The bald eagle was bloody laughing at him.
The massive bird perched in a roost on the rock jetty protecting the hodgepodge of boats at Hideaway Wharf. Its tittering rang clear as day despite being on the far side of the web of slips and branched docks.
Hee, ha hee, ha hee ha ha.
Kellan Murphy stood on the wooden boardwalk, certain the bird’s cries stood for good luck making a holy show of yourself in eagle-speak.
The high-pitched tone wasn’t nearly fierce enough to suit a raptor with a six-foot wingspan. More closely resembled the over-the-phone giggles from the nights when his plastered sister would call him from uni to poke fun at him for always having to work weekends.
If only he could take lessons from the regal creature on how to dive into the choppy, jade-black depths of the Salish Sea, it might save him some humiliation.
Kellan took shallow breaths as he approached the row of quaint dockside businesses hugging the rugged shoreline of Oyster Island’s commercial center, trying to clear the scent of salt and seaweed and creosote posts from his nose. When he could keep his distance, he loved everything the ocean promised—plump, mineral-forward oysters and mussels, perfect for creating magic on a plate. A little mignonette or a broth made from veg and langoustine shells, and he could make people moan with one bite.
Today, the only thing moaning was his pride.
He’d arrived on the ferry from the Washington mainland last night. This morning had been for getting his bearings before he tackled his purpose for coming to the tiny island.
Naturally, “bearings” involved patronizing nearly every business occupying the six pastel-painted houses that hugged the waterfront boardwalk. The connected buildings oozed seaside charm and reminded him a fair bit of Cobh, Ireland’s famed row of colorful houses. Best he could tell, the ground level was for retail and the upper floors were residential, including the rental flat his sister’s executor had arranged for him months ago. He’d given his credit card a workout already. After starting with caffeine from the bakery nestled under the place he’d call home all March, he’d been unable to resist popping into a gift shop for a bar of locally made rosemary soap that smelled like pure class. And then his crowning indulgence, a Dungeness crab Benedict at the snug bistro bookending the strip.
He’d avoided the dive shop on the opposite end up to this point but couldn’t any longer. Time to pay the piper.
Or, quite literally, the proprietor of Otter Marine Tours.
He took a deep breath. He’d been diving in a pool. Next up—open water certification.
Zipping his brand-new waterproof jacket to the collar to fend off the stiff spring wind, he circled the end of the building. It was impossible to avoid the splashy marine-based mural that stretched two stories high. The otters dancing in the kelp forest were having a jolly time.
Somehow, he needed to harness that joy of being underwater.
He could do this. Hell, two years ago he’d climbed Kilimanjaro and had hiked the Tour de Mont Blanc with his sister. Late last year, he’d climbed Aconcagua without her.
But heights and depth were different things.
He’d promised Aoife he’d conquer both on her behalf. Three continents to go. Three different dive sites.
If she could face cancer, he could face an admittedly irrational fear.
He climbed the small flight of stairs to the porch-fronted dive shop. It took up the entirety of the main floor of the left-most house, tucked in next to the bustling bakery and below a space with a “for rent” sign in the window. A rack of souvenir T-shirts and a collection of stand-up paddleboards bracketed the front door.
If only his sister’s list involved being on the surface of the ocean. That, Kellan could deal with.
A sign—hand-painted script on a cedar shingle—hung on the door.
(1) Out on the water
(2) Down on the dock
(Likely, if Franci is working—she’s really sorry.)
“Sam” was written in block letters underneath, next to a ten-digit number. No doubt the same Sam with whom Kellan had exchanged a few emails.
He tried the knob. Not locked.
He entered the small shop, a waft of neoprene overwhelming him before he even crossed the welcome mat. Huh. He’d expected an ocean tang. The space, which looked like it had been a living room or parlor once upon a time, was empty of people and full of diving paraphernalia. He’d have to rent one of the suits hanging from a rack by the far wall, plus a tank and a regulator. He’d only brought his mask along. It had served him well in the Cayman Islands, the snorkeling he’d done in five feet of water behind a breakwater counting just enough to cross SEE PARROTFISH OFF CHEESEBURGER REEF off his sister’s list.
Five feet of crystal-clear water, mind you. Nothing like the opaque abyss under the hull of the Oyster Island ferry, the waves slapping in time with his racing pulse.
After he completed the tour du-monde Aoife couldn’t, he’d donate his mask and get back to work, having received the inheritance he doubted he’d ever feel he deserved.
Though he’d never get to Okinawa or the Whitsundays if whoever was in charge of Otter Marine Tours didn’t materialize. Tardy Franci, perhaps, though why the place wouldn’t be locked up in the absence of an employee, he didn’t know. Seemed unwise, given the cost of the equipment hanging from racks and stacked on shelves.
“Hello?” he called out, ringing the bell on the small counter.
“Sorry!” A baritone voice rumbled from an open door on the other side of a dual-height, glass-topped sales counter. The taller half displayed a locked collection of dive knives. “Just a second.”
“No hurry,” Kellan said, never meaning something more in his thirty-four years of existence.
The voice was masculine in that purr at me in the morning way Kellan had gone many months without hearing. Maybe the “Sam” of the block print and phone number and “someone sent you a letter care of my address” emails.
Steeling himself against the framed underwater images of ocean life on the wall behind the counter, he pretended the collection of knives was more fascinating than a display case stuffed with artisanal cheese.
The blades were blunt and rough-edged, nothing like the honed steel he used in the kitchen. These tools weren’t made for slicing off paper-thin discs of beef or chopping liters of mirepoix. More like for disentangling a person from a tangle of kelp or netting, fifty feet below the ocean surface.
Stop it. Spinning around, he searched for a distraction. A large poster of Oyster Island caught his eye, and he strode over to study it. He’d be living here for a month, after all. Made sense to get familiar with the place. Not that there was much to know—a road ringed the perimeter of the oblong island, with a few narrow tracks meandering through the forest and farm areas in the center. At least it held the promise of local ingredients to play with in the kitchen—
“Hi. Thanks for waiting.” The voice curled around him from behind, closer this time.
Kellan turned. His jaw dropped a little before he managed to clamp it shut.
He’d not expected Adonis. Or Neptune. Were those both Greek? Oddly for a book nut, he had zero interest in ancient mythology and could never keep track. Gran would look at those arresting sea-green eyes and russet-tinged hair and immediately start jabbering about selkies, but Kellan didn’t put much stock in the folk tales of his childhood, either.
The man standing behind the counter was avert-your-gaze attractive. Wide shoulders, brawny waist, thick thighs… By the look of his biceps, there was no need to worry about getting caught in kelp forests or fishing nets. He could rip them in two with his bare hands.
Oof. Focus, Murphy.
Not on the Otter Marine Tours logo on that T-shirt, gracing pecs that spoke of hauling heavy diving gear.
Mr. T-shirt’s eyes narrowed. “You okay?”
“Sure and I—” Sweet Jesus, he sounded like a frog. He cleared his throat. “I’m assuming you’re Sam, not Franci of front-door-apology fame?” A person could never be too careful.
“Yeah, I’m Sam. If you’re looking for Franci, she is, as per usual, late.” He grinned. Free, easy.
Even after Argentina and Grand Cayman, Kellan didn’t know how to be those things.
“Funny business model, keeping on tardy staff.” He cringed. His inner firing squad of late waitstaff couldn’t help itself sometimes. “Bollocks, I—”
“She’s the boss’s sister. My sister.” The sexy smile faltered. “Gets her a pass most of the time.”
Kellan’s heart cramped. Sister. Late and unpredictable. He knew that story, lived it once. Should have cut Aoife a break more often than he had. “Very sorry. Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
“Don’t worry about it. We run on island time here,” the other man said, smile recovering. “What can I do you for?”
“I’m here to confirm my dive training, and to rent equipment.” Hopefully that didn’t betray any of the panic clawing in his belly.
“Oh! I should have placed your accent, but with your registration details, I was expecting English, not Irish. Kellan, right? How was your trip from London?”
“I came from the Caribbean, actually.”
Sam whistled. “Nice.”
“It was.” He’d sound like a prick if he mentioned it being just another checkmark off Aoife’s list, a tropical interlude at the halfway point between the three climbs and three dives.
“Before we deal with your dives, I have something for you,” Sam said. “The letter I emailed you about.”
“Ah, that. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Nah. First time I got mail for a client, but it wasn’t a problem.”
Nothing. If only it was nothing, not his heart scrawled on more of that hospital letterhead and tucked into envelopes for him to discover as he traveled the world.
Sam dug the letter out from a drawer behind the counter and handed it over.
Kellan was going to have to wait to read this one. He wasn’t in the mood to break down in the middle of a dive shop, in the company of someone he’d just met. He jammed it in his pocket. “Thanks a million.”
“Right on.” Sam gestured at a rack of dry suits. “You can decide what style you want to rent. I have you in the group class starting on Wednesday.”
Kellan winced. “About that—if you’ve any private lessons, I’d prefer them.”
“Private dive prices are there.” The flicker of intrigue that crossed the man’s face must have been a figment of Kellan’s imagination, because the voice was all lazy business. Sam pointed a work-worn finger at a menu hung on the wall next to the pictures of underwater doom. “For the divemaster and the boat attendant.”
“Who’s the divemaster?”
“A guy named Archer Frost, my sister or me.”
“Who has the most experience?”
“Hours in the water?” The hottie ran a hand through his thick hair. “Arch, by a few. Logged a ton in Australia last summer.”
“I’m going there next month,” Kellan blurted.
“What, are you on some kind of world tour?”
“Of a sort.”
Something that looked like envy flickered in green-as-the-sea eyes. The pretty parts of the ocean, not the deadly depths swelling all around Oyster Island.
When Sam’s full lips parted, Kellan struggled not to stare. Would they taste like the individually packaged, white Lifesavers nestled in the giant mussel shell next to the mounted point-of-sale iPad?
Aside from visiting a peak or depth on every continent, Aoife had made him promise to be open to a fling somewhere along his travels. If she’d seen the man behind the counter, she’d have flagged him as a prime candidate.
Sorry to disappoint, Aoife.
The fling would have to be an Aussie. Completing the requisite certification dives in the unpredictable Salish Sea was going to take all Kellan’s energy. Nothing left for faffing about in bed, even with a man as edible as the one standing in front of him, wearing a mildly confused expression.
“Do you want private testing? Or group testing and private dives? How many?”
“Too many,” he said under his breath.
One eyebrow rose.
Kellan cleared his throat. “Private everything.” It was worth the expense. Without the certification, he wouldn’t be able to complete the rest of his sister’s requests. And if he wanted to get on with honoring her and Gran by earning his own Michelin star, he needed the inheritance attached to this trip. “The certification dives, and then two a week until the end of March.”
“And do you have a preference for a divemaster?”
He should really book with this Archer Frost fellow. Hours of being around Sam was asking for trouble—
“I want you.” Oops. “I mean, to book with you.”
“Let me check the schedule, see if I can switch up your registration. We’re jammed this time of year.” Brow furrowed, the diver tapped at the iPad screen. “I could fit you in on Tuesday and next Friday to take care of your certification. After that, Mondays and Thursdays should work for the rest of the month.”
Three days of waiting for his first dive… Could be worse. There might have been room tomorrow, and then Kellan wouldn’t have been able to enjoy any sort of delay.
He was quite sure the shop hours had said they were closed on Tuesdays, but maybe that was just for people popping in to browse. “If Tuesday works for you…”
“You said you ‘need’ to book.”
Kellan nodded. The handwritten list folded in his wallet never failed to weigh him down, like he was carrying a rock instead of a hastily jotted note on a square of hospital stationery.
He pulled out his credit card. The list flew out and landed on the counter. He picked it up before Sam could get a good look at it. The starred caveats on lines eight and nine were bound to garner a cocked eyebrow. “I can prepay if you like. Just add on whatever gear I’ve a need of beyond a mask and snorkel.”
“All in, for eight dives?” Sam named an exorbitant price.
Ouch. That would pay for a new deep fryer in the restaurant Kellan and his business partner were planning to open. But without spending this money, there would be no deep fryer at all.
He handed over his credit card, one step closer to another crossed-off line.
The bell tinkled as the door swung shut behind the intriguing out-of-towner. Sam Walker rolled the man’s name around in his head.
Sam’s newest client had a London address, a gorgeous Irish accent and a devastating smile. The kind of man that could make a person want to follow along to all of the places written on the dog-eared list that had fallen from his wallet.
He’d caught Alps—crossed off—and Japan before Kellan had squirreled it away.
Sam got started on his monthly equipment inspections but kept having to go back over all the dry suit seams every time his thoughts drifted to his newest client’s lilting speech.
Soon after, Archer strolled in after his morning dive tour. His short dark hair was still damp from the water. As broad as Sam but even fitter from a hell of a workout regimen, Archer had the perpetual tan of a guy who was usually either out on a boat or putting his running blade to the test. He homed in on Sam’s expression. He started stripping out of the base layer he wore under his dry suit, glaring. Six feet, two inches of solid suspicion. “What?”
“I need you to work on Tuesday.”
Need. The word had fallen from Kellan Murphy’s mouth with reluctant conviction, tightening against Sam’s skin like a too-small wet suit. It had flashed in his gray eyes, too, in the flicker of heat as he’d checked Sam out. Or it’d looked like he’d checked Sam out, anyway.
Interesting. Enough for Sam to toss away his sole weekly day off. It would mean rearranging his entire schedule, coercing Franci to do Dad’s grocery shopping, praying that their youngest sister’s math teacher didn’t call to demand yet another after-school meeting.
Arch scowled, sitting so that he could swap the prosthetic leg he used for diving for the one he wore for day-to-day use. “What if I’m busy Tuesday?”
Ha, right. The Coast Guard veteran did nothing but dive in his spare time. Usually with Sam. Archer was a couple of years younger, but the two of them had grown up down the block from each other. They’d been close since they were young enough to spend their days building driftwood forts on the beach.
“I’ll pay you double time,” Sam said.
“I know you will,” came the grumbling response. “You’ll buy me dinner, too.”
“You got it.” Though Archer wasn’t the person Sam wanted to share a meal with.
He didn’t normally socialize with customers after hours but was tempted to make an exception for the Irishman. He was dying to know what was in the letter he’d kept below the till, and to read the rest of the places on the list in Kellan’s wallet. It spoke to his inner adventurer, the one who’d painstakingly framed and hung maps on the wall in his office, marking all the places he planned to dive in the world.
Had planned to dive.
Lately, he preferred exploring the depths close to home, instead. After his divorce, and then the car accident that threw his family’s life into shambles, it felt more secure to stay put.
For his family, for his business, for his admittedly bruised heart.
But maybe getting to show off Oyster Island’s underwater paradise to a handsome tourist would add a swath of color to what he’d assumed would be a monotone month.
Add Kellan and Sam’s Hideaway Wharf adventure to your TBR list today!