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Authors: Lauren Christopher

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BOOK: Ten Good Reasons
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Doug lifted him with a loud exhale—about 240 pounds of man lifting 160—then lumbered out of the galley, staggered down the stern, and hoisted their weight back up onto the dock. The wheelchair was waiting, set with its brakes on, now with three boxes next to its wheels and the seagulls scared away. Douglas plopped Drew into the chair with a grunt. Both men were already drenched in sweat, and their faces had gone white.

A daily lift into the captain’s bridge was out of the question.

What were they going to do?

Drew made eighty percent of his annual income in the six weeks of whale-watching season, including the festival weekend. He and his new girlfriend Sharon were struggling as it was, trying to launch this business, trying to make ends meet. And Sharon had a special-needs child that Drew said he didn’t help pay for, but Lia knew he did. And now these new medical bills . . .

And man, Lia hadn’t even told him the part about the first two clients she’d booked for Monday and Tuesday—she didn’t want to make him feel guiltier than he already did, or cause more worry to spike with his pain. In addition to the client she’d booked for the Vampiress, she’d found two potential investors for Drew, which he’d said he really needed. And both were showing up this week. If they showed up to a boat that was inoperable . . . well, not only would they run from investing in such a thing, but Lia’s reputation would be shot.

She gathered her shoes from the blue-cushioned bench seat and tugged at her rolling briefcase. Douglas lumbered back on board to secure the cabin door.

“Douglas, wait.” She jerked her case back toward the galley. “Tell me about his brother,” she whispered. “Could he operate this thing?”

Douglas gave her a sympathetic glance, but then his allegiance shifted back toward the dock. “His brother’s trouble, sunshine.”

“We need someone, Douglas. Full tours start Monday.”

“Can’t you refund them?”

“For
six weeks
?” Her whisper rose to a panic. “These are really important clients. And Drew’s already spent half that money, I imagine. And the other half is probably going to new bills after this accident.”

Douglas’s silence told her she’d probably guessed correctly.

“Where does his brother live?” she pressed.

Douglas fiddled with the lock. When his silence lengthened, Lia let her shoulders fall. He wasn’t going to answer. She turned away from his weathered hands.

“Slip ninety-two,” Douglas finally mumbled under his breath.

“What?” She turned her head slightly. Drew was staring at them.

“Guest slip. Ninety-two. Far north end,” Douglas said without moving his lips.

He turned into the sunlight, heading back toward the stern, and Lia followed. As they stepped back ashore under Drew’s watchful gaze, Drew shot them both a suspicious look.

But Lia was going to have to betray him.

Drew wasn’t thinking clearly, and she was going to have to make this right.

For him.

For her.

For this promotion.

And for about five other relationships she couldn’t seem to get right lately.

*   *   *

Guest slip ninety-two was nearly at the end of the marina. Dusk fell in light purple, and a lamp sputtered as she passed. There were no liveaboards allowed at this end and, with a cool February night that threatened rain, there weren’t many people out, even on a Saturday. Lavender-colored water lapped
against the empty boats that lay still and quiet at day’s end, all packed together like sleeping sardines.

Lia glanced again at the piece of paper where she’d written the number, pulling it back from the breeze that tried to curl it, then slid it into the pocket of her skirt along with the dock key Douglas had slipped her. She concentrated on not getting her heels caught in the weathered wooden planks.

When she reached slip ninety-two, she pushed her wind-strewn hair out of her face and peered around the deck. It was a small sailboat, about a twenty-footer, dark and closed up for the night. The sails were covered, the ties set, the cabin lights off.

“Hello?” she called anyway.

Nothing.

Her footsteps sounded obnoxious in the otherwise-peaceful night as she headed down the side dock along the boat’s port side.

“Hello?” she tried again. “Drew’s brother?”

Dang. She didn’t even know his name. Her heels rang out as she wandered farther. The only other sound was the familiar creaking of the boat’s wood against water, and one rope hanging off a mast that clanged lightly as the boat pitched and slightly rolled. The sailboat didn’t have the gleaming OCD-ness of Drew’s catamaran, but it was neat, the teak floors swept, the sails covered, the ropes in perfect twists. A jacket and an empty bucket sat on a glossy teak deck bench.

“Hello? Mr. Betancourt?”

A slight shiver ran through her. Maybe she’d rushed into this. She should have asked more questions—at least his name, and maybe more information about what, exactly, “messed up” meant. As an image began to take shape in her head—ex-military, maybe posttraumatic, older, bigger, bearded, crazy, loner—the light on the dock snapped and buzzed. She turned on her heel and her pulse picked up. She wasn’t one to scare easily, but this probably wasn’t one of her brightest moves.

But then . . . a flicker of light in the cabin.

She turned nervously.

The cabin door creaked and a man’s shadow emerged, buttoning a shirt as the tails flapped in the night wind, as if trying to get away from him.

He twisted his shoulders to clear the cabin door and stepped slowly toward her while the boat pitched, moving across the deck with all the assurance of a man who is used to the sea.

He was bigger than Drew—nearly half a foot taller, and broader in the shoulders. He had the same dark hair, but his was much too long, and he swiped at it as he looked up at her on the dock. Although his face was in shadow, she could see a week’s worth of facial hair darkening his jaw. His dead, gray eyes narrowed as he studied her and finished the last two buttons. “Whadoyouwant?” His voice was like gravel.

“I’m um . . . a friend of Drew’s.”

His eyes made a quick sweep of her—not out of interest, seemingly, but in the way you’d assess a dirty floor, deciding how much work it was going to be to deal with.

While he continued to wait—probably for a better answer—Lia fumbled with her purse. “I um . . .” For some reason, she checked the piece of paper again. Ninety-two, right? But certainly this was him. She could see a vague family resemblence in the straight, narrow nose, the hard-edged jaw, the dark eyebrows. Though this man’s brows seemed much more sinister than Drew’s, pulled into a deep V beneath a lined forehead as he waited for her to say something.

“I uh . . . I came for Drew. He needs . . . um . . . Well, he needs a favor.”

The boat creaked and rolled under the man’s spread legs, his knees giving way in the slightest movement to make him as sturdy as the mast.

“Doesn’t seem like Drew would send you to tell me that.”

Lia licked her lips. He had her there. She tried to give him one of her friendliest smiles—they usually worked on everyone—but he seemed unfazed. He narrowed his eyes and waited.

“I um . . . well, yes, that’s true. You’re
absolutely
right about that.” She laughed just a little, flashed another smile. Normally men didn’t make her nervous. She’d learned a long time ago that an optimistic attitude, a great smile, and a positive view on the world could do wonders and get her almost anything she wanted, with men or women. Or hide anything she wanted.

But this man seemed too robotic to care.

“He’s uh . . . well, you know about the motorcycle accident, right?”

Nothing.

“Well, after his accident, he’s a little stuck. He’s got whale-watching season right ahead of him, and he needs to run his business. This is
his
season. It’s the biggest season. I mean, from February to April, it’s—”

“I know when whale-watching season is.”

“Yes, of course. Then you know. It’s huge. And he’s booked every single day for the next four weeks, and I could easily book the additional two, and—”


You’re
booking him?”

“Well, I help, yes.”

He didn’t seem to like that for some reason, but he gave a slight shift on his leg that somehow indicated she should go on.

“So I’m . . . I’m just so worried for him, and he needs a captain, since the accident and everything, and he just needs someone who can sail his cat, and who knows about whales, and who can take on the business for him for just a few weeks, and—”

“Sounds like this is your problem, not his.”

“Oh, no, it’s
his
.”

Well,
too
. But Lia’s own personal problems didn’t need to be part of this discussion. “He’s . . . the
money
 . . . you know. This is the majority of his income. And medical expenses now. He’s . . . He’s in trouble, Mr. Betancourt.”

He scanned her again—some kind of assessment—and blinked a slow blink of a man unimpressed. “I’m not your guy.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned and started back into the galley.

Lia found herself stumbling toward him across the dock, although she didn’t know where she intended to go or what she intended to do once she got there. “Wait, Mr. Betancourt. You can’t help?” She couldn’t control the incredulousness in her voice.

“No.” His deep voice gave the word a feeling of cement. He wandered toward the jacket and snatched it up.

“But . . . you . . . you
have
to.”

“No.” He turned back, giving her high heels a strange glance. “I don’t.”

He scanned the deck again, seemingly to see if anything else needed to be crushed in his fist the way the jacket was. “If Drew wants to talk to me, tell him to come tomorrow. But I have a hard time believing he sent you.”

He lumbered across the deck, and the brass rails of the galley door glinted as the door slammed shut.

Stunned, Lia closed her mouth, her protest swallowed.

The dock light flickered again behind her with a loud pop, sending her into an embarrassing jump, then began an ominous hum and flutter. She glared at it, trying to figure out what to do as darkness fell. She’d thought she’d be able to simply solve this problem, but apparently she was losing her touch.

Not that this guy was an ideal solution. Drew was right. He’d be a nightmare with the guests, especially the Vampiress’s client, looking more like he was going to slit their throats and steal their bounty than tell them the gentle breaching habits of blue and gray whales.

But at least he was a start.

As the lamp began its death hum, she glanced down the long dock toward the main part of the marina. She only had one minute left of any kind of light at all, then she’d have to find her way back in a sliver of moonlight, which was being shadowed now by black-tinged rain clouds.

With one last glance at the now-darkened cabin, closed up apparently to fool the harbormaster into thinking there were no liveaboards there, she headed back along the dark, narrow planks.

For the second time that day, and about the fifth time that week, she felt like a complete and utter failure.

CHAPTER

Two

S
unday morning, Lia leaped out of bed at six. She had a lot of work to do.

She cleaned the desk area in her bedroom, pushing aside the three garish bridesmaid dresses that hung near the closet—she couldn’t believe she had
three
weddings this year, and all three of them in blue, which was not her favorite color to wear. Her oldest sister Giselle was the first, with a wedding in July, followed by two girlfriends who were getting married in August and September.

Lia was really happy for Giselle—she was marrying one of Lia’s best buddies, pro surfer Fin Hensen, and Lia was thrilled for both of them. But her sisters and mom thought Lia was purposely avoiding the wedding plans. She hadn’t helped pick out the bridesmaid dress. She hadn’t gone to the florist to see the centerpieces. She didn’t go out the night the three of them—Noelle, Giselle, and their mom—and their dates went to see the DJ. She overheard her mom and Noelle whispering one night in her mom’s kitchen that she might be jealous, which bothered her more than anything. Nothing could be further from the truth. She just worked a lot. Couldn’t they understand that?

Lia cleared a space at the antique desk in her bedroom, pushing aside her Eiffel Tower lamp and the ring dish that looked like a French postcard, then fired up her laptop while she headed to the kitchen to brew the strongest pot of coffee she knew how. Her cat Missy slinked a figure eight around her pajama pant legs, waiting for her own breakfast.

“Let’s eat then get to work, Miss,” she said, lifting the calico.

Like every morning, Lia sipped her coffee while staring at the framed crayon drawings her six-year-old niece, Coco, had colored for her. Giselle and Coco had lived in Lia’s apartment until they were ready to move in with Fin and, during that time, Coco had decorated the whole place with crayon drawings. The three still hanging in the kitchen were of cats and zebras, and the four in the living room were of sunflowers and tire swings.

When Coco and Giselle had moved out, Lia thought it would feel wonderful to get her space back again so she could work in peace. But, the truth was, she missed her sister and niece terribly. The very same week they left, Lia went to the rescue center and found Missy.

By ten o’clock and four cups of coffee later, still in her pajamas, Lia had scoured all the seafaring want ads online and placed twelve calls to the Sandy Cove marina to see if any of the shop owners or the sportfishing place knew of anyone looking for a job. The prospects were bleak. Anyone who knew this business had his own boat or crew ready to go for the season. Lia clicked off her phone with frustration. She might have to go back to Drew’s brother.

She sighed. To do that, of course, she’d have to go through Drew—admit that she’d gone behind his back, then ask him to go down to the marina and beg his brother himself. Neither seemed like a happy ending. But she was losing time. And getting desperate. She took a deep breath and dialed.

Her first four calls went to Drew’s voice mail.

That was odd, that he wasn’t calling her back. But she tamped down her worry and worked on other projects—the new website for Mr. Brimmer, and a YouTube contest for one of Elle’s clients.

She answered the door for the postman, who was dropping
off the first two pairs of many shoes she’d ordered for the weddings, in every shade of blue imaginable. These first two were a pump and a heeled Mary Jane—she didn’t like either—so she stacked them against the wall. Around noon, she punched in Drew’s number a fifth and sixth time.

By her seventh call, at two, panic was setting in.

She started to leave a message, grabbing her jeans out of the neat piles of laundry folded on the purple velvet chair in her bedroom. “Drew? Sorry I keep calling. I just need to talk to you, as you know. I think I’ll just swing by your house, actually. I called a few East Coast marinas, but I’m having trouble. Call me.”

The jeans still in her hand, her pajamas halfway off, the phone rang back. Drew’s number displayed.

“Drew, buddy, I’ve been trying to reach you, I—”

“Lia, this is Sharon.”

“Oh, Sharon! Hi! Is Drew okay? I’m sorry I keep calling, but—”

“Yeah, the thing is, he’s
not
okay, Lia,” Sharon snapped.

Lia’s heart began to hammer. Sharon had been dating Drew for about six months now, but Sharon and she had gotten off to a rocky start as friends—Sharon had felt, right from the start, that Drew spent too much time with Lia, and too much time working, and she accused Lia of exacerbating both.

“I took him back to the hospital this morning,” Sharon said in a whisper that sounded accusatory. “He was having some trouble breathing, and the doctor wanted to keep him overnight and check for blood clots and deep-vein thrombosis.”

“Oh my God.” Lia yanked her jeans on faster. She didn’t know what deep-vein thrombosis was, but it sounded dire. “Is he at Sandy Cove Hospital? I’ll be right there. I just have to—”

“Lia,
no
. Stop. He’s comfortable. I’m going back in an hour. He’ll be fine. But really—you have to stop calling him. And talking to him about work. The stress is getting to him.”

Lia halted. “Oh, Sharon, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to cause him stress. I just want to help.” She moved more shoe boxes aside and dropped into the purple chair. “He needs a captain for the next several weeks, and—”

“Let’s just let him
recover
, okay?” The snap in Sharon’s voice felt like a slap across her face. “Can you just handle this for the next few days without involving him? Maybe cancel the
first day or two, and then we can reconvene and come up with a plan? His health is more important than work right now.”

“Of course!” Lia said when she got her breath back. “Of course. I
know
that. But this business is everything to him right now, and—”

“It’s
not
everything. Deep-vein thrombosis could stop his heart. There’s more to life than work, Lia.”

Backhand slap.

“Please,” Sharon continued in Lia’s stunned silence. “Give him a few days of rest. You can call on Wednesday.” And she hung up.

Lia stared at the dead phone in her hand. It shook as she steadied herself back to her desk, tears pricking her eyes. She stared at her laptop screen, which began blurring.

How could Sharon say such a thing? Of
course
she knew there was more to life than work, and of
course
she cared about Drew’s life. She poked at several screens, shutting them down, feeling sick. She wasn’t a workaholic or anything. Or maybe she was. A little. She just knew that financial security was everything. Growing up the way she had, she knew that to be all too true. And these people in Sandy Cove, or even her own mom and sisters, didn’t seem to realize that, to be a success, you had to think bigger. You had to be “on” all the time, like they were in L.A.

She slammed her laptop closed. She was worried for Drew, but she knew Sharon would take good care of him. Sharon was a nurse herself, and he couldn’t be in better hands health-wise.

But to handle Drew’s business herself? With Sharon hijacking his phone and holding her at arm’s length? And the investors showing up—unbeknownst to Drew—throughout the first week? And the Vampiress’s client Kyle Stevens showing up on Monday morning to check out the boat for the charter?

Lia studied the Eiffel Tower lamp, letting the clean lines blur into muddy ones, but she knew what she had to do.

She needed to pay another visit to Drew’s brother.

*   *   *

The guest slips looked less intimidating in the day. Lia’s hopes lifted as she skittered down the marina stairs and made her way past Sandy Cove’s gleaming white boat masts that stood
as tall as the palm trees around the harbor, all profiled against a bright blue sky.

She was better dressed for the boats now: white Keds and blue jeans. She’d wondered how much time to invest in her appearance for this particular encounter—usually marketing herself was half the job, the Vampiress always said (usually while eyeing Lia’s sometimes-messy topknot with disdain). But Lia wasn’t dealing with a Fortune 500 business owner here. She knew it wouldn’t matter. She’d wrestled her slithery hair into a simple ponytail, took two swipes with a mascara wand, tugged a light sweater over her jeans, and called it a day.

“Hello?” she called. “Mr. Betancourt?”

The boat looked much the same as she’d left it last night—still closed up, with the bucket sitting on the bench and the same rope clinking quietly against the mast. The late-afternoon sunshine glinted off the teak floors and well-worn captain’s wheel, the wood faded where the owner’s hands must rest. The boats on either side had vacated their slips for the day, leaving Drew’s brother’s boat to look even more isolated and quiet. She didn’t know if he’d slept aboard—she assumed he had. And, in doing so, he was breaking the rules. She glanced around and hoped she wouldn’t see the harbormaster anywhere nearby.

“Hello?” she called again in her most cheerful voice.

The cabin door swung open with a bang, and Lia flinched.

Drew’s brother stepped out much the same way as he had last night: looking too big for the door frame and none too happy to be called through it.

In the light of day, she could see him better, although it didn’t improve matters. He had the same scowl, the same hard lines around his jaw, the same bad manners. He squinted angrily at the sun, and tried to look up at her as the sunlight streamed over her shoulder.

“Hello, there!” She gave him her warmest smile.

“You’re back,” he said in the same tone of voice you’d use to describe the return of the measles.

“I am! I thought we could talk again. I was going to bring you coffee but I didn’t know what you liked. Can I buy you one at the marina shops?”

“No thanks.”

“I can buy you a tea? A soda? A beer?”

“No.” He grabbed the rope that had been clanging against the pole and tightened it.

“I hoped we could discuss how we can help Drew, Mr. Betancourt.”

He gave the rope a violent tug that caused Lia to want to step back. “I told you to send
him
,” he mumbled without looking at her.

“He ended up back in the hospital this morning and couldn’t make it.”

She thought she saw a flash of some kind of emotion in his face—not exactly worry, but perhaps some kind of surprise—but then he turned away before she could tell. He mumbled something and moved toward the helm.

Lia sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. She followed him along the dock and shaded her eyes from the sun. The light was cold and bright in February in Southern California—an abrasive white. The brief rain last night and today’s wind had cleared the air into a crispness, but it left the sun to shine in a fierce, unfiltered way.

“Since his accident, you know, he’s in a lot of pain,” she went on, “and I really want to handle this for him. Can’t we talk, just you and I?”

He bent behind the helm at the back of his boat and started the motor. He had on cargo shorts today and a long-sleeved white shirt, cuffed at the forearms. The ocean breeze whipped the fabric around his menacing frame. She wondered, again, how old he was. Drew was twenty-nine like she was, but his brother looked a little older. His trim waist and muscled back made him look young—possibly in his early thirties. But something about the way he moved—like he was dragging himself through life’s motions—made him look older.

“I won’t take much of your time,” she said. “I can explain everything quickly.”

He snapped his hair out of his eyes and headed back in her direction. Hope soared in her chest. He bent a muscled leg onto the dock near her and hauled himself off the boat in a strangely lithe move. She hadn’t realized how tall he was. But instead of looking at her, or inviting her down, he barreled past her and began undoing the stern line at the last cleat.

“Are you leaving?”

“Yep.”

“Can’t we talk?”

“I’m busy.”

“Can I come with you?”

He shot her a look of exasperation. “No.”

A stab of panic set in as Lia watched him toss the line into the boat, then amble down the dock to untie the others. Three more lines, one swift turn out of the harbor, and her chance would be gone.

“When are you coming back?” she yelled.

His hand went into the air as if to dismiss the question.

Frantically, Lia scanned the side of the boat. Could she jump in from here? She’d certainly been known to resort to desperate measures before. One didn’t keep the Vampiress happy without being bold, that was for sure.

She watched him step into the boat at the bow, following the last line he’d tossed. The sailboat tottered under his weight as he turned, coiling the line around his arm. Lia flipped her purse strap over her head and shuffled toward that end of the boat, which was still hugging the dock. She had only seconds to think. While his back was still to her, she took a flying leap—of faith and on air—and plunged to the deck behind him.

“Ooof.” The sound escaped from deep in her belly as she found herself against the cabin windows, a hand breaking the crack of her head. She didn’t know what had hit her. But, when her eyes flew open, Drew’s brother’s body ran the length of hers, his thick forearm against her neck, her chin forced upward. He weighed about a million pounds. She squeezed a breath through her windpipe, but he spun away within half a second and lifted his hands in surrender fashion. “
What the hell?
” he growled out.

Her heart continued to hammer. She closed her eyes and tried to suck in as much air as possible. The “ex-military” and “former Coast Guard” part of Drew’s description came back to her in a rush, and she felt the heat of embarrassment creep across her cheeks.

“Don’t ever,
ever
, do that again!” he spat.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Betancourt,” she whispered, still trying to draw some air into her lungs. “I’m—”

“And stop calling me that!”

“Wh-what should I call you?”

“Call me Evan.” He turned away, snatched his dropped coil off the deck, and glanced back at her, clearly unsure what to do with his anger. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you do that?”

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