Meant to Be

By: Terri Osburn

CHAPTER ONE

Why did this godforsaken island have to be in the middle of the damn water?

Even as the thought echoed inside her brain, Beth Chandler recognized the irrationality. But locked as she was in the grip of overpowering fear, rationality was not an option. Letting go of the steering wheel was also not an option. She swore she was sending the let-go signal to her hands, but her knuckles remained white, strangling the helpless circle of whatever hard plastic steering wheels were made of.

Maybe it was the kind of plastic that would float. When she and her car plunged to a watery grave, she could use the steering wheel as a flotation device. She’d thrown her car door open before coming to a full stop on the ferry. Just in case. (The idea of drowning in the car was more horrific than that of drowning outside the car.) By some stroke of luck she’d ended up in the farthest inside row, a railing and some kind of cabin to her left.

If the worst had happened and she’d been forced to park near the edge…This was not the time to ponder that scenario. The brief moment she’d looked out into the distance revealed nothing but water as far as she could see. A fact that only intensified the panic.

“I am not going to die. I knew this was coming. I can do this.”

The affirmations she’d gotten from the How to Defeat Your Fears book were supposed to get her through this. She’d checked the book out of the library as soon as her fiancé, Lucas, mentioned meeting his parents would require riding a ferry to a tiny, remote island.

Technically, the first thing she’d done was panic and throw up. Twice. But then she went straight to the library. Now, bobbing along, surrounded by cars packed in like giant four-wheeled sardines, the book might as well have been about making the perfect soufflé.

Didn’t these ferries have weight limits? What if they let on one car too many?

“There is nothing to be afraid of here. Nothing can hurt me.”

Beth wondered if maybe she shouldn’t have checked out another book. One on how to make your brain stop arguing with your affirmations. Because the rebuttal from her brain—Floating on a giant barge covered in cars that could sink any minute is something to be afraid of!—was anything but relaxing.

“We are not going to die. We are not going to die. Dear Lord, don’t let me die.”

This was Lucas’s fault. He’d insisted she bring her own car in case he was called back to the office while they were gone, and then he’d been called to the office before they even left. Assuring he’d be on the road within an hour, two hours tops, he’d programmed her GPS and cajoled her to leave without him. Which was why he wasn’t around to distract her now.

To be fair, she hadn’t told him about her fear, so maybe it wasn’t all his fault. And he had promised to make it up to her. Knowing Lucas, that would mean jewelry. Something she wouldn’t mind if he’d ever let her pick out her own present.

The ferry lurched, dragging Beth back to the situation at hand. Eyes closed, she took several deep breaths. Another recommendation from the library book. Breathing in through her nose, she blew the air out through her mouth. Just then, hot breath fluttered over her left arm and an unpleasant smell filled her nostrils.

That could not be her breath.

Heavy panting invaded the silence of the car and Beth opened one eye to find the source. Big brown eyes surrounded by rust-colored fur stared back. One ear flopped forward while a black tongue lolled to the side. The animal tilted his head and lifted a large paw, propping it on her thigh.

She might have flinched had she not been frozen in fear.

“What’d you find, Dozer?” asked a voice from somewhere behind the intruder.

Looking past the mutt, she saw a man draw up behind him. Bright blue eyes and a stubble-covered chin were all she registered before shifting her focus back to her hands. Defending herself against a madman on a barge was probably going to be difficult without the use of her hands.

“Hi there,” he said, giving the dog a pat on the head. Then he mumbled, “Good boy.” Presumably to the dog.

The stranger’s voice, low and sensual, vibrated down her spine. Her hands relaxed enough to allow blood flow back into her knuckles. The book hadn’t suggested finding a sexy guy to talk her down. She should have looked harder until she found one written by a woman.

“Hi,” she said, her brain now as uncooperative as her hands. She ventured another glance in the dog owner’s direction and her entire body sighed.

The man was, as her Granny would say, built for sin. Full lips, strong jaw, and one deep dimple finished off a face gifted with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. Wide shoulders filled out a navy-blue T-shirt that tapered down to a narrow waist and low-slung jeans. She couldn’t see his feet behind the dog, but would bet her best business suit he sported work boots.

Talk about answered prayers. This was a flotation device she wouldn’t mind going down with.

A sound that could only be called a meep escaped her lips. Engaged women were not supposed to have lustful thoughts about men who were not their fiancé. Being engaged for a mere two weeks was no excuse.

“Are you okay?” he asked, clearly recognizing insanity when he saw it.

“I’m fine,” she yelled, panic raising her voice several decibels. Though she wasn’t sure if the panic was still over imminent death or her heightened hormone levels. “No problem here. Move along, please.”

The dog set his other paw on her leg and nearly climbed onto her lap, his head popping up between her arms. “What’s he doing?” she asked.

The man chuckled and Beth shivered. “Saying hello.”

A dark tongue dangled dangerously close to her nose. “Do you feed him black licorice or something?” The dog’s entire tongue was black.

“That’s the chow in him. Also what gives him that big head. You should hear him bark.”

Right on cue, the dog did just that, making her ears ring. If she hadn’t been staring into the face of a dog, Beth would swear a grizzly had climbed into her car. “You need a breath mint. Bad.”

“You’ve scared her enough, Doze. Get off the pretty lady.” As the dog backed out of the car, Beth tried to ignore the compliment, but felt a blush heat her cheeks. “This crossing takes a while,” he said. “You could come out and walk around. Most people do.”

“People are walking around?” Fear momentarily trumped by amazement, Beth turned toward the stranger as far as the seat belt and her grip on the wheel would allow. “How can people be taking a leisurely stroll as if we aren’t all about to perish in the sea?”

“Just trusting, I guess.” The man smiled as he took a step back. Her libido tried to take a step forward. Seat belts really were lifesaving devices. “Not a fan of the ferry ride, huh?”

Beth shook her head, embracing her right to remain silent.

“If it makes you feel better, I’ve ridden this ferry a thousand times with no problem.”

“I’m sure you have. I feel better now,” she lied. The man needed to go away. She needed him to go away.

“Right. We’ll leave you alone then.” He turned to leave and Beth felt as if a lifeline were slipping away.

“Wait!”

Bright blue eyes turned back. “I’m still here.” Bending down, he leaned an arm along the top of the car. “You’re really not okay, are you?”

Beth sucked in a breath, squeezed her eyes tight, then nodded once. “This is going to sound really strange, but could you sit with me? Just until we reach the other side.”

Heart racing, she watched the stranger purse his lips, then glance up and down the ferry. His eyes darted to her backseat. “If you mean for me to sit in your car, Dozer will have to sit in the back.”

Since the idea was to distract her from the imminent death bobbing beneath her, adding a dog to the mix sounded perfect. “Not a problem.”

Seconds later a muscle-bound dog the color of autumn leaves filled her backseat, blowing hot air across the back of her neck. The black tongue hung over his bottom jaw, but he didn’t drool. Much. He was cute, in a mutt sort of way. He could use a Tic Tac and a bath, but he was cute.

His owner filled her passenger seat in much the same way his canine filled her backseat. The word “Evinrude” sprawled the expanse of a wide chest that could double as a brick wall. He adjusted the seat to accommodate his long legs, which looked firm and well muscled beneath the worn denim.

She’d been right about the work boots, which sported dark grease stains. Her human tranquilizer could have stepped straight out of a blue-collar beefcake calendar, though he’d likely take insult at the word beefcake.

He settled into the seat, his knee leaning close to hers. Beth’s mouth watered.

You’re here to meet your future in-laws. Showing up to dinner with a date is not a good idea.

An awkward silence, broken by the shrill of seagulls and steady rhythm of canine panting, settled in the vehicle.

“I guess—”

“So you—”

They both spoke at once.

“I’m sorry, you first,” she said, playing hostess as if this were a dinner party.

“No, it’s your car. Go ahead.”

“Right.” Beth cleared her throat, stalling. “You’ve probably figured out I’m not comfortable with water. And boats.”

“I got that. Though this is a ferry, not a boat,” he said with a grin. His face held a dark tan around the shadow of whiskers, and small creases were etched at the edges of his eyes. Clearly no stranger to the sun.

“If you could just distract me from thinking about where we are and what I’m floating on”—her voice hitched on the last two words—“then I should be able to make it to the other side.”

“You want me to distract you?” His voice showed a little more enthusiasm than it had when he first climbed in. Her body turned traitor, growing enthusiastic about his enthusiasm.

“Talking,” she squeaked. “Talk to me as a distraction.”

“Right,” he said, with noticeably less enthusiasm. “Afraid talking’s not my thing.”

“We’ll muddle through.” Telling him his stellar body made sparkling conversation unnecessary didn’t seem like a good idea. Though the thought sent heat crawling up her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually like this.”

“What are you usually like?” he asked, leaning against the door. His voice calm. Soothing. He was already better at this than he knew.

What was she usually like? She had to think about that one. “More sane. Usually. Rational. Practical.”

“I see,” he said. “Then it must be your practical side that has you holding on to that wheel. Since there’s no need to steer right now, maybe you could let go. Sit back. Enjoy the ride.”

“Right. Sure.” By some miracle, her hands cooperated. Blue-collar guy had serious skills. He’d be excellent in divorce negotiations. Lowering the windows, she nodded toward the dog. “He won’t jump out, will he?”

“Dozer won’t go anywhere.”

“What kind of a name is Dozer?”

“A dog’s name.” She raised a brow and he caught the hint. “When I got him he was either plowing dirt or sleeping, so I named him Dozer.” The stranger shrugged, and even that was sexy. “It fit.”

Another glance at the dog and Beth could see the rationale. The size of a small bulldozer, the fur ball covering her backseat looked to be on the brink of snoring. “Yes. That makes sense.” Turning back to his owner, she asked, “You said you’ve ridden this ferry thousands of times?”

“Yeah. I live on Anchor.”

Maybe he could fill in some island facts she hadn’t been able to find on the Internet. “I hear there aren’t many natives who live here year-round.”

“We do all right.”

Vague answer. This guy would be a pain to cross-examine. “Is the island really as small as the web makes it sound?”

“Depends on your idea of small. The first twelve miles down are a landing strip, but the village isn’t bad. Couple miles across.”

“Landing strip?” She gulped. “A wide landing strip?”

“Wide enough. Are you afraid of all boats?” The ferry bobbed, and she grabbed the wheel again. “I guess you are.”

“Not afraid of boats exactly. It’s not as if I see a picture of one and break out in a cold sweat.” She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear, though efforts to control the stubborn curls were useless against the strong, salty breeze. Who knew the Outer Banks would be so windy? “It’s being on a boat that bothers me. Houseboat incident from my childhood.”

“Houseboat incident?” He chuckled then sobered when she glared. “Sorry. What was the houseboat incident?”

“You don’t want to hear that story.” Why had she even brought it up? She’d learned not to tell anyone the houseboat incident.

“Why not?” he asked. “Must be a big deal if you’re this scared.”

She huffed. “Because you’re going to tell me I’m stupid for letting something so insignificant feed my fear all these years later.”

Silence reigned. Even Dozer seemed to stop breathing. Beth kept her eyes on the steering wheel.

Mr. Evinrude cleared his throat. “I’m no shrink, but I’m guessing someone’s made fun of this fear before?”

“Maybe.” She picked at the wheel with her nail. “I’m not crazy. I know it’s irrational.” Turning to face him, she waved her hands in the air. “And I’m normally a very rational person.”

“Right. You mentioned that.” Turning his body toward hers, he stretched an arm across the seats, resting his hand inches from her shoulder. Beth fought the urge to lean back. “Tell me about it.”

“About what?” The proximity of that hand was shorting out her brain.

“What happened on the houseboat?”

Now she’d done it. Since talking had been her idea, she couldn’t refuse to talk herself. He was doing as she’d asked, after all. For her, a stranger. If he laughed, she could always shove him out of the car.

“I was young,” she began, summoning the painful memories. “My grandparents’ best friends had a houseboat out on Tappan Lake. We’d go several times throughout the summer, and I always looked forward to the trips.”

Children’s laughter filled her ears. A splash followed by a squeal of delight.

“One Father’s Day weekend we were pretty far out, away from the beach and swimming area.” She looked around to the other cars. Stay in the present, Beth. “A speedboat shot by too close, and the wake made the houseboat list hard to one side. My best friend, Lily, and I were playing near the back.” Beth stared at the steering wheel and blurted, “Lily managed to hold on, but I didn’t.”

“You fell in?”

“Yes. Lily tried to reach me, but I kept sinking.” An ache started in her lungs and Beth rubbed her chest. “I don’t know how many times I went under, but at some point my legs got tired. I couldn’t kick anymore.”

Beth didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until the ferry horn blew. She looked to the man on her right as if he’d just appeared out of nowhere.

“Relax. You’re okay.” His voice lacked the derision she expected. “Who pulled you out?” he asked, brows drawn.

“Grandpa. He heard Lily’s screams and came to check on us. Yanked me out by the scruff of my shirt as if I were some brainless puppy who’d jumped in without knowing any better.” She blew out a breath and dropped her shoulders, feeling lighter. “After that I wouldn’t get back on a boat. Ever. They yelled and pushed and told me I couldn’t let some silly fear keep me from doing things.” Eyes locked on the letter H in the center of the wheel, she said, “I couldn’t do it, and they never understood. No one ever does.”

Beth went quiet, waiting for the lecture about life being full of risks and not letting fear win.

“Screw ’em,” he said.

“What?” Beth shook her head, confused. “Screw who?”

“Whoever gives you a hard time. Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

She couldn’t have heard him right. Didn’t matter what other people thought? Crazy talk. “Of course it matters.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Dozer stuck his head between the seats as if sensing an argument. His owner scratched behind his ear, never taking his eyes from hers.

Beth’s brain couldn’t compute the concept of ignoring what others thought, so she switched to deflect mode. “Anyway. If I could stop the panic attacks, I would. Instead, I avoid boats.”

“Until now.” He grinned, teasing with the hint of a dimple.

“Until now what?” That dimple could fell a stronger woman than she.

“You’re on a boat now.” He shook his head. “Now you have me doing it. You’re on a ferry. Something important must be waiting on Anchor Island.”

“Very important.” She debated how much to tell. What if he knew the Dempsey family? What if he told them he met her on the ferry and she was a nutjob? She bit her bottom lip and glanced his way. His full lips curled and she bit harder.

Better to learn more about him before confiding her mission. “You said you live on the island. Does your family live there, too?”

“My parents do.”

“Siblings?”

“No. My brother lives in Richmond.” Beth’s radar went up. “He’ll be here this weekend though. Bringing his newest collectible to meet the family.”

“Excuse me?”

“His fiancée. He’s bringing her home to meet the parents.” His face pinched as if a skunk had passed by the car. “That’s who I was looking for when Dozer found you.”

“You were looking for your brother?”

“No, his fiancée.”

Sweet baby peas. “Is she supposed to be on this ferry?”

He shrugged, looking out his window. “Hell if I know, but I figure if I see a hard-edged, high-maintenance blonde bimbo driving a fancy car, that’ll be her.”

Beth sat up straighter. “You haven’t met her before?”

“No. But if I know Lucas, the description will fit.”

“Lucas?” This could not be happening.

“Yeah, my little brother.”

Oh boy.

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