Why had he brought her home? Letter to Reader Title Page Dedication Acknowledgments About the Author Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Copyright
Why had he brought her home?
He’d known it was a mistake. It was just that for a second he’d been overcome by a protective streak he couldn’t explain, one he didn’t even like. Rescuing women was a fool’s errand—he’d done it once, and he wasn’t going to do it again. He glanced back at Megan, and the memory of holding her swamped him—the soft, yielding quality of her body, the smell of her hair. She was so beautiful. Was that it?
No, it wasn’t just her current vulnerability that attracted him. It wasn’t just her big blue eyes or her body, either. Those things were distractions, sure, but distractions that were relatively easy to dismiss. After all, there were lots of pretty and needy women in the world.
What Megan possessed was far more dangerous. To his resolve. To his heart.
But he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her ...
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We hope you enjoy the month’s wedding fun, and return each and every month for more classic, emotional, heartwarming novels from Silhouette Romance.
Joan Marlow Golan
Senior Editor Silhouette Romance
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This book is dedicated to Barbara Brett and
Marcia Book Adirim, whom I have been fortunate
enough to count as both editors and friends.
A special thanks to Captain Dennis Moore and the crew of
the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge, who I hope will forgive
me for taking a few small liberties with their ship.
met her husband-to-be on a cold, foggy beach in Northern California. One year later they were married. Their union has survived the rearing of two children, a handful of earthquakes registering over 6.5, numerous cats and a few special dogs, the latest of which is a yellow Lab named Annie Rose. Alice and her husband now live in a small rural town in Oregon, where she devotes the majority of her time to pursuing her second love, writing.
John Vermont, owner and acting captain of the stern-wheeler Ruby Rose, didn’t like marrying people. For one thing, seeing as he currently spent most of his time ashore, he was sorely out of practice, which meant that instead of reciting the vows in his deep baritone—which could, when he wanted, scare an oyster off a rock—he had to read them from the manual. For another, face it, he didn’t really believe in marriage—personal experience had taught him the term “wedded bliss” was an oxymoron.
Take the couple standing in front of him now. Within the next few minutes John would pronounce them husband and wife, yet he couldn’t help but wonder if they had any idea what they were getting into.
The groom was a man about his own age, sporting an out-of-season tan and a twelve-hundred-dollar tuxedo. Earlier, before the ceremony, John had seen the guy strutting around the deck, acting like he owned the boat, a crowd of cronies following in his wake, laughing at his jokes, smiling into his eyes while he puffed out his chest and ate it up.
The bride was a good five or six years younger than the groom—still in her twenties. She had sassy blond hair cut short around her ears, a lithe figure, and huge blue eyes filled with doubts. She used those eyes to cast furtive glances at the man she was marrying, glances of which the groom seemed totally unaware, glances that seemed to say “Just a second, let me rethink this!”
Made you wonder why she was marrying him.
Judging from what John had heard, money was the likely answer. Mrs. Colpepper, the new events coordinator John had hired after the old one ran away with the thenacting captain of this boat, had mentioned that the groom was footing the bill for the wedding. Lobster and champagne for one hundred and fifty didn’t come cheaply. Nor did the well-known band tuning up its instruments on the lower deck or the hundreds of flowers fluttering their petals in the freshening breeze.
Just another pretty woman marrying another rich clown for all the wrong reasons. Boy, did that bring back the memories!
Running a finger down the page, John discovered it was time to remind everyone that marriage was not an institution to be entered into lightly. How was that for a novel idea? The bride bit her lip as he spoke and, raising her eyes, she gazed at him. He almost felt as though he should pause to reassure her, but he wasn’t the reassuring kind. At six-three and one hundred and ninety solid pounds, he was too big; his features, though regular enough, were too weathered by his predilection for the outdoors, his manner too brusque. Women tended to find him threatening. Truth of the matter was, the feeling was entirely mutual.
He cast out the next line, giving it all he had. “If there is anyone here who knows of a reason why these two shouldn’t be married, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
In the bottom of his black little heart, he always kind of hoped someone would come forward at this point—it would at least break the monotony. As usual, however, no one did.
Correction: no person did. Foggy Dew, the ship’s cat, made a sudden appearance. John had taken pity on her when he’d come aboard less than a month before and found her on the dock, knocked up and abandoned. She’d repaid him by shedding on his clothes, sleeping on his bunk and, generally speaking, taking over the ship. Now, as he watched, she waddled deliberately around and about the chairs filled with prosperous-looking wedding guests, steering clear of Mrs. Colpepper, who had forcefully declared her dislike of cats, pregnant ones in particular.
Like a good captain, he struggled to keep his mind on the ceremony, though he was aware the cat had paused between the bridal couple to sniff at the hem of the woman’s dress. She glanced down at Foggy Dew, her features relaxing perceptibly. The cat meowed, and a smile—the first John had seen—touched the bride’s lips, lit her eyes and transformed her face from simple beauty to breath-stopping perfection.
For no clear reason John suddenly found his tongue getting in the way of the words, a condition he quickly remedied with a stern clearing of his throat. As he continued, he noted that Foggy Dew, having conquered the bride, had moved on to inspect the groom, who cast a scowl at the cat and then at John. With a nonchalant shrug, John tried to say, “Lighten up, mister, she’ll go away in a second.”
The groom didn’t seem to get the message. He tried scooting Foggy Dew away with a stiff leg, but perversely, this seemed to make the cat even more determined to win his affection. Purring loudly now, she rubbed her chin along the man’s shoe. John could feel Mrs. Colpepper’s gaze drilling holes in his head as she waited for him to make the cat cease and desist, but doing that would mean stopping the ceremony and that might mean starting over again at the beginning. This was out of the question seeing as he was almost at the end. So he did the only thing he could think to do—he spoke faster.
Besides, the episode was not without a lighter side. Take the bride, for instance. She’d stopped looking uneasy and was instead smiling at the cat, a definite improvement. Even the guests, stuffed shirts that most of them seemed to be, were smiling at the incongruity of a cat aboard a boat inviting itself to a wedding. Heck, the kid recording the ceremony for posterity was grinning, too. Chances were someday this obnoxious groom would look at the video and think a cat showing up was kind of cute.
John moved on to the next part, fighting to place a solemn yet serene look upon his face. The vows, all those little words and repetitions that promised love and fidelity, sometimes stuck in his throat.
As the bride said her lines, she looked him straight in the eye. Normally, in his experience, a woman looked at her husband-to-be at a time like this and not at the captain of the vessel. He glanced down at the manual to find her name, which Mrs. Colpepper had penciled in the margin, then he looked back at her. “Do you, Megan Ashley Morison—” he began. The use of her name seemed to shake her, as though until that second she’d been kidding herself into thinking it was someone else standing at this seaboard altar, someone else promising to cleave herself only unto the groom.
In fact, her demeanor was so unusual that by the time she whispered, “I do,” John was surprised—and oddly disappointed—she’d gone through with it.
Now it was time to address the groom, one Robert Winslow, who was still fidgeting because of the cat. As John asked him to repeat his vows, Foggy Dew finally gave up and settled down into a lumpy mass of fur at the guy’s feet, so it was hard to figure why instead of just saying “I do” and moving away, Winslow chose that second to act. With a sneer and a grunt, the man kicked the cat.
John watched in stunned silence as a gray blur of fur, two wild yellow eyes, and twenty extended claws hurled toward him, and though he quickly knelt to intercept her, he was too late. She flew between the railing and the deck and landed with a splash in the river twenty feet below.
Almost immediately, the bride was at the rail, her bouquet of roses and lilies dropped in haste. John, at the rail seconds before her, was marking the animal’s location by lining her up with an outcrop of rock on the shoreline when Megan Morison grabbed his arm. “What can I do?”
The hush that had at first descended was suddenly filled with shocked voices, including Mrs. Colpepper’s, who was demanding the ceremony continue.
John took Megan’s hand and pulled her away from the rail. “Come with me.”
“Now wait just a second—” Winslow began, but by then John was racing toward the stairs leading down, Megan’s hand still in his. On the lower deck, which was decorated to the hilt but devoid of passengers except for the band and the ship’s caterers who were setting up for the reception, he released Megan and pulled a life ring with an attached line from a bulkhead.
As he slid aside the door, which opened close to the water, Megan rushed past him. He grabbed her arm, sure for a second she was going to trip on her long dress and take a dive. She glanced up at him. “I’m okay,” she said.
“Passengers in the water give my insurance adjuster hives. Do you see the cat?”
Together, they scanned the choppy surface of the river. Thankfully they were anchored in a small, calm bight with little or no current but though John easily found the rocks on the shoreline, the cat, similar in color to the gray water, had disappeared. For one long moment, he thought she’d drowned.
Megan was standing so close to him that he felt her body tense as she threw out an arm. “There she is, over there!”
John followed her pointing finger until he made out Foggy Dew’s small head and paws, which were slashing frantically at the water.
“Don’t let her out of your sight,” he said.
John threw the life ring beyond the cat. As he steadily pulled it toward the frightened animal, he was aware of voices and then of people crowding the lower deck. He tuned them out, directing all his concentration toward reaching the cat in time.
When the life ring loomed by Foggy Dew’s side, she gave it two looks. The first seemed to say, “What in the world is that thing?” The second one was just as clear. “Whatever it is, it’s better than the water.” With determination, she hooked a few claws into the ring and attempted to climb to dry land.
John very gently tugged the ring toward the boat. Over his shoulder, he recognized Winslow’s voice as he snarled, “That damn cat got exactly what it deserved.” The life ring was very close now and John looked over his shoulder to find Megan. He wanted her to hold on to the line as he retrieved the cat.
As he turned, the groom flew past him. With a splash, the idiot landed in the river, his wake pushing the life ring away. Megan, who was staring down at her soon-to-be husband, was white with fury or concern—it was hard to tell which. Mrs. Colpepper screamed, a few of the wedding guests gasped, and John was relieved to see Foggy Dew had held on.
Now he had two passengers overboard, but it never entered his mind to rescue the man before the cat. The fool had jumped in, let him paddle around out there for a second or two—it wouldn’t kill him. Foggy Dew was bursting with unborn kittens.
Mrs. Colpepper appeared at his side. “I demand you pull Mr. Winslow out of the water at once!” she sputtered.
Ignoring her, John found Megan’s hand. “Hold this,” he said as he pushed the line into her hand. He then dropped to the deck, flattened himself out on his stomach and, reaching down, snagged Foggy Dew by the scruff of her neck, lifting her aboard as he stood.
Without hesitation, Megan reached out and took the wild-eyed, sopping-wet cat, who responded to a stranger with a yowl and a manic attempt to escape. Several long red slashes popped out on Megan’s arm as she subdued the animal and folded it within the lacy bulk of her pristine wedding gown.
“Captain Vermont, this is absolutely outrageous,” Mrs. Colpepper screeched. “I won’t stand for this. I simply won’t!”
“Robert doesn’t swim,” an older woman cried. She looked enough like the groom to be his mother, and John turned back to the water. Sure enough, Winslow seemed to be having a difficult time. John quickly cast the life ring out to the man, who looped an arm over it and waited to be hauled aboard.
Jeez, would it kill the S.O.B. to paddle some?
“If Robert doesn’t swim,” John said with conviction as he heaved on the line, “why in blazes did he jump in the river? If he was sorry for kicking my cat, a simple apology would have sufficed. He very nearly made matters worse.”
“But he didn’t jump!” Mrs. Colpepper squealed.
“She pushed him!” the mother yelped, pointing an accusing finger at Megan.
While John pulled Robert Winslow toward the boat, he looked down at the woman who cradled his cat. She met his gaze with a defiant look, the intensity of which was hampered only slightly by the bright pink flush that suffused her neck and face and the trembling of her beautiful lips.
He decided discretion was called for, so he put off thanking her until later. Instead he turned to the river and, along with a couple of the groom’s men, hauled the man back aboard the Ruby Rose.
Some of the cockiness had been washed away by the cold, clean water, but John knew men like this, and he knew recovery would be swift and sure. Standing on the deck surrounded by friends and family, with water running down his face and dripping puddles around his patent-leather shoes, Winslow still managed to look in control, even with his tuxedo plastered against his sturdy body.
“What in the world did you do that for?” Winslow snarled at Megan.
Hugging the wad of the top layer of her skirt—which presumably held Foggy Dew—close to her chest, she met his gaze and replied, “You kicked a defenseless animal into the river!”
He brushed away that comment with a wave of his hand. “You’ve ruined this ceremony, to say nothing of your gown. Do you know how much I had to fork over to get this boat on such short notice? Now we’ll have to reschedule—”
“I don’t think so,” Megan interrupted.
This statement, uncertain as it was, seemed to stun Winslow, who stared at her as though she was mad. “Meg, you don’t mean that—”
“Yes, I do,” she said, this time more forcefully. “And please, don’t call me Meg.”
He took a step toward her. “You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Yes, I am. Maybe for the first time in a long time—”
He covered her lips with one finger as if to silence her. “No, you’re not. You don’t want to spoil everything.”
She batted at his hand. “I don’t want to many you,” she stated flatly. “I don’t think I could marry a man who did what you did and then gloated about it.”
Mrs. Colpepper looked near to fainting. “Now, now, dear, wedding jitters, that’s all.” Turning her attention to John, she snapped, “How could you rescue the cat before you came to the aid of Robert Winslow?”
“Easy,” he said, looking for a way out of this mess. Besides marrying people, the other thing John Vermont wasn’t all that crazy about was scenes. Emotional outbursts, accusations, yelling—all this drove him nuts. He tried getting his cat away from Megan, thinking to himself that he could herd everyone up the ladder, deposit the cat in his cabin and get the Ruby Rose back to the wharf in time for a stiff drink and a thick steak. But she wasn’t letting go. Foggy Dew had all but disappeared in the increasingly ruined dress and Megan was too busy being mad to think of anything else.
“Is that what this is all about?” Winslow chided as though Megan had informed him there was a speck of lint on his lapel. “For heaven’s sake, it’s just a cat.”
His tone of voice was so condescending that even if John hadn’t already detested him, he would have been moved to react. “Where in the hell do you think you get off kicking a pregnant animal!” he yelled.
This was the voice that shook shellfish loose from their moorings, and for a second, it served to quell all the chatter. But the moment passed.
Mrs. Colpepper recovered first. “Captain Vermont! Really!”
Another voice piped in. “Mr. Winslow? Should I still be taping all of this?”
At that, everyone turned to see who had spoken. It was the gangly young man who was videotaping the ceremony. He was currently standing on a chair to get a better view. The camcorder pressed to his face and the steady red light said he was still trying to do his job.
Winslow spat out the words. “Turn the damn thing off, you imbecile!”
“Don’t talk to him like that!” Megan said.
Once again Winslow searched Megan’s face with incredulous eyes. “Why in blazes do you give a hoot how I talk to him?”
“He’s a human being—”
Winslow shook his head at an observation he apparently found inconsequential, then turned back to John. “Believe you me, you sorry excuse for a captain. When the owner of this company finds out how you allowed a...a...cat to destroy a thirty-thousand-dollar wedding, you’ll be lucky to get a job swabbing decks!”
“Is that all that matters to you?” Megan demanded before John could jump in with the information that he was the owner of this company. “It’s money, isn’t it?” she added as though a light bulb had just blinked on in her brain. “Just money.”
“So, you are mad about the prenuptial agreement,” Winslow said with a know-it-all sneer. “I knew it!”
“What I am is mad at you!” she said vehemently. “All you think about is your money—”
“That didn’t seem to be a problem for you when I was writing you and your uncle all those hefty checks,” Winslow snapped.
“What! How dare you—”
He interrupted her with a laugh. “Grow up, Meg. Money is money. I have it, you don’t, and we both know you aren’t about to really break it off with me over a fleabitten cat, so go fix yourself up—”
Her eyes clearly reflected her turbulent emotions as a smile slowly curved her lips. However, this smile, John suddenly realized, bore no resemblance to the earlier one that had so transformed her face. This smile lasted only a second. John had a feeling about what was going to happen next, but before he could react, Megan had interrupted her former fianc?’s diatribe by reaching forward and, once again, shoving him off the boat.