Par for Cinderella Excerpt
“What do you mean the motor won’t start?” Aidan Cross glowered at his captain in the galley on the lower deck. “This is a yacht. It has to start.”
“I’ve been in the engine room for the last half-hour,” Joe said glumly. “It’s the ignition controller system.” He held the recalcitrant part aloft and glared at the box.
“I noticed we didna troll for a while,” Ian pointed out.
“I didn’t. I was here in the galley making us sandwiches.” Aidan frowned at Joe. “We carry replacement parts for everything on this yacht. Just put in the spare.”
Joe held out the part again. “This is the spare. The original crapped out during the night around Mobile. We replaced it while you were sleeping, so you never knew.”
Aidan had coerced his Princeton roommate to take a Gulf Coast cruise with him. The yacht belonged to Aidan. The roommate was Ian MacVicar, a big Scottish Highlander as famous for his family’s brand of scotch whiskey and a string of hugely popular pubs strung across the British Isles as Aidan Cross was for his five-star golf resorts scattered worldwide.
The two friends had been tarpon fishing since early that morning. Ian had hooked a big one around noon that had kept the two friends busy for almost two hours. After they released the powerful fifty-pounder, Aidan had gone inside to make them club sandwiches, the only thing he could create in a kitchen. His yacht chef, who always worked his cruises, was absent with a family emergency, and Aidan hadn’t wanted to hire a last-minute stranger.
Though he could make his club sandwiches, it was Ian who fed the two friends, the captain, and the three crewmen nightly. Ian made what he called his pub grub, and all had eaten rather well. Aidan’s pantry and freezer always left port filled, so Ian had plenty to work with.
“Where are we?” Aidan groused. “The middle of nowhere in the Gulf of Mexico?”
Joe swallowed. “Not exactly. We made good time last night. Before the engine quit on me, we made it to Cypress Key. We’re four or five miles offshore. You were so busy with your tarpon, I didn’t tell you we’d reached your destination. I’ll take the part ashore and get it fixed. If there’s no marina repair service or they can’t fix it, I’ll have a new part overnighted.”
“No, you stay with the ship,” Aidan ordered. “I’ll take it inshore after we eat our sandwiches. Write down what you think the ignition controller problem is. I want to get the correct repair.”
Joe left the galley to prepare the work order, and Aidan placed their plates of sandwiches on the table in the galley.
“What destination was Joe talking about?” Ian wanted to know.
“The site of my new golf resort. Stole the parcel right out from under BDC.” Aidan grinned.
“I imagine Rhett fashed over that.”
His grin swiftly faded. “I gave a half-partnership in the project back to Rhett as my penance for that mess over the sale of Lily’s property.”
“Garrett mentioned that mess when we were back in Biloxi. Rhett’s attorney tried to steal the property for himself and sell it back to ye.”
Aidan groaned. “Don’t remind me. That was too close for comfort.”
“Aye, but ye fixed it in time, like ye do everything else.”
“You’re right, and I fixed some awesome turkey club sandwiches for us. Sit down and eat, so I can head to shore with the controller.”
“I’ll go with ye,” Ian volunteered.
“Nah, you never get a chance to fish in Scotland. Stay here and catch another big one.”
“Och! We got fish in the lochs back home.”
“Ye dinna have any the size of the braw tarpon ye caught today,” Aidan mimicked and clapped Ian on the back. “Heck of a catch.”
“Worth my trip across the pond.” The six-foot-five Highlander grinned and bit into his sandwich. “That and seeing our friend Garrett and his new bride, Andi. Did I hear Garrett right the other day? Ye had something to do with Andi’s stepmother and stepsister going to jail?”
Aidan sighed. “Just tried to fix an old mess. Turns out the forgery of Andi’s father’s will may have been her stepmother’s idea, but the actual forger was Andi’s stepsister. Had my investigator dig up the goods on the two.”
“Holy saints above.”
“I still can’t believe Garrett eloped to Vegas,” Aidan grumbled. “I should have been a groomsman for the big party.” He was glad he’d taken the yacht to Biloxi to see for himself how happy their friend was with his new wife.
“Not like they planned to elope. Garrett and Andi only went back to Vegas so her godmother could get married. They didn’t decide to make it a double wedding until they got there.” Ian grinned. “Though I believe the lad might have been in a wee bit of a hurry.”
Apparently, the happy couple didn’t need the furor of a big wedding. They only needed each other. Aidan felt more envy for Garrett than he cared to admit. He wanted that joy for himself.
“I think you might be right. But I was out of the country and missed the whole thing.” He scowled. “Hell, I helped get them together. Sort of.”
Ian laughed. “Yeah, Garrett told me how you helped. Had your big Mick do a background check on the lass. You’re lucky Garrett didn’t take a swing at ye for it.”
"Well, I was worried about him.” Aidan got up and pulled two beers from the refrigerator and handed one to Ian.
“Ye were worried the lass was after Garrett’s money, ye were.”
“Of course I was. Don’t you ever worry about women chasing you for your money? Now that you’ve made your millions?”
“Och, I dinna have to worry about lasses chasing after me. They couldn’t catch me.” The big Scot grinned. “I’m too busy running all over Scotland to have a serious relationship with a lass or anything more than a weekend here or there. Keeping watch on the ruffians is a full-time job.”
“I’d forgotten you called your nephews the ruffians. How many are there again?”
When Ian grimaced, he looked fearsome. Ian MacVicar, laird of his Scottish clan, stood six foot five—even taller than Aidan’s friend Rhett Buchanan—and looked like a throwback from the Vikings of old with his longish hair and curls the color of Williamsburg bricks. Packaged with a frame that made men wince and women stare. Shoulders wide enough to fill a doorway.
“Och, between my three older sisters, there’s six nephews plus the demon twins. Enough to oversee most of my pubs.” Ian took a long pull on his beer.
“I’ve been meaning to go visit those world-famous pubs of yours. Saw an advertisement in an airplane magazine on a flight back from Italy.”
“Aye, ye’ve been promising for a decade to come to Scotland for a rematch of that whupping I gave ye on the Bunker Hill golf course.” Ian’s big laugh again filled the room.
Aidan closed his eyes. “Not that again. You beat me once in college, and you’ve never let me forget it.”
Oddly, Ian sobered. “O’course not. Ye were the best. None could beat ye. That’s why I’ll never let ye forget it. Only Rhett could beat ye, and that was usually when ye were hung over.”
“I beat him once,” Aidan reminded him.
Ian only laughed. “Ye should have gone on the tour.”
He sighed and bit into his sandwich. No way would he go there. Not today, not when he could be happy today and enjoy being with his friend. Pain and regret were for times when he was alone.
“Life had other plans for me, Ian.”
“Life and yer da. I understand, lad. I do. My own da had other plans too. Insisted I come back from college and go right to running the distillery.”
“Did you ever want to do something else?”
“Aye. Build pubs.”
“So, I have a good reason for still being single. Ye don’t.”
“Sure I do. In fact, there was a time, Rhett, Garrett, and I were all on the same page. Marriage was not in our particular stars.”
Ian frowned. “Ye lads didna want lasses of yer own and some bairns?”
“We did, but the execution of the task seemed impossible. Finding women not after us for our money seemed a herculean feat. Women were always after our money.”
“I’m finding out what that is all aboot.”
Aidan nodded. “Those pubs made you a millionaire.”
“Many times over,” Ian grumbled. “That’s when the lassies started showing up. Some I knew, but they hadn’t expressed a prior interest until word of my scotch and pub franchises were bandied aboot.”
“We just stuck with actresses and models who were up front about their gold digging.”
Joe appeared in the galley with a handwritten work order he set on the table next to Aidan along with the part.
“Will you lower the runabout? I’m about finished,” Aidan asked and popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth.
“There’s a dearth of actresses and models in the Highlands,” Ian continued when Joe headed up on deck. “I’ve had to make do.”
“What? You didn’t pull out your shamrock and make a wish for a babe who didn’t want your money?”
“Och, ye wanker! Now yer confusing me with your investigator, the big Mick. He doesn’t even have a proper accent.”
“Maybe because he was born in New Jersey.”
“Whatever. I’m leaving.”
They heard the runabout hit the water, and Aidan grabbed Ian’s arm as he made for the stairs.
“No, you’re not leaving. You’re coming back down to the fishing platform, and you’re going to catch fish until I get back. Try for something small enough we can eat, like a grouper or a mahi.”
“I should go with ye.”
“Why should both of us get screwed out of the good fishing in these parts? Cypress Key’s a sleepy little tourist town. Nothing exciting every happens there. That’s why I bought the parcel here for my next resort. It will be an immediate hit in these parts.”
“Which is why I have to go and see this fabulous parcel.”
“It won’t be fabulous for at least eighteen months. Right now, it’s an abandoned airstrip bordered by scrubland.”
Ian frowned. “Maybe I will stay and fish.”
Aidan grinned. “I’ll check out the parcel, while I’m waiting for the part to be fixed, and be back by sunset. Have the fish grilled when I get back.”
Ian saluted and Aidan hopped aboard the twenty-eight-foot ski boat they used for a runabout and cranked the motor.
Casey Stuart’s two o’clock boat tour to the island had turned out far better than she had hoped. The boat’s ten bench seats—five on either side of the center aisle—had been almost full, and everyone had asked questions and laughed at her jokes. The two-hour tour took her guests past the white pelican rookery on a small sandbar and then to the real Cypress Key—a small island offshore, for which the adjacent mainland town was named.
The tour disembarked guests at the key for a walk-on-your-own tour of the island’s history and artifacts—a graveyard of original settlers, foundations from the first eighteenth-century homes, and native birds and wildlife—all laid out in a map Casey handed them when they departed the boat.
Her guests had returned laughing and in good cheer, which increased the tips she got at the finish of the tour. Groceries, she thought as the last guest stepped off the boat and headed up the dock toward the town marina parking lot.
Casey rented two slips on the only dock on the north side of the public double boat ramp. The remaining docks and slips all lay south of the ramp. Unfortunately, the two sets of tie-up cleats on the opposite side of her dock belonged to Mayor Bartow. The mayor stored his personal craft in the boat house at his mansion on the Gulf. His only son, PJ, used the rented spot on the other side of Casey’s dock for his speedboat.
She’d heard a boat engine throttle down for the marina no-wake zone as she said goodbye to her tour guests and dreaded the possibility of PJ’s arrival and subsequent harassment or flirtation, depending on which of them made the call. She refused to look back and felt rather than saw the boat tie to dock cleats directly behind her tour boat.
No way would PJ be that brazen when he had cleats on the other side of the same dock, though his penchant for buttheadedness knew no bounds. Anything was possible.
The space behind hers belonged to her Uncle Frank’s second tour boat, now in dry dock for hull repairs, and she was too happy with her present tour to chastise the errant boat driver, PJ or whoever had mistakenly used the cleats. Especially since Frank’s second boat would be quarantined until they could pay the exorbitant bill they had not expected or planned for.
“Just a few barnacles ate into the paint,” Frank had said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Nothing to worry about. Right. Frank’s favorite saying.
Turned out the boat had dry rot. Expensive dry rot. Major hull-replacement dry rot.
Swallowed again, but her dry throat persisted.
The boater was drop-dead gorgeous. Light-brown hair with sun-blond streaks, long enough to thread fingers through along his collar, and chocolate-brown eyes that trapped and held you, like puppy-dog-cuddlable brown one minute and sensuous, you’re-not-safe-from-me hazelish the next.
She fought for the presence of mind to smile at all that hunkiness.
Then came the fireworks.
His smile—straight, perfect white teeth—held a hint of mischief and seduction and the power to kick her feet from beneath her as she tiptoed down the gunwale to secure the back canopy and check gas-tank levels. Mostly for a reason to get a closer look at this hottie. The sound of the second boat flying into the marina barely registered. Her eyes were still locked on the hottie’s take-me-I’m-yours mouth.
By the time her brain had caught up with her girly parts, the vast wake from the second boat’s way-too-fast approach had set up a tsunami strong enough to rock her big tour boat and knock those aforementioned metaphorical feet right out from under her. Unsuspecting and still enthralled by the stranger, Casey went blindly over the side.
At an angle. Not straight and backward.
Her skull clipped the stern on her way over the side. The beautiful masculine smile she had fixated on disappeared when everything else went black.
Life was often funny or full of irony, Aidan thought, as his runabout cut across the Gulf toward the tiny tourist town of Cypress Key. He had more money than ninety-nine percent of the population in America, and yet he wasn’t happy. Worse still, he couldn’t say why he wasn’t happy. He enjoyed brief spates of happiness, usually when he spent time with or helped out his friends. Like today, fishing with Ian. He’d hoped that somewhere along his Gulf Coast tour he might figure out what in this world could finally make him happy.
Once upon a time, he would have been anxious to get back to his next business venture with Cross Enterprises, building his five-star golf resorts all over the world. The luster had left that rose in recent months. No doubt his uncertainty was tied to two of his closest friends, Rhett and Garrett, getting married. There was a time the three of them thought marriage wasn’t in their particular stars. Sure, Aidan wanted a wife and a family. Eventually. The execution of the act is what seemed impossible. Finding a woman unaffected by his money seemed an impossible task. Women were always after his money.
Fortune and Fate had other ideas and had smiled on both Rhett and Garrett. Each one had found a woman who loved the man, not the bank account. Yet, it had been hell for his friends getting there. Clinging doubts about women always being after their money had almost submarined both of their relationships. Aidan would never deceive a woman about his identity or pretend he didn’t have money like Garrett had tried.
Everything with him was on the up and up. No doubts for him. Aidan would know if his woman really loved him. His instincts were razor sharp, and his instincts would shape his story. He would not go in search of love. Love would have to find him.
Now, if he could just get his business acumen back on track, he could look forward to his next project and shrug past all this weird angst and uncertainty. He could only hope this cruise and his time off just playing golf would fill the gaps in his soul and re-ignite the fire for his future projects.
A slip of land appeared on the horizon, and Aidan spied what looked like a tour boat up ahead as he glided between an offshore island—Cypress Key from the dozens of satellite photos his acquisition team had provided—and a sandbar of roosting pelicans. Amazing albino pelicans he promised himself a closer look at later.
The tour boat motored toward a marina on the mainland so that was the boat he followed. Shrimp trawlers littered the length of the gulf shoreline in both directions.
Cruising closer, he could see the marina was small by South Florida standards, and the forty-foot tour boat looked almost full. He let the vessel dock before he slid his runabout into the marina, careful not to set up any wake since the tour patrons were already disembarking on the short dock. Slowly he angled the boat in and used the pair of dock cleats directly behind the tour boat. He could always move his boat later if someone had paid for the space, but for now, he needed to ask this tour guide for directions. His satellite cell had shown only one boat repair shop, and he hoped there were more, or he could get scalped on repairs.
The tour guide was female, though he based his judgment on the blonde ponytail at the back of her head. She turned to bid goodbye to her patrons and accept proffered tips. Her profile halted his exit from the runabout. Definitely female, no makeup, peaches-and-cream complexion, possible freckles—too hard to tell from the side—and emerald-green eyes. Or rather eye. If the right half of her face matched the left, he may be in for a real treat.
Turn slightly so I can see you, sweetheart.
Still he didn’t exit the boat. Just watched the blonde guide—clad in basic khaki cargo shorts and a matching khaki shirt with some type of pocket logo—make each tour patron feel as if they had been the only guest on her boat. She greeted each one by name and remembered personal tidbits that her excited guests had shared during their cruise.
The last guest to leave was a geriatric, white-haired patron in a pair of those hot-pink long shorts Aidan’s girlfriends called capris. He knew all about capris since too many of his previous dates accidentally left them behind after visits to his Palm Beach home. All the girls had eventually called and asked to come back and get them. When women were that obvious about seduction, he FedExed the capris back to them.
When the geriatric guest finally stopped talking and delivered a hug, the female guide seemed way too accommodating. The grandmother padded down the wooden dock toward her matching capri-wearing, white-haired friend in the parking lot. The blonde tour beauty shoved the bills in a pocket without counting her tips, and she blessedly turned.
Yup. Lord be praised. The right side matched the left. The effect was stunning.
The beauty looked right at him. She’d no doubt sensed his boat’s arrival. No frown, though her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. If he hadn’t been staring into them, he may not have noticed. Maybe the slip was open for rental.
Aidan knew he turned women’s heads without trying, and mostly it annoyed him. Because the aforementioned women then made a pass at him. He wanted to be the chooser in any hookup. This particular beauty could stare as long as she wanted. Instinct assured him he could still be the chooser here.
The blonde stole his breath. He wasn’t usually a go-after-blondes guy, except for the brief crush he’d had after meeting Rhett’s wife Lily, though she wasn’t yet Rhett’s when Aidan met her. He could make a second exception for this fresh-faced beauty.
Her green eyes reminded him of twin emeralds, visible even from here. Eyes that bored into your soul and squeezed at your heart. Despite the desire tugging at his body, his faithful instinct suddenly cried out, This woman will be important to you.
His little tour guide hopped from a bench to the gunwale with grace and then tiptoed down the narrow ridge to the stern. He couldn’t help but grin at her athleticism and balance. Her eyes never left his, though his may have wandered down to her beautiful tanned legs and back up.
She stopped dead. Her lips, luscious and a perfect pink, twitched and then stretched into a smile.
Aidan’s heart threatened mutiny if he didn’t get closer. The woman was gorgeous.
How rosy could he make those lips with a properly-delivered kiss?
Aidan heard the whine of an incoming boat. Ignored it. Assumed the craft would scoot to one of the multitude of slips and docks on the other side of the boat ramp. Plus, he refused to take his eyes off his smiling tour guide just yet.
Assumed, as the saying went, often made an ass of me.
The large incoming pleasure craft swooped to a blunt landing on the other side of the dock by throwing the powerful engine into reverse to halt forward motion. The subsequent tsunami-sized wake had no such reverse or brake and pitched his boat and the tour vessel up on a roiling crest and back down, sending his green-eyed girl into a dive.
Over the side.
Grabbing for balance himself, he couldn’t tell if she made a clean entry. He scrabbled toward the bow of his boat.
Four seconds. Too long.
The water looked to be six or seven feet deep at low tide. The beauty should have surfaced. He kicked off his shoes and went over the side at the spot where she went down. The fool driver of the errant boat hollered, “Hey!” but Aidan kept going.
The dark marina water made it hard for him to see her. Aidan went by feel more than sight when he searched. Precious seconds elapsed until his hand felt a sneaker. He tugged the beauty’s motionless body from beneath the darker shadow of the tour boat and bolted for the surface.
Forcing her head above water, he made a straight shot between the boats and under the dock—only possible, Thank God, due to low tide—and gained his footing at the base of the boat ramp. He swung the girl up and into his arms.
When he reached shallower water, he angled her front first over his arm. She coughed twice and spit out a couple mouthfuls of seawater. At the top of the ramp, he stepped up onto the dock, then knelt and laid her down prostrate, ready for CPR.
He put an ear to her chest. Grabbed a limp wrist and felt for a pulse, then heaved a sigh of relief at her slow but steady heart rate. She coughed. He put his ear to her nose and mouth and detected breathing. Shallow, but air in and air out.
Come on, baby. Open those beautiful green eyes for me.
“You there!” The late boat arrival glared down at him.
Aidan ignored the jerk and scooped the unconscious woman into his arms, ready to sprint for the parking lot for a ride or directions to the closest doctor or hospital.
An arm grabbed Aidan and swung him around. The jerk was tall, only a couple inches shorter than Aidan’s six foot three. Had the look of a football player going to seed with a belly paunch already committing a false start. Dark-haired and glowering . . . a fight picker who now blocked his path. Aidan had no time for this.
“Don’t you touch her!” Jerk shouted.
“I’m taking her to the nearest doctor,” Aidan hollered back at him, “and you’re going to tell me where that is.”
"You’re not taking her anywhere!”
“That your boat?” Aidan nodded at the newly arrived sleek speedboat just to clarify.
“Yes. Now leave her alone!” the pompous jackass commanded.
"You don’t know how to drive a boat, you knocked her into the water, and you deserve this!” Aidan planted a foot in the ass’s gut and booted him backward into the marina’s dark water.
Not waiting to see if the guy surfaced, Aidan jogged toward two guys backing a boat trailer down the ramp. “Where’s the closest doctor?” he demanded.
The driver pointed up the street. “Three blocks straight ahead at the corner of C Street and Third. The Davis Walk-in Clinic. It’s not a hospital, but it’s a good-sized facility. All we got in Cypress Key. You want us to call 9-1-1?”
“I can get there before the ambulance arrives,” Aidan called back over his shoulder as he hoofed it through the parking lot and out to Third Street.
The beauty breathed on her own, and her heart beat slow but steady. Yet panic had settled on him all the same. He forced all he had into his strides, seeing the goose egg on his beauty’s forehead growing larger and her beautiful face growing paler. She felt so tiny and helpless in his arms, and the wave of protectiveness that hit him almost made him stumble. Thankfully, the observers who stared from the side streets they passed were also helpful and provided last-minute directions when Aidan called out.
Bursting through the automatic glass doors of the clinic, Aidan was met by a nurse who directed him to an examining room where he laid the beauty down on the only bed.
“Doctor Davis will be right in,” said Nurse Hansen, according to her nametag, and Aidan threw up his hands in frustration.
He slid the only chair next to the bed and took the beauty’s hands. Some calluses he noticed; she obviously was used to physical work. Not the kind of woman he usually dated. You’d be hard pressed to find a single callus amongst the lot of them. He stared at her flawless skin with the spray of freckles across her nose. An inexplicable urge to count them as he kissed them hit him hard.
Her eyelids fluttered, quieted, then cracked open. As before, her incredible green eyes nipped at his heart.
“Hey there,” he whispered and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“Who—?” her voice rasped. She tried to clear her throat.
“Take it easy. You swallowed some seawater. Your throat must be sore.”
She frowned and tried again. “Who are you?”
He smiled, knowing he shouldn’t, but damned if he didn’t want to kiss her even at a time like this.
“Name’s Aidan. I pulled you out of the drink. You’re at the Davis Clinic.”
Another frown. Probably trying to remember.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Her eyes closed and didn’t reopen. He squeezed her hand. Nothing. Aidan scowled. Just as he went to drag the doctor back here, a young man in scrubs, mid-thirtyish, strode into the room and stopped to eye Aidan’s wet clothes. This guy’s nametag read John Davis, M.D.
“What happened?” Davis felt for a pulse.
“One minute she was balanced on the gunwale of her boat, the next she was in the water. I didn’t see her hit her head, but the goose egg on her forehead says different. She came to a few minutes ago, then went out again.”
The doctor’s frown said not good. He gently lifted each eyelid and flashed his light in her eye. The pupils looked dilated, even to Aidan.
Davis narrowed his eyes. “How did she fall off the boat?” he asked as he held a stethoscope to her heart, then her lungs. Definite accusation in that tone.
Aidan stiffened. “A wave rocked her tour boat hard and sent her over the side.”
The doctor’s shoulders relaxed marginally.
“How do you know Casey?” His tone swept back to accusatory as he stared at the hand in Aidan’s grasp.
Protective. Maybe a boyfriend.
“Casey?” Aidan repeated. The beauty had a name. A cute name.
“I don’t know her. I saw her go over the side, and I dove in when she didn’t immediately surface.”
Davis gaped for a few seconds and started to say something when a commotion outside the examining room stopped him.
“Where is she?” a male voice demanded, loud enough for the whole clinic to hear. “Where’s my niece?”
Casey heard the voices. Familiar voices.
Uncle Frank? Why is he yelling?
“Let go of her!”
She fought her way up through the darkness just like when she sank beneath the tour boat and couldn’t move. A hand gripped hers. Warm. Secure. She remembered a face. A name. Aidan.
Fighting her traitorous eyelids, she forced them apart so she could see who was yelling and who held her hand. First one eyelid opened. Then two. Both promptly slammed shut at the blinding light.
The large hand engulfing hers gave a gentle squeeze.
“Come on, baby,” a deep voice said softly.
She tried again. First the left eye, then the right. Just a crack.
Beautiful blond-streaked hair, a touch too long. A large strong hand gripped hers. Broad, way broad shoulders, and then . . . those same sneaky chocolate-brown puppy-dog eyes. They had made her throat go dry on the boat. No mischief in them, now. Worry? Concern?
His big hand squeezed again. “Glad you’re back.” His voice sounded gentle. Secure like his hand. “How’re you doing?”
She could wrap that deep voice around her like a cocoon and melt into those concerned, heart-stopping-brown eyes.
“Okay, I think.”
He leaned over. For a closer look? Or a kiss? Or dear Lord, please let it be a kiss. She hadn’t had one in almost a year, and that one had been utterly forgettable—an ambush by PJ Bartow.
“I said, Let go of my niece!”
“Now, Frank, take it easy,” someone grumbled.
The spell was broken. That voice belonged to her Uncle Frank. She turned her head to find him and winced. Moving her head hurt.
“That, I don’t like to see.”
Another voice. She shifted just enough to see Dr. John Davis.
“Just lie still, Casey.” Davis signaled to someone in the hall, and Davis’s male nurse bustled in with a gurney.
Davis moved back into her line of vision. “I think you may have a concussion, Casey. We need to do some tests.”
She groaned, and he quickly added, “They won’t take long.”
Staying awake was too hard, her eyelids proved too heavy. She squeezed back at the warm hand rubbing soft circles on hers as if to say I’m sorry, and let the darkness take her.
Aidan shared the clinic lobby with the beauty’s Uncle Frank who looked none too pleased with him. The uncle said nothing, just glared. Aidan ignored him.
“How is it you brought my niece in here?” Frank finally asked.
“She fell off her boat at the marina. I went in after her, and I’m not leaving until I know she’s okay,” Aidan said flatly, in case the guy tried to send him on his way.
Aidan pulled out his cell phone—waterproof, thank his secretary—to call Ian. A large hand came into view, and he glanced up.
“Frank Stuart.” The girl’s uncle stood in front of his chair.
Aidan guessed the man matched him in height and weight and looked to be in good shape, though a bit older judging by the gray at his temples. Still the guy could probably pack a wallop, and Aidan knew he had better stay alert.
He shook the uncle’s extended hand. “Aidan.”
“Just Aidan? You don’t trust me with your last name?”
Aidan didn’t do trust. He instilled trust. In others, not the other way around. He’d been chased for his money since grade school. Came from having a limousine deliver you to the front steps of school every morning. Even before he noticed girls—and that went way back to elementary school—the other boys fought to be friends with the rich kid. Not Aidan. The rich kid.
Aidan let no one close. He trusted, really trusted, a small handful of people in the world: his friends Rhett, Garrett, Ian, and his investigator Shaun.
Funny. No women.
“Just Aidan,” he said.
“All right. Thank you for rescuing my niece, Just Aidan.”
He fought the smile twitching at his lips, unsure if he liked this uncle yet or not. “You’re welcome.”
“You’re not from around here.”
Time to either pony up some information . . . or fib. No way would Aidan pretend to be someone else like his friend Garrett did when he visited his new casino in Biloxi. But if Aidan told anyone in Cypress Key who he really was, instinct warned him he would become persona non grata in this town. His newest project would be viewed as interfering competition. Suddenly, Garrett’s position in Biloxi looked a whole lot different. Much harder to judge from the hot seat.
“No. I crew for a yacht broken down offshore. Needed an ignition controller system fixed, so I brought the part inland for repair.”
The doctor appeared in the lobby, and Frank leaped to his feet. “How is she, John?”
“Casey’s not in any danger, but I’m fairly certain about the concussion. She’s out again, and I want to keep her until she’s awake and stays awake before I release her. Why don’t you go on home, get something to eat, and come back in a couple hours? There’s no sense in you sitting here and waiting all that time, and the food in my snack machines is stale. I’ll call you immediately if there’s any change.”
Frank looked ready to argue but sighed instead. “All right. But you call me,” he ordered, pointing a finger at Davis.
At the door, he turned back to Aidan. “Did you? Take it in?”
“No, everything happened so fast, the part is still on my runabout.”
Frank stared down at his bare feet. “Along with your shoes. That must have been a fun run from the marina.”
Frank perseverated on that tidbit. “You planning to wait here?”
Aidan shrugged. “Until she wakes. I need to be sure she’s all right.”
Frank stared at him for a long moment. “Doc said he’d call me if she woke. Want to come with me?”
“Where?” Aidan asked warily.
To beat me up and leave me in some palmetto patch?
“How about we go get your boat part and drop it off at Riley’s.”
Aidan’s brows rose.
“The marina repair service in town is owned by Neal Riley. Only one we got. After that, you can ride with me while I go shut down the golf course. I sort of jumped up and ran out when I heard Casey was hurt. We can grab a couple sandwiches at my snack bar and head back here to get Casey.”
Golf course? Hell, yeah.
“Sounds good to me.”
Frank and Aidan hustled to the runabout to grab his inoperable ignition controller, along with Aidan’s topsiders, and deliver the worthless part to the infamous Riley. The repairman pronounced he could actually have the part ready to go by the next day, which shocked Aidan since he could never get the large—port repair services to fix anything on his yacht in less than three days.
Frank drove his worn pickup truck to the opposite end of town. Toward the abandoned airstrip Aidan noted, having consulted enough satellite photos to recall the layout of the town. Roads went from small subdivisions to a rural setting. Frank pulled out his cell phone, called someone named Mamie—maybe his wife—and gave her a status report on Casey’s condition.
As the truck rumbled past the airstrip, Frank said with a great deal of disdain, “Rumor has it that abandoned airstrip has been purchased by a golf resort developer.”
Aidan didn’t hazard a glance at Frank.
“Though the present owner, Maybelle Crawford, refuses to admit or deny,” he continued.
George Halowell was one of Aidan’s six vice-presidents in the real estate division of his family’s Wall Street investment firm, and Halowell bought the airstrip property under one of Aidan’s dozen different holding companies, Princeton Holdings. Aidan always kept his projects secret until construction started in case design efforts required additional property. Once locals found out a Cross Enterprises golf resort was planned, they jacked up the price on any adjacent properties.
“You believe rumors?”
“Some I do.”
Aidan wondered how Frank had heard a rumor that Maybelle Crawford had sold her property. If she’d told Frank, then Aidan’s jig was up. Aidan had met Crawford at the closing. He didn’t normally attend closings to keep things quiet, but the woman had made her sale contingent on meeting the real owner. “The man at the top,” she’d said.
Maybe it would be safe for Aidan to use his real name around here.
Until someone Googles me.
He scotched that idea quick. Better to be safe than sorry, though he tried to steer clear of photographers. Google images would probably nail him—shots of him and his models and actresses. None of whom held any interest for him at the moment but painted the picture of a playboy. Somehow he knew that particular portrait would not fit in around here.
“The only good news about this rumor,” Frank was saying, “would be that Archer Bartow didn’t get the land.”
“Who’s Archer Bartow?” Aidan asked, though he already knew.
“The mayor of Cypress Key.” Frank spoke as though the words tasted like spoiled fish.
“He was after it?” Aidan asked, surprised. His real estate team investigators had missed that colossal tidbit.
“Archer wants it for another of his cheap housing developments.”
“Bartow does affordable housing?” A second surprise, and he hated surprises.
“Of course not,” Frank said grimly. “The homes are built cheap and sold expensive. The first homes to go during Hurricane Irma a couple years back were all his.”
“I take it you don’t want another golf course around here,” Aidan said, thankful now he hadn’t divulged his identity or reasons for being in Cypress Key.
Frank looked at him as though he’d grown an extra nose. “Are you kidding me? A golf resort will put me out of business.”
“Not necessarily. The resort could bring you more business since you’d be priced lower,” Aidan offered.
“Right.” Frank shot him a suspicious look, and Aidan decided to keep his mouth shut.
He’d had no clue the town was against a developer creating a new golf resort. This would not be a quick in and quick out for him to check on his site. He had damage control to do here or at the very least reconnaissance. They rode in silence for a few more miles until the first holes of the golf course came into view.
Aidan perked up and all but pressed his nose to the window glass. “This is your course? I’m impressed.”
No small compliment either. From what little he could see, the fairways and greens had received the same loving care that his PGA-tour courses received. He made up his mind right then if the rest of the course looked as good as what he could see from here, he would buy Frank’s course for his regulation golf links and leave the new course as his PGA-tour venue. He had always intended to have two eighteen-hole courses just like all his other resorts. He liked the idea of an easier course paired with a more difficult course.
Frank grinned for the first time since he’d met the man. “You like it?” He looked like a father who’d had someone compliment his child.
“Looks awesome. How’d you end up owning a golf course?”
Frank hesitated at first, then said, “My brother Dave died rather unexpectedly, and I came home to take care of Casey. Dave and I were raised here. Golf was all I knew.”
Another hesitation. “No. I played on the PGA tour when I was younger.”
That floored Aidan. The very last thing he had expected Frank to say.
“No kidding. That is so cool.”
Frank shook his head. “That was a long time ago.”
Aidan decided to save his hundred questions for another time.
Minutes later, Frank pulled up at the pro shop. A nice-looking Key-West-style clapboard building in a soft sea-green color with white shutters. A verandah wrapped all the way around, wider at one end with a scattering of small, white wrought-iron tables. Like a lot of small-time pro shops, half the building appeared to be the pro shop and the other half a snack bar.
Frank nodded at the porch end with the tables. “You go on inside. Mamie’s still here. She’ll fix you something to eat. I won’t be long.”
“I can help you close up.” Aidan shrugged when Frank stared. “I know some about golf courses. I play golf whenever I can.”
The older man seemed surprised by his offer.
“Okay. If you’ll hose out those returned golf carts—”He pointed to the string of golf carts haphazardly parked at the snack bar end of the building. “And put them in that cart barn—” He gestured toward a single-level, matching-clapboard building about fifty yards behind the pro shop, half-open under roof, half-enclosed with a sign that read Cart Return. “I’d be obliged.”
Aidan knew exactly what to do. Growing up, he’d practically lived at his father’s country club, as much to get away from his parents’ constant fights as for a love of golf. Maybe one induced the other. After he had graduated college and been forced to work at the family’s investment firm, he took over their fledgling real-estate division, then later begged to build a golf resort.
When his lucrative initial golf resort won a slew of awards, his father had agreed to more golf resorts and eventually left Aidan alone—as long as he remained in the family business. If he left, not only was he cut off from his inheritance, but his father would dissolve the real-estate division in the company and fire everyone in it. A threat meant to keep him in line. Forever.
Aidan knew he could succeed in time, on his own, but his father had couched their agreement in a steel coating of guilt. “How would your betrayal look to the rest of the world? Cross Enterprises employees would be forced to share the consequences of your defection.”
Aidan had heard the guilt speech so often he knew the words by heart. The speech was designed to shackle him to the family business. His father had a unique flair for words, for coercing others to his way of thinking. Aidan knew this because he had inherited the flair, and it had served him well in his ventures.
His father’s threat had kept him locked in place, kept him from following his heart and his own dream.
With practiced ease, Aiden gathered the stray carts, cleaned the refuse from each of them, hosed them out, and parked them in proper alignment in the shed, attaching the hanging electrical cords at each numbered slot to the battery stored on the cart.
Frank showed up just as he finished and viewed his work with raised brows. “Nice job,” was all he said, then led Aidan to the snack bar.
A large woman with no discernible waist, rosy chubby cheeks, and twinkling eyes looked up when they entered. “Who’d you bring home with you, Frank?”
“This here’s Aidan.”
“Aidan . . .?”
“Just Aidan. He’s the one who took Casey to the clinic.”
Mamie eyed him as though she was Casey’s self-appointed guard dog, her narrowed sober eyes raking him up and down. Suddenly, she smiled and her now-twinkling eyes disappeared in her chubby cheeks.
“Thank you, Aidan. Frank went crazy when someone in town called and told him some stranger was carrying Casey and running toward the clinic. I feared he’d kill himself getting there.”
She waved the two men over. “Come on and sit down. I got those BLTs ready that you ordered.”
She pushed the plates with sandwiches and two bags of chips over when the men took their seats at the counter.
“BLTs okay with you?” Frank asked him.
“Sure. I’m starved.” Aidan wondered who the someone in town was, but he kept quiet and bit into his sandwich.
“You want beer or soda?” Mamie asked.
“Beer for me,” Frank said.
They twisted off the caps on the bottles she handed over, and each took a long pull.
Mamie collected her purse from behind the bar. “I’m going over to the clinic.”
“Now, there’s no sense in you doing that,” Frank told her. “The doctor said she’ll be fine, and we’re going back as soon as we finish eating. You go on home. I’ll call you when John discharges her.”
“You promise to call me the minute you talk to the doctor?”
“I promise.” He crossed his heart.
“All right then,” she grumbled and headed to the parking lot.
“She really cares about Casey,” Aidan noted.
Frank frowned at him. “Most everyone in town cares about Casey. Most everyone in town would take it poorly if someone hurt her.”
Was that a warning to keep my distance?
Frank got the message. They swiftly locked up, climbed into the truck, and hustled back to the clinic. Oddly, the back of Aidan’s neck prickled like it always did when danger lurked nearby. He glanced over at Frank, but the man just looked grim again, seemingly as anxious to get back to Casey as Aidan was. He tossed off the weird prickling sensation as leftover adrenaline and nerves. Until he and Frank stepped into the clinic.
A barrel-chested, gray-haired law officer stood in the middle of the waiting room. The embroidered stitching over his pocket read, Sheriff Sam Watson. “You Aidan?” he asked.
He nodded, the neck-prickling expanded to full danger mode.
“What’s your last name?”
“I need to see some identification.”
“Why?” Aidan asked again.
He probably wouldn’t have been difficult if he didn’t have a crack team of lawyers in his back pocket, which was all his back pocket held at the moment since he’d gone and left his ID and wallet on the yacht.
“Because I asked,” Watson snarled.
Aidan didn’t care for the belligerent attitude. “It’s Doe,” he said, just to be stubborn.
The sheriff glowered. “Aidan . . . Doe, you’re under arrest for assault.”
Watson handcuffed him, read him his rights, and then marched him straight out the door to the waiting cruiser.
Aidan didn’t know which felt worse. Being arrested for the first time in his life or the look of anger and betrayal on Frank’s face.
Dr. Davis had finally allowed Uncle Frank back to Casey’s room. He blew in and the wild, fearful look in his eyes shot a swift stab of guilt into Casey for having worried her uncle so much. Frank didn’t worry easy, and her fainting or whatever had happened today had done a number on him. She couldn’t remember anything after she slipped off the gunwale into the dark water under the boat. Until she came to with the hunk holding her hand.
Him, she’d never forget.
She smiled to calm Frank’s fears though even smiling made her head ache.
“I had to let him come back,” Davis told her. “His pacing—more like stomping—was making the few other patients in the waiting room nervous.”
“Can I go home now?” she asked.
Davis frowned first, then sighed. “I suppose so.”
He turned to Frank. “You need to wake her every couple hours through the night and check for post-concussion symptoms—trouble waking, seems confused, slurred speech, or her headache is worse. If she experiences these symptoms, you call me and bring her back in here. Otherwise, bring her back in the morning for me to check her over.”
Casey would have rolled her eyes if it didn’t hurt so much. “I’m fine. I just hit my head,” she groused. “I do it all the time.”
“But you don’t remember hitting your head, and my CT scan shows a slight concussion. So we’ll do things my way.”
Frank’s brows drew down hard at the words slight concussion.
“I’m okay, Uncle Frank. Just take me home, please?”
“I’ve written a prescription for higher-dosage Tylenol for Casey,” Davis said, handing it to Frank. “Fill this on your way home. Give her one or two every four hours for her headache. No more.”
Her uncle glanced around. “Any belongings?”
“No, just the now-dry clothes on my back,” Casey said. “My tip money and ID holder both got wet.”
He winced. “No harm done. They’ll dry out good as new.”
“Remember, she can’t sleep longer than a couple hours and then you wake her.”
“I promise, Doc,” Frank said.
“And I’ll see her tomorrow.”
Frank guided Casey out of the room and down a short hall toward the clinic lobby. She wondered if the hunk was still around. She wouldn’t mind one last look at him to save for later. But why should the guy wait around? He didn’t even know her. What had he said his name was? Aidan?
"I don’t remember what happened after I fell off the gunwale. Do you know?” she asked Frank, as he held open the lobby door at the end of the hall.
An angry scowl wrinkled his features as he followed her. She glanced all around the lobby. No hunk. She couldn’t believe how much the disappointment hurt.
Big Louie stood up the minute they entered the room. Nicknamed for his six foot five height, Cypress Key’s chief shrimp boat captain—and scalloper in season—announced, “I just saw Sheriff Watson take that stranger who saved Casey off in his cruiser.”
“That’s right,” Frank growled.
“No, that’s wrong,” Louie argued. “I seen everything.”
Watson drove Aidan to the concrete-block sheriff’s department on Main Street in the center of town. When Aidan asked whether the marina was within the police department’s jurisdiction and if he might be some other reasonable government department’s responsibility, Watson grudgingly admitted Cypress Key wasn’t large enough for a separate police department, and pint-sized Cypress County was not populated enough for more funding than just for his sheriff’s department. As Cypress Key was the county seat, his office was conveniently located here.
“I’m all there is,” Watson said and smirked at Aidan in the rearview mirror.
This came after Watson had detoured to a rambling Victorian home downtown belonging to a Judge Whitley Robbins who resembled a skinny version of Father Time. Aidan had been informed the town’s only public defender was out of town on vacation and wouldn’t return for two weeks. So, Whitley performed the arraignment on his front stoop and set bail at two thousand dollars. Cypress Key never had enough criminals to hold night court, so Judge Robbins just arraigned them at his home as they occurred.
The sheriff’s taunts made Aidan wish he’d booted Watson off the dock and into the marina instead of the tattletale jerk. Aidan would make sure the Florida Bar checked out Robbins once he managed to get free of the town.
The sheriff’s department looked like a refugee of the Korean-War era with its concrete blocks, flat roof, and square-paned jalousie windows, save for the ones in the cells that had bars on them. Obviously, the crime rate was fairly low in tiny Cypress county for the sheriff’s containment area held only three cells, all in a row, and Aidan was the only present occupant. After fingerprinting him out front, Watson prodded Aidan down to the last cell in line. Had he planned on filling the other cells tonight?
The sheriff unlocked the cell door and swung it wide. “Sure you don’t want to cough up that last name? I’ll get it out of the system, but it’ll go easier on you if you just tell me.”
“You’ll get a last name when I get a lawyer,” Aidan growled. “And I get a phone call to locate him.”
Watson glared and slammed the cell door hard enough to vibrate the wall of bars. He stomped out of the containment area and returned moments later with a fresh glare and a portable phone. No formal booking procedure just yet, only a stop at Robbins’s house. With any luck, Aidan could avoid that process altogether.
He punched Ian’s cell number.
Watson waited outside the cell door, arms crossed and ugly glare evidently a permanent fixture on his mug. Aidan would have to do a little soft shoe to hide his identity during this call, with Watson eavesdropping on every word. He eased to the back of the cell. When Ian answered, Aidan turned the volume down as low as he could and still hear his friend, to reduce Watson’s chance of overhearing the deep-voiced Scot.
“Where the devil have ye been, Aidan? Ye’ve been gone for hours. I was tempted to take one of the WaveRunners ashore and have a look about for ye, but Joe assured me ye’d know where to get your wee motor part repaired. Did ye get lost?”
“Ian, I . . .” Aidan hated this. “I’m in jail.”
He almost put the phone to his chest to cover the sound of Ian’s uproarious laughter, but that would be too obvious. He took his chances, and dammit, if Watson didn’t grin.
“Enough,” he barked. “I have an audience.”
Ian abruptly stopped laughing. “Ye’re serious then?”
“Why would I kid about that?”
“Bloody hell. What did ye do? Refuse to pay the exorbitant repair fee? Ye were probably daft enough to tell the man it was for a yacht, and he charged ye double.”
Aidan closed his eyes and breathed deeply for patience.
“Assault,” he snapped. “I’ve been charged with assault.”
The phone went dead quiet for all of a moment before the explosion hit.
“That’s bollocks! What horse’s arse would charge ye of all people with assault?”
Watson glowered, and Aidan relished the fact the man had heard the last bit of Ian’s diatribe.
“Ye’d be the last man on the face of the earth to pull a stunt like that with all yer mon—”
“Ian!” he yelled, to cover up what his friend had been about to say.
None of it would have helped his predicament. Though stuck in jail, he still didn’t want to divulge his identity if he didn’t have to. Not after meeting Frank and Casey and Watson. He needed to get the lay of the land here first. This was to be his project site after all and being arrested so swiftly for so little had roused his spidey senses and stubbornness.
“Audience, remember? I explained to the sheriff that my last name is Doe as in John Doe.”
“Did ye?” The Scot was all ears now. His voice went very soft. “No identification with ye, I take it?”
“No. I left it on the boat.”
“I told Sheriff Watson he’d get my last name when I got a lawyer, and this is my one call.”
“And it’s gone on long enough,” Watson sniped from outside the cell.
“I heard him, Aidan,” Ian said softly. “I’ll get yer Shaunessy to check on this Watson arse, and I’ll call Rhett—”
“Sheriff?” a deputy called as he burst through the door to the containment area. “Sorry to interrupt, but someone just bailed out your Aidan Doe.”
“Hang on, Ian. Hold off on calling anyone yet. I’ve just been sprung from this joint.”
“Ye call me back when ye’re out,” the Scot ordered.
He handed the phone to Watson through the bars and fought back his own smirk at the sheriff’s glower.
“Your court hearing will be scheduled once the public defender returns unless you manage to hire a lawyer on your own. If the public defender’s behind, might be a month. Don’t you go anywhere.”
“But I don’t live here.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you hit PJ Bartow.”
“I didn’t hit him.”
“That’s right. You kicked the hell out of him.”
There was no reasoning with the sheriff and his questionable legal protocols, and Aidan wanted to know who had bailed him out and spoiled Watson’s plans.