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THE DOOR TO LOVE


By


NANCY SWEETLAND
























Dedication


To Door County - a truly magical place

Where anything can happen—

Especially love


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Dear Awesome Reader,


I hope you like THE DOOR TO LOVE. It was fun to write and I’m happy to give it to you free for your enjoyment. I’d be even happier if you’d take a minute to give it a review when you’ve finished - reviews are the lifeblood of writers. Meanwhile, sign up on my website to join my reader’s group and receive a free copy of TWICE SHY, my romantic short story that brings two single parents together by a matchmaking four-year-old.


http://www.NancySweetlandWrites.com/leader-page,html







Nancy’s Other Books and Stories


The House on the Dunes

Wannabe

The Spa Murders

The Totaled Man

The Key, the Scroll and the Hidden Room

The Basket Case

A Brush with Death

Girard’s Nude


For Children

God’s Quiet Things

If I Could (English and Spanish)

The Second Street Snoops


















THE DOOR TO LOVE


By


Nancy Sweetland






A Door County Romance










ONE


Courtney James spread her colorful beach towel on a tiny, private sunning spot on the shore of Green Bay. She loosened the clasp of her bikini bra and stretched out, face down, to let the sun warm every exposed inch. After a moment, relaxing to the water’s quiet lapping, she turned over, forearm flung up to shade her eyes, her loosened bra forgotten on the towel beneath her. Her full, rose-tipped breasts thrust toward the sun, accepting its warmth.  

Would she ever forget? It had been almost two years since her husband’s fatal Nascar accident. "Ronnie­—" she murmured, reaching out to catch his memory and encountering instead a handful of unfamiliar cloth. Her eyes flew open. "Oh!"

A formidably tall and solid silhouette loomed above her, dark against the afternoon sun. She blinked and squinted, clutching the material.

"I’m not Ronnie," said the silhouette's low, resonant voice. "But I think I wish I were." There was a hint of laughter behind his words.

Heart pounding, Courtney scrambled to a sitting position, clutching the man's shirt that had been softly laid across her body. She caught her breath. There probably wasn't a living soul anywhere within shouting distance.

As her eyes adjusted to the afternoon glare, her mind unconsciously catalogued the man standing widespread above her, and an unexpected flush flooded her whole body.

His skin had a gingery tinge. Dark hair, shining wet, waved thickly above heavy brows that nearly met over his nose. His jaw line was firm, as was the rest of his well-muscled body.

Wide-eyed, a little frightened, flustered and embarrassed as well, Courtney indignantly scrambled to her feet. She kept her gaze warily on the man while she fumbled in the sand for her elusive bra with one hand and clutched his shirt with the other. Even in her confusion she was fully aware that whoever he was, he was one of the most virile, physically attractive men she had ever met. His body, clad only in brief black swim trunks was the picture of health and vitality. Tiny water prisms sparkled in the dark hair on his chest.

Smoky grey eyes studied hers. "I trust you don't mind me lending my shirt," he said. His voice still carried that annoying hint of laughter. "I'd been swimming for some time, and I thought you were getting burnt. Especially on,” he paused and raised level, dark brows, "some particular parts of your lovely body."

"Oh!" Courtney said again, backing away, nearly stumbling as one bare foot caught in her beach towel. Her long hair fell across his firm, muscled arm as he caught her shoulder to steady her.

"Easy, there.” He gently released her. “You're not quite awake."

She rubbed her shoulder where her skin tingled from his touch, aware that the laughter hadn't left his eyes. Where was that bra, anyway? Irritated at being in such an embarrassing situation, she stared up at him, her eyes widening at the unreadable expression in his. "What—what are you doing here!" she demanded.

"That might be my question to you," he said. "And don't look so frightened. I don't eat little girls, even honey-colored ones.” He reached down, whipped back the corner of her towel and dangled a wisp of red material. "Looking for this?" His deep voice still carried that amusement and caused another unwelcome flush through her body.

"Yes, thank you. And I'll thank you as well to turn around while I put it on," she said, snatching the bra.

“Yes, Ma'am," he said, but he didn’t turn away. "And then perhaps you’ll tell me what you're doing trespassing on my property."

" Your property!" Courtney's eyes widened again. Another masterful male. Her world seemed peopled with them. Even Ronnie had shown chauvinistic tendencies at times, as had his friend Jerry. And there was Logan Andrews, who felt it his duty to advise her both in and out of the workplace. Well, she'd soon set this one straight. She was well within her rights, and as soon as she was decently clad she'd tell him so, whoever he was.

Courtney stared stone-faced at the man for a few seconds. His expression didn't change except for a quizzical tilt of his head and a slight raise of his dark brows. She gave in, turned her back to him and tucked her breasts into the bra, fumbling behind for the clasp that entangled with the curly ends of her long hair. "Damn!" she muttered.

"Here, let me,” he said, still exhibiting that tinge of underlying humor. "I know a little bit about those things."

Before she could step away, but not before her body responded alarmingly, he quickly manipulated the clasp. Most likely he's had a good deal of practice with bra hooks, Courtney thought.

She reached down for her towel and shook the sand from it with a couple of furious snaps. She draped it around her shoulders, pulled her heavy hair from under it and met his gaze with her chin thrust out.

"Don't cover up," he said. "You're very beautiful, you know. I won't bite, really, and the sun is magnificent. "Don't you feel it?"

His smoky gaze enveloped her.

What she felt was not the sun. For the first time since Ronnie James's death, Courtney felt alive.



TWO


Courtney snugged the beach towel tightly across her slim shoulders, feeling the strength of his penetrating gaze even though she now wore both pieces of her swimsuit.

"Who are you?" she demanded, her eyes narrowing. “And what are you doing on my beach?"

"Correction. My beach. I'm Lincoln Spencer, Link to my friends—one of whom I hope you might come to be. And I happen to own this little stretch of beach you're so comfortably sunning on."

"But Amy Lane owned it – oh!" Of course. Remembering Amy's death brought understanding. "You must be the prodigal nephew I heard so much about. The Great Chicago Lawyer, capital G.C.L., according to Amy. And you've inherited her property and have come to kick me off, have you? Melodrama! Successful lawyer heir displaces hard-working girl, etcetera, etcetera! Well, just try it!" Courtney tossed her head, chin up, light fronds of her blond hair forming a halo around her head. "I've got a contract, you know!"

"Have you now?" That light, laughing-at-her tone was back in his voice. "And did Amy also tell you that I'm really an ogre in disguise, or have you figured that part out for yourself?" His eyes smoldered and a muscle twitched alongside his square jaw. "I’d guess that being rude is hardly part of your normal personality. Or is it?"

How she hated condescension...but did he really own the property? Careful, Courtney, she told herself. You can't afford to get off on the wrong foot with Mr. Big.

She dropped her gaze but quickly looked up again as that unwelcome warmth surged through her body at the sight of his well-proportioned physique. What in the world was wrong with her, that she would react so physically to a complete stranger, and be rude as well?

"I am sorry. Shall we start again?" She held out her right hand to shake his, still clutching the towel with her left. "Thanks for the shirt, and the concern. You startled me, and I guess I put up my defenses. I'm Courtney James, and I'm buying the building and the cottage from Amy Lane. I'm not used to anyone coming here."

The man's brows nearly met as he stepped toward her, frowning. “You’re buying what?”

She involuntarily moved back at his scowl. Was he deaf? "The store and the cottage, I said." She pointed toward the wooden building that stood on the waterfront a half-block down the shore and the small, pine-green cottage above and behind it. "You didn't know?"

His grey eyes narrowed. "I most certainly did not. I've handled Amy's affairs for years and she never mentioned anything about any such contract. I presume you have some documents to prove your claim?"

"Claim!" Courtney gasped.

"You wouldn't be the first to take advantage of a senile old woman." His eyes were darker now, and not friendly.

"Senile!" Courtney parroted his word. "Amy was no more senile than you are!" she sputtered. "And she was certainly a darn sight nicer!" Then, remembering long, cozy talks in front of Amy's crackling fire, Courtney choked up. "We were good friends, and since she died it's been desolate here..." Courtney caught her breath and almost whispered, "I miss her dreadfully."

He softened visibly, and his cold, businesslike voice warmed. "I'm sorry. I do, too. She was both my mother and my father for most of my life." He picked up his shirt that Courtney had dropped on the sand, shook it out, and pulled it over his head. He still didn’t smile, but he seemed more human and less like a marble Greek god. Courtney felt her shoulders relax a little.

He spoke as he straightened his collar. "Sorry if I offended you, but this comes as a complete surprise. I had plans to use the building as a fishing tackle and ski rental. In fact, I'm here to talk with the man I’ve lined up to run it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since Tom died. Amy and I talked about it often."

"But—but that's what I'm doing! I'm opening next week along with the Cherry Festival!" Her puzzled eyes searched his. "Why would she have agreed, if you—? In fact, she suggested the idea to me!"

"I can't answer that. But at least I know you aren't a trespasser. That's something.” He smiled, finally, changing his whole appearance to handsomely appealing as he asked, "Am I forgiven?"

Courtney smiled back, reluctantly. "Of course. Now I’d better get back to work." She paused. "Can we be friends?” He stared into her eyes for a long, disturbing moment before he grinned. "Friends," he said, nodding. "I don't see why not."

But as he followed her shapely body up the rugged pine-shadowed rugged path toward their twin cottages, she heard him add softly, "For now."


Friends, thought Courtney, as she unpacked the last carton of brilliant red and white Daredevil lures. “For now?” What did he mean by that? Maybe he was planning to see that her agreement with Amy Lane didn't hold?

Friends. Those that she had were miles away, she thought as she gathered empty packing cases and swept up elusive Styrofoam popcorns. Sister Bay people were welcoming, but she simply hadn't made much effort to meet them, being so busy first planning, then working to get her store in order. She had to be ready for the official Grand Opening of Courtney’s Sports, her first independent venture into the business world. She hoped for an onslaught of tourists for Cherry Blossom Time. The annual festival celebrating the Door County’s cheerfully blooming cherry orchards would determine the success or failure of her business.

Courtney wasn't going to think failure. She winced, slowly rotated her sore shoulders and lifted her heavy hair away from the moist warmth of her neck. Sweltering in May's unseasonable heat, Courtney had spent all yesterday and the cooler hours of this morning ripping open boxes, deciding on displays, shelving and pricing equipment purchased with most of Ronnie's insurance money. The rest had gone for a down payment on the shoreline cottage and store. And now what? What if she lost it all to the great G.C.L.? What then?

Her face flushed as she thought of the scene on the shore. What was Link Spencer like, really? Attractive, certainly. Way too sure of himself. Successful, too, according to Amy, who'd doted on him and his burgeoning practice. Courtney shook her head. Why would a Chicago lawyer want to own a fishing tackle shop? And if Amy knew he was even thinking about it, why, oh why had she encouraged Courtney to go into the store?

Courtney tried to recall more about Lincoln Spencer from Amy's conversations. Why hadn't he married? Something about being too wrapped up in law and his political aspirations to have much time left over for women. Courtney hadn't really listened; her loss of Ronnie had been too raw for her to force an interest in any man.

She stubbed the broom into the corner behind an open carton of puffy orange life jackets. "There!" she said aloud, "and I quit. That's enough for today." Thumbs hooked into the pockets of her slim denim jeans, she surveyed the showroom. Not big, but shelved efficiently and stocked well enough for any ordinary fisherman. After all, they weren't going to be angling for barracuda or swordfish here. Her customers would be just the ordinary tourist after that elusive "bigger-than-usual-anything-that-would-bite," was the way Amy had put it.

"Stock what families need to take their kids on the water, first of all," she'd advised. "That's what my Tom did when he ran the tackle store. It was a success, too." She'd smiled, remembering, a soft look of past happiness on her lined face. Tom Lane had been Amy's beloved husband for over fifty years. "Don't think I don't know how lonely you're feeling." She had patted Courtney's arm. "I thought my life had ended when Tom was gone." Her faded eyes misted. "But it didn't, and yours won't either. So put that store together. Busy yourself with it and make it go. Heaven knows we've needed one on this end of town ever since Tom died, and I think you've got the spunk to make it work."

Spunk. That was a better attribute than rudeness. Courtney made a face, remembering Lincoln Spencer's remark. If she wasn't careful she'd be out on her ear, lock, stock and the proverbial barrel.

"And that wouldn't be funny," she said aloud, then smiled. Being alone so much she’d begun talking to herself. “It’s a good thing Lisbet’s coming for the summer,” she continued, “and bringing Andy. He can use some sunshine and good times.” The last few rough years had ended in her sister Lisbet's rotten divorce.

I wonder if there's any other kind, thought Courtney, reliving the bitter custody fight over seven-year-old Andy. The sympathetic judge had finally awarded the boy to his mother, but psychological damage had taken their toll and Andy, asthmatic and physically slight, had succumbed to a number of ailments over the past winter. It will be good for him to spend time outdoors, thought Courtney, and to get him away from Lisbet's hovering for even a few hours a day.

The rasp of a cleared throat startled Courtney from her thoughts.

"Sorry. I've been standing here for five minutes, and your woolgathering was so intense you didn't hear me. I do seem to surprise you more than I intend." Lincoln Spencer's tall frame at the open door was now clad in white tailored shorts and a navy shirt, open at the throat, a combination casually enhancing his dark good looks. "May I come in?"

Courtney collected her thoughts. And her manners. "Certainly. The store is open, just not officially as yet. That happens next week."

He looked around the packed shelves. "Nice looking layout. Attractive. Looks a little more organized than my Uncle Tom's was, as I remember. Could use a bit more clothing; there’s room for a couple of racks.”

Courtney bristled at his advice but said nothing. She hoped to add sports attire when she could swing the cost.

He continued, walking around the store. “What are you going to do to catch the hotel trade? Those places are pretty much at the other end of the Bay."

Darn! Why did he have to hit on the one thing that bothered her about her location? "True. But there are quite a few cottages nearby where families stay. And I'll advertise. I've got posters all over the guest houses. Word of mouth should help."

"Yes. Well, we certainly want to make a go of this, don't we?"

"We!" Courtney's eyes widened. "What do you mean, 'we'?"

That infuriating look was back in his grey eyes, along with the light tone of voice. "Didn't you read your contract? I've been going over the one Amy left in her desk. It seems I own a half interest in Courtney's Sports until you've satisfied the complete down payment."

"Oh!" Courtney stepped backwards, her mouth open, her thoughts swirling. Of course. She'd needed working capital, and what she'd been able to give Amy from Ronnie's insurance money hadn't been enough for the required down payment. She was to fulfill the whole amount with part of her monthly profits. It hadn't occurred to Courtney that the same arrangement would transfer to the heir of the property. Lincoln Spencer, to be exact. The G.L.C.

She felt a flush of embarrassment. "I didn't realize—"

He chuckled as he picked up a rod and reel and looked it over, testing the drag. "Most women wouldn’t.”

Her chin came up. "Most women wouldn’t what?"

"Realize much about legalities. Didn't you know what you signed?"

"Of course I did!" she snapped, thrusting out her chin. "I just didn't expect Amy to die and turn me over to the likes of you!" Something—anger? sorrow?—flickered in his eyes. She took a deep breath. "Well, then. I'll just have to buy you out, and that will solve both our problems, won't it?" Her mind raced and even as she spoke she felt her stomach crawl. Where could she get the money? She'd put every spare cent she had into stocking the store.

"Oh, no," he said, strolling down an aisle while he surveyed the showroom more thoroughly. He tested the sharpness of a filleting knife blade against his thumb. "I don't want to sell. You're doing what I wanted to do with the building—though I probably would have done it differently."

She just bet he would. Biting her lip, she held back a retort and restrained herself from trying to physically throw him out of the building.

She watched as he ran his finger along the edge of a counter holding sinkers and swivels. "I think I like owning part of Courtney's Sports. And that gives me the right to pop in now and then, doesn't it?" He smiled cheerfully at her.

If he thought he would get a pleasant reaction to that, he was going to be disappointed. "Well, you can just pop out. I don't need any advice on how to run my business, thank you. Now, I've got a lot of work to do, and standing around here talking isn't getting it done." Courtney abruptly turned her back to him, walked into the stockroom and slammed the door behind her.

Leaning against the rough wooden doorframe, she held back tears. What an inexperienced fool I am, she thought, and how stupid I must look to Amy's Great Chicago Lawyer.

Humiliation—and frustration—twice in one day from the same impossible man. She balled her hands into fists, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally counting to fifteen. Ten wasn't enough.

Surely he wouldn't stay long at Amy’s other cottage only yards from hers, poking his well-shaped nose into her business and probably telling her how to run it. Surely, she hoped with all her heart, a successful city lawyer like Mr. Lincoln Spencer would have too many cases and be too involved in city life to spend much time around a sleepy little town like Sister Bay.


THREE

Courtney busied herself counting packets of fishhooks in the stock room until she was sure Lincoln had left, then opened the door cautiously and peered through the crack. No one in sight.

Relieved, she picked up an opened carton of round red and white plastic bobbers, kicked open the door into the display area and nearly dropped the whole rattling gross of floats when a peevish high-pitched voice complained, "Well, finally! I thought nobody was here! Someone could steal you blind, you know? That is, if anybody wanted this stuff."

Courtney whirled around to face a petite bleached blond wearing unbelievably short white shorts and a skimpy blue star-patterned bandanna over ample breasts. She carried the ultimate in a matching flowered sun hat. Her short figure was picture perfect but at the same time voluptuous. Her attitude toward Courtney was that of addressing a servant—and a most unimportant one, at that.

Swallowing instant dislike, Courtney waited just a moment before answering. If this is an example of the summer clientele I’m going to have, I'd better learn to be pleasant. But it won’t be easy. She forced a smile. "Sorry, I was in the stockroom. May I help you with something?"

The blond's heavily-shadowed, mascara-darkened blue eyes widened into black-fringed circles above brilliant red lips. "Good heavens, no!" she said, shaking back her short curly mane. "I'm no fisherperson, for God's sake. I just need directions. I'm looking for Lincoln Spencer, and at the hotel they said he was somewhere around here. I don't suppose you'd know where, would you?"

Her manner implied that Courtney wasn't nearly sophisticated enough to be acquainted with any such person. The twinkle that came to Courtney's eyes as she wondered what the oh-so-condescending blond would think about the bare realities of Courtney's shore meeting with the imposing Mr. Spencer was hidden as she bent down to place the box of bobbers on the pine-planked floor.

"Oh, you mean Link?" she said, feigning innocence. "Of course, I surely do know him—he was here just a minute ago, but as I didn't have time to chat, he left. You'll probably find him at the brown cottage up the hill." Courtney pointed toward the wooded path that skirted the store and ran up the incline between the two cabins. "Or down at the water. Is he expecting you?"

The blond raised her carefully plucked and darkened eyebrows. "Well, he'd better be!" she said. She turned on her sandaled high heels and strutted out the door, tossing back over her shoulder, "He'd just better be!"

Courtney watched the flash of white legs as the blond hurried toward the shady, pine-needled path toward Amy's second cottage, her stiletto heels sinking into the sandy ground with every step. "She could have said 'thanks' or 'go to hell' or something," Courtney muttered. And then came the familiar wretch of loneliness. Even though the blond didn't seem the type Courtney would have thought appealing to Lincoln Spencer, at least he wouldn't spend the next few hours—or more, who knew?—alone, as Courtney would. “Oh, Ronnie,” she breathed. “Will this ever get easier?”

"You're making a mistake, Court," Logan Andrews, her boss at Ladd’s Milwaukee department store had declared. "Door County's great—in the summer. Like a little piece of New England transplanted here in the Midwest, with all its harbors and sailboats and crazy tourists. But what about after the season? What about your interest in theater? The cultural aspects you've enjoyed here? With me? Besides—" he had fingered his elegant gold watch fob as he grinned engagingly and gave her one of his flirtatious winks. "I'll miss you."

Courtney smiled, remembering her answer. "You'll survive, I'm sure."

She returned to her tasks and finished hanging large, colorful lures on the pegboard wall behind one showcase, where their brilliant enameled hues brightened the whole area. She didn't yet know what most of them were supposed to catch, but a few more nights of study would help. There wasn’t much else to do in the evenings anyway.

Courtney leaned against the side of the open door and looked up at the darkening western sky. Only a ribbon of brilliant orange marked day’s end across the bay's quiet water, where one small sailboat moving quietly toward shore was a dark triangle against the colorful backdrop. Children's shouts echoed up the shore as lights began to glow, one by one, in the cooling evening air.

This was the time of day that Courtney dreaded most, when husbands came home to their families and everyone settled in for the evening. It was the part of day that she most wished she and Ronnie had had a child.

"Not yet, Courtney. There's time." Ronnie kept putting her off, not ready to stop being the child himself. Then, suddenly, in a screech of rubber and flash of fire, it was too late.

"Quit feeling sorry for yourself," Courtney said aloud. She closed the store door with a snap and walked slowly up the hill to where the path branched, then stopped to look once more across the bay. The orange light had faded now; only a dusky mauve spread above the water. The little sailboat had gone home. She sighed unconsciously and turned left toward her empty cottage.

Tomorrow Lisbet and Andy would arrive and they would make all the difference—she was alone too much. And what had she to complain about? She had a fireplace laid ready to light, enough vodka for a tangy gimlet, and the latest John Grishom novel to read. She'd be just fine.

But she couldn't help noticing the warm patch of light and soft music that filtered through the pines from Amy's cottage, and she couldn't help wondering whether the arrogant little blond was snuggled in front of Lincoln's fire...or in his arms.


"Auntie Court!" The small, pale boy flung himself toward her almost before Lisbet's red Volkswagen came to a complete stop in Courtney's pine-lined gravel drive.

"Andrew John Grant!" Lisbet squealed, killing the motor. "For heaven's sake, you'll get yourself killed!" She tumbled out and rushed to Courtney, encircling her with plump arms. "Hello, Lovely! You're even prettier than ever. Door County must be good for you!"

Courtney held Lisbet off at arms' length for a second before pulling her close for a warm hug. "Little Sister. It's so wonderful to have you here! How have you been?"

"Making it okay." Lisbet smiled, but Courtney noticed the smile didn't reach her eyes. And it looked as though Lisbet had been overeating again as she'd always done when things got rough. She definitely had added at least fifteen, maybe twenty, extra pounds.

"It hasn't been easy," Lisbet said. "But," she tilted her softly-frizzed brown head at Andy, who was gripping Courtney in a breath-stopping hug around the waist. "We'll talk later, after you-know-who is in bed."

"You-know-who's not sleepy!” declared Andy. "I want to go water skiing."

"Water skiing! You can't!” Lisbet declared. "He's too small, isn't he, Courtney? I told him you'd say he was too small."

"Oh, you did, did you?" Courtney laughed. "Don't you put me on the spot, Liss." She looked down at Andy. "We'll talk about that later, too, okay, Champo?"

Andy made a face and then grinned as he hopped around her and pulled on her hand. "Later, later. Let's go. Where's the water? I want to see your boats!"

With Andy running ahead, Courtney and Lisbet walked the half-block down the path from the cottage to the weathered store building that sat thirty feet from the softly lapping water.

"Do you have boats?" asked Lisbet. "I don't know what you do or don't have. All I know is that Courtney's Sports is going to open next week and set this place on its ear."

Courtney laughed, hugging Lisbet around the waist as they walked. "Don't I wish. Oh, Liss, I'm so glad you've come. Half the fun of work or play is sharing and I've been alone practically ever since I got here."

"I know your landlady died. Did that affect your buying the property?"

Courtney made a face. "I'm not without a landlord, it seems." They made the last turn in the path and were nearly at the corner of the store when Courtney stopped walking. "And 'lord' is the operative word. He's Amy's nephew, a big-shot lawyer from Chicago, who inherited all her worldly goods—and part of that goods is a half interest in Courtney's Sports until I pay off the down payment." Courtney frowned. "I offered to buy him out, but he said no. What I'd have used, I don't know, but I certainly don't need or want him giving advice. I hope he leaves soon. Surely he won't stick around a little place like Sister Bay for long. Anyway," Courtney continued walking, "he's handsome as sin and overbearing as—as—"

"A teddy bear?" Lincoln Spencer stepped around the corner of the store. He smiled, his teeth white against his already tanning face. "Hello!" he said. "I couldn't help overhearing. I liked the 'handsome' part," he grinned, a most attractive man at his pleasant best, "but I thought it better to make my presence known before you finished saying the rest."

Courtney let out an exasperated sigh. Why did he always turn up at the most awkward moments? At the same time, she noticed that his trim-fitting sports shirt and matching blue shorts accentuated his well-built physique, and in spite of herself couldn't help agreeing with her own “handsome as sin” assessment.

"See what I mean? Lisbet, this is Mr. Lincoln Spencer. My sister, Lisbet Grant. And that young blond whirlwind that probably passed you on his way to the pier is her son Andy."

Lincoln inclined his dark head as he smiled at Lisbet, as though meeting her was an honor he hadn't expected. "Welcome to Door County, Lisbet. Will you be staying long?"

"Most of the summer, I hope. That is, if Courtney will put up with us. We've rented our own cottage up the way." Without taking her eyes off his face, Lisbet waved a plumpish arm in the direction of Sister Bay’s main street.

Watching the interchange, Courtney nearly gritted her teeth. All his kind has to do, she thought, is smile and women fall at their feet. Lisbet's unfaithful husband already hurt her enough. She doesn't need anybody new using her to bolster his male ego.

"Was there something you wanted, Mr. Spencer?" Courtney asked, pointedly stepping around him to continue toward the store.

"It's Link, please. Just a little company, is all."

"I would have thought you had more than enough," Courtney blurted in spite of herself, remembering the skimpily-clad blond's haste to his cottage the day before.

He looked puzzled, then threw back his head and chuckled. "Oho, you must have met Miss Georgie Burns. Ah, yes." He grinned at Lisbet, tilting his dark head toward Courtney. "Miss Iceberg here won't be friends. Suppose you could put in a good word for a lonely lawyer on sabbatical?"

"Sabbatical!" Courtney's eyes widened.

"That sounds like more than a vacation," said Lisbet. "How long are you staying?"

Please, not long, thought Courtney, clenching her jaw. Go back where you belong.

"Only a few days right now, but I'll be back." Lincoln put his hands in his shorts pockets. "I deserve some time off, and things could be pretty interesting around here. And—" he rolled his eyes sideways at Courtney, "don't I have to keep an eye on my half of the business?"

Courtney brushed past him. "Please excuse us. I do have work to do, you know." At the door she inserted her key, furiously rattling the knob to open the stubborn old lock. Lincoln Spencer annoyed her so much she could hardly stand it, and yet—she glanced back at his dark head bent over Lisbet's lighter one—yet he was the first man she’d met since Ronnie's death that made her breath come faster.

I'm not ready for that, she told herself, slamming open the door. I won't be. And he's not going to hurt Lisbet, either. I'll see to that.


 

FOUR


"Well, you certainly weren't very polite." Lisbet looked back over her shoulder as Lincoln strolled toward the water. She followed Courtney into the store. "Couldn't you be friends? Is he an ogre in a handsome prince disguise? A frog in drag? Come on, Court. Does he deserve that kind of treatment? If he does, I want to know why."

"Oh, Liss." Courtney made a face. "I guess he really doesn't. It's just that every time I've seen him so far he's put me in such an awkward position." She didn't mention the incident on the beach. "And he's so damn sure of himself." Courtney broke off, waving her arm to include the whole display floor. "Well, here we are, Courtney's Sports. What do you think?"

Lisbet's eyes, duplicates of Courtney's but darker blue, widened as she turned to get the benefit of the showroom merchandise, from fishing tackle to water ski equipment. "Wow! I'm impressed! It's beautiful. But how did you know what to stock?" She fingered a display of colorful boat cushions. "All this fishing stuff? We never fished when we were kids."

Courtney grinned. "You're absolutely right. I didn't know a thing, but I read a lot—wait until you see the assortment of books I've got up at the cottage—and Amy was a great help. We ordered most of this before she died. Her husband had been in the business, and she'd helped him run it." Courtney's eyes clouded. "I wish you could have met her, Liss. She was just the kind of person we'd have wished our mother to be."

"Really? Then I'm sorry, too. I can't even imagine having a real mother—except you. I was so young when ours died and you were always right there for me.” Lisbet sighed. “I’ve learned since I've had Andy how tough it must have been for you, having to raise me when you were hardly more than a kid yourself. Don't think I don't know the sacrifices you made to make my life better." She frowned. “Sometimes..." she broke off, shrugging.

"Sometimes, what?"

"Oh, I guess I just wish I knew more. About mothering. It's sure no snap. I never know whether I'm doing the 'right thing' for Andy. I guess, no, I know, I hover over him too much, but—" she hurried to the store's large, many-paned front window, breathing a sigh of relief when she spotted Andy on the dock with Lincoln. "He's all I've got. If anything happened to him...”

"It won't. Don't look for negatives, Liss. We're going to have a good time this summer, and Andy will, too." Courtney put her arm around Lisbet’s shoulder and they watched through the window as Andy and Lincoln walked to the end of the dock, Andy pulling on Spencer's arm and pointing down into the clear water.

Courtney snorted. "Listen to me. It's easy to give advice from an aunt's point of view. Now, what I don't know is what to do about my landlord there. Bet you anything he'll try to tell me how to run my store. And it is mine even if it's not all paid for yet." She paused, frowning. "What I don't understand is, if he always wanted to have the fishing business, like he says, why didn't he? Why am I so lucky to be saddled now with somebody who has preconceived ideas about what should or shouldn't happen here?" She studied the tall, assured figure on the dock. "I'll tell you, Liss, I'm glad he's going back to Chicago, even if it's only for a while. I don't know what to think about him. Or even how to act around him, I guess."

"You don't know what to think! Well, I can tell you what I think. I think he's about the best example of a man I've seen in a long time!" Lisbet raised her eyebrows and grinned. "Sexy, too. And I can tell by the way he looks at you that he could be interested. Why not be nice? You could do a lot worse than that hunk of masculine poetry."

"Thanks," Courtney said with a grimace. "But you can have him."

Lisbet turned her rounded face to Courtney's. A series of speculating expressions chased each other across her features. Then she pursed her lips, put both her hands on her ample hips and grinned again. "Well, it's a little soon to tell, but I just might take you up on that, sister Courtney. I just might give Mr. Lincoln Spencer a go."

The screen door burst open and Andy charged into the store, his light blond hair askew. "Auntie Court!" He threw himself at her, nearly knocking her off her feet.

"Whoa, Champo! What's the hurry?"

"Mr. Link—” Andy turned to his mother, “—that's what he says I can call him, Mom, so don't say I can't. Mr. Link says there's fish right under that dock, and that right now is the time to catch them!"

"Oh, he does, does he?" Lisbet smiled.

"Yes! And he says Auntie Court’s got all the stuff in here to do it!" Andy hopped from one foot to the other, his blue eyes widening as he looked around the room. "I sure do guess he's right. Can I? Can I, okay?"

"You might get hurt, Andy, get yourself hooked. You don't know how," Lisbet protested, putting a restraining hand on his frail arm. "I think you should wait.”

"Oh, Mom." Andy sighed, turning to Courtney. "Please, Auntie Court? All I need, Link—Mr. Link—says—"

Courtney looked toward the man on her dock, his legs widespread as they had been when he stood over her on the beach, one arm shading his eyes as he watched a small sailboat bob across the bay. With different clothes, in a different setting, he could have passed for a Viking explorer searching the horizon for land.

"Aren't you listening, Auntie Court? A pole and some string, and a hook, and some bait. He says you've got worms, too, have you?" Andy pulled Courtney's hand. "Please, don't listen to my Mom, she can't fish."

Courtney laughed and gave his thin shoulders a hug. "Well, let's see if you can. Here." She pulled a short cane pole down from a display. "This one is all fixed up for somebody just your size. The worms are in that box outside the door, and your Mr. Link can just go ahead and bait your hook for you, since it's his idea. Okay?"

"Okay! He will! I know he'll show me how to do it myself, too, he said he would! Thanks, Auntie Court!" Andy dashed out the door, scrabbled for a worm from the box on the wide porch and covered the thirty feet between the store and the shore in seconds.

"Oh, one more thing!” Courtney called from the door to the running figure as he reached the dock, "Mr. Link can clean them for you, too, if you catch any. If he knows how."

Andy stopped short, looking up at Lincoln. "Do you know how?"

"I believe we can manage," he said, turning to walk toward the end of the dock.

In the store, Lisbet studied Courtney curiously. "How to make friends and influence landlords?"

"Sorry." Courtney shrugged. "He's just so damn assured. Come on. Let's go up and think about supper. I'll bet you're hungry after your drive. We'll have a drink, and I've got some fresh perch and homemade potato salad for later, okay?"

"Great." Lisbet followed her out the door, shading her eyes from the afternoon sun. She called to the pair on the dock, "We're going up to the cottage, Mr. Spencer—Link. If you're not busy, will you keep an eye on Andy until he's done fishing?"

"Will you, Mr. Link? Okay?" Andy asked, his small voice anxious. "Else she'll make me go with her now and I want to fish!"

Grinning, Lincoln looked down at the frail boy. "Sure, Mom," he called back, smiling at Lisbet's concern as he tousled Andy's hair. "Don't worry about a thing. Us guys are going to catch a few of these fish before the sun goes down."


Later, after Lisbet and Andy's things had been moved into their log cabin a block up the graveled road from Courtney's, and Andy had been put to bed under protest after watching Link clean the two small sunfish they'd hooked, Courtney and Lisbet curled up on the maple-armed chintz-covered couch in Lisbet's main room and toasted each other with a glass of cherry wine.

"Cherry?" Lisbet had asked. "That's different."

"What else, for your introduction to Wisconsin's Cherryland?" Courtney smiled, lifting her glass to touch the rim of Lisbet's. "To your future!"

"And yours!" Lisbet answered, smiling back. "Here we are, on our own again. Seems a long time since we've both been in this position, doesn't it?" She stared into her glass, swirling the clear ruby liquid to catch reflections from the small fire Courtney had set to take away the early evening chill. The silence grew heavy with their separate thoughts until Lisbet said, "What do you think our futures hold?"

Courtney listened to the night sounds of Door County, the wind sighing through tall white pines, the soft lapping of bay water down at the shore. Insects creaked a slow, early summer song. She stared at the flickering fire. "Who knows? Whatever it is, I'm going out to meet it.” She put up her chin. “Ready or not."

Lisbet nodded. "That sounds just like you, always knowing what you want and how to go about getting it." She bit her lip and shifted her weight to tuck her legs under her. "Then there's me. I wish I could be so confident. I was so sure I wanted Richard, and so sure he wanted me. Nobody—not even you, Courtney—could tell me anything. And when they tried, I just went ahead and got pregnant so he'd have to marry me. What a mistake that was!"

Courtney leaned forward to touch Lisbet’s arm. "But Andy's no mistake, Liss. He's a real positive. Your statement on belief in the future, I guess." She got up, rolled a log over in the fireplace and watched as sparks darted up the chimney. "I've often wished Ronnie and I had children."

"I always wondered why you didn't. You were married for more than three years."

"It's simple. Ronnie didn't want them.” Courtney shrugged, putting the poker back on its stand. "All he wanted was fun and excitement, not being tied to anything except me. I was a kind of trophy, I think now. Something he could wear on his arm. 'Look, see my pretty wife watch me race!' or something like that. He was more my child than my husband in some ways, but God, how I miss him still!" Courtney reached for the white-jacketed bottle of Von Stiehl wine and filled both their glasses to the brim again. "Well, enough of that. Ronnie's gone, and I'm here and I'm moving on. At least I think so." She smiled. “I'll know more about that after this first summer in the store, won't I? It has to be a success, if for no other reason than to get my lordly landlord paid off! And what about you?"

"Good question. Richard will support me, he says, until Andy's eighteen, or I remarry.” Lisbet frowned. “Will I ever find another love? I'm taking Richard at his word, though I can't imagine why. Most of the words he told me over the years weren't true. After that, who knows?"

Courtney leaned forward. "For heaven's sake, Liss, Andy won't be eighteen for eleven years! Are you going to stay tied to Richard's purse strings for that long? Aren't you planning anything for yourself? School, or a job?"

"Oh, I don't know!” Lisbet nearly wailed. “This past couple of years has really thrown me for a loop. Everything I thought I wanted for myself, even for the three of us—a nice house, two cars in the garage—it all seems so superficial now. Was it?" She shook her head. "Even though Richard and I were separated on and off for three years, I just didn't seem to make any headway in planning. It was mostly anger against his infidelities, and survival. I had Andy to take care of, and I didn't want to put him in day care. Maybe now this year when he'll be in school full time...oh, I just don't know!"

"You sound like a high school senior trying to decide whether there's life after the prom," commented Courtney. "Haven't we had this conversation before? More than once?"

Lisbet made a sucking noise. "You're right. I am going to stop feeling sorry for myself right now! This minute! Back to basics, where do we go from here, not where have we been and how was it. Right?" She waved her glass at Courtney, who laughed.

“Right. First things first. And that means, for me, some sleep. Bright and early tomorrow I have to get my three boat motors—this is not a big operation—in running order to be ready for the onslaught of customers I hope for Cherry Week and over the Memorial Day weekend celebration. That's the real beginning of tourist season here, I'm told. If the weather cooperates."

"That's only a couple of days away! Oh, Court, I meant to tell you but it slipped my mind until right now. Maybe you won't be thrilled—" Lisbet broke off, frowning.

"What?" Courtney raised her eyebrows.

"Well," Lisbet watched for Courtney’s reaction. "I ran into Jerry the other day."

"Jerry! Jerry Mitchell?"

"The very one. He wants to see you, Courtney. He's coming up to stay through the weekend."

"Here? With you?"

"No, Silly. Somewhere up the road, nearer the center of town. In a condo, I think he said. He just wants to see you, check up on 'how you are,' he said. But there’s more to it than that, I think. You know Jerry’s always been crazy about you."

Courtney made a face. "That's all I need, another macho man around telling me what I ought to do. He'll probably do just that, you know, under the guise of 'what's best' for me."

"You can handle that. Tell him—oh, hell, Court, let him squire you around a little. That wouldn't be so bad, would it? He's just an old friend that cares how you are.”

“An old friend,” thought Courtney, staring into the fire that changed with lightning swiftness in her mind to the real horror of that last day at the Indiana track when Ronnie's racer careened into another, two-wheeled across the track and into the barrier, rolled and burst into flames. She shut her eyes against the pain of remembering.

Jerry, standing beside her at the fence, turned her face to his muscled shoulder so she wouldn't see the medics pull Ronnie's flaming body from the wreck. Jerry had stayed with her through the nightmare hours at the hospital and helped her make arrangements for the funeral. He had done everything he could to get her through those horrible days even though she knew he mourned almost as deeply as she did.

"I can handle things, Jerry, really I can,” she’d said. “You don't have to do everything for me. Take a break. Get away."

He'd looked at her but his eyes were seeing his best friend. "You've got to let me help, Courtney. He was my life, too. You know that."

Yes, she had. From the time he and Ronnie had come together as amateur racers they had been a close as—maybe closer than—brothers. And Jerry always had the money to subsidize the racing cars, pay the entry fees for Ronnie as well as himself. She didn't blame him for Ronnie's death, that wouldn't be fair. But Jerry Mitchell was, would always be, a reminder...

"Court? Lisbet's voice brought Courtney back. "Hello? Earth to Courtney!" She reached out to touch Courtney's arm. "Are you in there?"

Courtney shook her head. "Sorry. Back in time, I guess. A time I'd just as soon not go back to." She got up, walked to the window and stared out toward the star-sparkled black night over the bay. "Tell Jerry not to come, Liss. Not now, anyway. Not yet."

Lisbet put down her glass and made a face. "I'm sorry, Court, but it's too late, I'm afraid. He's already here."




CHAPTER FIVE

Later, back in her own cottage, Courtney lay wide awake. The soft night sounds that usually soothed her to sleep seemed too loud, the sighing pines too mournful, too lonely. Sheer window curtains moved quietly as moonlight sifted through the whispering trees. She turned her face to the wall, picturing Jerry, his flyaway light hair, his slightly misshapen nose from a racing crash. His sturdy body, hardly an inch taller than her own, always seemed a little out of place in sleek racing clothes. His stature never hampered his ability to please the crowd, though; the sidelines were always filled with shrieking young girls when Jerry raced. Of course he reveled in their admiration, though he never did more than kid around with them. "They're cute, sure," he'd commented to Courtney after one winning race when he'd been besieged for autographs. "But they're babies. I'd like 'em more than half my age, y'know?"

Courtney moved restlessly and plumped up her pillow. Why did he have to show up now, a living, breathing reminder of all the things she was trying so hard to forget? But she knew the answer. Jerry had always wanted to be more than a friend. She’d seen hints of that even while Ronnie was alive, though Jerry had cared too much for Ronnie to pursue those feelings. But there had always been a little extra touch when she handed him a drink, an especially warm hello or good-bye hug, and the knowledge that his eyes always followed her from across the room. Jerry had never been less than a perfect gentleman, as well as the solid leaning post she'd so badly needed during the terrible hospital days, and through and after Ronnie's funeral. Jerry had even been there to shared her sorrow when she scattered the pathetically small box of Ronnie's ashes to the winds on the hill high above his favorite track. It was only months later, on her last night in Milwaukee, that Jerry had left no doubt as to what his hopes were.

He'd taken her to Karl Ratzsch's elegant and famous German restaurant on that last night. She'd declined, at first.

"Thanks, but no, Jerry. It's too soon. I don't want to go out, especially not to any place as fancy as Ratzsch's. McDonalds, okay."

"Don't be silly. Who knows when I'll see you again?" Jerry had ignored her refusal and insisted. "You deserve a send-off, a fitting start for your new life and you're going to get it. I won't take 'no' for an answer."

And so they'd gone. Their quiet, candlelit table with a string quartet's soft music filling in their silences had been just right for a send-off, as Jerry had predicted. They talked of Ronnie, of good times together in the past. And of the future.

"You'll come down for the Indy Five Hundred again, won't you, Courtney? All the old crowd will be there. We'd all love to see you, especially me. You aren't going to be glued to Door County, are you?"

There was no hesitation in her answer. "No, to answer your first question, I won't come down to that race. Or any other. Never again. And yes, I'll be glued to Door County. Please understand, Jerry." Courtney leaned forward toward the candlelight that gleamed on the curling ends of her long, honey-blond hair. "I never want to stand at the sidelines again, watching people drive themselves into oblivion." She shivered involuntarily and rubbed her upper arms to warm them. "I don't ever again want to feel guilty for being glad when the driver in a crash isn't someone I love...this time. Besides," she smiled to take the edge off her words, "that race falls at the beginning of my tourist season, and in case you don't know, the golden rule for us storekeepers is 'be here when those tourists are!'"

"But I—damn it, Courtney! You can't just drop out of my life like this. It was bad enough losing Ronnie. Not you, too. You know I hoped—" Jerry stopped himself, took a drink of his deep red Burgundy, and, after a moment, grinned and resumed his usual offhand manner. "And anyway, after all we've been through together, how can you get along without me?"

She put her hand gently on his. "Jerry. Thank you for caring about me, and about our friendship. But you'll always be part of the racing scene, won't you? It's in your blood. And I want no part of that."

Jerry looked at her over his glass, his blue eyes as serious as his words. "Without Ronnie and you? I don't know." He shook his head, unsmiling now. "I could give it up, Courtney. If I had a reason."

She threw back her head and laughed. "Like you could give up breathing, no doubt. Whatever would you do?"

He scowled. "Go ahead, laugh. Believe it or not, I have a teaching degree. History. You didn't know that, did you? You thought I was just a racing playboy. I could teach. Tell those little buggers about the Alamo, or World War II, whatever. Or I could do nothing at all, if I chose."

"Ah, the advantages of the independently wealthy!" Courtney teased. "To work or not to work, no matter." Her thoughts flew to her own precarious financial situation. What would she do if Courtney's Sports flopped? Every cent she had was wrapped up in it. She sighed, and touched Jerry’s hand again, lightly. "But you don't have a reason to stop racing, Jerry. Don't be foolish. Live the life you love. I intend to." There was more bravado in her voice than she really felt. Making the jump to Sister Bay was what she wanted...wasn't it?

Their final goodbye that night was warmed by mellow German wine and shared nostalgia. At her door, Jerry held her tightly for a long moment. She'd hoped he wouldn't kiss her, and he didn't.

Instead he pushed her to arms' length and stared at her in the light from the porch lamp as if he would memorize every inch of her face. Then he said, "I know you feel you've got to go away now, Courtney. I understand that. But I'll be waiting for you. As long as you want."

Courtney had stepped back from the emotion in his voice as well as the implication. "Jerry, don't say things like that. We're—we're buddies!"

"Sure." He nodded and grinned his lopsided grin, taking the tension out of the moment as he stepped down the short flight of stairs to the sidewalk. "That we are." He had paused at the bottom and looked up before he said, his voice low, "Is that enough? For you?"

Enough?

Now, Courtney turned restlessly, attempting to pound her pillow into a more comfortable cushion, while Jerry’s parting question echoed in her mind.

Was being friends enough? From Jerry, yes. But she wanted more, surely, sometime. She was young, and her body was warm and capable of taking—and giving—love.

She gave up on her pillow, knowing that sleep wasn't about to come with so many memories tumbling over and over in her mind. Finally, she slid out of bed and pulled a short robe over her slim, nude body. A moonlight swim in the cold bay water would tire her, clear the cobwebs from her brain.

Slipping her feet into beach thongs, she closed the screen door quietly and walked the narrow, shaded path to the shore. The moon was so bright that although the sky was unclouded, the stars were scarcely visible.

Courtney kicked off her thongs and let her robe whisper to a tumbled heap on the pebbles. She reached up to secure her heavy hair on top of her head as she stepped into the cool, quiet water, a slim, silvery nymph wading slowly into moonlit ripples.


Up the hill behind her, a flicker of flame flared on Amy's porch as Lincoln Spencer lit his pipe. Courtney was the most attractive—no, he amended, beautiful—woman he had ever seen, and in his experience the most unattainable. There had to be a way to break through her resentment to the warm, exciting woman he was sure she was. And he wasn't going to give up until he found it.


At the same time Courtney was swimming her restlessness away, a meeting was in progress a short distance up the shore. In a paneled two-room fishing cabin thick with a smoky haze combined with the smell of good brandy, five men in their late 60's hunched over a scarred round oak table. The centerpiece was a pile of red and blue chips, the blue representing one hundred dollars each, the red fifty. One empty brandy bottle was on the floor; a second half-filled one stood on the table.

A large, wheezing man chewing on the stub of an expensive cigar, riffled his cards and threw another red chip on the pile. "Raise you, Ted." He coughed, a phlegmy gurgle behind his hand.

"Hmmmm." Ted Vogl studied his cards for a few seconds while he squinted and inhaled from a long, dark cigarette. "You're on, Adam." He carefully placed another red on the pot.

"Fold.” The dark, foreign-looking man at Vogl's left threw his cards face down. “God, Adam, do something about that cough. Sounds like you're dying!"

"Fold here, too,” said Hank McKee. “We're all dying, Jem. That's one of the reasons we're working together. So we can die in comfort." McKee's grin showed a gold incisor. He ran a stubby hand back over his bald head and scrubbed his ear with his palm as he looked toward his left. "Lucius?"

"I'll stay." Lucius Bray tossed a red chip onto the pile. "Show."


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