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When Carolina Daniels opened her eyes, she seemed to have dropped into someone else's life.
Nothing in her vision was familiar.
The blue blanket comfortably snuggled under her chin wasn't hers. The pillow under her head was flat instead of poofy and the serene blue walls and contemporary decor had nothing in common with her bedroom. The room wasn't just tidy; there wasn't a single mess in sightno open books, no shoes, no sweaters draping chairs, no half-opened bag of Oreos by the bed.
The lack of Oreos was proof positive. Either someone had given her a character transplant, or she really was living someone else's life.
That thought almost struck her as funny, except that her mind was groggier than glue. Someone had given her some heavy-duty drugs, judging from her woozy mind. Still, there seemed no reason to be afraid, exactly. The room was peaceful, silent. Sleeping on a comfortable bed, cuddled in a warm blanket, hardly portended a dangerous situation. It was just that her mind was so murky she really couldn't grasp where she was or why.
But then she spotted the man. Her heart abruptly hiccuped. A major hiccup. A major, serious hiccup.
The crazy dream had taken an immediate dramatic turn, but whether it was evolving into an erotic fantasy or a nightmare, she couldn't tell. At least not yet. She tried closing her eyes. Reopening them.
The stranger was still there, prowling the perimeter of the room like a caged-up lion, a cell phone pressed to his ear. Carolina didn't know him. He wore a dark gray suit, of a cut and fabric that looked European. A stark white shirt and charcoal striped tie were both yanked loose at the throat. A guy could go to the opera in Paris wearing clothes that expensive and distinctive.
But it wasn't his clothes that had her heart suddenly pounding like a trapped bird's. It was him. Something about him.
Everything about him.
Still talking on his cell phone, he turned on his heel, about to face her way. Instinctively she closed her eyes so he wouldn't realize she was awake, but her mind had already cataloged his features.
Only pale daylight seeped through the lone window, just enough to reveal his face, his stature. She guessed he was a few years older than her twenty-eight, but not many, maybe five or six. Although he was dressed for a formal night out, his blond hair looked hand shoveled, his chin peppered with whiskers, his sharp blue eyes shadowed with weariness. He was tall. Of course, everyone was annoyingly tall compared to Carolina's five-four but he was really tall. Easily a couple inches over six feet. He was built long, lean and mean, with shoulders wide enough to fill a doorway.
He wasn't a next-door-neighbor type. He was more the kind of someone who ran things. Big things. Someone who made people jump and events happen. Energy and power charged the air around him, in the way he stalked about, the way his muscles bunched, the way his jaw squared off as he spoke into the phone. Maybe he was an extraordinarily compelling hunk but she sure wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of an argument with him.
But those were just more reasons why she wouldn't, didn't, couldn't know him. Her circle of peoplefrom her fellow special ed teachers to family to all her neighbors in the new South Bend condo complexjust never crossed paths with anyone like this man.
Her muzzy mind processed more information. The monitors and equipment off to her right suggested she was in a hospital, even if the silk-blue walls and couch and flat-screen TV hardly resembled standard hospital decor. Again, she tried to recall why she was here, how she'd gotten here, but it was as if there was a door in her mind. On one side of the door was something huge and upsetting and exhausting, something so overwhelming that she couldn't gather the strength to force that door open.
Her arms were wrapped around her knees, her knees tucked to her chin. She remembered curling up this way when she was a little girl in the dark, trying to hide, to make herself invisible so the alligators under the bed couldn't find her.
But she wasn't a little girl, and there were no alligators now. Just the strange man who seemed to have popped into her life with no more logic than a dream. He suddenly spun around, lasered a compelling stare in her direction againand caught her eyes open.
Immediately he snapped the cell phone shut and strode straight toward her. His mouth opened, as if he was furiously barking out orders to people unseen, people behind him, but she couldn't hear what he was saying.
Bits and pieces of reality started seeping into her mind. Nothing about him. But about that crisis moment when she suddenly lost her hearing.
The last weeks all came back in a blotchy rush. The stunned joy and shock when she was told about the fabulous inheritance. The disbelief. The thrill. The racing around her apartment like a mad thing, screaming at the top of her lungs, calling everyone she knew. Checking back twice with the lawyer to make sure it was real.
But when that giant check arrived, so did repercussions that she'd never anticipated, and had no possible way to be prepared for.
Two days ago? Three? She remembered her brother's face when he'd found her. Gregg looked so scared. She'd been locked in her bedroom, hands over her ears, wrapped in an old wool stadium blanket in the corner. No one could reach her, she'd thought. She'd pulled out the landline, drowned the cell phone in the tub. And anyway, she couldn't hear anymore.
Hysterical deafness, the doctor had called it. There was nothing medically wrong with her ears, with her hearing. The doctor never specifically labeled her a head case, but Carolina had always been one to call a cigar a cigar. She'd caved like a ninny. It was embarrassing and mortifyingbut being mad at herself didn't seem to bring her hearing back.
Still. None of those events explained how she'd gotten in this specific hospital room, or who the powerful sexy stranger was much less what he was doing anywhere near her life.
Maguire had debated between the Lear 35A or the Gulfstream III, but by late afternoon, he was pleased that he'd opted for the Gulfstream. It was the older jet, not as fancy as the Lear, but the full-size divan in back made the most comfortable possible bed for Carolina.
By then they'd passed the rainy Great Plains, hit a burst of late-afternoon sun and the first view of the mountains. Any other time, Maguire would have enjoyed the flight. Now, though, he was too restless to settle down, and kept getting up to check on the slight, blond woman in back.
Carolina didn't need him keeping vigil. Every time he checked, she was sleeping like a stone. He just couldn't seem to stop looking at her.
Spiriting her awayMaguire didn't like the "kidnapping" termhad been challenging, but not impossible. Money, of course, always effectively eliminated problems. He just normally did nothing impulsively. He'd been monitoring Carolina's life for the last two months, but he never expected she would ever have to know thatmuch less that he'd have to suddenly and completely step in.
It's not as if he suddenly wanted this woman in his life.
He'd had absolutely no choice.
Maguire glanced up at the pilot's voice. "Problem?"
"A little turbulence coming. I'd prefer you strap in."
Right. Maguire had flown too often with Henry to believe "turbulence" was the issue. Henry was worried about their passenger, and even more worried about what his employer was up to this time.
"I'll be there in a minute," he said, yet still he lingered by Carolina.
He'd covered Carolina earlier with a silk sheet and lightweight blanket. She hadn't stirred in the hours since he'd lifted her from the stretcher on the tarmac and carried her aboard.
He hadn't been the one to sedate her, was totally against drugging her at all, and he'd had a rousing argument with the hospital doctor about well, just about everything. Her medicines. Her treatment. What she needed. That Maguire had no business taking her off someplace without medical permission or involvement. All that blah blah blah.
But that was water over the dam at this point. He checked the straps, making sure she couldn't fall or be thrown, and then redraped the blanket up to her chin. She kept kicking off the cover. He didn't want her exposed to drafts.
That simplest, basic contacthis knuckles to her bare throat, nothing intimate about it in any waysent a sharp streak of desire straight to his groin. The darned woman. There was absolutely nothing to explain that scissor stab of sexual awareness.
She was as ordinary as peaches and cream. Her features were more fun than attractivea miniature ski jump for a nose, bitsy cheekbones, a mouth almost too small to kiss. Her hair was butter yellow, mixed with a little pale wheat, might be shoulder lengthit was hard to tell; it was such a curly mess. He doubted the whole package could weigh a hundred and ten pounds, and he should know, since he'd carried her up the plane's steps. No butt or boobs that he'd noticed.
He'd caught an unexpected glimpse of her bare feet, though. The toenails were painted a wild purplea startling surprise.
Except for those wild toenails, she looked beyond vulnerable. Frail. As if a slap would beat her down.
Maguire's father hadn't slapped her. At his death, Gerald Cochran had left her fifteen million dollars. What should have been an incredible gift had turned into an incredible burdenand there was precisely the problem. The doctors didn't get it. Lawyers certainly didn't get it. No one in Carolina's hard-working, middle-class family had any prayer of getting it.
That money could destroy her. Maguire knew it too well. In less than two months, it almost had.
Henry again. Maguire stood, catwalked up the aisle, past the leather seats and galley to the cockpit, and then strapped himself into the copilot's chair.
He'd hired Henry four years ago. Henry was barely thirty, but he had an old man's face, bassett-hound eyes and forehead wrinkles of worry that were already set in. Maguire always figured Henry came out of the womb an old soul, probably never had a childhood, and for damn sure never stepped on a crack in the sidewalk. But those weren't bad character traits for a pilot and man Friday. Henry had turned into one of the few people Maguire could trust.
"Everything on track?" Maguire asked easily.
"Should be landing by eight. Washington time, of course. Weather patterns look good." Henry lived for flying, yet his expression was as somber as mud.
"But." Maguire knew there was one coming.
Henry shot him a darting glance. "Even for you, sir, this is a little unusual."
"Yeah. I know."
"I'm not questioning you. You know that. It's just that this is so "
"Unusual," Maguire supplied, when it was obvious Henry couldn't think of another word to put out there.
"Yes. The lady there " Henry shook his head. "I just don't quite understand how we're going to communicate with her if she can't hear."
"Beats me. We'll figure something out."
"You don't think it's slightly, say, illegal. To just take her out of that place without her permission?"
"She was having a breakdown, Henry. Because of what my father did. There was no conventional way to make this right. There's no one in her regular life who has a clue what she's trying to cope with. You think I should have walked away?"
"I wouldn't presume to say, sir."
"Well, I didn't have that option. I couldn't walk away. There was no one else who could make this right. This upended my life, too, you know, not just hers." He sighed. "Try to relax, Henry. If I get taken off to prison, I'll make sure you're not implicated."
"That wasn't my concern, sir."
"Once you get a serious night's rest, I want you to fly back to South Bend. I have a list of things you need to do. We're going to set up a communication base so her friends and family have an email address for her, a cell phone just for those communications. I'll deal personally with any and all lawyers. But her place is going to need some maintenance. She'll be with me for several weeks"