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San Diego, California
June 24, 11:45 p.m.
Jordan Castillo struggled frantically on the moonlit beach, his movements alerting the woman who paced some distance off, waiting for him. She immediately stopped, her lithe swimmer's body hidden beneath the shadowy pier, her sandal-clad feet just above the watermark.
Bad enough that another human being was in grave danger. But this was the man she'd waited weeks to meet—the one man who could help her save the tortured lives of her sister, Dorian, and Dorian's husband and child. Castillo now battled for his life, and Aurora Collins knew she had to do something.
She'd planned to meet him at his downtown hotel, a meeting that hadn't occurred. The three silent men she watched now had kidnapped him—that was the only thing she could call it. Somehow they'd lured him from the hotel lobby, then forced him into a car. She'd seen it all from the parking lot and followed them.
She stood uncertainly by the pier, staring at the desperate tableau taking place, wishing she'd recharged the battery in her dead cell phone, which lay uselessly in her car.
Her night vision—vision developed through years spent at sea—registered the identity of the man she sought. His once-handsome face was covered in blood. His clothing was torn, his arms covered with welts as he tried to protect his head from swinging bats. She watched in horror as three other men clubbed him again and again.
Aurora gasped as the outnumbered man fought back against his opponents' crushing blows with silent fury. Not a single plea for mercy escaped his lips. He battled hard, but it wasn't enough. One of the men delivered a final, smashing strike to Jordan's head. Their victim sprawled on the sand like limp kelp.
I have to save him.
Aurora took an involuntary step toward him, away from the protection of the pier. Immediately she rethought her action, moved back into the shadows. She was strong in the Pacific waters, with or without scuba gear. She'd been born on the ocean's edge. Had run away from home at sixteen to return to the Pacific. Now she captained her own ship and made her living from the ocean, but she dared not race to his side, leaving the safety offered by the pier. A lone woman, unarmed, had no chance against three armed men.
Before her horrified gaze, the attackers carelessly dragged the unresisting body over the sand and toward the entrance to the pier.
Oh, no! They're going to throw him off like a piece of rotten bait.
Fury swept through her, and she quietly waded through the frothing surf line and headed out to deeper waters, staying beneath the overhead pier for cover while she swam.
The current tore at her long, sun-bleached hair, just as it would tear at the man and drag him down to the dangerous black waters below. The rocky bottom would dash him to pieces—if he didn't drown first. Aurora shuddered, wishing she had her swim fins; they made it easier to fight back against the rip.
But she was already committed to the rescue and couldn't second-guess herself now. Her strokes had carried her almost to the end of the pier when she saw Jordan's body fall, heard the heavy splash, felt the slight displacement in the water surface and watched the unconscious man begin to sink.
I must save him.
Aurora kicked with all her strength to reach him. She sucked in a breath of air and dived deeply. The current grabbed her body and pulled her even deeper. Aurora didn't resist. She let it lead her toward him.
Her eyes stinging from the salt water, she scanned the ocean depths. Luminous creatures much brighter than her watch eerily lit the scene. Nothing. Blood pounded in her ears as she was dragged deeper yet. If she didn't find him soon, she would need to surface for air.
Just a few more seconds. I can last a little longer. If I surface now, I'll never find him.
Suddenly the current pulled her into a collision with him. Jordan spiraled limply down the current's path toward the bone-crushing concrete at the base of the pilings. Pulse racing, lungs burning, she thrust out her arms to encircle his chest from behind.
She kicked hard for the surface, Jordan's limbs trailing between hers. Fear spread icy tendrils through her veins. Her own lungs needed air—and the injured man had been under far longer than she had.
We 're not surfacing fast enough. She kicked harder, moving both legs together repeatedly in a dolphin kick to clear the dragging undertow. I'm not going to make it. I need to breathe now. Help me.
Her request was answered. A cluster of unevenly timed waves headed toward shore and fought the backwash. The rip abruptly changed direction to push Aurora and Jordan toward the surface. Lungs bursting, Aurora fought the pain of suffocation. Her body had done what all drowning victims' did—the throat sphincter had automatically clamped shut, keeping water out of the bronchial tube. Those who drowned suffocated to unconsciousness first; only then did the sphincter release and the lungs fill with fluid.
Aurora kicked harder than ever, the current now helping her. She saw the thin, tensile surface of water. She lifted the man in her arms as high as she could so that his lolling head broke the water first. Hers followed. She gasped for air, two, three, four breaths, while scanning the shore. She made certain the attackers were gone before swimming toward the nearest pier piling and wrapping her legs around the shellencrusted wood to anchor herself, all the while holding Jordan.
Her hand splayed over the bruised, battered muscles of the man's chest, feeling for a heartbeat as the cutting shells of barnacles and black clams sliced into her legs.
There was no heartbeat.
She hugged Jordan's torso with the careful, measured strength years of ocean swimming had given her, willing his heart to beat. She compressed five times, then she cleared his breathing passage, sucking in gulps of air herself.
Rory pivoted his body sideways, using the buoyancy of the water. As she lowered her mouth to his torn, broken lips, she tasted ocean salt mingling with the saltiness of the man's own blood. Her fingertips pressed into the already bruised skin of one wrist, feeling for a pulse.
She felt no pulse.
"Don't you die!" she said between puffs of air. "Do you hear me? I need you alive."
The pale, masculine lips didn't move. Aurora shivered, but didn't attempt to swim the rest of the pier length toward shore. She focused her whole attention on saving the man in her arms.
And hoped fervently that she wasn't too late.
Jordan Castillo came slowly to consciousness. Earlier there had been confusion, then pain, then blackness with nightmares and more pain. But today that pain no longer seemed as brutal.
Where was he? How long had he been here?
He was too weak to move, too weak to speak, too weak to even open his eyes, but he could feel things. From the familiar rolling beneath him, he knew he was on a ship. Jordan breathed a sigh of relief. Like his father and grandfather before him, he lived most of his life at sea. And like his father and grandfather, he, too, hoped to draw his last breath on the sea. But not yet not today Jordan desperately wanted to live and fought fiercely against the terrible blackness that threatened to envelop him again.
His will had been sorely tested. He'd been frightened he'd lose his battle with death, and Jordan Castillo wasn't a man who frightened easily. As long as he could still feel pain, he knew he was alive.
He could hear what went on around him. Even now he listened for the woman's voice. They were supposed to meet at the pier. Was the woman who'd saved him the same Aurora Collins who could salvage his family fortune?
Jordan exhaled, his broken ribs protesting. Head injuries could cause funny dreams. If his rescuing mermaid was a fantasy that existed only in his bruised, beaten skull, he'd be very disappointed indeed.
There it was again. Her voice
Jordan's lips curved in a small, almost involuntary smile. He relaxed, letting the sound wash over him. She wasn't as close as he'd like, certainly not as close as he remembered during that nightmarish time when his life hung by a delicate thread—but she was close enough for him to make out her words.
" Much better, you say, Neil?"
"Yes." Jordan heard the male voice. His sea nymph definitely wasn't alone. "He should be coming around soon."
"Why he isn't dead, I'll never know. If you'd seen what those men did to him."
To Jordan's surprise, her voice broke. He hadn't imagined her concern after all. She'd been worried about him—still was. He wanted to ease her pain as she'd eased his. He tried to open his eyes, tried to reassure her, but couldn't. When she spoke again, her voice was harsh.
"If he wasn't so ill, I'd be back on shore looking for those three men myself. The receptionist said they told Jordan I was waiting in their car. She also said that judging by their accents, they were probably Brazilian. She didn't manage to get much of a description, though. I wish—"
"Leave it to the authorities," the man—Neil, Jordan assumed—told her. "Speaking of which, I wish you'd called for an ambulance instead of my ship. This man is not what you'd call a typical cruise-passenger guest."
"Maybe not, but the ambulance couldn't get there as fast. Your ship has a surgeon and an operating room, and you, my dear captain, were offshore. The Coast Guard was able to motor us out."
"That's highly irregular, and you know it," the man said. "They ever hear of a helicopter? Like the one we're using today to get him off the ship?"
"The life flights were all out working that huge crash on the interstate. By the time one became available, Castillo would have died. He needed immediate surgery, your doctor said. Neil, I already explained all this to you. Why are we going through it again?"
"But you almost died! When will you stop taking these dangerous risks?"
"Let go of my arm," the woman replied calmly. Jordan remembered that quiet calmness she possessed. When he'd nearly drowned, and then during his subsequent pain-racked time in this bed, she'd been his safe haven.
"Promise you'll stay away from this man—and his problems. Let me take care of his medical arrangements."
Jordan heard the soft ripple of her laugh. "I don't take orders from you, even if you are one of my oldest friends."
"Nonetheless, I want your promise. Your family would never forgive me if something—"
"Sorry, Neil. Now, please, let go."
"You have to come to your senses." Jordan recognized the man's proprietary attitude toward the woman—and recognized a similar feeling deep inside his own battered body. "You've lived by your own rules long enough. You can't go on acting like like some kind of renegade. It's time to change."
Jordan's breath caught. He heard both strength and assurance in that warning. The woman's male friend, this captain, was someone to be reckoned with.
As was the woman herself.
"Until that day comes—if it ever comes— I answer to myself alone," the woman replied. "Remember that, Captain Harris. Now, please, fetch the doctor."
Was she ship's crew herself? Did she also hold a billet on this ship? Did they wear maritime uniforms with ranks? If only it wasn't so hard to remember things. Curiosity consumed him—especially about her.
Jordan finally managed to open his eyes. He gazed on the beauty of the woman before him for just a second before focusing on the uniformed man who held her captive. The man's large hand gripped his angel's forearm. Jordan's weakness gave way beneath a burst of fury and adrenaline.
"Let her go," he ordered in a clear voice.
The couple froze. In unison, they turned to stare at him.
"Well, well, well, Mr. Castillo. Welcome back to the land of the living" came the captain's stiff-faced response. Jordan noticed he wore a civilian naval uniform, that of a cruiseship captain. He released the woman.
She responded with a much warmer welcome. "You're awake," she cried, her eyes sparkling with joy. "Excuse me, Neil, but I'd like to visit with our patient for a few minutes. Alone."
Jordan turned his head to watch the other man. There was defiance in his expression, but it faded almost immediately. "I'll check on you both later," he said, then left.
Good, Jordan thought. Now he had his mystery woman all to himself. He found and pressed the button to raise his bed, then turned toward her a bit too quickly. A definite mistake. His head throbbed and he winced.
"Are you still in pain?" she asked, her voice sweet and slow. Her words were casual, but the concern in her eyes wasn't. She moved closer to his side.
Jordan considered his pain. "Not as much as before," he replied and was rewarded with a stunning smile.
Jordan's breath caught again, but this time it wasn't because of his injuries. He studied her.
His rescuer was extraordinarily beautiful. The high, sculpted cheekbones, the tanned face with its perfect features and the blond, sun-streaked hair reminded him of a sea nymph in an old Roman mosaic he'd once seen. Her body was long and lean, with finely conditioned muscles.
The eyes really captured his attention. They were as blue as a tropical sea, as brilliant as a Caribbean sky. Intelligent, they held his interest until he tracked down to the delicately chiseled nose and the full, lush mouth. Between the bare shoulders and unshod feet she wore a long, emerald-colored sarong that set off her rich, golden hair. It reached to her waist, and he wished he could reach out to touch it—touch her. The plaster cast on one arm and the IV board strapped to the other prevented it.
Chairs were impractical in an oceanic vessel's sick bay, so the woman stood quietly beside his bed, legs spread apart to brace against the ship's gentle pitching.
"Do you remember your name?" she asked.
He nodded, moving his head carefully this time, although his gaze never left her, not even for a second.
"Good." The woman came a bit closer, her hair swinging. "I want you to tell me your name, age, birthday and what day it is. Doctor's orders," she said before he could protest against wasting his breath with such stupid questions. "Do you think you're up to it?"
Actually, Jordan wasn't sure. He ached all over, and his head felt as if a flock of raucous seagulls were trying to peck their way from the inside out. Still, for another of her brilliant smiles, Jordan would walk on hot coals. He forced his eyes to stay open. He had to see her.
"Jordan Castillo." His voice was as maddeningly feeble as the rest of his body, and he tried for more volume. "I'm thirty-five—born February 14."
"An Aquarius, I see. And born on Valentine's Day." She smiled again, warming his blood. "And the last date you remember?"
He hesitated, something he almost never did. "I know it's June. June the " He frowned, unable to pinpoint the date. The invisible seagulls pecked inside his skull, and he gasped.
"That's enough," she said quickly. "Don't force it."
"What " He meant to ask what her name was, but she finished the sentence for him.
"Day is it? June 27. You've been here three days. In addition to a broken arm and broken ribs, you had a very nasty skull fracture. And—" she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder "—I'm afraid that you're now missing your spleen."
Jordan blinked. No wonder he hurt. "I had surgery?"
"You were bleeding to death. The doctor had no choice. We almost lost you. You were lucky the ship's doctor is also a skilled surgeon." A beat, then "Do you know where you are?"
"I'm at sea." He sniffed the salty air, almost as heavenly as her enticingly female scent. His seaman's nose told him his location. "Still in California waters, I'd guess."
She nodded. "Correct on both counts, Mr. Castillo. You're aboard a cruise ship. Lucky for you, the captain's a good friend of mine. The doctor said you're ready to be moved to a land hospital. Right now, we're about fifty miles west of San Diego."
Jordan gave a slight nod. In spite of his physical and mental disorientation, he'd been right. What was that old saying of his father's?
You can take a Castillo out of the ocean, but you can't take the ocean out of a Castillo. Don't you forget it. It's in your head, your heart, your very blood.