Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
Ari Dillon is not your ordinary hero. He’s willing to lie, deceive, and hijack a private jet—all in the name of his cause. So if abducting billionaire Samantha Bessinger is the only way Ari can get her alone, he’ll do it.
Real estate mogul Samantha has never met anyone like Ari. He’s charming, ruthless, and almost irresistible. Yet when he crash-lands her jet onto a deserted Caribbean island and reveals his shapeshifting secrets, she can’t deny he’s one of a kind.
But just because he shows her things she never knew were possible, doesn’t prove they are soul mates as he claims. While Samantha didn’t become a success by being a pushover, is she enough of a match for the devil in paradise?
NEVER BEFORE had Ian Gordon shot Samantha Bessinger a devilish, peel-off-the-panty-hose smile. "Why don’t you take the copilot seat, Samantha?”
What had gotten into Ian? His suggestion to sit up front in her plane’s cockpit right next to him floored her. Intrigued her.
Samantha gave him a thorough second look. Since when did her pilot exude pure male magnetism that sparkled like fine champagne? Maybe he’d been drinking. But his speech was crisp, his smoldering, dark blue eyes clear as he met her gaze, his expression both burning and compelling.
Wow. Double wow. She’d known her pilot for more than a year, and she’d never reacted to one of his smiles with a zing of pure female interest.
Strange how her normally reserved and businesslike employee called her Samantha—not Ms. Bessinger. Funny how an invite to sit in the cockpit and one suggestive smile had made her suddenly aware of his devastating eyes. Never before had he sent interested signals—not when he’d flown her to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or LA. Even the night the two of them had been grounded during a thunderstorm, his conduct had remained formal and respectful. Yet this invitation had sounded as if he were asking her on a date, his demeanor playful, his smile hot.
And every cell in her body wanted to sidle closer, even if she got burned. The idea of taking him up on the invite was inappropriate.
Since when had hot become inappropriate? Since when had sitting next to a sexy and interested man become wrong?
My God. Had she become so conditioned... so caught up in what was businesslike that she no longer responded to the signals of her own body? Her nerves jangled like a teenager’s, and her pulse accelerated. Strangely flattered by his interest, she forced her lips into a smile. And in the typical fashion that amazed her competitors and contributed to her success, Samantha altered her plans. Work could wait.
Putting her briefcase behind the copilot’s seat, Samantha gazed back at Ian, wondering if she still remembered how to flirt. "Thanks for the offer.”
He gestured to the empty seat. "Make yourself comfortable. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
"Thanks. Black, please.”
He handed her an empty mug and poured steaming coffee from a stainless steel thermos. Since when had Ian cornered the market on virility? The delicious aroma filled the cabin, and her mouth watered—but it wasn’t the coffee she was thinking about tasting.
Nevertheless, she settled for the hot java and took a bracing sip. Ah, caffeine kicked in and revved her exhausted motor. "It’s good.”
The glimmer in his eyes as he gazed at her with keen appreciation suggested he’d like to offer her more than coffee, making her glad she’d taken extra care with her makeup this morning. Wearing her custom Armani suit that matched the Gucci pumps and bag she’d picked up at Saks, and sporting the new haircut she’d just gotten from the brand-new stylist she’d found on Forty-second Street, who had done wonders with her baby-fine hair, Samantha looked her best. The glamorous cut softened her jawline, and the new honey color brought out her brown eyes. Her dad would say she looked like a million bucks. But, of course, Samantha was worth much more.
And wealth made her a target. A target for the paparazzi. A target for scam artists. A target for men on the make. But she reminded herself that the shields she’d put up for her own protection were also shields she could pull down when the occasion warranted it.
As she sipped her coffee and Ian completed his preflight check, she recalled a time when she hadn’t been suspicious of a hot smile and a charming man’s interest, a time when coffee this good had been a luxury she couldn’t afford. She’d grown up poor, worked her way through college, and bought her first fixer-upper before she’d graduated. In the beginning, she’d done most of the renovations herself, sanding and painting, fixing plumbing and hanging curtains. Later, she’d had to deal with contractors and building inspectors—not an easy task for a woman, especially one so young. She supposed she’d begun erecting defensive walls then in order to make men take her seriously.
As Samantha had expanded into duplexes, then apartments, and finally New York City skyscrapers, she’d developed a tough exterior. She now owned a real estate enterprise that would soon rival Trump’s. Contractors no longer looked down their noses at her or assumed they could sell her cheap materials or shoddy workmanship. But somewhere along the way, regular workingmen had stopped asking her out. As she’d made the Bessinger name a household word, she’d become insulated from her working-class roots and protected by her executive assistants.
She slid into the copilot’s seat and caught the pleasant spicy scent of him, mixed with a clean, male aroma. She relaxed into the plush leather, sipped her coffee, and tried not to ogle the man beside her.
A change of pace would be good for her. She had been working too hard, and although she’d owned the jet for more than a year, she’d never sat up front. A little adventure would help clear her head of the business deals that dominated her life of late. If she had to be honest, Ian’s handsome smile and twinkling eyes had caused tiny butterflies to alight in her stomach and had a lot to do with her decision.
He most definitely had a fit body. Military-straight shoulders tapered to a flat stomach and lean hips—from what she could see of them. At about five foot ten inches, his lean frame complemented his short military haircut and his clean-shaven jaw.
Still, no matter how unexpected and pleasant his attention might be, in this day and age of corporate kidnapping and terrorism, it paid to be careful, and Samantha had given Ian’s background a thorough perusal when she’d hired him. As chief executive officer, she could have assigned an underling to the task, but since she often flew, putting her life in her pilot’s hands, last year she’d hired Ian herself. And Ian Gordon, an ex-military pilot with a reputation for meticulous detail and careful flying, had proven a fine choice. She always felt safe aboard this airplane—but until today, she’d never thought of him in any capacity except pilot, and he’d certainly never caused these tingles of sexual magnetism that drew her closer.
When he leaned over to help with her seat belt—a totally unnecessary move since she could have placed the coffee mug in a holder—his hand grazed her arm, and she didn’t think his touch an accident. She would have expected Ian to act with a bit more subtlety and discretion. Instead... he seemed... different. More sexual. More male. As if this flight were a hot date—not a business trip.
"Ready to go?” he asked.
She nodded, and he slid a headset over his ears. As he taxied the plane toward the runway, he spoke with the air traffic controller and was all business. She ignored the gauges and meters before her, stared out the front windows, and wondered how she could so suddenly be attracted to a man. But as the engines revved, their speed increased, and the nose lifted, she was no closer to an answer.
Once they soared into the air and climbed to cruising altitude, heading for her meeting in Miami, Ian flicked on the autopilot and again turned his attention to her. "Miami Beach is scorching in August.”
She shrugged. "I’ll be in an air-conditioned office building during the entire time. Meetings.”
"Doesn’t sound like fun.” His expression turned playful, his lips turning up at the corners. "Why don’t I reroute us to the Caribbean?”
She conjured up the delicious idea of playing hooky with him then shook her head and smiled. "I wish.”
"When was the last time you drank a piña colada with a paper umbrella?”
She laughed. "I can’t remember.”
"Or the last time you sank your toes into a pink sand beach?”
With his silky, smooth tone, he made a trip to the islands with him sound enticing. Still, she had too much profit riding on her upcoming meeting to consider taking an unplanned vacation. "Some of us work for a living.”
"Come on. Tell me you don’t have a yen to swim in emerald green waters? Or watch the sunset from a hammock, your bare feet cooling in the breeze? I could have you in Barbados or Aruba in less than five hours.”
He could have her? If he kept talking so suggestively, she might just agree. She’d been working for so long without a break that she owed herself a vacation. In fact she owed herself a fling. Twenty-hour workdays led to weekends where she barely had time to catch up on desperately needed sleep, never mind put energy into a relationship.
It was a measure of how long it had been since she’d really relaxed that she was finding his offer so very tempting, so very difficult to refuse. "I’ve been working on this deal for months. I can’t skip out now.”
"After the meeting?”
Her heart hammered. "More meetings, I’m afraid.” She eyed him over the rim of her mug. His eyes twinkled as if he knew the secret to a happy life and she was clueless. Perhaps she was. She certainly hadn’t made time to enjoy her wealth. Her penthouse looked more like a hotel room than a home, but she was going to decorate, as soon as her top designers completed the color scheme for the new hotel. No, then they had to move on to the theater renovation, a huge project, which took up an entire city block. The moment she returned to New York, she had a full day of meetings about her newest project, but suddenly the idea of spending some time on extracurricular activities with Ian tempted her.
"So if we crashed and burned—not that we will,” he assured her, "but if we went down, what would you regret most?”
"Not growing old?” she quipped.
"I’m talking about specifics.”
The image of sweaty bodies entwined in silk sheets filled her mind. Yum. Kissing Ian on a starry rooftop. Bathing together in her personal hot tub? She cocked her head to one side. "What would you regret most?”
"You so do not want me to answer that question.” He grinned again, a grin so charming it ought to be illegal.
His I’m-so-interested expression caused her stomach to twist and her pulse to dance. Ian Gordon was flirting. With her. In fact, she suspected he was going to make an outrageously sexy suggestion, but what astonished her even more was that instead of cutting him off, she yearned to encourage him.
"Come on,” she prodded. "Why don’t you tell me what you’d regret the most if we crashed and burned.”
"That I’d never marry my soul mate.”
Wow. She buried her gaze in her coffee cup to cover her surprise. She’d thought he’d been about to say something playful, like he’d regret that he’d never kissed her underwater or romanced her on a beach. But instead, his response had seemed honest, romantic, intimate.
And when she dared to look at him again, she caught his eyes dancing with amusement, as if he could read her thoughts.
Thank God, he couldn’t.
"You believe in soul mates?” she asked, recovering almost immediately.
"Of course. I’ve dreamed of her.”
Okay, this conversation was getting a little weird. Ian Gordon, ex-military pilot believed he had a soul mate because he’d dreamed about her?
"I see.” She started to put down her mug and release her seat belt. Time to retreat to real life and work in the plane’s main cabin.
"No, you don’t see. You think I’m... a little eccentric.”
"We’re all entitled to our dreams,” she prevaricated, trying to withhold judgment.
"All the men in my family dream about their soul mates.”
"We dream about the right woman, and then we go out into the world and find her.”
Samantha had read Ian’s file. When he’d been a teenager, his father had died during a classified mission over Iraq. His mother had run off, and Ian had ended up in foster care. He had no brothers. No uncles. No grandparents. One of the reasons she’d hired him was that he had no responsibilities and could leave on a moment’s notice.
She kept her voice steady. "I’ve read your file. There are no men in your family.”
His tone turned serious. "It’s true that there are no men in Ian Gordon’s family.”
The way he’d emphasized his name shot a tingle of alarm down her spine. It was as if he were implying his file was incorrect. She put down her coffee mug before her trembling fingers dropped it. "What are you saying?”
"I’m not Ian Gordon.”
"You’re not Ian?” She stared at him, shock and fear racing up her throat.
"I’m Ari Dillon. And I have four brothers.”
"But you look just like—”
"You aren’t an easy woman to approach. You’re never alone, except behind guarded doors, and you travel in a limo with very protective drivers. Since we had to meet, I arranged to take Ian’s place.” Ari spoke gently, as if understanding she was in shock.
"What have you done to my pilot?”
"Don’t worry, he’s fine. He has no idea we took off without him.”
No wonder this man had seemed so different from Ian. She’d known from the first moment he’d smiled that devilish grin and called her Samantha that something was odd. But she’d forced her mind to accept the evidence in front of her eyes, even as her body had recognized the differences, responding to Ari as she’d never done to Ian. "Your resemblance to my pilot is... astonishing.”
Could Ian have an identical twin not even he knew about? Or had Ari undergone plastic surgery to take the place of her pilot? She tried to come up with a logical explanation. But extensive plastic surgery took years, and that meant he’d been planning to come after her for longer than Ian had been in her employ.
His words haunted her. He’d said they had to meet. "So why are you here?”
Ari’s voice remained calm, gentle. "Because you are the woman I dreamed about. You are my soul mate.”
ARI WISHED HE could draw Samantha into his arms and assure her that he wouldn’t hurt her. However, he knew enough about the outside world to recognize fear in a woman’s eyes. So he remained still and tried to look nonthreatening, allowing her to adjust to his words before he shocked her again with the rest of his story.
Samantha clenched her armrests, staring at him as if he’d grown four eyes and a tail. Her nostrils flared, and her eyes dilated. She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and finally a bit of color came back into her pale face.
"I don’t know what to say.” She licked her bottom lip, a nervous gesture.
She might not believe him, but at least she hadn’t lapsed into hysterics. Supposedly the dreams were never wrong. After dreaming about and finding their soul mates, many New Atlantean men had returned home to brag that they’d felt an immediate and total connection with their soul mate at the first moment of meeting. But while Ari admired her intelligence, while he was attracted to her courage, he felt as if she were hiding most of herself behind a businesslike front. He wished he could have gotten to know her better under more normal circumstances before he’d inserted himself into her life.
But Samantha lived behind guarded gates. To even enter her office building required an appointment. Sure, he could have slipped past security, but that wouldn’t have gained him quality time with her.
So Ari had been forced to make extensive plans in order for them to spend time together. And he would make the best of the opportunity. "Would you like to know how I made myself look like Ian?”
"Do you remember high school biology class?” he asked, knowing he needed to explain before he showed her exactly who and what he was.
She frowned. "You learned how to make yourself look like my pilot in high school biology class?”
He laughed. "Not exactly. But do you recall how after a worm is cut in half, the head can grow a tail and the tail will grow a head?”
She shook her head. "I’m afraid I was never any good at science.”
"Well, take my word for it. It happens all the time. And I use the same principle to change my shape.”
"Change your shape? Uh-huh.” She remained polite, but skepticism shined in her eyes.
"Now, don’t freak out. I’m going to show you by growing another finger. Okay?”
She swallowed hard. "Sure. Go right ahead.”
He could tell that, although she’d listened intently, she didn’t believe him. Slowly, he lifted his hand and with a mental thought, he grew a second pinky.
"Oh... my God.” Samantha’s eyes widened, but she leaned forward in fascination, staring at his sixth finger. "Can I touch it?”
She poked his pinky and then massaged it between her thumb and index finger. Her touch didn’t shoot an electric tingle through him as he’d hoped—however her touch was pleasant enough to urge him to reach out and place her hand in his. But he remained still, forcing himself to let her proceed at her own pace. She might not have enjoyed science classes, but she took her time, thoroughly examining the newly grown finger.
Her voice rose in surprise. "It’s genuine flesh and there’s a bone in there—just like a real finger. Are you a magician?”
"You dropped down to Earth in a UFO?” she guessed.
"So you’re a lower life-form?”
He shook his head and held back a sigh. The conversation wasn’t going as he’d planned. "Have you ever heard of Atlantis?”
"The legendary ancient island that sank beneath the Mediterranean Sea? Of course I’ve heard of it. My interest in history is a bit better than biology. Why?” She picked up her coffee. For a moment he feared she might throw it on him, but she remained too controlled for that. Instead, she took another sip, giving away nothing on a face once again composed.
He was pleased she had a good brain. That she hadn’t run from him screaming. It was a start. And he couldn’t help thinking that it was no wonder she’d achieved such success in the business world. He’d just showed her something she considered impossible and already she was adapting.
He leaned back into his seat. "My ancestors were born on Atlantis. They had special abilities that others did not.”
"What kind of special abilities?”
"Our people have different talents. Some specialize in telekinesis, telepathy, empathy, and shapeshifting.”
"Thousands of years ago, our special abilities weren’t understood by the masses, and their distrust led to fear, persecution, and jealousy. So we sank the island and disappeared to make a new home in the South Atlantic. We named it New Atlantis, and that is where I call home.”
He missed his house on the beach. The Caribbean breezes cooling him, the lapping waves soothing him, the palms rustling outside his windows—and a force shield protecting them all from hurricanes and the prying eyes of outsiders. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a noisy, crowded city and was certain he could convince her of the advantages of moving into his home. But he was thinking ahead of himself. Right now, it didn’t appear as if she even liked him.
She looked him straight in the eyes, her stare challenging. "I’ve never heard of New Atlantis.”
"That’s because it’s hidden and very private.” He couldn’t wait to show off his home. While he couldn’t offer her the high-rise skyscraper’s view of one of the premier cities in the world, there was a serenity on New Atlantis that could be found nowhere else on Earth.
"How do you hide your island?”
"Remember the special abilities that I told you that my ancestors possessed?”
She eyed his second pinky. "Yes.”
"We all use our abilities to keep a shield between the rest of the world and New Atlantis. Radar, sonar, photographs, satellites, spacecraft, and ships cannot see our island. To your scientific instruments, New Atlantis appears to be ocean.
"You’re good at storytelling. You ought to write a book.”
"If I did, then New Atlantis would no longer be a secret. My people have no wish to be studied or kidnapped and used for ill gain.”
She raised her eyes to his and then lowered them again to his hand. Her eyes sparkled with wary curiosity. "I don’t understand.”
He made the pinky disappear. "I’m changing to my real face.”
Ian’s face morphed before her eyes. To her, Ian was there one moment, the next, a stranger appeared in his place. And while Ian had been an attractive man, Ari possessed the chiseled cheekbones of his Greek ancestors, a haughty brow, and a longish aristocratic nose. Never would Ari be mistaken for pretty.
Her eyes widened. "That’s amazing.”
"I didn’t change the rest of me, because my normal shape won’t fit in these clothes.”
"You can make yourself into any size? You can look like anyone?”
He nodded. "Down to fingerprints and retinal scans.”
"I can see why you wouldn’t want the world to know. My God... you could make yourself the president of the United States, infiltrate any bank, corporation, or country. You could be the ultimate spy.”
"You’re beginning to understand.”
"I don’t understand anything.” Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Maybe you put a hallucinogen in my coffee.”
"I didn’t. And I drank the coffee from the same thermos,” he reminded her.
"Maybe you’re an alien from Mars.”
"Isn’t it easier to believe I’m from this world? Besides, why would I lie?”
She frowned at him. "Maybe you’re the Devil.”
"Because you like me?”
"I don’t know you well enough to like you,” she snapped.
He laughed. "Come on, Samantha. You liked me well enough when you thought I was Ian.”
"I know Ian.”
Damn, she could be stubborn. But she’d been interested in him—Ari. He’d seen it in the way her mouth had relaxed into a pleased little smile when he’d invited her into the cockpit, the way her eyes had returned his interest, the way she’d given him that thorough once-over when she’d thought he hadn’t been looking.
"And you’re going to get to know me. I’m not a bad guy.”
She rolled her eyes. "Can you land this plane?”
"Of course. I went to the trouble of learning to fly so we could meet.” He gestured to the instrument panel. "I assure you, I’m perfectly capable of operating every one of these—”
"Good.” Her fingers drummed on her armrest. "If you intend to keep New Atlantis a secret, why are you telling me about it?”
"Even if you wanted to tell others, who would believe you?”
"Exactly.” She arched an eyebrow. "So why should I believe you?”
"You’ve seen me shapeshift. And you’ve heard the legends about Atlantis.”
"You’ve made your point, but I’ve also read about Greek gods, and I didn’t expect to meet one of them.” She leaned back in her seat, stared out the window, and her tone softened. "And you dreamed about me?”
"And suppose I say no?”
"You’re going to become one of us. Because you’re my soul mate.”
If looks could kill, he would have frozen to death from her icy stare. So much for his reputation for charm with the ladies. This was one stubborn woman, but her resistance made her interesting.
"What do you mean I’m going to become one of you?”
"The shield that protects New Atlantis from your world is weakening. We need fresh minds. New blood. So occasionally we go into the world to find those who can help us maintain the shield.”
She shook her head. "I assure you, I don’t have any special abilities—unless you count business acumen.”
"That’s where you’re wrong.” Down to earth, practical and logical, she wanted to know every detail, and he would explain as best he could. "I wouldn’t have dreamed about you unless you possessed the genetic sequencing that allows you to shapeshift.”
"Me?” She shook her head and snorted. "You place a lot of stock in dreams.”
She was so intense, so cool and collected, and he had always longed for a mate with warmth and fun in her soul. "We trust our dreams because they are always accurate.”
"So now what?” she asked.
"What are your plans? You’ve told me your secret. I’ve listened. Now what?”
"We need to spend time alone together. So we can bond.”
At his words, alarm darkened her eyes. Her lips pressed into a firm line. Her hand reached into her purse to retrieve her cell phone.
He didn’t try to stop her. "Your phone won’t work at this altitude.”
She frowned at the lack of signal and turned off the battery. "Suppose I don’t want to bond?”
"Please, try to relax. I mean you no harm.” He took the plane off autopilot and adjusted their heading. Instead of almost due south, he turned southeast toward the south Atlantic Ocean.
"Where are you taking me?”
"To a private island.”
He shook his head. "We need to be alone.”
"I want to teach you how to shapeshift.”
She turned shocked eyes on him. "Me? Shapeshift?”
"It’s part of your genetic makeup.”
"Yeah, right. What happens if I don’t learn how?”
Shapeshifting was difficult to learn. To teach her, he needed to spend a lot of time under conditions that would eventually lead to trust. According to his teachers, the best way for him to earn her trust was for her to believe her life was at risk so she could learn to depend upon him for her own survival.
She swallowed hard, and the flicker of fear in her eyes sliced his gut.
Damn it. He didn’t like scaring her. Yet despite the bitter taste in his mouth, he forced himself to say the words. "If you don’t learn to shapeshift, you could die.”
Her mouth trembled. "I thought you said you meant me no harm?”
He ached for her. And when she bit her lower lip, no doubt to stop from showing weakness, he yearned to take her into his arms. "Once you adapt to who and what you really are, you’ll be fine.”
She glanced at the radio as if it could save her life. Knowing he was taking away her lifelines, he flicked it off, removed a fuse, and pocketed it. The dimming hope in her eyes sliced him. "Sorry. No one will be coming to your aid. To shapeshift, you must look to yourself. You must look inward.”
"Even if I believed that you could teach me to shapeshift, I don’t want to live on New Atlantis. I have a life in New York. I have friends, a business. A sister.”
Her worries made him want to soothe her. "We do travel into the world. There’s no reason you can’t return to visit.”
Samantha’s fingers clenched into fists. "You have no right to take me from my life. Change our course back to Miami. I refuse to cooperate.”
He kept his voice gentle, even as he revealed his deepest fear, a fear that whipped at him while awake and asleep. "If you refuse to cooperate, you will die.”