The attraction is immediate but Caleb and Claire are very different people. He's buttoned up and goes by the book and still carries a lot of bitterness because of a painful past. She's a free spirit and truly self-sufficient and independent, yet she's not opposed to the possibility of love in her life.With Claire's help, along with the assistance of Cajun Healer, Tante Lulu, Caleb and his family reconcile. At about the ame time, adventure and hilarity abound as the crew of Jinx Inc. begin the search for and find the fabled cave pearls.
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By Sandra Hill
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2007 Sandra Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCrazy is as crazy does ...
Caleb Peachey jogged along the road, his eyes on the log cabin up ahead. It sat nestled in the thick woods on the banks of the Little Juniata River, almost hidden from view. He hoped to find the crazy woman at home this early in the morning.
Crazy Claire, that's what she was called by some of the locals. Dr. Claire Cassidy, historical archaeologist, by her colleagues. PhDiva, by him. Actually, he was beginning to feel like the crazy one as he attempted to make contact with the elusive woman. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if she even existed. Crazy Claire is gonna be Crazy-Friggin'-Dead Claire if she doesn't stop hiding from me.
Five miles back and a half-hour ago, at dawn, he'd left the Butterfly Bed & Breakfast in Spruce Creek, where he and his team from Jinx, Inc., a treasure-hunting firm, would be staying. He'd arrived here in central Pennsylvania yesterday morning. The rest of the team would be here this afternoon, but the project itself couldn't start until Dr. Cassidy was on board, per orders of the National Park Service, which made sure no historical artifacts were disturbed. Now, he could understand the government being worried about metal detecting on a battlefield, trafficking in relics, defacing previously undiscovered prehistoric rock wall art, that kind of thing, but dammit, they were just going to take some pearls out of this cavern ... a privately owned cavern, to boot. They weren't exploring King Tut's tomb here.
Stopping in the clearing before the house, he bent over, hands on thighs, and breathed deeply in and out to cool down, not that he had broken a sweat or anything. Hell, he'd been a Navy SEAL for ten years, up till two and a half years ago, and they ran five times as far before breakfast, wearing heavy boondockers, not the two-hundred-dollar ergonomically designed Adidas he had on now.
He knocked on the door. Once. Twice. No response except for some cats mewling inside. Same as yesterday, except there was a battered station wagon here now, which he took as a good sign. The woman hadn't responded to the messages he'd left on her answering machine, either. Hi! This is Claire. Your message is important to me. Blah, blah, blah! Caleb mimicked in his head. Apparently not that important.
A fat calico cat-probably pregnant-sidled up to him and gave him the evil eye, as only a cat could do. Then she sashayed past, deeming him unworthy of her regard.
With his side vision, he noticed another cat approaching, but, no, it wasn't a cat; it was a rat. Okay, it was a teeny-tiny dog that resembled a rat, and it started yip-yip-yipping at him as if it was a German shepherd, not a rat terrier.
Caleb couldn't fathom people who wanted such itty-bitty things for pets. But then, some people even took slimy creatures into their homes. Like snakes. Having a fierce aversion to snakes, he shivered.
The dog stopped yipping and gave him the same you-are-so-boring look as the cat through its beady eyes and sauntered off, around the side of a modern addition to the old cabin.
He decided to follow.
The back of the cabin was a surprise. While the front was traditional log-and-chink design, the back was all windows facing the river, down below some fifty feet. Cushioned Adirondack chairs had been arranged on a wide deck. An open laptop sat on a low wooden table.
You-know-who must be home. Ignoring my calls. Son of a bitch! Oooh, someone is in big trouble.
He turned toward the river. And inhaled sharply at the view. Not just the spectacular Little Juniata with the morning sun bouncing off the surface, creating diamond-like sparkles, fish actually jumping out of the water to feed on the seasonal hatch of newborn insects hovering above. He was familiar with this river, having grown up in an Amish community about ten miles down the road in Sinking Valley. What caused him to gasp was the woman standing waist-deep in the middle of the river. She wore suspendered waders over a long-sleeved white T-shirt. Her long dark-red hair was pulled up into a high ponytail that escaped through the back of a Penn State baseball cap. Auburn, he thought her hair color was called.
Could this possibly be the slippery Dr. Claire Cassidy? Crazy Claire? For some reason, he'd expected someone older, more witchy-looking. It was hard to tell from this distance, but she couldn't be much older than thirty, although who knew? Women today were able to fool guys all the time. Makeup to look as if they were not wearing makeup. Nips and tucks. Collagen. Boob lifts, ferchrissake!
The woman was fly fishing, which was an art in itself. Caleb was the furthest thing from a poet, but the way she executed the moves was pure art in motion. Like a ballet. Following a clock pattern, she raised her long bamboo rod upward with her right hand, stopping abruptly at noon to apply tension to her line. Then she allowed the rod to drift back slowly in the forward cast, stopping abruptly at eleven o'clock, like the crack of a whip. The follow-through was a dance of delicacy, because the fly should land on top of the water only for a few seconds, to fool the trout below water level that it was real live food. Over and over she performed this operation. It didn't matter that she didn't catch anything. The joy was in the casting.
And in the watching.
Dropping down to the edge of the deck, elbows resting on raised knees, Caleb breathed in deeply. The scents of honeysuckle and pine filled the early-morning air. Silence surrounded him, although it was not really silence if one listened carefully. The rush of the water's current. Bees buzzing. Birds chirping. In the distance, a train whistle. He even saw a hawk swoop gloriously out of the mountains, searching for food. He felt as if he'd been sucker punched, jolted back to a time and place he'd spent seventeen years trying to forget.
The Plain people, as the Amish called themselves, were practical to a fault. Fishing was for catching fish. No Lands End angler duds or fancy Orvis rods or custom-made flies. Just worms. But his Dat had been different. As stern as he was in many regards, he had given Caleb and his four brothers an appreciation for God's beauty in nature and the heavenly joy of fly fishing. Much like that minister in the movie A River Runs Through It, Caleb's old man had made fly fishing an exercise in philosophy, albeit the Old Order Amish way of life. Caleb smiled to himself, knowing his father would not be pleased with comparison to an Englisher, anyone not Amish, even a man of God.
And, for sure and for certain, as the Amish would say, they didn't believe in that wasteful "catch and release" business, which the fisherwoman in front of him was doing now with a twenty-inch rainbow. How many times had Caleb heard: "To waste is to destroy God's gift"? No, if an Amishman caught a fish, he ate it. With homemade chowchow, spaetzle oozing with butter, sliced tomatoes still warm from the garden, corn fritters, and shoofly pie.
Stomach rumbling with sudden hunger, Caleb shook his head to clear it of unwanted memories, stood, and walked down the railroad tie steps to the edge of the river.
The woman glanced his way, then did a double take. After a brief hesitation, she waved.
Yep, she must be crazy.
He was a big man, six-four, and still carried the musculature that defined a Navy SEAL. The tattoo of a barbed-wire chain around his upper arm usually gave women pause. Plus, he was a stranger. But did she appear frightened? Nah. She just waved at him. He could be an ax murderer, for all she knew. She was brave or stupid or crazy, he figured. Maybe all three.
He waded into the cold water. It soon covered his shoes, his bare legs, his running shorts, and then the bottom of his T-shirt. Once he reached the woman, whose mouth was now gaping open, he gritted his teeth, then snarled, "Your phone broken, lady?"
She blinked. Tall for a woman-maybe five-nine-she was still a head shorter than him and had to crane her neck to stare up at him. "Ah, the persistent Caleb." Then she smiled and shook her head as if he were not worthy of her attention. Just like her damn fat cat and her damn rat dog.
Taken aback by her attitude, he failed to register the fact that she had, unbelievably, resumed fishing. She's ignoring me. I don't fuckin' believe this. Three days of chasing my tail, and she thinks she can ignore me. I. Don't. Think. So.
Without warning, he picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, just barely catching the bamboo rod in his other hand as it started to float downstream. With her kicking and screaming, he stomped through the water, probably scaring off every fish within a one-mile radius.
"Put me down, you goon."
"Stop squirming. I'll put you down when I'm good and ready. We're on my clock now, baby."
"Clock? Clock? I'd like to clock you."
"I'd like to see you try."
"I mean it. Put me down. Aaarrgh! Take your hand off my ass."
"Stop putting your ass in my face."
"You are in such trouble. Wait till I call the police. Hope you know a good lawyer," she threatened to his back.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm shakin' in my boots ... rather, Adidas."
"Ha, ha, ha! You're not going to be making jokes once you're in the clink."
The clink? Haven't heard that expression in, oh, let's say, seventeen years. Once on the bank, he propped the rod against a tree and stood her on her feet, being careful to hold on to one hand lest she take flight or wallop him a good one.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, yanking her hand out of his grasp, then placing both hands on her hips.
Ogling your hips. "Getting your attention."
"You got my attention when you failed to complete the Park Service forms for the project ... a month ago."
Oh, so that's what has her panties in a twist. "They were fifty-three friggin' pages long," he protested. The dumbass red-tape forms asked him as Pearl Jinx project manager to spell out every bleepin' thing about the venture and its participants. There were questions and subquestions and sub-subquestions. He'd used a red Sharpie to write "Bullshit!" across the empty forms and mailed them back to her. "Okay, my returning them that way probably wasn't the most diplomatic thing to do, but, my God, the Navy doesn't do as much background checking for its high-security special forces as your government agency requires."
She snorted her opinion. "It's not my agency. I'm just a freelance consultant, specializing in Native American culture. You must know that Spruce Creek is situated right along what were once some major Indian paths. In fact, an Indian path from the village of Assunepachla, located near present-day Frankstown, merged with the Indian path from Standing Stone in Huntingdon, and that joint path took the Native Americans over Kitchinaki, Great Spruce Pine Land, till they came to Spruce Creek, which they called Oligonunk, or 'Place of the Cave.' Spruce Creek was considered a good resting place for weary warriors."
Blah, blah, blah. "So?"
"So, Indian Caverns in Franklinville is only a mile or two away from the cavern you'll be working, and it was loaded with artifacts. We have to be sure nothing of historical value is disturbed by your project."
If I needed a history lesson, sweetie, I would flick on the History Channel. "I'm aware of all that, but you're changing the subject. I must have put a dozen messages on your answering machine in the past thirty-six hours and God only knows how many before that. Guess how many times you called me back?" He made a circle with a thumb and forefinger. She was lucky he didn't just give her the finger.
"That doesn't give you the right to manhandle me."
"That was not manhandling. If I was handling you, babe, you'd know it."
"What a chauvinist thing to say!"
"Call me pig, just as long as you call me."
She threw her hands in the air with disgust, then shrugged her waders down and off, hanging them from a knot on the same tree where the rod rested. Underneath she wore dry, faded jeans and thick wool socks, no shoes. She turned back to him. "You idiot. I've been gone for the past week. I got home late last night. That's why I didn't return your calls."
Ooops! "Oh." Caleb had been working for two years on various Jinx treasure-hunting projects, but this was the first time he was a project manager. It was important to him that it be a success. Pissing off a required team member was not a design for success. "Sorry," he said. "I misunderstood."
She nodded her acceptance of his apology and offered her own conciliatory explanation. "I like to spend time in the woods."
"How about using your cell phone to check messages?" There I go, being abrasive again.
"I don't believe in cell phones. Besides, what would be the point of taking modern conveniences into the forest?"
He rolled his eyes. She doesn't believe in cell phones. What century is she living in? He tried to sound polite when he asked, "So, you've been camping?"
"Not exactly." Without elaborating, she started to walk up toward the cabin.
He hated it when women stopped talking in the middle of a conversation, especially when the guy was being logical, not to mention bending over backward to tame his inner chauvinist. He caught up with her.
"What was so important that you had to get in touch with me right away?" she asked when they reached her deck.
"Right away was three days ago, babe."
She arched her brows at his surliness, and probably at his use of the word babe, too.
Tough shit! He tamped his temper down, again, and replied, "The Pearl Project starts tomorrow."
"We've been told that you have to be there as a Park Service rep from the get-go."
"And you haven't confirmed." Her attitude was really starting to annoy him. Behave, Peachey. Don't let her rile you. An impatient man is a dead target.
She arched an eyebrow at him again. "Since when do I need to confirm anything with you?"
Uh-oh! Are we gonna have a pissing contest over who's in charge? I can guarantee it's not gonna be her. If we have to vet every little anal thing, we'll be here in the boonies for months instead of weeks. He put his face in his hands and counted to ten. When he glanced her way again, he said, "We have to find a way to work together. Truce?" He extended a hand.
She hesitated, but then agreed, "Truce," and placed her hand in his. Her hand was small compared to his, with short, unpolished nails. He could swear his heart revved up at just the feel of her calloused palm pressed against his calloused palm. Am I pathetic or what?
"Are you hungry?"
That question caught him by surprise. Was her new strategy torture by niceness? Or erotic, calloused palm handshakes? "Yeah," he answered suspiciously.
"Good. I picked some wild blueberries yesterday and have muffins cooling inside."
He didn't immediately follow her but sat down on one of the chairs to take off his wet shoes and socks. Meanwhile, the delicious aroma of baked goods wafted out to him. The rat dog trotted over and eyed his shoes. Just as it was about to take a chomp out of one of them, Caleb grabbed the shoes and set them up on the arm of the chair. When he turned, he saw the dog running off with one of his wet socks in its mouth.
"Boney!" Dr. Cassidy yelled out through the screen door at the thief. Four cats of various sizes were rubbing themselves against her ankles. The fat calico wasn't among them.
To his surprise, the dog stopped, peered back at its mistress dolefully, dropped the sock, and trotted off the porch and into the brush.
"You named your dog Boner?"
She made a clucking sound of disgust. "Not Boner. Boney. You know. Napoleon Bonaparte. Little dog. Napoleon complex."
Well, at least she has a sense of humor. "Did you know that Napoleon had a fear of cats? Ailurophobia."
"Yep. Learned it in a history-of-war class. An aide found the general one time in his bedroom with a cutlass in hand, trembling, because he thought there was a cat behind a drape."
Yep, that's me. Mister Fascination. Okay, I see five cats so far and one semi-dog. What next?
What next, he soon learned, was Indian tom-tom music, along with some guttural chants, coming from a tape deck inside: "Ay-yi-yi-yi! Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi ..." Two cages in one corner, one holding what looked like a porcupine with a splint on its leg and the other holding a bird with mangled feathers. And the good doctor taking off her T-shirt, whose sleeves were wet, leaving her with just a sports racerback running bra kind of thing. Nothing scandalous. It was midway between a granny-type cotton undergarment and a hoochie mama Victoria's Secret scrap of sexiness, but still ... It was pink. And there was all that skin. Bare arms. Bare midriff. Bare collarbones. Plus, she was ripped, which would explain the exercise mat and hand weights over there. Not weight-lifter ripped, but female-athlete ripped. And worst of all ... or best of all ... she had breasts that could make a grown man weep.
Excerpted from Pearl Jinx by Sandra Hill Copyright © 2007 by Sandra Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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