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Every time more hotel guests entered the beachfront resort restaurant on Grace Bay in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, Stephanie expected to see her black-haired Adonis appear. That was how she thought of Dev Harris.
After their fantastic ninety-foot dive to Elephant Ear Canyon that afternoon to see the huge sponges, the tall, powerfully built New Yorker, who resembled a Greek god, had whispered that he'd meet her in the dining room at eight for dinner. They'd watch the sunset and later, each other.
As he'd helped her out of the dive boat, giving her arm a warm squeeze, his eyes, black as jet, conveyed the words he didn't speak in front of the others in their scuba diving group. He was living for another night with her like last night.
She'd reluctantly left him to go to the beachfront condo and get ready for dinner. Her silvery-gold hair needed a shampoo. She'd decided to wear it loose from a side part. Time with the blow dryer and a brush brought out the natural curl, causing it to flow across her shoulders.
With the golden tan she'd picked up, tonight she'd chosen to wear a blue sleeveless sundress. She wanted to look beautiful for him. Last night she'd worn a filmy tangerine-colored dress and had bought a shimmering lip gloss to match. He'd told her that, in the dying rays of the sun, she'd look like a piece of golden fruit he longed to devour very slowly and thoroughly.
Her body trembled just remembering those words. While she waited for him to come, the memory of the way he'd made love to her over and over again made it difficult to breathe. It was her first intimate experience with a man, and had happened so naturally she felt as if she was living in a dream, one from which she never wanted to awaken.
In ten days' time Stephanie had fallen so deeply in love, her whole world had changed.
Throughout her dating years she'd had various boyfriends. Just last week she'd gone on a date with a guy named Rob Ferris, who ran an auto parts franchise, but she knew when he took her home after dinner that she really wasn't interested in a second date.
Then she met Dev. The first time she'd seen him walking toward the boat with the dive master, her breath had caught. When their gazes collided, that was it. The feeling she'd been waiting for all her adult life.
Other relationships with past boyfriends had nothing to do with the profound kind of love she felt for the sophisticated thirty-two year-old bachelor, who'd told her he was in the international exporting business. He blew away every other man in existence.
Her three girlfriends who'd arranged their April vacations to come on this scuba diving trip with her fully agreed he was out-of-this-world gorgeous. Melinda thought he must be one of those frogmen from the military, the way he maneuvered under the water. He was certainly built like one.
Stephanie agreed with her friends, but there was more to Dev than his physical attributes and diving skills. Much more. Everything he said and did revealed that he was welltraveled and educated, making him exceptional, and so charismatic she could hardly breathe when she thought about him.
Where was he? By now it was quarter to nine. Obviously, he'd been held up. The only thing to do was go back to her room and call him on the hotel land line. His beachfront condo, where they'd spent last night, was located on the other side of the restaurant, but she thought she should phone him first.
Stephanie was on her way out when a waiter came toward her with a florist box in his hands. "Ms. Walsh? This is for you, with Mr. Harris's compliments."
Thrilled to have received it, she went back to the table to take off the lid. He was probably on his way to her now. Inside the tissue was a corsage of gardenias with a card.
Thank you for the most memorable ten days and nights of my life, Stephanie. Your sweetness is like these gardenias and I'll never forget you. Unfortunately, I've had to leave the island because of an emergency at my work that couldn't be handled by anyone else. Enjoy the rest of your trip and be safe flying back to Crystal River. I miss you already. Dev.
Stephanie sat there and felt the blood drain from her face.
Her spring idyll was over.
He'd already driven to the airport to catch his flight to New York. Of course he hadn't left her a phone number or address, nor had he asked her for the same information. On purpose he hadn't given her a shred of hope that they'd ever see each other again.
She had to be the biggest fool who'd ever lived.
No, there was one other person she knew who shared that honor. Her mother, who'd died from cancer after Stephanie had graduated from college. Twenty-four years ago Ruth Walsh had made the same mistake with an irresistible man. But whoever he was hadn't stuck around once the fun was over, either. Stephanie didn't know his name and had no memories of him, only that her mother had said he was good-looking, exciting and an excellent skier.
He and Dev were two of a kind.
Stephanie closed her eyes tightly. How many females went off on vacation and supposedly met their soul mate, who swept them off their feet, only to abandon them once the excitement wore off? It had to be in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. Stephanie, like her mother, was one of those pathetic statistics who'd gotten caught up in the rapture.
White-hot with anger for being in her mid-twenties before learning the lesson she should have had memorized early in life, because of her birth father, Stephanie shot out of the chair. As she passed the waiter, she gave him a couple dollars and told him to get rid of the things she'd left on the table.
Stephanie didn't know about her friends, but she couldn't possibly stay on the island for the last four days of their trip. Tomorrow morning she'd be on the first plane back to Florida. If a man was too good to be true, then shame on the woman who believed she was the first female to beat the odds.
Dev was so attractive there had to be trails of broken-hearted females around the scuba diving world who knew exactly what it was like to lie in his arms and experience paradise, only to wake up and discover he'd moved on.
He'd told her that scuba diving was his favorite form of recreation. What he hadn't mentioned was that womanizing went hand in hand with his favorite pastime. It was humiliating to think she was one of those imbeciles who didn't have the sense to take one look at him and run far away as fast as possible.
Too furious for tears, she returned to the condo, thankful her roommates were still out. They'd probably gone into town to party with some of the other tourists staying at the resort. That gave Stephanie time to change her flight reservation and pack without them asking a lot of questions.
By tomorrow afternoon she'd be back on the job. Stephanie loved her work. Right now she was planning on it saving her life.
If she let herself think about those long walks with Dev, past the palms and Casua-rina trees while they were entwined in each other's arms, she'd go mad.
Nikos had just finished putting on the jacket of his uniformthe last time he would wear it. Steadying himself with his crutches, he looked around in time to see Vice Admiral Eugenio Prokopios of the Aegean Sea Naval Command in Piraeus, Greece, enter his hospital room and shut the door. The seasoned Greek naval hero was an old friend of his father and grandfather.
"This is an honor, sir."
"Your parents are outside waiting for you. I told them I wanted to come in first to see you. After your last mission, we can be thankful the injury to your spine didn't paralyze you, after all."
Nikos cringed. His last covert operation with Special Forces had wiped out the target, but his best friend, Kon, had been killed. As for Nikos, his doctor told him he would never be the man he once was. His spine ought to heal in time, but he'd never be 100 percent again, and couldn't stay in the Greek military as a SEAL, not when he would probably suffer episodes of PTSD for a long time, maybe even years.
He'd been getting counseling and was taking a serotonin reuptake inhibitor to help him feel less worried and sad, but he'd had several nightmares. They left him feeling out of control and depressed.
"Now that you're being released from the hospital this morning, it won't be long before you won't need those crutches."
Nikos hated the sight of them. "I'm planning on getting rid of them as soon as possible."
"But not until you've had a good long rest after your ordeal."
"A good long rest" was code for one reality. The part of his life that had brought challenge and purpose was finished. Only blackness remained.
"I don't expect it to take that much time, sir."
After a two and a half months' hospitalization, Nikos knew exactly why the vice admiral had shown up. This was his father's work. He'd been thwarted when Nikos had joined the military, and expected his son to return to the family business. Now that he was incapacitated, his father had sent his good friend Eugenio to wish him well with a pep talk about getting back in the family fold.
The older man eyed him solemnly. "Our navy is grateful for the heroic service you've rendered in Special Forces. You're a credit to your family and our country. Your father is anxious for you to resume your place with your brother at the head of Vassalos Shipping so he can retire."
His father would never retire.
Vice Admiral Prokopios had just let Nikos knowin the kindest way, of coursethat though his military service was over, the family business was waiting to embrace him again. Of course, the older man knew nothing about Nikos's history with his father, or he would never have said what he did.
Until after Nikos was born and turned out to be a Vassalos, after all, his father hadn't believed he was his son, all because of a rumor that turned out to have no substance. The experience had turned him into a bitter, intransigent man. The damage inflicted on the Vassalos marriage carried over to the children, and had blighted Nikos's life.
The navy turned out to be his escape from an impossible situation. But ten years later it was back in triplicate.
He was thirty-two years of age, and everything was over.
Sorrow weighed him down at the loss of Kon Gregerov. Nikos's best friend from childhood, who'd come from a wonderful family on nearby Oinoussa Island, had joined the navy with him. The man had been like a brother, and had helped keep Nikos sane and grounded during those tumultuous years while he fought against his father's domination, among other things.
He and Kon had plans to go into their own business together once they'd retired from the military, but his friend had been blown up in the explosion that almost killed Nikos.
It should have been me.
"I'm sorry you were forced to leave Providenciales unexpectedly to perform your last covert operation. So when you're ready, we'll send you back there for more rest and relaxation."
Nikos's stomach muscles clenched at the mere mention of Providenciales. That experience had been like a fantastic dream, one he'd relived over and over on those nights in the hospital when he wasn't suffering flashbacks. To go back there again without her would kill him. After what had happened to him, there could be no Stephanie Walsh in his life. He was going in another direction entirely.
"Nikos?" the vice admiral prodded.
"Thank you for the kind offer, but I'd rather recuperate at home."
"If that's your wish."
"Then I'll say goodbye for now. Be assured I'm mighty proud of you. Good luck."
They saluted before he left the room. Moments later one of the hospital staff entered with a wheelchair. As Nikos sat down, his parents swept into the room. They'd been constant visitors, but they hovered until he felt he would choke.
"Darling!" his mother exclaimed, and hugged him before carrying his crutches for him. "You look wonderful despite your weight loss. Once we get you home, we'll fatten you up in no time. Your grandparents are elated and your sister and Timon have already arrived with the children to welcome you back."
"This is a great day, son." His exultant father embraced him before reaching for his luggage. "Leon's eager to talk business with you."
Nikos had no intention of working in the family business like his elder brother, and his father knew it. But his dad never let up about anything, and it had driven a wedge between them that couldn't be breached. However, now wasn't the time to get into it. The three of them moved out of the room and down the corridor.
"How did it go with Eugenio?"
As if his father didn't know. "Fine."
They emerged from the main doors of the hospital under a blue sky. Once they were settled inside the limousine, his father said, "We've been waiting for this day. So has Na-tasa. She and her parents will be joining us tomorrow evening for a small party."
Nikos's anger flared. "Then uninvite them. You might as well know that after tonight, I'll be living on the Diomedes while I get my strength back." He was sick of visitors and hospital staff. He needed to be completely alone and didn't want anyone to know his activities. His boat would be his refuge from now on.
"You can't do that to us or to her!" his father thundered. "You've put this situation with Natasa on hold for long enough. A marriage between the two of you has been understood for years. She's expecting it now that you're home for good. Your mother and I want you to give us grandchildren. We've waited long enough."
Their families had been best friends for years. His sister, Gia, and Natasa Lander had always been close. It had been an impossible situation he'd been happy to get out of when he'd joined the military.
"Then that's a pity, because I never made love to her or asked her to marry me. She should have moved on years ago." She was attractive enough and would have made a good wife and mother, but he'd never been on fire for her. Thank heaven he hadn't made the mistake of sleeping with her. After meeting Stephanie, the thought of Natasa or any another woman was anathema to him. "Now that I'm out of the hospital, I need to go my own way."
"But that's absurd! She's in love with you."
"It's a moot point, since I'm not in love with her and never have been. Any hope you had for me marrying her is out of the question. I'm deadly serious about this."
His father's cheeks grew ruddy with emotion. "You don't know what you're saying!"
"But I do. Natasa is a lovely person, but not the one for me." Unless she had an agenda of her own, there was something wrong with her for waiting around for him this long. "At this point I'm afraid a marriage between the two of us is only a figment of your and her parents' imagination."
"How dare you say that!" his father muttered furiously.
"How dare you?" Nikos retorted back. "You'll be doing her a favor if you tell her and her family that I'm not well enough to see anyone now. Hopefully, they'll finally get the point! Don't turn this into a nightmare for me or you'll wish you hadn't!"