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Fiji June, present day
Fiji was totally gorgeous.
Zoë Conrad gazed up at her assignment, a charming, whitewashed Queen Anne-style bed-and-breakfast perched on a vividly green jungle-covered slope above a sparkling blue and white crystalline beach. "Romantic and isolated," the Secret Traveler info sheet had said of the Indigo Inn, which was located on one of the northeastern islands of Fiji. Zoë would definitely add quaint and appealing to that description. Colorful birds flitted through the trees. Sweet, fragrant flowers scented the air and a pretty sailboat bobbed cheerfully next to the dock where she stood by her luggage, taking it all in.
My God, she thought with an appreciative sigh, everything is perfect. Absolute five-star perfection.
Well. Except for the dead guy in the hammock.
Zoë took one look and screamed at the top of her lungs. The man was sprawled with both arms and one shorts-clad leg dangling over the sides, his Hawaiian shirt covered in blood.
Spinning around on the rickety wooden dock, she jumped up and down, waving her arms hysterically at the swiftly receding seaplane that had just dropped her off in what was supposed to be paradise.
"Wait! Stop!" she yelled as the pontoon craft pointed its nose away from her and taxied smoothly over the turquoise water. "For the love of Pete, stop! Help!"
But her friends and fellow Secret Travelers, Alicia and Madeline, who were off to their own assignments, must have thought she was simply waving an enthusiastic goodbye, because they waved back just as enthusiastically from the small, square windows of the six-seater. Then the plane lifted from the waves and soaredoff into the clear blue sky.
Leaving Zoë all alone with two suitcases and a dead guy.
"Damn," she muttered desperately. "Damn, damn, damn!"
Now what? The three-day seminar she'd taken when she'd first joined the company as a hotel-and-resort evaluator two years ago hadn't covered finding dead bodies.
Sticking her shaking hands under her armpits, she reluctantly turned back to the beautiful bed-and-break-fast on the hill, praying someone would come out to greet her. No such luck. The Indigo Inn's owner, Sean Guthrie, had profusely apologized in his last e-mail that he would most likely be away on business until morning and the new staff would not be arriving for three days. She'd assured him that was quite all right, she'd picked the inn for its solitude, not to be pampered. He'd replied that the front door would be unlocked as usual, the gardener would be there to help her with her luggage and the inn's hostess, Aruna, would return from her afternoon break at four o'clock. Meanwhile there would be sandwiches and beer in the fridge, help herself.
Not that Zoë couldn't use a beer about now. Or something stronger.
A lot stronger.
A pair of scarlet, blue and green parrots swooped down and sat on a tree branch just above the hammock and started chattering gaily above the dead guy's head.
"Shoo!" she yelled at the birds, appalled, and hurried up the garden path to chase them away from the body.
Which, just then, let out a soft grunt.
"Omigod! He's not dead!"
She ran up and peered at the man over the edge of the giant hammock. Could this be the gardener? She held her breath, waiting for him to move. Or do something.
He didn't. He still looked dead. The sigh must have been in her imagination.
She tilted her head in pity. A shame, really. The guy had been handsomein a stiff sort of way. Okay, really handsome. But the tackyand blood-soakedtropical shirt did nothing to enhance his bronze tan and the long, sun-streaked hair that curled over its splayed collar. Nor did his mouth, which might well have been kissable when he was still alive, but now hung open in a slack slash of sculpted lips and white teeth.
A muscle in his cheek twitched.
She jumped a foot in the air and squeaked.
He was alive!
Heart pounding hard, she leaned farther over him, putting her face close to his, frantically trying to tell if he was breathing or not without actually touching him or the blood.
Strange. He didn't smell dead. He smelled earthy. Like salt spray and male sweat. And spicy tomatoes. Definitely the gardener.
But he still wasn't breathing.
Oh, God. Panic welled anew within her. Should she give him CPR? She swallowed heavily. Or mouth-to-mouth?
Just then, his chest lifted slightly, as though he were trying to breathe but couldn't. That settled it.
Gingerly, she slid her hand under his neck and lifted, then with her pulse beating out of control, she put her lips over his and prepared to
His eyes popped open.
She screamed and tried to scramble away, but her foot slipped. He sucked in a huge breath just as she tumbled face-first into the hammock and landed on his chest. Instantly she felt the front of her chic new sundress soak through with blood. She screamed again.
"What the hell!" was followed by a string of virulent male curses. His arms flailed out and tangled with hers, as did their legs, tipping them both out of the hammock onto a soft, mulch-covered flower bed.
This time he landed on top of her. Stunned, she gaped up at him. A large curvy glass, empty except for a celery stick, rolled out of nowhere, coming to a rest amid the bright red carnations by her elbow. A delicate scent of cloves mingled with the tomato smell.
"Who in blazes are you?" the dead guy asked. He looked really mad. "And what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"You were dead!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "Look at you! You're covered in blood! I was only trying to help."
She frowned. "I was about to give you mouth-to-mouth."
He blinked again. Then the corner of his lips curved up just a shade. If she didn't know better she'd say they curved up naughtily. But it must have been from the pain of his wound. That must hurt like hell. It had to. All that blood.
"Okay," he said. Two seconds later he'd spun them so she was on top of him again. He lifted his chin and closed his eyes, but somehow still managed to look expectant. "Go for it."
Her jaw dropped.
That's when she felt his hands on her backside. Smoothing over the slippery silk of her sundress. His fingertips crept along the edge of her thong by her
"You aren't hurt at all!" she cried accusingly. She yanked herself up off his chest and looked down at it, searching for a wound of any kind.
All at once she remembered the tall glass. With the celery stick. And the scent of tomatoes. She gasped in outrage. "Bloody Mary!" He looked singularly unrepentant. "They call me Breeze, actually. But I do have a great-aunt named Mary, if that helps."
Before she could even think of a retort, his hands cupped her bottom suggestively. "Now, about that mouth-to-mouth "
As he gazed languorously up at her, she suddenly became aware of his body under hers. It was very male. Solid and powerful. Large.
Growing larger by the second.
Her eyes widened.
They widened even more when he pulled her back down onto his chest, lifted his head and slid his tongue enticingly over her bottom lip.
"Open for me, now," he ordered softly. And kissed her! She was shocked. She was scandalized. She was also moaning in pleasure. Good lord, the man could kiss!
"Oh, yeah," he murmured, running his hands up and down her body as he kissed her to within an inch of her life. "If this is dead, kill me more."
She tended to agree.
She danced her tongue over his.
She knew her behavior was disgraceful. It was her job to be completely neutral, to remain aloof from the people who ran the establishments she was sent to rate, not to fall into the arms of the first employee she ran across. But what woman could resist a man as sexy as this, who could kiss like a god? Besides, he was only the gardener.
By the time she came to her senses he'd rolled back on top of her, crushing the entire bed of carnations beneath them, and his questing hands had pushed the hem of her dress nearly all the way up her thighs.
Okay, too far. Too fast.
"Wait," she managed to say, shivering a little from the wet silk glued to her chest. Or was it from something else?
Not wanting to think about that too closely, she extracted her fingers from the thick spill of the man's sun-streaked tawny hair and grabbed hold of his broad shoulders. "Wait."
He paused and pulled back just enough to gaze down at her with half-lidded, pleasure-filled eyes. "Something wrong?"
She let out a long breath, attempting to gather her wits and dispel the sensual aura of temptation that surrounded the two of them. "No. Yes." She shook her head in frustration. "I mean, this is um, very um That is, you're an incredible kisser, but I don't even know your name."
His lips curved in amusement. They looked soft, and slightly moist. "Yeah, you do. I told you, it's Breeze."
So tempting just to
What? Right. Breeze. That should tell her something about the man.
She yanked her gaze from his lips. "Well, you don't know mine, and"
"What is it?"
But just then his body shifted, making her mortifyingly aware of his position between her legs, and his enjoyment of being there.
She suddenly noticed he had that expectant look again. Um "What?"
"Your name. What is it?"
She blushed furiously. "Zoë," she said, flustered that he could distract her so easily. "Zoë Conrad."
For a split second his expression froze, then it creased into a smile. "Okay. Well, it's nice to meet you, Zoë."
"You, too, um Breeze."
To his credit, he didn't attempt to continue the encounter, but gave her cheek a chaste kiss and rolled off her, coming to his feet in a single graceful movement. He stretched out his hand to her, grimacing first at her dress then down at his own shirt. "Hell. Spilled that whole damn Bloody Mary. Must have been more tired than I thought. Really sorry about the mess. Naturally I'll replace your dress."
She pulled self-consciously at her red-soaked bodice, hoping he wouldn't notice her nipples were still as hard as cherry stones. "Don't worry about it. It's actually washable."
For a second his eyes lingered on her breasts, then rose. "Guess we better get you up to the house and out of those clothes."
A wave of heat rushed up her throat and through her cheeks. Her face was probably as red as the stain on her dress. "Um "
He winced. "To wash them, of course."
Was that a fleeting touch of disappointment she felt? Good grief, no! Probably just the breeze er, wind on the wet fabric.
Rubbing his palms down his jeans, Breeze glanced back toward the dock. "How 'bout if I grab your suitcases and meet you up there?" With that he strode off.
She let out a long, pent-up breath. "Way to go, girl," she muttered. "Very professional. That promotion to the A-team is practically yours." Giving her bodice a last tug, she rolled her eyes and headed for the steps up to the Indigo Inn's front entrance.
Her dream since escaping her parents' small dairy farm in Wisconsin was to build an exciting life for herself as far away from the boring routine and highly insecure finances of the farm as possible. She'd thought her job with the Secret Traveler would provide that. But so far she'd been stuck on the milk runs, evaluating low-budget motels and hotels in the States for the big-name automobile-touring books. Not that she begrudged her apprenticeship. She'd only worked at the company for two years, and most evaluators put in three to four years before being sent overseas. But the scheduled Fiji team had fallen ill in Indonesia and had to be replaced at the last minute. Zoë, Alicia and Madeline had been in the right place at the right time with their bags packed, and gotten the assignment. This was a career-changing opportunity for all of them to prove they were ready to be an A-teampermanently.
Zoë was not going to blow it.
Certainly not for some oversexed gardener. Even if he did kiss like a dream.
No, her job demanded objectivity, professionalism and anonymity in her evaluation of a given accommodation. Kissing the staff definitely did not qualify as any of those.
Good lord. A dead body. Inwardly she cringed. What had she been thinking?
But as soon as she climbed the smooth wooden steps to the Indigo Inn's wide verandah, her faux pas was instantly forgotten. She smiled in delight. White wicker rocking chairs, love seats and tables dotted the shady space, which was made even cozier by sweetly fragrant flowering vines twining up the square columns and lush ferns hanging from the framework. White slatted shutters were pinned back at the generous windows, which had no glass to obstruct the breeze that gently ruffled the curtains inside. As promised, the door was wide open. Apparently crime wasn't a big concern on this small island.
She stepped inside and sucked in a gasp of genuine enchantment. In preparation for her visit, she'd read the previous guidebook's rating of the inn. It had not been flattering. At all. Old, run-down and falling apart were some of the more positive adjectives used in the description. But this room was nothing like that. Someone had obviously put a lot of time, hard work and careful attention to detail into a renovation that left her feeling as if she'd stepped into a tropical plantation house from a bygone era of golden luxury.
"What do you think?" asked Breeze from behind her.
"Absolutely lovely," she answered on an appreciative sigh. "It's just beautiful."