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Brandon stood at the edge of the beach, where jungle met sand, and watched his quarry wade out of the ocean.
He hadn't expected to find her this soon.
Izzy Sanborn, aka Isabel Sanchez, dropped her surfboard on the shore, sluicing water from her dark hair. Her bikini top was snug, clinging to her lithe upper body, but her boardshorts were too large, almost falling off her hips. She knelt down on the sand, her back to him, and inspected what appeared to be a broken fin.
His heart began to pound with anticipation. Puerto Es-condido was famous for big waves, and he was almost as eager to paddle out as he was to get his woman. Oaxaca's "Mexican Pipeline" rivaled the strength and size of Oahu's North Shore. Surfers from all over the world came here to test their mettle.
Ms. Sanborn had quite a bit of mettle, apparently. The beach was deserted and the conditions were precarious.
Surfing here with no protective equipment was dangerous. Doing it alone was damned near suicidal.
Brandon strode forward, aware that she couldn't hear him approach over the crashing waves. He hadn't planned to sneak up on her but he knew that she avoided strangers. She might bolt if she saw him coming.
Before he had a chance to announce his presence, she tilted her head, catching sight of him out of the corner of her eye. Quick as a cat, she leaped over her surfboard, drawing up the leg of her shorts. There was a dagger strapped to her upper thigh.
He was impressed by her quick reflexes, and more than a little concerned that she would try to gut him like a fish. Resisting the urge to drop into a protective stance, he waited for her to make a move. Instead of unsheathing her weapon and launching an unprovoked attack, she slipped her hand out from under the hem of her shorts and straightened. She also relaxed her face, as if nothing was amiss.
"I'm sorry," he said, keeping a cautious distance between them. "I didn't mean to scare you."
She remained silent, her expression cool now, impossible to read. Without being too obvious about it, he studied her appearance. Her black knit bikini top molded to her breasts in a tempting way. She had a trim figure: flat belly, slim waist, curvy hips. Every inch of her was smooth and tanned and toned. Strong, but decidedly feminine.
He lifted his gaze to her face, noting that she was even prettier in person. Her features were well arranged, her mouth nicely shaped. With her thick, dark lashes and fine brown eyes, she was striking.
Brandon had seen her picture in magazines, and memorized every detail, so he shouldn't have been caught off guard by her beauty. He shouldn't have been dazzled by it, either. For some reason, she made him feel like an awkward teen again. The circumstances were unusual, of course. He'd never had a female target before.
To put her at ease, he repeated his apology in awkward Spanish, as if he wasn't sure she'd understood him.
She crossed her arms over her chest, more annoyed now than wary. "I speak English."
"Cool," he said, flashing a friendly smile. "You're a really good surfer. Those were some sick moves."
"Too bad about the broken fin."
She shrugged. "It happens."
"This looks like a tricky break. And a sharp reef."
"Yes. Not for amateurs."
"You surf alone?"
"All the time."
"Wow," he said, shaking his head. "You have more cojones than I do."
He'd meant that figuratively, but her gaze drifted down to the Velcro fly of his boardshorts, as if checking out his male anatomy. His stomach muscles tightened on reflex and she glanced away, flushing.
Brandon watched a bead of salt water travel down the side of her face, fascinated. Her complexion wasn't so dusky that he couldn't see a tinge of pink on her cheeks. He wondered if she was embarrassed by his offhand remark, or angry with him for invading her privacy. "Can you give me some pointers?"
"You've got no business here if you're inexperienced."
"I'm experienced enough," he said mildly.
"What do you see out there?"
He did a quick assessment. "This is a high-tide break. At low, the reef will be exposed, and the wave probably closes out. Swells are far-spaced, height is overhead and there's a slight onshore flow."
Brandon nodded with real pleasure. The only thing better was no wind at all. "Does it get any glassier than this?"
"Not much," she admitted.
He moistened his lips, hungry for a taste of those waves. Intrigued by his most challenging assignment to date. "Will you spot me?"
It was clear that she wanted to say no, but surfing etiquette required her to agree. Refusing a safety request was like dropping in on another man's wave, or trying to steal his girl. It just wasn't done. "Okay," she said, sighing. "I'll keep an eye on you for thirty minutes. Maybe you can catch a few."
Grinning, he offered her his hand. "I'm Brandon North, by the way."
She smiled back, seeming amused by his enthusiasm, and her beauty took his breath away. In the years since her last photo shoot, she'd lost softness in her cheeks and dropped the exaggerated pout. Maturity suited her. She was confident, mysterious and twice as appealing. "Isabel," she said, accepting his handshake.
"Isabel," he repeated. "Can I buy you lunch after this?"
She jerked her hand out of his. "No."
"Do you eat alone, too?"
Her smile disappeared and she sat down on the sand, ignoring his question. "The reef is brutal," she warned, dusting off her knees. "You're better off taking a dive than risking a wipeout."
Avoiding risk wasn't his style, but he didn't say that.
"The wave moves fast once it hollows," she continued.
"If you get a chance to stay inside the curl, go for it. It's a luscious barrel."
He eyed the formation, experiencing a rush of adrenaline that wasn't unlike arousal. Sometimes he'd rather surf than have sex. Lately he hadn't done enough of either.
Aware that Isabel was watching him, he pulled his attention from the water. Despite her dark coloring, she didn't look like a native. Her skin was honey-gold, sun-warmed rather than God-given. Beneath her bikini top, she would be pale and delicate. He imagined pushing the wet fabric aside, revealing her bare breasts and soft nipples.
What Brandon felt now wasn't similar to arousal; it was arousal. His face went taut as he struggled to stay cool. She stared back at him, her gaze burning into his, and a spark ignited inside him. He had the feeling that she knew exactly what he was thinking.
Her eyes trailed down his stomach again, lingering at the waistband of his shorts, which were riding low on his hips. "Go on," she said, refocusing on the waves. It was both a dismissal and a challenge.
Muttering his thanks, he strode toward the shore. The sand beneath his bare feet was a pearly gray, darkened by volcanic ash and littered with crushed shells. Not pristine, but still very beautiful. The water was so clear he could make out the sharp-toothed reef beneath the surface, and the waves broke hard against it, creating one of the sleekest curls he'd ever seen.
His pulse thundered in his ears. He'd been surfing for more than ten yearsthat was the reason he'd been chosen for this assignmentbut he wasn't used to waves like this. The height was intimidating. It also reminded him that he was here to gain Isabel's trust as a dedicated athlete, not to picture her naked.
Brandon waded into the foam-specked surf, determined to impress her. The water was only a few degrees cooler than the balmy air. He felt immersed in pleasure as it enveloped him. In San Diego, the ocean was so cold he usually needed a wet suit, but like most surfers, he preferred to trunk it.
He tossed his board on the water and leaped on top of it, paddling with easy, practiced motions. Ducking under the first wave, he resurfaced on the other side and kept moving to a calmer area beyond the breakers.
When he was in the right position, he turned back toward the beach, straddling his board and sitting upright.
Isabel was watching, waiting.
A decent six came up fast. Lying down again, he headed for the rising swell and paddled hard, standing up just as it gained momentum. His footing was off by a fraction. He lost his balance and the board went flying, propelled by the force of the wave.
Managing to avoid the reef, even while the whitewash swirled like a vortex around him, he felt the tug of his leash and followed it back to the surface. After securing his board carefully, because he'd been hit in the face by a rogue surfboard too many times to count, he cast another glance at the beach. Isabel looked bored.
He redoubled his efforts. His next few tries were more successful, and he fell into a nice rhythm. Although he didn't forget his audience, he started surfing for himself. Ten minutes after he paddled out, a set of high overheads rolled in behind him. They rose up from the sea like liquid monoliths, ten thousand gallons of pure power.
He positioned himself at the top of the swell and let it take him. The wave moved so fast he hardly had to paddle. Holding steady, he popped up, bracing his feet on the surface of the board and lifting his arms.
A split second later, he cut to the right, and the curl folded over him in a perfect hollow. The feeling was so exhilarating he let out a triumphant shout as he maneuvered through the tube, fighting to stay inside.
Now thisthis was how it felt to be alive. Here, he was in his element, with a powerful wave all around him, a killer reef beneath the surface and a sexy woman waiting for him on a deserted beach.
The ride wasn't his all-time best, but it was pretty damned good. In the top ten, for sure. He executed a serviceable cutback and sank into the whitewash as the hollow closed out, narrowly avoiding a run-in with the razor-edged reef.
When he broke through the surface, he steadied his board and wiped the water off his face, laughing out loud from the rush.
Isabel was gone.
His smile faded as he searched the edges of the mangrove for a glimpse of her retreating form. There was only a trail of small footprints heading into the jungle. She'd ditched him as soon as he got distracted. It was bad form, but not necessarily suspicious. He was a strange man; she had cause to be wary.
Instead of running after her, he waded out of the water and followed at a steady pace. This particular beach was only accessible by boat or via a twisty footpath. If Isabel's Jeep hadn't been parked by the side of the road, surf rack half-hidden by foliage, he'd never have found the entrance.
And if she hadn't written an "anonymous" article about this little-known spot for a popular surfing magazine, he'd never have found her.
Brandon still didn't know where she lived, but he knew what she drove, and Puerto Escondido wasn't a big city. He could probably locate her residence in short order. He could also tie her up and throw her in his trunk, if he had to. But strong-arm tactics were a last resort, and he wasn't supposed to make a scene.
He didn't want to alert the Mexican authoritiesunder any circumstances.
So he hitched his surfboard under one arm and navigated his way through the tangle of vines beyond the beach. The jungle appeared impenetrable. There were a few machete marks on the thick palm fronds, forming a barely discernible path. He could smell decomposing vegetation and recent rain. Life and death, blended.
Birdcalls echoed through the pungent depths. A buzzing sound started, growing louder in his ear. He slapped the mosquito on his neck, killing the noise.
After a summer in breezy San Diego, the humidity took some getting used to. The instant the salt water on his skin evaporated, beads of sweat formed on his chest. The jungle seemed to suck up every breath of air and inch of space. It was dark, too. When his eyes adjusted, he could no longer see footsteps on the ground, only hacked-up edges of plants and fallen leaves.
His surfboard shifted, growing slippery against his armpit.
He reached the edge of the clearing in time to watch Isabel's Jeep fly down the road, leaving him in the dust. Squinting at the sudden brightness, he stared after her, his blood pumping with adrenaline.
She was faster than he'd expected. Stronger, more resourceful. He was going to enjoy catching her.