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Key West, Florida
Double rows of razor-sharp teeth gleamed wickedly beneath a dead black eye. Nikki Hoffman could almost feel the chilly waters around her, the current pushing her toward powerful jaws.
"You wanna get up close and personal with a shark?"
Startled, Nikki tore her attention from the collage of photos tacked to a bulletin board and whirled around. A swimsuit-clad surfer dude, tanned and bare chested, had appeared from a back room of the small shop she'd just entered, apparently alerted to her presence by the jangle of bells on the front door. He flashed a blinding white grin that contained more teeth than the sharks in the underwater pictures she'd been studying.
"For a hundred bucks, I can teach you how to scuba dive and take you to a wreck where the sharks hang out." The grin became a leer. "Private lesson. You'd get my personal attention."
Nikki suppressed a shudder. Sharks gave her the creeps. Especially the ones with two legs and an agenda that had nothing to do with salt water. She'd met plenty like this guy when she had lived in Cozumel.
With an effort, she pushed the thought from her mind. She'd made a promise to herself to look forward during this vacation, not backward. That was one promise she intended to keep.
"Thanks, but I gave up diving a couple of years ago." She unzipped the fanny pack that undoubtedly marked her as the tourist she was and fished through the contents. "I have a coupon here for a free sailing excursion."
"Free?" The guy's shoulders heaved with a laugh. "I don't think so. The bosses don't give anything away for free."
"This is Key West Water Adventures, isn't it?" Nikki glanced around the shop, looking for a sign. "This coupon is for a free excursion of my choice, up to a $100 value."
She pulled out the coupon and placed it on the counter. He examined it without picking it up.
Now that she looked at it again, this coupon didn't resemble the others in the welcome packet she'd received when she checked in to the time-share condo a few hours ago. It was just a black-and-white sheet of paper that might have been printed on a laser printer. But the logo at the top was identical to the one that adorned the sign hanging above the store's front door.
"Yeah, that's us, but I've never" His gaze fixed on something over Nikki's shoulder and the confusion cleared from his face. "There's the boss now. You can ask him."
Nikki turned and looked through the window. The shop lay midway down an L-shaped pier that stretched like a wooden finger into the bay. Beyond it, the mouth of the bay opened out into the blue Atlantic. Sunlight sparkled off the water's surface, momentarily blinding her. She blinked and caught sight of a boat moving slowly toward the end of the pier. A flag on top waved in the breeze, red with a white diagonal slash. The sight of the rippling silk sent a surprising wave of longing through her, so strong it halted her breath for a few heartbeats. A scuba flag.
Those days are long gone. And he's gone with them.
Swallowing back the surge of emotion, she snatched the coupon off the counter. "Thanks, I will."
Outside, the humid heat slapped at her with an open palm. The breeze carried a distinctive odor, a blend of salt and fish as familiar to Nikki as the smell of cookies baking in her mother's kitchen in Portland. She paused outside the shop and filled her lungs with the scent of the ocean. Many of the slips on the dock were empty, the boat owners probably enjoying this beautiful Friday afternoon. The wooden pier creaked as the remaining boats bobbed gently in the water, rocked by the gentle motion of this inlet. The scuba boat glided to a halt some distance away. She lowered the sunglasses from their resting place on top of her head and made her way toward the pier's end.
When the boat had been secured, two couples climbed onto the dock lugging scuba equipment and beach towels. They laughed and chattered as they shouldered bulky bags and headed in her direction. Music blasted from speakers on the boat. Jimmy Buffett, appropriately enough.
"Good dive?" she asked when they approached.
"Great dive," answered one guy with a wide grin. "We saw an eight-foot moray eel."
The girl walking beside him shoved his shoulder. "What a fish story. It was not eight feet long. But what about that school of yellow-striped fish? Does anybody know what kind they were?"
Then they were past, their voices carrying to Nikki as she neared the boat. The two men inside had their backs to her as they tidied up the deck. One picked up a weight belt and ducked into the cabin as the song ended. A few seconds later, Jimmy began singing about grapefruit and Juicy Fruit.
The second guy straightened and caught sight of her. "Hey, how's it going?"
"Fine." She spared him a smile. "Are you the owner?"
"I'm one of them." He shielded his eyes with a hand. "What can I do for you?"
Nikki extended the coupon toward him. "I dropped by to make a reservation for a sailing excursion with this coupon, but the guy in the shop didn't seem to know anything about it."
He glanced at it. "You're staying at the Pelican Resort, right?"
He unhooked a dive tank from its holder, nodding as he spoke. "Someone called and bought a gift certificate over the phone yesterday and had us deliver it to the Pelican. My partner took the call and told me about it. We don't sell many gift certificates."
Allison. A smile stole across Nikki's lips at the thought of her generous friend. As if letting Nikki use her family's time-share at no charge wasn't a generous enough birthday present.
The second man emerged from the cabin carrying a pair of fins. Nikki caught a glimpse of his profile as he crossed the deck in two long strides, then bent to store them beneath the bench.
"That must have been my friend," Nikki told the first man. "So, when can I"
Shock snatched the rest of her question out of her mouth. For a second that lasted a lifetime, her world skidded to a halt.
She knew that profile.
Panic slammed her in the stomach, robbing her breath. A single, frenzied thought pulsed in her brain and catapulted her feet into action.
I can't let him see me.
She whirled and ran.
Even before his mind could fully register her presence, Ben jerked upright, his body reacting to the oh-so-familiar timbre of her voice.
It had been over two years, but he would recognize the woman running down the dock even if it had been forty. Her long legs, the familiar curve where her shoulders met her slender neck, even the way she ran with her hands pumping at her sides.
He dropped the fins, leaped from the boat to the dock and sprinted after her.
She kept running. Ben kicked up his speed, ignoring the startled looks he collected from two men cleaning the morning's catch on the dock beside their boat. Pain raked his bare feet as they pounded the rough wood. She reached the edge of the pier and hesitated before turning toward town. Just a moment's hesitation, but it was enough. Ben overtook her before she'd gone five steps in that direction.
"Hold up a minute, will you?" He grabbed her arm and jerked them both to a stop, then stood panting and looking down into her face.
She'd changed. The smile lines at the corners of her mouth had deepened, and he saw the beginning of creases at the edges of the eyes she kept averted from him. She was a few pounds heavier, but the extra weight only softened the sharp angles he remembered. In Mexico, he'd fallen in love with a carefree girl, but the girl had grown up. Matured. She was a woman now.
A beautiful woman.
Her shoulders drooped with a nearly imperceptible sigh, and she raised her eyes to meet his. "Hello, Ben."
"Hello?" He vented a sudden surge of anger with a bitter laugh. "That's all you have to say after two-and-a-half years?"
A pause, and then her lips tightened. "I could say let go of me, instead." Her voice snapped with the spunk he remembered so well.
She jerked her arm away, and he realized he'd been gripping her so hard his fingers left red splotches. He started to apologize, but couldn't force the words out. If anybody owed anyone an apology here, it wasn't him. She'd packed up and left Cozumel while he was out on a dive. He had come home in the evening to find her clothes gone, the apartment somehow hollow and empty even though all the furniture remained. Her note gave no explanation, just two wordsGoodbye. Nikki.
He tried to shove his hands in his pockets, realized he was wearing swim trunks, and folded them across his chest instead. "What are you doing in Key West, Nikki?"
Her eyes darted around as though searching for an appropriate answer. Then she lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. "I'm on vacation. Just got in a couple of hours ago. I'm, uh, sorry for running like that. It was a shock. I wasn't expecting to see anyone I know." The brief smile she turned on him didn't reach her eyes. The polite smile of a stranger. She gestured toward his shirt, which bore the logo for Key West Water Adventures. "So, you live here now?"
The disappointment that surged through him at her impersonal conversation surprised him. So that's the way she was going to play out this awkward meeting. Polite. A chance encounter between two former friends.
Okay. Fine with him.
"Yeah, I moved here a few months ago."
"Still diving, I see." Was that a reference to their last argument, the one about settling down and becoming responsible? Though the afternoon air was warm, it seemed to Ben he was caught in a bubble of frigid air, one that surrounded him and this stranger he once knew so well.
He flipped his hands out, palms up. "Of course. You know me. I can't give it up."
She tilted her head and the sun glinted off her sunglasses. "I didn't think you'd ever leave Mexico."
A shudder threatened at the memory of his last fearful days in Cozumel. Ben pushed it away and awarded Nikki a tight smile. He certainly wasn't going into his reasons for leaving. Not here. Not with her.
"The pay's better here," he said briefly, then changed the subject. "What about you? Where do you live now?"
"I moved back home to Oregon." Her gaze drifted sideways, as though planning her escape route. "I work for a finance company there."
"Sounds interesting." Actually, it sounded unutterably boring and normal. But that's what she said she wanted over two years ago during that last, heated argument. A normal life. He caught a flash of gold from a cross hanging around her neck. So, she hadn't gotten over her religious phase yet. He hesitated before asking the question that had plagued him periodically over the years. "Are you married? Have kids?"
She wrapped her arms around her middle, a clear signal that the question was unwelcome. The muscles in her slender throat moved as she swallowed. "I'm not married, no."
The wave of triumph that surged through him took him by surprise. She hadn't found everything she'd been looking for when she left, then. His heart suddenly and inexplicably lighter, Ben combed a hand through his hair. "Look, I've got to get back and help unload the boat. But how about if I take you to dinner?"
For a minute he thought she would agree. She hesitated, her lips parting. Then she closed them again and shook her head. "I, uh, have plans."
"Lunch, then. I'll get someone to cover the morning dive." He cocked his head and pasted on the smile that used to melt her resolve. "It'll give us a chance to catch up. I want to know what's happening in your life."
For a moment, something darkened her eyes, like a shadow of the feelings they'd once shared. But in the next instant, a door slammed shut in her face. The polite stranger's smile returned.
"Thanks, but I don't think that's a good idea." She took a backward step. "It was good to see you, though, Ben. Goodbye."
He was still trying to come up with some way to counter her obvious dismissal when she turned and walked away. Quickly, as though she couldn't wait to get away from him.
At least she'd said goodbye in person this time.
Nikki's back burned. She could feel his eyes on her as she hurried away. The clip-clop of her sandals changed tone as she stepped off the wooden dock and onto the street. She didn't dare glance backward, but her ears strained to hear footsteps coming after her. Would he follow?
Please, God, don't let him follow me.
Pain throbbed in her chest, a dull ache that she'd thought was long gone. Just like she thought her feelings for Ben had finally faded. Oh, she'd never forget him, that was a given. How could she, when his face loomed in her mind every day? But she'd really thought she'd gotten over her feelings for him. Or at least, wrapped them up and stored them in the deep recesses of her heart, where they couldn't hurt her anymore. One look at him, and she knew she'd been lying to herself.
Which made it even more important that she get away from him. Her heart was no longer her own. It belonged to Joshua now.
And she would never tell Ben about the son he didn't know existed.