Passage to Passion Book 5
A chance for riches. A chance for love. A gutsy couple who reach for both.
When Melanie Bass tracks down her dad’s former divemaster in the Caribbean, it’s not quite the reunion she had hoped for. Down to her last dollar and a map from her deceased father, she has no choice but to turn to Kirk for help.
Kirk Hatcher, treasure hunter turned successful tour operator, has moved on. He’s finally put the broken relationship with Mel’s father in the past. Although he’s still a divemaster, Melanie is no longer a teenage girl with a crush. She’s turned into a stunning and graceful young woman.
But against his better judgement, Kirk and Melanie launch a final treasure hunt. Unfortunately it’s not sharks that infest the warm waters—it’s pirates. With their lives under threat, their strained relationship takes a decidedly torrid turn.
Six months ago, if someone had told Melanie Bass she’d end up here, she’d have slugged them. As the cab pulled away, she stood on the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs, and stared up at the sign.
“Hatcher Tours,” she read. “Harbor cruises, fishing charters, and diving.”
She focused on the word diving and slowly shook her head. Who would have thought that Kingston, Jamaica would be the end of the line?
Mel glanced at the luggage behind her: a backpack, a suitcase, and a duffle bag. They held all her worldly possessions. At the grand old age of twenty-five, she was on the streets. She looked up at the sign.
Her father’s voice filled her head.
“The man ruined me,” he’d wheezed. “Ruined me.”
A sliver of indecision stabbed through her.
Would being on my own be better?
No, that was dumb. With no money and no boat, there was no way she could do this herself. She had to have help. And Kirk Hatcher was the man who made the most sense. She put a hand on the backpack where the map was. In reality, Kirk Hatcher was the only one who made sense.
Her mind went back ten years. Everything had been so different then, before they’d found the San Juan. Bass Treasure Hunting had yet to make a name for itself and life was happy. She and her father dove together every day, spurred on by the love of the hunt. The company had been small then, more like family.
She blinked her eyes and the sign came back into focus. Kirk Hatcher had been a part of that family.
But that was then, when her father had been alive, when there’d been a company instead of a line of creditors. She’d sold everything–well, everything that could be sold. She patted the backpack and looked up at the front door.
“Things aren’t going to get any easier by standing out here,” she muttered.
• • • • •
Kirk moved the blind aside a little more. The woman on the street was interesting–very interesting. That had to be a gear bag full of diving equipment. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her. She was by herself. That was unusual for tourists, especially pretty, young blonds. Judging from the luggage, she hadn’t even checked into her hotel yet.
He watched her glance down and then back up at the sign again. Even at this distance, he could see the pale blue color of her eyes set against the deeply tanned skin. In the August heat, she wore a tank top, short shorts that highlighted her long legs, and sandals. She touched her backpack.
What is she deliberating?
People didn’t generally choose their charter company from the street. They usually called ahead, though there was no need in the summer. August wasn’t just hot in Jamaica, it was the dead season. Bargain hunters came in the heat and they expected a hefty discount.
He’d gladly give her the discount and–he eyed the long legs again–maybe another ten percent just because.
Finally, she picked up the backpack and slung it over her shoulder. Then she took the suitcase in one hand and the duffle bag in the other and started to climb the steps. She was strong. The bags looked heavy.
He turned away from the large window, put his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts, and leaned back against the front of the desk. Flo was at lunch, otherwise she’d be doing the meeting and greeting. He preferred to work on the boat and be as far away from the office as could be managed but, today, he was glad for the change.
The glass front door opened and the electronic chime sounded.
He was content to watch as she pushed the door open with her pack, backing through, bringing the luggage with her. Every bit as good looking up close as she was on the street, she let the door close behind her and took a moment to let her eyes adjust from the glare outside.
He smiled at her.
“Welcome to Hatcher Tours,” he said. “Is there something I can help you with?”
At that, she froze, a strange look on her face.
Kirk froze as well, his body suddenly tense. Something was wrong.
“Kirk,” she said, staring at him.
He frowned now. Her voice seemed familiar. He stopped leaning against the desk and stood up to his full height.
“Yes?” he said.
She smiled a little. “You don’t recognize me,” she said.
Her voice was definitely familiar but he couldn’t place the face.
You’d think I’d remember her.
“Mel,” she said. “Mel Bass.”
He squinted at her–hard. Mel Bass?
Several images flashed through Kirk’s mind: the smiling sun-burnt face of Earl Bass, one of the most famous treasure hunters in the world; the deck of Earl’s boat, filling scuba tanks; the sparkling water off the Florida Keyes; and his daughter, a gangly teenager, with the same piercing blue eyes.
“Mel?” he said, still not quite believing it. But now he saw it, the resemblance to her father–to her former self. “You’ve changed.”
She set her backpack on the floor.
“You haven’t,” she said.
In a previous life, he’d have immediately held his arms out and she’d have hugged him but something in her voice said that wouldn’t be right–not now. The break with Earl had come suddenly and Kirk hadn’t said goodbye–to anybody. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who remembered that.
He stared at Mel’s face. She’d grown into a stunning woman. Though her mother had died many years before he’d known either Mel or her father, Kirk had heard she was breathtaking. Her daughter clearly took after her, except for the eyes. Kirk couldn’t help but see Earl in those eyes.
Never one to shy away from the hard truths, Kirk asked the obvious question.
“How’s your father?”
Mel held her chin up and looked him directly in the eye.
“He’s dead,” she said, evenly.
Her words landed like a physical blow–a punch in the gut. Though he stood stock still, he felt his stomach lurch.
The word rang in his head as he stared at her.
“When?” he ground out through a clenched jaw.
“Six months ago,” she said quietly and looked down at the ground between them.
Six months? I know I’m out of the loop but…
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry to hear that. And sorry for your loss.”
Questions immediately ran through his mind.
Where? How? Diving?
I hope it was while he was diving, Kirk thought. That was the only way the Captain would have wanted to go.
He stared at Earl’s daughter’s downturned face. Once upon a time, he’d have read her like a book. Like the old man, she wore everything on her sleeve. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Clearly, though, she was in pain. She’d adored her father and vice versa. Though he wanted to reach out and comfort her, her body language was closed. She stood apart from him, the luggage between them like a barricade.
She didn’t come all this way just to tell me. I haven’t spoken to either of them for years. He glanced at the luggage. No, she hadn’t come just to bring him news. He was easy enough to contact, even from the States.
“What is it, Mel? What are you doing here?” She turned a surprised look on him. “You’ve got your diving gear,” he said, nodding toward it.
She lifted her chin up again.
“I have a proposition for you.”
The alarms went off in Kirk’s head. How like her father she was. That was his line.
“Not interested,” he said, without thinking.
It was like riding a bike. The old reflexes were still intact.
“But…but you haven’t even heard what I have to say,” she stammered. For a moment, he was reminded of the teenage girl. “At least hear me out,” she said. “I’ve…come a long way.”
• • • • •
Somehow, Kirk turning her away hadn’t even entered Mel’s mind. But things were different now. That was becoming painfully clear.
“I’m not in the treasure hunting business any more,” he said, crossing his muscled arms.
In some ways, Kirk was exactly the same. Larger than life and impossibly dashing, he looked as though he hadn’t aged a day. His hazel eyes gleamed and his wavy, jet black hair framed a lightly tanned face. But not treasure hunting? Kirk was a natural, like her. You don’t just give it up. You can’t.
“Just let me tell you about it,” she implored. “That’s all I ask.”
His face was stern but she could see that something was going on behind his eyes. This wasn’t how she’d remembered him. More than anything, she recalled his wonderful laugh. Now, he was grimacing.
“Just an hour of your time,” she said, unable to keep her voice from rising an octave.
The muscles at his jaw worked overtime. Suddenly, he inhaled deeply and blew out.
“An hour,” he said, clearly not happy about it. He uncrossed his arms and jammed his hands in his pockets.
She nodded and felt one of the knots in her stomach unwind. The muscles in her shoulders were tight.
“My office is in the back,” he said. Without asking, he grabbed the gear bag and suitcase. “This way,” he said, turning.
She quickly grabbed the pack and followed.
His office was so much like her father’s she almost missed a step. The brown leather couch on one wall, the framed photos of Kirk with blue marlin, or at the helm, hung in simple frames on the dark wood paneling behind it. A table behind the massive wood desk was piled with nautical charts. An antique sextant was mounted on a brass stand next to them. On the wall to her right was an enlarged map of the entire Caribbean. Kirk set the bags in the corner and took a seat in the creaking wooden rolling chair behind the desk.
Mel put her pack with the bags and sat on the edge of the couch. Kirk crossed an ankle over his knee and rocked back in the chair, waiting, watching her. Her heart began to race.
She cleared her throat.
“1605,” she said. “Tierra Firme.”
Kirk snorted. “Oh please,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re not serious.”
She glared at him and felt her face and ears flush hot.
“Deadly,” she said.
Although Kirk continued to shake his head, he was quiet.
“I know where it is,” she said.
“You think you know,” he corrected.
“No,” she said. “I know.”
She glanced at the backpack.
“Fine,” he said. “Then where.”
“West, northwest of Navassa, sighting along a straight line that connects the peak and the lighthouse. I know exactly, to a tenth of a mile.”
That made him pause. Mel smiled inwardly to herself. She watched as he did the same thing she’d done when her father had told her. Kirk was calling up a mental map.
“The lost Gold Fleet,” she said. “That’s where it is.”
Kirk’s eyes flicked to hers and then away.
“It was August 18th,” she said. “Seven galleons under the command of Captain General Luis de Córdova left Cartagena bound for Seville, via Havana. Four days out, they encountered a hurricane that separated the fleet. By dusk on August 22nd, two of the smaller galleons sailed for and made Jamaica. One returned to Cartagena in September, under a mended sail. The other four–”
“Were wrecked between the Serrana Bank and the Serranilla Bank,” Kirk finished. “We’ve all heard the story.” He sighed. “And those banks are hell and gone from Navassa. You might as well be talking about different oceans.”
“That’s why nobody’s ever found them,” Mel said, unable to keep the excitement from her voice. She jumped to her feet and went to the map on the wall. “Those banks,” she said, putting her finger on them, at eye level, “might be between Cartagena and Havana but the place to look is between Jamaica and Haiti.” She moved her right hand to point at Jamaica. “Two of the seven ships landed on the eastern tip of the island. Given the track of hurricanes in the western Caribbean and the direction of the current, the wrecks are between Jamaica and Haiti.” She pointed at the ocean between the two and looked at him over her shoulder. “They’re here. Near Navassa Island.” Then she turned to him. “Four of the most treasure-laden galleons in all of history, some of the heaviest of the entire Gold Fleet, are there. The 450 ton San Ambrosio, the 500 ton Nuestra Señora de Begoña, the 600 ton San Roque, and,” she paused for emphasis, “the 747 ton Santo Domingo.”
She didn’t need to tell him the rest. Every treasure hunter worth their salt knew the Gold Fleet. At its height, Spain had used a constant flow of fleets to bring the vast riches of the New World to its doorstep. Millions of gold pesos, millions of silver bars and coins, and tons of emeralds from the Muzo mines. It was a stream of money that kept Spain solvent and able to wage wars. The most famous and rich shipwrecks ever found had been part of these fleets. But the 1605 fleet still remained unknown.
Or so the rest of the world thought.
Slowly, Kirk rose from his chair and came around the desk, staring at the map behind her. She half-turned to see where he was looking but paused to glance at him. There were a few tiny lines around his eyes now. Though she’d grown since she was fifteen, he was still a few inches taller. As he folded his arms over his chest again, she couldn’t help but notice that he’d kept himself fit–to say the least. Then, she noticed the thick gold chain that dipped into his shirt. It no doubt held a pendant–probably a piece of eight set into a medallion. All treasure hunters wore them. Kirk might think those days were behind him but the tense muscles, the way he stared at the map–he was a treasure hunter.
But suddenly he dropped his hands and turned away.
“It’s a fine story,” he said.
“It’s more than a story,” she said. She quickly took the silver chain from her throat, pulled up the pendant, and held it out to him. “Look.”
She didn’t take it off, so he had to stand close. As she laid it in his upturned palm, her fingers brushed against his. Suddenly, she was that teenage girl again. His chest was rising and falling and she could clearly see the deep and tanned curves of it at the collar. She inhaled very slowly but deeply when she realized she could smell his cologne–the same as before. He flipped the coin over and her mind was brought back to the present. She knew what he was seeing.
It was a silver peso, an 8 reale, an inch and a half in diameter.
“The Greek cross,” he said lowly.
“Potosi,” she confirmed.
Silver coins in the New World had been minted in Mexico City, Lima in Peru, and Potosi in Bolivia. The Potosi coins were marked with the Greek cross.
“Phillip the Third,” he said. “Dei Gratia Hispaniarum. By the Grace of God, King of the Spains.” He paused. “The P to the left of the shield is for Potosi. And who is B?”
She smiled. That letter under the mint location was the most important thing about this coin. The letter stood for the assayer, the man who guaranteed the weight and value of it. Assayers didn’t work forever and their time in the job dated the find.
“Hernando Ballesteros,” she said. “1596 to 1605.”
It could easily have come from the 1605 fleet and would be a crucial part of proving that the wreck was indeed one of the four.
Kirk nodded and handed it back to her. It was still warm from his touch.
“You found it on the wreck?” he asked, still standing close.
“No,” she said, looking away. She tucked the coin back beneath her tank top. “My father did.”
The map and the medallion–that’s all that he’d left her–and a mountain of debts.
She looked up to find Kirk still gazing at the silver chain but his face had grown solemn. Completely unaware of her watching him, his forehead wrinkled and his eyebrows came together. His light eyes glittered as they traced the chain to her neck. Her skin tingled under his rising gaze, up her neck, along her jaw, pausing on her lips. By the time he looked into her eyes, her heart was pounding in her ears.
Just then, her stomach gurgled–loud and long. Though she held her mid-section, it wouldn’t stop and she didn’t succeed in quieting it.
“You always could eat,” he said, smiling down at her.
Though that was true, it wasn’t the whole truth. Money was tight–very tight. The food on the flight and at the airport had been ridiculously expensive and the cab had brought her directly here. She’d need to find a grocery store and something cheap before she’d be able to eat.
“Right,” she said, embarrassed, though not for the reasons that Kirk probably thought.
His face grew serious for a moment and his eyes looked right through her. Suddenly, he snapped back to himself.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”