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"I need answers," Maria Santiago said, keeping her voice calm when she wanted to scream.
She inhaled a soothing breath, grateful for these tranquil moments during dinner hour with Poppa. She could count on him to anchor her in the world she remembered.
She selected a roll and passed the basket to her right, ignoring the pleasant warmth from Daniel Murphy Del Rio's hands as he took it from her. She also ignored his gaze, which never failed to make her uncomfortable. He always seemed to be questioning her. Heaven knew, she had no idea why.
The evening's shadows were growing along the beach, but her cherished ocean view from Reefside's terrace did little to quell the tightness in her chest over this demand she was making. Until recently, she'd been content to hole up in her studio, or indulge in sunrise and sunset walks along the beach, but no longer. Her precious twin sister, whose memory she still grieved, had begun to haunt her dreams.
Dreams, no. Nightmares. Until the nightmares began, she'd held nothing but heartfelt, wonderful memories of Carmen. Now these gruesome nightmares of her sister began tormenting her waking hours.
Why now? Carmen had died a year ago.
Maria had done some investigating. The answers didn't please her, but she no longer had a choice. Her father would indulge her demand. He had to.
If possible, she sat even straighter in the deep-cushioned bamboo chair and continued speaking, determined to have him agree before she lost her cool and started raising her voice.
"My doctor insists that a promising antidote for retrograde amnesia is to return to the place where it began. I would like to take the Honora back to the Abacos."
She spared a glance at Del Rio and smirked at the alarm in his eyes before continuing. "However, Poppa, I wanted to be sure you still had confidence in your captain, since the Honora is collecting barnacles at the dock."
Del Rio's hand stopped in midair. He opened that captivating mouth of his to speak, then frowned, changing his mind. Maria didn't miss the quelling look Poppa sent his way.
She'd learned from her father that Daniel Murphy Del Rio was talented and fearless at the helm. Yet, since she'd become aware of him, he hadn't taken the Honora out at all. The few times she'd questioned Poppa, he'd waved away her concern. Anytime she asked Del Rio, he merely said that Eliasher fatherhad no desire to go anywhere. There was no denying she had hit a raw nerve with the ship captain. His focus straight ahead, he tore the roll into small pieces and chewed them one after the other, without taking the time to add butter, even though he had already placed some on his plate.
Good. Poppa had a bad habit of treating hired help like family. It was understandable with good employees like their butler Eduardo, who had been around for years, but Del Rio was way too new to Reefside for her father to give him such honors.
At least he was too new for Maria. Poppa said Del Rio was the son of his business partner, and now like a son to him, but Maria continued to relegate him to employee status. She simply could not remember him and didn't like the way he did little other than reside at Reefside and shadow Poppa.
She also didn't like the physical attraction she felt toward him. Something about him intimidated her. She'd mentioned this to Poppa and he'd quelled her concerns with amusement. She had to trust her father's judgment, as she couldn't trust her own since her memory loss. However, she could mentally shelve the man where he belonged: on the Honora.
Del Rio was not among the earlier memories that had returned after the accident. She'd remembered Poppa. Momma. Carmen. Eduardo, who ran the house. It boggled her mind that Poppa was so generous with Del Rio, including him in intimate conversations that should be restricted to family.
Now that their family had dwindled to just her and Poppa, she had no room for Del Rio. That was a fact. With his ultrahot body, wavy hair, deceptively charming Irish looks and easy smile, she found it even more important to ignore him. When she could not, she found fault. Sadly, she couldn't imagine why. He had been nothing but kind to her.
Elias Santiago adjusted himself in his wheelchair, his dark gaze sliding from Del Rio to her. "Querida, I do not think this is such a good undertaking. You may look like an adventurous, gypsy princess in your beautiful dress, but now you sound like one. I do not want you wandering away from me."
"You should have no worries, Poppa. My memory may be gone, but I still conduct myself well in public."
What she couldn't say was that she refused to go through another day of nightmares. Afraid to go to Carmen's bedroom for fear that her twin would appear as she did in Maria's sleep: angry. Distorted. Lunging for her with fangs and claws until the two of them hurtled over the balcony into a dark, foul-smelling abyss and Maria's screams jolted her awake .
She was exhausted. She needed answers.
Calming her thoughts, she summoned all her willpower to keep a smooth, even tone when she spoke. She had to know why Carmen was haunting her.
"Besides, I'm not wandering, Poppa. I'm focused on a goalgoing back to the scene of the accident. My memory is missing, but I hope that will change with this trip."
Elias's raven eyebrows slashed into a frown. Planting both hands on the table to emphasize his lack of mobility, he said, "But I am unable to accompany you."
"Which is why I must go now, Poppa. I want to be well quickly, so that I can be here to help you."
"I suggest you fly over." Del Rio's soothing voice invaded the conversation. "Take your doctor. You'll be there in forty-five minutes and can hire a boat."
She turned to meet his challenge. "What? You don't want to work, Del Rio?"
His laugh sounded mirthless. "Not any longer, Princess."
"Hijos, stop!" Poppa's concern drew her attention from Del Rio's challenging blue eyes.
"We are not your children, Poppa."
"I think Elias means we are acting like children," Del Rio answered.
Eduardo arrived with their main course. Maria waited for everyone to be served before lobbying for her cause once more.
"Please, Poppa. This sail is vital. I have asked you for nothing else these past months."
Elias put down his fork. "And why not? Because you stay locked in your studio, day after day."
She winced as the accusation hit home. She'd been afraid of the darkness that shrouded her thoughts since awakening in the hospital. Not knowing answers to questions or recognizing people she should know sent her scrambling for solitude. If she were alone, she couldn't make any social blunders or look as foolish and frightened as she felt.
Also, the devastation of learning that Momma and Carmen had perished in the accident that robbed her memory had left a hole in her so deep she didn't think she could ever climb out. She'd behaved cowardly, immersing herself in her misery, leaving Poppa to mourn alone.
She soon discovered her best escape was her art, which seemed to be selling faster than she could create it. But now, even that could not distract her. Matters had gotten out of hand. Reefside, a private estate in the heart of Fort Lauderdale's metropolis, had become too quiet. In this beachside oasis her nightmares had become more frightening than ever. It was time to heal, especially with Poppa becoming weaker with diabetes. She had precious little time to waste, no matter how daunting this self-imposed task might seem. Poppa needed her. She was all he had left.
By some odd quirk of fate, she had decided that having Del Rio take her to the Abacos in the Bahamas on her father's ship was the answer. The doctor said retracing the steps up to the accident could jar her memory. Yet, something about Del Rio chafed at her. No doubt it was his bond with Poppa. Why else would the darkness in her mind rise fast, practically buzzing through her head, whenever she was in Del Rio's presence? She needed to conquer that silly sensation, as well.
Besides, Poppa said Del Rio was the finest sailor he'd ever known. Coming from Elias Santiago, that was high praise. Sailing on the Honora would get them to the Abacos fast enough while giving her time to adjust to the possibility of regaining her memory, of recovering all the details she suspected were so painful she'd blocked them. Here lay her dilemma. She wanted answers, but was unsure if she could handle them in one windfall. The Honora would carry her to her destination fast enough while giving her time to accept what she would learn. It was time to discover the facts behind her mother's and sister's deaths. It was time to embrace her life in its entirety and stop merely existing.
She raised her chin a notch higher. "I am out of my studio now, am I not?" She shook her head. "I have wasted too much time. I am ready to fight this black monster in my mind. Permit me use of the Honora, although God knows the thought of stepping on a ship again makes my knees quake."
Elias frowned. "Then you must not go."
"No, Poppa, you are wrong." Her voice dropped in desperation. She fought to keep the tears and the tremor from her words. "I can no longer live not knowing. Nothing will stop me."
Elias was a bear of a man whom few people crossed. His disease had ruined the joints in his ankles, yet his imposing frame continued to belie his useless legs. A silver mane of hair softened his dark, noble Latino looks. He wore his usual linen shirt and pants, white cotton socks to keep his swollen feet warm, even in the balmy, tropical evening. Elias still enjoyed good days, despite his wheelchair, but Maria had observed the signs of distress that seemed to occur more frequently. Besides her own overwhelming need to reclaim peace from these nightmares, she wanted to regain her memory so that she would be prepared for Poppa when he needed her. His blustering would do little to dissuade her.
Del Rio stood in the silence that had fallen, his plate untouched. He bowed slightly toward Maria, his spicy-warm, masculine scent filling her senses, before focusing his attention on Elias. "I cannot listen to this discussion. I seem to have lost my appetite. If you will excuse me."
Maria looked straight ahead, refusing to watch the man's exit. Del Rio might be thinking that his leaving could sway Poppa to deny her wishes, but she knew better. His absence would improve her chances to persuade her father of her plan. Elias added a splash of wine to his glass, which the doctor had forbidden.
She lifted her own glass. As he filled it, she offered Poppa an amused look. "Now that we are alone, I can explain myself more freely, Poppa. Here's why I must leave as soon as possible."
Daniel stood in the tropical morning sun, his world crashing around him like the surf hitting the beach stretching behind the villa.
He stared dumbfounded at Elias, this man who was like a second father to him while growing up, and now, since his parents' death six years ago, his only father. Heat seared his back through his T-shirt as if exaggerating the hotbed from which neither he nor Elias had managed to extract themselves last night.
"Don't ask me to do this, Elias. Not when you know I've decided to leave."
Elias's requestor should he say, demandto take the reclusive Maria to the Bahamas was tantamount to emotional suicide for Daniel. He'd waited around patiently this past year out of sheer love, letting his career slide in an attempt to recapture something that he'd finally come to terms with as irretrievable.
No way would Daniel comply.
The set of the older man's face made his intentions clear. This lion of industry might be restricted to a wheelchair, but confinement did little to curb his will. Elias Santiago hadn't built his empire by backing down.
"I know you've made plans for Australia, Daniel. Please. Give me three more weeks."
"No. I would have said so last night. You know it's already been a year of hell."
Daniel needed closure. He needed to get away. Staying dockside aboard the Honora with his life on hold had eaten away at him like rats gnawing dock lines. Aware that Maria's studio balcony shadowed the patio behind them, he lowered his voice. "I have already waited too long. Maria doesn't remember. I have no reason to stay."
Seated at his table beneath an umbrella as he was every morning, cleanly shaved, wearing his crisp linen shirt and pants, his silver hair smoothed back and a pot of coffee steaming beside him, Elias spoke to Daniel as if he was holding a board meeting. The only difference was that his nurse, in her starched white uniform and sturdy shoes, sat beneath the shade of another umbrella, focused on a Heather Graham novel.
Unwavering, Elias held his gaze. "I think you are afraid."
There was that, as much as it chafed him to admit it. Daniel had avoided sailing the Honora all these months for a reason. Self-doubt had stolen his confidence despite a notoriety for racing mile upon mile on the open ocean. He'd become so balled up after the accident that he hardly knew himself. He'd lost his love of the water and the love of his life with the simple turn of a boat's wheel.
Since he had no control over his fate with the woman he loved, he'd decided to climb aboard another love and reclaim his power over the sea. Leaving for the Australian races had twin purposes. First, to get his sea legs acclimated once more, and second, to take him far, far away from Reefside and Maria.
Maria. She deserved the chance to reclaim her memory. This, he understood. But if he took her back to the islands, to the place where the boats crashed, and triggered her memory, would the most powerful love he'd ever experienced truly and finally end?
He ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. The old man wasn't thinking straight. "I'll be damned if I hurt her, Elias. Hire someone else if she's so pigheaded about going."
A knowing grin crossed the older man's face. "Ah, love."
"Don't taunt me, old man."
"You'll sail, Daniel. Tomorrow. You don't have to tell Maria anything. Actually, I would prefer if you did not. Let her find her way. You'll grant an ailing man this one wish."
"How can you ask me to do this?"
Elias waved a swarthy, veined hand. "I know you, Daniel. Don't let the dead kill the love you had. Take this one last chance and do as Maria asks."
"Did she ask for me to take her?"
A dusky voice answered from the balcony above. "Of course, I did. You should do something to earn the money my father has been wasting on your salary."
Daniel's back tightened at her insult. Refusing to respond, he held Elias's gaze as if to say, See? It won't work.
He'd never adjusted to Maria's critical, or worse, ambivalent, comments since the accident. In the beginning, Elias and the doctors wanted to give her time to heal from her trauma and instructed Daniel to remain silent about their relationship. His heart had ripped a bit more each day that Maria remembered nothing about himabout themsince the collision.
As the year wore on, he had lost hope of regaining her love, and she had become less and less tolerant of his relationship with Elias. It wasn't until a few short weeks ago that he became truly honest with himself. His desire to win her back had died. Her ambivalence was the gun that had killed it. She'd pulled the trigger too many times.
Maria had made it clear that she didn't believe her father should be so generous with the hired help. Ironically, it seemed Elias was depending on the "hired help" to take this last step to let his precious daughter regain her memory. Daniel had become a pawn in a chess match he was certain to lose.
Elias chuckled. "Late though she may be to our discussion, she has a point."
Daniel looked at Maria standing above him in the yellow, paint-stained sundress she wore when working: her black hair caught at her nape, her dark bedroom eyes assessing him as a mere mortal. The muscles in his neck tightened under her gaze as he realized this exotic, exciting woman no longer did so much as bat an eyelash in his direction. He could not stay another dayheck, another minutebeing so close, yet oceans away from her.
Daniel threw up his hands. "You both have lost your minds."