Kai Terrence, sailor by day, billionaire tech giant by night, doesn’t have a problem getting a date, but he isn’t interested in being wanted for his money. When he rescues Ariana Armstrong, an intelligent, fun-spirited environmental researcher who’s fallen overboard, his definition of love may need redefining when her kisses take him to uncharted waters. Luckily for him, she doesn’t know who he is, and he’ll do anything to keep it from her until he knows if what he feels for her is true love.
Ariana, content with the mundane routine of her research on tree frogs in the Costa Rican cloud forest, doesn’t expect her world to enter a tropical cyclone when she falls overboard into the ocean. When she discovers that Kai, her rescuer and the man she’s falling for, has plans to destroy part of her forest, she sets out to convince him to change his plans and save her tree frogs, because she doesn’t want to have to let go of the only man she’s ever loved. Can Kai and Ari work together to save their relationship, and the tree frogs?
Ari leaned against the metal railing of the ocean ferry, allowing a light, salty spray of the Pacific Ocean to cool her arms. She pensively tilted her head to the side as ripples bubbled across the surface of the water. A shimmer of silver pierced through the bubbles as a large school of striped mackerel swam in a swirling formation.
She scanned the deck, turning to face the other occupants. It was less crowded than earlier. They had boarded the first boat leaving Playa Flamingo’s Costa Rican port at six o’clock that morning with fifty other passengers.
Now, at five o’clock that evening, on the return voyage from Nicaragua, there were only a handful of people, including herself and Sean—the handsome and gregarious research associate of hers who volunteered to accompany her for the day. He was always eager to, as he would say, meet new people. Ari defined that as hook up with someone you’ll probably never see again. Currently, he was busy at the port-side bar, laughing with an attractive brunette. And by her smile, she was enjoying their conversation as much as he was.
Ari drew in a deep breath. The briny air settled into her lungs before she exhaled slowly. With her visa now renewed, she could finally relax. She had panicked earlier in the week when she had realized that her student visa would expire at the end of the month—in two weeks, to be exact. She needed a new one, and quick. Her only option had been to cross the border into Nicaragua, spend a few hours sightseeing, then return to Costa Rica on a ninety-day tourist visa.
A cold wind hit the side of her face, causing her to turn back to face the sea. The wind was a result of two gannet birds swooping down and plucking wiggly mackerel from the water. The elegant, swanlike birds with light-yellow heads and charcoal-tipped wings had a wingspan longer than her entire body. One gannet flew alongside the boat next to her. Its talons held tight to a glistening fish as it thrashed and wiggled until its ultimate surrender.
Marine biology fascinated Ari. She had begun her emphasis in that field, but quickly switched to conservation studies once she saw the global environmental need. With the worldwide deforestation of the rainforests, the earth was headed down a self-destructive path. Costa Rica had started earlier than most countries with their conservation efforts and was now known as a leader in the conservation arena. That’s why Ari had chosen Costa Rica as her training ground for her PhD, but her research was taking longer than she’d expected. She would be able to write her thesis once she’d completed the few remaining pieces of her study. And then what? Ari had been told that she would never want to leave the cloud forests of Costa Rica once she’d experienced their mystical beauty. Until recently, she couldn’t imagine living somewhere without four seasons.
She was now, however, a believer. There was something magical in that forest. Ari couldn’t put her finger on it, but there were forces stronger than nature brewing in Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve.
The other passengers erupted into chatter as they shuffled around her to the front of the boat. Two dolphins advanced toward them. “The fish!” Ari screamed. “The dolphins will come here for the mackerel.” She waved her arms for the group to join her at the back of the boat. Sean glanced over, but pointed to the dolphins as he turned away to face the ocean off the front. “Fine,” she said, annoyed.
It was their loss. Ari stood alone at the back of the boat while the other passengers all congregated at the front. She positioned herself with her back to the ocean and raised her phone high above her head. Attempting to take the perfect selfie with a jumping dolphin, she leaned her lower back against the railing, allowing her upper torso to have free movement. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event to get up close and personal with wildlife in their natural habitat while not disturbing them, and she was determined to document it. After a minute of holding herself slightly unsteady over the choppy water, she had an itch where her eyeglasses rested on the bridge of her nose. She reached up to scratch the insupportable itch as a dolphin sprang from the ocean, then pounced on the school of fish, scattering them in an instant.
She came down from her precarious spot and reviewed the burst of ten photos she had set her phone to take. In the photos, the dolphin was in the perfect position with its tail waving to her. Her own face, however … “It looks like I’m picking my nose,” she said, voicing her frustration at the itch she’d had to scratch. Ari turned back to the water. The mackerel had regrouped and were now happily swimming in their instinctive circular formation once again. “Take two,” she said with renewed hope.
On her second try, Ari concentrated on the timing. She steadied her phone above her head and held a soft smile, scrutinizing her wavy red hair that danced gently in the ocean breeze, and her green eyes reflected her good spirits. She was ready. At the first ripple of the water’s surface, she pressed the button. The initial movement, however, wasn’t a dolphin. An elegant gannet had plucked a fish from the sea.
Its flight was interrupted when a dolphin leaped into the air, causing the bird to drop its catch. Scrapping the limited view of her phone’s camera, Ari turned to witness the exchange. Her quick, jerky movements threw her off-balance.
With a feverish scream and flailing appendages, she fell from the boat and landed with a splash into a squirmy, tickling bed of mackerel. The cold water took her breath momentarily. “Please don’t bite me. Please don’t bite me. Please don’t bite me.” She repeated her plea aloud until the mackerel dispersed. “Thank you,” she whispered to the heavens.
A recent article reported that a young girl had been bitten by a shark while surfing. It was later reported that the lacerations were from a mackerel fish, not a shark. If a mackerel bit Ari … then sharks would be close behind. Her heart raced. She needed to get back onto the ferry, but it was moving quickly and was already out of earshot.
“Help!” Ari yelled to the boat as she waved an arm in the air.
After several minutes of yelling, panic set in. Deductive reasoning led her to believe that no one saw her fall from the deck as the boat still travelled at a decent speed away from her. Forget the fear of sharks, how long could she tread in the ocean before she drowned? She regretted her decision to pass on the dingy yellow life preserver she’d been offered.
She focused on maintaining smooth, circular motions of her arms and feet. If she cupped her hands … her phone? She was grasping her new phone in her hand. It was supposedly waterproof. With difficulty, she held it out of the water, close to her face. Now that her glasses had been knocked off, she was practically blind.
Not only did her phone have ninety percent battery life, it also had cell service. How was that even possible this far from land? She had no idea, but she didn’t allow herself to contemplate the miracle.
Ari tried to speak clearly to Siri. “How long can someone tread water for before they drown?”
“This is what I found on the web for ‘How long—’”
Ari pressed the button to cut her off. “Call Sean,” she instructed.
“Calling Sean Scowcroft, mobile,” the assistant responded, to Ari’s absolute relief.
“Ari, where are you?” Sean sounded distracted. “This is amazing! These dolphins have been giving us the best show.”
“Sean,” she said, her voice shaking. “I fell overboard a few minutes ago. Get help.”
“Wait … you never joke.” Fear choked his voice. “Are you serious?”
“Yes. Please hurry. I’m getting cold.”
“Okay. Stay on the phone with me.”
Ari listened to Sean’s shouts for help as his feet pounded the wooden floor of the boat. She strained to hear the one-sided conversation of Sean’s broken Spanish to a crew member that sounded like gibberish. He wasn’t making any sense. No one would believe him and turn the boat around when he acted crazy.
“Sean, let me talk to him!” she screamed into the bottom of the phone, hoping that Sean would be able to hear her.
Her fingers cramped, causing the phone to slip from her grasp. She scrambled, reaching frantically to catch her sinking life-light. “It’s okay,” she said to calm her nerves. She had to stay positive. “Sean will get help.”
She stared helplessly down at the lowering light.
As quickly as the light fell, it rose. Ari took in a sharp breath, fear paralyzing her thoughts as she realized that her phone was in the mouth of a large, oscillating shadow. As the fish came closer to the surface, she recognized the pointy nose belonging to a common dolphin. Had her head been the first thing to hit the water when she had fallen, causing her brain to hemorrhage? A dolphin had her phone. This didn’t seem possible. If she weren’t so cold, she’d believe this to be a dream.
The dolphin did a quick circle beneath her, then jumped into the air, causing the water to quake around her. Once on the surface, it blew a burst of water from its blowhole. Then, with a rapid clicking sound, it brought its nose to within inches of Ari’s face.
For a second, she was so stunned she could hardly breathe, much less do anything else. Then instinct took over.
“Hey there,” she squeaked, raising her hand to the dolphin’s nose, as she did when greeting dogs. She had no idea how to bond with dolphins. An exhilarating laugh bubbled in her throat. Bond with dolphins, really? Maybe she was in a dreamlike state and imagining all of this.
The dolphin appeared to accept her greeting by shifting to one side and nodding up and down. The angling maneuver of the dolphin brought the phone within reach. With trepidation, Ari rubbed her palm up the dolphin’s rubbery skin, a sensation that resembled handling wet neoprene. She then carefully pulled her phone from the mammal’s mouth. Yes, this must be a dream. She’d just pulled a phone out of a dolphin’s mouth.
“Thank you,” Ari said between tears when the screen lit at her touch. Miraculous. She tucked the phone deep into her bra for safekeeping. She wasn’t losing it again.
The dolphin made a whistling sound before submerging back underwater. Within seconds, the dolphin circled once under Ari’s legs and rose again, but this time the movements were in closer proximity. The animal was too close to not collide with her.
Suddenly, Ari straddled the sea mammal’s fin, lying stomach-down on its back as she rose above the water’s surface. Her body welcomed the contact as it warmed instantly. She recalled from her marine biology class that dolphins release their excess heat from their dorsal fins. “How amazing you are,” Ari exhaled out, rubbing the dolphin’s sides with her tired arms as its fin continued to heat her upper thighs.
She laid her cheek next to the dolphin’s blow spout and closed her eyes as she offered the most sincere and heartfelt prayer of gratitude that she had ever offered in her twenty-six years of existence. Dazed and shocked, her body gave in to the exhaustion as she contemplated her own personal Jonah miracle.
The blue and white sailing sloop would be at the location of the Wi-Fi pirate within minutes. After hearing the VHF distress call go out about an overboard passenger, Kai changed course to the last known coordinates of the swimmer, but diverted from the rescue course when he discovered the pirate’s incoming signal. It was confounding. Who else but the woman overboard could be piggybacking off his cell service with no other vessels in the immediate area?
Kai tried to wrap his mind around how someone who had fallen overboard with no life vest still managed to have a working cell phone after an hour in the open sea. The probability seemed infinitesimal. He squinted his eyes in the fading sunlight, attempting to decipher if the sea animal in front of him had gills identifying it as a shark. Perhaps a shark swallowed the phone? It didn’t have gills, but what Kai saw sent a cold bolt of ice through his body, chilling him to the core. A long, human arm rested down where the gills would have been. The lone dolphin carried a slumped female body stretching along its back. Unsteadied from the shock, Kai fell from his seated position onto his left side.
His head pounded against a metal rail, splitting the skin above his left eye as he caught himself too late. The warm blood flowed down the side of his face with a diverting stream of blood trickling into his mouth. Spitting out the copper taste, he rose to his feet.
“Hey!” Kai shouted. “Can you hear me?”
He wiped the blood that threatened to obstruct his sight with his sleeve, the sting of the cut now acute. “Wake up!” He didn’t want to get any closer to the animal and scare it away. “Hey!” It took several minutes of shouting for the woman to finally stir.
The ginger-haired woman lifted her head with apparent effort. Her eyes were distant, as if searching for his voice. She patted the side of the dolphin. The mammal immediately broke from its circular routine and started on an approach for the sailboat. Kai had interacted with a slew of dolphins over the years in the wild and at adventure parks, but he’d never seen a dolphin as connected to its human trainer as this one seemed to be with the thin, fragile woman.
As the dolphin brought the listless woman within a foot of the boat, Kai leaned over, holding on to the lifeline woven around the edge of the sloop. He grabbed hold of her waist and heaved her from off the dolphin. His boat tipped at the pull, but held steady with tested resilience. Kai laid the thin woman down on the deck. He quickly removed his blood-soaked shirt, rolled it up, and gently lifted her head to place the makeshift pillow under her neck. He checked her pulse and breath. Both appeared normal.
Kai turned his attention back to the ocean as the dolphin released a succession of clicking sounds before submerging into the water. The animal then surfaced on the other side of Kai’s boat, where it seemed to monitor the woman as it jumped into the air, twisted, then dove back in with the grace of a princess.
Kai raised his chin to the dolphin. “I’m going to call you Princess.”
“My dad calls me that.” The woman produced a faint smile as she sat up, then immediately leaned forward, resting her forehead into her hand. “My head is throbbing.”
“Let me get you some water and ibuprofen,” Kai said, stepping down into the stairwell that led to his cabin below deck.
“You need a first aid kit.” The woman seemed more coherent. “What happened to your face?”
“Unfortunately, I was born this way.”
The girl’s tired expression lightened into a relieved smile. “Thank you for rescuing me.” She stretched her neck as she lifted her face to within a foot of Kai’s as he stood on the top stair.
“Your dolphin friend is the one who saved you,” Kai said, motioning with his eyes at the high jumper, who remained at their side.
“I’ve heard of dolphins saving humans, but this was surreal,” she said, shaking her head.
“What’s your name?” He stared into her green eyes with their unique, long golden streaks splitting through the green like arrows shooting through a field of wheat. She appeared close to his age, maybe a few years younger.
“Ariana Armstrong,” she said with a blink of her blonde lashes. “Ari for short. You have the most vibrant aqua-green eyes I’ve ever seen.”
Kai straightened his back. “I was once told by a best-selling author that they’re the color of a dolphin’s gray fin in the center and kelp … no … seafoam around the edges.” He paused at his unintelligent rambling. “She said it with more eloquence than that.”
“You’re dating an author?”
“No. She married my cousin. Guess my eyes didn’t do it for her.”
“She must’ve never given them a good look, then,” she said in a comforting voice.
“Thanks.” Kai acknowledged her compliment with a half-smile.
When women discovered Kai’s wealth, they were more likely to give his eyes a serious look. He wasn’t muscular, but he wasn’t overweight either. He kept his heart healthy by walking every day in between meetings, but girls seemed to lust after a guy with a chiseled torso, not someone who walked the beach at lunch.
There was something about this girl who charmed dolphins that spoke to a part of him he hadn’t shared with the world. She had a unique quality that he wanted to understand better. He wished she wouldn’t, but she would eventually find out who he was; then her true colors would surface. He hoped she wasn’t the stalker type. He began to wonder about the possibility as she brought her face to within inches of his, causing him to flinch.
She smiled timidly as she pulled back. “Sorry. The only way I can make your face out is by being this close. I lost my glasses in the water.”
Kai nodded his understanding as he lightly touched her cool arm, laden with goose bumps. “Why don’t we get you into warm clothes? I usually pack an extra pair in the cabin. Wait here, but hold on to something,” he said, stepping down the stairs. “I don’t want you falling off again.”
“Princess will catch me,” Ari said with confidence.
“True,” Kai shouted up from the cabin as he rummaged through a cabinet. “I’m not seeing a change of clothes, but I did find the first aid kit.”
Kai surfaced with a metal box and a blanket. “Do you want to undress out of your wet clothes and wrap this around you?”
Ari’s face drained of color, clouded in a look of absolute fear.
“I’d give you my shirt, but …” Kai pointed to his bare chest. “You can change below deck. In fact, you’re welcome to rest down there. I won’t disturb you until we reach the Playa Flamingo port. And I’ll arrange to have clean, warm clothes waiting at the dock.”
“How?” Ari questioned in awe.
“My sister runs the resort there.”
“Does she manage it?” she questioned, seemingly impressed.
“Ah … yeah, amongst other things.” Kai didn’t like to flaunt his family’s fortune. It was one of five hotels that his sister Meri and her husband Cal owned.
Ari studied Kai’s face. “I need to clean your wound.”
“It stopped bleeding.” Kai shrugged. “I’ll be okay.”
“Said the man who died of infection the following week.”
“Your call.” Kai surrendered, opening the metal box and handing Ari the medicine for her headache.
“I almost forgot about my throbbing head. Are you a healer and a wizard? That’s the only plausible explanation I come up with as to how you found me, and how my headache instantly disappeared when you touched me.”
“Me? A healer and a wizard? I was starting to wonder if you were a mermaid.”
Ari gave Kai an inquisitive look as she placed iodine tincture in his wound, making him wish he’d taken some of that medicine he’d given her.
“A distress signal went out and I sailed to the specified coordinates. On my way there, I picked up another signal. Someone was piggybacking off my Wi-Fi.”
“You pinged me?”
Ari held her phone to her mouth and kissed it. Kai’s gut twisted. Was it possible to be jealous of a phone?
She suddenly sat erect, her eyes widening. “I need to call Sean,” she said in a panic while tapping her phone. “He’s probably freaking out.”
“You’re right,” Kai agreed. “Call your boyfriend.” Kai had already noticed she wasn’t wearing a ring, and there wasn’t any evidence of a tan line around her finger where a ring would’ve been. “I need to radio the Coast Guard and let them know I’ve found you.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ari said dismissively with a wrinkle of her freckled nose. “He’s a research associate of mine.”
“Research?” No boyfriend. Kai was back in the game. “I’d love to hear about your research after this call, after I get this boat on course, and after you’re dry. You’re still shaking.”
* * *
Ari placed a hand against the dark wood wall of the cabin and slowly removed her sticky pants. The boat made a sharp turn, causing her to hop on one foot across the wooden floor. Her shoulder slammed into the wall—a nice reminder that she had feeling in her limbs. Luckily, it was a small room with walls close together, lessening the impact. Her whole body was waterlogged, slightly swollen, and tired.
It would’ve been easier to sit on the white leather sofa, but she didn’t want to get it wet. Ari smiled at the silliness of her ironic thoughts. The cabin was modern, yet relaxing, with natural wood and cream accents. This room seemed to be the only clean, dry place at sea, and she refused to violate that. Her ethical stance of not spoiling what naturally existed made her a true environmentalist, although none of this was natural. She sat.
She struggled to remove her shirt. It proved more difficult than taking off her pants, even with two free hands. Why was seawater so dang sticky? She was no longer shivering; in fact, she hadn’t been shivering from the cold at all. His touch caused her to have a physical reaction. Ari chalked it up to not having ever really been touched by a guy. Is that how it always felt, like a brain freeze traveling down your body and out your toes?
Ari was a geek. She came from a long line of nerds and they were all fine with it. Changing the world with their minds was what gave them the greatest pleasure. Ari didn’t see her father for a year once while he was working as a nuclear physicist in a top-secret underground compound in Nevada. Had he changed the world? Ari liked to think so. Then there was her mom, the brain surgeon who currently researched neuro-regeneration at Johns Hopkins. Her mission was to formulate a drug to allow the cerebral cortex to self-heal.
Nerds sometimes found each other, like her parents, but that hadn’t been the case for Ari. Over the years, she’d had multiple study buddies and research partners, some of whom had asked her out. But Ari wasn’t interested in the nerdy type. To her social detriment, she also never hung out with the non-nerdy type who she was attracted to. She always had her nose in a textbook, never allowing herself to be rejected. Sean had invited her to a few gatherings, but watching him flirt with the locals wasn’t her idea of a good time. Her hours were better spent completing her research.
Her mind suddenly focused on Sean. She needed to try his phone again. She hadn’t reached him that first time she’d tried to call, shortly after she’d been rescued by the cute sailor. Ari brought her phone out of her bra and dialed his number. Relief washed through her as it picked up after the second ring. “Sean?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for initiating the search for me.”
“Are you kidding? I nearly jumped in after your call. You should’ve heard the boat cheer when they told us you were safe.”
“You’re the best.”
“How did they find you?”
“You are not going to believe this.” She paused. “But a dolphin rescued me, then a sailor found me. He’s bringing me into port on his boat.”
“A dolphin? No way. And a sailor?” Sean’s voice changed from relief to concern. “Ari, don’t trust him.”
“He’s not that kind of sailor.”
“They’re all that kind of sailor. I’m a guy. Trust me.”
“Relax. We’re going to celebrate tonight.”
“You mean … you and me? Not you and the sailor?”
“Yeah,” she responded, unsure why she felt a sudden hesitation.
“You better believe we are,” he said with apparent relief. “I’ll even buy you a special something before the protest.”
Protest. Ari had forgotten about the protest that evening. She and Sean were advocates for the environment. That’s what they did—protest. “See you soon.”
“Don’t let him too close to you.”
“You got it,” she responded, disappointed. While speaking with Sean, she felt an intense desire to rush back on deck to be as close as possible to the sailor. Ari set her phone next to her on the white sofa, then gathered up the blanket to tie it around herself.
Ari clicked her tongue in disappointment at her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the cabin door. It wasn’t flattering. Her red bra and matching board-shorts underwear would have looked great on someone with a full body. Wishing she weren’t so scrawny, she wrapped the microfleece green blanket around her shoulders to conceal all skin. A problem emerged: she didn’t have the use of her arms.
On her second try, Ari brought the blanket up under her right arm, tying it over her left shoulder in the ancient Roman style. The hunky guy on the other side of the cabin door wasn’t just some cute, random man she’d merely stolen a glance at. This guy had saved her life and she wanted to look presentable—never mind the fact that he made her muscles turn to jellyfish and her mind mist like the thick cloud cover over the southern midlatitudes.
Her mind was so misty that she couldn’t remember his name. What did he say his name was? She curled her toes against the caramel glazed wood floor. She didn’t want to ask him his name again. That would be unappreciative and rude. She determined to learn his name in a way that didn’t force her to ask him outright.
Ari held tight to the handrail as she ascended the stairs. She noticed an earthy cedar, almost pine scent as she stepped under the sailor’s arm while he adjusted the sail above her.
Operation Learn His Name started now. She smiled up at him. “You remind me of a squirrel in the fall.”
“I do?” he questioned with a laugh. “How’s that?”
“I had a reading tree growing up.”
He smiled and pointed to a padded bench next to the steering wheel. “A reading tree?”
“My parents understood my need to read, but they also understood my need for vitamin D.” Ari sat Indian-style, pointing herself toward the sunset as she adjusted her toga blanket. “I would take my book of the day and snuggle into the sticky bark of my favorite Douglas fir tree.” She rubbed the soft edges of the blanket between her fingers. “You already know how my dad liked to call me his princess. What did your parents call you?”
“Ocean. But they called all us kids that when they couldn’t remember our names, or if they were in a hurry.” He walked over and grabbed hold of the wheel. “Where did you grow up?”
Ari sighed. She’d have to come up with a better question. “All over, but the reading tree was in Colorado Springs. The squirrels were always busy gathering pinecones high up in the branches, like how you’re working now, and their little paws smelled like fresh pine sap.”
“How do you know their paws smell like pine sap?” He raised his brow. “You really are an enchanted princess, aren’t you? Did the little squirrel help you with your chores as well?”
She laughed. “I spent hours every day against that tree. Haven’t you ever been to a national forest where the squirrels will come right up to people and eat out of their hands? These squirrels would eat out of mine. It’s not magical if you understand them.”
“Like you understand Princess, your pet dolphin?”
“Magical and miraculous. Princess is both to me. You can’t compare sappy paws to a dolphin saving your life.”
“True.” Kai slowly brought his hand to his nose. “That’s it!” he said as if he’d discovered gold. “Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved the sea.”
Ari furrowed her brow. “I don’t follow.”
“I’ve held on to sail masts and boat wheels for as long as I can remember. I always thought that it was our treks into the redwood forests that gave my cousin and I that scent, but it must be the sailing.”
“But your center mast is metal,” Ari noted.
“I designed that.” His lips turned up in a self-congratulatory smile. “It’s so I have Wi-Fi this far out at sea. It’s an extender of sorts.”
“You have your own personal hot spot? Now I’m really impressed. But isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t you afraid of getting hit by lightning?”
“No, because we have been hit,” he said, his eyes playfully dancing as his brow arched.
What was it with guys and playing with fire? It almost appeared as if this guy wanted to get struck by lightning. “What happened?”
“Nothing was damaged. I engineered lightning-grounding sticks and had them mounted where the boat touches the water’s surface. They’re attached to the mast and tied together by heavy wiring, but they’re positioned a good distance from other wiring. I wouldn’t want to compromise the boat’s electronics. When lightning strikes, the boat’s grounded.”
Ari nodded as she mulled over his explanation. “Right, because you’re allowing the electrical current to dissipate at the surface. If you sunk the rods down under the water’s surface, as some ships do, then the current could increase in voltage as it traveled the longer distance, thus giving the boat an even heftier strike—allowing that the current had no direct conduit, having been impeded from reaching the surface of the water through the underwater probe extensions.”
“Hm,” he mumbled as he wound a rope around a protruding metal hook.
There were so many ropes and ties associated with the two sails that Ari was in awe this guy had the ability to sail his vessel alone. She couldn’t make out his facial expressions as he moved away from her, but she continued to watch his tall, fuzzy form as he hopped around the boat, adjusting ropes and examining the sails.
He returned to the cockpit and dusted off his palms before grabbing hold of the wheel. She hadn’t realized she was staring at him until he turned and smiled. She looked away, jerking her head to one side. He tilted his chin, appearing as if it were the first time he’d ever seen a girl, as if he were a young boy sent over on a dare by the other young boys to see what made a girl tick.
“Never met a smart girl before?” Ari questioned, guessing his thoughts. It had been her go-to defensive phrase as teenager.
“I’ve met more intelligent women than men, actually.”
Good answer. “Then why the strange look?”
“You’re … refreshing,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders as he patted her foot with one hand, the other hand adjusting the wheel. Taking apparent interest in her toes, he brushed his fingers down the inside of her foot. “You have perfect toes. You could be a foot model.”
Her body responded with a wave of shivers and goose bumps cascading up from those very same toes. She’d never been told that she resembled a model before. She’d gladly settle for the foot model compliment.
His brow creased. “You’re shaking again.”
“I’m okay,” Ari responded, not wanting to disclose that it was his touch that caused her body to quake.
“I need to hold on to the wheel, since we’re approaching the dock, but if you’d like to stay warm and learn how to steer the boat …” he said, motioning to the space between him and the wheel. “It also has the best view of the sunset.”
Ari’s heart raced as she stood and slowly stepped in front of him, allowing him to lightly press his warm chest into her back as he brought his arms around her, folding his hands over hers as she took a firm grip of the wheel. “Best sunset? But we’re looking away from the sunset.”
“Just wait. When the sun sets over the ocean, the white sand turns orange and red. It’s amazing. The best sunsets are looking at the beach from out at sea.”
She envisioned a lone fisherman returning home from a day of hard labor at sea to an oasis of red and orange. “I get it. Coming home after a day of fishing to the welcoming red sand and the arms of loved ones? That would be something for a fisherman to look forward to.”
He gave a happy grunt. “Coming home to the arms of a loved one? That would be the ideal life of a fisherman. Being in the arms of a loved one while at sea?” He gave her hand an ever so gentle squeeze. “Even better.”
Ari leaned back slightly, allowing her back to melt into his chest. She breathed out her contentment as the skies darkened and the beach came into view. Red, pink, and orange hues twinkled across the beach. The land welcomed them home with an essence of fall leaves. After all, it was mid-November. A tinge of guilt ate at her stomach. Thanksgiving was approaching, and she wouldn’t be home to celebrate with her parents. She suddenly pined for the crunch of fall leaves beneath her feet and the smell of firewood smoking from their neighbor’s chimney.
The warmth of the sailor made up for the homesickness. As he took in a breath, his chest expanded, eliminating all air pockets between them. She matched his respirations, breathing in and out in time with him. Her heart fluttered as his exhale ruffled her hair and warmed the crown of her head.
He rubbed his thumb over hers. “I may need to send you down into the cabin. I don’t like how you’re shivering.”
“I’ll be okay, really. I want to learn how to sail.”
She wasn’t going anywhere unless forced. “Absolutely.” Her insides sizzled with a more intense burn than anything she’d experienced during an extreme but rare core-muscle workout.
“Some sailors prefer directly adjusting a rudder to utilizing a wheel, which has a delayed response. They like the direct contact with the water, but I’ve always preferred the wheel in my hands. What do you think?”
“I’ve never used a rudder to steer anything before, so I can’t say I have a point of reference, but this is enjoyable.”
“Enjoyable? I can do better than that. When we pick up speed, you might even say it’s thrilling.”
“I haven’t experienced many thrilling things in my life, so I’m in.” Ari regretted her words the moment she said them, Sean’s warning ringing in her ears.
He touched his cheek to hers as he spoke into her ear. “Here we go.”
He withdrew his warmth, pulling away to adjust the sail. Within seconds, the sloop gained velocity, causing a sea breeze to tickle Ari’s forehead.
He returned to his position behind her. “You’ll notice that sailing is like driving a car. You turn your wheel less at higher speeds to get the same turn or arc.”
“Good to know,” she said, making micro-adjustments. “Wouldn’t want to end up as shark meat from overcorrecting.”
“Exactly.” He laughed.
As his chest rumbled with laughter, Ari pushed back, snuggling into the warmth of his skin through the thin blanket. The lingering resonance from his laugh shot through her like a stray lightning bolt, a bolt that hadn’t been captured and dissipated by his electrical grounding system.
“But something tells me Princess would protect you from the sharks,” he said, nodding over at the dolphin, who continued to swim at their side.
“Why do you think she saved me? Do you think that she’s a mother and it comes naturally, or that she instinctively knew I was a mammal like her?”
“There are stories recorded back to the time of early Greek civilization where dolphins came to the aid of humans, but I’ve never heard an expert explain why. Why do you think Princess saved you?”
“I think every living creature is inherently kind.”
Ari could feel his muscles tense behind her. “Are you a vegan?” he questioned, tossing vegan out there like it was a swear word.
She bristled. “Wish I could say I was. I’m not that disciplined. I tried once in high school, but my mother sat me down and explained the benefits of B-12, an essential vitamin only found naturally in animals and fish. She told me if I became B-12 deficient to expect dizziness, numbness or the feeling of an electric shock wave pulse through my body, vision issues, pale skin …” Her voice trailed off as an epiphany hit her. Maybe she wasn’t attracted to this sailor at all—maybe she was merely deficient in B-12.
Ari released the wheel and turned to face him. “Do I seem pale to you?”
She sucked in a quick, nervous breath. She was too close to him, so close that she could feel his heartbeat accelerate. She felt the heat rise in her throat and enflame her face. No. It wasn’t a B-12 deficiency. It was him.
“Your face is anything but pale,” he said, releasing a fresh peppermint scent into the air before settling his gorgeous eyes on her burning lips.
Her mind flashed back to middle school, when a mean girl had found a note Ari had written to her best friend about how she had a crush on Maxwell, the cute new black boy who had recently moved to town. To Ari’s absolute mortification, the girl read it aloud to the entire class. Luckily, Ari’s family relocated to Boston later that month, avoiding further humiliation. But right now, she couldn’t relocate to Boston as she pressed her body into a man who caused that body to quake.
“How is it possible that you’re still shivering?” he said, pulling back slightly and running a hand up her trembling arm. And she wouldn’t stop shivering anytime soon, not with his hand playfully tickling her arm.
“I guess you could call me the shiver queen. What should I call you?”
She didn’t get his name, and that didn’t fit the mood. “What?”
“We’ll be pulling up to the dock in a few minutes. I don’t usually enjoy having a sailing buddy, but you’ve turned out to be …” He looked up at the sky, as if searching for the right words. “I’m just sad to see it end. Our lives may never cross again.”
He was disappointed? She had never been more disappointed in her life. He never wanted to see her again? Why the mixed signals? She’d never been known for impetuous behavior, quite the opposite, but his lips were so close to hers.
“Thank you for saving me,” she said, staring into his turquoise eyes as she tilted her chin up, waiting for him to close the gap.
As he lowered his face, Ari’s gaze moved to his lips. She’d never allowed herself to be kissed before, but she’d also never felt this way before. As their lips met, Ari released a nervous breath as his moist lips warmed hers. He gave a tender offering, until Ari demanded more. It was a sensation that she knew she’d missed out on. Her hands found the back of his neck and she pulled him into a deeper kiss, a kiss that felt like their souls were twisting together, like the ocean mist of a tropical cyclone. His hands released the wheel and wrapped around her back, intensifying the moment.
A few minutes later, shouts of excitement carried on the ocean breeze. He pulled back from her and turned to face the shouts, leaving Ari to reluctantly release his neck. The sailboat approached the dock where the transit boat from Nicaragua had docked. Someone was pressed against the boat’s railing, waving his arms. She couldn’t make out his face, but it had to be Sean.
Ari stepped away from the sailor, her arms waving in the air as her toga blanket tugged. The blanket was trapped under the sailor’s feet, causing the tie at her shoulder to instantly loosen and the blanket to ripple to the ground. It took her a few moments to realize that she was waving to the transit boat in her red underwear. Ari tensed as a frenzy of light flashes left the neighboring boat, documenting her mortification. She screamed and did the only thing that came to her frantic mind. She jumped overboard.