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Nantucket Island May 1899
"Mail must be in," the barber said as he slapped lime cologne onto Harrison Starbuck's freshly shaved cheeks. "There goes Miss Nola. Set your watch by that woman." He spoke of her as if she were some island institution or a bit of a legend. By Harry's calculations she couldn't be more than thirty. He'd gone to school with the Burns brothers, two boisterous lads who were incredible athletes but not very good students as he recalled. Was she older than the boys or younger? He couldn't remember. The day after he'd graduated Starbuck had left for New York and he'd lost touch with her brothers.
He paid the barber and stepped outside, taking shelter from the drizzle under the awning over the bookstore. Down the street, her face hidden by the large black umbrella but her no-nonsense stride unmistakable, Nola Burns continued on her way like a crusader on a mission.
Harry considered his next move. He'd had his eye on the property that housed Miss Nola's Tearoom. With the owner out, maybe he could get Judy Lang, who did the baking for the tearoom, to show him around. The truth was Nola Burns intimidated him—always had. Judy Lang, on the other hand, was a talker and even at age sixty or more, still a bit of a flirt. She would no doubt let slip problems the tearoom had suffered, perhaps a leaky roof or faulty plumbing. All fodder for giving Starbuck the upper hand when it came to negotiating. He strolled across the street and tried the door.
Locked. Harry stared at the silver door handle then scratched his jaw. No one in'Sconset ever locked a door, not even shopkeepers out on an errand. They might post a Back in Five Minutes sign,but they did not lock up except at night. He frowned and walked the length of the wide front porch that overlooked the town's main street. Then he followed the porch around to the side of the mansion. On a clear day, the vista now obscured by fog and mist was the best view of the Atlantic on the island. The thud of the waves hitting the beach several feet below the bluff reminded him that if the sun were out, he'd be looking beyond the horizon toward the next land any sailor would see—the coast of Spain.
As the new century approached, tourism had firmly established itself as Nantucket's economic bread and butter. Below stood the railroad station where vacationers fresh off the steamer in Nantucket Town would soon arrive in droves for their holiday in 'Sconset. They could either walk to the stairway that climbed up to the top of the bluff or hire one of the surreys or drays waiting at the station. Either way, when they got to the top, the first major structure they saw was Miss Nola's Tearoom. He took a moment to light his cigar, shielding the match from the salty sea breeze and slackening rain. Yes, this was the perfect location.
"May I help you?"
There was not an ounce of warmth in the female voice that came unexpectedly from behind Starbuck. When he turned— a smile firmly planted on his face—Nola Burns stood as stiff and rigid as a marble lawn statue not two steps from him.
Starbuck was pretty sure that in all the time he'd spent in 'Sconset, he'd never been this close to her. They had little in common beyond attending the same church where she played the organ and he sang in the choir. And while he was sure he had acknowledged her in passing, she rarely hung around long enough after services to socialize. Had he ever engaged her in casual conversation surely he would have noticed the skin like alabaster, the full mouth that she appeared to be an expert at taming into a precise thin line, and those eyes—fiery, dramatic, and black as a starless Nan-tucket night. It occurred to him that onstage her features would be quite an asset in communicating the drama of any production.
But he suspected that Nola Burns, like many in the small village, disapproved of the growing presence of a colony of actors and musicians who had discovered the pleasures of summer in 'Sconset. Since Starbuck was also a summer resident and involved in a variety of theatrical enterprises, he was used to being cast in the same mode by some of the locals. On the other hand, he'd always had some success in winning over dissenters with his charm and wit, so he removed his hat and widened his grin. "Caught me," he admitted with a smile, the true power of which he'd discovered at age fifteen. More than once he'd been told that his smile—a little shy with a touch of cockiness—could send any woman's heart into the kind of palpitations that had her thinking she had laced her corset far too tight that morning.
Nola Burns's breathing did not change one iota. "Well?" she demanded.
Starbuck decided to take another path. He thrust out his hand. "Harrison Starbuck, ma'am, although everybody calls me Harry or just Starbuck. I knew your…"
His hand hung there in midair, ignored and rejected. "I know who you are. What is it that you want, Mr. Starbuck?"
He withdrew his hand and straightened to his full height, a head and then some taller than the petite Miss Burns. From what he could see of her hair beneath the ugly little bonnet, it was not the premature gray he had thought. It was platinum—almost like spun silver. Fascinated at the contrast of the onyx eyes and the pale hair, he had to resist the urge to touch the wisp that fell against one ear. Instead he rolled his cigar between his fingers, dropping ash onto the floorboards of the porch as he placed it back in his mouth and drew on it. He lifted his chin and slowly exhaled so that the smoke formed a halo over her head. "I've heard that you're a shrewd businesswoman, Miss Burns, and I came to discuss a proposition that may interest you."
"My business is not for sale," she snapped.
"Well, now, ma'am, I'm not exactly cut out for operating a tearoom." He chuckled.
Since she appeared to have a lot in common with every spinster schoolmarm he'd ever encountered, he tried the tactic that had worked on teachers preparing to thrash him when he was in school. He ducked his head and murmured, "If you'll just give me a moment of your time, I…"
"It's a small town, Mr. Starbuck. Everyone knows that you have your sights set on my property. Apparently you plan to tear it down or completely renovate it to accommodate some fancy inn for entertaining your business associates and their wives. My late father, Captain Elijah Burns, personally designed this house. Our family has lived here for decades. For these last several years, it has not only been my home, but also my livelihood. It is not for sale."
Harry fought his irritation at her presumptuous attitude. "You might at least want to hear me out," he said, clamping down hard on his cigar.
"Let me be perfectly clear about this, Mr. Starbuck. I do not approve of games of chance or other frivolous entertainment that has people spending money they cannot afford in order to—"
"Games of chance?" He studied her for any hint that she might be joking, then the light dawned and he laughed—a sound that clearly irritated her. "You think the cabaret we're putting up down the road there will offer gambling?"
For the very first time she looked a bit flustered. Starbuck realized that Nola Burns prided herself on having her facts straight and filed that bit of insight away for future reference.
"Well, won't it?" she demanded. "Gambling and alcoholic beverages?"
"No, ma'am." He leaned a bit closer and continued to puff on his cigar. "I'm surprised your sources haven't set you straight well before this. The town fathers have been quite clear on that point. The cabaret is a kind of a clubhouse where the locals and tourists can enjoy family entertainment and sporting events such as tennis and badminton and croquet. In the evenings they can take in a lecture, recital or variety show. In fact, the opening night program will be the debut of a new play. Wholesome entertainment for all ages." He turned so that they were standing side by side looking out toward the shore. "Think of it, Miss Nola," he said, lowering his voice as he extended his arm to encompass the span of coast before them. "It's going to attract a whole new class of tourists beyond those who come for their health or with their families. It's going to bring in folks with money, Miss Burns, lots of money and they are going to want a place to stay that will give them the kind of privacy and charm they expect when they travel."
He could see that he had piqued her interest although she was waging a mighty battle to squelch that curiosity. She eyed him warily. "There are already hotels."
"Perhaps if you knew me…" he said at the same moment.
Big mistake. He had broken the mood he had so carefully created. Nola pursed her lips. "I have already said that I know exactly who and what you are, Mr. Starbuck." She took a step back and looked him square in the eye. "You are related— quite distantly, but conveniently—to John Starbuck, one of the island's founding fathers. You turned your back on the island as a youth and began visiting around the same time several others connected with the theater discovered our island. Now those short visits have stretched to stays of the entire season and you have established an entire enclave of…"
"Why, Miss Burns, other than Alistair Gillenwater, I wasn't aware that 'Sconset had an established enclave of businessmen and entrepreneurs like me. Please do go on."
Her lips tightened until they nearly disappeared altogether. "I am speaking of your dealings with the theater, Mr. Starbuck. Rumor has it that you have written a new play that you are anxious to preview in a reading for the opening of your cabaret."
"Well, now, miss, it's not really my cabaret. I've just had the privilege of putting the deal together for a number of investors and community leaders who…"
"Yes. No doubt you saw an opportunity to trade on that family name and enhance your fortune, which is rumored to be impressive."
Starbuck chuckled. "People tend to exaggerate such…"
"At the moment, the town fathers have entrusted you with the construction of this place you refer to as the cabaret down there at the end of town. But they have not to my knowledge given you carte blanche to concoct a way to further enhance your own fortune by purchasing my property."
"Are you done?" Starbuck was rapidly losing patience with this prim little…
"I also know you are quite fond of the ladies and they of you, if local gossip can be believed. And furthermore you are quite used to charming your way into whatever strikes you as the most interesting business or social 'proposition.'" She pulled the cigar from his fingers and stamped it out in a concrete urn filled with sand at the corner of the porch. "What more should I know, Mr. Starbuck?" she asked.
Starbuck couldn't help feeling a twinge of respect mixed with annoyance. "Well, now, I should point out that I have put a considerable amount of my own money into the construction of the cabaret, which has cut into my adequate but hardly impressive finances. And that was an expensive cigar, Miss Burns."
"You can surely afford another cigar. I, on the other hand, cannot afford to have my home and business burn down." She made her point by using the toe of her shoe to grind out an already dead ash that had fallen to the porch floor. "Now if you'll excuse me, this is my time to go through my mail before I attend to the marketing for the day."
In spite of his annoyance with her, he had to fight to hide his smile. "Your time? The market appoints times? I never knew that."
"I appoint the time, sir. I am a busy woman and I really don't wish to waste any more of your time." She stepped aside, indicating that she was waiting for him to leave the premises.
As he started to take his leave, Starbuck had a moment's pity for the woman. He was quite sure he'd never in his life met a woman more in need of a real friend and confidante than this one. And he was immediately stupefied by the very notion that befriending this little prude should occur to him at all. "You have a good day, ma'am," he said, fighting hard to hang on to the last vestiges of his charm as he brushed past her.
That's when he caught a whiff of his favorite flower, lily of the valley.
He paused and glanced around for the source of the small white bell-like blossoms hidden beneath draped green leaves, but the flowerbeds running the length of the porch featured only hydrangea bushes not yet in bloom. The scent was coming from her. Starbuck pulled out a fresh cigar from his pocket. So the lady had at least one vanity. "Enjoy your day, Miss Nola," he murmured as he moved closer than necessary to get past her. She stiffened and this time her breathing definitely changed. Starbuck tipped his hat and bathed her in the full radiance of his triumphant smile.
Nola was well aware of the stunts a much younger Harry Starbuck had pulled in order to get around his parents and his teachers whenever he wanted something. He could be downright innocent when he chose. Her older brothers had thought the sun rose and set on him and her younger sister had hoped to attract his notice, like just about every other single female on the island. Now as a businessman, Harrison Starbuck had returned and was using those very same charms to acquire the village's backing for his various enterprises. The proposed cabaret was just the latest of a long list of ventures he had persuaded others were necessary. "We have to be able to hold our own with Nantucket Town," one merchant had told her. "Starbuck has connections. According to him, 'Sconset could be the place folks go for entertainment on the island and that means money coming into town." She, on the other hand, was perfectly content with the way things were. Men like Harry Starbuck were always looking for ways to turn an even greater profit.
Such arrogance, Nola thought.
On the other hand, no one—even those who disapproved of his plans to stage plays and other entertainment in the village—ever seemed to question his ability to do it all and do it well. Nola could not deny that the growing population of summer guests had been good for her business. Still, it was one thing when tourists came for health reasons or even to take a short respite from the sweltering heat of summer in a large city. But how could theater people who were dependent on seasonal work afford such a luxury? She had to admit that the actors who had summered in 'Sconset so far seemed nice enough whenever Nola saw them on the street, and since not one of them had ever frequented her tearoom, there had been no real reason for concern. Still, Nola had been raised to believe that people who worked in the theater were not the sort of people one associated with on a regular basis.
"It's a question of upbringing and lifestyle," town matriarch, Rose Gillenwater, had stated earlier that spring as she held court in the tearoom. "It's unseemly the way they rent those cottages all clustered together and move freely between them as if they are all part of some larger family. The very fact they have coined the term 'the colony' to label their living quarters must be held up to question. These people often tour the country—traveling together, staying in hotels—all without proper supervision. Well, one must assume there are certain temptations."
"But, Mother, surely you can't condemn an entire group by the actions of a few," Rose's daughter, Violet, had protested.