Sixth time in five weeks.
Not that he was counting.
Nick Harte put down the phone very deliberately, got to his feet, and went to stand at the living room window of the cottage.
Six rejections in a row.
A man could get a complex at this rate. Why was he doing this to himself, anyway?
He looked out into the wall of gray mist that shrouded the landscape. Summer had arrived, just barely, in Eclipse Bay, and with it the familiar pattern of cool, damp, fog-bound mornings and long, sunny afternoons. He knew the season well. Growing up he had spent every summer as well as school vacations and long weekends here. His parents and grandparents maintained permanent homes elsewhere and he and his son lived in Portland most of the time, but that did not change the fact that for three generations the Hartes had been a part of Eclipse Bay. The threads of their lives were woven into the fabric of this community.
Summers in Eclipse Bay meant that on the weekends the town swarmed with tourists who came to walk the breezy beach and browse the handful of shops and galleries. Summers meant the age-old ritual of teenagers cruising in their cars along Bayview Drive on Friday and Saturday nights.
Summers meant the summer people, outsiders who rented the weathered cottages along the bluffs for a few weeks or a month at a time. They shopped at Fulton’s and bought gas at the Eclipse Bay Gas & Go. A few of them would even venture into the Total Eclipse to buy a beer or play some pool. Their offspring would flirt with some of the local kids on warm nights near the pier, maybe get invited to a few parties. But no matter how familiar they became, they would remain forever summer people. Outsiders. No one in town would ever consider them to be real members of the community with roots here. Eclipse Bay had its own private rules. Around here you knew who belonged and who did not.
The Hartes, like the Madisons, belonged.
But as much at home as he was here, Nick thought, he had long ago given up spending entire summers in Eclipse Bay. Probably because his wife, Amelia, had never really liked the town. After her death nearly four years ago, he had never gotten back into the habit of spending a lot of time in Eclipse Bay.
Until this summer. Things were different this year.
“Hey, Dad, I’m ready for you to look at my pictures now.”
Nick turned to see his almost-six-going-on-thirty-year-old son standing in the doorway. With his lean build, dark hair, and serious dark-blue eyes, Carson was a miniature version of himself and all the other males in the Harte family. But Nick was well aware that it wasn’t just his physical appearance that marked him a true member of the clan. It was his precocious, frighteningly organized, agenda-driven nature. Carson’s ability to focus on an objective with the unwavering precision and intensity of a battlefield commander told you he was a Harte to his toes.
At the moment he had two clearly defined goals. The first was to get a dog. The second was to exhibit a picture in the upcoming Children’s Art Show scheduled to take place during the annual Eclipse Bay Summer Celebration festivities.
“I’m no art critic,” Nick warned.
“All you gotta do is tell me which one you think Miss Brightwell would like best.”
“Got news for you, kid. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I’m the last person on earth who knows what Miss Brightwell likes.”
Carson’s small face tightened with sudden alarm. “Was that her on the phone just now?”
“She turned you down again?”
“Geez, Dad, you gotta stop calling her up all the time and bothering her.” Carson thrust out his hands, exasperated. “You’re gonna ruin everything for me if you make her mad. She might not pick any of my pictures.”
“I don’t call her all the time.” Damn. Now he was on the defensive with his own son. “I’ve only called her half a dozen times since Lillian’s show.”
He had been so sure that things had clicked between himself and Octavia that evening. The proprietor of Bright Visions, an art gallery business with two stores, one in Portland and one here in Eclipse Bay, Octavia had staged a gala reception to display his sister’s work. The entire town had been invited and most of the locals had turned out for the show. The crowd had included everyone, from Virgil Nash, owner of Virgil’s Adult Books & Video Arcade, to the professors and instructors of nearby Chamberlain College. Several members of the staff at the Eclipse Bay Policy Studies Institute had also deigned to appear.
They had all crowded into Bright Visions to drink good champagne, nibble on expensive hors d’oeuvres, and pretend to be art connoisseurs for a night. Nick had walked into the crowded room, taken one look at Octavia, and immediately forgotten that he was there to view Lillian’s paintings.
The image he carried in his head of Octavia from that night was still crystal clear. She had worn a pale, fluttery dress that fell to her ankles and a pair of dainty, strappy little heels that had emphasized her elegantly arched feet. Her dark red hair had been brushed back behind her ears in a style that had framed her interesting, delicately molded features and mysterious sea-green eyes.
His first impression was that, although she was in this world, she was not completely anchored to it. There had been an ethereal, almost fey quality about her; perhaps she was a fairy queen visiting from some other, magical dimension where the rules were a little different.
He had stayed as close to her as possible that evening, aware of a visceral need to lure her to him and secure her by whatever means required. He did not want to allow her to float back to wherever it was she had come from.
The unfamiliar sense of possessiveness had made him want to bare his teeth and show some fang whenever another man had hovered too long in her vicinity. It was a completely over-the-top reaction, coming, as it did, after nearly four years of practicing what his sisters annoyingly described as commitment-free, serial monogamy. Okay, so he’d had a few discreet affairs. If anything that should have made him all the more immune.
The truth was, he had been stunned and bemused by his own reaction to Octavia. The only saving grace was that he had gotten the distinct impression that she was just as attracted to him as he was to her. Something in her big sea-colored eyes had registered her interest in him.
It had come as a shock at the end of the evening when she had politely turned down his invitation to dinner. He’d convinced himself that he’d heard regret in her voice, so he’d tried again a few days later when they were both back in Portland.
She had declined a second time with the explanation that she had to rush back to Eclipse Bay. It seemed the assistant she had left in charge of the gallery there, Noreen Perkins, had resigned without notice in order to run off with one of the artists whose work was exhibited in Bright Visions.
Octavia had returned to Portland on only one other occasion after that, and her stay had been extremely brief. He had asked her out for the third time, but she had told him that she was there to oversee a reception for one of the artists who showed in her gallery and had no time to socialize. The following morning she had flitted back to Eclipse Bay.
It had become obvious that she was not going to return to Portland any time soon. That had left him a limited number of options.
Two weeks ago he had made the decision to spend the summer in Eclipse Bay with Carson. But proximity was only making Octavia more inventive when it came to excuses for turning down dates.
The thing that should really concern him, he thought, was that he was working even harder to come up with reasons to call her one more time.
As far as he could tell, she did not have a complete aversion to men. She had been seen having dinner with Jeremy Seaton twice this past week.
Jeremy was the grandson of Edith Seaton, owner of an antiques shop located next door to Bright Visions Gallery. The Seatons had roots in the community that went back as far as those of the Hartes and the Madisons. Although Edith’s husband, Phil, had died several years ago, she continued to take an active role in local affairs. Her son and daughter had moved away, but Jeremy had recently returned to take a position as an analyst at the Eclipse Bay Policy Studies Institute. The social and political think tank was one of Eclipse Bay’s few claims to sophistication.
He knew Jeremy very well from the old days. They were the same age and they had been good friends at one time. But things had changed a couple of years ago. Women sometimes had that effect on a friendship.
He looked at Carson. “Miss Brightwell obviously doesn’t think highly of me, but it’s pretty clear that she likes you.”
“I know she likes me,” Carson said with exaggerated patience. “That’s because I bring her coffee and a muffin every morning when we go into town to get the mail. But she might change her mind if you make her mad.”
The sad fact was that Carson had made a lot more headway with Octavia than he had, Nick realized. His son adored the Fairy Queen of Eclipse Bay. For her part, she seemed to be very fond of Carson. The two of them had developed a relationship that somehow completely excluded him, Nick thought. It was frustrating.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s not the type to hold a grudge against you just because she doesn’t want to go out with me.”
He was pretty sure that was the truth. Octavia was a great mystery to him in many ways, but when it came to this aspect of her personality, he felt very sure of himself. She would never hold the sins of the father, whatever they might be, against the son.
Carson remained dubious. “Promise me you won’t ask her out again until after she chooses one of my pictures.”
“Okay, okay, I won’t call her again until she makes her selection.”
That was a safe promise. He figured it would be at least another three or four days before he could fortify himself to make a seventh phone call.
“Let’s see your pictures,” he said.
“They’re in the bedroom.” Carson whipped around and dashed off down the hall.
Nick followed him around the corner and into the downstairs room that his sister Lillian had turned into a temporary studio a few months earlier.
Three large squares of heavy drawing paper were arranged in a row on the hardwood floor. The pictures were all done in crayon, per the rules of the exhibition.
Nick went to stand looking down at the first picture. The scene showed a house with two stick figures standing very close together inside. The taller of the two figures had one arm extended protectively over the head of the smaller figure. A yellow sun shone brightly above the peaked roof. There was a green flower with several petals in the right-hand corner.
“That’s you and me,” Carson said proudly. He indicated the stick figures. “You’re the big one.”
Nick nodded. “Nice colors.” He moved on to the next drawing and pondered it for a moment. At first all he could make out was a vague oval shape done in gray crayon. There were several jagged lines around the outside of the oval. He was baffled until he noticed the two pointy projections on top. Dog ears.
“This is Winston, I take it?” he said.
“Yeah. I had a little trouble with his nose. Dog noses are hard.”
“Good job on the ears.”
Nick studied the third picture, a scene of five brown, elongated shapes thrusting out of a blue crayon circle. “The rocks in Dead Hand Cove?”
“Uh-huh.” Carson frowned. “Aunt Lillian said it would make a good picture, but I dunno. Kind of boring. I like the other two better. Which one do you think I should give to Miss Brightwell?”
“That’s a tough question. I like them all.”
“I could ask Aunt Lillian. She’s a real artist.”
“She and Gabe are stuck in Portland for a while because Gabe is tied up with Dad and Sullivan while they hammer out the plans for the merger. You’ll have to make the choice without her advice.”
Carson studied the two pictures with a troubled expression. “Huh.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Nick said smoothly. “Why don’t you take all three pictures with you tomorrow when we go into town? You can show them to Octavia when you take her the coffee and muffin. She can choose the one she likes best.”
“Okay.” Carson brightened immediately, clearly pleased by that suggestion. “I’ll bet she goes for Winston. She likes him.”
Not yet six and the kid was already displaying an intuitive understanding of the client, Nick thought. Carson was a natural for the business world. Unlike himself.
He had hated the corporate environment. His decision to leave Harte Investments, the company his grandfather, Sullivan, had founded and that his father, Hamilton, had taken over had not gone down well. Although his father had understood and supported him, his grandfather had been hurt and furious at the time. He had seen Nick’s refusal to follow in his footsteps as a betrayal of everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
He and Sullivan had managed a rapprochement eventually, thanks to the intervention of everyone else in the family. They were back on speaking terms at any rate. But deep down, Nick was not certain that Sullivan would ever entirely forgive him.
He did not really blame his grandfather. Sullivan had poured his blood and sweat into building Harte Investments. He had envisioned the firm descending through generation after generation of Hartes. The company had been a personal triumph for him, a phoenix rising from the ashes after the destruction of Harte-Madison, the commercial real estate development business he had founded with his former partner, Mitchell Madison, here in Eclipse Bay.
The collapse of the company decades earlier had ignited a feud between Sullivan and Mitchell that had thrived until recently. The bad blood between the Hartes and the Madi-sons was legendary in these parts. It had provided fodder for the gossips of Eclipse Bay for three generations.
But the first crack in the wall that had separated the two very different families had come last fall when Rafe Madison, the bad boy of the Madison family, had married Nick’s sister Hannah. Several more bricks had crumbled last month when his other sister, Lillian, had wed Gabe Madison.
But the earth-shattering news that Harte Investments and Gabe’s company, Madison Commercial, were in the process of merging had been the final blazing straw as far as the good people of Eclipse Bay were concerned. The newly formed corporation, after all, effectively re-created the company that had been ripped apart at the start of the feud. Life had seemingly come full circle.
“You may be right about the Winston picture,” Nick said. “But the house is pretty good, too. The green flower is a great touch.”
“Yeah, but there will be lots of houses and flowers in the art show. All the kids I know like to draw houses and flowers. Probably won’t be any other dogs, though. Hardly anyone can draw a dog, especially not one as good as Winston.”
“Winston is unique. I’ll give you that.”
Carson looked up at him with a considering expression. “I’ve been thinking, Dad.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t come with me when I take my pictures to Miss Brightwell tomorrow.”
Nick raised his brows. “You want me to wait in the car?”
Carson smiled, clearly relieved. “Good idea. That way she won’t even see you.”
“You’re really afraid I’m going to mess up your shot at getting a picture into the gallery show, aren’t you?”
“I just don’t want to take any chances.”
“Sorry, pal. I’ve got my own agenda here and I’m not about to waste a perfectly good opportunity to move ahead with it just because you’re worried she won’t hang your picture.”
So he didn’t have a lot of interest in the family business. He was still a Harte, Nick thought: He was just as goal-oriented and capable of focusing on an objective as anyone else in the clan.
“If you wait in the car,” Carson said ingratiatingly, “I promise I’ll tell Miss Brightwell that it would be okay to go out with you.”
One of the Harte family mottos in action, Nick thought, not without a degree of sincere admiration. When you find yourself backed into a corner, negotiate your way out of it.
“Let me get this straight.” He hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans and looked down at his son. “If I agree to stay out of the way tomorrow, you’ll put in a good word for me?”
“She likes me, Dad. I think she’d agree to go out with you if I asked her.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I may not have followed in the family footsteps like Dad and Granddad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to get what I want.”
And he definitely wanted Octavia Brightwell.
That, he thought, was the real reason he and Carson were in Eclipse Bay for an extended stay. He had come here to lay siege to the castle of the Fairy Queen.
“Well, okay, but promise you won’t wreck things for me.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Resigned, Carson turned back to the dog picture. “I think Winston needs more fur.”
He selected a crayon and went to work.
She was an out-and-out coward.
Octavia sat on the stool behind the gallery sales counter, the heels of her sandals hooked on the top rung, and propped her chin on her hands. She regarded the phone as if it were a serpent.
How could it hurt to go out with Nick Harte just once?
But she knew the answer to that. If she accepted one invitation, she would probably accept another. And then there would be a third. Maybe a fourth. Sooner or later she would end up in bed with him and that would be the biggest mistake of her life. Some thrill rides were just too risky.
They called him Hardhearted Harte back in Portland. Nick had a reputation for confining his relationships to discreet, short-term affairs that ended whenever his partner of the moment started pushing for a commitment.
According to the gossip she had heard, Nick never went to bed with a woman without first having delivered what was known as The Talk.
The Talk was said to be a clear, concise position statement that made it plain that he was not interested in any long-term arrangements like marriage. Women who chose to sleep with Nick Harte went into the relationship with their eyes wide open.
They said that even if you lured him into your bed, he would be gone long before dawn. He never stayed the night, according to the stories that circulated about him.
Here in Eclipse Bay, where gossip about the Hartes and the Madisons had been raised to a fine art, folks were certain that they knew the real reason for The Talk. The local mythology held that Nick, being a true Harte, was unable to love again because he was still mourning the loss of his beloved Amelia. He was under a curse, some said, doomed never to find another true love until the right woman shattered the spell that bound him. His reputation for never staying the night with any of his lovers only fanned the flames of that particular legend.
Of course, that did not stop shoppers in the narrow aisles at Fulton’s Supermarket from holding forth on the subject of the importance of Nick marrying again in order to provide his son with a mother. They said the same thing at the post office and in the hardware store.
But Carson didn’t need a mother, Octavia thought. Nick was doing a fine job of raising him, as far as she could tell. The boy was the most self-assured, well-adjusted, precocious little kid she had ever met in her life. And there was no shortage of feminine influence available to him. Carson enjoyed the warmth of a close-knit, extended family that included a doting grandmother, a great-grandmother, and two aunts, Lillian and Hannah.
She unhooked her sandals, rose from the stool, and went to stand at the front window of Bright Visions. The morning fog was thinning, but it had not yet burned off. Across the street she could just make out the pier and the nearby marina. The lights were on in the Incandescent Body bakery down the street, and she could see the erratic snap and pulse of the broken neon sign that marked the Total Eclipse Bar & Grill. The tavern’s logo, Where the Sun Don’t Shine, was just barely visible.
The rest of the world was lost in a sea of gray mist.
Just like her life.
A shiver went through her. Where had that thought come from? She wrapped her arms around herself. She would not go there, she vowed silently.
But the moody feeling was a warning, loud and clear. It was time to make some new plans; time to take control of her future. Her mission here in Eclipse Bay had been a failure.
Time to move on.
For months she had told herself that she had come here to right the wrongs of the past. In the beginning she had established a schedule that had allowed her to divide her time between this gallery and the main branch in Portland. But as the months went by she had found more and more reasons to extend her visits in Eclipse Bay.
Deep down she had actually been elated when her assistant here had run off with the artist. On impulse she had placed the Portland branch in the capable hands of a trusted manager, packed her suitcases, and moved her personal possessions into the little cottage on the bluff near Hidden Cove.
What had she been thinking? she wondered.
It was obvious that the Hartes and the Madisons did not need her help in healing the rift her great-aunt, Claudia Banner, had created so many years ago. The proud families were successfully putting the feud behind them without any assistance at all from her. There had been two weddings in the past few months that had united the clans, and now those old warriors, Sullivan Harte and Mitchell Madison, could be seen drinking coffee and eating donuts together at the bakery whenever Sullivan was in town.
No one in Eclipse Bay needed her. There was no reason for her to stay. It was time to go.
But that was easier said than done. She couldn’t just close the door of the gallery and disappear in the middle of the night. Bright Visions was a small business, but it was thriving, and that meant it was worth a goodly sum. She would have to make arrangements to sell up and that might take a while. And then there was the matter of her obligations to the various artists whose work she exhibited and the commitment she had made to the Children’s Art Show.
The art show had been her idea. She was the one who had come up with the concept and lobbied the members of the Eclipse Bay Summer Celebration committee to include it as one of the activities associated with this year’s event. Enthusiasm for the project ran high. She knew that the children who planned to draw pictures for the event would be crushed if she cancelled it.
All in all, she concluded, what with getting Bright Visions ready to sell and fulfilling her business and civic commitments, she would probably not be able to escape Eclipse Bay until the end of the summer. But by fall she would be somewhere else. She had to find a place where she truly belonged.
Reprinted from Summer In Eclipse Bay by Jayne Ann Krentz by permission of Jove, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Jayne Ann Krentz. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.