Merilee Diego is desperate. With only days left to save her late father’s charter company, she must seek aid from the one man who can help her. A man her father treated like a son. A man whose raw sex appeal never fails to send her pulse racing. Too bad he seems to hate her.
Lawson Manning isn’t pleased to discover his final charter before branching out on his own is none other than his mentor’s spoiled daughter. He’s nothing if not professional, and decides to grin and bear it until he can rid himself of her in the Bahamas. His plan is thwarted when storms create an unwelcome detour to the hurricane-ravaged island of Walker’s Cay.
Isolated, with only their tempers and simmering attraction between them, the two do their best not to kill each other. It isn’t long before they discover a more creative, and hotter, outlet for their anger. But this detour creates a complication neither is prepared for.
CHARLIE SIERRA TANGO
— Chapter One —
“This will be our last time together.”
Lawson Manning ran his hand lovingly along her smooth lines as he completed the last of his flight check. The Cessna 210 gleamed in the early-afternoon sun. She was still shiny and new, with less than a thousand hours on her. But she wasn’t his.
Not that he was complaining. He’d scrimped and saved for three years to buy his baby, his escape from this hellhole job and its asshole boss.
Diego Charters had once been a blessing for a man whose aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot had been shattered by a damn eye exam—and the discovery that his particular issue couldn’t be corrected with surgery. Amazing how much power the letter Scould have when it was mistakenly identified as a Z. And not being able to see targets clearly was a problem for the United States Marine Corps, but not so much for shuttling clients to and from business meetings and to their sunny Florida and Caribbean vacations.
But what had been a hell of a Plan B screeched to a halt when John Diego senior passed away suddenly from a heart attack and his dickwad son took the helm. John junior expected his employees to jump at the word go, probably from lack of any other sort of management skill. And they did. Lawson included, until he’d saved enough to buy his Piper Cherokee 6 and get the fuck out of there. He was nearly thirty. Not too late for his life to really get started.
He’d agreed to this last charter because John was in a bind. And if the truth be told, he wanted one last ride with the lady. He’d flown her maiden trip, after all, and he wasn’t one to leave a ladybird without a proper goodbye. Lawson smirked. He’d stuck it to the man too, demanding twice his normal pay to take this charter to Treasure Cay.
Lawson was just putting the stepladder he’d used to check the fuel into the cargo hold when he heard a vehicle pull onto the tarmac. He closed the door, engaged the lock and turned. A limo. He heaved a weighted sigh.
Just one more and then I run my own show.
The driver opened the rear passenger door and one long, tanned leg followed by the other unfolded from the interior. His gaze traveled up in appreciation as his client emerged from the vehicle. Her mahogany hair whipped across her face in the wind and she slid her sunglasses atop her head, pinning the hair back.
Lawson sucked in a breath.
“Oh hell to the no.”
Merilee Diego’s vision was perfect, and she could see Lawson’s scowl from thirty yards away. He could frown all he wanted. She wasn’t happy about this trip either. But from the look on his face, clearly her brother had failed to mention she’d be Lawson’s last charter. That was soa John thing to do. She was convinced he had the devil in him—fucking around with people for his own asinine amusement. Her fingers tightened around the leather handles of her bag. She jumped when the limo’s trunk slammed, and turned to face the driver.
“Shall I take this to the plane for you, Miss Diego?”
“Yes, Charles. Thank you.”
He gave her a nod and a smile and rolled her Louis Vuitton toward the Cessna. She reluctantly followed, second-guessing herself. Perhaps there was another way to gain the information she needed besides putting herself at the mercy of a man who clearly didn’t care for her. What in the hell she’d done to him, she had no idea, but it was what it was. She shook her head.
Lawson Manning was the only person she could turn to.
She watched as he crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet in a defensive stance. Fantastic.
She trailed behind Charles, feeling the heat of Lawson’s glare intensify the closer she got. He’d given her looks of distaste before, but not like the one he was laying on her now. If her father hadn’t thought so highly of him, she would have likened him to an animal and been done with it. But Daddy seemed to have loved him like a son, and his name had been spoken of reverently in their home.Lawson did this. Lawson said that.It irked the hell out of her brother. If she were a betting woman, she’d go all in that her father had secretly wished his own son were more like Lawson.
She rolled her eyes. Her brother was an ass, but at least he didn’t look at her like a piece of gum he’d just stepped in. When she got within spitting distance of Lawson and the ice-blue of his gaze pierced her, she began to regret her plan. It was too late now though.
“Merilee,” he drawled in that thick South Georgia accent she’d deny to her grave that she loved. Even laced with irritation it sounded appealing, wrapping around her like a warm blanket out of the dryer.
“Would have been nice if John had mentioned this was your charter.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Wouldn’t it just?” She dug in her purse for her wallet as Charles strolled toward her, either oblivious to the tension or outright ignoring it. She couldn’t blame him for the latter. She extracted a twenty and pressed it into Charles’ palm. “Thank you for the ride.”
“My pleasure.” He tipped his hat at her and walked toward the limo. She let her gaze follow him, anything to delay what she was sure would be the longest four hours of her life. When the limo door closed and the vehicle pulled up to the exit gate, she reluctantly turned toward Lawson.
He was within inches of her, and she sucked in a sharp breath.
“What’re you about, Merilee? I’m sure this isn’t a coincidence. From the way John was going on, I thought he had his balls to the wall over a demanding client. That you, princess?”
She straightened her shoulders and tilted her chin. “I requested you, yes.”
“Well…” He drew the syllable out until it was almost two words. “Aren’t I the lucky one?” He pulled his aviators out of his pocket and settled them on the bridge of his nose. His dark-blond hair was disheveled from the wind, sticking up in delicious disarray. Why was it the assholes were the ones who were always so good-looking? He stalked to her suitcase and withdrew a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the cargo door and tossed her bag none too gently inside. “This it, or is another limo coming along with the rest? Perhaps we should phone John and see if one of the larger planes is available.”
The corner of her lip twitched at his juvenile behavior. If this was how he wanted to play it, fine. When he was trapped in the air with her, he’d have no choice but to listen. She made a show of studying her nails. “I may not be a pilot, Lawson, but my father didown this company. I know a thing or two about airplanes. I think you’ll find the weight of my suitcase is within the safety guidelines for this Cessna.” She pulled her sunglasses from her hair and put them on. “Of course, you would have had to have bothered weighing it to know that.” She clicked her tongue. “How careless of you.”
She turned her back with that remark and walked around the front of the plane to the passenger door. She bit back a smile. She really shouldn’t goad him. She needed him, after all. But he had that smug, superior thing going on and she couldn’t help herself. There had been a time when she’d thought Lawson had hung the moon, had literally pined over him, but those days were gone.
Merilee opened the door and carefully planted her stiletto on the narrow step above the landing gear wheel and hauled herself into the plane as gracefully as she could. Not that it mattered, as Lawson was now avoiding looking at her altogether. She pulled the door closed and pressed the lever to lock it.
The pilot’s door opened and Lawson climbed into the plane, closing the door a little more firmly than necessary and jamming the lever into place. He pulled out his clipboard from the side of the seat. “So, to what do I owe this esteemed honor?”
No way in hell she was telling him now. He’d have her back on the tarmac with her suitcase in a skinny minute if she revealed her true purpose. “Just a vacation in Treasure Cay, Lawson. Not unlike your many other charters.”
He snorted. “Visiting the flavor of the month I take it?”
She turned in her seat to look at him. A muscle ticked in his jaw as he adjusted the wing flaps for takeoff. He didn’t seem to care that she hadn’t answered him as he opened the window and yelled, “Clear.” He started the propeller and the plane began to shake, the noise near-deafening in the small space.
Lawson already had on his earphones and pointed to hers. Once she had them in place, she heard his mocking voice. “Seems if you knew a thing or two about planes you would have put those on already.”
She adjusted the mic and ignored him until he drawled in her ear once more. “So, am I right?”
She let out a long sigh. “About what, Lawson?”
“You headed down to see whatever man you’ve roped into providing you a distraction? From what, I’m not sure.”
And there it was. She always suspected Lawson thought of her as a daddy’s girl with no purpose in life. Dumping her business degree at the University of Georgia and heading to Julliard after her father’s death might make her appear selfish. Leaving John in charge was probably looked upon poorly by the employees, but she’d only been nineteen, damn it. She rubbed her temple. “If you must know, I’m visiting my friend Elizabeth. Her parents own a home on the island.”
“Of course.” Lawson continued his preflight checks while she stewed over his reaction to her. It really shouldn’t matter what he thought, but it did. That need for approval wouldn’t be an ally for her when she talked to him about her concerns. She must remember that technically she was the one in charge. He was her employee, for now, and if her plan was successful it would stay that way, and she needed information he could provide. All this other nonsense didn’t matter. “Law—”
“Peachtree clearance November 2-4 Charlie Sierra Tango has romeo information. We’re IFR ready to copy.”
She knew enough to keep her mouth closed from here on out. She could only imagine what Lawson’s reaction would be if he had to radio back in if he missed something because she was jabbering. She listened as their clearance was read back and watched as Lawson wrote down every detail in surprisingly neat handwriting.
He tapped the pencil’s eraser against the clipboard and continued ignoring her. “Ground, November 2-4 Charlie Sierra Tango is at Epp’s Aviation, ready for taxi.”
“Charlie Sierra Tango taxi to runway 2-0 right.”
Lawson eased the plane onto the runway and pulled to the side to do his run-up. She’d watched her father do this countless times. Everything was so methodical, a synchronized system that was followed to the letter every time. Lawson pushed in the throttle and the plane shook with the effort. She eyed the gauge as the RPMs rose. He turned the yoke, looking out each window at the rudder. He continued on in his process and she could almost hear him ticking off items in his head.
He finally turned to her. So he hadn’t forgotten she existed. “You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” She checked her seat belt and fisted her hands, tucking them under her thighs. She didn’t like takeoff. Her knowledge of planes made her aware this was the most dangerous part of the flight. If he noticed her discomfort, he didn’t say anything. Not that she expected him to.
For someone who acted so ballsy, Merilee seemed nervous. Whether it was from his uncalled-for behavior or the flight, he wasn’t sure. John senior never mentioned his daughter being afraid to fly, so it must be the former. He’d try not to feel like an ass about it. He had his reasons for judging her as he did.
All her father had wanted was for his children to follow in his footsteps, to continue the business he’d built from his own sweat and tears. He’d given them everything and asked for very little in return. John Diego senior was the finest man he’d ever met. Hell, he was more of a father to him than his own waste-of-space alcoholic old man. That’s why Lawson had gone military. It was a fast way out of the hell he was living in. And when his aspirations were shot down, John had been there to give him a chance.
The thought of John’s own flesh and blood not respecting his one wish tore at Lawson’s gut. His mentor had worked so hard to build this company for his children’s future. But John was gone, his pain-in-the-ass son was in charge and Lawson was carting the princess around. He rubbed his jaw. “Tower, November 2-4 Charlie Sierra Tango finished run-up and we’re ready for takeoff.”
“Charlie Sierra Tango, stand by for clearance.”
He looked at Merilee. Her fists were still under her thighs, her eyes were closed and she was breathing so heavily he could hear it through the headset. He prayed she wasn’t a vomiter.
Since she couldn’t see him, he took the opportunity to study her profile. She wasn’t a spitting image of her father like John junior, so he could only assume her delicate features were a result of the mother who passed on when Merilee was just a young girl. She had high cheekbones and a small, upturned nose. Her father’s heritage gave her olive skin and dark hair, but her eyes were sea-glass green, a definite gift from her mother.
He could remember the first time he’d seen them—he’d been in John’s office when Merilee had excitedly entered the room, holding a thick envelope from Julliard. Her incredible eyes had sparkled with excitement, but Lawson had sensed distress in John senior. It became clear to him then just how much John longed for his daughter to work by his side.
She’d always been the one her father had faith in, and John had expressed his concerns to Lawson about his son’s reckless behavior and apparent lack of direction. Getting John to complete college had been a feat in itself and Lawson knew John senior was counting on his daughter one day taking over. But she’d had other plans. That was clear when she took off like a shot after her father’s death.
Did no one appreciate family and understand what loyalty meant? It was Lawson’s own loyalty that kept him on with John junior, despite the miserable working conditions. He’d taught John all he knew, made certain the business was stable, and with only a small amount of regret had decided to move on. As much as he admired and loved John Diego senior, he couldn’t sacrifice his own future forever. And honestly, it was John’s children’s responsibility to run Diego Charters. As much as he loathed John junior, he had to give the guy credit for at least realizing that.
Unlike some people…
Lawson jumped when static hissed through his earphones. “Charlie Sierra Tango, you’re clear for takeoff runway 2-0 right, heading 1-8-0.”
He eased the Cessna onto the active runway, pushed the throttle and started his takeoff run. Within seconds he had the girl airborne.
The minute the wheels left the runway, Merilee’s left hand shot out and grabbed his thigh, her knuckles white.
Heat flashed straight to his groin and he inwardly groaned. A touch from the princess and his cock instantly hardened. This was an unpleasant development. All the bickering must have gotten his dick all riled up. Just what he didn’t need.
He looked at her and her eyes were still closed, but she now had her bottom lip between her teeth. It was definitely the plane that had her so on edge. Aw hell.Even digging in deep for his inner ass wouldn’t allow him to ignore this blatant cry for comfort. He placed his hand over hers, enveloping her fingers in his grasp. He gave a little squeeze.
Her head whipped toward him and she settled her gaze on his. She gave him a small smile of thanks before gently pulling her hand free, patting his thigh and twining her fingers together in her lap. His cock hardened all over again.
Aw, double hell.