The isolated island retreat was the last place anyone would look for former socialite Samantha James. Yet danger finds her anywayaccidentally. The assassin who breaks into her room doesn't realize that she and Diego Cruzhis real targetswitched cabins. But it doesn't matter that she's not who he came to attack. She's seen his face so she's his new target. Blaming himself for her situation, Diego will do anything to keep Samantha safe. After years working undercover as an FBI informant, he's accustomed to danger. But he's not used to having a beautiful woman's life resting in his hands or a killer with everything to lose closing in on his heels.
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Diego Cruz peeked through the open door of the resort dining and kitchen facilities.
The woman mopping the kitchen floor didn't look like a good prospect for conversation, but after days of isolation on the primitive island resort off the Washington coast, Diego hungered for any kind of human contact. He was an extrovert by nature. This much time alone was making him loco.
He stepped across the threshold. "Need some help?"
She jumped, placing a palm over her heart. "You scared me." She shot him a hard look before returning her attention to dragging the mop across the floor.
So she wasn't exactly amistosa. He didn't care. Even a hostile conversation would be better than pacing the floor of his cabin. Three days ago, he'd been a confidential informant for the FBI, working his way up the ranks through years of undercover work until he'd gained the confidence of the number two man dealing drugs in the Northwest. Someone had outed him, putting his life in danger. The Bureau responded by holing him up in no-man's-land until they could find the source of the leak.
Until the woman had disembarked from the ferry yesterday, the only people on the island had been Diego and a caretaker, an unfriendly old man named George who spent most of his time wandering into the forest with an easel and paints. George informed him the island was designed for people who wanted to detox from electronics. Diego suspected they didn't have the green to update, so being low-tech became the new marketing angle for the run-down getaway. To Diego, it meant no cell service and more boredom.
When Diego stepped toward the woman, her back stiffened. He smiled at her anyway. "So you're in my old cabin," he said.
She turned her back to him and slammed the mop in the bucket. "What do you mean?" Every word held a tiny punch, an effort to push him away.
"I started out in that cabin, but picked a different one. The view is better in the one I'm in now." The truth was the sight lines for the first cabin were bad. He was pretty sure the Bureau knew how to hide a man, but if he was found out, he wanted to see his assassin coming so he'd have time to grab his gun and defend himself.
She turned so he saw her profile. She was pretty, in an uptight, prep school sort of way, hair the color of dark honey, delicate bone structure. Despite the effort at dressing down in a flannel shirt and turtleneck, the clipped tone of her words and that perfect posture said she'd been raised uptown.
He'd grown up on the streets of Seattle and come up through the gangs. The gift that had kept him alive and now helped him with his work was his ability to read people. Seven years ago when a gang member's stray bullet had taken his madreas life, he'd come back to the God his mother had prayed to every day. Becoming a CI was his way of righting all the wrong he'd done as a teenager and maybe saving another homeboy's mother in the process, since he couldn't save his own.
"I like the cabin fine." Her gaze bounced briefly at him and then she stared out a dusty window. "I'm not here for the view. I'm here to do a job. In two days, the catering company I work for will arrive for a destination wedding. I'm getting paid extra to come early and set up and clean."
So she was from money, but she had to work minimum wage for a living. Now he was curious. What was her story? "Look, I'm going a little crazy here. Far as I can tell, you, me and that caretaker are the only ones on the island," he said.
"Spring is the off-season. I guess this place is really busy in the summer, so this was the only time the couple could get this wedding booking." She rearranged the cleaners and sponges in the supply-cart holder. "I'm sure they have a bigger staff then."
Her voice had a soft lilting quality that made his heart beat a little faster. "I was wondering if we couldn't eat a meal together or build a campfire. We'll see if we can get the old man to join us." George would probably not be interested, but he didn't intend for her to feel unsafe or wonder about his motives. He only wanted someone to talk to. He held out his hand. "So what do you say? My name's Diego Cruz."
She spoke slowly, taking a step back. "I'm Samantha." She glanced down at his outstretched hand, but didn't take it. Feeling awkward, he let it fall to his side. "I'm really busy with work. I didn't come here to build campfires."
He couldn't understand her hostility. She didn't even know him. He knew he should probably just take the hint and walk away, but he couldn't stand the thought of spending even more time with no one to talk to.
He stared out the window at the building next to the cafeteria. It was generously called the community room. It consisted of dusty furniture, tattered board games and stacks of National Geographic. The rest of the resort, and he was using the word resort loosely, consisted of five cabins and lots of trees. Samantha might not be a laugh a minute, but she was still the most interesting thing he'd seen on the whole island.
In two days when the ferry came back this way, maybe an agent would bring word what his next move was. Maybe the Bureau would tell him he could catch the ferry back to civilization. In the meantime, this kind of isolation and inactivity ate at his gut. He'd walked the island half a dozen times, memorized every fir tree and rock and explored the broken-down lighthouse at the edge of the island.
"You want to play a board game over in the community room?"
She lifted her chin and met his gaze with a look of cool disdain. Just more proof that she came from moneyhe'd got that exact look from more rich people than he could count.
"I'm really not interested in recreating with you," she said. "I came here to do a job."
Though she attempted to keep her words flat and emotionless, he'd picked up on the heavy intention of each syllable. She turned away from him, but not fast enough for him to miss the glazing of her eyes. She acted almost afraid of him.
"Look, I'm sorry. I just" He stepped toward her.
She turned to face him. Her eyes grew wide with fear. She took a swift step back, accidentally brushing a full spray bottle off the counter. The cap must have been loose, because the cleaner spilled out across the concrete. She dived down to the floor.
"Let me help you with that." He grabbed a rag, knelt down beside her and started to sop up the liquid.
"I've got it. Thanks," she said.
"I don't mind."
His hand bumped against hers. She let out a small gasp, making eye contact for the briefest moment before jerking to her feet. She turned her back to him again. "Like I said, I don't want to visit. Please, just leave me alone."
"Suit yourself." He didn't want to upset her further, even though he saw now that the hostility was an act designed to push him away. Why?
She whirled around. Again, she gave him a look of hardened steel, narrowing her eyes. "I will." She brushed past him and raced out of the kitchen, leaving the door swinging on its hinges. Diego shrugged and decided not to chase after her.
He stood on the threshold of the kitchen. Moonlight allowed him to see her racing across the grounds to her cabin. Though he couldn't see her cabin through the trees, he heard her door slam. He stood for a long moment, shaking his head.
A mechanical and distinct noise filled the air. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The noise grew louder, and he was able to discern what it was. A motor-boat. Someone was docking on the island. This island didn't get visitors.
Had someone come for him? Fearing the worst, he sprinted out of the kitchen and ran toward the dock.
Samantha James's heart pounded wildly as she slipped into the safety of her cabin. The hammering in her chest wasn't just from the run across the resort grounds. That man, that Diego Cruz, hadn't made any attempt to harm her, but even the slight contact of his hand against hers was enough to awaken old fears.
She grabbed a pillow from the couch and tossed it across the room. She crossed her arms over her body and paced, waiting for her sense of peace to return. Nothing worked.
She slipped out of her clothes and jumped into the shower, allowing the warm water to soothe her. Since heated water was at a premium here, she kept her shower to only a few minutes. By the time she stepped out and had got into her pajamas, she'd calmed down a little. She retreated to the kitchen to make some tea. She was doing all the things that normally helped her relax, but she still felt bent out of shape.
The nerve of that man being so friendly. Hadn't she made it clear that she didn't want to make friends? She came out here to do a job and for a little extra money. Since the crippling end of her marriage to Eric, she'd spent the past year keeping her head down. People didn't usually want to make an effort with someone as prickly as her but Diego had. That kind of warmth and persistence was disarming. Her stomach twisted into a knot.
Then again, those qualities were the first things she'd been attracted to with Eric. She was shy by nature. She'd been drawn to Eric's ability to navigate social situations with such ease. Diego struck her as being outgoing, too.
She washed her teacup with brisk jerky motions. Through the window above the sink, she thought she saw movement. Her heartbeat quickened. Was Diego wandering around outside her cabin? That was kind of creepy if he was. She leaned over the sink to get a better look but there was nothing there. It had just been a trick of the evening light. Still something had disturbed the tree branches. Maybe the caretaker was out checking on things or it was a wild animal of some kind.
As she turned her attention back to the teapot, her fingers brushed over the knotted scars on her neck and her chest, reminders of why she'd been running away from herself for the past year, why she would never let a man into her life.
She had loved everything about Eric, his laughter and his smile. People gravitated toward him. He seemed to know what she wanted even before she said anything. She'd felt so safe when he held her, when she nestled her head against his neck, breathing in the musky scent of his skin.
But shortly after they were married, she saw a darker side to Eric. He'd taken out credit cards in her name and run up debt that drained her savings. She found out he'd lied about his education. His response to questioning his actions was rage. Fearing for her physical safety, she'd filed for a separation and begged Eric to get help for his destructive behavior.
He refused to admit that he had a problemand had promised her that he would never let her go. She knew it wasn't because he loved her but because, as he put it, no one crossed Eric James. So when she refused to call off the divorce proceedings, he responded by destroying her life, as completely as he could. After he threatened her physically, she'd signed the house over to him.
To the other residents in Cambridge Heights, he remained charming Eric. Slowly, his subtle lies poisoned the rest of the tight-knit community against her. So thorough was his manipulation, they'd believed Eric over her. When her father passed away, she lost her last ally. Her mother had died when she was a little girl.
The final straw had been the car accident Eric caused by grabbing the wheel and driving them off the road so he could tell everyone that she had a drinking problem. The windshield had shattered, embedding glass in her neck and chest.
After the accident, she grew tired of the sideways glances and controlled whispers as she walked around Cambridge Heights. Eric's destruction of her reputation made it impossible for her to live in the neighborhood she'd grown up in. She had no one to turn to and no resources left to fall back on. When the divorce was final, she moved away, rented an apartment and got a job as a waitress while she tried to figure out how to put her life back together.
Seattle was a big city, and she was careful not to talk about her past to anyone. She used her maiden name on job and rent applications. Still, she didn't stay at any one job or apartment for very long. If she could ever manage to save enough money, she'd move out of the city.
She touched her neck again, taking in a quick, sharp breath. She didn't like other people to see the scars. They made her feel ugly, and telling the story of how she'd got them caused her to feel shame all over again. But in a way, she was glad for the scars. They served as a reminder that nothing was as it appeared to be and everyone had secrets. Especially men. For all his charm, Diego Cruz was probably a drug dealer or married or who knew what.
What was he doing staying here in the off-season, anyway? Even that seemed weird. He was definitely hiding something. She had been told that there would only be a caretaker on the island.
She shook her head. Why was she even letting him take up space in her brain? All she had to do was avoid that man until the ferry and the rest of the work party arrived. She did like her job with Evergreen Catering and the people she worked with. It was exciting to be part of a team making a celebration come together. Whether it was a wedding or birthday, bringing joy to others kept her from giving in to self-pity.
She crossed her arms and stared out the window at the darkness. Her encounter with Diego had her all stirred up to the point where she thought she'd seen someone outside. She didn't feel safe here anymore.
The metal of the lock on the door was cold against her fingers as she clicked the dead bolt shut. She retreated back into the cabin and pulled out the hide-a-bed in the couch. The cabin consisted of two rooms, a small bathroom and a second room that served as living room, kitchen and bedroom. She turned out the lights, slipped under the covers and squeezed her eyes tightly shut to keep the tears from coming. Anguish suctioned around her throat, and she wondered if there would ever come a time when she'd find a place where she could truly feel settled again. She'd been driven from her home. She didn't belong anywhere or to anyone.
The sound of her own breathing surrounded her in the dark. She closed her eyes and waited for the heaviness of sleep to overtake her.
Instead, the muffled thud of someone breaking into her bathroom sent a shot of terror through her body.