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The kid was going to fall right over the edge.
Adam Ryder's anger at his son was barely leashed and he was fighting to hold it back. They'd come here for sightseeing, like all the other tourists strolling around them, but Adam wasn't thinking much about history as he climbed into the ruins of an ancient Roman villa on a site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The island of Niroli seemed to be crammed with castles and old crumbling walls and all sorts of antique relics but that wasn't what he'd come for.
Actually, he'd come to this particular location because it wasn't too far from the hotel and looked to be a good place to let his six-year old son, Jeremy, loose to run off some of the excess energy that was making him such a pain to be around.
But his reason for being on Niroli, a destination he'd avoided all his life? Ah, that was harder to explain.
Still, even he had to admit the island had a magic quality. He'd felt it right away as they'd stepped off the flight from NewYork. The air seemed softer. The sunlight seemed to make things sparkle with possibilities. All of which immediately made him wary. He couldn't let things like that seduce him away from his goal.
After all, to put it plainly, he'd come to Niroli to do a little fund-raising. He needed money to save his companybig moneyand he was willing to do almost anything to get it, including accepting an unusual offer that had been made to himthe crown of this little island country. And there was nothing magical about that.
Meanwhile, he had to deal with Jeremy. He'd brought the boy along hoping to create a few bonding opportunities, but his interest in that project was waning fast. The thing was, the nanny he'd hired to come along and take care of his son had quit right there in the airport, loudly declaring she couldn't stand the boy just moments before boarding the plane.
Adam kept remembering the odd, slightly triumphant smile on Jeremy's face as she had stormed away. He'd faced off grown men in bar fights in his younger days with hardly a quiver of fear, but the look on his son's face, just before departing all known civilization with only him in tow, still sent shivers down his spine. He knew how to handle adults, both male and female. But what was he going to do with this kid?
"Take him out and let him run," the woman at the concierge desk at the hotel had suggested.
So here he was, letting Jeremy run. And the boy certainly ran. Up and down and all over the ruins, his blond hair flying in the breeze. At least he seemed interested in the ruins. That was something. He'd spent the entire plane ride asking, "Are we there yet?" until Adam had had to bite down on his own hand to keep from yelling at him.
Now Jeremy was balancing on the viaduct that had once brought water to the villa, a portion of which came perilously close to the edge of the cliff. Adam frowned. He supposed he should do the parental thing and warn him about falling.
"Jeremy, don't go out on the edge like that," he called out. "It's dangerous."
The boy looked back at him and laughed. Adam shook his head. What six-year-old boy laughed like that, with that wicked tone, as though he relished torturing adults? The only thing he could think was that he'd better hire another, tougher nanny, and do it fast.
"Stay away from the edge."
Jeremy turned from the viaduct, but he began to climb the crumbling exterior wall of the old villa instead. Adam started toward him. This was getting ridiculous. The kid was going to kill himself.
"Jeremy! Damn it, get down from there right now!"
Jeremy turned to climb higherand fell right over the edge.
The shout that came from Adam seemed to rip through the walls of his chest. Shock and then sharp fear jolted through him and he began to run, cursing and praying at the same time. Oh, God! What if
He threw himself into the ruin and began to scramble up the steep wall, heading for the spot where Jeremy had gone over the edge. The Roman bricks crumbled under his feet, making for impossible climbing, but then he gained the harder ledge and vaulted up into position. Looking down, he braced himself for the sight of his son's shattered body lying on the rocks, thirty feet below.
Instead, he saw Jeremy kneeling at the feet of a slender woman, petting what looked like a golden retriever, and from his new vantage point he could see that there was a shelf, a sort of patio area, that jutted out over the sea, not far beneath him.
He took a deep breath and let his shoulders sag, but relief was followed quickly by raw anger. Now he realized that Jeremy hadn't fallen. He'd jumped. Adam let out an angry shout, then turned and made his way to the stone steps he noticed along the side. By the time he reached where the young woman was sitting on an old stone wall, Jeremy and the dog had gone on down to the rocky shore beneath and were now frolicking at the water's edge.
His anger at his son was only made worse by his sense of frustration, and he swore, then turned grudgingly toward the woman.
"Sorry," he muttered, just in case she was the type to take offense.
And then he stopped and looked again. She was quite striking. Her body was slim and graceful, her dark brown hair sleek and shining in the sunlight and braided with a silk scarf the color of spring leaves. Her neck seemed unusually long and slender, making him think of ballet dancers. He couldn't see her eyes as she wore a pair of very dark and stylish Gucci sunglasses, but the features he could see could have been classically cut in fine porcelain. In direct contrast, her mouth was full and lush and sensual, and her chin tilted impudently.
"I hope my son didn't bother you," he said, his gaze sliding over the creamy skin of her bare arms.
Her blouse was lacy, her skirt a wide swath of emerald-green gauze. Her feet looked delicate in leather sandals, the toenails painted a pearly pink. There was an elf-like air of the forest sprite about her, though she was too tall and well rounded to be a fairy. Altogether, she was very much the most enchanting creature he'd seen in a long time. He turned toward her the way plants responded to sunlightas though he had to have her in his life.
"Oh, no," she responded pleasantly. "I enjoyed meeting him. He seems like a wonderful boy."
"Wonderful? Hah." That almost startled a laugh from him, but he liked her musical speaking voice with its faint accent adding a certain lilting charm. "I guess you didn't really have time to get to know him," he noted dryly.
A frown appeared between her neat eyebrows. "Is that supposed to be a joke?" she asked bluntly. "Why would you say such a thing about your own son?"
He hesitated. It probably did sound cold to someone who hadn't been thoroughly annoyed by Jeremy yet. He had a pang of remorse. Maybe she was right and he was getting too cynical about the boy.
"Frustration, I guess," he said, rubbing a hand through his sand-colored hair and giving her the up-from-under-his-eyebrows look that had been known to make grown women swoon like teenagers. "It's been a long, wearing day."
She didn't swoon. In fact, her mouth thinned a bit. "Oh?" she said in a tone that bespoke impending boredom. It was obvious she hadn't been charmed.
"We just flew in from New York," he explained.
She turned her face and looked out over the ocean. He was feeling dismissed. That surprised him. In his Hollywood milieu he was considered a very attractive, not to mention very powerful, man. The production company he'd founded and ran to this day was one of the most important in the business, despite the takeover nightmare it was going through right now.
And beside that, he didn't suffer dismissal lightly. If there was any dismissing to be done, he liked to be the one doing it. An impulse to confront her reaction rose in him right away.
But he fought it. For once he wasn't getting the admiring female response he was used to taking as his due. So what? He had more important things to take care of.
Looking down at the shoreline, he saw that Jeremy was still playing with the dog. He supposed he should go down and join them. But at that moment, the dog shook water from his wet fur all over Jeremy, and Adam grimaced.
Between rolling in the wet sand with a boy and a dog and hanging around on the ledge trying to get a beautiful woman to admit he was worth getting to know, the choice was an easy one. It was the challenge, he told himself. He glanced at the stone wall she was sitting on.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked, moving to do just that without waiting for her answer.
She hesitated just long enough to let him know this wasn't her preference, but she was polite.
"Please do," she said coolly, but she was gracious, shifting a little to be sure there was room for him and moving a huge canvas bag that looked big enough to contain all her earthly possessions.
He sat close enough to get a hint of her scent. It was fresh and spicy and not very sweet. For some reason, that gave him a frisson of excitement for just a moment, and immediately he was flooded with an urge to kiss those full lips.
He drew himself up, startled. He hadn't reacted so viscerally to a woman in yearsand he was used to being around a lot of beautiful women. Maybe it was the magic of the place, the soft, seductive breeze, the sound of the gentle waves on the beach below. He turned quickly, looking out at the ocean, thrown off a bit and not sure whether he wanted her to see how he was responding to her or not. If there was one thing he hated it was revealing any sort of vulnerability.
And that was a reaction he was noticing in himself more and more lately. He didn't trust anyone much, but experience had taught him that beautiful women were the most likely to betray you in a purely personal way.
What was the expression? Once bitten, twice shy? He'd been bitten all right. He'd practically had his arm chewed off a few times. And, yeah, he was shy. Damn shy. He was going to require big-time proof before he could be convinced trust was worth the cost.
Still, that didn't mean he didn't enjoy the game. He just didn't expect to win any prizes or take home the game pieces when he won.
"Nice view," he said gruffly, looking out over the huge expanse of sparkling Mediterranean water. "Do you come here often?"
"All the time. It's my favorite place to come when I have big decisions to make," she told him candidly. "Or when I feel the need to get away from it all."
Turning toward him, she smiled and her small white teeth gleamed in the golden sunlight. "Or when I just want to commune with my ancient ancestors."
He smiled back at her, ready to flirt if she was going loosen up a bit. Flirting didn't cost much. You didn't have to lay yourself open for it to work, and it could be fun. It could also lead to some quality bed time. You just never did know. And she was the most appealing potential bed partner he'd seen in a long, long time. It might be worth wading through her prickly attitude to get to the good stuff.
"This place is crawling with my ancestors," she said, waving a hand in the air as though there were groups of them hanging around all up and down the cliffs and caves.
"No kidding?" He looked around at the rock wall behind them, willing to join in her conceit if she would let him play. "Why don't you introduce me?"
She laughed softly. "What do you care about my musty old Nirolian ancestors?"
"You'd be surprised. I've got a few of my own."
She cocked a sleek eyebrow. "Do you?"
"So they tell me."
At last there was a spark of interest in her manner. He supposed she'd be even more interested if he told her he was King Giorgio of Niroli's illegitimate grandson.
But it had never been a point of pride with him. In fact, he'd been raised with the vague feeling that it was really something to be ashamed of. There was no doubt that his maternal grandparents thought it was something his mother should be ashamed of. But then, they had always thought just about everything his mother did should be hushed up. And since they'd pretty much raised him on their Kansas farm, it was an attitude that lingered stubbornly in his psyche, no matter how hard he tried to deny it.
"But I thought you just came from New York," the graceful woman was saying.
"That's right. I've never been here to Niroli before. But my father was
She stretched the syllable out as though that explained everythingand not in a good way. He frowned. Her attitude was beginning to get on his nerves. But before he could probe it further, Jeremy shrieked and the dog barked. He rose, looking down to see what was going on.
"Jeremy, leave that dog alone," he called down. He didn't know if his son had actually done anything to the animal, but he thought he might as well cover all bases.
"His name is Fabio," she said coolly.
"Who? Oh, the dog?"
"Okay." He turned and called down again. "Jeremy, leave Fabio alone."
"You aren't very good at it, are you?" she said dryly as he sat down again.
He looked at her, startled. "At what?"
"Parenting. You don't seem to have the knack for it."
He stared at her. Now he was sure of it. She hated him. What right did she have to decide to hate him at first sight anyway? He was a decent guy. And she was damn annoying.
"What do you know about my parenting skills?"
"I can hear it in the way you talk to him. You shouldn't talk to a boy that age the way you do. You can't order him about as though he were a soldier."
He couldn't believe this. She actually thought she could tell him how to raise his kid. "He needs some discipline," he said, pointing out what was obvious to the rest of the world.
"Why aren't you disciplining him, then?"
He stared at her. Was she purposefully goading him?
"That's what I'm trying to do!"
She shook her head. "There you go, raising your voice again."