A Bell Sound Novel #2
Avon Books
July 2019 (06-25-19)
ISBN-10: 0062854100
ISBN-13: 978-0062854100

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The bigger they are, the harder they fall…

The first time he saw her, she was wearing a tool belt.

The second time he saw her, she was wearing leather and riding a Harley, her ice blonde hair blowing in the wind.

The third time he saw her, she wore nothing at all.


Merrill “Geek” Good didn’t stand a chance. He was in love. Or lust. Or both.

Didn’t matter that the ex-Navy SEAL, soon-to-be treasure hunter had been around the world a dozen times, seen amazing things, done amazing things, been wounded five times, almost died once, screwed so many women he should be called DeWalt, could bench press two hundred and thirty pounds, easy peasy, measured 150-plus on the I.Q. meter, and had a million or two in stocks due to an erotic invention he sold on the Internet. Don’t ask!

Nothing in his colorful life had prepared him for this woman. Love at first sight didn’t begin to describe the wallop she packed.

Unfortunately, Delilah Jones didn’t reciprocate his feelings.

No biggie! Merrill was at a turning point in his life professionally where he didn’t have the time or inclination to wage an all-out offensive, seduction-wise.


Prison makes good women horny…

The first time she saw him, she was blasting the rust off an old metal diner with a power tool…and was so disconcerted she almost bore a hole straight through. Holy-frickin’-moly!

His light brown hair was cut short, military style.

She hated short hair on a man.

He wore a uniform of some kind, probably Navy.

She hated soldiers, and sailors, and full-of-themselves warrior types who thought women developed yo-yo panties on sight of their spiffy selves.

Whiskey-colored eyes smoldered as he watched her work. You’d think she was doing something of a sexual nature.

She hated being ogled.

“Get lost, Bozo,” she told him, more upset with herself than with him. “Show’s over.”

He just grinned.

The second time, he was standing on a street corner in a ratty Metallica t-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip flops as she passed by on Uncle Clyde’s motorcycle.

She hated heavy metal.

He lowered his sunglasses halfway down his nose and peered over them to watch her almost hit the car in front of her.

She flipped him the bird.

He winked at her.

She hated men who winked.

The third time she saw him, it was by moonlight. She’d been skinny dipping in Bell Sound, the bay behind her property, and he was standing on the rocky shore, which she’d thought was private. She hadn’t needed to see his face to suspect he was spying on her…and enjoying the view.

She hated stalkers, or men who didn’t take “no for an answer, even if it was an unspoken “no,” even if he hadn’t actually asked.

It was a devilish situation. She was new in town and needed to make friends, not enemies, for business and other reasons.

Even so, that’s when Delilah decided to put on the brakes, slam the door, raise the wall, amp up her usual snark factor a notch or two, do everything in her power to keep the man away. Merrill Good might be sizzling, bone-melting, pure temptation on his size twelve hoof to most women, but that was the one thing a female ex-con couldn’t afford now that she was finally free.




Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and he chose…the bay…

“No regrets?” Navy SEALs Lt. Commander Jacob Alvarez Mendozo, aka JAM, asked Merrill as they sat with their buddies at a round table in the ballroom of a mansion called “Chimes” in Bell Cove, a small town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The room was festooned with Fourth of July decorations. They were inhaling beers and raising an occasional champagne toast to the newly married couple, Christmas tree farmer Ethan Rutledge and ex-female seal Wendy Patterson. A lethal combination! The alcohol mix, not the happy couple or the overabundance of odd-for-a-wedding, red, white, and blue paraphernalia.

“Not so far,” Merrill answered, knowing that JAM referred to the abrupt turning point he was taking in his life, leaving the exciting life of the teams a month ago and moving here to Bell Cove, a small, mostly quiet town at the more remote end of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. He would soon be starting a shipwreck salvaging and treasure hunting company, a different kind of exciting, he hoped. Even so, he admitted, “I am feeling a little disoriented, though. It’ll pass, eventually, but for the moment, I’m not sure who I am, or where I fit in, neither fish nor fowl, if you know what I mean. Hell, I’m like a dickhead addict going cold turkey after my fifteen-year fix in special forces.”

Merrill was surprised at himself, that he could put that many words together, considering the state of his inebriation.

“Same as me. Sixteen damn years! Which is like a hundred in frog years,” JAM quipped, “not to be confused with dog years.”

They grinned at each other. SEALs had been known as frogmen, from way back when most of their work had been done on boats or in the water. Ribetting was a joke among the guys when someone called them animals.

Which reminded him of an incident a few years back. “Remember that newbie at the Wet and Wild a few years back?” Merrill said. “He was batting a big honkin’ zero hitting on some chick wearing a NOW t-shirt.”

JAM laughed. “The t-shirt should have been a clue. A red flag. On the other hand, she was asking for trouble, wearing it in a joint that featured a wet t-shirt spraying machine and that catered to military men not known for their political correctness.”

“As I recall, the tadpole commented that screwing a feminist was like riding a pogo stick in a mine field. And she responded, ‘You are such an animal!’”

“To which about a dozen SEALs, overhearing the idiot being shot down, responded with a chorus of ribets. Sounded like a fucking pond.”

They both laughed at the memory.

Yeah, sometimes the only thing that would do is a good ribet. It was as popular as the traditional “Hoo-yah!” in some instances. Or if you asked a SEAL who’d been out on a mission too long if he was feeling “froggie,” as in lascivious, the answer would be a loud and bodacious ribet.

“I still say you should join me in treasure hunting,” Merrill said. “The first meeting of my crew will be held on Monday. You could stick around an extra day or two and see what we’re about. I could use you, man.”

“I’m tempted, but no, I’m not ready to leave the teams.” JAM shook his head for emphasis. “I know it’s crazy, but I feel as if there’s something important I’m destined to do yet, as a SEAL.”

“You mean like a God-ordained thing?” Merrill asked, and he wasn’t kidding. JAM had studied to be a priest at one time.

“Maybe.” JAM shrugged.

“You’re full of shit.”

“Probably.” JAM paused. “Don’t shut the door on me, though, buddy. I might change my mind down the road a ways.”

“Anytime,” Merrill assured him.

When JAM went to the men’s room, Merrill glanced around and realized that another reason he was feeling so off balance today was the fact that he sat at a table with a handful of his SEAL buddies in full white dress uniforms, while he was in civilian attire. Yeah, it was a tux since he was a groomsman at this hokey ass, Independence Day-themed wedding, but it was a white tux, which was not the same thing as white formal military duds. Not at all! He knew from vast experience that women went ga-ga over men in uniforms. Not so much men in tacky white tuxes with pink ruffled shirts and pink boutonnières to match the bridesmaids’ attire. Ethan’s pre-teen daughter by an earlier marriage apparently had a thing about pink.

The whole town of Bell Cove had shown up to support Ethan and Wendy, their native son and daughter, who’d finally gotten their acts together, a celebration of what they called “a forever kind of love.” Did I mention hokey? The event was being held at the mansion owned by architect Gabriel Conti, descendant of the Conti Brothers who founded Bell Forge, for whom the town was named, more than a century ago.

Even though the Fourth of July was a few days past, the theme of the nuptials was a red, white, and blue extravaganza, complete with flags and rockets and sparklers…the whole patriotic stars-and-stripes works, thanks to local do-gooders who’d taken over the festivities, making it as much a town event as a personal celebration of love. Mayberry had nothing on this place! In fact, a marching band had led the wedding party from Our Lady by the Sea Church to the mansion on the bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Bell Sound on the other. Some couples have a wedding march, these dodo bird townies insisted on “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The reception was being held both indoors, via the open French doors, and under a massive tent outside for the overflow crowd with panoramic views of the water. The caterer’s serving staff wore Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross outfits. I kid you not! Not to mention punch with red, white, and blue vodka ice cubes. There would be a fireworks show later over Bell Sound.

When Ethan and Wendy had protested the extent of the patriotic decorations and themed activities surrounding their event…How much was this stuff costing anyhow?…the mayor and town council had told them not to worry, that lots of the decorations were left over from the Fourth of July celebration and, in fact, could be saved and reused for the newly planned Labor Day Lolly, or Lollypalooza, not to be confused with the music festival by that similar name, although it was a town known for its bells and bell music. So, why not? Also, maybe some of these decorations could even be incorporated into their second annual Christmas Grinch celebration come December, the mayor had mused. “Grinch what?” you may ask. Hah! Suffice it to say, you do not want to be “grinched” in Bell Cove.

All of this was cornball to the max, but kind of nice, in an innocent Aunt Bee/Sheriff Taylor/Opie/Barney/Goober kind of way. Yeah, I’m an “Andy Griffith Show” fan. So, shoot me! Which was probably why Merrill had decided to settle here in small town, USA. Being estranged from his own family for so many years, he was probably looking for family in this community. Yeah, that was more important at this stage in his life than leaving the adventurous life of the teams. How pathetic was that?

Not that he was giving up adventure. Not with a new shipwreck salvaging/treasure hunting company. Still, his motives for this big move would be fodder for a psychiatrist’s couch.

In any case, Merrill’s mellow mood was helped by the six “dead soldiers,” i.e. empty longneck bottles of beer, sitting in front of him, two empty champagne glasses, and the sight of the vision which just appeared in the far doorway. A late arrival.

Even with all the loud music, the town square bells could be heard ringing out the hour. The two churches, the town hall clock tower, and God only knew what else. Everyone and everything here came with bells. Right now, it was as if the bells were announcing a personal alert to him: Hot Babe on the Horizon.

Delilah Jones

Oh, boy! Ever since the babe had put the deep freeze on him, he’d decided to cut his losses. No more passing idly by the 1950s style diner and motel she was renovating. No late night beach visits. No more looking for a sighting of her around town. Nope. Instead, Merrill was devoting all his time to the launch of his new business enterprise. And he’d almost succeeded.

Until now.

“Oh, boy!” someone said aloud, reiterating his thoughts. It was another of his longtime friends, Captain Luke Avenil, who sat on his other side at the circular table. “Slick,” the senior of his old teammates, had to be close to forty now, which was old for a SEAL. But then, Merrill was thirty-five. Not much difference. Slick elbowed him and asked, “She the one?”

Merrill ignored Slick’s question as he watched the blonde bombshell in a white halter sun dress edged in red, with a shiny red belt, and white high-heeled sandals walk across the dance floor. She was heading toward the dais, carrying a gift-wrapped package, presumably to greet the newly married couple. The band “Nostalgia,” a popular Outer Banks classic rock group, was playing that old Springsteen song, “Born in the U.S. A.,” and, without doing anything overtly sexual, Delilah’s stride kept beat to the music.

Boom-chick-a-boom-boom-boom. Born-in-the-U-S-A. Boom-chick-a-boom-boom-boom. Born-in-the-U-S-A. That’s all Merrill’s brain, and eyeballs, registered. But then, he was more than a little bit buzzed, from alcohol and unrequited lust.

The Boss’s rendition marking Independence Day in his own inimitable fashion was not your usual wedding song, but then this wasn’t your usual wedding celebration. And, yeah, it’s wasn’t really a song about patriotism, but the people of Bell Cove, who’d taken over the planning for this wedding reception, probably didn’t know that…or care.

Belatedly, he responded to Slick, “The one what?”

“Don’t play dumb, Mister Genius. Your one and only,” Slick replied. “In other words, the one you’ve had a hard-on for the past three weeks.”

“How would you know? You just got here yesterday.”

“News travels fast.”

No kidding! The gossip grapevine in Bell Cove was remarkable, but it was nothing compared to the SEALS and WEALs who made minding each other’s business an art form.

“Is she the one who’s got you dragging your tail and sighing with luuuuve,” added another of his table mates, Navy SEAL Ensign Hamr Magnusson, a former NFL quarterback called “The Hammer.” With mock seriousness, Hamr wagged a forefinger at Merrill, “You’re gonna give SEALs a bad name, buddy, even if you’re not in the teams anymore. Women chase us, we don’t chase them.”

“Bite me,” Merrill offered, and tossed a handful of USA flag-foiled Hershey Kisses at Hamr’s grinning face.

Hamr grabbed a few, mid-air, and lobbed them back at him.

Everyone at the table, including JAM, who was back, turned to assess the subject of Merrill’s affections as she stopped to talk to some big blond guy in a dark suit with a white shirt and blue tie (as compared to a dork in a white tux with pink accessories). It was Karl Gustafson, a local guy who owned a convenience store and gas station. She was chatting with him in a way she never talked to him.

“Holy crap! Is that…yep, it’s Goose,” Hamr said.

“What?” several guys asked.

“Goose Gustafson. Remember him. Linebacker for the Cowboys before his knees gave out.”

On those words, Hamr stood and walked over to join Chatty Cathy and the blond god, who apparently pumped more than gas.

“Well, shiiiit!” Merrill muttered, feeling an unfamiliar tug of jealousy. Bad enough that she’d given him the cold shoulder, so far, but did she have to be all nicey-nicey with the Viking stud? Yeah, he’d pretty much given up the fight, so far, and, yeah, he had enough on his plate at the moment without wasting time on an affair that would probably go nowhere. Still…

“This is the first I’ve heard about you biting the big one, Geek. I don’t recall meeting her when we were here at Christmas,” JAM mentioned. “What’s her name?”

“Delilah Jones,” Merrill answered, reluctantly, knowing what would come next. “She just moved here this spring.”

“Her name is Delilah…Delilah Jones?” Slick sputtered. “Sounds like a porn star to me.”

“Me, too,” Merrill said. “And I might have made the mistake of mentioning that first time we met. Which is probably why she avoids me like crotch itch. One of the reasons, anyhow. I don’t know what else I’ve done that could have pissed her off so much.”

“Did you know there’s a web site that tells women, and men, what their porn star names would be?” interjected Master Chief Frank Uxley, aka F.U. He was the rudest, crudest Navy man to ride the waves, and that was saying a lot. “Mine would be Frank Bonier. Get it? Bone Her.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Merrill ordered F.U., who sat opposite him.

“Up yours,” F.U. retorted with a smile, not at all insulted.

Merrill ignored F.U. and went on to explain to JAM and Slick his various encounters with Delilah and how not into him she was.

“When I asked her out on a date, she looked at me like I had three heads.”

“What are you, like fourteen?” Slick asked. “Even I know that people today don’t date. ‘Friends With Benefits,’ my man!”

“You guys are full of shit. ‘Friends With Benefits’ is so 2016. The correct term is ‘Netflix and Chill.’ It’s the new ‘Friends With Benefits,’” explained Ensign Marcus Weller, new guy on the teams. And young for a SEAL, too, at only twenty-two. “Stream ‘Ghost’ and you’re in like Flynn.” He waggled his eyebrows with meaning.

“Oh, that’s just great. I walk up to a woman and say, ‘Wanna watch some flicks and fuck?’”

“Whatever works,” advised JAM, who tended to lose his priestly attitude after a few beers. Never in a million years would JAM approach a female in that way, though, drunk or sober.

“Personally, I haven’t approached a woman in years,” Slick said. “Connections in a bar work for me.”

“That’s because you’ve been burned by your ex-wife so many times, you’re afraid of commitment,” Merrill said.

“Who died and named you Dr. Phil?” Slick countered.

“Flash used to swear by the Gospel According to Hank Williams,” contributed Lt. Cody O’Brien, who still mourned the death of his close friend, Travis “Flash” Gordon, who died in an explosion last year in Baghdad. In their decade long stint as partners, Flash and Cody had been notorious for their continual arguments over the merits of country over rock, Johnny Cash over Steven Tyler. “Everything you ever wanted to know about love could be learned from a country song, according to Flash. ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,’ ‘Trashy Women,’ ‘You Ain’t Much Fun Since I Quit Drinkin’,’ ‘Girls Lie Too,’ ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,’ ‘She Only Loves Me For My Willie’. No shit! A Willie referring to Willie Nelson, not a cock, though I prefer the latter.”

They all stared at Cody. Not just for his long spiel about his partner with whom he’d avoided talking about for months, but that he could remember all those song titles in a genre he hated.

Understanding their confusion, Cody shrugged and said, “The asshole bequeathed me his country music collection. Fuck!”

Into the silence, they all thought about their fallen comrade and then gave their attention to the babe who’d started this whole line of conversation. The babe who was now chatting with not one but two Norse god ex-football players.

“Well, Geek, my man, she had me with the tool belt and the Harley,” Slick said.

Tell me about it!

“And she is hot in a Pamela Anderson/Marilyn Monroe kind of way,” JAM added.

Scorching hot!

The other men at the table nodded their heads in agreement.

“In fact, that dress looks just like the one Marilyn Monroe wore in that Billy Wilder classic comedy, ‘Seven-Year Itch.’ The scene where she’s standing over a subway vent,” Merrill said. “It sold at auction a couple years ago for almost five million bucks, as I recall.”

They all looked at him with amazement. He had a fool habit of reeling off data his brain amassed like a compute encyclopedia. “I’m just sayin’.”

Not surprisingly, F.U. asked, “Do you think those hooters are real?”

“Shhhh!” Merrill and several others cautioned F.U. when it appeared he might be overheard by some women nearby. That’s all Merrill would need…the female viewpoint on his love/lust interest. Seated at the next table were some former SEALs, who’d served with Wendy, accompanied by their wives. Zachary “Pretty Boy” Floyd and his wife, Britta, Torolf and Hilda Magnusson, Justin “Cage” LeBlanc and Emelie. Commander Ian MacLean, who still served as the senior officer at the Coronado base, was there with his wife Madrene. WEALS member Camille Dumaine had come with her husband Harek Sigurdsson, a computer guru whose I.Q. was almost as high as Merrill’s, or so he claimed. Other WEALS teammates of Wendy’s, Diane “Grizz” Gomulka and Delphine Arneaux, were in the “Pretty in Pink” wedding party up on the dais, where Merrill should be, as well, actually.

Excusing himself, he made his way around the dance floor, making sure his path didn’t cross with she-who-hated-his-guts. Wendy’s Aunt Mildred and her senior dance club were demonstrating “The Shag,” a dance step that was made popular back in the sixties and continued in the Carolinas to this day. They were really good! Especially at their ages, or maybe because of their ages and all those years of experience. Ranging from sixty to eighty, they were proving that age was relative with moves that were almost professional.

With the intricate foot work and hand gestures, they soon had the wedding attendees on their feet, clapping to the beat of that old song “Sixty Minute Man,” some of the men calling out crude suggestions to the groom related to the lyrics. Finally, the crowd joined in and there was a pathway down the center where individual couples danced or rather shagged their way through the gauntlet. Like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” but beachy.

Merrill saw Gabe Conti leaning against the wall, watching the dancers, and went over to join him. Gabe looked just as miserable as he was in a matching white tux and pink accessories.

“Do you think if we live here long enough we’ll be shagging our asses off like that?” Merrill asked.

“I can shag. Hell, I was raised in the Carolinas. It’s a rite of passage to learn those dance steps.”

“So?” Merrill raised his brows in question. “Why aren’t you out there?”

“I don’t like to dance, and I feel like an idiot when I do,” Gabe slurred out. “Besides, the only reason men…most men…dance is because they view it as a form of foreplay. As in ‘I’ll do the friggin’ dance if you let me do you later.’ I don’t expect to be so lucky tonight.”

Whoa! That was a mouthful for the usually reserved architect. Merrill guessed that Gabe had imbibed as many, or more, adult beverages as he had. Good thing this was his home. He wouldn’t have to worry about a DWI.

“What’s with you and Laura? I thought you two were the new hot item.” Merrill was referring to Laura Atler, editor of the local newspaper, “The Bell.”

Gabe shrugged. “I got tired of her ordering me around.” At Merrill’s look of disbelief, he laughed and said, “She dumped me.”

They both watched Laura smiling flirtatiously as she danced down the center pathway with Hamr. How had those two connected already? Hah! Hamr was known for his smooth moves, and, yes, he was looking smooth on the dance floor, too. Who knew Vikings could shag! The dance, not the other kind of shagging, which was an inborn trait, according to all the boastful males in the Magnusson clan. Hamr’s brother Torolf was a SEAL, too. Merrill knew the Magnussons well.

Something occurred to Merrill then. “Good Lord! My tongue is numb,” he remarked.

“Mine, too,” Gabe said.

They both probably looked like idiots then as they tried to stick out their boozy tongues and look at them.

Then Gabe had a sudden inspiration, “Do you think we should try sucking on those vodka ice cubes?”

“Good idea!” Merrill saluted Gabe’s suggestion with a high five.

They both pushed away from the wall and almost fell forward. Laughing, they headed toward the bar where the punch bowl was laid out.

But then, a vision in white stepped in front of them, smelling of lemons and sex.

Okay, the scent of sex was probably a fantasy of his alcohol/testosterone loaded brain, but he definitely detected the odor of lemons, as well, which he happened to love.

“I need to talk to you,” Delilah said.

Merrill twisted to see who she was addressing and leaned a little too far to the left, finding the damn floor was suddenly slanted. Blinking to regain his balance, he decided it must be someone behind him she was talking to.

But no, she was looking right at him, oozing lemon sexiness. And wearing moist-looking red lipstick in a color that could only be called Crimson Slut. Not that he meant slut in a bad way. No, this was good slutiness.

His numb tongue got a sudden hard-on, just taking in her mouth. No joke! A tongue hard-on. They ought to put me in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not I wonder what I would get if I saw something more blatantly sexual, like maybe her tongue peeking out with a Hey-Howdy welcome.

“Did you hear me, Mister Good? I need to talk to you,” she repeated.

Mister Good? Is my father around? No. That’s impossible. “Me?” he asked dumbly.

Meanwhile, Gabe was laughing his ass off at his dumbness. The architect walked off, calling out “See you later, Geek,” at the same time he gave a good luck sign over his shoulder.

“Why did he call you Geek?”

“It’s my nickname.” When she frowned with confusion…and, by the way, even her frowns are sexy…he explained, “Because I’m really smart.”

Could I sound anything less smart? he asked himself, mentally bitch slapping his woozy head.

She arched her brows. “How smart is it that halfway through the reception you’re drunk off your ass…I mean inebriated, forgive my language. Can’t hold your liquor, huh?”

“’Drunk off my ass’ is offensive, but calling me a liquor wuss isn’t it? I hold my liquor just fine, thank you very much,” he said, then spoiled the effect by belching. “Scuse me.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m trying to clean up my language.” Then she suggested, “Let’s sit down?”

We better, or I might fall down and topple you to the floor with me. Flatten you into a pancake, an anatomically correct pancake with breasts and a vee-mound and knobby, lickable knees and everything. But, no, we would fit together perfectly. Like a tongue and groove. Tongue again! Oh, crap! Please, God, don’t let me have said that out loud. I didn’t? Halleluhah! But, man, I am so skunked.

Unaware of his mental breakdown, she sank into a chair at an empty table and set down her stemmed glass in which a lemon slice floated on top of a murky liquid. A lemonade margarita, he guessed. Ah, that accounted for the lemon scent, but how about the sex scent?


What is it about this woman that makes me into a bumbling sex addict, or rather, sex idiot? She could say algebra, and I would think sex. She could be wearing a tent, and I would think sex. She could be shoveling shit, and I would think sex. No, no, no! That last was crude. What the hell is wrong with me? I can be as smooth as the next guy. Where is my smooth now?

Merrill eased himself into the chair next to her, carefully.

She was running a fingertip around the rim of her glass, over and over.

Even in his fuzzy condition, he recognized the nervous gesture. Why is she nervous? Around me? “What exactly did you need to talk to me about?” he asked. “Especially since you’ve made it more than clear you want nothing to do with me.”

“Money,” she said bluntly. “I need money. Ten thousand fucking…I mean, flipping dollars. At least. Hopefully.”

Merrill blinked. Not the answer he’d been expecting. Not at all.

Sex for money? Is that what she’s saying?

And whoa…ten thousand big ones! That must be some sex!

But I’ve never paid for sex in my entire life.

Would I now?

In a hot damn, Crimson Slut minute.

“Um…” His tongue hard-on got harder, just picturing what those Crimson Slut lips could do, which prevented him from speaking for a moment. Good thing because Delilah had more to say, which didn’t quite fit in with his Crimson Slut scenario.

“I’ve heard that you’re hiring people for a shipwreck salvaging operation, and I need a job, like right away.”

Oh! That’s what she means. Damn! That’s better, of course. But, damn! He tried his best to hide his disappointment.

To no avail.

“Did you think…oh, Lord, you did!” She started to rise, a flush rising in her cheeks.

He reached out and pressed a hand on her forearm as the fog in his head began to slowly dissipate. “No. Don’t go. I didn’t mean to offend you. My only excuse is I’m a little bit snockered. Okay, ‘drunk off my ass.’” He tried to smile but was pretty sure that only one side of his mouth turned off. He probably looked like a stroke victim.

She studied him for a moment before sinking back down. Taking a long swig from her glass, she waited for him to speak.

“Are you a diver?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Historical antiquities expert?”

She gave him an incredulous look, as in, “Are you mocking me?”

“Computer mapping? Boating skills? A mechanic? Nursing? Accounting?”

With each of his questions, her shoulders slumped lower. In truth, he had all the crew he needed, and they were all experienced. “I thought you were working to restore the diner and motel.”

“I am, but that requires a shitload…well, more money than I have at the moment. It could be months before I open for business.”

He shrugged. “You could always get a waitress job or something in town, as a temporary solution. I hear the tips are generous here on the island.”

“I could also be a stripper…”

He blinked, unable to come up with an answer that wouldn’t put him in the Horndog Hall of Shame.

“…which isn’t going to happen since my tassels are all worn out.”

He blinked several more times.

“I’m just kidding. Jeesh!” She shook her head decisively. “I’m not that desperate, even though I do need a big chunk of money, up front.”

“You think I give advances on earnings? Sign-on bonuses? Hell, salvaging is a gamble at best. The pay is scarcely above minimum wage, the attraction being a piece of the pie for all the crew if we ever actually discover the pie.”

“I have basic carpentry and renovation skills, like painting. I can clean like nobody’s business. And I can cook. Really well. I know that’s not the kind of pie you mean, but don’t you need someone to provide meals when you’re out on the water? When I open that diner, it will be a huge success. I know it will. But I need a new commercial stove and a propane tank before I can think about lighting a fire.”

“Is that what you need the money for? Equipment?”

“No. It’s something else.”

The flash of fear in her blue eyes was a clear signal to Merrill. He’d been involved in undercover intelligence for too many years not to recognize trouble, and he didn’t mean an overdrawn bank account. “What?”

“None of your damn business,” she snapped. Then softened her tone when she realized her attitude wasn’t helping her prospects. “I’d rather not say.”

“I beg your pardon. You want a job, and an advance, with, let me guess, no references, but you won’t tell me why you’re so desperate.” He put up a halting hand and continued, “No, don’t try to tell me that you aren’t desperate. I might be three sheets to the wind, but I’m not brain dead. You have to be aware that I have the hots…rather, an attraction for you, but you’ve made it more than clear on every occasion that we’ve met that I am repugnant to you. So, even though you’re not stripper-desperate, which is a shame, in my opinion, I figure you must be really desperate to come to me for help.” He arched his brows in question. “Right?”

“Repugnant? I wish!” She cast him a sideways survey. “You are so hot you make my toes curl.”

Whaaat? He thought about asking her to repeat that remark, but he’d heard her loud and clear. Besides, he didn’t want to chance her taking it back. “Then why the cold shoulder?”

“The last thing in the world I need right now is a relationship, for all the obvious reasons…a new town, a new business, no time, yada yada…but some other reasons as well.”

“Same here,” he agreed. But that didn’t stop the sap from rising, as his Viking friends were wont to say, and other things from rising, as his SEAL pals were wont to say in a much more graphic fashion. “I thought it was because I offended you with my stupid comment about a porno princess name when we first met.”

“Everyone says that. No biggie!” She waved a hand dismissively. “If I’ve been rude, it’s nothing personal.”

“It feels fucking personal.”

This time she did stand and put her hands on her hips. With her chin raised sky high, she declared, “Never mind. Forget I asked. It was a fu…freakin’ long shot, coming to you about a job. Sorry to have bothered you.”

There was still that nervousness about her fidgeting hands, and the fearful expression in her eyes. “Are you in trouble?” he asked bluntly.

She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them to look at him directly. Terror stared out at him from the caramel depths before she whispered, “Bigtime,” but then she raised her chin even higher and asserted, “It’s not your problem. I’ll figure something out. I always do.”

And that cinched the deal! Before she could make a hasty exit, he blurted out, “Okay, you’re hired.”

Even as he said those words, he felt kind of like Marie Antoinette must have before she stepped up to the guillotine. Ironically, the band morphed into a new song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”


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