The lieutenant let her hobble away on one shoe for about two seconds. "Not you."
Lily turned from the friendly face of the junior officer to the antagonistic face of the senior man. She knew which one she'd rather go with and it wasn't Mr. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me. But Mitch Dann was already hustling Crissy down the passageway.
The lieutenant nodded his head in the opposite direction.
"The galley is that way." Lily pointed after the JG.
"I've changed my mind," he said. "I need you now."
Yeah, right no double entendre there.
"If I refuse?" She tilted her chin.
"I'd have to carry you again." He turned and headed down the passageway. With each passing step, he moved further away. Just let him try and come back for her. "I can run you down without even breaking a sweat, Ms. Chapel," he said over his shoulder as he headed deeper into the forecastle.
"I'm not going anywhere with you."
"Afraid?" He challenged.
Yes. No, damn it! Damn him!
"I'm not afraid of you." She took off her lone shoe and stomped after him to prove it. "You may know how to win through intimidation," she said, shaking it at him. "But I won't be intimidated." And you won't win. She swore under her breath.
"I wrote the book on intimidation."
"Now there's something I can believe."
He turned his cool assessing gaze on her. "After you, Captain." He indicated the hatch to her compartments.
"Why is it that I'm Captain," she mimicked his dragging syllable sarcasm, "and my sister is ma'am?"
"I'll call you anything you like, Princess."
“You don’t get to call me that!” She would have pushed past him then, but he lowered his arm across the threshold to block her way.
"Once we verify passports, your crew is free to move about in their usual duties. I'll have a man on the bridge and in engineering at all times. You'll maintain radio silence and blackouts at night––”
"Cooperate and your inconvenience will be minimal.”
"You call this an inconvenience?" She pointed her sneaker at him. "You are by far the most arrogant man I've ever met. I'm in a race against the clock, Lieutenant. An operation this size doesn't come cheap and within seventy-two hours, every treasure-trolling, scavenger out there is going to be breathing down my neck."
"Yes, you expect my cooperation? Or yes, you understand you've screwed me?"
It had taken her months to sort through the mess her father had left behind. Owing the government back taxes was the least of it. The minute she pulled into port, her ship––technically her father's ship until he was legally declared dead and then part of his estate––would be seized by the IRS and she'd be forced out of business. With no way to pay back some of the less reputable people he owed.
The ten thousand dollar loan from Rick and Shannon would buy some time.
Just not enough time. And not in the way her sister and brother-in-law intended.
“Why are you here? What does the Navy want with my ship?”
“What were you doing in Cuba, Ms. Chapel?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Lieutenant.”
The look on his face said he knew she was lying.
I know exactly who I’m messing with, Captain.
She held out here writs. “If you’re here to take me in––”
“Now why would I do that?” He pushed open the hatch.
Lily ducked under his arm only to stop short. The captain's lounge had been turned into a makeshift command post with radio equipment manned by two more of his men in plain clothes.
"How many?" She asked again.
He ignored her question, again, and led her past them with brief introductions. "Benson, Cal–Radioman First Class. And Thomas, H–Hull Technician First Class." He gestured in turn to the bespectacled radio operator and the man standing behind him. Both wore civilian clothes. The guy in glasses and headphones waved without looking up.
"Ma'am, call me HT." Thomas invited in a tone as rich as his caramel skin. "And four-eyes here is our radioman. Better known as Hacker because he can hack his way into anything.” He turned to the lieutenant. "Hold your calls, LT?"
The lieutenant clicked his tongue and pointed gun-style like some cheesy guy in some cheesy spy flick.
Definitely not 007.
"You got it, Jefe ,” HT said.
The lieutenant opened the door to her private quarters. Tabby slipped out with a mew of protest as he ushered Lily inside. How had the cat gotten locked inside her room?
"The key to your foot locker." He held out his hand.
"Don't even think about locking me in it."
"Don't tempt me." He stared her down until she dug the keyring out of her pocket and gave it up. With a stifled groan, he shook off his rebreather and some of the heavier equipment. "I'll take the top bunk. Unless you'd prefer to be on top?"
“You can’t be serious.”
"You're stuck with me."
"Like hell––“ Lily blinked as he tossed his haversack toward the bunk beds. She dove after it, falling to the floor with his bag tucked tight. "Are you crazy? Do you want to blow us up?"
"Skully was just having some fun." He took the waterproof pack from her and opened it. Pulling out a change of clothes and other personal items, he handed her a densely wrapped cellophane package. "This stuff doesn't explode on impact."
She held the duck tape and cellophane wrapped package at arms length. "What is it?"
"Not much of anything." He hunkered down beside her and cut through the white webbing and plastic wrap with his knife. "I take it the old man didn't teach you about explosives?"
"He taught me to be respectful of them." She took a deep breath to hold back the pain squeezing her chest. He’d handled most of the demolition right up until the blast that killed him.
“I don’t imagine he was as enlightened as you'd like to pretend. Can't say I blame him. I wouldn't want my daughter handling explosives either."
“I’ve handled explosives. Wait…what? You have a daughter?"
"No wife, no daughter, no family. I don't exist, remember."
“You look real enough to me.”
He placed the unwrapped tube in her palm. “I’m a bachelor. If that’s what you’re asking.”
She lowered her eyes to the tube of toothpaste in her hand. "Is this some sort of joke?"
"Dental hygiene is no laughing matter. Squeeze a little on the toothbrush." He demonstrated. "And you're good to go." He stuck the toothbrush in his mouth. "A minty fresh explosion," he said talking around the toothbrush and a mouth full of fluoride foam.
"How do you keep a straight face?"
"It's all part of my charm."
He rose to his feet and turned toward her footlocker to stow the rest of his gear.
More than likely it was nerve and tissue damage along his scar. But she felt little sympathy for him as she glared at his back. After he locked up his equipment, he tossed the key ring–minus one key–to the top of the footlocker and stepped into the head for a spit and rinse.
Lily grimaced as she dug her shoe out from under her butt cheek.
She pushed to her feet and threw it at the partially open bathroom door. Grabbing a pillow from her bed and screamed into it before tossing back to the bunk. She wanted to throw something more than shoes and pillows. The man's stand-up routine needed serious work.
What was so funny anyway?
There was a three-hundred-year-old wreck out there–somewhere–not getting any younger. And a Navy SEAL in her bathroom, brushing and flossing his teeth like nobody's business.
And he couldn't even be bothered to tell her why?
It's a good thing he'd locked up his gun.
And naïve of her not to have one handy.
She knew better. Her father had kept several weapons strategically placed throughout the ship. They'd never encountered anything Skip Chapel couldn't handle and she could be just as resourceful. There had to be something in this room she could hurl at the Toad and make it count.
Her gaze drifted to the built-in bookcase. She hurried over and picked up a solid brass bookend, the one her father had given her shortly before his death, depicting their favorite fairy tale, The Frog Prince. The green-tinged Frog King, Iron Henry sat on his tarnished throne with a mottled golden crown and golden ball.
The Golden Curse was Iron Henry's ship.
Bastard son of a king. Cursed by a witch. Saved by a princess.
The Brothers Grimm were academics, researchers and collectors of folk tales, which they published. By its very nature, folklore changed from generation to generation with each retelling. The original title for The Frog Prince, as written by the brothers, had been The Frog King, Iron Henry–Heinrich in their native German.
It's no wonder the best parts of that tale––a pirate's tale––had been lost to history long before they’d been written it down. The story as she knew it wasn't for children.
Yet her father had been telling her stories of the pirate Iron Henry and The Golden Curse since she was a child. A part of her even thought that’s all they were––stories––until her trip to Cuba.
Lily hefted the treasured object in her hand and weighed her decision to destroy a perfectly good family heirloom by whacking the lieutenant over his hard head.
He stepped from the bathroom with his wetsuit hanging around his hips. His devilishly handsome face scrubbed clean of greasepaint, he leaned against the door jam. "Heavy reading?"
Lily dropped the bookend.
That answered her question about the tuxedo.
He wasn’t wearing much of anything except scars beneath that wetsuit. Her gaze dipped from his bare chest to his naval. If she wasn't mistaken, the man still packed some seriously heavy-duty equipment down below.
Lily winced as she kicked the bookend under her bed.
He stalked toward her with a wet washcloth and dabbed at the smudges of grease paint on her cheek before she even realized what he was up to.
"Do you mind?" She swatted his hand away.
He tweaked her nose with one final swipe and then tossed it aside. "Ready to get down to business?" He lowered his hand to his already lowered zipper.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"What does it look like?"
"You're not stripping naked in here?"
"Did you miss the part where I said we're bunkmates? I've been in this get up for hours. You don't want me to shrivel up like a little old man, do you?"
"If you're implying––”
"You want me."
"In your wet dreams, sailor." She opened the door. "Get out!"
A curious audience of two gathered outside the door. The lieutenant slammed it shut and then leaned against it. "You don't trust yourself alone with me."
"I don't trust myself not to kill you."
She glanced at his knife and his sharp gaze followed.
He circled her like a curious reef shark, closing in until he'd backed her up against the door.
"Go for it." He braced his hands on either side of her head and nodded toward the knife strapped to his thigh. "Which one of us do you think will reach it first?"
Their eyes engaged in a battle of wills.
His thigh brushed against hers. Her every nerve ending sizzled.
Lily didn't dare breathe. Let alone move.
Instinct warned her not to accept his challenge.
The second she reached for that blade she'd lose.
His entire body was a well-honed weapon and hers was on fire. That deeper, darker part of her she hadn't known existed until now wanted to surrender to the flame. But from that fire she forged strength. She'd deny with her last breath that what she felt for this pirate was anything remotely close to physical attraction.
"Three, two and one," he counted down. "A knee to the groin would have been just as effective." He backed off. "You can't say I didn't give you the chance."
Shifting on rubbery legs, Lily made an empty grab for the built-in bookcase.
The lieutenant reached out to steady her. "Sit down before you fall down." He guided her toward her bunk, but she refused to sit. "You need some serious sack time,
Captain. When was the last time you went to bed?"
"When, and with whom, is none of your business."
"I'd bet my last paycheck it's been at least twenty-four hours since you last slept. As for sex?" He raised a speculative brow. "What's an unmarried woman doing with prescription birth control pills? You know that's illegal, right?"
"What were you doing in my underwear drawer?"
"Finding out all I can about you, Captain. It's my job. Have to say, I'm a little disappointed by your lack of imagination in the lingerie department. Cotton panties neatly stacked with the days of the week printed on them. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on... And you should have burned all your bras at those ERA rallies."
She crossed her arms protectively. "Are you done with your inventory?"
"Your choice of swimwear is much more interesting. Not surprising since you spend most of your time in the water. T-shirts, shorts, jeans––fit your casual lifestyle. There are a couple sundresses hanging next to a dressy little black number. So I'm assuming, occasionally you like to feel girly despite the well-read copy of The Feminine Mystique and the man-eater attitude."
Her gaze darted toward the built in nightstand where she'd last seen the paperback. The book was still there. In fact, her room appeared undisturbed. She found that almost as disturbing as his rifling through her personal belongings.
"And then there's the dress uniform still in the dry cleaning bag. Looks like it hasn't been worn since you graduated from the Maritime Academy at New York State University––go SUNY! Do you want me to continue?"
Her head pounded with the onset of a headache. When had he gone through her things? Some time before he'd stepped foot on the bridge and after he'd eavesdropped on her and her sister. In a matter of minutes, he'd invaded her privacy and found out everything there was to know about her.
"What do you want from me?" She looked him in the eye. "The Navy didn't send you here on a panty raid, Lieutenant."
"And you need batteries." The spark in his eye didn't quite match his matter-of-fact tone. "D batteries, three of them. Hell, I'm impressed by the size of that thing. And I am not a man who impresses easily."
Her mind went blank. "Batteries?"
"Let's just say I discovered what little girls like to play with once they've outgrown their dolls and have read Sex And The Single Girl. Hell, I might have to get on board with this whole sexual revolution thing."
Heat spread over her entire body like a rash. The man was an irritant. An itch that made her want to scratch his eyes out. "It's a flashlight!"
"I've never known a flashlight to hum."
He'd found her vibrator. An over-sized flashlight/personal massager Shannon had given to her for her thirtieth birthday as a gag. She'd never replaced the batteries because she never used it. Not that she'd admit to, anyway. She didn't need a man to make her happy and she sure as hell didn't need a toy replacement.
Lily sank to the bottom bunk mad enough to kill him.
Or at least wish she'd kneed him when she'd had the chance. Hating the tears that came with her anger and frustration, she blinked to keep them in check.
"Attagirl. Get all that fight out of your system." He offered her the washcloth he'd produced earlier.
Lily knocked his hand away and sprang to her feet, ready for round two, or three or twelve…whatever round this was in their sparring match. Muhammad Ali would be proud. "This is just how I get when I'm really, really pissed off!"
She got up on tiptoes and into his face. "Don't patronize me, Lieutenant. I'm not a little girl. I'm a grown woman. If I choose to be on birth control I shouldn't have to break the law to do so. Nor should I have to explain myself to you or anyone else. My body is my own. So keep your grubby hands to yourself and off my personal massager."
"We can get rid of all this sexual tension right now."
She slapped him hard across his ugly, scarred face. He turned his cheek on impact and she slapped him again just because the first time gave her so much satisfaction.
Not so much as a flicker of emotion crossed his set features.
"You can't be this unfeeling!" She raised her hand again.
The pirate caught her by the wrist. "Hit me again and I'll consider it foreplay." He locked eyes with her, deadly serious. "Then the next move is mine. And I will turn you over my knee so fast you won't know what hit you."
Lily shivered from the base of her spine. She should have heeded the fight or flight warning, but her feet wouldn't move and then her hand encountered his bare chest. She dug her fingernails into rock-hard pectoral muscle, marking his flesh and daring him to do something about it. There had to be a human being in there somewhere.
She didn't know why she’d slapped him. Or why he was incapable of showing her some of that courtesy and compassion she knew he possessed. Frightened by his total lack of feeling and her own loss of control, her heart beat against the steady tattoo of his.
Her breathing became ragged.
His grip on her wrist tightened, forcing her to let up the pressure of her nails.
His jaw clenched. The muscles behind it twitched.
The white marks of impact on his face turned red and all the satisfaction drained from her body. She wanted to reach out and touch his beautiful scarred face.
The man knew pain. Did he know pleasure? Love?
Who could love a man like him?
"I warned you, Princess."
Lily waited for his lips to come crashing down on hers.
What she never expected was the cloth he pressed to her face and held there. Too late, she realized the dampness had a sweet, chemical odor.
“Something to help you sleep. You've put up a good fight, Captain. Just let go and let me take over from here." His words had a hypnotic effect. Her eyelids felt heavy. A single teardrop slipped past one lid and rolled down her cheek. "I don't want you. You bastard.” she murmured.
"I know. I’m exactly that.” His voice faded as she drifted toward the abyss. “And you want answers. But first, I have a few questions of my own."
Prince carried Lily to the bottom bunk and pulled the light blanket at the foot of the bed up over her shoulders. He'd taken the expedient way out––no, the cowards way out.
She'd wake up madder than hell at him. But he'd deal with that then.
Right now he had to get this ship underway.
He took a minute to check her pulse.
Steady. Unlike his own.
He let go of her wrist and she rolled away from him. Her long blonde hair fanned out across the pillow. His fingers itched to make contact and he brushed aside the tear headed for her slightly parted lips.
Ravishing the captain wasn't on the agenda.
He was just the asshole who'd push her to the brink and back. But she was safe from him. Saving her from herself was something all together different.
Pulling out his dog tags tucked into the trunks beneath his wetsuit, he examined the charm he’d added to the chain. Identical to hers, except opposite in detail. He'd bet his left nut if he put the two together, they'd form some sort of crude coin. The kind worn by sentimental fools who believed two halves made a whole.
He turned it over in his palm. Old. Gold. Heavy.
He reached for hers to test his theory. A perfect fit.
Worn smooth, the crude coin revealed no secret message and he wondered, not for the first time, why Skip Chapel had given it to him.
They didn't exactly part company as friends.
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