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A blackout. Claudia Madison flipped the light switch again just to make sure. Nothing. She sighed. Just what she needed to end a hellish day. She'd started off the day excited about her trip to Hawaii, but things had gone downhill from there. She'd missed her first flight. Then when she was put on another flight two hours later, she found herself in a seat between a man with a hacking cough and a woman who, because she was afraid of flying, had drunk herself into a stupor. And, in her rush, she had forgotten to say a proper goodbye to her cat, Madame Curie.
At the baggage claim, the latch on her suitcase had broken, scattering her clothes on the ground. On the way to the hotel, her taxi driver, a talkative man with a rotund figure that hinted at his love of a good meal, had gotten lost. And to top it off a storm opened up, darkening the sky and obscuring the view of the island.
Fortunately, once they reached their destination, the rain had lightened a little and Claudia could see the massive wrought-iron gates which opened to a private sanctuary of luxurious villa residences. Unfortunately, because it was evening, she didn't get to see all eleven acres of manicured gardens and colorful exotic flowers. However, she had noticed the tiki torches as they blazed throughout the facility, creating an oasis of tropical splendor. Claudia felt as if she were on the movie set of South Pacific. After she registered at the "main house," the taxi driver drove Claudia to her villa, which was located on the far side of the property, overlooking the beach.
Once she was safely in the entryway, Claudia paid the driver handsomely, since he'd helped her with her many bags while she fumbled with her umbrella, and assured him she would be okay. She then struggled through the hand-etched, frosted-glass front door and entered into darkness.
Claudia stood in the foyer soaking wet, tired, hungry and convinced that she'd made a mistake. This trip was supposed to be the beginning of something new. A promise of more fame and influence. A top producer, Frank Brady, was turning her bestselling book No Commitment Required: Fun, Freedom and Romance for the Single Woman into a television show. She'd pinched herself when her agent had given her the news. She'd come far from her middle-class upbringing in a small town in Virginia, her former medical practice in Charlotte and a failed first book.
"You know why it bombed, don't you?" her friend and colleague Tamara Bell had said about that first book several years earlier. She was visiting Claudia's office for lunch, but looked as though she was heading for a gala event dressed in a lime green silk minidress with matching high heels. "It's dry and soulless. Unremarkable and technical. No wonder it sunk like a stone. I know you've been through a lot, but you're wasting away behind your desk." She motioned to the oak table where Claudia sat absently spinning a paper clip. "Okay, so our college days are over," she added when Claudia didn't reply. "But I'm positive you have something to say. Something besides this." She poked the book with her perfectly manicured finger as if it were a dead animal. "Your dissertation had more sex appeal."
"I don't care about writing success. I achieved my goal. I wrote a book that"
"Five people read!" Tamara said, making a dismissive gesture with her hand, which made her large diamond engagement ring sparkle. "So you want to stay in this boring little town, listening all day to your neurotic patients?" Claudia frowned, but Tamara continued. "Fine, I can't stop you, but at least say something interesting. Your college papers used to set the class on fire. Write something deep with meaning. Don't let him win."
Claudia looked up.
"You know who I'm taking about."
She did. And she was glad that her friend didn't say his name. At the time it had been only a few years since their breakup, and her feelings were still raw.
"He was a jerk. Don't let him do this to you. Success and living well are the best revenge. If you can't find his replacement, at least write something fabulous to show the bastard."
Claudia took her friend's advice to heart that night when she entered her dreary little apartment. She hadn't settled down, still hoping that her ex would somehow return and she'd move in with him. But that night that hope died. She needed a change and to reclaim her life. Over the next few months she wrote her second book, Living Alone and Loving It, a book about how she'd gotten over the Cinderella myth and claimed her own happy ending without a prince. She didn't expect it to do anything and wasn't surprised when it was turned down by twenty agents who thought her ideas were interesting but unmarketable.
"Look, most women want to get married," one agent told her over the phone. "Write about finding a man, keeping a man or having a baby, then we can talk."
Undeterred, Claudia decided to skip agents and send directly to editors. Initially, this route was equally frustrating. Some told her to get an agent, others didn't reply. She was about to give up when she received an email from Hannah Rabin, a woman who'd idolized Ms. Magazine and as a result had started her own small press. During their first of many conversations, she told Claudia that she loved the manuscript and thought it was radically feminist and pro-female, without male bashing. That autumn she published the book, and it took off.
The day Living Alone and Loving It hit the bookstores, Claudia threw out her wardrobe of sensible shoes and monochromatic outfits and replaced them with flowing dresses and bright colors, becoming the woman she'd been before her heartbreak. Soon guest spots on local talk shows followed, then a weekly column in a glitzy magazine. Her third book quickly followed, also becoming a blockbuster. Money afforded Claudia the life she'd dreamed of. A life away from her patients, schedules and obligations. Although the academic world found fault with her work, she didn't mind the criticism.
She was making millions of women happy. And that was better than any prescription she'd handed out.
Not only had her writing expanded her world, it had brought into her life her two best friends Suzanne Gordon and Noreen Vaughn. Neither women had read Claudia's books or believed in her free-livingand free-lovinglifestyle, but all three had developed a close friendship since meeting at a writing conference in North Carolina, and they were extremely proud of her success. They had, at one point, all been single and enjoyed girls' nights out, spa trips, extended lunches and vacations together. But now her two closest friends were happily married. At times, Claudia keenly felt their loss and the fun times they'd had in the past.
The proposed TV series was a great reprieve, and Claudia hoped it would help take her mind off things. She wasn't going to head down the aisle just because her friends had. She'd once gotten perilously close, but fate had other plans and she'd learned a hard lesson she didn't need to be taught again. No, she'd remain a happy bachelorette the rest of her life. She had no interest in being tied down. There were too many benefits to singlehood to give up those privileges. Plus this show would do a lot for her career. It was everything she'd ever hoped for, except for one thingher cohost.
But she wouldn't think about him. She hadn't thought about him for years, and she didn't need to start now. She had more pressing problems to handle. She needed to find her room and change out of her wet clothes. She dropped her suitcases and handbag in the hallway and tried to adjust her eyes to the blackness.
She froze. The voice came through the darkness with the chilling gossamer feel of a ghost. In a way, it wasa specter of something from the past long gone. It called to her. The sound of the low, resonant voice was beautiful and smooth, like hot caramel over ice cream. Claudia held her breath, hoping she'd imagined it. Please don't let it be him. She didn't need this right now.
"Who" Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. She wouldn't let him frighten her. "Who are you?"
"You know who."
Her heart sank. "What are you doing here?"
"We're sharing this villa. Not that you can see it now, but to your left the hallway leads to the living area and from there the kitchen is to your right. Straight ahead are two separate bedrooms. I've claimed the one on the left."
Her hellish day was turning into a nightmare. She was alone with her cohost, Peter Warrenthe man she'd almost married.
Claudia looked around, desperate to see something. "Where are you?"
"I'm right here," he said in a bored tone, as if they were at a cocktail party instead of alone in a darkened room.
He was close, but she still couldn't place him. "That's not helpful," she mumbled. "Aren't there any flashlights or candles?"
"The lights haven't been out that long."
"So? Why are you standing in the dark?"
"You know why."
Claudia cringed. He wasn't going to allow her to pretend that they were strangers. He was ripping through her wall of politeness and revealing a former closeness she wanted to ignore. He was trying to destroy her defenses and leave her vulnerable to the memories of their past. But Claudia was strong and wouldn't surrender. She fought not to remember that he used to love watching a rainstorm. That he could sit and watch one for hours. Sometimes she'd watch it with him. They'd had an old sofa at that time and liked to crawl on it and snuggle while eating a large bowl of potato chips, drinking cold beer and listening to the rain pounding the roof. He'd hold her close while she fed him. Once he'd said that watching the rain helped him think, but she sensed there was more to it than that. Something deeper.
Claudia knew he had secrets, and, although she never felt as if she truly knew him, back then she'd loved him and didn't care. Claudia brushed the thought aside. It didn't matter now. The past was dead.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could now make out shadows, but she still couldn't see him.
"Where are you?" she asked again, sensing that he knew where she was. "And don't say 'right here.'"
"You'll find me. Just follow my voice."
His voice. He knew its power. She did, too. She remembered how he used to whisper her name, the huskiness of it early in the morning or after making love. It was one of his best attributes. On the radio his voice could make a woman forget her name. Right now it caused goose bumps to form on Claudia's skin. In the darkness, it caressed her, embraced her, thrilled her.
"Never mind." She ran her hand along the wall until it hit a solid form. A life-size statue. Her fingers skimmed over the smooth, muscular chest and arms, and she imagined it looked as impressive as a bronze sculpture by Rodin. She splayed her hand against it. It was surprisingly warm to the touch. When her finger brushed against a hard nipple, it felt remarkably real.
Claudia jerked her hand away as a realization struck her. Embarrassment heated her face. "Oh, that's you."
"In the flesh."
"I hope not."
"You can always find out."
Claudia quickly folded her arms, ashamed by how intimately she'd been touching him and annoyed that he wouldn't drop the subject. "I didn't know you were that close."
When he spoke, she heard the smile in his voice. "Now you do."
Yes. Now she knew where he was, but that didn't calm her frayed nerves. She knew he wasn't naked. He probably had on a pair of jeans or shorts; he wasn't the type to go around bare, although the image was always pleasing. She silently swore. What was wrong with her? Had jet lag obliterated her common sense? She knew how dangerous it was to be susceptible to him. Yes, he was still good-looking with a great voice, but cyanide was said to smell like almonds. Both could destroy you. Annoyed by her wayward thoughts, Claudia moved past Peter down the hall and crashed into a stand-alone glass wall cabinet.
"What are you doing?" he asked, amused.
"Trying to find my way around. I need to find a flashlight."
"Still afraid of the dark?"
"I was never afraid, just uneasy."
Claudia didn't care if he didn't believe her; she would focus on her task not on him. But she could feel herself starting to panic. She'd never admit that she was still afraid of the dark. It was ridiculous to have such a childish fear. She was a trained health-care professional. She'd studied the roots of phobias and helped others conquer theirs. She opened the doors and frantically searched the cabinet for a flashlight or candle while quietly counting to calm herself. One Mississippi. She wouldn't think about the elevator. Two Mississippi. And how she'd gone in although something said she shouldn't. Three Mississippi. And she'd almost been
She nearly screamed when a warm, solid hand wrapped around her forearm and pulled her close. "Breathe, Claudia."
"I'm all right," she said, although her shrill voice said otherwise.
"I'll get the candles."
"I know where things are. It will be faster if I do it."
He was right. Claudia let him lead her to the sofa then stopped. "Wait. I can't sit down."
Peter seemed to stumble over his words for a second then said, "So what?" He gently pushed her onto the couch. "You'll dry."
She sat and folded her arms. She was going to be fine. She was in a safe environment. No one was going to hurt her. Not like last time. She had to focus.