Journalist and single dad Dylan Smith is on assignmentlooking for the father he has never known. He finds himself in Sturgeon Falls with barely any information, and there's only one person who seems able to help him
After a lousy marriage that punctured her self-confidence, charter captain Charlotte Burns isn't prepared for Dylan's charm. She finds herself wanting to help Dylan uncover his elusive past until one night of passion gives her an unexpected lead. Now helping Dylanand falling for himcould destroy the one man Charlotte loves more than any other .
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"What do you think you're doing?"
The floating pier dipped and swayed beneath Dylan's feet as a woman leaped from a boat and ran toward him. The sun glinted off something large and shiny in her fist.
Dylan instinctively stepped backward, but the woman ignored him as she jumped onto another boat. Moments later, two young men scrambled out of it.
"Stop them," the woman shouted to Dylan. Dylan tried to block them in the middle of the narrow pier, but they didn't slow down. Dylan grabbed at the first one, but his hand slid off the kid's slippery track jacket. The boy twisted, using his shoulder to knock Dylan off balance, then threw an elbow at Dylan's face. He tasted blood as the second boy shoved him against a post. By the time he regained his footing, they were past him.
As he turned to chase them, the woman flashed past, holding a huge wrench. She didn't spare him a glance.
Before Dylan could catch up he heard the sound of motors revving and gravel spitting in the parking lot. He reached it in time to see the woman fling the wrench onto the ground.
She stood with her hands on her hips, watching the two boys zoom out of the parking lot on dirt bikes. Sun glittered off the metal lying at her feet.
"You want to follow them?" he asked. "My car is right here."
"Forget it," she said with disgust. She kicked at the wrench and it spun on the gravel. "We can't drive a car down the bike path."
"What was that all about?"
The woman bent to pick up the tool. "They were trashing one of the boats," she said. "Thanks for trying to stop them."
"Didn't do much good, did I?"
"You tried," she said, shoving her hair out of her eyes, and he got his first good look at her.
Her blond hair, falling out of a ponytail, looked streaked by the sun and tousled by the wind. Anger still burned in her bright blue eyes. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the wrench.
He'd seen her before. He frowned as he tried to remember where.
She scowled. "Why are you staring at me?" "I know you." "I've never seen you before." "I'm Dylan Smith," he said, sucking on the inside of his lip as he held out his hand.
She hesitated before taking it. "Charlotte Burns." "I saw you at Kendall Van Allen's house," he said, smiling and remembering his glimpse of the blonde in the pickup truck and the kick of interest she'd inspired. "You were leaving as I was arriving. I asked Kendall who you were."
"You know Kendall?" She pulled her hand away from him, still wary.
"I'm staying at Van Allen House."
The tension in her shoulders eased and she smiled ruefully. "A tourist. Great. This isn't the image of Door County we're going for."
"Yeah, I'm shocked. I've never seen kids acting like knuckleheads before."
"This was more than a prank," Charlotte said as she started back toward the pier. "If I hadn't heard them, they could have done serious damage to Gus's boat."
"Gus?" Dylan hurried after her. "Gus Macauley?"
She stopped and looked at him. "You know Gus?"
"No, but I'm looking for him."
"He's not here."
"I gathered as much when you said those kids were on his boat," he said, unable to keep the impatience out of his voice. "Do you know how to get in touch with him?"
"Doesn't matter. Gus is unavailable."
"What are you? His secretary?" Frustration and anger boiled up inside him. He pulled out a tissue and wiped his mouth impatiently. It had taken him far too long to get this lead. Gus Macauley was one of the few people still around who had worked with Stuart Van Allen. And now this woman was trying to keep him away from Macauley.
Her gaze drilled a hole through him. "I'm his " She clamped her mouth shut. "I'm a friend of his family," she finally said.
"What's going on? Is he out of town?"
She studied him and he stared right back, not giving an inch. He'd thought she was attractive when he'd seen her outside of Van Allen House. Close up, she was striking, with high cheekbones and huge eyes. But now he could see the steel beneath the beautiful surface.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I remember your name. What do you want with Gus?"
"That's between Mr. Macauley and me."
"Fine. I'll tell him you were looking for him."
"It's business. I need to ask him some questions." Her hand tightened on the wrench. "Did those developers send you? Did you set this whole thing up? Send those kids to vandalize his boat, then conveniently show up in time to chase them?" She stepped closer. "Did you deliberately get in my way to keep me from catching them?"
He sucked at the bloodied inside of his lip. "Oh, yeah, this was planned. Especially the blood. Makes it more realistic."
"You're bleeding?" She scanned his face, dropping the wrench and leaning toward him when she saw his lip. "Let me see." "It's nothing. The kid caught me with his elbow."
"Your lip is swelling." She reached out to touch it, then stopped. "I'm sorry. Let me get you some ice."
"I don't need ice," he said, waving her away. "I need to know what you're talking about. What developers? What's going on?"
She sighed. "Sorry. I'm jumping to conclusionswe've all been tense. You did try to stop those kids."
She started down the pier, leaving him standing where he was. After a few steps, she turned around. "Do you want some ice, or not?"
"I don't need ice," he said, following. "Tell me about the developers. What's going on?"
"Never mind. It's a long, boring story for anyone besides the charter captains."
"Trust me," he said. "I won't think it's boring." When he reached the boat the boys had been on, Dylan saw the debris scattered around the deck. Fishing poles were broken into small pieces, seat cushions were ripped open and a window in the cabin was smashed.
"My God," he said. "Those two kids did all this?"
"And they weren't even here that long," she said.
"It's a good thing I was on my boat and heard them."
"You have a boat here?" He looked around.
"Aren't these all fishing boats?"
"Yes and yes," she said, stepping aboard. She opened the door and disappeared into the cabin. A few moments later she was back with a plastic bag of ice.
Dylan set it on the rail and watched as she picked up a cushion and centered it on the cooler tucked into a corner of the deck, smoothing her palm over it. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled a few notes, then shoved the notebook back into his pocket. He ignored the ice. "Can I help you clean up this mess?"
"That's very kind of you." Her mouth curved.
"Especially considering how rude I've been."
He stared. "You should smile more," he managed to say. "It's a good look for you."
"Right." She rolled her eyes. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Smith. I'll tell Gus you were looking for him."
It was clearly a dismissal. "I'm serious. Let me help you with this."
Her smile disappeared. "I can't clean it up yet," she said. "The police need to see it and I have to take pictures for the insurance company."
"Then I'll wait for the police with you."
"Not necessary. But thanks for offering."
"You said you were on your boat when you heard those kids. Are you a fishing guide?"
"I am. Is that why you were looking for Gus? Did you want to book a charter?"
"No. But maybe I'll change my mind. You're not what I expected in a guide."
She shook her head, but Dylan saw a flicker of response in her eyes. "That's lame, Smith. And not very original. You think that's the first time I've heard that line?" "Maybe not, but I'm sincere."
"Right. And I just fell off the turnip truck yesterday."
He grinned. He was going to enjoy talking to Charlotte Burns. "You doubt me? I'm crushed."
"Yeah, I can see that. What are you doing here, Smith? What do you want?"
Dylan hesitated, then he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and opened it. "I'm a reporter for the Green Bay News-Gazette," he said. "I'm working on a story and I hoped Gus could give me some information."
Charlotte glanced at the man standing on the pier. She'd felt a flash of familiarity when she saw him. Had she seen him at Kendall's? It didn't matter. She didn't care for the twinge of attraction she felt. His longish, dark-blond hair framed a handsome face with a dimple in his right cheek. His green eyes examined her carefully, as if he was memorizing her.
The leather wallet was warm in her hand, and Charlotte glanced down at the picture on his employee ID. His hair was shorter, but the dimple in his right cheek showed up clearly, even in the grainy photo.
Snapping the wallet shut, she handed it back to him. "What kind of story are you working on?"
"I came here for the dedication of the high school football field to Carter VanAllen. But as I researched the piece, I changed the focus to the history of the VanAllen orchard. I'm not sure where it will end up."
He flipped through the pages of his notebook. Too quickly. "Can you tell me how to get hold of Gus?"
What did this guy really want with Gus? "He'll be back in a week or two." She picked up an unbroken fishing pole and set it inside the cabin's sliding glass door. "Thanks for your help earlier, but I have things to do."
"Can you spare another couple of minutes?" he asked. "To answer a few questions?"
"The orchard. Any memories you have of it." His gaze didn't quite meet hers, and her stomach tightened again. This time with caution instead of attraction. "Why on earth would you think I have any connection to the orchard? How can I possibly help you?"
"Kendall said you were Carter's cousin. Didn't you spend time at Van Allen House when you were younger?"
"My mother and Carter's mother were sisters. So yes, I was there."
Charlotte crossed her arms and watched him, wary. "Often enough."
"What does that mean?"
"It means they were relatives, and we saw them." She caught herself when she heard her voice rising.
"How much time did you spend time with your relatives when you were a kid?"
"Not enough." His hand tightened on his pen.
"What can you tell me about Stuart Van Allen?"
She shrugged. "Stuart? Nothing. I didn't know him. He was always at the orchard. My mother went to see her sister." To ask for money. The remembered shame still made her throat constrict.
"Did you hang around with Carter?"
"He was five years older than me. What do you think?"
He looked up with a disarming twinkle in his eyes. "I'll bet you followed him around like a puppy dog. And he wouldn't spare you a glance."
"Pretty much." She stared out at the water, unwilling to succumb to his charm. "Gabe Townsend was always nice to me, though."
"Did you know Townsend is back?"
Charlotte relaxed, remembering the attraction that she'd seen between Gabe and Kendall. "Yes. I saw him last time I was at Kendall's place."
"It's getting awfully sloppy and sentimental over there," Smith said. "I think they're getting married. And Townsend has only been here for a couple of weeks."
"Really? That's great." She smiled at Smith's pained expression. "I take it you don't believe in love at first sight."
Smith snorted. "Please." His gaze warmed as he looked at her. "But I could make an exception for you."
"Wow," she said lightly, although her heart fluttered. "Lucky me."
"You have no idea."
Charlotte couldn't help grinning back at him. "I like humility in a man." "Really? I always thought humility was overrated." Charlotte stood. "Are you always this cocky, Smith?"
"It's Dylan. And I'm actually very shy. You're bringing me out of my shell."
"Is that right?" She examined him. "You don't seem like the shy and retiring type to me."
He blinked innocently. "Didn't anyone ever tell you appearances can be deceiving?"
He was a charmer, all right. But she'd already been inoculated against charm. "I can't help you."
"So you don't remember anything about Stuart?"
"Sorry. I didn't spend much time with him. Why are you focusing on Stuart?"
"He owned one of the largest orchards in the county, so he's the logical starting point. I'm interested in the history of the industry. The owners, the orchards. The migrant workers."
Charlotte straightened. "Is that what this is about? The migrants? Are you writing an ugly piece about the miserable lives they endure? Because if you are, you can leave right now. Kendall goes way beyond what's legally and morally required. And so did Stuart."
"I'm not trying to hurt anyone." He carefully shut his notebook. "Are you always this defensive?"
She caught his notebook before he could put it away and held on. "Someone wrote a nasty story about the orchards and the migrants a few years ago that caused a lot of bad feelings up here. Kendall works hard to do the right thing for her employees."