Lia’s rolling briefcase bumped over the wooden dock slats as she rushed down the ramp in her high heels toward Drew’s boat. The rhythmic thumping of the broken wheel on the left echoed the relentless thump in her chest, especially when she saw the empty wheelchair parked at the end of the dock, a seagull perched haughtily on the handle in the late-winter sun.
“Drew?” She pulled her case to attention and peered up and down Drew’s enormous white catamaran deck. Long shadows darkened the back end.
When she was met with only the quiet laps of the harbor water splashing against the hull, she mentally measured the leap from the dock to the three small steps at the back of the boat, then eyed the deep Pacific below. She took a tentative step with her toe, but the catamaran pitched a little too wide for her pencil skirt.
“Lia!” Dougla gruff voice, rasped from at least five decades of smoking, preceded him as he hoisted his bearlike body through the narrow cabin door.
“Douglas! Glad to see you. How is he?”
Douglas wiped some kind of potato chip grease from his fingers onto the belly portion of his T-shirt, took the steps down to the catamaran’s low stern, and hauled Lia’s briefcase into the boat. He reached out his weathered hand to help her make the leap, but his eyes slid to her shoes.
“Where are your boat shoes, ?”
“I came straight from my last client when you called.”
“On a Saturday?”
“No rest for the promotion bound.” She threw him a tired smile for proof. Her boss, Elle—real name Elvira—whom Lia not-so-affectionately thought of as the Vampiress and who regularly used phrases like “I’ll hold your feet to the fire,” had been running her ragged.
“Here.” Lia undid the straps of her shoes and handed them one at a time to Douglas, who stared at them curiously before chucking them onto the bench seat that ran along the edge of the boat.
He jutted his chin toward the main hull. “Enter at your own risk.”
Drew’s galley was clean and sparse, mostly bright white with splashes of nautical blue and meticulously shined stainless steel. Lia was always surprised at how spacious it seemed, even when the catamaran was filled with the forty-five guests he usually had on a whale-watching trip. But today it was eerily empty, with just Drew sitting at the small galley table, twisted so he could unload a tiny cupboard that was part of the curved bench seat. He slammed paperwork and small canisters onto the tabletop, then hauled out three or four folded plastic table-cloth-looking items that looked like some type of covers. Beneath the table, two bright white, slightly bent casts covered both legs, his toes poking helplessly toward the narrow walkway.
“Drew, I’m so—”
“Save it, Lia.” Without a glance back at her, he continued stacking things onto the table. “I know you’re sorry. Everyone’s sorry. I’m sorry. But I just don’t want to talk about it right now.”
She pressed her lips together and tore her eyes away from the casts, then sidled in toward the table, lugging her briefcase behind her. The case was filled with two hundred new color brochures, plus two hundred colored tickets and passes she’d had made up for his new whale-watching business. She really wasn’t supposed to be doing free marketing work on the side for her friends—the Vampiress would screech into her twenty-third-floor ceiling tiles if she found out—but Lia’s friends had terrific businesses, and Lia always had marketing ideas for them.
“Drew, I think we need to talk about this and come up with a plan for what you’re going to—”
“I don’t know, Lia.” A small vinyl bag landed on the table next to the canisters. It seemed to be the main thing he was looking for. He turned slightly in the dinette seat. “I guess you didn’t understand the part, ‘don’t want to talk about it right now.’”
She tugged her briefcase closer to the table and edged around his casted feet to take a seat. “Drew, as your friend, I would honor that . And I would come here and make you soup in your lucky bowl from college and pour you a nice, neat scotch and we’d sit here and get plastered. But, buddy”—she cupped his wrist—“I have to come to you today as a marketing manager. Because I just booked the Vampiress’s most important client on your boat. Because you needed the business. You need to come through for me on this, Drew. Please.”
Drew stared at the table. “I don’t see how I can make that happen.”
Images of the Vampiress and her rage floated through Lia’s head. Lia was not much more than a glorified administrative assistant right now, and had been for the last four years, but she was on the cusp of a promotion—a huge promotion to open the new office in Paris—if she could pull this off. She could feel it. It had been a dangling carrot for the last three years, but now—finally—it looked like it could happen. And just in time, too. Turning twenty-nine and still hoping she got the coffee right for her boss was not exactly what she’d had in mind for herself when she’d stepped into the hallowed glass walls of the most famous ad agency in Southern California.
“Drew,” she started again. She kept her voice calm. “I just spent two whole vacation days helping you sell a hundred freaking tickets for excursions over the next six weeks, and you launch Monday. I know you’re feeling frustrated. And I know you’re feeling desperate. But you need a plan. And I need that promotion. So we need to figure out how to run this boat for a couple weeks, and how to run that charter next week. Let me be your free PR person and help you come up with something. And then let me be the friend who’s going to help you through all this.” She stole another glance at the casts.
“I need the friend who will sit quietly and let me brood.”
“Then you should have called Xavier.”
Drew smiled and stared at the table. They both stilled, listening to the gentle marina waters lapping the sides of the boat and Douglas’s distant whistling of
“I wanted you to come,” he said quietly. “I knew you’d know what to do. I just don’t want to keep rehashing the accident.”
She gave his forearm a gentle squeeze. She knew her friendship with Drew was strong. And knew he’d come through for her. Their friendship had undergone a subtle shift in the last six months, when she’d become his public relations manager. He was the fourth friend from Sandy Cove she’d started helping with marketing. It probably wasn’t smart to give up her measily leftover time off to help friends for free on the weekends, but she enjoyed it. She helped Drew and their friend Vivi, who ran the cute little vintage clothing shop on Main Street. She helped her next-door neighbor Rabbit who ran a surf camp for kids, plus their landlord Mrs. Rose when she needed to advertise for new residents. And Lia just started helping Mr. Brimmer who opened a wine-and-cheese shop on Main and didn’t know how to start a website. She was really proud of some of the campaigns she’d launched, and proud of all her friends for starting such brilliant businesses. Until today anyway.
Drew was flexing his fingers, staring at them on the table. “We need to find someone for at least the first week,” he said.
“Yes.” A breath of relief escaped Lia’s throat. “Do you know any other captains we can call?”
“No one I can trust.”
Lia listened to the waves lapping. “What about Douglas?” she asked.
“He doesn’t have a commercial captain’s license.”
She figured as much. Otherwise he’d have been the clear choice. Her mind raced. “Kelly from the marina?”
“He’s fishing boat only.”
“What about want ads?”
Drew scowled further. “This is an expensive boat, Lia.”
She nodded and touched his arm again. Drew was more of a control freak than she was, with touches of OCD to boot. She couldn’t imagine him giving up his boat to anyone. It cost more than his house.
He gingerly began putting the items from the table into a box that was wedged onto the seat next to him.
Her mind wanted to stay focused on business, but it kept drifting to the motorcycle accident she imagined. She’d just flown in from a trade show in New York that the Vampiress had sent her to, gotten dressed this morning, threw everything into her car to start visiting the Los Angeles clients she’d missed this week, then received the call from Douglas. The horror of the accident—Drew sliding across the freeway off his motorcycle—and the fact that they could have lost him, played over and over in her mind all the way to the marina.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“I’ll be okay. Painkillers help. No talking about it right now.”
Lia nodded and eyed the neat stacks in the box. “Need help?”
“I got it.”
They sat in silence again, Drew organizing the items in the box in his fastidious way, his movements slowing as he seemed to think.
“I thought about calling my dad down here from San Francisco,” he said, “but his heart’s been bad. My mom thought it best we not tell him yet.”
Lia’s mind raced back through everything she knew about Drew. They’d been friends for six years—part of a small circle of really cool people here in Sandy Cove that had all become like family, really. Until recently, anyway, when she started working eighty-hour weeks. She and Drew had even tried to date once, eons ago—he’d picked her up to take her to a nice restaurant near the Sandy Cove , but when he’d leaned over to try to kiss her, they’d both burst out laughing.
“Oh! What about your old , Colleen?”
Lia slumped back. Colleen would have been perfect.
“There is . . .” He stared at the table, as if trying to decide whether to mention it or not.
“I don’t know. Maybe not. It’s probably too risky . . .”
Drew shook his head.
“Look, if this person can sail, and knows anything about whales, and—whoever this is—let’s consider it. This is both of our careers we’re talking about. . . .”
Lia frowned. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“He just . . . showed up.”
Behind her, Douglas took a step down into the cabin. “He just washed up on shore, is what you mean. Need anything more, boss? Want me to get you loaded up?”
“In a minute. Here, take this.” Drew shoved the box across the small galley table.
When Douglas stepped back into the sunshine, Drew glanced up at Lia. “My brother’s a wild card.”
“Where is he? Why haven’t I heard you mention him in all these years?”
“Well, ‘just washed up on shore’ is about right—he sailed in yesterday. He’s a little messed up. Been sailing the world.”
“Well, that . . . that sounds fortuitous. Sounds like perfect timing.” Lia’s heart began racing. Maybe this was an easier solution than she thought.
“Did you not hear the ‘messed up’ part?”
“What do you mean, ‘messed up’? If he can sail the world, he can certainly sail in and out of the harbor. Does he know anything about marine life?”
“Oh, yeah. Former U.S. Coast Guard. Naturalist. degree.”
“What are you waiting for?” Lia scooted her hips around the bench to reach into the briefcase for her cell. “He sounds perfect. Let’s call him.”
“Lia.” Drew grabbed her wrist. He looked up at her through the bangs that fell across his forehead. “Messed up.”
“How messed up? You mean on drugs?”
“No, not drugs.”
“You mean, like, crazy?”
Drew shrugged. “He went through a lot of tragedy over the years. He’s just kind of . . . on his own. Just stays on that boat and anchors wherever the winds take him. He rarely even talks. He won’t agree to a tourist boat, no way.”
“Can’t you ask?”
“He won’t agree.”
“Drew!” Lia brought her head down to try to get him to look at her again. “You need him. You don’t have many options to keep your business alive in this most-important week, and I really need that charter. He’s family. He’ll do it for you. Just ask.”
Drew looked away without answering. He scanned the cabin, as if searching for anything else he needed. Beads of perspiration lined his forehead.
“Drew!” Lia couldn’t believe he wouldn’t consider this. It was an easy solution to a problem they needed to solve by Monday. Family would do anything for you, right? Granted, she sometimes missed phone calls or important gatherings with her own mom and sisters, but that was only because she worked a lot. If Giselle or Noelle or her mom really needed her, she’d be there. “I think we need to come up with a plan,” she said softly.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow. I need another painkiller. Douglas!” he hollered over his shoulder. He turned back toward Lia. “So how’s your boyfriend, anyway?”
“He’s fine. But Drew, let’s discuss this. I booked some impor—”
“Did he leave for Bora Bora?”
“Yes, but let’s stay on task, here. I think—”
“I thought you guys were getting serious. I can’t believe you let him go to Bora Bora without you.”
“It’s not serious, and I don’t think ‘let’ should be a phrase in any healthy relationship . . .”
Drew threw a grin at that—it was an argument they’d had time and time again—but then he turned and looked frantically for Douglas.
“. . . but I think we need to come up with a plan, Drew, for who’s going to sail your boat Monday. It’s booked solid for the first three weeks, and my client wants to show up to inspect it before the big charter next week, and—”
“Doug!” His yell had a twinge of desperation.
“Let’s just ask your brother. It would be a simple solution, and you trust him, and—”
“Asking my brother would not be a simple solution. In fact, the more I think about it, the more disastrous it seems. So let’s get that idea off the table. Let me think of another plan overnight, and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“But we’re running out of time.”
“Give me until tomorrow. Maybe Doug and I can handle it—he can lift me up to the captain’s bridge every day.” At the sight of Douglas lunging down into the cabin, Drew gave a weak smile and began maneuvering out to the side of the dinette, his casts clunking along the deck floor.
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 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.
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 , 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?”
“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 sail his cat, and who knows about whales, and who can take on the business for him for a 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.