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Book 3: Warrior Series
Copyright ©2013 by Laura Taylor
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9893204-2-9
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book, regardless of its format, may be duplicated or transmitted without prior written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Book Length: 257 pages (Word Document)
This novel is a Special Author’s Cut updated edition of Heartbreaker, and it was first published as Bantam Loveswept #634.
Book 3: Warrior Series
Pride, determination, and sensuality collide in HEARTBREAKER, for which author Laura Taylor received a Career Achievement Award for Series Romantic Adventure from Romantic Times Book Reviews.
* * * * * (5 stars) HEARTBREAKER Sizzles
“mem317” / Amazon Reader Reviewer
“I never write book reviews, but I am making an exception since I've enjoyed reading several of Laura Taylor's romantic suspense novels in recent months. Heartbreaker - like her other novels - is an intense, sensual battle of the sexes that I absolutely loved. I can't wait for Laura Taylor's next book, and I think you'll feel the same way when you read them - they're addicting!”
Readers Praise HEARTBREAKER
“Absolutely wonderful love story!”
“Heartbreaker – storytelling at its all-time best.”
“I could not put it down…read it in one day!”
“As with all Ms. Taylor’s romances, Heartbreaker grabbed me from the first page.”
“A must-read for all fans of romance.”
“Laura Taylor writes with the power and sensuality that characterizes the best authors in the romance genre.”
Romantic Times Book Reviews
For Jill Weiss,
BLISS ROWLAND spotted an imperfection in the clay she couldn’t ignore. She dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and then lightly smoothed one fingertip across the base of a large sculpture mounted atop a pedestal in the center of her studio. She smiled as she stepped back to survey the subtle change.
A life-sized impressionistic piece, the sculpture possessed the flowing curves and hollows representative of the reclining figure of a naked woman. Partially submerged by an advancing tide, the woman appeared as an integral part of the ebb and flow of the sea.
Bliss knew she was her own worst critic. She demanded the very best of herself, and she never settled for less. She also understood and accepted her nearly compulsive devotion to her sculpting, aware that it was a consequence of a tumultuous childhood and adolescence. She’d felt compelled to create order out of chaos, primarily within the confines of her own mind. Her ability to focus, as well as her extraordinary talent as a sculptor, now evidenced itself in the results of a grueling year of work.
Although Bliss felt physically depleted, she smiled as her gaze swept across the spacious studio that now housed more than a dozen original sculptures. She cared little about the fatigue that caused shadows beneath the brilliant blue of her eyes, the disheveled state of her short, curly black hair, or the loose fit of her clothes. She never apologized for sleeping only when she was too exhausted to do anything else, or if she neglected regular meals when she prepared for a one-woman show. Bliss Rowland answered to no one but herself, and she liked it that way.
She circled the pedestal one final time. Drying her fingertips on the hem of her T-shirt, Bliss slowly completed her inspection. When she paused, she lifted her arms to stretch the kinks from her shoulders, neck and lower back. Then, she exhaled softly. The satisfied sound that escaped her blended with the fragrant Saint Thomas breeze as it sighed through the palm trees in the courtyard, which separated her sculpting studio from the main house on the private estate she called home.
Whatever the critics decreed about this collection, Bliss knew that she would experience only pride in her achievement. She felt a deep sense of satisfaction about each sculpture on its own merits, just as she appreciated the fact that the international art community had long ago acknowledged her as a sculptor of originality. In truth, she savored her reputation as a risk-taker who challenged the observer to explore both the subtleties and the boldness of her creations.
Her cell phone chimed, jarring her from her thoughts. She dug it out of her pocket, tapped an icon on the screen, and then stiffened the instant she heard the voice on the other end of the line.
“Bliss? This is your father.”
Caution saturated her senses as she said, “Hello, Dad. How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Cyrus Rowland answered.
Bliss, long attuned to the subtleties of his personality, heard an undercurrent of tension in the presidential envoy’s cultured voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You rarely call,” she reminded him with the candor that had evolved between them over the years.
“Is that a criticism, Bliss?”
“Hardly. Just an observation.” She summoned patience before she continued. “Your tone of voice gave you away. So, what’s going on?”
“Do you remember Micah Holbrook?”
Startled, Bliss said, “Of course, I remember him. How could I not?” She silently acknowledged that she’d measured every man she’d ever known against her memories of Micah Holbrook. No man had ever made the grade. Not a single one. But then, no other man had ever saved her life.
“He’s in the hospital in D.C.”
Bliss closed her eyes. An ache lodged itself in her heart, and it throbbed like a dull wound. “Will he be alright?” she whispered.
“Right now, that’s open for debate.”
“I’d rather not go into the details, Bliss.”
“Some things never change, do they?” she remarked. What do you want from me, Dad? “Look, he probably doesn’t even remember me, but I hope you’ll give him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.”
“I’m sending Micah to the estate.”
She gripped the phone. “What?”
“You heard me.”
She swallowed her resentment at his high-handed behavior. Nothing new there, she reminded herself. “Why would you send him here?”
“He needs a secure and private environment for his convalescence.”
“I’m less than a month away from my next one-woman show.”
“I realize that. Knowing you, though, the work is already done.”
How, Bliss wondered, did an absentee father know the details of her life, let alone her work habits? “I just finished the final piece for the collection this morning,” she admitted.
“He helped you when you needed him. I want you to help him now.”
“That was a long time ago. I was seventeen years old, for heaven’s sake. How in the world could I help Micah Holbrook?”
“He saved your life. At the very least, you owe him the hospitality of the estate. Besides, you know better than most people what he’s going through right now.”
Her father’s voice faded. Bliss remembered more clearly than she wanted the blast that had nearly destroyed an entire London block and had taken countless lives on a warm summer morning. Trapped in the rubble of a fashionable dress shop near a busy train station, she had struggled to crawl through the debris and dead bodies. A twenty-seven-year-old American naval officer had come out of nowhere to rescue her, freeing her from the wreckage, shielding her as best he could from the carnage caused by a terrorist bombing, and carrying her to a waiting ambulance.
“Bliss!” Cyrus Rowland barked. “Did you hear me?”
Jolted back to the present, she said, “He saved my life.”
“Yes, he did, and now he needs you to help him save himself,” Cyrus pressed.
“Why does he need my help? Surely there are better places for him than Saint Thomas. His doctors must want to keep him ...”
Her father cut in. “I’m worried about him, Bliss. They can treat his body, but not his spirit. The surgery to restore his vision was experimental. He knows the failure rate is close to seventy percent, and he’s angry and frightened.”
“Like Mom,” she whispered, recalling the mother whose diabetes had robbed her of her vision and sent her into full retreat from the world.
“What about his family? Wouldn’t he prefer to be around people he knows and trusts?”
“They don’t know what’s happened to him, and he refuses to allow anyone to contact them. Plus, his father’s health is failing.”
“What exactly happened?” she asked, firming her tone to let him know that, this time, she expected a straight answer.
“You remember that car bomb at one of our Central American embassies last month?”
She recalled all too vividly the accounts she’d seen on news broadcasts about the explosion that had almost killed her father and seriously injured several others. “Was Micah with you on that diplomatic mission?”
“And was he one of the people who saved your life?” she pressed.
“Why didn’t you call me after it happened?” she asked quietly. “Didn’t you think I’d want to know if you were alright? Damn it, Dad, I had to read the accounts on-line to find out if you were dead or alive.”
Silence. More than a minute of it before a more subdued-sounding Cyrus said, “You sound like your mother right now.”
Bliss kept her voice even. “Mother is dead. She has been for a long time. I have a life, and I’m tired, Dad. This show’s important to me, and I’ve spent the last year preparing for it. I don’t know how much good I’d be to anyone else right now.”
He cleared his throat. “Bliss, please do this for me. We both owe him a great deal.”
The “please” got her. In truth, his use of the word absolutely stunned her. She couldn’t recall the last time her father had said the word when speaking to her, or to anyone else, for that matter.
Like most men accustomed to wielding power on a global basis, he ordered and demanded. He spoke for presidents. He confronted dictators and brought them to heel. He dealt with crises, negotiated treaties, and ended wars. And he’d always made his daughter feel like an intruder in his life, until she’d learned not to seek his approval or attention.
The God’s honest truth? Cyrus Rowland was a law unto himself. That much had not changed, and she knew that fact right down to her soul.
“His well-being is that important to you?”
“Yes. He’s in a bad place mentally, but you’re strong enough to handle him. I trust your instincts and your judgment where he’s concerned.”
Praise from Cyrus? That, too, shocked her. She released a sigh. “Alright, Dad.”
“Thank you, Bliss. I just don’t trust anyone else with him.”
“He’s one of the good guys, and you knew before you called that I wouldn’t be able to say no, didn’t you?” Not an accusation so much as an acknowledgement of a time-honored truth of their relationship.
Cyrus said nothing for a long moment. “He’s one of the good guys. In fact, he’s the…best.” His tone shifted from emotion-laden to one of brisk competence. “All of the appropriate arrangements have been made. Members of my personal household staff and an armed security detail will arrive with him. Everyone’s familiar with the layout of the estate except Micah.”
“Is he vulnerable to an attack?” she asked in response to the mention of armed security personnel.
Accustomed to the need to guarantee the safety of senior government officials like her father, Bliss still didn’t like the idea of people lurking about her home with weapons at the ready. She’d always accepted the presence of armed security during her father’s infrequent visits to the family estate, or when she periodically acted as his hostess if he needed to entertain foreign dignitaries on behalf of the president.
Cyrus hadn’t come to the estate in almost two years, and the memory of the last diplomatic gathering she had handled for him emerged from a locked mental closet she rarely explored. It had taken months of therapy for her to move beyond the incident that had involved one of his guests, a South American diplomat.
The man had been a first class ass of a drunk. He’d over-powered her one evening after the other guests had gone up to bed, dragged her kicking and flailing into the depths of her late mother’s rose garden, and then nearly raped her before she’d managed to slam a fist into his face and break his nose. Her father’s security detail had beaten the man to within an inch of his life. Before they’d dumped the bastard’s unconscious body at the foot of the stairs to his private jet at the St. Thomas Airport, she had wrested a vow from each man on the security team not to speak of the incident to anyone, especially Cyrus. As far as she knew, they’d all kept their promise to her.
“…a threat is possible,” Cyrus was saying. “You probably know that Micah has spent most of his career with Naval Intelligence. He’s worked too many highly classified missions for me in recent years to even count, and a man makes enemies in those situations. Enough said?”
“More than enough.” Bliss hesitated for a moment. “He’s a friend, isn’t he, not just someone who works for you?”
Cyrus laughed. “Try not to hold it against him, Bliss.”
She couldn’t laugh. She couldn’t even find the strength to smile. Neither did she admit her sadness that her father seemed more at ease with friendships that had evolved through his work rather than as a consequence of his family relationships.
“When will he arrive?”
This afternoon? She wanted to groan. “I assume they’re already on their way.”
“Yes. They are.” After a pause, he said, “Help him, Bliss. Please.”
Before she could reply, he severed the connection. Still, she whispered, “Bye, Dad.”
Bliss tucked her cell phone back into her pocket. Instead of cursing Fate or shaking her head in disbelief – neither of which would be helpful - she returned her attention to the sculpture on the pedestal in the center of her studio. She drew from the symmetry of her creation the strength and inner calm she knew she would need as she faced Micah Holbrook for the first time in eleven years.
The girl she had once been no longer existed. And the twenty-eight year old woman who’d replaced her had long ago given up her fantasies and illusions.
** ** **
Several hours later, Bliss stepped out onto the covered patio as she heard the sound of a helicopter. She watched the aircraft touch down on the back lawn of the estate. An expanse of perfectly manicured grass, it separated the mansion from the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Uniformed men spilled out of the interior of the helicopter. She recognized several members of her father’s household staff, and she assumed the armed men composed the security contingent he’d mentioned.
Micah, the last man to exit the helicopter, still resembled a brash Viking adventurer. Eleven years older now, the intervening years since their last encounter had treated him kindly. If anything, Bliss decided as she studied him, he seemed more ruggedly masculine than ever.
She registered first the sunglasses that covered his eyes, and then she took in the rigid set of his broad shoulders. His military bearing showed in his posture, despite his casual attire of slacks, a polo shirt, and leather deck shoes. Bliss remained motionless as two uniformed men stationed themselves on either side of him. Well over six feet in height, broad-shouldered, and narrow-hipped, Micah dwarfed his companions.
She sensed the depth of his resentment when he reluctantly placed his hand on the shoulder of one of the men. His long-legged stride appeared confident. Even as she silently blessed the landscaper who’d designed the level, open stretch of lawn, she recalled her mother’s fear of embarrassing herself in front of strangers if she stumbled or fell.
Bliss hated seeing Micah forced to depend on others, but she knew he needed to come to terms with the reality that he might never regain his sight. Squaring her slender shoulders, she tried to ignore her accelerating heartbeat and racing pulse as Micah approached her. Memories of the crush she’d had on him while still a teenager stirred in her heart and mind, but she chased them away.
The mature woman – the internationally acclaimed artist - felt an unexpected desire to sculpt Micah’s likeness, to capture the distinctive lines of his strong-featured face in clay. She’d tried several times over the years, but she’d always given up in frustration, not trusting her memory to do him justice. Although she understood why he wore sunglasses, she wished he hadn’t felt the need to conceal his bandaged eyes.
She wanted to see as much of his face as possible. Her fingertips tingled with the need to trace the contours of his strong brow, high cheekbones, hard cheeks, and the aggressive chin that made him look willful and stubborn. She remembered him as both willful and stubborn. She also remembered his reckless smile and the sound of his laughter, both absent now. Bliss closed her hands into fists, fearful she might indulge the impulses she felt as he drew nearer.
Her breath caught as a sudden storm of emotions swept over her. The desire to protect herself came out of nowhere, colliding with the rashness of impulse and desire. She calmed herself with effort, assuming the role of gracious hostess with a smile that felt stiff and unnatural.
She felt shaken by her unanticipated need to draw Micah into her arms and simply hold him, but a heartbeat later she managed to reclaim her composure. Bliss possessed a strength of will that often surprised people, especially those foolish enough to assume her petite frame and delicate facial features translated into a fragile character. She couldn’t help wondering now if Micah Holbrook would make that same mistake.
Stepping aside, Bliss silently invited her guests into the foyer of the main house with an elegant sweep of her hand. She followed them, pausing in the center of the high-ceilinged room dominated by a gleaming crystal chandelier and a marble staircase that led to the upper level of the mansion.
“Welcome to Saint Thomas and Rowland House, gentlemen. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Bliss Rowland.”
She immediately sensed the fury emanating from Micah. It rolled off of him in invisible waves, encompassing everything and everyone in its path. Bliss deliberately ignored his hostility.
“Some of you have been here before, so please settle in and reacquaint yourselves with the mansion. The two upstairs wings should accommodate all of you, but I’ll leave it to you to sort out the sleeping arrangements. Aside from the studio on the opposite side of the main courtyard, you have the run of the estate.”
She approached Micah as she spoke. She knew she startled him when she took his hand. He flinched, but Bliss ignored his reaction and laced their fingers together as though they were old friends. “I’ll escort Captain Holbrook to his suite.”
“Ma’am, I’m supposed to…”
She smiled at the young man who stood beside Micah. His uniform bore a corpsman’s insignia. “Please?”
Instantly charmed, he flushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“May I depend on you to deliver his luggage to his quarters?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Thank you all.” Bliss waited for them to disperse before she spoke to Micah. Once they stood alone in the sprawling foyer, she asked, “How was your trip?”
He doesn’t remember me, she realized, a combination of relief and disappointment mingling within her. She took a moment to remind herself that most men rarely remembered mousy seventeen-year-old girls they’d met more than eleven years earlier. She also recalled Cyrus’s comment that Micah had been involved in numerous covert missions for Naval Intelligence, and she concluded that more recent violent events had eclipsed any recollection of a long ago terrorist assault on a London train station and shopping district.
“I have no medical credentials,” she said, “although I am your hostess during your stay at Rowland House. Cyrus called earlier today. He explained your situation.”
Micah remained mute.
Bliss smoothed her fingertips over their joined hands. She felt the answering clench of his strong fingers. “I’ll familiarize you with the mansion and the grounds of the estate. You’ll need to try to relax and trust me, which is a lot to ask of you right now, I know. Before we begin, I promise that I’ll try never to make you feel uncomfortable about your inability to see, but I won’t avoid the subject either.”
“You don’t mince words.”
She smiled. “No, I don’t. Do you mind?”
He tilted his head, as though he could see beyond the bandages that covered his eyes. She remembered from long ago the piercing quality of his dark-eyed gaze, and for a moment she felt relieved that he couldn’t see the hunger in her eyes as she studied him.
“Yes, I mind. I mind all of this.”
“I don’t blame you. Cyrus has a way of bulldozing people into submission. He considers his judgment impeccable. The rest of us are left to deal with his orchestrations, so I guess it’s up to us to make the best of a potentially awkward situation.”
He chuckled, but the sound lacked any genuine humor.
“I’ll show you to your suite now,” she continued, not missing a beat. “I’m right-handed, so I generally lead off with my right foot.”
Although pleased that he immediately adjusted his stride to her shorter one, Bliss didn’t kid herself that Micah Holbrook was feeling cooperative. She expected resistance and anger from him in the hours and days ahead. She understood and even empathized with his inner rage, but she was nevertheless determined to draw him out of the shell into which he’d recently crawled.
Despite the currents of tension she felt streaming through his muscular body, Bliss spoke with a nonchalance that belied the truth of her own chaotic emotions. “We’re entering the east wing of the main house. You’ve probably noticed how cool it is indoors. The floors and walls are marble. The hallway is quite long and six feet wide. There are three suites located in this particular wing. You’ll be using the one next door to mine, and we’ll share a patio that overlooks the back lawn and the beach. The third suite will remain vacant during your stay.”
As they moved down the hallway at a sedate pace, Bliss savored the encompassing warmth of Micah’s hand. She remembered the way in which he’d watched over her all those years ago, reassuring her with his presence in the London hospital, holding her hand while the doctor swabbed cuts with anesthetic and then stitched a gash in her right thigh. She still bore the scar on her upper leg, although it had faded to a narrow white line. During those post-bombing hours, Micah Holbrook had become the center of her world. She’d never forgotten him, although she felt certain that he hadn’t ever guessed the impact he’d had on the vulnerable heart of a lonely seventeen year old girl.
“There aren’t any chairs or other furnishings in the hallway, so you won’t have to negotiate an obstacle course when you leave your suite.”
Bliss slowed her steps to pause before a closed door. She guided Micah’s hand to the doorknob and smoothed his fingers over it. “We’re standing at the end of the hallway now.”
He turned the knob and pushed open the door. Bliss inhaled the mingling scents of island flowers and salt-tinged Caribbean air that flowed through the open patio doors on the opposite side of the room. Taking his hand again, she stepped into the spacious room. Relief flooded her when Micah allowed her to draw him forward with her.
“This suite is a combination sitting room and bedroom with a private bath. The furniture is contemporary, and the color scheme is a mix of creams and burgundies.” She glanced at Micah, noting the muscle that ticked furiously in his already tight jaw. “I’ll always describe your surroundings.”
“What the hell’s the point?”
“By having mental images to work with, you’ll get a better sense of how to move through each room.”
He jerked his hand free. “Are you blind?”
“No. You are,” she said. “At least, for the moment. No one knows if your condition is permanent, so we’re going to deal with that reality, rather than pretend you might not be sight impaired for the remainder of your life.”
“How in hell can you possibly know what I need?”
“Experience. My method may not be officially sanctioned by the medical community, but it works. And Cyrus trusts me,” she reminded him.
He bit out an ugly word.
Bliss ignored his anger and reclaimed his hand. She led him around the room. She showed him the location of each piece of furniture, the walk-in closet, and the bathroom. By forcing Micah to skim his fingertips across each surface they encountered, including the walls, she knew she was helping him to imprint permanent images in his sensory memory. Finally, she escorted him to the open French doors that led out to the patio, pausing on the threshold.
“You can smell and feel the breeze on your face. It’s almost as good as a massage after a long day at work. It’s beautiful outside today. There isn’t a cloud for miles, and the temperature is in the high eighties.”
“I’m tired.” Micah turned his back on the view he couldn’t see. He stopped abruptly.
Bliss understood his dilemma. Resisting the impulse to guide him, she instead provided him with the means to deal with his disorientation. “There are two chairs and a coffee table approximately six feet in front of you. The low table is positioned between the chairs.”
His spine as straight as an oak plank, Micah moved forward. Bliss watched him fight the urge to extend his hands in front of him. Instead, he pressed them to his sides.
“Micah,” she said quietly.
He paused, his chin coming up as he tilted his head in her direction.
“The leading edge of the chair cushion is about eight inches from where you’re standing. Move slowly and you’ll feel the presence of the chair before you actually reach it, but only if you trust your senses and allow them to guide you.”
He moved with care and an unusual grace for such a large man deprived of his ability to see. Once he sank down into the chair, he exhaled and gripped the arms. “I didn’t ask to be sent here.” Anger and resentment resonated in his low voice.
“I realize that.”
“Why would you want a stranger in your home?”
“You’re my father’s friend.” And you saved my life, even though you obviously don’t remember me.
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s the only one I’ve got right now.” Her gaze fell to his white-knuckled grip on the arms of the chair. She ached for him, but she managed to keep her voice calm as she spoke. “I’m offering you my hospitality and friendship, not pity. I save that for people who really need it.”
“I don’t want or need your help, and I’d like to be left alone now.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t allow you to turn this suite into a bunker while you ignore reality. I have some free time on my hands, and I intend to put it to good use while you’re here. Cyrus told me the doctors are uncertain if you’ll regain your vision. Since your blindness could be permanent, you need to learn some good habits right off the bat.”
“Get the hell out of here. Now!” he shouted, his temper finally exploding.
She approached him, her hands joined in front of her as she studied him. “You cannot deal with this situation alone, and turning yourself into a recluse until you learn if the surgery’s been successful or not is a mistake. You must prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll be blind. I’m putting you on notice right now, Micah Holbrook. I do not intend to let you hide from yourself or from the world. I know you’re angry, and I don’t have a problem with that. You’re an intelligent man, so be smart enough to make your anger work for you, instead of using it against yourself.”
He raked ruthless fingers through his close-cropped, pale gold hair. When he finally spoke, he did so through gritted teeth. “Please just get out of here and leave me alone.”
Bliss crossed the room. She paused at the door to glance back at Micah. She felt his panic, but she could do nothing about it at the moment. It would run its course, and then she would try again.
Trembling with an array of emotions, not the least of which was determination, she lifted her chin. She knew in that instant that she would go to war with Micah in order to help him through this nightmare. But she needed to remain emotionally detached, at least for the time-being, and she wondered if she had the strength required for that particular task.
“The evening meal is usually served at seven. I’ll see you then. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I hope you enjoy your stay at Rowland House. Cyrus calls it the perfect place for rest and relaxation. When your luggage arrives, you should unpack your clothes without help from anyone. You’ll be less dependent on others if you do for yourself whatever you can.”
Her heart ached for him as she watched him continue to grapple with his rage. She thought he looked as lonely and isolated as a jagged mountain peak. While he simmered in silence, Bliss cautioned in a gentle voice, “No one will be allowed to wait on you, Micah. Your rank is meaningless in my home, so don’t issue any orders. Anyone who caters to you will be shipped out in a matter of hours.”