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Johana inhaled the fragrance of the woods. It was real. This was real. All around her the sights and sounds and smells were exactly as she expected. Overhead the sun shone through the rustling leaves. The weather was warm, very spring-like. She could even hear birds chirping in the distance.
Bushes dragged against her pants legs. Small white flowers littered the ground along with dead leaves. Everywhere she looked the place breathed of reality. Whether it was an alternate world or some kind of time portal displacement was no longer important. What mattered now was that she was inside the painting, living within its boundaries as if she had traveled there via plane, car, or on foot, and not through a solid stone wall.
Something rustled to her left. Maybe caused by a creature like a deer or raccoon. It didn't matter. For some strange reason Johana felt perfectly safe. Stranger still, she felt perfectly at home, as though she belonged there. As though she had finally come back to the land where she'd been born, and it had been waiting all this time for her return.
Following the curve in the lake kept the distant castle in view. In the painting the towering structure had sat slightly off-center, but now it filled her horizon like an immense crown of white stone. The closer she approached it, the more breath-taking it became.
The artwork had also displayed a smaller stone building set apart from the castle and partially concealed by the forest. The lake looped near it. As Johana continued walking toward it, she could see jeweled glints of light coming from its windows. It was a church, she realized.
And the double doors stood wide open.
Stopping severalyards away, she stared at the entrance. Despite the pleasant weather, she couldn't remember if churches left their doors open in the middle of the day. Open where anyone, including animals, could enter, seeking something to eat or a place to nest.
"Doesn't matter," she whispered to herself. "Open doors means someone's inside. Either that, or Mr. Castle is pretty damn sure no one is going to be bothering the place."
She walked up to the church building and took the narrow stone steps up to the entrance. The interior was dark but not oppressive. As she slowly entered, an overwhelming sense of peacefulness filled her.
A white banner sewn with golden threads covered the altar. Pure ivory-colored tapers stood on both ends. A basket of white lilies sat on the floor before it. The candles were unlit, but enough sunlight came through the multi-hued stained glass windows to throw artificial rainbows across the pews and aisle.
A man stood before the altar, his back to the doors. Johana stared at the tall figure dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt. Long minutes passed as he remained in contemplation or prayer. Suddenly, he turned to leave and gasped to see her standing mere yards away.
"Who the hell are you? How did you get here?" He took a step toward her, peering intently to see if she was real or imaginary. "I didn't make you up," he finally announced. "Talk to me, dammit."
He was angry. Surprised and angry. Johana didn't blame him in the least. His perfect paradise had been intruded upon and no longer belonged exclusively to him.
"My name's Johana Reese, Mr. Castle."
Darkness suddenly seemed to descend outside. Clouds gathered to block the sunlight streaming in, and the building grew dimmer. However, either Castle didn't notice the growing darkness, or he didn't care.
"The reporter? You're that reporter that's been hounding me? What in hell are you doing here? Go back!"
"I can't," she told him, glancing over her shoulder. Was that thunder?
"Why not? Just go back the same way you got in! Stick your hand through the wall and someone'll drag you out. Now go!" His face was so flushed a vein stood out above his right eyebrow. The wind picked up outside, blowing leaves into the sanctuary.
"I can't," Johana repeated. "I don't think I could find the way out without help." It was the truth. She could find her way back to the approximate area where she entered the painting, but unless there was a clearly marked exit sign, there was no way she could find the exact place.
He frowned at her, but the anger on his face did little to mar the man's dark good looks. Johana felt her breath catch in her throat. There had been no photos or pictures to prepare her for when she finally met the man. There was no way she would have known what Warren William Castle looked like before now.
The man was too damned good looking. Dark, curly brown hair, blue eyes, boyish good looks that would never fade as he grew older--a lethal combination. He towered over her by a foot. The jeans hugged his thighs and butt, and the shirt stretched across sculpted shoulders. His arms were tanned and muscular, as if he spent hours outside perfecting his golf swing, or his backhand on the tennis courts. There was not a single inch of Mr. Castle that was handicapped, and his perfection frightened her more than his wrath or the storm brewing outside.
"How did you manage to get here in the first place?" he asked again, this time with a little more civility. But not by much.
"The same way you did ... sort of. I walked through the painting."
"How?" she echoed. "Well, I picked up one foot and set it down, then I picked up--"
Castle gave a little growl of irritation and advanced toward her. At the same time lightning crackled above them. "I don't have time for any smartass answers. Come on. I'm taking you back."