Authors: Linda Conrad
“Your family has owned this island for a long time?”
“Generations. But my grandfather deeded the village over to the citizens about fifty years ago. Most of the islander families have worked for my family through the years and Grandfather wanted to repay them for their loyalty.”
It must be nice to be rich enough to give away a whole town. Annie's family couldn't afford to give away so much as a seashell.
“You finished the research facility when your wife drowned, didn't you? I mean, it might've been her idea but you were the one that did the work to get it opened.”
“I wantedâ” He stopped drying dishes and put the towel down. “I wanted to find a way to give her what she had desired. I could not give her the child of her dreams, but I could see to it that her dream of doing this research went on in her honor.”
His hurt and guilt about not being able to have a child shone quite clearly in his eyes. Poor guy.
“And you were physically injured yourself at the time. You must've loved her very much.” Annie could feel a single tear escaping from her eye, and tried to keep any more from embarrassing her by sniffing and lowering her chin.
Instead of an answer, Nick turned to Annie and lifted her chin so she was forced to look up into his eyes. He tenderly wiped away the lone tear, then pushed a wayward curl back behind her ear.
“I think perhaps it would be best if I retire to my office now. Thank you for the lovely meal. I don't believe the hurricane should cause you too many problems.”
“Oh, I'll be just fine,” she said quickly. His touch had driven a jolt straight to her toes and she needed to step back from him and think about what had happened.
“Yes, I'm sure I will be fine, as well.” He dropped his hand to his side and moved quickly toward the kitchen door. “Good night, Annie.”
“Don't forget to let me know if you need anything,” she called after him.
But he was gone. And she was already beginning to feel cold in his absenceâas if stabbing fingers of lonely icicles were reaching right down into her gut and turning her inside out.
ick picked up the decanter and poured himself a snifter of brandy. His office, with its rich masculine colors, black slate tiles and warm suede sofa and chairs, normally gave him solace. But not tonight.
His thoughts kept turning to Annieâto how she would handle the hurricane alone back in her rooms. And damned if he also couldn't help but wonder what she might be wearing as she retired for the night.
Did she wear one of those frilly, see-through contraptions that some women liked to wear to bed? If so, he knew it would be silky soft but full of wild, exotic tones, just like Annie herself. Her nightwear would never be simple white or black, he was positive.
For Annie, the hue would have to be a deep, forest green to match her eyesâor perhaps a vibrant turquoise like the waters here in the Caribbean. He could even
imagine her in a blast of lipstick-red or a cool Mediterranean-coral that would complement her coloring.
Shaking his head, he put the glass to his lips and let the warm, liquid fire ease down his throat. He shouldn't be doing this, having indecent thoughts about a woman who was his employee. It wasn't particularly honorable nor faithful to the memory of his wife.
But what if Annie wore a T-shirt to bed? Or perhaps she wore nothing at all.
The stab of heat that image brought cut him clear down to his gut. He slouched on the office's wide, comfortable sofa and glanced over to the framed photograph of Christina that sat on the end table beside him.
His wife's cool, blond image stared back. He'd always loved the way Christina's sophisticated hairstyles had matched her polished method of dressing. She'd seemed to him to be the perfect fragile, silver angel. But he'd never felt the sharp pang of desire for Christina that the mere thought of Annie's clothes could bring to him.
Nor had he ever felt any emotion that might qualify as love for her. No matter how badly he'd wanted to feel it at the time.
He closed his eyes and waited for the familiar melancholy to settle over him. Thirty years old, and he had only had sex with one woman in his entire lifetime. Some men would think that was an old-fashioned ideal, but he had never wanted there to be anyone else but his wife. And now that he knew he was incapable of having children, it was the only honorable thing to do.
It irritated him that tonight, when he should be remembering ethereal Christina's flawless face and the consuming way she had loved the sea, all he could pic
ture in his mind was earthy Annie and the sound of her laughter as it wafted through the air and settled low in his body.
Annie was pure temptation, tempting him to leave behind his safe gray world. Her eyes were hypnotic, her voice the siren sound of sensual desire.
Banishing all thoughts of her, Nick stood and poured himself another brandy. Then he turned and lifted his glass toward his wife's photograph.
“Here's to you, darling,” he toasted. “I've kept all my promises. Your marine mammal center is fully functional and I will make sure only the best research is ever done there.”
He took a sip and let the guilt run down his throat. “And I'm sorry I couldn't be everything you needed while you were alive. I couldn't give you the child you so desired and I pushed you to be what I expected you to be.”
He'd left out a big part of Christina's story when he'd told it to Annie. Deliberately, he'd neglected to tell her about the pain, the anger and the cold doubts about Christina's death.
Waiting for the icy ache of dislocation that usually came over him when he thought about his lost wife's missed opportunities, he noticed instead that he just felt numb. Unlike last year's ritual of goodbye, this year the pain of the loss had softened around the edges. It had become indistinct and blurry.
He needed that sharp pain to return. To remind him of the emptinessâand of his promises.
Downing the second glass of brandy, Nick poured himself another. It was almost the time for his agreed-
upon call to the research center to check on their progress with the storm.
The idea that the dolphins might be helpless if they happened to escape the lagoon where they were raised gave him cold chills. But once again there was nothing he could do to keep the sea from wreaking whatever havoc it chose to inflict. At this point, he was much more helpless in the ocean than the dolphins.
As he headed for his desk phone, Nick caught sight of the gypsy's book. He reached out to touch it, but withdrew his hand when the book felt warm to his touch. Not tonight.
Nick wasn't quite ready to face children's fairy tales tonight. Now that he knew he would never be a father, any reminder of what he would be missing seemed too cruel.
The gypsy said the book would bring him to his heart's desire. Not likely. Rather, tales of love and happily ever after would only bring him more pain.
Turning away from the book, he decided that after the call was made, he and the decanter of Napoleon were going to spend some quality time on the sofa, riding out the storm. And trying to control any wayward thoughts of Annie.
She was just another reminder of all the things he could never have.
“Oh, no you don't,” Passionata Chagari warned as she stared down into her crystal ball.
This brash young Scoville was determined to ignore the magic. But the old gypsy woman would not let him get away with that.
She was not supposed to stir into the future, but to Hades with regulations. Thinking of ways to move him on toward his destiny, Passionata concentrated on the ultimate goal.
The hurricaneâ¦ Yes, perhaps their safe refuge had a weak spot. Something that would bring Nicholas closer to the truth, yet would not damage his self-image for the time being.
The young man had a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn. And this old gypsy using her father's magic was just the person who could teach him the lessons.
The lights flickered one more time and Annie set the book down beside her on the bed and stared at the bedside lamp. Maybe if she kept a careful watch on it for a few minutes, the electricity would hold still long enough for her to finish one more chapter.
She'd been having some difficulty concentrating on the wonderful new romance novel that her sister Brenna had sent in a care package that had arrived just yesterday. Bless Brenna, Annie thought. Chocolate bars, fingernail polish, a bar of vanilla-scented soap and a new novel by her favorite author. What more could a person want?
Annie glanced at her newly polished toenails and smiled. The island village did have a small grocery store that carried the basics. But they certainly didn't carry blue nail polish.
The sounds of the storm caught her attention as it intensified outside the walls of her room. The winds roared and tree branches whipped against the roof and windows. She felt safe and secure here in her suite, though.
This whole single-story wing of the house was brand-new, built within the past five years. Everything was so fresh and clean with its seashell motif and the beige and white paint, bedspread and drapes. Much more sophisticated than her room back home.
Her gaze landed back on the open book beside her. It was a terrific romance. But she couldn't read more than a paragraph or two without thinking about Nick.
For weeks now, she'd been having dreamy fantasies about her boss. She'd tried to squelch them. Fantasizing about her boss was a complication that felt way beyond her abilities.
But every time she closed her eyes, his silky blond hair with its silver tips and his wide sensual mouth kept creeping into her mind, making her fingers burn to touch them. Along with some other parts of him that she wouldn't want to admit, even to herself.
And every time recently that the two of them had been close enough to touch in real life, she'd felt giddy and nervous and not at all like her normal self. She'd even noticed that she'd been giggling and sweating whenever he came close. For heaven's sake.
She'd given it a lot of thought. Regardless of how irritating Nick could be at times, this just had to be a real old-fashioned crush. She had certainly seen her older sisters go through similar things enough times.
As teens in an all girls' school, her sisters had never been interested in anything else but boys. They'd begged to be let out on dates. Their strict parents had tried to keep the gates locked and the temptations to a minimum, but her sisters had found sneaky ways around the rules.
During her own teen years, Annie had gossiped on the phone with girlfriends and dreamed about a Prince Charming coming to sweep her off her feet. But she'd been too focused on her athletic teams, her studies and her books to work all that hard on finding boyfriends. In high school, getting an athletic scholarship to college had been her biggest goal.
She had dated a few times in college, but she'd been so busy thinking up a way out of the house and out of Boston that it hadn't left much time to worry about finding the perfect man. After college, her dreams had slowly turned to a desperation for travel, seeing the world and all the wonderful and far-off places she'd been reading about all her life.
“And boy did I get more than I'd ever thought possible,” she said aloud to her empty designer room.
Nick's Caribbean island was like something out of one of her favorite novels. She was doing what she'd always dreamed of doing. So the idea of being caught up in her first real crush at the age of twenty-four was a bit much.
Silly, she mused. She'd better dig down deep and find some of that practical good sense, just like her mother had always cautioned. Nick was about as attainable as one of her fairy-tale princes.
Throughout the evening, the storm battered the roof and the sides of the house with pelting rains and gale force winds. Nick awakened several times to the sounds of something heavy hitting the house.
At midnight he prowled through the darkened main house, worrying about the dolphins in their protected
lagoon. The storm had turned course slightly and they were catching more of the hurricane than anyone had predicted.
The electricity had gone out about an hour ago and he had not been able to reach any of the research team since then. Using a flashlight, he entered the kitchen and immediately his thoughts turned from dolphins to Annie. Dammit. Not again. He had to stop this.
Just then, a tremendous noise echoed through the house, loud enough to be heard above the storm.
Nick turned and made his way in the dark to Annie's quarters as fast as he could. He threw open the hallway door and barged right into her rooms, yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Annie! Where are you?” He flipped the beam of the flashlight around but found only an empty bed.
The sounds of the storm had grown louder in here and he could feel the air stirring. He turned toward the source of the wind and bolted to the open bathroom door, reaching it with little trouble in the dark.
But when he stepped inside the threshold, he found chaos. A huge palm tree lay half-inside the bathroom while the other half was still caught by the corner of the roof. But there were fronds and broken glass and now rainwater building higher on the tile floor.
And Annie stood on the counter in the middle of it all, trying to shove bath towels into the hole in the roof.
He swore once then moved toward her through the debris. “Are you all right? Just leave the damned thing alone and come away from there.”
“I don't have my shoes. I think I already cut my foot on the glass,” she hollered above the roar of the rains.
“Then put your arms around my neck. I'll carry you.”
“You can't carry me! I'm too heavy,” she protested.
He waded closer to the counter. “My personal trainer would disagree with you on that one. She says I'm a lot stronger than I look.” He'd said it with a forced smile as he reached to tug her down into his waiting arms, but he was too concerned about her safety to be very gentle.
Annie rolled against his chest and hooked an arm around his neck. Holding onto the flashlight with one hand, he pressed her close. She was as light as a baby in his protective embraceâand soaking wet from standing in the rain that was coming in through the roof.
Slick and cool against his naked, warm chest, Annie's body slipped lower against his abdomen. He groaned silently and begged for strength. The friction of her skin rubbing against his skin was causing him to lose his mind.
Carrying her, Nick quickly stepped into the bedroom and slammed the bathroom door behind him. He gently let her slide the rest of the way down his body to the bed.
“The bathroom is a mess, and I'm worried about the integrity of the roof on this whole section of the house,” he told her as he stepped back and let the flashlight illuminate the room. “Let's get you some dry clothes and then you and I will have to spend the rest of the hurricane in my office. It's in a part of the house that's been through several previous hurricanes and should be safe enough.”
“Yessir, master,” she quipped as she prepared to get off the bed.
“Cute. But stay put.” Nick put a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her back down. “Just tell me where to look for your things. You shouldn't stand until we have a chance to attend to your cut foot.”
Frustrated, Annie scowled up at him. “I can get around by myself. I've always excelled at one-footed races.”
“Stay there,” he demanded once again and moved to her closet. “We have to hurry. Tell me what you need.”
Annie directed him to the drawer with her shorts and T-shirts. Then she watched as he and the light disappeared into the huge walk-in closet. She would've liked to have dry underwear too, but simply could not imagine having him sift through her bras and panties.
Nick was back in an instant. “You carry your clothes and the light,” he ordered as he shoved shirt, shorts and flashlight into her hands. “I'll carry you.”
Once more, he lifted her easily. She closed her eyes for a second, much too aware of where his body was touching hers. But the flashlight was in her possession, so she opened her eyes and tried to keep the beam steady, showing him the way through the darkened house.