I HEADED TOWARD open water with the outbound current. Going with the flow, motor puttering a small wake as I steered the Master Baiter out of Langley Harbor in the late summer afternoon, nothing could have been easier. Saratoga Passage lay smooth and deep blue ahead of my bow. Not a care in the world. That was me.
Summer was winding down. Labor Day meant the end to the official summer season. Tourists would dwindle to drabs, and that meant my pickings for hook-ups were about to decline. I frowned at the thought of the summer fun ending. Now that I’d lost my wingman, John, to his better-looking better-half, more than summer was over. Not to be sentimental, but it felt like the end of an era.
I glanced behind me at my best friend and his girlfriend sitting in the sun, the wind tangling through Diane’s long brown hair. She didn’t seem to notice. Her head was thrown back in laughter at something the big oaf had said. I’d known John since childhood and we’d been each other’s partners in crime ever since. Borrowing a truck at fourteen, stealing beers at seventeen, and breaking hearts along the way, he was the brother I never had and I was the family he needed when his fell apart. Despite myself, I smiled at their happiness. He would marry that girl someday.
And what did that mean for me?
Tom Cats aren’t the marrying kind.
The best I could hope for was one of Diane’s bridesmaids would be hot. And single. Or not.
Tan arms draped across my shoulders and blonde hair blew in a sweet, girly cloud around my face.
Kiersti, the girl of the moment.
Or was it Kristi?
“Babe, I can’t see through all your hair.” Babe always seemed to work with the girls I hung around; calling it dating made it sound too formal.
Female laughter rang in my ears. The hand moving into the waistband of my shorts didn’t solve the problem of blindness from blonde hair that wasn’t my own.
“I can’t steer if I can’t see.”
“I’ll help you steer. I’ll hold the throttle,” she purred into my ear.
“That’s not the throttle,” I removed her hand from the front of my shorts, “and you steer with the wheel. Throttle makes us go fast.” Sometimes I pretended chicks were toddlers. Easier than explaining the big words.
“Fine.” She flopped into the seat next to mine and extended her long, tan legs toward the front of my shorts. Amazing how nimble her toes could be.
I stared over my shoulder, willing Diane to entertain my guest. This outing had been her idea. Being on my boat meant I’d be busy steering and getting us up the island to Coupeville in one piece. Not receiving hand-and-foot-jobs in the middle of open water.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Boats and sex went hand in hand—no pun intended—and had since I was a teenager, when my dad let me take his boat out with “friends” to go “fishing” or pull traps. As long as I showed up with a story about the one that got away or a few crabs, my parents believed me. Or ignored the hickeys peeking out from the collar of my T-shirts.
However, there was no way I’d get off in front of an audience.
Kiersti/Kristi’s foot moved dangerously close to my crotch. A few choppy waves from another wake, and I’d end up with bruised balls. Something needed to be done.
“Hey, Diane,” I called over my shoulder. “You should tell the story about Dave’s mounted deer head.” It wasn’t even a great story, but my pointed look caught Diane’s attention. When she saw the location of K’s foot, she laughed and rolled her eyes at me. I stood up and the offending foot dropped.
“Kiersti, come sit and I’ll tell you the fascinating story about a stuffed deer head in my old cabin.”
John stood and gave up his spot, taking the recently abandoned seat near me. “Smooth move, Donnely. By the way, I’m not rubbing you with my foot.”
“She seems,” he paused, “nice. Where’d you find her?”
“Over in Seattle. She’s not much of a talker.”
“I can see that. Looks like she prefers to communicate with body language.” His sunglasses covered his eyes, but through his thick, dark beard I saw him fighting a smile.
“It explains why we’re taking the boat up to Tobey’s. Trying to impress the town girl?”
I shrugged. “It was your girlfriend’s idea, but it’s a gorgeous day, and I figured it’d be nice to be out on the water.”
He knew me well. “It’s difficult to have a conversation going full speed on the water,” I shouted as I opened up the engine and pushed to cruising speed.
The girls yelped when the spray wet the seats, causing them to move from the stern to the little table inside the cockpit, bringing with them the scent of salty water and sunscreen.
I smirked at John.
Who needed conversation anyway?
Turned out, Kiersti was allergic to shellfish and didn’t like any seafood. She regaled us about her hives and swelling while she picked at a plate of grilled cheese and fries. How could you be from Washington and not eat any fish? Allergies I understood, but salmon was lifeblood. She wrinkled her nose at the idea of fried salmon and chips. I put her on the “nice knowing you list” after she stole both pieces of garlic bread that came with my mussels.
Sipping my pint of beer, I stared out the window while she explained her goal of becoming a cupcake empire.
“Oh, so you like baking?” Diane asked. Thank God for Diane. She appeared to be listening and asked questions at the right time. John kept coughing, but behind each cough was a laugh he tried to cover-up.
This was why I didn’t date.
“I don’t bake. Or cook,” Kiersti replied. “I really love cupcakes. They’re so small and pretty. Like little puffy hearts of cake.”
I tapped my knuckles on the table twice like a fighter tapping out from a match. John caught my meaning and offered to go up to the bar for another round of drinks. I went with him.
While we waited, I stared at the moose head above the entrance to the bathrooms. Lucky bastard had glass eyes and stuffing between his ears. Didn’t have to put up with yammering about puffy hearts of cake. Then again, he was dead.
I turned toward the familiar voice. Long red curls framed a pretty face.
“Hi, Ashley.” I smiled down at her
Ashley Curtis was a repeater. Someone I could hang out with, have occasional sex with, and she never clung or demanded . . . or refused to eat seafood.
“You remember John, right?”
She smiled at him and he nodded.
“What’ve you been up to?” I asked, knowing it had been at least since April since I’d last seen her.
“Oh, you know. Summer.”
Ashley was easy. Not in a trashy way, not at all. Easy because she knew what she wanted and knew me enough to not ask for anything more than what she saw.
“We should hang out soon.”
She leaned around me to glance at the table. “Your date doesn’t appear too happy about you talking to me.”
I glanced over my shoulder where Kiersti glowered at me. Sheesh. I was only talking to someone. Yeah, that someone was a hot redhead, but Ashley could be anyone. Like my sister or even worse, one of my sisters’ friends.
“Don’t worry about her. Let’s hang out this weekend.”
She scanned my face and I gave her a wink, then flashed my signature dimpled grin.
“Sure. I’m around.”
“Great. I’m looking forward to it.”
John cleared his throat and held up our round of drinks. “Nice seeing you again, Ashley.”
“You too.” She gave us a little wave.
“Nicely played there,” he said on our way back to the table.
“Always good to have a back-up plan.” I slid into the booth.
“Back up plan for what?” Kiersti asked, peering over her shoulder at the bar.
“Bad weather when you’re out on the water,” I lied.
“I’d freak out if we got caught in a storm,” Diane said.
“Don’t you have a rule about always being able to see land? How bad could it be if you did get caught in a squall?”
“That’s true, but John wants to go up to the San Juans. It’s like eight hours in the boat.”
“Friday Harbor?” I asked John.
“So romantic.” I fluttered my lashes at him. He was so whipped. Everyone knew Roche Harbor was romance central in the San Juans. I think they pumped subliminal romantic messages over speakers hidden all over the resort.
“We should all go together!” Kiersti suggested, clearly oblivious to my sarcasm.
Diane and John smiled at me from across the table and waited.
“Yeah, sure.” I gave her a half-smile.
After I dropped her off at the ferry, I’d probably never see her again. I wouldn’t leave her hanging. I’d text her and let her down easy. Tell her it was me, not her. Or something like that.
I wasn’t an asshole.
As we walked out of the tavern, I caught Ashley’s eye and gave her a wink.
Kiersti was pretty cold on the walk to the boat slip.
Okay, maybe I was a little bit of an asshole.
Cats don’t change their stripes.
Or was that tigers?