When you’re desperate, you do things you’d never do otherwise, Ellie Winters thought as she spied the neon sign that might possibly lead to her salvation. American Bar, Hotel Grande Costa.
Dressed in a blue satin jump suit, she paused in the doorway to the bar and glanced over her shoulder to see if those two goons—King Kong and Godzilla—were still following her. They were. Her heart beat faster. Her throat went dry. This wasn’t turning out the way it was supposed to.
Her new job was supposed to be an adventure in a country she’d never been to. Instead, she felt trapped and that frightened her enough to seek help from a total stranger. Now all she had to do was find that stranger.
Ellie moved farther into the room, scanning the dimly lit bar. She had to come up with a way out of this mess. Calling the police was out of the question, since her employer was best friends with the chief of police, and frankly right now she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself than she already had. That was what got her into this mess in the first place. That, and the fact she was too curious for her own good.
When she heard a deep male voice, low and gruff, but definitely speaking English, her gaze fixed on a fellow American sitting at a table with another man, talking earnestly to his companion. The second man rose, said something she couldn’t hear to the American and left.
Her hand came up to touch the brooch she wore for good luck. For just a few seconds she allowed herself to feel relieved and thought finally things would work out for her. But when she saw the two goons enter the bar, her newfound optimism faltered. With a quick glance around the place, she drew in a deep breath and made her move toward the American.
“Finally I’ve found someone who speaks English,” Ellie said in a breathless voice. “You know everyone around Bella Isla speaks Spanish.”
Surprised, the man just looked at her.
* * *
Slade Calvert glanced about him, wondering if this woman had mistaken him for someone else, and noticed more than one man in the bar was covetously staring at her. Her startling beauty commanded men’s attention when she entered a room.
The woman sat in the vacant chair at his table. “You don’t mind if I join you?” Her big, blue eyes appealed to him as she leaned forward and extended her hand to him. “I’m Eleanor Winters, fellow American. But you can call me Ellie. Everyone does. I’ve just been away from home too long and I hardly speak the local language. Of course, not from want of trying, but I just don’t have an ear for foreign languages. Next time I’m going to a place where they speak English. Although that was exactly why I was hired to teach English, not Spanish. I have a friend who is a travel agent, and she said I wouldn’t have any problem getting my ideas across.”
Probably her friend was banking on some man not caring what she said, Slade thought as he took in the woman sitting across from him at the suddenly very small table. The soft scent of vanilla wafted to him. “I’m Slade Calvert.” A few minutes’ diversion wouldn’t harm him, and he could appreciate a beautiful woman as much as the next man. Like any healthy, red-blooded male it was hard to resist one when she practically sat in his lap.
The waitress appeared at her side, and Ellie immediately said, “I’ll take a rum punch with a little umbrella and a pineapple slice in it.” She indicated an umbrella and pineapple slice with her fingers. “It’s so …” she waved her hand in the air as though searching for the right word, “so tropical. I feel when you go to a foreign country you should do what the locals do. Don’t you think?” She didn’t give him time to answer but continued her chatter, bending even closer as though to impart a secret. “I think you should blend in when you’re traveling abroad.”
This woman would blend in about as well as a neon light in the dead of night, Slade thought, and gave their order to the waitress in Spanish.
When he returned his appraising gaze to the woman sitting next to him, he was struck again with the one fact that overrode all others: she was drop-dead gorgeous. A mass of silver-blonde curls framed her delicately featured face. Her sky blue eyes were fringed in dark lashes that made her eyes appear large. Her figure was voluptuous, not disguised one bit in her satiny jump suit.
* * *
Ellie shifted beneath this man’s suddenly sharp, probing gaze, crossing her legs then uncrossing them. She had latched onto the nearest American male, praying he would be easy to manage; she was definitely having second thoughts about this one. Even though he was sitting down, she could tell he was over six feet tall and his body was in superb physical condition, as revealed by the white short sleeve shirt that didn’t conceal his muscles. But what arrested her the most about this stranger was his hard, rugged features, a firm jaw line, piercing, jade green eyes, a nose that had been broken at least once, and a tiny scar beneath his left eye. She wondered how he had acquired it.
Inwardly she shivered. “I just love those little drinks with all the fruit in them. If you’re going to drink, you might as well get some nutritional value, don’t you think?” Why she ordered a rum punch was beyond her. She didn’t drink alcohol, but then she’d been so nervous when she’d spied the two men making their way into the bar right behind her, she hadn’t thought about what she was saying.
“If you want nutrition, drink milk.”
“Milk is good, too, and definitely nutritional. After all, that’s what babies are raised on the first months of their lives, but I doubt they have milk in here.” She always chattered when she was nervous and boy, was she nervous. Slanting a look over her shoulder at King Kong and Godzilla, Ellie noticed the two goons had taken a table near her. Her heart slammed against her chest. Why had she accepted the governess job? Look where it had gotten her. All she had wanted to do was see the world. Ellie leaned even closer to the American, keeping her voice pitched low so the two goons couldn’t hear. “Why are you in Bella Isla?”
“Oh, what kind?” Bodyguard would be good.
“I work for a computer company. Why are you in Bella Isla? You said something about teaching English to two children.”
A computer nerd? How was that going to help her? “Yes, I took a governess job here because I heard the beaches were great here. But there are so many soldiers around you can’t even get to them. What a disappointment. I should have tanned by now and just look at me. Pale as a ghost.” She didn’t add that the real reason she hadn’t tanned was that she had been a virtual prisoner at her employer’s villa. She needed this man’s help, and she didn’t want to scare him away, even if he sat in front of a computer all day. At least he was American.
“Lady, do you know a revolution is about to break loose here?”
“I’m sure they’ll get everything straightened out. Fighting is such a waste of time.” And right now she couldn’t deal with a revolution when she was sure her employer had sent two men to find her and follow her. She wondered when Godzilla and King Kong would make their move and seize her. The feeling of being trapped escalated.
The waitress placed their drinks before them, and Slade paid for them. “To fruit and umbrellas.” He raised his glass.
“Oh, look,” Ellie exclaimed.
“What!” Alert, Slade sat up straight.
“Yes, on that other table.” Ellie pointed at the bowl of nuts, her empty stomach twisting at the sight of anything that resembled food.
“For a second there I thought the revolutionists had stormed this bar or something equally as disastrous.” Slade relaxed back in his chair and took a long sip of his drink. “The nuts are a complimentary snack.”
“Let’s see if the waitress can get us some. I’m starved. I haven’t eaten dinner yet.” Nor lunch or breakfast, Ellie silently added, her stomach taut with hunger pangs and knotted nerves. She had escaped her gilded cage the night before, after dinner, and had been hiding ever since. It wasn’t until King Kong and Godzilla had glimpsed her, a little while before, that she had come out in the open to seek help.
“Maybe you should go to the restaurant and eat dinner.”
“Only if you come, too. I hate eating alone.”
For a long moment he didn’t say anything. Ellie held her breath, her grip on her cold glass so tight that her fingers ached. She was beginning to wonder what the good patrons of the hotel would do, if she was left alone and the two very large men accosted her. At the least, she would go kicking and screaming.
He sighed, tossed down the rest of his clear drink and rose, grabbing his suit coat from the back of the chair. “Fine.”
She stood and grasped his arm, molding herself to him and praying that King Kong and Godzilla would see she had a protector even if he didn’t know it yet. Hopefully they would report back to their master that she was off limits, unless they wanted to cause that scene she had just imagined. “You’re a lifesaver.” The one called Godzilla rose. She searched her mind for a topic to keep Slade’s attention on her and not the men hovering in the background. “What sign are you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think people were into that anymore.”
Probably not. She wasn’t, but a sunburst clock behind the bar made her think of the topic–probably because her employer always read his everyday and she’d had to listen at the breakfast table with her two charges. “I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything really, but I think it’s fun to see what comes true and what doesn’t. When were you born?”
“Then you’re a Taurus. That doesn’t surprise me. You bulls are so dependable and determined.” And she was banking on that fact because he might be the only thing standing in the way of her not going back to the villa. “I’m a Gemini. I’m much more flighty than you.”
“Now, that doesn’t surprise me.”
Her hold on his arm tightened when she noticed the other man standing, too. “May I ask a big favor of you?” She tilted her head so she could look up into his face. “Let’s order room service from your room.” She nearly choked on the request, but she needed to put some distance between herself and King Kong and Godzilla. She had to think of some way to get off this Caribbean island she was trapped on.
“Okay, if you’re sure, Ellie,” he said, his eyebrows hiking up.
She wet her lips. “Much cozier,” she said in a voice she hoped didn’t sound too panicky. She was counting on Slade Calvert being easier to handle than the two goons following her. She just needed some time. She always came up with a way to get herself out of these little jams she found herself in.
She walked with him to the elevator. As they waited, she was acutely aware of Godzilla stationing himself in the lobby while King Kong came over to stand next to them. The doors swished open, and Slade guided her into the elevator, with King Kong crowding in right behind him. If Slade hadn’t ushered her into the plush interior, Ellie wasn’t sure she could have gotten on. Her legs were so weak she was sure she would collapse any second. Fear climbed up her spine inch by inch until she felt her whole body taut with tension.
With each floor they passed, her bottled breath expanded in her lungs until she thought they would burst. The air in the small elevator tensed with each second that lapsed, as if a time bomb was ticking away and at any moment would detonate.
King Kong remained in the back, his eyes trained straight ahead. Riddled with guilt, Ellie couldn’t stop thinking of different scenarios. What if King Kong tried something in the elevator? What if she was responsible for Slade Calvert getting hurt? What if …
The doors opened, and Slade tugged on her hand to indicate they should exit. King Kong followed them off the elevator. Slade might be oblivious to the man behind them, but Ellie felt the goon’s gaze on her back. The hairs on the nape of her neck stood straight out. Her legs trembled as she placed one foot in front of the other. She clutched Slade’s arm to steady herself as they neared the end of the hallway.
Slade stopped. Her pulse pounded as she listened to the goon’s footsteps behind her pause for the space of a breath, then continue on past them. Slade inserted his key into the door, then opened it. Ellie never realized how long it could take to get inside a room until she was inside Slade’s with the door closed. She was safe. For the time being at least.
Slade put his key on the dresser and turned toward Ellie. The frankly admiring appraisal in his eyes crushed any relief she felt. Her actions and words had handed her over to him on a silver platter, and now she must pay. She certainly couldn’t blame him if he thought she was easy. This was not the first, nor would it be the last time she wished she didn’t have an impulsive bone in her body.
“I’ll take a T-bone steak, thick and juicy, French fries, and a large chef salad with lots of tomatoes and cheese. And for dessert a big piece of chocolate cake,” she said in a rush as she braced herself to fight him off if need be.
“You are hungry.”
“Yes,” she breathed the word. Tension made her back ramrod straight while she waited to see what he would do next. She had to trust this man to a point because the alternative was facing the two goons, who she knew would drag her back to her employer, but she wouldn’t let down her guard.
“I wouldn’t mind having a steak, too.” He picked up the receiver and placed his order with room service.
When he finished, Ellie was still standing two feet from the door, poised for flight.
He smiled. “It’ll be at least half an hour before they bring up the dinner. Relax. Sit. Stay awhile.”
She had to pass him to get to the set of chairs that he indicated with a sweep of his arm. Masking her wariness, she moved cautiously toward one and nearly jumped when his hand snaked out and caught her wrist. Fear blossomed anew. She was trying to think of all the self-defense classes she’d taken, but at the moment not one move came to mind.
“We can always cancel room service and eat downstairs in the restaurant.” Deep amusement shone in his eyes.
“No, we can’t.” There was a frantic ring to her words while her body reacted to this man’s nearness.
His brow creased, his eyes narrowed. “What’s going on?”
“There was a man who followed me from the marketplace today. All I tried to do was help him with a selection he was making, but he obviously took it for much more,” she explained, realizing she was leaving out big chunks of the story. “Even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying to me in Spanish, I knew what he meant when he pinched me and winked. That’s when I decided to go into the bar and …” She let her voice trail off and have him come up with his own conclusions. She didn’t want to dig her hole any deeper than necessary. How could she tell him her reaction to that man drew the goons’ attention to her? How could she tell him that the man who wanted to overthrow the government was her recent employer? How could she tell him she didn’t know who to trust in Bella Isla, including him?
“Why didn’t you call the police?”
How could she tell him she had overheard her employer talking with the chief of police about their plans for taking control? That she knew what their strategy was? “I’ve heard such horror stories about the police in these foreign countries.”
“So instead, you approach me, a perfect stranger.” Skepticism laced his voice.
“You look like a gentleman.”
Slade tossed back his head and laughed, a low, husky sound.
“And you are a fellow American.”
“An American gentleman to the rescue.” He bowed, inclining his head. When he looked up, his regard snared hers. “What you did could have gotten you killed, or much worse.” Steel ran through his words as his gaze sharpened.
She swallowed hard, realizing she had been foolish ever to think she could have handled this man. Danger vibrated in the air between them, and she stepped back, her hand covering her heart. “Could have?” she squeaked out, her throat and mouth parched.
He relaxed his predatory stance and a self-mocking grin appeared on his harsh features. “You’re safe, Ellie. I would never force myself on a woman. Besides, you’re not my type.”
For a few seconds his words, meant to reassure, stung her. Then she chided herself. She was in enough hot water at the moment and certainly didn’t need any more complications. The rigid set of her shoulders eased, and she returned his smile. “Thank you.”
“We’ll eat dinner and discuss your options.”
“I do have another problem.”
“What?” he asked patiently.
“I don’t have a room for the night.”
“Why not?” he asked, again surprise flashing into his eyes for a few seconds before he masked it.
“I was supposed to leave today, but when that man started following me. I tried to lose him in the marketplace and managed instead to get lost. No one understood me when I tried to explain my problem. You should have seen the horrid place where I ended up. I’m lucky I’m here now.”
“What does that have to do with you not having a place to stay tonight?”
“I missed my plane.” Boat and any other mode of transportation off this island.
Ellie’s gaze flew to the door. She tensed, mentally readying herself for a confrontation with King Kong, or worse, both men…