Authors: Julie Ann Walker
, Mason,” she said again, grimacing at the hitch in her voice. When she felt something hot and wet slip down her cheek, she hastily brushed it away. Unfortunately, another drop replaced the first, and that’s when she realized she was crying.
when she realized just how much she’d come to care for the guys of Deep Six Salvage in the short time she’d been living and working with them. Not only were they men of rare courage and honor, but they were also incredibly…
That was the best way she knew to describe them. They were all
men—Mason’s obvious aversion to her personality aside.
The truth was, they’d shown her more respect and consideration than she’d ever received from anyone. In grade school, she’d been teased unmercifully because she never played Red Rover on the playground, preferring instead to sit quietly under a tree and devour the stories in her history book.
And my Carrot Top hair, Casper the Ghost complexion, and Coke-bottle glasses didn’t help, I’m sure.
In high school, she was the butt of jokes because she was the latest of late bloomers. She didn’t sprout breasts until she was nearly eighteen.
And it’s not like they’re anything to write home about even now.
She thought she would find her tribe in college. But there weren’t many girls—or
, really—who wanted to learn to read centuries’ old scripts. And since she’d never gotten why keg stands were fun, she’d once again found herself the odd man…er…odd
Graduate school had proved to be a bit more accepting, filled with academic types who didn’t begrudge her interests in antiquated documents and historical minutiae. But even so, her professors thought she was nuts to waste her time and the integrity of her doctoral dissertation trying to help a bunch of hairy, tattooed guys find a four-hundred-year-old fortune that had eluded treasure hunters for centuries. Her advisor had gone so far as to say, “If you were twice as smart, you’d still be an idiot for throwing in your lot with these men.”
That hadn’t stopped her from hopping on the first plane headed south. And she’d been surprised by how easy it’d been to convince the guys of Deep Six Salvage not only to let her stay, but to take her word for it when she said she thought they—and everyone who’d come before them—had been looking in the wrong place for the
. They hadn’t called her crazy. They hadn’t batted an eyelash at her youth or inexperience. Instead they’d sat down, listened to her arguments, and trusted her judgment.
And earlier, when they’d matched the hilt LT and Olivia found with Captain Bartolome Vargas’s cutlass? Well, she’d crowed with victory not because she’d been proved
, but because she’d been beyond relieved that she hadn’t steered these good men wrong. Even now, even scared out of her wits, a smile tilted her lips at the memory of LT swinging her around in a circle while Meat barked happily and L’il Bastard
-ed from his favorite spot on the porch railing outside the kitchen window.
It was strange, she realized, but at twenty-seven years old, and with a group of grizzled guys on a remote island, she finally,
felt like she belonged. And it was
her that she was twiddling her thumbs while two of those grizzled guys were risking their necks.
Sitting tight, sitting
had never been something she excelled at.
Maybe I could just sail a little closer. If I don’t use the engines, no one will hear me.
Or…the Gulf Stream current blew by this side of the little island, right? And if she remembered correctly from the current map she’d taken a peek at two weeks ago, it should push her closer to Garden Key without her having to do more than pull anchor. By her recollection, the average speed of the current was four miles per hour. She was two miles away. So, in thirty minutes she could be setting foot on the island.
The idea was beyond tempting. But then what? It’s not like she could help them do…whatever they were doing.
And speaking of…
you guys doing?” she whispered, her fear morphing into impatience as the seconds ticked by. She liked the second emotion far better than the first. “And where the frick is that flare, Mason?”
His name carried on the breeze. Hearing it filled her mind with a dozen familiar and conflicting emotions…
“Don’t you keep a first aid kit?” Maddy demanded, rummaging through the drawers in the cramped little kitchenette with its green Formica countertops, opening whitewashed cupboards, and coming away empty-handed.
“Under the bed,” Rick said.
Their first order of business after they barged into the little cottage was to get on the satellite phone and call in the cavalry. Or at least they’d
to make it their first order of business. They’d been thwarted, since the phone was smashed to bits, all its plastic parts and wires scattered in the corner like so much confetti. Same could be said for the marine radio.
is happenin’,” Maddy had whispered, staring in disbelief at the destruction and finally understanding why the guy with the Southern accent had stayed behind in the cottage for a while after the others had marched her, Rick, and the girls back to the beach.
Which left her the task of taking care of their
order of business: cleaning and dressing Bran’s wound so they could all get back out there and rescue the girls.
Donna, Louisa, Sally Mae…
Their names were on a loop inside Maddy’s head. And every second that ticked by increased her desperation tenfold. Not to mention her self-reproach…
If only she hadn’t used the teens as an excuse to see Bran again, those three sweet girls would be home studying. But just like she’d been doing since she was old enough to climb onto the back of the sofa with a pillowcase tied around her neck cape-style, she’d leaped before she looked, plunging headlong into this let’s-go-camping-on-the-Dry-Tortugas-in-celebration-of-your-scholarships scheme.
Although, in her own defense, even if she
looked first, there’s no way she could have foreseen this…this…whatever the devil-lovin’ hell this was.
“Where exactly?” she demanded again, down on her hands and knees beside Rick’s twin bed with its wooden frame and red, white, and blue quilt. The only things she saw were sand and what, upon second glance, turned out to be a dusty stack of girlie magazines.
“Maddy, just grab that dish towel hanging on the refrigerator and the roll of duct tape on the table,” Bran called to her from his spot by the little window on the side of the cottage.
He and Mason were keeping eyes on the entrance to the fort. Since it was the only way in and out of the structure, Maddy knew there was no way the masked men could spirit the girls onto their dinghy or their fishing boat without Bran and Mason seeing and stopping them. That should have had a calming effect on the boatloads of adrenaline coursing through her veins.
She was wound tighter than a fiddle string.
Taking a quick glance at the dish towel in question, she curled her lip. Like most young twentysomethings, Rick didn’t appear to be too keen on laundry. The towel was stained with something brown and crusty.
“You!” She pushed up on her knees, pointing a finger at Bran and using one of the magazines to swat at the mosquito that landed on her thigh. “Zip it! I don’t want to hear any of that tough-guy, don’t-cry crap from you. And you!” She turned to point at Rick. “
is the first aid kit? There’s nothin’ down here but a layer of sand and…” She held up the magazine so she could read the title in the low glow of the single bulb hanging from the center of the room. “Old copies of
“Th-those aren’t mine,” Rick stuttered, his ears doing their Fourth of July thing again.
Any other time, she would have reveled in teasing him, just as she’d done when she was thirteen and caught her oldest brother with a
centerfold tucked between his mattress and box springs. But right now all she cared about was seeing to Bran’s leaking leg. “First. Aid. Kit.” She enunciated each word with precision.
“F-far back corner by the footboard,” Rick said.
She made a face that said,
Now, was that so hard?
before turning to scrounge under the bed again. “Aha!” she crowed when she found the red and white case just where Rick had said it would be.
When she spun around, it was to discover Bran’s eyes zeroed in on her ass. She might have been embarrassed, or even insulted, but she was fully aware her rear end tended to draw scrutiny. Probably because it was, in the most genial of terms,
She hated it. Especially since she didn’t have the boobs to match.
But what’s a girl goin’ to do?
Get the guy with the gun back on track,
she assured herself as she scrambled to her feet and jogged to the little table in the center of the kitchenette.
“Bran, come sit down.” She sprang the lid on the kit and found the bottle of peroxide inside. “And be quick about it.” Each second the girls were alone out there with those masked men was one second too long.
“Wow. Anyone ever told you that you’re incredibly bossy?” he asked.
“Don’t act like you don’t love it.”
Silence reigned in the room for one second…two…three…
She made a face and glanced up at Bran. “Sorry,” she said as he laid his machine gun and the machine gun he’d taken from the dead man on the table. They made metallic-sounding
against the cracked wooden top. “That’s my standard comeback when my brothers accuse me of bein’ overbearin’. So it just naturally slips out.”
“It’s okay.” He shrugged, one corner of his mouth twitching. “I’ve never had a problem with a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.”
Even as her heart stuttered, she narrowed her eyes. “Is that supposed to be a come-on?”
He lifted his hands and donned an innocent expression. “Wouldn’t think of it.”
“Hmm.” She twisted her lips, not sure if she believed him. And quite honestly, part of her hoped he
coming on to her. She’d thought they were on the same page when it came to their burgeoning relationship. Then he hadn’t answered her email and a million doubts had flooded in.
Twisting off the cap on the bottle of peroxide, she impatiently waited for Bran to take a seat. When he did, she breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t remember him being so
. And when he stood beside her, she was diminutive by comparison.
She didn’t care for the sensation. Not when she needed to feel ten feet tall and capable of leaping buildings in a single bound. Or…at the very least capable of dealing with his wound without fainting dead away or puking all over him.
“This is probably goin’ to burn like the fires of hell,” she warned.
“Lemme have it.”
She upended the bottle, pouring its contents over the gash that cut across the bottom half of his thigh. Had the bullet been lower, or higher, or an inch to the left, for that matter, they would have been in some serious—even more serious?—trouble. When the disinfectant hit the torn skin, it fizzed and bubbled. White foam turned pink as it mixed with his blood, and big blobs of the stuff dropped onto the unpolished wood floor.
Bran didn’t utter a word. He simply sat there all Bran-like. His face showing not a flicker of pain. His lips never grimacing. A hiss never forming in his mouth.
That’s okay. Maddy did all those things for him.
“I’m starting to wonder which of us is wounded,” he said, tongue in cheek.
“Oh, piss on a log.” She harrumphed, digging back into the first aid kit for more supplies. “I, uh…I think you’re goin’ to need stitches,” she said when she pulled out the package of butterfly bandages. “These won’t do the trick.”
Bran looked down at the open gash, assessing it with a critical eye. “We could just wrap some gauze around it,” he said.
Maddy made a face. “I may’ve been born at night, but it wasn’t
“I’m fine,” he assured her.
Why do guys always do that?
She’d had far too much experience with that whole keep-a-stiff-upper-lip nonsense from the men in her family to fall for Bran’s baloney.
“So, you’re tellin’ me if we were sittin’ in an emergency room somewhere, the doctor would just wrap some gauze around this thing”—she motioned to his thigh—“and send you on your merry way?”
“Well, no,” he admitted. “But—”
“No buts.” She searched through the kit for the suturing needle and thread. When she found them, she turned to Rick. “I’m assumin’ you’ve had first aid trainin’.” She held the wicked-looking curved needle aloft. “Mind doin’ the honors?”
Rick squared his shoulders and pushed away from the counter in the little kitchenette to take the needle from her. The instant they were side by side, she could see the look on Rick’s face again. That adoring puppy-dog look.
“I’m sorry about the girls,” he whispered just for her ears. “I should’ve done more to…” He let the sentence dangle, shaking his head sorrowfully.
“You did everything exactly right,” she murmured, squeezing his bicep and thanking her lucky stars that he was proving to have a level head on his shoulders, despite his age. “And when this is all over, I’m buyin’ you a drink. A big one. With multiple shots of tequila and an umbrella.”
His adoring puppy-dog look became decidedly less innocent as he searched her eyes. She shook her head and offered him a smile. One she hoped conveyed,
You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree, sweet pea. I’m currently a
little hung up on the guy bleedin’ all over your floor.
And on that topic, when she glanced at Bran, it was to find his eyes narrowed, a considering expression wallpapered across his face. And…something more. Something that was hot and dark. Something she couldn’t
put her finger on. But just when she thought she might have figured it out, it was gone. And he was back to being cool, calm, and collected.
She was the
of cool, calm, and collected as she watched Rick kneel and place the needle near Bran’s torn flesh. Her insides were mush, and acid burned the back of her throat. Since her patience was located near a spot you might call Rock Bottom, when Rick hesitated, she said, “What’s the problem? Do you need—”
“I-I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I c-can do this.”
He was absolutely
. And swaying like a willow in the wind. She hadn’t had a lot of experience, but she’d say he was about…oh…ten seconds from lights-out.
Oh, for heaven’s sake!
“Stop lookin’ at the wound,” she instructed him sternly. “Look at me and breathe.”
When Rick glanced up at her, the look of self-reproach on his face had her taking pity on him. Poor guy hadn’t asked for any of this. Point of fact, neither had
, but since she’d been through something similar before—and really, she
have a talk with Fate, Destiny, and/or the Big, Bearded Cheese—she was better prepared to deal with the situation.
do it.” Bran grabbed the needle and thread from Rick.
The thought of him suturing his own flesh had Maddy blanching. “Are you kiddin’ me?”
He flashed her the kind of focused, determined look you rarely saw. And when you did, it was usually on the face of a man who didn’t back down no matter what.
needs to fuckin’ do it and get it the fuck over with,” Mason said. “On account of we got three girls who need rescuing. Not to mention, Alex is still out there all by herself.”
“You brought Alex with you?” Maddy asked.
Bran had told her about the indomitable young historian, and she was intrigued by the woman. Of course, right now she could do with
people being in mortal danger.
“She’s anchored way out behind the fort,” Bran told her, “waiting on our signal to sail closer.” It occurred to Maddy that she hadn’t considered how Bran and Mason had arrived on the island. Like the heroes they were, perhaps she’d assumed they flew in with the help of their superpowers. Then all thoughts zipped right out of her head when she saw Bran squeeze the two halves of his wound together. “Now,” he said, “gimme a second while I—”
“Oh, for the love of…” She motioned for Rick to stand up and trade spots. “You can’t stitch yourself.”
Rick brushed by her, murmuring something to himself that sounded like recrimination.
umbrellas,” she smiled at him, giving his arm another friendly squeeze.
Before she could see if that look was back on his face, she dropped to her knees beside Bran’s chair and snatched the needle and synthetic suturing thread from him. Their fingers brushed, just for an instant, but she jumped like a live current zapped her.
It’d been like this from the beginning. Or at least it’d been like this for
. When she looked up to gauge Bran’s response, his face was a mask of ridiculous calmness. Which annoyed her for two reasons. The first was that it made all those doubts she’d been having swell to mammoth proportions. The second was that she judged the expression to be completely misplaced. You know, considering she was seconds away from going at him with a hooked needle, and that she had suddenly morphed into Lady Shimmy McShakyFingers.
“You ever done this before?” He cocked his head. Now was not the time to notice how his dark, wavy hair curled over the tops of his ears.
“Stitched a guy up?” She nodded and smiled. Then she shook her head. “Nope. But my grandma taught me how to sew on a button. Does that count?”
She’d meant it as a joke, but he just crossed his ridiculously muscled arms over his ridiculously wide chest and presented her with his oozing thigh like he had all the faith in the world in her.
Before she allowed herself to contemplate what she was doing—and who she was doing it
—she pushed the needle through the skin on one side of the wound. She gulped and briefly squeezed her eyes shut when she had to muscle it through. Bran’s tan flesh was thick and tough.
“See,” he said, his deep voice absurdly steady, making a mockery of her trembling fingers. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”