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Excerpt: Love Unbroken by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved
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About the Author
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9781507818428
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover photograph (lower): Copyright © Shayne Croy
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To my Mom, always there for me in every possible way. To my Dad who cheers on my dreams. And to my husband - the drumbeat in my heart.
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Nathan leaned over the side of the guide boat and tugged on the fishing line. While he didn’t know what was on the other end, it was definitely live because he could feel the sense of vibration. Still tugging on the line, he looked over his shoulder to call to his oldest brother, Jared. Just as Nathan turned away, water splashed his shoulder. Turning back, he glimpsed a king salmon, now fighting madly against his grip on the line. King salmon were called king for a reason; even average ones weighed in at fifty plus pounds with some topping one hundred and more. He guessed this one to be medium sized, roughly two feet long and had to wrestle to keep hold of the line.
“Damn!” he said as the salmon bumped against the side of the boat. “Could use a little help here,” he called. Wrestling a slippery salmon wasn’t easy.
Michael, the man who caught the king salmon, started to move towards Nathan, fishing pole in hand.
“Stay put, I don’t want the line to loosen at this point,” Nathan directed. His other older brother, Luke was coming his way from the front of the boat.
Nathan and his brothers ran a commercial fish and guiding business, The One That Didn’t Get Away, in Diamond Creek, Alaska, a small town on the shores of Kachemak Bay. Kachemak Bay was one of Alaska’s coastal jewels, straight out of a postcard. A large bay off of Cook Inlet in South central Alaska, Kachemak Bay was home to several tourist hubs in Alaska. Though small, Diamond Creek was busy and catered to its tourists with world-class restaurants, shops and art galleries. Mountains encircled Kachemak Bay, eerie translucent blue glaciers were tucked between a few mountains, and Mount Augustine, a lone volcano, sat sentry in the bay. Along with the natural beauty, the bay was famous for its salmon and halibut fishing, drawing hordes of tourists from spring until the snow fell.
Today, they were hosting a family - Michael, Tess, Simon and Jordan - for a full day of fishing. Michael was father to Tess and Michael, both adults, and grandfather to Jordan. Nathan had to tamp the impulse to flirt with Tess. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She had short honey-colored hair that curled in a tousled bob around her face. She had a soft, rounded figure, curves in all the right places. Her ginger colored eyes and luscious mouth, bow shaped and bright pink, kept drawing Nathan’s gaze. Though quiet, she had a sly sense of humor in the company of her family.
“So Dad, I thought the plan was to catch a record size halibut,” Tess commented sardonically.
“I’ll take a king salmon,” Michael replied with a wide grin.
Nathan looked to Tess. “Oh don’t worry, we’ll make sure he gets that halibut,” he said with a wink. For a flash, he saw a spark of interest, a tease, in her eyes and he almost lost his hold on the fishing line. Focus on the fish, stupid. He had to force his eyes away from her—she was distractingly delectable.
Luke reached Nathan’s side and leaned over with a net as the king salmon continued to thrash against the side of the boat. With Nathan maneuvering the feisty salmon into the net, he and Luke lifted it over the side together. Just as they set the net down, Luke lost his grip, and the salmon flung itself free from the net and slapped Nathan in the face with a slimy tail. He lost his footing and slipped onto the boat deck, landing just beside the salmon.
“Really?!” he said, looking to the salmon who ignored him and gave another flick of its tail.
Luke shook his head, trying and failing to hold back a grin. “Sorry about that, couldn’t keep a hold of the net.”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Noticed that. Only wish you’d been the one whacked in the face.”
A towel landed in his lap. He turned to see Jared grinning at the wheel of the boat. “Thought you could use that.”
Nathan snatched the towel up and wiped the slime off his cheek. Standing, he tucked the towel over his belt and looked to Michael. “Your call on whether you keep this one or release it. You have a king tag, so you can keep it if you want.”
Michael came to stand at his side. He looked admiringly down at the salmon. “Let’s release it. My goal is halibut and if I’m gonna keep a king, I want it to be record size. Let me get a picture though.” He quickly snapped a photo with his phone.
Nathan nodded and turned back to Luke. “Let’s get this back in the water. Think you can manage to keep me from getting knocked down again?” he asked Luke.
“Oh I’ll do my best. Salmon love a fight though. He seems to have settled down now,” Luke replied.
Nathan looked down at the king salmon, which lay still on the deck, its gills laboring. “Good size one, at least fifty pounds,” he said. With efficiency, he and Luke went into motion. Luke held the salmon’s mouth open while Nathan grabbed the hook and carefully worked it out. In short order, he picked the salmon up and lifted it over the side of the boat, holding it steady in the water for a moment before gently letting go.
The silver of the salmon flashed briefly in the water before disappearing under the waves. Tess stared out over the water for a moment to see if it would reappear, but all she saw was the sun’s reflection against the water. She lifted her gaze to look at the volcano sitting in the distance. She’d read plenty of tourist materials on the flight to Alaska from North Carolina and learned that she was looking at Mount Augustine, which sat alone in this area of Kachemak Bay. It rose starkly from the water, wispy clouds floating around the top. It had erupted twice in recent decades, once spewing ash for days at a time. The latest eruption had been subtler, if there was such a thing as a subtle volcanic eruption, but ash had still disrupted flights in and out of Alaska. The volcano seemed lonely to her, but then she wondered if she thought practically everything seemed lonely since most of the time she felt that way. With a mental shake, she turned to look towards her father.
He was getting ready to drop his line back in the water, listening patiently to one of the guides about the best way to prep his line. His smile was wide. This fishing trip to Diamond Creek, Alaska was a dream for him. He’d planned to go for years. Her mother, Celine, had come on the trip with them, but was prone to seasickness, so she’d stayed ashore to visit the many tourist shops in town. Tess had joined them for this trip in addition to her brother, Simon, and his son, nine-year old Jordan. While Tess might not be the fishing connoisseur that her father was, she loved the outdoors and enjoyed fishing.
Tess shifted her gaze to Nathan who was talking to her father. The three Winters brothers ran the guiding business, The One that Didn’t Get Away. Tess guessed Nathan to be the youngest. All three had almost identical black wavy hair. The only difference in how unruly it was. Nathan’s was the shaggiest, his black curls almost touching his shoulders. He had dark blue eyes while the other two brothers had green eyes. Tess had to keep dragging her eyes away from Nathan, which annoyed the hell out of her. He was the quintessential outdoorsman—handsome with a rugged, sexy edge—so sexy that a mere glance sent her pulse wild.
He and his brothers had been nothing but kind and funny. They happily regaled her father with fishing stories and earnestly shared his love of all things fish. She could tell they’d let him talk all day and that earned major points with her. They were also kind to Jordan who was so excited about this trip he was practically vibrating. He was a relentless font of questions, filled with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
Her father caught her absentminded stare and waved her over. She stepped around a cooler and dodged a fishing pole with the few steps it took to get to him.
“Tess, honey, I was just telling Nathan here that I used to take you and Simon fishing when we went out to Cape Hatteras in the summers. It made me remember that time you caught a giant grouper,” her father said, curling an arm across her shoulders.
Her father looked towards Nathan again. “She was around Jordan’s age, eight or nine, and had a blast tugging that fish into the boat. Grouper’s good to eat. Not quite as famous as Alaskan salmon and halibut, but cooked right, it’s delicious.”
Nathan turned his bright blue eyes to her. They crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “So have you inherited your father’s love of fishing? Or you’re just a good sport and tag along because you know he loves it?” he asked with a wink.
Tess felt her lips curling in a smile, almost in spite of herself. Butterflies swirled in her center, rattling her composure. Nathan’s smile was sparks to tinder—hers, that is. She forced her attention to the moment, tilting her head to the side and glancing to her father. “It’s a bit of both. I almost always go fishing with my dad, so you could say I tag along. But then, I love it whenever I go. Hoping to take my turn at a halibut in a bit here. I was just waiting to give dad a chance to be the first to catch one.”
Her father smiled even wider, if that was possible. He was so damn happy since they’d stepped off the plane here, just about everything elicited a smile.
Nathan glanced back and forth between them. “That makes your dad happy,” he said with a chuckle. “Whenever you’re ready, let me know. May not have known your dad long, but I doubt he cares who catches the first halibut.”
Tess didn’t try to avoid smiling this time. “You’re right about my dad, which is why I want him to catch the first halibut. As much as he loves to fish, this is his to take.” She looked to her father again. “Get that line back in the water before Jordan or Simon beats you to it. You love talking about fishing as much as actually fishing, but you can talk and fish at the same time.” She leaned her shoulder into him with a soft push. “I’ll sit with you.” She turned back to Nathan. “If he doesn’t bring a halibut up in the next half hour, how about helping me get going?”
Nathan nodded. “Of course. That’s my job.”
“How about you help me get set up this time?” her father asked Nathan. “I thought I knew how far to let the line go, but I’m not sure.”
Her father’s arm slid off her shoulders as he turned to step to the side of the boat. Nathan gave her a long look before he followed her father. Her heart fluttered and she felt a flash of heat in her core. It had been so long since she’d felt that way towards any man, it was unsettling. She distracted herself by looking around the boat. Jared appeared to be the assigned boat driver. He stood at the helm, holding the steering wheel in a relaxed grip. Of the three brothers, he was the most reserved, but still friendly with a wry sense of humor. Luke, the other brother, was busy talking with Jordan. He knelt beside Jordan and appeared to be explaining something related to nautical knots as he held a length of boat line in his hands and gestured to one of the knots. Jordan nodded along. While Tess couldn’t hear what they were saying over the wind on the water, she could hear the tone of their voices, Jordan’s lilting in the way it did when he was asking question upon question. The fluttering in her heart had stopped and the heat subsided inside. She shook her head. The last thing she needed was to get worked up over some fishing guide from Alaska.
The pace of the day picked up with her father catching the first halibut of the day, Jordan following with another catch and finally her brother. With Nathan’s help, Tess got a line in and felt a tug on the line within minutes. Luke was nearby with Nathan, both helping get fish situated in the cooler. Luke looked over when Tess exclaimed, “That was fast!”
“Sometimes it’s all timing—seems to be on your side. Hold steady and reel in at a slow, even speed,” Luke said.
Before she knew it, Tess was looking at the flat eye on one side of the halibut. A few fish later, Jared had turned the boat towards Otter Cove, the boat harbor for Diamond Creek. Tess sat on a bench at the back of the boat. The salty wind blew through her curls as the boat bounced in a rocking rhythm on the waves. Turning back towards the ocean, she took a long look at Mount Augustine. The cushion shifted under her legs. She turned forward again to find Nathan sitting down beside her.
“So how was your first day on the water here? In love with Alaska yet?” he asked.
Despite her usual reserve, Tess felt herself smiling without thinking. She was disconcerted by how easily charmed she was by Nathan. His nearness flushed her, just melted her reserve. Nathan waited patiently for her to respond. Little did he know she was just trying to get her bearings. His presence was potent, her body humming while her mind reminded her not to be silly.
“My first day on the water here was pretty good. Dad has wanted to fish in Alaska forever. I’m glad he’s finally here,” Tess said politely.
Nathan’s eyes took on a mischievous glimmer. “Your dad was an easy mark to love it. But…I meant how was your day?” Nathan asked.
Tess looked back at Nathan, his dark blue eyes crinkled at the corners, his shaggy curls in disarray. Paired with those amazing eyes, Nathan had chiseled features with a perfectly proportioned nose sitting between sculpted cheekbones and a strong chin. Much as she resisted it, just looking at him raised the heat inside her. She looked away, not comfortable with how much she wanted to keep looking into the deep blue of his eyes. That inconvenient melting sensation flared.
“Didn’t realize you’d need to think so hard to answer,” Nathan commented wryly, his words bringing her attention back.
Tess looked back into his eyes for just a moment, giving in to the temptation to tumble into that mesmerizing blue. Since the way her last relationship had splintered about a year ago, she rarely let herself think much about how she felt. It was easier. But she was in Alaska for a three-week stay. Allowing herself to indulge the intense yearning Nathan elicited wouldn’t matter in the long run. After they left, she’d likely never see or hear from Nathan or anyone in Alaska again.
“Okay, how was my day? My day was good. It’s beautiful here, no doubt about that. I love being on the ocean anywhere and Alaska’s no different. Except for getting a view of mountains, glaciers and a volcano. That’s an amazing sight to witness. Plus, catching a halibut in under fifteen minutes was fun,” she finally said.
Nathan’s quick grin only raised the heat inside. “I’d like to take the credit for how fast you hooked that halibut, but it’s clear you’ve had some experience with fishing. And the view here is pretty phenomenal. We love it. That’s one of the reasons we moved here.”
Her heart racing—dear god she practically needed to fan herself—Tess found herself asking a question before she had a chance to stop herself. “Where did you move from?”
“Seattle. Like your dad, our dad loves to fish, so we grew up fishing in Washington waters. We decided to start a commercial fishing business down there together and eventually came up here to fish a few times. Liked it so much that we relocated the business and ourselves up here. Can’t imagine living anywhere else now.”
“Diamond Creek is a bit of a change from Seattle,” she said.
“Up here, we live somewhere we love instead of planning to travel here. Kind of like your dad really. Sounds like he spends a lot of time visiting places he might rather live.”
“You can say that,” Tess said, relieved that polite conversation seemed to slow her heart rate. “Where he lives in North Carolina, he’s right on a river, so he gets to fish pretty often. But he likes to try different places. Alaska’s been on his fishing bucket list for years.”
The wind had started to pick up. The boat rode into a large swell, followed by a smaller choppy wave that threw Tess against Nathan’s side. He reflexively put his arm around her waist. Just when Tess thought she’d gotten a hold of herself, her heart was off to the races, her stomach fluttering. His arm was warm and strong against her back. She wanted to lean into him and stay that way. She glanced up at Nathan and found him looking down toward her intently. Her heart gave a quiver and the simmering heat in her center turned up a notch. Nathan’s hand rested just against her hip. He flexed against the soft curve, a subtle caress. She gasped and tore her eyes away, the water a blur of whitecaps in her muddled gaze. Nathan’s loosened his grip and let go, his hand curling the bottom of the bench again. Her body immediately missed his touch, sighing at its absence.
Whether he meant it or not, Tess wondered if he was reacting to her confusion. His gaze had been direct…ardent. Yet she’d looked away…the moment passed. Relief and disappointment tinged with sadness clashed. If she imagined herself to be someone else, someone that could just let go and enjoy this attraction, it would be so much simpler.
Nathan called out to Jared. “Looks like the wind is kicking in. Want me to take over steering for a bit? You’ve been at it all day.”
Jared called back without turning. “No worry. Be to the harbor inside of a half hour.”
Nathan shook his head. “That’s Jared. Can hardly stand it if we offer to help for something he thinks is his job.”
Curiosity rose in Tess. She wanted to know more about his family. While Nathan could have sounded critical, his comment had a loving tone to it.
“So I guess he usually drives?” she asked.
“Almost always. But it’s okay. We may be brothers, but we get along better than most. Luke and I take care of whatever Jared doesn’t,” he said. ‘Speaking of that, nice chatting for a few, but I have to take care of a few things before we get to the harbor.” He stood from the bench and looked down at her, another easy grin gracing his face. “Don’t suppose I could persuade you to go to dinner with me sometime in the few weeks you’re here?”
Tess flushed head to toe, her heart danced and those magnetic eyes of his stoked the smoldering heat in her center. She wanted to jump up and say yes, and that annoyed the hell out of her. Her cautious side was dominant, oh-so-practical. She could recite by heart all the reasons any romantic entanglement wasn’t worth it. Though practical and safe, it was a lonely place to be. A tattered corner of her heart wanted more. Before she knew it, she was answering honestly. “I’m not sure. I don’t know what our plans are for the next few days.”
His grin didn’t waver. “Think about it. Diamond Creek may seem like it’s the middle of nowhere, but we have some good restaurants here. You’ll be seeing me again either way. Your dad booked us for four more trips.”
Tess nodded. “Okay, maybe. I’ll think about it.” As soon as the words slipped out, Tess couldn’t believe she’d said them. The last thing she needed was this way too handsome Alaskan fishing guide to take her on a date.
Nathan winked and turned away, striding to the boat’s small cabin. His back muscles flexed as his arms swung. She could only imagine what kind of shape he was in, given the active life he and his brothers led. He was tall, easily over six feet, with broad, strong shoulders and a rangy build. He seemed far too handsome to consider her worthy of a date. While Tess didn’t consider herself unattractive, her last boyfriend had often made passive comments about her being a little too curvy. Her breasts were prone to spilling out of blouses. She was on the short side and could rarely find tops that fit right as they seemed to be designed for thinner women. She absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ears, her honey-colored curls getting wild in the wind.
She spent the remainder of the ride watching the shore get closer, trying and failing to keep her mind and eyes off of Nathan. The shoreline here was nothing like the ocean shore in North Carolina, which was bright sand, patches of tall grass and swaths of flat beaches with the occasional sand dune. In Alaska, the ocean splashed against glaciers, mountainsides and rocky beaches. The shore in Diamond Creek included steep cliffs, leveling off into lush green spruce forests, and beaches of gray sand covered in colorful rocks. Otter Cove was the name of the tiny cove in which the boat harbor was tucked, protected somewhat from winds and cold. Jared deftly steered the boat into its slip at the harbor docks. Nathan and Luke were ready the minute they pulled in, tossing lines over the dock pilings. Tess’s eyes were glued to Nathan. He was tall and lanky, his sinewy muscles rippling under his cotton shirt. Jared cut the engine and quickly went into motion, getting the two full coolers ready to pass over to Nathan and Luke on the docks.
After stepping off the boat, Tess, her father, brother and nephew entered a whirl of activity. Within an hour, she was waving goodbye to Nathan and his brothers as Simon drove their car rental way from the Fish Factory, the local business that would be flash freezing and mailing their halibut back to North Carolina on overnight delivery. A friend of her father’s would be picking up the packages and depositing them in the chest freezer in her parents’ garage.
Tess looked out the car window and saw Nathan give a wave. Her hand lifted in return. He flashed a wide grin. She couldn’t believe he had her even considering a date with him. Just as she started to turn away, Nathan turned to look towards Jared and stepped into one of the small boulders lining the parking lot. He stumbled into Luke who was beside him and then onto the ground. Before she looked away, she saw him look in their direction again and couldn’t help but laugh. As handsome as he was, he seemed to have a knack for falling, at least today.
Tossing her rain jacket onto the hotel bed, Tess headed for the bathroom. She turned on the shower, stepping in when steam filled the room. They had gone out to dinner after fishing, meeting her mother at a local seafood restaurant. The day had gone from sunny and bright to gray, rainy and cool while they were eating. The dash from the car into the hotel had left her dripping wet. Stepping out of the shower, she grabbed a towel and toweled her hair off. With a shake of her hair, she set the towel on the edge of the sink and looked in the mirror, scanning herself. Her dark honey-colored curls were damp, hanging just to the tops of her shoulders. Her eyes just about matched her hair. She never knew what color to call them, although her mother always said she had ginger eyes.
Tess didn’t look for long but wondered what Nathan saw when he looked at her. Self-doubt had burrowed in her heart and held on during and after her relationship with Chad. She often wondered if she’d only ended up with him because she was too trusting. She’d met Chad through work. She ran her own fundraising business and handled contracts almost exclusively for non-profits. Chad handled accounts for various businesses, mostly those in the medical field. They’d met at one of the functions she hosted. He was handsome and charming, if a tad too sleek for her taste.
After the fact, she wished she’d listened to that small voice inside that pointed out that Chad worried a bit too much about appearances. While he’d been nothing but compliments and charm when they first dated, he gradually began to make small comments about her curves, that loose clothes made her look dumpy and more fitted clothes made her look like she was trying to get the attention of other men. Instead of realizing that Chad was a jerk, she kept trying to find ways to make herself look different so he wouldn’t comment. About two years into their relationship, Tess found out she was pregnant. It had come as a surprise because she’d been on the pill. The next month was nothing but a blur. Adjusting to the unexpected pregnancy had been…well…unexpected and emotionally disorienting. The loneliness of her relationship became blatant when she balked at telling Chad, not out of a desire to hide something, but because she didn’t trust that he’d be supportive. Cocooned in confusion, unsure of what to do, a miscarriage took any choice out of her hands. She was thrown into facing a loss that echoed through her heart. The tumult of emotions had exhausted her.
The only good that came out of the miscarriage in Tess’s opinion was that she’d finally seen Chad for who he was. While still reeling from the emotional aftermath of her miscarriage, he’d made one of his passing comments about her weight. A voice that had been quiet inside of her came roaring out. She immediately broke up with him and moved out the same day. It was the most sensible thing she’d done in the two years she’d dated him. She learned later that he’d been quite busy with other women during the time they were together, likely why he worried so much that other men noticed her. He’d also offered minimal support during the weeks she tried to adjust to the news of her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage. Since the end of their relationship, she spent too much time questioning herself and wondering what had led her to stay in a relationship that she’d known deep down wasn’t good for her.
Tess gave her head a hard shake. She didn’t want to think about Chad. It had been a mistake, but she had found the courage to walk away. That had been a year ago. The hard part was trying to find the woman she wanted to be—strong and smart. She couldn’t believe someone as handsome as Nathan would be interested in her. Her thoughts flicked back to the moment that Nathan’s hand gave her hip the barest squeeze. Her breath caught, her pulse leapt and a flush rose—her body craved that tiny moment. She couldn’t fight the small smile that bloomed inside.
Shoving those thoughts away, Tess stalked out of the bathroom and dug through her suitcase, slipping on a pair of leggings and a tank top. She grabbed the remote, scrolled through the channels and settled on HGTV, one of her favorites. With the rain coming in sheets against the hotel window, she settled in for a few hours of mindless television.
A few days later, Tess carried a cooler in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other as she walked down the dock in the harbor. Her nephew, Jordan, walked alongside, carrying his new fishing gear to the Winters brothers’ boat. Tess held her breath in awe when she saw an eagle seated on one of the dock pilings—its size magnificent, its bright, fierce eyes fixed on the water. She’d started to accept that eagles were pretty much everywhere in Alaska, but being this close to them on the docks was startling. The one just ahead of them spread its wings and took off in flight. The wings cast a shadow so broad it encompassed her and Jordan. She’d read their wingspan was as much as seven feet.
“Did you see that eagle, Jordan?” she asked.
“Yeah! I was trying to be quiet. Granddad said it’s better to try not to startle them. They’re so cool!” Jordan said. With the eagle flying off, he commenced to chatter about how many fish they might catch today. Between Simon and her father, he was well on his way to being a third generation fishing addict.
Tess was glad for Jordan’s excitement. It took her mind off the anticipation she felt about seeing Nathan again, which was just short of ridiculous. Her mind careened from visions of his blue eyes and dimples to steamy fantasies, which she kept swatting away. She hadn’t seen him in the two days since their first trip. Not that she’d expected to, but Diamond Creek was small enough that it was definitely possible. They’d spent the last two days checking out the local art galleries. There were far more than Tess would have expected in this tiny seacoast town in Alaska. They’d also taken a drive up to Seward, another coastal town on the Kenai Peninsula. Seward was north of Diamond Creek and sat tucked close into the mountains. While it had been lovely, she found she liked the more open view from Diamond Creek better. Diamond Creek was on the western side of the peninsula and had a wide-open view of the mountains across Kachemak Bay.
Tess looked out from the harbor into Kachemak Bay. The water was a deep navy in the bright sun today.
She turned and saw Nathan waving to her from a larger boat beside the guide boat they’d taken the other day.
“Hey Nathan!” she called in return, trying to ignore the way her heart leapt at seeing him.
“Nathan, Nathan I got a new fishing pole!” Jordan hollered as he started to run. He promptly tripped and stumbled. Not missing a beat, he surged back up and kept running towards the boat.
“Hey Jordan, slow down buddy,” Nathan called. He stepped over the side of the boat and started to climb down a ladder.
Tess looked ahead at Jordan. “Jordan, listen to Nathan. Take it easy on the dock.”
Jordan stopped running and turned back. “Okay, but only because Nathan asked,” he said with a grin.
“Oh really? Just because Nathan asked, huh? You better watch out.”
Jordan just kept grinning. “I know Aunt Tess, just teasing.” He waited for her to catch up and then politely walked alongside.
Nathan met them on the dock. “Can I help carry some of that?” he asked, glancing at the jumble of fishing pole, windbreaker and tackle bag that Jordan held haphazardly.
Jordan shook his head emphatically, his straight brown hair swinging. “Nope, a guy has to carry his gear.”
Nathan lifted an eyebrow. “I’d say a guy has to have enough sense to accept help when he needs it.”
Jordan appeared to mull this over. With an emphatic nod, he attempted to hand Nathan some of what he was carrying, only to lose his grip on most of it. Nathan moved quickly and caught it all with both arms.
Tess couldn’t hold back her laugh. “Close call, buddy. Maybe, just maybe, we needed some help.”
“Yup, we did. But it’s okay,” he said. He looked toward Nathan who was carefully trying to organize the handful he’d scooped from Jordan. “Aunt Tess already had her hands full. I was doing okay until I started to run.”
Nathan glanced at Tess before turning his gaze to Jordan. “That’s why you shouldn’t run on the docks. Can we make a deal that you won’t try that again?” he asked with a serious tone. “Not joking on that one. The docks aren’t a safe place to run. Even I don’t try that.”
Jordan took his request in and looked serious. “We can make a deal. I just got excited.”
“Of course you did. I’m excited every day I get to go fishing. Just got to remember there are places to walk and places to run. We made our deal, so let’s keep it.”
Jordan nodded, his grin returning in force. “We have a deal! Now can we walk to the boat?”
“Where else would we be going?” Nathan glanced to Tess and winked.
Tess looked away, flushed inside and out. How it was possible, she didn’t know, but Nathan appeared more handsome than he’d been the other day. His hair was only slightly mussed so far, his black curls tumbling across his forehead. She could look into his deep blue eyes all day. He wore heavy brown rubber boots with the label Xtratuf on them. She’d never seen Xtratufs before and so many people wore them here, they could have been confused as part of a uniform. Over his boots, his jeans were worn and frayed and paired with a T-shirt and a bright blue windbreaker. He had a clean, sharp scent to him this morning.
She wondered if Nathan would ask her out to dinner again and chided herself for wrestling with her attraction to him. She needed to either let it go, or get over herself and say yes.
Oblivious to her predicament, Nathan was casually talking with Jordan who had question upon question about fishing in Alaska. Since their trip the other day, Jordan had persuaded Simon to buy him a book on fishing in Alaska and proceeded to regale the rest of them with facts and photos. He was determined to catch another Alaskan king salmon. Tess was accustomed only to Atlantic salmon and wasn’t sure what could be so different about the types of Pacific salmon, but had quickly noticed that locals made clear distinctions with king salmon considered the most prized.
Nathan patiently answered Jordan’s questions. Despite her misgivings about dinner with him, she had to admit that they were more about herself and not him. His patience with Jordan was a good recommendation for him. They had arrived at the guide boat and stepped onto the dock between it and the larger boat Nathan had been on when he waved.
“Is that another boat of yours?” Tess asked Nathan.
Nathan glanced up at the boat. “Yup. That’s Iris—our commercial fishing boat. Named after our mom. Iris is for the big trips. We used to come up here from Seattle on her to fish. That’s when we fell in love with Alaska and Diamond Creek,” he said with a quick smile, a dimple flashing on one side.
Her return smile came in automatic response. She shook her head at herself.
Nathan tilted his head. “What’s that for?”
She felt caught and blushed.
Jordan looked between them. “Aunt Tess doesn’t have fun much,” he announced. “You should come to dinner with us and make her smile more.”
Tess hadn’t thought she could blush even more. “Jordan, really?! I have fun sometimes. And you have to check with your dad before asking someone else to dinner with everyone.”
Nathan appeared unperturbed with Tess’s discomfort and humored with Jordan’s comments. “No worries. Of course, we’d clear it with the grownups. But Jordan may be right. A little fun doesn’t hurt anyone,” he said.
Tess held her embarrassment in check and hoped her blush was subsiding. “Perhaps he is. That’s why we’re on vacation, to have a little fun. And I’m sure my family will be happy to have you join us for dinner. I just didn’t want you to feel put on the spot.”
“As I said, no worries,” he replied. “Let’s get you two and this gear into the boat. When will your dad and brother be here?”
“They dropped us off and headed back to get some sandwiches for the day. My mom told us about a place she had lunch the other day, Misty Mountain Café.”
“Misty Mountain is a local favorite—great sandwiches. How come your mom doesn’t come fishing with the rest of you?” he asked.
“Oh, she gets seasick pretty quick. She’s happy to fish from shore, but she rarely goes out on the water.”
Nathan nodded as he grabbed one of the mooring lines and tugged the boat flush against the dock. “Makes sense. There’s some shore fishing here, but you have to head out for a better chance at halibut and king salmon.”
He carefully set Jordan’s fishing gear on the dock and held his hand out for Jordan while he gave him a small lift to get him into the boat. He turned to Tess next, his hand extended. Tess set the cooler down on the dock. Nathan reached over and took the cup of coffee from her with his other hand. “I got this.”
Tess nodded and placed her hand in his. His touch sent a warm buzz coursing through her, sparking a quiver of heat in her center. His hand was large and warm, his grip firm and strong. She looked up, straight into his blue, blue eyes—that small quiver of heat flickered and spread through her, a simmering pulse of desire. The flush that had finally faded from a few minutes ago blazed to life. Nathan held her gaze and with a lift, helped her up and over the side of the boat. Her hand felt cool and empty when he released her. Stepping back from the side of the boat, she turned to see him waiting with her coffee held aloft.
She found it hard to look at him, disconcerted. She carefully took the coffee from him. “Thanks,” she said, the only word she could manage.
“Anytime,” he said. Lowering his voice, he continued, “I’ll take dinner with just you too, in case you were wondering if I forgot.”
Tess was aflame from the blush that just wouldn’t fade. She looked in Jordan’s direction. He was busy examining the fishing poles lined up in a rack. Returning her gaze to Nathan, her eyes ran smack into his. She smiled, in spite of herself. “You mentioned that the other day. Is that something you ask many of the women you take out for fishing trips?” The question slipped out, and she promptly regretted it.
Nathan was unruffled, but he didn’t seem the kind of man that let much ruffle him. “Actually, no. You’re the only one. Make what you will of that,” he said. For a flicker, Tess saw uncertainty in his eyes.
She waited a beat before responding. “I’m sorry I said that. The thing about whether you asked other women out like this. It just came out.”
Nathan shrugged. “It’s okay. Can’t say I blame you. But the offer stands. I’d love to take you out to dinner,” he said, his dimple making its appearance.
For the first time in a while, Tess just let herself do something without thinking it to death. She allowed the smile she’d been trying to suppress to bloom instead. “Well then…yes. I’ll go to dinner with you. I just don’t know when. Let me check with my family on what our plans are for the next few evenings.”
“Awesome! Your dad seems to have planned this trip out pretty well. Much as I want to take you to dinner, I don’t want to interfere with your trip.”
“Dad did plan this trip well in advance, but the parts that matter to him aren’t dinner. Just anything to do with fishing. “
Just as Nathan opened his mouth to respond, she heard someone call his name. They turned in unison to see Jared walking down the dock towards them. Luke was further behind with a tall woman walking alongside him. Nathan waved to Jared as he stepped back onto the dock. The quick grin he threw in her direction ratcheted up the heat that crackled between them.
Before Jared and Nathan made it to the boat, Michael and Simon walked onto the dock. She watched curiously as Luke approached with the woman she assumed to be his wife. She’d noticed he wore a wedding band the other day. They were holding hands in a loose grip. They held cups of coffee from the same coffee truck where her father had stopped this morning. Nathan and Jared were waiting beside the boat.
“Good morning lovebirds,” Nathan said with a wink. “Starting to wonder where Luke was. Ever since you two got married last year, I’m the early bird.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “It’s not like I’m late—just not the first one here.”
“Exactly the problem. Can’t be sure you’ll have coffee for me,” Nathan said with a weak attempt at feigning annoyance.
Jared stayed out of the teasing and shook his head. He looked over to Tess. “Tess, this is Hannah, Luke’s lovely wife,” he said, gesturing towards Hannah.
Tess nodded. “I’m Tess. I guess there’s no point in me explaining that I’m here on a fishing trip,” she said.
“Nice to meet you Tess,” Hannah said. “And it’s excellent that you’re here on a fishing trip with your family. That’s what these boys do.” She looked up at Luke, her eyes warm and soft.
Tess felt a flash of envy at the comfort she saw between Luke and Hannah. Jared’s description of Hannah was apt; she was lovely in a casual way. Her build was tall and willowy. She stood almost shoulder to shoulder with Luke, and Tess would have guessed him to be a few good inches over six feet tall. Hannah had sky blue eyes and long, dark hair that fell in loose waves around her shoulders. She was dressed in the uniform Xtratufs, jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Luke basically matched Hannah with the exception of a flannel shirt over his t-shirt. Jared, along with everyone else, wore Xtratufs and jeans. She looked down at her own rubber boots, which were multicolored with stripes.
As the brothers bantered, Hannah looked over to her again. “They’d do this all day if life didn’t interrupt them,” she said ruefully. “Boys, hop in the boat and let’s get going.”
Luke, Jared and Nathan kept up their banter as they loaded a few more coolers on the boat and helped her father and Simon get their gear up. The brothers included Jordan by having him carry the smaller items, which Jordan loved. Hannah invited Tess to sit with her on one of the benches. Tess shivered when a small gust of wind came off the water.
“It’s chilly here in the mornings on the water,” Hannah said.
“I noticed that the other day. I have a jacket in my bag but I’m doing okay except for the wind.”
Hannah took a sip of her coffee. “I see you discovered my friend’s coffee truck,” she said with a nod towards the matching coffee that Tess held.
Tess glanced down at the label on the paper cup, Red Truck Coffee, and took a quick sip. The coffee was rich and delicious. “This is your friend’s place?”
Hannah nodded. “My friend Cammi started that little coffee truck the summer after we finished high school. She initially did it just for some extra cash, but she makes damn good coffee, so it took off and now it’s all she’s been doing in the summer for years. Misty Mountain Café is probably the only other place to get really good coffee in town, but that’s more of a sit down place. Red Truck is where everyone goes when they’re headed out on the water.”
“Well, her coffee is amazing. Diamond Creek could compete with big cities when it comes to food, coffee, and shopping,” Tess said. “Not that I’m from a big city. We’re from North Carolina, near the coast.”
Hannah tilted her head with a smile. “Really? I was born in North Carolina, but we moved here when I was six, so Diamond Creek and Alaska are home to me. Before we moved here, we lived in Chapel Hill but I have memories of going to the beach there. So different from the beaches here.”
“That’s for sure,” Tess said. “We’re from New Bern, which isn’t on the ocean, but about a half hour away. Here though, it’s amazing that the ocean is right up against the mountains. The views are like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Hannah nodded and looked out towards Mount Augustine, standing tall in the early morning. “The views are hard to beat. I went to grad school in Massachusetts and didn’t realize how much I missed looking out and seeing the mountains everyday until I moved back home.”
Tess followed Hannah’s gaze to the volcano sitting quietly in the bay. The morning sun was high in the sky despite the early hour. In the few days they’d been in Alaska, she discovered that that trying to go to bed before the sun had set was an odd feeling. It was midsummer and the sun didn’t set until after midnight and was up before Tess rose.
Nathan and his brothers untied the boat and within minutes, the boat motor rumbled and Jared was steering the boat out of the harbor into the bay. Though the breeze picked up, the warmth from the sun took the edge of the wind off. Tess took another sip of her coffee followed by a deep breath, the fresh air enervating. Simon sat on a cooler beside the bench.
“So sis, what do you think of Alaska so far?” he asked.
“So far, so good. The fishing has been great and it’s beautiful. I’m glad dad finally made this trip happen.”
“I’ll second that. Jordan’s having the time of his life. He’s determined to catch a king salmon today.”
Hannah chimed in. “Well, he’s with the right crew if he’s hoping for that. I can’t call favorites or I’d be in the middle of a war of brothers, but Luke and his brothers know how to find fish and catch them.”
“They’re also great with Jordan. Not sure how dad found out about their business, but we couldn’t be happier,” Simon said.
Hannah opened her mouth to respond when Jordan called out, “Look!”
Jordan was pointing out ahead in the water. Tess didn’t see anything, but the ocean surface was disturbed where he was pointing.
“Dad there was a whale! Did you see it?” Jordan asked.
Simon stood and walked towards Jordan. Simon shared her father’s dark, straight hair and chocolate eyes, which he’d passed on to Jordan. Simon was two years her senior, had been her tormentor in childhood and now her overprotective brother in adulthood. Since he’d watched her relationship with Chad dissolve, he’d become doting to the point of annoying sometimes. He knelt beside Jordan.
Just as she was about to turn away, the water surface rippled and broke about fifty feet ahead of them, a whale’s tail flicking up out of the water, followed by the whale’s body curling against the water and dipping back under. Tess stood to get a better view. Jordan jumped up and down, clapping. “See! I told y’all there was a whale. What kind of whale is that?” he asked.
“That’s a humpback,” Jared said. “They put on a show sometimes. Glad you got to see that.”
Tess sensed Nathan beside her before she saw him. She turned away from the water to find he had tugged the cooler nearby a little closer and was sitting down.
“We aim to please when we take people out, but not everyone gets to see a whale like that,” he said, catching her eyes. He nodded towards Hannah. “Right, Hannah?”
“True. Plenty of tourists pay small fortunes to go on whale sighting tours, but there’s never a guarantee. How long are you here?” she asked, directing her question to Tess.
“Three weeks. My dad has wanted to come to Alaska to go fishing for years and we finally got around to it. I’m not sure how he decided on Diamond Creek, but we love it so far,” she said.
Hannah and Nathan alternated with filling her in on all things Alaska and Diamond Creek. Being the only woman usually when they went fishing, it was nice to have feminine company. Hannah had a practical sense to her that Tess appreciated. It was clear that she was considered just as expert on fishing as any of the brothers. As the boat rolled across the water in a rocking motion, she watched Nathan banter with Hannah.
“You’ve ruined my guaranteed coffee from Luke. It’s hit or miss now—have to plan for myself. It’s rough,” Nathan said.
“Yeah and that’s probably good for you. Between Jared and Luke, you’ve been coddled. Stopping to get your own coffee might train you up to do it for the woman that you’ll eventually meet and fall for,” Hannah replied.
Nathan looked aggrieved. “Hey, I’m not that bad.”
“I know you’re not, but you tend to create this impression of stumbling through life when you’re steady and stable, even though you won’t admit it,” Hannah said, a teasing look on her face.
“Okay…Luke fell hard, which is why, in case you forgot, I made sure he realized how amazing you are,” Nathan retorted. “You two have been nothing but sugar and sunshine since you got married. And you went and had John last year, so now mom and dad aren’t pressuring me and Jared to marry up and produce grandkids.”
Listening to Hannah’s comments only added to Tess’s curiosity about Nathan. Sitting with them gave her a chance to casually take him in. His presence was potent. He radiated a sense of strength, along with being handsome and sexy as hell. And those eyes…she just wanted to dive in to the heat that swirled whenever he looked at her. Although she’d let herself say yes to dinner, it didn’t change the fact that she couldn’t figure out what he saw in her.