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The Porsche sped along the coastal highway north of Charleston. Jake Gannon sat back in the butter-soft leather seat, his right hand on the steering wheel, his left arm resting on the frame of the open window. To his right, the Atlantic stretched into infinity, bluer than the sky and dotted with whitecaps. The cool air that blew through the car was scented with the crisp tang of the sea.
On one level Jake could appreciate the beauty around him. But for the most part his mind was focused on more important things. Jake Gannon tackled every task with an eye to perfection. So far, perfection concerning this business wasn't even a dot on the horizon. The trail had gone utterly cold. It was as if Devon Stafford had simply ceased to exist.
The need for discretion was making his task difficult as he homed in on the area she might have run to. He couldn't flat out ask anyone if they had seen her because questions that blatant would alert too many people, not the least of whom might be Ms. Stafford herself. But he would gladly suffer the inconvenience of anonymity if it meant being the one to find the missing actress and chronicle the story of her rise to fame and her subsequent flight from it.
In three short years Devon Stafford had rocketed to the top, from would-be star to household name. She had become America's darling of both the large and small screen, scoring three big wins in feature films and landing her own weekly television series—Wylde Time, the tales of Chyna Wylde, trauma surgeon and amateur sleuth. She had become the latest idol to emulate, the world's newest icon of sex appeal and glamor. And then she had vanished.
All that was known was that she had argued with her producers over having gained a couple of pounds when she'd quit smoking. Hardly a reason to turn her back on success, but she had gone nevertheless. No one had seen or heard from her in a year.
As a biographer, Jake had to unearth the secrets of people like Devon Stafford. Not to expose them in the way of the tabloid reporters, but to find out what made them tick, to bring to the surface all the hidden dreams, the emotions that drove them, the pasts that haunted them; to show both their polished surfaces and the hairline cracks that ran beneath those surfaces. To present the famous to their public as ordinary people who had for whatever reason become larger-than-life legends.
It was a career he more or less had fallen into, but he had discovered in short order that he was good at it and that he liked it. For the past six years, ever since leaving the Marine Corps, he had made his living at it, writing as A. J. Campion. He saved his own name for the day when he would finally get a mystery novel sold and published. Mystery was his first love, but biographies were in some cases mysteries in their own right. Like now. Devon Stafford was a mystery, one he had every intention of solving.
Never mind that people had hunted for her like bloodhounds the first few months after her disappearance from Hollywood. He was going to find her. Devon Stafford was his objective, and with the thorough perfectionism he was known for, he had dug for every scrap, every tidbit of information about her, no matter how insignificant, no matter how trivial. When Jake Gannon set an objective, he attained it. Period.
He admitted having personal reasons for wanting to be the one to find the actress and convince her to tell her story through him. He had been captivated by Devon Stafford the first time he'd seen her on a movie screen. She was drop-dead gorgeous with her wild waist-long mane of thick icy blond waves, her vibrant green eyes and bee-stung lips that begged a man to kiss them. Her body was the stuff of dreams—reed-slender and strong with subtle curves. She was Venus in a leotard. She was Aphrodite. She was perfect. Like every other red-blooded man on the planet, he felt his hormones go on overload every time he watched her on the screen.
But there was something else about her that made her special. Beautiful women weren't difficult to find. There were plenty of beautiful women who never achieved the kind of fame Devon Stafford had. There was something else about her, an intangible, a special something that made her seem almost incandescent on the screen. She had a way of touching the heart of every person watching her. It was that special something Jake most wanted to try to capture in print. He wanted to examine the puzzle that was Devon Stafford and explain her to the world in a way that would make all the pieces fall into place.
But first he had to find her.
Suddenly the Porsche gave a lurch and sent up a racket that sounded as if someone were hammering under the hood. Jake bolted forward on his seat, muscles in his broad shoulders tensing to the hardness of granite, his eyes intently searching the gauges for signs of distress. The temperature gauge had gone off the scale. The sports car gave another buck and a cough and steam began to billow out from under the hood.
"Don't you dare," Jake commanded in a low, tight voice.
His big hands tightened on the steering wheel in a punishing grip. He glanced around quickly to see where he was. Somewhere between Nowhere and Oblivion; nothing but ocean and empty road as far as the eye could see. Damn, damn, and triple damn. Ahead a green sign indicated the exit to a place called Mare's Nest and he breathed a small sigh of relief.
"If you get me to Mare's Nest I'll buy you a new bug guard," he promised. "I'll rub leather conditioner into all your upholstery. I'll hand-polish every wheel spoke."
The Porsche rolled off the highway and down a two-lane road. Ahead lay rippling dunes set with stringy grass. Three or four miles ahead, sitting out on the tip of a little thumb of land jutting into the Atlantic, was Mare's Nest. So close and yet so far.
"Come on, come on," Jake chanted, moving in his seat like an oversize jockey trying to urge a little more out of his mount. The Porsche would not be coaxed. It shuddered and hissed and locked up its power steering as its engine shut down altogether. The car lunged off the road and sank its front wheels rim-deep into the soft white sand.
Jake hurled himself out of the vehicle and stood beside it, glaring at it, as if he could intimidate it into starting again just with the ferocity of his scowl. It didn't work. The car hissed at him like a cat. Growling, he gave in to the urge to kick a tire. Then he calmed himself with an iron will and did the only thing he could do in view of the fact that he had absolutely no skill with machines. He climbed back inside the car, reached for his cellular phone, and prayed that Mare's Nest had a tow truck.
Dixie hummed along with a Bonnie Raitt tape, feeling supremely free and happy. It was Friday. The pale winter sun was fast sinking in the west. The day had been pleasantly warm, but cooler weather was rolling in. It was going to be a perfect night to bundle up and take a walk along the deserted beach, then snuggle up on the couch with a quilt, a book, and a big mug of rich hot chocolate. Maybe Sylvie Lieberman would come up to the house for a game of Scrabble. Maybe Dixie would be able to coax her cousin down from the attic for dinner. Regardless, it was going to be a fine evening. All was right with her world.
She shifted down for the curve and the big truck growled and rumbled up the gradual incline, purring as if it recognized the victim it had come to rescue. Dixie whistled under her breath at the sight of the sleek midnight blue Porsche 928S4. Very nice. Not the car to suit her needs at the moment, but very nice indeed. It was also very motionless.
Flipping on the truck's flashing yellow beacon, she passed the Porsche and pulled over behind the stranded car. California plates, she noted with a slight frown. Probably a tourist.
She climbed down and rounded the hood, getting her first look at the car's owner. He had emerged from the shell of sleek metal and tinted glass and had stopped in mid-stride to stare at her. His handsome mouth hung open. He looked to be the quintessential California male: mid-thirties, perfectly good-looking in a perfectly blond, All-American way, with a perfect body decked out in perfect clothes. Big, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, he looked like ninety percent of the men she'd known in California, only cuter. There was something irresistible and sweet in the look of utter confusion that knitted his brows together above his aviator sunglasses. The sea breeze fluttered through his straight golden hair, tossing it carelessly over his forehead. He glanced briefly at his car, giving Dixie a view of a strong profile that was rugged and tanned. Robert Redford had nothing on this guy.
"Oh, no, Dixie," she whispered under her breath as a dangerous feeling of weakness ribboned through her. "No California men for you."
As if he would even be interested, she thought with a mix of satisfaction and disappointment. Men who looked like that liked women of the Barbie doll variety, which she was not and had no desire to be.
"What happened here, sugar?" she drawled, strolling past him. She stopped at the nose of the Porsche and planted her hands on her hips, her gaze going from man to car as if an answer from either would satisfy her. "You blow a hose? A belt? Or is it something worse?"
He stared at her suspiciously for a long moment before finding his voice. "I called for a tow truck," he said stupidly.
Dixie smiled. "And you got one. It's that big red and white thing with the flashing light on top and the cables and winches and boom all stickin' up out the back."
His gaze flicked over his shoulder to the truck and back again. Once more, those straight golden brows pulled together in consternation. His square chin jutted forward aggressively. He jammed his hands at the waist of his tailored tan slacks. "But you're a woman."
"So I've been told."
"I'm not a chauvinist," he declared, his frown darkening, challenging her to refute his statement. "I swear I'm not. I just wasn't expecting you to be a woman, that's all. I firmly believe women should have equality in the workplace."
"Just as long as they don't monkey around with your Porsche?" Dixie suggested sweetly.
A growl rumbled in Jake's chest. Lord, it was enough of a blow to his ego that he had to call for help. It galled him no end that he wasn't mechanical. That it was a woman coming to his rescue was rubbing salt into an old irrational wound. Now he had to choke down the unpleasant fact that he was a sexual bigot as well.
He looked the woman up and down, trying to see if her appearance was a clever disguise. She was around thirty, of medium height with an hourglass figure housed in snug jeans and a soft-looking brown sweater that emphasized the shape and size of her breasts. Her face was oval with a straight little nose and a pert little bow of a mouth. Wild and wavy nut brown hair had been sheered off at the bottom of her earlobes in a thick bob.
She wasn't at all the kind of woman he usually went for or even looked at twice, but as she gazed up at him with a wry twinkle in her hazel eyes, he felt the unmistakable stirring of desire. A lazy, warm stirring deep in his gut. Strange. It probably had to do with the trauma of his situation. He admitted she was cute in a well-fed sort of way, but he tried to shove aside the attraction even as it took a firmer hold on him. She was cute, but that didn't qualify her to touch his Porsche.
He didn't have children because he had yet to find the perfect wife. He didn't have a dog because he traveled too much. But he had his Porsche and all his considerable possessive, protective instincts had directed themselves at the car. He wasn't keen on letting just anybody touch it.
"What happened to Eldon of Eldon's Gas and Go?" he asked at length. He shoved his sunglasses on top of his head and fixed the woman with a gaze that had persuaded more than one Marine to confess to some minor misdeed.
Dixie's breath evaporated in her lungs. His eyes were as blue as the ocean on a cloudless day, intense, electric blue, perfectly blue. Naturally. She glanced away from him to compose herself, righting her sense of calm control with an effort that wasn't altogether successful. Luckily, she was good at covering for herself.
"He's gone up to Dongola for Buzz and Fayrene Taylor's forty-fifth wedding anniversary party. Won't be back till Monday. Fayrene is Eldon's wife's sister," she explained, her heartbeat picking up at the look in the man's eyes. A girl could drown in all that blue. He really was awfully handsome. She'd always had a weakness for a big strapping man. Even his scowl struck her as cute.
"His gout is acting up something fierce anyway," she added absently, her gaze riveted to Jake's mouth. "Like as not if he was here he'd of sent me, 'cause Junior is gone to watch the Whippets play basketball."
She took a step back from him and drew in a deep breath of cool air in another attempt to clear her head. Swinging a hand in the direction of the Porsche, she said, "Can we pop the hood on this little sweetheart? It's gonna be gettin' dark."
Jake stepped in front of the car, insinuating himself between the woman and his beloved Porsche, trying to shield it as a father would his child. "Let's not be hasty," he said with a tight smile. "Maybe she just needs a little rest."
Dixie gave him a look. "Honey, it's a car, not a Thoroughbred."
"That's your opinion."
She rolled her eyes and propped her hands on her hips. "You may not believe this, but next to Eldon I'm probably the most mechanical person in Mare's Nest. Now try to look past the fact that I'm wearing a bra and tell me what the car was doing before it quit."
Jake thought it was nearly impossible to overlook the fact that she wore a bra. He doubted anyone else at Eldon's Gas and Go filled their shirt out quite the way she did. His heart gave a jolt as his gaze settled on her ample bosom. He decided to explain his car problems if for no reason other than to distract himself from imagining just what kind of bra it was she had on under that sweater.