“Are you getting in the water, Dr. Mann?”
Grace smiled at the platinum blonde woman and her thick Australian accent. “Not yet.”
Maria, the resident cook on the Aquarius—a 120-foot liveaboard—leaned beside Grace and rested her tanned arms upon the railing of the upper deck. They both watched the scene unfolding below on the aft platform.
“That Mr. Galloway is a looker.”
Grace raised an eyebrow but kept it hidden from the girl by turning her face away. Of all the people on this five-day expedition to film a television commercial, Maria had seemed the friendliest and most approachable. But if the girl were sniffing around Alec, then Grace would have to cease friendly relations.
Grace’s gaze landed on the man in question, and her pulse kicked up a notch.
He is a looker.
Surely the girl knew that Grace and Alec were together. Didn’t she?
She and Alec didn’t flaunt their relationship, but he was her boyfriend. She suppressed the urge to say it aloud, annoyed by the sudden burst of insecurity. It didn’t help that since Grace had met up with Alec in Port Lincoln two days ago, he’d been distant. His diving partner, Dan Donovan—otherwise known as Double D—and Stephie Kim, Galloway Films’ underwater photographer, had kept Grace company during dinner while Alec had been oddly quiet. Even their lovemaking that night had felt reserved despite reuniting after a three-week separation.
Maybe unbeknownst to her, he was the strong silent type, and the easy demeanor he’d displayed in Mexico last fall during their expedition to Guadalupe Island had been out-of-the-ordinary.
He’s just stressed about the job. That had to be it.
Grace tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear, then adjusted the sun visor on her forehead, attempting to chase away her relationship worries.
It didn’t help that Alec’s California surf-boy looks invariably drew the opposite sex to him; it had certainly snagged Grace’s attention when she had first met him last August. Then later, during the expedition, she’d been forced into close quarters with him while he filmed a documentary of her freediving with great whites, and she’d eventually thrown her professional rules on fraternizing with coworkers aside.
She’d been head-over-heels ever since.
“You’re more qualified than those actors.” Maria nodded to where Alec and Double D were trying to bring Jasper and Nora up to speed on getting in the water with great white sharks. It was the first day of filming, and Alec wanted to get the actors in the ocean for a test run since the weather was sunny and clear.
“This isn’t my shoot,” Grace said. “I’m just here as Mr. Galloway’s girlfriend.” So much for holding her tongue. A lifetime of studying and swimming with sharks had taught Grace to police her boundaries with a keen eye.
Maria released a slight gasp of surprise, her cheeks turning a slight shade of pink. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you two were bumping uglies.”
Now it was Grace’s turn to blush as she stared at Maria, and then she laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.”
Maria appeared to relax, and the tension in the air dissipated.
Truthfully, Grace was happy to have her relationship with Alec out in the open. On the last expedition, Alec had had a groupie—a young grad student named Mackenzie—who had followed him around with lust and interest in her eyes. And Grace had been unable to deter the girl, because she’d wanted to keep her budding relationship with Alec under wraps. It was a relief when Alec finally let it slip to everyone, including Grace’s ex, Brad.
Mackenzie had backed off. Brad, on the other hand, had been ready to fight it out, not for Grace’s honor, but because he knew his career would be knocked off-track if he couldn’t keep Grace under his thumb.
But, as frequently happens in life and work, Mackenzie and Brad moved on.
Grace gripped the railing.
Was the spark between her and Alec already starting to wane? Even she and Brad hadn’t fizzled out so quickly.
She chewed her lip, worry pinching her forehead. She and Alec spent too much time apart. Perhaps indifference was inevitable.
“I saw the documentary about you,” Maria said. “They should have hired you for this commercial.”
“That’s nice of you to say, but after Alec and his team are done here, I’m headed to Perth for my own work. I’m just trying to stay out of the way.” And warm Alec’s bunk at night.
Hah. So much for being a progressive woman. But she didn’t care. Time with Alec was to be savored whenever the two of them could match their schedules.
Grace’s best friend, Missy, octopus researcher and fun-loving party girl, would tell her to embrace it. Don’t give up your career, Gracie, but when you can, wow the shit out of Alec in bed.
She and Alec had shared smoldering chemistry between the sheets from the start, but had the wow factor left them? Clearly, she needed to up her game in that arena if she was to keep the attention of the man who had made her believe in happily-ever-after again.
“What’s in Perth?” Maria asked.
“My grad student, Tony, and I will be setting up a beach test of my Shark Sonar Array.”
“I remember that from the film. It tracks sharks in a grid area and sends alerts to people who want to get in the water, right?”
Grace nodded. “That’s the idea, although for now the data will feed to the local lifeguard station. Eventually, we hope to have an app that can be downloaded to cell phones, making it quick and easy for beachgoers to know if there are sharks off the coast that they need to be aware of.”
Perth would be the first real-world testing of the design she had been developing for the last two years. The most difficult part had been the neural network, a deep learning code that she’d worked her ass off writing. And it was finally functional. While marine biology was her passion, she had earned her Ph.D. in computer science specifically to implement this project that had begun with her dad—famed white shark researcher Dr. Eddie Mann—when Grace was just a girl. She hoped he would be proud from his perch somewhere in Heaven.
Down below, the deckhands—a young man named Charlie, and Alice, a tough-looking female—were getting the diving cage into the water. Alec, his gray t-shirt straining across his shoulders, was crouched near Nora trying to explain something about the breathing apparatus she would be using. Grace had kept her distance, not wanting to hover, but all Alec had to do was ask and she’d help. From the blank look on Jasper’s face, Grace guessed neither he nor Nora had much, if any, diving experience.
Alec had his work cut out for him.
Other people milled around below, creating a chaotic scene, nervous energy permeating the atmosphere. Grace couldn’t remember everyone’s names, but they were all attached to the media company contracted to produce the television and Internet spot for a ritzy resort based out of Sydney.
And then there was Dr. Henri Bernard. To obtain the permit to film, the Australian government had stipulated that the expedition needed a resident marine biologist. Grace wasn’t sure where the Frenchman had come from, because he seemed to possess little knowledge about the best locations in which to find sharks.
It was the captain who had suggested they try this spot first, in the North Neptune Islands.
At the sound of Alec’s voice, she snapped her gaze to him.
“Can you give me a hand?” he asked, his tone edged with the barest hint of frustration.
She nodded and pushed away from the railing. In the time she’d known him, he had always been calm under pressure. Something was up.
She took the stairs quickly, her water sandals gripping the steps, then dodged around human obstacles as she made her way toward the back of the boat and came to a stop beside him.
“Nora, this is Grace Mann,” Alec said, his voice clipped.
Nora sat on the boat deck, so Grace leaned forward to shake the woman’s hand. The actress’s face bulged slightly from the tight fit of the wetsuit covering her from head to toe, her skin devoid of color.
“Nora’s a little nervous about diving with great whites.”
Grace crouched down. “Have you been in the water with any sharks?”
Grace gave a reassuring smile. “They don’t want to hurt you. Just keep your eye on them. You’ll be inside the cage, so you’ll be perfectly safe.”
No reason to mention the time Grace had been trapped in a diving cage with a great white at Guadalupe Island. Thankfully the shark, Felix, had lived. And thanks to Alec and Double D, Grace had survived as well. That incident had been a close call for her. She ran her fingertips across the bumpy scar on the back of her neck, courtesy of Felix’s caudal tail that had caught her just as Alec had pulled her free.
Alec cleared his throat. “George wants her and Jasper to get out of the cage.”
“Ah, I see.” Grace paused and then murmured under her breath, “Do you have the permits for this?”
“They’re working on it.” Alec raked a hand through his short hair, the light brown locks standing up straight from the perspiration on his forehead, as if he’d gelled it. Because he was so safety-conscious, Grace supposed the idea of putting an inexperienced diver into a potentially dangerous situation was surely triggering multiple red flags for him.
Still, Grace suppressed a frown. She was unfamiliar with this moody version of Alec.
She took a deep breath, trying to decide what to say. It was, in Grace’s experience, very safe to be outside a cage with great whites. But few people shared her enthusiasm about being in the water with these toothy predators.
“What if one tries to eat me?” Nora asked, her voice low and shaky.
“They won’t.” Grace let her love of the fish shine through every pore on her face to help encourage the woman. “Stand your ground and keep eye contact. If they know you’re watching, they’ll just cruise on by. If you’re lucky, one will be close enough to touch.”
“What?” Nora exclaimed. “Am I supposed to touch one? Was that in my contract?”
“No, no,” Alec cut in, throwing an annoyed glance at Grace.
Grace widened her eyes, silently apologizing.
“You don’t have to touch a shark, Nora,” Alec continued, his posture rigid. He’d spent the better part of the last two hours with her, and obviously his efforts to calm the woman’s nerves had been met with little success.
“What if I get in the water with you?” Grace asked Nora, throwing a questioning look at Alec.
His shoulders dropped. “Yeah, that might help.”
Nora’s gaze flicked from Alec to Grace. “He says you’re an expert with great white sharks. Will you protect me from them?”
Grace was about to tell the media honcho in charge—what was his name? George?—that Nora shouldn’t get in the water. The woman was clearly distressed. But just as she was about to open her mouth, Alec spoke again.
“Just get in the water with Grace, and do what she does.”
Nora didn’t immediately answer. Finally, she said, “Okay,” but hardly appeared enthusiastic.
Alec stood and grabbed Grace’s hand, pulling her to her feet. As they stepped away from Nora, he bent toward her. “I hope like hell that nothing happens down there.”
Grace winced from his brusque tone. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Then what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” But his dark gaze said otherwise.
Grace was speechless, unsure whether to soothe Alec or call him out on his behavior.
He exhaled, releasing some of his rigidity. “I’m sorry. George is breathing down my neck, and I fear this thing is going south, fast.”
Grace gave a nod. “I’ll help in any way I can, but you can’t get out of the cages without permission.”
“Then just do a cage dive for now. I only spent five minutes with her, but I don’t think this is gonna work.”
Alec wouldn’t look at her. She brought her hand to his cheek and said quietly, “Something else is wrong. What is it?”
His blue-green eyes met hers. “Nothing.” He forced a half-smile onto his lips.
She resisted the urge to badger him further. Instead, she changed the subject. “Does Nora have any diving experience?”
“Yes, or else I wouldn’t let her in the water at all.”
“Maybe you should scrap the whole thing.”
A shadow crossed Alec’s face. “It’s not my call. But there are only male great whites in residence right now, so that’s at least something. They’re smaller.” The females would arrive in May when newly-born seal pups started venturing into the ocean.
Grace raised an eyebrow. “You know an alpha female would keep all the other sharks in line.”
Alec ran an impatient hand through his hair. “Don’t remind me about Felix.”
The impetuous male white shark at Guadalupe Island had been nothing but trouble for Grace, putting her life in danger not once but twice.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll get in the water and assess the behavior of any sharks that happen to show up. If there’s a problem, I’ll alert you.”
He gave her a quick kiss, but it was an impersonal peck, like one given to an acquaintance, lacking the connection that had flowed so effortlessly between them.
“Thanks,” he said. “I owe you one.”
“Damned right you do,” she responded quickly, trying to reel him back to her with a hand on his arm. She wanted another kiss, one filled with heat and lust and longing. She hungered for Alec. It was a thing unto itself, one she wasn’t sure she could control even if she wanted to.
Nerves shook her.
Because beneath that carnal desire was something even more treacherous—she wanted to know him.
He didn’t fall for her signals. “I’ll pay up later,” he said.
Her heart swelled when a wisp of a smile tugged his sexy lips and amusement twinkled in his eyes. Then he turned back to Nora, who was listening to something Double D was telling her. Donovan’s wetsuit covered his bottom half, revealing a hairy upper torso which made him look like a caveman who’d suddenly decided to go into the ocean. He was more mountain man than underwater filmmaker.
Grace headed to her cabin to grab her own wetsuit, her thoughts circling the situation with Alec.
How would he feel about a heart-to-heart talk? Not a what’s-your-favorite-food and what’s-it-like-to-surf chat—they’d done that. They had plenty of pillow talk under their belts.
She wanted something deeper, more authentic. Something real.
Her stomach coiled like a cornered snake. Was it too soon to push their relationship in that direction? Would she just push him right out of her life?
Her father’s words sprang to life. Take the leap. You’ll never regret it.
Grace wasn’t so sure about that.
Copyright © 2018 K. McCaffrey LLC