Sweet talkin scoundrel, p.7
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       Sweet Talkin' Scoundrel, p.7

           Tess Oliver
 
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  I held my breath, certain that if I took in air, it would be a shuddering sob.

  Unexpectedly, he reached for my hand. He stared down at it, looking small and frail in his. He lifted his gaze to my face. “But I could never hate you, Rabbit. Never. I just wish you were in King’s Beach for a different reason. I wish you weren’t working on Wildthorne Island.”

  His words, his touch, the heady scent of his soap, had left me stunned and speechless. I couldn’t for the life of me puzzle out why my job at Wildthorne had him in such a twist. Before I could form a decent, logical question, he headed off toward his plane. I didn’t follow immediately, instead I watched his long legs carry him across the runway. There was less confidence and a hard edged anger in his broad shoulders. It seemed there was a lot of past history in this place, and somehow, I’d landed right in the middle of it.

  Chapter 8

  Kinley

  I’d set Becky a task of finishing up a painting she’d begun while I carried our snack plates down to the kitchen. My gaze brushed over the museum quality art lining the hallway walls. On my first day in the manor, I’d noticed that unlike most homes there were no family pictures hanging on walls or sitting on mantles. But the stately, conservative decor just wouldn’t have worked with a bunch creatively framed casual pictures of family beach trips or school portraits. As beautiful as the manor was inside and out, it had none of the folksy, relaxed feel of a true family home. No matter where my family lived, in the Sahara Desert under a canvas tarp or in a grass hut on some faraway river, my mom managed to make it cozy. And we always had family pictures taped and pinned to the walls.

  Katherine Underwood’s harsh, impatient voice overflowed into the corridor as I neared the entrance to the kitchen. “At least try to make an effort to be congenial. Maybe if you pried yourself away from those damn ship models once in awhile to engage in friendly conversation, this might work.”

  “Stop directing my life, Mother,” Marcus barked. His heavy footsteps were heading my direction.

  I froze in the hallway, wondering if I should turn back. But the old wood floor in the corridor creaked loudly, announcing my presence. I took a deep breath and pretended as if I had just reached the kitchen. Marcus nearly plowed into me in his haste to get away from his mother’s lecture.

  His mouth opened but no words came out. I’d taken him by surprise. Since he always had trouble finding his tongue, even when I hadn’t just popped up in front of him, he had an even harder time speaking. I filled in the awkward moment.

  “Afternoon, Marcus. How is the HMS Victory coming along? Is she nearly ready for her first voyage?”

  My moment of rambling gave him time to collect himself and his thoughts. He favored me with a rare, however faint, smile. “Considering she has no masts or ribs yet, no. I think we’ll have to delay her first voyage.” He nodded. “If you’ll excuse me, Kinley.”

  “Of course.” I stepped aside, even though there was plenty of room for him to pass. But I’d discovered Marcus truly hated any type of physical contact, even if it was just his shirt brushing my arm. I could only imagine what his reaction might have been if he’d actually run physically into me on his way around the corner.

  I continued on into the kitchen. Katherine looked up from a day planner she had open on the menu planning desk. “I heard the hallway creak and was beginning to think we had ghosts. Why were you lurking?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, but it wasn’t exactly an airy, nonchalant tone either.

  She closed the planner and peered at me through reading glasses. “Were you having a conversation with Marcus?” There was an edge of hopefulness in her voice. That, coupled with what I’d caught of the conversation, in my moment of unintended eavesdropping, made it seem as if Katherine was worried about her son’s lack of a social life. She was right to be concerned.

  I carried the plates to the sink. “Yes, I asked Marcus about his model.” I started to rinse the dishes.

  “Leave those for Janice. Yes, Marcus does love those models.” She took off her glasses. “Kinley, I realize I haven’t covered enough of our safety precautions and protocols. After all, we are rather cut off from the world out here.” She walked to a tall cupboard that was painted with the same antique white as the rest of the cabinets. The kitchen of Underwood Manor was as large as some people’s houses. Long, straight counters topped with gunmetal gray granite lined two of the walls. There was a massive island in the middle topped with a striped butcher’s block and lit by two glass pendant lights. And, like the rest of the house, the kitchen was immaculate.

  Katherine opened the cabinet. A small chalkboard with handles, or ham radio names, written on it was hanging on the inside of the door. She was Wildthorne One and Marcus was Two. Becky and Janice took up Three and Four. Katherine picked up the chalk and wrote my name next to Wildthorne Five. “Now, it takes a little training to use this radio, but it is our only surefire form of communication from the island.”

  “Actually, I won’t need training. My parents used a ham radio just like this whenever we lived too far from civilization.”

  Katherine’s face was generally stiff and without much emotion, but her eyes rounded as she looked at me. “My, you are full of surprises. That’s wonderful. Then I won’t need to show you anything. Naturally, in the case of an emergency, Marcus or I would be the one to make contact with the mainland. But in the event that both of us are incapacitated, then you would step in.”

  The heels of her always formal shoes clacked across the floor as she motioned for me to follow her to a door on the far side of the kitchen. It was easy to see she’d spent her childhood and teens in private prep schools where slouching or shuffling of any kind would have earned you a reprimand.

  “This is the cellar door.” She reached in and flicked on a light that illuminated a deep, rather sketchy looking staircase. “We don’t need to go down there right now. It’s dreadfully cold and dusty. But all of our emergency supplies are in clearly marked boxes, including a self-inflating dinghy.” She graced me with one of her rare, slight smiles. “Something tells me you already know how to operate one of those too.”

  I shrugged sheepishly. “What can I say? I had a highly unusual and adventurous upbringing.”

  “It seems to have given you a broad, accepting outlook on life.” She smiled inwardly at the compliment, almost as if there was some secret reasoning behind it. Her emphasis on accepting seemed to be the key to her reaction. But, as usual, I was confused by the woman. She was as difficult to read as her son. Thankfully, Becky was the complete opposite, a typical preteen always ready to tell you what was on her mind. I preferred Becky’s style.

  “I was told the shoreline around the island makes it too dangerous for a boat.”

  “That’s correct. It was one of the reasons my husband’s family bought this island. It was, in a sense, its own fort. But in an extreme emergency and with the right circumstances, a person could make it safely off shore in the dinghy.”

  Katherine closed the door. “I think that about covers it. Hopefully there will never be a need to use any of the survival gear, but my husband, Jack, always liked to be prepared.” It was her first ever mention of her husband.

  I knew that Becky’s dad had died when she was very young, five at the most and I now knew that his name was Jack and that he had always been prepared for emergencies. But that was the extent of my knowledge about the man who owned the island. I was never someone who liked to pry, but I decided it wouldn’t be wrong to know more about the man. I was, after all, living under his roof and teaching his only daughter.

  “Becky mentioned to me that her father died when she was a little girl.”

  At first Katherine’s only response was a curt nod, sharp enough to send her smooth hair forward. She discretely pushed it back from her face. I chided myself thinking I’d just taken a big misstep and would more than likely
be sent packing, but instead, a glint of emotion, an expression I couldn’t quite discern, flashed across her face. It almost looked as if the proverbial light bulb had just turned on and she’d come up with some brilliant idea.

  “Let’s have some tea, Kinley, and we’ll talk a bit. Unless you have to get back to the classroom.”

  “No, I’ve got Becky working on an art project, and to be honest, she’s less distracted if I’m not there. Otherwise, she always has something to tell me or ask me.”

  Katherine rolled her eyes, an expression she was masterful at. “That girl.” She shook her head, a gesture that was, of course, obligatory after an eye roll. She walked to the sink to fill the tea kettle, and I sat at the small breakfast table.

  Katherine brought two cups and saucers over and placed them on the table before returning to the cupboard for tea. “My husband was a shipbuilder. Actually, he was from a long line of shipbuilders. The Underwoods are well known in that world.” She returned with two tea bags and lowered them into the cups before pulling out a chair across from me. It seemed rather unreal to be sitting having a casual conversation over tea with Katherine Underwood. She just never seemed like the chit-chat type, but she continued her story. “His great grandfather started the business and family fortune. Each successive generation has followed in his footsteps. Jack’s older brother, God rest his soul, died while building a massive ocean liner. He was on tall scaffolding inspecting the workmanship when an unexpected wind pushed him over the side. He fell to his death.”

  “How terrible and how ironic that he should die falling from his own ship.”

  “Yes, my husband was devastated by the loss. It threw him, unexpectedly, into running the company alone until his own untimely death.” The kettle released a shrill whistle jolting us from the conversation.

  “I’ll get it,” I said quickly and got up to retrieve the kettle. I poured the hot water into our cups and returned the kettle to the stove.

  She twirled the bag around in the water. Her hands were not the hands of a middle-aged woman. They were smooth and well-manicured as if she spent a great deal of time taking care of them. I could easily envision her sleeping behind a satiny eye mask with snow white gloves cradling her hands in expensive creams.

  “Jack died on one of his boats too.”

  My face popped up from the fragrant steam hovering over my cup.

  “It wasn’t in the shipyard like his brother. We had a lovely pleasure boat that Jack loved to take the kids out fishing on whenever he had time away from his office. Even at four, Becky would sit patiently with her fishing rod at the stern, swallowed up in her puffy life jacket.” Katherine stirred her tea and placed the bag on the saucer. “On that calamitous day, the weather station had warned of high winds and rough seas, but stubborn Jack was sure they could get a few hours out on the water before things got severe. After his brother’s death, he had so little free time, he refused to waste even a minute of it. And he loved being with the kids.” She stared out the window as she sipped her tea.

  “Becky mentioned James in a passing conversation.”

  Katherine’s face hardened at the mention of her second son, but rather than elaborate or talk about him, she went on with her conversation. “All three kids were on the boat that day. They’d gone out farther than they should’ve with the impending storm. But the real trouble started when smoke suddenly spewed out of the engine compartment. Even with the extinguishers on hand, an unnoticed fuel leak made it impossible to save the boat. Jack sent a mayday out to passing boats, but in the meantime, they had no choice except to jump ship. By that time, the sea itself had started to show the first clues of the coming storm. Even their life jackets weren’t enough to fight the turbulent current. The waves gradually grew and as Jack held onto Becky, the boys struggled to stay afloat. An acrid black smoke had covered the water, burning their eyes and lungs. The nearest island was a good mile off. Unfortunately, it was a privately owned island that the owners rarely visited. My brave Marcus,” she hesitated as if it was hard to speak past the pride swelling in her chest. She swallowed hard, and it took her a second to get over what I was almost sure was a rush of emotion. It had to have been a nightmarish day for the family. I could only imagine the feelings it stirred.

  An audible sigh followed. “Marcus took Becky from Jack’s arms and swam through the rough water to the island. After he got Becky safely on shore, exhausted and cold, he returned to the wreck. Of course, Jack insisted he take James to shore first. My husband had grown up privileged”—a tender smile appeared that made her look far less severe. Pretty, even—“And a little spoiled,” she said fondly. “He liked nice things, but he always had a good heart. And his kids meant everything. Marcus helped James to shore. Then he returned to the wreck.” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “But it was too late. Jack was dead. The doctors said it was his heart.”

  Katherine rested back and her face returned to its usual mannequin hardness. She touched her cup. “Now my tea is cold.”

  “I’ll get the kettle.” I scooted back my chair, but she shook her head.

  “No, I need to get ready to fly to King’s Beach. You best get back to your inattentive pupil.”

  And that was that. She’d told me this incredible story, fraught with danger and ending with the tragic loss of her husband, and it was as if she’d just recited a recipe for blueberry muffins. I carried our cups to the sink and left them with the other dirty dishes.

  “I’ll be back later this evening,” Katherine noted in her usual business-like tenor as she strode out of the room.

  I had a moment to myself to think about the entire interaction. It was incredible to picture Marcus doing something so selfless and brave. I hadn’t seen any characteristics in him to give me any inkling that he had that type of fortitude and courage within him. Obviously, I’d misjudged him. It certainly gave me an entirely different opinion of the man. It had to have been gut-wrenching for him to know that as hard as he’d tried, he still couldn’t save his father. It was entirely likely that James, who for no other reason than his youth, was more fit than Jack. If Marcus had taken his father to shore first, everyone would have survived. I wondered briefly if that was the source of contention between the family and the son who had left for a life away from his island home. It seemed odd to think that would be the case. What mother wouldn’t be forever grateful that all her children made it safely home that day, even with the loss of her husband.

  In the distance, the now familiar rat-a-tat chirp of Tero’s engine broke the natural silence outside. Just the sound of the man’s plane sent a rush of feelings through me. I reached up to rub the tickle from my nose and headed out of the kitchen. A wry, almost laughable notion popped into my head about being a fly on the wall of Tero’s cockpit when Dax was charged with the task of flying Mrs. Underwood to King’s Beach.

  Chapter 9

  Dax

  My wetsuit scraped over the sandy wax on my board as the swell blew up like a balloon beneath me. I grabbed the edge of the board and my feet popped under me to stand. I knew before I’d even straightened that I’d overshot the wave. The water that had been a semi-solid surface underneath the board sucked back down. I bailed, headfirst, into the water. My leg snapped straight as the leash held tightly to my ankle as it headed in the opposite direction of the surfboard. My shoulder smacked the sea bottom. The churning water spun me as if I was a sock in a washing machine before releasing its hold on me.

  I headed in the direction of sunlight. I shook the water from my ears as my head popped through the surface.

  “Fuck, dude, you can’t surf worth shit this morning.” Larry’s chiding words rained down on my head from above.

  “Yep, it seems the surf gods aren’t with me today.” I wiped the saltwater from my eyes and climbed up on my board. “I’m going to head in. I’ve got to drive out to the hangar and do some work
on Tero before my first pick-up.”

  “Seems like something’s eatin’ ya, my friend. Now, I know it can’t be a shortage of women friends, cuz, well, cuz you’re fucking Dax. Is business bad now that summer’s long behind us?” Larry wasn’t a best friend or someone I hung out with much outside of the water, but we’d spent enough early morning hours on our boards to know each other pretty well.

  “Yeah, that’s it. Money’s always tight once tourist season slows down.”

  Larry lowered himself down on his board and paddled over to me. “But old lady Underwood keeps you plenty busy taking people back and forth.”

  “I’ll manage. Catch you later.” I glanced back to watch for a swell to take me to shore. As I coasted in, I thought about the conversation I’d just had. It felt like everything in my life right now was off balance as if I’d been slammed in a fight and my world had tilted sideways with the blow. But my dark mood, my new preference for solitude over fun and willing girls like Zoe and my shitty surfing had nothing to do with business and everything to do with women. One woman in particular. There was no way I could have seen it coming. The last thing I expected was to have a five-foot-two, blue-eyed girl pop into my life like a damn explosion of dynamite. And the worst part about it was she didn’t actually pop into my life. She wasn’t here for me at all. I was just the guy in charge of taking her back and forth to Wildthorne Island. Only every time I preformed that task, my life turned sideways just a little bit more.

  I stood up and waded the rest of the way in with my board. At the rate I was going, after a few more weeks of transporting Kinley back and forth, having to hear her cute stories and watch that button nose wiggle, all the while knowing she was never going to be mine, I wouldn’t even be able to stand on the fucking board, let alone ride it.

 
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