Primal Attraction

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Chapter Eight

Johanna smiled as she drove through the streets of Westerly. She got used to the looks she received a long time ago and was able to ignore them for the most part, though there were a few who caught her eye. Apparently, motorcycles weren’t as common on the island as they had been in Australia, where she first received her bike. It had been a gift from Martin and Alissa for her twentieth birthday, and the best present she had ever gotten.

Her sleek black machine was easy to maneuver. Unlike her Harley, the Agusta seemed to form to her like a glove. It was like it anticipated her movements and moved with her. And she had to admit, she looked damn good on it. Dressed in black leather, her long hair piled up beneath the black helmet, she looked menacing and dangerous. Johanna would never admit it out loud, but she sort-of liked the looks she received, especially when she took off the helmet and they saw the driver was a woman.

The sense of freedom she got from driving her bike was like nothing else she had ever felt, and right now she was relishing that sensation. She really had been feeling confined at the palace, but there was a lot of work that needed to be done. Reginald left a lot for her to straighten out, and she was determined to do it before she was too old to think.

Johanna turned her new MV Agusta F4 easily through a roundabout and headed toward Spring Arbor. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had already decided to go see Samuel. She knew the excuse of wanting to see his horses was just that, an excuse. They hadn’t spent as much time together the past few days as she had anticipated, and a part of her actually missed him. She still believed her attraction to him was a primal instinct and not actual desire. She would never act on her feelings or take them any further than the twitching sensation in her stomach. But ever since watching that documentary on the bordellos, all she could do was think about him, wondering if he enjoyed sex the way the imitation Ian did.

As she neared the tall castle-style mansion, her heart began to skip. There was something in Samuel’s eyes that seemed to melt her soul into a puddle of molten desire. It was a feeling unlike any other. She felt hot and sweaty but fought the chill that ran down her spine. She was calm enough to reflect a normal conversation, though she doubted she could remember much of what was said. It was as if…no, she scolded herself shaking her head once to knock the idea out of her mind. She couldn’t possibly have a crush on the man. She was an adult - hell, she was going to be queen in less than a day. Crushes were for little girls who giggled at the sight of a boy and blushed when one winked at her. What she felt was…different. It was like he breathed a fire into her veins, that traveled to parts of her she barely knew the names of. Surely, that wasn’t a crush…was it?

Spring Arbor was the first Region south of the palace and only about fifteen miles away. The idea that Samuel Carrington was so close seemed to make her stomach flip a bit harder. He had the most amazing eyes…it was like looking into the morning sky and seeing heaven.

Again, she shook herself back to reality. She was acting foolish. She had never spared more than a brief glance to men in the past, so why him? What was it about that handsome face, that perfect smile, those alluring eyes that made her want to know more, to feel more?

Johanna saw the mansion in the distance and found herself biting her bottom lip under the helmet’s visor. The one part of her persona she was proudest of, was her ability to always be in control of her actions. She never acted without thinking, with the exception of her argument with Lord Sorensen at Reginald’s wake, but that had been provoked. Now, she was driving up to a man’s house with the sole purpose of seeing him. An impetuous act she had never attempted before.

She fought the urge to turn around and go back home as she neared the front gate. She was acting like a fool, she scolded herself. She hadn’t even announced that she was going to visit the Carringtons. What if they weren’t home, or what if they had company? What if Samuel was…entertaining someone? She should never have come out here, she told herself, but before she could act, she found herself pulling up to the small security shack. A tall thin guard about forty-years-old, stepped out looking amused and a bit annoyed as he stopped at her side, a clipboard in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other.

“May I help you?” he asked with the sniff of what Johanna could only assume was a sinus cold.

She lifted the visor of her helmet and watched as the man’s mouth fell open in shock. The look of surprise was an expression she would never grow tired of seeing, and she nearly laughed when he dropped his clipboard.

“I’m here to see Captain Carrington,” she told him as he bent to retrieve his lost papers.

“Yes, your Majesty…I mean your Highness…I mean…yes ma’am,” the guard stuttered.

“Please don’t announce me. I don’t want to make a fuss. Just open the gate and let me through.”

“Yes ma’am…right away ma’am…”

He hurried back into the shack as Johanna lowered the visor on her helmet, opening the gates for her to drive through. Johanna glanced at the man’s image through her rearview mirror and smiled. He stood inside the small shack staring at her. The look was humorous, and she had to bite her lip to prevent laughing.

Johanna pulled her bike up the circular driveway and stopped at a large set of concrete steps that led to the main door. She shut off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition, kicking the stand to support the machine from falling. She swung her leg across the seat as the door to the mansion opened and an elderly man in a white and black uniform, similar to Russell’s, stepped out. The look on his face was intimidating and she would have cowered to it…if she was anyone other than herself.

“May I help you, sir?” the butler asked in a deep voice.

Johanna fought to hide her mirth as she approached the man, unfastening the strap to her helmet.

“I’m here to see Captain Carrington,” she said through the visor.

“Captain Carrington does not accept visitors, unannounced.”

“I think he’ll accept me,” she assured him as Nora came bolting out of the house.

“Who is it, Joseph?” Franny asked from the foyer behind the man.

Johanna glanced to Nora who leaned against the concrete railing, while Franny, Walter, Kevin, and Samuel stepped out onto the front porch. Apparently, they had never received a visitor on a motorcycle before, making her arrival seem even less suitable. Nora looked down the steps to the black motorcycle with an expression of awe.

“It’s beautiful,” she said excitedly. “Did you know Princess Johanna drives one? I’m sure hers isn’t as large, but I’d still love to see it.”

“Feel free to take a closer look,” Johanna said with a smile as she removed the helmet, allowing her long hair to cascade across her shoulder.

Kevin’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open, and Nora actually screamed. Johanna tried to resist the laughter but found herself chuckling regardless of her attempt. The butler looked at her disapprovingly, though he kept his mouth shut.

“Just like your father,” Walter said as he reached forward to shake her hand. “He loved motorcycles too. You must have inherited that passion from him.”

“I couldn’t agree or disagree since I didn’t know the man,” she remarked as she returned his handshake.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Nora kept saying causing everyone to look at her.

Her face was suddenly quite pale, and she looked like she was going to faint.

“Hey, calm down,” Johanna said reaching out and placing a firm hand on her shoulder. “It’s just a bloody bike.”

“It’s you…it’s really you…here…at my house…oh my God!”

“Would you be so kind as to take these, please?” Johanna asked, removing her leather gloves and tossing them into the overturned black helmet. She reached out her hand toward Nora who seemed apprehensive to take it.

“It’s alright…it won’t bite, I promise. I reserve that habit for myself,” she teased causing Kevin to snicker and Samuel to clear his throat.

“Come on Peanut,” her eldest brother said, placing a hand on her shoulder and turning her toward the entrance. “You’d better go inside before you drop Johanna’s helmet.”

“Please come inside,” Franny offered as she led the way into the foyer. “You should have let us know you were coming. We would have arranged a better reception for you.”

“I’m sorry I came unannounced, but I didn’t want to make a fuss,” Johanna replied, pausing to look around the large entrance.

This was a much warmer entryway than the one at the palace. It was filled with paintings and photographs of family members past and present, with a large painting of a man in a pirate’s outfit.

“That’s Mighty Swen,” Samuel said stepping up beside Johanna and placing a warm hand on the small of her back. “He was the first Leader of Spring Arbor.”

“I know,” she answered softly, trying to hear around the heartbeat in her ears. “He was Black Jack’s Quartermaster and best friend.”

“Mates to the end, or so it says on his tombstone.”

“Please come in, we were just sitting down to lunch,” Franny said waving a hand toward the dining room. “Would you care to join us?”

“Please?” Nora asked excitedly before Johanna could answer. “There’s so much I want to know about you…I mean, I already know everything about you, but I want to know other stuff…or have you tell me more…or just talk…”

“Easy Peanut,” Samuel told her with a brotherly grin. “I’m sure Johanna is having as much difficulty catching up to your ramblings, as the rest of us do.”

“She’s alright,” Johanna chuckled. “But I thought I answered all of your questions at the wake. I think you probably know more about me than I do myself.”

“But I want to know…oh, stuff,” Nora said excitedly.

“I don’t have very much stuff to reveal. I’m a pretty simple person.”

“But…well…please stay for lunch?” Nora asked again as she reached out and took Johanna’s hand, then dropped it suddenly as if she’d been burned.

“Thank you, but I’m not hungry,” Johanna answered with a smile.

She glanced briefly to Samuel, then quickly diverted her eyes. This was stupid, she scolded herself. She had spent hours with this man alone in her office, she even danced with him at the wake, so why was she feeling so awkward now?

“At least have some coffee with us,” Walter suggested.

“If you don’t say yes, Nora is going to wet herself,” Kevin said with a hearty laugh.

“That’s enough,” Franny chastised as she led the way into the dining room. “Joseph, tell the cook we have company and bring some more coffee.”

“Yes ma’am,” the old man said offering one last disapproving glance to Johanna before hobbling down the hallway toward the kitchen.

“Don’t mind Joseph,” Samuel said softly beside her, his warm breath brushing her cheek like a gentle caress. “He’s very old-fashioned and doesn’t think women should be roaming around without an escort.”

“I’m sure there are others who feel the same way,” Franny answered for Johanna who was having a difficult time trying to make her brain function.

“But Johanna will soon set them all straight, won’t you?” Nora said with a proud hint to her enthusiastic voice.

“Um…yeah…sure,” she answered awkwardly.

Samuel kept his hand on her back until they reached the dining room, then held the chair out for her to sit. He moved to the opposite side of the table, allowing his siblings to sit on either side of her. She looked to Nora who had made a comment, though she really didn’t pay much attention to it, then looked back to Samuel who was staring at her. He offered her a half grin and chuckled once under his breath as she lowered her eyes quickly.

“So, what do we owe for this pleasant visit?” Walter asked, drawing Johanna out of her sudden state of shyness.

“Oh…I was interested in a horse…” she said praying she could pull herself under control by distracting her thoughts from the man across from her.

“What kind of horse?” Samuel asked, bringing her eyes back to him.

“The kind you ride,” she answered and looked embarrassed as everyone laughed.

“You tell him,” Kevin said. “’What kind of horse?’ You’re lucky she didn’t say the kind with four legs.”

“I’m looking for a horse I can ride,” Johanna continued before Samuel had a chance to remark. “I don’t want a workhorse, or particularly a racehorse, and I’ve already given Reginald’s horses to the Polo Club. I’d like to start restocking the palace stables, but I really just want a horse to ride.”

“Are you any good at riding?” Samuel asked her as he moved his arms to allow the maid to place a ceramic plate in front of him, ignoring her obvious attempt to attract his attention.

“She’s a great rider,” Nora said in defense of the princess. “She’s been riding since she was five.”

“Two, but who’s counting,” Johanna smiled back to the girl. “My grandfather taught me to ride bareback as soon as I could sit on a horse without falling off.”

“Bareback?” Kevin asked with a frown. “That’s not very…”

“Ladylike?” Johanna finished when he realized he had talked himself into a corner. “I’m probably the least ladylike person I know. My grandfather felt if I could ride a horse without a saddle, then I’d be able to control it easily with one. It was the way his father taught him, and his father before that. I guess you could call it a tradition.”

“But you’re a girl,” Kevin said with a frown as the maid set a plate in front of him. “Aren’t you worried what people might think?”

“Why should I? I mean, so far, I’ve shown up for a funeral in a black tunic and sword, and I drive a motorcycle. Can you tell me what else I might do, that would bring people’s tongues out of their cheeks?”

“Have I told you, you’re my idol?” Nora asked with a wide smile then giggled when Johanna looked to her.

“If you ride a horse without a saddle,” Kevin continued as if he hadn’t heard anything she said, “doesn’t that make you…I mean you’re not exactly…that is…without a saddle, what man would want to marry you?”

“I beg your pardon?” Johanna asked with a frown.

“I think you’d better quit while you’re ahead,” Samuel added with a wide smile, causing the color on his brother’s face to turn a shade darker.

The room grew quiet for a moment as the maid finished setting the plates in front of her employers, then turned to leave. Johanna narrowed her eyes to the girl who glanced back across her shoulder to Samuel, before looking to the princess. Samuel looked in the direction of Johanna’s eyes and smiled when he noticed the exchange of looks between her and the maid, who lowered her eyes and left the room silently. Johanna turned her gaze back to him and felt herself blush when he smiled a knowing grin to her, assuring her he had seen the visual exchange she had with the servant.

“We have a gelding that might work for you, but he’s a bit older,” Samuel said a moment later. “I’m not sure how even-tempered he would be to a new rider.”

“I was hoping for a mare, about three years old, preferably brown or even black, but I’d like it if she has never been bred.”

“That’s pretty specific,” Samuel commented with raised brows. “Why don’t you want her bred?”

“I learned a long time ago, a mare that had never been bred isn’t as eager to follow the scent of a stud, as one that has.”

“You want a virgin horse?” Kevin asked with a frown.

“Don’t be rude,” Nora snapped at her brother.

“Even a filly will need to mate at some point,” Samuel continued ignoring his siblings with a talent learned over many years. “Between the ages of four and five, she’ll reach her season every twenty days or so until she’s pregnant. It will be difficult keeping her under control at that point.”

“I’m not opposed to having her mated with the right horse. I just want to be able to bond with her for at least a year before she breeds. I had a beautiful chestnut filly when I was younger. We practically grew up together and we were very close. When it came time for her to mate, I was the only one who could calm her down. She would kick and buck everyone else until they left for fear of being trampled.”

“I can see your point,” Samuel said, reaching for the ketchup to place on his roast beef.

Johanna watched for a few seconds before shaking her head and looking away.

“I have a couple of mares you might be interested in,” he continued. “They are sisters, twins actually, very rare and very beautiful. They are both brown, but the one has a white streak down her nose like her father. I’d say she’s the less temperamental of the two.”

“I’d like to take a look at her, if I may?”

“Of course,” he smiled then pointed his fork to her coffee cup. “Finish your coffee and we’ll go to the stables.”

“Yes Sir,” she answered lifting her cup to her lips and watching the slow smirk pull at the corners of his mouth.

“May I come too?” Nora asked as she practically bounced in her seat.

“You have your piano lessons, young lady, and you haven’t practiced for over a month,” her mother answered. “Your teacher is going to be furious with you.”

“Why don’t you practice?” Johanna asked as she turned to the girl beside her.

“I hate practicing. It’s boring,” Nora complained, setting her chin on her fist.

“Then why are you wasting the teacher’s time and your parents’ money?”

“I…want to play…but it’s boring playing the same cords over and over. I just want to try and play a real song.”

“How long have you been taking lessons?”

“Six months. By now I should be able to at least play something other than Chopsticks. Monica had learned three songs by this time, and she never practiced.”

“Somehow that seems unlikely,” Walter said in a scolding manner.

“You need to patience if you’re going to play an instrument,” Johanna added. “Practicing is very important. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing the same cords again and again, to the point I swore my eardrums were going to bleed. In time I got better, but only because I practiced every day. You will too if you set your mind to it.”

“I forgot…you play the piano, don’t you?”

“Yes, as well as a number of other instruments.”

“How many?” Kevin asked with a curious grin.

“Well…I suppose all total…ten, but that includes the different styles of guitars.”

“How did you ever find the time to learn all of them?” Nora asked with a disgruntled expression.

“I had a very structured childhood,” Johanna answered with a soft snort of amusement. “After Lady Catherine died, I was given the choice of attending boarding school or living with my aunt. Since I hate dresses, the choice was easy. My aunt made it a point to hire very experienced tutors who traveled with us. Besides knowing my grade in math, science, English, and history, each tutor had to know how to play an instrument, speak a second language, and know some form of physical activity. Alissa was determined that I learn everything I possibly could. She wanted to prove to the critics that I wasn’t being neglected in the desert or left in a tent to rot.”

“That sounds boring too,” Nora complained as she pushed the food around on her plate.

“Boring or not, it was my job and I was determined to do my best. I doubt you could have managed the schedule I kept every day, but it did afford me an excellent education and the ability to complete my schooling much quicker than if I had been in a building with other students.”

“What else do you know how to do?” Kevin asked with an amused smile when he looked to his sister who was pouting next to Johanna.

“A lot, I suppose. It just depends on who you’re asking.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t really like talking about my past,” Johanna said in a tone that warned him to stop asking questions. “Just suffice it to say, I can do quite a bit more than most people my age.”

“If you’re finished, we can go to the stables and check out those horses,” Samuel said before his brother could argue.

He stood up and walked around the table as Johanna pushed the chair back and stood up. He waved a hand toward the door then followed her out of the room.

“She’s amazing,” Nora said in a tone filled with admiration. “I know everything she can do. I read it in a magazine a few months ago.”

“What can she do?” Kevin asked, glancing out the window to his brother and the princess who had stepped out of the side door.

“She had five nuns who tutored her for all of her formal years of schooling. She can speak seven languages, she’s an experienced gymnast, and she knows ballet. She can sing and dance, and she’s a master in martial arts. Oh, and she’s experienced in sword fighting.”

“Swords? You’re kidding?”

“Nope. She contributes her ancestry as the reason she loves them so much. She said it was the pirate blood in her.”

“That’s quite enough,” Walter interjected. “Johanna didn’t want to talk about her past, so I think you should respect her wishes and stop talking about it as well.”

“But Dad, she’s an amazing woman,” Nora argued as the front bell rang. “Did you know she was burned at the stake by a group of aborigines for being a witch?”

“That’s nonsense,” Kevin scolded his sister. “Nobody gets burned at the stake anymore.”

“She did.”

“Excuse me, Lord Carrington,” Joseph interrupted when he pushed the door opened. “Madam Gina is here for Miss Nora’s piano lesson.”

“I’m coming,” Nora said excitedly as she jumped from her chair.

“I thought you didn’t want to play the piano,” Kevin teased her as she practically skipped to the door.

“That was before Johanna reminded me that she could play. Now, I want to be as good as she is, even if I have to keep playing chopsticks until my ears bleed.”

“I’m sorry about Nora,” Samuel said as they walked toward the large brown stables near the back of the property. “She can be a bit enthusiastic when it comes to things she likes.”

“And I’m one of the things she likes, I take it?” Johanna answered with a slight grin as she glanced up to him.

“Yes, you are,” he answered with a broad smile. “She’s been addicted to you since she first learned Westerly had a princess who would one day be queen. It was especially exciting to her, and most of the other young girls on the island, that you were close to their age.”

“I’m older than she is by at least five years,” Johanna argued.

“Four,” Samuel laughed. “She reminds us often that you are four years, two months, one week and five days older than she is. She has your birthday written on every calendar in the house.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she answered with a frown causing him to laugh even louder.

“There’s nothing to say and nothing to worry about. She’s just a young girl who has an idol. And I have to admit, from everyone she could admire, you’re the safest…and the most beautiful.”

“Thank you…I think,” Johanna answered feeling like she had been insulted in a complementary fashion. “What did your brother mean when he said I wouldn’t find a husband because of the way I rode a horse?” she asked a moment later.

“Oh, he was referring to that stupid wife’s tale. A woman who rides a horse isn’t a full virgin.”

“What?” she asked stopping in mid-step to look at him.

“It’s not true,” Samuel said with an amused grin. “The only way to lose your virginity is through sexual intercourse.”

“So why would he say…”

“People used to think that a woman lost her hymen by riding a horse bareback or astride. It’s a stupid idea and one that’s nearly as old as our island is.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said with a frown. “How can riding a horse…”

“Look, don’t worry about it,” Samuel said as he took a step closer to her.

He reached out and lifted her chin with his forefinger, tipping her head so he could look into her eyes.

“Nobody is going to say anything against you. At least not while my men and I are around.”

“I can protect myself, physically and emotionally. I have never needed a guard or a protector, and I doubt I’ll need one now.”

“Whether you need it or not, you’ve got it,” Samuel assured her gently, though his eyes held humor to her words. “Don’t take all the fun out of guarding you. Men like to feel superior and needed.”

“So, I should flatter your ego?” she smiled, nearly gasping as he slipped his fingers into her hair, cupping the side of her face in his large hand.

“You don’t have to try that hard,” he told her in a very quiet voice as he took a step closer. “All you have to do is keep warning women with those…incredible eyes…and blushing every time I look at you. I can’t remember a time when I felt more…superior.”

Without warning, Samuel leaned into her and very gently brushed her lips twice with his mouth before covering them with a very tender pressure.

Johanna’s breath caught in her throat as she closed her eyes, feeling the touch she had been dreaming of since she first met the man. She felt as if she had just stepped into a warm shower, clothes and all, and she really didn’t care. The mind consuming gentleness was all it took to make her heart leap in her chest and her palms begin to sweat.

“Come on,” he told her a moment later, his voice deep and his breath warm against her cheek as he moved his lips to kiss her jaw. “I’ll show you the horses.”

The two walked in silence for about five hundred yards until they reached the corral where a dozen or more horses were contained. Samuel was cursing himself for acting like an impetuous fool, but then she hadn’t stopped him or even tried to. When their lips met, he felt her immediate surrender and it was all he could do not to pull her up against his hard body and claim her as his own.

Johanna’s eyes scanned the field and the corral, not really seeing any of the animals. Her mind was consumed with that one very simple act that made her feel…hot. She blamed that stupid documentary for her recent feelings of desire, knowing it had nothing to do with an actual physical need. The program had played on her senses, in the same manner, a hypnotist plays on the mind.

By the time they reached the corral, Johanna had managed to talk herself down from the strange height of ecstasy she had climbed over the past five minutes. Being this close to Samuel, working for so many long hours alone, and the fact she hadn’t left her office except to sleep, all added to the combined feelings of arousal. If he had tried to kiss her before, she would have been able to resist him, but she had never been kissed by anyone, except when her grandfather would kiss her cheek. She honestly didn’t know how she would have reacted if he’d tried to kiss her at any other given time, but it was best if it was forgotten and they never addressed it again. As far as her first kiss went, she had to admit, it was definitely going to be a memory worth holding onto.

“Is that the sisters you were talking about?” she asked, pointing to the two horses her eyes had laid on, as she climbed up the fence rungs and swung her legs across to sit on the top rail.

“That’s them,” he answered bracing his leg against the lower rail and fighting the urge to touch her firm bottom that was within inches of his fingers. “Nora wanted them named Juliet and Maria, but I haven’t given them an official title.”

“Let me guess,” Johanna said looking across her shoulder to him. “Because Juliet and Maria are two of my names?”

“You got it,” Samuel laughed. “I told you, she’s a big fan.”

Samuel whistled across the yard to a stable hand, pointing to the horses and waving them over to him. The young man - dark skinned like an original islander and around sixteen-years-old with a long dark braid that hung down to the middle of his back - nodded. He headed to the two horses and slipped a rope around each of their necks, then led them across the corral to Samuel. He paused about twelve feet away from them when he saw who the young woman was, then looked to Samuel as if silently asking for help.

“It’s alright Kelil,” Samuel called out to him, watching the boy look back to Johanna then continued walking the short distance to where his boss stood beside the princess.

“Kelil Afook, this is Johanna Abbott-Worthington,” Samuel said introducing the two. “Kelil is one of my most trusted hands. Sometimes I think he knows a horse better than they do themselves.”

“It’s nice to meet you Kelil,” Johanna said reaching out to shake the boy’s sweaty hand. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at her with wide eyes.

“Will you saddle Rocky and bring him to me please,” Samuel asked, offering the boy an excuse to leave them. “We’ll need to saddle the mares as well.”

Kelil nodded and quickly turned, nearly running out of the corral.

“I’m never going to get used to that,” Johanna said in a soft voice as she reached out and petted the horse with the white stripe on her nose.

“People will get used to having you around in time, just be patient with them,” Samuel said in a reassuring tone.

“I was taught all the technical details I would need to assume the throne, but the emotional side was never truly explored. Seeing the way everyone just stares at me…it’s disturbing.”

“I can sympathize to a point,” Samuel told her as he climbed the rails to the other side. He took hold of the rope around the second horse and began stroking her neck. “After Melinda died, people began to whisper behind my back. It was worse when I walked into a room. The conversations would stop, and they would just stare.”

“I heard some of the rumors, and I’m sorry for what you had to go through. It must have been horrifying.”

“More than you’ll ever know,” he told her through clenched teeth.

“The horses are beautiful,” Johanna said moving to a safer subject. “I’d like to take them out before I make up my mind.”

“Kelil is bringing my horse and another saddle. I suggest you take that one out first,” he told her nodding to the mare she was petting. “She’s a beauty, and not as excitable as her sister.”

“Are you assuming I can’t ride the other one?”

“No, not at all. I just think you’d feel better with the calmer horse. This one is unpredictable. She’ll be good for breeding, but riding will take a lot of patience.”

“Then I’ll take her out first,” Johanna insisted. “Who knows, maybe we’ll both surprise you.”

Johanna jumped off the railing causing the brown mare to startle and take a step backward as she reared her head. Samuel held tight to the rope and brought her under control easily as Johanna reached out to stroke her nose.

“I warned you,” Samuel told her. “She’s very skittish.”

“I can handle her just fine,” Johanna assured him as she moved to the horse’s side.

Without warning, she jumped up and swung her leg across the animal’s middle section then took hold of her mane.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Samuel warned as the horse reared up again. Johanna held tight as the animal twisted free from Samuel’s grip and backed away from him.

“Easy girl,” Johanna said soothingly as she held tightly to the animal. “You’re alright.”

Samuel’s jaw clenched tighter as he tried to grab hold of the rope, cursing under his breath. Johanna allowed the horse a few brief moments of irritation as she continued to sooth her with calm words. Barely a minute later the horse relaxed, shaking her head to dislodge her rider’s hands from her long mane.

“That was probably the most foolish thing you could have done,” Samuel growled up to her as he secured his hold on the rope again. “I warned you this horse was unpredictable. You’re lucky she didn’t buck you off and stomp you into the ground.”

“I have control of her,” Johanna assured the man and looked to the boy who came into the corral again.

He was holding onto the reins of a dark brown stallion completely outfitted for riding. Across his shoulder was a smaller leather saddle and reigns.

“Get down from that beast,” Samuel snapped angrily. “You’re not going to ride her without a saddle.”

“Wanna bet?” Johanna asked as she pulled the horse back on her mane.

The mare reared once more then bolted toward the corral gate as Johanna reached down and pulled the rope off her neck. With a surprising move, the animal jumped the fence and headed out into the open pasture with Johanna on her back.

She looked across her shoulder to Samuel, hearing his angry voice calling out to her to stop. She smiled as she allowed the horse to run for another minute or two, before pulling her under control by pulling on her mane. By the time Samuel had mounted his horse and rode out to reach them, the mare had calmed down. Her panting assured the man she had experienced the run of her life, but what surprised him was that she was moving easily through the pasture in a slow, mellow walk.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he shouted at Johanna when he reached her. “Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?”

“Why? I had control of her,” Johanna answered calmly. “I let her run out her fear before I took her in hand. It wasn’t difficult, and it wasn’t anything I haven’t done a hundred times before.”

“I swear, girl, if you ever do anything like that again…I’ll…”

“You better choose your words carefully, Captain,” Johanna warned with a narrow stare. “Not only can I control the beast, but I can also knock you on your arse with very little effort.”

“It’s my job to protect you, even if that means protecting you against yourself. That single act could have cost you a lot more than a sore backside, which I am still tempted to give you.”

“I’d like to see you try it,” Johanna said with a wicked grin.

“Don’t tempt me, woman,” Samuel snarled back at her.

“Regardless of your chauvinistic manner, I plan on seeing what this animal is capable of.”

“Not without proper rigging. Now, get off that bloody horse before I follow my instinct and turn you over my knee.”

“I’ll do no such thing. I’ve already told you, I know how to ride without a saddle, and I prefer it that way. If you wish to come with me, Captain Carrington, then you’re welcome, but if you dare try to tell me what to do again…”

“I don’t have to tell you,” he warned, reaching out and wrapping his strong arm around her waist.

He jerked her off the horse with a movement that took her completely by surprise. With very little resistance, he pulled her to sit in front of him on his own horse, his arm holding her tightly.

“What the hell…” she gasped.

“I’m going to enforce your submission, whether you like it or not.”

“Just who the bloody hell do you think you are?”

“I’m the one who’s going to make you obey orders.”

“How dare you,” she snapped, twisting quickly out of his grip and jumping to the ground. “I have never needed the help of a man and I never will. You may be able to force other women into submitting to your will, but not me. As for your blasted horse, you can shove her up your arse for all I care.”

Johanna turned and began walking back toward the mansion with a quick step. She was more furious than she could ever remember being. Not only was she being told what to do, but she was also physically being restrained against her will. Even her aunt wouldn’t attempt anything so stupid. If it wasn’t for the fact he had caught her off guard, she would have twisted his arm out of its socket.

“Don’t be childish, Johanna,” Samuel told her as he rode his horse up beside her and climbed off.

“I’m warning you. Stay the hell away from me,” she snarled without looking back at him.

“I thought Nora was spoiled. You’ve blown her completely out of the running and captured the title for yourself.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she demanded as she stopped and rounded on the man.

“It means you’re a spoiled rotten brat who is long overdue for a spanking. You acted rashly, putting yourself in danger, not to mention the horse. If you have no care for your own safety, you should have considered the animal. She has never been let loose like that, and she’s never been this far from the stables. This area is new to her and unfamiliar. She could have stumbled and broken a leg, taking you down with her. She weighs a good eight hundred pounds, if not more. Think about it, Johanna. What if she had fallen on top of you? Where would that have left you? Your stupid little act could have had dire consequences you never took the time to consider.”

“I never act rashly, and I never do anything without consideration of the consequences,” she snapped at him as their argument began to grow in volume. “If I didn’t know I could control the beast, I would never have mounted her in the first place.”

“That may be, but this horse is not your typical animal. She’s temperamental…like yourself. Maybe the two of you were made for each other after all.”

“Keep your bloody horse. I’ll find another one, even if I have to order one to be imported. Hell, I’d rather ride a jackass then ever get back on one of your animals.”

“It’s hard to imagine you’re old enough to take on the responsibilities of the throne, the way you’re acting,” he replied angrily, falling into step next to her as she turned and continued to march toward the mansion.

Johanna stopped and drew a deep breath to regain her composure - what little bit was left - then turned and stared into the bright blue eyes she had been dreaming of the past several nights. The memory of his kiss was burned from her mind and all she could think of was punching him in his delightful mouth.

“I demand that you find another guard to accompany me to Northern Shores, and to act as my personal guard tomorrow for the coronation. I am no longer in need of your assistance, Captain Carrington.”

Johanna didn’t wait for his reply as she turned again, walking away at a steady pace. Samuel stood where he was, staring at her. She was not just spoiled, she was the most obnoxious, insufferable woman he had ever met. If it wasn’t for the fact he had a duty to perform, he would have kicked her in the butt the day of Reginald’s funeral.

To think, she deliberately chose to wear the clothing of a man to the King’s funeral, was an act worthy of disgrace. The only reason she had managed to get away with it, was because she looked so damn beautiful in that tunic and those tight pants. If she had been any other woman - if she had been Melinda - he would have easily been able to ignore her. Instead, he found himself staring at her tight little bottom as she wiggled away from him, feeling the pressure of her lips against his.

There was a hunger growing inside him that he hadn’t felt in five very long years. It was a need so hot, it made his pants feel snug and his heart pound. Samuel frowned as he thought about how he was feeling and where his mind had wandered. For the first time since he buried his infant son, he was experiencing a deep desire for a woman. But why in God’s name did it have to be that woman?

Johanna paced her bedroom restlessly. It was nearly dawn and she had barely slept more than three hours. She felt like a caged cat and all she wanted to do was get loose and run free.

She returned yesterday with so much anger inside her she could have burst. Instead, she spent two long hours beating the hell out of a punching bag in her newly refurbished exercise room. By the time she had finished, she was hot and sweaty, but a bit less annoyed with the events of the day. Just when she thought she had moved past it, she received a visit from Walter and Franny Carrington.

Alissa was delighted to see the couple since she had yet to take the time to visit them herself. They had been close acquaintances when Edward was alive but had lost touch over the years. Johanna sat in the parlor in the chair she claimed as her own, listening to Alissa and Martin reminisce with the parents of the man she was trying to forget.

After an hour of laughing about some event from the past that Johanna had chosen not to listen to, Walter moved on to the real reason he and his wife had come to the palace. They wanted to present her with one of the horses she had seen that day, as a coronation gift from Spring Arbor. All she had to do was tell them which one.

A strange part of her wanted to take the wild horse Samuel had fought with her over, yet there was a part that didn’t want anything to do with any animal from his stables. She didn’t want any part of the man in her life, beast or human, but she couldn’t deny the couple their gift. She told them she would have to think about it and get back with them. She fell back on the stress of the following day as an excuse to postpone the decision. Perhaps if she took enough time, they would forget their offer completely.

Now, as she wandered about her room, all she could think about was Samuel. She regretted telling him to choose another man to act as her personal guard. She knew she would never be able to get him completely out of her mind, and that bothered her more than the memory of their argument. As much as she tried to convince herself she had no feelings for him, her mind kept flashing back to that kiss. It was warm and inviting, and it had haunted what little sleep she was able to get.

Johanna walked to the door of her veranda and opened it. The early morning air was warm, and the breeze did little to ease her frustrations. She felt like jumping over the railing and running as far away as she could. She didn’t want to be queen, she didn’t want to rule this island, but most importantly, she didn’t want to be alone. Somewhere between cussing Samuel out for not being able to sleep and reviewing her vows, she would have to give later that day, she realized her life hadn’t really been as happy or content as she let on.

She had formed a structure around herself over the past fifteen years, that consisted of constant studying, in order to avoid getting to know anyone. She found comfort in the words of a book, over the companionship of another human being. She rejected friendship as if it were a sinful act against God and nature, with the exception of her acquaintances with Martin’s three kids. They were probably the closest thing she had to friends, though she found being with the twins uncomfortable and exasperating.

Martin’s twin daughters, Sarah and Angela, spent most of their time worrying about their appearances and what boys would think of them. They were always talking about fashion or makeup, and they brushed their hair so much, Johanna was surprised they weren’t bald. She felt the girls were shallow and vain, while Michael, Martin’s only son, was the complete opposite. He was probably Johanna’s only true friend.

They liked a lot of the same things. The same foods, the same sports, the same authors, even the same clothes. At one point in her life, Johanna had wondered if she was gender confused, as Alissa would put it. If she could relate to a boy as easily as she did Michael, perhaps she wasn’t meant to be with a man. That was when she learned the reason she got on so well with her friend. He admitted he was gay to her two years ago when they came to Australia to spend the summer with their father.

Summers in Egypt were unbearably hot and working in the desert trying to find ancient civilizations was near impossible. Once the seasons began to turn, Alissa would let Johanna decide where they would go for holiday - though Johanna never took it as a holiday. She continued to study and continued to work with her tutors, regardless of where or what time of year it was.

Michael and the girls had been with them only a couple of weeks when Johanna noticed a significant change in Michael. He wasn’t as close to Martin as he had been the year before, and he actually went out of his way to avoid his father. When Martin would suggest they go fishing, Michael would insist he promised Johanna he’d go to the beach with her. It was one excuse after another until Martin stopped trying.

Johanna confronted her friend about his attitude, shortly before he and his sisters returned to New York. That was when he told her he had a boyfriend back home. His mother knew he was gay, but the girls didn’t, and he wasn’t ready to tell Martin. He didn’t think his father would be able to accept his choices or lifestyle. Johanna promised to keep mum about it, but felt like she was lying, and that was a habit she refused to fall into.

The sound of a seagull overhead brought Johanna back to the present. Martin’s three children arrived late last night, though she pretended to be too busy to greet them. After the aggravating day, she had with Samuel, and the confused feelings that were raging inside her, the last thing she wanted to do was listen to the constant chatter about the dresses Janessa had made for the twins. Right now, she could care less if they wore a bedsheet to her coronation. After all, nobody would be paying attention to them. She was the center of attention…again.

Moving back inside, Johanna looked around the room. She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t tired, and she was developing a headache from all the thinking she’d been doing. She had tried to watch television but concentrating on any one program wasn’t easy. Then she came across the documentary that had echoed in her conscience for days. That was not an option, so she turned off the television and tossed the remote across the room.

Reluctantly, she decided to try soaking in a hot tub. Perhaps the jet bubbles would relax her enough that she could take a nap before Annette arrived to help her get ready for the day’s activities.

Johanna adjusted the water to a warmer than normal temperature, then went back into her bedroom. She searched the desk for one of the journals to read when she spotted the dark blue one with the initials E/J on the front. She played with the small lock for a moment until it popped open, then flipped through the pages just to see if it was another accounting ledger and found it to be more of a diary.

Taking it with her, she walked to the corner bar and poured a glass of Westerly merlot, then went back into the bathroom. Johanna stripped out of her shorts and tank top, then shut off the water and climbed into the tub.

The water immediately surrounded her with a heat that promised to relax the tension she’d been fighting against all day. She switched on the jets and leaned back against the padded headrest. For a moment, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to sink into the warm bubbles massaging her body. She remembered how guilty she felt when she took her first bath but found it one of her most favorite tasks of the day.

Johanna took a drink of her wine before setting the glass back on the stand beside the bathtub and opened the book. She noted the date on the first page and frowned when she began to read.

July 13th - Edward and Juliet have been missing for three weeks, and still there are no traces of their plane.

Johanna paused her reading and looked at the cover again. E/J must have meant Edward and Juliet - her parents. Why was Reginald keeping a journal about her parents? Curiously, she continued reading.

I spoke with Charles this evening, and he told me the Coast Guard was ready to surrender their search. Based on the coordinates of their last transmission, Edward’s plane was somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Their marking was 15° latitude and 75° longitude. Charles said, according to what he had learned from the flight plan, they were returning to Africa from Australia where they had gone to get medicine for the orphanage. In their last transmission, Juliet said Edward was sick with fever and too weak to fight the storm that was threatening to overtake their small craft. I have sent Westerly’s Navy out to join the search, but it’s as if their plane dropped off the map.

I have been researching the storm patterns at the time of their disappearance, and I believe they may have been thrown further off course than the authorities have stated. It is my belief that, if they were trying to avoid the storm, they would have gone south to get around it, but the search has been concentrated in the north. If my theory is correct, Edward would have been fighting to keep his plane in the air long enough to get out of the storm. I will not give up the search, until I know we have exhausted all avenues. If they are out there, we will find them.

Johanna stared at the page with a blank expression. She had no idea Reginald was looking for her parents’ plane. That was one part of the story she had never heard.

She continued reading the following pages, but most of it was just talking about the reports from the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as from the American and British military. Reginald wrote about his feelings on the search, swearing he had a gut feeling they were looking in the wrong place. He continued making notes throughout the next several years, according to the dates on the pages, but there was nothing more than a few notes about any news he may have heard, or reports on her own life and progress of her studies from Alissa. Then the journal picked up again, two years ago, with more serious information.

I finally received the police report from England, he wrote. It was quite a surprise to learn Charles’ death was not caused by his fall from a horse, but rather from a bullet to the back of his neck. According to the coroner’s report, the bullet struck between the first and second cervical vertebras. The authorities believe it was a stray bullet from the gun club at the side of Cherrington Cross.

The bullet removed from his body was from a .357 Magnum revolver. That type of gun has a range of 200 to 350 meters, which means, the shot couldn’t have been fired from the shooting range. The range is more than sixteen hundred meters away. Even with a high-powered rifle, the bullet wouldn’t have traveled far enough to kill Charles or be that precise in its target.

The police report also had an open case filed by Charles two weeks before his death. He claimed to have found evidence that Edward’s plane may have been sabotaged. Edward and Juliet reported a white van nearly running them off the road, not once but twice. A white van had been spotted in the area several times over the months following the birth of Johanna, but no one was ever able to get an accurate description of the driver or the numbers plate.

Based on the information I have received from Charles’ solicitor, he was investigating the books of one of Edward’s companies, an electronics plant outside Essex. Over a period of six years, more than four million pounds had been pilfered from the company, though the books revealed no losses.

Charles was under the belief that there was embezzling going on since before Edward’s plane disappeared. He mentioned in his notes left with his solicitor, that Edward discussed the possibility with him just weeks before he and Juliet were called to Africa.

If the evidence I have received is accurate, the plane may have been tampered with either before they left England, or when they landed in Australia. I do not believe the report that Edward’s plane crashed due to a storm. Sick or not, he would have been smart enough to avoid the winds, even if it meant landing until it was safe to fly again. The problem now is proving my theory.

Johanna stopped reading, looking back over the paragraphs she had just read. Nothing made sense. Her grandfather had been killed from a fall off a horse, not a gunshot. Surely, if the police believed he was killed by a bullet, they would have told Lady Catherine or Alissa. That was a fact they wouldn’t have been able to keep silent about, and Alissa would never have kept something that important from her.

She took another drink from her glass and continued to read. The more she read, the more convinced she was, Reginald was on the path of something far more sinister than what anyone knew. The man may have been a lecherous pervert, but he was still her family, and he seemed determined to form a case against an unknown assailant.

The last entry Reginald made was three days before his death.

I have created a timeline of the information compiled from the evidence discovered. It explains the circumstances surrounding Edward’s disappearance and the death of Charles. If I’m right, they were murdered by the same person, and I believe money and lust are at the root of it all. This person has gotten away with four possible deaths. I want to catch this creature and find out what he knows about the night Edward and Juliet disappeared from the skies. I will never believe their plane simply fell into the ocean. The more I dig, the more I’m convinced Edward and Juliet are still alive - or were at the time of their disappearance - and I aim to prove it.

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