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Megan's Mate, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  Well aware of his scrutiny, Megan forced herself to keep up her end of the conversation with Coco and the rest. She'd grown used to stares years before, when she was young, unmarried, and pregnant by another woman's husband.

  She knew how some men reacted to her status as a single mother, how they assumed she was an easy mark. And she knew how to disabuse them of the no­tion.

  She met Nathaniel's stare levelly, frostily. He didn't look away, as most would, but continued to watch her, unblinkingly, until her teeth clenched.

  Good going, he thought. She might be skinny, but she had grit. He grinned, lifted his coffee mug in a si­lent toast, then turned to Coco. “I've got to go, got a tour to do. Thanks for lunch, Coco.”

  “Don't forget dinner. The whole family will be here. Eight o'clock.”

  He glanced back at Megan. “Wouldn't miss it.”

  “See that you don't.” Coco looked at her watch, closed her eyes. “Where is that man? He's late again.”

  “The Dutchman?”

  “Who else? I sent him to the butcher's two hours ago.”

  Nathaniel shrugged. His former shipmate, and The Towers' new assistant chef, ran on his own timetable. “If I see him down at the docks, I'll send him along.”

  “Kiss me goodbye,” Jenny demanded, delighted when Nathaniel hauled her up.

  “You're the prettiest cowboy on the island,” he whispered in her ear. Jenny shot a smug look at her brother when her feet touched the floor again. “You let me know when you're ready for a sail,” he said to Kevin. “Nice meeting you, Ms. O'Riley.”

  “Nate's a sailor,” Jenny said importantly when Nathaniel strolled out. “He's been everywhere and done everything.”

  Megan didn't doubt it for a minute.

  So much had changed at The Towers, though the family rooms on the first two floors and the east wing were much the same. Trent St. James, with Megan's brother, Sloan, as architect, had concentrated most of the time and effort on the ten suites in the west wing, the new guest dining area and the west tower. All of that area comprised the hotel.

  From the quick tour Megan was given, she could see that none of the time and effort that had gone into the construction and renovations had been wasted.

  Sloan had designed with an appreciation for the original fortresslike structure, retaining the high-ceilinged rooms and circular stairs, ensuring that the many fireplaces were working, preserving the mul-lioned windows and French doors that led out onto terraces, balconies, parapets.

  The lobby was sumptuous, filled with antiques and designed with a multitude of cozy corners that invited guests to lounge on a rainy or wintry day. The spec­tacular views of bay or cliffs or sea or Suzanna's fab­ulous gardens were there to be enjoyed, or tempted guests to stroll out onto terraces and balconies.

  When Amanda, as hotel manager, took over the tour, Megan was told that each suite was unique. The storage rooms of The Towers had been full of old furniture, mementos and art. What hadn't been sold prior to Trent's having invested the St. James money in the transformation now graced the guest rooms.

  Some suites were two levels, with an art deco stair­case connecting the rooms, some had wainscoting or silk wallpaper. There was an Aubusson rug here, an old tapestry there. And all the rooms were infused with the legend of the Calhoun emeralds and the woman who had owned them.

  The emeralds themselves, discovered after a diffi­cult and dangerous search—some said with the help of the spirits of Bianca Calhoun and Christian Brad­ford, the artist who had loved her—resided now in a glass case in the lobby. Above the case was a portrait of Bianca, painted by Christian more than eighty years before.

  “They're gorgeous,” Megan whispered. “Stun­ning.” The tiers of grass green emeralds and white di­amonds almost pulsed with life.

  “Sometimes I'll just stop and look at them,” Amanda admitted, “and remember all we went through to find them. How Bianca tried to use them to escape with her children to Christian. It should make me sad, I suppose, but having them here, under her portrait, seems right.”

  “Yes, it does.” Megan could feel the pull of them, even through the glass. “But isn't it risky, having them out here this way?”

  “Holt arranged for security. Having an ex-cop in the family means nothing's left to chance. The glass is bulletproof.” Amanda tapped her finger against it. “And wired to some high-tech sensor.” Amanda checked her watch and judged that she had fifteen minutes before she had to resume her managerial du­ties. “I hope your rooms are all right. We've barely scratched the surface on the family renovations.”

  “They're fine.” And the truth was, it relaxed Me­gan a bit to see cracked plaster and gnawed wood­work. It made it all less intimidating. “Kevin's in paradise. He's outside with Alex and Jenny, playing with the new puppy.”

  “Our Fred and Holt's Sadie are quite the proud parents.” With a laugh, Amanda tossed back her swing of sable hair. “Eight pups.”

  “As Alex said, everyone's having babies. And your Delia is beautiful.”

  “She is, isn't she?” Maternal pride glowed in Amanda's eyes. “I can't believe how much she's grown already. You should have been around here six months ago. All four of us out to here.” She laughed again as she held out her arms. “Waddling every­where. The men strutting. Do you know they took bets to see if Lilah or I would deliver first? She beat me by two days.” And since she'd bet twenty on herself, it still irritated her a little. “It's the first time I've known her to be in a hurry about anything.”

  “Her Bianca's beautiful, too. She was awake and howling for attention when I was in the nursery. Your nanny has her hands full.”

  “Mrs. Billows can handle anything.”

  “Actually, I wasn't thinking about the babies. It was Max.” She grinned remembering how Bianca's daddy had come running in, abandoning his new novel on the typewriter to scoop his daughter out of her crib.

  “He's such a softie.”

  “Who's a softie?” Sloan strode into the room to swing his sister off her feet.

  “Not you, O'Riley,” Amanda murmured, watch­ing the way his face softened like butter as he pressed his cheek to Megan's.

  “You're here.” He twirled her again. “I'm so glad you're here, Meg.”

  “Me too.” She felt her eyes tear and squeezed him tight. “Daddy.”

  With a laugh, he set her down, slipped his free arm around his wife. “Did you see her yet?”

  Megan feigned ignorance. “Who?”

  “My girl. My Delia.”

  “Oh, her.” Megan shrugged, chuckled, then kissed Sloan on his sulking mouth. “Not only did I see her, I held her, I sniffed her, and have already decided to spoil her at every opportunity. She's gorgeous, Sloan. She looks just like Amanda.”

  “Yeah, she does.” He kissed his wife. “Except she's got my chin.”

  “That's a Calhoun chin,” Amanda claimed.

  “Nope, it's O'Riley all the way. And speaking of O'Rileys,” he continued, before Amanda could ar­gue, “where's Kevin?”

  “Outside. I should probably go get him. We haven't even unpacked yet.”

  “We'll go with you,” Sloan said.

  “You go. I'm covering.” Even as Amanda spoke, the phone on the mahogany front desk rang. “Break's over. See you at dinner, Megan.” She leaned up to kiss Sloan again. “See you sooner, O'Riley.”

  “Mnuu...” Sloan gave a satisfied sigh as he watched his wife stride off. “I do love the way that woman eats up the floor.”

  “You look at her just the way you did a year ago, at your wedding.” Megan tucked her hand in his as they walked out of the lobby and onto the stone terrace steps. “It's nice.”

  “She's...” He searched for a word, then settled on the simplest truth. “Everything. I'd like you to be as happy as I am, Megan.”

  “I am happy.” A breeze flitted through her hair. On it carried the sound of children's laughter. “Hearing that makes me happy. So does being here.” They de­scended another level
and turned west. “I have to ad­mit I'm a little nervous. It's such a big step.” She saw her son scramble to the top of the fort in the yard be­low, arms raised high in victory. “This is good for him.”

  “And you?”

  “And me.” She leaned against her brother. “I'll miss Mom and Dad, but they've already said that with both of us out here, it gives them twice as much rea­son to visit twice as often.” She pushed the blowing hair from her face while Kevin played sniper, fighting off Alex and Jenny's assault on the fort. “He needs to know the rest of his family. And I.. .needed a change. And as to that—” she looked back at Sloan “—I tried to get Amanda to show me the setup.”

  “And she told you that you couldn't sharpen your pencils for a week.”

  “Something like that.”

  “We decided at the last family meeting that you'd have a week to settle in before you started hammering the adding machine.”

  “I don't need a week. I only need—”

  “I know, I know. You'd give Amanda a run for the efficiency crown. But orders are you take a week off.”

  She arched a brow. “And just who gives the orders around here?”

  “Everybody.” Sloan grinned. “That's what makes it interesting.”

  Thoughtful, she looked out to sea. The sky was as clear as blown glass, and the breeze warm with early summer. From her perch at the wall, she could see the small clumps of islands far out in the diamond-bright water.

  A different world, she thought, from the plains and prairies of home. A different life, perhaps, for her and her son.

  A week. To relax, to explore, to take excursions with Kevin. Tempting, yes. But far from responsible. “I want to pull my weight.”

  “You will, believe me.” He glanced out at the clear sound of a boat horn. “That's one of Holt and Nate's,” Sloan told her, pointing to the long terraced boat that was gliding across the water. “The Mariner. Takes tourists out for whale-watching.”

  The kids were all atop the fort now, shouting and waving at the boat. When the horn blasted again, they cheered.

  “You'll meet Nate at dinner,” Sloan began.

  “I met him already.”

  “Flirting a meal out of Coco?”

  “It appeared that way.”

  Sloan shook his head. “That man can eat, let me tell you. What did you think?”

  “Not much,” she muttered. “He seemed a little rough-edged to me.”

  “You get used to him. He's one of the family now.”

  Megan made a noncommittal sound. Maybe he was, but that didn't mean he was part of hers.

  Chapter 2

  As far as Coco was concerned, Niels Van Horne was a thoroughly unpleasant man. He did not take con­structive criticism, or the subtlest of suggestions for improvement, well at all. She tried to be courteous, God knew, as he was a member of the staff of The Towers and an old, dear friend of Nathaniel's.

  But the man was a thorn in her side, an abrasive grain of sand in the cozy slipper of her contentment.

  In the first place, he was simply too big. The hotel kitchen was gloriously streamlined and organized. She and Sloan had worked in tandem on the design, so that the finished product would suit her specifica­tions and needs. She adored her huge stove, her con­vection and conventional ovens, the glint of polished stainless steel and glossy white counters, and her whisper-silent dishwasher. She loved the smells of cooking, the hum of her exhaust fans, the sparkling cleanliness of her tile floor.

  And there was Van Horne—or Dutch, as he was called—a bull in her china shop, with his redwood-size shoulders and cinder-block arms rippling with tat­toos. He refused to wear the neat white bib aprons she'd ordered, with their elegant blue lettering, pre­ferring his rolled-up shirts and tatty jeans held up by a hank of rope.

  His salt-and-pepper hair was tied back in a stubby pony tail, and his face, usually scowling, was as big as the rest of him, scored with lines around his light green eyes. His nose, broken several times in the brawls he seemed so proud of, was mashed and crooked. His skin was brown, and leathery as an old saddle.

  And his language... Well, Coco didn't consider herself a prude, but she was, after all, a lady.

  But the man could cook. It was his only redeeming quality.

  As Dutch worked at the stove, she supervised the two line chefs. The specials tonight were her New England fish stew and stuffed trout a la frangaise. Everything appeared to be in order.

  “Mr. Van Horne,” she began, in a tone that never failed to put his back up. “You will be in charge while I'm downstairs. I don't foresee any problems, but should any arise, I'll be in the family dining room.”

  He cast one of his sneering looks over his shoulder. Woman was all slicked up tonight, like she was going to some opera or something, he thought. All red silk and pearls. He wanted to snort, but knew her damned perfume would interfere with the pleasure he gained from the smell of his curried rice.

  “I cooked for three hundred men,” he said in his raspy, sandpaper-edged voice, “I can deal with a cou-.ple dozen pasty-faced tourists.”

  “Our guests,” she said between her teeth, “may be slightly more discriminating than sailors trapped on some rusty boat.”

  One of the busboys swung through, carrying plates. Dutch's eyes zeroed in on one that still held half an entree. On his ship, men had cleaned their plates. “Not too damn hungry, were they?”

  “Mr. Van Horne.” Coco drew air through her nose. “You will remain in the kitchen at all times. I will not have you going out into the dining room again and berating our guests over their eating habits. A bit more garnish on that salad, please,” she said to one of the line chefs, and glided out the door.

  “Can't stand fancy-faced broads,” Dutch mut­tered. And if it wasn't for Nate, he thought sourly, Dutch Van Horne wouldn't be taking orders from a dame.

  Nathaniel didn't share his former shipmate's dis­dain of women. He loved them, one and all. He en­joyed their looks, their smells, their voices, and was more than satisfied to settle in the family parlor with six of the best-looking women it had been his plea­sure to meet.

  The Calhoun women were a constant delight to him. Suzanna, with her soft eyes, Lilah's lazy sexuality, Amanda's brisk practicality, C.C.'s cocky grin, not to mention Coco's feminine elegance.

  They made The Towers Nathaniel's little slice of heaven.

  And the sixth woman... He sipped his whiskey and water as he watched Megan O'Riley. Now there was a package he thought might be full of surprises. In the looks department, she didn't take second place to the fabulous Calhouns. And her voice, with its slow Oklahoma drawl, added its own appeal. What she lacked, he mused, was the easy warmth that flowed from the other women.

  He hadn't decided as yet whether it was the result of a cold nature or simple shyness. Whatever it was, it ran deep. It was hard to be cold or shy in a room filled with laughing people, cooing babies and wrestling children.

  He was holding one of his favorite females at the moment. Jenny was bouncing on his lap and barrag-ing him with questions.

  “Are you going to marry Aunt Coco?”

  “ She won't have me.”

  “I will.” Jenny beamed up at him, an apprentice heartbreaker with a missing front tooth. “We can get married in the garden, like Mom and Daddy did. Then you can come live with us.”

  “Now that's the best offer I've had in a long time.” He stroked a callused finger down her cheek.

  “But you have to wait until I get big.”

  “It's always wise to make a man wait.” This from Lilah, who slouched on a sofa, her head in the crook of her husband's arm, a baby in her own. “Don't let him rush you into anything, Jenny. Slow is always best.”

  “She'd know,” Amanda commented. “Lilah's spent her life studying slow.”

  “I'm not ready to give up my girl.” Holt scooped Jenny up. “Especially to a broken-down sailor.”

  “I can outpilot you blindfolded, Bradford.”

-uh.” Alex popped up to defend the family honor. “Daddy sails the best. He can sail better than anybody. Even if bad guys were shooting at him.”

  Territorial, Alex wrapped an arm around Holt's leg. “He even got shot. He's got a bullet hole in him.”

  Holt grinned at his friend. “Get your own cheering gallery, Nate.”

  “Did you ever get shot?” Alex wanted to know.

  “Can't say that I have.” Nathaniel swirled his whiskey. “But there was this Greek in Corfu that wanted to slit my throat.”

  Alex's eyes widened until they were like saucers. From his spot on the rug, Kevin inched closer. “Re­ally?” Alex looked for signs of knife wounds. He knew Nathaniel had a tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon on his shoulder, but this was even better. “Did you stab him back and kill him dead?”

  “Nope.” Nathaniel caught the look of doubt and disapproval in Megan's eyes. “He missed and caught me in the shoulder, and the Dutchman knocked him cold with a bottle of ouzo.”

  Desperately impressed, Kevin slid closer. “Have you got a scar?”

  “Sure do.”

  Amanda slapped Nathaniel's hand before he could tug up his shirt. “Cut it out, or every man in the room will be stripping to show off war wounds. Sloan's re­ally proud of the one he got from barbed wire.”

  “It's a beaut,” Sloan agreed. “But Meg's is even better.”

  “Shut up, Sloan.”

  “Hey, a man's gotta brag on his only sister.” En­joying himself, Sloan draped an arm around her shoulders. “She was twelve—hardheaded little brat. We had a mustang stallion nearly as bad-tempered as she was. She snuck him out one day, determined that she could break him. Well, she got about a half a mile before he shook her off.”

  “He did not shake me off,” Megan said primly. “The bridle snapped.”

  “That's her story.” Sloan gave her a quick squeeze. “Fact is, that horse tossed her right into a barbed-wire fence. She landed on her rump. I don't believe you sat down for six weeks.”

  “It was two,” she said, but her lips twitched.

  “Got herself a hell of a scar.” Sloan gave her butt a brotherly pat.

  “Wouldn't mind taking a look at it,” Nathaniel said under his breath, and earned an arched-eyebrow look from Suzanna.

  “I think I'll put Christian down before dinner.”

  “Good idea.” C.C. took Ethan from Trent just as the baby began to fuss. “Somebody's hungry.”

  “I know I am.” Lilah rose.

  Megan watched mothers and babies head upstairs to nurse, and was surprised by a quick tug of envy. Funny, she mused, she hadn't even thought of having more babies until she came here and found herself surrounded by them.

  “So sorry I'm late.” Coco glided into the room, patting her hair. “We had a few problems in the kitchen.”

  Nathaniel recognized the look of frustration on her face and fought back a grin. “Dutch giving you trou­ble, darling?”

  “Well...” She didn't like to complain. “We sim­ply have different views on how things should be done. Oh, bless you, Trent,” she said when he offered her a glass. “Oh, dear, where is my head? I forgot the can­apes.”

  “I'll get them.” Max unfolded himself from the sofa and headed toward the family kitchen.

  “Thank you, dear. Now...” She took Megan's hand, squeezed. “We've hardly had a moment to talk. What do you think of The Retreat?”

  “It's wonderful, everything Sloan said it would be. Amanda tells me all ten suites are booked.”

  “It's been a wonderful first season.” She beamed at Trent. “Hardly more than a year ago, I was in de­spair, so afraid my girls would lose their home. Though the cards told me differently. Did I ever tell you that I foresaw Trent in the tarot? I really must do a spread for you, dear, and see what your future holds.”


  “Perhaps I can just look at your palm.”

  Megan let go with a sigh of relief when Max came back with a tray and distracted Coco.