Unconditional, page 1
By Connie Keenan
Copyright 2014 by Connie Keenan
MORE BOOKS BY CONNIE KEENAN
One Sweet Day
Greetings from My Sandy Dreams
More than Sparrows
The Christmas Waltz
Forever in My Heart
Glimmers of Heaven
’Twas the Spy Before Christmas
The Cop & the Mermaid
Sea Siren (writing as Consuelo Vazquez)
The fact that the girl was pretty was a bonus. What had really caught Joshua Coleman’s attention was seeing a pretty girl with a rod and reel in her hands, laughing and cheering as she brought up a fluke.
The first fish, I might add, he thought with a grin, that any of us has seen all day.
“Yes! Wheeeeeee! Look at him—he’s a monster!” she shouted jubilantly.
Standing on the rocks beside him, his friend Elliot Bauer scoffed. Under his breath, the coward, so the girls couldn’t hear him several yards away.
“A monster. Listen to her.” Elliot rolled his eyes, pausing as he untangled his line. Again.
“Hey, it’s bigger than the one you caught. Oh, yeah, that’s right…” Josh drawled, snickering. “You haven’t caught any.”
“Yeah, well, neither have you, big shot.” Cussing, Elliot drew his fishing knife and cut the line, rather than continue to fiddle with it. “Unbelievable. Losin’ all this line. This is just a bad spot. We should move.”
“Uh, okay, well, let’s give it another hour, at least. They caught one, so let’s try and be patient.”
They could have moved, certainly. They should have moved. Truthfully, Josh was enjoying the view.
Because from that spot, he could see that little brunette, the girl who seemed to love fishing with her friend. That wasn’t her first time going out, either; he could tell by the way she handled her rod, line and tackle box that she knew what she was doing.
He had just turned thirty, so he guessed she was younger, about twenty-five or twenty-six. Slim girl, must have spent a lot of time out in the sun, judging by her long legs and the rest of her, so lightly tanned. Wisps of her hair were straying from her ponytail, and she looked so cute in those denim cut-off shorts, a pink tank top and worn running shoes. With her pink cooler, she added feminine flair to the traditionally rugged sport of fishing.
“Here, you get it free, Valerie. I’m gonna mangle the poor fish,” her friend advised, handing the catch back to her.
Valerie. Her name was Valerie. Josh saw an opening to get her attention.
“Nice, big fish. Good job!” he called out to her.
The cute, eye-pleasing fisherwoman was crouched down on that huge rock, gingerly pulling her hook out of the fluke’s mouth. The task was getting fish blood on her hands. That would’ve been enough to gross out most young women, but Miss Valerie seemed to take it in stride.
Pretty and hardy. Talk about a catch.
She glanced at him over her shoulder. “Thanks,” she said, turning her attention back to the fish.
“She’s got a boyfriend,” Elliot said.
“Now how would you know that?”
“Who do you think taught her how to fish?”
“I don’t know. Maybe her dad. An ex-boyfriend. Maybe she learned by coming down here and watching other people. How’d you learn?”
“Same way you did. Your dad taught me.” Wiping his chin on his sleeve, Elliot informed him, “Trust me: The lady’s got a boyfriend. Girls like her are usually taken. Don’t waste your time, man. She’s out of your league.”
“Thanks for keeping my ego in check.” Josh felt a tug at the end of his line. “Ohhh—yeah, here it comes, that’s what I’m talkin’ about…”
The fish had been biting that morning, both off the rocks and off the pier. They’d been sneaky, too. Twice already they’d successfully stolen the bait right off both of their hooks. The current was also strong there, with the wake of the occasional passing boat deceiving both him and Elliot into thinking they’d caught a fish.
Less than a minute later, he was reeling up disappointment…in the form of a messy, large lump of seaweed dragged by his hook out of the water.
“I bet you can make sushi with that,” Elliot suggested. “You know, wrap it around the sticky rice, or whatever it’s called.”
“Ah, shut up,” Josh muttered good-naturedly. “I don’t like sushi.”
“Me, neither. They need to cook that stuff.”
“Well, then it wouldn’t be sushi.” He had to laugh.
He happened to look to his right and saw the pretty brunette looking his way, her expression curious. As soon as their eyes met, she tore her gaze away. Then she threw back her rod before flinging the line and hook back out to the water.
“She does that wrong,” Elliot remarked.
“Does what wrong?”
“She’s casting wrong.”
“Yeah, well, she’s caught more than you and me both right now.”
Once his hook was free, he dropped the lump of dark green seaweed to the water below, baited his hook and cast the line out again.
Josh feigned interest in a newish-looking cabin cruiser making its way through the canal to the open sea. He was actually discreetly watching his favorite fisherwoman as she fished and chatted with her friend.
She’s out of your league. Elliot Bauer wasn’t being mean, just his usual, brutally honest self. Valerie wasn’t the kind of girl he typically dated, besides being more attractive than the girls in his past.
On the other hand, she had been checking him out. Very cool.
“Let me catch something, Lord, please,” he whispered.
Unfortunately, whisper or not, Elliot heard him. His friend had just popped a rolled-up piece of chewing gum into his mouth.
“What’re you, praying for fish now?” Elliot laughed embarrassingly loud.
“Yeah. Yeah, what’s wrong with that?” But then Josh also laughed. “You don’t think Peter prayed for fish?”
“I know he wouldn’t have given up too easily, that’s for sure!”
It felt good to be around Elliot Bauer again, even if his friend could be somewhat irritating and quirky. He was a good friend ever since the two had met in the seventh grade, and he’d stuck by Josh’s side through those tough years that had passed during his high school years and early twenties.
It was Elliot, too, who’d helped him make the move from their hometown of Parsippany. Elliot who had helped him to make a fresh start there in South Jersey, with a place to stay and some work until he was able to get up on his own feet.
Those last several years after he’d gotten himself in trouble hadn’t been easy. Still, that time, with its mistakes, was behind him. Josh looked out at the summer-blue sky and the amusement pier with the Ferris wheel silhouetted against the clouds. He breathed in the air that smelled of sea spray and July and freedom.
Then something tugged—hard—at the end of his line. Wildly, he started to reel it in.
“Whatcha got?” Elliot asked in true Jersey Boy-style.
“How about an answer to prayer, huh?” Josh tightened his grip on the reel. “Man, that’s gotta be a Great White on that hook!”
“You’d better hope not. Don’t fall in now,” Elliot said and lowered his voice. “Otherwise, you’ll give that cute mermaid over there a real show. A standup comedy show, that is.”
He wasn’t kidding. Heeding his advice, Josh steadied his weight on both legs, spreading his feet apart.
“Should we holler? Cheer?” his friend teased quietly. “Wheeeeeee!”
All that commotion drew the girls’ attention. Yes! Out of the corner of his eye he saw Valerie looking his way, holding her reel with one hand and shielding her eyes from the sun with the other.
“Jaws, ha!” Elliot was totally amused. “After all this, you’d better haul up a big one!”
He hadn’t been fishing in such a long while. Then again, he hadn’t been near an ocean in longer than he could remember, either. He had done some fresh water fishing, but earnestly speaking, he preferred fishing in the ocean. One thing a fisherman could never forget was the weight of a line, the way it changed as the catch was finally reeled out of the water.
“That’s not a fluke,” he heard Elliot say right before the fish came flying through the air, headed straight for him.
It took a moment before Josh realized he’d caught a sea robin, and a moment longer than that to notice the line had dragged the creature’s spiny fins over his bare calf. Immediately, droplets of blood appeared in the two-inch long cut. Josh caught himself before he could sputter out a swear word.
“Is that—whoa! You are. You’re bleeding!” his friend exclaimed loud enough for people to hear all the way in Cape May.
“It’s okay. It’s not a big deal, really…” He nearly dropped his rod as a stinging pain shot through his lower leg from the cut.
The girls had noticed. They’d stopped fishing and were staring at the guys.
“Great,” Josh muttered. With nothing else to use, he pulled some paper towels off a roll they’d brought with them from the car.
“Was that the hook that got you?” Elliot asked.
“The hook—no. It was the fish.”
“The fish? How do you get cut with a fish?”
“I don’t know. Stupid thing is sharp. Sharp fins, I guess.”
Carefully, the young women were making their way over to them. They’d set down their rods and Valerie was leading the way.
“You okay?” she asked.
How awkward, to stand there, bent at the waist and putting pressure on a wound made by a fish with a paper towel. Standing up straight and squaring his shoulders, he tried for a cool, macho man stance, not so easy under the circumstances. At the very least, he wanted to retain a shred of his pride.
“Uh—got cut up with a fish,” he replied.
“Ah. A sea robin, I bet. Have to be careful with those.” Valerie paused, licking her lips. “May I see?”
“You a nurse?” Elliot arched his eyebrows.
“No. I’m a clerk down at the library. But I’ve got some little cousins that get into scrapes all the time. Will that do?”
Though she was answering his friend’s question, Valerie was looking at Josh. She gave him the most disarming, playful little grin, and he smiled in return.
“I think so. He’s like your cousins, I guess. Josh gets into scrapes all the time, too.”
Lord, please forgive me if I choke this guy after this, Josh prayed, trying to discreetly narrow his eyes at him.
Valerie’s friend giggled at the remark, but Valerie was centering her attention on his wound.
“I don’t think that’s as bad as it looks,” she said.
“No, neither do I,” Josh agreed.
“No stitches, you don’t think?” Her friend was as bad as Elliot.
“I don’t know. You should clean it out. First, just keep applying pressure to it.” She stood up straight. “I think you’ll be fine.”
“I think so, too. It sure hurts like—crazy.”
Oh, man. That was close. Almost.
He’d been doing better at that. Before he’d accepted the Lord about seven years ago, he’d cursed a lot more, even when he wasn’t angry. Occasionally, he still had problems with his language, too. Valerie hadn’t seemed to notice, and if she had, she was pretending she hadn’t.
“If you have a first aid kit,” she started to say. “Or maybe you can clean it up there on the boardwalk, at one of the restaurants.”
“I think I’ll do that. I don’t have a first aid kit. Unless…you do.”
Was that rude? Maybe he shouldn’t have asked. It was just that he could tell their impromptu encounter was coming to an end and he wanted it to last just a few more minutes.
“I don’t.” Tilting her head, she regarded him apologetically. “Um—well, I do. But it’s in my car, and we drove down here in Kylie’s.”
“Oh. That’s okay.” Josh cleared his throat. “I appreciate your help anyway.”
“Eh. Sorry I couldn’t do more.”
Sure enough, she was walking away. That made sense, after all. Valerie and her friend—apparently her name was Kylie—had interrupted their morning of fishing. He and she were strangers out there on those rocks. She’d done more than enough, stopping her fun to come to his assistance. Yet he found himself feeling disappointed, seeing her walk away.
“I guess I’d better go clean this off,” he said, scratching his head. “You can stay here and fish, Elliot.”
“Stay here? No, I’m coming with you. I don’t want it on my conscience if you lose a few pints of blood on your way up to the boardwalk and pass out up there.”
“Gee, thanks. You’re a real prince of a guy.” He had to laugh through a twinge of sadness.
A real prince of a guy. That had been one of his dad’s expressions. Maybe it was true, that business about a son eventually becoming his father. That was something Josh wouldn’t have minded at all.
“She kinda liked you, that pretty fishing lady,” Elliot whispered softly on their way up to the boardwalk.
“Liked me? Yeah? Thought you said I was out of her league?”
“She is. Guess she’s got bad taste in men.”
Elliot’s response to getting a friendly shove was a gentle laugh. “Hey, how come I never get sliced up by a fish? Cool way to get a cute girl’s attention…”