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She was the only female fully clothed.
On an enormous party boat filled with people, a dozen half-naked women vying for masculine attention, her subtlety made her stand out. And he wasn't the only man noticing, a fact that was starting to get to him.
He should thank her. After all, he needed all the distractions he could get right now. Trying to keep his mind off the importance of the deal he'd finalize once they reached Marco Island was making him crazy. He'd worked long and hard for this day, and now it was almost at hand.
She walked to the railing, leaning out over the clear blue Gulf waters, watching the sky and the endless seas; she seemed aloof. A damp, salty breeze picked up and plastered her loose, colorful skirts to her body, emphasizing a sweet little bottom and long legs.
Adam Stone shifted his carry-on bag from one hand to the other, then flexed his fingers. The expensive leather bag, bought for him by his younger brother, Kyle, was a celebratory gift specifically for this trip. The bag was attached to his belt by a long leather strap, securing it to his person. It held important papers as well as a sizable check. Beyond that, the bag held significant sentimental value. This bag was a sign of his future, his family's future. There was little chance of being robbed on the yacht, but his innate sense of caution was hard to shake off when so much was at stake.
He considered approaching the woman, but held back, mostly because he knew he didn't have time to get involved beyond small talk. Not only that, she appeared to be ignoring all the males on the boat, himself included. So far, she'd kept her back to him, almost as if she knew of his interest and rejected it out of hand.
The Florida sun was hazy today, the sky overcast, but that didn't deter the bikini-clad boaters who approached him. They'd been coming on to him since he'd climbed aboard, determinedly seductive, despite his disinterest. All his attention remained centered on that elusive woman as she walked away, separating herself from the crowd once again.
Without his usual charm, Adam excused himself to follow her. It was her glossy black hair he spotted first. Even without the glare of sunshine, that dark hair shone silky soft. The wind ruffled the short, fine curls and sent her colorful skirts billowing like a flag.
Ridiculous that seeing the shape of a slim thigh through a filmy skirt should have such an effect when he'd just walked away from a topless woman, but there was no denying his interest. He felt it clear to the bottom of his stomach, and somehow, the feeling was damn familiar.
Her elbows were braced on the handrail, so he could easily trace the feminine line of her nape, her spine, down to a narrow waist. Her halter top, modest in comparison to the tiny bikinis, still afforded him a teasing view of honey-colored skin and tempting curves. Enthralled, he stepped a little closer, again shifting the bag in his hand.
She hadn't yet noticed his approach. With a sigh that he detected even over the loud music and the rush of the water against the hull, she lifted her face to the breeze. Adam stepped slightly to the side, curious to see her profile, to decide if her looks warranted all the interest she'd generated in him.
His shock almost knocked him over.
"Mel? Mel Tucker?"
Rather than turning to him with equal surprise, she abruptly stiffened. Her hands gripped the rail a little harder, and she slowly swiveled her head in his direction. Eyes narrow, mouth set, she said, "Old habits die hard, I see. But the name is Melanie. Ms. Tucker to you."
Adam laughed, his entire mood suddenly lighter. The cursed fate that had put him on this boat no longer seemed so cursed. "You haven't changed a bit, Mel." His gaze coasted over her as she turned to face him fully, hands on her slim hips. His voice dropped the tiniest bit, and without his mind's permission, he muttered, "You're still sexy as hell."
Her mouth tightened, and the pale blue eyes that still haunted his dreams looked more ominous than the approaching storm. Lifting her nose slightly in a gesture she'd perfected as far back as grade school, she said, "You obviously haven't changed, either."
Her words hit him like a blowjust as she'd no doubt intended. His muscles knotted. The hell he hadn't changed. He hadin too many ways to count.
Adam held onto the burst of anger by a thread. Always, for as long as he could remember, Mel had been able to rile him with very little effort. The last time he'd seen her back in Brockton, Ohio, his family had been incredibly poor, while her family owned the entire town. She lived on a hill with a view while he lived down by the river in a trailer nearly rusted through. Though he'd gotten a job at a young age, what he made went into helping out his folksand his father had died anyway. Mel had gone off to an elite college, and he'd dealt with some of the worst grief of his life.
And she dared to suggest he'd survived it all without changing?
Because he was older and wiser and had long since outgrown taunting any lady, he forced a smile. "Seven years have gone by. I think it's safe to say we've both changed."
She blinked hard and her jaw worked. "What do you want, Adam?"
Incredulous, he stared at her, his mouth open, his brows up. "You're still angry," he accused. "After seven years, you're holding a grudge!" He finished with a short, rough laugh that sent her back straight and her chin up.
Several tense seconds passed, then she abruptly turned away and marched the last few feet to the very back of the boat. She ducked under a slide that sloped from the upper deck to just above the water, opened a double gate and sat on the dive platform. Gathering up her skirts to her knees, she plunked her small feet into the blue water, dismissing him.
Adam fumed. The hell she would dismiss him! He, too, ducked under the slide, sitting cross-legged beside her and propping his bag in his lap. She remained silent and stiff. Too silent. He didn't like it.
Mel had always had an undeniable effect on him. From the first time he'd seen her, when they'd both been no more than kids, there'd been a chemistry of sorts, something she'd denied and he'd continually struggled with. He felt it still, but he wouldn't let her know. He wouldn't let her and her wealth and social position intimidate him after all this time. He'd done all right for himself, though it hadn't been easy. He had no reason to feel like the poor trash her family had once looked down on.
The boat moved lazily, barely slicing through the Gulf waters, yet the surface was choppy. He glanced at the sky, then frowned at Melanie. Searching for innocuous conversation to show his nonchalance, he murmured, "It looks like a damn storm. I'm going to be late."
He wanted her to ask him, Late for what? But she didn't, of course. Nothing with Mel had ever been easy. Instead she said, "You shouldn't be on this boat, Adam."
She hadn't looked at him, and that bothered him even more. All his life he'd thought of her as the one that got away, the one out of reach. There were still nights when he couldn't sleep for thinking of her, imagining____
When they were younger, he'd teased her unmercifully. Though he was two years older, he'd been held back in first grade after missing too much school due to illnesses that didn't get treated by a doctor. Real doctors were often too expensive, and trips to the clinic took his parents away from work.
He and Mel saw each other often back then, and her lifestyle, her obvious wealth, had been like a pounding toothache; it prodded at him always, reminding him of what he didn't have, while she had way too much. As a kid, he'd almost hated her, at least on some level.
By junior high school, though, he'd learned to hide his feelings
and he'd gradually become aware of her as a female. She represented all the things in life he wanted to obtain; security, comfort, importance. After a while, he'd wanted to obtain her. But that was like wanting the moon in the palm of his hand. Ridiculous.
He'd watched her constantly, dwelling on their differences, feeling equal parts obsessive and possessive. When her innocent eyes began looking more sad, more lonely, he was the first, maybe the only, to notice. In a small, moderate town, her outstanding wealth had isolated her.
He'd wanted to chase that sadness away. It gave them something in common, something he gravitated to. But that was so long ago. She'd hated him then. Evidently she hated him still.
"I should have taken a charter," he growled, ignoring the pang of old regrets and the bite of her scorn that could still bother him regardless of his denials. The wind whistled around them, and a colorful float went flying off the deck to bob wildly in the churning water. "But the damn captain of the charter came down ill. I would have missed an important meeting, but then your buddy, the captain of this boat, saw me and offered a ride. I accepted."
"He's not my buddy. I barely know him."
"Then what are you doing here?"
She stared out at sea, constantly pushing her wind-tossed curls out of her face. Her hair was shorter now, but he liked it. The casual style suited her small features. The hem of her skirt was getting damp, but she either didn't notice or didn't care. He noticed. He'd always been painfully aware of every little detail that concerned her.
Ignoring his question, she said, "I saw you earlier." She glanced at him, then away again, her expression still set. "You've had at least two women hanging onto you ever since you stepped on board. Some things, I guess, never change."
Stunned, he stared at her profile. "You saw me right away but didn't say hello?"
"Why would I?" She looked right at him, and her eyes blazed. "We didn't exactly part as friends. You were a mean, petty jerk who enjoyed making my life miserable."
He searched her face, his frustration extreme. "For God's sake, Mel, that was seven years ago. We were kids, and when we got older I didn't
"Melanie. My name is Melanie, damn it."
He couldn't recall ever seeing her temper before. Mostly she'd been nervous with him, shying away if he got too close, never defending herself, no matter how hard he'd tried to get her to do just that. He lifted one brow, more frustrated by the second. "Well, excuse me all to hell and back." Then he asked, "You have changed, haven't you?"
There went that chin again. "If you mean you no longer intimidate me, yes."
"I intimidated you?" He knew it was true, that he'd played on her vulnerability, but it wasn't something he wanted to own up to now. Jealousy, need, a very basic emotional hunger, had driven him then. He wasn't proud of that time in his life. "Honey, you were the one with all the clout. If you'd wanted, you could have had my whole family tossed out of town."
She blinked, as if surprised by what she'd said, what she'd admitted. A few raindrops fell, lightly at first, but quickly picking up ferocity. Behind them, the partyers began scurrying about, laughing and squealing. Women grabbed for their tops or towels, couples jumped out of the upper deck hot tub. Within minutes, everyone was under cover in the cabin. Everyone except them.
Finally Melanie looked away and Adam drew a deep, starving breath, still watching her. For a minute there, with her gaze locked on his, he'd felt caught, and the feeling wasn't altogether uncomfortable. She stirred something in him that had been missing for quite some time.
The rain came a little harder, wetting his hair, but Adam ignored it.
He should take her arm and help her into the cabin. But he didn't want to. He wanted to talk to her, alone, away from the damn drunken crowd. Once they reached the island, he likely wouldn't see her again. Somehow, he wanted to apologize to her for his behavior of the past. Somehow, he wanted her to know all he'd accomplished since then, exactly how much he'd changed.
He didn't want her thinking of him as the poor kid down by the river.
The boat was suddenly put in full throttle, and they both lurched, grabbing a section of handrailand a part of each other. Mel's fingers clutched his pant leg while he held her elbow. Gently, his heart pounding, he slid his hand down her arm to her slender fingers. Her hold loosened, and when she would have let go, he captured her hand, steadying her. Mel's eyes widened and she looked behind her, as if only then aware of the storm and the deserted deck. The bouncing boat kept her from shaking him off. Over the roar of the engine, she said, "We should go inside."
An abandoned beach towel hit him in the back, plastered to him by the rain and wind. He held her just a little tighter while struggling to untangle himself from it. Thank God he had dry clothes in his bag or his meeting would be ruined. He couldn't exactly make the deal of his life looking like a drowned rat. Another float whipped by, disappearing into the churning waters.
Growing alarmed by the strength of the wind, Adam carefully stood, then helped her to do the same. From the sound of the revelers inside the cabin, the laughing and loud music, no one even knew they were still on deck. And just as Mel got to her feet, the boat veered sharply to port and she lost her balance. With wide eyes and a horrified scream, she crashed overboard. Adam cursed viciously and made a wild grab for her but missed. His bag fell from his grasp, and the strap to his waist jerked him off balance. He, too, went over with a gigantic splash, but more awkwardly than she, his head hitting the slide as he flew past.
Just before he went under, he heard the roar of the receding boat motor, the louder roar of the storm, and worse, Mel's nearly hysterical screams. Her fear galvanized him. Ignoring his aching head, he pushed himself to the surface and frantically searched for her while wind, rain and waves lashed his face. The side of his head hurt like hell, but he didn't have time to complain yet. Mel was already several yards away from him, thrashing about wildly as if drowning. Adam felt a crushing fear when he twisted to see the boat going out of sight. Fighting the dragging weight of his heavy bag, he began stroking through the water toward her. Just as she let out another garbled scream, he reached her
and they both went under.