By Stephen Windwalker
Publisher of Planet iPad and Editor of Kindle Nation Daily ©Kindle Nation Daily 2010
Publisher of Planet iPad and Editor of Kindle Nation Daily ©Kindle Nation Daily 2010
With all the buzz among publishers during the past few months about so-called "enhanced ebooks," I have to admit that I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. I don't know if it is Andy Rooney or Jeff Bezos who I am channeling, but I had to agree with Bezos when he asked Charlie Rose earlier this year, "You think Hemingway is going to pop more on a color screen?"
So you know where I am coming from when I find an author whose idea of "enhancing" a book is summed up in this line about Cheryl Kaye Tardif, er, Cherish D'Angelo, from fellow author Betty Dravis: "One doesn't simply read a Tardif store, one experiences it!"
She invites us to enter a very different and distinctive fictive world in Lancelot's Lady, and the result is the winner of an Editor's Choice award from Textnovel.com and the #3 Most Popular Semi-Finalist in the Dorchester 'Next Best Seller' contest hosted on Textnovel.com. Although she is just beginning to break through in the States, she has already built a loyal following among readers in her native Canada.
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Praise for Lancelot's Lady
"Romance, mystery, danger, black-mail, and twists and surprises, this tale contains them all... Despicable intentions threaten every character in this finely crafted tale of sweet tension...Lancelot's Lady is a non-stop adventure combined with the agonizing struggle to not give in to the magnetism between them. Enticing. Fun." --Midwest Book Review
"From the cold rocky shores of Maine to the extravagant mansions of Miami to a lush tropical island in the Bahamas, Cherish D'Angelo takes her heroine through a series of breathtaking romantic adventures that mirror the settings, often in surprisingly ironic ways. A page turner in the best possible sense." --Gail Bowen, author of the award-winning Joanne Kilbourn series
"Cherish D'Angelo has got that mythical "voice" down to a fine art." --Jennifer L. Hart, author of River Rats
"Lancelot's Lady is riveting. It holds on and won't let you go! Cherish D'Angelo's descriptive powers are amazing. She summons up scenes like genies from bottles!" --Susan J. McLeod, author of Soul and Shadow
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A Brand New Free Kindle Nation Short:
An Excerpt from
Cheryl Kaye Tardif
Copyright 2010 by Cheryl Kaye Tardif, writing as Cherish D'Angelo, and reprinted here with her permission.
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Pacing in the expansive marble foyer of Lance Manor, Rhianna McLeod tried to calm her nerves as she waited for her life to change. One man's decision would determine her fate. Would she have a new job and a place to call home? Or would she be sent packing?
A tall, thin man in a dark gray suit approached her.
"Are you Mr. Lance?" she asked, holding her breath.
The man smiled and fine lines crinkled the corners of his warm brown eyes. "I'm Higginson, Mr. Lance's butler. He's resting at the moment. Perhaps you can leave your name."
Rhianna blinked back tears. She couldn't be turned away. The trip to Florida had taken most of her savings and she didn't have enough money to fly back to Maine. Besides, if it weren't for Mr. Lance's letter, she wouldn't even be in this predicament.
"But Mr. Lance is expecting me. I'm Rhianna McLeod, the palliative nurse he contacted. In his letter he said I'd have the job if I came here."
"I'm dreadfully sorry. Mr. Lance already has a nurse."
"But I don't have anywhere else--"
Somewhere in the stately mansion something crashed to the floor. Before Rhianna could comment, a crystal-shattering shriek pierced the air. This was followed by a terrible wailing sound.
The butler groaned. "Oh, no. Not again." He rushed off in the direction of the commotion.
Unsure of what to do, Rhianna took a determined breath and followed him. When they passed beneath a pillared arch and into a long hallway, she saw a reed-thin elderly man dressed only in a threadbare blue plaid bathrobe. It gaped open in the front, threatening to reveal more than just a hairy chest. Beside him, a plump woman in white scrubs was trying her best to calm him down, even though she was dripping wet and very upset.
As they approached the dueling pair, Rhianna tried to remember everything she could about her potential employer. In the past year, the tabloids had been filled with stories of multi-millionaire JT Lance and his fight against an aggressive disease, a cancerous brain tumor that made him an unruly and difficult patient. From what she could see, the rumors were true. Once exuding strength, confidence and perhaps a touch of arrogance, JT now looked frail and helpless.
"JT?" the butler called out.
"Higginson, get this woman a towel. She spilled my water."
"I did not spill it," the nurse snapped. "Mr. Lance refuses to take his meds or draw a blood sample. Now he's having a temper tantrum. He threw that water pitcher at me."
JT's eyes flared. "That's because you keep trying to poison me, you old bat!"
"I am not trying to poison you," the nurse sputtered. "The medication will help--"
"How the hell do you know what will help me? Half the time, you keep me so drugged that I don't even know who I am when I look in the mirror. The other half, you're busy taking my blood for your tests."
JT turned his back on the nurse and staggered toward Higginson, oblivious of the broken glass and water on the floor.
"Sir!" the butler warned.
With a resigned sigh, JT leaned against the wall for support. Then he caught sight of Rhianna. His mouth gaped and electric blue eyes lit up like twin lanterns.
"Anna," he whispered. "You came back."
He moved toward her and she suddenly found herself wrapped in his scrawny arms. Her first reaction was panic. It gripped her around the throat, strangling her. She wanted to fight him off, but then something strange happened. Calmness washed over her and she felt connected, a sense of belonging. For once in her life, she knew what it felt like to be welcomed home.
But this isn't my home.
She pulled back, embarrassed. "Mr. Lance, my name is Rhianna McLeod. I'm the nurse from Maine. Remember?"
"Nurse?" He studied her face and something akin to recognition flickered in his eyes. "Ah, yes..."
"What's going on, sir?" Higginson asked.
"I'll explain later. First, I need a drink."
Higginson gave Nurse Simpson an apologetic look. "Get Mr. Lance a fresh jug of water, please. I'm sure he won't let his temper get out of control now that he has company. Will you, sir?"
All eyes watched as the portly nurse waddled down the hall. Her disappearing act seemed to make the old man extremely happy.
JT nudged Rhianna. "That woman's a vampire."
"As you can see," Higginson said, "Mr. Lance and the nurse don't exactly get along." He turned to JT. "Let's get you back into bed before you end up on the floor--again."
"Come along, Anna." JT took her hand. "You can visit while Higgie tucks me in."
Rhianna stifled a laugh. Higgie?
When she caught his eye, Higginson shrugged.
She followed the two men up a spiral staircase, her shoes clicking on the Italian marble steps and echoing around her. When she entered a handsomely decorated suite accented with polished mahogany and brass, she sucked in a stunned breath.
The suite was larger than four bedrooms put together. A plush sitting room with two suede sofas and a wall of bookshelves greeted her first. Double French doors with glass inserts opened into the bedroom area. On one side of the bedroom, an open door led to a massive walk-in closet that held rows of suits, dress shirts and ties in every shade, and a shoe collection that would be the envy of any man on Wall Street. Another door opened into a bathroom ensuite featuring a Jacuzzi, a glass and tile shower and a sauna room. A sliding door on the other side of the spacious bedroom led out onto a small balcony overlooking a delicately scented rose garden. Between two tall windows stood a huge carved bed, a work of art in itself. A tan-colored suede armchair was positioned next to it--probably for the nurse--and a kaleidoscope of pill bottles lay scattered across the nightstand.
"What do you think, Anna?" JT asked once he was settled in the bed.
"I think it's definitely a man's domain."
Nurse Simpson returned, carrying a plastic jug of ice water. Shoving the pill bottles aside, the woman set the jug on the nightstand and crossed her arms, every muscle in her face pinched in disapproval.
JT dismissed her with an impatient flick of his hand.
In the doorway, the nurse hesitated. "Mr. Lance needs his rest. Even if he doesn't think so." Sensing competition, her eyes narrowed in Rhianna's direction. "Or anyone else, for that matter."
"Maybe we should talk later," Rhianna mumbled.
"Nonsense," JT said. "Stay with me a while."
The butler glanced toward the door. "Nurse Simpson, why don't you take a break for an hour or two?"
JT nodded. "Anna will take good care of me."
As the door slammed shut behind the nurse, Rhianna took a step closer. "Mr. Lance, my name is Rhianna McLeod."
"Rhianna?" JT sighed. "Well, yes. I guess you are."
Confused, she turned to Higginson. "I don't think he remembers writing me about the nursing position. He even contacted the hospital I used to work in and--"
"I hate it when people talk as if I'm not in the room," JT fumed. "Of course I remember you, uh...Rhianna. And I do want you to be my nurse. Higginson! Make up the Rose-Mist Room for Ms. McLeod. She'll be staying with us indefinitely."
"Are you sure?" Rhianna asked, surprised. "You may want someone more experienced. I've only worked in one hospital and one nursing home before coming here."
Higginson cleared his throat. "Have you checked her references, sir?"
"References are for untrusting fools. It's my blasted memory that's disintegrating, not my eyes." JT eyed the door. "And references sure didn't make a difference with Nurse Dracula. Which reminds me...see that the old bat gets a nice severance package."
As the butler's footsteps faded, Rhianna was at a loss for words. "I...uh...thank you."
"You can thank me by getting my pills over there." JT pointed to the nightstand. "The ones in the red bottle."
She fetched his medication and quickly scanned the bottle. The prescription was for Vicodin, a narcotic pain reliever. She shook out two pills and poured a glass of water before approaching his bedside.
"Thank you, Ann--Rhianna." His breathing was strained.
"Are you feeling all right, Mr. Lance?"
"JT, my dear. When you call me Mr. Lance, I feel so damned ancient, like some old geezer waiting to croak." He chuckled at his own joke.
After he was resting comfortably, she sat down in the chair and studied him. His thinning gray hair and handsome face suggested the rather dashing young man he must once have been. A once-strong jaw line, now softened by age and illness, still held traces of stubbornness. But it was his eyes, bright and kind, that held her attention. They seemed sad. Tired and sad.
"Now, Rhianna, tell me a bit about yourself."
"Well, I grew up in Bangor, Maine, and graduated--"
"Not the technical interview stuff, dear. I want to know about you. What are your goals, your dreams?"
Nobody had ever asked her about her dreams. For nearly two years, she had hidden herself in the nursing home in Portland, afraid to let anyone too close. Afraid to dream.
In that bedroom, sitting beside a dying man, she found more than an employer--she found a friend. Tentatively, she told him bits and pieces about her life. It started slowly, like a gurgle of water bubbling up from the center of the earth.
Within an hour, Rhianna had told him all about her childhood, about the terror she had endured, and the fear and abuse that had drained her soul of all self-worth.
Settling into her new job had been easy for Rhianna. JT had made it easy. Although occasionally prickly, her patient was also compassionate and kind. He gave Rhianna full run of the mansion while he napped, which was often.
As she wandered through the various rooms, admiring antique furniture, expensive ornaments and a collection of massive oil paintings in ornate frames, she caught sight of a painting in the foyer. It had mesmerized her since her first day at Lance Manor over six weeks ago. A rectangular brass plate on the bottom of the frame displayed no date or artist name, only the name of the work.
Lady in the Mist.
On the canvas, a woman's naked body, wrapped only in a thin veil of mist and caressed by soft blue moonlight. She stood in the shimmering stillness of a murky lake, her long, slender legs half-submerged in the water. Rich auburn hair cascaded down her shoulders and swirled over the peaks of firm breasts, and brilliant jade-green eyes gleamed with such yearning and expectancy. The mist rose from the lake in spiraling tendrils, like fairy hands grasping at the woman's body. The wind whispered in hot, humid breaths. Water trickled from the falls above, showering the plants with glistening moisture, while the Lady in the Mist appeared to be waiting for something.
Or someone, Rhianna thought.
There was something primal about the painting.
It was alive.
"It's a lovely painting, isn't it, Miss McLeod?"
She spun around at the sound of Higginson's voice.
"The resemblance is uncanny," he observed. "She looks like you."
"You say that every time--as if she predicted my arrival."
"Well, look at you." Higginson smiled. "You're here. And part of the family."
"You and JT have shown me the meaning of family--I'll always remember that."
"Don't talk as if you're leaving us," he chided.
"I will be. One day."
Rhianna's heart ached at the thought. Her job could end in a heartbeat. Or the lack of one. They both knew that. Though they'd given him six months at most, not even the doctors knew how much time JT really had left.
It had been difficult at first, watching a grown man waver between being fully cognizant one moment and barely lucid the next. Some days he had a hard time remembering the simple things, like how to tie his shoes or the cream went in his coffee not over his eggs. But she loved the old man. JT was like the father she'd never had.
Orphaned at birth, she'd been sent to live with her mother's sister, until Aunt Madeline and Uncle Bernard died in a ferry accident. After the funeral, Rhianna went into foster care and remained there until she was sixteen. The last place she was sent to was the home of Gwen and Peter Waverley. She spent three long years there--three years of hell.
She shook her head. The past is the past.
Flicking a look at Higginson, she noticed a single tear had escaped down his cheek. The man was a loyal employee, more like a companion and dear friend than a well paid butler. He'd been with JT for over twenty years. They often argued over business matters, yet JT always respected him, and that had won the butler's eternal devotion.
"There's something magnetic about her," Higginson said, before leaving her alone.
Rhianna's gaze was drawn back to the mysterious canvas. She often felt the woman in the painting was watching her. The artist had captured the sensual yearning in the young woman's expression, a sense of desperation, torment and passion that haunted her beautiful eyes. However, there was one thing that stood out--a flaw of sorts. The artist's signature was illegible.
"Good evening, dear."
Turning, Rhianna smiled as JT approached. "You're wearing your new robe."
He frowned. "New? Oh, yes. I can't seem to find my other one."
She'd given him a new bathrobe when he turned sixty-seven a week ago, but every now and then he'd forget about it and go in search of the ratty, threadbare one that she and Higginson had secretly thrown out.
"Why didn't you answer me when I called your name?" he asked.
"Sorry, I was daydreaming." She glanced at the painting. "It's so beautiful I get lost in it."
"I know, dear. It's your favorite."
"Who's the artist?"
JT's eyes went cloudy. "What artist?"
She indicated the painting.
"I don't have a clue." He frowned. "I think I knew once, but..." His voice trailed away.
"It's okay, JT."
"What is?" he asked, bright-eyed again.
She let out a sigh. JT's memory lapses were becoming more frequent.
Higginson approached them. "Everything is ready, sir."
"Then let's get this show on the road."
JT winked and Higginson disappeared down the hall.
"What's going on?" she asked JT. "You should be upstairs resting."
"I'll have plenty of time for that when I'm dead."
Her eyes watered. "Don't say that."
"I'm sorry, dear. You know I wouldn't hurt you for all the world, but if I'm going to die soon I might as well enjoy life now." He gave her a secretive smile. "Anyway, I can't very well miss tonight's celebration, can I?"
He frowned. "Your birthday party, dear girl."
Oh no. This was the last thing Rhianna wanted.
"It's no big deal," she mumbled.
"No big deal?" JT's arm swept across her shoulders. "My dear Rhianna, you're twenty-five now. When you're as old as I am, you'll be thankful for every single birthday you ever had. It means you lived one more year, saw one more year of sights and loved one year longer."
She smiled. "I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right. Besides, I have to dance with the birthday girl at least one time." He kissed her forehead. "You know, my birthday is coming up soon. I'll be sixty-seven." He frowned and scratched his chin. "Or is it seventy-six?"
She didn't have the heart to tell him he'd had it already.
His sudden burst of energy the past few weeks worried her. So did his insistence upon having a glass of brandy every night before bed, even though it was against doctor's orders. He'd been given six months. That was three weeks ago.
JT took her arm for support. "Take me to the dining room. And no arguing."
The first thing she saw when they entered the room was the bouquet of pink and mauve roses in a crystal vase. Instead of being positioned as a centerpiece, it sat on her plate. Beside the rose bouquet was a large box wrapped in pastel paper and tied with a lop-sided pink bow.
"I couldn't quite get that blasted bow right," JT muttered.
"Oh, JT," she said, not sure if she wanted to laugh or cry. "You didn't have to buy me anything. I'm your employee."
"No, Anna, you're like a daughter to me." JT's eyes widened. "Well, go on. Open it."
Some days he's just like a child, Rhianna thought, bending her head so he wouldn't see how much his thoughtfulness meant to her.
Blushing, she pulled out a mint green bikini with tiny lavender rosebuds on it. "I, uh...thank you."
"There's more," JT prodded.
Under a layer of tissue lay two sheer skirt-wraps and a pair of white leather sandals.
"This is very generous of you, JT, but I'm not sure where or when I'd ever wear these. They're not very practical for a nurse."
JT's eyes twinkled. "That's the point, Rhianna. Look how I had to argue with you just to get you to wear normal clothes instead of those ghastly nurse uniforms that only remind me that I'm dying." He smiled. "Besides, a pretty gal like you should be spoiled on her birthday. Someone needs to remind you that life is for living, not for holing up in an empty house with a cranky old geezer like me."
"Well, you do know how to spoil a girl." She grinned. "And I suppose if I have to put up with a 'cranky old geezer' like you, I'll survive. If nothing else, you keep things interesting."
"Now for the real gift," JT announced.
Higginson handed him a white business envelope before vanishing from the room.
Rhianna frowned. "Where's he going, JT?"
"Oh, don't worry. He'll be back."
She opened the envelope and gasped. "What's this?"
"It's your vacation. A plane ticket to Angelina's Isle, a resort island just northeast of Nassau in the Bahamas. I want you to take the next three weeks off."
"But I can't take a holiday."
"Yes, you can. And you will. You need a bit of fun."
"Fun? How can you say that when you..."
"I'm not going anywhere," he assured her. "I'll still be here when you get back."
Her voice trembled. "How do you know that?"
"I just do."
"But what if something happens while I'm gone?"
"Higginson will make sure I have expert care."
"But why are you sending me away? I don't understand." A tear trickled down her cheek.
"Rhianna, don't cry. I'm doing what's best for you. Trust me." He looked her straight in the eye. "I want you to have an adventure you'll never forget. You can't get that here. Besides, you could use a break. You're too devoted to your job."
I'm devoted to you, she wanted to say.
"When you come back," he said, "you'll be rested and ready to face the inevitable."
They both knew he was talking about his looming death.
"You're paying me to look after you," Rhianna argued. "Not to go gallivanting off to some resort in the Bahamas."
Even as she said this, a thrill of excitement raced through her. She'd never been anywhere except Maine and Florida. There was so much of the world she yearned to see, so many things she'd never experienced. Like freedom, adventure...love.
"You've done a terrific job caring for me," JT said. "But there's more to life than looking after an old man. Higginson will drive you to the airport tomorrow morning. When you come back, I want to see you tanned, healthy and happy."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand. "If you won't do this for yourself, do it for me."
She let out a heavy sigh. "Fine then. For you."
Rhianna could tell JT was elated by her decision. The way he'd ordered her around one might think he was her father.
As if reading her mind, the old man reached across the table for her hand. "You know I love you as if you were my own flesh and blood. You've certainly shown me more affection than my son."
"You never mentioned you had a son."
"He left home years ago. Shortly after he got married, we had a terrible argument and I haven't heard from him since."
"You mean he just disappeared? Hasn't he at least written you?"
"He wanted to make me pay for my sins," JT said, the light in his eyes dimming. A minute later he looked at her, confused. "What were we talking about?"
Before she could reply, Higginson returned with a small item wrapped in a piece of soft cotton. It was rectangular in shape and the size of a large book.
"And now I have two more gifts for you," JT said, giving her a conspiratorial wink.
Still fuming about JT's errant son, she watched him unveil a miniature print of the Lady in the Mist. Matted in deep blue and framed with a silver-edged frame, it was almost as exquisite as the original.
"I love it," she said, swiping at a rogue tear. "Thank you."
"Take it on your holiday," he suggested. "So you have a piece of home with you."
She couldn't hold back. "What's the second gift?"
JT grinned so widely that if he were dressed in a Santa suit he'd have passed for good old Claus. Well, Santa on Weight Watchers, maybe.
"The original Lady in the Mist is hanging in your room." At her stunned expression, he added, "It's all yours."
Rhianna was more than stunned. She was speechless. The very painting that she had gazed at for almost two months was actually hers. There were other paintings in Lance Manor, some even painted by the same artist, but none affected her quite like the one of the woman with the long red hair and deep green eyes.
"JT...I don't know what to say. You're too generous."
"That's what friends do," he said in mock sternness. "Now, just make an old man happy and say thank you."
She grinned at him. "Thank you."
Without hesitation, she wrapped her arms around the dying man and hugged him fiercely. "You are an honorable friend, JT, and I am so glad you're in my life."
"I haven't always been honorable. I've done some things in my life that I'm not proud of. And I've hurt people too." He lowered his voice. "There are no guarantees in life. But any risk is worth taking when you love someone. Remember that, Rhianna."
Alarmed by the tremor in his voice, she pulled back and saw tears in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
He blinked twice.
He gave her a blank look. "Anna..."
She sighed. "It's past your bedtime."
"When did you get here, Anna? Did you bring the baby?"
Rhianna had asked Higginson about this Anna person JT always mistook her for. The butler didn't have a clue. And now it seemed this mystery woman had a baby.
It must be someone from his past.
Maybe his son's mother.
Escorting JT to his room, she tried not to think of what would happen once he was gone. In some ways he was already gone. It was emotionally draining to watch him flip-flop between bouts of memory loss and total comprehension. Witnessing this grand man's decline was devastatingly heartbreaking. Today, one would never know by looking at him that he had less than six months to live.
She blinked back tears, then pasted a smile on her face for the man who meant so much to her. He gave her more than a paycheck, more than a place to call home. He restored her sense of safety and belonging.
Yes, JT was one of a kind.
She scowled. Too bad his son hasn't realized that.
If she ever met the guy, she'd have a few things to say to him. And none of them would be polite.
The airplane droned over cottony clouds and Rhianna was lulled into sleep. She dreamed of coming home to find JT lying in his bed, still and lifeless. Waking suddenly, she shook off an uneasy feeling.
It's just a nightmare.
She smiled, recalling JT's words before she left.
"I'll wait for your return before I go anywhere," he promised, "including Heaven's pearly gates--or that other place--whichever will take me."
God, please don't take him before I return. I'd never forgive myself.
She yawned and rested her head against the window.
Then restless dreams once again claimed her...
After being dumped off on Mrs. Emerson, a foster mother with very little money and too many mouths to feed, Rhianna had given up hope of finding a real family. She was a lost soul for a couple of years, until the "system" found her new foster parents when she was almost sixteen.
At first, Peter and Gwen Waverley seemed kind, but the honeymoon stage didn't last long. By the second week, Rhianna was making dinner, doing the dishes, vacuuming the house, and on weekends she did laundry. Sometimes her foster mother would ask her to dust too. Plus she had to keep her own bedroom spotless. Between school, chores and homework there wasn't much time left for a social life.
It didn't take her long to realize that the Waverleys were more interested in having a live-in housekeeper than a daughter. Later, she found out that her foster father saw her as anything but daughter material. In fact, he saw her more as a possession. A possession he had to have.
Peter's lecherous advances behind his wife's back made Rhianna so nervous that she remained in her room unless she had chores to do. At night, she'd lock her bedroom door, holding her breath as his footsteps slithered past her door.
Most of the time she was able to avoid being alone with him--until one evening when Gwen decided to go see Phantom of the Opera.
Rhianna saw the evil twinkle in Peter's eyes.
"Please don't go, Mrs. Waverley," she cried. "I don't want you to leave."
"Quit your whining," Peter snapped.
Sweat trickled down his brow as he waddled over to his wife and handed her a twenty dollar bill. "Have fun."
Gwen eyed Rhianna with disdain. "See to it that all your chores are done before you retire. I don't want to come home to a pile of dirty dishes and wrinkled laundry. And quit that sniffling."
"But Mrs. Waverley, I'd just feel much better if you were home. And I don't think the agency would like--"
Peter whipped around. "You don't think I can take care of you?"
"Now, Peter," Gwen said with a sigh. "The girl is just missing me, that's all. I'm sure you'll do a fine job looking after our...daughter." Her eyes narrowed. "And don't worry, she won't say anything to the agency. She knows there isn't another family for miles that would take her in."
Peter glared at Rhianna. In a cold voice he said, "It's a good thing your parents are dead. I don't think they'd be too proud of your behavior."
"Yes, you behave yourself," Gwen commanded. "And get those chores done while I'm gone. I'll be back around ten o'clock."
The door slammed shut behind her.
Rhianna watched as Peter flicked the lock.
When he turned around, his eyes were gleaming and his mouth was stretched into a sadistic smile. "Come to Daddy."
Her heart stopped beating.
"Miss?" a voice called from the blackness. "Wake up."
Rhianna opened her eyes and a face swam into view.
"Why, hello there," a flight attendant said, her accent placing her from Ireland. "Boy, that was one doozy of a nightmare, if I do say so. You better have a drink, and I don't mean water. Can I fetch you something?"
"No, thank you." Rhianna shook off the remnants of her dream. "When will we be landing?"
"In about twenty minutes, give or take. Course we have to make it through the Bahama Triangle first."
Rhianna's pulse raced. "The Bahama Triangle?"
The flight attendant grinned. "Just kidding. No such thing."
In the aisle seat across from Rhianna, a man in a business suit nodded. "I've taken this trip dozens of times, and they still use the old Bahama Triangle joke." He smiled. "Where you headed?"
"To a resort on Angelina's Isle. Have you been there before?"
The man frowned. "No, can't say I have."
Over the speaker, the captain asked everyone to fasten their seatbelts for their descent. The plane softly touched down and coasted down the runway.
Rhianna's heart raced with anticipation, mimicking the rumble of the plane's engine. Fifteen minutes later, she disembarked from the plane and followed the ant trail of tourists and residents down the narrow hall.
Once she passed through the airport, she hurried outside. A wall of heat and humidity hit her, and she sucked in a breath, grinned and hailed a cab.
"I need to get to Bayshore Marina," she said, checking the directions JT had written down.
A kaleidoscope of island colors and scenery rushed past the open taxi window. The seductive aroma of exotic flowers mingled with the fresh but humid scent of an earlier rain that had left evaporating puddles on the road. Between lush palm trees, she saw houses painted in tropical shades of orange, pink, yellow and green.
It was breathtaking, unspoiled. Like another world.
Almost too soon the taxi pulled up to Bayshore Marina. A small dock jutted out over the water and boats of various sizes and styles were moored there, while others dotted the water. In the distance, small islands appeared to float on the ocean's surface.
She wondered which one was Angelina's Isle.
Walking along the dock, she noticed two men arguing about the boxes they were loading into a brightly painted powerboat. Moving closer, she discovered that the paint job was meant to detract from the rickety shape the craft was in.
"There isn't enough room for all of them!" yelled the dark-skinned man.
"You'll have to make room, Roland," his older companion replied. "Tyler wants these supplies this month, not two months from now."
"I'm telling you, Denny, I can't transport them all. The boat'll sink."
The older man cursed. "Tyler pays you to make sure he's well stocked. You don't wanna get on his bad side. Remember what happened to Daniel O'Brien? Tyler just about took his head off when the poor kid forgot his brushes."
"Excuse me," Rhianna said.
Neither man noticed her.
"Hello there!" she hollered.
The two men looked up, their eyes widening in shock. Roland nearly dropped the box he carried. And Denny missed going for a swim by about six inches.
"I'm looking for a boat called Siren's Call," she said. "Can either of you tell me when it's supposed to arrive?"
"What do you want with the Siren?" Roland asked, white teeth gleaming as he smiled in her direction.
"The captain is supposed to take me to Angelina's Isle," she explained, backing up as the men jumped onto the dock. At their doubting looks, she said, "If you could just tell me when he'll arrive, I--"
"The captain won't be taking you anywhere," Denny said. "The Siren isn't taking passengers today."
"But I don't understand. I was told the captain would take me across." She shaded her eyes with one hand and surveyed the boats nearby. "Maybe I can take another boat."
"There aren't any others that dock there," Roland answered. "Lancelot's Landing is private property."
"Well, I'll just wait until the Siren's Call gets here," she said in a tight voice. "I'm sure once I've explained why I'm here, the captain will take me across."
Roland laughed. "Ma'am, this is the Siren's Call. At least it used to be, until the boss changed her name."
Denny let out a scornful snort. "Long overdue, if you ask me."
"Now she's Misty's Dream," Roland said with pride.
"So you're the captain?" she asked.
The young man nodded. "But like Denny told you, I can't take passengers today. I have enough on board already. Besides, the boss didn't say he was expecting anyone."
"Then the boss is in for a big surprise." Rhianna reached into her handbag and dug out the envelope addressed to 'Captain'. "This is for you. From my employer."
Roland suspiciously peered at the envelope. Ripping it open, he quickly read the note.
"Your employer paid me five hundred dollars," he said. "Looks like you're heading to Lancelot's Landing."
"Roland," Denny warned.
"I need the money. Leave the last two boxes on the dock. I'll run them out to Tyler in a couple of weeks."
Helping Rhianna aboard, Roland tucked her suitcase by her feet.
"You won't get in trouble for leaving supplies behind, will you?" she asked.
"Not enough to turn down the money you gave me."
With a wave to Denny, Roland pushed the throttle forward and the powerboat took off, leaving a frothy wake in its trail.
"I guess your boss forgot he had a new guest," she said, smiling as the wind caught at her hair.
"Tyler never forgets."
He did this time, she almost said.
She found herself wondering about the resort's boss. How could he not pay attention to his guests' arrival?And how would he feel when Roland explained that they had to leave two boxes behind in order for her to come on board?
Rhianna leaned back and closed her eyes while the boat raced across the water, the outboard purring like a kitten. The coolness of the breeze was a welcome change from the scorching heat she'd felt when she deplaned. Loosening her hair from the restraints of an elastic band, she ran her fingers through the wavy strands.
"You're definitely not in Maine anymore," she said beneath her breath.
Roland pointed at a small island. "That's Angelina's Isle."
"It's very isolated."
"You have no idea."
The way he said it made Rhianna's heart sink.
Minutes later, Roland slowed the engine and aimed the boat for a worn dock that jutted out into the water.
A weathered sign nailed to a post at the end of the dock read, Welcome to Lancelot's Landing, Angelina's Isle. Underneath, a second sign warned, PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
It was an odd warning for a resort.
Rhianna squinted, searching the bushes for signs of life. There wasn't a building, road or person in sight.
Roland hefted the suitcase over the side and set it on the dock with the boxes he'd already unloaded. Then he opened a small mailbox under the warning sign.
"Tyler's next order," he explained. "He should be here any minute." Roland jumped into Misty's Dream and prepared to cast off.
"Wait! Where are you going? There's no one here yet."
"Don't worry. Tyler'll be here. He hardly ever misses his supply drop." He waved once, then steered the boat toward open water.
"What do you mean hardly ever?" she hollered.
There was no reply.
She moaned. "Where do I go if Tyler doesn't show?"
As she watched the powerboat speed away, anxiety crawled over her like fire ants at a picnic. There wasn't a soul in sight. Not even a proper path through the overgrown brush to show her the way.
"Wait until I get a hold of this Tyler," she muttered. "I've got a thing or two to tell him about customer service. Some kind of resort this is."
She grabbed the Gucci suitcase--a birthday present from Higginson--and dragged it in the direction she hoped would lead to the resort. Using her handbag to ward off errant tree branches, she gradually made her way through the dense foliage, although the grass was slippery and she came close to falling more than once.
"Where the heck is this place?"
After ten minutes of fighting an unforgiving jungle, she turned around and headed back to the beach.
When the boss comes for his supplies, I'll be waiting.
She would register a complaint with the front desk. Guests shouldn't be dumped off in the middle of God knows where and left to fend for themselves for God's knows how long.
She checked her watch. It was almost three o'clock.
Damn. How long is Tyler going to keep me waiting?
Mindful of slivers, Rhianna sat at the end of the dock and dangled her bare feet in the warm water. It had been a long trip, and worrying about JT definitely didn't help. She smiled, thinking of the old man's stubborn pride. He didn't like to be babied, especially by her.
Staring out at the glittering ocean, a sudden pain flared deep within. Her only taste of what family was like would end in less than six months.
She couldn't go back to Maine, not now.
Tears trailed down her cheeks, and for the first time in months, she broke down. If only she could have picked a father. She would have picked JT.
The shrill cry of an unseen bird reached out to her as loneliness enveloped her, wrapping her in exhaustion. She couldn't resist lying on her back, her toes skimming the ocean. Before drifting into a deep sleep, she had one last thought.
I'm like the Lady in the Mist. Waiting...
A misty dream pool beckoned, calling her name.
She waited expectantly, observing the still surface. Warm water closed around her toes as she stood at the shore, her white nightgown fitting the curves of her body like a second skin.
A ripple disturbed the water, as if someone had dropped a stone from above. From its center a form arose, sleek and graceful.
It was him! She had found him at last.
This man of her dreams, all bronzed and muscular, brushed the water from his jet-black hair and waded to the shore. His muscles gleamed in the moonlight as he stepped, naked, from the pool. He moved toward her, his eyes smoldering with passion. Arms outstretched, he reached for her and pulled her close.
She reached up, her fingertips gently tracing a path up his smooth chest. Winding her hands around his neck, she clung to him, barely daring to breathe.
He bent his head, those sapphire eyes mesmerizing her, drowning her. Not a word was said. He leaned forward, caressing her lips with his, lighting a fire that swept through her very soul.
His kiss deepened, growing more urgent.
Then he whispered her name...
"Hey, lady! What the hell are you doing on my island?"
Rhianna held her breath and clamped her eyes shut. She didn't want to face the man whose voice simmered with fury. She was sure that he would look as ugly as he sounded.
Finally, she raised her head and forced herself to focus on the imposing man before her. She took in paint-splattered jeans that hugged well-formed thighs, a purple t-shirt covered in various spatter colors, muscular arms folded in front of an impressive chest, and thick black hair that curled at the nape of his neck.
The contours of his handsome face were chiseled as only an ethereal sculptor could, with strong lines enhanced by a dimple on his left side, the only side unmarked by streaks of paint. His nose was straight and proud, just bordering on arrogant. But it was his eyes that fascinated her. Framed by thick black lashes, they were the deepest sea-blue she had ever seen, and right at this moment, those eyes were trained on her with sniper precision.
She felt her throat constricting. Whether it was from fear or attraction, she didn't know. But she did know one thing. He was the most gorgeous man she had ever met.
"I asked you a question!" the man demanded. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
She glared back at him. "My name is Rhianna McLeod. Who are you?"
"I'm no one important."
Rhianna couldn't agree more. From the looks of him, he was probably the handyman.
"And you, Ms. McLeod, are on private property," the man continued. "I'd appreciate it if you would go back to wherever the hell you came from." He kicked her suitcase for good measure.
He stabbed a finger at the sign. "Can't you read?"
"Look here, whatever-your-name-is, I'm a guest here. Now if you'd just take me to your boss, I'm sure he'll explain this to you."
She rose abruptly and tried not to blush as she unrolled her pant cuffs until they covered her feet. Then, with sandals and handbag in one hand, she grabbed the handle of her suitcase and lugged it to the shore end of the dock.
On the sandy beach, she flicked a look over her shoulder. "Are you coming?" With hands on hips, she gaped at him, fighting the impulse to wipe that smug look off his face. "What?"
"Just get back on your boat and--"
"Boat?" she shrieked. "Do you see a boat anywhere?" Infuriated, she waved her hands in the air. "The captain just dumped me here in the middle of God knows where and took off in his blasted boat."
And if she ever saw young Roland she'd have a few things to say to him.
"There's obviously been a mistake," he said.
"I'll say there's been a mistake," she snapped. "When your boss hears about this, I'm sure he won't be too happy. Is this the way you treat all your guests?" She reached into her handbag for a pen and paper.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Rhianna didn't answer him. She was livid. Her vacation wasn't going the way she had planned. She should be lying on a beach in her new bikini, drinking strawberry margaritas like JT had promised. Instead, she was arguing with an insulting, paint-splattered, black-haired Adonis, while she looked like a homeless street-person.
"What's your name?" she demanded.
"Just Jonathan. Everyone here knows who I am."
She scribbled his name on the paper.
"What do you intend to do with that?" he asked.
"I'm going to report you to your employer. Now take me to the resort--or lodge, or whatever you call it."
Jonathan laughed again, catching her off guard, his deep voice sending a shiver down her body. His eyes gleamed and she watched in disbelief as he vanished into the bushes.
She was about to go after him when he returned with a large wheelbarrow. In one swift movement he stripped the t-shirt from his body and tucked it around one of the wheelbarrow handles.
She eyed him nervously. "What are you doing?"
"I'm getting my supplies." He cocked his head to one side. "You know, the boxes that were dropped off...with you."
The way he said it made her feel like she was some kind of bug. One that needed to be squashed.
She watched while he loaded the wheelbarrow. It was difficult not to stare at his rippling muscles, especially when he exuded strength, confidence and arrogance in every breath. She'd never met a man as infuriating as this one.
Something about him seemed...familiar.
Suddenly recalling her dream, she gasped. It's him!
The man from her dream.
~ * ~
Jonathan almost laughed at the woman. How dare she look at him as if he were some uneducated, impoverished bum. If she could only see herself. Most of the women he'd known would never allow themselves to be seen in such disarray, with hair tousled by the wind, no makeup on whatsoever--not that she needed any--and tired, angry eyes.
Approaching, he surreptitiously studied her. The woman's creased cotton pants were slightly damp at the hem. The blouse she wore, while feminine, was primly buttoned to the top. And her unmarked suitcase screamed brand new, suggesting this woman either wasn't well-traveled or worldly, or she was and she bought a new suitcase for every trip.
Rhianna, he recalled.
She had eyes the color of jade, and right now they were flinging daggers at him.
He chuckled. She's feisty, I'll give her that.
Now that she was standing, he could see that her head only came as high as his chest, but she was curved in all the right places. She had long, slender legs--the kind he'd like to wrap around him.
Now where the hell did that thought come from?
"Where are you from?" he demanded.
He let out a huff. "City girl."
Staring into her thick-lashed eyes, he felt a shock of something akin to recognition. Yet he knew they'd never met before. Shaking his head, he reminded himself that women were nothing but trouble. He'd had enough of that to last him a lifetime.
Liars and cheats. All of them!
"How far is the resort?" she asked.
His laughter echoed through the trees.
Without looking at her, he pushed the wheelbarrow along the dock, then carefully inched it onto the sand below. It was a bit of a struggle pushing the wheels through sand, but he finally made it to the grass.
Wiping his brow with the t-shirt, he said, "What boat did you say brought you here?"
"Misty's Dream." Her voice was soft, like a summer breeze.
"Roland," he muttered. He'd have to have a talk with the guy. Roland should know better than to bring anyone to the island.
"Sorry about the other boxes," Rhianna said behind him.
He froze. "What other boxes?"
"The ones we had to leave behind on the dock."
He gaped at her. "You left my supplies behind?"
"It was the only way I could fit..." Her voice drifted away when he cursed loudly.
"You've got a lot of nerve, lady."
"I'll explain to your boss why the boxes are missing," she offered.
"You'll explain?" He clenched his fists. "I'm sure that'll make things all better."
She scowled at him. "You don't have to be so angry."
Jonathan was angry all right. Angry with Roland for leaving his supplies on a dock where anyone could steal them. Angry that this woman had invaded his privacy. Angry that she accused him of being angry.
"I'm not angry," he said, clenching his jaw. "I'm furious."
"I said I was sorry."
"Let's just go back to the house." He heaved up the handles of the wheelbarrow, aimed for the trees and stomped off.
"Wait!" Rhianna said. "Who's going to carry my suitcase?"
He glared over one shoulder. "Who do you think?"
Jonathan felt some satisfaction knowing that his uninvited guest would be fighting with that blasted suitcase all the way to the house.
Behind him, he heard a few words that no lady should ever say. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
"It's not too far," he lied.
~ * ~
Realizing that he wasn't going to wait for her, Rhianna stumbled after him, half carrying, half dragging the suitcase. It seemed to have magically increased in weight and she groaned inwardly. That'll teach her for not packing lighter.
She scowled at Jonathan's back, hoping he was just as hot, tired and sweaty as she was and wishing he'd fall flat on his face so she could have a good laugh. She certainly needed one. The man didn't even have the decency to look over his shoulder and check on her.
What a lot of nerve!
Trudging through the tall grass, she stole a few furtive glances at the man ahead of her. His arms bulged in rebellion to the weight of the boxes in the wheelbarrow, yet he didn't seem to notice. The jeans he wore hugged his hips, and fit him in all the right places.
Without warning, he spun around and caught her staring. He raised one mocking eyebrow, then let out an aggravated huff. He stalked over to her, wrenching the suitcase from her hands. He threw it on top of his boxes and without a backward glance continued trekking through the woods.
Rhianna had a terrible feeling that her holiday had just gone down the toilet.
* * *
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