| SECRET ASSIGNMENT
Murky green water lapped against the pilings of the Terrebonne Marina docks, rocking the boats hitched to the moorings. The breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico was steamy-hot, fueled by temperatures in the mid-nineties and eighty-percent humidity.
August in Alabama, Shannon Cooper thought bleakly as she wilted in the sweltering heat on a bench by an empty boat slip. The dog days were bad enough back home, where mountains and woods offered some small protection against the Southern summer's excesses. But down here in Terrebonne, a mosquito-infested dot on the Alabama Gulf Coast map, August was a ruthless son of a—
She heard the boat before she saw it, the engine rattle drawing her gaze toward the middle of Terrebonne Bay. Cutting through the wakes left by other boats, a drab white fishing yacht that had seen better days headed straight toward the boat slip where she sat waiting for her ride to Nightshade Island.
The boat eased into the slip, avoiding all but the lightest of bounces against the protective bumpers lining the dock. The engine growled to a stop, and Shannon pushed to her feet.
A colossus of a man stepped onto the deck, all broad shoulders, long legs and unwelcoming scowl. Shannon was used to large men—between her brothers and cousins, she'd been surrounded by strapping, athletic men all her life. But the man who walked to the boat's deck railing exuded a commanding presence made all the more intimidating by the impatient hostility hardened like stone in his masculine features.
He didn't speak until he'd finished lashing the boat to the moorings with sturdy ropes. That task done, he rose to his impressive height and addressed her in a deep, growling Southern drawl. "Shannon Cooper?"
She quelled the dismay squirming in the pit of her stomach and raised her chin. "Yes. And you?"
His lips pressed to a line. "Gideon Stone."
The name matched the one her brother had given her. She wished Jesse had thought to include a photo of the man. "Do you have any identification?"
His eyes narrowing, he pulled a slim wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and showed her his driver's license. Gideon Stone. Age thirty-four. Six-five, 220 pounds. In the photo, he looked pissed-off.
She glanced at him and saw the photo was a good likeness.
"Thank you," she said politely.
His expression didn't soften at all as his gaze shifted downward. "Is that all you have?"
She looked at the duffel bag sitting on the dock beside her. She'd packed light, figuring she could wash clothes at least once while she was on the island. "Doesn't Mrs. Ross have a washer and dryer?"
His eyebrows quirked slightly. "Yes."
"Then yes. That's all I have." She eyed the large fishing vessel, a Hatteras Convertible Sportfisherman. Even though it had seen better days, it seemed in no danger of sinking, she noted with relief.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
She blinked, taken aback. "Do this?"
"Come out to Nightshade Island." He nodded toward the clouds rolling in from the southeast. "There's a storm headed our way."
A tropical storm roiling in the Caribbean was lining up to move into the Gulf of Mexico before the end of the week, but surely they would have plenty of time to evacuate if the situation became dangerous. "All the more reason to archive the general's papers and collections quickly," she said reasonably. "Mrs. Ross will want to take them with her if she's forced to evacuate, and we'll have them secured and ready to go. Were you able to procure the items we requested for storage?"
"Yes." He walked toward the dockside fuel pump a few yards away.
She watched through narrowed eyes as he pumped fuel into the yacht's tanks, wondering if his surly attitude was situational or inherent. "Is there a problem with my coming here?"
He looked up at her, his eyes hooded. "Should there be?"
Well, that was a strange response. "I don't think so. You do know Mrs. Ross hired us to help her itemize her husband's things and pack them up securely for the move, right?"
"Right." But he sounded suspicious anyway.
She sighed and picked up the duffel bag, shoving it over the rail onto the boat deck. If she had been dressed in shorts and a T-shirt—her preferred attire on scorching days—she'd have hauled herself over the deck railing as well. But she'd dressed to give a good first impression, although perspiration had already begun soaking through the cotton of her sleeveless shell and no doubt had left dark stains on the back of her light gray summer suit jacket.
Besides, she doubted she could have worn anything that would impress Gideon Stone.
She walked around to the back of the boat where a set of low steps gave her a more dignified entry to the boat. The boat's name was painted there, in straight blue letters. Lorelei.
She darted a glance at Gideon Stone, wondering for the first time if the boat belonged to Mrs. Ross or to him. She tried to picture the grim boat pilot as the sort of romantic who'd name a boat after a lover but gave up quickly.
Her brother had given her a job to do. It might be boring grunt work, but she was going to do it as well as she'd ever done anything in her life. Then maybe he'd take her contributions to Cooper Security more seriously and let her take part in more challenging assignments.
Gideon finished fueling up and nodded toward the steps. "We're ready to shove off."
"Want me to get the other rope?" she asked as he bent to unlash the back rope from the mooring.
"I'll get it." His tone set her teeth on edge.
Once the boat was untied, he showed her into the cabin on the main deck, waving toward a worn but comfortable-looking L-shaped sofa inside. "There are life jackets in the cabinets under the sofa if you need one. You do know how to use one?"
She forced herself to smile as if his gruff manner didn't make her want to swat him. "Practically grew up in a marina." She'd spent half her childhood at Cooper Cove Marina with her aunt and uncle while her father was on duty with the sheriff's department.
The cabin was larger than it looked from outside, though perhaps the illusion of space was a result of its well-placed accommodations. The sofa ran the length of the port side, while a long set of storage cabinets lined the starboard, ending where a small but well-appointed galley took up the rest of the wall space. Gideon waved his large hand toward the small refrigerator. "There's bottled water and soft drinks in the cooler. Mrs. Ross thought you might need something to drink on a day like today."
His tone suggested he couldn't care less about her comfort, and he didn't stick around to make sure she found something to her liking, heading out to the deck without another word. He went straight up the ladder to the pilothouse overhead.
"Lovely meeting you, too, Mr. Stone." She shrugged off the jacket of her lightweight suit and crossed to the nearest air vent, sighing with pleasure as the cold air blew across her sticky skin. The boat surged under her feet, knocking her temporarily off balance. She caught herself, flattening her hand on the wall until she felt steadier. Keeping contact with the wall in case the boat hit any choppy water as it crossed the bay, she circled to the refrigerator and opened the door, smiling at the sight of several bottles and cans chilling inside.
Her sweet tooth argued for a soft drink, but her good sense went straight for the bottled water. She waited until she reached the bench before she opened it, saving herself a small mess when the boat lurched again just as she was taking her seat.
Good thing she didn't get seasick, she thought. Not that Gideon Stone had even asked if she might.
She pulled up the shade over the windows and saw land growing more and more distant as they moved out of the sheltered bay and into the choppier waters of the Gulf of Mexico. She wished the surly boat captain hadn't more or less ordered her to sit down and stay put. Now that she'd had a chance to cool down and rehydrate, she'd love to be outside, taking in the panoramic view of the Gulf.
Who says you have to listen to ol' Growly Gus? a rebellious voice whispered in her ear. The water wasn't much choppier than a windy day on Gossamer Lake, and she'd ridden out those kinds of swells in less sturdy boats than the Lorelei.
The breeze blowing off the Gulf was cooler out here than it had felt back on the dock, countering the blistering afternoon heat. The cloud cover starting to gather overhead showed no sign of dropping moisture yet, and now that she had her sea legs under her, the walk across the deck to the railing posed no problem at all.
She glanced upward and saw Gideon Stone sitting in the pilothouse, his back to her as he steered the boat into the open water of the Gulf. She craned her neck to see around the bulk of the boat cabin, wondering if Nightshade Island was in sight yet.
She knew from studying a map of the coast that Nightshade Island was a tiny speck of land barely visible on the map of the Alabama Gulf Coast. From preparatory research in the library and online, Shannon had learned the island had belonged to the Stafford family for over a hundred years, passed down generation to generation until it finally fell in the hands of the only remaining member of the original family, Lydia Stafford Ross.
According to Jesse, who'd spoken to Mrs. Ross when he took the assignment for Cooper Security, Mrs. Ross and her husband, U.S. Army General Edward Ross, had lived there most of their married life, although the general had obviously spent a good deal of time away during his military career. "It was his home base," Jesse had told her. "He kept all his papers, correspondence and collections there."
Lydia Ross, he'd explained, had agreed to the state of Alabama's latest offer to purchase the island as a wildlife preserve, so she needed Cooper Security's help archiving and securing the general's belongings for the move.
Jesse had tried to make it sound like the best field assignment available, but Shannon knew when someone was throwing her a bone. Clearly her brother was tired of her nagging him to let her out from behind her computer screen and this was his punishment.
"You didn't like the accommodations?"
Stone's voice, closer than expected, made her jump. She gripped the railing, fighting a sudden rush of vertigo as she lost her sense of equilibrium. It returned quickly, however, and the world righted beneath her feet.
Squinting against the bright sunlight, she spotted Gideon Stone at the back edge of the pilothouse, gazing down at her. He loomed there, enormous and imposing.
"No, everything's fine." She shielded her eyes with her hand. "Is the island in sight yet?"
He hesitated before answering. "Come up. The view's better."
He said no more, turning back to the wheel and sitting in the pilot's chair. She scurried up the ladder before he changed his mind and took the seat beside him.
The view from the wheelhouse was better, a 360 degree panorama of gulf water ahead and shoreline disappearing behind them. In the distance, Shannon spotted a speck of dark green on the hazy turquoise horizon. "Is that Nightshade Island?"
Gideon didn't answer. She looked at him and found him gazing at the instrument gauges with a frown on his face. Not exactly a surprise, but this time she sensed his expression had nothing to do with her.
She followed his gaze to the gauges and didn't see anything immediately wrong, but now that she thought about it, their speed had slowed noticeably. "Is something wrong?"
"I don't know." He throttled back until they were just idling, then cut the engine.
She shot him a wary look, beginning to wonder if coming onto a boat with a strange man had been her smartest move. "What are you doing?"
"Fuel's not getting to the engine. I need to find out why."
"Are we stranded? Should we radio the Coast Guard?"
"Not yet. It may be something easily fixed." He got up from the pilot's chair and headed down the ladder.
"Do I need to go get my life jacket now?"
He paused, just his head and shoulders visible now. "We're not sinking." He kept climbing down.
"Yet," she muttered.
She eased over to the pilot's seat and found it still warm from Gideon's body. An odd tingle of feminine awareness jittered through her, making her feel vulnerable and intrigued at the same time.
She liked big men. Tall men, men with broad shoulders and strong backs. Men with battle-hardened faces and feral intensity. She knew such men were good to have around when the world went crazy.
But she also knew such men could be very, very dangerous.
Which are you, Gideon Stone?
She looked around the pilothouse and spotted a small olive drab canvas bag sitting next to the console. It lay partially open.
Looking inside it would be wrong. She knew that. Gideon's private possessions were just that—private. And maybe if she weren't stranded at the moment on a boat with a man she'd met less than an hour earlier, she'd mind her own business and let it lie.
But her skin still prickled with wariness, and ignoring her healthy fear would be stupid.
She crouched next to the bag and carefully nudged it open until she could see the contents. Inside were a small first aid kit in a blue canvas pouch marked with a white cross, a couple of protein bars and, in the gloomy depths of the bag, the unmistakable outline of a Walther P99 pistol.
Shannon sat back on her heels, her heart pounding.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.