Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Courting Catherine

Nora Roberts

  Courting Catherine, by Nora Roberts

  The Calhouns # 1



  All hard-driving executive Trenton St. James III had on his mind was business-making the final arrangements to buy a run-down old mansion on the coast of Maine. He wasn't expecting any complications. And he definitely wasn't expecting anything like Catherine "C.C." Calhoun.

  This feisty, independent-minded young woman bristled at the very thought of her family's most highly prized possession ending up as part of some faceless hotel chain. And she seemed to bristle at the very sight of Trenton St. James, too. But all that was going to have to change, because Trent not only wanted her home, he wanted her, too. And he wasn't a man who took no for an answer.


  Bar Harbor, Maine June 12, 1912

  I saw him on the cliffs overlooking Frenchman Bay. He was tall and dark and young. Even from a dis­tance, as I walked with little Ethan's hand in mine, I could see the defiant set of his shoulders. He held the brush as though it were a saber, his palette like a shield. Indeed it seemed to me that he was dueling with his canvas rather than painting on it. So deep was his concentration, so fast and fierce the flicks of his wrist, one would have thought his life depended on what he created there.

  Perhaps it did.

  I thought it odd, even amusing. My image of artists had always been one of gentle souls who see things we mortals cannot, and suffer in their quest to create them for us.

  Yet I knew, before he turned and looked at me, that I would not see a gentle face.

  It seemed that he was the product of an artist him­self. A rough sculptor who had shorn away at an oak slab, carving out a high brow, dark hooded eyes, a long straight nose and full sensual mouth. Even the sweep of his hair might have been hewn from some ebony wood.

  How he stared at me! Even now I can feel the heat rise to my face and the dampness spring to my palms. The wind was in his hair, sweet and moist from the sea, and ruffled the loose shirt he wore that was splat­tered and streaked from his paint. With the rocks and sky at his back, he looked very proud, very angry, as if he owned this jut of land—or the entire island— and I was the intruder.

  He stood in silence for what seemed like forever, his eyes so intense, so fierce somehow that my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth. Then little Ethan began to babble and tug at my hand. The angry glare in his eyes softened. He smiled. I know a heart does not stop at such moments. And yet...

  I found myself stammering, apologizing for the in­trusion, lifting Ethan into my arms before my bright and curious little boy could rush forward toward the rocks.

  He said, “Wait.”

  And taking up pad and pencil began to sketch as I stood immobile and trembling for reasons I cannot fathom. Ethan stilled and smiled, somehow as mes­merized by the man as I. I could feel the sun on my back and the wind on my face, could smell the water and the wild roses.

  “Your hair should be loose,” he said, and, putting the pencil aside, walked toward me. “I've painted sunsets that were less dramatic.” He reached out and touched Ethan's bright red hair. “You share the color with your young brother.''

  “My son.” Why was my voice so breathless? “He is my son. I'm Mrs. Fergus Calhoun,” I said while his eyes seemed to devour my face.

  “Ah, The Towers.” He looked beyond me then to where the peaks and turrets of our summer home could be seen on the higher cliff above. “I've admired your house, Mrs. Calhoun.''

  Before I could reply, Ethan was reaching out, laughing, and the man scooped him up. I could only stare as he stood with his back to the wind, holding my child, jiggling him easily on his hip.

  “A fine boy.”

  “And an energetic one. I thought to take him for a walk to give his nanny a bit of a rest. She has less trouble with my two other children combined than with young Ethan.''

  “You have other children?”

  “Yes, a girl, a year older than Ethan, and a baby, not quite one. We only arrived for the season yester­day. Do you live on the island?”

  “For now. Will you pose for me, Mrs. Calhoun?”

  I blushed. But beneath the embarrassment was a deep and dreamy pleasure. Still, I knew the impro­priety and Fergus's temper. So I refused, politely, I hoped. He did not persist, and I am ashamed to say that I felt a keen disappointment. When he gave Ethan back to me, his eyes were on mine—a deep slate gray that seemed to see more than my face. Perhaps more than anyone had seen before. He bid me good day, so I turned to walk with my child back to The Towers, my home and my duties.

  I knew as surely as if I had turned to look, that he watched me until I was hidden by the cliff. My heart thundered.

  Chapter One

  Bar Harbor 1991

  Trenton St. James III was in a foul mood. He was the kind of man who expected doors to open when he knocked, phones to be answered when he dialed. What he did not expect, and hated to tolerate, was having his car break down on a narrow two-lane road ten miles from his destination. At least the car phone had allowed him to track down the closest mechanic. He hadn't been overly thrilled about riding into Bar Harbor in the cab of the tow truck while strident rock had bellowed from the speakers and his rescuer had sung along, off-key, in between bites of an enormous ham sandwich.

  “Hank, you just call me Hank, ayah,” the driver had told him then took a long pull from a bottle of soda. “CC.'ll fix you up all right and tight. Best damn mechanic in Maine, you ask anybody.”

  Trent decided, under the circumstances, he'd have to take just-call-me-Hank's word for it. To save time and trouble, he'd had the driver drop him off in the village with directions to the garage and a grimy busi­ness card Trent studied while holding it gingerly at the corners.

  But as with any situation Trent found himself in, he decided to make it work for him. While his car was being dealt with, he made half a dozen calls to his office back in Boston—putting the fear of God into a flurry of secretaries, assistants and junior vice-presidents. It put him in a slightly better frame of mind.

  He lunched on the terrace of a small restaurant, paying more attention to the paperwork he took from his briefcase than the excellent lobster salad or balmy spring breeze. He checked his watch often, drank too much coffee and, with impatient brown eyes, studied the traffic that streamed up and down the street.

  Two of the waitresses on lunch shift discussed him at some length. It was early April, several weeks be­fore the height of the season, so the restaurant wasn't exactly hopping with customers.

  They agreed that this one was a beaut, from the top of his dark blond head to the tips of his highly pol­ished Italian shoes. They agreed that he was a busi­nessman, and an important one, because of the leather briefcase and spiffy gray suit and tie. Plus, he wore cuff links. Gold ones.

  They decided, as they rolled flatware into napkins for the next shift, that he was young for it, no more than thirty. Outrageously handsome was their unanimous vote while they took turns refilling his coffee cup and getting closer looks. Nice clean features, they agreed, with a kind of polished air that would have been just a tad slick if it hadn't been for the eyes.

  They were dark and broody and impatient, making the waitresses speculate as to whether he'd been stood up by a woman. Though they couldn't imagine any female in her right mind doing so.

  Trent paid no more attention to them than he would have to anyone who performed a paid service. That disappointed them. The whopping tip he left made up for it nicely. It would have surprised him that the tip would have meant more to the waitresses if he had offered a smile with it.

  He relocked his briefcase and prepared to take the brisk walk to the mechanic at the end of town. He wasn't
a cold man and wouldn't have considered him­self aloof. As a St. James he had grown up with ser­vants who had quietly and efficiently gone about the business of making his life simpler. He paid well, even generously. If he didn't show any overt appre­ciation or personal interest, it was simply because it never occurred to him.

  At the moment, his mind was on the deal he hoped to close by the end of the week. Hotels were his busi­ness, with the emphasis on luxury and resorts. The summer before, Trent's father had located a particular property while he and his fourth wife had been yacht­ing in Frenchman Bay. While Trenton St. James II's instincts as to women were notoriously skewed, his business instincts were always on target.

  He'd begun negotiations almost immediately for the buy of the enormous stone house overlooking Frenchman Bay. His appetite had been whetted by the reluctance of the owners to sell what had to be a white elephant as a private home. As expected, the senior Trenton had been turning things his way, and the deal was on the way to being set.

  Then Trent had found the whole business dumped into his lap as his father was once again tangled in a complicated divorce.

  Wife number four had lasted almost eighteen months, Trent mused. Which was two months longer than wife number three. Trent accepted, fatalistically, that there was bound to be a number five around the corner. The old man was as addicted to marriage as he was to real estate.

  Trent was determined to close the deal on The Towers before the ink had dried on this last divorce decree. As soon as he got his car out of the garage, he would drive up and take a firsthand look at the place.

  Because of the time of year, many of the shops were closed as he walked through town, but he could see the possibilities. He knew that during the season the streets of Bar Harbor were crammed with tourists with credit cards and travelers' checks at the ready. And tourists needed hotels. He had the statistics in his briefcase. With solid planning, he figured The Towers would cull a hefty percentage of that tourist trade within fifteen months.

  All he had to do was convince four sentimental women and their aunt to take the money and run.

  He checked his watch again as he turned the corner toward the mechanic's. Trent had given him precisely two hours to deal with whatever malfunction the BMW had suffered. That, he was convinced, was enough.

  Of course he could have taken the company plane up from Boston. It would have been more practical, and Trent was nothing if not a practical man. But he'd wanted to drive. Needed to, he admitted. He'd needed those few hours of quiet and solitude.

  Business was booming, but his personal life was going to hell.

  Who would have thought that Maria would sud­denly shove an ultimatum down his throat? Marriage or nothing. It still baffled him. She had known since the beginning of their relationship that marriage had never been an option. He had no intention of taking a ride on the roller coaster his father seemed to thrive on.

  Not that he wasn't—hadn't been—fond of her. She was lovely and well-bred, intelligent and successful in her field of fashion design. With Maria, there was never a hair out of place, and Trent appreciated that kind of meticulousness in a woman. Just as he had appreciated her practical attitude toward their rela­tionship.

  She had claimed not to want marriage or children or pledges of undying love. Trent considered it a per­sonal betrayal that she suddenly changed her tune and demanded it all.

  He hadn't been able to give it to her.

  They had parted, stiff as strangers, only two weeks before. She was already engaged to a golf pro.

  It stung. But even as it stung, it convinced him he had been right all along. Women were unstable, fickle creatures, and marriage was a bloodless kind of sui­cide.

  She hadn't even loved him. Thank God. She had simply wanted “commitment and stability,” as she had put it. Trent felt, smugly, that she would soon find out marriage was the last place to find either.

  Because he knew it was unproductive to dwell on mistakes, he allowed thoughts of Maria to pass out of his mind. He would take a vacation from females, he decided.

  Trent paused outside the white cinder-block build­ing with its scatter of cars in the lot. The sign over the open garage doors read C.C's Automovation. Just beneath the title, which Trent found ostentatious, was an offer of twenty-four-hour towing, complete auto repairs and refinishing—foreign and domestic—and free estimates.

  Through the doors, he could hear rock music. Trent let out a sigh as he went in.

  The hood was up on his BMW, and a pair of dirty boots peeked out from beneath the car. The mechanic was tapping the toes of the boots together in time to the din of music. Frowning, Trent glanced around the garage area. It smelled of grease and honeysuckle— a ridiculous combination. The place itself was a dis­organized and grimy mess of tools and auto parts, something that looked as though it might have been a fender, and a coffee maker that was boiling what­ever was inside it down to black sludge.

  There was a sign on the wall that stated No Checks Cashed, Not Even For You.

  Several others listed services provided by the shop and their rates. Trent supposed they were reasonable, but he had no yardstick. There were two vending ma­chines against a wall, one offering soft drinks, the other junk food. A coffee can held change that cus­tomers were free to contribute to or take from. An interesting concept, Trent thought.

  “Excuse me,” he said. The boots kept right on tapping. “Excuse me,” he repeated, louder. The mu­sic upped its tempo and so did the boots. Trent nudged one with his shoe.

  “What?” The answer from under the car was muf­fled and annoyed.

  “I'd like to ask you about my car.”

  “Get in line.” There was the clatter of a tool and a muttered curse.

  Trent's eyebrows lifted then drew together in a manner that made his subordinates quake. “Appar­ently I'm the first in line already.”

  “Right now you're behind this idiot's oil pan. Save me from rich yuppies who buy a car like this then don't bother to find out the difference between a car­buretor and a tire iron. Hold on a minute, buddy, or talk to Hank. He's around somewhere.”

  Trent was still several sentences back at “idiot.” “Where's the proprietor?”

  “Busy. Hank!” The mechanic's voice lifted to a roar. “Damn it. Hank! Where the devil did he take off to?”

  “I couldn't say.” Trent marched over to the radio and flicked off the music. “Would it be too much to ask you to come out from under there and tell me the status of my car?”

  “Yeah.” From the vantage point under the BMW, C.C. studied the Italian loafers and took an immediate dislike to them. “I got my hands full at the moment. You can come down here and lend one of yours if you're in such a hurry, or drive over to McDermit's in Northeast Harbor.”

  “I can hardly drive when you're under my car.” Though the idea held a certain appeal.

  “This yours?” C.C. sniffed and tightened bolts. The guy had a fancy Boston accent to go with the fancy shoes. “When's the last time you had this thing tuned? Changed the points and plugs, the oil?”

  “I don't—”

  “I'm sure you don't.” There was a clipped satis­faction in the husky voice that had Trent's jaw tight­ening. “You know, you don't just buy a car, but a responsibility. A lot of people don't pull down an annual salary as rich as the sticker price on a machine like this. With reasonable care and maintenance, this baby would run for your grandchildren. Cars aren't disposable commodities, you know. People make them that way because they're too lazy or too stupid to take care of the basics. You needed a lube job six months ago.”

  Trent's fingers drummed on the side of his brief­case. “Young man, you're being paid to service my car, not to lecture me on my responsibilities to it.” In a habit as ingrained as breathing, he checked his watch. “Now, I'd like to know when my car will be ready, as I have a number of appointments.”

  “Lecture's free.” C.C. gave a push and sent the creeper scooting out from under the car. “And
I'm not your young man.”

  That much was quite obvious. Though the face was grimy and the dark hair cropped boyishly short, the body clad in greasy coveralls was decidely feminine. Every curvy inch of it. Trent wasn't often thrown for a loss, but now he simply stood, staring as C.C. rose from the creeper and faced him, tapping a wrench against her palm.

  Looking beyond the smears of black on her face, Trent could see she had very white skin in contrast with her ebony hair. Beneath the fringe of bangs, her forest-green eyes were narrowed. Her full, unpainted lips were pursed in what, under different circum­stances, would have been a very sexy pout. She was tall for a woman and built like a goddess. It was she, Trent realized, who smelted of motor oil and honey­suckle.

  “Got a problem?” she asked him. C.C. was well aware that his gaze had drifted down from the neck of her coveralls to the cuffs and back again. She was used to it. But she didn't have to like it.

  The voice had an entirely different effect when a man realized those dark, husky tones belonged to a woman. “You're the mechanic!”

  “No, I'm the interior decorator.”

  Trent glanced around the garage with its oil-splattered floor and cluttered worktables. He couldn't resist. “You do very interesting work.”

  Letting the breath out between her teeth, she tossed the wrench onto a workbench. “Your oil and air filter needed to be changed. The timing was off and the carburetor needed some adjusting. You still need a lube job and your radiator should be flushed.”

  “Will it run?”

  “Yeah, it'll run.” C.C. took a rag out of her pocket and began to wipe her hands. She judged him as the kind of man who took better care of his ties than he did of his car. With a shrug, she stuck the rag back into her pocket. It was no concern of hers. “Come through to the office and we can settle up.”

  She led the way through the door at the rear of the garage, into a narrow hallway that angled into a glass-walled office. It was cramped with a cluttered desk, thick parts catalogues, a half-full gum ball machine and two wide swivel chairs. C.C. sat and, in the un­canny way of people who heap papers on their desk, put her hand unerringly on her invoices.

  “Cash or charge?” she asked him.

  “Charge.” Absently he pulled out his wallet. He wasn't sexist. Trent assured himself he was not. He had meticulously made certain that women were given the same pay and opportunity for promotion in his company as any male on his staff. It never oc­curred to him to be concerned whether employees were males or females, as long as they were efficient, loyal and dependable. But the longer he looked at the woman who sat busily filling out the invoice, the more he was certain she didn't fit his or anyone's image of an auto mechanic.

  “How long have you worked here?” It surprised him to hear himself ask. Personal questions weren't his style.

  “On and off since I was twelve.” Those dark green eyes flicked up to his. “Don't worry. I know what I'm doing. Any work that's done in my shop is guar­anteed.”

  “Your shop?”

  “My shop.”

  She unearthed a calculator and began to figure the total with long, elegantly shaped fingers that were still grimy.

  He was putting her back up. Maybe it was the shoes, she thought. Or the tie. There was something arrogant about a maroon tie. “That's the damage.” C.C. turned the invoice around and started down the list point by point.

  He wasn't paying any attention, which was totally out of character. This was a man who read every word of every paper that crossed his desk. But he was look­ing at her, frankly fascinated.

  “Any questions?” She glanced up and found her gaze locked with his. She could almost hear the click.

  “You're C.C.?”

  “That's right.” She was forced to clear her throat. Ridiculous, she told herself. He had ordinary eyes. Maybe a little darker, a bit more intense than she had noted at first, but still ordinary. There was no earthly reason why she couldn't look away from them. But she continued to stare. If she had been of a fanciful state of mind—which she assured herself she was not—she would have said the air thickened.