Ryan Butler dumped his army-issue duffel bag onto the deck and grabbed a bench seat beside the ferry’s port rail. As usual, he’d kept his gear to a minimum for a visit home. And it struck him as weird that he still thought of Seashell Bay Island as home, despite his determined escape years ago. Most summers, he’d spend only three or four days with his folks, but this vacation could last a lot longer. He had plans, of course, but his years in the army had taught him the necessity of keeping them flexible. If the island started to close in on him, he’d jump on a ferry and head somewhere else. He had some money, some time, and no responsibilities, so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Ryan called that freedom, and he needed a good dose of it right now.
After his latest grueling contract with Double Shield Corporation, Ryan had made to clear to his controller that he needed a serious break. For ten months, he’d been babysitting diplomats in Baghdad. For six more after that, his job had been protecting a Fortune 500 CEO and his team as they bounced their way across a string of countries that varied from half-assed safe to outright deadly. Those jobs paid great but left him with an even bigger dose of uncertainty about his future than when he’d left the military. A little of the hired gunslinger’s life went a long way, and he sure as hell couldn’t see doing it in the long term.
As for the alternatives? At this point he hadn’t a clue.
A year and a half ago, simmering frustration with his army career and the lure of good money had prompted him to leave Special Operations and hook up with Double Shield, a private military contractor. But it hadn’t taken long to realize that money wasn’t enough. In fact, his restlessness had only increased with the corporate gig. At least in the army, Ryan had felt like he had roots that kept him grounded. Now he was drifting. His bank account was getting fatter, but that was about the only good thing he had to show for his life over the last eighteen months.
He twisted in his seat to take another look over the bay, breathing in the tangy scents of the sea air and the fishing boats. He’d taken one of these ferries between Portland and the island thousands of times, including every day of his four years at Peninsula High. The ride could be a boring pain in the ass, but it was relaxing. Forty minutes to an hour of pure peace. Put the earbuds in and zone out.
Except for the occasional mad morning rush to finish up homework before the boat docked in Portland. Okay, maybe more than occasional.
A cheerful serenity cloaked the harbor scene even though tourists and locals alike rushed to make boats to the various islands, towing children and dogs, as well as groceries in carts and battered canvas bags. Coming home had never particularly thrilled him, and yet Ryan had spent enough time eating dust and dodging bullets and IEDs to regard the good old USA, and coastal Maine in particular, as probably the closest thing to peace he’d ever find. Yeah, it was caught in a retro time warp that certainly wasn’t for an adrenaline junkie like him, but he did appreciate the laid-back beauty of the place that remained unchanged from one year to the next.
The ferry horn sounded one blast to signal the boat’s imminent departure. A couple of tanned and fit young deckhands—probably students—finished securing the cargo while two others pulled the metal gangway onto the boat. Like them, Ryan had spent the summer after his high school graduation crewing on the island ferries. It had been hard, hot work, but something about that final summer, working and partying with his high school friends, had been almost idyllic.
And then he’d left for the military and soon enough to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Afghanistan again. In the process, he’d lost too many army buddies and seen enough ugliness to last several lifetimes.
“Hold up!” a voice cried from down the pier. “Please, guys, I really need to make this boat.”
Ryan recognized that feminine voice even before he saw Morgan Merrifield running full tilt boogie down the concrete platform of the ferry terminal. Her pretty
face flushed and her blond hair flopping forward into her eyes, she lugged an overstuffed L.L.Bean bag in her right hand and pulled a wheeled cart with her left. Instinct made him jump up and rush down to the boat’s lower deck to help her.
Though one of the deckhands was rolling his eyes at her, the other one grinned and started to push the gangway back across the gap between the platform and the boat. With the sweetest smile God ever put on a woman’s face, Morgan thanked them as she set her bag down and fumbled for her ticket. Ryan waited a moment for the guys to secure the gangway and then strode across to help the girl he’d known since she’d barely started to walk.
“Yo, Morgan, it looks like you could use a hand with that. If taking my help wouldn’t offend your girl-power pride, that is,” he teased.
Morgan and her best friend, Lily Doyle, had always been hardheaded when it came to proving they were as capable as anybody on Seashell Bay. In Lily’s case, that determination had translated into fighting the sea as captain of her own lobster boat. In Morgan’s, it was all about organization. Morgan Merrifield could organize the living hell out of anything from a referendum campaign to the kids’ events at the Blueberry Festival. She’d been born to be a teacher, and Ryan figured she probably ran her elementary school classroom as efficiently as an Army Ranger instructor ran his drills.
“Ryan,” she gasped, her gaze widening in surprise. She stared for a few seconds, then flashed him a glorious smile that sank deep into his bones. “Oh, heck, offend away. Be warned though. That bag is heavy.”
Though he easily hoisted the canvas tote, she wasn’t kidding about the weight. Lugging the heavy load would have done in a lesser woman. But Morgan kept herself in shape, and today she looked as lithe and toned as ever. Incredibly feminine too, he didn’t mind noting—slender but with truly nice curves in all the right places.
“What’s in this sucker anyway?” he asked.
“Beer, among other necessities.” She cast him a mocking glance as she maneuvered the cart across the narrow gangway onto the boat. “By the way, it’s real nice to see you again too, old pal.”
Ryan followed her on board, laughing at her good-natured dig. “Likewise, Morgan. But why do you need to lug beer all the way from the mainland? The stores on the island stock all kinds of it.”
“I’ve got a regular guest who insists on having his beloved Moosehead, and damned if I didn’t forget to ask the Jenkins sisters to order it in. I was shopping in town today anyway, so I thought I’d pick some up.” She brushed a hand back through the silky, shoulder-length hair that kept blowing across her face, and her rosebud mouth curved into a sly smile. “We make a little money running an honor bar. It helps the bottom line a bit.”
Ryan switched the bag to his other hand and helped her steer the cart around a pile of suitcases left on the deck. “Well, aren’t you just the considerate hostess? Or is it host? I don’t want to be politically incorrect.”
“You, politically incorrect? Perish the thought. But yeah, I’ll do special stuff for guests to keep them coming back. God knows we can’t afford to lose any more business.” For a moment, her cheery expression dimmed.
The deckhands yanked the gangway on board again and closed the gate. Morgan wheeled her cart across the cabin to the port side and found an empty bench.
Ryan plopped the bag down beside her. “Okay if I sit with you? Or would you rather be alone?”
She looked at him like he’d just lost his mind. “What, you think I’d rather be alone than sit with the hottest dude to ever walk the halls of Peninsula High School? Every female on this boat is thinking I’ve hit the jackpot, Soldier Boy.”
Though she was clearly kidding, Ryan had a sudden flash of Morgan clinging to him like a second skin at the festival dance last summer. Neither of them had been
“Oh, come on,” he said, his brain momentarily seizing up as his gaze drifted to the truly nice cleavage exposed by her blue tank top.
Lame, man. Really lame.
Ryan dropped onto the bench next to her. “Sweetheart, I’m really sorry about your dad. He was a great guy.” The urge to pull her into his arms to comfort her surprised him with its intensity. He gave her hand a quick squeeze instead.
Morgan’s features turned somber, her gaze drifting to the dock where the water taxis were moored as the ferry moved toward the open water of the harbor. She shifted toward him on the bench, her skirt fluttering around her tanned legs. “Thanks, Ryan. And thank you for the sympathy card. I know I should have acknowledged it, but . . . well . . .” She paused to breathe a low, heartbroken sigh that practically killed him. “I just couldn’t stand to go through them all again, and then it seemed too late.”
Cal Merrifield had keeled over dead of a heart attack in late April. Ryan had been stunned when Aiden Flynn emailed him the shocking news. Morgan had lost her mother to cancer about three years ago, and now her father was gone at just sixty years of age. Cal had owned the Lobster Pot bar and restaurant for years before selling it to buy the island’s only B&B. He was truly one of the good guys, and Ryan knew that his sudden loss had devastated Morgan and her younger sister, Sabrina. According to Aiden, it had pretty much rocked the entire island of Seashell Bay.
“I heard you left your teaching job,” he said, not wanting to make her dwell on the details of her dad’s death.
Her face scrunched up in a grimace that would have been comical if the subject weren’t so awful. “Yes, for now. I took a leave of absence.”
“I assume that was for your sister’s sake?” No way Sabrina Merrifield could manage the B&B. Though she’d been Cal’s steadfast helper, poor Sabrina had always had enough trouble just managing her own life.
“Yes. That and my guilt.”
He frowned. “Guilt?”
Morgan’s gaze skittered off to the side as the ferry captain tooted his horn, drowning out the squawking seagulls. “That was a stupid slip of the tongue. Just forget I said it,” she finally replied.
Because Morgan was as upfront and honest as anyone he’d ever known, her response surprised him. But then she smiled, and even though it looked to him like it might have been forced, it brought her quiet beauty blazing back to life.
Simply put, Morgan was a babe, with eyes as blue as a June sky, a smooth-as-honey complexion, and a cute nose with a slight tilt that gave her face character. She also had the most thoroughly kissable lips he’d ever seen. But though all the island guys now agreed she was a first-class hottie, it hadn’t always been that way. Growing up, she’d been a bit nerdy, slightly overweight, and naturally shy. But by the middle of high school, she’d started to blossom into a very sexy girl. Morgan and Lily and their friend Holly Tyler had made one hell of a triple threat back then, and almost every teenage guy in Seashell Bay had spent considerable time and energy circling them like a pack of overeager puppies.
“Let’s go up to the top deck,” he said. “It’s too nice a day to be stuck down here in the cabin.” Morgan had probably sat on the lower deck because she didn’t want to haul all her crap up the stairs, but he figured they both could use some fresh air.
“Good idea,” she said, getting up.
“Want me to bring your stuff?”
She scoffed. “Boy, pal, you’ve been away too long. You know it’s safe to leave things on the boats. Besides, there’s nothing valuable in there.”
“Except for the beer,” he joked. Still, he decided to keep an eye on people getting off the boat at the two stops they’d make before Seashell Bay. He’d learned not to be fully trusting—not even here.
As he climbed the staircase behind Morgan, Ryan gave her rear view a thorough, if discreet, inspection. Damned if she didn’t get prettier every time he saw her, with a body that just didn’t quit. When she sat down on a bench at the stern, she reached into her purse and pulled out a pair of sunglasses, covering up the baby blues that he could stare into all day. It mystified him that Morgan wasn’t in a permanent relationship with some mainland guy since she’d been teaching school up the coast for years. He doubted that anything would ever happen between her and any of the island guys though. Most young people in Seashell Bay regarded their island contemporaries more as annoying brothers and sisters than potential mates. Friends, yes. Soul mates and lovers, not so much.
“If you’re a little cool up here,” he said, “I’ve got a fleece in my duffel.”
A refreshing breeze usually appeared around the time the ferry cleared the harbor and turned into open waters. On a hot summer day, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk in downtown Portland and be reaching for a sweater before the boat passed the ruins of Fort Gorges in the middle of the bay.
Morgan tipped her face up to the sun for a moment. “Thanks, but I’m fine.” Then she looked at him, inscrutable behind her big, movie star shades. “Ryan, I’m really surprised to see you here in June. You’re usually only back for the Blueberry Festival.”
He leaned back in his seat and stretched out his legs, going for casual. “Let’s just say this isn’t going to be my standard, quick in-and-out. I might even stay for the whole summer or most of it.”
He heard the sharp inhalation of her breath. “Well, that’ll be a first,” she said after a pause. “Your mom and dad must be so happy. And heck, that means people might actually get a chance to know the real you, not just the mysterious tough-guy front you put on.” She smiled and gave him a friendly poke on the arm. It wasn’t the first time Morgan had teased him about what she called his “strong but silent” act.
“What are you talking about? I’m an open book.”
“An open book with blank pages, maybe.”
“Wow, that didn’t tickle,” he said, adopting a wounded look.
Morgan laughed, a light, melodious sound that Ryan had always found insanely sexy.
“Okay, I take that back,” she said. “Maybe not blank, but written in some unbreakable code. Mr. Enigma, forever wrapped in mystery.”
Yeah, and that’s the way I like it.
Ryan had never much liked folks poking into his business, and poking into other people’s business was pretty much a team sport in Seashell Bay. “Maybe I just don’t have a very interesting story to tell.”
She stared at him. “Dude, that’s a big fat lie if I’ve ever heard one.”
“Come on, Merrifield, how many times have we hung out at the Pot drinking beer and playing darts?” he said with a taunting grin. “Or danced at the festival social? Hell, it’s not like I hide out in a cave when I come back to the island.” Damn, he’d almost forgotten how much he enjoyed kidding around with her.
Morgan’s expression went serious on him in an instant, surprising him again. “In a way, you do hide, Ryan. You hardly ever talk about yourself and never about what you actually do. All anybody knows is that you were in the military for years and then you left. Trust me, we’ve spent many a long hour on the island speculating about what nefarious things Ryan Butler might be up to. Some people even think you were part of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, and maybe what happened there made you decide to leave the army.”
That theory was completely bogus, though Ryan had been part of operations every bit as hairy as SEAL Team Six’s mission to Abbottabad. “Not even close. Besides, SEALs are navy, and I was army. Who was the wing nut that came up with that stupid idea?”
Morgan made a zipping motion across her lips. “I never reveal my sources. But if you don’t like rumors, you could try to be a little more forthcoming. Inquiring minds want to know.”
“You mean nosy people want to know. Okay, here’s the deal—I was in the army, I left, and now I work for a private military contractor called Double Shield.”
She rewarded him with an encouraging smile. “That’s a start. Now what exactly do you do for Double Shield? Which, by the way, sounds like a condom ad.”
Ryan was torn between laughter and irritation. He didn’t like people pressing him for details of his life, but he knew Morgan was just kidding around. “I protect people who need protecting.”
“Holy cow, you mean like movie stars and rap artists?”
She batted her eyelashes in a golly-gee imitation of someone who was actually impressed with what he did.
“All kinds of people,” Ryan said with just enough edge to signal the topic was closed for discussion.
Morgan blew out a sigh. “See what I mean? Getting information out of you is like digging for gold in Seashell Bay. Totally pointless.”
“Now that’s an incisive little nugget of analysis.”
She groaned at his lame joke. He was really hitting them out of the ballpark today.
The boat pulled up to the Little Diamond Island dock, and a few passengers started to gather up their things.
“Call me paranoid,” Ryan said, “but I’m going to head downstairs for a few minutes to make sure nobody gets ideas about your stuff.” Maybe they could talk about something else besides his life when he came back.
She smiled. “If it makes you feel better, go for it. They’d be crazy to try with you playing watchdog. Dude, you look more ripped every time I see you.”
Ryan flexed a bicep to make light of her comment. “Right, a regular man of steel.”
Morgan told herself that her rapidly beating pulse as she watched Ryan disappear below was simply a coincidence. Most übermasculine guys in their early thirties tended to swagger, especially around women. Ryan though . . . he moved with a quiet yet powerful grace that was a wonder to behold. His body was pretty damn wonderful too, with broad shoulders tapering to the classic six-pack and long, muscular legs. His Red Sox T-shirt hugged his brawny chest and showcased his cut biceps. That amazing body was the product of years of military training and his beloved kayaking, and it was all too easy to imagine how it would feel wrapped around her.
She breathed a tiny sigh and slumped against the back of the bench, turning her face up to the warm June sunshine. She’d spent hours rushing around Portland to pick up supplies. Normally she gave herself enough time before the boat’s departure to use the cargo service for her goods, but too many errands today and a fender bender near the parking garage had delayed her. So it was really great that, after her mad dash, Ryan had appeared to help her. The fact that he liked to rattle her chain spoke to the easy friendship that still existed between them.
Her thoughts about Ryan had often strayed from friendship into fantasy territory over the years, and their encounter at last summer’s festival dance had done nothing to change that. The two of them had ended up in a slow dance at the end of the evening, egged on by their friend Laura Vickers. A little drunk by then, Morgan had found it all too easy to melt into the dangerous shelter of Ryan’s embrace.
It had been a culmination of a stressful evening, brought on by a horrible and very public confrontation between Lily Doyle’s father and his longtime enemy, Sean
Flynn. Morgan had been so rattled and worried for Lily that she’d responded by drinking more than she normally did, which had lowered her staunch defenses against her supersecret crush on Ryan. Her heart had pounded like a battering ram as he held her close—too close. His bristled jaw had rubbed gently over her cheek, and she’d thought he was going to kiss her right there on the crowded dance floor. Under the influence of alcohol and nerves—and yes, sheer lust—her
smarts had evaporated in the heat of Ryan’s mysterious gaze.
At precisely the same moment, they’d both snapped out of it. By some sort of unspoken but clear mutual agreement, she and Ryan had derailed the makings of a runaway train. Even in her instinctive relief, Morgan had been shaken to realize how good it felt to be held by him. How thrilling the moment had been in its raw sexual power.
And how insanely stupid it had been to let it go that far.
While in theory she loved the idea of having hot sex with Ryan Butler, she was not going to be a one-night stand for a hard-ass soldier who flitted in and out of the
island, not even stopping long enough to make a ferry pass economical. And Ryan had clearly felt the same, because they’d quickly parted ways after the dance, never speaking a word about what had happened during those few electrifying minutes.
Dammit though, one look at him today had sent her right back in the grip of an emotional—and hormonal—tsunami. Whatever that dance at the social had stirred up, she obviously hadn’t managed to bury it deep enough Morgan knew her traitorous body would happily straddle Ryan’s lap for a hot make-out session right now, in full view of a bunch of islanders who knew them both. But surely all that told her was that it had been way, way too long since she’d had sex.
Yeah, sure, that has to be it.
Ryan came back up the stairs, taking them two at a time as the boat pulled away from the dock. He sat next to her and said, “So, tell me about Golden Sunset. How are you and Sabrina making out with the place?”
She mentally winced, hating the idea of voicing her struggles with the inn. Should she be honest with Ryan or put on the brave face she maintained for all but her closest friends? Uncertain, she gave a little shrug.
“Not too good, huh?” His gaze looked both sympathetic and concerned, and she could tell he wanted an honest answer.
She capitulated. “It’s been rough. An awful lot of our regular guests came back year after year mostly because they loved Dad. You know what a big personality he had, and he really knew how to make people feel welcome and wanted.”
“Cal was a stand-up guy. One of the best.”
Morgan took a deep breath, the grief almost choking her. “Quite a few couples cancelled their summer reservations after they heard Dad had passed. I don’t know whether they didn’t want to come if he wasn’t there or they thought the place might be too depressing after we lost him.”
Hell, despite her best efforts, the inn’s atmosphere was depressing. It still seemed impossible that it should carry on without her dad.
“Maybe a little of both,” Ryan said, frowning a bit. “It’s too bad they didn’t look at it as an opportunity to keep supporting the place. And you.”
“Amen to that. Anyway, unless business somehow picks up, it looks like we could wind up in the red for the summer. And I think you remember how dead the rest of the year is for tourism in Seashell Bay.”
The B&B’s bread and butter had always been the summer vacation crowd. While most of that revenue came from tourists, a lot of island residents didn’t have
room in their homes and cottages for all the family and friends that descended on them in the summer, so those folks often ended up at Golden Sunset too. That kind of business would continue at various levels all year, but only at Christmas was the inn ever close to full during the off-season. If Morgan didn’t manage to pull in some good summer business, her father’s B&B was headed for disaster.
Ryan glanced at another ferry as it passed them to starboard on its way back to Portland. At least a dozen people waved at them, as always happened when boats passed each other. She forced a little smile and waved back.
“Have you given any thought to selling?” Ryan said. “Or will you be able to ride it out?”
Oh, I think about selling every freaking day.
“I’m not sure anybody would buy the place at this point. Everything was up in the air even before Dad died. Aiden and Lily and their partners are building that new resort . . . and, well, who really knows how it’ll impact our little place?” Morgan was really happy that Aiden Flynn had returned to the island for good, but she had some worries about the effect of his upscale ecoresort on her small business.
“Most of your regulars should stay loyal,” Ryan said. “A lot of people prefer the atmosphere of smaller inns. From what I hear, Aiden’s place is going to cater to a different crowd.”
Morgan gave him a wry smile. “Yes, a crowd that likes lots of comforts and the latest in modern conveniences. Our place is short on both, I’m afraid. Heck, Dad even hemmed and hawed before finally putting in Wi-Fi last year. And our rooms are pretty . . . well, basic.”
She almost said run-down, but that felt disloyal. Facing an increasingly tight financial squeeze, her father had let things slide over the past couple of years, and now the place needed a lot of work, both structural and cosmetic. “Anyway, I have to try to make a go of it for my sister’s sake. She’d fall apart without the B&B.”
Though he’d been mostly away from the island for more than a dozen years, Ryan would know Sabrina well enough to understand. When she was a preteen, she’d been diagnosed with a learning disability. While she was a hard worker at the B&B, cooking and cleaning and doing other chores that were familiar territory for her, there was no way she could manage the operation. Most normal administrative tasks were simply beyond her, which meant they all fell on Morgan.
“So it sounds like you’re putting your teaching career on hold for the foreseeable future,” Ryan said.
Whenever Morgan thought about that, it felt like someone had punched her in the gut. Though she’d told her principal that she intended to be back in her classroom in September, the low number of confirmed reservations at the inn had made that an increasingly remote possibility.
“I’ve been hoping I could get the place operating efficiently enough this summer to let me hire a part-time manager to run it with Sabrina after I leave, but that seems more like a wish at this point than a plan. So I’m just taking it one day at a time and trying to figure things out.” Morgan didn’t want to surrender to pessimism but refused to bury her head in the sand either. The stakes for both sisters were too high to engage in self-delusion.
“One day at a time is never a bad idea.” Ryan leaned back on the bench and stretched out his long legs. His feet reached all the way to the opposite bench. “I guess I’m going to be doing something like that myself for a while.”
Morgan welcomed the shift in conversation. “So, what are you going to do with yourself on the island? Kayak all over the place and drink beer? Or will your dad need a sternman this summer?” Like a lot of people on the island, Ryan’s dad was a lobster fisherman.
“Actually, I was thinking that, if I end up spending the whole season here, I’d try to kayak to every one of the Calendar Islands. Give myself a little challenge to pass the time.”
The islands of Casco Bay were sometimes called the Calendar Islands, a reference to the fact that there were supposedly 365 of them. Some, however, were barely big enough to stand on.
“Well, that’ll be a heck of a workout.” Morgan’s brain, which refused to behave itself, easily conjured up the image of Ryan’s half-naked, ripped form gleaming in the sun as he paddled through the chop of the bay.
“Just a walk in the park if I stick around for a couple of months. As for helping Dad out, yeah, if he needs me to sub while his sternman takes some time off, I’ll be on the boat.”
“That’s nice of you since you hate lobster fishing,” she said, scrunching her nose in sympathy. Like Ryan, many of Seashell Bay’s younger generation had no desire to follow in their fathers’ footsteps when it came to the hard slog of hauling traps from sunrise to sunset.
Ryan shrugged. “I don’t much like a lot of things I have to do. Doesn’t mean I won’t answer the call.”
She smiled at the typically cryptic Ryan Butler statement. “Your parents will be happy to finally have you at home for more than a few days.”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to stay with them. I want a place of my own, a place to . . .” He paused for a couple of moments, his gaze distracted. “Anyway, I’m going to rent a cottage or a house, hopefully one on the water.”
Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Renting isn’t going to be easy. Almost everything is booked by this time of the season.”
“I know, but it can’t be helped. I only made the decision to do this a few days ago. I figure there should be something available, even if it’s a bit of a dump. I don’t need anything fancy. As long as it’s got indoor plumbing, I’m good to go.”
Dump. On some of her worst days, Morgan had silently used that harsh word to describe the current state of the B&B. But on his lips, the word had sparked a pretty interesting, though kind of crazy, idea. She toyed with it for a few moments, testing it out in her head. Sure it might be dangerous, at least for her, but it seemed worth a try.
As the ferry cut through the deep blue water of Hussey Sound, Morgan mentally put on her big-girl panties and got ready to proposition the sexiest man to ever come out of Seashell Bay.