grin flashed, transforming her striking face to stunning.
It was a long way for a man to travel. Not only the miles from San Diego to the cliffs outside of Monterey, Felipe thought, but the years. So many years.
Once, he had been young enough to walk confidently along the rocks, to climb, even to race. Defying the fates, celebrating the rush of wind, the crash of waves, the dizzying heights. The rocks had bloomed for him in spring once. There had been flowers to pick for Seraphina then, and he could remember, with the clear vision of age looking back to youth, how she had laughed and clutched the tough little wildflowers to her breast as if they were precious roses plucked from a well-tended bush.
His eyes were weak now, and his limbs were frail. But not his memory. A strong, vital memory in an old body was his penance. Whatever joy he had found in his life had been tainted, always, with the sound of Seraphina's laughter, with the trust in her dark eyes. With her young, uncompromising love.
In the more than forty years since he had lost her, and the pan of himself that was innocence, he had learned to accept his own failings. He had been a coward, running from battle rather than facing the horrors of war, hiding among the dead rather than lifting a sword.
But he had been young, and such things had to be forgiven in the young.
He had allowed his friends and family to believe him dead, slain like a warrior—even a hero. It had been shame, and pride, that caused him to do so. Small things, pride and shame. Life was made up of so many small blocks. But he could never forget that it was that shame and that pride that cost Seraphina her life.
Weary, he sat on a rock to listen. To listen to the roar of water battling rock far below, to listen to the piercing cry of gulls, the rush of wind through winter grass. And the air was chilled as he closed his eyes and opened his heart.
To listen for Seraphina.
She would always be young, a lovely dark-eyed girl who had never had the chance to grow old, as he was old now. She hadn't waited, but in despair and grief had thrown herself into the sea. For love of him, he thought now. For reckless youth that hadn't lived long enough to know that nothing lasts forever.
Believing him dead, she had died, hurling herself and her future onto the rocks.
He had mourned her, God knew he had mourned her. But he hadn't been able to follow her into the sea. Instead, he had traveled south, given up his name and his home, and made new ones.
He had found love again. Not the sweet first blush of love that he had had with Seraphina, but something solid and strong, built on those small blocks of trust and understanding and on needs both quiet and violent.
And he had done his best.
He had children, and grandchildren. He had a life with all the joys and sorrows that make a man. He had survived to love a woman, to raise a family, to plant gardens. He was content with what had grown from him.
But he had never forgotten the girl he had loved. And killed. He had never forgotten their dream of a future or the sweet, innocent way she had given herself to him. When they had loved in secret, both of them so young, so fresh, they dreamed of the life they would have together, the home they would build with her dowry, the children they would make.
But war came, and he left her to prove himself a man. And proved himself a coward instead.
She had hidden her bride gift, the symbol of hope that a young girl treasures, to keep it out of American hands. Felipe had no doubt where she had hidden it. He had understood his Seraphina—her logic, her sentiment, her strengths and weaknesses. Though it had meant that he was penniless when he left Monterey, he had not taken the gold and jewels Seraphina had secreted.
Now, with the dreams of age that had turned his hair to silver, that had dimmed his eyes and lived in his aching bones, he prayed that it would be found one day by lovers. Or dreamers. If God was just. He would allow Seraphina to choose. Whatever the Church preached, Felipe refused to believe God would condemn a grieving child for the sin of suicide.
No, she would be as he had left her more than forty years ago on these very cliffs. Forever young and beautiful and full of hope.
He knew he would not return to this place. His time of penance was almost at an end. He hoped when he saw his Seraphina again, she would smile at him and forgive a young man's foolish pride.
He rose, bending in the wind, leaning on his cane to keep his feet under him. And left the cliffs to Seraphina.
There was a storm brewing, marching across the sea. A summer storm, full of power and light and wild wind. In that eerie luminescent light, Laura Templeton sat content on the rock. Summer storms were the best.
They would have to go in soon, back to Templeton
House, but for now, she and her two closest friends would wait and watch. She was sixteen, a delicately built girl with quiet gray eyes and bright blond hair. And as full of energy as any storm.
"I wish we could get in the car and drive right into it," Margo Sullivan laughed. The wind was fitful and growing stronger. "Right into it."
"Not with you behind the wheel," Kate Powell sneered. "You've only had your license a week, and you already have a rep as a lunatic."
"You're just jealous because it'll be months before you can drive."
Because it was true, Kate shrugged. Her short black hair fluttered in the wind. She took a deep gulp of air, loving the way it thickened and churned. "At least I'm saving up for a car, instead of cutting out pictures of Ferraris and Jaguars."
"If you're going to dream," Margo said, frowning at a minute chip in the coral polish on her nails, "dream big. I'll have a Ferrari one day, or a Porsche, or whatever I want." Her summer-blue eyes narrowed with determination. "I won't settle for some secondhand junker like you would."
Laura let them argue. She could have defused the sniping, but she understood it was simply part of the friendship. And she didn't care about cars. Not that she didn't enjoy the spiffy little convertible her parents had given her for her sixteenth birthday. But one car was the same as another to her.
She realized it was easier, in her position. She was the daughter of Thomas and Susan Templeton, of the Templeton hotel empire. Her home loomed on the hill behind her, stunning under the churning gray sky. It was more than the stone and wood and glass that composed it. More than the turrets and balconies and lush gardens. More than the fleet of servants who kept it shining.
It was home.
But she had been raised to understand the responsibilities of privilege. Within her was a great love of beauty and symmetry, and a kindness. Aligned with that was a need to live up to Templeton standards, to deserve all she'd been given by birthright. Not only the wealth, which even at sixteen she understood, but also the love of her family, her friends.
She knew Margo always fretted at limitations. Though they had grown up together at Templeton House, as close as sisters, Margo was the daughter of the housekeeper.
Kate had come to Templeton House when her parents had been killed. An eight-year-old orphan. She was cherished, absorbed into the family, as much a part of the Templetons as Laura and her older brother, Josh.
Laura and Margo and Kate were as close as—perhaps closer than—sisters who shared blood. But Laura never forgot that the Templeton responsibility was hers.
And one day, she thought, she would fall in love, marry, and have children. She would carry on the Templeton tradition. The man who came for her, who swept her up in his arms, who made her belong to him, would be everything she'd ever wanted. Together they would build a life, create a home, carve out a future as polished and perfect as Templeton House.
As she pictured it, dreams budded in her heart. Delicate color bloomed on her cheeks while the wind tossed her blond curls around them.
"Laura's dreaming again," Margo commented. Her
"Got Seraphina on the brain again?" Kate asked.
"Hmm?" No, she hadn't been thinking of Seraphina, but she did now. "I wonder how often she came here, dreaming of the life she wanted with Felipe."
"She died in a storm like the one that's coming. I know she did." Margo lifted her face to the sky. "With lightning flashing, the wind howling."
"Suicide's drama enough by itself." Kate plucked a wildflower, twirled the stubby stem between her fingers. "If it had been a perfect day, with blue skies and sunshine, the results would have been the same."
"I wonder what it is to feel that lost," Laura murmured.
"If we ever find her dowry, we should build a shrine or something to remember her by."
"I'm spending my share on clothes, jewelry, and travel." Margo stretched her arms up, tucked them behind her head.
"And it'll be gone in a year. Less," Kate predicted. "I'm going to invest mine in blue chips."
"Boring, predictable Kate." Margo turned her head, smiled at Laura. "What about you? What will you do when we find it? And we will find it one day."
"I don't know." What would her mother do? she wondered. Her father? "I don't know," she repeated. "I'll have to wait and see." She looked back toward the sea, where the curtain of rain was inching closer. "That's what Seraphina didn't do. She didn't wait and see."
And the sound of the rising wind was like a woman weeping.
Lightning jagged, a flashing pitchfork of brilliant white through the heavy sky. The blasting boom of answering thunder shook the air. Laura threw back her head and smiled. Here it comes, she thought. The power, the danger, the glory.
She wanted it. Deep inside her most secret heart, she wanted it all.
Then came the squeal of brakes, the angry pulse of gritty rock and roll. And an impatient shout.
"Jesus Christ, are you all nuts?" Joshua Templeton leaned out of his car window, scowling at the trio. "Get the hell in the car."
"It's not raining yet." Laura stood. She eyed Josh first. He was her senior by four years, and at the moment he looked so much like their father at his crankiest that she wanted to laugh. But she'd seen who was in the car with him.
She wasn't certain how she knew that Michael Fury was as dangerous as any summer storm, but she was sure of it. It was more than Ann Sullivan's mutterings about hoods and troublemakers—though, to be sure, Margo's mother had definite opinions on this particular friend of Josh's.
Maybe it was because his dark hair was just a little too long and too wild, or because of the little white scar just above his left eyebrow, which Josh said Michael had gotten in a fight. Maybe it was his looks, for they were dark and dangerous, and just a little mean. Like a greedy angel's, she thought as her heart fluttered uncomfortably. Grinning all the way to hell.
But she thought it was his eyes. So startlingly blue they were in that face. So intense and direct and intrusive when he looked at her.
No, she didn't like the way he looked at her.
"Get in the damn car." Impatience shimmered around Josh in waves. "Mom had a fit when she realized you were out here. One of you gets hit by lightning, it'll be my ass."
"And it's such a cute one," Margo added, always ready to flirt. Hoping to make Josh jealous, she opened the door on Michael's side. "It'll be a tight fit. Mind if I sit on your lap, Michael?"
His gaze shifted from Laura. He grinned at Margo, a quick flash of teeth in a tanned, hollow-cheeked face. "Make yourself at home, sugar." His voice was deep, a little rough, and he accepted the weight of a willing female with practiced ease.
"I didn't know you were back, Michael." Kate slipped into the backseat, where, she thought sourly, there was plenty of room for three.
"On leave." He flicked a glance at her, then looked back at Laura, who still hesitated at the car door. "I ship out again in a couple days."
"The merchant marine." Margo toyed with his hair. "It sounds so… dangerous. And exciting. Do you have a woman in every port?"
"I'm working on it." As the first fat drops of rain splatted the windshield, he raised a brow at Laura. "Want to sit on my lap, too, sugar?"
Dignity was something else she'd learned at an early age. Not sparing him a reply, Laura got into the backseat with Kate.
The minute the door was closed, Josh sent the car streaking across the road and up the hill toward home. When her eyes met Michael's in the rearview mirror, Laura deliberately looked away, then back. Back toward the cliffs, and her place of comfortable dreams.
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On the day of her eighteenth birthday, Laura was in love. She knew she was lucky to be so certain of her feelings, and her future, and the man who would share them both with her.
His name was Peter Ridgeway, and he was everything she had ever dreamed of. He was tall and handsome, with golden good looks and a charming smile. He was a man who understood beauty and music, and the responsibilities of career.
Since he had been promoted in the Templeton organization and transferred to the California branch, he had courted her in a fashion designed to win her romantic heart.
There had been roses delivered in glossy white boxes, quiet dinners at restaurants with flickering candlelight. Endless conversations about art and literature—and silent looks that said so much more than words.
They had taken walks in the garden in the moonlight, long drives along the coast.
Her fall into love had not taken long, yet it had been a gentle tumble with no scrapes or bruises. Very much, she thought, like sliding slowly down a silk-lined tunnel into waiting arms.
Perhaps, at twenty-seven, he was a bit older than her parents might have liked, and she a bit younger. But he was so flawless, so perfect, Laura couldn't see how the years could matter. No boy of her own age had Peter Ridgeway's polish, his knowledge, or his quiet patience.
And she was so much in love.
He had hinted at marriage, gently. She understood that this was to give her time to consider. If only she knew how to let him know she had already considered, already decided he was the man she would spend her life with.
But a man like Peter, Laura thought, needed to be the one to make the moves, the decisions.
There was time, she assured herself. All the time in the world. And tonight, at the party to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, he would be there. She would dance with him. And in the pale blue dress she'd chosen because it matched his eyes, she would feel like a princess. More, she would feel like a woman.
She dressed slowly, wanting to savor every moment of preparation. It was all going to be different now, she thought. Her room had been the same when she'd opened her eyes that morning. The walls were still papered with those tiny pink rosebuds that had grown there for so many years. The winter sunlight still tilted through her windows, filtering through lacy curtains as it had done on so many other January mornings.
But everything was different. Because she was different.
She studied her room with a woman's eyes now. She appreciated the elegant lines of the mahogany bureau, the glossy Chippendale that had been her grandmother's. She touched the pretty silver grooming set, a birthday gift from Margo, studied the colorful, frivolous perfume bottles she'd begun to collect in adolescence.
There was the bed she had slept in, dreamed in, since childhood—the high four-poster, again Chippendale, with its fanciful canopy of Breton lace. The terrace doors that led to her balcony were open, to invite the sounds and scents of evening inside. The window seat where she could curl up and dream about the cliffs was cozy with pillows.
A fire burned sedately in the hearth of rose-grained marble. Atop the mantel were silver-framed photos, the delicate silver candlesticks with the slim white tapers she loved to burn at night. And the Dresden bud vase that held the single white rose Peter had sent that morning.
There was the desk where she had studied all the way through high school, where she wou
ld continue to study through what was left of her senior year.
Odd, she mused, tracing a hand over it, she didn't feel like a high school student. She felt so much older than her contemporaries. So much wiser, so much more sure of where she was going.
This was the room of her childhood, she thought, of her youth and of her heart. As Templeton House was the home of her heart. Though she knew she would never love any place as much, she was prepared, even eager to build a new home with the man she loved.
At last, she turned and looked at herself in the cheval glass. And smiled. She'd been right about the dress, she decided. Simple, clean lines suited her small frame. The scoop neckline, the long, tapered sleeves, the straight column that skimmed down to flirt with her ankles—the effect was classic, dignified, and perfect for a woman who met Peter Ridgeway's standards.
She might have preferred that her hair be straight and flowing, but since it insisted on curling frivolously, she'd swept it up. It added maturity, she thought.
She would never be bold and sexy like Margo, or casually intriguing like Kate. So she would settle for mature and dignified. After all, those were qualities that Peter found appealing.
She so badly wanted to be perfect for him. Tonight—especially tonight.
Reverently she picked up the earrings that had been her parents' birthday gift. The diamonds and sapphires winked flirtatiously back at her. She was smiling at them when her door burst open.
"I am not putting that crap all over my face." Flushed and flustered, Kate continued her argument with Margo as both of them strode inside. "You have enough on yours for both of us."
"You said Laura would be the judge," Margo reminded her, then stopped. With an expert's eye she studied her friend. "You look fabulous. Dignified sex."
"Really? Are you sure?'' The idea of being sexy was so thrilling, Laura turned back to the mirror. All she saw was herself, a small young woman with anxious gray eyes and hair that wouldn't quite stay in place.
"Absolutely. Every guy at the party is going to want you, and be afraid to ask."
Kate snorted and plopped onto Laura's bed. "They won't be afraid to ask you, pal. You're a prime example of truth in advertising."
Margo merely smirked and ran a hand over her hip. The lipstick-red dress dipped teasingly low at the bodice and clung to every generous curve. "If you've got it—which you don't—flaunt it. Which is why you need the blusher, the eye shadow, the mascara, the—"
"She looks lovely, Margo." Always the peacemaker, Laura stepped between them. She smiled at Kate, spread out on the bed, her angular frame intriguing in thin white wool that covered her from throat to ankle. "Like a wood nymph." She laughed when Kate groaned. "But you could use a little more color."
"See?" Triumphant, Margo whipped out her makeup bag. "Sit up and let a master do her work."
"I was counting on you." Complaining all the way, Kate suffered the indignity of Margo's brushes and tubes. "I'm only doing this because it's your birthday."
"And I appreciate it."
"It's going to be a clear night." Margo busily defined Kate's cheekbones. "The band's already setting up, and the kitchen's in chaos. Mum's rushing around fussing with the floral arrangements as though it's a royal reception."
"I should go help," Laura began.
"You're the guest of honor." Kate kept her eyes closed in self-defense as Margo dusted shadow on her lids. "Aunt Susie has everything under control—including Uncle Tommy. He's outside playing the sax."
Laughing, Laura sat on the bed beside Kate. "He always said his secret fantasy was to play tenor sax in some smoky club."
"He'd have played for a while," Margo said as she carefully smudged liner under Kate's big doe eyes. "Then the Templeton would have come out, and he'd have bought the club."
"Ladies." Josh loitered in the doorway, a small florist's box in his hands. "I don't mean to interrupt a female ritual, but as everyone's slightly insane, I'm playing delivery boy."
The way he looked in his tux shot heat straight through Margo's loins. She sent him a sultry look. "What's your usual tip?"
"Never draw to an inside straight." He struggled not to let his gaze dip to her cleavage and cursed every man who would be offered a glimpse of those milky white curves. "Looks like more flowers for the birthday girl."
"Thanks." Laura rose to take the box, and kissed him. "That's my tip."
"You look wonderful." He caught her hand. "Grown up. I'm starting to miss my annoying little sister."
"I'll do my best to annoy you, as often as possible." She opened the box, sighed, and forgot everything else. "From Peter," she murmured.
Josh set his teeth. It wouldn't be fair to say that she was already annoying him in her choice of men. "Some guys think single roses are classy."
"I'd rather have dozens," Margo stated. And her eyes met Josh's in perfect agreement and understanding.