There was something uniquely refreshing about her. She wasn’t a raving beauty, not in the classical sense of the word, but she had a sparkle and a wholesomeness about her that added to her appeal.
Relieved the children had lost interest in him, he glanced toward the rise. There was no visible outlet beyond a smattering of trees and overgrown shrubs, just a solid rock wall bordering the entire perimeter of the beach.
“Is there a secret passage back there or are you all expert rock climbers?” he asked.
Her lips curved upward in a grin. “Come, I’ll show you.”
He followed her to the base of the rocky wall. “It’s a very ancient staircase,” she explained, gesturing to the entrance of a narrow tunnel carved into the rock. “It was excavated by the Franciscan monks who occupied the monastery in the eighteenth century for easy access to the beach. Monks’ Cove got its name from them.”
“A smuggling tunnel. Impressive.” He noticed the small square openings cut into the face, no doubt to allow the light and air into the passage. He had to admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those monks. A complex structure like this had to have been quite an undertaking, requiring strength and technical skills.
Her chin tipped upward. “Monks didn’t smuggle,” she said, and he suppressed a smile at her defensive stance.
“You can’t know that for sure. In British colonial times, people would do anything to avoid paying custom duties,” he couldn’t help taunting.
“In British colonial times,” Clare said, mimicking his tone, “monks lived simply and frugally.
Besides, they grew everything they needed right on their own land and didn’t suffer famine.” She propped her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at him. “Is it a New York thing or are you just innately cynical?”
“Probably a bit of both,” he admitted, then added, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to question your monks’ integrity.”
His effort at sounding contrite failed to impress her. “We should get back. The children have been taking advantage of my absence far too long,” she said.
“I take it the monks no longer inhabit the monastery?” he asked as they retraced their steps.
“Not in the last two centuries. Since then it’s been the home of the nuns of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They’re a very old order founded by St. Isabel of France in 1259,” she explained. “The original building was erected in the fifteenth century, when the first Spanish settlers came to America, but through the centuries it was destroyed numerous times by fires and hurricanes and rebuilt each time. You should drive up and visit the monastery some time.”
Again, he was surprised by her open friendliness. “Are you always this trusting of strangers?”
“No, only when I’m responsible for half drowning them.”
Her lopsided smile made his chest tighten. He wanted to tell her she reminded him of someone he’d known a long time ago, but he held back. It would surely send out the wrong vibes. Besides, it was plain crazy. Misty was in the past. Clare Elliot, on the other hand, was very much present, and an enigma that tantalized his curiosity. And damn if she didn’t intrigue him.
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