Hope pulled her dark hair into a low twist as she walked along the rickety planks toward Second Chance Marina. April in Florida wasn’t scorching, but summer was on its way and Key West heated up quicker than the rest of the state. She tripped on one of the boards still not fixed since the last hurricane and reeled in a curse.
Ever since her strange late night call a couple weeks ago, she’d been jumping at her own shadow. She absolutely hated that. Thankfully the more time that passed, the easier it was to distance herself from the call. Almost pretend it hadn’t happened.
“Hey baby girl, the usual?” A familiar male voice called to her before she’d even made it to the thatch-roofed tiki bar that hung off the side of the main restaurant. Mac Jennings, the man who’d raised her since she was fifteen popped his head up from behind the main bar of the one-story structure. His sandy blond hair was just beginning to show signs of gray.
“Of course.” She took a seat on one of the many empty high top stools and resisted the urge to lay her head down. Instead, she started making a pyramid out of the bar straws and matchbooks.
“Your burger should be ready in ten minutes.”
“Don’t forget extra pickles.” She grinned and took a sip of the bottled water he placed in front of her.
“Long dive this morning?”
“Yeah, got some great pictures though.” Her work as an underwater photographer was grueling, but she was already making a name for herself. Her portfolio had a long way to go, but her hard work was paying off and she wasn’t even thirty.
“So what are you doing back so early?”
“I’m meeting some guy about doing contract work. My agent set it up. Some rich people down in Cuba want me to photograph their ancestral home or something. It’s not underwater work, but this guy’s wife apparently loves my prints.”
“I’m so proud of you.” He grinned and she fought the heat creeping up her neck and face. Mac had been an amazing surrogate father, teaching her how to survive, but he didn’t give out compliments often. When he did, she was never sure how to react.
When she didn’t respond he cleared his throat and glanced at his watch. “Food should be ready. But I think your ‘rich guy’ just arrived.” Mac nodded to the other side of the bar as a man took a seat at one of the high top tables facing the open water.
It was only ten o’clock in the morning so the bar was empty. Chances were in her favor that this was the man she was waiting for. Even seated, he looked to be about six feet tall. His dark blue polo shirt stretched across broad shoulders. From her side view, his angular jaw looked like it had been chiseled from stone. The man had a perfect face for the camera.
She smiled when he looked up, finally noticing her. “Hi, I’m—”
“Maria? What are you doing here? I thought you were in California.” His deep voice echoed loudly in the empty restaurant.
She turned around once to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. When their gazes collided again, she lifted an eyebrow. “I’m Hope. Are you the man I’m supposed to meet? Lucas Romanov?”
When he simply stared, she decided he wasn’t there to meet her after all. Pity, she thought. She’d love to snap some shots of him.
“Sorry to bother you,” she murmured as she turned to head back to the bar.
“Wait.” He reached out and clasped her upper arm. His fingers tightened for a brief instant before he pulled back.
She turned back to face him, her entire body tense, ready to strike out at him if necessary. Not that it mattered. Mac was within screaming distance and even though he was in his late fifties, the former Navy SEAL could hold his own against anyone.
The stranger stepped back immediately and lifted his hands in an apologetic gesture, but still stared at her with his dark, strangely haunting eyes.
“Sorry, I…you just remind me of someone. I am the man you’re waiting for, but you can call me Luke. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Do you have any identification?” She crossed her arms over her chest, gauging his expression. She didn’t care for weirdos who thought it was okay to touch people they’d just met. “As in a driver’s license?”
He whipped out his wallet and shoved it at her, obviously trying to appease her. After looking at it, she handed it back to him. “Are you hungry or thirsty?”
He expelled a long breath. “I could go for a beer.”
“Have a seat and I’ll grab you one. Corona okay?” When he nodded, she returned to the bar. Normally she wasn’t so bossy, but his reaction to meeting her had been weird. Not creepy, just a little strange. She had a very strong creep-meter and her alarm bells weren’t going off.
“That him?” Mac asked as he placed a plate in front of her.
She nodded. “I didn’t think he’d be early. And I’m not going to have time to eat. Save it for me?”
When he shook his head and chuckled, she reached over the bar and grabbed two beers from the well. It was a little early, but what the heck, it was Saturday.
Seconds later she slid onto the seat across from Lucas Romanov and handed him his drink.
“You don’t happen to know anyone named Maria, do you?” he asked.
She shook her head, even though the name triggered something vaguely familiar. She’d met a couple Maria’s before, but she didn’t actually know any. “Nope.”
He expelled a long breath and laughed under his breath. “I swear you could pass for her twin sis…” He cocked his head to the side and his eyes darkened again.
Despite her best effort, she swallowed under his intense scrutiny. There was something about those charcoal eyes that made her think of sex and sin.