Jenny mounted the bike, her heart thundering with excitement and the fear of the unknown. She had no idea what awaited her at the end of this path, no idea what threats lay lurking in the shadows. She knew only that for the first time in her life she felt free, at peace. She could stay here forever, breathing in the crisp sea air, listening to the chirruping birds, losing herself in the gentle caress of the breeze blowing against her face as she rode deeper and deeper into the shivering forest.
Before long the house she sought loomed ahead, a rustic wooden structure perched on the edge of a sea cliff. From where she stood, it seemed as if one strong gust of wind could send the two-story cottage tumbling down the jagged rock into the hungry mouth of the ocean.
No lights shone inside the narrow windows, but she caught a flash of movement on the porch. A tall, solitary figure stood, bracketed by the falling sun. The wind whipped his hair, the shoulder-length strands reminding her of a warrior in an old movie she’d once seen.
Pedaling up the pebble-dotted path, she approached the stranger. Somewhere in her rational brain she knew she should be afraid. There was something unattainable, almost forbidding about him. But fear didn’t hold her back this time. Fascination quickened her pulse, propelling her forward.
The wind rustled through the lofty maples and brittle pines, masking the sound of Jenny’s bike as she drew nearer. With a surge of anticipation, she put the bike aside, strapped her duffel bag over her shoulder, and climbed the wooden steps of the porch. A floorboard creaked beneath her feet and the man slowly turned toward her, his face shadowed by twilight and a curtain of black hair falling across his left cheek. Surprise shimmered in his eyes right before he looked away. His grip tensed, tightening around the railing. Stunned, Jenny watched him turn his back to her, his broad shoulders taut with unease.
“What do you want?” Despite the words he spoke, his voice wasn’t harsh. It was calm, soothing like a lullaby.
“Are you Daniel Frost?”
He nodded, allowing her a scarce glimpse of his right profile. It was a handsome profile, with a high, chiseled cheekbone and a straight sculpted nose, which led down to a pair of full lips and a powerful chin. Not a face one should feel inclined to hide.
“I’m Jenny Logan,” she said, a beehive of activity fluttering in her chest. “The assistant you hired.”
The first thought that lanced through Daniel’s dazed mind was that someone had made a horrible, horrible mistake.
Even though he hadn’t specifically asked the employment agency to send him a male assistant, he had emphasized that the job could prove too strenuous for a woman. But right now, the job requirements were the least of his worries. He couldn’t work with a woman, couldn’t have a woman living in his home.
Especially one so breathtakingly beautiful. When he first saw her, for a brief moment he thought he’d dreamed her—a specter from his wildest fantasies, gliding up his front porch, her deep, solemn eyes asking him why he stood alone gazing at the sunset. In that frozen moment he’d forgotten about his face, had wanted nothing but to look at her.
“Assistant?” He stared at the sun sinking into the sea, its vibrant colors bleeding into the sky only to fade like threads of mist. As the last pulsing rays dimmed, dusk finally fell, bringing with it the comforting cloak of darkness.
“Yes. You did hire an assistant, didn’t you?”
He searched for something to say that would settle this mess and send her back where she’d come from. All he managed was a nod. Thick, empty silence swelled between them. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow,” he finally uttered. “I thought I was picking you up at San Juan. How did you get here?”
“I have a friend who owns a boat. He dropped me off. I wanted to get a head start on the job. Is that all right?”
No, it wasn’t all right. Her presence here was nothing but a huge mistake. Why wasn’t she afraid? What kind of woman accepted a job with a stranger on a remote island?
“You know, it’s pretty hard to talk to someone when he has his back turned to you.”
His heart gave an involuntary jolt. He didn’t want her to look at him, didn’t want to catch that inevitable flicker of pity and revulsion in her eyes. But he knew he had to turn around sooner or later, and nightfall had descended just in time to conceal him. Slowly, he pivoted on his heels, praying the wind wouldn’t blow his hair off his face.
“You’re not much of a talker, are you?” She smiled at him and her expression glimmered with humor and friendly warmth. The darkening night had had the intended effect. He was safe, for now.
“You just caught me off guard.”
“Then let’s do this again.” Extending her hand, she waited for him to meet it. “I’m Jenny Logan.”
A swift, primal instinct urged him to wrap his fingers around hers, but he hesitated. She seemed too perfect for his touch, too ethereal to be breathing the same air as he. Long dark locks swayed around a face as fine as a porcelain doll’s. Wide, curious hazel eyes fringed by long black lashes gave her a childlike innocence, contrasted by a moist, sensual mouth and a curvaceous body. She was a poet’s muse come to life, an angel sculpted in heaven who’d floated down to earth on invisible wings.
Aware that he was staring, he met her handshake, if only to prove to himself she was flesh-and-blood real. An unfamiliar heat instantly spread through him, drowning his voice. “Daniel Frost,” he whispered.
Jenny smiled again and his heart folded with a loud thud. “That’s much better,” she said, releasing his hand.
The faint scent of vanilla wafted toward him, filling his lungs with a feminine sweetness long forgotten. He wanted to draw her closer, inhale her enticing perfume.
This was a horrible, horrible mistake. There was no way he could work with Jenny Logan. The employment consultant had said he was sending him a high school student. Although she looked older, the girl standing before him couldn’t be more than eighteen.
“Did the employment consultant explain the details of the job?” he asked.
She shrugged evasively. “More or less.”
“So you’re aware you’ll have to work with heavy tools—a drum sander, drill press, shaper, router…”
The blank look she gave him convinced him she had no idea what the job entailed. He made a mental note never to use that incompetent employment agency again. “Are you sure you want this job? There must be something more appropriate you could do—”
Jenny grasped his arm, sending a bolt of energy ramming through him. The dread that swept over her face silenced his next words. “I need this job. I’m a fast learner. Anything you tell me to do, I’ll do it well. Maybe I don’t know what a drum sander or a rotter is—”
The foreign tug of a smile curled his lips. “Router.”
She let go of his arm, a gentle flush infusing her cheeks. “Router,” she corrected. “But I’ll learn. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Daniel expelled a labored breath. Damn it all to hell. He couldn’t turn her away just because she happened to be a radiant, desirable woman he could never have. He needed an assistant and she obviously needed the job. “Fine. I’ll get you settled in tonight and give you a tour of the workshop tomorrow morning.”
For a horrifying second he thought she’d fling her arms around him. Gratitude lit her features, making her all the more lovely. “Thank you.”
He fought the impulse to brush the back of his hand against her cheek. Her skin would be soft, like velvet. He could tell just by looking at her.
Cursing his disturbing reaction to his new assistant, he invited her into his home. Fortunately, she didn’t ask why he didn’t turn on the lights as he led her up the dim staircase. He left her standing in front of the guest room, his throat knotted with anxiety. How would she react once she saw him in the light of day tomorrow? She might very well solve his problem by deciding she didn’t want the job after all.
As much as Daniel prayed she’d do precisely that, a part of him already mourned the fated moment when she’d walk out of his life.
“It looks like a painting.” Jenny gazed at the lighthouse perched on a shelf of ultramarine blue and burnt umber rocks, as they circled San Juan heading for the harbor.
“That’s Lime Kiln Lighthouse.”
Kelp and driftwood floated at the foot of the bluff, framing the shoreline. The cool salt water breeze kissed her face, left a salty taste on her lips. “It’s so beautiful, and so lonely.” The tall, solitary structure, set against gray mountains and encompassed by blue sky and water, reminded her of Daniel—solid, quiet, admired from a distance. How sad that something so enthralling should be so isolated.
“We’ll reach Friday Harbor soon.” Daniel steered the boat, his back turned to her, his expression vacant.
She was happy he’d let her come with him, even if he had only invited her because he’d felt sorry for her. What an enigma he was. Yesterday when they’d danced she’d sensed a connection between them. There was nothing indifferent about the way he’d held her, the way his fingers had stroked her back, the way his hand had clasped hers. But today miles separated them. She might as well have been alone on this boat.
She absorbed the sight of him. His features seemed chiseled in stone. She longed for the gentleness of the man who’d comforted her late at night when the nightmares had risen to ensnare her, the man who’d helped her decorate a Christmas tree and who’d held her in his arms so tight she hadn’t known where her heartbeat ended and his began.
“Do you come here often?” she asked above the deafening whoosh of the waves.
“Once a week,” he replied.
A gust of wind whipped his hair, raising it from his face. Briefly, she caught a glimpse of the scars he went to great lengths to conceal. White grooves dug into his flesh, crisscrossing his cheek. Her fingers itched to trace them, to heal them with the loving care of a tender touch. But she couldn’t. Daniel didn’t want her looking at him, let alone touching him.
As they rounded the island they drew nearer to Friday Harbor, where a line of fishing boats and pleasure yachts floated patiently. Seagulls screeched overhead, flapping their wings as they spiraled above the bustling port. A brilliant procession of boats, decorated in shimmering Christmas lights chugged around the harbor. Jenny leaned over the bow, impressed by the sight.
Her face must have reflected her enchantment, for Daniel said, “It’s the annual Parade of Lights.”
The whole town—what she could see of it—twinkled with a rainbow of Christmas lights. “It must look incredible at night.” She felt as if she’d stepped into one of those gleaming villages people placed under their Christmas trees.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it.”
They finally managed to dock. Daniel secured his boat, and Jenny followed him to an old red brick building facing the waterfront. A short, plump man with round glasses and prominent cheeks came to greet them.
“Daniel, I was starting to worry. You’re late.” The man slapped him amicably on the arm. “In the four years we’ve worked together you’ve been like clockwork. I can usually time your arrival to the minute.”
“Sorry, Saul. We got stalled by the parade.”
“Ah, they hit the water earlier in the day this year.” Saul’s gaze settled on Jenny. Surprise spread across his round face. “You two came together?”
Daniel’s stoical expression faltered. “This is Jenny, my assistant.”
“Is that what they’re calling ’em these days?” Saul cackled at his own remark, winking at Daniel.
Heat suffused Jenny’s cheeks, perspiration pearling in her joints. This Saul had taken one look at her and known what she was. Not an assistant, but a hired companion.
He can’t know, she reassured herself. Only she and Sam Leland were aware of their deal. Guilt sank like a bucket of rocks to settle at the pit of her stomach.
“The shipment’s in my boat. Can you send a couple of guys to help me unload?”
Thank God Daniel had steered the conversation away from her. Even though the pragmatic side of her brain told her she was overreacting, her crushing conscience made her foolishly paranoid.
“Sure, I’ll send them right out.” Saul smiled at Jenny. “You come back again soon.”
“That’s up to Daniel.” Stealing a glimpse of him, she noted the firm clasp of his hands, the darkness cloaking his eyes. He had no intention of bringing her back, unless it was to escort her to the ferry that would carry her out of his life.
Jenny had never much believed in prophecies, but that moment she had a vision. She saw herself standing on the deck of an open ferry, staring at the fading silhouette of a dark-haired man, feeling her heart break with each new wave that crashed against the hull as she floated further and further away. Floated back to Prospect Valley, to Leo, to self-effacement. If she went back there, the glitter inside her that made her the person she was would dim and die. She’d become a robot wearing human flesh, a programmed machine, with all emotion banned from her life.
Perhaps she would have been able to live that way before, but not now. Not after tasting peace, security. Not after savoring the warmth of Daniel’s kindness. She’d never thought a man’s presence could be so comforting. Before Daniel, Jenny had believed men inspired only fear, submission. But Daniel made her feel protected, cared for. He gave her hope, and she hadn’t had that in a very long time.
As they stepped outside, she eyed the numerous restaurants and cafés dotting the waterfront, all outfitted with glimmering lights. Although the small town wasn’t crowded, the sight of bikers and pedestrians filling the quaint streets was a welcome change from Daniel’s secluded cottage. “Can we stay and walk around town?”
“No.” Daniel’s reply was curt and dry, almost frantic. He seemed out of his element here amidst society—tense, uneasy. “We have a deadline to meet.”
Jenny understood. She caught the real reason in the way he averted his eyes. He wore the unworthiness he felt the same way he wore his scars. As much as he tried to conceal it, it was a part of him and it refused to stay hidden.
In a few minutes they’d boarded his boat and pulled away from the dock, Daniel skillfully bypassing the parade. Jenny leaned back against the railing, watching him. He seemed anxious to get away, eager to drift on to the wide, flowing ocean.
“Why are you staring at me?” He hadn’t as much as slanted a glance her way and yet he’d sensed her gaze.
“Just wondering why you feel so uncomfortable around people.”
He looked at her then, taken aback. “I don’t. I told you we have work to do.”
She approached him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to pretend with me. I understand how you feel. I just don’t understand why.”
He stared at the rippling water, his expression unreadable. “Please don’t touch me.” His voice was gruff, strained.
“Why not? Don’t you like being touched?” Boldly, she ran the back of her index finger across his right cheek. He jerked away as if she’d grazed him with a burning flame.
Compassion squeezed her heart. “What happened to you, Daniel?”
A light drizzle began to fall, but the sun continued to shine. Up ahead on the distant horizon a rainbow glowed. She’d never seen anything so magnificent—a prism of sparkling color diving into the boiling waves.
“Maybe you should go below deck.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t mind the rain. I don’t get to see a view like this everyday. Isn’t it incredible? How two total opposites can form something so breathtaking?”
Daniel didn’t reply. He just continued staring blankly ahead. Moving to his left, she did something terribly brazen. She touched the hair that veiled his cheek, brushing it aside. In an instant his fingers clenched hers. “What the hell are you doing?” Panic flared in his voice.
“I just—I wanted to see your face.”
Realizing how tightly he clasped her hand, he loosened his grip, releasing her. “Don’t ever do that again.” His clipped, non-negotiable tone delivered the message loud and clear.
In the past, Jenny would have backed off, retreated into silence, but not now. “Why not? What are you so afraid of?” she asked. Then, unable to stop herself, she added, “You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”
Her words touched him; she could tell. His taciturn expression vanished, and for a brief instant before doubt set in, she sensed he almost believed her. “Beautiful? Have you looked at me?”
“More than you know.”
Something blazed in his eyes that made her gut clench and heat stir in her belly. To her delighted surprise, he raised his hand, tenderly cupping her face.
He was going to kiss her.
The ground beneath her feet moved at the thought. Or maybe it was just the boat hopping along the waves, but right now she didn’t want to think about that. She just wanted to think about the way his thumb trailed up her cheek to settle at the corner of her mouth, stroking it. Something deep and primitive told her Daniel’s kiss would be as magical as everything else about him. She closed her eyes, leaned into his wide, rough palm…
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