Sunday 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 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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“Can’t we talk?”
“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. s , 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.
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?”
“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 good friend?”
“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?”
“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 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 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.