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Lust hit Polly Parker like a tropical heat wave. The vacationing school teacher had just lowered her educational magazine an inch or two to admire the tranquil view of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, she got a glimpse of sheer male perfection, the kind that made her pulse pound and her palms go slick and hot. Right before her eyes, the ultimate golden hunk emerged from the foaming billows and came striding purposefully across the pure white sands of the remote Georgia beach.
�“Hello there,” he said, in a voice as dark and sinfully rich as chocolate cake. His blue eyes zeroed in on Polly with laser precision. “Do you own this pretty white beach house?”
“Oh! Own the beach house? Uh. . . no, I don’t. Eleanor � my friend Eleanor � she owns it. I’m just down for the summer.” Polly wondered if she sounded as dumb as she felt. What did the stud, with the mile-wide shoulders and the wash-board stomach, care how long she was here for?
“Ah, and this must be Eleanor Hiss, the owner of the property.” His bone-melting gaze shifted, and Polly looked over her shoulder to see her best friend tripping down the front steps.�
“Right, you are, handsome stranger. What can I do for you?” Eleanor held out a slim, manicured hand, as sleek and self-confident as a man-eating serpent. Polly sighed inwardly as the two glamorous looking people shook hands and sized each other up. They were the perfect couple. Eleanor was sexy and sultry, dark and mysterious, the exact opposite of� Polly. The hunk squeezing her hand was a drool-worthy combination of sun-tanned good looks and primitive male allure.
“I’m Greg Hatter, with Hatter Hotels. We’re looking for beachfront opportunities on the Georgia coast, and I was told that you own quite a bit of property around here.” The man had to be filthy rich. Anyone who was still buying land in this economy was either crazy or loaded. When he smiled, showing off a dimple on his cheek to match the deep cleft in his chin, Polly had a sudden urge to invest every last dime in Hatter Hotels. Either that or have Greg Hatter’s baby.
“Do you always do business in your bathing suit?” Eleanor asked. She gave Greg’s drop-dead body the once-over in a relaxed but openly interested way that made Polly squirm with jealousy. Why couldn’t she be cool, casual and charming around impossibly rich and gorgeous men?
“I’m staying with friends over on Little St. Simon’s Island,” Greg explained. “I know there’s a causeway that connects your island to the mainland, but the weather was perfect, so I jumped in the water instead of walking. I figured a bathing suit was easier to put on than a business suit.”
“And it’s easier to take off a bathing suit, too.” Eleanor let that remark dangle just long enough to hook Greg’s interest.�
“Not when I’m dog-tired after a long swim.” Greg’s lazy comeback told Polly he wasn’t going to tumble into Eleanor’s arms just yet. He was obviously smart as well as rich and gorgeous.��
“He’s right, Eleanor,” Polly put in. “Little St. Simon’s is miles from here! Greg, would you like to sit down? We have lemonade, sandwiches and brownies. I mean, I just made them; they’re low-fat brownies. I love to bake and I’m really good at it, but I hate my thighs, so I’m trying to lose weight.”
Nice going, genius! I hate my thighs? Polly felt humiliated by her runaway tongue, even as Greg’s fabulous laugh washed over. It was warm and rich and it came from deep down in the man’s chest. The flustered little blonde went weak and wobbly at the sound�but she wanted to hear more.
“Polly makes fabulous low-fat brownies, just the thing for a man with an active lifestyle.” Eleanor’s low, slightly husky voice was calm and reassuring. Even her laugh sounded supportive. She sank down on the blanket the two of them had spread out earlier, looking queenly and sexy but at the same time down-to-earth. She gave Polly a nudge, woman-to-woman, telling her to relax.
Polly loved Eleanor. But Greg was just so damned hot. He sat down too, and while Eleanor was opening the picnic basket he turned and spoke to her in a low, thrillingly intimate voice.
“Your eyes,” he said, holding her gaze, “they match the sea.” His body was relaxed, but angled forward, and his entire focus was placed on her.�
“They’re just green.” Polly bit into a tuna fish sandwich, which tasted like foam rubber. “I guess you must be a poet, as well as a millionaire, and you must swim an awful lot.”
“No, I just I like green eyes,” Greg paused, “and I do swim an awful lot.”��
“Polly’s only bashful until you get to know her,” Eleanor cautioned, nibbling on a slim green celery stalk. “After that, watch out!” Her dark brown eyes twinkled.
“That’s right.” Polly giggled. “They put me in charge of the toughest third graders.”
“You’re a teacher? That’s great!” Greg began asking all about the Honeywell Grade School.
Before long, she was talking away, amazed that a man this spectacular-looking was interested in� her. Polly knew she was reasonably attractive. She had golden hair, green eyes, and her rounded figure might have been sexy if her thighs weren’t so chunky, but somehow she never felt sexy deep inside. Men didn’t fall for the wholesome type who made brownies. They fell for the dark, sexy type who flirted and teased.
They fell for Eleanor.
“And when the eggs hatched, we had a party to welcome the new babies into the world!”
“I wish I’d been there,” Greg teased. “I like chicks.”
“Oh, please!” Polly pouted. “Smart chicks don’t fall for a line and a handful of birdseed.”
“Are we still talking about chickens?” Greg asked innocently.
“No, we’re not.”�
“That’s good,” Greg said. “Because that can only mean we’re talking about you.”
“Fascinating subject,” Eleanor put in, just to remind them she was there.
“I’m not nearly as fascinating as Eleanor’s island,” Polly said quickly. “This is the only island in Georgia to have been claimed by the Spanish, the French, the English�and the Americans.”
�“Not to mention the Indians,” Eleanor put in slyly, “and a few very lucky runaway slaves.”
“It’s a beautiful location,” Greg agreed. “Pristine beaches, lots of wetlands, and a sheltered crossing to the mainland. But it sounds like none of the people who claimed this island ever stuck around for very long. Is there something I should know?”
“Ah, the shrewd businessman,” Eleanor teased. “Looking to knock down the price before the negotiation even begins.”
“Well, it’s not like this place is cursed or anything,” Polly said quickly. “I mean, the Spanish called it the Serpent Isle, and the French called it the Island of Danger, but that’s probably just because of all the snakes and alligators. Of course, there’s still a few of them around today, but they never attack anyone. Well, almost never. You can co-exist with them if you’re careful!”
Greg laughed. “Something tells me you’re a better teacher than a used-car salesman.”
“I was just being honest,” Polly replied, halfway between flattered and sulky. She gave Greg a look, letting him know she wasn’t backing down an inch. “You look like a fairly intelligent man, Mr. Hatter, so there’s no reason to lie to you. I mean, we can hardly run around in the night and scoop up all the snakes and alligators so you won’t notice them during the day!”����
“I would have thought you could communicate with the alligators,” Greg teased. “The way you do with your third-graders.”
“You can’t change a predator,” Polly said, letting her eyes linger on Greg’s sexy body.
“Sometimes it’s fun to try, though.” His eyes met hers, a hypnotic shimmering blue.
“Sure, and then all you end up with is babies, I mean alligator babies. Or eggs.”
Polly was really enjoying herself. But just then Eleanor pointed down the beach.
“Speaking of eggs, there’s a cracked specimen.”
“Oh, don’t say that. Dexter is just crazy about you, Eleanor.” Polly felt sorry for the tall, skinny young man staggering towards them, weighed down by cameras and scientific equipment.
“Honey, the only thing he’s crazy about around here is breeding patterns and alligator eggs,” Eleanor said, her crooked, cynical smile only making her look even more sophisticated and sexy.�
“So there are gators around here.” Greg leaned back casually on the sand, but his blue eyes gleamed shrewdly. “That’s a real problem when you’re trying to develop. Those environmental people will do just about anything to protect the gators.”
Eleanor rolled her dark eyes in mock exasperation. “Yes, I know that. Thanks to Dexter.”
“Thanks for what?” Huffing and puffing, Dexter collapsed and sprawled on the blanket, taking up plenty of room. His elbows and knees and his great big feet stuck out every which way, throwing sand everywhere. He seemed oblivious to the havoc he was causing, but he gaped at Eleanor with total slack-jawed adoration. Not that he had the slightest chance with her, Polly thought. He looked like a scarecrow in his badly-fitting white shirt and rumpled khaki pants.
“Thank you for not getting sand in my sandwich, dear,” Eleanor said sweetly.
“I’m s-sorry, Eleanor,” Dexter stammered. He missed her sarcasm, but not her killer smile. That clearly got him right through the heart. “I forgot all about the pic�the pic�about the picnic.”
“And thank you for interrupting your important scientific work,” Polly added quickly. She really felt for poor Dexter. She could relate to how clueless he was about making a good impression.
“So you’re a scientist?” Greg asked, holding out his powerful, but perfectly manicured hand. “Greg Hatter, Hatter Hotels. What are you, federal, EPA?”
“I’m not with anyone. I’m a graduate student,” Dexter was a lot better with other men than with beautiful women. He shook Greg’s hand and introduced himself without stammering.
“That means he’s hungry,” Eleanor joked. “Have something to eat, Dexter. But please, don’t tell our new friend Greg how the whole island is crawling with alligators. It’ll kill the sales price!”
“But it’s not crawling with alligators!” Dexter exclaimed. He pushed an unruly shock of badly-cut black hair away from his high white forehead. “I just can’t figure it out. Conditions in the swamps are perfect for breeding, but I haven’t been able to find a single nest. It’s like something is scaring them off! It must be bacteria, or a new worm-like parasite. If only I could discover. . .”
“Oh, dear, what will we do without our alligators?” Eleanor laughed, and rose gracefully to her feet. “Kids, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take advantage of this stunning, beautiful day to show Mr. Hatter here some of the less deadly parts of our island. You’ll find it interesting, I promise!”
“I’d like that,” Greg said seriously. He got up as well, but not before giving Polly a glance. “Sure you wouldn’t like to come along?”
Polly waved him off. “This is Eleanor’s island. She’s got tons of offers, so be nice to her! Besides, I’d come along, but then poor Dexter would be all alone.”
Greg nodded. “You’re okay, for a smart chick.”
“What does that mean?” Dexter asked, after Greg and Eleanor had vanished into the fragrant, flower-filled forest that covered much of Eleanor’s small island.
“Oh, nothing.” Polly reckoned dark, seductive Eleanor would soon make Greg forget all about her. Yet for one brief moment she had felt genuinely attractive. That was enough for one day, she thought wistfully. “Eat your sandwich, Dexter dear.”
Polly was worried. Eleanor had gone into Brunswick early in the morning, to do some shopping and to meet Greg Hatter. It was dark now, past nine o’clock, and no sign of her friend. Every time Polly tried her cell she got voice mail. Was she still with Greg? Ever since he first popped up three days ago, emerging from the waves like some golden god out of Greek mythology, Polly had secretly fantasized that hot gorgeous Greg would come back to the island looking for her. But it was clear now that he was only interested in Eleanor, and her island. Right now the two of them were probably in a cozy motel room, having earth-shaking sex to celebrate closing the sale. Polly hated Eleanor for snagging him so easily, even though she’d willingly given Polly first crack. She felt like walking out, packing up to go home. Instead, she continued to pace back and forth in Eleanor’s tiny living room, her turbulent feelings an uncomfortable mix of jealousy and concern.��
Just then the telephone rang. Polly snatched it off the hook on the first ring.
“Eleanor? Hello?” There was deep male breathing on the other end, hoarse panting, like someone was totally exhausted after running for miles or having fabulous sex. “Greg? Is that you?”
“Polly? It’s me, Dexter. Can I speak to Eleanor, please? I’m really in a jam!”
Polly stifled her disappointment. “I don’t know where Eleanor is, Dexter,” she said patiently. “She went to Brunswick early in the morning. Have you seen her in town today?”
“I haven’t been in town,” Dexter panted. “I got picked up by some Georgia Wildlife agents. They claimed I was in a protected area. I guess I crossed onto state land by mistake. But someone must have tipped them off! Eleanor gave me permission to explore her private island all I wanted. I know this is some kind of government conspiracy! I’ve just made the most incredible discovery. . .” All of a sudden Polly heard shouts and rude laughter at the other end of the line.�
“I am not going out of my mind!” Dexter shouted. “The evidence is clear. A competing predator has driven the alligator population away, and it has to be a competitor that lives elsewhere and only visits the breeding grounds for periodical use. They come ashore to breed, like the giant green sea turtle! They’ve been nesting on the same mid-Atlantic island for over forty million years!”
Polly bit her full lower lip, trying hard not to laugh. “Dexter, are you in jail?”
“I’m at the sheriff’s office,” Dexter replied sheepishly. “It’s out on the old beach road. When Eleanor gets in, could you ask her to come down here? The sheriff says he’ll let me go if she does.”
“Oh, poor Dexter! Of course I will. Do you need us to bring you anything?” Polly was thinking in terms of bail money or extra identification for the sheriff.
“Yes, could you ask her to bring the dinosaur field guide I left on the back porch? I have a bet here with a biker named Lamar about ancient sea reptiles protecting their young. It’s on page 177!” There was more background noise, with Dexter shouting at someone else in the holding cell.
“Oh, dear. Please be careful until we get there, Dexter!” As Polly put down the phone, she found herself smiling for the first time all day. Dexter Nye might not be every woman’s dream, but he was fearless and passionate about the things he believed in. Maybe that was why Eleanor put up with him. The sultry temptress and the goofy scientist were an unlikely pair, but no more so than a shy schoolteacher and a young hotel magnate with pots of money and the body of a Greek god.
Polly found the field guide without any trouble. But when she flopped down on the sofa and opened the book a scrap of faded paper fell into her lap. The yellowish paper had a small set of numbers written on it � and the handwriting wasn’t Dexter’s. 1833, 1877, 1921, 1965 . . . there was clearly a progression, a pattern of some sort. Polly looked at the book, which had fallen open to a picture of a ghastly looking sea creature squatting over a clutch of eggs on an ancient beach. This was clearly the page Dexter had just mentioned over the phone. But what did dinosaur eggs have to do with a handful of modern dates written in Eleanor’s handwriting?
“Polly honey, I am going to kill that man!” The front door flew open with a loud bang. Eleanor Hiss swept into the cozy little parlor like an invigorating gust of salty sea air.
“Eleanor! I’ve been worried sick about you. What man are you talking about?” Polly stuffed the dinosaur book under the couch cushions, instantly forgetting all about nesting sea creatures.
“Greg Hatter. That blonde, lying billionaire had this all planned. He screwed me!” Eleanor was looking stunning and sexy as always in a wine-dark red designer dress and black stiletto heels. Yet as she threw herself down on the sofa, Polly saw that she was tired and unusually agitated. As a rule Eleanor exuded confidence, a sultry calm she carried as easily as she wore her musky perfume.��
“Greg Hatter screwed you? What do you mean?” Polly hated the way her own heart started beating a little faster, just from picturing the golden hunk in her mind’s eye. If Greg had screwed Eleanor � if he had done anything at all to hurt her best friend, she would never forgive him.
“He decided he didn’t want to wait six or eight weeks before I sold him the island. He decided he’d put a little pressure on, so I’d have to give it to him right away, instead of taking bids from other developers.” Eleanor fell back on the cushions next to Polly, rubbing her temples.
“What kind of pressure?”
Eleanor kicked off her high heels, and crossed her long, elegant legs at the ankle. She put her hands behind her head and glared at a pretty watercolor painting on the other side of the room. “It seems that the sexy Mr. Hatter has high-placed friends in the Georgia state government. He called up the DNR � that’s the Department of Natural Resources � and started asking them questions about our local alligator population, why it’s disappeared and why I have some insane science geek wandering around the swamps, trampling the nests and possibly destroying all the alligator eggs.”
“That means Dexter!” Polly cried. “But he could never � Dexter isn’t the type � why would Greg even say such horrible things?” All at once she remembered Dexter’s frantic phone call. Polly quickly filled Eleanor in on the arrest.
“It all makes sense,” Eleanor said wearily, when Polly was finished bringing her up to date. “Bailing out Dexter will just make it more obvious to the locals that there’s something going on between me and him. And then when the DNR people come out here to investigate, they’ll take weeks and weeks, I’ll get reprimanded and fined, and probably have my land taken by the state. Then I’ll have nothing but my trust fund to fall back on!”
“And your brains, your amazing self-confidence and your incredible looks.” Polly didn’t often try to boost Eleanor’s ego, but tonight her poised and glamorous friend really seemed down. “But I still don’t understand. What does Greg get out of all this? He seemed like such a nice guy.”�
“He wants to beat the other hotel chains. He offered me ten million dollars this afternoon.”
Polly whistled. “That’s more than three times what you said the island was worth,” she said. “Why not sell to Greg and get it over with? I guess his friends will make it tough for you otherwise.”
Eleanor looked at Polly for the first time. “This place goes back a very long way in my family. I don’t like having strangers nosing around. And I don’t like being pushed around, either. Would you give in to a man like Greg just because he looks good in a bathing suit?”
“No, of course not!” Polly pictured herself drooling over Greg’s body-builder physique when they first met on the beach. A blush crept up her cheeks. “Still, you have to be fair, Eleanor. You were the one who told him how good he looked in a swimsuit.”
“I did not,” Eleanor said primly. “I merely pointed out that a skimpy little swim suit like his could come off in a hurry. If a man owned this island, do you think golden boy would have come over to talk business wearing a tight red banana hammock? Greg Hatter clearly thinks he’s God’s gift to women. I don’t like it when men use their private assets to get ahead in business.”
“I see.” Polly frowned thoughtfully, remembering her own reaction to Greg’s body. Eleanor was sexy, but she didn’t seem to crave sex. Not like Dexter craved her.
Eleanor eyed her shrewdly. “I certainly wouldn’t kick Greg Hatter out of bed, but that’s very different from being ready to sell my birthright to him in return for sex. Not that he made the offer. Frankly, I got the impression that he was a lot more interested in you.”
“Interested in me?”
“He asked if he could take another look around the island by himself. He meant without me watching him, of course. Off the record, before he brings in his government friends. I told him it was fine with me, but my army of alligators might get him if he did. And then he said being eaten by alligators would be a small price to pay for another look at you. Not the island, honey. You.”
“Did he really say that?” Polly’s big green eyes were as wide as saucers.
Eleanor frowned, her dark eyes serious. “Lots of women would kill to look like you, Polly. You’re the girl next door. Nobody ever tries to screw Miss Goody-two-shoes.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Men look at me and all they think about is sex. They look at you and they think about slaying dragons to keep you safe.”
“Lucky me,” Polly wisecracked. “Too bad there aren’t any dragons around here.”
“None that would hurt you, anyway.” Eleanor sighed, and there was sadness in her eyes. “You really don’t want to waste your time being jealous of me, honey. I’ve got all kinds of grief!”�
�“I know. And I’m stupid to complain. There’s nothing wrong with being twenty-five and single.” Polly bounced up from the couch. “So do you want me to help you bail Dexter out?”
“No, you’d better not.” Eleanor stretched on the couch. Then she sighed, and stood up straight and tall, looking slim and graceful even when exhausted. “This has been one very long day. Now I have to go and convince the sheriff that Dexter isn’t insane � and then I’m going to give our lizard-loving little mad scientist a piece of my mind.” She squeezed Polly’s arm, her expression melancholy. “That’s why I don’t want you along, honey. Dexter and I have some things to talk about. It’s not going to be pretty, but I don’t want him to feel even worse than he has to.”
“Oh, Eleanor.” Polly felt tears sting her eyes. It wasn’t so much Dexter getting dumped by Eleanor. It was the idea that her darkly sexy, cynical friend actually felt something for the poor guy.� “You really do care about him, don’t you? God, I was so stupid to think you were only after Greg. There’s so much more to loving someone than just the way he looks!” Polly gave Eleanor an impulsive squeeze.
Eleanor returned the hug. “You’re all right, honey. The funny thing is, in a way Greg might be good for you. I mean, he’s ruthless, but he’s filthy rich. And totally hot.” The two of them laughed. At the door Eleanor paused, resting her slender hand on the doorframe. “Eight weeks,” she sighed, gazing out at the dark night and the empty beach. “He couldn’t even give us eight weeks.”
Polly knew Eleanor was in trouble, but she didn’t know how to help. Watching her friend drive off into the night, she resolved to have a frank conversation with super-sexy Greg Hatter!