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Sloe-eyed. Sleek hair. Slender figure.
Scout Ritland mentally summed up his first impressions of the woman he spotted across the ballroom. She was a stunner, a definite standout.
Between the two of them milled a crowd of black-tie-clad celebrants getting drunk on self-congratulations and a tropical fruit punch that made even the stuffiest imbiber feel loose enough to skip naked through the Pacific surf.
Scout wasn't quite that far gone, but he was experiencing a pleasant buzz. It was as loud as the calls of the night birds in the jungle surrounding the landscaped grounds of the Coral Reef, the spectacular resort that was enjoying its official grand opening tonight.
The potent punch had a tendency to thaw inhibitions, suppress morals, and vanquish previously held ideals pertaining to sexual equality. Eyes glazed by intemperance and uncharacteristic chauvinism, Scout stared at the woman in the clinging white dress. Without a smidgen of remorse he was assessing her only as a sex object.
Parrish Island had that effect on people. The place, no more than a dot in a chain of dots on a map of the South Pacific, was intoxicating. Fragrant flowers, banyan trees, and coconut palms abounded; Yankee pomposity did not.
Only a few hours earlier Scout had finally succumbed to the island's allure. For the first time since his arrival months before, he had looked beyond the shell-pink-marble walls of the hotel. Up till now it had consumed so much of his time, energy, and thought, he hadn't had an opportunity to enjoy the unspoiled island and its friendly inhabitants.
One inhabitant in particular—the woman in white. Damn, she was gorgeous. Aloof. Even a trifle haughty. She had noticed his stare and had returned it with a cool appraisal of her own. Then, as though nothing about him could possibly interest her, she had studiously ignored him ever since.
Scout was intrigued. He hadn't seen her around the resort while it was still under construction, so she wasn't a hotel employee. The wife of an employee?
That was a hell of a dismal thought. He discarded it along with his recently emptied glass. If she was married, where was her husband? What guy in his right mind would let a woman who looked like her run around loose in a room full of men who had been separated from hearth and home for months?
No, Scout doubted she was married or seriously attached. She didn't have a "taken" look about her. Then who was she, he wondered as he disinterestedly surveyed the array of exotic foods on one of the buffet tables while keeping her in sight.
"Great job, Mr. Ritland," someone commented in passing.
A large portion of the resort hotel was built out over the waters of a placid lagoon. Scout had engineered the marvel, working together with the architect. Because of his ingenious efforts, he was receiving his share of the glory. His hand had been shaken so many times, it was cramping. His shoulder was sore where it had been heartily slapped in congratulations for a job well done.
Reeling with the inebriation more of success than of the fruit punch, he wended his way through the crowd. His destination was the woman standing beneath one of the high, arched openings leading outside.
When he got within speaking distance, she turned suddenly and looked directly at him. Scout was stopped dead in his tracks. He sucked in a quick breath.
The almond-shaped eyes, tilted up slightly at the corners, weren't dark brown as he had expected, but blue. Neon blue. Electrifying and stupefying blue.
"Scout, where are you off to? Glad I caught you before you got away."
His elbow was grabbed from behind and he was brought around. Keeping his gaze locked with the woman's for as long as possible, his head reluctantly followed his body around. "Ah, Mr. Reynolds." He shook the hand extended to him.
"Corey," the hotel magnate corrected Scout. "You've done a terrific job. Getting tired of hearing that yet?"
Scout shook his head and laughed self-derisively. "Never."
"It goes without saying how pleased we are. I speak for everyone in the corporation."
"Thank you, sir." Scout couldn't afford to be rude to the man who had signed his hefty paychecks, but he glanced quickly over his shoulder. She had disappeared. Damn!
"It wasn't an easy undertaking," Corey Reynolds was saying. "Especially when one considers all the hardships you faced during the construction."
Scout asked, "You mean the islanders' attitude toward work?" The other man nodded. "They definitely do not comprehend the meaning of deadlines or the eight-hour workday," Scout said ruefully. "Overtime incentives never lured them away from a celebration, and they have about ten of those a month. That didn't bother me nearly as much as the thievery, though. I apologize again for going over budget on the supplies."
"It wasn't your fault that they kept disappearing. I know you tried every way you could think of to catch the thieves."
"Wily bastards," Scout said beneath his breath. "I even sat up four nights straight keeping vigil. The night I decided that it was futile and went to bed, we were hit again."
Catching a glimpse of white out the corner of his eye, Scout swiveled his head toward the terrace. There was nothing there but moonlight and sultry, fragrant air. Was she still out there, lurking in the shadows of the tropical gardens?
". . . with yourself?"
"Huh?" What had Mr. Reynolds asked him? Oh, yes. "No, I haven't seen anything of the island except the area immediately around here. I thought I'd take off a week or so before flying home."
"Good idea. Give yourself time to wind down before your wedding. I presume it's still on."
"Late next month."
Mr. Reynolds smiled and asked, "How is Miss Colfax?"
Corey Reynolds had been introduced to Jennifer Colfax at a dinner party in Boston, where the Reynolds Group was headquartered. At that point the Coral Reef resort had been only an architectural rendering. It pleased Scout that the CEO remembered his fiance's name. He could always count on Jennifer to make a good impression.
"Her letters indicate that she's fine," he replied.
Scout grinned expansively. "Very."
The older man chuckled. "You're a trusting young man to leave her for this long a time."
"We came to an understanding before I left. I couldn't very well expect her to sit home alone every night while I was away. She's been free to date, as long as it's kept on a platonic basis."
"You're not only trustful, but generous. Still, I know she's eager to have her fiance back in the States."
Scout shrugged. "She went to Europe for several weeks during the summer. And she's had her aunt's antique shop to help keep her busy."
"Oh?" Reynolds inquired with polite interest. "What does she do there?"
"Dabbles is the word that comes to mind." Jennifer did a lot of dabbling—in antiques, in music, in fashion.
"My wife dabbles too. When she's not shopping," Corey Reynolds added on a laugh. Sipping at his glass of punch, he asked, "Lovely, aren't they?"
Scout followed the direction of Mr. Reynolds's gaze. He was watching one of the island girls hired for the night to serve canapes. She was dressed in a short floral-print sarong that had been artfully wrapped around her lithe body. Like most of the island women, she was petite and very pretty, with glossy black hair, snapping dark eyes, and a ready smile.
"Even though I'm engaged to be married," Scout said, "I haven't failed to notice that one of Parrish Island's natural resources is its lovely female population."
Reynolds directed his attention back to Scout. "What do you plan to do here on the island during your R and R?"
"Lose myself. Escape from delays, slow-moving workers, and the telephone. Go fishing. Maybe get in some hunting. Body-surf. Lie on the beach and do absolutely nothing." He leaned forward and added, "If I get captured by a lovely, bare-breasted native girl, don't come looking for me anytime soon."
Corey Reynolds chuckled and slapped him on the back. "You rascal. I like your sense of humor." They shook hands and, again, Corey Reynolds praised Scout's engineering feat. "I'll see you back in Boston. I want to talk over some future projects with you. Let's you, the lovely Jennifer, and I have lunch soon."
"We would enjoy that very much, sir. Thank you."
Watching the older man move away, Scout was barely able to contain his excitement. He didn't want to become part of the Reynolds Group. His personality didn't fit the corporate mode. He would find that environment creatively stifling. But he certainly wanted another contract with the Group, and it looked as though that was what Corey Reynolds had in mind.
The Coral Reef resort project had been Scout's first break into the big time. He knew the importance of capitalizing on his success while he was still on the minds of the decision makers.
After his talk with Corey Reynolds, he felt even more that he had something to celebrate. Taking another glass of punch from a waitress bearing a silver tray, he moved through the archway to the terrace beyond.
The exterior walls of the sprawling resort were garnished with bougainvillea vines heavy with clusters of their vibrant flowers. No expense had been spared to decorate the hotel inside and out. Priceless Oriental urns held lush ferns and ornamental palms. Natural plumeria trees had been pruned to perfection. Like gigantic fireflies, torches flickered inside stonework lanterns, strategically placed along winding paths through the gardens.
From the main terrace, wide, shallow steps led down to another level. One path curved left toward the trilevel swimming pool with its manmade waterfall and ornate fountains. Another path led down to the beach, where the sand was a pale blond ribbon between the manicured lawn and the gently lapping surf.
Revelers seeking privacy had drifted out of the ballroom. A group of Asian men discussed business over drinks at a table on the lower terrace. Beneath a palm tree on the lawn a couple kissed, oblivious to everything except each other. Another couple strolled hand-in-hand in the surf, still wearing their evening clothes, their shoes dangling from their hands.
In the center of the moonlit panorama stood a solitary figure. Scout, as one under the command of a hypnotist, moved down the steps toward her. The moonlight on her white dress made her as visible in the darkness as the beacon of a lighthouse. She stood motionless, facing the ocean, staring across the water as though communing with it in a silent and sacred manner.
Helluva dress, Scout thought as he moved closer. Jennifer wouldn't have approved of it. Not many New England women would have. It was painfully simple but blatantly sexy. There was a high slit on one thigh. One shoulder was left completely bare by the form-fitting garment. The balmy breeze molded its fabric to her, delineating her breasts and the V of her thighs.
Scout's thoughts were the same ones that kept priests in business.
He felt a momentary stab of guilt because of Jennifer. But she was on the other side of the world. This island seemed as far removed from Jennifer and Boston as another planet. Rules and codes of behavior that applied there were of no more use here than a woolen overcoat.
He'd been working nonstop for months. He'd earned one night of pleasure, hadn't he? He had been living in one of the most exotic spots on earth and hadn't had a single chance to sample its pleasures.
The rationalizations marched in file through his brain, but even without them he would have acted. Months of sexual abstinence, the potent liquor he'd drunk, the tropical setting, the beautiful woman, were a powerful combination of aphrodisiacs he couldn't resist.
Hearing his approach, she turned her head and gave him another piercing stare with those breathtaking blue eyes. Hair darker than midnight had been pulled back into a low bun on her nape and decorated with two white hibiscus blossoms. Her only jewelry was a pair of single pearl earrings, each pearl as large as a marble.
As flawless as they were, their opalescence was no competition for her skin. It was creamy, smooth, incredibly flawless. There was a lot of it showing too. Neck. Chest. The curve of one breast. Legs. She wasn't wearing stockings with the high-heel sandals. Even her feet were pretty. So were her hands. In one she carried a small satin evening bag.
Such loveliness, such rarity, such perfection. Scout's body was pulsing with lust.
She was standing beside a piece of sculpture. It represented a pagan god who was wearing a puckish grin and sporting an exaggerated phallus. Scout remembered the day they'd set the statue in place. It had been the talk of the work site. There'd been a round of jokes made, each more lewd than the preceding one.
Now he could swear the statue's insolent grin was aimed at him. It was as if the little devil knew about his physical condition and was maliciously delighted. He nodded at the idol and spoke to the woman.
"Friend of yours?"
He was hoping for the best, but halfway expected her to rebuff him. His heart expanded when her lips, glossy and tinted, parted in a smile that revealed teeth as flawless as everything else.
"He's everybody's friend. He's a god of eroticism."
Ah, good. Language wouldn't be a barrier. She spoke English. It was accented, but beautifully so. Her voice was low and husky, with the whisper of the surf behind it.
Scout smiled wryly. "I could have guessed that. What's his name?"
She told him. He frowned. "That has at least twelve syllables and they're all vowels." Since his arrival, he'd mastered a few words of the native dialect, but they all had to do with construction. "Get back to work" was hardly what he wanted to say to this woman.
But even if he'd known the correct words, he couldn't say what was on his mind. This little guy has nothing on me in the arousal department. I'm hard as a rock, and, baby, you're the reason. Your place or mine? Those words hardly seemed appropriate for opening a conversation.
"My name's Scout Ritland." He extended his hand.
She gave him hers. It was cool and small and soft. "Chantal duPont." Withdrawing her hand, she added, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ritland," and turned to go.
It took a moment for Scout to recover from her dazzling smile and the feel of her hand in his. When he did, he fell into step alongside her as she took one of the shell-gravel paths toward the perimeter of the resort's property.
"Will you be working at the hotel?" he asked in an effort to prolong their brief conversation.
She shot him an amused glance. "Hardly, Mr. Ritland."
"Then what were you doing at the party?"
"I was invited."