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Murphy's Point, South Mississippi Memorial Day Weekend Saturday, early evening
"Boat sink! Boat sink!" Harris splashed and water slipped over the side of the claw-footed tub into Cally's lap.
"Of course it does when you have a tidal wave, sweetie."
"Don't want it to sink."
"Then don't splash so much, darlin'. It's almost time to get out—two more minutes."
Cally surveyed the flooded floor. She wasn't sure but there was probably as much water on her as on the bath mat. Her son loved his baths. Of course, she'd need to mop up afterwards.
Still, this was her favorite part of the day. By now her inn-keeping duties were usually done until the following morning when breakfast was served, and she was free to focus on her son. But tonight her guests were running late, so she was getting a head start on the evening routine before they checked in to River Trace.
She would be sold-out with Gregor Williams's group coming in for a gambling holiday, plus her new boarder, Mr. North. She'd never intended to take in a long-term resident, but McCay County was the only area of the state with a housing shortage in this depressed economy. Two hurricanes had recently swept the Mississippi coastline back to back, ravaging an area still struggling after Katrina.
Mr. North, one of the Paddlewheel Casino's onsite bodyguards, was tired of making the hour-and-a-half commute to work from Jackson, and he was more than willing to live here until he could find a more permanent residence. She hadn't met him yet. He'd done everything through e-mail, but she hoped he was pleasant. Even if he wasn't, the money was too good to turn down.
She and Bay, the groundskeeper, had just finished his room today. They'd gradually been converting all the bedrooms in River Trace to guestrooms as the business increased. Moving that antique armoire up to the attic room had about killed them both. But they'd done it, all while Harris napped down here—compliments of her new high-tech baby monitor.
Cally still couldn't believe she was living her dream of running a bed-and-breakfast in Murphy's Point. Of course that dream had come at a crushing price. At twenty-eight years old, she was a widow with a three-year-old son.
Tears pricked the back of her eyes. Damn it. She hated to cry. It had been almost four years and the grief could still unexpectedly bring her to her knees. Sometimes the pain snuck up on her like this and grabbed her from behind. She didn't have time for it.
"Boat sink! Boat sink!" More water hit the floor and splattered her shirt, shaking her from memories best left in the past.
"Okay, sailor. It's time to abandon ship and get ready for bed."
Harris giggled. "I bring boat?"
"Yes, darling. As soon as I dry it off."
"Yay! Harris take boat to bed…to bed."
Oh, the cry of my heart. "Now let's get your pj's on and brush those teeth."
"Yes, honey. I hear it." One of her guests no doubt. She scrambled up with a wiggling, wet toddler in her arms. Great.
"Let's see how fast we can get those pj's on."
After a couple of tries Cally gave up on the pajamas. They were sticking to the damp places on Harris's back, arms and bottom.
"Well, let's just get underwear on so you aren't completely naked." She slipped in a puddle as she stepped out of the bathroom and went down on the one knee that, up to that point, had been dry.
"Coming, coming," she muttered under her breath. "Keep your shirt on."
"Not wearing shirt, Momma."
Cally grinned in spite of herself. She passed the gilded mirror in the hallway and her blue eyes widened. How much water had Harris splashed on her?
Her thick hair, wavy under the best of circumstances, was now falling out of the bun on top of her head and curling around her face in ringlets. Her makeup was completely gone, except for that smear of mascara under her left eye. Her clothes were…soaked. And there was a large wet spot across the front of her blouse that made it practically transparent. Lovely.
No time to change into dry clothes. She shifted Harris from her hip to her chest and clasped both hands under his bottom.
She glanced in the mirror again. At least she couldn't see her bra through the shirt anymore because Harris now covered her like a blanket. She took a swipe at the mascara and snorted a laugh at the effort.
So much for first impressions.
Marcus was ringing the bell for the fourth time as the heavy front door swung open. The woman behind the massive oak-and-glass panel held a wet-haired toddler and looked as if she had just stepped out of the bathtub in her clothes.
Marcus started to reach out to shake the lady's hand and realized she couldn't let go of the child.
"Hi, I'm Marcus North. I think you were expecting me earlier?" He smiled.
The kid was wriggling and getting the mother's shirt even wetter and more transparent as he turned around in her arms trying to get a look at the stranger. The woman brushed curly red hair out of her eyes. She smiled tentatively but her cornflower-blue eyes looked somewhat panicked.
"Hello, Mr. North. I'm Cally Burnett. Welcome to River Trace Inn. I'm glad you're here." She talked fast. "Come on inside. We'll get you all checked in. I…" She hesitated as she looked down at her clothes, clearly uncomfortable at being caught unprepared.
Marcus attempted to put her at ease. "Did you fall in?" he asked with a straight face.
"What…? No…I mean," she stammered and looked down again at her water-stained clothes as a genuine smile tugged at the edge of her lips. She had a beautiful mouth with twin dimples accenting the corners. "I know it looks that way but, actually, I only went wading."
"They say one can drown in two inches of water." He grinned back at her.
Cally winced and seemed to recover her smile, but the dimples were gone. "That's about how much water is on the bathroom floor."
"Well, he looks as if he certainly enjoyed putting it there." Marcus turned his attention to the little boy who was openly staring at him with a confused look.
"Momma didn't fall. She giving me bathed."
Her mouth dimpled faintly. "Of course not, darling. We were just joking. Mr. North, this is my son, Harris."
"Hi, Mr. Nowth."
Marcus reached out his hand to shake Harris's damp one. "Hi, Harris, it's nice to meet you."
"Let's get you all settled. You must be tired after your drive." Cally began the innkeeper's patter as she brought him into the high-ceilinged living room and over to an antique secretary to handle the paperwork.
"No, not so much." Marcus looked around the magnificent room, his undercover cop's brain automatically taking note of and cataloguing details. From the front door he had stepped directly into a large living area with a baby grand piano at one end and a fireplace at the other. Soft moss-green walls made the grandeur much more comfortable than he would have thought possible.
Hardwood floors were covered with several different richly colored oriental rugs. Two loveseats from a bygone era nestled close to the fireplace. Beyond the sitting area on the right he glimpsed the dining room's huge banquet table and antique sideboard. A large rose-crystal chandelier glowed dimly over the table that was already set for breakfast with heavy silver serving pieces and crystal goblets.
A grand staircase ran parallel to the room on the opposite end by the piano. A hallway lay straight ahead that seemed to go toward the back of the house, and rooms connected off each end of the living room.
"You have a beautiful home, Mrs. Burnett. How long have you lived here?"
"A little over eight years." She looked up from the registration book. "This was my husband's family home. His great-grandfather built it at the turn of the century."
"Oh, so it doesn't date back to the Civil War."
"No," she laughed softly. "Although I'm afraid the Chamber of Commerce wishes it did. They wanted to suggest that perhaps William Faulkner slept here. But the sad fact is nothing of historic significance has ever occurred at River Trace."
"Except raising the Burnett family of course."
Her dimples reappeared.
"So do you and your husband run the bed-and-breakfast?"
Again, her smile faltered. "No, my husband died almost four years ago. I run River Trace myself with the help of Bay and Luella Wiggins."
Now it was Marcus's turn to wince. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
She shook her head and looked back down at the paperwork. "That's all right. It…ithappens all the time." She stopped writing to look up at him directly. "I know you don't know what to say."
Marcus nodded gratefully, feeling that he was definitely losing his social skills. He wondered what had happened to the husband.
As if reading his thoughts, Harris piped up, "Daddy dwowned…but not in bathtub."
Cally gaped at the child in shocked surprise. Marcus groaned. No wonder his earlier comment about drowning had caused such an unusual reaction.
"That's right, honey." She recovered herself and held him close as she patted his back and looked into his eyes.
"He lives in heaven with angels."
"Um-hmm," she murmured, still staring into the boy's face.
"Lulu says so. Bay, too."
"That's right, baby. That's right."
She gazed at Harris a moment longer, continuing to cuddle him and took a deep breath. He laid his head on her shoulder. Marcus shifted on his feet, uncomfortable with his eavesdropping. It usually wouldn't bother him, but in this case, it was extraordinarily awkward.
She seemed to sense his discomfort. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize he knew what that meant. I mean we've talked about it, but…" She stopped, blushed a deep pink, clearly at a loss for words.
"That's all right. I'm sorry about what I said earlier."
Her forehead creased, "About?"
"Oh," she nodded. "You must be wondering after all this."
Her hand fluttered about Harris's back but her voice was cool and composed. "My husband was in a boating accident. He was duck-hunting and putting out decoys when the boat capsized. His waders filled with water and he drowned."
"I'm terribly sorry."
"I am, too." She sighed. "But life goes on." She looked at the little boy in her arms and gave him a squeeze. "Here's the proof." Harris giggled sleepily. "Let me show you to your room. It's right up these steps." Marcus followed her to the grand staircase. Their feet were silent on the carpeted steps.
"Your room was originally an attic when the house was built. At one time it was a nursery. Now it's definitely the most secluded spot at River Trace."
At the top of the second flight, Cally turned left and led him past several rooms toward the back of the house. Her hair had come out of its pins and was trailing halfway down her back in ringlets. Marcus watched as Harris opened and closed his fists around one of the curls.
The outline of her bra strap was clearly visible through the wet shirt. It was lacey, pink and distracting the hell out of him. She turned right and paused at another landing.
"I thought since you were going to be here a while, this would give you more privacy. You have your own bath and there's another stairway here if you prefer. It was originally a servants' stairway. And if you've had areally long day…" She didn't finish the sentence as she pointed toward the antique one-man elevator.
"It still works?" he asked.
Cally nodded, opened a door and led him up a narrow stairwell. He could see how the location would have been perfect for a child's nursery.
"We just finished getting it all together today."
Marcus stepped up into the room behind her. She crossed another oriental rug and sat Harris down on a wide window seat.
As she leaned over to close the window, he got an unexpected but rather spectacular view of her butt in the water-soaked jeans. Her wet shirt had ridden up and he could see a line of milky-white skin along her back.
He caught himself staring, imagining the view under different circumstances. If she turned around without picking up the boy first, he'd get a peek at the latest Victoria's Secret had to offer. With a jolt he realized he wasn't paying attention to a word she was saying.
"…we painted earlier this week, but I wanted to make sure the smell was completely gone."
Marcus took in a gulp of air, attempting to clear the erotic images forming in his head. "Hmm. All I smell is ah…flowers?"
"Yes." Cally smiled, completely unaware of where his thoughts had been. "That would be the potpourri." She nodded at a silver bowl on the captain's desk to his right.
"The bathroom's through here." She pointed toward the small hallway to his left; straight ahead was a queen-size bed flanked by small antique tables. "We just moved the armoire in today."
He reassessed her as he took in the large cabinetry opposite the window. "You moved that yourself? Up those stairs?" He studied her slim build and tried to imagine her lifting the heavy antique. Even with a man helping her, it was a formidable job.
"Well, Bay and I did. I couldn't have done it on my own. I can't imagine doing any of this without the Wigginses. You'll meet him and Luella tomorrow. River Trace simply couldn't run without them. They're amazing."
"I'd say so." He mentally struggled to get focused again.
"Let's see. I need to get you more towels, and you need a brandy decanter." She ticked the items off on her fingers.
"It's a gift when you check in. Our special label. Homemade peach brandy. Not to be missed." She stared straight at him—open and friendly, but it wasn't a come-on. He knew that.
Facing him, she wasn't holding the kid. Marcus locked his eyes on hers and willed himself not to look below her neck at that transparent shirt.
"Now…what else. Oh, yes. Since you're up three stories here, the fire marshal insists I tell you how to get out in case the stairway is blocked during a fire." She headed for the window seat.
Marcus swallowed hard when she bent over to pick up Harris and lifted the lid on the built-in seat. Her shirt rode up again revealing more of that creamy skin that he was suddenly very curious to touch.
"There's a ladder here," she said over her shoulder.
She reached for the jumble of metal and rope, and he realized he was staring again. He was going to get busted if he didn't stop. He reached around her, accidentally brushing against her shoulder.
"Sorry," he muttered.
She startled. "Thank you," she murmured, stepping aside. "You attach it by those handles to the window and then you can ease down to the roof."
"Where do I go from there?" he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. Touching her had been a bad idea, a really bad idea.
Cally turned to look at him with a sober face and sparkling eyes. "You jump."
He barked a laugh.