“This is our VP, Gussie McBain.”
Pink Hair gave a sly grin and a wink. “Place rocks. We’re already in love.”
“And Arielle Chandler, the AABC treasurer.”
“Sorry for the unexpected arrival,” she said as they shook hands.
apologize,” Lacey exclaimed. “We’re delighted to show you around.”
“Absolutely,” Zoe agreed. “We didn’t think you were coming until this summer.”
Willow brushed back some hair. “We didn’t think so, either, but we’ve had a significant change in our schedule, one you might love…”
“Or hate,” Gussie offered.
“What is it?” Lacey asked after a second of dramatic silence.
“Well, as you know, part of our role as the board members for the organization is to visit destination-wedding resorts and make recommendations to our members.”
“That’s why you’re coming this summer, right?” Tessa asked, already sensing that the answer wasn’t going to be what they expected.
“Change of plans,” Gussie said, fluttering what had to be a set of false eyelashes, which somehow looked incredibly natural on her pixie-like features. “One of the contenders in the small-resort category fell through.”
“And our annual meeting is in January,” Willow added. “That’s when we present our top recommendations to two thousand wedding consultants from all around the world.”
“And…” Lacey prompted, although they all kind of knew what was coming.
“And we need a replacement. Fast.”
Another beat of silence, this one even longer than the first, making the wedding planners laugh.
“Look, we know this is short notice and that this resort is still in soft opening,” Willow said. “So we’ll cut you some slack in our review, but the annual recs are one of the most important things board members do. Is there any chance we can move our preview up from July to—”
“Yes,” Lacey said, making them laugh.
“—two weeks from now?”
“Yikes,” Zoe said.
Willow nodded with understanding. “I know that’s an impossibly tight squeeze, and if you can’t do it, we are headed over to a place in Naples—”
“We can do it,” Lacey assured her, looking at Tessa for confirmation.
“I don’t see why not,” Tessa said. Except she
see exactly why not. They had no chef.
“You have vacancies?” Willow asked.
“In two weeks we can put you in Bay Laurel,” Lacey confirmed. “It’s our most spacious villa, with room for the three of you. I’ll have Jocelyn, our spa manager, clear spots for every treatment and amenity.”
“Don’t forget your hot-air-balloon ride.” Zoe pointed to the sky. “That’s the best part of a Barefoot Bay wedding.”
Gussie grinned, her bright-red lipstick contrasting perfectly with pale skin. “A Barefoot Bride! What an awesome marketing concept. I can think of three clients right now who would jump all over the idea of getting married barefoot in the sand.”
“That’s exactly how I got married,” Lacey said with a smile.
“We’re volunteers on the board for this calendar year,” Willow told them. “But we each have our own wedding-consulting businesses. And, honestly, we’ve sent quite a few brides to the places we’ve visited this year, for wedding packages and honeymoons. But the top three contenders in each size category get the AABC seal of approval, and those resorts are booked for years.”
They knew that was no understatement. Getting picked as an AABC rec would wipe away all the damage of that nasty review and open more doors than all of Lacey’s marketing efforts combined.
“You most certainly can count on coming for the official visit in two weeks. Whatever it takes, ladies.” Lacey was practically drooling as she made the offer.
But all Tessa could think was
We have no chef
. Because she’d just grilled him right out the door.
“Let’s finish the quick tour,” Lacey said, waving the women back into the golf cart.
As they climbed back up on the electric cart, Lacey came around to whisper to Tessa, “Did you make him an offer yet?”
She didn’t have the nerve to break the news to Lacey, especially not with the AABC reps so close. “Um, not yet,” she said. “I’m going to call his references.”
“Seal the deal,” Lacey insisted as she slid behind the wheel.
As the cart rolled down the path, their happy voices trailing, Tessa stood stone still, the sun pounding down with almost as much force as Zoe’s gaze.
“What?” Tessa barked at Zoe.
“Calling his references, are you?”
“Yes, I am. And no doubt I’ll find out he’s a liar who will rob us blind and can’t cook his way out of a paper bag because he’s a serial killer.”
Zoe burst out laughing. “You better hope so, hon, because otherwise your determination to ferret out everyone’s truth cost us a perfectly good chef when we couldn’t possibly need one more.”
“Well, if not, then…I’ll get him to come back.” Even though she had absolutely no idea how she’d do that. “I’m sure his number is on the resume in the kitchen.”
“Hope he knows how to fix a crow pot pie,” Zoe said, fluffing her hair with a laugh. “’Cause you are going to be eating some when you make that call.”
“I hope I have the chance,” Tessa admitted glumly. “It seems all I can do with that man is make him run away.”
Ian floored the bike over the causeway, not bothering with his helmet but letting the warm wind slap his face and whip his hair. He had to work, had to show some stability, had to do something with his miserable life besides
It was all so completely counter to the man he used to be—the man he still was under this pumped-up, inked-out, anger-fueled body. Ian Browning didn’t run from anyone, he never hid from a problem, he’d despised lying, and “wait” wasn’t in his overachiever’s dictionary. Now those words defined his entire world. He knew that like he knew his name.
The thought almost pulled a sharp laugh from his belly because half the time he couldn’t remember his damn name. He’d wake up, sweating, hurting, sick throughout his body, with memories of Kate and the kids and the smell in the air when he’d gotten out of the tube that afternoon.
He could still see Luther Vane’s eyes when they’d bumped into each other on the street, Ian still clueless about what the man had done. And then he remembered walking into the flat, dropping his suit jacket and briefcase, calling his wife’s name, listening for the still unfamiliar sound of an infant’s cry, and…
The thought made him swerve into the next lane, earning a loud horn blast from a pissed-off truck driver. He ignored the urge to lift his middle finger and instead glanced to his right, the navy water of some Florida river about fifty feet below, nothing but a slim guardrail between him and blissful relief. His arms tingled on the handlebars, his right arm aching with the very idea of whipping that wheel to the side to sail right over that railing, down, down, down to end it all.
He opened his mouth and let out a low, long howl, catching air and dirt in his teeth, trying to release some of the agony in his chest.
Why did this hurt so much today?
Because of that woman. That sweet, warm, pretty, innocent, anxious, tentative, sexy woman who pressed every button he had and held them down until he wanted to scream.
She didn’t look a thing like his honey-haired Kate, didn’t have any similar characteristics—on the surface—that should ignite this old pain. But there was
Something that made him
to be honest. And that could be the last moment of security he ever knew. What was
with him? Fuck that job and forget that woman. Both of them were way too dangerous for him.
He flew down the other side of the arched bridge, heading into the congested traffic of a much more populated beach town than the one he’d just left. Maybe he should have put his helmet on. Especially in a place where there could be British tourists. Sure, he looked different from when he was Ian Browning, successful investment banker at Barclays, happy, decent, and normal. He was no longer the clean-cut, lanky businessman in suits and ties, but had his canvas of tattoos and shoulder-length hair changed him enough?
What if someone with a keen eye spotted him, and remembered the press coverage of the young woman stabbed alongside her brother with the babies left in their cribs until their daddy came home? The story had been well covered by the press, and he’d been front-page news during the trial.
Then the threats got worse and the N1L gang members closed in on him, killers with no regard for their own lives or anyone else’s, not when they were hell-bent on vengeance. Ian Browning had to disappear, but not with his babies. They couldn’t be together while the gang was still on the streets. A man with twin babies was too easy to find, so the kids had gone to Canada and he’d gone—to hell.
If he ever wanted to see his children again, if there was any hope of a life even remotely resembling normal, Ian had to do a few very specific things: He had to lie and he had to hide and he had to wait for British law enforcement to do their job. But he also had to work.
A childhood in Surrey along with schooling at the Royal Guildford and Cambridge had prepared him to do little in the “real” world, but his first three years under government protection had landed him in and out of restaurants in Singapore. Mostly out, thanks to his refusal to play nice. But at least he’d learned to cook.
And what had he done now that he had the possibility of a decent job in a perfect off-the-beaten-path place? This time he hadn’t gotten into a drag-out with a douche bag. No, he got
in a woman’s eyes and wanted to tell her the
. What a fucking idiot he was.
She was only trying to find out if he was available.
Well, he wasn’t available. Not for her.
He’d work somewhere else, that’s all. The Protected Persons rules—even tighter now that he’d blown one identity in Singapore and had to be given a new one—said lie, hide, work, and stay the hell out of trouble. No fistfights, no bar brawls, no intimate conversations with pretty gardeners who wanted a normal life.
Henry Brooker’s job was to enforce those rules, and keep Ian posted on the progress toward shutting down the gang in London. Henry didn’t say he had to work in a high-end resort that needed his culinary skills. Hell, Ian could work at McDonald’s if he had to.
At the thought, he caught a glimpse of golden arches and took the next turn into the parking lot, pulling the bike over and shutting it down, but his body still vibrated. He still hummed and buzzed and—
No, that was his phone—the phone that only Henry could call, making Ian practically dive to answer. Maybe this time. Maybe this call. He tapped the screen and answered with his usual, “Yeah?” Sometimes he didn’t say anything; after all, they were the only two people who ever communicated on this line.
“You in Morocco, mate?” Henry Brooker’s thick Yorkshire accent always set Ian on edge and made him brace for the frustration of no news.
“Not even close,” Ian said. “Why?”
“Someone called the line we have set up for your messages. She said she was from Casablanca.”
“Different Casa Blanca, and I’m not going to work there.”
“So you have another job, then?”
“Not yet.” He eyed the line of cars moving slowly into the drive-through. “But I’m about to.”
You want fries with that?
“She called all the references we arranged.”
After his rude exit, the fact that Tessa had gone ahead and called the professional liars who gave him glowing recommendations sent a thud of shame through him. “I’ll find something else,” he said. “That’s not the job for me.”
“Don’t be picky, mate. You’d better find a job, and bloody fast.” Something in Henry’s voice made Ian straighten up and take notice. Something he’d rarely heard from his liaison. Optimism.
“I’m working on it,” he said.
Henry cleared his throat. “Get a good job and, for fuck’s sake, don’t punch out a customer who doesn’t like your coconut balls.”
He looked skyward. “Crab balls, and he was a dickhead looking for trouble.”
“You attract dickheads like that and it isn’t the kind of track record government agencies like to see when they release children back into the care of an itinerant short-order cook.”
He eyed the golden arches again. “I’m
an itinerant short-order cook.” Yet.
to have a solid job,” Henry said, the emphasis strong.
A slow cascade of something like adrenaline and terror and all kinds of
rolled through Ian’s whole body, head to toe, leaving him so weak he actually closed his free hand over the rubberized handlebar of his bike for stability.
After a long beat, Henry said, “We’re getting close.”
Frustration zinged him at the word. How close? Close to what? He bit back the fury, accepting that he had no control over the situation, no way to clear out the N1L gang members who wanted him dead, no way to live safely with his children. And no way to make those who did have the power move fast enough so some arbitrary, inane rule that said he couldn’t have the children back after they turned four closed in and ended all hope.
“Close to what?” he asked Henry as calmly as he could.
“Listen, I know how you feel.”
“Like hell you do,” Ian growled. “I’d kill someone to get them back.”
“Well, don’t,” Henry deadpanned. “That’ll just make this more impossible. Just trust me—”
“I’m sick of trusting you!” He kicked a stone under his boot, hearing the dead silence on the other end. “Sorry, listen, I just…I hate not being able to do anything. Watching that calendar move closer and closer to the cutoff and waiting for you to call and say I’m free to get them is killing me. I am…completely powerless.”