When tough battle-scarred photojournalist-turned-wildlife-photographer Lacey Sommers travels to Costa Rica in a last-ditch effort to save her job, she meets beach-bum-gorgeous Luke Hancock, an outdoor guide, environmentalist and expert on economics and sustainability, who’s been hired by her magazine to serve as her pilot and wilderness guide for the duration of her stay.
It’s clear from the outset there is a powerful physical attraction between the two, but strong personalities, pre-conceived notions, an unexpected and contentious family connection, and the scars from a tragic death and a terrifying event threaten to keep them apart.
Will Lacey shed the mantle of Kevlar she’s worn for so long and allow Luke inside her heart? Or will her ostensible strength be her downfall?
Fucking frogs, Lacey thought. I can’t believe I’ve been reduced to shooting frogs. “I hate frogs,” she muttered, drawing unwelcome attention from the man seated next to her.
The Cessna Grand Caravan banked, tipping the wings so that the ground looked as if it were rising up to meet it. Lacey gazed out of the window at the lush green landscape of Costa Rica, her home for the next two months, or longer, if she couldn’t get the shots she needed.
The airport resembled something out of a B-movie. As the plane bumped onto the runway she expected to see a couple of aged Hummers emerge from the jungle filled with AK-47-toting drug runners. Meager though the airport was, boasting only a small terminal consisting of a row of benches covered by a tin-roofed overhang, it wasn’t the worst airport she’d seen.
She stepped off the plane and into the heavy, humid air. If it was this hot in November, July must be a killer. Hitching her equipment bag up on her shoulder, she watched as a couple of men unloaded the rest of the luggage, tossing it carelessly onto the pockmarked tarmac, confirming her decision not to check her equipment bag. Spotting her army-green duffle, she walked over to pick it up.
“That’s me.” Lacey didn’t look toward the voice as she bent to pick up the bag and toss the bulk over her other shoulder. A hand slid beneath the strap and she turned to glare with disdain at the offending appendage. The hand was large, square, and calloused. Capable. Powerful.
“I’ll get that.”
She was rarely caught by surprise, but this was one of those times. She gazed directly into a pair of aqua-green eyes as clear and deep as the waters off the Costa Rican coast and suppressed an unexpected frisson of desire.
“Why?” was all she could think to say, her eyes narrowing behind her sunglasses.
“Well, because I have two free hands, and because it’s the polite thing to do.”
A half smile accentuated the dimple in the man’s chin. His windblown, honey-blond locks were highlighted by nature’s hand. Her sister would kill for those highlights.
“I’m Luke Hancock. I’ll be your pilot, your driver, your guide, and—” He took the duffle from her as if it were packed with feathers and tossed it onto his shoulder. “—your bellman during your stay in Costa Rica.”
He stood a good head taller than her five-foot-ten inches and had all the markings of a beach bum: tanned; sun-kissed hair; board shorts; faded Oakley T-shirt; flip-flops; diver’s watch; even the cliché ratty hemp friendship bracelet. Just another overgrown boy, like most of the men she’d encountered in her adult life, the kind of men who made a profession out of avoiding responsibility.
“I’m quite capable of carrying my own bag.” She planted her feet in a belligerent stance, one hand on the strap of her equipment bag, her other lifted to her forehead blocking the sun.
“I’ve no doubt you are . . . capable, I mean.” Luke didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but this was definitely not it. The name Lacey Sommers, and all it implied, didn’t fit the woman standing in front of him. There was certainly nothing frilly about her. Tall, tanned, and muscular, she couldn’t be accused of being girlie, but neither was she the care-worn, jaded photographer he’d envisioned. A knot of desire formed in his stomach.
Dressed in an army-green camisole, khaki cargo shorts, and a pair of worn hiking sandals, she appeared quite capable . . . of many things. The color of her eyes, hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, piqued his curiosity.
Her only adornments were a heart-shaped garnet that hung from an antique-gold chain and an enormous Breitling watch strapped to her left wrist. He recognized the expensive brand as one he often saw on his ex-father-in-law’s wrist. No engagement or wedding ring, but there must be a rich boyfriend in the picture. A girl didn’t buy those things on a staff photographer’s salary.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Hancock, I’m no helpless female. I don’t need pampering.”
She lifted that Breitling-adorned hand to tuck a golden strand of hair behind her ear. The simple movement caused a firm bicep to ripple beneath the smooth bronze of her skin. That’s when he noticed the vicious white scar that ran across her neck; jagged at the edges, yet straight and about three inches long, very near the carotid artery.
Her short wavy hair curled tantalizingly around her throat as if to caress the scar. He swallowed hard, wondering how such a lovely neck had been so brutally desecrated.
Dragging his gaze from the scar, he said, “That’s good,” before striding off toward his Jeep without waiting for her. “I’m not the pampering type.”
After a perilous ride through the jungle in the open-air, doorless Jeep, fording flooded streams, and bouncing over muddy potholes that could have swallowed compact cars, Lacey’s right side was covered in water, mud, and who knows what else. Not to mention, her neck felt like she’d been riding a bucking bronco.
She began to wonder if her editor were secretly trying to get rid of her when they finally arrived at the gates of a resort tucked among strangler figs and Kapok trees, still dripping from a recent rain. The sign, adorned with an enormous Blue Morpho butterfly, read MARIPOSA LODGE.
Built on a thousand acres of pristine tropical lowland rain forest three hundred fifty feet above the point where the Gulfo Dulce and the Pacific Ocean collided, the eco-resort offered visitors a peaceful retreat; something she hadn’t had in she couldn’t remember when. But she wasn’t there to relax. She was there to save her career. If she screwed this up, she’d be relegated to shooting screaming kids on Santa’s lap.
The last conversation with her editor still rankled. When she’d gone in for her assignment, she’d been hoping for the story on gorilla poaching in the Congo. She should have known better after the previous incident in Africa, but she’d never expected this.
Not one to toot her own horn, she hadn’t hesitated to trumpet away under the circumstances. None of her arguments had worked on him.
“Look, Lacey, you’re the best photographer around, but I can’t have a repeat of Tanzania.” Simon shook his head, his bushy eyebrows drawn together in a unibrow.
“But frogs! Christ. It’s humiliating.” There was no way she was telling Simon about her fear of frogs, that the slimy little things gave her the willies.
“Damn sight less humiliating than a meltdown.” His voice became placating. “Listen, go down to Costa Rica, get some great shots of the poison dart frogs and any other wildlife you come across and we’ll see. Should be a nice, easy assignment for you. Maybe you can even squeeze in a little R & R while you’re there.”
“Come on, Simon, please—”
“Damn it, Lacey, this is it. You either do this, or . . . you’re out. I’m sorry.” He’d held his palms up in resignation.
Luke’s big hand jostled her shoulder, snapping her back to the present.
“Hey, Sommers, we’re here.”
No sense brooding over her situation anymore. It is what it is. She’d get the best damn pictures of frogs the magazine had ever seen and then she’d go back to the high-risk assignments she preferred.
“Buenos dias, José. Como estâ usted?” Luke asked one of the resort’s friendly employees as he and Lacey stepped into the lobby’s relatively dim interior.
“Pura vida, Luke.”
“Bueno. José, this is Lacey Sommers. She’ll be staying with you for several weeks.” Turning to Lacey, he said, “José will take it from here. We have an early start tomorrow so get some sleep. I’ll meet you here at five-thirty a.m. And don’t worry, you’ll be awake.” The corners of his mouth lifted in a slight smile.
She’d taken off her sunglasses, and he saw for the first time her eyes were an indigo blue of infinite depth, rimmed by lashes so thick they looked like they belonged in one of those cosmetic ads. He stared into her eyes longer than he’d intended. Christ, he thought as he dragged a hand through his hair, like the Bahamas’ great blue holes, a man could get lost in those depths.
Lacey shifted from one foot to the other. Luke’s intense stare made her uneasy. She returned his gaze with a bravado she didn’t actually feel. He stood within inches of her and although he was
n’t touching her, the sensation was just as disconcerting as if he had been. The heat rolled off him in waves, carrying the clean, salty scent of the beach.
“Right.” She narrowed her eyes, something she did whenever it seemed like someone was trying to pull something over on her. How did he know she would be awake at that hour?
“See you.” Without a backward glance, Luke strode out to his Jeep with the easy gait of an athlete.
She had to admit, he had a nice ass, even in those baggy board shorts. “Uh, José, can I have coffee in the morning?”
“Claro, of course,” José said with a bright smile, watching her watch Luke.
Busted. Damn. “Uh, thanks. At that hour it will be the only thing standing between me and unconsciousness.”
Lacey surveyed her new living quarters. Her thatched-roof bungalow could only be described as rustically opulent. Built of bamboo and mangrove, both sustainable hardwoods, the interior gleamed as if it were polished copper. The floor-to-ceiling screened walls offered a hundred-and-eighty-degree view of the turquoise water below.
Mosquito netting draped two queen beds, while ceiling fans whirred in the heavy air. Despite its openness, once occupants crossed over the threshold of their bungalow, they had total privacy. That same privacy extended to the wraparound deck.
Nestled in the middle of a private nature reserve, the resort could boast one of the top spots among the world’s eco-resorts, but it wasn’t for the faint of heart. There was no TV, telephone, radio, Internet, air conditioning, or blow dryer. Electricity could be hit or miss, with the lodge depending on solar panels and a biodiesel-powered generator.
Hence, the box containing her laptop computer, a satellite phone for Internet access, and a solar-charged power station, had already been delivered to her room. All the necessary accoutrements to upload her photos and send them to her editor in New York.
She unpacked the box and set up her work station on a modest-sized bamboo desk that faced the expansive deck, which boasted a private outdoor shower, hammock, and lounge chairs. She stepped outside, the cooling breeze a respite from the heat. The spectacular view of the ocean could prove a little distracting if she weren’t careful.
“Speaking of distractions,” she mused aloud. Luke Hancock could prove more than a little distracting. He could prove to be downright dangerous, especially for her. Why did she seem to be always drawn to the sexy heartbreakers, the ones who were all form and no substance? Despite her feigned disinterest, being near him set her heart racing and scattered coherent thought.
“Keep your mind on your work, Sommers,” she chided. “Get it done and get out of here.”
A cool shower and dinner in her bungalow sounded like the perfect way to wind down. Unless you liked to party with iguanas, the nightlife around here looked to be nonexistent, which was probably a good thing since she had to be up at the butt-crack of dawn.
The shower, like the ocean side of the bungalow, was screened, giving the occupant a view of the rain forest.
“Jesus!” As she reached for her towel she nearly lost her footing on the slick stone floor. A squirrel monkey watched her with grave curiosity.
“What the hell?”
The tiny monkey, whose head markings resembled Eddie Munster, continued to stare at her with no sense of shame. “Pervert.” Wrapping the thick towel around her, she stepped out of the shower and sighed. “This is going to be a long assignment.”
On time as usual, Tony pulled into the narrow dirt driveway adjacent to the beachfront house, right behind the Jeep.
Luke smiled. He could always count on Tony.
Best friends since Luke’s family started spending their winters in the cozy house at the tip of the Osa Peninsula, he and Tony were thick as thieves.
For years, he and Tony had spent their days swimming the uninhabited beaches of the Peninsula and running the palm swamps and virgin forests with Luke’s twin sister, Lisa, tagging along.
A deep welcoming bark from Luke’s new resident greeted the men as they strode toward the house.
“Hey, amigo.” Tony wore his perpetual grin. Dark skinned, not only from his Hispanic and Boruca heritage but also from his time spent in the tropical sun, Tony’s toothy grin sparkled stark white in contrast. Hair, black as pitch with eyes to match and a stocky muscular body, Tony was a hit with the women. Not that Tony noticed. He only had eyes for his wife of five years, Alejandra, or Allie, as she liked to be called.
“Hola.” Luke clapped Tony on the back.
The two ambled toward the kitchen door, the dog’s barks becoming more insistent.
“Stand back. She explodes with the power of Walter Payton off the line.” Luke opened the door and eighty pounds of squirming, barking, whining, yellow fur bolted a good fifty yards, then circled back to the men.
Luke knelt down and gave the lab an affectionate tussle, allowing her time to calm down before she greeted Tony. By the time it was Tony’s turn, her pent-up energy had been reduced to mere shivers of delight as her whole body wagged in opposition to her tail.
“Hola, señorita Sandy.”
Sandy’s tongue lolled as her face split into a big doggie grin. Tony bent over to grab her silky ears and give her rump a warm pat.
Luke was already in the kitchen at the fridge. “Want a beer?”
After taking the first satisfyingly frosty swig, the men stepped out onto the deck to relax in the lounge chairs, Sandy by their side. At a signal from Luke, Sandy laid down, her head on her paws.
“How’s our new client?” Tony asked.
Luke hesitated, then at Tony’s questioning glance, he felt a sly grin spread across his face.
“That good, huh?” Tony shot him a questioning look. “Are you going to bang every female client who hires us?”
“No, not every female client, just the sexy single ones,” he said between pulls on his beer.
“With your track record, some could accuse us of running an escort service instead of a guiding service.”
Luke shrugged. “One of the perks of the job.”
“You ever going to settle down?”
“Been there, done that. Don’t see any reason to do it again.” His chest tightened as he thought about her, his rash mistake, never to be repeated. Caroline Clarkson. They’d married shortly after being college sweethearts at the University of California Santa Barbara. A cool, tall blonde who’d secretly harbored materialistic tendencies. Just one of the many reasons why Caroline was his ex-wife.
“So, she’s sexy and single?” Tony asked, bringing him back to the present.
“Oh, she’s sexy. And she appears to be single. No ring of any kind.” Luke frowned, remembering the necklace and watch. He took another pull on his beer before continuing. “She’s what I imagine Lisa would be like if she were still here. Tall, athletic, fresh. Nothing artificial about her.”
“Yeah, I miss Lisa.”
A masculine silence descended, the kind of silence that acknowledged shared emotions without the need to speak of them.
A day didn’t go by that Luke didn’t think about Lisa, miss her. Like with a phantom limb, he often had the sensation that she was still there, still a part of him, her body moving through the forests in tandem with his.
“But our client’s got a chip on her shoulder.” Luke broke the silence. “You know the type: stubborn, independent, doesn’t want or need any help.”
A beat passed in silence.
“Just like Lisa.” The men spoke in unison and, grinning, tapped their beer bottles together in a toast.
From Chapter 2
Lacey knelt down, adjusting her telephoto lens to achieve the sharpest image. They’d finally stumbled across a red-eyed tree frog, one of the must-haves on her list of shots. Satisfied with the composition, she pressed the shutter.
Before she could snap another photo, she shot to her feet, like toast from a toaster, camera dangling from the strap around her neck, hands fisted at her sides.
“What?” Luke asked.
“Get him off me,” she ground out, her teeth gritted in revulsion. She pointed toward her leg and watched as Luke glanced down in time to see the frog climb up her inner thigh and duck beneath her shorts.
Lacey sucked in a breath. The cold, wet suction-cup feet clung to her. Sh
e couldn’t even breathe, afraid any movement would prompt the slimy thing to crawl further up under her shorts. If it got to her crotch, she would die on the spot.
Luke didn’t think it was possible, but Lacey’s eyes grew wider as the frog apparently made his way farther north. Enjoying her dilemma, he explained, “You know, because water and air flows so easily in to and out of amphibian skin, amphibians are much more vulnerable to possible pollutants on our hands—”
“Just. Get. Him. Off. Me. I didn’t invite his invasion of my person. He should have thought about that before he assaulted me,” she hissed through gritted teeth.
Luke couldn’t hold back the chuckle that escaped, or suppress his wicked thoughts as he knelt down and peered up her shorts to see where the frog was hiding. The sight of her muscular thigh and pink panties nearly made him forget his mission. He slowly slid his hand beneath her shorts and up her inner thigh.
“How do you know it’s a he?” he asked, taking pity on her and hoping to distract her from her obviously uncomfortable predicament.
“Like that even deserves a response,” came her sarcastic reply. His soft laugh only inflamed her ire.
“Don’t you think it’s rather ironic that you’re afraid of the very thing you’ve been sent here to photograph?”
“I’m not—” Her angry denial was cut off when his warm, rough-hewn hand closed over the sensitive skin of her inner thigh, cupping over the frog and making her flinch at the heat rocketing up her spine.
“Hold still,” he instructed, “otherwise I can’t promise he won’t head for . . . warmer regions.”
She shivered in response to his touch. She had a frog on her thigh, and astonishingly she now had sex on the brain. Luke’s hand rested on her thigh longer than she thought necessary. “You’re enjoying this way too much,” she said through tight lips.
Damn right I am, Luke admitted to himself. Her thigh was as hot and smooth as sun-warmed silk. His fingers itched to glide further up her leg, to hear her gasp in pleasure, rather than in disgust. Between the monkey and the frog, Costa Rica’s fauna was making better time with her than he was. “No, I’m simply trying not to startle him.”
“Then lose the shit-eating grin.”
He struggled to assume a disinterested face, while she eyed him furiously.
His hand gently closed over the offending amphibian, grazing the apex of her thighs with his fingertips, triggering yet another wave of heat up her spine. He slowly inched his hand out from under her shorts, extending the exquisite torture. She didn’t know which caused the stronger adrenalin rush: her revulsion of the wet frog, or her arousal from Luke’s warm hand.
As soon as his hand cleared her shorts, she began pacing and cursing.
Good thing the forest was devoid of tourists, Luke thought, otherwise their ears would have been scorched. Her vocabulary could make a hardened criminal blush. Luke released the frog, watching it hop away without a backward glance.
“Good riddance,” Lacey muttered.
“Hey, frog’s no fool. Saw a warm, inviting spot and went for it.”
“Spoken just like a man.”
Ignoring that comment, he asked, “Want any more photos?”
“No, I don’t. I’m done with that”—she shivered—“frog.” Picking up her pack and turning away, she continued to walk in the direction they were previously headed.
He hefted up his bag and followed after her, wiping his hands on his shorts. “Let me get this straight, you’ve covered two wars, but you’re scared of a little frog?” He shook his head at the vagaries of women.
“I wasn’t scared. It just—it startled me.” She refused to admit to him she was ranidaphobic. “How would you like it if something wet unexpectedly landed on your thigh? Wait! Don’t answer that!”
His only response was a low rumbling laugh that carried deep into the rain forest.
I’ve dreamed of writing romantic fiction since I was fifteen and my older sister snuck a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Shanna to me and told me to read it. Now I write women’s fiction and contemporary romance under the name Rebecca Heflin.
In case you’re wondering, Rebecca Heflin is an abbreviated version of my great-great grandmother’s name: Sarah Anne Rebecca Heflin Apple Smith. Whew! And you wondered why I shortened it.
When not p
assionately pursuing my dream, I am busy with my day-job as a practicing attorney. My mountain-climbing husband and I live at sea level in sunny Florida.