Rita Award winning title
“Desert Isle Keeper” – All About Romance Reviews
Jessica Hansen’s success and icy calm hide painful secrets and a past that shapes her life. That is, until she meets Springer MacDowell, her best friend’s son. One decision sets off a series of cataclysmic events that rip apart her safe life.
Retreating to an old summer house in Vermont, Jessica slowly learns to accept friendship, the past, and the new family she’s made. She’s building a hopeful future, until Springer comes back into her life, ready to shatter her new-found peace.
Will these two survivors ever learn how to belong? Can they heal enough to make a family theirs?
Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.
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About the Author
Anne Stuart (b. 1948) is an American romance novelist who has written more than 100 books and is the recipient of the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors. Her first book was Barrett's Hill,a gothic romance published in 1974 when she had just turned 25. In addition to numerous stand-alone novels, she is the author of the series House of Rohan, Ice, and others. A native of Philadelphia, Stuart lives with her husband in Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
The Slaughterer, vol. 87: Tombs of Blood
MATT DECKER SURVEYED the carnage around him. He was a man's man, out to battle injustice and destroy it wherever he found it, with no weak-kneed government giving him limp excuses. Decker was judge and justice, an avenging jury, better known as the Slaughterer.
Slowly, carefully Decker picked his way over the bodies that littered the El Salvador sidewalk, his trusty companion, best friend and lover, the Smith & Wesson .45 by his side. His job was done here; it was time to move on.
Back to the real world, back to the compound hidden deep in the bowels of the ugliest, best city in the world: New York. He rubbed a bloody hand across his sweat-streaked face and looked north. It was good to be a man, in a man's world, he thought.
Who knows where his next assignment might come from? Wherever evil stalked the world, wherever injustice flourished. Matt Decker was there to combat it, to wipe it out in a blaze of gunfire. Someone once said there were eight million stories in every city. As of the last census they might be down to seven million, but Matt Decker, the Slaughterer, could seek out and find that one story that needed his own particular brand of expertise. He gave his smoking Smith & Wesson a fond look and moved into the shadows. It was time to start.
JESSICA HANSEN dropped the cheap paperback thriller onto her desk and looked down at her thin fingers as they tapped the teak-and-glass surface in front of her. Her hands were curiously small for someone of her height, the fingers narrow and nervous-looking, the discreetly elegant rings hanging loosely. A perfect pearly shade of pink adorned the long nails, nails that were expensively maintained at a Madison Avenue salon for a price that didn't bear thinking about. For a moment Jessica stared at her fingertips, a sign of pampered affluence that proclaimed her free of mundane activities such as dishwashing, typing or gardening. Like a Chinese empress, she thought distantly, turning her thin hands over to survey the soft, useless palms. Not a sign of the calluses of her childhood, not a mark anywhere, except for the faint, spidery tracing of scars across her delicate wrists. So faint that no one else had noticed them or come up with difficult questions she'd rather not answer.
She turned her palms back down toward the desk, banishing the thought of those scars from her mind with her customary efficiency. She leaned forward and pressed the intercom buzzer. "Jilly, hold all my calls." Her voice had its usual smooth, self-controlled calm, never hinting at the turmoil that kept her stomach knotted and her hands clenched in fists.
"Mr. Kinsey is expecting you in half an hour, Jessica." Jilly's efficient British voice returned, but beneath it Jessica could hear the soft note of concern.
So much for the efficacy of her mask, she thought wearily. "Which Mr. Kinsey? Peter or his father?" "The old man himself. I don't know if it's important or not."
"A word to the wise, Jilly," Jessica managed in a perfect drawl. "When the president of the company wants to see you it's always important."
"Even if he's going to be your father-in-law?" "Especially if he's going to be your father-in-law," Jessica said. "Though you know as well as I do that nothing's official."
"Not yet." Jilly's voice left little doubt that it was just a matter of time. Whether that voice approved or not was another matter. "Shall I tell the old man you'll be up?"
Jessica hesitated. Never had she made a decision based on emotion rather than professionalism in her enormously successful career at Kinsey Enterprises. Indeed, there'd been no room in her life for emotion at all. Until recently, when she'd been unable to fight the crushing depression that was hobbling her.
"Call Peter for me, Jilly," she said suddenly, giving in to temptation and despising herself for it. "Tell him ... tell him something's come up. Have him head his father off."
"Something concerning the Lincoln merger?" Jilly suggested, understanding far too well.
"Yes ... no. Then they'd want to know what it is. Tell him I'll explain later. He'll cover for me."
"Of course he will. Is there anything I can do, Jessica?" The concern wasn't even masked at this point, and at the other end of the disembodied voice, alone in her spacious office, Jessica grimaced in sudden pain.
"No, thanks, Jilly. I just ... have a wretched headache and too much work to get done to deal with interruptions. I owe you one."
The intercom went dead. It was already late Friday afternoon — almost everyone had left the headquarters of Kinsey Enterprises, everyone but the workaholics. Her desk was clear, spotlessly neat, not a trace of work in sight, with Hamilton MacDowell's latest installment of The Slaughterer beckoning with all its gory glory. She turned to look out the wide windows, past the Turner landscape that hung on her walls, to the New York skyline, never noticing that her hands had once more clenched into fists.
At the age of thirty-one Jessica had her life ruthlessly under control. She had climbed to just within reach of the top of her profession, that summit shimmering in sight, about to drop into her lap like a ripe plum. Vice-president of Kinsey Enterprises, Inc., she was about to become engaged to the president's charming, intelligent, cultured son, she was the pampered protégé of old Jasper Kinsey himself and she was in the midst of overseeing a merger with the Lincoln Corporation that would pull them back from a dangerous precipice and quite possibly double their already substantial profits. So why was she sitting at her desk, her hands clenched in front of her, wondering how in the world she was going to escape?
Could it be burnout? Jessica had taken seminars on the subject, determined to avoid anything that could derail her corporate success. Financial and personal triumph loomed directly ahead, her past put firmly, completely behind her. The taste of success was sweet, she told herself, ignoring the hint of ashes in her mouth.
Her hand unclenched to push through her hair. What there was left of it. The wheat-colored tendrils were beginning to reach just below her small ears, and thoughtlessly, nervously, her hand clutched at the razored strands. She'd have to have it trimmed again, she thought absently, pushing it back as she ignored the sudden rebellious thought. She didn't want to go in for her biweekly trim, she didn't want Felipe nagging at her, forcing food on her, clucking in that maddening way as he sculpted the shining honey-blond cap.
"Only you could wear your hair this short and still look feminine, darling," he'd fussed last week. "But don't you think it's time for a change? Here, eat some cannoli." He'd shoved the rich pastry in front of her, and it had taken all her resolve not to throw up in his face. It would have served him right. "You're beginning to have a faintly concentration-camp kind of look to you, and the hair doesn't help. Eat, for heaven's sake!" Even now, the thought of food made her gag. She hadn't eaten enough in the last few weeks to keep a bird alive, and she knew it. But knowing it wasn't enough to work up an appetite. Jessica had spent so much of her life fighting to keep off the extra pounds that could so easily creep up and turn her five-foot-eight-inch frame into a graceless lump that the thought of being too thin was incomprehensible.
Restlessly she pushed back from the desk to stride over to the windows. New York was dark and dirty that summer afternoon, the oppresssive heat and humidity trapping the smog and smothering the city with it. Up on the thirty-seventh floor Jessica could feel the darkness invade her light, airy office, and not even the lemon-yellow carpet, her one concession to frivolity in the past ten years, could dispel it. Her feet were silent as they crossed the room, the tap of the leather shoes muffled in the deep buttery pile. The heavy weighted door to her private bathroom opened silently beneath her thin nervous hands and shut just as silently behind her. Leaning against the marble sink, she stared at her reflection.
The Snow Queen stared back. The Ice Princess, encased in her impervious calm. Large, assessing, chilly blue eyes filled her thin face, shadowed by pale mauve shadows that Elizabeth Arden couldn't quite disguise. The ruthlessly short blond hair stood in spikes around her head, setting off her small ears, delicately pointed chin and nose. Her mouth was large and pale and unused to smiling, and the face she turned to the world was one of unruffled calm and control.
Her Ralph Lauren suit was hanging loosely around her tall, slender frame. Felipe, damn him, was right; she was getting too thin. At this rate anorexia was right around the corner. But somehow nothing could make her eat. And Peter seemed to find her slimness — no, her skinniness — attractive. Maybe she should gain weight, she thought, with a flash of mocking, uncustomary humor.
It must simply be nerves about the merger. A great deal rested on its outcome. Her career, perhaps, her relationship with Peter, the future of Kinsey Enterprises. Once it was safely wrapped up, she'd feel more like herself again. Although who that self was, she couldn't quite say.
She looked up from her slender, elegant body. Concentration camp indeed! The ice-blue eyes looked into their mirrored partner; the cool, controlled, distantly amused false smile that she had perfected over the years played about her pale lips. And then, to her absolute horror, the face in the mirror crumpled suddenly in uncontrollable grief and despair. And Jessica quickly turned away, unable to witness her own naked pain, and remembered.
NO ONE COULD have called it a happy childhood, not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. And yet Jessica had always comforted herself and her sisters with the doubtful assurance that others had it far, far worse. After all, their parents stuck together, through thick and thin, on the wagon or off, clinging to each other with what surely must be a deep, abiding love. Many of their friends' parents were divorced, the children forced to shuttle back and forth between two stilted, guilt-ridden households. At least they still all had one another.
They weren't beaten, or abused. Certainly, Daddy had knocked Maren against the wall one night when he'd been drinking and she'd come in late from a date. He'd called her a tramp, ordered her from the house, and it had taken all Jessica's tact and diplomacy to soothe the raging belligerence of her father, the tearful defiance of her seventeen-year-old sister, while their mother kept silent behind the locked guest-room door. The little peacemaker, her father had called her during his sober days. The little mother, trying desperately to make things all right, he'd said, laughing and promising to change. And he would change, for weeks, months — even, on one glorious occasion, for two miraculous years of sobriety. But then something would happen and he'd be back again, the tearful, bellicose, sodden heap of a man taking over her father's charming persona.
And Jessica would tell her older sister, Maren, and her younger sister, Sunny, that they were better off. Some people's parents never stopped drinking, never even tried. Look at Uncle Bob Lemming's family. Not that he was really their uncle, just a drinking crony of their father's from way, way back. And at least it wasn't all bad. Mother and Daddy were never down at the same time. Once Daddy started drinking, Mother would become strong and maternal, the wage earner, the dominant force, relying on Jessica to keep the home going, the meals on time, her sisters in school. Until Daddy would begin to pull himself up again, go back to AA meetings and then Mother's nerves would shatter, and it would be time for Daddy to be sober and strong. All the while the three children would cling to one another for comfort and safety.
At least there was enough money. Daddy's drinking was never so bad that he lost a job. He was a very bright man, was Lars Hansen, a talented, charming engineer with an astounding ability to get the job done. Employers gladly overlooked his periods of diminished effectiveness, knowing from long experience that they didn't last forever.
Except that sometimes they seemed to. There were no dates for Jessica, who was too tall and too fat and too caught up in trying to hold her family together, in soothing her father's insecurities, in healing her mother's fears, in bringing up the family that would fall to pieces without her. There were no friends for Jessica, who spent her spare time reading and daydreaming when she wasn't struggling with the bland, packaged carbohydrate-laden food her mother bought for Jessica to prepare. There was no peace for Jessica, who balanced her maternal concern between her parents and her rebellious sisters, Jessica who tried so desperately to make everything all right and who couldn't help but fail in the face of overwhelming odds, time and time again.
There was only this life and this family she had been born into, was trapped in. She used to daydream about going off to boarding school, being with other girls, away from the constant demands that overwhelmed her. She knew she could never go, even if her parents would part with the money. She wouldn't even go to college, not until Sunny and Maren had escaped and her parents had come to some sort of peace. They couldn't make it without her, could they? None of them could. No, her life could wait, just a few more years. She was only fifteen — Maren was going to the University of Minnesota that fall, Sunny was their high school's most promising track star. Jessica knew exactly what she was running from.
But when Jessica was fifteen everything changed.
Maren was away at college, and there were only the two of them. For a while things were more peaceful. Daddy wasn't drinking, and Mother, though lost in a chronic depression, seemed to have controlled her rages. Maren still bore the scar from one of those rages — the time their mother had smashed all the china, a large shard flying across the room and embedding itself in Maren's right leg.
And Jessica allowed herself to breathe a tiny sigh of relief, until the afternoon when she came home from school and found her father passed out on the sofa, and Uncle Bob Lemming waiting for her, his reddened face wreathed in a smile, the look that she had come to expect and dread in his bloodshot eyes, the smell of Scotch on his breath.
SPRINGER MACDOWELL slid his long, long legs back down into the cramped confines of his 1963 Lotus Europa and started the engine, listening to the instant purr with a distant satisfaction. Satisfaction with his car, but not his life. Why was he doing this again? Why did he let himself in for the complete, unutterable weariness of driving cross-country every year, and for what? For the dubious pleasure of seeing the old man who by some accident had fathered him and then betrayed him, that twenty-year-old betrayal still raw in Springer's soul. Returning to New York every summer only brought back all the pain and doubt and anger that he usually managed to squash down, and even the presence of his mother couldn't prevent it all from spilling over. So why did he come?
The western Pennsylvania highway stretched out in front of him, heat shimmering from the pavement, the lush greenery passing in a blur. His eyes were trained on the road with single-minded concentration, a concentration necessary after three days on the road with only the bare minimum of stops. He knew that if he took his time he might never make it to New York, might turn around and head back to the West Coast, and to hell with everything. But he'd promised his mother, promised Elyssa that he'd try one more time to heal the broken ties with his bastard of a father. Too many people had broken their promises to her — he wasn't going to be another one, even if it killed him.
It wouldn't. He'd seen his father too many times in the past twenty years; he knew full well he could deal with it, even managing to be pleasant if the situation called for it. But Hamilton MacDowell wasn't fooled. He knew his son hated him, he knew why, and there was absolutely nothing he could or would do about it except stumble through Elyssa's periodic attempts at reconciliation with the same miserable grace that Springer mustered and breathe the same sigh of relief that Springer did when they finally were released from each other's onerous presence.
Excerpted from "When the Stars Fall Down"
Copyright © 1985 Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge writing as Anne Stuart.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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