Chatham Islands, New Zealand
Jen Fairfield scanned her gear one last time. Twelve sonic transmitters. Check. Twelve barbed tags to attach the transmitters. Check. Collapsible tagging pole, hydrophone, antenna, laptop, backup battery, and a backup external hard drive. Triple check.
She fiddled with her long ponytail as her mind calculated what else she needed.
She had almost forgotten her snacks. She didn’t do well when she was hangry.
She grabbed several granola bars and a baggie filled with almonds and walnuts, then added two chocolate bars. If she became bored or stressed while at sea all day, she’d need a pick-me-up for her flagging blood sugar.
A knock at her motel door revealed Sam and Barry, her grad students.
“Are you ready?” Sam asked, her green eyes alight with anticipation, infectious smile as charming as her freckled nose and auburn hair. Samantha Harraway loved great white sharks almost as much as Jen’s friend, Grace Mann, fellow shark researcher and co-worker. But in truth, no one was more devoted to whites than Gracie, who free-dived with the beasts.
“Yes, I think so,” she replied, pulling on a rain jacket over her fleece pullover.
Jen was happy enough to stick to her cage dives, but she suspected she might have to transfer Sam over to Grace at the California Marine Institute before too long. Jen’s approach to studying sharks had always been more pragmatic than passionate; when it came to marine biology specializations, sharks appealed to her stubborn and competitive nature. Shark biologist positions were hard to get, and Jen took great pride in her accomplishments and the fact that it gave her an edge with her three older brothers.
And not only that, there was something infinitely satisfying about studying sharks. They were mysterious creatures with reputations that preceded them. Not unlike Gabe O’Grady.
Thinking about him made her heartbeat pause and then jump back into rhythm with a forceful thud, which caused her to scowl. It’s been almost two months since the embarrassing voicemail incident, for God’s sake. Move on.
“Barry, can you grab the bag of gear?” she asked.
“Only if you stop making that face at me.”
“Sorry.” Jen softened her gaze, regretting that she’d let her emotions show. She was usually pretty good at keeping her feelings under wraps, a useful skill while on a boat with a bunch of males. Her brothers had trained her well. So it was all the more baffling as to why she’d recorded that voicemail to O’Grady. She’d gushed her feelings like a broken fire hydrant. And he’d responded with … nothing. Nada. Complete radio silence. The heat of embarrassment still managed to singe Jen’s insides and burn her face, even weeks later.
Screw O’Grady. She was absolutely over this. Except that screwing O’Grady had been the main plot of her voicemail, and damn her traitorous heart for still wanting him. Even after his obvious rejection.
I’m so pathetic.
Barry grinned, his teeth flashing white against his dark skin, and took hold of the duffel bag. “No worries. You organize your gear like a mother with a child who has cancer.”
That brought Jen up short. “What does that even mean?” she asked, her brows furrowing.
“It means you worry too much. Everything will go the way it’s supposed to go.”
Jen slung her backpack onto her shoulder and briefly clasped the man’s shoulder, her gaze serious. “You know I love you, Barry, but you will never quell my organized nature. It actually calms my nervous energy.”
He shook his head. “It’s why your secret nickname among the interns is ‘Mom.’”
She laughed, relieved to break the tension of the past twenty-four hours of traveling, organizing the hell out of this trip, the last two months of living with the hurt of O’Grady’s rejection.
The three of them stepped into the chilly, pre-dawn darkness. At least there was no wind. Yet. She made sure her motel room door was shut tight and locked, and they made their way to a car waiting in the parking lot. There was no public transportation on the island, but a local had arranged to drive them to the dock.
They were about to embark on a journey that Jen had been trying to make happen for over a year, and while it wasn’t exactly going the way she had planned, at least it was happening. A part of her was proud that she’d managed to finagle the funding for the flights for her and two grad students from LAX to New Zealand, and then a two-hour flight from Auckland to the Chatham Islands Tuuta Airport on a propeller plane. She’d negotiated lodging for three weeks, per diems for food, and most importantly, a permit to tag white pointers—or great white sharks as the Americans liked to call them—around Chatham. All she had to do was agree to be filmed by Len Moreland. It seemed a small price to pay.
* * *
“Thanks for the ride, Jim,” Gabe said as the car pulled up in front of the dock.
“You’re welcome,” the older man answered, serving as the de facto cab driver for this part of the island. He and his wife had also given Gabe a place to stay. “It’s good to see you again. Good luck with those sharks. You were always too fascinated with them.”
Gabe laughed and exited the car. He shook Jim’s hand through the driver’s side window. “Say hi to Mona for me,” he added, referring to Jim’s wife. Gabe had arrived late last night and left the house before dawn, so he hadn’t had a chance to see her yet.
“She’ll be upset she missed you, but we’ll see you for tea.”
Gabe knew that “tea” meant dinner, or supper, as his mama liked to say. “Sounds good,” he replied.
With a wave, Jim drove away.
Gabe swung his backpack onto his right shoulder and headed to the Blue Cutter. He knew the boat, having worked on it several times over the years. While the Chathams were remote, Gabe had spent a good deal of time there. He knew the islands and the waters around them well, and he’d known Jim and Mona for years.
Anticipation thrummed in his chest.
He’d be lying to himself if he said he was here for the sharks.
He was here for Jen Fairfield.
When he’d heard about the crazy deal Jen had struck with Len Moreland to get to the Chathams, Gabe had quickly rearranged his schedule, called in a few favors, and got himself a spot on the boat. It helped that he’d been in Australia working on a project, so he’d been able to get here at the same time she had. He’d thought about calling her last night, but his flight out of Wellington had been delayed, and it had been late when he’d finally crashed at Jim’s house.
Added to that, he hadn’t heard from her in months. It was odd, as he’d thought they were friends, despite him wanting more. But she was dating Mark Payne, and Gabe wasn’t the type to poach another man’s woman, even if during the handful of times Gabe had been with Jen—at work-related events and conferences—he’d detected a hint of attraction on her part.
He’d met Fairfield almost a year ago to the day through their mutual friend Grace Mann at a marine life conference in San Jose, and he’d been immediately drawn to her tenacious approach to her work with sharks, especially great whites. That it had been Valentine’s Day weekend just seemed to add to the seismic shift he’d felt after getting to know her over the course of two days.
It was as if his life had taken a hard right turn.
But while she’d been friendly to him, she hadn’t offered any overt signals, so he’d kept things on a professional level, foolishly thinking that he could put her out of his mind.
A month later had found him in Monterey for work, and he’d decided he would ask her out. He’d checked in with Grace, conveying his interest in Jen. That’s when he learned about Mark Payne, who Gabe also knew. Payne worked at an ocean research lab in Santa Cruz.
But Gabe hadn’t been able to stay completely distant from her. Jen was … well, she was Jen. Unique, driven, stubborn. Scrappy. Blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence. A lithe, athletic body that Gabe tried hard to keep his attention from.
So he’d settled for friendship. It was enough, he’d told himself. He’d even been dating again, managing to move Jen to the periphery of his awareness when it came to other women. Mostly.
He’d liked Beth, at least in the beginning. She had been funny and somewhat interested in sharks. Not that it was a prerequisite for Gabe, but he did spend a good deal of his work year studying his subjects, so it helped if the woman he spent time with enjoyed discussing it.
But Beth’s outlook hadn’t matched his—she’d wanted more of his time than he could feasibly give, she had become petulant about his work schedule, and the sex had become a bit angry. Maybe he would’ve tried to work it out, but in the end, his feelings simply hadn’t matched hers. It had been a messy breakup. He still winced thinking about it, but surely Beth would be happier moving on to someone who clicked with her at every level.
He found the Blue Cutter at the far end of the dock. It was a forty-six-foot fishing boat, a sturdy vessel, as all boats in the Chathams needed to be, with a top speed of sixteen knots. It also had a galley with a microwave and a heated cabin, making it downright luxurious. Moreland certainly booked the best.
Gabe stepped aboard.
The Blue Cutter’s captain, Harry, a local with a scruffy beard and a forthright countenance, caught sight of him. “Gabe, is that you?”
“In the flesh.”
Harry grinned and shook Gabe’s hand while clapping him on the shoulder with his other palm. “I didn’t know you were coming,” he said. “Moreland didn’t tell me.”
“It was last minute. I’m here to help Dr. Fairfield.”
“Excellent. She’s down below.”
Gabe gave a nod, stepped around the man, and entered the wheelhouse. But before he could make his way down the steps to the cabin below, a young woman with red hair climbed up. Her eyes widened when she saw him.
“Are you Dr. O’Grady?” she asked.
“I didn’t know you were on this trip as well.” She extended her hand, which he took. “I’m Sam Harraway. I work with Dr. Fairfield.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“I’m a big fan of your work. Are you here to count our sharks?”
“Maybe,” he hedged. He was part of a team that studied worldwide populations of great whites, as well as other species such as bulls, tigers, and blue sharks. Trying to avoid too much chitchat, he asked, “Is Jen below? I’d like to say hi.”
Sam stepped aside. “Of course.”
Gabe dumped his pack, ducked his head, and headed down the steps.
He found her turned away from him, sorting sonar tags on the table, her light brown hair spilling down her back in a loose ponytail.
She jumped and spun around, clutching her chest. With eyes wide, she demanded, “What are you doing here?”
Not quite the welcome he’d expected, but then he was crashing her expedition without telling her.
“I was in Australia, and I heard you were here with Moreland. I came to help.”
She quickly pulled herself together, but she was clearly flustered. This wasn’t the Jen he remembered. She had always been friendly and confident.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
Her cheeks grew rosier. “I’m fine. You just startled me, that’s all.”
“Sorry about that. I didn’t get in until late. I would’ve called ….”
Her brows furrowed together. “Does Moreland know you’re here?”
“No. I cleared it with your boss at CMI, though,” he said, referring to Rob Granfield at the California Marine Institute.
She took a steadying breath. “Well, okay. Fine. But you should tell Moreland.”
She moved forward, intent on stepping around him to get to the stairs, but he gently clasped her forearm and said, “How are you? It’s been a while since we’ve talked.”
Her eyes flicked to his, and within the blue depths he saw shock and confusion. The wall she threw up between them was as solid as if it had been real. She scowled and gave a shake of her head, then pulled her arm free and dashed up the stairs.
What the hell?
Gabe had no idea why she’d reacted that way. Granted, they hadn’t talked in over three months, and he had surprised her this morning, but the punishment didn’t fit the crime, in his mind.
But what did he know?
Maybe he didn’t know Jen Fairfield as well as he’d thought.
Maybe coming here had been a huge mistake.
But Gabe knew Moreland and didn’t appreciate the man’s tactics. Jen no doubt had agreed to this project because she’d been desperate to get funding. And whether she liked it or not, Gabe was here to have her back.
If her three brothers had had any inkling of what Jen was caught up in, it would be a different story. Gabe had met the oldest and knew that Jeremy harbored a protective streak for his sister and that the entire Fairfield clan was a tight-knit group.
But her brothers weren’t here, and they weren’t involved in marine research anyway. Which brought up Mark Payne, Jen’s boyfriend. Where the hell was he? He was a shark researcher, for christ’s sake.
If Jen had been Gabe’s girlfriend, he sure as hell would’ve come on this expedition with her. The irony that he was here now, not Mark, wasn’t lost on him.
Apparently, he’d follow Jen Fairfield to the far reaches of the world, even with his friend status questionable.
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