Excerpt: Lead Me On

Book 2: The Pearl Island Series

SCOTT FIGURED IF A GUY couldn’t get lucky on Galveston Island during tourist season he had to be a loser. And luck was exactly what he needed right now–in more ways than one.

The thought made his grip tighten on the steering wheel as he pulled the black Jaguar to a halt before the Pearl Island Inn. The inn sat on a private island on the bay side of Galveston Island. He hadn’t been to Galveston in years, and hadn’t particularly wanted to come back now. But his situation had grown so desperate he was willing to try anything. “Take a break,” his agent had told him. “Go somewhere and relax. Get laid if that’s what it takes. But for God’s sake do something to get your old charm back before your career goes down the toilet.”

Get your old charm back. The words had brought the mansion on Pearl Island instantly to mind. Setting the brake, he looked up at the three-story Gothic structure with its gargoyles and gables, surprised at how much the place had changed since the last time he’d seen it. It seemed odd, seeing the old monstrosity with clean windows, fresh paint, and baskets of ferns hanging on the stone veranda.

Staring up at it, he wondered if he was nuts for coming here, nuts to believe in old legends about good-luck charms, and even more nuts to think a vacation fling would cure his recent bout of writer’s block. If he had any sense left in his brain, he’d turn the car around and head straight back for his townhouse in New Orleans and force himself to write. Discipline was what he needed–not luck.

He reached for the gearshift–ready to call the whole plan off–but stopped when a movement on the veranda caught his eye. There in the shadows he swore he saw the figure of a woman. Her pale, gauzy dress gave her an ethereal quality that brought to mind every ghost story he’d ever heard about “the Pearl.” Then the figure faded deeper into the shadows, making him wonder if he’d imagined her.

Stepping out of the air-conditioned car, he lowered his sunglasses and squinted against the glare of afternoon light. The salty breeze off the nearby cove ruffled his shirt and hair, relieving the humid heat along the Texas gulf coast.

The figure appeared again, this time stepping fully into the light. Definitely not a ghost, but a flesh-and-blood woman with the face of an angel and hair as black as French lace. The ghostly attire was actually a white cotton sundress that left her arms bare as she raised a pitcher to water one of the hanging baskets.

As she lowered her arms, she spotted him and smiled. “Hello” she called. “Are you Mr. Scott?”

Hello yourself, he thought as he gave one curt nod. Maybe his agent didn’t have such a crazy idea after all. A little quality time relaxing on a beach with a beautiful woman might be just what he needed to clear the cobwebs from his brain.

Grabbing his laptop from the passenger seat, he headed up the oyster-shell path to the wide sweep of stone steps. “Yes, I’m Scott,” he said as he mounted the steps to stand before her. Soft, shoulder-length waves framed her face, and he saw her eyes were a pale shade of blue, almost gray. “Although it’s not Mister. It’s just Scott.”

“Oh, sorry.” A blush tinted her cheeks. “My sister Rory took the reservation, so I wasn’t sure. I’m Allison St. Claire.” She held out her hand. “Welcome to the Pearl Island Inn.”

Her Southern-lady accent gave his gut an interesting tug, even though he normally preferred women with voices like smoky blues on Bourbon Street, not mint juleps served on a veranda. Her handshake was friendly but impersonal. An innkeeper welcoming a guest.

“Come on inside, and I’ll get you checked into your room.” She took a moment to carry the pitcher to a shadowy alcove, then led the way to the ornate front door. Her walk was as ladylike as her handshake, nothing sultry about it. Even so, he tipped his sunglasses down again to better appreciate the feminine sway of hips beneath her loose-fitting dress.

“Do you want to bring your bags now?” she asked over her shoulder. “Or get them later?”

“Later.”

As they stepped inside the wide, central hall, the cool air enveloped him. He noticed the large space had been converted into a lobby with Victorian sofas and chairs set before one of several fireplaces in the house. Rather than cobwebs and dust covering every surface, sunlight poured in through the doorways of the outer rooms, adding a soft, welcoming glow.

The stillness of the place seemed almost reverent with the three tall stained-glass windows that lit the stairway at the far end. The room to the left, the old library, had been turned into a gift shop.

“We have you booked into the Baron,” Allison said as she led him into the parlor to their right. She took a seat at an ornate desk before a rose marble fireplace. “It’s one of our larger rooms, and the only one with a desk, which Rory says you requested.” She glanced at the com-puter screen. “You’ll be staying through the end of the month?”

“Correct.” One month, he thought, remembering his agent’s advice and hoping that would do it. Although he never should have confessed to Hugh Ashton how long he’d been without a woman. Two years was an embarrassingly long time for a healthy man to stay celibate. Well, that was about to end. Hopefully.

The thought must have shown on his face since Al-lison St. Claire glanced up and froze. For a moment she stared back at him as awareness warmed the air between them. She was everything he liked in a woman: attractive face, slender body, a spark of intelligence in her eyes. The last was a must in his opinion, even for a temporary liaison. As he’d matured, he’d decided that sexual partners should be as stimulating out of bed as in–which probably had something to do with his long bout of abstinence.

Holding her gaze, he allowed an inviting smile to lift one corner of his mouth. Color flooded her cheeks and her eyes widened. She looked away, fumbling at the key-board. “Yes, well, if you’ll give me just a minute, I’ll, um, have you checked in and can show you to your room.”

Okay, so she was either shy or not interested, he thought. Or maybe he was so out of practice at smiling that he’d snarled at her instead. He knew his expressions could be intimidating at times, but the dark scowls were supposed to scare off blood-sucking leeches, not potential lovers.

Although, watching Allison St. Claire, he became almost relieved at her lack of interest. The woman had an aura of basic goodness that pegged her as the marrying kind. Which was not what he was looking for. Too bad. He would have enjoyed discovering the body beneath that dress.

“I, um . . .” A frown puckered her brow. “I see you reserved the room with a credit card, but some information’s missing. Do you have the card on you?”

“Certainly.” He knew exactly what information was missing–his last name. He’d intentionally rattled the per-son who took his reservation so he wouldn’t have to give it. A last-minute impulse to pay for the whole trip with cash made him hesitate slightly before reaching for his wallet. He missed the privacy of those days when he’d first changed his name and, to the world, he’d been Scott Nobody.

Resigned, he laid the card on the desk . . . and knew the moment she read the name.

“Scott Lawrence?” Her gaze shot up and awe filled her eyes. “The Scott Lawrence?”

He nodded curtly, disappointed at how quickly her chilly demeanor melted away.

“Oh my.” A brilliant smile lit her face. The smile made her positively breathtaking, dammit. Why couldn’t she have given him that smile before she knew his name? “I love your books!” she said. “All suspense novels really–the more hair-raising the better–but your books are some of my favorites! I know, you probably hear that all the time, but I can’t tell you how often you’ve kept me up all night biting my nails.” She leaned forward, her face glowing. “I especially like how you throw ordinary people into so much danger, and have them win against such impossible odds. You’re a fabulous storyteller.”

“Thank you.” He frowned, surprised that someone so innocent-looking would actually have read his gritty suspense-thrillers.

“Oh goodness.” Still smiling, she entered his name into the computer. “This is so exciting. Our first national celebrity. I can’t wait to tell Adrian, he’s my brother, and another big fan of yours. He’s going to be so jealous that I met you first.”

A weary sigh escaped Scott as he took back his credit card. He could already hear it coming, all the predictable questions people asked when they met a writer.

“So”–her gaze flickered to the case for his lap top– “are you going to write a book while you’re staying here?”

“Not a book. Just a proposal.” A seriously past-due proposal. And if he could manage to even start one, he’d be grateful to the writing gods.

She lowered her voice. “You know, I’ve always wondered, where do writers get their ideas?”

He nearly laughed, not just because that was the biggie–the number one most frequently asked question– but because at that moment he desperately wished he knew the answer. Instead he gave her his best deadpan look. “Personally, I order mine online from Plots.com.”

She covered her mouth as laughter danced in her eyes. “Sorry. I guess that was a silly question.”

“Not silly, just common.” He offered a lopsided smile.

She retrieved a sheet from the printer and laid it be-fore him. “Here, if you’ll sign this, we’ll be done.”

Setting the computer case down, he leaned over the desk to review the room charges. Alli had barely a moment to study him unobserved. Though his smile had faded, its effect lingered, for it had transformed the aloof expression of his wickedly handsome face into something that bordered on . . . mischief. Not boyish mischief, though. It was too carnal for that.

The look in his eyes as his gaze held hers had sent flutters of alarm rioting through her system. For a second, she’d thought he was flirting with her. Except men never flirted with her. They flirted with her sister, Aurora, all the time–not that Rory ever noticed–but Allison they treated with utmost respect or sisterly affection.

Then she’d seen his name, realized who he was, and knew she was being foolish. Someone as exciting as Scott Lawrence would hardly notice a background fixture like her. He was just being kind when he smiled. What a relief. And what a thrill to finally see what he looked like! His books never had an author photo in the back and the short bios revealed little about him.

As he signed the form with swift, bold strokes, her gaze skimmed over his short, dark hair and closely trimmed beard. He was younger than she expected for someone who’d achieved so much success, early thirties perhaps, and very fit for a man with a sedentary occupation. The short-sleeved black shirt and tan slacks accentuated his broad shoulders, narrow hips–

He straightened abruptly, and his whiskey-colored eyes caught her in mid-gawk. That sardonic brow of his lifted and she realized the beard did nothing to soften the razor-sharp edges of his face.

Her cheeks heated as she took the printout and set it aside. “Well then, I’ll um . . . just show you to your room.” She retrieved a key ring from a drawer and came around the desk to hand it to him. Oh my, he was taller than she’d first realized. Not as tall as Adrian, who was well over six feet, but he definitely towered over her less-than-impressive height. “My brother and I live on premise. Right downstairs. In the basement. Well, in an apartment in the basement. What I mean is, if you need anything, there’s always someone here.” Was she babbling? Surely not. She never babbled.

Straightening her shoulders, she composed herself. “We lock up at night, so you’ll need the gold key to get in the front door after dark. The silver key is to your room.”

“Got it.” He gave another lopsided grin and butterflies danced in her stomach. God, he was so gorgeous when he did that, like a movie star who would play nothing but villains and still have every woman in the audience swooning.

Trying to appear casual, she led the way back into the hall, describing the inn’s policies. He nodded absently, seeming more interested in looking about than what she was saying.

“You’ve really fixed up the place,” he said as they started up the stairs. “I never would have imagined it could be this . . . inviting.”

Startled, she paused on the landing, where the stained-glass windows bathed them in colored light “You’ve been here before?”

He shrugged. “My family vacationed in Galveston a lot while I was growing up.”

“Really?” she asked, fascinated.

“It was a common enough dare for kids to sneak out here and see if they could stay all night without running scared from the ghost. My sister and I took it a step farther and broke into the house with sleeping bags and stance candles.” As if realizing he’d just admitted to breaking and entering, he quickly added, “This was, of course, long before your family owned the place.”

“Ghost Island,” she breathed in awe. “Your first book.”

“My first published book,” he clarified.

“It was about three boys who broke into a haunted house on a dare, and wound up discovering a storeroom for international art thieves.” She looked about, seeing the house through different eyes. “You based that house on this one?”

“Pretty much.”

“Can we tell people that? I mean, would you mind?”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Oh, this is wonderful. I think guests will be fascinated. So, did you make it the whole night?”

“Barely.” He chuckled. The sound was even more appealing than his lopsided grins. “Although once the sun was up, I’m not sure if we were relieved or disappointed that Marguerite never put in an appearance.”

She laughed nervously, suddenly aware of how closely they stood together–so close that she caught the faint scent of soap and his freshly laundered shirt.

“So, what about you?” he asked, tipping his head to study her. “Did you ever sneak out here as a kid to see if Marguerite would reveal herself?”

“No, actually none of us, Adrian, Rory, or I, ever did.” To gain some distance, she started up the stairs again. “That probably sounds odd, since Marguerite is our ancestor and we had more reason than most to want to see her. I guess it was just too much of a sore spot for all of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The house wasn’t ours by right of inheritance, as it should have been. We still wouldn’t own it if it hadn’t come up for sale on a bank foreclosure a year ago. Marguerite’s husband, Henri LeRoche, left the island and all his wealth to his nephew rather than his daughter, Nicole.”

“Except Nicole Bouchard wasn’t Henri LeRoche’s daughter. Otherwise, why would she have taken her mother’s maiden name?”

Surprise stopped Alli at the top of the stairs. She knew people said such things behind their backs, but rarely to their faces. “I see you did spend a lot of time in Galveston to have heard that bit of old slander.”

“We writers are a curious lot,” he said, not sounding the least contrite. “Which is probably the answer to your question about where ideas come from.”

“Well, you can let your curiosity rest on that subject. The rumors are nothing more than vicious lies against Marguerite, invented by the LeRoche family to justify keeping Nicole’s inheritance.”

“It can’t all be lies. After all, Marguerite was trying to run off with her pirate lover the night she and her husband fought on these very stairs and she fell, breaking her neck.” He gestured down the grand sweep of stairs.

Alli straightened, ignoring a sudden rush of vertigo. “First of all, Marguerite didn’t fall. Henri pushed her down these stairs. And secondly, her lover, Captain Jack Kingsley, was a Confederate blockade runner, not a pirate or a Yankee spy, as Henri claimed.”

“But he was her lover.”

“That hardly means Nicole Bouchard was illegitimate. She was born years before Marguerite even met Captain Kingsley.”

Scott started to argue the point further–amused to see the kitten had claws when her fur was rubbed the wrong way–but the scent of lemon polish and fresh flowers distracted him. Glancing around, he found the upper hall had been turned into a sitting room with comfortable chairs and a sideboard for serving coffee and hot tea. “Impressive.”

“Thank you.” Her crisp voice made him hide a smile. What a shame Allison St. Claire was too sweet for him to even think about seducing, since she apparently had a spark of passion beneath the surface.

Turning, she headed across the sitting area, her back rigid.

“So, have you ever seen her?” he asked as they reached the door to his room.

She shook her head. “Marguerite never actually shows herself. She makes her presence felt in other ways.”

“How so?”

Allison looked up in the process of unlocking the door. “I’m surprised you don’t know, since you seem knowledgeable about everything else.”

“Amuse me.” He leaned against the doorjamb, which brought him closer to her eye level.

“Marguerite is considered to be a good-luck charm, because of a blessing from the voodoo midwife who birthed her.”

“Well, I knew that. I was hoping you could offer some proof that the charm really works. Or at least tell me if it works for anyone staying in the house, or only the owners.”

Confusion replaced the anger in her eyes. “Is that why you’re here? To borrow some of Marguerite’s good luck?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged as if the matter were of little importance.

“I’m surprised a man with your talent would feel the need for magic.” Her gaze flickered over his face.

He studied his fingernails to keep her from seeing any hint of desperation in his eyes. “In addition to being curious, writers are notoriously superstitious. If I thought it would get me a number one slot on the New York Times bestseller list, I’d write naked in the middle of Times Square.”

“You’ve already done that.”

“What? Write naked in Times Square?” He grinned at her.

“No!” A breathy laugh escaped her. “I mean you’ve made number one on the best-seller lists. Many times.”

“Hey, it never hurts to hedge your bets.” The vivid pink in her cheeks intrigued him, and he wondered what it would take to make her cheeks go all the way to red. “Who’s to say the success of Ghost Island wasn’t due in part to Marguerite? I did get the idea while staying here.”

“I’ve always thought the power of a charm comes more from believing in it than anything supernatural.”

“If it works, it works.”

“True.” With a jiggle of keys, she opened the door and headed for a bedside table where she clicked on a lamp.

Scott took in the paisley wallpaper, heavy four-poster bed, and other furniture that gave the room a masculine feel. Whoever had decorated the inn had a taste for quality antiques.

She flung open three sets of heavy draperies, revealing a wall of windows that faced the cove. Sunlight poured in as she rattled off the routine for laundry and room cleaning. She opened another set of draperies, revealing a door to the second-floor balcony. He knew a larger balcony, off the ballroom on the third floor, loomed directly above. It was from that balcony Henri had fired a cannon on Jack Kingsley’s ship, killing his wife’s lover. The remains of the ship and Kingsley’s ghost were said to still be at the bottom of the cove . . . with the two ghosts forever looking for a way to reunite.

“You’ll want to keep this door locked, since you share the balcony with the Pearl.”

“The ghost?”

“No.” Allison laughed lightly. “The Pearl is what we call Marguerite’s old suite in the tower since she was known as the Pearl of New Orleans during her days as an opera singer. Just as we call this suite the Baron, since ‘shipping baron’ was the nicest term we could think of to describe Henri.”

“Makes sense.” Scott nodded.

“I think that covers everything.” She folded her hands before her, looking perfectly composed except for the color still glowing in her cheeks. “Do you have any questions?”

“Just one.” He stepped back to see under the desk. “Where’s the modem hookup?”

“Oh, we don’t have phones in the rooms. So many people carry mobile phones, we decided it wasn’t necessary. We do have a computer set up in the music room, though, so guests can check e-mail.”

He stared at her a moment. “No phones in the rooms?”

“I’m afraid not.” Worry flickered across her brow. “Is that a problem?”

“Actually”–he smoothed his beard to hide a smile– “that’s the best news I’ve had in weeks.”

“Oh.” The comment obviously confused her. “Well then, I’ll leave you to settle in.” He nodded as she made her way to the door. “If you need anything at all, please let us know.”

“I’ll do that.”

The moment she left, he glanced about. “Hear that, Marguerite? If I need anything at all . . . Well, right now, I could use a damn good idea for my next novel.”

Taking a seat at the desk, he booted up the computer, then stared at the blank screen. His mind remained equally blank. After several minutes he let his gaze drift back to the door. “Although, as long as I’m asking for ‘anything,’ how about you make your great-great-great-granddaughter a little bit less of a ‘nice girl’?”