Ranger Boggs guided the rented flats boat to the large, well-maintained dock. As the craft nudged the edge, he leaped. Ignoring the other visitors milling about, he secured the boat to a cleat with a practiced knot.
His face to the wind, he looked out at the Intracoastal Waterway, which offered a view of the sea, sky and birds. Shutting his mind and ears to the others who’d come to the island, he imagined this beautiful place belonged to him and he was alone. The rest of the day was his to spend as he wished, perhaps fishing, maybe exploring, keyed into the restlessness that had brought him to this dot of land to the west of Florida’s southern tip.
“Damn it, Cleve, we’ve got to hurry if we’re going to beat the crowd to the restaurant.”
Ranger reluctantly admitted that no matter how much he needed to give his imagination free rein, he couldn’t wish away the several hundred people disembarking from the tri-level vessel that had docked a few minutes before he’d arrived. It was late winter and thus the perfect time for snowbirds to swell Florida’s population. Many stayed in the cities but others, like him, had decided to check out Soco Island.
He’d been here some six months ago, but back then his hunt for a man who didn’t want to be found had distracted him from the salt-scented breeze and persistent seagulls, the crushed sea shells that made up the footpaths to the restaurant and adjacent lounge, inn and secluded cabins. During that earlier time, he’d had to leave before he learned about the wildlife preserve on the island’s far side. This was going to be different.
“Do you think I can get a steak?” an elderly sounding man asked. “Hell, I bet there’s nothing but seafood.”
“Don’t make a fuss if there’s no beef, all right,” a woman responded. “Just this once, go with the flow.”
Uninterested in the man’s reply, Ranger headed for shore. If he’d been thinking, he would have waited until after the midday crowd had climbed back onto the various crafts, leaving Soco as he’d found it earlier—quiet.
As he watched the line of people making their way from the dock to the restaurant, he clamped a hand over his belly. He’d get around to filling it, just not when doing so meant sitting elbow to elbow with strangers.
Strangers who didn’t belong on his turf.
Although he couldn’t see the wildlife area from here, he trusted instinct, or something, to take him in that direction. One thing about tracking down humans for a living, he’d learned to trust his inner voices.
In a few minutes, he was able to acknowledge the welcome change in the air. It no longer smelled of gas, perfume, deodorant, soap, or sweat. Instead, the sea prevailed. Pausing, he filled his lungs. The breeze captured his too-long hair and whipped a black strand across his eyes. His sense of freedom growing, he pushed the hairs out of the way.
As he did, one of his inner voices spoke to him.
Someone is watching you.
Alert, he turned to face the restaurant at the top of a rise that had been created by an ancient shell mound. Groups milled around the expansive porch that was part of the restaurant. Others sat at the outside tables. From what he could tell, no one was looking at him.
Yes, she is.
Even as he again set his sights on his destination, he didn’t question that he’d caught a woman’s attention. Female interest wasn’t new to him. It was one of the usually enjoyable side effects of keeping his body at its physical peak.
But he hadn’t come to Soco to find a willing bed partner. This trip needed to be about him. Finding answers to questions he didn’t yet understand.
* * * *
By clamping her hands against her thighs, Charli Marsh managed to thwart the wind’s attempt to tangle her skirt around her. Moments ago, she’d been chiding herself for wearing the flimsy fabric, but that was before a man’s stride had sent waves of need through her. No longer did she give a damn about the business that had brought her here. There was only that arresting male body shielded by a hug-his-muscles pale T-shirt and dark shorts.
His distant physique wasn’t the whole package. There was also the matter of where he was going, which was away from everyone else. Instead of surging lemming-like toward Soco’s main draw—its renowned restaurant and bar—he was heading toward the wilderness.
Envy surged through her. In the twenty-six hours she’d been here, she hadn’t had a moment to explore what Soco had to offer beyond its man-made structures. She had yet to truly embrace the island, to experience its bones, so to speak.
Okay, until this moment she hadn’t made taking the grand tour a priority, but with the hunky stranger challenging her senses, she needed to move, to do something physical. His impact on her didn’t matter. Like the majority of people here, he’d be gone by nightfall. He’d join the exodus back to civilization—roads, cars, TV, bright lights and entertainment. Soco made for an interesting and relatively isolated way to spend a day. It wasn’t a place for an extended stay, not without streetlights, locking doors on the few cabins and the sounds of night creatures scraping nerves.
That’s it, all right, Charli acknowledged as she sat at one of only two unoccupied deck tables and turned her attention back to her list of repairs the inn needed. Watching the man walk had scraped her nerves, nothing else.
* * * *
The approaching night changed Soco. People still invaded the island, but only a handful compared to earlier. From where Ranger stood near the bar, muted voices reached him. Even the music was quiet, as if whoever was in charge understood that it was time for the island to speak.
Truth was, the wildlife refuge had unsettled him. It shouldn’t be like that, damn it. If anyone was accustomed to going to new places, he was. He’d hiked Northwest forests, nearly died of dehydration in an Arizona desert, wound his way through crowded city streets and claustrophobic subways. A little Florida flora and fauna shouldn’t cause the hairs on the back of his neck to stand out, but it had. No matter how much he wanted to deny it, the whole time he’d been in the preserve this afternoon, he’d half-believed the wilderness was welcoming him. Had been waiting for him. Most unnerving had been his sense of oneness with it.
Don’t get carried away. Just because I was alone out there—
Unable to shake Soco’s impact on him during his first visit, he’d done some research. Among other things, he’d learned that this part of Florida had once been home to the Calusa Indians. One of their villages had been called Soco, and this island had been named after it. Maybe some of the tribe’s ghosts had taken up residence in the preserve and were stalking him.
He worked to shake himself free of the crazy thought. He wouldn’t admit it of course, but he was glad he hadn’t stayed in the refuge any later than he had. The sunset drifted over him, quieting him a little. The sun had given up on the day and had left behind vast splashes of reds, oranges and yellow. Oblivious to the spectacular setting, several seagulls rode unseen wind currents. Envy tugged at him. He’d love to be a bird, free and effortlessly—
“Spectacular, isn’t it?”
The question, coming soft and slow from a feminine throat turned him in that direction. The woman was relatively tall, maybe five-foot nine with wide shoulders, bare arms and a slim body draped in a pale yellow dress that rippled with the breeze. To his way of thinking, her hair was too short, reddish with blondish highlights he was pretty sure weren’t natural. Not that he gave a damn why any woman would spend so much time and money getting her hair to look like that. Although she was looking at him, she’d positioned herself so her face was to the wind. Maybe the breeze made her feel alive.
He acknowledged the sunset with a nod. “It is. Makes me wish I had a camera.”
“I have one but unfortunately I left it in my cabin.”
Two things occurred to him. One was that she felt no hesitancy in telling him she was staying on the island. Also, if he was reading her emphasis on the word I, she was alone.
“Most of the color will be gone by the time you get it,” he said. He’d been leaning on the splintery wooden railing, and although she would risk snagging her dress, he indicated she could join him if she wanted. Giving him a nod, she stepped toward him as if she weighed nothing.
She didn’t have to stand so close that the hairs on his arm hummed with her presence, but he was glad she had. If she was coming on to him, he was open.
“It’s better this time of day,” she went on. “Less hectic. That’s what I noticed last night, the island settling down. It’s almost as if the sea is taking over.”
They stood side by side with their hands on the railing, looking out at a gentle slope of land and water that went on forever and might drop off the edge of the earth. The sky slowly turned from brilliant to gray. Several people in the bar laughed.
“I like the way you put it,” he said. He ached to clutch this stranger to him and press his body against hers, animal to animal. Not thinking. “‘The sea taking over.’ You said you were here last night. Vacation?”
“I wish.” She sounded wistful. “Business.”
“Yeah.” Her sun-warmed shoulder brushed his. “The resort’s for sale. My brother’s considering buying it.”
Say something. Don’t let her know you’re getting a hard-on. “And he wants you to…?”
“I have expertise in such things.” She spoke without looking at him. “Just call me his front man although he and I have been talking about working on the project together. The possibility excites me.”
“You’re no man.”
The moment the words were out, he knew they were all wrong. And all right. Nothing ventured, no possibility of a roll in the sack.
“I think I saw you earlier today,” she said, and he felt her breath on the side of his neck. “I did if you took off for the preserve instead of fighting the lunch crowd.”
He turned toward her, noting a small nose and long lashes. And, hell, full breasts. “That was you?”
“What do you mean? With all the people there you couldn’t possibly have seen—”
Silence expanded between them. Staying alive and healthy called for honing his survival instincts. He told no one, not even his clients, about the primal instincts that keyed him in to his surroundings. Why then had he told this woman what he had?
“My name’s Charli,” she said. “Spelled with an ‘i’. My parents’ sense of humor. What’s yours?”
“Ranger,” he told her, despite his arsenal of identities. “I never asked why my folks named me that.” Hell, they probably don’t know.
“I like it.” She extended long, slender, ring-less fingers toward him. “Good to meet you, Ranger. It’s a take-charge name.”
You don’t know the half of it. He held on longer than convention called for, feeling Florida’s humidity on her skin and her pulse snaking into his veins. “Are you staying the night?” he asked.
“Yes. What about you?”
“Yes,” he said, even though he hadn’t thought that far ahead.