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Shot Across the Bow Debuts This Fall

Shot Across the Bow Debuts This Fall

Read on for an *uncorrected* sneak peek!

 

Prologue

July 16th, 1624…

Death is such an indignity.

Bartolome Vargas had always thought so. Thought the howls of pain and the flash of fear in formerly courageous eyes were some of life’s great injustices.

Yet nothing had prepared Spain’s most famous sea captain for the horror of the illness that had fallen over the surviving members of his crew.

Granted, none of them had fared well in the long weeks since the Santa Cristina succumbed to the early season hurricane. The small island upon which they had been marooned afforded them little in the way of sustenance, forcing them to survive solely on the rainwater they collected in the storage barrels washed ashore from the ship during the storm and what fish and crustaceans they could harvest from the sea. But barring injury, infection, or battle with their enemies, they had survived.

’Til that very morn…

The keening cry of the ship’s surgeon—a man who had served under Bartolome for nigh on fifteen years—had wrenched him from a fitful sleep. In the twilight of dawn, he had spied the good doctor squatted at the edge of their squalid, slapdash campsite. The man had shaken with the effort to expel the demon inside him, his face mottled red, his wildly rolling eyes seemingly sunk deep into his skull.

Within five hours, the surgeon had succumbed, his last minutes plagued by convulsive spasms and a thirst no amount of water could quench. And in that short amount of time from dawn until the man’s death, three more of Bartolome’s brave crew had fallen victim to the mysterious ailment that had them bending double to vomit up what little their shrunken stomachs contained, or else forced them to run to the bushes to drop their trousers and evacuate their innards of a pale, milky substance that reminded Bartolome of the rice water he had seen during his voyage through the Spanish East Indies.

Five of his healthiest sailors had gone to the beach to dig a grave for the doctor, but Bartolome feared there would be more than one hole in the sand before the day’s end.

“What evil is this, Capitán?” Rosario, Bartolome’s most trusted second-in-command, came to stand next to him as he surveyed those who were sick and those who eyed askance the sick and kept their distance lest they too fall ill.

“Only the good Madre Maria knows,” he answered, dread twisting in his gut. There was something familiar about this outbreak. It reminded him of—

“’Tis your fault we are dying here and not safe in Havana!” Alvaro yelled from the edge of the clearing where he sat upon his bedroll. The young helmsman had been growing more mutinous by the day. He currently stared daggers at Bartolome.

Had they been shipboard, Bartolome would have long since had the fellow keelhauled for insubordination. But too many of his men had already been lost, and those that were left were suffering. The thought of meting out additional misery—even to one as defiant as Alvaro—did not sit well with Bartolome’s conscience.

“If you had not fired and scuttled that French ketch,” Alvaro continued, “we would all be—”

“Dead!” Bartolome bellowed, feeling his face grow hot with indignation. He might not have the stomach to punish Alvaro for the sharpness of his tongue, but neither would he stand idly by while the youth callously sliced him with it. Alvaro had no idea what it meant to lead. What it meant to be trusted by their holy king to fulfill a sacred duty. “We would all by dead by the hands of our enemies. And instead of the treasure remaining safe in her watery tomb, ’twould be in the hands of the British or the French or those bastardly Dutch!”

“Hold your tongue, Alvaro,” Rosario added. His voice held the ring of authority even if his shrunken body no longer looked commanding. “He is still your capitán. And you swore under oath to follow his lead.”

Bless Rosario, Bartolome thought. The midshipman was the only thing standing between him and an outright insurrection from the remaining members of his crew.

Although, mayhap he was wrong about that. Because Nicolás, a skinny gunner, grumbled to Alvaro, “’Tis not the capitán’s fault, my friend. We are cursed. We have been cursed since the day our good King Philip set us on this course.”

Is that true? Bartolome wondered. Are we cursed?

He had no time to ponder the answer before one of the afflicted, their cooper, lurched over to a water barrel and plunged his face into the tepid liquid surface, sucking in great gulps. The sick man came up with water sluicing down shoulders covered in the ragged remains of his threadbare shirt. His voice was reed-thin when he wailed, “The thirst! It claws at me!”

A second later, the cooper grabbed his stomach and retched onto the sand at his feet. Like the surgeon, the flesh had hollowed over the man’s cheeks and eyes. The skin on the backs of his hands was wrinkled like parchment, making him appear far older than his twenty-seven years.

Rosario crossed himself and whispered a desperate prayer.

In weeks past, Bartolome may have joined the man in a plea to the Almighty. Of late, however, he had begun to lose faith that God cared one whit about their lives.

After watching the cooper crawl to his bedroll and curl into a miserable ball, Bartolome closed his nose to the foul stench of illness and unwashed bodies, and made his way over to the sick man. He was determined to offer any aid, any comfort that he could.

But after kneeling beside the cooper, he knew his ministrations would be for naught. The dark specter of Death was there in the man’s eyes. ’Twould not be long now.

Bartolome had been so certain if they were patient, if they remained stalwart and true to their cause, a Spanish ship would happen upon them. He had been convinced that with a prize as colossal as the one the Santa Cristina had carried in her big belly, his king would have every ship in the Spanish Navy scouring the waters of the Caribbean, looking for her remains.

Yet…the days had stretched into weeks and the weeks had stretched into months. Not once from their various makeshift crow’s nests built around the island had they spied a vessel flying the colors of home. Not once had their searching eyes detected even a glimmer of salvation.

It was as if their island had been enchanted by some terrible spell, visible only to their enemies.

Mayhap Nicolás is right, he thought. Mayhap we are cursed and doomed to die on this spit of mangrove forest and sand.

But if their fate was to be death, he took comfort in knowing the treasure remained hidden in its new home. Remained safe and secure from the light of day and beady eyes of their numerous adversaries.

’Til a true son of Spain comes to claim it…

 

Chapter 1

Present Day

8:45PM…

Tactical awareness…

It meant knowing all the exits in the bar. Having a close approximation of how many people were inside making merry. And recognizing the two guys in the corner drinking whiskey and wearing ten-gallon cowboy hats carried concealed weapons in calf holsters under their Wranglers—Texans, ya gotta love ’em.

For Spiro “Romeo” Delgado, tactical awareness also meant knowing the very instant Mia Ennis walked into the place.

The hairs on his arms stood up. His stomach tightened into a hard ball. And the oxygen in the room was reduced by half—quite a feat considering Schooner Warf Bar was open air along three whole sides.

These physical manifestations caused by her mere presence were nothing new. He’d been experiencing them ever since she’d been hired on to oversee the excavation he and his former SEAL Team members and current Deep Six Salvage partners were doing on the legendary Santa Cristina.

The state of Florida stipulated a site with any sort of historic significance must contract a trained and certified professional to document the salvage process. And since there wasn’t a more historic relic in all of the Caribbean than the grand ghost galleon, enter Mia Ennis, acclaimed marine archeologist.

But back to the fractious arm hair, rebellious stomach, and insufficient O₂ levels…

No two ways about it, they happened because Romeo had a thing for the brainy little strawberry blond.

Which wasn’t surprising given she had an athletic figure, creamy skin that always held a hint of a blush, and the most fascinating amber-colored eyes he’d ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. Lioness eyes was how he thought of them. And like those big cats that roamed the Serengeti, Mia moved with an innate grace and attention to detail that hinted at the kind of lover she would be.

The slow kind. The savoring kind. The thorough kind.

Just like I like.

And while he was no stranger to attracting and being attracted to the opposite sex—hell, that’s how he’d come by his nom de guerre of ‘Romeo’—never in his life had he found himself plagued by incessant thoughts of one woman.

Mia was like a damned earworm that spun endlessly inside his head. Over and over. Around and around. Only instead of catching himself humming, he often caught himself dreaming about kissing her lips.

Those perfect lips that were so small and plush and pink, like a rosebud just waiting to be plucked.

Dreaming about, but never daring to actually do it because, on the one hand, she was way, way too classy and sophisticated for a reformed gangbanger like himself. And on the other hand, she was relationship material.

We’re talking the kind of woman you take home to Mom and Dad. The kind of woman who’s vocabulary doesn’t include the word “fling.” The kind of women who only has romantic entanglements that are burgeoning with potential and meaning.

And he? Well, he was none of that. He’d gotten his reputation as a straight-up skirt-hound because he liked his liaisons quick and dirty, with no holds barred and no expectations. Light, fun, uncomplicated, and…most importantly…short-lived.

He was damned careful to always choose paramours who were after the same, because he already had plenty of things to atone for in life. The last thing he wanted was to add some lovely, sweet woman’s broken heart to that list.

Glancing away from Doc and the black-haired woman sidled up next to him, Romeo watched Mia gracefully weave her way across the little dance floor to find an empty table under a palm tree. Mason and Alex followed close on her heels.

“Hey, man.” He tapped Doc on the shoulder. “The others just showed up. I’m going to join them.”

Doc barely glanced in the direction Romeo pointed before waving a distracted hand and turning his attention back to the dark-eyed Venus who rested her boobs on his arm like she was tired of holding them up on her own.

Doc was on a mission to drown his sorrows in a pitcher of beer and the willing ministrations of any woman who’d have him. Considering the guy stood nearly six and half feet tall, with shoulders about that wide, there were plenty of ladies to choose from. The buxom beauty who’d introduced herself as Candy had simply been the first to respond once Doc deployed his patented Dalton “Doc” Simmons sexual allure arsenal.

“That’s an amazing dress,” Doc drawled to Candy in his low, scratchy voice that made him sound like he smoked a pack a day even though Romeo had never seen him take so much as a puff. “What do you say to me taking it off you later?”

Romeo rolled his eyes, expecting Candy to either giggle and smack Doc on the arm, or get offended and walk off in a huff. He was surprised when, quick as could be, she came back with, “Funny. I was just thinking about how good that shirt looks on you. Not as good as I would look on you, but still.”

Doc tugged on his ear, a sure sign he’d been taken unawares. If he was being honest, Romeo was caught off guard, too. In his experience, women with names like Candy weren’t generally good for witty repartee.

The couple exchanged another volley of terrible pick up lines. Afterward, Doc threw back his head and laughed heartily. Candy’s smile was sly and knowing and Romeo took that as he cue.

Grabbing his glass of Don Julio straight up—because that’s how his abuela had taught him to drink it—he slipped off the barstool and made his way toward his friends. The hot, humid air was ripe with the smell of spilled beer and the slightly fishy aroma wafting in from the nearby marina. A three-man band played sea shanties on the little stage in the corner. And outside, the stars sparkled like cut diamonds across the black underbelly of the night sky.

All around him, people danced drunkenly, conversed loudly, and laughed heartily despite sunburned noses and chapped lips. Island life at its best.

Key West…ain’t she grand?

Never once could Romeo remember having a bad time while visiting. The Conch Republic had a way of forcing a person to kick off their shoes, shove their toes in the sand, and slow way, way down—preferably with a drink in hand.

Speaking of…

He took a sip of his tequila and welcomed the soft bite of the liquor on his tongue all while side-stepping a drunk who tried coaxing a recalcitrant woman out of her seat and onto the dance floor.

If the look on the woman’s face was anything to go by, the last thing she wanted was to cut a rug with a dude who couldn’t talk without slurring his words. But neither did she want to make a scene, so she was trying to politely tell the guy to go row, row, row his boat gently the fuck on out of her line of sight.

The fairer sex always knew when a man was coming at them from the wrong side of the road. And one look at the drunk’s face told Romeo this particular guy wouldn’t know the right side of the road if it jumped up and smacked him across the face.

Not your business, he told himself because he had a bad habit of starting shit with bombed-out dickwads who thought downing a half-dozen shooters gave them a good excuse to act like pigs.

What was that thing Wolf, their resident philosopher, always quoted? Oh, right. “Drunk words are sober thoughts.” Which, to Romeo’s way of thinking, extended to drunk actions. If a guy was a horse’s ass when he was drunk, then he was a horse’s ass when he was sober—although oftentimes he was a little better at hiding it.

The urge to intervene on the woman’s behalf grew stronger, and his steps faltered slightly. But then he realized she had four friends with her—they’d been at the bar ordering drinks while she saved the table—and he resumed his journey toward the table under the palm.

If life had taught him anything, it was that there was nothing more terrifyingly capable than a group of queens out enjoying a ladies’ night.

Between the five of them, they can more than handle Señor Shitfaced, he thought with a smirk.

Mia must’ve felt his approach. She turned to look at him, and the instant those fascinating eyes of hers collided with his, some invisible bastard slugged him in the gut. Like, seriously, he couldn’t breathe and the tequila threatened to return for an encore performance.

He managed what he hoped looked like a friendly smile. And he was able to a hoarse “thanks” when she pulled out a chair in wordless invitation.

“You done playing Doc’s support brah?” Alex quipped after he’d taken a seat.

Alexandra Merriweather was the diminutive historian and expert in procesal—the script used on the old Spanish Colonial documents—who’d been key in helping the Deep Six Salvage crew find the final resting place of the Santa Cristina. She was also a bookworm, a motor-mouth, and a wunderkind when it came to random bits of trivia.

Did you know only female mosquitoes bite? The males eat nectar. Did you know Aristotle had a stutter? Did you know 270 people died in the series Breaking Bad?

All of this he’d learned from Alex at one time or another. And in the months since she’d joined their team, he’d grown to love her like a little sister.

He couldn’t be happier she’d finally convinced Mason to take a second chance on romance. And he also couldn’t be happier she’d provided him with a distraction, because he could smell Mia’s expensive lotion. And if not for the need to respond to Alex’s question, he might not have been able to resist leaning over to take a bite out of the hot little archeologist.

You know, to see if she tastes as good as she smells.

“The key to being a great wingman,” he told Alex with a wink, “is knowing when to fly away.”

Alex snorted. Then her brow wrinkled as she glanced toward the bar. “What’s up with Doc anyway? He’s not himself. He’s been stomping around with a killing look on his face all day, and I’ve never seen him pass up dessert.”

They’d been enjoying dinner at Pepe’s Cafe—a hole-in-the-wall that was as popular with the locals as it was with the tourists because, despite its ramshackle appearance, the food was excellent. But when their waiter came by to ask if they wanted slices of Key lime pie to finish off their meal, Doc had pushed back from the table and declared his intention to head to the bar to, quote, “Find a lovely lady who’ll want to add my banana to her fruit salad.”

Since the disappointed look on Mia’s pretty face had told Romeo she’d been looking forward to something sugary, and since he’d needed a breath of fresh air after having spent the entire meal ignoring the fireworks going off in his groin because his knee had been touching hers under the snug little table, he’d volunteered to head out with Doc while the others indulged their sweet tooth.

Now he told Alex, “Today’s the anniversary of Doc’s wife’s death.”

“Oh.” The historian nodded solemnly, her freckled nose wrinkling. “I didn’t know. No one ever talks about how—”

She was cut off when one of the women at the table behind them said in a strident voice, “Look, pal, she said she doesn’t want to dance. So make like the insect you are and buzz off.”

“Someone should tell that guy that being a dick won’t make what he’s packing in his pants any bigger. It doesn’t work that way.” As usual, Mia’s voice was soft and husky, but irritation flashed across her face as she observed the scene behind them.

Romeo felt his lips curve into a wide grin. The thing about Mia Ennis was that she was incredibly circumspect. Some might even call her closed-mouthed. In fact, for the first few weeks she’d worked with them, he wasn’t sure she’d uttered more than a dozen words.

Which meant discovering her salty wit and dry sense of humor had been more exciting than unearthing long lost treasure.

Or at least he thought it was more exciting. He couldn’t say for sure since they’d yet to locate the Santa Cristina’s mother lode.

After carefully picking over the submerged remains of the vessel, they’d determined her cache of riches was missing. They’d turned their attention to searching Wayfarer Island with metal detectors, but all that little endeavor had proved was that some of the Santa Cristina’s crew had survived the wreck and spent some time marooned on the island. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, they’d used ground penetrating sonar and jackpot!

Well, not jackpot jackpot. They hadn’t found the riches, but they had identified a plot of old, unmarked graves. And in one of those graves they’d uncovered the remains of the Santa Cristina’s famous captain. The metal buttons stamped with the Vargas family crest that they’d found alongside the bleached bones had told them as much. But more important than the bones or the buttons had been the captain’s journal.

Someone had buried it with the man and done their best to preserve it by wrapping it in oil cloth before placing it inside an old lead box. The delicate ledger had contained little more than the ship’s logs…except for the last page. Written not in ink, but in some substance that had faded to a faint pink, were words that had caused everyone’s heart to leap with hope that very afternoon after Alex had translated and read them aloud.

“Tell me again what was written in the journal,” Romeo said to her now. This time he didn’t need a distraction from Mia, he needed a distraction from the nearby drama.

He was this close to jumping into the fray and giving Sir Slurs-A-Lot a shiner. If anyone deserved five in the eye, it was that guy.

Alex cleared her throat and screwed tight her eyes as if she could see the words written on the backs of her lids. In a voice filled with portent, she quoted, “Alas, the mighty ship has gasped her final breath. But despair not. Her enormous life force remains. If you are a true son of Spain, you will know where to find it.”

Opening her eyes, she shuddered and rubbed her arms as if to flatten the goose bumps there. Romeo felt a chill steal up his own spine. It was as if Captain Bartolome Vargas himself whispered across the centuries, telling them they were close.

Below the words in the old journal had been printed a series of careful symbols that Alex had instantly recognized, although she hadn’t been able to decode them.

“It requires King Philip’s encryption device,” she’d told them breathlessly. “I’ve read about the ciphers used between the king and his sea captains, but as far as I know, no samples of the code have ever been found. Until now…” She’d rubbed a reverent, feather-light finger over the delicate page.

“Please tell me the device is housed in a museum somewhere,” LT had said while squatting beside the deep, sandy grave of the once-acclaimed sea captain.

Alex had shaken her head. “I don’t know. I’d need to check the Archives.”

The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain—affectionately known as the Spanish Archives—was the somber repository of all the old documents dating back to the time of the Santa Cristina’s wreck. Any clues to the whereabouts of King Philip’s encryption device would be found there.

“What time does your flight leave in the morning?” Romeo asked Mason now. He had agreed to fly Alex and Mason to Key West in his prized single-engine amphibious plane so they could book a flight to the mainland and then hightail it across the pond. Alex needed to work her magic in The Archives. Romeo had needed to pick up supplies to take back out to Wayfarer Island anyway, and Mia had volunteered to tag along because she’d wanted to file some paperwork regarding their findings with the state. As for Doc? He’d jumped at the chance to spend the night in a place that afforded him diverting amusements.

“We catch a puddle jumper to Miami at oh-eight-hundred,” Mason said in his thick, Boston accent that turned the word jumper into jumpah. “Our connecting flight to Madrid leaves at noon.”

“Perfect.” Romeo nodded. “That high-class lawyer is supposed to land here at oh-eight-thirty, so we can all head to the airport together. We’ll drop you guys off and pick her up without having to make two trips.”

“Fuck The Man,” Mason muttered. Talk of the lawyer had naturally brought to mind the certified letter they’d received direct from Uncle Sam.

After Mel Fisher, the most famous treasure hunter of all time, found and excavated the mighty Atocha, he’d spent years battling lawsuits brought by the state of Florida and the federal government regarding who had the rights to the sunken treasure. Thanks to Mel’s doggedness and determination, the courts had finally sided with him and determined that riches found both inside and outside state waters fell under the Admiralty Law. Which, without going into too much detail, basically meant finders keepers.

However, the federal government officially owned Wayfarer Island. They had simply been leasing it to LT’s family for the last hundred and fifty years—LT, otherwise known as Leo “The Lion” Anderson, was their former lieutenant and the one who’d convinced them to join him in the hunt for the grand galleon after they bugged out of the Navy.

Anyway, as soon as the Deep Six crew moved their search from the waters around the island to the island itself, the government had been quick to point out that the question of whether Admiralty Law still applied was up for debate.

If the Deep Six Salvage crew found the Santa Cristina’s mother lode on land, it was going to be a fight over who could lay claim to the wealth. LT had decided to get out in front of the battle by hiring on an expert on the matter.

According to those in the know around the treasure-hunting world, no one came more highly recommended than one Camilla D’Angelo, Esq.

“Let’s not get our jockeys in a bunch just yet,” Romeo cautioned Mason. “Hopefully you and Alex will find King Philip’s cipher device, and we’ll decode the journal only to discover the crew of the Santa Cristina brought up the treasure simply to dump it in the sea somewhere else. All this posturing by the Feds will have been for nothing then, eh?”

Mason twisted his lips, broadcasting his skepticism.

Romeo couldn’t blame him. From the very beginning, nothing about their undertaking had gone according to plan.

But that’s treasure hunting for you and—

His thoughts were cut off by the slurred voice of the drunk. “—gotta act like a bunch of bitches.”

“Wow.” Alex scowled. “That guy is the human version of period cramps.”

“Yes,” Mia agreed. “Painfully annoying and horribly unwelcome.”

“Okay.” Romeo pushed up from his chair. “I tried to let it go. I really did. But I can’t take it a second longer.” Turning toward the asshole, he couldn’t keep the contemptuous edge from his voice when he said, “Look cabron, the ladies have asked you nicely to fuck off. I, on the other hand, won’t be so amiable.”

“Mind your business,” The drunk rolled his eyes. His ruddy cheeks matched the tip of his nose, letting Romeo know he was no stranger to getting cork high and bottle deep.

“Go on and keep rolling your eyes, you drunk prick. Maybe you’ll find some brain cells back there somewhere.”

That got the drunk’s attention and he turned to give Romeo the once-over.

Romeo didn’t spend ninety minutes each morning running on the beach, swimming in the lagoon, and lifting weights simply because he was health conscious. He also did it so when he ran into A-holes like Señor Shitfaced, he had the mass to back up his mouth.

Of course, when Mason, who was built like a shorter version of John Cena, stood from the table, the drunk proved he was smarter than he looked and quickly stumbled out of the bar and onto the long, wooden dock that ran the length of the marina.

Romeo watched to make sure the bastard had thoroughly adiosed himself before dipping his chin at the table of ladies who thanked him for intervening and asked him to join them.

“Some other time.” He winked, and then added. “Enjoy your night.”

There’d been a time, not so long ago, when he’d have jumped at the chance to while away the hours with a group of beautiful tourists. Recently, however, his whole “sexit and exit” routine had lost its allure.

It’s a phase, he told himself, brought on by the stress of running out of capital.

If he and his partners didn’t find the Santa Cristina’s treasure soon, they were going to have to give up the hunt. Which meant that the life savings each of them had poured into the endeavor would have down the drain with nothing to show for it.

“And on that note…” Alex stood and wrapped a hand around Mason’s bulging bicep. “I think I’d like to skip the after-dinner drink and head back to the hotel. I read somewhere recently that the tongue is the most powerful muscle in the human body.” She pushed her tortoiseshell glasses higher on the bridge of her nose and grinned at Mason. “How’s about you and me go find out whose is the strongest, huh?”

Mason frowned heavily—pretty much his go-to expression—but Romeo could tell the big man was biting the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. Putting a hand at the small of Alex’s back, Mason bid Romeo and Mia a good night, and then quickly ushered his saucy little girlfriend out of the bar.

Oh, sweet Mother Mary, Romeo thought. And now it’s just the two of us.

It was easier to fake nonchalance and comradery toward Mia when they were surrounded by friends and colleagues. But it was almost impossible when he found himself alone with her. When there was nowhere to look but at her tempting mouth and no way to ignore the way her small waist flared dramatically to a pair of hips curved perfectly for the fit of a man’s hand and—

Chronic masturbation…

That was another physical manifestation caused by her mere presence.

Girding himself for the impact of her eyes when he retook his seat, he was relieved when she kept her nose buried in her phone.

Wayfarer Island was smack-dab between Key West and Havana, Cuba. A small circle of sand and mangrove forest that grew out of the sea and boasted few modern conveniences, least of all, cellular service.

Pretty much everyone who lived on the island had given up their phone plans—why pay for something they couldn’t use nine days out of ten? But not Mia. She’d kept hers active, and anytime she found herself in civilization, the damn device buzzed nonstop.

“Your cousin again?” He hitched his chin toward her lighted screen. “More family drama?”

From what little she’d revealed to him—and it had been very little—it sounded like she’d had a tough childhood that had morphed over the years into a dysfunctional family dynamic.

I can definitely relate to that, he thought, taking another quick sip of tequila.

“He’s curious how long we’ll be in Key West,” she said. And then slowly, as if she measured her words, she added, “As for the family drama…always.”

As the band started in on their version of “The Drunken Sailor,” an awkward silence stretched between them. Romeo wasn’t used to being awkward around women. In fact, he’d spent most of his adult life being the opposite of awkward around women. Doc didn’t dub me Rico Suave for nothing. But something about Mia tied his tongue.

Perhaps it was because, never once had a he felt a soul-deep connection to any of the women he’d pursued and/or bedded—and there’d been many—but he felt a connection with Mia.

Not that he thought they were soul mates or anything. He didn’t believe in that shit. But from the beginning, he’d never had to be anyone but himself when he was with her. She made him feel alive and accepted and…worthy. More alive and accepted and worthy than he had in years.

Maybe ever.

And that’s why he was honor-bound to protect her. From everything.

Even himself.

Searching his brain for safe topic, something that wouldn’t make him fantasize about stripping her naked and running his tongue from the point of her piquant little chin down to her dainty, delicate toes—huh, good luck with that—he seized on the first thing that came to mind. “You want something to drink? A gin and tonic?”

Yes, he knew her usual. He also knew she loved avocados, fiddled with the diamond studs in her ears when she was thinking, and forgot to breath anytime she got nervous or scared.

He’d made quite a study of Mia Ennis.

“No, thank you.” She shook her head. “I think I’ll follow Alex’s lead, skip the after-dinner drink, and head back to the hotel. It’s hot tonight, and the air-conditioning is calling my name.”

She pulled out the collar of her soft-looking blouse and blew down the opening to cool herself from the heat. The thought of her warm breath drying the dampness of her skin had a heavy feeling settling directly behind his fly. Just that easily, he was once more thinking of taking off all her clothes and kissing her from top to tail.

Damnit!

After tossing back the last of his tequila, he rose to pull out her chair. “I’ll walk you.”

“It’s only a couple of blocks. I’ll be fine on my own.”

“I’ll walk you,” he said again, his tone brooking no argument.

She grinned softly, but didn’t try to dissuade him a second time. They were outside, the warm sea breeze running gentle fingers through her wavy, shoulder-length hair the next time she spoke. “You up for a couple chapters from In Darkness and Dreams?”

Recently, they’d discovered they shared a mutual love of P.J. Warren’s Night Angels paranormal romance series. Ever since then, she’d been reading aloud to him from the newest novel.

The BUD/S O-Course, one of the training segments required to make it as a Navy SEAL, was a study in physical pain. It was intended to make anyone going through it suffer as much as humanly possible. But it was child’s play compared to sitting beside Mia while she read aloud in that smoky, film-noir voice of hers.

Which was why he was surprised when the words, “Sounds good,” came out of his mouth.

He shouldn’t be surprised, he supposed. Never once had he managed to say no to her. About anything.

Something his recruit division commander had said to him echoed through his head. “When someone keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, they’re no longer mistakes. They’re habits.”

Mia Ennis had become a habit Romeo couldn’t break.

Most troubling of all? He didn’t want to.