Excerpt: Deeper Than The Ocean

Book 4: Deep Six Books

Excerpt: Deeper Than The Ocean

Chapter 1

Present Day

4:45PM…

Even a small mouse has anger.

Ray “Wolf” Roanhorse’s grandmother had used the saying to teach him that anger was never a bad thing, but rather an emotion that everything from the tallest man to the tiniest rodent felt. It was how one dealt with that anger that mattered.

Wolf stood still as a stone, dealing by keeping his damned mouth shut.

What was the cause of his foul temper you ask?

It was twofold.

First, after months of fruitless searching, he and his salvage partners had finally located the sunken remains of the legendary Santa Cristina praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. They’d pulled up a few religious artifacts – some ceremonial cups and crosses and rosaries. They’d stumbled upon a handful of weapons – a sword, two daggers, and one coral-encrusted musket. But the mother lode? The millions of dollars in coins and gold bars? The silver ingots and uncut emeralds clearly reported on the ghost galleon’s manifest?

Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

Which meant it was looking highly unlikely they’d recoup their life savings – which they’d invested in starting their Deep Six Salvage business – much less strike it rich.

Should’ve stayed in the Navy, he mused bitterly.

Then again, he and his former SEAL team members had all been getting long in the tooth. And every spec-ops guy worth his salt knew what that meant.

Doesn’t matter how good we were – and they’d been better than most – if we’d kept spinnin’ that chamber, all of us would’ve eventually bitten the bullet.

In fact, it was already too late for one of them.

Rusty Lawrence had been a tough, stubborn sonofabitch. His body had been riddled with bullets the day they dragged him out of a dusty compound in Aleppo after an op that’d gone tits up. But he hadn’t succumbed to the horror of his wounds before making all of them promise to wave goodbye to the lives of Frogmen.

Rusty had known he would be the first to go, and the bastard had done the one thing he could to make certain he was the last.

Navy SEALs were men of honor, you see, bound by spilled blood and mutual respect. And beholden to always keep their word once given.  

Which meant when their contracts expired, none of the remaining seven members of The Great Eight had re-upped. Instead, Michael “Mad Dog” Wainwright had returned to his hometown of Atlantic City to make babies with a saucy redhead. And the other six SEALs from their unit had traded sorties for scuba tanks, firefights for swim fins, and joined their lieutenant, a man by the name of Leo “the Lion” Anderson, in the hunt for the storied Santa Cristina – a prize treasure hunters had been after for centuries.

Wolf and his SEAL brothers all had big plans for the cabbage they hoped to pick up from the salvage.

Leo, or LT as they called him in a nod to his rank, wanted to buy Wayfarer Island, the small spit of land rising out of the Caribbean that his family had leased from the U.S. government way back when Ulysses S. Grant was sitting pretty at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The same lump of sand and mangrove forest they all called home.

Then there was Spiro “Romeo” Delgado, who leaned against the palm tree next to Wolf. Romeo planned to use his slice of the pie to start a charity in L.A. for kids like himself. Kids who had grown up on streets so mean that a run-in with drug addiction, gun violence, and rival gangs just meant it was a Tuesday.

Mason “Monet” McCarthy hoped to buy a row house in Beantown and season tickets to the Red Sox. Brando “Bran” Pallidino made noises about opening an Italian restaurant in his fiancée’s hometown of Houston. And Dalton “Doc” Simmons had his eye on a ranch back in Montana.

Then there was Wolf himself. His aims, though not so grandiose as buying an island or funding a charity, were of no less personal significance.

You see, he had himself a trio of sisters, and each of them had worse taste in men than the one before.

Wolf had read a quote somewhere once. I view each and every one of your glaring red flags as a personal challenge, and he reckoned that summed up how his sisters went about choosing partners. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing, except Rachel, Roxanne, and Robbin were also fertile as turtles.

Between the three of them, they’d gifted Wolf with ten nieces and nephews. A whole brood of Roanhorses, and not a single baby-daddy offering up child support among them. Which meant the cheddar needed for braces, baseball cleats, and college funds was nearly impossible to come by.

Wolf had hoped to be the one to make it rain. Had hoped to provide his sisters’ little crotch goblins with all the creature comforts he had done without while growing up on a scrubby piece of property outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma. But with every passing day, that hope dimmed. In fact, at this point it was little more than a glimmer.

Thinking of the women in his life who confounded him brought his thoughts around to the second thing giving him fits. 

Her name was Christina Szarek. Chrissy for short. And she was as long limbed and blond as her Polish surname implied.

He’d had a thing for blondes ever since he was five years old and found himself in Miss Featherstone’s kindergarten class. Miss Featherstone had reminded him of a sunflower, sweet and radiant. Then there’d been Dana Teague in the sixth grade, a bubbly soccer player with a pleasant smile and long, thick braids. She’d been followed by Keely Potter in high school. Keely had turned out to be a bottle-blonde – a fact Wolf learned only after she let him get to third base under the bleachers at the football stadium. But none of those flaxen-haired sirens had ever made him want quite like Chrissy did.

Want what, though?

That was the million dollar question.

Want her kisses? Certainly. I mean, have you seen her mouth? Want her long, curvy body stretched out beside him in bed? Undoubtedly. I mean, have you seen those legs? Want her cool, slim fingers running over his skin until he shivered and moaned and begged her to let him take her? You betcha. I mean, have you seen those hands?

Still, there was something more he wanted from her. Something nebulous and shadowy he couldn’t quite put a name to.

All he could say for sure was she was a pressure in his chest. A void in his stomach. And a pain in my ass, because she breaks out the Heisman move every time I get close, he thought as he let his eyes travel over to her.

Chrissy stood in the sand at the base of the beach house’s front porch steps, her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her cutoff shorts as she listened to the gathered group discuss the Santa Cristina’s missing mother lode. From the top of her messy ponytail to the tips of her unpainted toenails, everything about her screamed islander.

Thanks to hours spent on the water, her skin was tanned a light cognac. Her blue eyes glittered in the ray of hard subtropical sun slanting down through the fronds of the palm tree overhead. And she’d paired her red bikini with a tank top that read: Key West…Nearly perfect. Far from normal. A simple silver bracelet with abalone charms in the shapes of sea life was her only jewelry.

The charms tinkled quietly when she lifted a hand to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. For the billionth time, he noted the simple grace and purity of her movements. They reminded him of the weeping willow that grew next to the cattle pond on his family’s land, how it would sway when the wind preceding a summer shower swept over the plains.

Sensing his scrutiny, she darted a look his way. The instant their eyes clashed, heat stole across his skin. The devil in him had him winking at her, but he wasn’t sure she saw. She’d quickly returned her attention to the group.

Oh, she saw, he thought a moment later when a wash of pink that had nothing to do with the cloudless morning they’d spent diving down on the wreck stained her cheeks.

She tried to act as if she was immune to his charms, as if keeping him in the Friend Zone didn’t cost her a moment’s work. But he’d spent the better part of his thirty-four years studying women, and he recognized the subtle signs they gave when they were attracted to him.

And Chrissy? She wasn’t a subtle sign. She was blinking neon.

So why the hell weren’t they upstairs in his bedroom knocking boots…er…flip flops, as the case may be?

Simply put, because he’d screwed the pooch. Royally. And it didn’t matter she’d since forgiven him for The Night That Shall Not Be Named, or that it’d been an honest mistake to begin with, she still—

“Damn, man.” Romeo pushed away from his languid lean against the palm tree to clap a hand on Wolf’s shoulder. Hitching his chin toward Chrissy, the flyboy added, “You went and caught all the feels. Admit it.”

Wolf hated being obvious.

Then again, he’d read somewhere that, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”

So, fine. He was being obvious. At least I ain’t the only one.

“I’ll admit I caught feels for Chrissy,” he muttered from the corner of his mouth, “when you admit you’re catchin’ feels for Mia.”

He shot a finger gun toward the woman gesturing excitedly and saying, “I know you’re all disappointed not to have found the Santa Cristina’s cargo. But stop for a moment to appreciate what you have found. This site is a time capsule. We’re getting a firsthand look at what life was like 400 years ago aboard a sizable sea-faring vessel.”

According to state and federal law, when a salvage crew stumbled upon a wreck, they were required to bring in a marine archeologist to catalog the site and oversee the excavation.

Enter Mia Ennis. A strawberry blonde with a penchant for avocados and expensive skincare products. 

Two hours after they’d hauled up the first of the Santa Cristina’s bronze deck cannons, they’d contacted the state of Florida to report their find. Thirty-six hours later, Mia had landed on their doorstep with bags in hand. And in the nearly four weeks since, she’d not only become part of their crew, she’d become part of their family.

Wolf supposed that was inevitable given they were military men, honor-bound to protect those softer than themselves. And Mia Ennis? She was the gentlest, most soft-spoken woman he’d ever met. Not to mention…there was a broken quality about her.

He wasn’t sure what tragedies marred her past, or if her quiet disposition was simply a part of her nature. He just knew the only time she raised her voice much above a whisper was when she talked about the excavation site. And the only time her eyes lit with an inner fire was when she was inspecting the artifacts they hauled up from the sea bed.

Or when she looked at Romeo.

There was no mistaking the way her cheeks heated and her pupils dilated whenever the sailor-cum-pilot-cum-salvor entered the room.

Speaking of the sailor-cum-pilot-cum-salvor…

“Maybe I am catching feels for the marvelous Mia Ennis,” Romeo admitted with a laconic half-smile. “You think she’d be interested in a former fighting man like me?”

Wolf considered the marine archeologist for a few seconds more before whispering to Romeo, “Actually, I think she probably only dates men with IQ’s in the double digits.”

Navy SEALs never passed up an opportunity to feed each other heaping helpings of shit. And it didn’t matter that neither he nor Romeo wore the gold Trident pin of the brotherhood anymore. Once a SEAL, always a SEAL.

“Guess that counts us both out then, eh?” Romeo winked, not one to be outdone. “It’s just as well,” he added with a dramatic sigh. “She’s too good for me anyway.”

“You’ll hear no argument from me on that score,” Wolf agreed gamely.

“Would y’all shut the fuck up?”

LT Anderson was no longer their superior, yet they snapped to attention at the sound of his snarl. Old habits were hard to break. Old training? That was even harder.

“He started it.” Wolf hooked a thumb in Romeo’s direction.

Romeo gasped in mock outrage. “You know what, Wolf? Today we’re making Fuck You pie. You take a cup of piss off, add a dash of get bent, and throw in some go take a flying leap. You’ll want to give that a good stir, then take a big ol’ spoonful and shove it straight up your ass.”

Wolf pulled in his lips, but couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled inside his chest. That ridiculous recipe was enough to dull the edges of his bad mood. He thanked Romeo by offering him a pseudo salute.

Romeo, clearly tickled by his own sophomoric wit, smiled so wide his black goatee became little more than a frame around a mouthful of white teeth.

“I’ll never understand how you guys spent years running missions and maintaining covers when you have the emotional maturity of fourteen-year-olds,” LT’s wife Olivia said with a roll of her eyes.

“It’s a talent to be sure,” Romeo conceded at the same time LT complained, “Hey! You’re not lumpin’ me in with these jackasses, are ya?”

“Never.” Olivia pulled off LT’s aviator sunglasses and planted a loud, smacking kiss on his lips. When she leaned back, there was so much love in her eyes, Wolf’s own heart ached something fierce.

Will a woman ever look at me the way Olivia looks at LT?

Of their own accord, his eyes tracked back to Chrissy.

He knew the instant she felt his gaze. The skin over her jaw tightened. Instead of looking back at him, however, she made a face of disgust at the newlyweds. “Ugh. Get a room you two.”

“We have one.” Olivia grinned. “It’s right upstairs.”

Chrissy pretended to pout. “Are you trying to make me jealous? I haven’t had a date since two weeks before this one” – she pointed straight at Wolf and he felt the tips of his ears tingle – “decided to drag me into a supply closet.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Olivia rubbed her hands together. “What in the world happened in that closet anyway? We’d all like to know.”

“A case of mistaken identity.” Chrissy shrugged, unwilling to expand on the subject. For months she’d only alluded to what went down That Night.

Wolf supposed he should thank her for that. And maybe he would if she’d ever let him talk about it. But every time he brought it up, she lifted a hand and said, “No. It’s water under the bridge.”

“Curiouser and curiouser.” LT tapped his chin.

“Not really.” Chrissy crossed her arms, which made her cleavage deepen. Wolf guessed if he dragged his tongue up that valley, it would be as soft as satin and taste like sunscreen.

The thought had his blood rising so quickly, he had to adjust his stance.

Romeo noticed and snorted loudly. Then he leaned in close to whisper in Wolf’s ear, “Bruh, I bet your palms are as chafed as a teenage boy who’s been left home alone with unlimited access to the internet, huh?”

Wolf had to hold back from punching Romeo in the bean bags. He satisfied himself with grumbling beneath his breath, “You’re a dickhead, Romeo.”

Romeo countered with, “Profanity is the product of a lazy mind.”

“You stole that from Spencer W. Kimball. And what he said was, ‘Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.’ If you’re goin’ to quote someone, at least get it right.”

“I’d tell you to go fuck yourself, but I get the feeling you’d be disappointed.”

Wolf burst out laughing, but his humor was short-lived when Chrissy glared at them. “Do you two come with mute buttons?” She had one of those faces that always held a hint mischief. But right now, she only looked exasperated. “We’re trying to talk business here.”

If Mia Ennis was shy and reserved, then Christina Szarek was her polar opposite. Chrissy was about as plainspoken as a person could get. Combine that with a rapier wit and a penchant for razor-sharp remarks, and Wolf thought perhaps he’d finally met his match.

Too bad she doesn’t feel the same.

Although, on second thought, it was probably more accurate to say too bad she doesn’t feel the same anymore. Because once upon a time, they’d both been impatient to see where their shared chemistry would lead them.

Or…at least he’d thought they’d both been impatient. Then he’d seen her draped all over some guy at Schooner Warf Bar in Key West, and that little green-eyed monster had sunk teeth into him.

Wolf should’ve taken her date with the blond dude like a man – after all, he and Chrissy had made no vows of exclusivity. He should’ve gone over and introduced himself to the Chris Hemsworth-looking bastard who’d had a tan hand wrapped around Chrissy’s waist instead of ignoring Chrissy’s wave and turning his attention to the busty redhead who’d sidled up beside him, thinking to himself two can play this game.

If that had been the extent of his blunder, Chrissy probably would’ve forgiven him and they might have found themselves competing in a two-person bedroom rodeo even now. Just like the busty redhead, the flaxen-haired Adonis hadn’t made another appearance after that fateful night. Which meant Mr. Tall, Blond, and Handsome had been no one important and certainly not worth Wolf’s jealousy. Unfortunately, that had not been the extent of Wolf’s error in judgment.

Oh, no. He’d gone and made things a hundred times worse in that dark storage closet.

For weeks after That Night, Chrissy had treated him like a cow patty, avoiding him like he’d ruin her shoes if she got too close. Then, a hair-raising encounter with a group of Iranians, and a subsequent head injury that’d kept him in the hospital for ten days, had precipitated her forgiving him.

Near death experiences tended to put things in perspective, and Chrissy hadn’t been immune. She’d said she wanted to wipe their slate clean.

Sadly, her definition of a “clean slate” and his were two different things. He’d thought it would be a return to all the flirting and teasing touches from before. But she had insisted all she wanted from him was friendship.

Friendship…

Never in his life had that word sounded more wretched than the day it come out of her pretty mouth.

“It’s still possible the cargo might be found among the ballast.” Mia returned them to the subject. “We have a lot of rubble left to pick through.”

Seventeenth century galleons carried huge loads of stones stored deep in their hulls to keep their centers of gravity low in the water. The Santa Cristina’s ballast pile was twenty feet wide, one-hundred feet long, and stood almost as tall as Wolf.

“You know good and well the treasure won’t be found there.” LT muttered and Mia blushed at the perceived rebuke. Seeing her stained cheeks, LT was quick to add, “I appreciate you tryin’ to sprinkle sugar on this bowl of shit and call it candy, but there’s no denying we’re screwed six ways from Sunday. The Santa Cristina’s mother lode is missin’.”

For a long moment, silence reigned. They’d all begun to suspect what LT said was true, but that was the first time the words had been spoken aloud. The syllables hung in the air like a dank, foul-smelling fog.

“Let’s think this through for a minute.” Alexandra Merriweather was the diminutive historian and ancient language aficionado they’d hired to help them read the old documents relating to the wreck. “We assumed Captain Bartolome Vargas skuttled the ship where he did to make free-diving salvage possible. And we assumed the entire crew was lost in the storm since there’s no mention in the records that any of the Santa Cristina’s sailors were found or rescued. But what if there were survivors? Would they have salvaged the wreck themselves?”

LT shot her a thoughtful look. “It’s possible. But then what? They haul up the treasure and do what with it?”

“Bury it.” Alex adjusted her tortoise shell glasses higher on the bridge of her zinc oxide-covered nose. “The old texts talk about how the seas were swarming with pirates and privateers hell bent on claiming the Santa Cristina’s riches for themselves. Any of the ship’s survivors would’ve known this. And since they were loyal to their king and country, and they would’ve been unwilling to see the bounty fall into enemy hands, they would’ve done everything they could to ensure it stayed hidden.”

“And then what?” LT asked. “They lived out the rest of their lives on the island?”

“Who knows?” Alex shrugged. “Maybe they died of disease. Maybe once the treasure was secure, they made a suicide pact and ran into the sea. Anything is possible.”

“So what’s that mean for us? We stop diving down on the Santa Cristina and start combing the island with metal detectors? That could take days.” This from Doc. He sat on the porch steps and, as usual, his face was hard and craggy, cut by the cold Montana wind. But it was his eyes that held Wolf’s attention. They looked weary. Bone-tired, actually.

Come to think of it, all of the Deep Six Salvage crew looked exhausted.

Treasure hunting sounded like a grand adventure in theory. In reality it was hard, backbreaking work done under the relentless Caribbean sun. 

“Buck up, Sad Sack,” Bran Pallidino winked at Doc. “You’re sounding like a glass half empty kind of guy.”

“Right now,” Doc grumbled, “I’m a glass fully empty kind of guy. And the only reason you’re wearing that shit-eating grin is because you’re marrying into one of the richest families east of the Continental Divide. You don’t need this score like the rest of us do.”

“That’s not fair.” Bran frowned. “Just because Maddy’s family’s got money doesn’t mean I—”

“Gentlemen,” LT cut in with his languid Louisiana drawl. “This is no time to turn on each other. If Alex is right, we’ll need to work together to get this entire island searched.”

“At least if we’re stuck on land, we won’t be burning fuel on Wayfarer II.” Doc referred to their salvage vessel. It guzzled MDO quicker than the tourists on Key West could down boat drinks.

“Look at you,” Bran winked at Doc. “Suddenly silver-lining this situation.”
Doc acted like the itch beside his nose could only be scratched with his middle finger.

“Is that an invitation?” Bran wiggled his eyebrows.

“You wish,” Doc snorted. “Just count your blessings and keep on stepping.”

The men of Deep Six Salvage were brothers in every way except blood. Which meant they were quick to take swipes at each other, but just as quick to forgive those swipes.

“So…” LT ran a hand through his hair. “We need metal detectors. More than the three underwater ones we keep on Wayfarer II. Who’s up for a trip to Key West?”

“I’ll go!” The words were out of Wolf’s mouth quicker than a bull at a gate. In an instant, his brain had managed to run through the following facts.

One: Chrissy lived and worked on Key West – she was a dive shop owner.

Two: She’d made a deal with Deep Six Salvage to bring clients out to the wreck site. This agreement benefitted Chrissy, seeing as how folks were willing to pay top dollar for a chance to dive down on a bona-fide seventeenth century Spanish galleon. It benefitted the Deep Six crew since they got more eyeballs helping them hunt for their treasure.

Three: This arrangement meant Chrissy and Wolf never got a chance to be alone. During the day she was busy directing her diving clients, and in the evenings she flew back home.

Four: Maybe if he went to Key West tonight, she’d agree to have dinner with him.

Five: Dinner might turn into drinks. Drinks might turn into a long walk along the beach. A long walk along the beach might end in a kiss.

Six: Ummm…he didn’t dare hope for a number six. He didn’t want to jinx himself.

“Me too.” Romeo lifted a finger. “We’ll take the Otter.” With a hitch of his chin, he indicated the single-engine, propeller-driven amphibious aircraft that rested on the beach, its two pontoons firmly parked atop the golden sand.

“Can I go?” Mia asked. When the group turned to her en masse, her next words were barely above a whisper. “I need to file some paperwork with the state. And I’d like to see if I can find someone to cut my hair.” She held up a wavy lock and grimaced. “I’m starting to look homeless.”

“You couldn’t look homeless if you tried, honey pie,” Doc drawled.

His words made Mia blush. Which made Romeo grind his teeth. 

Yeah, Wolf thought. Dude’s got it bad.

“Done and done.” LT clapped his hands together. It was his standard signal that a plan was set.

Meat, the fat English bulldog who was their mascot and self-proclaimed garbage disposal, had been sprawled on his back at the top of the steps, napping with his twig and berries out to catch the passing breeze. But LT’s sudden gesture had him springing to his feet with a confused bark.

Li’l Bastard – a Welsummer rooster who took it as his personal duty to whittle down the island’s bug population – had been contentedly roosting next to Meat. Now he flapped his wings and answered Meat’s bark with a loud cock-a-doodle-do!

Everyone living on the island was so used to the exchange, they ignored the animals.

  “You three go have some fun on Key West tonight,” LT continued. “And tomorrow come back here armed with as many metal detectors as you can scrounge up.”

As the group broke apart, Chrissy turned toward the half-moon-shaped strip of sand that partially encircled the island’s lagoon. The eight divers she’d brought with her for the day were near the water’s edge, sitting on picnic blankets, drinking wine and snacking on fruit salad, cured meats, and expensive cheeses.

Chrissy made sure to treat her clients right. No one could ever accuse her of being a lackadaisical businesswoman. 

It took Wolf a bit to catch up with her. Her legs were a country mile long. When he did, she glanced at him curiously. Up close like this, he could see the different striations of blue in her irises, from cobalt to cornflower, and he felt a sudden breathlessness.

He tried blaming it on the heat of the sand beneath his bare feet. But he knew the real reason O had trouble reaching his brain.

It was her.

It happened every damn time he came within two feet of her.

Swallowing past the constriction in his throat, he managed, “Have dinner with me tonight.” 

He’d meant for it to be a question. But the part of him that was hungry for her didn’t want to leave any room for rejection.

 

Chapter 2

5:01PM…

Chrissy Szarek was no dummy.

Thanks to her mother’s example – God, rest her soul – Chrissy recognized the galaxy of warning signs that flashed around Ray “Wolf” Roanhorse.

Not that she hadn’t initially been fooled by him. Wolf quoted religious leaders, famous folks, and philosophers as easily as most people breathed. He practiced Tai-Chi in the mornings. And he liked to walk along the beach collecting sea shells.

Sea shells for Pete’s sake, like a granny from up North who’d come down on vacation.

Given all that, who could blame her for thinking that, despite his flashing black eyes, razor-sharp cheekbones, and carpenter’s square of a jaw, Wolf might actually be woke. As in, more than a pretty face. As in, so much deeper and more complex than those broad shoulders and six-pack abs implied.

Joke’s on me, she thought, looking at him now and trying not to let his nearness steal her breath away. That night at Schooner Warf Bar had proved Wolf was no better than her mother’s four husbands and copious boyfriends. A man who was nice to look at, nicer to kiss, and probably even nicer to bounce around on for a few weeks. But not a candidate for anything else. Anything permanent. 

And thanks to her recent thirtieth birthday, she was officially on the hunt for something permanent. Gone were the days of fun-for-now-but-not-forever. It was time to get serious about her ultimate goal.

As an only child, she’d spent her youth dreaming of a big, boisterous family that would fight and love and play cards around the kitchen table after Thanksgiving dinner. As a grown woman, that image remained.

Trouble was, she’d been having a hell of a time finding a man who would make that dream a reality.

There were the dating sites, of course. Some folks thought Tinder was like Amazon. You go online and pick what you want. But in her experience, it was less like Amazon and more like eBay. Meaning she’d sorted through her fair share of other peoples’ leftover junk and—

“Didn’t reckon the thought of havin’ dinner with me would require you to do so much ponderin’,” Wolf said in that Oklahoma accent that split the difference between a Southern drawl and a Texas twang. He crossed tattooed arms that were roped with muscle and frowned so hard it made the scar at his temple pull tight and pucker.

The combination made him look incredibly forbidding. Which, for some reason known only to God, made her want him all the more.

Seriously, the urge to tackle him onto the sand and forcibly sit on his face was damn near overwhelming.

Tick tock! her eggs screamed up at her.

I hear you! she silently yelled back. But he’s not the one!

“Sorry.” She made a face. “My mind wandered.” She didn’t add that it had wandered to images of her squeezing his ears between her thighs. “Ummm, dinner? No can do. I have plans.”

Something flickered across his face. “Hot date?”

“I wish.” She twisted her lips. “But no. Winston and I have a standing Friday night business dinner to tally up the week’s receipts, go over inventory, and figure out what equipment needs to be serviced or replaced.”

Winston Turner was a childhood friend who’d grown up to become her high school boyfriend. They’d ended their youthful romance, however, when Winston moved to the mainland to get his degree. He’d returned to Key West after graduation, but by that time, they’d decided they were far better as friends and business partners than life partners, and so he’d joined her in opening the dive shop.

“How about meeting me for a drink after?” Wolf’s expression was casual. Yet there was something in his voice that sounded hard-edged.

“What is this?” She cocked her head. “I thought we agreed to be friends?”

“Friends can’t share a drink on a Friday night?”

“Sure. But this feels suspiciously date-ish.”

“Woman, if I was askin’ you out, I’d do it right. I’d get reservations at a nice restaurant with an amazin’ water view and come pick you up with flowers in hand.” His smile was seductive, masculine. Her eggs once again responded by clamoring loudly for fertilization.

“Boy oh boy. Aren’t you the traditionalist? And would you pull out my chair? Pour my wine? Try to seduce me with your best line?” She fluttered her lashes theatrically.

“I’m thinkin’ the best lines are less about seduction and more about statin’ your offer straight out.”

“Really?” She was intrigued despite herself. “So come on.” She wiggled her fingers in a come-hither motion. “Lay it on me.”

“You sure you can handle it?”

She rolled her eyes. “I think I’ve proved I’m immune to your masculine wiles.”

Liar! her eggs shouted.

The little buggers were becoming more annoying by the day.

“If you say so.” He shrugged. Then he… smoldered at her. That was the only word for it. “This face leaves in ten minutes.” He pointed to his intriguing aqualine nose. “I’d like for you to be on it.”

Where is that wheezing sound coming from?

Oh, right. From the depths of her chest because…Hot damn!

When she realized her mouth had slung open, she snapped it shut. “That’s good.” She ignored the blood that had left her brain to race to parts decidedly south. “But it’s not the best I’ve heard.”

“Oh yeah?” One slashing black eyebrow slanted up his forehead. “You think you can do better.”

“I know I can.” She tossed her ponytail over her shoulder and leered at him. “You have a kind face, sir. The kind I’d like to sit on.”

His startled expression was better than she could have hoped for.

Licking a finger, she made an invisible hash mark in the air. “Score one for Chrissy.”

Was it her imagination or was his voice raspy when he said, “Do you ever let anyone get one over on you?”

She looked at him as if a colony of oysters had grown from his ears. “It that a real question?”

“I thought there was a pretty obvious question mark on the end.”

“Why in the world would I let someone get one over on me?” God, she loved their banter. Too bad that was all they could share. “Where would be the fun in that?”

“Oh…” He shrugged and she was momentarily mesmerized by the way his shoulder muscles bunched. She remembered how unforgiving they felt beneath the tight grip of her fingertips. “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s nice to let your opponent take the lead. There’s so much satisfaction in stealin’ it back from them.”

“Is that what we are, Wolf? Opponents?”

“Never,” he swore. “You and me? We’re Lance Bass and Justin Timberlake.” When she tilted her head in confusion, he finished with, “In sync.”

She made a gagging noise. “I think I like you better when you’re walking around sounding like a fortune cookie.” When he opened his mouth, she lifted a finger. “But don’t take that as an invitation to start throwing quotes my way again.”

He faked a pout. “First you tell me I can’t quote folks, and now you’re sayin’ you don’t like my cheesy metaphors either? What’s left to me, woman? Dad jokes?”

“Don’t you technically have to be a dad to tell dad jokes?”

“Not accordin’ to my nieces and nephews.”

The thought of him surrounded by a bunch of kids all clamoring for his attention made her heart ache so much she couldn’t think of a good comeback.

He took pity on her and filled the silence. “So? What do you say?”

“About dad jokes?”

“Drinks.”

“Oh…” She tried to think of a good excuse, but her mind kept seizing on the truth. Which was that she was scared to have drinks with him. Once she got some rum in her blood, she might not be able to resist the urge to strip him naked and pounce on him. And if she stripped him naked and pounced on him, she’d undoubtedly lose a bit of her heart to him. Because as much as she hated to admit it, she’d inherited more than her mother’s wide smile. Josephine had also passed down a penchant for forming emotional attachments to the exact wrong sort of man.

Chrissy realized she’d been quiet for too long when he tilted his head and regarded her thoughtfully. “It isn’t a marriage proposal, Chrissy.”

“Ha!” She shouted too loudly. To cover up her gaffe, she chucked him on the arm. “Okay, buddy. Sure. How about we meet at Schooner Warf Bar at nine o’clock?”

“You mean the scene of the crime?” Both of his sleek, dark eyebrows reached for the sky.

“Aha!” She pointed to his nose. “So you admit your behavior was criminal.”

His mouth flattened. “It was a figure of speech. And anyway, you said I’m off the hook.”

“You are,” she assured him. “But even if you weren’t, I’d choose Schooner. The Salty Cod Band is playing tonight.”

“They’re the ones who turn hip-hop into lounge tunes?”

“Yes. And it’s hilarious.” She lifted her hand to shield her eyes against the sun at the sound of an approaching aircraft. “My ride’s nearly here.” She hitched her chin toward the seaplane that seemed suspended like a marionette against the blue of the sky. “Better go help my clients get packed up.”

She was half a dozen steps down the beach when he called, “Chrissy?”

She hoped she was far enough away that he didn’t notice how his deep, resonant voice caused goosebumps to erupt over the back of her neck.

“Yeah?” she asked over her shoulder.

“I’m lookin’ forward to tonight. I hope you are too.” His smile was soft and lazy.

Now the chills weren’t only across her neck. They’d migrated to her arms, legs, and belly. The latter of which flopped around like a fish on dry land.

“I always enjoy a night filled with good music and good drinks,” she told him airily. Or at least she hoped she sounded airy.

His response was a wink and a two-finger salute before he turned and ambled back up the sand toward the beach house.

She noted the bulge of his calf muscles and the economical way he moved all while thinking, Oh, god. Why do I feel like I’m about to step off the edge of the Marianas Trench with a fifty pound rock tied to each foot?