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Her Passionate Protector
By Laurey Bright
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA skeleton isn't an unexpected thing to find under the sea near a sunken ship, and this wasn't the first one Brodie Stanner had come upon. But when he saw the whitened rib cage rising from the sand and a small, gleaming fish shooting out of one of the shadowy eyeholes of the skull, he felt a chill of instant gooseflesh inside his wet suit. The sound of his breath, amplified by the air valve of his scuba tank, was suddenly louder.
Twenty minutes ago, with his diving buddy Rogan Broderick, he'd stepped from the deck of the Sea-Rogue into the warm embrace of the Pacific Ocean, emptied air from his buoyancy compensator, and began to glide down in the tropical water, the tank on his back becoming weightless. Some distance away the uneven wall of the reef shimmered with color - purple, blue, orange, green, red - corals and sponges and layered sea fans crowded together in fantastic shapes; seaweeds and giant anemones weaving gently in the current while iridescent jewel-like fish darted in and out among them. Rogan was at his side, a stream of tiny glittering air bubbles from his breathing apparatus expanding as they floated upward.
The water became almost opaque, then cleared. The divers swam up an incline toward the reef, skimming above white sand littered with dead pieces of coral, shells and less recognizable objects encrusted with marine growths. Huge crabs danced daintily over the seafloor, and a bright orange starfish stirred its arms, raising a small puff of sand.
A low curve arched from the seabed, and even before Rogan pointed, Brodie recognized part of a ship's side, studded with barnacles and festooned with seaweed, the rest of the wreck covered in a blanket of soft sand.
They tried with gloved hands to sweep away some of the sand, perhaps identify the bow where there was a slim chance the ship's name might still be visible, but in the time they could safely stay underwater they hadn't made much progress before Rogan indicated they should surface.
The current was stronger than Brodie had realized, carrying them to the reef and some way along it. Then he'd seen the unmistakably human bones huddled by the coral wall.
The lower part of the skeleton was either buried in sand or missing, but the rib cage seemed intact, as was the skull with its huge, empty eye and nose-holes and macabre death-grin. When he paused and waved a hand over the pathetic remains, disturbing the sand, a gleam of white arm bone showed before the cloud of grains started settling again.
One last look, then he finned upward to join Rogan at the first decompression level on their buoy line. They made the remainder of the ascent, taking a couple more decompression stops on the way to clear nitrogen from their systems and prevent the dreaded bends - which could cripple or kill a diver - from attacking them when they surfaced.
Back on board, Brodie took his mouthpiece out and said, "Did you see the skeleton down there?"
Rogan lowered his air tank to the deck and fastened it into a storage clip. "The Maiden's Prayer went down with all hands. We might find a few more skeletons, even after a hundred and fifty years."
"It doesn't look right."
"Someone died." Unzipping his wet suit, Rogan gave him a quizzical look. "That never looks right. Of course your skeleton might not be from our particular wreck. This reef would have caught quite a few ships over the centuries, specially before it was properly charted."
The clippers carrying nineteenth-century miners and their newly acquired wealth from the Australian gold fields home to America hadn't had modern navigation instruments and satellite systems to guide them. The Maiden's Prayer wasn't the only one reported sunk without a trace, taking a fortune in gold and goods to the bottom of the sea.
Brodie and Rogan finished mapping the site of the wreck as far as they could define it with their sonar and magnometer supplemented by visual inspection, and noted the exact locations of the few artifacts they'd recovered. Rogan's initial survey had been interrupted when he'd discovered the sunken ship some months ago, and they hoped on this trip to find conclusive evidence that it was, as Rogan believed, the Maiden's Prayer.
Eating fresh-caught crab on the deck of the Sea-Rogue, Rogan said, "I didn't have time for a thorough inspection when I was here before, but we picked up coins and ship fittings and pieces of jewelry. There just doesn't seem to be as much here now as I would have expected." He stared at the three palm trees on a strip of white sand that marked the edge of the reef.
"Maybe you found all there was on the surface. And things shift and get reburied in storms - you know that."
"Yeah," Rogan agreed halfheartedly. "I hope we haven't had poachers on the site while we've been busy confirming our legal claim to the wreck and organizing a proper recovery operation."
"We haven't seen any other boats around since we got here. And if some fisherman or recreational diver did get lucky enough to find a few bits and pieces scattered about, they haven't broached the wreck. They'd need proper equipment and a professional team of divers, and you know how long it's taking to set that up yourself."
Rogan cracked open a crab leg and removed a morsel of white flesh. "Right. Even if the location of the site has leaked out somehow, probably the worst that can happen before we get to the real treasure is a bit of pilfering." He popped the bit of crabmeat into his mouth. "Well, our last dive is tomorrow."
"Yeah." Brodie grinned. Rogan had to be back in port for his wedding. "Better get you to the church on time."
They dived early, found a couple of coins and some glass bottles that might help date the wreck, and then Brodie spotted a few inches of something curved. Something metal and manmade - green, and almost invisible under the sand. Maybe Rogan's porthole, he thought, digging his fingers into the seabed to clear the object.
He signaled Rogan and they excavated it and took it to the surface, hauling it on board. It was a ship's bell, tarnished and half covered in corals and sponges. But after scraping those away, faintly the two men could discern some letters just above the rim.
"Eureka!" Rogan exclaimed softly, turning the bell to read the inscription. "Maiden's Prayer. My dad was right. He found his gold-ship. Let's go home. But we don't mention this to anyone."
Brodie looked up from his awed contemplation of their find. Abruptly he said, "I want to have another look at that skeleton."
Rogan gave him a curious look but said, "Sure, okay."
He stowed the bell in the master's cabin, and when they'd been out of the water long enough for a second safe dive, they donned their gear again and swam to the reef wall.
It took a while to find again the place where the skeleton lay, apparently undisturbed, and by then their time was nearly up. Brodie looked down at the empty eye sockets - almost accusing with their blank, black stare - and peered inside the skull.
There was sand in there, not unexpectedly. But ... dimly he discerned a faint raised lump. A brief hesitation, then he stripped off one glove, gingerly poked two fingers into an eyehole, and withdrew a small, dully gleaming object.
Excerpted from Her Passionate Protector by Laurey Bright Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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