Authors: Lauren Christopher
“I think this is the beginning of a wonderful new relationship. Tom?” Kyle summoned the bodyguard with the shaved head and sent him back to the limo.
Within minutes, Avery yoo-hoo’d from the deck, and Lia helped her aboard. She came sans child today, wearing a beautiful coral-colored sundress that seemed inappropriate for this weather, but did look pretty.
“It might be chilly,” Lia warned, watching Avery step aboard in high-heeled coral espadrilles.
“I always run a little hot, if you know what I mean.” Avery giggled, glancing up at Kyle. Or maybe looking around for Evan.
Lia frowned and wondered what the hell she was in for this afternoon.
he sky darkened as the four of them circled the deck. Evan pointed out the cat’s safety features and maneuverability, while Lia chimed in regarding the whale-watching upgrades Drew had installed.
Kyle was at her elbow every time she turned around, swirling his second glass of vodka, sometimes touching her at the small of her back. Avery joined him for afternoon cocktails and giggled while standing too close to Evan. To outside observers, they might have looked like two couples on a double date. Except, of course, for the way Evan kept frowning in confusion at Avery and stepping away. At one point, Avery reached up and touched his shaved face, smiling and saying something close to his chin. He’d laughed and his face had gone ruddy.
At the front of the boat, they stopped at the blue net Drew had installed that summer. Kyle tested it with the toe of his loafers.
“Will it hold me?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Lia answered.
A childlike grin swept over Kyle’s face as he handed Avery
his glass, then crawled onto the net, flinging himself backward as if he were landing in a hammock. Although Lia usually saw him in the most professional contexts—often coming out of the Vampiress’s office in his Armani suits—right now, with that half-inebriated smile, she could see the man the gossip papers described: one who was in a state of arrested development, partying since he was fourteen, courting women, nursing vodkas, and dancing to the edge of the danger his family wouldn’t let him near.
“Come here with me.” He patted the vinyl net next to him and grinned up at Lia.
anything Kyle wants
—charged through her head as she eyed the sunken net. When she glanced at Evan, he looked irritated.
She tested the net with her toe and tottered toward a corner, but Kyle reached up and grabbed her wrist, yanking her down almost on top of him. She couldn’t help but laugh at the childishness of it all, but, before she knew what happened, she was lying beside him, his arm around her, both of them staring at the sky.
“Can you imagine lying like this all night?” he asked breathlessly, waving his arm to sweep the vastness of the sky. “Have you ever?”
“No,” Lia said, struggling to sit up. She straightened her sweater.
“Lie here with me,” Kyle begged.
“Kyle, I think we need to finish the tour.”
“C’mon, just until it—” Before he could even finish the sentence, the first raindrop hit his forehead. Another hit the back of her hand.
“I think our sky gazing might be over.” She gave him a smile to soften the rejection, certain he wasn’t used to it.
Evan offered a hand and yanked her to a standing position, then leaned toward her ear. “You don’t have to do whatever he says.”
Anger came up fast and furiously for Lia. She had never liked having men tell her what to do—probably why she never tolerated a boyfriend for very long and kept soft-spoken Forrest around. Bossy men—or, worse,
men—made her crazy. “I’m sure I know that,” she hissed.
Before Evan could utter another word, she yelled to Kyle and Avery: “Let’s try to see the pods before the rain hits.”
They followed her under the sprinkling skies, Kyle with his arm around Avery, rubbing her arms and laughing.
Evan hesitated at the rail, but finally followed behind all of them toward the pods.
* * *
The rain began falling in earnest as the four of them crawled into the pods. There were two—one in each hull—tiny viewing stations that could each fit two people standing. The pods allowed a 180-degree view of the underwater world. This was Drew’s pride and joy, and it had taken quite a bit of engineering genius—and almost all of his savings—to make it happen.
While Avery and Kyle stood in one, Lia and Evan crouched on the stairway to give them room. Kyle spun in a circle, his face alight with wonder.
“This is”—he waved his vodka toward the portholes—“
A squid floated by, with a school of golden fish following. Avery gasped.
“I didn’t see this before,” she gushed. “I wish I’d brought Conner down here.”
“Kids love it,” Lia agreed.
“I think I could stay here all afternoon,” Kyle said, staring in wonder at a tiny ball of krill going by.
The four of them eventually ducked back to the galley, hustling inside just as the first deluge came. Avery giggled and snuggled up to Evan in the doorway, and—even though his arms started around her in a reflex—he looked a little mortified and stepped away.
“Do your bodyguards want to come in?” Lia asked Kyle, trying not to stare at Evan and Avery.
“They’ll be fine,” Kyle said.
Evan lifted his eyebrow at Lia as their glances met, but Lia headed toward the galley counter, shaking the rain out of her sweater.
“Does anyone want coffee?” she asked.
“No, but I’ll have another drink.” Kyle reached for the Ketel One. “Miss James?”
“I’d love one.” Avery finger combed the rain out of her hair. The rain made her brown curls fall in tighter ringlets around her face, and Evan seemed transfixed.
Lia was furious at herself.
Why couldn’t she stop staring at him? She needed to think of Forrest. He was her type.
As she rounded the galley counter, she snuck her phone out onto the counter and took a quick peek for any messages.
“Is everyone sure they don’t want coffee?” Lia asked. “Evan?”
He shook his head, eyeing Avery’s glass uneasily. He hadn’t sat down—instead, he leaned against the cabinets, his arms crossed over his chest.
Lia scanned for e-mails from Forrest while Evan answered Kyle’s technical questions about why catamarans are made with fiberglass hulls. The rain pounded the windows, covering the portholes in rivulets, creating a soothing sort of music in the small cabin. There were no personal e-mails from Forrest, but he had left a very-public social-media update quoting the Dalai Lama. Lia frowned.
“. . . and it won’t rust,” Evan was saying as Lia reapproached the table, a bottled water for herself and one for him. She shoved it into his hands, and he took it with a nod of thanks.
Avery moved her reporter’s notepad off the table and scooted to make space for Lia. “So how long have you been sailing, Captain Betancourt?” Avery turned her face toward Evan.
“Ah, I’m not answering those kinds of questions. This is Drew’s vessel.”
“But I want to describe the tour I had this week—how do you know where to spot the whales?”
“Whale-watching captains look for signs in the water—krill balls, gulls overhead. You can spot the spouts and eventually the slicks. Plus other captains radio in and help when they see something.”
“So even though this is Drew’s boat, you’ve done this professionally, too?”
Evan’s eyes flicked toward Lia. She could tell he wasn’t sure how much to reveal. She thought about jumping in to rescue him, but then changed her mind. She was still miffed
about his reprimand earlier. And besides, she was sort of curious to hear his answers, too. She crossed her arms and stared back at him.
Evan shifted uncomfortably. “My experience comes from studying environmentalism in the Coast Guard. Drew’s the pro.”
“You were with the Coast Guard, man?” Kyle lit up with interest.
“How long?” Avery asked.
Evan glanced at Lia again for help, but she just gave him a small, tight-lipped smile.
You’re on your own, buddy.
He threw her a quelling look before turning back toward Avery. Lia noticed that he never looked Avery directly in the eye.
“Eight years,” he finally said.
“Were you stationed on this coast?” Kyle asked.
“Is that how you know the Pacific whales so well?” Avery asked.
This he answered with just a nod. He seemed to want to escape out the galley door.
“But don’t you travel all over for the Coast Guard?” Kyle leaned across the table. “Alaska, maybe?”
“I was in Alaska, yeah.”
“But you know Orange County, too?” Avery added.
Evan shifted against the cabinetry. “I grew up near here.”
“In Sandy Cove?” she asked.
“A little north.”
Avery’s face lit up. “I did, too! Where north?”
Evan cleared his throat and looked like he wasn’t going to answer, but finally: “Dana Point,” he mumbled.
“I did, too! What high school did you go to?”
Evan’s glances at Lia looked more and more desperate. “This can’t be interesting to your readers.”
“It’s interesting to
.” She flashed another smile.
“I didn’t finish there. I ended up going way up north.”
Lia fidgeted with her water bottle and pretended she wasn’t listening. She knew Drew had finished school down here, so they must have been separated. She tried to remember if there had been a divorce or something in Drew’s family. She remembered
his parents had separated, then gotten back together. She wondered if the brothers were split up in the middle somewhere.
“And what do you do now, Captain?” Avery asked.
Evan cleared his throat. “Your readers aren’t going to find this interesting. Do you have questions about the mammals?”
“How do you spot the whales—do you use underwater instruments?”
“Binoculars. Whale-watching captains don’t use underwater instruments—their job is to keep the environment safe and natural for the whales to live. Sonar and things like that mess with the whale’s natural communication and sense of direction.”
“I sure hope you continue working with ocean mammals, Captain Betancourt. You know a lot about them.” Avery’s smile grew broader. “Is there a Mrs. Captain Betancourt who shares your interest in environmentalism?”
Lia turned toward Evan. Avery was good.
He squirmed again against the cabinetry. “Again, this can’t be interesting to your readers.”
“You’d be surprised.” She beamed.
He crossed his arms tighter against his chest. “There
a Mrs. Betancourt, but there is no longer.”
Lia lifted an eyebrow.
Both the reveal and the information surprised her. He seemed too secretive to reveal anything like that, especially to a woman getting too drunk to remember any of it and to a man for whom he held a barely veiled contempt.
And even though Lia had seen the brief glimpse of bright blue eyes and handsomeness this morning, now his hair jags had fallen back over the mask he wore, making him seem much too sullen, too dark, to have ever proposed to a woman and made a promise of happiness for a lifetime.
“Oh.” Avery dropped her voice into a flirtatious coo. “
” she whispered.
They all whipped their heads back toward Evan. Lia swallowed a gasp.
“Let’s leave Evan alone,” Kyle interjected, slamming the galley table with a conjured enthusiasm. “I know, with what we know now, I feel comfortable having you as the charter
captain on Monday—you’re going to be there, right? In Drew’s absence?”
Evan glanced again at Lia.
Lia opened her mouth to answer, but she was still reeling from that last bit.
If she hadn’t seen “previously married” coming, she definitely didn’t see “widowed.” She wanted to wrap her head around that, rewind through a few conversations they’d had, think about that framed photo he’d shoved into the drawer on his sailboat, but Kyle was pressing for an answer.
“That’s one of the options,” she said carefully.
“I insist.” Kyle topped off his glass. His speech was becoming more labored. “I’d only feel comfortable with Drew or Evan.”
Lia nodded weakly.
Whatever Kyle Stevens wants. . . .
She’d figure something out. Whether Drew was better or not, whether Evan was leaving Thursday or not, whether Sharon would let her talk to Drew tomorrow, whether her heart was hammering inappropriately for this strange man she didn’t want to have feelings for, she’d figure it out.
“We’ll make it happen,” she said, forcing her trademark smile.
“Then what are we hanging around here for, drinking coffee?” Kyle banged the table with another breath of overenthusiasm. “Let’s go out! My treat.”
“Well, no one’s actually drinking coffee, Mr. Stevens, and—” Lia began.
,” he corrected.
“Kyle, you don’t have to take us out. I think we can wrap everything up right here, and we’ll have everything ready for you when your charter guests arrive.”
“No way,” he said, slipping into his boyish, spoiled persona. “This isn’t about my charter. This is about three people I like, and who I want to take out for drinks. Evan, you in? I want to hear more about your Coast Guard service.” His tongue seemed to have trouble getting around the
in “Coast Guard.”
“It’s been a long day,” Evan drawled.
“How about you, beautiful?” Kyle turned to Avery.
“I’ll go if Captain Betancourt goes.” She threw Evan a smile that looked carnivorous.
“Buddy.” Kyle grinned up at him. “Don’t leave me hangin’. We’ve got two of the prettiest women in Orange County right here, and I want to take us all to my new restaurant, and feed you a steak dinner. C’mon . . .”
Evan shook his head.
“Lia? I guess it’s just you and me, then?”
Evan raised an eyebrow.
She was caught. The Vampiress’s words,
anything Kyle Stevens wants
, were warring with Evan’s,
you don’t have to do whatever he says
, and she stood frozen. In reality, she didn’t want to go. Kyle had clearly had too much to drink, and some of the stories she’d seen in the gossip magazines had begun to float back to her.
She knew the restaurant he was referring to. She’d done the marketing for it. It was more of a nightclub than a restaurant, and she knew there were fourteen private curtained areas along the back that were half bedroom, half dining—several round ottoman/beds draped in purple velvet, with techno sounds, tray after tray of Grey Goose, and just enough food to keep guests from passing out. She wondered if this was where Kyle meant to bring them.
“I can’t,” she said hurriedly. There was only so much she was willing to do for the Vampiress.