It was a warm, sunny afternoon in early April, a rarity on the Oregon coast at this time of year. The frequent spring rainstorms meant that the beautiful wildflowers—the best in the country—were on their way. Hank Cooper sat out on the deck of Ben & Cooper's Bar in his white T-shirt and jeans, his feet propped up on the deck rail. Hamlet, Sarah's harlequin Great Dane, sat beside him, watching the sea, his ears perking up when a person, a boat or bird caught his eye. Cooper was enjoying a heavily creamed coffee and watching his lovely Sarah Dupre paddleboarding out on the bay. She wore the wet suit—short sleeves, knee-length—he'd given her for Christmas. It kept her warm even though the water hadn't warmed up yet; it was icy cold. The Pacific was always cold, except maybe down San Diego way. But Sarah was an expert; she rarely got her feet wet.
The way that wet suit hugged her body—it was like art. She had incredibly strong legs, a perfect round tush, breasts about the size of his palms. She'd been born in a coastal town and was probably as comfortable on the water as she was on the land or in the sky—diver, swimmer, surfer, helicopter pilot.
Cooper and Ham had been watching Sarah for an hour; she'd gone all the way out to the mouth of the bay and back. She was finally coming in, just ahead of the fishing boats headed home to the marina.
This life was the furthest thing from what Cooper had ever envisioned for himself. He had come to Thunder Point last October to look into the death of a good friend, Ben Bailey. To his surprise he had inherited what was Ben's falling-down bait shop and bar. For lack of a better idea he renovated the place, turning it into a first-class beach bar, and had found himself a new home. He also found a woman in Thunder Point, another surprise he hadn't been looking for. After all the women in his life, short- or long-term, Sarah was everything he'd been waiting for.
He had officially opened the beach bar—minus the bait—in late February. Now, as the proprietor, there was plenty of time to visit with folks from town, let the gentle lapping of the bay soothe him, watch his woman on her board, gently gliding across the calm water between the huge offshore boulders in the bay. Cooper had a farmer's tan, stronger shoulders from lifting and hauling bar supplies and a lot of new friends when he'd always considered himself a solitary kind of guy.
Sarah leaned her board and paddle against the dock and came up the stairs. When she reached the deck, Cooper tossed her a towel and she dried off her feet, glad of the warm sunshine.
"What have you been up to?" Sarah asked.
"Absolutely nothing. Just watching my mermaid."
She laughed. "Did Hamlet behave himself?" Hearing his name, the huge dog got up and walked over to Sarah.
Cooper nodded. "He said he'd prefer to live here, with me."
"Did he now?" she asked with a laugh, giving Ham a gentle pat. "Get your own dog."
"There isn't room for another dog around here. Come here," Cooper said, pulling her onto his lap.
She went to him, sat down, picked up his coffee and helped herself to a sip.
"Want me to make you a hot cup?" he asked. "You cold?"
She shook her head. "It's nice out there. Breeze gets a little chilly sometimes, but the sun is so wonderful. You start to crave sun around here after all the winter rains and winds."
Her cell phone rang. She'd left it on the deck with Cooper when she took her board out. She picked it up and looked at the caller ID then said, "Yes, little brother?" She listened intently and then laughed. "I'm at Cooper's. I just took my board out—the bay is beautiful. I have the Razor and the dog. Then yes, have fun and I'll see you later."
She clicked off.
"How many times a day do you talk to Landon?" Cooper asked. Sarah and sixteen-year-old Landon were a family of two and they kept pretty tight tabs on each other. And with Sarah being a Coast Guard search-and-rescue pilot who worked out of the North Bend station, sometimes it wasn't easy.
"As many as it takes. Now that he's dating Deputy Yummy Pants's daughter, I don't worry so much. Well, I worry that Mac might shoot him if he gets too frisky with Eve, but I figure that's a long shot, forgive the pun. I think we check in three or four times a day."
"At least," Cooper said. "Did I interpret that last call to mean you're now free for dinner?"
She grinned at him. "Is the chef preparing something special?"
"It won't be busy here tonight, at least after seven—it's a weeknight and by then the sunset will be over. I have some steaks in the freezer, potatoes in the cooler ..."
"Do you have anything green?" she asked.
Cooper's bar menu was based on deli items purchased from Carrie's deli in town—simple things from pizzas to sandwiches as well as some desserts, things that could be served cold or warmed. His place was not a restaurant per se. Cooper bought himself a grill for his own use, but it was never used to prepare food for the patrons.
Cooper had also inherited a helper, Rawley Goode, a Vietnam vet who was not overly comfortable dealing with the public. While he was a good cook, he was needed for other things—maintenance, cleaning, running errands to the big box stores like Costco. Cooper had to admit that between Rawley and himself personal groceries were often in short supply.
"I bet you have something green," he suggested.
"I live on green things," she said.
"I know this."
"And you eat like a fourteen-year-old boy. You'd live on steak, hamburgers and home fries if it weren't for me. If I go home to shower and change and bring a salad or a vegetable back with me, will you clean your plate?"
He loved her. He was frequently shaken by the intensity of his passion for her. He'd clean his plate and then he'd tune her up for good measure. He knew his eyes glowed and knew she interpreted him correctly. When the closed sign was on the front door and the doors were locked, they'd eat steak in front of the fire and then retire to the playpen, his large bed upstairs. "Take my truck and leave the Razor."
"I have to work in the morning."
"That's okay. You can take my truck and your dog home later. Much later. Then I'll drive your Razor across the beach and trade vehicles tomorrow morning."
That night Sarah was home in bed before eleven. Not only did she have an early start the next day, but she also wanted to be home because of her brother, Landon. Landon wouldn't be either shocked or disapproving about the fact she and Cooper were sleeping together—in fact, he had met Cooper first and they were pals. If Sarah wasn't mistaken, Landon would consider it a personal favor if Sarah and Cooper somehow made a lasting commitment. That might be a possibility in the future but there were complications, not the least of which was Sarah's recent brief, disastrous marriage. She was understandably gun-shy and she had Landon to think about. He was just finishing up his junior year in high school and was headed for a fantastic senior year—his athletic prowess and academic performance would undoubtedly land him a scholarship. And they needed that scholarship. Sarah did all right financially but sending someone to college for four years would be a big challenge.
The next morning Sarah was finished in the bathroom and on her way out the door before Landon had even stirred for school. She left him a note and twenty dollars for gas or lunch or incidentals. She headed off to work feeling fit and fresh after her day off on the bay yesterday. A nice dinner with Cooper, followed by a couple of hours of recreation under the sheets—something Cooper had a particular talent for—helped make her feel brand-new and full of energy.
The Coast Guard station was getting ready for a big inspection in the next couple of weeks and there was plenty to do, from preparing for check rides to auditing maintenance records. They'd have to show the command they were one of the best air stations in the Coast Guard, and they'd have to get ready for this inspection while continuing to perform business as usual. Given that Sarah—Lieutenant Commander Dupre—was second in command of the flying operation at the station, her role in this prep would not be small. It was no surprise that when she turned on her computer she found a note from her immediate boss, Buzz Bachman, asking her to come to his office ASAP. She was sure, if she knew the man at all, he had a long list of things for her to do.
She made herself a cup of coffee on the way, stirring in some cream and sweetener. "Morning, boss," she said, entering his small office.
"Morning, Dupre. Shut the door, okay?"
She turned to close the door and thought, Uh-oh, someone's in trouble. The commander's door was seldom closed and when it was someone would generally say, "The spanking light has been lit."
"We have a busy week and an inspection team en route the end of the month."
"We'll be ready," she said, sipping her coffee.
"I want to tell you something I'm not supposed to know," Buzz said. "How's your poker face?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "When has my poker face ever let you down?"
"This could be tough. It affects you directly."
The eyebrow dropped. "Make it fast," she said. "Rip that Band-Aid off."
He took a breath. "I have a mole in HR," Buzz said. "I've been cultivating him for a long time. I want as much warning as possible for my next change of assignment. What I didn't expect was to learn that one of my 'men' was being looked at for a reassignment. An early reassignment because of compelling need. This means you, Dupre."
Sarah was stunned into silence. Her mouth hung open slightly. She forcibly closed her mouth. "I get an automatic refusal if they don't know I'm a woman. Right?"
"I wish. I shouldn't say anything. It could all go in another direction. Between now and notification, someone could put in for those air stations and this could all go away. But I wanted you to have as much time to think about this as possible—we have two retiring commanders and a compelling need with no outstanding applications for those locations and they're both ..." He paused to cough lightly. "They're both on the east coast. Maine and south Florida. As you might surmise, you're probably going to be awarded a promotion to commander within the year. I suspect this makes you a better than prime candidate."
"And I'm not due for either," she said, sliding forward on her chair a little bit.
"There's no surprise here, Dupre. You're good at your job. You've had a successful Coast Guard career.
You'd make an excellent boss. You're an excellent leader now."
She looked at him earnestly, humbly. "I need another year here. Landon ..."
"I know your situation and I sympathize. That's why I'm breaking protocol and leaking this. So help me, you let on and we'll have a real issue...."
"Crap, there's gotta be some wiggle room in here...."
"I just gave it to you. I think you'll be notified by June and then you will have a couple of months to make the move."
She shook her head. "This plays hell on my family ... Landon is prime scholarship material, but not if I move him. That's saying nothing of the trauma of moving a kid right before his senior year in high school, moving him away from his football team, his friends, his school, his town. He's done so well here, you have no idea."
"I have every idea," Buzz said. "I know exactly how you feel—I've gone through two divorces, proof of how the pressures weigh down the family. At least you're not married."
But there's someone I can't bear the thought of leaving, she thought. "Damn it, I love my job. But I don't love this part of it."
"And the Coast Guard loves you, Dupre. I thought you deserved time to think of your options. Aren't you from Florida?"
"Long ago and far away. I grew up in Boca, practically on the water, but I've been north for most of my Coast Guard career. And there's no family left in Florida—it's just me and Landon. And I only have one more year with him before he goes off to college, and starts a new phase of his life."
"You always have that option we're not talking about, even if you can't retire yet."
"Resign my commission? I have no idea what I'd do outside of the Coast Guard," she muttered, looking into her coffee cup.
"And I know that feeling, too," he said.
She looked up and made eye contact with him. She gave a half smile—small wonder he'd been married twice, he was a good-looking man. Blond, expressive brown eyebrows, strong, smart and a set of choppers that would put Donny Osmond to shame. All this had earned him the nickname Buzz Lightyear. "Why do you have a mole in HR?" she asked.
"I can retire," he said. "I want plenty of notice on the next assignment, which should be coming down the pipeline in about six months. I don't want a new location or a promotion. I'd like to fly forever, I love helicopters and I love the C-130 even more. Being a captain means more desk time than flying time and I have kids in California and Alaska. I'm moving on, Dupre. In probably a year."
"But what are you going to do?"
"I'm working on that. But I've been down this road and I have done twenty years of service. My decision is made. You're the one who has decisions to make. Maybe there's some family friends around who can keep Landon in this school for one more year?"
She shook her head. "There's no one."
The only ones who came to mind were Gina and Cooper. Her friend Gina was trying to develop a new life with Mac—aka Deputy Yummy Pants—and she had a small house crowded with her mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter. And Cooper? Oh, as great a pal as he was for Landon, he wasn't in the market for instant guardianship. She couldn't ask either of them for a favor this big. "The Coast Guard has always been inconvenient," she heard herself say. "Not a lot of stability. But the job itself made up for that most of the time."
"Where does Landon stay when you sit alert overnight?"
"He's pretty much okay on his own, as long as he has his phone and my contact numbers. If I have a temporary assignment out of town, like simulator training or something, there's this guy I've been seeing ... local guy, civilian. He doesn't mind Landon duty for a few days or a week, but trust me."
"Guy?" Buzz said. "Guy? Why don't I know about this guy?"
Sarah smiled in spite of herself.
"How long has this been going on?" Buzz asked.
She gave a shrug. "Six months or so."
"You never bring him around. You protecting us from him or something?"
"I could be protecting him from you...."
"Hmm. Well bring him around sometime. Happy hour or something.
"I just wanted you to have a heads-up on the assignments," he said. "With any luck someone could request a relocation in the next couple of months—maybe just the right person will come along and take these potential east coast assignments off your hands...."
"Two of them?" she asked cynically.
"There are people who would kill for a chance like you have," he said.
"I know," she said. She could go far in the Coast Guard; Commander was a prestigious rank in a demanding service and she'd earned it. She was only thirty-three. "I could quit, but I can't retire...." Quit and do what? There was the little matter of paying rent, buying food, making car and insurance payments ... tuition. She stood up. "Well, thanks, boss. I guess."
"Don't panic," Buzz said. "Yet."
Excerpted from The Newcomer by Robyn Carr. Copyright © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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