Haunted by a traumatic past, Carrie Bishop exiled herself on the shadowy Cape Diablo island in search of the truth. She never expected to cross paths with a steely-eyed stranger as she combed a crumbling Spanish villa for clues. Nick Draco was as primitive and dangerous as the land he inhabited and yet his magnetic presence awakened a breathless yearning inside her. An intense premonition of evil on the island left her chilled to the bone, but when they unearthed a menacing thirty-year-old mystery lurking within the estate’s dilapidated walls, it was in Nick’s arms where Carrie sought protection and succumbed to seduction. Now, nothing could prepare either of them for the sinister revelations that were about to engulf Cape Diablo .
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Carrie Bishop clung to her cap as the supply boat headed due west, into the sunset. Just minutes from Everglades City, civilization ended and the topography became a vast no-man's-land of sparkling channels that wound for miles through dense mangrove forests and swampy grass flats.
Once the refuge of pirates, the area had now become a sanctuary for modern-day smugglers bringing drugs, guns and humans across the border. Lawless and primal, it was the perfect place for a runaway bride to disappear.
Which was undoubtedly why Tia had fled to the islands after leaving her soon-to-be groom at the altar, Carrie decided as a wave bounced her up off the seat. Tia hadn't wanted anyone to find her, especially her ex-fiancé, a handsome executive with an explosive temper.
Carrie wouldn't have thought to look for her here, either, if not for the postmark on her letter. Known as the Ten Thousand Islands, the area could be extremely inhospitable to anyone without a good map, a GPS device and a can of heavy-duty bug spray.
Thank goodness she'd been able to hitch a ride on the supply boat, Carrie thought. She would never have been able to find the island on her own.
Although being miles from nowhere at the mercy of a complete stranger wasn't exactly her idea of a fun day. And the driver had certainly done nothing to put her at ease. When she'd met him earlier at the marina, he'd snatched the money from her hand with barely a grunt, his manner so abrasive that Carrie might have had second thoughts about climbing aboard if the attorney who'd leased Tia the apartment hadn't been at her side.
"Don't worry. Trawick's bark is far worse than his bite," Robert Cochburn had assured her. He'd driven down from Naples to meet Carrie in Everglades City, and to her relief, he'd decided at the last minute to make the trip out to the island with her. "Besides, he's the best driver around. He can navigate these waters blindfolded. Just relax and enjoy the ride."
If only she could, Carrie thought as she watched Pete Trawick with a wary eye. But she found the man just plain creepy. His cold, assessing gaze made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, and the way he looked at her conjured up memories that both she and Tia had been running from for years.
Suppressing another shudder, Carrie turned to Cochburn. "How much farther?" she shouted over the roar of the outboard motor.
"We're almost there." He flashed a smile.
"Beautiful country, isn't it? Florida's best-kept secret." He'd taken off his jacket and tie before they left the marina, and now with his cuffs rolled back and wind blowing through his thinning hair, he hardly resembled the conservative, fortysome-thing attorney she'd first met at the marina.
When she'd talked to him on the phone the day before, he'd tried to discourage her visit to Cape Diablo, but Carrie had remained adamant. Without his cooperation, she would simply find her own way to the island because she wasn't going back to Miami until she'd seen for herself that Tia was okay. It had been nearly two weeks since she'd received her letter, and Carrie had grown more and more worried with each passing day.
And then there'd been that strange phone call two nights ago. It had come just after midnight, and the connection had been so weak, the voice on the other end so garbled that Carrie couldn't be sure the caller was Tia. But something in the woman's voice — a note of frenzy — had instilled a deep sense of foreboding in Carrie.
Of course, she could be overreacting. A recent break-in at her apartment had left her on edge so it was entirely possible that she was letting her imagination get the better of her.
But no matter how many times she tried to convince herself there was nothing to worry about, Carrie couldn't shake the notion that her friend was in trouble. If anything happened to Tia and she hadn't done everything in her power to help her, she would never forgive herself. It was hard enough dealing with the old guilt.
"Have you ever been to the islands before?" Cochburn shouted over the engine noise.
Carrie nodded. "Once, when I was a kid. My father brought me here on a fishing trip."
"Then you know enough not to wander too far off the beaten trail. Navigation is a nightmare down here. A novice could get lost and never be heard from again. Not to mention a certain unsavory element in the area."
"I've read about the drug smuggling that's so prevalent." Just weeks ago the news had been dominated by a story about an elderly couple who'd disappeared while sailing in the area. When their bodies had washed ashore, authorities concluded they'd been murdered and their yacht hijacked by drug smugglers.
"These waters can be extremely dangerous," Cochburn said grimly. "I'm not trying to frighten you, but I do feel the need to caution strangers to the area. If you exercise good judgment and a little common sense, you should be fine."
Carrie felt a prickle of unease at his words. Had he given Tia the same warning? "You don't need to worry about me. I'm a city girl at heart. Once I've seen that my friend is okay, I'll be on my way back to civilization."
Cochburn's gaze fell on the duffel bag at her feet. She knew what he was thinking. If she'd only come for a quick visit, why had she bothered to pack a bag?
The answer was complicated. The length of her visit depended on Tia's state of mind. She was prepared to stay for as long as she was needed, but if Tia was fine and enjoying her privacy, Carrie had every intention of turning around and heading straight back to the mainland. But judging from the tone of that letter, she very much feared the worst.
What if Tia had reverted back to her old self-destructive ways? What if Carrie was too late to save her?
What if, what if, what if? She'd told herself a long time ago that she was through playing that game, but old habits died hard.
She glanced back at Cochburn. "As I told you on the phone, I don't want to intrude on Tia's privacy. If she came out here to get away from it all, I intend to honor her wishes. At the same time, though " She trailed off, her gaze moving restlessly back to the water.
"You're concerned about her," he said.
"It's been nearly two weeks since I last heard from her. And you said you haven't talked to her, either."
"But that's hardly cause for alarm," Cochburn said. "I only met her briefly when she signed the lease agreement in my office. There's no reason she would get in touch with me unless she had a problem with her accommodations."
"But I can't imagine why no one in Everglades City remembered seeing her," Carrie said with a frown. "She has a very distinctive face."
He shrugged. "I wouldn't read too much into that, either. Pete makes a supply run out to Diablo twice a week. The tenants never have to leave the island if they don't want to. That would explain why no one we talked to at the marina remembered your friend."
Yes, that made sense. Tia had always been a loner and normally Carrie wouldn't have given her absence a second thought. She would have assumed that Tia needed time to heal after calling off her marriage to Trey.
But the tone of her letter coming on the heels of the breakup
And then that weird phone call
Carrie shivered in the late-afternoon heat. "Tell me about Cape Diablo," she said to Cochburn as they approached another channel and Trawick powered down the engine, making conversation a little easier. "How did it get the name?"
"Probably the handiwork of some resourceful pirate looking to frighten away looters from his treasure," he said with a grin. "There's always been a bit of mystery associated with the island. Strange lights, phantom ships that sort of thing. No doubt that's why Andres Santiago chose the place to build his home."
"Santiago was something of a pirate himself, wasn't he?" Tired of fighting the wind, Carrie took off her cap and rested it on her bare knee as she finger-combed her tangled hair.
"I see you've done some research."
She smiled. "A little. Tia mentioned Santiago's name in her letters. She seemed so fascinated by the family that I suppose she aroused my curiosity."
"I'm not surprised," Cochburn said. "Most everyone around here is a little weary of the story, but I can see why a newcomer might find it intriguing. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, Andres Santiago ran a fleet of boats to Central America, smuggling guns into the area and drugs, among other things, out. He built the house on Cape Diablo so that the authorities wouldn't be able to keep track of his comings and goings." He paused. "You have to wonder, though, what kept his poor wife sane, trapped on that tiny island with only small children for company."
"What was she like?" Carrie asked curiously.
"The first Mrs. Santiago died in child-birth that's about all I know of her. But the second wife had a rather colorful past. She was the daughter of a Central American dictator who was overthrown by a military coup back more than thirty years ago. The father was later executed, along with most of his family and staff. The only two survivors were his eldest daughter, Medina, and Carlos Lazario, her bodyguard. Somehow Andres managed to get both of them safely out of the country and he brought them back here where he later married Medina. Carlos still lives on the island. He and Alma Garcia, who was once nanny to Andres's children, are the only permanent residents of Cape Diablo."