• • • More Than Anything • • •
The small waterfront town of Magnolia Beach, Alabama, gets its fair share of tourists breezing in and out, but one handsome visitor might just be tempted to stay…
Running the Bay Breeze marina means Shelby Tanner is used to fielding strange requests from vacationers, but she is still less than amused when she gets a call in the middle of the night to rescue a boat stranded nearby. The clueless sailor is infuriatingly inexperienced—yet also frustratingly attractive.
Architect Declan Hyde only planned on stopping in Alabama briefly on his move from Chicago to Miami, but Magnolia Beach is proving to be more captivating than he imagined. For one thing, there’s the sweet, Southern charm. For another, there’s the stunning tomboy who rescued him from the bay and keeps invading his thoughts.
As the time draws near for Declan to weigh anchor, he begins to realize that Shelby may have saved more than his boat that night—and leaving Magnolia Beach might set his lonely heart permanently adrift…
I’m so indebted to the very talented Chapman James, who loaned me his gorgeous song “My Soul’s In Alabama” for use in this book. I really feel like it’s Shelby and Declan’s theme song, and the chorus — “My heart’s down in Dixie, but my soul’s in Alabama” — kept circling my mind as I wrote the book.
Want to hear it? Check out CJ’s video.
You can find this song — and more from CJ here — and download your own copy for only 99 cents!
Phone calls after midnight never brought good news.
Shelby Tanner knew that, which made being woken out of a sound sleep and a really good dream even worse. She groped for her phone on the nightstand, but it was dark and silent. She stared at it blankly until she heard another ring, then rolled out of bed cursing and ran downstairs to the office to answer the main line.
“Marina. This is Shelby.” And this better be important. She blinked and rubbed her eyes to clear them as she turned on the big desk lamp and peered at the caller ID. It wasn’t a local number, and she didn’t recognize the area code.
“This is Declan Hyde and I need some assistance. I’m… um… Well, I seem to be… floating. Out on the water.”
This guy sounded a little too old to be making crank calls, but not everyone outgrew their adolescence. “It’s the middle of the night, and I’m really not in the mood for pranks, so–”
“This is not a prank,” the man said quickly. “I’m supposed to be at the dock, yet I’m… not.” There was a frustrated sigh. “I’ve been staying on a boat in slip seven. I woke up a few minutes ago, and I’m not in slip seven anymore.”
That got her attention. Balancing the phone on her shoulder, she raised the blinds on the window and looked out, scanning the boats below. Sure enough, slip seven was empty. The Lady Jane hadn’t moved from that spot in more than six weeks, so the absence was glaring. She didn’t see the Lady Jane anywhere. “Well, where are you?”
“As I said, I seem to be adrift.”
Okay, now I’m awake. While the man seemed to be frustrated, he did not sound afraid or freaked out, so that was good. Whatever had happened to the Lady Jane — and she’d riddle that out later — it couldn’t have been more than a few hours ago, so there was a good chance he wouldn’t be more than a couple of miles off shore, max. That was good news; it would make the search easier.
But she could tell by the way he talked that he wasn’t a very experienced sailor — which wasn’t all that uncommon in Magnolia Beach. They had a lot of tourists come to town with an overestimation of their skills, and a dark night and unfamiliar waters could lead to disaster easily, even close to land. Adrenaline rushed through her. “Don’t hang up. I’m going to get the Coast Guard on the radio–”
“I was assuming you could just come get me.”
“It shouldn’t take you long,” he said in the most ridiculously-reasonable sounding voice she’d ever heard. “I mean, I can almost make you out in the window, so I’ve not made it all that far out yet.”
She nearly dropped the phone. “You can see me?”
“Well, not clearly, no. But I assume that’s you. The light in that building did come on about the time you answered.”
She’d only looked to see that the Lady Jane was actually out of her slip. This time, Shelby looked out towards the bay. A cloudy sky shrouded everything beyond the marina’s entrance in darkness, but, sure enough, there were lights bobbing just beyond. It would be unbelievable without confirmation. “Can you flash your lights for me?”
“Um, sure. Hang on.”
Suspicions growing and her irritation barely held in check, she drummed her fingers against the windowsill as she waited. A moment later, those lights in the not-very-far-at-all distance flashed off and back on again.
“Do you see me now?”
“Oh, I see you.” That probably sounded snarky, but, jeez. Thank goodness she hadn’t called the Coast Guard. She’d have never heard the end of it. Reminding herself that Mr. Declan Hyde was a paying customer and shouting at him would not be good for business, she took a deep breath to steady her voice. “Sir, is there something wrong with your boat?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Then why don’t you just come back?” she said carefully.
He laughed. He actually laughed, causing Shelby’s hand to curl into a fist. “That would make sense, except I don’t know how. I’ve never driven a boat before. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
The number of wrong things in those few sentences made Shelby’s head hurt. He’d been living on that boat for six freakin’ weeks. That boat cost more than some people’s houses.
And he didn’t know how to operate it.
Who the hell lives on a boat when they don’t know how–
She took a deep breath to calm herself. Even if she walked him through, step by step, he’d probably ram the thing into something on his way back. Maneuvering space was limited in the marina, and there was no telling how much damage he could do — both to the Lady Jane and every other boat in the place. And not to mention, it would be illegal if he didn’t have a boating license. It would just be quicker, safer, and involve fewer insurance claims to just go get him.
Oh Lord, deliver me from idiots.
“Miss? Are you still there?”
She sighed. “Yes. I’m on my way. Just sit tight.” And try not to fall overboard.
Grumbling, Shelby headed back up the stairs to her tiny apartment. It had just been a storage room until she’d converted it three years ago — shortly after she’d pretty much taken over the day-to-day running of the marina. Her parents hadn’t liked the idea at all, claiming worries about her safety being there alone at night, but Magnolia Beach wasn’t exactly a hot spot of crime — or anything else for that matter.
She’d always wanted to live near the water, but since Magnolia Beach was a tourist location, all the waterfront property was either too expensive for her to purchase or designed for tourists to rent. Living here at the marina was both convenient and cheap, allowing her to save money for later. The apartment was small, but cozy, and thanks to her cousin Ryan’s handyman skills, comfortable and perfect for her needs — which weren’t all that many.
A glance at the clock told her it was close to three, and that only made her grumpier as she pulled on shorts and a sweatshirt and slipped into her shoes. She took a minute to pull her hair back and braid the ponytail to keep it out of her face — Mr. Hyde wasn’t going to drift out to sea or anything in that extra minute. Hell, he was still in the No Wake area, for goodness sake — then grabbed the keys to the dinghy and stomped down the stairs. There was even an eighty percent chance that he’d end up on the sandbar in another hour or so where he could safely wait until a reasonable hour to be fetched back. But she couldn’t ignore that twenty percent chance he wouldn’t.
Cupid woofed at her questioningly as she got off her doggie bed and followed Shelby outside. Shelby patted the shaggy head. “I know. It’s crazy to be up at this hour.”
Crazy or not, it was a beautiful night. The clouds blocked the stars, but they also kept the temperature from dropping too much, making the October air a little warmer than usual. Everything was quiet, only the wind making the rigging on the sailboats sing, and mostly still except for the gentle movement of the boats. And while she would much rather be asleep in her bed, at least going out wasn’t going to suck.
Cupid sat on the wooden dock, a little miffed she wasn’t going as well, as Shelby untied the dinghy and started the small motor, which in the quiet sounded unnaturally loud.
It wasn’t like this was the first time she’d had to go help a tourist out of a jam. It just came with the territory, and normally she didn’t mind. People came to Magnolia Beach to enjoy the water that surrounded the town on three sides — Mobile Bay to the east, Heron Bay to the south, and Heron Bayou to the west. It was a quiet, almost stereotypical small town, just like they’d seen on TV, and very family-friendly, perfect for water-centric vacations.
She was quite used to people with more enthusiasm for boats than skill at operating them, but never in her life had she heard of someone living on a boat when he had no idea what to do with it. Aside from being just wrong, it didn’t seem safe, either. It simply hadn’t occurred to her to check that the inhabitant of the boat would possess that minimum level of skill.
The Lady Jane belonged to Mr. Farley’s cousin’s nephew — or something like that — and was normally docked in a marina over near Laguna Beach. But that marina didn’t allow live-aboards, so Mr. Farley had asked whether the Lady Jane could dock at their marina for a few months. Had it been summer, Shelby would have had to turn down the request, but she’d figured it would be okay this time of year. It wasn’t something they allowed often, as live-aboards often turned out to be sketchy and dubious situations, but Mr. Farley had given his personal guarantee that Declan Hyde wouldn’t be a problem.
And until right now, he hadn’t been.
A college-aged kid had brought the Lady Jane in and got everything settled, and at some point shortly after, the occupant had arrived and the kid had left. She’d been in Hattiesburg at her cousins’ for a couple of weeks, so her father had been the one to get Declan settled in. By the time she’d gotten back from Mississippi, their new resident had established himself as a bit of a ghost — to the extent that Shelby often forgot he was even there. She’d see lights on at night, and his car would disappear from the parking lot on occasion, but aside from servicing the water and waste tanks, he might as well not be living aboard for all the extra effort it had caused her.
It was odd, sure, but not odd enough to even ping on her radar as concerning. This was Magnolia Beach; they had plenty of odd ducks in town. And most of them were far more interesting than some Yankee — the SUV in the parking lot had Illinois tags — who was probably just suffering through a Jimmy Buffet-inspired mid-life crisis.
The Lady Jane was starting to take shape in the dark in front of her. It really was a damn nice boat, the kind a lot of people only dreamed of owning one day. Built for serviceable, but not overly luxurious, comfort, it was easily big enough for one person to live aboard reasonably comfortably for an extended but limited time, as it was really designed more for weekend excursions and deep sea fishing.
The hermit in question came into view, standing near the rail of the cockpit. In the dark and from this distance, it was hard to tell much beyond that he was tall and broad-shouldered. She cut the engine on the dinghy and let it glide the last little bit, sliding easily alongside the bigger boat until she could catch hold.
It only took a second to secure her dinghy to the Lady Jane, then she was climbing aboard, ignoring the hand extended to help her.
“I’m very glad to see you.”
Her earlier assumption was proven wrong immediately. Declan Hyde was not some middle-aged former salesmen in an existential crisis. In fact, he probably wasn’t much older than she was, maybe in his early thirties or so. It was hard to tell due to the darkness and the wild, over-grown “I’ve been living on the sea” hair and beard combo he sported. He was wearing jeans with the knees ripped out and a t-shirt that once upon a time might have been blue.
“I’m Declan Hyde,” he continued offering his hand again. “Welcome aboard.”
“Shelby Tanner,” she replied, returning the handshake briefly while biting back the urge to say something she knew she’d probably regret later. He seemed about to say something else, but she knew she would not be able to manage polite chit-chat right now. Not under these circumstances. “The keys?”
Declan nodded and opened the door to the cabin, giving her a glimpse inside. Papers and books were scattered around, and a laptop graced the center of the mess. A writer, then. She’d seen that before, too.
Please don’t tell me about your book.
She accepted the keys and tried to start the boat, but the engine wouldn’t turn over. “Great,” she muttered, praying for patience.
“It looks like I would have had to call you, regardless.” The voice came from right behind her, causing her to jump. He’d followed her up and was now eyeing the controls with a shake of his head. “I certainly don’t know anything about engine repair.”
Of course you don’t. He seemed to find this slightly amusing, but Shelby was unable to share in the humor. “Well, it’s a good thing I do. There’s a small tool box under the seat in the dinghy. Would you mind?”
Declan went to get her tools as she assessed the situation. There was a flashlight stowed inside the engine door, and she held it between her cheek and her shoulder as she checked the most obvious culprits, hoping it would be something easy.
“Maybe we should call the Coast Guard,” Declan said, returning with her tools and setting them beside her.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” She’d have to be on fire or sinking before she’d call the Guard. She knew every one of those guys, and she’d never be able to hold her head up again if they had to come get her for anything less than a bone fide maritime disaster. And probably not even then.
“Should we drop the anchor or something? We’re still drifting.”
The fact he hadn’t dropped anchor already meant he probably didn’t know how. “I promise we won’t drift far. We’re fine.”
He squatted beside her. “Can I hold the flashlight for you?” he offered. She must have looked at him funny because he added, “At least that way I won’t seem completely useless in this time of need.”
Declan’s self-deprecating smile told her he saw both the ridiculous in the situation and his part in it, and that finally helped tamp down her irritation. “It’s hardly desperate times.” But she put it in his hand anyway and adjusted him so it would point where she needed it.
As if he knew she was not in the mood, Declan didn’t try to make conversation while she worked. Thankfully, the problem was easy to find — and would be easy to fix. “It’s just a bad wire. Won’t take me but a minute,” she told him.
Declan was quite large and the space was not, so his head was right over her shoulder. Contrary to what his hair and clothing said, he wasn’t doing the un-washed hippie thing. He actually smelled nice, kind of woodsy. “You’re very capable,” he said after a minute or two of watching her.
She snorted. “We are a full-service marina.”
“I think this situation is a little above and beyond the usual offered services.”
He sounded sincere, which took the edge off. A little. “It’s a first, that’s for sure.”
“I’m sorry I had to wake you up. I honestly have no idea how the boat got loose. I worked until after midnight, then went to bed. I don’t know what woke me up, but I realized it was a lot darker than normal and there was a lot more movement. I was rather surprised to find myself out here.”
It would be disconcerting, to say the least. “Well, I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“You know how this happened?” He sounded surprised.
“I have my theories, but I also have video surveillance of the entire marina. It won’t be hard to find out.” She reached for the electrical tape, thumping Declan in the chest with her elbow in the process. He grunted. “Sorry. I’m not used to working with an assistant.”
It wasn’t the cleanest of repairs, but it wasn’t terribly bad either, for three-something in the morning. Declan moved aside as she stood and tried again to start the boat. This time, the engine came to life easily.
He was obviously easily impressed then, but since it wasn’t often that she was able to impress people, she took the ego boost happily. “It’s holding together with tape and prayer, but it’ll get us back to shore. I’ll fix it properly tomorrow — I mean, later today.”
“There’s no real rush. I don’t exactly have plans to take her out or anything.”
The smile on his face told her he thought he was being funny, but she didn’t see the humor this time either. She stowed the flashlight and closed the engine door. “It’s a safety hazard, though. Any particular time you’d prefer I come?”
He finally took the hint and quit trying to be cute about it. “At your convenience.”
That would be a nice change. Yawning widely, she turned the boat towards shore.