All Keyed Up
A Man with a Plan
At home in the Florida Keys on medical leave, undercover agent Jack Benton is on a mission to save his beloved aunt’s failing dolphin facility. He’s positive he can close a seven-figure land development deal, until his sassy Aunt Ruby accepts the proposal of world-renowned marine mammal scientist Dr. Vic Sheffield. Against his better judgment, Jack must cooperate with the project or break Ruby’s heart.
A Woman with a Dream
Things aren’t what they seem. More than the Keys temperature heats up when Dr. Victoria Sheffield finesses her way into the facility under the guise of her famous father’s name, hoping to finally establish herself as a top-notch researcher. A lifetime of behavioral observation hasn’t prepared her, however, for a suspicious, sexy Homo sapiens specimen like Jack. She’ll need every last point of her elevated I.Q. to outwit this wily alpha male. He knows she’s hiding something, and sooner or later he’ll figure it out. In the meantime, not only his suspicions are aroused by the beautiful brainiac.
Two Hearts on Fire
When dreams collide and passion storms, it’s no wonder everybody’s All Keyed Up!
“Four Stars! Readers are sure to enjoy this well-written romance” Romantic Times Magazine
“Mary Stella writes a wonderfully entertaining story in ALL KEYED UP. Rich with double entendres that increase sexual tension, a little matchmaking by Jack’s aunt, and a light intrigue filtering into the story, this proved to be a one-sitting read, leaving me with a smile on my face.” In The Library Reviews
“Clever, witty, and s-e-x-y! Stella delivers a smart heroine, a kick-butt hero and lively romantic tale that is hot, hot, hot!” Beth Ciotta
award-winning author of The Chameleon Chronicles series
“You did what?” Jack Benton pushed a hank of hair away from his face and glared at his aunt.
Aunt Ruby glared right back and shook a letter in his face. “I accepted an offer from the great Dr. Sheffield to do his research project right here at Dolphin Land.” Gnarled hands planted on bony hips, she jutted out her scrawny chest with determination. “Don’t go giving me that look, Bubba. This here is a miracle falling right out of the sky.”
“Let me see that.” Mindful of her older bones, he took the paper gently, but still scowled while he read.
Dear Mrs. Maguire,
It will be my pleasure to conduct my latest research on the social communication of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at your fine facility.
Jack snorted. Dolphin Land hadn’t been a fine facility since before Uncle Gus died. It took every penny Aunt Ruby could scrounge to feed six dolphins and keep their lagoons in good shape. She let her own conch house go to crap before the animals suffered. Except for the fish house and freezer, every other building sagged in on itself. The next strong hurricane would blow them all to Cuba.
“I know what you’re thinking, Jack. Just keep reading.”
I appreciate your honesty that Dolphin Land is small and experiencing rough times. However, I don’t consider this detrimental to our mutual goals. The intimate setting and established colony of animals should prove beneficial to my methods for study and data collection. Moreover, as I mentioned in our earlier telephone conversation …”
“Telephone conversation? When did you talk to this Sheffield? How come I’m just hearing about this?”
“I wanted to surprise you. Keep reading. You’ll like the next part.”
“…I have obtained a generous research grant to fund the study and I am quite satisfied with the terms we discussed. I will, of course, purchase all necessary equipment and pay for the installation. I am happy to compensate you and your staff for your time and efforts in the ongoing data collection.”
“See, Jack! Compensation for me and my staff—that’s you and little Jeanie from down the way.”
Glee shone in Ruby’s eyes as she two-stepped around the battered office. He hated squelching her enthusiasm, but this wasn’t the first time his irrepressible aunt had been boondoggled.
“This offer’s too sudden. I can’t believe you didn’t let me check it out first. What do you know of this…” he made a show of checking the letter even though he’d committed the name to memory. “…Sheffield? How do we know he’s the real deal?”
“Jesus, Mary and all the saints in heaven. Dr. Sheffield practically wrote the book on dolphin research. Open-water studies on family groups, controlled settings for image matching. You name it. He’s won the Delphinid Prize at least three times, not that I expect you to bother knowing that that’s as big an honor as it gets in this business. Now he wants to bring himself, his equipment, and his money to Dolphin Land and you doubt he’s the real deal? We ought to bend over to kiss the man’s—”
“Assets, Jack, assets.”
He sighed, and then grimaced, mentally kicking himself when the glee in her eyes turned mulish. Hostage negotiations were easier than talking sense into his obstinate aunt. He sure as hell knew better than to get her back up. She’d stand as solid as a concrete statue out of pure stubbornness. Time for a new tactic.
“Aunt Ruby, I know how badly you want to keep Dolphin Land running, and on the surface this looks great, but we have to be practical. It’s gonna take a lot more than a few paychecks to get back on our feet. The buildings need to be restored, the grounds redone. We’re talking thousands of dollars before we even consider reopening to the public. I want to help, you know I do, but we have to explore other options.”
“Bubba, you think I should just cave in and sell. Believe it or not, I listened when you explained about the bazillion bucks we could get for the land from a developer. But…” She turned to the window and looked out at the front lagoon where six sleek bodies glided through the water. She grasped his arm, pulling him to her side.
The afternoon sun sparkled on the Gulf of Mexico as if someone had tossed down a fistful of diamonds. A gangly, teenaged girl stepped down on the floating dock, grasping shiny stainless steel buckets. Immediately, four gray faces popped up. Their excited whistles and clicks carried across the water.
“Jeanie doesn’t even need to put their symbols down. Scarlett, Rhett, Melly and Ashley are always first in line for treats. Robin and Marian over there are more interested in each other than food right now. I don’t know if anything will come of it. Marian’s thirty. That’s getting up there for a dolphin lady, but it won’t be for lack of trying.” Ruby cackled, but her face quickly clouded over. “I can’t do it, Jack,” she choked out. “Those dolphins are family. I won’t give them up, and for the life of me, I don’t understand how you could even ask me.”
The look in her eyes drove a fist into his gut. He gathered her to his chest. Her thin frame ran at odds to her gritty strength. God knows he’d fought enemies armed to their eyeteeth in conditions that rivaled hell on Earth. Only this diminutive, crotchety, old woman that he loved like a mother could bring him to his knees.
He knew he was beaten… this time. “I’m not asking you to give them up. If this is what you want, I’ll do my damnedest to make it work.”
Feeling the tension ease from her body solidified his determination. One way or another, he’d ensure his aunt’s security and happiness for the rest of her life. He rubbed his chin over her sun-bleached hair.
“All I ask is that you trust me. If this research project isn’t the answer, if it isn’t enough, you have to give my idea a shot.” He leaned back to look down into her eyes. “I’ll find a way to do it without losing the gang. I promise.”
Her grin was all the answer he needed. He’d find a way, damn straight. In the meantime, this Dr. Sheffield better be on the up and up. If he screwed up his end of the bargain and left Ruby twisting in the Florida Keys’ wind, he’d have Jack Benton to answer to, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
Jack tilted back in his chair and swallowed more ice tea. Water trickled down his back from hair still damp from the quick outdoor shower. It was hotter than normal for mid-January, but the Gulf temperature hadn’t crept above seventy degrees. If he had to spend a couple hours waist deep in water to tighten lagoon fence lines and scrub them clean of sea grass, this was a good day for the work.
Propping his feet on a hunk of sun-bleached coral rock, he rested his glass on his stomach. After putting in hours of solid work, a man earned the right to relax, maybe take a nice nap under the shady palm tree, enjoying a cool breeze.
Sure was different from the dense jungles of Colombia where the afternoons grew so thick and hot with humidity, you cooked like a turkey in an oven. Here, you didn’t slog weapons and equipment through near-impenetrable vegetation, tracking wily drug runners. Instead, it was feed the dolphins; keep the water flowing through clean fences; and start repairing the front building. He had plenty to keep himself busy while his leg healed and returned to full strength. And he could do it without risking his life—unless he was overcome from the complete lack of excitement.
Compared to the high-octane energy of agency work, Dolphin Land was a tricycle ride on a cul-de-sac. He missed walking the sharp edge of danger and the sense that his job mattered, but until he healed a hundred percent, returning to the field was suicidal. In the meantime, his aunt needed him and he needed something to keep from going nuts.
He was overdue for some downtime anyway, so he might as well spend it at home with Aunt Ruby. A little work, a little fishing, and some of her good home cooking would set him up right and let him recharge. To keep himself sharp, he had also planned to work a deal to secure his aunt’s financial future. Then Aunt Ruby sprang her latest outrageous scheme.
The hum of an engine and crunch of tires on pea rock interrupted his musings. He cracked open an eye and scowled. A silver SUV, sporting a thick coat of road grime and a few hundred dead bugs, stopped a few feet away. The fly had arrived in his ointment.
The car door opened, but Jack stayed put. Despite the official-looking Sheffield Institute letters and his aunt’s assurances, he wasn’t even close to sure that this so-called dolphin genius wasn’t fifty percent pure crackpot. Old Victor Sheffield wasn’t going to stroll in and take over Aunt Ruby’s pride and joy. Not while Jack Benton was on the job. No way in…
A pair of long, killer, female legs swung out of the car into his sightline. “Aw hell,” he muttered. It wasn’t Sheffield after all. Still, no matter how good those legs looked, whoever owned them was bound to be a pain in his ass.
He unfolded himself from the chair as he scanned up a line of smooth skin to where a delicate, green skirt brushed a pair of perfect knees. The path traveled to a tailored jacket molded around what looked to be a spectacular set of—
“Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for Mrs. Ruby Maguire. Can you help me?”
Her voice reminded him of blues music and full-bodied wine. Reluctantly, he interrupted his slow perusal and brought his attention to her face.
Talk about a sucker punch.
All the usual features fell into place and created something out of the ordinary. Not beautiful in a classic way. The nose was too pert and the mouth way, way too generous. Her skin held a hint of tan, and silky brows arced over eyes of rich, deep brown. Her hair, pulled back in a sleek braid, was maple syrup-colored, streaked with honey and taffy strands.
Flat-out male hunger kicked in and, almost as fast, pissed him off.
“Am I in the right place?”
That smoky voice again revved his pulse while his mind ran through a list of possibilities.
Friends of his aunt wouldn’t call her Mrs. Maguire. Aunt Ruby would have told him if she was expecting someone on business. Besides, this visitor was too well-dressed for the Keys, where casual attire ruled the day. The answer hit him like a coconut falling from a tree. After caving into his aunt’s crazy plans, he’d told the realtors and land developers to back off. This one must not have gotten the message.
“Sorry, lady, but if you’re looking to buy, there’s nothing here for sale.” He slowly stepped forward, upping the intimidation factor with his superior height and body language.
Although she leaned back as he loomed over her, she didn’t retreat. “I’m not here to make a purchase. I—”
“We’re not interested in anything you’re selling either. That pretty much covers the bases on why you’d drive in here, so why don’t you just climb on back in that little truck and head out again?”
While he watched, her pleasant smile rapidly morphed to narrow-eyed resolve. She straightened and lifted her chin.
“I don’t know who you are, nor do I actually care.” The rich, contralto voice dripped vinegar. “I’m here to see Ruby Maguire.”
“That would be none of your business. My appointment’s with her.”
“Ruby doesn’t do appointments, and the only person she’s expecting is—”
A hint of triumph glinted in the woman’s eyes. Jack glanced at the SUV and picked out the
blue and white of a Massachusetts’ license plate underneath the road grime. He whipped back his head. “Who are you?”
The hint burst into victory, and he got his first taste of a full-blown, poleaxing smile. “Victoria Sheffield. I believe you said I’m expected?”
Her first introduction to the denizens of Dolphin Land hadn’t gone too well. The gruff he-man with too much chest and damp brown hair hanging to his shoulders must be a maintenance worker. He’d barked, “Wait right here!” before storming into a building she guessed was an office.
Victoria stifled the jitter of nerves in her stomach and looked around. Good Lord, the Florida Keys were beautiful. Miles of brilliant turquoise and emerald water shimmered before her like a promise of good things to come. A few brown pelicans with long, pouched beaks and spunky, black cormorants perched on a weather-beaten dock. Overhead, an osprey inscribed lazy circles in the cloudless sky, waiting to plunge like a feathered spear and snatch a plump fish for lunch. Right there in front of her, in the first of a few coral-rimmed lagoons, swam the answers to her prayers.
Excitement bubbled inside her like a jet spa. Here, for the first time in her life, she was truly on her own. No more sticking to someone else’s schedule or agenda. Three days ago, she’d turned the lock on her Nantucket home, fired up her car, and hit the road for her new destination. She grinned. Destination as in destiny, she thought, and for once in her life she was going for it! Her future lay in this small place and that family of marine mammals.
“Dolphin Land or Promised Land?” she whispered, amused at the thought. Almost immediately, she clapped a hand over her mouth and then laughed at her own reaction. The air conditioner in the office window made so much noise, surely nobody inside could hear. If she wanted to make a silly, fun comparison and giggle over it, who would stop her? Nobody. Not her father, a man she loved, revered, and resented all at the same time. Certainly not her lying, research-stealing, glory-grabbing slime of an ex-fiancé.
This was her quest, her precious little secret. Here, at a facility so small and seedy no others in the field would ever consider it for a project, she would make her mark. Victoria pumped her fist in the air. She would prove her theories of dolphin social communication, present a brilliant paper, and win the Delphinid Prize for research. Along the way, she would show the world she was not merely her father’s daughter and unrecognized assistant, but a talented marine mammal research scientist in her own right.
You wouldn’t have made it this far without him. You still needed his name to get your foot in the door. The thought wiggled into her dream like a worm in a tasty apple.
“Okay, okay, so I fudged it a little,” she admitted to the pretend guilt imp lurking in her mind. “What’s the big deal? I’m qualified to be principal investigator, and I’m using my own money to fund the project. It isn’t like I said I was him!”
You never said you weren’t either, VIC Sheffield.
Oh, so what if nobody in her whole life, including herself, ever called her anything but Victoria? Everyone had always referred to her father as Victor, when they weren’t addressing him in awestruck tones as Doc..tor..Shef..field. He’d lived his whole career hearing his name over-emphasized, as if his greatness were too huge for the syllables to flow together naturally.
Be nice. He isn’t the man he used to be. Since her father’s stroke, he couldn’t speak clearly, uttering mostly grunts. During her daily visits, their conversations were monologues on her part. His caregiver, Rosa, a wonderful warm Jamaican woman, assured her that his mind was active, but Victoria felt him drifting further away. Without his life’s work, his teaching and his lecture series, he’d lost his identity as a man, a person. Surely being a good father had never been one of the ways he measured his success.
After the years she’d worked as his paid assistant, without ever receiving a line of credit in the papers she helped write, he owed her the loan of his reputation to use as a springboard. It wasn’t as if she’d lied to this Mrs. Maguire. She’d merely presented the truth in a creative, maybe slightly misleading fashion.
She wrestled the guilt imp to the mat and pinned it.
When she succeeded with this project and won the Delphinid Prize, her triumph would also stand as an extension of her father’s legacy. Then surely, for once in her life, she would make him proud.
“Well, I gotta tell you, Miss, you aren’t who I expected.”
Victoria gave her full attention to the small, frail-looking older woman. Anticipating some degree of suspicion, she’d planned her reply and smiled broadly. “Mrs. Maguire, I don’t blame you for being surprised. It’s a common enough error when people first see my name to assume
I’m my father. Over ten years in the field and still…” She shrugged and added a nonchalant chuckle, as if to say, How silly and what does it matter anyway?
The he-man stared from his post against the wall. He probably thought she’d crumple under his disapproving glare. Little did he know she’d been disapproved of all her life by her own father, even when she’d have crawled over broken glass to earn his respect.
She deliberately ignored him and focused her attention on the woman. “Mrs. Maguire, if we can get past that for a moment, I assure you that my being here instead of my father has no bearing on the research project.”
Muscle-brain snorted. She acted like he didn’t exist.
“As his senior researcher, I have collected and evaluated data for a number of years.” All true, even though she couldn’t prove it. “Sadly, he is unable to carry out his field studies because of his medical problems, but the work of the Sheffield Institute must continue.”
The woman nodded. The man glared.
Victoria adopted what she hoped was a brave smile and a sorrowful look in her eyes, soliciting understanding. “So, you see, this project is vital. After all he’s done for me over the years…” The pause sounded dramatic, but in reality she was close to choking on the words, which were the only real lie in anything she’d said. “…it’s up to me to continue his legacy.”
“Absolutely!” Mrs. Maguire nodded so hard that the hair piled on top of her head threatened to come loose from its pins. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression when you first came in. I was just surprised. Of course, the project must go on and, if the great Dr. Sheffield can’t be here himself, who better than the man’s own flesh ‘n blood?” She patted Victoria’s arm.
“It may help you to know that researchers of my father’s level very often leave much of the routine field work to assistants and grad students, Mrs. Maguire.”
“Ruby. Just plain Ruby. Only people calling me Missus are those danged telemarketers. We’re going to be working a long time together, and we don’t stand on ceremony down here in the Keys.”
“Then please call me… Vic.”
“Honey, you don’t have to make yourself one of the guys. Back when we had a full staff, woman or man, everyone worked together and both sides pulled their weight. Equal work, equal money, equal respect, my husband Gus, God rest his soul, always said, and we raised Jack here the same way.”
He was her son? Her eyes widened, but she didn’t realize she’d spoken the words out loud until he pushed himself off the wall and approached.
“Nephew, biologically speaking, but she’s been my mother since Dolphin Land became my home when I was ten years old.”
The words were underscored with a warning. He moved alongside a window and, with the light streaming in, his eyes glittered with a clear message. Don’t screw with me and mine.
Her throat went dry as dust. Even with the underlying threat, she couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were remarkable, almost the same shade as the perfectly clear turquoise water in the Caribbean. She broke eye contact by glancing at the water cooler against the wall. “May I?” she asked, gesturing at the inverted bottle.
“Of course. That’s one thing we always make sure to have plenty of. It sure isn’t as hot as it can get in the Keys, but the days will come. You keep yourself hydrated but good, Victoria.” Ruby frowned. “I’m sorry, darlin’, I just can’t call a woman pretty as you by a man’s name.”
Victoria gulped down the water, unexpectedly moved by the compliment. It was impossible not to respond to the woman’s quick, honest warmth. She silenced her misgivings with a fervent promise to do the right thing. Granted, she got her foot in the door by stretching the truth, but her theories and study were legitimate and she’d prove it to the world.
The first step was easy. She crumpled the paper cup and tossed it in the trash. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?” Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out an envelope and handed it to Ruby. “As we agreed, here are the first two months’ installments I promised from the grant monies.”
“I won’t pretend this isn’t going to come in handy. Right, Jack? As it happens, we’ve got a fish delivery next week and a ton of work to do on the buildings. Oh, we cleared some storage area for your stuff. In a couple of weeks, when we finish the repairs on the other building, we’ll be able to make some office space for you too.”
“That won’t be necessary. I plan to do much of my evaluation and writing at night at the cottage I rented.”
“You’re all fixed up at Pirate’s Cove? I told Hank to give you one of the nicer units and he promised to cut you a break on price.”
“I’m quite pleased with the terms and the walking distance couldn’t be more convenient. Thank you for the suggestion.” Victoria looked at her watch. “I think what I would like to do, if you don’t mind, is unload my equipment from the car.” Enthusiasm broke free in her voice. “Then, since we’re going to spend so much time together, I would love to meet your dolphins!”
“That’s a fine idea and I know they’re gonna love meeting you. Especially Rhett and Robin Hood, those charmers. Jack, you unload Victoria’s stuff while I show her where she can change out of that suit and into something more comfortable.”
The watchdog’s gaze never left Victoria’s eyes, and her stomach jumped a little under the intensity. She’d underestimated his importance before, but the power vibe he transmitted now told her she’d have to stay on her guard.
“Aunt Ruby, I ought to have her input on how she wants her equipment handled.” He raked her with a look that made her knees wobble. “I’m getting more interested by the minute in this research project. Suddenly, I can’t wait for her to tell me all.”