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Caught By Surprise
By Sandra Paul
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
They were hot on his tail.
Pushing aside his growing desperation, he concentrated on escape. His powerful arms sliced through the cold sea while his leanly muscled lower body enhanced each butterfly stroke with a graceful, curving thrust. Ignoring the burning in his lungs, he kept his head down, unwilling to waste the millisecond it would take to draw a breath.
He gained a yard. Then another. He was fast - very fast. But he'd be a fool to believe he could outrace a motorboat forever. Nor would the men chasing him give up. Their greedy excitement vibrated the air above him as clearly as the boat's motor vibrated the water.
He had to dive, quickly and deeply. Only in the dark, endless depths could he evade them. Another stroke, another slight gain. The rough, salty water flowed along his body like an icy caress. It was now or never. He soared higher to steepen his plunge -
And they struck. Fiery pain pierced his shoulder. He jerked, managed to break loose from the jagged steel, but failed to escape the net that followed.
Fiercely he fought the tangling strands. If he'd had his knife, he could have cut himself free as he'd once done to escape a patch of tenacious seaweed in the soft surf near his home. But his knife lay on the sandy ocean floor, and the clingy web tightened with eachdesperate twist that he gave.
He would have kept struggling, courting death, if death would have helped his people. But it wouldn't. Dead or alive, his capture would prove their existence and send more greedy men out on the hunt.
So he stilled, conserving his energy as they hauled him to the surface. He almost welcomed the raw burn from the ropey twine scraping his skin; the sharp, pulsing fire from the wound in his shoulder. Pain would keep him alert. Anger would keep him focused.
He kept his expression blank as the fading sunlight glinted over his body, but inwardly he cursed the men staring at him with fearful fascination in their eyes. Even more, he cursed himself for the relentless curiosity that had driven him to gamble with his freedom.
But most of all, he cursed the pale-limbed female with the flowing brown hair who had lured him too close to danger. From the bow of her ship, she'd signaled for help using the ancient gestures of his people.
And he vowed revenge.
* * *
The combination lock on the hold door took forever to undo, and once inside, the slick railing of the spiraling staircase felt cold and clammy beneath Beth's palm. She should have changed out of her heels into canvas deck shoes, she realized belatedly as she slowly descended into the ship's hold. The metal steps were slippery. She certainly should have changed her evening dress for something more practical. The delicate blue silk would be ruined if sea water - or heaven forbid, fish bait or something equally disgusting - should happen to touch its gleaming folds.
Carefully holding her skirt away from the damp metal, Beth took another cautious step down - then gasped as the ship suddenly pitched. Clutching at the railing with both hands, she kept her balance. Barely. But when the ship rolled a second time her stomach went right along with it.
"Oh, darn, not again," she groaned, shutting her eyes. She hated it when a storm drew near, triggering her seasickness. In fact, she hated the sea entirely with its endless up and down, up and down motion and the scary mystery of its dark, cold depths. If it was up to her, she'd remain on dry land every second of her life, she decided, as the ship heaved once again.
But it wasn't up to her - not entirely. Because her father loved the sea and Carl T. Livingston was a certifiable genius who'd made enough from his biotechnological discoveries to indulge his every whim, including buying the huge, costly ship The Searcher. Unfortunately, his whims included putting a saltwater tank down in the hold of the vessel - a massive tank with a powerful pump, more than adequate to contain whatever creature his crew might capture for him to study.
Swallowing hard to force down her nausea, Beth opened her eyes and took another slow step downward. She wasn't anxious to discover what they'd caught this time. She always felt sorry for the sea animals the men scooped up for her father to examine. Dolphins, seals - once even a small octopus so confused by its confinement that it had huddled near the tank bottom, futilely grasping the small rock it had been clinging to when the men had prodded it into their net. The little octopod had refused to swim around; it had refused to eat. And before Beth could convince her father to release it, the baby octopus had died.
Pushing aside the memory, she slowly kept going, wrinkling her nose as the pungent odors of machine oil and brine rose up to greet her. She hoped this new creature didn't die. Especially since she'd been the one to cause its capture.
She hadn't meant to. She'd been standing on the bow of the ship the previous evening, fighting the urge to vomit, when her father's assistant had joined her.
She hadn't wanted company, and certainly not Ralph Lesborn's. Not that Ralph was unattractive. Tall and in his early thirties, Ralph's thick, reddish-blond hair was always neatly combed, and beneath his classically straight nose, a stylishly thin mustache outlined his full mouth.
Beth had been pleased for her dad when Ralph had agreed to come work aboard The Searcher a couple of months ago, but lately Ralph had developed the tendency to stand too close; it made her uneasy. And uneasiness was the last thing she wanted to feel when her stomach was already doing somersaults.
Sure enough, Ralph had crowded next to her by the rail. The sickly sweet smell of the cologne he favored caught in her throat, and the flattery he murmured in her ear made her feel sicker than the biggest heaving wave. Perhaps because he considered himself a gourmet, Ralph's compliments always seemed to involve food. She managed not to gag at the one about her eyes being as green as spinach - they were blue, for heaven's sake - but when he'd cooed something about her long hair being the same color as the bran muffins he ate each morning, she'd been sure she'd lose it all over his handmade leather shoes.
She was rolling her eyes in revulsion when she'd glimpsed a golden tail fin flip up out in the water. Hoping to distract Ralph from her bran muffin hair, she'd pointed to the strange fish in the distance.
Excerpted from Caught By Surprise by Sandra Paul Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.