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Pulu Keeling (Island), Western Australia
'What the ?'
Rob Dalton throttled the powerboat down to a gentle chug-a-lug and snatched up his binoculars. A frown stretched his sea-whipped skin and tipped his lucky fishing cap forward.
He was seeing things.
He kept his eye firmly pinned on the natural lagoon created by the hazardous coral reefs around Pulu Keeling where he'd caught a momentary glimpse of herand it. Clean, cold ocean swelled between The Player and the tiny island, obscuring his view just as he thought he might get another glimpse. Then there she wasswimming strongly towards shore, a glinting silvery mass propelling her along.
Rob lowered the binoculars and stared at the island. The towering trees and dunes and reef all seemed normal. So did the horizon. The one streak of cloud in the endless blue sky.
He rubbed under his sunglasses and lifted them to fit the super-powered field glasses more firmly to his face. She was still there, stroking across the lagoon. And it was still there too, powering along behind her. His breath caught hard in his chest.
But it sure as heck looked real enough, and out here, so far from everything Who knew? He squinted in the mid-morning light, pressing the binoculars so hard to his face the rims bit into his cheekbones. Centuries of maritime mythology filled his mind. But she was no dugong and he was no sex-starved, nineteenth century sailor imagining a half-woman-half-fish in the distance.
Although you wouldn't know it from the pace of his heart.
She neared land, her strokes steady and practised. The beach rose to meet her and then she stood
on two legs. Long, brown, bare legs, and she hauled a silver buoyancy sack out of the water behind her. Rob released his breath on a whoosh.
He let heat rise in his cheeks since no one was around to see him, and his heart pounded out the adrenalin surge of moments ago as he kept his focus locked on the shore. He'd caught a lot of sun out here on his latest vacation from reality but not that much, surely? Not enough to start seeing mermaids where there weren't any. But a bikini-clad woman alone on a restricted island that was only inhabited by birds and crabs. How was that any less strange?
The old bloke who fuelled him up at the dock had muttered something about a spirit-woman living on Pulu Keeling. Some kind of guardian. He'd assumed he was talking about the mythical variety.
His mermaid tugged the buoyancy sack further onto the beach and then let it drop. Her lush, tanned body jerked in and out of his binocular frame along with the rolling ocean swell but he did his best to keep the glasses steady as she bent to check the contents of the sack she'd swum ashore. Those long legs that went forever did actually stopat a tiny bit of yellow fabric covering a perfect peach which bobbed up and down as she rummaged through the sack on the sand.
His curiosity at what a two-legged mermaid was doing out here in the middle of the Indian Ocean took a momentary back seat to the sudden interest that surged through him. Ridiculous that he should be captivated by a bit of mermaid tail when he had any number of equivalents on speed-dial back home.
She straightened with her back to the glittering ocean and lifted her arms to wring the sea water from her long blonde hair. She twisted it into a damp rope and draped it over her right shoulder.
'Turn around turn around,' Rob murmured, his breath hitching to a halt. Would his mythical mermaid have a face to match the lithe golden body? She didn't turn, but she tugged the tethers up onto her left shoulder and dragged the sack behind her along the rocky beach towards a track in the dune grasses. Even with her heavy load, every movement was graceful. Her body radiated health and vitality. Rob's heart thumped in his throat, his gut, as she moved towards the tree line.
At last she did, bending forward to pull the sack over the lip of the dune. He got a quick flash of tanned, toned arms and firm breasts behind more yellow triangles. Once the sack was up and over, she dropped it and straightened to catch her breath, leaving Rob staring through his binoculars at a honey-coloured midriff stretched upward by raised arms that she used to shield her eyes from the blazing sun. Eyes that
He fumbled the binoculars, almost dropping them overboard.
stared right back at him! He caught them in the nick of time and glanced back to the island where the now tiny woman waved one arm at him. Pretty keenly.
'Yeah, I've seen you, honey,' he murmured, discomfited at being caught staring but more than accustomed to the excitement of pretty females. He waved back casually.
She mirrored him, both arms this time, bouncing those yellow triangles around a treat.
Rob frowned again. 'What?'
A sickening crunch accompanied a lurch that sent him staggering as The Player's stern hit the reef. It rocked again as the swell nudged his pride and joy against the protective coral surrounding Pulu Keeling.
'Son of a '
He shoved the throttle forward, yanking the wheel and powering the boat a safe distance from the barely exposed reef. As he swung her around, he noticed another silver buoyancy sack sitting on the reef in the distance, on the far side of the atoll where the swell did look less powerful. Had that just been delivered? He motored over using the sack as his marker and dropped anchor to arrest his drift. Moving to the injured side of the boat, he dropped his cap and sunglasses to the deck, slid his diving mask on and slipped into the deep water at the reef's drop-off. His T-shirt ballooned as he sank into thick, icy silence.
Below his boat, he ran his hand over The Player's damaged hull where the hard coral had bitten into it. He'd need to dry-dock for at least three days to repair the steel properly. Not time he could afford with his schedule. But he wouldn't sink, not if he could manage some basic repairs here. If he just went ashore.
He surged to the surface and filled his aching lungs with air, swimming round to the rear corner of the boat where The Player's chrome half-ladder dipped in and out of the sea with the motion of the swell. He hauled himself up into the boat.
'I hope you're planning on checking out the coral too?' an angry voice snapped from behind.
Blinking in the glare, he reached for his sunglasses and turned in time to see his mermaid haul herself onto the smoothest part of the exposed reef. She stood, chest heaving from her swim, near-naked and dripping wet: his three favourite attributes in a woman.
Usually, his mind would have bubbled up a dozen witty comebacks, all tried-and-tested and proven to charm. But not one leapt to mind as Rob stared at the angry woman balancing on the reef nearby.
More specifically, at the brutal scars that stretched from her ear down to her right shoulder.
Honor Brier was in no mood to be stared at, and certainly not by him. The man had just rammed the outer rim of the atollliving reef that had formed, unmolested, over centuries. It thrived, ignored by most of mankind and free to grow abundantly, under the rubber booties that saved her feet from being grated like Cheddar on the reef. 'That coral will still be repairing itself two decades after your boat has rusted away to iron-ash.'
He stared at her, trying very hard not to look at her shoulder, which only made it more obvious. She set her hands on her hips, fighting the urge to raise a self-conscious hand to her neck. 'Do you speak or are you purely ornamental?'
That got his attention. The smile he flashed her then must have won dozens of hearts in its timesofter, less calloused hearts than hers. She turned official. 'This is a protected area. You can't be here without a permit and a guide.'
The hairs on her neck prickled at his deep, silken voice. It was a crime that it should match the rest of him. 'I have a permit.'
'And a guide?'
Her tongue clucked in frustration. 'I don't need a guide; I work here.'
'It wasn't my intention to stop here. As you can see, I've encountered a bit of a setback.'
Honor cast her eye over the pile of equipment on the deck of his vessel. God knew how much more he had below. It explained what he was doing lurking around her island. 'Are you out here diving?'
'Why? Is the sea floor protected too?'
He probably thought he was being charming. 'Parts of it are, yes. Inside Pulu Keeling waters. Why were you so close to the reef?'
'I came in to see if I could spot the SMS Emden memorial. Then I was distracted by uh a bird.'
She shifted her weight. He was into birds? She hosted birding groups about twice a year. She glanced at his expensive field binoculars. It gave her pause. 'A booby?'
He flashed those pearly whites again. 'I believe it waspossibly a pair.'
Believe? Pulu Keeling was famous for its booby colonies. Three species. But surely he would know that if he was into.?
Imbecile. Honor sighed and concentrated on not crossing her arms. Displeasure and impatience stained her voice. 'Do you need a hand launching off? You must be eager to see the memorial. You'll be able to spot it with binoculars from outside the reef.'
Time to go now.
'Actually, I need to come ashore.' 'Not going to happen. Not without a permit.' 'The Player's compromised. It wouldn't be safe to set out without patching the breach.'
The Playerhow very apt. The way he stroked the bright blue gunnel of his boat told her how important the vessel was to him. She knew all about men and their boats. 'Then you'd better head back to Cocos'
'I'm coming in. If you want to stop me, knock yourself out. I'm not going to sea until I've made repairs.' He crossed his arms, causing his sea-soaked T-shirt to mould to his broad chest. Honor retreated one pace. She couldn't stop him, not if it truly wasn't safe, but she'd never had cause to bring someone unauthorised onto the island in her many seasons on Pulu Keeling. She wasn't certain what the procedure was.
'So, are you sending me back out to drown or can I come ashore?'
She sucked in a breath at his choice of phrase and grabbed at the buoyancy sack to steady herself. He couldn't know Her voice cracked slightly. 'Suit yourself.' 'Where can I enter the lagoon?'
'You can't.' She fought to sound normal. 'You'll have to moor where you are.'
He scanned the lagoon. 'Are you serious? What about the south side of the island?'
'Everyone swims into Pulu Keeling. It's an atoll, completely surrounded by coral reef. Why else would I be hauling all this stuff in by hand?'
Piles of technical equipment mounded in every spare inch of his boat. Honor wouldn't risk leaving it all in a vessel with a damaged hull in the unpredictable weather of the Keeling Islands, and she knew he'd feel no different.
'It's not too late to change your mind, head for Cocos.' Her tone was hopelessly optimistic.
'No. I'll come ashore. I have no choice.'
Neither do I, apparently.
They hardly spoke as they stripped The Player and Honor knew from his grumpy movements that she wasn't the only one less than pleased with the circumstances they'd found themselves in. Then the sheer hard work of towing load after load of expensive equipment across the lagoon literally took her breath away, making conversation impossible.
He passed items to her one by one and she stacked each one along with her buoyancy sack into The Player's inflatable dinghy, which bobbed in the protected lagoon. Some pieces were heavier than others, but she managed every one without complaint. Pretty Boy sealed the cabin, dropped the weather shields, started the engine one final time and motored a few metres away from the reef where he could safely drop anchor.
Honor waited while he added his spare anchor to the first he'd dropped and then he dived headlong into the frigid depths and swam towards her. The razor edge of the drop-off threatened, but on his second attempt those powerful arms pushed him up and over into the lagoon, guiding the inflatable from behind towards the beach. The water was warmer and gentler on the island side of the reef-break, and teemed with brightly coloured fish enjoying the protection the coral band afforded. They darted, kamikaze-like, around the giant two-legged predator who'd appeared in their midst nudging the dinghy to shore.
Honor's weary muscles pressed her along, closer to the island, and then she stood in the calf-deep splash waiting for him, breathing deeply. They couldn't drag the inflatable far onto the shingle beach; the rocks threatened to shred it in moments. It rested instead on the fine-ground sand closer to the waterline.
Her unwanted guest emerged from the small surf, his saturated clothes glued to every muscled plane. 'I've got it. Take a break.'
Nothing he could have said would have moved her sooner. She dropped the tow rope and bent for one of the parcels in the little boat, trying to disguise her puffing. 'I'm fine. What is all this stuff, anyway?'
'Recovery gear, mostly. Photographic equipment, sonar, GPS.'
That stopped her in her tracks.
'You're a raider?' She intentionally used the derogatory term for a salvager. She watched him closely for a reaction.
Lord, what will I do if he is? They were a long way from the Cocos cluster's five-strong police presence.
His face tightened. 'I'm a maritime archaeologist.'
'What's the difference?'
One dark brow shot up. 'The difference is,' he grumbled as they lugged gear from the inflatable up above the high water mark, 'one is sanctioned by the Australian Government, in accordance with the Historic Shipwrecks Act. The other is naked theft.'
'You're a shipwreck hunter?'
He smiled, bright and glorious. 'I'm a shipwreck finder!
She studied him, her eyes narrowed. 'You don't look like an archaeologist.' And he really, really didn't. He looked like something from an underwear commercial.
'You don't look like a dugong.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Nothing.' He grinned and thrust out a sandy hand. 'Robert Dalton. Rob, to my friends.'
She took it, nodding her greeting. 'Robert.' His smile twisted slightly. 'I'm Honor Brier.'
'And what are you doing all the way out here, Honor Brier? Pretty much the last place I expected to see a woman.'
'Because of an old Malay myth that says women can't be on this island?'
'No. Because it's supposed to be uninhabited.'
'I live here eight months of the year. I oversee the turtle nesting and audit the booby colonies.'