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"Sorry to interrupt, sir. But I've got a hot one for you."
Swiveling his desk chair away from the foggy view of Nantucket Harbor, Lieutenant Craig Cole looked up from the boat-hours report he'd just started reading and gave his executive petty officer his full attention. "What's up?"
"A complaint, sir. From the owner of one of the local charter fishing operations, who isn't too happy about a safety citation we issued this afternoon. The captain asked to speak with you, but you were at that special Conservation Commission meeting. I'm not making any headway, so now that you're back I thought you might want to take over."
The subtle twitch of his aide's lips put Craig on alert. Boatswain's Mate First Class Ben Barlow had been stationed on Nantucket for two years, and he'd been an invaluableif slightly irreverentsource of information since Craig's arrival four weeks ago, guiding him through several rocky passages. Another one seemed to be looming on the horizon.
"Okay, Barlow. What's the story?"
The man walked into the office and handed over a copy of the citation. "It's pretty straightforward. Expired flares."
Craig scanned the document. The vessel was an older boat, a thirty-one-foot Wellcraft Suncruiser named the Lucy Sue. Although it was equipped with a sufficient number of flares, they were out-of-date. The inspection had been done by the station's newestand youngestcrew member, but Craig considered the man to be dependable and conscientious.
"This looks in order. What's the problem?"
His aide's lip twitch gave way to a grin. "The captain says we're being hard-nosed. The flares are only a month out-of-date, and she says everyone knows they're good for at least six months longer than the expiration date. However, she claims she did intend to replace them before resuming operation this season."
She. Craig checked the name on the citation. Katherine MacDonald. Was the captain's gender the source of Barlow's amusement?
Lowering the sheet of paper, Craig appraised his aide. "I don't care what she says. This is a clear violation of regulations."
"I explained that to her, sir. But she isn't backing down." The man tried to stifle his grin. Failed.
Craig's eyes narrowed. "Do you know this woman?"
"No, sir. But I know Chief Medart had a lot of respect for her."
From what he'd heard about his predecessor, Senior Chief Sandra Medart was a solid officer. He'd found no evidence of a lax operation during his brief tenure, though it was more laid-back than he was accustomed to, after his past three years at headquarters in Washington, where protocol and procedures reigned supreme.
"Are you suggesting that Chief Medart let personal feelings influence her enforcement of the law, Barlow?"
"No, sir." The man's reply was prompt. "But Captain Mac-Donald has lived on the island her whole life, and she's been doing fishing charters for at least a dozen years. I believe she's descended from an old island whaling family. Her roots here are deep."
"That doesn't exempt her from the law."
"No, sir. She's waiting in my office, sir." The man inclined his head toward the door.
Listening to an unjustified tirade hadn't been part of Craig's Friday afternoon agenda on this last day of March, but he'd expected some backlash once Nantucketers got wind of the beefed-up inspection program he'd implemented earlier in the week. And PR was part of the job in a command post especially this one, as Admiral Paul Gleason had reminded him when he'd called to tell Craig his request for reassignment had been granted. This would be his first test, Craig supposedsmoothing ruffled feathers without backing down from his firm position on safety-regulation enforcement.
"Send her in."
"Yes, sir." His aide retreated as far as the door. "One word of warning, sir. She has red hair. And a temper to go with it." Making no attempt to hide his grin, he closed the door behind him.
At the petty officer's parting remark, Craig took a moment to ready himself for the coming exchange. He'd dealt with plenty of distraught people during his career. Handling a small-time charter-fishing boat captain should be a piece of cakered hair notwithstanding. He'd diffuse her anger by remaining calm, cool and sympathetic, he decided. And he'd do his best to keep the encounter as nonconfrontational and pleasant as possible.
But thirty seconds later, when Katherine MacDonald stormed across his office to his desk, planted her hands on her hips and pinned him with a glare, his hopes of a cordial discussion disintegrated. For a woman so smallCraig estimated her height at no more than five foot threeshe projected as intimidating a presence as any of the hard-as-nails instructors he'd encountered during his Coast Guard career.
As he rose under the scrutiny of her turbulent, flashing green eyes, a memory of the worst squall he'd ever encountered suddenly flashed through his mind. It had happened back in his early days as a rescue swimmer, when he'd been stationed in Alaska. A small cargo vessel out of Kodiak had lost propulsion and drifted onto the rocks at Cape Trinity, forcing the three crewmen to ditch into the icy, churning sea. As Craig had waited, legs dangling over the edge of the Jayhawk, for the thumbs-up from the flight mechanic to drop into the roiling swells, he'd known the dicey, dangerous mission would be forever etched in his memory.
For some disconcerting reason, he felt the same way about this encounter with Katherine MacDonald.
Nevertheless, he did his best to summon up a smile, determined to try and salvage the situation. "Ms. MacDonald, won't you have a seat?" He gestured to one of the chairs across from his desk.
"I prefer to stand. This won't take long."
Her curt reply, along with the bristling rage radiating across the expanse of desk between them, left him little maneuvering room. He'd planned to lead off with some small talk designed to soothe her ire, but it was obvious the woman across from him was in no mood for chitchat. Better to plunge in and get this over with.
"I understand you have a concern about the safety citation that was issued this afternoon." He kept his tone polite and conversational.
The color rose on her cheeks, drawing his attention to the faint dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose and the fine lines at the corners of her eyes. The wind and sun could have produced those creases, Craig knew, but the faint smudges of fatigue under the sweep of her lower lashes suggested that outdoor living might not be their only source.
Yanking the crumpled citation out of the pocket of her slicker, she tossed it on his desk, a few tendrils of fiery hair escaping from the clip at her nape to quiver around her face. "This is ridiculous."
Despite his best effort to remain conciliatory, a note of de-fensiveness crept into Craig's voice. "I don't think so. Your flares are expired."
"They last longer than the expiration date. You know that as well as I do. And I was going to replace them before the season opened anyway."
"I'm sorry, Ms. MacDonald. But safety regulations are in place for a reason. And I don't take them lightly."
"Neither do I." Her color deepened as she glowered at him. "Look. You're new here. Fresh out of Washington, from what I hear. This is real life, Lieutenant, where rules aren't quite as cut and dried. I've spent most of my thirty-eight years on this island. A lot of it on the water. I've operated a charter fishing business for fourteen of those years. I don't take chances with the sea, and I would never put anyone who steps onto my boat in danger."
She fisted her hands on her hips, her lips tightening. "Furthermore, I have never been cited for any safety violations, and the Lucy Sue has always had a VSC decal from the Coast Guard. I was only taking her for a quick run when that wet-behind-the-ears Coastie pulled alongside for a surprise inspection. And instead of listening to reason, he gave me that." She jabbed a finger at the document on Craig's desk. "He even inspected my life jackets. One by one! Under your orders, I presume."
A hot flush rose on Craig's neck. He didn't appreciate this woman's belligerent attitude, nor her insulting tone. He didn't deserve to be taken to task for doing his job. If previous station commanders had overlooked expired equipment, that was their problem.
"I'm not sure why you're so upset, Ms. MacDonald. All you have to do is buy a few new flares and the problem goes away. They're not expensive."
"It's not the cost. It's the principle. And for your information, the problem doesn't go away. A black mark like this on my record will hurt my business. Charter fishing is my livelihood, Lieutenant. This is a very competitive market, and potential customers do check safety ratings." She put her fingertips on his desk and leaned forward, narrowing the gap between their faces to a mere fifteen inches, undaunted by his distinct height advantage as she tipped her chin up to lock gazes with him. "I want mine fixed."
Craig might not agree with her stance, but he had to admire her spunk. "What did you have in mind, Ms. MacDonald?"
Her resolute expression hardened. "Here's the deal. I'll get the stupid flares sooner rather than later, even though we both know the ones I have are perfectly fine right now. But I want this citation" she swatted at the crumpled sheet without breaking eye contact "wiped off my record."
Expunging a legitimate safety citation wasn't common protocol. And the challenge sparking in the charter captain's green irises told Craig she knew that.
His first inclination was to refuse her request. The rule book would back him up one hundred percent.
But at close range, what he saw in her eyes made him hesitate. Determination, certainly, and strong will. Plus a good measure of anger and impatience. But it was the deep-seated worry and the echo of profound sadness in their depths that held him back. This was a woman who had endured more than her share of sorrow, who'd been knocked down, pushed to the limits and was fighting to hold on. To survive.
A lot of people might not pick all that up, Craig supposed. Perhaps most people wouldn't. But it was clear to him. Every bit of it. Because he knew how hard it was to forge ahead despite the harsh blows life dealt. He'd been there. Was still there.
As the silence between them lengthened, a sudden flicker of uncertainty crept into Katherine MacDonald's eyes. Then, abruptly, she backed off several feet. Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her slicker, she sent him a wary look.
Interesting, Craig mused. This feisty woman didn't mind in-your-face confrontations to protect her business. But let someone get too close on a personal level and her strategy was to beat a hasty retreat.
Tipping up her chin, she made a valiant attempt to recapture her earlier bravado. But her challenge came off more distraught than defiant. "Well? Do we have a deal?"
"Let me think about it."
She blinked. Sucked in a breath. Blew it out. "Okay. Your people know where to find me. In the meantime, I'll get the flares."
Turning on her heel, she exited without another word.
For a full minute, Craig remained standing behind his desk, trying to figure out what had just happened. He felt the same as he always had after emerging from a perilous rescue mission. Nerve endings tingling. Pulse pounding. Lungs pumping.
In his rescue-swimmer days, however, it hadn't taken long for the adrenaline rush to subside. But that wasn't happening today. Instead, he was swamped by an odd mix of emotions that left him feeling unsettled, off balanceand irritated. He never let emotion affect him on the job. As a rescue swimmer, there'd been no room for it. Succumbing to even a few seconds of debilitating fear could have meant the difference between life and death for himself or the victims he'd been sent to save. Nor had it had a place during his tenure as controller of a search and rescue command center, where deployment decisions were based on the pure facts and figures of the Mayday. And it had been easy to keep emotion in check in Washington. Shuffling papers had engendered little more than mind-numbing boredom.
As for emotion in his personal life, he'd kept that carefully tucked away these past three years, as well, leaving his days dullbut livable.
That had all changed in the past ten minutes. Emotion could be Katherine MacDonald's middle name, Craig concluded. Hers hadn't just run high; they'd exploded. Even now, in her absence, the room continued to vibrate with them. He doubted the word dull was in her vocabularyor in anyone's who came into contact with her.
A discreet knock sounded on the door, and when Craig responded, Barlow stepped inside, his grin still in place. "Checking on survivors, sir."
Ignoring his aide's comment, Craig picked up the pristine copy of the safety citation he'd scanned earlier and handed it over, leaving the crumpled version untouched on his desk. "See that this is held for a couple of days before we file it."
The amusement in the man's voice wasn't lost on Craig, and he felt warmth once again steal up his neck. Fixing the executive petty officer with a steely look, Craig folded his arms across his chest. "Is there a problem?"
To Barlow's credit, his demeanor instantly grew more serious. That was why Craig tolerated the man's slight impertinence. Not only did he balance it with a likable manner and razor-sharp skills, he knew where to draw the line.
His aide beat a hasty retreat, and Craig walked to the window to survey the harbor. It was far emptier than it would be in a couple of months, but a fair number of boats were in residenceincluding Katherine MacDonald's. Strange. Half an hour ago, he hadn't known the woman existed. Yet in the course of one brief conversation, she'd managed to awaken emotions in him that were best left undisturbed.
As for his plans for a nice, relaxing weekendthey, too, had been disrupted. Also thanks to one certain red-haired fishing boat captain.
* * *
"Mommy, Mommy, Mrs. Shaw and me baked cookies! Chocolate chip!"
As Kate bent to hug her daughter, she glanced over the four-year-old's shoulder toward the stocky, gray-haired woman behind her. "I bet that was fun, honey. It sounds like you had a good afternoon."
The woman gave a reassuring nod. "Maddie and I had a fine afternoon."
Some of the tension in Kate's shoulders eased. But it would take a lot longer for the rest of it to dissipate, thanks to her unpleasant encounter less than an hour ago with a certain lieutenant.
"You seem stressed, my dear." The older woman gave Kate a discerning perusal. "Why don't you have a cup of tea before you head home?"
A whisper of a smile tugged at her lips. "I ought to go next door to The Devon Rose if I want tea instead of taking advantage of your hospitality."