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Pensacola, Florida: Present Day
"Congratulations to the bride to be, my little princess!"
The toast from the father of the bride drifted from the deck of the paddleboat, carried by the muggy Pensacola breeze to Eloisa Taylor back on the dock. Eloisa sat dipping her aching feet in the Florida Gulf waters, tired to the roots of her ponytail from helping plan her half sister's engagement party. Her stepfather had gone all out for Audrey, far more than a tax collector in a cubicle could afford, but nothing was too good for his "little princess." Still he'd had to settle for a Monday night booking to make the gala affordable.
The echo of clinking glasses mingled with the lap of waves against her feet. Dinner was done, the crowd so well fed no one would miss her. She was good at that, helping people and keeping a low profile.
Putting together this engagement party had been bittersweet, forcing her to think about her own vows. Uncelebrated. Unknown even to her family. Thank God for the quickie divorce that had extracted her from her impulsive midnight marriage almost as fast as she'd entered it.
Usually she managed to smother those recollections, but how could she not think about it now with Audrey's happily-ever-after tossed in her face 24/7? Not to mention the cryptic voice message she'd received this morning with his voice. Jonah. Even a year after hearing it last, she still recognized the sexy bass.
Eloisa. It's me. We have to talk.
She swept her wind-whipped ponytail from her face, shivering from the phantom feel of his hand stroking her face. A year ago, she'd indulged herself in checking out the heritage of her real father. A summer indulgence had led her to one totally wrong man with a high-profile life that threatened her carefully protected world. Threatened secrets she held close and deep.
Eloisa blinked back the memories of Jonah, too many given how little time she'd spent with him. They were history now since she'd divorced him. Not that their twenty-four-hour marriage counted in her mind. She should ignore the call and block his number. Or at least wait until after her sister's "I do" was in the past before contacting him again.
A fish plopped in the distance, sailboat lines clinking against masts. The rhythmic, familiar sounds soothed her. She soaked up the other sounds of home, greedily gathering every bit of comfort she could find. Emerald-green waters reflected a pregnant moon. Wind rustled through palm trees.
An engine growled softly in the distance.
So much for a late-night solitary moment. She shook dry one foot, then the other and glanced over her shoulder. A limo rolled closer. Late arriving guests? Really late since after-dinner dancing was well underway.
Reaching for her sandals she watched the long black stretch of machine inching beside the waterway. The shape of the sleek vehicle wasn't your average wedding limo. The distinctive grille glinted in the moonlight, advertising the approach of an exclusive Rolls-Royce. Tinted windows sealed off the passengers from view, but left her feeling like a butterfly pinned to the board of a science project. The private area should be safe. Yet, was anywhere totally secure, especially in the dark?
Goose bumps stung along her skin and her mouth went dry. She yanked on her shoes, chiding herself for being silly. But still, Audrey's fiancé was reputed to have some shady connections. Her stepdad could only see power and dollar signs, apparently unconcerned with the crooked path that money took.
Not that any of those questionable contacts had cause to hurt her. All the same, she should return to the floating party barge.
Eloisa jumped to her feet.
The limo sped up.
She swallowed hard, wishing she'd taken a self-defense class along the way to earning her library studies degree.
Okay, no need to go all paranoid. She forced her hands to stay loose and started walking. Only about thirty yards ahead, and she would alert the crew member at the gangway. Then she could lose herself in the crowd of dancers under the strings of white lights. The engine grew louder behind her. Eloisa strode longer, faster.
Each breath felt heavier, the salt in the air stinging her over-sensitive pores. Her low heel caught between planks on the boardwalk. She lurched forward just as the car stopped in front of her.
A back door swung wide—not even waiting for the chauffeur—and blocked her getaway. She couldn't continue ahead, only sideways into the car or into the water. Or she could back up, which would take her farther from the boat. Frantically she searched for help. Would any of those seventy-five potential witnesses in party finery whooping it up to an old Kool and the Gang song notice or hear her?
One black-clad leg swung out of the limo, the rest of the man still hidden. However that Ferragamo python loafer was enough to send her heart skittering. She'd only met one man who favored those, and she hated how she still remembered the look and brand.
She backed away, one plank at a time, assessing the man as he angled out. She hoped, prayed for some sign to let her off the hook. Gray hair? A beer belly?
But no such luck. The hard-muscled guy wore all black, a dark suit jacket, the top button of his shirt undone and tie loose. He wore his brown hair almost shoulder length and swept back from his face to reveal a strong, square jaw.
A jaw far more familiar than any shoes. Nerves danced in her stomach far faster than even the partiers gyrating to the live band on the boat.
He pivoted on his heel, facing her full on, the moonlight glinting off the chestnut hints in his wavy hair. Sunglasses shielded his eyes from her. Shades at night? For a low profile or ego?
Regardless, she knew. Her ex-husband wasn't content with just calling and leaving a message. No, not Jonah. The powerful international scion she'd divorced a year ago had returned.
Jonah Landis whipped off his sunglasses, glanced at his watch and grinned. "Sorry I'm late. Have we missed the party?"
To hell with any party. Jonah Landis wanted to find out why Eloisa hadn't told him the entire truth when she'd demanded a divorce a year ago. He also wanted to know why his passionate lover had so dispassionately cut him off.
The stunned look on Eloisa's face as she stopped cold on the dock would have been priceless if he wasn't so damn mad over the secret she'd kept from him, a secret that he'd only just found out was gumming up the works on their divorce decree.
Of course when he'd met her in Madrid a year ago, he'd been distracted by the instantaneous, mind-blowing chemistry between them. And looking at her now, seeing her quiet elegance, he figured he could cut himself some slack on missing details that could have clued him in—like how much she'd fit into her Spanish surroundings.
The woman was a walking distraction.
Wind molded her tan silk dress around her body. The dimly lit night played tricks with his vision until she looked nearly naked, clothed only in shifting shadows.
Had she known that when she chose the dress? Likely not. Eloisa seemed oblivious to her allure, which only served to enhance her appeal.
Her sleek dark hair was slicked back in a severe ponytail that gave her already exotic brown eyes a tug. Without so much as lip gloss, she relegated most models to the shadows.
Once he had her name on the dotted line of divorce papers—official ones this time—he would have nothing to do with her ever again. That had been the plan anyway. He didn't need round two of her hot-cold treatment. So he'd misread the signs, hadn't realized she was drunk during the "I do" part. That didn't mean she had to slap his face and fall off the planet. He was over Eloisa.
Or so he'd thought. Then he'd seen her and felt that impact all over again, that kick-in-the-gut effect he'd thought must have been exaggerated by his memory.
He tamped back the attraction and focused on seeing this through. He needed her signature and for some reason he refused to leave it up to lawyers. Maybe it had something to do with closure.
Eloisa inched her heel from between the planks and set both feet as firmly as her delicate jaw. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to accompany you to your sister's engagement party." He hooked an elbow on the open limo door, the chauffeur waiting up front as he'd been instructed earlier. "Can't have my wife going stag."
"Shhh!" Lurching toward him, she patted the air in front of his face, stopping just shy of touching his mouth. "I am not your wife."
He clasped her hand, thumb rubbing over her bare ring finger. "Damn, I must have hallucinated that whole wedding ceremony in Madrid."
Eloisa yanked her hand away and rubbed her palm against her leg. "You're arguing semantics."
"If you would prefer to skip the party, we could grab a bite to eat and talk about those semantics." He watched the glide of her hand up and down her thigh, remembering well the creamy, soft texture under his mouth as he'd tasted his way up.
She stared at him silently until he met her eyes again. "You're kidding, right?"
"Climb into the car and see."
She glanced back at the boat, then at him again, her long ponytail fanning to rest along her shoulder. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea."
"Afraid I'll kidnap you?"
"Don't be ridiculous." She laughed nervously as if she'd considered just that.
"Then what's holding you back? Unless you want to continue this conversation right here." He nodded toward the boat full of partyers. "I thought you wanted me to be quiet."
She looked back over her shoulder again, and while it appeared no one noticed them, who knew how long that would hold? Not that he gave a damn what anyone thought, unlike his enigmatic wife. He'd learned a long time ago he had two choices in this world. Let others rule his life or take charge.
The second option won hands down.
He cocked an eyebrow and waited.
"Fine," she bit out between gritted teeth.
She eyed him angrily as she angled past and slid into the car without even brushing against him. Eloisa settled into the leather seat.
Jonah tucked himself inside next her, closed the door and tapped the glass window between them and the chauffeur, signaling him to drive. Just drive. He would issue a destination later.
"Where are we going?" she asked as the limo eased into motion, the tinted windows closing them in their own private capsule.
"Where do you want to go? I have a penthouse suite farther down on Pensacola Beach."
"Of course you do." Her gaze flicked around the small space, lingering briefly on his computer workstation to her left before moving on to the minibar and the plasma screen TV.
"I see you haven't changed." He'd forgotten how prickly she could be about money. Still, it had been refreshing. He'd had plenty of women chase him because of the Landis portfolio and political influence.
He'd never had a female dump him because of it. Of course back then he hadn't known she had access to money and influence beyond even his family's reach. Mighty damn impressive.
And confusing since she hadn't bothered to share that even after they married.
He put a damper on the surge of anger, a dangerous emotion given the edge of desire searing his insides. To prove to himself he could stay in control, he slid two fingers down the length of a sleekly straight lock of her black hair.
Eloisa jerked her head away. "Stop that." She adjusted the air-conditioning vent nervously until the blast of air ruffled her ponytail. "Enough playing, although you certainly seem to be an expert at recreation. I just want to know why you're here, now."
With all he knew about her, she still understood so little about him. "What's wrong with wanting to see my wife?"
"Ex-wife. We got drunk and ended up married." She shrugged casually, too much so. "It happens to lots of folks, from pop stars to everyday Joes and Josephines. Just check out the marriage logs in Las Vegas. We made a mistake, but we took steps to fix it the morning after."
"Do you consider all of it a mistake? Even the part between 'I do' and waking up with a hangover?" He couldn't resist reminding her.
A whisper of attraction smoked through her dark eyes. "I don't remember."
"You're blushing," he noted with more than a little satisfaction, grateful for the soft glow of a muted overhead light. So he was smug. Sue him. "You remember the good parts all right."
"Sex is irrelevant." She sniffed primly.
"Sex? I was talking about the food." He turned the tables, enjoying the cat-and-mouse game between them. "The mariscada en salsa verde was amazing." And just that fast, he could all but taste the shellfish casserole in green sauce, the supper she'd shared with him before they had after-dinner drinks. Got hitched. Got naked.
He could see the same memory reflected in her eyes just before her mouth pursed tight.
"You're a jackass, Jonah."
"But I'm all yours." For now at least.
"Not anymore. Remember the morning-after 'fix'? You're my ex-jackass."
If only it were that simple to put this woman in his past. God knows, he'd tried hard enough over the past year to forget about Eloisa Taylor Landis.
Or rather Eloisa Medina Landis?
He'd stumbled upon the glitch in a church registry, a "minor" technicality she'd forgotten to mention, but one that had snarled up their paperwork in Spain. The sense of shock and yeah, even some bitter betrayal rocked through him again.
No question, he needed to put this woman in his past, but this time he would be the one to walk away.
"Now there you're wrong, Eloisa. That fix got broken along the way." He picked up a lock of her hair again, keeping his hand off her shoulder.
Lightly he tugged, making his presence felt. A spark of awareness flickered through her eyes, flaming an answering heat inside him. He looked at the simple gold chain around her neck and remembered the jewels he'd once pictured there while she'd slept. Then she woke up and made it clear there would be no summer together. She couldn't get out of his life fast enough.
Her breath hitched. He reminded himself of his reason for coming here, to end things and leave.
Now he wondered if it might be all the more satisfying to have one last time with Eloisa, to ensure she remembered all they could have had if only she'd been as upfront with him as he'd been with her.
He glided his knuckles up her ponytail to her cheek, gently urging her to face him more fully. "The paper work never made it through. Something to do with you lying about your name."
Her eyes darted away. "I never lied about my name—"