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Courting Catherine, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “You have grease on your cheek,” he said quietly, and smiled at her.

  The change was astonishing. He went from being an aloof, annoying man to a warm and approachable one. His mouth softened as it curved, the impatience in his eyes vanished. There was humor there now, an easy, inviting humor that was irresistible. CC. found herself smiling back.

  “It goes with the territory.” Maybe she'd been a tad abrupt, she thought, and made an effort to correct it. “You're from Boston, right?”

  “Yes. How did you know?”

  Her lips remained curved as she shrugged. “Be­tween the Massachusetts plates and your speech pat­tern, it wasn't hard. We get a lot of trade from Boston on the island. Are you here on vacation?”

  “Business.” Trent tried to remember the last time he'd taken a vacation, and couldn't quite pin it down. Two years? he wondered. Three?

  CC. pulled a clipboard from under a pile of cata­logues and scanned the next day's schedule. “If you're going to be around for a while, we could fit that lube job in tomorrow.”

  “I'll keep it in mind. You live on the island?”

  “Yes. All my life.” Hie chair creaked as she brought her long legs up to sit Indian-style. “Have you been to Bar Harbor before?”

  “When I was a boy, I spent a couple of weekends here with my mother.” Lifetimes ago, he thought. “Maybe you could recommend some restaurants or points of interest I might squeeze in some free time.”

  “You shouldn't miss the park.” After unearthing a sheet of memo paper, she began to write. “You really can't go wrong anywhere as far as seafood, and it's early enough in the season that you shouldn't have any problem with crowds and lines.” She of­fered the paper, which he folded and slipped into his breast pocket.

  “Thanks. If you're free tonight maybe you could help me sample some of the local seafood. We could discuss my carburetor.”

  Flustered and flattered, she reached out to accept the credit card he offered. She was on the point of agreeing when she read the name imprinted there. “Trenton St. James HI.”

  “Trent,” he said easily, and smiled again.

  It figured, C.C. thought Oh, it absolutely figured. Fancy car, fancy suit, fancy manners. She should have spotted it right off. She should have smelled it. Seeth­ing, she imprinted the card on the credit card form. “Sign here.”

  Trent took out a slim gold pen and signed while she rose and stalked over to a pegboard to retrieve his keys. He glanced over just as she tossed them to him. At him was more accurate. He managed to snag them before they hit his face. He jingled them lightly in his hand as she stood, hands on hips, face dark with fury.

  “A simple no would have done the job.”

  “Men like you don't understand a simple no.” C.C. turned to the glass wall, then whirled back. “If I'd known who you were, I'd have drilled holes in your muffler.”

  Slowly Trent slipped the keys into his pocket. His temper was renowned. It wasn't hot—that would have been easier to dodge. It was ice. As he stood it slid through him, frosting his eyes, tightening his mouth, coating his voice. “Would you like to explain?”

  She strode toward him until they were toe to toe and eye to eye. “I'm Catherine Colleen Calhoun. And I want you to keep your greedy hands off my house.”

  Trent said nothing for a moment as he adjusted his thoughts. Catherine Calhoun, one of the four sisters who owned The Towers—and one who apparently had strong feelings regarding the sale. Since he was going to have to maneuver around all four of them, he might as well start here. And now.

  “A pleasure, Miss Calhoun.”

  “Not mine.” She reached down and ripped off his copy of the credit card receipt. “Get your butt back in your big, bad BMW and head back to Boston.”

  “A fascinating alliteration.” Still watching her, Trent folded the paper and put it into his pocket. “You, however, are not the only party involved.”

  “You're not going to turn my house into one of your glossy hotels for bored debutantes and phony Italian counts.”

  He nearly smiled at that “You've stayed in one of the St. James hotels?”

  “I don't have to, I know what they're like. Marble lobbies, glass elevators, twenty-foot chandeliers and fountains spurting everywhere.”

  “You have something against fountains?”

  “I don't want one in my living room. Why don't you go foreclose on some widows and orphans and leave us alone?”

  “Unfortunately, I don't have any foreclosures scheduled this week.” He held up a hand when she snarled. “Miss Calhoun, I've come here at the request of your liaison. Whatever your personal feelings, {here are three other owners of The Towers. I don't intend to leave until I've spoken with them.”

  “You can talk until your lungs collapse, but...what liaison?”

  “Mrs. Cordelia Calhoun McPike.”

  C.C.'s color fluctuated a bit, but she didn't back down. “I don't believe you.”

  Without a word, Trent set his briefcase down onto the piles of paper on her desk and flipped the com­bination. From one of his neatly ordered files he with­drew a letter written on heavy ivory paper. C.C.'s heart dropped a little. She snatched it from him and read.

  Dear Mr. St. James,

  The Calhoun women have taken your offer to The Towers under consideration. As this is a complex situation, we feel it would be in every­one's best interest to discuss the terms in person, rather than communicating by letter.

  As their representative, I would like to invite you to The Towers—(C.C. gave a strangled groan)—for a few days. I believe this more personal approach will be of mutual benefit. I'm sure you'll agree that having a closer, more in­formal look at the property that interests you will be an advantage.

  Please feel free to contact me, at The Towers, if you are amenable to the arrangement.

  Very truly yours,

  Cordelia Calhoun McPike

  C.C. read it through twice, grinding her teeth. She would have crumpled the letter into a ball if Trent hadn't rescued it and slipped it back into its file.

  “I take it you weren't apprised of the arrange­ment?”

  “Apprised? Damn straight I wasn't apprised. That meddlesome old... Oh, Aunt Coco, I'm going to mur­der you.”

  “I assume Mrs. McPike and Aunt Coco are one and the same person.”

  “Some days it's hard to tell.” She turned back. “But either way, both of them are dead.”

  “I'll sidestep the family violence, if you don't mind.”

  C.C. stuck her hands into her coverall pockets and glared at him. “If you still intend to stay at The Tow­ers, you're going to be neck deep in it”

  He nodded, accepting. “Then I'll take my chances.”

  Chapter Two

  Aunt Coco was busily arranging hothouse roses in two of the Dresden vases that had yet to be sold. She hummed a current rock hit as she worked, occasion­ally adding a quick bum-bum-bum or ta-te-da. Like the other Calhoun women, she was tall, and liked to think that her figure, which had thickened only a little in the past decade, was regal.

  She had dressed and groomed carefully for the oc­casion. Her short, fluffy hair was tinted red this week and pleased her enormously. Vanity was not a sin or character flaw in Coco's estimation, but a woman's sacred duty. Her face, which was holding up nicely, thank you, from the lift she'd had six years before, was scrupulously made up. Her best pearls swung at her ears and encircled her neck. Coco decided, with a quick glance in the hall mirror, that the black jump­suit was both dramatic and sleek. The backless heels she wore slapped satisfactorily against the chestnut floor and had her teetering at six foot.

  An imposing and, yes, regal figure, she bustled from room to room, checking and rechecking every detail. Her girls might be just a tiny bit upset with her for inviting company without mentioning it. But she could always claim absentmindedness. Which she did whenever it suited her.

  Coco was the younger sister of Judson Calhoun, who had married Deliah Brady and sired
four girls. Judson and Deliah, whom Coco had loved dearly, had been killed fifteen years before when their private plane had gone down over the Atlantic.

  Since then, she had done her best to be father and mother and friend to her beautiful little orphans. A widow for nearly twenty years, Coco was a striking woman with a devious mind and a heart the consisten­cy of marshmallow cream. She wanted, was deter­mined to have, the best for her girls. Whether they liked it or not. With Trenton St. James's interest in The Towers, she saw an opportunity.

  She didn't care a bit whether he bought the ram­bling fortress of a house. Though God knows how much longer they could hold on to it in any case, what with taxes and repairs and heating bills. As far as she was concerned, Trenton St. James III could take it or leave it. But she had a plan.

  Whether he took or left it, he was going to fall head over bank account with one of the girls. She didn't know which one. She'd tried her crystal ball but hadn't come up with a name.

  But she knew. She had known the moment the first letter had come. The boy was going to sweep one of her darlings away into a life of love and luxury.

  She'd be damned if any one of them would have one without the other.

  With a sigh, she adjusted the taper in its Lalique holder. She had been able to give them love, but the luxury... If Judson and Deliah had lived, things would have been different. Surely Judson would have pulled himself out of the financial difficulty he'd been suf­fering. With his cleverness, and Deliah's drive, it would have been a very temporary thing.

  But they hadn't lived, and money had become an increasing problem. How she hated to have to sell off the girls' inheritance piece by piece just to keep the sagging roof they all loved over their heads.

  Trenton St. James III was going to change all that by falling madly in love with one of her darling ba­bies.

  Maybe it would be Suzanna, she thought, plumping the pillows on the parlor sofa. Poor little dear with her heart broken by the worthless cur she had married. Coco's lips tightened. To think he had fooled air of them. Even her! He had made her baby's life a mis­ery, then had divorced her to marry that busty bimbo.

  Coco let out a disgusted breath then cast a beady eye on the cracked plaster in the ceiling. She would have to make sure that Trenton would suit as a father to Suzanna's two children. And if he didn't...

  There was Lilah, her own lovely free spirit. Her Lilah needed someone who would appreciate her lively mind and eccentric ways. Someone who would nurture and settle. Just a bit. Coco wouldn't tolerate anyone who would try to smother her darling girl's mystical bent.

  Perhaps it would be Amanda. Coco twitched a drapery so that it covered a mouse hole. Hardheaded, practical-minded Amanda. Now that would be a match! The successful businessman and woman, wheeling and dealing. But he would have to have a softer side, one that recognized that Mandy needed to be cherished, as well as respected. Even if she didn't recognize it herself.

  With a satisfied sigh, Coco moved from parlor to sitting room, from sitting room to library, library to study.

  Then there was C.C. Shaking her head, Coco ad­justed a picture so that it hid—almost—the water­marks on the aging silk wallpaper. That child had inherited the Calhoun stubbornness in spades. Imag­ine, a lovely girl wasting her life diddling with en­gines and fuel pumps. A grease monkey. Lord save us.

  It was doubtful that a man like Trenton St. James III would be interested in a woman who spent all of her time under a car. Then again, C.C. was the baby of the family at twenty-three. Coco felt that she had more than enough time to find her little girl the per­fect husband.

  The stage was set, she decided. And soon, Mr. St. James would be walking into Act One.

  The front door slammed. Coco winced, knowing that the vibration would have pictures jittering on the walls and crockery dancing on tables. She worked her way through the winding maze of rooms, tidying as she went.

  “Aunt Coco!”

  Coco's hand lifted automatically to pat her breast. She recognized CC.'s voice, and the fury in it. Now what could have happened to fire the girl up? she wondered, and put on her best sympathetic smile.

  “Just coming, dear. I didn't expect you home for hours yet. It's such a pleasant...” She trailed off as she saw her niece, stripped down to fighting weight in torn jeans and a T-shirt, traces of grease still on her face and the hands she had fisted and jammed at her hips. And the man behind her—the man Coco recognized as her prospective nephew-in-law. “Sur­prise,” she finished, and pasted the smile back into place. “Why, Mr. St. James, how lovely.” She stepped forward, hand extended. “I'm Mrs. McPike.”

  “How do you do?”

  “It's so nice to meet you at last. I hope you had a pleasant trip.”

  “An...interesting one, all in all.”

  “Even better than pleasant.” She patted his hand before releasing it, approving his level gaze and well-pitched voice. “Please, come in. I believe a person should begin as they mean to go on, so I want you to begin to make yourself at home right now. I'll just fix us all some tea.”

  “Aunt Coco,” C.C. said in a low voice.

  “Yes, dear, would you like something other than tea?”

  “I want an explanation, and I want it now.”

  Coco's heart hammered a bit, but she gave her niece an open, slightly curious smile. “Explanation? For what?”

  “I want to know what the hell he's doing here.”

  “Catherine, really!” Coco tsk-tsked. “Your man­ners, one of my very few failures. Come, Mr. St. James—or may I call you Trenton—you must be a bit frazzled after the drive. You did say you were driving? Why don't we just go in and sit in the par­lor?” She was easing him along as she spoke. “Mar­velous weather for a drive, isn't it?”

  “Hold it.” C.C. moved quickly and planted herself in their path. “Hold it. Hold it. You're not tucking him up in the parlor with tea and small talk. I want to know why you invited him here.”

  “C.C.” Coco gave a long-suffering sigh. “Busi­ness is more pleasant and more successful on all sides when it's conducted in person, and in a relaxed atmo­sphere. Wouldn't you agree, Trenton?”

  “Yes.” He was surprised that he had to hold back a grin. “Yes, I would.”


  “Not another step.” C.C. flung out both hands. “We haven't agreed to sell.”

  “Of course not,” Coco said patiently. “That's why Trenton is here. So we can discuss all the options and possibilities. You really should go up and wash before tea, C.C. You've engine grease or whatever on your face.”

  With the heel of her hand, C.C. rubbed at it. “Why wasn't I told he was coming?”

  Coco blinked and tried to leave her eyes slightly unfocused. “Told? Why, of course, you were told. I would hardly have invited company without telling all of you.”

  Face mutinous, C.C. held her ground. “You didn't tell me.”

  “Now, C.C., I...” Coco pursed her lips, know­ing—since she'd practiced in the mirror—that it made her look befuddled. “I didn't? Are you certain? I would have sworn I told you and the girls the minute I got Mr. St. James's acceptance.”

  “No,” C.C. said flatly.

  “Oh, my.” Coco lifted her hands to her cheeks. “Oh, how awful, really. I must apologize. What a dreadful mix-up. And all my fault. C.C, I do beg your pardon. After all, this is your house, yours and your sisters'. I would never presume on your good nature and your hospitality by...”

  Before Coco had trailed off again, the guilt was working away. “It's your house as much as ours, Aunt Coco. You know that. It's not as if you have to ask permission to invite anyone you like. It's simply that I think we should have—”

  “No, no, it's inexcusable.” Coco had blinked enough to have her eyes glistening nicely. “Really it was. I just don't know what to say. I feel terrible about the whole thing. I was only trying to help, you see, but—”

  “It's nothing to worry about.” C.C. reached out for her aunt's hand. “Not
hing at all. It was just a little confusing at first. Look, why don't I make the tea, and you can sit with—him.”

  “That's so sweet of you, dear.”

  C.C. muttered something unintelligible as she walked down the hall.

  “Congratulations,'' Trent murmured, sending Coco an amused glance. “That was one of the smoothest shuffles I've ever witnessed.”

  Coco beamed and tucked her arm through his. “Thank you. Now, why don't we go in and have that chat?” She steered him to a wing chair by the fire­place, knowing that the springs in the sofa were only a memory. “I must apologize for C.C. She has a very quick temper but a wonderful heart.”

  Trent inclined his head. “I'll have to take your word for it.”

  “Well, you're here and that's what matters.” Pleased with herself. Coco sat across from him. “I know you'll find The Towers, and its history, fasci­nating.”

  He smiled, thinking he'd already found its occu­pants a fascination.

  “My grandfather,” she said, gesturing to a portrait of a dour-faced thin-lipped man above the ornate cherry wood mantel. “He built this house in 1904.”

  Trent glanced up at the disapproving eyes and low­ered brows. “He looks...formidable,” he said po­litely.

  Coco gave a gay laugh. “Oh, indeed. And ruthless in his prime, so I'm told. I only remember Fergus Calhoun as a doddering old man who argued with shadows. They finally put him away in 1945 after he tried to shoot the butler for serving bad port. He was quite insane—Grandfather,” she explained. “Not the butler.”


  “He lived another twelve years in the asylum, which put him well into his eighties. The Calhouns either have long lives or die tragically young.” She crossed her long, sturdy legs. “I knew your father.”

  “My father?”

  “Yes, indeed. Not well. We attended some of the same parties in our youth. I remember dancing with him once at a cotillion in Newport. He was dashingly handsome, fatally charming. I was quite smitten.” She smiled. “You resemble him closely.”

  “He must have fumbled to let you slip through his fingers.”

  Pure feminine delight glowed in her eyes. “You're quite right,” she said with a laugh. “How is Tren­ton?”

  “He's well. I think if he had realized the connection, he wouldn't have passed this business on to me.”

  She lifted a brow. As a woman who followed the society and gossip pages religiously, she was well aware of the senior St. James's current messy divorce. “The last marriage didn't take?”

  It was hardly a secret, but it made Trent uncom­fortable just the same. “No. Should I give him your regards when I speak with him?”

  “Please do.” A sore point, she noted, and skimmed lightly over it. “How is it you ran into C.C.?”

  Fate, he thought, and nearly said so. “I found my­self in need of her services—or I should say my car needed them. I didn't immediately make the connec­tion between C.C's Automovations and Catherine Calhoun.”

  “Who could blame you?” Coco said with a flut­tering hand. “I hope she wasn't too, ah, intense.”

  “I'm still alive to talk about it. Obviously, your niece isn't convinced to sell.”

  “That's right.” C.C. wheeled in a tea cart, steering it across the floor like a go-cart and stopping it with a rattle between the two chairs. “And it's going to take more than some slick operator from Boston to convince me.”

  “Catherine, there is no excuse for rudeness.”

  “That's all right.” Trent merely settled back. “I'm becoming used to it. Are all your nieces so... aggressive, Mrs. McPike?”

  “Coco, please,” she murmured. “They're all lovely women.” As she lifted the teapot, she sent C.C. a warning glance. “Don't you have work, dear?”

  “It can wait.”

  “But you only brought out service for two.”

  “I don't want anything.” She plopped down on the arm of the sofa and folded her arms over her chest.

  “Well then. Cream or lemon, Trenton?”

  “Lemon, please.”

  Swinging one long, booted leg, C.C. watched them sip tea and exchange small talk. Useless talk, she thought nastily. He was the kind of man who had been trained from diapers on the proper way to sit in a parlor and discuss nothing.

  Squash, polo, perhaps a round of golf. He probably had hands like a baby's. Beneath that tailored suit, his body would be soft and slow. Men like him didn't work, didn't sweat, didn't feel. He sat behind his desk all day, buying and