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He was a man who had no problems with the world. He didn't miss anything, he didn't miss anything he didn't already own, and there was no one in his life he couldn't walk away from. So, what was he doing in the sleepy river town of St. Peter's Bay?
He shook his head as he surveyed the lethargic little community with a jaded eye. It was that woman, and those cursed letters, and all the phone calls that had compelled him to come. Forced him to come. He didn't like being forced into doing anything.
He stood in the portico of the picturesque hotel and watched the long black limousine drive away. He had a distinct impression that he should be going with it. Slipping a hand into the pocket of his tailor-made slacks, he turned his attention to the small marina.
Changes would have to be made. He'd expected as much when his investment broker had suggested an interest in one of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, specifically Jovette Island. But he hadn't anticipated the town being quite so ... so ... banal. Granted, it was November, a bit off-season.
Luckily, he was a man of vision. He also had the resources and the know-how to turn the slumbering village into a thriving commercial enterprise.
But first he'd have to deal with Harriet Wheaton, and her damnable letters, and her constant interference.
Stepping inside the hotel, he noted the decor. There was a definite nautical theme to it. But rather than the usual fishnet and oars, the place was an antique dealer's dream of seafaring memorabilia—lanterns, compasses, depth finders, cabin trunks, ships in bottles, portraits....
"May I help you, sir?" the desk clerk asked.
"Payton Dunsmore," he said, still taking inventory.
"This is the gentleman I made the reservation for, Cyrus," a female voice said from directly behind him—a distinctly familiar female voice. He turned his head. "I'm Harriet Wheaton, Mr. Dunsmore."
Harriet Wheaton. He took her hand and shook it, amazed that she wasn't at all what he had expected.
She was young. Maybe not yet thirty. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face as if she had nothing to hide, her skin had a healthy glow.
Big dark eyes watched him from behind a pair of tortoise shell glasses that gave her the appearance of being thoughtful and sensuous rather than studious and clinical. Her gaze was direct and inquisitive—not unlike his own.
"Ms. Wheaton," he said automatically. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her it was a pleasure to see her. Not to meet her, of course. So far the woman had proved to be nothing but a pain in the posterior. But looking at her was indeed a pleasure, though he wasn't sure why.
She wasn't beautiful, not even remarkably pretty. Her eyes were too big and so were the glasses, and they made her nose look too small for her face. She had an engaging smile; her teeth were straight and even, but there was a slight crookedness to her mouth that kept drawing his attention. She was dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, a bulky knit sweater, and a slicker. Although her body was nondescript, he had the sudden urge to touch her.
Maybe it was the little tendrils of hair that had escaped their bonds and lay curled against her cheek that were driving him crazy. If he could just smooth them back, very gently ...
"You didn't have any trouble getting here, did you?" she asked, watching him closely, curiously.
"No. Not at all," he said. He squared his shoulders and reminded himself that he wasn't happy with the woman. "The chauffeur you sent seemed to know where he was going."
"Oh. Yes, of course, he would. I'm sorry I asked you here so late in the season," she said, restarting her polite conversation while she lost a pound of water through the palms of her hands. Lord, she was nervous. "Being from Tampa, you might have enjoyed seeing upstate New York in the summertime. And I'm afraid you've missed our beautiful fall foliage as well."
"I'm familiar with the seasons in this part of the country, Ms. Wheaton. Lovely as they are, however, I didn't come here for the scenery."
Her brows rose, but only the ends closest to the bridge of her nose. Being a good bad guy wasn't going to be easy.
"No. Of course not," she said, rejecting small talk. Rejecting many of her preconceived notions about him at the same time.
It was disconcerting to realize that she had forgotten one of the fundamental rules of research. There is a vast distinction between studying a phenomenon and experiencing it. Payton Dunsmore was a phenomenon that needed to be experienced. He was more ... much, much more than she had anticipated.
"Had you planned to go up to your room first or would you simply prefer to get on with it?" she asked, her throat tightening as she took in the tall, well-developed man before her.
Knowing he had a thirty-seven-inch inseam, a thirty-five-inch waist, and a size seventeen-and-a-half collar, she still wasn't prepared for the sight of him.
He glanced at the desk clerk.
"I'm sure the room is fine," he said with a nod. "If I could leave my bag here, I'll check in later."
"The room's been taken care of, sir. I can have your bag taken up, if you like," the man offered, shifting his eyes from Payton to Harriet and back, unsure of whom to take his directions from—Harriet, who was running the show, or Payton, the special guest star.
"That'll be fine," she said, and then passing a slip of paper across the desk to him, she added, "And could you fax this for me when you get a minute? There won't be a reply."
"Sure, Harri," he said with strained familiarity. He smiled limply and nodded. He then went about his business, unaware of the crime in progress and his participation in it.
Harriet sighed, battling the regret and disappointment she was growing accustomed to now that so many of her old friends found it hard to look her in the eye. She turned her attention back to Payton.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to change your clothes?" she asked, eyeing his expensive suit. "It's a nice sunny day, but it's cold out, and it'll be colder out on the water. You can only get to the island by boat, you know."
"I believe that's common to most islands," he said with a dry expression.
She gave a little laugh and felt like an idiot. To redeem herself, she said, "I'm sure you know, though, that several of the bigger islands are connected to the mainland by bridges."
She could see he was dying to say something.
"What?" she asked.
He smiled. There was a spark of humor in his mossy green eyes.
"I'm just surprised that you're nervous," he said, stepping around her toward the door, disinclined to change his attire. "I'd have sworn you didn't have a nerve in your body."
"Why?" It would have done no good to deny his observation. She was a criminal, but she was lousy at it.
"The letters. The phone calls. The little wrenches you keep throwing into this deal. You didn't give me the impression that you were particularly concerned about being a nuisance."
"I wasn't. But why would that make me nerveless?" she asked, irritated, aware that she was splitting hairs but unable to stop herself. He held the door open for her. "Why couldn't it be a matter of having too much nerve?"
He looked at her in such a way that she felt obliged to explain.
"Well, nerveless makes me sound like some fool who's blundering her way through this mess. I know what I'm doing, Mr. Dunsmore. Every letter, every phone call, every wrench was a deliberate act in my attempt to save my island," she said, her anger fading to an irate curiosity. She stepped onto the dock and then turned to face him. "Why nerveless? Why couldn't you have thought I was incredibly nervy?"
He pondered this, watching the loose wisps of hair around her face as they fluttered in the wind. Actually, he did think her nervy. Also presumptuous, pushy, and more than a little pigheaded, but he sensed that it wasn't his minor grammatical error she was reacting to, it was something else. She wasn't scolding him, she was asking a question of the world in general. He was intrigued.
"You're right, of course. Linguistically, I stand corrected," he said diplomatically. "But why would you care what I, or anyone else, thought of you? As you say, you're an intelligent woman who knows what she's doing. It shouldn't matter what I think of you."
"It shouldn't ..." she admitted, knowing she'd overreacted. "... but it does. What you think colors the attitude you take toward people, toward me."
The attitude he took toward people was always the same—he took them for all they had. He'd take her, too, eventually. With relish and onions. And he'd enjoy it, for not many people were unwise enough to cross him the way she had. In the meantime, he thought benevolently, it wouldn't hurt to let her talk.
"I can assure you, Ms. Wheaton, that my attitude toward you would have been the same whether I thought you nerveless or nervy," he said quite honestly.
She liked watching his mouth when he talked. He had nice teeth, and his lips were almost too perfectly shaped.
She nodded, and they walked on in thoughtful silence.
With the passing of summer, life around St. Peter's Bay settled like slow-falling leaves until only a thin layer of tourists covered the tightly knit core of the river community, small-town people who spent half their lives catering to the whims of others, and the other half trying to make ends meet.
Harriet was part of that core. Her life wasn't structured for tourism, but there had been a Jovette on Jovette Island since before St. Peter's Bay was St. Peter's Bay; since before the canals; since before there was a boundary between Canada and the United States—and it wasn't going to change now. Not if Harriet could help it.
Criminally speaking, however, she wasn't concerned with who saw her on the docks with Payton Dunsmore. The tourists wouldn't remember them two seconds after eye contact, and the locals wouldn't think twice about her sailing a guest out to the island. They all knew the situation she was in, but none of the specifics. They knew, too, that she hadn't winterized the island and returned to the city yet. She'd picked Thanksgiving week for her crime for several reasons, but primarily to dampen any curiosity that might arise. All in all, she felt her plan to be quite solid.
If Harriet Wheaton thought she was pulling any new tricks on him, she had at least one more good think coming to her. He knew all about her. Granted, he'd been a little surprised to discover that she was so appealing, but it hadn't been relevant, and it didn't change the facts.
She was unemployed. She'd been in jail for the better part of the past two years for a crime involving some sort of deception at a chemical plant. And surprise, surprise, she was about to attempt the oldest, dirtiest trick in the book of real estate on him! The old my-property-is-a-run-down-pile-of-rotten-wood with-holes-in-the-roof-and-a-leaky-cellar-andyou-don't-really-want-it trick. Truthfully, he'd expected better of her. He'd hoped that perhaps someone who'd been to prison might be more imaginative in their subterfuge.
On the other hand, he thought with a wily smile, it might prove entertaining to allow Ms. Wheaton all the rope she needed to entangle herself. Once snared and as helpless as a trapped animal, he might kiss her. Once. To satisfy his curiosity; to know for sure if her mouth was as sweet and provocative as it looked; if her skin was as soft....
And then, of course, he'd snatch her island out from under her, just as he'd planned.
"Do you sail, Mr. Dunsmore?" she asked, stopping beside a small skiff.
Did he sail? Payton's eyes shifted from the dinghy bobbing dockside to Harriet's face. Was she kidding? Of course, he'd sailed before—he lived in Tampa for crissake! But it wasn't his favorite form of transportation. He had a landlubber's soul and preferred to be in contact with solid ground at all times. But, be that as it may, on the occasions when water jaunts couldn't be avoided, he generally consumed a fistful of motion-sickness pills and always, always made sure the vessel was considerably bigger than his Uncle Farnsworth's shoe!
His gaze darted to the vast expanse of choppy, fitful water before him and then back to the catboat.
"Ships sail, Ms. Wheaton," he said. "I doubt this toy would get fifty feet out before it capsized."
"It's perfectly safe," she assured him with a smile. "I came across this morning in it. Truly."
"Yes, well, if I'd realized that you were planning an adventure for this afternoon, I would have taken your suggestion to change my clothes. As it is, I'd rather not spend the rest of the day drenched to the bone. Perhaps there's something else available...." he said, looking around, leaving little doubt as to whether he was making a request or delivering an imperative to change boats.
She turned, and he followed her wistful gaze to an exquisite thirty-foot yawl in a slip across the way.
"Yes. That's more like it," he said, much relieved.
She laughed softly. "Well, at least you know beautiful when you see it," she said, bending to cast off the dinghy.
"Can't you sail a boat that size?" he asked, frowning as the line slipped from the mooring ring. He rubbed the dimenhydrinate patch at the base of his neck and wished he had applied two. It was a precaution he'd taken earlier, knowing that where there was an island, there was also water and that inevitably he'd be crossing it. "My experience is limited but if you refresh my memory, I think I could be a pretty good first mate."
She moved to the second line without comment.
"Think of it, Ms. Wheaton," he said, coaxing her. "You'd be in the enviable position of giving me orders for however long it takes us to get to the island and back. I have employees who'd give their right arms for an opportunity like this."
She looked up and was greeted with a wide, teasing grin that tickled her insides into knots. She laughed.
"I admit it's tempting, Mr. Dunsmore. I knew I'd live to regret selling that boat."
"You sold it?"
"I have debts to pay," she said simply.
He glanced back at the yawl with its polished brass fittings and glossy planking. Its name, Enchantment, was proudly painted in brilliant white across the transom. One couldn't be Payton Dunsmore IV for thirty-six years without developing an acute sense of material worth somewhere along the way. He knew a prized treasure when he saw one, and he intuitively knew the price she'd paid to sell it.
"Maybe we could rent it for the afternoon," he said, thinking it would be a treat for her, as well as his salvation.
"Would you rent out a boat like that?" she asked, sure of his answer.
He looked to the yawl and then back at the catboat. He loathed the idea of exposing his fears to the woman, giving her an upper hand. He'd rather die than show her any weakness—and very likely would if he didn't. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it again.
"Trust me, Mr. Dunsmore. I'll take you out to the island, safe and sound, and I won't even get your shoes wet."
She was smiling that beguiling little lopsided smile, and the crazy little curls about her face were whipping innocently in the wind. The glasses and her big dark eyes fairly screamed of her dependability and trustworthiness. He knew better than to rely on her, but ...
"I want a life jacket," he said.
She smiled at him and sighed with relief.CHAPTER 2
Payton Dunsmore wasn't as ignorant of sailing as he'd led her to believe, she noticed quickly. They sailed at a close reach, across the wind at a right angle. Instinctively, he felt the change in the wind, knew when to bow to the boom and when to shift his weight for balance. He watched her closely for a while before visibly beginning to relax and seeming almost to enjoy the ride. Almost.
She lowered her gaze, too amused to look at him. Were his earlier qualms due to the size of the dinghy? Or because her sailing skills were an unknown to him? Or to the simple fact that he was about to lose control of the situation?
She had a feeling that Payton Dunsmore was a man who made a point of always being in control—of his business, of his life, of his emotions. Part of her giggled while the rest of her shuddered to think of his reaction when he discovered exactly how much control he'd relinquished to her when he'd stepped into her boat.
Excerpted from The Trouble with Magic by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1993 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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