Island of Secrets
Copyright Tammie Clarke Gibbs
This is a sample and is not from the beginning of the book.
“Have you found her yet?” Shane Alexander barked into his cell phone. “Nothing? Ok, then, keep looking.”
Shane looked over at the man standing in front of him. He didn’t seem worried at all. Why would he? He’d get a job somewhere else easily enough.
There weren’t many jobs available for owners of islands whose businesses were in shambles. He had every right to panic. If he didn’t take care of this situation quick, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go.
Leigh Island was his life. He was raised to do exactly what he was doing. Ghosts and strange happenings, it was all ridiculous. He’d lived at Winship Manor since he was twelve and he’d never seen anything slightly resembling a ghost. A few crazy relatives may be, but no ghosts.
He knew he never should have agreed to let Lucy and her new husband use the island for their honeymoon. He’d broken one of the most important relationship rules. Never allow an ex-anything an opportunity to get revenge.
Broken the rule, he’d practically delivered his fate to her on a silver platter. Now he had a bigger problem than proving there were no ghosts wandering his hallways.
“Charles, I thought we agreed that you’d drive her to the Manor…”
“She was not there when I got back.”
“So you’re telling me the reporter stole my carriage?”
“Your carriage and the horses are safely back at the stables.”
“That’s just great. She’s wandering around lost out there. Take the Rover and see if you can find her, and I’ll look around the Manor.”
Shane watched Charles leave then reached inside the drawer of his desk and took out an old ring of keys. It had been a long time since he’d taken a good look around the place. He’d been mostly concerned with the renovations. He guessed now was as good a time as any. Hopefully, he’d find Cassie Edwards in the process.
He wanted a reporter to clear the entire mess up, but the last thing he needed was one digging around for more dirt to make his life miserable.
He really didn’t know anything about Cassie Edwards. Why he’d picked her above all those more qualified prospects was still a mystery but Shane could hardly help himself. Something about her looked familiar, which was strange. She was far from his type. If he didn’t know better he’d swear she bewitched him. Her dazzling green eyes had held him to her despite the fact she’d ignored him. Any other time and he’d have found the most gorgeous blonde in the crowd and paraded back by the woman. Instead, he’d followed her like a love-sick pup and had no idea why.
Cassie Edwards, he thought to himself as he turned the key. She didn’t look like a Cassie to him.
He’d looked in every room on the second floor except for one. It had never been renovated and never been touched. Why, he didn’t know, but it was in his Uncle's will and the key had been lost for a couple hundred years if you believed the tale. He’d never needed the extra room, so there’d never been a good reason to break the family tradition.
Shane stood there looking at the door. He wasn’t sure why he’d even bothered taking the long walk down that particular hallway then he heard a thud.
“Who’s in there?” He reached for the door, but it was still locked, same as it had been for at least the twenty-two years he’d been on the island.
He hammered the door with his fist. The consistent pounding echoed down the empty corridor. “If you intend on keeping your job, you’d better open this door!”
Lila rolled over. Apparently, she’d fallen asleep while she was trying to get the ring off. It must have finally worked itself off because it was lying on the floor beside the bed. She reached down and picked it up then heard someone outside shaking the door. The noise stopped briefly then erupted into forceful pounding.
She threw her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. There was something strange going on. It was almost dark, but enough light penetrated the window for her to see that in a matter of minutes no more than hours, the room had changed completely.
There was no fire and no tray with the remnants of her supper on it. Instead, it was cold, the furniture was covered with dust, and the corners of the room filled with cobwebs.
She had just thought hanging around on an island with a bunch of folks wearing costumes was weird. This was creepy.
“Ms. Edwards, is that you?”
Ok, Lila told herself, you’ve got to get a grip. What you just thought happened with the weird costumes, was just a nightmare.
Lila tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. “Let me out of here!”
“No, it’s the tooth fairy. Who did you think it was?”
“Where the heck have you been and what are you doing in there?”
‘How am I supposed to know? I just woke up and I was in here. Let me out!”
“Are you implying I put you in there?”
“I’m not implying anything. I just want to get out of here!”
“Ms. Edwards, the key to this room has been lost for a couple hundred years. I can’t just open it. I’ll have to go get a crowbar or something. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Wait, don’t leave!”
Lila stood completely still. She had a really bad feeling. She felt something in her pocket, but was afraid to pull it out because she already knew what it was.
In her nightmare, Shane Alexander had given her a key, and she’d locked the door from the inside, but now she was awake, wasn’t she?
Lila slid the key into the lock and turned. With a click and a turn, she opened it not quite sure what or who was on the other side waiting for her.
The woman looked as if she’d seen a ghost. He’d never seen a woman so pale. He wanted to yell at her. It was perfectly within his rights to yell at her, but the terrified look on her face gave him reason to pause. She just stood there looking at him, holding a key. A key!
“How did you get in there?”
“I ah, I ah, you ah, he ah…” she stammered.
“Can I have this?” He asked as he reached for the key.
“No! He gave it to me.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“You did! I mean he did. I don’t know.”
“Here, just calm down,” he soothed. “I just want to lock it back.”
“Wait. I left something in there.”
Shane watched her cross the room. She moved slowly as if she dreaded what she’d find once she got there. Her steps were deliberate and her hips though only swaying slightly still managed to get his attention.
He knew he should be furious, but fury was not the emotion he was feeling.
The moment he’d heard her voice relief had washed over him and now, as he watched her every move, he felt drawn to her in an unusual way.
She was beautiful, there was no denying it, but there was something besides sheer attraction that held him there, mesmerized.
The room was as he’d have expected it, old, dusty, a place time seemed to have forgotten. He tried to enter, but something held him at the threshold and prevented him from following her.
Surely there was another way into the room, but from where he stood he couldn’t see it. The only door he saw had an undisturbed cobweb across it.
How did he know there was a silver comb and brush set on the dressing table or the color of the curtains? Though he’d never been in the room before, he was strangely familiar with it. There were things he could almost see as if he were looking across time.
Lila had hoped it had been a nightmare. Instead, it looked like something far worse than a nightmare.
Was it possible to be beyond crazy? Surely imagining a whole world qualified her for a moniker loftier than just crazy.
The ring was lying on the floor. The key was in her pocket. The room was the same, but different. It had been alive before. Now it slept, and the only thing moving besides the flutter of the curtains was her. She thought she knew how she got inside, but had it really happened the way she remembered?
Even her host looked visibly shaken. At least HE was dressed in khakis and cowboy boots.
“I’ll walk you to your room,” he offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
This time there was no jacket and that left no doubt just how muscular his forearm was, but she couldn’t help but compare them. There were subtle differences, but they were alike in so many ways. They shared many mannerisms, like the way they extended their arms and said, “shall we."
They walked slowly down the dimly lit corridor. She wasn’t sure why they were moving so slow, but the way the floor creaked, slow was perfectly ok with her.
Her stomach was doing flip-flops, and she wasn’t sure whether it was due to hunger or stress. She’d eaten, or maybe she hadn't. It was hard to tell. That could have been her imagination too. She felt fairly satisfied, so she guessed it might be a good diet.
Lila suppressed a giggle. He could call it the “Fright Diet," and have all the business his resort could handle, the more ghosts the better. Diet fanatics would pay a small fortune to experience what she had if they thought they’d lose a few pounds in the process.
“Are you all right?”
They’d been walking awhile when she saw it. It was as elaborate as she remembered yet she was still a bit shocked it was there. Ornately carved with honeysuckle vines winding wildly, she doubted there was another staircase like it. Winship Manor was filled with well-thought out touches. Nothing seemed random.
Lila slipped the ring into her purse. Now didn’t seem like the right time to show it to him. She wondered if the small satin purse was still inside, but was afraid to look.
Shane opened the door. Inside, the room was basically the same as the one she’d woken in with the very big exception that it lacked cobwebs and dust.
He reached over and flicked a switch, and real lights came on.
She could actually see. There were no candles, no fire in the fireplace just good ole’ familiar electricity.
“Your bathroom is over here,” he pointed. “This is one of our nicest rooms. There should be plenty of towels and toiletries, but if you need anything else just pick up the phone and someone will help you.”
“A bathroom!” Lila couldn’t conceal her enthusiasm.
“You thought I wouldn’t have one?”
“Does it have a toilet and a real bathtub?”
“Ah…yes…whirlpool, shower, pretty much the works.”
A long soak in the tub could do wonders. She could only hope that it would clear her mind of all the insanity that currently preoccupied it.
She hoped he wouldn’t be offended. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning,” she attempted to close the door.
Shane casually extended his foot, cowboy boot and all between the door and closure. “Actually, I’d planned on having supper brought up to the library and hoped you’d join me, after you’ve had time to freshen up, of course. Oh, and there are plenty of clothes in the wardrobe.”
“I didn’t think you’d want to be running around in those all week.”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” She actually liked what she had on, but one guy thought it was her underwear and now who knew what….
Shane grabbed her elbows, turned her left, then right, then he turned her all the way around.
Lila could feel his hot gaze as it raked her head to toe. He released her and stepped back.
Then he was beside her again, closer this time. He lifted a strand of her raven-black hair and tucked it behind her ear. “I rather like what you’re wearing,” he whispered as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
His breath tickled.
He walked toward the wardrobe leaving her no choice but to follow him. She felt her feet shuffle instinctively. He let go of her just long enough to open it, then returned to her side, this time standing closer than before if that was possible. Lila could barely breathe. His lips were only inches from her ear, his breath like a warm breeze. “I just thought you might be more comfortable in something else.”
The last time a handsome man had offered her clothing she’d pulled out a long dress from who knew when. She wanted desperately for there to be sweats and a pair of sneakers. She wanted more than anything to be comfortable. She needed to be comforted, and if it meant that comfort was in the form of a jogging suit, then she could live with it.
Lila steeled herself, then walked over to the wardrobe. “You really do have everything I need.”
“We try to stay stocked up,” he grinned.
I’ll just bet she thought as she fingered the contents. It had everything from jeans to negligees, but the pair of red sweats and sneakers caught her attention. “Give me an hour?”
Lila closed the door then took in her surroundings. It wasn’t like any guestroom she’d ever been in before. It looked like someone or some woman had just stepped out and would be back at any time to collect her belongings. Lila knew she’d have some splain’n to do if that happened because she’d already begun to make herself at home.
Shane stoked the fire. As odd as it was, he was building a fire in late March, lack of central heating and air on the third floor made it a necessity. He could hardly see spending the money for repairs to a part of the house his family had restricted his use to. Instead, when he wanted to use the library, he just built a fire ahead of time. It was his favorite room in the summer because it never got above seventy-two degrees.
He glanced around the large room. The library was the room Gus Winship used the most. He’d lock himself inside for hours at a time. He claimed he was working on a family history, but after he died, no one could find it.
Shane had always been close to his Uncle, if he tried hard enough he could almost hear him. The man was prone to eccentric fits of laughter. The old coot was a real loon, but he really missed him.
Shane glanced at his watch then flipped the lights in the hallway on. He loved the old house, but it could be a bit spooky in the dark and considering their earlier experience, he’d prefer to spare his houseguest any further discomfort.
He was about to knock the third time when the door opened abruptly.
“I was wondering if you’d eaten without me,” she smiled.
She had perfectly straight teeth. It was funny the odd things he was noticing about her. She tilted her head when she looked at him, and he wondered why. “Follow me, I’m starving.”
She nodded. “I’m right behind you.”
Shane was half-way up the stairs when he realized she wasn’t behind him. She was standing at the foot of the stairs wearing a strange expression. “Are you coming?”
He watched her meander up the stairs, obviously not in any hurry. He’d thought she was hungry, but by the time she got upstairs at the rate she was moving, he’d need false teeth.
“Glad to see you finally made,” Shane smiled.
“Ha ha, so where’s this library of yours, I’m freezing?”
Shane motioned toward two large doors that were considerably taller than most modern doors. He didn’t have to ask what she was staring at. He watched her reach up and touch the Winship Crest that was centered on each of the doors.
“Is this your coat of arms?”
“No, it’s really more of a crest. It represents Winship. It’s kind of creepy isn’t it?”
Lila nodded her gaze still locked on the bloody hand and ship and land. “What’s it mean?”
“Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all the sordid details.”
She followed him inside. He could tell by the look on her face that she was impressed, and he found himself thrilled by her reaction.
He pointed to the floor-to-ceiling bookcases on three of the four walls. “The collection is extensive. Most of the more classical literature was brought from Gustavas Winship’s family estate in England. Each generation has added to it. I’ve even had some popular fiction rebound.”
She was wearing fire-engine red sweats, and he could honestly say he’d never seen a woman look as sexy in a jogging suit. Her raven-black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her emerald-green eyes winked from behind the most luscious looking lashes. To say he’d lost all thought of anything but Cassie Edwards would have been understating it.
“Very nice.” Her voice was smooth like molasses.
Shane reached for the brandy decanter. “Care for a drink?
“I’d love a cola...” She looked up. “I don’t drink anything stronger.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Shane replied taking a swig of the amber-colored liquid. He shivered. “Sorry about the temperature, no central heating up here.”
Lila nodded then sat down on the burgundy leather sofa. Apparently, she changed her mind. She slid to the floor, crossed her legs Indian style then pulled the coffee table up to her.
Shane couldn’t help but watch her. “Comfortable?”
“Just making myself at home, do you mind?”
“Nope,” he nodded.
She grabbed a couple of slices of bread off the tray on the coffee table and plopped it on her plate. Turkey, mayo and a couple of slices of cheese later she held the masterpiece up for inspection.
“Bravo! I hope that one’s mine.” Shane teased.
Shane lunged, but she was too quick.
“Not if my life depended on it,” she smiled.
“Guess I’ll have what’s left over.”
Lila rolled her eyes and tutted… “Now, what were you telling me about that icky-looking crest?”
“That’s a colorful tale. Are you sure you can handle it?” Shane motioned toward the floor beside her. “Mind?”
“It’s YOUR floor.”
He settled down beside her and took a bite of his sandwich. When he looked up, she was staring at him impatiently. “Once upon a time…”
“You’re making this up, aren’t you?”
“Do you want to know about the crest or not?” He sat his sandwich back down on his plate and reached for the brandy.
Lila pushed it out of his reach and slid him a can of cola.
“Thanks,” he replied smugly. “Now, where was I?”
“Once upon a time…yadda, yadda, yadda…”
“Once upon a time, there was a debutant in England who had two suitors. One she chose and the other her father chose for her. At a ball held in her honor, her father issued a challenge to them both. He had purchased an island, this island. The challenge was for both of the suitors to sail to the island. The first to “lay a hand"” to the island would win his daughter’s hand in marriage, the island and a fortune in gold and silver.
“Can I finish, or do you already have commentary?”
“No. No commentary yet, but I’m sure by the time you finish, I’ll have some.”
“Leigh was furious with her father because she was in love with Mark Jameson. Her father assured her that Mark Jameson was a sea captain and had an advantage over Gustavas Winship.”
Shane paused to look at his houseguest. The firelight reflected off her black hair, and her eyes glistened. She was either very interested in his story or her eyes were just the most mesmerizing he’d ever seen.
“Her father was right. Jameson led until the end. Gustavas Winship made up some time as they lowered the long boats that would take them to shore. In the end, Gustavas was forced to make a split-second decision that would shape all of our histories. My family’s that is. Are you sure you want to hear this?”
“Don’t you dare stop there!” Lila shoved him playfully.
“Ok. Ok, I’ll finish. Gustavas knew Jameson was going to make it to shore first so he did the only thing he could do and still lay a hand to Leigh Island first.”
Shane looked up. She was watching him with such an intensity he squirmed a bit. “He cut off his hand and threw it to shore.”
“The land on the crest represents Leigh Island, and the bloody palm represents Gustavas Winship’s severed hand. I can stop if you’re too freaked out, but there’s more.”
“Go on. It’s terribly romantic.”
Shane took a deep breath. It was not the reaction he’d expected from her. “Are you sure you’re the same Cassie Edwards I picked up down by the docks?”
She was quiet for some time, and he wondered what he’d said to change her mood so abruptly.
“Will you finish your story, or do I have to beg?”
“Gustavas finished Winship Manor in just under six months. When his bride arrived, he was sure he’d done the right thing. He’d known Mark Jameson had betrayed her, he’d seen it with his own eyes, and he’d heard the man’s plans. Gustavas had no idea that Leigh had betrayed him and only found out she was ripe with Jameson’s child on their wedding night.”
“He must have been devastated to have lost his hand and been betrayed by his bride.”
“Remember, Leigh never wanted to marry Gustavas.”
“It’s still horrible. That poor man, unrequited love can be so cruel.”
“What would you know about unrequited love?”
“Can’t you imagine how it must feel to love someone enough to cut off your own hand?”
“No. I can’t say I’ve ever loved anyone enough to part with one of my appendages. Guess that disqualifies me in the hero department, huh?”
“So dying for her would be totally out of the question then?”
“You’re young you could still meet someone you’d die for.”
She reached out and touched the back of his hand. Instinctively, he pulled her up on the couch beside him and for a moment neither said anything. He reached for his brandy and held it out to her, “sure you don’t want some?”
She shook her head.
“Guess I’ll drink a glass for you.” He jumped up and headed back over to pour himself another glass.
Lila tutted, “it’s getting late do you think you should?”
“Tell me, how long have you been a reporter?”
She was staring at him again and this time it made him uncomfortable. He glanced down where he’d been sitting. “Your purse has spilled, let me help,” he reached to pick up a compact when he felt his hand graze hers. He reached for it, but she pulled away. Embarrassed, he turned his attention back to the contents of her purse scattered all over his couch.
“I’ve seen this somewhere before.” He picked up the large ring and held it to the light. “Where’d you get it?”
“I found a purse in the carriage after you left.”
“Yes, this one.” She held the baby-blue satin clutch out to him. “The ring was inside it.”
“I’ve ridden in that carriage hundreds of times and never seen a purse. Was it hidden?”
“It was poked down into the cushions.”
“I wonder if one of our guests lost it. It looks familiar.”
“Do you think it’s real?”
“Looks real, but I’m no expert. What do you think?”
“I thought it was real, but how could anyone be that irresponsible?”
“Was there anything else in the bag?”
Shane placed the ring on the coffee table. She hadn’t answered him. She couldn’t. If she ever managed to speak again it would surprise her.
“Can I see?” He reached between her legs, and his hand brushed lightly against her inner thigh.
He paused and she realized the only thing between her flesh, and his were the fire-engine red sweats she was wearing. They offered little protection against the hot flash that skittered through her body.
He edged closer. This time there was nowhere for her to go and no way for her to avoid his eyes. Brown, yet so dark they could be mistaken for black.
Lila was afraid to move. Afraid if she shifted even the slightest, she’d find herself in an even more awkward position.
Funny, he didn’t look as if he felt awkward in the slightest. He looked totally at ease and in control of the situation.
Slowly, he pulled the blue satin purse toward him, and she realized he’d been after it the whole time.
Lila exhaled, a bit relieved and a bit disappointed. She wasn’t sure when she’d gotten as much attention. It was for sure that her ex-fiancé, Bobby had been more of a teaser. It wasn’t at all the same type of attention.
She’d tried to ignore him, but from the beginning, all Mr. “I own the Island” had to do was look at her and the heat that look generated was so intense she thought she’d melt.
Lila watched Shane examine the purse. He was on the other side of the couch now, but the fragrance of spice he’d left behind lingered on the air. He was real, at least she thought he was real.
“Did you read this?”
Lila looked up. There was excitement in his eyes, he was almost giddy. Yes. She’d read them, but she’d had a different reaction to them.
“This is great! Did you find the ring in here with these papers?”
“Well, yes but…”
“Lila! He exclaimed.
Lila looked down. She couldn’t see them in the limited light, but she could feel them, chill bumps all over her body. She was pretty sure the hair was standing up on her arms too. She couldn’t bring herself to look up. “Was he angry? Confused? How’d he know?”
Lila tried to breathe then attempted to speak, but he interrupted her.
“A beautiful name, don’t you think?” He asked.
Lila looked up. He wasn’t angry, excited perhaps, but not angry.
He was perched at the edge of the sofa, his elbows on his knees, both hands holding the yellowed note. He didn’t know. He was just reading.
Lila watched him read and re-read both the note, and the invitation until she could no longer hold her eyes open. She made herself into a little ball and fell asleep.
Shane couldn’t believe he’d found what his Uncle had been searching for all those years. Actually, he had Cassie Edwards to thank.
Gus Alexander had spent a lifetime trying to prove all those family stories that had been too bizarre for anyone to believe.
He could almost feel his Uncle’s presence, but he knew it was his imagination. There was no one else in the library but his little reporter and from the looks of her, she was out for the night.
Shane reached over and fluffed her hair. She was just a stranger, someone he’d just met, but something about her seemed so familiar.
He’d found himself in an odd position before. Hovering above her, his hand resting against her inner thigh, lost in her deep green eyes. Then something there had frightened him. Something had flashed before his eyes, but left no trace of what it was or what it meant.
He’d pulled away and refocused his attention on the purse, but what he’d really wanted to do was pull her into his arms, hold her there and never let her go.
He had resisted the undeniable urge to taste her lips and feel her against his body.
She was asleep now, this woman, he’d known less than a day yet felt like he’d known an eternity. He watched her sleeping. The slight rise and fall of her chest was in itself hypnotic.
He turned back to the papers he still held.
He’d assumed the stories his Uncle had told him were figments of the old man’s imagination, just a bunch of hooey.
Now he had proof that there was a Masquerade Ball and that a young girl named Lila had been invited. There were just still so many pieces missing.
He was logical, wasn’t he? Shane couldn’t deny his growing curiosity, but he couldn’t allow himself to get pulled into his Uncle’s obsession. He folded the note and placed both papers back into the small purse.
Just because his whole family had been nuts didn’t mean he had to share their fate, did it? They had neglected Winship Manor, and it’d taken him years, money and hard work to restore even a little respect to his home, now his hard work was being threatened.
Shane picked up the ruby-colored ring and held it up to the light. There was no doubt in his mind it was real. Like Winship’s other treasures, many a collector would love to have it.
He ran a hand through his wavy black hair. The future of Winship and Leigh Island rested firmly on his shoulders. He’d never dreamed it would be such a load to bear.
Shane glanced at the woman sleeping on his sofa. He’d even lost the reporter who was supposed to help him in his quest. Where he’d found her was still a mystery, but he had the feeling, he’d enjoy the unraveling of it if it meant spending more time together.
He reached down a picked her up. ‘Why don’t you hold this for me,” he smiled as he slipped the large ring on her finger.
“Oh My God!”
Shane watched the woman he held disappear before his eyes. His heart beat thundered in his ears. He fanned frantically. He felt sick, suddenly aware of something strange in the room.
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