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Burgundy shadows graciously gave way to the soft pinks and grays of early dawn, Cathy Bissette's favorite time of day. She loved the morning and its peaceful quiet with a comforting knowledge that the new day would bring, if not happiness, then contentment. That was why she had asked for a three-month leave of absence from the publishing house where she was an editor and subleased her New York apartment in the Village.
She had come home to the coastal flatlands of North Carolina, and here she could shrug off the acquired veneer of sophistication and return to the uncomplicated life she had left behind. Here in Swan Quarter, surrounded by a loving father and old friends and the lush grassy banks leading down to the waters of the Pamlico Sound, she could restore her spirit and mend her soul.
The soft lap of the sound against her sun-darkened feet was soothing, a balm to her erupting emotions. It was a gentle feeling, like when Marc Hellenger touched her and held her close. Yet, she didn't like the feeling now, here in this peacefulness with only the shriek of the gulls to break the quiet and the ghostly specters of the shrimp boats testing their moorings to the long rickety piers.
She withdrew first one foot and then the other, tucking them firmly beneath her. She would not think, would not feel. But once again the familiar self-doubts began to creep in despite her resolution. Had she been wrong to run like a frightened puppy? She recalled her squeaky reply of, "If you loved me you would marry me." It had sounded archaic to her own ears and God only knew how it had sounded to Marc. Why couldn't she be sophisticated and clever like the other girls in the office? They would have known how to handle Marc and his insistent demands of, "If you loved me you would sleep with me." Well she wasn't like the other girls and she couldn't handle it. Right or wrong, she was stuck with her decision and would no doubt end up a dried up old maid.
Cathy shifted her position on the dock to a more comfortable one and almost knocked her carryall into the water. Her heart hammered at the near mishap and she moved the canvas bag to a more secure position. Teak Helm's galleys of his newest manuscript and a romance novel she had promised to line edit for her boss, along with a breakfast roll and a thermos of coffee rested inside waiting to be devoured. The coffee and roll for sustenance and Teak's galleys for mental nourishment.
She was comfortable here, safe from Marc. Now why did she keep using the word safe? Safe was a word children used, or mothers when they referred to their offspring's well being. She wasn't a child, she was twenty-four years old with a responsible job and an apartment of her own, not to mention a second-hand Mustang and her day sailer. Why couldn't she accept an affair for what it was without benefit of that small piece of paper called a marriage certificate? All her friends were embroiled in affairs and happy with the arrangement. Why did she have to be different?
She squared her shoulders imperceptibly and muttered to the emptiness around her, "Because it isn't something I can take lightly." And that was that, she thought, dusting her hands together and scrambling to her feet. A quick run along the shoreline to empty her mind of Marc and she would be born again on the banks of the Pamlico Sound. This was where she belonged, where she wanted to be… wasn't it?
She ran, jerkily at first, until her muscles limbered up and she got the hang of her old style; head up, elbows bent, fists loosely clenched. Her breathing was deep and regular, the tang of salt air perfume to her senses.
A soft whoof at her heels made her swivel, never breaking her running stride. "Hey, Bismarc, good to see you. Beat you to the end of the strip." The Irish setter dug in his paws and sprinted ahead of her, his russet sleekness there one moment and gone the next. He knew if he made it back to the dock ahead of the slim girl with the blond flying pigtails, he would find a treat in the carryall resting on the end of the dock. And if he were extra lucky and the girl obliged, he could fully expect to have his belly scratched for at least ten minutes.
"Look at you, you're not even panting!" Cathy gasped as she collapsed onto the smoothplanks. "I'mout of condition," she said, fondling the dog, "but it's a temporary state of affairs. By the end of summer, I'll race you to the point and win it hands down. Here, you deserve this," she said, handing him a salmon-colored biscuit.
Cathy poured herself a cup of coffee from the thermos and sat nibbling on her sweet roll. "Bet you're surprised to see me home, right? Well, you see it was like this: things got a little sticky back there in the Big Apple and I sort of cut out and ran, back to Dad and you. I'm not really different from the others. It's my values that are different. I know this sounds corny and girls my age don't think in terms of saving themselves, but I do. I don't know how to make the bar scene and I don't bed hop. Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong. I just don't know anymore."
Bismarc ceased gnawing on his biscuit. His ears pricked up, not at the words she was uttering but at the tone of her voice. He slinked his way up to the girl on his belly and forced his shaggy head into the crook of her arm, willing her to laugh and hug him like she always did. Cathy laughed. "I have you. Is that what you're trying to tell me? Girl's best friend. Loyal, devoted and loving. You've got it all, Bismarc. You'll never forsake me. However," she said clasping his head in her hands, "you don't make my heart pound and my senses reel. And what good are you on a cold winter's night? Roll over," she ordered, "so I can scratch your belly." Bismarc didn't have to be told a second time. This was what life was all about.
"I brought Teak Helm's galleys for his new book with me. His last book was a million-copy bestseller and this one promises to be even better. If I were his editor, Bismarc, I'd take him in hand and… actually—" Cathy lowered her voice to a mere whisper "—I just might get to do that when I go back to New York. Teak's editor is moving to the West Coast and my boss told me I'm in line for the job. Imagine me, Cathy Bissette, a little ol' North Carolina girl, being Teak Helm's editor. What a life he must lead, all those wonderful sea adventures, the true life stories he creates. Now there's a man I would like to meet."
Cathy turned at the sound of her name being called in time to notice two things. Her father sauntering down to the dock and a swift motor launch churning through the brackish water to her left. Bismarc, shaken from his moments of ecstasy, scrambled to his feet, barking wildly at the intruding launch.
"It looks like we've got company," Lucas Bissette said in his gravelly voice. "Powerful company, from the sound of that launch. Rich, too, from the looks of that motor yacht riding at anchor out there."
"A bit early for visitors," Cathy said, an ominous feeling settling between her shoulders. Her breath quickened at the sight of the sleek launch, bow raised, water cutting back in white pluming arcs as it sped by the hull. The now golden dawn cast everything into a yellow nimbus and she could see the occupants of the launch as the pilot cut back his engines. A tall, broad-shouldered masculine figure manned the wheel and a breathtakingly beautiful woman was at his side.
Lucas Bissette and Cathy stood waiting, a welcoming committee of two, for the arrival of the launch. The man's handling of the boat was admirable as he nosed it into the dock and expertly tossed the bow and stern lines which Cathy and Lucas secured to the pilings. No Sunday sailor, this one, Cathy thought, somehow pleased that such a beautiful craft was in the hands of a capable seaman. Too often she had seen luxurious vessels run to ruin at the hands of careless, inexperienced owners who were known to salty, able seamen by that deprecating term as "Sunday Sailors."
An indrawn breath escaped Cathy as the man leaped to the dock with athletic agility. It was impossible not to be aware of his striking good looks which were enhanced by a golden tan. Dark hair brushed casually off to the side and trimmed just a trifle shorter than was the current style offset piercing gray eyes that flicked over her cutoff jeans and washed-out T-shirt, yet seemed to survey the soft curves of her figure beneath. When he smiled in greeting, it was warm and friendly and displayed a humorous irony and dazzling white teeth.
Cathy felt her gaze narrow as she took in the sight of the woman who had accompanied him and was mournfully aware of her own hastily braided hair and bare legs that ended with bare feet. This woman was beautiful and meticulously groomed. Even at this early hour her makeup was perfect and her platinum hair had the appearance of being styled by a New York hairdresser.
Out of the corner of her eye, Cathy watched her father straighten his shoulders and hitch up his baggy blue jeans; a silent tribute to the woman standing on the dock.
"Jared Parsons," the man said, holding out a bronzed hand. "And this is Erica Marshall… my secretary."
I'll just bet she's your secretary, Cathy thought uncharitably as she noticed the proprietary look on Erica's face.
"I'm looking for Lucas Bissette. According to the marine mechanics on Ocracoke Island, he's the best damned mechanic on the coast. I started out from Maine a few weeks ago, and my chief engineer became ill and is now hospitalized in Virginia Beach. I was going to pick up another engineer in Cape Fear but developed engine trouble out at Ocracoke. We made it here by the skin of our teeth and I mean that literally. I'm on my way home to Lighthouse Point, in Florida. Now, can you tell me where I can find this Bissette fella?"
A half-smile formed around the corners of Cathy's mouth. It didn't seem like a question to her but a demand. How would her father react to this demand? She was chagrined to see a wide smile stretch Lucas's mouth as he looked at the woman as he answered.
"You're talking to him," Lucas drawled. "And you heard right. I am the best damned mechanic on the coast."
"I just knew it," Erica smiled winningly. "You have that… that look about you that… that speaks of knowledge."
Cathy grinned when Jared Parsons winced. So much for eloquent secretaries, she thought nastily, disliking the beautiful Erica on sight.
Jared extended his hand toward Lucas and gripped the other's firmly. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Bissette. Sure hope you can help me."
"I'll try. Can you tell me what's wrong?" Lucas asked, expecting to hear a series of complaints in the most untechnical terms, such as, she's dragging, can't get any speed out of her, the head's plugged and won't flush, or she's making a sort of thumping noise. Instead, Jared Parsons seemed to have a very knowledgeable opinion of what was wrong with his motor yacht.
"Firstly, I know it's the primary marine generator. We were supposed to pick up another at Cape Fear. The replacement engineer has ordered it, picked it up and it's all ready to go. Secondly, I believe the exhaust manifold is on the fluke. Last, but not least, I think the raw water intake is giving me trouble. Again, I might add. It was taken care of, or at least I thought it was, in Kennebunk-port, Maine. Now, I'm not so certain."
"Sounds like you've got a real ox in the ditch, son. I'll have a look at it for you, later today, when I have time. If it can be fixed I'll be glad to oblige. Better be prepared to stick around for a week or so."
"A week! Mr. Bissette, I don't have a week! I have to be back at Lighthouse Point at the end of this week. Look, I'll pay you double what you charge, triple if necessary. But I need the work done today, tomorrow at the latest."
Cathy's back stiffened at the man's arrogant tone. Why did men like him always think money could buy everything? She clenched her teeth. If Lucas buckled under, she would push him off the dock and that fancy looking Erica right along with him.
Bismarc was in tune with Cathy's emotions and began a deep growl in his throat to show his own disapproval. And then he did something that lightened Cathy's heart. He had slowly maneuvered himself over to Erica and was slowly licking her leg.
"Eeek!" Erica squealed, backing away and at the same time losing her balance, toppling into the brackish water. "Filthy creature!" she shouted as she surfaced with an undignified splash.
Bismarc, unconcerned with what he had done, reared up and placed his paws on Jared's shoulders, demanding attention.
Jared wasn't in the least angry and issued a deep chuckle as he watched his secretary. Lucas seemed concerned and made a move to assist the woman when Jared stopped him. "She knows how to swim and the ladder is right there." He scratched the big dog's head and grinned at Cathy. "Affectionate dog you have here. He seems to have firm likes and dislikes."
Cathy stared into slate-gray eyes, again aware of her shabby appearance. She felt out of place and uncomfortable at the man's close scrutiny. She had to say something, make some comment. "I thought you said your secretary could swim. Looks to me like she's going down for the third time."
"She'll come up when she realizes I'm not going in after her," Jared said coolly.
Cathy shrugged as she bent down to pick up her carryall. The contents had spilled with Erica's wild plunge into the water.
"Allow me," Jared said, bending down. He handed the Teak Helm galleys to her along with the thermos.
Cathy couldn't conceive what came over her, but she snatched the galleys from his hand. "Give me that!"
The gray eyes were mocking when Jared handed them over. "I wasn't going to keep it. I was just putting it in your bag." His smile was tight, almost grim when he watched her place the rolled leaflets in her bag as though she were handling eggs.