THE WATER was calm as far as Louinda Reinhardt could see, but the rotor wash buffeted her, threatening to tear her safety helmet from her head. She didn’t need this man who was about to come aboard Sunshine Gulf Platform No. 6, and with God as her witness, she’d see that he was gone as soon as she could drive him away. He’d be off her rig before that weather disturbance on the other side of the Gulf could brush anywhere near this oil production platform. She’d rather deal with it than him, if she had to choose.
Her eyes blinked behind her safety glasses, and the tears that threatened to come were forced back to their hiding place behind her rough bravado. Her Tracy had been taken from her, she’d found safety here, and this world was hers, no matter what this man had to say.
The reports were on her desk, though. It was that sign on her door that made her stand here and wait for this man to step into her life. Rig Safety and Training Coordinator. She’d worked hard for her position on this rig. College. More classes after that. Even before applying for her transfer to Sunshine Gulf, she had earned her BOP certificate. Blowout prevention was the jewel on her wall, too. She was also well-versed in offshore safety procedures, well control, and a variety of other safety training courses. Then there were her much practiced interpersonal communication and organizational skills. Without those, she’d still be land based. She’d proven she’d acquired those, and that she was good at them. Today, however, they would be put to the test.
Other than Tracy—who had been too forgiving with her, her sisters claimed—her family roasted her as sharp-tongued at times, but her brusque manner worked well with these roustabouts and roughnecks who filtered out to these offshore rigs. Only with the more prestigious jobs on the rigs was she able to relax her barbed tongue. They usually had more to lose if they were kicked off, and they exercised more restraint in their behaviors and mannerisms.
Thank God Ben Tosh had been here her first week on the rig. Several of the roustabouts had gotten drunk and seen the new girl as an opportunity. She’d fought and clawed, bloodying noses and blacking eyes, but they’d gotten her clothes half off before Ben showed up. Those ruffians were gone the next day, and Ben had taken her under his wing ever since. Lou loved Ben, just not in the way she’d loved Tracy. She’d hardened up since then. She’d never find another one like her Tracy. In his place, Ben was all she had.
However, she missed Willie. She’d raised her brother for ten years, from the time he was two. At twenty-five, she’d married, and she and Tracy had continued to live with her father to help out with Willie. It was when her husband was killed the next year that she took her first job at the oil fields up near Tulsa. Although it had rankled at first, under her father’s very good advice, she’d hired on under her maiden name. The oil field workers were a bit rough, sometimes, and he felt it added a measure of privacy when she was home. He didn’t want her pursued in her time away from the fields. The job had been perfect for her. She could return home to help with Willie and his two older sisters for two weeks, then her father could take his turn for the two weeks she was gone. Although her father struggled in dealing with a twelve-year-old boy, the parishioners at his church in Oklahoma City often stepped in to fill the gap when Lou was gone. When Willie finally graduated high school, she had been ready for more adventure, and she had fled offshore.
This man arriving on the helicopter, though, was a threat. He wanted her job. He wanted the whole rig shut down. She knew it. She also knew Rampart Oil had deferred maintenance on this rig for long before she had shown up. She had been able to jerry-rig the more urgent repairs, but it hadn’t been easy. Especially those two escape pods. Parts had been on back order for them the entire time she’d been aboard. Now that the company had gone into receivership, her time for improvements had slipped through her fingers, and with it, her job security on this rig. A growl grew in her throat at the thought of that. She was well aware how many hours of her life would be thrown away. This man’s visit was surely tied into the takeover bid linked with the pending bankruptcy.
The moisture whipped from the rotor’s wash as the aircraft drew closer, and it stung her face. She was glad for the safety glasses that kept her eyes clear. Still, the needle-like pinpricks of water focused her thoughts. She would be polite to this Chad Dickson, if barely, and she would escort him immediately to procure supplies for his safety equipment. She would even see that he received his green helmet. Green. Everyone would know he didn’t belong. All the regulars would be in white, and he would be wearing green. Rookie green.
She reached a hand to place it on top of her helmet to keep the torrent of wind from blowing it overboard. She groaned at the thought of having to go through this man’s luggage. He probably had a cell phone, cameras packed full of batteries, and even matches, just waiting to blow up her rig. Sometimes she thought only boys made it out to these rigs, kids ready to set a match to the world just to watch it burn. That’s the one thing that would cause her to walk away, to head back to shore in a heartbeat. She’d put up with anything else. She already had, even that assault that first day, but a careless kid? No, she wouldn’t put up with that. Not even when they paraded as adults. A kid and an oil platform were a deadly combination, and she didn’t intend to risk her life on this job.
Then the sun flashed off the helicopter’s canopy, and in that moment, she caught a glimpse inside. She felt the hair on her neck prickle. There was an extra person inside. She had been told to expect Chad Dickson, and she’d set things up for him accordingly. She’d had to swap a few people around to do it, too, and not all of them were happy. Dickson needed a workspace. A workspace! This whole platform was a workspace. No, he needed one in his room. She’d done it, though, rearranging bunk and room assignments, and getting this man the privacy he demanded. It only had one bed, though. One bed and a private workspace—actually a closet door bolted horizontally into a corner. The second bed had been removed, and it was in storage. This was an old rig, and not the largest in the world. Sunshine Gulf was lucky to have a pool table and a theater room. Most workers bunked four to a room, and there were two six-bunk rooms. When she patrolled the rig on safety inspections, they appeared more like sardines in a closet. At least the men could be scheduled on opposing twelve-hour shifts, alleviating some of the crowding. This man, Dickson, had a private, though. Even she barely had that.
Her mind roiled with who this other person might be. She didn’t know what she’d do if she had to put up another person somewhere. Outside? Could this interloper sleep outside? She didn’t think so. She began to click off options and possibilities. There was a spare bunk in the medical section. Also, she thought she might fit an extra body into the cook’s quarters. Cookie wouldn’t like it, but if it were temporary, he might not grouse too much. Maybe, she hoped, just maybe the extra person she thought she saw was along just for the ride out, just to say he or she had been to an offshore rig. Maybe. It was a long way out just for someone to say he’d been here, though.
It was more, however, besides simply an extra person. More than just the possibility of making additional room arrangements on the rig, if she truly had to accommodate another guest. Lou’s chest tightened, and standing there waiting on the approaching helicopter, her eyes began to burn. She’d just gotten back yesterday after being gone two weeks. The trip home had been hard this time.
It was her father’s birthday, and the entire family had gathered at her sister’s lakeside home. They’d had a barbecue around the pool, and Lou’s younger brother, Willie, had stepped up on the diving board to do his trademark jackknife. He was so young and yet so grown up. The Buttless Wonder, they’d always called him. He smiled and jumped on the board, kicking himself up into the air. The sun flashed from his moisture-dappled skin, and he pierced the water with barely a ripple. However, he did leave one thing floating right there on the surface.
Jelwin, Lou’s sister just older than Willie, shrieked in delight, grabbing them and flinging them out of the pool. Willie had come up at the other end with his hands on the side, fully prepared to leap onto the concrete deck. That was when he realized he’d left his suit behind. He turned to search for it, only to see that someone had already hung it on the fence, far from his reach.
The family, including Lou’s father, roared with laughter at his predicament, as Willie pleaded for his shorts. Lou finally took pity on him, spitting sharp-tongued barbs at her siblings as she plucked the shorts from the fence and tossed them back into the pool.
Her sisters booed as he pulled them on. Her father and brothers-in-law laughed as Willie finally crawled from the water, red-faced with embarrassment. Lou knew it was all good-natured, but she had felt a third wheel, and it hadn’t been a good moment.
In that instant, surrounded by her loving family, she’d missed her husband so very much. She had him for that one year, and then he was gone. He was the one who’d softened her sharpness, who’d made her into the person she’d wanted to become. She’d been nicer with Tracy and had become bitter without him. Now, she was the extra person in her family. No one expected Willie to be married, but both her sisters were, and happily, too. Razor-edged Lou was truly the one who no longer belonged.
Back on the rig, Lou stood straighter. This man arriving on this machine didn’t belong, either. That went double for his companion. They’d figure that out, and it wouldn’t take very long. She fingered the earplugs in her pocket. She always carried an extra set for herself, and today she had a set for this man. They’d want them, too. At least they would if they still wanted to be able to hear anything once they got off the rig.
With a clunking vibration Louinda felt rather than heard, the helicopter was down. She stood for a moment to let the blades grind to a stop. Many people, she knew, didn’t mind ducking to walk underneath them. She wasn’t all those other people, and the pilot wouldn’t be gone for another two hours. There was no rush that required her to dash under the moving blades as they spun overhead. Waiting was a better option. It also set the tone for her opinion of this new arrival. He wasn’t welcome, and she wanted it made clear she wouldn’t grovel at his feet.
Peering through the reflections scrawled across the helicopter’s canopy, she could see the second person sitting on the opposite side. A man. That was a small consolation. She knew how well a woman would be received. She had lived that. So, she had two men to juggle. Perhaps she could manage.
One of her files on her desk had a photo of Dickson. With his blond hair, he had to be the one closest to her. The identity of the other was the mystery. She knew nothing about him, and anytime she didn’t know something, it ate at her. The next time something like this happened, she’d let the toolpusher push himself on out here to take care of this sort of business. After all, he was the general manager of the rig, and he could earn his pay doing this little reception duty. Just because he was over her didn’t mean she should be shouldered with this. He should review her job description and let her get on with it. Greeting these men had little to do with either safety or training, and that’s what her job was all about: safety and training.
Then, the rotor was still, and the side of the aircraft began to open. Louinda stood back. She intended to be officially polite, but welcoming was simply too much. She would greet this man and his companion when the pair walked up to her, and then she would simply apologize that there was no bed for a second visitor. When she inquired whether the visitor intended to return to shore with the helicopter, she was sure her hint would come across loud and clear.
She turned for a minute as the end of a long boom suddenly flared in an unexpected burnoff. She hadn’t remembered they were scheduled for one of those, but she enjoyed them whenever they happened. More surprising was that it stopped almost immediately. She shrugged. If they were being shut down by Dickson, burnoffs would soon be a moot point, anyway, so why worry about it? Still, it rankled not to know.
Turning her head back to the helicopter, her heart caught in her throat, and she felt sudden silence fall around her as everything slowed to a halt. In that moment of recognition, she floundered. It was Tracy, again. The motion of the flags overhead became rigid cardboard, and the steps of the roustabout unloading a black leather bag were frozen. Even the clouds in the sky hung motionless. The clanking of the giant drilling clamps, as well as the deep thrumming of the myriad motors all over the rig simply ceased. The only thing Lou was aware of was the man who exited the helicopter and his crystal blue eyes looking right at her. Her heart jumped—My God! Those eyes!—and then he looked away, the Tracy she had seen in them gone. With a jarring sensation, she felt the world around her snap back into motion once again. However, just for that moment . . . . Then, with horror, she focused on the second man still inside the machine that had invaded her world.
ACROSS THE HELIPAD, Chad Dickson looked around the landing area. His mind had been in observation mode as the helicopter drew near the drilling rig, and he knew how many sets of steps they had to walk down to get to the main level. About four floors, and he saw nothing that looked like an elevator. Safety flaw number one. His eyes were peeled for anything that was amiss on this outdated offshore platform. That’s why he was here. How would they evacuate injured personnel, up four flights of stairs? The Ways and Means Committee hadn’t been able to correlate the reports that had been presented in their inquiries with the facts that had been dug up on Rampart Oil. One of the major expenses listed on the company’s spreadsheets was the expenditure for infrastructure and safety upgrades on this rig. With what he could see already, he suspected the books were being used to hide certain facts the company didn’t want anyone to know.
A man in a white helmet ran up to the helicopter, darting under the spinning blades as he exited. When the helmet motioned to Chad, pointing to the two bags in the back, Chad just nodded. Speaking would have done little good. Not only was the spinning rotor over their heads whacking the air to shreds, this old oil rig was atrociously noisy. He wondered if any one piece of machinery here had been greased even once since the thing was built.
He considered his companion with some trepidation. He hadn’t intended to bring him, and his official paperwork from the Ways and Means Committee made it clear he was supposed to be here alone. He would be, too, if his ex-wife wasn’t so determined to make his life a living nightmare. He’d told her he couldn’t take the boy during August. The good old U.S.A. was sending him offshore for however long they needed him. It would be at least a month, he had explained with no lack of clarity. She had laughed. “He’s your son, too, Chad. You can’t wimp out on every one of your responsibilities. Besides, it’s mine and Chip’s second anniversary. We’ll be in Hawaii for six weeks. For the first four, Chaddie’s yours, buddy. We’re leaving the last weekend in July. You figure it out.”
Up until this morning, Chad had thought he could get Diana to change her mind, maybe take the boy along to Hawaii, or perhaps set him up to stay with a friend. When he hadn’t shown up already, he’d decided she had done just that, made other arrangements without telling him. It would be like her, once telling the boy he could stay with a friend from school, and Chad only finding out after a worried night and repeated unanswered calls. The boy had enough of them, friends, that is. Surely someone would want him for a month.
That hadn’t worked out. After catching the Forecast on the Fives, the meteorologist telling of a low-pressure system off the Florida coast, Chad had stepped out of his townhouse this morning for his last early morning jog until he returned, and he nearly tripped over the boy. He’d been sitting on the stoop with a portable video game in his hands, contentedly waiting for his father to come out the front door. Then, the boy had smiled and given Chad a hug he hadn’t wanted, as if that was what sons did, showed up unexpectedly on their fathers’ doorsteps with a suitcase as an armrest. When questioned, the boy said he’d sent his dog to Dallas to stay with his great-grandfather, and his mother had put Chaddie on the bus to Fort Worth the night before. It was twelve hours from Boulder, and Chaddie hadn’t wanted to wake his father. He grinned and said he hadn’t minded waiting outside with his video game.
When Chad had shown up at the airport with an extra tagalong, he thought that might be the end of his son’s vacation adventure. Out on the rig, his expenses would be covered by Rampart Oil, just as was everyone else’s on the platform. It wasn’t an all-inclusive resort prepared to cater to family and friends. Chaddie might very well be on a flight to Dallas to stay with his great-grandfather, Wally. Chaddie’s face had fallen—and yes, that stirred Chad’s sympathy—so Chad had suggested to his Rampart Oil liaison that if they wanted to comply with the government mandate, there was no choice but to let him bring the boy along. The rig personnel would just have to accommodate the extra person. It was amazing how quickly an extra airline ticket had appeared.
As they traveled down, Chad was irritated to learn that his son wanted to spend his vacation on an oil rig. When would another opportunity like this come along? It was the coolest way to end his last summer before high school. He also said it was his month with his father. Then the boy had laughed just before he’d gone back to his video game. Chad just caught his final words, ones he didn’t think he was intended to overhear: “Plus, there you can’t get away from me, Dad.”
As he stood on the helipad, Chad was surprised to see a woman wearing a white safety helmet, glasses, and coveralls. He was amused, too. He knew women worked the rigs in the Gulf, but somehow he expected them to be big, burly Amazons who could wrestle a collar into position without a second thought. Yet, standing before him was a petite, attractive brunette almost swallowed by all her gear. That caught him off guard. Still, however attractive she might be, Chad knew one thing. He’d already been put through the grinder with women: chopped up, stuffed into a chili, thrown onto the grill, and fed to the dogs afterward. His ex-wife had burned him on all things female. He wasn’t interested.
Besides, this woman was probably just a roustabout, the lowliest of all the rig workers, here to direct him to his quarters. She’d go back to mopping floors, chipping paint, or some other menial task when she was through with him. He wouldn’t see her again except as she slaved away, and she wouldn’t remember him except as another of the mundane tasks she was forced to perform on a previous day.
A flag far above his head snapped in a sudden gust of wind, catching Chad’s attention. A surprising yet welcome coolness brushed his face and quickly receded, fading with the warmth of the summer sun against his back. He let his eyes rove the structure as he waited for his son to disembark the helicopter. The rig was enormous, although not the largest in the world by far. It was all one big machine, tubes, pipes, and catwalks, standing starkly against a faded blue sky, with the ocean as far as the eye could see. Production Platform. That’s what his papers called it. And the noise.
He shook his head at the cacophony of sounds from all around him, and he turned to the copter at his back to see Chaddie still on his video game with wired earpieces trailing across his chest. Irritated, Chad stepped to the door and reached across. Grabbing the wires with one hand, he yanked the earbuds from his son’s ears. His son looked up and grinned.
“Yeah, Dad? Are we here?” When he saw his father frown and point to his ears, Chaddie looked around and leaned forward to peer outside. He cupped his hands around his mouth, repeating, “Are we here, Dad?”
“Out, Chaddie.” Chad slapped the boy’s leg with his hand and motioned. His own words were called just as loudly. Part of that was the noise. The rest was irritation. Then he turned back to the woman.
Off to her side, the man who had come for their bags was disappearing down a set of metal steps that dropped off the side of the helipad. Glancing back to see his son finally unbuckling his seatbelt, Chad took a deep breath and prepared to meet this woman. Placing what he hoped was a congenial look on his face, he allowed a smile to play at his lips, and he strode forward with his hand outstretched.
When he reached her, instead of returning his handshake, she stood with her hands in her pockets and glared over his shoulder as if he weren’t there. When Chad turned, there was his son climbing out of the helicopter. The boy stretched, holding his arms high over his head, and as he yawned, his gaze roved all around the place he’d come to stay. Not only did his teenage frame reveal his true age, he also revealed the video game still in his hand. At last his sparkling green eyes found his father and the woman standing at his side, and his face broke into a sunny grin of excitement.
Chad took a deep breath and turned his head back to the woman he’d stepped forward to greet. That was his first real inkling of trouble. There was no excitement on this woman’s face, no interest in greeting either him or his son, and certainly no welcome to Oil Platform No. 6. If this woman’s looks could drive a fiery stake through a man’s heart, then someone would be dead already.
It embarrassed Chad to find that she was looking directly at his son, the daggers in her eyes shooting his direction one after another. He knew bringing the boy out here would come to no good, and Chad closed his eyes and hoped for the sudden throbbing in his head to go away. Maybe, please, God, he silently prayed, let this be the only time we must interact with this woman. He took a deep breath. He wondered if his son had enough games to keep him inside his room and out of her way their entire visit.
Then he felt the metal under his feet vibrate, and he opened his eyes to see the woman striding angrily towards the helicopter and his son. With lightning fast speed, she snatched the video game from the boy’s hand and flipped it over. With a sure motion, she opened the case, extracted the batteries, and dropped them into her pocket. Then she held the game out to return it to the boy.
As she came back to Chad, she hissed, “What is he, thirteen? He might look older, but I know thirteen when I see it. Did you bring him here to blow us all up? Batteries on an oil platform can do that, you know.”
Then she reached back into her pocket and brandished two small plastic bags in her hand. Holding them out, she waited for Chad to take them.
“GO AHEAD,” Lou said, and she made sure her words were brittle. She wanted them to sting. “You’ll want these. Take one pair for the boy, too.” One set was her extra pair, and it galled her to give up those—They were hers, after all!—but she could get more. She set her jaw hard, grinding her teeth. What little politeness she had left was just about used up in those words.
Her irritation was more than just the boy, and that’s part of what galled her. That blond hair and those crystal blue eyes. Except for this man’s height and his chin, he could be her Tracy all over again. How had she not seen that in the picture attached to his paperwork? God, how could she not have seen that? Why did this man have to be the one to come aboard her rig, and even worse, why did this boy have to come with him? The fire she’d spat at them wasn’t only the batteries and the extra set of earplugs she’d handed over. It was her heart catching in her throat, and the sudden pounding in her chest over this man’s resemblance to someone she had loved. No, not had loved. Loved, still. This blond-haired man was the enemy, and yet, just for that first brief moment, there had been a vivid response to his blue eyes. Intense feelings had quickly swept through her. The only thing was, she couldn’t admit an attraction to this man. She simply couldn’t. She didn’t know him, didn’t want to know him. Just because his appearance triggered a gripping flashback, reminding her of her Tracy, didn’t mean anything. Not now, anyway. Maybe never, either. No. She didn’t mean that. It was never, period. This man had no connection to her Tracy. Chad Dickson was simply an intrusion that needed to be expelled as quickly as possible.
She averted her eyes to the clear blue skies, searching. She didn’t like to admit it, and would have denied it if asked, but it was God she looked for; and her eyes narrowed in a flash of irritation. He was someone else she wasn’t happy with, but there was nothing she could do about Him. He was just there, and He was ignoring her. It was just as well, she thought. If He paid her any attention, she would just rail at Him, too.
She looked at the man standing on the metal landing platform with her. She knew then it was not his looks that had made her think of the only man she had ever loved. Yes, her Tracy had been blessed with those blue eyes, ones that a woman could fall into and never be able to find herself again. His hair had also been that sun-drenched blond just like this man’s. However, it was neither of those that had made her think of her Tracy. It was the fluid way he moved, that masculine grace that only the supremely self-confident could assume. She also knew from her own Tracy that this man was surely not aware he possessed that grace of movement, that leonine majesty that was only found in supple jungle cats living in the wild.
As she took a deep breath, forcing herself to focus, she separated Tracy from this man who had invaded her world. Calmer, and with her emotions reined in, she offered her hand to shake. Yes, his eyes were still that crystal blue, but she wouldn’t fall into them, no matter how much they made her heart pound. He was the enemy, and this boy was not yet gone. She raised her voice over the rig’s noise when she spoke.
“I’m Louinda. You must be Chad. Is this your son?” She tossed her head at the boy who was putting his earplugs into his ears. At least the kid hadn’t been belligerent with her. He’d just smiled and slipped the game into his pocket.
Thank God for small favors, she decided.
CHAD TAPPED his ears at her muffled words. Wearing these would take some getting used to.
“Chaddie,” he called out. “His name is Chaddie.”
“Louder, Chad. Earplugs, you know.” This time Lou tapped her own.
He raised his volume a notch. “That’s my son, Chaddie. You’re good. He is thirteen. I had hoped he was staying with a friend, and then he was on my doorstep this morning when I headed down.” He smiled in apology at the unexpected surprise he’d brought with him. He was embarrassed, too. The boy was an unwelcome intrusion, even to his father. “He wanted to see the rig.”
“So, he wants to see where his father’s staying? He only has two hours, and he’ll have to wear safety gear while on the rig, even if he doesn’t stay. Have you told him that? I think we have time to give him a quick tour. And I see you brought two bags. Both are yours, I assume.” Lou nodded her head towards the boy, who was now hanging off the edge of the helipad, looking down at the ocean nearly a hundred feet below. “How’s his balance?”
He glanced over and just shook his head. “Better than mine. The kid knows no fear. He won’t fall, though, and no, I haven’t said anything to him about safety gear. I didn’t even know he was coming. Surprise, surprise, to both me and you.”
He did offer a smile at that, covering his irritation over having to apologize for his son. It wouldn’t do to get off on the wrong foot, even if this woman was only here to greet him as he exited the helicopter. He had to do his job, but he didn’t have to be rude about it. Even a lowly deckhand deserved to be treated with respect.
LOU CAUGHT the smile, but she didn’t return it. She’d listened for the clue she needed to hear, and this man hadn’t said the magic words. She needed him to say the boy wasn’t staying, and she hadn’t heard that.
She hoped that didn’t spell the need for that extra bunk, because in spite of the fact that she could pull extra bunks from various quarters as possible locations for this boy, she knew both the cook and the medic must be kept happy if at all possible. She’d hate to ask, and their spare bunks were the only ones not filled. God help her, but this was likely to be a mess if she didn’t get an answer soon. This helicopter would be leaving within two hours. She took a deep breath and tackled the problem head on.
“Your boy. He is returning with the helicopter, is he not? Space aboard the rig is tight.” She looked at the man next to her, her eyes narrowing within the safety glasses. “Very tight.” She snorted her emphasis, willing the man to understand what she was suggesting. Send him home!
With those words, she strode quickly to the boy and grasped his shoulder, pulling him back from the edge. No matter that his father claimed he wouldn’t fall, this thirteen-year-old would have to be restrained, or the death count on this rig would go up. She wouldn’t be able to stop it. It would be this visiting safety inspector’s fault, that and his son’s. It would be because he had brought a boy onto the rig, but it would still reflect on Louinda. Rig Safety and Training Coordinator. That was what it said on her door. She was the one ultimately responsible.
“Chaddie? That’s your name?” She turned to glare at the teen’s father, but quickly turned back to the boy. The enthusiasm in his energetic response surprised her.
“Yes, ma’am. This is so cool. Have you ever looked down the side? The ocean is right there. Has anyone ever fallen off? I bet you could high dive off this thing, except if it was windy. Then you might blow into the side. I know wind forces. Even cliff divers in Mexico don’t dive when it’s windy. Have you ever been here in a storm? Like a hurricane? That’s what I’d want to do, stay here then, right in the middle of a hurricane.” He grinned, as wide as his face would allow.
Lou’s irritation began slipping from her grasp. This boy was certainly thirteen, and with his words, she remembered how Willie had been at that age. Everything had been new and possible to him, and he had wanted to know about it all. This boy had that energy, and her heart softened. How could she hate thirteen? She hadn’t hated her Willie at that age. She had loved him dearly. Her next words to this boy still carried an edge, but her tone was gentler.
“Yes, yes, no, and no you don’t. This is a small rig, and it’s old. Almost everyone evacuates during a hurricane. If a big storm blows up, you will, too. Did you know even batteries can explode the fuel vapors on this rig?”
“BATTERIES?” Chaddie’s hand went to the video game in his pocket. He looked to his father, and he saw him standing across the helipad watching the conversation disinterestedly. That was his father since his parents’ divorce. Beaten. Civil, but distant. He pushed everyone away. Especially his family. He had become a cardboard image of himself. Chaddie loved his father, and he knew the man he worshipped was in there somewhere, hiding just below the surface. He had to find him again, make his father come out of wherever he had disappeared inside that shell of his. He would, too. He had him trapped out here for a month with nowhere to go.
He smiled at the pretty woman, offering, “Does that mean you want my cell phone, also? What about my iPod?” He felt his pant pockets until he came up with a small case. “It has batteries, too.”
He held them out to her.
LOU RELAXED inside, and without thinking, she smiled. His face was so innocent. He might have his father’s height, but this boy wanted to please. She didn’t know but what she could grow to like this young man. However, there was still no room for him on the rig. He needed to return with the helicopter.
“I think you can keep your iPod and cell phone. Only use them in approved places, though. You can use your video game, if you use the power cord.” She looked to see his hand still holding the music player out to her, and she pushed it back. “Keep that. Put it in your pocket, then please come with me. As long as you’re with us, you have to wear safety gear, even if it’s only for two hours. You and your dad, both. Come along.” She took his arm and started to walk towards the steps, only to have him stop after a few feet. When she turned to him, he had a look of astonishment on his face.
“Two hours?” Then he grinned, his expression shifting with the fluidity of youth. “I’m here with my dad. We’re bunking together.” Then he yelled across to his father, “Aren’t we, Dad?” His father, unable to hear, just waved, pointed to his ear, and shrugged. Chaddie yelled, “I’m staying, Dad, aren’t I? The whole month.” He was pleased to see his father smile and shoot him a thumbs-up sign.
He turned to Louinda. “See? Let’s get me suited up. I’m ready to be a part of the team.” With those words, he dashed off to slap his father on the back, giving him an enthusiastic one-armed hug, talking to him as he pointed to various things around the rig.
Lou was left with her mouth agape. How could she argue with that? Now she had to find some way to accommodate this boy, and he thought he was rooming with his father. She knew the extra bunk in Chad Dickson’s room was now a workspace, and this boy wanted a bed of his own for a whole month. God only knew what she was going to do about that. Cookie wouldn’t be happy tolerating anyone’s company for that long, and neither would the medic.
In spite of her reservations, she would have to work this out. She just wasn’t sure exactly how at the moment. Gathering her energy, she took quick steps over to the stairs to join the two men. They seemed preoccupied with the things the boy was pointing out across the rig. Not two men, she corrected herself. One man and one boy. One thirteen-year-old boy. Just a skinny kid with blond hair and those green, crystal-clear eyes.
She paused as she stood behind them. His father had that same build, she saw with interest, even if she would refuse to admit to it, except there was something not the same. Her mind didn’t want to face up to it, but her emotions did, and that was what was causing the frown on her forehead. Her heart knew this man didn’t have the same build as his son at all. This man had a sturdiness about him, a strength, a masculinity that the son had yet to grow into. The boy’s look, his height, and his unconscious grace even at thirteen were the same, but he wasn’t there yet. His father was, though, just as her Tracy had been. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She was on an oil rig. She wanted to be on this platform in the middle of the Gulf, out of sight of land, and out of sight of anything and anyone she had ever known. It had been an escape for her, a place to run. That’s why she’d come here. It was a way not to deal with her husband’s death, and in her subsequent loneliness, her family’s cloying closeness.
This man standing with his son in front of her was not the answer to the emptiness inside of her, the longing that she hadn’t been able to find a way to satisfy. This man was a thorn in her side, and she’d be smart to realize that, to remember it when she looked at that golden head of hair and felt herself falling into those clear blue eyes. That was why she had stomped across the metal surface of the helipad, snatching the boy’s batteries from him. She just as easily could have asked him to turn the device off and requested that he remove the batteries before turning it back on. “Plug it in when you want to use it,” she could have said.
No, she hadn’t been able to rail at Chad, to vent at this man, because he had reminded her so much of her lost husband. She hadn’t known anything resembling real love since those years when Tracy had been alive. Her actions with the batteries and her words to the man afterwards had been to hide the connection she’d felt.
She was still hiding it, too, and she would continue to do so, if it meant being cruel to both these visitors. Even the boy’s charm wouldn’t keep her from doing that. She could do it, too, be cruel. She was confident in that. She could be as cruel as it took.
As she reached and slapped her hands on the two shoulders just in front of her, one fully mature and the other still on its way, it was just to get their attention, she assured herself. Even so, her slaps were much harder than necessary, and when she squeezed the two shoulders firmly, the squeeze was much firmer than needed, too. In that action—very objectively, Lou told herself—she noted how the two shoulders felt very much the same, from the muscle underneath the clothing to the bone beneath that. The two shoulders were indeed very much the same.
The part of her that refused to admit what she was doing said not exactly, though. The boy’s shoulder, trim and athletic, revealed his youth. The man’s, however, was the firmness of manhood already in full flower, a masculinity that made her knees weak and her stomach turn over.
Then she felt both men shift to look her direction, one man and one boy, turning to her at exactly the same time. One set of blue eyes looked at her questioningly, and one set of green danced in impish curiosity. Lou felt her face flush, even in the warmth of the Gulf sun. She would have to be cruel to fight this. That she knew for sure.
Dropping her hands, her voice was rougher than even she intended as she lashed out at them, “You’re blocking the steps, both of you. If the two of you want to get along out here, you need to learn to keep out of the way. We have a business to run, and we can’t do it with useless people just standing in the way of those who have jobs to attend to. The first thing we have to do is get you safety gear. Follow me.”
She stepped through the pair, forcing them to move aside. As she did so, she made sure she turned to face the father. The space was tight, and there was no question she had to go down the steps ahead of them. She must, in order to be first. And that she had to do, be first. These two rookies would likely go the wrong direction even with her clear instructions. If that meant she had to brush against this man, then that meant she had to brush against him.
She did, too, touching his arm lightly with her hand to steady herself as she tried to make it appear she didn’t want to touch him at all. She brushed across his torso—she made sure of that—and through his clothing, he was firm to her touch. The fabric of her coveralls slid against the cloth of his shirt, and even after she was past him, she could still feel warmth lingering where she had pressed against him.
There was one other thing she was aware of as she walked down the steps ahead of the pair. There were tears in her eyes, and behind the safety glasses she wore, the air couldn’t dry them. How was she going to deal with this man? How could she fend him off until she could send him away? He was here for her job, to shut this rig down. She was certain of that, and she should hate him. She would have to work very hard on hating this man and his son. She suspected that doing so would be very difficult. As she stopped at the first landing to let them catch up, she silently cursed this rig she was on. She never had before, but now she had reason. The reason for her curses was just behind her, following her down the steps, and she had to live with that reason for two more weeks. At least then she could look forward to being home in Oklahoma City for two weeks. They would be gone by the time she returned. She had been promised that.
Yet, even as she thought of leaving them behind, with a sudden tightness behind her eyes, it seemed as if that distant two weeks was an unknown pit of nothingness, an emptiness. She might need to hate this man she had just met, even be cruel to him, but for five minutes, the five since he had stepped off that helicopter, Lou had felt alive again, alive and vibrant. She had felt love was once more possible.
She straightened her back as she led the way, because she knew one thing for certain. A future was not something she would allow herself, not with this man. Not this man. This man was a nuisance. His son would obviously be so, even if, for the first time in many years, she had felt unexpectedly vibrant, simply because Chad Dickson’s way of moving had reminded her so much of her deceased husband’s.
When she paused on one step and closed her eyes for a moment, she pictured Chad exiting the helicopter all over again. That sudden, overwhelming feeling of life and longing and something she would never admit to flooded her body once more, and she took a deep breath to steady her next few steps down the walkway leading to the pipe deck. To get there, they still had two flights more to go, and this alluring, sexy man was walking right behind her. She could not afford to trip and fall just because he had those infinite blue eyes and that masculine, firm shoulder.
Ooh, she thought with a harsh, angry fire boiling through her veins. Ooh, ooh, and maybe even double ooh!