As 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 early 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.
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?”
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 . 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.
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 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 between 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.
“Is everyone excited?” Lia asked the crowd.
They responded with the enthusiasm of a football stadium, especially the little kids. Normally, Drew was great at this part. She scrambled to remember how he did all this.
“We’re just going to get a few more things set up for you, then I’ll come back and we’ll get everyone boarded,” she said in her tour-guide voice. “Kids, start thinking now about how many whales there are in this part of the ocean, and I’ll tell you the answer when you get on board.”
Lia undid the chain and limped onto the stern.
Evan was in the front of the boat, frowning next to the new blue lattice nets.
“Where’s your crew?” he asked in his deep rasp.
A wave of embarrassment washed over Lia for some reason—as if she’d lost the crew herself. “I don’t think they’re coming.”
She shook her head.
“How many are there usually?”
“Four. Drew is captain and tour guide, Cora is the cook, Douglas is the deckhand, and Drew has a part-time steward named Stewey.”
“His steward is named Stewey?”
“Not his real name.”
Evan ran his hand down his face. “And no one’s coming?”
Lia bit her lip. “No.”
“Who’s giving the narrative?”
“I probably could.”
“Do you know anything about marine life?”
“. . . if you could write things down for me.”
He stared at her, hands hanging off his hips. He glanced around the deck, perhaps trying to imagine how they were going to pull this off, and looked as if he were going to jump overboard. But finally, slowly, he turned to inspect the life vests under the bench seats.
“What’s wrong with your ankle?” he growled from behind a bench door.
“I think . . . I just twisted it a bit.”
“Get some ice on that. Where are the fire extinguishers?”
Lia pointed, and Evan moved to the box, glancing inside. “Does Drew keep any firearms on board?” He was moving back toward the galley. He seemed to have gone into Coast Guard mode.
“Um . . . no, not that I know of.”
Evan gave a curt nod. “How many passengers will there be?”
“We should get him another fire extinguisher, then. Does he have a first-aid kit in there?”
He waited for her to get the cabin door open, then followed her inside, his head barely clearing the ceiling, while she looked for the first-aid kit. He leaned against the countertops while she checked the top row. It took her a few tries, but she finally found the kit in a top cabinet. She pointed it out for Evan’s mental checklist, but he motioned for it with his fingers. Taking it from her, he rifled through, snagged four Advil packets, then withdrew a long white plastic thing.
“Emergency ice.” He held it out for her. “Put it on your ankle. And here.” He rummaged for another Advil packet and shoved it at her. He snapped the box closed and tossed it back into the cabinet. “Do you need help with the covers?” He inclined his head toward the bright blue ones Douglas had put across the bench seats.
“Yes, thank you.”
He held out his palm for the keys.
As Evan lurched away with the ignition key, Lia stared after him. There was so much she wanted to know—why he slept with a gun, why he and Drew were estranged, what was going on with all the simmering anger, why his Coast Guard career ended—but she wouldn’t ask. She didn’t really need to know. She couldn’t keep him after this. Drew wouldn’t like it. And he looked like too much of a wild card to keep around.
She glanced back out for Kyle Stevens, but still no sign. Quickly, she ducked back into the galley and set things up the way she remembered Drew kept them, pushing all thoughts of Evan out of her mind. They had five minutes before boarding.
She set out their new pamphlets in an acrylic holder; straightened the new poster Drew kept of various dolphins for kids to see the difference in their sizes; propped up a framed picture he kept of all the different whales; and found his new models of whale teeth, which she spread across the countertop. She tried to remember where Drew usually placed the little stuffed whale he called Willy and finally settled on one of the blue-cushioned benches out on the rear deck.
When she went out onto the deck, Coraline was waddling up the stern with two large shopping bags in her arms.
“Cora! I’m so relieved to see you!” Lia unburdened her of one of the bags.
“Sorry I’m late, sunshine. Didn’t think we’d be heading out this week.”
“I know. Douglas hasn’t shown.”
“I don’t think he’s coming, sweetie, but he called to make sure I’d be here for you. He said you found a captain?” Her eyes went up to the bridge. “Drew’s brother?” she whispered.
Lia ushered her into the cabin. “Yes. He seems a little cranky today, but I hear he’s good.” They plopped both bags onto the countertop.
“Maybe he needs coffee,” Cora said.
“That would be great.”
Cora patted Lia and waddled her way behind the galley counter. “I’ll get right on that.”
Lia blew out a relieved breath. At least one person showed. She checked her texts again and thought maybe she could get Stewey for at least the second tour. Once she sent another quick message, she headed up to the bridge. “Are you ready?”
“Yep.” Evan was at the helm, adjusting some dials and fiddling with the radio.
“Our cook showed up,” she offered hopefully.
He glowered but didn’t look her way. “Could use a deckhand more.”
Yes, I get it, Mr. Negative. But she dismissed his scowl and looked him over. He looked really ragged. The hangover and anger and deadness in his eyes made him look like he might actually end up overboard before the end of the day. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
“I’m ready.” He looked out toward the horizon with a finality that indicated that’s as far as that conversation was going to go.
Lia turned and descended to the main deck. It wasn’t worth it to press him—to ask him how hung over he was, why he didn’t take her request seriously, or whether he’d drained those entire two bottles of scotch alone in one night. They would just get through this day, then she would reevaluate. Maybe she would insist that Drew the want-ad idea. For now, though, she had clients to impress.
“Hello, everyone!” she called in her most lighthearted voice.
Evan ran his hand down his face, cursed Glenlivet for at least the hundredth time, and turned his head slowly so his eyeballs would stop throbbing. He scanned the dock for Tommy. Clearly, Tommy was a no-show. Bastard.
Evan had called Tommy late last night, an hour after Lia had skipped away and a half hour after he knew he absolutely could not face her and her painful cheerfulness again. She was like some kind of Cinderella cartoon, with singing cartoon birds floating around her yellow hair. He didn’t want to deal with her, didn’t want to deal with Drew’s boat, didn’t want to see the name “The Duke,” and certainly didn’t want to deal with a bunch of strangers, kids, or even sunlight. He just wanted to be left alone.
But he said he’d help.
So his midnight call to Tommy Two-Time, after three seductive glasses of scotch, was, admittedly, a little desperate. Tommy might not be the most reliable guy in the world, and had spent more than a few nights in jail around these parts—which might have been where his nickname came from, although Evan wasn’t sure—but he could sail with his eyes closed and knew how to find whales. And Drew knew him as well as Evan did—they’d all sailed together around here when they were kids. So that was a plus. Evan was surprised to get ahold of him at all—he wasn’t even sure Tommy was still around—but, after a strange exchange of information that might have been tinged with too much scotch, Tommy had agreed to navigate Drew’s boat for a fee, which Evan agreed to pay, up front, through the entire week. He’d do that much for Drew.
But when the knock reverberated on his cabin door this morning, and Cinderella stood there looking wide-eyed and expectant, Evan knew Tommy was back to his unreliable ways.
So now he had a full day of stinging sunlight, throbbing brain, nausea, Cinderella, a boatload of kids, and a passenger who looked way too much like Renece to deal with.
He rubbed his face again and wondered if he could get through this day. And if he could stop his eyeballs from throbbing. But—as he’d always told his crew—anyone can do anything for a day.
“. . . type of killer whale?” he heard from behind him.
He opened one eye at a time, peering back over his shoulder. There were no sunglasses on earth dark enough for him right now. “Wha?” he managed to croak out. His tongue felt like it had fur on it.
“Is there only one type of killer whale?”
His questioner was about four feet tall, the stripes on his shirt providing an assault to all of Evan’s senses. Once he was able to open both eyes, and come to some semblance of focus, he realized it was the kid . The one with the Renece look-alike .
“What do you mean?” He couldn’t handle this right now. He could barely keep his head screwed on.
“Are there lots of killer whales or only the black-and-white ones?”
Evan pressed on his temple so his brains wouldn’t spill out and glanced behind him in hopes that someone would save him. “Actually, the real name for that whale is an orca, and it’s not really a whale but a dolphin—the biggest of the dolphin family.”
“But does it kill people? Will it kill us if we see him today?” He plucked at his shirt.
“No, no, kid.” A sharp pain right behind his eyelids had Evan gripping at the bridge of his nose. “No, he’s—”
“Conner! What are you doing up here?”
The soft voice had Evan’s head snapping up, and the vision had him on his feet in half a second. But the movements were all too fast, and he swayed embarrassingly and gripped the wheel. Renece. Damn, she looked so much like her. . . .
“Hi, I’m sorry. I’m Avery.” The woman thrust out her hand.
Evan didn’t know what she was apologizing for, but he cut himself some slack for slow brainwaves this morning and gave her hand a swift shake before pulling back into himself. She was beautiful, the way Renece had been, but the fact that she reminded him of a ghost left him feeling more repelled than attracted. He took another step away and thought he might hurl.
“Captain Betancourt,” he heard another woman’s voice from behind him.
He couldn’t take this. His head honestly felt like it was going to come off and roll down the stern. He forced his eyeballs to shift in the other direction. It was Cinderella.
“I see you’ve met our captain,” she said merrily to the Renece look-alike.
Cinderella had two steaming Styrofoam cups in her hand and a water bottle tucked under her arm, and unloaded all of them onto the captain’s table before looping her arm around Renece and steering her away. “He’s going to get us off to sea in just a couple of minutes, so I’m going to ask everyone to take a seat.” Cinderella threw a megawatt smile to the little boy. “I have a special place for you to sit. Right next to Willy the Whale! Would you like that?” The boy bobbed his head maniacally, and Cinderella guided them both back down to the main deck.
Evan let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and eyed the bottled water. Without another thought, he yanked off the cap and took four long gulps before tearing into the Advil packets.
“Yes, that was for you,” Cinderella said, returning to the bridge and eyeing the nearly empty bottle. “Want another?”
“That’d be great.”
“The coffee’s for you, too.” She scooted the Styrofoam cup closer. “Cora makes amazing coffee—you might rethink that deckhand remark.”
As irritating as she’d been with her excruciating cheerfulness earlier, she now seemed like some sort of angel. One who could flit around with bottled water and strong brew.
“Thanks,” he said, keeping his voice low enough to protect him from reverberation in his head.
She reached for her own cup. “As soon as we get out to sea, can you jot some notes about what we’re seeing?”
He squinted in her direction. Damn. He’d forgotten about that part. This day was just getting better and better. “Can we keep it to a minimum?”
“What, the narration?”
“The noise. The narration. The microphone. The kids. And our”—he swung his finger back and forth between them—“interaction.” He slid another glance at her. He was being an ass. But he needed to keep her glib conversation and perky attitude from causing his head to roll into the sea.
“Sure,” she said, her voice faraway. Finally, she turned and left.
He sighed into the empty space she created. He was a jerk. He shouldn’t have accepted this request. He wasn’t fit to interact with normal human beings anymore, even if it meant possible forgiveness from his brother.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes and concentrated on the cat’s controls.
He would just get through this one day. Then he’d call Tommy Two-Time again and double his price.
If he survived today, that was.