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Luke Cordova is one of a kind. The last of an ancient race, exterminated by wealthy treasure hunter Carson Cordova, the man who found Luke and raised him as his own, and who now holds Luke firmly under his cruel thumb.
Austin Bell is nothing if not a survivor, but his luck is running out. Jobless, penniless and about to lose his home, Austin needs a change in his life, and he needs it fast.
When Austin finds Luke naked and injured in the surf on Cat Island, Mississippi, there’s an instant connection. Both men feel they are fated to be together. But Carson Cordova won’t let Luke go that easily. He needs Luke’s unique abilities to recover a treasure he has chased for nearly thirty years: a crystal octopus, rumored to possess the power to grant the heart’s truest desire. Afraid for his life — and Austin’s — if Carson finds it, Luke turns in desperation to the one man who can help him. Dr. Andrew Martin, a.k.a. The Collector.
With Dr. Martin’s help, Luke and Austin set out on a quest to steal the idol out from under Carson’s nose. Working in secret from within Carson’s recovery expedition, the two find not only the idol they seek, but the love they each crave. As they learn how intertwined the two truly are, Luke and Austin discover that finding your heart’s desire comes with a price. One that might be too high to pay.
© Copyright 2007 Ally Blue
Austin Bell stood on the beach at the western tip of Cat Island, watching a late February storm roll in. The cold, damp wind numbed his cheeks and slipped its searching fingers through the holes in his jacket, but he didn’t care. He loved it like this, when the winter winds whipped the Gulf into a frenzy and the waves loomed black and sinister in the half-light.
He’d been out there for hours, watching the sea rise and the sky darken and thinking about his life. His future, or lack thereof. Hurricane Katrina had taken the modest apartment building he’d lived in and flattened the resort where he’d worked teaching remedial SCUBA diving to tourists. Six months later, he still hadn’t been able to find work that lasted more than a few days. He’d never been rich by any means, but in the past few months he’d learned the hard way what it was like to be hungry and homeless and desperate.
For a while there, he’d thought the bad days were over. The Acadian, one of the Biloxi casinos wiped out by the hurricane, was rebuilding. They had backers, big money guys from Birmingham. The place was going to be bigger and better than ever. He’d packed up his ancient pick-up truck and made the short trip from his home in Pass Christian to Biloxi, hoping to snag a construction job. A week later, he was working again, he’d rented a trailer on the outskirts of Biloxi, and life was looking up.
Then the bottom fell out. The backers got cold feet. With the money gone, the rebuilding project was off, and Austin found himself out of work once again, along with hundreds of others. He’d managed to sweet talk his landlady into letting him stay another month, but time was running out. In a few days, he’d be out on the street.
“Could sell Jess,” he mused out loud to the rising wind. “Might bring a few thousand.”
It wasn’t enough. No amount of money could ever be enough to make him give up Jessamine. He twisted around to check the battered old runabout, which lay behind him in the lee of the little island. The choppy waters of the Mississippi Sound lapped against her sides.
He smiled. That old boat was all he had left now. Sometimes he felt like it was the only thing holding him together. Providing him with the means to experience the barrier islands on days like this one, when the sea turned savage and the raw wind was enough to knock him down. He thought he’d lose his mind if he couldn’t have these little escapes.
As he turned back to contemplate the angry Gulf, Austin caught a flash of something pale out of the corner of his eye. Frowning, he squinted out over the roiling waves to his left. At first he saw nothing. Then, just as he was about to give up, it appeared again, much closer to shore. Something pallid, slender and sinuous, like a great tentacle.
“No fucking way.” Shoving his hands into his jacket pockets, Austin jogged toward the bit of beach where the whatever-it-was seemed likely to wash up. “There aren’t any cephalopods around here.”
He was right. What he found rolling in the waves definitely was no sea creature. It was a nude man, pale as death and just as limp.
“Shit.” Steeling himself against the inevitable shock of cold, Austin waded into the angry water, grabbed the unconscious man under the arms, and dragged him onto the beach.
Once they were beyond the reach of the high surf, Austin laid the young man gently on the sand and dropped down beside him, gasping for breath. The man was heavier than he looked, and dead weight besides. Blood poured at an alarming rate from a gaping wound in the man’s right leg, just above the knee.
Austin didn’t hesitate. He tore off his jacket, sweatshirt, and T-shirt, then rolled the T-shirt up and pressed it against the wound. He used the sweatshirt to tie the makeshift pressure dressing in place, then slipped his jacket back on. Pressing his fingers to the man’s throat, Austin was relieved to feel a strong, steady pulse. The man’s bare chest rose and fell evenly with his breathing.
Reassured that the mysterious person wasn’t going to die on him just yet, Austin sat back and studied the young man. He was tall, long-legged and willowy, with the lean, sleek muscles of a swimmer. His skin was frighteningly pale, but a quick perusal told Austin that it must be his natural coloring. His lips had none of the unhealthy bluish tinge that would indicate hypothermia or hypoxia, nor the grayish undertone that went with massive blood loss.
That in itself was as big a mystery as what the man was doing here in the first place. It may be a subtropical region, but the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico in February weren’t exactly balmy. The usual water temperature hovered in the mid-sixties, cold enough to induce hypothermia with more than a few minutes exposure. And the wound in the man’s leg had left a trail of blood on the sand.
Raising his head, Austin stared out over the waves. He couldn’t see a boat anywhere, which meant either the man had been in the water a very long time indeed, or his boat had sunk. Or both. Austin figured he must’ve been out boating just past the barrier islands and gotten caught in the storm. Squalls rose suddenly here, and could easily catch the unwary off guard. No way could a naked, wounded man have survived for long in the cold and deadly currents of the open Gulf.
The sky overhead lit up, the lightning flash followed a second later by a deafening boom of thunder. Fat raindrops plopped onto the sand. Austin scowled. Somehow, he had to get the man he’d found into the boat and get him to the mainland. The guy needed medical attention, and fast.
“Okay, buddy,” Austin said, crouching beside the young man. “Here we go.”
Austin hoisted him onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and staggered to his feet. As he made his way toward Jess, a gray curtain of rain rolled in from the Gulf. Within seconds, Austin was drenched to the skin. He gritted his teeth against the sting of the icy rain on his bare hands.
The trip across the spit of sand separating the Gulf from the Sound had never seemed so long. Austin knew it had only taken him a few minutes, but it felt like hours before he laid his burden carefully onto the padded seat in the stern of the boat. Austin climbed on board. He pulled the sturdy plastic cover over the back part of the boat and fastened it in place. Crawling under the cover, he dug a thick blanket out of the storage compartment under the seat and tucked it around the still-unconscious man.
He took a moment to make sure that the man was still breathing and the bandage was still in place on his leg. He seemed to be as stable as Austin could make him. Austin watched him for a moment, wondering again where he’d come from, and who he was. Now that the adrenaline rush had died down a bit, Austin couldn’t help noticing that the stranger in his boat was quite attractive, in an unusual way. Straight white-blond hair fell in wispy layers around his face, catching in his long dark lashes and the corners of his wide, sensual mouth. Austin had to fight off a sudden wild urge to kiss him.
“Austin,” he mumbled as he crawled out from under the tarp and jumped out of the boat, “you need to get laid.”
He gave the boat a hard shove, pushing it free of the sand and out into the shallows of the Sound. Hauling himself on board again, he started the engine and headed the boat toward the mainland.
He tried not to think of how long it had been since he’d been with anyone, or the fact that the man in his boat was naked and gorgeous. It was just loneliness talking. He’d never even consider coming on to someone who’d been through what this person clearly had. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stop the crazy hope that when the man woke and his injuries had been tended, he might want Austin too.
Guiding Jess as quickly as he dared through the increasingly rough waters, Austin laughed. “Yeah, sure. He’ll wake up and be so grateful to you for rescuing him that he’ll pay you back with a nice blowjob. Keep dreaming.”
Unfortunately, having voiced the idea of the mysterious stranger sucking him off, Austin had difficulty not thinking of it. Giving himself a mental kick, he concentrated on keeping Jessamine upright and moving. The increasing effort of that task eventually dissolved the mental picture of the young man’s pink lips wrapped around Austin’s cock.
* * * * *
When he finally guided Jessamine alongside the tiny private pier just west of Biloxi, Austin heaved a sigh of relief. The worst of the storm had passed, but it had been a rough trip, and Austin was glad to have it over with. The rays of the setting sun spread red and gold from under the low-hanging fringe of black clouds. The Sound glowed an eerie greenish-gray in the evening light.
Quickly securing the boat to his landlady’s pier, Austin unfastened the tarp covering the stern section and rolled it back. He held his breath, half-expecting the man on the seat to be dead after all. What he didn’t expect was to see enormous, solid black eyes staring back at him, calm but wary, showing not a hint of pain or fear.
“Um.” Austin wiped his hands on his soaking wet jeans, feeling awkward suddenly. “Are you okay?”
The man sat up, clutching the blanket around him. “I will be. Who are you?”
“Austin. Austin Bell.” Not knowing what else to do, Austin stuck his hand out and smiled. “Nice to meet you.”
Oh, smooth. Austin grimaced. He wished he wasn’t always so bumbling and clumsy around people. Especially beautiful naked men who he found unconscious and bleeding on the beach.
The man’s mouth curved into a faint smile, a hint of amusement sparkling in his eyes. “I’m Luke Cordova,” he said, grasping Austin’s hand in a surprisingly strong grip. “Thank you for helping me, Austin.”
“Yeah, sure.” Austin bit his lip, hoping he wasn’t staring as blatantly as he feared. Luke’s eyes fascinated him. He’d never seen eyes like that, a black so deep and pure that it swallowed the pupil completely. “Your eyes are so black.”
Luke laughed, a wonderfully musical sound, and Austin realized he’d spoken aloud. A fierce blush burned in his cheeks. “Um. I … My trailer isn’t far. I’ll take you there, and call the ambulance.”
“No!” Luke’s fingers tightened around his, and Austin blinked in surprise. He hadn’t even noticed that their hands were still joined.
“You’re hurt,” Austin pointed out as Luke dropped his hand and curled his knees up to his chest. “That leg was bleeding really bad. You probably need stitches.”
“I won’t need stitches. I’m fine. I’m staying at The Waterview, I can walk from here.”
Austin gaped. “Even if you weren’t stark naked, which you are, I bet you can’t walk very well on that leg.”
“I can manage.” Luke stared at Austin, his face set in a stubborn expression. “Maybe I could borrow some clothes?”
“I don’t have any here.”
“What about at your trailer? Surely you have clothes there.”
They glared at each other. Austin sighed, tired suddenly. “Fine. My trailer’s just across the road. If you can walk there, I’ll give you some clothes and I won’t argue about you walking to The Waterview, even though it’s at least six miles from here. I’d drive you, but my truck died the other day.”
Luke smiled. “Will you help me out of the boat?”
The second Luke stood, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders, Austin knew he’d been right. Luke’s injured leg buckled when he tried to put weight on it. He gasped, his face going even whiter with pain.
Austin swiftly wrapped an arm around Luke’s slender waist, steadying him. He tried to ignore how good it felt to have Luke’s body so close to his. “See? I told you.”
“So you did.” Luke turned his wide, pleading eyes to Austin. “I can’t go to the hospital, Austin. Don’t ask me why. I just can’t.”
“Come home with me, then,” Austin heard himself say. “I’ve got some first aid training. I’ll clean and dress the wound, and feed you, and you can rest there overnight. Sound good?”
Relief flooded Luke’s face. “It does, yes. Thank you.”
They stood there staring at each other. Austin was painfully aware of Luke’s arm resting across his shoulders. The temptation to kiss that sexy-as-hell mouth was strong. Using every ounce of mental strength he possessed, Austin managed to resist.
“Um. Okay.” Austin cleared his throat. “Let’s get you inside, huh? You must be exhausted.”
“Yes, I am, actually.” Luke smiled as Austin climbed onto the pier. “What brought you out t … His brow furrowed. “Where was that? Where you found me?”
“Cat Island.” Austin didn’t comment on the revelation that Luke hadn’t known where he was, but it piqued his curiosity even further.
“Cat Island.” Luke took the hand Austin offered and stepped gingerly onto the pier with his good leg. “What brought you out there?”
“Nothing much,” Austin hedged, watching a grimace twist Luke’s features as his injured leg was forced to bear his weight for a moment. “I just like watching the storms on the Gulf, is all.”
“Lucky for me.” Luke glanced around as they made their slow way toward Austin’s trailer. “I hope your neighbors can be discreet.”
Austin laughed. “What neighbors? This stretch of beach has been more or less deserted since Katrina. Good thing, I guess. Me bringing a naked man home would sure as hell be great gossip.”
Luke tensed, but said nothing. Wondering what he’d done wrong, Austin stole a glance at Luke. His fine, straight hair had dried and now hung in shining sheets down to his shoulders, with shorter bits veiling his eyes and brushing his jaw. Behind the veil of hair, the man’s features were set in lines of pain. Unsure of what to say, Austin elected to keep quiet, and they walked the rest of the way to his trailer in strained silence.