Excerpt: Falling For You
Book 1: The Pearl Island Series
THE SUN WAS SHINING OFF GALVESTON BAY, the wind held the warmth of spring, and Rory was happy. But then Rory was always happy when she was headed for Pearl Island.
She grabbed the awning support as the pontoon tour boat hit another wave. The white shirt of her uniform fluttered against her chest as she brought the microphone to her mouth. “In a moment, folks, we’ll come to the most exciting part of your Galveston Bay boat tour, the haunted house on Pearl Island.”
Interest showed on the passengers’ faces as they glanced toward shore. In truth, a mere hundred yards separated Pearl Island from the main island of Galveston and a private causeway spanned even that small gap. But, in other ways, the island was a world unto itself, filled with intrigue, romance, and rumors of ghosts.
As the boat pounded through the waves toward the cove, Rory loosened her knees to keep her balance. A long corkscrew curl of golden-red hair whipped across her face. She release her hold on the awning to fight the waist-length mass and pitched sideways into the boat’s owner.
“Hang on there, darling,” Captain Bob said as she braced herself against his muscular shoulder. His shirt matched hers in style, with navy blue epaulets and gold buttons, but the rolled-up sleeves stretched taught around his massive biceps. “I know I’m irresistible, but not in front of the passengers, please.” He nodded toward the rows of cushioned seats that held a mish-mash of tourists with the usual cameras, souvenir T-shirts, and sunburned skin.
“I’ll try to contain myself.” Rory teased back.
“Just don’t try too hard, beautiful.” His teeth flashed white against stubble-darkened cheeks as he tugged on the bill of his captain’s cap.
Outboard motor exhaust rolled over them as they swung into the protective cove and Captain Bob pulled back on the throttle. Shielded from the wind by the island, the boat settled into a gentle rocking motion as they began a slow circle.
Rory glanced toward the mansion. Pink granite walls rose above a stand of palm trees in majestic defiance to the acts of God and man and even time that had battered it for a hundred and fifty years. Along the edge of the steep, gabled roof–barely visible from such a distance–winged gargoyles snarled down at all who dared to approach.
Bringing the mic back to her mouth, Rory began the story that gave her goose bumps even though she’d told it a hundred times. “Of the historic sights in Galveston, this house has one of the more colorful pasts. It was built by the notorious Henri LeRoche, a ‘businessman’ from New Orleans who moved to Galveston before the civil war–some say to escape prosecution for his questionable shipping activities. The house was a wedding present for his bride, Marguerite, an opera singer known as ‘The Pearl of New Orleans.'”
With the microphone in hand, Rory walked down the center of the aisle toward the bow. “Because of her scandalous past, Marguerite was never quite accepted by Galveston’s budding society. And the fairy-tale marriage she expected turned into a nightmare when Henri became brutally possessive. After years of being a virtual prisoner in her own house, Marguerite met and fell in love with one of Henri’s sea captains, the dashing young Jack Kingsley, who was a blockade runner during the Civil War.”
Rory turned to face her audience, enjoying her role as story-teller. “Henri found out she had a lover and went insane with jealousy. He locked Marguerite and their daughter upstairs, swearing she’d never leave the house alive.
“Afraid for her life, Marguerite sent a massage to Captain Kingsley, begging him to rescue her.” Rory lowered her voice for dramatic effect. “On the night he came for her on the pretext of delivering a shipment of arms to Henri, he sailed his ship into this very cove. Marguerite and her daughter escaped from her room with the aid of a servant. But Henri stopped her on the grand staircase. The two fought, and she fell down the stairs to her death.
“Enraged with grief, Henri rushed to the balcony, there, off the third floor, and fired a cannon.” Rory shielded her eyes against the sun as she pictured the scene. In her mind, she conjured a stormy night filled with violence, passion, and death. She could see Henri LeRoche on the balcony, hurling curses at his rival as he lit the fuse.
“The cannon ball struck the wooden vessel broadside, igniting the cargo of gun powder. The Freedom sank quickly, taking Captain Kingsley and most of his crew down with her to a watery grave. Only a few were able to swim to shore and tell the story that has become a favorite Galveston legend.
“In fact”–Rory turned back to her audience–“we’re passing over the wreckage of the ship now. If you look straight down, you might be able to make out some of the remains.”
The pontoon boat rocked as the passengers bent over the rail.
“Where’s the ship, Mommy?” A little girl leaned way out to peer into the clear blue water. “I don’t see it.”
“Careful, sweetheart,” the mother said, holding the girl about the waist.
Rory made her way back down the aisle. “Another intriguing aspect of the tale is that Captain Kingsley’s grandfather sailed with Galveston’s most famous pirate, Jean Laffite. Some believe Jack Kingsley had Laffite’s legendary ‘missing treasure’ on the ship when it went down. As you can imagine, this has made it difficult for the owners of the island to keep scuba divers out of the cove, even though no one has ever found any evidence of a sunken treasure.”
“You said the house is haunted?” asked a burly man wearing a hot pink T-shirt and black dress socks.
Rory nodded. “Many believe the ghost of Marguerite remains in the house waiting for her lover, and that Captain Kingsley haunts these very waters, searching for a way for them to reunite.”
“Is the house occupied?” another man asked.
“No, it’s been empty for about fifty years. Although it is still owned by descendants of Henri LeRoche, through his nephew,” Rory explained with a slight edge to her voice, “not his daughter by Marguerite–the rightful heirs.”
“Careful, Rory, your jealousy is showing,” Captain Bob teased her, for he knew her family descended directly from Marguerite Bouchard’s daughter and had an ongoing grudge against the LeRoches.
“Not my jealousy,” she told him. “My sense of injustice.”
“Is that one of them there?” the young mother asked.
“Hmm?” Rory looked toward shore. As the pontoon moved past a line of palm trees, she saw a man standing on the overgrown lawn, just outside the chain-link fence that protected the house from vandals. He appeared to be hammering a sign into the ground. Surprised to see anyone on the island, she grabbed the binoculars from the wheel pulpit and held them to her eyes. The man had his back to her, but he was too blond and slender to be John LeRoche, the current owner of Pearl Island. Her gaze moved to the words on the sign, and the air left her lungs: Bank Foreclosure–Property For Sale.
“Oh my God,” she breathed and felt the hair on her arms stand on end. “Bobby, pull closer to the pier.”
“What for?” he asked.
“Just pull closer, will ya?”
“You’re not going to get out or anything, are you?”
She lowered the binoculars as conviction swelled within her. “Yes, actually I believe I am.”
“No way, Rory. That’s private property. And we’re on a schedule.”
“Fine. I’ll swim.” She kicked off her deck shoes and prepared to strip down to the swimming suit she always wore beneath her tour guide uniform.
“You would, too, wouldn’t you?” He shook his head as she tugged the shirt from the waist of her shorts. “All right, all right, I’ll let you get out. But what are we supposed to tell them.” He nodded toward the tourists.
Putting her shoes back on, she raised the mic to her mouth. “If you folks will sit tight for just one minute, we’re going to pull up to the pier so you can get a good look at the house.”
Bobby snorted but eased the boat along side the dock. Grabbing a mooring line, Rory jumped out and secured the boat before she took off at a jog. The pier gave way to sandy beach, then a rutted path that lead up toward the house. As she approached from behind, the man continued to swing the hammer, each stroke moving the shoulders beneath a white dress shirt.
“Spineless wimps!” he cursed. “Get me to do their dirty work, will they?” Bam! The hammer came down on the stake, driving it into the sandy soil. “Cowards!” Bam, bam! “Make me look like a traitor. What do they care?” Bam, bam, bam!
“Excuse me,” she said from behind him.
With a start, the man whirled around, dropping the hammer on his foot as the wind sent the sign flying against his back. He yelped, ducking his head and clutching his shin.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” She rushed to push the sign off him. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine! Splendid! Argh!” he shouted as he toppled backward to land on his backside at her feet.
Rory struggled not to laugh as she stared down at the man. Behind wire-rim glasses, he had a boyishly handsome face. His blond hair was cut short on the sides, but long enough on top to fall across his forehead. He straightened his glasses as he stared at her long bare legs, then his gaze traveled upward past her blue shorts and white shirt to her face and the unruly hair that whipped about her on the wind. “Aurora? Aurora St. Claire? Is that you?”
“Do I know you?” She asked as she gathered her hair in one hand to get it out of her eyes. He did seem slightly familiar. Although no one but her teachers back in school and her Aunt Viv called her Aurora.
For a moment, he just gaped up at her, then he swallowed hard as if to clear his throat. “I’m Chance,” he said as he scrambled to his feet, dusting dirt from his trousers. “I went to school with your brother.”
“Chance?” She thought for a moment, then remembered. “Oh yes! Short for ‘Chancellor,’ as in ‘Oliver Chancellor,’ right?” She blinked in amazement when he straightened, for he topped her own height of nearly six feet by several inches. “Wow, you grew.”
“Yeah, into my big clumsy feet,” he grumbled.
Not only had he grown taller, he’d filled out–well a little bit. From what she remembered, he’d been a gangly kid none of the girls would even have noticed except that his family was one of the wealthiest in Galveston.
She was surprised he remembered her, though, since prominent families like the Chancellors didn’t exactly run in the same circles as the disreputable and outrageous descendants of Marguerite Bouchard, many of whom had inherited Marguerite’s passion for the stage.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I saw you putting up the sign–Oh! The sign!” She turned and lifted it so she could read it. “Foreclosure! Is this for real?” She scanned the sign for details, but the words jumbled together in her excitement.
“Unfortunately, yes.” He took the sign from her and thrust it back into the soft ground that refused to hold it upright.
“The bank is foreclosing on a loan to John LeRoche?” she asked in disbelief.
“Do you think I’d drive all the way out here to put up a sign if we weren’t?” Bam! Bam!
“But when? How? Why?”
“The same reason we foreclose on anyone who doesn’t pay their loan back.”
“Oh my god,” she whispered, trying to take it all in. The house that should have belonged to her family was actually for sale. “How much will it go for?”
“Depends on how much the bank is offered,” he shrugged.
“I want to buy it.”
“What?” He glanced at her. “Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m serious. In fact”–she took a breath to calm her racing heart–“I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
“Aurora.” He frowned. “I don’t mean to be nosy but, well, what I mean is…can you qualify for a home loan of this size?”
“Qualify?” she blinked at him. “I don’t know. But I have good credit.” Actually, she had no credit, but she figured no credit was better than bad credit.
He shook his head. “I’m afraid, for a mortgage loan this big, you’re going to need more than good credit. You’ll need proof of income, collateral, or a co-signer. Trust me on this, I grew up in banking.”
“That’s right!” She snapped her fingers. “Your father owns the bank.”
“My father used to own the bank. Now it belongs to an east coast banking chain, like every other bank in this country.”
“Rory!” Captain Bob’s voice floated up from the pier, barely audible over the wind. “Hurry it up, would ya!”
“Hang on!” she shouted, then turned back to Chance. “What about a business loan? Could I qualify for one of those.”
“It depends. Do you have a business?”
“Well, no.” She squirmed. “Not yet.”
“How about a business plan?”
“Of course I have a plan.” She looked through the chain link fence as images from a lifetime of daydreams superimposed themselves over the neglected structure. She saw the mansion fully restored, the storm shutters thrown open so the windows gleamed in the sunlight, people lounging in chairs on the veranda, colorful flowers spilling from the flower beds. Oh yes, she had a plan. A plan so near to her heart, she’d never dared to speak of it aloud. “I plan to succeed,” she said at last. “That’s what I plan to do.”
He chuckled. “I’m afraid planning to ‘succeed’ isn’t a business plan. It’s a goal–and a good one–but, if you want someone to loan you money, you need an in-depth, written plan with demographics, cost analysis, projected growth and income.”
Panic welled at the thought of putting her dream down on paper for other people to scrutinize, but she let the sight of the house give her courage. “If I get one of those, a business plan, your father’s bank will loan me the money?”
“I didn’t say that.” He gave her an odd smile, partly amused, partly intrigued.
“Rory!” Bobby shouted from the boat. “Move your tail! We have a schedule to keep here.”
“I’m coming!” She gave Chance a pleading look. “I gotta go. I’ll come see you tomorrow. At the bank.” She grabbed his hand and gave it a good business-like handshake. “We’ll talk more then.” Her voice floated behind her as she jogged down the path. “Oh, I can’t wait to get home and tell Adrian and Allison. They’re just gonna flip!”
“But–” Chance held out a hand as she dashed to the pier on long tan legs, the wind plastering the white shirt to her tall, curvy body. He felt as if a whirlwind had just knocked him over as he watched her climb into the boat beside the muscle-bound driver. With a cheerful smile, she waved at him while the boat pulled away from the dock.
Chance returned the wave numbly as he willed his pulse to slow. Aurora St. Claire. Heaven help him and all mortal men, but didn’t the woman have a clue what that body, that face, and all that flame-bright hair could do to a man!
He shook his head hoping to clear it. It didn’t work. There was no shaking off the effect of Aurora. Once she bowled a guy over, he was down for life. Chance should know. He’d been in lust with the girl since he was a boy. Only, he wasn’t a boy any longer. And God have mercy, she definitely wasn’t a mere girl.
The ringing of the phone clipped to his belt brought him slowly out of his haze. “Yes, Chance speaking.”
“Oliver, where are you?” His father’s deep voice pricked a hole in Chance’s euphoria. “I expected you back at the bank an hour ago.”
“I know, I’m sorry, sir.” He glanced uneasily at the sign, wondering if his father had seen the paperwork on the foreclosure yet. Since his father sounded more curious than angry, he guessed not. “Brian had an…um…errand he wanted me to do.”
“Since when does the vice president of operations ran errands for the loan department?” his father asked.
Since the bank was taken over by a bunch of out-of-town wimps who don’t have the guts to get between you and the new owners, Chance thought bitterly. Although he couldn’t blame Brian Jeffries, the senior vice president of loans, for asking him to put up the “for sale” sign. If anyone else had done it, Chance’s father would have fired the person on the spot for embarrassing the LeRoche family in so public a manner.
“Never mind,” his father sighed. “I was about to leave for the day and wanted to remind you about Paige’s welcome home dinner tonight.”
“No need to remind me. I’m looking forward to it.” Chance smiled, thinking of Paige Baxter, the girl he intended to marry. Now that she had graduated from college and returned to the island, they could finally start dating in a more official manner. When summer was over, he’d ask her to marry him, they’d have a respectable engagement of six months or so and marry next spring. He imagined his mother and Mrs. Baxter where already planning the wedding.
“We’ll expect you at the house by six thirty, then?” his father said.
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there.” Hanging up, Chance felt his smile fade as the tension of the day settled back over his shoulders. He glanced at the cove and saw the tour boat had disappeared. Odd how the wind seemed calmer now. While Aurora had been there, the air had been charged with electricity as if lightning were about to strike.
He picked up his hammer and returned to pounding the sign into the ground. In the back of his mind he wondered if Aurora was serious about coming to see him at the bank. A smile tugged at his lips. Now wouldn’t that be a sight–Aurora St. Claire sweeping through the bank in a swirl of energy and light? He could almost see the portraits of the bank’s founders crashing to the marble floor of the lobby in her wake.