Suddenly he was running toward the half-consumed hut. He stumbled and fell to the ground, the hard impact knocking his breath away. The smell of the smoke-saturated air made him scramble to his feet. Instantly he was moving forward again, his cry of agony rising above the sounds of the raging flames.
He had to reach his parents.
Michael Rutledge bolted upright in bed. His eyes flew open as sweat streamed down his face, drenching his body. Shudder after shudder racked him as he focused on his safe surroundings—thousands of miles away from the African jungle, decades later.
But the stench of charred wood and burned vegetation seemed to hang in the air like a shroud, and images filled his mind that reminded him of that day thirty years ago. It was as though it had happened only yesterday.
Shaking his head violently, Michael whipped back the sheet and stood by the bed. He hadn’t had the nightmare in over a year. He wouldn’t let it return now to plague him with ghosts from his past. Again he resolved to acknowledge that part of his life and then force it into the background as he had so many times before.
Sunlight poured through the window like liquid gold and caught his attention. He strode to the window and looked out on the promise of another beautiful day in paradise. As he watched, the gray tint of dawn gave way to bright morning light. Beyond the palms and ironwoods he could see two-foot waves pounding the shore relentlessly. They kept returning, like his nightmare.
Why now, when he had finally retired from the State Department? Why now, when his life was peaceful and safe? When he was trying to find out what kind of man he really was?
Driven to put distance between himself and his bed, he snatched up a pair of shorts and went into the kitchen to fix some coffee. Then, mug in hand, he made his way out to the deck that overlooked the beach and ocean. Leaning against the wooden railing, he took a deep breath of the salt-scented air.
Hawaii. Paradise. Peaceful haven for a world-weary man who had seen more than his share of violence and betrayal.
He half sat on the railing, resting his mug on the ledge. He relaxed and tried to allow the tranquility of the new day seep in and heal. But as always there was a part of him that was wound tight, ready for action at the slightest provocation. Not even paradise could take that innate wariness away. It had been drilled into him early, when most boys were playing baseball or riding their bikes.
Taking a long sip of coffee, he gazed at the flowering bushes to his left and at the garden beyond, a profusion of beauty that appealed to his aesthetic taste. The riot of color assailed his senses and made him wonder about the people who lived next door among the neatly landscaped grounds.
His colleague in Washington, from whom he had rented the house, had told him only that a man named of Lawrence Harris lived there. Whoever he was, he had to love beauty and order, if his garden was any indication of the man.
A movement within the garden suddenly caught his attention. A woman no more than an inch or two above five feet stood and rolled her slender shoulders to loosen her muscles. Her straight black hair was bound by a single rubber band and hung halfway down her back. She removed her wide-brimmed hat and fanned herself as she surveyed the garden.
Michael observed her unobtrusively. He could discover a lot about people when they didn’t realize he was watching. The woman’s every movement was a graceful extension of the one before it. She was so slightly built that he thought his hands could almost span her waist. Her skin was pale, in stark contrast to her ebony hair. Her features were oriental and yet not. Her slightly almond-shaped eyes were narrowed in study, as if she weren’t pleased with whatever she had just done.
Then she lifted her head, and her dark eyes met his. Time became suspended as they appraised each other across the forty feet that separated them.
When she smiled, her whole face lit up, and Michael couldn’t control the quickening of his heartbeat. He purposely brought his mug to his lips to break that spell between them, emotionally distancing himself from her. He was wary of beautiful women; too often in his line of work they’d proved to be a man’s downfall.
* * *
When Mei Li Vandenburg had felt someone staring at her, she glanced up to find a man next door studying her. It had been disconcerting, and yet she hadn’t been able to resist smiling at him. He seemed so alone, and his features had been devoid of expression.
She was tempted to say something and was about to when she heard Lawrence calling her name. She turned from the man next door to watch Lawrence Harris wheel himself out into the garden, as he did every morning when she was working. She smiled and waved at him.
Then she turned back to see if the man on the deck was still there. It was empty except for the table and chairs, and she wondered if she had imagined him. She hadn’t realized the house next door was occupied. It had been vacant for over four months.
She peered at the sliding-glass door that led into the stranger’s house and couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Who was he?
“What’s wrong, Mei Li?” Lawrence asked, braking his wheelchair behind her on the walkway.
She whirled around, startled because for a moment she had forgotten all about Lawrence. “Wrong? Nothing. I was just wondering who was staying next door.”
“No one.” Lawrence paused, frowning, his gaze drifting to the house in question. “Yes, there is someone staying in Kurt’s house. I’d nearly forgotten. Kurt called me a few days ago to tell me that he was renting his house to a Washington colleague for a couple of months. Now let me see. What was his name?” His frown deepened. “Ah, I think Kurt said his name was Rutledge and that he used to work for the State Department as a liaison agent. Why do you ask?” His blue eyes fastened on Mei Li.
She shivered at the memory of the man’s assessing regard. “I was surprised to see someone on the deck. I’m used to the house being vacant seven or eight months of the year.”
Lawrence shook his head. “Such a shame for it to go to waste. I’m glad Kurt is letting someone stay there when he’s not using it.”
Sounds of Beethoven floated to her on the light breeze from the house with the stranger named Rutledge living in it. Again she looked toward it. The intense, thundering music seemed to match the man on the deck. She could imagine him on a cliff overlooking the rough sea, braving the harsh elements alone.
“I see you’ve planted another blue ginger.”
Mei Li determinedly turned her attention to Lawrence, who was more like a grandfather to her than an employer. “I wanted more color in this section of the garden, but I’m not quite pleased with this area yet.”
“If I know you, you’ll have it just right within a week,” he said with a laugh. “How are your orchids doing?”
Her face brightened. Orchids were her favorite flower, and she loved to discuss them. “Let me show you.”
As Lawrence propelled his motorized wheelchair, Mei Li walked behind him to another section of the garden. She sat on a stone bench in front of Lawrence, and for the next thirty minutes they talked about the different varieties of orchids that Mei Li had cultivated in his garden.
Lawrence bent forward and took Mei Li’s small hand in his. “I’m glad your Uncle Chang talked me into hiring you to plan my garden. You have transformed my home into a paradise within a paradise. It makes having to be confined to this wheelchair much more pleasant.”
“Your body may be confined, but your mind isn’t.”
“I love hearing you talk about my garden. You’ve brought into my life serene beauty. Heaven knows, I needed that. Most of my life is filled with relatives fighting over who will get the lion’s share of my empire. I may fool them all before I die.”
“Don’t talk of death. You have many years ahead of you” she swept her arm to indicate the plants around them, “to enjoy this garden.”
She placed her other hand over his. When she had first come to the Harris house more than two years before, this dear old man had been dispirited and mean-tempered because the doctors had told him he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
The first month she had been there, Mei Li had quickly discovered that she couldn’t accept someone shutting himself up in his house. She had practically bullied Lawrence into coming outside to see her labors. That was when they had begun their morning ritual of visiting for an hour or so. At first they had talked about the garden, but now their conversations encompassed many subjects. Lawrence had seen and done so much more than she. He had opened up a new world for her, giving her as much as she gave him.
Suddenly Lawrence frowned, his look intense, probing. “You haven’t regretted coming to work for me, have you?”
“Regret? Working in this garden?” She gestured at the orchids she cared for. “Because of you I work full time doing something I love. How could I regret that?” She had taken the grounds surrounding his house and transformed them into a garden that rivaled long- established ones on the island. Every time she walked among the flowers, pride swelled within her.
“I know of your family’s disapproval.” His fingers clasped the arms of his wheelchair. The veins in the back of his hands protruded tautly.
“Why is my father so against you?” Though she had needed the job, her parents had been vehemently against her working for Lawrence. But now even her father didn’t say anything about it to her anymore. He silently accepted her employer, but he never asked about her work at the Harris house.
“Have you asked him why?”
“Yes, but he won’t say.” She didn’t understand her father’s continual refusal not to tell her because both her parents had always been straightforward with their children.
“Then I’ll respect his silence, Mei Li. The explanation must come from your father.”
Lawrence held up his hand. “Shh. No more. Let’s just say that as a powerful, wealthy man, I have collected my share of enemies.”
“Enemies? That’s such a strong word.”
“But true. Over the years I’ve stepped on a number of toes. I haven’t always been this nice.” He grinned, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
Mei Li started to tease him when a tall man appeared behind Lawrence. She swallowed her words.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over the garden.” John Harris looked from his father to Mei Li, his gaze sweeping down her length in a heated appraisal.
She shuddered but refused to allow the young man to intimidate her.
“I need to talk with you, Father, about business.” He started to walk back toward the house but stopped when he realized his father wasn’t following him.
The older man waved his hand. “Speak. I’m not ready to go back inside. This day is much too beautiful to be in the house.”
John stabbed Mei Li with a sharp look. “I need to speak with you in private.”
“I don’t have any secrets from Mei Li.” She hid her surprise behind a bland expression, averting her gaze from John.
It was true that Lawrence shared his troubles with her because she had taken the time to listen, but Lawrence was deliberately needling his son. He had told her on several occasions that John was too serious and too wrapped up in the family’s real estate business. Lawrence had also told her that his son had accused Mei Li of being after his father’s money. This was a cardinal sin, because to John, money was everything. It was sad that the son didn’t understand the friendship she and Lawrence had.
John’s frown strengthened into a scowl. “Then this can wait until later. Excuse me.” He stormed away before Lawrence could say anything else.
“I wish you wouldn’t use me as bait,” Mei Li whispered.
“I have two pleasures in life since my confinement to this thing,” he said, slapping his hand against the wheelchair. “One is you and this garden. With you I don’t have to be one of the richest men in Hawaii. I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
“And the other?”
“Baiting my son. He has too much starch in his shirts.”
Mei Li laughed. “Do you purposely give him the wrong impression of us?”
“No, I’d never do that to you. My son reads our friendship the wrong way all by himself.”
“Oh, you are incorrigible!”
“Yes, I know. Being wealthy and old gives me a few privileges.”
“Chang would say being wealthy and old gives you a few added responsibilities.”
“Yes, your uncle would say that,” Lawrence replied with a grin.
“Mr. Harris, it’s time for your medication,” the nurse, Mrs. Duncan, said as she entered the alcove in the garden.
Lawrence bent forward and whispered to Mei Li, “No doubt John ran inside and solicited Mrs. Duncan’s help.”
“I should get back to work. I have to be over at the Maxwells’ this afternoon to make sure everything is set for their lawn party this evening.”
“I give you a break, and now you’re in demand everywhere. I wish I’d never told the Maxwells about you,” Lawrence grumbled as Nancy Duncan led the way toward the house.
Mei Li remained on the bench a moment, watching Lawrence and his nurse until they disappeared from her view. Because of Lawrence she had more work than she knew what to do with. She was employed as his gardener as well as the Maxwells’, but often their friends asked for her help and advice. She found her days very busy, but that was the way she preferred it.
Her evenings were spent with her large family or in the greenhouse that her father had built for her in the backyard. She spent little time in the small apartment she rented near her parents’ house. Her family didn’t understand why she even bothered to return home to it each night. But it was hers, and being from a big family—she had two brothers and three sisters—Mei Li valued her privacy. She tried to make them realize that although she loved her family and being with them, she loved her independence, too.
Mei Li rose and made her way back to the blue ginger to finish her task. Charlie, her oldest brother, would arrive soon to take her to the Maxwells. She hated it when her station wagon acted up. If she didn’t know better, she would think her car had a mind of its own and knew when she was too busy to fool with it.
After she completed her task, she took her tools to the shed. As she left, she collided with John in the doorway. He blocked her exit, forcing her to step back into the dimly lit shed.
“It seems to me you spend more time talking to my father than doing your job.” A taunt underscored each word.
She refused to respond to that comment. She remained where she was, outwardly serene while inside she trembled with anger.
“If you think you’ll get any of his money when he dies, just remember, I can be a powerful adversary. I won’t let anything happen to Harris Enterprises, including my father’s folly.” He left as quickly as he had appeared.
Fear niggled her nape. She had never been threatened before. She wasn’t sure how to handle it. Uncle Chang would advise calm patience, but in the face of John’s anger it was hard to practice that.
She decided to forget the incident. She wouldn’t add to the deteriorating relationship between Lawrence and his son. Perhaps John was just frustrated with his father and taking it out on her.
As she walked around the side of the house to wait for her brother out front, her gaze wandered to the house next door. The shutters closed, the house stood alone, silent. The man named Rutledge seemed to be gone. She wondered what his first name was and how long he would be next door.
As she stood at the end of the driveway, she glanced at her watch several times, berating her brother for being late, which was usual for him. Frustrated because out of her large family Charlie was the only one who could pick her up, she began to walk in the direction he would come. When she heard a car approaching, she looked up, sure it would be Charlie. But the car was a white Mercedes coupe.
Disappointed, she started to look away; then she realized that the stranger from next door was driving. He stopped several feet away from Mei Li and leaned over as the window slid down.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, his voice like sandpaper gliding over silk.
She shook her head, her gaze riveted to the compelling man before her. His dark brown eyes and sun-streaked hair combined with his sharp features to give an impression of ruthlessness, and yet she sensed an air of vulnerability about him. “I’m just waiting for a ride. Thanks for asking.”
When she smiled at him, Michael did something impulsive, which was totally unlike him. “May I give you a lift somewhere?”
She paused, glanced up the street, then answered, “No, I’d better wait for my brother. If I’m not here when he finally shows up, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
One part of Michael was relieved that she had turned down the ride. He didn’t want to get involved. The other part was disappointed, and he was finding it difficult to suppress that feeling.
“Fine. I hope your brother comes soon.” Michael pulled into his driveway, and parked in front of his house.
Taking a look at his rearview window, he watched the woman walk away. His disappointment grew stronger as he observed her. She was dressed in jeans that hugged her slender curves provocatively. Her flowered print shirt was tied at the waist, emphasizing her slimness. She was petite, like a china doll.
Michael climbed from his car, his gaze veering to the woman, and he swore beneath his breath. He clenched his jaws. Determinedly he jerked his gaze away and strode into the house. His whole life was up in the air, and he certainly didn’t need added complications. He was forty years old and didn’t know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. But one thing was certain: he wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for any kind of relationship.
He had tried a relationship once, and it had nearly destroyed him—and Laura. The real problem was that he didn’t know how to trust another person; that ability had died in him a long time ago. He was a loner, always had been and probably always would be. And yet that inability to trust was why he had been so good at his job.
* * *
The next morning, before work, Mei Li paused at the edge of the beach and stared at the sky, tinted with an array of bright colors. Sunrise, the beginning to a new day, was always her favorite time.
The salt-permeated breeze tugged at the strands of her long hair. Its cool touch felt good against her bare arms. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The fresh scent of flowers from Lawrence’s garden, her creation, laced the air.
A sound disturbed her tranquility, and she opened her eyes to find the man from next door jogging toward the water. He entered the surf and dove into a large wave. He broke through the surface and tossed his head, shaking the water off his hair. Then with long purposeful strokes he made his way out to sea.
Transfixed, Mei Li stared at him, telling herself she was only staying in case anything happened to the man. People shouldn’t swim alone, she had been taught, especially where there was an undertow. But in truth, even if there had been other people on the beach, she would have remained.
She wasn’t sure why he fascinated her, but for some reason she was intrigued by the stranger. He stood apart from everyone else, as if he had no one in the world to care about him. For someone like herself, who came from a large, loving family, that was a hard concept to accept. Or maybe she was attracted to him because they seemed to be opposites. He seemed so tough, and she suspected he would be capable of handling any dangerous situation he found himself in.
When he emerged from the water, Mei Li stepped back into the shadows of the ironwoods and continued to study the man. As he ran a towel over his body, her gaze was drawn from his muscular arms to his broad chest, then down to his long powerful legs. He was in superb condition, which reinforced her conviction that he could take care of himself.
He placed the towel about his neck and began to jog down the beach toward her. For a few seconds she panicked, not wanting him to discover her and the way she had blatantly spied on him. She felt like a rabbit caught in a snare and the hunter was coming for his prey.
She glanced around, but it was too late. He had seen her and headed straight for her. She took another step back, wishing the ironwoods would swallow her up. It was totally out of character for her to admire a man so brazenly.
“Good morning.” He smiled, a slow lifting of the corners of his mouth. “Did your brother ever come yesterday?”
She nodded, his warm smile soothing her. “Ten minutes later, with a hundred excuses for being late.” She made a valiant effort to relax her tense body, but she couldn’t seem to succeed.
“Did you let him off the hook?” The corners of his dark brown eyes crinkled as his smile deepened.
She chuckled. “Yes. It does no good to try to reform my older brother. He’ll always be late for everything.” She held out her hand. “My name is Mei Li Vandenburg.”
“Michael Rutledge.” He took her small hand in his and shook it, the touch of his fingers lingering a shade longer than necessary.
Mei Li slipped her hand from his, wishing there were a reason for him to hold it longer. But her mind refused to function. His warm grasp had been a strange combination of strength and gentleness and had sent her heartbeat galloping.
There was a moment of silence, when only the sounds of the surf and birds could be heard, as they stood a foot apart and stared at each other.
Finally Michael broke the silence by asking, “Do you work for Lawrence Harris?”
She nodded, swallowing to coat her dry throat. “I’m the gardener.” She glanced toward the house next door. “Have you been here long?” She thought of all the questions she would have preferred to ask him but had no right to.
Five days, and she hadn’t known it until yesterday! There hadn’t been any sign that someone was living at the McNeil house. Was he hiding from the world? Instead she asked, “Are you going to be staying long?”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“Are you all right?” Mei Li automatically stepped forward, cutting the distance between them in half. The expression on his suddenly pale face alarmed her, and she reached out to him.
He took a step back, his features shuttered. “Yes. I just remembered I have something to do. Good day, Miss Vandenburg,” he replied in a polite, strained voice as he backed farther away, then turned and jogged toward his house.
Mei Li watched him go. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Michael Rutledge was a driven man, torn into pieces and desperately trying to put the fragments back together. She sensed that she could help him, but she somehow doubted he would let her get close enough to try.
Michael glanced back at Mei Li as he mounted the steps to the deck. He hadn’t been able to resist talking to her when he had seen her standing in the grove of ironwoods. He should have jogged away from her. There were a thousand reasons why he should have, but her delicate figure and porcelain features had drawn him closer.
That was his problem: he wasn’t sure about anything. All his life he had had direction until now. Suddenly he was reminded of the first day he had been stranded in the jungle as a child of ten, having to cope with survival all alone.
Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead as the memory shook him. Why did he have to remember now? Because he had been spending the last thirty years running away from himself, and now he had the time to face the past, to face those ghosts? Time and idleness were his enemies.