Please don’t die, please don’t die.
Katie prayed for all she was worth, but the god of smarthphone batteries wasn’t listening, because the phone screen cut to black.
She whimpered, and stopped walking – or rather hobbling – along the narrow farm road as it dawned on her that having most of her worldly possessions snatched by a couple of teenage sneak thieves wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to her today.
The sun had sunk another inch towards the horizon, lengthening the shadows over the landscape of lemon and orange groves perched on the hillside.
She had been blown away by the wonder of that view at dawn that morning, when she’d ventured down the deserted track on her second-hand Vespa to find a secluded cove to paint. But anxiety rose like a wave to add to her exhaustion now. In an hour, two at the most, it would be pitch dark. And she would be stranded miles from the nearest town with no transport, no money, no means of communication, no luggage – she peered down at her bare legs and feet, covered in a layer of dirt that reached her knees – and no shoes.
Resisting the urge to hurl the offending phone – which hadn’t had a signal for hours – onto the rocks below, she shoved it into the pocket of her shorts.
How ironic that three months ago when she’d first arrived in Charles du Gaulle airport from New York with nothing but a back pack, the beautiful mahogany box of art supplies Megan had given her, and her passport, the whole point had been to travel light. To support herself and spend some time on her own. To prove to herself and everyone else, that she could be more than a serial screw up, or micro-celebrity click bait.
Her first night in Paris, in a little hostel near the Bastille, she’d been terrified, but over the weeks and months since, she’d started to find something in Europe she’d never had in the US. Anonymity and hard work had finally given her the time and space she needed to grown up.
She’d made new friends – waiting tables in a brasserie in the Marias, making beds in a hotel near St Mark’s Square, hiking thirty miles on the Camino Real – but in the last month she had started to really appreciate her own company. She’d even managed to start earning proper money doing watercolour landscapes she posted each week to a gallery in Florence.
She hefted the box under her arm, which had begun to feel as if it weighed several tons about a mile and ten thousand blisters ago. At least she still had her paints.
But she’d discovered today she had a lot to learn, about personal safety and not being an easy mark. If only she’d been less absorbed in her watercolour of the cove and more alert when Pinky and Perky had appeared from nowhere – maybe they wouldn’t have managed to hot wire her scooter, wrestle her pack off her and then disappear in a cloud of dust and victorious whoops in the space of approximately twenty-five seconds.
How comes I always have to learn everything the hard way?
She forced herself to keep going, even though her feet hurt from tiptoeing over the rocky path and her head was pounding as if someone had side swiped her with her own pack. Probably because they had.
She tested the knot forming on her forehead with her fingertips.
If she ever caught up with Pinky and Perky, she was going to stab them both through the heart with a well sharpened artist’s pencil. And then roast them like bacon.
The hum of an engine cut into her barbeque fantasies. And a low-slung car appeared ahead of her, driving past the ruins of an old farmhouse. Or rather bouncing towards her on the uneven track.
Her breath gushed out. The wave of relief so extreme she felt nauseous. Maybe she could hitch a ride to Sorrento?
The sleek convertible was brand new and expensive. Apprehension cut off her optimism. What was this guy doing destroying his suspension on a farm track?
She brushed her hair over the bruising on her forehead. And gripped the box in her arms, prepared to use it as a lethal weapon if her rescuer turned out to have the same moral compass as Pinky and Perky.
The car stopped a few yards ahead and a man stepped out. With the sun sinking, it was hard to make out more than a silhouette. But her heartbeat began to kick her ribs like a carthorse as he strolled towards her. His stride, leisurely and yet filled with purpose, looked familiar. And not in a good way.
Jared Caine? How the hell…?
The man stopped in front of her and his head dipped, as if he were checking her over.
The hum that started low in her abdomen was also disturbingly familiar.
It can’t be, Caine. I must be hallucinating. Or seriously concussed. Or both.
‘Hello, Katherine.’ The deep voice, curt and businesslike, hauled her back to one of the lowest points in her life – even lower than this one, and that was saying something.
‘What are you doing here?’ she managed, still hoping she’d conjured him up from the depths of her sunstroke.
But then the shifting sunset glinted off the dark waves of his hair – no longer subdued by the buzz cut of five years ago – and cast a golden glow over his rugged features for the first time. A jolt of awareness hit her insides like a lightning strike, frying the tight knots of tension in her gut.
‘Rescuing you,’ he said, with only the barest hint of sarcasm. ‘Now get in the car, before you fall on your face.’
Jared Caine watched the horrified shock widen Katherine Whittaker’s emerald green eyes as he searched her slender frame for any signs of injury.
She looked grubby and tired but otherwise okay – the sight of him more distressing than whatever had happened to have her sending her sister a garbled text about being in a spot of trouble hours ago.
It looked like more than a spot to him.
He forced himself to take a deep breath.
You’ve found her, she’s okay. Now all you have to do is get her on a plane back to New York and you can forget about her again.
The tension which had been grinding in the pit of his stomach since noon – and during the long hours of the afternoon as he and a team of his men combed the five square miles where his systems analysts had managed to triangulate her phone signal – began to ease. At least he’d found her before dark.
‘I don’t need rescuing,’ she said, her dazed expression hardening with animosity.
The fist which had been tightening around his throat for the last twenty minutes as he watched the sun head for the horizon, thumped his larynx with a one-two punch.
‘You’re kidding, right?’ His gaze drifted over her, taking in the butt-hugging cut-offs, the dusty shirt and tank top showing the subtle curve of her breasts, the filthy feet which… Where the heck were her shoes?
She planted one fist on her hip, the other one clinging to a carved wooden box that looked almost as heavy as she was. ‘No, I’m not kidding.’
She puffed with indignation, but the sweat-soaked hair stuck to her forehead stayed firmly in place. Unfortunately it did nothing to disguise her high cheekbones, the full mobile mouth, the sunburnt patch on her nose. Or the exhaustion shadowing her mermaid green eyes.
‘I’m good,’ she said, her arms tightening on the wooden box and her chin jutting out. ‘I don’t know how you found me, but you can just un-find me again. Okay.’
‘No, that’s not okay.’
Frustration and extreme irritation twisted his insides.
It was a reaction he recognised. From the last time Dario had asked him to ride herd on his kid sister-in-law – and the single heartbeat of madness when he’d reacted without thinking to the sharp, spicy taste of that mouth.
‘I’m not un-finding you,’ he said. ‘And I’m not leaving you here. Dario wants you on a flight back to New York as soon as you’re found.’
Her eyebrows launched up her forehead. ‘I’m not going back to New York,’ she said, sounding pretty adamant for a woman who looked as if she were about to collapse. But then the box she was holding slipped. She struggled to regain it, stumbled and yelped as her bare foot landed on a rock.
‘Ok, this conversation’s over,’ he said.
Stepping forward, he scooped her and the box into his arms.
She gasped, and went rigid. ‘Put me down.’ The angry glare infused the rest of her face with a shade of red to match her sunburn.
‘Nope.’ The spicy scent of lemons and sea salt and female sweat tightened the screaming tension in his gut as he marched up the track toward his car.
‘What do you mean no, I… Oof.’
He dumped her unceremoniously into the passenger seat, and slammed the door. After striding around the front of the muscle car, he climbed into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. ‘This isn’t a negotiation.’
Placing his arm across the back of her seat, he began to reverse down the track, wincing when he heard the muffler bounce off another rock.
‘I see you still get off on ordering women about,’ she said, but the insult lacked heat.
He slipped his sunglasses on and ignored her. From their sparring matches five years ago, he knew her default position was mouthy and it was better not to engage.
Katherine Whittaker had always been a piece of work. But, if the tabloid press were anything to be believed, her behavior had gotten a whole lot worse in the years since her old man’s trial and their aborted kiss in her housekeeper’s Brooklyn apartment. She’d dropped off the radar for the past few months, but according to Dario that was only because she’d left Manhattan and had been bumming around Europe on her own, and worrying her sister sick. So basically, Katherine Whittaker had just spent the last few months causing trouble incognito.
He backed onto the coast road, slotted the transmission into drive, and hit the gas. He could feel her angry glare – but didn’t trust himself to speak.
This woman had everything, a lavish home, a family who loved her and the smarts to make something of herself – instead of which she’d chosen to thumb her nose at it all and behave like a kid in a candy store for years all on Dario’s dime.
‘I don’t know where you think you’re taking me, but you can’t make me do anything’ she said.
He glanced across the console. Her tip-tilted eyes had gone squinty around the corners.
‘I’m not nineteen-years old anymore,’ she added. ‘And I don’t take orders from anyone, least of all you.’
He turned back to the road, but not before he’d noticed the rise and fall of her breasts beneath the soft cotton of her tank top.
‘You want to get out and walk some more?’ he asked, calling her bluff.
She glared at him. But then swung her face away.
I didn’t think so.
Her slim shoulders slumped against the seat – reminding him of the troubled nineteen-year-old with a big mouth and a crush on him he’d taken great pains to ignore, until she’d gotten under his guard for a few gut-wrenching seconds.
The dying sunlight caught the gold in her hair and made the sweat misting the slopes of her breasts glimmer. Reaction kicked him hard in the gut.
Sometime in the last five years, the gawky duckling with the smart and way too tempting mouth, had turned into a long, leggy and stunningly beautiful swan, even under the layer of dirt, sweat and animosity.
He punched the gas to pass a truck laden with fruit trees. The sooner he got shot of Katherine Whittaker the better.