By Kelli Maine
Forever Copyright © 2013 Kelli Maine
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455598953
My fingers shake as I log onto the video chat. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far into the interview process with Rocha Enterprises. This is my dream job, and a shot at being the project manager for the renovation of historic Turtle Tear Hotel working for a world-renowned company. It’s a bigger opportunity than I ever imagined I’d have.
I’ve researched Turtle Tear Island and the background of the hotel extensively. There’s no way anyone else is a better candidate for the position, and the fact that I made it this far—through the basic human resources interviews to an interview with the CEO himself—is proof of that.
I click my mouse to connect. I’m five minutes early, but my interviewer is already logged into the video chat. My palms become slick with sweat, and I wipe them on my pants.
“Hello, Ms. DeSalvo. I see you’re prepared to start early.”
Even with my cheap webcam displaying a grainy image, the warm smile greeting me from the screen should put me at ease, but I’m intimidated as all hell. Maybe it’s the deep voice that sends prickles of heat down my neck and flushes my cheeks, or the handsome, clean-shaven face. It could be the tidy, slicked back hair that makes this feel so intimidating and all too real.
This can’t possibly be real. I have to be dreaming.
The dark, piercing eyes on my monitor are most definitely dreamy.
What am I thinking? This is an interview with the CEO of Rocha Enterprises, not some dating website meet and greet. I have to pull myself together.
“Hello.” My voice cracks. I clear my throat, straighten my shoulders and smile. “I’m willing to bet I’m the most prepared applicant you’ve spoken to.”
There. I exude confidence.
My boasting is rewarded with the flicker of an eyebrow and a repressed smirk. “Is that so?”
Oh, that voice sends goose bumps crawling up my arms.
“Maybe you can tell me something I don’t know then. Go ahead and impress me, Ms. DeSalvo.”
My mind flashes through the dozens of facts I know about the property. Despite my staunch desire to remain professional, my over-eager libido rears its head when my interviewer rubs a long finger over a full bottom lip. Somehow, I find myself reciting the romantic love story of Turtle Tear’s founder and his wife instead of something more professionally relevant, like the ecological importance of preserving the integrity of the island.
“Did you know, Mr. Rocha, that Archibald Weston built the hotel to impress a woman?” I wait for a curious lift of the chin in response before I continue. “Mr. Weston was desperate to win the affections of Ingrid Burkhart. He convinced himself that building her a magnificent place to live would win her hand in marriage.
“Turtle Tear Island with its lush green trees and beautiful wild flowers seemed like the perfect place to build it. Archibald grew up in the area and paddled his canoe to the tranquil island every chance he had.” I stop to take a breath and to make sure I’m not droning on too long and losing my audience.
That long finger glides across those amazing lips again. Instantly, I imagine how soft and firm they would feel pressed against my own. Why does my webcam image have to be so awful? If I get this job, I’m buying one that displays in high def.
“You’re an excellent story-teller, Ms. DeSalvo.” A trace of humor mingles with the deep timbre. Could this be a trifecta? Wealthy, good looking and a sense of humor? “I’m entranced. Please, continue.”
“During the course of Archibald’s business ventures, he’d visited the Yucatan and been taken with the Hacienda-style cattle ranches in the region. Turtle Tear Hotel was modeled after a ranch where he’d stayed during one of his visits.”
“Is that so?” Those eyes and a strong jawline come closer to the screen.
My story is impressive. I’m nailing this interview.
“Yes, that is so. Anyway, he built Ingrid a grand hotel since the island is remote and he knew she would want friends and family to visit and stay. Once it was completed, he showed up on Ingrid’s doorstep, dropped to one knee and instead of proposing, presented her with the deed for Turtle Tear Hotel.”
I hear a low, exhaled, “Hmm…” and some shuffling of papers. My screen blurs with movement. “I’m just making notes. Please, go on.”
I take a deep breath and squeeze my hands together. The next part is my favorite.
“Archibald told her he’d put his blood, sweat, tears and entire heart into building the home where he wanted to spend the rest of his life, and since she owned his life, it was all hers to have. He only hoped she’d let him keep his soul, which was bound to hers for all eternity.”
“Wow. That’s an incredible declaration. He was a brave man.”
My heart pounds. I’m afraid it can be seen beating against my blouse on the other side of the small camera. “Yes. He was very brave and entirely selfless in his pursuit of Ingrid.”
“I assume she accepted since they were married?” The question comes through in a louder, more insistent tone that makes my speakers crackle. Something else to add to my wish list.
“Actually, no. She told him he needed her parents blessing if she was to return to Turtle Tear with him.” I clear my throat and can’t suppress a grin. “This is where the story gets really interesting.”
“It gets even better?” My grin is reflected back on a pair of delicious-looking lips framed by deep dimples on both sides. The image pixelates and freezes.
“Much.” I fiddle with my webcam cord trying in vain to get a better connection. “Archibald and Ingrid were the Romeo and Juliet of the Civil War. His family supplied sugar cane from their plantation to the Confederate troops. Ingrid’s family housed Confederate deserters. Even though it was August, 1865 and the war had ended, there was no way Ingrid’s parents were going to give Archibald their blessing to marry their daughter and take her away.”
“What did he do?”
Damn. I wish I could see the expression that accompanies the urgency conveyed in the tone of the question, but my screen is still frozen on that set of white teeth and pair of dimples. Not that I mind. I’m considering making it my new screensaver.
“He tried his best for months to convince her parents he was worthy of Ingrid, even offering to let them live at the hotel, too, but they wouldn’t budge. Finally, heartbroken with nothing left to lose, he climbed a ladder up to her window one night, broke in and whisked her away.
“Ingrid was furious at first, but when she got to Turtle Tear, it was love at first sight and she refused to ever leave the island again. It’s said that she’s buried there, but no grave marker has ever been found to confirm that fact.”
I sit back in my chair—mirroring your interviewer was a tip I acquired in an interview workshop—and wait for a response.
“That’s quite a big risk for the love of a woman. I supposed it paid off for him in the end. Would you agree, Ms. DeSalvo?”
“Yes. The lengths he went to just to win her over… I’m sorry. Ingrid and Archibald’s story always overwhelms me.” I put a hand to my chest and inhale deeply to catch my breath. “His grand, romantic gesture won him his wife and the home where he lived the rest of his life. I hope to work with your company to restore the property and hotel to its original style and design, to make it a place nobody would ever want to leave.”
“Something Archibald and Ingrid would be proud of?”
My chest fills with emotion that can’t be repressed. An enormous smile threatens to split my face in half. “I’d love nothing more, Mr. Rocha. Given the opportunity—”
“The opportunity is yours. I’ve never seen someone so passionate and knowledgeable about a rundown hotel on swamp land in the Everglades. I’d be a fool to entrust anyone less enthusiastic with this project. In fact, you’re the only one I’d trust it to. Nobody has proven themselves more deserving.”
The rest of the interview becomes a blur. A haze of details and names of H.R. personnel who will be in touch to discuss salary and relocation. My head is in the clouds. My dream realized.
I’m the newest project manager at Rocha Enterprises. The Turtle Tear renovation is mine!
Three months later…
The club is packed. Bodies grind together on the dance floor. There’s barely room to move. You catch my eye.
Bass pounds through my body, rushes from my head to my toes, takes the same path your eyes follow. Your dark-eyed stare is flutter-soft on my skin. It raises goose bumps. Makes me flush. My vodka and cranberry-soaked blood runs hot with need.
You smile. Dimples pierce your cheeks. Your eyes flash. I can’t resist.
“Rach!” Shannon grabs my arm. She’s sweaty from dancing and pulls her blonde hair up off her shoulders. “I’m going.” She tilts her head toward Shawn or Shane or Seth—I’m not sure—the guy she met two hours ago.
“How am I supposed to get home?” She drove.
Shannon shoves her car keys in my hand. “See you in the morning.” She winks and pushes back through the crowd toward the guy whose name starts with an S.
When I turn from watching Shannon go, you’re standing right in front of me. “Hi,” you say. Familiarity strikes, but I don’t think I’d ever forget meeting you.
“Hi.” I fall into your dark eyes and can’t get out. They’re serious and focused on mine. Looking away would be a crime.
You run a hand through your wavy black-brown hair. Are you nervous? I can’t tell. “What were you drinking?” You tap my glass, empty except for melting ice.
“Vodka and cranberry.” I take in a thick, damp breath. Dancing bodies fog up the air, make it heavy to breathe.
You shake your beer bottle, indicating its emptiness. “I’m headed to the bar. Would you like another?”
I have to drive Shannon’s car home, but I don’t want to stop talking to you. I nod. “Please.” I’ll drink slowly. I’ll drive even slower.
I follow behind you, taking in the view of your incredible backside in jeans. A black long-sleeved shirt shifts with your strong, wide shoulders and hugs your narrow waist. You work out. A lot. The body I’m staring at didn’t come from luck and a good gene pool.
You glance back to make sure I’m following. When a group of people push between us, you reach out and take my hand. My fingers curl around yours like they’re possessed.
We reach the bar. You squeeze between two men. I stand back to wait while you order. I watch you reach into your pocket. A second later, you turn to me and hand me a glass.
“Thanks.” I take a deep drink, ignoring my self-promise to sip and make it last. Looking at you, I need all the courage this vodka is offering.
You sip your beer, watching me. An intense magnetism pulls between us. I’m sweating. I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. The vodka is kicking in fast. I stumble sideways. You grip my arm.
“Feeling okay?” you ask.
The room spins and tilts. Black spots swim through my vision. “No. I need to sit.” My drink slips through my fingers and splatters on my bare leg.
“I’ve got you.” You put an arm around me and lead me toward the door. “You need some air.”
I’m blacking out and coming to, over and over again. This has never happened from three and a half vodka and cranberries before. “I need to get home.”
“I’ll take you,” you say.
“No. I…” The words won’t come. They buzz around in the darkness inside my mind searching for the light. I watch them break apart and fade.
You usher me through the parking lot. Open the door of a black car. Put me inside. “We’ll be home soon,” you say, buckling a seatbelt around my waist.
I try to grip the door handle to get out. My arm won’t move. My head lulls on my shoulder. The blackness narrows, leaving a small tunnel focused on the dashboard. Then it closes completely.
No more words.
No more light.
No more sound.
Just like that—I’m taken.
M y eyelids are heavy, too heavy to lift. Light glows white behind them. I turn toward its source, and it gets even brighter. I crack my eyes open, peel their stickiness apart. Everything’s blurry. Light shoots through my head like an electric shock. I cringe and squeeze my eyes shut again.
My mouth is dry. My tongue, stuck to the roof, is limp and swollen. I swallow, but there’s no wetness to quench my thirst.
I open my eyes again, slowly this time, just narrow slits to get used to the light. There’s a window. All I see is sky, clear and blue. Where am I?
Panic surges through my chest and squeezes tight enough to make me gasp. I don’t remember anything—where am I? How did I get here?
I sit up. Ropes tie my hands to the bed. My heart rate speeds, my muscles quake, my eyes dart around the room and land on you.
“You’re awake,” you say, standing from a leather couch and thumbing a button on a remote to turn off the muted T.V.
I remember you. The club. The drink. “You put something in my drink.”
Quickly, I take stock of my clothes. Skirt—still on. Top—still on. Underwear, bra—both in place. My shoes are the only things missing.
“I didn’t touch you,” you say, coming to the side of the bed and pulling up a straight-back chair. I shift away as far as I can, press my shoulder against the cold windowpane. The bed sits higher than mine at home and it’s smaller, narrower. You lean forward and rest your elbows on the mattress.
We stare at one another. Your intense gaze is the same as the last time I saw it—when you drugged me. My chest heaves with the effort of breathing. My heart races. “Why am I tied to the bed?” My voice cracks.
You reach for a bottle of water on the nightstand, twist the cap off and hold it to my lips. “Drink.”
I shake my head and pull away. The ropes scratch and burn my wrists.
You smile. “There’s nothing in it. I promise.”
Your dimples make you look like a nice guy. You’re not a nice guy. “I want to go home.”
You run your finger underneath the rope and stroke my wrist. “You are home, Rachael.”
I try to pull away from you. “Don’t touch me!” Sobs roll up my throat and out my mouth. Tears gush from my eyes. “I want to go home!”
You sit back and prop your foot up on your opposite knee, thread your hands behind your head and watch me crumble. Your face is etched with remorse. You close your eyes—I want them open, want you to feel pain and guilt for what you’ve done to me.
Flames of rage dance in my belly, crackle and roar inside me. I dart for you, thrashing against the ropes. I will kill you. Tear you apart. “This is fun for you?” I curl my feet up underneath me and push against the ropes with my toes. “Let me go! Let me leave!” I manage to get my teeth on a rope and try to chew my way to freedom.
You reach out and grab my shoulders. “Stop. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
I lick blood from my torn, raw lips. My wrists bleed. I throw myself back onto the pillow and scream at the top of my lungs. I scream until my eyes throb, until my ears pop, until my voice is only a rasp.
You stand over me and stroke my hair back from my forehead. “Rest,” you say, and walk out of the room. I watch you leave hating myself for ever thinking your body was something I wanted.
Why did you take me? Is this human trafficking? Will you sell me as a prostitute, a sex slave? My chest aches, and my breath hitches and shakes. I have to keep it together and find a way out.
I run my eyes over the long, rectangular room. A nightstand sits beside the bed and the chair you sat in. At the end of the bed, a dresser is pushed against the wall. The couch and T.V. make up a sitting area on the opposite side of the room with a matching leather chair and a wood table between them. The ceiling is slanted. I’m held captive in an attic bedroom.
You didn’t close the door. I’m not locked in. If I could get the ropes untied… Does anyone know I’m missing? My phone. Where’s my phone? They can track me that way. Did you take it?
My mom will have a break down when they tell her I’m missing. My dad died last year. Her reaction to losing me to a job offer in Florida a few months ago was bad enough to keep me from taking it and leaving Ohio. She won’t make it through this.
Shannon’s my only hope, but she left before you bought me that drink, before you took me away. Did anyone see us together? Did anyone see us leave? If they flash my picture on T.V., would anyone know where to start looking?
Maybe that’s what you were watching for on T.V. Maybe you’re paranoid. “I hope they track you down and lock you in a cell for the rest of your miserable life!” I scream. You don’t answer.
I close my eyes and try to think. My only way out of here is you. I have to be calm and rational when you return. What do you want with me?
I have no answer. You didn’t touch me. I’m clothed. I’m not hurt. Why did you take me? I stare out the window, like it’s written somewhere in the bright blue sky.
There’s no clock. I don’t know how much time has passed before you return. You’re carrying a bowl of soup and a pack of crackers. “You need to eat,” you say. “Will you let me feed you?”
I don’t want food. I want to be untied. “I need to use the bathroom.”
You study my face, considering your options.
“You can’t come with me,” I say, praying you don’t.
“If I untie you, will you behave?” You narrow your eyes at me, threatening. “If you don’t, I’ll have to come in with you.”
You set the soup and crackers on the nightstand beside the bottle of water and sit in the chair. “Rachael, can I trust you?”
What makes you think you can trust me? Do you really think I won’t run? “Yes.”
You hesitate, dark eyes locked on mine. Am I giving anything away?
Slowly, you reach for the rope and untie my wrist closest to you, then reach across and untie the other. Before you can restrain me, I grab the steaming bowl of soup and throw it at you. It hits your chest, and I dart from the bed.
Your reflexes are fast, and mine are slow from being drugged. Your fingers wrap around my arm and yank me back against your wet chest. One strong arm wraps around my shoulders and holds me in place. “That was my fault,” you whisper in my ear through clenched teeth. “You’re not ready to be untied yet.”
You spin me to face you and grip my shoulders. Your dark eyes bore into mine. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
Hate wells in my chest. I glare back at you then spit in your face. Your fingers squeeze. Your thumbs could crack my collarbone. You close your eyes and breathe out hard. “Get in the bed.” You shove me, and I fall back into it.
I grab the ropes before you have a chance, and we grapple with them. You press your forearm into my chest and pin me to the bed. I bite your shoulder. The ropes slide through my fingers and burn like hot liquid as you pull them from me.
I’m tied again. We pant for breath, winded from our struggle.
You collapse back in your chair and shove your fingers through your wavy hair, exasperated. Did you think this would be easy? “Don’t look at me like that,” you say, and stand to strip off your shirt. Blisters are already puffing out on your smooth chest. My teeth pierced your shoulder. I run my eyes down over your defined abs and turn away as heat pulses through me.
I can’t think about you like that. I won’t. You’re holding me prisoner in your house. What is wrong with me?
I let my eyes roam back to you. This might be my only way out. “Would you untie me to let me touch you?” I whisper.
You study me with a blank expression. “When you touch me, it’ll be because you want to, not because you want me to untie you.”
A growl, like an animal, rips up my throat. “I will never want to touch you. Never!”
You ignore me and slip your jeans down over your hips. “I’m going to go wash the soup off. I’ll be back, and then we’ll try to feed you again.”
I watch your bare feet pad out of the bedroom, willing my eyes to stay away from any other parts of your body. Why do you care if I eat? You kidnapped me.
A shower turns on somewhere down the hall. I hear you step in and slide a curtain closed. Something thuds, like a plastic shampoo bottle set down on a ledge. It doesn’t take you long to come back with a towel wrapped around your waist, dark curls wet and glistening on your head.
You stand next to the bed, your low-slung towel level with my eyes, and open the drawer to your nightstand. After shuffling around inside, you take out a small white tube and rub some kind of ointment on your chest over the blisters.
“What do you want from me?” I ask. My voice is filled with defeat that’s slowly taking over my heart. “I’ll do whatever you want.” Tears trickle down my cheeks. “Just let me go home.”
You bend down and rub your thumbs across my cheeks collecting tears. “I told you, Rachael. You are home.” Your warm lips press against my forehead. “It’ll be good.”
“What do you mean?” I whisper, afraid to ask, because I already know the answer. My lips tug down at the corners and quiver. You’re never going to let me leave you.
You sit beside me and run your fingers down my cheek. “You’ve always been the person holding everything together haven’t you?—for your mom when your dad was sick, after he died, for your brainless roommate.”
I can’t breathe. I can only stare at you. “How do you know about me?”
Your eyes trail over my face. “I know.” You stroke my hair and stare deep into my eyes. “You’re always the strong one, aren’t you? But who takes care of you, Rachael?”
“I take care of me.” I shift my head away from your fingers. “I don’t even know you. Were you stalking me?”
You grin, like I’m a little girl asking a silly question. “I offered you a job. You couldn’t take it. Your life wasn’t your own. Now it can be.”
Your voice. Your face. That’s it—I know you. “We video chatted. You’re…” I shake my head in disbelief. You can’t be the clean-shaven man in the business suit I spoke to.
“Merrick Rocha, CEO, Rocha Enterprises.” You smooth the crease between my eyebrows and laugh at my shock. “You made a lasting impression on me, Rachael, and I don’t like to be turned down. I needed to find out why you didn’t come work for me.”
How can a respected, beautiful man be entirely crazy? “So you kidnapped me?”
You flinch at my words. “I’m detaining you until you choose to be here.”
My mind races back through everything you’ve just told me. “But, how does that make my life my own?”
You frown and look away from me. “You want to be here. I know you do.” You leave the bed and cross the room to dress. I don’t watch. I stare out the window.
Mr. Rocha, real estate mogul and owner of Rocha Enterprises, kidnapped me. My mind tries to make sense of it, but it spins in endless circles. You want me to choose to be here with you. It defies logic.
I think back to my video interview with you. It was the third interview. The two prior had been with a human resources manager. You were impressed with me. I was attracted to you.
You said you didn’t even need to consult anyone else for an opinion and offered me the position of project manager right then. You offered to fly me to Florida on the next plane out. I told you I would need to discuss the offer with my family, and called you the next day to decline after my mom freaked at the thought of me leaving town.
It was my dream job overseeing the renovation of a historic hotel in Florida’s Everglades with a multi-million dollar budget at my disposal. After years of architecture and design classes, working as an intern for pennies, my day had arrived only to be shot down.
I snap my head to look at you. “We’re at Turtle Tear Hotel, aren’t we? In the Everglades.”
You pull a soft, white t-shirt down over your chest and smile. “I told you, you’re home.” You step toward the door.
“Wait!” I call after you. You turn and face me. “Why like this?” I tug at my ropes.
You shrug. “I didn’t know how else to do it.” Your eyes are tormented. “I’m not really a kidnapper, Rachael.”
“Then let me go.”
Your head drops. “You’ll try to leave.”
“I don’t understand. Why me?”
You don’t answer, just shake your head and leave the room.
Y ou untie my right hand to let me eat. I raise the sandwich to my mouth and take a bite. Peanut butter and grape jelly.
“I hope it’s okay,” you say. “I can make something else if it’s not.”
I’ve resolved to act like your best friend in the world until you let me loose, and I can get the hell out of here. “It’s actually one of my favorites from when I was a kid. I loved PB&J’s all warm and gushy from my lunchbox.”
“You want another?” You gesture toward the bag of bread, jar of peanut butter and squeeze bottle of jelly on the nightstand.
“Yes, please. I’m starving.”
You laugh and reach for the bread. “You should be. You haven’t eaten in over two days.”
I gasp and choke. You pat my back and grab the bottle of water. I chug it and cough a few more times. “How long was I out?”
“Since Friday night. It’s Monday afternoon.”
I drop my sandwich and grip your arm. “You have to let me call my mom. She’ll be having a nervous breakdown by now.”
You take my hand and hold it between both of yours. “She’s fine. I’ve taken care of it.”
“What does that mean? You’ve taken care of it?” I’m squeezing your hand, holding on for dear life.
You tuck my hair back behind my ear. “Don’t worry, Rachael. I’ve taken care of everything. She’s not worried about you.”
Thoughts race through my head. I grasp for them, but they slip through my fingers. “What did you do to my mother?”
You pick up my sandwich and hand it to me. “Please, Rachael, do you think I’d hurt her? I told you, everything I did, I did for you. I told your mom that your plans to join me here were sudden and you would be in touch soon. Now eat.”
“She believed you? That easily?”
He grins, a dimple studs his cheek. “I can be charming and persuasive.”
I didn’t know my mom could be charmed or persuaded by a man. I take another bite. My throat is constricted, and I’m sure I won’t be able to swallow. You pick up the T.V. remote and turn it on. “Any preference?”
I shake my head and wash down my sandwich with a huge amount of water. “Can I see the hotel?” Maybe I’ll locate a phone or a vehicle I can steal.
You meet my eyes, considering. “Okay. You seem calm now. It’s not like you can go anywhere. The only way off this island is by helicopter. You don’t fly, do you?”
“Fly?” My head instantly aches. “No, I don’t fly.” With my free hand, I gesture to my bound wrist. “Why am I tied to a bed if I can’t get off the island?”
“So you couldn’t hurt yourself.” One side of your lip quirks into a bashful smile. “Or me.”
“Hurt you? You’re a lot bigger and stronger than me.”
“I was afraid you might go crazy.”
I can’t do anything but stare at you and blink. “You abduct me and you were afraid I might go crazy?”
You bite your lips, trying not to laugh. “I never said I was good at this. It’s my first time. You have to cut me some slack.”
I can’t suppress a sharp laugh. It surprises me as much as it does you. “Other than tying my wrists, you suck at this.”
You thread your fingers through your hair and rest the palms of your hands on your forehead. “I should have never done it. I’m sorry. It was impulsive and stupid.” You let your hands fall and lower to your knees beside me. Your fingers work quickly to untie my bound wrist. When it’s free, you hold my hand and look in my eyes. “I didn’t know how to get you to come with me.”
I can’t shake the feeling that you’re way ahead of me—that your feelings are more than two people who were attracted to each other in a bar one night. “How long have you been watching me?”
You take a deep breath and look down at my hand in yours. “Since about a week after you turned down the job.”
I pull my hand from yours. Your touch isn’t welcome. “Three months. That was three months ago.”
You nod, but won’t look me in the eye. You’re ashamed. “I didn’t peek in your windows or anything like that. I respected your privacy. Nobody has ever refused a project manager position at Rocha Enterprises. When you told me your situation and turned down my offer to relocate you and your mom…” You let out a long breath, and your eyes finally crawl to mine. “My intention was to convince you—in person—to take the job. But after I got to you, after I found out what kind of woman you are, I knew there was nothing I could say and no amount of money I could offer to change your mind. I got desperate.”
I stare you down, want to make you flinch under my hard gaze. Your eyes hold steady on mine, up for the challenge. “What kind of woman am I?”
You lift your chin a little more. “Smart, but I knew that from our phone conversation. Beautiful, but a lot of women are.” You reach up with a shaky hand and brush my cheek. “Kind and loyal. Caring. Loving. Selfless.” You smile watching your fingers trail across my skin. When you meet my cold eyes, your hand falls and your smile falters. “The kind of woman who could have everything she wants if she would only take it for herself. But she won’t. That’s why I brought you here.”
I make a fist, squeeze it tight and pound it against my knee. What were you thinking? “Take me on a tour of this place. I can’t think about this anymore.”
I was right. You are keeping me in the attic. It’s the only part of the hotel that’s habitable. Plaster crumbles off the walls. Chipped and broken tile litters the floors. You lead me to the grand staircase. It sweeps in a wide arc from the third floor down to the entryway.
I place my hand on the top of the railing. “That’s not secure,” you say, putting an arm around my waist to keep me from falling over the side.
“This is mangrove root, isn’t it?” I ask, bending to slide my fingers over a twisted wooden baluster.
Your serious, focused gaze is back, appraising me. “Yes. Local to the area. This railing was installed
“During the recovery from the Okeechobee Hurricane in nineteen twenty-eight.” I run my hands over the soft, worn wood. “There wasn’t much money to rebuild, so they used what they had on-hand.”
When I turn back to you, your hands are tucked inside your jeans pockets, and there’s a smug smile on your lips.
“What?” I ask.
“My method for getting you here couldn’t have been worse, but I knew this place had worked its way inside you like it has me.” You run your hand along the railing, stopping beside mine. “Nobody knows its history like you. After our interview, I knew you were the only one I could trust it to.”
“What made you buy it?” I take a step down, and you follow beside me. “It’s falling apart, there’s no access to the island. It’ll take a miracle to make this place operational again.”
“It doesn’t matter. Look at this place.” You stop and open your arms wide taking in the soaring ceiling with thick wood beams and colorful peeling Spanish murals of trees, lakes, birds and turtles. “Tell me you don’t feel it.”
I do feel it. It’s magic. Life throbs outside the long, shuttered windows. Tendrils of tender green vines snake through cracks in the foundation, sneak in under doors and climb up window frames. “I feel it,” I whisper to myself. But you hear me.
“I knew you did,” you whisper back. “Do you know how it got its name? Turtle Tear Island?”
“No. That’s the one piece of history I couldn’t dig up.” I spent hours and hours prepping for my interview with Rocha Enterprises. When I first started researching the historic hotel, I fell instantly for its rustic charm. Turtle Tear was the only place to vacation in the twenties if you were wealthy. Even celebrities stayed on the island for their summers.
I found black and white pictures online of women in cocktail dresses sitting on the tiled patio under the shade of ancient flowering trees. I could almost hear the circular fountain in the center of the patio trickling with water when I stared at the photo. I printed a few pictures and carried them in my day planner until I turned down the job.
“There’s a legend,” you say starting down the stairs again, “that Ponce de León while searching the Everglades for the Fountain of Youth took a Native American lover and kept her on this island. He promised her when he found the fountain, they would marry, and they’d have children together.” You stop to make a point. “I’ve read theories that Ponce was obsessed with finding the fountain to cure his impotence.”
After a shrug, you continue. We’re almost to the bottom of the stairs to the grand entryway. “Ponce never found the fountain and never returned to her. This ties in to the name Turtle Tears because when sea turtles lay eggs, they secrete a gel-like substance out of their eyes to clear the sand, but it looks like tears. The tears of turtles laying eggs on the island became connected to the childless lover of Ponce de León alone and abandoned here until her death.”
We step off the last stair onto the broken terracotta tiles in the entryway. “If my recollection of middle school history is correct, the story can’t be true. Ponce de León was married to a woman named Lenore before he ever came to Florida, and they had kids,” I say.
You sigh and step forward, reaching out to pick a flake of red paint off the wall. “Sometimes men make promises they don’t intend to keep.”
You’re lost inside your thoughts. I wander to the other side of the room, dodging debris. A storm must’ve knocked the window above the door out—shards of glass glitter all over the floor. It sparkles in the sun streaming in from the shattered remains of jagged glass around the frame.
I don’t know what to make of you.
I glance back, and you haven’t moved. You’re still picking paint from the wall, deep in the past somewhere mulling over promises you made and didn’t keep? It’s then I realize I’m not afraid of you. I don’t think I ever was afraid physically. My fear was never getting home.
A wavy lock of hair falls and brushes your cheek. Standing there lost in thought, you look so innocent, so young. “How old are you?” I blurt without thinking.
You turn, startled. I think you forgot I was there with you. “Thirty-two.” Only seven years older than me and you’ve accomplished so much. “Why?” you ask.
You always look so serious, so… alone. I noticed that in photos of you in magazines and online. I wonder if you are alone a lot. “I read about you before my interview, but I didn’t know you were so young.” For some reason, now I feel like I’m the one who’s been spying on you.
You turn and gaze up at the soaring ceiling. “I feel like I’m fifty most days.” Your eyes swivel to mine. “God knows I’ve made enough mistakes to fill fifty years.”
You want me to forgive you. You’ve given me this gift, this dream. You want me to tell you it wasn’t a mistake.
I can’t. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for drugging me and bringing me here without my knowledge. Tying me up.
Your eyes plead with me. I did it for you, they say. But why? I can’t understand what would make you take such a chance? You could go to jail if I made one phone call. You could lose everything. “Why did you risk so much? I’m a stranger to you.”
You rub your hands together and groan, torn about what to tell me. “I owed it to… let’s just say the universe. I owed it to the universe. I had a lot to make up for. I knew how much this place meant to you. I could hear it in your voice over my laptop speakers. I could see it in your eyes and the look on your face. It was more yours than mine. Then I saw you one day…”
You turn toward the window and drag a hand through your hair, tug at the back. “I saw you in a coffee shop near your apartment. You had printouts of photos of this place. When you left, you tore them up and tossed them in the trash. After you got inside your car, I saw you break down in tears and sob against the steering wheel.”
You take a few steps toward me. “You needed this place. It needed you. I needed to give it to you. That’s it.”
I remember that day. Why didn’t I see you there? I sat at a table taking my last glimpses of Turtle Tear Hotel, determined to destroy my pictures and smother the hope I’d had of bringing it back to life. Each rip of paper tore through my heart. I couldn’t get to my car fast enough so I could melt into a puddle of tears. “You saw me there.” It seems surreal to go from that moment to standing here in the grand entryway now.
“I saw you there,” you say, shuffling your foot across the shards of glass on the floor.
“Is that when you decided to take me?”
You take a few more tentative steps toward me, glass cracking under your feet. “That’s when I knew I had to do something. That’s when I got desperate.”
My emotions are tangled and warring. For good or bad, you gave me my dream back. Nobody else could see how much taking the job meant to me—nobody cared to see. But you did. A man I spoke to once on the phone. You knew because it meant just as much to you.
I want to hug you, hit you, yell at you, and cry for joy.
You tilt your head and smile softly, like you see all of my pent up emotion written on my face and don’t want it to erupt. Slowly, you reach out and run your hand down my arm. “Let’s finish the tour. You haven’t seen the fountain.”
I let you take my hand and lead me down a hallway that runs under the stairs toward the back of the hotel. We enter a lounge. A stone fireplace is built into the corner and two enormous wooden doors sit on the back wall. You take the iron handle on one of the doors and brace your feet apart. When you pull, the muscles in your arms and back tighten and ripple. The muscles in your thighs press against your jeans. The magnetism I felt at the club rushes back. I fight against my desire to touch you—to have you touch me.
The door wrenches open on rusty hinges, letting sun and a blast of hot, humid air inside. You stand back and brush your hands together, getting off the dust and grime. “What do you think?”
I step out into a tropical Eden in the middle of a swamp. Tall, lush trees loom over a stone wall dripping moss down onto red and green tiles that weave into a mosaic pattern on the ground. Black, wrought iron benches, chairs and tables sit scattered around the patio. Some have tipped onto their sides. The algae and moss-covered stone fountain in the center is larger than it looks in photos. A mermaid sits atop a rock in its center holding a conch shell.
“Water would stream out from the shell,” you say, pointing.
A yellow butterfly flutters between us and lights upon the edge of the fountain. We stay still, watching it tip-toe and flit its wings. When it launches back into the air, you brush off the spot where it had landed and gesture for me to take a seat. “That has to be some kind of sign,” you say. “I have something. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
I sit on the edge of the fountain and watch you dart back inside. You seem excited now. I’m not sure how I feel. I don’t know if it’s stupid to feel safe with you, to feel like what happened is okay because of how it’s turning out.
You still drugged and kidnapped me, no matter the reason.
I should despise you, but I don’t. You know the legend of Turtle Tear Island—you told me the story. You want to share this place with me. No, I don’t despise you. I feel something entirely opposite, and I wish I didn’t. You said it yourself—I’m a smart woman. I should know better.
You come back out onto the patio with a bottle of champagne in one hand and two chunky clay mugs in the other. You set the mugs on the ledge beside me and shake the champagne bottle. “Would you like to do the honors?” you ask, holding the bottle out to me.
I take it. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll point the cork at your face?”
You grin. “I deserve no less.”
I press both thumbs on the cork and wiggle it out a bit before it pops and sprays champagne like my own conch shell fountain. You take it and pour us both a mugful.
“To Turtle Tear,” you say, holding up your mug.
“To Turtle Tear.” I hold mine up, and you tap yours against it.
We drink, eyeing each other over the rims of our mugs. Where do we stand? What happens now? Where do we go from here?
You toss another log in the fireplace before striking a match and lighting the wadded up newspaper your using for kindling. Here in the lounge it’s cool, unlike the stuffy attic bedroom.
The sun is setting. A blaze of gold and orange dapples through the tree leaves. A breeze blows through the open door behind me, and I pull the blanket you brought downstairs up around my shoulders and snuggle into my wrought iron chair from outside. Continues...
Excerpted from Taken by Kelli Maine Copyright © 2013 by Kelli Maine. Excerpted by permission.
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