Excerpt: "Christmas in Shelter Bay"

Book 7 : Shelter Bay Series

Christmas On Main Street "Christmas in Shelter Bay" (Shelter Bay Series) by JoAnn Ross

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Shelter Bay. Tinseled garlands and wreaths with huge red bows were strung across the streets, colorful holiday scenes had been painted by students on the windows of local businesses, and fairy lights sparkled in the branches of trees all over town.

Down at the pier, Cole Douchett was freezing his tail off stringing lights onto the cabin of his family’s fishing boat.

“Why, exactly, are we doing this?” he asked.

“Because the mayor got the idea for the town to have a Christmas boat parade, like they do up in Portland,” his grandfather Bernard said.

“She’s hoping it’ll bring in more tourists,” Lucien, his father, added.

“Yeah, why go all the way to Hawaii for beaches when you can winter on the Oregon coast? In case you didn’t notice, that’s frigging sleet hitting your face,” Cole complained.

“Boy’s been in the desert too long,” Bernard drawled to his son. “All those years in Afghanistan and Iraq thinned his blood.”

“I don’t mind the cold,” Cole countered. “I’m an effing Marine. We live for miserable conditions. . . .

“What I don’t get is why we need to be out here turning into Popsicles in order to draw in more tourists. This is a fishing boat. It’s not like we’re going to be taking tourists for whale-watching rides around the bay.”

And the boat wasn’t even used all that often anymore, except for family sport fishing.

Whereas his grandfather had worked as a commercial fisherman until recently, his dad had left the sea years ago to open a restaurant with Cole’s mother.

Unfortunately, the place had taken a hit by a vicious winter ice storm, only to be given a knockout blow two months after that when hurricane-force winds triggered by a Pacific typhoon came barreling through Shelter Bay. Which was when Maureen and Lucien Douchett had thrown in the towel, closed down Bon Temps, and retired.

Sort of.

They were currently running a bait shop on the harbor, but his father had kept the commercial fishing license, and whenever a recreational day on the water ended up with more crabs, rockfish, or salmon than the family could eat, the two men sold them to local vendors and restaurants.

“Didn’t we mention both your grandmère and mother like the idea of a boat parade?” his father asked.

Slam.

Case closed.

There was nothing these two men wouldn’t do for their wives. If Adèle and Maureen Douchett wanted the family to take part in this latest cockamamy marketing gimmick the mayor had come up with, that’s exactly what their men would do.

“When you get married, if you’re smart, you’ll learn early on that when women get something set in their minds, it’s easier to go along rather than get pecked to high heaven by ducks,” Bernard said. “There’s also the fact that your grandmère and maman like Christmas,” he added pointedly. “Unlike some people in the family. Who’ll remain nameless.”

That unnamed family member being him.

It hadn’t always been that way. Although his grandfather might have moved the family to the Pacific Northwest from Louisiana after Hurricane Audrey had wiped their bayou town of Petit Chenier off the map, the Douchetts had remained Cajun to the bone.

Which meant family celebrations were perched at the top of their priorities pyramid. Growing up, Cole hadn’t fully appreciated the strength of his parents’ and grandparents’ long-term marriages. Until he’d learned the hard way that such commitment was a rare commodity.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like Christmas,” he grumbled.

There’d been a time when he’d enjoyed the holidays. But that was then. And this was now, and what he mostly wanted was to just be left alone.

“You’ve been giving Scrooge a run for his money,” Lucien said from atop the ladder as he arranged a long string of lights into the shape of a Dungeness crab.

“I was thinkin’ more along the lines of the Grinch,” his grandfather said.

“We understand you’ve got a lot on your mind, what with the decision you have to make.” His dad’s tone turned serious. “But your mother worries.”

“Your grandmère, too,” Bernard said. “You havin’ nightmares?”

“Once in a while.” On the rare occasion he could actually sleep through the night. “But that goes with the territory, right?”

The two older men nodded knowingly. They’d also both been Marines, and while they might never talk about the action they’d seen, Cole suspected he wasn’t the only guy in the family with ghosts.

“I’m not pressuring you,” his father said. “Whether or not you reenlist is a decision you can only make on your own. But the same way I’ve been keeping your brother’s Camaro ready for when he returns home for good, we’re holding on to this boat for you. Just in case you’d be wanting it.”

“Not that you’re obligated to take up fishing,” his grandfather assured him. “Especially being that you got that fancy college degree. It’s not like you’d have a hard time finding work. But you’re the only one of the three boys who talked about someday taking the business over.”

While his two brothers enjoyed sailing, neither of them had ever been all that enthusiastic about working on the family’s fishing boat. Cole was the odd man out. He’d always thought a bad day out on the water was better than a good day on land. Which was why his brother Sax ragged him about becoming a Marine desert rat instead of joining the Navy so he could go to sea. Of course, the irony was that although Sax was a Navy SEAL, he’d ended up spending nearly as many years in the desert as Cole had.

Of the three of them, Sax had always been the one to buck tradition. Not to mention the rules. While Cole, as the eldest, had been the Eagle Scout in the family. The rock-solid dependable, “perfect” one.

The role model.

The first person in the Douchett family to graduate from college. Although he’d gone only because his parents had been adamant about the idea, he’d applied for a Navy ROTC scholarship with the Marine option. After graduating with an oceanography degree, he’d followed generations of previous Douchett men into the Corps.

Which made him the first officer in the family.

What neither of his younger brothers, who were always ragging him for being Mr. Perfect, realized was that it was damn exhausting always trying to live up to expectations. Just once, he thought, as he plugged in the lights and watched the oversized Dungeness crab begin to flash bright red, he’d like to be the Douchett Bad Boy.

Okay. Not really bad.

But reckless, like Sax.

Or impulsive, like his baby brother, J.T.

Of course, the last time he’d behaved impulsively, Cole reminded himself, it had turned his life into a train wreck he didn’t want to ever repeat.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to come home and spend the rest of his life fishing. One problem was that whenever he thought about returning to his coastal hometown, enjoying life on the water after all those years in the Iraqi sandbox and Afghan dustbowl, he felt guilty about the idea of leaving his men—guys who’d become as close as his own brothers—in harm’s way. But time was running out; he needed to make a decision.

“You liked working the tourist fishing boats back when you were in high school,” his father reminded him.

“Boy had a real knack for talking those rich city folks up,” his grandfather agreed. “Ernie Martin always said his business brought in triple the amount of tips when you were showing folks how to bait their hooks and pull in their catch.”

“That may have been more about the fact that Ernie didn’t like people,” Cole said. “I never could figure out why he switched from commercial fishing to charters, since I doubt if he said more than a dozen words to anyone all the hours we were out at sea.”

“Fishing has always been an iffy way to earn a living.” His father said nothing Cole already didn’t know. “At least if Ernie didn’t fill the boat’s hold with fish by the end of the day, he’d still make a tidy profit from the charter fees. But he’s finally closing down shop for good.”

“Put his boat up for a fire-sale price the other day,” Bernard said. “Seems he wants to escape the rain and retire in the Arizona desert.”

Personally, Cole couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to live in the desert by choice, but he figured if everyone felt the way about the Pacific Coast that he did, people would be flooding into Shelter Bay and ruining the town. “

It’s a newer one than the boat you worked on that summer,” his grandfather added. A bit slyly, Cole thought. “He had it rigged up especially for charters.”

Cole felt a tug of interest. One of the things he’d been forced to think about was the high rate of veteran unemployment, even among officers with college degrees. In his case, due to his service years, his degree was eight years out of date. The idea that he’d actually not only have a job, but one he loved waiting for him, was tempting.

There was also the fact that he’d spent a lot of time, both while working his grandfather’s boat and Ernie’s, then during school, and over the past years, thinking about ways to expand the Douchett family fishing business. Maybe form a cooperative with other fishermen, one that could not only result in stronger marketing power and territory, but also fight for environmental issues that would ensure a bountiful sea.

“If I were staying, I’d already have a boat.” This one, which was starting to remind him of Snoopy’s doghouse in that old Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. Could they put any more damn lights on it?

“An old boat that’s got decades of fish smell embedded into every board,” his grandfather said. “Not that there aren’t those who’d want it.”

“We’ve had offers from fishermen wanting to expand,” Lucien said. “If you wanted, you could sell it and put the money toward Ernie’s newer shiny one.”

Okay. That was an even more interesting idea. But . . . “I wouldn’t take your money.”

“We’re doing just fine,” his father said. “Especially since you and J.T. got together with Sax and pitched in to buy us our new place.”

“We’re family,” his grandfather said. “What’s ours is yours. You know,” he said thoughtfully, “all this Christmas fuss and bother is probably making it tougher for you to focus and sort your choices through properly. Maybe you should spend some time alone at the cabin.”

The two Douchett men had built the cabin themselves at Rainbow Lake during summer weekends back when Cole had been in elementary school. The adults in the family worked long and hard hours, so getting the time to escape for more than a day or two had been rare, but after Labor Day, once the tourists had mostly left town and the crabs were molting, putting a pause to the season, his parents would close Bon Temps, his grandfather would dock the boat, and they’d all spend the best two weeks of the year swimming, pole fishing, eagle watching, barbecuing, and just lying in a hammock, listening to the waterfall tumble over rocks into the lake while the breeze whispered in the tops of the towering Douglas fir trees.

There were times, more and more often lately, when memories of those carefree summer vacations had helped Cole survive deployments.

“I promised Mom I’d be home for Christmas,” he said, even as the idea of being alone out in the woods while he tried to sort out what to do with the rest of his life sang its siren song.

“She’ll understand,” his dad assured him. “Though I’m not going to deny that she’s been looking forward to getting her boys home again so she can spoil you all.”

Which she’d definitely been doing. It was only his second day home and he’d already eaten more than he normally ate in a week. Of course, his mother’s cooking, which people had paid to eat for years back when his parents had run the restaurant, was a helluva lot better than any MREs or military mess meals.

“Why don’t you compromise?” his grandfather suggested. “Stay until after the boat parade and the annual school program. It’s turned into a pretty big deal, since your grandmother’s been working overtime helping Kelli with her kindergarten class’s part in it. Then take off.”

Kelli Carpenter was a blast from Cole’s past. One that, unfortunately, in a town this size, he probably wasn’t going to be able to avoid for long.

“If you’re sure Mom wouldn’t be upset.”

“She’s your mother,” both men said together.

“She’s always wanted the best for you and your brothers,” his dad tacked on. “If you need time alone to get your head around what you’re going to do next with your life, she’ll be fine with the idea.” A memory of last year’s Christmas tree lighting, when Kelli Carpenter’s blue eyes had flashed like lightning over a stormy sea the last time he had seen her, came crashing back. Although Recon Marines were no cowards, Cole was more than a little tempted to take his father and grandfather up on their offer to get out of Dodge.