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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 summerripe 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 wasmilitary 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. Tilted.
Suddenly, Scott couldn't help feeling that he was the one in danger.