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Fifteen years later,
As Gwen unlocked her back door, she replayed the message left on her cell phone. "I'm in Puerto Nuevo. You must come here at once. I want you to be with me when I rediscover my island." Her father's voice had vibrated with excitement, the same elated tone she'd heard so many times over the years. "I have people who are interested in backing this expedition, people who believe in me, in my island."
Gwen sighed heavily as she entered her home in Madi-son, a short drive from the Botanical Gardens in Huntsville, Alabama, where she worked as CEO. Exhausted from try-ing to put a day and a half's work into one day while worrying about her father, she dropped her keys, shoulder bag, cell phone and briefcase down on the kitchen counter and headed straight to the refrigerator. Whenever a crisis confronted her, she turned to food, especially something sweet. She had spent a lifetimeall of her thirty-three
Of course, eating a salad would be the wise choice, but the leftover piece of cake from a recent retirement dinner for a colleague looked mighty tempting. Chocolate. Her favorite.
Grabbing the cellophane-wrapped concoction, Gwen tried to dismiss thoughts of her father's recent phone mes-sage from her mind. She seldom heard from him, but when she did, their conversations wreaked havoc on her life for weeks afterward. If only she could accept the fact that her father would never change, that he would forever chase a phantom island and be considered a lunatic by his fellow scientists. A brilliant lunatic, but a lunatic all the same. Gwen had learned years ago, after joining her father on two quests in the West Indies, that she could no more change her father than she could stop the sun from rising in the east.
Before her death ten years ago, her mother, Jean, had exacted a promise from Gwen to keep her distance from Dr. Emery Arnell and his insanity. Gwen had kept that promise, seeing her father rarely and never again joining him on one of his fruitless expeditions. But every year or so he'd call, breathless with anticipation, begging her to be a part of his great discovery, to share in the glory that was soon to be his.
Gwen removed the plastic wrap from the cake, retrieved a fork from a kitchen drawer and headed to the table. Before sitting, she kicked off her two-inch heels and wiggled her toes. Until she'd taken over as CEO of the botanical gardens, she'd worn jeans and walking shoes to work, but now she had to dress more appropriately, something suitable for her position.
Just as she finished the last bite of cake, the phone rang. Bone weary, she decided to let the answering machine take the call. It might be a solicitor. And if it was something about work, she could easily return the call later, after she'd taken a shower and put on her pj's.
The answering machine picked up. "This is Dr. Gwen Arnell. Please leave your name, number and a brief message at the sound of the beep and I will return your call as soon as possible."
"Gwen, darling girl, if you're there, please pick up the phone," Emery said, his voice quivering with emotion.
"Everything is coming together for this expedition. My backers are eager for us to begin the journey. I want you with me, daughter, when I sail into the history books as the man who discovered the Fountain of Youth."
Oh, Daddy. Poor Daddy. "Gwen, please."
She left the crumb-dotted plate on the table, shoved back her chair and stood.
"We'll set sail soon, very soon."
When Gwen reached the phone on the kitchen counter, her hand hesitated, hovering over the base.
"I, I've cashed in my life insurance policy to use as part of the investment, to subsidize this final expedition," Emery said. "But once I bring back the plant and offer it to the world, we will be rich beyond our wildest dreams."
Gwen grabbed the phone. "Daddy, I'm here." "Gwen, how soon can you get to Puerto Nuevo? My backers are eager to set sail, as are Jordan and I."
"Who is Jordan?"
"Surely you know, Well, perhaps you don't. Jordan Elders is my research assistant. He was one of my students, a very bright boy. He has great faith in me and my plans to find the island. You see, we've come up with a theory as to why I've been unable to rediscover my island all these years."
"Oh, Daddy, "
"No, listen to this. Jordan and I believe that the island isn't visible all the time, only at specific intervals. Perhaps only certain months or even certain years. Maybe only once a year."
"Daddy, I can't come to Puerto Nuevo. I'm sorry, but my job is here in Huntsville. My life is here."
"Are you upset with me for cashing in my life insurance policy? You were my beneficiary, you know."
Gwen groaned silently, her mind reeling off a few well-chosen curse words. "No, Daddy, I'm not upset about that." But she was concerned that her father was practically pen-niless, that as a retired botany professor his income was enough to live on but not enough to fund repeated trips off into the vast unknown, searching for his Utopia.
"You have vacation time, I'm sure," he said. "Take two weeks. That's all I'm asking. Two weeks."
"Gwendolyn Arnell, I swear to you that this trip is the last trip, that this time I will not fail."
"I wish you all the luck in the world. I hope and pray you find your island and fulfill all your dreams, but, I can't"
"Don't say you can't. Say you'll think about it." Hesitantly, she agreed. "All right. I'll think about it."
"You've become your mother's daughter, haven't you?" Emery told her, sadness in his voice. "Come to Puerto Nuevo and join me, and open yourself up to possibilities beyond your wildest imagination." "Where are you staying?" she asked, sighing in frustra-tion. "Say if I were to join you, where would I meet you?"
"We're staying at the Pasada El Paso. It's in downtown Puerto Nuevo. Nothing fancy, but clean and safe. I'll reserve a room for you and"
"No, don't do that. I'll make reservations, if I decide to join you."
"I love you, daughter."
"And I love you, Daddy."
The dial tone sounded. Apparently her father believed he had convinced her to join him. Damn him! How dare he assume she would rearrange her life to suit his needs? When had he ever done that for her? She couldn't remem-ber sharing one birthday with him and not one Christmas since her parents had divorced.
The crazy old fool had cashed in his life insurance policy to help fund this one final folly. What would he do when this adventure turned into yet another failure? And what about these new backers he mentioned? Who in his right mind would invest money in the hare-brained scheme of a seventy-year-old botany professor notorious for having become a laughingstock to his colleagues?
What if these backers were unscrupulous people intent upon taking advantage of her father? What if they intended to rob him of his insurance money and leave him to fend for himself?
Damn it! Why couldn't her father be normal? And why, after the way he had neglected her all her life, did she feel obligated to look after him, to take care of him?
Because he's your father, she reminded herself. And he has no one else.
Gwen spent the next hour getting airline tickets to Puerto Nuevo, making arrangements to take a week's vacation and packing her suitcase. First thing in the morning, she'd be on a flight to Mexico City, then change planes and fly directly into Puerto Nuevo.
She had no intention of joining her father on yet another quest for glory, fame and riches, but she had to do what she could to protect him from himself and anyone who might harm him.
Will Pierce arrived at Dundee headquarters on the sixth floor of the downtown Atlanta office building at precisely seven-thirty in the morning. The office manager, Daisy Holbrook, had telephoned him an hour ago while he was drinking his first cup of coffee.
"Sawyer wants you in his office immediately," Daisy had said. "He has two new cases and he wants to get agents out into the field ASAP."
When Will exited the elevator, he noted the peculiar quiet and vast emptiness on the floor. He remembered Daisy didn't arrive until eight, and the other office staff didn't usually come in until nine. As he approached Saw-yer's office, the sound of voices shattered the early morning silence. He couldn't quite make out the conversation, but he paused at the closed door. Just as he lifted his hand to knock, he heard a loud crash.
"Damn it, Lucie, that was Waterford crystal," Sawyer McNamara said. "That paperweight was a gift."
"So dock my paycheck," Lucie Evans said. "For the pa-perweight and the glass shelves. I don't care. I'm sick and tired of you foisting off every cheesy assignment on me."
"If you don't like working at Dundee's, then"
"I'm not quitting," she told him in no uncertain terms. "You couldn't run me off with a stick. Not even a stick of dynamite."
"Then don't complain, accept your assignment and stop throwing temper tantrums. I'd thought that by now you would have learned to control that hair-trigger temper of yours."
"And I thought that by now you would have stopped punishing me for something that wasn't my fault."
Strong, unnerving silence.
The door flew open. Sawyer stood in the doorway, ob-viously inviting Lucie to leave. When he saw Will, his gaze hardened for a split second.
"You made it here sooner than I'd expected," Sawyer said.
"If you two need more time, I can wait outside." Will wasn't sure what he'd walked in on and didn't want to know. During the year he'd worked at Dundee's, he had learned there was some sort of personal feud between the Dundee CEO and one of his agents, Lucie Evans. Why he didn't fire her or she didn't resign, no one knew. And even more puzzling was why the two seemed to despise each other so vehemently. Taken separately, each was a nice, normal person. Lucie was warm and friendly. If she had one flaw, it was that she allowed her emotions to rule her. On the other hand, Sawyer was aloof, an introvert who didn't socialize with his employees. He often seemed to have no emotions, his actions dictated only by cold logic.
"I was just leaving." Lucie zoomed past Sawyer, not both-ering to even give him one of her infamous withering glares.
"I'm on my way to Wyoming to investigate cattle rustling."
"Huh?" Had Will heard her correctly?
As if casually dismissing Lucie and the fact that she'd smashed his Waterford paperweight into the glass shelves along the wall, Sawyer motioned for Will to enter.
"I'm going to need for you to go home, pack a bag and take the Dundee jet straight to Puerto Nuevo this morning." Sawyer tapped the slim file folder lying on his desk. "I just have the basic info right now, but as soon as Daisy comes in this morning, I'll have her compile a more comprehen-sive file on the case and e-mail it to you."
"Okay. What can you tell me now?"
"Sit." Will took the chair in front of Sawyer's desk. Sawyer leaned against the edge of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. Not for the first time, Will thought his boss resembled a model from the pages of GQ. One of the older, more sophisticated men who fell just short of being a pretty boy.
"Archer Kress contacted me at six this morning," Sawyer said. "You know who Archer Kress is, don't you?"
"CEO and major stockholder in Kress Petroleum." Sawyer nodded. "Mr. Kress has a twenty-year-old daughter who went on vacation with some college friends to Puerto Nuevo. The Kress family has a villa there."
"No, not now." Sawyer grunted. "It seems his daughter, Cheryl, and her friend" Sawyer paused and opened the folder, glancing at the top file "Tori Boyd are missing."
"How long have they been missing?"
"Since last night. The girls went out to a local bar yes-terday evening and didn't return home this morning. Neither girl is answering her cell phone and Cheryl's car is still parked near the pier where the bar is located."
"Does the family suspect kidnapping?" "No, not at this point," Sawyer replied. "If they did, Mr. Kress would have contacted the FBI, not Dundee's."
"Does his daughter make a habit of staying out all night? If so"
"I have no idea what's going on in Mr. Kress's head. All I know is that he's paying Dundee's a small fortune to find his daughter and her friend ASAP. That's all we need to know, so if you fly to Mexico and discover Cheryl and her friend spent the night with a couple of local guys, then that's what I'll report to her father. But if foul play is involved, we don't want to be accused of downplaying any danger to Miss Kress."
"Good. So go home, get packed, pull out your passport and by the time you get to the airport, the Dundee jet will be fueled and ready for takeoff."
Will shook hands with Sawyer, picked up the file folder and headed for the elevator. Just as he punched the down button, the elevator doors opened and Daisy Hol-brook emerged.
Daisy was pretty and plump and everyone who worked at Dundee's adored her. Her nickname was Ms. Efficiency.
"Good morning," Daisy said. "I hear you're off to Puerto Nuevo."
"If only I was heading down there for a vacation."
"Mmm, " When Daisy smiled, deep dimples formed in her cheeks. "I'll e-mail you all the info I can dig up on your case. You should have everything by the time you land."
"Hold the fort down while I'm gone."
"I'll try." She moved closer to Will and lowered her voice. "I met Lucie downstairs in the lobby. I hear there's a cleanup needed in Sawyer's office."
Will grinned. "Could be." "Did you get here in time to see the fireworks?" "I came in right as they went off." "One of these days, those two are going to kill each other." "Oil and water," Will said. "More like dynamite and a lit match."