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Waiting on her private dock at the edge of Lake Whakatipu, Mia Parker smoothed her uniform for the umpteenth time. She was as curious to meet the new guest for Parker's Retreat as she was nervous. The prickle of unease that had started around 3:00 a.m. this morning was now a deep-seated knot of tension situated between her shoulder blades.
"What do you think he'll be like?" her mother asked from her side.
"I don't know, but he's paying us well enough not to wonder too much," Mia answered with a tight smile.
She told herself, not for the first time, that her sudden anxiety was completely unfounded. From what her friend, Rina Woodville, had explained to her, Mia knew that Benedict del Castillo came from a wealthy family and was looking for a quiet and private respite while he recovered from a car accident. Despite that, she couldn't help wondering what type of man had the kind of money to book out her entire boutique hotel and health spa for a whole month and pay her a considerable bonus at the same time.
With that much wealth, why come all the way to her private oasis in one of New Zealand's busiest tourist spots? The fabulous spas and resorts of Europe would have been much closer to his Mediterranean island home. And they were more accustomed to providing the type of luxurious anonymity Mr. del Castillo seemed to require. What had happened to make the man want to travel so far?
"With any luck he'll be tall, dark and handsome and in the market for a wife," her mother persisted.
"Mom, I didn't know you were in the market for a new husband," Mia teased, knowing full well her mother was still grieving over Reuben Parker's death three years ago.
To her surprise her mother blushed, but then quickly resumed her not-so-subtle assault. "You know full well I'm talking about you, young lady. Don't think you can change the subject. It's about time you got back with the real world and stopped hiding yourself away here."
"I'm not hiding, I'm building a business. And this guy, well, he's our ticket to some much-needed financial security. That's more important to me right now than romance."
Mia closed her eyes for a moment, reliving the rush of relief and excitement that had swamped her when his first half payment had been confirmed in her bank account. Knowing she'd be able to cover her staff's wages for the duration of his stay and for a good month beyond that had brought a peace of mind she hadn't known in a very long time. The sensation was addictive, making it easy for her to justify not investigating the background of her guest furthertelling herself she was merely respecting his request for privacy.
A sound on the water caught her attention, making her open her eyes. The boat was coming and, with it, the man who would be the sole focus of the retreat's staff for the next thirty days. She could see the sleek lines of the luxury thirty-eight footer as it cut through the slight chop on the surface of the lake. She was glad she'd ignored the bank manager's advice to sell the boat after her father's death and the true state of their family's affairs had been revealed.
At times like this, the boat was a vital, and impressive, link to the outside world. A statement that, despite Reuben Parker's choice to take his own life rather than face his debtors, the Parkers would survive.
The vessel was closer now and she could see three figures standing on the flying bridgeone she easily identified as Don, her boat captain and all-round handyman at Parker's Retreat. The others must be her guest and his personal trainer, because she could already see Don's seventy-one-year-old fatherand self-proclaimed boat boystanding on the main deck, ready to cast the mooring lines.
Again that knot in between her shoulder blades tightened. Everything about her reclusive guest's visit was integral to the survival of her business. Everything.
"Everything's perfect, isn't it?" She turned and asked her mother, suddenly stricken with an irrational fear that she'd forgotten something.
"Mia, relax. You know we've done everything. Mr. del Castillo is in the Summit Suite, his trainer's accommodation is sorted, the kitchen has Mr. del Castillo's food and beverage preferences, the car and driver in Queenstown are on constant standby and you yourself have his spa visit schedule organized like a military exercise. Stop worrying so much. Besides, in the unlikely event we've overlooked anything, we can fix it without it causing any problems, I'm sure."
"Right. We'll be fine," Mia said, more for her own peace of mind than in agreement with her mother's calming words.
She stepped forward and grabbed the bow line being thrown from the boat and tied it off on the dock as Don's father nimbly sprang to do the same to secure the rear.
As soon as the boat was secured and the gangway bridged the short distance between the vessel and the dock, she painted on a smile. First to disembark was a whipcord-lean blond man, dressed casually in jeans and a lightweight ski jacket to ward off the chill winter air. The personal trainer, she guessed. She'd assumed that the trainer might be a woman, when told that her guest would be arriving with one other person, and had suspected the moniker to be one of convenience only. But the suppressed energy in the blond man's gait said otherwise. Mr. del Castillo must be taking his recuperation seriously if this was the man he'd hired for the task.
"Hi," he said, taking her hand and pumping it enthusiastically. "I'm Andre Silvain, pleased to meet you."
French, she noted, judging by his accent. "Welcome to Parker's Retreat, Mr. Silvain. I think you'll find we have all the equipment you said you would need for the duration of your stay. This is my mother, Elsa Parker. She acts as chatelaine here."
"Call me Andre." He smiled back charmingly and looked around. "This place is amazing. I'm sure Ben and I will accomplish great things together here."
His enthusiasm was almost overwhelming and Mia felt her cheeks start to ache as she turned to watch the tall, dark-haired man now limping down the gangway. Dressed all in black and clearly suffering from the contrast in temperature between his native Isla Sagrado and a southern New Zealand winter, he guided himself slowly, one hand resting on the hand rail.
Though she couldn't yet see his face, there was something familiar about him, she thought as she watched the wind tug at the silk paisley scarf he wore looped around his collar and lower jaw. The finely woven fabric slid down, exposing a shadow of a beard and a pallor to his skin at odds with the Mediterranean summer weather she knew he'd come from. The wind tousled his slightly overlong black hair, lifting it from the smooth wide plane of his forehead. The sense of familiarity increased as he lifted his head and dark chocolate-brown eyes caught with hers.
The knot in her spine intensified and sent a spear of shock straight to her heart as her worst judgment call, ever, walked back into her life.
Benedict del Castillo shivered under the heavy black wool of his knee-length coat, his hand tightening on the gangway rail as he made eye contact with the young woman standing on the dock. Instant recognition and something unexpectedsomething hot and feralfired through his veins.
Just over three and a half years ago, at the weekend-long, high-society party where they'd met, he'd only known her as "M." But despite that virtual anonymity, his body knew hers with a depth of intimacy he'd shared with very few. What were the odds, he wondered, that she would be here?
Ben's eyes raked her from head to toe and he noted her not quite form-fitting uniform with distaste. The jacket and trousers were designed to conceal, rather than reveal andif his memory served him correctlyher attributes were well worth revealing.
"Welcome to Parker's Retreat, Mr. del Castillo. I'm Mia Parker. I hope you will be comfortable here."
"So formal, M?"
He saw the fear that clouded her eyes straight away. The reaction intrigued him. Obviously, she hadn't planned to acknowledge the fact that the last time they'd been together they'd done just about every single physical thing a couple could do in the pursuit of mutual sexual satisfaction. He could understand the coolness, he supposed; given the circumstances. They had a business arrangement in place for the next monthit was not surprising that she would wish to be professional. But fear? What on earth did she have to be afraid of?
He took her hand and lifted it to his lips, pressing them to her cold knuckles. He sensed the tremor that rocked through her at his touch and he allowed his mouth to curl into a smile as he released her hand. To his amusement, she snatched it away, rubbing her knuckles against those god-awful trousers and stiffening her posture.
"I believe you'll find everything here to your satisfaction. My staff has worked hard to ensure that all your specific requirements are met."
"And you, querida? Do you plan to meet my" he paused for effect, unable to resist baiting her "specific requirements also?"
A bright flush of color stained her cheeks and her voice shook a little when she replied.
"Obviously, I'll be working closely with your trainer to ensure your recovery is as swift as it can possibly be."
His recovery. Self-disgust gouged through him, cooling his amusement as effectively as the glacier that had long ago formed the lake behind him. The memory of the car crash infuriated him, especially since it came with the knowledge that it was his stupidity and reckless taunt at fate that had come back and bitten him painfully hard. That was still a bitter pill to swallow. He tamped down the feelings that had riddled him since his accident and shifted his focus to M's obvious discomfort. A man had to find his amusements where he could and right now Mia Parker was looking very good indeed.
"Obviously," he finally responded. "And who is this charming lady here with you?"
"Oh, I am sorry." Mia flushed with embarrassment. "This is my mother, Elsa Parker. Together, we run Parker's Retreat."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. del Castillo, although you'll have to forgive my daughter for underselling herself. She's responsible for just about everything around here."
"Is that so?" Ben replied, taking Elsa's hand and offering her the same "olde worlde" courtesy he'd just shown her daughter.
To her credit, the older woman carried herself with a great deal more aplomb than Mia but then again, she had no idea of just how well he knew her daughter.
Mia gestured to one of two golf carts parked by the dock.
"If you'd like to take a seat, Don will take you and Andre up to the main guest house. Mother and I will follow with your luggage."
She wasn't about to be rid of him that easily.
"Actually, it's only a short distance, isn't it? After all that flying, I think I'd rather walk. You go on up, Andre," he said to his trainer. "Ms. Parker can accompany me to the hotel building."
"What about your crutches, Ben? I think you left them on the boat," Andre said, his meaning clear.
"They can stay there. The sooner I learn to live without them the better, as far as I'm concerned."
"Your call, mon ami. I believe you would be more comfortable with them for now, but given that it's only been a couple of weeks since you came out of hospital I insist you at least use a walking stick. I have a collapsible cane here near the top of my case for exactly this purpose."
Ben grimaced as Andre handed him the cane. He'd had enough of taking it easy, and enough of being poked, prodded and mollycoddled. Coming here was his chance to build himself back up to peak strength in privacy and without prying eyes or media conjecture as to any long-term damage to his body. His family was too wealthy, too famous for him to hide his recovery from the public eye if he had stayed in the Mediterranean, but here on the other side of the world, he could finally have the seclusion he needed. The seclusion his contract with Parker's Retreat had guaranteed.
It was past time his recalcitrant body returned to the level of fitness he was used to, so he could return to his usual activitiesall of his usual activities. He cast a sideways glance at his reluctant escort and felt a ribbon of anticipation thread through him. And he knew just where he was going to start.
He'd changed, Mia thought as she adjusted her pace to walk slowly toward the main hotel building. Gone was the affable and self-assured man who'd swept her off her feet and into his bed the summer before her world turned upside down. Oh, he was still most definitely self-assured, but there was an edge to him now. Something else lay beneath the surface of his charm that hadn't been there before and she remembered "before" in all its Technicolor glory.
Her hand still tingled where he'd kissed her. Why couldn't he have simply settled for a handshake like everyone else? But then he wouldn't be Benedict del Castillo, her alter ego replied silently. He wouldn't be the man whom she'd met at a New Year's Eve gathering at one of the Gibbston Valley vineyards. The man who'd instantly caught her attention and then held it for every split second of the hours they'd spent together during one whole glorious day and two even more glorious nights, until his departure back overseas.
A man who, even now, sent her blood thrumming through her veins. She couldn't afford to let him affect her this way. He was a guest at the retreat and she had to see him in that light and that light only.
Oh Lord. A thought suddenly occurred to her. How on earth would she cope when it came time for his sessions at the spa? She'd given her other massage therapists a vacation for the duration of the del Castillo party's stay, intending to handle the sessions herself. She was a certified massage therapist, and had thought that personally undertaking Mr. del Castillo's treatment would show her commitment to maintaining his privacy and comfort. But now she couldn't help but wonder what she'd gotten herself into.
Touching him, stroking him. Letting her hands reac-quaint themselves with his body. And what a body. Even now she had no difficulty recalling the smooth tanned texture of his chest, the way his dark brown nipples would tighten beneath her tongue. The taste of him.
She clamped down on her wayward thoughts. This was most definitely not the way for her to be thinking.