Authors: Jill Sorenson
Daniela clung to the front of Sean’s shirt, blinking the tears from her eyes.
Every time she looked at him, she was reminded of the way he’d touched her last night. Her body ached in secret places, hungry for more, and her heart swelled inside her chest, burdened with an impossible longing.
She loved him so much.
And she knew it was too late. She couldn’t ask him for a second try, or another chance. But maybe he would grant her some…closure.
Taking a deep breath, she snuggled closer to him, twining her arms around his neck. Beneath her fingertips, his muscles were tense. She could see the pulse point at the base of his throat, beating strong and fast.
They both wanted this.
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A few years ago I came across a fascinating book by nonfiction author Susan Casey.
The Devil’s Teeth
chronicles her visits to the Farallon Islands, a National Wildlife Refuge best known for its great white sharks. Her chilling account of this extreme, isolated location sparked a story idea of my own. In the summer of 2008, when I traveled to San Francisco for the RWA National Conference, I made plans to see the islands with my agent. We braved damp weather, rough seas and a crowded charter boat. It was an unforgettable experience!
Using the Farallones as my backdrop, I sat down to write
Stranded With Her Ex,
a story about facing fears and overcoming obstacles. Although this is an unusual setting for a romance, cold and inhospitable, it is here that my characters find love again. Hearts thaw and sleeping bags heat up. I hope you enjoy the journey.
Stranded With Her Ex
Books by Jill Sorenson
Dangerous to Touch
Stranded With Her Ex
writes sexy romantic suspense for Harlequin Books and Bantam. Her books have appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine.
After earning a degree in literature and a bilingual teaching credential from California State University, she decided teaching wasn’t her cup of tea. She started writing one day while her firstborn was taking a nap and hasn’t stopped since. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two young daughters.
To my agent, Laurie McLean,
for booking the charter boat to the Farallones,
and for getting the Dramamine. You are my lifesaver.
To my editor, Stacy Boyd,
for tweeting about how much you loved this story,
and for your unwavering enthusiasm.
To my husband,
my rock, who loves me for better or for worse.
To my daughters.
I couldn’t have written a story about loss
without acknowledging what I’ve gained.
I love you both with all my heart.
To my mom, as always, for reading to me.
aniela Flores tightened her grip on the cold, wet aluminum railing. Keeping her eyes on the horizon and her feet planted on the deck, she took a series of calming breaths.
She wasn’t seasick. She’d been on smaller boats in rougher water than this more times than she could count. The San Francisco Bay wasn’t known for smooth sailing, and many of the other passengers were feeling poorly, but Daniela’s discomfort had nothing to do with a rocking hull, unsteady surface or brisk salt spray.
Her ailment was more mental than physical. Since the accident, she disliked cramped quarters and confined spaces.
Across the crowded cabin, past whey-faced day-trippers and sturdy-legged sailors, the open sea beckoned, mocking her with its infinite expanse. Although a boat this size wasn’t as restrictive as the crushed cab of a car, neither did it offer a convenient escape route. The water below was a chilly fifty degrees.
She much preferred the cool blue waves of San Diego, her hometown, where ocean temps hovered at an agreeable seventy degrees. Or southern Mexico, her birthplace, where the sea was as warm and sultry as a hot summer night.
Here, the cold water wasn’t even the greatest deterrent for swimmers. Her destination, twenty-seven miles off the coast of San Francisco, was a seldom-visited place called the Farallon Islands, an infamous feeding ground for great white sharks.
The captain’s intercom crackled with distortion as he made an announcement. “Devil’s Teeth, dead ahead.”
The Farallones had earned this moniker a hundred years ago from the fishermen and egg collectors who dared eke out a living here. With no docking facilities, the rocky crags were inhospitable to the extreme, rising from the sea in a jumble of sharp, serrated edges. Although teeming with animal life, every nook and cranny filled with birds and seals and sea lions, the surface area was devoid of greenery.
During the spring, the islands were grassy and lush, dotted with small shrubs and speckled with wildflowers. Now, in late September, the salt-sprayed granite was noticeably bare, picked as clean as old bones.
Daniela watched the godforsaken place materialize before her with a mixture of dread and anticipation. On this cold, gray day, the islands were shrouded by fog, cloaked in mystery. If anything, the landscape was even less appealing than the pictures she’d seen. And yet, she could make out the pale brown coat of a Steller sea lion, the subject of her current research project. He was reclining near the top of a cliff like a king lording over his realm.
Her heart began to race with excitement, thudding in her chest. The Farallones were a wildlife researcher’s dream come true. Surely she could set aside her phobia and enjoy her stay here. Six weeks of uninterrupted study were almost impossible to come by, and she’d been waiting over a year for this unique opportunity.
Whenever she was feeling closed in, she could do her breathing exercises. She would stay focused on the present, rather than letting the trauma of the past overwhelm her, blurring the edges of her vision and squeezing the air from her lungs. She would keep her eyes on the horizon and her feet on the ground.
As they drew closer to Southeast Farallon, the main island, she noticed a single house. It was a large, ramshackle dwelling, built over a century ago for light keepers and their families. The old Victorian stood stark and lonely on the only flat stretch of terrain, an ordinary structure on alien landscape. Like a gas station on the moon.
“They say it’s haunted.”
The deckhand’s voice startled her. She dragged her gaze from the whitewashed house to his wind-chafed face. “The entire island?”
“Nah,” he said with a smile. “Just the house.”
She cast a speculative glance at the simple, no-frills structure. It was the least intimidating feature on the island. And she, like most scientists, didn’t believe in ghosts. If she had, she might have believed in an afterlife, as well. Faith was a comfort she’d been denied in her darkest hour, and she wasn’t going to start being superstitious now.
“I’m more worried about the sharks,” she admitted.
The deckhand grunted his response and jerked his chin toward the shore. “They’ll be coming for you now.”
She caught a glimpse of two dark figures walking along a footpath etched into the side of the cliff, a few hundred yards from the house. With no docking facilities, setting foot on the island was a tricky process. The research biologists had access to a beat-up old Boston whaler, hoisted above the surface of the water by a formidable-looking crane.
At fifteen feet, the boat was smaller than a full-grown great white.
While she watched, one of the figures boarded the whaler, and the other lowered it to the pounding surf below. In a few efficient moments, the boat was speeding out to pick her up.
“Don’t panic,” she whispered, squaring her shoulders.
The man driving the boat brought it alongside the charter and killed the engine, exchanging a friendly greeting with a crew member.
When he stood, throwing the deckhand a rope to tie off the whaler, she studied him with unabashed curiosity. His legs were covered by dark, waterproof trousers and knee-high rubber boots, same as hers. Unlike her immaculate, just-purchased ensemble, his clothes were well-used and far from spotless. His jacket was splotched with what might have been bird droppings, and his face was shadowed by a week’s worth of stubble.
“Seen any sharks today?” the deckhand asked.
The man grinned. “Day ain’t over yet.”
Based on his dark good looks, she guessed that this was Jason Ruiz, the Filipino oceanographer she’d been communicating with via email. She’d seen a grainy photo of him once and it hadn’t done him justice.
The deckhand lobbed her duffel in his direction. After catching it deftly, Jason motioned with his gloved fingers. “Toss her to me. I’m ready.”
The deckhand’s eyes were merry, full of mischief.
Daniela took a step back. “I’d rather not—”
“We’re just messing with you,” Jason said, patting the aluminum seat beside him. “Jump over here.”
She moistened her lips, measuring the distance between the boats with trepidation. The expanse was less than two feet, but the drop went quite a ways down. And, although the whaler was tied off, it was still a moving target.
Her stomach churned as she watched it pitch and sway. “Jump?”
“Yeah. And try not to hit water. Just because we haven’t seen the sharks doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
The deckhand laughed, as if this were a joke. It wasn’t. This time of year, the sharks were most definitely there. They came to the Farallones every fall to dine on a rich assortment of seals and sea lions.
Daniela stared at the surface of the water, feeling faint.
She’d been briefed about the boat situation, of course. But reading a matter-of-fact description detailing the steps needed to access the island was different than actually going through with it. Leaping from a charter to an aluminum boat in shark-infested waters was madness. One false move, one tiny miscalculation, and…
Jason gave the deckhand a knowing smirk. “Just throw her to me, Jackie. She can’t weigh much more than that bag.”
“No,” she protested, taking a step forward. She was pretty sure they were teasing again, but she also didn’t want to give herself time to reconsider. Chickening out before she’d begun was not an option.
She took a deep breath and grabbed Jason’s proffered hand, hopping over the short but frightening precipice.
She didn’t fall into the water. She didn’t hit the aluminum seat, either. She collided with Jason Ruiz, almost knocking them both off balance. He threw his arms around her and braced his legs wide, holding her steady until the boat stopped rocking.
Daniela clung to him, her heart racing. She hadn’t been this close to a man in a long time, and it felt good. Strange, but good. He was much taller than she was, and a lot stronger. She could feel the muscles in his arms and the flatness of his chest against her breasts.
He smelled good, too. Like salt and ocean and hard work. But even while she registered these sensations, there was one irrational, overriding thought:
He’s not Sean.
“I’m sorry,” she said, clearing her throat.
“Don’t mention it,” he murmured, making sure she was ready to stand on her own before he released her. “I never get tired of beautiful women throwing themselves at me. I only wish I’d showered in recent memory.” The corner of his mouth tipped up. “There’s a shortage of hot water on the island, and we’re all a bit rank.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “You don’t smell bad.”
“Really? I thought I smelled like bird crap and B.O.”
Laughing, she shook her head. “Bird crap, maybe.” The faint odor of ammonia filled her nostrils, but it was coming from the island, not him.
“Daniela,” she said, grasping his hand. As quickly as it came, the sexual tension between them dissolved. He was still smiling at her in an appreciative, masculine way, and she was smiling back at him, unable to deny his considerable appeal, but there was no intensity to their mutual admiration.
With his easy charm and handsome face, he probably had a way with the ladies. She’d known men like him before. Her ex-husband, for one. Women had always dropped at Sean’s feet, and he’d done little to discourage them.
Feeling her smile slip, she pulled her hand away.
If he noticed her change of mood, he didn’t remark upon it. “Ready?” he asked, catching the rope the deckhand threw at him and tucking it away.
Nodding, she perched on the edge of the aluminum seat, paralyzed by self-consciousness. She was so far out of her element here. The past two years, she’d been in virtual seclusion, working from her desk at home and putting in late hours at the research facility. She’d interacted with more spreadsheets than animals. This trip was, in part, an attempt to get her life back. A return to her roots.
She hadn’t chosen conservation biology to spend all her time indoors.
Rubbing elbows with other scientists, most of whom were men, was nothing new, and she was no stranger to roughing it, but she hadn’t socialized, much less dated, in ages. The close proximity of a hot guy rattled her more than she’d like to admit.
And she couldn’t stop comparing him to Sean.
The two men probably knew each other. There weren’t that many shark experts in the world, let alone the West Coast, and Jason was from San Diego. They were close in age, although Sean was about five years older. Both of them were tall and fit and remarkably good-looking. They were also consummate outdoorsmen and staunch environmentalists, more comfortable on a surfboard than in a boardroom.
Upon closer inspection, Jason was the more striking of the two, with his dark eyes and sensual mouth. But Sean’s all-American ruggedness had always hit her in the right spot.
Daniela turned her gaze back to the calm-inducing horizon. She hadn’t seen Sean in over a year, but he still managed to monopolize her thoughts.
Jason maneuvered the whaler into position beneath the boom, a task that required concentration and dexterity. When he found the right place, he stood and hitched the heavy metal hook to the hull with no assistance from Daniela.
She did her best to hang on to her seat and stay out of his way.
Once connected, the whaler was lifted high into the air by the crane, and this ride was no less nerve-wracking than the two-hour boat trip to the islands or the precarious jump she’d taken a few moments ago. She gripped the aluminum bench until her knuckles went white. When the boat shuddered to a stop over dry land, she breathed a sigh of relief and flexed her icy hands.
She couldn’t believe she was actually here. Southeast Farallon Island was an odd place, like no other on earth, and the first thing that struck her was the noise. It was nature in chaos. The sound of crashing surf and cawing birds reverberated in her ears, and wind whipped at her clothes, like children vying for attention.
Jason grinned at the boom operator, clearly at home in this wild place. “Thanks, Liz,” he shouted, raising his voice to be heard above the cacophony.
The woman at the controls watched while Jason helped Daniela climb from the dangling boat, her expression cool.
Daniela stepped forward to introduce herself. “Liz? I’m Daniela Flores.”
“Elizabeth Winters,” she said, extending a slender, black-gloved hand.
Daniela accepted her handshake with an uncertain smile.
“I’m the only one allowed to call her Liz,” Jason explained, hefting the duffel bag over his shoulder. “Because we’re special friends.”
Elizabeth regarded him like he was something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Daniela didn’t know what to make of her. She was tall and slim, dressed in weatherproof fabric from head to toe, with a gray-blue windbreaker that matched the color of her eyes. A thick auburn braid trailed over one shoulder, and she had the delicate skin of a redhead. Her face was pale and freckled and very lovely.
“I’ll refrain from sharing my pet name for you,” she said drily.
He laughed, delighted to have irked her. Elizabeth seemed more annoyed than amused. Perhaps she was immune to charming men.
Daniela decided that she liked her. “How is your conservation project coming along?” she asked as they followed Jason down the steep, pebble-strewn path toward the house. “I was fascinated by the study you published recently on the black-feathered cormorant.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed with pleasure. “Thank you. The islands get so much attention for their sharks.” She made a face at Jason’s well-formed back, as if he were responsible for the Farallones’ notoriety. “Many of the birds here are more unique, and in far greater need of protection, but the majority of funding is spent on shark research. Investors with deep pockets love to see red water and flashing teeth.”
“Watch your step,” Jason reminded, turning toward Elizabeth and placing his hand on her slim waist.
She tensed at his touch. “I’m fine.”
Nodding, he released her and continued on.
Daniela traversed the slope with caution, feeling rocks crumble and roll like ball bearings beneath her booted feet.
“Where was I?” Elizabeth asked.
“‘Flashing teeth,’” Daniela supplied, eyes cast downward.
“Oh, right. The tourists come for the sharks as well. Boatloads of gawkers cruise by every weekend. I mean, this is supposed to be an animal sanctuary. Last Sunday they all but ruined my chances at seeing two blue-crested warblers mate—”
Her rising voice shut off like a switch as she lost her footing. Quick as lightning, Jason caught her by both arms and hauled her against him, saving her from a nasty tumble down the side of the cliff.
She stared up at him, wide-eyed and short of breath.
“Like I said,” he murmured, letting her go. “Watch your step.”
“Sorry.” With a trilling laugh, she glanced back at Daniela. “I tend to get overexcited, talking about my causes.”
“No need to apologize for being passionate,” Daniela said, intrigued by the subject matter. Not to mention the byplay between Elizabeth and Jason. “How close do the tourists get?” she asked as they started down the hill again. “I thought the waters here were too treacherous for recreational boaters.”
“Oh, they are,” Jason replied. “But a cage-diving operation comes during shark season. They dock a couple of hundred feet offshore, drop the cages and throw out chum.”
Daniela was shocked. “They
Near the islands?” The practice of throwing out shark bait, a noxious mixture of blood and fish parts, was looked down on by scientists. It changed the animals’ natural behavior and made them less wary of humans.
“Yeah. It’s not illegal.”
She arrived at the base of the slope, where the ground was more stable. “I can’t imagine getting in the water here. Even with a steel cage for protection.”
“Crazy thrill seekers,” Jason said, winking at Elizabeth. Obviously, his profession as a shark researcher put him in the same category. “Daniela is here to observe the Steller sea lion. She’s from the Scripps Institute in San Diego.”
Elizabeth’s brows rose. “Excellent. That’s a top-notch organization.”
“Oh, yes,” Daniela said, unable to contain her own excitement. “We’re collecting the necessary data to keep the Steller on the endangered list. I hope my work here makes a difference.”
“So do I,” Elizabeth said kindly.
“We’ve got an awesome crew this season.” Jason shifted the weight of her duffel as he approached the front door of the house. “Brent Masterson is here, filming some footage for his documentary. Taryn Evans is one of the most enthusiastic interns I’ve ever met. And although Dr. Fitzwilliam had to back out at the last minute, his replacement is a name I’m sure you’ll recognize. We’ve snagged the leading shark expert in the Western Hemisphere—”
Daniela’s stomach dropped as soon as he opened the door. For, standing behind it was a man she recognized very well, indeed. The leading shark expert of the Western Hemisphere had his hands all over a gorgeous blonde, laughing as he tried to wrestle her to the ground.
“—Sean Carmichael,” Jason finished, gazing upon Daniela’s ex-husband with hero-worship in his eyes.
ean disentangled himself from the young woman quickly, his face going slack. The football the pair had been grappling over dropped to the threadbare rug with a solid thud.
Still laughing, the girl picked it up off the floor and straightened, running a hand through her long, wavy hair.
Daniela hated her immediately.
“I’m Taryn,” the girl said, a dimple appearing in her sunny cheek.
“Daniela,” she murmured in response, managing a limp handshake. She felt bloodless, as though her spirit had been drained from her, sucked out by the island wind and taken far away, across the turbulent sea.
Why was Sean here? He was supposed to be in Baja California. She’d checked.
An uncomfortable silence, punctuated by the ticking of a clock on the far wall, seemed to stretch out into an eternity. Jason looked back and forth between Daniela and Sean, puzzled by the tension in the room. “Do you two know each other?”
Sean recovered first. He’d always been quick on his feet. “She’s my ex-wife,” he said, explaining their relationship in the same tone he’d have used to mention a vague professional connection. He gave her a polite nod. “Hello, Daniela.”
Although it took an effort, she inclined her head, acknowledging him in the same detached manner. “Sean.”
Taryn nibbled on her lush lower lip, as if trying to figure out if Daniela’s presence meant her fun and games with Sean were over.
Jason also seemed to be considering the ramifications. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes,” Sean said.
“No,” said Daniela at the same time.
Jason frowned. “She doesn’t have a restraining order against you or anything, does she?”
Sean shot him a dark look, insulted by the suggestion that a woman would require protection from him. “Of course not.”
Accepting the answer without question, Jason turned his attention back to Daniela, a hint of regret in his eyes. Being a lowly seal researcher, rather than a leading shark expert, she was the more dispensable of the two.
Her mood plummeted. She didn’t need a weather diagram to know which way the wind blew on Farallon Island. Sean was a superstar in this field, and his unscheduled visit here was a coup. Compared to him, she was nobody. Jason Ruiz wouldn’t care how pretty she was if Sean wanted her gone.
She forced herself to meet Sean’s eyes. “Can we talk outside?”
“Sure,” he muttered, grabbing a jacket off the dilapidated couch in the living room. On his way out, he exchanged a glance with Taryn, conveying a silent, intimate message that cut Daniela to the quick.
Taryn watched them depart with undisguised interest.
Daniela walked about a dozen steps from the house and stopped, hugging her arms around her body. Because the island was covered by sharp rocks, kamikaze seagulls and 5,000-pound elephant seals, it was no place to take a leisurely stroll.
At least the wind would make their conversation impossible to overhear. It blew her hair in every direction, whipping the shoulder-length strands against her cheeks.
She stared out at the horizon, collecting her thoughts. Although she disliked being at Sean’s mercy, she’d have to suck it up and make nice. There was so much riding on this project. Her career, the cause…her peace of mind, even. In a way, she’d come here to find herself.
She’d been lost for so long.
Spending time on a deserted island with her ex-husband wasn’t going to be easy, but she was a survivor. She’d lived through worse than this. Compared to some of the other challenges she’d faced in her life, his presence was a minor roadblock.
They’d been married for more than five years; surely they could put up with each other for a few short weeks.
“You look good,” he said, after a long moment.
Surprised by the compliment, she turned to face him.
“Your hair is longer,” he added unnecessarily. “And you seem…” His gaze dropped to her breasts, which were impossible to hide, even in a boxy windbreaker. “Healthier,” he muttered, a flush creeping up his neck.
If he meant to flatter her, he was off base. After the accident, she’d cropped her hair short, and in the following year she’d lost a lot of weight. She’d overheard him telling his best friend that she resembled a scrawny boy.
One careless remark, never discussed, never repeated, but it had damaged their already strained relationship. The last thing she needed was a reminder that he liked long, luscious hair and generous curves.
He was looking a bit rawboned himself, but she didn’t say that. Lean or not, he was the picture of health. Shedding a few pounds only made his shoulders appear broader and his face more angular. Underneath his clothes, she knew he would be perfectly cut, all lovely muscles etched into sun-bronzed flesh.
His hair was longer, too, curling at the edge of his collar, as if he’d been too busy to have it trimmed. He hadn’t bothered to shave in a few days, either. His whiskers appeared thicker than ever, but she knew from experience that they would feel soft to the touch. Her fingertips tingled at the memory of exploring his stubbly jaw and hard mouth. Both were deceptively rough-looking.
She resisted the absurd longing to lift her hand to his face. “I need this,” she said in a low voice.
Sean shook his head. “You don’t belong here, Dani. It’s too harsh, too volatile. You’re…not equipped.”
“That isn’t fair,” she said. “You haven’t even seen me since—”
“When’s the last time you had an anxiety attack?” he interrupted.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she studied the horizon instead of him. Breathe, she reminded herself. Just breathe.
“A month ago? A week?”
“I can handle it.” He’d witnessed her worst breakdowns, so she couldn’t blame him for being concerned. She could, however, resent him for treating her like an invalid, and for thinking she was weak. “I’m stronger now.”
His eyes wandered over her face. “Are you?”
“Yes! You really think that teenybopper you were playing full-contact with is tougher than I am? After all I’ve been through?”
Jealousy burned within her, hot and bright. “Did you interrogate her this way, too? Make sure she was mentally fit?”
“I didn’t have to. She’s very…easygoing.”
Daniela choked out a laugh. Nothing he could have said would hurt more. Compared to her, everyone seemed easy. “How perfect for you.”
He didn’t disagree.
She pushed the pain of his betrayal aside, searching for the right words to convince him. “I’ve been on the waiting list for over a year, Sean. Don’t take this opportunity away from me because you came out here on a whim. Please.”
He shifted from one foot to the other, his face taut. “There’s been an incident.”
“What kind of incident?”
“Someone skinned a seal pup.”
The breath rushed from her lungs. “When?”
“A few days ago. We found it on the north side.”
Daniela blinked a few times, struggling to understand. “The body washed up?”
“No. It was fresh.”
“That’s impossible! The island is virtually inaccessible.”
He inclined his head in agreement. “Virtually.”
“Who would do that?”
“Maybe a disgruntled fisherman, or a member of the cage-diving crew. Either way, it’s been damned odd around here lately. We’re all on edge. The last thing I want is for you to come across some crazy…anti-environmentalist.” He was quiet for a moment, his gaze searching hers. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
A lump rose to her throat. She swallowed hard, thinking she’d much rather deal with his criticism than his tenderness. “I won’t,” she promised, her voice huskier than usual. “I appreciate your concern, but I can’t run away at the first sign of trouble. I need to face my fears, Sean. I came here to move on.”
His eyes darkened with a sharp, indefinable emotion. She knew the situation was difficult for him, too. Much of what had gone wrong between them had been her fault; she’d given up on their marriage long before he had.
And when she realized her mistake, it had been too late.
The radio under his jacket crackled with disturbance. “Shark attack, southwest side. Near Skull Rock. Looks like a big one.”
It was a man’s voice, one she didn’t recognize. Sean unclipped his radio and responded with an affirmative, glancing up toward the lighthouse. Beside it, there was a lone figure, waving his arms in the direction of the attack.
Jason flew out of the house, a digital video camera in his hands, his open jacket flapping behind him. There was no more time for negotiation. “Who’s with me?” he said, heading toward the landing.
It went without saying that Sean was. He lived for this.
He started after Jason, following him away from the house. Daniela had to jog to keep up with his long strides. The man at the lighthouse tower also hurried down the path, eager to accompany them.
“Sure you want to see this?” Sean asked over his shoulder. “It’s a bloody mess.”
As soon as he spoke those words, she was assaulted by images from another disturbing scene. Shrieking metal and shattered glass. The warm, wet rush of blood and the agonizing pain spreading through her belly.
“Yes,” she said anyway, fighting to clear her mind of memories. This was a test, like jumping from boat to boat, and failure was not an option. Heart racing, she scrambled along behind him, her feet seeking purchase on the rocky soil.
He should have checked the roster before signing on.
It had never occurred to Sean that his ex-wife would be on the list of researchers. Southeast Farallon was the last place on earth she should be.
He was glad she’d decided to return to the world of the living, but this wasn’t it. In fact, native Californians had called the Farallones “The Islands of the Dead.” The conditions were too extreme for someone who’d gone through what she had.
It was like tossing a soldier with PTSD into a battle demonstration. Only, this was no demonstration.
Maybe after witnessing a twenty-foot shark decapitate an elephant seal, she’d go back to the mainland on the next charter. He hoped so. It wasn’t as if he didn’t wish her the best. It was just that the best thing for her was to be somewhere else. Somewhere peaceful.
She didn’t need to rub her face in carnage to prove to him, or anyone, that she could handle the sight of blood again.
When they all loaded into the whaler, Jason passed the handheld camera to Sean and got behind the wheel. Brent, who’d managed to grab his own video equipment, settled in across from Daniela, and Sean took the space beside her.
Elizabeth operated the crane, lowering them down to the surface of the water.
“You must be Daniela,” Brent said, offering her his hand. “I’m Brent Masterson.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
Although her smile was bland, he scanned her face with undisguised interest, recording every line and angle. Sean knew he was thinking that Daniela would look great on camera. Her big brown eyes and captivating features made her spectacularly photogenic.
As soon as the boat touched the surface, Jason unhooked the chain and revved up the engine, speeding toward Skull Rock.
Sean passed the handheld camera to Daniela. “Film.”
Her cheeks paled. “What?”
“I tag,” Sean said. “Jason drives. You and Brent can film.”
“You’re going to tag it?”
He nodded. “I need my hands free.”
Tagging was a quick, easy process, and Sean could have filmed himself, but getting Daniela behind the lens would be good for her. It was a task to focus on, a small insulation, one step removed from the horror.
“B-be careful,” she mumbled, lifting the video camera to her face.
Even in a state of shock and uncertainty, she was breathtaking. Being with her again was a jolt to his system, as powerful and disturbing as the first time he’d set eyes on her. He remembered that day with perfect clarity.
She’d been hurrying toward the parking lot at San Diego State, a stack of textbooks under one arm, a sleek leather tote bag in the other. With her stylish clothes and arresting good looks, she was a world apart from the granola girls he usually gravitated toward.
One glimpse of her, and his heart had stalled in his chest.
He was a post-grad student, teaching his first class, and if he hadn’t already been late he’d have followed her. As it was, he’d turned to watch her go, ogling her in a way that was gauche and obvious and embarrassingly impolite.
Maybe it was fate, because she showed up in his classroom a few minutes later. Apparently, she’d forgotten the syllabus and had gone back to her car to retrieve it.
He was sure he’d babbled nonsense for most of the hour, but she hadn’t seemed to mind. In fact, she’d approached him after, claiming to have enjoyed his lecture. Every time the class met after that, she sat closer to the front of the room.
During the final exam she’d been in the first row, wearing a low-cut top so distracting he’d stuttered whenever his eyes tripped over her.
That was ten years ago.
He didn’t know how they’d arrived at this painful juncture, and it hurt too much to retrace the steps. Trying to live without her the past year had been agony for him, but it hadn’t been as bad as living with her, watching her slip away.
Was she truly on the mend?
He hadn’t lied when he’d told her she looked good. She was lovelier than ever, to be honest. The new hairstyle worked for her, framing her heart-shaped face and feathering out against her cheeks, drawing his attention to her mouth.
He wished he didn’t remember all the things she’d done to him with it.
Pulling his gaze away from her, he searched the horizon, looking for a seal carcass or a boil on the surface of the water. The tearing motion great whites used while feeding, tails whipping back and forth, created a unique disturbance.
Skull Rock, the islands’ most striking natural feature, loomed in the near distance. While most of the rock formations were jagged, jutting toward the sky like a row of wicked teeth, the Skull had a rounded shape and two distinctive, cavernous indentations. One went all the way through to the other side, giving the impression of a gaping eye socket.
It was a fitting place for a kill.
Jason saw the body before he did. “Starboard side, twenty meters,” he said, cutting the boat’s speed to a crawl.
Daniela turned her head, doing a visual sweep of the area.
Sean placed his hand on her shoulder. “There,” he said, pointing her in the right direction. She was trembling, and that would affect the video, but it hardly mattered. He’d taken some shaky footage himself.
A certain amount of fear was normal. Hell, if you weren’t scared of a lightning-quick predator with razor-sharp teeth and the striking power of a Mack truck, something was fundamentally wrong with you.
Of course, the shark was nowhere to be seen at the moment. Only the headless body of a California sea lion was visible, floating in a slick red bath. The water wouldn’t keep the color long, for the Pacific Ocean was a vast expanse, but while the animal bled out it was surrounded by a shock of crimson, pure and dark and undiluted.
“Wh-where is it?” Daniela whispered, camera focused on the corpse.
“Close by,” he said, dropping his hand from her shoulder. He wanted to keep touching her, to make sure she stayed put. Which was foolish, as no one in their right mind would leap from a boat in this situation. “Zoom in.”
She fumbled with the camera for a moment, familiarizing herself with the controls before she resumed filming. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes stark.
Brent attached his underwater camera to a pole with a crooked arm and lowered it into the water. He didn’t talk much while he was filming, claiming that the man behind the lens shouldn’t be seen
Next to him, Jason Ruiz was silent at the helm. Although he was more loquacious than Brent, he knew shark behavior as well as Sean, and kept his comments to a minimum while they were out here. He was a good scientist, if a little overeager, and they got on well.
When Jason glanced up at Sean now, his eyes narrowed for a split second before he looked away.
The younger man’s disapproval wasn’t obvious, and Sean was almost convinced he’d imagined it. Over the past few days, Jason had treated him with deference and respect and damned near adoration. It was kind of annoying, actually.
Less than an hour with Daniela, and he’d switched sides.
Jason hadn’t known about their marriage, but perhaps he’d heard a few random details about the divorce. They’d separated after she almost died in a car accident, which didn’t cast Sean in a very positive light. His ex-wife also had a singular effect on people, especially men, and Jason had a weakness for the ladies.
He’d never met a beautiful woman he didn’t want to sleep with.
Sean could practically hear him thinking, “You dumped
her? Are you insane?
She’d dumped him, not the other way around, but almost everyone assumed the failed relationship was his fault. They were right, in a way. He’d been unable to protect her, incapable of comforting her and at an utter loss for the right words to say to her.
“Why isn’t it…eating?” she whispered, her voice wavering.
“A pause between the first strike and a feeding isn’t unusual. We think they’re making sure the prey is in no condition to fight back.”
This sea lion wouldn’t put up a fuss—not without a head. White sharks often attacked by ambush, rocketing toward the target from underneath and incapacitating it in one fatal blow. The current victim had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, swimming too far from the shallows and too close to the surface.
Although blood no longer gushed from the wound, the animal’s exposed vertebra was a grisly sight, and the air was thick with the smell of death. Seabirds waited on nearby perches, feathers fluttering, ready to snap up a meaty scrap.
Sean watched Daniela’s throat work as she swallowed back her nausea. She was holding up well, considering. As a marine biologist, she’d interacted with dangerous animals before. They’d worked in the field together on a regular basis, so he knew her level of expertise.
He’d seen her reach out to stroke the slippery back of a stingray, grin with delight when visited by a school of blue sharks, stand up to a braying Northern seal and get bitten on her pretty little backside as she beat a hasty retreat.
Daniela had a way with animals, a confidence gained from experience and a natural ease that couldn’t be taught. She wasn’t a shark expert, however, and the great whites at the Farallones were like no other predator on earth.
With her unsteady nerves and devastating personal history, she wasn’t the best candidate for this kind of research.
The sight of a white shark breaching, or propelling its massive body above the surface of the water during the initial attack was heart-stopping. There was also no way to predict this occurrence, so footage of it was rare. Unlike in the movies, most sharks didn’t advertise their locations by flashing fins before a bite.
Feeding frenzies were also unusual. After the kill, whites ate with economical efficiency, and they weren’t the most dexterous of fish. If their movements caused the surface of the water to bubble like a pot of seafood gumbo, it was because they were powerhouses, not because they were doing underwater gymnastics.
Sean knew what to expect, but the wait always created tension. Anticipating Daniela’s reaction made the situation more uneasy.
The whaler was only fifteen feet long, and it seemed to shrink as time dragged on. A patch of coastal fog settled over the upper half of the island, bringing with it an eerie quiet, a silence charged with dread and unholy glee.
At Skull Rock, beady-eyed scavengers shuffled their clawed feet.
When the shark broke through the surface of the water, Daniela startled, almost dropping the video camera. She took a series of short, quick breaths, fright apparent on her fine features, the rapid beat of her pulse visible in her slender neck.
Sean didn’t need a Ph.D to diagnose her anxiety, or any special intuition to realize she was reliving the trauma of the wreck. Her face was so pale, he feared she would faint. He considered dropping the tagging equipment to offer her his assistance. Brent, whose attention should have been focused on directing the underwater camera, seemed concerned by her distress. And it went without saying that Jason was enraptured.
Just as Sean was about to call off the shoot, Daniela pulled herself together. Spine straightening, she held the video camera in a steady, if white-knuckled, grip.
The evidence of her courage caused a strange welling of emotions within him. Pride, and sadness and regret. His eyes watered and his throat closed up. How ironic, he thought, if
turned out to be the one who couldn’t hold it together.
After a moment, the pressure in his chest eased and he was able to drag his gaze away from her. The white had moved in and was nibbling a big chunk of flesh from the decapitated sea lion’s side. By the looks of it, the shark was an adult, and good-sized, too. At least eighteen or nineteen feet.
“It’s Shirley,” Jason said, a grin lighting across his face.
“It sure as hell is,” Sean replied, returning his smile.
Shirley was a breeding female, and that was always a welcome sight at the Farallones. She had a crescent-shaped scar above her left eye, small but easy to recognize, and she was often spotted with her full-figured friend, Laverne.
The pair had been named by Sean a couple of years ago. Jason had seen them both last year, but hadn’t been able to tag either. The number of great whites in the world was ever-dwindling, and the circle of shark researchers was small. Although Jason and Sean didn’t know each other that well, they knew a lot of the same sharks.
They studied Shirley in reverent silence while she tore and chewed and swallowed. A flurry of greedy seagulls dogged her every movement, snatching up stringy bits of gore, wings flapping. While the effect wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, the mood on the boat was no longer sinister, and any hint of animosity from Jason was gone.
Still smiling, he eased the whaler in closer.
“Wh-what are we doing?” Daniela asked, one hand reaching out to grab the edge of the hull, steadying herself.
Sean’s blood turned to ice. “Keep your hands inside the boat.”
“Why? It’s over there.”
of them is over there,” he corrected, trying not to visualize Laverne breaching beside the boat, taking most of Daniela’s arm with her.
She snatched her hand back. And just like that, she lost her focus. Letting the camera sag, she searched the surface of the water with terrified eyes, pressing her palm to her lower abdomen in a way that was familiar and absolutely heartbreaking.
Sean wanted to kick himself. He didn’t know what he should have said differently, or what to say now to calm her down.
“Look at me,” Jason said.
Gulping, she met his steady gaze.
“We’re going in closer to tag her. It only takes a minute. And Sean’s a pro. You know that, right?”
Her eyes darted from him to Sean. “Yeah,” she said, moistening her lips.
“Good. You just keep filming. You’re doing a great job.”
Brent nodded helpfully. “You’ll be fine.”
Like a trooper, she put the camera back up to her face and resumed filming. Her movements were stiff, even robotic, but she was working through the fear, maintaining her composure and refusing to let the past overwhelm her.
He hazarded a glance at Jason, who merely shrugged and maneuvered the whaler into position. Sean should have felt grateful that someone had been coolheaded enough to help Daniela. Instead, he was sick with envy.
And Brent knew it. Sean could tell by the way he averted his eyes, turning his attention back to the surface of the water.
Unlike Jason, Sean didn’t have an easy way with words. He wasn’t suave, expressive or articulate. His inability to communicate his feelings to Daniela had played a major role in their breakup. And just now, his thoughtless comment had caused her panicked reaction.
By trying to keep her safe, he’d only put her in more danger.
A muscle in Sean’s jaw ticked as he located the tagging equipment, clicking the various components into place with swift, angry motions. This was what he knew. Scientific gadgets and cold-blooded animals.
Here, no words were necessary.
oming here had been a mistake.
Sean was right. Daniela knew that now.
Why had she thought she was strong enough to keep her cool on a tiny aluminum boat in turbulent, shark-filled waters? She wasn’t. Anyone who found this type of situation exciting, or even remotely safe, was certifiable.
The whaler they were sitting in was a joke. What would prevent one of those ferocious beasts from bumping it? One nudge, and they’d all be overboard, swimming for their lives in noxious, red-tinged water.
She almost gagged. The air smelled like a rendering plant.
What would stop Shirley from biting into the boat? A great white had some of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom. Those teeth could cut through the hull like it was a soda can.
Shirley had devoured a 500-pound sea lion in less than a dozen bites.
Jason and Sean had watched her chow down with identical expressions of pride on their handsome faces, grinning like the maniacs they were. Brent’s demeanor was more circumspect, but no less pleased. He was getting great footage.
As they moved in closer, Daniela’s unease grew. The shark was not only longer than the boat, she was wider. Her mouth gaped open, larger than the circle of Daniela’s arms, ringed by rows of serrated white daggers.
This shark could swallow her whole. And that toothy grin was less than two feet from the side of the boat.
It was all she could do to keep filming while Sean stood and leaned out, tagging the shark’s slippery back as easily as if he’d been giving a fellow surfer a high five.
Daniela had been fighting a breakdown for most of the day. The sight of him taking such a shocking risk, and doing it with ineffable nonchalance, almost sent her careening over the edge. Somehow, she continued to point the camera at the thing in the water, a now unrecognizable mass of shiny black flesh and red-soaked teeth. Birds swooped down around them from every direction, literally plucking strings of meat from the mouth of the monster.
Time seemed to slow down and speed up after that. One moment, they were out on the water, watching the brutality of nature, survival of the fittest in action, a violent blur of sound and motion and color. The next, they were sailing through the air, disappearing into a blanket of late-afternoon fog.
Too numb to speak, she held herself as stiff as a board while the crane lifted the whaler up to the landing.
The day was almost over, she realized with bleak surprise. In this bizarre, uncivilized place, what would nightfall bring?
All three men were staring at her, so she took the camera away from her face, finally, and felt the world crash into sharp focus. The landscape was too foreign, too harsh for tender eyes. The sea was too dark, too blue, too vast.
“Here,” she mumbled, turning off the camera and handing it to Jason.
Sean helped her out of the boat. The instant her feet hit ground, her knees buckled. “Easy,” he said, steadying her. His arms felt even stronger than Jason’s, and twice as disturbing. She righted herself, her face growing hot.
“When did you eat last?”
“This morning,” she said, embarrassed by her shakiness, and annoyed with him for calling her on it. Worse, her body tingled from his touch. Even through layers of clothing, his hands left an imprint on her skin.
She backed up a step, bumping into Jason.
“You’re in for a treat, then,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “It’s my turn to cook. Have you ever had
She nodded. “I like it.”
Jason walked forward, leading her toward the footpath. “I knew you would. The rest of the week, we have to suffer through bland, ordinary fare. On my night, we dine in style.”
Her lips curved into a wobbly smile.
“Please tell me you’re planning to make something spicy and Mexican and extra-delicious when it’s your turn to cook.”
She glanced back at Sean and Brent, who were trailing behind them. Sean seemed displeased, perhaps because Jason was acting as though he wanted her to stay. “I’m not a big fan of super-spicy food, actually. The part of Mexico I’m from isn’t known for that. But if you have the right ingredients, I can make tamales.”
Jason made a murmur of interest and inquired about the recipe, keeping his hand at her waist as they continued down the hillside. If Sean had touched her this way, she’d have bristled, but with Jason, she didn’t care. In a far corner of her mind, she knew he was humoring her, trying to get her to focus on mundane pleasantries rather than the nerve-jolting bloodbath they’d just witnessed.
As they reached the end of the path, the sun dipped low on the horizon, leaving the island cloaked in shadows and damp with mist. The temperature had dropped considerably, and there was a chill in the air that seemed to invade her very bones.
The inside of the house was warmer, but the creaky old Victorian had been built to withstand pounding rain and gale force winds, not for enjoying cozy nights by the fire. There was no lighted hearth, no golden glow and no central heating.
The place lacked ambiance, with its sturdy furniture and bare walls, but it had a certain dorm-room, flophouse charm. Adding to the collegiate atmosphere, Taryn was sitting at a worktable, scribbling in a notebook under the light of an antique lamp.
The sight of her sunny, California-girl beauty made Daniela’s stomach twist.
Elizabeth headed upstairs, escaping any possible future drama. “I think I’ll go freshen up before dinner.”
“No need for formal wear,” Jason said. “We’re dining
Rolling her eyes at his lame joke, she left the room. No one in their right mind would bring anything but work clothes to Southeast Farallon.
Brent sat down on the couch by the window and began checking his camera equipment. It registered with Daniela that he had strong, elegant hands. Sculptor’s hands. He was also handsome in an understated way, with short brown hair and fine blue eyes.
In the chaos of the attack, she’d hardly noticed.
Daniela snuck another glance at Sean, feeling raw, emotional and distinctly out of place. He stared back at her, saying nothing. It was obvious that he didn’t want her to stay, but she couldn’t go anywhere tonight.
Jason cleared his throat. “I already put your bag in your room, Daniela. Taryn will show you the way.”
The girl’s chair scraped against the scarred hardwood flooring. “I’d be happy to,” she said, standing.
“I think I can find it.”
Taryn waved her off. “Don’t be silly. I’ll give you a tour.”
Before Taryn and Daniela went upstairs, Sean and Jason beat a silent retreat, disappearing through the door and into the twilight. It didn’t take a genius to know they were going outside to discuss her. And decide her fate.
“Come on,” Taryn said, smiling as if there was nothing amiss.
Brent looked out the window, craning his neck for a glimpse of the other men and making no attempt to curb his curiosity.
With a sigh, Daniela followed Taryn, forced to stare at the girl’s perky little bottom as she ascended the stairs. Taryn was tall and coltish, model-slim in her formfitting leggings and oversized sweatshirt. The same outfit would have made Daniela look like a tree stump.
“Do they always do that?” she asked.
She nodded toward the front door, where Sean and Jason had just exited. “Give each other dark, brooding looks and talk outside?”
“No,” Taryn admitted. “They acted like best pals until…”
Daniela knew what she’d been about to say.
Terrific. One afternoon on the island, and she was like a disease.
“This is the bathroom,” Taryn said brightly, opening a door on the right side. It was small and dreary, with old-fashioned fixtures and a plain white sink. “The downstairs toilet flushes better, but this one works if you have to pee in the middle of the night. And here is the ever-popular shower.” She slid open the frosted glass door, inclining her slender arm with the panache of a television model.
Daniela peered into the putty-colored stall. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean. “Jason said there’s no hot water?”
“It comes and goes. Tricky pipes. We take turns and hope for the best. Sometimes I have to heat a pot of water on the stove to wash with. Of course, the boys don’t seem to mind being grungy.” She wrinkled her adorable, sun-kissed nose. “Soon, we’ll have more rainwater. We cache it in the cistern and use it for the rest of the year.”
Daniela nodded. Working in the field meant dealing with whatever conditions were available. Running water, at any temperature, was a luxury.
Taryn continued the tour, opening the first door on the left. “This is us. Brent’s room is the next one down. Jason and Sean are there, on the opposite side. And Elizabeth is the last door on the right.”
The room was sparsely furnished, boasting a set of bunk beds, a small desk and one ladder-backed chair. She frowned, confused by the sight of her duffel bag on the lower bunk. “This is…
“Yes. I hope you don’t mind. Elizabeth likes to keep to herself, but I prefer having a roommate.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Just between you and me, it gets kind of spooky around here at night.”
Daniela fell silent, wondering if Sean was Taryn’s preferred roommate. Maybe he wasn’t sleeping with her. At least, not here. Daniela should have been too tired to speculate. All she wanted to do was lie down and close her eyes for a few minutes.
Taryn paused at the doorway, nibbling at her lower lip. “I thought I should let you know that you don’t have to pretend like nothing happened. It must be exhausting, putting on a polite smile for strangers.”
Daniela gave her a blank stare.
“Sean told me about the baby,” she explained.
The blood drained from her face. “He did?”
“Well, yeah. We’ve discussed it several times, actually. And I was here the night he got the phone call about the accident. So I knew already.”
“You were here,” she repeated, her mind going numb. “With him.”
“Yes. It was pretty awful, watching him go through that. The Coast Guard wouldn’t make a special trip, so he had to wait until the next morning to go back to the mainland. He wanted to take the whaler—alone, with no lights or navigation system, when it was pitch black out.” She shook her head, disturbed by the memory. “It was too dangerous, of course, so we couldn’t let him. He stayed up all night, pacing the living room, practically going crazy.”
Daniela felt her throat tighten. She couldn’t imagine Sean acting that way. He was always strong, sensible and calm.
She was the one who panicked, paced rooms and went crazy.
Taryn gave Daniela a closer inspection, frowning at her bewildered expression. “You didn’t know?”
“I knew he was here….”
Thankfully, Taryn didn’t press for more details. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for your loss. I know Sean’s all torn up about it, too.”
“He told you that?”
She blinked her wide blue eyes. “Well, sure. Who wouldn’t be?”
Daniela remained silent, unable to answer. Sean hadn’t discussed any of his feelings with her. He’d never let her know what he’d gone through that night, never told her how he was dealing with the death of their child. And she’d never asked.
She’d been too busy falling apart.
Daniela wasn’t able to comfort Sean in his time of need, or even accept his comfort. After she’d come home from the hospital, she’d been an emotional wreck. Every time he’d tried to reach out to her, she shrank away.
So instead of confiding in her, he’d turned to Taryn. Beautiful, fun-loving, easy-going Taryn.
What man wouldn’t be tempted by a knockout blonde?
Taryn glanced around the room. “If you don’t need anything else—”
“I just want to be left alone,” Daniela said coldly.
Taryn’s brow furrowed. She was pretty, but far from dumb. Behind her perfect features and pleasant smile, a not-so-sweet personality lurked. Daniela saw a hard-edged intelligence and a hint of dislike.
“Of course,” she said, nodding. Her mouth twisted, making her look even less like a bubbleheaded college student and more like a woman who knew her own mind. Turning, she left the room without another word.
Daniela fell back on the bed the instant she closed the door. Snubbing Taryn hadn’t made her feel any better. She wasn’t a vindictive person, and she didn’t enjoy hearing about Sean in pain. But she was shocked by the news that he’d opened up to Taryn, after being unable to share his feelings with her.
She hadn’t felt this bitter since he’d filed for divorce.
“Damn you,” she whispered, punching the pillow beside her. She wasn’t sure whom she was angrier with, Sean or herself. She was the one who’d had the emotional breakdown. She was the one who’d driven him away.
She squeezed her eyes shut, bombarded by images of the past and flashes from today. Grinding metal and gnashing teeth.
No one understood, but the least of her worries was personal injury. After spending those agonizing moments trapped in a crushed vehicle, eight months pregnant and literally bleeding to death, she was afraid of confinement and pain.
But her greatest fear, by far, was loss.
Losing their daughter, never experiencing the miracle of her birth, being robbed of her first smiles and first steps and first words…
It was a thousand times more traumatic than any amount of physical distress.
Feeling the agony wash over her, again and again, Daniela curled up in a little ball on the lower bunk, and, pressing her hands to her now-flat stomach, began to cry.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Avoiding Jason’s question, Sean shoved his hands in his pockets and watched the day fade away, contemplating this crux of his life.
The last rays of sunlight stretched out across the water, hitting the chop and bathing the rippled surface with golden tips. At Skull Rock, only one eye was still visible, glittering darkly, like a demon waiting for the cover of night.
Before Daniela’s accident, he’d loved this place.