Libby picked up her cell phone, still connected to the computer. They could talk a few minutes. Before she could call, a small boat pulled up to the shore. Two men jumped out and pulled the boat aground. Nicole turned toward them. The men walked toward her. There was no one else in sight, and Libby tensed when Nicole took a step back. Libby punched in Nicole’s number. She watched her friend dig in her bag when it rang.
When Nicole answered the phone, Libby leaped to her feet and yelled, “Get out of there. Go to your car!”
Nicole was still watching the men walk toward her. “It’s just a couple of tourists, Libby,” she said. “You worry too much.” She smiled and waved at the men.
Libby leaned closer to the laptop. “There’s something wrong.” She gasped at the intention in their faces. “Please, Nicole, run!”
But it was the men who broke into a run as they drew closer to the boardwalk. As they neared the cam, Libby could see them more clearly. One was in his forties with a cap pulled low over his eyes. He sported a beard. The other was in his late twenties. He had blond hair and hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.
Nicole took another step back as the older man in the lead smiled at her. The man said, “Hang up.” He grabbed her arm.
“Let go of her!” Libby shouted into the phone.
The man knocked the phone from Nicole’s hand, and the connection was broken. The other man reached the two, and he plunged a needle into Nicole’s arm. Both men began dragging Nicole toward the boat. She was struggling and shouting for help, then went limp. Her hat fell to the ground.
Barely aware that she was screaming, Libby dialed 9-1-1. “Oh God, oh God, help her.”
Reese tapped her pen against her chin. “I have an idea,” she said. “Everyone jokes about the town name. Why not capitalize on it?”
“How do you capitalize on a name like Smitten?”
“What does Smitten make you think of?” Reese asked. “Love, right? What if we turn the town into a place for honeymooners?”
Shelby adjusted the bow on Penelope’s head. “I went to Santa Claus, Indiana, once. Tons of people, even in July.”
Natalie swallowed a groan. They’d all heard about Santa Claus too many times to count. She needed to derail Shelby before she broke into a rendition of “Jingle Bells.” “We could have love songs playing as people strolled the streets.”
Julia snickered and nodded toward the man striding past outside the window. “I have a feeling Carson would have something to say about that. He hated all the jokes about his name in high school.”
Natalie followed the angle of Julia’s nod. Her gut clenched the way it always did when she saw Carson Smitten. He was a man who attracted female attention wherever he went. He looked like his lumberjack great-grandfather, with his broad shoulders and closely cropped dark hair.
He had all the single women in town drooling over him. Except for Natalie, of course. If the other girls knew what she knew about him, they wouldn’t think he was so great.
“I’m still thinking about my idea,” Reese said. “This will mean new businesses, new jobs, lots of revenue pouring in. We’d have to get the entire town on board.”
Natalie’s excitement level went up a notch as she imagined the town transformed with its new mission. “The town meeting is coming up. I can present the idea there.”
“It’s a good thing you’re a selectperson,” Shelby said. “People listen to you.”
Natalie dug paper and a pen from her purse, a Brighton that Julia had given her for her last birthday. “There needs to be a cohesive plan. What would this love town look like? Besides romantic songs playing over speakers around town.” She peered at Reese’s list and copied down the items.
Shelby retied Penelope’s bow. “We need a lingerie shop that sells perfume,” she said. “Fudge. Some plush hotels and bed-and-breakfasts with tubs for two.” Her smile grew larger. “Maybe old-fashioned lampposts along the path around the lake. You could put outside tables on the street and white lights in the trees. Flower boxes all around town.”
“And we’ll need more restaurants,” Julia added. Natalie eyed her. “You said a good manicure was impossible to find. What if you started a spa?”
Julia’s perfectly plucked brows lifted. She grabbed the tablet and pen from Natalie. “I don’t know. I’d like to move back to New York eventually.”
Will Jesperson removed his pocket watch, glanced at the time, and then stared back out to sea when he heard a man yell. Were those shouts of alarm? Through the binoculars he saw a ship moving past the bay's opening. A puff of smoke came from a smaller boat trailing it—gunfire? The small craft caught up to the ship, and several men clambered up the mast.
Pirates. Will pressed against the railing and strained to see when he heard more shots across the water. Additional men poured onto the ship and were already turning it back toward the open ocean. He had to do something. Turning on his heel, he rushed toward the spiral staircase. The metal shook and clanged under his feet as he raced down the steps. He leaped out the door and ran down the hillside to the dinghy beached on the sand. The pirates shoved men overboard, and he heard cries of pain. He clenched empty fists. No weapon. Still, he might be able to save some of the men thrown overboard. Shoving into the water, he put his back into rowing, but the tide was coming in and the waves fought him at every stroke.
He paused to get his bearings and realized the ship was moving away. The smaller boat, attached by a rope, bobbed after it. Something whizzed by his head and he ducked instinctively. A hole appeared in the side of the boat behind him. The pirates were firing on him. His hands dropped from the oars when he saw several bodies bobbing in the whitecaps. Men were already drowned.
The wind billowed the sails and he knew he had no chance of intercepting the ship. But he could save the men that he could reach then inform the authorities of what he'd seen. He grasped the oars and rowed for all he was worth.
- - -
At 3:03 a light came on and Katie answered. "Number, please." The caller, a man whose voice she didn't recognize, sounded breathless.
"Is this the operator?"
She detected agitation in his tone. "It is. Is something wrong?"
"Pirates," he said in a clipped voice. "Just off the lighthouse. They shot some sailors and dumped others overboard."
She sprang to her feet. "I'll contact the constable. Do you need further assistance?"
"I need a doctor at the lighthouse. I've got two injured men. The rest are—dead. I couldn't get their bodies into the boat, but they're washing up onshore now." His taught voice broke. "I had to leave the men on the shore to get to a phone, but I'm heading back there now. Tell the doctor to hurry."
"Right away," she promised. She disconnected the call and rang the doctor first. Saving life was paramount. The constable would be too late to do much about the pirates. With both calls dispatched, she forced herself to sit back down, though her muscles twitched with the need for activity. She reminded herself she'd done all she could.
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