Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
The sea was home.
Which roof spanned the space over her head at night really didn’t matter.
She and Cory had grown up on the Cornish coast of England with the sea as their backyard. It was there that Cory had cut his teeth surfing, had honed his skill and become a champion.
She’d followed a different fascination.
Their father had been a fisheries biologist, one of England’s most admired scientists. The kind of scientist that mattered. His passion was bivalves, not much money there, but he was convinced they were sentinels of the health of the planet, convinced that studying the life cycle of the shelled creatures would lead to better ocean practices.
He’d introduced her to the world of the sea, a world that had captured her imagination and fed her spirit. She’d spent her childhood pattering about beaches with him, listening to his stories, soaking up every detail he’d shared about the secrets of ocean life. Sometimes she’d get to go out on the research boats. Those were stellar days. He would patiently answer her questions, sometimes stopping and saying, with a twinkle she’d loved, “Now that, Jackie,
Those mysteries had absorbed her, drawn her on and lured her into the life of a scientist. She could still see his smile, even though he’d been gone over a decade. No, not just gone. He’d drowned when his small research boat capsized in a freak storm, died doing what he loved. At quiet times like these, Jackie missed him as if he'd just died.
A sneaker wave almost caught her off guard. The water might not be as cold as it should be, but it was still bracing. With a leap, she skittered back up the beach. As she did, the beacon from the lighthouse caught her eye.
And immediately she was reminded of the night rescue of the whale.
And of Alex Tavonesi.
Like a soft glove slipping across her skin, the memory of Alex’s touch rippled through her.
It’d been over a week, but the feelings he’d evoked hadn’t faded.
She could still feel the touch of his hands on her body. When he’d pulled her over the cliff, he’d held her, just long enough to set her down gently. In that brief moment, she’d felt safe.
But as he’d held her, he’d also set in motion a wave of long-submerged feelings that made her feel vulnerable in the worst way.
How could a few moments in a stranger’s arms open a gap that yawned so wide and called to her with such an insistent voice? And how could being touched by him open a wound she’d fled England to forget?
It’d been three years already. How many more would it take before she’d trust again—
she could trust again?
She shook off the memory and eyed the high cliff bordering the cove.
It’d be an easy climb, lots of toe- and finger-holds. Climbing always helped her conquer her fears, helped her focus—with a wall of rock eight inches from her face and a good drop below, there was no other choice. Every move was deliberate and controlled. Every move was in her own hands.
She walked toward the cliff face.
The comfort of being in control was another reason she liked facts better than instincts. Facts could be logged, analyzed and examined; they followed the rules of logic. Instincts could rise up, unbidden, and had unfathomable rules of their own.
She squinted in the light, the little muscles of her neck contracting as she tried to neatly fit Alex and the feelings he’d roused into some sort of logical pattern. Gage was right: Alex had been strong enough to hold her, to haul her to safety, and he hadn’t known the risk. A normal person couldn’t have done it—he was remarkably strong for a rich boy. He probably didn’t navigate by the rules of logic, at least not any rules she knew.
A rock fell from above her and landed near her feet. She studied the cliff: the rains had soaked into the clay, softening the surface. It wouldn’t be a safe climb. Besides, her arm still hurt worse than she’d let on.
She stared at the patterns in the rock.
She’d have to find another way to sort herself out.
A week later Jackie stood before a roomful of expectant faces, this season’s crop of would-be volunteers. The group would be much smaller before the training sessions ended.
She surveyed them as they sat in folding chairs and chatted nervously. Even after a decade of training volunteers, she still couldn’t predict which the rigorous training and physical challenges would weed out and which would make it through.
She dimmed the lights and flicked on her computer. The projected image of a mother harbor seal and a newly born pup lit the screen, and a chorus of
sounded through the room. She ran through a quick overview of the volunteer positions, explaining the duties of the water rescue team, the shore rescue team and the day and night crews. She flashed through the slides of the satellite centers, Albion Bay to the north and Monterey and Morro Bay to the south. The photos reminded her of the improvements needed at each center, improvements she’d put on the back burner until they had more funds to tackle them.
As she reached to click to the next slide and began to introduce the more graphic work performed in the hospital, the door in the back of the room creaked open.
In the dim light she saw Alex slip in and sit in one of the empty seats in the last row.
Why having him there made her nervous, she couldn’t say. But she knew why it sparked her ire. Michael had asked her to encourage Alex’s interest in the Center if he showed up again, knowing full well that she’d had enough of dabblers and dilettantes. More than enough. They sucked up her time and Gage’s time and tried the patience of even the most seasoned crew supervisors.
Yet in spite of her careful rationalizations, something about him riveted her attention. She’d buried Jackie Brandon,
under thick layers of work and busyness—of accomplishment—for so long that the unbidden tingle of awakening felt more like panic. She tried to ignore the sensuous feeling sneaking through her, but as she wrapped up her lecture, she was aware of his every move.
“These animals are sentinels,” she said, dragging her focus back. “They tell us about the health of the oceans with their bodies and their lives. When they go down, we know there’s a problem in the system—and too often it’s a problem
cause. But we’ll cover that next week.”
She turned off the projector and signaled to Gage to bring up the lights.
“Just make sure you really want to do this,” she said, scanning the group but avoiding Alex. She crossed her arms and widened her stance. “There’s a lot at stake.”
Gage grimaced at her as he joined her at the microphone.
“If you like teamwork,” he said, leaning close to the microphone, “and you want to make a difference, it’s a good gig.”
He paused and smiled at Jackie.
“And we do have fun,” he added. “That’ll be
lecture next week.” Over the laughter he said, “For now, let’s dig into the chow that the Wednesday crew brought. All this work talk makes me hungry.”
As the volunteers filtered toward the refreshments, Jackie wound the projector cord into a neat
and then zipped the expensive machine into its case.
“Wouldn’t hurt if you lightened up a bit,” Gage said as he helped her fold up the projector table. “You make us sound like boot camp.”
“If I let
run the intro, you’d make it sound like a spa for lost souls.”
But she had to smile. He was right. They needed more help, lots more help, and they just might have to smile to get it. When had she stopped smiling? Maybe it was the lack of sleep. For weeks now there had been too many emergencies. She should call in a vet from Davis, take a weekend off.
. Like she’d be able to do that.
“The food’s better at spas,” Alex said as he reached to help Gage fold the table. His arm brushed past Jackie’s, and pinpricks of nerves raced through her.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, moving away. “I haven’t been to a spa in years.”
“That’s easily remedied.”
He’d said it with a breezy, confident tone, the tone that people use when they think they have all the answers and that whatever one needs can be easily summoned. And behind the tone lurked something more dangerous, almost inviting. She was in no mood to be summoned.
“Chow,” Gage said, nodding toward the group clustered around the food table. Alex helped him heft the projector table and lean it against the wall and then he followed Gage to the table.
Jackie nestled the projector in its spot in the equipment closet.
“Brought you a plate,” a voice said from behind her.
She turned to face Bev, the Wednesday crew chief.
“Food. Remember what that is?” Bev’s eyes crinkled with her smile. She tilted her head toward the back of the room. “Join me?”
Jackie took the plate Bev offered and followed her to a table near the door. The aroma of rice and beans and herbs made her stomach growl.
“He’s quite a looker.” Bev chuckled, pointing in Alex’s direction with her fork. “Should be great for morale.”
“Don’t get used to him. I give him ten days.”
“You’re a hard one, Jackie Brandon.”
No titles were necessary between them; Bev was a retired surgeon and they’d worked side by side for three years. More than that, they were friends.
“Your resistance makes me think your night rescue caper shook you in more ways than one.” Bev glinted her challenge at Jackie. “You should
the tales being told in the fish prep room.”
“Not interested,” Jackie said, ignoring the ripple of energy that insisted on rising under her ribs.
Gage bounded over to their table with Alex in his wake.
“Ladies, I have brought you
most delicious indulgence on the planet,” Gage said, placing a plate of cheesecake slices in front of them.
Bev smiled at Gage, then tracked her gaze to Alex. “I like the cake you brought too,” she teased.
“The protocol brush-up session is next week.” Gage grinned. “Jackie’s got a ten-hour slide show and it’s all text.”
hours now, smart-ass, and you’re giving it,” Jackie parried.
Alex laughed as he sat down at the head of the table. Jackie slid her gaze away, but not before seeing the sparkle of amusement lighting his eyes. When she realized she’d absent-mindedly twisted a strand of hair around her fingers, she undid it and helped herself to a slice of cheesecake. She eased a bite onto her fork, studying it carefully and concentrating so she wouldn’t meet his gaze.
But as she savored the silky sweet texture, she looked up. It was a mistake. The man had a gaze that could charm a cobra. The slow smile that curved into his lips and lit those snake-charming eyes made her dart her focus back to her fork.
“I think we need more cheesecake,” Bev said, twinkling a challenging glint at Jackie as she stood.
“A woman after my own heart,” Gage said, following Bev across the room.
“Gage told me about Scrappy,” Alex said as he slipped into the seat vacated by Bev. “I’m sorry. It must’ve been hard for you.”
She shifted a few inches to the side and away from him. Bodies had electromagnetic charges that stretched out about ten feet; she’d written a paper about the effect. Right now his charge was entirely too strong and it was messing with her brain. She slid another inch away.
“Part of the job.” She’d tried for a matter-of-fact tone, but her eyes teared up. She couldn’t believe it. The guy said one nice thing and she went teary-eyed? She glanced down at her lap.
He nudged her. She lifted her head and took the tissue he held.
“Must be the cheesecake,” she said.
“Might be the stress,” he said.
He reached into the pocket of his jeans and handed her another tissue. She felt the heat of his hand as he passed it to her and the light brush of his fingers against hers. She registered everything about him—his scent, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, his laser-like focus. The one currently aimed at her.
And his concern.
She was losing her mind.
“Do you walk around with these sorts of things?” she said, waving the tissues. “I mean as part of some Galahad rescue kit or something?”
“You’re welcome. And no, rescuing creatures in distress is your department.”
He smiled then, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing up once again. She was definitely, definitely losing it.
“Gage told me you went out to the Farallons. I’ve always wanted to go out there.”
“Did he tell you that I upchucked for four straight hours?”
She managed a smile, even though her stomach did a little flip as their eyes met. “That’s why we don’t let him do PR.”
That she’d cried in front of him was bad enough; she could well do without the jitters that being near him sent skittering through her, jitters that in the face of his charm and ease told her that the energy crackling between them was likely more routine for him than it was for her.
“I have hit the mother lode,” Gage said as he dropped into the seat beside Jackie with a plate piled with lasagna, tacos and spaghetti. Nestled next to the lasagna were two pieces of rather lopsided cheesecake. “Want another one?”
Gage looked into her eyes, then flushed and shot a questioning glance to Alex. Gage had never seen her cry. No one at the Center had.
“There’s um...” Gage fidgeted with his plate. “Well, there’s blueberry and chocolate chip. Thought you’d like the chocolate chip.” He reached over and pushed one of the wobbly slices onto her plate.
Bev returned with her own loaded plate, and Jackie was grateful when the attention turned away from her. Alex rose from his seat and held a chair for Bev.
“No,” Gage said. “Do
do that.” He gave Jackie a tentative smile. “We don’t need any raising of the
bar around here.” He plopped the slice of blueberry cheesecake onto Alex’s plate. “You’ll make us manly men look bad.”
Jackie was grateful for Gage’s deflection. Sometimes he did just the right thing.