THE CRAZY AMERICAN WAS still in a business suit?
Sophia Cruz lounged in the hammock outside the exclusive retreat in the Costa Rican volcanic mountain range of Cordillera of Tilarán.
Bosque de Los Dioses, or Forest of the Gods, was accessible only by bush plane and it lay twenty-five miles north of Monteverde, the nearest village and Sophia’s hometown. The resort was hush-hush, a place where the rich, famous and high-powered came for a secret hideaway.
Sophia herself was neither rich, famous, high-powered nor looking to escape anything. She’d been born and raised in these mountains and it was her home. Over the years, she’d seen many outsiders come and go, but she’d never seen one as intensely stressed-out as the sandy-haired man wearing a gray silk Armani suit in the muggy summer weather.
He’d been at Bosque de Los Dioses for two weeks and she had never once seen him in blue jeans or shorts or sandals or even a short-sleeved shirt. Always the suit and tie and expensive leather shoes as if he was in a New York City boardroom instead of a tropical paradise.
The question fascinated her. He fascinated her.
She dipped the brim of her well-worn straw cowgirl hat, the band decorated with a purple orchid that she’d plucked from a nearby vine. And pushed her heart-shaped pink sunglasses up on her nose to study him through the rose-tinged lenses.
He paced the length of the veranda of the luxury tree house bungalow nestled in the tops of the Flame of the Forest and Ron-Ron trees, a cell phone pressed to his ear. The sunlight reflected off the thick platinum link chain bracelet at his broad wrist. The bracelet was like the rest of him, polished, sleek but underneath the shiny exterior undeniably masculine.
Although she had not asked, he was clearly a wealthy businessman, brash, entitled and constantly in motion. Who else rushed, rushed, rushed to get to the same place everyone else was going?
“Eventually, no matter where you are from, you end up in the graveyard,” her father often said. “Might as well take your time getting there and enjoy the view.”
That was the Costa Rican way—slow and easy and grateful for what you had. Then again, no other country had views like this. Perhaps it was easier to be philosophical when surrounded by so much beauty.
And speaking of views...
This one was as delicious as el casado.
No, maybe not el casado since it meant “married” in Spanish because the meal was the perfect marriage of beans, rice, fried plantains, salad and some kind of meat. Traditionally, it was the noon meal and had been named for the fact it was the usual food wives packed for their husbands to brown bag to work. This man looked as far from an attentive husband as he could get and the thought of him brown bagging anything made her chuckle.
Sunlight glinted off his golden hair cut short in a neat style that flattered his features—firm chin, but not big-jawed. If it hadn’t been for the broken nose he might have been too pretty and Sophia had to admit she had a thing for blonds. Growing up around so many dark-haired men had given her a sharp appreciation for flaxen locks.
Mmm. She licked her lips.
His name, according to the credit card he’d used to pay for his flight, was Gibb Martin. He was close to six feet tall and moved with the sleek grace of a jaguar, lean and athletic, as if his skin could barely contain his excessive masculine energy. She imagined running her hands over his biceps and her palms tingled.
Although she couldn’t see them from here, Sophia knew he possessed piercing, no-nonsense gray eyes, that when they were directed at her, made her feel as if he could see straight into her soul.
He’d caught her with those eyes the day she’d flown him in from the Libera Airport. He’d thanked her for the flight, shook her hand and held it for just a moment too long. Her heart had skipped a beat and she couldn’t help feeling that it was a watershed moment.
Or maybe that had all been in her imagination.
He’d had a woman with him after all. A tall, skinny blonde with pouty lips, pixie haircut and breasts the size of pillows, quite a contrast to Sophia’s own short stature, well rounded hips, waist-length black hair and rather modest endowments. When she was a teenager, her brothers had teasingly called her Tortita, the Spanish word for pancake. Luckily, she’d sprouted a bit since then, but not much.
The blonde had not seemed happy. She’d complained about everything—the smallness of the plane, the sticky humidity and the fact that the cookies and crackers that Sophia kept onboard for guests were not gluten-free. Then again, in the blonde’s defense, the American had barely looked up from his laptop computer the entire flight and she ended up feeling sorry for her.
Two weeks had passed and the blonde still wasn’t happy. She came out on the balcony, hands sunk onto her hips, rocking a red G-string bikini so small it could have doubled as a pair of shoelaces.
Frump. Compared to a woman like that, Sophia was a dumpy dowager in cutoff blue jeans and a white crop top.
“Gibby!” Blondie yelled at him.
He frowned in irritation, motioned at the phone, gave her a hush-this-is-an-important-call glower.
Poor Blondie. He had no time for his gorgeous girlfriend.
The blonde scowled. “If you don’t get off the damn phone and take me somewhere fun I’m flying back to Miami tonight.”
He pressed the phone against his chest, stepped close to whisper something to her and then playfully swatted her bottom.
Something in Sophia’s mouth tasted as bad as a green plantain
Jealous? Of course not. Why would she be jealous of a drop-dead model with million mile legs who had a rich, handsome man on a string? A handsome man who ignored her most of the time. Sophia would never settle for that. She would demand burning passion.
Blondie held out her palm and looked sheepish.
He fished in his back pocket for his wallet and from where Sophia was laying it looked like he pulled out an American Express black card and dropped it into her palm. The blonde closed her fingers around the card, leaned over and kissed his cheek.
Buying her off.
Sophia snorted. How could she be jealous of that?
Since his arrival, Gibb Martin had either been on the phone or in meetings with the cadre of other businessmen that Sophia had flown in, while the blonde had spent her time at the Bosque de Los Dioses luxury spa.
Sophia’s oldest sister, Josephina, worked at the spa as a massage therapist. In order to work for or contract with Bosque de Los Dioses you had to sign a confidentially agreement; they could only gossip about the clientele with each other and even then they had to make sure no one overheard their conversations.
A few minutes later, Josie came out of the employee entrance, toting her own brown bag casado. “Hola.”
“What’s up?” Although they had been raised in a bilingual household, Josie preferred to speak Spanish, while Sophia thought of English words before the Spanish equivalent popped in her mind. Probably because she’d lived with her aunt in California the year after their mother had died and being so young, she’d had no trouble adapting to that culture. Sophia set the hammock to rocking by pushing against the palm tree with her big toe.
“Nothing new.” Josie plunked down on the cement bench beside the rows of empty hammocks strung from the trees for the guests to enjoy. At this time of the afternoon almost everyone was out on an excursion. “How about you?”
“Waiting to take a fare to Libera at two.”
“How is El Diablo holding up these days? That plane is as old as I am.” Josie was forty-one, fourteen years older than Sophia and she’d been married to her high school sweetheart, Jorge, for more than half her life. They had three children who were high school age.
“I’ve got the plane running like a top.”
El Diablo was the contrary 1971 Piper Cherokee 180F she’d inherited from their father after he’d retired two years ago. She was the only one of the seven Cruz offspring who’d had any interest in flying.
No one had begrudged her the gift of the plane. Her siblings considered the plane a burden, not a blessing, and granted it was something of a heap, but it was how she made her living. Flying tourists into the Cloud Forest where only bush planes could go. She dearly loved flying and had just finished aircraft maintenance school so she could keep El Diablo in the best flying condition possible.
Josie unwrapped homemade beef tamales from the plantain leaf they had been cooked in. “You’ve made Poppy very proud.”
Sophia sneaked another glance at Gibb Martin’s tree house bungalow. Blondie had come out on the veranda and was leaning against the balcony railing. The woman waved at her sister Josie and smiled.
Josie waved and smiled back.
“You know her?”
“Every day on my massage table for the last two weeks. She’s my two o’clock appointment and she tips big with her boyfriend’s credit card. I will smile and wave at her all day if that’s what she wants.”
“She seems a bit superficial.” Okay, that was snide. Contrite, Sophia popped three fingers over her mouth.
“Stacy is a cover model,” Josie said. “What else would you expect from her?”
“Something a bit less cliché?”
“Does your prickly tongue have anything to do with the fact that she’s the girlfriend of that handsome American venture capitalist you keep staring at?”
“I do not stare at him.”
“Well, maybe a little, but how often do you see blond men around here? It’s not him personally. It’s just his hair.”
Josie nodded at an overweight bald guy in his thirties who was horsing around with his buddies on one of the rope footbridges that linked the bungalows to the main lodge. “You are telling me that you would stare at that man if he had blond hair?”
“Yes, sure,” she lied.
Josie snorted. “By the way, the venture capitalist stares back at you too when you’re not looking.”
“He does?” she asked, surprised to hear her voice come out an octave higher.
Josie nodded. “He stares hard.”
Sophia gulped, ducked her head, and felt heat flush her cheeks. Hey, what was this? She wasn’t a blushy-gushy kind of girl.
Josie sent her a knowing glance. “Things are not going well with Emilio?”
“What?” Sophia startled. “No. Emilio is great—”
“But Emilio is in San Jose and Mr. Tall, Blond and Handsome is here?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Her sister was wrong. She wasn’t that fickle. Was she?
“Sophia,” Josie wheedled. “You can tell me. What is it?”
Sophia shrugged. The bark on the palm tree at the end of the hammock had sloughed off from where the ropes had rubbed it. “It’s nothing really.”
Josie clucked her tongue, shook her head. Sophia had never been able to keep anything from her older sister.
“Emilio and I are sliding more toward solid friendship than red-hot romance,” she admitted. “We have not even made love yet.”
“But you’ve been dating what, two months?”
“My point exactly. Only five dates in two months. If this relationship was headed somewhere important, should we not pine for each other every time we are apart? Am I wrong?”
“You expect too much,” Josie said. “Emilio is a nice man. He would make a good husband and father.”
“And that’s enough?”
Josie gave a knowing smile, dusted crumbs from her fingers and got to her feet. “What else is there?”
“Passion for one thing.”
“Passion fades. That’s when friendship counts.”
“You make marriage sound so boring.” Sophia yawned.
“Not at all. As time goes on, you will learn to value other things above passion.”
“That might work for you,” she said. “But me? I want sparks. All the time. Fireworks or nothing.”
Josie made a quiet chiding noise. “You’re more like Mother than you think. You’ve got her starry-eyed idealism.”
“There’s nothing wrong with setting my standards high.”
“There is having high standards and then there are unrealistic expectations.”
“If Mother hadn’t believed in passionate love that lasted she wouldn’t have stayed in Costa Rica and had seven children.”
“True, but look at everything she gave up.”
“It wasn’t easy for her. Starting over in a new country. Learning another language. Navigating a strange culture.”
“But she did it because she loved Poppy so much. That’s what I want. Someone who’d swim the deepest ocean for me.”
“You’re not going to start singing are you?”
“I might,” Sophia teased, splayed a hand to her chest and sang an off key rendition of “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” except she didn’t know most of the words and ended up stumble-humming it.
“You are not getting any younger, mi hija. Soon your best child-bearing years will be behind you.”
“Thanks for that.” Sophia crossed her legs. The orchid slid off the brim of her hat, landed on her nose. Sophia brushed it aside.
“You can’t keep hitting the snooze button on your biological clock.”
Josie pressed her lips into a disapproving line.
“I’m not even remotely thinking of babies yet.”
“I know, but you should be.”
“I’m not done having fun yet.”
“Babies are a different kind of fun.”
“Uh-huh. If you say so.”
“You love your nieces and nephews.”
“I do. Stop trying to sell me on motherhood. When I find the right relationship—packed with tons of passion—the rest will take care of itself.” Sophia’s eyes were on the hombre who was going to pace a hole right through the wooden planks of the balcony.
Josie canted her head. “The American isn’t right for you.”
“Of course he’s not. I never thought he was. He’s caviar and I’m black beans, but a girl needs her sexual fantasies, right?”
“Give Emilio a chance,” Josie advised and picked up her sandwich bag. “Bring him to Sunday dinner.”
Josie pointed a finger at her. “Just bring him.”
Sophia rolled her eyes. Their mother had died of bacterial meningitis when Sophia was twelve and after Sophia had returned from living in California with Aunt Kristi, Josie had taken over as Mother Hen and sometimes she could be a bit overbearing. “Sí.”
“I mean it.”
Sophia made shooing motions at her. “Go back to rubbing that rich cover model’s backside.”
“I love you,” Josie said sweetly over her shoulder.
“You’re not going to make me feel like a brat.”
“Even if you are being one?” Josie laughed and went into the spa.
Sophia pursed her lips and looked back to Gibb Martin’s bungalow. Blondie was gone, but he was still pacing and talking on the phone.
Did the man ever slow down? Take a deep breath? Relax? Enjoy himself for half a second?
She shifted her gaze to the sky and estimated the time by the sun’s position. She never wore a watch. Two o’clock was perhaps thirty minutes away. Just enough time to fuel the plane and do her flight checks. Yawning, she rolled out of the hammock and stretched big, reaching for the clouds, her crop top rising up high with her movements.
Gibb Martin leaned over the railing of his balcony. He was watching her!
Her stomach churned and she had the strangest feeling that something monumental was about to happen.
Those compelling gray eyes stared straight at her. Thank God for her sunglasses.
A slow smile slid across his face.
Excitement shot through her and she suppressed a smug grin. He might not be paying Miss Cover Model much attention, but he was certainly focused on her.
What she did next wasn’t noble, but it was human. She pretended she hadn’t seen him watching her. She swept off her cowgirl hat, tilted her head back, and ran her fingers through her long hair, fluffing it up in a sexy, just-rolled out of bed style and bit down on her bottom lip to make it puffy.
Bad girl, bad. Mala. Mala.
She strolled away, emphasizing each sway of her hips, and headed for the plane. Was that the heat of his gaze she felt on her shoulders?
Casually, she turned, looked up at the balcony, only to find it empty.
Her face flamed hot as she realized she’d strutted for an audience of no one.
Never mind. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t even a flirtation. That’s how limited their exchanges had been, a few furtive glances, a handshake that lingered a bit too long, that’s all there was to it.
But the fact that she was fantasizing about a good-looking stranger who had a cover model girlfriend told Sophia that this thing with Emilio simply wasn’t working for her. They would be better off as friends.
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