A shadowy form lurked around Otter Marine Tours’ two-tiered front counter, covertly examining the point-of-sale system.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” Franci Walker called out from the doorway to the staff change area, having just taken her hundred-and-second bathroom trip of her shift. “The front door was locked!”
Except this intruder owned the place, so he had a key.
Still, he was supposed to be packing for a trip around the UK, not interfering with Franci’s temporary management role.
Her brother turned, expression sheepish as he quickly exited the shop’s scheduling program. Half brother, technically, though they rarely made the distinction. She was closer to Sam than she was to anyone else in the world. And with a fresh haircut and beard trim, he was as spruced up as he ever got.
“You look more spit polished than Archer’s boots were on Veterans Day,” she teased. The island residents had held their annual ceremony for the holiday a few days ago, so the mental picture of her coworker, Archer Frost, in his dress uniform was fresh in her mind.
The recency was obviously the only reason she’d be thinking about Archer.
Nerves shadowed Sam’s green eyes. “Why’d you have to bring up clothes? Nothing I own is classy enough to wear to the restaurant party.”
Sam’s fiancé, a chef, was funding his friend’s high-end bistro in London, so Kellan and Sam were both invited to the grand opening. And with flying that far, they planned to visit Scotland and Kellan’s birthplace in Ireland, too.
“Go shopping on Oxford Street,” she said gently. She was ready to pry him away from the business with a shoehorn. She couldn’t wait to have two weeks in charge, to prove him correct in asking her to cover for him while he was away. She’d been building to it, having taken on more and more of the office-management tasks the further along she’d gotten in her pregnancy. It was time to show him everything she’d learned.
It was also time to ease his worries. “Kellan’s people will all like you, Sam.”
“As if they don’t resent me for stealing him from them.”
She shook her head. Her soon-to-be brother-in-law had come to Oyster Island on a mission to complete his late sister’s outdoor-adventure bucket list. He’d fallen in love with both Sam and the small community, enough to add a foraging-and-cooking business onto Otter Marine Tours. After relocating to Washington State in the spring, he was nothing but ecstatic about his new life. How could any of his London friends resent Sam for contributing to Kellan’s happiness?
“‘Stealing’ isn’t the right word,” she insisted. “Kellan chose to stay on Oyster Island. And you two are perfect for each other.”
“I know.” Hissing out a long stream of air, he raked a hand through his auburn-tinged brown hair. The lights over the counter glinted off his silver engagement ring. “You’re sure you’re up for being in charge? No one would blame you if you wanted to rest while you can.”
She rolled her eyes. Sam and Kellan being out of town would be a vacation for her, too. Then again, Sam’s worrying was only the tip of the iceberg. Everyone had an opinion about her becoming a single mom.
“It’s just pregnancy,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”
Getting to bring smiles to her family members’ faces would be the best. Ever since the car accident she and her dad had been in two years ago, there had been too much frowning. Her family too often treated her like she was going to fall apart because she’d been behind the wheel.
She thought they’d been on an upswing. Her dad’s physical therapy was helping him have more pain-free days than before. Between that progress and Sam falling in love with Kellan, her older brother was no longer Captain Worrypants—or at least he was chill on days he wasn’t leaving the island for a two-week trip to his fiancé’s past life. But the closer Franci got to her delivery date, the more her family hovered.
The next biggest worrier was Franci’s best friend, Violet, though she got a pass because she was also Franci’s midwife. Everyone else needed to cool their jets.
“But your due date,” Sam said, tapping a rapid beat on the counter with a pen. “And missing Thanksgiving…”
“All things we talked over. It will be fine.”
“Ask for help if you need it,” he said. “Archer will be able to—”
“I don’t need an assistant, Sam.” Nor did her brother’s lead divemaster give off “assistant” vibes—he’d served in the Coast Guard, first as a rescue swimmer and then as a diver. He was all leading, all the time.
The fact Sam had chosen her to take over for him instead of Archer filled her with pride.
After taking a deep breath, she said, “Sam, I’ve got this. Please, go. If you miss your ferry and your red-eye, Kellan’s business partner definitely won’t like you.”
“I’m kidding. Oh, man, you are in a bad way, aren’t you?” She wrapped her arms around him as best she could given her belly. A couple more days, and she’d be at thirty-seven weeks.
He squeezed her gently. His deep exhalation ruffled the hair that had long escaped her messy bun. “I’m just nervous.”
“I told you—Kellan’s London crew will like you.”
“It’s not only Kell’s friends. It’s deserting you when you’re this pregnant, and leaving the business during storm season.” His words were strangled. “I’m so sorry this is when Rory scheduled the restaurant launch.”
“Babies are always late in our family. I’ll still be ridiculously pregnant when you get home. And I know the storm-season protocols. I’ll even get the holiday decorations up, so you don’t need to do it when you get back.”
One more thing to add to her list. Where had she put the damn thing, again?
“And what if Kellan and I get there and he wants to stay…?”
“Not happening. Kellan Murphy is head over heels in love with you.” She cupped her brother’s bearded cheeks. “He’ll probably be more eager to get back to Oyster Island than you will be. Forest + Brine is fully booked for winter. As if he’ll want to miss cooking for all those eager stomachs.” She hugged him, then went behind him and pushed him toward the rear door. “Now get…out…of…here. Don’t forget, I want a stuffed corgi and a bag of real Scotch mints. The kind with packed powder inside, like we used to get from the Vancouver ferry when we were kids. Not the chewy stick-to-your-teeth ones.”
Sam was thirty-eight to her own twenty-five, but he’d lived on Oyster Island almost his whole life, so he’d often traveled with her and their dad and their youngest sister, Charlotte, even into adulthood.
He took a deep breath, gave her another half squeeze and palmed her bump for a second. “Go easy on your mom, okay, kid?”
A sharp elbow bounced under Sam’s hand.
Franci smiled. She didn’t have a partner to share the journey, so her family had belly-touching privileges. “The baby’s saying goodbye.”
He shook his head in amazement. “I’m going to miss that while I’m gone.”
“It’ll still be here when you get home.” She kissed his cheek. “Travel safe.”
“I’ll talk to Archer, make sure he’s good with you leaning on him if you need to.”
Franci’s face heated. “Leave it, Sam.”
Putting need and Archer in the same thought was dangerous business.
Lean, too. Archer Frost had a big, brawny body made to be used as a support beam. And ever since Franci’s pregnancy hormones hit, she’d been losing her ability to ignore her coworker’s fine attributes.
Exactly why she wouldn’t be leaning on Archer in Sam’s absence.
“I know what to do if I need help. Trust me.” She made a shooing motion with her hand.
Sam sucked in what appeared to be the deepest breath ever taken by a human. The tension melted from his face, and his smile turned genuine. “You’re right. You do.” His smile widened farther. “And I get to go eat some excellent food in London before playing planes, trains and automobiles through Scotland and Ireland.”
“It’ll be a whirlwind, but you’ll love every second of it. It’s only logical to make a holiday of it after the grand opening.” Sam adored traveling—he’d even flown to Australia to declare his love for Kellan back in March. The sweet gesture still got talked about over coffee at Hideaway Bakery.
And in Franci’s loneliest moments, she let her heart ache over never having found that same life-changing love with anyone.
Romantic love, of course. Maternal love? That was already overflowing, and she was still at least three weeks from meeting her baby, likely more. Rubbing her stomach with one hand, she gave her brother one last wave.
The door finally shut behind him. The shop never felt empty—scuba and stand-up paddle equipment and racks of outdoor clothing crowded the space—but she lived for the few times a day when there were no other people around and she could enjoy the calm. A moment to take some grounding breaths and reassure herself she wasn’t being overconfident in believing she had the shop—and life—well in hand.
She made her way through the store, tidying the stacks of equipment and clothes customers had mussed up over the course of the day. The ventilation system hummed overhead, the only sound. The old swimming pool clock on the wall reminded her that in ten minutes, the afternoon scuba tour would dock. Soon after, her favorite divemaster would stroll in and her ability to think would flood out the open door to the boardwalk, leaving behind a mental vacuum instead of management brilliance.
She was already at a deficit with pregnancy brain.
Thankfully, no one else knew about her little hormone-induced situation of not being able to keep her eyes off Archer Frost.
Stop it. There is no situation.
She had way too much to organize between now and her due date to add a head-turning scuba diver to the list.
Painting and nesting and work—oh, my.
The stack of paint chips she’d snagged at the local hardware store sat next to her water bottle on the front counter, waiting for her to choose the perfect color once her shift was over. How was she supposed to decide, though? They were all beautiful.
So she’d put it off a little longer. She for sure had time. Her mom had gone far overdue with all of her pregnancies, and Franci expected her own would be the same. She wasn’t worried, and the people who loved her shouldn’t be, either.
She had things under control. A successful full-time job, albeit a little altered from usual since she couldn’t lead dive tours at the moment. A new cozy rental out on a gorgeous piece of farm property on the other side of Oyster Island. A flourishing pregnancy.
She was going to be a mother.
She was healthy.
And she could handle the flipping dive schedule and sales terminal while her brother went to the UK to support his man.
Without “leaning on Archer.”
If she tried that, even once, she’d never want to stop.
Archer Frost guided Otter Marine’s motorized wagon over the lip at the top of the boat ramp, wanting to finish cleanup before the sun set and he lost light. Then again, if he dragged the task out, he could delay replying to the series of texts he’d received while out on the water.
His godson, Daniel, was brimming with excitement over registering for his scuba certification course.
Got any advice, Arch?
Most of it having nothing to do with diving.
The wheels of the cart thumped over the wooden tread of the harbor boardwalk, echoed by Archer’s uneven steps. Too uneven. He’d rushed while getting out of the boat, rotating his prosthetic knee to climb over the gunwale instead of opening and lowering the accessible gate. He hadn’t been precise enough to get his foot facing forward again in the rush of eight divers off-loading their tanks and gathering their gear. Hopefully he could fix it with a bit of fiddling. If he’d broken his dive leg and hadn’t noticed, it would be a monumental pain in the ass. He’d just been to see his prosthetist on the mainland to tweak his everyday leg, the computerized model he used when he wasn’t diving or running. He didn’t want to have to make another ferry trip, especially not with Sam flying off today. Archer would loathe leaving Franci short-staffed. She had enough on her plate.
His phone buzzed in the pocket of his shorts. Likely Daniel with another diving question.
He’d answer them tonight, when he could get his fingers to complete a full sentence without his eyes going blurry. But the thought of his godson going underwater…
Archer should not be the one doling out advice.
Daniel’s dad should be around to do that.
And because of Archer, he wasn’t.
His chest tightened. Gritting his teeth, he steered the cart toward the tank cage. The metal structure bookended one side of the row of converted houses centering Oyster Island’s front promenade. The pastel exteriors were a bright splash of color anchoring the wild beauty of the cove. Archer had lived on Coast Guard bases from the Arctic to Hawaii to the Gulf Coast, and nothing felt like home as much as this charming little collection of businesses and people, tucked safely away from the elements. Getting to show guests and tourists all the wonders Oyster Island had to offer, on the surface and underwater, was a privilege he didn’t take lightly.
He’d sent today’s lucky clients ahead with Nic, Otter’s young part-timer, to organize and return any rented equipment. No doubt they were all inside, being directed to drop their fins and buoyancy compensators in the correct bins. Franci would be there, coaxing out stories of the day’s adventures with her sunny smile, and lamenting not getting to join in on the undersea exploration.
He missed being in the water with her, too. His best friend’s younger sister was a blast to have on tours, always the positive energy, always enchanted by the small things.
His Veterans Affairs counselor would probably tell him he needed more of that energy in his life.
Archer disagreed. He’d made his peace with a whole lot of garbage in order to make the physical progress necessary to do the job he loved, but being Suzy Sunshine wasn’t ever going to be his vibe.
Didn’t mean he couldn’t secretly enjoy Franci’s particular brand of joy, though. On the periphery of his life, at least.
His cell vibrated again. Damn it.
He yanked it out, making the case creak in his grip. If Daniel was this excited, Archer couldn’t ignore—
The notification was from Sam.
Relief washed through him as he tapped on the text thread.
Sam: We’re off—do me a favor
Archer: Depends on the favor
Sam: Keep an eye on Fran for me
Sam: Without her noticing I asked
Archer suppressed a snort. The closer Francine got to her due date, the more Sam’s watchdog habits were kicking back in. Hopefully the vacation would calm him the hell down. And besides, Archer didn’t need to watch out for Franci on Sam’s behalf. He already did it for his own sake. But secrecy was key there.
Archer: As if she’d notice something unless I wanted her to
“A” school, where he’d done his aviation survival technician training, had been a long time ago. Even so, a guy didn’t forget how to hide his discomfort while enduring some of the toughest physical tests possible.
Came in handy when said guy couldn’t stop thinking about his best friend’s much-younger sister.
Groaning at his foolishness, he sat on one of the boardwalk benches and took a minute to get the alignment right on his prosthesis. Then he attacked the empty steel tanks like they were a gnarly underwater hazard to be cleared and finished the job faster than usual. Franci aside, he had one thing to do while Sam was away: make sure all the diving tasks were taken care of with no fuss.
With the canisters inspected, filled and stored, he locked the cage behind him and headed for the ramp at the back entrance of the store. He checked his dive watch. Close to five. Franci would have locked up and headed home by now. He hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.
Damn. Maybe he wasn’t as good at this covert-checking thing as he’d thought.
He reached for his keys, but the door was unlocked. Wait, she was still here? A protective streak ran up his back. With all the guests gone, she should have thrown the dead bolt on the back entrance. He entered the rear storeroom.
“Hey, Hawkeye.” The lilting voice came from somewhere on the shop floor. A silly nickname. He swore she kept a mental list of famous archers from books and movies. Waiting to see which one she’d pull out next was entertaining as hell.
He stalked into the space, then nearly tripped over thin air. He had to swallow to keep from croaking. “Yoga hour, I take it?”
She was using one of the inflatable SUP boards in place of a mat, minus the detachable fin. Her downward dog was a thing of beauty.
She made everything she did beautiful. Her red curls were piled on top of her head, and she wore bright pink leggings and a loose T-shirt. She’d always been curvy, with a figure he’d only ever thought of as lush, but pregnancy enhanced all that. Her feet were bare, her toenails a vibrant indigo.
A million fascinating details.
He wanted to know them all.
They aren’t for me to learn.
Some days, being thirty-seven felt like he had a lifetime ahead of him, and others he felt as old as the rotting pilings from the original ferry dock he could see from his place on the north side of the island.
She shifted into a lunge and pointed a flat hand in his direction, a fierce gestating warrior. “Want to join me? Once the last client left, I couldn’t resist loosening up.”
“Bridge too far for me this evening.” He forced himself to admit the truth. His back ached and his hip pinched. Time to get home, switch to his chair and take a long soak in his bathtub.
“Cool cool.” Curiosity danced in her gaze, those wide eyes flecked with more shades of brown than he knew the names for. “And here I was going to ask you to come help me paint.”
He straightened. “The hardware store carries the pregnancy-safe kind?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t narrowed down a color yet.”
He chuckled. Of course she hadn’t.
“I was kidding about asking you to help,” she said, then nibbled her lip, making the small, curved scar at the corner of her mouth stand out. “Even if I had the paint, I wouldn’t subject an innocent victim to the chore.”
“I can make time for it,” he said. Having a project would be better than thinking about Daniel’s dive training. It also fit under the umbrella of him keeping an eye on Franci for Sam’s sake. “Not tonight, but soon. Tuesday? I don’t have anything planned for my day off.”
The shop was closed once a week, so she wouldn’t be working, either.
Her cheeks went bright red. “I wasn’t serious.”
“I am. Think about it,” he said.
Making a noncommittal noise, she shifted into warrior pose with her other leg and arm forward.
Goddamn. Her rock-solid balance, round hips, strong thighs… A man could explore those curves for days and barely scratch the surface.
He swung his gaze from her. “I’m going to rinse off the salt before I head home.”
“Be quick—I think Nic used most of the hot water.”
Swearing, he went into the staff change area and shut the door with too much force. The shower turned icy halfway through but didn’t do anything to cool him off.
He toweled off, put on his walking leg and got into his after-work sweats and hoodie. He slung his duffel bag with his other prosthesis and his ocean-damp clothes over his shoulder. With any luck, Franci would have headed home. He’d have to text her, insist on coming over on Tuesday to pitch in with her painting.
First, I need to text Danny.
He pulled out his cell to finally reply to his godson’s messages. A simple “That’s exciting, kid” would be fine.
But when he put his thumbs to the screen, he couldn’t make them move. Frowning at the device, he left the staff room.
He jumped, dropping his phone.
“Shoot, sorry.” Franci winced from her seat at the lower tier of the counter. She’d started using an exercise-ball chair a few months back. She bounced in place, holding a stack of paint chips like a rainbow fan. “My fault. I’d offer to pick it up for you, but I think I’d get stuck.”
“I’ve got it,” he murmured, grabbing the corner of the desk for balance and swiping the device off the floor.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
Finally managing a Wow, awesome to Daniel, he pressed Send and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That should be my question for you.”
He motioned to her ever-rounding stomach.
“Nah. Same old, same old in the baby-growing department. And I’m not the one scowling at my phone like I got summoned for jury duty.”
“I’m not scowling,” he grumbled.
Shaking his head—she hadn’t pulled out that particular “archer” name in a while—he motioned to Franci’s collection of paint chips. “What are your favorites?”
Her cheeks reddened. “All of them.”
“Pick one,” he said. “I’ll grab you the cans you need and bring them to work tomorrow morning.”
“To give you a break,” he said, trying to keep his tone neutral.
“I can lift paint cans. They’re not too heavy. And before you ask, I have a painting mask to wear with the right filter.”
“I wasn’t going to ask.” Though he had wondered about that while he was in the shower. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I need to go to the hardware store anyway. I need to, uh, replace the seal around my kitchen sink.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got this.”
“I didn’t say otherwise.”
“It’s always implied, Archer.”
“Maybe with other people. Not me,” he said. “I know you’re capable—”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Interrupting me when I’m about to give you a compliment?”
“When it’s likely accompanied by a but? Yes.”
“Again, not from me. You’re capable. And you’re close to your due date, and going it alone—”
“Aha!” She threw up her hands. “That ‘and’ was totally a ‘but.’”
“No, it’s stating truths. You are very pregnant and you are going it alone and you can do things by yourself, but sometimes, a coworker offers to run an errand for you and slap some paint on a wall, and it’s not a damn crime.”
She blinked. “‘Coworker,’ huh?”
The quiet disappointment killed him.
“I know. You’re Sam’s friend first,” she said, sighing. “And you probably still see me in pigtails. But I thought we’d started to progress to friends, separate from my brother.”
Christ. He did not see her in pigtails. He should, given he’d noticed a few gray hairs setting up shop over his temples while she’d be hitting the clubs if she didn’t live on a remote island hours away from Seattle.
But he didn’t.
Or at least, his instincts didn’t want to.
He refused to entertain them.
“Coworkers and friends,” he said gruffly.
She grinned. “Good. And as your friend, I’d feel even worse asking for your help. You’ve already adjusted your schedule so much for me.”
“And? Your point?” As soon as she’d found out she was pregnant, she’d had to stop diving and had switched to Zodiac, kayak and SUP tours, leaving Archer with more diving assignments. Life was more comfortable underwater than above, so he didn’t mind.
“I feel like an inconvenience,” she grumbled.
“Never. I’d be happy to help, Franci.” Watch over her without her noticing. “But I won’t force the issue.”
“Hmm.” She rubbed her belly near her ribs.
He shot her a look of concern.
She waved it off. “Dang baby elbow. It’s pointy. So, you’re going to the hardware store anyway?”
“Yes,” he said, lying through his teeth.
She plucked two of the color cards from the stack and laid the bright aqua next to the pale yellow. “What do you think—Sea Glass Blue or Lemon Sherbet?”
He studied the selections, then pointed at the paler color.
“The other is too bright?” she asked.
“No, the yellow is like early-morning sunshine. It suits you.”
“Suits a baby’s room, you mean.”
The blood drained from his face. He had no business commenting on what suited her or not. No right to connect her bright smile to a freaking paint chip. “Yeah. That.”
“Okay. Lemon Sherbet it is.”
He jerked a nod.
She handed him the rectangular card. “This brand, the zero-VOC type. I’ll need two gallons.”
“Hardware store opens at ten. I’ll bring it with me for my shift.” He let out a relieved breath. “Honestly, it’s nice to have an easy problem to solve.”
Her smile fell and his world went a little darker. “You think I’m a problem to solve?”
“No. No,” he said. “I’m just… My godson is… Never mind.” He hitched his duffel higher on his shoulder. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He couldn’t be honest with her. Franci Walker was a problem.
Just not for the reason she suspected.
Celebrate the Holidays on Oyster Island today, as Franci and Archer fall in Love at Hideaway Wharf!