Up Too Close (Love Overboard Book Two)
CeCe Ahlstrom, massage therapist to the rich and famous, is done with men. Her last rich boyfriend tried to kill her on an ill-fated cruise through the Grenadines. Now she’s determined to get on with her life but can’t find the funds to get to her next spa gig in Portugal. Then along comes notorious womanizer Captain René Baudoin. He’s hell on the hearts of women, he can handle any storm at sea, yet he might have met his match in a leaky old boat.
He needs a first mate crazy enough to help crew the wreck known as the Tourbillon across the Atlantic. Destiny draws CeCe and René together, but things are not what they seem. He struggles with a family secret that could destroy his future and CeCe will have to face a truth not even she knows yet. Out on the open sea, René and CeCe soon find themselves…UP TOO CLOSE.
Scroll down further to read chapter 1 of Up Too Close.
Copyright © 2017 by Andrea K. Stein and Black Arrow Publishing
Excerpt: Chapter One
Day One, April 13, 2015
Secret Harbour Marina, Grenada
CeCe Ahlstrom lifted her head for the second time. She could swear someone had shouted her name, but couldn’t figure out where the sound originated. Besides, she didn’t know a soul at Secret Harbour Marina. She went back to renewing her fast-fading, expensive pedicure with a fifty-dollar bottle of Christian Louboutin polish, the last bottle she’d ever be able to afford.
She’d been hanging out in a tiny, cheap room at the harborside hotel, hoping for inspiration as to how to get to her next massage therapist gig in Portugal, without much cash. And she was determined to avoid any more wealthy lovers. The last one had nearly killed her, along with everyone else on his yacht.
“CeCe! Please help.” This time, the cry was louder. God. It was the French charter captain, René Baudoin. She’d only met him briefly, but everything she’d heard about him was bad. He’d tried to break up two of her friends on the last yacht cruise she’d worked. He was a dog.
He must have been the jerk who’d been racing around the small, protected anchorage in an aged, patched, inflatable dinghy. He’d been steering doughnuts and figure eights, spraying wake wherever he went. Looked like he’d traded his super yacht job for a stint aboard a rubber version of the Titanic.
She sighed. Such a boy, always looking for an audience. There wasn’t a stew or deckhand in the Caribbean who hadn’t heard of his womanizing exploits.
CeCe hadn’t paid much attention to his shenanigans in the small marina cove, except when he’d swept close to the empty slip where she’d come to escape her claustrophobic room. He’d soaked her last clean crew shirt from the Bonnie Blue, but there he was in nothing but a pair of water-soaked jeans designed to let women know exactly what they were missing.
His pants sagged with seawater up to his knees. His perfectly styled dark hair and tanned, ripped, bare chest completed the package that might have snagged her attention under different circumstances.
Unfortunately, she’d seen this guy in action up close. He was such a player, such a sleaze, and yet, if it weren’t for him and Alton, Captain Lindsay’s boyfriend, she’d be dead. René sank slowly into at least thirty feet of water on the far side of the cove, along with his ancient dinghy and outboard motor.
She carefully placed the polish bottle on a small plastic tray she’d brought from her room and stood, jamming her cheap Ray-Bans back on her nose and shading her eyes.
CeCe reluctantly headed toward a row of old, battered rowboats at the marina dock. They were there for the convenience of marina employees. By the time she climbed aboard one and rowed to his rescue, René was deeper in the water and spewing French profanities.
“What is wrong with you?” she bit out, and rowed hard toward the windward side of his partially sunken launch. The muscles in her shoulders and upper arms bulged as she bent to the work.
A sharp breeze bumped her into the nearly submerged sides. “Get a long line to tie to the bow,” she said. “And then get your ass into the dinghy.”
“Merde,” he shouted.
“Watch your language,” she snapped. “There are families over at the cafe having lunch …small children.”
“Yes, you are right. I’m sorry.” He furrowed his brow, and ran a hand through his wet, perfect haircut. He followed that show with a slow wink.
She couldn’t believe the fool. He dared to flirt with her, even in his screwed up state. In spite of her annoyance, CeCe blushed and was grateful for the intense heat of the noon sun.
René went to work obeying her orders. He attached a line to the bow eye cleat on the old raft and then climbed into the dinghy with her. The frail, metal boat wobbled hard when he came aboard and pushed her aside to take up the oars.
She thought about arguing, but then blew out a sigh and moved to the seat slat behind him.
An hour later, they were totally drenched from retrieving the sunken dingy from the depths of the harbor. They’d loaded the waterlogged outboard motor onto a dolly and wheeled it over to marina repairmen. They rolled the beached raft into one long cigar shape.
“Now what?” CeCe asked, a grin quirking at the edges of her mouth.
“She returns to the mother ship,” he said, and waved his arm in the direction of the marina’s gated slips.
“Don’t tell me you bought a yacht so old, the only shore launch is that …that thing,” she said, and pointed to the sad cigar-shaped remains.
His only answer was a wide smile while he lobbed the wet rubber mess onto his shoulder. “If you come along and help me get this back aboard the yacht, I’ll buy you a beer and lunch.”
“What the hell?” she said. “Why not? Wait till I take my stuff back to the room.”
“Your room?” he said, and raised his eyebrows.
“Relax, Frenchie,” she said. “You are not getting within spitting distance of where I sleep.”
* * *
CeCe stood at the edge of the slip and stared at the aged wooden ship, at least sixty feet long, and whistled. She was old, almost a wreck, yet her glory days weren’t over. Not yet. She could be loved and varnished back into a beauty again. The letters stenciled onto the stern in flaking gold paint said Tourbillon.
CeCe could imagine the antique brass gleaming and proud once more. But such a craft didn’t seem to match the arrogant Frenchie. “She isn’t yours, is she?” CeCe asked.
René laughed. “Non, not my style. But I will deliver her back to England, if God is kind.” René wiped a hand down his damp jeans and wrapped an arm around one of the yacht’s shrouds supporting the main wooden mast.
“She can make it,” CeCe said.
“Maybe, if I spent a year at hard labor, and I had more money than Sir Richard Branson. But I don’t. The boss pays me to get her to England, and I will. Even if I have to lash dolphins together to float under her.”
“She won’t need that.” CeCe paused. “Now that you have my attention, what do you want?”
A curious light filled René’s eyes. “I want to take you away from all this. I was going to ask if you were going my way.”
CeCe extended her palms toward him and scrunched her eyes against the afternoon sun. “What?”
“You know, like a line from one of those late-night, old American movies.” He gave her a wide smile and then continued. “And then when you asked where I was going, I would have said, ‘Wherever you’re going.’“
“You need to get out of the sun before you have any more hallucinations,” she said and stepped through the gate in the lifelines to join him on the wood deck.
He reached toward the dock and pulled the sad-looking inflatable dinghy aboard. He straightened toward her and with another slow, suggestive wink, asked, “Want to go below and see her cabins?”
CeCe rolled her eyes. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not sleeping with you. Not in this lifetime.”
He shrugged his shoulders and shoved forward the rolled inflatable.
She had no intention of starting anything with the arrogant captain, and yet the weathered, old Tourbillon intrigued her. She reminded her of the long-ago days she’d spent learning to sail with her mother on a beautiful little yacht off Faial.
* * *
René tipped back his chair in the shade of the cafe umbrella and took a solid swig on a cold, sweating Carib longneck. Children of vacationing families ran across the shaded open-air deck, their shrieks and laughter creating a cocoon of noise.
One freckled boy slammed into their table, upsetting René’s beer. René grabbed the bottle before it could slop into his lap. “Easy, petit morveux. This is not a good place for running.”
The boy gave him a dark look and scampered off to meet up with his friends at the edge of the dock.
René frowned. “Parents need to watch for their kids.”
“The rich are different,” CeCe said.
He watched his delectable companion scratch at the wet label on her beer, lazily moving her expensive manicured nails up and down the bottle neck. The late afternoon sun filtered through palm fronds overhead casting her face in bars of light and dark.
The sensual visual in his mind’s eye was so vivid, he smacked down hard on the chair legs and nearly choked on a swallow of beer.
Once his breathing returned to normal, he determined to break through the long stare she’d been giving him ever since she rescued him from the middle of the cove. She’d been so critical, he was amazed she’d agreed to lunch after seeing the Tourbillon.
“Your thoughts, Cherie. They are not here, oui?”
Her blue eyes bored into him, and for one shaky moment he was afraid of what she might see. He knew better than to say anything to break the spell. He waited for her to speak.
“Well,” CeCe said finally, “I’m wondering about the old wooden ship and why I’m having lunch with you.”
“Your first question is a mystery,” he said. “The second, very easy. You are having lunch with me because of my handsome face. And as long as you are here, I can tell you about my tragic past.”
“Tragic?” CeCe raised an eyebrow.
“I lost my parents when I was young.” René touched the Officine Panerai Luminor 1950 Flyback Regatta watch on his wrist. It was there, always there, one of the best sailing watches in the world, and the last thing his father gave him.
“I’m sorry,” CeCe said. “My mom left when I was little, but at least I could still visit. Though that didn’t happen very often. She moved far away. Who raised you?”
“My grand-mere and grand-pere,” he said. “They took me in when my parents died in a storm off Martinique. The tragedy continued when later I lost Grand-pere, again to the sea. Only Grand-mere is still alive.”
“You come from a sailing family?” she said.
“I am a fourth generation sea captain,” he said, poking at his still-damp jeans with a thumb. He put his empty Carib bottle down on the table and signaled the waiter for another.
“Does your orphan story work on the all the girls?” CeCe asked a little sharply.
“I rarely need to use it because of the handsome face.” He winked at her.
“Not that handsome.” She peeled off a strip of the beer label and threw it at him.
He caught the wet, ripped blob of paper and laid it on the table.
“Okay,” CeCe said, “tell me about the mystery of Tourbillon. Where are you taking her?”
“Back to England.”
“You don’t seem thrilled.”
“Non. Leaking antiques I sail only in very special situations. For some reason, Devin Manning is paying me to deliver her to a shipyard where wooden yachts are overhauled in Portsmouth, England.”
“I would be suspicious if I were you,” CeCe said. “After all the weird stuff he pulled when you and Captain Lindsay’s chef Alton had to save us all from his partner Carrothers’s plot to blow up the Bonnie Blue.”
René realized too late the mention of Manning would hit a sore spot with her. He’d been her conniving ex-boyfriend’s business partner.
René nodded. “I am and I’m not. We both know Manning likes to play the spy. At times I think he’s a crazy man, but then he does something that makes me think maybe he is James Bond. Either way, I have no idea who the boat really belongs to, but Manning made it clear. If I don’t take this job, he might not give me another. For years, I have worked for him, and I wouldn’t want to lose future opportunities.”
“But what about the paperwork?” CeCe asked. “Surely, you have to know who the owner is.”
“Manning’s name is on the paperwork, but he told me he is not the true owner. I believe him. Yet I do not care who owns her. I get to sail, and I get paid.” He flashed a smile.
CeCe rolled her eyes. “The old yacht’s name is beautiful. What does it mean?”
“Whirlwind,” René answered. “The name is the extent of her beauty. If I had my way, I wouldn’t come within ten meters of the old tub.”
“Not even for the paycheck?” she asked.
René thought for several long moments. “You know, CeCe, this life I have, delivering yachts, it’s what I love. The ocean took my parents and my grand-pere, and yet her power and beauty make me feel as if they are still with me. Perhaps that is why I can talk about them lightly for they are not gone. Some men might hate the sea, but I do not. My family’s legacy is the ocean, and in her arms, I find not just adventure, but peace.”
CeCe tilted her head and her features softened. “You know, I think this is the first time you’ve been honest with me. I could almost come to like this new René I’m seeing. The Tourbillon is ugly, but at least she’s honest.”
René leaned in close and said, “If you can love an ugly boat, perhaps you will come to like me a little.”
* * *
If CeCe didn’t know better, she’d think she was in the throes of mood swings. Over the last few hours she’d wanted to throttle the Frenchman, revised her opinion to where she could almost like him, and then was ready to dump his worthless hide back into the harbor.
He sat across from her glugging down his third Carib and grinning like one of the monkeys that hang out in the jungles on Dominica. She picked at her salad and waited for him to make his excuses and leave when he finally realized she was in no mood for what he obviously had in mind.
In the midst of the conversation earlier about his family, his face had taken on an almost human expression. When he was serious, he forgot to preen his hairdo and project a proud Gallic facade. His features became softer, and when the breeze mussed his hair, he let the dark strands blow across his face.
But now he kept pressing her to drink her beer and have another one. And the not-so-subtle innuendos. Did this ever work on other women? Duh.
She was so deep in thought, she nearly missed something he said. When she asked him to repeat the question, he asked, “Where are you headed now?”
“I have a job in Portugal after the first of the year, but I have no way to get there. I hope to pick up some work around here because I’m broke. Carrothers paid my bills but he never gave me any money. Not that I’m not grateful he’s permanently missing.”
René shook his head. “He was a real bastard.”
“Agreed,” CeCe said. “His wife promised to give me some money after she manages a divorce, since he’s disappeared. Of course, that will take a while. Until then, I need to figure out how to get to Portugal. I guess I could go up to Florida. I went to university there. I still have friends up there, but…”
“Which explains why your English is so good. You grew up …”
CeCe cut him short with a wave of her hand. She didn’t want to bring up the past.
“Come with me,” René pleaded. “I could take you to Portsmouth. There are cheap flights to Portugal from there, and I would be willing to pay for the ticket.”
She pushed him away with a skeptical look. “Just what would you get out of that arrangement?”
“A first mate, of course,” he said, without the good grace to quit grinning. “When you rescued me, I saw how you handled yourself. You’d make a good deckhand.”
CeCe couldn’t deny how taken she’d been with the Tourbillon. Wood and sea, wind and sail, she imagined herself working on such a vessel, actually getting her hands dirty. The past called to her, the feel of rough lines, tying knots, watching the weather and judging the wind. Silently, she cursed her mother. She’d given her such dreams, and CeCe had followed them around the world. Yes, she’d supported herself with massage over the years, but at heart, she was a sailor.
If she could keep the Frenchman at bay, his offer of work would solve her problems.
“This has to be a strictly working proposition,” she snapped. “No sex, no sharing a cabin, no …”
“I get it,” he said. “I get it. Strictly professional.” Then he added with a wink, “Not even a freebie massage now and then?”
“Absolutely not,” she said, shaking her fist in his face, “I plan to start a new life. From here on, my only goal is to stand on my own. No more kept woman. No more mistress bullshit. You see before you the new CeCe. You think I’d be a pushover, slash easy cabin-mate,” she added with a glare.
He threw up his hands. “Okay, okay. No hanky-panky. Over seven-thousand kilometers as a good guy, all the way.”
“Really?” she huffed. “You think you’re capable of going that long without turning into a shit?”
René said nothing but grabbed the check and laid down some cash on the table. “I think we’re done here.”
* * *
A shadow loomed, and when René looked up, one of the British captains anchored off the marina had closed in over CeCe.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, and smiled, grasping the back of her chair with a tanned arm. His smiling blue eyes settled on CeCe with a little too much of a proprietary gleam.
She turned and smiled back. “Captain Plummer,” she gushed. “It has been a long time. Are you still with the Bentons?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve thrown in with Yachts International, on their newest three-level. Just commissioned her out of France.” His smile intensified, and he moved so close he could plant a kiss on her neck. “You know, we have the head stew slot open if you’re looking to trade up.” He punctuated the offer with a condescending look at René.
At that, René scraped his chair back and stood. He nodded at the other captain and gave CeCe an intense stare. “So not all men are as intolerable as Frenchmen?”
CeCe lowered her eyes and then stared back, her look a challenge. “Tell me I’m wrong about you.”
“Non, you are not wrong about me, but about all men? Maybe yes. But consider this. Perhaps all that negativity does not come from us, Cherie. Maybe a little comes from you.”
When CeCe sucked in a sharp breath, he stomped away only to halt after a few steps and turn around. “Suit yourself,” he said. “My offer still stands. I’ll be getting ready to leave for the next few days. You know where I’ll be. If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow at ten, I’ll find another first mate.”
He walked away without looking back in what he hoped would be a dignified exit.
Unfortunately, the same freckled little brat he saw before took that moment to pinwheel backwards into the water.
“He can’t swim!” a woman’s shriek ripped through the cafe.
René didn’t pause. He took three great running steps and dove into the water. He hooked an arm around the small body and pulled him to the surface.
After handing the little guy up to his mother at the dock ladder, René climbed out and picked up a wad of napkins. He sopped his hair and face dry and sauntered out into the hot, tropical sun.
* * *
CeCe shook her head at the spectacle. René dove in without a second thought even though this was the same kid who nearly spilled his beer. And the mother wasn’t showing much gratitude, either.
Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
CeCe still mulled over his comments about her negative attitude toward men. Was she taking out her ire on all men when only Jerome Carrothers deserved her hatred? Had her suspicions about men turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy?
When she turned back to Captain Plummer, he’d scooted a chair close and moved his arm near her shoulders. He chatted on about the requirements and perks of the head stew job, but his gaze was not on her face. His charming blue eyes had lasered onto her breasts. And now the hand at the end of the arm around her shoulder sneaked closer to one of her boobs. His first contact was just a feathering, but then he settled into a tentative squeeze.
CeCe jumped from her chair and gave him a slap that echoed throughout the café. Everyone stopped eating and stared. She thought about giving him a piece of her mind, but then gave herself a mental head-smack and raced out of the restaurant.
When she cleared the front door, René was walking back toward his slip. She ran to catch up and grabbed him by the shoulder.