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Hold Me Tight
By Cait London
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlexi Stepanov decided to let his stalker catch him. At thirty-three years old, he was tuned to his senses and used to hunting in Wyoming mountains. A slight chill penetrated the tinted glass window to touch his skin - or was that chill running up his nape because someone was watching him?
He stood inside the sprawling Amoteh Resort. The luxury hotel's massive windows faced the night and southern Washington's Pacific Ocean.
At one o'clock, the resort lay hushed, the social area's massive pool reflecting the water waves upon the ceiling. In January, only a few guests were vacationing at the resort. Kitchen facilities had been cut to an informal buffet style, a far cry from the elegant dinners served during the busy season.
Outside, the night brewed a winter storm, predicted to bring a mix of rain, sleet and possibly snow. Like a beast, hungry for land, the storm was moving in over the huge, black wind-tossed waves toward shore. Intermittent lightning skimmed over the tops of the churning clouds and the only sound in the huge room was the sound of water lapping at the sides of the pool.
After a day of remodeling the old house where Alexi's father would retire, the Amoteh suite provided the welcome comforts of a luxury bathroom and television. Courtesy of Mikhail Stepanov, manager of the resort and Alexi's cousin, Alexi was temporarily using the manager's private suite; Mikhail was at home with his wife and daughter.
Could he find peace in this small oceanside community?
Alexi inhaled sharply. On previous visits to his aunt and uncle, and his cousins, Mikhail and Jarek, Alexi had found that he enjoyed the town, also called Amoteh. In Wyoming, there were too many reminders of how his dreams - and his pride - had been strangled - by a woman who wanted more, always more.
As Alexi waited for whomever had been following him to come nearer, a ripple of danger seemed to move through the huge potted tropical plants at his side. He nudged aside a child's forgotten ball with his boot. If he were attacked, the ball could cause him to lose his balance.
The person who had been stealthily following him could be dangerous. His shearling coat was more suited to the mountains than to this more moderate climate and it could encumber him in a tussle. The thick padding could also protect him from a man Alexi and his brother, Danya, had forcibly removed from this small oceanfront town - a very dangerous man with a grudge against the Stepanovs....
A flash of lightning lit the grotesque masks on the totem poles outside the resort - a reflection of the Northwest Pacific's Native American heritage - and Alexi thought about the past week.
Someone was riffling through the details of his life; a woman's voice had queried several people in Venus, Wyoming, about her old boyfriend, Alexi. The name the woman had used when speaking to his father and his brother didn't really matter; it was probably false. She had supposedly reached the wrong number - striking up a conversation with the new owners of Alexi's ranch. The innocent pretext led to a seemingly friendly conversation that released too much of Alexi's personal information.
She had asked if he was seeing anyone. Was he seeing anyone? Not likely, not after a woman had taken everything she could from a man, including his pride.
Alexi frowned slightly as a light, cold rain began to hit the ceiling-to-floor windows in the resort's pool and social area room. Like tiny snakes flowing to join others, the rain slid down the glass as he thought about his ex-fiancée, now another man's wife. A model bent on a runway career, Heather Pell had moved on to bigger opportunities provided by her millionaire husband.
Three years ago Heather had returned Alexi's ring and his dreams in a cold note that said she didn't "want to be stuck on a godforsaken ranch for the rest of my life."
He'd put almost everything he'd saved into building the home she wanted, into the ranch he wanted. Did he love her? Alexi didn't know now. Looking back, he hadn't been thinking about love that much at the time. Maybe he was so entranced with his pictured dreams of marriage, home and children that he hadn't seen the reality of what their relationship was missing - a love like his parents.
In the end he'd sold the ranch at a loss and was glad to be rid of the house his ex-fiancée had designed. Unable to settle into new goals and dreams, Alexi had taken the opportunity to remodel a home for his father and to visit his cousins in Amoteh.
Burned by his ex-fiancée, Alexi had decided to leave attachments of the heart to other men; he wasn't stepping into that cow pile again, asking for more pain.
Restless with his thoughts and more comfortable in nature's elements, Alexi opened the resort's door and stepped out into the night. He decided to lead his stalker away from the Amoteh Resort; he wanted no trouble within his cousin's luxurious domain.
As Alexi moved through the dormant but manicured gardens, he took the wooden steps downward. They led toward Amoteh the town, which was fed by tourists in warmer weather. Walking slowly, making certain that he could be followed easily, Alexi moved away from the resort. The resort's exterior lighting framed the huge painted totem poles and Alexi glanced at the eerie shadows thrown against their masks - and the person moving through them, following him.
His stalker was small and quick, agile, too.
Alexi's senses tightened as rain, changing to a mix of sleet and snow, lashed his face. He left the resort's steps and moved onto a footpath, which led to his father's retirement home.
Home? Not yet. In the process of gutting the old house, Alexi wanted it livable by late spring. His father could relocate, enjoy the summer fishing and spend the winter sharing the Stepanov immigrant brothers' stories with Fadey - next to a blazing fire.
The storm hit Amoteh's brown sandy beach in a furious crash of waves. Snow fell steadily now, topping the piles of driftwood and tall beach grass. The path led half a mile northward over sand and brush and ended with wooden steps that had to be replaced, a sprawling back porch that was rotting and cluttered with old discarded cabinets, doors and windows. But the house overlooking the Pacific Ocean was sound and, despite cosmetic problems, the skeleton was based on sturdy cedar beams.
Alexi glanced at the ocean, the winds catching the waves, sending sprays from the whitecaps. Violent, elemental, the water called to him, perhaps to his dark, brooding side that few people had ever seen.
If he decided to buy the Seagull's Perch, a local tavern, he might settle permanently in Amoteh....
Alexi opened the weathered door and stepped inside the house's sunroom. The plastic he had installed over the open windows rattled, protesting the rising wind.
He waited in the cold darkness; the creak of the wooden porch told him the stalker didn't match his weight. His visitor might be trained for other work -
When the door creaked and opened, Alexi held his breath. The stalker stepped inside the open door and Alexi kicked it shut. "Looking for something?"
He'd recognize that soft, husky female voice anywhere ... and that scent amid a storm of other ones. At the resort's New Year's Eve dance one week ago, held for locals and for guests, he'd danced with Jessica Sterling, a guest at the Amoteh.
Excerpted from Hold Me Tight by Cait London Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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