For the rest of the story, go to https://caitjarrod.com/paradise/
Jewell Sanders gazed at the smooth water. The perfect time to bathe: the minutes between the sun rising and people crowding on the beach. With the storm killing the electricity two days ago and no other way to bathe, the tourists and locals dipped in the salty water to remove the scum. Yet, the residue left behind dried the skin. The difference between them and her, she bathed in the nude.
The water crept up on shore, beckoning her. After two days of repairing roofs, moving trees, and shoveling sand, she stank.
The morning sun bounced off the water, forcing her eyes to tear and squint. Having the privacy of the beach and no other way to remove the scum, she toed off her shoes, slid past the thick palms, and pulled the string to her bikini top. The material fell to the sandy beach. Her bottoms followed.
She walked into the Pacific Ocean with soap, razor, and a bottle of conditioned shampoo stuffed in a small drawstring bag. Electricity went out at least once a month. Used to the routine, the locals gave her privacy to strip down, but the tourist didn’t. If they happened upon her in the wee hours of the morning, a handful watched her outright while others snuck sideway glances. After a year at the remote destination, she still didn’t enjoy being ogled.
She lowered. The soothing water kissed her stomach and neck. Waves caressed her tired muscles. The hip injury she’d sustained while jumping the last hurdle of her career ached more every day. The hotter climate helped, but when the barometric pressure increased, so did the pain.
She rubbed the aching joint, flashing back to the happiest and saddest day of her life. At the age of twenty-one, she stood on the podium, a silver Olympic medal hanging around her neck. The first and last she’d ever receive. The misstep on the last hurdle ended her career. Endorsements abandoned her. Doctors said nothing could be done. Everyone advised her to cut her losses and move on.
After weeks of listening to agonizing remarks, she’d escaped to a secluded island off the Hawaiian Islands, one without a name and one tourist happened to find but didn’t plan to visit. The one place in the world no one would recognize the sprinter who almost took gold.
She squeezed shampoo into her hand and scrubbed her hair, the bag dangled off her wrist hitting her shoulder. One of her favorite moments, the seconds before the island awakened with nothing but the goatfish as company. She ducked under the water, removed the suds, and rose. With the tips of her fingers, she wiped the droplets out of her face to avoid the salt stinging her eyes. The ocean left her hair stiff and skin dry, yet a better alternative than smelling, forcing her customers to run and hide.
Nearby movement broke the surface. Her body went rigid. One too many shark movies played a number on her. When nothing surfaced, her breath hitched. That meant … gulp … a shark. She searched for the sign that clued danger … a fin.
A dolphin jumped in the distance.
Air escaped her lungs on one long breath. Another dolphin joined the fun, and they jumped.
The beauty of nature amazed her.
She tugged the razor out of the bag, shaved her legs and under her arms. When the blade slid over her most intimate part, she giggled.
In high school, she told her friends she kept her private area slick for running. They had laughed and nicknamed her the Bald Beaver. She didn’t have to shave now, but whenever she tried to let the hair grow in, the beaver itched. Serving drinks while scratching didn’t earn tips, so the hair stayed off.
Tucking the razor in the bag, she scanned the beach before running bare-assed to the palms.
Water splashed and she froze. A shark jumped out of the water, showed its gray underside side, and plunged back in.
Her heart thundered in her ears. She dug her toes into the murky floor, searching for traction to blast out of the grips of the water and sand. With each stride, the water pushed back, preventing a quick exit.
The ripples in the water picked up.
Adrenaline slammed through her veins. She bolted to safety of the dry sand, dropping her bag on the way. Hands on her hips, she squeezed her eyes shut, and breathed deep, attempting to steady her speeding heart.
A dolphin flipped.
Her hand flew to her chest, her heart thrashing against her ribs. “That scared the shit out of me.”
“I noticed,” a deep voice said from behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder.
On the edge of the palm trees, a bare-chested man with a camera to his eye waved his hand, urging her forward. Anger and embarrassment filled her. More headlines she didn’t need – ‘Athlete swims naked with dolphins’ or ‘Jewell’s depression worsens.’
With one arm stretched across her breasts, the other covering her bare beaver, she marched toward him, rage building with every step. The same anger she experienced a year ago when the doctors told her competing was out of the question, ending her running career. If she injured her hip again, surgery would be necessary to walk.
The shutter clicked with her movements.
Ready to give him a piece of her mind and demand to have the memory card, she stormed forward. Why anyone assumed the right to take pictures without permission blew her mind. She had more than her fair share of unsolicited shots taken, but no more. The island was her home. If she chose to bathed nude, then so be it. No one had a right to take pictures in her back yard.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He peeked around the eyepiece.
The perfect combination of sapphire with a hint of green bore into her. She lost the ability to speak.
He winked. Dark strands of hair fell on his forehead. A five o’clock shadow framed his perfect smile. “This is the best thing to happen to me in years. A twofer, pictures of dolphins and a beautiful woman.”
Rage snapped her out of the lust-filled haze. “You son of a bitch! How dare you.”
His lips pressed together in a slight grimace, and he stepped back.
“Well?” She progressed forward, rolling her eyes. A guy with a camera … naked woman … of course he took pictures.
The color of his eyes deepened. “I was taking pictures of the dolphin. I should be mad at you for getting in my way.”
Her eyebrows shot up. The man had nerve. She put on the fierce face she sported at the start of a race to intimidate her competitors and stretched out her palm. “I want the card.”
His eyes drifted down her body.
She gazed from his bare chest to her own, traveling over her beaver.
Chase gulped. An odd combination of Grace Kelly and Aubrey Hepburn stood butt naked in front of him. Strawberry blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes fueled with anger glared at him. In his twenty–eight years, he never wanted to kiss a pair of lips so much. If her pink nipples came close to his bare chest once more, he’d lose control.
She hid behind a palm, used the leaves to cover the delectable morsels. His eyes flicked down, glimpsing bare skin, before a leaf concealed her.
His eyebrows shot up, and he chuckled. “No carpet to match?”
Audrey-Grace eyes grew wide and she glanced at the ground. The leaf dipped, and her pink nipple flashed him.
The bleakness of his situation brightened.
At dawn, he’d stayed hidden in the palms along the shore, watching for movement. During the early morning hours, animals roamed, and so did drug lords. He’d propped his shoulder on a tree when a splash drew his attention from the thugs wandering the beach to the water.
A head bobbed.
He tensed and peered into the viewfinder of his camera. A woman smoothed a hand over her hair. Suds surrounded her. When the dolphin jumped, the perfect picture to allow him back into the freelance world of wildlife magazines materialized. So, he’d have the world believe. He clicked, not considering the bathing beauty until she jiggled outside of the water, her breasts bobbing with the movements.
A beautiful sight.
Her image filled his screen with a dolphin behind her. In the camera, the porpoise swam near, but in actuality, it played hundreds of yards away.
The perfect picture.
“Wipe that smirk off your face.”
Her words plunged him back to the present. She was feisty and gorgeous, perfect for teasing. “You’re of the Queen Bee variety. I’ll tag my pictures when I post to Facebook.”
She stomped her foot in the sand. The leaves covering her delicious assets shook. “Ouch.”
Toned legs and arms, pinched lips tugged at him, yet her intense eyes drew him to her.
“Who are you? Why would you take pictures?” Her skin turned blotchy and her voice broke.
Crap, he didn’t want her to cry. “I’m kidding about Facebook. I didn’t take pictures of you.” He pointed to the dolphin showing off. “They’re amazing. You’re a bonus.” He grinned.
The sour expression on her face deepened to hard lines on her forehead. Time to back-pedal fast. “I’ll give you the pictures, once I download them.”
“No. Give me the card. I’ll send them to you minus me.”
No way. After the crap he’d dealt with, he trusted no one. Besides, the card in her possession would put her life in danger. “Not a chance, honey. I’m not putting my livelihood in your hands.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing with mine?”
“Trust me, sweetheart.” Hypocrisy came with the job.
“Stop with the pet names.”
“Okay, Queen Bee.”
She stomped her foot and whimpered.
“Stop that.” Chase knelt in front of her. Blood covered the side of her foot. “What the heck did you hit?”
She pressed a hand to the palm leaf covering her breasts and glanced at her wiggling toe.
“A piece of lava rock.” He straightened. “You might as well move to another spot.”
“I’m not dropping the leaves.”
“Why not? It’s not like I haven’t seen you. The whole been there, done that routine.”
The branches bounced back in place. She closed the distance … naked.
Damn, the woman’s brazen.
His plan to tease her backfired. Soft globes swayed, torturing him. Any second, they’d make contact. A lump formed in his throat. He clenched his fist, warding off the natural instinct to pull her into his arms. “Don’t move another foot.”
She stopped and crossed her arms under her chest. The pulse in her neck ticked and her breath quickened.
His mouth watered. For the love of all that was holy, her breasts screamed for attention. In a matter of seconds, she’d wrapped him around her little finger. His shaft pulsated, wanting interaction.
“Give me the damn card or—”
He gritted his teeth. The glint in her eyes told him she’d do something drastic. The reason why he arrived on the island weighed heavy on his mind. George Williams, a tennis player, accused Chase of touching him inappropriately. The sting from hearing the words still bit. In truth, he’d told the short, thin haired man no. He wasn’t interested and left with a dark-haired, long-legged female model named Jessy.
Pissed off for being ignored, George threatened to get even. The next day, the papers across the country published that Chase had grabbed an athlete’s crotch, blowing his undercover assignment. He packed his bags right after his boss at the magazine fired him. “Athletes have to trust the person photographing them,” his boss said.
When the smoke cleared, he planned to return and solve the case. For now, he’d stick to wildlife and stay away from mammals that lie, which led him to pay attention to the spitfire in front of him. “And the natives on the island would believe you, since I’m dressed.” His tone filled with sarcasm.
“You’re halfway clothed.”
He shoved his hands in his shorts’ pockets. Any minute, more people would join their party, prompting her to follow through with her threat. “We’ll talk about the pictures, after you put your clothes on.”
She looked down the beach. A couple walked in their direction, holding hands.
“For my eyes only.” He smirked.
Her body flushed as she snatched her bikini from the sand and hurried into the palm trees, displaying one fine ass.
The sun dried the moisture left by the ocean on Jewell’s skin, while images of the shirtless man warmed her insides. Under the blanket of palm leaves, she slid on her bikini bottoms and tied the strings to the top at her neck and back. The emerald-eyed man, standing on the edge of the trees, messed with her reactions. One minute, her body heated with lust, responding to his polished smile and masculine scent. The next, she turned icy with annoyance from his teasing and smugness.
“You can’t go in there.” Chase commanded.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Two men wearing baseball caps and jackets glared at him. The shorter of the two pointed a finger at Chase’s chest and spoke in low, inaudible tones.
The cause of her turbulent reactions nodded to the water, distracting the strangers. He squinted and lifted his chin, silently telling her to stay put.
The audacity of him giving orders ticked her off. She wanted to yell at him.
He must have sensed her turmoil, since his jaw tensed and head slowly moved back and forth. Unease blasted into her consciousness, and she reconsidered fussing. She ducked behind a palm tree, pressed her arm across her breasts, and tried to force her body to the size of a pencil.
“Chase, if what you said is a ruse, you’ll deal with us again,” one man shouted.
The hostility in his words reinforced the need to stay hidden, yet she peeked around the base of the tree.
Chase stared at the water with his back to her, his hands shoved in his pockets while the other men pointed their fingers at him and shouted.
Anxiety crept up her spine. The need to flee urged her muscles into action, and she reached for her shoes.
A loud outburst made her stop and hide back behind the tree. Her breath came out in short bouts as if she ran a marathon. She’d do what Chase asked and stay put. Once the men left, she’d get the memory card, head back to her pub, and talk to the one guy she trusted.
Voices quieted. She glanced at Chase. One of the men smacked his back, then left, heading down the beach toward the other guy.
She slipped on her beach shoes and approached Chase. Within a foot of touching his back, he whirled, grasped her wrist, and crowded her until a tree stopped her movements. He grasped her hip, and his eyes darkened.
She should run or at least yell rape, but his warmness froze her in the spot. His lips lingered a fraction away. The same reaction as having steroids pumped into an injury passed through her veins, soothing her. Sex oozed off the mysterious man. He intrigued her, and she hungered for his touch. None of this made sense. In the past, cautiousness overruled a man’s charms.
“Don’t ever sneak up on me.” A cold undertone punctuated each word.
Her throat thickened. The playful man disappeared. Similar to the beginning of a race, the pulse in her neck jumped, not from excitement but the unknown. “What’s your problem?”
His dark pupils lightened, and he released her wrist, yet kept a hand on her hip.
For a second, his gaze penetrated her soul, and she hoped he’d kiss her. The ocean breeze incased them, blowing her blonde locks in her face … in his.
He shut his eyes and stepped back. “I thought you … doesn’t matter.” He raised his palms. “I’m sorry.”
She shoved the hunger down and searched for the two men who argued with him, leaving him agitated. They exited the beach in the direction of her pub. When she gazed back at him, his demeanor changed. A broad smile and wide eyes elicited compassion.
Her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
The wind blew, palm leaves whipped, smacking her arm. “Ugh, not another storm!” The island hadn’t recovered from one storm and another brewed. She jogged into the clearing. Dark clouds approached, and her heart sunk.
Chase stopped beside her, regarding her without speaking.
“Who are you?” she asked again, locking eyes with him.
He studied her for so long she doubted he’d answer.
She didn’t have time for this. Another storm would cremate her pub. She turned, heading toward her business.
His grip on her arm stopped her.
The intense expression in his eyes stilled her breath. He tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and stroked a finger down her cheek. “Breathe.” His scent brushed across her face, producing a shutter throughout her body. Air whooshed out of her lungs.
The wind picked up and blew her hair. He chuckled and slid his hands over her cheeks and into her wayward hair. His gaze held hers.
A need tugged at her, she craved his kiss.
“I’m Chase Reed.”
The wind peppered her face with sand. He tugged her in to the shelter of the trees. They grasped the foliage to avoid the sand particles, and gazed at the ocean. The flat water transformed, and sea caps fought to peak above the furious waves.
She grasped his wrist. “Island Escape hasn’t been tied down.”
They ran past a couple people on the beach packing up. Pellets of water hit and her legs sprung forward, sprinting to her livelihood.
She entered under the canopy to the pub. Two men sat at the bar, a woman off to the right. The bartender removed the liquor bottles off the shelves and placed them in the lower cabinets.
Heavy footfalls sounded behind her. Chase stopped a few feet out. Rain coated his bare chest and his camera dangled from the string in his hand.
The erotic image he conjured up sent a fire to the pit of her stomach, urging her to wipe the moisture away. Voices drifted in. People headed their way for shelter. The five hundred square foot area that made up her pub offered little protection.
“We need to tie down,” she told her lone employee.
Jax glanced at her then glared at Chase following her. When his eyes settled back on her the tension in his face lessened. “Jewell, everything okay here?”
“Yes.” She snatched a shirt and shorts from under the counter, pulled them on over her swimsuit, and went to the far corner of the pub. She tugged on a string. The tarp uncurled to the floor. The fabric slapped her fingers, making it hard to grasp. Gaining control, she tied one corner to the cleat, then the other. Chase secured a tarp in the other corner, his back to her.
“Okay, then.” Jax eyed the men at the bar. “You guys get out of here.”
The two men who walked the beach earlier picked up their hats, glancing at Chase on their way out the door. The woman followed.
She moved to the next section, and Jax joined her. His brown hair blew in the wind and his permanent five o’clock shadow outlined his strong jaw line. The mystery surrounding Jax didn’t stop him from being her go to person.
“What’s up with him?” He jammed his thumb in Chase’s direction.
The wind jerked the tarp. Jax snatched the heavy material a second before it smacked her face.
“I met him on the beach.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and didn’t reveal the part where he took naked pictures.
Jax’s muscles tensed. “Were you dressed?” Despite the wind howling louder and the rain pounding on the tin roof, his voice carried loud and clear.
A simple question, but one if she answered would send a rage through her protective friend. “Yes.” Not a lie. She had her swimsuit on … part of the time.
“Um, he had a camera—”
Jax straightened and marched to the back of the bar where Chase tied the last tarp.
She hurried after him and grabbed his arm. “Jax, no.”
“Let me see your camera,” Jax demanded to Chase’s back. His camera sat on the floor near his feet, protected from the elements by the half wall.
Chase rose. The fluid way he moved gave her pause. An ordinary tourist moved more carefree, not ready to battle.
The heavy air crowded in, and the tension heightened. The darkness in Chase’s eyes returned, and he squared off with Jax. “No.”
Jax’s body went rigid, and she stepped between them. “Guys, stop. We have more important issues than pictures.” Or worry about who had the bigger dick.
Thunder boomed and the floor shook, punctuating the point.
She clutched Jax’s shoulder and glanced at the camera. The images didn’t matter to her right now. “Come on. We have to help the others. People always get stuck in one of these storms.” She advanced to the entrance, hoping they’d follow.
“I’ll help,” Chase said, joining her and pulling the tarp far enough apart for her to pass. The irate wind bent trees and sand stabbed her skin, the pain parallel to shards of glass.
He slid an arm around her and pulled her face into his neck, the camera strap hitting her nose. “You don’t have to do this?” He whispered beside her ear. “Your buddy and I can.”
She eased back and grabbed her wayward hair. The fact he’d ignore the confrontation to help others surprised her. “I can handle myself.”
“No doubt, just saying.”
Jax stepped outside and tied the entrance. “Let’s start on the far corner and work our way over the island.”
She nodded and leaned forward into the increasing wind. Trees blocked her path and sand clouds approached. Her eyes stung and her skin burned. She should have listen to Chase and stayed.
A loud crash vibrated the area.
“Get down,” one of them yelled, the voice unrecognizable from the noise of the wind.
Chase and Jax covered her with their bodies until she lay on the ground. Pebble-size hail fell from the darkened sky.
“Look.” Chase pointed above the water.
Clouds swirled. In the distance, a gray funnel formed, spinning in their direction. Panic set in. Her pub wouldn’t hold up under the powerful force.
The air stilled.
The calm before the storm.
A woman raced after a small figure on the other side of the island. “E-e-liz-a-beth!”
“Stud, stay with her.” Jax blended into the trees. He disappeared into a sand fog.
“Come on.” Chase tugged her hand and ran past the pub.
Numerous rental buildings covered the area, none of them large enough to provide protection.
“We have to find shelter,” he shouted and dashed forward. When they reached the spot where a volcano erupted a decade ago, hardened lava replaced the sand beneath her feet. Hail bombed the earth, stinging every inch of her skin. Her vision blurred and she relied on him to lead her to safety.
She squeezed into a small opening flanked by two lava formations and dove on the ground. His body covered hers. The wicked noise forced her hair to stand on end. Concern for his safety replaced the comfort of him protecting her.
The sound of a freight train roared. In the year she’d lived here, she’d never witnessed an encroaching tornado. No alarms or warnings notified the inhabitants of the small island.
“Oh, crap.” Her voice quaked. The sense of powerlessness overtook her. The same horrible sensation she experienced when she learned her running career ended crept into her soul.
Chase entwined his fingers with hers. His body pressed hers, his camera stabbing her in the stomach. “You’ll be okay.”
Did he say that to calm her or him? “We both will.”
Glass shattered and trees snapped. She lifted her forehead off Chase’s arm and peered past the rock forms. Horizontal rain pelted her face while palm trees twisted. The wind tossed the pub’s tables and chairs over the water.
Her hopes and dreams disappeared into the ocean and loneliness and defeat seeped into her bones. She never wanted to experience helplessness again. A tear slid down her face. She grasped Chase tighter and he pulled her into him.
“I’ve got you,” he whispered.
The turbulent wind died, the hail stopped, but the heavens opened, unleashing a torrent of rain. She shifted in his arms and looked into his kind face. Unsure of what to say, she stared as the pain of loss filled her again.
He broke contact to move his camera from between them. She longed to have his entire weight on top of her, to help rid the hurt inside, and moved to give him access.
Her feet dropped.
“Chase!” She spiraled downward, her hands grasping for him.
He reached for her. “Jewell!”
Feet first, she slid over rough terrain into a tunnel with nothing but darkness and wind to keep her company. Her pulse spiked and heart pounded. Thoughts of dying clenched her fists and stole her breath. She screamed.
The sensation was the same as the thrill of sliding down a waterslide at an amusement park, yet where a smooth surface should let her slip into the water unscathed, hard porous lava pounded her arms, legs, and butt. In place of the safety of landing in a pool of water, free of obstacles, she would fall into the unknown.
In the dark, she grasped at the wall, hoping to grab an object to stop her descent.
“Jewell!” An echo bounced.
“Chase,” she shouted back into the darkness, her throat growing hoarse.
“Hang on.” He sounded close.
The wide passage grew narrow. A hard mass bumped her elbow. She twisted and latched onto a slimy surface, stopping her. Relief washed over her.
Her fingers slipped. Gravity forced her downward.
What would happen when she landed? Would water suffocate her? Would rocks break every bone in her body? “No!”
Chase? “Help me!” Her feet passed over a knoll and the sensation of falling to her death flashed in her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut, preparing for impact.
A hand grasped her wrist. She jerked her head up and looked into darkness.
“I gotcha.” Chase yelled.
A loud crack and her arm jolted. She hit the side of the tunnel and bumped his legs.
“Grab my leg with your other hand.”
She reached out, hit bare skin, and grasped his ankle.”
“I have to let go to reach my light. Take hold of my other leg.”
“I’ll get a hold of you again insec. If I can’t see, I can’t help.”
With shaky nerves, she touched his leg and squeezed.
A light shined from Chase’s head. His arm stretched above his head, gripping a metal object stuck in the side of the wall.
“Give me your hand.” The light trailed his movements to her.
Choked with relief, she managed to whisper, “Yes.” She cleared her throat. “What now?”
“Give me a sec.”
She tried to ignore the ache in her arm by looking at what waited for them below. Big mistake. Nothing but blackness stared back at her. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip.
Chase tightened his grip on her hand, and she gazed up at his lighted head. “You had a light and a hook in your pocket?”
“I need to think.”
She groaned. The muscles in her shoulders screamed. How long before Chase’s grip slipped? “Hurry.”
The glow of light illuminated the scratches marring his face, arms, and chest, yet his rigid expression gave nothing away. “What the hell do you do for a living?”
“At the moment, I’m trying to save your sweet ass. Keep quiet.”
The stream of light beamed past her. When he smiled, she twisted to see why he did.
A ripple shimmied across the water’s surface.
She laid her face on the hard, cool rock and her feet dangled.
Death by drowning.
“Can you hold your breath?” His voice echoed.
The notion of plunging into the depths of a hundred feet of water twisted her stomach and hastened her breathing. “Not well.”
When she looked up at him, he slanted his head, removing the light out of her eyes. “I’ve seen you run, you have endurance. The water is a blanket, use it to help you.”
“I’m scared.” Her voice shook.
“Understandable, but I can’t hold you much longer.”
That scared her.
“The trick is not to collide into anything on the way down.”
“As if I have control,” she snapped.
“Won’t the surface hurt when I hit?” She’d read in books when you jumped in the water from a high distance, the water hurt akin to hitting cement.
“You have less than twenty feet to drop. Piece of cake.”
She wanted to shove a piece of cake up his ass. The idea of falling into the water surrounded by darkness engulfed her in a blanket of terror. She shivered, and her grip loosened.
His hold tightened.
Her heart leapt to her throat, and the hair on her arms stood.
“Wait. Whoa. What do you mean?”
“I’m letting go of your hand. Get out as soon as possible.”
“You’re joking. I can’t see. You’re the one with the light. You go first.”
He squeezed her hand. “How can I? I’ll land on top of you.”
White caps showed below them, the dark liquid scared her. “It’s like running a race. You can do this,” she mumbled under her breath and blew out a puff of air. “Go!”
He released his grip and dimmed the light.
Her stomach leapt to her throat and her breath quickened. In her mind’s eye, a shark appeared. Bone-deep fear seeped deeper into her marrow at the creatures waiting to eat her.
Cool liquid covered her body as she plunged deeper.
In the daylight, she was bold and confident. In the dark, she wanted to shrivel into a corner, hoping no spiders or creatures with fins came to visit. The water enclosed her in a cocoon and panic rose. Chase’s words replayed in her mind: the water is a blanket, use it.
The speed of her fall slowed. With no bubbles to lead the way, she pushed with her hands and kicked with her feet, hoping to head in the right direction. Her lungs screamed for air. She broke the water surface, gasping.
Darkness surrounded her. Mysterious creatures hid in the chilly water. She moved her arms and legs, hoping to find something to help her out of the water when her feet collided with something hard. She dragged her body onto it, to safety and filled her lungs with oxygen.
“Grab my light and get out.”
“Where the fuck is your light?”
“In the water in front of you.”
A light bobbed. “Okay. I see it.” With each footfall, the eerie notion of a sea monster grabbing her feet and sucking her under grew stronger.
Her safety shifted.
“Son of a bitch.” Chase shouted.
Jewell and the light disappeared.
Damnit, he didn’t want to go into the water with her below him. He snatched another light, strapped the band around his head, and dropped. The water drew him under. He used his hands to paddle, slowing until his feet struck a hard object. He shoved off, careening above the water. “Jewell!”
He twisted, shining the light over the ripples of the water.
Where the fuck is she?
A loud gasp, he twisted to see her go under the surface. Adrenaline pumping, he dove under the water, grasped her waist, and pulled her to a nearby pillar, rising two feet above the water. “Climb up,” he commanded and pushed her butt onto the lumpy exterior of a chunk of lava until she rested on her hands and knees.
She coughed and sputtered until water escaped her mouth and nose. She fell on her haunches and wiped her face, a dazed expression on her face.
He squeezed her shoulder and sat next to her. The water remained calm, but he stayed alert. “You all right?”
Her eyes widened, and she shivered. “Yes. I lost my breath,” she panted.
The shirt and shorts she put on earlier fit her like a glove. His craving to touch her bubbled inside him.
In the mixture of cool air and wet clothes, she’d soon catch a cold. He shoved down his longing and focused on an escape plan.
He planned to search for the missing heroin once she reached safety. For now, keeping Jewell warm and safe, and unaware of his assignment, while keeping her at a distance was his top priority.
“Your camera is ruined.” Her back arched, and she squeezed her hair, water pooled on the rock.
He groaned, looked at his camera, checking for dings and opened the compartment housing the memory card. Water leaked out.
The evidence of the drug lords destroyed. The ruined card pissed him off, yet his concern stayed on Audrey-Grace.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked.
Even with dim lighting, when her baby blues gazed at him, his shaft stiffened. “I’m good.” A total lie. His training readied him for isolated situations. It didn’t teach how to train his dick to listen. Danger lurked, yet he dreamed of her soft skin, and the desire to have her under him. “What happened? Why’d you fall?”
Her teeth chattered and she stared at the water. “The thing I stood on moved. I lost my balance.”
He slid an arm around her shoulder and pulled her into him. “We need to get you warm.”
Her head glided across his chest. The movement sent goose bumps over him, yet his skin warmed.
“Why aren’t you freezing?” She pulled on the cloth clinging to her breasts. He did his best to divert his gaze from her protruding nipples, but failed.
If anyone lurked nearby, snuggling with her the way he wanted wasn’t an option. If he did, the power she held over him would weaken his muscles, diminishing his innate ability to fight, rendering him defenseless.
In the past, he avoided having relationships by not staying in one place for too long. He understood the difference between having sex and making love, living in the moment. But not this time. The desire to want to love a woman he just met baffled him. “I’m warm-blooded.”
Her arms encircled his neck. “You’re nice and warm.”
Under the circumstances, the comment meant nothing, but a surge of possibilities entered his mind. Did he and Jewell have an unusual chemistry that throws people together?
He slid a hand down his face. He sounded like a sap.
“Where are we?” Her voice vibrated, tickling his skin.
Glad for the reprieve of his wayward thoughts, he rested his chin on the top of her head. “It’s what I call an ape cave. I’m not sure if this particular lava tube has a name.”
“If it’s not named,” she paused, “does that mean no one will search here?”
Her warm breath glided over his skin and pebbled. How long could he keep the charade alive and not tell her the real reason he arrived on the island? “One of your friends will find us.” He believed what he said, but who discovered them first concerned him.
“Similar to Ape Cave in Mount St. Helens?”
She conversed easily. Good, she’d need her wits for what lay ahead. “Yep.”
“My legs are stinging.” She eased off him, snatched the headband, and shined the light over her arms and legs then rested the beam on his chest.
Abrasions covered his skin. She stroked the area near each scrape. Funny, he hadn’t noticed them until now. The heat radiating from the light pressure tormented him, prevented him from forming a plan of escape, and brought forth images of where he wanted her fingers.
Damn. He shook the image and focused on finding an escape. At least, he had a backup plan, a place to hide.
A fellow agent had trailed two suspects they considered leaders of the latest heroin ring whose laced drugs killed at least ten teens on the main island. Not until recently did they have enough evidence. The night of the bust, on an island two miles away, the boat carrying the drugs had vanished. Facts gathered deemed the shipment sunk. His mission was to locate the missing drugs while having an assignment as a free-lance photojournalist, once an easy undercover identity until that damned tennis player drummed up false accusations. Hopefully no one on this island would know about his past.
Jax brought to mind another reason to stay away from Jewell. Either his partner acted the part of a concerned friend, or he’d fallen for her, too. “We need to move.”
“Why? Where will we go?” She passed back his light. “Why do you have this stuff? How do you carry them?”
“I never leave home without them.” He turned down his belt. Pockets lined the inside. “I store them here.”
She ran a finger along the swollen belt stuffed with a thin piece of rope, knives, and miscellaneous items, her fingers grazing his stomach.
He cleared his throat and gazed at her staring at him. The power of her eyes challenged his conviction not to touch her. The desire hit strong enough for him to tip his head forward.
Cool, damp lips seared his. No strength in the world could combat the sparks spiraling through his body. He cupped each side of her head, held her sweet face to his, and kissed her the way he’d craved since first spotting her on the beach. His lips caressed and slid over the seam of her lips until she moaned, and they parted.
An intense ache built inside. He tucked an arm behind her neck and back, edged her closer. An unfamiliar hunger exploded on contact and demanded more. The feverish heat spiraled between their lips, bodies. He kissed with an unquenchable appetite, tasting and stroking her essence.
He transferred his weight from one foot to the other. “This is insane.”
Her erratic breathing matched his. “Yes.” She clung onto the sides of his head. Fingers dipped in his hair. She tapped her nose against his. “But, it’s right.”
Rationale fled his brain and desire controlled his every move. The earlier reasons why he shouldn’t kiss her escaped him. His mouth crushed down on hers and his tongue swept inside her mouth, sending an intense pleasure to his shaft.
She straddled his waist until every inch of her touched him. A low mewling sound escaped her. The heat in his body intensified enough to warm an entire room.
The chattering ceased, and her skin heated. He’d give his right nut to show her how much he wanted her.
Not yet. Not like this.
He grabbed her shoulders, peeled her off him, and breathed words that made him want to gag. “Not now.”
“You have something better to do?” She grinned.
He pushed down temptation and focused. “Yes, find a way out.”
The taste and scent of Chase lingered. Jewell clutched the waistband of his shorts. The kiss ended too soon. Before she had a chance to protest, he went into action mode. Too scared to stay behind, she grasped a hold of his waistband and shadowed him.
His intake of breath when he glanced at her over his shoulder told her she’d surprised him, but he didn’t break stride.
At each corridor, dip, or hole, he stopped and passed his headlamp over the area.
The taste of him on her lips lingered. Every cell craved another. They hadn’t spoken about the kiss, nor had he tried to again. An ache filled her chest, and she bit her lip, trying to shove down the fact she’d fallen for a guy so quickly who didn’t return the sentiment. Disappointment took hold, and she tightened her grip on his shorts.
“Give me some slack,” he said. “The boys don’t like wedgies.”
She giggled and relaxed her hand. “Have you visited the island previously?”
“Trust me, you’d have seen me.”
Another splash. She flinched, jerking his shorts.
“Sorry.” She loosened her grip. “Did you hear that?” she asked, not wanting him to say anything other than, “Nothing.”
“Sh-sh.” Muscles bunched against her knuckles, and the light disappeared. She scooted closer. His fluid movements reminded her of the amazing way Jax moved, his eagle eyes cutting the darkness.
Metal scraping echoed. She flinched, and her foot slipped.
With the quickness of a snake striking its prey, his arm wrapped around the outside of her leg, holding her to him. His hand settled on the crease of her butt, brushing her folds. He scooted her closer.
Her heart pounded. She swallowed down the metallic taste of adrenaline. If she fell in, the idea of what left her alone earlier might find her this time, scared the crap out of her. The darkness and coldness of the cave gave her a heightened sense, comparable to a character in a horror flick unaware of the danger lurking ahead of them. Any second, she expected something to snatch her. The object that moved beneath her feet, knocking her into the water, mystified her. “Should we find out what caused me to fall earlier?” Once she spoke the words, she wanted to withdraw them. What if he said yes?
He placed a finger over her lips, singeing them with his skin, and remained quiet. For a brief moment in Chase’s arms, she’d warmed. Without him, her wet clothes chilled her.
She hadn’t spoken. Still she pinched her lips together. Shapes moved in the nothingness or maybe she created them in her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut and rested her forehead on his back, and let his body show the way. His steady breathing and the beat of his heart gave her a comfort she’d only experienced with one other man. More of a brother figure than a romantic interest, Jax’s protection carried her during a stormy night a short while ago. The memory caused her to stop.
“You okay?” Chase stilled.
Trailing Chase, she remembered the night Jax protected her. Gunshots had fired and men had spoken in a foreign language, maybe Middle Eastern. The origin didn’t matter. They scared her. Jax turned off the lights in the pub and told her to duck behind the bar. The dark room made seeing anything impossible, yet Jax moved as if the sun shined. When he returned, he flipped the switch, lighting the interior of the pub, and said the ruckus originated from the far side of the island, nothing to concern them. His clenched jaw and dark eyes told a different story, but she didn’t question. She trusted him.
She slid her hand along Chase’s back. Not wanting to be berated for noise, she held in a heavy sigh beckoning for release. When he squeezed her thigh for not answering, she nodded, her skin sliding over tight muscles and warm skin. His hand hadn’t moved. At another time and location, would he explore what their kiss ignited?
The piece of lava they walked on dipped. At the top of a hill, he flashed his light long enough for her to see the surrounding walls, and a narrow lava bridge. The light disappeared. His miraculous eyes, similar to Jax’s, led them. The story her mother used to read to her of the Three Billy Goats Gruff popped in her mind, and she prayed no troll lived under the bridge.
“No sounds,” he chastised at the sound of a throat clearing.
She’d held her breath, fear of slipping in. “It wasn’t me,” she whispered. “And why do I need to be quiet?”
“We don’t know who’s down here.”
That gave her pause. Who would be there that they couldn’t speak to?
The water splashed.
She startled, and her foot slipped. The image of a troll pulling her into mysterious waters flashed in her mind.
Chase lifted her, set her on his shoulders, and carried her like a sack of potatoes to a larger piece of solid lava. He lowered her, his breathing steady. Only the sheen of sweat on his arms when he released her told of his exertion.
“We need to get to safety.” His voice held an unusual hint of fear, unlike when the two men confronted him on the beach.
She wiped the hair off her forehead.
He grasped her elbow and moved swiftly over the bridge.
“Tunnel,” he said beside her ear and placed her hands on his back again. A couple of feet inside, the headlamp brightened the area. They followed the path, moving at a brisk pace until coming to a large lava rock.
He stooped down, braced his shoulder and chest against the hardened lava, and shoved. A small opening appeared.
No doubt, he’d been here.
“Come on.” He stretched out his hand.
Climbing into a small, enclosed place didn’t bode well, but she grasped his hand.
He stilled, his thumb forming circles on her numb skin. The action didn’t last long. If she hadn’t watched their joined hands, she wouldn’t have noticed. When he glanced up, what she saw in his eyes surprised her, not fear, or lust, but something different.
“We’ll be safe in here.” He guided her through the hole.
Footsteps echoed. “They went this way,” a loud masculine voice yelled in a heavy accent.
Goosebumps raised on her arms.
Chase slammed a pick into the side of the boulder. Chase braced his feet on either side of the entrance, grasped the pick, and pulled. The boulder sealed the entrance. A click sounded and the stream of light from Chase’s headlamp shined on a metal lock.
Her chest tightened and breathing grew difficult.
I’m locked in.
A beat later, the room glowed. Chase set a lit lantern on the floor near the entrance.
Off to one side of the large room, boxes marked canned goods, water, and miscellaneous piled on top of each other. On the other side, a thin mattress with a couple of blankets folded on top of it.
Her mouth dried at the implications of the supplies. A sheen of sweet covered her body. “What’s go-ing on?”
He moved near, and she edged back. The idea of him harming her hadn’t been an issue previously. In the small room, trapped by a boulder and men searching for them on the outside, the secrecy overwhelmed her. She didn’t want to think. she let ridiculousness replace reasoning and darted for the entrance.
Chase grabbed her by the waist. “Don’t.”
This time, he didn’t order her. “What’s happening?”
“Let me explain,” he whispered, his lips caressing her ear.
Needing to hear the truth, she ignored the desire to lean back into his embrace to learn what he hid.
She twirled and faced him. “You planned this?”
He chuckled. “How? I called Mother-Nature and asked her to send a tornado to the island.”
“Good point.” How did he know the cave’s layout when she learned of its existence minutes ago?
Her training when she ran taught her to look into the competitors’ eyes. “They’re the windows to the soul,” her coach told her. “If they have the guts to get the job done, you can tell by the clarity of the eyes.
She searched Chase’s gaze. Vivid and solid emerald eyes stole her breath.
He broke eye contact, placed his hands on his hips, and paced. “What I have to say is confidential. The situation has given me no other choice but to confide in you.” He rubbed his chin and studied her.
Their predicament puzzled her. She needed the truth in layman’s terms. “Just say it.”
His hand dropped. “Welcome to our new home for the next couple of days.”
Alarm fired her up, causing her breath to stick. “Wh—” The ability to form words fled.
The amount of supplies along the wall could feed people for a while …. but why? “How long?”
“A day or two, maybe a week.”
Unfocused and lost, she stared at him. A week in a small room with nothing to do but stare at four black walls would drive her crazy. In an hour, she’d pull her hair out. Heck, she’d yank his out. The blood drained from her head and white spots formed in her vision.
“Let’s sit down.” He grasped her shoulders, lowered her to the mattress, and gazed into her eyes.
The ability to absorb and comprehend what he said escaped her. She lay down on the bed. Her eyes fluttered closed.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
In the back of her mind, she presumed he wouldn’t, but anxiety and apprehension had pushed her toward the door. She looked at his physique towering over her, hands on his hips, and a water bottle dangling off his fingers. Gorgeous eyes rift with agony and concern gazed at her. She raised and accepted the water he offered. “I’m not scared of you.”
The muscles in his shoulders relaxed. “Good.”
After gulping, she wiped her mouth and capped the bottle. Her anxiety calmed for a moment, she nodded. “Okay. I’m ready to talk.”
“I’m not a photographer.” He lifted his hand, palm forward. “I am, but not for a living. I’m DEA.”
What trouble am I in?
“You lied.” The question escaped before she had time to censor. Of course, he fibbed. “Ignore me.”
“Jewell, you need to let me finish.”
She didn’t appreciate him politely telling her to shut up, but she understood.
“I worked on another case until a tennis player compromised my undercover identity. The director sent me here to collaborate with an agent. Recently, a ship sank not too far from here. Sonars and divers searched the area to no avail. I was sent in to work a drug deal. My task: to befriend two drug lords, Curly and Mo.”
“Is that their names?”
“Their street names, yes.”
Her mouth gaped.
“With the storm two days ago, it hindered the operation, leaving me without funds to complete the deal and earn their trust. This morning you witnessed their hostility on the beach.”
“And the way they watched you in the pub.”
He nodded. “Lucky for us, maps were drawn of the caves, since the exact location of the missing heroine hasn’t been pinpointed.” He rubbed his hands over his face and head. “I believed you walked on a canister filled with drugs. More than likely, they’re tied to the cave’s floor by a single bolt, hence the reason for the movement.”
He nodded at his camera on the floor near the lantern. “I took pictures of them on the beach, talking to another known drug lord. When I saw the dolphins, I snapped shots to cover up spying on the two guys.” He smiled. “That’s when I saw you.”
She tried to digest what he said. They fell into the middle of an illegal ring. The containers full of drugs touched her feet. And now, she hid in a cubbyhole with bad men lurking outside. Her stomach clenched, and she folded over.
Chase sat next to her. “Talk to me.”
She laid her cheek on her knees and stared at his stretched-out legs and hands in his lap. On the island, another man worked under cover. “Who’s the other agent?”