Cristy Walters planned the perfect wedding: five-star resort, beautiful dress, millionaire husband-to-be. So how come on her wedding day she’s shipwrecked on a tropical island, her gown in tatters, and carried over the threshold of a survival hut by a hot, hunky stranger?
With no rescue in sight, Cristy is all alone with sexy Matt Slade – a man who makes her pulse race like it never did for her fiancé. She and Matt explore the island – and each other. Passion is instant, trust comes slowly – especially as Matt is not the carefree boat bum he appears to be.
Can the love they discover survive in the real world away from their castaway fantasy?
With trembling fingers, Cristy Walters made the final adjustment to her bridal veil as she gazed into the mirror in her hotel suite. She tucked in a stray wisp of golden hair, then smoothed down the flyaway swathe of white tulle. She checked her front teeth for lipstick. Now all she needed was for her maid-of-honor, Miriam, to inspect the row of tiny satin-covered buttons that fastened into loops all the way down her slender back. She couldn’t be sure she hadn’t missed one.She didn’t bother to knock on the door that connected their two rooms before she pushed it open. “Well, what do you thi-?” she began and then stopped halfway through her triumphant pirouette, her silky skirts swishing to a sudden halt around her ankles.
All she could see of Miriam from behind the black, tuxedo-ed back of the man who was kissing her was a flash of pink satin and Miriam’s plump arms twined voluptuously around the man’s neck. The man’s hands appeared to be clutching Miriam’s bottom.
They were too engrossed in their passion to notice her and Cristy unsuccessfully smothered a laugh. Really Miriam, can’t you wait until after the ceremony before you get off with the groomsman!
Her laugh, muted as it was, disturbed the couple. They stood still for a moment then sprang apart in a rustling flurry of satin. As they turned, the smile froze on Cristy’s face and she felt as though all the air had been suddenly and painfully squeezed from her body.
The man kissing Miriam so passionately wasn’t the groomsman. He was the groom.
She stared in disbelieving horror at Howard, the man she was to be joined with in holy matrimony in just twenty minutes time.
Her husband-to-be and her bridesmaid stared back, guilt etched on their stricken faces. Howard’s chin was emblazoned with a smear of Miriam’s hot pink lipstick.
Then Howard cursed and Miriam yelped out Cristy’s name in a high-pitched squeak.
Cristy felt all color drain from her face and she started to tremble from the top of her pearl coronet to the tips of her silk-clad feet. She let out just one single sob of betrayal and fury.
Then she spun on one high satin heel, wrenched open the door and ran, helter-skelter, into the hotel corridor. Frantic, she looked from side to side, unable to comprehend the reality of what she’d seen. Not Howard and Miriam. The two people she trusted most in the world. This couldn’t be happening to her. She’d wake up any minute.
Then she heard Howard’s voice close behind her and knew she was only too awake. “Cristy, come back. I… we can explain.”
Nothing he said could make this better. She didn’t want to hear one traitorous word from him. Howard-the man she was marrying because she’d thought he was decent and honest and honorable. Because she’d thought he would never let her down.
It had been six weeks from proposal to today’s proposed “I do”. In that time not once had she doubted his commitment. Not once had she suspected anything between him and Miriam. Miriam, who had her own husband.
A wave of nausea rose so that she nearly choked. Her dream wedding had suddenly turned into the worst of nightmares.
Cristy didn’t care about the expectant guests assembled below in the hotel function room. She didn’t care about the celebrant gearing himself up for the ceremony.
She just wanted out of here.
She pushed aside a trolley laden with fresh linen and toiletries, mumbling a frantic “sorry” to the startled housemaid who stood, hands on hips, and watched the bride’s flight down the corridor, her long, full skirts billowing out around her, her frothy veil floating above.
Cristy made for the elevators to find the doors just closing. She stabbed frantically at the “down” button with her freshly manicured fingers. “Please, please let me in,” she beseeched as she tried to wrench the doors apart.
Suddenly they slid open. She stumbled and fell into the elevator-smack onto its only occupant, pushing him hard up against the wall.
The man’s chest was solid, and the arms that encircled her to help her gain her balance were strong and powerful. She was as close to him as if they were in a lover’s embrace-she could smell the spice of his aftershave, feel the warmth of his skin, sense his heart thudding against hers. But she was too winded to apologize or move away from him.
Behind her she could hear Howard pounding furiously on the elevator door. “For heaven’s sake Cristy, this isn’t what it seems.”
She looked back over her shoulder.
The doors started to glide open again revealing Howard’s flustered, lipstick-smeared face and, peering nervously and tearfully behind him, Miriam.
Howard’s agitated eyes and nervous wringing of his hands made him seem genuinely distressed but Cristy couldn’t bear to hear what he had to say. She didn’t need explanations. She’d seen what she’d seen. How could she ever, ever forget the way he’d been clutching Miriam’s bottom?
This was Howard, the man who had been her best guy friend long before he was her fiancé. Her mentor. Her confidant. The last man she’d thought would hurt her.
And Miriam – her trusted friend Miriam – had been wantonly pressing herself against him as if she couldn’t get close enough.
Cristy choked on a sob. She couldn’t bear the sight of them.
She twisted away from the stranger and fumbled for the “close door” button.
He got to it before she did. “Is this guy bothering you?” he asked in a husky Australian drawl.
Mutely, she nodded.
With one hand he pressed the “close door” button. With the other, he firmly pushed Howard backward. As the doors slid shut, Cristy was left with the final image of a vertical slice of her fiancé’s face, his eyes nearly popping out of his face with frustration at her evasion.
“Th… thanks,” she finally managed to stutter out to her companion of the elevator, as she watched the numbers on the display flashing downward and attempted to plot her next move.
She tried to still her trembling with one deep breath and then another while her thoughts tumbled chaotically over one another. She was on a tropical island off the north coast of the state of Queensland, Australia. She had to get home. But where was home? Her walk-up back in New York City-or the apartment she’d leased in Sydney when she’d come to Australia for her job three months ago?
First step to anywhere was to get out of here. But the only building on Starlight Island was this luxury hotel. There were no roads, no airport. The only way off the island was by boat. Only she didn’t have a boat.
“Honeymoon over so soon?” At the stranger’s cynical words, Cristy turned back to him. Her first instinct was to give him a curt retort. But then she looked, really looked, for the first time at her rescuer.
Her eyes widened and she found herself swallowing hard. She had to look a long way upward-and she was tall herself. In her panic she had not registered that the man she had fallen on was so extraordinarily handsome.
Lean faced, with bemused green eyes and a slightly crooked nose, his dark, straight hair fell almost to his shoulders. Tight, well-worn jeans hugged narrow hips and muscular thighs; his black T-shirt did nothing to hide the breadth of his shoulders and the power of his chest. No wonder he’d felt so good to fall against.
She tried, she really tried, but she could not stop staring at him.
Through her panic, she realized that a bride should not be registering the sexual appeal of any man other than her groom. Should not be so aware that they stood just kissing distance apart in the confines of the elevator.
But the rules were different for a jilted bride. She could admire him all she liked. Because from this moment on she was officially single.
“You’re obviously in trouble. Can I help?” The stranger’s voice was deep and husky, the cynical edge now gone.
Cristy tore her gaze away from him to check on the lights flashing downward toward the lobby. Down there was a roomful of guests flown here at Howard’s expense. At Howard’s enormous expense.
They were expecting her at any moment to walk into the flower-bedecked room and down the aisle formed by rows of ribbon-adorned chairs. They were expecting to hear her swear vows to love and honor the man she’d just caught groping her bridesmaid.
The wedding was off. But was she to be the one to face their guests? She couldn’t endure that humiliation. No way was she was going in there.
“Yes,” she said and impulsively clutched the stranger’s hard, muscular arm. Such rash behavior was out of character for her. But everything was unraveling. All the plans and schedules and calculations in the world couldn’t help her now.
She looked beseechingly up to his green eyes. “You can help me. Just get me away from here. I don’t care to where. Just get me out. Please. Now.”
Matt groaned inwardly. Wasn’t it just his luck? Innocently riding an elevator and suddenly he’s lumbered with a bride. Someone else’s bride.
What the hell was he going to do with her? All kitted out in full bridal regalia, she was hardly inconspicuous. And to make it worse he, Matt Slade, had volunteered for the bride disposal duty. Why hadn’t he just bowed out of the elevator and left her to sort out her lover’s wrangle for herself?
He didn’t know who the ginger-haired guy upstairs was but from the look on his face when the elevator doors had closed on him, he wouldn’t be taking no for an answer from this lady. This could get ugly.
He disengaged her hand from his arm. “What about your husband?”
“Husband?” she said. “What husband?”
He gestured at her white gown.
“I’m not married.” Her voice caught. “And now I… I’m never going to be.”
The bride looked wide-eyed up at him. “I’ve just caught my bridegroom-my, uh, ex-bridegroom-kissing my bridesmaid. His hands all over her. He-”
She was speaking so quickly the words tumbled over each other. Then her voice broke with a little tremor that bordered on a sob.
It was a distressing sound that twanged a chord somewhere deep in Matt’s barricaded heart. It was a sound that signaled “damsel in distress” and flooded him with an irrational urge to whistle up his white charger and race to her rescue, slaying dragons all the way.
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. Matt let out a sigh of relief that the irate bridegroom wasn’t there to greet them.
The bride seemed relieved, too. She peered around the door to check that the coast was clear. It was only the doors starting to slide closed again that propelled her into the lobby.
Nervously she glanced toward the Orchid Room. “In there, the wedding’s in there.” Then she turned to look imploringly at him. “I can’t face them.”
Her voice rose a little too high on the last words though she was obviously struggling to control it.
This wasn’t just a bride in distress. This was a runaway bride. This was a bigger mess than he’d even imagined. Whoa, white charger, whoa boy.
For the first time, Matt saw beyond the gauzy veil and the white gown and looked at the woman who stood so closely before him. He looked. And kept on looking.
She’d felt slender and warm in his arms. But that hadn’t prepared him for how breathtakingly beautiful she was.
Surely this woman was every man’s dream bride. A living, breathing fantasy. A vision of what-might-be if a guy got very, very lucky. That is, if the guy ever had any intention of getting married. Which he didn’t.
Her blond hair was pulled back off her face and tucked behind her headdress but the severity of the style only accentuated the perfect structure of her face. Her cheeks were flushed with panic but the pink glow served to highlight the creaminess of her skin and the startling, clear blue of her eyes-eyes that glittered with unshed tears.
But her mouth. In its trembling, pink fullness it was a mouth made for passion, begging to be kissed and for one crazy out-of-control moment he wanted to pull her to him and taste its honeyed sweetness.
He inclined his head toward her, his heart drumming in anticipation. He took a step closer-then forced himself to stop. What madness was this? He looked at her again. This time with a more dispassionate eye.
She was beautiful all right. Almost too beautiful. Perfect hair. Perfect skin. Perfect teeth. And that hand that had gripped his arm was tipped with perfectly manicured fingernails. She was high maintenance. Expensive. And trouble. Just the sort of woman he’d sworn off forever.
Those blue eyes should have warned him. Blue eyes like hers could look so innocent while their owner was quietly stabbing you in the back.
He hadn’t realized before but, when he thought about it, everyone who had betrayed him had blue eyes. Julia. Danny. Even his mother.
“Shouldn’t you be trying to sort things out with your fiancé?” His voice was gruffer than he’d meant it to be as he tried not to look again at that mouth. Or be intoxicated by the scent of roses that wafted from her.
Her face screwed up in anguish. Anyone else would have looked ugly. She looked heartrendingly vulnerable.
“I’ve told you. As from a few minutes ago he’s my ex… ex-fiancé.” Her voice stumbled a little over the word. “And I couldn’t bear to ever see him again.”
Those big blue eyes were raised to his in appeal. “Please help me get away from here.”
No! No way. He struggled against those darn white knight instincts.
He’d bought her some time by pushing her bridegroom out of the elevator but that’s as far as he intended to aid and abet this absconding bride. He’d come up to these islands to escape trouble. Not to court it.
Mentally, he slapped the rump of that knight’s white charger and sent it off home to its stable.
The man wasn’t going to help her. Cristy could see it in the tightening of his mouth and the shutters that came down over his green eyes. She swallowed a sob of desperation that rose in her throat. He had to help her get away.
But why would he want to get involved with this disaster? They were just strangers in an elevator. “Can I help you?” he’d asked. That was just a platitude.
She felt awash with humiliation. Somehow it made it worse that he was so spectacularly handsome. She wouldn’t feel so bad if he was fifty with a paunch and a bald spot.
But why waste time worrying over this stranger? At any second Howard could arrive to coax her to go through with the ceremony. A guy in his position would not be made a fool of by having to explain his bride had run away. Or why.
How had this gone so wrong?
She’d worked her tush off to make senior analyst at blue-ribbon New York stockbrokers, Templetton & Templetton. Stay at the office until midnight? I’m your gal! Weekend lockdown? Count me in!
On her way up, she’d become friends with Howard, the Templetton heir. They’d been platonic buddies who’d shared movies, dinners and dating woes. They’d never even kissed. She’d been shocked when he’d proposed. He’d offered a marriage based on trust and friendship with the promise that passion would grow. She’d taken her time to say “yes”. But once she had, she’d made a whole-hearted commitment and flung herself into the wedding plans.
And now this.
But no way would she go to pieces in front of this stranger. Or beg him for help.
She blinked down hard on the tears that stung her eyes. “Can you tell me the way to the ferry?”
“Ferry? There’s no ferry to this island. Just the hotel jet boat twice a day. And you’ve got…” He looked at his watch. “About five hours to wait for the next one.”
“Five hours?” Her voice rose in disbelief.
He shook his head.
He shook his head again.
“Wh… what about those buildings at the other end of the island?” Maybe she could seek refuge there.
She scowled. “Don’t tell me. I wouldn’t be welcome.”
He didn’t nod or shake his head this time. Just grinned. An infuriating grin. Was he staff himself? He wasn’t dressed in the designer sportswear that was the dress code for the male guests on Starlight Island.
She mustered up as much sarcasm as she could. “Well, thanks a lot for your help.”
Then she turned on her heel, her long skirts swishing around her. She tossed her veil behind her without glancing backward. There was no time to waste on wise guys like this. She had to get as far away as possible, as fast as possible.
Ignoring the titters and stares of the fascinated bystanders, she marched as quickly as she could on three-inch heels toward the lobby doors. They slid open before her and she was greeted by a blast of warm, tropical, late morning air. Down the marble steps and past the pathway that wound its way through palm trees and hibiscus was the marina. She had to find it.
She lifted up her full skirts and sped down the stairs. Negotiating the gravel in satin heels wasn’t as easy as she’d thought and she stumbled.
Someone caught her arm to support her. She whipped around. Howard!
No. The man from the elevator.
“So where are you going?” he asked in that slow, sexy Australian drawl.
“To the marina. There are boats parked there. I-”
“You don’t park a boat, you moor it.”
“Moor it, park it. Who cares? There are boats there and I want to hire one to get me off this darn island.”
“How do you intend to do that?”
Cristy was beyond thinking straight. “I… uh… just ask people, I guess.”
“Walk up and down the jetty shouting into the boats?”
“If I have to…”
“In your wedding dress.”
A pained look crossed his face. A spare me the idiocies of women kind of look. The kind of look that would annoy her on a normal day. Drive her crazy on a PMS day. And right now, made her itch to shove him in the nearest clump of bougainvillea and enjoy watching him become impaled on the thorns.
She gritted her teeth and flounced-she couldn’t do anything but flounce in a voluminous silk gown-away from him. A breeze picked up her veil and whipped it around her. Fighting with the wind to push it back from her face, she found herself turned right back around to face him.
And was stunned by the struggle visible on his face.
He didn’t want to help her. Was obviously regretting he’d found himself in the same elevator as a bride on the run. But she could see that he was losing the battle. The words were forced grudgingly from his mouth. “I’ve got a boat.”
Hope bubbled through her. “A boat? Here? You mean-?”
“I’ll take you off the island.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
“You really mean that?”
She closed her eyes in sheer relief. “Thank you. Oh thank you.” Then looked up at him. “I… I can pay you.”
But could she?
She realized she had no wallet, no handbag, no pockets even. She was a bride for heaven’s sake. And a bride, like the Queen of England, didn’t carry cash or credit cards.
“Actually I can’t pay you. Not, uh, yet anyway. I…”
“Who said anything about payment? Do you want to get off this island or not? Come on, before I change my mind.”
He strode away. Cristy stumbled again as she followed him across the gravel. Darn shoes. They were hardly the stuff of rapid escapes.
But she didn’t want to waste time by stopping to take them off. And she didn’t want to admit she’d stumbled because she couldn’t keep her eyes off of him as he walked ahead of her.
Broad shoulders tapered to the best butt she’d ever seen fill beaten-up Levi’s. Brides on their wedding day were not meant to notice details like that on other men. Or the muscled strength of his arms, tan against the black of his T-shirt. Or the athletic grace of his stride. And brides were not meant to experience, for even a second, a little shiver of sensual appreciation. But she did. She still wore the dress. She still wore the veil. But she was no longer Howard’s bride-to-be.
She followed the handsome stranger past the lush plantings of frangipani and bougainvillea that lined the pathway leading to the marina where the wealthy visitors to the island moored their craft.
He strode out on to the jetty. “My boat’s over here.”
Cristy hadn’t thought about what type of boat he might have. It was just a means of escape. But she was surprised by the luxurious white yacht he indicated before he leaped on board.
“C’mon,” he said, holding out a hand.
She stood stock-still on the jetty, unable to move forward. Her feet seemed glued to the wooden planks beneath. Ahead were the aquamarine waters of the vast Pacific Ocean bounded only by the endless horizon.
She was about to get on board a boat with a total stranger. She didn’t even know this man’s name. Who he was, where he came from. He didn’t seem axe murderer material but who could tell?
Then she heard it. Her name carried on the humid tropical air from way back where the hotel gardens edged the pathway. “Criiistiee!”
She spun around to see, still well in the distance but coming closer, a small dark-suited figure followed by several others like him and an indistinguishable blob of hot pink. This was not a wedding march but a wedding hunt-and she was the prey.
She gathered up her skirts with one hand, took the lean brown hand being offered to her by the handsome stranger, and jumped on board his boat.