Avery had whistled when she helped secure the top before Shannon left that morning. “Way to pull out the big guns,” she’d commented right before returning to the bathroom and revisiting the liquor from the night before.
If it wasn’t for Avery yelling at her to leave her to die in peace, Shannon would have bailed on the day.
But she’d been in Avery’s position before and preferred to suffer alone.
Shannon looked up to find Victor staring.
Channeling her inner Avery, Shannon turned to the side and cheated her butt to the man. “Do I have something out of place?”
He narrowed his eyes, cleared his throat. “That suit should be illegal.”
His honest groan empowered her. “It probably is in Dubai.”
Leo heard them, laughed, and handed them their snorkeling gear.
On the shore, Leo helped her into the front of the kayak and encouraged Victor to climb in the back. Once they were all set, Leo rowed in front of them into the bay.
“I haven’t done this in years,” Shannon told Victor over her shoulder.
“I can beat that. I haven’t done this at all.”
“Really? Not even at summer camp?”
She matched Victor’s pace with the paddle, digging left and then right, until they found a rhythm that would take them away from shore.
“I never went to summer camp.”
“That’s a shame. The best things in life happened at summer camp.”
“What kinds of things?” Victor asked.
“Things like this. Kayaking, getting dumped in the water from a canoe. Campfires and ghost stories. First kisses.”
“Ohh, tell me about those.”
She grinned. “The ghost stories?”
He splashed her with his paddle. “The kisses. What was his name?”
She looked back at the memory. “Russell Lipski.”
“Lipski? You’re making that up.”
“Why would I lie about a name like that?”
Victor laughed. “How was Mr. Lipski?”
“Cold, wet hands. Dry lips. It was over before it started. I ran back to my cabin to tell the other girls that he’d kissed me. What about you? What was her name?”
“Wendy Simmons,” he said in a dreamy voice.
Shannon looked over her shoulder, caught him smiling. “That good?”
“She was older than me.”
The image of a teenage cougar came to mind. “How much older?”
“Fifth grade when I was in fourth.”
Her jaw dropped. “Your first kiss was in fourth grade?”
“It was the last week in school before summer.”
“I’m not sure that’s any better.”
Victor laughed. “I think Wendy did it on a dare, but that didn’t stop me from bragging about it all summer long.”
“So it was never repeated?” Shannon turned around, kept rowing.
“Nope. Wendy’s parents moved them away that summer. I was devastated until Halloween.”
Shannon was afraid to ask. “Why Halloween?”
“Because Mia Fletcher dressed up like a cat and made me forget all about Wendy.”
Laughter caught in her gut. “Men are so easy.”
“That we are. Isn’t that right, Leo?”
Shannon glanced at their guide, rowing alongside them.
“It’s a curse, I’m afraid.”
They all laughed.
Since they were talking so candidly, Shannon risked a couple more questions. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why do you work so hard?”
He was silent as they rowed a few times.
Shannon glanced over her shoulder to see if he had heard her.
Victor was concentrating on the oar in his hands, his lips in a straight line.
“Never mind, you don’t have to answer that.”
“No, no . . . I’m trying to think of a quick answer.”
She turned back to the sea in front of her. “We’re going to be out here for a while. A long answer is fine.”
It was still a few breaths before he started to talk. “It’s my company. When I started it, I was only twenty. Granted, it was only me back then, but now I have employees and plants, and teams. I’m responsible for keeping this company going and the jobs it provides. People depend on Vic Corp to put food on their tables.”
His answer was unexpected. Not to mention completely selfless. The image of the self-centered all about me man she’d met on the plane dissipated with his explanation.
“That sounds like a lot of stress on one man’s shoulders,” she told him.
“Most days it is.”
Once again, she looked over her shoulder. Their eyes caught and he smiled.
“But not today,” she said.
“No. Today would be the opposite of stressful.”
“The word is relaxing,” she teased.
He pushed his oar deeper into the sea, let his muscles ripple as he put his back into the job of pushing them forward. “I have a feeling this relaxing might need a good massage once we’re done.”
Leo ended their conversation by stopping them by a buoy to tie up their kayaks. They left their life vests aside and donned their snorkeling gear. In the water, Shannon watched Victor working his way into his mask. “You’ve done this before, right?”
Good. She didn’t need Victor strutting to gain her attention only to drown in the Yucatán.
When he was twelve . . .
He’d snorkeled in Hawaii when he was twelve. How hard was that to say?
Apparently impossible, since the words never left Victor’s lips, and he followed Shannon’s example and put on his mask.
How hard could it be? Keep the water out of your eyes by tightening the mask, keep the pipe clear of the water, and breathe out of your mouth.
He sputtered the first time he stuck his face in the water. Lucky for him, Shannon had already kicked her fins up and was skimming the surface with her white bikini ass leading him into the deep.
The memory of mermaids and his thoughts of the night before surfaced as he attempted to rid his mask of water and put it on tight.
He kicked his feet and caught up with Leo and Shannon, who were several yards ahead of him, looking at the reef below. Once he was close, he placed the mouthpiece again and attempted to view the ocean floor.
Shannon’s long legs kicked out beside him, her arms helping her tread water.
Leo waved his hand and pointed to something moving below.
A stingray hid in the sand, their presence obviously disturbing its peace as it swam away. Victor didn’t mind seeing it go. He tried to remember the name of the wildlife expert that had recently died from a stingray, and he didn’t want to become part of that club.
Victor worked to keep his breathing normal and found it hard to concentrate on the beauty around him. All he really wanted to do was make it through their snorkeling part of the day without drowning.
He sputtered again and came to the surface to clear his mouth.
“You okay?” Shannon asked from a few yards away.
“I’m fine,” he lied. He put the mouthpiece in again.
You can do this, Vic. Thousands of people do this every day.
Once facedown, he didn’t even try to see the fish, the color of the reef, or the sea turtles below. All he did was follow Shannon and concentrate on breathing.
She either caught on to his plight and took pity or wanted to be by his side. Either way, she was there, catching his attention by tapping his shoulder and pointing at something below. Purple coral . . . fluorescent blue fish. Some of the rocks looked like someone had carved the image of brains into them.
Yeah, the ocean was a perfect disguise for the world below. So much life surrounded them, welcomed them as guests.
Shannon reached out and held on to his arm right as a school of fish, thousands of them, swam around them.
Victor held on to her arm, felt several fish brush past his legs.
He followed her lead and popped his head out of the water once they were gone.
“Holy cow, that was awesome,” Shannon said. “Have you ever seen something like that?”
“Only in the movies.”
She played with her mask, chasing the fog away, smiled, and ducked back into the water.
Yeah, Victor would take on more water just to have her smile at him like that again.
The first of the two cenotes Leo took them to was what the locals called the garden. He explained the underground rivers of fresh water and how important they were to the ecosystem. Shannon knew instantly that Victor was much more comfortable swimming without a facemask than he had been in the ocean. She’d recognized his discomfort early on in their snorkeling and made a point to stay by his side. If he knew she caught on to his lack of snorkeling skills, he didn’t say.
The tiny fish in the fresh water were much more his speed. Even when those fish started to volunteer a pedicure for them as they sat on the steps leading into the water. “People pay good money for this back home,” Shannon told him as the fish tickled their toes.
“We’re paying good money for this here, too,” he replied.
They ended their tour in a cave. This time they wore life vests as Leo swam them deep inside, where flashlights were needed in order to see where they were going. It was filled with stalagmites and stalactites, everything Mother Nature created where most people would never see. The deeper they went, the cooler the water became. Still, the view was worth every second of the trip.