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"Are you sure this is safe?"
Annie tried to keep her eyes off Sinclair Drummond's enticing backside as he climbed the rickety wooden stairs to the attic.
"No." He flashed her a grin that made her knees wobble. "Especially with the curse hanging over our heads."
"I guess I'll take my chances." As his employee, Annie Sullivan could hardly refuse. She stepped onto the first rung of the hand-hewn stairs that were barely more than a ladder. They led up into the ceiling of the old barn, which was attached to the house so Drummond ancestors didn't have to face bitter winds howling in from Long Island Sound while tending to their animals. Now all it contained was an impressive collection of spiderwebs and brittle horse tack. The steps creaked alarmingly. "Have you ever been up here?" She hadn't, which was strange in itself.
Sinclair reached the top and pushed open a trap door. "Sure. When I was a kid. I used to hide up here when my parents argued."
Annie frowned. She couldn't imagine his quiet, dignified mother raising her voice, but she'd never met his father. He'd died in some kind of accident years ago.
"I doubt anyone's been up here since." He disappeared into the dark hole, and she climbed the stairs behind him with a growing sense of anticipation. A light snapped on, filling the opening with bright light. "I'm glad that still works. I didn't fancy searching by candlelight." Rain drummed on the shake roof overhead. His voice sounded far away, and she hurried to catch up to him. Her head cleared the entrance and she saw a row of uncovered bulbs dangling from the center beam of the windowless attic. Boxes and crates were piled along the sides, among disused tables, chairs and other, less identifiable pieces of furniture. The far wall was almost hidden behind a stack of big leather trunks bearing steamer labels. Despite the size of the room, very little of the wood floor was visible.
"So this is what three hundred years' worth of pack rats leave behind them. Where do we start?" Her fingers tingled with anticipation at rifling through the Drummond family's possessions. Which was funny, since that's what she did every day in her job. Of course dusting and polishing silver wasn't nearly as exciting as opening an old steamer trunk filled with mothballs and mystery.
Sinclair lifted the lid of a chest, which appeared to be filled with folded quilts. "Hell if I know. I suppose we just start plowing through and hope for the best." He'd rolled up his sleeves, and she watched his muscular forearm reach boldly into the fabric. "The cup fragment is made of metal, apparently. Possibly silver, but more likely pewter. It doesn't have any inherent value."
His shirt strained against his strong back as he reached deeper. Annie's heart rate quickened. Why did her boss have to be so gorgeous? It wasn't fair. She'd worked for him for six years and he'd only grown more handsome with age. He was thirty-two and his thick, dark hair didn't bear a single strand of gray, despite his two expensive divorces.
"And it's supposed to be cursed?" Annie suppressed a shiver as she glanced around. Her Irish ancestors would be crossing themselves.
"It's the family that's cursed, not the cup." Sinclair lifted his head and shot her a disarming glance. "Three hundred years of misery, which can apparently be lifted if the three parts of this ancient cup are put back together." He snorted. "I think it's a load of rubbish, but my mom is really excited about it. She's sure it will change all our lives."
"I was glad to hear she's doing better. Did they ever find out what made her so sick?"
"A rare tropical disease, apparently, similar to cholera. She's lucky to be alive. She's still quite weak so I've told her she should come out here for some rest."
"Absolutely, I'd be happy to take care of her."
"I'm hoping she'll come nose around up here herself. Then you won't have to do all the work."
Annie's heart sank a little. So she couldn't look forward to a summer in the attic watching Sinclair's broad hands reaching into mysterious boxes. She'd worked here for six years, yet on some level they were almost strangers. She loved being alone with him when there were no guests to entertain and she got a glimpse of a more relaxed Sinclair. The search for the cup seemed like a great opportunity to get to know him better. Instead, she'd be up here sweating under the rafters by herself. Still, the history all around her was intriguing. She walked over to a tall woven basket and lifted the lid. Coiled rope filled the inside, and as she pulled at it, she could imagine the hands that wound this rope in an era before machines. Everything around them must tell a story. "Why does she think the family is cursed? You all seem very successful."
Her own family would probably kill for a fraction of the abundance the Drummonds enjoyed.
"The Drummonds have done all right for themselves over the years. An old family legend has my mom convinced, however, that we're all cursed, which is why she got so sick." He lifted out a pile of clothes and she blinked at the powerful muscles in his thighs, visible through his pressed khakis, as he leaned to touch the bottom of the trunk. She startled as he suddenly looked up. "And why none of us can stay married for long." His blue-gray eyes shone with a wry mix of humor and remorse. "She's on a quest to unearth the three pieces of the cup and put them back together. She's sure it will turn things around for the Drummonds." He shoved the clothes back in the trunk and slammed the lid. "Of course I don't believe in the curse but I'd do anything to help her recover, and this has her really excited so I promised to help."
"That's sweet of you."
"Not really." He shoved a hand through his hair as he surveyed the piles of debris left over from former lives. "If it keeps her occupied she won't start nagging me to marry again."
Annie had watched grimly as he'd courted and dated his calculating and phony second wife. She wasn't sure she could stand to go through that again. "I suppose she's desperate for grandchildren."
"Yes, though you have to wonder why. Is it really necessary to carry the curse through to another generation?" His crooked smile made her smile, too. Of course his mother wanted grandchildren to spoil and fuss over. Though she wasn't likely to ever get any, if Sinclair's taste in women was anything to go by. She'd never met his first wife, but Diana Lakeland wasn't the type to risk her figure on a pregnancy. She'd married Sinclair for the wealth and prestige that made him one of New York's most eligible bachelors, then grown tired of him when he didn't want to jet around the world attending parties every night.
If only he could see he was wasted on those spoiled princesses. She couldn't tell him that, though. It was part of her job to be friendly, even intimate. But she also had to know where to draw the line between professional and personal, and never cross it.
She moved away from the basket of ropemore than enough to hang yourself withand lifted a small wooden box from a high shelf. She opened the lid and found a cache of what looked like hairpins. Expensive ones, carved from tortoiseshell and bone. She wondered what Drummond damsel had tucked them into her tresses. "This does feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Though it's an interesting haystack. Who did the cup belong to?"
"The Drummonds come from the Scottish Highlands. Gaylord Drummond was a gambler and drinker, who lost the family estate in a wager in 1712. His three sons, left penniless and landless, set out for America to seek their fortune. The brothers went their separate ways after their ship docked, and apparently they split up a metal chalice of some sort, each of them taking a piece. They intended to reunite the cup once they'd all made their fortunes. One of them settled here on Long Island, and built a farm where we sit today."
"I suppose that explains why you have such a large piece of prime waterfront real estate." The original farmhouse had been expanded over the years into a magnificent shingle-style "cottage" with bold gables and wide verandas. The old potato fields had been transformed into pristine lawn and lush orchards of apple, pear and peach trees. Once a sleepy village, Dog Harbor was now surrounded by the suburban sprawl of New York City. One ancestor had sold a field to a post-war developer to build tract housing. Sinclair's father had bought it back at great expensehouses and alland turned it back into an emerald sward of grass. The cool water of the Long Island Sound lapped against a neat pebble beach about three hundred feet from the house.
Sinclair laughed. "Yes. The old homestead has matured into an excellent investment."
"What I don't understand is how do you break up a cup?" It seemed hard enough to find a whole cup in this mess, let alone a piece of one.
"My mother says it was specially constructed to be taken apart and then put back together. She suspects it's an old communion chalice that was constructed like that so it could be hidden, maybe from Viking invaders or Protestant reformers, depending on how old it really is.
The story of the cup has passed down from generation to generation, though no one knows what happened to the pieces. My mom says she's tracked down the descendants of the three brothers, and contacted each of them about her quest."
"I think it's exciting. And a nice opportunity to reunite the family."
Sinclair shrugged. "I've never heard much good about the other Drummonds. We're all surly sorts who keep to ourselves." He raised a dark brow.
"You're not surly." She immediately regretted her pointless comment. The last thing she needed was for him to know she was smitten with him. "Well, not all the time, anyway." Now she was blushing. She hurried to a darker corner of the attic and pulled at a drawer. "Where do the others live?"
"One brother became a privateer raiding the East Coast and the Caribbean."
Sinclair nodded. "So the legend goes. His ancestors are still down thereor one of them, anywayliving on an island off the Florida coast. Since Jack Drummond's a professional treasure hunter I hardly think he'll help us find the cup."
"He might be interested in the family angle."
"I doubt it. The third Drummond brother got rich up in Canada, then went back to Scotland and bought back the family estate. His descendant lives there now. My mother hasn't been able to even get James Drummond to reply to her emails. She's tireless, however, so I'm sure she'll get through to him eventually, once she has her strength back." He lifted a box down from the top of an old armoire. "There aren't a lot of Drummond descendants out there. They don't seem to have had many children and a lot have died young over the years. Makes you wonder if the curse is real."
Was Sinclair cursed? If anything, he seemed to live a charmed life, dividing his time between his Manhattan penthouse and his other fabulous houses. She saw him for only a few weekends of each year, and maybe a couple of weeks in the summer. Just enough time to gaze dreamily at him but not enough to know his secrets. Did he have secrets? Passions and longings?
She tried to shake the thought from her mind. His inner life was none of her business.
"Some of this stuff really shouldn't be moldering away up here." Annie lifted a porcelain serving platter from its perch underneath another coil of rope. "I bet you could take this on Antiques Roadshow.''''
Sinclair chuckled. "And have them tell you someone bought it at Woolworth's in the 1950s." He stood over a big wood trunk, larger and obviously older than the steamer trunks piled high in several places. The inside appeared to be filled with folded clothing.
"Wow, look at that lace." Annie moved beside him, trying to ignore his rich masculine scent. She reached into the trunk and fondled the snowy cotton. "It doesn't look like it's ever been worn." She lifted the garment, which unfolded in a single soft movement, revealing itself as a delicate nightgown or petticoat. "Who did this belong to?"
"I have no idea. I confess to only ever rifling through the boxes with firearms and other guy stuff in them." Again his mischievous grin made her heart quicken. "I never touched the girlie stuff."
"Would you look at that." Setting the petticoat aside, she peered into the large wooden chest to examine a richly worked bodice of green satin with red-and-gold edging. The needlework was exquisite and the material shone as if it had been woven yesterday. "I've never seen anything like it."
Sinclair pulled the garment from the trunk and held it up. Low-cut at the neck and with a tiny waist, the dress was an extravagant ball gown.
"It's stunning. And that blue one underneath it looks spectacular." She reached in and fondled a striking peacock-blue silk garment with tiny pearl bead accents. "These should be in a museum." It seemed a crime to leave them unseen in the dusty attic even a minute longer. "Let's bring them down into the house and hang them properly."
"If you like." Sinclair looked skeptical. Of course he probably only cared about finding the cup. "Sure, let's do it."