THE SALT AIR, Jane Pearson realized, was hampering the success of her impending mission. First, it made her normally normal hair fuzzy. Not such a big deal, she supposed as she picked her way downhill, taking the narrow track of crushed shells that led from the coastal road to the picturesque cottages of Crescent Cove, but it was also wilting the white linen dress she wore.
At home, the garment had seemed perfect I-mean-business wear for a June late afternoon. It had short cap sleeves and a collar she’d buttoned tight to the neck, but the swing hemline no longer moved crisply about her knees, instead clinging damply to her thighs. By the time she reached Beach House No. 9, she feared she wouldn’t appear the no-nonsense professional. Kleenex ghost might be a better comparison, the kind that kids made at Halloween—this one spritzed with water and topped with frizzy blondish tendrils.
No matter, she thought. Her determination remained firm. Despite the state of her attire, she wouldn’t soften when facing the man she was here to confront. Griffin Lowell had been ignoring her calls—all eleven of them!—and she wasn’t willing to wait any longer for a response. According to his literary agent, the writer was way behind on his memoir. Jane had been hired to cure his critical case of deadline denial and then help shape the pages she prodded him to produce. It was time to get started.
He needed her.
You need him too, Jane, a little voice in her head added.
She ignored the unwelcome reminder and focused instead on her surroundings. Crescent Cove wasn’t a hardship to visit. It was actually an amazing find in this Southern California county notable for the recently built, oh-so-alike housing developments and shopping malls that sprouted like beige-stuccoed fungi along the Pacific Coast Highway. About those red terra-cotta tile roofs…didn’t anyone realize that too much of a good thing made a bad thing?
By contrast, this beach colony was straight from another time. The fifty or so unconventional bungalows and colorful cottages were prime examples of beach vernacular architectural design—she’d read that—and snuggled the bluffs along a two-mile stretch of sand. Each appeared as cheery and appealing as the bougainvillea that grew like weeds around them in colors ranging from pale salmon to the brightest scarlet. The prevailing sound at the cove was the rhythmic shush of the waves, as the growl of tires on the highway above was screened by a stand of tall eucalyptus. Their medicinal tang mingled with the scents of seaweed, sand and ocean.
A black Labrador in a tie-dyed kerchief ambled toward her, and she smiled at him. Jane loved dogs, though she’d never actually owned one. Growing up, her famed scientist of a father had claimed that pets would distract children from the rigor of their studies. And these days, her hours were too unpredictable to allow for a pet.
“Hello,” she called out to the canine, wiggling her fingers in his direction. His moseying pace didn’t check, however, and he turned down an alley that snaked between two rows of houses. Well. Just another male wrapped up in his own pursuits.
Continuing forward, she approached No. 9 from the rear, where more crushed shells led to a double garage, its door painted a seafoam-green. A handful of beach cruiser bicycles leaned against the dark brown shingled siding. Six cars were parked nearby, half of them luxury sedans, half in dubious running condition, all with two or more surfboards strapped on top, bright-striped beach towels sandwiched between them.
Did Griffin Lowell have houseguests? The thought made Jane pause while she was still fifty feet from the back door. Surely not. His agent had told her the man in question had gone completely hermit, ignoring phone calls, texts and emails—even from friends and family. Jane knew all too well how effectively he’d snubbed her.
“Before he went incommunicado, I spoke to him about getting some assistance with the book,” Frank, the agent, had said. “He agreed. So light a firecracker under him, will you, Jane?”
Of course she would. She was excellent at her job, and after the disaster of her last assignment, it was imperative she prove that again.
Her short-heeled pumps had slender ankle straps and cutouts like eyelets scattered across the toe cap. She watched them carefully as she navigated another fifteen feet on the unsteady shell surface before pausing a second time. Taking in some deep breaths, she tried smoothing down her wisping-every-which-way hair and palm-ironing the damp fabric of her dress. The stakes had her a little tense.
Not to mention that there was the whole recluse thing to consider. Griffin had spent a year embedded with American troops in Afghanistan. He’d seen things, experienced things—hence the memoir—that without a doubt had impacted him. Was he right now sitting alone, staring out to sea, brooding over the nature of God and man? She felt her uneasiness tick up another notch as she imagined that scene, and then herself interrupting his silent solitude.
But you’ve been given a second chance, Jane, and you can’t afford to balk.
With that mantra echoing in her head, she made it to the mat lying outside the front door. It looked like a Jolly Roger, and beneath the skull and crossbones was written: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.
Another woman might add that warning to the eleven disregarded phone calls, her jittering nerves, plus the limp state of her clothing and then decide to tackle the author another day. Jane, however, lifted her chin as well as her fist, prepared to rap on the door.
It swung open before her knuckles met wood. A guy in bare feet, yellow board shorts and bleached blond curls stared down at her. From inside came the unmistakable sound of a party. Rap music, raised voices, the shattering of a beer bottle followed by curses worthy of a sailor. Two women passed behind the beach boy, wearing near-identical denim miniskirts and mini bikini tops too, their long highlighted locks straightened to shiny perfection. They clutched tropical-colored drinks complete with umbrellas and didn’t spare a glance for Jane with her fuzzy hair and drooping dress. In the distance, she heard a masculine voice say, “I’m drunk. Smashed. Pissed.” Another someone yelled, “Hey, Brittany, how ’bout you and me get naked?”
Oh, the man she was after was so not a hermit.
“Griffin?” she said, eyeing the surfer dude.
“Nah, I’m Ted. You want him?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t sure if she was happy or sad that Beach Boy wasn’t the man she was after. “Is he available?” As in, not inebriated and not getting bare with Brittany.
“For you? Sure.” He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. “Inside. Can’t miss him.”
As she scooted past, the dude yelled, “Hey, Griffin! Guess who the liquor store sent out to deliver the chips and booze? Some little thing from librarian school!”
Ignoring her annoyance at the comment, she took in her surroundings. A party was definitely going on at Griffin’s. Twenty or so people milled about a rectangular living room that had a whitewashed brick fireplace on the wall opposite sliding glass doors leading to an ocean-view deck. There, more people were gathered. The rap song gave way to something by Jimmy Buffett as she moved through the crowd, wondering how she “couldn’t miss” the reporter. He worked for magazines, so she’d never seen him on television. The black-and-white photo her preliminary research had uncovered depicted a scruffy figure wearing a combat helmet, flak jacket and dusty sunglasses.
The music blasting from the speakers hiccuped, and the Jimmy Buffett song started again from the top just as she reached those rear doors. Her gaze shifted right, drawn to a twirling mobile hanging in the corner that was made from driftwood and worn, mismatched flip-flops suspended with fishing line. Beneath that piece of “art” was where she found him. She didn’t know how she knew, but she’d bet a hundred-dollar bill she didn’t have to spare that she’d located Griffin Lowell.
In fatigue-green cargo shorts and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, he was tipped back in a distressed-leather recliner, a buxom bikini babe perched on each of its arms. A red bandanna covered his head like a biker’s do-rag—or probably a pirate’s, because there was a gold earring in one ear and a patch over each eye. A lean, tan hand was curved around a beer bottle resting on his taut belly. He appeared to be sleeping. Perhaps meditating, if buccaneers did such a thing.
She took a breath. “Griffin? Griffin Lowell?”
His free hand slid toward his crotch. She yanked her gaze away, but then realized he was merely reaching for his front pocket. “How much do I owe you?” he rumbled. “You didn’t forget the tequila, did you?”
“And the diet cherry cola,” one of the bikinis added. “I can’t drink tequila without diet cherry cola.”
He grimaced but repeated her anyway. “And the diet cherry cola.”
Jane just stared at him, shaking her head. It was hard to get a read on the man, what with his hair covered in fabric and his face obscured by those ridiculous eye patches. Peering more closely at them, she could see the black rubber was embossed with, once again, the Jolly Roger skull and bones. “I didn’t bring anything at all,” Jane said, her voice rising a little as Buffett made way for a band she didn’t know. “But, Griffin Lowell, you still owe me.”
After a second’s hesitation, the chair jumped upright, dislodging the girls. Griffin held out his beer and one of the bikinis took it, leaving him free to strip away his pirate paraphernalia: earring, bandanna, eye patch one and eye patch two. For the first time, she got a real look at him.
Oh, Jane thought, swallowing. Shiver me timbers.
He was undeniably attractive, with a lean face as tan as his hand, its bones stark and masculine. There was a grit of black stubble on his cheeks and chin, and his head hair was only a half inch or so longer. A soldier’s style, she supposed. But the eyes that studied her beneath his dark brows were a startling aqua-blue that both observed and assessed with a spotlight intensity. Reporter’s eyes.
They seemed cold at first, but as his gaze roamed lower, to her mouth, then to the too-tight collar that suddenly seemed to choke off her airway and on to her clingy dress and now-rubbery knees, the skin he visually explored began to heat, inch by inch. It was like those beacon fires of old, used to signal an enemy’s approach. A kindling at one location spurred the lighting of the next and so on and so on until everyone—or in this case, every nerve—was on alert. And then Jane recalled that pirates had used such fires too, but as false navigational beacons that lured ships to dangerous waters where they would run aground or even sink.
She should have been chilled by the thought, but instead another wave of heat tumbled over her body. In reaction, she could actually feel her hair lifting away from her scalp and twisting itself into curls she’d never had before.
Willing herself not to touch them, she cleared her throat and spoke with authority. “You haven’t been taking my calls, so I’ve come here to discuss your book.”
At her words, his gaze immediately shuttered, and he shoved back into a reclined position. “I’m not interested.” He held out his hand for his beer and drained it in one long draw.
Jane didn’t let his closed eyes deter her even as annoyance ignited at his clear—and yes, rude—dismissal. “You signed a contract to write a memoir,” she reminded him crisply, then forced herself to soften her tone. “But you don’t have to do it alone. That’s why I’m here—for you.”
When his eyes popped open at that, she even managed a friendly smile. His gaze started running down her body again, causing her lips to flatten and her insides to squirm so her outside wouldn’t. As his eyes resettled on her mouth, she bit her bottom lip to hold back the odd little whimper that was slinking up her throat. It was as unusual as the sudden impulse she felt to turn tail and run.
You can’t afford to balk, Jane.
That little voice acted like a bucket of ice water. “You have pages due soon,” she told Griffin, steady again. “I’ve been hired to help you meet your obligation.”
He cocked his head at her, clearly unenthused.
She continued anyway. “To that end, I’m ready to provide you everything you need.” And in her experience, sometimes that meant applying a swift kick to the seat of an author’s pants, an option that was sounding better and better by the moment. “Whatever you need.”
“Yeah?” One of those black brows lifted, and his voice drawled. “The only things I need, honey-pie, are a couple of shots of tequila, another six-pack of beer and a night of sweaty sex.”
The second brow lifted to the level of the first. “You game?”
* * *
JANE DIDN’T HAVE TIME to respond with more than a sputter before someone shouted Griffin’s name and he was gone, leaving her alone with the empty recliner and the bikinis. “Finally,” one said. “I’ll bet it’s the diet cherry cola.” She wandered off, presumably to check.
The second bikini smiled at Jane, who managed to smile back. “Nice, uh, party. A special occasion?”
The sleek-haired woman shrugged. “It’s Tuesday?”
“Actually,” Jane said, “it’s Wednesday.”
“Oh.” The bikini rubbed a spot between her brows. “I’ve lost track. Finals week, you know.”
Was testing required for the technicians at tanning salons? “You’re a student?”
“Graduate work. Marine biology.” Then she cracked up. “You should see your face! I’m kidding. I’m in beauty school.”
The young woman didn’t need to take classes for that, Jane thought. She was striking in that wide-mouthed, big-breasted way of women who were soap-opera actresses or models in Maxim magazine. “You visit Griffin often?”
“It’s Party Central, y’know? My girlfriend’s boyfriend surfs with him, so we’ve all been hanging out here. He doesn’t seem to mind.”
Which seemed to also verify he wasn’t hard at work on his manuscript. Figuring he’d had enough time to take care of the liquor delivery, Jane excused herself and went in search of him again. It took a few minutes to determine he wasn’t in the galley-style kitchen, any of the bedrooms, the bathrooms or even the garage that housed another gathering of partiers clustered around a table set up for beer pong. On her second search, she discovered that somehow he’d gotten past her and was now stretched out on a lounge in a corner of the deck, his eyes closed once again. His fingers were curled around a fresh bottle of beer.
He might as well have been alone.
Jane didn’t let that deter her. Instead, she dragged a molded plastic chair to his side and plunked herself onto its seat, tucking her wild hair behind her ears. Not a single male muscle twitched.
With a huff, she sent him a pointed look, but that didn’t appear to pierce the bubble he’d erected around himself either. Though she supposed waiting him out would give her the upper hand, she didn’t have that kind of patience. His deadline was at stake. Her reputation.
She huffed again. “Griffin.”
Only his lips moved. “Honey-pie.”
Her back teeth ground together. “Look, I’m here because you told your agent you were interested in someone helping you with your manuscript. That’s what I do.”
When Griffin didn’t respond, she raised her voice. “I’m a book doctor,” she said. “My name is Jane.”
That prodded him a little. His eyes opened a slit. They closed again as one corner of his mouth ticked up. “Of course it is.”
She ignored his amused tone. It wasn’t an unusual reaction, after all. She looked like a Jane. Her brother Byron—as serious and renowned a scientist as their father—had the wild and dramatic appearance corresponding to his literary namesake. Her other overachieving brother, Phillip Marlowe Pearson, could pass for a hard-boiled detective, though as a medical researcher he was much more interested in running DNA tests than running down criminals. Just like them, her name matched her exterior. Her dishwater-blond hair, her pleasant but unremarkable features, her plain gray eyes all said—in a restrained, ladylike hush—Jane.
If her mother hadn’t died when she was still an infant, Jane might have asked her why she hadn’t made a more exotic choice for her only daughter’s given name. Would she have looked different if she’d been called Daisy or Delilah?
However, Jane had an inkling that Griffin Lowell would be attempting to ignore her even if she looked like Scheherazade. And the one who had stories to tell was the man on her left. “About your book…” she started.
“I can’t talk about that at the moment,” he said.
“Why? You don’t look busy.”
His lashes remained resting on his cheeks. “I have guests.”
“Who have found their diet cherry cola,” she pointed out, inexplicably annoyed as she glimpsed that particular woman at the other end of the deck. When she bent over to brush some sand off her calf, her bountiful chest nearly escaped its triangular fabric confines.
“She doesn’t look like she needs to watch her weight, though, does she?” Eyes wide open now, he was looking in the same direction as Jane.
“I wouldn’t care to opine,” she said.
He snorted. “You even sound like a governess.”
She smiled at him. Thinly. “All the better to get the job done.”
“Yeah?” The picture of nonchalance, he folded his arms over his chest and crossed his legs at the ankle. “I think your luck would improve if you’d loosen up a little. Why don’t you go inside and track down a swimsuit. Pour yourself a drink. Then we’ll talk.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, willing, for the moment, to play along. “And you’ll be right here when I return? I have your word on that?”
His gaze slid off to the side. “Let’s make an appointment for next week.”
As if. After meeting him and seeing the setup he had here, she was only more determined not to allow him another inch of wiggle room. His agent was right. The man was in serious denial. “You’ve got to get to work immediately, Griffin, or you won’t make your deadline. The first half of the book is due at the end of the month.”
He ignored that, his gaze fastened on the label of the bottle in his hand. “Book doctor, huh? You know your way around vocabulary and grammar?”
“Yes, though I do more than—”
“So you really know your stuff?” he asked. “Can you spell humulus lupulus? Do you have a familiarity with Saccharomyces uvarum?”
She held on to her patience. “Unless you’re writing a treatise on beer, specifically lagers, I don’t think either of those terms will come up.”
He paused as if vaguely surprised, then he gave a slight shake of his head. “Fine. Let’s talk serial commas, then. Please state your views on their usage.”
Really, the man could make a woman start to consider serial murder—beginning with him. “The serial comma, also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, refers to the punctuation mark used before the final item in a list of three or more. It’s the standard in American English—”
“According to who?” He bristled.
“Whom,” she corrected. “And it’s according to The Chicago Manual of Style.”
“Though that’s for nonjournalistic writing,” she went on, ignoring his interruption. “I’m aware reporters like yourself follow the AP Stylebook, which recommends leaving out the comma before a coordinating conjunction.”
He was silent at that.
She waited a beat. “Did I pass the test?”
“Look.” He sounded exasperated. “I just want to be left alone.”
She gazed around her, taking in the half-dressed beautiful beach people who were drinking his booze and crowding his deck as the sun slid toward the horizon. “Your need for solitude would be a bit more convincing if you weren’t surrounded by a crowd. If your guests didn’t call your place Party Central.”
Something flashed in his eyes. “That’s none of your business.”
Oops. Though clashes between herself and a stalled client were to be expected, downright hostility was not her friend. Jane scooched her chair closer, twisting it to face him. “Griffin…” she said and, like a good governess with a recalcitrant charge, put out a placating hand to touch his leg.
Weird happened when fingers met shin. An electric spark snapped, a tingle shot up her arm, their gazes collided, veered away, crashed again. As yet another glow of heat radiated across her skin, she was paralyzed, still touching him, still staring at him. Confused, she couldn’t seem to pull away. Members of the opposite sex didn’t produce such strong physical reactions in her. She was above all that, she’d always assumed, her interest more in a man’s mind than in his…manliness.
“Griff!” someone said in the distance, then became more insistent. “Griff!”
“What?” He didn’t move. Their stares didn’t waver.
“Sammy says he’s going to jump,” the voice answered.
“Fine,” Griffin responded without emotion. “Tell him to watch the rocks.”
“He says he’s going for the record. He says he’s going to beat you.”
Griffin jerked. The movement broke Jane’s paralysis, and she snatched her hand from his leg. His head swung around to address the man who was standing right beside them. “What did you say?”
It was Beach Boy from the front door. Ted. He pointed to the bluff at the south end of the cove. Even from here, Jane could see a handful of men scrambling along a path up its side. “Sammy says he’s taking off from a spot five feet above your last leap.”
Griffin glanced over his shoulder. “Sammy’s drunk.”
Beach Boy’s curls bounced when he nodded. “It’s why he’s talking trash. But I think he means it. I think he’s going to outdo you this time.”
“Outdo me? Like hell he will.” Griffin was already standing. Then he gripped the railing of the deck and swung himself over and onto the sand below. “Get your camera ready,” he advised the other man as he stripped off his shirt and ran toward the outcropping.
Jane realized she’d spent too much time with English majors and MFAs. They preferred Frisbee golf and strolls through farmers’ markets. They didn’t splash through surf that rose to their knees and then ascend a steep hillside, the muscles in their backs shifting and their strong arms flexing as they reached for each handhold.
They didn’t shout something indistinct and then hurl themselves off a jutting boulder into the roiling ocean.
Several of Griffin’s party guests did just that, from various heights. Jane found herself holding her breath as each man launched himself into space. Her initial reaction could mostly be summed up by “Why?” but after the first couple of men made it back to shore, she could admit there was a certain…exuberance in the activity.
Ultimately there were only two men left on the bluff. One, she guessed, was the drunken Sammy. The other was Griffin. They stood beside each other, the wind tugging at the legs of their shorts.
“Griff should talk him out of it,” one of the partygoers lining the deck railing said. They all wore dark glasses or had their hands up to shade their eyes from the lowering sun. “He’ll have the record if he takes off from there, but Sammy’s just pickled enough not to realize that height means he has to jump farther outward into deeper water.”
But if Griffin tried to talk sense into the other man, it apparently didn’t work. Those on the deck gasped in unison as Sammy bounded from the rock. The others followed his descent, but Jane kept her gaze on their host, who instantly scrambled even higher.
“Is Griffin trying to get a better look at his friend?” she asked Beach Boy, who was still beside her.
“No,” the dude said on a sigh, as Griffin stopped at a sharp nose of stone. “He’s upping the ante. Nobody’s ever attempted a jump from that height. It could be…” He didn’t finish, but the expression on his face did it for him.
It could be dangerous.
Appalled, Jane closed her eyes, squeezing them tight. Though she’d been concerned about her latest author’s uncooperative attitude and then his penchant for crowded beer bashes, she’d remained confident in her ability to help him mold his memoir. She’d been taught long ago that failure was not an option, after all. But clearly the task of aiding Griffin Lowell was going to be more complicated than mentioning deadlines and being available with red pen in hand.
This man was more than a stalled writer. Clearly he was also an impulsive risk taker with an overblown competitive streak.
Or a full-fledged death wish.