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Saluting the ferry attendant, he drove up the metal ramp onto the narrow highway. He knew exactly where he was going. He owned most of the island, after all. An island now awash in early September sunlight, its thickets of evergreens hugging the cliffs, the sea sparkling as it dashed itself against the rocks.
He was here at the request of Del, his adoptive father. Here on a fool's errand, one that could lead to nothing but trouble—because the woman he was to track down was, in theory, Del's granddaughter.
Del's granddaughter? That had to be the joke of the century. She was a fake. Of course she was.
According to Del she'd been born in Madrid, and had spent most of her life in Europe. Yet for the last eleven months she'd been living a mere forty miles from Del's summer mansion on the coast of Maine.
Cade didn't believe in coincidence. Tess Ritchie was an imposter who'd heard of Del's considerable fortune and was biding her time to lay claim to it.
So it was up to him to stop her. And stop her he would.
On the meadows above the road, three deer were peacefully grazing; Cade's eyes flicked over them, barely registering their presence. Del—so he'd said—had known about Tess ever since she was born, had supported her financially for her entire life, but had never been in touch with her directly or breathed a word about her existence to anyone.
Through local gossip, Cade had long ago found out about Del's biological son, Cory, the black sheep of the family who was, supposedly,Tess Ritchie's father. Del had never breathed a word about Cory's existence, either.
The two best kept secrets on the eastern seaboard, Cade thought, his fingers drumming the soft leather on the steering wheel. If by any chance Tess Ritchie wasn't a fake, then she was related to Del by blood. As he, Cade, was not.
This simple fact rankled; he resented even the possibility of Del having a granddaughter. Stupid of him, no doubt. But wasn't his reaction one more indication of how he'd always felt cheated of any true connection to Del?
Cade rolled down the window, the breeze tugging at his hair. Another minute or two and he'd be there. The investigator's report had stated that Tess Ritchie was renting a converted fish shack just past the village.
The investigator was one Cade himself had used; his reputation was impeccable. But this time, he was out to lunch.
As for strategy, Cade figured he'd wing it once he was face-to-face with Tess Ritchie. For sure, he'd have to fight her off. The woman wasn't born who could resist Del's money, let alone Cade's far more substantial wealth. Billionaire had a certain ring, he had to admit.
So there were two rich men in the family. Yeah, he'd have to fight her off.
He rounded a corner, and there, on the shore of the cove, was a fish shack that had been turned into a small winterized cabin. An image of Moorings, Del's summer place, flashed across Cade's mind; Del wanted him to bring Tess Ritchie to Moorings on the return trip. The contrast with the fish shack was so laughable that Cade's anger jumped another notch.
He turned down the dirt track to the cabin. No car parked outside and no sign of life. Tess Ritchie worked full-time, Tuesday to Saturday, at the local library, that much Cade knew; it was why he'd arrived well before nine on a Saturday morning.
He drew up outside the cabin and climbed out of his car. Waves murmured on the shingled beach; a pair of gulls soared overhead, their wings limned in light. Filling his lungs with cool salt air, Cade briefly forgot his errand in a moment of sheer pleasure. His own love of the sea was a rare bond between him and Del.
With an impatient sigh, he strode over to the door—painted an ebullient shade of yellow—knocked hard and knew instinctively that the silence on the other side of the door was the silence of emptiness. Fool's errand, indeed. She wasn't even home.
On ponderous gray wings a heron flew past; and to Cade's ears came the rattle of footsteps on the pebbles. Swiftly he circled the cabin. A woman wearing brief shorts and a tank top was jogging toward him along the crest of the beach. She was agile, tanned and lithe, her hair jammed under a vivid orange baseball cap.
Then she caught sight of him. She stopped dead in her tracks, her breast heaving from exertion, and for the space of ten full seconds they stared at each other across the expanse of pebbled beach.
At a much slower pace, which was imbued with reluctance—or was it fear? Cade wondered—she started toward him.
On his way to the cabin, he'd pictured a bleached blonde with a slash of red lipstick and a lush, in-your-face body.
He'd been wrong. About as wrong as he could be. His mouth dry, his eyes intent, he watched her come to a halt twenty feet away from him, her back to the sun.
No lipstick. A sheen of sweat on her face, most of which was shadowed by the oversize brim of her cap. Workmanlike sneakers on her feet, and legs to die for. He stepped closer and saw her, almost imperceptibly, shrink away from him. She said sharply, "Are you lost? The village is back that way."
"Are you Tess Ritchie?"
"My name's Cade Lorimer. I need to talk to you."
He could easily have missed the tiny flicker of response that crossed her features as he said his name, so swift was it, and as swiftly subdued. Oh, yes, he thought, you're good. Just not quite good enough.
"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding at all sorry, "I don't know you and I don't have the time to talk to you—I need to get ready for work."
"I think, when you know why I'm here, you'll make the time," he said softly.
"Then you think wrong. If you really want to see me, come to the public library. Half a mile down the road, across from the post office. I'll be there until five this afternoon. And now if you'll excuse me—"
"Lorimer," Cade said. "The name doesn't ring a bell?"
"Why should it?"
"Del Lorimer is my father—he's the one who sent me here. His other son—Cory—was your father."
Her body went rigid. In a staccato voice, she said, "How do you know my father's name?"
"Let's go inside. As I said, we have things to talk about." But she was backing away, step by step, her gaze glued to his face. "I'm not going anywhere with you," she said, her fists clenched by her side so tightly that the knuckles were white.
Terror, Cade thought, puzzled.Why the hell would she be terrified of him? She should be jumping up and down for joy that Del Lorimer had finally sent someone to seek her out. "If you don't want to go inside," he said, "we can talk out here. There's lots of time—the library doesn't open for an hour and a half."
"Talk about what?"
"Your grandfather. Wendel—better know as Del—Lorimer. Who just happens to spend his summers forty miles down the coast. Don't tell me you don't know about him because I won't believe you."
"You're out of your mind," she whispered. "I don't have a grandfather. My grandparents died years ago—not that that's any of your business. Whatever your game is, Mr. Lorimer, I don't like it. Please leave. And don't come back, or I'll set the police on you."
The sheriff on Malagash Island was a longtime friend of Cade's. He should have come up with a strategy, Cade thought irritably, because this wasn't going the way he'd imagined it would. "Who told you your grandparents died?"
A tiny shiver rippled through her body; she hugged her arms to her chest. "Go away—just leave me alone."
"We have several options here, but that's not one of them." Cade's jaw tightened.Above her thin tank top, he could see the enticing shadow of her cleavage. Her arms were smoothly muscled, her fingers long and narrow. Ringless, he noticed, and in a sudden spurt of rage recalled the Lorimer family diamonds.
He'd had enough of this ridiculous fencing. In a blur of movement, he closed the distance between them, gripped her by the arms and said forcefully, "Your grandfather sent me. Cory Lorimer's father."
Ducking her head, she kicked out at him, as vicious and unexpected as a snake. As Cade automatically evaded the slash of her foot, she tore free and took off at a run up the slope.
In five fast strides, Cade caught up with her, grabbed her by the shoulder and tugged her around to face him. But before he could say anything, her body went limp in his hold. Oh, yeah, he thought cynically, oldest trick in the book. Digging his fingers into her shoulder because she was a dead weight, he wrapped the other arm around her waist.
Then, to his dismay, he realized it wasn't a trick. She'd fainted, a genuine, no-fooling faint. Face paper-white, eyes shut, body boneless. With a muttered curse, he lowered her to the ground and thrust her head between her knees.
So the terror had been real. What in God's name was going on? Impulsively he pulled the ball cap off her head, loosing a tumble of dark chestnut curls from which the sun teased streaks of gold. It was soft between his fingers, silky smooth. She was too thin, he thought. But her skin was like silk, too.
Then she stirred, muttering something under her breath. He said with a calmness he was far from feeling, "I'm sorry—I shouldn't have frightened you like that."
He could hear her trying to steady her breath; the small sounds smote him with compunction. He added, "I've never in my life terrified a woman into fainting—not my style. Which is something you'll have to take on trust. Look, let's start again. I have a very important message for you, one I've promised to deliver. But we can do this outside, so you'll feel safe."
Slowly Tess raised her head, her hair falling around her face. She needed a haircut, she thought distantly. Time to get out the scissors and hack the ends off.
The man was still there. Through her tumbled curls she saw hair black as the ravens that flocked the beaches, eyes the harsh gray of the cliffs that ringed the island. His face was carved like the cliffs—hard, unyielding, craggy. And undeniably, terrifyingly male.
A stranger. But worse than a stranger, she thought with a superstitious shiver. Her fate. Dark, dangerous and full of secrets.
Pushing her hair back, terror rising in her throat again so that she could scarcely breathe, she said raggedly, "I've nothing here worth stealing. No money, and I don't do drugs, I swear I don't."
Cade Lorimer said blankly, "Your eyes. They're green." Panic-stricken, she gaped at him. Con artist, or certifiably mad? What did green eyes have to do with anything? She pushed hard against him and said frantically, "There's nothing here for you. Cory's dead—he's been dead for years. Can't you just leave me in peace?"
Cade's heart was thudding in his chest; her words scarcely registered. In all his life, he'd only known one other person with eyes that true, deep green, the green of wet leaves in springtime. That person was Del Lorimer.
She must be Del's granddaughter. She had to be. "Do you wear contact lenses?" he rapped.
Temper streaked with a flash of humor came to her rescue, briefly subduing fear. "Which mental ward have you escaped from? You're here to rob me and you want to know if I wear contacts?"
"Just answer me," Cade said brusquely. "Your eyes—are they really green?"
"Of course they are—what sort of stupid question is that?"
"The only question that matters," he said heavily. So she wasn't a fake; he'd been way off base. That wasn't his style, either.
As for her, her whole body was taut with tension; she was looking at him as warily as if he really was an escapee from a mental institution. Or a thief, the other accusation she'd thrown at him.
Logically he should explain the significance of her eye color. But he wasn't quite ready to do that. "I'm no thief—I have all the money I need," Cade said, "and I'm entirely sane. As for drugs, I've never touched them—more than enough excitement in day-to-day living without dosing myself with chemical additives." He hesitated, then added with huge reluctance, "I'm here to give you something, not to take anything away."
"There's nothing you can give me that I would want," she said stonily. "Nothing."
"How can you say that, when you haven't heard me out?" His smile didn't reach his eyes. "The first step is for both of us to stand up, how about it?"
He took her by the elbow. The coolness of her skin seeped into his pores; her nearness sent heat licking along his veins, liquid heat, primitive and lethal. Oh, no, he thought, appalled. He wasn't going to lust after Del's granddaughter. That really wasn't in the cards.
But as he eased her upright, his senses were assaulted by her body's fragility, and by the scent of lavender, delicate and uncomplicated, that drifted from her skin.Again desire ravaged him, unasked for, totally unwelcome. With all the willpower at his command, a willpower honed over the years, Cade kept his face an unrevealing mask and forced himself to relax.
Shrugging off his fleece vest, he wrapped it around her shoulders. "You're cold," he said. "Go inside and get something warm on. You could call the police, too—Dan Pollard's the sheriff's name, I've known him for years. Give him a description, and he'll vet me. Then we'll talk."
Tess swallowed. Cade Lorimer was standing too close to her, much too close. But while there was concern in his voice, and remorse overlying the gray depths of his gaze, she had the strong sense that both these emotions were, at best, superficial. Lorimer, she thought, and shuddered. How could she trust anyone with the same last name as Cory, her father? "I'll call the police right away," she said flatly. "Don't follow me into the house."
A gull screamed overhead as she walked steadily toward the cabin. The door shut decisively behind her, and Cade heard the snap of the lock. Restlessly he began prowling up and down. If she really was Del's granddaughter, why had she never contacted Del? She'd been here for nearly a year, and not once had she put the touch on him. So what kind of game was she playing? Lying to him, telling him both her grandparents were dead, acting as though he, Cade, was a combination of Attila the Hun and Hannibal Lector.
What was taking her so long?
Swiftly he walked around the back of the cabin, wondering if he'd fallen for the second oldest trick in the book—escape via the back door. But through the plate glass windows that overlooked a small deck and the ocean, he could see Tess Ritchie inside the cabin, her back to him as she did something at the stove. Declining to spy on her, Cade turned and stared out to sea.
No answers there.
The back door scraped open. Tess said, "I've made coffee. I'll give you sixteen minutes of my time and not a minute more."
"Did you phone the sheriff?"
As she gave a choppy nod, Cade pulled up one of the cheap plastic chairs and sat down. She set a tray on the low table. Her movements swift, she poured two mugs of steaming coffee and pushed a plate of muffins toward him. "Homemade?" he asked casually.
"Blueberry. I picked the berries two weeks ago. I've lived here nearly a year—why did you pick today to turn up?"
He knew exactly how long she'd lived here. "A month ago my grandfather had a minor heart attack. It scared the pants off him—his first intimation that he, like everyone else, is mortal. That's when he hired an investigator to—"
The terror was back, full force, nor was she making any effort to mask it. "That's right," Cade said, all his suspicions resurfacing. "Del wanted to discover your whereabouts. Eventually the investigator came up with this location. You must have known of Del's existence, or why else would you be living so close?"
Tess buried her nose in her mug, inhaling the pungency of the dark Colombian blend. "I'm living on the island because I was offered a job here and I love the sea." And because, she thought, it was a very long way fromAmsterdam. "Why would Cory lie, telling me both my grandparents were dead?" she flashed. "My grandfather died years ago, in New York City. Not long after, my grandmother succumbed to pneumonia."
"Was Cory a truthful man?"
Her fingers tightened around the handle of her mug. "He had no reason to lie."
"He did lie. Del's very much alive and wants to meet you. That's why I'm here—to bring that about."
Coffee sloshed over the rim of her mug. "No."
"You haven't even heard me out."
"I don't want to meet him! Ever. Go home and tell him that, and don't either of you bother me again."
"That's not good enough."
"Maybe you should try looking at it from my point of view," she snapped, color flagging her cheeks.
Cade looked at her in silence. Her cheekbones flared like wings; her lips were a soft and voluptuous curve, infinitely enticing, while her eyes, so exotically shaped, so vivid in hue, drew him like a magnet. She was—he knew this without a shadow of doubt—the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
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