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Olivia Lambert sat on her damp towel, her hands clasped around her knees, watching the sun sink into the Pacific in a blaze of color. Palm fronds whispered a soft song overhead, the warm, impossibly blue ocean gently kissed the sand at her feet and a soft breeze danced across her skin.
Behind her, the thick, lush rain forest teemed with color and noise and life-bright birds, exotic butterflies, even a monkey or two.
As a honeymoon destination, this remote, wild corner of Costa Rica seemed perfect, especially staying in a guest villa on the estate of a reclusive billionaire. It was romantic, secluded, luxurious.
The only trouble was, she'd left her groom behind in Texas.
Olivia sighed, gazing out at the ripple of waves as she tried to drum up a little enthusiasm for the holiday that stretched ahead of her like the vast, undulating surface of the Pacific. She'd been here less than twenty-four hours and had nine more days to go, and at this point she was just about ready to pack up her suitcases and catch the next puddle jumper she could find back to the States.
She was bored and lonely and just plain miserable. Maybe she should have invited one of her girlfriends to come along for company. Or better yet, she should have just eaten the cost of the plane tickets and stayed back in Fort Worth.
But then she would have had to face the questions and the sympathetic-and not so sympathetic-looks and the resigned disappointment she was entirely too accustomed to seeing in her father's eyes.
No, this way was better. If nothing else, ten days in another country would give her a little time and distance to handle the bitterbetrayal of knowing that even in this, Wallace Lambert wouldn't stand behind her. Her father sided with his golden boy, his groomed successor, and couldn't seem to understand why she might possibly object to her fiancé cheating on her with another woman two weeks before their wedding.
It was apparently entirely unreasonable of her to expect a few basic courtesies-minor little things like fidelity and trust-from the man who claimed to adore her and worship the ground she walked on.
The sun slipped further into the water and she sighed again, angry at herself. So much for her promise that she wouldn't brood about Bradley or her father.
This was her honeymoon and she planned to enjoy herself, damn them both. She could survive nine more days in paradise, in the company of macaws and howler monkeys, iguanas and even a sloth-not to mention her host, whom she had yet to encounter.
James Rafferty, whom she was meeting later for dinner, had built his fortune through online gambling and he had created an exclusive paradise here completely off the grid-no power except through generators, water from wells on the property. Even her cell phone didn't work here.
Nine days without distractions ought to be long enough for her to figure out what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She was twenty-six years old and it was high time she shoved everybody else out of the driver's seat so she could start picking her own direction.
Some kind of animal screamed suddenly, a high, disconcerting sound, and Olivia jumped, suddenly uneasy to realize she was alone down here on the beach.
There were jaguars in this part of the Osa Peninsula, she had read in the guidebook. Jaguars and pumas and who knew what else. A big cat could suddenly spring out of the jungle and drag her into the trees, and no one in the world would ever know what happened to her.
That would certainly be a fitting end to what had to be the world's worst honeymoon.
She shivered and quickly gathered up her things, shaking the sand out of her towel and tossing her sunglasses and paperback into her beach bag along with her cell phone that she couldn't quite sever herself from, despite its uselessness here.
No worries, she told herself. She seemed to remember jaguars hunted at night and it was still a half hour to full dark. Anyway, she had a hard time believing James Rafferty would allow wild predators such as that to roam free on his vast estate.
Still, she wasn't at all sure she could find her way back to her bungalow in the dark, and she needed to shower off the sand and sunscreen and change for dinner.
She had waited too long to return, she quickly discovered. She would have thought the dying rays of the sun would provide enough light for her to make her way back to her bungalow, fifty yards or so from the beach up a moderate incline. But the trail moved through heavy growth, feathery ferns and flowering shrubs and thick trees with vines roped throughout.
What had seemed lovely and exotic on her way down to the beach suddenly seemed darker, almost menacing, in the dusk.
Something rustled in the thick undergrowth to her left. She swallowed a gasp and picked up her pace, those jaguars prowling through her head again.
Next time she would watch the sunset from the comfort of her own little front porch, she decided nervously. Of course, from what the taciturn housekeeper who had brought her food earlier said, this dry sunset was an anomaly this time of year, given the daily rains.
Wasn't it just like Bradley to book their honeymoon destination without any thought that they were arriving in the worst month of the rainy season. She would probably be stuck in her bungalow the entire nine days.
Still grumbling under her breath, she made it only a few more feet before a dark shape suddenly lurched out of the gathering darkness. She uttered a small shriek of surprise and barely managed to keep her footing.
In the fading light, she could only make out a stranger looming over her, dark and menacing. Something long and lethal gleamed silver in the fading light, and a strangled scream escaped her.
He held a machete, a wickedly sharp one, and she gazed at it, riveted like a bug watching a frog's tongue flicking toward it. She couldn't seem to look away as it gleamed in the last fading rays of the sun.
She was going to die alone on her honeymoon in a foreign country in a bikini that showed just how lousy she was at keeping up with her Pilates.
Her only consolation was that the stranger seemed just as surprised to see her. She supposed someone with rape on his mind probably wouldn't waste time staring at her as if she were some kind of freakish sea creature.
Come on. The bikini wasn't that bad.
She opened her mouth to say something-she wasn't quite sure what-but before she could come up with anything, he gave a quick look around, then grabbed her from behind, shoving the hand not holding the machete against her mouth.
Panic spurted through her as he dragged her into the thick, lush rain forest. Her flip-flops almost fell off but she dug her toes into them as she stumbled after him until they were swallowed up by the jungle, the trail completely out of sight behind them.
After a moment, he stopped, holding her tightly against his hard chest as he stood motionless. She was aware of every single breath against her bare skin and could feel her own hitching in and out of her lungs.
She was going to hyperventilate. She could feel her hands start to go numb and her breathing accelerate. A whimper escaped her, and his grip tightened on her mouth. She could taste his skin, salty and masculine and foreign.
"Quiete," he ordered harshly in her ear and even Olivia, who had only pulled a C-minus in prep school Spanish, understood what he meant. She forced herself to breathe more slowly, evenly, though she could hear her pulse, loud and strident in her ear.
For what felt like forever, they stood locked together, unmoving. She was too afraid to struggle against the strong arms that held her, acutely aware of the machete he held at his side and of exactly how much damage that blade could do.
He spoke a few more low words to her in Spanish but she didn't understand what he wanted, any more than she could interpret the hoots and peeps and calls of the night creatures all around them.
He stiffened suddenly and in the distance she saw the beam of a flashlight coming from the trail. Whoever held it aimed it in their direction, but its light couldn't pierce the thick growth. She wanted to cry out, do anything to reveal their location, but she didn't dare, ever conscious of that machete.
A moment later, she heard loud voices saying something that sounded like curses in Spanish, before the light disappeared.
The man breathing raggedly behind her waited a few more seconds, then he growled something else she didn't understand in her ear, the normally fluid Spanish sounding guttural and sharp.
He dropped his hand, apparently expecting some kind of answer. She didn't have a clue what the question had been, which didn't seem to go over well with him. Her captor repeated the words, more harshly this time.
"I'm sorry," she whimpered. In the dim light, she saw the whites of his eyes as they widened.
"You're American?" he whispered. "I should have known."
He growled a long string of curses-pungent and raw and all too understandable.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "Please don't hurt me. Look, I have money in my bag and credit cards. Take them," she pressed, thrusting out her beach bag. "Please take them and let me go."
He grabbed the bag from her and rummaged through it, but apparently didn't find whatever he was seeking.
He lifted the machete and she swallowed a scream that ended in a gasp when he severed one of the long leather handles. He handed the mangled bag back to her and when she reached for it, he grabbed her wrists and tied the ruined handle around them.
Her heart plummeted to her feet when he took off again through the thick growth with his machete swinging, tugging her behind him with the improvised restraint.
"Please don't hurt me," she tried again. "My father will pay you anything you want."
She hoped, anyway.
Maybe Wallace would figure this was a fitting end to his total disappointment in his only child, that she die at the hands of a homicidal, machete-wielding maniac in the jungles of Costa Rica.
"It's too late for that. I'm in a boatload of trouble here and you just landed your little bikini-clad butt right in the middle of it."
As much as she wanted to, she couldn't contain her small sound of distress.
"Look, I won't hurt you." He paused and even through the darkness she could feel the heat of his look.
"Unless you try to run, anyway. Believe it or not, I'm pretty certain you're far safer with me than you would be if I left you here."
She dug around in her psyche for any tiny kernel of courage and managed to find one in a dusty corner. "That's odd," she retorted through trembling lips, "considering I've been here an entire day and this is the first time a madman with a machete has dragged me into the jungle."
The momentary spurt of bravado disappeared when she heard a shriek nearby, then a swoop of wings and the unmistakably grim sound of something dying.
Her captor tugged her restraint and pushed on. "There are worse things on Suerte del Mar than a madman with a machete."
While her imagination tried to ponder what that might possibly be, he cut through the heavy growth, roughly parallel to the shore. He seemed to have eyes like the jaguar she had mistaken him for earlier. While she stumbled in her flip-flops over roots and small plants, he plowed through, the machete scything away as he tugged her inexorably toward some destination she could only guess at.
After a few more moments, he shifted direction and headed down toward the ocean.
"Where are you taking me?" she finally dared ask.
"Rafferty keeps his boat docked here. It's the only way we're getting away."
Oh, she didn't like the sound of that. "Please," she tried one more time. "Just leave me here. I'll only slow you down."
For about half a second, she thought he might be wavering, then he tugged her restraint. "Sorry, sweetheart. You don't have a choice anymore. Neither of us does."
He led her toward the dock she had noticed that afternoon when she had been soaking up the sun, feeling sorry for herself and thinking her life couldn't get much worse.