Ava Santori is cooking up a storm in the family restaurant in Boston's North End when a call from the Coast Guard brings shattering news: her beloved brother was lost in a shipwreck. Determined to find out why the ship was steered into a hurricane, Ava packs her bags for the lush isle of St. Barts -- where she puts the blame squarely on the broad shoulders of the ship's owner.
Dane Erikson built the luxurious Utopia Adventures cruise line from the ground up and he's not about to let it sink. Enlisting Ava to help discover the truth about the doomed Paradisio, he finds himself unbearably tempted by this fiery, impetuous woman. And as their investigation causes danger to close in, he and Ava find their hearts leading them to the same place...straight into each other's arms.
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Dane Erikson stood on the weather-beaten docks of St. Barts harbor, where mourners had gathered in clusters. With them, he listened to the tributes to twenty-one men delivered from a makeshift podium. Every few minutes, his gaze returned to the ebony-haired beauty in the back, drinking in her uncanny resemblance to Marco. There could only be one reason for Ava Santori to attend the memorial service for the victims of Paradisio.
So, not one reason. One million reasons.
Why else, after years of estrangement, would she join the mothers, wives, and island children who gathered at the edge of a bloodred sunset to mourn the men who perished in the wreck of his ship?
In a simple black dress, she stood out among the colorful islanders who honored the dead by donning the brilliant hues of the Caribbean.
He had no doubt of her identity, although she had apparently spoken to no one. Smaller and paler than her brother, she had the same unruly curls and enormous eyes the color of ripe black olives. The amazing likeness unnerved Dane and remorse rolled through him.
The mourners closed their eyes in prayer or moaned in grief. A small child called out for his mother, who scooped him up with one hand and slung him into a natural curve on her hip. More than a few glanced his way.
These island people understood the capriciousness of the sea that fed and nurtured them. But how many, like Ava Santori, would want retribution and vengeance and mountains of money? How many needed a villain to blame for the deaths of the young men who tried to sail the ship to safety? The orange swirl on a map that became known as Hurricane Carlos was too intangible to take the blame for their loss. Someone must pay. Someone must be held accountable. That someone was him.
Beyond the docks, two of Utopia Adventures' majestic sailing ships rested in the harbor of St. Barthélemy, a row of matching masts against an indigo sky, listing leeward in the tropical breeze. But no familiar sense of pride filled Dane at the sight. He'd been numb for the last three weeks since his favorite ship -- his first ship -- had thrashed and sunk under the deadly rogue waves that few sailors live to describe.
He'd arrived from the search site last night, ill prepared to make a poignant address. Exhausted, frustrated, and as stunned as everyone else, he'd planned to keep a typically low profile among his employees. But Cassie had begged him to speak about Marco, and he couldn't stand for her heart to break any further.
So he agreed to give the eulogy for the Paradisio's second mate. He certainly never expected a Santori in the audience. But, then, there was never such a compelling reason for any of them to show up. Money: the great reconciler.
He kept his eyes on the ships as he strode across the wide planks of the dock, purposely avoiding eye contact with the unexpected guest from Boston. He placed a set of index cards etched with furious notes on the top of the temporary pulpit created for the event and inhaled the scent of frangipani mixed with salt water.
"I consider Marco Santori my brother."
At the edge of the crowd, he saw her sway at his opening line, closing her eyes for a moment.
He shifted his focus to the familiar faces that watched him. He knew every employee, spouse, child, and parent in the crowd. Knew their troubles and their family secrets. Knew their children's ailments, their marital problems and their superstitions. That's who he needed to worry about right now.
After his three-week sojourn to the rescue site fifty miles east of Grenada, he'd returned to find suspicion. Doubt. And greed. He smelled it all around him.
He flipped the cards facedown, abandoning the prepared words of sympathy and grief. He'd better speak from the heart.
"Many of you know the story of how I met Marco. It's Utopia folklore by now." The murmur of a response rolled through the crowd, some chuckled softly.
"The folklore is true. I saved Marco's backside in a barroom brawl on St. John. I felt sorry for the kid. No family, in exile from someplace called New England, and he couldn't fight worth a damn."
Her eyes narrowed. Piercing, reproachful.
"But he wanted to sail." Dane thought of the hotheaded, emotional kid with boundless energy who came to Utopia and touched everyone with his humor and enthusiasm. "Even though we all just wanted him to cook." Knowing laughter lifted the crowd as many nodded with their own memory.
Dane smiled with them. At first, Marco had been such a passionate brat, but despite that and their disparate backgrounds -- one with a boiling Mediterranean temper, the other shaped by cool and controlled Scandinavian values -- they quickly found common ground. Sailing. Their mentor-student relationship developed into what both expected to be a lifelong friendship, but in Marco's case, life hadn't been long enough.
"He loved the sea as much as I do -- as much as you all do -- and watching Marco develop into a fine sailor, well on his way to being a captain, was a great pleasure. A very great pleasure."
Ava plucked at the silk of her dress, assaulted by the relentless humidity and the canned speech. Then why did you send him to his death, you bastard? A band of sweat formed under her chest, and she could feel the weight of her unrestrained hair threatening to spring into a mass of damp ringlets.
None of it mattered, she told herself. She was here, years too late, but here nonetheless.
Dominic would not let go of his stubborn pride. He wanted no part of a memorial service. He would have nothing to do with a lawsuit. He would burn the money from a settlement. He wouldn't hear of some southern lawyer's trumped-up claims that his son's ship was sent directly into the storm by the cruise company's owner. He wouldn't even talk about it.
The fire in Dominic's black eyes had burned hotter than ever, his own bitter regret consuming him. And Mama had just locked herself upstairs and cried.
But Grayson Boyd was one persistent lawyer. Every day, he faxed his legal briefs, sent articles from the newspapers, and E-mailed schedules of filings. And, by God, he'd convinced her. Not just to come to the island for the service. Ava needed to do that with every fiber of her being.
No, the lawyer had convinced her that Dane Erikson stood under a black cloud of suspicion. He had so very much to gain. A forty-million-dollar insurance settlement. The payoff from a slight navigational error.
She studied the man and tried to reconcile what she observed with the little she knew of him. He exuded a powerful self-assuredness that Ava would never, ever possess under any circumstances. She always envied it in people. Marco, for all his charm and exuberance, had it too.
Dane Erikson's arresting good looks had startled her at first. The strong lines of his Nordic heritage were obvious in his square jaw and a sculpted mouth. The handsome hollows of his cheeks and the knowledge in his piercing gaze made him look every one of his thirty-seven years, somehow both a prince and a rebel. She stared at him, trying to quell the dizzying effect it had on her. She'd been prepared for someone dark and menacing and evil. She'd expected her stomach to turn at the sight of him. Instead, her heart raced every time a smile broke across the chiseled angles of his face.
The face of an angel with the heart of a devil, her father would say.
"Marco Santori commanded respect and encouraged esprit de corps among his fellow crewmen. He touched us with his unexpected sensitivity, his dry sense of humor, and his heartfelt passion for living."
The twin sisters of regret and guilt choked Ava as she listened to the man who claimed brotherhood with the brother she had lost.
"It is impossible to imagine how many lives were touched and changed by these men." Erikson paused, the epitome of a grieving chief executive officer, displaying an appropriate amount of mourning but completely in control of his emotions. A towering figure with broad shoulders and taut muscles straining his shirt, he looked as though he could easily bear the weight of this disaster. His ramrod straight posture oozed confidence, as though through sheer strength and force, he could keep his accusers at bay. Then he smiled, and Ava imagined if all else failed, he could charm his way out of a courtroom.
His gaze locked on her, and she held her breath, like a thief caught red-handed as she stared at him. When his attention moved on, she exhaled.
"The Paradisio was a beautiful ship," he continued. "Graceful, elegant, majestic. Like all of our ships, her name means heaven, and it is certainly a fitting and poignant reminder of where our crew is today."
Marone! Ava didn't want to listen to the hypnotic words of Dane Erikson, talking of the history of the sea, ancient sailing customs, and thousands of brothers and sisters resting quietly on the ocean floor. One of them was hers.
Blessedly, he finished. In the sudden silence, she heard someone stifle a sob, another person moan. Heartache hung over the docks as palpable as the late summer humidity and just as uncomfortable. Suddenly, a fluttering whoosh startled the crowd as twenty-one white doves were released from up front, flapping their way to freedom. At the same moment, dozens of white sails unfurled on the masts of the matching tall ships in the harbor, a symphony of crackling canvas against the wind.
A woman cried out to God in French, a young man sobbed. Ava looked up at the doves, picking one at random and watching it disappear into the golden sky. Good-bye, Marco. I loved you, I really did. I'm so sorry. She dug the heel of her sandal into the soft wood of the dock and felt it make a slight indentation. Don't second-guess, Santori. Blessed are those who don't look back.
Suddenly, a six-foot shadow darkened her view. She knew before she even looked at him, that Dane Erikson stood next to her. The auburn sunset backlit him, denying her the chance to read his expression.
"Ava Santori." His voice was low, the whisper of an English accent hidden in the syllables. "What a complete surprise."
Unnerved, she stumbled on an uneven plank. He recognized her? He reached out to steady her, and she flinched away from his touch.
"This is a memorial service for my brother." She repositioned her feet and squared her shoulders. "I have every right to be here."
"Of course you do." He held out a hand. "Dane Erikson."
Finally, the remaining sunlight fell on his face and lit the golden streaks of his hair that flipped arrogantly over the collar of a loose linen shirt. His aquamarine eyes matched the color of the sea behind him, fringed with thick lashes and touched by fine lines etched by the sun and salt air. Everything about him was bright and bold. And breathtaking, Ava grudgingly admitted.
She briefly touched his hand. Cool and dry. Just like the rest of him. "I know who you are."
"Marco would have been -- happy you're here."
She raised a dubious eyebrow. "I doubt he would have enjoyed any aspect of his own funeral, Mr. Erikson."
A half smile crossed his face, revealing more perfection. Straight, white teeth. "How true."
She wasn't prepared to talk to him. Drawn by pain and curiosity to the service, she'd thought she could mingle anonymously with the crowd, then leave unnoticed. Then she'd go back to the tiny hotel on the hillside where she could wait to meet with the lawyer.
At her silence, he continued. "I'm sorry it took a tragedy to finally bring a member of Marco's family to his side."
The impulse to strike back tore at her, but a lifetime of controlling her temper kept her voice low and calm. "It's entirely possible that we wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for you, sir."
His own voice dropped to a menacing whisper. "I suppose I can thank the bottom-feeding attorney Grayson Boyd for your visit."
"That's correct," she hissed in response. "He makes some very compelling arguments about who is really responsible for the suicide mission that ship was sent on."
"I'm afraid you have no idea what you're talking about."
Taking another step back, she tried to regroup. Why had she come here alone? She should have insisted that Boyd accompany her. But he might have tried to talk her out of coming at all. Now she didn't know what to say, how much to give away. Don't say too much, Santori. For once, be cool, girl.
She took a deep breath and flipped her bag over her shoulder, hoping he'd let her escape. "The service was lovely."
He glanced around the milling crowd. "I hope it helped a little. How long are you staying?"
He's scared, she thought with a spark of power. He's guilty and he's scared.
"A few days, a few weeks. Long enough." She refused to let him draw her into the fight here, on this dock. He'd figure out soon enough what her mission was. He was smart enough to realize that Marco's sister, estranged or not, could easily persuade the confused and uneducated families of the crewmen to join the suit. "I'd like to know...what kind of person he had become."
His eyes narrowed in challenge. "Then you should have come sooner. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to figure it out when he was still breathing."
Her temper sizzled at a slow burn.
"Perhaps you are unaware of the situation with my family, Mr. Erikson -- "
"It's Dane, and I know enough about the situation. Marco was my closest friend." The aquamarine eyes closed for a moment. "He's mentioned you."
It hit like a sucker punch. "I didn't come here to discuss Marco with you. Just to pay my last respects to my brother." The wind lifted a strand of hair across her face, and she flipped it back. "I had no intention of speaking to you."
"If you want to find out about your brother, you should talk to me." The same breeze took a pass at his sunstreaked hair, but he made no effort to move a fallen strand from his brow. "I could tell you a great deal about Marco. His zest for life and his passion for taking risks -- "
"Oh, he liked to take risks, all right." She spat the words. "But he wasn't stupid and neither am I." Stop now, Santori. Don't taunt the devil. But the damning paragraphs of Grayson Boyd's legal brief flashed in her mind. "You were the last person to communicate with that ship and its captain. You sent them straight into that hurricane, and there are satellite phone recordings to prove it."
He leaned closer, a blue-eyed wolf ready to bite. "You really have just enough information to be dangerous."
She straightened to every inch that her five-foot-five frame could offer.
"I am dangerous." She stabbed a finger ineffectively at his solid chest. "You're the one with forty more million dollars and I'm the one who has no brother."
"That, Miss Ava Santori, has been the case for many years. And whose fault is that?"
The low hum of voices nearby brought Ava back to her senses. She looked over his shoulder to avoid those piercing eyes and regain the self-control she needed. She might have had a hand in Marco's leaving, but she had nothing to do with his death. He could not turn the tables and make it her fault.
"If you think that you can get away with this and not have to pay -- "
"Ah." He nodded with an air of inevitability. "It all comes down to money. Why else would you be here?"
Ava took a sudden sharp breath. "Now you have no idea what you're talking about." She nipped his upper arm with her fingers, unable to resist emphasizing her certainty.
Dane dropped a distasteful glance at the spot where her fingers had touched him. His eyes turned the color of ice cold steel and just as sharp.
"When you calm down and decide you have time to hear facts, and not some lawyer's self-serving account of what happened, I'll be happy to provide them. And I can tell you a lot about your brother that might interest you."
"No, thank you. Save your side of the story for the courtroom and spare me your insights on Marco. I don't want them."
"Then perhaps you want mine."
A lilting foreign accent floated toward Ava, and she turned and looked straight into one of the sweetest faces she'd ever seen. Sparkling green eyes fringed with reddish lashes, a spray of soft freckles, and a halo of autumn gold waves greeted her.
"I'm Cassie Sebring. Marco's fiancée."
Ava could only stare at her.
"You look so much like Marco," the girl commented with a tilted head, making her own intense assessment of Ava. "The resemblance is truly remarkable. Don't you think, Dane?"
Ava felt like a horse being appraised by traders.
"She certainly has his temper." Dane smiled, a sudden, break-your-heart smile that almost took away the sting of his words.
Ava turned away from him to study the will-o'-the-wisp imp in a pale peach sundress. Should she shake hands with the person who would have been her sister-in-law? "Hello, I'm Ava." She extended a hand in greeting.
No such discomfort seemed to confuse Cassie. She took Ava's hand in both of hers and gave it a squeeze. "Marco told me about you."
Ava recognized the musical tone of an Australian accent and thought how perfectly it suited the natural beauty of this young girl, barely in her twenties. But then, at almost five years younger than Ava, Marco would have been nearly twenty-five. They must have made a striking couple.
"I -- I had no idea that Marco was engaged." God, she'd missed so much of his life.
"Then it seems we've got a lot to talk about." Cassie kept her eyes on Ava but addressed Dane. "Do you mind if I steal Ava for a few moments?"
Ava longed to get away from Dane Erikson, but would Marco's fiancée be any more forgiving?
"No, Cass, your timing's perfect." He leaned closer to Ava, assaulting her senses with his proximity. "My offer's open. I'd be happy to talk to you about Marco. He really was like a brother to me."
The heat of his breath fired her response. "He wasn't like a brother to me. He was a brother."
"Then you should have treated him like one." A direct hit, shot with burning blue eyes before he turned and left.
"Where are you staying while you're in St. Barts?" Cassie broke the awkward silence as they walked toward the pastel buildings of Gustavia, leaving the remaining groups of mourners on the docks.
"I'm at a small hotel in town." Grayson Boyd had made the arrangements and promised to pay all the exorbitant hotel expenses if she'd help his cause. At four hundred dollars a night, she might have to swallow her pride and let him.
"Why don't you stay with me?"
"Oh, no, thank you, I couldn't."
"Why not?" Cassie asked. "Unless you like to throw thousands away on a hotel. I know what they charge here. We -- I have plenty of room."
Ava stopped and regarded Cassie closely, her nymphlike features contrasting with a daring butterfly tattoo just above her left breast.
"Are you serious?"
The younger girl laughed, a lovely, innocent sound. "I wouldn't ask if I weren't. You're Marco's sister. It's his home too. He'd want you there."
Ava suddenly thought of the lawsuit and tried to remember seeing Cassie's name on a list of family members. Maybe she wasn't considered family. She said she was engaged to Marco, not married. Maybe Cassie saw Ava as a threat to take her portion of any money earned from the lawsuit. Either way, Grayson Boyd wouldn't like it.
Cassie smiled as Ava weighed her options. "Never mind. I didn't mean to make you think so hard."
"I appreciate the offer. I'll see how things go." Ava really had no idea how long Boyd would want her to stay or what he had in mind while she was here. The decision to come had been made so quickly, so emotionally, that she hadn't thought it all through.
"Do you have a car, or can I drive you to Dane's house?"
Ava froze midstep. "Dane's house?"
"Utopia is having a private gathering after the service. His house is the only place that can hold everyone. It won't be festive, but it won't be formal, either. Didn't he mention it to you?"
"No. I'll just go back to the hotel." Her unofficial host would surely frown on a trip to the defendant's house.
"That's ridiculous. All of the Utopians will be there."
Ava considered that. It could be a good way to meet the family members, to talk privately without Boyd around. "Even the families who are suing the company?"
"Yes," Cassie answered quickly, the smile evaporating from her pretty face, replaced by a furrowed brow and questioning eyes. "But today, most of us are thinking about twenty-one friends we lost. Not how much money can be made on their deaths. Is that why you're finally here? For your piece of the legal pie that some ambulance-chasing lawyer dreamed up?"
The accusation echoed and Ava said nothing.
"Is that what you're all about, Ava?" The Australian accent deepened in anger. "I thought maybe you were different. I thought maybe you realized that you lost a brother when Marco died, and you were here to -- I don't know -- make amends for what happened."
So she knew too. Cassie didn't rile her as Dane did, however. For some reason, Cassie's accusations seemed justified.
"It's very confusing, Cassie. My family is complicated and my reasons are...well, they are mine." Ava knew she sounded weak and vague. "Yes, I came here at the urging of Grayson Boyd. But that's not the only reason."
How could she describe the war that raged in her heart? How could she tell this stranger that regret was her motive and that she longed for forgiveness from a dead man?
"I'm just here to figure out what happened and say good-bye to my brother."
They reached a set of stone steps that led toward the main street of Gustavia.
"Americans love closure," Cassie said softly, her smile returning. "You're so much like him, Ava. Did you know that?"
Unbidden tears surprised Ava. She shrugged gently, hoping to keep them at bay. "Well, he was my brother. We always looked a little alike. But, really, I guess I don't know anything about him anymore."
Cassie gently put her arms around Ava. Surrounded by the warmth and comfort of this young woman whom Marco had loved, Ava closed her eyes and tentatively returned the embrace. Balmy sea breezes mixed with the honeysuckle scent of her would-be sister. A sob caught in her throat and choked her.
"I guess you better tell me what I've missed, Cassie."
From his vantage point at the edge of the harbor, Dane watched the two women comfort each other, the impact of his encounter with Ava still clinging to his senses. He could still see the black, fiery eyes in contrast with the pale skin of someone who rarely saw the sun. Her sultry voice, tinged with the edge of a Boston accent, but so ready to attack with venom. She even had a telltale single dimple in her left cheek, poised just above her full mouth. A Santori trademark.
Hotheaded and impetuous. Like her brother. And just as vulnerable.
His gut level response to her made no sense. When he first saw his own reflection in the eyes so dark they were all pupil, he'd wanted to hold her. To comfort her and beg her forgiveness.
But there would be no forgiveness. Hot-tempered little Ava was on a mission to destroy. Of all the weapons Grayson Boyd had in his arsenal, this tempest of a sister was the most dangerous.
Copyright © 2003 by Roxanne St. Claire