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In ancient Greece, one of the twelve labours of Heracles was to bring back a golden apple from the Garden of Hesperides. To archaeologist Oriel Anderson, joining a team of Greek divers on the island of Helios seems like the golden apple of her dreams.
Yet the dream becomes a nightmare when she meets the devilish owner of the island, Damian Lekkas. In shocked recognition, she is flooded with the memory of a romantic night in a stranger’s arms, six summers ago. A very different man stands before her now, and Oriel senses that the sardonic Greek autocrat is hell-bent on playing a cat and mouse game with her.
As they cross swords and passions mount, Oriel is aware that malevolent eyes watch her from the shadows. Dark rumours are whispered about the Lekkas family. What dangers lie in Helios, a bewitching land where ancient rituals are still enacted to appease the gods, young men risk their lives in the treacherous depths of the Ionian Sea, and the volatile earth can erupt at any moment?
Will Oriel find the hidden treasures she seeks? Or will Damian’s tragic past catch up with them, threatening to engulf them both?
Oriel had been sitting on the boulder for a long time, gazing distractedly towards the water, when she became vaguely aware of something moving in the shallows. The moon had by now disappeared behind a bank of cloud, extinguishing the glitter of the waves and the silvery patina on the rocks. The shift in darkness of the night sky made it difficult to see what had rippled the surface of the water. Frogmen night diving, she thought, or the slight undulation of the sea in the warm, salty breeze. She didn’t give it another thought, returning her attention to the winking lights of fishing boats on the horizon – and then, abruptly, he emerged …
It was a man, but not one wearing a wetsuit, fins or diving mask; this one was almost naked, his modesty barely protected by what could only be defined as an apology for a low-rise brief. He was no mere trick of the light. Sleek and glorious, he was suddenly hurtling out of the water, throwing spray off his body like Poseidon rising from the waves.
Oriel’s breath caught in her throat as she watched him, a small frown crinkling her brow. A curious sense of apprehension seeped into her veins. In the near-darkness he looked large, somewhat menacing and disturbingly masculine as he strode through the shallows. There was an air of unquestioned dominance about this man, an arrogant power that expressed itself in the controlled motion of his body as he sauntered on to the beach.
For that fateful minute, she was totally helpless, in the grip of emotions too basic to be controlled by rational thought. Instead of turning to leave quickly, she continued to stare at the stranger who had materialized like a Greek god wading from the depths of the sea. The moon slid into view again, throwing a wash of silver over long muscular legs and narrow hips, wide shoulders and a sculpted torso, all combined in a vibrantly athletic stance. As his approaching form became more discernible, each smooth, fluid curve of muscle, each long line of sinew and bone, and each angular feature glistened with a radiance that stabbed Oriel straight to the heart. Hair as dark as the devil’s soul was dripping wet across his forehead and he lifted his hand to slick it away from his face, the moonlight catching every droplet that glittered like tiny diamonds across his skin.
All at once, Oriel gathered her wits, conscious that she too was only lightly clad, just a muslin sarong covering her bikini. She remembered her mother’s warning that it wasn’t wise for a woman to venture out alone on a deserted beach, and she stood up to hurry back to her hotel, quickly tucking the letter and photograph into her sarong.
Too late! She had barely taken a step before she found herself confronted by the tall, dark figure. Well above the average height of other Greek men, he towered over her, a dark silhouette against the moonlit sky. His eyes gleamed like steel against his deeply tanned skin as his gaze wandered over her and then rested upon her hair, which cascaded heavily down her back, pale and shining as the moon on the water. He had a strong masculine face, rather insolent and somewhat primitive – so much so that despite the tinge of fear fluttering through her, Oriel couldn’t help but feel mesmerized by this Adonis.
‘What brings a beautiful girl to such a deserted place on this enchanting night?’ he asked in English. His obvious Greek accent gave a delightful, smoky edge to his deep voice and sent an involuntary warmth up her spine. Slicking back his wet dark hair once more, he studied her openly. ‘You look like the ocean nymph, Calypso, waiting for Odysseus on your island, ready to bewitch him with your mesmerizing voice.’
Oriel had been too startled, too alarmed, to reply at first. His comment was unexpected, and those glittering grey eyes seemed to hold her prisoner, flickering with amusement and something more intense. It was she who was bewitched.
‘I thought I was alone,’ she murmured, finally finding her voice.
His mouth quirked. ‘So did I.’ He nodded behind him. ‘I dropped anchor back there to come in for an evening swim. It’s been a hot day.’ His eyes returned to her, intent and appraising.
Oriel’s gaze flitted away and caught sight of a small boat, moored next to the rocks to her left. Partially obscured by the craggy ridge that shaped the deserted cove, only the top of the sail was visible, billowing gently in the balmy breeze. She’d been too preoccupied by her brooding thoughts to notice its arrival.
She felt an urge to push past this handsome stranger and run away to the safety of her hotel bedroom, but something about this man had held her there, transfixed. The intriguing power of his personality gripped her imagination. This stranger could have stepped straight out of Homer’s Odyssey.
A silky platinum lock slipped from the scarf Oriel had tied around her head in a band to keep her heavy, tumbling mane in place, and the breeze blew it across her face. He reached out a bronzed hand with tapering long fingers and lightly pushed the strand away, before caressing the length of her hair almost reverently. There was a sultry burn now in the gaze that wandered from her hair to her mouth and then settled on Oriel’s wild doe eyes, which stared back at him. Her stomach curled with instinctive heat.
She felt the impulse to escape, like a fawn fleeing into the brush. Instead, she stood there, pulse racing, her legs trembling as an unfamiliar and exquisite sensation flooded the lower part of her body. It was madness! Never before had this sense of danger – of seduction – hit her with such potency. Surely it was the island air that had gone to her head like an enchanted potion.
The dark waves murmured on the sand, their gently rolling edges lit a luminous blue under the moonlight. Everything was cloaked in unreality and it was as if the two of them were caught in a dream. Oriel sensed that the mysterious stranger before her was also aware of the extraordinary atmosphere that engulfed them.
His fingers were still touching her hair and she backed away. This man was so overwhelming, and she was disoriented. In a sudden, desperate panic, Oriel turned to run, hardly looking where she was going, her bare feet stumbling through the wet sand in the silver-washed half light. Before she had time to register it, her foot came into contact with something hard and she tripped and went sprawling forwards. In the same split second she was jerked sideways by a pair of muscular arms as the Greek god sprang forward and caught hold of her, their bodies colliding in mid-air.
Oriel gave a choked cry. The stranger fell with her, holding her, his body going into a complicated twist just before they hit the sand so that she landed on top of him, the fall softened for her by his body. She lay winded for an instant; then, before she was over the shock, he took her by the shoulders and gently slid her from him sideways. She found herself on her back, staring up at the milky moonlit sky. His bulk arched over her, blotting out the moon with the dark circle of his head, and she looked wildly up at him as the weight of his muscled body pressed down, splaying her against the sand.
‘Don’t!’ she cried out, struggling in his arms. His skin was hot and smooth, and she fought the impulse to relax and let herself melt into him.
The stranger’s eyes glittered and held hers beneath the perfect arc of black eyebrows. ‘You were headed for a nasty fall on that rock, you should look where you’re going.’ His was a face out of Greek tragedy itself. It was so close to hers that Oriel felt his warm breath on her cheek and her pulse quickened; with it came an acute awareness: the needs she had suppressed for years were suddenly rushing to the surface. An aching feeling was invading her lower limbs, a strange weakness. It was magnified a hundredfold when he leapt to his feet and a strong brown hand helped her up, his powerful frame looming over her. His silver eyes skimmed the taut curve of her breasts and she prayed her flimsy bikini top was displaying no signs of her arousal.
He didn’t let go of her hand as his eyes bored into hers. ‘You’re trembling, beautiful Calypso.’
Oriel blinked. He was terrifyingly attractive. She pulled her hand from his, now embarrassed at her clumsy attempt to flee. ‘It’s nothing. Thank you.’
His sensuous lips stretched into a slow smile, uncovering a row of pure white teeth. ‘You must have been here centuries ago, waiting for me on your island.’ Even his speech was theatrical. She found herself returning his smile and entered into the spirit.
‘And who were you?’ she breathed, the question almost catching in her throat; she already knew the answer.
‘Odysseus, of course. Remember? I was shipwrecked and washed up on the shore of this island. You fell in love with me and held me prisoner, but you weaved your magic spell over me with your beautiful long hair, spun from moonbeams, your mesmerizing voice and enticing body, and your manipulative ways.’
Oh, he was daring and arrogant – and irresistible, too. Despite herself, Oriel took up his allusion of the ancient Greek myth and ventured boldly down the same path, perilous though it was. ‘And even though I promised to make you immortal, you refused and wanted to return to Ithaca and your wife.’
Now it was the stranger’s turn to look surprised. He regarded her with amusement. ‘We made love and I was lost for seven years.’
‘But it was me who saved you and built the boat that eventually took you home.’
Finally he laughed, transforming the hardness of his features into an expression that was devastating, making Oriel’s heart leap. Even the sound of his laughter was huskily exotic. ‘Maybe you do not believe in the reincarnation of souls,’ he said. ‘I’ve never really thought about it.’
The images he evoked made Oriel long for him to take her in his arms, to be clasped by those strong hands that had stroked her hair with such gentleness … To lose herself beneath that powerful body again.
Surrounded by such beauty and serenaded by the sea, it was as though they were trapped in time. Maybe it was the lingering adrenaline of her anger at the contents of the letter and her heightened nervous system. Perhaps it was the nature of this deserted place that made everything seem like an alluring fantasy. Or maybe it was simply that this man was unlike any other Oriel had ever met. He was no Odysseus, she decided: that Greek hero had been a mere mortal. Indeed this man seemed the personification of Poseidon himself.
His eyes glinted darkly and pinned her with their glimmering steel, setting her nerves tingling. Had he read her thoughts? Was he aware of the emotions he had stirred up as he plucked at needs deep within her that no one had yet aroused? Oriel’s was dry, her lips parched, and she passed the tip of her tongue over them.
Oh Lord, there was no sense to this!
Shocked at her disturbing reaction, she stepped forward to move past him. ‘I’m sorry … I need to go,’ she murmured, but his fingers caught hold of her wrist. She felt the strength of them, before his thumb brushed sensually against her skin, caressing it, melting her very insides.
‘Don’t break the spell,’ he said faintly, his voice low and hoarse. Close to this man, every sensible instinct told Oriel that she had been right to make a run for it, but as the shifting moonlight caught and held in his irises, she stared into them, profoundly aware of his dark masculine beauty and power. Sometimes it took only a single glance to say everything and, in that moment, she felt her old beliefs crumble inexorably around her. She lowered her eyes and a frisson of emotion ran through her body.
FROM THE AUTHOR:
When I was a child, my governess told me fairy stories. These tales, full of superstition and magic, were my first inspiration, and the warmth and colour they still evoke greatly influence my writing. They were also the experience through which I learned to become a storyteller, as my governess and I had an agreement – whenever she told me a story, I would have to tell her one in return.
As a novelist, I am obsessed by vivid colours, lush landscapes and tales of exotic customs in far-off lands. I can trace much of this back to a dear and long-departed friend of my family, Mr. Chiumbo Wangai, who fascinated me as a teenager with stories of the witch-doctors and magical ceremonies in his native Kenya. When I visited the country myself, I soon fell in love with its beautiful countryside and unforgettable sunsets.
Though I have been telling stories since I was a child, it was only after my children had grown up and my husband and I had turned our family business into a success that I felt I could devote myself to writing full time. After I dug out the various ideas and sketches I had jotted down over the years, I realised how profoundly my travels throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and particularly Africa had burned themselves into my memory. I felt driven to turn them into a novel.
The mystery, magic, heat and passion of Kenya’s landscapes inspired me to use them as the setting for my first novel. Burning Embers, a passionate love story set against the backdrop of the country in 1970. My later travels through Europe provided rich fodder for more stories, including my novels The Echoes of Love, set in Venice and Tuscany, Italy; and the Andalucían Nights trilogy, set in the smouldering heat of Andalucía, Spain.