Mari glanced down at her watch as Keon steered the boat back to the shore. It was her final tour of the day and she was cutting it a little close meeting up with Tyler. Tours had a habit of being a little unpredictable that way.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Keon asked watching Mari jump out of the boat to tie down the moment they reached the dock.
“I’m not in a hurry. I’m just not as slow as you.” She knotted the rope quickly and reached up to help their customers out.
The teen girl beamed at her before heading off to the shop before her parents. Jeremy was manning the counter and would take care of checking the equipment back in. Satisfied, she reached into the boat for her bag.
“Take care of the equipment clean up for me? I’ll handle tomorrow’s.”
“Looks like a hurry to me.” Keon looked past her and she knew from the frown forming Tyler had shown up. “What’s he doing here?”
“I’m taking him hiking.”
“We’ll double up.”
“It’s not a tour.”
Keon jumped out of the boat and folded his arms across his chest as he stared at her. “Then why are you taking him hiking?”
“Because I want to go and he wants to tag along. I told you years ago to stop wearing that Superman shirt. It’s really gone to your head.”
“Keon, relax. It’s hiking. He’s just a guy.”
“Where are you hiking?”
She stared at him.
“I don’t know. Maybe Pa Nali or Rocanda. I’ll call when I get in,” she added over her shoulder because she knew that was what he was looking for.
She slid her arms through the straps of her bag and walked up to Tyler, checking him out as she came closer. She noted the boots he wore and the pack on his back. She couldn’t help but smile in approval. So he wasn’t a complete amateur.
“You might at least be somewhat prepared for this.”
He waved at Keon before turning to follow her to the truck with a smile that flashed straight white teeth. “I hear you’re pretty tough so I thought I’d bring my A game.”
She eyed him over her shoulder. “We’ll see if it’s good enough.”
He reached around her to open the door to the truck. She hesitated and looked at him in surprise. When he only continued to smile, she leaned in to drop her bag in the back and climbed in.
“Want me to follow you?” he asked through the open window.
“Might as well hop in.”
He didn’t hesitate, rounding the front of the truck to climb in. They didn’t say much as she cranked up the truck and headed up the beach. She could feel him looking her way. Without looking she knew it was the intense look he’d given her at the party. Strangely it wasn’t unnerving, but thrilling.
“You don’t just guide because it’s the family business,” he started casually.
She grinned over at him. “Is it that obvious? I love it. Always have. Getting paid to do it is just a bonus. Having your dad for a boss isn’t half bad either.”
He laughed. “I’ve seen you with him so I believe that. Someone mentioned he’s actually your uncle?”
She nodded. “He’s my mother’s brother. She died when I was younger and he took me in. I’m surprised anyone mentioned it. I was pretty young when she died and even before that I was always Raoul’s girl. ‘Raoul, that girl of yours broke my window.’ ‘Raoul, would you get your little girl?’ ‘Raoul’s girl is at it again.’ We spent a lot of time in parent teacher meetings and the principal’s office. On the plus side, I got very good at saying ‘I’m sorry’.” She took her eyes off the road long enough to look at him. “But you already know I was the resident troublemaker. What about you?”
He shrugged. “I lost both of parents at an early age and ended up staying with a family friend.
That made her smile. “So you have your own Raoul.”
His answering smile was faint. “Yeah, you could say that.”
She pulled off of the road and drove a short way down the spotted dirt road mostly covered with grass. She came to a stop a few feet away from the tree line and threw the truck in park. Reaching into the backseat, she grabbed her bag and hopped out.
“This isn’t the toughest trail, but it’s one of the harder ones. I have no clue about your level of expertise.”
He rounded the hood of the truck and joined her on the path up to the trees. “I’ve been on a few difficult trails, but this is a good start. I’ll trust your guiding.”
“Just let me know when you want to turn back.”
“Having the Snake Whisperer on the trail with me makes me feel safer. I’ll be able to handle it.”
She snorted and brushed low hanging branches out of her way. “I don’t know why since that means I can tell them exactly where to strike.”
He laughed. “You’ve got a mean streak. I like it.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him with a curious smile. “Yeah, you seem like the kind of guy that would.”
“Do I now? What kind of guy is that?”
“I don’t know. You come to me asking to hike the trails most people are afraid to try. And that’s after you’ve heard about me setting snakes loose for fun. I have to think you like a little…sass.”
He caught her hand from behind, lifting it to help her balance as she continued forward along the narrowing trail.
“I guess that’s a fair conclusion. Maybe I was just looking for a reason to spend some time with the pretty guide who makes me want to grab hold of life again.”
She stopped as the trail widened and whirled around so quickly he nearly ran into her. He caught himself, stopping right up against her with their hands still locked above their heads.
“I do all that? In one meeting?”
“I knew about you before you even set foot back on the island, but once I met you? Yeah. You’re kind of hard to live up to. Makes a man want to live a little more.”
She bit her lip against the second smile forming. Smiling seemed hard not to do aroudn him.
“Yeah? Maybe I can help you with that.”
“I think you can.”
They stared into each other’s eyes until Mari pulled her fingers free and turned to continue the hike. He kept up with ease, proving he did have some experience with trickier trails. Before she knew it, they’d been on the trail for nearly an hour and were nearing her favorite part of Rocanda.
Minutes later the trail opened into a wider clearing just before the steep drop off the cliff. She inhaled deeply, approaching the edge.
“This is worth the hike,” Tyler said mirroring her thoughts.
“I love it up here. It’s just too advanced of a trail for most tours.” She smiled, fingering the soft petals of one of the vivid yellow and green flowers decorating a bush. “See these? I’ve never seen them anywhere else on the island. Just here. They remind me of the pinwheels I used to beg my mom to buy so I could stick them all over the yard and watch them spin in the wind.”
“You sat still long enough to watch them?” he asked nudging her.
She laughed. “If I could get her to buy enough, I’d crawl through them to look at each one. But sometimes, yeah, I would lie in the grass and just watch them and she’d stretch out there with me. That’s probably why she’d give in and get them.”
He plucked one of the flowers free from the bush and fit it into her hair. “It fits you.
Her lips twitched in an irrepressible smile and she reached up to brush a hand over the flower. “Thanks. Do you mind if we stay a little while? I don’t make it up here very often.”
He shrugged off his pack and set it down. “I’m yours for the rest of the day.”
He was true to his word, spending the next two hours doing anything she wanted. They climbed a tree so she could show him one of the best views of the island. His awestruck appreciation showed her another side of him. They hiked through some of the jungle off the barely established path and the longer they walked and talked the more Mari found to like.
“So tell me something about Tyler. The whole island already knows my story, but I haven’t heard much about you.”
“There’s not a lot to tell. I told you a family friend raised me. He was a decent guy. He was better than anyone else I might’ve ended up with. He taught me a lot.”
This was a man who listened while someone spoke. She could tell he wasn’t a big fan of talking about himself, but he was willing to answer her questions.
“Are you two close?”
“We don’t spend as much time together as we used to, but we’re still close. He’s all the family I’ve got so we try to get together as much as we can.”
She smiled at that. Family was important to her. It was nice to hear Tyler felt the same way about his own.
They finally circled back to the clearing and lazed about just enjoying the scenery. She rolled onto her stomach and took a long drink from her water bottle, studying him all the while.
“So why’d you come to Sakina?”
“I needed a change of scenery. Job burnout. A friend vacationed here once and recommended it.”
“What do you do?”
“I used to work security for a private organization. Now I’m a beach bum.” He looked around them. “Soon to be a hiking bum it looks like.”
She laughed and told herself his words were not a subtle reference about spending time with her going forward. It also occurred to her private security had paid well if he could afford to come to Sakina and do nothing. “Hiking and being a bum don’t seem to go together.”
His crooked grin was endearing. “That’s true. We’ll have to come up with another term.”
She could talk to him for the rest of the night, but if they didn’t leave soon they ran the risk of trying to hike back down in the dark. When she mentioned as much she noticed she wasn’t the only one who got to her feet reluctantly. He helped her into her backpack and gestured for her to lead the way back down.
By the time they returned to the shop so he could get his car, the sun had already set and the lot was empty. Tyler leaned back in his seat and angled his head to stare at her. Her brow furrowed in question, but a smile peeked out too.
“Just looking at you. I had a good time today.”
She ducked her head while she tried to fight the blush she knew was stealing over her cheeks. “I did too.”
“Does that mean I’m good enough to go hiking with you again?”
His grin was adorable and impossible not to respond to. “I guess you make the cut.”
“Making the cut with you is the highest compliment from anyone else.” He reached out to adjust the flower in her hair, his fingers lightly brushing over her cheek for the briefest of moments. “Goodnight, Mari. Let me know when you make it home.”
She watched him get out of the truck and into his own car. She smiled when he flashed his lights at her. She waved and headed for home, her thoughts on the man who made her feel as comfortable as an old friend and yet as excited as a middle school girl with her first crush.