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Heart thudding more noisily than the small plane's faltering engine, Rafe Peveril dragged his gaze away from the rain-lashed windows, no longer able to see the darkening grasslands of Mariposa beneath them. A few seconds ago, just after the engine had first spluttered, he'd noticed a hut down there.
If they made it out of this alive, that hut might be their only hope of surviving the night.
Another violent gust of wind shook the plane. The engine coughed a couple of times, then failed. In the eerie silence the pilot muttered a jumble of prayers and curses in his native Spanish as he fought to keep the plane steady.
If they were luckydamned luckythey might land more or less intact
When the engines sputtered back into life the woman beside Rafe looked up, white face dominated by great green eyes, black-lashed and tip-tilted and filled with fear.
Thank God she wasn't screaming. He reached for her hand, gave it a quick hard squeeze, then released it to push her head down.
"Brace position," he shouted, his voice far too loud in the sudden silence as the engines stopped again. The woman huddled low and Rafe set his teeth and steeled himself for the crash.
A shuddering jolt, a whirlwind of noise
And Rafe woke.
Jerking upright, he let out a sharp breath, grey eyes sweeping a familiar room. The adrenalin surging through him mutated into relief. Instead of regaining consciousness in a South American hospital bed he was at home in his own room in New Zealand.
What the hell..?.
It had to be at least a couple of years since he'd relived the crash. He searched for a trigger that could have summoned the dream but his memoryusually sharply accuratefailed him.
Six years should have accustomed him to the blank space in his head after the crash, yet although he'd given up on futile attempts to remember, he still resented those forty-eight vanished hours.
The bedside clock informed him that sunrise was too close to try for any more sleepnot that he'd manage it now. He needed space and fresh air.
Outside on the terrace he inhaled deeply, relishing the mingled scent of salt and flowers and newly mown grass, and the quiet hush of the waves. His heart rate slowed and the memories receded into the past where they belonged. Light from a fading moon surrounded the house with mysterious shadows, enhanced by the bright disc of Venus hanging above a bar of pure gold along the horizon where the sea met the sky.
The Mariposan pilot had died on impact, but miraculously both he and the wife of his estancia manager had survived with minor injuresthe blow to the head for him, and apparently nothing more serious than a few bruises for her.
With some difficulty he conjured a picture of the womana drab nonentity, hardly more than a girl. Although he'd spent the night before the crash at the estancia, she'd kept very much in the background while he and her husband talked business. All he could recall were those amazingly green eyes in her otherwise forgettable face. Apart from them, she had been a plain woman.
With a plain nameMary Brown.
He couldn't recall seeing her smilenot that that was surprising. A week or so before he'd arrived at the es-tancia she'd received news of her mother's sudden stroke and resultant paralysis. As soon as Rafe heard about it he'd offered to take her back with him to Mariposa's capital and organise a flight to New Zealand.
Rafe frowned. What the hell was her husband's name.
He recalled it with an odd sense of relief. David Brownanother plain name, and the reason for Rafe's trip to Mariposa. He'd broken his flight home from London to see for himself if he agreed with the Mariposan agent's warnings that David Brown was not a good fit for the situation.
Certainly Brown's response to his offer to escort his wife back to New Zealand had been surprising.
"That won't be necessary," David Brown had told him brusquely. "She's been illshe doesn't need the extra stress of looking after a cripple."
However, by the next morning the man had changed his mind, presumably at his wife's insistence, and that evening she'd accompanied Rafe on the first stage of the trip.
An hour after take-off they'd been caught by a wind of startling ferocity, and with it came rain so cold the woman beside him had been shivering within minutes. And the plane's engines had cut out for the first time.
If it hadn't been for the skill of the doomed pilot they'd probably all have died.
Of course! There was the stimulusthe trigger that had hurled his dreaming mind back six years.
Rafe inhaled sharply, recalling the email that had arrived just before he'd gone to bed last night. Sent from his office in London, for the first time in recorded history his efficient personal assistant had slipped up. No message, just a forwarded photograph of a dark young man wearing a look of conscious pride and a mortarboard, a graduation shot. Amused by his PA's omission, Rafe had sent back one question mark.
Last night he hadn't made the connection, but the kid looked very much like the pilot.
He swung around and headed for his office, switched on the computer, waited impatiently for it to boot up and smiled ironically when he saw another email.
His PA had written, Sorry about the stuff-up. I've just had a letter from the widow of the pilot in Mariposa. Apparently you promised their oldest boy an interview with the organisation there when he graduated from university. Photo of good-looking kid in mortarboard attached. OK to organise?
So that explained the dream. Rafe's subconscious had made the connection for him in a very forthright fashion. He'd felt a certain obligation to the family of the dead pilot and made it his business to help them.
He replied with a succinct agreement to London, then headed back to his bedroom to dress.
After a gruelling trip to several African countries, it was great to be home, and apart from good sex and the exhilaration of business there was little he liked better than a ride along the beach on his big bay gelding in a Northland summer dawn.
Perhaps it might give him some inspiration for the gift he needed to buy that day, a birthday present for his foster-sister. His mouth curved. Gina had forthright views on appropriate gifts for a modern young woman.
"You might be a plutocrat," she'd told him the day before, "but don't you dare get your secretary to buy me something flashy and glittering. I don't do glitter."
He'd pointed out that his middle-aged PA would have been insulted to hear herself described as a secretary, and added that any presents he bought were his own choice, no one else's.
Gina grinned and gave him a sisterly punch in the arm. "Oh, yeah? So why did you get me to check the kiss-off present you gave your last girlfriend?"
"It was her birthday gift," he contradicted. "And if I remember correctly, you insisted on seeing it."
She arched an eyebrow. "Of course I did. So it was just a coincidence you broke off the affair a week later?"
"It was a mutual decision," Rafe told her, the touch of frost in his tone a warning.
His private life was his own. Because he had no desire to cause grief he chose his lovers for sophistication as well as their appeal to his mind and his senses. Eventually he intended to marry.
"Well, I suppose the diamonds salvaged a bit of pride for her," Gina had observed cynically, hugging him before getting into her car for the trip back to Auckland. She'd turned on the engine, then said casually through the open window, "If you're looking for something a bit different, the gift shop in Tewaka has a new owner. It's got some really good stuff in it now."
Recognising a hint when he heard one, several hours later Rafe headed for the small seaside town twenty kilometres from the homestead.
Inside the gift shop he looked around. Gina was rightthe place had been fitted out with taste and style. His appreciative gaze took in demure yet sexy lingerie displayed with discretion, frivolous sandals perfect for any four-year-old girl who yearned to be a princess, some very good New Zealand art glass. As well as clothes there were ornaments and jewellery, even some books. And art, ranging in style from brightly coloured coastal scenes to moody, dramatic oils.
"Can I help you?"
Rafe swivelled around, met the shop assistant's eyes and felt the ground shift beneath his feet. Boldly green and cat-tilted, set between lashes thick enough to tangle any heart, they sent him spinning back to his dream.
"Mary?" he asked without thinking.
But of course she wasn't Mary Brown.
This woman was far from plain and an involuntary glance showed no ring on those long fingers. Although her eyes were an identical green, they were bright and challenging, not dully unaware.
Her lashes drooped and he sensed her subtlebut very definitewithdrawal.
"I'm sorryhave we met before?" she asked in an assured, crisp voice completely unlike Mary Brown's hesitant tone. She added with a smile, "But my name isn't Mary. It's MarisaMarisa Somerville."
Indeed, the assured, beautifully groomed Ms Somerville was a bird of paradise compared to drab Mrs Brown. Apart from the coincidences of eye colour and shape, and first names beginning with the same letter, this woman bore no resemblance to the woman he'd seen in Mariposa.
Rafe held out his hand. "Sorry, but for a moment I thought you were someone else. I'm Rafe Peveril."
Although her lashes flickered, her handshake was as confident as her voice. "How do you do, Mr Peveril."
"Most people here call me Rafe," he told her.
She didn't pretend not to know who he was. Had there been a glimmer of some other emotion in the sultry green depths of her eyes, almost immediately hidden by those dark lashes?
If so, he could hear no sign of it in her voice when she went on, "Would you rather look around by yourself, or can I help you in any way?"
She hadn't granted him permission to use her first name. Intrigued, and wryly amused at his reaction to her unspoken refusal, Rafe said, "My sister is having a birthday soon, and from the way she spoke of your shop I gathered she'd seen something here she liked. Do you know Gina Smythe?"
"Everyone in Tewaka knows Gina." Smiling, she turned towards one of the side walls. "And, yes, I can tell you what she liked."
"Gina isn't noted for subtlety," he said drily, appreciating the gentle feminine sway of slender hips, the graceful smoothness of her gait. His body stirred in a swift, sensually charged response that was purely masculine.
She stopped in front of an abstract oil. "This is the one."
Rafe dragged his mind back to his reason for being there. Odd that Gina, so practical and matter-of-fact, couldn't resist art that appealed directly to the darker, more stormy emotions.
"Who's the artist?" he asked after a silent moment.
The woman beside him gave a soft laugh. "I am," she admitted.
The hot tug of lust in Rafe's gut intensified, startling him. Was she as passionate as the painting before him? Perhaps he'd find out some day.
"I'll take it," he said briskly. "Can you gift-wrap it for me? I'll call back in half an hour."
"Yes, of course."
Out of the shop, away from temptation, he reminded himself curtly that he'd long ago got over the adolescent desire to bed every desirable woman he met. Yet primitive hunger still quickened his blood.
Soon he'd invite Marisa Somerville to dinner.
If she was unattached, which seemed unlikely in spite of her ringless fingers. Women who looked like herespecially ones who exuded that subtle sexualityusually had a man in the not-very-distant background.
Probably, he thought cynically, stopping to speak to a middle-aged woman he'd known from childhood, he'd responded to her so swiftly because it was several months since he'd made love.