“Help me down?”
He ignored the hand, scooped her up, and lifted her bridal-style off the pool table. He helped her find her feet. She smoothed down her costume. “My, my. Chivalrous and everything. Thank you. I’m glad we waited to have sex, Jack. Really.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I hope it was worth the time.”
“Oh, it was.”
She crinkled her nose up at him, and he wanted to gobble her up. “You’re a funny one, aren’t you?”
“So they tell me.” She looked around the floor. “Where are my panties?”
In my trouser pocket, Legs, but you’re not getting them back.
He blinked a little too innocently. “I have no idea.” Her surly smirk told him she’d sooner believe in the Headless Horseman.
“Right. Well, Captain, that was one hell of a pleasure cruise. I’ll have to hop aboard some other time.” She smoothed down her hair and looked around.
He stepped forward. “Piper, listen, I’m not some sleazy—”
She patted his shoulder—patted
it, as if he were her puppy. Her eyes were soft, but her tone meant business.
“No. It was a nice ride. Amazing.
The best I’ve ever had, actually. But let’s not kid ourselves or pretend this is more than an incredible quickie, okay? A nice memory we’ll both hold onto and never forget, remember?”
He frowned. He didn’t want it to end like this. Hell, he didn’t want it to end
. But it was too late, because with a gentle kiss on the lips and a whispered good-bye, she slipped out of the room.
* * * *
When Piper walked out after the best sex of her life, she thought she’d feel empowered at having taken control of the situation. She was by all rights an alpha female, and that’s how she liked it. But a wave of regret hit her as she slid into the seat in the back of the company limo. Had it been a mistake? What if she never saw him again? Her mom always said a person’s soul was in their eyes, and he had rich, compassionate eyes, like a deep sea. She leaned against the limo headrest and folded her arms, the feel of him buried inside her so fresh they might as well still be fucking. And he’d felt good, phenomenal
, like he’d been designed to be a part of her.
She wrestled with her thoughts on the way back to her condo. She almost signaled the driver to turn around but never did. It turned out to be the biggest regret of her life.
* * * *
A knock rattled her dressing-room door.
“Goldhirsch! Get in the conference room,” Larry Gunn barked.
Piper removed her crossed ankles from the top of her vanity tabletop and glanced at the door, annoyed. She’d been focused on an article in Psychology Today
about the pros and cons of one-night stands. Try as she might, she couldn’t get Captain Jack out of her head. Hell, she could still smell him, a whiff of sheer masculinity and sex. Sometimes, it felt like he held her close, like he was a phantom lover.
“Why?” she called out.
“I’ve got one for you.”
She stood up and took her jacket off the back of her chair. “Last guy said that to me got his nuts kicked in. Couldn’t walk for weeks.” She opened the door. Larry worked his gum like a cow chewing cud and looked bored.
“Yeah, look at me. I’m petrified. Get in the conference room, kid. This one should be good.”
“Weeks,” she hissed as she passed him.
Whatever it was must be serious. They had Tim Chidester, Business Buster
’s private investigator they brought in for the heavier pieces, already seated, and another middle-aged man she didn’t know was also in attendance. She considered the stranger. He wore khaki shorts and a dark-blue polo shirt. She put him at somewhere in his midforties, with a red, receding hairline and thick glasses.
“Piper Goldhirsch, this is Peter Newman, owner of Newman Whale Watching Tours on Balboa Island.”
She shook the man’s hand across the table. “Nice to meet you, Peter.”
She took a seat across from him and Tim and crossed her legs. “All right, let’s hear it.” Tim leaned forward and rubbed his hands together with glee, as if someone had handed him the world’s best Christmas present.
“So, to cut to the chase, Peter here says another tour company is stacking the deck.”
“That’s not what I said,” Peter snarled.
Piper leaned back and crossed her arms. “All right, why don’t you
tell me what you said, then,” she said neutrally. The guy obviously had a stick up his ass about something.
“Okay. Well, on Balboa Island, there’s about eight of us whale-watching companies. We all have guidelines and laws we have to abide by, you know?”
Piper nodded, not sure where he was going.
“So, our job is to take people out and see as much wildlife in the ocean as we can within the limits of where we go. On a normal day, people will see a pod or two of dolphins, a group of sea lions, and sometimes if the gods smile on us, a whale. Ahoy, Matey is a new company. They started up less than a year ago by this young marine biology flunky.”
Spittle flew out of Peter’s lips as he talked about the man. Did this come down to some sort of personal vendetta? She steered clear of exposé pieces like that, as they were usually masked cat fights.
“Within eight months, the company went from obscurity on the bottom rung to land the best reviews and the most bookings on the island.”
Piper frowned. “So, how is it you think he’s corrupt? What if he’s just a good businessman?”
Peter rubbed his forehead and looked pissed. “Because out there, on the water, it’s not about business politics. It’s how capable you are as a boat captain. They claim they spot whales every single day, on every single outing, which is unheard of. Look, whales, they migrate, okay? You’re lucky to spot one or two a day, on a good
day. This guy’s claimed to see blues, minks, and
humpbacks, which are an endangered species and rarely come inland. He’s luring them, mark my word. My bet is he’s got buckets of krill he uses—”
Piper furrowed her eyebrows, confused. “What’s krill? I know next to nothing about marine biology.”
Larry supplied her with the info as Tim slid an 8x10 glossy photo of what looked like cocktail shrimp across the table at her.
“This is krill. Peter thinks the Ahoy, Matey captain has his first and second mates pour buckets of these guys into the water while the boat’s in motion to attract more whales and up the stakes. The California Whale Watching Guidelines state it’s illegal to interfere, feed, or harass marine mammals. If this guy does, or he has a way to get the whales up close to spotlight his business, he could be sued for animal endangerment, and it goes against countless state and federal laws.”
“Yes, exactly,” Peter squeaked. “Exactly.
Piper curled her finger around her chin and contemplated what she’d heard. “Do you have any evidence of this?”
“No, but I’ve been around. Listen, I’ve been a tour guide on Balboa Island for over fifteen years now. No way is this guy that good. If you go out there and record him like you do on your shows, I bet you’ll get something.”
Larry put his hand on the table. “Peter, would you step out of the room for a few minutes? We need to discuss this with Piper. There’s an espresso machine down the hall and some pastries, if you want to help yourself.”
Peter looked between them. “Sure.”
He stood and leered at Piper. She inwardly cringed as he checked her out.
“I love your show, Miss Goldhirsch. I’ve seen every episode.”
“Thank you,” she said thinly.
When he was gone, she looked at Tim across the table. “I don’t think there’s enough of a story here, and I’m getting weird vibes off this guy. This is complete speculation on his part and what amounts to legal hearsay. Most people at least have texts, videos, an audio recording, something
. This guy has no evidence other than an obvious massive chip on his shoulder.”
Tim held up a finger with a sharklike grin. “I don’t disagree, Piper, but hear me out. I did some digging, and there’s more to the Ahoy, Matey captain than meets the eye.”
He slid a closed manila folder across the table to her. She opened it, and Larry leaned over her shoulder to peer at it.
“Do you mind?” she sassed. She often had to assert the upper hand with Larry. Thank God for her take-no-prisoners Jewish backbone. “Or does my personal space mean nothing?”
Larry put his hands up and backed off.
“Thank you.” She looked down at a black-and-white photo, a side profile of a very handsome guy in an open-throated denim shirt. He leaned over a metal rail and stared out at the ocean with a soulful look about him. He appeared to be around her age in his midthirties, clean shaven with a strong jawline, straight nose, and short, thick brown hair tousled from the wind. “He’s cute.”
“That’s Captain Jack,” said Tim.
Piper’s imagination went into overdrive as memories of last night crashed over her, the way he’d pounded into her and caressed her. She stared hard at the photo. Was it him? The side profile made it hard to tell. “If you start singing ‘The Princess Pat,’ I might have to join in.” Her voice shook as she tried to decipher from the features if it could
be him. The crooked, sexy smile did look familiar. Very familiar. Oh, shit.
Roxanne D. Howard