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Authors: Crystal Green

Baited

BOOK: Baited
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She hated that he was hurt.

“When I thought you were dead,” she whispered over Will’s lips, “nothing could make the pain go away.”

 

He breathed against her, as if he also couldn’t believe she was with him. “I’m not about to leave you, Kat,” he said, voice low and tortured. “Not when we could finally get what we deserve out of life.”

 

She was beyond wondering exactly what he meant by that, if he was talking about the money she stood to inherit or if he was genuinely wishing they could be together again. Who cared right now?
Why
care?

 

But what if all this emotion had only been brought on by the terror of the boat wreck, the island….

 

The killer.

 

Kat locked her arms around him, rocking in cadence to a faint alarm signal that was growing louder, louder….

 

Danger. Danger. Danger….

Dear Reader,

 

Believe it or not, I turned in a blurb for a “deserted island” story months before
Lost
became a TV hit. I wanted to write about a Japanese pearl diver because, when I was just a tyke, I used to love this exhibit at Sea World—an attraction that, sadly, was shut down years ago. But I never forgot the female divers (or the pearls!). On a visit to Japan, I took a minitrip to Mikimoto’s Pearl Island, where I was lucky enough to see an ama exhibition (and buy pearls, natch). But something was missing from my ama-gets-shipwrecked story…and my editor, Susan Litman, provided the extra kick: Why not make this a mystery? I loved that, and this book was born.

 

So get ready to play a very deadly game of
Survivor
with Katsu Espinoza, an Everygirl Bombshell. Thank you so much for reading about her adventures!

 

Crystal Green

Crystal Green
BAITED

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There Goes the Bride
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*
The Black Sheep Heir
#1587

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#1668


A Tycoon in Texas
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§
Past Imperfect
#1724

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#1752

Harlequin Blaze

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#121

Born To Be Bad
#179

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#261

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Her Gypsy Prince
#1789

CRYSTAL GREEN

lives near Las Vegas, Nevada, where she writes for the Silhouette Special Edition, Silhouette Bombshell and Harlequin Blaze lines. She loves to read, overanalyze movies, do yoga and write about her travels and obsessions on her Web site, www.crystal-green.com. There, you can read about her trips on Route 66, as well as her visits to Japan and Italy.

She’d love to hear from her readers by e-mail through the “Contact Crystal” feature on her Web page.

To Pamela Harty.
Thank heavens for the day you and Deidre took me into the family of your agency.
I appreciate all you do.

Prologue

A
s another scream tore through the island forest, Katsu Espinoza stopped in her tracks, trying to get a lock on where the sound was coming from.

The pulse in her head kicked to a deafening beat while she lifted her face to the gray sky, panting, blinking as a drop of rain bled from a palm frond and splashed onto her forehead. She tightened her grip on the long screwdriver in her hand—the best weapon she’d been able to scrounge from their meager store of supplies back at the cave.

Please, Kat thought,
prayed
, please give me another sign to follow.

Even if the sign was another tortured yell that would let her find the next victim—whoever it was—before it was too late.

At the same time, she wished for silence. God knew what the killer was doing to the screamer. From what she and the other survivors had seen of the previous victims, she didn’t want to guess.

Blood running to the ground from the mutilations…

Eyes staring in dead terror at nothing…

Mouths open in silent cries…

Kat shut her eyes against a surge of nausea, but the vivid red images of flesh kept stabbing into her.

One victim.

Two.

Three…

Murder. A killer in the midst of a group of people she’d set out on a boat tour with only days ago. It’d started off so innocently, just like any other morning where you got out of bed, brushed your teeth, ate your breakfast and did your thing.

But then the storm. The wreckage. This island.

Even now, she couldn’t believe what a nightmare the harmless little cage-diving expedition had turned out to be. Couldn’t believe a person like her—a normal girl whose biggest problems included endlessly paying off old credit-card debt and navigating a hapless love life—was actually chasing down a killer.

But all that was behind her, a hazy dream that was just as out of reach as the thought of being rescued from whatever nameless piece of land they now existed on.

As Kat waited, a flash of lightning flickered, whitening the sky and the forest around her. A rumble of thunder shook the air, then the chop of her own labored breathing. Tiny explosions of raindrops on leaves
echoed her crazy heartbeat while she stood braced, ready to run toward…

Another shriek:
Nooooo…aaaahhhhh!

Startled, adrenaline sparked her forward, toward the sound.

Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod…

Kat took hold of the screwdriver as if it were an ice pick and charged forward, parting the vegetation, dodging leaves, tripping over vines and sloshing through the mud.

The cry ripped her in two, because part of her wanted to help but the very average I’m-not-a-super-hero part only wanted to stay alive.

Before she could really think about what she was doing, she stumbled into a clearing, screwdriver poised.

Opposite her, the newest victim sat slumped against the trunk of a tree, blood and raindrops mingling on a terrified face. His mouth, gaped open, still held a frozen yawp for mercy. His hands were wrenched behind the tree—obviously tied. When the victim spotted her, he leaned forward, eyes widening.

Lips forming a soundless word.

Help.

Kat hitched in a breath as she took a sharp look around. Dark foliage. Quickening raindrops. A body…
two
bodies…sprawled in the high grass to her right.

Legs turning to slush, she dragged her gaze away and fought to walk to the victim. Still, she couldn’t help eyeing the bodies, trying to see who they were.

Or who they used to be.

Careful, she told herself. What if this newest sacrifice is hiding something behind his back? What if he’s the killer, and he’s tricking you, luring you into something you won’t be able to handle?

Don’t trust anybody.

“Who did this to you?” Kat whispered, crouching. She still had the screwdriver ready, just in case.

The victim’s eyes weren’t focusing, and she could tell he was struggling to stay conscious. Could she get him back to the caves in time so they could be saved?

The next blinding second, the victim’s gaze fixed on something behind Kat, mouth falling open again…But it wasn’t to answer Kat’s question.

His blood-rimmed mouth was starting to scream.

Dread flew up Kat’s spine. Blinded by panic, she instinctively grabbed a handful of mud, preparing to whip around to throw it in the face of whoever was at her back, then follow up with the screwdriver. She’d fought in too many brawls back home to lose her street sense. It was second nature to strike first.

But she never had the chance.

Chapter 1

Three Weeks Earlier—Just Another Day at Work

K
at knew it was going to be a long day the second Yoko Nakamura muttered, “scum” and tripped her as they entered the Neptune Point Pearl-Diving Show boat.

Kat decided to ignore her self-appointed rival, instead taking position at the back of the small, open-sided vessel. Once there, she adjusted the sexed-up
ama
uniform—an
isogi
—that Neptune Point made her wear for the entertainment of the tourists who visited the San Diego theme park. The garb featured an almost-puritanical white hood, but when the isogi’s long-sleeved white shirt and extended wraparound
skirt got wet, the costume turned transparent. Anything for the sake of entertainment, right? But the effect was a far cry from what a traditional Japanese pearl diver would have looked like back in the heyday of the trade.

Yet it wasn’t like Kat was here to sell
truth
. Hell, she wasn’t even a full-blooded, one hundred percent natural Japanese girl herself—not with all her dad’s Mexican-American genes running willy-nilly all over her facial features and under her skin. Nope. Her job was to present a fantasy, to whet appetites so the crowds would shuffle from the observation bleachers and into the cultured-pearl shop after the show, spending their hard-earned cash on things she could never even dream of affording. Things like blue seed-pearl necklaces, creamy bracelets, exquisite rings.

Tracy Ito, wonder-roomie and best friend, took her spot in between Kat and Yoko, and their driver took off from the prep dock toward the entrance of the Pearl Lagoon. Tracy was also fully garbed in
ama
finery.

“Think you can chill out today, Yoko?” Tracy asked.

The other diver ignored Tracy, concentrating on smoothing out her own
isogi
instead. Kat had been enduring problems with Yoko ever since her rival had joined the shift a couple of weeks ago. She hated Kat for a hundred reasons: mostly because Kat had beat Yoko out for the lead diver position—and the slight raise that went with it. A prideful Yoko had taken this to heart. She was constantly messing with Kat underwater, snatching oysters from under her grasp to make sure she had a higher count in the unofficial, normally playful daily competition to see who could bring up the
most booty. No bones about it—Yoko was determined to position herself to take over Kat’s job when the time came.

A meaningless rivalry, Kat thought. But Yoko’s dislike was also more personal.

Light-skinned and so very Japanese on the calm surface, Yoko had reportedly lived in the U.S. for about six years—it’d been enough time for her to develop a Yankee-style habit of “keeping it real” and expressing her true opinions, unlike a more tempered girl from her old country would. Back home she would’ve been encouraged to hide her racial disgust of Kat in public. But here, in this country? Nah.

Yoko finished fussing with her uniform then shot Kat a cool sidelong glance. Three guesses as to what was coming next.


Eta
,” Yoko mouthed without giving voice to the insult.

Finally past her limit, Kat made a move toward the other woman, only to be held back by the levelheaded Tracy.

Good thing, because anyone familiar with Japan knew what
eta
meant. In spite of Kat’s limited knowledge of her Japanese mother’s culture, she knew it was a slur for a social underclass known as
burakumin,
a taboo subject no one dared discuss in polite company.
Burakumin
were considered unclean in part because of their blood-related professions: leatherworkers, slaughterhouse workers, and the like.

Scum of the earth, Kat thought. That’s what her mother’s family had been. And that’s why Mom had
jumped at the chance to marry Lieutenant Joe Espinoza, who’d whisked her out of Japan and into the golden country of Disney and Levi’s jeans—the culture Mariko Okamoto had worshipped.

Little had she known that, after she died, her own mixed-blood daughter would suffer in America just as Mariko had in Japan, nicked by slurs that were just as hurtful.

Not that Katsu would
ever
let anyone know that.


Eta
,” Kat said, testing the word and calming down only because she knew it would nettle Yoko. Their boat glided nearer the lagoon. “I don’t know, Tracy. I kind of prefer what the kids in middle school used to call me.”

Tracy, ever the willing straight man, didn’t miss her cue. “And what
did
they call you?”

“Spic-anese.” Kat nodded proudly. “Has a more clever ring to it, don’t you think?”

“Definitely a keeper.”

Predictably, a flustered Yoko quickly flipped both of them off, and, as they rounded the corner into the lagoon, slid her hands into a graceful two-handed wave aimed at the audience.

“What a pill,” Tracy whispered, also morphing into super
ama
, speaking through her smile and waving at the crowd while keeping her head slightly lowered in an act of submission and shyness.

Kat followed suit, liking her job—and the decent paycheck—too much to play Yoko’s destructive game right now. “Water off my back—that’s all she is.”

They circled the rim of the small arena, making sure to push the stereotype of the adorable Asian doll to its
fullest. Hey, it was in their job descriptions and it paid the bills. If they’d been real
ama
, they would’ve presented a different picture: Their bodies would’ve been muscular and maybe even chubby, the better to keep warm against the water. Their hair would’ve been shorter and their skin tanned by the open elements. Actually, the Neptune Point Pearl Divers looked more like geisha than laborers; they were made up to be slender, petite, quiet, pale.

At least from a distance.

Under the
isogi
, Kat was anything but the cliché. Even if she applied waterproof cosmetics to lighten her complexion, in her off hours she proudly wore the slight rosy-tan skin she’d gotten from her dad. Her almond-shaped brown eyes were just a little wider than the other
amas
’, but she’d inherited her mother’s delicate chin, gently shaped cheekbones and tea-brown hair, which Kat wore to her shoulders. The white costume hid a streamlined body, chiseled by hobbies such as surfing and skin-diving.

A twenty-four-year-old water baby and good ol’ American melting pot. A mixture of everything life had thrown at her.

Tracy chatted as the boat putted by the audience. “Hey, look, your boyfriend’s here.”

Kat scanned the front row, finding an older, too-thin man wearing a baseball cap, a tiki-print shirt and sunglasses. He was hunched over, leaning his forearms on his khakied thighs.

“Boyfriend?” Kat asked. “Duke?”

“You’ve spent enough time with him these past
months. I don’t know, Kat, I’d totally go for your new pal, if I were you, even if he
is
old. The guy’s loaded and a sugar daddy could pay off those debts of yours. Know what I mean?”

“Nice, Tracy.” Kat didn’t know what else to say. Her quick friendship with Duke Harrington couldn’t be debated under a modest smile or even in the few seconds they had before the lagoon show really began.

He was someone to hang with. A mentor. And Duke liked to drop into the pearl-diving scene every once in a while to watch her work and take slow walks through the park. Just enjoying life while he could.

Kat offered him a welcoming wave, but he responded a little stiffly. Her heart jolted.

Was it a bad day, like the ones she’d seen him suffer through before he’d had stomach surgery and gone on the new medication? And here she’d thought that this round of treatment was supposed to be helping.

The smell of gasoline and ocean wind accompanied the gurgle of the boat’s cut engine. As the show’s announcer began her presentation—a spiel aimed at convincing the masses to buy pearls—the
amas
dipped into the murky lagoon constructed for the exhibition. Before each diving session, technicians transferred oysters from a pearl farm to the water, making Kat’s job a smooth one.

Four times a day and then home to check the surf report. She had a beautiful life.

She swam to the side of the boat and grabbed a small, open barrel-shaped basket and tied it to herself. It would float next to her, a receptacle for oysters. After
fixing a mask over her face, she sliced forward, pushing the basket in front of her as the emcee’s happy voice filled the arena.

“The
ama,
who dive for everything from seaweed, abalone, shellfish, lobster, sea urchins and octopus to oysters, are usually female in Japan. It’s said that perhaps women can withstand the stress of the cold water better than men, or perhaps they’re more capable of conserving heat.”

Kat took one last look at Duke, glad for every day he could be here. Glad that his stomach cancer hadn’t physically barred him from coming to her shows…
yet
.

Just before Kat dove, Yoko swam to the spot next to her.


Eta
,” she said again, diving under.

Frustration singed through Kat’s chest, but she quelled it. Dammit, she’d spent most of her life here in the States blowing off the comments of prejudiced ignoramuses, so why was one stupid word from a jealous cow like Yoko bothering her?

She wouldn’t let it.

Kat hesitated only a moment, staring at the water, just like she did with every dive, building her confidence.

Every time you go under, you win, she thought.

No fear. No problem.

After a deep breath, she dove headfirst, heart in her throat, caught in a silken web of excitement and wariness.

Silence enveloped her as she darted down, propelled by well-worked muscles. She was at home now,
cradled by liquid comfort, suspended in a hushed womb where nothing could touch her. Here, she could feel her dad’s presence again, his own love of the ocean all around her. It was the only place she could channel him now, the only place that cushioned the pain of losing him…and the failure of their relationship.

As she floated farther downward, Kat was alert enough to realize that the deep was also a dark place, hiding danger behind every shift of light. A foreign world where she didn’t really belong, no matter what she told herself.

It was a capsule of contradiction, mixed emotion.

Unfathomable.

The blue-green depths were beautifully eerie, lending to the welcome uneasiness. She loved everything about the water—the sounds, the legends, the freedom. Diving was a chance for tranquility, a chance to prove that she could beat the odds and conquer the heavy crush of bad memories, memories of a time when the ocean had almost beaten
her.

Since the
ama
generally tried not to dive for longer than a minute—who needed hypoxia to end a diving career?—Kat paced herself.

Pulse fluttering, heightening her senses to giddiness, she cruised over to a rock where an oyster had been deposited. At about the sixty-second mark, she retrieved two more, then aimed her body toward the surface.

With a slight pop-splash, she broke the waterline, put the oysters into her barrel and took a second to recover while hanging on to the floating basket. Over
the emcee’s droning speech, her breathing sang like a whistle. To the untrained ear, it was alarming, but her lungs and heart were the better for it.

Next to Kat, Yoko was hanging on to her own barrel and watching her.

As the announcer told the audience about how Kokichi Mikimoto, industry pioneer, had created the type of
ama
uniform they were now garbed in here at Neptune Point, Kat took another dive. Then, after that, two others.

On the last dive, fifteen seconds disappeared in a flow of growing peace and self-esteem. She held her breath, triumphing.

You’re beating the water again, she thought as she fetched her oysters.
Every dive makes you stronger.

Focused on her task, Kat barely felt it when a hand levered down on her head.

In the back of her mind, she knew it was Yoko trying a new, more effective method of jarring Kat out of the way as she grabbed for the oysters that Kat was holding.

Yoko didn’t usually make bodily contact.

But…damn—
damn
! There was something about the pressure on her skull, the claustrophobic weight heaving her down.

As faint as the push was, its power roared over Kat like a storm wave, pinning her, mentally freezing her limbs into helpless stumps.

In slow time, she felt the oysters slip from her hand, felt Yoko pushing off her body in a lunge for the booty. As Kat instinctively opened her mouth, a bubble of treasured air escaped upward, lost to the water.

Panic bathed her, a terrible memory wiping over her eyes—the one from years ago, the one she fought with every dive: water, so gorgeous and deadly and blue as it sheened over her like a glass ceiling. Waves, ebbing, flowing, as Kat, who was only nine, lay on the bottom of the ocean, trapped by the undertow.

Debilitating fear. A few moments that seemed like hours.

But the horrific serenity was slashed wide open as the pressure of the tide spat her back out of the water, coughing, gripping for breath. Her dad had rushed to her side, helping her to expel the water from her lungs, carrying her to a threadbare towel where he dried her and whispered an urgent pep talk of recovery.

Now, as she remembered, she could feel the water seeping into her like a transfusion of cold blood. It became a part of her, almost like the sea hadn’t forgotten. She’d been stolen from the ocean once, and it was taking her back, wasn’t it? Taking her…

No. No it wasn’t.

With an explosion of energy, Kat frantically lashed out with her clawed fingers, blindly catching Yoko as she grabbed for the falling oysters.

Kat choked on a gasp of water, then, quickly shutting her mouth, latched on to Yoko’s arm. The other diver’s eyes widened under her mask, like they always did when she acted surprised that someone was freaking out about something she considered quite minor.

Breath…air…need…air…

BOOK: Baited
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