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Less of a Stranger

Nora Roberts

  For my friend Joanne

  Chapter One

  He watched her coming. Though she wore jeans and a jacket, with a concealing helmet over her head, Katch recognized her femininity. She rode a small Honda motorcycle. He drew on his thin cigar and appreciated the competent way she swung into the market’s parking lot.

  Settling the bike, she dismounted. She was tall, Katch noted, perhaps five feet eight, and slender. He leaned back on the soda machine and continued to watch her out of idle curiosity. Then she removed the helmet. Instantly, his curiosity was intensified. She was a stunner.

  Her hair was loose and straight, swinging nearly to her shoulders, with a fringe of bangs sweeping over her forehead. It was a deep, rich brown that showed glints of red and gold from the sun. Her face was narrow, the features sharp and distinct. He’d known models who had starved themselves to get the angles and shadows that were in this woman’s face. Her mouth, however, was full and generous.

  Katch recognized the subtleties of cosmetics and knew that none had been used to add interest to the woman’s features. She didn’t need them. Her eyes were large, and even with the distance of the parking lot between them, he caught the depth of dark brown. They reminded him of a colt’s eyes—deep and wide and aware. Her movements were unaffected. They had an unrefined grace that was as coltish as her eyes. She was young, he decided, barely twenty. He drew on the cigar again. She was definitely a stunner.

  “Hey, Megan!”

  Megan turned at the call, brushing the bangs from her eyes as she moved. Seeing the Bailey twins pull to the curb in their Jeep, she smiled.

  “Hi.” Clipping the helmet onto a strap on her bike, Megan walked to the Jeep. She was very fond of the Bailey twins.

  Like herself, they were twenty-three and had golden, beach-town complexions, but they were petite, blue-eyed and pertly blond. The long, baby-fine hair they shared had been tossed into confusion by the wind. Both pairs of blue eyes drifted past Megan to focus on the man who leaned against the soda machine. In reflex, both women straightened and tucked strands of hair behind their ears. Tacitly, they agreed their right profile was the most comely.

  “We haven’t seen you in a while.” Teri Bailey kept one eye cocked on Katch as she spoke to Megan.

  “I’ve been trying to get some things finished before the season starts.” Megan’s voice was low, with the gentle flow of coastal South Carolina. “How’ve you been?”

  “Terrific!” Jeri answered, shifting in the driver’s seat. “We’ve got the afternoon off. Why don’t you come shopping with us?” She, too, kept Katch in her peripheral vision.

  “I’d like to”—Megan was already shaking her head—“but I’ve got to pick up a few things here.”

  “Like the guy over there with terrific gray eyes?” Jeri demanded.

  “What?” Megan laughed.

  “And shoulders,” Teri remarked.

  “He hasn’t taken those eyes off her, has he, Teri?” Jeri remarked. “And we spent twelve-fifty for this blouse.” She fingered a thin strap of the pink camisole top that matched her twin’s.

  “What,” Megan asked, totally bewildered, “are you talking about?”

  “Behind you,” Teri said with a faint inclination of her fair head. “The hunk by the soda machine. Absolutely gorgeous.” But as Megan began to turn her head, Teri continued in a desperate whisper, “Don’t turn around, for goodness’ sake!”

  “How can I see if I don’t look?” Megan pointed out reasonably as she turned.

  His hair was blond, not pale like the twins’, but dusky and sun-streaked. It was thick and curled loosely and carelessly around his face. He was lean, and the jeans he wore were well faded from wear. His stance was negligent, completely relaxed as he leaned back against the machine and drank from a can. But his face wasn’t lazy, Megan thought as he met her stare without a blink. It was sharply aware. He needed a shave, certainly, but his bone structure was superb. There was the faintest of clefts in his chin, and his mouth was long and thin.

  Normally, Megan would have found the face fascinating—strongly sculpted, even handsome in a rough-and-ready fashion. But the eyes were insolent. They were gray, as the twins had stated, dark and smoky. And, Megan decided with a frown, rude. She’d seen his type before—drifters, loners, looking for the sun and some fleeting female companionship. Under her bangs, her eyebrows drew together. He was openly staring at her. As the can touched his lips, he sent Megan a slow wink.

  Hearing one of the twins giggle, Megan whipped her head back around.

  “He’s adorable,” Jeri decided.

  “Don’t be an idiot.” Megan swung her hair back with a toss of her head. “He’s typical.”

  The twins exchanged a look as Jeri started the Jeep’s engine. “Too choosy,” she stated. They gave Megan mirror smiles as they pulled away from the curb. “Bye!”

  Megan wrinkled her nose at them, but waved before she turned away. Purposefully ignoring the man who loitered beside the concessions, Megan walked into the market.

  She acknowledged the salute from the clerk behind the counter. Megan had grown up in Myrtle Beach. She knew all the small merchants in the five-mile radius around her grandfather’s amusement park.

  After choosing a basket, she began to push it down the first aisle. Just a few things, she decided, plucking a quart of milk from a shelf. She had only the saddlebags on the bike for transporting. If the truck hadn’t been acting up . . . She let her thoughts drift away from that particular problem. Nothing could be done about it at the moment.

  Megan paused in the cookie section. She’d missed lunch and the bags and boxes looked tempting. Maybe the oatmeal . . .

  “These are better.”

  Megan started as a hand reached in front of her to choose a bag of cookies promising a double dose of chocolate chips. Twisting her head, she looked up into the insolent gray eyes.

  “Want the cookies?” He grinned much as he had outside.

  “No,” she said, giving a meaningful glance at his hand on her basket. Shrugging, he took his hand away but, to Megan’s irritation, he strolled along beside her.

  “What’s on the list, Meg?” he asked companionably as he tore open the bag of cookies.

  “I can handle it alone, thanks.” She started down the next aisle, grabbing a can of tuna. He walked, Megan noted, like a gunslinger—long, lanky strides with just a hint of swagger.

  “You’ve got a nice bike.” He bit into a cookie as he strolled along beside her. “Live around here?”

  Megan chose a box of tea bags. She gave it a critical glance before tossing it into the basket. “It lives with me,” she told him as she moved on.

  “Cute,” he decided and offered her a cookie. Megan ignored him and moved down the next aisle. When she reached for a loaf of bread, however, he laid a hand on top of hers. “Whole wheat’s better for you.” His palm was hard and firm on the back of her hand. Megan met his eyes indignantly and tried to pull away.

  “Listen, I have . . .”

  “No rings,” he commented, lacing his fingers through hers and lifting her hand for a closer study. “No entanglements. How about dinner?”

  “No way.” She shook her hand but found it firmly locked in his.

  “Don’t be unfriendly, Meg. You have fantastic eyes.” He smiled into them, looking at her as though they were the only two people on earth. Someone reached around her, with an annoyed mutter, to get a loaf of rye.

  “Will you go away?” she demanded in an undertone. It amazed her that his smile was having an effect on her even though she knew what was behind it. “I’ll make a scene if you don’t.”

  “That’s all right,” he said genially. “I don’t mind scenes.”

  He wouldn’t, she thought, eyeing hi
m. He’d thrive on them. “Look,” she began angrily, “I don’t know who you are, but . . .”

  “David Katcherton,” he volunteered with another easy smile. “Katch. What time should I pick you up?”

  “You’re not going to pick me up,” she said distinctly. “Not now, not later.” Megan cast a quick look around. The market was all but empty. She couldn’t cause a decent scene if she’d wanted to. “Let go of my hand,” she ordered firmly.

  “The chamber of commerce claims Myrtle Beach is a friendly town, Meg.” Katch released her hand. “You’re going to give them a bad name.”

  “And stop calling me Meg,” she said furiously. “I don’t know you.”

  She stomped off, wheeling the basket in front of her.

  “You will.” He made the claim quietly, but she heard him.

  Their eyes met again, hers dark with temper, his assured. Turning away, she quickened her pace to the check-out counter.


  “You wouldn’t believe what happened at the market.” Megan set the bag on the kitchen table with a thump.

  Her grandfather sat at the table, on one of the four matching maple chairs, earnestly tying a fly. He grunted in acknowledgment but didn’t glance up. Wires and feathers and weights were neatly piled in front of him.

  “This man,” she began, pulling the bread from the top bag. “This incredibly rude man tried to pick me up. Right in the cookie section.” Megan frowned as she stored tea bags in a canister. “He wanted me to go to dinner with him.”

  “Hmm.” Her grandfather meticulously attached a yellow feather to the fly. “Have a nice time.”

  “Pop!” Megan shook her head in frustration, but a smile tugged at her mouth.

  Timothy Miller was a small, spare man in his midsixties. His round, lined face was tanned, surrounded by a shock of white hair and a full beard. The beard was soft as a cloud and carefully tended. His blue eyes, unfaded by the years, were settled deeply into the folds and lines of his face. They missed little. Megan could see he was focused on his lures. That he had heard her at all was a tribute to his affection for his granddaughter.

  Moving over, she dropped a kiss on the crown of his head. “Going fishing tomorrow?”

  “Yessiree, bright and early.” Pop counted out his assortment of lures and mentally reviewed his strategy. Fishing was a serious business. “The truck should be fixed this evening. I’ll be back before supper.”

  Megan nodded, giving him a second kiss. He needed his fishing days. The amusement parks opened for business on weekends in the spring and fall. In the three summer months they worked seven days a week. The summer kept the town alive; it drew tourists, and tourists meant business. For one-fourth of the year, the town swelled from a population of thirteen or fourteen thousand to three hundred thousand. The bulk of those three hundred thousand people had come to the small coastal town to have fun.

  To provide it, and make his living, her grandfather worked hard. He always had, Megan mused. It would have been a trial if he hadn’t loved the park so much. It had been part of her life for as long as she could remember.

  Megan had been barely five when she had lost her parents. Over the years, Pop had been mother, father and friend to her. And Joyland was home to her as much as the beachside cottage they lived in. Years before, they had turned to each other in grief. Now their love was bedrock firm. With the exclusion of her grandfather, Megan was careful with her emotions, for once involved, they were intense. When she loved, she loved totally.

  “Trout would be nice,” she murmured, as she gave him a last quick hug. “We’ll have to settle for tuna casserole tonight.”

  “Thought you were going out.”

  “Pop!” Megan leaned back against the stove and pushed her hair from her face with both hands. “Do you think I’d spend the evening with a man who tried to pick me up with a bag of chocolate chip cookies?” With a jerk of her wrist, she flicked on the burner under the teakettle.

  “Depends on the man.” She saw the twinkle in his eye as he glanced up at her. Megan knew she finally had his full attention. “What’d he look like?”

  “A beach bum,” she retorted, although she knew the answer wasn’t precisely true. “With a bit of cowboy thrown in.” She smiled then in response to Pop’s grin. “Actually, he had a great face. Lean and strong, very attractive in an unscrupulous sort of way. He’d do well in bronze.”

  “Sounds interesting. Where’d you meet him again?”

  “In the cookie section.”

  “And you’re going to fix tuna casserole instead of having dinner out?” Pop gave a heavy sigh and shook his head. “I don’t know what’s the matter with this girl,” he addressed a favored lure.

  “He was cocky,” Megan claimed and folded her arms. “And he leered at me. Aren’t grandfathers supposed to tote shotguns around for the purpose of discouraging leerers?”

  “Want to borrow one and go hunting for him?”

  The shrill whistling of the kettle drowned out her response. Pop watched Megan as she rose to fix the tea.

  She was a good girl, he mused. A bit too serious about things at times, but a good girl. And a beauty, too. It didn’t surprise him that a stranger had tried to make a date with her. He was more surprised that it hadn’t happened more often. But Megan could discourage a man without opening her mouth, he recalled. All she had to do was aim one of her “I beg your pardon” looks and most of them backed off. That seemed to be the way she wanted it.

  Between the amusement park and her art, she never seemed to have time for much socializing. Or didn’t make time, Pop amended thoughtfully. Still, he wasn’t certain that he didn’t detect more than just annoyance in her attitude toward the man in the market. Unless he missed his guess, she had been amused and perhaps a touch attracted. Because he knew his granddaughter well, he decided to let the subject ride for the time being.

  “The weather’s supposed to hold all weekend,” he commented as he carefully placed his lures in his fishing box. “There should be a good crowd in the park. Are you going to work in the arcade?”

  “Of course,” Megan set two cups of tea on the table and sat again. “Have those seats been adjusted on the Ferris wheel?”

  “Saw to it myself this morning.” Pop blew on his tea to cool it, then sipped.

  He was relaxed, Megan saw. Pop was a simple man. She’d always admired his unassuming manner, his quiet humor, his lack of pretension. He loved to watch people enjoy. More, she added with a sigh, than he liked to charge them for doing so. Joyland never made more than a modest profit. He was, Megan concluded, a much better grandfather than businessman.

  To a large extent, it was she who handled the profit-and-loss aspect of the park. Though the responsibility took time away from her art, she knew it was the park that supported them. And, more important, it was the park that Pop loved.

  At the moment, the books were teetering a bit too steeply for comfort into the red. Neither of them spoke of it at any length with the other. They mentioned improvements during the busy season, talked vaguely about promoting business during the Easter break and over Memorial Day weekend.

  Megan sipped at her tea and half listened to Pop’s rambling about hiring summer help. She would see to it when the time came. Pop was a whiz in dealing with cranky machines and sunburned tourists, but he tended to overpay and underwork his employees. Megan was more practical. She had to be.

  I’ll have to work full-time myself this summer, she reflected. She thought fleetingly of the half-completed sculpture in her studio over the garage. It’ll just have to wait for December, she told herself and tried not to sigh. There’s no other way until things are on a more even keel again. Maybe next year . . . It was always next year. There were things to do, always things to do. With a small shrug, she turned back to Pop’s monologue.

  “So, I figure we’ll get some of the usual college kids and drifters to run the rides.”

  “I don’t imagine that’ll be a problem,” Megan murmured. Pop
’s mention of drifters had led her thoughts back to David Katcherton.

  Katch, she mused, letting his face form in her mind again. Ordinarily, she’d have cast his type as a drifter, but there had been something more than that. Megan prided herself on her observations, her characterizations of people. It annoyed her that she wasn’t able to make a conclusive profile of this man. It annoyed her further that she was again thinking of a silly encounter with a rude stranger.

  “Want some more tea?” Pop was already making his way to the stove when Megan shook herself back.

  “Ah . . . yeah, sure.” She scolded herself for dwelling on the insignificant when there were things to do. “I guess I’d better start dinner. You’ll want an early night if you’re going fishing in the morning.”

  “That’s my girl.” Pop turned the flame back on under the kettle as he glanced out the window. He cast a quick look at his unsuspecting granddaughter. “I hope you’ve got enough for three,” he said casually. “It looks like your beach-cowboy found his way to the ranch.”

  “What?” Megan’s brows drew together as she stood up.

  “A perfect description, as usual, Megan,” Pop complimented her as he watched the man approach, loose-limbed with a touch of a swashbuckler, a strong, good-looking face. Pop liked his looks. He turned with a grin as Megan walked to the window to stare out. Pop suppressed a chuckle at her expression.