Chapter One

Doria Hanrahan clung to the railing of the Port Harbor fishing pier with one hand and clutched the keys to her father's trawler, the Merrichase, in her other hand. The old, but well-kept vessel now legally belonged to Murray Santoro. Doria's father had clearly stated in his will that Mr. Santoro deserved the boat.

The wind roared like some mythical beast but Doria only narrowed her eyes momentarily as a powerful gust slapped her. She refused to cower in the face of nature's fury just as she would not allow someone else to own the Merrichase. It should belong to her!

She glared out over the crashing waves with her lips pressed tightly together and realized how numb and heavy her heart felt, as though it had been weighted down with lead sinkers. Alone with her grief for the first time since her father's death, she relished the blast of the gale. It pumped some of its power into her thin frame and woke her from a weeklong nightmare.

"How could you do this to me, Dad?" she cried out over the howl of the storm. "You made a promise to me." But the tempest tore her words away and the only answer to her question was the shrill scream of the wind and a shower of salty spray that stung her eyes.

Sheets of rain pelted her and the pier shuddered as the waves slammed into it, but Doria stood her ground. With a nor'easter battering the New Jersey coastline, conditions on the pier were hazardous, however what she intended to do would only take a moment.

She opened the palm of her hand and frowned at the keys, each one labeled with her father's tidy printing. Seeing the neat handwriting nearly immobilized her as her heart filled with remorse because she hadn't helped her father when he needed her.

She clenched her teeth tightly together and struggled with her emotions. Still, she couldn't forget that Murray Santoro had robbed her. The Merrichase should rightfully belong to her. Though aware that she would merely create a delay with her reckless action, seeing the stony arrogance on Mr. Santoro's face crack would be worth it. She wound up her arm to pitch the keys far out into the surging tide when, suddenly, someone grabbed her from behind.

She screamed as one massive hand snatched the keys from her while the attacker's other arm held her fast in a steely grip. For a moment, she froze in total panic as the memory of being mugged at gunpoint in New York City flashed through her mind.

But this wasn't New York City. This was Port Harbor. Her terror dissolved as adrenaline shot through her system. She flailed her arms and legs, but that didn't help matters. She could see nothing of the hulking figure who imprisoned her except his yellow slicker.

"Let me go!" she demanded while pummeling the thief's arm with her fists.

In answer to her command, the mugger lifted her up and slung her over his broad shoulder. The action robbed Doria of air for a minute. Gasping for breath and disoriented by looking at the world upside down, she clung to the yellow slicker with white-knuckled hands. They passed through the gate at the entrance to the pier. With a flick of his free hand, the man shut the gate and snapped the lock securely.

Despite the throbbing blood rushing to her head, Doria renewed her struggle. One of her fists made an impact and momentarily halted the lengthy stride of her kidnapper.

"Cut it out," he rumbled. Doria gasped. She had been attacked by Murray Santoro!

"Put me down!" She screamed.

He ignored her shrieks until they reached the porch of the bait house. There he slid her off his shoulder and deposited her on her feet with a bone-jarring thud. Despite the fact that he had treated her so callously, the man had the nerve to glare at her. Doria's blood simmered.

"Of all the idiotic, insane--"

He slid back the hood of the slicker to reveal his face. His expression would have frightened a more timid woman but Doria had never been intimidated by anyone except that mugger in New York City with the gun. She put her hands on her hips.

"You had no right to--"

"What? Save your life!" he boomed. "You don't weigh more than a signal flag. A wave could have knocked you right off that pier."

"I have stood on the deck of the Merrichase in twenty-foot seas," she spat out.

Murray dug into his pocket, pulled out the ring of keys, and waved them in front of Doria's face. "These are mine and don't you forget it!" Then he snapped them shut in his fist.

A pain stabbed at Doria's heart. Her throat tightened. She took a ragged breath and studied the seething man beside her. In the flickering light of the porch lamp, the golden strands in Murray's hair gleamed. Her father had always disapproved of men who wore long hair. Yet Murray stood arrogant and proud with his long ponytail tied neatly in a leather string at the nape of his neck.

Doria twisted her mouth at a wry angle. Some might consider him handsome. With a wide forehead, high cheekbones and straight nose, he looked more like an investment broker than someone who worked on the docks. But his refined features didn't make the situation any more palatable. Because he had come to Port Harbor, her own dream of owning a restaurant would have to be postponed. He had stolen her future.

Doria smoothly spun on her heel to dash off the porch. Unfortunately, Murray had longer legs. He grabbed her arm before she had gone three feet.

"Hey, be careful," he warned. "It's gusting up to sixty-five miles an hour."

"I can take care of myself." Doria injected a dose of chill reserve into her voice. Murray Santoro deserved no less than her abject scorn. She shot a withering glance at the hand that squeezed her arm and then glared at his face. Murray shifted his weight from one foot to the other and something flickered in his odd green eyes. He released her from his grasp.

"Why did you come back here anyway?" he asked. He cocked his head and furrowed his brow, peering at her intently. His action suggested that he believed her to be the interloper, the stranger in town. "Your father wasn't expecting you."

"This is my home," she replied.

"Your uncle seemed surprised to see you, too." Murray put his hands on his hips and gave a sardonic lift to one of his brows. "He claimed you've been gone for years. He thought you liked New York City so much that you would never come back here."

The ache of grief started to throb in Doria's chest again. She turned away from him.

"Not everyone gets to be a chef in the Plaza." She hoped he didn't hear the tightness in her throat. She didn't want him to find out she wasn't a chef anymore.

"New York City isn't that far away," he commented.

Doria's eyes misted. "I called Dad and Uncle Walter regularly." She bit her lip. Why did she feel she had to explain things to him? Yet, the words continued to tumble out. "Last Christmas, I invited them to dinner and a Broadway show. And I did the same thing last spring. I would have paid for everything, even the bus ride to the city, but they refused my offer."

"Uh-huh." The note of irony in his tone aggravated her. Who was he to judge? She hated the man!

She wheeled around to spout off her fury and saw him studying the keys. He rubbed his thumb over the ridges and peered at the worn writing with such concentration, Doria wondered if he suspected her of damaging the hard metal.

Her anger flared. Murray Santoro had no right to that boat!

"The Merrichase should belong to me!" she shouted. She lunged at his hand, but despite his six feet and one inch of hulking muscle, he deftly sidestepped her.

Then, something rumbled under her feet. Doria frowned down at the wooden floor beneath her while the hideous groan of straining timbers set her teeth on edge. Above the wild scream of the storm, she thought she heard a long peal of thunder crashing. But it couldn't be thunder. Not in December. Fear chilled the blood in Doria's veins as she glanced down the length of the pier. Her stomach rolled as she watched the wooden structure topple and crumble into the sea right before her eyes. It took a moment for the danger to register in her brain. The bait house shared the same pilings as the pier.

"Run!" Murray shouted.

He grabbed her hand but she stumbled as the boards beneath her feet tilted. She slammed against one of the porch columns and crumpled down in a heap, stunned.

"Come on!" Murray yanked her up, put his arm around her, and dragged her to the relative safety of the steel awning on a boatman's shop across the street. Guiding her to a wooden bench, he released her. She sank down on the wet boards with her mouth feeling as dry as sandpaper. Oddly enough, Murray's arms had wrapped her with sense of safety, but now she shivered in the cold, wind-driven rain.

Then another crash sounded above the screech of the storm.

"There goes the bait house," Murray muttered. "You nearly got us both killed."

Doria barely heard him. An icy sweat broke out on her forehead as her stomach pitched. She watched the foaming sea batter the heavy timbers of the pier to a pulp against the rock jetty. Her hand trembled as she fought to cover a sob. Murray had saved her life.

Her whole body felt weak as her heartbeat slowed.

"Oh great," Murray grumbled sarcastically. "You're going to faint." He shoved her head down between her knees.

Doria would have fought against him if she didn't feel so awful.

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