Bruce lifted the kids on board Belle-Etoile and handed Alexa over the gunwale, letting his hand slide gently down her back, resting it there and giving her a little push while she stepped on board. But it wasn’t exactly flirtatious, she reflected. Rather more protective. Proprietary. Certainly nothing she would complain about. It made her feel rather cherished, actually.
Once they were out of the slip and underway, Bruce asked if she had any experience sailing before.
“Um. A very little. Years ago… maybe ten. I’m not sure I remember very much. Is it… do you need help?” Now she was worried that they should have had this conversation before she agreed to come.
“Nah. I sail her single-handed all the time. Just wondering.” Bruce stood at the wheel, and they motored slowly out of the marina. “If the wind is light, we might want to lift the spinny, that’s all. I could use a hand with that.”
She was relieved to discover that Bruce had already purchased child-sized life jackets for the kids. Apparently they’d used them last time they were hanging about on the dock. Both of them appeared very comfortable on board, and seemed lulled into a calm and still state that was uncharacteristic.
“Fish?” Markus asked, hope in his eyes.
Bruce took in their eager faces. “Not today, sport. Sailing.”
“Aaaww,” was Maddie’s response.
“Hey, can you hook up the little one?” Bruce said.
Alexa looked at him, questioning.
“See that halyard there, the green and white one with the carabiner on the end?” He gestured at a pile of coloured ropes and she inferred that’s what he meant. She recalled now how much jargon was involved in sailing.
Alexa squinted and fumbled at some lines, which all seemed to be a variation on green and white, blue and white, green, red and white, finally presenting one. “This one?”
“Yeah,” he offered her an encouraging smile. “You mind hooking that on the back of Markus’s life vest? That loop there. Right.”
She did as he asked.
“Good, you take direction well.” He winked at her eager smile, and his eyes slid appreciatively down her bare legs and up again, his smile widening. Okay, now he was flirting. “Now tie it off at about four feet. That should be enough rein.”
“Lock it into that cleat there. Right.”
Markus tugged at his leash, grumbling.
“Never mind, little buddy. There’s nowhere to go anyway.” Bruce laughed, and Alexa quietly admired his carefree, white smile.
“Hey, Scallywag. Can you go round and pull the fenders up onto the deck, please?”
She squinted at him, uncomprehending.
Bruce pointed over the gunwale. “Those big white ball things hanging on ropes along both sides. Pull them up and lay them there, inside the lifelines.”
Maddie, incredibly agile and sure of foot on the gently rocking deck, moved to the first one, pulled it up, and searched his face for approval. He nodded, and she went about her job without further instruction.
Alexa was impressed at the ease with which Bruce maneuvered the large vessel out of the marina while seemingly occupying his mind with other matters, and chatting effortlessly with them. She envied the efficiency of his movements. He shifted his body with ease and confidence on the swaying deck of the boat, without waste or hesitation and she watched his muscles bunch and flex. It was sexy in a way she hadn’t considered before. Masterly. Manly. The way, she reflected, one would want a man’s body to move. It inspired trust. A prickle of appreciation for his strong, masculine body shimmered through her. His physical strength and informal, sporty clothes were utterly appropriate in his world.
Maybe all this time she’d been looking at him through the wrong lens.
She inhaled deeply and looked around her at the sparkling blue water and the boats bobbing in the marina. As they glided past the red buoy and between a rocky outcropping and a small island, the sea opened up all around them, and Bruce increased their speed slightly.
A buzzing in her pocket disturbed her peace. She withdrew her phone and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Bronwen that she’d missed. It was the office calling now, but who? Bruce glanced at her, a line of worry between his dark brows. She shrugged and answered the call.
“What the fuck, girlfriend?” She released her breath. It was Peter.
“Petey.” Her eyes met Bruce’s, then he looked away again.
“You left without telling me anything!” He sounded distraught. “Aren’t we in this together?”
“In what, Pete? What am I in, but a pot of boiling oil? This isn’t what I planned.”
“I hate to say it–”
“Then don’t. I know you warned me. I know it.” She huffed. “It just fell apart so fast. I… I don’t know what happened exactly. I suddenly saw everything so clearly and I just snapped.”
“Oh, honey. What now?”
“I don’t know. I’m still numb. Just hang in there okay? I don’t even have a plan B.”
“You know I have to work under asshat Nathan now. He’s strutting around here like a peacock. It’s nauseating.”
“I figured.” She shook her head. “I need time. Just keep your head above water and I’ll be in touch. Okay?”
“Okay. Okay.” He paused. “Are you alright, really?”
She tilted her head to the side, cast her eyes around at the ocean waves and distant blue horizon, flicked her gaze toward the sexy, capable, strangely comforting Bruce at the wheel of the boat. The corners of his mouth twitched in at tentative, questioning smile. “Yeah. For the moment. I’ll call you later. Tomorrow maybe?”
They signed off and she put her phone back in her pocket pensively. She had a great deal of hard thinking to do, but today, she was emotionally frazzled, and not yet ready to deal with any of it. Bruce was right, she had healing to do first.
“Is that Passage Island?” She pointed ahead.
“Where are we going?”
Bruce shrugged. “Wherever the wind takes us.”
Alexa sat back and forced herself to relax.
“Remember all the rules we talked about, kids?” Bruce asked.
Maddie nodded solemnly while Markus looked blank. She supposed that was why he got the leash.
“I can’t sail if you guys are in my way,” he said. And I may ask Alexa to help me do things. So the best is for you to sit right where you’re told, and to move out of the way if we say so. Otherwise, no moving around while we’re under way. Got it?”
They nodded, too thrilled with the novelty of boating to question anything he said. All at once he was like a sea god in their eyes, opening a door into a new and fascinating adventure. He seemed that way in Alexa’s eyes too.
A little ways out, he suddenly turned the boat, and dropped the engine to an idle. “Come here,” he said, gesturing to Alexa with a flick of his fingers.
She moved toward him, and he pulled her gently behind the wheel beside him, his hands warm and firm against her sides. He pointed up. “See that little arrow at the top of the mast?”
She looked up, noting the arrow, and nodded.
“Keep it pointed straight ahead.” Then he was gone, and she was holding onto the large stainless steel wheel by herself, missing his hard, warm body.
He darted over the deck with sure feet, which she noticed were now clad in smooth-soled leather deck shoes. She hadn’t noticed the change until now. Suddenly he was removing and storing the fenders, hauling on ropes, and vigorously cranking winches with a handle. Her eyes followed his efficient rapid, shifting movements, trying to understand what he was doing.
The mainsail he was hauling up flapped violently.
“Keep her pointed into the wind!” he shouted over the sudden noise, jumping up onto the foredeck, dashing here and there adjusting hardware and lines.
Alexa jerked her head up, checking the arrow on the mast, and quickly corrected their course, feeling a blush heat her cheeks.
With a gentle hand on their heads, he murmured to the kids to keep their heads down, explaining that the boom could knock them clean off the boat, and left them staring up at it in fearful fascination.
Then he was at her side again. He reached down, pulled on a lever and the engine went quiet. All was suddenly silent, and the sea loomed larger. Placing a hand over hers, he turned the wheel a bit, smiling with satisfaction as the sail filled with wind, pulling them over the surface of the sea without a sound. When he had it aligned, he patted her hand on the wheel and off he went again.
The sea tugging on the hull and the rudder echoed through the vibrations on the wheel into her hands, like a living creature. He hadn’t said anything, but she had the sense to hold their position to keep their angle to the wind constant. Their speed picked up, the only sound the waves lapping softly against the hull, and a soft whirring.
After yarding on the main sheet and adjusting the sideways pulley-thingies, he released another line and yanked on yet another, and the foresail unfurled and billowed with rushing air, and a thump like a base drum.
As their speed increased, the boat heeled slightly, the cool wind rushing at them, and the kids squealed with terror and delight. He reached back, adjusted the direction of their tack slightly, flashed her an atta-girl-smile, and cranked on another winch handle until he was satisfied with their trim. He was in his element. Oddly, she was filled with a kind of awe at his prowess on the sea, and her chest filled, inexplicably proud of herself at his simple approval.
At last, everything was set the way he wanted, and he joined her and took the wheel from her hands.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I’d forgotten how exhilarating it is. It’s been so long.”
“Did you take lessons? Or did someone take you out?”
“An old friend had a boat. I was going to join a club, but I never got around to it. Picked up a few things by osmosis.” She pointed at the pulleys. “What’s that called again?”
His gaze followed her pointing finger. “Traveller.”
She nodded. That sounded familiar. “Can I help?”
He smiled warmly. “We’re good on this tack for a while. I’ll let you know when we need to change things up.” After indicating a seat behind them, he sat down beside her, gazed up at the sails, peered out to sea. After a few minutes of silence, during which Bruce kept his gaze pinned to the horizon, he spoke. “How are you feeling today?”
Her gaze slid over to him, and found his warm assessing eyes resting on her face, his expression somber. She sucked on her lip a moment and said, “Perhaps surprisingly, not so bad.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
Alexa pondered his question. “Not sure what I’d talk about. I don’t want to rehash the final conversation with Krystof, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hell, no. No, I mean. Will you be okay? While you figure out your next step.”
She shrugged, feeling her face heat, tears threatening.
Bruce’s lifted his arm and set it on her shoulders, giving her a squeeze. “You’ll be alright, you know. A change never killed anyone. It’s only that it caught you off guard.”
She nodded. “I have some serious planning to do for my future.”
Bruce leaned toward her and bussed her on the cheek. After a moment he asked, “Is money an issue for you? … ‘cause I could–”
Alexa was startled. “No!” She was almost offended at the personal question, but then realized he was expressing genuine concern.
“If you need help–”
“Oh.” She blinked, surprised. It had never occurred to her that he might… what, worry about her? Offer to help? “I… uh…No. Absolutely not. I own my condo and have a bit put away. In fact I’ve been saving for years, so that…” she stopped. Now why would she share that with Koczynski?
He lifted his eyes and studied her. “So that?”
What the hell. “For the day I open my own office. Start-up capital.”
He nodded, his brows lifting in comprehension.
“Thank you, though,” she forced herself to say, knowing that he meant well. Alexa observed the kids, who seemed strangely content to sit still and look out at the sea and the scenery passing them by. “It’s odd the kids are so happy. I would have expected them to be bored and fidgety.”
“Sailing does that to people. It’s very soothing. I relax out here like no place else. Something about the sea speaks to me.”
“That’s why you bought your house where it is?”
He shrugged. “Partly. The view. Proximity to the marina. And, I wanted a place I could work too. You were right. I don’t see myself working away from home anymore. I can keep myself busy there.” A sparkle of mischief lit his eye. “It was also amazingly cheap. It’s in pretty bad shape.”
“You’re so lucky to have it. I don’t know if you realize.”
“That may depend upon one’s point of view,” he deadpanned.
“No. No, it’s not some architect’s fancy. Do some research. You’ll see how valuable it is. You might even garner some fame for discovering an unknown treasure.”
“It’s you who discovered it. And you who will be responsible for bringing it back to life.” He seemed to ponder a moment. “Hey, maybe you could get some useful exposure out of this. To help launch your own firm.”
Alexa considered his words for a long time before answering. It was her deepest desire, to one day own and run her own firm. To call her own shots. It’s that it had always seemed like it would take her a very long time to get there. Now, it would take even longer. “It takes a lot of capital and good will to get a firm off the ground and to succeed. I’d like nothing better. Someday.” She sighed deeply. It was more than that. She’d lost her direction. “I’m afraid my career took a serious setback, though.”
Bruce’s brows furrowed, and his mouth puckered, but he deigned to offer her any conciliatory words. They spoke no more until they were well out past Passage Island.
“We’re going to get ready to tack up ahead. Can you handle the foresail, or do you want to steer the boat?”
Alexa froze. “Um. Do I have to choose?”
Bruce laughed. He explained what he wanted her to do, step by step. “Okay?”
“Keep your heads down kids. Coming about!”
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