When You Wish
Romantic Times Nomination for Best Kensington Bouquet
Research scientist Dr. Daniel Chadwick believes in science. Massage therapist Grace Lighthorse believes in mystery. But the chemistry between them is pure magic. They are competing for a lucrative grant to fund their special projects and neither one of them is willing to give an inch until they realize that their love is worth much more than the money.
“Lori Handeland’s steamy story is full of delightfully eccentric characters and overflowing with humor. ” Romantic Times
Five words and his whole life changed. “Your grant is being re-evaluated.”
Dr. Daniel Chadwick stood in his laboratory suddenly quite clear on why killing the messenger had once been an accepted practice. Right now he wanted to throttle the little weasel who smiled so politely while ruining Dan’s life.
“Exactly what constitutes re-evaluation?”
Perry Schumacher’s lips and nose twitched. If he’d had whiskers on that nose he couldn’t have looked more weasel-like. Poor unfortunate soul, but Dan had no sympathy left.
“Mrs. Cabilla wants to make certain she is serving her late husband’s memory to the best of her ability. You know the particulars of the grant–one lump sum, per year, to the charity of her choice.”
Dan’s teeth ground together as they always did whenever someone referred to his work as a charity. He was a medical research scientist on the cusp of a breakthrough that would aid countless human beings. Mrs. Cabilla knew that. She was the only person who understood Dan’s need to champion the underdog–even if it was an underdog disease.
He opened his mouth to argue, but Perry got there first. “Mrs. Cabilla is aware of your progress. But after five years of funding your studies, her faith is nearly gone. She is considering another charity.”
“Never heard of it.” “That’s because it’s new.” “What’s it for?”
Perry rustled the papers on his clipboard, looked down his weaselly nose, and sniffed. “Providing security blankets to gravely ill children.”
The room went so silent Dan could hear the drip of the faucet next to his worktable–the one he never got around to tightening because he was always too busy. To be honest he never noticed how annoying the sound was while in the zone of discovery. He was in the zone a lot.
Plop, plop, plop. Dan shook his head to make the sound stop echoing. Didn’t help. He stared at Perry, blinking in hopes that the little man would disappear. Didn’t work.
“Tell me you’re kidding.”
Perry settled his chin upon his tightly knotted tie. His glasses slid down his nose and perched precariously on the tip. “I never kid.”
“I just bet you don’t.” Dan ran his fingers through his hair, wondering how it had gotten so long again. He’d just had his haircut, what, last week? He glanced at his watch, frowned. Make that last month. When the work was going well, he had better things to worry about than his hair.
Yanking off his lab coat, Dan advanced on Perry. “Where can I find her?”
Perry must have seen something he did not like in Dan’s eyes, because he backed out of the way, holding the clipboard in front of his face as if to stop Dan’s fist. Small people always reacted that way when Dan was around, though he’d never touched anyone with violence in his life. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how you looked at it, Dan was huge–6’5”, 230 pounds huge. Whenever anyone looked at him they saw football player or All Star Wrestler, despite the MD behind his name and an IQ that could rival his weight.
“F-find who?” Perry stuttered.
“Mrs. Cabilla. I want to talk to her.”
Dan took another step toward Perry. “She’ll be available for me.”
Perry retreated some more, and his back came up against the wall. He lowered the clipboard an inch, and his tiny black eyes peered over the top. Weasel, no doubt about it. “No,” he said. “She won’t.”
Dan resisted the urge to grab the clipboard and toss it over his shoulder. Such behavior might give Perry heart failure, and that Dan didn’t want. At least not until Perry told him where he could find Mrs. Cabilla.
He inched closer, until he came toe-to-toe with Mrs. Cabilla’s emissary.
“Where?” he repeated.
“I can tell you, but it won’t do you any good.” “Why not?”
Amazingly, Perry smiled. Dan frowned. If Perry was happy, Dan would not be. Over the last five years he and Perry had never gotten on, probably because of the height thing. Being 6’ 5” was a disadvantage, but try telling that to a man who was a foot shorter.
“Because she went to the Andes.”
“A candy factory?”
Perry snorted and lowered the clipboard completely. “Do you ever look past your little world?” “What for?”
“There is an amazingly huge universe beyond Northern Wisconsin.”
Dan shrugged. “All I need is right here with me.”
“Enjoy it while you can.” Perry slid toward the door.
Dan put his hand against the wall, between Perry and escape. “Where?”
“The Andes Mountains, Doctor. In Peru.”
“Peru? What does Mrs. Cabilla want in Peru?”
“Excuse me? I thought you said yarn.”
“Nothing wrong with your hearing.” Perry, quick little weasel that he was, ducked beneath Dan’s arm and opened the door. “Mrs. Cabilla has become quite taken with knitting for stress relief. Seems to work and she’s very good at it. She wanted a special kind of yarn made from a sheep that wanders the Andes Mountains.
“So she went to get it herself?” Dan still couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.
“She has the money and the time. Why not?”
“Wait just one minute. Mrs. Cabilla has become a knitting freak, and she’s considering giving my money to a foundation that provides blankets for kids?”
“No moss on your brain, Doc. And it’s not your money. It’s Mrs. Cabilla’s money.”
Dan flushed. “Of course it is. Who runs Project Hope?”
“Wouldn’t you just like to know?” Perry slammed the door, and Dan heard him scurry off toward his car. After that parting shot, Dan wouldn’t have been surprised to have Perry stick his tongue out before fleeing. The man really didn’t like him at all.
“Knitting,” Dan murmured. “Yarn. Sheep. Peru, for crying out loud.”
Mrs. Cabilla had gone off her rocker. That was as plain as the day was new. But what should he do about it? That was the question.
Five years ago, at the ripe age of twenty-six, Dan had finished his studies and dedicated his life to science. Science was something he understood. What he could touch was real. What he could see was true. What he could discover was worth his life and more. He had finally found something he was good at, and since he was good at precious little according to his family, Dan took what he had and ran with it.
He wasn’t going to let some New Age, hip-hop charity take everything he’d worked so hard to achieve, right when he was about to achieve everything.
Dan grabbed the phone and punched in the number for information. “A new listing,” he said when the operator came on the line. “Project Hope.”
Northern Wisconsin was a land of contrasts. On one hand, spacious and deserted, acres upon acres of trees and wildlife, a sportsman’s paradise.
Then right up a county highway would appear a tourist town–Minoqua, Eagle River, Bayfield–and there would be shops and coffee houses, restaurants and lodges.
In the summer the streets teamed with people wearing shorts and sunglasses. The winter brought a different crowd with snowmobile suits and boots, ski jackets and jaunty hats. It was into one of these towns, packed with summer shoppers, that Dan drove in search of Project Hope.
Lake Illusion, the town, sat along Lake Superior. Lake Illusion, the lake, sat at the outskirts of the town, a perfect north woods setting for Mrs. Cabilla’s home. Dan’s lab was housed in an abandoned Boy Scout camp on the opposite side of the same lake.
He squinted against the mid-afternoon sun. The address he’d received when he’d called the number for Project Hope was located on a quieter side street from the usual hustle and bustle on the main drag of Lake Illusion. Plenty of parking down this street, as there were no pottery shops, Native American jewelry stores or crystal havens. Dan parked his pick-up truck at the curb in front of a large Victorian home, got out, then glanced at the paper in his hand.
336. Odd, the place didn’t look like an office but rather a residence. Dan frowned as he walked up the sidewalk. No sign at the front proclaiming the offices of Project Hope, just a wind chime hanging on the porch, swaying in the heated breeze, and chiming a haunted tune.
The front door stood open, allowing him to see into the foyer through the screen door. Inside sat a respectable little old lady behind an antique desk. Perhaps this was a bed and breakfast. If so, they’d probably know where he could find Project Hope.
Dan opened the screen door and a bell rang. The woman, who’d been focused upon something in her lap, looked up and smiled a welcome. Now that he was closer, he saw she wasn’t as respectable as he’d thought, or as old. Her hair, a pale enough blond to look white, was drawn into a ponytail at her neck and reached all the way to her chair. Her eyes were the most extraordinary shade of russet-brown that Dan had ever seen and sparkled like a polished stone. She wore dark red lipstick and Indian earrings that brushed the shoulders of her peasant blouse.
“Hello,” he began.
She straightened and put a jumble of cloth onto the desk. “Come on in. Do you have an appointment?”
Dan moved close enough to see that the cloth she’d held in her lap was a quilt block. He remembered Perry’s words about security blankets and frowned. Maybe he was in the right place after all. “I’m looking for Project Hope–”
“You’ve found us. And you are?”
“Doctor! How lovely.” She pressed her hands together as if in prayer and beamed at him over the tips of her fingers. “My ear has been bothering me ever since I went parasailing last week. Do you think it was the altitude? Or maybe I shouldn’t have gone into the water at such high speed.”
She continued to look at him as if he could help her. Dan had never actually practiced medicine on people. Sure, he’d had to deal with them in school, but he’d never been any good at it. If he hadn’t planned to go into research from the beginning, he would have once he realized how incredibly inept he was in the face of pain and emotion. He shouldn’t be surprised, considering his parents. But that was neither here nor there.
“Uh, yes, well, I’m not sure.” He tried to get past the image of this woman flying through the air with the greatest of ease. “I’m not an ear man, you see.”
“A rear man, you say?”
Her ear must really be bothering her. “No,” Dan said louder and clearer. “I’m not an ear man.”
“Ah, what kind of man are you then? A leg man?”
Dan blushed, one of the embarrassments of being blond and fair skinned. The woman laughed, delighted, and he blushed darker, his skin on fire all the way up to his forehead.
“You’ll want to talk to Grace,” she said, letting him off the hook.
“She’s the brains behind Project Hope. It’s her baby, start to finish.”
“Yes, she’d be the one I want to talk to.”
“She’s between appointments.” The woman waved toward a long hallway leading out of the foyer. “Go on down, second door on the left.”
“Thank you.” Dan followed the flip of her fingernails, painted the same garnet shade of red as her lips.
As he passed from the foyer into the house proper, flute music played in the distance. The haunting melody drew him forward. As he neared the second door on the left he caught the scent of apple pie and cinnamon. His stomach growled. Damn, he’d forgotten to eat again. Professional hazard.
Clearing his throat, Dan opened the door to what he thought was the mystery woman’s office and stepped inside.
It wasn’t an office.
The scent of apples must have come from the dozen or so candles that wavered in an unknown breeze. His stomach contracted, and he felt dizzy for a moment. A man of his size really had no business forgetting to eat.
The only light came from those candles, giving the room a moody glow. He’d stepped into another world, and while Dan wasn’t very comfortable in the usual one, this one made him downright nervous. He almost fled, then she appeared from behind the oriental screen.
Lithe and long, her black hair drifted past her shoulders–loose, free, lovely. Her head tilted down as she belted a red scarf about her slender waist. Her legs, tanned and perfect, played hide and seek beneath the thigh high slit in the flowing white skirt of her dress. Dan swallowed and followed the long, naked expanse of her calf toward her bare feet.
Excellent feet. Long and slim, with red polish on the toes that matched the sash at her waist. He’d seen painted toenails before; he wasn’t a saint. But these, well . . . he coughed.
Her head went up like a doe startled at the edge of the forest; her brown eyes searched the shadows. Dan couldn’t speak; he stood there staring, trying to take in every nuance of her face.
His scientific mind began to catalog all he observed. Exotic, with high cheekbones, strong nose, supple, smooth, tanned flesh. Black lashes and brows, auburn lips, no make-up. The most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen.
“Are you here for me?” she asked.
Oh, yeah, his mind leered in a very un-scientific manner. Dan just stood at the door and stared like a fool.
“Sir?” He nodded because he could not speak. “All right. I guess there’s time for one more.” She reached behind the screen and pulled out a bright, white sheet. The contrast of the crisp, cool cotton in her tanned, slim hand made him think of autumn turned to winter, leaves beneath the snow, apple pies cooling at Christmas. He had lost what remained of his mind.
She tossed the sheet at him, and he caught it before the material slapped him in the face. “Everything off,” she said. “On the table. Sheet goes over you both.”
Before Dan could fathom what he’d just been told, she slipped out the door and left him alone.
“What the hell?” he muttered, staring at the cushioned table in the middle of the room. Candles, cushioned table, everything off? Dan clenched the sheet. He’d stumbled into the red light district of Lake Illusion! He hadn’t even known there was one.
But the little, old, para-sailing lady had said Project Hope resided here. Did Grace of the great legs and even greater face have a dual life? Prostitute by day, charity maven by night. Or the other way around?
Dan moved across the room and looked behind the screen. More sparkling white sheets, several towels, and bottles of many colors. He picked one up.
Self-heating body oil.
“Uh-oh.” Dan put the bottle of golden oil right back where he’d found it.
He should get out of here as fast as he could. Call Grace, whatever her name was, and settle everything on the phone. But his entire life hung in the balance, and so did the good name of the Cabilla Grant. Mrs. Cabilla couldn’t know she was planning to give many, many dollars to a house of ill repute, however deserving their charity program was. Dan wasn’t a prude, but he needed that money.
What if he did take everything off and get on the table? His body responded to that image in a predictable manner. But only because he’d been alone for a long, long time. Medical research scientists on the cusp of discovery did not have time for sex, love, or rock n’ roll. That was the only reason he couldn’t seem to stop thinking of her incredible face, silky black hair, and long- fingered, clever hands.
“Damn,” Dan muttered and began to undress. This was probably the biggest mistake of his life, but he needed to find out just what was going on at 336 Elm Street if he was going to tattle to Mrs. Cabilla. He wasn’t proud of himself, but he was desperate. He’d stop things before they went too far. He would.
When the door opened again, Dan lay face down on the table, the sheet modestly covering him from waist to ankle. Keeping his eyes closed, he waited to find out what Grace would say next.
She didn’t speak, instead she moved about, then stopped at the table. Hands touched his shoulders, kneading the tense muscles, pushing at the knots of stress that made it hard for him to sleep at night, then slid over his skin, silky smooth. The oil, he recalled, and let out a sigh of pleasure.
She had large hands. Strong, too, amazingly so. Dan was a big man, and he worked out daily, otherwise he found his mind became as atrophied as his muscles, but Grace pushed at those muscles and dug into his spine. By the time she reached his lower back, he’d gone limp.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “This is amazing. Does it cost extra?”
“Extra? What means extra?”
All the tension that had flowed from Dan’s body came back with painful force as a heavily accented, male voice thundered from above.
Dan flipped onto his back and stared at the huge, blond monster in the bulging white T-shirt. “Who are you?”
Sniff. “I am Olaf.”
“Gracie does not massage men. It is inappropriate, she says.”
“Not illegal. No. But she does not feel right. And a big man like you . . .” Olaf shrugged. “She could not do a good job. Her hands are strong for a woman, but they are not the hands of Olaf.”
“Whoa, this is a massage parlor?”
“What did you think?”
Dan looked at the size of Olaf and remembered how his voice had caressed the word “Gracie.” He wasn’t going to tell the man he’d thought Grace was offering more than the house special. That would be the quickest way to get his nose broken. He probably deserved it, but he’d rather pass on physical violence while naked. Dan started to get up.
Olaf shoved him back down. “Turn over. Silence. I do not like to talk while I work.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding. I came here to talk about Project Hope.”
“If you wish to talk of Hope, why do you lay on this table? Naked. Why do you ask for Gracie?” Olaf’s fingers, which had been on Dan’s shoulders, suddenly dug into the sensitive cavity beneath his collarbone.
“Ouch.” Dan jumped from the table before Olaf could take off his head. He clutched the sheet around his middle and put the table between him and the other man. Dan had never before felt threatened by another human being. All of a sudden he understood why most people got out of his way. Dan very much wanted to get out of Olaf’s way right now. “I said this was a misunderstanding.”
“I know what kind of misunderstanding you have. This is why Gracie have me.” He thumped a ham-like hand against his chest. “Olaf is to make sure no one touches Gracie with inappropriateness. People think because we massage we also do other things. But we do not!”
“Of course not,” Dan agreed. Damn, he wished he had his clothes. Olaf’s face was getting redder by the second.
“Bah! Americans have no understanding of the ways of the body. All is medicine, science. What they can see and touch.” Olaf actually hissed. Dan had never heard a man hiss. It was quite effective. “You do not understand that what you do not see is more powerful than anything of this earth.”
Dan had never been able to understand what he could not see and touch, but he wouldn’t argue with Olaf if the masseur told him moon men had taken over every cheese factory in Wisconsin. Instead he nodded and slid toward the screen.
Olaf blocked his way. Dan looked up into Olaf’s furious face. The guy had to be seven feet of pure muscle. Dan was going to have to talk his way out of this one, but talking had never been one of his better talents–especially talking while semi-nude.
“Listen, Olaf, I made a mistake. I apologize. I’ll pay you for your time. But I really need to talk to Grace.”
“No.” Olaf shook his finger in Dan’s face. “There will be no talking to Gracie for a bad man like you.” Then Olaf reached out and yanked the sheet from Dan’s grasping fingers.
Three things happened at almost the same time. Dan made a grab for the sheet, Olaf tossed it over his shoulder with an evil grin, and Grace walked in the door.
All three of them stood frozen for a moment. Then Dan dove for the screen, Olaf started laughing, and Grace asked, “Are you Dr. Chadwick?”