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Standing on the dock at the Port Clara Marina, Cooper Remington gave his inheritance a long, leisurely inspection, his gaze roaming from stem to stern. He couldn't believe he was really back, after all these years.
"It's kinda beat up." This observation came from Max, Cooper's cousin and now one of his partners.
"It's a disaster." Reece, the third Remington cousin, shook his head and gazed down at his oxfords. "I told you guys we should have looked into this further before flying down to Texas half-cocked."
"All right, so the Dragonfly needs a little work," Cooper said. He wasn't blind to the rust and peeling paint. "That's to be expected. Uncle Johnny was sick the last few months of his life, and he had a drinking problem before that. He probably wasn't able to paint and scrub barnacles. But we can do that stuff."
Cooper, the oldest of the cousins at thirty-six, was the optimist of the group. Though saddened by Uncle Johnny's death, Cooper's mind had filled with possibilities the moment he'd learned that he and his two cousins had inherited the Dragonfly.
He loved the ocean, loved boats and sailing. And he was sick to death of corporate law, the field he'd gone into because his family had expected it. Cooper and his cousins, equally disillusioned with their second-son, second-class jobs in the family corporation, could make a lot of money running a fishing charter and have fun doing it.
That was the theory, anyway.
"I guess it wouldn't hurt to go aboard," Reece said, his face a bit green. Reece didn't much care for boats. Didn't like cars, trains or planes, either. He never traveled anywhere without his Dramamine.
Max wasn't payingattention to the Dragonfly, but to the sleek pleasure yacht in the next slip, where a woman in a bikini was sweeping the deck.
"Max." Cooper nudged his cousin. "We're boarding." They didn't yet have keys, so they couldn't inspect the inside. But they could check out whatever was in plain sight.
As he unfastened the chain that blocked the gangway and stepped on board, the years melted away and he was once again a boy looking forward to weeks of fishing and swimming and helping Uncle Johnny and Aunt Pat run their fishing trips.
That was before Aunt Pat died, before Uncle Johnny had started drinking, before the family had decided Johnny wasn't fit company for impressionable youngsters.
Before Uncle Johnny, smarting from the snub, had cut off all contact with his family.
The close-up look didn't improve the Dragonfly's condition. Max and Reece were rightthe boat was in bad shape. But some good, hard physical labor was just what Cooper needed, what all of them needed, to cleanse the corporate rat race out of their systems.
"It's smaller than I remember," Reece observed.
"You're just bigger," Cooper replied. "How old were you last time you were on this boat? Ten?"
"Thirteen, that last summer." Reece laughed unexpectedly. "I barfed all over Uncle Johnny's customer and his prize tuna. That was great."
Cooper had been fifteen when his parents had declared an end to summer vacations with Uncle Johnny. It hadn't seemed right to leave Johnny to grieve and drink alone, but his parents had held firm. He'd thought there would be other summers, but Johnny had never again invited his nephews to visit.
"Ahh." Max's sigh of pleasure jerked Cooper back to the present. His youngest cousin had already found himself a place to sit and bask in the sun. "All I need is a frozen daiquiri and a couple of babes in bikinis." He glanced over his shoulder at the yacht in the next slip, but the bikini-woman had disappeared.
Cooper jumped on his cousin's weakness, using it to his advantage. "And you'll have that. Once we get her polished up, the Dragonfly will be a babe magnet."
"But can she support you and Max?" Reece asked. "Have you crunched the numbers?"
Cooper's enthusiasm could not be dimmed by facts and figuresor their absence. "Are you kidding? She can support all three of us. You know what we have here?"
Reece arched one eyebrow. "A money pit?"
"A license to print money. We can charge thousands of dollars for each excursion. Max, with your sales and marketing experience you can bring in the high-rolling customers in droves. And, Reece, you can keep the business on track financially."
"And you'll be the captain?" Max asked, giving his cousin a dubious look.
"Yeah. Aw, hell, I don't care about that. We can take turns if you want. But we'll be equal partners. We won't have to kowtow to our fathers and older brothers anymore." The Remington clan was blessedor cursedwith a surplus of male heirs brimming with ambition and testosterone.
Reece shook his head. "I'll get the finances straightened out and set up the books, but then I'm gone."
Max grinned. "Well, I'm in. I didn't leave any doors open when I resigned. In fact, my father's not talking to me."
Cooper hadn't exactly left Remington Industries with a lot of warm fuzzies, either. Technically his father, vice president of legal affairs, was still speaking to him but saying things like, "You've gone completely off your nut" and "Don't expect to come crawling back and step into your old job." His mother simply wept every time they talked, sobbing about all the money they'd wasted on his Harvard law degree.
They'd get over it. Cooper wished Reece had quit, too, instead of taking vacation time, which he'd been saving up for years because he thought vacations were a waste. If anybody needed to learn how to kick back and enjoy life, it was Reece. The guy was strung tighter than a sail in a hurricane.
Cooper checked his watch. "Almost nine o'clock. Let's see if the marina's open yet."
He turned toward the gangway just as a feminine shriek behind him made him nearly leap out of his skin. He whirled around and found himself face to face with a redheaded vision. Barefoot, and with long, tanned arms and legs fetchingly displayed in low-slung shorts and a cropped T-shirt, she was absolutely, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.
But, boy, was she mad.
"What are you doing on my boat?" She took a menacing step forward, a heavy ceramic coffee cup clutched between her hands. Cooper had no doubt she could do damage with it. "You can't just board somebody's boat without permission. Now get the hell off! I've got a gun below and I'm using it if you're not gone in five seconds."
Cooper's respect for the woman crept up a notch. What an amazing creature, fierce and vulnerable at the same time. He knew he should heed her warning, but he stood rooted to the spot, unable to tear his gaze away. She'd rendered him speechless, too. No intelligent explanations occurred to him.
ALLIE BATEMAN WAS SCARED out of her wits, but she was trying hard not to show it. She'd been warned about living alone on the Dragonfly, warned that beach communities drew predators as well as tourists. But she hadn't actually believed anything bad would happen to her until now.
These guys shouldn't have felt menacing in their GQ weekend casual clothes. But there was something about the man in fronta keen determination in the thrust of his jawthat made her uneasy.
He seemed to shake himself. "Who are you?"
At least her uninvited guests didn't appear to be set on immediate raping and pillaging, so Allie changed tack. "I'm Allie Bateman. Are you looking for a fishing charter?" No sense driving away perfectly good business, if that's what it was. These guys for sure weren't local, not with those clothes and Yankee accents. Were they here for a wild weekend of drinking and womanizing?
She studied the leader of the pack again. He didn't look the type to overindulge. His body showed no signs of softness, no paunch from too many three-martini lunches and fatty steaks.
The man returned her scrutiny. "No, we're not here to book a charter."
"Then why are you on my boat?" Prickles of apprehension tickled her scalp, and this time it had nothing to do with fear of bodily harm.
"The question isn't what we're doing on your boat, it's what are you doing on ours? I'm Cooper Remington, and these are my cousins Reece and Max. This is Johnny Rem-ington's boat, right?"
Her heart still squeezed painfully every time she thought of Johnny, of how valiantly he fought his illness right down to the end, how he never complained about the pain though she knew it must have been horrific. Then the interloper's name registered.
She sucked in a breath. "Johnny Remington passed away a couple of months ago. I'm the new owner." Just what she didn't needconcerned family, conveniently late to help, but just in time to grab what they could.
The one called Cooper narrowed his eyes. "Um, 'fraid not. Johnny's will, filed in a New York State court, left the boat to us. We're his nephews. So whatever arrangements he made with you are null and void."
"Null and void? Really?" She cocked her head to one side. "Are you by any chance a lawyer?"
"I am, but that's immaterial."
Allie's hackles rose. "I knew it. I can spot lawyers from miles away." She'd been afraid this would happen. The powerful Remingtons wouldn't just let a valuable asset like the Dragonfly fall into a stranger's hands without a fight.
She flashed back in time to another boat, another slick lawyer, another disagreement about who owned what. Allie had lost that battle. But she didn't intend to lose this one. Though Johnny's will was handwritten, it had been witnessed and she felt certain it was entirely legal.
She crossed her arms. "Johnny's more recent will, filed in the state of Texas, names me as the one to inherit the Dragonfly. So get off my boat."
"And just who might you be?"
"For the second time, my name is Allie Bateman."
"And what's your relationship to Johnny?"
She could have told him that Johnny was her employer for more than ten years. He'd been her teacher, her father-figure, and her dear, dear friend. But she knew what this guy was thinkingthat she was some floozy who'd somehow fleeced Johnny out of his boat when he'd been sick and feeble.
Let him think whatever he wanted. "That's none of your business."
"Hey, Allie!" The greeting was from Jane Simone, her next-door neighbor. "Is everything okay?"
Allie gave Cooper a pointed look. "Is everything okay? Or should I tell Jane to call the cops?"
Cooper's blue eyes flashed. Obviously he enjoyed crossing swords. "I'll bring my own cops. When I come back with a judge's order for you to vacate."
"Good thinking. Run that New York attitude against a Texas judge and see where it gets you."
Cooper Remington gave her one last, appraising look before turning and stalking away, taking his gang with him. She watched until they climbed into a silver BMW and drove away.
"What was that about?" Jane asked.
"Trouble. Jane, I'm afraid I'm in big, big trouble."
Her heart hammered inside her chest as she made her way into the galley and set her cooling coffee on the counter. Her visitors had shaken her more than she wanted to admit.
She was in the right, she had to be. Johnny had wanted her to have the boat. She'd put a lot of her own money into the upkeep as Johnny's worsening illness forced him to cut back on excursions, and most of the rest of her savings had gone into the boat during the months after his death. She'd asked him if his family would mind that he was giving his boat to her, and he said his family didn't even acknowledge him.
But when it comes to inheriting money or valuables, relatives came out of the woodwork. Just because she was legally entitled to the Dragonfly didn't mean she would get it. Mr. L.L. Bean out there probably had some deep pockets. He probably had an army of lawyer buddies and a whole slew of legal tricks to defraud her out of her livelihood so he and his cousins could God knew what. Probably sell the Dragonfly to the highest bidder and run off to the Riviera with the proceeds, or use it as their personal party boat and run it aground.
Against that, she had zero money and one septuagenarian, semi-retired lawyer, the one who'd filed the will for her and promised her it was legal.
The odds weren't in her favor. But she wouldn't go down without a fight.
COOPER AND REECE SAT ON the beachfront patio of Old Salt's Bar & Grill, one of a handful of eateries that lined the beach around Port Clara's main dock and marina. Max had slipped away somewhere. Cooper suspected his younger cousin's disappearance might have something to do with pretty, bikini-clad Jane, Allie Bateman's neighbor. Max was a smart guy, consistently Remington Industries' top sales executive. But when it came to beautiful women, he lost his ability to reason.
"So, what do you think?" Reece asked.
"I think she's gorgeous," Cooper automatically replied. Okay, so Max wasn't the only one whose head could be turned by a pretty girl.
Reece's jaw dropped. "The Dragonfly? She's a wreck."
"I was talking about Allie Bateman."
"Oh." Reece took off his glasses and absently polished them with his napkin. "I suppose she's okay, but what does that have to do with anything? She's on our boat. Do you think she's telling the truth?"
"Unlikely." In his experience, beautiful young women like Allie didn't have to rely on honesty. They used their physical assets to subdue a guy's natural defenses, then manipulated facts and situations to suit their desires. "I'll call a legal researcher I know in Austin and have him check out this supposed will. But my first inclination is to believe it's bogus. Allie's not even a blood relation."
"Maybe she's not related to Johnny, but I doubt she's a stranger," Reece pointed out. "She was probably his girlfriend."
Cooper curled his lip in distaste. He didn't want to picture his seventy-something-year-old uncle and young, vibrant Allie Bateman blech.
"Maybe even his common-law wife," Reece added.
Cooper took a long sip of his coffee as he contemplated the gentle waves lapping at the beach below. "He wouldn't have changed his will."
"Why not? None of us have seen him in years."
"Maybe not. But I sent him a Christmas present every year. Sometimes he sent me a card. I wonder why he didn't tell anyone he had cancer?"