The Fairy Tale Girl
Men of the West Book 2
She’s on the run from her dangerous past...
The last thing recently divorced Amber Johnson wanted when she fled the Bahamas for Colorado was to fall for handsome rancher, Jake Kassidy, her next-door neighbor.
He’s a poor boy made good; a cowboy with a wounded heart...
Jake had his own reasons for not wanting to fall in love. From his first tempestuous encounter with Amber, he’s too fiercely drawn to walk away.
But will shocking secrets from their pasts destroy their second chance at love?
Ms. Major really creates great emotional intensity…
~ Romantic Times Magazine
Amber held the drapes back for a long moment. Once this island had been a sanctuary. Now she was fleeing for her life.
Turning from her hotel window with its lovely view of the beach and the gin-clear waters of the Caribbean, Amber wadded a silk suit into a ball and threw it into one of the open suitcases on her bed. Don had bought the outfit, with its matching scarves, in the Faubourg St. Honoré quarter of Paris a little over a year ago. How proudly she had worn it then.
Now those memories seemed dimly remembered fantasies. Her fingers shook with fear against the cool folds of material. She had to get away, and quickly!
When the telephone shattered the early-morning silence, she grabbed for it on the first ring.
“Hello.” The word was bitten out. A frozen sound against the stillness.
“Is this Mrs. Amber Lynn?”
Amber recognized the nurse’s voice at once, and her heart stopped. Then it began to beat more violently than before. The rope of pearls she’d been about to pack slid through her fingers to the floor.
“How is she?” Amber whispered, dreading the answer.
“Mrs. Lynn, I’m very sorry, but your mother died this morning. The doctors tried everything possible to save her.”
The cool voice was faint, blurred by static. Uncaring.
Her mother had died alone, among strangers.
Amber had been expecting the long-distance call, but now that it had come she wasn’t ready. For a timeless moment she clutched the receiver against her ear and was unable to speak.
It was her fault that her mother had died. Her failure. And Don’s.
Why had she always failed her mother in everything?
After a minute or two Amber managed to ask the necessary questions, and make the arrangements and decisions expected of her.
Then she hung up and walked numbly out of her hotel room, not bothering to shut the door, leaving all her belongings—even her purse with her money and airline ticket—behind her.
She walked for miles, scarcely knowing where she walked though her footsteps followed familiar pathways. At last she came to the beach with its sugar-white sand and swaying palms, not far from the villa where she’d once lived.
Blue-gray rain clouds hovered against the horizon, though there was sunshine over the island. The aquamarine waters were eerily brilliant against this dark background. The beach was deserted; later it would be crowded with sunbathing tourists and with the glittering people who had once been Amber’s friends.
A rush of cold wind swept in from the sea, ruffling the surface of the water so that it sparkled like diamonds and swirling the sand into gritty clouds that stung her cheeks and made her eyes burn. Or was it the tears she couldn’t shed for her mother that made her eyes feel so hot and scratchy?
In the lush dark gardens of the rich who had houses on this beach, the trees bent low, and light and shadow danced together beneath their boughs.
The wildness of the sea and wind in the palms brought a curious comfort to Amber’s troubled soul, and she stood staring out to sea, watching it shimmer and dance beneath scudding clouds. Such a spectacle her mother, who had once fancied herself a painter, would have called “the colors of the wind.”
“The wind is magic, child,” she used to say. “It makes everything come to life. The sun gives light. But only the wind gives us sparkle.”
It was a happy memory, and there weren’t many of those.
“Oh, Mother...” Amber’s voice trailed away and was lost.
The old needs were still there, the terrible hunger for her mother’s love that had driven Amber to make all the mistakes she’d made.
Amber started to turn back and return to her hotel. Then she stopped herself.
She couldn’t go without seeing the villa again. Just one last time. For the first time since the telephone call from Denver, she remembered the danger to herself and Don, but she was too upset to care.
Avoiding the open beach, she crept beneath the tall palms and pink oleanders until she reached the garden gate that had once belonged to her. Glancing inside to see if anyone was there, she was reassured by the garden’s brooding silence. She struggled with the latch and pushed the gate open.
Amber stood in silence, her gaze tracing every detail of the sun-spotted greenery with an intensity that betrayed how deeply she was affected.
Here she had loved and been loved. Or at least she’d thought she had. Here she had known happiness and misery, triumph and despair. Here she had first begun to learn the true meaning of disillusion and terror.
Now she had to run away, and quickly, before it was too late. She would have to change her name. More importantly, she would have to become a completely new person.
The early-morning sunlight slanted into the garden, splashing trees and blossoms with its fiery iridescent light. Everything seemed different now, different because she was so changed, yet everything was as breathtakingly lovely as she remembered. She paused to savor the roar of the sea, the towering, rustling palms that could darken the flamboyant tapestry of the garden with deep shadows even on the most brilliant of days.
Slowly Amber latched the gate behind her, then leaned down and removed one emerald-green sandal to shake the sand from it before slipping it once more upon her slim tanned foot. As she stood up again, she stared at the graceful house crowning the scant rise above the sea. Then she looked quickly away, but not before a solitary tear trickled down her cheek.
The sugar-white villa with its lush, green garden had been her home, this mansion set in paradise, where the salty fragrance of the sea and the perfume of a thousand exotic blossoms were ever present. Now she and Don had lost it, just as they had lost everything else, even each other. In her purse at the hotel was a one-way ticket to Colorado and a new life, a life without the glamour of her former life, but a life without the lies as well. A life without Don. A life free of perpetual fear. Their divorce was an accomplished fact, though Don still hadn’t accepted it—just as the men to whom they owed so much money would not accept it. They held her responsible for what Don had done.
And they were right, in a way. Amber had grown immeasurably even to be able to acknowledge her own guilt.
It was an old story. A single flaw in one’s character could ruin the fabric of one’s entire life. A single defect could triumph over everything good in one’s nature.
It takes but a drop of poison to contaminate the well.
Amber had been so terribly young, so foolishly young. She had made mistakes. She had hurt people, herself most of all. But at last she was beginning to understand why it had been so important to her to have things, instead of simply to be.
Her father had died when she was little more than a baby, and Amber had only her mother, who blamed her for everything that had gone wrong in her own life. Her mother continually told her that having Amber had ruined her body and that she wished she’d never had a child at all. Not only that, but having a child had ruined her chances to catch a new man and make a new life for herself.
In time her mother had become a hypochondriac, demanding that Amber nurse her since it was pregnancy and childbirth that had ruined her health. Amber grew up with a terrible sense of guilt and a fierce craving for her mother’s love and approval, but because her mother loved only herself, Amber’s needs were never satisfied. Nor was she allowed to play with other children. She wanted to go to parties and be young, but the few times she managed to go out, she had always felt like an outsider.
It had seemed to Amber that wonderful things happened only to other people. She’d been a dreamer who’d imagined herself a princess in a fabulous fairy tale. She’d wanted money and all the things money could buy. Maybe then her mother would admire her.
Her invalid mother had taught her that there was one sure road to success for a young woman with looks. Amber had simply taken that road. She had not realized until it was too late that all she had ever really wanted was her mother’s love.
“A young woman needs a man. But don’t forget, it’s just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man,” her mother would advise. “If only your father hadn’t died, and you hadn’t been born, and I hadn’t lost my health. It was the stress of doing for myself... and doing for you, Amber dear. Don’t bother about a career, child. It’s a much surer thing to catch a man to take care of you. And don’t have a baby!”
Instead of concentrating on developing her mind, Amber had concentrated on becoming enticingly feminine.
If only she’d worked a tenth as hard on her mind! Perhaps she would have been smart enough to realize she was going after the wrong things for the wrong reasons. She might not have believed so readily in Don and his grand schemes of real estate development in the Bahamas. She might not have married him after a brief, whirlwind courtship. She might have known that trust and honor were commodities of far greater worth than money. But no, she had delighted in her new wealth when she so effortlessly received everything she had ever thought she wanted and much, much more.
Don was as handsome as a model, a golden, middle-aged, smooth-talking entrepreneur with needs of his own. He had needed a young beautiful wife. He’d built casinos, villas and hotels. For her he’d built Paradise Villa, this oasis of dazzling splendor amid the fake glamour of Lucaya Beach.
All he’d asked of Amber was that she wear his diamonds, entertain at his side and be his eternally youthful, eternally glamorous trophy wife.
She’d felt valued and admired as she’d never felt as a child. Perhaps that was why this sham of a marriage had been enough for her until Don’s shattering revelation that he was overextended and was facing bankruptcy proceedings. There were also lawsuits pending against Lynn Construction because certain building projects had not been built to the proper specifications. And there were the men who had threatened them both if they didn’t pay back the money Don had borrowed.
In the disillusioning and terrifying months that had followed, she’d learned that she and Don were strangers. All she really knew about him was that he drove a Mercedes, smoked too many cigarettes and stayed out late making deals. She’d been the exquisite pet he came home to when his real life was over. They had never really talked about anything except the people they knew and the parties they would go to or have.
When the threatening telephone calls began, Don made her understand that she couldn’t tell anyone about them—especially not the police.
“They will kill me if you do,” he had said. “They might even kill you, baby.” And she had believed him.
As if there were anyone who would listen to her problems. At first after she and Don had lost everything, it was a shock to realize that she had no one. Their friends had evaporated along with the money. Her own mother had suffered a massive heart attack when she’d heard of Don’s bankruptcy. Her last words before she’d slipped into a coma were, “Amber, you were the greatest mistake of my life.”
Terrible as that pronouncement had been, there was more than a little truth in her mother’s words. Amber had taken a hard look at herself and had seen a poor creature with no more substance than Don. She had so little faith in herself that she’d chased after dreams instead of facing reality. She’d been a child who wanted life to be easy, and suddenly she’d grown up and discovered it wasn’t. Perhaps Don had represented security or the father she had never had or the mother’s love she had always craved.
It didn’t matter now. She was going to Denver to bury her mother—and, she hoped, the past hurts they had inflicted upon one another. Then she was going to start over. She would try to establish herself and make enough money so that she could help Don. Even though she hadn’t borrowed the money herself, and in fact had known nothing about Don’s business affairs, she felt responsible for what he’d done. Don agreed that she had to go.
“If you leave and I don’t have to worry about what these guys might do to you, I’ll be able to handle them, baby.”
She was determined to make something of herself. If she ever let another man into her life—she was too badly scarred emotionally to believe she could ever marry again—she would choose a man for who he was rather than for what he could give her. And she would have to know she had something of value to give him.
While she was married to Don, she’d amused herself by dabbling in jewelry design. She’d worn her creations to her parties and been stunned when her guests had begged her to make them copies. She began to realize that she was talented. Slowly she’d grown more and more intrigued, and finally she’d begun selling a few items in a shop that belonged to one of her friends. Gradually her hobby had turned into the promise of a profession. This skill, and her tools, were the only things she would take with her into her new life.
Amber walked in the purple darkness beneath an enormous ficus tree. Weeds were sprouting in the flower beds. Once there had been gardeners to care for the grounds. Now there was a forlornness about the garden as it awaited its new owner.
The brilliant, shimmering light had turned golden. An enormous passionflower vine climbed the white walls of the villa, spilling down from the tiled roof in great garlands of exotic blue-violet flowers. On impulse, she picked a blossom and tucked it behind her ear. It was as beautiful as any jewel against the flaming tresses of her coppery hair.
The garden overflowed with trumpet vines, red bottle brush, flame vines and crape myrtle. A poinciana tree, with its long-clawed scarlet blossoms, towered beside the fountain. Amber looked into the glimmering pool of water and saw the troubled reflection of a young woman in a strapless green sundress.
Where was the exquisite beauty who had given the most wonderful parties in Nassau on Don’s floating palace? Where were the jewels that had adorned her slender, majestic throat? Where was the dynamic woman-child whose bold beauty was always enhanced by designer clothes from Paris? The young woman with the astonishing cascades of apricot hair? The young woman who laughed at everything as she sipped champagne from shimmering Waterford goblets and thought life was a continual merry-go-round? The young woman whose wide-set blue eyes were as vivid and sparkling as the sea that caressed these soft-scented islands? The fairy-tale girl who’d believed so trustingly that her dreams had come true? Surely this pale ghost in the green summer dress had nothing to do with her.
In a burst of emotion, Amber reached down and stirred the blood-warm water with her fingertips and watched as her reflection broke into a thousand fragments that were carried away on glimmering ripples. She had no desire to look into that troubled young woman’s doubt-filled eyes, but someday soon she would feel proud of herself again. This time, though, there would be more substance behind the image.
Arising, she left the garden and climbed the stone stairs that led to the house. Inside, she walked through the empty rooms, each grander and more pretentious than the one before. There were faded places on the walls where original oil paintings had hung. All of them were gone now, sold months ago at that humiliating auction. On the wooden facings there were fresh marks, scars left by impatient movers who’d carried away all her most highly prized possessions.
Amber’s footsteps echoed like hollow heartbeats on the pink marble floors. She remembered these rooms filled with lavish furnishings, glittering people and false happiness. Now all that remained was a stack of Lynn Realty signs that had been tossed into one corner of the kitchen and forgotten. It was odd, but the new Amber almost preferred the emptiness.
When Amber heard a car door slam outside, she went to a window and lifted the curtain. One glance at Don’s broad shoulders, thick golden hair, umber tan and permanent grin had her backing up a step. He crushed a cigarette beneath his heel, then leaned over his silver lighter to light the fresh one.
Don was the last person she wanted to see. Although he’d agreed she should go in theory, he kept demanding to know where specifically she was going. She hadn’t told him because if he knew, he would eventually try to find her. He still believed that Marina del Mar would drop its ten-million-dollar lawsuit, and that soon he would have new investors and be building more white villas, more lavish hotels. Then he would be able to pay back the dangerous men to whom he owed so much money.
“All this will be forgotten, baby,” he always said. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down. Everything will be just like it was.” And maybe he was right.
It was strange, but even if she could have it all back, she wouldn’t want it now. After she helped Don pay what they owed, she knew she would want to be more than a rich man’s pampered ornament.
At least, she hoped she did. What would happen if she met a rich man who seemed to be the answer to all her problems? Would she really be strong enough to resist the temptation to marry him just for what he could do for her? Would she still equate material success with personal worth?
Suddenly she began to run. She didn’t want to hear all Don’s old promises again, nor did she want to be reminded of the terrible danger she was in.
She opened the sliding glass door that led onto the terrace. Filmy curtains blew in the wind as she stumbled outside.
The passionflower she’d worn in her hair fell to the ground. It blazed against the polished marble floor like a sapphire fallen from its setting, its trembling petals darkening and lightening as the wind played with their delicate edges. She ran on, not bothering to pick the flower up, even though she knew that if she left it, Don would know she had been there.
She had to get away, from him, from the broken dreams that had almost destroyed her.
She left nothing of herself when she went, nothing but the fragile blossom she had picked by chance and worn briefly in her hair, an exquisite purple flower that lay fluttering on sun-warmed marble, as broken and forgotten as her dreams.
Today her mother had died.
But it was a day of endings that somehow held the promise of new beginnings.