Authors: Julie Ann Walker
Brando “Bran” Pallidino blinked and reread the email in his inbox for the third time.
This Thursday night I’m chaperoning those three scholarship recipients I told you about on a camping and snorkeling trip to the Dry Tortugas. The park is pretty close to Wayfarer Island, right? Any chance you could sail over? The students would love to hear about your search for the
. And I’d love to see you!
Thanks to the hellacious storm that had blown through the Straits of Florida over the weekend and knocked the satellite dish off the roof of the rickety two-story island house, this was the first time Bran had been able to check his email in nearly five days. Which meant Thursday was today. And Maddy Powers, the woman he’d met three months ago on a mission he should have never been on, the same woman who since then had filled his thoughts during the day and his dreams at night, was a mere fifteen nautical miles away.
The memory of the kiss he’d stolen right before he hopped overboard from her father’s yacht blazed through his brain. Soft lips. Sweet breath. An eager tongue that stroked his until—
Oh, eh! Was that his heart beating a rhythm to do a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade proud? Were those his ears buzzing? Was the idiot in his pants swelling with the memory? To his dismay, the answer was
to all questions.
Funny how he could remain cool as the proverbial cucumber when he was forced to assemble an M4 in the dark under heavy fire. But put him within spitting distance of one miniscule, sassy-mouthed Texas-tornado-of-a-blond and he turned into a total chump.
Madison “Maddy” Powers…
Even her name was enough to have butterflies fluttering drunkenly inside his stomach.
Reaching for the glass of water near his hand, he took two big gulps, hoping to drown the mothersuckers. Then he cocked his head, listening, when the slamming of the screen door was followed by the echo of voices and the
of scrabbling dog claws.
“Everyone has catnip. That certain something that drives them wild. That one specific thing they just can’t get enough of.” Alexandra “Alex” Merriweather’s words drifted into the kitchen from the living room.
“Are you still talking?” Mason McCarthy’s voice sounded like a bass drum following Alex’s squeaky soprano.
Sex and the City
,” Alex admitted, ignoring Mason’s question. “My field of study requires that my nose be buried in books all day long. So when I relax I want mindless, wanton entertainment. I want Sarah Jessica Parker and her gal pals. I want boobs and booze and boinking.”
Despite the drunken—and now sodden—butterflies in his stomach, Bran felt a grin tugging at his lips. Alex had only been part of their crew for ten short weeks, but she’d wiggled her way beneath their skins.
Kinda like a damned chigger.
In no time, they’d grown to love her like a kid sister.
“I have the first season downloaded onto a thumb drive,” she continued. “If Bran didn’t get the satellite dish working, what do you say to watching a
Sex and the City
marathon with me?”
“No,” Mason replied, never one to use ten words when one worked just fine.
“Why not?” There was definite pique in Alex’s tone.
“Because I have robust mental health and I don’t want that to fuckin’ change.” Mason was a Southside Boston boy, so his speech—when he actually spoke—tended to be liberally sprinkled with f-bombs.
“Oh, ha-ha. Very funny,” Alex said just as Mason appeared in the doorway.
Mason wasn’t a tall man, topping out at only 5'11". But what he lacked vertically, he made up for horizontally. With hulking shoulders and massive arms, he looked less like the SEAL he was—they might have officially snapped their final salutes to the Navy, but once a SEAL, always a SEAL—and more like he should be guarding the gates of hell. Slobbering and panting noisily near his feet was Meat, the English bulldog that followed Mason around like a fat, furry, excessively
Bran wasn’t sure why, but he slammed the lid of the laptop and felt color rise in his cheeks. Mason glanced at the computer, then at Bran, lifting a brow. To Bran’s relief, Mason said nothing.
He couldn’t say the same for Alex. Standing next to Mason, she looked diminutive—diminutive and about twelve years old, thanks to her riotous mop of curly red hair and the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The first words out of her mouth were, “I take it you got the satellite dish up and running.” The
words out of her mouth were, “So, are you catching up on your daily dose of porn or what?”
Daily dose of…
“No judgment here.” Alex held up her hands. “Just…” She glanced around the kitchen, wrinkling her nose. “Not where we eat, okay?”
Bran shook his head and gave her a long-suffering look. “It wasn’t porn.”
Alex’s expression telegraphed her disbelief. “What else would make you slam the lid on that thing like you were trying to keep a barrel full of snakes from popping out of the screen?” Her green eyes flashed behind the lenses of her tortoiseshell glasses.
Bran knew that look. He didn’t like it one bit. “Don’t do it,” he warned.
“Do what?” She blinked innocently.
“Whatever it is you’re contemplating that’s likely to piss me off.”
“Oh.” Alex nodded sagely. Then, proving she wasn’t the least bit scared of him—and that she had the reflexes of a ninja—she snatched the laptop from him, dancing out of his reach when he tried to lunge over the kitchen table to retrieve it.
“Ah, ah, ah!” She cackled like she was auditioning for the part of Cruella de Vil while turning her back on him and holding the laptop away.
, Alex!” he cursed. The New Jersey Italian boy came out in him when he got worked up.
“You know the rules.” She tsked. “We have to share.”
Wayfarer Island was a remote spot of land between Cuba and Key West. It was officially owned by the U.S. government, but for the last century or so it had been leased to LT’s family—LT being Bran and Mason’s former commanding officer, the one who had invited them to join him on his hunt for the legendary ghost galleon when they bugged out of the Navy.
To recap, for months now Bran had lived on this island with endless sun, cerulean waters, and a cooling breeze that rustled through the palm trees and a person’s hair. Sounded pretty good, right? In fact, what could be better?
Well, Bran could list a few things that were better.
For starters, how about some damned cellular service?
Unfortunately, that was a pipe dream since they were hell and gone from the nearest cell tower. They had to rely on their marine radios and one lonely satellite phone to communicate with the outside world by any means other than the laptop.
So, how about some damned electricity?
Okay, to be fair they
electricity. But the solar panels attached to the roof of the rambling house supplied just enough juice to keep the refrigerator, the Wi-Fi, and a few other items working. Which was why they all
a laptop, taking turns watching movies or sports, or emailing friends and family back on the mainland.
“I’m dying to see what you were looking at that made you blush to the roots of your hair,” Alex said, plopping into the ladder-back chair across from Bran. She shoved her glasses up on her pert nose and grabbed the silver tin of biscotti next to the salt and pepper shakers. Prying open the lid, she took out a biscuit and bit off half, talking with her mouth full. “If not porn, then what? Ooooh, the mystery! It must be solved!”
A crumb of biscotti flew from her mouth to land on the table. She absently brushed it onto the floor where Meat was waiting to lap it up like it was manna from heaven.
Alex was a historian by education, a translator of centuries-old scripts by training, and a savant when it came to inane trivia, which she tended to offer up without encouragement and much to the annoyance of everyone around her. Three months ago, Bran, LT, Mason, and the other three guys from their SEAL Team—now the owners of the Deep Six Salvage Company—had hired her to translate the historical documents housed in the Spanish Archives that pertained to the hurricane of 1624. They’d hoped she could give them a leg up on their hunt for the
Two weeks later, Alex had surprised them by insisting that the
written about in the old documents was, in fact,
the Marquesas Keys, where treasure hunters—including LT’s father—had always assumed the grand ol’ ship went down, but their own Wayfarer Island. Then she’d surprised them
by requesting to come onboard the venture. Not to share in the treasure once they found it, but because she wanted to base her doctoral dissertation on the search for and excavation of the famed shipwreck.
At the time, Bran had thought it was a win-win situation. For room and board—
which, let’s admit, isn’t much on Wayfarer Island
—they got their very own on-site historian and translator, and
got a story that was sure to get the letters
printed right after her name for the rest of her life. But now, as Alex took another huge bite of biscotti and lifted the lid on the laptop to read the email glowing there, Bran seriously considered changing his opinion on that whole win-win thing.
thing about Alex: She was nosy by nature. She made sure to get her fingers in every pie that was ever cooked up on the island.
“I’m sorry.” He frowned. “Have you never heard of the word
“Thursday is today,” Alex said, ignoring his question and pointing at the laptop’s screen.
“No shit, Sherlock,” was his totally mature reply. He felt color rising in his cheeks again.
“Sooooo…” Alex dragged out the word, wiggling her eyebrows. “You planning to go see her or what?”
Bran opened his mouth to respond with
. His relationship with Maddy was perfect in that it wasn’t really a “relationship” at all. Sure, they exchanged emails every day—sometimes more than a dozen. Sure, they had the occasional three-hour satellite phone conversation. But the nature of the Internet and the distance between them created and maintained an inherent casualness. A natural informality.
Which is exactly how I like it.
He was thwarted from responding, however, when Mason asked, “See who?”
“Madison Powers.” Alex singsonged the name, making Bran grit his teeth. “Apparently, she’s camping on the Dry Tortugas tonight with three scholarship recipients.”
“Mmmph,” Mason muttered, walking over to scoop kibble out of the bag they kept beneath the farmhouse-style sink.
Meat barked in canine fervor, his claws scrabbling on the floor as he raced over to Mason, his nub of a tail swinging back and forth. The only thing Meat loved more than Mason was food. Any food. All food. Even some shit that wasn’t food.
L’il Bastard, the rooster that had stowed away on their sailboat on a return trip from Key West, happily answered from his perch outside on the wraparound porch railing. His crowing carried inside on the sweet, salty breeze blowing through the open windows.
And that was how it’d been from the beginning. Meat barked and L’il Bastard answered with a raucous crow. Or vice versa. Which made for some really early, incredibly
mornings on the island.
“Mmmph.” Alex parroted Mason’s grunt. “You use that so often I wonder if I shouldn’t petition Webster to add it to the dictionary.”
After filling Meat’s bowl, Mason leaned back against the sink. By way of an answer, he crossed his arms.
Alex rolled her eyes and shook her head as if she’d never met a more exasperating man. When Bran said they’d grown to love Alex like a kid sister, he’d forgotten to mention
with the exception of Mason
. Alex and the big guy seemed to have taken an instant dislike of each other. And the only thing Bran could figure was that it was because Mason rarely spoke and Alex rarely shut up. A case of verbal oil meeting nonverbal water.
“So?” Alex asked, turning back to Bran.
“So what?” He scowled at her, picturing all the ways he could strangle her where she sat. Twelve…maybe thirteen. After that, his imagination failed him.
“Are. You. Going. To.
.” He hoped the one word, spoken with finality, would put a period on the end of the conversation.
He should have known better.
her, don’t you?” There was a line between Alex’s eyebrows. “I mean, there was that time one of her emails came in while I was using the laptop. I thought you were going to tear my arms off if I didn’t hand over the machine.”
“That’s not exactly how I remember it happening,” he muttered. Then, because he knew she would continue to press him, he added, “And I
like her. But that doesn’t mean I wanna drag my ass all the way to the Dry Tortugas to entertain a trio of teenagers.”
Alex narrowed her eyes. And there was
look he didn’t like. He firmed his jaw and prepared himself to patiently withstand whatever bit of irritation was about to come out of her mouth. He didn’t have long to wait.
“I call bullshit,” she said. “My woman’s intuition tells me there’s more holding you back.”
Of course there is
. It was the same thing that had held him back since…well…forever. But talk of the asshole who’d supplied Bran’s Y chromosome and left him with a terrible legacy was strictly off-limits.
Bran glanced at Mason. The look they exchanged spoke a thousand words. And since Alex was nothing if not observant, she pursed her lips. “Why do I get the feeling I’m missing something here?”