Diego Acosta's polo-playing days are over. Living in self-imposed exile on his idyllic island, he finds his nights are now filled with tormenting memories rather than the beautiful women who once graced his king-size bed.
When Maxie Parrish crashes into his solitude, radiating exuberance and a love of life, she burns so brightly he can't take his eyes off her! He'll seduce her and conquer her with the same single-minded determination that saw him rise to the top of the world polo circuit.
This time he wants to walk away unharmed, because the scars that can't be seen take longer to heal .
About the Author
Susan Stephens is passionate about writing books set in fabulous locations where an outstanding man comes to grips with a cool, feisty woman. Susan’s hobbies include travel, reading, theatre, long walks, playing the piano, and she loves hearing from readers at her website. www.susanstephens.com
Read an Excerpt
She had to close her mind to the man on the shore. Getting the old boat safely into its berth was more important. But he was like an elemental force, his gaze fixed and unswerving, with the most magnificent physique Maxie had ever seen. Tall, ripped and tanned, with wild black hair and dangerous eyes. A gold earring glinted in what light there was. Low-slung jeans over a flat, muscular belly were enough to throw anyone off course
So think of the snarling face that would stop a rhino in its track and your concentration will come flooding back.
She had sailed the boat this far and she wasn't turning back now.
Bringing the trawler through mountainous waves single-handed had been nothing short of a miracle. They had barely made it out of the harbour when the skipper had declared himself out of action after consuming the greater part of a bottle of Scotland's finest. Maxie would be the first to admit her qualifications for sailing a boat this size were slim. She had once helped to crew a sixty-eight footer, but this old rust-bucket was proving rather more cantankerous. And she was more than a bit rusty, Maxie accepted as the deck lurched beneath her feet.
Glancing at the man on the dock, she guessed he was waiting for her to fail. His massive forearms were crossed over his formidable chest, and his black eyes blazed with mockery and scorn.
'Welcome to Isla del Fuego,' Maxie muttered beneath her breath. But, however unfriendly the welcoming committee, she was going to berth this bucketing monster if it killed her!
Which it probably would, Maxie registered with panic as the ancient fishing craft crashed into the dock.
With relief she saw the elderly skipper had made it out of his bunk in time to take the wheel. Boiling black storm clouds suggested the weather wasn't about to change any time soon, which for a wedding planner on a scouting trip for an excited bride was somewhere south of perfect. And if the man onshore worked for the Acostas, who owned the island, he would need some serious retraining in the art of welcoming guests before the wedding, Maxie concluded, trying not to look at his glowering face.
She could always tell Holly the island was unsuitable
The idea flitted across her mind, but it wasn't an option. She'd seen Scottish castles in worse settings transformed into fairytale palaces on a warm spring day, and damp French chateaux revealed in all their ancient glory when the sun shone. Plus, she trusted Holly. The bride was a smart girl, and June was a famously fabulous month in which to get married. Bottom line? If Holly wanted to get married on Isla del Fuego then it was up to Maxie to make it happen and the man on shore would just have to suck it up.
Dios! What had the storm washed in? Some pin-thin, drooping violet with
With a very accurate and surprisingly powerful throw, Diego conceded as he caught the rope the girl tossed him. But she had no business sailing Fernando's fishing boatlet alone slamming into the dock, thanks to her poor reading of the weather. She was lucky to be alive after sailing to the island in a storm.
'Are you ready?' she called, preparing to toss a second rope.
With his stiff leg he could only move at half her speed. The second she turned her back he limped as fast as he could to get into position before she could see him lurching like a drunk.
'Here it comes,' she warned him, in a voice that was both light and musical, yet which somehow crested the howl of the wind.
Catching the rope, he secured it. It appeared fate had a sense of humour, sending an attractive girl to the island when he could least handle the action. Resentment swept over him as he watched her darting nimbly about the deck. When his brother's fiancée had called to warn him the wedding planner was on her way he had accepted his self-imposed exile was over, but to have some lithe young girl call time was insulting. He had come down to the dock to meet the principal of the events companysomeone older and sophisticated, with a keen sense of stylenot some kid in jeans and a hooded top with long dark hair hanging in sodden straggles down her back. Was his brother's wedding of so little importance they'd sent some underling?
'Well caught!' she yelled, having fired another rope at him.
Well caught? There had been a time when nothing physical had been beyond him, but then his horse had rolled on him during a polo match, shattering the bones in his leg. It had been pinned in half a dozen places. He had been back on a horse and training rigorously, but it was more than a year since the accident and he had yet to regain the subtleties of sensation required for the top class game, leaving his future in polo uncertain.
'No harm done,' the girl yelled as she leaned over the rail to check the hull for damage.
'It could have been a costly mistake,' he roared back. 'You've been lucky this time.'
'Lucky?' She laughed.
He felt a surge of interest, but in his current state that was soon snuffed out. She could take a look around the island and report back to Holly, but the moment the wind dropped she was history.
No one had said planning a wedding on a remote island would be easy, Maxie reasoned, dashing spray out of her eyes. And time was of the essence, the bride had insisted. No wonder, Maxie had thought when she'd seen a photo of the groom. She had always known organising a high-profile event on a tiny island would be fraught with difficulties, but she hadn't bargained on being met by a man who made her heart beat nineteen to the dozen. She had always loved a challenge, but as a scholarship girl at an upscale school, with a home life that could best be described as chaotic, she'd made a choice early in life to remain safe on the outside looking in while other people enjoyed the arrangements she made for them.
Safe? Pulling back from the rail, she took a few steadying breaths before preparing to disembark. Nothing was safe hereespecially the hard-eyed man on shore.
'Watch your step,' he barked as she started her perilous crossing of the narrow plank.
'I will,' she called back tensely, wondering why he didn't come to help her if he was so concerned.
Oh, stop fussing. She could manage. She was fine. This commission was every wedding planner's dream, and she had no intention of starting out by falling in the sea. A big society wedding between Ruiz Acosta, a fabulously wealthy Argentinian polo player, and Holly Valiant, a celebrity agony aunt who had made her name by writing a column based on living with Ruiz, would have readers hanging on Holly's every word. Having tamed the playboy, Holly was about to marry himand the world was waiting with bated breath to see the wedding. A wedding Maxie was going to arrange. It was a commission that would take her business to the next level, and as her income supported everything she cared about this trip was going to be a success.
The man onshore had turned his attention to the skipper. Maxie had the basics of Spanish, but she fell short where colloquialisms were concerned. 'Is he offering to help us?' she called out.
'Something like that,' the elderly skipper admitted sheepishly.
I bet, she thought, hoping Senor Acosta would have more charm. She stared at him again and quickly looked away. There was something in the man's eyes that said he had the sort of experience no woman with any sense would choose to get close to. And Maxie had plenty of sense. Though she was lousy at relationships, Maxie conceded with a shrug. Her ideal date was a civilised chat in a civilised restaurant with a civilised mannot a walk on the wild side with a barbarian with an earring and tattoos. She couldn't deny the man's edgy good looks had stirred something inside her, but he was food for her fantasies and nothing more.
'Are you from the bridal agency?' he demanded in a deep, husky voice.
'That's right,' she confirmed, halfway across the sloping plank. 'Could you give me a hand?' She had stopped in the middle of the plank, uncomfortably aware of the turbulent water churning greedily beneath her feet. If he'd grab her suitcase she could hold the guide ropes with both hands.
'Try walking tall,' he suggested. 'Look where you're going instead of looking down '
Thanks very much. She'd take her chances with the fishes. But when he turned his irritation on the skipper she'd had enough. 'If you have anything to say, you can say it to me,' she insisted in Spanish. 'I chartered the boat, and I made the decision to sail to the island.'
His gaze darkened. 'You speak our language?'
'I would have recognised your tone of voice if you'd been speaking in Ket a language spoken only in Central Siberia,' she muttered to herselfbut he heard her.
'If you're so clever you should have more sense than to persuade an old man to bring you out to the island in a storm.'
Addressing his next words to Fernando, he spoke in a very different tone. 'You look chilled to the bone, Fernando. You will stay in the guesthouse until the wind drops. I'll have Maria come over with hot food and clean linen for you.'
'Si, Senor Acosta, y muchas gracias.'
Senor Acosta? Maxie groaned inwardly. 'So you're Diego Acosta?'
'Correct,' he confirmed.
The ironic twist to the firm mouth might make her senses roar but this wasn't the best of starts. Acosta might look more like a dangerous pirate than an international polo player, but his co-operation was crucial as he partowned the island. 'I'm very pleased to meet you, Senor Acosta,' she said as she stepped with relief onto the shore.
Ignoring the hand she had extended in greeting, he turned away.
Diego Acosta wasn't sophisticated and he wasn't charming. He certainly wasn't her usual type of wedding contact, who looked to Maxie for guidance. The idea of this man looking to anyone for direction was a joke.
'Give me your bags, Fernando,' he called out in Spanish, staring out to the boat over her head.
Diplomacy was an essential part of her skill set, Maxie reminded herself. She had dealt with plenty of difficult characters in the paststarting her training on her father, who had been a Class One bully when she was younger, before illness had reduced him to a shell. She had learned how to handle him and she would learn how to manage Diego Acostathough she would have to be subtle. She couldn't risk offending him. The Acosta family was so powerful they could destroy her hard-won reputation at a stroke. 'I'm Maxie Parrish,' she said, stepping in front of him so he couldn't ignore her. 'Holly's wedding planner?'
The dark gaze blackened. What the hell had she said now?
Parrish? Memories festered inside him, though common sense told him Parrish was not an unusual name.
'I spoke with Holly before I left the mainland' the girl was explaining.
'Parrish?' he interrupted, powerless to stem the tide of memories.
'Yes, Maxie Parrish,' the girl repeated. 'From a company called Dream Weddings. Holly said she'd call to warn you I was arriving today.'
'She did,' he agreed, 'but she forgot to tell me your name.'
'Is there a problem with it?' she demanded, smiling faintly.
'Not at all,' he assured her in the same detached tone. 'I suppose I was expecting someone older.'
'I wouldn't send anyone else to scout a job,' she assured him in the same courteous tone. 'I always make the first visit and the last, Senor Acosta, as well as every other visit in between.'
She said this as if it were a gauntlet she was throwing down, but pleasantly. He wasn't fooled. He could sense the steel beneath the accommodating manner, and his hackles rose even as more basic needs surged in response to this intriguing combination of feminine fragility and rock-solid resolve. Either way, with his brother on a polo tour and his bride-to-be at his side, Diego was stuck with their wedding plannerlike it or not.
Diego Acosta was staring at her and frowning as if he thought they might have met before, which was impossible. She never forgot a faceand would never forget a face like his. 'I can only apologise if this is a bad time for you'
And then she saw the cane.
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