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Brenna McGary flung open the door of C's Styles and Spa.
Pausing only to wave at the receptionist, she stalked past two stylists and the nail tech's desk, zoning in on the shop's owner, Courtney.
Her friend and fellow historical society member, Sloan Kendrick, sat in Courtney's chair, her long blond hair encased in several dozen foil highlighting packets.
"Wait till you read the latest," Brenna said, waving the Palmer's Island Herald.
Sloan continued to flip through a fashion magazine. "That idiot reporter Jerry Mescle is way too wordy for me. Give us the bottom line."
"Gavin Fortune is part of the research team."
To Brenna's disgust, this announcement was met not by an echo of her own deeply held outrage, but by breathy sighs and rosy cheeks.
Courtney dropped her comb and snatched the paper from Brenna's hand. "Is there a picture?"
Two stylists left their clients to hover over Courtney's shoulder and take a peek. Even blissfully married Sloan leaned in.
Brenna rolled her eyes. Of course there was a picture. What was the fun of being a money-grubbing, morally vacant opportunist if you weren't also the hottest man on the planet?
And Gavin Fortune definitely fit that bill.
Even with that idiotic, had-to-be-made-up name.
Recently, a team of researchers from Miami had found a Civil War era ship a few miles off the coast of Palmer's Island and begun recovery procedures. The Carolina had cruised the waters and raided merchant vessels between the U.S. and the Caribbean from 1861 until the spring of 1863, when she and her crew arrived in Charleston Harbor to aid the Confederacy in the war effort.
Her seamencynics might call them privateers at best, pirates at worstfought valiantly for the South for five months before the Union sank the ship on September 16. The location of the wreckage had become a fascinating legend to locals, due to the rumor of the ship's valuable cargo. The crew had supposedly been secretly carrying infamous pirate Captain James Cullen and his treasure chest of jewelry and gold coins.
Now, with glory-hound treasure hunter Gavin Fortune front and center, the Miami team had turned out to be exactly what Brenna and the other members of both the Charleston and Palmer's Island historical societies had feared mosta grave robber.
"Too bad the Herald can't afford to print in color anymore," Courtney commented, ruefully shaking her head of blazing red curls.
"Even in black and white, he's pretty dreamy," Sloan said as Courtney handed the paper to one of the other stylists, who wanted a closer look.
Brenna huffed in disgust. "Dreamy? Are you people insane? Gavin Fortune is the devil. The enemy. The scourge of historical societies the world over. The secretary of the Charleston group told me she started a website, diefortunedie."
Brenna's friends stared at her.
Sloan angled her head. "Gee, Bren. We appreciate passion in our members, but as long as you pay your dues, murder isn't part of the initiation ceremony."
"You need some highlights to calm you down," Courtney said, snagging her hand and leading her to the empty chair one station over.
Barely glancing at her strawberry-blond locks in the mirror, Brenna crossed her arms over her chest. "I told you guys those people were up to no good."
"We always figured they were more interested in the treasure than the historical aspects of the discovery." Sloan managed a small smile, even though Brenna knew she was just as worried. "That photo op looked more like an ad for swimwear than a serious scientific endeavor."
Brenna recalled the event, the recovery team posing on the marina's main pier with two bikini-clad girls holding up a gold plastic treasure chest, and her blood boiled all over again.
"But a lot of museums benefit from these kinds of finds," Sloan continued.
Brenna shook her head. "Not ones that rat Fortune is involved with. He swoops in, scrounges for valuables, then sells his treasures to the highest bidder. He doesn't care if the collection is bought as a whole or in a million pieces. We have to stop him."
"That's easier said than done." Courtney pulled Brenna's hair from its ponytail and brushed it out. "He's rich, famous and a media charmer."
Sloan bit her lip. "I'm not as concerned about him as an individual as I am about public opinion."
"They're fascinated," Brenna agreed.
"The mayor has visions of national exposure and Palmer's Island becoming another Kiawah-like resort destination," Sloan said.
Courtney glanced at her. "I thought he was stuck on getting a PGA-approved golf course."
Brenna sighed. "Somehow, I think he'd settled for a hundred-plus-year-old treasure chest full of gold and priceless jewels."
Courtney picked up individual strands of Brenna's hair and examined them closely. "I haven't touched this in a month. How does it look better today than when I fixed it last?"
"Because her hair's perfect, as always," Sloan said.
Brenna shrugged. "Yeah, whatever." Her dad was an Irish redhead, her mother a Southern-born bombshell blonde. She got bothat least on her head. "Thanks," she added to her friends, not wanting to seem completely churlish. Her hair was one of her few features she actually liked. "But can we stay on topic?"
"Hair or hot treasure hunters?" Courtney asked.
"Amoral treasure hunters," Brenna clarified.
"I vote you confront him."
At these abrupt words, Brenna stared at Sloan. "Me?"
"Sure." This time Sloan's grin was genuine. "I'm betting he's not the kind of guy who can resist an enraged Irish pixie."
From anybody else, Brenna would have been wildly annoyed by this comparison. Her small stature was a serious area of contention.
But she and Sloan had been friends since high school, where she was head cheerleader and Brenna had been a champion gymnast. They'd fought together to be taken seriously as athletes, surrounded by football, baseball and basketball players who were bigger, stronger and had their sports fully funded by the school district. Brenna had even earned a scholarship to the University of Florida and been an SEC champion on floor exercise before a variety of knee injuries derailed her career.
"I don't think that's a very good idea," she said finally to Sloan's suggested confrontation. "I'm too angry to be rational."
"You're always rational," Sloan pointed out. "You deal with teenagers on a daily basis. If you can handle them, one amoral treasure hunter should be a relaxing vacation."
"I agree," Courtney said, her brown eyes sparking with enthusiasm. "You're the one who's done the research. You know all about Gavin Fortune and his tactics."
Brenna glanced from Courtney to Sloan. "Are you sure this isn't just a ploy to get a firsthand report of how hot this guy is?"
"Oh, no," Courtney assured her, though her face flushed too quickly to be convincing. "We're the historical society. We should have an official representative to let these guys know we're watching them."
Brenna swept her hand down her minuscule frame. "And you're sure I'm the one for the job?"
"Absolutely," Sloan said.
"You'd be better," Brenna insisted. The edge of her indignation was wearing off, rapidly replaced by suspicion. "You're the president of the society. Why me?"
"Because I have a pistol, and I know how to use it."
On the short drive to the marina, Brenna began to seriously question the plan.
Sure, Sloan was the former sheriff's daughter, and she did have a tendency to be impulsive and passionate, but she was their leader. Wasn't it her duty to handle the big problems?
Maybe Brenna had started the cause of watching the ship's excavation, but she had personal issues with the situation that had to be taken into account. And though she was upset, the whole "I'm too angry to be rational" thing had been a weak excuse. Mostly she was a talker, not a fighter.
She could easily intimidate high school kids with a glare, but confronting a man of Gavin Fortune's well, breadthgiven the tightness of his T-shirt in the newspaper picturewasn't an area of strength.
Since Palmer's Island was an Atlantic Ocean barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina, just over three miles wide and five miles long, the trip from the centrally located hair salon to the marina at the tipeven with summer tourist season in full swingtook about three minutes. As she pulled off Beach Road, which ran the length of the island and allowed glimpses between the fabulous beach houses to the rolling sea sliding onto the sand, she searched the crowded parking lot for an empty space.
Tall palmetto trees, whose long green fronds swayed in the breeze, were flanked by their bushy shrub cousins and rows of sea oats. Puffy white clouds were the only things dotting the bright blue sky. Though the marina actually rested on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island, at this end the land between the Atlantic and the waterway was only a couple hundred feet wide.
Her friend and lawyer, Carr Hamilton, lived on the opposite side of the street in a beautifully modern house on the point, and she cast a glance that way, wondering if he was home and if she should bring him along for this unpleasant confrontation with Gavin Fortune.
After shaking away that impulse and finally finding a spot at the end of the back row, she turned off the car and checked her reflection in the visor mirror. Small features, fair skin and "green as a shamrock" eyes, according to her father. She applied a little pink gloss to her lips, knowing no amount of makeup or surgery was ever going to turn her into a cover model.
She laid her hand over her cell phone sitting in the console. She should call Sloan and have her come meet her. Men fell at her feetboth before and since she'd married her darkly gorgeous husband.
The only male who consistently rubbed against Brenna lately was her prize Persian, Shakespeare Fuzzyboots.
With her hand wrapped around her phone, she caught a glimpse of the newspaper she'd tossed on the passenger's seat of her car. The confident smile and perfect teeth of Dr. Gavin Fortune flashed back at her.
He'd probably gotten an honorary degree from some university he'd donated a pile of cash to. His online bio had been vague, focusing on the high-profile treasures he'd found and profited from, not any actual qualifications he had for finding them.
With renewed determination, she stepped out of her car. She had a legitimate education. College had given her a teaching degree, specializing in literature, which she'd used in a variety of high schools throughout the South. She'd traveled through Europe, Asia and Greece. Sure, she lived on a small island, but she'd come home just two years ago, after her mother broke her hip playing tennis and needed her help.
The fact that she knew she was home to stay didn't make her unsophisticated. The island called to her sense of poetry, history and sheer appreciation of beauty. She wasn't hiding here. She certainly wasn't remembering how she'd found her last boyfriend in bed with the girl from Merry Maids.
After learning from the harbormaster that the research team was renting slip forty-two, she made her way down the pier, past a variety of speedboats, cabin cruisers and yachts.
She'd nearly reached her destination when it occurred to her that they might even now be at the wreck site scavenging for valuables. The vision of that atrocity had her quickening her pace.
With great relief, she saw a large cabin cruiser with the script Miami Heat bobbing next to the dock. Three men were standing on the bow of the boat. None of them was Gavin Fortune.
They noticed her approach, and the swarthy, Hispanic-looking one approached her with a smile. "Looking for Dr. Fortune?"
How had he known? "As a matter of fact, I am."
His grin widened. "I bet I could help."
"That's very kind of you to offer, but I really need to see him."
Shrugging, the man extended his hand to help her on board, then swept his arm in the direction of the boat's stern. "He's already turned away three today, senorita, but buena suerte to you."
Thanking him, Brenna rolled her shoulders. She'd take all the good luck she could get. But what three
Her steps faltered. Three women. He'd already had others coming to find him. And she'd bet her entire collection of first-edition Yeatses that they hadn't come to call him out about his unethical research practices.
Were the women of Palmer's Island that hard up?
She found him leaning against the railing at the very back of the boat and focusing on a stack of papers held in his hand.
She was somewhat prepared for the wavy, sandy-brown hair, pulled into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck, but as she moved toward him, he lifted his head. His hazel eyes and the disarming dimples in his cheeks had a lot more impact live and in person than on her computer screen or in the newspaper.
But the circumstance that had her heart threatening to jump out of her chest was the fact that he was wearing a wet suit. At least from the waist down. The top half of himall tan skin and lean musclewas completely bare.
He sighed as she continued to stare at him mutely. "Let me guess, you're an amateur diver and you've always been fascinated by history."
She blinked at his deep voice, heavy on the Southern accent. Texas maybe. With reluctance, she raised her gaze to his face.
And all the moisture in her mouth dried instantly. "Ah no," she managed to say.
He straightened to his full heighta solid six-threethen strode toward her. "Look, honey, I've got a lot of work to do, so " He stopped a few inches away, and she broke out in a sweat that had nothing to do with the blazing summer sun overhead. "How tall are you?"
By now, she should be used to the question, but he managed to startle her anyway. "Is that relevant?"
"You can't be over five feet."
She glanced down at her platform sandals, which added a good four inches to her height, and defiantly told the truth. "Four-eleven and three-quarters."
When she looked up again, his gaze was pinned to hers.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a teacher."
"History? Social studies?"
Finally getting her bearings with his remarkable looks, she crossed her arms over her chest. "English literature, if you must know. Again, how is that relevant?"
"Oh, hell. Another Bronte groupie."
"I prefer Jane Austen."
If possible, he looked even more disappointed. "I was in a good mood today. I really was." He folded the papers in his hand, then walked past her toward the cabin area in the center of the boat.
Seeing little choice, Brenna followed him and didn't dare drop her gaze to see the back view of the skintight wet suit. "It's urgent that I speak with you, Mr. Fortune."
To her surprise, he didn't correct her about his title, fake as it might be. "It's Gavin, and I'm sure your cause is extremely important, but I have work to do." In the doorway of the cabin, he turned. "If you'll excuse me "
Then he slid the door closed.
For several seconds, Brenna stood mutely on the other side of the glass barrier with her jaw hanging open. Only the prospect of humiliatingly facing Sloan and telling her she'd been aroused, intimidated, then turned away in less than three minutes by the same man she'd called the devil forced her to wrap her hand around the chrome handle and push the door aside.
Inside the cabin was a table bracketed on either side by black vinyl bench seats, a matching sofa on the opposite side of the boat, a kitchen area and a roomy cockpit. On the stern end was a closed door, presumably leading to a bedroom. Since Fortune was nowhere in sight, she assumed he'd gone into these private quarters.
She tapped on the door. "Mr. Fortune, I represent the Palmer's Island Historical Society, and it's imperative that I speak with you."
Pressing her ear to the door, she thought she heard water running. Was he in the shower? Fine. She could wait.
She sat on the sofa and mentally recited Robert Frost poems to keep her mind from wandering to the sure-to-be-enticing-and-distracting visual of Gavin Fortune standing naked under a spicket of water.
"The Road Not Taken," however, simply led her to stare in the direction of the closed bedroom door and wonder what lay beyond.
With monumental concentration, she reminded her libido she wasn't some creepy celebrity chaser. She was here with a serious purpose. She had justice, history and truth on her side.
He walked out in khaki shorts and nothing else.
She literally bowed her head. Was the man determined to derail her indignation?
To further annoy and embarrass her, he didn't even notice she was sitting on the sofa until after he'd retrieved a bottle of water from the fridge and turned to head back to the bedroom.
"How did you get in here?" he demanded, grinding to a halt.
Pleased she'd finally caught him off guard, she crossed her legs. "I opened the door."
"Then use it to go back out. I'm really very busy."