Nora Roberts

Loving Jack

Chapter One

The minute Jackie saw the house, she was in love. Of course, she acknowledged, she did fall in love easily. It wasn't that she was easily impressed, she was just open, wide-open, to emotions-her own and everyone else's.

The house had a lot of emotion in it, she felt, and not all of it serene. That was good. Total serenity would have been all right for a day or two, but boredom would have closed in. She preferred the contrasts here, the strong angles and arrogant juts of the corners, softened occasionally by curving windows and unexpectedly charming archways.

The white-painted walls glittered in the sunlight, set off by stark ebony trim. Though she didn't believe the world was black-and-white, the house made the statement that the two opposing forces could live together in harmony.

The windows were wide, welcoming the view from both east and west, while skylights let in generous slices of sun. Flowers grew in profusion in the side garden and in terra-cotta pots along the terraces. She enjoyed the bold color they added, the touch of the exotic and lush. They'd have to be tended, of course- and religiously, if the heat continued and the rain didn't come. She didn't mind getting dirty, though, especially if there was a reward at the end.

Through wide glass doors she looked out at the crystalline waters of a kidney-shaped tiled pool. That, too, would require tending, but that, too, offered rewards. She could already picture herself sitting beside it, watching the sun set with the scent of flowers everywhere. Alone. That was a small hitch, but one she was willing to accept.

Beyond the pool and the sloping slice of lawn was the Intracoastal Waterway. Its waters were dark, mysterious, but even as she watched a motorboat putted by. She discovered she liked the sound of it. It meant there were people close enough to make contact but not so close as to interfere.

The water roads reminded her of Venice and a particularly pleasant month she had spent there during her teens. She'd ridden in gondolas and flirted with dark-eyed men. Florida in the spring wasn't as romantic as Italy, but it suited her just fine.

'I love it.' She turned back to the wide, sun-washed room. There were twin sofas the color of oatmeal on a steel-blue carpet. The rest of the furniture was an elegant ebony and leaned toward the masculine. Jackie approved of its strength and style. She rarely wasted her time looking for flaws and was willing to accept them when they jumped out at her. But in this house and everything about it she saw perfection.

She beamed at the man standing casually in front of the white marble fireplace. The hearth had been cleaned and swept and was a home for a potted fern. The man's tropical-looking white pants and shirt might have been chosen for precisely that pose. Knowing Frederick Q. MacNamara as she did, Jackie was sure it had been.

'When can I move in?'

Fred's smile lit up his round, boyish face. No one looking at it would have been reminded of a shark. ' 'That's our Jack, always going on impulse.' His body was rounded, too-not quite fat, but not really firm, either. Fred's favorite exercise was hailing-cabs or waiters. He moved toward her with a languid grace that had once been feigned but was now second nature. 'You haven't even seen the second floor.'

'I'll see it when I unpack.'

'Jack, I want you to be sure.' He patted her cheek-older, more experienced cousin to young scatterbrain. She didn't take offense. 'I'd hate for you to regret this in a day or two. After all, you're proposing to live in this house by yourself for three months.'

'I've got to live somewhere.' She gestured, palm out, with a hand as slim and delicate as the rest of her. Gold and colored stones glittered on four fingers, a sign of her love of the pretty. 'If I'm going to be serious about writing, I should be alone. Since I don't think I'd care for a garret, why shouldn't it be here?'

She paused a moment. It never paid to be too casual with Fred, cousin or not. Not that she didn't like him. Jackie had always had a soft spot for Fred, though she knew he had a habit of skimming off the top and dealing from the bottom.

'You're sure it's all right for you to sublet it to me?'

'Perfectly.' His voice was as smooth as his face. Whatever wrinkles Fred had were carefully camouflaged. 'The owner only uses it as a winter home, and then only sporadically. He prefers having someone in residence rather than leaving it empty. I told Nathan I'd take care of things until November, but then this business in San Diego came up, and it can't be put off. You know how it is, darling.'

Jackie knew exactly how it was. With Fred, 'sudden business' usually meant he was avoiding either a jealous husband or the law. Despite his unprepossessing looks, he had constant problems with the former, and not even a prepossessing family name could always protect him from the latter.

She should have been warier, but Jackie wasn't always wise, and the house-the look, the feel, of it- had already blinded her.

'If the owner wants it occupied, I'm happy to accommodate him. Let me sign on the dotted line, Fred. I want to unpack and spend a couple of hours in the pool.'

'If you're sure.' He was already drawing a paper from his pocket. 'I don't want a scene later-like the time you bought my Porsche.'

'You failed to tell me the transmission was held together with Krazy Glue.'

'Let the buyer beware,' Fred said mildly, and handed her a monogrammed silver pen.

She had a quick flash of trepidation. This was cousin Fred, after all. Fred of the easy deal and the can't-miss investment. Then a bird flew into the garden and begin to sing cheerily, and Jackie took it as an omen. She signed the lease in a bold, flowing hand before drawing out her checkbook.

'A thousand a month for three months?'

'Plus five hundred damage deposit,' Fred added.

'Right.' She supposed she was lucky dear cousin Fred wasn't charging her a commission. 'Are you leaving me a number, an address or something so I can get in touch with the owner if necessary?'

Fred looked blank for a moment, then beamed at her. It was that MacNamara smile, charming and guileless. 'I've already told him about the turnover. Don't worry about a thing, sweetie. He'll be in touch with you.'

'Fine.' She wasn't going to worry about details. It was spring, and she had a new house, a new project. New beginnings were the best thing in the world. 'I'll take care of everything.' She touched a large Chinese urn. She'd begin by putting fresh flowers in it. 'Will you be staying tonight, Fred?'

The check was already stashed in the inside pocket of his jacket. He resisted the urge to add a loving pat. 'I'd love to hang around, indulge in some family gossip, but since we've got everything squared away, I should catch a flight to the Coast. You'll need to get to the market pretty soon, Jack. There're some essentials in the kitchen, but not much else.' As he spoke, he started across the room toward a pile of baggage. It never occurred to him to offer to take his cousin's bags upstairs for her, or for her to ask him to. 'Keys are there on the table. Enjoy yourself.'

'I will.' When he hefted his cases, she walked over to open the door for him. She'd meant her invitation to spend the night sincerely, and she was just as sincerely glad he'd refused. 'Thanks, Fred. I really appreciate this.'

'My pleasure, darling.' He leaned down to exchange a kiss with her. Jackie got a whiff of his expensive cologne. 'Give my love to the family when you talk to them.'

'I will. Safe trip, Fred.' She watched him walk out to a long, lean convertible. It was white, like his suit. After stowing his cases, Fred scooted behind the wheel and sent her a lazy salute. Then she was alone.

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