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Authors: Julie Ann Walker

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“Can we change the subject?” Bran asked, but really it was more of a demand. “I think I might be breaking out in a rash.”

The look Alex leveled at him said she suspected he had the emotional maturity of a kumquat. “What is it with you men that you can’t talk about your feelings if—” The slam of the screen door stopped Alex mid-sentence.

Good.
Bran wasn’t kidding about that rash. Talk of Maddy—or more precisely, talk of his
feelings
for Maddy and why he could never allow them to blossom and grow—made his skin crawl.

“Where the hell is everyone?” LT’s deep voice blasted from the front of the house.

Since LT’s craggy old seaman of an uncle, John, and the other three members of Deep Six Salvage had sailed their new salvage ship to Key Largo so a renowned mechanic could retrofit some specialty items onto the vessel, Bran assumed by
everyone
LT meant the three of them.

“In here!” he called.

Alex shot him a
to be continued
look
.

He answered her with a false smile that said,
Not on your life
, then sobered when LT and LT’s fiancée, former CIA agent Olivia Mortier, traipsed into the kitchen. They were both in swimsuits, hair drenched, bare feet leaving puddles on the worn wood floorboards. Their expressions fell into a category one might call Quintessential Kid in the Candy Store.

“Would you two stop being so damned happy all the time?” Bran harrumphed, exaggerating a headshake. “It’s sickening.”

Even though Mason muttered an agreement, neither of them meant it. Bran, Mason, and the rest of their teammates were overjoyed that their former CO had met his match and fallen head over heels in L.O.V.E. If any of them deserved happiness, it was LT.

“So we were out spearfishing off the reef,” Olivia said, ignoring them. Bran cocked his head at her twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks. His sixth sense told him something was up.

“When I saw somethin’ that at first just looked like another piece of coral,” LT added, his Louisiana drawl peeking through even though he’d spent most of his formative years in the Keys.

“But it wasn’t coral,” Olivia said, nearly vibrating. Bran imagined he could actually
see
those wavy cartoon lines rippling through the air around her body.

“No sir.” LT shook his head. “It surely wasn’t.”

“When we broke off the crustaceans, you’ll never guess what we found,” Olivia said.

“Not in a million years,” LT added.

“Not in a
bazillion
years!” Olivia crowed.

“For chrissakes! What
was
it?” Alex demanded.

“The hilt of a cutlass!” LT boasted, whipping the artifact from where he’d hidden it behind his back.

For a couple of seconds no one moved, no one dared breathe. Then it was like someone had pressed an ejector button. Bran, Mason, and Alex all scrambled to get a look at the relic balanced in the center of LT’s open palm. The thing was black with corrosion, but its shape and markings were unmistakable.

“Stop shoving, you big lummox!” Alex complained when Mason jostled her. The first two words held just a hint of a lisp, which Bran had noticed grew more prevalent when Alex became agitated.

“Mmmph,” Mason said, bending forward to inspect the hilt.

“Mmmph,” Alex parroted again, rolling her eyes.

“Cut the shit, you two,” LT said. “And while you’re at it, Mason, fire up a kerosene lantern. I want to get some good light on this thing. Alex, you run upstairs and grab the translation of the
Santa Cristina
’s manifest. Let’s see if I’m lucky or just good.”

Despite the excitement of the find, Bran felt his eyes pulled over to the laptop as if by some invisible force.

Maddy Powers…

Well, at least now he had a valid excuse to forgo a sail to the Dry Tortugas.

More like an excuse to be a lousy, no good fraidycat
, an annoying voice whispered. To which he promptly replied
Oh, go suck a bag of dicks, why doncha?

Chapter 2

6:21 p.m.…

“Hi!” Maddy waved to the park ranger waiting to greet her as she trudged up the steep beach of Garden Key, the main land mass among the batch of remote islets in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico that made up Dry Tortugas National Park.
Tortuga
meant “tortoise,” a name given to the islands by Ponce de Leon in the fifteen hundreds. A couple of centuries later, the U.S. tried to make Garden Key useful by building a fort there, but faulty engineering, illness, and the Civil War thwarted that effort, and the structure was abandoned before its completion.

Garden Key was the only place in the Dry Tortugas that was inhabited. If you considered the lonely park ranger who lived in the little cottage on the edge of the beach an “inhabitant.” From what Maddy had read, the park rangers assigned to the island only did three-month stints to ensure the isolation and loneliness didn’t get to them.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Brrr. The things one learned from the movies.

“Hello!” the ranger called, ripping Maddy’s mind away from the scene in
The Shining
. “Welcome to beautiful Garden Key and the Dry Tortugas!”

As Maddy extended her hand to the young park ranger—the operative word here was
young
; if the ranger was much more than twenty years old, she’d eat her snorkel gear for dinner—she let her eyes roam over the facade of the unfinished garrison known as Fort Jefferson. Its red bricks stood out in harsh contrast to the aqua waters surrounding it, and the little lighthouse, painted black and perched atop one corner of the hexagonal curtain wall, brought to mind an old sentry, battered by the wind and rain but still standing tall. She couldn’t wait to give the scholarship girls a grand tour tomorrow after breakfast. She’d studied up and knew all the good stories sure to inspire awe in the imaginations of her charges. But for now…

“I’m Maddy Powers,” she said, giving the ranger’s hand a firm shake before turning to watch the three teenagers trudge toward her, carrying the sleeping bags and pup tents the pilot of the floatplane had passed to them from the aircraft’s small cargo hold. “Looks like we’ll be your company for the night.”

“Glad to have you, ma’am.” The ranger nodded, grinning and flashing a killer set of dimples.

Maddy faked an exaggerated wince. “Oh, please call me Maddy. I’ve been travelin’ with seventeen-year-olds all day, so I already feel older than dirt.”

The young man made a face, and the tips of his ears lit up like the Fourth of July.
Lordy, would you look at that?
“I’m s-sorry,” he stammered. “I meant no disrespect, ma’am, and I can promise you th-that…”

He trailed off when he realized he’d “ma’am-ed” her again, which might have something to do with the stink eye she pinned on him. He suddenly found the sand at his feet immensely interesting and starting digging for some mysterious object with the toe of his hiking boot.

Maddy chuckled and resisted the urge to brush his hair out of his eyes and tell him he should give up trying to grow that scraggly excuse for a beard. Instead she nudged him with her elbow—Maddy met a lot of strangers but her natural amiability meant they rarely stayed that way for long. “No,
I’m
sorry. I have four older brothers, so takin’ folks with dangly bits to task is pretty much all in a day’s work for me. And then when I’m forced to get up before the butt crack of dawn—that’s four a.m., in case you were wonderin’—and pick up teenage girls who conspired to create an evil
morning person
”—she made quote marks with her fingers—“trifecta, I tend be even
more
persnickety.”

Her momma told her she had a gift for gab, and when she paired it with her friendly smile—like she was doing now—she was pretty good at putting folks at ease. Then again, it wasn’t ease she saw on the young ranger’s face when he blinked at her.

Are those some of his IQ points I see floatin’ out of his ears?

Uh-oh. She was pretty sure they were. And the look on the man’s face was one she knew well. It was the same one her big, dumb brothers donned anytime a woman with cleavage and fluffy Texas hair walked by. In a word: love-struck.

Or is it two words when there’s a hyphen in the middle?

Whatever. Either way she was caught off guard and—

“Oooh,” Louisa Sanchez said as she made her way to Maddy and the ranger. “I think Señorita Maddy has an admirer. Would you look at him blush!”

“Louisa,” Maddy scolded. “Mind your manners or our host here, Ranger…” She glanced at the green lettering stitched above the park ranger’s breast pocket. “Your name is Rick? So, like, Ranger Rick? Ha! Where are Scarlett Fox and Boomer Badger?”

“Who?” Ranger Rick blinked and cocked his head, the joke having landed as softly as a cow falling off a catwalk.

“Oh.” Maddy shook her head. “Um…you know, of the children’s magazine? Ranger Rick the raccoon?”

“Who?” Rick asked a second time, the tips of his ears turning red again.

“Um…” She trailed off, now feeling older than dirt
and
foolish. Luckily, the sound of the floatplane’s engines
whirred
to life and saved her from having to finish.

The smell of aviation fuel mixed with the sweeter scents of sunscreen and sun-baked sand, and Maddy waved to the pilot as he carefully backed the aircraft away from the sand and into the water. She shaded her eyes against the setting sun and watched the plane’s pontoons glide over the tops of the gentle waves for a few dozen yards before its wings caught the breeze, lifting the aircraft into a sky that was a happy kaleidoscope of pinks and oranges and reds.

Nothin’ quite like a sunset in the Keys
, she thought, listening to the buzzing rotors compete with the screaming seagulls who swooped and dove and looked for their last meal before calling it a night. She turned to Rick. “So where should we set up camp?”

“You’re the only ones registered to overnight on the island,” he said. “Feel free to take your pick.”

“Ohhhh.” Maddy turned to the teenagers and wiggled her eyebrows. In good weather, Garden Key received frequent visitors via the daily fast ferry or, like Maddy and the girls, via a chartered floatplane. Most people stayed for a few hours, exploring the fort and snorkeling around the old pilings, before returning to Key West. But a few camping licenses were issued for those tourists who wanted to experience a night in the middle of nowhere. Luckily for Maddy and the girls, they seemed to be the only ones brave enough to attempt it this night. “Go find us the primo spot. I’ll be there in a bit and we’ll make some s’mores.”

“Yo, I get it, Miss Maddy.” Donna DeMarco gave her an exaggerated wink. “You want the cute park ranger all to yourself.”

“Please.” Maddy rolled her eyes and shooed the girls up the beach. “I’m old enough to be his…” Not mother. “Older sister,” she finished lamely, and the girls snorted with laughter.

One thing Maddy had learned in her short time with the teens: Nothing got by them. They were all smart as whips.

Well, duh. Scholarship recipients, remember?

Right. When she’d approached her father—the owner of Powers Petroleum, the largest oil company in the United States—about starting a scholarship fund to support Houston-area girls who expressed an interest in pursuing a degree in petroleum engineering or petroleum geology, she hadn’t expected to be inundated with two hundred essays. And even though all of the applicants were deserving in some way, the three she had finally selected had really stood out on paper. When she met them, they stood out in person too.

There was Louisa Sanchez, black-eyed and dark-skinned. She was from what many would call the “bad” part of Maddy’s home city, born to parents who had emigrated from Mexico in the hope their daughter might grab hold of the American Dream with both hands and live it to its fullest.

Sally Mae Winchester was a bird-like blond girl from a tiny, rural community outside the city. Shy and timid, she had a Southern drawl thicker than Maddy’s. But underneath Sally Mae’s demure exterior were a keen mind and a desperate desire to make something of herself.

And then there was Donna DeMarco with her long, dark hair and too-wise-for-her-age eyes. Donna was a recent transplant to Houston and liked to portray herself as a tough Jersey girl. But that was just a ruse to hide her heart of solid gold. Donna’s mother had died when she was a baby, and the only way her father managed to keep food on their table was working as a truck driver. The problem was that he had debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. So Donna’s dream was to one day make enough money to support her “old man,” as she called him, so he wouldn’t have to suffer the agony of keeping his fingers wrapped around a steering wheel.

Maddy smiled at their slender backs as they giggled and teased each other while making their way up the small, narrow beach in search of the perfect campsite. Whether it was fund-raising parties or research grants, Maddy was always proud of the work she did for the charitable side of her father’s business. But she felt a particular fondness for the scholarship fund and these three girls.

She was still smiling when she turned back to discover the young ranger staring at her, once again wearing that look.
The
look. She wondered if she should suggest he make a trip to the nearest optometrist for a vision test.

I mean, come on.
She
didn’t
have cleavage—at least not much to speak of. And she certainly didn’t have big, fluffy Texas hair. In fact, she hardly had
any
hair, thanks to her impetuous nature and her ready-for-anything stylist. She’d told Eduardo she wanted “the Michelle Williams look,” but she was pretty sure he’d saddled her with a Justin Bieber ’do, circa 2009, instead. That belief was only compounded when her brothers started calling her a Belieber.

Not that she was an ogre or anything. Her youngest brother assured her she was still “passable.”
Gee, thanks.
And she’d had her fair share of male admirers who called her “cute.” But the fact remained that she’d never been the kind of gal to inspire insta-love or even insta-lust, so what the heck was wrong with Ranger Rick that he—

Now, hang on a cotton-pickin’ minute here! Don’t sell
yourself short, sister. Did you forget about Bran Pallidino?

And the answer to that question wasn’t just
no
, but H. E. to the double L
hell no
, she hadn’t forgotten him. Forgetting him would be impossible. For one thing, and to quote her dear paternal grandmother, he was
handsome as a hatchet
. With his wavy, mink-colored hair, flashing brown eyes, and pirate smile, Bran Pallidino could beat any of Hollywood’s hunks for the top spot on
People
magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list.

For another thing, he had saved her from the crazed terrorist who had hijacked her father’s yacht.
Yessiree, Bob. So
that
happened.

And lastly, in the months following the hijacking, he’d helped her deal with the onset of delayed shock, nightmares, and what some might diagnose as a mild case of PTSD. Through hundreds of emails and the occasional satellite phone call, he’d been her sounding board, her sympathetic ear, her support and her light when the memories threatened to get too heavy and dark.

Yep. Bran Pallidino was many things. Brave. Funny. Sometimes taciturn. But one thing he was
not
was forgettable.

He is also not here…

She’d tried not to let the emptiness of her email account—the glaring, insolent,
taunting
emptiness of her email account—get to her. She’d tried telling herself he hadn’t responded because he was too busy hunting for the mighty
Santa Cristina.
But now that she was here, so close to Wayfarer Island, so close to
him
, she couldn’t help but wonder if the reason he hadn’t answered her invitation was because she’d read too much into their little online exchanges.

Perhaps what she’d thought was a solid friendship—and what she’d hoped was a burgeoning romantic relationship—was, in fact, neither. Perhaps he’d simply helped her through a difficult time because he was Bran, heroic and gallant and unable to countenance the thought of a damsel in distress.

Ugh.
And here she’d planned this whole trip just to get close to him. Just to see him again.

Oh, sure. She’d tried to convince herself she’d done it because the girls deserved something special to celebrate their scholarships. But even her father had seen through her ploy. When she’d told him about the trip, he’d rubbed his big, bushy Magnum PI mustache and said with a considering frown, “Is this really for the girls? Or are you doin’ this so you have an excuse to go see that treasure-huntin’ man your momma tells me you been emailin’?”

Busted. I should have my philanthropist’s license revoked.

“I know who your father is,” Rick said, seeming to read her thoughts. “I saw him on TV once. Some news special or something. He was talking about how he’d gone from roughneck to oil tycoon by relying on spit, grit, and a get’r’done attitude.” Rick’s lips twitched.

“It was
60 Minutes
.” Maddy shook her head with affection. It’d only taken her father ten minutes to have Morley Safer eating out of the palm of his hand. “And that’s not an act. My daddy still wears Wranglers with Skoal rings worn through the back pockets and his favorite sweat-stained Stetson to work every day. I guess you can take the man out of the oil fields, but you can’t take the oil fields out of the man.”
And I wouldn’t have him any other way.
She didn’t have to say that last part aloud; it was obvious in her tone.

Still shielding her eyes against the last glowing rays of the sun, she watched the floatplane disappear over the horizon. And that’s when she felt it. The remoteness. The…
aloneness.
There was nothing around them but miles of waves that glinted silver in the dying light. No sounds except for the chatter of the girls and the waves lapping against the sand. The isolation was profound. Absolute. Scary and exciting and exhilarating all at once.

BOOK: Hot as Hell (The Deep Six)
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