Summer at the Shore (Seashell Bay Book 2)

BOOK: Summer at the Shore (Seashell Bay Book 2)
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For Dan and Naoko

Acknowledgments

We’d like to thank our editor, Alex Logan, and the staff at Forever Romance for their kind support and help in ushering our books into the world. Many thanks also go to Debbie Mazzuca—no one could ask for a better friend. Finally, our sincere gratitude to our agent, Evan Marshall, who works tirelessly on our behalf and whose support we truly value.

Chapter 1

R
yan Butler dumped his army-issue duffel bag onto the deck and grabbed a bench seat beside the ferry’s port rail. As usual, he’d kept his gear to a minimum for a visit home. And it struck him as weird that he still thought of Seashell Bay Island as home, despite his determined escape years ago. Most summers, he’d spend only three or four days with his folks, but this vacation could last a lot longer. He had plans, of course, but his years in the army had taught him the necessity of keeping them flexible. If the island started to close in on him, he’d jump on a ferry and head somewhere else. He had some money, some time, and no responsibilities, so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Ryan called that freedom, and he needed a good dose of it right now.

After his latest grueling contract with Double Shield Corporation, Ryan had made it clear to his controller that he needed a serious break. For ten months, he’d been babysitting diplomats in Baghdad. For six more after that, his job had been protecting a Fortune 500 CEO and his team as they bounced their way across a string of countries that
varied from half-assed safe to outright deadly. Those jobs paid great but left him with an even bigger dose of uncertainty about his future than when he’d left the military. A little of the hired gunslinger’s life went a long way, and he sure as hell couldn’t see doing it in the long term.

As for the alternatives? At this point he hadn’t a clue.

A year and a half ago, simmering frustration with his army career and the lure of good money had prompted him to leave Special Operations and hook up with Double Shield, a private military contractor. But it hadn’t taken long to realize that money wasn’t enough. In fact, his restlessness had only increased with the corporate gig. At least in the army, Ryan had felt like he had roots that kept him grounded. Now he was drifting. His bank account was getting fatter, but that was about the only good thing he had to show for his life over the last eighteen months.

He twisted in his seat to take another look over the bay, breathing in the tangy scents of the sea air and the fishing boats. He’d taken one of these ferries between Portland and the island thousands of times, including every day of his four years at Peninsula High. The ride could be a boring pain in the ass, but it was relaxing. Forty minutes to an hour of pure peace. Put the earbuds in and zone out.

Except for the occasional mad morning rush to finish up homework before the boat docked in Portland. Okay, maybe more than occasional.

A cheerful serenity cloaked the harbor scene even though tourists and locals alike rushed to make boats to the various islands, towing children and dogs, as well as groceries in carts and battered canvas bags. Coming home had never particularly thrilled him, and yet Ryan had spent enough time eating dust and dodging bullets and
IEDs to regard the good old USA, and coastal Maine in particular, as probably the closest thing to peace he’d ever find. Yeah, it was caught in a retro time warp that certainly wasn’t for an adrenaline junkie like him, but he did appreciate the laid-back beauty of the place that remained unchanged from one year to the next.

The ferry horn sounded one blast to signal the boat’s imminent departure. A couple of tanned and fit young deckhands—probably students—finished securing the cargo while two others pulled the metal gangway onto the boat. Like them, Ryan had spent the summer after his high school graduation crewing on the island ferries. It had been hard, hot work, but something about that final summer, working and partying with his high school friends, had been almost idyllic.

And then he’d left for the military and soon enough to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Afghanistan again. In the process, he’d lost too many army buddies and seen enough ugliness to last several lifetimes.

“Hold up!” a voice cried from down the pier. “Please, guys, I really need to make this boat.”

Ryan recognized that feminine voice even before he saw Morgan Merrifield running full tilt boogie down the concrete platform of the ferry terminal. Her pretty face flushed and her blond hair flopping forward into her eyes, she lugged an overstuffed L.L.Bean bag in her right hand and pulled a wheeled cart with her left. Instinct made him jump up and rush down to the boat’s lower deck to help her.

Though one of the deckhands was rolling his eyes at her, the other one grinned and started to push the gangway back across the gap between the platform and the
boat. With the sweetest smile God ever put on a woman’s face, Morgan thanked them as she set her bag down and fumbled for her ticket. Ryan waited a moment for the guys to secure the gangway and then strode across to help the girl he’d known since she’d barely started to walk.

“Yo, Morgan, it looks like you could use a hand with that. If taking my help wouldn’t offend your girl-power pride, that is,” he teased.

Morgan and her best friend, Lily Doyle, had always been hardheaded when it came to proving they were as capable as anybody on Seashell Bay. In Lily’s case, that determination had translated into fighting the sea as captain of her own lobster boat. In Morgan’s, it was all about organization. Morgan Merrifield could organize the living hell out of anything from a referendum campaign to the kids’ events at the Blueberry Festival. She’d been born to be a teacher, and Ryan figured she probably ran her elementary school classroom as efficiently as an Army Ranger instructor ran his drills.

“Ryan,” she gasped, her gaze widening in surprise. She stared for a few seconds, then flashed him a glorious smile that sank deep into his bones. “Oh, heck, offend away. Be warned though. That bag is heavy.”

Though he easily hoisted the canvas tote, she wasn’t kidding about the weight. Lugging the heavy load would have done in a lesser woman. But Morgan kept herself in shape, and today she looked as lithe and toned as ever. Incredibly feminine too, he didn’t mind noting—slender but with truly nice curves in all the right places.

“What’s in this sucker anyway?” he asked.

“Beer, among other necessities.” She cast him a mocking glance as she maneuvered the cart across the narrow
gangway onto the boat. “By the way, it’s real nice to see you again too, old pal.”

Ryan followed her on board, laughing at her good-natured dig. “Likewise, Morgan. But why do you need to lug beer all the way from the mainland? The stores on the island stock all kinds of it.”

“I’ve got a regular guest who insists on having his beloved Moosehead, and damned if I didn’t forget to ask the Jenkins sisters to order it in. I was shopping in town today anyway, so I thought I’d pick some up.” She brushed a hand back through the silky, shoulder-length hair that kept blowing across her face, and her rosebud mouth curved into a sly smile. “We make a little money running an honor bar. It helps the bottom line a bit.”

Ryan switched the bag to his other hand and helped her steer the cart around a pile of suitcases left on the deck. “Well, aren’t you just the considerate hostess? Or is it host? I don’t want to be politically incorrect.”

“You, politically incorrect? Perish the thought. But yeah, I’ll do special stuff for guests to keep them coming back. God knows we can’t afford to lose any more business.” For a moment, her cheery expression dimmed.

The deckhands yanked the gangway on board again and closed the gate. Morgan wheeled her cart across the cabin to the port side and found an empty bench.

Ryan plopped the bag down beside her. “Okay if I sit with you? Or would you rather be alone?”

She looked at him like he’d just lost his mind. “What, you think I’d rather be alone than sit with the hottest dude to ever walk the halls of Peninsula High School? Every female on this boat is thinking I’ve hit the jackpot, Soldier Boy.”

Though she was clearly kidding, Ryan had a sudden flash of Morgan clinging to him like a second skin at the festival dance last summer. Neither of them had been joking then.

“Oh, come on,” he said, his brain momentarily seizing up as his gaze drifted to the truly nice cleavage exposed by her blue tank top.

Lame, man. Really lame
.

Ryan dropped onto the bench next to her. “Sweetheart, I’m really sorry about your dad. He was a great guy.” The urge to pull her into his arms to comfort her surprised him with its intensity. He gave her hand a quick squeeze instead.

Morgan’s features turned somber, her gaze drifting to the dock where the water taxis were moored as the ferry moved toward the open water of the harbor. She shifted toward him on the bench, her skirt fluttering around her tanned legs. “Thanks, Ryan. And thank you for the sympathy card. I know I should have acknowledged it, but . . . well . . .” She paused to breathe a low, heartbroken sigh that practically killed him. “I just couldn’t stand to go through them all again, and then it seemed too late.”

Cal Merrifield had keeled over dead of a heart attack in late April. Ryan had been stunned when Aiden Flynn e-mailed him the shocking news. Morgan had lost her mother to cancer about three years ago, and now her father was gone at just sixty years of age. Cal had owned the Lobster Pot bar and restaurant for years before selling it to buy the island’s only B&B. He was truly one of the good guys, and Ryan knew that his sudden loss had devastated Morgan and her younger sister, Sabrina. According to Aiden, it had pretty much rocked the entire island of Seashell Bay.

“I heard you left your teaching job,” he said, not wanting to make her dwell on the details of her dad’s death.

Her face scrunched up in a grimace that would have been comical if the subject weren’t so awful. “Yes, for now. I took a leave of absence.”

“I assume that was for your sister’s sake?” No way Sabrina Merrifield could manage the B&B. Though she’d been Cal’s steadfast helper, poor Sabrina had always had enough trouble just managing her own life.

“Yes. That and my guilt.”

He frowned. “Guilt?”

Morgan’s gaze skittered off to the side as the ferry captain tooted his horn, drowning out the squawking seagulls. “That was a stupid slip of the tongue. Just forget I said it,” she finally replied.

Because Morgan was as upfront and honest as anyone he’d ever known, her response surprised him. But then she smiled, and even though it looked to him like it might have been forced, it brought her quiet beauty blazing back to life.

Simply put, Morgan was a babe, with eyes as blue as a June sky, a smooth-as-honey complexion, and a cute nose with a slight tilt that gave her face character. She also had the most thoroughly kissable lips he’d ever seen. But though all the island guys now agreed she was a first-class hottie, it hadn’t always been that way. Growing up, she’d been a bit nerdy, slightly overweight, and naturally shy. But by the middle of high school, she’d started to blossom into a very sexy girl. Morgan and Lily and their friend Holly Tyler had made one hell of a triple threat back then, and almost every teenage guy in Seashell Bay had spent considerable time and energy circling them like a pack of overeager puppies.

“Let’s go up to the top deck,” he said. “It’s too nice a day to be stuck down here in the cabin.” Morgan had probably sat on the lower deck because she didn’t want to haul all her crap up the stairs, but he figured they both could use some fresh air.

“Good idea,” she said, getting up.

“Want me to bring your stuff?”

She scoffed. “Boy, pal, you’ve been away too long. You know it’s safe to leave things on the boats. Besides, there’s nothing valuable in there.”

“Except for the beer,” he joked. Still, he decided to keep an eye on people getting off the boat at the two stops they’d make before Seashell Bay. He’d learned not to be fully trusting—not even here.

As he climbed the staircase behind Morgan, Ryan gave her rear view a thorough, if discreet, inspection. Damned if she didn’t get prettier every time he saw her, with a body that just didn’t quit. When she sat down on a bench at the stern, she reached into her purse and pulled out a pair of sunglasses, covering up the baby blues that he could stare into all day. It mystified him that Morgan wasn’t in a permanent relationship with some mainland guy since she’d been teaching school up the coast for years. He doubted that anything would ever happen between her and any of the island guys though. Most young people in Seashell Bay regarded their island contemporaries more as annoying brothers and sisters than potential mates. Friends, yes. Soul mates and lovers, not so much.

“If you’re a little cool up here,” he said, “I’ve got a fleece in my duffel.”

A refreshing breeze usually appeared around the time the ferry cleared the harbor and turned into open waters.
On a hot summer day, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk in downtown Portland and be reaching for a sweater before the boat passed the ruins of Fort Gorges in the middle of the bay.

Morgan tipped her face up to the sun for a moment. “Thanks, but I’m fine.” Then she looked at him, inscrutable behind her big, movie star shades. “Ryan, I’m really surprised to see you here in June. You’re usually only back for the Blueberry Festival.”

He leaned back in his seat and stretched out his legs, going for casual. “Let’s just say this isn’t going to be my standard, quick in-and-out. I might even stay for the whole summer or most of it.”

He heard the sharp inhalation of her breath. “Well, that’ll be a first,” she said after a pause. “Your mom and dad must be so happy. And heck, that means people might actually get a chance to know the real you, not just the mysterious tough-guy front you put on.” She smiled and gave him a friendly poke on the arm. It wasn’t the first time Morgan had teased him about what she called his “strong but silent” act.

“What are you talking about? I’m an open book.”

“An open book with blank pages, maybe.”

“Wow, that didn’t tickle,” he said, adopting a wounded look.

Morgan laughed, a light, melodious sound that Ryan had always found insanely sexy.

“Okay, I take that back,” she said. “Maybe not blank, but written in some unbreakable code. Mr. Enigma, forever wrapped in mystery.”

Yeah, and that’s the way I like it.

Ryan had never much liked folks poking into his business, and poking into other people’s business was pretty
much a team sport in Seashell Bay. “Maybe I just don’t have a very interesting story to tell.”

BOOK: Summer at the Shore (Seashell Bay Book 2)
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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