Authors: Barbara Wallace
“You stayed in too long,
“ he told her.
“Did I?” Based on how her insides were trembling, she wondered if she should still be swimming.
You need to be careful. Too long, and you'll grow weak from the cold.”
“I'm not cold.”
“Your shivering says otherwise.”
Larissa looked him in the eye, her gaze telling him what they both already knew: that her trembling had nothing to do with the water. His hands slowed, the touch becoming slow and sensual.
“I don't â¦ I'm not â¦” He struggled for words. A warning, but his gaze dropped to her mouth even as he spoke.
“Me neither,” Larissa whispered. This was purely physical. Two people giving in to an attraction and nothing more. That her heart pounded in her chest in anticipation meant nothing.
is a lifelong romantic and day-dreamer, so it's not surprising that at the age of eight she decided to become a writer. However, it wasn't until a co-worker handed her a romance novel that she knew where her stories belonged. For years she limited her dreams to nights, weekends and commuter train trips, while working as a communications specialist, PR freelancer and full-time mum. At the urging of her family she finally chucked the day job and pursued writing full-timeâand she couldn't be happier.
Barbara lives in Massachusetts with her husband, their teenage son and two very spoiled, self-centred cats (as if there could be any other kind). Readers can visit her at
and find her on Facebook. She'd love to hear from you.
To my fellow writers, Donna Alward, Wendy S. Marcus, Julia Broadbooks, Abbi Wilder and Jennifer Probst, without whom I could never have gotten this book written. Thank you for showing up every morning and pushing me to be productive. You ladies are the absolute best!
And, as alwaysâPete and Andrew, you're my heroes!
Having grown up in the hospitality industry, Carlos Garcia Chavez thought he'd seen everything. But nothing prepared him for the blonde standing in the doorway of the Presidential Villa. With her tight white dress and messy halo of platinum blond hair, she looked like she'd stepped out of a black-and-white newsreel. So much so, he half expected to hear her call him Mr. President in a husky stage whisper.
What he got was a big, overly bright smile that sent awareness shooting through him. Something else he was unprepared for. He adjusted his grip on the wine bottle cradled in his arm and pushed the unexpected reaction aside.
“Oh, right, you say
in the afternoon. My bad. I'm still on East Coast time. I'll catch on eventually.”
Carlos refrained from pointing out that East Coast time would place her later in the day, not earlier. After all, the guest was always right, no matter how wrong they might be.
Meanwhile, this particular guest leaned. She leaned a hip against the door frame, a position that drew further attention to her curves. “So what can I do for you, SeÃ±or...?”
“Chavez. Carlos Chavez. I'm the general manager here at La Joya del Mayan.”
“Did you say
Damn. I knew this was too good to be true.”
“There is a problem?” he asked. Carlos tensed. Errors were the kiss of death in the hotel industry. Mistakes led to bad reviews. He had enough on his plate keeping La Joya's current woes under wraps; he did not need to add to his troubles.
“Lucky for you, I haven't unpacked yet.” He followed, trying not to stare at the way her bottom marked her steps like a white silk pendulum. “I mean, Delilah and Chloe might be generous, but seriously, this? Doesn't matter if they are married to millionaires. Well, Del's married to one. Chloe and her boyfriend aren't married yet, although anyone with two eyes in their head can see they're going to be. They're absolutely crazy about each other. Do you want some champagne?” She lifted a bottle from the coffee table.
“No, thank you.” Judging from her rambling friendliness, she'd had enough for both of them. “You said there'd been an error?”
“I've never had Cristal before. This stuff is really good.”
“I'm glad you approve.”
“Oh, I do.” She took a long drink, nearly emptying the glass. “I definitely do. I should have served it at tomorrow's nightâI mean tomorrow night's reception.”
“We can upgrade the menu if you'd like.”
She snorted, for some reason finding his suggestions amusing. “Little late for that.”
“Not at all. We can make changes right up to the last minute. So long as you're happy.”
“Because everyone knows, it's the bride who matters, right?” A shock of blond curls flopped over one eye. She swiped them away with a sloppy wave of her hand. “Long live the bride.”
Her groom was going to have his hands full tonight. Come to think of it, where was her groom? According to their records, SeÃ±orita Boyd booked one of their famed wedding packages, but the front desk said she'd checked in alone. Most guests arrived either as couples or with a gaggle of family and friends.
Only unhappy brides drank alone.
The seÃ±orita's drinking arrangements were none of his business. For all he knew, she wanted to be alone. Her accommodations, however were his concern, and so he repeated his original question. “Is there a problem with your room?”
“Only that I'm here. That's why you're here, isn't it? To tell me I have to move?”
So that was her worry. His shoulders relaxed. “Not at all.”
“I handled the upgrade personally.” In fact, her friend, SeÃ±ora Cartwright's, phone call had been one of the few positive highlights of his first week. “For the next week, consider this villa your home away from home.”
“Really? Wow. I have the best friends.” She looked down at her glass, her eyes growing so damp that for a moment, Carlos feared she might cry.
“If I recall, SeÃ±ora Cartwright said you'd admired the photos in our brochure,” he said.
The comment did its job, and distracted her. “More like drooled. This place is amazing. More than amazing, actually.”
“I'm glad you approve.”
“Oh, I do.” Draining her glass, she reached for the bottle again. “So, SeÃ±or... What did you say your name was again?”
“Car-rrr-los Cha-a-a-a-vez. I like how it flows off my tongue.” She gave a tipsy grin. “You sure you don't want anything to drink?”
“Then why are you carrying a bottle?”
The Cabernet. In all the distraction, he'd almost forgotten the point of his visit. “My desk manager told me you talked with the Steinbergs while waiting to check in.”
She drew her brows into a sensuous-looking pout. “Who?”
“The couple from Massachusetts who were staying at the Paradiso.”
“Oh, right, Jake and Bridget. They'd walked up here from the beach. I told them they were wasting their time getting married at the Paradiso. I researched every destination wedding location in the eastern hemisphere, and none come close to being as romantic as this place.”
Given his family's outrageous investment in creating said romance, Carlos certainly hoped so. The Chavez family prided itself on owning the most exotic, most enticing resorts in Mexico. “Apparently your enthusiasm was contagious because they placed a deposit for next spring.”
“I'm not surprised.”
She paused to wipe champagne from her upper lip with a flick of her tongue that left Carlos gripping the bottle a little tighter. He didn't know whether she always moved with such sensuality or if the alcohol unleashed some hidden sexuality gene, but he found himself reacting in a most unwanted way.
“They said they stopped by on a whim, but no one hikes four miles along a beach on a whim. Besides, Bridget had that look, you know? After five minutes, I knew she'd made up her mind. Can you believe the front desk wanted to send her away with nothing more than a brochure?”
Yes, Carlos could. “Unfortunately, we are between wedding coordinators at the moment,” he told her. No need to explain the disaster he'd been sent to fix. “Thankfully, you were there to speak on our behalf. I wanted to come by and personally thank you for assistance, and to give you this with our compliments.” He presented the bottle. “Cabernet from Mexico's own Parras Valley.”
“How sweet. Mexican wine.” She reached to take the bottle from him, only to stumble off balance and fall against his chest. Champagne sloshed over the rim onto his shirt, but Carlos barely noticed as he was far more focused on the hand pressed against his chest.
“I like how you pronounce
” There it was, the husky whisper. Carlos's body stirred instinctively.
“Perhaps you and your fiancÃ© can toast to a long life together.”
Gripping her shoulders, he righted the seÃ±orita and thrust the bottle into her grip. A bit rougher than necessary, perhaps, but he wasn't in the mood to play substitute. The force caused her to stumble backward, although thankfully, she managed to catch her balance without assistance. Giving a soft “whoops,” she smiled and swayed her way to the writing desk. “Nice thought, SeÃ±or Carlos. Unfortunately, he's off having a long life with someone else, and I don't feel like toasting that.”
“Pardon?” She had booked a wedding package, hadn't she?
“My fiancÃ©âex-fiancÃ©âdecided he'd rather marry someone else.”
No wonder she was drinking. He felt a stab of sympathy. “I'm sorry for...” Did one call a broken engagement a loss? No matter, he hated the phrase.
was such an empty and meaningless word. Having your world implode was far more than a loss.
“You're here alone, then,” he said, changing the subject.
“Honeymoon for one.” She raised her glass only to frown at the empty contents. “Wow, this stuff goes down way too easily.”
“Perhaps you ought to...”
Blue eyes glared at him. “Ought to what?”
“Nothing.” Wasn't his place to monitor her behavior. She was a guest. His job was to make her happy.
“Do you know what he said? He said I cared more about getting married than I did him. Can you believe it?”
“I'm sorry.” What else could he say?
“Yeah, me, too.” She swayed her way back to the coffee table. “Like it's a crime to be excited about getting married. News flash: It's your wedding day. The one time in your life when you get to be special.”
Hard to believe a woman who looked like her needed a specific day to feel special, but then as he knew all too well, there existed women who needed constant reassurance, despite their beauty. Perhaps the seÃ±orita was one of those women.
“Besides, if Tom was that upset, why didn't he say something sooner? He could have said, âLarissa, I don't want a fancy wedding,' but
he let me spend fifteen months of planning while he was busy having deep âconversations' with another woman, and then tells me I'm wedding obsessed.
“Seriously, what's so great about having deep conversations anyway? Just because I don't go around spouting my feelings to anyone who will listen, doesn't mean I don't have them. I'll have you know I have lots of deep thoughts.”
“I'm sure you do.”
“Tons. More than Tom would ever know.” Turning so abruptly, the champagne yet again splashed over the rim of her glass, she marched toward the balcony.
He should go, thought Carlos. Leave her to wallow in peace. But he didn't. Instead, something compelled him to follow her outside to where she stood looking at the Velas Jungle, her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I would have listened to him, you know,” she said, the energy depleted from her voice.
“I'm sure you would have.”
He joined her at the rail. It was the view that made La Joya famous. Across the way, snowy egrets had taken up their nightly residence in the mangroves, their noisy calls reverberating across the lagoon. The water rippled and lapped at the tree roots, creating a blurry mirror for the green and blue above.
The champagne glass dangled from her fingertips. He was debating reaching for the glass to keep her from dropping it into the water when she asked abruptly, “Are you married, SeÃ±or Carlos?”
sprang to his tongue, same as it always did. “Not anymore.”
“Oh.” Downcast lashes cast shadows on her cheek. “I'm sorry.”
Again with the meaningless words. “It happened several years ago,” he replied.
“My problems must seem really silly to you.”
Her remark surprised him. Normally, people relaxed when they heard his answer, assuming the passage of time meant less pain and mistaking his numbness for healing grief. To hear her express sympathy, left him off balance. “I'm sure they don't seem superficial to you.”
“But they are,” she said with a sigh. “They're silly. I'm silly.”
She was sliding into self-flagellation, dangerous territory when combined with alcohol. Old warning bells rang in his head. “Why don't we step back inside?” Away from the railing. “I'll get you a glass of water.”
“I don't want water,” she said, but she did push herself away from the rail. “I want more champagne.”
As long as it moved her off the terrace. He stepped back, expecting her to turn around, only to have her cup his cheek. Her blue eyes locked with his and stilled him in his tracks. “I'm sorry for your loss,” she said with far more sincerity than the word merited. Behind the kindness, Carlos recognized other emotions in her eyes. Need. Loneliness.
A spark passed through him, a flash of awareness that he was alone with a beautiful, vulnerable woman looking for reassurance. The similarities between now and the past were far too many, forming a dangerous rabbit hole down which he swore he'd never go again.
“Our staff is here for anything you need,” he told her, breaking contact before other, more disturbing memories could rise to the surface. When it doubt, turn to business. The rule served him well these past five years. “We'll do our best to ensure you enjoy your stay, regardless of the circumstances.”
On the contrary, he put an end to sweet a half decade ago.
After leading her inside, he made sure to lock the balcony door. With luck, she would curl up on the sofa and fall asleep. To be on the safe side, however, he made a mental note to have security keep an eye on the villa.
Images of a lifeless body floating atop water flashed before his eyes, stopping his heart.
Housekeeping, too. You could never be too careful.
The sun still beat strong on the sandstone walkway when he stepped outside. The beach side of the resort always remained sunny long after the lagoon settled in for the night. Guests enjoyed what they considered two sunsets. They would gather on their balconies or their private docks, margaritas in hand, and watch the shadows spread across the lagoon. A short while later, they'd turn their attention westward in time to see the sun slip behind the ocean. One more of the many perks that came with vacationing in paradise.
Personally, Carlos liked this time of day because the resort was quiet. Gave him time to walk the perimeter and ferret out any potential problems. There were always problems. Creating paradise took workâmore work than people would ever realize. He'd been here six weeks now, not yet long enough to know all the resort's idiosyncrasies. Much of his time, thus far, had been consumed by cleaning up his predecessor's mess. Misused funds, unpaid accounts.... His predecessor's managerial incompetence knew no bounds. And of course, there was Maria. Stupid woman was supposed to plan weddings, not run off with the philandering idiot. A decade's worth of reputation in jeopardy because of two people's recklessness.