Ms. Phillips has thrown this cast together into a setting that's custom built for drama. Treacherous icy waves slap over the slippery decks of their ship and impending storms add up to a job where danger and death constantly lurk just below the surface and sometimes right out in the open. -- Author Alyson Larrabee
Constance Phillips has done it again, delivering another sweet and sexy romance that kept me up all night reading and rooting for that happily ever. -- Author Katie O'Sullivan
This is a story about hard work, determination, family, and letting someone in even when you’re sure they’ll someday break your heart. -- Jennifer Hines
Jolanda cupped the short, wide glass in her hand. The smell of cheap whiskey sent her stomach into another medal-worthy, gymnastic tumble. She leveled her gaze, focusing on the Nordic-looking captain of the Sydney standing on the opposite side of the mahogany bar, ever mindful of her movements. If she shifted too fast she’d hurl the previous five shots, costing her the bet. “Let me on your crew, Keller.”
“You haven’t won, yet.” His clenched teeth signaled confidence, but she could see cracks in his armor. He swayed to the right and his shot glass rattled as he misjudged the distance between his hand and the bar top.
If Keller broke down, she would snatch the opening.
A balloon payment was coming due on her father’s house. Had he been able to fish for crab as he had every winter for more than twenty years, the debt would be paid on time, but a quarter century of hard living had left his health as broken down as the mortgaged home.
Out of control diabetes and blood pressure had forced him into retirement.
Some might say he’d given his best years to that boat, but Jo liked to think he’d spent that time with her. Despite a nasty divorce, Lark had never let anger or frustration taint his relationship with his daughter. He fished in the winter while she was at her mother’s house in Fairbanks, so he could be a father during the summer when she lived with him.
Lifting the shot glass to her lips and gripping the edge of the bar with her free hand, she tipped her head back hoping the amber liquid would bypass her taste buds and glide down her throat.
A cough pressed against her esophagus, but Jo pushed back with her iron will, refusing to open the door to the puking that would give Keller the victory.
The only way to win the spot on the boat was to out-drink its captain.
Whose idea was this? That’s right: mine.
At five foot two, Jo weighed a hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet. When she drank, it was never more than a half glass of white wine with dinner. These fishermen guzzled bourbon same as water. As drunk as she was, she could still see Keller was six feet of solid muscle: gorgeous, chiseled muscle.
Whoa! Keller? Handsome?
That had to be the whiskey talking!
The second job as a bartender at the Elbow Room was a Hail Mary attempt to help raise the needed money. Very few of the bar’s patrons—fishing boat’s crews—lived here in the small town of Unalaska, or even the state of Alaska. They breezed in and fished from the Bering Sea, made obscene amounts of money off their bounty, and jetted back to the Pacific Northwest to spend the riches on their families and in their communities, leaving behind a small town dependent on the fisheries.
“You ready to give up yet?” Keller’s words clung to a raspy cough. He tried to lock the gaze from his blood-shot, blue eyes to hers, but they circled and swayed off track. His normally pale flesh was getting green around the gills. Maybe she had a chance to win.
She picked the bottle up off the bar, and refilled the glasses. “Let me on your boat.”An arm came around her, grabbing the bottle. She leaned back against the familiar, firm chest and looked up into her lifelong friend’s eyes.
“Enough. This is over. I’m taking you home,” Graham said.
How did he get behind the bar?
“I can’t. I’m still on the clock.”
He laughed as he released his grip on the bottle, but still held her close. “Ralph clocked you out an hour ago, when you started this stupid bet.” Graham glanced across the bar to his boss. “Come on. This is insane. She’s going to get sick.”
Jo broke free of Graham’s hold and stumbled forward, grabbing her glass. “Are you ready?”
Keller gripped the counter. “I admire your father. He’s worked hard for me and my family. But, you know better than anybody the superstitions about letting women fish.”
“Really? You believe in that crap?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. My crew thinks there’s something to the lore. I’d lose them if I let you work on my boat.” He stumbled back as he tossed the whiskey into his mouth.She braced herself and drank. The glass rattled again as it hit the bar, but she focused on her center.
Stay down. Stay down.
“I thought you were the captain. Aren’t you man enough to make the decisions?”
“I have to think about everyone who’s counting on me to have a good season. I’m responsible for the life and livelihood of each person on my boat.” He leaned in so close that all she could focus on was his thin, pink lips, wondering how they’d taste.
Her fingers tangled in the long strands of black hair falling in her face as she pushed it back over her shoulder. She reminded herself that it was only the copious amount of booze that made Keller look like a scrumptious steak she’d like to devour. “And you call my people superstitious?”
“Don’t do that. You know this isn’t about that.”
Why had she brought the fact she was Aleut into this? It had to be her dead grandmother speaking through her. Nana warned her father not to marry Elle Anderson because of the cultural differences, and the old woman had taken an uncanny pleasure in being right when Mom left Dad and later settled in Fairbanks with her new husband.
“I can do the work.”
“You don’t even know what you’re signing up for.”
That wasn’t true. “I’ve been around it all my life.”
“No. You father has. Graham has. I have. Not you. You weren’t anywhere near a boat.”
“Give me a shot.” She cringed at the whiney sound of her voice. It didn’t really matter that the alcohol was to blame, the last thing she wanted to do was beg.
“You’re so tiny! I bet you’d have trouble lifting a five pound bag of sugar, let alone a twenty-five pound box of frozen herring.”
“I might be small, but I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Let me loan you the money.”
Why was it so hard for the men her life to understand she didn’t want a handout? “I don’t want to trade one debt for another!”
“When your father comes back to work next season, we’ll work something out.”
These fishermen were all the same. Next season. Next trip. Next time. Never once did they stop to think about a plan B. She tapped her fingernails against the bar, trying to expel her frustration. “He’s not coming back! He’s never going to be able to fish again. Besides, a Gilles always earns their way.” She picked up the bottle and refilled both the glasses.
Keller grabbed her wrist. “I can’t drink any more and neither should you.”
“If you’re giving up, then I win.”
He lifted the shot glass to his mouth, then pushed it away and twisted his head to the side. After taking two ragged breaths, he tossed it back and dropped the glass. His stare pierced through her and she watched his chest rise and fall as the light in his eyes faded. Without warning, he spun away from the bar, bent at the waist, and retched. The seven shots of whiskey spilled from his gut, mixing with the sawdust on the wood floor.
“You lost! You have to hire me.” She expected to be more excited, but the haze of inebriation kept her in a cloud. Did her voice have the conviction she wanted? She needed? Hopefully Keller didn’t see that the putrid smell of his vomit was twisting her gut into knots.
He coughed and hacked, but didn’t look back at her. “Not unless you drink one more and keep it down! If you can’t, it’s a draw. The deal was if you out-drank me.”
One more drink. It was going to be hard enough without the sour smell making her head spin. Or was it the previous six shots doing that? She picked up the glass and focused on the one thing that mattered, saving her father’s house.He deserved the place to recover and retire. Lark might not be the tough-as-nails man of the sea he used to be, but the payoff for twenty-plus years of grueling work should be their home.
One more time she poured the whiskey down her throat. The sound of her empty glass hitting the bar rang out like a victory bell.
Keller’s gaze bore down on her as if he was trying to force her to puke with his sheer will. She didn’t look away, refused to let herself be pushed around by these clods. Mind over matter, she focused on her breathing.
In. Out. In. Out.
How had she never noticed how blue his eyes were before? Just when she thought she might have to look away, so as not to drown in those pools, he grabbed her wrist and guided her down the length of the bar to a quiet corner, blocking her with his solid frame. “Are you trying to ruin me?”
“No! I’m trying to save myself.”
“Don’t make me do this.”
The booze gripped her stomach and clouded her mind. She felt herself sway and the white haze thicken between them. “How can you go back on your word? I won the bet. You have to give me the job.”
He slid his left hand up her right arm leaving a trail of goose bumps behind his touch. As he gripped her shoulders, concern softened his emotions. “Are you all right?”
She averted her eyes, the mere closeness of him sending waves of arousal through her. Her father always joked about women looking better at closing time. It must work both ways. “Just tell me you’re a man of your word. Dad always said the Sveinssons could be counted on. That you were virtuous.”
“This isn’t what you think. I’d do anything to help Lark.”
“Then don’t treat his daughter like shit!”
“This isn’t personal. We’re talking about my livelihood. I can’t let you screw with that.” The vein running down the side of his neck throbbed as the words passed through his lips, stretched thin and taught. Even though he was bordering on rage, all Jo could focus on was the passion he must have in order to feel anything with that much conviction.
“All I’m asking for is a chance to earn my way. I don’t want to be handed anything.”
Graham’s voice filtered into her conscious and she followed it to the left of Keller. “Let me take you home before you do something else you end up regretting.”
She waved her hand in front of her face, tipping her own balance to the left. “Leave me alone. You’re not my keeper.”
Graham moved in and caught her before she fell, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. Jo leaned on him for support. As always, she could count on him to protect her from herself.
He pushed her hair back over her shoulder. “Yeah, your father might have something to say about that. Come on. This is over.”
Jo pushed herself out of Graham’s arms and stumbled toward Keller. She couldn’t leave the bar until she had his word. “So, what’s it going to be?”
Keller hesitated and then swiped a hand across his chin. “What can I do? You won the bet. Be at the boat at six thirty in the morning with the rest of the crew.”
Jo gave her weight to the wall and watched Keller amble back to the bar. Even though it took him two tries to get back up on the stool, the sight of him still made her dizzy. Or was that all the booze she’d drank?Graham grabbed her forearm. “Let’s get you outside before you puke.”
He rambled on as he led her toward the bar, grabbed her coat from Ralph, and then continued toward the door. She reached for the handle, but Graham pulled her back, and helped her into her coat. After she zipped the front and wrapped the scarf tight around her neck, he held the door for her.
For the first time in two months, she felt like she could take a deep breath. Tomorrow she could go to the bank and arrange to pay off the loan. Her father wasn’t going to lose the house. “Where are you parked?”
Graham leaned back against the building and shook his head. “You’re not getting in my car yet.”
“I want to go home.” She sounded whiney, even to her own ears.
“I don’t want you to barf in my car.”
“The car. The only woman you’ll ever love.” She was joking. Kind of. Graham had paid more money than she could imagine spending on anything to have the classic car shipped to him from the lower forty-eight and didn’t seem to value anything more than it.
“You can stand here for a few minutes in the crisp, cool air and get your wits about you.”
She tried to stand straight, but the breeze was brushing against her, setting her off balance in her weakened state. Graham started to laugh, but then muttered a curse. After grabbing her shoulders and turning her, he leaned her back against the wall and then fished a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. Pulling one from the box, he cupped his hand over the end and lit it.
“You need to stop that.”
“What do you care if I smoke?”
“They’ll kill you. I don’t want to see you end up like my dad.”
He leaned back and slowly exhaled the first drag. “Do you ever wonder if your dad is right?”
She could hear the door to the bar open and a group of patrons leaving. From the laughs and chiding she knew it was the crew of the Sydney, but didn’t bother to turn to see if Keller was with them. She didn’t want to give him an in to a conversation, a chance to recant the job offer.
Graham snapped his fingers in front of her face. “You with me?”
She shook off the haze. “Wonder if Dad is right about what?”
“About us? That we belong together.”
She pushed her hand against his shoulder. “Shut up! And you think I drank too much?”
“Maybe it’s not such a stupid idea.” He pushed the cigarette back between his lips and rubbed his hands together for warmth.
She pulled the smoke from his mouth and squashed it beneath the heel of her boot. “You don’t love yourself enough to quit abusing your body with this crap, why should I take you in? So I can take care of you when your way of life catches up to you?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Fishermen! You are all alike. You don’t know the meaning of home or family. Your first and only love is the sea.”
Graham looked her in the eye, and she could see the wounds below his tough guy appearance. “You’re wrong, you know. I think about the future all the time. I want a fairy-tale ending just as much as you.”
“But not with me.”
“You wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
She threw her arms in the air in frustration, but didn’t have the heart to continue arguing with him. Graham was just trying to help. She knew that, but she didn’t need charity from him or anyone else. When it came to the two of them, she was the responsible one. The one who kept the candle lit while the men in her life tempted the sea.
Besides, she knew when he woke up the next day, this sentimental moment will have passed.“I’m going to walk home.”
She was half-way up the street before she heard Graham’s heavy steps crunching against the snow. He grabbed her arm, and pulled her back. “Like hell, you are. With my luck you’d pass out in a snow bank and freeze to death.”
“I can take care of myself and my father. I don’t need you or anyone else to try and save me.”
“I know you can, but you shouldn’t have to.”
Released October 6, 2015
Jolanda is willing to do whatever it takes, even face off against the Bering Sea, to raise the money for a balloon payment on her father’s house.
She challenges Keller and wins a bet to get on the recently inherited crab fishing boat, forcing the young captain to buck tradition and superstition.
Will his season be doomed or will he end up with the ultimate catch?