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Torie Sands was shivering so hard her teeth clattered together. Not only was she cold, she was—well, sort of scared.
What in the world was she going to do? She'd come out onto this spit of land when the sun was still shining, California-beach style, and she'd gone on a sentimental journey around the rock, looking for her childhood in the caves. She'd forgotten how quickly the weather could change out here—not to mention the water level.
Now she was stuck. The spit turned into an island at high tide. And the fog had come in—not on little cat feet, but like a wild herd of ghostly mustangs, silent and deadly, sweeping in with a vengeance.
She remembered now. This sort of thing was called a killer fog when she was a kid and living up on the cliff above, the only child of the Huntington family butler. She knew she should be able to swim or wade to the shore, but she couldn't see land and the current was running hard toward the open sea. If she got caught up in that
A crack of thunder made her jump. Great. Now it was probably going to rain.
How was she going to get out of here? She hadn't told anyone where she was going. Her cell phone was telling her No Service. She hadn't brought along any flares. Could she possibly spend the night out here? No!
And then she was eaten by the slimy sea monster
The phrase came sailing into her head from some long-forgotten campfire story from her childhood. Ah, memories. She shivered that much harder.
Okay, time to call for help. She hadn't seen another soul as she'd come sashaying down through the dunes and across the wet sand bridge, but just in case After all, what other option did she have?
"Help!" she yelled as loudly as she could. "Help! I'm caught out here on the island. Help!"
Nothing. Just the sound of water slapping against the shore in rhythmic waves. In the distance—the far, far distance—she could hear the lonely call of a foghorn. She pulled her arms in close and winced as the wind slapped her hair into her eyes. This was no fun and she was bordering on hysteria.
"Mrs. Marino?" A deep male voice came arcing through the gloom. "Are you out there?"
She gasped with relief. Human contact! Maybe she wasn't going to die out here in the cold after all.
It took her a moment to register the name, though.
Mrs. Marino? What? Oh. That was the name she was going under so as not to alert the Huntingtons as to who she really was. She shouldn't give out any hints that it was a phony.
"Yes," she called back, surprised to hear how her voice quavered. "I'm here. What should I do? How do I get back to the other side?"
"Just hold on. I'm coming to get you."
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. She was already in love with that voice. He sounded hard and male and sure of himself. Confidence. That was the key word here. Hopefully, the man would fit the voice and she would be safe. Hopefully.
Marc Huntington was growling softly as he began to pull off his jacket and then his long-sleeved knit shirt. This was not exactly the way he'd planned to spend his afternoon—rescuing one of the vultures who had come to Shangri-La, his family estate, to pick the bones clean.
He knew the situation. There was no money left. He'd come back home just in time to watch his heritage be destroyed. Unfortunately, his ten years in the military hadn't equipped him with the kind of funds needed to pay the back taxes his mother had ignored for too long. Selling the entire estate seemed to her to be the only way to deal with the problem and she was the official owner. It was her call.
So Shangri-La was up for sale. His mother's elaborate advertisements had produced a set of eight visitors here for the weekend, here to look the place over and come up with their offers. Every one of them was a grifter as far as he could tell. He could have cheerfully watched them all drown.
Well, not actually. His years as a Navy SEAL had ingrained the protective, rescuing ethic in his mind so thoroughly, it would take more than pure loathing to cleanse it from his soul. It was a part of him. How did you unlearn something like that?
"Talk to me," he ordered the stranded lady he couldn't see. "As I go through the current, it'll help keep me on course."
"Okay," she called back, sounding less scared now.
"What shall I talk about?"
He was growling again. What did it matter what she talked about? He wasn't going to listen to anything but the sound of her voice. Her actual words weren't important. Maybe he should tell her to recite the details of the terms she was planning to offer in buying out his family estate. Hah.
"Sing a song," he suggested, looking down at his board shorts and deciding not to strip quite that far. He'd taken off the shirt and jacket because he might have to swim if the water was deep enough. But going down to his boxers wouldn't help much. "Recite a poem.
He stepped into the icy water, feeling it wash against his legs even though the fog was so thick, he could barely see anything. Across the way, he could hear the woman beginning to sing something. She had a nice voice. He stopped and listened. Whatever that was she was singing, it had a familiar sound to it, like a Celtic folk song. Where had he heard that before?
He shook his head. It didn't matter. If she could keep it up, he would find her soon enough. One last growl and he plunged into the current, heading for the high, clear voice he heard through the fog.
Torie heard him coming through the water. He was getting closer. Sweet gratitude surged through her system. She raised her face to where the sun should be and sang harder and higher, trying to give him a clear signal as to her location.
And then she heard splashing very close and in a minute or two she began to make out the dark shape of a man coming toward her.
"Oh, thank God," she cried as he approached. "I was afraid I was going to have to spend the night out here in the cold."
He didn't speak and as he came closer, she could make out his features and she began to realize he had a familiar look to him. She frowned. Oh no! It couldn't be.
He stopped a couple of feet away. "Mrs. Marino, I'm Marc Huntington. Marge is my mother. Just so you know I' m not some random beach bum."
Her heart began to thud in her chest. Marc Huntington. What was he doing here? It had been years since she'd seen him—at least fifteen of them. She'd heard he was overseas, in the service, fighting bad guys and raising hell.
But here he was, staring at her and looking none too friendly, despite his polite words. "How did you get out here, anyway?" he growled. "And why?"
He didn't recognize her. That was a relief. But why should he? She barely recognized him—and wouldn't have if she'd met up with him anywhere else. The last time she'd seen him, he'd been about half this size, a lanky, smart-mouthed teenager who probably didn't even know she existed.
Now he was all corded chest muscles and wide shoulders, with dark hair that tended to fall over his forehead and crystal-blue eyes that seemed remarkably hostile. Bottom line—he was pretty much the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen. She drew her breath in sharply and couldn't say a word.
His brow furrowed. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. It took two tries before she could speak.
"Uh I'm my name is Torie But I guess you know that. I was just exploring the caves and the fog came in and and "
"Okay," he said impatiently. "No problem. Your husband was getting excited when you didn't show up for tea. Everyone is out looking for you."
Husband? Husband? She didn't have a husband. Oh. But she did have Carl Marino, and he was pretending to be her husband. She had to keep that straight in her mind.
"I'm sorry to be a bother," she said, finally getting control of herself. The shock of coming face to face with the man version of the boy she'd had a crush on for years had thrown her for a loop, but she was getting her balance back. She had to remember he was the enemy, just like everyone else in the Huntington family—the enemy she'd come to slay like a proverbial dragon.
And now here was one of them, saving her from the cold. A bit awkward, to say the least.
"I lost track of time."
He nodded, his blue-eyed gaze skimming over her bare arms and legs in the skimpy sundress she'd worn. "Next time, bring a jacket," he suggested gruffly. "It can turn cold fast."
And she'd known that. After all, she'd spent every summer of her childhood right here on this very beach. But it had been a good fifteen years since her last visit and she'd been so excited to see her old secret places, she'd forgotten about the vagaries of the weather.
"I'm okay," she insisted, despite her chattering teeth. "Are you going to lead me back?"
He looked her up and down and, for the first time, there was a hint of humor in his eyes.
"No," he said. "I'm going to carry you."
"What?" She began to back away from him on the sand. "No. You can't carry me all the way back."
"Why not? I'm trained to carry awkward loads, and you definitely look like a lightweight anyway."
She stopped and glared at him. Was he making fun of her? Why the hostility when he thought he'd only just met her?
"Awkward and bird-brained at the same time?" she asked crisply. "I didn't realize you knew me that well."
His mouth twisted. "That isn't what I meant."
"No, but it's what you said."
His look was long-suffering. "Mrs. Marino, your husband is having a fit back at the house. He seems to think you're likely to walk off a cliff or something, unless you're carefully watched. So I intend to make sure you get back safely." He made a gesture with his head. "Come on. Let's get this over with."
She looked at him, at the smooth, hard flesh she was going to have to touch in order to do what he'd suggested, and her heart began to pound like a hammer. There was a time when she'd dreamed about touching him—but that was when she was half in love with him from afar. Now, the thought was horrifying. He was the enemy. She couldn't do it.
"No," she said. "I'll follow you. hold on to " She was going to say, your shirt, but he wasn't wearing one, and the only alternative was the back of his low-slung board shorts. The thought of sticking her fingers down there made her gasp.
He watched her, waiting as her face registered a growing realization of the problem.
"Exactly," he said, his voice mocking. "I'll carry you," he said again.
She was shaking her head. "I don't think so."
His patience was running thin and it showed. "Listen carefully. There is a hard current running through the deepest part of the channel, right where we have to cross. If it knocks you down, the strength of it could carry you right out to sea. Then I would have to swim out after you, and I don't know how successful I'd be. It's safer for all concerned if you just let me pick you up and ."
"Isn't there some other way?"
His frown was getting fiercer. "What is your problem?"
She drew in a deep breath and told him with a glare. "You're almost naked, you know."
He gave her a look that said he thought she was nuts. "You're not exactly well-covered yourself. If we'd been swimming, you wouldn't think twice."
"Look, every minute we delay, it's only getting worse. Come on." His quick smile was sarcastic. "I'll be gentle, I swear it."
By now she was seriously annoyed with him. He wasn't even trying to see this from her point of view—and he had no interest in exploring alternatives. She looked around, trying to think of some way to avoid this, and he took a step forward and grabbed her, swinging her up into his arms. It was pretty obvious he wouldn't mind just chucking her over his shoulder, good to go, but when she shrieked he relented and straightened her so that one arm was under her knees and the other behind her back. She threw her arms around his neck to avoid being dropped, and they started off.
He was impossibly hard and exciting to touch, but even worse, his incredible warmth worked on her like a drug. She was clinging to him, trying to get closer. She closed her eyes and took it all in, trying to pretend he wasn't the boy she used to watch with stars in her eyes.
Those stars had dimmed when the Huntingtons had fired her father, accused him of crimes and kicked her whole family out of what had long been their beloved home. Let's face it, the Huntingtons had pretty much destroyed her family and torn apart their lives—and all over a lie. Nothing had ever been the same again and the pain and resentment still smoldered deep inside her.
But she'd never been in stronger arms. It felt good—as long as she didn't think about who he really was.
The water was surging against him and she could feel the effort it took him to keep his footing. He almost went over at one point, splashing a spray of seawater against her legs, and she cried out, holding on more tightly, pressing her face against his neck.
"I've got you," he told her gruffly. "Just a little bit more. We're almost there."
She peeked out. She couldn't see a thing but the cold, clammy gray of the fog. How did he know they were almost there? She couldn't tell. But she knew one thing—his skin against hers felt like heaven. To think she'd been resisting.
But the fog was lifting and she began to see the shore herself.
"Here we are," he said, and she could feel the difference in the way he was walking. They'd hit dry sand. He began to lower her and she felt a pang of regret.
"Put on my jacket," he told her as he picked it up off the sand and handed it to her. She did as he suggested. It was big and heavy, made of denim with a few studs at the pockets—and it still felt warm, as though his body heat had lasted.
She turned to look at him. His arms were raised and he was pulling a long-sleeved thermal shirt down over his head. She watched, marveling at the interplay of muscles, and then gasped as she noticed the deep, ugly scar that disfigured an area of his rib cage.
Her shocked gaze met his ice-blue eyes as the shirt came down into place and covered everything—the muscles and the scar. She blinked at him, feeling breathless.
She wanted to ask about the scar, but the look in his eyes told her not to do it. Still, she had to say something. It was only right.
"Did you do something horribly brave that saved the day?" she asked a bit too quickly.
His look was dismissive. "No. I did something horribly stupid and ended up injured, which is something you never want to let happen."
"Oh. Of course."
But she didn't want him to think she was just a snotty brat. She needed to let him know she did appreciate what he'd done for her.
"Thank you," she said at last, feeling almost shy now that they were on firm ground and about to end their rescue encounter. "I really appreciate it. I mean."