Imagine

By: Jill Barnett

Acknowledgments



With sincerest gratitude I thank Jude Deveraux and Judith McNaught for graciously sharing their readers in A Holiday of Love. These talented and phenomenally successful ladies gave me the best Christmas gift a writer could imagine.

A special thanks to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, my very favorite writer, who kindly offered to read this book in a crunch and whose insight helped make it better.

And in my life, there are some very special people who are as much a part of each book I write as the words themselves: My family, who try to understand my passion for writing and the utter chaos of deadlines. My kindred spirits, Elaine Coffman, Penny Williamson, and Kristin Hannah—the real Smitty—who all are there at any hour and whose honesty and advice I treasure. Maureen Walters, my agent, who listens and understands when things get crazy. And my editor, Linda Marrow, who gives me guidance and opportunity, who greets each book with enthusiasm and never says, "Jill… you can't write that."

Thank you all.





To know is nothing at all;

to imagine is everything.

—Anatole France





Imagine…


Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,


October 1896




The bottle was as old as time.

It floated on the sea, bobbing along as if it were flotsam instead of intricately carved silver. The ornate stopper caught flashes of bright sunlight, which, to the gulls that soared overhead, made the shimmering bottle look like a plump silver herring—a prize for the plucking. Many a sea bird swooped down, only to quickly dart like reflections back into the sky when their bills hit not the soft flesh of glimmering fish scales, but instead hard metal.

It was a sad fact that there were no precious jewels on a bottle so old. A few gull pecks, a small scratch here and there, but no jewels. For gemstones, like an angel's wings, had to be earned.

A blood red ruby would have added a dash of character to the bottle. A diamond would have given it stunning richness. But a pearl was like a hero's medal of valor, a prize for a task so difficult that only the most unique of stones would do.

Ah, yes, a pearl was the ultimate adornment on a genie's bottle.

Yes… a genie. One, Muhdula Ali, purple genie of Persia, otherwise known as Muddy.

Since the beginning of time, men have argued that genies do not exist. Yet those same men believed in miracles and in the existence of angels. How many could dance on a pin? they had argued. (The answer is none. A pin is too small for angels. Only fairies can fit on pinheads.)

But those men were not dreamers. They were pragmatists and scholars, men with little time to dream.

Muddy wanted more than anything to be mastered by one of those innocents of heart who believed in that which they had never seen or known, people of faith who needed no debate to be able to imagine.

The knowledge that those people existed out there somewhere in the human race gave him hope, hope that had lived for some two thousand-odd years. He needed to find one of those believers. A lucky innocent. Someone whom fate didn't have it in for.

You see, Muddy had a problem. He needed all the luck he could get. His history was witness to the fact that his bottle was still embarrassingly naked. Not one single gemstone.

His first master had been none other than Paris, prince of Troy, and when it came to intelligence, Paris was… well, he was a few coins short of a drachma.

Indeed, for Paris had kidnapped lovely Helen, blithely ignoring the fact that she was another man's wife. The resulting war had lasted ten years. He went on to fell his father's kingdom when he decided that a giant wooden horse was, in truth, a Greek gift.

The basic problem for Muddy was that a genie was only as good as his master. And for some two thousand years, he had been mastered by some of humanity's most unfortunate and unlucky souls.

There had been Nero, a man so self-absorbed that he couldn't smell smoke. More recently, Benedict Arnold, who wanted desperately to be remembered throughout history. And there was that poor Chicago woman, Mrs. O'Leary. Her last wish had been for a milk cow. Those had been just a few of his unlucky masters.

Muddy sighed and lay back against the plump silk pillows that circled his small and confined world—the world of his unadorned bottle. He slipped his hands behind his head and let the lazy current rock him to sleep.

But just before he closed his eyes he wondered how long it would be before someone found him. Would it be months? It could be years.

With his own wish and a helpless shrug, he fell asleep, never knowing that it would only be a matter of weeks.





1





San Francisco, October 1896




Margaret Huntington Smith looked as if she had everything. She carried herself with confidence, and her height reinforced that image. She was tall, blond, beautiful, and wealthy. And she was an attorney—at that moment, one very happy attorney.

She wore a cat-in-the-cream kind of smile as she moved down the limestone steps of the courthouse and stepped into a shiny black brougham. She tossed a calfskin portfolio on the plush velvet seat, sat down, and gave a sly wink to the older distinguished-looking gentleman who sat across from her.

Harlan Smith laughed at his daughter's expression. "Oh, Margaret, my girl, it's a blasted good thing that you can hide your emotions in the courtroom or you'd never win a case."

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