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Daniela Flores tightened her grip on the cold, wet aluminum railing. Keeping her eyes on the horizon and her feet planted on the deck, she took a series of calming breaths.
She wasn't seasick. She'd been on smaller boats in rougher water than this more times than she could count. The San Francisco Bay wasn't known for smooth sailing, and many of the other passengers were feeling poorly, but Daniela's discomfort had nothing to do with a rocking hull, unsteady surface or brisk salt spray.
Her ailment was more mental than physical. Since the accident, she disliked cramped quarters and confined spaces.
Across the crowded cabin, past whey-faced day-trippers and sturdy-legged sailors, the open sea beckoned, mocking her with its infinite expanse. Although a boat this size wasn't as restrictive as the crushed cab of a car, neither did it offer a convenient escape route. The water below was a chilly fifty degrees.
She much preferred the cool blue waves of San Diego, her hometown, where ocean temps hovered at an agreeable seventy degrees. Or southern Mexico, her birthplace, where the sea was as warm and sultry as a hot summer night.
Here, the cold water wasn't even the greatest deterrent for swimmers. Her destination, twenty-seven miles off the coast of San Francisco, was a seldom-visited place called the Farallon Islands, an infamous feeding ground for great white sharks.
The captain's intercom crackled with distortion as he made an announcement. "Devil's Teeth, dead ahead."
The Farallones had earned this moniker a hundred years ago from the fishermen and egg collectors who dared eke out a living here. With no docking facilities, the rocky crags were inhospitable to the extreme, rising from the sea in a jumble of sharp, serrated edges. Although teeming with animal life, every nook and cranny filled with birds and seals and sea lions, the surface area was devoid of greenery.
During the spring, the islands were grassy and lush, dotted with small shrubs and speckled with wildflowers. Now, in late September, the salt-sprayed granite was noticeably bare, picked as clean as old bones.
Daniela watched the godforsaken place materialize before her with a mixture of dread and anticipation. On this cold, gray day, the islands were shrouded by fog, cloaked in mystery. If anything, the landscape was even less appealing than the pictures she'd seen. And yet, she could make out the pale brown coat of a Steller sea lion, the subject of her current research project. He was reclining near the top of a cliff like a king lording over his realm.
Her heart began to race with excitement, thudding in her chest. The Farallones were a wildlife researcher's dream come true. Surely she could set aside her phobia and enjoy her stay here. Six weeks of uninterrupted study were almost impossible to come by, and she'd been waiting over a year for this unique opportunity.
Whenever she was feeling closed in, she could do her breathing exercises. She would stay focused on the present, rather than letting the trauma of the past overwhelm her, blurring the edges of her vision and squeezing the air from her lungs. She would keep her eyes on the horizon and her feet on the ground.
As they drew closer to Southeast Farallon, the main island, she noticed a single house. It was a large, ramshackle dwelling, built over a century ago for light keepers and their families. The old Victorian stood stark and lonely on the only flat stretch of terrain, an ordinary structure on alien landscape. Like a gas station on the moon.
"They say it's haunted."
The deckhand's voice startled her. She dragged her gaze from the whitewashed house to his wind-chafed face. "The entire island?"
"Nah," he said with a smile. "Just the house."
She cast a speculative glance at the simple, no-frills structure. It was the least intimidating feature on the island. And she, like most scientists, didn't believe in ghosts. If she had, she might have believed in an afterlife, as well. Faith was a comfort she'd been denied in her darkest hour, and she wasn't going to start being superstitious now.
"I'm more worried about the sharks," she admitted.
The deckhand grunted his response and jerked his chin toward the shore. "They'll be coming for you now."
She caught a glimpse of two dark figures walking along a footpath etched into the side of the cliff, a few hundred yards from the house. With no docking facilities, setting foot on the island was a tricky process. The research biologists had access to a beat-up old Boston whaler, hoisted above the surface of the water by a formidable-looking crane.
At fifteen feet, the boat was smaller than a full-grown great white.
While she watched, one of the figures boarded the whaler, and the other lowered it to the pounding surf below. In a few efficient moments, the boat was speeding out to pick her up.
"Don't panic," she whispered, squaring her shoulders.
The man driving the boat brought it alongside the charter and killed the engine, exchanging a friendly greeting with a crew member.
When he stood, throwing the deckhand a rope to tie off the whaler, she studied him with unabashed curiosity. His legs were covered by dark, waterproof trousers and knee-high rubber boots, same as hers. Unlike her immaculate, just-purchased ensemble, his clothes were well-used and far from spotless. His jacket was splotched with what might have been bird droppings, and his face was shadowed by a week's worth of stubble.
"Seen any sharks today?" the deckhand asked.
The man grinned. "Day ain't over yet."
Based on his dark good looks, she guessed that this was Jason Ruiz, the Filipino oceanographer she'd been communicating with via email. She'd seen a grainy photo of him once and it hadn't done him justice.
The deckhand lobbed her duffel in his direction. After catching it deftly, Jason motioned with his gloved fingers. "Toss her to me. I'm ready."
The deckhand's eyes were merry, full of mischief.
Daniela took a step back. "I'd rather not"
"We're just messing with you," Jason said, patting the aluminum seat beside him. "Jump over here."
She moistened her lips, measuring the distance between the boats with trepidation. The expanse was less than two feet, but the drop went quite a ways down. And, although the whaler was tied off, it was still a moving target.
Her stomach churned as she watched it pitch and sway.
"Yeah. And try not to hit water. Just because we haven't seen the sharks doesn't mean they aren't there."
The deckhand laughed, as if this were a joke. It wasn't. This time of year, the sharks were most definitely there. They came to the Farallones every fall to dine on a rich assortment of seals and sea lions.
Daniela stared at the surface of the water, feeling faint.
She'd been briefed about the boat situation, of course. But reading a matter-of-fact description detailing the steps needed to access the island was different than actually going through with it. Leaping from a charter to an aluminum boat in shark-infested waters was madness. One false move, one tiny miscalculation, and
Jason gave the deckhand a knowing smirk. "Just throw her to me, Jackie. She can't weigh much more than that bag."
"No," she protested, taking a step forward. She was pretty sure they were teasing again, but she also didn't want to give herself time to reconsider. Chickening out before she'd begun was not an option.
She took a deep breath and grabbed Jason's proffered hand, hopping over the short but frightening precipice.
She didn't fall into the water. She didn't hit the aluminum seat, either. She collided with Jason Ruiz, almost knocking them both off balance. He threw his arms around her and braced his legs wide, holding her steady until the boat stopped rocking.
Daniela clung to him, her heart racing. She hadn't been this close to a man in a long time, and it felt good. Strange, but good. He was much taller than she was, and a lot stronger. She could feel the muscles in his arms and the flatness of his chest against her breasts.
He smelled good, too. Like salt and ocean and hard work. But even while she registered these sensations, there was one irrational, overriding thought: He's not Sean.
"I'm sorry," she said, clearing her throat.
"Don't mention it," he murmured, making sure she was ready to stand on her own before he released her. "I never get tired of beautiful women throwing themselves at me. I only wish I'd showered in recent memory." The corner of his mouth tipped up. "There's a shortage of hot water on the island, and we're all a bit rank."
She couldn't help but smile. "You don't smell bad."
"Really? I thought I smelled like bird crap and B.O."
Laughing, she shook her head. "Bird crap, maybe." The faint odor of ammonia filled her nostrils, but it was coming from the island, not him.
"Daniela," she said, grasping his hand. As quickly as it came, the sexual tension between them dissolved. He was still smiling at her in an appreciative, masculine way, and she was smiling back at him, unable to deny his considerable appeal, but there was no intensity to their mutual admiration.
With his easy charm and handsome face, he probably had a way with the ladies. She'd known men like him before. Her ex-husband, for one. Women had always dropped at Sean's feet, and he'd done little to discourage them.
Feeling her smile slip, she pulled her hand away.
If he noticed her change of mood, he didn't remark upon it. "Ready?" he asked, catching the rope the deckhand threw at him and tucking it away.
Nodding, she perched on the edge of the aluminum seat, paralyzed by self-consciousness. She was so far out of her element here. The past two years, she'd been in virtual seclusion, working from her desk at home and putting in late hours at the research facility. She'd interacted with more spreadsheets than animals. This trip was, in part, an attempt to get her life back. A return to her roots.
She hadn't chosen conservation biology to spend all her time indoors.
Rubbing elbows with other scientists, most of whom were men, was nothing new, and she was no stranger to roughing it, but she hadn't socialized, much less dated, in ages. The close proximity of a hot guy rattled her more than she'd like to admit.
And she couldn't stop comparing him to Sean.
The two men probably knew each other. There weren't that many shark experts in the world, let alone the West Coast, and Jason was from San Diego. They were close in age, although Sean was about five years older. Both of them were tall and fit and remarkably good-looking. They were also consummate outdoorsmen and staunch environmentalists, more comfortable on a surfboard than in a boardroom.
Upon closer inspection, Jason was the more striking of the two, with his dark eyes and sensual mouth. But Sean's all-American ruggedness had always hit her in the right spot.
Daniela turned her gaze back to the calm-inducing horizon. She hadn't seen Sean in over a year, but he still managed to monopolize her thoughts.
Jason maneuvered the whaler into position beneath the boom, a task that required concentration and dexterity. When he found the right place, he stood and hitched the heavy metal hook to the hull with no assistance from Daniela.
She did her best to hang on to her seat and stay out of his way.
Once connected, the whaler was lifted high into the air by the crane, and this ride was no less nerve-wracking than the two-hour boat trip to the islands or the precarious jump she'd taken a few moments ago. She gripped the aluminum bench until her knuckles went white. When the boat shuddered to a stop over dry land, she breathed a sigh of relief and flexed her icy hands.
She couldn't believe she was actually here. Southeast Farallon Island was an odd place, like no other on earth, and the first thing that struck her was the noise. It was nature in chaos. The sound of crashing surf and cawing birds reverberated in her ears, and wind whipped at her clothes, like children vying for attention.
Jason grinned at the boom operator, clearly at home in this wild place. "Thanks, Liz," he shouted, raising his voice to be heard above the cacophony.
The woman at the controls watched while Jason helped Daniela climb from the dangling boat, her expression cool.
Daniela stepped forward to introduce herself. "Liz? I'm Daniela Flores."
"Elizabeth Winters," she said, extending a slender, black-gloved hand.
Daniela accepted her handshake with an uncertain smile.
"I'm the only one allowed to call her Liz," Jason explained, hefting the duffel bag over his shoulder. "Because we're special friends."
Elizabeth regarded him like he was something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Daniela didn't know what to make of her. She was tall and slim, dressed in weatherproof fabric from head to toe, with a gray-blue windbreaker that matched the color of her eyes. A thick auburn braid trailed over one shoulder, and she had the delicate skin of a redhead. Her face was pale and freckled and very lovely.
"I'll refrain from sharing my pet name for you," she said drily.
He laughed, delighted to have irked her. Elizabeth seemed more annoyed than amused. Perhaps she was immune to charming men.
Daniela decided that she liked her. "How is your conservation project coming along?" she asked as they followed Jason down the steep, pebble-strewn path toward the house. "I was fascinated by the study you published recently on the black-feathered cormorant."
Elizabeth's cheeks flushed with pleasure. "Thank you. The islands get so much attention for their sharks." She made a face at Jason's well-formed back, as if he were responsible for the Farallones' notoriety. "Many of the birds here are more unique, and in far greater need of protection, but the majority of funding is spent on shark research. Investors with deep pockets love to see red water and flashing teeth."
"Watch your step," Jason reminded, turning toward Elizabeth and placing his hand on her slim waist.
She tensed at his touch. "I'm fine."
Nodding, he released her and continued on.
Daniela traversed the slope with caution, feeling rocks crumble and roll like ball bearings beneath her booted feet.
"Where was I?" Elizabeth asked.
"'Flashing teeth,'" Daniela supplied, eyes cast downward.
"Oh, right. The tourists come for the sharks as well. Boatloads of gawkers cruise by every weekend. I mean, this is supposed to be an animal sanctuary. Last Sunday they all but ruined my chances at seeing two blue-crested warblers mate"
Her rising voice shut off like a switch as she lost her footing. Quick as lightning, Jason caught her by both arms and hauled her against him, saving her from a nasty tumble down the side of the cliff.
She stared up at him, wide-eyed and short of breath.
"Like I said," he murmured, letting her go. "Watch your step."
"Sorry." With a trilling laugh, she glanced back at Daniela. "I tend to get overexcited, talking about my causes."