Authors: Lauren Christopher
“That was amazing,” Avery said, shaking Lia’s hand. “What do you say, Conner?”
Conner squirmed under his mother’s arm and threw Lia a huge grin: “Thanks! I saw the dolphins!”
“Weren’t they something?” Lia asked.
“They were going like this.” He made a motion with his body like a dolphin leaping into the air.
The two boys disembarking behind him laughed, and soon all three were mimicking the motion.
Kyle Stevens stepped between them.
something,” he said.
“Can I sit down with your captain and ask a few questions?” Avery asked.
Lia glanced at Evan, who was up by the bow now, securing the lines.
“Um . . . we have another tour after this, and we’ll need to get ready. Maybe we can make an appointment to talk later? I can answer questions for you on the phone.”
“I’d love a tour of the boat,” Kyle said.
“Me, too!” Avery added, trying to wrangle Conner closer.
“Well,” Lia interjected, trying to head them off, “as I said, we have another whale-watching tour after this, so—”
“I can come back tomorrow,” Avery offered.
“I can swing that, too,” Kyle added. “I’m flying out
Wednesday, but I can come by tomorrow—around nine? Maybe take a quick tour of the boat, then do another ride?” He looked at Avery. “I’ll pay for another ride for you, too, if you’d like.”
A trickle of perspiration ran between Lia’s breasts. She hadn’t prepared for a repeat visit for Kyle, or a walking tour of Drew’s boat. She aired out her sweater and strove to look professional. “I don’t know. We’re booked for two tours tomorrow. I didn’t plan on private tours of any kind.”
“How about after the last one?” Kyle said. “I’ll even pay for forty-five extra tickets, but it’ll just be me.” He smiled at Avery. “And you, if you like. Is four o’clock okay?”
“Yes!” Avery said.
“Wait,” Lia held up her hand. The Vampiress had said to do whatever Kyle wanted, but she needed to think this through.
“What’s going on?” Evan’s gravelly voice came over her shoulder.
“We’re setting up a private tour for tomorrow,” Kyle bulldozed in.
Kyle’s casual clothes and boyish grin made him look fun and easygoing, but he had a sharp bark of intolerance that reminded Lia that he was old money. “Miss—” He turned up his palm toward Avery.
“James. Avery James.”
“Miss James, here, and I would love to get a private look at the helm and maybe some of the things you’ve outfitted the catamaran with here.”
Lia stepped in front of Evan. “Well, since Drew’s not here, Mr. Stevens, it might be best if we waited until—”
“Remember, call me Kyle. And I just have a few questions before the charter next Monday. Of course, you and I could meet
, Lia.” The smile he threw her, and the quick assessment of her breasts, which now had a river of perspiration running between them, threw her off guard.
“We can do the tour,” Evan interjected.
Lia looked up at him, unable to hide her surprise.
Lia glanced between Evan, Kyle, and Avery, the panic setting in. Of course, she could call in tomorrow, too, and tell the Vampiress she needed to be on the boat again. Elle would be irritated, but at least Lia was following her anything-Kyle-wants edict. And
know the boat. He’d know it from a commercial-business point of view, too, since she was pretty sure the Coast Guard did the commercial-captain’s training anyway. But he wasn’t good for PR. . . .
“Okay,” Lia finally said, desperation winning over logic.
A boyish joy crossed Kyle Stevens’s face. Lia almost expected high fives to follow.
“Four o’clock. Tomorrow,” she added in a voice that pretended she had control.
Kyle disembarked with a satisfied smile, followed by Avery, two big bodyguards, and a dolphin-leaping boy.
efore the next tour, Lia, Evan, and Cora wiped down counters, seats, cushions; put the whale artifacts back; swept cookie crumbs; restocked coffee cups; and checked the fuel and lines. It was a lot to do for just three people—especially on a bum ankle and with Evan’s constant growls to get off it—but they managed to finish everything moments before the next tour began. Cora ran to the marina market for lunch, coming back with two double-cheese burgers for Evan, which he snuck away to eat alone, and for her and Lia, egg salad sandwiches, which they wolfed down together in the galley.
“He’s good,” Cora said, her eyes lifting to the deck above them.
Lia broke open a salt packet. “He’s okay, I guess. He’s not Drew.”
“He’s more fun to have around than Drew.”
How can you say that?”
“He’s more fun to watch on deck.” A small smile played around Cora’s lips.
“What are you talking about?” Lia asked.
Cora just shook her head. “If you’re not noticing, you’re blind.”
“You think he’s
“He sort of scares me.”
“That man could scare
Cora laughed and gathered their paper bags, doing a double-take at a bright blue flyer stapled to the side. She yanked it off and spread it out on the counter with the heel of her hand. “Oh! It’s Valentine!”
Lia wiped the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin and leaned over to see the flyer. “A valentine?”
“Not ‘a’ valentine,
—a humpback who’s come by here for years with her calves. Her flukes have a perfect heart on them, outlined in white.” Cora pointed to the picture of her tail on the flyer. “But a fisherman in Mexico thought he saw her tangled in some fishing lines this year on her way up. It looks like they’re asking everyone to keep their eyes peeled to make sure she’s not in danger. She’s the model for a lot of logos around here, including Drew’s.” Cora twisted her shirt to show it off.
Lia was aware of the logo—in fact, she was the one who had it designed onto the polo shirts she suggested Drew’s staff wear—but she hadn’t known it was modeled after a real whale.
Cora pushed the flyer to the side. “So what’s going on with your nice accountant man, anyway?”
“He’s fine. Still traveling.” Lia tapped her jeans pocket for her cell phone. She must’ve left it on the counter again. She’d have to see how Forrest was doing. His last voice message had been oddly clipped, but he was leaving uncharacteristic philosophical messages all around social media. The last one was something about the sky meeting the sun. Lia was starting to wonder if he’d been hacked.
“Oh! They’re here,” Cora whispered, glancing out the window.
Lia leaped off the barstool on her good foot and hobbled toward the window to take a peek. My goodness. Another forty-five tourists. This crowd looked similar to the first—another
first-grade class, more young couples, a few families, another mom-blogger. Lia fumbled beneath the counter for her purse to freshen up, bending toward her tiny compact to check her teeth, smooth her hair back, then touch up her lipstick.
“Do I look okay?” She whirled around to check with Cora, sliding her lips for one last glossy coverage, and came face-to-chest with Evan. His sunglasses dropped to his side as he blinked at her in the darkened galley. At her question, his gaze slid across her face—into her eyes, along her nose, then down to her puckered mouth. It lingered there, and he took an uncomfortable swallow. For a brief second, Lia wondered what it would be like to have this man kiss her—this enormous, strong man who didn’t seem like he suffered fools, who would kiss her decisively, holding both sides of her head, pressing for more, wanting to possess—
Evan cleared his throat, thankfully breaking the spell, then stepped back and rearranged his features.
“Cora, do we have”—Evan motioned with his hand, as if he didn’t have words to finish the thought.
Cora smiled up at him. “What is it you
, Captain?” She threw Lia a funny smile.
“Ah . . .” He motioned behind the counter. “Do we have . . .” His hand waved around again. “. . . any more Tylenol or Advil or anything back there? And I’ll take another water. Or two.” He cleared his throat again. “We ready to go?” He threw the question back over his shoulder at Lia.
“I think so,” Lia said.
His nearness, his size, his mounded shoulders, his sandlewood-and-cedar scent, and the memory of his deep voice rumbling in her ear all morning were causing her breath to come in strange, short rasps, which in turn irritated her. She didn’t want to be attracted to him—he wasn’t even close to her job-holding, briefcase-toting type. She just wanted to get through this day with her pride and sanity intact.
“Um . . .” What had she wanted to ask him again? Oh, yes. “About tomorrow—”
“Let’s get through today first,” he said, tearing into another Advil packet Cora found. Without looking at her, he shoved his sunglasses back on and twisted his shoulders through the galley door.
Lia met Cora’s amused glance.
you.” Cora’s broad grin made her look like she was in high school.
“What?” The idea seemed so preposterous, she dismissed it immediately. Evan had seemed to not want to react to her at all—and had slipped into immediate irritation every time he did—so the thought was beyond ridiculous. And the idea that her own out-of-control reaction might have been visible to Cora embarrassed her to no end.
She wiped a sheen of perspiration from her forehead and turned away, leaning forward to look out the window again. Pain scorched through her ankle as she shifted her weight.
. She sucked in her breath and sat back on the stool. Well, this would keep her mind from straying off into unchartered territory. Only a few more hours to get through, then she could get off this foot and put it up for the evening. She took a deep breath and began hobbling.
Their passengers were waiting.
* * *
The next set of tourists boarded faster and smoother than the first, and Lia went through her routine again, this time remembering to mention Cora’s cookies right up front. She and Cora got another round of applause.
The mom-blogger Lia had booked for this tour was named Janine, and she was there with her two little girls. She held her camera high in the air to videotape, spinning slowly to get the whole boat while her girls swung around her legs like she was a Maypole. The field trip was a local Orange County private school, with eighteen first graders and five chaperones. The potential investor on this trip was Jimmy Chow. He was an ex-pro surfer from Central California and would be a fun partner for Drew. Lia greeted him warmly and made sure he had a good seat.
Then she dragged herself toward the stairs. She didn’t really want to sit on the bridge with Evan on this trip, but she needed his cues for the narration. The electricity that had ricocheted between them in the galley had left her feeling uncomfortable, as if she shouldn’t have been flying her kite so close to the storm.
“Cora, I’m heading up,” she called nervously.
Cora smiled some kind of weird, knowing smile.
Lia sighed. All right, she’d sit farther away, stay low-key, stop asking personal questions, and filter whale info only. End of story.
When she pulled herself to the top, Evan was standing at the helm, scouting the ocean for slicks, the wind rollicking through his hair. Lia balanced herself against the captain’s bench, then took a seat with the microphone in her hand. The paper bag from Evan’s lunch was crumpled and left on the console in a way that would’ve given Drew a heart attack. Lia threw it in a hidden waste tray, earning her a nice, irritable glance from Evan that relaxed her in its familiarity. The blue Valentine flyer from his bag was folded neatly, the photo facing outward, tucked under one of the levers.
They sat quietly as the boat zipped over the waves, the salt air refreshing. About seven miles north, Evan slowed, staring through the binoculars at a point due west.
“There’s one,” he said. “Or . . . wait, two. Mother and calf. Grays.”
He killed the motor and they went through their whole routine again: he fed her lines, and she repeated them, adding info she learned last time. They fell into an easy rhythm, staying quiet between the whales’ spouting. Lia kept her head averted so she wouldn’t be hit with any stray pheromones.
After the first twenty minutes with the beautiful mama whale and her baby, Evan drove northwest and spotted another. They repeated their process: low lines, Evan leaning languidly against the bridge rail, the steady and rhythmic timbre of his voice vibrating in her veins. . . .
At the end of the two hours, they sailed past a buoy weighted down by sunning sea lions, and Evan delivered more information about the mating habits of the flippered pinnipeds.
When the tour ended, Lia couldn’t escape the elevated bridge fast enough.
* * *
“Thank you for coming. . . . Thank you. . . . Hope you had a good time. . . . Thank you for coming. . . .”
Evan watched Lia say good-bye to all the passengers as he
secured the stern line. There was a lot to do to close the cat up for the night, but he was going to send her home. She needed to get off that ankle. The way things were looking, it might not even be healed by tomorrow.
He glanced inside the galley and wondered if Cora could give the presentations. Or maybe he could. He didn’t like putting on a false face—pretending enthusiasm he just didn’t feel—but he might have to. Or at least raise his voice to an octave suitable for the land of the living. Drew’s cat crew was obviously dwindling. And there’d be the private tour tomorrow for Stevens and, damn it, the Renece look-alike.
He yanked the knot as hard as he could.
“Hear back from any deckhands?” he asked Cinderella as she waved to the last passenger. “I’ll even take Stewey the steward.”
She touched her pockets, then looked around as if her phone had just fallen out of her clothes. “Just a sec.” She hobbled into the galley.
He headed for the hose, and did his best not to watch her walk away. He didn’t want to notice her body. Her shapely legs, her pouty lips, combined with her Brave-Little-Toaster attitude, were all generating some weird attractiveness that was doing a number on his libido. Or reminding him he had one, anyway.
“No, no one called,” she yelled back out.
When she reemerged, she headed for the blue cushions to retrieve the stuffed-toy whale that the kids had been playing with, then started straightening the cushions. He took the toy from her. “Go home.”
“You’re not going to be good to me at all tomorrow if you can’t walk. Ice that ankle tonight, and if you can’t come in tomorrow, see if you can get me Stewey or that other deckhand.”
She looked around uncertainly. “I don’t know if I can get them.”
Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. “You sure are bossy.”
“I just want your ankle healed. Can you drive home?”
“Do you know how to wrap an ankle?”
“I think I can figure out how to wrap an ankle.”
“Then go do it.” The edge in his voice was unwarranted. He was suddenly finding it easier to stay silent or speak roughly to her than acknowledge where his thoughts were going.
And it was easier still to just get rid of her. “You know any other deckhands around here for tomorrow?” He glanced up the marina. “Maybe some kids who want to make extra money?”
“Drew’s pretty particular about his boat,” she said hesitantly.
“‘Particular’ is probably putting it mildly.”
When her lips quirked, he was sorry he’d said it. One, because he really shouldn’t be talking about Drew and his crazy OCD behind his back; and two, because Cinderella’s lips were now drawing his attention again.
He put his sunglasses back on so she couldn’t see his eyes. “Well, go home. Cora and I can get this.” He held out his hand for the keys.
“You can. Keys.”
She eventually gave in, looking sorrowfully at Cora.
“She sure is stubborn,” he mumbled to Cora as the two of them watched Cinderella make her way up the dock.
As he turned to start rinsing the windows, Cora mumbled some kind of response and he almost turned back to hear what she said. But he changed his mind. He didn’t need to know. He didn’t need to know anything else about a woman who made him forget about Renece for almost half a day.
* * *
Lia shuffled toward her car, eager when she saw it through the parking lot, and wondered how she could get someone else to do this tomorrow. She wasn’t normally one to give up, but the challenges were stacking against her. The pain shooting through her foot was bringing tears to her eyes. Plus she was exhausted—the salt air and bright sun had sucked every molecule of energy out of her. What sounded great right now was
a long, hot shower; her most comfy pajamas; a
marathon; and Missy purring in her lap. . . .
She sighed. She couldn’t afford that. She still had work to catch up on.
As she drove, she ran through her mind all the people who might serve as deckhands tomorrow. Then she ran through possible narrators. Taking tomorrow off would give her ankle time to rest, allow her to catch up on work, and keep her away from the frustrating heart-skitter of Evan Betancourt standing too close, with his muscled body and cedar scent. But she couldn’t miss the tour with Kyle Stevens. The Vampiress would kill her. Especially if something went wrong.
Her thoughts went back to Evan. What
that earlier? And why did she keep wanting to revisit it? Having his eyes slide toward her lips that way—as though he were thinking of kissing her, this huge, quiet man who had been so devoid of emotion just moments before—was one of the sexiest stares she’d received in a long time. But he wasn’t her type in any way, shape, or form. Slender men in slim suits who could run businesses were her cup of tea. Forrest was one of those. He had his own accounting firm, and worked hard every day of the week. They had been seeing each other for almost six months. Sometimes he would come over late at night, and they’d sit on the couches with their laptops, working away. She would rest her head on his narrow shoulder and he would pet Missy with his tapered, manicured fingers while they worked.