Authors: Jill Sorenson
It started as a girls’ outing to California’s beautiful
Channel Islands State Park. When Ella Hammond embarks on a kayaking trip with
sexy adventure guide Paul Dawson, sparks fly—but so does gunfire from a boat of
Now Ella and Paul are on the run, soaked and stranded in a
rocky hideout. Ella feels like she’ll never be warm again. Until Paul shares his
body heat—igniting a fire between them that’s nearly too hot to handle!
Passion and Peril,
the front of the tent and took a deep breath.
The amenities were sparse, but the view was spectacular. Just beyond the grassy hill of the campsite, the Pacific Ocean stretched far and wide. She leaned out and craned her neck toward San Miguel Island. Five miles northeast, it boasted steep cliffs and an intricate network of sea caves. She couldn’t wait to explore the area by kayak.
“Rise and shine,” Ella said, nudging her sister.
Abby Hammond, formerly Dwyer, rolled over and reached for her cell phone. She never left home without it. “I feel like I slept five minutes,” she said with a groan. “It’s almost seven already.”
Abby’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Brooke, was the tent’s third occupant. She roused at the sound of voices and sat up. Her eyes were puffy from sleep, blond ponytail askew. “Any word from Dad?”
“Just a text message,” Abby said. “He says he’s sorry he couldn’t get away and he’ll make it up to you soon.”
“Here’s my response,” Brooke said, raising her middle finger.
Abby took a photo of the rude gesture and pretended to hit send. The three of them dissolved into giggles. Brooke had planned the father—daughter trip months ago. When he backed out, Ella and Abby stepped in.
It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Ray had a booming plastic surgery practice in Los Angeles and a history of last-minute cancellations.
Ella was happy to spend the weekend with Abby and Brooke. Since Abby’s divorce, the three of them had been inseparable. Ella had lived with them for four years while she attended college.. She’d helped her sister through the hard times and had watched her come out stronger on the other side.
Yesterday afternoon they’d taken a charter boat from the mainland to Santa Rosa, one of southern California’s Channel Islands. Today they’d visit San Miguel, an uninhabited nature refuge that was only accessible by sea. Although Brooke was the real adventure lover, Abby enjoyed kayaking and Ella had a particular interest in volcanic rock formations. They were all looking forward to the excursion.
Ella put on her hiking shoes and emerged from the tent. It was sunny and bright without a cloud in the sky. Other campers milled about. Her stomach fluttered when she saw their guide a few sites over. They’d met on the boat dock in Santa Barbara. He’d smiled at her in an admiring way, as if he found her attractive.
She wasn’t used to attention from guys like him, especially when she was standing next to Abby and Brooke. Maybe the guide flirted with every female in his vicinity. Some men cast a wide net.
While she watched, he set a small kettle over the flame on a propane stove. He was wearing the typical camping attire of knee-length shorts and a long-sleeved gray shirt. And with his tawny brown hair and lean physique, he reminded her of a surfer.
He glanced up suddenly and caught her gaze. Flashing that same smile at her, he lifted his hand to wave. She waved back, flushing. Then she whirled around and almost ran into Abby, who was studying her with amusement.
“That’s our guide,” Abby said, waving. “What was his name?”
“You think so?”
A faint sound emerged from Ella’s throat, like a chair leg scraping across the floor. If anyone deserved to have fun with a cute guy, it was Abby. She’d been involved in a safe, stagnant “friends with benefits” relationship for more than a year. In Ella’s opinion, her sister was using that arrangement to avoid meeting other people.
“You’re single,” Abby pointed out.
“So are you.”
“He’s too young for me.”
Ella rolled her eyes. Younger men hit on her all the time. “You’re thirty-five, not eighty.”
“He’s clearly into you.”
“Maybe he has vision problems.”
“You’re adorable and you know it.”
“He’s not my type.”
“Your type needs a makeover.”
She couldn’t deny that. Ella had met her last boyfriend in one of her science classes. He’d been a video game addict who spent too much time indoors.
“Kayaking does a body good,” Abby mused.
Ella didn’t want to continue this conversation. They’d be spending the whole day kayaking with Paul. If Ella acted interested, Abby might do something embarrassing like try to push them together.
Brooke crawled out of the tent to join the perusal, her pretty face alight with mischief.
Ella escaped further comments by heading toward the restrooms. Abby and Brooke joined her, chatting about their breakfast plans. The campground had running water and flush toilets but no electricity. Cell phones worked here, which was important to Abby. She’d gone through an ordeal during the San Diego earthquake. Since then, she liked to stay connected, driving Brooke and Ella crazy with constant checkups.
As Ella washed up, she studied her reflection in the stainless steel plate above the sink. She was cute in a geeky way, with smart brown eyes and sleek brown hair. Her figure was slight, curvier below the waist than above.
Brooke came out of the stall, adjusting her long ponytail. She was blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous, like Abby.
Ella and Brooke didn’t bother to wait for Abby, who was far more meticulous about her appearance. She always took pains with her hair and clothes. Even while camping, she wore bras and underwear that matched. It was a sickness.
“Did she bring makeup?” Ella asked.
“Of course,” Brooke said, shaking her head. “She wanted to pack a blow dryer, too.”
They shared a grin at Abby’s expense. Ella was only seven years older than Brooke, so she felt more like a big sister to her than an aunt. Brooke was a star athlete and honor student, poised to start her first semester at Berkeley.
At the campsite, Brooke fired up the little propane stove, and they heated water for coffee and oatmeal. By the time Abby came out of the restroom, hair braided and skin glowing, they were ready to eat. The carrot-walnut-raisin mix was Abby’s concoction, delicious as usual. After breakfast, Abby scrubbed the dishes with industrious vigor.
“OCD,” Brooke mouthed to Ella, who smothered a laugh.
Abby noticed the exchange but didn’t comment. When she finished rinsing, she walked behind Brooke with a cup of water, pouring a splash down her back.
Brooke leapt to her feet, squealing. “Hey!”
Abby almost dropped the cup in her haste to get away. Brooke started to chase her around the tent, stopping short when Paul appeared at the edge of the campsite. He smiled at their antics. Ella rose from the rock she’d been sitting on.
“I know it’s a little early,” he said, clearing his throat, “but the weather conditions are perfect for kayaking right now.”
Brooke did a cheerleading jump kick. “Let’s go.”
They agreed to that time frame and collected their supplies. Each kayaker needed drinking water, snacks and extra clothing. They changed into bikinis and shorts with rash guard surf shirts. Neoprene booties and fleece jackets went into the packs.
When Paul came back to check their gear, he nodded his approval. “You ladies have done this before.”
Ella put on her backpack. “The trip isn’t for beginners, right?”
“Right, but some people lie about their experience. They think it’s easy.”
“How hard is it?” Abby asked, winking at Ella.
“Harder on some days than others,” he said, taking a small spiral notebook from his pocket and flipping it open. “That’s why I have to factor the SCRS before every trip.”
“What’s that?” Ella asked.
“Sea Conditions Rating System.”
They gathered around while he pointed out numbers for wave height, wind speed and water temperature.
“Where do you get the data?”
“Ocean buoys and weather reports. I have an app on my cell phone. I can also do a rough estimate on my own.”
Ella was standing close enough to smell him. She detected an intoxicating hint of sunscreen and sports deodorant on warm male skin. He was tall, almost a foot taller than her. She studied his grip on the notepaper. He had big hands.
“Looks like we’re at Class II/III today. Should be a breeze.”
“Do you have helmets?” Abby asked.
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t go into a sea cave without them.”
Abby seemed relieved by his commitment to safety. They’d kayaked in calm waters like La Jolla cove, but never across the open ocean. Even Ella was a bit intimidated, though her excitement about metamorphic rock formations outweighed any fears. Brooke lived for adventure and had no reservations whatsoever.
They hiked down the sandy path to the loading dock, where the kayak equipment was stored. Paul gave them a quick refresher course on the beach before they prepared to launch. He was a good teacher, giving clear instructions. She admired the flex of his biceps as he demonstrated the strokes, his back to them. He had to be at least twenty-five, maybe thirty. Those shoulders belonged to a man, not a boy.
At the end of the session, he lowered his paddle and turned around to face them. “Any questions?”
“Are there speleothems inside the caves?” Ella asked.
His gaze sharpened in appraisal. She knew how nerdy she sounded; Abby was practically groaning beside her. Ella usually tried to dial it down on the science terms, but they popped out whenever she was nervous.
“Stalagmites, stalactites, that sort of thing,” she said, blushing.
“Those are more common in limestone caves,” he said. “The ones we’re visiting are mostly volcanic.”
Ella was thrilled by his informed response. She wanted to ask him about fault-line activity, but the topic might disturb Abby. The same earthquake that had traumatized her sister had inspired Ella to change her course of study in college. She’d chosen a career that would enable her to use geophysical research to save lives.
He moved on, taking the dry sacks from the storage compartment. “These are for anything you don’t want to get wet. They aren’t completely waterproof, so leave your electronics here in the lockbox.”
Abby frowned. “I can’t bring my cell phone?”
“They don’t work on San Miguel anyway.”
“What if we have an emergency?”
“I’ll use my radio.” He showed her his first aid kit and rescue supplies. “I stay in contact with the other guide at the campsite. I can also call headquarters.” Picking up the radio, he pressed the talk button. “We’re about to head out, Ramona. Over.”
Ramona responded a second later. “Thanks for checking in, Paul! Have a great trip. Over.”
Somewhat mollified, Abby left her cell phone in the lockbox. He secured it with a key he wore on an elastic band around his wrist.
“Are you two sisters?” he asked, glancing from Abby to Brooke.
Abby’s face, which had grown tense, relaxed at the compliment. She was young for a divorcee with a teenager, and she took excellent care of herself. It wasn’t the first time a charming man had asked her this question.
“She’s my mom,” Brooke said in an annoyed voice.
Abby hooked her arm around Ella’s neck. “This is my sister.”
“My mistake,” he said with a smile. “Good looks clearly run in the family.”
As he lifted his kayak and carried it to the water’s edge, Abby arched a brow at Ella. He was smooth—Ella would give him that. He’d already won Abby over. Her sister grabbed her kayak and followed him to the shore.
“Where are you from, Paul?”
“Really? So are we.”
“I live in Oxnard now,” he said, naming a suburb of LA.
Abby elbowed her. “Ella just moved to Northridge.”
“Oh yeah? We’re practically neighbors.”
She set her kayak on the wet sand, feeling self-conscious.
“What brought you to this area?” Abby asked.
“I came with a girlfriend.”
“How did that work out?”
“How terrible,” she said brightly.
He shrugged. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
Ella climbed into the cockpit and secured the spray skirt around her waist as the others did the same. They pushed off the sandy beach into the rollicking surf. Launching a kayak wasn’t easy, but for a trip like this it was a necessary skill. Ella appreciated the fact that Paul expected them to get started without his assistance. Within moments, she was breathing hard, her arm muscles working as she paddled.
The physical difficulty of paddling past breaking waves prevented Abby from continuing her interrogation. It was obvious that she considered Paul a catch. Ella hoped her sister wouldn’t make any more pointed remarks.
Abby meant well. She thought Ella needed to get out more, and she was right. Ella spent too many hours staring at a computer screen, pondering theories and studying graphs. Even when she wasn’t indoors, she lived inside her own head. She was socially awkward. Most of her interactions with the opposite sex were platonic.
It was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, however. Abby acted as if Brooke was her entire world and she had no room for romance. In reality, she was gun-shy. Ray’s betrayal had split up their family and broken her heart.
Paul led them east along the shore of Santa Rosa before he turned north. Ella’s pulse raced with excitement as they headed toward San Miguel. The four-mile gap of open water between them was a dizzying expanse, conjuring images of lurking predators. She wished she hadn’t watched so many episodes of Shark Week.
They’d gone less than a mile when Paul paused mid-stroke. He’d been looking over his shoulder at regular intervals, checking their progress. Ella glanced back to see what was wrong. Brooke and Abby were no longer paddling.
“Okay?” he called out, patting his head.
Brooke patted her head.
Abby didn’t. She was as white as a ghost.