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The day didn’t look like secondhand revenge. Instead of ominous dark clouds hanging low over a pewter sea, the hot Greek sun reflected glittering sapphires off the Mediterranean. The wake of the motor launch frothed blindingly white as it carried marine archaeologist Dr. Calista West to the megayacht Stormchaser, anchored in open waters south of Crete.
Salt spray cooled her bare arms and legs as the Riva Iseo cut through the dark water. The sleek, twenty-seven-foot Italian work of art, with yards of glossy mahogany, soft leather, and sleek lines, looked like something straight out of a James Bond movie. Expensive and ostentatious. Draco Thanos, the short, wiry forty-something chief engineer of Stormchaser sent to collect Callie from Heraklion, controlled the fast tender with all the deference of a guy handling a sleek sports car.
Callie wasn’t even sure what day it was anymore. A short flight in yet another ostentatious, expensive toy, a private plane from Athens. A twelve-hour flight from Miami, an hour flight from Athens to Crete, and another two hours by luxury tender. She was hardly at her best to deal with Jonah Cutter.
Tuning out Thanos, who’d kept up a steady conversation in broken English for the duration, she spread her feet, bracing her hands on the rail as they hit some chop. Her stomach did a somersault that had nothing to do with the waves. The closer the motor launch carried her to Stormchaser, the harder Callie’s heart pounded.
Anticipation. Fear. Excitement.
Thanos pointed unnecessarily. The massive ship was freaking impossible to miss. “There she is.”
Callie’s fingers tightened on the rail as the ship loomed large against a sparkling backdrop of calm azure water and robin’s-egg-blue sky. Brilliant sun bounced off acres of white paint and gleaming brass. Twenty, thirty mil? Callie guesstimated, put off by the unnecessary flaunting of the Cutters’ wealth.
“Spectacular, isn’t she?” Thanos said proudly as he slowed the tender, angling it sideways to dock aft next to the wide dive platform where a guy sat reading. He got to his feet as they approached, lifting a hand in greeting. Callie waved back.
She used both hands to tuck any loose hair back into the neatly tucked French braid on the back of her head, even though she knew there were none. She was too controlled to have flyaway hair. Her penchants for order and organization were perfect for her chosen career. She’d come by them the hard way. By now the traits were ingrained and comfortable.
Without the fine cooling misted spray of the water, and wind generated by the fast movement over the sea, the sun beat down unrelentingly, drying her damp clothes in minutes.
“She’s something, all right.” Too big, and far too fancy for a dive boat, but wasn’t that the Cutters all over? A family of modern-day treasure hunters, they flaunted their wealth like robber barons or nouveau riche Internet millionaires, with total disregard for anyone daring their ownership of the seas.
For a moment Callie had a niggle of misgiving for what she was about to do. Jonah Cutter hadn’t done anything to her personally; she’d never even met the man. Never met any of the Cutters. But they adversely impacted people she loved.
She was uniquely qualified to balance the scales.
Straightening her shoulders, Callie grabbed her duffel before Thanos could reach for it. Ingrained and as sure as her dark hair and green eyes was her independence. Drawing in a salt-laden deep breath, Callie let it out slowly as the tender bumped the edge of the wide dive platform where the older man, dressed in cargo shorts and a yellow polo shirt, waited to grab the rope.
And the game begins, she thought, braced to disembark, her fingers tightened on the bag’s handles.
Lying was against everything she believed in. Been there, spent a lifetime perfecting the skill. Just because she was good at it didn’t mean she liked doing it. But not only did she have to lie through her teeth for the duration, she had to be convincing as well.
She reminded herself that these people were not her friends. She could not soften and bond with them. Growing to like anyone on board Stormchaser would make what she was going to do harder.
She’d known going in that she’d have to keep to herself as much as possible. She was here to do a job. Making friends would muddy the waters and certainly complicate things. And, she admitted, make her second-guess herself—which she unfortunately usually did. She tended to overanalyze things before jumping in. Indecision was, she knew, her worst characteristic. Still, once she’d made a determination, after weighing it from a hundred different angles, she tended to be like a dog with a bone defending the decision.
Her friends tried to get her to be more spontaneous. But it was hard for her. Every decision had consequences, and those had to be weighed and calculated and looked at from every angle.
What wouldn’t be hard? Pretending. That she was damn good at. If anyone knew how to pretend, it was her. She’d done it from kindergarten on. When she’d learned to lie for her parents. Why they’d forgotten to sign her up for school programs? Why they weren’t there to pick her up after school? Why she rarely had a lunch packed, or money to buy lunch? She’d known instinctively that to say her mama was passed out from Jack Daniel’s would be bad, and mentioning that sometimes her dad didn’t come home would be worse.
These circumstances weren’t the same, but she figured she’d honed her acting chops. She could do this by mentally tarring everyone on board with the sins of the Cutters. Which were too numerous to count.
And by keeping as low a profile as possible.
The gray-haired man held out his hand, helping her from the boat to the diving platform. “Saul Pinter.” His full, mostly gray beard was neatly trimmed. Fit and athletic, he had a nice smile and firm handshake. “Welcome aboard, Dr. West.”
“Thanks, call me Callie.” A cursory glance revealed the dive platform geared with the usual dive equipment and a row of wet suits ready and waiting. At least she’d get to do what she loved. Dive. Discover. “Is Mr. Cutter diving?”
Saul shook his head, jerking his thumb toward the ladder leading to the deck above where they stood. “Jonah will have seen you, and be on his way down. Heads up, he’ll meet you halfway.”
Oh, Callie doubted that very much, but she merely smiled as her heart thumped. Anticipation—no, dread? After all the planning, things were finally happening. “I’m looking forward to seeing our wreck.”
“You haven’t missed anything. We only arrived late last night ourselves,” Saul told her, returning to his chair and the book he’d been reading. “We’re all eager to get started.”
Was that a jibe because she hadn’t joined them two weeks ago? Callie mentally shrugged. Climbing the ladder, she observed in a quick sweep the spotless decks, the gleaming brightwork and shiny brass. Stormchaser was spit-polished. She’d heard Zane Cutter’s ship was a piece of crap, but so far she couldn’t fault his half brother on the maintenance of his ship.
Several men, in the whites of crew members, leaned on the rail on an upper deck watching her curiously. Callie lifted a hand in greeting and kept going. It was a perfect afternoon to dive, the ocean smooth with just a slight chop. A light breeze loosened strands of hair off her face and neck and brought with it the faint smells of fresh paint and yeasty baking bread.
Water slapped the hull, and the sound of voices died as the men disappeared from view. A gull cried as it wheeled in a perfect circle overhead, then dived like a jet, skimming the water after some hapless fish.
There wasn’t anyone else around, and she walked toward a set of sliding doors just as a man stepped out onto the deck ahead of her. His face lit up as he came toward her.
Jonah Cutter. Callie stopped to wait for him, the sun hot on her scalp, the glare off the water bright despite her dark glasses. The opinion formed before the man even opened his mouth. Her assessment was quick and unflattering. But then she was predisposed to disliking him.
Cocky. Self-assured. Entitled.
Exactly what she expected. Her shoulders relaxed. Handing Cutter his ass wasn’t going to be difficult at all.
The Matthew McConaughey look-alike wore blue, flower-printed Hawaiian board shorts, a too-tight red T-shirt stretched over sculpted muscles as if it had been painted on. She’d heard that youngest brother Zane was the vain one, but clearly his half brother gave him a run for his money.
Under six feet tall, sun-bleached shoulder-length hair, movie-star good looks, and boy, didn’t he know it. Cutter was like a peacock spreading his tail as he removed his shades to eye her up and down.
Shorter, less attractive, and more smarmy than she’d been led to believe. And she’d been led to believe the worst.
Maintaining a friendly smile, she extended her hand when he got close enough. He was about the same height, so they were eye-to-lecherous-eye. “I’m Calista West, thanks for including—”
“Now, aren’t you just the prettiest addition to the team, darlin’?” he cut in with a southern drawl and a heated look from unremarkable blue eyes. His lingering handshake was the opposite of firm. Callie disengaged and resisted wiping her hand on her shorts as he looked at her like a dog staring at a juicy bone. Raking his fingers through his sun-bleached brown hair, the better to show off his physique, he gave her a wide, white smile. “Welcome aboard.”
Never had two words sounded so suggestive. Smoothing a hand over her tightly constrained hair, Callie made sure the sun glinted off the plain gold band on her left hand. Although she suspected a guy like this wouldn’t be deterred by a wedding ring, she had other methods to repulse if the ring didn’t work.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it to Cutter Cay.” A calculated delay to avoid the two-week bonding of crew and dive team on the ship’s maiden voyage from the Caribbean, where the Cutters lived, to this remote Grecian location.
“You’re well worth the wait, darlin’.”
“Dr. West, or Callie. Only my husband calls me darling.” Bud nipped. Not that Adam had ever called her anything but Calista, but he’d been über-protective until the day he died. He’d’ve been delighted to be a deterrent. “If you’ll have someone show me where to stash my gear, I’ll chan—”
“Finally. The late Dr. West, I presume?” That didn’t sound very auspicious. The deep, impatient voice came from directly behind her. The man sounded more annoyed than excited. “I see you’ve met Brody.” His voice was dry. “Push off, Turner, I’ll take it from here.”
Mouth unaccountably dry, Callie narrowed her eyes at Brody. “You might’ve mentioned who you were when we were talking.”
He put up both hands playfully. “Babe, you didn’t give me a chance to say anything.” Eyes flickering over her right shoulder and well above her head, he gave a mock salute. “Pushing off now.”
Callie turned. Oh, shit. The real threat. This guy was a whole other ball game. Staring up the length of his tall, lean body, she felt her heartbeat stutter. The brilliant sun darkened, and the sibilant slosh of the wavelets went mute.
And she was a pragmatist. Callie couldn’t imagine what some romantic would make of him.
Tall. Dark. Devastating.
This man, whose footsteps she hadn’t heard, was practically naked. Just a pair of black shorts and miles of tanned, glistening skin pulled taut over rock-hard muscles. Lightly salted dark hair trailed down the steps of his abs to disappear into black shorts. Dragging her rapt gaze back up his chest, she tried to find fault with his physical appearance, but even his disheveled jaw-length dark hair didn’t look unkempt, just sexy and untamed, and insanely touchable. Beard stubble shadowed his face, making him look dangerously like a sexy pirate. Instead of looking annoyingly unshaven, the stubble just made him that much hotter. With his piercing blue eyes and dark hair he looked Black Irish, but there was a subtle hint of the Mediterranean in his voice that was impossible to pinpoint.
He exuded utter self-confidence, and sexual prowess.
She imagined him naked. Tried not to, but then imagined them together in a sweaty, heated embrace. Her cheeks felt hot.
Twisting her wedding ring around her finger grounded her as Callie’s eyes locked with his. The shockingly clear, Caribbean blue made her breath snag in her throat. Pins and needles, hot then cold, pebbled her skin, and her heart pounded so hard she felt dizzy. Her physical reaction, lust, not fear, shocked the hell out of her.
Please God, don’t let this be Jonah Cutter.
He held out a large hand. “Jonah Cutter. Glad you finally made it, Dr. West.” His laid-back, sexy baritone held a hint of impatience, resonating through Callie’s unprepared body like a tuning fork.
Reluctantly she shook his hand. The slide of her fingers against the callused heat of his made her heart do calisthenics. She released as soon as possible, casually tucking her fingertips into the front pocket of her khaki shorts. “Call me Callie.”
He had a swimmer’s body, tall and lean, with broad powerful shoulders and long, strong legs dusted with dark hair. “You must be beat, but I’m eager to fill you in before I let you grab some z’s. Give me an hour, and I’ll let you go get some rest.”
“Actually I’m not that tired, I slept some on the various flights.” She’d been too excited to sleep, and now she was too overstimulated to even think about closing her eyes.
God help her, there was no mistaking this man for a pushover. His eyes said, Been there, done that. The hard way.
Okay then, more of a challenge than she’d bargained for, but God only knew, challenges were a daily occurrence, not grounds to turn tail and run like hell. Despite the strong temptation.
Steeling herself, Callie told herself she was overreacting and she’d better get her shit together before she said or did something out of character and plain stupid. Still, the Riva hadn’t left yet. She could hear the soft purr of the engines over the rapid-fire beating of her heart. Not that she would turn tail and make a run for it, but it was always good to have options.
Bare-chested and in-your-face male, Cutter gave her a narrow-eyed stare when she just stood there as if turned to stone. Or all her mental fuses had blown. “Are you okay?” He of the crystalline blue eyes, easy smile, and Holy-Mother-of-God broad chest sounded a little cranky, and looked—well, he looked good enough to eat. Or if not eat—lick all over.
I’m not impressed. I am not impressed. I am so not impressed.
Steady eye contact, expression bland.
He was just a guy. Just a drop-freaking-dead-gorgeous guy with X-ray eyes who seemed to peer directly into her lying brain. Callie straightened her shoulders and gave him an easy smile. A smile she’d perfected over the years until it felt almost natural. “Just getting my sea legs.”
The hot breeze ruffled his shoulder-length, almost black hair around his head and lashed dark strands across his throat. He shoved his fingers through it, pushing it back absently; it fell in shaggy perfection around his face. The beautiful hair in no way softened his features.
“Won’t take long.” He flicked a glance over her head at the other man. “You’re still here.” Brody walked away backward, grinning.
Cutter shook his head as he returned his attention to her. “I’ll take you down to your cabin to get your gear stashed, then you can play catch-up and meet the others. Hungry?”
Hungry enough to lick the salt off his hot, satiny skin. She shook her head. “They fed me on the plane.” She drew in a breath, smelled clean male sweat, and met his gaze while her heart did calisthenics. “Give me directions, I’ll find my way.” She didn’t want to be in close confines with him. He exuded sex appeal, the dangerous kind of bad-boy sex appeal that most women found irresistible. She’d get over the immediate rush of physical attraction and regain her equilibrium in a minute. But she needed that minute to kick her own ass.
“Is that it?” He indicated the duffel she held in a death grip.
He bent to reach for it. Their faces were mere inches apart. She almost tasted the coffee on his breath. When their fingers brushed, an electrical shock zinged up her arm, resonating like a tuning fork in her chest. Tightening her fingers around the strap she straightened. “I’ve got it.”
He slanted her an amused glance, and extended his arm in invitation. “This way.”
Said the spider to the fly.
* * *
Jonah was paying a boatload of money for Dr. Calista West’s services. He hoped to hell she was worth it. He was chomping at the bit to get started.
Fairly tall and slender, she was attractive rather than pretty. Even though half her face was covered by dark glasses, she had interesting features. Straight nose, fuller lower lip. Girl next door. Fresh, naturally sexy. Married. Still, there was no rule to say he couldn’t look. So he did. His fill.
Khaki shorts and a white shirt flattered her slender body. Good legs, small breasts. A fancy braid constrained her hair on the back of her head. Her slicked-back hair gleamed the glossy brown of bitter chocolate shot with intriguing golden highlights. Clearly the loose strands blowing across her cheek were annoyingly out of place as she firmly tucked them behind her ear. She looked serious as a heart attack, and about as humorless.
As long as she did what she was there to do, Jonah didn’t give a flying fuck about her personality.
She smelled like warm coconut.
Dr. West stared back at him behind the security of her shades as he led her toward the sliders into the salon. The harsh sun struck her face at a slight angle, and he noticed the faint scars on her lightly tanned skin. A quarter-inch white line cutting into her upper lip, another just under her left eyebrow. Both so faint only the change in light made them visible. Jonah wondered if her husband was a beater.
Fuck, he hoped not. Men beating up on woman were dicks. He made a mental note to find out. For her, but also for the safety of the others on board. He couldn’t have some homicidal maniac showing up and possibly endangering them all. Although as far as he knew abusers picked on one target to make their lives a living hell.
“I didn’t expect Stormchaser to be so…”
“Big. Luxurious?” He could tell from the tightening of her rather luscious lips that she didn’t approve of Stormchaser’s amenities. Too bad. Everyone else had gotten used to everything the ship had to offer pretty damn fast.
“Both. I’m used to spending months on end on salvages sleeping three to a cabin like sardines. No privacy, and barely enough space to get away from anyone for five minutes. The space here is worth hiring on for all by itself.”
It had taken seven months of haggling to convince her to join the team.
“Everyone has their own cabin.” Jonah indicated the slider. “She’s designed to give everyone a private luxury space for their downtime. We have a five-star chef to feed us, and a crew large enough to leave us plenty of leisure time.”
“Sounds like a luxury vacation.”
“It has been for a couple of weeks, but everyone is ready to get started.” The maiden voyage had given everyone time to get to know one another, and to iron out any kinks on board. “We’ll work hard, I assure you. This salvage promises to be long-term, and I want everyone to want to stick around.” Would this prove to be as lucrative, as lengthy as the salvage of the Atocha? Jonah suspected he and his divers would be anchored right here for the next ten years and still not uncover all the secrets of what he’d discovered.
Dr. West was married. He wondered what kind of marriage it could be when she was here and the husband was presumably back in Florida. Not his problem. If this turned out the way he expected it to, everyone on board would get ample shore leave, and their families were welcome to come visit if this turned into years not months.
Anticipation thrummed through his body in a pleasant rhythm at odds with the calmness of the glass-smooth Mediterranean surrounding his ship, and the brilliance of the sun beating down on his bare shoulders.
He slid open the door, and she preceded him into the main salon with its wraparound windows and adjacent dining room. She gave a quick glance at the comfortable, crisp, white slip-covered furniture, the accents of chrome and charcoal, and the bold splashes of color provided by oversized paintings on the teak walls as they walked through the room.
“You have my equipment? None of the containers were damaged, were they?”
They’d picked up the crates in Miami on their way. “Everything looked to be in good order.” He indicated the stairs, and she headed toward them. He enjoyed the view of her shapely ass and long, sexy legs. “I gave you a dedicated space on the other side of the galley. Nothing was unpacked per your instructions.”
“Good,” she said over her shoulder. “I’d like to unpack those before I do anything else.”
God. He didn’t remember when last he’d been this excited about anything. But he’d waited this long to get started; a few more hours wouldn’t kill him. “First things first. I’ll show you down to your cabin so you can change.”
She paused on the landing. “Change?” Her lips twitched as she removed her dark glasses, exposing eyes the color of the shallow water surrounding Cutter Cay. A soft, clear green. And another tiny, almost imperceptible scar on her nose, millimeters from her right eye. “Into what? A ballerina?”
Okay, so there was a sense of humor lurking under the serious facade. He didn’t care. But damn it, the scars bothered him. A lot. “Change into your swimsuit. I have your dive gear ready.”
She arched both dark eyebrows “I flew halfway around the world, and only just arrived. Surely a dive can wait until tomorrow?”
Jonah backed up a step because the area was narrow and the scent of her skin was making his mouth water. A wholly inappropriate and completely unexpected reaction to the woman who very possibly held his future in her hands. “You can kick back for thirty minutes before we suit up.”
“It’s not safe to dive when—”
He edged past her to lead the way, expecting her to follow. “It’ll be a quick dive, then I’ll bring you back and you can rest up.” Glancing over his shoulder when she remained rooted to the spot, he used his shoulder to indicate she keep moving. “This way.”
She started down the stairs after him. “We might want to establish some ground rules. You’re paying for my services—”
“Nobody held a gun to your head or forced you to pay four times my customary fee,” she said pleasantly, a thread of fuck you in her tone. “You wanted me, and outbid someone else who also had need of my services. I’m here. I’ll do my job, but I refuse to be pressured into unsafe diving practices. I need time to decompress from traveling halfway around the world. I won’t dive today. End of conversation.”
Jonah knew she’d been offered a job at the same time by Rydell Case, the Cutters’ nemesis. It had given him and his brothers a great deal of satisfaction stealing Dr. West from under Case’s nose. “You’ll understand my eagerness to get you under the water when you see what I have to show you.”
“And I’m eager to see Ji Li,” she assured him. “Tomorrow. There are dozens of things for me to do right here on board until then. I like to have my environment in order before I get started.” Her lips curved. “It’s better for me not to drown. The red tape with the Hellenic police would tie you up for weeks.”
He bit back a growl of frustration, hardly amused that she’d balked at his first order of business, but gave ground because she was right.
“Fair enough.” But it ticked him off that she was being stubborn when he’d been counting the seconds waiting for her arrival. Okay, she was right, damn it, diving jet-lagged and as tired as she must be would be dangerous. Still—
Jonah took her downstairs and shoved open the door to the owner’s cabin. “Here you go. I’ll wait and take you up to meet the others. Unless you’d like a couple of hours…?”
She stepped inside. “I won’t be long … Whose cabin is this? Yours?”
Jonah had no idea how she knew that. The luxuriously appointed room was empty of personal effects. He’d cleared out his crap and given her the slightly bigger room.
“Y-yours.” Jesus, he hadn’t noticed up on deck, but in the lights in the corridor he saw the gleam of the thin white scar that seemed to run from beneath the short sleeve of her shirt down the length of her left arm. What the fuck had the sick son of a bitch done to her? Sliced her up? Jonah felt a sick rage against a man he didn’t know for a crime he wasn’t sure the guy had committed. All he knew was he didn’t like seeing the scars she wore. Didn’t like them a fucking great deal.
“Thanks, but I prefer a smaller space.”
Jonah dragged his gaze away from her arm. No use arguing. She was making it clear that she was a by-the-book, no-detours kind of woman. “Fine.” He just wanted to get out of there. “You can have the cabin I commandeered. For now go ahead and use this one to wash up.” The slightly smaller cabin was across the corridor. But it was full of his own stuff, stuff he didn’t necessarily want her to see. She was already a pain in the ass; he didn’t want her asking questions. “I’ll wait out here for you.”
She shut the heavy door in his face. Jonah leaned his shoulder against the mahogany paneled wall. There could be a problem: Both of them wanted to be in charge, and that wasn’t going to work.
The door opened two minutes later. “Ready.” She hadn’t changed a thing as far as he could see. But her hairline was damp, and she smelled more strongly of coconut. Probably sunblock. It had never smelled so mouthwatering.
“I understand your rationale for not diving right now, but I can’t wait to share what I discovered with you.”
“I look forward to seeing it tomorrow. I presume we’ll gather as a group beforehand for a briefing?”
He doubted she had a less-than-brilliant bone in her body, but damn was she stubborn. “Yeah. I wanted to wait and tell everyone together.” He started walking down the narrow corridor back toward the stairs. “I’ll introduce you to the others, then I’d like to discuss my findings with you in private before I fill them in in the morning.”
“That sounds intriguing.” She waited for him to move so she could follow him down the companionway.
“You have no idea.” Jonah glanced at her over his shoulder. “I’ve waited two weeks to have you in my hot hands. Once I fill you in, you’ll be even more eager than I am to dive and see for yourself.”
This find blew everything else out of the water. Or could, quite literally.
“If you were any more excited your tail would be wagging,” she said drily. “I can certainly look at pictures. Lead on, Macduff.”
Annoyed at her lack of enthusiasm, he paused at the stairwell. “It’s tail-wagging news,” Jonah assured her.
“Right. Tell me about your beautiful new ship.”
Stormchaser was his if he wanted her. At some point this trip he had to decide if he wanted this new life, or if he was ready to go back to his old one in Spain. “Refitted, but they did a good job.”
As a marine architect he would’ve enjoyed designing his own salvage ship, but that would take time—time he didn’t have right now. He’d been fooling with design ideas for his own vessel for years. “The hold was specially constructed,” he told her as they headed back upstairs. “Reinforced et cetera for this salvage—”
“You’re anticipating a lot of what? Gold?” Her brow quirked and he wondered at the mostly concealed bite in her tone.
“The Ji Li was one of the thousands of ships traveling the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. She carried silk and spices, of course, but also a boatload of gold, emeralds, and silver coins.”
“I’ve never worked with a Chinese ship, but I did some research on the flight. This’ll be fascinating.”
Ji Li held a king’s ransom in treasure, but she wasn’t what had him so excited. No, it was what lay beneath the Chinese junk that had kept his heart pounding and his mind racing for months. Now he was so close he could taste it. Even one more day waiting for the marine archaeologist to confirm his finding was a pain in the ass.
“You have no idea.”
Copyright © 2017 by Cherry Adair