Claire Woods was totally alluringand completely out of Tag Campbell's reach. But when she needed him, he saved her. She touched raw places inside him, making him ache and crave things he'd thought he'd given up. What would it be like to have her waiting...every night...for him?
HE WAS HER DARKEST FANTASY... AND HER DEEPEST DESIRE
Tag Campbell haunted her. Like a pirate in tight denim, he captured her and declared his love in heated whispers. Claire had to make the decision of a lifetimea quiet role in proper society or a wild, loving adventure with a man who was so wrong...but oh, so right!
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Five years later
Stay with me, Frenchy. I need you.
That's as close as Tag had come to telling the best friend he'd ever had, he loved him.
But maybe Frenchy had known.
Tag had clasped him in his arms long after Frenchy's eyes had gone as glassy as the still bay, long after his skin had grown as cool as his dead mother's that awful morning when the alarm clock had kept ringing.
Stay with me, Frenchy.
he'd lashed the wheel of the shrimp boat to starboard with a nylon sheethis makeshift autopilotand headed home, cradling Frenchy's limp, grizzled head in his lap.
Stay with me, Frenchy.
But Frenchy's eyes had remained closed. The deck had rolled under them.
It was midnight. The full moon shone through the twisted live oaks and tall grasses, casting eerie shadows across Frenchy's tombstone. Tag was all alone in that small, picturesque, historical cemetery located on a mound of higher earth that overlooked Rockport's moonwashed bay. Come morning, this time of year, the graves would be ablaze with wildflowers. Funny, how death could make you see the truth you didn't want to see. Tag had been living so hard and fast for so long, he hadn't admitted he'd loved the old bastard, till he'd held his friend's limp body and begun to weep.
"This wasn't supposed to happen! Damn your hide, Frenchy, for leaving me like everybody else. But most of all I damn you for making me give a damn. It should be me who's dead ."
They'd buried Frenchy beside his son, the son he'd lost right before Frenchy had saved Tag's life.
Tag was glad the cemetery was deserted. He didn't want anybody to see how profoundly Frenchy's death had upset him.
Sunken black circles ringed Tag's bloodshot eyes; his jaw was shadowed with several days of dark stubble. His stomach rumbled painfully from too much liquor and too little food.
The moon shone high in a cloudless, bright sky. The salt-laden sea air smelled of dry earth and newly mown grass. Frenchy's favorite kind of night. The shrimp would be running. Not that Tag could bear the thought of shrimping under a full moon without Frenchy.
Tag's big black bike was parked a little way from Frenchy's tombstone under a live oak tree that had been sculpted by the southeasterly prevailing winds that blew off the gulf, cooling its protected bays and low-lying coastal prairies.
Tag was kneeling before the pink tombstone. Soft as a prayer, his deep voice whispered. "Haunt me, Frenchy. Damn you, haunt me. Stay with me ."
"You don't need an old man past his prime. You need a woman, kids," Frenchy had pointed out, in that maddening know-it-all way of his, a few nights ago.
"Strange advice coming from a man who's failed at marriage four times ."
"Nothing like a pretty woman to make a man old enough to know better hope for the best. Life's a circle, constantly repeating itself ."
God, I hope not.
"You're young. But you'll get old. you'll die. Life's short. You gotta fall in love, get married, spawn kids, repeat the circle ."
"There's places in my circle I don't want to revisit ."
"you're not the tough guy you pretend. you're the marrying kind ."
"Where'd you get a damn fool notion like that?"
"you're either sulkin' or ragin' mad ."
"Which is why you think I'd make a delightful husband ."
"You don't fit in here. Your heart's not in bars or fights or gamblingor even in fishing. Or even in getting laid by those rich, wild girls who come to Shorty's looking for a fast tumble in the back seat of their car with a tough guy like you ."
"What if I said I like what they do to me? And what if I said I can do without a heart, old man?"
"you're a liar. You got a heart, a big one, whether you want it or not. It's just busted all to pieces same as your pretty, sissy-boy face. Only the right woman can fix what ails you ."
"you're getting mighty mushy, old man ."
"You think you can stay dead forever?" The wind drifting through moss and honeysuckle brought the scent of the sea, reminding him of the long hours of brutal work on a shrimp boat. The work numbed him. The beauty of the sea and its wildlife comforted him, made this hellish exile in an alien world somehow more endurable. Just as those women and what they did to him in their cars gave him a taste of what he'd once had, so that he could endure this life. But always after the women left, he felt darker, as if everything that was good in him had been used up. Which was what he wanted. Maybe if they used him long enough, he wouldn't feel anything.
Tag knelt in the soft earth and studied the snapshot of a younger Frenchy framed in cracked plastic in the center of the pink stone.
"you're a coward to run from who you are and what you want, Tag Campbella coward, pure and simple ."
Tag had sprung out of his chair so fast, he'd knocked it over. "You lowdown, ignorant cuss! Every time you drink, your jaw pops like that loose shutter ."
Frenchy laughed. "What's the point of wisdom, if I can't pass it on to a blockhead like you? Life's a circle ."
"Don't start that circle garbage ."
Tag had slammed out of the beach house, taken the boat out, stayed gone the rest of the night on that glassy, moonlit sea. He hadn't apologized when he saw Frenchy waiting for him on the dock.
Then Frenchy had collapsed on the boat a few hours later when they were setting their nets.
Guilt swamped Tag. he'd never thanked the old man for anything he'd done.
The wind roared up from the bay, murmuring in the oak trees, mocking Tag as his empty silver eyes studied the grave. It was difficult to imagine the hard-living, advice-giving meddler lying still and quiet, to imagine him inside that box, dead. Emotions built inside Tag guilt, griefbut he bottled them, the way he always did when he wasn't driving fast, fighting, chasing women, or drinking.
The dangerous-looking man who knelt at his friend's grave bore little resemblance to the younger man whose life Frenchy had saved in a Louisiana swamp. That man had been elegantly handsome before the beating, his smooth features classically designed, the aquiline nose straight, his trusting silver eyes warm and friendly.
That man was dead. As dead as Frenchy.
The powerfully-built man beside the grave was burned dark from the sun. On the inside his heart had charred an even blacker shade. Fists had smashed and rearranged his once handsome features into a ruggedly- brutal composition. The broken nose had been flat- tened. There was a narrow, white ridge above one brow. Despite these changes, or perhaps because of them, an aura of violence clung to him. Maybe it was this reckless, outlaw attitude that made him so lethally attractive, at least to women of a certain class. Such women cared little about his inner wounds. They came on strong, wanting nothing from him except to use his body for quick, uncomplicated sex.
His guarded silver eyes beneath black arcing brows missed nothing, trusted no one. Especially not such womenwomen who made him burn, but left him feeling even colder and lonelier when they were done with him and drove off in their fancy cars to their big houses and safe men.
His muscles were heavy from hard, manual labor. He wore scuffed black cowboy boots, tight jeans, a worn white T-shirt, and a black leather jacket.
Death triggered deep, primal needs.
Death. Violence. Sex. Somehow they went together. Alone with his demons, without Frenchy to irritate and distract him, Tag needed a bar fight or a woman bad. So bad, he almost wished he'd gone to the funeral and wrestled some shrimper for a topless waitress. So bad, he almost wished he was in jail nursing a hellish hangover with the rest of Frenchy's wild bunch.
Instead he'd driven his motorcycletoo fast and over such rough roads, he'd almost rolled. he'd scared himself. Which was a sign that cold as he was in his lonely life, he wasn't ready to end it. When he'd calmed down, he'd come to the cemetery to pay his last respects.
The silvery night was warm and lovely.
Perfect kind of weather to hang out in a cemetery perfumed by wild flowers and glistening with moonlight.
If you could stand cemeteries.
Which Tag couldn't. Any more than he could stand funerals. Especially the funeral of his best friend. Not when his own mood was as brittle and hopeless as the morning his mother had died, as the afternoon his father had slammed the door in his face.
Frenchy's funeral had been a blowout brawl at Shorty's. The cocktail waitresses, even Mabel, had danced topless on the pool tables. Some of the shrimpers had found their dance inspiring, and since there weren't ever enough women to go around in Shorty's, the "funeral" had gotten so wild, two of Frenchy's ex-wives had called the cops who hauled the shrimpers and barmaids to jail.
It had been just the sort of uproar that gave shrimpers and the industry a bad name.
Then Frenchy's will had been read. Everybody really got mad when they found out that, fool that he was, Frenchy had left that black dog, Tag Campbell, everything.
Everything. Boats. Restaurant. Fishhouses. Wharves. Even the beach house which was practically an historic landmark. Everything.
That snobby bastard! He didn't even like to fish!
Still, he was the best fisherman any of them had ever seen. Just as he was way too popular with their women even though he secretly despised them. The bastard preferred books to beer even though he could drink any one of them under the table. Tag Campbell was too proud and high-and-mighty to hang out with the likes of them at Shorty's. How in the hell had he outsmarted them alleven Frenchy?
Everything was his.
There was lots of angry muttering. "It isn't right! Frenchy dead on that boat with just that lying Tag Campbell to tell the tale ."
"If you ask me, the bastard killed him ."
"You heard the coroner. Autopsy report says massive coronary. Says Frenchy smoked and drank too much. Says it's a miracle Frenchy lived as long as he did ."
"I say it was murder. Frenchy was fit as a fiddle. Why just two nights ago he was drunker than a skunk dancing on that table with Mabel ."
Rusty and Hank, two of the rougher prisoners, deck- hands Tag had fired for laziness and pure meanness, vowed that as soon as they got loose, they'd see their friend, Frenchy, avenged.
Frenchy had a lot more money than the shrimpers suspected. The sheriff paid Tag a visit just to tell him he'd be smart to leave town, at least till Rusty and Hank cooled off.
At the sight of the sheriff's car in his drive and Trousers, his Border collie, slinking off to the woods, Tag grimaced. No wonder Trousers was scared. The big man cut an impressive figure in his uniform and silvered sunglasses. He had heavy features, squared-off shoulders, and a big black gun hanging from his thick belt.
Tag had dealt with more than his share of armed bullies in uniforms. The law, they called themselves.
Self-righteous bullies, strutting around in their shiny boots like they owned the world. They'd boarded his boats, slashed his nets, kicked his ice chests over and swept his catch overboard, fined his captains. No sooner had Sheriff Jeffries slammed his meaty fist against his screen door and bellowed Tag's name, than sweat started trickling under his collar. A lot of his cats scurried under the house or after the cowardly Trousers. Others hunkered low behind pot plants to watch the suspicious character stomping down their breezeway.
"I just let Rusty and Hank out. They're calling you a murderer ."
You half-wild, no-good bastard.
His own father had wrongly accused him of embez- zlement and grand larceny. Anger burned in Tag's throat, but he smiled as if he didn't give a damn and saluted the man with a whiskey bottle. "You got a warrant"
"Sometimes, Campbell, the smart thing is to walk away ."
Tag stared at his own reflection in the silver glasses and then pushed the door wider. "I ain't runnin' ."
The sheriff planted himself on his thick legs and then leaned against the doorway. "Jeffries, those guys talk big when they're safe in jail, but they're like dogs barking from inside a fence. You let 'em out, and they'll lick my hand like puppies ."
"Just a friendly warning, Campbell ."
"Thanks, amigo ."