Copyright © 2010
Paige practically danced across the balcony. She pulled a heavy lounge chair behind her, positioning the chaise close to the timber banister. The autumn wind danced under her silk gown, catching the hem with a sudden breeze. Before she caught the material, the garment covered her face.
Laughing, she sat down and eyed the deserted beach. She looked to the left and then to her right. A few seagulls scattered, and she sighed. She couldn't think of anything she loved more than a sunny fall morning, except maybe the tranquility of enjoying the new day without anyone in sight.
Drawing her knees to her chest, she fell against the uncomfortable patio furniture. While she savored the privacy, she often found loneliness existed in the most serene settings. Paige always had the feeling someone was watching her. Jekyll Island's off-season meant days, if not weeks, of vacancies. Sometimes, when she went to bed at night, she became aware of a harrowing fact—no one would hear her if she ever had a reason to scream.
Rather than revisit her haunted past, Paige closed her eyes and listened to the waves crashing against one another in turbulent competition to reach the sandy shore. The peaceful swooshing sound became louder and louder with the rising high tide. Maybe the ocean supplied a sign of things to come. She'd experienced similar mornings and discovered nature often had a way of providing warning signs.
She glanced at her watch. At eight o'clock, she still had time to go for a run, but she wouldn't take the opportunity. She wanted everything in perfect order by the time her new guests arrived.
The day before, Paige confirmed reservations for five, but her visitors bought out the place, renting all ten bedrooms. Adam Bales, the man who booked her bed and breakfast, took time to explain his reasons. Adam and his friends were a team of professional ropers taking a hiatus from the rodeo. They needed a place to rest and relax away from the limelight. Apparently, Mr. Bales had a thick wallet and a huge ego.
When Mr. Bales secured their reservation, Paige reluctantly accepted the booking. The past had a way of rearing its ugly head when too many men occupied her rooms. Plus, Paige was a little suspicious.
The cowboy securing the reservation made his expectations clear. He booked her B&B for three months. He wanted confidentiality, for whatever reason, and promised to pay double her rate upon check-in, pointing out he would pay for her silence as much as her hospitality.
The locals, he reminded her, would talk if they discovered she was all alone with five young cowboys. What an assumptive fellow. Paige couldn't care less what the island residents thought. Like her, most of them were transplants, and Paige had few friends there.
Adam Bales acted like he knew a lot about her, but when she asked him simple questions, such as a request for his mailing address or phone number, he told her that information was classified. For all Paige knew, she was expecting the arrival of several assassins.
Her doorbell buzzed in the master suite, and she hurried inside. She picked up the bedside clock and read the burgundy numbers. The timekeeper kept right on ticking, clicking off another digit. Thank God she still had a few hours. She wasn't quite ready for her new arrivals and needed every minute in order to properly prepare.
The doorbell rang once more, followed by a loud knock. Someone grew quite impatient.
"Coming!" she screamed, snatching a pale pink robe from her walk-in closet. She rushed down the steps and opened the front door without peering outside first.
She expected to find Sylvia, the older lady she often hired as the only outsource she trusted for baked goods. Instead, she discovered a quite early surprise.
"Yes, that's me," she replied, quickly tying together the satin sash around her waist.
A man with bedroom eyes and fashionable facial stubble extended his hand. "I'm Adam Bales. We spoke on the phone. I believe you're expecting us?"
"No, not this early," she stated flatly. She didn't like guests who checked in before three. She stared at one handsome man and then another, working her gaze among four fellows dressed in cowboy boots and worn jeans. "I mean, yes, yes, of course."
What difference did a few hours make? A lot could happen in between eight and three, not that she thought in terms of seducing a cowboy, but good Lord, the men standing on her porch made a woman pay attention.
"Miss Lambert?" Adam said her name again. "May we come in?"
She gulped. "Please do," she said, stepping out of their way. "I wasn't expecting you this early." So she'd said once already. Forcing a smile, she quickly added, "Follow me to the study, I need to get some information."
"That won't be necessary," one of them said. "If you don't mind, we'd like to keep this as simple as possible." The tall cowboy turned around and reached for something. The young man in the back passed forward a briefcase. "We'd like to pay for your services in cash, if you don't mind."
She blinked. "You mean the rooms?"
A flash of mischief inched its way across the young man's face. "And everything that goes along with those rooms."
"Knock it off, Connor," the guy in the middle spoke up. "Ma'am, you'll have to look over him. We're typically on missions in desolate areas. He's not used to seeing pretty women dressed in…" His gaze worked over her, and he quietly finished with, "such sexy lingerie." He cleared his throat and shifted his weight. "As a matter of fact, none of us are."
"I see," she said, suddenly embarrassed and quite aware of his slip. Did he say "mission"? What happened to the rodeo? "Well, if you don't mind giving me a few seconds, I'll run upstairs and find something more appropriate. Make yourself at home. I'll be right back."
"If you don't mind my saying so, Miss Lambert, you can change the wrapper on the candy, but the sweet temptation will still be there all the same. Besides, if we're all going to live under the same roof, I'm sure we'll see you dressed in your robe plenty, and if we're lucky, maybe even a towel."
This Connor guy was unbelievable. He hit the ground running and bypassed polite introductions for an unstoppable seduction. He didn't start with hello. Oh, no, he wanted her to bend over and take everything he had to give. Apparently, he wasn't used to a woman who knew how to buck back.
Paige resisted the urge to cluck in agitation. She might as well let Connor work his swagger in front of his buddies. She'd put him in his place by mid-afternoon.
"If you need some help up there, just give me a whistle."
The chuckles resonated up the first flight of stairs. Great, she mused, she really needed a bunch of smart-ass bad-boys signing their name on her guest registry and expecting a pat on the booty for the effort.
Once upstairs, she stared outside. What had she been thinking earlier? She was lonely? She wanted company? Bah! She marched across her bedroom and slammed the terrace doors. Securing her room, she turned the lock and lost the robe.
What the hell had she been thinking?
A new realization slapped her in the face. She quickly replayed the phone conversation she'd had with Adam when he'd called to book their reservation. He'd said words like "confidentiality expected" and "privacy required." He'd told her to keep their arrival low profile, implying they were some kind of big deal or something.
Paige had limited knowledge of the rodeo, but she imagined, especially after seeing the cowboys downstairs, some of the guys probably had a female following. No, she mused. She knew better. She'd lived a classified life, and the word "mission" had been thrown out there, too. She didn't know much about the rodeo, but she was pretty sure those guys on the circuit didn't refer to their jobs as missions.
Paige had been on the run before, and that life wasn't what it was cracked up to be. Being the one chased didn't offer any appeal whatsoever. It fact, it was frightening. Her guests didn't look like they were easily spooked. No, indeed, they weren't running from anything. If she had to guess, they were pursuing someone, and since they wanted anonymity, was it possible they chose to hide under a cowboy cover?
Great. How in the hell had she lucked up and gotten their business?
Paige walked over to her nightstand and retrieved her Bible. She'd bookmarked a place with a long business envelope. With trembling fingers, she retrieved the contents and read the warning she'd received from Cairo the year before—You'll never escape me, Jillian. I'll always be watching, and when I'm ready for you, I'll send for you. We'll be together again.
Had that day finally come?
She replaced the note inside the small Bible and returned both to the long, narrow drawer. She'd known Ramone wouldn't forget about her but often thought he might die before he took the opportunity to reenter her life.
Ramone had a lot of enemies. She'd always hoped one of them would get the best of him.
Paige heard a few footsteps right outside her door. Gone were the days of privacy. Peace and quiet only existed in the past.
A light knock made her head jerk. Persistent and impatient—that's exactly what she needed in houseguests.
"Yes? May I help you" she asked politely, opening the door.
Holding onto the doorjamb, Connor occupied the entire space in front of her. Good Lord, talk about a doll! His large, hard body must've been rolled in muscles right before it was dipped into his tight black T-shirt.
"Thought I'd get settled in."
"This is my private room," she told him.
"Good. Then I guessed about right," he said, reaching for his bags and tossing two large duffels inside her spacious owner's suite.
The young gun evidently thought of her as a woman who could be pushed around. Had she played the part of ordinary civilian to the point of overkill or what? If Connor had any idea who she'd once been, he'd pack up his team of lasso-twirling cowboys and head on back to the Longhorn State.
"Do I need to translate the word `private' for you, cowboy?" she asked, grating back the need to curse the arrogant male invading her space, never mind the sudden urge to drop him to his knees just for being straight up assumptive and cocky.
"Connor Corbin," he said, taking her hand in his. A bolt of electricity shot up her right arm, alerting her to the obvious—she had some kind of instant chemistry with this guy. "I'm your new roommate."
They made eye contact, which was a good thing given the fact her gown brushed against her nipples and barely concealed her chest. The black spider lace dipped low, accentuating the valley between her breasts. Paige's ex had paid a pretty price to ensure she possessed the best boobs money could buy, and most men took notice of what he'd purchased.
"Wait and see. It's you and me, sweet cheeks. Adam wants me to protect you."
"And why would I need security in my own home, Mr. Corbin?"
Connor's grip on her hand changed all at once. He snatched her wrist and tugged her against him. Paige landed against his steely body with nothing left to do but glare into his dark blue eyes.
"Are you trying to scare me, Mr. Corbin? Or are you trying to seduce me?" Either way, he'd provoked her, and that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
"No," Connor replied. "But since we obviously hit it off from the very beginning, the boys sent me to establish a few ground rules."
Paige shivered when his free hand worked up and down her back in one brisk motion. Her nipples tightened. How could she react this way in the arms of a complete stranger? Had she been treated like trash so many times that she'd forgotten how to behave like a lady?
Connor smirked, apparently wise to the way she responded to him. "Good, I have your attention," he said. "One—you will not be left unattended while we're here. Two—you must rely on us for your security. And three—you won't go anywhere without permission and an escort, understood?"
Now she was pissed.
How many years had she lived with a crazed lunatic? How many months had she endured life as Ramone's pawn? How often had she followed what someone else told her, reacting like she'd been programmed just so she could stay alive?
Too damn long, she decided, curling her arm around Connor's neck and grabbing him in a chokehold. She could twist his neck and bring about a violent, sudden end if he further provoked her.
Ramone and his men had taught Paige to fight. This man was no match for her speed.
Instant shock washed across Connor's face, and she delivered a swift kick to the genital area, sparing him death but giving him a taste of true pain all the same. Rolling three times, she hurried out of his strike zone, anticipating retaliation.
"Damn you, woman!" he cried out in agony. Stooped in the expected position of a man suddenly disarmed, he growled when he stood. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Don't move," she warned him, drawing her weapon of choice from under her mattress.
"Dear God," Connor breathed, eyeing the longest blade he'd ever seen in his life. "What are you, some kind of fucking psycho maniac?"
"You pushed yourself on me."
"I was trying to cover some preliminary business so we could set aside any false pretenses!"
The men downstairs rushed toward them like a herd of cattle. The pounding of footsteps alerted her to the arrival of Connor's posse. In a moment, she'd be surrounded. The time she spent in Cairo returned in a series of flashbacks.
Her mouth went dry. Her eyes were heavy, but focused. She felt the heat licking at her nape, like she often did when she awoke in a cold sweat, fighting her way out of the nightmares of a past she desperately wanted to erase from her memory.
Adam started inside the room. His thick muscles bunched over the long sleeves pushed above his elbows. "What the hell did you do to her?"
"Adam, back off man, she's crazy," Connor bit out.
"I'm crazy?" Paige asked, gripping her weapon. "You're the one who came in here pitching a bunch of rules, implying I can't protect myself."
"It's a machete," Connor informed them.
"No shit," one of the other fellows said, looking over Adam's broad shoulder. "Ya don't say?"
"Where the hell did you get that?" Adam asked her, giving Connor a hard stare in an apparent effort to translate one of those I've got this kind of messages.
"You're not going to talk me down," she stated flatly, making her position known. "I'm not angry. I'm certainly not insane. But I'm not easily shoved around, especially not by a cocky-ass man." She checked out Connor's behind and then added for sport, "Especially not one who is apparently under the impression he's more cock than ass."
The cowboy who looked a few years younger than the rest chuckled. "She's got your number, Connor. Before long, she'll be leading you around on a leash and insisting you call her sugar momma."
"Knock it off, Miles," Adam demanded, keeping his arms spread wide, never changing his stance or his grip on the wooden door frame. Evidently, he wanted to protect the young dude from crossing into the danger zone.
What she'd give to taunt Connor. If anything, she should make an example out of him. He'd entered her bedroom uninvited, handing down orders like he was a decorated soldier with clout and political position. Then, he'd had the audacity to rub his pecker against her pussy!
She swallowed hard eyeing the men staring back at her.
"What's it going to be, Paige?" Adam said, negotiating. "Can we all get along here?"
"Probably not, but what the hell?" She took a deep breath, realizing the consequences awaiting her action. She dropped her weapon anyway. She might as well get to know her guests. Besides, she'd missed her morning jog and needed a good workout. And hadn't she decided that a solitary existence was overrated anyway?
Yep, sure enough.
She might as well get to know each of her guests on a more personal level.
* * * *
Once she tossed aside the heavy knife, Connor and Adam tackled her.
"Damn it to hell! I'm not armed!"
Adam held her down by placing his palms on her back and hips. Connor wasn't so kind. He pushed her face against the hardwood floor.
"She pulled the weapon from the mattress," Connor told the others when they entered her room.
The guy no one bothered introducing searched her room. Connor and Adam seemed unaffected by her continual squirming.
"Let me go! Damn you! I said let me go! Who are you?" Her cheek remained pressed against the cold, hard floor. Her mind was reeling, taking her back to another time when she'd been in a similar situation.
Paige wanted to run and hide, but she had been trained to fight. She wanted to cry, but she wasn't one to show emotion.
Sheets and clothing flew across the room. Her dresser and closet were ransacked. Guns, knives, and a few little goodies the normal civilian wouldn't have—grenades, as an example—were uncovered.
"The question is—who the hell are you?" Connor demanded, wrapping his arms around her torso and giving her a sharp yank. Her knees threatened to buckle, but he held fast to her middle, groping her in a way she accidentally encouraged when she tried to break free.
"You aren't going anywhere until you answer me," Connor grated out. Adam and the others looked on, waiting to hear her story.
That wasn't going to happen.
"I'm nobody, just a woman trying to get by."
Connor's eyes held blue-hot fire. "Bull shit. You aren't a little old maid wilting away by your lonesome out here on this island! Now who are you?"
She studied Adam. He looked like a sensible kind of guy.
"I'll talk to him," she said, tilting her chin in Adam's direction.
"You'll talk to all of us," the handsome one said, prowling through her lingerie drawer. He fingered a thong and held the hot red silk high enough for all to see. "Nice, eh?"
"Do you mind?"
He chuckled. "No, darlin', not in the least. Will you be modeling this little number now or later?"
She was seething. "Let. Me. Go."
"Considering your own guerilla warfare tactics, you shouldn't be that surprised," Adam pointed out. "You were told, at least in so many words, what to expect. You were apprised of the classified nature of our visit."
Adam's eyes followed hers, and he pointed to the corner where she'd made the mistake of staring. There, Miles retrieved another rifle, the last one she had tucked away in her once-private quarters.
"You told me you were cowboys on an extended vacation!"
"We are," Miles assured her, grabbing his invisible reins and riding his make-believe pony for show. "Any man can be a cowboy when there's a worthy mare to saddle."
"Is there any way you can turn these bruisers out to pasture so we can have an adult conversation?" she asked Adam. She ignored the other goons in her room while trying to draw Adam into her world, the sensible place where she hoped to discuss canceling their pending reservation.
"Considering the weaponry you keep stashed around here, you should've anticipated a thorough strip search and greeted us in your birthday suit. Everything should've been open for exposure," Connor said, scrubbing the pad of his thumb over his bottom lip and giving her a thorough inspection.
Paige felt naked. Connor eyed the lower half of her gown, where she was confident he'd see a patch of dark hair under the sheer material.
"Boys, once she's broken in, I have a feeling she'll provide hours of entertainment." Connor shot Miles a wink and then added, "By the way, do you know how to pole dance?"
"The only pole I see," she said, lowering her voice, "is the one barely visible under your tight denim pants, and it's a skinny one from what I can tell."
"Great, Adam, this is exactly what we needed: a beautiful hostess with a model's body, a hooker's mouth, and a criminal's arsenal."
The others laughed, but Adam looked like he was ready to talk business. He crossed his arms and leaned close. "Miss Lambert, I would take things down a notch or two if I were you. When Connor conducts a search, he checks every nook and cranny. And when I strip a woman, body cavities are my specialty."
The moment turned into a complete nightmare. The inner warrior desperately reappeared. The woman within fought for survival as much as for respect, and the victim she'd once been was ready to surrender life for a better cause. She mentally questioned herself. What did she stand for or against now, after all these years? Did she even know? Probably not.
If Ramone had sent for her and this was his idea of a joke, the separation hadn't changed him. He was even more manipulative.
"There's been a mistake," she finally managed. "You boys have the wrong bed and breakfast."
"Nice try," Connor remarked, unzipping his bag and dragging a few articles of clothing from the side pouch. "We're not going anywhere, lady."
"We couldn't if we wanted to," Miles explained. "The logistics of this mission are set in stone, and no one, not even Adam, has the power to change our orders."
"Orders?" Paige asked, nearly choking on awareness. "So you aren't cowboys?"
"Ah, darlin'," Connor said, "don't act like that. We can still be your cowboys when the time is right."
"We have a ranch," Miles told her. "Operation Cowboy."
"It's the name of our place in Tennessee," Miles further explained. "Acres and acres of farmland used for training our special forces."
Who were these men? Why did they feel compelled to charge into her life and turn it upside down? Why couldn't they take their superior cowboy attitude and move on along? She could recommend a few places…like Siberia.
"In case you're curious, Jeff and I do some farming."
Good for them. "Who the hell is Jeff?"
"You'll meet him later. He's on another job at the moment," Adam casually answered, like she should interpret that to mean he was chasing bulls and riding women.
"You don't understand. You can't stay here. We'll kill one another. I can almost see the body parts scattering now."
Connor arched a brow. Adam moved into what she considered her justifiable combat zone.
"In that case, sunshine, you'll have two roommates instead of one." Adam motioned toward the others. Miles appeared to balk at his pending assignment and turned toward the door as if to avoid eye contact with the obvious officer in charge. "Miles, you'll bunk here with Connor and Miss Lambert."
"Damn you to hell!" she yelled. "You don't understand! You can't stay here! I do not need your shit!"
"Do you have a problem with gun-slinging modern-day cowboys searching for bad guys who need to be taught a lesson or two?" Adam asked.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I don't appreciate trouble showing up at my door, and I'm not in the mood for a battle on my front porch. This is a bed and breakfast. This is not ground zero for hot-shot cowboys to flex their muscles and show off their guns!" Jeez, whatever happened to free speech, and why didn't someone listen when she exercised her right?
Connor chuckled. "I like that."
Adam rubbed his neck. "Listen, Paige, we won't put you in any danger. If you do what we tell you, no one will get hurt, and that's kind of our goal here. We don't enjoy stuffing innocent people into body bags."
"Whew! I can't tell you what a relief that is," she said in a singsong pitch.
"Uh, pardon me for saying so, but I don't think we have to worry about someone hurting her. She's the one who was waving that machete around her head like she owned fundamental control," Connor reminded them.
"Would you prefer a mild-mannered maiden with an even temperament? I can recommend several bed and breakfast accommodations where you'll find the hostess perfectly affable. Then maybe I can return to my ordinary life."
"You lead anything but a simple life, lady," Miles said, finally making his formal introduction. "I'm Miles Landon and probably the only one with manners enough to formally introduce myself."
"Wrong," Connor grumbled, remaining committed to his cause of unpacking his belongings.
"At what point did you shake hands with the lady?" Miles asked, taking the hand Paige reluctantly offered and bringing Paige's long fingers to his lips. His gentlemanly ways inspired a round of applause.
Paige had misjudged her current predicament. This wasn't just her nightmare. It was every man's sweetest dream. The good old boys club in living color.
Connor ogled her again. "Introductions were exchanged somewhere between how do you do and lessons one, two, and three."
God help her. What was wrong with her? Why in the bloody hell did Connor's hot-blue gaze heat her to the quick? Why was she responding to his nonsense? That was a rare and unusual happening.
"I can't recall your stupid rules," she informed flatly, noting how the men exchanged glances around the room. What, were they telepathic?
Miles rubbed his chin. "Where'd you learn to fight?"
"My father was involved in guerilla warfare," she lied. "He taught his children survival skills." Considering the blade she'd retrieved from under the Sleep like a Darling Mattress, maybe they'd believe her.
Two of the four bought her story. Adam and Miles left the room.
Connor grabbed a few items from his open vinyl bag and walked over to the closet. "I have my own hangers."
"With all the bedrooms in this place, you know what? You can have your own accommodations, too. We aim to please at Breakfast by the Sea."
"I'm staying," he said firmly, "in here." He pointed toward the floor with his index finger. "With you."
"Uh, no, you aren't," she said, removing several items of clothing from her antique armoire. "If you prefer the private beach entrance, then I can move my things to another room, but I won't be sleeping in here with a complete stranger." Especially one who looks like you! "The arrangement is not in my best interest."
Connor grinned. "That's up for debate, sweet cheeks."
Sweet cheeks? Okay, back up a step. She didn't want to look at him now. No, she had a true need to wallop him!
"Not so fast, sunshine," the tallest of the bunch said, stepping inside the closet and placing his hand over hers.
"And who are you?" she asked, trying to take her focus away from the large hand covering hers. How long had it been since a man's hand had cupped hers?
"I'm Callan O'Bree."
Callan's light blue eyes dashed up and down her body. "I am," he replied. "And if ya goin' for a pint, I'll bend ye ear."
"Don't buy his `me Ireland is me heart' act. His parents were raised there. Callan was born and bred in the South, not too far from here, actually."
"Really?" she asked with piqued interest.
"My dad was stationed in Charleston. Did you say your parents were in the military?" Callan quickly lost his thick Irish tongue.
"No, I didn't say," she replied, ready to make an escape.
Connor latched onto her wrist before she exited. "We'll meet downstairs in a few minutes. You caught me off guard earlier. Since you like the fight, I'll be watching for you next time."
Paige stared at the grip he secured around her arm. She had so many sensations zipping around her body that she wasn't sure which ones she should claim as her own and which ones she should chalk up to past training. One minute, she wanted to fight, and the very next, she found herself dying to know more about these man-beasts invading her home.
Shaking free of her zoned-out mode, she said, "Oh, for God's sake, you've already felt me up and down. The least you can do is call a woman by her first name when she's the reason you're standing there with a boner. It's Paige. Welcome to Breakfast by the Sea. I hope you don't choke on your stay."