Better Bait Than Never Excerpt
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. Jack Ryan had participated in the Annual Loon Fishing Tournament every year and told his daughter the private
event operated differently than any other in the country. Entrants considered this tournament to be a gentleman's game, and Jack 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."
She had her father's old road map on the passenger seat, and two miles ahead lay the town of Loon, Alabama. The next left should take her to the only marina on Loon Lake. She glanced in her rearview mirror to be sure the narrow johnboat still hugged the trailer as it bumped along behind her Jeep, and she almost missed her turn to the Loon Marina. Trailering a boat came as a new experience, and the steering wheel held permanent finger indentations from her stranglehold since leaving Miami. She'd enjoyed dozens of fishing trips with her dad during her childhood, but her only responsibility had been to show up with her rod and tackle box.
"Put your best foot forward, Cody," Jack's voice echoed in her head, "and finish what you start."
How bad could this be?
A 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. The crooked gate had been propped open and hung by one hinge, so she quickly drove through and headed straight for the lake. The marina looked quaint and had a large log cabin -- which served as combination market, bait shop, and marina office, according to the sign overhead -- and a pair of T-shaped docks, with boat slips down both sides, extending out into Loon Lake. A double-wide concrete boat ramp had been poured between the docks, and pleasure craft occupied every slip. In a large chain-link fence enclosure beyond the docks and ramp stood a large dry-stack storage building, open on one side with three tiers of steel cubbies each holding a pleasure craft. A marina forklift sat parked in front for transporting the boats to a hoist next to the water.
Cody slowed to a stop beyond the marina market and stared out at the lake and its wooded shoreline. Spring had been especially warm this year, and now, at the first week in May, the already leafed-out trees swayed in the wind alongside an even mix of evergreens. Angry storm clouds had moved in from the south and hung low in the sky. She 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 watchful eyes, but all the slips looked full. As she started her wide u-turn near the lake, her gaze skimmed down the dock to the left. Wait a minute. A boat slip lay vacant, two down from the end. With a gasp, she abandoned her Jeep at the top of the boat ramp and jogged to the cabin.
A bell tinkled loudly as Cody pushed through the front door. The tiny market looked deserted, and she peered through an arched doorway to the bait shop beyond. No one there either. She stepped 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 woman said. "Can I help you?"
Cody put 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 went to the window to have a peek. "Well, I'll be. I thought Jubal rented the 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. Look's like this is your lucky day. Come on over to the back counter, and we'll do your paperwork."
"I wanted a slip so I didn't have to launch my boat every day during the tournament," she said, making conversation as she followed Lynette across the tiny market. The woman stopped so fast Cody ran right into her. "Sorry."
Lynette twisted around, eyes wide. "Did you say tournament?"
"The fishing tournament?"
"The Annual Loon Lake Fishing Tournament?"
"Yes again." She 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's smile built slowly. "This ought to be good."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing. I just think 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."
"It ain't empty. I rented it."
"To who?" Lynette's hands went right to her hips.
Cody stepped back and bumped into a solid muscular form, as a deep voice said, "To me."
Cody yelped in surprise and scooted clear of the man who had managed to sneak up behind her without making a sound. The man stood even taller than Jubal. His shoulders were broad, his hips narrow, his dark hair matched his beard stubble, and his smile sizzled her spinal fluid.
"When?" Lynette's voice rose.
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."
With the set of Jubal's frown and Lynette's stance, Cody figured a fight was simmering, 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--" She waved at Cody.
"Oh... uh, Cody Ryan." She considered extending her hand and immediately thought better of it.
"What for?" Jubal's eyes stayed on Lynette.
Cody hissed in a breath to stop Lynette and widened her eyes in warning, hoping Lynette took the hint. She did.
"With the tournament coming up this weekend?" Jubal blustered.
"That's right." Lynette's stare bore down on Jubal. "She can go on vacation whenever she wants."
Jubal pivoted to face 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 begin Cody's paperwork and left Cody to face the very unhappy Adonis 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?" She poked her chin out for emphasis.
"Because I have a big-ass bass boat."
"So? That's your answer?" He huffed out a hard exhale. "What kind of lame response is that?"
The only one I have at the moment.
"I asked you a simple question," he said.
The impatience rocked off him in waves and set her pulse to jumping. Small explosions of heat ricocheted along all her nerve endings. This vivid and rare arousal -- she was way too persnickety to let any less-than-perfect man get close -- had only one problem. 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," she said and headed for the office.
"Well, move your boat then, lady. It's blocking the ramp. I can still get a few hours of fishing in before sunset."
Shocked, she turned to face him. "It's going to rain."
The jerk looked at her like she had brussels sprouts for brains. "So?"
Oh, real mature.
She gave him a pronounced eye roll for his trouble and started for the front door. One step ahead of her, he smacked the screen door open 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. She didn't trust Adonis and needed to get her boat in that slip as soon as possible.
"I'll be back in a minute, Lynette," she called and streaked out the door after him.
By the time Cody got her Jeep and trailer turned, he 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 it every day of the tournament, even with Grouchface watching and making her nervous. She wiped her palms, one at a time, on the legs of her jeans and placed her hands at the ten and two positions on the steering wheel and repeated her mantra.
The top of the steering wheel goes in the opposite direction I want the trailer to go.
She checked her side mirrors for the pokety-outy PVC pipe stems holding her back-up lights for the trailer and then centered the trailer as best she could in the middle of the ramp.
One hard exhale.
She eased her foot down on the gas and looked in her rearview mirror. The boat slid backward and immediately listed 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 gaze at the side mirrors and saw nothing in the left mirror and a lot of green boat in the right one. She shot a glance at Grouchface in his big black truck, and he threw his hands up in the air. She gulped and pulled 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 pulled forward to straighten the trailer once again, then heaved herself up in the air and twisted around. She kept her left hand on the steering wheel and her right stiff-armed on the console and peered out around the bait bucket taking up a full third of the back window. No way would she get out and move the 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," she chanted as she let her foot off the brake and eased backward -- too fast -- 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! Something was hitting the Jeep.
Cody yelped and lurched around to find Grouchface inches from her window. She threw the vehicle in 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 so mad. She narrowed her eyes in a glare, and he stepped back. She rolled down the window a few inches.
"Get out and I'll back it down for you," he said.
"I don't need your help." She did, but she'd die before she admitted it.
"Yes, you do."
She rolled the window up and swore she could see steam escaping from his scalp. She threw the car in drive and shot forward to straighten the trailer, misjudging how close he'd gotten. He 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. She felt triumphant as he stalked back to his truck, and she clung to her hard-won victory through her fourth, fifth and sixth launch attempts. As she straightened the trailer for attempt number seven, she watched him drive his rig through the gate into the chain-link enclosure.
With her nemesis gone and the boat-ramp battle ended, she easily launched her boat on the eighth try. Her father had always said it was easy to get a johnboat in the water, but her printed instructions and diagrams from Yahoo Answers and Google were little help when it came to the real thing.
By the time she got her boat into the slip and tied to the dock cleats, the big black truck was long gone. Turned out Jubal Leery had a sadistic sense of humor. After watching her launch attempts, he graciously offered to park her trailer in the chain-link enclosure and then placed it right next to the sleek red bass boat Grouchface had just ditched.
She let out one long sigh. No sense crying over spilled milk. The man was gorgeous, though he now thought Cody to be an idiot. She'd never get a second chance with that one.
Gage snapped open his cell phone on the first ring. "What?"
"Ouch! Pourquoi si fou?"
He blew out a hard 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. You should be happy."
The soft Cajun accent brought a smile to his 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."
"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," Gage said drily.
"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?"
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.
The old Cajun chuckled again. "You need a woman, ma jeune garde."
"I don't need anyone," he snapped.
"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'd be dead right now. I saved your ass, if you 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, and 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."
"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 Fortier had been his friend -- his best friend -- since Gage and his Coast Guard cutter rescued the elder Cajun off the Louisiana coast a few years back when Colombians hijacked and stole his shrimp boat for their smuggling operations. After the smugglers hit him over the head and threw him overboard, sure 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 him from the water. When the Coast Guard accidentally blew up Dougah's shrimp boat while chasing the Colombians and their cocaine cargo, Dougah used his government reimbursement check to bankroll the charter fishing service he'd 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 find a home and a family and get out of that Special Forces drug enforcer work you do. Find a safe job." At somewhere near sixty, Dougah was a confirmed bachelor, but he insisted on a wife and 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 lot 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, as though Gage hadn't interrupted.
"What's that, Dougah? You're breaking up. I must be going into a no service zone. I'll call you later."
He snapped the phone shut on Dougah's audible complaint and grinned. Dougah was family -- right down to the bickering. At least the call had put him in a better mood, and now he needed to find a place to stay. He aimed for the cluster of chain hotels he had spotted when he exited the interstate. A good night's sleep and he'd be ready for a practice run tomorrow with his new rod and reel. He turned onto the state highway and wondered where the long-legged beauty would be spending her night.
Cody pulled up in front of the Willow Inn and smoothed a hand over her hair. The old Victorian hotel was the only hotel in Loon and her only hope.
She had passed a handful of hotels at the exit off Interstate 65, but she'd already called ahead and knew all the hotels were booked with tournament entrants. No one had answered when she called 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 sun sat low in the sky as she marched up the front walk and looked around for a vacancy sign. Bright orange and yellow marigolds lined the walk, their distinctive aroma a little overwhelming in the late afternoon heat. Inside she found a cozy lobby full of antique furniture 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. At a ding from the bell, a petite, older woman appeared from a tiny office in the corner.
"Hi 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 the Willow Inn," Cody said. "I thought it was named after the huge weeping willow tree out front."
Velma waved her hand. "Everyone does. Well, everyone not from around these parts. I told my sister Delma to plant 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--"
"Miss Willow," Cody interrupted.
"Yes, Velma. I'm here to see about--"
"You need a room, Miss--"
"Ryan, Cody Ryan."
"So, you are looking for a room."
She tried to sound hopeful and found 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 kept her bright smile on 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, Sister took a cancellation from a fellow in Georgia, somewhere near Macon I think she said. Or was that Cordele? Maybe it was La Grange. No, that can't be."
"So you have a room?" Cody interrupted, 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 said and slipped from behind the counter, 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 gave her a pat on the 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 tables, and a floral print area rug in hues of green and rose. She declared the room to be perfect, which made Velma grin, and followed her back downstairs. A tall dark-haired man leaned on the counter and faced an exact replica of her hotel guide.
The woman glanced up. "There you are, Velma. I thought you were watching the desk."
"I was till I had to show this young lady a room."
The smiling twin froze.
"What's wrong, Sister?" Velma hurried to the counter with Cody on her heels.
"I sort of promised the last room to this man," Delma said.
Cody's heart sank. What else could go wrong? The man straightened and turned, and she faced her nemesis from the marina. Well, that answered her question. His emerald eyes snapped sparks at Cody, and the pair squared off in front of the counter for round two. So why did she feel such a jolt of excitement?
"You're too late this time," he growled.
"No, I'm not. I arrived here first."
His eyes glittered. "Did you give Velma a credit card?"
"Then you're too late."
He was so close his low growl swathed Cody's cheek with warm air. The touch and sound stirred a shudder deep inside her -- a sensual shudder of all things. Yikes.
"Well, I would have," she sputtered, "but I had to see the room first." Her neck and cheeks flushed.
"I did insist," Velma added.
"Well, I gave her my credit card." He pointed at Delma. "And she took it, so you're too late."
The 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 -- that's what she should do.
"I did take the credit card," Delma said timidly.
Feeling the hotel room being yanked out from underneath her, Cody turned indignant. "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 here, and that's me."
She visibly wavered and allowed her gaze to dart between Cody, Grouchface, and her twin, who looked ready to burst into tears.
"It's not your fault, Sister. You didn't know we were upstairs." She patted Delma's hand. "I'll handle this."
Velma faced her potential guests and said, "We'll flip for it."
"What?" Cody cried.
"Fine by me," Grouchface snapped.
Velma reached in her apron pocket and pulled 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 in her right hand and smacked it on top of her left. "Heads it is," she proclaimed.
Cody blew out a sigh of relief.
"Hey, wait a minute," Grouchface complained.
"See for yourself." Velma angled her hand for him to snatch a glimpse and then chucked the coin back in 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. The emerald eyes darkened and then turned almost black. She could hear and feel each breath he took, because she held hers. Waiting.
"Share it with me." His eyes never wavered. "I promise I won't touch you… if you don't want me to."
Cody heard Velma and Delma gasp in unison, and she stuttered, "N-no."
No sooner had the word left her mouth than she had the strangest urge to snatch it back and rethink the offer. His eyes glittered dangerously, and she wondered if he could read her mind. She tried to pull in a breath, but couldn't manage to get any air down her throat. She could only stare into those dark eyes -- and wonder.
He spun on his heel and stalked out the door, and Cody felt an inexplicable wave of disappointment. Her knees felt like water. She grabbed the counter to steady herself, and the 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, when that group of Shriners was stranded here on New Year's Eve?"
"I think it was '85," Delma said.
"No, 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."
Velma shook her head. "On account of my lucky coin." She dug the silver dollar out and handed it over.
Cody turned the coin in her hand and laughed. 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. "Fortier Guide Service."
"What took you so long, old man? You sleeping?" Gage knew Dougah could hear the grin in his voice.
"Nah, I'm just watching two very well-dressed strangers climb out of their black Lincoln in my parking lot. They're looking my boats over, and they look to be up to no good," 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 life. Just call Ben. I don't want to have to worry about you when I'm supposed to be on vacation." He ran a hand through his dark curls.
"These guys are just some snotty 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 can't 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 you keep your tarps in the boat, so I don't have to tear it apart looking for them. You've got hidden cabinets from one end of your boat 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 blew out an exasperated sigh of relief.
"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 in his boat. Now if only he would leave Gage's love life alone and stop pushing. 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 told him he would be wasting his time, and he'd already had his pride stepped on twice in a very short period of time. Some vacation this turned out to be.
He ground his jaw and headed for the marina office. Sleeping in a tent meant he needed more flashlight batteries. Maybe he would get lucky, and the campground he passed on the highway would have a vacancy. Once he got settled, he'd give Ben a call in Grand Isle and have him go check on Dougah.
Jimmy Fonteiro came out of the supply room just as Dougah hung up the phone, and he spotted the new customers 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 Jimmy off and got to his feet. He kept an eye on the two men in the parking lot and waited to make sure the boy didn't try to follow him outside. The thinner man had climbed into the bright red boat identical to Gage's borrowed boat and was lifting each compartment lid in succession.
"You're a little too nosy for my liking," Dougah muttered and slipped outside, frowning as he approached the businessmen.
"What can I do for you gentlemen? I'm Dougah Fortier, and I own this guide service."
"We know who you are," Thin Man snapped.
The stockier suit laid a hand on his partner's arm to calm him. He 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 looking for a guide?"
"We're looking for you, smart man."
Jorge again put a hand on his partner. "I told you I would handle this." His tone brooked no argument. "Mr. Fortier, 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?"
"I need a name." The phone in the office rang and repeated in the outside speaker. "Just let me run to get that call, and I'll be right back."
"Two minutes," Jorge growled
Dougah sprinted for the office.
Cody unpacked and arranged her clothes in the antique dresser in her room. She stared into the top drawer at the socks lined up on the right and the lingerie on the left and heaved a sigh, remembering the psychologist she had visited all of two times after her father's death two years earlier. Instead of providing the comfort Cody so desperately needed, the woman had criticized Cody's organized and meticulous nature and claimed Cody sought control in every aspect of her life, verified by her choice of accounting as a vocation where she could arrange her numbers in neat little rows to always add up the same. She sighed again. Maybe she was just neat and missed her daddy. The psychologist had also suggested she relinquish some control and begin sharing decisions with others in order to find the peace she wanted. Except there were no others, with both her mother and father gone.
Cody felt so alone. Her sense of loss and guilt over her father's death had overwhelmed her. She had no close friends to ask for help, no one she could trust or with whom she could share her grief. The one perfect friendship in her life ended badly, and afterward she remained careful not to allow anyone to get too close. Close could hurt. Close would hurt. People who got close always left her.
This whole tournament idea had trouble written across it from the moment the idea popped into her head, but she ignored all the signs. Her grief over Jack Ryan's passing had been especially hard on his birthday, the one day she and Jack were guaranteed to spend together, when he never allowed his work to interfere. So this year when his birthday approached, she got the wild idea if she entered Jack's annual fishing tournament, she'd feel closer to him and not miss him so much. Thus far she only felt tension and frustration. Part of the tension was her own fault -- after all those years spent fishing with her dad as a child, she hadn't learned a thing. Of course, she was too young back then to be taught to launch a boat, but her father had made it look so easy she hadn't practiced at all before she left Florida. Her father had always baited her hook, thrown out her line, and scooped up any fish she caught.
She hadn't fished with Jack in years. The thought brought tears to her eyes.
So here she sat, on sabbatical from her accounting job. She couldn't back up a boat and trailer without jackknifing, she had to cheat to win the last hotel room in Middle-of-Nowhere, Alabama, and she had never felt more alone in her life. Some great idea.
She peered out the window of her room at the quiet street below. With the sun dipping low in the sky, the town square looked deserted, and she supposed most folks had gone home for dinner. Thinking of dinner made her stomach growl. The Willow twins only served breakfast and made picnic lunches for their guests. She would have to visit Sadie's Café on the other side of town square to get dinner. What she needed now was a good meal, a hot shower, and a soft bed -- in that order. Her gaze darted back to the four-poster bed, and a pair of glittering emerald eyes appeared in her line of sight. She could even hear his husky voice saying, "Share it with me." Her heart raced a little faster.
"Ridiculous," she muttered and shook off the image.
She grabbed her purse and headed downstairs, nibbling at her lower lip as she wondered where Tall-Dark-and-Grouchy had gone and prayed he wasn't in Loon for the fishing tournament.
Dougah grabbed the phone on the fourth ring.
"It's me again."
Gage smiled. Dougah always made the Cajun phrase my guard sound like an endearment a father would use on his son. "Do you have a mallet on board? To pound tent stakes with?"
Dougah chuckled. "Why don't you look for it?"
"It's more fun to call and pester you."
"Well this time I don't mind," he said. "Those two suits outside claim a friend left something behind in a compartment on my boat and want me to search my boats for them."
All amusement left Gage. "Those the same guys you mentioned before?"
"Yeah, same ones."
"I smell a rat in a woodpile." Gage could hear him leafing through pages. "Are you checking the recent charters in your journal?"
"I would if you'd quit bothering me, and those suits are nothing more than pain-in-the-ass businessmen. So did you find a place to sleep?" the old man asked.
"I'm at a campground outside of Loon."
"Mon Dieu, you couldn't talk your way into that little girl's bed? A handsome garde like you?"
"I didn't want to," he snapped.
"Do you lie to old Dougah?" the Cajun asked softly.
Dougah had a way of finding out whatever information he wanted. "Maybe." Gage's jaw clenched at the Cajun's throaty chuckle.
"She sounds nice to me."
"You haven't met her."
"It must be the way you describe her."
"She's a pain," Gage argued, yet his mind pictured her hair glistening in the late afternoon sun.
"She could be a pain and very nice. Most women are." Dougah's chuckle rumbled through the phone again.
"I doubt it."
"You should chase after this new girl in Loon. I hear emotion in your voice when you talk about her. Something is starting."
"Your nose is already in the rest of my business. Stay out of my love life."
The throaty chuckle told him that would be the day. "See? You already call it your love life."
"A figure of speech, drop it," he said, feeling pressured.
"You tell me long ago about some special girl from your past, and I think you have a shrine set up in your heart for her. Is no good, mon fils."
Gage raked a palm across his face. "I never should have told you. I was drunk at the time and--"
"And grieving after that garde on your crew died, but I worry ever since that you place too much weight on the relationship with that girl. You were too young to know of love."
"You don't understand how it was, old man." Now he growled and he didn't care. Dougah had entered taboo territory. "Drop it."
"I know. I know. You intend to search for this girl someday, but you don't even remember her name."
"I remember her first name."
Dougah chuckled. "How do you expect to find someone without a name?"
"I can ask around town and find out."
"But you won't," Dougah said flatly. "Maybe Dougah find her for you so you stop using the girl to protect your heart."
Gage ignored the offer. "Listen, I don't like suits coming around wanting you to search your boats -- not with your past track record. Is Jimmy still there?"
"Nope, gone on home."
He heard Dougah flip through more pages.
"Aha. Thursday before last, I thought so."
"Aha, what?" Gage asked.
"I checked my journal, and their friend fished from the boat you borrowed. I'll find out what they're missing, and call you back. You may have to ship whatever it is back to me if they cannot wait until you return."
Jimmy came into the office, and Dougah waved him to go on home and mouthed the words, "I'm good." The boy hesitated at the front door, and Dougah shook his fist. Jimmy smiled and left.
"I don't like this," Gage said. "Call Lt. McCall and tell him to send a crewman over there or better yet call the police."
"Why? Because someone left a shirt on my boat?"
"Dougah, don't play--"
"I'll call you later. Not to worry, ma garde." He clicked off before Gage got in another word.
"I can handle these two voyous myself," Dougah muttered and slid a filet knife into the sheath inside his right shrimp boot. He tucked the slim cell phone Gage had bought for him into a waterproof pouch and slipped the small bag into his cargo pocket.
"Better safe than sorry," he muttered and went back out to the parking lot.
The storefront at Sadie's looked as old as the Willow Inn with a façade of grizzled red bricks, pock-marked grout, and old sash windows, each
guarded by a pair of off-kilter storm shutters. A white placard declared the restaurant OPEN, though the place looked deserted when Cody peered through the window. Oh well, this or get back in the
car and drive all the way back to the chain restaurants near the Interstate.
With Loon Lake situated between the town and the Interstate, Cody suspected most of the tournament entrants had booked at the chain hotels, though the Willow twins claimed to be expecting evening arrivals. With only eight rooms, the Inn booked swiftly. So where had Grouchface ended up? She could still feel the heat of his stare when he said, "Share the room." How would she get to sleep tonight wondering how that scenario might have turned out?
Her stomach growled again, louder this time, and she forged through the restaurant door, far too tired to get back in her car and drive anywhere.
"I wondered if you were coming in or content to peek through the window all night," a voice called from behind the counter in the back.
Seconds later, the reddest head of hair Cody had even seen rose above the counter, followed by a bright wide smile, a nose full of freckles, and twinkling green eyes.
"Would you like a table or a seat up here at the fountain?"
"A table, please."
"Are you alone?"
The perky redhead grabbed a menu and directed Cody to a table at the window overlooking the town square and in plain view of anyone strolling by. She hesitated for a moment.
The redhead smiled. "It's the best seat in the house. Lucky you got it in time."
Cody's gaze darted around the empty restaurant and back to the woman, who laughed at her joke. "Name's Sadie. Nice to meet you," she said and laid the menu on the table.
Cody took an inexplicable and immediate liking to this woman -- the same Cody who never let anyone get close and kept everyone at arm's length. Maybe so no one could see how lonely she really was.
"I'm Cody Ryan. Nice to meet you, too." And it was.
"You here for the tournament?"
"Boyfriend or husband?"
"Who's fishing? Boyfriend or husband?"
"Neither." Her chin came up. "I am."
Sadie's mouth formed a perfect O, and then she threw her head back and laughed. One of those happy-sounding laughs that make you want to join in even if you don't know what the person's laughing about -- except Cody did know and felt none too happy.
"Oh now, don't mar that beautiful face with a frown," Sadie said. "I certainly wasn't laughing at you. I was laughing at the picture my mind painted of the faces on all the other fishermen in town come Saturday morning."
"It'll be worth getting up at dawn to go see for myself. And I will."
"I don't see what the--"
"Fuss is? Cody, you're the first woman to enter the Annual Loon Fishing Tournament, which is the biggest event in Loon all year. Plenty of hometown girls have wanted to try, but were too chicken." Sadie's hands went to her hips, and she stared down at Cody. "Boy, I hope you're good."
"Me, too." They both laughed outright.
"Your dinner's on the house."
"No, I couldn't."
"Sure you can. What'll you have to drink?" Up close, Sadie looked to be near forty, but her demeanor made her seem more like Cody's age. Either way Cody liked her.
"Iced tea would be great."
"Be right back."
Only a handful of people sauntered around the square. Everyone else had probably headed home for dinner as the sun disappeared behind the old courthouse. The fewer people in the square the better, as far as Cody was concerned. With all the lights on in the cafe, she would stick out like a naked mannequin in a store window.
Sadie brought the iced tea and a small bowl of lemon slices. "The special tonight is my famous Loon meatloaf."
"That's it. I only have one special a night, unless you'd like a sandwich or a burger." Sadie glanced out the front window. "Here comes Doc. Right on time."
Cody caught sight of a silver-haired gentleman striding across the square. The long legs on his tall frame swiftly ate up the distance to Sadie's front door.
Sadie turned to greet her customer, and Cody blurted, "I'll have the special." She wanted to get dinner over, especially with other diners showing up ready to stare at the stranger in town.
The man burst through the front door before Sadie got to the menu rack. "Evening, Sadie," his deep voice boomed. His gaze swept the restaurant and caught on Cody. "I see you've seated a beautiful young lady at my table," he said and strode over. "Was that on purpose?"
Sadie chuckled and headed for the kitchen. "Of course."
His eyes danced, and he held out a hand. "What is this beautiful lady's name?"
The man was definitely a charmer. Cody shook his hand and smiled. "Cody Ryan."
"I'm Doc Taylor. Very pleased to meet you."
He drew back the chair across from her and waited for her blessing. She nodded, and he took a seat. This whole evening grew stranger by the second. Instead of freaking about a strange man inviting himself to join her, she felt comforted as though her father had just taken a seat. His eyes had done the trick, understanding eyes just like her father's.
Sadie reappeared with another glass of iced tea. "The special's my Loon meatloaf tonight, Doc."
"It's not made of loons is it?" he asked, with a side wink at Cody.
Sadie bopped him with the menu. "Course not."
"Good, then I'll have it." He turned back to Cody when Sadie headed for the kitchen. "I see you've met Sadie Darling. She is usually the town's welcoming committee."
Cody quickly hid her surprise. The man was old enough to be Sadie's father.
Doc read her expression and chuckled. "Darling is Sadie's last name, though I'd be honored and lucky if she was my darling."
Cody's cheeks went from warm to hot in one long second.
"You're new in town, and I'm the other half of the welcoming committee. It's the welcoming committee's job to get to know you better. Of course, you'll get the opportunity to get to know us better, too. It's a trade-off. I'm the town doctor. How's that for a start?"
"A good one." She smiled. "How long have you lived here?"
"Since I got out of medical school or shortly thereafter. So what brings you to Loon for a visit?"
"How do you know I haven't moved here?"
"Because, sad to say, no one ever moves here anymore." He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
"I'm here for the fishing tournament," she said, anxious to get past the expected laughter-at-her-expense.
Only Doc Taylor didn't laugh. He sat up straight and peered at her, examining her eyes as though searching for the truth. "You don't say," he muttered.
"Are you a good fisherman?"
"Fair, I'd say." Probably not the time to tell him most of her experience came from watching the fishing channel on cable for the last month.
"You had better be better than fair if you expect to win this tournament."
She smiled. "I'm going to try my best, and I feel like I know Loon Lake like the back of my hand. My father fished this tournament, and he spent hours replaying every fishing spot and catch for me." At least the last part was truthful.
"That will certainly help."
"Do you fish?" she asked.
A flicker of sadness flashed across his eyes and then disappeared. "I used to," he said, "with my son and grandson, but they're gone now."
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to make you sad."
"It's all right, my dear. How could I stay sad with such a delightful dinner companion?" He patted her hand. "Besides, I still look forward to the Loon Tournament every year. I met a nice fellow one of the first years I entered the tournament, got to be good friends with him, great friends actually. Turns out I was a lousy fisherman, so Jack did the opposite of everything I told him to do and did real well in the tournaments." He let out a long, slow exhale. "Haven't seen him in a couple of years though. I miss him. I hope he shows up this year."
A cold chill riffled her spine, and Cody remembered her father talking about a friend he made in Loon, a Quin Taylor. What were the odds? In this town? Probably pretty good. "Is your first name Quin?" she asked.
"Yes, it is. Short for Quinton. How did you--" Doc looked at her strangely. "It can't be."
She nodded. "I'm Jack Ryan's little girl."
The two suits waited by the closest boat with arms crossed and a frown of impatience as Dougah took his time and sauntered over.
"Hurry up, puta!" Juan snapped when he got close.
Dougah smiled, and the man's intensity ratcheted up another notch, enough so Jorge again put an arm out to calm him. "That your man I saw leaving?" Jorge asked.
Dougah glanced back to be sure Jimmy's car had left the lot. Satisfied the boy was safe, he turned back and caught Juan's fist on his chin. The force threw him backward and down.
He rubbed his chin and glared up at Juan. "Now what you go and hit Dougah for?"
"To get your attention," Jorge said.
Dougah wisely stayed down. "Why don't you tell me what you're looking for, and I'll get it for you. We find things on the boats, and we put them in a lost-and-found box in the office."
"Call off your métis," he growled
Juan surged forward, but Jorge barked, "Get back." Just like a mongrel, the man dropped back without a word.
"Now get up."
Dougah made a show of painfully rising to his feet, keeping an eye on both men through hooded lids.
"Our friend left a small black bag on your boat," Jorge said.
Dougah said, "Why you not say so?"
"Where's the bag?" Jorge demanded with a murderous glare.
"Which boat?" Dougah asked calmly.
Jorge nodded, and Juan flew at him. Dougah deflected the first two blows and caught the third hard, again ending up on the ground though not for long. Juan grabbed his tee shirt, jerked him to his feet, and pulled back a fist. Jorge stayed his mongrel.
"You know exactly which boat. The only one of the three missing. Now where is our bag?"
Dougah used his tee shirt to wipe at the blood dripping from his nose. "Don't you mean your drugs?"
Juan yanked him close, but Jorge nodded at the office. "If you're going to beat him bloody, better we do it in there and not here by a busy street. Don't touch anything inside."
"Mr. Fortier," he said, his voice gone silky, "you will tell us what we want to know, or Juan here will beat you to death, and we will drop your body in the bayou for the alligators and turtles. Better you avoid all that pain if you can."
"You got that right, mon ami." He glanced up at the sky. Almost sunset. Not good, but at least the boy had gone home.
Juan got Dougah through the office door, sucker-punched him, and sent him to the floor, then kicked him twice hard in the ribs.
"You took the tour, Mr. Fortier," Jorge snarled, following them inside, "and the boat's registration number ended in 1-2-6. Now where is your boat?"
Dougah swiped at the blood now streaming from his nose.
"Not fast enough," Juan snarled and grabbed him by the hair to backhand him. His ring gouged a furrow across the flesh of Dougah's right cheek.
"Well, Mr. Fortier?"
"It's in the shop," he mumbled and fended off another blow from Juan.
"With my bag inside?" Jorge roared and came around the desk. He got one good kick in before Dougah curled up in a ball and took two more kicks to his back and legs.
The phone chimed.
Both men stared down at Dougah, but he kept his face covered. Bon Dieu, not Gage.
Six, then seven rings, followed by the distinct click and shift to his answering machine. The death knell rang out loud and clear. Dougah struggled to his feet, intent on grabbing the box and smashing it on the floor, but Juan smashed a fist into his jaw and dropped him like a stone.
"Hey old man, where you at? This is Gage. Pick up the phone. I just talked to you; I know you're there."
Dougah scrunched his eyes shut in pain. Bon Dieu, say no more.
"I guess you're outside. Listen, call me back. I need to know which boat compartment you hide the mosquito repellent in. I swear these Loon mosquitoes are bigger than bayou skeeters. You were right about the gas though. It is cheaper in Alabama. Call me."
Jorge's exhale erupted as a long, slow hiss, and the sound shot a stab of pain through Dougah as sharp as any knife.
"And the shop where you say you took your boat is in Alabama?" His voice cold enough to freeze small animals. "Loon was it?"
Dougah held his breath. Whatever happened now, he had to stay alive to warn Gage.
"What now, jefe?" Juan asked.
"Put him in the trunk. Awake or out cold, I don't care. Soon we will let our little bayou skeeters have him."
"Well, I'll be. How is Jack?" Doc asked, beaming. "He missed the tournament last year, too. Would have taken something pretty important to make
him miss one."
"Like dying?" she whispered, her eyes filling with tears.
Doc's own eyes glistened. She wanted to hug this grandfatherly gentleman, but she kept her hands clasped in her lap.
He cleared his throat. "How?"
"Heart attack, and I can't--" She waved a hand.
"It's okay. We don't have to talk about it. Just please know how--"
"Sorry you are, I know."
He gave her a weak smile. "No, dear. I was going to say how much I liked him. I only saw him once a year, but I felt like we were best friends."
Something loosened in Cody's heart with those words. Somehow she knew her father had felt the same way about Quin Taylor, just by the way he used to ramble on every year about the fun he had with his friend from Loon. Maybe this trip had been a good idea after all. She had just been given the unexpected opportunity to spend time with one of her father's best friends. Outside of the police officers he worked with, Jack didn't have many of those. For the first time since her father's passing, she actually wanted to talk about him and hear stories about him and -- miracle of miracles -- without any tears.
Turned out Sadie knew Jack quite well, too. She joined Cody and Doc and traded stories in-between waiting on customers when the mild dinner rush kicked in. Sadie's eyes held a devious twinkle every time she mentioned Jack, and Cody wondered if there had been a special attraction between the two. Small wonder Dad had loved coming here so much and even talked about retiring here. After a wonderful hour or so of reminiscing and watching the sunset lure twilight into the square, Cody called it a night.
"I can't tell you how much it means to me to spend time with Dad's friends," she said.
Sadie patted her hand. "Us, too, honey."
"You're not leaving already, are you?" Doc complained.
"I have to. I want to be on the lake when the sun comes up."
"Your father was the same way, but if you leave now, you'll miss out on Sadie's apple crumb pie."
"I can't, but thanks for asking."
Sadie hopped up. "I'll be right back with Doc's pie."
"My check?" Cody called after her.
Sadie stopped in a flash and turned. "No, honey, my treat. This meant a lot to me, too."
Cody's throat tightened so much she could only nod, and Sadie disappeared into the kitchen. Doc got to his feet when he saw she was on her way out.
"You do well tomorrow, you hear?"
"I will." She smiled. "And thanks, Doc."
"For being you, I guess. Tonight was the first time since Dad went to heaven I could enjoy my memories of him. They didn't hurt."
Doc held out his arms, and she didn't hesitate. She went right to him and gave him a hug. "I'll see you later."
The temperature had cooled considerably when Cody stepped outside, and streetlamps brightened the town square for her stroll. Halfway across, she noticed the street in front of the Willow Inn looked quite dark. A shred of fear skittered up her spine, but this wasn't Miami. This was Loon, Alabama, where folks didn't lock their doors, much to her father's consternation. Jack Ryan loved to take care of people no matter where he was, and he still worried about the townspeople of Loon when he was back home in Miami. He'd mentioned more than once their penchant for not locking doors.
She smiled at the sudden memory. She hadn't felt this close to her father in a long time, and she no longer cared if she placed in the fishing
tournament. She merely wanted to compete to the end, enjoy the days here just like her father had, and spend time with the friends he'd grown to love.
Leaving the lights of the town square behind, she hurried toward the Willow Inn. Her surroundings grew dimmer with each step, dark enough she couldn't make out the two figures blocking the sidewalk ahead until it was too late to run.