Laura Cambridge looked up at the gray stone castle and wondered what she'd find inside. Prince Charming or the dragon?
The dragon most likely, she thought, if there was any truth to the gossip the townsfolk were more than willing to share during the ferry ride to this beautiful little island. Did Richard Blackthorne know how much he was feared, she wondered, her gaze moving over the ominous stones and the arched windows as the cab proceeded up the steep driveway. Lord, the structure even had turrets and crenellations. And a tower.
Laura saw only the loneliness of it all.
"Ma'am," the driver said when he stopped before the huge house. "You sure you're supposed to be here?"
Why did everyone in this little island village ask that, as if she were walking to her execution? Blackthorne was just a man, for pity's sake. "Oh, yes, I'm sure, Mr. Pinkney," she said, without looking at the middle-aged cabdriver.
"Mr. Blackthorne ain't exactly the most congenial sort, you know."
"With everyone acting as if he'd take a bite out of them, it's a wonder, don't you think?" She looked at him now, arching a brow.
He reddened a bit, then looked back at the house. "Idea had to come from somewheres," he drawled, then rolled out of the driver's seat to get her bags.
Laura left the car, walking with him up the steep front steps.
Summoned like a serf to the king, she had been hired to help Richard Blackthorne's four-year-old daughter adjust to living here. To living with a recluse, a man locked in a castle and shielded from any human contact. Oh, this was going to take some work, she thought, for she knew from the gossip that no one had set foot inside this house, except delivery personnel, in four years. Laura felt instant pity for the little girl, who'd just lost her mother and had been kept from her father. Laura was here early to grow accustomed to the surroundings before the child arrived.
Mr. Pinkney set her bags down. She turned to pay the man and found him jotting something down on a slip of paper. As she handed him the fare, he handed her the paper.
"This here's my number. If you're needin' a ride outta here or anything, you just give me a holler."
She was touched, but it wasn't necessary. "He's not a monster, Mr. Pinkney."
"Yes, ma'am, he is. He snaps and growls at anyone who steps on his land and he made mincemeat out of the delivery boy, and he was just bringing in groceries. I hate to think of what he'd do to you." When Laura gave him a determined look, Mr. Pinkney looked up at the castle. Sighing, he went on. "This here house was built by a man years ago for his bride. She wanted to live like a princess, and he designed and built this house for her. Had every stone brought over from the mainland, some all the way from England and Ireland, to hear tell it. She died before it was finished, or before the fella had a chance to marry her."
How sad, she thought, then tipped her head. "You act as if it's cursed or haunted or something."
Mr. Pinkney said nothing, staring at the wide-arched double slabs of wood as if they were the mouth of a cave. Haunted my fanny, she thought, and lifted the cool brass knocker, smiling to herself. It was the head of a dragon. Well, Mr. Blackthorne, if you wanted to keep the public away, you're certainly doing a good job at it. She let the knocker fall.
Instantly a voice came over the intercom to the right of the doors. "Come in."
The voice was deep, sandy-rough, the growling sound of it sending shimmers of apprehension over her skin.
"See what I mean?" Pinkney said.
"Hogwash," she replied firmly, and opened the door, stepping inside. A small lamp on a beautifully carved side table cast the foyer in shadows. She set her purse and briefcase down, then turned to find Mr. Pinkney pushing her bags inside and making a hasty retreat back to the front steps. But that didn't stop him from getting an eyeful of the house, she thought. She flipped on the light switch, and the foyer was flooded with light. He flinched and back-stepped farther.
"You call, you hear," he said, his southern drawl more pronounced.
His attitude, much like that of the folks she encountered in town—the shock, the warnings, and mostly the horrid way people felt they could openly ridicule a man they'd never met—made her feel unaccountably protective of Mr. Blackthorne.
"That won't be necessary," she said, and closed the door. Sighing hard, Laura turned, her heart skipping to her throat as the light went off and a figure loomed at the top of the polished curving stairs.
"Obviously." His gravelly voice rumbled down the staircase to her.
"Laura Cambridge, I know," he cut in. "Barely thirty, single, USC graduate, raised in Charleston, formerly Miss South Carolina, Miss Jasper County, Miss Shrimp Festival." There was a smirk in his tone then, she swore. "Have I left anything out?"