He tried surfing. Running on the beach. Washing his sporty red pickup truck under the intense Hawaii sun. That blew another day.
And still six days to go. Six long, boring days until he knew his fate at work. Until he heard the results of the trumped-up investigation. Rather than dwell on the mess his life had become, he inhaled, breathing the scent of warm salt water deep into his lungs.
Just then, something moved off to his left. Squinting, he tried to identify the strange pile sitting about a hundred feet down the abandoned beach. Probably debris washed on shore or abandoned by the resort tourists earlier that day when the Pacific Ocean had unleashed a powerful storm on the rocky coast of Kauai.
He stood there, his feet sinking deep into the wet sand as pink and orange bands from the retired sunset streaked across the sky and dipped low on the horizon. How any person could hear the rhythmic beating of the waves against the shore and decide this was the perfect place to throw a used potato chip bag, he'd never know.
He'd bought the one-level cottage here as a place for escape. The edge-of-the-world feel appealed to him on a fundamental level. Having someone ruin the scenery with litter ticked him off. Also gave him something to do. Cleaning up the beach could knock ten or twelve minutes off his unwanted vacation time.
Wearing nothing more than a low-slung pair of faded jeans, he walked the waterline back to his house to fetch a bag. Along the way, chilly February ocean water splashed across his bare feet, and small pebbles pelted his chest.
He'd taken only a few steps when a strange sensation pricked at the back of his neck. His gaze slid back to the lump on the beach.
The thundering crash of water against the beach blocked out most sounds. But, no doubt about it, this time the damn thing moved. One step toward the mass, then he saw it. A slim, bare arm.
"Damn!" He broke into a blinding run, kicking up wet sand behind him.
He reached the pitiful bulge and dropped to his knees. Sweat broke out on his forehead as a wave of desperation hit him. The same frustrating mix of rage and helplessness he'd experienced before. The worry that he was one second too late. Again.
Sweeping the seaweed aside, he encountered a tattered blanket and tangled long hair. This time the bump groaned.
"Can you hear me?" He lifted the rest of the waste away from the crumpled form.
Not just any form. A woman. A naked woman with a slight blue tint to her pale skin. With two fingers pressed against the cool flesh of her neck, he felt for a beat. Despite the strong thumping, concern coursed through his veins, shutting out any of the normal interest that might have flickered to life at the sight of a nude female body.
Three months had passed since he'd scratched that particular itch. Not that long for some men, maybe, but about two months longer than he could tolerate without getting twitchy. On the small island, one rich in tradition, everyone seemed to know or be related to everyone else.
This sense of community, combined with a few too many pushy matchmaking mothers hell-bent on securing appropriate husbands for their baby girls, made dating rough on a single man. Especially on a single man who intended to stay that way. The resulting involuntary celibacy sometimes came with the job and the life whether or not he liked it.
And he didn't. Not one damn bit.
But now wasn't the time for those thoughts. He wasn't that guy. He'd never taken advantage of a woman in his life. Hell, this one wasn't even awake.
"Ma'am? Are you hurt?" It was an obvious question, but he didn't know what else to say.
He brushed her wet hair off her cold cheek. Soaked from head to toe, he couldn't even tell her hair color.
Marks and scratches marred her pale skin. Getting tossed around in the rough water had battered her a bit, but she looked relatively untouched. Even with the surface injuries and her bedraggled condition, he saw a hint of cheekbones, a slim refined nose and a full mouth.
If he didn't do something soon, she could be a fine-looking corpse.
"Talk to me," he said, as if ordering her awake might work. People told him his yell could raise the dead. He could now state with some authority that theory appeared to be wrong.
With hands planted on the damp sand on either side of her head, he leaned down. His ear hovered above her mouth so he could hear over the crashing surf. Steady small puffs of air brushed against his skin, calming his anxiety.
The coolness of her skin still scared him. He knew from training and experience that too long in the water and hypothermia kicked in. Tropical climate or not, a body could take only so much abuse from the elements.
Her eyes stayed closed. Her body still. She needed a shower and dry clothes. Even then ...
He tunneled one arm under her legs and the other around her shoulder. In one fluid move, he pushed to his feet with the injured stranger clutched to his chest. He looked up and down the beach. No one lingered except him.
Quick strides turned to a jog. He had to get to the front door of his bungalow. Two hundred feet, then he could warm her up, dry her off and get whatever help she needed. There was no time to waste.
He now had something to fill those long hours. He just hoped he wouldn't be spending the time checking her into the morgue.
Annie Parks refused to open her eyes. Open eyes meant facing reality. She wasn't ready for that yet.
She'd been in the ice cold waves only a few minutes. At least she thought that was the case. Time blended and distorted. Sluggish muscles and misfiring brain cells made thinking and moving almost impossible.
Nothing about the last few hours made any sense. She remembered standing in the small bathroom of her stateroom, looking over her crude drawing of the yacht's floor plan. She fiddled with her camera, unconsciously adjusting the settings to account for fading light. The steady beat of jazz music sounded from the main living area and adjoining dining room. With everyone enjoying a pre-dinner drink, she had the privacy she needed to study the layout of the rooms and decide where the owner would keep valuable paperwork.
She had slipped out of her stained dress. The spill of red wine had given her a reasonable excuse to leave the party. The fact she had to ruin the one fancy dress she owned ticked her off, but what was one more sacrifice to the cause. She'd sacrificed so much already.
One minute she was reaching for the black outfit she'd set aside for her snooping. The next, someone held a bag over her head, hands went around her waist and ... splash. Then a mouthful of water followed by a hard skid to a beach landing and pain. She couldn't forget the pain.
Now someone held her. Sure, the guy didn't throw her back in the water, but that didn't necessarily mean things were looking up. Her back teeth slammed together with each one of his firm steps. The brisk walk cuddled against his chest had warmed her, but at this pace she'd be broken into little pieces before they got to their destination. Wherever that was.
The naked early evening jog with a perfect stranger was new, not to mention embarrassing. Plenty of fear ran through her, too. She thought about jumping out of this guy's arms and running as fast as she could in any direction but the water.
Thought about it. Even plotted out the escape. But, she knew the smarter move was to bide her time and figure out her next step. She'd spent her entire life biding time. Waiting for the right moment to get her revenge.
Panic and weakness were the enemies. Two of them, anyway. During the past few hours she'd discovered a new one of the human variety. She'd been knocked around, dropped into the ocean and nearly drowned due to her mediocre swimming skills. All that made washing up on the beach the highlight of her evening.
Not the normal day for a nature photographer. Of course, this wasn't a paid assignment. This one was a personal project. An investigation gone seriously wrong. Somehow she'd managed to stumble onto the right track. Got close enough to get tossed into the ocean. She'd lost her camera and nearly her life.
And now ... well, she did not know what was happening now. She lifted one eyelid in the barest move possible. She spied miles of muscular forearm. Tan and, she hoped, connected to the safe and friendly variety of male on the other end.
Before she could squawk, her rescuer balanced her body on his hip, reached for a doorknob and opened the door. She silently added strong to the list of her rescuer's attributes.
Looking through the slit under her eyelashes, she tried to scan her new surroundings. They stood in the center of a small room with a red sectional sofa as the centerpiece. Not what she imagined the home of a typical serial killer would look like. That was her first good news of the last forty-eight hours. The only good news.
He started to move. With each step, she saw a flash of his bare feet against the oak hardwood floor below her. She poised for fight or flight. Tried to concentrate on getting the hell out of there-even though she still didn't know where "there" was.
He threw her in the shower before she could make her big escape.
Every cell in her body snapped to life. The lethargy weighing her down disappeared with the screech of the shower curtain rings against the rod. A rush of water echoed in her ears as steam filled the room.
"Here we go," the stranger said to the room as if the nut chatted with unconscious people all the time.
He balanced her body against his. Rough denim scratched against her sensitive skin from the front. Lukewarm water splashed over her bare body from the back, making her skin tingle and burn.
A gasp caught in her throat as her shoulders stiffened under the spray. A scream rumbled right behind the gasp, but she managed to swallow that, too.
"This should help." He continued his one-sided conversation in a deep, hypnotizing voice.
He seemed mighty pleased with himself. And since he had stepped right under the water with her, a bit ballsy for her taste.
"This will feel better in a second," he said to the quiet room.
He wasn't wrong.
Firm hands caressed her skull, replacing the frigid ocean with bathwater. He rinsed and massaged and rinsed again. The sweep of his hands wiped away the last of her confusion. With that task done, his palms turned to her arms, brushing up and down, igniting every nerve ending in their path.
His chest rubbed against her bare breasts until heat replaced her chill. With thighs smashed against his legs, the full-body rubdown sparked life into body parts that had been on a deep-freeze hold for more than a year.
She didn't answer him. Wasn't even sure she could speak if she wanted to.
"Open your eyes and say something."
The husky command broke her out of her mental wanderings and sent a shot of anxiety skating down her spine. This was the part of the program where she ran and hid ... and then ran some more.
Naked. Alone. Strange man. Yeah, a very bad combination.
"I know you're awake." He sounded pretty damn amused by the idea.
The jig was up. Okay, fine, she got his point.
Not knowing if her rescuer counted as a friend or foe, she played the scene with the utmost care. Only a complete madman would attack a vulnerable woman who didn't know her own name. If her stranger fell into that category, she'd scream and make a mad dash into the kitchen for the nearest sharp knife. The nearest sharp anything.
She groaned in pain that was only half false.
"Your eyes are still closed," he said.
Yeah, pal, no kidding.
"You aren't fooling me."
Well, she could certainly try.
His hands continued to massage her sore flesh with just the right amount of pressure to bring her blood sizzling back to life. If he kept this up, her eyes wouldn't open. She'd be asleep.
She couldn't remember the last time she slept through the night. Actually, she could. It had been fifteen months. Fifteen months of searching. The path led to Kauai. To the yacht. To flying over the side and into the water. To being in this shower.
"We can stand here all night for all I care," he said.
Nothing that extreme. Maybe ten more minutes.
He chuckled. "Doesn't bother me."
Lucky for her she found an accommodating potential serial killer.
"Because I'm the one with clothes on," he pointed out.
Her eyelids flew open.
The deep rumble of his laugh intensified. "Thought that one might get your attention."
Oh, he had her attention. All six-feet-something of him, with haunting dark eyes, straight coal black hair cut short and blunt, and chiseled high cheekbones that spoke to Hawaiian bloodlines.
Her gaze dipped lower and ... damn.
That gasp she'd been holding finally escaped her lips. The part below his neck looked as impressive as his face. A broad muscular chest, every inch tan and perfect. Blue jeans balanced on lean hips.
Double damn. Obviously strong and in command, this guy could crush her if he wanted to.
That realization got her talking. "Who are you?"
One dark eyebrow kicked up in question. "That was my question. You are ...?"
A woman in deep trouble. A woman at home with a camera and in a darkroom. A woman with a mission.
The idea of confiding in someone tempted her, but she resisted. She didn't know this guy or his agenda. Hell, she didn't even know who her enemies were and why. Until she did, she was not saying a word.
"I ... I don't know," she stammered out.
She was playing a dangerous game. No other choice. Someone had pushed her off a party boat. Either Sterling Howard had figured out her real identity and ushered her off his yacht the hard way or ... actually, she couldn't think of an "or" option.
"Don't know what?" he asked.
Those deep brown eyes, almost black, narrowed. "For most people it's an easy question. You've likely had one since birth."
"I, uh, can't remember it," she said, making sure her voice held the appropriate mixture of concern and shock. Funny how those two emotions came to her without any trouble at the moment.
"Wait a second. You mean-"
His hands tightened briefly on her elbows, then relaxed. "Interesting."
The longer she stood there, the more pronounced their size difference became. "Not to be rude or sound ungrateful, but could we have this little chat later? Like, when I'm dry and fully dressed."
"You really can't remember your name?"
She lifted her hands and covered her breasts. A stupid move, yes. He'd already seen all the goods. Not that he cared one wit. He didn't appear to be staring anywhere but dead into her eyes.
"Trying the dry thing now would be good," she said.
He reached behind her and turned off the water. "You're saying you have amnesia?"
For a second she wondered if a person with a real case of amnesia would recognize the word amnesia. Deciding that type of thinking would drive her nuts, she answered, "Yes."
"Seems a bit convenient."
The least the guy could do was have the decency to look a little worried about her made-up amnesia story. "There's nothing convenient about not knowing who you are."
He stepped out of the tub and grabbed up a towel for her. "Here. Dry off. We need to pump some heat into you and then ..."
"Yes?" she asked, a bit concerned about what the rest of his sentence could be.
"Find some clean clothes for both of us. I'm guessing you'd like to be dressed when we talk."
She'd rather skip the talking part. "Talk about what?"
"Whatever it is you're running from."
Wariness washed over her. This time not about being naked, although she wasn't real fond of that either. The heart-to-heart he had planned was the bigger problem. She'd made a promise to her mother, although in her mother's catatonic state, she likely didn't understand the vow. But that wasn't the point. Annie had enough guilt for a lifetime without failing her mother a second time.
Excerpted from Your Mouth Drives Me Crazy by HelenKay Dimon Copyright © 2007 by HelenKay Dimon. Excerpted by permission.
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