She fought him off like a feral wildcat, their bodies rising and falling in the swells. Grappling to get a secure grip on the woman’s slippery, flailing limbs, Logan Cutter struggled to restrain her, keep her face out of the water, and not drown himself in the process.
Over the surge of the roiling, moonlit-speckled black water, the warning bells sounded. Three long rings, followed by the ship’s whistle, alerted everyone there was a man overboard.
Woman overboard in this case.
Except there were no women on board Sea Wolf this voyage.
If not for his dog barking, and that fleeting glimpse of the white strobe on the woman’s life vest seen briefly in the vast darkness, he would’ve gone to bed, none the wiser.
Salt water stung the scratches she’d already scored across his throat and face. “Lady, stop fighting me!”
Sirens bleating. The slap of the waves. She could do little more than gurgle now and again as the sea filled her mouth. But she fought him with such intent, he was afraid he would have to knock her out to save her. The other alternative was to swim away until she went under. A little water in her lungs wouldn’t kill her. But it might shock her into awareness. Or not.
The floatation device she wore wasn’t foolproof, as was evidenced by her repeatedly sinking below the surface.
Logan grabbed whatever he could—her hand, this time—hauling up so her head breached the surface chop. She coughed, gagged, fought harder for purchase. She tried to climb his body.
“I’m trying to help—Shit!” Her thrashing leg found his groin. He managed to close his fingers around her upper arm. Now she shrieked bloody murder, grabbing at his hair, his face, his reaching hands. She was as slippery as an eel as she battled to scale to the highest point. His head.
He went under. Came up spluttering, peeling her octopus arms off him, so he could control where they went and how. “I get it.” He managed to grasp both slender wrists in one hand. “You’re terrified. I won’t let you drown, hear me? I got you. Just let me—”
Mindless with fear, she was out of control. Dangerous to them both as, despite—or because of—his hold on her, she planted one foot on his extended leg and started climbing his body again. “—ver hit—wom—my life,” He bit out. “—ut, lady, if—don’t—rescue you,—gonna—ave—slug y—. Your choice.” None of his threat came out in a neat stream, as he, too, was gagging and spitting out water. His words washed out of his mouth the minute he uttered them.
Moonlight shone on the woman’s pale, wet face, glinting in her terrified eyes as she batted at his hands. Logan doubted she even saw him. She was in full-on panic mode. Her instinct for survival primal, she was too afraid to hear his assurances. He grabbed a handful of long hair as she went under again, pulling her head to the surface. He jerked his face out of reach—too late—and was rewarded with her elbow smacking him in the mouth.
Their bodies rose with the next swell—he saw the lights of his ship—then sank into the next dark trough.
It wasn’t uncommon for drowning victims to use their rescuer as a floatation device. “Damn it, we’ll both drown at this rate!” He was already hoarse from the salt water and so much yelling. He could’ve saved his voice. She was too panicked to hear him. “Settle dow—” His nose got in the way of the top of her hard head. “Ow!”
He grabbed and twisted the cord of her life vest in one unyielding fist, holding her at arm’s length and kicking out, dragging her with him. Her head went under again. He tried to hold it up, but getting her to the ship took precedence over worrying about her swallowing a little water. “My ship is two hundred yards away. Stay still and I’ll get you there. Keep fighting me, and I’ll haul your unconscious ass the rest of the way.” At least that was the way he heard it in his head; to her, it was probably disjointed babble.
She sank, and this time when he hauled her head up she wasn’t fighting, but hung limp in his grip. Exposed to the cold water for who knew how long, she was now unconscious, the vest keeping her on her back, head mostly out of the water.
Logan spat out water as a wave slapped him in the face. Where the hell were his men with the dinghy? He struck out for the lights of the Sea Wolf in long, sure strokes. She was damned lucky he was a strong swimmer. Exactly what she needed right now. She could sue him later for manhandling her.
He wasn’t a particularly inquisitive guy, but the woman’s presence begged the question: What the hell was she doing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at midnight a hundred miles from land?
The fishing trawler he’d noticed earlier had disappeared before dark, and that was hours ago. If she’d been out here that long, it was a miracle anyone had found her. If it hadn’t been for Dog, Logan would have finished his nightly exercises and gone to bed, none the wiser.
Finally able to do his job without her fighting him tooth and nail every step of the way, he wrapped an arm across her chest, tightening his grip as they rose and fell with the waves. He fought to keep her head out of water as best he could by grabbing ahold of her long hair, which stuck to her skin like seaweed. Logan tucked her against his hip, waited until a swell lifted them, and scanned the area between himself and the lights of the ship for a sign of the dinghy.
He heard muffled shouts, and the throb of an engine, more lights flashed on from his ship, the searchlight strafing the water a few feet ahead. He and the woman went down into a dark trench. He kicked, swimming one-armed, holding her tightly to his side.
“Who is it?” Galt, one of his divers, yelled, bringing the inflatable dinghy alongside Logan and the woman.
“Not one of us.” Logan treaded water as he maneuvered the dead weight into position for his friend to pull her over the side. “Good?” he asked, as Galt grunted, hauling the body over the lip by her vest and easing it into the bottom of the raft.
“Haul ass. I’ll swim back.”
“Didn’t doubt it.” Galt’s teeth and bald head glinted in the moonlight. He used the motor to power back to the Sea Wolf, leaving Logan to follow.
* * *
“Wow. A mermaid. Is this our lucky day or what?” Daniela Rosado stayed limply silent as she listened to guys’ happy tones. Her chest hurt. Someone had thumped her lungs, and she vaguely remembered spitting up a lot of water. It was a miracle she hadn’t inhaled half the ocean. Her throat and lungs burned. Her body ached, and she was freezing.
Furious and freezing.
“A mermaid with hypothermia,” a deep authoritative voice pointed out, not sounding pleased. “Harris—where are those warm blankets? Dell, bring the first-aid kit, then go find her something dry to wear. The rest of you clear out. Wes, you stay. We have to get her out of these clothes.”
Oh, no you don’t. No one’s stripping me. It took every ounce of reserve she had to remain limp, not stiffening in resistance at their comments. She just needed a few more moments to gather her thoughts.
She was no longer in the water. A plus. Cold and wet, she lay on an equally cold and wet flat surface. Not the hard deck this time, but a bed. Streamers of wet hair covered half her face, water dripping down her throat, to pool in her ears. Her teeth chattered as she shivered.
“Where the hell’s Harris? Good man.” A heated blanket was wrapped around her by large, sure hands. It was then tucked tightly around her body, sealing the icy wet fabric of her clothing against her wet, chilled skin.
Was she on board the Sea Wolf after all? The last few hours were foggy, and her brain felt sluggish and uncooperative. If she was on board, it was more fluke than meticulous planning. The idiots could’ve drowned her.
A pulse throbbed on her forehead. Point of contact where they’d hit her. She’d do a little hitting herself when she caught up with them. But before that, Daniela had to gather her wits and come up with a story to explain how she’d ended up in the water.
As several men in the room made suggestions as to what to do with her, she drifted as if she was still in the current. It was really hard to put together two consecutive thoughts, let alone plan a course of action, and she let herself float.
Why hadn’t they just listened to her? Taken a few extra days to formulate a plan?
Because they were idiots, that’s why.
“Hand me that other blanket.” A deep, take-charge, make-it-happen kind of voice.
“Her clothes are wet, maybe I—”
Whatever the softer toned man had been about to say was cut off as Mr. Take Charge started chafing her body with hard, rough hands. He didn’t seem to care much where he rubbed, but at least she was warming up. Maidenly hysterics weren’t appropriate right now. Getting warm was somewhat of a priority; she’d been in that water a long time. Brain sluggish, responses too slow, didn’t matter. Daniela knew she had to think, and she had to think fast.
She was so angry she was surprised her fury wasn’t turning the water on her skin to steam. The morons. The idiots. The scumbags. They’d thrown her overboard. Hit her, and thrown her overboard.
No warning, no discussion. She was going to kill them.
Now she had to decide—while she still could—what the best course of action was. Open her eyes and say hi? Stay limp and mute as she figured out what to do next? The longer they thought she was out of it, the longer she had to make up a plausible story. And the more time they had to strip her naked.
Limp it was. Unless stripping was imminent.
The man with the rich, deep voice got up from the side of the bed at her hip, leaving a cold spot. “Wes, she’s all yours. Get the lead out, she’s still shivering. Call me when she’s tucked in.”
“Why does Wes get to tuck her in?” another man demanded, amusement lacing his words. He sounded a bit farther away than the others.
“Because our mermaid’s modesty is safest with him. Give a holler when she’s dry.”
Several pairs of footsteps retreated, a door closed.
A firm hand placed on her shoulder gave a little squeeze. “You can open your eyes now.”
Daniela’s sea-salt encrusted lashes fluttered, and she let out the shuddering breath she’d been holding.
The man crouching down beside the bed was in his late thirties, muscular, with a sandy brown buzz cut. Even with a smile, “Wes” didn’t look safe at all. His broad shoulders blocked her view of the room she was in. They were alone.
“Hi, how’re you feeling?” he asked gently, moving a hank of wet hair off her cheek. Cold water ran down her neck.
“Cold.” She shivered. Her teeth clicking together like castanets made it obvious.
“Like some hot tea?” He picked up a steaming mug from the table beside the bunk, in a hand the size of a turkey.
“Please.” She was annoyed at how weak her voice sounded. Weakness was the last damn thing she wanted to show. Ever.
Cupping the back of her head, he tipped the mug to her lips. The tea was sweet and warm, not too hot. Daniela drank greedily, her throat parched from the salt water. Even the act of swallowing was exhausting. “Enough.”
He took the mug from her lips. “Want help getting out of those wet clothes, or would you rather take a hot shower?”
No. But she wanted the heat enough to say, “Shower.” She was as breathless as if she’d been running, instead of just lying there in a damp puddle on the clammy blankets. God, she hated feeble. She didn’t do weak and feeble or wimpy. People took advantage if there was one second when your guard was down. Took advantage of—She cut off the thought mid-whine. Enough!
“I’ll help you.” The giant got to his feet, then leaned over to scoop her up in his arms. Strong. She stiffened. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully. “I won’t drop you. Two steps and we’re in the head—That’s bathroom to you.” He let her slide to her feet, but kept an impersonal arm around her shoulders to steady her as he turned on the shower. “Need help?”
This coming on board the Sea Wolf had been an insane idea when they’d proposed it. She’d argued vehemently that it wouldn’t work. Daniela knew if she was given a couple of days to think it through she could come up with a better plan. Of course the better plan was not to be near her cousins at all. That would’ve been the intelligent plan. But she’d been desperate and out of options.
Now look where she was.
“I can close my eyes and help you with those buttons if you like. Promise not to peek.”
She shook her head.
His eyes crinkled, his smile pretty cute, as he said cheerfully, “If it makes you feel better, I’m gay.”
Daniela held onto the sink to keep her balance. She didn’t trust his smile or care about his sexual orientation. He was a head taller, and at least eighty pounds heavier than she was. She backed up.
“Tell you what,” he said gently. “I’ll leave the door open a crack, and wait right outside in case you need me. Take your time. Get warm.” He gave her a worried look. “Are you sure…?”
“Yes.” Sure that she didn’t want to be naked and vulnerable in such tight quarters. He was between her and the door.
“Okay.” He backed out and pulled the door so just a sliver of the cabin beyond showed.
The tiny bathroom was already filled with steam. It would be ridiculous to stay in here shivering when she didn’t have to. But she’d be quick and keep her eyes trained on the door the whole time. She snapped the door closed, then locked it. Then, still shivering and shuddering, she stripped off her soaking wet shorts, sleep shirt, and panties, dropping everything into the sink.
“Oh, don’t you look attractive?” Her lips twitched. She looked like a drowned rat. A pale-faced, big-eyed, drippy-wet drowned rat.
Rubbing her palm over the foggy mirror, she lifted her bangs to inspect the swollen lump on her forehead. It throbbed in time with her erratic heartbeat. There was a giant bruise as well as an oozing three-inch cut over her left eye. That explained the pain and the headache, but those were the least of her problems.
They’d snuck into the locked cabin and hit her while she was sleeping, the miserable scum-dog cowards. She stepped into the pounding water, careful not to let the hot water beat on her forehead. All she needed was to pass out, necessitating that someone come in and rescue her. Again. She carefully lathered her hair. What the hell had the idiots hit her with? She was fortunate they hadn’t killed her before they’d tossed her into the water.
They were fortunate they hadn’t killed her, Daniela thought grimly as she used grapefruit-scented gel to wash the salt water from her skin and hair.
She had a fairly recent aversion to water, but she’d been on the swim team in high school, and once in the water, even slightly dazed by the blow to the head, she’d let the life vest do its job. Until the realization had struck her that she couldn’t see any lights, and might very well drown out there in the middle of the Pacific with no one being any the wiser.
There was a good reason her side of the family had nothing to do with their side of the family her whole life. Her cousins were not only criminals, they were stupid criminals.
“How’re you doing in there?” Wes yelled over the sound of pounding water.
“Great. Be right out.” Getting out, and feeling considerably more herself, Daniela turned off the water.
“I’m going to hand you some clothes, ready?” Her guard/babysitter said through the door.
“Thanks.” Wrapping the towel tightly around her body, she unlocked the door, wedging her bare toes against the base so that it couldn’t be pushed open more than a few inches. It was false security, as she well knew, because if he wanted to, he could shove the door open any time he wanted. The idea of that big guy in this minute bathroom, with her naked, made Daniela sick to her stomach. Her armpits prickled with nerves, and a sheen of sweat made her skin clammy in the steamy bathroom. Her own reaction pissed her off.
Still, she almost slammed the door those scary few inches. And then what? Stand here naked forever?
The clothing was stuffed through the crack in the door. Bunching the fabric in one hand, she murmured, “Thanks,” then firmly shut and locked the door again, immediately letting out the breath she’d been holding. If she had a prayer of pulling this off, Daniela knew she had to get a grip. Center herself. Remember what was at stake.
She dropped the towel and quickly dressed, men’s boxers still in the store’s plastic bag, socks, jeans, a plain gray T-shirt, and a fleece hoodie sweatshirt. She didn’t care how anything fit, it was clean and dry, and baggy enough to hide her braless state. She unlocked the door, combing her fingers through the wet strands of her dark, shoulder-length hair as she stepped into the dimly-lit cabin. “Thanks, I feel much—” Her heart stumbled, then started beating double time.
Instead of the muscle-bound “I’m gay” Wes, there stood a dark-haired man with the face of a pirate, the shockingly blue eyes of a fallen angel, and the mouth of a sinner.
Where Wes was all bulging muscle, and a dopey grin, this guy was tall, lean, and muscled like a well-honed athlete. This was power and strength on an understated level, all the more frightening because his strength was subtle.
Daniela’s heart started doing calisthenics as every cell in her body went on red alert. She took an instinctive step back, stumbling as her back hit the bathroom doorjamb.
“Whoa,” he said, reaching out to grab her arm. His deep, vaguely familiar voice sent a frisson of alarm up and down Daniela’s spine, and the familiar cold clench in the pit of her stomach made her entire body feel cased in ice. Oh, no no no.
Where was the exit? Behind him. Trapped. The polished wood door was hard against her back. She dug her stockinged toes into the short nap of the carpet.
Her rational mind knew she was overreacting. She wanted to calm down, but her body knew the consequences of letting down her guard. Better safe than sorry.
He held up both hands and backed away. There wasn’t much room in the small cabin for retreat. “Are you hungry? Wes went to find you something to eat.”
“Here. Sit down before you fall down.” He moved out of the way, and indicated one of two bunks. “Wes replaced the wet sheets and added plenty of blankets in case that shower doesn’t do the trick.” His voice was low and calm, but he was still positioned between herself and the only way out.
There was a small window—a square of ink black—in the paneled wall over one of the bunks. She shifted a few feet to lean against the polished teak wall beneath it because her knees felt soft. She was angry at herself for her reaction to this man. He’d given no indication that he’d harm her.
He meant nothing to her, or she to him. No axes to grind, no points to be made. She tried to breathe through her fear. “I’ll stand for a bit.” Shaky and ridiculously weak, she felt her heart thud in a hard, slow, uneven rhythm. All of which annoyed her. She’d grown beyond this knee-jerk reaction to being trapped. She wasn’t trapped. He wasn’t a threat. Breathe. Just breathe through it.
Daniela pushed her wet hair off her face with jittery fingers. Go away. Just get the hell out of here so I can breathe.
There was absolutely no rational reason to believe he’d do her any harm. Daniela wished her body would get the memo. She took a deep, albeit, shuddering breath, hanging on to reason with both hands.
“Sure.” He sat down on the other bunk, arms braced on his thighs, hands clasped loosely between his knees. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt that fit snugly across his broad shoulders and muscled chest. His skin was deeply tanned, his strong forearms covered with crisp dark hair. Even sitting still and seemingly relaxed, he looked virile, predatory, and dangerous as hell.
Daniela could barely inhale as she tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible in her borrowed clothes. Acutely conscious that she wasn’t wearing a bra, she folded her arms over her chest, then thought better of it and dropped her arms to her sides.
“You’re perfectly safe here, I promise. I’m Logan Cutter, and you’re on board my ship Sea Wolf. Who are you, and how did you end up in the water hundreds of miles from anywhere?”
“My name is—” Oh, no. If she gave him her name, one inquisitive click of the mouse on his computer would dredge up everything. She touched the lump on her forehead. “Annie?” Close enough to her pet name Dani not to trip her up.
His forehead creased in a frown. “Don’t you know?”
She shrugged, keeping her expression bland. She eyed the mug of tea on the table between the bunks six feet away, throat so dry she could barely swallow. “It sounds right.”
He reached out, snagged the mug, and rose off the bunk to hand it to her, handle out, then sat down again before she could flinch at his nearness. “How did you come to be in the water, Annie?”
Wrapping both hands around the tepid mug, she gave him a blank look. His frown deepened. “What do you remember?”
“Waking up right there.” She indicated the bunk beside her with her crooked elbow, then sipped the sweet tea.
She mimicked his frown, trying to read what he was thinking from his inscrutable expression, as she whispered, “Nothing.” Churning black water. The sure knowledge that she was going to drown.
He got slowly to his feet. “Take a seat. I want to check that gash on your head.”
If she knew nothing else, she knew she did not want this man to put those well-shaped hands on her. Anywhere. “It’s okay.”
“You might have a concussion, and probably need stitches. Let me take a look.” After a few seconds’ pause, and a nearly imperceptible tightening around the eyes, he said quietly, “Please.”
Boxed in and out of options—for the moment—Daniela walked around the foot of the bed, and sat down on the edge of the mattress. She stiffened, body braced as he sat too close right beside her. The heat of his body was a furnace blast all the way down her left side. The smell of spicy soap on his skin indicated he’d also showered recently.
How in God’s name was she going to explain this situation to him? The answer was, she couldn’t. Eyes downcast, all she saw were his muscled jean-clad legs, and his hair-roughed forearm. All she could think was, danger. In bright red, flashing neon.
“Turn into the light.” His deep voice stroked along her ragged nerve endings like a fur glove.
Eyes closed, Daniela suppressed a shudder, turning her face up toward him. Willing herself not to flinch, she started as he placed the edge of his hand under her chin to turn her head so he could see her injury. Little sparks of electricity zinged between his fingers and her skin. His touch made her skin heat, and was far too intimate.
“Honey, you need to breathe or you’ll pass out. Just relax. I won’t hurt you.” A false assurance she’d heard one too many times.
She breathed in the smell of his clean skin, and a shiver pebbled her skin. “It’s just a bump.”
“The salt water did a good job of disinfecting it, but there’s a cut that may need stitches. I’ll put some antiseptic on it just in case, and a couple of butterfly bandages until we get you to the hospital in Lima and have you checked out.”
Her eyes sprang open in alarm. “No!” God, he was so close, just inches away. Dani had never seen such intensely blue eyes in her life. They did not fill her with confidence. Just the opposite.
“It’ll just sting for a second, I promise—”
“No hospital in Lima. No hospital.” She grabbed at his hand, poised over her face. Wrapping her fingers around his wrist, she held on tightly. She didn’t want to touch him, she really, really didn’t want to touch him. His skin was hot, her fingers unable to circle his wrist. “Please. Don’t make me go to Lima.”
Shit. Why not? “I don’t know.” She let go of him, and instantly felt cold again. “It scares me. Something bad…” Daniela let her voice trail off. The tears flooding her eyes were from exhaustion and frustration, and were real. Possibly the only honest thing she could share with him. He could read into them whatever he liked.
He fingered aside a strand of wet hair where it had fallen over her eye. “Something bad happened to you there?”
“Yes.” She touched the headache pulsing in time with her erratic heartbeat. “No. Maybe. I don’t remember.” The sick feeling in her stomach intensified. This not remembering would only work if Logan Cutter bought into it. But the intelligence in his eyes made mincemeat out of that idea. Not to mention Daniela was pretty sure amnesia didn’t last forever. Still, it would certainly work for tonight. Tomorrow was another day.
He applied antiseptic sharp enough to sting her nose. “How did you manage to fall overboard, Annie?”
A hot, annoying tear rolled down her cheek as she forced herself to meet his incredible, piercing azure eyes. He was far too damn close. The heat of his coffee-scented breath tickled her cheek. “I don’t remember.”
Gentle fingers adhered a couple of butterfly bandages across the cut. It almost didn’t hurt like hell. She gritted her teeth.
“All right. Let’s not worry about it tonight. It’s late, and clearly you’re traumatized as well as exhausted. The cut and bump are taken care of for now. Have a good night’s sleep. Nothing bad is going to happen to you on board the Sea Wolf, I promise.”
Daniela prayed he was right.
Copyright © 2012 by Cherry Adair