“Thanks for the ride.” Rudy Haas hitched the fraying strap of his duffle higher on his shoulder as he brushed the newly acquired dog hair off his jacket and shut the car door carefully behind him. The vehicle was of an age with the driver, and the metal groaned and creaked in protest at the movement.

Rudy grunted and gave the door the last bit of lift right before closing that it needed to connect, adding a few rust flakes to the collection of dog hair already covering his jeans. But he made sure to give a grateful wave to the driver kind enough to offer him the much-appreciated ride, even if his ears were still ringing from the unexpected abuse.

“And the conversation.” Now that was stretching things, but he had been raised to be polite to his elders.

Tickled to find out Rudy was heading to Port Huron for the upcoming race, his benefactor had spent the entire forty-five miles telling Rudy about his own adventures sailing the Great Lakes. All Rudy had wanted to do was lean back on the faded afghan that hid the car’s worn upholstery, close his eyes, and sneak in a nap. But talk was a cheap enough price to pay for the ride, especially as twilight approached.

“You’re more than welcome.” The driver grinned, showing a flash of yellowed dentures as he waved back, and then pointed at the deep bands of magenta streaking through the clouds overhead. “Red sky at night; sailor’s delight.” Pleased by his own wit, he laughed before pulling out onto the road with a spray of gravel. His wife and grandchildren had gotten tired of his stories years ago; a fresh and captive audience was a rare pleasure.

Rudy knew he had been lucky to catch the ride. Thumbing it to save money wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Not only did that stretch of highway have light traffic to begin with, but too many film directors had capitalized on the potential perils. They offered up in graphic detail just what could happen to the unsuspecting motorist who was foolish enough to stop and pick up hitchhikers. Luckily the festival atmosphere leading up to the next week’s Bayview Mackinac Race meant that at least until then, there was no such thing as a stranger.

That simple bit of fellowship left Rudy feeling happily grateful. He loved sailing, and he lived for the competitive thrill of racing, but it was still a richer sport than he could comfortably afford, even with the recent boost in income from his new job.

Just meeting his share of the entry fees for the race had taken a chunk out of his savings, and since Rudy had only been at the new company a few months, he hadn’t accumulated enough vacation hours to take the time off with pay.

Rudy knew he was lucky to have gotten the position as an assistant manager with one of the local big-box retailers. He had never applied himself in school, as sailing had been his only real interest; even now he was still willing to risk losing the job rather than missing the race.

It hadn’t been easy convincing Human Resources to give him the days off even without pay, but Rudy had been determined. He felt lucky that while she didn’t compete herself, the head of his department was also a sailing fan.

At least he wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of lodgings. Just like the years past, Rudy would stay on the sailboat even when it was in port. Not quite the same as a luxury hotel in town, but it was a win for both him and the other guys. Rudy saved money, and they could rest easy knowing that with a physical presence on board, the risk of a competitor trying something stupid was less.

Rudy grinned, and his brown eyes sparkled with humor. Sailing might be considered a gentleman’s sport, but the prestige associated with the race and the desire to win at all costs made for some interesting tales—even if most of them could only be whispered over a few beers. He checked his watch and picked up his pace. Even with the ride Rudy had arrived later than he had planned. Ignoring the activity around him, Rudy hurried to the marina entrance.

The streets of downtown Port Huron were crowded for a weeknight, full of couples and families aimlessly wandering the sidewalks overlooked by a mix of buildings and storefronts. Some showed the signs of urban gentrification; others were left aged and decrepit. Rudy knew the congestion would only increase the closer it got to the actual race.

It was the eighty-fourth running of the popular sailboat race, and just like the race itself, the gathering of spectators seemed to get larger every year. Rudy had been amazed to learn from the early reports that there were already two hundred and sixty-five boats signed up for this year’s race. The crafts would range in size from twenty-six to over ninety feet, and they would carry a combined crew of more than three thousand sailors.

Most of the boats would arrive on Wednesday and anchor around the docks of the Black River to better participate in the town’s festivities. Thursday night was usually designated Family Night, and the Friday before the race was Boat Night, when most of the seventy-five thousand visitors expected for the event would wander the downtown waterfront. It offered up the best chance to view the race fleet and enjoy the selection of food, beverages, and souvenirs available from the myriad of gaily decorated booths.

The race itself was scheduled to take place on Saturday with the first of the sixteen classes starting before noon and the rest staggered after that. Rudy had arrived early so that he and the other guys on the boat could practice getting back into sync. It took a tight and coordinated team effort to handle the sail changes and rail positioning required for a good run, and it was easy to lose the necessary edge.

“ID?” The bored security guard took his eyes off the crowd of bikini-clad boat groupies gathered around the entrance ramp to the Water Street Marina just long enough to verify that Rudy was male and thus uninteresting. Rudy flashed the laminated badge hanging around his neck on a braided lanyard as a formality.

Without the pass identifying him as a competitor, he shouldn’t have been allowed to pass through into the main slip area, but the requirement didn’t appear to be getting much enforcement. Rudy stared over the guard’s shoulder, his attention caught by the gleam of white hulls and the sight of the towering masts.

When the slips were full, it never failed to take his breath away. Rudy didn’t know why, but ever since he was a little boy, he had felt drawn to sailboats. The appeal of their power and romance was as much a mystery to him now as it had been then, and here Rudy could indulge himself like a kid in the proverbial candy store.

No matter how he tried, Rudy never managed to think of enough words to describe the impact. As far as his eye could see, there was sailboat after sailboat dancing gently about on their moorings. Each one was more impressive, breathtaking, and expensive than the last, and all of them were reflected in water set afire by the rosy glow of the setting sun.

It was sheer heaven.

“Hey!” Something wet and cold splashed down Rudy’s arm, and he turned in annoyance.

“Sorry about that, my friend bumped me.” The words, like the beer, were spilled out with a giggle. Irritated, Rudy brushed the hand not holding the now-empty plastic cup off his waist. Did he really look that stupid? That had to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

He ineffectively wiped at the wetness soaking into his sleeve and stared at the young woman in front of him. Like the rest of her friends, she was dressed to attract attention, barely covered by her string bikini and tropical print sarong. Rudy was certain the carefully chosen ensemble hadn’t been anywhere near the dank lake water.

It didn’t matter to Rudy if she wanted to brag about sleeping with one of the sailors in the race or just be able to say she walked along the dock and spent time with the boats and their crew. Despite the faint wrinkles beside her eyes, she was far too young to be hanging out, trying to score with anyone holding a marina pass.

“Sure.” Rudy ignored her annoyed exclamation as he headed for the marina. It was a nice try but a tired one that was wasted on him. Apart from the obvious reasons, he was late and still needed to look up the slip number and get his gear stowed.

He scanned the listings posted on the wall outside the door to the marina’s main entrance. Richard’s Angel was at slip 34. Shaking his head once again at the name of the boat, Rudy headed for the docks. He was beat and couldn’t wait to get some sleep.