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The artificial Christmas tree looked even tackier than it had the previous year, the plastic pine needles worn thin in spots and the wire branches drooping. Sophie Madigan hung the last of the ornaments on a high bough, then stepped back, forcing a smile. "Doesn't that look festive, Papa?"
She glanced over her shoulder at her father, who sat at the huge desk in their parlor, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, aviation manuals and charts spread out in front of him. He nodded distractedly, then took another sip of his whiskey. It was barely noon and he had already poured himself a drink, Sophie mused.
"I should have bought some new lights," she continued. "Half of these are burned out."
"Looks fine, darlin'," he murmured, without even looking up.
Sophie sighed and began to gather the boxes and bags strewn over the plank floor. Why did she even bother? Trying to celebrate Christmas in the middle of the South Pacific was a lost cause. She remembered Christmases past, when she and her parents had traveled to places where entire towns had been decorated, places where it actually snowed.
Outside their small house on the tiny Polynesian island of Taratea, the trade winds kept the temperatures at a constant eighty-three degrees and the wet season made the air thick with humidity. The heady scent of tiare and hibiscus and frangipani seeped through the shutters that lined the lanai and she could hear the soft patter of raindrops on the tin roof. Sometimes it seemed as if it would never stop raining.
Sophie had hoped to spend this Christmas with her mother in Paris. But for the third year in a row, she'd reluctantly refused the invitation, choosing instead to staywith her father, Jack "Madman" Madigan. Christmas in Paris would have been a happy affair. Her uncles and aunts were all excellent cooks and there would have been food, followed by gifts, followed by more food.
When she broached the subject of spending the holidays in Paris, her father had told her to go. But as the time to leave got closer, Sophie saw him sink further and further into a deep depression. He had no one except her. No family, few friends. Since his eyesight had gone bad, he'd cut himself off from nearly everyone.
Sophie turned away from the tree and crossed the room, peering over her father's shoulder. "What are you working on?"
He had a map of the Society Islands spread out in front of him and he was studying a small archipelago through a magnifying glass, squinting to see the fine print. Her father's eyesight had been failing for nearly five years. It had become so bad, he'd been grounded, prohibited from doing what he did best.
Since then, Sophie had been forced to take over his air-charter operation, making almost daily flights between Tahiti and any one of the fourteen inhabited islands nearby. To make ends meet, they'd sold off four of the five planes to pay her father's debts. With one small plane left and only one pilot—Sophie herself— they made just enough to get by.
Sophie had tried to convince her father to sell the last plane and move back to the States where he could get medical care and she could get a better-paying job, but Jack held out hope that his eyesight would suddenly return and he'd be back in business. "Are we going on a trip?"
"I'm mapping out a flight plan for you for tomorrow," he murmured.
"I didn't know I had a charter," Sophie said, frowning. "Papa, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Don't you think we could take the day off, maybe do a little celebrating? The tree is up. I thought I might make a nice dinner and we could open our gifts and maybe even listen to some Christmas music."
"This guy is willing to pay ten thousand American for three days' worth of flying. I didn't think it was a job you'd want to refuse."
She gasped. "Ten thousand dollars? For three days' work?"
Jack nodded, then handed her a slip of paper. "His name is Peter Shelton. He's some bigwig for the Shelton Hotel chain. They're looking for a new location to build some fancy-schmancy new resort and they want to buy a whole island, make it real exclusive. You need to meet him at eight tomorrow morning at Faaa. At the hangar."
Sophie stared down at the name and phone number written on the scrap of paper. "Quelle chance," she murmured. "Peter Shelton. Shelton Hotels." He sounded like a pretty important guy. Anyone who worked on Christmas Eve and paid more than three thousand dollars a day for a charter had to be important. "Why would he choose us?"
"Probably because no one else would take the job on Christmas Eve," Jack replied. "Here," he said, pointing to the map. "Fly him up here to this little atoll. There's a nice-size island with a decent lagoon."
"Suaneva? Didn't they try to build a resort there once?"
"About thirty years ago. But the developer ran out of money. The lagoon is a little tight for landing and taking off, but a good pilot should be able to get in and out. Hell, if he decides to build there, I can fly his workers in and out. We'll haul freight, and later the guests. We could work out an exclusive long-term contract and maybe buy a few new planes. I want you to really impress this guy, Sophie girl. Make him see that a partnership with Madigan Air would be good for both of us."
Sophie rested her hand on his shoulder. "Yes, Papa." She knew it was all just a pipe dream. Or maybe he did expect her to spend the rest of her life flying for him. She'd found a doctor in Sydney who'd promised a simple but expensive surgery for her father's sight problems, but when she'd mentioned this to him, Jack had completely discounted the option, preferring to stick to the herbal remedies a local tahua woman had prescribed.
Besides, it wasn't as if they had the money for the operation. Though ten thousand American dollars would go a long way toward paying for it, it still wasn't enough. Sooner or later, she'd have to accept the fact her life was here, caring for her father and eking out a living for them both as best she could.
She glanced around the small fare they called home. Built onto a hillside overlooking the water and perched on stilts, the interior of the cottage was small, just enough room for a few bedrooms and a parlor. But most of their living was done outside, on the wide lanai that circled the house.
Tourists would say she was living in paradise, but to Sophie, it often felt like a prison. Unable to enjoy the beauty that surrounded her, she longed for the excitement of living in a city, the noise and the people, never knowing what was around the next corner.
Slipping out of the house, she walked across the small lawn to a point that overlooked the bay. People paid thousands of dollars to come and admire a view like this, she mused. The steeply raked crags covered with lush vegetation, the turquoise water and white sand, the little fare, surrounded with flowering vines and bushes.
Perhaps she might convince her father to sell and find a place in Pape'ete. Maybe then she could meet some people her own age, maybe even find a man to distract her from her troubles. She flopped down onto the lawn and stared up at the sky, the dampness from the rain soaking through her pareu.
Though she was emotionally exhausted, something inside her couldn't seem to rest. She felt as though she was ready to jump out of her skin. She smoothed her hands over her body and closed her eyes as the rain pelted her face. The sensations her hands evoked were enough to remind her how long it had been since she'd been touched by another.
It had been nearly a year since she'd enjoyed the pleasures a man's body offered. Though her Irish-American father would be more than happy if she decided to enter a convent, her French mother had given Sophie a very practical and healthy attitude about sex. One must accept that a woman has desires, her mother had told her, and they must be fulfilled. There is no sin in acting upon these feelings. As long as both parties agree there will be no promises the next morning.
After she finished flying Peter Shelton around the islands, she'd take a little bit of the money, buy herself a new dress and find herself a man, Sophie decided. There were always tourists at the resorts on Tahiti and Bora Bora, handsome men who'd offer a temporary diversion.
She'd make it her goal to ring in the New Year in the bed of a sexy man. "I'll make it happen," Sophie muttered, stretching her arms above her head and arching her back. "A lover for New Year's Eve. And for New Year's Day."
But would a few nights in a man's bed really satisfy her? Or would she still have to make some more drastic changes in her life in order to be happy? "I'll start with the lover," she said, sitting up. "Then we'll see what happens."
Trey Shelton glanced at his watch then cursed softly. He was already an hour late and the taxi he'd hired at the hotel had managed to get him to the airport but no farther. "Are you sure you don't know where Madigan Air is? It's a well-known charter company."
The native driver peered at him in the rearview mirror. "Non. Maybe this way?" he said in heavily accented English, pointing to a small cluster of hangars on the periphery of the Faaa airport.
"Let's try there," Trey suggested. "Someone should know." He'd hired the plane for three days, but he hoped to get his business settled early so he might enjoy a short vacation in paradise. He'd spent last night with an attractive Polynesian dancer from one of the local clubs and he'd promised to meet her that evening for dinner. Though she'd been interested in spending the night in his suite, Trey had begged off, explaining he had an early morning.
Since he'd begun working for his father a year ago, Trey had been forced to leave his jet-set Casanova lifestyle behind. Six months ago, he'd ended a relationship with a somewhat crazy, but sexy, English actress. Since then, he'd had a few one-night stands, but they'd left him more confused than satisfied.
He'd spent his adult life indulging in one whim after the other, all of it fueled by a seemingly bottomless trust fund. But now, at age twenty-nine, the money was almost gone and the lifestyle with it. His father's job offer was his only option.
"Ah!" the driver cried, pointing at a rusty sign dangling from above a hangar door. "Nous sommes ici! Madigan Air. Voilá!"
Trey paid the driver in colorful French Pacific franc notes, then grabbed his bag and slid out of the cab. He slowly walked through the huge overhead door into the interior of the hangar. The place was a wreck, parts strewn everywhere, a bent propeller dangling from the ceiling, an old girlie calendar hanging on an open office door. A small amphibious plane was parked inside. Either the guy on the phone had oversold the company, or Trey was in the wrong place.
"Hello?" he called. "Anybody home?"
The female voice came from the direction of the plane.
"Is this Madigan Air?"
"Oui. This is. You're late," the voice said. "When you didn't come, I decided to do some maintenance. We'll be ready to go in about fifteen minutes. Just find a seat and relax. I won't be long."
Though she spoke flawless English, Trey could detect a French accent. He approached the plane, circling around the front until he came upon a slight figure standing on a small ladder, her head bent over an open engine compartment. He expected her to be cleaning the windows or polishing the mirrors, not wielding a wrench!
She wore a skirt made of fabric so thin he could see her bare legs through it, a tiny T-shirt didn't even cover her midriff and her dark hair hung well below her shoulders, held back by a colorful scarf. She'd tucked a flower behind her ear, the creamy-white color a stark contrast to her deeply tanned skin. "Are you sure you should be messing with that? Maybe you should wait for the pilot."
Her head snapped up and he met her gaze. Trey's breath caught in his throat as the most stunning pair of sapphire eyes fixed on his face. He watched as her expression quickly shifted from thinly veiled annoyance to embarrassment. A pretty blush colored her cheeks and she forced a smile. "I—I am the pilot, monsieur," she murmured.
Trey couldn't help but laugh. "You're the pilot?"
She straightened her spine. "What? You don't think a woman might be capable of flying a plane?"
A smudge of grease marred her exquisite complexion. Even from this distance, he'd become lost in her eyes, rimmed by long, dark lashes. Her features were perfectly balanced, and even without a bit of makeup, her beauty stole the breath from his lungs. "No. Of course not. I was just surprised, that's all."
She grabbed a rag, wiped her hands, then climbed down the ladder. "It seems I'm both. Pilot and mechanic. Sophie Madigan." She said her first name in the French way, with the accent on the last syllable.
"This is your plane?" he inquired.
"No, it belongs to my father. But I fly it. I am a licensed pilot," she said. "There is no need to worry, Mr. Shelton. I know what I'm doing."
He reached out and took her slender fingers in his, shaking her hand. God, she was stunning. This island was teeming with gorgeous women, but this woman put them all to shame. She was slender and delicate, with long legs and graceful arms. Her clothing clung to every curve of her body and if he had to guess, Trey would venture she wasn't wearing a whole lot underneath.
"You are younger than I expected," she said, a tiny smile curving the corners of her mouth. Her gaze was still fixed on his face, her eyes slowly taking in his features. For a moment, he thought she might say more.
She didn't seem to recognize him, even though his name should have given him away. Trey's reputation as a celebrity playboy usually followed him wherever he went. The press had dubbed him the male equivalent of Paris Hilton. They'd documented his exploits with women and poked fun at the various careers he'd attempted.
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