Read HIGH TIDE Online

Authors: Maureen A. Miller

HIGH TIDE (10 page)

“What did I tell you about these?” He shook the fistful of discarded wrappers at the colossal figure draped across the stool.

Keo Kimona tucked in one of several chins and glanced up at Nick from under a mass of disorderly black hair. “Pick em up?”

“No. Lay off this stuff. What do you weigh now, Keo?”

Drawing himself up into an indignant mass of deep-tanned flesh and floral cotton, Keo dropped his thong-laden feet on the wooden deck. With pursed lips, he answered, “Close to four hundred, but my mamma says the bigger I get, the greater man I become.”

Nick laughed. “Ain’t that the truth.”

He slapped the captain of the
Inquiry
on his meaty shoulder and then Nick’s fingers clenched as he sobered. “It’s good to see you eating that and not the fish.”

“Damn shame. Something going on out there, boss man?” His chin wiggled towards the sea. “Any ideas?”

“Not a clue. Hilo had nothing to report, and marine biology was enroute, but Keo, have you noticed anything strange with the wave patterns in this area? Waves that flow against the tide?”

Keo grinned boyishly. His age was deceptive. Some guessed him to be about twenty-five, while others estimated that he was in his forties. “That sounds like crazy stuff,
Nikolo. Science fiction.” He turned back into the cabin. “But let’s go take a peek, shall we?”

Clamping his hand down on the bridge as the vessel rumbled out of the pier, Nick searched the shoreline for amateur fishermen
—overzealous tourists intent on capturing a great white with a mere fishing rod.

Hi
s frustration escalated. Until the biologists were on the scene he remained uneasy. Last night the ocean reared in the briefest of glimpses to assault them in the sheltered cove. He should have done more—more than just kiss Briana like they were made to burn the ocean.

When they pulled out of the bay, Nick caught a glimpse of
Manale Palms
, the lair of the goddess. He smirked at the ocean wall that cosseted the fledgling property.

“You talk about strange waves
—” Keo cut into his thoughts, “—you sure it ain’t that development over there, boss man? Nothing like a nasty construction site to upset the coast.”

Studying the outline of a bulldozer, its massive shovel
spun towards the mouth of the bay, Nick frowned and shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Unwanted memories tormented him as he located the lagoon that cloistered his bungalow. His body responded to those images, demanding that he flee the bridge for the privacy of open air. Saltwater dusted across his face as he rested his hands on the sleek wooden handrail and lifted his eyes towards the coast again.

Even from this remote outlook he spotted the figure with shimmering blonde hair pacing listlessly along the water’s edge.

Nick’s fists clenched around the
rail as he bit back a curse.  He asked her to send her security guard, not patrol the beach herself! What if there was another fluctuation with the tide and it caught her off guard? What if something washed up on shore? Until he had exorcised all resources and confirmed the shoreline was safe he didn’t want her anywhere near it.

“Keo!”

***   

All construction had been halted for the day as landscapers moved in to work their magic on some of the new properties. In this break between shifts there was no security guard on duty, so Briana headed for the water to police the area. She paused atop the sandy hillock and contemplated the quiet beach. There were no sig
ns of rogue waves or afflicted marine life, but something didn’t feel right. True, she possessed an innate mistrust of the sea...but this was different.

Cautious, she paced along the hard-packed sand and gave the ocean’s advancing fingers a wide berth. The dull drone of a motor caught her attention as she lifted
a hand above her eyes to focus on the approaching vessel. It looked like a research ship—definitely not a tourist craft. Not surprised to see it, she had expected others the way Nick stormed off with his forewarning.

This vessel dropped anchor nearly a hundred yards offshore as she watched an agile figure leap from the deck into a motorized dinghy.

At a brisk clip, the dinghy approached, swerving at the last minute in an arching sweep of froth. It idled to a halt several yards away, bobbing gently on the calm waters.

When the tall figure alighted,
Briana frowned. Strong thighs plunged through the water, and the intensity of his approach was reflected in more than the rugged muscles. In the dark eyes that never left hers as he forged closer was the portent of trouble.

Briana knew she had to get over this
initial reaction to Nick. Just the sight of him made her heart beat like she had just sprinted a hundred-yard dash. Impossible fantasies overruled her composure.

Judging by the look on Nick’s face, he wasn’t up for fantasies.

“What are you doing here?” he barked before reaching dry land.

“Patrolling. What are
you
doing here?”

“Didn’t I say to keep everyone off the beach until the biologists show up?” Nick paced a ridge in the sand
, his hair made spiky by the brisk breeze.

“You said to send my security guard out here. They are between shifts, so I am covering the beach until the next shift starts.”

Her patient response seemed to aggravate him.

“In our brief time together
—” she continued, “I would think you know enough to realize that I’m not about to go charging into the water and backstroke with the tuna, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Nick stopped pacing.

“But aversion to the water aside,” she continued, “I
am
doing what I can to protect Manale’s beach.”

***
  

She was ready for combat. Fists curled up. Shoulders pinned back. Eyebrows dipped in threat. Yep, Nick thought she was prepared for a confrontation.
 But then the wind came along and molded that white cotton dress to her, and completely defeated her intimidation tactics...even if she didn’t know it.

As much as he wished otherwise, Briana’s voice was all business, and not the feathery whisper that had brushed his name against his lips last night.
That was his fault, and God, he wanted to change it.

“You want to push the envelope, Ms. Holt?” With three brisk strides, he reached her. “Do you want to show how damn proud and determined you are?”

Briana held her ground, although he could tell that his sudden invasion into her space threw her.

Before she could stop him, Nick bent over and scooped an arm behind
her knees and hoisted her up into his arms. His gaze swept over her lips, watching her startled gasp. Then his glance clashed with hers.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m not blind. I see your fear of the water, and since you insist on being so reckless and standing so close to it, then I am going to take you out where you can conquer your fear head on.”

Horror made her tense up. “You tried that once before and you most certainly
are not
going to do it again.”

With his first steps into the ocean he could tell the exact moment her toes dipped into the tepid water.

“This is ridiculous.” Her voice pitched. “Put me down, Nick.”

Panic drew her as taught as a sail in a squall.

“Do you really want me to put you down, Briana?” he asked softly. “Here?”

He felt her eyes on his
mouth and they tortured him. It would be so easy to kiss her and distract her from her fears, but he didn’t want passion to be a byproduct of terror.

Water lapped up to
his waist as Briana’s calves gradually submerged. She clawed around his neck in an effort to climb higher.

“Kidnapping,” she gulped. “That’s what this is. Why, though?”

Briana clung to him, her breasts flattened against his chest, a sensation that made his stride falter. The honey-colored hair smelled of orchids and he drew it in like a man savoring his last breath. Aside from the obvious physical reaction she enticed from him, he was startled by the overwhelming need to protect. Briana was clinging onto him for dear life, every tense muscle in her body screaming out prayers that he would not drop her.

Nick stooped and nimbly set his precious package down on the bench-seat of the rocking boat. For a moment, he stood in the water, holding the frame of the vessel steady in his hands.

Why, indeed
?

Briana had addressed him coolly, which meant that the wonder of last night was far behind them. That shouldn’t bother him though
. It was what he wanted, right? But, for one maddening moment as he stood on the deck of the
Inquiry
and saw her doleful silhouette testing the limits of the ocean—a body of water that at any moment could rear into a threat, he was overcome by emotion. It was irrational, of course—something he was not accustomed to.

Right now, though, he had a damp, ill-tempered, gorgeous female in his dinghy, and he was going to see to it that she remained safe, whether she appreciated it or not.

With a practiced move, he hoisted in beside her, aware that she nearly went into shock from the motion. Revving the motor to swing the vessel back towards the
Inquiry
, he shook his head at his failing sanity.

Miniature whitecaps surrounded the dingy as he watched Briana clutch the seat for support.
He resisted the impulse to touch her and attempt to soothe some of the fear out of those eyes. Fear turned to condemnation though, as that glance alighted on him.

Okay, forget soothing
.

Instead, Nick maneuvered the boat and studied Briana’s profile, the wind lashing golden wisps against her face.

“Do you think someday you’ll talk to me about it, Briana?”

Making sure she had a firm grip on the bench she glared up at him. “About what?”

“What happened?” The drone of the motor battled his volume. “What happened to make you so afraid?”

***

Confused by Nick’s concern, Briana tried to shrug it off. She eyed the water that surrounded her on all sides. “I’m sure everyone has a horror story to tell about the ocean.”

For a moment Nick remained quiet, negotiating his approach to the
Inquiry.
Then he added softly, “I wasn’t talking about the water.”

“Aloha!
Nikolo, what did you bring me, a mermaid?”

Ignoring Nick completely, Keo hung over the edge and offered a hand to Briana, assisting her up the short ladder.

Briana accepted the hand of the bulky Hawaiian with a gracious smile. She was grateful to be on a more stable vessel, with greater distance between her and the water...and Nick.

“Permission to come aboard, sir,” she asked, searching for an ally in the form of this genial giant.

Keo bowed as far as his robust girth would allow, his meaty hand hoisting her effortlessly. “Permission granted m’lady.” A grin full of white teeth lit up his face. “And what brings you aboard the humble
Inquiry?


I
do.” Nick scowled at his friend as he secured the rope of the launch around the rail. “So you can stop flirting. Jeeze, Keo, you act like you’ve never seen a woman before.”

“You’ve never brought one on board before. Are you a meteorologist?” He eyed Briana warily.

Briana shook her head.

“You aren’t USGS, I’d
know
about you.” Folding his arms over his chest, Keo ignored Nick’s growing frown. “What then, an oceanographer?”

Briana shook her head again and flashed a smile. Keo’s mouth fell open.

“Dammit Kimona, you’re drooling.” Nick caught Briana’s elbow and urged her into the bridge, whispering to her, “In that damp dress, who can blame him, though.”

Oh God.

She splayed her palms uselessly across her thighs.

Keo lumbered in after them, and the spacious bridge suddenly became confining. Boxed into a corner, Briana found herself brushing up against Nick. The hair on his forearms tickled her skin. Hot flesh brushed against hot flesh.

“Well, what then? You wouldn’t let just
anybody
on this boat.”

“You aren’t going to like it when I tell you who she is, Keo.”

That declaration made her glare at Nick as she tried to inch out of his reach. The motion did not go undetected, and to her dismay, his indolent grin emerged.

“You know that housing development going up

Manale Palms
?” he began, “Well, you’re looking at the General Contractor.”

“Hmmm.”
  Keo’s smile faltered ever so slightly. Shrewd black eyes assessed her with revised interest, and then the Hawaiian turned to contemplate the receding shoreline. “You know that first house, the one closest to the water—it’s just perfect, wouldn’t mind owning one of those myself.”

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