Authors: Meg Maguire
Inside the Runaway Bride’s Secret Rendezvous!
It’s been a busy week for actress Leigh Bailey. The stunning starlet reportedly ditched her cheating groom on her wedding day and ran off to enjoy a honeymoon-for-one at a secluded tropical island. But rumor has it that she’s not alone...
And we have the exclusive scoop on Leigh’s hush-hush hideout—right from the drop-dead delicious dude she’s been fooling around with!
Resort pilot Will Burgess was just going to give us the basics—enough to earn some much-needed cash. But we never anticipated our intrepid insider getting up close and very, very personal.
It’s the most salacious celebrity story of the year...don’t miss out!
Look what people are saying about this talented new author's first Blaze book,
CAUGHT ON CAMERA!
“I literally could not stop reading this book. I ignored my children as they pleaded with me to serve them food and beverages. I ignored my weenie dog
who was whining to go outside to do her business. I refused to do the laundry, pay the bills, or answer the phone. I inhaled this book from cover to cover.”
âPenelope's Romance Reviews
“4Â½ stars. [A] spectacular Blaze debut.”
âRT Book Reviews
“Ms. Maguire can sure write a kick-ass love scene.”
“I loved this story and instantly fell in love
with both characters.”
âNight Owl Reviews
We have exciting news! As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the
Harlequin Blaze books you know and love have a brand-new look, starting this
month. And it’s
Don’t you agree?
But don’t worry—nothing else about the Blaze books has
changed. You’ll still find those unforgettable love stories with intrepid
heroines, hot, hunky heroes and a double dose of sizzle!
Check out this month’s red-hot reads.…
#729 THE RISK-TAKER by Kira
#730 LYING IN BED by Jo
(The Wrong Bed)
#731 HIS KIND OF TROUBLE by
#732 ONE MORE KISS by Kathy
#733 RELENTLESS SEDUCTION by Jillian
#734 THE WEDDING FLING by Meg
I hope you’re as pleased with our new look as we are. Drop by
to let us know what
The Wedding Fling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before becoming a writer, Meg Maguire worked as a record store snob, a lousy barista, a decent designer and an overenthusiastic penguin handler. Now she loves writing sexy, character-driven stories about strong-willed men and women who keep each other on their toes…and bring one another to their knees. Meg lives north of Boston with her husband. When she’s not trapped in her own head she can be found in the kitchen, the coffee shop or jogging around the nearest duck-filled pond.
Books by Meg Maguire
608—CAUGHT ON CAMERA
To get the inside scoop on Harlequin Blaze and its talented writers, be sure to check out
Other titles by this author available in ebook format. Don’t miss any of our special offers. Write to us at the following address for information on our newest releases.
Harlequin Reader Service
U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269
Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3
With thanks to Amy, Ruthie and Serena,
for reading it first. Thanks also to Laura
for getting me on the plane, and to Brenda for landing us with minimal turbulence. Biggest thanks of all to my husband, bringer of peanut butter.
in the rumpled sheets of her hotel room bed, arranging a napkin, spoon and peanut butter jar before her. She unscrewed the lid and set it aside, plunging the spoon deep to coat its back. As she savored the first taste, her anxiety dulled, worries temporarily forgotten.
She looked at the television, where two nattering entertainment anchors discussed the latest Hollywood wedding.
“The big question, of course, is the dress. After that taffeta fiasco at the Golden Globes, I know we’re all holding our breath.”
The anchors disappeared, replaced by a still of the sequined dress in question. Leigh frowned. She liked that dress. She jabbed her spoon back into the jar, barely tasting the next hundred calories’ worth of comfort as she licked it clean.
“Then again, that Grammy dress was a solid A,”
one host said.
his perky colleague agreed.
“When she gets it right, she nails it.”
Leigh watched the footage of the demure young woman on the red carpet pausing for photos, looking so calm and happy. Makeup flawless, styled hair bouncing, golden highlights glinting with each camera flash. Must be nice to be the girl on TV.
Stretching her legs in front of her, Leigh wondered what the media would make of her pajamas’ holly-and-ivy pattern in April. Then she looked to the jar in her hand and realized she probably had worse faux pas to worry about.
“Now, Leigh Bailey might be Hollywood’s last good girl, but what do we think? White dress?”
“She may be scandal-proof, but she
marrying a musician, let’s not forget that.”
Across the room, Leigh’s phone chimed, her mom’s ring tone triggering a fresh stab of panic that broke the peanut butter’s spell. She scrambled from the tangle of covers, gooey spoon landing on the white duvet. “Crap.” But this was L.A. The housekeeping staff had surely seen far worse.
She padded to the bureau and hit Talk. “Hi, Ma.”
“Leigh, where are you?”
“I’m eating peanut butter in bed, watching tabloid shows.”
“Honey.” A sigh, equal parts fond and frustrated; her mother to a tee. “The fitter’s already here in the suite. It’s nine-thirty.”
“I know what time it is.”
“And she’s the best in town, but you shouldn’t eat that garbage hours before you’re going to be seen in a fitted satin sheath by half the city. People will say you’re pregnant.”
It was Leigh’s turn to sigh. She turned to the TV in time to catch footage of herself in a bikini.
“Those shots from Maui,”
the anchor was saying.
“She’s never looked better,”
his partner concurred.
Leigh smiled drily. Lovely. Two weeks with the violent stomach bug that exiled her to the bathroom for most of her vacation...but she’d never looked better! She glanced longingly at the jar on her bed.
“I need to shower. Twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes, but
Not thirty, not an hour. We need the fitting done by eleven, before the makeup and hair people arrive. Then the photographers—”
“I’ll be there.”
“This isn’t some premiere, Leigh Bailey. It’s your wedding day.” Ah, the patented maternal use of the full name. The big guns were coming out.
“The day I should be in flip-flops and a sundress, in Grandma’s backyard,” Leigh said, frustration making her sound bitter. Making her sound distinctly like her mother. “I wanted a barbecue. I wanted you and Dad and Cody there, and Dan’s family. I didn’t want eight hundred people I barely even know, at some gigantic estate.” Funny how the guests had multiplied, the locale shifted and the budget exploded as Leigh’s day had morphed from a cookout to a circus, in six months flat.
The ringmaster went on. “It doesn’t work that way when you’re a star, honey.”
“I’m not a star, Ma. I’m just some girl who’s always in the magazines. I haven’t been in a movie in two years.”
“That’s not what it’s about these days. What channel are you watching?”
“Us, too. And who’s the main story?”
“Me.” Glancing again to the bedspread, she wondered idly if it was possible to OD on peanut butter. She imagined a team of burly EMTs crashing through the door to find her slumped with a spoon dangling from her mouth, TV droning, bed and carpet littered with empty jars.
“Following an apparent cry-for-help binge,
Leigh Bailey was found unconscious the morning of her wedding from an alleged peanut butter overdose. Doctors administered grape jelly intravenously, and the actress is now listed in stable condition. The wedding has been postponed until further notice.”
Her mother burst through the daydream. “Leigh?”
“I said you
a star, honey. And I know you wanted to keep things simple, but think about Dan. Dan wants all this.”
“He didn’t before.” A queasy gurgle soured Leigh’s stomach. Dan
want all this, the circus. She sometimes wondered which woman her fiancé saw her as—the one on TV having her clothes and waistline critiqued, or the one in her pj’s. Dan used to be her anchor, keeping her grounded amid the chaos, but small changes over two years had added up. A new apartment, wardrobe, a new collection of opinions about which restaurants they could or couldn’t go to. Just like the mutant wedding, their relationship had changed, its modifications too incremental to spot without hindsight.
Dan used to talk about his music, where the band was going. The band hadn’t practiced in months, and his enthusiasm for songwriting had been replaced with talk of producing, investing in a label, opening a club. More driven by cachet than creativity. Sometimes Leigh worried he’d bought in to the myth of that girl on the screen. Sometimes she bought in to it herself, though not lately. Not since the impending wedding had grown to such epic proportions.
“Do you think he still loves me?” Leigh asked her mother.
“Of course Dan loves you. You two are perfect together.”
As if on cue, footage of her and Dan from early in their coupledom appeared on the TV. She really did look happy. She looked like herself, recognizable, Dan so at ease in his own scruffy skin, back when he’d been a happy and passionate nobody. She hadn’t seen him smile at her that way in months. He smiled
her these days, like a man focused on something beyond his grasp, something behind her.
“Every bride gets wedding-day jitters. If you didn’t feel nervous, we’d have something to worry about.” There was jingling behind her mom’s words, the sound of jewelry being adjusted.
“Now get in that shower, young lady.”
They hung up and Leigh shuffled to her suite’s gorgeous bathroom, all polished marble and glass. After a shampoo and scrub, she slicked lotion on her waxed legs, toweled her hair and brushed her teeth, so freshly bleached they ached. “You, only
” as her mother said of such enhancements. But weren’t moms supposed to love you exactly the way you were?
Leigh wiped the steam from the mirror and stared at her naked reflection, glad she’d never let herself be talked into changing anything major—bigger boobs would look ridiculous on her frame, and would be a liability if she ever started dancing again. She was already admired for her pale, creamy complexion, so tanning was mercifully off the table. She looked at her nails, shaped and buffed by a manicurist, but fundamentally hers.
Her engagement ring sparkled under the bulbs circling the mirror. So pretty. And she’d fought so hard to keep it, against her mother’s protests that it was too small, too simple, too
. But like the boobs, Leigh thought small-and-understated suited her fine. She polished the solitaire with a tissue, feeling better as she dressed to face the drama surely swirling in her mother’s suite. The bridal suite, sans bride.
She walked down the long hall to the opposite corner of the hotel’s twenty-first floor and knocked. Her mother answered at once, already styled, as though a wedding were a tornado that might touch down at any moment and must be vigilantly prepared for. She had her cell clamped to her ear, and her tone made Leigh’s chest tighten. It could only be her father on the other end.
kidding me. Jesus, Jim. It’s like you get off on not listening to— No, I never said that. Not only do you not listen, you just make up whatever it is you want me to be saying.” She glanced at Leigh. “Your daughter is here. The one who’s getting married, or will be if you can manage to get your act together. Right. We’ll talk about this later.”
Unseen, Leigh rolled her eyes.
No, you won’t.
later, turning yet another non-issue into a marriage referendum as they’d been doing for as long as Leigh could remember. All those years ago she’d thrown herself into dancing, ballet at first, then modern, any and all kinds, whatever got her out of the house and the endless two-way badgering. When she’d landed her first movie role her parents had magically stopped bickering, united in their new project—Leigh’s career. Of course, the peace hadn’t lasted, but here she was ten years later, still desperate to be the good girl, successful and respectable, her naive inner kid thinking she could somehow fix them, if only she worked hard enough.
Her mom clicked the phone off and shook her head, her frosted bob too shellacked with products to budge. She sighed in exasperation, then changed modes, quick as a flipped switch. She smiled warmly and pulled Leigh into a hug. “Oh, honey. Your big day.” She stepped back to stare at her daughter’s face. “It’s finally here, isn’t it?”
Leigh nodded, returning her mom’s grin as best she could.
“Twenty-seven. When on earth did that happen?”
When, indeed. And twenty-seven was far too old to still be living for parental approval. Leigh pictured the plane ticket in her purse. When she landed back in the States in a couple weeks, she’d put her foot down. Her parents had their own lives to lead, and so did Leigh. If only she knew what she wanted that life to look like...
Her mother turned to the action elsewhere in the room, the wedding planner on his phone, the fitter standing patiently beside the ivory halter gown.
That dress. The battle Leigh had forfeited in favor of winning the war on her ring. The ring she’d wear for the rest of her life, the gown just a day. But it was a lovely dress. More sophisticated than the playful one Leigh had fallen hard for, but compromises had to be made to keep mothers happy...or at least shut them up.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” her mom said.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Glad you let me talk you into it now? It’s just perfect for the venue.”
Leigh nodded, so sick of certain words—
venue, entrance, presentation.
She let herself be led to the fitter and dutifully stripped. The dress was slippery and cool as lake water as it slid down her bare skin, and she felt clad in something beyond satin...adulthood, perhaps. Womanhood. Her mother tugged her from the thought.
“Oh, Leigh.” She tapped a finger against Leigh’s belly. And only in L.A. would it count as a belly. “You and that peanut butter.”
Leigh smoothed the satin over her offense. “Girls should know it’s normal to have a stomach.”
“I agree, but it’s
normal for a person to eat half a jar of that stuff by herself. It’s very fattening, and you won’t have that metabolism forever.”
Leigh shrugged. “Tell me you’d prefer I take up smoking, then.”
Her pack-a-day mother smiled grimly and dropped the subject. “Well, you look beautiful, belly and all.”
Leigh turned to the cheval mirror at her side, and she had to admit the girl reflected back was pretty. Though once her hair and makeup were done, her snack digested and belly deflated, would there be anything of Leigh left?
She looked to her mom. “Do you remember what you promised me? My wedding gift? About quitting smoking once all this craziness is over?”
Leigh grinned hopefully. “So I’ll get back from the island and you’ll be all strung out and snappy?”
“I’ll do better than that, honey, and finish the withdrawal while you’re away.”
Leigh smiled again. Though her mother promised to quit smoking nearly as often as she lit up. “There’s other stuff that needs to change, once I’m back.”
Her mother feigned ignorance, fussing with some invisible imperfection in the satin. “Oh?”
“About you and Dad? Maybe going on a trip of your own, away from all this?”
“I don’t know, Leigh. I’ve got a hundred things going on, all that stuff with the charity ball coming up in June.”
Leigh opened her mouth, then closed it, realizing she didn’t have the stamina for this argument. But once she got back from her honeymoon she’d be putting her own marriage first, instead of acting like a smoke screen in theirs. Once today was behind her, she’d be in the clear. Marriage would render her blissfully boring to the press, and she couldn’t wait to fade into obscurity for a year or two, maybe permanently. Fame had never been her dream. Just another role she’d stumbled into, trying to make people happy.
She stared out the huge window across the city. What would Dan be doing, right now? Probably sleeping in, after his bachelor party. Not that Dan was much for getting wasted and crazy. He was a pretty low-key guy. Or he used to be a pretty low-key guy. Who he was wasn’t so clear anymore.
She missed his passion. Their hectic, high-profile engagement had done a number on their sex life, and Leigh suspected he was readjusting how he saw her, no longer his girlfriend, but his soon-to-be wife.
When the fitter got to her knees to fuss with the hem, Leigh leaned close to her mother’s ear to whisper, “I don’t think Dan and I have had sex in nearly a month.”
“You’re very busy people.”
busy. We’re not even newlyweds yet. That can’t be normal, can it?”
“You and Dan aren’t normal people. And Dan is very ambitious. You’re lucky to have such a driven man, Leigh, really. Not like your father—”
“A lot of girls in your position have husbands who don’t expect to do a thing after they get a nice tight grip on those celebrity coattails. Dan’s not one of them. You’re very, very lucky.”
Leigh knew she ought to feel lucky. The man she was marrying was her best friend. Or had been. She prayed they’d get some of that back, being away from everyone for two weeks. No, they
get it back. She needed to think positive. Still, a bit of reassurance wouldn’t hurt.
When the fitter excused herself to make a call, Leigh thought she ought to do the same. She padded back down the hall to her own room, shut the door and stood before the windows, holding down a button on her phone to speed-dial Dan.
He answered just as she was about to hang up, and his voice alone reminded her to breathe. “Hey, you. What’s up?”
“Hey. I, um... Oh God, I don’t know.” She laughed, already calming.
His tone was warm, but tight as well. “Everything okay? You sound kinda spastic, spazzy.”
She smiled at his teasing. “I guess I’ve got jitters, but I wanted to hear your voice, before I saw you. You know, at the altar.”
“You’re sweet. I’ve got jitters, too. Goes with the territory, right? Especially with the audience we’ve got watching. You’ll be fine.”
Leigh waited a beat for something more—an “I love you,” perhaps. It didn’t arrive, but Dan was stressed, same as her. And like her, he didn’t really know what he was doing. No script, just two young people nervous before their vows. Normal. The thing Leigh ached most to be. She glanced at her ring, its diamond blinking in the morning sunlight.
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks. I just needed to talk.”
“Just breathe, and I’ll see you before you know it. I better go. I’ve got my brother on the other line.”
“Tell him hi. See you soon.”
Leigh nearly hung up, but after a pause Dan added, “Babe?” He hadn’t called her that in months, and the name flooded her with relief.
She held back an impulsive plea—that they run off and elope, skip all the staged drama. “Yeah?”
“Sorry about that. It was her.”
Leigh’s brow furrowed. “Her?”
Dan laughed. “It was Leigh. She’s got bridal nerves.”
She went dead numb, head enveloped by an echoing, unnatural calm as she realized he thought he was talking to someone else.
This time the pet name hit her like a slap. “Yeah?” her mouth replied, disconnected from her brain.
“Don’t tell me you’re jealous.”
“No,” Leigh murmured.
“I know right where you’ll be today. Every chance I get, I’ll try to catch your eye. I mean, this might be us in a few years. We have to be patient. If it’s supposed to happen, it’ll happen. You never know.”
The numbness faded, and in its place Leigh felt hot in her dress, constricted, felt tears boiling up to sting her sinuses. Her heart pounded in her ears, loud as a gong. “You never know,” she whispered.
“Don’t cry. I know the timing’s awful, but it’s not like we planned this. It’s worth it, we both agreed. You and me, we’ll have our time. Last night wasn’t goodbye, I told you.”
Leigh didn’t reply.
She sucked in a breath. Allie. Allie. Her mind was too blank to supply a face, a remembered mention...not that it would help. “Okay,” she breathed.
“I’ll miss you while I’m away. You know that.”
No words came.
“I love you.”
That did it. Those words Leigh needed so badly, offered to comfort some mystery woman. Some
Her hand shook as she pushed the end button.
She stared at herself in the mirror that ran behind the marble bar, at this stranger with her face, draped in a beautiful dress. Thoughts flashed and jabbed, but the numbness reduced them to abstract concepts. There was an Allie, who’d stolen Leigh’s pet name. Who’d kept Dan from taking Leigh’s call for four rings, on their
The shock lifted, and behind the numbness was pure pain, so sharp it seemed her heart must be coming apart, cell by cell. Strange white sequins danced before her eyes and she leaned against the bar, feeling heavy and awkward, as though suspended on strings. The dress was shrinking, an invisible corset binding her too tight to take a full breath. The room blurred, and for a moment she
it was just a dream. She’d jerk awake and everything would be as it should be, spinning walls and strangling dress all vestiges of a nightmare.
The room did come back into focus. The dress relented enough for her to catch her breath, and the spots abandoned her vision. She pushed up from the bar to find the bride in the mirror peppered with red blotches, eyes wild. Leigh saw only a stranger staring back, a scared woman of twenty-seven as ignorant as she’d been at seventeen, playing dress-up in yet another glittering identity.
She clutched the phone and raised her hand, drew it back...but no. Her posture crumpled. Now wasn’t the time to start smashing up hotel rooms like some out-of-control celebutante. Actually, perhaps this was the perfect time for that, but Leigh wasn’t that girl, no matter what the tabloids yearned to report.
She pressed a palm over her thumping heart, scared by the sheer pain of feeling this angry, this hurt. The rage was like an animal trying to claw its way out of her chest, but she held it down, as she always did. She forced her mind to practical matters. Decisions that needed making.
She should confront Dan.
No, she couldn’t.
She had to call it off. But then the press would hound her mercilessly and the whole world would find out about this.
What was the alternative? Go through with the wedding and deal with the fallout later? Her heart twisted anew, her hands trembling as she thought of faking her way through the ceremony, her jaw clenching and lips quivering as she imagined uttering her vows, hearing Dan recite his and knowing he’d already violated them. More likely, she’d run off en route to the altar in front of two videographers and an audience of hundreds, as public as humiliation got.
She rubbed at her chest, begging her heartbeat to slow. The satin seemed to mock her fingers, cool and smooth against her heated skin.
Leigh couldn’t remember the last decision she’d made for herself, but all at once, and for the first time in ages, she knew what she had to do.
She had to run.
She didn’t have the first clue what she wanted from her life, but she damn well knew it wasn’t all this—a three-ring sham of a wedding to a man who didn’t love her, a career of other people’s making, a city where she couldn’t enjoy a moment’s anonymity.
Her suitcase waited by the door, packed with two weeks’ worth of clothes and toiletries, passport and ticket in her purse, ready to go. The trip she’d so been looking forward to, the one she’d hoped would reconnect her and Dan...the mere notion was a hand around her throat. The tabloids had been salivating for Leigh’s fall from grace forever, and if she was doomed to reward their persistence, she’d give them a doozy—a gen-u-ine wedding day no-show.
She switched off her phone and slipped it into her bag, with no intention of turning it back on anytime soon.
As she wheeled her case down the hall, all was quiet, the elevator empty, the lobby peaceful. No small mercy, the press not having discovered she was staying here. She hiked her dress up to her shins and marched barefoot past Reception, through the door the stony-faced porter held, and into the cool spring air. She knew which long black Town Car was hers by the driver leaning on the hood, flipping through
His brows rose and he stood, taking in her getup. “Good morning, Leigh. You’re early. Very early.” His familiar deep voice with its musical Haitian accent calmed her. “And you forgot your shoes. And your mother. Change of plans?”
“Change of plans” usually meant Leigh was being harangued by a reporter and needed to end an evening earlier than expected.
“Change of plans,” she agreed, and climbed inside when Hector opened the door. He shut it in his firm, reassuring way and she heard a thump as he stowed her suitcase.
Once behind the wheel, he lowered the glass. He aimed the car toward the exit. “Has your mother got her own ride sorted out?”
“Don’t worry about my mother. If she calls you, tell her I asked to go home, to the apartment. I need some time to think about things.”
“Ah. She being a mother-of-the-bride-zilla?” Hector teased. “You need me to drive you around before we go to the estate? Dramatic entrance?” He squinted at her in the rearview mirror, possibly noticing she had no makeup on, no jewelry, that her hair was still a damp tangle and her face flushed and mottled.
“We’re not going to the estate,” she said, feeling strangely serene. “We’re going to the airport.”
She nodded, steeled in her decision. “I’m going on my honeymoon. Alone.”
at LAX, Hector brought Leigh her suitcase and she wrestled herself out of her gown and into jeans and a T in the backseat, protected by the tinted windows. She dug her slip-ons from her luggage and glanced at her dress. It looked like the shed skin of some beautiful, mythical creature. She left it in the car.
To camouflage her identity and the tears she could feel brewing, she found and donned her big aviator shades and Giants cap. She swallowed all the rage and sadness and confusion rising in her chest, and forced a smile.
“It’s no trouble. Just my job.”
“My mom’s going to tear you a new one.”
He grinned. “I know.”
“Would you do one more thing for me?”
He nodded, and Leigh slid off her engagement ring and handed it to him. In place of the sadness she’d anticipated, she felt her back straightening, as though fifty pounds of pure dread had fallen from her shoulders.
“Give that to my mom or dad or to Dan, whoever you see first. And the dress. But try to avoid all of them for at least a few hours. Until I’m on a plane.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
She took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. I just need some time away. Thank goodness I’m already booked someplace where nobody’ll recognize me.”
He nodded and slipped her solitaire into his breast pocket. On impulse, Leigh did something she never had before—she hugged her driver. He offered a quick squeeze in return, as warm as professionalism allowed.
“You take care of yourself. I’ll dodge your mother as long as I can.”
She yanked up the suitcase’s retractable handle. “Wish me luck that there’s an earlier flight with room for me on it.”
He held up two sets of crossed fingers. “Enjoy your getaway.”
With a wave, Leigh said goodbye to the last familiar face she’d see for two weeks. She said goodbye to L.A., to the girl she no longer recognized as herself, and strode through the airport’s sliding doors and into the unknown.
* * *
to New York was insanely overpriced, yet well worth it to feel L.A. dropping away behind her. If any of Leigh’s first-class neighbors recognized her, they were kind enough not to let on. It was the calmest six hours she’d passed in weeks, nothing but blue sky and white clouds, totally unlike the storm swirling in her head.
She’d failed to change her second flight, a smaller carrier that had no planes leaving before the one she’d already booked, the following morning. The idea of being alone in another hotel room with only her thoughts for company scared her, so she napped fitfully through the night in the airport.
She arrived in Bridgetown at lunchtime, though, sadly, her luggage did not. No clothes, no cell charger, no toiletries. Abandoned by her own belongings.
With a mighty sigh, she headed for the airport’s exit. As the doors slid open, the warm, scented air of the island enveloped her, the sun caressing her travel-weary body. By the cab stand, a group of three smiling men played steel drums. Just an extra touch to realize tourists’ stereotypical expectations, but it worked. Leigh’s panic faded with the song’s cheerful notes.
She’d be okay. There were plenty of clothes to be purchased here in Barbados, and her sleeping cell phone had enough juice to make a handful of calls.
Speaking of calls. She dug the device from her purse and turned it on with held breath. Alerts for voice and text messages multiplied as the phone roused. Though tempted to view Dan’s and find out if he’d caught on, she ignored them all, tapping out a text for her mom.
I’m safe. Won’t be in touch for a while. Don’t worry, and please don’t follow. Sorry for the stress. See you in a couple of weeks. Leigh.
As soon as the message was sent, she switched off her phone for good.
Leigh had a few hours before her final flight, and she spent it wandering the shopping district, buying a knock-off designer suitcase to fill with new clothes, then ate a lunch of fried plantains from a street vendor. It was easy to stay distracted here, amid all the colors and smells and sounds. And how lovely it felt, being any old visitor to these cheerful strangers.
At two-thirty a taxi dropped her off outside the city, at an airport on the coast—a tiny terminal with a large antenna, no runway. The roadside billboard proclaimed it Bajan Fantasy Airlines. A long dock led out into the glittering water, where a seaplane—a Cessna on water skis—bobbed lazily in the waves. As far as she knew, this was the only way to get to Harrier Key. She’d picked the resort island for its seclusion, booking one of only four private villas.
She walked through the terminal’s open door and into what reminded her of a bus depot. A dark-skinned woman in a salmon-pink dress stood behind a long counter, and a single passenger lounged in the waiting area, reading a newspaper. Leigh gathered her printed ticket and ID.
The woman greeted her with the gigantic Barbadian smile Leigh had gotten very used to while shopping. “Miss Bailey?”
Anonymity gone, Leigh fell back to earth with a thump. “Yes. That’s me.”
“I knew it! You know how I knew that?” the woman asked brightly, tapping on a keyboard.
“Not the tabloids, I hope.”
She gave her a funny look. “Tabloids? Dear me, no. I know ’cause you the only woman flyin’ with us this afternoon.”
More tapping. “And you’re all checked in. How about Mr. Cosenza?”
She flinched. “He won’t be coming.”
“Yes, change of plans.”
“I’m afraid the tickets are non-refundable.”
“That’s fine. Sorry if it’s any extra trouble for you.”
“Not at all. You got twenty minutes before you take off. Help yourself to coffee or tea.” She nodded to a counter with carafes and a jumble of mismatched cups.
Leigh filled a rainbow mug and took a seat across from the other passenger. He wore jeans, and a linen shirt with the top few buttons ignored, his tan and the state of his overgrown brown hair telling her his vacation had been going on for some time. He seemed like a man with no place to go, in no rush to get there.
He caught her staring. His eyes were as blue as the water beyond the windows, and Leigh didn’t look away quickly enough to appear polite, so she smiled instead and gave a tiny wave. He smiled in response, then turned back to his paper. Leigh tried to keep her gaze on the ocean, though she stole a glance at her fellow traveler every few seconds.
Something about his ease attracted her. Leigh had been surrounded by L.A. people for so long—a species whose males preened as diligently as its females—that this man’s lack of styling struck her as refreshingly exotic. He was also nothing like Dan, which didn’t hurt. Taller, she suspected, generally bigger, more fair, with those bluest of blue eyes.
For the first time in what felt like forever, Leigh let herself imagine how it might feel to kiss a man who wasn’t Dan. What would he taste like? What would his skin smell like? How would his stubble feel, after she’d spent two years with a studious shaver? The fact that she could wonder such things had her breathing easier. She was hurt, not ruined.
The stranger folded his paper and called to the woman behind the desk. “Just the one, Jackie?”
“Just the one.”
“Right.” He turned to Leigh. “You ready to go?”
She blinked. “Go, like, take off?”
“Unless you feel like swimming.”
“No, I’m ready.” She drained her cup and rose to place it on the coffee counter. She looked to the man as she picked up her suitcase. “You do this a lot? Do you work on one of the islands?”
Another smile, one that gave him a dimple. “I do.”
Jackie broke in. “He’s your pilot, dear.”
“Oooh.” Leigh offered a dopey grin. “Sorry. I thought you were a passenger.”
“Only if you feel like doing the flying. In which case I’ll happily take a nap.”
She laughed. “No, no, you do the flying.”
“Okay then.” He gave Jackie a salute and headed for the rear door, Leigh following him into the sunshine.
“You’re American,” she said.
“Where are you from?”
“In some former life I recall living in New York City.” If he’d ever had a jarring city accent it was gone now, and his voice matched his looks. He was easy on both the eyes and ears.
“Wow. You’ve made quite a lifestyle change.”
He stopped short a few paces from the building and turned, crossing his arms over his chest, seeming suddenly taller. “Before I let you board, we have a little issue to clear up.”
Apprehension tightened her middle. “Oh?”
“You’ve put me in a tricky spot.”
“Did I? I’m paying for both tickets.”
He shook his head, his smile more mischievous than warm, shifting all the flattering assumptions she’d too hastily made about him. “Your mother left about ten messages demanding I don’t take you off this island.”
Leigh frowned, feeling a touch of panic.
He leaned closer. “Bit of an awkward position for me. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
Her attention jumped everywhere, from his face to the plane to the water. “Can I bribe you?”
He straightened, expression brightening. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”
She rifled through her purse, hiding her irritation. “A hundred?”
He accepted the colorful Barbadian bill and pocketed it.
Leigh released a breath, as relieved as she was annoyed. Her shopping trip had taught her that prices here were highly negotiable, a bit of island culture she might need to get savvier at, lest the locals fleece her at every opportunity. This latest swindle set her back about fifty American dollars, but no price was too high, not in exchange for getting her where she needed to be.
“So we can go?”
“We can.” He led her down the long aluminum dock. The plane was small, its bottom half painted a cheerful aqua, top half gleaming white and emblazoned with the name
Leigh’s unscrupulous pilot looked over his shoulder. “The rumor mill at the resort said this is your honeymoon.”
“Think you may have forgotten to pack your husband. Or did he get misplaced in transit?”
She smiled to cover the pang she felt. “Change of plans.”
* * *
the plane, Will took Leigh’s bag and stowed it in the cabin. She traveled light, for a celebrity. He pictured her faceless fiancé back in L.A., sitting on a bed beside a pile of clothes and swimsuits that also hadn’t made the cut. Poor bastard.
Will hopped back down to the dock. “Just you and me, so you have a choice—sit back here or play copilot.”
“Which is better?”
“Tough to beat the view in the cockpit.”
Tough to beat a chance to have her as his captive audience, as well. He might not get many chances like this again, and he was secretly pleased when she said, “Okay. Sure.”
He secured the cabin and she followed him to the front, fumbling her way up the short ladder that connected the float to the cockpit. She settled into the far seat, taking in the console and instruments. When Will buckled himself in and donned sunglasses, she followed suit. She squinted at his license, displayed in a plastic frame mounted above the windshield.
William Burgess,” he corrected officiously. “But Will is fine.”
He offered his finest pilot’s handshake, decisive and confident, qualities a person ought to value in a man charged with transporting her across sea and sky.
As Will prepped for takeoff, Leigh reached out to touch the panel of a gauge on the console. Scowling, he snatched her hand away and set it firmly on her knee.
“Don’t get handsy,” he said, pulling a cloth from a compartment and buffing away whatever fingerprints Leigh may have left on the glass. He might not dress like a captain, but this plane was more than his meal ticket—it was his baby. And he didn’t let strangers poke and prod and leave smudges on his baby.
Leigh frowned, looking annoyed. “Sorry.”
After a brief safety spiel, Will started
and soon enough the beaches of Barbados were slipping by from several hundred feet up. He wondered what she was thinking, given her intent gaze. Maybe the same things he always did—all that sand, all that water. All this, all to herself.
He spoke over the drone of the engine. “You didn’t need to bribe me, you know.”
She frowned again.
name on the ticket. Doesn’t bother me if your old lady’s got her panties in a twist about what you’re up to.” He flashed her a grin, one that made her cheeks flush from discomfort, he guessed. “Want your money back?”
“Nah. You earned it.” Her casual tone was a put-on, Will could tell.
“Must be nice to be able to take or leave a hundred bucks.”
“Nice to be able to take or leave a husband.” It was a mean jab, he knew, but bound to earn him a response, a bit of information about his passenger. Maybe a sound slap, had he not been operating a plane. “So which did you do?” Will prompted. “Take him or leave him?”
“I left him,” she said coolly.
“Good for you. Hope you’ve got a lovely settlement coming to you.” An even lower blow, but Will had accepted a generous offer to collect information on this woman, and he didn’t like the thought of tweezing it out with some sympathetic, smooth-talker act. He’d goad it out of her. At least that way he wouldn’t be exploiting some false confidence.
Her face burned and she turned to glare at him. “That’s a really rude thing to say.”
“Good thing I don’t fly for tips.”
She blinked, clearly incredulous, and shook her head. All that friendliness she’d showed him in the terminal fell away, surely sinking deep beneath the waves below.
“Not too late to swim, if you’re offended by the service.”