By Cherry Adair
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Cherry Adair
All rights reserved.
Teal Williams looked like an unmade bed, and not one Zane Cutter wanted to sleep in. She'd been foisted off on him by her father, so he was pretty much stuck with her. But seeing her again made him realize she couldn't have been more tailor-made for his needs if she'd been special ordered.
Tall, skinny, and nondescript, Teal slouched, half hidden behind his brother Nick, at the other end of the long antique table. She chewed on her thumbnail as she glared at him from beneath shaggy, dark brown bangs.
He bit back a grin. Oh, man. Not only did she have the sex appeal of a mop, she didn't like him at all. A novelty he only appreciated today.
He wasn't attracted to her. At all. Not a spark. Not an ember of desire. Not a scintilla of interest. Nada.
A master marine mechanic and a woman he wasn't attracted to? Unprecedented. But exactly what he needed.
"No," she repeated, enunciating clearly, meeting him eyeball to eyeball without a blink. "I will not go with you."
"You won't?" Zane — known as Ace to the ladies — looked at the new Cutter Cay mechanic. It had been a long time since a woman had told him no. Probably before he hit puberty.
Her look said "Are you a deaf moron?" but she answered politely enough. "Would you like me to repeat that in another language? I know three."
Ah, pure Williams smart-ass, too. She was a real chip off the paternal block. Her short hair looked as though she'd cut it herself with a pair of blunt scissors, and it clearly hadn't seen a comb in a week. She'd obviously slept in the baggy, crumpled khaki pants and faded blue chambray man's shirt, and her nails were bitten to the quick. And if he wasn't mistaken — and Zane rarely was where women were concerned — she was wearing men's work boots on her size large feet, which were tucked out of sight under the table.
Her arms were folded in an "and that's final" gesture over her chest. A pair of double Ds could disappear under that voluminous shirt undetected, though her slim build suggested a more manageable size. Amused at her attitude and her complete lack of feminine wiles, Zane shot her his most charming, engaging smile, the one that had landed him in many a bed. It was met with stony indifference.
She was a fucking miracle! He wanted her on his payroll and refused to take no for an answer.
"How about a pay hike of ten percent to sweeten the pot?"
He would've paid twice that. "Okay. Fifteen."
"No thanks." Her lips tightened. "I have all the money I need."
Her father, the Cutters' lifelong friend and resident mechanic, had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Sam and Logan had put their heads together and offered Teal the job so she could spend some time with Sam while he was still around. No good deed went unpunished, Zane thought, wondering why the hell she'd accepted their offer only to refuse the first assignment. "Do you have a reason?" he asked easily, intrigued, in spite of himself, by her belligerence.
Logan and Nick, the best brothers a guy could ask for, maintained their neutral expressions, but Zane felt their surprise at her refusal to go with him on his salvage. Diego Zamora, one of their captains, studied the ceiling fan while Brian Donahue, Cutter Salvage's head marine archeologist, stared out the window at the water rather than give away their entertainment at his impasse. Zane appreciated their efforts as he fought to capture his stubborn prize.
"I'm a master marine mechanic with over ten years' experience," Teal informed him in a flat, emotionless voice. "I've worked on every make, model, and size of engine. Diesel or gas. I can get a job — on dry land — anywhere in the world."
"Dry land? You're aware you accepted a job on an island, right?"
"I was told I'd have my own bungalow. I like my privacy. There's no privacy on a boat."
The building where they were meeting had seen its share of business deals, and this wouldn't be the last. Nicknamed the Counting House for obvious reasons the two-story wood structure looked as though the next tropical hurricane would blow it away. But like Zane's boat, its looks were deceiving.
Here they compared notes at the end of a salvage operation, drank beer, told tall tales, and this was where the fifty or so permanent island residents gathered for birthday parties, hurricanes, and funerals. The sturdy building had been constructed by his father to store his priceless treasure when he'd bought the private island thirty-some years before. The Counting House was where the Cutters and their other salvors brought multimillions of dollars' worth of salvaged treasure to be cleaned, cataloged, and sorted by Brian and his team of highly experienced marine archeologists. The building had to be, and was, as secure as Fort Knox.
No privacy on the Decrepit was one of the things Zane enjoyed most. He knew his crew better than he knew some of his friends. Come to think of it, other than his brothers, his team were his best friends.
"What did you think you were hired for?" Zane asked mildly. "Cutter Salvage? Boats?"
"To fill in for Sam while he's ... out." The pause was infinitesimal. Her chin jutted out, daring him to knock that damned giant chip off her shoulder. "Here on the island."
His lips twitched. She was a real piece of work. "That's why I need you. To keep her going." Everyone said he was a lucky guy. He'd never struggled to fit in, he had a family he loved, good friends, and more money than he could spend in his lifetime. Women adored him. Hell, even little girls and old ladies gravitated toward him. He wore his good fortune slung around his shoulders like a magic cloak.
He took in the defiant jut of her jaw and the go-to-hell glint in her eyes. "I've got to have a top-notch mechanic," Zane told her cheerfully. She might not like him, but according to her father, she had a thing for sick engines. Perfect. "You were hired to be that mechanic. We leave in the morning." He looked at his oldest brother. "Didn't she sign a contract, Logan?"
Logan's eyes glinted with amusement, but his expression didn't change. "She did, Ace."
"You'll like the Decrepit," Zane assured her, his good mood rising exponentially the more tenacious and determined she became. God, he just loved a challenge. Got his blood pumping and put a fire in his belly. A great way to start a new salvage.
He felt alive. Invincible.
"The Decrepit." Teal glanced disdainfully out the window to the marina, and his beloved boat, showing her surprisingly delicate profile. Snooty little nose, pugnacious jaw, crazy hair. She turned back to give him an unfriendly look from beneath that mop of hair half obscuring her face. "Should be scrapped. Buy yourself a nice shiny new boat like your brothers. Then you wouldn't need a round-the-clock mechanic."
"Maybe I will." He followed her gaze to look beyond the large windows and prow-shaped, cantilevered deck, to the marina. A dozen sailboats and four large dive boats bobbed gently on aquamarine water. The rust-streaked hull of his Decrepit stood out like a sore thumb against the gleaming white of the other boats. He smiled.
He liked the well-worn look of her, including the battered yellow crane perched like a praying mantis on her bow. Oh yeah. Inside the Decrepit was a different story. It amused the hell out of him that his shitty-looking boat was a sore spot with his brothers. He enjoyed people underestimating him. He loved his boat, and had no intention of replacing her. Ever. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Zane loved every screw, nut, and rust spot.
Still smiling, he turned his gaze back to his problem, and added easily, "But not until after this season. Besides, you might be surprised. Looks can be deceiving."
She gave him the evil eye. "I've found that looks can be confirming. The answer is still no."
He wisely suppressed a smile. She was a hard nut, but he remained confident. She had all the skills he required and none of the distractions. Just a month of her working on the current engine. Sam had known how to keep the old girl running and had assured Zane that Teal could do the same.
He read the tension along Teal's tough jawline. Everybody wanted something. He just had to figure out what it was she wanted. "The pay is more than fair. What more do you want?"
"A Shetland pony."
Her unexpected, dry sense of humor, done with a perfectly straight face, was a bonus. "Seriously. What do you want?"
"Not to go with you."
Zane gritted his teeth. "Besides that."
She glared at Logan, who sat across from her. "Have someone take me to Tortola. I never agreed to work on that piece of floating crap out there. Keep me on the island or send me home."
"You haven't even seen your father yet," his middle brother Nick pointed out, trying to keep a straight face.
"I'll wave to him on my way out to the helipad."
Jesus. Insulting his precious boat was bad enough, but that was cold. Sam was terminally ill. Zane suspected Teal's father, a taciturn man, was looking forward to spending some quality time with his only child — not that Sam had said the words. The hop, skip, and jump distance to the wreck site would make their reunion possible. "Listen," he said reasonably. "It won't be a full month away. You can come and check on your dad whenever you like."
Zane remembered Teal as a child. Vaguely. He'd seen her around the island now and then when she'd come for her annual two-week school vacations. She'd been a shy little thing, always darting off when he went to see Sam. Skinny and plain even back then.
"I'm not going." She'd gotten over the shy, though. In spades.
"Chopper's already gone back to Tortola," Zane told her. "I'll be stopping by there tomorrow for supplies."
Teal tossed her bangs back and he got a good look at her large, dark eyes. Pretty. Too bad her hair covered everything but the angry glitter. "And you'll drop me off?"
"No. You'll be continuing on to St. Maarten with the rest of the team."
"Hasn't anyone ever told you no?" Teal scowled at him, then turned the scowl on his oldest brother. "You hired me as a mechanic for Cutter Cay; you didn't say anything about going out to sea. He can't force me to go with him."
"No, he can't," Logan assured her. "You can leave of your own free will; you're not an indentured servant. I'll tear up your contract right now if you really don't want the job. But I think your father deserves to know why you're changing your mind. He's the one who recommended you to fill his position."
Her shoulders tensed under the baggy shirt. "He di —" She gripped the edge of the table. "I want the job. Mechanic. Here. On Cutter Cay, where I can see Sam whenever he wants to be seen. I do not want to go to sea in a boat that will more than likely need salvaging before the season's over."
She was dead serious. Zane acknowledged a millisecond of panic. He'd spent four long, painstaking years searching for the Dutch frigate, Vrijheid. He'd finally found her. A hundred miles off the coast of St. Maarten. Right in his own backyard — right under his nose for God's sake! Would have found it sooner if it hadn't been hiding in some bizarre navigational dead zone, a stretch of sea where his navigational and detecting equipment tended to go on the fritz, if they worked at all.
Fortunately, Zane had decided to explore the area anyway, and it ended up being one of the best decisions of his life. Now he wanted no distractions for the duration of the salvage. There was a fortune in gold, silver, and emeralds a hundred feet under, and he was determined to return home with the Decrepit groaning under the weight of his treasures.
With her. Teal Williams. Mechanic. Certified diver. Undesirable female.
It was crucial to his focus that she didn't turn him on, although he usually did like them long and lean. Hell, he liked them short and round, and everything in between. He liked women. A lot. He liked the way they smelled. He liked the way they walked. He liked how their convoluted brains worked. He fell in love frequently, but never for longer than two weeks.
Now all he wanted from this particular woman was a month. One stinking damned month. Was that too much to ask? With the hurricane season fast approaching, and forecast to be a bad one, he couldn't afford to spend weeks searching for a different mechanic, not one with her level of experience and qualifications.
She was a woman. He'd dazzle her with wit and charm if necessary. "Can you cook?" That would be a bonus.
On second thought, that was probably a good thing. The way she was looking at him made Zane decide to make her sample everything before he ate it anyway. "I know you're a certified diver." Which was an enormous plus. "I just hope you can at least make decent coffee."
"Are you kid —"
He held up a hand. "I'll pay you a percentage of the profits from the Vrijheid salvage. It's got emeralds as big as this." He made a fist.
She stared at him for several beats. It seemed to Zane that everyone else at the table held their collective breath as they waited to see who blinked first. She chewed her lower lip, giving her thumbnail a break. "Over and above my salary?"
Which was more than generous already. "Sure." It was SOP to share the profits with one's crew.
She leaned forward, resting her forearms on the scarred table so she could see around Nick. The shirt swallowed her hands, and Zane was tempted to go over there and roll them up for her, but then he'd want to straighten her collar and hand her a damned comb. However, he suspected if he so much as came close, let alone touched her, he'd find himself with a broken hand.
Something mysterious flashed in her eyes before she asked, "How much of a percentage?"
Bingo. He bit back a smile. So, she did have a price, it was just a matter of negotiation. "We can draw up a new contract right after the meeting."
She was just jerking his chain. He raised a brow. She was perfect — perfectly annoying. If they didn't kill each other before the salvage was through, it would be a miracle. If he killed her beforehand, there was the entire Caribbean ocean to dispose of the body. "You don't trust me?"
"Guilty until proven innocent." She gave him an unfriendly look that just piqued his curiosity. He'd interacted with her maybe four or five times over the years. He didn't remember her ever being this openly hostile before.
"Wow, you're cynical. Look," he said reasonably. "Cutter Salvage pays damn well. We had our pick of a hundred excellent mechanics —"
"There you go, then. Have at it."
"But it was Sam who asked us to hire you." Zane turned the screw. "If you're serious about not coming with me, your call. But you have to go explain to a dying man why you're throwing his good name back in his face."
"Zane —" Logan cautioned as Teal's cheeks drained of color.
"Wanna tell your father that you have better things to do?" It was a low blow and he felt like a shit for doing it. But Sam hadn't asked. He'd begged them to bring his daughter to the island. The plea had been unnecessary. She was good and she was experienced. And Sam had been an integral part of the Cutter brothers' lives for as long as Zane could remember. If her father wanted Teal nearby, then that's where she'd be. End of story.
She glared belligerently, her eyes so hot he was surprised his hair wasn't on fire.
"I'll go with you. Happy now?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact," he said cheerfully. "I am."
Pleased to have gotten his way, he wondered what she'd do if he up and kissed her with gratitude. Probably bite. Then there'd be rabies shots ...
"Great," Logan inserted. "You two stay after class and iron out the details so we can get to business before midnight. Brian has prelim info after checking out some of Nick's haul ... Sorry, Diego." Logan's lips quirked. "We have an embarrassment of riches today, you'll have to wait your turn."
"No hay problema, amigo. I'm happy to sit here with the sun on my face, and a pretty girl by my side." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Undertow by Cherry Adair. Copyright © 2011 Cherry Adair. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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