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There was a merry-go-round in his front yard. Okay, not a whole merry-go-round, just one lavishly carved, brightly painted carousel horse, but it was enough to make Bobby Spencer's jaw drop. He hadn't seen anything like it since a trip to the Santa Monica Pier years ago on one of the rare occasions when his father had deigned to leave his beloved Virginia.
That white-and-gold horse was also enough to have drawn most of the neighborhood kids out on a steamy Sunday morning to stare at it in fascination. The only thing that seemed to be keeping the curious youngsters from climbing onto that horse was the presence of a beefy uniformed security guard lounging in a rickety lawn chair about two feet away.
He had a merry-go-round horse and an armed man in his front yard. Bobby was pretty sure he'd awakened to stranger scenes in the past twenty-eight years, but he couldn't remember when. It was almost enough to make him regret moving away from the family estate at Cedar Hill, where the nearest neighbor was half a mile down the road. Of course, then he would have had King to contend with, and that would have been much worse than this innocent little spectacle.
Only after he'd been standing there, slack-jawed, for a full minute, the morning paper absentmindedly clutched in one hand, did he realize that he was wearing nothing but a pair of boxers, and that any minute now, he was going to become part of the sideshow on his front lawn. Already Sue Kelly and Frannie Yarborough were ogling him with appreciative glances that Bobby might have found flattering if the two spinsters hadn't been at least seventy and, even worse, the two biggest gossips on the block.
Just when he was about to dart inside to put on something halfway decent and maybe drink enough caffeine to come up with a way out of this crazy situation, a police cruiser rolled to a stop at the edge of the lawn. The county sheriff—his own brother—emerged grinning.
Tucker's arrival was followed in short order by another cruiser. This time it was Bobby's brother-in-law, Walker Ames, who got out, cast one look at the scene and, displaying even less restraint, burst out laughing. He and Tucker exchanged an amused look, then strolled toward Bobby, making a pretense of looking somber and official. If he'd been armed, Bobby would have shot 'em both on the spot. No jury on earth—or at least around these parts—would have convicted him.
"Where's the cotton candy?" Tucker asked, barely containing another grin.
"Very funny," Bobby snapped, in no mood for his brother's wit.
"You got a permit for starting up a carnival in a residential area?" Tucker continued, clearly undaunted by Bobby's sour attitude. "We've been overlooking Frannie's fortune-telling, but this is a little harder to ignore."
"You don't have to enjoy this quite so much," Bobby said.
Tucker's grin spread. "Sure I do. Best time I've had all weekend."
"So where'd it come from?" Walker asked, his fascinated gaze fixed on the horse with its prancing feet and bejeweled harness. Someone had taken great care with the restoration. It was in like-new condition.
Bobby's scowl shifted to encompass his brother-in-law. "How should I know?"
"It is in your yard," Tucker pointed out.
"So are you, but I sure as hell didn't invite you," Bobby retorted.
"Seems cranky," Tucker observed to Walker.
"Downright irritable," Walker agreed.
Bobby studiously ignored the ribbing. They'd tire of it eventually. Besides, if he was going to get to the bottom of this unexpected gift horse, he needed their help. They might be acting like idiots at the moment, but they both had halfway decent investigative skills, and the authority to go along with it. Without a jolt of coffee, he couldn't even think.
"Maybe I should call Daddy and get him over here," his brother said, his expression innocent. "He might have some ideas."
Bobby frowned at Tucker, who could be an annoying son of a gun on his best days. "You do, and you're a dead man. Leave Daddy out of this. Besides, I'm sure someone has called him already. People always love to report to King when one of us is causing a scene. Who called you, by the way? Never mind, let me guess. It was the mayor, right?"
Sadly, his nemesis lived just around the corner, close enough to keep an eye on everything that Bobby did. Not that Bobby was prone to wild parties or overnight guests in his restored Victorian house facing the Potomac River, but Harvey was always lurking around, probably hoping for something he could use against Bobby. Bobby had actually caught him outside with a ruler measuring the grass one day, checking to see if Bobby was in violation of the town's overgrown-lot ordinance.
"Harvey did express some concern that you were desecrating the Sabbath, to say nothing of violating several zoning ordinances," Tucker admitted. "Though he lacked confidence that I'd handle it with deliberate speed."
"Which is why I'm here," Walker explained. "Backup, in case your brother doesn't follow the letter of the law about arresting the people responsible for public nuisances."
"This is not my damned nuisance," Bobby retorted. "Oh, forget it. If you'll excuse me, I'm going inside to put my pants on before Sue and Frannie faint dead away over there." The two women were fanning their flushed faces ineffectively, their gazes locked on him as if they hadn't laid eyes on a partially clothed man in decades. The truth was, they probably hadn't. He waved, clearly flustering them. He'd no doubt have tuna casseroles waiting on his front porch for the next week because of this. They seemed to think a man on his own was likely to starve, despite the fact that Bobby cooked for a living.
"What do you want me to do about this?" Tucker asked, looking none too eager to do a blessed thing.
"Make it go away," Bobby said emphatically. He gestured to encompass the entire scene. "All of it."
"Don't you even want to know how that horse got here?" Walker asked, clearly overcome with curiosity himself.
Walker probably wanted all the details to relate to Bobby's sister, who was bound to have a million and one questions. In fact, Bobby was somewhat surprised Daisy hadn't beat her husband over here.
Bobby was actually pretty sure he knew what the arrival of the horse was all about. Maybe not the specific person who'd sent it over, but that fancy carved horse was clearly part of someone's bid to get his attention focused on a proposal for the boardwalk development he was planning. He'd had half a dozen unsolicited calls requesting appointments to make presentations since he'd announced a few weeks ago that he had signed the papers to buy the last parcel of riverfront land he needed. In his only public comment on the acquisition, Bobby had made the mistake of mentioning that he intended to get the project started this fall in the hope that it would be completed by the following summer. Eager developers had been crawling out of the woodwork ever since.
"I'll leave it to you two crack lawmen to figure out who's behind this. You have my permission to take the person responsible into custody for trespassing. And with all these other people crawling all over my lawn, that ought to help you meet your arrest quota for the month," he said, throwing it out as an irresistible challenge. Tucker really hated being accused of having quotas of any kind. "Meantime, I'm getting dressed and making coffee. Join me once you've solved the mystery and gotten rid of this circus."
Unfortunately, he had a suspicion that wasn't going to be as easy as he'd made it sound. Just as well. He'd have plenty of time to whip up a fluffy omelette and some hash browns before the two of them made it inside. Something told him he was going to need a lot of sustenance to get through the rest of a day that had started out this badly.
Jenna Pennington Kennedy was a royal screwup. Ask anyone, especially her father, who was giving her one last chance to prove herself with this boardwalk-development proposal for Trinity Harbor, Virginia.
Okay, he hadn't exactly given her the chance. She'd read about the prospect in the Baltimore newspaper and come after it on her own, without saying a single word to her domineering father or her brothers. They would have snatched the opportunity right out from under her, either by going after it themselves or simply by squelching her initiative with hoots of derisive laughter.
Unfortunately, though, her sneakiness seemed to have been for naught. The man she'd been told to contact— the one who owned the riverfront property and was looking to develop it—was steadfastly refusing to see her. His secretary claimed he wasn't seeing anyone yet, but Jenna suspected it was because she was a female. In the development business, she ran across a lot of macho males who ignored anything a woman had to say unless it pertained to sex. Since sex had been nothing but trouble for Jenna, she had no intention of indulging again, at least not in the foreseeable future. Better to concentrate on things she understood, like riverfront development.
Whatever the real story was behind Bobby Spencer's refusal to see her, this morning she had taken steps to snag his attention. She'd sent the man an extraordinarily rare carousel horse, part of an elaborate 1916 Allan Herschel carousel with a Wurlitzer organ that had cost her every penny of her savings and the entire trust fund her mother had left her. She'd considered it an investment in her future. Given the current state of the stock market, it probably wasn't as risky a decision as it seemed.
If all else failed, she assumed she could auction off the carousel—currently under lock and key in a Maryland warehouse—and at least get her money back. If she succeeded, it would become the centerpiece of this project, and Bobby Spencer would pay handsomely for it.
Of course, in an attempt to prove to her father that she could be sensible when necessary, she had also sent along a guard to protect the expensive antique from the sticky fingers of curious kids and the remote possibility that a knowledgeable thief would try to make off with it.
The whole plan had been a stroke of genius, if she did say so herself. Too bad she'd had to keep it from her father. He might have been proud of her, for once.
Jenna sat in her car down the block and happily watched the crowd on Spencer's lawn growing, despite the halfhearted attempts of two policemen to get it to disperse. Heck, if she'd thought to open a concession stand on the block, she could have sold enough lemonade on this hot July morning to pay the guard's salary.
She'd give it another half hour, let Bobby Spencer begin to see what a draw an old carousel could be for the town, then she'd seize the moment to demand an appointment to make her complete presentation.
Despite years of being regarded as a second-class citizen in her own family's company, Jenna had complete confidence in her design for the Trinity Harbor boardwalk. In her favor, she had an abiding nostalgia for all the old-fashioned beach towns she'd ever visited. People could get gaudy seaside entertainment in Ocean City. They could find more elaborate amusement parks just down the road from here at Kings Dominion or Busch Gardens. What a quaint little town like Trinity Harbor required was charm, and nobody understood charm better than a woman who'd spent her whole life with a bunch of men who were clueless on the subject.
But despite her self-confidence about the end result, Jenna resented the fact that she'd had to go to such an extreme just to put herself on Spencer's radar. What kind of businessman ignored the overtures of an expert? His behavior didn't bode well for their working relationship, but she was desperate. She'd work with the worst CEO in corporate history for this chance.
More dispiriting, though, than being dismissed by a stranger was having to jump through such elaborate hoops to prove to her father that she understood the business as well as he did and that she deserved to be more than decoration for the front office. If she'd been another son, he would have taken these things as a given. Dennis and Daniel had never had to prove themselves. They just showed up and made a pretense of working. As long as beachfront condos went up and didn't fall down, her father was content. It annoyed the daylights out of Jenna that he never saw her brothers' flaws—and never forgot hers.
Not that her father didn't have more than ample reason to distrust her judgment, she conceded reluctantly, but he bore some of the responsibility for her disastrous elopement himself. Randall Pennington had been an overpro-tective single dad who'd never had the first inkling about how to raise a daughter. After Jenna's mother had died, he'd settled on boarding school and tough love for his only daughter, while his sons had stayed at home under his watchful but indulgent eye.
As a result, Jenna had abandonment issues. She also had control issues. Big ones. She'd never had to consult a shrink to figure that out. A couple of episodes of Oprah had done it.
In an act of pure rebellion—and teenage lust—she had married the most irresponsible boy on God's green earth. To this day, he hadn't held a job more than the six months it took for boredom to set in. She shouldn't have been surprised that his attention span for women was no longer.
But to an eighteen-year-old girl who'd lived a sheltered boarding school life, Nick Kennedy had seemed wild and sexy and dangerous. His ability to make her father see red just by walking in the door had been one of his primary attractions.
Nick had also been a helluva kisser, which had led to her second mistake in judgment. She'd gotten pregnant so fast, it must have set some kind of a record. Her only consolation was that it had been after the wedding ceremony, not before. Nick was already straying before their daughter's birth, which had provided Jenna with her second dose of abandonment issues.
Now she had a precocious nine-year-old who was the spitting image of her daddy in looks and temperament. If Jenna had allowed it, Darcy would be pierced and tattooed in every conceivable spot on her plump little body. Jenna shuddered at the thought of what might happen the next time Darcy went to visit Nick, whom she could twist around her little pinky. Discipline and good sense were not among Nick's strengths. And in recent years he'd been given a tab at his neighborhood tattoo parlor.