Authors: Susan Connell
He had no idea how he was going to explain the "Captain" part to her, when he didn't fully understand it himself. There were plenty of fishing-boat captains on Malabar Key, but only he had ended up with the appellation permanently attached to his name. Keeping his eyes on the older woman, he willed her to state her case so he could leave. He didn't have to wait long.
"During the Friends of the Library meeting last night," Liza said, "we started talking about the deplorable condition of our ambulance. Did you know that Pappy had to be taken to the hospital in the back of Barry Bernstein's pickup truck because the gas tank on the ambulance was corroded and leaking? The tank's been replaced, but it's only a matter of time before something else goes on it."
"Bad situation, all right," Rick said. He had to get out of there before he let himself get sucked into another conversation.
"My grandfather had to be taken to the hospital in a pickup truck?" She dropped the napkins and pressed her hands flat against her collarbone. "No one told me that part."
"Yes, dear, I'm afraid that's what happened. With the ambulance in that condition, the EMT's couldn't get to Pappy any faster than Barry and Tweed MacNeil could. They did the best they could, but Pappy was hurting something awful by the time they got him to the emergency room." The older woman pulled on her braid and looked at the floor. "Captain Parrish can tell you how important good ambulance service can be, because—"
"Liza," he said, cutting her off, "what did you have to tell me?" He meant for his hard stare to be a warning to the older woman. He knew his attempt to silence her on that personal and painful subject had worked when her lips formed an even line and her gaze dropped to the floor again. That's all he needed, bringing Angie into it. Both he and Liza turned their embarrassed faces toward Bryn.
By the horrified look in her eyes, he knew Bryn was still picturing her grandfather in the back of the truck. Rick recognized the prolonged reaction and, without stopping to think of the repercussions, reached out to give her a reassuring touch. His thumb grazed her skin, and before he thought it through, he was giving her shoulder a comforting rub.
"Hey, everything's okay now," he said softly. "You told me the doctor said he's going to be fine."
"I know," she said, staring out at the palm fronds brushing against the rail, "but it hurts to picture him like that. Waiting for help, then bouncing around in the back of a truck. No trained medical people to help him."
For one earth-stopping moment, Rick was jolted back to an afternoon five years ago. The sequence of events flashed through his mind, leaving him with the raw taste of his remembered fear. He squeezed his eyes shut in a private moment of hell. Dammit, how many times would he have to relive that afternoon? Forcing himself to focus on Bryn, he began squeezing her shoulder. "People do the best they can."
"That's right, Captain Parrish," Liza said. "And that's what I have a mind to do."
Brought back to his senses by Liza's no-nonsense tone, Rick lifted his fingers from Bryn's shoulder. As casually as he could, he stepped back and slid both his hands into his pockets. Everyone experienced tragedy, but that didn't call for a group hug. What was he thinking of, touching her like that? He'd survived the last five years without succumbing to smarmy displays of emotion. "Let's hear it, Liza," he said brusquely.
"I want to have a community fund-raiser to buy a new ambulance for Malabar Key."
"Oh. Why not just put it to a referendum? Next county election is—"
"Too long to wait," said Liza, interrupting with a waving index finger. "I need you to advertise it at your marina. And I'll need Bryn's help too."
"You want me?" Bryn's head came up, her eyes meeting first with Liza's and then with Rick's. Pressing both hands to her midriff, she asked, "But what could I do?"
"That's what everyone says," Liza said, dipping her chin to look over her glasses and smile. "You're a breath of fresh air, and that's enough to start with. But more importantly, you're motivated to help because of what's happened to Pappy." She patted Rick's arm. "How about a little encouragement, Captain?"
"How long are you planning to stay?" he asked. No matter what message his body was sending him, he was not interested in the way she was touching herself. There was simply nothing else to look at.
"I'm not certain." Bryn looked around the room. "It depends on a lot of things."
Keeping his gaze on Bryn, he said, "Well, Liza, she tells me she cares about Malabar Key, but if she's not going to be around long enough to—"
"I'll be around," she said, swiveling her head in his direction.
"Really?" he asked, shifting his weight as he gave her his cockiest smile.
Studying her for the first signs of fidgeting, he finally turned his attention to Liza and shrugged. "Then sure, I'll give her my vote."
"I'll be glad to sell tickets and even advertise once the restaurant is opened, but I don't have any experience with planning a fund-raiser. As you both can see, I'm putting together this restaurant and looking after my grandfather's affairs. Then there's my own business I'm keeping tabs on. I don't think I'll have the time for much else."
Liza laughed a self-satisfied laugh. "Everyone is so reluctant to get involved, but once you're working on the planning committee, I know you'll do Pappy proud as you always do. He's told me you've worked with subcontractors and cranky clients. Considering your successful business, it's obvious you have the organizational skills. Coupled with your charm, I don't see any problems."
Pretending to scan the paint job on the wall behind her, Rick wasn't missing a blink in Bryn's worried expression. Was she thinking of a way to stay off the committee or a way to get on it?
"Charity committees are different, Liza. I'd be working with nonprofessionals." She shook her head. "I really don't think I ought to get involved."
Smiling at Rick, the older woman wiggled her index finger. "Is this the same young woman who, minutes ago, was shouting something about how much she cared for Malabar Key and its people?"
"Well, yes—" Bryn began, tugging at the strands of hair falling onto her forehead.
"And the same young woman gasping from the image of her grandfather being transported to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck?"
Liza threw up her hands. "Then I know I can count on you to do a great job heading the committee."
the committee? Oh, Liza, I just can't see how I could handle that along with everything else."
Rick pressed his lips together to suppress the snicker he knew was coming. Watching Bryn trying to politely sidestep the older woman's request was giving him tremendous satisfaction. But it was short-lived and hollow once he realized that he'd sized up Bryn perfectly after all. Although she was concerned about her grandfather, she was like so many other outsiders. She would stick around long enough to stir things up, then she would head on out the moment her restaurant experiment failed. The important issues, like the need for a new ambulance, paled next to her cloth party hats and new paint job. Her shallowness set his teeth on edge. Where was her Mary Sunshine demeanor now?
"Everyone talks about helping, but when it's time to do something," Liza said, her words beginning to echo Rick's opinion of Bryn. "I don't know..." Her voice trailed off in tones of well-practiced, sympathy-provoking despair.
Having exhausted all her reasons for not heading the committee, Bryn slid her gaze toward Rick.
She couldn't figure out what was more upsetting, his smug I-told-you-so smile or her growing guilt about attempting to talk her way out of the committee. Damn him. It was none of Rick Parrish's concern that she was exploring the possibility of moving her business and herself to the Keys. Because of her extended visit, she was learning about the business climate there. A number of places needed design services, and there had to be dozens more she hadn't yet discovered. Since her established clients were scattered across the country, she could base her operation anywhere. And there were other incentives for moving that she couldn't ignore. Truth was, those unfinished issues between her and her grandfather kept tugging at her heart now that she was near him. But Rick Parrish didn't need to know any of that. What he needed was to wipe that supercilious expression from his face. And she wanted to be the one to do it for him. The more she looked at Rick, the more she felt challenged to immediate action.
"Forgive me, Liza. You're right," Bryn said, nodding. "Too many people talk about how they care for their community, but when it comes to the hard work, most aren't there for it. Rick agrees with me. Passionately."
"That's true," he said, staring hard at her. "A person could drown in the rush of soapbox sentiments flooding this place."
"Right again... Captain," Bryn said, wrapping her voice in innocent enthusiasm. While he had been busily restating his opinion of her, she was happily sharpening her own barbed comeback. "Everything you said in the kitchen makes perfect sense. People should get involved more. I'd be honored to head the committee."
Liza's hands went to her hips. "Now, that's simply wonderf—"
"Under one condition," she quickly added.
Liza's sparkling smile of victory dimmed, her eyelids blinking beneath the flipped-up brim of her hat. "And what would that one condition be, dear?"
"I'm going to need a cochairman," she said, clasping her hands behind her. Stepping past both of them, Bryn turned to lean her shoulder against a support column. Pausing for effect, she waited until she had their total, albeit wary attention. "Let's see. It'll have to be someone who knows the people here. Knows how to inspire others. A person who not only says he cares, but who'll be willing to prove it with involvement every step of the way."
"What about that, Liza?" Rick asked, looking decidedly uneasy. "Can you think of anyone?"
Raising her eyebrows, Liza opened her mouth. "Well—"
"Don't bother, Liza," she said, pushing off the column to take a step toward Rick. "I've already thought of someone."
"Really, dear? Who?"
Bryn looked up at Rick, raising her eyebrows slowly. A second later Liza whispered an "Oooooh," followed by her own list of reasons why Rick was the obvious and only choice for the job.
Rick wasn't listening to a word the older woman said. He appeared to be concentrating all his efforts on not wringing Bryn's neck. But Bryn knew by his intrusive gaze that although he'd like to, he wasn't going to fight her on this. How could he after that explosive speech he'd given her minutes ago?
"So you'll do it, Captain Parrish? You'll cochair the committee with Bryn?"
"How could I say no?" he asked, slowly shifting his gaze to Liza.
"Yes. How could you?" Bryn countered, enhancing the sweetness of her tone with a casual shrug. Stepping back, she allowed Rick plenty of space to maneuver around them.
"Ladies," he said, pulling his sunglasses from his pocket and slipping them on. "I'm sure you'll get back to me on this."
"We will," they said together.
Bryn watched him head for the stairs. When he disappeared down them, she continued staring at where he'd been. "What have I gotten myself into, Liza?"
"I assume you're referring more to working with Captain Parrish than to taking charge of the committee."
"That's it exactly," she said, dragging her hand along the bar as she turned to face Liza. "Oh, look, he forgot to take his jacket." Grabbing it off the bar, she said, "I'll run it down to him—" She broke off as Liza, shaking her head, pointed a finger.
"Not just yet, dear."
She joined Liza, looking over the rail to where the older woman was pointing. As if on cue, Rick appeared below them.
Holding his jacket in her arms, Bryn studied the enigmatic man as he made his way through the palm grove toward his marina. If he'd been anyone else, she would have wished that this view of him were her last. But he wasn't like anyone else she'd ever met. He made her defensive about things she'd never felt defensive about before. He made her angry, too, and he also made her wonder how he accomplished those things. The strangest thing of all was that he made her want to get closer to him, to understand why all that passion sizzled inside him and what it would be like to unleash it... with her.
"It's going to be lovely having such an intelligent woman in charge of this committee," Liza said as she left the railing and started across the room toward the stairs.
Bryn wasn't through looking at the broad-shouldered man strolling across the hard-packed sand. He'd shoved both hands into his trouser pockets and picked up his pace, making the material pull snug against his backside. Her face warmed with feminine appreciation. "But, Liza," she said, turning her face and then her eyes to the older woman, "Rick is cochairing this committee with me."
Liza took her broad-brimmed straw hat from her head. Feeding the curved edge through her fingers, she smiled to herself before looking at Bryn. "Like I said, it's going to be lovely having an intelligent woman in charge of the committee." Plopping the hat back on her head, she tipped it sideways before continuing toward the stairs.
"But—" Bryn said, trying to gather her thoughts for a believable protest. That task was impossible with her attention bouncing back and forth between Liza's jaunty steps and Rick's enticing body.