Jodelle “Jody” Spencer hurried toward the older model Kia parked in a spot at the back of the lot at Waimea Bay. There were cars parked in every available space, and many vehicles were blocked in by others. Surf competitions at the North Shore were always that way. There simply wasn’t enough space for all the competitors, tourists, and locals who came out to participate and watch. The two-lane Kamehameha Highway wasn’t adequate to handle all the traffic either, which was a huge pain in the ass for the locals.
But the competitions brought in large amounts of money to vendors and shop owners in the area. Not to mention, it was exciting to watch the athletes take on the huge waves the northern shore of Oahu was known for.
At the moment, however, Jody wasn’t thinking about the inconvenience of the traffic, or the competitors in the water, or the amount of money being made—all she could think about was Ben Miller. He was one of the high schoolers who came out to surf in the mornings, the kids Jody had a soft spot for. She’d started coming out to the popular surf spot in the mornings a few years ago, bringing breakfast sandwiches for the kids and encouraging them to get out of the surf on time to make it to class.
She was kind of like a surf mom to the group now. She delighted in their successes and did her best to soothe them when they struggled with school, surfing, or their fledging relationships.
Ben Miller was one of her favorites. He towered over her five-one frame at five-eleven. He had light brown hair, which he kept cut fairly short, a swimmer’s frame, big feet that he joked about often, saying surfing was the only sport he could even halfway excel in because there was no way he could trip over his feet when they were planted on a board. And he had a smile that lit up his face and always made Jody feel good inside when she saw it.
But hearing that someone had seen Ben sleeping in his car, in the middle of the afternoon during a surf competition, had alarmed her. It was definitely out of the ordinary for the young man. He should’ve been on the beach with his friends, interacting with the professional surfers, flirting with girls, and volunteering his time.
Instead, he apparently had heat exhaustion from being inside his hot car.
Determination rose within Jody as she hurried through the parking lot toward where she’d been told Ben was being looked at by the medics.
“Easy, Jodelle,” Baker said soothingly from beside her.
Jody had almost forgotten he was there, which would’ve made her laugh in any other situation than the one she was in now. Forgetting about Baker Rawlins was literally impossible—and not just because of his eye-catching size.
He was everything she’d ever dreamed about in a man…and more. He was honorable, and protective, and loyal. Not to mention gorgeous. His black hair liberally sprinkled with gray was longish on the top and shorter on the sides. He had a well-trimmed beard, and
Jody had wondered more than once if it was soft or prickly. Dark tattoos lined his arms, his upper back, and chest. And he was muscular all over, from his arms to his thighs and even his ass.
In short…he was one of the best-looking men Jody had ever seen.
He was also broody, mysterious, and even a little scary. Somehow, those things didn’t turn her off. Not at all.
But Baker was so far out of her league, it wasn’t even funny. He used to be a Navy SEAL, for God’s sake. Jody figured if the Navy didn’t have age limitations for SEALs, he probably still would be. He was definitely in shape, even at fifty-two. And if the way he’d been helping his SEAL friends lately was any indication, he still had plenty of connections.
She should’ve been wary of that, of the secrecy surrounding everything Baker did, of how it reminded her a bit too much of her ex-husband, who couldn’t tell the truth about anything if he tried. But she got a very different vibe from Baker than she had when she was with her ex.
She wasn’t an idiot. She was fairly certain some things Baker did weren’t exactly legal, but since he was using his connections to help others—instead of extorting money and messing with drugs, as her ex had done—she wasn’t as concerned.
It was obvious Baker’s friends respected him. And it was that respect that really made him different from her ex. Bobby had gotten off on making people fear him…even her. The first time he’d hit her, she was done. She’d packed her stuff, along with Kaimana’s, and left.
She’d been afraid Bobby would come after them, but it turned out he was relieved to not have a wife and kid holding him back anymore. She hadn’t asked for anything in the divorce, and he’d signed the papers without hassle. He’d been killed down in Honolulu when Kaimana was eight. A shoot-out with police when they’d come to serve a warrant for his arrest for drug trafficking.
His death had been a relief.
Looking at Baker from the corner of her eye, Jody knew without a doubt he wouldn’t defile his body with any kind of drug. She’d never even seen him drink soda or alcohol, only water, and he always watched what he ate, telling her once he was too old to eat crap, that it would go
straight to his gut. He sometimes surfed with her kids, and it was all she could do not to drool over his six-pack abs and incredibly toned physique.
No, Baker Rawlins wouldn’t do drugs. Jody would bet everything she owned on that.
Her thoughts were jerked back to the present when they approached Ben’s car. The teenager was sitting on the back seat, his feet on the sand outside the door, a medic crouched in front of him.
Jody tried to rush over, but Baker clutched her elbow.
“I need to check on him,” she said, pulling on her arm distractedly.
“You get a medical degree since the last time I saw you?” he asked.
Jody frowned. “What? No.”
“Then you need to stay back and let the paramedics do their thing.”
“Let me go, Baker,” she told him irritably.
In response, his grip on her only tightened.
He was beginning to piss her off. “Seriously—let go of my arm,” she repeated. To her surprise, Baker did as she asked, releasing her elbow.
Only to step behind her, wrap an arm around her chest diagonally, and pull her close, so her back was pressed against his front.
Baker was literally a foot taller than Jody. She was used to being the short one in whatever group she was in, but she internally struggled with her current feelings. She loved being in Baker’s arms like this. Pressed up against him. But she was upset because he was preventing her from getting to Ben. From making sure he was all right.
“He’s upset,” Baker said softly into her ear.
Jody couldn’t stop the shiver that went through her when his warm breath wafted over her sensitive skin. She reached up and held onto his forearm draped across her chest.
“If you go charging in there, he’s gonna close down. Give the paramedic a chance to talk to him, try to find out what’s up, before you go all mama bear on him.”
“Something’s wrong, Baker,” Jody said, keeping her gaze glued to Ben. He was looking down at the sand under his feet. He had a bottle of water in one hand and the medic was taking his blood pressure. “He’s a good kid. Happy. Outgoing. But lately, he’s been withdrawn. Sullen.”
“He’s a teenager,” Baker
said in response.
Jody shook her head. “No. I mean, yes, he is, but that’s not it. Something’s going on with him. Look at his car—it’s a mess. I know a lot of teenagers have messy cars, but not Ben. He keeps it pristine. And he’s got clothes all over the back seat. That’s not just a change of shorts or whatever for after surfing. And…is that a pillow? If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s been living in his car. Which means something is very wrong.”
She expected him to disagree, to try to convince her once more that whatever was going on with Ben was simply because he was seventeen. But to her surprise, Baker said, “Then we’ll figure out what it is and fix it.”
Jody turned her head to try to look at him. He didn’t loosen his hold on her so the angle was awkward. She wanted to ask him what he meant by we.
In all the time she’d known him, Baker had never made the slightest indication that he wanted to be anything other than casual acquaintances. He never lingered too long when he was surfing and she happened to run into him. Hadn’t encouraged her interest in any way whatsoever.
And now here he was, holding her in his embrace and using the we pronoun.
Jody’s head spun. He was confusing her, but she didn’t know how to ask him what the hell was going on without embarrassing herself. He’d probably said it offhandedly, without thinking.
The medic straightened and began to pack up his kit. Ben chugged the rest of the water in the bottle and stood up. He opened the driver’s door and slid back into the car.
Jody gasped in dismay, and this time when she tried to go to him, Baker released her. She ran the ten feet or so to the car and leaned into the open window. “Ben! Where are you going? You shouldn’t be driving.”
“I need to go, Miss Jody,” Ben mumbled.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Don’t nothing me, Ben Miller,” Jody chastised. “Talk to me.”
“Nothing to talk about,” he insisted.
Jody reached out and put her hand on the teenager’s arm. He still felt too hot to her, but if the medic thought he was all right to leave, there wasn’t much she could do about it. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m here if you ever want to talk. I know I’m old and not cool, but I’m
a great listener. You need anything…I’m here for you. No questions asked. I mean it, Ben. Someone to listen, a hot meal, a place to stay…whatever it is, you come to me. Hear me?”
Ben’s hazel eyes shot up then and he met her gaze. “I hear you, Miss Jody.”
There was pain and confusion swirling in the young man’s eyes, and Jody wanted nothing more than to haul him out of the car and give him a tight hug and never let go. But his walls were up, and there was no way he was going to get into a heart to heart right now. Not with everyone standing around watching. Not with tourists and his high school friends hanging out nearby.
As the medics went back to the beach and the looky-loos standing around also lost interest and began to disperse, Jody backed away from the car as Ben started it up. She would’ve tripped over one of the logs keeping cars in the designated parking area if Baker hadn’t been there to catch her. When she had her balance once more, however, Baker didn’t drop his hand from her waist.
Ben made eye contact with Baker and quickly lowered his gaze. He backed out of the spot, which was immediately occupied by a car filled with six tourists, obviously thrilled to have found a place to park.
Jody watched Ben’s car leave in frustration.
“How long have you been here?” Baker asked.
Jody looked up at him and shrugged. “A while.”
He snorted. “Which means you probably got here at the ass crack of dawn. It’s three. You eaten?”
“I had a sandwich,” Jody lied.
As if he had a built-in bullshit detector, Baker merely lifted an eyebrow skeptically.
“Fine. I haven’t eaten, but I’m not hungry,” Jody told him.
Without a word, he turned her toward the beach, where she’d left her cooler. “You’re driving.”
“No! I can’t leave, I’ll never get my spot back,” Jody told him.
Jody glared up at him.
He chuckled when he saw the look she was giving him. “You’ve been here all day, Jodelle. You need to eat, otherwise you’ll be the next one the medics are having to look at. The kids you’ve taken
under your wing are fine. And if we leave now, we’ve actually got a chance of getting to Waialua ahead of all these fuckin’ tourists.”
Jody stared at Baker as they walked. She wasn’t afraid of tripping over anything; Baker’s hand on her waist and the way his eyes constantly swept over the area assured she wouldn’t. “What’s in Waialua?” she asked.
“My place,” Baker said nonchalantly.
Jody stopped walking altogether.
“What? What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice hardening as he looked around, trying to figure out why she’d stopped.
His lips twitched as he looked down at her. “Yeah.”
“Because you need to eat. And you need to relax. And if you go home, you’ll think too much about Ben, and you’ll probably get a bug up your butt to go out and try to find him. If you’re at my place, I can make sure that you get something nutritious in your belly and you won’t head back out into the god-awful traffic that’ll happen once today’s competition is over.”
Jody couldn’t really argue with anything he’d said. She probably would throw a frozen meal into the microwave to eat and then break into the half-eaten pack of Oreos that was in her pantry. She wasn’t sure if Baker was trying to tell her she was overweight or what. She’d also definitely worry about Ben, and seeing if she could find him wasn’t a bad idea. She didn’t have his address but could probably get it from one of the other surfers he hung out with.
“Jodelle, focus,” Baker said, the humor easy to hear in his tone.
She looked up at him. “I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand, Tink?”
Jody frowned. “Did you just call me Tink?”
“Yup. You’re like a little fairy. Tinker Bell.”
“Oh, Jesus. You know how annoying that is, right?” Jody asked huffily.
Baker only smiled.
“How would you like it if I called you Hulk? Or Gigantor?”
Baker leaned into her personal space, and Jody almost swallowed her tongue.
“You can call me whatever you want, Tink.”
For a second, Jody thought Baker was going to kiss her, then he straightened
and placed his fingers on the small of her back. “Come on, let’s go get your cooler, see if we can find one of your kids, tell them you’re headed out, remind them to be good, then we’ll get the hell out of here.”
In a daze, Jody let Baker lead her back toward the picnic table she’d made her home base and where she’d left her cooler. She had no idea what had brought about this change in the man. It was confusing…and exciting. But she didn’t know what it meant, which scared the crap out of her.
When they arrived at the table, Baker picked up her cooler and nonchalantly put the strap around his free arm. Then he looked around for a moment, and upon seeing Rome, whistled loudly. The boy looked over at them, and Baker used his head to direct the kid over.
Jody could only shake her head in amusement when Rome immediately jogged toward them.
“What’s up?” he asked Baker.
“Jodelle and I are headed out. You good?”
“You’ll let the others know?”
“We’re planning on riding the waves at Laniakea Beach at dawn patrol on Wednesday. Wanna join us?” he asked, using the slang for surfing first thing in the morning.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Baker said. He held out his fist and Rome gave him a fist bump. “Stay outta trouble,” he warned. “Don’t make Jodelle worry.”
“We will, and we won’t,” Rome said with a grin.
“Don’t stay too late,” Jody warned, not able to help herself.
“I won’t,” Rome said. “You coming to the last day of the competition tomorrow?” he asked.
Jody opened her mouth to say that yes, of course she’d be there, but Baker beat her to it.
“Nope. You guys’ll be on your own.”
“Baker!” Jody exclaimed, but he kept his eyes on the teenager.
“No problem. The finals are tomorrow and we’re stoked to watch,” Rome answered with another smile.
Baker nodded at him. “We’ll catch up to you later then.”
“Later!” Rome called, then turned and jogged back to the girl he’d been talking to before
Baker had summoned him.
Jody shook her head at the seemingly endless energy the boy had. Then she turned to the man beside her. “Seriously, Baker, that wasn’t cool.”
“Come on, yell at me on the way out of this craziness,” Baker said, steering her toward the parking lot and her VW van. It was her pride and joy…as it had been Kaimana’s. It was in pristine shape and she’d splurged to give it a funky, wild paint job, complete with flowers and peace signs.
All too soon, she found herself behind the wheel and backing out of the parking space she’d been lucky enough to score early that morning, before the sun came up and the tourists started descending on Waimea Bay.
She shook her head and chuckled.
“What?” Baker asked from the seat next to her.
Jody was grateful he hadn’t insisted on driving. No one drove her baby but her. “I have no idea how this happened. Or even what’s happening,” she told him.
“What’s happening is that I’m done fuckin’ around.”
Jody looked over at him in surprise. “What does that mean?”
Jody frowned and divided her attention between the man lounging in the seat next to her and trying not to hit idiot drivers in front of her. She wanted to press Baker for more info. Wanted him to explain what he was talking about. He was acting so different today, and it was unsettling. Jody couldn’t help but feel a zing of excitement in her veins too. Still, she refused to get too worked up. Baker couldn’t be interested in her. She was too…normal. He needed a woman who was fit, prettier, more outgoing, ready for adventure. Simply more than Jody was.
She’d drop Baker off at his place, then go home to her small house. Things between them would go back to normal, and she’d continue with her somewhat boring and predictable life. Whatever had caused Baker to feel as if he needed to watch over her today would fade in his
mind, and that would be that.
A pang of disappointment swept through Jody, but she refused to let it take hold. She’d gotten very good at keeping her real feelings from showing on her face.
She was a shadow of the woman she used to be…and that was fine with her. More than fine. The best thing that had ever happened to her had been snatched away cruelly, and she wasn’t going to risk her heart or soul by caring so much for someone else ever again. It was safer, and more comfortable, to live on the sidelines. To merely be a spectator. Once Baker got whatever this wild hair was out of his system, he’d move on.
Satisfied with her train of thought, Jody glanced over at the man. She swallowed hard when she saw his gaze was glued on her, instead of the road in front of them. Uncomfortable with being the subject of his intense scrutiny, she said, “You’re gonna tell me where to go when we get close, right?”
Jody nodded, turned her attention back to the road, and refused to read anything into what she’d seen in Baker’s eyes.
And a tenderness she hadn’t seen turned her way since she was a newlywed.
Baker held open his front door for Jodelle and couldn’t stop the feeling of satisfaction when she walked past him and the door was firmly shut. The petite woman was the first guest he’d ever invited into his home…and having her there felt right.
From the moment he’d met her, shortly after she’d started coming to the beach to watch over the kids, Baker had felt a connection. He couldn’t explain it, and honestly, it had made him so uncomfortable, he’d gone out of his way to treat her as nothing more than an acquaintance. But over the last year or so, she’d gotten even further under his skin without even trying. Watching his friends find and marry the loves of their lives…and seeing them actually make those relationships work…made him yearn for something more in his life.
He’d only ever had one long-term girlfriend. And that had been enough for him to be turned off of relationships for good. He’d treated Tabitha like gold, and in return, she’d emptied his bank account, taken out twenty-three credit cards in his name, and had actually plotted to kill him. It was like a fucking crime show. She’d played him, and he’d been so desperate for love at the time, to find what everyone else had, that he’d bought into her bullshit.
She hadn’t even done any jail time either, which pissed him off to no end. Her daddy had hired the most expensive and successful lawyer he could find, and she’d gotten off with probation and some fines.
Baker had sworn off women from that point on. Refusing to spend more than a few nights with the same person before ghosting them. He was an asshole, he knew that…but now, for the first time in years, he wanted more.
Wanted it all.
Jodelle. The first time he’d heard her name, Baker had thought it was the most beautiful name he’d ever heard. She’d laughed the first time he’d called her that and told him that everyone used her nickname, Jody. But he refused. He’d always think of her as Jodelle.
He’d fought against her pull for months. For years, actually. And he couldn’t fight it anymore. He’d hoped the connection he felt would fade. Actually, Baker was sure she’d do something to piss him off or annoy him. Something that would prove she was just like most of the other women he knew. But instead, the longer he got to know Jodelle, the more he liked her.
She was sensitive. Introspective at times. Didn’t feel the need to fill a silence with idle chatter. She genuinely cared about the kids she kept her eye on. That had been proven time and time again. She was selfless, not pretentious, and Baker definitely liked how she looked in a bathing suit. She was curvy in all the places a woman should be curvy.
All-in-all, he hadn’t
found one negative thing about Jodelle since he’d met her. And that both irritated and intrigued him. No one was as saintly as she seemed to be. No way.
Even being as attracted to her as he was, he’d still been determined to stay away. She was too good for him, that was crystal clear. But after witnessing how happy Mustang and Elodie were, how happy all of his SEAL friends were with their women, not to mention the love in Pid’s eyes when he looked at his new baby daughter…Baker’s mindset had begun to change.
He tended to keep people at arm’s length, men and women. But after an old SEAL teammate of his had come to Hawaii with a serious grudge—and used Monica Collins, the woman of one of his acquaintances, as bait—Baker did some serious soul-searching.
He came to the realization that he didn’t want to be an old man with no friends. Too much of a stubborn asshole to let anyone in. After so many years, the thought of being alone no longer appealed.
And when he thought about his future, about who he might want to hang out with when he was old and gray, the only person who came to mind was Jodelle. It was crazy, they didn’t know each other, not really, but Baker couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Then Ashlyn Taylor, the girlfriend of another SEAL friend, was shot several months ago, and Baker envisioned Jodelle being in her place.
He panicked. It wasn’t logical. Wasn’t something he’d ever dwelled on in the past, his friends being hurt. But the last couple of years had proven danger comes when you least expect it, especially in regard to his SEAL friends and their women. Now he couldn’t shake the image of Jodelle lying in a hospital bed, suffering from a gunshot wound. He didn’t ever want to see that happen.
And the best way to keep her safe…was to keep her by his side.
The thought didn’t freak him out. For the first time since Tabitha, Baker wanted to be in a relationship. Wanted to go to sleep with a woman at his side and wake up the same way. He wanted her to text and let him know how her day was going, and he wanted to share what was going on in his own life right back.
Jodelle wasn’t Tabitha. She’d never even think about stealing from him. And plotting to kill him? No way would that happen. Baker knew that as clearly as he knew his own name.
Earlier today, when he’d wrapped his arm around her chest to keep her from interfering with the medic’s evaluation of the teenager she was so worried about, Baker knew instantly that he was a goner. She fit against him absolutely perfectly. He’d never been one to go for petite women, but Jodelle changed his thoughts on that.
Aside from her curves, he loved her long dark brown hair that never seemed to want to stay confined in whatever hairdo she put it in, and her golden-brown eyes that hinted at a pain he wanted to soothe. She was also the most expressive woman he’d ever met. He knew exactly what she was thinking without her having to say a word.
But it was that agony deep in her eyes that called to him most. The woman was broken inside. She was merely going through the motions of life. Every smile was subdued, every chuckle tinged with grief. Baker wanted to hold her close and tell her that she didn’t have to hide from him, that he’d put her back together piece by piece—but he had to earn the right.
And he was more determined than ever to do just that.
Baker knew she’d had a son, and that he’d died. But he didn’t know any of the details. Her son’s death had to be what had broken her, and while Baker couldn’t know exactly what she was feeling, he’d experienced loss himself.
As he’d held her back from going to Ben, Baker had made a decision. He’d been a coward for too long. Afraid to let anyone in. But no longer. He’d seen the looks Jodelle had sent his way. She was interested, but had absolutely no intention of doing anything about it, which made her different from other women. Baker knew if he didn’t at least attempt to explore the connection they had, he’d regret it for the rest of his life.
So today was the first step toward healing them both. Maybe things would work out, maybe they wouldn’t, but he’d be damned if he didn’t at least try.
“It’s nice,” Jodelle said as she looked around his place.
Baker shrugged. He hadn’t thought much about decor in the past. The house was functional, and that was all he needed. Tile on the floor, small kitchen and living areas. Decent-size master bedroom with a bathroom attached. An extra bedroom where he usually stored his surfboard and other miscellaneous crap he’d accumulated over the years. He had the requisite large-screen TV and a comfortable couch and oversized easy chair.
But looking around, ...