Any Fin for Love Excerpt



Chapter One


     Cody Ryan white-knuckled the steering wheel on her Jeep and reconsidered the sanity of her foolhardy plan as she guided the boat trailer down the bumpy clay road. What had she been thinking to enter a real live fishing tournament when her tournament experience was limited to watching ESPN? Her idea had made sense back in Miami when she opted for a weeklong vacation somewhere different. At least she had thought it made sense.

     Her father, Jack Ryan, had participated in the Annual Loon Fishing Tournament every spring and had assured his daughter the private event operated differently than any other in the country. Entrants did not have to be professional fishermen, and everyone considered this tournament to be a gentleman’s game. Her father had said most guys signed up for the pure joy of competing.

     “I sure hope you were right, Dad,” Cody muttered under her breath, as she maneuvered around the washboards covering the country road. “I hope the gentlemen don’t mind a woman competing this year.”

     Her GPS indicated the town of Loon, Alabama lay two miles dead ahead. The next left should take her straight to the only marina on Loon Lake. A glance in the rearview mirror proved her dad’s narrow johnboat still hugged its trailer as the tandem bumped along behind her Jeep. That wayward glance almost caused her to miss the turn to the Loon Marina. Trailering a boat had come as a new experience, and the leather steering wheel now held permanent finger indentations from her stranglehold since leaving Miami. She had enjoyed dozens of fishing trips with her father during her childhood, but Cody’s only responsibility had been to show up with her rod and tackle box.

     “Put your best foot forward,” her dad’s voice echoed in her head, “and finish what you start.”

     How bad could this be?

     A white triple-rail fence surrounded the fifty-acre marina property and corralled dozens of boats on trailers in an open pasture, some covered and some not. Hanging by a single hinge, the crooked gate in the fence had been propped open, so she barreled through and straight down the clay road toward the lake. Off to the left sat a large log cabin, which apparently served as combination market, bait shop, and marina office, according to the sign overhead.

     Cody blew out a huge sigh of relief when she spied the double-wide concrete boat ramp situated between a pair of T-shaped docks that extended out into Loon Lake. Plenty of room there for her to launch her johnboat. Boat slips ran down both sides of the docks with a pleasure craft occupying every slip. Beyond the docks, a chain-link fence surrounded an enormous dry-stack storage building, open on one side with three tiers of steel cubbies to hold additional pleasure craft. A marina forklift sat parked in front for transporting the boats to a hoist next to the water.

     Slowing to a stop beyond the marina market log cabin, she stared out at the lake and its wooded shoreline. Spring had been especially warm this year, and already leafed-out trees swayed alongside evergreens in the breezes swarming off the lake. Angry storm clouds had swept in from the south and now hung low in the sky. Cody had desperately wanted to rent a slip for her johnboat for the week, so she wouldn’t have to launch the craft every day under a hundred pairs of critical eyes, but all the dock slips appeared to be occupied. As she started her wide U-turn near the lake, her gaze skimmed down the dock to the left of the ramp.

     Wait a minute. One boat slip lay vacant, two slots down from the end.

     With a gasp, she abandoned her Jeep at the top of the boat ramp and jogged to the log cabin. A bell overhead tinkled loudly as Cody surged through the front door. The tiny market was deserted, and she peered through an arched doorway to the bait shop beyond. No one there either. She moved toward the tiny office in the far corner, and a stocky brunette appeared in the doorway, looking tired and a little bit frazzled.

     “Hi, I’m Lynette Leery,” the brunette called. “Can I help you?”

     Cody pasted on her brightest smile. “Yes, I’d like to rent a boat slip from you, and I noticed an empty one near the end of the dock on the left side of the ramp.

     “Really?” Lynette strode to the window to have a peek. “Well, I’ll be. I thought Jubal rented that last slip.” She turned back with a broad grin. “The boat can’t be out on the lake since no one’s been through here today. Looks like this is your lucky day. Come on over to the back counter, and we’ll get your paperwork done.”

     “I wanted a slip, so I didn’t have to launch my boat every day during the tournament,” Cody told her as she followed Lynette across the tiny market. The woman stopped so fast Cody ran right into her. “Sorry.”

     Lynette spun around, eyes wide. “Did you say tournament?”


     “The fishing tournament scheduled the first week of May?”


     “The Annual Loon Lake Fishing Tournament?”

     “Yes again.” Cody narrowed her eyes. “Am I missing something here?”

     “Women don’t fish the tournament.”

     “Ever?” The knot in her stomach twisted hard.

     “Well, not until now. Or rather, not until you.”


     Lynette smiled. “This ought to be good.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Oh, nothing. It’s about time a woman broke into the ranks.”

     Before Cody could respond, a large man in a green jumpsuit stormed through the front door. “Lynette! Who left a rig out there blocking the whole boat ramp?”

     Cody gasped and stepped forward. “I’m sorry, it’s mine. I was so excited when I saw the empty slip, I jumped out and ran in to rent it.” The man towered over her five-foot six-inch frame, but she faced him head on.

     He frowned. “Ain’t got no empty slips. They’re all rented.”

     “No, Jubal,” Lynette interrupted, “one slip is empty toward the end of Dock A.”

     “Ain’t empty. I just rented it.”

     “To who?” Lynette’s hands went right to her hips.

     Cody stepped back and bumped into a wallor rather a solid muscular form—as a deep voice said, “To me.”

     She yelped in surprise and scooted clear of the man who had managed to sneak up behind her without making a sound. He stood even taller than Jubal. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, dark hair matching his beard stubble, and a smile that could sizzle her spinal fluid.

     “When?” Lynette wanted to know.

     Jubal’s frown never wavered. “Just now.”

     Lynette leaned around Jubal to stare at the stranger. “You’re too late, and you’re out of luck, mister.”

     Judging by the set of Jubal’s frown and Lynette’s stance, Cody figured a fight was simmering and ready to boil. She eased back another step.

     “What do you mean he’s too late?” Jubal growled.

     “I just rented the slip to Miss—” Lynette waved at her.

     “Oh . . . uh, Cody Ryan.” Cody considered extending her hand to Jubal and immediately thought better of it.

     “What for?” Jubal’s eyes never left Lynette.

     “Cause she’s—”

     Cody coughed hard to stop Lynette and bugged her eyes in warning, hoping Lynette took the hint. She did.

     “On vacation.”

     “With the tournament coming up this weekend?” Jubal blustered.

     “That’s right.” Lynette’s stare locked on Jubal. “She can go on vacation whenever she wants.”

     Jubal pivoted toward the stranger. “Sorry, mister. My wife’s rented the slip. You’re welcome to a spot in the field,” he said, mild as could be, and trotted out the door.

     Lynette stalked back to her office to grab the rental paperwork and left Cody to face the now very unhappy hunk still firmly planted between her and the door.

     “Why do you need a marina slip for that little johnboat?” he asked.

     Yeah, like she would truthfully answer that one, no matter how deep and sexy his voice sounded. “Why do you?”


     “Why do you need a slip?” Her chin poked up defiantly.

     “Because I have a big-ass bass boat.”


     “So? That’s your answer?” he scoffed. “What kind of lame response is that?”

     The only one I have at the moment.

     “I asked you a simple question,” he pressed.

     Impatience rocked off his big body in waves and set Cody’s pulse to racing. Small explosions of heat ricocheted along her nerve endings. Unfortunately, the object of her intense and sudden enchantment looked ready to strangle her.

     Time to cut and run. Sound the retreat.

     “The slip is mine. You’ll have to make other arrangements.”

     “Well, move your boat then, lady. It’s blocking the ramp. I can still get a few hours of fishing in before sunset.”

     “It’s going to rain.”

     The jerk stared at her like she had brussels sprouts for brains. “So?

     Oh, real mature.

     Cody rolled her eyes hard enough to hurt and started for the front door. Three steps ahead of her, he smacked open the screen door and stalked out to the parking lot. If she didn’t get her butt in gear, he could get his boat launched and steal her slip, and what Lynette said wouldn’t matter. Cody didn’t trust this stranger and needed to get her own boat in that slip as soon as possible.

     “I’ll be back in a minute, Lynette,” she hollered and streaked out the door after him.

     By the time Cody got her Jeep and trailer turned, the stranger had his rig parallel and ready to back in the water, except she had positioned her trailer in the middle of the double-wide ramp, which forced him to wait for her to launch. His impatient scowl was clearly visible through the back window of his enormous black truck. Launching her johnboat once would be infinitely better than attempting a replay every day of the tournament, even with McCrabby Pants watching and making her nervous. She wiped her palms, one at a time, on the legs of her jeans, then placed her hands at the ten and two positions on the steering wheel and repeated her mantra in her head.

     The top of the steering wheel goes in the opposite direction I want the trailer to go.

     She took a quick look in her side mirrors for the pokety-outy PVC pipe stems that held her trailer’s back-up lights, and centered the trailer as best she could in the middle of the ramp.


     One hard exhale.


     Easing her foot down on the gas, she watched her progress in her rearview mirror only to see the boat slide backward and immediately shift to the right, which was left on her steering wheel . . . right? Her gaze flew to her hands on the wheel, now at the nine and one positions. She flicked a panicked glance at her side mirrors. Nothing in the left mirror and a lot of green boat in the right one.

     She shot a quick look at the angry stranger in his big black truck, and he threw his hands up in the air. She gulped and drove forward to straighten out both her Jeep and the trailer.

     “Thank you, Mr. Patience,” she snapped.

     A second try produced the opposite result with the left mirror full of boat and the right mirror empty. “Screw the mirrors. I’ll just turn around.”

     She eased forward again to straighten the trailer, then heaved herself up in the air and twisted around. She stiff-armed her left hand on the steering wheel and her right on the console, then peered around the bait bucket taking up a full third of the back window. No way would she get out and move that damn bucket. Her gaze stayed pinned to the butt end of her boat, and she had to imagine her single fist gripping the wheel.

     “Opposite, opposite, opposite,” Cody chanted, as she let up on the brake and eased the Jeep and trailer backward—way too fast it turned out—into a nice big L. Or at least she would have made a big L, if she hadn’t punched the brake so hard she rocked the trailer. The prop on her johnboat motor hovered near the edge of the wooden dock, and she wanted to scream.

     Wham! Wham! Wham!

     Cody lurched around to find Mr. Short-On-Patience pounding at her window. She slammed the vehicle into Park.

     “What do you want?” she shouted through the closed window.

     “What do you think I want?” he shouted back. “Open your window.”

     No way, not with him looking that mad. She narrowed her eyes in a glare, and he stepped back. She buzzed down the window a few inches.

     “Get out and I’ll back it down for you.”

     “I don’t need your help.” She did, but she’d die before she admitted that.

     “Yes, you do!”

     She buzzed the window back up and swore she could see steam escaping from his ears. She threw the Jeep in drive and shot forward to straighten her crooked trailer, misjudging how close he had gotten. The stranger leaped backward and muttered a curse. At least, she thought he did. Tough to read his lips with his head down to make sure she didn’t run over his feet.

     Feeling triumphant as she watched him stalk back to his truck, Cody clung to her hard-won victory through her fourth, fifth and sixth launch attempts. As she straightened out the trailer for attempt number seven, she watched him drive his rig through the open gate in the chain-link fence that enclosed a large field along with the dry-stack storage building.

     With her nemesis gone and the boat-ramp battle ended, Cody easily launched her boat on the seventh try. Her father had always said a johnboat was easy to get in the water, but her printed instructions and diagrams from wikiHow and Google had been little help when it came to the real thing.

     By the time she got her boat into the slip and secured to the dock cleats, the big black truck was long gone. Turned out Jubal Leery had a sadistic sense of humor. After observing her numerous launch attempts from the porch of the log cabin, he graciously offered to park her trailer in the chain-link enclosure and promptly unhitched it right next to the glossy red bass boat Mr. No-More-Patience had just ditched.

     Cody heaved out one long sigh. No sense crying over spilled milk. The stranger was gorgeous, though he now thought Cody to be an idiot. She would never get a second chance with that one.


~ ~ ~ ~


     Gage answered his cell phone on the first chime. “What?”

     “Ouch! Pourquoi si fou?”

     He huffed out an exhale. “Sorry, Dougah. I didn’t mean to yell.”

     “What’s got you all pissed off on this very first day of your vacation, ma garde? I lent you my damn boat. My friend should be happy.”

     The soft Cajun accent brought a smile to Gage’s face. “Women,” he answered.

     “Ahhh. That’s something I know a lot about.”

     “Is that so? You’ve never been married or even serious about a woman. You told me so.”

     “That’s because I know so much about them.”

     Gage laughed.

     “What women have you so riled up?” Dougah persisted.

     “Just one woman. Back at the boat ramp.”

     “Is she beautiful, this one?”

     The truck jerked to the left, and Gage straightened the wheel. “She took the last marina slip for her crummy little johnboat. I had to park your boat in the field.”

     “On my trailer, I hope.”

     “Yes, on your trailer.”

     “So, a beautiful woman took the last slip.”

     “I never said she was beautiful.”

     “You didn’t have to. A beauty asks me for the last marina slip, and I give to her just to make nice and help me get close.”

     “Did you want something, or did you just call to give me a bad time?” Gage growled.

     The old Cajun chuckled. “The beauty got under your skin already, mon ami.”

     “She is not under my skin.” No sooner did the words leave his mouth than two sparkling blue eyes appeared in front of him. And immediately shot sparks.

     Dougah laughed again. “You need a woman, ma jeune garde.”

     “I don’t need anyone.”

     “Your Coast Guard is making you hard, Gage. Maybe is time to quit. Stop chasing all those drug dealers.”

     “If I didn’t chase all those drug dealers, you would be dead right now. I saved your ass, if you’ll remember.”

     “True enough. You catch all those Colombians sneaking in from the Gulf and keep us all safe.”

     Gage stiffened at the angered tone. “I’m sorry, Dougah. I’m mad, and I’m taking it out on you.”

     “Yes, you are. You should listen to Dougah. I’m the one who talked you into going to Loon, Alabama, when your captain made you take a week off after your last mission. You were going to stay in Grand Isle. I even send you in my best boat with a box of tackle to go with those new rods you bought. You should be relaxing.”

     “I’m trying.”

     “Is much better for you to be there fishing than to stay here and worry about your Coast Guard duties.”

     “You’re right, and I would.”

     The Cajun’s tone softened. “I just want you happy. I worry ma garde is missing out on the good parts of life and letting the world pass him by.”

     Dougah Broussard had been his friend—his best friend—since Gage and his Coast Guard cutter had rescued the elder Cajun off the Louisiana coast a few years back when Colombians hijacked his shrimp boat for their smuggling operations. After the smugglers hit him over the head and threw him overboard—certain their captive would drown or become shark bait—Dougah had treaded water for hours.

     Despite the decades of difference in their ages, an immediate bond formed between the two men when Gage pulled Dougah from the water. Not long after, the Coast Guard accidentally blew up Dougah’s shrimp boat while chasing the aforementioned Colombians and their cocaine cargo, and Dougah used his government reimbursement check to bankroll the charter fishing service he had always dreamed of operating in the bayous. All that history with Dougah gave the old man the right to meddle in Gage’s life, which he constantly did.

     “The Coast Guard is my career, not my life,” Gage said resignedly.

     “Then transfer to a station where you can have a home and a family and get out of that Special Forces drug enforcer work you do. Get yourself a safe job.”

     At somewhere near sixty, Dougah was a confirmed bachelor, but he insisted on a wife and a family for Gage despite the younger man’s perpetual contrariety in the matter.

     He sighed at the old argument, each knowing their part by heart. “It’s drug interdiction, and there is no one else who does what I do. The government spent a pile of money training my unit with the Navy SEALs, so we can do our job.” He cut off Dougah’s attempt to interrupt. “And I have a home on Grand Isle, and I have a family and that’s you.”

     “Mon Dieu, a coast guard barracks is no home—”

     “You know very well I live in an apartment since you stayed with me when your boat blew up.”

     “And because I love you like a son, I want to see you safe,” Dougah finished.

     “What’s that, Dougah? You’re breaking up. I must be going into a no-service zone. I’ll call you later.”

     He grinned as he clicked off the call during the old man’s audible complaint. Dougah was family all right, right down to the bickering. At least the call had put Gage in a better mood. He needed to find a place to stay, so he steered his truck for the cluster of chain hotels he had spotted when he exited the interstate. A good night’s sleep and he would be ready for a practice run tomorrow with his new fishing rods.

     Turning onto the state highway, he wondered where the long-legged beauty would be spending her night.


~ ~ ~ ~


     Cody parked her Jeep in front of the Willow Inn and smoothed her hair back from her face. The old Victorian hotel was the only available lodging in Loon and her only hope. She had passed a handful of hotels at the exit off Interstate 65, but a call ahead discovered all the hotels were booked with tournament entrants. No one had answered the phone when she rang the Willow Inn, no message machine picked up, and no web site appeared on Google. If the inn happened to be full, her only alternative would be the campground on the outskirts of town. She had borrowed a tent just in case and prayed she wouldn’t need it.

     The large two-story house occupied a prominent lot on a side street off the Loon town square. The sun dipped low in the sky as she marched up the front walk and glanced around for a vacancy sign. Bright orange and yellow marigolds lined the walkway, their distinctive aroma more pungent in the late afternoon heat.

     Stepping inside, she found a cozy lobby full of antique furniture, a polished oak staircase to the upper floor, and a bell on the counter next to a small sign reading Ring for Service. Judging by the ancient wiring hooked to the lobby’s crystal chandelier, the hotel could easily be a hundred years old or more.

     Cody rang the bell, and a petite older woman in a pale gray dress partially covered by a snow-white apron appeared from a tiny office in the corner.

     “Hello there,” she called out and beamed a smile at Cody. “I’m Velma Willow, part owner of the inn.

     “So that’s why it’s named the Willow Inn. I assumed it was named after the huge weeping willow tree out front.”

     Velma waved a hand. “Everyone does, dear. Well, everyone not from around these parts. I told my sister Delma to choose something else years back when she planted the sapling, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She’s been partial to willows forever. Not me. Though you’d think so, us being twins and all and with the last name of Willow. But no, I don’t care for—”

     “Ms. Willow,” Cody cut in.


     “Yes, Velma. I’m here to see about—”

     “A room? Miss . . .”

     “Ryan, Cody Ryan.”

     “So, you are looking for a room.”

     “Yes,” Cody said hopefully.

     She already liked Velma. The woman reminded Cody of her great-aunt Sarah—could be seventy but still looked sixty—with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a neat bun and an oddly comfortable way about her.

     “Well, you are a lucky one.” Velma angled behind the counter and grinned at Cody. “Up until an hour ago, we were booked solid, all eight rooms. There’s a fishing tournament in town this weekend.”

     “Yes, I heard that.”

     “An hour ago, my sister took a cancellation from a fellow in Georgia, somewhere near Macon I think she said. Or was that Cordele?” Velma frowned. “Maybe it was La Grange. No, that can’t be.”

     “So you have a room?” Cody interrupted again, fearful the woman would run through every town in Georgia.

     “Why yes, dear, we do.” The smile reappeared, brighter than ever.

     “I’ll take it.”

     “Have you ever stayed with us before?”

     “No,” she said warily.

     “Well, then let me show you the room first.” Velma slipped from behind the counter, room key in hand. “You should never take a hotel room without seeing it first.”

     “That’s not necessary, really.”

     “Why, of course it is.” Velma patted her shoulder and led the way up the grand staircase.

     Far better than Cody could have imagined, the room offered a four-poster bed, antique dresser and end tables, and a floral-print area rug in green and mauve hues. Two partially open doors claimed the wall opposite the queen-sized bed. Behind one hid a small closet and behind the other a private bath with an awesome pedestal sink and a small shower.

     “Perfect!” Cody declared.

     Velma grinned and the two women trooped back down the stairs. A tall dark-haired man leaned on the check-in counter and faced an exact replica of Cody’s hotel guide.

     The obvious twin behind the counter glanced up. “There you are, Velma! I thought you were watching the desk.”

     “I was until I had to show this young lady a room.”

     The smiling twin froze.

     “What’s wrong, Delma?” Velma hustled to the counter, Cody tight on her heels.

     “I sort of promised the last room to this man.” Delma pointed shakily.

     Cody’s heart sank. What else could go wrong?

     The gentleman straightened away from the counter, and she faced Mr. Patience-All-Gone from the marina.

     Well, that answered her question. Her stranger’s emerald eyes darkened, and Cody squared off with him in front of the counter for round two. Okay, why did that give her such a jolt of excitement?

     “You’re too late this time.”

     The stranger’s rumbling growl teased all Cody’s unmentionable places. His gorgeous green eyes pinned her to the spot and stilled the air right in her lungs. How had she missed those amazing green eyes back at the lake? Maybe because they had been black with impatience at the time.

     She sighed. “N-no, I’m not. I arrived here first.”

     The aforementioned amazing eyes glittered dangerously. “Did you give Velma a credit card?”

     “Not yet,” she admitted.

     “Then you’re too late.”

     He was so close his low growl swathed Cody’s cheek with warm air, stirring a shudder deep inside her. A sensual shudder of all things.


     “Well, I would have,” she sputtered, “but I had to see the room first.” She could feel the flush bringing unwelcome color to her neck and cheeks.

     “I did insist,” Velma admitted.

     “Well, I gave her my credit card.” Mr. Still-No-Patience jerked his head at Delma. “And she took it, so you’re too late.”

     Good grief, this man was obnoxious. So why did his mere proximity send delicious shivers down Cody’s spine to warm her from the inside out? She frowned. Snatch him bald as her Aunt Sarah used to say. That’s what Cody should do.

     “I did take his credit card,” Delma said with chagrin.

     Feeling the hotel room being yanked out from underneath her, Cody lost her grip on her temper. “I don’t care. I arrived here first.” She wheeled on Velma. “Tell him.”

     Velma had a hard time meeting the man’s glittering green eyes, and Cody feared the worst. “Velma, you have to go with the first person who arrived here, and that was me.”

     Velma visibly wavered, and her gaze bounced between Cody, Mr. Never-Had-Any-Patience, and her twin, who looked ready to burst into tears.

     “It’s not your fault, Sister.” She patted Delma’s hand. “You didn’t know we were upstairs. I’ll handle this.”

     Velma faced her two potential guests and announced, “We’ll flip for it.”

     Delma immediately beamed.

     “What?” Cody cried.

     “Fine by me,” the stranger snapped and crossed his arms on his oversized and quite muscular pecs. Not that Cody was staring.

     Velma reached into her apron pocket and drew out a silver dollar. She smiled at Cody. “Since you were here first, you can call it, and you can have heads if you want. I always liked heads in a coin toss, and I always got lucky calling heads.” Her eyes twinkled at Cody.

     “Fine. Heads it is,” Cody said.

     The coin flipped high in the air. Velma deftly caught it with her right hand and smacked the coin on top of her left. “Heads it is,” she proclaimed.

     Cody blew out a sigh of relief.

     “Hey, wait a minute,” the stranger complained.

     “See for yourself.” Velma angled her hand for him to snatch a glimpse and then chucked the coin back into her pocket.

     Cody stared him right in the eye. “I win.”

     He eased closer—almost nose to nose—and she reconsidered her idea to gloat. His emerald eyes darkened, turned almost black, and locked onto hers. She could hear and feel each breath he took, because she held hers. Waiting.

     “Share it with me.”

     His gaze never wavered. She could feel it, almost like a caress.

     “I promise I won’t touch you . . . if you don’t want me to.” The latter implied he wanted exactly the opposite.

     Velma and Delma gasped in unison.

     “N-no,” Cody stuttered.

     No sooner had the word left her mouth than she wanted to snatch it back and rethink the offer. Those dangerous eyes glittered again, and she wondered whether the guy could read her mind. She tried to suck in a breath, but couldn’t manage to get any air down her throat. She could only stare into those now-darkened sexy eyes. And wonder.

     In the next heartbeat, he spun on his heel and stalked out the door, leaving Cody with an inexplicable wave of disappointment. Her knees trembled, her skin felt hot, and she grabbed the counter to steady herself. The Willow twins beamed.

     “That’s the most excitement we’ve had in the lobby since New Year’s 1985. Or was that ‘88? Do you remember, Sister, what year that group of Shriners was stranded here on New Year’s Eve?”

     “I think it was ‘85,” Delma declared.

     “No, dear, that was the year it snowed.”

     “Ladies,” Cody pleaded, “I want to get a room key before I have another chance to lose.”

     Velma chuckled. “Oh, you couldn’t lose, dear. Not once you called heads.”

     “I couldn’t?”

     Velma shook her head. “On account of my lucky coin.” She dug the silver dollar back out and handed it over.

     Cody turned the coin over in her hand and burst out laughing. Heads on both sides.

     Velma took her arm. “Let’s get your luggage and get you tucked into your room. We’re going to love having you around here.”


~ ~ ~ ~


     The phone rang four times before Dougah picked up. “Broussard Guide Service.”

     “What took you so long, old man? You sleeping?” Gage knew Dougah could hear the grin in his voice.

     “Nah, just watching two well-dressed suits climb out of their black Lincoln in my parking lot. They look to be up to no good. Maybe cause they give my boats the once-over,” he muttered.

     Gage sobered instantly. “Listen here, Dougah. Don’t you mess around. Anybody gives you any grief, you call Ben over at the station.”

     “What? Like some petite fille, I got to call the Coast Guard to come protect Dougah? No way. I take care of myself.”

     “Dammit, old man, you’ve had enough trouble for one lifetime.” Gage dragged a hand through his dark curls. “Just call Ben. I don’t want to have to worry about you when I’m supposed to be on vacation.”

     “These guys are just some stick-up-their-asses businessmen wanting me to promise they can catch big fish. You calling to check up on Dougah?”

     “No, I wanted to complain about having to sleep in your boat.”

     “Why you want to do that, ma garde?”

     “Because the little wench cheated me out of the last hotel room in town,” he groused.

     “You cannot be serious.”

     “I’m damned serious.”

     “What’s wrong with you, boy? The woman is beautiful. Kiss her and get her to share the room.”

     “I told her to. She said no.”

     “You told—  Mon Dieu.”

     “Look, just tell me where in the boat you keep your tarps, so I don’t have to tear it apart looking for them. You’ve got hidden cabinets from one end of that vessel to the other.”

     “You don’t need no tarps. I tucked a tent up under the bow just in case. An air mattress too. The tent stakes are under the seat next to the live well.”

     Gage huffed out a relieved exhale.

     “Good luck, ma garde. I hope you catch more than fish.”

     He clicked off on Dougah’s throaty laugh. Amazing the old man thought to put a tent and an air mattress in his boat. Now if only he would leave Gage’s love life alone and stop pressing. Gage knew how to handle women, and if the leggy redhead was any other woman, he would have tried kissing his way into her room. Instinct had warned him that would be a wasted effort, and he’d already had his pride stepped on twice in a very short period of time.

     Some vacation this was turning out to be.

     Unclenching his jaw, he strode for the marina office and market. Sleeping in a tent meant he needed more flashlight batteries. Maybe his luck would change, and the campground he passed on the highway would have a vacancy. Once he got settled, he would call Grand Isle and get Ben to check on Dougah.


~ ~ ~ ~


     Jimmy Fonteiro ambled out of the supply room just as Dougah hung up the phone, and he eyed the new customers—one thin, one heavyset—through the front window. “You want I should go help them, Dougah?”

     “No, Jimmy, you just finished an eight-hour charter. You go on and get your tackle cleaned and go home. You got another run to Little Lake tomorrow.”

     “You sure? I don’t mind.”

     Dougah shook his head at the boy’s ever-present smile. Jimmy seemed wise as a fifty-year-old man and happy as a twenty-year-old woman. He waved the boy off and got to his feet. Keeping an eye on the two newcomers in the parking lot, he waited to be sure the boy didn’t follow him outside. The thinner suit had climbed into the bright red boat identical to Gage’s borrowed boat and proceeded to lift each compartment lid in quick succession.

     “You’re a little too nosey for my liking, connard,” Dougah muttered and slipped outside to greet the suits.

     “What can I do for you gentlemen? I’m Dougah Broussard, and I own this guide service.”

     “We know who you are,” Thin Suit snapped.

     The stockier suit laid a calming hand on his partner’s arm and extended his other hand to Dougah. “I’m Jorge Garrito, and this is Juan.”

     “As in Juan Valdez?” Dougah asked with a straight face.

     “Very funny,” Juan snarled and offered no last name.

     Dougah shrugged. “You two looking for a guide?”

     “We’re looking for you, smart ass.”

     Jorge again set a hand on his partner. “I told you I would handle this,” he muttered. “Mr. Broussard, we’ve come to collect some belongings a friend of mine left on your boat during a tour.”

     “Who’s your friend? When was the tour?”

     “My friend is unimportant. His belongings however are very important. They’re mine, and you took him out a couple weeks ago on a Thursday.”

     Dougah put a hand to his chest. “I took him?”

     “That’s right.”

     “I need a name.” The phone in the office rang and repeated in the outside speaker. “Just let me run and get that call. I’ll be right back.”

     “Two minutes,” Jorge grumbled.

     Dougah sprinted for the office.