No wonder he was feared, whispered about. The mansion towered over the village like a landed lord, high on a green mound of earth and surrounded by a seven-foot-tall stone wall, the sea as its moat. And from her room at least, it possessed a magnificent view of the river and the islands beyond. Flawlessly peaceful. She lifted her hand and shielded her eyes, staring at the house, at the tallest tower peaking the mansion. For a second she saw a figure at the window, the stark white of his shirt against the dark curtains, then he was gone, receding into his cave of stone.

A lonely dragon-prince, she thought, who did not want to be rescued.

* * *

Chapter 2

« ^ »

She should have just called in the grocery order, Laura thought, and kept filling the shopping cart, ignoring the people staring at her, the young men, much younger than she would ever consider dating, leering at her. Yes, she decided, that one was definitely a leer. She smiled sweetly, the parade smile, she thought with a sadistic little chuckle. A couple of the men were fishermen, covered in fish guts and wearing rubber boots. Stunning.

She checked her list, then headed to checkout. Here it comes, she thought, noticing how everyone in the immediate area approached slowly, like stalking cats. A teenage boy swept his broom a little nearer. The cashier looked eager despite the crowd of people waiting. Customers stared openly. No wonder Blackthorne never came out of his home. Whatever happened to southern hospitality?

"You're new here," said the cashier, a blonde wearing too-big earrings and sporting a mouthful of gum that was well beyond ladylike.

"Yes. This is a lovely island." Make them prod, she thought.

"You stayin' at the castle on the point?"

Like there was another house designed like a castle on the island? "I'm Mr. Blackthorne's nanny."

"Nanny!" several people exclaimed at once. Laura glanced around, making eye contact with each person. "Mr. Blackthorne is expecting his daughter to arrive, and I am here to care for her."

"Oh, the poor child," an elderly woman said, her accent heavy and drawn.

"Why?" Laura asked, yet knew the answer.

"To have such a horrible man for a father."

"You've met Mr. Blackthorne, then?"

"Not exactly."

She hoped her expression was slathered in innocence. "Then how could you possibly know what he's like?"

"He doesn't leave that place," the cashier said. "He hasn't shown his face in four years, even Dewey hasn't seen him up close and he lives there."

Dewey, she assumed, was the groundskeeper she'd yet to meet.

"He's—he's mangled," the young man bagging her groceries stammered.

"And if you've never seen him, then how do you know that?"

The kid shrugged as if it was common knowledge. Yet no one had seen Blackthorne.

"I fail to see where looks matter." She tried controlling her temper, hating that appearances were such a priority. She understood, for she'd experienced reactions to her own appearance, albeit the complete opposite. Women refusing to befriend her, believing she was a snob and thought she was better than them. Or men tripping all over themselves to impress her, each trying to get her into their bed or something as superficial as having her on their arm for some social function. An impression to be made. A trophy. Not one person, not even her former fiancé, had seen beyond the face God gave her. And apparently no one wanted to see beyond Blackthorne's scars, either.

It all made her stomach twist in knots that were achingly familiar. Her defensiveness, for a man she did not know, and for herself, reared along with her temper.

"Charge his account and have them delivered by three," she said, and left, aware of the stares boring into her back.

She skipped the cab ride back, and let her temper cool with a walk through the quaint little town, but the memories came, of her mother pushing her into TV commercials even as a child, the pageants that only invited viciousness. She had hated all of it. And when she was old enough, she chose the ones she wanted to enter. A bit hypocritical, granted, but then, she'd wanted to go to college and she'd needed the prize money and scholarships.

She glanced around at the shop fronts, gleaming glass windows, darling porches, white wood benches placed here and there, and tourists and islanders strolling and shopping. Two elderly men sat near the pier swapping sea stories and whittling. From the pile of shavings at their feet, it looked like a daily ritual. And it made her smile and remember her grandpappy rocking on the back porch, carving wooden animals for her and her brothers to play with since they could afford little else. Simple pleasures for a simple life, grandpappy always told her, and memories of his love lifted her mood.