Excerpt: Don't Tempt Me

Book 3: The Pearl Island Series

JACKIE TAYLOR HAD LITTLE USE FOR FAIRY TALES and even less for charming prince, which was why it really irritated her when he came striding back into her life. One minute she was straddling a workbench as she repaired a sail for her charter ship, the next she looked up to find Adrian St. Claire filling the doorway of her dockside shed. The bril-liant sun of the Texas coast silhouetted his six-foot-plus frame as he came toward her with cocksure grace.

“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath. Didn’t she have enough problems on her mind without Mr. Gor-geous coming around to scramble her brain cells?

“What’s that?” Tiberius, her first mate, glanced up from his end of the workbench. A wide smile split his face, his teeth a startling white against his mocha-colored skin. “Weeell, Adrian,” he said in his distinctive Caribbean accent. “What you doin’ in Corpus Christi, mon?”

Jackie knew exactly why the man had come, but tried to not let it rattle her. The fact that his trip had nothing to do with her personally helped calm her nerves, even as it deflated the ego.

“It was a nice day for a motorcycle ride,” Adrian said. “So I thought I’d head down the coast from Galveston and see what’s shaking on your stretch of beach.”

As he moved out of the glare of the light, she couldn’t stop her gaze from sliding over his lean body. She might have little use for men who collected female admirers just by walking down the street, but that didn’t keep her from enjoying the view. And he did provide a nice one dressed in a red T-shirt and faded blue jeans that fit his muscles just right. He’d pulled his long black hair into a ponytail, and a small gold hoop earring glinted in the shed’s dim light. As the two men shook hands, she marveled at the contrast between them. Ti, with his shaved head and hard body, reminded her of a massive, steady frigate while Adrian made her think of a clipper, sleek and beautiful and rigged for racing.

Adrian nodded toward the slice of bustling dock visi-ble through the door. “From all the tourists snapping pic-tures of the Pirate’s Pleasure, I trust business is going well.”

“It would if da harbor stop chargin’ a fortune for our slip,” Ti said with good humor, as if her business wasn’t teetering on the brink.

Adrian turned toward her and his smile softened with lazy sensuality. “Jackie. Long time no see.”

For a moment, she lost herself in clear blue eyes sur-rounded by sinfully long black lashes. His features were so flawless, they’d be “pretty” if he weren’t so . . . breath- takingly male. That masculinity stirred up longings best ignored, not just to be touched, but to be cherish and protected. As if she could ever count on a man for that when things got tough.

Irritated, she ran a hand through her hair, uncomfortably aware that she’d cut her hair boyishly short since the last time she’d seen him. “I gave your family my answer on the phone. And the answer was no.”

His brows shot up. “Well, now, that’s cut-ting right to the chase, isn’t it?”

Ti flashed her a questioning look, since she hadn’t confided in him about the St. Claires’ request.

“I find a direct approach saves time.” Securing the large needle in the canvas, she thrust the sail aside and rose. “Now, unless there’s something else you want”–besides my great-grandfather’s letter–“I’ll let you be on your way.”

His gaze moved over her face with such intensity, her stomach fluttered. “What if the ‘something else’ I wanted was to take you to dinner?’

“Right.” She snorted, squelching the instant leap in her pulse. Conscious of her first mate hanging on every word, she crossed to a water cooler by the door. Beyond the shadows of the shed, tourists wan-dered the pier, buying fresh shrimp off the boats. Their voices mingled with the rhythmic rush of waves underfoot and the incessant cries of seagulls. Unseasonable heat for early November hung heavy in the air, and the denim shirt she’d tied at the waist over a sports bra and shorts felt heavy against her skin.

After filling a paper cup with chilled water, she glanced at Adrian as he came up behind her. Her nerves tingled alarmingly with awareness, a reaction that irritated her. “I have no desire to waste an evening listening to you try to talk me out of something I have no intention of giving you.”

He said nothing at first, but she could feel him watching her. “I think the question here is, what am I prepared to give you?”

She turned and found him leaning against a worktable, his scuffed motorcycle boots crossed at the ankle. “Oh?”

He wiggled his brows playfully. “I’m here to make you a proposition.”

Her heart pounded even as she forced a laugh. “Don’t even try to sweet-talk me. We both know I’m not your type.”

His infectious chuckle teased her senses. “And what would ‘my type’ be?”

“Tall blond beach bunnies with Barbie doll figures,” she tossed back.

“That’s just packaging. But if it comes with a personality and some brains, absolutely.”

The man was impossible to rile. Something she should have remembered from dealing with him a year ago. He and his two sisters had hired her ship, a two-hundred-year-old Baltimore schooner, as part of the entertainment for the annual Buccaneer’s Ball. The event had been held at the Pearl Island Inn, a bed-and-breakfast owned by Adrian and his sisters, located on its own pri-vate island near Galveston. During the few days the Pirate’s Pleasure had been anchored in their cove, Adrian had flirted with her shamelessly. Not that she took any of it seriously. Like all charming men, he simply enjoyed flirting.

“Now, about dinner . . .” he said.

“In case you misunderstood, that was a no.” She downed the cold water and crumpled the paper cup.

“I was thinking somewhere quiet–“

“I’m not going out with you.”

“–where we can discuss what my sisters and I are willing to offer in exchange for your help.”

“No.”

“Or . . . I can proposition you right here.” He leaned closer and she caught a whiff of him. Oh, God, he even smelled good: like soap and sunshine and a fresh sea breeze. His gaze dropped to her mouth, then lifted back to her eyes. “I think we’d both be more comfort-able talking over seafood and a nice bottle of wine.”

She shook her head, amused despite herself. “Do you ever take no for an answer?”

“Honestly?” He cocked a brow. “I’m not sure. It’s not a word I hear too often.”

“I just bet you don’t.” She entertained the idea of hefting him over her shoulder, walking out onto the pier, and tossing him into Corpus Christi Bay. Considering his size, she didn’t think she’d get too far with that plan. “Okay, what the heck. I’ll have dinner with you as long as you pick up the tad.”

“Of course.” He looked comically offended.

“Fine, then. It’s your money and your time to waste.”

“Great.” His eyes lit. “How about the Wharf? Early enough to enjoy the sunset. Unless you’d rather go somewhere else.”

“No, the Wharf is fine.” Perfect, in fact, since it was right at the end of her pier. She’d be close enough to home to ditch him if he became too annoying.

“I’ll pick you up around six, then,” he said. “I assume you still live on board your ship.”

“I do.”

“Then I’ll see you this evening.” With a wave to her first mate, he strode past her, back into the sunshine. She watched as he wound his way past tourists and fishermen to the black Harley he’d left parked at the end of the pier. He donned a black leather jacket but left it unzipped in deference to the warm weather. With a move that made her pulse hum, he swung a leg over the seat, kicked the engine to life, and had it roaring with a few twists of his wrist. Then he zoomed off down the busy four-lane road that skirted the beach.

She couldn’t help but shake her head in amusement. He was persistent, she’d give him that. And more gorgeous than any man had a right to be. The gene fairies must have been in a wicked mood the day they made Adrian St Claire or they never would have unleashed all that sex appeal on womankind.

“Care to tell me what dat about?” Ti asked from the workbench.

She glanced at him. “Adrian and his sisters have been bitten by the treasure-hunting bug.”

“Ah…” Ti stretched the word out. “De allure of Lafitte’s missing treasure. I guess we lucky you not cursed with more requests to help find it, since it supposedly go down with your great-great-granddaddy’s ship.”

“Well, at least this is a new spin on an old tale.” She crossed back to the bench and swung a leg to straddle it. Taking up her needle, she resumed mending the sail. “The St. Claires want to go after the real ‘treasure’ rather than chase some fool’s dream of sunken chests of gold.”

“Dat hardly a fool’s dream.” H swept the air dramatically with his big, callused hand. “Many riches litter da sea floor. Spanish doubloons, precious jewels, and artifacts worth a king’s ransom. Or do you forget da thrill of findin’ lost booty?”

She sent him a warning glare. “Are you forgetting the pact we made? No more treasure-hunting. Ever.”

“Just rememberin’ past glory.” His dark eyes twinkled. “And a little girl who love to dive for old coins and gold rings.”

Bittersweet memories stirred at his words. How exciting the world had seemed back then, with one adventure after another. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”

“No. But when it come to findin’ lost treasure, you bet-ter dan your father–and people say he was da best.”

“For all the good it did us, since he always spent every dime we made on those dives going after bigger prizes.” She stabbed the needle through the canvas. “I’m through chasing legends and dreams.”

“Chasing legends, yes. But it never hurt to dream.”

“Reality works just fine for me.”

“If you say so.” He resumed sewing, but under his breath, he started singing an old sailing ditty about the treasures of the deep blue sea.

Jackie rolled her eyes, but joined him on the chorus, the song building in volume as their needles kept time to the music.

~

At six that evening, Adrian rang the old-fashioned bell mounted on a wooden sign with the name of Jackie’s ship emblazoned in gold script. He assumed the bell was the appropriate way to announce his presence since a tall, chain-link gate prevented people from walk-ing up the gangway.

As the clanging sound faded, he let his gaze glide over the wooden vessel. Even at rest, the Baltimore schooner whispered of adventure on the high seas with her three masts rising toward the sky. A beautifully detailed mermaid arched beneath the jib boom while red and gold railing trimmed the forecastle and quarterdeck.

Jackie appeared on the main deck, bringing his body to attention. Something about the woman, her spunky eyes and stubborn chin, stirred him up every time he saw her. Too bad the proposal he’d come to make was strictly business. If she accepted, she’d be a partner of sorts and off-limits for the kind of things he’d like to propose.

She stopped at the top of the gangway and glanced at her black diving watch. …..”You’re punctual.”

“And you’re ready.” He smiled.

“You sound surprised.”

“I have two sisters. I’m astounded.”

She came down the ramp wearing a yellow chambray shirt and khaki trousers. The soft, buttery color brought out the gold tones of her tanned skin and hazel eyes. He studied her hair as she came through the gate and turned to lock it. A year ago, her hair had hung in a thick, mahogany-colored braid down her back. Since then, she’d cut it short–very short–except for a few wispy fringes around the face and nape.

“Nice hair,” he said.

Reaching up in a self-conscious gesture, she finger- combed the fringes by her ear. “Yeah, well, this is what you get when you tell some scissor-happy hairdresser you’re sick of messing with long hair. Whack! All gone.”

“I meant I like it.” He cocked his head. “It sets off your eyes.” And the rest of her exotic features. The word “subtle” would never describe Jackie Taylor, with her thick black brows over cat’s eyes, slender nose, high cheekbones, a square jaw, and a lush mouth he’d fantasized about for months. “You hungry?” he asked.

“Ravenous.”

“Me, too. Always.” He added the last in a playfully seductive tone, hoping for one of those saucy comebacks that cracked him up. Most men would probably call him crazy, but he liked the way she verbally sparred with him rather than fell at his feet, sighing in surrender. He’d never had a woman turn him down before. The experience was . . . intriguing. And liberating. It gave him the freedom to flirt as outrageously as he wanted without the fear of setting off wedding bells in some hopeful woman’s head.

“So,” she said as they started toward the restaurant at the end of the pier, “is that why you became a cook? Your appetite?”

“Chef,” he corrected. “But yeah, my appetite may have had something to do with it. The aunt who raised us worked nights, so if we were going to eat something besides TV dinners, we had to fix it ourselves.”

“Was she a waitress or something?”

“Not hardly.” He grinned, trying not to laugh at the image of his aunt waiting on anyone. “Actor. The Incomparable Vivian. She’s been a star on Broadway for the past several years, but back then she limited her work to Houston–a sacrifice she made for us. In return, I helped take care of my elderly grandmother and two younger sisters by learn-ing my way around the kitchen. And since I’ve always enjoyed indulging my senses, I figured if I was going to cook, I might as well go ‘all the way.'” He put enough sexual connotation in the words to make that stubborn chin of hers go up. “What about you?”

“When I’m hungry, I usually grab whatever’s cheap and easy.”

“Cheap and easy? Mmm . . . I could be talked into that.”

She stopped and faced him with the surf at her back and the wind playing in her short hair. “You know, as much as I’m enjoying this little double-entendre thing you have going here, let’s get one thing straight. We are not on a date. We are going to dinner so I can get it through your head that I’m not going to help you.”

“I thought we were going to dinner so I could proposition you.”

She turned to stomp back to her ship but he slipped a hand around her elbow, stopping her.

“Sorry, you’re right.” He tried for a sheepish look.

“Since this really is a business dinner, I’ll try to behave myself.”

She studied him a moment before nodding. “All right.”

“Although if it weren’t a business dinner, I’d be com-pelled to ask . . . has anyone ever told you, you have a great mouth?”

Her head snapped back in surprise. “A smart mouth, you mean.”

“No, I was being quite literal.”

“Come off it.” She laughed and blushed. Imagine that. Jackie Taylor could blush. …..”My mouth isn’t anything but big.”

Adrian stepped closer, just enough to invade her space. “Your mouth is a work of art. I can’t imagine any man alive who could look at your lips and not want to taste them.”

She glared up at him, but the color in her cheeks spoke more of pleasure than anger. “You call this behaving?”

“Behaving is a new concept for me. It may take me a while to get it right. You’ll have to be patient.” He tugged gently on her arm and smiled when she fell in step beside him. “Let’s see, what were we discussing? Ah yes, I remember. Food.” He glanced at her sideways. “My second favorite subject in life.”

Jackie rolled her eyes but didn’t take the bait. He was a man, so she knew his first favorite subject without even asking.

When they reached the restaurant, Adrian held the door and she stepped inside, where fishing nets and life preservers hung on weathered wood paneling.

An impossibly perky hostess glanced up from the bamboo podium. “Hi,” she greeted them cheerfully until she saw Adrian. Then her mouth actually fell open.

“Two for dinner,” Adrian said, seeming unaware that the girl was about to drool on his boots. Not that Jackie blamed her. The man looked particularly drool-worthy in a pale blue shirt open at the collar, unbuttoned gray vest, and dark blue trousers.

“Two. Yes, of course.” Perky Girl grabbed menus. “If you’ll just . . . follow me.”

Jackie trailed behind as the hostess led the way. A few locals had gathered around the bar in the middle of the room, swapping fish stories, but the tables and booths were empty.

“I guess you get your pick of tables.” The hostess smiled up at Adrian.

“How about the one in the comer with the killer view?”

“Oh, good choice.” Perky Girl sighed in admiration as if he’d just announced the cure for cancer. As they took their seats, she handed them each a menu. “Sandy will be your server this evening, but can I get you anything while you’re waiting? Water? Wine?”

My body, Jackie added silently, reading the invitation in the girl’s eyes.

“Water would be nice. Thank you.” Adrian smiled and the girl nearly melted before hurrying off.

Jackie turned to him. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.” He opened his menu.

“Do you do that intentionally, or does it just come naturally? You know, like breathing?”

“Do what?” He frowned.

She resisted the temptation to whack him over the head. “Send women into a swoon.”

He looked confused for a second, then amusement registered, crinkling the corners of his eyes and carving long dimples to either side of his mouth. “Jealous?” he asked.

“In your dreams.” She snapped open her own menu. Any woman fool enough to fall for a man like Adrian deserved to have her heart broken. Unless that woman liked to share–which Jackie didn’t.

Their server, Sandy, arrived–a no-nonsense woman who refrained from ogling, thank goodness–and they placed their order.

“Okay.” Jackie folded her hands on the table. “Down to business.”

“Naw-uh. Our food hasn’t even come. First we eat, visit, watch the sunset, then we’ll talk about the offer.”

“Well, if you’re planning to offer me part of the sal-vage rights, save your breath. I’m not stupid. Texas doesn’t grant salvage rights, so the minute you and your sisters brought the Texas Historical Commission into this, you lost everything that was on that ship. If you wanted to go after Lafitte’s treasure, you should have just done it”

“Are you kidding?” A scowl lined his face. “First of all, that would be illegal, and second, the bulk of the ship-wreck is buried under mud from the nineteen hundred hurricane. Do you know how much excavating it will cost?”

“I have a pretty good idea, which is what confuses me. Why is everyone suddenly so hot to go after a worth-less artifact? I explained to the writer guy–“

“Scott Lawrence.” Adrian supplied the name of the famous suspense novelist who had called her a few months ago claiming to be researching a new book.

“Yes, him. I explained that the so-called treasure is nothing but a powder horn. It’s not gold. It’s not some valuable jewel. It’s a stupid powder horn my ancestors jokingly referred to as ‘Lafitte’s treasure.’ So, what’s the big deal?”

“Ah, and here’s our first course.” Adrian smiled as the server brought an appetizer of shrimp cocktail and a bottle of wine. Jackie drummed her fingers as he went through the ritual of tasting. When the woman was gone, he turned back to her. “So, how do you like running a charter ship?”

She narrowed her eyes, wondering when he planned to answer her question. Of course, since Lafitte’s treasure was her least favorite subject, she shrugged it off. “The work is never-ending, tourists can occasionally be a pain in the butt, and I barely make enough to cover my expenses.”

“You hate it that much, eh?” He grinned knowingly, as if he could see through to the truth: that her ship meant the world to her, and she’d fight tooth and nail to keep her business going, a battle she was currently losing.

“How about you?” She dipped a chilled shrimp in cocktail sauce. “Do you like running a B and B?”

“Most of the time.” He popped a sauce-drenched shrimp into his mouth and wrinkled his nose. “Too bland. Mind if I doctor this up a bit?” At her nod, he rummaged through the condiments on the table. “I could do without getting up before dawn to start breakfast every day of the week, but it beats the heck out of filling orders off a menu in someone else’s kitchen.” He tried another shrimp. “Mmm, better. Try it now.” He dredged a shrimp through the sauce and held it to her mouth.

She pulled back with a wary frown.

“Come on . . .” he coaxed.

She hesitated, then opened her mouth and took the shrimp. His fingertips brushed her lips, sending a shot of tingling heat through her, followed by the spicy chill of the sauce.

“Delicious, huh?”

She nodded, trying to focus on food, not thoughts of what Adrian might taste like. “So, who’s cooking while you’re gone?”

“My sisters, Rory and Alli. They aren’t exactly slouches in the kitchen, even if they’re no match for me.

“You should get that ego checked.” She waved a shrimp at him. “I think it may be growing.”

“No, it’s always been this big.”

She laughed, thinking his charm would be so much easier to resist if he took himself more seriously. He clearly didn’t, though, and his easy manner lulled her as effectively as the wine over the next half hour. Their conversa-tion flowed between bites of blackened redfish and creamy pasta. By the time they’d finished dinner, other patrons were scattered about the restaurant. Candles had been lit, lending a touch of romance to the rustic decor. Outside, dark had fallen so that only the white crests of the waves shone in the lights from the pier.

Jackie relaxed back in her chair as the server cleared away their plates and asked if they wanted dessert. When Jackie said no, Adrian ordered something for himself and two cappuccinos. Taking up his wine glass, he leaned back as well and turned slightly toward her. The move created an odd sense of intimacy, as if they were lounging side by side somewhere private, rather than sitting at a table in a semicrowded restaurant.

He studied the wine in his glass. “How much do you actually know about the powder horn?”

The question jolted her. During dinner, she’d almost forgotten why he’d taken her out and what he wanted from her.

“Now, don’t get all stiff on me,” he said in a lazy drawl. “I just want to know if you’re aware of the whole story.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “I know the powder horn once belonged to Jean Lafitte. He gave it to my ancestor, Jack Kingsley’s grandfather, before sailing for South America. Several of the pirates who had fol-lowed Lafitte from New Orleans to Galveston decided to stay in Texas and start a new life. Jack’s grandfather was one of them. In an impromptu ceremony, Lafitte pre-sented the powder horn to Reginald Kingsley as a memento of their adventures together. Since Lafitte liked to refer to the horn as his ‘most treasured possession,’ my family called it ‘Lafitte’s treasure’ as a joke. Unfortu-nately, the joke has gotten out of hand over the years.”

“Do you know why Lafitte called it that?”

“No. I only know that every treasure hunter out there thinks there’s a chest of gold somewhere, and that–as a Kingsley descendant–I should know where it is. Only, there is no chest of gold. It doesn’t exist.”

“What if”–Adrian looked directly into her eyes–“I told you the powder horn was worth more than gold?”