Sean McKenna was living his best life in Kodiak, Alaska as a Coast Guard flight mechanic on rescue missions. He worked side by side with his best friend Justin Koseki, a rescue swimmer who’s happily married to Eden and has an 18-month old son Maverick. Then they were called out on a rescue that went horribly wrong where Justin died and Sean was seriously injured. As he went through physical therapy to recuperate, Sean also reached out to Eden, helping her through her grief and doing those things for her and Maverick that Justin would normally be doing. Meanwhile, Eden is trying hard to go forward for her son’s sake, perhaps relying a lot on Sean who shares and understands her feelings. However, after five months, both are facing a shift in their feelings towards each other.
Sean and Eden’s affection for each other grew when Justin was alive. He spent most of his free time with them so it was only natural for that affection to grow into something deeper. Sean’s guilt (survivor’s and otherwise) about it was understandable as well as Eden’s confusion about experiencing feelings for another man. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also had to deal with some negative judgments from some within the Coast Guard community (bro code stuff and all of that). But issues aside, I loved how their romance developed…slowly with an edge of sadness because of their love of Justin. And, Sean’s relationship with little Maverick just tugged at my heartstrings.
Typical of any Clare story, this one also has a strong sense of community and setting. I learned a lot about how the Coast Guard rescues work and just how dangerous they can be, especially in a place like Alaska where the weather can turn on you in seconds. Eden is part Alutiiq and learned much about her heritage from her grandmother, practicing the art of “foraging” for natural elements used for cooking and medicinal purposes. All this in the background of a special romance between two remarkable people that I came to care about. This was a lovely, lovely romance and great start to a new series. Count me in for whatever comes next.
Air Station Kodiak
Kodiak Island, Alaska
Sean McKenna was jerked from a sound sleep by the SAR alarm. Instantly awake, he got to his feet and left his duty room, already wearing the black long underwear that would go beneath his survival suit.
The operations duty officer’s voice sounded over the loudspeaker. “Now put the ready helo online. Now put the ready helo online.”
Justin Koseki emerged from the duty room across the hall and walked with Sean together toward their lockers. “Get any sleep?”
Sean had met Justin a little more than eight years ago at boot camp, and they’d been friends ever since. Tonight, they were both on duty and needed to be ready to take off at a moment’s notice.
Justin shook his head, a smile on his face. “I was talking with Eden. She wants to try for another baby.”
Eden was Justin’s beautiful wife of three years and the mother of his eighteen-month-old son, Maverick.
Sean chuckled. “Weren’t you just complaining about the cost of diapers?”
Justin grinned. “She wants our kids to be born here in Kodiak so her parents can have time with them before we get transferred away. I’ll ask to stay here for as long as I can, but you know how that goes.”
Justin had already gotten a second tour of duty in Kodiak, but where he served after that was up to the Coast Guard. Most Coastie families lived far from loved ones, moving every two to four years. But Eden had deep roots on the island, with ancestry that included Alutiiq, Russian, Scottish, and French Canadian. She’d never lived in the Lower Forty-Eight, and Sean couldn’t blame her for wanting to raise her children here.
Justin glanced at him. “When are you going to meet someone?”
“Do the math. There are twenty-six percent fewer women than men on this island, and if you subtract married women, girls, and grandmas, the pickings are slim.”
“Oh, come on! You’re a flight mech. You’ve got shiny gold wings on your uniform. Women dig wings.”
“Too bad I can’t wear my uniform into the bars.”
Justin chuckled. “I didn’t meet Eden in a bar.”
“Not all of us get to show off the way you rescue swimmers do.”
Justin had jumped out of the helo at Kodiak’s Crab Fest as part of a demonstration to show the crowd what rescue swimmers did. But rather than hooking himself up so he could be hoisted back up to the helo like he was supposed to, he’d swum over to a pretty woman standing with her friends at the pier and asked for her name and number. He’d been reprimanded, but it had been worth it. Six months later, Sean had flown up from Air Station San Francisco to stand with Justin at his wedding to Eden. Sam had gotten one look at the landscape and had requested to be stationed in Kodiak for his next move.
Some Coasties hated Alaska, but Sean loved it. It was a land of extremes—extreme beauty, extreme weather, extreme risk. Living and working on Kodiak Island got Sean’s blood pumping in a way that no other assignment had.
They reached their lockers and dropped the banter. Lt. James Spurrier and Lt. David Abbott, the helo pilot and co-pilot, were already halfway into their survival suits.
“What’ve we got?” Sean opened his locker, began to dress out.
Spurrier yanked up the diagonal zipper of his survival suit. “The ODO got a call from a twenty-eight-foot fishing boat called the Marjorie T. A forty-six-year-old male collapsed suddenly, seized, and is having trouble breathing. The boat is about fifty miles offshore.”
“Do they have an AED onboard?” As the rescue swimmer, Justin was an EMT and would be in charge of medical care once they got the patient onboard the helo.
“They don’t.” Spurrier grabbed his flight bag. “The woman who made the call sounded extremely upset and said she didn’t have first aid training. The ODO told her how to put him in a recovery position and asked her to check for a pulse. She couldn’t tell his pulse from her own.”
“Adrenaline will do that.” Sean zipped his suit, grabbed the rest of his gear, and walked with James and Justin toward the operations center. “What’s the weather doing?”
Here in Alaska, the weather could change in a heartbeat and varied drastically from one area to another. It might be a calm night over Air Station Kodiak but gusting forty knots with zero visibility a ten-minute flight up the coast.
“Clear skies with gusts up to fifteen knots. Water temp is forty degrees.”
“Nice.” Sean’s primary job was to conn the pilot into position and manage the hoist, lowering the rescue swimmer to the water or the deck of the boat and then lifting him and any patients or survivors to safety. High winds made that job a lot more challenging.
They found Lt. Michelle Yamada, a fixed-wing pilot, staffing the operations duty officer post for the night. She’d already calculated their flight path. “It should be a straightforward evolution.”
Spurrier’s gaze was on the map, where the ship’s position was clearly marked. “Any amplifying information?”
Lt. Yamada nodded. “The boat isn’t moving, so they’re getting tossed around by the swells. Apparently, the patient is the only one who feels safe piloting the craft. The woman who called in is the patient’s wife. The patient is unconscious and unresponsive. She thinks he has a pulse, but she’s pretty upset and seems confused. I asked a corpsman to join you just in case you need extra medical help. Ahlgren is already waiting near the helo.”
“Good idea.” Spurrier pulled on his helmet. “Let’s go.”
~ ~ ~
It was a short flight to the position of the Marjorie T, so Sean helped Justin and Will get the cabin ready for the patient, the three of them preparing for the worst. Sean and Justin had worked dozens of SAR cases together and operated quickly and efficiently. Will rarely flew, but as a corpsman, he had a higher level of medical training and was allowed to administer medications that Justin could not.
“Once we get the patient into the cabin, I’ll defer to you,” Justin told Will.
“Copy that.” Will hung a bag of IV fluids and retrieved an AMBU bag, while Justin got the AED ready. IV tubing. O2. Medications. Pulse Oximeter. Blankets.
An unconscious patient meant a litter rescue, but Sean would wait until Justin had left the cabin to put the litter together. He turned to the window, flipped down his night-vision goggles, and searched for the Marjorie T.
Abbott’s voice came through the headphones. “I wonder what a small craft like that is doing out here in the middle of the night.”
“Good question,” Spurrier replied.
There was no fog, but there wasn’t any moonlight either, the darkness broken only by the MH-60 Jayhawk’s lights. They had no photos of the Marjorie T, and Sean wasn’t sure the boat had power or functioning lights.
Spurrier’s voice sounded in Sean’s ear. “You’ve got door speed.”
“Roger that. Opening cabin door.” Sean leaned out as cold air rushed in, his gaze on the inky black surface of the swells below.
Spurrier tried to pick the boat up on the radio. “Marjorie T, this is Coast Guard Rescue Six-Zero-Three-Eight, do you copy?”
A moment of silence was followed by a burst of static. “Coast Guard, it’s the Marjorie T. I can hear you, but I can’t see you. Help us!”
Sean spotted the vessel bobbing in the water. “They’re at our two o’clock.”
“I see them.” David turned on the helo’s TrakkaBeam, the powerful spotlight illuminating the boat below. “Let there be light.”
“Is the big flashlight giving you a god complex, Abbot?” Spurrier joked.
“Marjorie T, Rescue Three-Eight, we’re nearing your position. Can you give us an update on the patient, over?
“He still isn’t moving. I think I felt his heart beating.”
“Good copy, Marjorie T. We’ll circle your position and figure out the best way to reach the patient, over.”
Sean made a quick study of the boat and any hazards it might present to a hovering helo. “The boat’s really small, and there are a couple of antennas coming off the cabin.”
“Looks like our patient is in the stern,” David said.
“I see him.” Sean had already made up his mind. “We’re going to have to put the swimmer in the water. You good with that, man?”
Justin nodded, his gaze on the boat. “I’ll climb on board and assess the patient. Then you can send down the litter.”
“Roger that.” Spurrier circled the boat once more.
Sean conned Spurrier into position as he brought the helo to a hover about fifteen feet above the water’s surface just off the boat’s starboard side. “The tail rotor is clear. Hold.”
Justin was already wearing his harness and fins, so Sean started his safety check. “You ready?”
“Yeah, man. Let’s get this guy.” Justin sat with his legs dangling over the water.
“Safety check complete.” Sean gave Justin a little push. “Swimmer is leaving the cabin.”
Justin took the plunge, disappearing beneath the water.
“Swimmer is in the water.”
Justin surfaced, gave Sean a thumb’s up, then swam with strong strokes toward the boat.
“Swimmer is fine. He’s heading toward the Marjorie T.” Sean watched as Justin reached the boat’s starboard railing and pulled himself onto the craft. “The swimmer is on deck.”
With Will’s assistance, Sean got the litter ready and attached it to the hook and hoist line.
Below, Justin knelt beside the patient, checked for a pulse, then turned to speak to the woman, his words drowned out by the helo’s rotors. He looked up, motioned for Sean to send down the litter.
“Swimmer has asked for the litter.”
“Begin the hoist,” Spurrier said.
Sean held onto the line so the litter wouldn’t spin in the helo’s rotor wash. The litter had almost reached Justin when the cabin door opened and another adult male staggered out, hand held over his mouth as if he were coughing.
Justin’s voice came over the radio. “Abort! Abort! We need to get everyone off the boat and pick them up in the water. They’re cooking meth, and the patient was exposed.”
“Abort the hoist. I’m putting some distance between us,” Spurrier said as the helo moved upward and back. “Prepare to recover our swimmer and survivors from the water.”
“Aborting the hoist. Get out of there, Koseki.” Sean raised the litter, holding tight to the line as it moved slowly upward.
Below, Justin caught the unconscious man beneath the arms and dragged him toward the railing, shouting to the other two passengers to abandon ship.
Were they arguing with him?
Spurrier spoke into the radio, updating Sector. “The swimmer says they’re cooking meth onboard. We’ve aborted the hoist and put some distance between us and—”
A deafening blast. Searing heat. Flames.
Almost at once, the shockwave hit the helo, ripping the line from Sean’s hand, and hurling him backward. The litter and hook were blown back into the tail rotor. The aircraft pitched, spinning, alarms on the aircraft screaming.
“Mayday! Mayday!” Spurrier’s voice sounded in Sean’s headphones as the helo spun out of control, heading for the water. “This is Coast Guard Rescue Six-Zero-Three-Eight! The Marjorie T just exploded. We’re going down!”
“Justin!” Sean shouted into the chaos.
Then they hit the water with a bone-jarring crunch.
~ ~ ~
Eden Koseki slipped quietly into Maverick’s room to check on him, her heart swelling as she gazed at him. He lay sound asleep in his crib, completely relaxed the way only a baby could be, pacifier still in his little mouth, his downy hair dark against his pillow. It was hard to believe that this sleeping angel was the same little rascal who’d dumped all the cat food onto the floor this afternoon—and then cried in protest when she’d cleaned it up.
She drew up the quilt her mother had made for him and then walked out of the room, leaving the door cracked behind her. Se needed a hot soak and a good night’s sleep.
She walked to the tub and turned on the tap, undressing and tossing her clothes into their bedroom. Then she hung a clean towel on the rack, put her phone where she could reach it, and stepped into the tub, sinking into the hot water with a sigh.
She closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift, savoring the heat and the quiet.
She’d heard the helo lift off about thirty minutes ago and knew that Justin was out there somewhere, trying to save lives. When they’d first met, she’d sat by her VHF radio any time he went out on a case, listening, needing to know he was safe. But they’d been married for almost four years now, and she’d adjusted to the risks of his job—mostly.
She’d fallen in love with that brave man who’d jumped out of a hovering helicopter and swum through icy water just to ask for her name and number. Danger was part of the package that was Justin. If he could cope with it, so could she.
When she’d met Justin, she’d been working full-time as a pharmacy tech at Safeway. She’d enjoyed that job more than the jobs she’d had as a teen—acting as a tour guide, waiting tables, working at the fish processing plant. When she’d found out she was pregnant, she and Justin had talked about it and decided they had enough money saved up for her to leave work until their kids were in school. Given his long hours and unpredictable schedule, it had seemed the best thing for them as a family. It wasn’t as if Eden had any great career ambitions.
She was an Alaskan through and through. What mattered to her was family and spending as much time as she could in nature, boating, fishing, hiking, watching wildlife. For her, a job was just a way to pay the bills, nothing more.
But Justin had always wanted to be in the military. He’d chosen the Coast Guard because he loved the water. Then he’d learned about Avionics Survival Technicians—rescue swimmers—and he’d known exactly what he’d wanted to do.
Her brave, crazy husband.
She found herself smiling as she remembered their conversation tonight and the sexy purr in his voice when she’d told him she wanted to try for another baby.
“Are you saying no more condoms?”
“No more condoms.”
“Man, I wish I weren’t on duty tonight.”
Oh, so did she.
She wanted Maverick to have a sister or a brother, and she wanted her parents to meet their grandchildren before they passed. They were in their sixties, and neither of them were in very good health. Though Justin had promised he would do all he could to stay here on Kodiak Island, she knew that was beyond his control.
Eden brought her hands to rest on her belly, the tiny silver stretch marks from her pregnancy with Maverick barely visible. Would their next baby be a girl or a boy? A part of her hoped it would be a girl so they would have one of each. She would love to watch her newborn daughter wrap Justin around her tiny finger. But boy or girl, it didn’t really matter to Eden.
In the distance, she heard the rotors of another helicopter leaving the station. Was it for the same case, or had they gotten another call?
Justin would tell her all about it when he came home in the morning.
~ ~ ~
Wrapped in a blanket, Sean sat in the troop seat of another MH-60, Spurrier strapped in beside him as the helo that had rescued them made its way back to home plate. He was oblivious to the searing pain from his burns and the ache of his broken arm, his mind fixed on those few seconds just before the explosion.
Abort the hoist! Abort! We need to get everyone off the boat and pick them up in the water. They’re cooking meth, and this man was exposed.
Abort the hoist. I’m putting some distance between us. Prepare to recover our swimmer and survivors from the water.
Aborting the hoist. Get out of there, Koseki!
Mayday! Mayday! This is Coast Guard Rescue Six-Zero-Three-Eight! The Marjorie T exploded. We’re going down!
If only Sean had shouted to Justin to jump now…
If only he’d held onto that hoist line…
After the helo had hit the water, Sean had unhooked himself and tried to help Will escape the sinking aircraft. That’s how he’d discovered that his right arm was broken and useless. The pain had been excruciating. Fortunately, Will had been uninjured and had followed Sean through the dark water to the surface.
Sean had glanced around, his right arm limp. “Where are Spurrier and Abbott? Do you see Justin?”
Will turned in the water. “No, I… There!”
Spurrier had surfaced fifteen feet to Sean’s left.
“Abbott?” Sean had shouted.
Flames had reflected off Spurrier’s flight helmet. “Gone.”
Abbott was dead, and Justin…
Driven by desperation, Sean had fought to swim through swells and flaming wreckage, searching the surface for any sign of Justin—a flash of orange, his helmet, anything.
But Spurrier had caught him in a rescue hold and dragged him away from the flames. “Don’t fight me, man. It’s too late! It’s not safe.”
Sean had never felt so helpless.
Now, a boat crew and a third helo were searching the water for remains. The Coast Guard would do an investigation and come up with procedures to avoid this in the future. But nothing would bring back Justin or David or the people whose lives they’d died trying to save—to say nothing of the multi-million-dollar aircraft that now lay at the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska.
“Petty Officer McKenna!”
Sean’s head jerked up. Had he blacked out? “Sir?”
“I think he’s in shock.” But Will wasn’t speaking to Sean.
Liam Casey, the rescue swimmer on this flight, turned to Will and Spurrier. “Apart from the blanket, he says he’s fine and has refused treatment.”
Sean wanted to insist that he was okay, but he couldn’t keep his teeth from chattering.
Spurrier spoke clearly. “McKenna, you are to do whatever Liam and Will tell you to do. That’s an order. Do you understand?”
Will moved closer. “I’m going to give you some morphine, and we’ll settle you in the litter so we can transfer you as soon as we land.”
The jab of a needle.
After that, it was a blur of shivering, pain, and voices.
“… second-degree burns on the exposed part of his face …”
“He’s got a right humeral shaft fracture. I splinted it when he was unconscious.”
“Between the meth and the burning ship, we can’t rule out chemical exposure.”
“We should be on deck in zero-five mikes.”
Then he was on a gurney, rolling toward a waiting ambulance, the dark sky above him. Before he drifted into unconsciousness, one thought crystallized in his mind, the pain it caused worse than any injury.
How in God’s name was he going to tell Eden that the man she loved was dead?
Copyright (C) by Pamela Clare 2022