Wife On His Doorstep Alice Sharpe Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR JUNE BRIDESHIS MEANT-TO-BE BRIDEWhen doe-eyed, all gowned-up-and-no-groom-in-sight Megan Morison sought refuge in his arms, bachelor John Vermont offered her a roof over her head, a job to pay the bills and his rugged shoulder to lean on….HER DESTINED GROOMMegan had had her fill of people trying to run her life, but with strong, silent, steely-eyed John Vermont, she felt truly safe, accepted…and dare she believed loved? But John claimed that marriage wasn't for him, though his longing looks and heated kisses suggested otherwise. And now Megan wished this gorgeous albeit gruff ship captain would take the gift destiny offered and make her his lawfully wedded wife….Celebrate a month of joyful marriages with Silhouette Romance! Why had he brought her home? (#u27005113-d7fb-5ae5-89a1-78582839458f)Letter to Reader (#u1241b0bb-3919-5d6f-908e-fce070a8a721)Title Page (#ubbc53aec-84a9-5355-a16b-2cd063f998de)Dedication (#u7ba243f8-4faf-5f3e-b4c0-8b1c405665e5)Acknowledgments (#u7def2496-cd34-5c48-a8c1-92c520ebbdc5)About the Author (#u4175d00e-f689-51ea-8215-766c9f6e6feb)Chapter One (#u2d22f058-0234-5b23-934f-07f3818978ad)Chapter Two (#u75a4b24d-7a9f-52d0-b3e2-b6c4d4fb67a0)Chapter Three (#ubc1c6a5b-0b6b-5cb0-b224-8cafdb72d988)Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Why had he brought her home? He’d known it was a mistake. It was just that for a second he’d been overcome by a protective streak he couldn’t explain, one he didn’t even like. Rescuing women was a fool’s errand—he’d done it once, and he wasn’t going to do it again. He glanced back at Megan, and the memory of holding her swamped him—the soft, yielding quality of her body, the smell of her hair. She was so beautiful. Was that it? No, it wasn’t just her current vulnerability that attracted him. It wasn’t just her big blue eyes or her body, either. Those things were distractions, sure, but distractions that were relatively easy to dismiss. After all, there were lots of pretty and needy women in the world. What Megan possessed was far more dangerous. To his resolve. To his heart. But he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her ... Dear Reader, Traditionally June is the month for weddings, so Silhouette Romance cordially invites you to enjoy our promotion JUNE BRIDES, starting with Suzanne Carey’s Sweet Bride of Revenge. In this sensuously powerful VIRGIN BRIDES tale, a man forces the daughter of his nemesis to marry him, never counting on falling in love with the enemy.... Up-and-comer Robin Nicholas delivers a touching BUNDLES OF JOY titled Man, Wife and little Wonder. Can a denim-clad, Harley-riding bad boy turn doting dad and dedicated husband? Find out in this classic marriage-of-convenience romance! Next, Donna Clayton’s delightful duo MOTHER & CHILD continues with the evocative title Who’s the Father of Jenny’s Baby? A woman awakens in the hospital to discover she has amnesia—and she’s pregnant! Problem is, two men claim to be the baby’s father—her estranged husband...and her husband’s brother! Granted: Wild West Bride is the next installment in Carol Grace’s BEST-KEPT WISHES series. This richly Western romance pairs a toughened, taut-muscled cowboy and a sophisticated city gal who welcomes his kisses, but will she accept his ring? For a fresh spin on the bridal theme, try Alice Sharpe’s Wife on His Doorstep. An about-to-be bride stops her wedding to the wrong man, only to land on the doorstep of the strong, silent ship captain who was to perform the ill-fated nuptials.... And in Leanna Wilson’s latest Romance, His Tomboy Bride, Nick Latham was supposed to “give away” childhood friend and bride-to-be Billie Rae—not claim the transformed beauty as his own! We hope you enjoy the month’s wedding fun, and return each and every month for more classic, emotional, heartwarming novels from Silhouette Romance. Enjoy! Joan Marlow Golan Senior Editor Silhouette Romance Please address questions and book requests to: Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3 Wife On His Doorstep Alice Sharpe www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) This book is dedicated to Barbara Brett and Marcia Book Adirim, whom I have been fortunate enough to count as both editors and friends. A special thanks to Captain Dennis Moore and the crew of the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge, who I hope will forgive me for taking a few small liberties with their ship. ALICE SHARPE met her husband-to-be on a cold, foggy beach in Northern California. One year later they were married. Their union has survived the rearing of two children, a handful of earthquakes registering over 6.5, numerous cats and a few special dogs, the latest of which is a yellow Lab named Annie Rose. Alice and her husband now live in a small rural town in Oregon, where she devotes the majority of her time to pursuing her second love, writing. Chapter One John Vermont, owner and acting captain of the stern-wheeler Ruby Rose, didn’t like marrying people. For one thing, seeing as he currently spent most of his time ashore, he was sorely out of practice, which meant that instead of reciting the vows in his deep baritone—which could, when he wanted, scare an oyster off a rock—he had to read them from the manual. For another, face it, he didn’t really believe in marriage—personal experience had taught him the term “wedded bliss” was an oxymoron. Take the couple standing in front of him now. Within the next few minutes John would pronounce them husband and wife, yet he couldn’t help but wonder if they had any idea what they were getting into. The groom was a man about his own age, sporting an out-of-season tan and a twelve-hundred-dollar tuxedo. Earlier, before the ceremony, John had seen the guy strutting around the deck, acting like he owned the boat, a crowd of cronies following in his wake, laughing at his jokes, smiling into his eyes while he puffed out his chest and ate it up. The bride was a good five or six years younger than the groom—still in her twenties. She had sassy blond hair cut short around her ears, a lithe figure, and huge blue eyes filled with doubts. She used those eyes to cast furtive glances at the man she was marrying, glances of which the groom seemed totally unaware, glances that seemed to say “Just a second, let me rethink this!” Made you wonder why she was marrying him. Judging from what John had heard, money was the likely answer. Mrs. Colpepper, the new events coordinator John had hired after the old one ran away with the thenacting captain of this boat, had mentioned that the groom was footing the bill for the wedding. Lobster and champagne for one hundred and fifty didn’t come cheaply. Nor did the well-known band tuning up its instruments on the lower deck or the hundreds of flowers fluttering their petals in the freshening breeze. Just another pretty woman marrying another rich clown for all the wrong reasons. Boy, did that bring back the memories! Running a finger down the page, John discovered it was time to remind everyone that marriage was not an institution to be entered into lightly. How was that for a novel idea? The bride bit her lip as he spoke and, raising her eyes, she gazed at him. He almost felt as though he should pause to reassure her, but he wasn’t the reassuring kind. At six-three and one hundred and ninety solid pounds, he was too big; his features, though regular enough, were too weathered by his predilection for the outdoors, his manner too brusque. Women tended to find him threatening. Truth of the matter was, the feeling was entirely mutual. He cast out the next line, giving it all he had. “If there is anyone here who knows of a reason why these two shouldn’t be married, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” In the bottom of his black little heart, he always kind of hoped someone would come forward at this point—it would at least break the monotony. As usual, however, no one did. Correction: no person did. Foggy Dew, the ship’s cat, made a sudden appearance. John had taken pity on her when he’d come aboard less than a month before and found her on the dock, knocked up and abandoned. She’d repaid him by shedding on his clothes, sleeping on his bunk and, generally speaking, taking over the ship. Now, as he watched, she waddled deliberately around and about the chairs filled with prosperous-looking wedding guests, steering clear of Mrs. Colpepper, who had forcefully declared her dislike of cats, pregnant ones in particular. Like a good captain, he struggled to keep his mind on the ceremony, though he was aware the cat had paused between the bridal couple to sniff at the hem of the woman’s dress. She glanced down at Foggy Dew, her features relaxing perceptibly. The cat meowed, and a smile—the first John had seen—touched the bride’s lips, lit her eyes and transformed her face from simple beauty to breath-stopping perfection. For no clear reason John suddenly found his tongue getting in the way of the words, a condition he quickly remedied with a stern clearing of his throat. As he continued, he noted that Foggy Dew, having conquered the bride, had moved on to inspect the groom, who cast a scowl at the cat and then at John. With a nonchalant shrug, John tried to say, “Lighten up, mister, she’ll go away in a second.” The groom didn’t seem to get the message. He tried scooting Foggy Dew away with a stiff leg, but perversely, this seemed to make the cat even more determined to win his affection. Purring loudly now, she rubbed her chin along the man’s shoe. John could feel Mrs. Colpepper’s gaze drilling holes in his head as she waited for him to make the cat cease and desist, but doing that would mean stopping the ceremony and that might mean starting over again at the beginning. This was out of the question seeing as he was almost at the end. So he did the only thing he could think to do—he spoke faster. Besides, the episode was not without a lighter side. Take the bride, for instance. She’d stopped looking uneasy and was instead smiling at the cat, a definite improvement. Even the guests, stuffed shirts that most of them seemed to be, were smiling at the incongruity of a cat aboard a boat inviting itself to a wedding. Heck, the kid recording the ceremony for posterity was grinning, too. Chances were someday this obnoxious groom would look at the video and think a cat showing up was kind of cute. John moved on to the next part, fighting to place a solemn yet serene look upon his face. The vows, all those little words and repetitions that promised love and fidelity, sometimes stuck in his throat. As the bride said her lines, she looked him straight in the eye. Normally, in his experience, a woman looked at her husband-to-be at a time like this and not at the captain of the vessel. He glanced down at the manual to find her name, which Mrs. Colpepper had penciled in the margin, then he looked back at her. “Do you, Megan Ashley Morison—” he began. The use of her name seemed to shake her, as though until that second she’d been kidding herself into thinking it was someone else standing at this seaboard altar, someone else promising to cleave herself only unto the groom. In fact, her demeanor was so unusual that by the time she whispered, “I do,” John was surprised—and oddly disappointed—she’d gone through with it. Now it was time to address the groom, one Robert Winslow, who was still fidgeting because of the cat. As John asked him to repeat his vows, Foggy Dew finally gave up and settled down into a lumpy mass of fur at the guy’s feet, so it was hard to figure why instead of just saying “I do” and moving away, Winslow chose that second to act. With a sneer and a grunt, the man kicked the cat. John watched in stunned silence as a gray blur of fur, two wild yellow eyes, and twenty extended claws hurled toward him, and though he quickly knelt to intercept her, he was too late. She flew between the railing and the deck and landed with a splash in the river twenty feet below. Almost immediately, the bride was at the rail, her bouquet of roses and lilies dropped in haste. John, at the rail seconds before her, was marking the animal’s location by lining her up with an outcrop of rock on the shoreline when Megan Morison grabbed his arm. “What can I do?” The hush that had at first descended was suddenly filled with shocked voices, including Mrs. Colpepper’s, who was demanding the ceremony continue. John took Megan’s hand and pulled her away from the rail. “Come with me.” “Now wait just a second—” Winslow began, but by then John was racing toward the stairs leading down, Megan’s hand still in his. On the lower deck, which was decorated to the hilt but devoid of passengers except for the band and the ship’s caterers who were setting up for the reception, he released Megan and pulled a life ring with an attached line from a bulkhead. As he slid aside the door, which opened close to the water, Megan rushed past him. He grabbed her arm, sure for a second she was going to trip on her long dress and take a dive. She glanced up at him. “I’m okay,” she said. “Passengers in the water give my insurance adjuster hives. Do you see the cat?” Together, they scanned the choppy surface of the river. Thankfully they were anchored in a small, calm bight with little or no current but though John easily found the rocks on the shoreline, the cat, similar in color to the gray water, had disappeared. For one long moment, he thought she’d drowned. Megan was standing so close to him that he felt her body tense as she threw out an arm. “There she is, over there!” John followed her pointing finger until he made out Foggy Dew’s small head and paws, which were slashing frantically at the water. “Don’t let her out of your sight,” he said. “Just hurry.” John threw the life ring beyond the cat. As he steadily pulled it toward the frightened animal, he was aware of voices and then of people crowding the lower deck. He tuned them out, directing all his concentration toward reaching the cat in time. When the life ring loomed by Foggy Dew’s side, she gave it two looks. The first seemed to say, “What in the world is that thing?” The second one was just as clear. “Whatever it is, it’s better than the water.” With determination, she hooked a few claws into the ring and attempted to climb to dry land. John very gently tugged the ring toward the boat. Over his shoulder, he recognized Winslow’s voice as he snarled, “That damn cat got exactly what it deserved.” The life ring was very close now and John looked over his shoulder to find Megan. He wanted her to hold on to the line as he retrieved the cat. As he turned, the groom flew past him. With a splash, the idiot landed in the river, his wake pushing the life ring away. Megan, who was staring down at her soon-to-be husband, was white with fury or concern—it was hard to tell which. Mrs. Colpepper screamed, a few of the wedding guests gasped, and John was relieved to see Foggy Dew had held on. Now he had two passengers overboard, but it never entered his mind to rescue the man before the cat. The fool had jumped in, let him paddle around out there for a second or two—it wouldn’t kill him. Foggy Dew was bursting with unborn kittens. Mrs. Colpepper appeared at his side. “I demand you pull Mr. Winslow out of the water at once!” she sputtered. Ignoring her, John found Megan’s hand. “Hold this,” he said as he pushed the line into her hand. He then dropped to the deck, flattened himself out on his stomach and, reaching down, snagged Foggy Dew by the scruff of her neck, lifting her aboard as he stood. Without hesitation, Megan reached out and took the wild-eyed, sopping-wet cat, who responded to a stranger with a yowl and a manic attempt to escape. Several long red slashes popped out on Megan’s arm as she subdued the animal and folded it within the lacy bulk of her pristine wedding gown. “Captain Vermont, this is absolutely outrageous,” Mrs. Colpepper screeched. “I won’t stand for this. I simply won’t!” “Robert doesn’t swim,” an older woman cried. She looked enough like the groom to be his mother, and John turned back to the water. Sure enough, Winslow seemed to be having a difficult time. John quickly cast the life ring out to the man, who looped an arm over it and waited to be hauled aboard. Jeez, would it kill the S.O.B. to paddle some? “If Robert doesn’t swim,” John said with conviction as he heaved on the line, “why in blazes did he jump in the river? If he was sorry for kicking my cat, a simple apology would have sufficed. He very nearly made matters worse.” “But he didn’t jump!” Mrs. Colpepper squealed. “She pushed him!” the mother yelped, pointing an accusing finger at Megan. While John pulled Robert Winslow toward the boat, he looked down at the woman who cradled his cat. She met his gaze with a defiant look, the intensity of which was hampered only slightly by the bright pink flush that suffused her neck and face and the trembling of her beautiful lips. “Did you?” She nodded. He decided discretion was called for, so he put off thanking her until later. Instead he turned to the river and, along with a couple of the groom’s men, hauled the man back aboard the Ruby Rose. Some of the cockiness had been washed away by the cold, clean water, but John knew men like this, and he knew recovery would be swift and sure. Standing on the deck surrounded by friends and family, with water running down his face and dripping puddles around his patent-leather shoes, Winslow still managed to look in control, even with his tuxedo plastered against his sturdy body. “What in the world did you do that for?” Winslow snarled at Megan. Hugging the wad of the top layer of her skirt—which presumably held Foggy Dew—close to her chest, she met his gaze and replied, “You kicked a defenseless animal into the river!” He brushed away that comment with a wave of his hand. “You’ve ruined this ceremony, to say nothing of your gown. Do you know how much I had to fork over to get this boat on such short notice? Now we’ll have to reschedule—” “I don’t think so,” Megan interrupted. This statement, uncertain as it was, seemed to stun Winslow, who stared at her as though she was mad. “Meg, you don’t mean that—” “Yes, I do,” she said, this time more forcefully. “And please, don’t call me Meg.” He took a step toward her. “You’re not thinking clearly.” “Yes, I am. Maybe for the first time in a long time—” He covered her lips with one finger as if to silence her. “No, you’re not. You don’t want to spoil everything.” She batted at his hand. “I don’t want to many you,” she stated flatly. “I don’t think I could marry a man who did what you did and then gloated about it.” Mrs. Colpepper looked near to fainting. “Now, now, dear, wedding jitters, that’s all.” Turning her attention to John, she snapped, “How could you rescue the cat before you came to the aid of Robert Winslow?” “Easy,” he said, looking for a way out of this mess. Besides marrying people, the other thing John Vermont wasn’t all that crazy about was scenes. Emotional outbursts, accusations, yelling—all this drove him nuts. He tried getting his cat away from Megan, thinking to himself that he could herd everyone up the ladder, deposit the cat in his cabin and get the Ruby Rose back to the wharf in time for a stiff drink and a thick steak. But she wasn’t letting go. Foggy Dew had all but disappeared in the increasingly ruined dress and Megan was too busy being mad to think of anything else. “Is that what this is all about?” Winslow chided as though Megan had informed him there was a speck of lint on his lapel. “For heaven’s sake, it’s just a cat.” His tone of voice was so condescending that even if John hadn’t already detested him, he would have been moved to react. “Where in the hell do you think you get off kicking a pregnant animal!” he yelled. This was the voice that shook shellfish loose from their moorings, and for a second, it served to quell all the chatter. But the moment passed. Mrs. Colpepper recovered first. “Captain Vermont! Really!” Another voice piped in. “Mr. Winslow? Should I still be taping all of this?” At that, everyone turned to see who had spoken. It was the gangly young man who was videotaping the ceremony. He was currently standing on a chair to get a better view. The camcorder pressed to his face and the steady red light said he was still trying to do his job. Winslow spat out the words. “Turn the damn thing off, you imbecile!” “Don’t talk to him like that!” Megan said. Once again Winslow searched Megan’s face with incredulous eyes. “Why in blazes do you give a hoot how I talk to him?” “He’s a human being—” Winslow shook his head at an observation he apparently found inconsequential, then turned back to John. “Believe you me, you sorry excuse for a captain. When the owner of this company finds out how you allowed a...a...cat to destroy a thirty-thousand-dollar wedding, you’ll be lucky to get a job swabbing decks!” “Is that all that matters to you?” Megan demanded before John could jump in with the information that he was the owner of this company. “It’s money, isn’t it?” she added as though a light bulb had just blinked on in her brain. “Just money.” “So, you are mad about the prenuptial agreement,” Winslow said with a know-it-all sneer. “I knew it!” “What I am is mad at you!” she said vehemently. “All you think about is your money—” “That didn’t seem to be a problem for you when I was writing you and your uncle all those hefty checks,” Winslow snapped. “What! How dare you—” He interrupted her with a laugh. “Grow up, Meg. Money is money. I have it, you don’t, and we both know you aren’t about to really break it off with me over a fleabitten cat, so go fix yourself up—” Her eyes clearly reflected her turbulent emotions as a smile slowly curved her lips. However, this smile, John suddenly realized, bore no resemblance to the earlier one that had so transformed her face. This smile lasted only a second. John had a feeling about what was going to happen next, but before he could react, Megan had interrupted her former fiancå’s diatribe by reaching forward and, once again, shoving him off the boat. A half dozen people sprang into action, either screaming or throwing enough life rings to save the doomed passengers of the Titanic. As John went to the rescue he saw Megan run up the stairs, one arm still holding Foggy Dew, the other clutching her skirt high so she could move easier. She disappeared from sight about the same time he yanked Robert Winslow out of the river. Again. Megan ran with blind panic, knowing only that she had to get away from everyone, especially Robert. At the top of the stairs she found dozens of her wedding guests staring at her, unclear about what had happened. Those who knew her, like her friends, her mother and Uncle Adrian, started toward her, but Megan knew how they felt, knew what their reaction to her mutiny would be, and so she gathered the wet cat closer to her body and headed up the next flight of stairs. She emerged on a landing next to a short passageway and ran toward the front of the ship. It ended at a door with a sign that read Bridge—Authorized Personnel Only. She didn’t want the bridge, she didn’t want people. There were two other doors, one on either side. Without pausing, she turned the knob of the door on the right, gasping with relief when it popped open. She threw herself into a heavily shadowed room, slamming the wooden door behind her, searching for and finding the lock, which she clicked with a trembling hand. As though sensing where she was, the cat suddenly renewed her efforts to get free. Megan released her grip, but it took a few seconds to unhook all the claws from the lace. Tearing was inevitable, but at last the animal sprang down onto a thick, red Oriental carpet that partially covered a plank floor. Still wet and obviously pregnant, the pathetic little animal wobbled toward the single shaft of sunlight that made its way through a gap in the curtains. Megan followed and, flinging the heavy drapes aside, flooded the room with light and warmth. Dispassionately, she took in the rich, wooden walls, the framed pictures of sturdy tugboats, the navy fabric and gold-braided trim, the brass fixtures, the long mirror on the back of a door, the small round table and four captain’s chairs, the jacket draped casually across the back of one of the chairs. The jacket brought immediate thoughts of Captain Vermont. She’d expected a jolly kind of man with twinkling eyes and silver hair to run a stern-wheeler, not the young, handsome, commanding figure who had appeared at the altar. In his early thirties, he wore a deep blue uniform, the long jacket emphasizing his height. No brass buttons or nautical cap, just longish black hair that blew in the breeze. Straight black eyebrows and piercing blue eyes seemed to brook no nonsense, nor did the expression he wore, one of slight disinterest and curious detachment, and yet he’d seemed genuinely concerned about the little gray cat. And his voice. Rich and deep like a cup of exceptional coffee, a voice that gave tender words an edge and angry words an attitude impossible to ignore. She recalled how she’d latched on to his gaze as she’d stood at the altar, how suddenly her whirlwind courtship and hasty wedding had seemed all wrong. It was odd, but reflecting upon it now, she realized she’d gathered from the captain’s steady gaze the strength she’d needed to overcome her panic and complete her vows. A lot of good it had done. If a man who kicked an animal wasn’t bad enough, she’d been on the verge of marrying a man who kicked an animal and then had the audacity to be proud of himself! This after the scene that very morning when he’d informed her she would have to sign a prenuptial agreement before the ceremony or he wasn’t going through with it. Maybe she was naive, but she’d thought marriage was supposed to be based on trust, faith and love. Had she been wrong on all three counts? She’d thought him a generous man who supported her career as fund-raiser for the Riverside Hospital. In that position, she was supposed to be discerning when it came to assessing people—ha! Still, in the end, buckling under pressure, she’d signed on the dotted line. What else was she supposed to do with her mother and all those people waiting to watch her commit herself to a man for eternity? She suddenly realized that that was what marriage was supposed to be, a uniting of the heart and spirit for eternity. She felt dizzy. This was what happened when you let stardust fall into your eyes. This was what happened when you believed in the fairy tale that men were strong and wise and protective, when you didn’t rely on yourself, when you didn’t use your head, when you let your mother’s dreams and goals get confused with your own. It seemed the price of a clearer vision of him was a sharper image of herself. The cat had commenced what promised to be a long bath. Sunlight fell on Megan’s face as she stood in front of the windows and closed her eyes. Soon, she knew, her hideaway would be discovered; her mother and Robert would begin a campaign to gain admittance to this cabin and she would have choices to make. Well, let them come, she thought with renewed determination. Let them all come and see what good it will do! Chapter Two The stern-wheeler was alive with rampant rumors that ran the gamut from the truth to out-and-out fabrications. John’s favorite was that Winslow had jumped overboard in a gallant effort to save the poor little cat that Megan had dropkicked into the water because it had torn her wedding dress. John gave orders for the ship to weigh anchor and head back toward the dock in Portland. He told Winslow’s family that since everything was paid for—one way or another—folks might as well eat and the band might as well play. Winslow promised a lawsuit, which brought a glint to John’s eye and a challenging grin to his lips. And then Megan’s family came forward, all two of them. One was a rotund man of fifty and the other a middle-aged woman who must have once been a knockout. She nailed John with pale blue eyes and gripped his arm. She told him she’d heard that Megan had dunked poor Robert. It wasn’t true, was it? He assured her it was. “Is my daughter nuts?” the woman asked. “The man is loaded.” John didn’t answer her. Instead he said, “You’re the bride’s mother?” The woman nodded. “We didn’t meet last night at the rehearsal. Your event coordinator, Mrs. Colpepper, said you were busy...” Her voice trailed off as she waited for him to fill in the gap. What he’d been busy doing was painting the kitchen at the house he was building high above the river. Mrs. Colpepper had read him the riot act for not showing up for the rehearsal, but jeez, he hated those things. If anything, they were worse than the actual ceremony. Marrying people was bad enough—practicing marrying people just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. Besides, it was a simple ceremony aboard a moored boat—what did they need to rehearse that for? As soon as he found a replacement for Colpepper, rehearsals were going to be the first thing to go. For now, he addressed the mother, “So, where is your daughter?” The older woman gestured at the stairs. “Up there. She didn’t want to talk to me or any of her friends, or even her uncle Adrian. She didn’t even slow down when she saw us. I tell you, if her father, rest his soul, was here, he would have made her stop and listen to reason.” She turned to the man beside her and added, “My George was just like Robert, wasn’t he, Adrian?” “In many ways, Lori,” a big florid man with a fleshy nose and a small mouth said. “Don’t worry, by now the girl’s probably rigid with regret.” The man stuck out a meaty hand and added, “Name’s Adrian Haskell, Megan’s uncle. I know how crazy the girl is about the Winslow chap. I’m sure we’ll get this fracas cleared up.” “Where is poor Robert?” Megan’s mother asked. “Down below,” John answered curtly. He was annoyed with Megan’s family’s reaction. He had to make a point of reminding himself that he didn’t care about this melodrama and if these misdirected people wanted to worry about the wrong party in this mess, then that was their business, not his. He was almost at the top of the stairs when he heard his name yelled. He turned, knowing before he saw her that Mrs. Colpepper was about to tear into him again. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, a plump woman swathed in lilac, prone to fussiness, enamored of protocol except when it came to her dealings with him. “Listen here, Captain Vermont,” she said through gritted teeth. “I hold you fully responsible for this fiasco. If you had forbidden that cat from coming aboard as I asked you to, none of this would have happened. And then to save it before you attended to Mr. Winslow was absolutely unpardonable. I have half a mind to tender my resignation. Why, when I think of the scandal—” “Keep everyone else down there until I find out what the blazes is going on, Colpepper, you got that?” he interrupted. “I have no intention of denying Mr. Winslow access to his bride—” “Especially Mr. Winslow.” “But—” He cut her off by turning his back and resuming the climb, Mrs. Colpepper’s continuing diatribe as monotonous as the thumping slap of the boat’s stern paddle. Besides the wheelhouse, there were two cabins on the top deck, including his own. The cabin on the left opened to reveal a dark room, the event consultant’s shipside office. As he flipped on the light, he called Megan’s name. Empty. The other cabin—his cabin—was locked. Since he hadn’t locked it, Megan must be holed up inside. He patted his pocket for the key, realizing at last that it was in his other jacket...which was behind the door with the distraught bride. This left him no alternative but to knock. “Who is it?” she said at once as though she’d been standing on the other side of the door, waiting. “It’s Captain Vermont,” he said sternly, not at all amused she’d chosen his private quarters in which to take sanctuary. “Please, just go away,” she said. “Can’t do that,” he told her. “Why not?” “Open the door and we’ll talk.” “No.” “There are over a hundred people out here wanting to see you,” he told her. “Well, I don’t want to see them,” she replied immediately. “Just talk to me, then,” he said. A long pause was followed by, “Are you alone?” He looked down the empty passageway. “For the moment.” “Can’t you just steer the boat back to Portland and leave me be?” she pleaded. “Maybe I can, but I’m not going to,” he informed her. Another long pause, then the door opened. Megan made no movement to step aside so John could enter. “May I come in?” “What do you want?” He tapped the brass plaque attached to the mahogany door and said, “This is my cabin.” Biting her lip, she said, “I’m sorry. I really am.” John looked under her arm and saw Foggy Dew stretched out in the sunshine, licking an extended leg, her bulging middle attesting to the fact that she’d managed to hold on to the kittens. “Is the cat—” “She’s fine. She’s almost dry.” “But you’re scratched,” he said, nodding at her right arm. He didn’t mention what she looked like—how the tears had reddened her eyes, how the designer dress was now tattered and torn, stained with blood, cat hair and river water, how the flowers in her hair had slipped down to just above her left ear. Heck, none of these things detracted from the winsome beauty that was her birthright. Again, he noticed her high cheekbones and the flawless texture of her skin, the wispy blond strands that curled around her hairline, the cupid’s bow shape of her lips, lips absolutely begging to be kissed. John felt a deep jolt. Where in the world were these kind of thoughts coming from? She stared down at her arm as though aware for the first time that rescuing Foggy Dew had extracted a toll. He cleared his throat. “Come across the hall and I’ll find the first-aid kit. I know Mrs. Colpepper keeps it in her office. We’ll get you fixed up.” “It’s not necessary, it doesn’t matter.” He tried a different angle to budge her. “I know your mother and your fiancå want to see you. You go to Mrs. Colpepper’s office and I’ll escort them—” “I don’t ever want to see Robert Winslow again,” she stated firmly. “He’s a jerk.” Was it really possible this was the first time she’d noticed what a creep the guy was? Remembering he was not a counselor but a captain, he mumbled, “I, uh, happen to know there’s a certain amount of...of strain associated with getting married...” She was shaking her head and new tears were puddling in her eyes. “I thought I could talk to them. I know I’m being evasive, but I need time to think. I just can’t face them all right now—you tell them for me, okay?” “Miss Morison—” “Please,” she added, and with an apologetic shrug, slowly closed the door again, leaving John Vermont high and dry and out of a cabin. He pounded a fist against his leg as he strode down the passageway, determined to find a new captain for this ship pronto. “Damn weddings,” he swore beneath his breath. An hour later he gave up trying to restrain Megan’s fiancå, figuring that by now she’d probably had second thoughts and was ready to come out and talk...and give him back his cabin. “Meg? Listen to me. Open the door and let me in.” Winslow’s voice was cajoling. John stood across the passageway, leaning against a bulkhead, arms crossed, watching. “No,” she said. John shook his head. He was beginning to suspect that nothing short of dynamite was going to blast that woman from his cabin, certainly not this bozo’s entreaties. Despite his fervent wish she’d leave, he had to admit a certain amount of admiration for her tenacity. “I will not go away,” Winslow said. He’d stripped off the tuxedo jacket but still wore the black slacks, the white shirt and the suspenders, all of which had dried, to a point, as had his hair, but his shoes squeaked when he moved. While his voice was still persuasive, his appearance had taken a definite nosedive. He didn’t look quite so smug now. Running a hand through his damp hair and lowering his voice, Winslow talked to the door. “You’re acting like a child,” he said, his voice as smooth as an oil slick. “You know that, don’t you, Meg? Like a little child, running away, scared and silly. Your behavior is embarrassing me and your family. Heck, it was just a stupid animal, and besides, the big brave captain rescued it, so what’s the harm? Now, come out here. Open the door.” At his side, John’s hand rolled into a fist, almost ready to give Winslow the thump on the head he’d been asking for. He was unclear whether his desire to beat the tar out of this guy had to do with the degrading way he addressed Megan, his total disregard for animals, or the jab at himself. But the door stayed shut and retreating footsteps behind it announced clearly that Megan had moved back into the room, ending this conversation. Winslow turned, his sour expression growing even more surly when he found John staring at him. “I hear you own this tub,” he growled. John nodded. “Then redeem yourself a little and open the door. You must have a key.” John smiled. “Actually, I don’t.” “Then break the lock—” “And do what, Mr. Winslow? Drag the lady out by her hair? Dump her in the river like she dumped you? Make her walk the plank, keelhaul her, put her in shackles and lock her in the brig?” For once the man seemed at a loss for words. He moved a few steps away, then turned back and glared at John. “I’m not through with you yet, Vermont! I have friends in high places.” “Good for you,” John said as he pushed himself away from the wall and opened the door to the bridge, anxious only to return Ruby Rose to shore and get these people off his boat. Megan closed the drapes and flicked on a lamp. For the first time she caught sight of herself in the long mirror, and she winced. Without pausing to think, she stripped off her wedding dress and tore the ridiculous flowers from her hair, dumping both on the floor. Little doubts started to kick in as she found a bathroom behind the door with the mirror and washed the blood off her arm. Had she overreacted? Had she, like Robert said, been silly? Did the captain think she was silly? She suddenly had the intense desire to know what he thought, but since there was no way of finding him without risking running into her family and Robert, she decided to stay put. Four angry red lines attested to the cat’s plight and helped ease Megan’s doubts. She rubbed soap into the wounds, rinsed them carefully, then splashed her face with cold water, pausing to look out the porthole beside the sink. The shoreline was turning from rural to city, which meant they must be close to the wharf. Back in the cabin she was faced with the prospect of waiting to disembark in her underwear or donning the captain’s spare jacket. As she took it off the back of the chair, she wondered how, and if, she would have the nerve to face everyone. She buttoned all the black buttons. Seeing as she was just a touch over five-five, a good ten inches shorter than Captain Vermont, the jacket fell to below her knees and swamped her. She rolled up the cuffs. It was better than the dress. Anything was better than the dress. Besides, the garment’s lining slipped easily against her bare skin while the collar was rough against her neck. It smelled of musk, as though aftershave had left its trail. It was like being wrapped in an embrace, comforting somehow. She turned up the collar and hugged the jacket close to her body. She watched the docking process from the safety of the captain’s cabin, ignoring the repeated pleas that came from the passageway, pleas that begged her to come to her senses. “I already have,” she whispered. There was always a feeling of satisfaction when a voyage, no matter how small, was successfully completed, but this time the final docking of the Ruby Rose at the old wharf along the waterfront brought its captain a particularly gratifying wave of relief. As John took off his gloves and opened the shallow drawer in which he kept them, he suffered the good-natured ribbing of his first mate, Danny Borel. Danny, aware of the wedding fracas, found it especially funny that John was out of a cabin. As Danny left the bridge for a hot date with a leggy redhead he’d met on deck, John’s eyes fell on the extra set of keys in the drawer. Snapping them up, he tossed them into the air and caught them, chuckling to himself. Now we’ll see... The first order of business was a post-voyage stroll around each of the three decks. Though he tried to avoid her, Colpepper was lurking by the stairs, waiting for him. “I have half a mind to quit,” she sputtered. He thought she had half a mind—period. He said, “It’s been a long day, Colpepper.” “When I think of the hours I spent—” Holding up his hand and darting down the stairs, he called, “Save it for tomorrow, will you?” He snatched an extra bottle of champagne and a couple of spare lobsters off the ravaged buffet table and, thus armed, went back to his cabin and knocked on the door. He heard music from within, but no one answered the knock. A muffled meow prompted him to use the spare key. Foggy Dew sat in the middle of the small room, blinking her yellow eyes. John nudged the door closed with his elbow, set the tray on the round table, and picked the cat up, stroking her head. “You caused a heap of trouble today,” he told the cat right before he spotted the mound of lacy white material in the corner, and in the next glance, Megan, asleep on his bunk, dressed in one of his jackets, her long bare legs crossed at the ankles, her hands resting on her flat stomach. The cat struggled to get down. John set her carefully on the rug, somewhat surprised to see her jump up on the bunk and curl into a ball by Megan’s hip. For some time he stood off to the side, watching the peaceful—and tantalizing—rise and fall of Megan’s chest as she breathed, admiring the thick sweep of lashes that lay against her cheeks, the gentle repose of her mouth. And, once again, he imagined covering her succulent lips with his own. He imagined gathering her in his arms and kissing her awake. He imagined the look in her eyes.... He shook his head. Crazy thoughts! Ridiculous, inappropriate thoughts he had no business thinking. He made himself turn away from her and all the nebulous yearnings she seemed to inspire. The sideboard produced silverware, napkins, water glasses. He opened the wine, poured himself a couple of inches and sat in one of the chairs, propping his feet up on another. Megan Morison was as easy on the eyes as she was stubborn, all right. He wanted her to wake up but he suspected when she did she’d start fussing, so he let her be. The evening was wearing away when she finally stirred. She awoke slowly, and John watched, knowing all the while she was unaware of his presence, knowing he should announce himself. But he liked seeing her yawn and stretch, liked the way her lips curved when she saw the cat beside her. When she finally turned her head and saw him gazing at her, she sat up abruptly, tugging modestly on the jacket. He poured her a hefty glass of champagne. “Are you thirsty?” Getting to her feet, she said, “I haven’t eaten or slept in four days, so I guess what I am is hungry.” He gestured at the lobsters but she didn’t seem to notice. “I borrowed your jacket,” she told him as she brushed her hands down the front. “It looks good on you.” “I just had to change. I hope you don’t mind—” “Not at all, Miss Morison. Fact is, I think it looks better on you than that fancy dress...” He stopped talking because her eyes had suddenly filled with tears. Obviously he’d said the wrong thing. “I—I’m sorry,” he said as he pushed the plate forward. “Here, I brought lobster, have some.” “I hate lobster,” she said as she wiped tears off her cheeks with the cuff of her—his—jacket. “But it’s from your wedding...well, almost wedding...” His voice trailed off because what he’d said had brought forth more waterworks. He handed her a napkin, which she used to mop at her face, and then she sat opposite him. “It was Robert’s idea to have it. I wanted chicken. Where is everybody?” “They’re gone.” “All of them?” “I dropped them off at the loading pier before bringing the boat down here to her permanent berth. I’m afraid I took it upon myself to persuade your family to leave you alone. I guess you want to hear that your fiancå was very hard to convince—” “No,” she interrupted. John shrugged. “Your mother said to remind you that you don’t have an apartment anymore so to come to her house. I promised her you’d get home okay.” More tears as Megan stared at the hated crustaceans. When she’d recovered from the new onslaught, she added, “I forgot...I gave up my place so that after the honeymoon I could...I could move in with...with...Robert.” “Well, maybe you two will patch things up.” She shook her head in a desultory fashion. John fished a piece of lobster out of the shell and held it low to the ground. Foggy Dew stared at it for a second, apparently decided it was worth the effort of moving, and jumped down from the bunk. He set the morsel on the floor and turned his attention back to Megan, wondering how he could politely ask her to leave. The half-naked beauty was intended for another man, but she was starting to make him want things he had no business wanting. He said, “Well, it’s getting late—” She glanced at the clock that hung on a bulkhead next to the barometer, but said nothing. “I sent a crew member down to the bridal dressing room and she retrieved the clothing you arrived in. It’s across the hall.” To himself he added that it was a damn shame she had to get out of his jacket. He liked the way the navy blue looked next to her cap of yellow hair, the way different parts of her anatomy filled out the cloth in ways the tailor hadn’t intended. “That was very kind of you,” she said. Looking into her eyes was like glimpsing two blue gems buried in the depths of a mountain spring. He had to make himself turn away and liberate more lobster for the cat. “I can call you a cab—” “I have nowhere to go,” she said. John delivered the lobster, took a long swallow of champagne and eyed her above the rim of the glass. Then he said, “But your mother—” “You don’t understand,” she said as she pushed herself away from the table and began pacing. “My mother is crazy about Robert Winslow. She thinks the sun rises and sets on his bank account. All she ever talks about is how much he’s like my late father.” “Is he?” John heard himself ask. She shrugged. “Yes. Oh, I don’t know. Dad was strong-willed and blustery, but he was also kind. I can’t even imagine him attacking a harmless animal like that. Anyway, he died when I was just a little kid.” She blinked away the past and added, “Mom will spend the entire night trying to get me to see the stupidity of my ways. I can’t face her.” John’s gaze had dropped to her smooth, shapely legs. Looking up, he said, “Then that uncle of yours—” “If anything, he loves Robert even more than Mom does. Robert has given Uncle Adrian money for bailing out a sick business. My uncle’s first thought is going to be that I’m jeopardizing the business by jilting Robert. I can’t go to him, I just can’t.” “Friends?” “Don’t you see? Everyone likes Robert Winslow. He throws money around like there’s no tomorrow. He buys people’s affections.” John surprised himself by asking, “Did he buy yours, too?” She stopped pacing and stared at him. More tears filled her eyes as she said, “No, of course not.” But she ruined the validity of her denial by immediately adding, “At least I don’t think he did.” Right... John thought. She kind of reminded him of Betsy, his first love, his ex-wife, who had married him on a whim, intrigued by his wealth. Within six months she’d grown bored with his work ethic and taken up extracurricular activities of her own. It had cost him a hefty one-time payment to rid his life of Betsy, and though she’d cheated and lied to him, he’d still felt like the world had been torn asunder when she closed the door behind her. That had been two years ago, and it was only within the past eight or nine months that he’d begun to see that her leaving was really him escaping. Who needed women? They were fickle and hard on the old heart—a man was better off without them. “I wish you’d say something,” Megan said uneasily. “I don’t know what to say,” he told her. Grasping the back of a chair with both hands and leaning slightly forward, she fixed him with an intent stare. “Do you think I was silly today? Do you think I acted irrationally?” He grinned. “Let’s just say that if you hadn’t pushed that idiot off my boat, I would have.” “Thanks.” “No problem.” “Wait, did you say this was your boat? Does that mean you won’t lose your job because of me?” The relief in her voice touched John. She’d been worried about his fate in this mess—that was kind of sweet. He laughed and said, “No such luck. Now, like I said, it’s getting late—” “I don’t have a job,” she said suddenly, as though just realizing that even that part of her life was screwed up. “You quit your job?” Though her voice grew husky and her chin trembled, she held her head high, apparently straining for control. “I quit it as of two weeks ago. After all, I was marrying Robert Winslow, what did I need to work at a hospital for? I was going to work with him—at least, that was my plan. I found out this morning that that wasn’t his plan, however. He didn’t want me anywhere near his business or his precious money.” John remained silent. He suspected her shattered life had derailed her tongue. “I don’t know where to go or what to do,” she said softly. John rubbed his jaw as he thought. Heck, where she went wasn’t his problem, was it? He was a skipper of a stern-wheeler, not director of a lonely heart’s club. What did she expect of him? He said, “Maybe a hotel?” A brief look of hope was extinguished by a frown that tugged on the corners of her lips. Sighing heavily, she shook her head. “I might as well go to Mom’s house. I’ll have to face her sooner or later. Maybe she’ll take pity and let me be for one night.” “I’m sure that’s the logical thing to do,” he told her, relieved she’d come to her senses. He’d been afraid of what might have happened if she’d insisted on staying the night. “Is there a phone on board so I can call a cab?” “Better than that,” he said, generosity filling his heart. “I’ll give you a lift on my way home.” She looked startled. Gesturing at the table and the sideboard, the bed and the console that held a stereo and TV-VCR combination, she said, “Don’t you live here, in this room, on this boat?” Standing, he looked down at her. “Sometimes I spend the night, but not often. I’m building a little house along the river, an hour or so from here, and that’s where I live. For now, until I find someone else to skipper this boat, I’m commuting back and forth every day.” “Even on a Sunday?” “Especially on a Sunday.” The mention of work reminded him that Mrs. Colpepper had abandoned ship, supposedly for good. As much as she drove him crazy, he wasn’t prepared to lose her just weeks before a big media dinner-dance she’d booked. Well, she’d made threats before and she’d always come back—whether it was because of her generous salary, dedication to her obligations or just plain love of driving him nuts, John didn’t know and didn’t much care. “Your offer is very generous,” Megan murmured. “Thank you.” “No problem. I know this day hasn’t exactly gone the way you’d planned...” His voice petered out as Megan’s eyes grew soft with tears she seemed determined to curtail. He’d said the wrong thing again. Mumbling something about fetching her clothes, John got to his feet and crossed the cabin, enjoying the shot of cool river air that hit his face when he opened the door. You should have just called her a cab, you blasted fool, he grumbled to himself. Foggy Dew had followed him outside. She made an odd noise as she rubbed his ankles. To John, it sounded as though she was agreeing. Chapter Three “Over there,” Megan said, pointing to a hamburger stand visible through the rain as a blur of rainbow-colored lights. It had started drizzling as they’d left the stern-wheeler and had picked up gusto as they’d driven through town. Now it fell in relentless buckets. Megan imagined Captain Vermont was anxious to take her home and be rid of her, but there was no way she was going to face her mother on an empty stomach. He stopped his truck in front of a smiling clown face and opened the window the old-fashioned way, with a handle. For an instant Megan flashed back to the steel cocoon of a cloud gray BMW, Robert beside her, lowering his window with a touch of a finger. This act never happened at a fast-food restaurant, banish the thought. Robert Winslow wouldn’t be caught dead at anything as “ordinary” as a fast-food place—which made the act of stopping at this one all the more appealing! “What do you want?” the captain asked as rain came through the open window, pelting his shoulder with glistening drops. Ah, to be asked. Robert had deplored her bad eating habits, endlessly pointing out what was good for her and what wasn’t, taking it upon himself to wean her from junk food. A fitness freak, he jogged and biked—in fact, the only sport he didn’t train in was swimming, a thought that brought an evil little smile to Megan’s lips. “I’ll have a hamburger. No, wait, make it a cheeseburger. And French fries. And a milk shake.” Without comment on her choices, the captain repeated her order into the clown’s mouth and a disembodied voice told them to drive forward. “Don’t you want anything?” she asked as she fished the last twenty-dollar bill from the depths of her wallet. “My treat.” “Thanks, anyway, but I’m not hungry,” he said as he took the money and advanced to the drive-in window. She watched as he paid the attendant, handed Megan back the change and then accepted the food. He had a strong profile visible because of the restaurant lights. A good nose, chiseled jawline, interesting mouth. He was a big man, but not the least bit bulky. A man who exuded confidence and yet seemed strangely ill-at-ease when he was around her. How could she blame him? She’d been hesitant and scared during the ceremony, mad as a hornet when Robert kicked that poor little kitty into the river, and an emotional wreck ever since. No wonder he was skittish! He drove as the windshield wipers whacked back and forth and the rain increased. There was nothing like Oregon rain, she thought. She pushed aside the next thought, that if she hadn’t shoved Robert overboard, she’d now be on her way to Australia, where it was probably warm and dry. Wait, that wasn’t right. If Robert hadn’t kicked the little cat, they’d both be on their way to Australia. And if that had happened, if the wedding had gone as planned, would she now be delirious with joy or facing the possibility she’d made the biggest mistake of her life? If the wedding had gone as planned, they wouldn’t have thrown accusations at each other, he wouldn’t have accused her of marrying him for his money. This thought made her insides boil with righteous indignation. She’d never taken a penny from him, not a penny! The checks he had written were for the hospital’s new rehab center, for which she’d been raising funds when she’d met him, and yet he’d made it sound as if they were personal handouts. And since when was she responsible for Uncle Adrian’s debts? If Robert hadn’t wanted to bail him out, then he shouldn’t have bailed him out! The truth of the matter was that she’d used almost every dime in her savings and pushed her credit cards to their limits to buy her elaborate wedding dress, bowing to pressure from her mother to make sure it was a gown that wouldn’t “embarrass” Robert. He’d insisted on a fancy wedding and had offered to pay for it, and as Megan didn’t have the funds to finance it herself, nor did her mother, she’d agreed. In retrospect, she’d agreed to everything: rushing into marriage, a gala ceremony she couldn’t afford, a dress that put her in debt, a prenuptial agreement that should have been the last straw. She’d been caught in a whirlwind of romance, so enamored by the fact that an important man like Winslow would make such obvious ploys to win her, and so pleased to have her mother happy again, that she’d put her brain on hold. Well, I won’t let it happen again, she swore to herself. I’ll get my life back on track. I’m independent, I don’t need a man to define myself. It’s foolish and it’s dangerous. For me, romance is dead! “What did you say?” The sound of the captain’s deep voice startled her, sending a few French fries tumbling to her lap. She hadn’t realized she’d spoken out loud. How much had she mumbled? How much had he heard? “Nothing,” she muttered as she retrieved errant fries. “You’re not eating much.” “I guess I wasn’t as hungry as I thought,” she told him as she dumped the leftovers into the sack. It was depressing to realize Robert’s eating habits had become hers, as well. She pointed toward the windshield and added, “We’re almost there, take the next left.” Megan’s mother lived on the same heavily wooded street on which Megan had grown up. Back then, the house had been luxurious and comfortable, a meeting place for her father’s many friends, a warm house full of laughter. Times had changed; the house was now in need of extensive repairs, the neighborhood was turning seedy, and her mother was holding on by a string. Megan had hoped to help her mom relocate after her honeymoon—that dream was gone now, too. It had been a very wet, windy winter and a few of the trees had fallen, leaving gaps in the familiar landscape. One fallen tree lay across the front of a neighboring yard, waiting to be hacked into firewood, the root ball positioned toward the road. In the dark and through the rain, the giant fistlike roots clutched the earth in a last, futile attempt to ward off the inevitable. The house was a two-story white Colonial, lit to within an inch of its life. It never failed to amaze Megan how much better the place looked at night than in the unforgiving glare of day, when the missing shutters, peeling paint, sagging eaves and cracked brick drew attention to themselves. In the driveway sat a sleek gray car, which sent Megan’s heart into overload. “Don’t stop!” she squealed as Captain Vermont slowed and approached the curb. He flashed her an annoyed frown. “But that’s the place. Your mother said it was white and—” “I grew up here. You think I don’t know my own house? Don’t you see? It’s Robert’s car. He must be here. Keep going.” “But, Megan, Miss Morison—” “Just keep going!” she demanded as she saw Robert step in front of the living room window, glass in hand. Her mother was entertaining him! Knowing how Megan felt, her mother had nevertheless invited Robert Winslow into the house and given him a cold drink—no doubt cranberry juice and gin. What a traitor! Her own mother cavorting with the enemy! How dare she! “Turn down here,” she told the captain. He shot her a quick look before following her directions, traveling another half a block along a dark, empty side street before pulling up to the curb. Sighing heavily, he turned to face her. “Now what?” he asked, his voice a lot drier than the weather. Megan wanted him to keep moving. Her heart was beating so fast it pounded in her ears and she had the irrational notion that somehow Robert had known that the green vehicle rolling past the house belonged to Captain Vermont and that she was inside. She fought the desire to turn around to make sure he wasn’t running down the street after them. “Now what?” he repeated. Megan glanced over her shoulder. The side street was empty save a few million raindrops that splattered on the pavement and ran in torrents down the gutters. “I can’t believe my mother is visiting with that man.” She was practically fuming. “Obviously they’re waiting for you to come home.” She took a steadying breath. “Are you ready now?” he asked her. “Ready? Ready for what?” “To go back to your mom’s house—” “Heaven’s no!” she screeched. Oh, how she yearned for her lost apartment, for the solitude she craved, for time to curl into a ball and sleep, sleep, sleep. With that option lost, the next best thing would be a motel, but she knew her credit card would tilt any machine it was run through. Unless the department store she still had credit at had suddenly gone into the business of renting beds or she could find a place that charged less than fifteen dollars, she was out of luck. She lowered her voice. “Would you mind taking me to Uncle Adrian’s house? It’s not far.” The captain’s silence filled the truck as surely as a ton of mud. Rarely in Megan’s twenty-six years had she felt as isolated as she did at that moment. This man’s silent condemnation of her character cut her to the quick. With the speed and warning of a flash flood, her emotions overcame her, enveloped her, coaching yet more tears from her eyes and a hopeless sob from her throat. Temporarily oblivious to anything but her own pain and frustration, Megan was startled when she felt two strong hands grip her shoulders. She looked up to see that the captain had moved close to her. Slowly, cautiously, he pulled her toward him, folding his arms around her. She was so miserable she lay her head against his hard chest, the edge of a black button biting into her cheek. He slowly patted her on the back, she assumed to offer comfort, and oddly enough, his embrace did just that—it comforted her. There was a feeling of safety to be held so gingerly, so carefully. He smelled like fresh air, and the warmth of his exhaled breaths touched her bare neck. It was with a sense of alarm that she suddenly noticed she was enjoying his attention. She straightened immediately. She would not leap from one man’s arms into another’s, even if the current pair were strong and welcoming in their hesitant, gentle way, and even if these arms were offering nothing but solace. He released her immediately, but she could feel his eyes on her. She felt set adrift, anchorless and thoroughly alarmed. “Thank you,” she whispered. He gave her a napkin that had escaped the fast-food restaurant cleanup. “I don’t even know your name. Your first name, I mean.” “Jonathan,” he said. “John.” “John,” she repeated. “Are you feeling better now?” She nodded. “I’m really not like this, weepy and everything. Normally, I’m very controlled.” “I’m sure you are,” he said, his wonderful voice sounding anything but sure. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain—” “I’m the one who’s sorry,” he said, cutting her off. “I was rude. I’d chalk it up to stress or fatigue, but I believe you’ve cornered the markets in those departments. No, please don’t cry again, Megan. Okay, where does your uncle live?” She willed the tears she could feel burning behind her eyes to stay put. “Three miles east of here, even further out of town. I know it’s late—” “I live another ten miles east of that, so you can see it’s no bother. Besides, in few minutes you’ll be with your uncle. Family, that’s what you need at a time like this. The welcoming embrace of your family. Just tell me when to turn.” He hadn’t said it but what Megan knew he meant was three more miles and he’d get this crazy woman out of his car and out of his life! The drive was made in silence. As Megan was reluctant to get back on the main street, she guided him through the back roads, which made the drive twice as long, but if he noticed the discrepancy, he didn’t mention it. Until recently Uncle Adrian had lived in a condominium right in the heart of Portland. Business problems had forced him to downgrade his life-style, so that now his address was rural. In fact, it would be almost impossible to imagine any place further removed from his former abode than his present dwelling, a little tract house so close to the street there wasn’t even room for a sidewalk. Well, that wouldn’t last, not now that good old Robert had bailed the business out of a hole. Soon, thanks to Robert, Uncle Adrian would be moving back to town. That was, if Robert didn’t rescind his help and leave Uncle Adrian high and dry—Good grief, what in the world had made Megan think she’d be welcome here? It was too late to change her mind, though, she decided after another peek at John’s profile. He yawned into his hand and rubbed his temple, and she sat back, prepared to take on Uncle Adrian. “It’s the pink one,” Megan said, gesturing to the humble little house right before she caught sight of the gray car pulling into the narrow driveway. Red taillights flicked off as she watched, and the driver’s door opened. Robert dashed between the car and the house. “Don’t stop,” she snapped. “Don’t stop!” “Not again?” “I should have known. Robert isn’t the kind of man to sit by the telephone while another person affects his fate, especially me. He’ll keep checking everywhere he thinks I might go until he finds me.” The captain kept driving. “How did he get here before us?” “I took all that time blubbering,” she mumbled. Half a mile down the road, John pulled the truck to the curb, turned off the ignition and once again stared at her. “You can’t avoid your family forever,” he said softly, his voice comforting now, warm and easy, all hint of sarcasm gone. “I can try.” “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to face them.” “Listen, John,” she said boldly. “Sooner or later I will face them. Sooner or later, I’ll tell them all to back off and leave me alone. I’ll rebuild my life, hold my chin up high and be a role model for women everywhere. But why do I have to do it tonight? Why can’t I have just one night to sort out my thoughts and get my life back in order? Is that so much to ask?” “I suppose not,” he admitted. With a flick, he turned on the interior lights. She saw him glance at his watch. “What time is it?” “Almost midnight.” “Oh, brother, no wonder I feel like a sack of cement. I’m so sorry—” Smothering another yawn with his fist, he waved her apologies aside. “Megan, I’ll be frank with you. I have to get up and drive back down to the pier at six o’clock tomorrow morning because there’s a guy coming to service the navigation equipment, then I have to marry two couples, which is an ordeal for me even when I’m well rested. I live twenty minutes from here. I have a guest house. Why don’t you come to my place, spend the night with the door firmly locked and all the privacy you could possibly want, and tomorrow I’ll drive you anywhere you desire. How about it?” No getting around it, his plan had appeal. For one thing, she didn’t have the nerve to ask him to drive her back into town where she might bunk with a girlfriend. Besides, Robert would never dream to look for her at this man’s house and she really did need a little time to get her head on straight. She snuck a peek at John Vermont and found his expression had changed from earnest to alarmed and she wondered what she’d done to warrant it. Too tired to worry about his feelings when her own were such a quagmire, she said, “Thanks. I’ll take you up on your offer.” He nodded. He didn’t look the least bit pleased. Megan added, “I’ll call my mom from your house so she won’t call out the national guard.” “The car phone is right in front of you. Help yourself,” he said. Megan picked up the phone and made the call. She was evasive about where she was and with whom and promised to call again tomorrow. Tomorrow. How could a word that promised distance suddenly loom so prominently on the horizon? Twenty minutes later John opened the door of his house and ushered Megan Morison inside. He was immediately set upon by his yellow Lab, Lily, who licked his hand, wagged her tail, cast Megan a wary look and shot into the night. John saw Megan’s gaze drift from the tile floors to the loft area above. When she lowered her eyes and looked into the main room, he knew she took in the wall of windows that faced the river, though it was so dark and wet now that the beauty outside was invisible. “Obviously a man’s place,” she said as she looked around. “Is there a Mrs. Vermont?” “There was. There isn’t anymore.” “Oh...I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I’m even worse in the marriage department than you are.” This comment made her eyes glisten. John mentally kicked himself for once again inserting his foot into his mouth as he crossed the room and opened one of the large sliding-glass doors. Lily wandered in, beaded raindrops on her yellow coat. She spared Megan another speculative glance, then moseyed over to the woven rug that sat in front of the huge stone fireplace. Why had he brought her here? From the moment the offer had left his lips, he’d known it was a mistake. It was just that for a second he’d been overcome by a protective streak he couldn’t explain, one he didn’t even like. Rescuing women was a fool’s errand—he’d done it once with Betsy and he wasn’t going to do it again. He glanced back at Megan and the memory of holding her swamped him, the soft, yielding quality of her body, the smell of her hair. She was so beautiful. Was that it? “This room is huge,” she said, taking a step toward him. “I like my space,” he said with a little too much emphasis on the second and last words. She nodded curtly as though the message he had inadvertently delivered was received and noted. Then she smiled at him, bit her bottom lip and bowed her head, staring down at the floor. It was a cunning gesture that told him very clearly she was sensing his unease and found it amusing. Egads, he realized with a start. It wasn’t just her current vulnerability that attracted him. It wasn’t just her big blue eyes or her body, either. Those things were distractions, sure, but distractions that were relatively easy to dismiss. After all, there were lots of pretty and needy women in the world. What Megan possessed was far more dangerous. There was a light in her eyes, a directness about her he found compelling, a sense of play and wonder that surfaced even when she was distressed. And there was that tenacious streak he’d witnessed, too. If it wasn’t such a clichå, he’d be damned tempted to say the woman had spunk! She had moved toward the sofa and was standing beside Lily. The two eyed each other with mutual distrust. Megan said, “I don’t think your dog likes me.” “She’s never been overly fond of women.” “The jealous type, huh?” He shrugged. Megan hugged herself as though she was cold. “You really love your animals, don’t you?” He made himself stop looking at her, stop thinking about her. For a time after Betsy had left, he’d wondered if he’d ever want to get involved with a woman again and now he was discovering the answer was a resounding yes. But this one? She didn’t seem a very good prospect. He vowed to stop thinking about her. He glanced at his dog and said, “Lily is family. I used to own a dozen tugboats and she was like a mascot. I can’t take her on the stern-wheeler because she has a bad habit of chasing cats and Foggy Dew has squatter’s rights.” He chanced another look at Megan and added, “Shall I start a fire? Do you want something to eat or drink?” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925218&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.