Lily Chapel stood at the rail of the weather deck in the predawn hours before her watch, straining to hear a distant drone. Not a boat. An aircraft of some sort?
A shiver shot through her as she braced her hands along the weathered rail. Sound carried on the ocean. It could be miles away.
She had enough to worry about without getting jumpy.
Her middle-of-the-night departure out of Key West wouldn't go unnoticed. But it might have given her the head start she needed. She'd dropped anchor for the night rather than risk navigating the shoals in the dark. But once they reached the site, they'd have to dive round-the-clock to make up for lost time.
She hadn't attempted a night dive since the accident.
Lily stared out at the mast lights reflected off the inky ocean. Forward and aft lights made the ship visible from all sides as required by maritime regulations. Outside the spill of white light, stars began to wink out until the sky appeared pitch black.
The darkest hour before dawn?
Treasure hunting wasn't an exact science. There were no guarantees the information she'd uncovered in Cuba would lead to The Golden Curse. Pirate wrecks were rare. Not a single one had ever been found that could be identified as such.
What made her think she'd succeed where her father had failed?
Lily tightened her grip on the cold steel.
Because she had to.
Otherwise, the risks she'd taken, was taking... Well, she'd rather not think about it.
She had three days. Three days to prove her claim.
Three days to prove herself to Shannon.
"I had a feeling I'd find you up here."
Lily turned at the sound of her sister's voice. "Think of the devil and she always appears. What are you doing up at this hour?"
"It's, 'speak of the devil.' And I could ask you the same thing."
"Me either. The baby's restless." Shannon gathered the loose ends of her robe and tightened the sash over her expanding middle as she stepped up to the railing. "Thought I'd come out on deck to watch the sunrise."
Lily met her sister's steady green gaze with her own, searching for signs of fatigue. What on earth had possessed her to allow her pregnant sister and her sister's young family to tag along?
But Shannon had never looked better. Her skin glowed in the soft artificial light. Short, sandy curls danced around her face in the slight breeze. "Pregnancy agrees with you."
"Instead of pirate booty you could be looking for the real thing."
Lily snorted. "I knew there was a reason I didn't want you along."
"Well, you're stuck with me, kiddo."
Lily tucked a loose strand of hair, longer and lighter than her sister's, behind her ear and turned back toward the darkness. "I never asked you for the money." But she'd accepted it just the same, knowing full well her sister and brother-in-law must have mortgaged their home to come to her rescue. "I would have found another investor."
After a year of begging and borrowing, the only man willing to invest in her was the one man she'd never trust again. But even he was preferable to Shannon and Rick losing their home.
As a single gal, Lily couldn't get so much as a checking account in her own name––let alone a legitimate loan. Thankfully, her sister had married one of the good guys. And since Rick, at least temporarily, held the purse strings to the family business it made sense on some level for him to be the one to secure the financing.
Still it bothered her. And it was a big risk for them.
"Why did you––the money, being here? You've always hated this old tub."
Shannon shook her head. "I just don't love it the same way you do."
Lily sucked in a deep breath of salty, sea air. "I do love it out here."
She'd spent the better part of her thirty years with sea legs, working alongside their father until his death last year. She still had a hard time believing he was gone.
Skip Chapel had built a semi-successful ocean salvage operation out of Key West, Florida while raising two daughters on his own. His real obsession, however, had been treasure hunting.
"You're just like him, you know."
"Why doesn't that sound like a compliment?"
"When are you going to stop chasing a dream, Lil? It's not even your dream, it's his."
"We're not getting into this."
"Dad spent a lifetime searching for a three-hundred-year-old legend and never found it. Is that what you want to do with your life?"
"It's my life."
"If you were happy–"
"I'm happy!" Lily gripped the rail to keep from ringing her sister's neck.
"Really?" Shannon's gaze dropped to the deck and Lily’s followed. Not even a good swabbing could hide the worn tread, chipped and peeling paint, or the fact the Lily Pad needed a complete overhaul. "Is that why you went to see him?"
It was on the tip of Lily's tongue to deny she'd been to see the man responsible for their father's death. "It's not what you think." Lily turned away from the hurt in her sister's eyes.
They used to share all their secrets.
"He's not the one for you."
"It was business." As in none of hers.
"Ah-huh." Shannon shot her a look of disapproval but then softened the accusation in her eyes with something much worse––pity. "I listened to you putting the kids to bed. You should have a couple of your own before it's too late."
Lily snorted. "The men I meet tend to be drifters. Especially when I can't afford to pay them."
"I'm not talking about salvage divers and treasure hunters.” Shannon let out an exaggerated sigh. "There's a whole world out there not covered in water."
"It's called Mars."
Shannon ignored her glib comment. "You need something more in your life or you're going to find yourself alone."
"I'm hardly alone." She had her crew. Even if the majority of them were old enough to be her father and had been with the ship for as long as she could remember. They hadn't abandoned her when she'd needed them most.
"Your biological clock is ticking."
"I just turned thirty."
"When then? Thirty-five, thirty-six? You're wasting the best years of your life chasing after old junk and old dreams. A woman in her thirties is more likely to be taken hostage than to get married."
"Where did you read that, Good Hostage Keeping?"
Shannon crossed her arms over her belly. "Fine. Mock me––”
"Maybe I don't believe in the whole happily-ever-after fairy tale like you do, but there are a few frogs out there I haven't kissed. When I'm ready, I'll go find one."
"All I want is what's best for you."
"This, right here. This is what's best for me––"
"Just don't say I never told you so." Shannon gave in with all the grace of a meddling older sibling. They'd been rehashing the same argument for years, ever since Shannon had married right out of college, but more so now that their father was gone.
"Speaking of handsome princes,” Lily said in an attempt to lighten the mood. “How's Rick?"
"After praying to the porcelain god for the better part of the night, he fell asleep on the bathroom floor. With his life jacket on."
Lily stifled a chuckle. It wasn't hard to imagine her brother-in-law in a Mae West and rumpled pajamas with pens from his pocket-protector spilling out onto the tile and his glasses off-kilter. "He didn't take Dramamine?"
"Are you kidding? The man won't even touch an Aspirin." Shannon cracked a smile and their earlier tension turned into giggles.
"Poor Rick," Lily said.
"Poor me." Shannon's laughter faded as she covered a yawn. "Between Rick and this baby I'm the one going without sleep. Guess I'd better get below and join him for a few more hours of shut-eye while I still can. The kids will be awake before I know it."
"What about watching the sun come up?" Despite the meddling, Lily didn't want her sister to go. They had so few shared moments like this anymore.
"Tomorrow," Shannon promised. "Have you even been to bed yet?"
Lily shook her head. "Missed my chance. I need to get this ship underway as soon as the sun hits the horizon."
"I'll say good night again then."
"Don't let the bed bugs bite," they finished in unison.
Lily leaned back to watch Shannon walk away.
Her sister hesitated at the ship's ladder. "Lil, promise me something. If you don't find The Golden Curse this time, that's it. You'll give it up. Your handsome prince isn't going to wait forever and you're not going to find him way out here in the middle of nowhere. Men don't just pop up out of the ocean."
"You know I can't promise you that." Why couldn't her sister understand their father's dream was her dream? He'd come so close to seeing his life's work realized. She needed to see this through...for him. For all of them. "Besides, I owe you a return on your investment. I think you'd care about that at least."
"Not as much as I care about you."
Talk about your guilt trip.
Tell her now.
But she couldn't bring herself to spoil the moment.
They said their good nights once again and Lily turned to the inky darkness. Lulled by the sea slapping against the hull and the rhythmic movements beneath her feet, she slipped back into her thoughts.
Even though she captained an ocean salvage vessel, with a crew of two dozen men, she still felt ill prepared for the job ahead. Lily didn't know how much longer she could keep Shannon in the dark or if she even should.
She was running out of time.
And it wasn't her biological clock ticking.
Scratching at a chip of peeling paint, she stared at the gunmetal gray fleck on her finger. Maybe Shannon was right. But she couldn't just give all this up.
Dusting off her melancholy with the paint fleck, she leaned out over the rail to let the sea breeze caress her skin. The sea was her one true love.
But not her only friend.
A purring ball of fur wove between her bare ankles and settled on top of her sneakers.
"Hello, there." Lily bent to pick up the mackerel tabby. The green-gold eyes of their recent stowaway stared back at her with little sympathy. "You see right through me, don't you?"
Feline ears twitched. Turning toward the darkened aft deck, the cat twisted out of Lily's hold to stalk her imaginary prey. "How many times have I told you? There are no rats on board. At least not very big ones."
The tabby stopped her pursuit to meow over her shoulder, drawing Lily's attention to a puddle in the shape of a giant, man-sized boot print.
She shook her head at the trick of light on an overactive imagination. Nothing unusual about a wet spot on the weather deck. Even Tabby turned her nose up at the puddle and moved on.
The ship's bell chimed three times––zero, five thirty.
Lily checked her watch and headed toward the pilothouse. She still had several minutes before sunup, but she needed the company.
© Rogenna Brewer
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