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By C.J. Darling
Artwork by Linda Cappel
Copyright 2018 C.J. Darling
This book is available wherever quality paperbacks and electronic books are sold.
To Pam and Thom, for bringing so much joy into my life.
I love you both more than you’ll ever know!
The time had finally come.
Lord Winston Thurmond was a man who had everything. He was successful, wealthy, and still handsome, despite the unforgiving ravages of time and advancing age. His triumphs in the mercurial stock market were legendary. Corporate moguls fawned over his every word. The media rhapsodized about his greatness and generosity every time he sneezed. His wife was young, beautiful, and publicly devoted to his every need.
But even the man who had everything couldn’t have everything.
Thurmond had spent most of his life beating the odds with flamboyant style. But one way or another, there was a price to be paid for outrageous success. He’d known all along that his turn would come. The thick white folder spread across his wide mahogany desk only confirmed what he’d suspected for a long time.
Well, he’d never been a coward before, and he didn’t intend to start now. So he’d face his fate with whatever dignity he could muster.
It was the aftermath that worried him most. His beloved wife would never know hunger; he’d worked long and hard to ensure that. Physically she’d be provided for, until her children’s children were old and gray.
But emotionally… Yes, that was a different story.
He’d sidestepped his contemporaries’ colorful divorce-de-jour dramas by waiting until well past his prime to marry. But the long wait had been worthwhile.
Gwen was everything he could have wished for in a wife. She was intelligent, sensitive, caring, exquisitely lovely with her wide blue eyes and creamy pale skin. And her hair was long, lush, silky to the touch. He loved stroking her curling tawny locks as they sat near the big stone fireplace, watching whimsical flames caress a towering pile of fragrant cedar logs.
He would miss that, perhaps, most of all.
Regrets were something he’d allow himself later, if at all. Right now, he had work to do. One last task to set in motion for his beautiful Gwen.
Sighing at the effort it now took, he maneuvered his wheelchair closer to his desk, and curled shaky fingers around an elegant fountain pen. He must be strong, if only for her. Once her future safety and happiness were ensured, he could allow himself the luxury of relaxing. But not until then.
His handwriting firmed along with his resolve as ingenious plans took shape in his still-clever mind. A subtle hint here, a generous contribution there, and men all over the world would fall into line like obedient soldiers.
He did not intend to fail in this, the last—and most important—battle of his life.
“Kiss me, Gwen!” A man’s voice, husky with passion, echoed in her ears. She knew that low voice, knew the strong hands that moved up her slender body, enticing and arousing with every clever stroke. Every night it was the same, and she was helpless to resist his ghostly seductive allure. “Hold me…yes, like that! Let me teach you, let me love you! I can show you so many things…”
His long, hard body pressed intimately against hers, and a low, panting moan parted her lips. Agile fingers teased, promising exquisite delights. Then she gasped as he moved lower, penetrating so slowly that it drove her mad with desire.
“Mitch!” Passion exploded like brilliant fireworks as she wrapped around him, drawing him deeper. Higher and higher she soared with every frantic touch, until the very universe erupted in a firestorm of ecstasy. “Mitch!”
But just like every other night…when she bolted awake, drenched with sweat and gasping raggedly for breath, her lithe young body vibrating with desperate need…
Only poignant, heartbreaking memories haunted the darkened corners of her luxurious bedroom.
She was alone.
Mitch O’Neill had taken her trusting young heart, wrapped it tightly around his fist, and then shredded it in the cruelest betrayal imaginable. She was well rid of him.
But oh God, how many more years would it take for her wounded heart to accept, and—maybe someday—even forget?
No one, looking at Guinevere Langford Thurmond in the bright morning light, would imagine her nightly dreams were ravaged by nightmares. She was cheerful, energetic, vivacious.
Her sapphire eyes sparkled like the precious gems they resembled. Rich auburn curls tumbled over her shoulders, even when she tried to secure them back in a dignified chignon. Careful exposure to the hot summer sun had overlaid her fair skin with a faint honey glow. A light scattering of freckles, her personal bane since childhood, dusted her pert nose and slender shoulders.
In every way, she was a vision of beauty and youthful joy.
But now those clear blue eyes were clouded with worry and more than a trace of frustration as she hesitated in Caerlon’s elegant foyer and knelt down beside her aging husband.
“Winston, are you absolutely sure? Isn’t there any way I can convince you to go?”
The elaborately engraved ticket was in her purse, and their chauffeur was patiently waiting for her beyond the high ivy-covered garden walls. But still Gwen hesitated, reluctant to take such a final step away from everything she’d grown to cherish.
For the last six months, she and Winston had been planning every detail of this incredible round-the-world journey. Bermuda, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Azores, Morocco, Tangier, and dozens of other exotic ports beckoned. Some they’d visited before. Others would be new to her wondering eyes.
Barring unforeseen accidents, it would be two whole years before she returned to this grand old mansion she’d learned to call home.
At first, Winston had been full of energy, confident that not even his failing health would hinder their extravagant plans. And she was certain the fresh sea air would do him good. He’d lost weight during his final series of radiation treatments, and his silvery hair was losing its luster.
Was it only her worried imagination, or were the lines in his distinguished face getting deeper?
“Darling, I really wish you’d reconsider. You’re too cooped up in here. You need sunlight and a change of scenery. It’ll make you feel so much better!”
“Not this time, Gwen.” Winston smiled up at her, and it was the old smile she’d come to know and love so well. Despite her growing worries, his gentle smile eased the knot of tension between her shoulders. “I have to report to the Mayo Clinic again next Monday for more tests, and God knows where they’ll send me for additional treatments. It could be weeks before I’ll return.
“Besides, you’ll be much too busy with your pet project to hover and fuss over me. And that’s exactly how it should be.” Humor infused his rich British accent as he patted her small hand. “I want you to have fun on this cruise. Make it one to remember forever! If I can’t join you mid-trip, I’ll be here waiting when you get home.”
He would be, too. That was one of his most wonderful qualities: he never made a promise unless he intended to keep it.
Arguing with him was pointless, she thought with an inner sigh. Though heaven knew she’d tried often enough over the past several weeks. But Winston’s mind was made up. Perhaps later, if he felt strong enough, he’d join her at some romantic port-of-call somewhere along their winding route. But he would not be sailing with her today.
At least she felt marginally better for having tried one last time.
“You’re so good to me!” she murmured, bending down to give him a fond hug, and struggled to ignore the mournful tug on her heartstrings when her cheek brushed against his. He’d always been so strong, so vital, despite the nearly forty-year gap in their ages. How could he have turned, almost overnight, into this pale, fragile shell of the man she’d loved so long?
He returned her embrace with genuine affection. “The best is yet to come,” he promised, running a thin hand over her riotous curls. “Now go have fun. Captain Murphy and his crew will see to your every need. And I’ll rest easier knowing you’re enjoying yourself.”
He meant that, too. So after another warm hug, and the solemn promise to call or e-mail him every night, she let herself be nudged out of the broad marble foyer, down the green-dappled walkway where he enjoyed relaxing in the afternoons, and out into the bright sunshine.
He accompanied her as far as the exquisite flowered courtyard, then locked his wheelchair’s brakes and watched her walk away.
She glowed, he thought, like a candle in the darkness. Guinevere, his eternal flame. A piece of his heart would go with her, and already he could feel it breaking just a little. But through her, a piece of his soul would always survive. That knowledge never failed to comfort him.
Then the ornate garden gate closed behind her with a quiet snap, and Winston was alone with his thoughts and his memories.
It had been difficult letting her go, watching her walk away with only one last quick, smiling glance over her shoulder. But now it was done. From here, he could only trust in God, and Gwen’s own keen instincts, to follow the course he’d laid before her.
When she learned exactly what he’d set in motion, she’d be furious. But in time, he hoped, she’d come to understand, and perhaps even to be grateful.
Tired…he was so tired! But now, finally, he could rest.
She didn’t like leaving Winston alone with only the servants and a private nurse for company. God knew they were all loyal, and would dance on flaming coals to please him. Winston Thurmond inspired that kind of fierce devotion because he was so genuinely kind and decent.
Not like some, she mused with a faint grimace, who’d smile to your face, earn your undying trust, and then stab you in the back. No, he was a throwback to an earlier age when being honorable was a virtue, and gentlemen were noble and high-principled.
He’d certainly been her Arthur, her knight in shining armor, back when she’d been so painfully young and naive! If not for him…
With an effort, Gwen thrust those troubling memories back into her past. Winston wanted her to have fun on this trip, so she would do her best even though she was secretly dreading the entire ordeal.
It seemed so strange, and somehow vaguely ominous, to be traveling alone. During the past six months since he’d been diagnosed with acute spinal cancer, they’d only passed beyond the gates of his luxurious estate to consult with a variety of brilliant doctors and specialists.
Surgery had been deemed too risky due to the cancer’s location, so he’d undergone a wide range of treatments that ranged from cautiously mainstream to wildly alternative. She’d held his hand, cared for him through the inevitable nausea, and prayed for a miracle every time they’d boarded his private jet, bound for yet another specialist.
Then about three weeks ago, just when she’d almost begun to give up hope, something had turned the tide. She didn’t know which of the treatments was finally working, but the change in Winston was unmistakable. His appetite and color had begun to return, along with his keen enthusiasm about this cruise.
She’d hoped, despite everything, that he’d be well enough to travel by today. Failing that, she’d already arranged to have someone else manage her ‘pet project’ so she could stay home with him.
But there Winston had drawn the line. He would stay home and recuperate; she would continue on as they’d planned. Too many orphaned children were counting on her to risk disappointing them.
In the end, as he’d known she would, Gwen had given in—even though she’d really rather have stayed home. A solo cruise around the world might be the height of adventure for some young women. To her, it was a terrifying undertaking. But she simply couldn’t bear to disappoint him after all he’d done to make her life so wonderful.
So here she was, regally tucked into the back of a sumptuous white limousine just like a glamorous queen or Hollywood superstar, bound for a grand event a hundred times more prestigious than the world’s biggest celebrity ball.
Gwen cast one last longing glance back over her shoulder as the limo glided smoothly away from Winston’s immense mansion. Though she’d initially been intimidated by its size and splendor, she’d come to love its elaborate dusky-red brick silhouette, its fanciful circular towers, its hundreds of silvered windows that reflected the golden morning sun.
On both sides of the long driveway, vivid hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes were just bursting into bloom. Their riotous colors reminded her of the magnificent oil painting he’d had commissioned four years ago, which now hung over the fireplace in their formal living room. Even on the dreariest rainy day, it shed light and warmth throughout the huge room.
All these fragrant blossoms would be long-gone, withered by the furnace-blaze of two broiling summers, before she passed through these gates again.
Think positive. If the doctors are right and Win is nearly through the worst of his long ordeal, there’s a good chance he can meet me in Morocco or Lisbon in just a few months. Then we’ll celebrate by traveling anywhere, everywhere, whenever and wherever the mood strikes.
Or maybe we’ll just come home and sit by the fire, she thought with a fond smile. Either way she’d be happy, as long as he was finally out of pain.
The high metal gates swung closed behind her. Forcing a bright smile, just in case Winston was watching through the remote monitor, she turned to wave out the back window.
Right after they’d been married, he’d ordered new gates to replace the older bulky ones erected nearly fifty years previously. In addition to ultra-high tech security measures, the word ‘Caerlon’ had been worked into the elaborate metal scrollwork. In her honor, he’d admitted with a wry smile, because Caerlon was the ancient Welsh name for Camelot.
Caerlon had become her home, her sanctuary. No legendary Lady Guinevere could have felt safer, more secure, behind those high protective walls. She felt a sharp pang as Caerlon bade her goodbye, then faded into the dusty distance.
For now, she assured herself with an anxious sigh. Only for now. I’ll be home again soon.
Even at highway speed, it took over an hour to reach Port Canaveral’s bustling pier district. Gwen spent the time reviewing extensive notes she’d drafted about her upcoming ports of call. So many places, so little time! She hoped there’d be at least a few opportunities to rest and relax amid all her busy duties.
Colorful storefronts zipped past when her driver finally turned off the highway. She wondered, idly, how many of them Winston owned, or at least controlled the stock majorities. He owned so many things, and she could never keep them all straight in her memory.
There were those, she knew, who considered her an ambitious trophy wife, marrying him only for his money. She didn’t let their jaundiced opinions sting, because in her heart she knew they were wrong. His vast stock portfolios, his multimillion dollar companies, and the beautiful homes he maintained in London and Paris and Switzerland, meant nothing to her.
Though she’d been just barely nineteen and he’d been fifty-seven, Winston hadn’t married her to bolster his aging ego. Her entire world had been crumbling around her ears, and he’d wanted to make things right for her.
At the time, marriage had seemed like the most logical solution. And though she’d protested, he’d worn away her resolve with the same tenacious persistence that had earned him a dozen vast fortunes.
No one had expected it to last more than a few months, at best. But despite everyone’s dire predictions—because the odds had been so dramatically stacked against them—they’d come to suit each other quite nicely.
Winston often joked that his boisterous playboy days had ended when he’d stumbled across an enchanting little fairy hiding in his rose garden. True or not, he’d turned his back on the frenetic social scene without a visible qualm. She sometimes wondered whether it was because he’d become weary of the fast-paced high life himself, or to protect her from the often-vicious media.
Relentless paparazzi had camped all around the huge estate like a horde of tormenting locusts for months after their small, private wedding, hoping to capture scandalous photos of the newlyweds. At the time, she’d been so traumatized by all the dramatic changes in her life, she’d wanted nothing more than to hide away from the entire world. Winston had provided her with sanctuary and a loving friendship that had helped heal her wounded spirit.
Over time, quiet evenings by the fireplace had become precious to both of them. And if their relationship beyond the bedroom door was purely platonic, that was no one else’s business.
What difference did it make, really, that Win had never shared her bed? She’d never asked for more than he could give, and she was content with her life.
More than content, she assured herself, feeling vaguely guilty for even a single disloyal thought. She was happy; Winston had moved mountains to ensure her happiness. He took such outrageous delight in pleasing her, it was almost embarrassing. The least she could do to repay him was try to enjoy herself on this one cruise. There would be others, soon, that they’d share together.
She would be well cared for when he died…but as always, she shied away from that morbid thought. It was easier to simply glide through each day, enjoying the wondrous gifts of Winston’s love and camaraderie. ‘Someday’ was still a long way in the future. She’d do everything in her power to make sure of that.
She was tired, she supposed; that’s why she was feeling a bit restless. The past several months had been rough on both of them. Worse on poor Win, she sighed, leaning back against the limo’s butter-soft leather upholstery. All those radical treatments had left him pale and drained until just a few weeks ago.
Now that he was recovering, maybe she’d be able to sleep a little better herself.
And if, even after all these years, she still dreamed every night of exquisite passion in another man’s arms…no one but she would ever know.
The exotic cruise ship Fairy Princess gleamed like a lustrous pearl in the hot morning sunshine. Gwen had spent the last several days there, finalizing plans for her ‘pet project,’ and learning her way around the massive four-tiered ship. Everything she’d seen, from the gleaming Captain’s Bridge to the lowly engineering decks, had impressed her.
Cruise ships were essentially glamorous floating cities, offering everything from gift shops to fancy dining and floor shows. In most cases, passengers were far more interested in the onboard amenities than their eventual destinations.
Caerlon Enterprises (another thing Winston had renamed after their marriage) had spared no expense to provide them with luxury beyond their wildest dreams at a surprisingly affordable price.
She’d anticipated only the best from her husband’s finest company. It was just something you came to expect from anything Lord Thurmond touched. Still, she’d been a little embarrassed to discover that she actually owned a permanent suite of rooms on the VIP deck.
“Reserved exclusively for you…for us,” Winston had amended when he’d told her, “whenever we choose to travel. So you can decorate it to your heart’s content, keep mementos there, vacation clothes, whatever suits your fancy. My special gift to you, princess.”
She also had an unlimited expense account, both onboard and at all the resorts along their scheduled route. Nothing, it seemed, was too extravagant for Lord Thurmond’s lovely young wife.
There were, she supposed with a rueful smile, some advantages to marrying one of the world’s top financial wizards.
Even so, when she’d arrived the first time to take a comprehensive tour of the ship, she hadn’t expected Captain Murphy to present her with an embossed passcard specially keyed not only for her private quarters, but for every restricted section of the ship.
“As Lord Thurmond’s representative on this maiden voyage, my Lady Guinevere,” he’d informed her with a mischievous twinkle in his kind hazel eyes, “this is your home, and we are your humble servants. I hope you will join me for dinner at the Captain’s Table often.”
And that was the biggest drawback to her privileged position. She had to be highly visible, and not only in conjunction with her own personal project. Winston’s brilliant “Lucky Twelve” contest had commanded more media attention than the latest five presidential scandals combined. She’d be expected to participate in most, if not all, of the scheduled entertainment events as Winston’s de facto goodwill ambassador.
Captain Murphy had served in the Royal Navy with Winston decades ago, before an exploding grenade off the Malaysian coast had injured both men. Murphy had gotten off easy with a gashed arm and mild concussion. Winston’s injuries had been far more severe, forcing him into early retirement. Despite that, they’d remained close friends throughout the years.
She liked and respected Murphy, even when he teased her unmercifully—always with that impish gleam in his eyes—about her historically dramatic name. He understood her innate shyness, and bolstered her tenuous courage with his unflagging kindness.
Of all Winston’s lofty peers, he was the only one who always made her feel entirely comfortable.
But even so, she’d balked when he’d generously assigned her a personal aide to run errands, and to assist as needed with her special project. She was independent, she insisted, and used to caring for herself. She didn’t need a personal slave, or whatever he chose to call himself, dancing attendance on her throughout the voyage.
Still, young Gavin was such a friendly lad, and always so full of absurdly funny stories, that it was impossible for her to stay embarrassed for long. She could privately admit, as she wove her way through busy crewmen intent on finishing their pre-launch checklists, that his cheery smile would help ease her inevitable depression at being separated from Winston for so long.
Take it one step at a time. The first segment is only for eight days. If you simply can’t handle it, or if anything happens to Winston, you can always fly back from Bermuda. Or, worst case, one of his chopper pilots can meet you partway, and ferry you back to the mainland.
Somehow just knowing she had a backup plan, an escape route if she absolutely needed it, made the entire prospect easier to bear.
In the meantime, she had work of her own to finish.
Who could have guessed, a single year ago, that she’d be so immersed in such a huge undertaking? She’d always loved animals. And although Winston’s increasingly bad health precluded him from owning pets himself, he’d always indulged her need to rescue and nurture strays. She collected them, he’d often laughed, the way other women collected designer handbags and expensive Italian shoes. Animals seemed to understand she wanted to help, and they returned her lavish love in full measure.
Now that he’d taken ill, her eclectic menagerie was luxuriously housed at the far end of his vast estate. Gwen knew how dangerous pet allergens could be to a recovering cancer patient. She was always careful to change clothes and shampoo her long hair squeaky-clean before returning home every evening, so no trace of pet dander could compromise his reduced immune system.
But a year ago, before they’d known danger was creeping perilously closer, the gigantic house had been filled with kittens, puppies, birds, and other small exotic animals.
She could still remember snuggling with him on the couch, bottle-feeding a tiny orange-furred kitten, when he’d flipped the channel to a heartbreaking TV documentary about misplaced tsunami orphans. And she’d remarked how sad it was that they had no loving pets to ease their grief.
Winston had spent the rest of the evening in uncharacteristic silence. Then, just before she’d headed up to bed, he’d begun brainstorming aloud about how to improve those poor children’s lives.
It had seemed like a clever game at first: position your chess pieces just so to wipe out your enemies—in this case hunger, trauma, and poverty. But the more they’d tossed ideas around, the more plausible his fanciful plan had sounded. Gradually they’d hit on a solution that was so outrageous, it just might succeed.
So she’d found herself with a delightful new goal—uniting attention-starved pets with attention-starved children.
The cynical had sneered, behind her back, that Lady Guinevere was just bored, and looking for some new amusement. But Gwen had ignored them, too. She remembered how a puppy’s unconditional love had eased her own churning misery.
If her husband’s vast wealth could provide better living conditions and add a ray of sunshine into those orphans’ otherwise drab lives, she supported him every step of the way!
So here she was, cozily ensconced in a sturdy makeshift zoo aboard the luxurious new Fairy Princess ocean liner, making sure that scores of kittens, puppies, ponies, lambs, and rabbits were safely bedded down for the long journey.
Sometimes her life, with all its bizarre twists and turns over the past decade, just seemed too surreal to be true.
Outside, she could hear the rising hum of excited voices as passengers began boarding the immense ship. She did her best to ignore the unwelcome intrusion.
In previous years, before he’d become so thin and weak, she and Winston had enjoyed several long cruises together. Waving madly at the shore, and throwing streamers into the jade-hued water, had long-since lost any appeal.
Even though she really should be out there—dressed to the hilt in some expensive designer outfit, swinging a champagne bottle at the gleaming metal hull—she opted to stay right where she was, surrounded by her adoring pets. Notoriety would find her soon enough—but it would have to hunt her down with a high-powered sniper rifle. She wasn’t going to throw herself into its path until absolutely necessary.
She’d be even harder to find in her cabin. No one, not even Captain Murphy or helpful young Gavin, could invade her privacy there. So she’d steal a few precious hours for herself, indulge in a long hot soak in her huge Jacuzzi tub, then take a soothing nap in her most comfortable T-shirt.
And when she made her grand appearance at dinner tonight, in the exotic satins and furs the media demanded, she’d have the nebulous comfort of knowing she’d not only pampered herself, but she’d also made Winston proud.
Sergeant Mitchell O’Neill still wasn’t quite sure what the hell he was doing aboard a fabulous multi-billion-dollar cruise ship. He hadn’t believed it when an officious young paper-pusher had strolled uninvited into his private sanctum—Pierson University’s dingy little gymnasium—and announced that he’d been randomly selected to partake in the exclusive Fairy Princess’s maiden around-the-world voyage.
Oh sure, he’d heard all the flap on TV…famous celebrities mortgaging their souls for this or that leg of the trip, headlining entertainers booked two years in advance for a single week’s run in the numerous onboard nightclubs. Gambling, fine dining, magnificent shows. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for those rich enough to indulge their wildest fantasies.
And then the impossible brass ring—twelve elegant staterooms were being reserved for twelve lucky random couples to hobnob with the world’s obscenely rich and shameless.
The Fairy Princess would zigzag all across the planet, stopping at every exotic port and island and country. Few would be fortunate enough to afford more than a month’s travel—but the entire two-year trip was booked solid. It was an undertaking that would make the legendary Titanic look like a rerun of Gilligan’s Island.
He hadn’t believed it then, when that annoying kid had interrupted his daily workout to pump his hand and flash his big pearly whites.
He hadn’t believed it later when he’d done the research, and confirmed the kid’s claim was legit.
He hadn’t believed it three weeks ago when his crusty old boss had generously granted him a summer-long sabbatical, and told him to enjoy his well-deserved (and long-overdue) paid vacation.
And he didn’t believe it now as he stood on the broad top deck of this brand-new luxury liner, and watched the noisy pier recede behind him.
Things like this just didn’t happen to ordinary people, and especially not to people like him.
He was a retired marine, if such a thing ever existed. He’d racked up six years of outstanding military service, until a near-deadly ambush over in Iraq had tossed him on the Disabled list. They’d sent him home to recover—but by the time his wounds were sufficiently healed, the war had been over. So he’d picked up the pieces of his shattered life and gotten a job at the local university, teaching self-defense and martial arts.
That was where he belonged. Not here, in the midst of this hectic hubbub.