The Millionaire's Marriage Demand

By: Sandra Field


She had the place to herself.

Heaven, Julie thought blissfully. The rocks and salt spray of the coastline where she’d grown up were what she missed most of all when she was overseas.

The tide was lapping at the wharf. She slipped her feet out of her sandals and with scant regard for her pretty summer dress sat down on the rough wood, dangling her legs over the edge. A wave grabbed at her bare toes. She gave a laugh of mingled shock and dismay; the water was icy cold.

What did she expect? After all, this was Maine and it was still June. She splashed her feet vigorously, watching how the golden light of early evening tangled itself in the foam. She was home again. Temporarily, to be sure, and not for the happiest of reasons. But home, nevertheless.

The wharf was at the end of a dirt road. To her ears wafted the sigh of wind through the pines and the chirping of sparrows in the underbrush; overlying everything was the steady hiss of surf against the shore of the nearest island.

Her destination was further out. She was spending the weekend on Manatuck Island, owned by Charles Strathem, whose son Brent had invited her to Charles’s sixtieth birthday party tomorrow.

She’d been late leaving work this afternoon. By the time she’d driven from her apartment in Portland to this isolated shoreline, she’d missed the launch that was to have taken her and some of the caterers to the party. Now the launch had to make a return trip just for her.

She should be feeling guilty. But she wasn’t. She splashed her feet again, hoping Charles Strathem had a heated swimming pool at Castlereigh, his estate on Manatuck. One thing Brent had made clear was that his father was very rich; the inference being that Brent, also, was more than comfortably off.

Julie sighed. Brent was handsome, charming and out for a good time. This meant, no doubt, that sooner or later she’d be fighting him off. Her spirit of adventure, that had caused her to live for the last few years in faraway places not always known for comfort or safety, didn’t extend to sex. Or marriage, for that matter.

But for the space of a weekend, surrounded by Brent’s family, she’d be safe enough.

Abruptly she turned her head, straining her ears. What had she just heard? A vehicle coming down the road? She didn’t want company. Not right now. Oliver, captain of the launch, had been quite explicit that she was the only guest expected this Friday evening.

The unmistakable crunch of tires on gravel grew louder and louder. Julie scowled at the gold-tinted trees, inwardly urging the unknown interloper to stop at the last cottage a quarter of a mile from the wharf. To stop anywhere but here.

To leave her alone.

As the tires of his sleek black Porsche skidded in the gravel, Travis eased his foot off the accelerator. He was driving too fast. Partly, of course, because he was later than he’d wanted to be. He’d been doing fine until that emergency in intensive care, which had ended very satisfactorily for the patient but had put him way behind schedule.

Lateness wasn’t the only reason he was driving fast. Gut-wrenching anxiety was the other reason. His lips stretched in a humorless smile. On a beautiful Friday evening in June, when he could have been sailing on Penobscot Bay or going to the local opera with that nurse with the come-hither eyes, he was traveling to the one place in the world where he was guaranteed to get the cold shoulder.

Another quarter mile to the wharf. He’d use the phone on the dock there, contact Oliver and ask for the launch to be sent over. Once he was on the island, they couldn’t very well send him back. Or if they tried, he’d put up one hell of a fight.

Through the open window he caught the scent of spruce resin mixed with the sharp tang of the ocean; he breathed deeply, filling his lungs, and for an instant was a little boy again, roaming the cliffs and rocky shoreline of Manatuck Island. Happy. Secure. With no inkling of what was to come.

It wasn’t just the family he was returning to. It was the island as well. Of the two, he wasn’t sure which had the greater potential for damage.

Probably the island.

Insanity to come back. Pure insanity.

The car swung around the last corner, and from the rise Travis saw the bay spread in front of him, its velvet-green islands sprinkling the deep blue waters, foam edging them like white ruffs. His throat tightened. One reason he’d driven himself so hard the last few years was to bury the blend of yearning and emptiness that was popularly called homesickness.

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