Brenna Coleman's past has caught up to her on the island of St. Sebastian and she's not happy to see him. FBI agent Casey McBride has a job to do, and he won't let feelings for his ex-fiancée foil his mission. While investigating the activities of Marcus Bradleya powerful billionaire commissioning a series of Brenna's paintingsCasey discovers the island's darkest atrocity. With Brenna at his side, he can't ignore the love they once feltand still feelfor one another. But as Casey keeps close watch on Brenna, one question remains uncertain: Who is keeping close watch on them?
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Brenna gazed out across the bay, frowning at the scene. It wasn't the narrow, palm-studded spur of land giving her trouble. That she had already managed without difficulty.
As she always did, she'd chosen her subject with care, convinced that, simple though it was, it would make a highly effective painting. The colors were the problem.
Without question, the waters of the Caribbean were the most gorgeous she had ever experienced, ranging from a rich aquamarine to a deep, inky blue. But to capture these incredible colors on canvas and make them believable well, this was what eluded her.
Come on, you can conquer them, she reminded herself.
With that stubborn self-promise firmly in mind, Brenna swung her attention away from the view, prepared to mix the pigments she needed on her palette. Along with her brushes and tubes of oil paint, the palette rested on the wide tray attached to her easel.
She was reaching for it when, out of the corner of her eye, she discovered something moving off to her left, ambling in her direction along the volcanic black sand beach. A tall, barefoot figure wearing a pair of snug white pants rolled to mid-calf and a matching white shirt carelessly open down to his waist.
There was something distinctly familiar about that long-legged, easy gait. It couldn't be him. Not here on St. Sebastian.
But there was no denying his identity when he neared her, sporting that big, goofy grin on his bold mouth. A mouth whose sensual talents she was incapable of forgetting. Casey McBride.
Brenna never wore sunglasses when she was out on location. She felt they interfered with the truth of her painting. That was why it was necessary for her to squint her eyes against the brilliance of the tropic sun as she watched him approach her.
He did wear sunglasses, whipping them off when he reached her. Without any greeting, he leaned over the easel to inspect her painting in progress. That left Brenna free to examine him.
He hadn't changed in the two years since they'd parted. Casey was still the rugged figure he'd always been with that angular, good-looking face. And, much to her disgust, he still had the power to set her pulses racing with his mere appearance.
Careful. You can't let him know that. He 'll take advantage of you if you do.
Nodding, he placed a stamp of approval on the painting with a brief "Nice."
"Thank you. Now would you like to tell me what the hell you're doing here?"
He turned to face her. "That isn't a very friendly welcome."
"I didn't intend it to be. Do I get an answer?"
His only reply was to keep on looking at her, still wearing that stupid grin. All right, it wasn't stupid. It was sexy. So, somehow, were the beads of perspiration on his powerful, bare chest. At least the portion his open shirt revealed. The sun, after all, was hot.
"Never mind explaining. I can guess. Will sent you, didn't he?"
"You know he did. What I can't figure out is how you found me in this particular spot."
"Now, see, I just happen to be renting one of the cottages back there." He jerked his thumb in the direction he had come from where she could see a palm-thatched roof peeking out from the trees. Below the roof was a deck projecting over the beach.
"Yeah, and I was out on the deck taking in the view- great, isn't it?-when I spotted this woman working at her easel. 'Could that be Brenna Coleman?' I asked myself."
"And what did you answer yourself?"
"Didn't. I had to kick off my shoes-you know how I love to go barefoot-and go out on the beach for a better look-see."
"Well, then I knew for sure. Who else, with that copper-colored hair blowing in the wind, could it be but Brenna herself? Lucky coincidence, huh?"
"Very," she said dryly.
She knew it was no accident, his discovering her like this. Casey had always specialized in locating the targets the FBI assigned him. She could have pursued it, but she didn't. It didn't matter, because she had a more important challenge for him.
"Let's cut the games, McBride. Exactly what did my brother have to say to convince you to come after me?"
"Not much. Hey, it's still cold back in Chicago, and being in the mood for a vacation in a warm place-"
"I've never known you to take a vacation."
"Kind of forced on me. I'm on suspension from the bureau."
Knowing how dedicated he was to his work, she realized how hard this had to be for him. "I'm sorry, Casey. What happened?"
"Long story. Why don't we save it for another time? Anyway, the island here sounded just about right. 'That's great,' Will said. 'While you're there and if you have the chance, you can check in on Brenna.'"
"He said that, did he?"
"More or less."
"No, he didn't. I'll tell you what he said. He said, 'Gee, Casey, would you mind watching over my sister for me? I don't like the company she's keeping.'"
"He didn't put it exactly like that. But, okay, close enough. He's concerned about you, Brenna, and maybe he has reason to be."
"This is for your ears only. Something I wouldn't tell you if you didn't need to be aware of it. Happens that your friend, Marcus Bradley, is a member of a cabal of elitists, a group suspicious enough that the FBI is keeping an eye on them."
Brenna blew out the breath she'd been holding with a sound of exasperation. "You're as bad as Will. Like I told him, and I'm telling you, there are always rumors about the very rich. And in this case, FBI or not, they're crazy rumors. Marcus is not only a friend, he's a generous benefactor. Along with his other charitable projects, he's building a resort here on St. Sebastian in order to bring much-needed revenue and jobs to the island's poor."
"Heard that. Good for him. Meanwhile, you're staying with him in his villa. Cozy."
She was close, very close to snatching up a brush, dipping it in fresh paint and swiping it across his nose. "You've been investigating me, Agent McBride, and I don't like it. You don't deserve to know it, but I'm not staying in the villa. I'm staying in the guesthouse."
"Yes. Furthermore, whatever my connection with Marcus, it's not your business or Will's. Nor do I need you or anyone else playing watchdog."
"Got it. But, uh, would you mind telling me something?"
Casey jerked that strong, square chin of his in the direction of the road a few hundred feet off the beach. A late-model Jaguar sedan was parked there in the shade of a banyan tree. Its driver, leaning against the car as he smoked a cigarette, was eyeing them.
"What do you call him, Brenna, if not a watchdog? Guy seems real interested in us. He belong to you?"
"That's Julio, and all he's doing is passing the time waiting for me. He works for Marcus, who asked him to drive me around the island so I could paint the scenes he wants when his resort is finished. He's not a watchdog."
Brenna's attention had been fixed on Julio and the car. When she turned back to face Casey, she found him standing close to her. So close she could feel the heat of his hard body.
She lifted her chin, meaning to ask him to back off.
Mistake. He was looking down at her, his probing eyes meeting her own gaze with such intensity that she caught her breath.
Green eyes. He had green eyes capable of registering a range of moods-humor, softness and, when they narrowed, a kind of tough, cold anger that could be dangerous. Could make a woman shiver. She had always been able to read those moods. But that had been then. Now she wasn't at all sure.
And something else. Casey's right eyelid drooped a little. A sexy, bedroom kind of thing that never failed to fascinate women.
Managing to breathe again, she asked him curtly,
He didn't answer her. He simply kept staring.
"Casey, go away, will you? This commission is much too important to me to risk you screwing it up by your hanging around me like this."
He didn't move.
Voice shaky now, his presence unnerving her, she pleaded softly, "Please, just leave."
To her relief, he backed away from her silently. Only when he was a safe distance away did he speak.
"If you should get into any trouble, Brenna, and need me, I'll be here for you."
How was she supposed to reply to that? She didn't know, not with that sober tone in his voice, the equally sober look now on his face. He waited for a few seconds, but when she had no response for him, he turned and started to walk away.
Brenna found herself seized by a sudden, unexpected guilt. The same guilt she had suffered two years ago. Until now, she'd been able to convince herself she'd overcome that guilt, successfully put it behind her. Apparently not.
She couldn't prevent herself from calling after him. "Casey, wait."
He turned back, his dark eyebrows raised questioningly.
Even though she had expressed it at the time, she felt the need to tell him again. "I-I'm sorry I hurt you when I broke our engagement," she told him quietly. "But I hurt, too, Casey. I hurt, too."
"I know," he said, his voice deep, husky.
And that was all. His hand lifting in parting, he turned again and moved back up the beach the way he had come. He left her with the forlorn, unwanted memories of what they had once shared. The love he had lavished on her both physically and emotionally, and what it had cost her to sacrifice them.
She went on gazing after his striking figure, damning him for reawakening all those potent feelings. Angry with herself, too, for her weakness, for still finding herself attracted to him.
Enough of this.
Facing her easel again, she considered the painting on it. It seemed to look back at her, demanding her renewed attention. Brenna complied, picking up a brush and her palette, prepared to attack the canvas. This time with a fierceness determined to shut out the image of Casey McBride.
The sprawling villa, Moorish in style, was perched on an elevated point of land overlooking the sea on one side. Stretched below on the other side were the winking lights of Georgetown, St. Sebastian's capital and only city.
Brenna thought how different the setting here was by day. The stuccoed white walls of the villa glared with pride in the tropic sun. But now, at night, those same walls, with their arches and plastered domes, were subdued into something that resembled a soft, shadowy gray.
She was looking at the lamplit boats bobbing in the harbor that fronted Georgetown when Marcus spoke to her.
"How was your day?" he asked her in that gentle voice that had what she felt was a hypnotic quality to it. "Pleasant, I hope."
They were having a late dinner on the open terrace. The perfect meal consisted, among other dishes, of pepper pot soup, an island favorite, and freshly caught, baked grouper.
"It was," she said, meeting his gaze across the candles that glowed in their hurricane globes on the table.
His hair gleamed in that same light. Pure silver hair, without a touch of any other color in it, framed his patrician face. Brenna supposed most people would describe that face as distinguished. It certainly reflected the breeding of an impressive ancestry. And even in his late fifties as he was, with some noticeable lines, Marcus Bradley could be called handsome.
His blue eyes, however, had the clarity of a much younger man's. Observant eyes that, at the moment, were watching her with a sharpness that made her slightly uncomfortable. Made her turn the direction of the conversation to a subject that would distract him from what she was beginning to suspect was an interest in her that was more personal than just her art.
"So how was your day?" she inquired brightly. "You were going to spend it at the resort's building site, weren't you?"
"I was and did. It's coming along, although like most large building projects, it has its problems."
"Oh? What are they?"
"Nothing that you'd find particularly interesting, I'm afraid."
She knew how invested he was in his resort, both financially and emotionally, and she wanted to keep him discussing it now. "I'd love to see the place, Marcus."
"I'll have to take you there sometime, but right now it's in a pretty rough state for any touring. Let's get back to your own day. How is the painting coming?"
Her effort had failed. "I think you'll like the scene I'm working on when it's finished. It's still in a rough state, too. Traditional, of course, but that's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"Yes. A seascape, I believe?"
"Basically. On location from one of the beaches."
The blue eyes continued to search her as she briefly described the scene for him. This was growing awkward. She had the distinct feeling he knew she was withholding something from him, and that he also knew what that something was.
Marcus nodded slowly when she was finished. Then, stabbing a forkful of fish, he said smoothly, casually, "I hear you had a visitor on the beach."
Casey. He'd learned about Casey. There could only be one source of information for that. Julio had reported it to him. Brenna had insisted the driver was not a watchdog when Casey implied he was just that. But now she wasn't so certain that Julio's employer hadn't planted him to specifically spy on her.
"Just a tourist wandering by and stopping to look at what I was painting," she said with what she hoped was a believable, innocent explanation. "I'm used to it. It's a common occurrence when artists are painting on location."
Brenna regretted the necessity of her lie, but she was afraid that Marcus wouldn't appreciate learning the FBI agent she'd once been engaged to had turned up on the island. To her relief, he seemed to accept her explanation.
Placing his fork on his plate, he leaned toward her. "You mustn't mind your driver looking out for you," he said mildly. "I'm afraid there's no shortage of crime on islands like St. Sebastian where there's so much poverty."
"I understand." She found another, safer topic. "If you keep on feeding me like this, Marcus, I'm not going to fit into any of my clothes when I get back to Chicago."
"Gilda is a marvelous cook," he conceded.
Gilda, she knew, was his housekeeper here, as well as Julio's wife.
"Are you ready for coffee yet?"
"If you don't mind," Brenna told her host after dinner, "I'm going to call it an early night."
"Not a bad idea. I'm ready to turn in myself. We've both had a long day."
"I'll leave you here then," she said, rising from the table.
"Why don't I walk you back to the guesthouse before you leave?"
"That isn't necessary, Marcus."
"I insist," he said, rounding the table to join her.
The guesthouse was behind the villa and the paved walkway to it was well lit. There was no reason for him to escort her. Brenna felt like she was being guarded, maybe a bit too closely, and she didn't like the idea. But she didn't feel she could afford to object, either to his company on the walk or his good-night kiss on her cheek when he left her at her door.
He's paying you a lot of money for those paintings. What are you going to do? Risk offending him?
There was more to it than that, she reminded herself after letting herself into her quarters. How could she forget all he'd done for her back in Chicago? Not only buying two of her pictures when they met at the art gallery that held her first showing but broadcasting her talent to his wealthy friends, making possible the success she was now enjoying.
A lot to be grateful for.
Except Marcus Bradley wasn't the first individual to admire her work. Casey was responsible for that.