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Grand Design

Grand Design

Chapter 1       

He was gorgeous.

Cynda Madison stepped back to admire the face finally revealed in all its resplendent glory. She’d taken several days to remove the years of grime from just this small portion of the portrait, but the work had been well worth the effort.

The face that emerged had been designed for the word handsome. His chiseled cheekbones, firm chin, and aristocratic features all blended together to create a totally appealing and stunningly sensual appearance. With thick straight black hair, cut long to the collar, and a mesmerizing pair of dark gray eyes beneath dark brows, this man could give Tom Cruise a run for his money.

Who was he?

She should’ve asked when she'd accepted this assignment, but at the time she’d viewed it as just another way to keep bread on the table while she pursued her true love--painting landscapes.

"Oh my, that’s wonderful." Eleanor Del Norte, the head of the Hope Springs Historical Society, gasped as she entered the small cottage where Cynda worked.

Cynda hated dragging her gaze from the face to greet the elderly woman. "Isn’t he, though?"

Mrs. Del Norte chuckled. "I didn’t mean him, though he is quite handsome, but the colors themselves. I had no idea it was so beautiful beneath all that grime."

"It was pretty dirty." Cynda turned to view the portrait again. Almost life-size, his face stood even with hers. "How old did you say this was again?"

"At least one hundred years. It’s one of the few survivors of The Chesterfield’s last fire."

That would explain the blackened frame. Unable to look away from the dark gaze, Cynda marveled at the passion and hint of arrogance that smoldered in his eyes. "Who was the artist?"

"I don't know." Mrs. Del Norte came to stand beside her. "Unless you reveal it at some point."

"I’ll do my best." The artist did good work. Though Cynda knew how to paint portraits, she'd never been able to put such passion into one. "Do you know who the man is?"

"Ah, I can help you there." The patron turned an amused smile on Cynda. "Prince Dimitri Karakov."

"A prince?" That explained it. A face like his didn't dare belong to any ordinary man. But why had his portrait been at The Chesterfield? "Did he stay at the resort?"

"Yes, for some time. I believe he accompanied his grandmother each year when she took the waters." Mrs. Del Norte turned away and Cynda followed suit. "How long do you think it will take to finish this project?"

Cynda hesitated. Now that she knew exactly what she was working with, the process should go more smoothly, yet she hated to proceed too hastily. "It’s hard to say," she said. "Two months, perhaps sooner."

"Excellent." Mrs. Del Norte’s face lit up. "We’re holding an anniversary celebration over the Fourth of July weekend to honor The Chesterfield and we want to display this then. Our goal is to raise funds to restore The Chesterfield."

Cynda escorted the woman to the door of what had once been the doctor’s home and they paused outside to gaze at the ruins of the once famous hotel. Many walls lay in ruins, the balconies were broken, and the intricate scrollwork had crumbled beneath years of wet Virginia weather. Though a small bit of its former elegance lingered, Cynda found it difficult to imagine the place alive with wealth and luxury.

There were remnants of the elegance, however, in the simple cottage where she worked. Formerly nothing more than a service building, it still retained signs of when The Chesterfield had been host to the nobility and affluent.

As Cynda worked later that evening, unwilling to stop until the last of the daylight had vanished, she imagined she could hear voices in the distance of hotel guests, the whistle of an arriving train at the station by the hotel, the dancing waters of the now decayed fountain in the overgrown gardens.

But when she paused to listen, she only heard the familiar night sounds--the wind rustling through the pines, the hoot of a distant owl, the gurgling of the spring in the distance.

Just her imagination. The Chesterfield hadn’t housed guests in decades, but with luck, Hope
Spring’s historical society would change that.

Before going to bed, Cynda took one last look at Prince Dimitri and sighed. They didn’t make them like that anymore.

As she snuggled against her pillow, his face continued to haunt her. Why? What was it about him?  She'd found men attractive before, but none of them had stirred her senses as Dimitri did. But this one was a prince. Cynda smiled and shut her eyes. Of course.

The dreams crept up on her--wild dreams, filled with images flashing from one scene to another. The Chesterfield, no longer a ruin, but alive with bustle, music and intriguing guests.

Abruptly, Cynda found herself in a crowd, unable to move in the direction she wanted. As a couple pushed past her, she stepped back onto someone's foot. She turned, an apology on her lips, an apology that vanished as she spotted her victim.

"Please, accept my apologies." Prince Dimitri took her hand and bowed low over it, his
accent the only clue that English wasn’t his native language.

Before Cynda could do more than stare, the scene changed again. She found herself outside the hotel beside the fountain, facing the prince. "I must talk to you," she insisted.

"You can say nothing I wish to hear." He walked away, leaving her there as she stared after him. The arrogance, the nerve, the...

The scene changed again. This time, Dimitri stood in The Chesterfield’s lobby, a smile on his face that sent Cynda’s hormones into overdrive. She was there, watching him with a strange sense of satisfaction, then suddenly a loud noise filled her dream and the prince collapsed to the floor, blood streaming from his chest.

"No!" Cynda bolted up in bed as the cry escaped her throat. Forcing herself to breathe evenly, she oriented herself to her surroundings--she was in the cottage at The Chesterfield. The rest had been a dream, nothing more. Then why was her heart racing, her chest tight with agony?

The painting. She glanced toward it, silhouetted in the darkness against a window. Could her attraction to the prince bring on such crazy visions? It had felt so real.

She forced herself to roll over, her back to the picture. What kind of man had this prince been? Tomorrow, she promised herself, she’d take some time and learn more about the man who filled her dreams.

The Historical Society prided itself on its library and Cynda had to admit their pride was well-justified. She had no doubt the information she wanted was here. The problem was finding it.

Fortunately, the archives of the local newspaper, the Hope Springs Times, were filled with articles on Prince Dimitri as well as other aristocrats who had visited The Chesterfield. Cynda grinned as she scanned the newspaper’s society pages detailing the exploits of the famous and wealthy. Even the meals they ate were listed.

These folks could work for the Enquirer. Her grin faded as she spotted a headline with Dimitri’s name.

Prince Dimitri Karakov Killed At The Chesterfield.

Killed? Her breath caught as if she were suddenly punched in the chest. True, he was long dead as it was, but this felt worse. Murdered? By whom? Was that what her dream had meant?

Cynda read through the article. For a newspaper that loved to present minutiae, the details of Dimitri’s death were sketchy at best. He had been shot and killed on December twelfth 1889 while staying at The Chesterfield. His body had been returned to his home country for burial and his younger brother crowned king in his place.

But who shot him? What happened? Cynda’s frustration grew as she searched through paper after paper to find no further news. Had someone put a hush on the information?

She frowned. A member of the royal family could’ve done that. Had Dimitri’s brother murdered him to gain the throne?

She returned to her cottage with a heavy heart and stood before the portrait. The eyes that met hers were too full of life to die so young. "What happened, Dimitri?"

For a brief foolish moment, she thought he might answer, but the face didn't change. Or did it? Leaning closer, she caught the glimmer of amusement in his expression. Had that been there all along?

She stepped forward to touch the face, then drew her hand back in surprise. It had felt warm, alive. No, that was absurd. Cynda forced herself to turn away, but found herself heading for her tools. She wanted to discover more of this man buried for years beneath the grime.

No, more than that. She had to discover more.

She worked until exhaustion drove her to bed.

And the dreams came again.

Dimitri lived, his eyes gleaming with passion, his arms around Cynda as they danced. There were others present, but she didn’t notice them. All she could see was the prince and his hint of a smile as he listened to her, the intensity of his gaze as he looked at her. His hands held her possessively, their warmth branding her skin.

"What is it about you?" he asked, his voice as rich as Irish Cream, his accent layering the words with sensuality.

"Me?" He was the interesting one.

The room, the other people faded away as he kissed her. His lips on hers were heaven--warm, soft, teasing, then turning hot, hard, possessive. He pulled her close, her body melding with his, his desire obvious against her belly. He slid his hand over her breast, caressed the peak with his thumb.

Cynda’s moan woke her. Her blood still pulsed, her nipples hard, her belly tight with need. Damn, what was going on?

She slid off the bed to stand before the portrait, searching for an answer. She found him good-looking--okay, more than good-looking--but was that triggering these dreams? The faint light from outside added a dimension to his eyes that made them appear to smile at Cynda. If she closed her eyes, she could almost feel his hands on her.

Her breasts grew heavy, aching for his touch. She wanted...she needed...

Cynda shook her head and stepped back. Crazy. This was a job, nothing more.

As if to prove it to herself, she pushed herself to work harder, to reveal the superb figure in all its original glory as she carefully removed the years of build-up. Slowly as days passed, his broad shoulders and chest emerged, immaculately clad in a red jacket decorated with gold braid and numerous medals, followed in time by the appearance of his slim hips and muscular thighs encased in dark trousers.

She hoped to repair the frame as well once she completed the painting. The rich oak was coated with soot, marring the intricate design, but didn’t show any substantial damage, except for the spot below the portrait where a nameplate had obviously rested. Where was it? Maybe that could reveal the unknown artist.

Cynda did nothing for the next few weeks but work by day and dream by night...dreams that continued to leave her shaken, desire throbbing within her veins when she awakened.

Cynda stood before Mrs. Del Norte and the rest of the Historical Committee as they passed around photos of the portrait in its various stages of revelation. "I should have the finishing touches done within the week." Which was more than a week ahead of schedule. Her interest in Dimitri had made the work fly by.

"Wonderful." Mrs. Del Norte beamed at her. "I can tell we made the right decision in selecting you for this job. The prince almost shimmers with passion."

Cynda shook her head. "The passion was already there. I’m anxious to discover who the artist was. With luck, I’ll reveal that soon."

"Excellent work, Miss Madison. This will fit in perfectly with our Fourth of July plans." Mrs. Del Norte stood, signaling the end of the meeting. "We’ll look forward to seeing the completed project."

Cynda started to leave, then paused. "Do you have the nameplate that goes on the frame?"

Mrs. Del Norte’s expression showed her confusion. "I’ve never seen a nameplate. I’m sorry."

Oddly restless, Cynda paused in the town square. She'd walked to town that morning, almost as if delaying her report would give her more time with the portrait.

It was now June twenty-first. She was almost finished and hated to be so. As much as she wanted to discover the artist and reveal the prince in all his splendor, she didn’t want to leave him.

With a sigh, she trudged up the steep hill to where the ruined resort and its outbuildings stood.

Maybe leaving this project would be a good thing. She was reaching the point of obsession.

The prince’s passionate gaze coupled with her heated dreams drew her to him. Ridiculous. He was only a man in a portrait, long dead. And it was highly unlikely she would ever meet his descendants. Cynda grimaced. No matter what the era, she and the prince would always move in different circles.

So why the dreams? Had she honestly fallen in lust with a painting? She shook her head. Probably more a matter of going too long without a serious relationship. Heck, without any relationship.

Which was fine. She didn't need anyone to take care of her. The years following her father's decision to make his life elsewhere had toughened her, sealed her in a protective cocoon away from needing or wanting.

She’d spent the last year concentrating on her mother’s care. Since her mother's death, Cynda had tried to sell her own landscapes and make a living. Too bad the two didn’t go together.

At least she had her restoration skills to fall back on. Gifted at uncovering the emotion other artists put into their paintings, she always had steady employment. If only she could manage similar passion in her own work. Maybe then she’d sell or at least get a showing.

She passed the resort’s main building enroute to her cottage. Pausing, she gazed at the decaying structure. What a shame. It never should’ve been allowed to deteriorate so badly.

At one time it had vibrated with life, with the rich, the famous, dignitaries and royalty...and Dimitri. She could almost hear laughter from inside and over the noise, his voice as smooth and seductive as in her dreams.

As if drawn, Cynda pushed against the massive front doors, the wood still solid beneath her palm.  They swung open with barely any resistance. Strange for doors that old. Evidently, they had once been well cared for.

The large lobby was dust-filled with wallpaper hanging down in strips and a portion of the ceiling lying on the faded carpeting. A wave of sadness washed over Cynda. She could imagine how exciting the resort had once been.

Shaking her head at her fancy, she went to leave, then stopped as a shaft of sunlight glinted off an object at the far corner of the room. She squinted, trying to make out details. What was it?

She stepped inside, testing the floorboards cautiously. They didn’t even creak and she ventured forward toward the gleaming object.

It was an antique maple chest, the sunlight bouncing off the brass handles. Judging from the flowers carved into the front, sides and top, she guessed it to be a hope chest. Three initials sat below the flowers on the front panel--EMS. Who was that? How did the chest get here? Everything of value had been removed from the resort some time ago.

Was there anything inside?

Impulsively, Cynda touched the lid, the wood warm beneath her palm. Definitely quality material. Would the chest hold something of equal quality? Jewelry, gems, clothing?

She lifted the lid and peeked inside. "I don’t believe it." Instead of some ancient treasure, the chest held only five items, most of them darkened with time.

Two objects were in better condition and Cynda reached inside to stir the pile, revealing a dueling pistol in mint condition and a shiny sheriff’s badge. Odd things to find in a hope chest.

The other items showed more wear. Caught around the barrel of the pistol was a gold chain that might’ve been valuable at one time, only now the links were broken. Resting against the side of the chest was a pair of handcuffs, the wristbands severed into two separate pieces.

Cynda frowned. What an unusual bunch of junk.

Something glinted at her from the bottom and she pushed aside the badge to reveal a tarnished brass plate etched with words, one edge of it dented as if from hit by something.

She leaned forward to pick it up, excitement bubbling inside her. It was the same size as the space on the portrait’s frame. Could it be...?

The words were difficult to read but she easily made out the most important of them--Dimitri Karakov. It was the nameplate for her prince.

She pulled her hand down in a victory gesture, then swayed as the room abruptly spun around her. Closing her eyes, she brought her hand to her forehead in an attempt to still the dizziness.

Noises filtered in, broken words punctuated with laughter. Cynda looked around, trying to place the sound, then blinked. The lobby appeared to waver, rich colors seeping in over the dust and

She shook her head as the dizziness grew worse. The nameplate dropped from her hand as she reached out to steady herself against the chest.

But it was gone.

She staggered forward, stumbling finally against the wall. Her knees wanted to collapse, her head pounded. With an effort, she held herself upright by pushing her hands against the wall.

The material beneath her hands vibrated as if alive. The grimy wallpaper became smooth beneath her palm. Cynda jerked her hand away in alarm and fell to the floor. The voices grew louder. She crossed her arms over her knees and buried her head on them, alarm mingling with her dizziness.  What was happening?

For one instant the noise stopped and the room quit spinning. Cynda started to raise her head, then winced as sound returned in a cacophony of voices. Looking around, she blinked in astonishment.

This wasn’t possible.

The lobby of The Chesterfield was filled with people all dressed in antique clothing. Was that man wearing spats?

In addition, the disrepair had given way to thick elegant carpeting, green textured wallpaper offset by rich oak trim and brightly colored stained glass windows on either side of the massive entry doors. Cynda swallowed the lump in her throat, unsure what to think. What was this?
"Miss, are you all right?"

She turned at the inquiry to see a young man bending over her. Dressed in a navy blue bellhop uniform, he reached down to take her arm.

"Let me help you."

She rose to her feet with his assistance, still trying to believe her senses. The boy’s hand felt real, the carpet beneath her feet was soft, the voices resounding in the room mingled with a variety of accents. "Where am I?"

The bellhop straightened, tugging his waist-length jacket into place. "The Chesterfield, Miss. Best resort this side of the Mississippi." He grinned and Cynda wouldn't have been surprised if he'd saluted. "I’m Rupert. Anything you need, I can help."

"Thank you, Rupert." Cynda forced her gaze to the young man, digesting his words slowly. "The Chesterfield?" Her heart gave a sudden thump against her breast. "This is The Chesterfield?"

An odd gleam appeared in Rupert’s eyes. "You’re the latest visitor, aren’t you?" He turned, motioning her to follow him. "Come with me. Miss Sparrow can help you."

He didn’t give her a chance to respond, but worked his way through the crowd.

Visitor? Miss Sparrow? He didn’t make sense, but Cynda was reluctant to lose the one friendly face she’d found. Hurrying after him, she tried to take in more of the surroundings--the dated clothing, the hint of pipe tobacco and cigars in the air, the lilt of a Scottish accent. Was this another dream?

Yet this was different...so different from her dreams.

"Miss Madison?"

Cynda turned to see a young woman, perhaps in her early thirties in a wide hallway with Rupert standing beside her. The woman wore her brown hair in bun with the top in a poofy style that reminded Cynda of old westerns, no make-up, and a full-length white apron over her navy blue dress with a white collar and cuffs contrasting the dark color. A small gold pendant was pinned to her bodice. "Me?"

"Yes, over here." The woman extended her hand as Cynda approached. "How do you do? I’m Miss Sparrow. I’ve been expecting you."

"What?" Cynda stared at the woman in surprise. Expecting her? For what?

"I’ll show you to your room. Your uniforms are already there." Miss Sparrow laid her hand on Cynda’s arm, her expression sympathetic. "I know this is confusing, Miss Madison."

How did this woman know her? What was going on? "Why should I go anywhere with you?"

"Please trust me. I’m here to help you."

Help her? How? Hesitantly, Cynda fell into step with Miss Sparrow, trying to make sense of the conversation. Her room? Her uniform? "Uniform for what?"

"Your waitress uniform, of course."

"Waitress?" True, she’d waited tables once long ago during her teenage years, but she’d sworn never again. "I’m an artist."

"Perhaps. In time." Miss Sparrow smiled, then paused before wide lead-rimmed windows and motioned outside. "Wonderful, isn’t it?"

Wonderful...and unbelievable. Instead of the overgrown weeds and crumbling walls Cynda remembered, this landscape looked new. The grounds were filled with people. In the midst of well-trimmed gardens, a large fountain spewed water to the sky. The grounds were immaculate, lined with exotic flowers, the grass green and lush, and the roads smooth and unbroken. Everywhere Cynda turned, she saw activity--people walking, talking, porters carrying baggage.

"It can’t be," Cynda murmured. Even in her dreams she’d never seen such detail.

"It is." Miss Sparrow spoke quietly but firmly.

A sinking feeling filled Cynda’s stomach. "But how? What?"

Miss Sparrow hesitated, then gently touched Cynda’s shoulder. "Welcome to The Chesterfield, Miss Madison, in the year of our Lord 1889."

"1889?" Cynda couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice. "That’s impossible."

"All things are possible, Miss Madison."

Cynda looked from the woman to the scene outside. This couldn’t be true, couldn’t be happening. She’d come back in time? Wasn’t that the kind of thing that only happened in movies?

Shaking her head, Cynda stepped backward. This had to be a dream.

She abruptly collided with someone behind her. "Oh." Turning to offer an apology, Cynda’s words died as she spotted the gentleman.

Prince Dimitri Karakov gave her a half-smile and took her hand. Bending low, he pressed his lips to the back of her hand. "Please, accept my apologies."

Cynda nodded, unable to answer. Without another word, he turned away to join a dark-haired young man and an elderly woman, leaving Cynda to stare after him, her heart racing.

Raising her hand, she cradled it to her chest. She’d dreamed this, but in her dream she hadn’t felt the warmth of his lips against her skin or smelled the compelling scent of masculinity that surrounded him.

Her chest tightened as she looked back at Miss Sparrow. The woman met her stunned expression with a warm smile. Cynda swallowed. Dear Lord, it was true.

She had traveled back in time.

And her prince was alive.

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