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The old riverboat rocked gently under Cy Franco's feet, and he wished they were bare instead of pinched inside shoes so ridiculously shiny they dazzled the eye.
Weddings. He used to love them, everything from the gorgeous decor down to the vegetable crudités. Funny how flinging an engagement ring into the ocean could take away his enthusiasm for all things matrimonial.
Nevertheless, his sister Rosa's wedding ceremony was complete, and he hadn't dropped the rings or said anything too sappy for the toast. A great accomplishment since his duties encompassed being both best man to his new brother-in-law, Pike, and attendant to his sister, Rosa. The word unorthodox didn't even begin to cover it, but it was done and they were hitched. The blissful couple would soon be off to honeymoon someplace tropical for a month. Mission accomplished, in spite of the last-minute change of venue. His sister deserved her happily-ever-after. Her face, so suffused with love and happiness as she whispered her "I do," had been perfection, but still Cy couldn't help but think the one thing that would have made it even better was his mother living to see it.
We don't all get the happily-ever-after, Cy.
He turned on the stainless steel taps in his stateroomhe would have switched the fixtures out for brass if it was his showand soaked a cloth to dampen his face, wetting his fingers and trying again in vain to smash down his wild head of blond curls. The mirror reflected the glittering cove through the porthole behind him, waves rippling across the water on their way to lap the rocky shore on the central California coast. His coast. What he wouldn't give to hoist himself up on the railing, strip off the chafing monkey suit and dive in. His muscles tensed at the imagined pleasure of swimming hard and fast, mile after mile. Maybe he'd keep going until he slogged ashore in Tumbledown and squelched his way to the Pelican Inn, his place of business and current home since Aunt Bitsy sold her beloved hotel to his sister Rosa and her freshly minted husband, Pike.
Nope. There were a bazillion termites meeting their doom at the Pelican at the moment, the whole inn tented and off-limits, which was exactly why they'd needed to move Rosa's wedding reception to the boat newly docked past the breakwater in Gold Cove. A whole wedding rerouted by a bunch of insects. The irony.
A flicker of movement in the mirror drew his attention from the running water. Something white, lacy, ethereal drifted past on the outer deck, momentarily obscuring his view of the cove. A pair of eyes, unforgettable. Unbelievable.
A ghost, his mind told him.
You're an idiot, it added immediately.
You got your heart broken by a lady in white. Weddings, vows, rings. Stirs everything up.
Cy dropped the cloth in the water and scooped a palmful from the running tap, dashing his face with it to wash away the mirage. Get it together, man. He had a reception room full of people to tend to, including his father and his new mother-in-law, a woman to whom he ascribed saintly qualities. She had taken Cy and his sister in as teens after they were abandoned by their father, and she'd married that same man even though doctors claimed he was losing his sanity to Pick's disease. Aunt Bitsy, though not his biological aunt, was a cut above the rest, and she wanted the wedding to go off without the slightest snag. This was not the time for hallucinations.
The swirl of white passed in front of the porthole again. Green eyes, the pale tint of newly unfurled leaves, his memory supplied, with the tiniest fleck of gold in the left. Truth be told, he was probably imagining the woman in the first place, the wisps of strawberry blond hair peeping out from under a wisp of white lace. The water splashed and gurgled, but he could not look away from that reflection of perfection.
One second more, two. He blinked and screwed up his eyes, closed and opened them, and yet she remained, reflected in the mirror. Then she smiled in the sad, elfin way that only Piper Brindle could, in the same manner she had on the day she destroyed them. Ruined him.
A crystal tear brimmed from those green eyes and trickled down her face.
A crying hallucination? He whirled around, crashed through the door and careened through the narrow corridor on his way to catch up with the lady in white.
Piper flicked the veil back from her face, heart pounding, and swiped a hand across her cheeks. She jogged as fast as the stiff satin pumps would allow. She never should have peeked through the porthole, but she had to prove to herself that the impossible rumor was not true. Cy Franco could not actually be on the ship, yet the man who gaped at her in the mirror had certainly looked like the tousle-haired, half-crazy decorating savant whom she had broken up with three years before.
It couldn't be Cy. All six-foot, wide-shouldered vegetarians probably looked alike wearing tuxedos. Last she'd heard, he was in Northern California, helping his sister run a design firm. And what, she asked herself as she jogged, was up with the tear that had slid down her face? Tears? Really, Piper? Cy probably hadn't cried when she left. He was no doubt glad to be rid of her. She didn't blame him. She stopped to listen for pursuit and heard the clatter of someone running in clunky dress shoes. The Cy lookalike. She raced faster, ducking into an empty conference room, and leaned against the door, breathing hard. Whoever it was, the last thing she needed was for a guest on the boat to lodge a complaint about the peeping Thomasina staring through his porthole.
Even if it was Cy, he had no business chasing her. Of course, the tiny voice that passed for her conscience reminded her she'd actually stolen the man's Chevy. But he'd gotten it back, hadn't he?
"For goodness' sake, he doesn't even drive," she sniped to herself. Her pursuer paused outside, and she remained still. She longed to peek out, to confirm the crazy idea she'd latched onto that she once again shared deck space with Cy Franco.
No looking back, Piper. The shadow passed by and Piper let out a sigh, a very quiet one, before she slipped into the hallway and sped back to her cabin.
Twenty minutes later, winded, and more convinced than ever that he needed some sort of mental health intervention, Cy settled back into his role as brotherly host, greeting the reception guests in the captain's room. He steadfastly suppressed the image of the lady in white, the mirage he'd chased all around the boat deck without finding the barest trace of her. Wiping his brow, he plastered on a smile and did his best to mingle. The long rectangular space was dotted with round tables sporting bronze linens and flowery sprays composed of blooms he wouldn't even begin to guess at. Flooring he knew. Flowers, not so much.
This flooring was all wrong, of course, as was most of the decor. The room was decorated in such a modern style, it had lost all the charm intrinsic to a historic wooden steam paddleboat. As co-owner of Dollars and Sense Design with his sister, it was his job and calling to notice such things. This boat had historyquaint, elusive, the charming memories of yesteryear when paddleboats churned along California waterways. This room might have been the reception room of any motel in America.
Aunt Bitsy took his arm, distracting him from his thoughts. Her white-blond hair was piled neatly atop her head. "I was worried about you, Cy, honey. Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I'm all right." He bent to press a kiss to her cheek, which forestalled the brewing questions. Her warm gaze fixed on him in that amazing way that made everyone feel like she was their own flesh and blood, which was why virtually every townsperson from the mail carrier to the dentist called her Aunt Bitsy. "Are you and Pops enjoying the soiree?"
"Definitely." She beamed.
"Marriage suits you. You've been hitched three months now and you're still smiling. Where is your rascally other half?"
"He trotted off to fetch me a wrap. It's freezing in here." She blushed. "He takes good care of me."
"Well, you are newlyweds."
"Yes, we are, aren't we? I have to pinch myself sometimes to remember that it's true." Bitsy's smile wavered. "He's been really clear lately."
It was Cy's turn to beam. "You see? Marriage is better than any drug the doctor can prescribe." The doctors seemed to think there was nothing to be done but throw pills at the problem. Fine, he thought. Pops is going to be okay in spite of them. He and Bitsy would see to it.
Bitsy's eyes widened. "Uh-oh. Dragon Lady, three o'clock," she whispered. "Your turn. I'm going to get some sparkling water."
Irene Hershey, the owner and general manager for the River King, the historic paddle wheel steamboat they were on, was bearing down on them like a falcon after a hapless fish. Bitsy had already wrestled with the woman over everything from the height of the flower thingies to the necessity of patching an unsightly crack in the wall behind the buffet table. Bitsy could charm the socks off any male on the planet, but her confrontations with women disintegrated quickly. Her last conversation with Irene had nearly come to blows.
He squared his shoulders. His turn to take a bullet.
"Mr. Franco," Irene said, giving her unnaturally dark hair a flip. "You've enjoyed the arrangements here on the River King, I trust?" Though the sixtyish woman spoke in Cy's general direction, her flint-gray eyes were riveted on another man sipping from a crystal goblet, a well-dressed guy who looked to be within spitting distance of Cy's twenty-nine years. Too tanned. Too ironed.
"Everyone is practically gobbling up the salmon, and doesn't the sparkling of the ocean add a dramatic flare out that bank of windows?" she practically bellowed.
Cy wasn't sure how to respond. He settled for a nod. She squeezed his forearm. "The man, over there," she hissed. "Do you see him?"
Cy checked him out again. "Who is he? I know he's not with the bride's family. A friend of Pike's, maybe?"
"No, no. He's not a wedding guest."
Cy took in the stranger again. "If he's crashing, I'll show him to the door." He didn't think it would be much trouble. Cy had five inches on him, easy.
She dug her nails into his wrist. "You most certainly will not. Don't you know who that is? It's Carson Spooley. He's tried to keep his presence here on the qt, but there are no secrets on my boat."
Her eyes were wide with awe.
"You're gonna have to help me out a little more than that. Is he a TV star or something? I don't own a TV so
She was about to fire off a retort, an unfriendly one by the looks of it, when a waiter scuttled over and whispered in her ear. Her mouth went slack. "What? Which one?"
The waiter whispered again.
"I'll be back in a minute." She hustled away with impressive speed for a person with such short legs.
Cy approached his beaming sister, resplendent in a simply cut white silk gown with rosettes at the waist. She threw her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks. "Amazing wedding, Cy. Thank you for all you did. I know we all wanted it to be at the Pelican, but married is married no matter where you do it."
He lifted her up and returned the squeeze before putting her down and shaking Pike's hand. "You're getting a real gem, you know, and I'm not just saying that because she's my twin."
"I do know that," he said solemnly. "And I'm getting a reasonably tolerable brother-in-law in the bargain."
Cy grinned. "Considering we were trying to pummel each other senseless not too long ago, I'd say that's progress. Still, we'd better establish a neutral zone at the inn if we're going to be running our businesses under the same roof."
Pike raised an eyebrow in mock offense. "Sir, you underestimate me. I'm a lawyer, you know."
"Exactly." Cy jerked his head to the side. "You know that guy? His name's Carson Spooley, but he's undercover or something."
Rosa looked closer. "That's Carson Spooley? He's shorter than I thought."
Cy groaned. "Okay, I give. Who is Carson Spooley? Astronaut? Rock star? Pro golfer?"
Rosa laughed, her brown eyes twinkling. "You really don't get out enough, Cy."
"I guess I'm too busy on redecorating jobs with you."
The reception room door was pushed open so hard it slammed into the wall. Irene beelined in, mouth in a tight smile that came nowhere near adding cheer to her face. Once again, she took hold of Cy's arm. This time she hauled him out the door. "Right this way, Mr. Franco. There's something we need to discuss."
"Can't it wait?" he asked. "We're almost ready to cut the cake. It's strawberry with a cream cheese filling." And it had been a real pain to convince Irene to allow them to bring in the outside caterer they'd already spent a chunk of change on in the first place. He was going to enjoy every last morsel right down to the dessert.
"You don't deserve cake. Now that I think about it, a dungeon with no refreshment at all might suit better, and I'm pretty sure we have a brig around here someplace."
As Cy was dragged along, his father appeared in the corridor, clutching a pink shawl. "Hey, son. Party's that way."
"He's got something to take care of," Irene said grimly.
Cy should have been unhappy being escorted away from the wedding, but he couldn't summon up too much angst about it. His father was clear-eyed and alert, to his great relief. It was the beginning of Rosa's life with Pike and Manny's second life with Bitsy, and aside from disastrous decor, it had been a smashing send-off for both couples. Whatever was upsetting Irene "The Dragon Lady" Hershey could be dealt with.
"Need me to help out with something?" Manny asked. "I'll just give this to Bits and then I'll find you."
"Nah, we're fine," Cy called, though they were almost out of earshot thanks to Irene's pace. "Just save me a piece of cake, one with lots of icing. And a rosette. I want a rosette, for sure."
They pressed on.
"Oh, hey." He peered down and realized the carpet running along the floor was soaked. "You've got a leak. That's not my thing. I don't know anything about plumbing, so if you wanted my two cents on this, you're barking up the wrong pipe wrench."
She didn't answer until they reached the door of a familiar stateroom. His stateroom.
Something tickled at his memory.
The lady in white. But before that, splashing water onto his face.
Dropping the washcloth into the sink.
One crystal tear on that perfect cheek.
His mad dash out the door.
And from far away, the sound of water running in the sink behind him.
After an examination of the bog-like conditions in his stateroom, he followed Irene to a conference room opposite the wedding reception. Rosa caught his eye through the window. He waved and gave her an "everything is perfect in the universe" smile.
He tried to ready a defense as he sat in the chair opposite Irene. After a moment, he gave up. "I got nothing. I'm a doofus and I left the faucet running. I'm sorry."
"Yes, you are a doofus. What kind of a grown-up leaves the tap on in his stateroom?"
"It's like this," he said. "I saw, I mean there was this reflection, a kind of a something that startled me, you see, and I ran out the door so fast I." He broke off. "Let's just go with doo-fus. I'll pay for the damages."