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"Why did you pull in all four survey ships?" Jake Rawlings strode into Oceanic Exploration's largest corner office and slammed the door behind him.
Harold Puttlim, OEI's head honcho, glanced up from the maps and surveys strewn in front of him. "You tell me, Jake." He tossed his pen aside and leaned back in his chair, folding his bent, arthritic fingers over the small paunch of his stomach. "For two months you've been running all four ships practically nonstop looking for the Concha. What have you got for me?" He nailed Jake with his characteristic show-me-the-money gaze. "Are you any closer to finding it than you were two years ago? Ten years ago?"
No. Jake couldn't truthfully make that claim. But then neither could anyone else. Treasure hunters had been climbing all overthemselves looking for the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Concha since it went down in a hurricane off the coast of Florida almost four hundred years ago. With a main cargo hold loaded with enough gold, silver and gems to fetch close to a billion dollars, no shipwreck was more coveted, none more elusive.
"I made a promise," Jake said evenly.
"Don't stand in my way."
Harold seemed to chew on that, his cool gray eyes warming with sentiment. "Your dad and I were partners long before you owned your first set of flippers. I know how much he wanted the Concha." He paused, all trace of emotion draining away. "But a personal promise made on a death bed holds no place in business."
He knew Harold was right. Still, there was the little matter of that smile on his dad's grizzled face after Jake had sworn he'd find the Concha. The glint of pride in the old man's eyes as he lay in that hospital wasting away had stuck with Jake like barnacles on the hull of an old wooden boat.
"We were close this time." Jake resisted the urge to slam his fist against the antique mahogany desk. "I know it.""How do you know?"
"Trust me, Harold. I know. The way a man knows his best friend just slept with his wife."
Harold raised his bushy white eyebrows. "Considering that happens to be your area of expertise and not mine, it doesn't do me much good, now, does it?"
Jake bit back a nasty comeback and walked across the plush gray carpet to the wall of windows, keeping his gait as normal as possible. His ankle was aching to high heaven today, but he wasn't about to show any manner of weakness to Harold, or anyone else for that matter.
"The fact is you've exhausted your crews," Harold continued. "Pissed off everyone from cook to captain. Spent millions this summer. And all you've got to show for it is a feeling you're close."
Flipping back his baseball cap, Jake said quietly, "I never said this search would be cheap or easy."
"You did commit to finding it this diving season. With that tropical storm brewing and another one right behind it, you're running out of time."
"I'm doing everything I can." Since hisdad had died, responsibility for OEI and its employees nipped at Jake's heels like sharks after bloody prey. He'd pumped most of his savings into the company and quit taking a salary months ago, but the debt continued growing. They had to find the Concha. Soon.
Several seagulls fighting over a washed-up fish carcass distracted him for a welcome moment. Although this time of year the surf still rolled gently onto the sand, it was already the end of August, well into hurricane season. They were diving on borrowed time.
"If my survey crews chart for four hours" Jake paced, edgy to get back on the MaÃ±ana. To do something, rather than talk
"I chart for six. If my divers are under for six, I'm under for eight. What more do you want from me?"
"I want you to open up that hard head of yours and consider another approach." Harold rested his knobby fingers on the desktop. "The right on-board marine archaeologist, someone with a history background, might help locate the Concha."
So that's what this was about.
Jake stopped in the middle of the room. "We've been having this discussion for years.
Archaeologists do nothing but slow down operations. They want you to document everything. Pick up everything. Pottery, utensils, wooden planks, every piece of crap. I can't afford to waste time salvaging anything that doesn't pay the salaries at this company. We're looking for gold, silver, gems. Period."
"Well, I got news for you. Milly and I agree on this one. Period."
Jake couldn't believe his mother agreed with the old coot about anything, much less planned on marrying him. Jake's dad hadn't been gone that long.
Harold threw his pencil onto the desk. "You think you've got to prove something since Sam died"
"Don't," Jake said, thrusting out his hand,
"bring Sam into this." At the mention of his younger brother, the pain in his foot turned to all out throbbing.
Now it was Harold's turn to sigh. "I miss him as much as you, Jake, but you'd better hose down the fire in your belly, or it's going to burn right through you and everybody else in its path." He picked up his phone, dialed an internal extension and said, "Come on in here and bring your stuff.""You've already hired somebody?" Jake asked.
"Three days ago."
"Great." Jake ran his hands over the stubble on his cheeks. "Just great."
If Sam were here, he'd have old Harold sweet-talked out of this archaeologist nonsense in the time it took to form a simple hitch knot. Sam had been the charmer in the family. Charismatic and easygoing, men, women, young and old, had followed him around like puppies eager for a scratch behind the ears. He'd been the star, the risktaker and, although it had been unspoken, the one expected to find the Concha.
Jake, on the other hand, had always been OEI's backbone. A responsible, if not boring, workaholic by most people's standards, he was known for his calculated precision and clocking long, hard hours. And that was before the accident. Since then, no one seemed to understand the forces driving him. He worked hardso what? The way he saw it, he merely did what he said he was going to do, and said what was on his mind, straight up, no embellishments, no sugarcoating.
With Jake, you always knew where youstood. With Sam, you'd have liked standing where he put you.Sam. Oh, Sam.
A soft tapping sounded on the door, yanking Jake back from his thoughts. The archaeologist in question walked into the office, carrying an armload of oversized charts and other documents.
"Annie, come on in." Harold stood and smiled in a fatherly kind of way, surprising Jake. Harold never smiled at anyone. Except Jake's mother and occasionally Claire, Sam's widow. "Jake Rawlings, meet Dr. Annie Miller." The old man's gruff voice mellowed a notch.
"Hello, Jake." She reshuffled her load and extended a hand.
Jake considered ignoring her. There was no point in making nicey-nice. OEI couldn't afford her salary let alone the time she'd cost them. But then base-level manners took over, and he shook her hand.
When she turned to Harold, Jake took the opportunity to size her up. Mousy-brown, shoulder-length hair. Tortoiseshell reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. Shortsleeved white linen shirt and black pants. Noearrings, no necklace. Only a barely noticeable silver bracelet on her right wrist and a serviceable watch on her left.
Annie Miller, hell. Annie Hall was more like it. Except for those lips. They belonged on a Victoria's Secret model. As for the rest of her, he couldn't tell exactly what form hid beneath the baggy clothing, but with the way she moved, the way the fabric slipped over her skin, he had the distinct impression she'd be a killer in a bikini. With all those hormones in such close quarters, no doubt she'd wreak havoc aboard his boat.