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Super-sexy romance with a dash of humor

Excerpt: Roman Holiday 1

A Note from the Author

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the Florida Keys! Our story begins here, in a land of palm trees, sandy beaches, conch shells, aging bohemians, and rapid-fire development. Are you sweaty yet? I hope not. Here, take a load off. I made you a drink.

*hands over a Rum Runner*

Better? Good. This is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, we’re doing something wrong.

On the left, chained to a palm tree, you’ll find our heroine, Ashley—a little flighty, perhaps, but she’s all heart, and when happy hour rolls around you’ll find her salting the margarita glasses and bopping along to the music.

And who’s that tall, dark drink of water on the right, all stone-faced and looking mighty foxy in his suit? Ah, yes. That would be Roman. Don’t let the robot act fool you. Every minute of Ashley’s company he’s forced to endure, he gets a little more lively and a whole lot more lovable.

He has no choice, really, because Roman Holiday is a romance—a road trip—an adventure. It’s about love and family, life and community. It’s about figuring out what we need to take from the past and learning how to throw the rest aside so we can define the future for ourselves.

We’ve got two seasons of the Roman-and-Ashley show ahead of us—five episodes each, with a break in the middle—so pace yourself. If you drink that too fast, you’ll wake up tomorrow morning with a headache, and then where will we be? I love you guys, but I can’t gently massage your temples through the screen of the e-reader. I’m sorry. There are limits to even my powers.

All right, are we sorted? Let’s do this thing!

XOXO,

Ruthie

p.s. If you like what you’re reading, come chat with me and other readers in the Roman Holiday forum at http://forum.ruthieknox.com.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The arrival of the shiny black SUV in the parking lot startled the fawn into flight.

Ashley watched it bound out of the empty swimming pool, between the two-story rental units, and onto the beach. She tried not to hate the man who had driven it away.

Her chafed wrists were not his fault. He hadn’t pushed her down onto this pile of mulch, nor had he chained her to the palm tree. He hadn’t insisted she launch her protest clad only in a damp bikini and a T-shirt.

No, all of that was Ashley’s doing. She had to place the blame for this harebrained caper squarely on her own aching shoulders.

Even though Roman Díaz was about to destroy the only place in the world that mattered to her, she wouldn’t hate him. Hate was poisonous.

But man, she’d really been enjoying the little Key deer. It had been such an excellent distraction from all the depressing thoughts about her grandmother.

Past the spot where it had disappeared, a slice of sunrise washed the sky in orange, and the dark silhouette of an angular palm tree framed a view straight off a Florida landscape postcard.

Whereas the SUV was like the other kind of postcard—the tacky kind that had a smiling woman shoving her enormous, barely clad hooters toward the viewer over a neon-script tagline like “A Big Hello from Florida.”

It didn’t bode well.

The soft glow of early morning did little to conceal the fact that the eight-unit rental complex spread out around the pool had seen better days. Peachy Keen and Salmon Sunset had faded to a pinkish beige and beigeish pink, respectively, while Turquoise Treasure was a sort of anemic white-blue. The interiors were worse, the carpet grotty and the blond-wood-and-seashell theme of the decor begging for an update.

But for Ashley, Sunnyvale Vacation Rentals retained a timeless beauty—the white railings on the upper and lower porches matching the trim around the windows and along the rooflines; the broad, fringed leaves of the sheltering palms; the ocean beyond, just a short walk to the dock.

The sky, the sun, the light, the breeze off the water. All of it bound up together, indivisibly part of this place she loved more than any other.

The driver’s door opened, and black dress shoes appeared beneath gray slacks. The black top of his head crested the door, then disappeared as he ducked down to reach into the car—probably retrieving his hooded cape and sickle, just to complete the look.

But no. When he emerged from behind the door, his evil was far more subtle than she’d expected. The closer he walked, the more this rich Miami land developer looked like television’s version of a bad guy: tall, dark, expensive, beautifully proportioned, and—she had to admit—way more handsome than people were supposed to be in real life.

Ashley liked a handsome man as much as the next girl, but the ones who really got her going always had endearingly imperfect teeth, bad haircuts, unfortunate facial hair—some flaw that made them approachable. She picked the sort of guys who were game to go surfing on a whim or try out sex in a hammock even if they risked ending up in the dirt, slightly bruised and laughing.

Whereas this man—no way did he own a hammock. He was too perfect, his handsomeness nothing less than a loaded weapon aimed at the world. She imagined him bleaching his teeth so white that he purposefully blinded people when he smiled. You’d be gazing at his face, mesmerized by those teeth—which she couldn’t even see right now, but she knew just how they’d look, their contrast to the deep brown of his skin both surprising and delicious—and then you’d blink and he’d be gone, and so would your wallet and your house.

Possibly he’d leave you the hammock.

Of course, it was also possible she was projecting. She’d only been watching him for about four seconds, and she had, admittedly, a fairly strong bias against the guy.

His slick soles crunched over the crushed-shell surface of the lot. He didn’t walk so much as he loped, taking the circular pavers two at a time. His suit was so well behaved that it loped right along with him, too expensively tailored to look awkward for even a heartbeat.

When he’d passed the office, he veered off the path to make a slow circuit around the palm. His expression betrayed nothing as he took in the mound of mulch where Ashley sat. Her bound wrists, tucked tight against her lower back. Her bare arms and barer legs and barest-of-all feet.

He stopped directly in front of her.

“Ashley Bowman, I presume.”

A joke? He delivered the line with such dignity, she couldn’t tell if he meant to be funny.

“That’s me.”

He placed his briefcase on the ground and hunkered down, resting his elbows on his spread knees and clasping his hands lightly between them. Normal people would look awkward doing that, but he made it seem like he’d been born to hunker.

His shirt was black, open at the collar, his sunglasses mirrored. He took them off, and his dark eyes were mirrored, too. Impenetrable.

Good-looking, yes. But good?

She wouldn’t bet a nickel on it.

Not for the first time, it occurred to Ashley that chaining herself to the palm tree had not been her best decision ever. The idea had been to take a stand. Instead, she felt like a virgin staked below a volcano.

A nostalgic sort of feeling, since it had been so very long since she was a virgin. But this guy definitely had some magmalike qualities. Slow-moving. Molten. Dangerous.

The danger explained why all her frayed nerve endings were sizzling.

It had to be the danger. Because attraction under these circumstances would be insane.

Which was why she hadn’t glanced at his package, so conveniently on display in front of her.

No. She had not.

“I’m Roman Díaz. I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but . . .” He spread his hands, encompassing the scene before him. “You’re protesting, I take it?”

“I can’t let you knock it down.”

“Yes. You mentioned that in your voicemail.”

So he’d listened to her messages. She hadn’t been sure, since he had never bothered to call her back. Or answer the letter she’d sent by registered mail. Or admit her to the inner sanctum of his office.

Ashley had done everything she could think of to get his attention, just as soon as her grief had abated enough to let her begin to process a freshly discovered set of horrible truths: That she didn’t own Sunnyvale. Grandma had sold it two years ago without telling her or, as far as she knew, anyone. She’d secretly and sneakily transferred title on the property to Roman Díaz’s development group, Ojito Enterprises, for a generous sum of money that had vanished—though she’d definitely spent some of it leasing the property back from Díaz.

“I’ll buy it from you,” Ashley offered. “Whatever you paid for it, I’ll double.”

He raised an eyebrow.

She had to admire his economy. The mere flick of an eyebrow said it all. He knew she had no savings to speak of, no property of value—nothing to her name but an inherited Airstream trailer full of her grandmother’s junk.

She didn’t have Sunnyvale because he’d taken it from her before she even had a chance to claim it.

He glanced at her bound hands. She’d looped the chain around the tree, then around her wrists, which rested against her back, knuckles brushing the ground. “Is that a padlock?”

“Yes. And I can cover the keyhole with my fingers, so you won’t be able to drill it open unless you cut them off.”

“I could cut the chain behind the tree, where you can’t reach.”

“I’ll rattle it. And probably if you do that, I’ll manage to get hurt, and the media headlines will be all, like, ‘Protester Mangled by Heartless Developer.’”

“What did you do with the key, swallow it?”

She’d shoved it down her bikini bottoms, where it had spent the evening tattooing itself onto her tailbone. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

He made a tiny gesture with his shoulders. A non-shrug, as though he couldn’t even be bothered to put his beautiful physique to the trouble of actually shrugging on her account. “You’ve been out here all night?”

“Yes.”

The bastard knew it, too. It had been his contractor’s arrival with a small fleet of demolition equipment that had driven Ashley to attach herself to the tree in the first place.

She’d passed the first few days after her grandmother’s death in a haze. Her father’s voice over the phone had called her back from Bolivia, but when she arrived in the Keys there’d been no one here. No funeral, because Grandma hadn’t wanted one. No family, because her family was broken, and her father and grandmother had hated each other.

No idea what to do with herself.

When she’d come to her senses and realized she had to do something before Sunnyvale was lost, only a little more than a week remained of the grace period Díaz had given her, and she’d wasted it whirling around South Florida in an unfocused panic. She’d hounded the secretary at Díaz’s Miami office and pestered various Monroe County officials in an attempt to figure out how to prevent a wrecking ball from taking down her home.

When the demolition team had shown up anyway, even Ashley had been surprised by how completely she’d gone off her nut.

You can’t do this, she’d insisted. I won’t let you.

And the contractor—a kindly, bearded man named Noah—had said, You’ll have to talk to Roman.

I can’t! He won’t return my calls!

He’ll be here. Roman always supervises the demo.

Just seconds later, Gus had pulled up in his junker of a truck. Out on his rounds, looking for cans and bottles to turn in or trash to sell on Craigslist. Gus was a Little Torch Key fixture—harmless, friendly, slightly cracked.

Usually, he pulled over onto the curb and hailed whoever was outdoors, hanging his elbow out of the truck window to settle in for a long chat. She’d thought it would be a reprieve, chatting with Gus. That it would help her reset her head into a less panicked mode.

Instead, he’d said hello, and she’d launched into a monologue, blurting out everything she’d discovered since she came home to Florida and ending with the lament that had been playing on a loop inside her head all day long: in the morning, Ojito Enterprises was going to knock Sunnyvale down and build something else on the site, and there was nothing Ashley could do about it.

It would be a shame, Gus had said. This is such a great place.

She’d wanted to cry then, because even Gus knew what a big thing this was. How people came here, and it didn’t look like much, but it changed them.

Such a great place—her place—that the thought of losing it opened up a hole in her heart from which all kinds of horrible things kept escaping.

Grief. Needy desperation. Fear. She hadn’t felt so scared since she was thirteen. Not since her mother died and she’d come to understand there wasn’t a single person in the world she really mattered to—and there never had been. At thirteen, she’d felt like nothing. Invisible. Useless. Terrified. And angry—so angry.

But later, after things didn’t work out with her dad and she came to live with her grandmother, Ashley had learned to chase away the fear and anger. She’d spent years loving the world and being loved back—happy, well-adjusted years. Good years.

So the fear caught her attention, for sure. The fear made her lean in to listen when Gus spoke, slow and mellifluous, like some sort of Little Torch Key sage offering her The Answer.

I saw a movie about this guy in California? Didn’t want them to cut the redwoods down, so he built a platform and lived in one.

In her overwrought condition, Ashley had forgotten that Gus was not the brightest light on the patio. That he wasn’t even, by non-Florida-Keys standards, altogether well. She’d been too distracted by the clarity of this vision of herself attached to the palm in the middle of the courtyard, head held high, fending off injustice.

Within five minutes, Gus had pulled a long length of chain out of the back of his truck, Ashley had located the padlock, and they’d bound her to the tree in full view of the contractor.

Watch him try to knock the place down now, Gus had said, and Ashley had smiled, filled with triumph.

It was only after Gus took off and the contractor finished getting his heavy equipment in order, made a phone call, and left for the day that Ashley remembered how very stupid fear could be.

How, when you let fear be in charge, it made terrible, terrible decisions.

A number of inconvenient facts elbowed their way to the forefront of her consciousness. Like the fact that she probably should have brought food and water and some way to consume it.

Or that she definitely should have changed her clothes, because a still-damp, salt-encrusted bikini covered by an oversized T-shirt was simply not adequate protection against crotch-poking mulch, much less from the elements.

That she’d never managed to stick with a job for more than a season or a man for more than sixty days, so there was absolutely no reason to think she could stick with a protest for long enough to make it count. Especially when the contractor hadn’t actually said when Díaz would arrive.

And of course that she was a moron. An impulsive, grieving moron.

The chain rubbed her wrists raw within a few hours. The muscles of her neck and shoulders screamed every time she moved. She hadn’t felt her ass since midnight. Her lips were chapped, her mouth dry and desperate for liquid. And she was so, so hungry.

All of which made it difficult right now to decide how to feel about the man looming over her with no expression whatsoever on his face. He was the enemy, but he also had the use of his hands, which made it hard for her to resist the urge to suck up to him.

He could bring her water. He could rescue her.

Except for the part where she didn’t want to be rescued.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

Yesterday evening, the setting sun had lit a flaming burn on her right cheek, neck, forearm, and thigh. Just before dawn, the wind picked up.

There were goose bumps on her legs. Her head was too hot.

She had no idea if she was cold.

“No.”

He rose. “Don’t move.”

Ashley mulled over whether that had been a joke while he walked to his car.

The SUV’s silver front grille gleamed like a nasty set of teeth. Even from thirty feet away, she could see the Cadillac symbol stuck between its chompers.

What kind of gas mileage did an Escalade get? Twelve miles to the gallon? Nine?

At the crab shack, she’d served lobster to men who drove cars like that. Another summer, she’d worked on the glass-bottomed boat in Maui, and she’d watched the Cadillac men tapping at their cell phones, checking for a signal while their kids whined for their attention and their wives shot them dirty looks.

She’d taught Cadillac men how to sea kayak off Baja. They always hated the part where she flipped them over and they had to escape the splash skirt and effect their own rescue.

Experience had forced Ashley to conclude that—while there were certainly exceptions—Cadillac men were almost always assholes.

This asshole came back with a small plastic-wrapped package. “Do you want this?”

She didn’t even know what it was. “No.”

“Your legs are blue.”

“I’m fine.”

He tore the package open and unfolded a silver space blanket. “Top or bottom? It won’t cover both.”

She didn’t respond, because she was fighting back the sudden, distressing urge to cry.

Roman Díaz was ruining her life. He could at least have the decency to be cruel.

He dropped to one knee, wrapped her legs in the crinkling blanket. He smelled good—aftershave or soap, clean and fresh like a very manly breath mint—and she willed herself to stop widening her nostrils and sucking at his smell like an excited puppy.

She was not excited. Or attracted. Or a puppy.

And this was serious business. She had to study him as though she were a detective, or, no, a soldier, because that was what you did with the enemy. Learned his ways. Found his weaknesses and exploited them.

It was beyond unfortunate that she was so awful at exploiting things.

He leaned back to survey his work. “Of course, if we leave that on you, in three or four hours you’ll be crisping up like a cat on a hot tin roof.”

He pronounced roof as though it had a u in it. Ruf.

Not the sort of accent she would have predicted for a Latino developer from Miami. She’d figured Roman Díaz would be Cuban, Honduran, Nicaraguan—and he looked the part. But he had to be second generation, at least. He spoke English too perfectly for it to be anything but a first language.

And even then, ruf? Wasn’t that how they said it in Canada?

“You wouldn’t do that,” she said.

“No.” He tipped his briefcase over, unlatched it, and withdrew a smartphone, which he used to take her picture from several different angles. “I wouldn’t.” He spoke quietly, his words punctuated by the phone’s artificial shutter noise. “Because you are a liability, Ashley Bowman. And I am a cautious man.”

“Why are you taking my picture?”

“I’m documenting you. Six-twenty a.m., Monday, August twenty-seventh. Protester alive and well.”

She snorted. “You can fake those.”

“Protesters?”

Once again, she couldn’t tell if he was joking. “I meant pictures.”

He put the camera away. “I’m sure I could. But why would I waste my time?”

“Because you’d already secretly done away with me and dumped my body in the ocean?”

“You’d float right back to shore. I’d have to chop you into pieces and hire a boat to take you way out where it’s deep, and even so.” He laid out this plan as though he’d considered it but rejected its impracticality. Then he looked at his watch.

“Bigger fish to fry today, huh?” she asked.

Roman glanced at her legs, and it was possible—just possible—that his eyes stuttered in the vicinity of her breasts as he brought his gaze back up to her face.

But if he’d ogled her, it had been the smoothest ogle in the history of ogling.

“You aren’t a fish,” he said. “You don’t have a tail.”

Ashley wiggled her legs in the metallic blanket. “No, but this is pretty fancy. I feel like you’ve upped my cool factor by about three hundred percent.”

Roman blinked. Frowned.

He looked toward her toes and shook his head slightly, as if to clear it.

“So,” he said. “You have my attention. Was there something you needed to tell me?”

She had planned to make a speech. To tell him what Sunnyvale meant to her—all the time she’d spent here with her grandmother, the people they’d met and the friends they’d made. Their crew of regular renters who came back year after year, Mitzi and Esther, Stanley and Michael, Prachi and Arvind . . .

Her family. Her home.

She tried to think of a way to put into words why she’d come back to live here every winter, even after she left at eighteen. How it wasn’t just a bunch of apartments plunked down on one of the cheaper Keys—wasn’t simply inexpensive weekly or monthly lodging for old folks down for the season and vacationers too strapped to afford Key West prices.

It was magic. The kind of magic made up of canasta tournaments by the swimming pool and long, laughter-filled evenings sitting on the dock surrounded by tiki torches and old friends. The magic of belonging somewhere. Having something.

That’s what she’d wanted to tell Roman Díaz. But he had his arms crossed, and his flat, expressionless eyes made her uncomfortable, reminding her too vividly of how she must look to him. Young and dumb and barefoot. Full of reckless, useless passion.

What did a man like him care about canasta?

“It’s just . . . this is too great a place to throw away,” she said. “It needs fixing up, I know, but if you put the right person in charge . . . I would do the work. I would work hard. You could turn a profit. Why knock it down when it has so many good years left?”

His eyebrows gathered themselves together. He had abundant eyebrows—the kind of eyebrows with the potential to take over his whole face if he didn’t keep them carefully trimmed. Which obviously he did, but still. Somewhere, there was a sophomore-year-of-high-school photograph of this guy with giant caterpillar eyebrows.

The thought made her a little smug, and she cherished the feeling for a moment, imagining Roman in thirty years with eyebrows so bushy and uncontrolled that they crawled right off his face.

“That’s your whole pitch?” he asked.

Oh, no. I have a much better pitch. I just thought I’d start with one that sucked, in case I didn’t need to waste the ringer.

Ashley kept her smart mouth firmly zipped. She believed in kindness over snark. And anyway, what was the point of arguing? He’d already made up his mind. There was nothing she could do to save Sunnyvale. Not alone. She was—as ever—inadequate to the situation.

It had been a mistake to chain herself to the tree. She should have called for reinforcements. All those people who came back to Sunnyvale every year, who loved it as much as she did—surely they would help if they knew. They had more experience, better connections, and she always did best as part of a crew.

That was where her talents lay: bringing people together, motivating them, smoothing out any little wrinkles to help a group pull together toward a common goal. She was a team player, not an oddball loner of the sort who could launch a successful solo protest.

Too bad this hadn’t occurred to her yesterday when Gus was still around. She might have told him that she was not remotely the sort of person who could live in a redwood for four years. A village of redwoods? Yes. Totally. She would be the one who started the Redwood Village Softball League.

But alone in a tree?

Fuck no. She’d never last.

“Yeah, that was more or less my whole pitch,” she admitted.

“You should have saved yourself the effort.”

A pickup truck pulled into the lot. Ashley recognized it even before Noah the contractor got out and hailed Roman with a lazy wave. Another car arrived, followed by a Jeep.

The crew. They were showing up to begin their day’s work of tearing her heart out of her body and driving over it with the scarred metal treads of their diesel-fueled implements of destruction.

Ashley’s shoulders sent a howling pain-memo to her central nervous system, and it took her a second to realize it was because she’d sat up, straightened her spine, and tossed her hair behind her shoulders. She’d done it without planning, without thinking. Her defiance was visceral, a full-body NO that seemed to have little to do with logic.

You should have saved yourself the effort.

Such a perfect line, delivered with such perfect blankness. She ought to feel defeated. Obviously, she was defeated. This man would roll right over her.

But her posture seemed to be insisting that the only reasonable answer to a line like that was Screw you, buddy.

She wouldn’t let him take the only place she had from her. Not ever, if she could help it, but definitely not today.

Lifting her chin, Ashley met Roman Díaz’s scary brown eyes. “The thing is, though, I don’t need a pitch. I’m in your way, and I’m not moving until you agree to send the machines home and call off the demolition.”

Roman rubbed one hand over his clean-shaven jaw.

He walked away.

“Hey!” she called. “Where are you going?”

He turned around to walk backward, casual as could be. “I’m going to talk to my crew. Then I’m going to send somebody over to give you a drink of water. And then, once I’ve made sure you’re in no danger of dying on me, I’m going to ignore you until you beg me to cut you loose.”

Ashley watched him turn without breaking stride, graceful and dangerous as a swordsman. He strolled toward the parking lot, briefcase swinging gently in his grip. When he was within verbal range, Noah said something, and Roman broke into a huge, easy smile.

A devastating smile.

She’d known it would be devastating, and it totally, completely, absolutely was. Just as bad as she’d figured. Worse.

Damn it all to hell.

Ashley took a deep breath, but then she couldn’t figure out what to do with the air. Or her face. The only sound she could make was a sort of stupefied huff.

This evil Latino Canadian land developer was an opponent ten times more formidable than she’d imagined.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Roman held out his hand.

“Right now?” Noah asked.

“I won, didn’t I? Pay up.”

The contractor reached into his back pocket and unearthed two wrinkled, dog-eared twenties and a ten from his wallet. “You won on a technicality.”

“How do you figure? You said she’d give up by morning. I said you were wrong. I was right. I get the fifty.”

Noah handed the money over, and he placed it in his wallet, using a receipt to segregate the bills from the rest of the notes. He didn’t like things messy. Disorder had a way of inviting chaos, and he avoided chaos at all costs.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know she was going to be alone out here,” Noah explained. “I thought some friend or relative would lure her off the property, get her to eat some dinner and watch TV. I don’t like the idea she was here by herself all night, chained up. Think what could’ve happened to her.”

The possibility that some harm might have come to the half-dressed, freckle-faced Marcia Brady look-alike chained to Roman’s palm tree obviously distressed Noah.

Everything distressed Noah.

But then, that was one reason Roman kept him around. His PA, too—both of them wore their feelings on their faces, and both of them told Roman exactly what was supposed to distress him.

Handy, that, when you rarely got distressed by anything.

“I sent someone to keep an eye on her,” Roman said.

“What, last night?”

“Yes.”

Close enough to the truth. He’d sent himself.

Noah’s forehead became a map of wrinkles. “You knew she was out here all night alone, and you just let her sit?”

“That was her decision, not mine.”

“But you made sure she was safe.”

He’d parked a quarter mile away and walked up from the dock side of the property, hugging the shadows, making sure his footfalls didn’t signal his approach.

He needn’t have bothered with stealth. The woman had been singing show tunes to the night sky. Safe, whole, completely incapable of carrying a tune—and acquainted, it would seem, with virtually all the lyrics to the musical Rent.

Roman recognized the songs. He’d seen the musical with his sister, Samantha, in Milwaukee once. A million years ago.

“Of course.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.”

“I was worried about her, too.”

Rather improbably, Noah seemed to believe this. His forehead eased. “I didn’t know you ever worried about anything.”

Roman smiled, because that was what people did. Bared their teeth at one another. “Worry might be too strong a word.”

In fact, he’d visited the site last night because if Ashley Bowman came to any harm, it would be the end of the project. The stink of negative press was nearly impossible to wash off, and Heberto would back out of the Little Torch development if it turned ugly in this first phase.

Without Heberto, there would be no Coral Cay Resort. Forget Phase II and Phase III. Forget the partnership offer Heberto had been dangling over his head for years. And, most likely, forget about marrying Heberto’s daughter, Carmen, too.

The stakes were way too high for Roman to let one rogue woman ruin everything.

Noah rubbed his hands together. “So I figure we can get started on the units that are farthest from her without putting her in any danger. Maybe knock out number eight, then work back toward her side of the pool after she gives up?”

“No. We’re not doing any demo until we get rid of her. Have someone find her a sun umbrella. Stay here with her, but don’t talk to her. She can have water every hour—every half hour from twelve to four, if it gets as hot as it’s supposed to, and if it doesn’t rain. No food.”

“You want me to babysit her?”

“Do you have a problem with that?”

Noah tried to school his face to blankness, but he didn’t have nearly as much practice as Roman did. The strain showed at the corners of his eyes and the margins of his mouth. “I thought we were starting today.”

“We were. Now we’re not.”

Seconds passed. Roman waited, watching Noah mentally tick through a list of scheduling and payroll concerns.

“Look, Rome, this whole schedule is tight, and that Category Three storm that hits Haiti today is supposed to be headed for us next. By tomorrow night or Wednesday morning, they’re saying, and I don’t think—”

“She won’t last.”

“You’re sure.”

Roman was always sure.

Almost always. When he wasn’t, he faked it, which worked just as well. The important thing was not to hesitate.

“I’m sure,” he said.

But there was something about that woman. The way she’d tossed her hair back, defiant. The way she’d tried to tease him, as though he were a man to be teased.

She didn’t respect his power, and he didn’t respect her ideals. Which left him . . . less sure than he might have preferred.

What leverage could he bring to bear on a woman like Ashley Bowman?

“I won’t risk some piece of random debris flying over and whacking her in the head,” he said. “Keep her alive, don’t feed her, and don’t talk to her. She’ll give in by nightfall. Tomorrow morning at the outside.”

“You think?” Noah asked.

Roman put his hand on Noah’s shoulder. “I guarantee it.”

That worked. The touching thing always worked on Noah.

“All right. I’ll put Mark on the girl, and we can meet here in the morning if she hasn’t taken off yet.”

“Not Mark. You.”

“I have to do this personally?”

Roman pretended to consider. “Well, maybe not. As long as you can promise me that I won’t come back here in the morning to find out that your guy got bored and took off, or he couldn’t keep it in his pants, so, Sorry, Roman, but she’s filed an assault claim with the police, and—

Noah raised his hands. “Got it. I’m on it.”

“And you won’t touch her.”

Noah looked befuddled. “Why would I touch her?”

“Exactly.”

Sometimes it surprised him, how little conception Noah seemed to have of evil. As if it were incomprehensible to him, the product of a mind so different from his own, he couldn’t bridge the mental gulf between him and it.

Roman always understood evil. He’d come from evil, born of it, marked by it, and he’d spent most of his life feeling cast out, nose pressed up against glass, looking in from the outside. It had been a long road, teaching himself to step away from the glass. To be comfortable on the outside, to embrace it, to own it.

What Roman didn’t understand was what it was like to be Noah—completely at ease with humanity, full of tender impulses and good intentions.

Why would you touch her? Because she’s pretty, and she can’t move, and you’re stronger than her. You would touch her because you can.

He’d learned not to have conversations like that with Noah. It was pointless.

The important thing was, with Noah’s help, Roman could make sure no one took advantage of Ashley Bowman.

“But I can’t work overnight,” Noah said.

“You can leave at five. I’ll take care of the night shift.”

“Sounds good.”

Roman climbed into the Escalade while Noah gathered his crew and explained that they wouldn’t be knocking down any buildings today. He turned the key in the ignition. The V8 awoke at his command.

It gave him a deep, warming satisfaction, every time. Pride. Vanity.

Roman wasn’t above them. He knew what he had going for him. People were easily led astray by appearances, seduced by wealth and a symmetrical face, well-tailored clothes, confidence.

He had all those things. He used them like the tools they were.

He glanced at Ashley as he put the truck into reverse.

Not a bad-looking woman, and not as powerless as she seemed to think, given the situation. But she didn’t know how to use what she had to her advantage. As obstacles went, she was a bump in the road.

One day. That was all she would cost him. He’d known something like this was a possibility when he purchased the property. Susan Bowman had made it clear that her granddaughter wouldn’t approve of Sunnyvale’s sale, and she wasn’t to know about it until it was a done deal.

An odd agreement to strike, but that was one of several conditions Susan had demanded, and the sale had been too good to pass up. Sunnyvale sat smack dab in the middle of a prime stretch of real estate whose owners had purchased the land when it was going cheap after World War II and then refused to release their chokehold until the string of hurricanes in ’04 and ’05 had pushed up insurance rates and driven them out. Roman had snapped up as many as he could get the financing on, and when he’d run out of credit, he’d gone to Heberto on his hands and knees.

In a gratifying display of faith, Heberto had bought in. Big. Roman had most of the property, the vision, and the plan: exclusive architecture in a gorgeous setting, high-end shops, a small-town feel. Heberto owned the parcels of land Roman hadn’t been able to afford. More important, Heberto’s funding and Heberto’s reputation would make it possible to build the resort hotel—a much bigger project than Roman could swing on his own.

Coral Cay would make him, and Sunnyvale was the keystone—situated at the center of the spot where the hotel would go, with a marina that he intended to turn into a world-class beach.

All he had to do was remove the woman who had padlocked herself to his keystone.

He could think of any number of ways to shear her off, but he preferred to let her do it herself.

The sort of person who bolstered her courage by singing show tunes in the dark—who cared enough for a falling-down collection of crappy 1960s rental units to plead for their rescue—she wouldn’t last long.

He’d studied Ashley Bowman. She floated through life without attachments, never sticking to anything or anyone. She had no will. No backbone.

Roman knew what it felt like to be in her shoes. Stunned by grief, clinging desperately to the flotsam of the life you’d just lost. Alone. Frightened and helpless.

But he also knew how to survive it, how to wash up on the other side. His experiences had taught him how to do it.

Hers hadn’t.

He’d be surprised if she made it through the night.

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