Hot Knight in Paradise
by Sofia Harper
Stranded in paradise with no way to get home, Leah Smith needs a miracle, and fast. Instead, she gets Marshall Jackson, surely the sexiest man alive. Too bad he’s got an emotional wall around himself–and her only hope of getting off the island …
Marshall has a strict no damsels in distress policy, but there’s something about Leah that makes him want to break his own rules. He agrees to let her work in his bar until she earns enough to get home. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is to deny the scorching attraction between them. Soon hot island nights provide balm to their wounded souls, but will these two flawed exiles make peace with the past in time to claim the future they deserve together–or will paradise be lost?
© 2013 Sofia Harper
Several thoughts crossed Leah Smith’s mind as Jimar, her chauffeur, pulled over to the side of the road. Road being a relative term, since the jungle crowded the dirt path on both sides. Not to mention there were no lights, no other cars, no other signs of civilization. Middle of nowhere was a fair description.
The thoughts didn’t come in any particular order. Why had they stopped? Where were they? Wasn’t this just her luck? God, she should have known better. Fear twisted in her stomach as the man turned around in the topless Jeep, a grim expression on his face. “Give me your purse.”
“Right,” she said, and the pit in her stomach deepened.
The lush environment soaked in her words, not allowing for an echo. That answered at least one question. No, you couldn’t hear a tree fall, at least not on St. Lucia. Twenty-seven square miles of island covered by foliage so thick, so green, and so huge, no one would hear her scream. It was breathtaking—or it would be, if she could ignore the reason she was surrounded by it, right up to her dimpled little chin.
Her fingers tightened around the purse. Maybe she’d heard him wrong. His Patwa was thicker than molasses, more so than the other islanders’ she’d talked to so far. “What did you say?”
“Hand over your purse.” His dreadlocks fell forward as he reached for the battered knock-off.
That spurt of fear pounded in her heart. She was alone with a man, in a car, in a jungle. Don’t show him how scared you are. Give him what he wants. Get out of the car. All the things her one time self-defense teacher had pounded into her head. Because she had expected something like this to happen, Leah had memorized the U.S. Barbados Embassy’s If You Get Robbed web page. If she handed over the purse that held her ID and passport, she’d be stuck in the Caribbean for the rest of her life. Several regrets crossed her mind.
The regrets didn’t come in any particular order…She should have bought that fanny pack before boarding the plane. Then, she had thought dropping thirty-five dollars was ridiculous when she could pay, maybe, five bucks for one once in St. Lucia.
Too late now.
Keep calm. Think. Maybe she could reason with him. All muggers wanted one thing. “I’ll give you all my money, but please let me keep everything else.” Dammit, she sounded as scared as she felt. Assertive would have probably worked better.
Maybe not, because Jimar sighed and leaned forward. She inched closer to the door, looking out at the dense jungle to her left. Sweat dripped down her back and between her breasts. She had a few sips of water left in the bottle held between her knees and no real way to navigate, but she’d faced down worse things. And who cared, as long as she kept the purse.
She brought her gaze back to him. He’d looped one arm over the steering wheel. With the other hand, he opened the glove compartment. What looked to be a gun lay on top of papers. It could have been the non-business end of a knife, a hammer. But the way he opened the compartment and his grim expression made her think gun.
Leah tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry.
There was no question what would happen once she handed over the purse. He didn’t plan to leave behind a witness who’d seen his face. If she gave him what he wanted, she’d likely die. Her hold on the purse turned fierce. She looked out into the darkening jungle. That’s where she’d have to go, because he definitely wasn’t going to give her a courtesy ride back to civilization. Why hadn’t she listened to her gut when it told her this was a bad idea?
Give him the purse. Get out of the car. Run for your life.
And then a crazy person took her place, the kind who didn’t know when to stop fighting and said, “No.”
She saw the intent in his eyes a moment before he moved. A scream clawed its way out of her throat as she climbed over the back of the Jeep, rolled off the car, and flopped onto her stomach because she didn’t have any cat-like abilities to land on her feet. But, she had her purse and that would keep her alive long enough to figure something out. She glanced back only to see Jimar lurching out of the car.
Scrambling to her feet, she looked up and stopped. A man moved in a slow, steady gait, effectively blocking her path to escape. An accomplice? This day could not get better. Could not.
“The travel brochures always forget to mention the crime rates,” Leah muttered.
Seeing that she’d given up the chase, the unknown man strode forward at a faster pace. He was tall and built like a man who didn’t mind hard labor. Size didn’t matter when someone had made up their mind to hurt you, but the man’s sculpted frame shot down any thought that she might overpower him. In the darkening light, his silhouette stood out along with the red Hawaiian shirt he wore that flapped in the breeze. His shorts stopped a little below the knees, and she should have been scared at the solid form. He hefted a large backpack, one that looked straight out of a hiking how-to-article. Fear should have lanced through her stomach, but all she could do was stand, stupefied, danger at her back and front. Her flight-or-fight impulses didn’t know what to do now
Jimar’s stance relaxed as he drew closer. “Stay calm and I won’t have to hurt you.”
What did it matter if she was calm or not, when his accomplice was on his way to tighten the noose around her stupid neck? When his accomplice had brought supplies?
He stopped within reaching distance of her. “I’m Marshall.” An American accent wove through his voice. She blinked, but recovered from the shock when the accomplice edged closer to her.
“I hike and make maps as a side job. Was out and about doing that.” He shifted the backpack as though to prove his statement as truth. “But I also work at a bar not too far from here.” He waited a beat, and when no one offered their names, he added, “You two look lost.”
Her chauffeur reached forward, and she stepped back, out of grabbing range. The floor of the jungle whispered beneath her feet.
“Nice day for a ride,” Marshall said in a conversational tone, “Where are you headed? I know the area pretty well. Maybe I can help.”
Adrenaline kept coursing through her blood, and it took a moment for her brain catch up. This man wasn’t an accomplice. He was some regular Joe who’d stumbled on a potential crime scene. He had the build for a professional hiker, and if her heart could stop racing she’d feel comforted that he wasn’t intent to kill her too.
“Visiting?” He directed the question at Leah.
She made a noncommittal noise and inched to the jungle. It seemed the safest place. The man, solid and wary, grabbed hold of her arm. Her stomach jumped at the touch, but she still glared down at the limb. His skin was a shade darker than hers, a deeply sun-kissed bronze.
“I wouldn’t do that.” He dropped the genteel quality in his tone. “It’s dangerous in there if you don’t know where you’re going.”
His fingers gripped her forearm, and without so much as a polite word, he tugged her to his side. She wasn’t alone anymore. Something raw and primal tried to claw up her throat. She swallowed it down. Later she could lose her shit, but right now that wouldn’t help. Drawing on the promise of a really, really good crying jag in the near future, Leah lifted her chin.
“You can go now,” she said to Jimar.
Silence greeted her words, but the chauffeur turned on a heel and went back to the car. Maybe he was leaving now that he had two people to intimidate. She sucked in a breath and looked at the man beside her. Marshall’s gaze didn’t waver from the other man.
He spoke, low and without a hint of worry in his tone, but he gripped her arm again and started to walk toward the car. “I’m going to take two guesses, and you can tell me if I’m right: he drove you out here to mug you. The other guess is worse. Listen to me, and you’ll be safe.”
She hadn’t listened to her gut before, and now it was shouting at her to listen. Leah kept the pace, and they made it to the front of the car before the driver straightened out of the Jeep. There was no longer a question of whether or not it was a gun. The business end gleamed, even in the dark, outdoing the menace in the man’s eyes. Marshall took a step in front of Leah, blocking her body.
“Like that would do anything,” she whispered in a harsh tone, but something inside her warmed at the action. How many people who knew her would take a bullet? None, unfortunately, but this stranger would. She pushed down the sudden and unexpected well of emotion. Later, she could indulge in a mountain of Kleenex to sob in. Instead she peeked around all the gear on Marshall’s back.
“Give me the purse,” Jimar said, the gun at his side not yet aimed at either of them.
“I’ll give you all the money,” Leah said, but inched behind Marshall a little more. “I only need my ID and passport. You can have the rest. I promise to not even call my bank to cancel my credit cards.” She paused. “For twenty-four hours.”
All of Marshall’s focus was on the metal tip of the gun. “Just give him the damn purse. It’s not worth your life.”
“I won’t have a life if I do. I’ll be stuck here, and he’s probably going to shoot us both after I do.”
He ventured a glance behind him. “This is your argument?”
“Give it to me,” the chauffeur yelled, and his gun arm started to rise.
Marshall ripped the purse out of her hands and tossed it over. When Jimar caught it, her rescuer reached back, his hand brushing across her stomach. Leah gasped at the sudden heated frisson spreading through her chest. Bad ideas and timing. This was her life. A loud pop came from the gun and before Leah could process the noise, Marshall was on top of her. His breath heaved out and she couldn’t find hers because of him; plus the backpack weighed a ton. Blood roared in her ears, but she could hear the Jeep’s engine revving to life.
A part of her wanted to push Marshall off, jump in front of the car, grab hold of the grill, climb in, and snatch her purse back while the man was distracted. First she had to stop the shaking.
“Are you okay?” he asked in a way that hit right past her defenses.
Don’t show fear. Don’t break down.
“I had it under control,” she muttered.
Marshall lifted his head as though shocked, and then he laughed. “Falling face first onto the ground was under control?”
She pushed him off and he went willingly. The dirt road was empty again with only the two of them. The grit of rocks dug into her back. The balmy air had its own texture. “I was trying to escape for my life. Perfect landings weren’t a priority.” Although she could only imagine how it had looked from his vantage point. Sitting up, she added, “He didn’t bring out the gun until you came along.”
“That wasn’t a gun.” He waved his hand as though to dismiss the observation.
Her gaze followed the action, distracted by his wide palm but slim fingers. She blinked once the words settled in. “What? Yes, it was.”
He shook his head and stood without bothering to knock off any bits of dirt. “I know guns. That wasn’t one.”
She looked at him incredulously. “It was a good imitation, then. How was he able to shoot it? Why did you jump on top of me?”
“I’m not the type to take chances on ‘maybe I’m wrong.’ My ears aren’t ringing and I was closer to it. Also, it smells like jungle instead of gunpowder.”
Something akin to relief flooded her stomach, but if she let it take root, tears and gibberish would follow. She’d start to blubber and tremble, and that wouldn’t get her off this dirt road and home. She argued to beat the urge to unravel back. “So…you weren’t sure, but you still risked your life. Do you walk around hopped up on hero juice?”
He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Not in a long while.”
Huh. She wasn’t going to touch that statement with a ten-foot pole. Everything in his demeanor told her to drop the subject. “It’s going to be a pain in the ass to get my passport back.”
He heaved an exasperated sigh. “Come on. It’s done. I’m sure there’s someone you can call to help you now. I work a mile or two from here.”
She sent a glare in his direction, which he probably couldn’t see now. The last vestiges of light had been eaten up by the flora. She stood, her hands still shaking. Her automatic reply was to shoot him down, but he’d thrown her to the ground to save her life. Or, thought he had. What kind of man did that? Probably a good one.
He stood a distance away now but still managed to take up her space just by standing there. It unnerved Leah, but only because at a time like this she noticed.
“What was the last landmark you saw?” he asked.
With reluctance she answered, “The airport.”
She cringed at his tone. “Long flight,” she tried and failed to defend herself. “I fell asleep in the Jeep.”
“Look,” Marshall’s tone softened, “I have a pay phone you could use.”
Her brows creased at that. “You don’t have a cell phone?”
“No.” He didn’t elaborate.
Panic threatened to rise, adding to everything else, and soon something would have to give. She forced herself to concentrate on the sweat-soaked twenty-dollar bills pinned to the inside of her bra. Forty bucks was what she had left. Her “chauffeur” had taken all her Eastern Caribbean dollars. Her luggage. Her purse. Her only chance of getting out of the tropics. God, she should have stuffed the passport in her bra, too, vanity be damned. She sighed, squinting to see Marshall better, but all she could make out was the shadow of the man.
“I’m not going to stand out here all night,” he said. “I have somewhere to be—work.” A shift in movement and something heavy was pushed into her hands. “That’s a flashlight. Back behind you, probably a two-hour walk in this terrain, will take you to a store right at the edge of the town. It’ll be open again in the morning.”
The silence thickened. He was probably waiting to see if she’d cave. “Here’s some water.” He shoved that into the other hand. “Good luck.”
Another silence that made the humidity feel thin in comparison. “Or you could trust me enough to follow me.” His tone was barely above a whisper, “Up to you.”
Trust. A hefty word to throw out when she’d only known the man for ten minutes. An ideal she’d long since given up on. That was probably why her craving for adventure had gotten stronger and stronger over the past few months. She’d hoped a safe and well-planned adventure would quench it. An adventure that would leave her all loose-limbed and carefree, the way she used to be.
His silhouette shifted closer, taking up her personal space again, but not in a creepy way. The heat of him brushed along her skin and she stepped back, searching for any sign of tension. There hadn’t been even when Jimar had aimed that alleged gun in their direction. Marshall had to be the poster boy for relaxed. She envied him a little for it.
“I’m not going to stand out here all night while you try to suss out the possibilities.” He put out his hand. “Give me back the water.”
Surprised at his sudden abrupt tone, she shoved it at him. “Fine.”
He took it and put something else in her hand. She clicked on the flashlight to see what the small object was, and her heart shot up into her throat. A switchblade. On instinct, she flicked it open and aimed it at him.
But Marshall had already turned around and started walking away. By the time the fear burned out, she realized he’d given it to her to protect herself. Not only that, he was leaving her there on the dirt road alone, the flashlight dimming as if it were about to die. She added that to the promise of a fetal position, on top of a mountain of Kleenex. Think. Keep calm.
She had two choices—take a chance and follow him or figure out how to make a hammock out of her T-shirt, shorts, and bra.
“At least I know this is a bad idea from the get-go,” she said, and followed the shadow.