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Next time you book a holiday of a lifetime, don't choose the world's most popular couples' destination, you muppet.
Ella Radley adjusted her backpack and flinched as it nudged the raw skin that still stung despite spending yesterday hiding out in her deluxe ocean-view room at the Paradiso Cove Resort in Bermuda-AKA Canoodle Central.
Ella sighed-nothing like getting third-degree sunburn in the one place you couldn't reach to remind you of your single status. Not that she needed reminding. She stared in dismay at the line of six couples, all in various stages of loved-up togetherness, on the dock ahead of her as she waited to board the motor cruiser at the Royal Naval Dockyards on Ireland Island for what the dive company's website had promised would be 'a two-hour snorkel tour of a lifetime'. Unfortunately, she'd booked the tour when she'd first arrived nearly a week ago, before she'd been hit on by a succession of married men and pimply pubescent boys, napalmed all the skin between her shoulder blades and generally lost the will to have anything remotely resembling a lifetime experience.
Her best friend Ruby had once told her she was far too sweet and eager and romantic for her own good. Well, she was so over that. Frankly, paradise and all its charms could get lost. She'd much rather be icing cupcakes in Touch of Frosting's cosy café kitchen in north London-and laughing about what a nightmare her dream holiday had turned out to be with her business partner and BFF Ruby-than standing in line to take a snorkelling tour of a lifetime that would probably give her a terminal case of seasickness.
Stop being such a grump.
Ella gazed out across the harbour, trying to locate at least a small measure of her usual sunny outlook on life. Yachts and motor boats- dwarfed by the enormous cruise ship anchored across the harbour-bobbed on water so blue and sparkly it hurt her eyes. She recalled the pink sand beach they'd passed on the way in, framed by lush palms and luxury beach bungalows, which looked as if it had been ripped from the pages of a tourist brochure.
She only had one more day to fully appreciate the staggering beauty of this island paradise. Maybe booking this holiday hadn't been the smartest thing she'd ever done, but she'd needed a distraction The trickle of panic crawled over her skin, making her aware of the familiar clutching sensation in her belly. She pressed her palm to the thin cotton of her sundress, until it went away again. She needed this day trip-to get her out of her room before the panic overwhelmed her or, worse, she became addicted to US daytime soaps.
The line moved forward as a tall man appeared at the gangplank wearing ragged cut-offs and a black T-shirt with the dive company's logo on it, his face shadowed by a peaked captain's cap. Ella stopped breathing, her eyes narrowing to minimise the glare off the water, astonished to discover that the steely-haired Captain Sonny Mangold, whose weathered face beamed out from the photo on the website, appeared to be in amazing physical shape for a guy pushing sixty. Talk about a silver fox. Not that she could see his hair from this distance.
Captain Sonny began to welcome each couple aboard, his gruff American accent floating towards her on the still, muggy air, and sending peculiar shivers up Ella's spine, even though she couldn't make out what he was saying. The couple ahead of her, looking affluent and young and very much in love, were the last to block her view. As the captain helped them both aboard Ella stepped forward, anticipation making her throat dry. She took in the staggeringly broad shoulders and long muscular legs encased in denim cutoffs as his head dipped to tick off the list on the clipboard in his hand. Wisps of dark blond hair clung to lean cheeks and a square, stub-bled jaw, confusing her even more, then his head lifted.
All thoughts of nightmare holidays, canoodling couples and silver foxes blasted right out of her brain.
Goodness, he's stunning. And not much over thirty.
'You're not Captain Sonny,' she blurted, the wake-up call to her dormant libido blasting away her usual shyness too.
'Captain Cooper Delaney at your service.' The rich jade of his irises twinkled, and the tanned skin round the edges of his eyes creased. His arresting gaze dipped, to check the clipboard again. 'And you must be Miz Radley.' The laconic voice caressed her name, while his gaze paused momentarily on its journey back to her face, rendering the bikini she had on under her sundress half its normal size.
A large, bronzed hand, sprinkled with sun-bleached hair, reached out. 'Welcome aboard The Jezebel, Miz Radley. You travelling on your own today?'
'Yes.' She coughed, distressed as the answer came out on a high-pitched squeak. Heat flared across her scalp.
Good Lord, am I having a hot flush? Can he see it?
'Is that okay?' she asked. Then realised it sounded as if she was asking his permission. 'Sure.' His wide sensual lips lifted but stopped tantalisingly short of a grin-making her fairly positive he knew exactly how he was affecting her.
The blush promptly went radioactive.
'As long as you don't have any objections to me being your snorkel buddy?' He squeezed her fingers as she stepped aboard. 'We don't let clients dive alone. It's safer that way.'
The pads of her fingertips rubbed against the thick calluses on the ridge of his palm. And the tips of her already constricted breasts tightened.
'I don't have any objections,' she said, feeling stupidly bereft when he let go of her hand-and thinking that even on their ten-second acquaintance she'd hazard a guess that Captain Cooper Delaney was the opposite of safe. Why for the first time in a long time she should find that exhilarating instead of intimidating made her wonder exactly how stressed she'd been in the last week.
'How about you sit up front with me?' It didn't sound like a question, but she nodded, her tongue now completely numb. His palm settled on the small of her back, just beneath the line of her sunburn. He directed her past the other passengers as she struggled not to notice the hot tingles generated by his touch and the fresh scent of saltwater and soap that clung to him. Bypassing the single space left between the couples wedged onto the benches that rimmed the hull, he escorted her to one of the two seats in front of the console in the boat's cabin.
'There you go, Miz Radley.' He tipped his cap, the gesture more amused than polite thanks to that tempting twinkle, then turned to address the other passengers.
She listened to him introduce himself and the two wiry teenage boys who were his crew for the day, then launch into a relaxed spiel about the twenty-five-minute voyage to the snorkel site called Western Blue Cut, the history of the sunken wreck they'd be exploring, the ecology of the reef and a string of safety tips. But all she really heard was the deliciously rusty texture of his voice while her mind wrestled with the question of exactly what being someone's snorkel buddy might entail.
It couldn't possibly be as intimate as it sounded. Could it?
But when he climbed into the seat beside her, his hand closed over the rounded head of the gear stick on the console and she swallowed past a constriction in her throat that felt a lot like excitement.
He adjusted the stick down, tapped a dial, pressed a button and the boat roared to life. She grabbed the rail at the edge of the console to stop from tumbling onto her butt. He slanted her an amused look as she scrambled back into her seat. Then hid his mischievous gaze behind a pair of sunglasses.
All the blood pumped back into her cheeks- not to mention the hot spot between her legs-as the motor launch kicked away from the dock, edged past the other boats in the marina, and left the walled harbour to skim over the swell towards the reef.
He flashed her an easy smile-that seemed to share a wicked secret. 'Hold on tight, miz. I'd hate to lose my snorkel buddy before we get there.'
The answering grin that flittered over Ella's lips felt like her first genuine smile in months-filling up a small part of the gaping hole that had opened up in the pit of her stomach over a week ago.
Maybe going on a holiday of a lifetime solo didn't completely suck after all.
'Well, honey, you've certainly captured Coop's attention.'
Ella's cheeks burned at the comment from the plump middle-aged woman in bright pink Bermuda shorts and an 'I Found My Heart in Horseshoe Bay' T-shirt who joined her at the rail as the boat bobbed on the reef.
They'd reached their destination ten minutes ago and were waiting for Captain Delaney and his crew to finish allocating the snorkelling equipment before they dived in.
Ella had to be grateful for the respite, because sitting in such close proximity to the man for twenty minutes had caused her usually sedentary hormones to get sort of hyperactive.
'Do you know Captain Delaney?' she asked, hoping to deflect the conversation while studiously ignoring the blip in her heartbeat.
After careful consideration, she'd figured out that Captain Delaney's attention had nothing to do with her and everything to do with his job. She was the only single passenger on the boat, and he was just being conscientious, ensuring she got her money's worth and enjoyed the trip. They hadn't been able to talk much on the ride out because of the engine noise, thankfully. Those sexy-and she was sure entirely impersonal-smiles he kept flashing at her were more than enough to tie her tongue in knots. A reaction that had propelled her back in time to the excruciating crushes of her teens when she'd always been rendered speechless in the presence of good-looking boys.
This was precisely why she preferred guys who were homely and safe rather than dangerous and super-hot. Being struck dumb on a date could get old really fast.
'We've known Coop for nearly a decade,' the woman said in her friendly mid-western drawl. 'Bill and I been coming back to St George every year since our honeymoon in ninety-two. And we never miss The Jezebel's snorkel tour. Coop used to work as a deck hand for Sonny as a kid, got his captain's stripes a while back. Now he just pitches in from time to time.' The woman offered a hand. 'Name's May Preston.'
'Ella Radley, nice to meet you.' Ella shook the woman's hand, comforted by her open face, and easy manner-and intrigued despite herself by the unsolicited insight into the hot captain's past.
She recognised May from the resort. May and her husband Bill, whom she liked too, because he was one of the few married men at Paradiso Cove who didn't have a roving eye.
'You're a cute little thing, aren't you? And with that lovely accent.' May tilted her head, assessing Ella in that direct and personal way that only American tourists seemed able to do without appearing rude. 'I must say, I've always wondered what Coop's type was. But you're quite a surprise.'
The blush headed towards Ella's hairline. 'I wouldn't say I'm his type.' Perish the thought; her heart would probably stop beating if she believed that. She might find him extremely attractive, but dangerous men had never been good for her mental health. 'It's just that I'm a woman on my own and he's being polite and doing a good job.'
May let out a hearty chuckle. 'Don't you believe it, honey. Coop's not the polite type. And he usually spends his time peeling the single female clients off him, not offering them a personal service.'
'I'm sure you're wrong about that.' Far from stopping, Ella's heartbeat hit warp speed-stunned disbelief edging out her embarrassment.
'Maybe, maybe not.' May's smile took on a saucy tilt, which was about as far from doubtful as it was possible to get. 'But this is the first I've ever heard of the snorkel-buddy safety rule. And that's after twenty years of coming on this tour.'