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Authors: Jean Nash

The Sea Star

BOOK: The Sea Star
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The Sea Star

* * * *

by

Jean Nash

E-Book ISBN: 978-1-61026-055-8

 

Other Books by Jean Nash

 

A Love Through All Time

 

Prologue

 

 

Atlantic City

1899

 

     
It was early, not yet seven, a bleak sunless morning. Jay Grainger stood alone at the water’s edge, his coat collar turned up, hands in trouser pockets, looking out toward a restless sea that was all but invisible. A dense fog hung in the air, stinging his eyes, chilling his bones. With monotonous regularity the beam of Absecon Light swung over the water, alerting passing ships to the danger of shoals and reefs.

     
It was late July, the height of the season. Normally at this hour, early risers were already choosing a spot on the beach or riding the four-mile length of the Boardwalk in hand-pushed rolling chairs. But today, because of the fog, no one was about except Jay. Now and again he could hear a distant foghorn and the muted clang of a bell from a bobbing buoy.

     
Jay had risen before dawn, unable to sleep. Last night he had played cards at Dutchy’s, the last of a week-long Faro game. Afterwards, he left his friend and attorney, Ford Weston, at the gambling house, returned to the hotel and went straight to bed. But for some reason he lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, thinking about the fire—something he hadn’t done in months.

     
He kept hearing the victims’ screams. He could see with painful clarity the gutted building, the stunned survivors stumbling about with tattered clothing and scorched hair and skin. More than three years had passed since that tragedy, but whenever Jay thought about it, the memory was as vivid as if it had just happened.

     
The fire had broken out shortly before midnight on the coldest November night
New York City
had ever known. The city official who later investigated the fire had said it probably started in the cellar, a faulty incinerator perhaps, or a flaw in the newly installed electrical wiring system. Whatever the cause, the flames had spread quickly, snaking up to the lobby through walls and stairwells, then up through the entire six floors of the
Saint
Andrew
Hotel
, consuming draperies, furnishings, and sleeping hotel guests.

     
Fire Company Number 9 had responded swiftly to the alarm, but in the scant twelve minutes it took for them to arrive on the scene, the Saint Andrew was already engulfed in flames.

     
The night air had been frigid. Water from the fire hoses had frozen as soon as it hit the building, forming a panorama of ghostly icicles on the charred facade. A crowd had gathered on Broadway to watch the horrible spectacle. Mounted policemen kept order as best they could, but morbid curiosity seekers and brazen journalists had edged closer to the fire to get a better look.

     
Jay had gone into the blazing building again and again, shepherding terrified guests and staff to safety. When the firemen took over, he had stood on the edge of the crowd, his dark hair singed, his hands stinging with burns, his blue-gray eyes the color of slate, reflecting the flames as if they raged within himself.

     
Afterwards, he had very little recollection of his heroic efforts. He remembered only those he had been unable to save: a panic-stricken woman who broke out of his arms and ran back into the flames; and a hotel employee, not yet twenty, killed before Jay’s eyes by a falling, blazing beam.

     
Now, as Jay stared out over the fog-shrouded ocean in
Atlantic City
, he realized why that memory had resurfaced last night. The hotel employee who had died in the fire looked very much like the young man who had sustained heavy losses in the week-long card game. Dallas Sterling was the unlucky gambler’s name. He had the face of a choirboy, cherubic auburn curls and ingenuous brown eyes, but Jay had come to know that a devilish cunning lay beneath the young man’s angelic facade.

     
There had been four other men at the Faro table besides Jay, his attorney, and
Sterling
. By week’s end,
Sterling
owed five thousand dollars, a sum which Dutchy the proprietor assured everyone would be paid by the young man.

     
“The lad’s good for it,” Dutchy said when accounts were being settled. “He and his sister own a hotel here in the city. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble raising the money to pay all you gentlemen off.”

     
Jay looked over at
Sterling
, who was signing markers with a shaking hand. The young man’s face was very white. Beads of perspiration dotted his brow. He looked up suddenly and caught sight of Jay’s compassionate gaze. His trapped expression changed, became hopeful, a little cocky.

     
“Mr. Grainger,” he said and sauntered over to him with a smile, “might you be interested in a little business proposition?”

     
Jay finished off his whiskey and glanced at his attorney. “Perhaps,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

     
“Well, you see,”
Sterling
said, straddling a chair opposite Jay, “I own half the Sea Star over on
Pacific Avenue
, but I’m not much interested in the hotel business. You, I understand, have devoted your entire life to it. You’re rather a celebrity, you know, even down here in
Atlantic City
.”

     
“Really?” Jay lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. He had met
Sterling
’s type before, a man sharp but soft, one who had probably never done a day’s work in his life, a good-looking rogue who used charm to gain his ends as easily and unconsciously as a rose beguiles a bee. “What have you heard about me?”

     
“You own hotels in almost every major city in the East,”
Sterling
said smoothly. “You were born into money, but your father lost it all on Black Friday, so when you were sixteen, you took a job at the old Metropolitan Hotel. Within a few years you rose to the position of general manager, ingratiating yourself with the owner, who left you the hotel in his will. You subsequently sold the place and began acquiring hotels of your own. Am I correct so far?”

     
“Essentially,” Jay said, crossing his arms over his chest. “But what about that business proposition you mentioned? I assume it has to do with your hotel.”

     
“It does.”
Sterling
leaned forward eagerly. “Do you know the Sea Star? Have you ever seen it?”

     
“Yes,” Jay said. “Four or five years ago I wanted to buy it, but your father wouldn’t sell. After he died, my attorney here made a generous offer to your sister, which she also declined.”

     
“But that’s incredible!”
Sterling
exclaimed, clearly taken unawares. “She never told me about that. Well, look here,” he said, recovering quickly. “That makes it all the better. You want the Sea Star. I want to unload my half of it.”

     
“I didn’t say I still wanted it.” Jay extinguished his cigarette. “The fact is, I’m planning to build a hotel of reinforced concrete on the Boardwalk.”

     
Sterling
frowned. “What the devil is reinforced concrete?”

     
“It’s a new process,” Jay said, “developed by Thomas Edison. Mr. Edison assures me that a building constructed of that material will be completely fireproof.”

     
Sterling
eyed him skeptically, started to respond, then apparently thought better of it. “I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

     
“Yes,” Jay said quietly. “I do.”

     
“My proposition may still interest you,”
Sterling
went on, undeterred. “I take it you know what my hotel is worth.”

     

Your
hotel? You don’t look old enough to legally own anything.”

     
“I turned twenty-one last week!”
Sterling
said indignantly. “Ask Dutchy if you don’t believe me.”

     
“I believe you.” Jay’s tone was bland. “Go on with what you were saying.”

     
“Very well. I have a five thousand dollar debt here, including what I owe you. If you wipe the slate clean, pay off my other markers and give me fifteen thousand dollars cash, I’ll let you have my half of the Sea Star.”

     
Jay’s attorney coughed discreetly. When Jay looked at him, he gave a barely perceptible nod.

     
But Jay said to
Sterling
, “Why should I bother investing in a fifty-year-old guest house when I’m planning to build a luxury hotel?”

     
Sterling
’s gaze sharpened. The planes of his face seemed to lengthen, mature. “Let’s not fence with each other,” he said. “You know it’s a sound bargain, and so does your attorney.”

     
It was true, there was no denying it, but Jay remained resistant. Although
Sterling
was a full fifteen years younger than Jay, he sensed that behind those ingenuous brown eyes and that choirboy’s face lay a self-serving shrewdness that was older than antiquity.

     
“What about your sister?” he asked. “Won’t she object to the transaction?”

     
“My father died intestate,”
Sterling
told him. “The Sea Star devolved to my sister and me, and there’s no written contract between us. I’ve already talked with an attorney. I can do what I wish with my half of the hotel.”

     
Jay looked toward his attorney again, who nodded corroboration of the young man’s words.

     
“Suppose I wanted to buy your sister’s half, too? Would she be willing to sell now?”

     
Sterling
gave him a fawning smile. “The right person might convince her to do so. And let me add, Mr. Grainger, that the task would be a pleasurable one for you. My sister is so beautiful it makes one’s head spin. She looks like a charming sea sprite, with luminous green eyes and sun-kissed chestnut hair. Her skin is the color of ivory, flawless. She has rose-tinted cheeks, a perfect nose, and the sweet curve of her mouth is perfection.”

     
Jay stared at him, biting back hard words.
Sterling
sounded like a slimy procurer, attempting to sell his sister to the highest bidder.

     
“What makes you think I’m the right person to convince her?”

     
“Mr. Grainger,” the young man said silkily, “your reputation with the ladies is also well-known here. The newspapers say that with your wealth and influence—not to mention your good looks—you’re the most eligible bachelor on the entire Eastern Seaboard. Now tell me truthfully,” he added in a conspiratorial tone, “is there anything you’ve ever wanted from a woman that you haven’t been able to get?”

     
Jay was silent a moment. He greatly disliked this unpleasant character, but he never let personal considerations sway his business judgment. “No,” he said finally, “I can’t say that there is.”

     
“Then why are we wasting time? Let’s draw up a contract. My sister will pose no problem, I assure you.”

BOOK: The Sea Star
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ads

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