Witch Island

Stephanie Bedwell-Grime

 

Prologue

He ran.

Even though his lungs burned as if he’d inhaled gasoline, he ran. Gusts of wind stole the last of his laboring breaths. Frigid rain pelted his face.

He plunged through the foliage. Branches snatched at his clothes and hair. He raced through brush and thorns until his face and hands were scratched and bleeding.

And still he ran.

The moon crested the barren trees. Cold, silver light spilled through the branches. He dodged a fallen tree trunk, skidding in a pile of wet leaves and nearly going down. He righted himself, skinning one palm, and staggered on.

Above him branches dipped lower, blocking his exit. He lost his balance on the damp ground and sprawled face down in rotting leaves and moss. The impact knocked the breath from him, but there was no time to assess the damage. He scrambled to his feet, heedless of the holes he’d just torn in the knees of his pants.

He’d lost track of direction in his mad plunge through the trees. Lost sight of where the house lay beyond the fence of nearly leafless branches. It seemed as if he’d been running forever, and still, deep down, he knew there was nowhere left to run. Nowhere left to hide.

Rain-loaded air gusted down his back, chilling him through his heavy coat. His boots had long since stopped resisting the damp grass. He could no longer feel his toes.

And then, over the crashing of branches slamming together in the wind, he heard a more sinister undertone in the symphony of the forest. Something dragged itself across the ground. Something large, something threatening.

He lunged through the trees, the wind roaring around him, but no matter how fast he ran it kept pace with him. He risked a quick glance behind him at the dark cavern of branches. The drumming of the rain on the fallen leaves nearly drowned out all other sound. But, beneath its persistent rhythm, he heard that slithering movement. A scattering of leaves marked its progress.

He dodged the vine that threatened to twine around his ankle, leaping to the relative safety of a fallen log. But it tricked him, twining up behind to attack his blind side, and he found his feet yanked suddenly out from under him. He sprawled into wet leaves. The smell of damp soil flooded his senses. Vines twisted around his ankles, preventing his escape. He felt them burrowing through the soil beneath his back to circle his neck and hold him fast. He sucked in a deep breath, afraid it might be his last. Roots bound his wrists like handcuffs. He arched his back, testing the bonds, and found they held with preternatural strength.

Something cold and wet slithered across his wrist. It penetrated the sleeve of his coat, and he felt its damp passage up the inside of his arm. Another probed the leg of his pants.

Mist flooded across the forest. It covered the ground in a smothering white blanket. Deep within the undulating wisps of gray, dark holes formed eyes. Gradations of swirling vapor formed a face.

A face he knew.

He tipped his head back to greet the cold, unforgiving light of the moon.

And screamed.

Chapter 1

Black water lapped against the shore. Swollen gray clouds crouched on the horizon. Even the wind ceased its relentless howling and fell still.

The calm before the storm, Roxanne Gerik thought. A shudder that had nothing to do with the wind worked its way down her spine.

She stared across the black, still water and tried to quiet the churning in her stomach. In a few short days, all her worries would be over. The months of financial uncertainty that had kept her awake at night would soon be an unpleasant memory. A surprise new contract offered an answer to her company’s money woes. A to-die-for contract. An easy contract that paid well. Her colleagues were jealous.

She thought back to the day that promised to change her life…

“One hundred thousand dollars.” Her friend Mercedes’ eyes widened when she saw the number on the contract. “Just to teach some rich guy about computers?”

“That’s what it says.” Roxanne looked down at the letter in her hand. A letter that had arrived without warning by courier. With the contract was also enclosed an American Express Gold Card in her name. “I have unlimited use of his credit card to buy him the best of everything he needs. Computer, fax machine, scanner, high-speed modem, digital camera, color laser printer.”

“Wow.” Mercedes whistled. “When you’re finished with this one, you’ll be able to rent that office downtown.” Her voice brightened as she continued, “And hire me.” She paused and then offered Roxanne a worried glance. “Are you sure it’s not a scam? I mean, who doesn’t have a computer? Even my grandma has one.”

“Maybe he’s really old. Or perhaps just eccentric. I don’t think it’s a scam, though. The contract seems simple enough. Still, don’t get too excited, I haven’t even met this guy yet.”

Nor would she. Days passed with no phone call, no contact at all from her mysterious client. One week later, another courier arrived at her door with instructions to await her acceptance of the contract. She hesitated. After the courier placed a call to the mysterious client, the price was increased to one hundred and twenty-five thousand.

Bills sat piled on her desk. Bills she had no money to pay. For three years she had struggled to run her own business and pay the mortgage on her cramped downtown Toronto loft. Now her debts threatened to take away that as well. It wasn’t that she didn’t do good work or have good clients. She just needed more of both. She needed to build a better website. She needed to upgrade her equipment and software. Her car had been sitting on blocks in the underground garage waiting for money to repair it.

Money, money, and money. The answer to all her problems. She glanced at the bills piling up beside her wheezing, aged computer. And boldly asked for an advance.

As if her demand had already been anticipated, the courier produced a check.

How hard could it be, she wondered, to teach some old rich guy to use a computer? How did even an old rich guy get by without owning some kind of computer or an answering machine or fax in this day and age? I guess I’ll find out.

And so Roxanne found herself standing on the shore of a still, black lake, gazing out at the island in the middle. An old manor house rose out of a nest of trees. Now that fall tipped toward winter, most of the leaves lay scattered across the ground, yet a few stubbornly remained clinging tenaciously to the branches. In the winter the lake would undoubtedly freeze, making access to the mainland nearly impossible to reach without skates.

She’d bolted awake last night, a scream dying on her lips. The feeble light of the crescent moon battling with the orange glow of the streetlight had sent strange shadows across her bed. Worry piled upon worry. As Mercedes had suggested, this strange contract seemed far too good to be true. Turning it down only added to her dilemma. Fighting an overwhelming premonition she shouldn’t go, she’d forced herself back to sleep. It was only now, standing on the shore of the quiet lake, that she thought to wonder what she’d been dreaming.

To calm her nerves, she tried to imagine the island in the spring. Fragrant blossoms would turn the trees into clouds of pink and white. The old manor house with its rambling gables would hardly be visible behind the screen of trees. Grass would cover the low bluffs that bordered the lake, turning to moss on the rocky boulders that hunched gray and barren against the shoreline.

Threatening clouds scudded listlessly across the horizon, marking a nearly imperceptible line between the water and the sky. Behind her sat a skid loaded with computer equipment all boxed and taped down with plastic. Just after dawn a truck had arrived at her apartment. Moving men had packed up the computer equipment and all the peripherals.

Surprisingly, the van had driven north for hours while she sat wedged between the two movers. Her questions concerning the length of their journey were met with assurances that, yes, they were heading to the right address. Then, without warning, the truck had dropped her and the cargo off on the shore of this quiet lake. And driven off without her.

Across the lake came the roar of a motor. From behind a row of trees, a wooden cabin cruiser shuddered into view. Roxanne watched it grow in size as it came toward her, revealing a hull sadly in need of a new coat of paint. She didn’t want to get into that rickety boat any more than she wanted to make a journey to that rambling manor on the island. She wanted to go home on this wet November afternoon and sit by her electric fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate.

Except that even cups of hot chocolate were getting difficult to afford.

She was good with people. She’d run her own business and survived for three years. She could handle some old guy, even if he did live in the spookiest house she’d ever seen.

The boat pulled up to a ramshackle dock, and Roxanne jumped back to avoid the tiny tidal wave of its wake. A gnarled hand appeared. Surely that couldn’t be Mr. Aidan Nevan? The hand produced a rope, which it tossed over a post with practiced sureness.

The boat rocked as someone rummaged around in the cabin. A gray-haired man appeared. His shearling coat had seen better days. Probably in the last century. Roxanne squashed that thought. If Mr. Aidan Nevan wanted to save his money to pay her, who was she to complain? He wore wool pants and wading boots. His gray hair was combed back from his face and hung well past his ears. Wind caught wisps of it, tossing them into his face.

He nodded to her in greeting then tossed another rope to hold the front of the boat. With surprising agility, he leapt from the boat to the dock and strode toward her.

“I’m Horace,” he said gruffly. “We ought to hurry, miss. There’s one heck of a storm brewing.”

As if on cue, the wind picked up, sending dark waves crashing against the shore. He leaned over to lift the largest of the boxes.

Afraid he might drop it, Roxanne rushed forward. “Wait, let me help you.”

But he hefted it without effort and motioned for her to attend to the lighter packages. He removed the ropes, and once more, the rickety boat was moving out over the roiling water.

Wind picked up the spray, tossing it in her face. Within a few moments her hair and clothes were damp with moisture. She hadn’t dressed to be out on the open water.

Dark clouds hastened evening’s approach. Surely they didn’t expect her to work through the night? Her stomach clenched as she pondered how she’d get home.

Because the contract had come up so suddenly, she planned to deliver the equipment, set it up, and return to start Mr. Nevan’s training in a few days. Now, with a sudden storm threatening, she wondered if that would still be possible.

She’d disembark on that island soon enough, she decided. And then she’d take up all her concerns with the mysterious Mr. Nevan.

The island grew in size as they approached. The boat bumped to a lurching stop against a dock as rickety as the one on the shore. Dark husks of trees ringed the island, but as they drew closer, Roxanne saw a clearing between the forest and the bluffs as the natural vegetation thinned out. On the very edge of the island’s banks, however, it looked as if someone had planted more trees, an effective fence to keep trespassers out. Or to keep something in.

Roxanne drew a shaky breath as she realized there was no way to see the boat or the dock from the far shore. As she squinted into the gathering darkness, she noticed a stone path nearly hidden by the trees. It didn’t matter, she told herself, eyeing the path and making a conscious effort to relax. She was only going to be here a short time today. Once she had a chance to meet with the elusive Mr. Nevan, she’d make arrangements to reconvene in a few days. Hopefully, he’d be a quick study and the assignment would be over soon.

The boat jounced against the wooden dock, nearly toppling her into the water, but Horace had it quickly secured. Waves lapped against the hull, warning of the storm to come. Mr. Nevan’s assistant offered his hand, and she climbed awkwardly onto the dock. As if on some unseen cue, the skies took that moment to open and send a torrent of rain skating across the dock.

“Oh no,” Roxanne cast a worried glance at the sky. “The computer equipment can’t get wet.”

Horace wrestled the largest of the boxes onto the dock quickly, and they began the laborious journey up the winding flagstone walkway that led through the trees to the imposing door of the manor. The trees thinned slightly as they got closer to the house, but weeds grew between the flagstones that were now slick with rain. The whole place had a feel of long disuse. But, to Roxanne’s surprise, the door flew open, and a portly older woman came flying down the stairs, brandishing an umbrella.

“Now, Horace, look what you’ve done. You’ve gone and got the lady wet. I told you to hurry, that it was blowing for a storm.” She paused, then smiled at Roxanne. “Oh but I’m forgetting my manners. I’m Agnes Peterson, Mr. Nevan’s housekeeper.”

Together Roxanne and the housekeeper managed an odd three-legged walk up the slippery staircase, balancing the boxes and the umbrella between them. Horace made a return trip for the rest of the packages. Despite the umbrella’s protection, Roxanne’s clothes were drenched by the time she reached the covered veranda. Rain ran in chilly rivulets down her back where her hair had soaked up the moisture.

Not the way I wanted to meet a new client. Then again, how many of her clients had lived on deserted islands?

They loaded the boxes in the entrance hall and wiped down the ones that had taken the most rain. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, Roxanne noticed they were standing in a cavernous foyer. Dampness permeated even the interior of the house. It smelled of age, mold, and wet wood. Dark, paneled walls disappeared up into a high, arched ceiling. A chandelier flickered, its dim electric bulbs no match for the gathering shadows. The old house creaked in the wind. Rain drilled against the windows like so many nails. Tree branches scratched against the roof. Who would want to live in a place like this?

“Why don’t you show me where you want the equipment set up.” Roxanne looked around for a suitable place. “Then, after I meet with Mr. Nevan briefly, I’ll be on my way.”

“But that won’t be possible. Mr. Nevan isn’t due back for several hours.”

The fear that had plagued Roxanne since she’d left her home threatened to steal her breath. She forced herself to relax, to state her case logically the way she did with all unreasonable clients. “I only planned to deal with the delivery and set-up today. I have other appointments. I have to get back to the city as soon as possible.”

“It’s far too dangerous to be on the open water right now,” Horace said. As if on cue, the wind howled through the trees outside, sending branches scraping against the windows. “The storm is getting worse.”

“Then how is Mr. Nevan going to get home?” They had to do as she requested. Roxanne refused to stay in the spooky old house one second longer than was necessary.

“Oh now don’t you worry about Mr. Nevan,” the housekeeper said. “He can take care of himself.”

“Well, if it’s possible for Mr. Nevan to get home safely, then he can arrange for me to go home too.”

“You accepted Mr. Nevan’s contract.” Horace’s tone held the hint of a threat.

Keeping the conversation pleasant while she disagreed with them was a balancing act. Roxanne knew that much from experience. She was getting good at walking that tightrope. “I saw nothing in the contract that stated I had to be a resident on the island until it was completed.” She crossed her arms over her chest, mirroring Horace’s confrontational posture. “In fact, I don’t remember an island even being mentioned.”

Tension stretched between them in the shadows of the dark manor. Agnes Peterson was the first to break it.

“Goodness, the girl is soaking wet. Horace, fetch a towel for the girl. She’ll think we’ve forgotten ourselves altogether. Come.” She propelled Roxanne by the arm. “Sit by the fire and warm up.”

Roxanne looked back in time to see Mrs. Peterson cast a glance at Horace, a pointed stare that practically shouted, “Be quiet.” Horace opened his mouth as if there was a great deal more he would say then abruptly shut it.

“I’ll put the boxes in Mr. Nevan’s study,” he said instead.

He’d taken only one step toward the pile in the entry hall when something crashed against one of the windows. Wind roared through the trees outside. The chandelier above him flickered then went out. From the direction of the hall, Roxanne heard a refrigerator motor winding down before stopping altogether.

“Heavens,” said the housekeeper. “There goes the power again.”

Roxanne stared into absolute darkness. She couldn’t see much of the lake through the unshuttered windows, but she imagined its uniform flat blackness surrounding them on all sides. The island had no lampposts, no streetlights. Dark clouds hid the moon, stealing the only source of illumination. A gray line marked the only differentiation between water and sky.

She turned away from the windows as Mrs. Peterson led her toward the fireplace in the next room. With the fire roaring in the huge hearth, the sitting room was more welcoming than the dark entry hall.

The reflection of the fire’s crimson flames warmed the dark walls and cast a rosy glow on the housekeeper’s face. Even Horace looked friendlier in its warm light. But no matter how welcome its warmth after a trip on the cold lake, Roxanne knew she couldn’t stay here.

The creaking old manor house would have given her the creeps even if it stood in the center of town. As the only building on an isolated island, the house was positively scary, and Roxanne fought the constant instinct to run. If only she could.

“Look,” she said as Mrs. Peterson settled her into a deep, comfortable armchair. “There’s no sense in me staying here any longer. I can’t do anything until the power comes back on, and Mr. Nevan isn’t here, so why don’t we just set another time to meet?”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said a deep voice from the shadows behind her. “The storm has blown out the dock.”

Roxanne jumped at the voice that resonated from out of the darkness. Surprise, certainly, she told herself, but it was more than that. It was a deeply melodic voice. A voice that promised nights of hot lust. A voice that ran up and down her nerves like an electric current. And pooled like liquid heat in her belly.

The owner of that voice stepped into the firelight. The man was as devastatingly attractive as he sounded, Roxanne realized, grateful that the dimness hid her sudden blush. Shadows played across his sculpted cheekbones, warring with the firelight. He had eyes so dark they reflected the flame’s golden sparks. His hair was duskier than his eyes, so black that it seemed as if his face floated toward her out of the gloom. He wore charcoal pants and a matching sweater. Cashmere, she realized. Only something expensive could cling so appealingly to every muscle.

This appealing creature couldn’t be Mr. Nevan. She’d expected a frail, older man, someone elderly enough to have amassed a fortune. Someone out of touch enough to need a computer tutor. Yet, she had trouble guessing exactly how old he was. He had an ageless look to him, but by his undeniable virility, he appeared to be in his late thirties.

Perhaps he was a relative or maybe another of the numerous servants necessary to run such a large estate. He might be a handyman, someone capable of handling the more physical work on the island. Muscles moved fluidly beneath his sweater as he walked toward them. She imagined him splitting firewood, his chest bare and drenched with sweat, and felt her stomach clench in anticipation.

But few servants would be able to afford cashmere, she reminded herself.

“Ah, Mr. Nevan,” Mrs. Peterson said. “You’ve returned.”

She uttered the words as if delivering a secret message. Whatever the message was, Mr. Nevan received it because his eyes narrowed. But he offered Roxanne a warm smile and said, “You must be Miss Gerik.”

A smile that could melt the coldest of hearts. Roxanne was determined not to be taken in by his charm. She knew from painful experience handsome men couldn’t be trusted. Men that rich and good-looking dated supermodels and overlooked the women with brains.

Dark eyes regarded her as if she was the most interesting person in the whole world. Against her will, Roxanne felt herself warming to him, her annoyance at being stranded evaporating. That in itself was unsettling. Until today, she had considered herself impervious to male charm. Her experience with the male gender was limited at best. Not because she wasn’t interested. She simply found herself inept at playing the dating game. Men seemed to sense that and stay far away.

“You just haven’t met the right man,” Mercedes had told her. And bought her a copy of The Rules. Even having a rulebook hadn’t helped, Roxanne reflected.

It was as though everyone spoke a language she didn’t understand. She considered herself oblivious, immune.

It was hard to maintain that immunity as he walked toward her out of the darkness, still smiling that knee-weakening smile.

He held out his hand. “I’m Aidan Nevan.”

His eyes glittered like black jewels in the firelight. Eyes I could fall into and get lost in. He had a powerful presence. And he knew it.

“Mr. Nevan.” She rose from the chair to shake hands. Her mind simply couldn’t reconcile this virile stranger with the shriveled old man she had been expecting. His warm hand enveloped hers. Twinges of heat raced up her arm.

“I’m glad to see you arrived safely in such bad weather.” He shot a look at Horace over her head. What it meant she couldn’t discern.

“Yes,” she said, and then her brain kicked in. “But you have to find a way to get me back to the mainland. I hadn’t expected to be here so late. The power’s out so we can’t do anything on the computer anyway,” she finished weakly.

He still held her hand, she realized with a sudden bolt of panic. Blanketing her cold hand in his warmer one. What did etiquette demand she do? Point out that fact? Yank her hand back?

As if the thought had just occurred to him, he released her hand and said to Mrs. Peterson, “Agnes, the girl is freezing. Fetch her a blanket.”

Fetch? Did anyone still use words like that? The antiquated expression seemed out of place for such a young man.

“No, really, I’m fine.” She attempted to bring the conversation back to her own demands. “I’d really just like to go home now.”

“As I said, Miss Gerik, the storm has unfortunately blown out the dock. And the boat has been damaged as well.”

To emphasize his point, the wind roared across the island, rattling the windows and nearly blowing out the fire in the hearth.

Roxanne swallowed past the panic rising in her throat. “There has to be another way back to the mainland.”

“Regrettably not. We are quite isolated here on the island.”

Before the effect of his words had a chance to sink in, Mrs. Peterson returned with a soft blanket and draped it around her shoulders.

“Really, I’m fine.” Despite her claim, a feeling of dread was working its way in deep shudders down Roxanne’s spine. The dampness that had worked itself into every muscle on the way across the lake caught up with her.

“Come back and sit by the fire.” Mr. Nevan circled her in one of his strong arms and led her back toward the hearth. He settled her in the corner of an overstuffed couch, tucked the blanket around her shoulders, and sat down beside her.

That kind gesture stole her anger. She wanted to go home. She wanted to be anywhere but in this old house on this damp island. But caught in the gaze of those dark eyes, she felt cherished.

Was this what she’d been missing? Someone who made her feel desired? Running her business filled nearly every waking minute. Still, in rare quiet moments, she felt strangely empty. Had she confused being busy with fulfillment?

No, she was just tired. The long ride from the city and the harrowing trip across the open water had exhausted her. Normally the attentions of a handsome man had little effect on her. So why was she staring into those mesmerizing eyes like a doe caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck?

“What are you saying?” She ran her own business. She dealt with demanding clients, negligent suppliers, money problems, and any emergencies that came up. She would deal with this one like any other. “That I’m stranded here?” Her voice sounded shrill even to her own ears. She’d meant to sound in control, self-assured, yet none of that came across. Instead, she sounded afraid, alone.

“Don’t worry, Miss Gerik. I will have someone attend to repairing the dock first thing in the morning.”

“In the morning.” She couldn’t stop her voice from rising. “I’m not staying here tonight.”

He smiled. “Really, Miss Gerik, it’s not as bad as it seems. We do have accommodations here on the island. And we are quite used to dealing with the power going out.”

“But—”

“And I would be happy to compensate you for the extra time.”

“Mr. Nevan—”

“Please, call me Aidan,” he said, his face close to hers.

Horace and Mrs. Peterson seemed to vanish into the dark interior of the house to see to their own affairs, leaving the two of them alone.

“Aidan.” Calling him by his given name implied an intimacy she wasn’t ready to accept. In truth, she called most of her clients by their first names, but none of them had insisted she spend the night on a secluded island. The last thing she wanted to do was spend a night in the company of strangers in an old creaking house. “Your retainer was generous enough. But there are things I need to do back in my office in the city.”

“I do regret the inconvenience, Miss Gerik—”

“Call me Roxanne.” “Roxanne.” A trace of an accent worked its way into his speech. The way he said her name sent shivers down her spine.

It’s the cold. Not the warmth of the man sitting far too close to me.

“You didn’t mention that you lived on an island in any of our correspondence,” she pointed out in self-defense. “And I don’t recall it being specified in our contract, either.”

For a moment the self-assured Aidan Nevan looked embarrassed. “No,” he said simply.

“Don’t you think you should have?”

“I didn’t see the significance in mentioning it.” His dark eyes blazed with momentary anger that seemed to dissipate just as quickly.

Roxanne raised an eyebrow. “You mean you didn’t think I’d come.” He inclined his head in agreement. “That was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.”

A stark bolt of fear shot down her spine. She was a woman alone in the company of strangers marooned on an island. And the storm had just blown out her last link to her familiar world back in the city. What did she really know about Aidan Nevan, besides the brief bio she’d read online? That he’d offered her a lot of money for her services. That so far his check hadn’t bounced, and given the number of charities claiming him as benefactor, he appeared to be as rich as she suspected.

“Why me?” If Mr. Nevan had more than a professional interest in her, Roxanne wanted to know. She thrust news stories of stalkers and their victims from her mind. Stalkers didn’t offer their victims legal contracts and generous retainers, did they?

“You came very highly recommended.”

“Why weren’t you willing to take the risk that I wouldn’t come?”

He leaned closer, blocking the fire’s light. Dark, like the shadows themselves, he loomed above her. “Because I have an urgent need to know the things you can teach me. Too long I’ve neglected the modern world outside my private island.”

“There are lots of computer courses in the city.”

“Those courses would not fit my schedule. My spare time is in short supply. I am required to work at odd hours.”

“Your contract didn’t specify odd hours,” Roxanne said.

He reached out, and for a moment she thought he would grasp her wrist and restrain her. But he merely placed a reassuring hand on her arm and said, “I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”

“I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter since I’ve already signed the contract.”

“Really, Roxanne, it’s not as bad as all that. I do regret the circumstances under which we’ve met. If I’ve misled you in any way, then I’m sorry, but I don’t control the weather. Let me try to make it up to you. Mrs. Peterson is an excellent cook. We can discuss the project over dinner.”

“I wasn’t planning to be here all night. I didn’t even bring a toothbrush.” Belatedly, she realized how suggestive that comment sounded. But there was no way to unsay it.

Aidan smiled. Desire swirled in the depths of those dark eyes. No man had ever looked at her with such heat. She fought back the blush that colored her cheeks then realized he probably couldn’t see it in shadows. “I’m sure we can find you a new toothbrush, Roxanne. I do have frequent visitors to the island, so I keep such things on hand. I’m told the guestrooms are most comfortable.”

He sounded like a tour guide describing a five-star resort. But fancy hotels had hot water and electricity and light. Vacations didn’t include unwanted stays in creepy houses. At least not the kind she had in mind.

Just as he was about to say something else, Mrs. Peterson appeared from out of the gloom to announce that supper was ready.

“Come,” Aidan said, rising fluidly to his feet. His pale face seemed to float in the darkness as he offered his hand. He led her down a pitch-black hallway, skillfully maneuvering around furniture and corners. Up ahead, candlelight drew them into a large dining room. She expected it to be as dark as the rest of the house. Instead, a huge chandelier dominated the room, sending flickering shadows up the walls. It must have taken forever to light all those candles. She stepped into the golden light. Flame burned on every surface. The long wooden table held no less than three candelabras. Candles burned in a row of bright flame on the sideboard and hung in sconces on the walls.

Aidan seated her at one end of the long table then claimed the seat at the opposite end. She couldn’t remember ever sitting at a table so big, not even at a banquet. Mrs. Peterson fussed about, uncovering several large trays. Roxanne’s stomach growled loudly at the enticing scents, and she realized she hadn’t eaten since morning. She accepted the housekeeper’s offer of chicken smothered in wine sauce and grilled vegetables then helped herself to the soft rolls Mrs. Peterson insisted had been freshly baked that morning. How the housekeeper had managed to finish preparing such a meal after the electricity had gone out was beyond her. But, as Aidan had said, apparently, on the island, power was an unpredictable thing.

She half expected Horace and Mrs. Peterson to join them for the meal, but after the feast had been laid upon the table, they vanished back into the darkness, again leaving her alone with her host.

Silence stretched between them. Other than continuing to protest this unexpected layover, Roxanne couldn’t think of a thing to ask him. Small talk had never been her forte. Though she’d never acquired the skill, she grudgingly admired women who had. Women who attracted men like Aidan Nevan. Dealing with her business clients rarely gave her the chance to experiment with idle conversation.

“This is wonderful,” she said at last, raising her voice slightly to be heard at his end of the table. “Mrs. Peterson is an accomplished chef.”

“Yes,” he agreed, though he didn’t seem to be eating much of the meal he pretended to enjoy. Wine glittered in his crystal goblet. He took a deep swallow and gazed at her over the rim. Roxanne took a cautious sip. Well aged, it trickled down her throat like honey, as delicious as the rest of the meal.

“So tell me,” Aidan said into the silence. Outside the wind had died down, leaving the inside of the house even quieter. “How does one so young become so accomplished in all this new technology?”

One so young? What an odd comment. Again she was struck by his archaic way of speaking. Roxanne studied her host in the candlelight. He couldn’t be more than ten years older than she was. His pale skin was a contrast to his dark hair. There were tiny lines around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth, as if at one time he were accustomed to smiling a great deal more. She could see no traces of gray among his dark curls. So why did he refer to her as if he were the eighty-year-old man she’d expected him to be?

“I’ve always been interested in technology,” she said around another succulent mouthful of Mrs. Peterson’s chicken. Abruptly, she realized she was talking with her mouth full and concentrated on chewing. He took another deep swallow of wine and waited patiently for her to continue. “It came as a surprise to my parents because I totally flunked math and science. I studied literature in college, but when I graduated, I got a job at a publishing company. Right away I realized I had a talent for layout and design. From there it was a natural progression into websites and e-commerce.”

While her more outgoing friends had spent their evenings partying, she’d studied computer manuals. That was the sad truth. She neglected to mention that fact. Let Aidan Nevan think her a brilliant computer wiz.

“So you’re self-taught,” he said.

Oops. The last thing she wanted was for him to suspect she wasn’t qualified for the job. “Initially, yes. But since then I’ve taken, even taught, many computer courses.”

He laughed, dark, rich laughter that sent more of that strange heat through her. “I didn’t mean to question your qualifications, Roxanne. Rather, I am…impressed that you’ve accomplished so much all on your own. It gives me hope that you can teach me.”

“I’m sure I can,” she said with a confidence she didn’t feel. “You won’t be my first student.”

“So I understand.”

Now what did that mean? Had he been looking into her background? No reason he shouldn’t, especially considering he intended to pay her so much money. She meant to ask him, but seeing that she had polished off the remains of Mrs. Peterson’s gourmet meal, he said, “Come, I’ll tell Mrs. Peterson to bring dessert and coffee to the parlor.”

He led her from the dining room, down another hall to a sitting room with over-stuffed wingback chairs. Another fire roared in the fireplace, competing with the glow of candles that stood like a row of bright sentries on the mantel.

Mrs. Peterson appeared with a plate of pastries and a pot of coffee she had somehow managed to brew without the convenience of electricity. “Oh no thanks. I’m stuffed.”

Roxanne accepted a cup of coffee instead, but despite the extra caffeine, the stresses of the day caught up to her, and she found her eyelids drifting shut. Rain drummed at the windows and fire danced in the hearth, lulling her to sleep.

“Forgive me for being so rude,” Aidan said.

Roxanne snapped awake, appalled to realize she had drifted off in the middle of his sentence. “Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

He waved her protest from the air.

“It is I who should be sorry for keeping you awake after so trying a day.” He was before her in a second, offering his hand in that gallant way that seemed like a throwback to another century. “Come, let me show you to your room. We will talk again tomorrow.”

He led her down another maze-like hallway in the darkness. Without warning, he stopped so suddenly she bumped into him.

“Oh!” She put out her hands to steady herself. Beneath her palms, she felt the warmth of his skin through the cashmere. Muscles moved under her hands as he put his own arms up to steady her.

“Sorry,” he said. “I forget you don’t know these halls like I do.”

She should take a step back from him, break the contact. Usually she didn’t submit to being handled by total strangers. In truth, not too many strangers had been interested. But something in his touch made her want to explore further, to find out if the skin under that sweater was as smooth and inviting as the cashmere. She didn’t step out of his embrace. And he didn’t release her.

The door swung open. Still circling her with one arm, he reached for the candle on the bureau. His eyes reflected the sudden flash of light as he struck a match. For an instant they glittered like an animal’s eyes before the effect vanished. She took one quick step backward.

If he noticed her fear, Aidan made no mention of it. Instead he left her in the small circle of the candle’s light and headed for the dark alcove at the end of the room. Light flared again as he lit another candle, and she recognized it to be the bathroom.

He reappeared from the darkness. “I will leave you to your rest.”

She nodded, feeling another pang of resentment at having to spend the night. But he’d been a hospitable host, and she could hardly blame the storm on him.

He was still standing in front of her, as if there was a great deal more he wanted to say. What did circumstances demand she do? He seemed confused as well. Circumstances made him a client, not a dinner date. Should she thank him for dinner? Or did that sound too date-like?

He stood close enough for her to smell the spice of his soap. Before she could say anything, he reached out a hand, his fingers brushing the hair from her shoulders. “Sleep well. The storm is expected to blow over by morning.”

She should have objected to the uninvited touch, but it took every ounce of her strength not to turn her face toward his fingers and let him cup her chin in his hand.

Before objecting occurred to her again, he had stepped away from her and drawn the door gently shut.

Roxanne let go of the breath she’d been holding. Sinking down on the bed, she studied her surroundings. From what she could see in the darkness, the room looked like a carryover from the last century. Mildly stuffy and damp, she guessed Mrs. Peterson had opened the window briefly to air it out. Carved pillars towered over each end of the bed. The carvings matched those on the windowsills and around the doorframes.

A dark shadow against the far wall revealed the bulky shape of a wardrobe. There was a dresser by the door and a table beside the bed. A chair bearing the same ornate carvings as the bed sat before a desk in the corner. Someone had left a freshly laundered nightgown on the bed. Sheer cotton with lace at the collar and cuffs, it seemed a world away from the ratty T-shirt she was used to sleeping in.

Well, if she was stuck here, she might as well try to get some sleep.

Slipping into the nightgown, she wandered into the bathroom. The plumbing seemed to be working fine. Tepid water splashed into the basin. She washed her face and reached for the thick towel on the corner of the vanity. Haunted gray eyes stared back at her from the mirror. Her blonde hair made her look like a ghost in the dimness. The image made her shudder.

For an instant she thought she saw another face superimposed over her own. A woman with dark hair and fathomless eyes…

Roxanne gasped. She whirled, glancing behind her, searching for the person she was certain had been standing there. Instead, she saw only shadows beyond the candlelight.

A trick of the light brought on by an exhausted mind. By morning the storm would be long past. Hopefully the power would be restored and she could set up Aidan Nevan’s computer then head back to the city.

A clap of thunder scattered that thought. A gust of wind ruffled the heavy drapes. The candle in the bathroom sputtered then went out.

With a shriek, Roxanne leapt for the bed. Burrowing under the covers, she huddled there and prayed for morning.