Ava Vincent hightailed it out of Texas more than twenty years ago, vowing never to return. But when Ava takes the “perfect” job in Redfish, Texas, she never expects to find her estranged brothers living in the same small town. Reconciliation is made that much harder because she won’t explain why she completely cut off her family. Some secrets can’t be shared. Ever.
Widower Jack Williams moved to Redfish hoping for a better life for himself and his troubled teenage son. When he meets Ava he knows that here is a woman he could be happy with. But there’s more to Ava than she’s sharing, even with the man who loves her. Jack could forgive her secrets, but could he forgive the shameful truth?
Should she play it safe and push Jack away? Or listen to her heart and take the biggest risk of all?
“Cole, what are you doing?” Jack Williams pounded on the closed bedroom door. “I have to leave for work. Come on, I’ll drop you at school on my way.”
“I’m not going.”
His voice was muffled but determined. Jack gritted his teeth and silently counted to ten. “Come on, buddy, you know you have to go. It won’t be so bad once you get to know some of the kids.”
Cole opened the door and glared at him with eyes the color of whiskey. His mother’s eyes, except Cynthia had never looked at Jack with such venom in her gaze. “I don’t want to know them. This place sucks. I want to go home.”
“Don’t start this again. Redfish is home now. And we don’t have time to mess around. You’re going to be late, and so am I.”
“Like I give a—”
“I’m waiting, Cole,” he said, interrupting. “And put on a pair of jeans that fit. Don’t forget you’re working at the Institute after school.” Cole was a skateboarder and wore baggy pants that always looked like they were one breath away from falling off his butt. Why they never did, Jack didn’t know. But he was damned if Cole was wearing those pants to work. At least the T-shirt was one of the milder ones, so they wouldn’t have to fight over it as well.
Finally, they were able to leave. Cole hadn’t changed his clothes, but Jack blew that defiance off in the interest of getting to work on time. The new research scientist he’d be working with was due at the Institute this morning for her first day, and Jack wanted to arrive before she did.
“I don’t see why I have to work at the same place you do,” Cole said on the way to school.
“You tried the grocery store and there were no bag boy positions left. It’s tough to find a job when you’re fifteen. You’re lucky Dr. Long hired you.” The director had done it as a personal favor to Jack, but Jack didn’t tell his son that. He thought it would do him good to believe he’d got the job on his own. He might try harder if he did believe it.
“I’m nearly sixteen,” Cole said sulkily. “If I had wheels, I could work any place I wanted.”
“Wheels cost money,” Jack said. “Insurance, gas, not to mention the cost of the car itself.” He didn’t mention he had his eye on a car he intended to give Cole for his birthday in a couple of weeks. It was the next thing to a junker, but he was confident that he could keep it running. And he and Cole could work on it together, which he hoped would bring them closer.
Abandoning the car argument, Cole said, “You don’t trust me, that’s why you want me there. You’re treating me like a baby, wanting to know where I am every minute.”
It was an old refrain. But Jack had learned his lesson in Galveston when Cole had fallen in with a bad crowd because his father was working all the time. That was the main reason Jack had decided to move and leave his charter fishing business for something with more regular hours and more free time.
He intended to do better here. He’d be the father Cole needed whether his son liked it or not. “You know what happened in Galveston. If I’m hard on you, you’ve only yourself to blame. You’re going to have to earn back my trust, son.”
“I told you, I only smoked weed once. If you hadn’t come home early, you’d never even have known. We’d still be living in Galveston and not in this nothing town. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?”
“Because it is a big deal. You’re lucky it was me who found you and not the police.” Besides, he didn’t totally buy that that had been the first time the kid had smoked. No, he wasn’t that naive, even if he had been too clueless to see the signs before he’d busted his son and his friends.
Cole shrugged, but didn’t speak, so Jack continued. “You need to work after school because you need the experience. Not to mention the money.”
“Gimme a break. I bet it sucks. It’s probably boring as sh—”
“Watch your mouth,” Jack said wearily. Thank God they had arrived at the school. “I’ll see you later.” Luckily, the Institute was only a short walk from the high school. He just hoped Cole showed up and he didn’t have to go hunt him down. Not a very good impression to make on the director if that happened.
“I don’t feel so good,” Cole said, rubbing his stomach. “I think I’m getting the flu or something.”
Jack laughed. “Yeah, I’m going to fall for that one.” He had an urge to ruffle his hair as he had when Cole was young, but stifled it, knowing it would infuriate his son. “Better get to class, Cole. I’ll see you later.”
Cole didn’t respond. He got out of the car.
Jack drove the short distance to the Institute and parked his car. As he walked into the building, he was struck again by how new everything looked. But then, since the place had only just opened, it should look new. Some serious money had funded the Coastal Research Institute, Unfortunately, money had become tighter before they’d got around to buying the boats. The director was on the lookout for a big boat that could cruise the gulf for days and sleep several people. But Jack didn’t know how long it would be before he found what he wanted.
The boat they did have was a smaller one but still large enough to take care of their initial needs. Though it was older, the Heart of Texas was a good, solid thirty-two-foot cruiser and would make a fine research vessel for the bay. It would sleep six, more in a pinch, had a full galley and a decent head. In fact, the boat was great—it just needed a little work, especially on the engine.
Jack’s old buddy Mark Kincaid had been instrumental in getting him this job. When Mark had heard Jared Long was looking for a fleet captain, he’d given him Jack’s name. Mark had also mentioned the house next to his was for sale, so Jack and Cole had been able to buy it and move right in. Jack definitely owed Mark for all his help.
“Come in, Jack.” Jared Long let him into his office and shook hands with a genial smile.
Dr. Long was in his late fifties, a big, balding hulk of a man, and in Jack’s opinion, an all-around good guy. The Institute was his baby. He’d founded it, got funding for it, and had recruited for it.
“Dr. Vincent is due any minute.” He chuckled. “I don’t mind telling you we’re lucky to get her. She’s made quite a name for herself in Florida, with her papers on digital photographic identification of bottlenose dolphins.”
“I’m in no hurry,” Jack said. “I’ve been talking to some of the locals about the dolphin population, so I know what areas to start looking in.”
“Good. That will help since Dr. Vincent’s never been in the area.”
“I’d like to thank you again for giving my son a job. He’s excited about starting.” No reason to let the man know that Cole was being such a pain in the butt.
“Good. I know moving can be hard on kids, especially teenagers.”
“That’s the truth.”
“How does he like school? Has he made any friends yet?”
Jack shook his head, skipping over the first question. “Not yet. But it’s early days. I’m sure he’ll make some friends soon.” And pray God they weren’t into the same things his last group of friends had been involved in.
“Any luck finding someone to help with the engine repair?” Dr. Long asked, changing the subject.
“As a matter of fact, I talked with someone yesterday.” Since both he and the director wanted what money the Institute did have to go toward the purchase of more boats, Jack had volunteered to repair the engine himself. Like most charter boat captains, he knew a bit about boat repairs. And what he didn’t know, he planned to get help with. “Mark introduced me to his brother-in-law, Gabe Randolph. Do you know him?”
“Gabe? Sure. He owns the bait and tackle shop under the causeway bridge. Used to be Red’s.” He laughed and added, “Gabe’s really spruced up the place. First time I saw it, I couldn’t believe the change. Red hadn’t done a thing to it in thirty years.”
“That’s him. He said he’d love to get his hands on a boat engine again. It will have to be in his spare time, but I’m sure we can work something out. He’s coming over in the morning, in fact, if I can’t get it going by this afternoon.”
Someone knocked on the door. “That must be Dr. Vincent,” Long said and went to answer it. “Dr. Vincent, it’s wonderful to have you here.” He opened the door wider and stepped back.
“Thank you, I’m so happy to be here,” a soft, husky voice said.
A woman stepped into the room and every one of Jack’s preconceived notions about female scientists exploded into dust. Long, dark sable hair fell to her shoulders in rolling waves. Though she was clearly dressed for work in khaki pants, a sleeveless white blouse and running shoes, the clothes did nothing to hide her incredible body.
“Dr. Ava Vincent, meet Captain Jack Williams. He’s our research fleet captain.” The director’s laugh boomed. “Right now we’ve only got one vessel, but we intend to add more as soon as we gain more funding. We’ve got some exciting fund-raisers planned.”
Cool blue eyes as deep as the ocean looked him over critically. Her eyes seemed familiar, though he couldn’t have said why, because he was certain he would have remembered if he’d ever met her. She was too self-possessed to be very young, so it was hard to tell her exact age. But damn, he could tell one thing for sure. This woman was gorgeous.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, and offered him her hand. A woman’s hand, soft and feminine, but with a firm, decisive handshake.
“Likewise, Dr. Vincent.”
“Please, call me Ava,” she said as she dropped his hand. She came farther into the room, took the chair Dr. Long offered her with a soft word of thanks and crossed one leg over the other.
Jack had to remind himself to breathe.
Wow. If she fired his hormones after just one look at her, what was it going to be like to work with her?
Interesting. Very interesting.