Excerpt: Too Perfect

Too Perfect by Julie Ortolon

Book 3: The Perfect Trilogy

Chapter One

Big things often begin with a simple dream.

–How to Have a Perfect Life

Amy Baker’s worst nightmare had come true. She was stranded. Left behind on a tropical island with no way to get home. At least not a way that wouldn’t prove humiliating.

Yesterday, after watching the cruise ship she’d been on literally sail off into the sunset without her, she’d agonized over what to do. Being stranded was only half her problem. She’d been traveling with an elderly couple as a nanny to their three grandchildren, and just before being left behind, she’d been fired.

It was all her fault, of course. She’d taken the children ashore on the French island of St. Barthelemy and hired a taxi to get to one of the beaches. As had happened on other shore excursions, she and the children became wrapped up in one of her games of make believe. They were pirates searching for buried treasure. After a mock sword fight ranging up and down the white-sand beach, she’d glanced at her watch and realized she’d lost track of time. Again! She was an hour late getting the children back to the ship for afternoon snack time with their grandparents.

With the grandfather’s health failing, that was the one time of day set aside for him to spend with the children.

Amy had arrived at the landing frazzled and frantic to find a very angry grandmother standing on the dock tapping her foot with impatience. Naturally, the three children–who’d been having a blast all day–picked that moment to break into a full chorus of, “We’re tired. We’re hungry. We hate this trip.”

If Amy hadn’t committed several other similar transgressions, perhaps the incident would have been forgiven. As it was, the grandmother had had every right to chew Amy out right there in front of several passengers while loading the children on the tender boat that ferried people back and forth from ship to shore. Embarrassment had swamped Amy down to the soles of her tennis shoes. She’d turned and headed blindly away from the dock–and succeeded in getting lost.

Considering the tiny size of Gustavia, the island’s capital, she was sure only she could accomplish such a feat.

By the time she found her way back to the landing, the last tender had come and gone. She’d stood there, at the end of the harbor, watching in disbelief as the sun sank into the sea and the ship grew steadily smaller on the horizon. As much as she’d been dreading getting back onboard, getting left behind was a thousand times worse.

All she had on her was a beach bag with her emergency stash of money, a half empty tube of sunblock, snacks for the kids, her autographed copy of How to Have a Perfect Life, and a wet, sandy beach towel. She didn’t even have a change of clothes, or underwear so she could take off the swimsuit she wore beneath her T-shirt and shorts. Everything else she’d brought on the trip, including her credit cards and passport, were on their way to St. Thomas.

Calling her grandmother to wire her funds would only earn her a lecture about her absentmindedness, but the thought of turning to her friends Maddy and Christine was out of the question. They’d move mountains to help her, but then she’d lose the bet that had sent her on this trip in the first place.

She refused to be the only one of the three who failed to fulfill the challenge they’d made nearly a year ago. Maddy had faced her fear of rejection to get her art in a gallery, and Christine had faced her fear of heights to go skiing. Now it was Amy’s turn to face her fear of strange places to take a trip by herself. So far, she’d only accomplished half of that feat. She’d gone somewhere on her own. Now she had to get back–on her own.

And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that turning to her friends for help wasn’t the only thing that would make her a failure. Arriving home a week early with her tail between her legs would do it too. She had to figure out a way to finish her full vacation time. Okay, so it had been a working vacation, but it was still a two-week break from her regular life and everything familiar and safe.

That was the real challenge, wasn’t it? Staying away from home for the full two weeks. Facing her fears and dealing with them. She had to do this or lose her self respect.

That night, though, as she lay awake in a hotel room that had wiped out most of her cash, her options looked bleak. Not only was she stranded on an island, she was stranded on St. Bart’s–one of the most expensive islands in the Caribbean. Even when she sorted out the problems of getting replacement credit cards, how could she afford a week here? Why couldn’t she have done something reasonable, like get stranded on an island that had a budget beach hotel and a discount department store for her to buy some clothes? No, she has to get stranded on a chichi island–where the locals spoke French, no less!

Tears started to fill her eyes, until she remembered her mother insisting that giving into despair never accomplished anything. “There’s a bright side to everything,” her mother had said more times than she could count. “You just have to find it.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, she closed her eyes and prayed for an answer.

The following morning, she found a travel agency to help her contact the ship and arrange to have her things packed up and shipped home. That seemed wiser than having them sent to St. Bart’s, since she didn’t know how long she’d be on the island. The agency also solved her passport and credit card problem. Within minutes she was picking up a cash advance at a local bank.

Next on her list was the enormous problem of finding a place to stay that she could actually afford. That was when she found the answer to her prayers.

As she stood on the street contemplating her options, her gaze fell on a sign in the window of an employment agency: Immediate Opening for a Live-In Housekeeper.

Her breath caught at seeing the perfect solution. Okay, maybe it was wrong to apply for a job when she knew she’d be quitting days later, but as the idea took root, she realized she actually had four weeks before she absolutely had to be home.

Four weeks. In the Caribbean.

It was terrifying. It was thrilling.

Four weeks. Could she really do that?

The worrywart inside her battled with the part of her that had always longed for freedom to go and do and see.

She beat it back by realizing that yes, she had things organized enough back home; she could stay away that long. She would work for two weeks–assuming they hired her–give two weeks notice, and be home a whole week before the bridal shower she was throwing for Maddy’s and Christine’s double wedding on the one year anniversary of their challenge.

She entered the employment agency shaking with both excitement and doubt. An hour later, she was heading for an interview.

Her spirits lifted with every step as she climbed the footpath that led from Gustavia to the mansion perched on the cliffs overlooking the bay. Her mother was right, she decided. Rather than a catastrophe, life had given her an adventure. A real, live adventure, not the imaginary kind she usually took.

Needing to catch her breath, she stopped and shaded her eyes to take in the view. And oh, what a view!

Dozens of sailboats and fabulous yachts bobbed at their anchors in the bay while their owners explored the tropical paradise. Farther out, a cruise ship sat like an enormous luxury hotel floating on the sparkling water of the Caribbean Sea. The sky and water held every shade of blue from azure to indigo as a light breeze sang through the palm trees around her.

As she’d done so often during the trip, she wished her mother could have seen this. The Caribbean was one of many places they’d visited a thousand times in the stories they made up together, traveling on the ocean or through the air on their magic flying ship. Do you see it, Momma? It’s even more beautiful than we imagined.

The sweet pain of memories filled her heart in a rush.

Fearing she’d cry if she stood there much longer, she resumed her climb, catching glimpses of a stone structure through the dense, tropical growth. As she got nearer, though, a new worry edged aside some of her enthusiasm. The structure at the top of the trail didn’t look like a house. It looked like an old fort, the type that would have guarded the island during the time of pirates.

Before her mind could take off on some flight of fancy about swashbuckling buccaneers, she wondered if she’d taken a wrong turn. She glanced at the cover sheet to the application she’d filled out. The job description and directions were written in French, but the woman at the employment agency had definitely pointed to this path and told her in English to follow it to the top. As talented as Amy was at taking wrong turns, even she couldn’t have messed this up. Could she?

She ducked past the last curtain of palm fronds and found herself facing a very tall, bracken-covered rock wall. Staring way up at the crenellated battlement that lined the top of the wall made her almost dizzy. On the corner toward the sea, a square tower jutted up even higher.

How wonderfully fascinating. Like ancient ruins in some secluded rain forest far away from civilization.

The path split in two directions, one heading uphill and around to the inland side; the other path headed to the side that faced the sea. Choosing the seaside path, she let her imagination conjure a story of exploring forgotten ruins: The intrepid archaeologist Amelia Bake battles her way through the jungle to unravel the secrets of a mysterious fortress. What has become of the soldiers who once walked the battlement? Do their ghosts still haunt the old stone walls?

A delicious shiver ran down her spine at the thought.

She found a door in the base of the tower, but it definitely didn’t strike her as the main entrance, so she continued on along the edge of the cliff with the bay far below. The moment she cleared the tower, her eyes widened with delight. One whole section of the outer wall had been removed, exposing an inner courtyard to the view of the sea.

Inside lay a garden gone wild. Tropical flowers exploded with color, struggling for space and spilling past their borders. Bougainvilleas climbed the trunks of giant palm trees while bromeliads and orchids dripped down to meet them. Small songbirds and butterflies added a kaleidoscope of music and life. Through the dense tangle she glimpsed a second floor gallery with louvered shutters bracketing dozens of doors. Apparently someone had converted the old bastion into a private residence some years back, but the place looked abandoned now.

As she ventured forth through a tunnel of vegetation, the perfume of flowers and damp earth nearly overwhelmed her senses. Very little sunlight reached the ground, and the darkness added an eerie layer to the garden’s atmosphere. Reaching out, she moved the leaf of a banana tree. A small monkey shrieked in her face. She screamed as well, which sent the long-tailed monkey scurrying up a tree trunk where it frightened a red macaw into flight. The ruckus echoed about her in a chain reaction of bird cries.

“Oh, my goodness.” She pressed both hands over her racing heart and laughed at herself. “Sorry,” she called to the brown and white monkey who scowled down at her from his–or her–perch high in the trees.

When Amy’s pulse settled, she resumed her search until she found another door. This one didn’t look any more welcoming than the one to the tower. The solid panel of aged wood hung from massive wrought-iron hinges. At eye level, a snarling gargoyle–who looked a great deal like the vexed monkey overhead–held a large round knocker in its mouth, its lifeless eyes daring her to knock.

What sort of person would live in such a strange place?

In spite of her fascination, a sense of foreboding crept up the back of her neck. She had plenty of experience dealing with wealthy eccentrics, but this place went beyond odd into the realm of the bizarre. Maybe she should toss her pride to the wind and buy a plane ticket home. Thinking of the challenge, though, stopped her from retreating. If Maddy and Christine could complete their challenges, she could do the same.

She ran a quick hand over her hair to be sure her riot of corkscrew brown curls was still neatly confined in a braid down her back. As for her attire, there wasn’t a thing she could do. She was stuck with the white shorts and striped “crew shirt” she’d purchased from the ship’s store as a souvenir . It was neat enough, even if this was her second day to wear it.

Okay, no more stalling. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted the circle of gnarled iron and knocked three times. The banging echoed through what sounded like a vast, empty space, evoking visions of Gothic mansions from old horror movies.

No sound followed.

She stood in uncertainty, wondering again if she’d taken a wrong turn. An eternity later, the panel began to creak open on rusty hinges. She braced herself, half expecting to see Frankenstein’s Igor smiling evilly and bidding her to enter.

For Amy, the reality proved nearly as frightening. The man who answered the door was quite possibly the sexiest man she’d ever seen in her life.