The Phantom Island

When Chiara Gravina was five years old, she fell into the sea off of Sicily and was rescued by a little boy who kissed her and let her breathe underwater.  At least, that’s the version of the story that she prefers.  And maybe, possibly, that little boy grew up into the young man that she met briefly at sixteen and fell in love with.  But now Chiara is grown, and she’s back in Sicily not for her own hopeless romance, but for the wedding of her best friend, Carly Antilia.  Of course, Carly’s romance is not much less hopeless, because she’s marrying the wrong guy.  She’s really kind of more in love with Detective Alex Thule, who, by the way, is trying to keep her from being killed by some unknown criminals that Carly will not leave alone.  Throw in fortune tellers, some Greek gods, the gorgeous island of Salina, sex, crime-fighting, and of course, a paranormal mystery, and you have an adventure with enough room for not two, but three romances, and a great deal of Italian cooking besides.

Excerpt:  Chiara and Ben

Chiara’s hands shook a little as she walked alone from the balcony, but as her feet followed a familiar path down wind-worn wooden steps, across concrete still warm from a sun gone down, comfort seeped slowly through her. It would take three summers’ stays on Salina Island to equal every stretch of spring through fall spent in California, but length of time seemed a poor measure of life here. Soon beneath her feet spread the white stone steps that lead to the pool, and Chiara was home.

On the bottom of the pool, a mosaic of tile created the figure of a sirenetta, her jade-green tail and long golden hair seeming to move with the gentle ripples above her. Her deep green eyes matched Chiara’s own and Chiara had spent many a long moment beneath the water looking into them, trying to exactly copy the woman’s mild smile. Chiara took a deep breath of the scented air of Salina Island—spiced by sun-warmed saffron, lavender, and fennel that grew wild in the mountains. Even the wind in Sicily was a food.

She took off the white robe she wore over her rose-colored swimsuit, a comfortable, flattering one-piece, and sat down at the edge of the pool. Waves circled around her legs as she slipped them into the water, which was sun-warmed and wind-cooled. Chiara closed her eyes, let go of the deck, and slipped beneath the water.

Tiny lights beneath the surface lit her way to the bottom, and at first, Chiara just kicked along, stretching out and remembering what it was to have the freedom to move anywhere, released from the harsh restrictions of land that kept one mired to the ground. The underwater world was a place where humans could fly, put out arms and be free. Soaring low, Chiara’s hands found their way, as always, to the uneven but smooth surface of the mosaic, along the curved locks of golden hair, over the deep green eyes, ever open and at peace.

Eventually, Chiara’s lungs protested, and she had to remember that she was not a creature of the water—and that there was no little boy nearby to grant her the power to change that. Reluctantly, she kicked back up to the surface and tilted her head up to the stars, taking in a deep breath of cool Salina air. Then she opened her eyes.

Maybe it was her imagination. It had to be, right? The figure sitting on the stone steps that led to the spa, half-revealed in the soft light at the base of an orange tree, was a hallucination, produced by nostalgia and nerves. But when Chiara blinked, the man remained. Still calmed by the peace the place had given her, she even began to swim a few yards toward him before reality seized her movements.

An assassin…

The pool felt cold. Chiara looked toward the office of the Villa, but no lights burned there. She and the man were alone with just the glow of the deck and the brightness of stars.

And just as she feared, it was when she started to back up and try to get to the far exit of the pool that he stood up suddenly and came toward her. When he walked into brighter light, Chiara stopped moving altogether.

His hair was as gold as the mermaid’s beneath the pool, that was the first thing she noticed. It fell in waves above his eyes, worn just long enough to manage glorious curls. His cheekbones were broad, his nose strong, his mouth beautifully shaped. His eyes were shadowed in the dim light, but seemed the color of the dark blue shirt he wore, untucked, buttoned from the bottom to the middle of his chest, loose around broad shoulders. He wore dark cut-off jean shorts and his feet were ill-housed in a pair of too-large brown sandals.

He stood still again, just watching her, and Chiara found not a thought of fear in her head. She reached the shallow stairs of the pool and climbed out of the water. The cool air seized on her skin, and Chiara shivered. Maybe from cold.

“Hi,” he said. Closer up, she could see that he stood only an inch or so taller than her.

“Hi,” she answered.

After a second more, he gave her a hesitant smile. “You look cold,” he told her, and he reached out and picked up her robe.

Chiara moved toward him, feeling a little like she was still walking through the water, so slow. She put out her hand and took the robe, wrapping it around herself, warm and soft, like an embrace.

When she looked back up at him, his face was shadowed, but his expression was not completely hidden. He looked—he looked like he’d been at sea a long time and had just found land again. He looked—

Or is that just your imagination, Chiara?

Is this all your imagination?

“My name’s Chiara,” she told him.

He did not look a bit surprised. He made no move to answer her, he made no move at all, except that his eyes fell to her mouth. She could almost feel the heat of him from across the few feet that separated them, and Chiara was suddenly certain that if he reached out and touched her, the pool would probably burst into flames.

And then it did.

There was a crash that sounded like breaking glass, and a whoosh of air combusting, and Chiara whirled around, staring at the completely impossible sight of bright orange fire on the pool deck, wondering if somehow it could be her fault for imagining it. Then a pair of strong hands seized her shoulders and yanked her away from the pool just as she heard another explosion.

Chiara crumpled to her knees on the pale wood deck and there was heat in the air, there were birds screaming, and Chiara understood then. It was real. And so was he. The man bent over her so that his body covered hers, between her and the fire, and Chiara could not see his face, but she felt the strength in his arms. He smelled like the sea.

There was no further sound of explosions, and then after a second, the man was gone. Chiara pushed up from the ground and saw him silhouetted by the bright orange light. He grabbed a pot of flowers and dumped them, dirt and all, over the flames. The fire protested, and the man bent and scooped water from the pool into the pot and threw it on the burning deck.

Chiara got to her feet, her fingers finding the belt of her robe, pulling the wet material off. The air on her bare skin was an unpleasant mix of hot and cold. She wrapped the robe around her arm and dropped to her knees, using the wet fabric to push what looked like burning glass across the wooden deck and into the pool.

Suddenly the air was dark again, and Chiara realized with a cough that the night was hiding smoke. The man was suddenly at her side again. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Chiara looked up into his eyes and somehow managed to get a breath of clearer air. “I’m fine,” she whispered, but she could feel her heart racing and her hands trembling, and it wasn’t just because of him now.

Excerpt:  Carly and Alex

Alex Thule was attempting not to watch Carly sit at her own rehearsal dinner. He was attempting to scan the crowd, to do his job, to notice everyone, not just one woman, to notice what he was eating, for god’s sake. He did not do any of that very well.

When Carly had appeared down at the dock with Walt and the rest of them about an hour ago, Alex had lost his breath. He’d stood there with Ben, who’d just been checking the Luna’s engine again, stood there and watched Carly walk toward the boat. She was wearing white already—no, he noticed as she came closer, it was ivory, not white. Not yet. And this was no wedding gown. It was slim, tight pants, a silken shirt that revealed just about as much as that tiny towel. No skin, but the shape of her painted in cream-colored strokes. Alex was glad he and Carly were not speaking because he didn’t have anything to say.

Carly spent the ride to Lipari below decks with Walt and her mother. The rest of them watched Chiara steer the boat. Some people talked, but mostly it was quiet, just the air soaked by the recent rain. Alex clearly heard the thick silence between Ben and Chiara. He wondered if something had happened between them. They did not look at each other, and yet they moved as if they were watching each other, as if they were standing together, as if they were a couple even ten feet apart. It was not a pleasant thing to watch. He wondered if he and Carly ever seemed like that, if one was looking closely.

And now here he sat at the end of a long table, between Chiara and Carly’s mother, and tried not to be obvious about looking at the bride-to-be, sitting there between her fiancé and his brother, a man who almost certainly was trying to kill her, tried not to see her willfully ignoring that fact and marrying a man who would never be right for her!

Alex forced his eyes away. Chiara had said something funny in English, and even Carly’s mother was smiling—and so was everyone except Pietro. The chef was a large man, aging, and obviously not having the best day of his life. He kept watching Chiara and her parents, and sorrow was evident in his eyes. He was worried about them, that was obvious, it was sad in a comforting kind of way.

Alex hadn’t paid him much notice since he’d been here, there had seemed little reason to. Pietro was a man without a criminal record, not even a parking ticket. Passport, all his papers in order, nothing to stand out. Except—

Oh, damn it, Thule! You haven’t been paying attention.

Pietro Baltia, holder of a passport stamped for America and a work visa there for two years, appeared as if he didn’t speak English. Chiara didn’t seem to find this strange, Alex had heard her translate for Pietro numerous times. But Pietro had to speak some English. Even if his life there had been thirty years before, he would still have to understand some things. But he appeared to know only the words yes and no and a couple of phrases like What time is it?

Damn it, Thule, he was right in front of you the whole time!

The man trusted by all, who trusted them with nothing, not even his own past in Los Angeles. Something he’d apparently been hiding for thirty years. True, he was no lawyer. He was obviously not Vinland’s California partner. But he was the contact in Salina, he had to be. Gone at every attack—Alex tried to recall the lists he’d asked Carly for every time. Who is with you? Where was everyone? But around all the rest of the time, always there. And Pietro knew the place inside and out, he’d searched the kitchen—

Suddenly, there was no need to suspect Frank of anything, no proof anymore. Pietro explained it all. Carly was not in danger from her fiancé’s brother.

She was not in danger from the Suttons.

He glanced at the pretty blonde to his left. Sweet and gentle Chiara, he could only imagine the look in her eyes when he told her. But he was saved for the moment because suddenly Carly stood up. She left Walt’s side, walked to the door of the restaurant and let herself out, one brief, smooth movement, like it was not at all unusual for the bride-to-be to leave her own rehearsal dinner, almost like she was supposed to. Alex was on his feet immediately, even, he noticed with some pride, before Walt was. And then Alex, grade-A bastard that he was turning into, gave Walt a wave to say It’s okay. Enjoy your dinner. I’ll go out and protect your fiancée while she does whatever it is she needs to do.

I’ll protect her.

Yeah, right.

On the way, he held his cell phone to his ear. “Get me all the phone records from the Villa,” he said to the officer on the other side, “the private lines.”

He’d been concentrating so long on cell phones—why would Frank Sutton or Ben Xenos risk a call to the Villa’s land line? But a man like Pietro, old-fashioned, living on a rock in the ocean, likely had no cell phone. Alex just hadn’t looked hard enough, he’d accepted what was on the surface.

He began to grasp now how ridiculous it had been for him to pursue Frank Sutton like he was the only suspect—ridiculous, stupid, and at the same time necessary. For Alex. But now gone was Alex’s last reason for trying to talk Carly out of the wedding.

Alex came through the door to the outside, the air rain-fresh and open rather than wine-scented and thick, and found Carly standing on the terrace to the side of the Trattoria, looking out at the ocean. The little deck was cobblestoned and lined with trees in huge terracotta pots. Little lamps glowed in the late afternoon, but this early, Carly was the only one out there. She turned when she heard the door, and the look on her face when she saw him was not one of pleasure.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Go back inside.”

Alex looked from her to the street beyond, catching a glimpse of the occasional car, scooter, taxi, pedestrian. “Anyone could be out here, Carly.”

She was much brighter than Walt. Much brighter. “So that’s your excuse?” she asked.

Alex leaned back against the building. He said nothing, just watched her. Gorgeous, wondrous Carly, standing there in off-white clothes, and he knew as sure as he knew anything that tomorrow morning he was going to see those clothes turn white as a winter sky, see Carly get married.

But oh, god, he couldn’t do it. She wasn’t happy. He seized on that like it was the side of a boat in the open sea. He was desperate, desperate even to talk to her. He felt like if he didn’t, he might be dead himself by morning.

What was it his sister was always calling him? The master of illusion.

Well, it was time for some.

“You don’t have to come out here to avoid Frank,” he said quietly.

She turned a sharp green gaze on him. “What?”

“It’s not him. He’s not Vinland’s partner.”

She stared at him, a mixture of hope and dread. “How do you know?”

“Because I know who the Salina contact is, and it’s not him. None of what’s happened was Frank.” He waited.

“Then who?” she asked slowly.

“Don’t you want to go back inside now? You can go now, it’s all right.”

She put a hand on the door. “Tell me who it is.”

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” he said easily. “It’s not me either.”

“If you’re saying I don’t have to worry about you killing me, then I’m not so sure.”

“Really?”

“Alex, do not play games with me.”

“Believe me, I’m not.” He took a step closer to her. “I need something from you,” he whispered. It was clear by her face that she knew exactly what that was. But she said nothing. “I need you to suspend your no for five minutes,” he told her. “If after five minutes you still want to walk back in there to Walt, then I will let you. No more attempts on my part, I’ll leave you in what passes for peace around here. But I have to have my chance with you. I have to get my chance.”

“Five minutes.” She had one elegant red eyebrow raised. “You think you can convince me to leave my fiancé for you in five minutes?”

Alex just smiled. He could see the heat growing in her, the coldness of her tone melting into something summery and golden-warm. But she looked just as scared.

And she was not going to help him at all. “I have a rule too, then,” she told him. “During those five minutes, you can’t touch me.”

“No touching?” Not that he’d expected anything less.

She shook her head.

“Well,” he said, pretending to think it over. “That will make it more difficult.”

She was already almost shaking, and it so it wasn’t really the five minutes Alex was worried about. It was minute six. Where he would find out if she was going to go back into the restaurant or not. Well—minute seven, maybe. He had a feeling that his five minutes were going to last a little longer.

“Fair enough,” he said.

Carly’s eyes widened and her skin flushed beneath the satin she wore. Alex’s hands ached to know what that material felt like against his skin, against hers. But he kept his hands at his side. He took a step toward her. Carly immediately took a step back into the shadows of the Trattoria’s awning.

“Now, now,” he said gently. “I haven’t touched you.”

She stopped moving and held her ground.

“You are so beautiful,” he told her, letting his eyes travel over her where his hands could not. He took his time, watching her breathing grow unsteady under his gaze.

But she kept her voice composed. “Thank you.”

He gave her a smile, one he knew she liked, amused. “You’re welcome. How’ve you been sleeping since you’ve been here, Carly?”

“What?”

“Sleepless nights?”

“Um—”

“Any dreams?”

The catch in her breath told him he’d found what he was looking for. “Where were we in this dream?” he asked.

“What?” Carly repeated, softer this time.

“You didn’t say I couldn’t talk,” he pointed out, and he took another step closer. Carly held her ground still, but looked as if she were about to give up and run. “And you didn’t say that you could refuse to answer, either.”

“Dreams don’t mean anything,” Carly said hastily.

“Then you won’t mind telling me.”

She almost seemed amused herself. Almost. “I’m not falling for that.”

Alex took the final step toward her, he stopped just short of touching her. He could feel the heat from her body, her breaths going in and out, so fast. The gold and black pendant she wore rose and fell with each one. “All right, then,” he said. “I’ll just guess.” He gave her a slow smile. “A dark and stormy night, you’re all alone in your apartment back home, wearing—well, not much more than that.” He paused. “I do get to touch you in the dream, right? Because this is really no fun.”

Carly said something that wasn’t really a word, just kind of a parting of her lips.

“I get to rescue you, though. From something that scares you. What scares you, Carly?”

“You do.”

Alex laughed. “How do I rescue you from myself, then?” He leaned close, his lips near her ear. “You don’t have to be afraid,” he whispered. Slowly, he raised a hand, bringing it close enough to her arm that her skin jumped a little, but stopping before he actually touched her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I’m not so sure,” Carly said, in a voice that was more unsteady than he’d ever heard it, even on the phone reporting bad news.

“I’ll have to show you then,” he whispered. He brought his head down toward her neck, still not touching her, and breathed softly on her skin.

Carly gave a little cry, and Alex moved lower, a breath against her bare shoulder. He balanced himself with a hand on the bleached wood wall behind her and kept his lips only inches from her skin, moving across the thin fabric covering her breasts, warming her with his breath.

Carly whispered, “Stop.”

Alex raised his head and looked into her eyes. Still so close, just an inch between her mouth and his. “My five minutes aren’t up.”

“Alex, please.”

“Please what?”

“Please—can’t you just make this all go away?” The anguish in her green eyes was so clear that it seemed to shine out.

“Are you saying you’ll let me try?”

Carly touched him. He felt her hand on his arm, felt the warmth of her, felt her shaking. She slid her hand up until it reached his shoulder, and Alex had not moved, he could not move. Carly closed her eyes. Then she closed the distance between them.

Alex felt himself shudder, and he pulled Carly against him as tightly as he could, he ended up pressing her back against the wall, as if he was afraid she might try to escape. His hands traveled over that satin, down her legs, he scraped his knuckles against the wall as he caught her rear in his hands. He was hard, he could feel it, knew that in that thin material, she could too. She did not pull away at all, but let the strength of him press against her.

But he hardly had time to register any of that because—Carly was kissing him. Really kissing him, and Alex realized that he had never been kissed before, because this was something entirely different. It was not like the kiss they’d shared on the beach, when she had been hesitant, letting him lead. Now her mouth was fully open to him, inviting him in, drawing him in. The kiss was desperate, but slow at the same time. Slow because Carly was taking time to caress him, to search out which kind of touch gave him the most pleasure. Slow because time seemed to have stopped.

He had stilled his hands on her, and she spread her legs a little, enticing the most sensitive part of him closer, but Alex didn’t take the invitation any farther. Not quite yet. The kiss—this kiss was like an entire evening of making love. Nothing he had imagined about kissing Carly was true. This was like holding a pure force of nature in his hands, a spirit, a goddess, something he could never hope to contain, and yet here she was, in his arms and he could hold her as tightly as he wanted to.

Suddenly there was a sound beside them. The door to the restaurant. Alex moved back, but he couldn’t make his hands leave Carly completely. He caught her at the waist as he turned.

It was Chiara. And she said something completely un-Chiara-like, her face flushed a pretty pink. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”

Carly took a shaky breath, but she didn’t move.

Chiara was shaking her head, looking apologetic. “I am so sorry. But Walt was wondering if you were okay and I figured I had better be the first one out here or—”

“I appreciate it,” Alex said, and Carly made a funny little noise and pulled away from him then, out of his arms, and he was left holding nothing, worse than nothing, his embrace was full of the absence of her.

“I’m going to go tell him you’re fine,” Chiara said in a strange little voice, “and then I’m going to have some more wine. More wine,” she repeated in a murmur as she pulled open the door.

Carly finally spoke. “Stay,” she ordered.

Chiara froze, clearly unsure if she should listen to that or try to go for the wine. Carly took a couple of steps over to her best friend, as if Chiara was her shield.

And she spoke very clearly, very coldly to Alex. “Don’t do this to me.”

Minute six. The illusion was over.

Time for everything Alex had left. “Carly,” he said softly, “I love you.”

This got her to stare at him, her green eyes wide, her mouth parted.

“Do you think this is what I do for fun?” he asked. “Go after an unattainable woman? A woman so far out of my league that even if she weren’t promised to someone else, I would still never have a chance?”

Chiara sighed, a tiny sound, it gave Alex a little hope. Chiara thinking this was romantic was a good sign.

“And I think you love me,” he said quietly.

“I—” she said, and then she stopped, which wasn’t very helpful.

“Did you ever kiss him like that?” Alex demanded.

Carly’s eyes darkened, she looked to the restaurant door. “Of course.”

“No, I mean it. That—what we just shared, that kind of kiss? I’ve never felt anything like that.”

“Of course,” she repeated, and looked at Chiara, and that made Alex smile finally, because Carly’s plan to hide next to her friend seemed to be back-firing. Chiara didn’t look like she was buying a thing Carly was saying.

“Come with me,” Alex said. “Marry me, Carly. Please. I can’t give you a ring like the one you’re wearing, I can’t give you a three-story house with a gardener or a garden even. I’ve got a little apartment and a pot of tomatoes and hardly any savings now that I flew out here. But I promise you’ll be happy with me.”

Carly looked at Chiara. “I changed my mind,” she said. “Go back inside.”

But Chiara shook her head, blonde curls bouncing. “Oh, no. I want to hear the answer to this.”

“Whose side are you on?” Carly demanded.

There was a hint of a smile on Chiara’s face. “I don’t think you two have separate sides. Not from where I’m standing.”

“Why did you make me come here?” Carly exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “Weird shit happens here!”

“Sorry,” Chiara said, with what looked like honest regret. “I really thought that was only for me.”

Carly closed her eyes. “I’ve turned into my father.”

“No,” Chiara said quickly, quietly. “Your father left a marriage and a child. You have neither.”

“But I had a life planned! I had a life with someone.”

“It isn’t too late,” Chiara answered, and Alex saw tears come into her eyes. He didn’t dare move and draw attention back to himself. “You said it was, but it’s not,” Chiara sniffed. “Carly, please, don’t throw away something you could actually have. Why would you do that?”

Carly put her arms around Chiara, but her friend immediately shook her head and pulled away. “No. I’m sorry. This is supposed to be a conversation between you and Alex. I’m just supposed to be here for support, or something.”

“It’s okay,” Carly whispered. Then slowly, she turned her head to look at Alex. He tried to give her a smile, though he was almost too nervous to do it. To have something in your grasp and not know if the current was going to snatch it away—he was not strong enough to pretend he would be all right if it did.

And then it did. The door to the restaurant opened again, and Walt emerged into the late afternoon sun. “Carly?” he asked with a smile. “Are you okay? Is there a party out here I don’t know about?”

No one answered him, and then they must have all thought that sounded suspicious, so then they all answered him, their voices overlapping. Chiara and Alex dropped out and Carly finished saying, “…needed some air.”

“I know,” Walt answered her, glancing at the other two, obviously a little confused. “But there is air in the restaurant.” He put an arm around her. “Come on.”

Alex’s heart leaped up and forgot how to come back down, he raised an arm even as he fought the urge to do so, so his hand just kind of wavered a little in space.

And then they all heard it. The screech of tires from the street beyond.

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