With a crazy eighty-hour-a-week job, an almost-boyfriend who’s left her for Bora Bora, and way too many terrible bridesmaid dresses in her future, Lia McCabe needs a change of pace before the imminent crush of the big 3-0.
First up, Lia is determined to help make sure her friend Drew’s whale-watching business takes off. But when an accident leaves him unable to man the boat, Lia’s only option is to convince Drew’s brooding, sexy brother to captain the ship (and save her butt).
For the last two years, Evan Betancourt has been sailing around the world to avoid the ghosts of his past. But when he pulls into Sandy Cove for a brief stop, Lia makes him an offer she won’t let him refuse.
And as these two opposites figure out how to work together, the murky waters between denial and attraction are creeping up fast…
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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!” Douglas’s 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, sunshine?”
“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 one hundred percent. 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 “Daydream.”
“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 Pier, but when he’d leaned over to try to kiss her, they’d both burst out laughing.
“Oh! What about your old first mate, 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. Environmentalist 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 posttraumatic, 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 can sail his cat, and who knows about whales, and who can take on the business for him for 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.
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 DJ. 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. Three more lines, 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.
She watched 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 with 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 moonlight rays through the window, taking turns sneaking the money under Luke’s pillow while he slept, teasing each other about their terrible ninja skills. The whole escapade had ended up back in the bedroom, where Rennie had laughed and fallen on top of him, snuggling against him 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.
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 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.
Over the winter, 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 pressed. 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.
Excerpted from "Ten Good Reasons"
Copyright © 2015 Lauren Christopher.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for The Red Bikini
“A heartfelt, well-written story with characters I rooted for. The Red Bikini is a winner!”—Jennifer Probst, New York Times bestselling author
“I love this book!...A fantastic debut. Charming and funny and a totally great read…And I have a new favorite hero. Fin is amazing!”—Susan Mallery, New York Times bestselling author
“The easy charm of fictional Sandy Cove, California sets the scene for a sweet romance…Christopher’s writing is crisp and her characters are strong, and readers will look forward to the next installments in the trilogy.”—Publishers Weekly
“A great debut and a fantastic start to a series.”—RT Book Review (4 ½ stars, Top Pick)
“[A] beautifully told contemporary romance….The Red Bikini is a page turner.…A fun…well written read…Not only an intriguing read but also fantastic, charming, and humor filled.”—Night Owl Reviews