Grace Donner felt strangely out of place as she walked into the Blushing Bay Café with her decade-old laptop and ordered a coffee and blueberry muffin. She was really here for the free Wi-Fi. She’d been out of work for a full week now. She was hoping something new had posted overnight. She needed a paycheck before her landlord kicked her and her mother out of their modest apartment. Before they couldn’t even afford the canned beans and ramen noodles they’d been subsisting on for far too long.
Everything is going to be okay, she told herself.
She took a seat at a table in the far corner of the café and sat with her back to the other customers, limiting her distractions. Opening her computer, she tapped a few keys and went directly to a job-search site. She’d scoured most of the listings already. Blushing Bay, North Carolina, was a small fishing town, snuggled between two of the coast’s major ports. It was known for its scenic views of the Atlantic Ocean, seafood, and the way the water around the marina was populated by red algae once a year, making it “blush” to a beautiful rosy color. The town, however, was not known for its wealth of jobs. Not unless you had fishing in your blood, which Grace did not—not anymore at least.
She took a bite of her muffin and closed her eyes. It was the best thing she’d put in her mouth in a long time. She chewed, enjoying the moment before slipping back into her depressing job search.
A chair scraped along the floor behind her and she recognized the sound of someone plopping into a seat. A moment later, the person—a man—welcomed a woman to his table.
Grace opened her eyes and continued scrolling down the screen of help-wanted ads on her computer, her hope dwindling as quickly as the coffee in her cup. All of the jobs required some form of higher education—something she couldn’t afford. Her grandmother had set up a college fund for her growing up, but that had been spent during one of her mother’s infamous shopping sprees to buy who knows what. That was the past, though. Her mom was different now. For one thing, her disease didn’t allow her to tramp up and down the mall spending all their cash. Also, her mother didn’t seem to care about the material things like she used to. Maybe that was more from necessity than from choice.
Grace sipped her coffee and tuned in to the man’s voice behind her. He asked the woman a question. She answered. He asked another question. She answered.
This is a job interview, Grace realized. And the woman interviewing for the position knew nothing about running an office, which was apparently what he needed.
“I can make a mean pot of coffee,” the woman told him. Her voice was crackly, suggesting age and maybe a cigarette habit, Grace guessed, unable to help eavesdropping.
“All right. What about managing deliveries? There’s a tight schedule. Calling and taking orders, and scheduling drop-offs up and down the East Coast is a huge part of the job.”
Bigger than making coffee, Grace thought, feeling sorry for the woman, who was obviously underqualified. Grace continued to listen until the interview ended ten minutes later.
“I’ll call you by the end of the week,” the man promised, his voice deep and . . . sexy.
Something about it vibrated through Grace’s bones. She shifted and recrossed her legs.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” the woman said. Her chair scraped along the floor as she stood. “Thank you very much.” Then her heels clicked along the café’s tile as she walked away.
Grace’s heart sped up. She was good at juggling schedules. She could make calls and schedule deliveries of whatever the man needed. Unless he was dealing drugs, but surely he wouldn’t be interviewing for a drug dealer job in the middle of a café.
This could be my job. And she really needed the money. She straightened, took a deep breath, and turned around. “Excuse me,” she said, putting on a polite smile. She was so nervous that the person in front of her was a blurry image. She didn’t give herself time to focus. She just started talking before she lost her nerve. “I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re interviewing for an office manager position. I’m proficient in all the skills you mentioned and—” Her words stuck in her throat as she finally took in those deep-blue eyes. Jack Sawyer was seated at the table behind her. His was the blurry, now very clear face attached to that sexy voice. Her mind froze, like a computer swirling its blue circle of death.
Jack was her ex-stepbrother, her first true friend in Blushing Bay, and first big teenage crush. He’d also been her first kiss—forbidden because of the bond they shared, which only made it that much sweeter. Then Grace had learned of her mother’s first shopping rampage—one that had devastated their two families. Jack’s father had promptly divorced her mother, and Jack had never looked at her in the same way again. She and her mother had only ever garnered looks of distrust, disdain, and disgust from the Sawyers after that.
“Grace,” he said.
Heat crawled through her chest and neck. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was you.”
He smiled back at her, the motion crinkling the corners of his eyes. “It’s good to see you. Been a long time.”
Even though it was a small town, Grace had managed to evade the Sawyers. If she saw one of the brothers or their father, she quickly turned in the opposite direction. Not this time, though. This time she felt like a caged animal, ready to bolt at the first opportunity.
“I’m interviewing for an office manager to replace Aunt Mira. She finally retired,” he said.
“Oh.” Grace nodded, stuffing the last of her muffin into a brown paper bag. She couldn’t afford to waste food right now. And even though she was looking for a way out of this conversation, she also couldn’t help but think that managing an office sounded like a heck of a good job. She’d worked that job the summer when she was fifteen years old and Mira had had back surgery. Things were different then, though. Grace couldn’t possibly work for the Sawyers now.
Except there were no new job listings online, and she only had twenty dollars to her name. That would barely cover the copay for her mom’s medication. She needed employment almost as desperately as she needed to bolt out of this café.
“I know how to manage a schedule,” she said before she could stop herself. She didn’t look up to meet Jack’s eyes, though. Not when she was humbling herself to ask for a job from someone whose family had already turned their backs on her once. This was definitely a new low.
Jack leaned in. “What?”
Swallowing, she reminded herself that her mother was the only family she had left. They needed to continue having a roof over their heads and food to eat. “I made orders over the phone at the bar where I used to work all the time. I was in charge of making sure we never ran out of anything, and if we did, I placed the orders. I booked parties and managed the schedules of myself and the other employees. Dewy even had me handle filing the taxes last year . . . I’m good at business management.”
“Are you interviewing for this job?” he asked, sounding a bit stunned.
Say no, Grace. Jack would never give it to her even if she was. Swallowing her bitter pride, Grace blinked and forced her gaze upward to meet his. “I’m not at Dewy’s Bar anymore.”
And if she didn’t find work today, she’d be on the streets with her mother by Friday.
“What happened at Dewy’s?” he asked.
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth. “Dewy and I had a, um, misunderstanding.” The misunderstanding being that she wouldn’t sleep with him. In retribution, her former boss had accused her of stealing from the register. She’d been called a lot of things, but being called a thief wasn’t something she took lightly. So she’d punched him, square in his bulbous, spider-veined nose. A smile twitched on her lips at the memory. She’d been wanting to punch Dewy for over a year before that. He’d had it coming and she wasn’t a bit sorry.
Jack was staring at her. “Well, how are you with money management?” he asked.
Her body tightened. “You didn’t ask the last woman that question. Why me?”
“Managing finance is part of the job,” he said.
“And you don’t think I’m good at it. Because of my mother.” Of course. Chalk this up to a moment of temporary insanity. “Never mind. Forget I turned around.”
“Excuse me,” a woman interrupted, approaching Jack’s table. “Are you Mr. Sawyer?”
“Yes,” Jack said.
Grace grabbed her empty coffee cup and stood.
“I’m here for the job interview,” the woman told him.
Hot tears burned behind Grace’s eyes as she tried not to listen. Talking to Jack had been a stupid move. She’d known he wouldn’t hire her. And it wasn’t just him; it involved working with his entire family. Bad idea. Worst idea ever.
“Yes. You’re right on time,” Jack replied.
Grace stuffed her laptop into her battered messenger bag and slid it over her shoulder as she stood and headed for the exit. She’d continue her job search somewhere else. Right after she collected her dignity.
Jack hadn’t heard a word interviewee number two had said. He was too distracted by Grace’s abrupt departure. Should he go after her?
She wanted the office management position, but there was no way he could hire Grace. His dad and brothers would flip if he brought a Donner back into their lives. Even though Grace was never at fault for her mother’s actions.
“So,” the woman in front of him prompted.
Jack blinked and focused on the pretty blonde, maybe in her midthirties. She was definitely a better candidate than Grace regardless of what kind of experience she had simply because she wasn’t a Donner. Jack looked down at the résumé she’d placed in front of him. “I’ll, uh, look this over and give you a call later in the week.”
The woman smiled. It was a nice smile, the kind that would look good behind a desk. He shook the woman’s hand and watched her walk away. Then he quickly discarded of his coffee and napkins and headed to the door to see if Grace was still outside. A good fifteen minutes had passed, so he doubted it. And what would he say he if he caught up with her? Sorry, but you can’t have the job?
The parking lot had three cars, none of which held Grace inside. That was probably for the best. Although he and Grace had been close as kids, they were worlds apart these days. He climbed into his truck and drove to the Sawyer Seafood Company. Since his aunt’s retirement, he’d been stuck working the desk job. Not his preference.
He walked inside the two-story metal building and sat behind his not-so-cozy desk. The wall opposite him looked out on the Atlantic Ocean. Once the love of his life, now the water only made him think of his own failures.
“Heads up,” his younger brother, Noah, called, entering the room and spiraling a small football in his direction.
Jack spun in his chair and his arms went up reflexively. Growing up with two brothers, one younger and one older, ensured that his reflexes were always primed. They’d been a bunch of rowdy boys. Their Aunt Mira had sworn they’d needed a woman’s touch, but after Tammy Donner had married their father and turned things upside down and sideways, Aunt Mira had never complained about their upbringing again. They’d done all right on their own.
“The water’s smooth today,” Noah said, peeling off his torn ball cap and revealing a bad case of hat head.
Jack turned back toward his desk. He didn’t want to hear about the water, or any other tempting words Noah would use in an attempt to change his mind about not working the boats with his dad and brothers. As much as he despised sitting behind a desk, he’d rather do paperwork than fish these days. “I interviewed two people for the office job this morning,” Jack said, ignoring him.
Jack shrugged. “I’m not sure yet.” Because Grace had shown interest.
“The sooner you replace Aunt Mira, the sooner you can come to your senses and get back on the Summerly with me. Working with those high school kids you hired on for the summer feels more like baby-sitting out there than fishing.” Noah walked over to Jack’s desk and leaned against it, arms folded over his chest. “And it’s not the same without you on the boat, Captain.”
Well, it wasn’t the same without Chris.
Jack steeled himself against the rising emotion, a mix of anger and disappointment, all aimed at himself. “Maybe it’s time we hire you a skipper,” Jack suggested. They’d hired temporary help until now because his dad and brothers had insisted that Jack would be ready to step back into his role of captain of the Summerly in time. It’d been three months since the accident, though, and time had only made Jack more convinced that his fishing days were over. He and his best friend, Chris, had been growing tired of the profession long before the accident. They’d even talked about quitting and starting their own business together—Sawyer and Watson Coastal Builders. They’d been building things—small boats, piers, bathhouses—since their Boy Scout days. It was something that thrilled them both more than the next catch.
“Or maybe you should get your ass back in the boat,” a voice challenged behind them. Jack’s older brother, Sam, crossed the room.
Was every damn day in the office going to be like the movie Groundhog Day?
“I’m serious,” Jack said. “I think it’s time to talk about hiring a permanent replacement for Chris and me on the Summerly.”
“Good luck trying to get that past Dad. Fishing is our business. What else do you think you’re going to do?”
Not wanting to get into it, Jack turned his attention to interviewee number two’s qualifications on her résumé. He couldn’t help but think of Grace again. Last he’d heard, she’d worked at Dewy’s Bar and Grill on the outskirts of town. It was a far cry from being a teacher, which is what she’d told him she wanted to be when she was fifteen. People changed, though. He didn’t really know Grace anymore. For all he knew, she’d turned out just like her mother, Tammy.
Sam cursed under his breath as he stood at the window that overlooked the ocean.
“What’s going on?” Jack reflexively joined him to see whatever had his older brother’s jaw unhinged. One of their rental boats zipped dangerously close to the docked fishing boats. It made a huge turn to avoid hitting the Summerly.
“Shit,” Jack said. “Who’s behind the wheel?”
Noah sandwiched between them as they all watched. The runaway boat beelined straight toward the recreational area that their cousin Gabe ran. They rented boats and kayaks and offered tours on the water.
“He’s going to the hit the kayak launch!” Jack ran out of the building with Sam at his heels. It was still early morning. Hopefully no one was in the driver’s destructive path, even though these were the most popular hours for water tours.
Jack froze at the sound of impact as the boat plowed full force into the kayak launch. Wood flew out in the wake of the crash. Running again, Jack jumped aboard the boat and went to help the person behind the wheel.
The driver stood shakily.
Jack was shocked he hadn’t been thrown overboard on impact. “Are you all right?” he asked, out of breath from his race to get here.
A teenager with long dark hair and big brown eyes stared back at him.“Whoa!” the teen said, drawing a hand to his forehead where there was a slight cut. A spot of blood dripped along his cheek.
Jack quickly went to the ignition and cut the buzzing engine.
“Whoa!” the kid said again, laughing this time.
Jack turned him around by the shoulders to look him in the eyes. Other than a minor cut, there was no evidence of harm. There was, however, a distinct smell of alcohol. “You’re Dewy Capp’s kid. Tristan, right?” Jack had seen him on a skateboard in the area a time or two lately. He was maybe eighteen years old, which was the age requirement for renting a boat. Jack suspected Gabe hadn’t rented the boat to Tristan, though. There’d been a couple of break-ins over the last few months. Boats were being “borrowed” and then returned more than a little scuffed up after hours.
“I called an ambulance,” Noah said, reaching them now. “Great,” Jack said. “Why don’t you call the police, too.”