Cat Gamble rested her aching head in
her hands, squinting at the manuscript page on her laptop screen. Her lips
moved as she read silently.
Clarissa's heart thundered when he
tossed her onto his bed. The pirate's lips, so
brutally chiseled into his sea-beaten but
handsome face, parted in a hard smile as he
ripped open her bodice.
"Ah, such lush beauties,
these," he breathed, wedging his knee between
her thighs. "Peaks like berries, just awaitin' my tongue...lappin' at your
creamy skin, sweet lady, as I feast upon your fleshly delights."
Gasping with the
sandpaper texture of his face, Clarissa
curled in upon herself. Quite against her
will, she writhed beneath his hot, solid
weight. That was no ordinary sword pressing into
her abdomen...surely long and thick enough to
ravage her down there, the way this
swashbuckler had already
taken her imagination captive. Again
against her will, of course.
"Please, sir," she
rasped. "I'm betrothed to Lord Lustingworth, pledged to him as a virgin
"Lustingworth, eh?" The
buccaneer raised up, shaking with his laughter. "You haven't heard about all
his little bastards? By all the wenches a-workin' in his
castle? He won't notice your bein' broke in. Ripe and ready
"YO HO HO!--"
"--and a bottle of rum!"
"--it's a poi-rate's loife fer me!"
"No! No! That's the wrong
frickin' movie, Trev!" came a strident cry. "You can't play Captain Jack if
you're gonna mess up the script and--"
A startled intake of breath
made Cat look up from her story. From her nook in the loft, she peered over
the railing to see the tallest of the three costumed swashbucklers pressing
the point of his glimmering sword to his challenger's bare chest...right
between the swells of that low-cut hot pink evening gown.
"It's my house," came
Trevor Teague's terse reply. "If you don't like the way I play pirate, take
your balls and bat and go elsewhere, Bruce."
Grant Carey crooned. The sleeves of his flowing laced-front shirt billowed
as he stepped up to deflect Trevor's sword with his finger. "I see no need
for bickering over petty--"
"I am not being
petty!" Bruce insisted with a swish of his long blonde wig. "As
Elizabeth--the smart one, who gets things accomplished!--I'm only
"If you want to make
points, stud your bra," Trevor muttered. "Cat should play the part of
Elizabeth. She would at least bring some originality--and real
breasts--to the role. Something besides flicking that fake hair in my
face every time--"
"Don't even think about it,
guys. I'm trying to work." Cat immediately regretted the frustration
in her voice, but it was getting late and she hadn't reached her page quota
for today. Her story felt way too clichéd, and Lord Lustingworth's name had
flown too far over the top. She'd lost sight of the solid grounding this
whole book needed, but didn't have a clue what to do about it.
She had no room for whining
or feeling ungrateful, however: as Trevor's house guest, living rent-free
thanks to the architect's compassion, she was damn glad for this loft...even
if, as the choir loft of a Catholic church he'd renovated, it overlooked the
open great room where voices carried with crystal clarity up into the
vaulted, frescoed ceilings he'd restored.
"Oh, dear, we've
interrupted you again," he said with an apologetic smile. "I'm
terribly sorry, sweetheart. Rough day?"
Her shoulders sagged. Cat
shook her head, more at herself than at the three gay blades who loved to
cavort in costume. This huge, unique house was the perfect place to pretend
they were pirates instead of an architect, an attorney, and a landscape
designer, and she envied them their sense of play. She'd never known grown
men who gave themselves over to role playing with such childlike glee and
dedication to detail.
"Just a little distracted.
Conflicted. Whatever," she muttered. "The beginnings of books are always the
"You've had enough on your
plate since Laird died to distract even the most disciplined writer," Grant
remarked. He placed a placating hand on his companions' shoulders. "Come on,
guys, let's give her some peace and quiet while she--"
"No, it's all right.
Tomorrow is another day," she drawled, trying to match their sense of
movie drama. "Didn't mean to spoil your fun with my funk."
The three smiled up at her,
raising two swords and a beaded fan in salute. They exited the great room
through the door behind the tall, carved pulpit, which Trevor had
ingeniously transformed into a freestanding waterfall.
The room--still a sanctuary
in a very real sense--sighed with silence and the sound of the trickling
water then. Tall stained glass windows depicting the miracles of Christ
glowed with the direct rays of the sunset, casting the cavernous room in
brilliant hues of ruby, cobalt, and amber. These colors had inspired
Trevor's decor when he removed the pews and chose the groupings of furniture
that made his unique home such a showplace. Cat sighed again, awed by the
beauty of this sanctum...at how fortunate she was to be here after her
husband's suicide had revealed his extensive gambling debts and an excessive
lifestyle she'd had no idea about.
Things would be so much
easier if she'd suspected Laird's secrets--if his creditors hadn't swooped
down on the accounts and repo'd her car and her home the day after his
funeral. She'd felt damn lucky to come away from the ordeal with her clothes
and computer. Gazing at the stained glass Shepherd holding His sheep,
alongside this choir loft, Cat wished He'd work a miracle for her about now.
But all this wishful
thinking wasn't getting her new book written, was it? She couldn't keep
calling herself a writer if she didn't land another contract soon. Couldn't
land another contract if she didn't get a handle on these gawdawful
characters who eluded her efforts to motivate them.
Cat looked at the half-page
of crap she'd struggled over all day and clicked the file closed. Maybe
writing a pirate romance wasn't such a hot idea--no matter how those
"Pirates of the Caribbean" movies had recaptured the romance of
swashbuckling and bad-boy heroes. She gathered up the notes she'd scribbled,
wishing she'd been a better sport with Trevor and his friends. Where would
she be if Trev hadn't invited her to live here? Or if Grant Carey hadn't
taken her as a pro bono client, to fight the tangle of red tape those
creditors had tied her up with?
As she focused on the top
slip of paper, Cat blinked. It was a Powerball ticket, compliments of Bruce
Bigelow--who, thank goodness, designed industrial parks and city greenways
with more élan than he played the part of Elizabeth Swann. When the jackpot
had swelled to $258 million last night, he'd bought tickets for all of them.
Liquor had spurred his generosity, but the numbers still counted, didn't
"And I hope you win it,
honey! The whole frickin' jackpot!" he'd slurred as he closed her hands
around the ticket. "Nobody deserves a new life more than you, sweetheart."
Cat's gut fluttered. A
whole new life...maybe even like the ones she'd been researching for her
book, complete with a private island villa and a high-dollar yacht...white
sand beaches with palm trees. The images in her mind were so vivid she could
feel the ocean breeze caressing her cheek--
And that's the whole
damn problem with you and your imagination, her mind muttered. Always
wishing--spinning something from nothing. Then you get upset because it
She stepped outside, to the
small balcony Trevor had built between the bell tower and the main building.
Maybe some cold evening air would clear her head. It was a brisk winter
night just made for cuddling naked under the covers with a lover.
"Oh, stop it!" Cat hugged
herself, blinking at tears--tears that came way too easily these days. When
would she get past this mess Laird had left her in? When would she feel like
herself again, competent and capable and--
When you wish upon a
She held her breath,
listening. Had the guys tuned in to an old Disney flick? It was the voice
she remembered from her childhood crooning that sentimental tune--Jiminy
Cricket in "Pinocchio," wasn't it? The music swelled, taking her weary heart
with it, and she sighed up at the evening sky with tears dribbling down her
cheeks. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be a child again, to believe she
could wish upon a star and her dreams would come true?
"I wish I could find a man
who truly loved me," she whispered.
The solitary star above her
shimmered. And then it winked.
Cat's mouth dropped open.
She had not imagined that! That star had flickered--at her! And as
she watched, it winked again--and then it shot across the sky with a
glorious burst of starfire!
Got your attention yet,
She glanced quickly around.
Had one of the guys come upstairs? Had anyone else heard that voice--or seen
that shooting star?
Nope. It's just you and
Cat swallowed hard. She
gripped the railing, aware that her pulse was pounding and goose bumps were
running up and down her spine. Was this how it felt when you lost your mind?
First you thought stars were signaling, and then you heard disembodied
voices, and then--
I'm not gonna show
myself, so you better listen up. Check your Powerball numbers, got it?
"Who are you?" Cat
was shaking now, looking anxiously around the little balcony. Inside, the
loft she'd just left was shadowy enough that she was half afraid some weirdo
was hiding behind the pipe organ to pounce on her if she--
Angels don't pounce,
Cat. Get a grip.
"Angels," she rasped. "Right. An angel's telling me to check my Powerball
ticket. Like I'm supposed to believe that."
Believing in things you
can't see is the first lesson in Wish Fulfillment 101. I'm Spike, by the
way. Your guardian angel, reporting for active duty.
Her pirate story was over
the top, but this! Now she was hearing voices--some tough guy named
Spike, claiming he was her guardian angel--
You've always wanted to
believe in me, so here I am. It was a street-savvy baritone that spouted
attitude all over the place and smelled like a sports bar on play-off night.
Cat wrinkled her nose. She
did smell cigarettes! And beer!
Okay, fine, I'll take my
Luckies and my Bud and butt outta your life, Cat. But I'm tellin' ya, you're
already a winner. If you don't believe me, it's your loss, doll.
"Doll?" Cat snickered at
the hint of gangster in his tone, still wondering why she was even holding
this conversation. Yet she could see him perfectly in her mind's
eye...realized her body was thrumming on a whole new wave length now. She
felt the caress of an unseen hand as surely as she'd imagined the Caribbean
And then he was gone. Only
the subtle apple wood smoke from Trevor's fireplace wafted around her
She glanced inside again,
wondering what to believe. Should she check those numbers? Should she--
On instinct, Cat looked up.
The dusk had deepened, and another star above her shone more brightly than
the others coming out around it. When it winked at her, she went inside: who
was she to disregard a third sign? Messing with stuff like that meant
trouble...especially since there were no witnesses to this little incident.
Except for Spike, of course.
She opened her laptop
again, willing it to hurry as the familiar beeps and whirring sounds brought
pictures to her screen. Wistfully she picked up the lottery ticket, wishing
she could believe the brief conversation with an angel that already felt,
Cat typed in the URL listed
on the ticket...Powerball.com. By now, the day's numbers would be displayed
and they'd have upped the jackpot amount because no one's number's matched--
WINNER! WINNER! WINNER!
flashed across the screen.
Cat scrolled down to where
the numbers were listed--on a ticket purchased in Crystal City, just south
of here, the sidebar said! Hadn't Bruce bought their tickets in a trendy
little watering hole near the Interstate?
She held her breath,
glancing from the cash register receipt to the screen. 34--and 34.18--and
18. 48--and 48--
Voices rose below her, as
the three pretend pirates cussed the television in the parlor.
"Damn! Isn't Crystal City where you bought these--"
"So much for retiring early."
"Hey, I bought you the damn
chances, guys!" Bruce's tenor whine rang out. "It's not like my
numbers were any better than--"
"Holy shit," Cat whispered.
Her hand shook so badly the receipt fluttered to the floor. Surely she'd
misread--she turned on the desk lamp to compare those numbers again.
A few moments later,
Trevor's voice ascended the narrow wooden stairway ahead of their footsteps.
"Let's see if Cat's checked her numbers yet. We need to help her lighten
up tonight, guys. Maybe order in some pizzas and--"
She stared at the three men
approaching from the other side of the pipe organ console. Trevor Teague, in
his mascara and beaded scarf; Grant Carey in his flowing shirt with a sword
swinging from his magenta sash; Bruce Bigelow, who'd ditched the blonde wig
but still wore a fitted gown of hot pink brocade with matching kid slippers.
"Are you all right, Cat? You--"
"--look like you saw a ghost or--"
"I won," she squeaked. "I
think, anyway. Here--you check the numbers!"
Trevor snatched the receipt
from her hand and then murmured the digits in turn as he checked her screen.
"Holy mother of God, would you look at--she won it!" he crowed. "Our
very own Cat Woman won the fuckin' Powerball!"
"On my ticket!" Bruce
chimed in. "Do I know how to pick numbers, or what?!"
"And--and by all rights that money is yours. Fair and square, Bruce."
Cat swallowed hard and held
out the receipt. Damn that angel for showing up and telling her she'd won,
when it wasn't rightfully her money anyway!
Bruce Bigelow's eyes glowed
an enhanced emerald green as he gripped the other end of the lottery ticket.
He had the sun-bleached hair and perfectly bronzed pecs of an all-American
surf bum, and Cat had no trouble imagining him as some rich bitch's cabana
boy, hot and tanned and alluring in his Speedo. Without the dress, of
Bruce folded her fingers
around the receipt and then kissed her fist. "This calls for champagne. A
toast to your new life, Catalina Gamble."
"Hear, hear!" Trevor cried. "I'll go fetch a bottle from the cellar!"
"If--if the lottery board
verifies these numbers for two hundred fifty-eight million dollars,"
Grant intoned in his low courtroom voice, "you'll have some important
decisions to make very quickly, my dear. If your husband's creditors get
wind of this, they'll try to--"
Cat looked into hypnotic
eyes that glistened like indigo crystals. Just like that bad-ass angel had
said, she suddenly had answers to all her problems! And thanks to her hours
of online research, she knew exactly what she would do and where she wanted
to go. At last, she could escape the annoying phone calls and threatening
letters from Laird's loan sharks!
"You're my attorney,
Grant," she said earnestly, "and you're going to get those bastards off my
back. I did not accumulate those gambling debts, nor did I put the
house in hock--and--and I'm not going to answer another one of their
calls or accusations!"
Grant arched an eyebrow.
"You're not suggesting I blow them off? I'm not sure we can--"
"Whatever it takes. Keep it
legal without caving in to them," she breathed. "This windfall has just
bought you all the time you need, and it's my ticket out of a nightmare."
"You go, girl!"
Still in shock from this
lucky turn of events, Cat placed her hand on Bigelow's smooth bronzed
shoulder. "Even if I split this jackpot with you, Bruce, I'll have more than
"I want you to dream big,
Cat," the landscaper replied with a happy sigh. "Hey--I never figured on
winning, so I won't miss it. Easy come, easy go."
"Don't you tell those guys
a thing before I get back up there!" Trevor called from downstairs.
"I'm coming as fast as I can!"
"That is so Trevor,"
Bruce breathed with a roll of his eyes.
Cat smiled. Idiosyncrasies
aside, these guys were better friends than she'd had for a long, long time.
The perfect buffers and pick-me-ups during the bleak six months since Laird
took that overdose. Had Grant Carey not read of her predicament in the
papers, she wouldn't be sitting in this remodeled cathedral with a silver
fox of an attorney dressed in a flowing poet's shirt...and tights that
hugged a whole lot of manhood. Nor would Grant's friend Trevor have invited
her to be his house guest, with perfectly honorable intentions! Too bad
these three fascinating men were after each other rather than her.
But thanks to them, she had
a new dream to plan--a whole new life to plot out! It sounded like a helluva
lot more fun than bemoaning the crappy pirate drivel she'd written today,
and wondering if she'd ever sell another book. The thunder of boots in the
stairway prompted her to click into Yahoo! so she could access her
"Here's the scoop, guys,"
she began, breathless with feeling so alive again. "I took this online class
about how to disappear--legally," she added with a pointed look
toward Grant. "So now I can get a J2 phone--load up on calling
cards--and--and buy myself an island! I'll--"
"What's a J2 phone?" Trevor
peeled the foil from the neck of his champagne bottle, and then shot the
cork over the railing with a satisfying pop. "You're sharp, Cat, but
you don't impress me as the cloak-and-dagger type. Too damn beautiful to
remain hidden or anonymous for long, no matter where you go. Technology
being what it is, and all."
She grinned brightly.
Teague had never told her she was beautiful--and by God, she was starting to
feel that way now! "J2 phone calls can't be traced, which means Laird's loan
sharks can't harass me. And here--I've got URL's for opening offshore
accounts! What do you know about setting those up, Grant?"
The attorney leaned closer
to her laptop screen, absently accepting a flute of fizzing champagne from
Trevor. "I have colleagues who do it all the time, for corporate clients
diverting assets away from taxes. Cat, honey, you're moving awfully fast
"Not when you consider I've been looking into this stuff for months, as
research for a book someday. Look!"
She clicked to another
site...pointed at a listing of articles about how to find jobs and buy homes
on the cheap, in places like Nicaragua and Guam and the Pacific Islands.
"Here's info on how to have my mail forwarded to a mail drop. Real
estate listings for entire islands that cost less than this house, Trev!"
Her host handed her a glass
with fizzy bubbles dancing around its rim. "Escape Artist dot com?" he
demanded. "Cat, this sounds like something your husband should've looked
into before--well, before he did such a number on you!"
"Makes it sound like
there's a whole frickin' world of people from the States relocating
to these places!"
"You're right on the money,
Bruce. Expatriates living abroad...for whatever reason," she said, clicking
through to her favorite bookmarked site. "And get a load of this place! I've
been imagining it as my setting for a book--four bedrooms, rosewood
staircase, cabinets and floors. Wraparound balconies with jacuzzi facing
the sunsets and a full view of the ocean, where you can watch the
dolphins play. Lush tropical trees and flowering--"
"Cat, this place runs a million eight."
"And your point would be?"
Giddy triumph surged through her as she raised her glass to the three
astounded men hovering around her laptop. "Why would I not want it?
Even after the taxes on my jackpot, I'll have plenty to spend on such a
home. And with four bedrooms--"
"We could be your
house guests!" Trevor crowed. He tapped his flute to hers, and the ringing
of crystal lingered in the loft. "Here's to Cat's new life and new home!"
"Long may she wave!" Bruce
called out. He downed half of his champagne before Cat got her glass to her
Ah, it was sweet this
victory. Far more exhilarating than the rush of cold fizz down her throat.
Grant, ever the practical one, had taken her mouse to click on the pictures
of this idyllic property, his obsidian eyes narrowing.
"You'll have to arrange for
a viewing of this property, dear heart," he mused aloud. "Pictures don't
always tell the whole story--"
"Of course I will! And I might find something just as nice for less!"
"--and you'll need a passport to leave the U.S.--"
"--and before any of this
can come to pass," he continued, gazing at her over his champagne, "we'll
need to confirm your winnings with the lottery board and see if other
winners share your pot. We'll have papers to sign. Payments to arrange."
Cat drained her glass,
gazing at him over its rim. This alluring attorney was probably ten years
her senior, but hot to the point of making her wet. So powerful was
Grant Carey in legal circles that she'd been totally intimidated by his
custom-cut suits--his awesome presence--and those shining black eyes
that seemed to see through to her deepest secrets. Until now.
She winked at him, holding
her flute toward Trevor for more champagne. "So what're you doing tomorrow,
Top of Page