The Captain whisked her through several security doors and along a back corridor. The last door opened out onto the airport tarmac.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked, her apprehension growing as she saw the waiting helicopter.
‘Somewhere you will be safe.’
Because she was under some kind of threat? ‘Why wouldn’t I be safe in San Felipe?’
‘You were not planning to stay in San Felipe.’
No. She hadn’t been. Another chilly finger pressed on her spine. ‘So where are you taking me?’
But it seemed he’d used up his word allowance for the day.
The helicopter’s engine was already running, the rotor blades whirring. Automatically she ran in low, and refused the offer of assistance from another soldier waiting inside. She knew how to strap in safely—she’d done it thousands of times.
Her bag was thrown in and the Captain pulled himself up into the seat alongside her, so she was boxed in by uniformed men—as if she were about to make a break for her escape.
Or as if she needed bodyguards.
She looked past the Captain to watch out of the window as the helicopter lifted into the air, her fingers curled tight into her palms. Didn’t she have the right to know where she was being taken?
The men said nothing, but simply by watching out of the window she had the answer in less than twenty minutes.
Initially, from the air, the island looked imposing and inhospitable. It seemed little more than an oversized rock; nothing but sheer cliffs with jagged edges—a rival for Alcatraz. But as they flew closer she saw a rocky outcrop along the left side. It created a lagoon that harboured the smallest, most private of beaches. On the edge of that rocky outcrop was a tall fortress—a defence tower built centuries ago, to prevent intruders from entering the beautiful lagoon and disturbing those on the beach.
Looking back to the main chunk of the island, she could now see a large stone building. Before she’d only seen it in pictures, but she knew exactly where she was headed. This was the most private place in San Felipe. Access was forbidden unless you had a royal invitation. Because this was the island upon which the royal family vacationed in seclusion, escaping the exhaustion of their daily demands.
But this was no relaxed, simple holiday home. This was a palace, ornate and ancient, one of the many jewels in the crown of an island principality that had been celebrated for centuries.
The helicopter circled, giving Stella a perfect view of stone columns, stained glass, statues. The gardens surrounding the main building were large, formal and immaculate. Miles of hedging grew in intricate Renaissance patterns, swirling around rose beds and ponds. She caught a glimpse of a deeper blue beneath a stone archway—a pool. Another glimpse of something white. Her eyes were so wide they hurt, and there was a constriction in her throat that made breathing painful.
Most people would be thrilled to get a bird’s eye view of this utterly exclusive island—and be beyond excited at the thought of setting foot on the place. Stella wasn’t most people. Stella felt sick.
As the helicopter began its descent to a small helipad on the farthest reaches of the garden a loud drumming thundered in her ears. She couldn’t tell if the noise was her heart or the helicopter, but it was growing louder, and her breaths came shorter. Her vision blurred.
She tensed her muscles and mentally issued the order. She couldn’t afford to be weak now. She had to be stronger than ever. She had to be the soldier she was and be ready to fight.
‘If you would follow me, please?’ The Captain exited the helicopter, hefting her bag onto his shoulder.
Well, it wasn’t as if she had any choice. She quickly followed him along the immaculately tended pathways, feeling as if she was in the pages of a twisted fairy tale in which she had to cross an enchanted garden to find a beastly prince waiting for her in the castle.
Except he wasn’t beastly. And that was the problem.
She wasn’t led to the ginormous archway and large heavy doors that comprised the main entrance. Instead the Captain led her along a small path and then up a narrow stone staircase that took them to a wide patio that ran the length of the building. Large windows were set back from the uniform stone columns, and every so often formed a set of French doors.
Almost at the end of the building, one set of such doors was thrown wide open. Glimpsing a gloomy interior, she could see rows of bookshelves lining the walls.
The Captain led her right to the doorway, then turned and bowed. ‘I will leave you here.’