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Authors: Lauren Christopher

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BOOK: Ten Good Reasons
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“I’m—I’m just really desperate, Evan. I need your help. Drew needs your help. I really need to talk to you.” She was still plastered against the slanted cabin windows, her hands still raised, still trying to catch her breath.

He motioned her toward him. “Get off there. Stop looking like that. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trained to react that way.”

“I know. I’m so sorry.” She stood on shaky legs and straightened her sweater. Her purse strap had practically cut off her breathing, and she loosened it against her collarbone. She couldn’t get her heart to stop thundering. The gentle roll of the boat wasn’t helping her shaking, and she grabbed a pole next to her and leaned forward, hoping she wouldn’t throw up, trying to clear her head, clear her lungs. “I forgot you were Coast Guard before,” she said on a few deep breaths.

He looked at her suspiciously. “How did you know that?”

“Drew told me.”

Maybe he really hadn’t been sure she knew Drew. He kept glancing at her while he shifted his weight and finally threw the line back at the metal cleat on the dock. “
Never
get on an occupied boat without asking permission to board. I’m surprised Drew didn’t teach you that.”

“We’re . . . we’re really not that formal.”

He glanced at her again but didn’t say anything. After wrapping the line around the cleat a few times, he put his hands on his hips and took another deep breath. “Who are you to him?”

“A friend.”

“A good friend?”

“Yes.”

“He must be doing okay, then, if you’re here and not at the hospital.”

“Yes, he’ll be okay. They’re checking for deep-vein thrombosis.”

He looked away, as if processing that bit of information. “Does he know you’re here, asking me this?”

Lia considered lying. It seemed a lie could get a “yes” much sooner. But her intuition kicked in and told her that a lie with these two brothers could come with a host of other problems.

“No,” she admitted.

Evan took another survey of the ocean’s horizon. “What else are you to him?”

“What do you mean?”

“Anything more than a friend?”

Lia nodded. She’d have to come clean. “I do some marketing for him. For free.”

That didn’t seem to surprise him as much as she thought it would. “Anything more?” he finally asked.

Lia didn’t know what he meant by that—like, romantically? But she shook her head. “That seemed like enough.”

The line of his mouth quirked up in the slightest way—it might have been a smile on a normal human being—but before she could tell, he turned and started tugging at the line to secure it further. His irritable movements made her think she’d hallucinated it.

“Well, I’m not taking you with me.” He gave another angry yank. “I’m going to have to ask you to disembark.”

The boat obeyed him, the bumpers rubbing up against the dock as if pointing the way for Lia.

“Listen, Mr. Betan—er, Evan—I know we got off to a bad start here. I’m very sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. That was a stupid move. I just feel very, very desperate. Drew really needs your help. He can’t take care of the
Duke
alone.”

Evan whipped around at that.
“What?”

She took a step back. For such a huge man, he sure moved fast.

“What did you say?” He took a step toward her.

What
did
she say? Did she say something wrong again? “I said . . . uh, that he couldn’t take care of the
Duke
alone.”

Evan’s lips parted—she’d finally caught him off guard. Although she didn’t know why.

“His boat,” she offered. “The
Duke
is his whale-watching boat, and—”

“I gathered. When did he name it?”

Lia couldn’t imagine why this mattered, but she searched her memory. “It was . . . I believe it was . . . let’s see, it wasn’t last January, but the one before. . . . Two years ago?”

Evan’s gaze slid to the deck floor. He hung his hands on his hips again, but his ferocity was gone. His shoulders slumped, his forehead lines disappeared, his hair fell over his eyes like a dark curtain. He stared at the shiny deck tape for a long time, sparkling in the sun. Finally, he reached for the line again. The only sounds around them for a full minute were a lone seagull squawking overhead and the water slapping against the dock pillars.

“I’m only here for a week,” he mumbled.

Lia wasn’t sure she heard him correctly. It sounded like a reluctant agreement, but maybe she’d hit her head in the scuffle. She was too hopeful to ask him to repeat himself, so she just held her breath.

“Okay,” she said. “We could find someone else after that.” She waited for him to correct her. When he simply walked away, back toward the stern line, she went for the assumptive close: “If you could help for just the first week then, that’d be great.” Although she was bursting with relief, she tried to keep her voice calm. She had the sense of talking down a tiger who hadn’t decided if he were going to pounce or run. “I’ll have Drew write out a script for you.”

“I don’t want to talk.”

Didn’t want to talk?
How was he going to give the whale-watching narration? “Okay . . .” She was determined to think of a way around this. “Um . . . We can work something out.”

“You can do it,” he said, leaning forward to grab the stern line. “Have Drew write it out for you.”

“Well, I don’t usually come aboard for these things. He has a deckhand named Douglas. Maybe he can—”

“The deckhand’s fine.” He tugged on the tie. “So we’re done here?”

“Um . . . yes.” This seemed too easy. Could she trust him to show? The Vampiress’s client was too important to take any chances. If the client arrived with his entourage on Monday, and no one was there . . . “So you know how to sail?”

He threw her a quelling glance and finished tying the line.

“A cat, I mean?”

“It has a motor, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a cruise cat, then. I think I’ll manage.”

The sarcasm in his voice let her know that was probably an insulting question, but she didn’t mean to insult him. She just needed this to go off without a single hitch.

“So you’ll be at Drew’s boat? At nine? Do you know which one it is? Here, let me give you a business card.”

“I know where the commercial vessels are. And you just told me the name. And the time. I’m good.”

She shoved a business card at him anyway. “The first tour is at nine.”

“So you said.”

“It’s
very
important. The first client is—”

“I get it.”

“There are two tours a day.”

He didn’t respond to that, but indicated with the business card where she should step off the boat.

Should she mention the dress code? They needed to make a really good impression. “Can you wear something like this?” She waved her hand in his chest area. He really did look good with the dress shirt on. “I can have a polo shirt made up for you with the company logo, but you’re quite a bit bigger than Drew, so I’ll have to ord—”

“Listen, lady.” He turned, exasperated again. “I’m about two commands, three eyelash bats, and four seconds away from changing my mind. If you want me there, you’d better quit now and disembark.”

Lia pressed her lips together and nodded. Yes, definitely. She struggled up the edge of the boat and gracelessly flung herself back to the dock, stumbling ashore. Evan didn’t help her, just stood with his hand hanging off his hip and frowned at her disembarking technique.

“Nine, then?” she couldn’t help but reiterate.


One
command away . . .”

She nodded and clutched her purse closer to her body, then walked away with what little pride, and few take-charge skills, she had left.

*   *   *

Evan finished tying the last line and went to the back to cut the motor. He’d been planning on taking the boat out for a short spin, to see if his work on the motor had improved matters at
all, but now he didn’t feel like it. That last bit he’d done just to get rid of her.

He threw his jacket across the bed and glanced at the card she’d pushed his way—
Lia McCabe
.

Damn, her relentless cheerfulness had worn him out. How could anyone go through life so perky? She was a tiny little thing, but hard to look at—it was like staring at the sun.

He slid the card under a bottle of scotch along his sideboard and glared at it. He supposed he’d have to show now. What had he been thinking? Problem was, he
wasn’t
thinking. He’d been feeling. Always dangerous. Her saying that name again—the
Duke
—had torn another rip right into his chest, right there above his heart. She even said it like Renece used to.

His hand found its way to the tiny drawer, right along the side of the bed, and before he could remind himself it wasn’t a good idea, his fingers felt around, past the handgun, past the box of bullets, and curled around the small frame he knew was in the back. He pulled it out and started to look at it, but had to drop it onto the countertop when his hand began to shake.

Minutes later, he mustered the courage to turn it over. He winced. There they were: Renece and Luke.
Luke the Duke
. Renece had her head bent toward their son’s, her brown curls falling against his cheek, both of them with that same bow-shaped smile they shared. Luke was on the verge of a laugh—Evan remembered that look well—and his front tooth was missing, which he’d been so proud of.
Daddy, do you think the Tooth Fairy will come?
Evan had assured him the Tooth Fairy would, but he and Renece had both forgotten until about two in the morning, when Renece had awoken him with a start, and they’d rummaged through their jeans on a chair next to the bed, and then through Renece’s purse downstairs, until they found a dollar bill and four quarters. They’d snickered as they crept past the moonlight rays through the window, taking turns sneaking the money under Luke’s pillow while he slept, teasing each other about their terrible ninja skills. The whole escapade had ended up back in the bedroom, where Rennie had laughed and fallen on top of him, snuggling against him in the dark. He’d remembered appreciating the moment—he’d been on leave, which was when he appreciated every moment—but he couldn’t have possibly appreciated it enough.
How could he have known those moments would be forever ripped from him in just two more days? How could he have known his little boy with the missing tooth would take his Tooth Fairy money to get a milkshake at a fast-food place that would be taken over by a crazed gunman? He wondered for the millionth time if Luke saw the machine gun before he was killed, if he was scared, if Rennie was afraid before she turned to face her own fire, if her face was contorted into agony as the realization hit her? And, most importantly, why he couldn’t have been there to protect them.

The rip pulled harder against his chest. He shoved the photo back into the drawer and pulled the gun forward, then slammed the drawer and spread both hands wide across the cabinet, taking deep gulps of air.

He scowled at the business card, half under the scotch bottle, already mad at himself for agreeing to such a foolish thing. Giving whale-watching tours to a bunch of happy, spoiled tourists seemed about the last thing he wanted to do. Describing whale migration patterns and dodging cotton-candy fingers from kids whose greatest concern was what brand-name T-shirt to wear that morning . . . while his wife and little boy lay buried in the ground, riddled with bullets, their bodies so devastated the caskets had to remain closed. . . .

God, he would never make it.

But . . . damn. Drew had named his boat after Luke.

Two months after it happened.

He’d thought Drew would have never forgiven him, but there it was: the
Duke
.

He pressed his hands into the cabinet again and let his shoulders sag, glancing again between the bottle of scotch and the business card, not sure what to do.

Right now, it could go either way.

CHAPTER

Three

A
s Lia rushed through the morning fog down to the Sandy Cove marina on Monday, she whispered positive mantras to herself under her breath and hoped everyone would show—Douglas, the cook Coraline, maybe their part-time steward, and, of course, Evan. But, try as she might, her hope kept slipping at the Evan part. Somehow he just looked like the kind of guy who disappointed people for a living. And she didn’t have a Plan C.

She’d left a message with the Vampiress, as she’d tugged on a casual sweater and tennis shoes that morning, that she was going to spend the day on the
Duke
to make sure everything went well with Kyle Stevens’s pre-charter check. She knew Elle would like that. Kyle meant everything to her.

Kyle Stevens was one of the wealthiest men in Orange County, a descendent of one of the area’s founding fathers. The founding fathers had made their wealth in ranchland and oranges in the eighteen hundreds, while Kyle—two centuries later—was making his on oceanfront property and lavish clubs that catered to Hollywood celebrities and Southern California elite. At twenty-eight, he’d become one of the youngest multimillionaires in Orange County. And at thirty-two, with his good
looks and fortune, he’d become one of the most eligible bachelors. He had a lot of mover-and-shaker friends, and Elle wanted to make him happy. Though, ultimately, she wanted to make his
father
happy. She wanted his father’s business, which was currently going to her competition in New York. Elle found it embarrassing that this famous Southern California family wouldn’t keep their business with the largest Southern California firm. And she meant to correct that.

Kyle was a good client, running his club and two condominium high-rises straight through the Vampiress. He was very hands-on and often visited their ad agency in person. Elle knew he’d made a couple of favorable reports to his father, and her black glossy bob would quiver in anticipation as she announced this to the staff.

The day he called about a whale-watching tour threw them, though. They’d never set up such a thing. But Kyle loved the ocean. He loved to hang around pro surfers, famous deep-sea divers, local scuba nuts, and folks from the American Cetacean Society. He asked Elle if she could set up a charter for him and forty-five of his closest friends, who were all wealthy and famous, to go whale watching in the spring, and Elle saw dollar signs. When Lia heard this, she’d blurted out that she had a friend, Drew, who could run the charter. Elle had looked at her with long-overdue, and much reserved, interest—someone from
Sandy Cove
, who had a boat that could impress
Kyle
? Lia had nodded her assurance. She’d always had a mouth that skipped ahead of her, and now she’d been a bit sorry she’d let it run away. But she could do this. Drew could do this. In fact, it would be a boon for Drew, because his boat might have its picture plastered all over the society pages.

Over the winter, Drew upgraded in preparation. He spent a fortune on custom glass-plated viewing pods unique to the
Duke
, underneath the two hulls; another fortune on new nylon nets at the front of the boat so people could look straight down at the water; another fortune for new seating for the front of the boat; a fourth fortune on educational posters and hands-on exhibits for the kids; and paid cost for all of Lia’s marketing materials she’d created. They were ready.

What Drew didn’t know was that Kyle himself had booked a tour for the first excursion of the season to check things out
and make sure things were ready for his charter. It was weird for the client himself to check things out ahead of time, but Elle chalked it up to Kyle’s sea love and told Lia not to question him. She repeated her constant refrain:
Do whatever Kyle wants
.

Lia was going to tell Drew about the uber-important first client as soon as she returned from the trade show, but then she got the call about the accident, and the news seemed as if it would stress him more than cheer him.

She took a deep breath.

She could do this.

Lia headed down the familiar dock, where Drew’s wheelchair had been before, and a sigh of frustration escaped her lungs. The area was empty.

“Evan?” She climbed aboard Drew’s boat—maybe he was waiting aboard. “Cora? Douglas?”

Silence.

She walked all the way around the deck as her heart began to hammer. Cora and Douglas would be bumps in the road if they didn’t show—she’d called them awfully late, and Douglas was probably halfway to Vegas already, considering he thought he had the week off and zoomed out there whenever he could. But Evan wouldn’t be a bump: He’d be a block. No Evan, no tour. She imagined the look that would be on Kyle Stevens’s face. And then the Vampiress’s.

And then she wanted to throw up.

“Evan?” Her voice quivered in the early stages of panic.

She started to unlock the cabin, but didn’t want to have to lock everything back up if she had to go find him, so instead she twisted her rings while standing at the back of the boat. Luckily, she was a bit early. Maybe he just wasn’t a punctual guy. Good thing she’d told him an hour before the first actual tour.

She waited five more minutes, checking her cell. She had so much to do. If she had no deckhand, she had to pull the covers off everything, and she wanted to set up the cabin for guests the way Drew always did. And dang, she sure could’ve used a coffee. She glanced longingly up the dock through the morning fog, hoping Cora would show. Although Lia could probably figure out how to use Cora’s French press if pressed.
Desperate times, and all. Her cell phone told her only two more minutes had passed.

She headed back into the cabin and rummaged through a drawer for the small chain that Drew sometimes used across the stern. Her hand flew across a piece of cardboard in her neatest, most professional Sharpie handwriting, which still came out a little too bubbly, but it would do:
10 a.m. Whale-Watching Tour: Wait Here!
She hung the note and the chain at the stern entrance and dashed down the dock toward the guest slips, twisting her ankle at the bottom of the dock.

Dang
. Even her body was betraying her. . . . She rubbed it and hobbled on.

Evan’s sailboat looked the same as it had the other days. She couldn’t tell if he had slept onboard or not. That would drive Drew crazy. He was a stickler for rules, and was friends with the harbormaster, Harry James.

Lia glanced around for Harry and kept her voice down in case: “
Evan
?” she called in a loud whisper, limping along the port side.

Fog left a quiet pall along the harbor as she scanned the deck for any clues, but the white February sun was starting to break through, glinting off the boat’s brass rails. From her ten-foot distance, she tried to peer into the cabin windows. Some kind of brown paper covered or blocked most of them from the inside, except one, which had a torn curtain pulled back enough to take a peek.

“Mr. Betancourt?” she tried again, louder. “
Evan?
It’s me, Lia.”

She eyed the deck. Should she take her chances and jump down? Knock on his door? After what happened yesterday, she didn’t want to risk it. But time was ticking here, and she couldn’t just stand around and wonder where he was.


Evan
?” Louder.

Nothing.

She glanced at her phone for the time. Tentatively, she poked her toe against the hull. The boat rocked gently, but not enough to wake him. Finally, she went for it: She threw her weight into a leap and flung herself onto the deck. A sharp pain skewered through her ankle, but she’d live. She regained her balance and rapped on the cabin door.


Evan?
It’s me, Lia,” she called before he thought it was an intruder again. “Are you in there?”

She got only to the second rap when the cabin door flew open and Evan scowled outside.

Seemingly half-awake, he stood, half-bent, with only jeans on, his arm casually dangling a gun at his side. His other hand came up to shield the morning sun from his eyes, and he squinted to bring her into focus, then—when it finally seemed to register who she was—he murmured an obscenity and whirled back into the cabin.

Through the half-ajar door, she watched him snatch up a shirt from a bed that seemed to take up the whole back of the cabin and slide it over his muscles while he opened a side drawer and tossed the gun inside. Behind the gun, he shoved some type of small, silver-framed picture, then slammed the drawer. Two empty scotch bottles teetered, and one tumbled onto the floor as he swore again and threw it on the bed, which was covered in discarded clothing.

Lia was still blinking her shock at seeing him so scarcely clothed, an unbid intimacy with a man she thought of as scary and strange. But . . . wow . . . with a crazy-hot bod. She forced herself to turn away as he cast angry searches around his cabin for something, then disappeared into the little bathroom, where she heard the water running. While he was behind the door, her curiosity stretched tighter, and she poked her head in.

The cabin was almost all cedar and navy blue, with clothes strewn across the soft surfaces, and tools, wires, plastic bags, and some kind of varnish cans taking up most of the hard surface space. A low cabinet in the back of the galley was opened, revealing some kind of motor, with three kinds of wrenches sitting in front of it. Lining the main galley walkway were boxes filled with canned green beans, canned peaches, and other pantry items. Torn plaid curtains covered a couple of the windows, while others, which seemed to have the curtain rod missing, were blackened with paper taped around the edges with loose duct tape. A depressing darkness clouded the whole space except for where Lia was letting the light in.

When the water turned off, the door banged open and she leaped back. He snatched a pair of aviator sunglasses off a
tabletop and barreled past her, his damp hair brushing his cheekbones as he threw her a withering glance.

Out on the deck, he found his shoes under one of the side benches. He shoved the glasses on and stalked off the boat without looking back, trudging up the dock, his shirttails flapping in the morning wind.

Lia darted after him. What had started out as surprise and maybe a little pity began to simmer into a low anger as she scrambled to climb out of the sailboat and keep up with him, her ankle throbbing now. Granted, he was doing her a favor. But he’d
agreed
, right? Man, Drew was right. This guy was a wild card. But her desperation—along with his murderous scowl and punishing pace—kept her from saying anything.

He buttoned his shirt as they walked. Or practically ran—he had long legs, and she needed to take a few steps for every one of his. She couldn’t help sliding her eyes to that smooth, tan, muscled chest that was disappearing before her as she hobbled along, but she riveted them away while berating herself. This was Drew’s crazy, hungover, scruffy brother, not some cover model.

Except
wow
. Just wow.

She glanced sideways one more time, but he was all buttoned up now, tucking the shirt in as they trudged forward. He refused to look at her. He was still unshaven, sporting a five-o’clock shadow that was edging closer, perhaps, to eight o’clock. His hair had received a finger combing, the ends damp near his collar, but jagged slices fell forward around his face. He was going to be a PR nightmare. But she didn’t care at this point. She’d just hide him and his rogue-pirate look up in the captain’s bridge and hope Kyle Stevens didn’t notice him.

“Will you need a little time to look around?” she finally spoke, once they were on the other side of the marina and she was nearly out of breath.

He grunted some kind of response, then slowed as Drew’s boat came into view. From here, the boat looked beautiful. It was backed in, the scrolled name “
The Duke
” clearly visible, every curvaceous edge sparkling as the early morning sunshine broke through. There were already about forty tourists in line in front of her sign and chain. There were two young couples, standing with their arms around each other’s college
sweatshirts; three families, with about six kids among them, all scampering along the dock and playing with the chains; two mothers with umbrella strollers; and a separate group of five teenagers who leaned against the dock wall and pointed down to the rocks below, probably spotting crabs. Behind them squirmed a slew of first-graders—about fifteen of them—a field trip from L.A. that Lia had booked last week. She scanned the crowd but didn’t see Kyle Stevens yet.

Evan swung his neck toward her. “
Kids
?” he demanded. He said it as if she’d booked a boatload of cockroaches.

“Well, one class.” She frowned back. “Do you not like kids?”

He didn’t answer, but forced himself forward, his feet dragging across the wood planks.

“Let’s get you on board so you can learn your way around,” she said in the most cheerful voice she could muster. He’d probably love the boat once aboard, and the captain’s bridge was so elevated—he’d be alone on the roof of the boat—so all the kids and tourists and whatever other people he hated would be long forgotten.

She hustled the rest of the way down the dock ahead of him and undid the chain, striking up a conversation with the first few people in line so maybe they wouldn’t notice him slipping in behind her. In front was a pretty young mother with soft brown curls framing her face; she drew a boy to her side who looked about five. She said she was the mom-blogger Lia had booked several weeks ago named Avery.

“Oh, nice to meet you, Avery,” Lia said, pumping her hand.

“Is there a best place to sit?”

“You’ll be comfortable anywhere,” Lia assured her with a smile.

Lia could feel Evan stalling behind her, and she watched Avery’s eyes dart over her shoulder. Lia bit her lip. She hoped this mom of such a small child wouldn’t get too nervous about a hungover, long-haired, bearded dude as her captain.
Please don’t mention this part in your blog
, Lia willed with her eyes. Evan hesitated, glancing between the woman and her child, then finally—thankfully—ducked behind Lia and hopped onto the stern.

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