There was more beautiful male flesh on the estate lawn than you could see in a month of Fridays in any club in Atlanta. Cherry Roman had heart palpitations just looking at their bodies glistening in the dwindling sunlight on a white sandy beach. Her best friend, Sheri, would weep when she found out what she'd passed up, Cherry thought with an uncomfortable spurt of guilty happiness, thrilled at the prospect of adventure she was facing and, at the same time, deeply regretful that Sheri would miss out on it.
Breathing in a deep, calming breath in an effort to dismiss the jitter of nerves about coming to such a place solo, Cherry dragged her gaze from the scenery on the beach and scanned the island and it's surroundings.
The horizon was beautifully striped in gaudy colors in every hue. The setting sun perched above the golden sea like a ball of fire, clouds rippling out from its center domination of the sky in bold streaks of scarlet. A breeze carrying the scent of salt and sand swept across her damp skin, offering some relief from the nearly unrelenting humid heat of a Southern summer. Though she was nearer to the equator here than in her apartment in North Georgia, the air coming off the water made the weather seem cooler than it actually was.
Her skin itched slightly from sea salt and dried perspiration, making her long for a shower. She could forget her discomfort though, gazing upon the scene laid out before her.
Feeling a little wobbly legged after having the rolling sea under her, she hefted her overnight bag on her shoulder, leaving the dock and retreating ferry behind as she strolled up the pathway to the hotel that looked more like an enormous private beach house than a commercial property. There wouldn't be another ferry until Monday--no going back now, not that she particularly wanted to. She thought perhaps Sheri was right in passing off her own invitation to Cherry--a weekend at this retreat would certainly put the hideous outcome of her life into perspective. Or, at the very least, there was plenty of eye candy to distract herself from her problems. She didn't have to worry about work. She'd been laid off from her job indefinitely due to severe cut backs, but at least she had enough severance for this little vacation.
Cherry tried not to think about how dumb it was to spend any of it when her future was so uncertain. She wasn't prone to behaving so irresponsibly, which was why she couldn't even remember the last time she'd had an actual vacation. If she was working, she couldn't afford to take the time off for one and if she wasn't, she couldn't afford to spend the money.
That certainly hadn't changed, but she'd felt a near desperation to escape her worries, if just for a little while.
Resolutely, she shrugged the disturbing thoughts off, determined to enjoy herself while she could.
As Sherri had pointed out, there was always going to be something to worry about.
She lost sight of the glittering beach and half naked men as she progressed up the hill to the lodge. The trees stooped and curled over the path like tired, noble sentinels, twisted from the heavy, almost constant caress of ocean air. Traversing the lane, she could see a pine forest lay beyond the hill and could make out the edges of a concrete patio and pool spread at the back clearing around the building. There, a buffet of undeniably male forms lounged, as well, soaking in the dying rays of sunlight. She frowned and quickened her step, cresting the rise to the hotel's entrance, eager to check in and get started relaxing.
A large screened in porch, decked with padded, wrought iron chairs faced the view of the ocean. Ferns ascending the stairs in urns rustled in the shifting breeze, touching her leg as she passed too close. A porch swing hanging at one end creaked and slowly moved on its chains, as if recently vacated, but she saw no one enjoying the picture perfect view from the top.
Strangely enough, she hadn't noticed any women on the island, she realized abruptly. Then again, she hadn't come across any of the guests, just from afar. Of course, she and Sheri had assumed this invitation was to one of those parties where they tried to sell you expensive condos, so it could be the women were off touring while the men lazed about. Who knew?
Wide, glass paneled doors marked the entrance, and Cherry pulled them open and strode into the lobby. The large open area was filled with coral and sea foam brocaded chairs and couches arranged in small groups for private conversations. Muted bulbs lit the space, giving it a soft, welcoming glow. Along one wall stood a marble-top counter and luggage station, but she saw no concierge or bell hops.
Puzzled by the absence of hotel staff, Cherry headed for it anyway. She hadn't taken but a few steps toward the empty counter when a soft, accusing voice spoke behind her, "What are you doin'? You don' belong here."
The deep, accented baritone slid a frisson of alarm up her spine, unnerving her. Cherry turned slowly around, trying to appear as if she did belong. Maybe it was just supposed to be men here and they'd thought Sheri a man somehow?
Her heart seized as her gaze landed on the owner's voice. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, leaning against the baluster. She'd read clichés in books her entire life about meeting the man of your dreams, the epitome of how a man should look and move--and they were so true, down to the smallest reaction. She could barely breathe, barely comprehend anything around her--her entire focus was directed on the stranger. Even his accusation was lost as her mind stumbled around, taking in his every feature.
He looked like he'd just come from the beach, and she thought she could even detect the scent of salt water in the air, but surely it was her imagination. His skin was a dark olive, richly tanned and captivating against the open-necked white shirt he wore. He looked as though he'd just shrugged it on, for only half the buttons had been fastened, and even at the distance, she caught a glimpse of toned chest. His black hair was wet, finger combed back off his forehead, but a few random locks had escaped and fell across his brow in rakish disarray.
He sent her a narrow-eyed glare across the room. When she didn't answer--or move to leave--he strode across the floor and stopped directly in front of her, invading her space until she was forced a step back just to look up at him. Up close, he was fiercer than she'd imagined possible, potent, like the bars of a cage had just been raised.
"Excuse me?" she managed in spite of her suddenly dry mouth. Oh god. Green, intense eyes looked down at her beneath straight, angry brows. His was the kind of look that sent women in one of two directions--either straight to his bed or home to her own to huddle beneath the covers. She was torn. On the one hand, her galloping heart was commanding her feet to do the same and flee before she was devoured. On the other, the moment the word 'devoured' entered her mind, her pussy went into melt down and her knees turned to jelly.
She wasn't sure why her reaction was so extreme, but she sensed that this man was dangerous in ways she couldn't even begin to imagine. Despite the trappings of civilization he seemed ... savage, his manner inherently untamed.
He crossed his arms over his chest, making his shirt gape. The movement drew her gaze like the needle on a compass. Her belly clenched as she stared at his pecs, sculpted to perfection, covered with a sprinkling of hair. "Why are you here?"
"I received an invitation...."
"No, you didn't," he said impatiently, cutting her off.
"I did. How would you know that I didn't? I have it right here," she said, rooting through her purse.
"'Cause I'm the host, Nigel Francoeur."
Cherry stopped her search and looked up at him, feeling her face redden under his scrutiny. She would've rather had her teeth pulled than to have to admit that she'd crashed such an exclusive party, but there was no hope for it. That being the case, she summoned the 'helpless female'. "I'm sorry. I admit, I wasn't originally invited, my friend was." She held out her hand, which he ignored. "I'm Cherry--Cherry Roman. Anyway," she added, dropping her hand once more, "she couldn't come, so she passed it on to me. There's no harm in that, is there? And, I'm here now."
He was silent a long moment. A muscle in his jaw ticked. "You have to leave. Now."
Dismay filled her when she saw he didn't seem even slightly moved by her attempt to placate him. The man didn't have one sympathetic bone in his body. She'd spent much of her severance traveling here. Now she'd have to go back without even some pleasant memories to sustain her, she thought glumly.
All of a sudden, everything that had happened beset her like a wall of dominos she'd carefully stacked to the ceiling. She'd done her best to look on the bright side, keep her chin up, stave off the temptation to just fall on the floor and kick her heels and wallow in her misery. This trip had been her panacea, however. It was going to cure her ills. She was going to have a good time and relax and she'd figure out what to do when she'd had just a little breather from the battle she'd just lost.
Except now she wasn't going to get it. Now, she was going to have to face the fact that she'd blown money she couldn't afford to on a vacation she wasn't going to get. It took a supreme effort of will to ignore the sting of tears in her eyes and nose. "I can't," she said, her chin wobbling with the sudden urge to burst into tears. She swallowed, forcing herself to calm down. "The last ferry is gone. I ... I barely made it here as it is."
He closed his eyes as if searching for patience. When he opened his eyes again, he stared past her at the setting sun. His face tightened. He gave her a hard look. "It's just as well. Come, I'll show you to your room."
"Really?" She felt instantly better, even though he didn't look like he was very happy about the fact that she couldn't leave.
He glanced toward the glass doors again. "It's gettin dark. It's too late. You can't leave tonight anyway."
He had his hand on the back of her waist, riding her hip, all the way up the stairs and down the hallway to the room he took her to. If it had been a cattle prod, it couldn't have been any more galvanizing. It seemed to burn a hole right through her clothes, right through her flesh and forked outward to spear her erogenous zones electrifyingly. She didn't know if it was that that made it so difficult to catch her breath, or the fact that she traversed the entire distance trying to outrun that hand.
The room was beautiful, far more elegant than anything she'd ever experienced in her life--it looked like the sort of room only the filthy rich could afford, from the elegant furniture, to the carpet that was so thick she felt like she was walking through water, to the king sized bed filled with pillows.
As chaotic as her emotions were after what she'd already experienced, she was still awed enough that it penetrated her emotional roller coaster ride, striking her deaf, dumb and blind.
"You will stay here. Is that understood?"
Cher turned around and gaped at him. "This is my room?"
He frowned. After a moment's hesitation, he left the door and strode toward her. Cher blinked, too surprised even to think about retreating from the purposeful set of his face. He caught her jaw, forcing her to look at him--though why, she wasn't certain. She'd looked up instinctively the moment he came to tower over her so threateningly.
"I must have your word that you'll make no attempt to leave this room this night, chère." dear
Cher blinked at him, wondering idly whether he meant chère--as in, he was Creole, or Cajun, which would probably explain his devastating dark good looks--or if he'd somehow figured out she was called Cher--maybe she'd mentioned that?
She must have nodded. He seemed satisfied. After a moment, he released her and strode from the room. She was still staring at the vibrating door when she heard the distinctive click of a key turning in a lock.
That tiny little sound acted on Cher's tumultuous emotions like a healthy dose of Metamucil on a clogged pipe line. She went stone cold sober on the instant.
She stared at the door disbelievingly. He'd locked her in! That dirty, low down, rotten, son-of-a-bitch had locked her in! He'd let her think she could stay after all and enjoy her vacation and then he'd escorted her to a prison cell!
She didn't give a fuck how elegant the prison cell was!
Stalking toward the door, she grabbed the knob and twisted it a couple of times. It was locked.
She started beating on the door. "Let me out, you son-of-a-bitch!"
She pressed her ear to the door, but she couldn't hear anything.
Small wonder considering the carpet in this place!
"Hey! You can't do this! I had a perfect right to use that damn invitation!"
Sighing gustily, she gave up beating on the door. It hurt her hands, and it was obvious he had no intention of coming back.
"Some fucking vacation," she muttered, turning to survey the room. She was going to be stuck here all weekend--because the damn ferry wasn't coming back before Monday!
Furious, she searched the room for a phone. Not surprisingly, she didn't find one. Finally, she dropped her backpack on the bed, dragging everything out of it and eventually unearthed her cell phone. "Ha!" she said, dialing 911.
She got a recording saying her service had been disconnected.
"Shit!" She strangled the phone and then pitched it across the room. It hit the wall with a satisfying thunk, but it didn't damage the phone. Walking over to it, she smashed the thing with her heel until it was no more than fragments and then left it and went to sit on the bed to sulk.
Her stomach growled.
She was going to give that gorgeous asshole hunk a piece of her mind when he came to bring her supper.
If he came to bring her supper.
She realized after a little while that she was tired of sulking, and she was bored. Sighing, she decided to check out the bath. That'd be entertaining for at least ten or fifteen minutes.
There was a TV and a DVD player. She doubted, considering where they were, that the TV would pick up anything. Like she couldn't watch frigging DVDs at home!
The bath was really luxurious. Despite her determination to feel abused, she felt her mood lighten a little when she saw it had a whirlpool. Adjusting the water, she left the tub filling and went back into the bedroom to rifle through the clothing she'd brought. She was irritated all over again when she saw the sexy undergarments she'd brought--just in case she ran into anyone interesting.
As if she was going to run into anyone locked in her room!
A twenty minute session in the whirlpool did wonders for her mood. By the time she finally crawled out, her muscles were like putty--not a tense one in her entire body. When she'd dried off, she pulled the under things on.
The under things consisted of a barely there thong and a nearly transparent bra.
She liked feeling 'bad'.
Unfortunately, at the moment she felt more drained than like a femme fatale. Trudging back into the bedroom, she sprawled out on the bed and winked out like an extinguished light bulb.
She wasn't certain what woke her. One moment she was dead to the world, the next she was conscious. Yawning, she rolled over and stretched, smiling faintly at the decadent feel of the thick, silk coverlet beneath her. Finally, reluctantly, she opened her eyes.
Nigel Francoeur was standing over her, a dainty tray with a dainty sandwich, obviously forgotten, in his hand.
The expression on his face sent a shock wave of heat through her. Her mouth went dry. Her nipples got hard.
His gaze moved to them as if he could see the transformation.
It was at that precise moment that it finally dawned on Cher that he could see the transformation. She was wearing her all-but-naked underwear and nothing else.
She jackknifed upright, glancing around for her clothes.
As if her sudden movement had finally broken the spell that had bound him, he set the tray down with a thud on the bedside table, turned on his heel and strode toward the door.
Cher stared after him with her jaw at half cock.
"Wait!" she managed to get out as he jerked the door open and started through.
He paused, looked back at her, his gaze brooding and dangerous.
Cher gulped. "Why did you lock me in?"
Something flickered in his eyes. A predatory smile curled his lips. "To keep the big bad wolf away, chère."