There it was. Smooth, pink, and gorgeous as hell. Well, gorgeous to him. Everyone else in the world would probably look at the object of Brad Smith’s desire and lose their lunch.
Or worse, consider it lunch. In some parts of the world, she’d be considered a delicacy.
Brad was inches away from scooping up another prize squid out of the ocean. It wasn’t the species he was seeking, but it was one that could provide a few bonus points when he presented his research to The National Aquatic Research Foundation in two weeks. He needed every boost he could get.
He’d been out here the entire day and all he had to show for his efforts was one sunburned nosehe’d forgotten the zinc smear on the bridge againand three dead mackerel, probably thrown back by fishermen who’d accidentally caught them in their nets in their quest for the big-bucks tunas and marlins of Florida’s southwest coastline.
The flash of pink went by again, close enough to the surface that Brad could have almost caught it by hand. He dropped his net into the water slowly, hoping he wouldn’t startle the creature before he could catch it and study it.
With his other hand, he dipped an oar into the water and pushed the boat to the left. Gentle. Quiet. Easy now, here she comes again.
He reached forward and—
Before he could net anything at all, a full orchestra of screams arose from behind him, punctuated by a splash, scaring off the fish, the seagulls and the specimen.
Brad cursed and yanked the empty net into his boat. He wheeled around and saw a pleasure boat tooling away, its wake coming for his little craft like a wave of ants determined to knock over a picnic basket. Caught in the undulating waves behind the retreating Lady’s Delight was a screeching woman.
Definitely not a mermaid. Too obnoxious sounding to be a whale.
Had to be a tourist.
“Just when I’m about to catch a good one,” Brad muttered to Gigi, his shelter-rescued chow, who’d taken her favorite spot on the bow of the inflatable Zodiac boat. “Why do people tour anyway? Why can’t they swim in their own pools and stay the hell out of southwest Florida?”
Gigi gave him a soulful look, then lowered her head to her paws.
Brad shouted at the pleasure boat but it didn’t turn around. The woman hadn’t stopped shrieking, either. He braced his hands on the sides of his eighteen-foot-long boat, holding on as the waves rocked the little craft to the side and back again, each wave lessening in strength.
And still the banshee went on screaming.
Gigi perked up her ears and gave him a bark.
“Oh, you think I should rescue her, huh? Like some knight in shining armor?” Brad looked over the side of his boat, hoping in vain for another flash of pink, but there was nothing. As long as the she-devil was in the water, all marine life was heading for the northern panhandle. If he were smart, so would he. “All right, I’ll help her out. But only for the sake of the sea creatures.”
Gigi yipped approval and got to her feet. A forty-pound chow in an inflatable research boat wasn’t a good combination, but his dog had long ago gotten her sea legs.
Brad tugged up the anchor, yanked the cord on the electric motor, then, with a scowl and several muttered curses, guided the boat to the thrashing woman. He turned off the motor to coast the last few feet toward her so the propeller wouldn’t turn her into bait.
Gigi held her ground, balancing on the little wooden seat with all four paws, letting out barks like a canine version of hot-cold as they got closer.
The woman’s blond head bobbed in the water, went under, then back up again. A wave dipped beneath her chin.
“You all right?” he called to her.
“Do I—” she spit out a swallow of seawater “—look all right to you?”
He tossed the anchor over the opposite side, then turned back to her, draping his arms over his knees. “What you look is wet.”
Beneath the water, he could see long legs and arms making broad strokes as she treaded water with fast, anxious moves, her pink skirt billowing out like the mantle of a jellyfish. If she kept up like that, she’d wear out in five minutes and sink.
Getting a squid into his boat wasn’t a problem. Helping a full-grown woman into it was another story. She could easily swamp them and then they’d both be shark snacks. He cast another glance toward the pleasure boat, but it was quickly becoming a dot against the horizon.
She bobbed down, then up again. “Hey, fisher boy! Could you pay attention? There’s a drowning,” she spit out more seawater, “—woman here!”
Calling him “fisher boy” did not induce him to give her a helping hand. “You’re not drowning. And you look like you can take care of yourself,” he said. “Land’s only about three, four miles away.”
“Get me out of this water,” she said, pronouncing each word with the precision of the Catholic nuns who’d taught him multiplication. “Now.”
He didn’t move. “Why are you in it?”
She gave him a look that said she thought he was an idiot. “I fell in. Obviously.”
“Or did your friends push you in?”
Behind him, Gigi barked. Clearly his chow thought he should stop torturing and start rescuing.
“And what on earth—” more water out “—is that supposed to mean?”
“Well frankly, you don’t seem very pleasant.”
He had never seen anyone look so haughty while they were treading water. “I’m choosy about who rides in my boat.”
She gave him a glare that could have melted a diamond. Her arms started moving even faster at her sides, her legs kicking like hyperactive jackrabbits beneath her. “I’m wet. And late for a meeting. And getting very angry. Before I yank you in the water by your flannel shirt and use your head as a life preserver, would you please get me out of here?”
If he’d been raised a jerk, he’d have left her there. Her please had sounded about as pleasant as turnips for lunch. Maybe he should leave anyway. Start a new trend of jerkiness. Being a nice guy certainly hadn’t gotten him much in life thus far.
But…she did have pretty green eyes. And green happened to be his favorite color. Despite her words, he felt himself relenting. A little. “Gee, when you ask so nicely, how can a guy refuse?”
She gave him another glare. She was really good at those. Must have practiced glaring a lot in finishing school or wherever it was that gave her that attitude.
Brad put out a hand. She caught it and started to haul herself up. “Whoa, not so fast or you’ll pull us both in. Do it slow and easy, a little at a time. Here, use the edge of the boat and slide in.” He grinned. “Just like landing a marlin.”
Her answering scowl told him she didn’t like being compared to a hundred-pound prize fish.
It took some effort, and some delicate balancing on his part, but he managed to get her into the boat. When he did, he noticed she was slim yet strong, and only a few inches shorter than his six-foot-two-inch height. Even wet, she was a gorgeous woman, all legs and long blond hair.
She plopped onto the single seat in the center of his boat, minus a shoe. A high-heeled strappy kind of shoe at that. What kind of person wore high heels on a boat ride?
“It took you long enough,” she said. With a hand over her eyes to block out the sun, she scanned the horizon for the still departing Lady’s Delight.
“How’d you fall in anyway?”
She shook her head. “I swear that old woman tripped me when I walked by her. Was she just looking for a lawsuit?”
Brad decided that was a rhetorical question and let it stand unanswered, even though he had a few ready replies.
She pressed a hand to her chest and winced. “You know, you could have broken a rib dragging me in like that.”
“You could be more grateful I got you out at all. The sharks are always looking for something to eat.”
He took in her wide emerald eyes and flushed damp skin. The side of his brain ruled by testosterone contemplated some nibbling of his own, but of a very different kind. If he ignored everything that had come out of her mouth thus far, she was a very attractive woman. Maybe she was just having a bad day. A very bad day.
And maybe he was too damned nice. Hadn’t his mother told him that? More than once in his twenty-nine years of life? Being nice didn’t get you ahead. Didn’t get you a plum research position. Didn’t get you the notice of the top brass at the Smithsonian.
Being nice got you on a dinghy in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with a dripping wet, ungrateful woman with more attitude than common sense.
“I’m sorry,” she said, letting out a sigh. “Thank you for helping me.”
Okay, not so much attitude.
“Apology accepted.” He reached behind him for a towel and tossed it her way. Gigi had wisely stayed in her corner of the boat, avoiding the whole thing. Dogs had damned good instincts. “Here. Dry off.”
“While I do,” she said, waving a manicured hand his way, “you gun the engine and get me over to Torchere Key. If I hurry, I have enough time to change, redo my hair and makeup and look like a human again before I meet with the Phipps-Stovers.” She started to rub at her hair with the towel, then paused. “Well, go ahead.”
“I don’t take orders.” Brad picked up the charts beside him and made a few notations about the squid he’d seen, ignoring her. Gigi let out a little bark of support. She didn’t much like being bossed around, either.
“Pull that cord thingy, will you?”
Brad dipped a container into the ocean for a water sample, capped it and labeled it with the date and time, using a waterproof marker.
The woman let out a sigh. “What are you doing?”
“Right now? Taking a water sample.”
She let out a gust. “Why?”
“I’m looking for something,” he replied, answering the water sample question. Much easier to talk about his work than debate her communication skills. Or lack of them.
“What? Your lunch?”
She looked a hell of a lot better speechless. Almost beautiful. Even wet and dripping and half shoeless.
“A…a…giant what?” she finally managed.
She blinked. Several times. “There is such a thing?”
“Well, no one’s ever seen a live one, but yes, there is.”
She snorted. “Like Bigfoot, I’m sure.”
He gave her a glare and dipped his thermometer into the ocean, busying himself with the reading. “They exist.”
“Yeah, and so do happy marriages, I hear. I think it’s all a bunch of fairy tales people tell their kids to keep them from wandering the streets at night.”
He pivoted toward her, the thermometer dangling from his fingers. “What flew up your butt this morning?”
“I didn’t fish you out of the water so you could call my research a fairy tale.”
“Oh, your research.” But the tone in her voice said she still didn’t believe him.
Gigi got to her feet and in three steps was across the boat and in the woman’s face. Standing up for her master, daring the intruder to make fun of the giant squid. Gigi knew. She’d spent enough time on the water to know almost nothing was impossible in the dark blue depths.
“Get that—that—that creature away from me.”
“No can do. Gigi has a mind of her own. If she doesn’t like you, she’s going to let you know.”
The woman arched a perfectly rounded brow at him. “Your dog’s name is Gigi?”
Brad crossed his arms over his chest. “Is there anything else about me you want to criticize?”
“Well, actually…” She pointed at his face, then bit her lip and shut up.
“What? Say it.”
Gigi continued to hold her ground. Now she was standing up for the giant squid and her master.
“Listen,” the woman said, pausing, as if apologizing wasn’t something she did every day. “We got off on the wrong foot. Let’s start over.” She extended a shaky, tentative hand past Gigi’s side. “I’m Parris Hammond.”
He hesitated, then figured the bad mood of the morning was half his fault. No squid, no whale sightings and a wasted day on the boat hadn’t put him in a very pleasant frame of mind. “Brad Smith.” When he took her hand in his, the cool touch of her skin sent a shock wave through his veins. Like she’d been a power line and he’d been the fool who’d picked it up without wearing rubber shoes.
Except he did have on rubber boots and he didn’t feel foolish holding her hand. Not at all.
She withdrew her grasp from his but not before he saw an echo of his own consternation in her eyes. Clearly he wasn’t the only one playing with electricity. “Is that short for Bradford?”
“Yeah, but don’t ever call me that, not if you want me to answer.”
“Why not? I think Bradford sounds…rich.”
“Right.” She nodded. “That’s good.”
“Not in my book.” He picked up the chart again and filled in the temperature block.
“Well. Aren’t you the enigma?” She went back to drying herself off, toweling down the front of her silky shirt. Brad’s attention went from the chart to her, his gaze locked on the movements of the cream-colored terry cloth. It slid along her skin with ease, which made funny things happen in his gut. Her breasts peaked through the damp material of her shirt, giving him a clear image of what she’d look like naked.
The chart slid out of his hands and clattered to the floor of the boat, the pen rolling to the other end. “I, ah, should get you back. You have a meeting with the…”
His eyes met hers and her hand stilled. The air between them grew hot, charged. Her tinted lips parted, but nothing came out for a long second.
“The…the Phipps-Stovers.” But she didn’t move. In fact, she didn’t even seem to breathe.
“You don’t want to be late.”
Her focus stayed on him. “I’m never late.”
“Even for dinner?” Where the hell had that come from?
A tease of a smile lit up her eyes. “Are you asking?”
“Are you accepting?”
She put a hand on her hip. “I’m not accepting until there’s a firm offer on the table.”
God, the woman was frustrating. He didn’t need these word games. He had enough exasperation looking for a nearly invisible squid. He turned away and yanked the cord on the engine. The motor gave a little gurgle, then went silent. “Well, I’m not offering anything.”
Apparently, Parris Hammond wasn’t used to having dinner invitations rescinded. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her jerk back, then get busy rubbing at her hair with the towel, hard enough that he was afraid she might end up bald. “Good, because I have a very full schedule.”
The motor turned over on the third try and Brad headed the boat toward the island. “Yeah, me too.”
“That giant squid must be very time-consuming.”
He wheeled around. “Will you quit with that?”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic. Honest. Just making conversation. I mean, what do you say when someone tells you they hunt squid for a living?” She shuddered. “It’s so…gross.”
“Squid are not gross.”
She arched a brow his way.
Brad gunned the engine. Gigi let out a yelp of protest. “Did you know the largest squid ever found weighed a thousand pounds? And the giant squid’s arms are as thick as a man’s thigh? Yet, they’ve never been seen alive and are truly one of the biggest mysteries of the sea.”
He gave her a glance. “You’re not impressed.”
“I’m impressed someone would know so much about them.” She laid the towel on the bench beside her. “But why on earth would you want to?”
“I’m a marine biologist. It’s my job. Well, it’s not going to be, not in a few weeks. Not if—” He cut himself off. Why had he told her that? It was more than he’d told anyone in weeks.
“Oh. So what will you do then? Look for dolphins?”
He tossed her a grin. “Start looking for mermaids. I seem to have better luck catching women than squid.”
Then he tilted down his hat, shading his eyes, and concentrated on getting his “catch” back to shore before he was tempted to use her for squid bait.