Once a pariah among her coworkers, marine biologist Monica Sims has spent months reinventing herself as she seeks redemption. A history of failed relationships leaves her leery of romantic involvement until she meets Cosby Williams, the new co-owner of Nauti-Toys watercraft rentals.
As things heat up between them, Gulf Shore Aquarium responds to the stranding of a group of pilot whales. When a billionaire bachelor lends his private plane to the rescue effort, Monica catches his eye — and an obsession is born.
How will she cope with the unwanted attention? And will her past sins come back to doom her newfound happiness with Cosby?
Monica Sims didn’t suffer well in silence. All this wedding talk grated on her nerves, and she desperately wanted to distance herself from the radiant bride-to-be and the friends who acted like this was a match made in Buckingham Palace.
But the last thing Monica needed was anyone thinking she sat here sucking on sour grapes. Not when she’d done everything possible the past several months to convince these women, and her other Gulf Shore Aquarium coworkers, that she no longer resembled the selfish shrew they knew and loathed. She’d eaten a bakery full of humble pie, shoved aside her own satisfaction, smiled until her face ached, and bit her tongue until it nearly bled.
The response to her attitude overhaul had been better than she’d dared hope. She’d become one of the girls and even had made peace with her ex-boyfriend’s fiancée, who at this moment squirmed under the rapt attention of everyone at their table at Bikini Barb’s Bar & Grill. Everyone except Monica, that is.
She freely admitted now, without the slightest pang whatsoever, that Evan Sanders and Danielle “Dani” Davidson belonged together. She wished them the best, without reservation. But Monica simply couldn’t feign enthusiasm for the seemingly endless discussions about invitation styles, cake decorations, and buffet menus.
The impending “I do’s” left the other women at tonight’s “snipe and gripe” gathering positively giddy. They giggled and chattered like a gaggle of schoolgirls as they threw out suggestions on how Dani should break it to her mother that she wanted to be married right here in Gulf Shore, Florida, not back home in Missouri.
“Why is everything so flipping complicated?” Dani complained, posing a rhetorical question. That didn’t stop her friends from answering.
“Our parents live for the day they can torture us as payback for all the times we misbehaved as kids and made their lives a veritable living hell,” Tiffany Sandeski offered.
“If I ever get married, I’m eloping to Las Vegas,” Shontay Jefferson vowed. “I have enough trouble with my meddling mother as it is.”
“Not me,” Gina Martino asserted. “I intend to have the whole fairy tale from start to finish. That means a killer gown that makes me look like Kate Middleton, a huge wedding party, stretch limo, four-tiered cake, blowout reception with an open bar, gourmet dinner, live band, and a honeymoon in Europe.”
“You’ll need more than a fancy dress to make you look like Kate Middleton,” Tiffany teased. “Like a starvation diet for starters.”
Gina stuck out her tongue. “And I don’t care what the whole thing costs. I told Jeremy to rob a bank or two if he has to.”
“You did not,” Shontay scoffed.
“I most certainly did,” Gina insisted. “Trust me, it won’t be necessary. His parents are loaded and he’s their trust-fund baby.”
“Uh, what about your mom and dad?” Shontay asked. “It’s tradition for the bride’s side to pay most of the wedding expenses and for the reception, too.”
Gina barked out a laugh. “My parents don’t have a pot to puke in.”
Tiffany wrinkled her nose and halted the hand bringing the spicy chicken wing to her mouth. She dropped the poultry on her plate and pushed it away. “Thanks for the bodily function reference, Gina.”
“You’re welcome. No extra charge.”
“You know, a lot of couples now, especially if they’re older or have been together for a while, pay for their own wedding,” Shontay noted.
“Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” Gina replied. “Jeremy’s parents won’t let their perfect, precious boy spend a dime. They’ve already promised to help us buy a house right on the beach. Think of the parties we can have there, girls. I can’t wait to ditch this dive as a gathering spot.”
Shontay shook her head and turned to Dani. “What about you and Evan?”
“Our parents offered to help, but we’re paying for most of it. That’s why we’re keeping it simple.”
As others in the group added their nickel’s worth, Monica tuned them out. While she’d gotten over Evan, participating in this conversation still struck her as strange given that Dani’s groom-to-be was the one Monica let get away. Months before Dani moved to Gulf Shore, Evan had dumped Monica after discovering she’d cheated on him with the aquarium’s married marketing director, a new father of twins.
The fallout from that colossal indiscretion had been bad enough. But then Monica attempted to whip up trouble for Evan and Dani after they started dating. Fed up with the way she treated people, Monica’s rebound boyfriend broke up with her. Coworkers shunned her. She considered leaving Gulf Shore. Her older sister’s tough love helped turn her life around.
None of that mattered now, but some people thrived on stirring things up. Like Tiffany, who stared at her with a smirk of a smile. Monica knew that look.
“So what do you think?” Tiffany asked her. The other women turned their expectant attention to Monica.
“Uh, well, I’m not sure.” She inwardly cringed at how clueless she sounded.
“I bet you don’t even know what we’re talking about.”
“Of course I do,” Monica blustered. “Weddings.”
“So how should Dani solve her dilemma?” Tiffany pressed.
“Quit putting Monica on the spot,” Dani interjected. “It’s my problem. I’ll figure out what to tell my mother. Now, where’s the rest of our food? We were so busy today with those marine science students I had time to grab only yogurt and a granola bar for lunch. How long does it take to throw together salads and sandwiches?”
Eager for a legitimate excuse to leave the table, Monica offered to check on their orders. She headed to the well-worn wooden bar to speak to Pete, who mixed drinks and filled pitchers like a madman, and stopped a few feet from the barstool where a guy who looked familiar sat alone, nursing a mug of beer. They nodded at each other as Monica tried to remember his name.
“Cosby Williams,” he supplied.
“What?” Had he read her mind? She’d seen him in Barb’s before talking to Evan and two of the aquarium’s dolphin trainers, but they hadn’t been introduced.
“That’s my name. In case you were wondering.”
“What gave you that impression?”
He shrugged. “The way you looked at me implied it.”
“Yeah? And what way was that?”
“Like I’m not a total stranger but you don’t know me, either.”
“You’re pretty perceptive, aren’t you?” Sarcasm tinged her voice. She’d ruthlessly repressed that particular personality trait but still let it loose occasionally.
“I try to be.” If he noticed her flippant tone, he ignored it. “Right now, for instance, you’re deciding whether I’m worth talking to and if you should tell me your name.”
“Actually, I’m debating whether you’re charmingly candid or irritatingly blunt.”
Cosby laughed and Monica’s long-dormant libido stirred to life.
“How about a little of both?” he suggested. “But don’t worry. I didn’t come here to pick up women. My brother and I are celebrating tonight.”
“Oh? What’s the occasion?”
“Our business, Nauti-Toys watercraft rentals, has its grand reopening in two days.”
Suddenly the light of recognition switched on. “Now I know why you look familiar. I saw your picture in the paper the other day. The story said you two have given the place quite a makeover.”
“We’ve worked our asses off. This is the first chance we’ve had to take a breather.”
Monica stepped back and assessed his very fine jeans-covered rear end.
“What? Did I sit in something?” Cosby twisted to look at the seat of his pants.
“No. Just checking to see if you told the truth about working your ass off.”
He grinned and Monica felt it like a punch to the gut. Whoa! She resisted, just barely, the urge to lean forward and taste his tantalizing lips. She shook her head to clear it, and Cosby furrowed his brow as though trying to figure out what she was thinking.
“Now that you’ve seen the goods, what’s the verdict?” he asked.
“Why, Mr. Williams, are you fishing for a compliment?”
“On whether you’d think less of me if I was.”
“You’re very straightforward, aren’t you?” she observed. “I like that.”
“I have plenty of other commendable qualities, too.”
“I send my mom a thank-you card on my birthday. I don’t leave the toilet seat up. I never give women kitchen appliances as gifts. I bowled nine strikes in a row once. I love kids, and they adore me. And I feed stray cats that hang out at Nauti-Toys.”
“Wow, all that and movie-star handsome, too.”
Cosby blushed and the unexpected show of humility charmed her.
“What can I say, I’m a good guy. Except, of course, when I want to be bad.” He winked and Monica laughed despite her best intentions. “How about I buy you a drink?”
“You’re the one celebrating,” she pointed out. “I should buy you a drink.”
“You’re making me work for it, aren’t you?”
“And by ‘it’ you mean what, exactly?”
Many women already would’ve scribbled their phone number on a napkin. But Monica couldn’t afford to make another mistake with a man. Then she stared into eyes the color of a Caribbean sea and thought, oh, what the hell.
“You work at Gulf Shore Aquarium, right?”
She glanced at her teal polo with the GSA logo. “The shirt gave it away, huh?”
“That’s a pretty good clue, yeah. What do you do there?”
“I’m a marine biologist specializing in sea turtles.”
“How much do you know about sharks?”
“Not as much as I know about turtles, but enough. Why?”
“My two nephews are off the charts crazy about sharks and I promised to take them to the aquarium on my first free day. I’d cement my status as world’s coolest uncle if I arranged for someone knowledgeable about their favorite fish to spend time with them.”
“Tell me when and I’ll give them a behind-the-scenes tour of our Shark Pier habitat. They’ll love it.”
“I’d be forever in your debt.” He smiled, her insides went marshmallow gooey, and alarm bells clanged inside her head. Time to set him straight.
“That’s not necessary. It’s part of GSA’s commitment to encourage kids’ interest in marine science. I’ll have complimentary tickets set aside in your name at the will-call window.”
“I’d very much appreciate that.”
* * * *
Monica apparently didn’t know that Evan and his two dolphin trainer friends had made Cosby the same offer the first night he’d dropped by Bikini Barb’s, and he wasn’t about to tell her. She’d been there that night, too, with her “snipe and gripe” girlfriends as they slammed drinks and turned heads with their raucous laughter and off-color commentary.
“How do I contact you?” he asked. Cosby wanted her number but had a feeling she intended to make him work harder for it. He smiled to himself when her answer confirmed his suspicions.
“Call the aquarium and ask for my extension. If I’m not available, leave me a voice mail.”
“Okay. What days are you there?”
“Sometimes it feels like I live there, but usually Tuesday through Saturday.”
“All right. Well, it was very nice meeting you, Monica Sims. Can I buy you a pitcher to take back to your table?”
“If you’d like to. I’m sure that would impress my friends.”
“And what about you?”
She flashed her dimples. “I’d consider it a gallant gesture from a nice guy.”
Just then, Gavin Williams plopped onto the barstool next to his younger brother. He grabbed Cosby’s mug, drained it, and demanded, “Buy us a pitcher, you cheap-ass prick.”
Cosby scowled at him. “Do you actually kiss your wife and kids with that mouth? Apologize to the lady, you ill-mannered dipstick.”
“What la—” Gavin turned his head, saw Monica standing there, and his face turned tomato red. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean for you to hear that. You know how it is with brothers.”
The corners of her mouth quirked. “Not really. I only have a sister. But don’t worry about it. I’ve heard worse and have said far worse, not that I’m proud to admit it. And just for the record, Cosby is buying a pitcher for me and my friends, so your assessment of him as a cheap-ass prick is way off the mark.”
Cosby burst out laughing, and his brother slugged him in the arm as Monica sashayed back to her table. It might be a challenge getting to know her, but Cosby had an inkling he was going to enjoy every minute of it.