Years ago, Jackson McKenzie let desire override his better judgement when he indulged in the hottest night of his life with Ali, a young woman he knew was off-limits. Guilt drove him to say things he didn’t mean and leave when he wanted to stay more than anything. But now that he’s heard Ali might be in trouble, he has no choice but to step back into her life, no matter how unwelcome he is.
After her father’s death and her mother’s worsening illness, Ali Graham is just trying to keep things together. But the mounting medical bills mean she’s in danger of losing her inherited yacht-chartering business. Just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, the man who broke her heart sails back into her life, claiming he wants to help.
As much as her traitorous body still craves his touch, Ali tries to keep Jackson at arm’s length. But how far is she willing to go to avoid risking her heart again?
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"Goddamn it." Ali Graham cried out, hopping up and down in awkward shuffles, her big toe a throbbing world of pain. She scowled at the heavy mainsail cleat that only a second ago had been in her hand but now was lying oh-so innocently on the deck of her yacht. Frustration and anger shot through her, rivaling the ache in her newly struck toe. "That hurts."
She glared at the cleat some more, her toe throbbing in time with her pounding heart. Holy hell, did it hurt. That's what she got for working on her boat without wearing shoes. She should have known better. "Bum poo crap," she muttered, the childish outburst strangely satisfying as she crouched down to retrieve the heavy metal cleat. Thanks to her stupidity, she'd be walking with a limp for the rest of the —
"I have to say, that's some colorful language you've got there, Ms Graham."
Ali froze, cold terror slamming into her at the deep, smooth and entirely too-familiar male voice sounding behind her. Her heart smashed into her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut, terror turning to stunned disbelief. You've got to be kidding, she thought. He can't be back in Australia. He can't be.
Entirely uninvited, an image of the owner of the voice filled her head and her pulse quickened. She hadn't seen Jackson McKenzie in four years, but that made little difference. His image was just as clear and sharp and vivid as if she'd only seen him an hour ago. And just like it had four years ago, her body was reacting as if she was a silly teenage girl with a sillier crush — her nipples pinching hard, her breath growing rapid and her mouth going dry.
Maybe that's because four years ago you were a teenage girl. Well, three months out of being a teenage girl. Now, however, you've got no excuse. You're twenty-four years old and —
"Are you going to turn around any time soon and say hello?"
The voice — his voice — caressed her senses some more, each word thrumming with sardonic humor. The same sardonic humor she'd loved so much back when she'd been a naïve idiot.
She ground her teeth and closed her fist tighter on the cleat. Am I going to turn around and say hello? How about I turn around and break your nose instead?
She dropped her gaze to Wind Seeker's deck, following its line to the bow. It was a beautiful boat, a majestic forty-five-foot sloop designed and built by her father ten years ago — a gift for her mother as a wedding-anniversary present. The yacht had been her father's passion. Since his death, it had been her passion too. And her livelihood.
He's not going away. You know that, don't you, Ali?
With a sharp sigh and a muttered "shit", Ali turned, directing her churlish glare away from her still-throbbing toe to the tall man standing on the jetty beside her boat. She jutted out her chin, letting him see her contempt. "What the hell are you doing here, Jack?"
Jackson McKenzie, her father's best friend and once business partner, cocked a thick golden-honey eyebrow. "That's an interesting way to greet your old sailing buddy." Sea-green eyes pinned her from behind thin gold-framed glasses and a small grin played over lips that were entirely too kissable. He chuckled. "Anyone would think you haven't missed me."
Ali scowled. "You were my father's sailing buddy, Jack. Not mine. And I haven't missed you. Not in the slightest."
Jack's chuckle met her ears again, the relaxed, somehow far-too knowing sound igniting a flare of anger in her chest and — God help her — a blossom of heat deep between her thighs. His grin stretched wider, flashing white even teeth at her. "Liar."
Ali bit back a scream. "What are you doing here, Jack?" she repeated, fighting like hell to ignore the unnerving sensation stirring in the pit of her belly. He didn't turn her on any more. He didn't. "And don't tell me it's a social visit, because I'm not that gullible anymore."
The corners of his mouth twitched. "It's been a while, Ali." He ignored her question — again. "You've grown up."
She gave him a flat look. "You're right. It has been awhile. Four years in fact. My father's funeral. I wore black, remember?"
As if she hadn't mentioned the horrible day, Jack's mouth played with a smile some more. "Are you going to invite me aboard?"
Ali raised her eyebrows, crossing her arms across her breasts. "Hmmm, let me think ... No."
Jack's smile turned mocking and he shook his head, those green eyes of his never leaving her face. "Still the spoilt teenager, I see."
Renewed frustration and anger rolled through Ali. She jutted out her chin some more. If she wasn't careful, the way she was carrying on she'd put her neck out. "I'm twenty four, thank you very much," she snapped. "Not a teenager." Damn him, why did he make her so flustered so fast?
Jack suppressed a laugh. "And yet so easily provoked. Nothing has changed."
Ali's breath caught in her throat. Goddamn it, Ali Graham. She gave herself a savage mental rap. Get a grip. Do you want him to see you like this? Do you want to give him the satisfaction?
With forced bravado, she turned her back on him, her heart a wild trip-hammer slamming against her breastbone. "I've work to do," she flung over her shoulder, determined to sound indifferent as she pulled on the boom's rigging. "It was ... nice ... to see you."
There was a moment of silence long enough for Ali to decide he'd left. She let out a soft sigh. Oh man, why did she wish he'd stayed? Why did she wish he'd ignored her and climbed aboard her boat? Why did she wish he'd slid his arms around her waist and drew her close to his body like he had all those years ago?
Damn it. He still did it to her. Still messed her up even after what he'd done.
"Two missed payments, Ali?"
A chill cut straight to Ali's heart at Jack's soft question. She tightened her fists on the rigging, the steel rope biting into her flesh.
Damn it. He knows. He knows about the loan.
Of course he knew. Why else did she think he was there? To say sorry for four years ago? To beg her forgiveness? To make love to her again?
Staring at Wind Seeker's deck, Ali let out another long, soft sigh. No, it wouldn't be to say sorry. It was to look her in the face when he knew that she'd failed. That was why he was here. Any other hoping and wishing was just that, hoping and wishing. And hopes and wishes got you diddly-squat. She'd learnt that the second she'd taken over running With the Wind Charters.
Running a sailing charter business on Sydney Harbor was never going to be easy. It was a cutthroat world dominated by men and money. It didn't help that she was an American, not a born-and-bred Australian. Nor did it help most of Sydney's sailing world held her responsible for her father's death, a man embraced by his adopted countrymen with open arms. "An upstart Yank" she'd heard herself described by some of the old salts around the yacht club, "a silly little girl too big for her boots" was another phrase she'd heard, a "know-it-all American" another, and worst of all "foolish and dangerous".
She wasn't any of those things. She loved Australia and gladly called the country she'd lived in since she was seventeen home. She knew she still had so much to learn about the sailing world and the rhythm of Sydney Harbor and was willing to do so. She wasn't a little girl anymore, and she'd never been silly, even when she was one. And she wasn't dangerous or foolish. But she'd promised her dad at his funeral she wouldn't let his dream — his business — die, and damn it, she wouldn't.
Despite the hostility from her father's mourning peers, despite her age, despite her nationality, she'd refused to give in. She'd done everything she could to keep With the Wind Charters afloat. Everything humanly possible. Yet here was Jackson McKenzie, her father's sailing partner and closest friend. He would only be here if the bank had contacted him about her missed payments. Which meant he now knew, as guarantor, that she'd failed in everything she'd endeavored to achieve.
A hot prickling along her spine, like a thousand fire-ants on her flesh, told her Jack was watching her. Waiting. "Want to tell me what's going on, Ali?"
"No." She turned back to him, chin lifted, jaw clenched. "I don't."
Jack held her gaze, an unreadable light glinting in the green depths of his eyes. "According to Greg Matthews you've been struggling to make the monthly payments for some time now." He cocked a dark-honey eyebrow. "Not really the right way to pay off a loan."
Ali took a silent breath. Her bank manager hadn't wasted any time calling Jack. He must have been on the phone the second she'd missed that last payment. Anger rolled through her. At herself and the whole terrible, messy situation. "Not that it's any of your business," she said, exaggerating her tone to the point of childish sarcasm, "but a four-week charter cancelled on short notice. It left my funds a little out of balance." She crossed her arms, trying for total confidence. She couldn't let him see how rattled she was. She wouldn't. If she did, he'd use it to his advantage and she'd be damned if she'd give him any further advantage over her. "It won't happen again," she continued. "In fact, the upcoming months couldn't look better. I've quite a few bookings already, two of which will pay exceptionally well, and there is the possibility of a three-week charter to the Solomon Islands."
Jack's eyes seemed to bore into her soul. A slight frown creased his forehead. "Now you see, Ali, we've a bit of a problem here. As of this afternoon it is my business. I'm taking over your loan."
Ali's mouth fell open. "You're what?"
"Taking over your loan. And your business."
Shocked anger smashed through her. "Says who?"
"The loan agreement. If you default on more than one payment, the guarantor — me — takes responsibility for the loan. Your bank manager contacted me when you missed the second payment and we began the necessary procedures. I called him late this afternoon and arranged to finalize the payment."
Ali stood, numb. "I don't believe you. Why would ...?"
His smooth, deep voice sliced across her disbelief like a blade. "It's simple. You can't afford to pay off the loan. I can."
She stared at him, a deep chill seeping into her body despite the baking heat of the afternoon sun. "Why would you do that?"
Isn't it obvious? Because he never thought you capable of keeping With the Wind Charters alive. Because he still believes you're an overconfident, spoiled little girl long overdue for a lesson. Because he still holds you responsible for his best friend's death.
A hideous memory washed over her, unwanted and haunting, bringing with it a thick lump to her throat — her father sinking below wild, black waves, her trembling, desperate hands reaching for him, the life buoy slipping from her rain-slicked grasp, salt water and blood stinging her eyes, lightning cutting the angry-storm sky ...
"Why, Jack?" The question fell from her lips with barely a breath, the pain of her father's death stealing her voice. "Why?"
Jack looked at her over Wind Seeker's bow, his green eyes completely unreadable. "I have my reasons." He paused. "There is potential in the business ... in the right hands, and Wind Seeker is a beautiful yacht."
Ali sucked in a sharp breath. Did she hear him correctly? Surely not. "You're going to take my father's yacht? No. You can't. He built it for my —"
"It's part of the loan agreement," he cut her off, calm and totally in control. "Your father used Wind Seeker as collateral to establish the business. You know that. And since you took over, you've had to sell the other two yachts he'd bought to grow the fleet. Wind Seeker is the last boat, and you know what that means."
"This is ridiculous." She stamped her foot on Wind Seeker's deck, shaking her head. "You already own the best yacht in Australia. Damn you, Jack, you already own the best freaking yacht in the world. Why the hell do you want my yacht too?"
Jack took a step closer to the edge of the jetty, his gaze unreadable. "If I don't take over the loan," he said, watching her over Wind Seeker's bow, "the bank will declare you bankrupt."
"So?" She planted her fists on her hips and glared at him. "Declare me bankrupt. Anything is better than you taking my yacht."
"If you're declared bankrupt, I still take responsibility of the loan. And you'll be left with nothing."
His eyes held hers through the rigging, and for the quickest moment, Ali thought she saw sympathy flash in their green depths. A silent sob choked her. "You can't take my father's boat." But even to her own ears, her voice sounded broken. Defeated.
She turned from him, her throat thick. Her heart ached. Numb grief settled over her, a bitter blanket against her pain. After all these years, she'd lost. Her dad's dream, his yacht, and, since his insurance money had run out a few months ago, the only way she had to pay for her mother's Multiple Sclerosis treatment.
The thought of her mother's debilitating disease sliced at Ali. Three months after her father's death, the doctors had told Jenny Graham she had MS. Every night Ali thanked God the Australian healthcare system covered most of her mom's treatment. Heaven knows, she couldn't afford any of it if they were back in the States. But the prescribed medications were growing expensive, as was the nursing home her mother had been admitted to a year ago, the cost of which wasn't covered by the government's healthcare policies. What money Ali made from charters went to paying the bills.
Now, with Jack here, she'd lost any hope of keeping afloat.
She knew no other job. If she was lucky, she could find a job waiting tables, but she had no experience and few employers wanted to risk a first-timer in this day, especially one in her mid-twenties. Thanks to her dad's love of sailing and his willingness to indulge her own love for it, all she knew was sailing. Apart from the piffling she made captaining Zane Peterson's harbor racing crew, With the Wind Charters was her only source of income, and it seemed even that was being taken from her.
Opening her eyes, she stared at her yacht's aft. What was going to happen next?
A bone-aching weariness settled over her. Once, a lifetime ago, Jackson McKenzie had stolen her heart and her dignity. Now he planned to take everything else.
"Ali." Jack's deep voice was like salt on a raw wound. "Let me come aboard. We need to —"
Fighting hot tears of frustration and anger, Ali shook her head. "Go away, Jack. We don't need to anything." She moved toward the cockpit, her pulse pounding in her ears. Think. She needed to think. She needed to come up with a plan to get her yacht back. The Solomon Island charter might do it? What if she finally said yes to Zane Peterson's job offer? She didn't really want to sail to the Solomons with him. Just captaining the sleazy billionaire's weekend racing crew was almost too much interaction for Ali to stomach, what with his barely concealed sexual suggestions, but maybe she couldn't say no anymore. How much could she charge Peterson to —
Wind Seeker dipped gently to port and Ali's already thumping heart leapt into frantic life. Oh God, he was on board. Jack was on board, coming after her. She reached for the cabin-door handle, the sound of Jack moving into the cockpit sending a forbidden thrill through her. Heart thumping hard, she pulled at the small door and yanked it open a second before a firm hand reached over her shoulder and pushed it closed again.
"Goddamn it, Ali." Jack's lips brushed the sensitive skin behind her ear, his breath warm on her flesh. "Don't walk away from me."
A rain of burning needles swept over her, and all too easily it came back to her — what his arms felt like around her body, what his tongue felt like in her mouth. What his body felt like buried deep in hers.
"Why not?" she shot back, trying like hell to ignore the seductive heat of his body as she stared at the cockpit door. "You walked away from me."
"Ali." Her name was a whisper on her neck. "Don't."
"You've got what you wanted, Jack," she ground out, tingling all over as his heat seeped into her flesh. "You've proved your point. You're better than me, smarter than me. You can go back to Florida or Fremantle or wherever the hell you live now."
She tried to open the door again, but Jack held it shut with one hand, the other pressing against the headboard. Trapping her.
Excerpted from "His Suspicious Ways"
Copyright © 2012 Lexxie Couper.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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