Ship Shape

Ship Shape

© Julie Harrington. Cover Design by StormCloud

Life isn’t all smooth sailing for Elizabeth “Eli” Parker when a tropical storm traps her in the Grand Caymans with a stolen diamond ring in her bra. What she needs is a plan. But when Jason Mallone — a walking Neanderthal in ragged cutoffs and purple flip-flops — charges to her rescue, Elizabeth gets more than she bargained for because her only way off the island is on a marriage therapy cruise masquerading as the security consultant’s unhappy wife!

Not one to be anchored down by permanent relationships, Jason Mallone is determined to avoid getting too close to the feisty librarian. If it’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that marriage and his job don’t mix — especially when his pretend wife is driving him nuts! Hell, even the ship’s primal scream therapy is starting to look good.

When trouble begins to stalk them from port to port, will Jason cast Elizabeth to the sharks to save his career, or will this unlikely pair discover that the safe harbor of their love can weather any storm?

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“Don’t be nice to me,” Elizabeth warned as her voice shook.

With a groan, Jason cupped her face between his hands. His thumb whispered across her cheeks to wipe the tear away. Another quickly replaced it. His frown deepened. “Stop that.”

More distress than scorn filled his gruff command and the feel of his hands on her face did strange things to Elizabeth’s pulse and equilibrium. Steadying herself against him, she felt the hard strength of his muscles under her fingers; felt them tense at her touch. The tears stalled, leaving a lump in her throat. She couldn’t seem to swallow. Peering up at him, Elizabeth watched as the color of his eyes changed as warmth bled through the ice. As if answering some unspoken question, Jason bent as she tilted her face toward his. His hot, moist breath brushed her cheek as his fingers delved into her hair.

His head dipped. He hesitated.

“Aw man,” he sighed, then lowered his mouth to hers.



 ~* Chapter One *~


Elizabeth Parker needed a husband, and she needed one now. Swirling the paper umbrella in her strawberry daiquiri, she peered out the restaurant window at the churning harbor water. Set against purple storm clouds was her only hope of leaving the Grand Cayman Island, a luxury marriage therapy cruise ship called Kismet.

Set to depart in two hours and twenty-three minutes, the floating metropolis would sail for six days, taking its passengers from the Grand Cayman to Florida. It was the only cruise ship with any available cabins. Well, available to anyone that was married and miserable.

Chin propped in her hand, Elizabeth watched lightning flash in the distance. The rumble of thunder that followed rattled the bottles of alcohol behind the bar. Miserable she could manage. But married? She sighed. Far from it. The closest she ever came to marriage was the storefront of Tiffany’s. So unless she found a husband before the cruise ship set sail, she was sunk.

The useless airline ticket next to her purse mocked her. There couldn’t be a more inconvenient time for a tropical depression to settle over the islands. The sudden shift of the storm’s direction caught meteorologists by surprise, and made the officials at Owen Roberts Airport close its two runways. No flights, including private charter planes, were allowed to take off in the high winds and dangerous lightning.

Elizabeth had been caught off guard by the storm too. By then it was too late to alter her plans. The deed was done and she was now a criminal on the run with a stolen, flawless, six-carat diamond ring in her bra.

The door to the restaurant opened, admitting a man on a wave of humidity scented with beach and rain. She stiffened as she slid him a sideways glance and edged her hand toward her purse.

Unshaven and unkempt, four days growth of beard hid his wind-battered features. His wet, dark blonde hair was slicked back and gathered in a short ponytail at his nape. Only a bright tropical shirt, T-shirt and ragged cutoffs elevated him to the restaurant’s already lax dress code. He was definitely not, Elizabeth decided, a police officer.
Things went from black to just gray again.

What on earth possessed her to board a plane for this island? How could she think she could slip in, slip out, and be back on United States soil before her stepbrother knew she’d stolen his ring? She thought that if she kept a low profile, Steven wouldn’t suspect anything until it was too late. By then she’d be back home in Illinois and out of his reach.

Making a face, Elizabeth crossed her slender legs and tugged the cuff of her khaki walking shorts down to her knee. Now, stuck on this God forsaken rock, a low profile would be impossible to maintain. The instant Steven realized what happened, he’d know she did it. A simple check with the airport on the main island would show her name on the passenger register. Once that happened, his security officers would be sent out to hunt her down.

The urge to lean her forehead against the bar and weep overwhelmed her. Why her? She was a good person. A sensible person. She got eight hours of sleep a night, held down a steady job, and paid all of her bills on time. She even took those disgusting vitamin supplements her doctor prescribed.

What convinced her to fly thousands of miles from home to break into Steven’s house and steal what was rightfully hers in the first place? This time Elizabeth did groan. Elbows braced on the bar, she buried her face in her hands. She could see it now: twenty-six-year-old archivist arrested for grand theft, breaking and entering, and trespassing.

Coins jingled as they dropped into the payphone behind her and Elizabeth sat up straight as she adjusted the hem of her white silk blouse. Parker women, she reminded herself, never slouched. Lip caught between her teeth, she shredded her paper napkin. Parker women also didn’t register in hotels under assumed names and smash patio doors with rocks. In the last six hours, she’d done both.

“What do you mean she’s not coming?”

The question rang through the bar and Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at the payphone. The man there was the same one that came in a few minutes earlier and, unlike the distinctive Welsh and Scottish brogue most of the Caymanians spoke with, his voice was low and gruff. Definitely an American.

Nose wrinkled, she took in the frayed denim cutoffs, sandy flip-flops, and stained T-shirt that read ‘Caymanian Men Do It Best’. The man glanced up. His blue eyes held hers for a moment before he turned away to brace a thick forearm against the wall. He leaned to the phone and tried to shove his shoulder against the wooden frame for privacy. It wasn’t an easy feat for a man of his impressive build, rather like watching a cat cram itself into a can of tuna fish.

“For God’s sake,” he growled into the receiver, “we’re supposed to leave in two hours. Is she actually in labor?” He tapped his foot and the sandal slapped against the floor, sending a spray of sand across the wood. “You’re her boss. Tell her to suck it up and get her ass down to the shuttle.”

Elizabeth shook her head as she faced forward. Talk about a prime candidate for the Kismet’s marriage therapy cruise.

“No, I can’t go without her,” he continued, the timbre of his voice dropping to blend with the next roll of thunder. “Don’t you think it would look funny?” When he swore, dark and vicious, Elizabeth glared at his back. “Yeah, yeah,” he groused, apparently oblivious to her disapproval, “I’ll think of something.”

He slammed the phone down in the cradle, then did it again for good measure before he headed to the bar. Elizabeth tensed when he hesitated next to her, but he walked to the other end and sat. “Gimme a beer,” he told the bartender.

“Draught, Mr. Jason?”

Shrugging, he scratched the dark brush of hair on his jaw. “As long as it’s cold, I don’t care. Domestic’s fine.”

A dark bottle was placed in front of him and without bothering with a glass, he took a long drink. He poked through the basket filled with mostly empty peanut shells before he finally found one and cracked it open. His attention shifted to the television set mounted above the bar and he watched as a storm warning rolled across the bottom of the screen.

He popped a peanut into his mouth with a snort. “Can you believe it? They called for the best surfing weather we’ve had in weeks. Now look at it. Storms like this ruin the diving and the fishing too. What kind of vacation is this?”

The bartender grinned as he went back to drying glasses. “Don’t worry, Mr. Jason, this will get better in a few days.”

Shaking his head, he took another pull from the bottle. He belched without apology. “Playtime’s over for me. Back to work.”

He rolled the beer bottle between his large hands and glanced at Elizabeth.

Suddenly she was aware of how empty the restaurant was. The hour for the normal tourist dinnertime had past and it was still too early for the locals to come out and party. Add the approaching storm to the mix and everyone would stay home tonight. Other than the bartender and a man sitting on the other side of the room, Elizabeth was alone.

She didn’t dare risk going back to her hotel. Despite knowing Steven’s routine, the change in the storm’s path would change his plans too. That meant he’d probably already discovered the broken door at home.

Elizabeth rubbed the back of her neck. The muscles there were tight with anxiety. What was jail like on the Cayman Islands? She smothered a bubble of hysterical laughter. She could be at the museum cataloging new books instead of traipsing off on some quest for justice. Why couldn’t she be content to fill out request forms on the evolutionary history of the Homo habilis?

“How did I ever get into this mess?” she sighed as she shifted on the barstool. Eyes closed, she tilted her head back. “Please, God,” she prayed softly, “please get me off this island and I swear I’ll never do anything like this again.”

“Eli Parker?”

The sound of a man’s voice next to her made her twist on the barstool so sharply she nearly fell off. Heart in her throat, Elizabeth stared at the man at her elbow. She didn’t know when he came in, but from his well-groomed appearance and the gold Pembroke emblem on his blue tie, she knew exactly who sent him and why.

Her gaze lifted to his face. Intense green eyes peered back at her from beneath light blonde hair. Judging by the rather ominous bulk under his windbreaker, he was armed. Time to go.

Elizabeth reached for her purse as she rose to her feet. It was a mistake. At least sitting they were almost equal in height. Now, standing, he dwarfed her. She slung her purse strap over her shoulder and, plane ticket in hand, started to step around him. “Sorry,” she said, “you’ve got the wrong person.”

She made it two steps before he caught her arm. “Ms. Parker, my name is Albert Young. You’ll have to come with me.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Elizabeth tugged against his hold, but he didn’t release her. Her eyes glittered with defiance. “Let go of me.”

“Mr. Pembroke wants a word with you.”

“I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her voice was loud enough to draw the attention of the man at the bar. He paused, the beer bottle halfway to his mouth to watch them.

Young reached for her purse but, before he could grab it, Elizabeth brought her thin-soled sandal down hard on his instep. Swearing, he tightened his grip on her arm and went for her purse again. Neither noticed when the airline ticket fluttered from her fingers.

The man the bartender called Mr. Jason appeared at their side and put his hand on the other man’s chest, creasing Young’s tie. The muscles and tendons in his tanned forearm tightened. Elizabeth saw his blue eyes shift downward to the holster beneath the other man’s jacket before they lifted again. A muscle on the side of his face ticked.

“Is there a problem here?” he asked.

Flustered, Elizabeth could only stammer.

Young looked at the hand on his chest before he turned the full strength of his glare on the owner. “Buzz off, beach boy, this is a private matter between the lady and me, so why don’t you go back to your beer.”

Those incredible blue eyes met Elizabeth’s. He quirked a sand colored eyebrow at her. “He your husband?”

“No!” Even to Elizabeth’s ears it sounded like the thought horrified her.

“Boyfriend?” When she shook her head, he leaned toward her. “You know him at all?” She told him no and he appeared satisfied. His attention shifted to Young again. His jaw squared. “Then let go of the lady’s arm before I break your hand.”

“This is outrageous—”

In one fluid movement, Mr. Jason wrapped Young’s tie around his fist and used it to jerk him downward while simultaneously latching his fingers around the man’s thumb. A simple twist of the digit made Young release Elizabeth’s arm. There was an audible pop and Albert Young went down on his knees with a cry of pain.

Blue eyes calm and still, the man released the tie and faced her. Elizabeth didn’t see a flicker of hesitation in his gaze. “It might be a good idea if you’re gone before this guy gets back up,” he told her.

She didn’t argue. Purse clutched in her hand, Elizabeth darted out the door and onto the sidewalk. Wind buffeted her, sending her hair into her eyes and molding her blouse against her small frame. She tossed her hair back and shifted her weight from foot to foot as she cast a quick glance at the sky.

The clouds rolled as lightning spiked across the sky. She glanced at the restaurant doors before hurrying down the sidewalk. It was over. Steven knew she was here. Maybe she could still find a quiet spot to ride it all out.

Elizabeth laughed at the notion. It didn’t matter where she went. He’d find her anywhere. Unlike Chicago, George Town only covered a few blocks. Most of the stores closed at five so the tourists returned to the cruise ships that brought them. The port city was a ghost town.

Footsteps echoed behind her and Elizabeth quickened her pace. Maybe her best bet was to go back to Steven and admit defeat. Her shoulders slumped. Oh, he’d love that. What frosted her the most was that she wasn’t in the wrong. Steven was. But as long as he owned half the island, no one would believe he was a liar and a cheat. The police certainly wouldn’t listen. That’s what got her in this mess in the first place.

A strong hand clamped around her arm and jerked her to a stop. Bringing her purse up as she turned, Elizabeth struck Mr. Jason square on the nose. The bag wasn’t big enough to do any damage. It barely even raised a welt.

Glaring at her, he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers. Those blue eyes didn’t look so calm now. “Damn it, lady, what the hell’s wrong with you?” he demanded. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. “Obviously not! Indignation snapped her upright and forced her tongue and brain to connect. “What did you expect sneaking up on me like that? Are you insane?”

His lips twitched. “I suppose I am.” As if realizing he still held her arm, he released her and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his cutoffs. From one of the pockets, he produced her airline ticket. “You dropped this.”

Elizabeth took it from him and rubbed the ticket against her thigh to work the creases from the paper. “Thank you. Mister?”

“Mallone. Jason Mallone.” When she shifted away from him, his lips almost formed a smile. He lifted his shoulders and gestured at the ticket. “That’s not going to do you much good. Looks like you’re stuck on paradise for a few more days.”

Chewing her lip, Elizabeth stared down at the slip of paper. Her vision blurred on a sudden rush of tears. If Steven went to the police to report the theft, she’d be stuck here for a few more years. Prison gray was so not her color. She was an autumn, damn it, not a winter.

Hand hooked around the back of his neck, Jason Mallone shifted as wind pulled his ponytail over his shoulder. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I figured. Look, Ms. Parker—”
Her head jerked up. “How do you know my name is Parker?”

“It’s on the ticket.” His eyes narrowed. “I think we can help each other.”

Elizabeth raked her gaze over him from the top of his head to the tips of his sand covered feet. Good grief, the man wore flip-flops. Purple flip-flops. She lingered on the soft sprinkle of golden hair on his legs. There was a thick white scar on one shin that stood out stark against his tan. “I doubt that, Mr. Mallone.”

Sarcasm etched his smile. Feet braced apart on the sidewalk, Jason crossed his arms over his chest and impressive muscles swelled. “Are you interested in what I have to say or not?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Then here’s the deal. I have less than two hours to find a replacement and I think we can help each other.”

“A replacement for what?”

He produced a business card from his back pocket. Elizabeth hesitated before taking it from him. The card, with its heavy stock and embossed lettering, obviously cost money, yet his careless treatment had wrinkled it. “Jason Mallone, Security Consultant.” She frowned and looked up. “I don’t understand.”

“Our firm is running a security check on one of the cruise ships. The only problem is I need a partner for my cover.”

Elizabeth shook her head as she held the card out to him. “I’m not a security expert.”

“All I need is someone to work the cover with me. It’s a couples cruise.” A shadow darkened his face. “The woman meant to play my better half just went into labor.”
“You say it like she did it on purpose.”

“Knowing her, she probably did.” He flashed a bright smile at her. All pearly teeth and charm that softened his weathered exterior.

“Why do you need me?” she asked.

He held his hands up. “Just to say you’re my wife and do the things that couples do. Shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, a little tennis, maybe work on a tan. You could use one.”

Elizabeth straightened. “Excuse me?”

He ignored her. “Plus you get a free ride home. The ship is scheduled to dock in Florida in six days.” When she hesitated, Jason tugged on his ear and squinted. “Look, I don’t care what your problem with Steven Pembroke is…”

That made her blink. “W-who said I had a problem?”

“Come on, honey, that ape back there? He’s one of Pembroke’s boys. So save the wide-eyed looks for somebody who’d appreciate them.” He scratched his jaw through the thicket of his beard. “Pembroke owns most of the island and a lot of people think he’s a god. So if he’s got a beef with you, the sooner you get outta here, the better. He can make your life very difficult.”

Elizabeth knew he was right. Steven thought nothing of flaunting his money or his power. Or of abusing both. She wrapped the strap of her purse around her fingers until they turned red. She didn’t have much at the hotel, only an overnight bag with a change of clothes. Certainly not enough to see her through a weeklong cruise, but she could worry about that later. Necessity was, after all, the mother of invention.

“I’ll need to get my stuff,” she said reluctantly, not agreeing to anything yet.

“Then we can meet at the launch. As long as you check out.”

“Check out?”

“Yeah, you know.” He shrugged again. “Typical background check. You’re not wanted anywhere are you?”

“No.” This was absurd. Reckless. Stupid. Parker women did not do things like this. Accepting propositions from strange men who looked like they’d never heard of soap would be on the top of the list of don’ts.

She didn’t know this man. Certainly not well enough to go away on a cruise with him. Of course, she never went away with any of the men she dated, not that there many in her rather boring past, but the idea of walking onto a ship with a man she’d known for less than five minutes sounded so… desperate.

Then again, she was desperate.

As if he could read her mind, he held out his wallet. “I’ve got identification.”

When she took it from him, their fingers brushed. His hands were rough and Elizabeth knew he didn’t sit behind a desk all day. Hours in the sun and hard work had weathered his skin. His nails were neat though. Cut short—obviously manicured. She found it odd considering the rest of his grooming habits were so relaxed.

Silent, she studied the identification card. International Security Services. It certainly looked authentic. Without a photograph on the card, it gave her nothing more than his thumbprint, employee number, hair and eye color, and weight.

Elizabeth stared out at the cruise ship. It looked more like an overgrown bathtub toy than salvation. A raindrop hit her cheek, then another, reminding her this could be her last chance to escape. With a sigh, she tucked the business card back into his wallet, flipped it closed, and held it out to him.

He shoved it back into his pocket and raised a brow. “So? What do you say?”

Drawing herself up straight, Elizabeth held out her hand and he took it. His grip strong and she told herself that nerves caused the tingle of electricity that shot up her arm. “Mr. Mallone,” she said, “I’d say you just found yourself a wife.”



© Julie Harrington and Krysia’s Web Books