The Daddy Catch

The Daddy Catch

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by Leigh Duncan

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Jess Cofer isn't fixing for a fight. All the single mom wants is to run her fly fishing shop and preserve unspoiled Phelps Cove, Florida, for future generations. Too bad Dan Hamilton doesn't see it that way. It looks as if the tall, dark and sexy surgeon is in favor of handing over the endangered habitat to greedy developers!

Dan would love to get on… See more details below


Jess Cofer isn't fixing for a fight. All the single mom wants is to run her fly fishing shop and preserve unspoiled Phelps Cove, Florida, for future generations. Too bad Dan Hamilton doesn't see it that way. It looks as if the tall, dark and sexy surgeon is in favor of handing over the endangered habitat to greedy developers!

Dan would love to get on his gorgeous new fishing instructor's good side—if she has one. But he can't throw away this opportunity to fulfill his dream to build a safe haven for foster teens. Dan knows that when it comes to the truly important things like love and family, he and Jess are on the same side. Will she forgive him when she learns what he's been hiding?

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Fatherhood , #1360
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"I brought ya some coffee, boss." Sam, On The Fly's manager, placed a sturdy cardboard cup on the edge of Jess Cofer's desk. "You got a few minutes before we open up?"

"Sure." Jess swallowed back a grimace. An employee who wanted to chat before the first customer walked in could only mean her day was rolling further downhill. A shame, because she usually looked forward to Saturday. Most of the time, it meant heading out the door with a fly rod in her hand and a client at her side, but not today. Instead, a last-minute cancellation had forced her to take a hard look at the store's books. She glanced at the tally beneath the expense column and exhaled slowly. Merritt Island's premier fly fishing shop was in trouble.

What would Sam do if he learned the shop's bottom line had taken on water and was headed for the riverbed? Would he quit? Without her most valued employee to run interference with their wealthier, more demanding clientele, she didn't know what she'd do. Bail, probably. She mustered a wary smile for the man in the doorway.

"What's up?" A handful of unruly curls fell across her face. She brushed them aside.

Sam leaned against the doorjamb. He tapped a rolled-up newspaper against his palm. When he didn't speak, Jess nodded to the paper.

"Any good news in there?" she asked.

The lines around Sam's watery blue eyes deepened. "Prices are up and income is down. Same as usual," he humphed. His voice dropped until Jess could scarcely hear him.

"And old man Phelps died," he murmured. "The paper says he was eighty-six."

Jess slowly settled her red pen on top of her scarred oak desk. The coffee she'd sipped rolled uneasily in her stomach.

"Henry Phelps?"

At Sam's nod, she blinked back a mist of tears and rummaged through the desk drawer for a pack of Kleenex. It lay beneath a hank of ginger bucktail left over from a recent fly tying session. She tugged out a tissue and dabbed her eyes.

"Aw, I shoulda broke the news better." Floorboards creaked as Sam shifted his weight. He shot a hopeful glance toward the display room. "Want me to leave ya alone, boss?"

Jess shook her head. "No, I'll be all right." Henry had been their first client, and after Tom died, it'd been the Florida native's idea to preserve Phelps Cove as a memorial to her late husband. They had worked together on the project until the elderly man's stroke two months ago, but even that hadn't dimmed his dream. They had talked about it when she'd dropped by the hospital last week. Now, Phelps Cove would make a fitting legacy for both Tom and Henry.

The thought settled her stomach, and Jess managed a wobbly smile.

"Henry was a good man. When's the funeral?"

Sam shrugged. "Too early for an obit, but there's a nice write-up on the front page." He unfurled the paper and pointed with a calloused finger. "All about how he made his fortune. Talks a little bit about Phelps Cove and his involvement with Protect Our Environment." He looked down, refusing to meet her eyes. "What's the latest on that?"

The question threatened to send her stomach back into free fall, but Jess caught herself. At 2.5 million dollars for one hundred acres of prime riverfront, not even the state of Florida would be foolish enough to botch the deal. She shook her head, remembering the time a reporter had shoved a microphone at Henry and demanded he explain his motives for selling the land so far below its market value.

"How much money does a body need in one lifetime?" Henry had shot back. "I already got me a fortune. This is my chance at history. Phelps Cove'll be here long after I'm gone."

And now he was. Gone. Jess's shoulders slumped in a world that felt a little emptier.

At a restless sound from the doorway, she straightened. The funding approval was practically a rubber stamp, according to her counterpart in POE, and he should know. The organization was tasked with establishing protected habitats on state-owned land. She aimed a thumb at a poster on the wall behind her.

"Henry always said our great-grandkids should see what Florida looked like before the moon race and theme parks brought in tourism."

"That niece o' his might have different plans," Sam suggested.

She had nearly forgotten about the woman who, according to Henry, rarely ventured out of New York.

"Estelle does prefer life in the big city," she mused. "Henry gave me her number when he flew up for her oldest's graduation. I think it's still in my address book. Let me call her. See where things stand."

When Sam took that as his cue to escape, Jess wished she could go with him. Henry had referred to his niece as "distant" and "self-serving," and Jess was pretty sure she wouldn't like talking to the woman any more than she enjoyed running a business that catered to people who had more money than sense. For the umpteenth time that month, she wondered why she bothered.

Her gaze drifted from the bills and receipts scattered across her desk to her favorite fly rod, propped in the corner of the tiny office. For the first time since she'd arrived at work that morning, she smiled. Tomorrow was Sunday, the one day of the week On The Fly's doors remained closed. A day when she could take her favorite fishing buddy on an excursion to Phelps Cove in honor of two special men, his dad and their old friend. Her smile deepened as she picked up the phone.

A rising tide salted the air. Beyond white sand dunes, the surf roared against the shore. Dan Hamilton eyed the bunched shoulders of the figure ahead of him on the coquina walkway and wondered why the other man was so tense. Dan thought he should be the nervous one. This was, after all, his first night of cards with the big dogs of Brevard County's medical society. The occasion prompted a critical self-appraisal and, on the short walk to the converted guesthouse, Dan did just that.

Manners so well rehearsed anyone would think he'd learned them on his mother's knee? Check. Bland, Midwestern accent slathered over his native Southern drawl like mayonnaise on a baloney sandwich? Check. The

same understated labels his peers at the poker table were sure to wear? Got 'em.

Satisfied he had ticked off every item with the same careful attention he gave the operating room each time he picked up a scalpel, Dan straightened his shoulders as Bryce Jones III beckoned him into a masculine lair of leather and dark wood. Behind them, the door closed with a swish and a snick, locking out the bright sunshine of a January afternoon on Florida's east coast. Bryce crossed immediately to a bar so well-stocked it deserved its own liquor license. Crystal glasses clinked softly as they settled onto polished wood while Dan fought the urge to wrinkle his nose at the nutty scent of old cigars that drifted in the chilly air.

"Take a look. I think you'll be impressed."

Bryce nodded toward walls peppered with land maps and architectural drawings. On a corner table, beneath spotlights, scale-model buildings and statuary were staggered down a slope to a mock river's edge. A tiny sign read The Aegean.

"You throwing in the towel and moving to Greece?" Dan asked. Not that he believed for a minute the plastic surgeon would walk away from his high-profile client list.

"Me?" Bryce chuckled and poured Scotch without asking Dan's preference. "Nah. You ever been there?"

"No. Not yet." Accepting the glass he was handed, Dan shook his head. He'd barely paid off his school loans and started planning for the future. Ten years of post-grad training among the skilled hands and sharp minds at the University of Florida had put him on the fast track to becoming the best thoracic surgeon in the county, maybe in the state. Once he nailed that recognition, he'd have the clout to achieve his most important goal. After that, there'd be time and money for travel, a hobby. Maybe even a date or two.

Bryce gestured to a painting of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.

"You'd love Greece. The islands are peaceful. Private. Exactly the atmosphere my more refined patients expect. Jack and I—you know him, don't you?"

He nodded. Jack Tillman was another plastic surgeon whose family roots ran oak-tree deep. Dan's own were tenacious and hardy, but thanks to the father he'd never met, they were shallow as crabgrass.

Bryce continued. "We want to bring a bit of Greece to our own corner of the universe. There are a thousand cosmetic surgical centers, but ours will offer world-class facilities in tropical seclusion. Deep water access from the Intercoastal Waterway means our patients can recuperate aboard their own yachts." He righted a tiny boat. "Or in one of our cottages. Think of the advantages—no airport hassles, no paparazzi. Just sail south and return looking refreshed and rested after a little touch-up."

At the hint of unexpected possibilities, Dan's chest tightened the way it did on those rare occasions when things in the operating room took an unexpected turn. Thankful his host couldn't see the reaction, he focused on his glass of single malt and took a sip.

"Interesting," he said, leaving Bryce to interpret the remark.

The other man tipped his glass to the arrangement of buildings. "We invited a few friends to invest—Mark, Foreman, Chase. Do you know Chase? He's a thoracic surgeon, like you."

Not exactly like me. Chase spent more time on the golf course than he did in surgery.

"Not well," Dan admitted. In fact, he rarely saw any of Bryce's circle outside the hospital or fundraisers. Tonight's poker party had marked a change in that status, but if he was reading the other doctor correctly, a lot more than cards were on the table.

"They'll all be here tonight." Bryce's focus drifted to the far corner where stacks of chips stood waiting on a green-felted table. "I found the perfect spot on north Merritt Island. It's raw and undeveloped, except for an abandoned orange grove."

Dan followed the man's glance as it slid back to the wall of maps.

"The owner was a miserable old coot." Bryce's eyes narrowed. "He wanted to practically donate the land to the state. Lucky for us, the transfer didn't go through before he died. I tracked down his only heir, who loves the idea of a quick sale. Unfortunately, we've lost an investor." Bryce tsked. "Chase. His ex hired some big-bucks lawyer out of Boca who tied up his last dime until the divorce is final."

Dan squelched the urge to comment on Bryce's callousness. "Bad timing for you," he offered.

"The worst." Amber liquid swirled in Bryce's glass until it sloshed against the sides. "Property like this won't come along again. I'm not going to let it slip past." He knocked back the last of his drink and stared at Dan, his jaw set. "We need someone who shares our goals and interests. Jack mentioned your name."

While the other man spouted facts about leverages and loans and the near certainty of doubling his investment in a year, Dan forced himself to pretend an overwhelming interest in the model architecture. If the profit margin was even half what Bryce said it was, the venture would solidify his financial and professional security.

He wanted in on the deal so bad he could taste the Kalamata olives, but something told him there had to be a catch. "I might be interested," he hedged. "I'd have to take a look at all the details. What's the buy-in?"

"This is the last big parcel without a house or a business in all of Merritt Island. Plus, we'll have to dredge a new channel for the bigger boats."

"How much?" he insisted.

"Half a mil. Maybe a little more. The rest we can finance once the land is ours."

Bryce headed to the bar for another round while Dan did a quick calculation. There was the money he'd set aside to expand his practice. If he scrapped those plans and plundered his retirement funds, he could scrape up half a million dollars. Not overnight, but he could do it.

"Equal shares?"

"Jack and I will take a larger risk for a bigger share of the profits. Even split for the rest."

"What's the time frame?"

"The lawyers have to do their thing, of course." Bryce splashed more Scotch into their glasses. "Some eco group wants the land, but with the niece on our side, we can outbid them. Say, ninety days? Something like that work for you?"

Dan tamped down his enthusiasm with a long pull from the fresh drink. "Maybe," he allowed. "And my role?" A center like The Aegean wouldn't have much call for a thoracic surgeon.

"You'd sit on the board of directors. Lend your name to our advertising campaign. Why don't you take a look at the property?" Bryce held out a folded paper.

Dan slipped the map into the pocket of his leather jacket. He had rounds at the hospital first thing in the morning, but the rest of his Sunday was wide-open. "I'll check it out," he said.

"Fine, then. Let's get together one night next week and crunch some…" Bryce's head tilted at the sound of muffled voices beyond the door. "One last thing," he said quickly. "Before all this happened with Chase, the group of us had planned a fly fishing trip to Belize. It's coming up in April. For obvious reasons, you'd take his place."

"Sounds great," Dan said as the door swung wide enough to let a blast of heat and noise into the darkened room.

Dan hid his astonishment behind a stoic facade while the others, all doctors who'd followed their parents to Harvard and Yale, filed in and drifted to their seats, pulling bills from fat wallets. Even as he exchanged the usual pleasantries with the men, it was hard to grasp the truth. He'd spent his youth so far beyond the wrong side of the tracks, the sound of a passing train was just a whisper in the night. And now, he was a member of the inner circle.

"That's one-fifty to you, Dan," Bryce said.

He wrenched his attention to the present and slid a couple of chips into a growing pot. Over the next week he would visit the property, put his financial guy to work on the money issues and hire an instructor to teach him one end of a fishing rod from the other. But for now, he would focus on the cards he'd been dealt. For the next few hours, he made sure not to win too much and, thinking of the money he needed to raise, made real sure he didn't lose too much.

The school of redfish was late making its daily foray into the cove.

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