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Something about the man silhouetted on the dock made Antonia Verde's body hum with tension. His aviator sunglasses caught the waning Florida sunlight as he peered at his sleek cell phone, his mop of sandy hair tousled around his face by a steady breeze. No different than any other tourist basking in the warmth of a late November afternoon, Antonia told herself, eyeing him from the beach below.
The waves, green-gold and fueled by an approaching storm, slapped at her ankles. The air held a sharp scent of rain, roiling clouds speckling the white sand with shadows. Perhaps it was the threat of inclement weather that made her jumpy. But it was an incoming tropical storm, nothing more, hardly a source of concern for a lifelong Floridian, and she'd wanted a quick sketch of the agitated surf.
More likely her uneasy feelings were a by-product of what she'd recently survived. Having just returned from San Francisco, where she was almost buried alive in an earthquake-ravaged opera house, she had a right to be jittery. Not to mention the fact that she'd had the uncanny feeling she'd been followed on her way home from the airport by someone in an expensive car. All she'd seen of him was a flash of an arm through the partially rolleddown window, a split-second glimpse of his face. Who would follow an out-of-work artist driving a beat-up Ford?
I'm just on edge, that's all.
Memories from her disastrous trip needled her. So what if San Francisco had been a catastrophe, netting her no job and no money to help her sister set up a new life away from Mia's terrible soon-to-be ex-husband. She was alive and ready to find a steady job if it killed her, and nothingespecially not her own paranoiawas going to delay that. Still, she wished she could rewind the afternoon and make a different decision, to choose to linger in the shabby old family home with the cracked tile in the kitchen and the screen door that didn't quite close. There were plenty of flaws in that house, but the biggest of all was that it was simply a house now, not a home. That was what had driven her out to the beach, the solace of waves, the healing salt air.
She sucked in a deep breath, pulled her long black hair back from her face and squared her shoulders. Common sense returned in a rush.
Why shouldn't she march right out of the water and climb up to the dock where she'd left her sketch pad and pastels? The man with the cell phone was just a tourist, gazing out across the waves toward the tiny resort island accessible only by boat, shrouded here and there by clusters of mangroves. It was the place where Antonia did not dare allow her glance to wander. Isla Marsopa. Porpoise Island.
Reuben Sandoval was there, she'd heard, still trying to resurrect the dilapidated resort. She knew Reuben was advertising for a painter, someone to create a beautiful fresco for his hotel, but she would rather walk across a bed of burning coals than become involved with him again. There was only a tiny part of her that did not echo with memories of Reuben, and she was desperate to keep that smallest bit intact.
The man looked up from his phone perusal, eyes flicking across the pristine white sand, then returning to settle on her. What was it about him that struck her as familiar? She bent and made a pretense of examining the ivory perfection of a lady slipper shell. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him dial his phone, eyes glued to her as he did so, and flick a glance toward his watch.
It hit her. His chunky gold watch, worn low and loose on his slender wrist, caught the sunlight. Could it be the same watch worn by the driver who had trailed her for miles from the airport? He'd passed her at times, eyeing her so closely it made her blood run cold, before he fell back to trail her some more. Her heart thudded. Was he sent by her brother-in-law, hoping she would lead him to where her sister was in hiding after her release from jail? Hector would do anything to get his daughter, Gracie, back, and to punish Mia for taking her. After a long moment, the man tucked the phone in his pocket, straightened his sleeve and walked away toward the end of the dock.
Relief and embarrassment tumbled inside her. Wrong about the watch, Antonia. Plenty of guys have gold watches, and she couldn't see it clearly from this distance. She was truly paranoid. After having a drug runner for a brother-in-law and her sister thrown in jail for attempted murder, maybe it wasn't such an unexpected turn of events.
She dug her toes into the sand, drawing comfort from the sensation that there was ground under her feet, even if she couldn't see it through the agitated water. With a sigh that was caught up by the spiraling wind, she headed back toward the dock, stopping suddenly when the man appeared on the beach, his leather shoes out of place, scuffling through the sand.
Her pulse skipped faster as he put himself between her and the dock. She looked for someone else, anyone else, but the beach was quiet except for the slapping of the waves.
Antonia, take control. The solution was easy. No need for panic. She would swim a mile or so down the coast to another perfect cove that was much more popular, storms notwithstanding. She'd come back later for her art supplies. She was wearing a tank top and shorts instead of a swimsuit, but no matter. This man in his leather loafers and blazer was not about to follow her into the ocean. Problem solved.
She sloshed out to deeper water and paddled past the sheltered cove. The pull of the tide was strong, but so was she. Ignoring the spray tossed by the wind that stung her eyes, she kept a steady pace until she was a good fifteen feet in. In the distance the swaying cabbage palms that dotted Isla Marsopa bent under the increasing pressure of the storm. The familiar twinge twisted her gut as she thought about her past with Reuben Sandoval, exploring that tiny paradise.
Keep swimming, she told herself fiercely. Paralleling the shore, she fought the tumbling waves, making her arduous way up the coast, intermittently treading water to preserve her strength. In the distance she caught sight of the dock where Reuben kept his beloved boat and, for a painful moment, she wondered if he had painted over the name on the stern, Black-Eyed Beauty, his nickname for her.
Her black-eyed beauty was not enough to help him see the truth about his brother. Even when Hector Sandoval tried to kill her sister and Mia acted in self-defense, Reuben took his brother's side and turned his back on Antonia and Mia, insisting to the police Hector had left the drug trade behind when their father died five years prior. She had to admit Hector had been convincing; both she and her sister believed he was on the straight and narrow, too, for a time. How wrong they'd been. Every one of them. The mistake had cost Mia everything, and An-tonia the man she had loved more than anyone else on earth. Black-Eyed Beautynow the name stung like salt in a fresh wound.
She didn't have time to wallow in any more painful memories as she heard an unexpected sound, the throb of a Jet Ski engine. Swimming in little circles, she tried to locate the source, but the waves made it difficult. Over the cresting foam, she caught a glimpse of a Jet Ski moving slowly, the driver twisting his head around as if he were looking for something.
Not something. Her nerves sizzled.
She suddenly realized this person was somehow connected to the gold watch man on the beach. Either that or she was completely crazy.
But the man on the Jet Ski was not out for a relaxing evening jaunt.
Her plan to swim up the coast was in serious jeopardy unless she could outwait him, outlast his game of cat and mouse. Tucking her chin low, she began to tread water, waiting for the cat to lose interest.
Reuben Sandoval tried again to sew a patch on the canvas awning that protected his boat from the elements. The material frayed, giving way like sand through his fingers until he threw the patch down in disgust. The thing was beyond repair, a feeling he'd begun to have lately about everything in his life.
The Isla Marsopa Hotel was deteriorating faster than he could patch it together. Ironic, since his brother, Hector, had enough moneythe riches left behind by their fatherto transform Isla into a place that would rival the finest hotels in Florida. But Hector would not touch Isla because it had been their mother's, and Reuben would not ask for the same reason. And others. Their family had fractured neatly down the middle the night their mother snatched the boys from their father, Arlo, to pull them away from the drug trade, only to die less than a year later in a car accident. It had taken Reuben many years to understand her decision to leave, and his brother never had. One thing he knew with absolute clarity: he would not touch one penny of their tainted inheritance.
Reuben meant to restore the three-story Victorian jewel on his own, with whatever money he could earn from his struggling citrus grove. How could he not? Yes, the hotel was ramshackle and the guest bungalows outdated, but the grounds looked out on an ocean panorama that was unparalleled, and the rest of the island was a nature preserve, which ensured its wild beauty would remain unspoiled. Accessible only by boat, the island curved gently, embracingit seemed to Reubenthe mangrove islands and lagoon in its sandy arms. With its old-world charm, Isla was the perfect getaway, and he knew it was the reason his mother had clung so desperately to this one asset left to her by her father. It was, quite simply, breathtaking.
Something bumped against his leg, and he bent to give the aged tabby a scratch. "Hey, Charley. Didn't go fishing today, so I don't have a treat for you. Weather's not good, buddy."
Charley pushed against Reuben's hand, poking at him with a sandpapery nose. The cat ought to understand about bad weather. His mother found the half-drowned kitten shivering under an overturned boat in the wake of Hurricane Charley that blasted down on the island. Reuben cast an uneasy glance at the sky.
"Going to blow into a hurricane," a gravelly voice said.
Reuben wasn't surprised he hadn't heard Silvio approach. The grizzled old man seemed sometimes to be part of the sand and surf and windalways there, always had been. Behind him trailed a black man with an affable grin.
"Is that your vote or from the National Hurricane Center?" Reuben said.
"Don't need anyone to tell me. Know it."
Reuben nodded to the younger man. "You think so, too, Gav?"
Gavin scooped up the cat, which purred in delight. "Dunno. I'm from San Diego, remember? This hurricane stuff is your department. I'm just here to collect the meager pittance you provide me. Once I earn my master's, I'm settling permanently in the Golden State. It's safe there."
"Yeah, those earthquakes are a piece of cake," Reuben said.
Gavin waved a hand. "They'll clean up from that last one eventually. It'll cost a chunk of change, though, and speaking of change "
Reuben laughed. "Yeah, I remember." He fished a crumpled check from his pocket. "It's payday."
"Muchas gracias, Senor Sandoval" Gavin said.
"De nada, Senor Campbell, and your Spanish is horrendous, by the way."
With a smile, Gavin turned to go. Reuben wanted to let him. There was so much to do on the island, and there would be significant damage to repair after the storm receded, his mind added grimly, but he could not risk any lives. "Gav, take the extra boat and get back to the mainland. I'll contact you after the storm passes."
Gavin squinted. "I'm okay. I can hunker down in a bungalow until it's over."
Reuben shook his head. "This isn't a run-of-the-mill storm. I'll send Silvio and Paula with you."
"Ain't going," Silvio said. "Haven't secured all the windows. We've got a day or two yet anyway."
Reuben doubted Paula, Silvio's wife, would be interested in leaving any more than her husband.
Gavin crossed his arms. "What if I say I ain't going either?"
"I'd say I'm your boss and you're fired."
Gavin broke into a wide smile. "When you put it that way I'll go get my pack. Call you after the storm passes."
Reuben cast an eye along the surf again, surprised to see someone on a Jet Ski plowing through the choppy water.
"I'll take care of the windows," Silvio said.
"There's no way I can crowbar you off this island, is there, old man?" he said, a mixture of love and exasperation blowing through him.
Silvio scratched his chin. "'Course not. You should go. I'm tougher than you, boy."
Reuben laughed. After losing two fingers and sight in his left eye in Korea, Silvio just might be right. "But your wife is tougher than both of us put together, and if she's staying, I guess we all are."
Silvio sighed, the clouds painting odd shadows on his wrinkled face.
They both turned to follow the progress of the Jet Ski, which seemed to be puttering in aimless loops.
"Always one with no sense," Silvio said. "Some tourist gonna get himself drowned for sure and wash up here for me to deal with."
Reuben had to agree. If it was idiotic to stay on the island with an approaching tropical storm that was likely to morph into a hurricane, it was lunacy to be out prancing around on a Jet Ski at such a time.
The guy continued to travel in circles, stopping every so often to peer down into the water.
"Engine trouble maybe?" Reuben hazarded.
Silvio answered with a snort. "More likely doesn't know how to run the thing. Rented it thinking he was going to be some sort of expert." He plucked at a hair in his sparse beard.
Reuben was already moving toward his boat. The little nineteen-foot Bowrider was not much to look at and certainly not enough to enchant resort guests, but it was plenty able to get this nut back to land before he drowned himself.
"Leave him be," Silvio muttered.
Reuben eyed the sun, which was beginning to sink into a clouded horizon. "Only another half hour before sunset."
"Too bad. He can learn to respect the ocean the hard way."
Gruff words from the guy who was following Reuben on board and helping him cast off. As they motored out, Reuben fought the wheel to keep the boat steady against waves determined to drive them off course.
The man seemed oblivious to their approach. He wore no life jacket over his massive, bare shoulders, water lashing his face, which was still too far away to see clearly. Stupid, but sturdy.
Reuben was amazed at how quickly the storm had worsened even in the past half hour. The Jet Ski driver had no doubt been taken by surprise as well, though he continued to meander rather than making for shore. "Hey," Reuben called over the sound of the engine.
The man didn't hear him.