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Ride The Tide

Ride The Tide

Ride the Tide debuts this fall!

Read on for an extended sneak peek!

Chapter One

Present day
7:05 a.m….

Mason “Monet” McCarthy had a problem.

She was five feet tall. Had curly red hair that was only fifty percent tamed in the best of conditions and one hundred percent out of control this early in the morning. And she was sitting at a table by the window watching the multicolored ships of the shrimp fleet as they rocked precariously with the wave action out near the horizon while her fingers absently fiddled with the corner of the book she was currently reading.

Oh, and she was also studiously ignoring him.

She was wicked good at that last part. Was making a frickin’ hobby of it, as a matter of fact. Not that he could blame her, considering what she’d offered him.

And what he’d turned down.

Her name was Alexandra Merriweather. Alex for short, which was a ridiculously masculine moniker for such a tiny wisp of a woman. One with skin like porcelain, eyes the color of Columbian emeralds, and a laugh as sweet and tinkling as a music box.

She was his problem because…well…he liked her. Like, liked her liked her. And if his cheating ho of a wife… Scratch that. Rewind… That would be his cheating ho of an ex-wife had taught him anything, it was that he wasn’t fit to like a woman like Alex.

Not anymore.

All the years of living from crisis to crisis, schlepping his ass through countless missions, maiming and killing in the name of the flag, had turned him into something… not normal.

That was the phrase Sarah had used when he came home early to surprise her for her birthday, but instead found her screwing his ex-best friend in their marriage bed. Surprise!

“What d’you expect, Mason?” Sarah’s expression had been so sincere. “You’re gone all the time, and when you’re here, you’re not normal.”

Copy that. When it came to a life of violence, the effects were biological, physiological, and psychological. It was the price of being a warrior.

So even though he’d been heartbroken by her betrayal, he’d never worked up much anger over it. Then and now, there was no frickin’ way to deny the truth. Mason McCarthy wasn’t capable of living a ordinary life with the house, the wife, and the two-point-three kids.

The only reason he was sitting in this hotel bar now, a bona-fide civilian, was because of a deathbed promise he and the rest of his teammates had made to Rusty Lawrence, the eighth man in their SEAL unit. Barring that promise, Mason figured he would’ve kept on running and gunning until he found the bullet with his name on it.

With a fingertip, he traced the scrolling black letters inked on the inside of his left forearm. For RL they read. Picturing Rusty’s craggy face, he tried to determine whether to curse the sorry sonofabitch or thank him for forcing them all to make that vow and wave their fond farewells to the Navy.

A call of “G’morning, asshole!” cut into his thoughts. Turning, he found Ray “Wolf” Roanhorse standing behind him.

Since he’d yet to determine how good the morning was or wasn’t, he grunted his reply. Wolf, used to his wordless responses, bent to scratch Meat’s exposed belly.

The fat English bulldog slept on his back beside Mason’s barstool, dick and balls on display for the entire breakfast crowd. His snores nearly drowning out the cries of the seagulls and the clanking sounds of the ships’ riggings coming in through the hotel’s open windows.

Meat was the only thing Mason had taken from the divorce. He’d let Sarah have their restored three decker in Southie, along with the furniture and all the minutia that went with a “normal” life. But Meat? Well, not to put too fine a frickin’ point on it, but he’d have crossed hell with nothing but a bucket of ice water before he’d have let her keep his dog.

“A wise woman once said, ‘If you risk nothin’, you risk everythin’.” With the unaffected ease that came with being supremely fit, Wolf settled himself onto the barstool next to Mason’s.

The two of them had become instant friends when they’d been teamed up as swim partners way back in BUD/S – Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL – training. And through all the intervening years, Wolf had never run out of inspirational quotes. He fancied himself a scholar of the world’s philosophers and religions

There were times, including this one, when it could get damned annoying.

Instead of answering, Mason kept quiet. He hoped his silence conveyed his wish for more coffee and less talk.

“I said,” Wolf said louder, “A wise woman once—”

“First off,” Mason muttered irritably, “what part of this face” – he pointed to his scowling mug – “makes ya think I’m in the mood for morning convo?”

“You’re never in the mood for conversation,” Wolf drawled, his Oklahoma accent making the words sound twice as long as they normally would. “Don’t matter what time of day it is.”

“Second off,” Mason went on as if Wolf hadn’t spoken, “what’s that supposed to mean nayway? If ya risk nothing, ya risk everything?”

“It means you should pull your head from your ass and go for it. Take her up on what she’s offerin’.” Wolf stuck a cocktail straw between his teeth and hailed the bartender to put in an order for a Bloody Mary. Hitching his chin toward Alex’s table, he added, “Come on, man. You know you want to.”

Mason hadn’t been kidding when he said he wasn’t in the mood to talk. But he sure as shit wasn’t in the mood to talk about Alex and her heart-stopping offer.

“Anyone ever told ya you’re a board certified fuck-ace who should mind his own damned business?”

“Sure.” Wolf’s onyx eyes flashed with humor, proving he was impervious to Mason’s insults. “You tell me all that time. That don’t change the fact that every time you see Alex’s wild, windswept curls and wide green eyes, you start scoutin’ the area for horizontal surfaces.”

“For fuck’s sake.” Mason snorted. “Please tell me ya haven’t taken up writing poetry too. That’ll be the straw that breaks this camel’s back.”

Wolf shrugged. “Reckoned that was nicer than sayin’ you’re pantin’ after her ’cause she’s sexy in a girl-next-door way that makes most men dream about doin’ extremely naughty things to her.”

Mason felt his expression turn sinister.

“Whoa there, brother.” Wolf lifted his hands. “Not sayin’ I’m one of those men.”

“I don’t pant.” Mason truly hated this conversation. “I’m not a dog. And I’m only interested in her ’cause of her brain and its ability to help us find the Santa Cristina. If anything’s sexy, it’s her frontal lobe.”

Wolf curled his lip. “Gross.”

“Ya-huh,” Mason admitted. “Sounded better in my head.”

“Most self delusion does,” Wolf quipped, and before Mason could tell his former swim partner to go eat a big, steaming pile of unseasoned shit, Wolf added, “ Look, man, you want Alex. You know it. I know it. Anyone with eyes in their head knows it.”

So much for my whole stony-faced fighting man persona, Mason thought irritably.

“So why don’t you do us all a favor,” Wolf went on, “and quick pretendin’ otherwise?”

Why indeed? Mason could think of at least a dozen reasons. But Wolf would punch a hole in each of them, so he pretended the question was rhetorical and, instead of answering, let his gaze roam around the room.

Like most establishments on this island at the end of the Florida Keys, the bar – with its kitschy ship’s wheel and cheap, strong drinks – was filled with two kinds of people. Those nursing a hangover from the night before. And those who were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eagerly discussing their plans for the day while partaking of the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet.

Key West was unique in that it attracted, in equal measure, fun-seeking tourists and those looking to fall off the map at the end of the road. It wasn’t at all odd to see a cheery-cheeked, suburban-mom-on-vacation sitting next to a grizzled, old, barefoot seadog.

Just one of the things Mason liked about it. Reminded him of his hometown. In the Hub of the Universe, the Ivy-Leaguers could oftentimes be found rubbing elbows with the tough crowd from The Lower End, especially when they were all was rooting for the Sox or the B’s.

“That wasn’t rhetorical,” Wolf said, and Mason imagined how gratifying it would feel to plant a fist into his friend’s mouth. Shut him up once and for all.

But the better angels of his nature won out, and instead of inflicting bodily harm, he said, “Ya know after what happened with Sarah, I’ve sworn off the fairer sex.”

“Please.” Wolf snorted. “You may have the others fooled into thinkin’ you’re runnin’ some sort of one man masturbation marathon, but I know you get your wick dipped every time we come to town. You’re just secretive about it. Why is that exactly?” Wolf leaned back to study him. “Worried we’ll scare off your potential bed partners by tellin’ them about your itty, bitty, baby penis?”

Something to understand about Navy SEALs – or retired Navy SEALs as was their case – was that their job forced them to make really big, really adult decisions on a daily basis. So when it came to their humor, as an escape from all those really big, really adult decisions, they tended to harken back to their middle school years. The size of another man’s dick being a favorite butt of their jokes.

“See,” Mason said with a laconic shrug, happy to be off the topic of Alex. “I might be offended, but I know that you know that’s just not true. You’ve seen it.”

Wolf faked a shudder. “Don’t remind me. Ugliest damn thing ever housed behind a zipper.”

Mason smirked. “Like most things, they’re cute when they’re small. But when they’re big? I mean really big?”

Wolf laughed and clapped him on the back.

After a while, Mason added, “And it’s not every time we come to Key West. Besides, what I have with Donna is different from what I have with Alex.”

Damn. And just like that they were back on his least favorite subject.

“Donna, huh? That’s her name?” Wolf chewed thoughtfully on his cocktail straw. “Okie dokie, so I’ll bite. Why is what you have with the mysterious Donna different from what you could have with Alex?”

“’Cause Donna’s fine with what I’m offering, a mutual scratching of itches when I’m here, and radio silence when I’m not. She’s not after anything permanent.”

A line appeared between Wolf’s eyebrows. “What makes you think Alex is?”

The look Mason sent Wolf broadcast just how idiotic he thought the question was. “She’s twenty-seven years old and still a virgin. Of course she’s looking for her forever person.”

Virgin… Saying the word aloud made it resonate within his skull like the booms heard around Boston Common when the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts held their Change of Command Ceremony and set off simulated canon shots. He found himself shaking his head for the hundredth time because… How the fuck is a twenty-seven year old virgin possible in today’s day and age?

The bartender set a sweating glass of vodka and Bloody Mary mix in front of Wolf. The cocktail perfumed the air with the scent of hot sauce and celery salt. And it came with so many garnishes, Mason decided Wolf could skip the breakfast buffet.

“Alex isn’t still a virgin by choice.” Wolf said easily, as if they were talking about the woman’s penchant for smearing her cute-as-a-button nose with zinc oxide instead of the intact state of her cherry. “She was a late bloomer. Then she was nose deep in her studies in college and not payin’ the datin’ scene much mind. By the time she looked up from postgraduate school, she was twenty-seven years old and no man wanted to take her on because, like you, they all thought a twenty-seven year old virgin was on the hunt for a white dress and a big, sparkly diamond.”

It took every ounce of self control Mason possessed to keep his jaw from unhinging. “How the fuck ya know all that?”

“She told me.” Wolf pulled a strip of bacon from his drink. That was all it took to awaken Meat from his dead sleep. With a grunt, the house walrus jumped into a seated position, deep brown eyes laser-focused on the salted pork.

“Why’d she go and do that?” he managed to grit from between his teeth. His jaw had no hope of unhinging now. The muscles had locked down tight. In fact, everything inside him had locked down. Well, except for his blood pressure. That had skyrocketed. He could feel the feverish current running beneath his skin. “She proposition you too?”

He shouldn’t care if Alex offered up her virginity to Wolf. After all, Wolf was a good man. The best. The kind that would be gentle and kind and considerate.

And yet… Mason did care.

He cared very much.

“So what if she did?” Wolf eyed him closely.

Mason couldn’t answer. He couldn’t blink. As the moment dragged on, he began to wonder if he could breathe. A weird buzz sounded in his ears, and his vision was white-hot and crackled around the edges.

Eventually Wolf laughed and shook his head. “Relax, asshole. She didn’t proposition me. The woman just isn’t one to keep what’s in her head from spillin’ out of her mouth.”

That was true. Mason had never met someone who could prattle on the way Alex could. When her nose wasn’t buried in a book, she was talking. And given his love for peace and quiet, he found it totally looney-tunes that he never tired of listening to her chatter.

Or maybe he just found her fascinating.

Ya-huh, that was probably it.

Okay, that was definitely it.

Deciding there was no time like the present to changed the damned subject once and for all, he seized on the Bloody Mary lifted to Wolf’s lips. “It’s not even oh-seven-thirty. Kinda early to start drinking.”

Wolf popped an olive into his mouth and grinned around it. “Start? What makes you think I ever stopped? That was some party last night. LT and Olivia sure know how to celebrate.”

Mason thought back on the ripper from the night before when their former commanding officer, Leo “The Lion” Anderson, otherwise known as LT, leg-shackled himself to an ex-CIA officer. Actually, LT and Olivia had gone to a Justice of the Peace weeks before to do the deed, but last night they’d finally bowed to pressure and had a reception.

“You thought about how with Olivia and LT off to Greece, and with Bran in Houston, there’ll be no one around to do the cookin’?” Wolf gave him the once over.

After leaving the CIA, Olivia Mortier found a new passion in baking. She’d traded dropping bombs for whipping up brownies – much to Mason’s delight because, number one, he had himself a pretty large sweet tooth, and number two, he also suffered from Hollow Leg Syndrome. And then there was Brando “Bran” Pallidino. He was the only one of their former SEAL team members/current partners in Deep Six Salvage who could navigate his way around a stove. And since plans to continue the search for the Santa Cristina had been put on hold while LT and Olivia celebrated their honeymoon, Bran had decided to bite the bullet and use the downtime to finally go face the music – “the music” being an introduction to his girlfriend’s four older brothers and oil tycoon of a father.

Mason did not envy poor Bran the experience. But more than that, he didn’t envy the piss poor state of his stomach in the coming week with no one around to whip up something tasty.

“Been trying my best not to think about it,” he admitted testily.

“Guess it’ll be PB and J’s and strawberry Pop-Tarts for us all.” Wolf shrugged.

Pop-Tarts… Mason gritted his jaw. Alex had the metabolism of a racehorse, and the sugary breakfast treats were her standard go-to. Forevermore, mere mention of them would remind him of her.

He glanced over his shoulder. But his view of her was blocked by the wide shoulders of Spiro “Romeo” Delgado.

“G’morning, assholes!” Romeo boomed their standard AM greeting before snagging a stool on the other side of Wolf and quickly ordering a coffee from the bartender. “Make it so strong it walks into the cup on its own, eh?”

Like so many from East L.A., Romeo retained a trace of his homeboy accent. And when he got worked up? There was more than just a trace.

Wolf took one look at Romeo’s face and whistled. “Man, you look like warmed-over cowpies.”

Romeo’s grin was downright devilish. “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Wolf nodded in understanding. “Did she do all the things you wanted?”

“And came up with a few others I didn’t even know I liked.” Romeo wiggled his eyebrows. Then he pretended to pout. “Alas, she left me early this morning to catch a flight to Miami. No note. No number. Just a love bite above my left nipple to remember her by.”

Wolf winked. “What happens in Key West stays in Key West, am I right?”

Romeo’s coffee arrived and he lifted his steaming mug in salute before returning Wolf’s wink. “Carpe diem, my friends.”

“Amen to that, brother.” Wolf clinked his Bloody Mary against the mug.

“What are we lifting a glass to?” Alex asked, having walked up behind them.

Mason instantly lost the ability to breathe. It happened when she got within three feet. Up close, he could count the freckles across the bridge of her nose. He could smell her clean, no-nonsense, soap-and-deodorant scent. And for some inexplicable reason, both things paralyzed his lungs and made his blood run hot.

He took a swift sip of his own coffee to disguise his discomfort.

“Celebratin’ life and all that jazz,” Wolf told her.

“Ah,” Alex nodded in understanding. “So just a regular day in Key West.”

A small smile played on her face. The woman had one of those damn Cupie Doll mouths, where her top lip formed a near perfect heart shape. Mason had to look away or risk doing something stupendously dumb. You know, like rubbing his thumb over that lip to see if it was a smooth and cushiony as it looked.

As soon as he turned back to face the liquor bottles lined up behind the bar, however, the short hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He knew the feeling all too well. All too often he’d found himself in the middle of some asshole’s crosshairs.

Forgetting Alex and her proximity to him…

Okay, so not forgetting. There was no way to forget when every cell in his body strained toward her like she was metal and he was a magnet. But at least he had something else to focus on other than repeating the don’t get a boner mantra that was on a loop inside his damn head anytime she got near.

Letting his gaze take a casual journey around the room, he stopped on a man with a black stare who quickly looked away when their eyes met. The dude fixed his attention on the phone in hands, his fingers flying over the screen like he was sending a text or composing an email.

For a few seconds, Mason made no bones about glaring at the guy, his SEAL brain cataloguing the man’s age – twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. His bone structure – angular and pronounced. The clothes he wore – nice without being ostentatious. And his body language…

Jittery. Like a kid caught with his hand in the candy jar.

Mason cocked his head, wondering, waiting, watching to see what his observer would do next. But as time ticked by, he convinced himself the man probably hadn’t really been watching him at all. Had likely been watching Alex because, despite her baggy shorts and t-shirt that read: Well behaved woman don’t make history, she was unmistakably pretty. Like a fairy princess had popped out from under a toadstool and flittered into their world. Like Merida from that Disney movie Brave.

Fuck, maybe I should get my head examined. Seeing threats where none exist.

Not normal… his ex-wife’s voice seemed to drift on the wind, and his heart clenched into a hard fist.

Chapter Two

7:26 a.m….

Alexandra Merriweather had just had an epiphany.

She loved it when that happened.

But before she told the guys about it, first she glanced back and forth between Mason and Wolf. “What were you two talking about earlier?” She was fairly certain she’d caught them glancing her way.

“If it’s about my offer to let Mason smash my front door in,” she continued, “forget about it. Changed my mind. Not wasting my good boob and butt years waiting for some guy” – she hooked a thumb toward Mason who was choking on his coffee – “to pull the stick out of his ass and realize he’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“Smash your front door in?” Wolf’s dark eyes sparkled with humor.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes,” he nodded, biting the inside of his cheek. “Just never heard it referred to quite so…uh…eloquently.”

Mason wheezed and blinked at her with tears in his eyes, so she added for his benefit, “Packed up any non-platonic thoughts I had about you into a box I labeled Do Not Open. Covered that sucker in crime scene tape. Then chucked it into the farthest reaches of my mind.” She stuffed her current read – a fairly dry account of modern marine salvage practices – under her arm so she could dust off her hands. “So there.”

“I-I don’t—” Mason managed, still choking.

She considered letting him drown in his coffee. But after a second or two, her softer sensibilities won out. She whacked him on the back with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary.

“For fuck’s sake,” he coughed, catching her wrist. “Trying to punch a frickin’ hole through my back or what?”

She refrained from saying, “It’d serve you right, you big butthead.” But just barely.

Truth was, she was embarrassed the men of Deep Six Salvage, the group who’d hired her for her expertise at reading old Spanish scripts – and then let her stay on because she was using the hunt for the Santa Cristina as the subject of her doctoral dissertation – knew of her humiliation.

Never mind that they knew because she’d told them.

Why’d I do that again? She snapped imaginary fingers. Oh yeah. Because I thought maybe they’d talk some sense into Mason.

Mason… Yes, this was all his fault.

A pox on his penis, she thought uncharitably. May he grow boils, sprout hair from his ears, and get fat and flabby.

As soon as she finished the curse, she immediately took it back. It would be a crime to wish ill on someone as good-looking at Mason.

Not good-looking in the tall, zero percent body fat, super model sense. But good-looking in the big, burly, looks-like-he-could-chop-down-a-redwood-with-a-hatchet sense. Good-looking in the black-haired, blue-eyed, chip-off-the-old-Roman-God sense.

You know, if you went for that sort of thing.

Which apparently she did.

From the first moment she saw him, she’d wanted him to be the one. She’d wanted to lock him in a room for a week straight, during which time she imagined she’d spend the majority of the hours on her back. Or on her side. Or on her front. And maybe up against a wall.

But it was not to be. He had soundly rejected the offer of her virginity. Harrumph!

“So?” She turned to Wolf expectantly, dragging her wrist from Mason’s grasp, because wowza! The touch of his callused fingers made every single cell in her body focus with a capital F. “What were you two whispering about?”

“Guy stuff,” Wolf said succinctly.

She cocked her head. “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, beer, and testicles?”

Wolf’s grin grew until it split his handsome face. “Pretty much.”

“I do love the smell of testosterone in the morning.” To prove her point, she breathed deep and then immediately wished she hadn’t because… There it was.

Underneath the scent of sea and suntan lotion was that delicious aroma that was all Mason. It was warm and woodsy. Something she immediately recognized anytime he was near, and then couldn’t quite conjure up in her imagination when he wasn’t.

Lust unfolded in her belly like the pages of an old history book. It filled her up, from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes.

Thankfully, she was distracted by Romeo calling out, “Morning, Chrissy! Didn’t think it was possible for you to look hotter than in a skintight wetsuit, but I was wrong. Those shorts, eh?” Romeo made a face and bit his bottom lip. “Damn, woman.”

“Save your perfect smiles for the tourists.” Chrissy motioned with her chin toward two bikinied ladies who were batting their eyes in Romeo’s direction. “It doesn’t work on me because I’m immune.”

“You sure about that?” Romeo ran a seductive finger down Chrissy’s bare bicep when she stopped next to him. Chrissy whipped her arm away, but there was no heat in her voice when she rolled her eyes and grumbled, “You’ve got some balls on you.”

Everyone knew Romeo flirted with anything that walked and sported double-X chromosomes. But while other guys might come off as smarmy and gross, Romeo managed to stay charming.

Alex supposed it was because he genuinely enjoyed women. All shapes and colors and sizes. When it came to flirting and seduction, he believed in equal opportunities for everyone, and never told any lies to get a woman into bed. He was the epitome of sex positivity, and it attracted the ladies like an argument about the rate of economic growth during the Industrial Revolution would attract a gaggle of historians.

Plus, it helps that he looks like Mario Lopez and Jay Hernandez got together and made a baby.

“Just two balls at last count.” His teeth flashing white against his black goatee when he grinned at Chrissy. “But I’d be happy to get your second opinion.”

That got a laugh from Chrissy before she hopped onto the barstool beside him. “From what I’ve seen, you get more beaver than a mountain stream.” Unlike Alex, who tended to have a staccato-quick rhythm to her speech – due in no small part to her need to convey information as quickly as humanly possible – Chrissy talked like an islander. Slowly. Softly. Taking the Key West vibe, that whole We do less by Friday than most people do by six PM thing, to heart. “Which means you don’t need to go hunting mine.”

Alex chuckled. She liked Christina Szareck. The woman was tough and tenacious, not to mention blond and long-legged enough to prove her Polish surname wasn’t for show.

And, yeah, okay. So maybe that makes me a little envious.

As a runt of a redhead, Alex had always dreamed of being tall and tanned. To have men turn and stare when she walked into a room. To go through life without being slathered in copious amounts of sunscreen and hair conditioner.

Of course, it helped the envy that Chrissy didn’t seem to know or care how pretty she was. Chrissy’s hair was almost always in a ponytail and she seemed to sport a perpetual pair of flip-flops when she wasn’t wearing swim fins. In fact, the first time Alex could remember seeing Chrissy wear makeup was at last night’s reception.

Chrissy owned a dive shop on Key West, and made her living taking tourist out to the reefs. Although, recently she’d teamed up with Seaplane Charters and Deep Six Salvage to bring groups of day-trippers out to Wayfarer Island – the small speck of sand Alex and all the rest of the guys lived on thanks to a land lease deal one of LT’s ancestors had made with the US government.

Chrissy got to charge more for the excursions because people could scuba dive on any reef anywhere. But treasure hunt for the world’s most famous ghost galleon? That was an unique experience. The guys who ran Seaplane Charters got some guaranteed butts in the seats for their flights. And Deep Six Salvage got a whole lot of free eyes looking for their prize.

It was a win/win/win for all those involved.

Unfortunately, except for a few trinkets and some old iron ship’s fastenings – neither of which had been conclusively tied to the Santa Cristina – they’d yet to find the grand old ship. There was an expression treasure hunters liked to use. You miss by an inch, you miss by a mile. Meaning, it could be right under your nose, but if you don’t land on top of it, you might never find it.

Alex had been mulling over this depressing thought when she’d had her epiphany.

“Spit it out,” Wolf said now, eyeing her curiously.

“Hmm?” She blinked at him, bending to scratch behind Meat’s floppy ears when he woofed at her.

She liked to think the bulldog loved her because she was such a super-duper, top-notch human being. But she feared the truth was she was usually eating something and she wasn’t adverse to sharing. The way to Meat’s heart was definitely through his stomach.

“The thing spinnin’ around in that pretty head of yours.” Wolf tapped a finger against her temple.

It was hard not to preen under the compliment. Wolf was a gorgeous man, after all. But unlike Mason, his male appeal tended toward the beautiful. Like, if he ever decided treasure hunting wasn’t for him, he could easily land a job modeling expensive cologne – a la David Gandy-style.

It was also hard not to turn to Mason and stick out her tongue. Nanner, nanner! See? He thinks I’m pretty. Maybe I should have propositioned him!

Instead of doing either of those things, however, she told Wolf, “It’s spooky when you do that.”

“Do what?” He quirked a jet-black eyebrow.

“Read people’s minds.”

That elicited a snort and a headshake. “No mind-reading needed. Your body language is screamin’.”

“Yeah,” Chrissy piped up. “I can vouch that Wolf has zero ability to read minds.”

Wolf glared at the blond bombshell. “Damnit, woman! How many times I got to apologize for that? It was an honest mistake.”

“Honest?” Chrissy’s voice lifted an octave and twin splotches of pink ignited in her cheeks. “You thinking dragging a woman into—“

“It was dark,” Wolf interrupted, a muscle going crazy on the side of his square jaw. “I couldn’t see. I was goin’ on feel. And, besides, I didn’t hear you complainin’!”

“Oh-ooh!” Chrissy sputtered. If the look on her face was anything to go by, she was two seconds away from tearing into the soft bits between Wolf’s legs.

“Children, children.” Romeo patted the air. “Either come clean with what happened, or let it go. Because I’m tired of trying to put the pieces together, eh? And if I wanted to break up fights between five year olds, I’d become a kindergarten teacher.” He glanced back and forth between them. “So which is it going to be?”

Alex leaned forward, hoping they would finally reveal what had happened to make them go from kinda, maybe, sorta flirting with each other a couple of months ago to taking advantage of every opportunity they could find to rip strips out of each other’s hides.

Unfortunately, if their thinned lips and locked jaws were anything to go by, neither of them was going to be confessing anytime soon.

With a dramatic sigh, she turned to Romeo. “Guess it’ll remain one of those impenetrable mysteries.”

Deep dimples appeared in Romeo’s cheeks. “In my experience, nothing is impenetrable.”

“Ew!” Chrissy punched Romeo’s shoulder at the same time Alex made gagging noises.

“So?” Wolf prompted Alex. “What’s got you so fidgety?”

“That second helping of biscuits and gravy is partly to blame,” she admitted dolefully, pressing a hand to her chest where the first warning signs of heartburn were threatening.

Or maybe that’s just my body’s reaction to being this close to Mason.

Wolf shook his head. “Between you and Mason, I swear.”

That had her chin jerking back. She glanced at Mason, but his face revealed about as much as a blank page. His no-talking game was on point. But it was nothing compared to his no-expression game. Which was singularly annoying since most times she’d give her left boob to know what he was thinking.

“Between me and Mason what?” she asked Wolf.

“Y’all are the only two people I know who ask what’s for lunch when you’re still eatin’ breakfast. Peas in pod and—“

“Keeping you people on topic is like herding cats,” Mason quickly cut in, his thick Boston accent apparent in every syllable.

His frown was tiny. Fractional even. But Alex saw it, and knew it’s source. It was that whole peas in a pod thing.

Since she’d offered him her V-card, he’d been touchy about any and all conversations involving the two of them.

“Monsieur Monosyllable speaks!” She threw her hands in the air. “Hallelujah!”

Glaring at her – and really, the man could glare with the best of them – he ground from between clenched teeth, “Only when I got something important to say.”

She didn’t have to feign affront. Her affront was grade-A prime. “And what’s that supposed to mean? That I go around spewing verbal diarrhea? I’ll have you know a study showed that a person speaks about 16,000 words a day on average. So I’m not the weird one. You are.”

“Children, children!” Romeo patted the air again, looking exasperated. “What did I just say about breaking up fights between five year olds?”

Mason continued to stare at Alex. She tried to hold his gaze, but it made all her girl parts giggle. So instead, she chose to do the mature thing and stick her tongue out at him.

He looked so startled, she had to laugh. That just made him glower all the harder.

“Ohh-ho!” She pointed at his face. “Look how grumpy you are. Do you need me to get you a lollipop?”

“Does your level of joy go up in direction proportion to my blood pressure?” he growled at her – like, growled at her.

For some inexplicable reason, it made little bubbles of delight trip up her spine.

“No.” She didn’t know what possessed her, but she threw an arm around his massive shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “It’s just that being a smartass is how I hug.”

When she pulled back, she expected to see a you annoy me expression wallpapered over his face. So she was shocked to see something darkly hungry instead.

Was Kate Upton standing behind her? She glanced over her shoulder.

Nope. No Kate Upton.

Turning quickly back to him, she found his hungry look gone and was left wondering if it’d ever been there at all. A second later, she decided that even if it had been there, she’d probably been mistaken about what it meant.

Maybe he was hungry. Or gassy. Or simply bored. Maybe he had a headache. A backache. Or was daydreaming about piles of BLT sandwiches.

It was just a look, she convinced herself. I’m not going to be the girl who reads a million and one emotions and motivations into a look.

And…okay…truth time. She’d lied when she told him she’d packed away all her non-platonic feelings. In fact, right at the moment, she could easily envision him wearing nothing but a sheen of sweat, a smile, and—

“Alex?” When Wolf snapped his fingers in front of her eyes, she realized she’d momentarily forgotten where she was or what she was doing.

“Right.” She had to clear her throat. “As I was having that second helping of biscuits and gravy, it occurred to me we might be thinking about Captain Vargas and the Santa Cristina all wrong.”

Romeo’s brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

“According to the evidence we copied from the archives in Seville, Captain Vargas’s plan was to sail back to Havana. But barring that, he was supposed to take shelter behind Wayfarer Island.”

“Right.” Wolf nodded. “Which is where LT and Olivia found the hilt of Vargas’s cutlass.”

“The hilt that gave me a total history nerd boner,” Alex agreed. “And that’s why we’ve been killing ourselves mapping and excavating the area. All to no avail. So what if that cutlass ended up stuck back there on that little reef because of currents or wave action? What if the captain even threw it back there?”

“Why would he do that?” Romeo asked.

She rolled her eyes. “How would I know? I’ve given up trying to figure out why you men do anything. But stick with me here. All this time, we’ve been assuming Vargas did what he said he was going to do. What if he didn’t?” She looked around at the faces staring back at her. “Or what if he couldn’t?”

The more she laid out the argument, the more she knew she was on to something. There was a feeling in her bones. The same feeling she’d had when she realized the “ringed island” mentioned in the old texts was, in fact, Wayfarer Island and not the Marquesas.

“Imagine you’re Captain Bartolome Vargas,” she continued. “You’ve been tasked by your king, your holy monarch, a man you revere only slightly less than God, to bring back a ship full of riches unlike anything the Old World has seen.”

In her mind an image of the ghost galleon bloomed, and her heart rate kicked up. Of course, with Mason so close, she couldn’t be sure if her excitement was due to the wreck and the mystery of the Santa Cristina or to him.

“Riches that would pay for your country’s military might and continued expansion into the New World. And now imagine you’re caught in a terrible hurricane. You can’t make it back to home port. And for whatever reason, you can’t or you don’t think you have time to sail around to the leeward side of the island. What do you do?”

The three men exchanged a knowing look. But it was Romeo who said, “Scuttle her. Somewhere shallow enough to make salvage possible.”

“Bingo.” Alex’s nod was quick as she pointed a finger at Romeo’s nose. “And where on Wayfarer Island would that be?”

For a couple of seconds, no one said a word, and the air inside the room grew heavy with expectation. Alex could see when the answer dawned in their eyes.

“The reef beyond the lagoon.” Mason’s deep voice made the fine hairs on her arms stand up. His accent made him sound like he should be dressed in muck books and hauling lobster pots from the sea.

“Got it in one.” She winked at him.

“Cut that out,” he grumbled irritably.

“What?” She cocked her head.

“The tongue. The hugs. The winking. Don’t waste your flirting on me.”

It was an arrow straight to the soft, sensitive center of her. But she’d be damned if she let him know it.

“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes. “If your ego gets any bigger, you might need to have it surgically removed.”

For one long minute, they glared at each other. Then, a corner of his lips twitched and he gifted her with a little chuckle.

Just that easily, her rancor leached out of her.

Why did he have to have such a wonderful laugh? All deep and seductive and so rare that when she managed to pull even the tiniest chortle from him, she felt like she’d won the lottery?

Now her girl parts weren’t just giggling, they were howling and singing Let’s Get it On at the tops of their lungs.

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