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"Oh, God, I'm in jail." Debbie Harris curled both hands around the bars of her cage and gave them a frustrated shake. They clanked a little and the sound seemed to echo eerily around her. "I'm a criminal. I'll have a record."
Her forehead thunked against the bars and the fear at the base of her throat squeezed tight, nearly shutting off her air.
Okay, Deb, she told herself firmly, get a grip. This is all a mistake. It'll be straightened out in no time. You're not in the Big House, for heaven's sake.
In fact, the jail cell was more Mayberry than Oz. The whitewashed walls were clean and sparkling, and the cot was covered by a red-and-white quilt. There was a table and chair on one wall and a toilet and sink hidden behind a partition. The cell next to hers was empty and there was a closed door between her and the office where her jailer sat.
She scowled at the closed door because she couldn't do anything else. The man who'd locked her in here had been very polite but completely uninterested in listening to what she had to say. He'd simply closed the door to her cell and left her alone to wonder what in the hell had happened to land her here.
Outside the barred window, the tropical sky was a brilliant blue dotted with huge, fluffy white clouds, and the sun's rays fell in golden stripes across the red-concrete floor. She rested her forehead briefly against the cold bars and closed her eyes, remembering just how she'd ended up a prisoner.
After nearly four weeks on the private island, staying at the fabulous Fantasies resort, Debbie had packed her bags and headed for the tiny airstrip to go home. Back to her life in Long Beach, California. Where, it turns out, she should have stayed.
She'd filed through security along with everyone else leaving Fantasies that morning. The lines were long, even on this tiny island, as suitcases were checked while their owners moved through a metal detector.
Then she'd come to the Customs agent and everything had gone straight downhill. As he checked her passport, Debbie'd watched as his smiling brown eyes had gone flat and cold. He looked at her, checked her name again and frowned.
Interesting that despite knowing she hadn't done a darn thing wrong, she'd instantly felt like a diamond smuggler or something. A wash of guilt and worry had smashed over her and when the agent motioned to a uniformed police officer to pull Debbie out of line, she'd felt the first jolt of real fear.
"What's going on?" She looked at the officer who had a firm grip on her elbow as he took her aside for questioning. "Is there a problem? Can you tell me what it is?"
He didn't speak until he got her away from the crowds. Now everyone thought she was a terrorist or something.
"You are Deborah Harris?" The officer's voice was quiet but no less demanding.
"Yes." She avoided looking at anyone else, but she felt their stares on her. Lifting her chin, she squared her shoulders, looked directly at the man questioning her and tried to project an air of outraged dignity.
Not so easy to do when you were scared to death. She wanted to shout, I'm innocent, but she had the distinct feeling no one would believe her anyway.
"There seems to be some difficulty with your passport," he was saying.
"What? A difficulty? What difficulty? It was fine when I got here."
"I can only say what I have been told by Customs."
"That's ridiculous." She tried to take it from him, but he whipped it back and out of her reach. Okay, this was fast moving from a little scary to downright terrifying. "Look, I don't know what's going on, but I've done nothing wrong and I've got a plane to catch."
"Not today unfortunately," he said with a shake of his head. "If you would please come with me..."
It wasn't an invitation.
It was an order.
Debbie seriously wished she had left Fantasies a week before, with her friends Janine and Caitlyn. If her best friends were with her, she wouldn't be worried. Janine would make some smart-ass remark and Caitlyn would be charming the Customs guy. Between the three of them, they would have had this all straightened out in a heartbeat.
But her friends were home, each of them no doubt all wrapped up in their wedding plans. God, it had seriously been a heck of a month. They'd come to Fantasies, the three of them together, to splurge on themselves.
Each of the three friends had been engaged and then dumped over the course of the previous year. So they'd decided together to take the money they had been saving for the weddings that hadn't happened and blow it on a treat for themselves. They'd had a wonderful time, until their threesome had slowly been splintered by the arrival of the loves of Janine's and Caitlyn's lives.
Caitlyn had ended up engaged to the very boss she'd come here to get away from and Janine...Debbie sighed wistfully. She'd talked to Janine only the day before and found out that her British lover had followed her home to Long Beach, California, just to propose. Now Janine was preparing to move to London, Caitlyn was planning the wedding her mother had always dreamed of and, apparently, Debbie was going to prison.
Sure. Her friends found love and she was getting a mug shot.
Life was fair. "There's been a mistake," she said, digging in her heels when the officer, in his sparkling white uniform, tried to steer her through the terminal door. "If you'll just check again..."
"There is no mistake, Miss Harris." He was tall, with skin the color of smooth milk chocolate and brown eyes that looked at her as if she were an interesting bug. He was stronger than he looked, too. Her attempts at squirming out of his grasp failed miserably. "I am with the island security force. You must come with me."
"But my bags-" She flung a look over her shoulder at the bustling little airport.
"Will be retrieved from the plane, I assure you." His voice was musical, but there was no smile in his eyes. He kept walking, his grip on her elbow decidedly firm, just in case she should make a break for it.
"I'm an American citizen," she reminded him, and hoped that tidbit of information would do some good.
"Yes," he said as he tucked her into the passenger seat of a red-and-white Jeep. "I am aware."
While he walked around to the driver's side, she considered jumping out of the Jeep and making a run for it. But where would she go? Where could she go? They were on an island. The only way off was by boat or plane. She slumped in her seat and waited until he was sitting beside her to say, "What's going on? Can you at least tell me that?"
He shot her a sympathetic look, but shook his head. "I must report to my superiors. They will decide what to do."
He didn't answer her, just fired up the little car and steered it down the long road leading back to the village that spilled out at the foot of Fantasies. Wind in her face made her eyes water, but Debbie knew real tears weren't far off. Her stomach was churning, her palms were damp, and a tight knot of fear was lodged firmly in her throat.
She was on her own.
And she had had no idea what was going to happen next.
Sighing, Debbie came up out of the memories, looked around her and fought the fear still crouched inside. It had been two hours since the guard had locked her in this cell. She hadn't seen anyone. Hadn't been allowed to call anyone.
What were the laws on a privately owned island? Did she even have rights? No one was speaking to her. No one seemed to care that she'd been locked away. It was as if they'd turned the key and forgotten all about her.
"I could die right here," she muttered, looking now at the cozy little cell as if it were a dungeon with manacles hanging from its mold-covered damp walls.
"Die and rot. No one would know. No one would wonder what happened to me and-"
She stopped abruptly and got a firm hard grip on her imagination. "For heaven's sake, Deb. Let's not get crazy here. Janine and Cait will miss you. You haven't dropped off the edge of the world. And you're not the Prisoner of Zenda or something. This is all a mistake. You'll be going home soon enough."
She sounded sure.
She only wished she were.
Voices drifted to her from the outer office. They were muttering, but at least she felt as if she wasn't alone on the face of the planet. "Hello? Hello?"
She grabbed her cell bars again and rattled them viciously. "Who's there? I need to make a phone call! I need to talk to somebody."
The outer door swung open slowly and Debbie took a deep breath. She was going to be firm. She would insist on speaking to the owner of the island. Demand that they straighten this mess out and let her go. No more feeling sorry for herself. From now on, she was going into battle mode. She'd been standing up for herself for years. And this was no time to quit.
She braced herself for whatever was coming.At least, she'd thought she was braced. But how could she ever have been prepared to see the man who walked through that door and looked at her through hard, green eyes.
He wore black slacks and a long-sleeved white shirt with the collar open at the neck. His long, sun-streaked brown hair hung loose, almost to his shoulders and when he smiled, Debbie felt a jolt of something hot and rich that she hadn't experienced in nearly ten years. "Gabe?" she whispered, hardly able to believe her own eyes. "Gabriel Vaughn?"
"Hello, Debbie," he said, and his voice was as deep as she remembered it. "Long time."
She blinked at him and watched as he strolled casually across the jailhouse floor toward her cell. Despite her situation, emotions charged through her system, nearly battering her with memories and images of what she and Gabe had once shared. She couldn't help it. Just looking at his face was enough to wipe away the years between and remind her all too clearly of the last night she'd seen him.
The night he'd asked her to marry him.
The night she'd said no and walked away.
Now, his footsteps sounded loud against the concrete floor. When he came closer to her, the slanted bars of sunlight outlined him, keeping his face in shadow. "Looks like you've got some trouble, Deb."
"You could say that," she admitted, and when he didn't speak again, only stared at her, she kept talking, as though she couldn't stand the tense silence that stretched out between them. "It's all a mistake, obviously. I mean, I haven't done anything wrong..."
"No." She didn't like the speculative tone of his voice, as if he were wondering just what kind of criminal she'd turned out to be. "It's some mix-up with my passport or something and they brought me here to talk to the owner of the island. But he hasn't come around and I've been here two hours already and-"
He braced one arm on the bars of her cage and looked down at her, with something like amusement flickering in his eyes.
"What're you doing here, Gabe?" she asked as a slow curl of suspicion unwound in the pit of her stomach.
"Here on the island? Or here in the jail?"
"Here," she said. "At the jail. Why're you here?"
"When there's a problem, I get called in to handle it," he said, lazily pushing away from the bars to wander back and forth in front of her cell again.
"Oh." Debbie's gaze followed him as he walked to the far end of the jail, then turned and strolled back again, like a man in absolutely no hurry at all. Of course, why would he be bothered? He wasn't the one in the jail cell. Impatience fluttered to life inside her. "So you're the police chief or something?"
One corner of his mouth quirked. "Or something," he allowed as he stopped directly opposite her and stared down into her eyes. "We don't really have a police force on the island. Just security. If we happen upon some real criminals, we hold them here until we can ferry them over to Bermuda. But the little stuff, we handle ourselves."
"And what am I?" she asked. "Small stuff or ferry-worthy?"
"Well, now, that's something we have to figure out, isn't it?"
"Gabe," she said quickly, "you know me. You know I'm not a criminal. Heck, I don't even jaywalk."