Her lies thrust them together. His suspicions keep them apart.
For Clare Fuller, the stakes are rising. Her sister has been framed for murder and a mysterious amulet is the only ransom for her acquittal. Clare must retrieve it at any cost, even if it means stealing the charm from a sexy, wounded war hero.
Lieutenant Mark Griggs doesn't trust the alluring schoolteacher who's stolen his lucky pendant. All he knows is that the only woman who's ever broken down his defenses needs his help. Now, to find the truth and elude a killer, Mark and Clare will have to work togetherand risk being burned by the growing heat consuming them both.
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Clare didn't want the man seated three stools down from her to know she was aware of him. At least not with any curiosity that might arouse his suspicion, which was why she was careful to avoid looking directly at him.
In any case, it wasn't necessary for her to risk even a casual, sidelong glance. His reflection in the long mirror on the wall behind the bar was all she needed to tell her he was interested. Definitely interested, if his dark-eyed, smoldering gaze that kept slewing her way was any indication.
And why not when she had taken every measure to look as alluring as possible? A black, form-fitting cocktail dress with a low neckline meant to make a woman's breasts noticeably enticing. Her sleek, honey-blond hair swinging to her shoulders. A pair of gold hoop earrings and the kind of makeup that emphasized her eyes and her mouth.
The total effect said she was available.
Well, this was what you intended, isn't it? No one said you had to like it.
And Clare didn't like it. Her appearance in that mirror was as alien to her as the situation itself. Not to mention the guilt that had been gnawing at her long before her arrival tonight at the resort hotel.
But necessary, she kept reminding herself. The only way she could free Terry. An outcome, if it worked, that was imperative.
Trouble was, it had yet to work. She had his attention all right, but if he was going to make a move on her he was taking his sweet time.
"Don't worry about it," Clare had been instructed. "This guy's been deployed to Afghanistan for over a year. With your assets, he's gotta be ripe for a cozy get-together."
It seemed, however, that if anything was going to happen, it was up to her to initiate it.
Maybe because he was the kind of guy who never made any move until the woman signaled her willingness.
Inhaling a slow, deep breath meant to steady her nerves, hoping she wasn't being too obvious about any of it, she consulted her watch before turning her head to scan the lounge with its nautical wall murals and soft, piped in music.
"There doesn't seem to be a clock in here," she murmured in a volume just audible enough for her target to hear her.
The absence of a clock was something Clare already knew. She had made it a point to check for one when she entered the cocktail lounge. "Could be that's deliberate," her neighbor drawled in a husky voice that contained a note of humor. "Could be they don't want their patrons looking at a clock and deciding they don't need another drink."
"Yes, maybe," Clare agreed. "The thing is, I don't trust my watch. It's been running slow. And I noticed earlier when I checked my phone that the battery died. I wonder if you "
"My pleasure." He looked at his own watch. "Going on nine-thirty."
She made a little noise of exasperation meant to convey her displeasure at the lateness of the hour.
"Waiting for someone, huh?"
"Damn rude of him to keep you hanging around like this. Assuming it is a him. No, don't tell me." He leaned toward her with a crooked grin. "I'd much rather you consider the offer of my company and another drink while you're waiting."
Clare hesitated, pretending a brief uncertainty before answering his invitation. "Sure, why not."
His eagerness to join her was so swift she barely had time to register his presence on the stool next to her. He'd brought his glass with him. From the level of the bourbon bottle the bartender had earlier left on the bar beside him, this wasn't the first drink he'd been working on.
"You don't waste any time, do you?" she observed.
"Can't afford to. You might get away."
Except for themselves and the bartender currently absorbed in his newspaper at the far end of the bar, they had the lounge to themselves. Evidence that the Pelican Hotel had few guests. The parking lot outside with its scattering of cars had already indicated as much to her.
As if afraid he might lose her yet, Clare's companion immediately summoned the balding, solemn-faced bartender who, when he arrived, whisked away the empty glass of white wine she had been nursing, replaced it with a fresh one, topped the drink of the man beside her and retreated to his newspaper, leaving them alone again.
"So, how about some introductions? Name's Mark Griggs. And you?"
That seemed to amuse him. A low chuckle rumbled up from somewhere deep inside him. "Okay, Nola, guess that'll have to do."
The truth was Clare hadn't been able to think of a last name which, along with Nola, would suggest well, frankly, a woman of sexual experience. In the end, she'd decided that Nola by itself might sound intriguing to a man looking for a good time.
That was apparent in the way he was boldly admiring her legs. Clare realized they were one of her better features, long and shapely. She'd made certain to display them to her best advantage with a pair of spiked, strappy sandals and the skirt of her dress short enough to reveal a few tempting inches of her bare thighs.
"You live here on the island, Nola?"
She shook her head and smiled at him, hoping the smile wasn't too blatant an invitation for something beyond innocuous conversation. "Just a visit. How about you?"
"Came for the fishing. They tell me it's good again in the Gulf now that the oil spill is history."
Clare had already been informed this was why he was here, just as she knew he, also, had omitted a portion of his identity. He wasn't just plain Mark Griggs. He was Lieutenant Mark Griggs, U.S. Army Ranger.
Maybe, though, on leave like this and out of uniform, he preferred to be regarded as an ordinary civilian. A uniform, dress or combat, would certainly suit him, she decided, but that robust body was just as impressive in what he currently wore. Faded jeans that hugged a pair of muscular legs and a green polo shirt that did nothing to disguise a powerful chest. The army apparently made certain its servicemen remained in top condition, at least his branch of it.
Careful, Clare. You're not here to admire Lieutenant Mark Griggs. You have another objective, and you need to remember that.
She couldn't see that actual objective. But the thin, leather cord around his neck, from which it must be suspended, was proof enough to her that it was tucked out of sight inside the polo shirt.
"He's never without it," she'd been told. "Always wears it."
Which meant, if she was going to get it, she couldn't be caught staring at the open neck of his shirt. She had to focus on her performance.
Clare was having trouble with that. Flirting with him, while exchanging meaningless dialogue between sipping their drinks, didn't come naturally to her. She felt like a fool cocking her head to one side, toying with the ends of her hair, running the tip of her tongue over her lips as if she meant something more than licking off drops of wine.
Her actions were those of an amateur, not a practiced seductress. But if he saw through them, and he must, he didn't seem to mind. He sat there turned toward her, one elbow propped on the edge of the bar, and looking as if he couldn't wait to get her into bed.
Although he refrained from expressing his desire for her, his intention was clearly there in his face. She could see it in the way his eyes glinted as his gaze lingered on her. Could read it in the little smile that hovered around his wide mouth.
Funny how that rugged face had seemed almost homely to her in the photograph that had enabled her to identify him tonight. The slightly crooked nose and wry mouth in the photo gave an impression very different from the man who sat so close to her in this moment that his knee, either by accident or design, brushed her own knee.
Up close and personal like this, Mark Griggs might not qualify as handsome, but he was decidedly attractive. Maybe because in the flesh there was an animation in that face, a total masculinity that no photograph could ever capture.
And you have no business being occupied by anything other than what you were sent here to get.
Reminded of that mission, Clare stirred on her stool with a restless "I've waited around long enough. It's obvious he's not going to show."
"The guy's an idiot for standing you up."
She shrugged, as if she'd already dismissed her fictional date from her mind. "Doesn't matter. I think I'll call it a night and head on up to my room."
It was up to the lieutenant now. To her relief, he didn't disappoint her.
"Not a bad idea. I should get some shut-eye if I'm going to be aboard that charter boat in the morning. Not," he added meaningfully, "that the prospect of fishing sounds very appealing right now."
She welcomed his observation with a throaty laugh that she hoped translated as her permission for him to consider another entertainment.
Her message must have been clear. He answered it with a confident, "Let's share an elevator."
Producing his wallet, he slapped several bills on the counter to cover their drinks and a tip. Clare picked up her purse and slid off the stool.
It was only when he fell into step beside her as they started for the lobby that she noticed what she hadn't had the opportunity to observe before this. Nor had she been informed of it back in New Orleans. She could only assume the man who had sent her here hadn't known it himself.
Lieutenant Mark Griggs was limping. Something had happened to his right leg. It wasn't much of a limp, but it was just evident enough for her to be startled by her discovery.
He was aware of her reaction, explaining his condition with an easy, "Souvenir from Afghanistan."
"You were wounded?"
"Yeah, something like that," he admitted, as if it was nothing to make a fuss over. "Took a couple of bullets in the leg while shielding this little kid in a Taliban attack on his village. Resulted in a medical leave."
Oh, great! Bad enough that the ribbons on his uniform in the photograph testified he was a much decorated army ranger. Now she had to go and learn he was a damn war hero. And she was about to commit the unforgivable and rob him.
The guilt clawed at her again, this time triggering the image of another soldier. But that soldier was long gone, no longer any part of her life. She needed to erase him from her mind if she was to get this job done.
Terry. You've got to think only about Terry. Nothing else matters.
They had reached the lobby. Not counting themselves and the young night clerk looking bored behind the reception desk, the place was as deserted as the cocktail lounge.
He had misread her concern. That was why, with another of those cocky grins of his, he assured her, "Hey, don't worry about it. The leg may not be fully recovered yet, but everything else on this body works just fine."
There was no mistaking the significance of that. Lieutenant Mark Griggs was certain that something was meant to happen between them tonight. And why not, when she had given him every indication she was more than willing?
Had to be why, Clare thought, that as they waited for the elevator to descend, he stood so close to her that she could feel the heat of his hard body, smell the clean scent of his soap. The effect of his nearness had her trembling.
The elevator arrived, discharging a woman in pajamas and robe with a toy poodle on a leash. From the way the dog pulled her toward the front entrance, it was obvious it had a date outside with the nearest tree.
Mark stabbed the button for the third floor when they entered the elevator, then raised an inquiring eyebrow in Clare's direction.
"Five for me," she told him.
Somewhere between the closing of the elevator door and the opening of it again on the third floor, which couldn't have been more than a matter of seconds, the hotel caught fire in a sizzling, all consuming blaze.
At least that's what it felt like to Clare who, without knowing just when or how, found herself pinned against a wall of the elevator, Mark's arms around her, his mouth covering hers.
At twenty-seven years old, she was no stranger to kisses. But nothing in her experience, not even Alan, had prepared her for this man's kiss. It was deep, urgent and beyond mere passion. It was that fire she'd imagined, trapping her in its flames, something that lasted too briefly and at the same time too long.
Whatever it was, it left her light-headed, her knees like water, when he released her and looked around, surprised to find the door slid back on the third floor.
"What do you know," he said lightly. "We're here."
She managed a dry "I would say about five minutes ago."
There was no justice. Not with him looking completely at ease while her own emotions were in turmoil.
You didn't expect this, did you, Clare? Not to be susceptible to him like this.
She had to get control of herself, in control of him. It would be fatal otherwise.
"I guess," he said, "you could travel on up to your own floor."
"Yes, I could do that."
"Or since my own room is much closer."
"Hey, I wouldn't suggest something like showing your appreciation for a guy who's served in a war zone on your behalf. I mean, that would be downright crummy."
She wondered how many other times he had used that innocent little stratagem to get a woman into his bed. She ought to thank him for it. It had the effect of snapping her out of the daze that had resulted from his kiss. She remembered now what she had to do and how to do it.
"All right, soldier, suppose you show me the way to your room."
Once the door was shut behind them, Mark's impatience left Clare time to briefly process only two things. She could hear the muted sound of the surf breaking on the shore somewhere beneath his windows. That was unimportant. The other mattered.
She had managed back in New Orleans to pick up a brochure advertising the merits of the Pelican Hotel. Among its glossy photos was one that depicted a typical room in the hotel featuring an elaborate brass headboard. She was relieved now to see that Mark's king-size bed was no exception. It boasted the brass headboard so critical to her plan.
And that was all the opportunity she had before his arms folded around her again, drawing her up snugly against his tall, solid body. His mouth followed, angling across hers in a kiss so searing she could no longer hear the surf, only the thundering of her rapidly beating heart.
The next few minutes were a blur. She had just a vague memory of Mark dragging his shirt over his head, kicking off his shoes, peeling away his socks, shucking his jeans down to his briefs, then casting them all aside in a feverish haste.
Clare had no memory of removing her own high-heeled shoes and the dress, but she must have shed them since she found herself standing there in nothing more than her lacy black bra and matching bikini panties. It was then, vulnerable like this, that the guilt and the fear assaulted her again. The jagged, cruel scars on his right leg, where the bullets had torn into his flesh, didn't help her state of nerves. Nor did the bulge in his briefs, a clear evidence of his arousal.
It was only when she made herself remember again how much Terry needed her to succeed that she was able to recover her courage and determination.
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