret training facility, she would finally get a chance to be more than just a pretty face.

Two insanely fit looking women came out of the rusted Quonset hut before her, wearing tank tops, shorts, and athletic shoes. One was tiny, blond, and gymnast shaped. The other was of medium height, brunette—maybe of South Asian-Indian heritage, and ripped like a bodybuilder.

“Ladies,” Commander Calvin Kettering said briskly, “this is our newest trainee.”

The two women stopped in their tracks and jumped to attention as soon as Kettering spoke.

He continued, “This is Sherri Tate. Sherri, these are Lily VanDyke and Anna Marlow. They’ll show you the ropes.”

No ranks. Interesting. She got that rank didn’t much matter in the SEALs, but she was startled—and secretly pleased—that he’d ignored military protocol completely. Without another word, Kettering turned, climbed back into the Hummer, and drove out of sight. Only a trail of dust marked his passing.

“Welcome to the weirdness, Sherri,” Lily said brightly. Even in combat boots, the woman barely came up to Sherri’s chin.

Anna added in a husky voice that would be sexy as hell if Sherri rolled that way, “Is that your only bag?”

Sherri glanced down at her duffel. “Commander Kettering told me to pack light.” Truth be told, he’d emailed her a packing list so detailed he’d even told her how many sports bras to bring and had specified no thongs.

“Did he forget to tell you to pack tampons, too?” Anna asked laughingly.

Sherri rolled her eyes. “Do either of you know what he has against thongs?” 

The brunette rolled her dark eyes in response. “Did you pack some, anyway?”

“Of course. Out of general principle,” Sherri retorted.

Laughing and joking about male fixations on female undergarments, they stepped into the Quonset hut. The back half of the space was stuffed with stacked, rusted metal bed frames, wood desks, and office chairs straight out of the 1940’s, the vinyl seats shredded and mildewed stuffing hanging out.

The front half of the space was appointed like a typical military barracks, the walls lined with single beds, a footlocker at the bottom of each, and a center aisle down the middle. Six beds were neatly made up.

“Are there other women here?” Sherri asked, looking around for more candidates to fill the beds.

“Nope. Just Anna and me,” Lily answered. “Our guess is Kettering plans to end up with a half-dozen women here.”

As she claimed a bed and footlocker, into which she transferred her uniforms, plus plenty of workout gear, she asked, “What did Commander Kettering tell you about this program? I know practically nothing except the Navy wants to train women SEALs.”

Anna replied, “Lily has the dirt on that.”

Sherri looked expectantly at the petite blonde who said shyly, “My brother works in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He heard a rumor that the new Secretary of Defense, Rita Chilvers, ordered the Navy to let women into the SEALs. Apparently, she declared it past time to tear down the last male bastion.”

“The SEALs can’t be happy about that,” Sherri replied. 

Lily snickered. “Oh, they’re livid. If they got their way, they would never let a woman play in their sandbox.”

Sherri privately disagreed with Lily. If a woman was strong enough, fit enough, and mentally tough enough to play with the big boys, there wasn’t much the SEALs could do to keep a woman out of their hallowed ranks…except kill her. 

Which she might not put past the SEALs to do, if push came to shove.

“Personally,” Anna added, “I don’t mind getting paid to run around in the woods for a few months. I was already training for the CrossFit™ games. Now, I’m getting paid to do it full-time, and with a bunch of hot guys thrown in. Win-win for me.”

“What hot guys?” Sherri asked in interest.

“Kettering says a SEAL team is going to help train us.” 

“As in they’re going to run us through BUD/S here?” Sherri asked, startled. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training was onlytaught at Navy Base Coronado in San Diego. 

“That’s what I hear.” Anna’s dark eyes sparkled as she flipped back her luxurious black hair. “Most of the SEALs I’ve seen are hawt.”

Lily leaned forward. “What are they like? We don’t get them on army posts. I mean, we have Rangers. And they’re all gung ho about blowing stuff up. But I hear SEALs are even tougher.”

Sherri sighed. She’d met plenty of Special Forces types. Or at least wannabe special operators. They bathed in testosterone and actively worked at being arrogant jerks.

Anna replied, “I hear SEALs don’t talk much and can go all night.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Sherri grinned. “In other words, they’re perfect one-night-stands.”

Fair-skinned Lily blushed, which made Sherri and Anna laugh.

Lily lowered her voice. “Cone of silence?”

Sherri and Anna nodded and leaned in close to her. Lily murmured, “My brother overheard the Chief of Naval Ops say the fix is on. They’ve decided to graduate one woman from BUD/S regardless of how she does, just to shut up SECDEF. They’re going to create a recruiting poster for publicity purposes and never use her as a real SEAL, then they’ll wash out all the other women who try for the teams.”

Lily might as well have kicked Sherri in the gut. Nausea rolled through her as Kettering’s plan became crystal clear. 

Sherri had been a pageant queen. She was willowy, blond, blue-eyed and beautiful. Furthermore, she was a public affairs officer, accustomed to speaking to the press. She could deflect the hard questions and diplomatically redirect the rest. Heck, she was even training for the Olympics in heptathlon and was in ridiculously great physical condition. Of course, Kettering had chosen her to be a fake SEAL and silence the Powers-That-Be. 

Great. 

Just great.

Calvin Kettering didn’t intend to let her—or any other woman—be a realSEAL. Was she never going to shed the plastic beauty queen image? 

Scholarships from the pageants had paid for a college education she could never have afforded on her own. But no one had warned her she would never live down being a beauty queen. Pageant promoters might call them ‘talent’ contests or scholarship competitions, but to most people they were still about hot babes in bikinis.

She asked, “If they’re not going to let any of us be actual SEALs, why did Kettering bother hauling us to some secret facility to train? Why not just toss us in the regular SEAL training pipeline and let us go down in flames?” 

Lily shrugged. “No idea.”

Sherri sniffed a mystery.

Anna said seriously, “Lily and I have a pact. Regardless of who’s chosen to make it through, and regardless of how they try to pit us against one another, we’re going to remain sisters and refuse to backstab each other.” 

Thank God. “I’m in,” Sherri declared. “We stick together no matter what.”

The three of them traded fist bumps to seal the deal.

Anna added, “Speaking of which, there’s a decently equipped gym down the street. Lily and I have been working out around the clock in anticipation of the SEALs kicking our butts when they get here. We were just heading over there. Wanna come?”

Sherri grinned. “Hell, yes.”

***

Griffin was the first to wake up. The pressure change of the descent crammed ice picks in his ears, and he cleared them quickly. He shoved up the window shade and a shaft of brilliant sunlight blinded him. He slammed the shade back down. Crap on a cracker, he felt like death.

More prudently, he eased the shade up an inch to peek outside. Sunlight glittered off patches of water winding through forest below. Da hell?

He kicked Trevor’s foot and reached over the headrest in front of him to tap Axel on the side of the head. “Rise and shine, kids. We’re getting ready to land,” he announced.

The others roused, Axel slower than the rest, but then he’d been drunker than the rest. Griffin still didn’t feel entirely sober, but he could fake it if he had to.

Kenny groaned. “Remind me never to mix whiskey and champagne again. I feel like my ex ran over me with a truck and backed up to make sure she killed me.”

Griffin snorted. Kenny’s ex-girlfriends were exactly the type to do that. The man liked his women wild.

His watch said it was five a.m. That would be West Coast[CC15] time. Given that the sun was up, they’d obviously flown east through the night. But to where? And why?

He waited impatiently while the jet completed its descent and landed. He didn’t see a single building outside. Just trees and more trees. He felt naked going into an unknown situation without at least a sidearm—but Janine had insisted: no guns at her wedding. And Leo had reluctantly backed up his bride.

The interior of the jet went silent, abruptly watchful, as the aircraft pulled to a stop. No one moved as the smartass copilot opened the hatch, lowered the steps, and announced sarcastically, “We’re here. You can go now.”

What the hell? Today was as good as any to die. Griffin scowled and, hunching over in the low-ceilinged aisle, made his way to the exit. The bright morning light was excruciating, but that wasn’t what made him squint in deep displeasure.

Nope. That honor was reserved for his boss and the trio of women standing with him on the tarmac, all of them smartly turned out in uniforms—one in navy whites, one in Marine beige, and one in Army green—all spit–polished and standing tall.

The other guys piled out behind him in a disorderly jumble, and he was suddenly acutely aware of what a disheveled mob they made, slouching in rumpled lounge lizard tuxes, all of them in need of a shave and a shower, smelling like booze and stale sweat, cringing away from the sun and their hangovers.

As one, the women burst into gales of laughter. 

They were laughing at him and his guys.

Laughing.

He was a United States Navy fucking SEAL, for crying out loud. The pride of the American armed forces. The best of the best. Embarrassment started a slow burn in his gut.

The smoking hot blonde on the end who honest-to-God looked like Malibu Navy Barbie gasped at Calvin Kettering, “Good one, Commander. Where’d you scrape up these losers to masquerade as SEALs? You really had us going there…” she dissolved into another fit of laughter.

Griffin indignantly straightened to his full six-foot height, but he supposed it was hard to take a guy seriously when he looked like a bad impersonation of Dean Martin and smelled like a sewer.

Kettering looked even more grim than usual. “It’s not a joke. These… degenerates…are SEAL Team Reaper. The hand-picked team I’ve chosen to turn you ladies into the first platoon of female Navy SEALs.”

A bucket of ice water couldn’t have sobered up Griffin faster.Female SEALs?

Female. 

SEALs. 

“Come again, sir?” he choked out.

“Welcome to Operation Valkyrie, gentlemen.”

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