§ § § -- January 9, 1999

Stepping out of the car with Roarke at the plane dock on a balmy January morning, Leslie had no inkling whatsoever of the fact that these would be their last tranquil moments for some time to come. Nothing was there to suggest that anything was amiss; in fact, when a young man stepped off the plane with a fantasy to be a prince for the weekend, she was actually disappointed. "Oh, honestly," she said through a sigh. "You'd think people would pay attention to all the sob stories about Diana, with all the tabloids they read."

"As I have observed on numerous occasions in the past," Roarke said in amusement, "it is usually necessary to learn things the hard way. And that is precisely what Daniel Kearney will have to do before the weekend is out." He smiled fondly at her. "Since you have so much knowledge from all your correspondence with Christian, you may be Mr. Kearney's primary advisor throughout the course of his fantasy."

Leslie grinned. "Seems reasonably easy. And who's that, now?" She indicated a slender, dark, very pretty woman who appeared to be in her late 40s just stepping out the hatch of the seaplane. Beside her, Roarke straightened and leaned slightly forward, his eyes widening in amazement.

"I never thought she would return," he said, as if to himself.

"She who? Return from where? Come on, Father, who is she?" Leslie persisted.

"That is Paola," Roarke told her, without ever taking his eyes off their newest guest. "She has been here before: in fact, she was my last assistant, the one I found it necessary to let go mere minutes before you arrived home, eight and a half years ago."

Leslie called up her memory of the day she had returned to Fantasy Island as a recent widow and tried to flesh out the details of her arrival; it took a moment, but she finally did bring back a vague image of a distraught woman nearly colliding with her in a headlong rush off the porch and down the lane. "I think I remember—she almost bumped into me," Leslie said slowly. "Why is she back?"

"She has a fantasy, although she hasn't provided much detail about it," Roarke said. "I can only hope it is possible for me to help her. When she left here that summer, she had a great many demons plaguing her, and refused to divulge their nature to me. Her problems interfered with her job performance; and as much as I wished to assist her, there was nothing I could do. I had no choice but to dismiss her." He shook his head, looking regretful. "Perhaps she has resolved her issues: but if not, I sincerely hope she will trust me to help her banish them once and for all."

"This really means a lot to you, doesn't it?" Leslie said. She was used to her father's concern over his guests, but there was something about his expression—not to mention his apparent acceptance of Paola's lack of forthrightness—that put her on the alert. She let her gaze stray to Paola and had to repress a shudder; there was some quality in the woman's close-mouthed smile that increased her uneasiness. And for some reason she looked vaguely familiar, Leslie realized.

Beside her, Roarke nodded. "I am not accustomed to failures," he admitted, his dark eyes narrowing momentarily before the native girl presented him with his drink. Once he had welcomed his latest guests, Leslie peered nervously at him and found herself wishing the weekend were already over.

‡ ‡ ‡

It didn't take them long to outfit Daniel Kearney for his fantasy, and they set him up in Wellington Castle, which had been built many years before for a fantasy and since then had provided the setting for the odd fantasy here and there. On the way back to the main house, Roarke checked his gold watch three times, making Leslie stare at him. "Are we late for something?" she asked.

"No, no," Roarke said, snapping the watch shut for the last time and making a bit of a show of replacing it in his vest pocket. "Just keep driving, Leslie." Silence descended after that and remained for the rest of the drive home.

Paola was waiting in the study and smiled warmly at Roarke when he and Leslie came in. "It's very good to see you again, Mr. Roarke," she said and took both his hands in hers. Roarke returned her smile in kind and squeezed her hands.

"I hope all is well with you," he said.

Paola spotted Leslie. "Tell me, who's the charming child?" she inquired. "She wasn't here the last time I…" Then she squinted at Leslie. "No, I believe I remember you now. You had just come off the plane when I had to leave."

"Yes…my daughter, Leslie Hamilton," Roarke said. "Please, Paola, sit down. Is there anything we can get you?"

"No, I'm fine, thank you." Paola moved to one of the chairs and made as if to sit, then hesitated and gave Leslie a guarded look. "If you don't mind…perhaps you and I could speak alone?" she said to Roarke after a moment.

"By all means. Why don't you make some rounds, Leslie," Roarke said dismissively and took his chair behind the desk. Leslie, startled, stared at him. His full attention was now on Paola; it was as if, having once told her to leave, he had utterly forgotten her very existence. Deeply unnerved but feeling she had no grounds to argue, she swallowed back her steadily increasing jumpiness and quietly left the house.

Only then did Paola lower herself into the chair. "Quite amazing, my dear Mr. Roarke; nothing has changed here at all. Your island truly is timeless. Somehow I feel much more at ease here, and of course, your hospitality is very welcome."

"Thank you, you're very kind," Roarke said, leaning forward, resting his elbows on the desktop and interlacing his fingers, regarding her with intense concern. "You must let me help you, Paola. I sense you are still burdened…perhaps even more so than you were when you left here."

Paola lifted a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, a fleeting expression of pain shooting across her features. Roarke tensed in alarm, watching her more closely than ever. A moment later, she lowered her hand and gave him a wan smile. "A touch of headache. I am afraid I've begun to suffer periodic migraines in the last few years."

"Do you still experience the nightmares?" Roarke asked.

"Frequently." Paola scowled fiercely for just a second, her hands tightening on the armrests of the chair. Then she seemed to regain control of herself and said apologetically, "It can be a great load to bear."

Roarke nodded in complete sympathy. "I have no doubt of that. Paola, I myself have known the emptiness you are now fighting, but I was unable to vanquish it alone. If you will trust me enough to allow me to give you the benefit of my experience, I promise you I will do all that is within my power to bring you through it whole and healed."

A strange look flitted over her face, one so fleeting he barely registered it, much less deciphered its provenance. She lowered her head, concealing her face from him, and seemed to be contemplating his earnest offer. The only sound was the soft ticking of the grandfather clock for at least a minute. But when she lifted her head, her smile was soft and thoroughly grateful. "Yes, Mr. Roarke. Yes…please, help me."

Roarke's dark eyes warmed and lit up. "You need not bother with the honorifics, my dear. For you, I am simply Roarke."

Paola's soft smile shifted ever so slightly and she stood up, covering his clasped hands with her own and leaning toward him. "You truly are a rock, Roarke, and you have my eternal gratitude. Now…" She let go and straightened. "Tell me, where am I to sleep?"

Roarke arose as well. "Come with me, Paola, and I'll show you to your bungalow." He gestured for her to precede him, and as he walked closely behind her he found himself thinking that it had been a long time since he'd had such a rush of feeling for a woman. This one had changed from his memories of her in her days as his assistant; he felt ferociously protective, almost possessive, and silently vowed to himself to stand between her and any specter that might dare threaten her.

He took her to the Presidential Bungalow, an elegant little cottage that boasted the very best of everything in accommodations. Paola exclaimed over the furnishings, the décor, the soft carpet under their feet. "How lovely! Ah, Roarke, you spoil me."

"That is my privilege, is it not?" Roarke replied smilingly. "You will find your bags in the bedroom, and when you have refreshed yourself, please take advantage of all we have to offer. There are many pleasant distractions…" His voice trailed off when Paola approached him and again folded his hands into hers, smiling demurely up at him.

"I confess, Roarke, that you are the most intriguing distraction here," she said. "I hope you can spare the time to dine with me? Perhaps here, or at the hotel…or even on a picnic?" She laughed at his wide-eyed expression. "Apparently it has been too long since you went on a picnic. I think it's time we changed that. Leave the details to me, and I will call you when I am ready."

Roarke raised one eyebrow and smiled slowly. "Perhaps not quite all the details, my dear. Let me choose the setting…you won't regret it."

Paola nodded, then stretched onto her toes and for a moment laid her cheek against his. "Once again, my sincerest thanks." When she let go and jogged lightly toward the bedroom, Roarke felt an unexpected sense of loss, as if the air in the room had grown much colder. He half-smiled at his own folly, turned and departed the bungalow. Despite himself, he could feel a growing sense of anticipation.