Next time you book a holiday of a lifetime, don’t choose the world’s most popular couples destination, you muppet.
Ella Radley adjusted her backpack and flinched as it nudged the raw skin which still stung despite spending yesterday hiding out in her deluxe ocean-view room at the Paradiso Cove Resort in Bermuda – AKA Canoodle Central.
Ella sighed – nothing like getting third-degree sunburn in the one place you couldn’t reach to remind you of your single status. Not that she needed reminding. She stared in dismay at the line of six couples, all in various stages of loved-up togetherness, on the dock ahead of her as she waited to board the motor cruiser at the Royal Naval Dockyards on Ireland Island for what the dive company’s website had promised would be “a two-hour snorkel tour of a lifetime”. Unfortunately, she’d booked the tour when she’d first arrived nearly a week ago, before she’d been hit on by a succession of married men and pimply pubescent boys, napalmed all the skin between her shoulder blades and generally lost the will to have anything remotely resembling a lifetime experience.
Her best friend Ruby had once told her she was far too sweet and eager and romantic for her own good. Well, she was so over that. Frankly, paradise and all its charms could take a hike. She’d much rather be icing cupcakes in Touch of Frosting’s cosy cafe kitchen in North London – and laughing about what a nightmare her dream holiday had turned out to be with her business partner and BFF Ruby – than standing in line to take a snorkeling tour of a lifetime that would probably give her a terminal case of seasickness.
Stop being such a grump.
Ella gazed out across the harbour – trying to locate at least a small measure of her usual sunny outlook on life. Yachts and motor boats – dwarfed by the enormous cruise ship anchored across the harbour – bobbed on water so blue and sparkly it hurt her eyes. She recalled the pink sand beach they’d passed on the way in, framed by lush palms and luxury beach bungalows, which looked as if it had been ripped from the pages of a tourist brochure.
She only had one more day to fully appreciate the staggering beauty of this island paradise. Maybe booking this holiday hadn’t been the smartest thing she’d ever done, but she’d needed a distraction… The trickle of panic crawled over her skin, making her aware of the familiar clutching sensation in her belly. She pressed her palm to the thin cotton of her sundress, until it went away again. She needed this day trip — to get her out of her room before the panic overwhelmed her — or worse, she became addicted to US daytime soaps.
The line moved forward as a tall man appeared at the gangplank wearing ragged cut-offs and a black T-shirt with the dive company’s logo on it, his face shadowed by a peaked captain’s cap. Ella’s breathing stopped, her eyes narrowing to minimise the glare off the water, astonished to discover that the steely-haired Captain Sonny Mangold, whose weathered face beamed out from the photo on the website, appeared to be in amazing physical shape for a guy pushing sixty. Talk about a silver fox. Not that she could see his hair from this distance.
Captain Sonny began to welcome each couple aboard, his gruff American accent floating towards her on the still, muggy air, and sending peculiar shivers up Ella’s spine, even though she couldn’t make out what he was saying. The couple ahead of her, looking affluent and young and very much in love, were the last to block her view. As the captain helped them both aboard, Ella stepped forward, anticipation making her throat dry. She took in the staggeringly broad shoulders and long muscular legs encased in denim cut-offs, as his head dipped to tick off the list on the clipboard in his hand. Wisps of dark blond hair clung to lean cheeks and a square, stubbled jaw, confusing her even more, then his head lifted.
All thoughts of nightmare holidays, canoodling couples and silver foxes blasted right out of her brain.
Goodness, he’s stunning. And not much over thirty.
‘You’re not Captain Sonny,’ she blurted, the wake-up call to her dormant libido blasting away her usual shyness too.
‘Captain Cooper Delaney at your service.’ The rich jade of his irises twinkled, and the tanned skin round the edges of his eyes creased. His arresting gaze dipped, to check the clipboard again. ‘And you must be Miz Radley.’ The laconic voice caressed her name, while his gaze paused momentarily on its journey back to her face, rendering the bikini she had on under her sundress half its normal size.
A large, bronzed hand, sprinkled with sun-bleached hair, reached out. ‘Welcome aboard The Jezebel, Miz Radley. You travelling on your own today?’
‘Yes.’ She coughed, distressed as the answer came out on a high-pitched squeak. Heat flared across her scalp.
Good lord, am I having a hot flush? Can he see it?
‘Is that okay?’ she asked. Then realised it sounded as if she was asking his permission.
‘Sure.’ His wide sensual lips lifted but stopped tantalisingly short of a grin – making her fairly positive he knew exactly how he was affecting her.
The blush promptly went radioactive.
‘As long as you don’t have any objections to me being your snorkel buddy?’ He squeezed her fingers as she stepped aboard. ‘We don’t let clients dive alone. It’s safer that way.’
The pads of her fingertips rubbed against the thick calluses on the ridge of his palm. And the tips of her already constricted breasts tightened.
‘I don’t have any objections,’ she said, feeling stupidly bereft when he let go of her hand — and thinking that even on their ten-second acquaintance she’d hazard a guess that Captain Cooper Delaney was the opposite of safe. Why for the first time in a long time she should find that exhilarating instead of intimidating made her wonder exactly how stressed she’d been in the last week.
‘How about you sit up front with me?’
It didn’t sound like a question, but she nodded, her tongue now completely numb.
His palm settled on the small of her back, just beneath the line of her sunburn. He directed her past the other passengers as she struggled not to notice the hot tingles generated by his touch and the fresh scent of saltwater and soap that clung to him. Bypassing the single space left between the couples wedged onto the benches that rimmed the hull, he escorted her to one of the two seats in front of the console in the boat’s cabin.
‘There you go, Miz Radley.’ He tipped his cap, the gesture more amused than polite thanks to that tempting twinkle, then turned to address the other passengers.
She listened to him introduce himself and the two wiry teenage boys who were his crew for the day, then launch into a relaxed spiel about the twenty-five minute voyage to the snorkel site called Western Blue Cut, the history of the sunken wreck they’d be exploring, the ecology of the reef and a string of safety tips. But all she really heard was the deliciously rusty texture of his voice while her mind wrestled with the question of exactly what being someone’s snorkel buddy might entail.
It couldn’t possibly be as intimate as it sounded. Could it?
But when he climbed into the seat beside her, his hand closed over the rounded head of the gear stick on the console and she swallowed past a constriction in her throat that felt a lot like excitement.
He adjusted the stick down, tapped a dial, pressed a button and the boat roared to life. She grabbed the rail at the edge of the console to stop from tumbling onto her butt. He slanted her an amused look as she scrambled back in to her seat. Then hid his mischievous gaze behind a pair of sunglasses.
All the blood pumped back into her cheeks – not to mention the hot spot between her legs – as the motor launch kicked away from the dock, edged past the other boats in the marina, and left the walled harbour to skim over the swell towards the reef.
He flashed her an easy smile — that seemed to share a wicked secret. ‘Hold on tight. I’d hate to lose my snorkel buddy before we get there.’
The answering grin that fluttered over Ella’s lips felt like her first genuine smile in months – filling up a small part of the gaping hole that had opened up in the pit of her stomach over a week ago.
Maybe going on a holiday of a lifetime solo didn’t completely suck after all.