Tattered Innocence

Chapter 1 Preview

Rachel hot-footed it across the glittering sand of the Dolphin View Restaurant lot, too-new sandals clenched in her hand. The denim of her skirt caught her knees and shortened her stride. She slowed her breath. Hyperventilating wouldn’t help her ace this interview, and crewing on The Smyrna Queen was her only way out.

Worn work boots appeared on the dirty sand in front of her. “Rachel?”

Her gaze panned upward over faded jeans, carpenter’s belt, paint-splattered T-shirt, and stopped at toffee eyes trained on her. Her breath hitched. She’d been prepared for an old-salt captain, not a Diet Coke commercial. Hot granules scorched the soles of her feet, and she burrowed one foot toward cooler sand and balanced the other on a big toe.

She held out her hand, squinting at him. “Rachel Martin.” Her heart hammered like it had when she interviewed for her first and only job—high school athletic secretary—five years ago. But she only had to convince him she could sail, not manage details for nineteen sports.

He glanced at her hand but didn’t take it. A muscle tensed in his jaw. “Jake Murray.”

Palm fronds rustled in the May breeze.

She dropped her hand, swallowing his slight, and burrowed deeper in the dirty sand with her toes. First mate was the only job listed in the Hometown News classifieds she qualified for, and she needed this job to untangle herself from Bret. Why had she thought doing the right thing would be easy?

His pale curls moved in a puff of hot breeze as he frowned at her bare feet. “I’m starved. Let’s  tgo inside.” A halo of chin stubble sparkled in the sun. He shoved his hands into his pockets and strode toward the restaurant, his shoulders hunched.

The screen door banged behind him. A weather-beaten Best Fried Seafood on the Florida Atlantic Coast creaked on a sign overhead.

Rachel marched toward the smells of grease and fish. She dropped her sandals on the Dolphin-shaped mat, slid gritty feet into them, and pushed through the fingerprint-smeared door.

At three, the place was empty, except for a woman peeling shrimp in front of the fan, her support hose rolled into knee-highs. She tossed each shrimp into a huge stainless steel bowl, like morsels of wisdom she’d collected from living.

Rachel fought the urge to drag a chair over and pour out her messed-up life.

Jake moved from the counter, through the back door, to the outdoor seating without casting a glance in her direction.

The counter guy scratched the grouper tattoo on his bicep and yelled, “One super-deluxe combo basket, two sweet teas.”

<em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>At least he ordered something I like. And paid for it. She stepped onto the deck and spotted Jake facing the seawall where a beater fishing boat was moored.

His fingers drummed on the picnic table, his eyes slits above an anchor-hard jaw.

Rachel slid onto the wooden bench across from him.

He coughed and glowered at her as if it were her fault she’d caught him brooding.

Okay, so there were worse things than an emo boss.

Jake pierced her with his eyes. “Sail?”

Everything rode on this answer. She took a deep breath. “My dad taught me and my brother to sail. I was the one who caught the bug. I have a Sunfish stowed on a friend’s lawn on the Indian River. Sail every chance I get. I’ve piloted a Catalina 27 a couple of times.” If he was looking for big boat experience, she was screwed. “When you learn on a small boat, you have to grasp wind dynamics to stay out of the drink. It makes you a better sailor.” Her voice went up at the end as if she doubted her own theory.

The grouper-tattooed guy plunked a heaping basket of seafood in the middle of the table with one hand and set down Styrofoam cups with the other. He wiped thick fingers on his starched apron. “Enjoy.”

The aroma made her mouth water.

Jake bit into a piece of fish and cast his eyes toward the awning shading them. A moan of pleasure escaped as he chewed.

She twisted curls up off her neck to let the breeze off the Intracoastal dry the sweat as she popped a scallop into her mouth. She sat back to savor the Dolphin’s magic and Jake’s improved mood.

Jake sprinkled the basket, and salt danced on the grease paper. “Why do you want to crew on The Smyrna Queen?”

Rachel gazed at tiny whitecaps the wind kicked up on the water. “I want to taste the salt spray on a long tack. I want to live the ocean’s moods—summer squalls, flat as glass without a breath of wind, even the big blows. I want water between me and—New Smyrna Beach.” She wished she could bite back the words. Jake didn’t need to know she was running.

Jake cocked a brow.

<em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Don’t ask.

He shrugged and leaned his elbows on the rough wood of the table. “The Smyrna Queen is a sixty-eight-foot ketch. She was built thirty-one years ago, according to her plumbing fittings.”

Rachel stared at the pale hair curling on Jake’s forearms, willing him not to notice how desperate she was. “How big is your crew?”

Jake flattened his lips. “Two. Captain, first mate.”

“Two people can sail a sixty-eight-foot boat?”

“I billed the cruises as ‘hands-on,’ so we’ll get help from the guests. Besides, I rigged her to be sailed by two people when necessary.” Jake wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin onto the table.  “The Queen’s booked through the end of the year, mostly five-day vacation cruises starting two weeks from today.”

“You filled your cruises in this sleepy little town? Amazing.”

“I majored in marketing.”

“I majored in boredom.” The defense mechanism to hide her dyslexia and lack of college kicked in before she realized she’d spoken, and she cringed.

Jake’s fingers drummed again on the planks of the table. “Does crewing bore you?”

“I haven’t been this wowed since an accordion player marched up the center aisle at church.” Had she come down with Tourette’s? If she didn’t put a lid on her sarcasm, she’d sabotage the interview.

Jake’s eyes iced over. “Another church girl.”

She lifted one shoulder. Her stomach quivered with panic. After all her lip, would she lose the job because she’d grown up in church? That was almost laughable. If anyone was a poster-girl for bad choices, she was.

Jake stared at her as if she were a rotting fantailed mullet.

She squirmed on her bench, feeling like he could see inside her. See that she’d let her innocence go too easily. That she’d never recover the five-and-a-half-year-old who pressed her gooey, newborn brother in chubby arms against her Cinderella T-shirt.

He blew out a breath. “Fifteen wannabes bailed over the phone when they heard cooking was part of the job. What about you?”

“I have a shoe box full of yellow ribbons from 4-H cooking competitions.”

“Yellow?”

<em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Take it or leave it. She was trying to shove her way out of something she shouldn’t have flirted with in the first place. But if Jake wouldn’t be shoved….

He shifted on his bench. His eyes darted around the deck and the tiki bar. The door banged behind a man with a white ponytail and an earring hooked through the brown leather of his ear.

“All the bunks are rented out except for my cabin.”

Rachel’s gaze snapped to Jake’s. “So, if I want this job—” Across the deck two teens she recognized from the high school plunked down. Rachel lowered her voice to a whisper. “I have to sleep with you? I thought I’d heard all the lines from B―”

“I’m talking about a job—nothing more.” His eyes darkened to granite. His look said she’d sprouted cystic acne and two hundred pounds. “You’d have to share a small cabin with me, but you would have your own sleeping area and as much privacy as possible. Do you want the job or not?”

Well, okay, then, as long as we understand each other. But he’d made her mad. “I told you on the phone I wanted the job.” She forced the hard edge out of her voice. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

He let out his breath. “If I hire you, you’ll need to plan the week’s menu, grocery shop―”

“I think I know all the steps in cooking.” What was with her passive-aggressive mouth? This job would give her a clean start. But part of her clawed for Bret.

He eyed her. “I’ll let you know about the job.” He stood, tossed bills on the table for the tip, and walked away.

She watched his back lumber around the corner of the building, a wrestler leaving the mat. All the air released from her lungs. Who had pinned whom?

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