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A Private Island off the Florida Coast
You wouldn't recognize a good time if it landed in your lap and wiggled.
Lacey Sutherland stared at the instant message from her twin sisterher fraternal, meaner twin, who had nothing in common with her besides a last name and a career pathand felt her blood boil.
It was long past midnight. Her latest blog on the matchmaking Web site she'd worked so hard to develop had received only a couple of hundred hits. Her career was in the crapper and had been headed there for months. Once, twice, again she thunked her forehead against her kitchen table that doubled as a work station. Her research manuals and computer printouts of reference material were piled under her chair, all over her countertops and stuffed in the nearby plate rack that made a really creative filing system. And now her ever-helpful twin who thought she knew best because she'd pushed her way out of the womb two minutes before Lacey wanted to tell her how to have a good time?
Rubbing her now sore head, she wondered if anyone had popularized GTH as an e-mail acronym. Go to Hades fit Lacey's response quite aptly.
I don't need a vacation! Lacey typed back, picturing her twin on the other side of the country.
Laura lived in Seattle, a good three thousand miles away from Lacey's small plot of dirt just east of Miami off Florida's coast. Lacey had come by her own little island in the Atlantic thanks to a brilliant real-estate agent and a small windfall from the damages on a court case that she didn't like to remember. She was very content to be far from her roots and the sister who thought she knew everything from which wine to pour with a cheeseburger to what menLacey should date.
Like now. Lacey's eyes went straight to the vacation brochure glaring at her from beside her computer. Laura had won a free airline ticket to anywhere in the U.S. and was convinced Lacey had to take it. She'd been on her soapbox about Lacey working too hard, when it was Laura's fault that her career was in shambles in the first place. Why her twin had to follow her into the matchmaking business after Lacey had declared an interest in the field was anyone's guess.
Some people took that "I can do anything better than you" mentality a little too far. You haven't been off that damn speck of dirt you call an island in months. Her sister typed back, the instant message tone chiming.
It's bad enough you don't get nearly enough fresh foods out there, but you're turning into a hermit. Social skills disappear if you don't use them, darling.
Lacey rolled her eyes at the use of the endearment and the chain of smiley-faced emoticons that followed. Too bad there wasn't an emoticon for smugness.
Laura did strike a sore spot with the bit about Lacey's social skills, however. Lacey had reason to be antisocial after a traumatic incident when she'd been an overweight teen. That made her cautious. Appreciative of her privacy. And pretty damn picky when it came to dating.
That was why she'd gotten into matchmaking. She liked the idea that she could prescreen candidates both for herself and for other discriminating singles.
I was in Miami six weeks ago and stocked up. She had enough Lean Cuisine suppers to go another six days without leaving her place, but she wasn't about to confess that to her hippie, fresh-veggie-loving sis. You're just scared I'm going to beat you in this contest and you can't wait to distract me from the goal.
After Lacey had majored in sociology, she'd worked in the matchmaking industry for a few years before taking a gamble and developing her own online dating Web site. She'd put a simple system in place that predicted compatibility to help serious daters find intelligent relationship prospects. Her program, Connections, had the highest rate of dating success stories for an independent matchmaker on the Webuntil her sister had developed a competing site.
The Blender was an irreverent spin on dating services, focusing on fun matches instead of serious life partners, and had increasingly undermined Lacey's online traffic for nearly six months in a row. Finally, deciding to face the competition head-on, Lacey had promised her advertisers that this month her site would generate more hits than her sister's Web site, and more successful dates. The event would make or break Connections for good.
You're far more concerned about your numbers than me came Laura's speedy reply, the crisp, typed letters blinking back at Lacey.
Her Web site was on the line, since she was losing major dollars to her sister's site.
A loss would not only crush her career, but could easily necessitate she give up her private haven in the middle of nowhere. Life out on the island wasn't cheap, but she dearly loved the quiet beauty that was so different from the noisy household she'd grown up in with her mother's endless parade of significant others. Or, in her mom's case, insignificant others. Cut the crap, Laura.
One in the morning was too late for diplomacy, Lacey decided, typing away with tired fingers. If you're afraid of the competition, find another field.
She was about to close her instant-messenger window to end the conversation and plot her next step to create a big splash on her matchmaking blog, but her sister's newest note was already popping open. The e-ticket for the flight to anywhere is already in your inbox. I can't take any trips right now since Brillo hates to fly.
The note was immediately followed by the tone that indicated Laura had signed off, ensuring her twin had the last word. As per usual.
And wasn't it amusing that Laura thought Lacey was a hermit with no social skills, yet Laura wouldn't fly because her poodle didn't like it? Dear God, what if she was like her sister in more ways than she realized?
Suddenly tempted by that plane ticket, if only to prove she hadn't turned antisocial in the years since college, Lacey allowed her mouse to hover over the icon for her e-mail inbox and then yanked it away. She refused to get sucked into her sister's Dr. Phil act. Laura loved to prescribe other people's life paths. That's what made her site so popular. Some people needed direction in life.
Lacey was not one of them.
Instead she clicked on the beta version of her new secret weaponan updated matchmaking program that she'd been working on for the past six weeks she'd been holed up at home. She had hoped to get the system to market and start reaping the benefits before her month was up for this contest. Before she lost her top advertisers to Laura.
Before Lacey became the also-ran in her twin's six-foot-tall shadow. But glitches kept popping up in the program, discouraging her from introducing it to her site's visitors until she'd perfected it.
Lacey had been testing the new system by filling out her own matchmaking profile in the Connections database. Not that she was looking for a relationship right now.
Far from it.
Her work monopolized her life and probably would continue to do so for the next few years. Even if Connections shut down she wanted to be secure in her world and her career before she began searching for someone to share her life with. But she needed to try out the new system, and that meant going on a few sample dates to see what sorts of guys the process netted.
"Eat your heart out, sis." Lacey clicked on the "Match" function to see what kinds of mates her program had paired her with after her last round of software adjustments.
Excited all over again, Lacey sat up straighter in her ergonomic office chair pulled up to the kitchen table slash desk. She toasted the laptop screen with a coffee mug filled with sludge that had gone cold about two hours ago.
An electronic ring told her the process was complete. Her matches had been run. Setting aside the chipped mug of high-octane caffeine, Lacey shoved her glasses higher on her nose to view the results.
At which time, her socks were promptly knocked off.
Because she hadn't received a batch of twenty crappy matches with seventy-five percent compatibility ratings. She'd scored two matches in the eighties along with the brass ring of the matchmaking world.
A ninety-six percenter.
She hardly dared to click on the profile that came with a hell of a lot of professional joy andamazinglya smidgen of romantic curiosity. What kind of guy rated so high that he would be ninety-six percent compatible with her?
Tapping the keys that would give her more information on one Nicholas Castine, Lacey read all the right things. College educated. Thirty-five years old, which meant he was over those party years and ready for something more serious. A real job as an importer-exporter. He owned his business, in fact.
Impressed, Lacey was already picturing herself meeting this guy. If not for her own dating pleasure, then for the sake of the blog during this all-important month when visitor traffic was crucial. She could chronicle the success of a ninety-six-percent match firsthand on the Connections site, a feature sure to generate interest in the new program if she had indeed smoothed out the last of the kinks.
Delirious with this renewed affirmation that she didn't suck as a matchmaker, Lacy was ready to click on the man's e-mail address and introduce herself. Then she spotted his current location.
Originally from New York City, Nicholas Castine had posted his profile last month from his second home in Aquadilla, Puerto Rico. A far-flung locale that would make for an ideal vacation, should a woman be so inclined. Maybe that bit of kismet was telling her that every once in a while a woman needed to believe in love. Fate.
The couple that was destined to be together.
Near Borinquen USCG Air Station
Five days later
The night took a downward turn the moment a hot chick stepped into the bar.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Damon Craig tipped back his glass of local rum and determined he could pinpoint the exact second his evening had gone from bad to worse. And it wasn't just because the woman in question carried a cell phone in one hand and a laptop satchel in the other for a drink at a beach surf-shack. Damon considered these hallmarks of self-important tourists his personal pet peeves during a night out.
No, the woman teetering around in expensive heels at Café Rosita's proved a problem because she was flirting with the object of Damon's current mission. With a delectable set of curves drawing the attention of every Y-chromosome holder in the bar, the woman made it damn difficult for Damon to keep tabs on his quarry.
And he needed to watch the drug runner. Damon might have entered the bar to blow off steam after a frustrating week of coming up with nothing on the drug shipment his unit in the USCG's Deployable Operations Group had been tasked to intercept. But then he'd spotted the reputed ringleader himself and decided to stick around and monitor the guy. If their intel about Nicholas Castine was right, he wasn't just importing Ecstasy and date-rape drugs, he was also a predator himself. One of many reasons Damon wasn't crazy about the cupcake in a yellow sundress chatting up the dirtbag.
"I could go over there," Damon's buddy across the table offered. Enrique Soto was a Puerto Rico native even though he'd gone to Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut with Damon back in the day. Another member of Damon's unit, Enrique was deployed with him at the Borinquen Air Station nearby. A big guy with a personality as loud as his Hawaiian shirt, Enrique wasn't the sort of dude people forgota fact that made good cover for Damon's impromptu mission tonight.
No one tended to notice Damon when Enrique jumped behind the bar to show the locals his favorite rum concoctions or leaped on a table to start a round of Elvis karaoke.
The live band's mix of reggaeton and American pop hits filled the small café, vibrating along the rafters and rattling the glasses hanging upside down over the bar.
"And what do you think that will accomplish?" Damon set aside his empty glass, content to stretch out his drink orders even though he wasn't officially on duty. He would have forgone the rum altogether except that two Coasties sliding into a bar booth without slamming a drink or two would have the locals talking in no time. That was another reason Damon had chosen Enrique for company.
Enrique's nights off involved enough rum consumption for both of them.
"I'll charm the broad to get her out of the way so you can keep tabs on our guy. Your guy, technically, since I'm off tonight." Enrique picked up Damon's empty glass and waved it around as he whistled for the waitress. "Oh, that's right. You are, too. You just forgot how to stop working for more than five minutes at a time."
Clearly the guy's fifth rum wasn't mellowing him one damn bit.
"What makes you think I'm not here to get laid? That woman in the yellow sundress is right up my alley." Damon paid the waitress for the next round and kept his eyes on the hot chick and his drug-runner target, who seemed to be having some kind of tiff.
Damon didn't have a clear view since four other guys took turns checking out her legs and continually got in his way. But it looked like the woman had tensed, her tall, curvy form straightening in her seat beside Nick Castine.
After eight years in the Coast Guard, Damon had been in prime position for duty with the Deployable Operations Group. He liked the unit that allowed him to go anywhere in the U.S. at any given moment to respond quickly to new security threats. But this mission was about more than a job. The DOG's pursuit of Nicholas Castine meant the chance for vengeance on a man whose crime network had infiltrated Damon's personal life. Castine's drugs and the party lifestyle they encouraged had stolen Damon's last girlfriend right out from under him last year.
"Because you swore off women a year ago the first and only time I saw you get shit-faced." Enrique turned around to follow Damon's gaze. "And if I remember correctly, you specifically swore off sophisticated city women who thought they were better than the general population." He swung back to face Damon, a big grin on his mug. "I'd say the toots with the designer laptop case fits the bill."