Semper Paratus (Always Prepared)
—Motto of The United States Coast Guard
SIX MONTHS CHASTE.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Scott Everly had gone six long months without sex, although in all honesty it felt more like six years.
Unintended celibacy weighed heavily on his mind and body as he paddled his kayak through the mangrove channel, using vigorous physical exercise to sublimate his baser needs. He’d tried it all. Jogging, strength training, boxing, but in spite of his daily workouts, insomnia plagued him.
Digging deep, he pushed himself harder, rowing full-out until his shoulder, back and chest muscles ached with just the right kind of sweetness.
“Better than sex,” he lied to himself. “Who needs sex when you’ve got all this?”
The early Monday-morning sun bathed warm rays, the color of Florida grapefruits, across the deep green, tree-shrouded landscape. It was good to be home again, even if it was only for three weeks. He was on leave, although the joke in the ranks was that a Coastie never went on vacation; they were born ready for action.
While he loved his commission in D.C., he missed Key West and his family something fierce. He was a Conch through and through, but when it came down to it, as long as he was near water, Scott was a happy guy.
As third generation Coast Guard, sea brine flowed through his veins, and he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth to be doing a job he loved.
Scott had come home for his younger sister’s wedding a week from this coming Saturday. How could it be that Megan was old enough to marry? It seemed like just yesterday that he was pulling her pigtails and putting bullfrogs down the back of her shirt.
He breathed in the heated scent of summer—ripe mangos, tangy lime, earthy loam and murky tide pools. The air smelled rich, sticky and uniquely Key West. A fish jumped, tail slapping against the water, before sinking back below the wet depths. Overhead, blue-white clouds bunched in the waning darkness, voluptuous as a plump woman’s bottom. Scott had an urge to reach up and pinch the sky.
Knock it off. He was daydreaming about goosing clouds? How pathetic was that?
“Snap out of it,” he growled under his breath.
It’s been too long, old buddy. Way too long.
He was thirty years old, in the best shape of his life and he hadn’t had sex in six months, one week, three days and twenty-one hours. Not that he was counting or anything.
His last relationship ended because his girlfriend had wanted him to leave the Coast Guard. Too dangerous, Amber had said. He’d already been injured twice. Why push his luck?
He’d flat out told her no. She’d known who and what he was when they’d started dating. If she cared about him, she wouldn’t ask him to change.
She said she couldn’t bear it if he ended up like this father, killed in the line of duty, and she refused to be like his mom. Widowed at forty.
Hell, she might as well have asked him to quit breathing. He’d learned one thing from that relationship. His ideal mate had to accept him just as he was—military career and all. He was done bending himself into a pretzel to please a woman.
Unless of course it was in bed.
Grinning, he stuck his oar into the water, pushed aggressively against the current. A gator slipped from the banks into the channel right behind him, but Scott didn’t pay much attention. He was bent on getting sexual frustration out of his system before meeting an old friend for breakfast. Alligators were a fact of life in Florida and as long as you didn’t do anything stupid, they generally minded their own business.
The longest dry spell he’d had since college. He was a charming guy and he knew it. He’d been graced with his father’s good looks and his mother’s outgoing personality. Usually he had no trouble coaxing a willing lady into his bed, but as much as he wanted sex, short, hot liaisons had oddly lost their appeal.
What he couldn’t figure out was why. Maybe it was because his baby sister was getting married. Megan’s wedding made him realize he wasn’t getting any younger, but then again neither was he ready for commitment.
So what do you want? Sex or a relationship?
That was the quandary and explained his lengthy dry spell. Scott blew out his breath and rounded the bend.
That’s when he saw her.
Where the channel turned into an estuary just before it joined the sea, a lone woman bobbed in a small dinghy.
A precarious spot. Rocky shoals. Swift current. And there were the gators. Not to mention bull sharks.
Instantly, his protective instincts engaged. What was she doing out here alone at this hour of the morning when dew still dampened the air and darkness lingered in the shadow of the mangrove trees?
Was she unaware of the trouble she could get into? Between drug smugglers, human traffickers, deadly wildlife and the tourist trade that attracted scores of inebriated college students, Key West was not a place to be taken casually. As much as he loved the tropical beauty of his hometown, as a Coast Guard officer he knew all the locale’s dirty little secrets.
The woman stood up in the boat, her back to him. The skiff rocked gently.
What was she up to?
She held something in her hands, but he couldn’t make out what it was. Damn, he wished he had binoculars.
From what he could see of her she was thin as a sapling. Scott preferred women with a little meat on their bones. He liked rounded bellies, curvaceous butts and lush thighs. This woman could do with a double helping of his homemade chicken and dumplings. A thick slab of his famous Key lime cheesecake wouldn’t do her any harm, either.
Still there was something about her that instantly attracted his attention and it went much deeper than looks. Yes, she was pretty, but in a careless way, as if she couldn’t be bothered with anything as shallow as tending to her looks. She possessed both intense concentration and a quiet serenity that called to him.
She lowered whatever she held in her hands into the water via a black cable.
Scowling, Scott changed directions and paddled toward her, territorial impulses driving him. Who was she and what was she doing here?
He drew closer, but she never glanced up from her task. His kayak glided over the water, swiftly, silently. If she were up to something illegal, wouldn’t she be more furtive? Or maybe she was just that arrogant.
She bent at the waist, her white cotton T-shirt riding up to expose her smooth, slender back and showing off her heart-shaped butt. From the waistband of her low-rise blue jean shorts, a red thong bikini peeked out.
Scott stared as if he’d never seen a woman in a thong, angling his head for a better look and feeling his pulse quicken. What was that all about? Normally, he was a pretty even-tempo guy and this woman was not his usual type.
And yet…and yet he could not stop staring at her.
A pair of mile-long legs tapering to skinny, but shapely calves had his breath coming out in hot, tight rasps.
Exertion. It was nothing more than exertion.
Yeah? You exercise every morning and you’ve never gotten short of breath like this before.
Curiosity tickled the back of his neck. Interest tingled his hands. Startling desire stirred beneath the zipper of his khaki shorts.
Leave her be. She’s not your concern. You need to turn around now if you want to be on time for your breakfast meeting.
But he kept stroking straight toward her, hands curled tightly around the bent shaft of the fiberglass paddle, because she was his concern. If anything happened to her, he’d feel forever guilty for not warning her about the dangers of boating alone in the Key West mangroves.
Um, you’re alone.
That was different. He was a guy, for one thing, a native for another and third, he carried a gun.
Is that really why you’re going over? To warn her?
Of course it was the reason. He was Coast Guard. Even though he wasn’t on duty, he’d been raised to look after people on the coastal waterways. “A Coast Guard,” his father had been fond of saying, “is a shepherd of the seas.” The Coast Guard motto was Semper Paratus. Always prepared.
The glare of the rising sun caught him squarely in the face. He squinted, wished he’d worn sunglasses, his gaze fixed on the woman in the dinghy. He turned his kayak away from the sun, hungry for a second look.
She straightened in silhouette, a lithe figure in the splendid dawn. The denim shorts she wore were cutoffs with unraveling threads. One side was higher than the other as if she’d just grabbed a pair of scissors and whacked away without measuring.
Scott didn’t mind. The shorter side revealed a glimpse of where her firmed thigh rounded into her buttock. He had an overwhelming urge to press his mouth to that sweet spot and nibble.
A shiver went through him and sweat popped out on his forehead. Look away. Paddle away. Get out of here.
He didn’t move.
She reached for the hem of her T-shirt and in one quick swoop tugged it over her head, revealing a red bikini top that matched her bottoms. Although she was not overly endowed, she curved in all the right places.
More than a mouthful is a waste anyway, his best friend since grade school, entrepreneur Gibb Martin, loved to say about small-breasted women. He’d heard somewhere that the French considered the perfect breast size to be one that could fit into a wineglass. Frankly, Scott was more of a leg man. There was a reason Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” was on his MP3 player and this woman had hot legs in spades.
Her hands went to the snap of her denim shorts and in two seconds flat, she was standing in the wavering boat wearing nothing more concealing than a thong bikini, still seemingly unaware of his presence.
Scott held his breath. He shouldn’t have been so impressed. For hell’s sake, women strutted the beaches of Key West in thongs every day of the week. Many of them moving straight from sand to asphalt without a cover-up for the famed Duval Street Crawl. Key West was free and easy. Residents and tourists alike came here to let it all hang out. He should not have been slack-jawed.
But he was and he had no idea why.
Sure you do. You’re six months backed up and she’s a nearly naked water nymph.
So he should mind his own damn business and head back. Smart. So why was he still drifting here, his gaze glued to her backside?
Don’t be a tool, fool. Go.
His skin sweated against the kayak oar, his fingers curled so tightly that his short nails bit into his palms. He caressed her with his eyes from the top of her caramel-colored hair pulled back into a ponytail that just grazed the strap of her bikini top, to the nip of her waist, to the flare of her hips.
Then she gave a graceful little hop and dived headfirst into the murky water. The muted splash echoed softly down the channel.
She disappeared from view and the last he saw of her were cute toes painted pearly peach flipping gracefully as a dolphin’s fin. He waited, and his temples started to pound. He realized he was holding his breath.
Exhaling, he glanced at his sports watch. She’d been down there for over a full minute. Just when he was getting worried, she came up on the side of the boat closest to him. Talk about superior lung capacity.
Water glistened on her high cheekbones, rolled off her full lips. Her hair lay plastered against her skin. She looked like a beguiling mermaid.
Splash, Splash. Catch of the day.
Scott ran a palm across his mouth, tasted the saltiness of desire on the back of his tongue. It was too early in the morning for thoughts like this.
Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. She tossed her head, sent water flying over him, her legs gently threading water.
Then her indigo eyes opened.
She did not startle. In fact, she seemed utterly self-possessed. As if she’d known all along that he was watching her. Who was this woman?
Their gazes locked.
A swell of thundering heat rolled through his veins, rushed straight to his groin.
She did not smile. Did not speak. She didn’t have to. He could feel her disdain.
His head spun and a burst of adrenaline sent his pulse skipping. What the hell was this? Some kind of extreme horniness he’d never felt before?
He’d come over here to warn her off boating alone. Cockily portraying the protector. Donning his Coast Guard mien. Preparing to show off his knowledge. But one look into that enigmatic face and something shifted.
Suddenly, Scott couldn’t help feeling that he was the one in danger.
DOCTORAL STUDENT Jacqueline Birchard blinked water from her eyes. She was so wrapped up in her research project that she barely even registered the man floating in the kayak, her mind whirling with thoughts of the endangered Key blenny.
Everything was ready to go. A Kevlar cable laced with monitoring instruments lay anchored to a metal platform that extended from the floor of the estuary to just below the surface—that’s what she’d just dived down to check on. She had a lab set up in the waterfront apartment she rented in town for the summer and she was receiving constant satellite feed from the underwater equipment. She had minimized all her obligations for complete immersion into this independent research project for her doctorial dissertation.
This was it. The time had come at last.
Jackie hovered on the verge of making her mark as a marine biologist and proving to her father, once and for all, that she was worthy of the name Birchard. Her success hinged on finding the elusive Key blenny.
The man with movie star good looks cleared his throat.
Jackie slid her hand over her face, dispersing the water. She had never much liked handsome men. By and large they cared too much about what people thought of them. Got too caught up in appearances. She had no patience for vanity or idle chitchat. Life was too precious to waste on the insubstantial. The planet was in trouble. Mother Earth in pain. Global warming threatened the oceans. Mankind was rapidly working to do itself in.
She was on a mission to save the world, and with it, her relationship with her father. She had no time for pleasantries. This guy was in her way.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Scott Everly.”
Annoyed at being interrupted, Jackie glowered. Ugh. It was just her bad luck to stumble across some idiotic tourist at seven o’clock in the morning. If he asked her a stupid question, she might have to hurt him. “Bully for you.”
Instead of putting him off as she intended, her curt comment brought an enigmatic smile to his lips. Good God, was he trying to charm her? Seriously?
“What are you doing?” he asked, earnest as a golden retriever.
Oh, she was going to ignore that. Ignore him. This was not Oceanography 101. She had no obligation to tell him anything. She turned and swam toward her boat.
“There are bull sharks in the mangrove channels.”
“Uh-huh,” she said absentmindedly, her thoughts already back on the Key blenny.
“That doesn’t scare you?”
Go away. “Nope.”
“Incidents of shark attacks are actually quite low,” she said. “If you look at statistics, in Florida you’re ten times more likely to be hit by lightning.”
“But bull sharks are one of the most aggressive species, right behind great white and tiger sharks.”
“Been watching a lot of shark week on the Discovery Channel, have you?”
He grinned. It was the kind of charismatic, come-hither grin that would have weakened the knees of most women, but not Jackie. “What if I have?”
“I’d say, don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”
He gave a fake gasp. “No?”
“Bull sharks are declining in number in Key West.”
She shrugged. “People fish them for their meat, hides and oils.”
“Are you a vegan?”
He cocked his head. “You’re different.”
Jackie rolled her eyes. Her toe found the submerged step at the back of her boat and she pulled herself up, knowing all the while he was staring at her butt.
Don’t look at him. Don’t encourage him.
She had an urge to readjust her swimsuit bottom but she didn’t do that, either. No need to call even more attention to her ass.
But she couldn’t quite resist taking a small peek over her shoulder. Not because he intrigued her. Because he didn’t. Not at all. Jackie lived in her head, not her body. She was not one of those women always looking for the next guy to hook up with. Sex was fine for what it was worth, but when mixed with emotion, it invariably turned into a big hairy mess. She had no time or patience for that kind of drama.
And Mr. Perky over there looked like he was totally into the games people play.
He had a bright face, as welcoming and shiny as the morning sun. He possessed tanned skin and startlingly white teeth. His chocolate-brown hair was cut in a short, well-kept style, a poster boy for the healthy island lifestyle. He looked as wholesome as orange juice. It was enough to give a cynical woman the heebie-jeebies.
“Do you need help with anything?” he asked.
Back off, Skippee. “No.”
She purposefully pulled up the white plastic milk jug she’d used as a buoy to mark this spot the previous day. It helped her find her way back, but she didn’t want to advertise the location. The last thing she needed was some nosy tourist like Skippee here mucking with the expensive instruments she’d borrowed from the University of California. Which was why she was pulling up the milk jug. She would trade it out for a smaller, more inconspicuous buoy once Skippee left.
“You do realize that while the seclusion is peaceful, it’s really not a good idea to go boating and swimming alone. Bad things could happen and there would be no one here to help,” he said ominously.