Chapter 1 – Elise
It really didn’t get any better than a day outside. A cool breeze, a gentle sway of the boat, birds chirping, the smell of fresh water and flowers. It wasn’t quite there yet, but it was so close I could taste it. I was ready to shake off the winter and get back to being outside and free.
First, I had to sit through training I’d been through seven other times. No one got a pass, not even if you were a lifer. Which meant I was there, again.
“Hey!” I heard from across the room. I looked up and found Ava waving and rushing toward me. Ava and I worked together on the #boat tours. She left MacKellar Cove through the winter for school, but she was back for her third summer.
“Hey,” I said, hugging her when she sat down.
Ava was a hugger. She was since the day we met. She was also a college student and still all shiny and happy and the way a person was supposed to be when they were twenty-one and had their entire lives ahead of them.
“Your hair looks awesome. How was your winter?” she asked.
“Thanks,” I said, touching my purple locks. It was my latest color. “Winter was good. Busy but not insane. How about you? How are classes going?”
“Great,” she said with a grin. “I can’t believe I only have one more year.”
“Assuming you pass your exams,” I teased.
Ava shoved me and grinned. “True. I’m only here for today, then will commute for a few weeks until exams are over. But hopefully I can keep doing this even after I graduate.”
Ava was an #education major who was hoping to move full time to the area and teach at a middle school. If she did, she was going to continue to work summers as a tour guide to earn extra money. I hoped it worked out for her.
“Is it too early to start looking for jobs?” I asked.
Ava nodded. “A little. I have one more semester of classes and then a semester of student teaching. I’m hoping I can land a spot here and stay on after, but I don’t know of any MacKellar Cove teachers looking to leave.”
I grinned. “People have a tendency to stick around here forever.”
“I totally get why.”
Ava grew up a few hours away on the other side of the Adirondacks. MacKellar Cove sat along the St. Lawrence River, west of the mountains. A small cove separated the town from the river, giving us opportunities for swimming and fishing in a quiet area relatively untouched by the deep, powerful waters of the St. Lawrence.
It was home for me. Sanctuary in a way. It was the only place I ever wanted to live, the only place I could imagine living.
“So, what have you been up to? Meet anyone new?”
I shook my head and forced a smile. Ava was a coworker and sweet, but she didn’t know me. She didn’t know that meeting someone new was not going to happen. Been there, done that, had the scars to prove I survived it.
“Nah. You know how it is here. Everyone knows everyone.”
Ava nodded solemnly. “It’s really the only downside to living here. But since I didn’t grow up here, it’s not as bad for me. There are still a lot of new men for me to discover.”
I grinned. “Definitely. Hopefully you’ll find a good one.”
“God, I hope so. I’m sick of being single.”
“You need some friends,” I told her with a chuckle. If I didn’t have my group of friends, I’d go nuts, but not because I was waiting for a man. Having good friends made everything better.
“I need that, too,” Ava said with a laugh. She wound her long, dark ponytail around her hand and swung it over her shoulder. She was pretty with a cute nose and hazel eyes behind glasses that made her look a little nerdy. She was curvy like me, but where I could wear maternity clothes even though I’d never been pregnant, Ava looked more like Marilyn Monroe with her sexy, proportional curves.
Our boss and the owner of the company, Walter Coronado, moved to the front of the room. Everyone fell silent. Walter was a good boss and treated all his employees like family. It was why people came back year after year to work for him.
“Hello, everyone. Are you ready to get back on the water?”
We all cheered.
“Good. I’m ready, too. We’re going to run through some basic stuff that most of you have heard before, then we’re going to talk about the tours we’re offering this summer. I’m really excited about this summer and can’t wait to share it with all of you.”
“Woohoo!” Ava called.
Walter smiled at her. “Glad to see you’re just as excited, Ava. How was school?”
“Good,” Ava said, “but I’m ready to be back here for a few months.”
“We’re happy you were able to come back. For those of you who are new, we have a lot of employee events so you can all get to know each other. I hope you’ll participate,” Walter said, meeting the gazes of the staff.
I sat back in my seat at the back of the room and surveyed the others. Most of them I knew from previous years working on the boats. A few faces were new. Every summer, the staff got younger and younger. Not the operators, but the guides. I was one of the oldest ones left, and at twenty-nine, I didn’t usually think of myself as old.
I got it, though. Last summer, one of the other guides was about to get married. Another one was pregnant. One was finishing college and not coming back to the area. It was the kind of job most people didn’t hang on to for a long time. But I loved it. I loved cracking jokes with the tourists and being outside and knowing I was safe because there was nowhere to hide on the boats. Nowhere to get trapped or cornered or…
I pushed the thoughts away and focused on what Walter was saying. All of us were required to having fishing licenses, boat licenses, and CPR and lifeguard certifications. Walter didn’t take any chances with his customers or employees.
The safety stuff was a review for me, but I listened anyway. When it was time for lunch, two massive sandwich platters arrived, courtesy of Walter. Ava and I grabbed food and returned to our seats.
“This is so good,” she said around a mouthful. “I was starving. I didn’t eat breakfast this morning.”
“I’m trying that intermittent fasting thing. A friend of mine lost a ton of weight doing it.”
“You don’t need to lose weight,” I told her.
She shook her head. “Oh, I definitely do. If I could drop about forty pounds, I’d look so much better.”
“You do not need to lose forty pounds!”
Ava rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I really do.”
“Curves are hot, and if someone you like can’t see that, then you shouldn’t be with them.”
Ava smiled. “I wish I had your confidence. I get overlooked all the time for the skinny girls. I’m kind of sick of it. I just want a guy to see me and have his eyes do that lazy slide up and down before he smiles and asks what my name is.”
“College is not the time to judge men for the quality of their choices,” I said.
She laughed. “True, but I figured I would have met someone by now. If I don’t find The One this year, I worry I’m going to be single forever.”
“Would that really be the worst thing in the world?” I asked.
She shrugged. “The worst thing? No. But I don’t want to be single. I don’t know how you’ve stayed single for so long.”
I grinned. “Good vibrators.”
Ava choked on her drink and struggled to breathe while she coughed up the water. I slapped her on the back and felt bad for scandalizing her.
“Jeez,” she wheezed. “You need to warn me before you say something like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, grinning wryly.
“No, you’re not,” Ava said.
I shook my head. “No, I’m not.”
“What did I miss?” Walter asked, turning the chair in front of our table around to face us.
Ava and I exchanged a look and broke out laughing again.
“Trust me,” Ava said. “You don’t want to know.”
Walter raised a dark eyebrow at us and shook his head. “Pretend I didn’t ask. How is my dream team doing this year? You ladies ready to handle the big boats?”
Ava and I exchanged a glance and nodded.
“Good. I’m going to keep you two together as much as possible. Elise, while Ava is finishing up school, I’m going to pair you up with a few of the newer guides. We need to find a third to send with you two on some of your trips. You need to let me know who works well with you.”
“I’m sure anyone will be fine,” I said automatically.
Walter smiled. “I’m sure they will, but I want to be positive. It won’t cost anyone their job, but I trust your judgment. I know you’ll find someone great to pull onto your team.”
I appreciated the confidence he had in me, but I was a background kind of person. I could get up in front of guests and make them laugh, but I wasn’t good when it came to getting to know my coworkers or figuring out who was the right fit with the customers and who wasn’t.
The only reason Ava and I were friends was because she didn’t give up on getting to know me. She was always nice, but she was the one who made the effort over the last few years.
“She’ll find someone awesome, won’t you?” Ava asked with far more confidence than I felt.
I nodded. “Yep.”
Walter held my gaze for another minute then nodded and asked how we were doing.
“Good. Ready for tours to start,” Ava said. “And ready for exams to be over.”
Walter chuckled. “Don’t rush it. College should be a fun time. A time for you to find yourself and figure out who you are. Those were some of the best years of my life. It’s all downhill after college.”
Walter and Ava laughed, but I had to force a smile and choke back the bile threatening to spill out. College was the worst three years of my life. So bad I left college a year early and finished my degree online. Just the fact that I was alive and surviving on my own made life after college much better than college.
The bar was low for me.
Walter stood and knocked on the table. “Back to it. Elise, we’ll talk in a few weeks or so about your first instinct with some of the newbies. You guys ready for a tour?”
We nodded and cleaned up our lunch. Walter led the group outside to the boats. Tour boats couldn’t dock in the Cove because of the shallow water so we were just south of town on the bank of the river. The St. Lawrence was plenty deep for the boats Walter had. All six of them.
“Ooh, I like that one,” Ava said when she saw the shiny, new boat in the water at the #boat tour dock.
I laughed. “Of course you do.”
“Oh, come on,” Ava said. “It’s gorgeous.”
I nodded. “It is, but I’m more of a well worn kind of girl.”
Ava grinned. “Yeah, yeah, I know. It has to be broken in for you to know it’s any good.”
I smiled and followed her onto the deck of the first boat. It was one of the biggest ones in the fleet. #Boat1 and #Boat2 were used for the tours that ran consistently to the local castles and other tourist attractions.
Walter went through the boat for the sake of the newbies, showing them all the little things they needed to know about it. He also reminded them that they would always work with an experienced crew member so they had plenty of chances to learn the ins and outs of each boat.
Since #boat2 was exactly the same as #boat1, we moved to the next dock and walked onto the smallest boat, the one used only for private tours. It didn’t get used often, but it was there and it was a good boat.
The last dock held the three boats I favored, including the new one that fit in the same class size. They were the utility boats. The boats that were used for regular cruises but held about half as many people. These were the lunch cruises, the dinner cruises, and the sunset cruises. I’d driven one of them a few times on really quiet cruises. It made me think about getting my captain’s license, but I hadn’t made that choice yet. Especially because the big boats scared me.
When we stepped on the deck of the new boat, Ava sighed. “She’s gorgeous.”
I grinned. “Yes, she is.”
“See, I told you you would love her.”
I chuckled. We listened to Walter’s spiel then filed off the boat and down the dock with the others. Walter dismissed us when we got back to the training room.
“I was hoping we’d have time to grab a drink and catch up, but I have class in the morning. Next time?” she asked. “I’ll be back this weekend.”
I nodded. “Sounds good. Drive safe getting back to school.”
“Yes, Mom,” Ava said with a smile. She hugged me again, then we walked in different directions to our vehicles.
I drove north past MacKellar Cove and thought about stopping in town, but I was ready to be home. I pulled into my neighborhood and waved at Mrs. Lockhart. Her trailer was the first one after the entrance, and she was the unofficial neighborhood watch. Nothing happened without her knowledge, or her approval sometimes. Knowing she was always watching made me feel safer and was one of the reasons I bought my home when I moved back to MacKellar Cove.
Some people looked down on trailer parks, or mobile home communities if you were upscale, but I loved where I lived. My neighbors all watched out for each other. We got together regularly for impromptu gatherings, and everyone pitched in to help each other out. And in our area of Upstate New York, there were plenty of communities like ours, full of people who owned their own home on wheels.
I backed my hatchback into the spot next to my trailer and checked my mirrors before I got out. Satisfied no one was around, I got out and locked the car then skipped up the two steps to my door. I unlocked my door and went inside, closing and locking the door behind me. I listened, even though I knew I was alone, just to make sure.
My trailer was small with an open floor plan, just how I liked it. No one could hide because my closet didn’t have a door and neither did my bedroom. The only door was into the bathroom, and that was wide open with a clear shot though the see-through shower curtain.
I poured a glass of water and carried it to the couch. I turned on the TV and called my mom.
“How was it?” my mom said when she answered the phone.
“Training was good, Mom.”
“Was Ava there?”
“She was. She has one more year and is still hoping to find a teaching job here. She’s also looking for a student teaching position for the second semester.”
“I’ll ask around,” Mom said. My mom was also a teacher, but she was at MacKellar Cove High School. She said if Ava wanted to work with her, she’d take her in a heartbeat, but Ava was set on middle school.
“Thanks, Mom. How was your day?”
“Good. Dad and I got the boat out of the garage. Ian is going to take a look at it for us.”
“Good. Let me know when you want me to help you get it in the water.”
“If Ian says it’s good, then soon. Bob and Sandy already have theirs in the water. They went out today. Said it was beautiful. A little cold, but gorgeous.”
“It was definitely a nice day. Walter bought a new one for tours. Ava loved it.”
“But you didn’t,” Mom said with a smile in her voice. “You always like the things that have the edges rubbed off.”
“It’s better when all the kinks are worked out.”
Mom chuckled. “Well, I can’t always disagree with you. Are you coming over for dinner tomorrow night? Piper said she might come. You should call her.”
I nodded and made a mental note to check in with my cousin. We grew up like sisters, both of us only children. Our moms are sisters, and we all spent a lot of time together when we were younger. Piper and I drifted when I went to college, but we’d gotten closer again in the last five years being back in the same town.
“I’m planning to come. I’ll talk to her. Are Aunt Cathy and Uncle Ken coming?”
“Yep. And maybe one day you two girls will bring someone over to fill in those last two spots at the table.”
I made a noncommittal noise and let my mom ramble on. She knew I was in a serious relationship with Andy in college, but they never met. He never wanted to travel with me when I went home to visit my family, and eventually, I stopped visiting. For almost a year, I didn’t see my parents because of him.
I know now it was one more thing he wanted control over. But he was the reason I’d never bring someone to fill up the empty seat I sat next to at the table. Maybe Piper would have a kid one day and she could fill both seats.
Not that I thought it would get my mother to stop talking about my need to settle down.
“…never see it happen. I just don’t know about you young kids now. Waiting forever to get married and have kids. Don’t you know that if you don’t start having kids soon, you might not be able to? I mean, you’re not that young anymore, not biologically.”
“I know, Mom,” I said. I’d never win the argument with her, so I agreed and blamed my lack of interest in dating on having grown up with almost all the single men in town. She told me I should broaden my horizons and date men who didn’t live nearby, but I told her I wasn’t driving two hours each way for a date.
And she thought my generation was crazy.
“Promise me you’ll give me a grandchild one day, Elise,” she begged. It was how she ended every conversation.
“I promise I’ll try,” I said, like I always did.
She huffed because she wanted more than that, but we both knew I got my stubbornness from her, so that was the best she could expect.
“I love you, Mom,” I told her to ease some of the irritation.
“I love you, Elise. We’ll talk soon. I’ll ask if anyone knows any single men who aren’t more than an hour away. I’ll let you know.”
“Mom…” I looked at my phone. “And she hung up on me.” I shook my head. I couldn’t say I blamed her. Once upon a time I wanted kids. Two, maybe three. With a big yard to play in and a husband who doted on all of us.
That dream ended the day I landed in the hospital.
Chapter 2 – Colin
I stared at my phone for longer than felt sane. The text didn’t change. It didn’t rearrange itself into something that made sense. It just sat there, begging me to reply.
Ramsey Holland: A few of us are meeting at O’Kelley’s for a drink. You should join us.
I double checked the number and wondered if I was losing it. He was my lawyer. Yeah, MacKellar Cove was a small town, but was it small enough that you socialized with your lawyer?
He seemed like a nice enough guy. I’d met his kid and wife, and they were nice. But all that was basically work. I invited him out to the farm to make sure he knew what we were fighting for. He suggested a grand opening and it was only right he was there since it was his idea. But we didn’t hang out.
Hell, I didn’t even know what or where O’Kelley’s was. Maybe that was a sign I needed to get out more. Or maybe it was a sign my business was going to be a success.
Then again, did socializing with my lawyer help with that?
Hell, I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was I was exhausted and not really in the mood for small talk with a bunch of strangers.
Thanks, but I think I’m in for the night. Next time?
I pocketed my phone without another glance. He was my lawyer. You didn’t hang out with a guy you paid to work for you.
“What are you up to?” Nicky Holbrook asked.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
He sat down and raised an eyebrow, silently asking what I found so damn funny.
I shook my head. “My lawyer just invited me out for a drink.”
I shrugged. “I said no because I don’t think it’s a good idea to hang out with someone you pay.”
Nicky gave me a wry smile and shook his head. “Then I guess this other beer is for me, too.”
I laughed and grabbed the bottle off the desk before he could swipe it. Nicky worked for my grandmother for years. Forever if you believed him. They became friends, and Nicky stayed on even after she was sick and stopped maintaining the Jones Family Maple Farm. When she passed, Nicky still stayed, to make sure nothing happened. He didn’t get paid. He didn’t have instructions. He just stayed because he was that kind of man.
“Things here aren’t the same as where you grew up, Colin. People here look out for each other. They care. And your lawyer invites you out for a drink sometimes. It doesn’t mean you have to be friends, but it means you can be if you want to be.”
I twisted off the bottle top and tossed it in the bin under my desk. One of the many projects I hoped to get to one day. I didn’t know what I was going to do with all of the bottle tops, but eventually I’d come up with something.
“I don’t have time for friends,” I told Nicky. “I work eighty hours a week. When I’m done, I’m barely able to stand let alone go out and drink a beer.”
“But you can stay in and drink one?”
I rolled my eyes at him.
“Listen, kid, I get it. You’ve only been here a few months. It’s tough to meet new people. But hanging out with me all the time isn’t going to be good for you. I’m old and crotchety and too damn stubborn. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like me.”
“I don’t know if that would be so bad.”
Nicky laughed, a rough, weathered laugh. He’d never been a smoker, but he sounded like it. He liked his whiskey as much as his beer, and he spent more than his fair share of hours outside in the cold. He blamed the cold instead of the whiskey for his rough sound.
“Trust me, you don’t want to end up like me. Life is better when you have a woman by your side and some friends to grab a beer with once in a while.”
I shook my head. “Maybe one day, but things are too busy right now. I need to focus on the farm for the first few years. Get things settled. Then I’ll think about it.”
Nicky shook his head. “You’ll regret it. You’re already getting old.”
“Hey! Thirty-nine isn’t old.”
Nicky grinned and tipped his beer to me. “Forty is, though. You only have two months.”
“Forty still isn’t old. And if the woman isn’t the right one, she’s not worth it.”
“Speaking from some experience?” Nicky asked.
I shrugged. We were still getting to know each other, and I wasn’t a big talker. I didn’t share a lot about my past, and especially about my past mistakes.
“I haven’t been a monk for thirty-nine years.”
“That either means you’re too picky to be willing to let the right one in or you know exactly what you want in a woman. Or a man? I never asked.”
“I know what I want in a woman. If I thought I’d met the right one, I’d let her in.”
My mind went to Ramsey’s friend. Elise. She was at the grand opening, but we only met for a moment. Barely a moment. She was stunning in a way that most men overlooked. I saw her from behind before I saw her face, and I admit it was an asshole move, but shit, her curves had me salivating before I walked over. When she turned and smiled at me, it was tentative, but I felt like I’d been hit with a lightning bolt.
I hadn’t seen her since, but I also hadn’t ventured far from the farm. Work took up all my time.
Nicky stood and slid his empty bottle into the bin by the door. “I still think you should go meet your lawyer for a drink. Maybe he has a cute friend he can hook you up with.”
I chuckled and shook my head, but couldn’t deny he had a point. If I wanted to meet Elise and maybe get to know her, Ramsey was a connection to her.
“Think about it. And get some sleep tonight. You don’t need to be in here when I arrive in the morning.”
I nodded even though we both knew it was likely I would be. Nicky knocked on the door frame and left, leaving me to my quiet, lonely office.
My grandmother worked out of the barn, but I decided I needed to spread out more. I moved the office to one of the bedrooms in the main house, and had plans to knock down the office walls in the barn so we could do more in there. It was another One Day project. I really needed to write some of them down.
I dug out my phone to look for a list app and clicked to the text app instead. It had been an hour since Ramsey texted me. How long did people hang out at a bar, if O’Kelley’s was a bar?
I searched the place and found an address. It wasn’t far, and while I second guessed myself again, I grabbed my sweatshirt and headed to my truck.
The town was quiet, but I didn’t expect much on a Tuesday night. I listened to the directions as my phone read them to me and found the place right on the waterfront. It was definitely in a great location, and judging by the cars parked out front, it was popular.
I found a spot a block away and walked back to the bar. Inside was a little dark, but not so dark I couldn’t see. I scanned the place quickly and didn’t think I saw Ramsey.
The bartender met my gaze and nodded once, whether in invitation or acknowledging that he was watching me, I wasn’t sure. Depending on the person, it definitely could go either way.
I walked over to the bar and took a stool in the middle.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.
He was a big guy, close to my height, with dark eyes and a dark beard. His baseball hat displayed the local high school logo, and his white tee stretched across his chest, making sure everyone knew he could kick their asses if they got out of line.
“A beer. Whatever you have on tap.”
He gestured to the list. “I could guess for you or you could pick one. Up to you.”
“Bud sounds good,” I told him.
He nodded and pulled the lever. “You’re Cleotha’s grandson, aren’t you?”
I nodded, curious that the man in front of me knew my grandmother.
“She was a damn good lady. I’m sorry for your loss.”
I nodded again. “Thank you.”
My grandmother was a good woman, but she was also a little of a mystery to me. My parents met on Jones Family Maple Farm, and when my mother died, my father couldn’t stay in the area. It reminded him of my mother, and he chose to leave so he could focus on me instead of letting his grief drown him.
But that meant I grew up without my grandmother or my mother. My father was wonderful, and we were still close, but there was a part of me that knew I was too gruff at times.
“I’m Hudson. This is my place,” the bartender said. “First drink’s on me since you’ve never been here. Hopefully you’ll come back.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I was actually supposed to meet someone here.”
“Don’t tell me it’s someone from that dating app,” Hudson said with a groan.
He rolled his eyes. “One of the locals is a tech genius or something and she made an app. All the women around here are going crazy for it, but since they know I won’t take shit from anyone, they’re meeting their dates here. Who are you supposed to meet?”
I shook my head. “No one from the app. My lawyer actually. Ramsey Holland. He suggested I stop by.”
Hudson relaxed. “Sorry. You missed them by about ten minutes.”
I shrugged. “Maybe next time.”
Hudson nodded. “Hey, nice to meet you. If you need anything else, let me know. The kitchen closes at nine tonight, so if you’re hungry, we need to get an order in soon.”
I grabbed the menu and thanked him, realizing I was a little hungry. It didn’t take long to decide on something to eat and put in my order. I also asked for another beer and checked out the bar around me.
There was a dance floor to the side. Bathrooms ran down the hallway. An old juke box sat in the front corner. Booths lined the front and side of the space with tables scattered in the middle. Waitresses worked their way around with trays of food and drinks and smiles for all the people.
It wasn’t insanely busy, but it was busier than I expected for a small town bar on a weeknight.
“Hudson, I’m getting a refill,” I heard a woman shout from a few stools over.
I turned and watched as she reached over the bar and grabbed the #dispenser. Her breasts flattened on the top, her ass in the air. She stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth as she watched, completely focused on the liquid filling her glass.
She stopped halfway to the top and put the #dispenser back, then set the glass on the top and pushed herself off the bar.
It made no sense that I was so mesmerized by her. She had her hair up in a messy bun. A black sweatshirt hid her upper body. Jeans hugged her legs. She even had on shoes that looked like slippers. Hair slid into her face, and she blew out the side of her mouth to push it back then took a sip of her drink.
She defined cute. And with those curves, she defined sexy.
She turned her head and met my gaze. Almost as quickly as she saw me, she looked away, her eyes sliding right past mine like I was no one important. Then again, I wasn’t. We met once, and it wasn’t for long. She might not even remember me.
I opened my mouth to say something to her, but she hopped down and turned away. I watched her walk through the crowd, smiling at people as she moved. When she stopped, she sat at a table of other women, women I didn’t know but recognized.
I guessed saying hi was out of the question. I hadn’t even wanted to meet my lawyer, and I definitely wasn’t intruding on a bunch of women I didn’t know so I could say hello to one.
“Do you know Elise?” Hudson asked.
I hadn’t heard him come back, but I wasn’t surprised. He made it clear he wasn’t going to let me, or anyone else, mess with his bar.
I shook my head. “Not really. She came to the grand opening and we met, but that’s it. She’s friends with Ramsey’s wife.”
Hudson nodded. “Yeah. All of them are friends.”
I glanced at the table again, just in time to see Elise tip her head back and laugh at something someone said.
When I finally looked away, Hudson was gone, but I knew he noticed. I wasn’t exactly being subtle. My dinner showed up, delivered by one of the servers, not Hudson. I ate and finished my beer and stuffed a few dollars into the tip jar. I nodded at Hudson and thanked him for the beer.
Just before I reached the door, Elise and one of her friends did.
“Hey, aren’t you the guy from the maple farm?” her friend asked me.
I nodded. “I am. I’m Colin.”
“That’s right. We met at the grand open. Nice to see you again, Colin. I’m Trinity. And this is Elise.”
I shook hands with Trinity then offered my hand to Elise. She stared at it for a long moment until her friend nudged her. Elise forced a smile and stuck her hand in mine for the briefest of moments. That one quick touch was enough to send a spark through me, but Elise clearly didn’t feel the same.
“We haven’t seen you here before,” Trinity continued.
“Oh, um, yeah, I’ve been working like crazy. I was actually here to meet someone. Uh, Ramsey. I think you know him.”
Trinity laughed and nodded. “We do. I thought you were going to say you were meeting someone from Book Boyfriends Wanted.”
“What’s that?” I asked her.
“It’s a dating app. No judgement if you were,” Trinity said.
“No, I…quite honestly, I don’t have time to date.”
“Really? Well, that’s a shame,” Trinity said. “Maybe things will slow down for you at some point. But a lot of people are busy in the summer, right, Elise?”
She nudged Elise, and she nodded.
“Elise works for #boat tours. They’re starting up soon, and she’s going to be crazy busy. That’s what happens when you live in an area that shuts down for the winter.”
I nodded and tried to figure out what was going on.
“Well, we should go,” Trinity said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You, too,” I told her. I smiled at them both, but Elise barely acknowledged me. I tried to tell myself it was for the best.
I went outside behind them, but they were walking the opposite direction from where I parked my truck. I got in and turned on the heat, needing a little warmth to fight off the chill of the spring night.
On my drive home I tried to decide if Trinity was flirting with me or if she was trying to get me to ask Elise out. By the time I got home, I realized it didn’t really matter because I didn’t have time to date. I didn’t have time to do anything.
But I did want to see Elise again.
Even though I knew better, I looked up the dating app Trinity mentioned. Before I could convince myself not to, I downloaded the app. I didn’t open it, but it was there. If nothing else, maybe when I was ready to date, I could meet someone.
Maybe Elise was on it.
Chapter 3 – Elise
I zipped up my jacket and tied my hair back into a ponytail. It was going to be cold on the water for my first tour, but it would be worth it to be outside in the fresh air with the wind and water whipping around me.
Tourist season wouldn’t be in full swing for a few more weeks, but Walter liked to start early so we had a few runs in before things got too busy. Especially for the newbies. It was good for them to be a part of the smaller groups before we were facing groups that just about filled the boats.
The employee lot was quiet when I got there. The other tour companies weren’t running boats for another week, which made it nice for us. I locked my hatchback and threw my backpack over my shoulder, shivering at the chill in the air.
“Hey, I’m Cami,” a woman said, walking over to me. I recognized her from the training as one of the new hires for the summer. “You’re Elise, right?”
I nodded. “I am. We’re working together today. Are you ready?”
She nodded, her grin wide. She had that fresh, new look of someone who’d never done this before. She definitely had energy, which would be a good thing when we were on our fourth trip of the day and still had two more to go. Her dark hair was tied back into a thick ponytail. She was smart and not wearing any makeup and had a pair of leggings on under her #boat tour sweatshirt and jacket.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this. I grew up a little north of here and worked my way through college. I still am not totally settled on what I want to do with my life, so I figured working here for a summer would be fun. Maybe longer if I like it.”
I smiled. I always wondered if it was a slight when newbies talked to me about working there a few years until they decided what to do with their lives, or if they were just oblivious. Cami had an oblivious vibe to her.
And besides, it didn’t matter what they thought. I loved my job. I had fun every day and I was free. No one got to tell me what I should do with myself.
“It’s a great job. As long as you don’t mind sun and wind and talking,” I told her.
Cami chuckled. “I can handle all those. How long have you been doing this?”
“Eight years,” I told her, bracing for the flinch and the attempt to disguise her shock. I’d made a career out of a job most people tried for a summer or two. It didn’t always matter that their opinion wasn’t important. People looked down on others all the time.
“Seriously? That’s awesome. That really gives me hope that this is going to be a great place to work.”
“It is,” I told her honestly. Well, she sure surprised the hell out of me.
“So cool. Now I really can’t wait to get started.”
I smiled and held the door for her. “Then let’s go.”
We had a short meeting with Walter, then divided into our crews for the day. Cami stuck by my side as we head out to our boat, the #boatname.
“Wow. This is gorgeous. How many people are on this one?”
“It can hold one-fifty, but we’re not going to have that many today. We’ll be lucky if the boats are a third full.”
Cami nodded. She was looking a little green, but her color came back slightly. “That’s good. I wasn’t prepared for that many people.”
“Do you get anxious talking in front of a large group?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “Not usually. I was a theater major, but that was playing a part. I had a role. This is me.”
I shrugged and shook my head. “It doesn’t have to be. You can make up the persona you want to be when you’re up there.”
“How? My name is right here on my shirt.”
I laughed. “True, but you don’t have to be you, Cami. There are other women named Cami in the world. Maybe you’re Cami who’s visiting the area for the summer and looking to marry a rich, older man. Or maybe you’re Cami who’s shy and quiet and wants to keep to herself. Or maybe you’re Cami who’s loud and fun and always a party. You can be anyone you want to be because the chances of you seeing most of the people on the boat again are slim to none.”
She grinned and tilted her head. “I never thought of that. Wow. I love the idea. Do you do that?”
I smiled. “I’ll never tell.”
She laughed, not pressing for more information. Usually people took the statement as a joke. The truth was a little too close to home to tell them. Even Ava didn’t know all of the real me. She knew the version I shared at work.
My friends knew more than anyone else. They knew I’d been in a bad relationship that stopped me from wanting another one ever again. They knew I wasn’t okay, and likely never would be. And they knew I wanted all of them to be happy more than anything else in the world. Some of them knew most of the story, but there were things I never told anyone. Things I couldn’t bring myself to admit.
“What other tips do you have for me?” Cami asked, bringing me back to our conversation.
I recommended she get to know the crew on all the boats because we were moved around a lot, and I was honest about Walter asking me to evaluate the newbies to find a third to work regularly with Ava and me.
“I would love that, but I know if you don’t recommend me, there will be a good reason. Can I ask you something?”
I nodded and focused on her.
“If there’s something I do that you think I could improve, will you tell me?”
I nodded again. “I would anyway. This is a great job, but ultimately, we’re here for work. If there’s something you or anyone else is doing that impacts our ability to earn money, I am not afraid to share that. I have a few rules personally, and fair or not, I hold everyone to those rules.”
“What are they?”
I grinned. “First, no picking up passengers. This is not your dating app. Second, no language that would be inappropriate around guests of all ages. And third, don’t air your dirty laundry at work, with guests or coworkers. If you’re friends with someone here, that’s okay, but go somewhere else to talk about personal things. Guests overhear a lot, and they don’t want to be dragged into your drama.”
Cami nodded. “Those sound like good rules. I can live with them.”
“Good, because you’re going to have to. Are you ready?”
She nodded again and followed me to the #cockpit. Ned was inside running through his pre-checks for the boat. We waited patiently until he finished his step and turned to us.
Ned’s dark brown eyes lit up when he saw me. He set the clipboard down and scooped me up.
“Damn, is it good to see you, Elise. How was winter?”
“Good,” I said, hugging Ned back. We’d worked together since I started there. He was like a father to me, always watching out for me and making sure I was okay. He requested me to work with him when I was first starting out, and we’d stayed close. “We have a newbie with us today. This is Cami. Cami, this is Ned. He’s the best captain we have, so treat him well.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Cami said with a wide grin.
“You, too, Ms. Cami. Is this your first season with us?”
Cami nodded. “It is. I always wanted to do this, and I’m finally taking the plunge.”
Ned shook his head. “No plunges on my boats. I aim to keep us above water.”
Cami chuckled when Ned winked at her. “I like that plan.”
“Can we help?” I asked Ned.
He shook his head again. “Nah, I got this. I took her out yesterday to make sure things were in tip-top shape. I’m just going through to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I haven’t been behind the bar, though.”
I nodded and squeezed his arm. “We’ll take care of that. Give a shout if you need us.”
“Will do. Good to see you, and nice meeting you, Cami.”
“You, too,” she said with a smile.
We turned back toward the rear of the boat. The snack bar was always well-stocked, but being the first run, it was possible some of the items had changed or weren’t in yet. Cami and I went through the list and moved things to where we wanted them behind the bar. By the time we were done, the office was calling about our list.
“Hey, Elise,” Wendy said through the earpiece. “We have forty-seven checked in. Another six bought tickets, but I haven’t heard from them yet. We’re ready to start loading when you are.”
I glanced at Cami. She raised her brows in question, and I said, “Go ask Ned if he’s good to go, please.”
Cami nodded and rushed toward the front where Ned was still looking around.
“We’re checking with Ned, but in the back, we’re good.”
“Copy,” Wendy said. She knew it would only take a few seconds to ask Ned and was waiting for the reply.
“He’s good,” Cami called out, bursting out of the #cockpit and racing back to me.
“Calm down,” I told her. “Relax and breathe. We have plenty of time and a long day. Don’t wear yourself out before our first trip starts.”
Cami nodded and sank onto one of the benches. I called back to Wendy and told her we were all good, and she said passengers would be heading our way.
“Time to greet our guests,” I told Cami.
She followed me to the #port side where guests would board. I stood on the dock, and Cami stood on the edge of the boat. We watched as our first guests of the day, and year, walked the dock toward us.
“Welcome,” I said with a wide grin. “Thanks for joining us today.”
“Thank you,” many of them replied as the hurried past me to board.
Cami repeated the same short speech to everyone, letting them know there was seating on top or underneath and they could pick their spot and would be allowed to move during the cruise.
Guests filtered in until the dock was empty. I breathed a short sigh of relief that I didn’t know anyone on the boat. Speaking in front of acquaintances was always more difficult than speaking in front of strangers.
“The line is gone and only a few more are to come,” I told Cami, “so why don’t you go stand behind the bar in case anyone wants anything before we go.”
She nodded and pasted on a grin before walking away.
I tilted my head back and let the sunshine warm my face. By the end of summer, I’d be sick of it, but for now, I was loving the warmth on my cool skin. I wore jeans and my #boattour shirt, but I covered it with a sweatshirt and windbreaker with the #boattour logo on it. We were required to wear branded clothes so guests knew we were the crew.
“Am I too late?” a voice asked, startling me. His footsteps were quiet on the old, wooden dock and I didn’t hear him coming. He was close, and I nearly jumped, which would have sent me into the icy cold water.
Then I opened my eyes and wished I had jumped. Because that would have gotten me out of the tour.
“Um, no,” I said, forcing my heart to slow and my face to turn up into a smile. “We still have a few passengers to board. There’s seating on top or below deck. We have a snack bar below, also.”
“Thanks. I, um…sorry, I didn’t know you would be here. Hudson, the bartender at O’Kelley’s, mentioned you worked for this company, so I signed up for a tour since I figured if you worked here it was good, but I didn’t realize…I’m Colin. We talked the other night. At O’Kelley’s. And I own Jones Family Maple Farm. We met at the grand opening. Melody introduced us.”
I nodded and prayed my smile stayed in place. I knew exactly who he was. That was why I wished I was anywhere but there. Because he was the kind of man I needed to stay away from. The kind who could disarm me with a look, who could make me want him with a smile, and who scared the shit out of me because the same was true about my ex.
“Oh, um, yeah, I remember you. Nice to see you again.” Thankfully, more people walked up behind him. “You should find a seat. We’ll be taking off soon.”
Colin nodded and walked onto the boat as though he didn’t realize anything odd was happening. That was good, but it put me even more on edge. Andy used to do the same thing. He was oblivious to how I was feeling. Now I knew it wasn’t oblivion, it was a lack of caring, but at the time, that was how it felt.
Another reason to stay away from Colin Jones.
I smiled and welcomed the new passengers, ticking them off on the counter in my hand. I radioed up to Wendy and confirmed the number with her. She said we were all set to go. I relayed the message to Ned, then checked in with Cami. She was good behind the snack bar and wanted to watch me work for a few days before she tried to lead a tour. I didn’t tell her that was policy anyway, but I’d fill her in another time. She seemed like she could be a good fit, and I wanted to help her.
I grabbed the headset and secured it around my neck. I positioned the mic and tried to glance around without it being too obvious what I was doing. When I didn’t see Colin downstairs, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, praying I just missed him even though I knew I hadn’t.
I forced myself to smile as I walked up the stairs. It was worse than I thought. Not only was he upstairs, he was in the front row, which meant there was no way to convince myself he wasn’t watching my every move and hanging on my every word.
Time to bring out Confident Elise.
“Good morning, everyone!” I said brightly as I walked past the rows of benches to the front of the boat. “It’s a beautiful day for our first tour of the season. I’m Elise, and I’ll be your cruise director today. Go easy on me because I’ve never been here before. We’re going to see Niagara Falls, right?”
The murmured concerns were what I was hoping for.
I chuckled and shook my head. “Just kidding. This is my eighth year as a guide for #boattour. I grew up in this area and have lived here my whole life except the few years I was in college. How many of you are here on your first trip to the Thousand Islands?”
A few hands went up.
“Good. Welcome to the most beautiful place on Earth.”
There were a few snickers and a few nods.
“The Thousand Islands is a truly stunning vacation spot that attracts visitors from all over. To be counted as one of the Thousand Islands, an island must have at least one square foot above sea level year round and support a living tree. All of the islands are either in Canada or the United States. None are split between the two countries. Does anyone know how many islands make up the Thousand Islands?”
A few people raised their hands.
I shook my head. “More than that.”
“One thousand five hundred.”
I grinned. “More.”
“One thousand seven hundred fifty?”
I laughed with the rest of the passengers. “I’m sensing a trend here. And more.”
“Getting close, but more.” I held up two fingers close together.
Together, the passengers counted up until they said eighteen sixty-four.
“Finally!” I called. “Correct! There are one-thousand-eight-hundred-sixty-four islands. And now that we’ve all learned about that, we’re out in the water where we can start to see some of them.” I pointed toward the Canadian side of the river. “To my left, is Canada. As you all know, to the right is the United States. The St. Lawrence River splits the two countries. Many of the islands are private islands owned by one person or family. If you’re in the market for a home, the island coming up on our left is currently for sale. The home sits on a private island in the US. It’s a nice home at twenty-four hundred square feet. The sellers have included the boats and all the furniture in the home with the very reasonable list price of two-point-three million.”
The chuckles and gasps mixed together.
I grinned. “If that’s a little on the low side for you, I’ll show you another one that’s three times the size and only double the price. While we’re out here house hunting, make sure you leave your phone number with me if you have any sons. I’m looking for a house, too.”
That got a lot of laughs. I carefully avoided looking at Colin. We weren’t dating. We weren’t anything. And I was playing my part. But having him sitting there was the reason I didn’t like having acquaintances on the boat. It unnerved me.
I glanced around, checking to see where we were, and pointed out some of the landmarks. Just Room Enough Island, the smallest inhabited island in the United States, was big enough for a home and a small dry area next to it. Tourists loved seeing the island with its house that almost appeared to float at times.
We kept going down the river, looking at other notable homes. I shared the rich history of the area and the pirates who once lived there. It was only when I started telling the story of George Boldt and his wife, Louise, that I looked at Colin.
Then I couldn’t look away.