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Isabel Wharton's dreams were finally coming true—or so she thought. Surrounded by a burst of springtime and eleven chattering women, she prepared to join their intimate circle, to become their daughter, sister, niece, cousin when she married Anthony Cossa.
The bridal shower, held in the garden of a cottage café on Bainbridge Island, was winding down. Isabel tore open the second-to-last package and peered at the gift, then beamed at her future sister-in-law.
"It's lovely, Lucia. Simply lovely." What is it? The thing resembled something she had seen in her ob-gyn's office. She bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from asking. Lucia and Connie and Marcia would be the sisters she'd never had.
"A silver pasta server." Connie, Lucia's younger sister, set aside the package. "Leave it to Lucia to assume you want to cook pasta."
Ah, but Isabel did want to cook pasta. And cannoli and tiramisu and gnocci, all for Anthony. She wanted to do everything for Anthony. He would make the perfect husband, and better still, he came with a family that was so large, so boisterous and so loving that she was engulfed by a feeling of belonging.
They would warm the cold, empty places inside her. At least she hoped so.
"I saved the best for last." Connie perched on the edge of her white wicker garden chair.
Isabel caught Mama Cossa's eye and winked. "I'm not sure I trust your daughter."
"I haven't trusted Connie since she tried out for the seventh-grade wrestling team."
Isabel laughed and removed the slick, metallic gold wrapping paper. Female hoots filled the garden as she lifted a wispy silk garment from the box.
"Now that," Connie said with great pride, "is hot."
Isabel stood, holding the lacy red teddy against her. The silk felt as cool and insubstantial as mist. The lace plunged to her navel; the legs were cut sinfully high. Even held against her India-cotton skirt, the teddy felt wicked and wild.
"I figure Tony will have a heart attack when he sees you in it," Connie said. "But at least he'll die happy."
The women's laughter chimed like music in the garden. Isabel felt a wave of affection and gratitude, along with a feeling of contentment so sharp and sweet that her chest hurt. These women—Anthony's sisters and aunts and nieces, his beautiful mother—were to be her family. Her family.
Ever since she'd moved to Bainbridge Island and established her plant nursery, she'd begun to feel as though she really belonged somewhere. All that had been missing was a family, and now she was about to get that, too.
They began to drift homeward then; most of the guests were staying on the island, where the wedding would take place in just one week. Mama Cossa, good-humored but limping from bursitis, gave Isabel's hand a squeeze. "See you at the rehearsal dinner, dear."
Only a few women remained when a faint hum sounded in Isabel's ears. She gazed down the length of the garden. The flower beds and trees were drenched in the glory of sunshine. Just past the tops of the towering fir trees, she could see the sparkling waters of Puget Sound.
The island, she decided, was paradise on earth. She had built her life on a foundation of shattered dreams, but finally everything was falling into place.
The roaring grew louder. It was the sound of a boat motor or a car without a muffler—urgent, industrial, a faintly animalistic low grumble.
Connie and the others, who had been bagging up torn paper and ribbons, paused and turned. Isabel frowned. And then, right where the gravel driveway turned off from the road, he appeared.
He was an image out of her worst nightmare. Clad in black leather. A bandanna around his head. Inky, flowing hair. Mirror-lens sunglasses. The Harley beneath him bucking and spitting gravel like a wild animal.
"I smell testosterone," Connie murmured as the machine roared up a terraced garden path.
Isabel stood frozen, immobile as a block of ice. The apparition skidded to a halt, jerked the bike onto its kickstand and walked toward her. Long, loose strides. Tall boots crunching on the path. Tiny gold earring winking in one ear. Long brown hands hanging at his sides.
"Somebody call 911," Lucia whispered.
He yanked off the mirror glasses and stared at Isabel. Dark brown eyes dragged down the length of her. Then he reached into the lingerie box on the table and plucked out the red silk teddy.
"Very nice," he said in a rich drawl, inspecting the garment. "You were always a great dresser, Isabel."
She snatched it away and thrust it into the box. "What are you doing here?"
He gave her the old cocky grin, the expression that used to make her go weak in the knees.
It still worked.
His looks had attracted her in the first place. She had been drawn to his aura of seductive danger, the faint sulkiness of his full lips, the powerful body as well tuned as his Harley. The long hair so thick and gleaming that she yearned to run her fingers through it.
The direction her thoughts had taken ignited a blush in her cheeks. "This really isn't a good time."
"There never was a good time for saying the things we should have said to each other," he said with that lazy, Sunday-morning, stay-in-bed-all-day drawl. "But I figure it's now or never."
Her blush intensified. "Maybe you could come back later, after…" She let her voice trail off. Her mouth was dry, her thoughts scattered.
"Nope, Isabel, won't work. We've got some unfinished business." He hooked a thumb into the top of his black jeans and shifted his weight to one leg. "I figure you'd rather settle things in private, so you'd better come with me."
With a force of will, she was able to drag her gaze from him. "Connie, this is Dan Black Horse."
"Perfect," Connie whispered helpfully. "Just perfect." She sent Dan an adoring look. "I have all of your albums. I've been a fan for years. Too bad you've quit."
"Pleasure to meet you," Dan said with effortless gallantry.
Connie gave Isabel's shoulder a nudge. "Go ahead," she said with sisterly wisdom. "If you've got something to settle with this guy, take care of it now, because next week it'll be too late." She lowered her voice and said, "If you weren't my friend, I'd kill you for not telling me you knew Dan Black Horse."
Isabel stooped to pick up her woven straw purse. "I won't be long." She forced her lips into a smile. "I'll be all right, really."
Dan Black Horse pivoted on a boot heel and led the way down the garden path. When they reached his bike, he eased it off the kickstand and held out a black, slightly battered helmet.
"No way," she said, stiffening her spine. "I'll follow you in my car."
"Nope." He plunked the helmet on her head and fastened the strap. "Where we're going, you don't want a car."
She clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. Priorities, Isabel, she reminded herself. Keep the priorities straight. The most important thing was to avoid making a scene.
She heaved a sigh, hitched back her cotton skirt and got on the bike.
"Way to go, girl," Connie murmured, not far behind her.
"We'll go to the Streamliner Diner," she told Dan tautly. "And I mean to be back by—"
The thunder of the large engine swallowed her words. He rolled forward, then opened the throttle. The bike jerked into motion.
Instinctively, her hands clutched low on his hips. A feeling of the forbidden seized her. She gritted her teeth, moved her hands to the cargo bar behind her and held on for dear life.
He wasn't wearing a helmet, she observed as they turned onto the narrow wooded highway that bisected Bainbridge Island. Maybe a cop would pull them over.
Officer, I've been kidnapped by a man I swore I'd never see again.
But as they roared southward toward the quaint little township of Winslow, even the stoplights turned green, conspiring against her.
Craning her neck around his bulky shoulder, she saw the diner up ahead, looming closer…and then farther away as they veered past it, down the hill toward the ferry terminal.
"Hey," she shouted in his ear. "You said we'd have our little talk at the diner."
"You said that, sweetheart." He tossed the words carelessly over his shoulder and passed the tollbooth.
The last straggling cars were pulling onto the ferry. A female attendant wearing a bright orange smock was about to cordon off the loading platform.
Dan thumbed the horn. It emitted a chirpy beep. The attendant grinned and waved him through. He drove up the ramp and parked. Immediately, a horn blew. Too late to get off.
As the ferry eased away from the terminal, he turned around to face her. "Damn, Isabel," he said, "you're one hard woman to find."
The second he killed the engine, Isabel struggled off the bike. "You're crazy," she said, "but I suppose you know that."
"Maybe." He favored her with a look she remembered well, the one of sleepy arousal that used to make her happy to dive back into bed with him for long, languid weekend mornings.
"This is ridiculous," she said in exasperation—both at him and at her wayward memory. She braced her hand on the iron wall to steady herself as the ferry headed for downtown Seattle.
When Dan didn't reply, she turned and stomped up the stairs to the lounge. The spacious waiting room, flooded with April sunshine, was crowded with islanders heading to the city for shopping or an evening on the town. She spotted a familiar face here and there and managed to nod a greeting.
Great, she thought. All she needed was for the bank clerk or the hardware store owner to see her going to Seattle with a sinfully good-looking man.
She went out on deck, where the wind caught at her skirt and hair. Gulls wheeled and sailed along beside the ferry. In the distance, a sea lion splashed in Puget Sound.
It didn't take Dan long to find her. Within minutes, he joined her on the open-air deck. "Here." He pushed a paper cup of café latte into her hand. "Skim milk, one sugar packet, right?"
She took the cup and sank to a bolted-down bench. "I hope you know you've ruined the afternoon for me."
He sat beside her, resting his lanky wrists on his knees. A dark fire smoldered in his eyes, and she sensed a tension about him, a coiled heat that disturbed and fascinated her. "Couldn't be helped. Besides, it's better than ruining the rest of your life."
She almost choked on a mouthful of hot coffee. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He reached forward and caught a drop of latte with a napkin before it stained her India-print skirt. "You can't marry him, Isabel." His voice, with the unforgettable low rumble of masculine passion that had filled the airwaves for two years, was harsh. "You can't marry Anthony Cossa."
"Since when do I need your permission?" she retorted. The breeze plucked at her hair. Her permed curls were now a deep chestnut color, thanks to an expensive salon job. She pushed a thick lock behind her ear and glared at him. "How did you find me, anyway?"
He sent her a hard-edged grin. "Through Anthony."
"Oh, God." She set down her cup and folded her arms across her middle. "What did you do to Anthony?"
Dan stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankles. He leaned his head back against the wall. The movement and pose were graceful, vaguely feline, subtly dangerous. "I don't remember you being this suspicious."
"I'm generally suspicious of men who kidnap me from my own wedding shower."
"Fair enough. I had business with Anthony. And what do I see when I get to his office? Your smiling face in a silver frame on his desk."
She tried to picture it. Dan, all in rebel black, with his long hair and earring, facing Anthony, immaculate and trying hard to look laid-back in his Banana Republic chinos.
"He's a good guy, Isabel," Dan said expansively. "He's real proud to be marrying a gorgeous, successful woman."
"He's no slouch in the looks and success departments," she argued. "Maybe I'm real proud to be marrying him."
"Maybe," Dan said, jamming a thumb into his belt and drumming his fingers on his jeans.
Isabel jerked her attention from the insinuating pose and glared out at the Sound.
"That's what I thought at first," Dan went on. "I was going to blow the whole thing off, wish you a happy life with your upright, square-jawed bachelor-of-the-month, and bow out."
"I wish you had." She took a gulp of coffee. She probably shouldn't ingest caffeine. Being with Dan made her jumpy enough. "Why didn't you?"
"There are things I've always wondered about, Isabel." He sat forward, gripping the edge of the bench. It was there again, the pulsing rhythm in his voice, the mesmerizing glitter in his dark eyes. "Five years ago, you walked out on me and never looked back."
I couldn't look back, Dan. If I had, I would have gone running into your arms.
She gave up on the latte and rose from the bench to drop her cup into a waste barrel. "What do you want from me?"
"Just a little of your time."
Her eyes narrowed. "How much?"
He sent her the same lazily sexual smile that had cast a spell on her five years earlier. She had been twenty-one, a terrible driver, and while backing out of a parking space in front of an ominous-looking nightclub, she had knocked over a large black motorcycle.
Terrified but determined to do the honorable thing, she went into the club to find the owner of the bike.
He was performing that evening, playing to a small, grungy but clearly appreciative crowd. The lead singer of a local band, he strummed a wild, primeval tune on a battered Stratocaster guitar. To Isabel, he looked like eternal hell and damnation in the flesh. He was gorgeous. She was spellbound.
He forgave her for the damages, took her out for a latte that had stretched into an all-night conversation, and stole her heart.
She backed warily away from the memory, for it was still as dark and seductive as that moonlit night had been.
"How much time, Dan?" she asked again, telling herself she was older, wiser, immune to his devilish smile.
"That depends," he said, "on how long it takes for you to realize you're marrying Anthony for all the wrong reasons."
"Oh, please." She turned away and gripped the rail of the ferry. "I'm a big girl now. And I'm not stupid. I don't want you back in my life."
The boat was nearing the downtown pier. Good. The minute they got to the terminal, she would call Anthony at his office. The situation was bound to be awkward. Best to explain this to him before Connie got started.