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Chapter One

As if losing both parents wasn't bad enough, now Marya was expected to monitor her sister's love life. Marya sighed, finished writing the progress notes for her last patient and glanced at the clock. Four-thirty. If she hurried she could catch the five o'clock ferry to Sea Grape Key. That would give her two hours at her parents' condo before Penelope came breezing in with her latest fiancé.

"Excuse me!" A man stopped in the door of the physical therapy department. He was ruggedly handsome, a lock of dark hair falling over his forehead. "Are you Walter Brogan's therapist?"

Smiling, Marya stood up, automatically registering the way his deltoids and biceps filled out the short sleeves of his sport shirt. "Yes, may I help you?"

"I hope so." His brown eyes challenged her. "I'm Walter's nephew, and I want him back in the hospital. You people sent him home much too soon after his stroke."

Marya straightened to her full five-five and looked up at him. "Your uncle is recovering nicely," she said. "It was a mild stroke. Hospital stays are shorter than they used to be, and we don't like that either. But you're welcome to talk to his doctor."

He ignored that. "And what's he supposed to do alone out on Sea Grape Key if I'm not there to help him?" he snapped, as though this whole situation was Marya's fault.

"I had no idea he lived there." Marya bit her lip. "But as I say, he's doing very well. He could always take the ferry back to the mainland if he feels ill."

"No, he can't take the ferry. That's only for condo owners. Uncle Walt has his own house and boat. He's stuck unless I'm there."

"Well, I'm really sorry. He's a very nice man. I wish I could help somehow." Marya quickly checked her watch. Darn. She'd miss the ferry and would have to wait until six. "You might…"

"Never mind," he interrupted. "I see I'm wasting your precious time, Miss…" He leaned closer to read her nametag. "Pierson." He made it sound like a disease. "Good bye." He strode away.

Not bothering to answer, Marya made a face at his retreating back. What an unpleasant person! But a great build.

After saying good night to the aide who was folding towels, Marya went to the ladies' room. She ran a comb through her short, wavy blond hair, then, from habit, examined her teeth before applying new lipstick. A tiny piece of lettuce from her noon salad was stuck in her front teeth! Why hadn't anyone told her? Oh well. She laughed at her reflection. Blue eyes that squinted when she smiled, a short straight nose. At least she had a nice even tan. And who cared what Walter Brogan's nephew thought, anyway?

On the way to the marina where she would catch the ferry, Marya stopped to pick up a few groceries. Penelope might have dinner on her flight from New York. Or maybe her fiancé would take her to dinner when he picked her up in Sarasota? Typically, Penelope had been vague about details. She hadn't even explained where she'd met her fiancé or what he was doing in Florida, when Penelope spent most of her time modeling in New York.

The new fiancé was a big question mark in Marya's mind. Although Dad had never met Penelope's fiancé, he had mistrusted him. "He's just after her money," Dad had said. "Find out about that guy. Don't let him hurt her."

"I won't, Dad." Marya had promised, holding back her tears.

"And remember that other thing…" Dad's voice had faded away.

Marya parked her car in the marina's parking lot and carried her groceries to the ferryboat, a large pontoon boat with wooden seats for about twenty people.

"Looks like you're the only passenger, Miz Pierson." The bearded, polytailed captain cast off, slowly left the dock, and headed for Sea Grape Key. "Not many people here this week."

Marya took a seat and relaxed. In the six months she had lived in her parents' condo, she'd never tired of this ten minute ride to the island. When she first came down from Chicago to be close to her dying mother, this boat ride was a peaceful breather between her hectic new job and the heart breaking task of making her mother's last days comfortable.

Her father had tirelessly cared for his wife during the days while Marya was at work. Only two days after her death he suffered a fatal heart attack. Now Marya spent her spare time sorting through her parents' things, deciding what to keep and what to give away. Penelope's job in New York kept her from helping very much. And it's a good thing, Marya thought. Marya was searching for something, and she didn't know what.

Shortly before he died, Dad mumbled, "Get rid of it. I never should have kept it. It would devastate Penelope."

What in the world had Dad been talking about? "It" could mean almost anything, and it must be somewhere in the condo. Would Marya recognize it even if she found it? She'd have a hard time relaxing until she had disposed of it.

The ferry chugged steadily through two-foot waves toward Sea Grape Key, a flat, sandy barrier island about a mile off shore. To keep from running aground, the captain kept to the channel by following the navigational markers.

As they got closer to the island Marya could see some of the sea grape plants that gave the island its name, and the even more numerous mangroves that crowded the shoreline. After they tied up at the end of the long dock, she said goodbye to the captain and carried her bag to the shore. There hundreds of tiny fiddler crabs hunted for food among the mangrove roots at the water's edge.

Marya crunched along the shell path that led all the way across the narrow island to the Gulf of Mexico. The path was bordered with sea grapes, palm trees, and hibiscus bushes with bright red blossoms. Three of the rustic wooden condominium buildings were located near the "bay" side of the island. The other four faced the Gulf. All of the buildings were built on sturdy wooden pilings as a protection from storms.

She carried her groceries up two flights of wooden stairs to the top floor and let herself into her parents' apartment. Hers and Penelope's now.

As usual when she first entered, she stood in the kitchen and feasted her eyes on the beautiful view through the living room and porch to the vast Gulf of Mexico. Today the sun sparkled on the waves that lapped gently at the sandy beach. Although she had lived most of her twenty-four years in Chicago, Marya planned to stay right here. It was worth the inconvenience. And no doubt Penelope would continue living in New York, where she'd moved right after high school.

Still wearing her white uniform pants and loose top, Marya looked critically around the living room. Maybe she would have an hour or so before Penelope arrived-time she should spend searching for Dad's secret, whatever it was. Surely the object she was searching for wasn't furniture, a lamp, a vase. She'd looked through the desk drawers.

Penelope used the guest room and lived out of a suitcase when she stayed here, and obviously hadn't found the secret yet. Marya quickly entered the room and hunted through the drawers of her mother's dresser, fingering piles of get well cards, gift soap, unused perfume, nightgowns. What could she be looking for? Her parents had stored boxes in the closet, and Marya hadn't had time to examine them yet. She hoped Penelope wouldn't be opening any boxes during this visit. Despairingly Marya glanced at the huge bookcase with its hundreds of paperback novels, but she couldn't deal with that now.

Marya gave up the search for the day and ate some leftover boiled shrimp, a roll, and a lettuce and tomato salad. After eating she carried her cup of tea through the living room with its off-white carpet, tropical patterned couches, and bamboo tables. Sliding glass doors led to the porch, where she sat at the glass topped table and gazed, mesmerized, at the Gulf and sky, losing track of time. Mounds of white cumulous clouds were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun, and darkness settled swiftly.

Penelope had obviously missed the last ferry. She could have called, Marya thought with exasperated fondness, but it probably hadn't occurred to her. Then Marya heard footsteps on the wooden stairs, and the rumble of a man's deep voice, punctuated by Penelope's infectious laugh.

She hurried to the door.

"Marya!" Penelope hugged her sister fiercely. She wore a pink linen suit, and a faint exotic fragrance floated around her.

Marya returned her hug. Her beautiful older sister was the only family she had now. After living half a continent apart for ten years, they were still getting reacquainted. Finally Marya stepped back. "Well, come in!"

Penelope linked her arm through that of the tall man who had stood behind her and led him into the apartment. "Marya, this is Drew."

Marya extended her hand, looked up, and met the penetrating gaze of her patient's demanding nephew. How could he be engaged to Penelope? His hand felt warm and strong, but in confusion she quickly withdrew her own. In a yellow sport shirt and casual tan pants, he looked even more handsome than he had that afternoon.

"Marya," he said with a cool nod.

Marya raised her chin. "Hello Drew." She could be just as aloof as he was. But for some reason she became acutely aware of her plain white uniform.

Penelope was chattering. "I was simply famished, so Drew took me to dinner. He's such a sweetie. Sit here, Drew." She sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. "I want my two favorite people to get acquainted."

With a puzzled frown, Drew turned to his fiancée. "I met your sister today at the hospital. But your name…"

"Oh, that!" Penelope laughed. "Didn't I tell you I'd changed my last name? I thought 'Paris' sounded more glamorous than Pierson. How wonderful that you and Marya have met!"

Marya chose a chair near the couch and regarded Drew. Was he really after her sister's money? She must be civil to him at least until she knew him better. To Penelope she said, "How did you two get together? That's the question."

"Oh, it was so romantic!" Penelope bubbled. Her long blond hair shimmered. Her perfect oval face was dominated by enormous green eyes and sensitive full lips. "Drew was in New York for some business thing…"

"A conference on insulation." Drew smiled at Penelope.

"Whatever. Anyway, we were both at this nice restaurant for dinner. I'd had a modeling job. It was pouring rain, and I always lose umbrellas, so I was standing in the doorway wondering what to do. And Drew came along and rescued me."

"A damsel in distress." Drew had little laugh wrinkles around his dark brown eyes. "She was so beautiful and seemed upset. So I called her a cab and…"

"He held his raincoat over my head while I ran to the cab."

"And I thought I'd never see her again, but we happened to have breakfast the next morning in the same coffee shop. And one thing led to another…"

"And here we are!" Penelope beamed at Marya. "It was a whirlwind courtship."

"Once I saw her I was a goner. Never knew what hit me." Drew smiled. But his smile faded as he turned to Marya. Obviously he still blamed her for sending his uncle home from the hospital so soon.

Marya put on a bright smile. "This calls for a celebration. How about a glass of wine?"

When she'd poured white wine into her mother's Waterford crystal, she served Penelope and Drew, then raised her glass. "I hope you'll both be very happy." But if he hurt her sister in any way he would have to reckon with her. Though two years younger than Penelope, Marya had always considered herself stronger.

While they sipped their wine, Marya stole a glance at Penelope's left hand and was surprised to see her ring finger bare.

Drew must have noticed at the same time. "Penelope, where's your ring?"

"Oh, it's in my pocketbook. It was kind of sliding around my finger." She smiled and rummaged through her purse. "Here it is." She slipped it on and held up her hand for Marya to see.

Marya gasped. "It's beautiful, Pen!" The large diamond sparkled from a lacy, old fashioned platinum setting. Set around the outside were smaller diamonds and stones that looked like amethysts.

"Yes…" Penelope cocked her head and studied it.

Drew's eyes shone. "It was my grandmother's."

"It's lovely!" Marya wondered about Penelope's reaction. Wasn't she thrilled with the ring? She changed the subject. "I was sure you two had missed the last ferry."

"We didn't need the ferry. We took my boat," Drew said. "I keep it at Cape Miste Marina when I'm not on the island."

"Then you're out here often?" Now Marya remembered that his uncle Walter lived on the island.

"Yes." Drew's expression had softened while discussing his engagement to Penelope. Now he spoke coldly. "I'm staying with my uncle. He needs all the help he can get."

"That's nice of you," Marya said, ignoring his tone of voice. "Where do you usually live?"

Drew flushed slightly. "I moved down here recently from Maine. So I've been living with Uncle Walter."

"I see. Your uncle is a very nice person. I'm glad he has someone with him." Then she couldn't resist a little dig. "Somehow I'd gotten the impression that he was all alone out here."

Drew's jaw muscles twitched. "Yes. It is lucky someone can help him. We can't always count on medical care these days."

"What is it with you two?" Penelope pouted. "Why are you acting like this?"

"I'm sorry, Pen," Marya apologized. "We just had a little disagreement when we met today. It was nothing important." Then to Drew she said, "What I wanted to tell you at the hospital was that often a patient who's been discharged can get treatment from a home care therapist. Why don't you check with your uncle's doctor? I'm quite sure he could arrange it."

"Hey, that would be great! I'll call him Monday." Drew's warm smile lit up his whole face, and Marya's stomach seemed invaded by butterflies.

Trying to recover from the strange sensation, Marya cleared her throat. She must remember her father's suspicions and not be influenced by Drew's charm. "What work do you do, Drew?"

"I used to work for my dad, who's a contractor in Maine," Drew said. "But I recently started my own contracting business in Florida. I always spent my vacations with Uncle Walter when I was a kid."

"Have you started building yet?" Marya was getting interested in spite of herself.

"I've bought some land on the island. What I hope to do is build some very nice homes-on spec. That is, speculation."

"I know what it means," she said dryly. "So you haven't actually started?" Maybe that's why he needed money. It seemed Dad might be right.

"He built the chapel, Marya," Penelope said proudly.

"The little white chapel on the island? I love it! It would be a wonderful place for a wedding!" Marya smiled sincerely.

Drew looked pleased. "Thanks. My idea was to build the chapel first, as a sort of central meeting place for a small community, since there are no stores or offices on the island. The chapel is non-denominational. Any clergyman is welcome to use it." He yawned and stretched. "Well, I'd better see how Uncle Walter is doing. Time to say good night, honey. See you, Marya."

Penelope went to the door and out onto the landing with Drew. When she eventually came in her face was pink.

"Isn't he handsome?" Radiant, Penelope sat on the couch again, her feet tucked under her.

"Yes, he is handsome," Marya admitted. "Have you set a date?"

"A date?" Penelope looked puzzled. "Oh, for a wedding." She laughed. "No, I want to enjoy being engaged for awhile.

"That's wise." Marya felt relieved. "After all, you've just met him. It takes time to really get to know a person, and marriage is a serious step."

Penelope clicked her tongue impatiently. "Spare me the lecture, Marya!"

"Oops! Sorry. You know I just want what's best for you. So!" Marya said brightly. "The contracting business sounds interesting. I wonder if it's hard getting started. It must take a lot of expertise. And capital, I suppose." She raised her eyebrows questioningly.

"I don't know." Penelope shrugged. "That's Drew's business. But how are things with you, Marya? Are you dating anyone?"

"No one special, if that's what you mean." And that was an understatement.

"How about that guy I met last time I was here?"

"He moved to Miami."

"You don't sound heart broken." Penelope smiled.

Marya grinned. "No." He'd bored her to tears.

"I hope you'll meet someone as nice as Drew some day." Penelope dramatically tossed her blond hair over her shoulder with a perfectly manicured hand. "Well, time for my beauty sleep. Tomorrow Drew and I are spending most of the day on the beach. 'Night, Marya," she said.

"'Night, Pen." After her sister had gone to bed, Marya walked onto the porch overlooking the Gulf. The moon was shining on the water, and the waves swished rhythmically. She wondered if Walter and Drew lived nearby. Just how badly did Drew need cash? And now that Penelope was here, why did she feel especially lonely tonight?

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