Stranger in Paradise - Excerpt

Chapter 1

Dana had fallen into a dream job, but, like a dream, it could disappear in an instant. Yet, as the tugboat bumped lightly against the hull of the cruise ship Lillesand, she tried not to think of that. This was Hawaii. This was Paradise.

Leaning against a stanchion in the stern of the tug, she tilted her head upward, her gaze sweeping over the brightly dressed passengers crowding the rail on the deck of the ship. One face stood out from the rest. A man, taller by far than anyone near him, seemed to be staring directly at her.

Even at that distance his looks were arresting: not classically handsome, but rugged in an interesting way. In fact, he reminded her of someone, but his obvious study of her made her nervous, and she turned away before she could make the connection.

"See anyone interesting?" Carrie Brand spoke from her seat on the wooden bench that butted against the tug's wheelhouse. Like Dana, she'd ridden from Honolulu harbor to where the cruise ship waited off Diamond Head. Soon they'd board the larger vessel to greet arriving passengers and hand out flower leis of orchid, ginger, and plumeria.

Still thinking of the handsome man on the ship, Dana shrugged and swept her hair away from her face. "Just the usual tourists."

Carrie rose and came to stand beside Dana. "Just the usual," she mimicked with a smile. "Is that a euphemism they use for 'dull' back in Chicago?"

"Chicago?" Dana picked up her clear plastic bag of flower leis. "I think that’s in another galaxy." Although she deliberately made no mention of the man she’d seen a few moments before, she let her gaze wander again to where he'd been stationed at the rail. The place he'd occupied was now filled by a gentleman of less height and considerably more girth than his predecessor.

Carrie laughed, her short, dark curls jiggling. "You should hear yourself. And after only three months in Hawaii. Don't you feel the least bit guilty?"

"Hardly. It's probably snowing in Chicago right now." Dana watched the two-man crew finish securing the tug, and with practiced ease, as if she'd made that run forty times instead of only four, she stepped over the side and into the wide open doorway of the enormous ship poised at their side.

"I hope you never lose your enthusiasm for the islands." Carrie followed Dana up the stairs to the main salon. "Or the hotel business, either, which, as we all know, blows like the wind. Hot one minute, cool the next."

At Carrie's reminder, Dana frowned. Had she traded one problem for another? Only the week before, Tom Wilson, her boss and the manager of the Ocean Breeze Hotel, mentioned the possibility of it being sold to a real estate consortium. If that happened, her dream job could evaporate like snow in July.

Carrie turned her head briefly. "Tom told me that a representative—Matt Hampton is his name, I think—arrives tomorrow on the five o'clock flight from Los Angeles."

Dana sighed. As a member of the staff, she would treat Mr. Hampton with the utmost courtesy. However, that did not mean she had to like him. "I suspect if he recommends his company buy the hotel, there'll be a good chance I’ll be replaced."

"You don’t know that for sure."

"Even so, I’ve already developed a distaste for the man, sight unseen."

"My advice is: don’t borrow trouble. It usually shows up without any help from us."

Dana laughed at the cliché and navigated the narrow steps up to "A" Deck, where she entered the main salon. It was furnished only with a handful of tables holding large signs neatly lettered in blue, and she found the one reserved for the Ocean Breeze. Unfastening the ties that closed one of the now steamy plastic bags, she let the leis tumble out onto the table. They were still damp, and she lifted and shook them gently, scattering tiny drops of dew that soon evaporated in the warm air.

Then, abruptly, she stopped. An odd sensation came over her; she was being watched. She looked up and found the same man she’d seen earlier. As he approached the table, she could see his face and neck were deeply tanned. Besides dark wavy hair, he had a straight nose and square jaw with a very distinct and attractive cleft in his chin. Then she knew who he reminded her of. Except that he didn't have a mustache, and appeared to be in his early thirties, he resembled the star of a television series about a private detective.

When he reached the table. Dana stared. Good grief, he was a giant, probably six feet four. But of course she wasn't wearing heels that day. Then she noticed the unabashed way he stared at her and the expression on his face that made it obvious he was doing some thinking about her as well. Her hand suddenly froze on an orchid lei and, for the life of her, she couldn't seem to concentrate on anything but the stray lock of hair that lay against his forehead and his sensational smile.

"Aloha," he said, stealing her thunder, as it were, and his voice and manner finally galvanized her into action.

She cleared her throat and prepared to deliver the pat little speech she always used to welcome guests of the hotel. "Welcome to Hawaii." She said it briskly, just as she always did. "Would you like a lei?"

Her last few words hung in the air between them, little leaden words that dropped with an embarrassing thud, and she cringed inwardly. So much for pat little speeches when your insides were dancing an Irish jig. She hated to think what some men might make of that invitation.

However, before this particular man had time to do any more than give her a slow-spreading grin, she added, "That didn't come out at all the way I'd planned. Why don't I start again?"

He had a pleasantly deep voice. "It sounded fine to me, but if you think you can improve on it, I'm game."

She wondered if he were patronizing her. She glanced up into warm, brown eyes. His look seemed sincere enough.

She took a deep breath and began again. "Welcome to Hawaii. May I offer you—" Again she stopped. Why—now of all times—could she not make the greeting sound anything but X-rated?

"You most certainly may." His gaze swept the length of her body before returning to her face. His eyes, she noticed, made no pretense of concealing his amusement.

She found it easier at the moment to address the ginger lei in her hands than that very tall, very disturbing man who towered above her. "Believe it or not, I've delivered this speech at least fifty times in the past three months and usually with a lot more finesse."

Regaining something of her poise, she glanced up. "However, since that doesn't seem to be the case this morning, would you mind very much if we skipped the preliminaries?" With any luck at all, he would take the flower lei and go back out on deck. If he stayed near her any longer, he'd completely short circuit her brain.

His smile held more than a hint of mischief. "Ah, but if we were to do that—" He shrugged.

His shoulders, she could hardly help noticing, were nicely proportioned. She wondered if he worked out a lot or jogged. He had a very athletic body.

"—you would have to forfeit something, or at least make it up in some other way."

"Oh?" She didn't need any mixed signals this morning and certainly not from him.

"Perhaps we could stop for coffee on the way to the hotel. Then we could begin to get to know one another. I can't think of a better welcome to Hawaii than that."

Well, that signal was clear enough. Attractive or not, the man was a stranger, and a guest of the hotel besides. "I'm sorry. I won't be going with you to the Ocean Breeze."

"You won't?" His disappointment was unmistakable.

"You have to claim your luggage and turn in those pesky forms the state provides. Sometimes it takes a while."

That seemed to amuse him, because he grinned. "And you won't wait?" He cocked his head sideways, sending a loose wave of thick, brown hair over his forehead.

Surprisingly, everything about the man made Dana wish it were otherwise. After a pause, she said, "I can't."

"I thought a good hotel did everything to accommodate its guests. You know, roll out the red carpet, bring on a brass band, even hold your hand while you claim your luggage."

"You don't want much." She laughed, giving him high marks for persistence, as well as a king-sized measure of charm and humor. At the same time a red flag went up in the back of her mind. He was too much. "We do what we can, within reason, that is. And there are rules."

"I thought rules were meant to be broken." His expression turned serious, but his eyes were soft and warm, and sparkled with suppressed laughter.

"Not this time."

"Perhaps bent a little?" He pantomimed the gesture with his hands.

"No." She said it firmly. It wasn't a mere rule that checked her. She knew her sudden attraction to him was strong enough to indeed bend rules. She'd bent a similar rule in the past, even though she always thought it foolish to date co-workers. She'd promised herself not to do anything like that again.

He seemed to accept her refusal. "Do you go back to Honolulu on the tug?"

"No, we dock with the ship. The pilot's aboard now, and he'll guide us into the harbor." She pointed to the slowly moving view of Diamond Head outside the windows. "We're on our way now."

"So we are."

As his gaze turned toward the sea, Dana covertly studied his face. The broad forehead and high cheekbones suggested intelligence and strength, that he was very much his own man. But it was the dark eyes that reminded her of soft velvet, that gave him a human quality and made her pulse race.

He turned to her again. "Is this what you do primarily for the hotel, ride out on tug boats to greet the guests?"

"That's the least of it. I'm the assistant manager of the Ocean Breeze. You could say I do a little bit of everything, but coming out here to meet the guests is one part of my job I especially enjoy."

"Mmm. Me too." The side of his mouth curled up in a lopsided grin, and Dana's heart did a roller-coaster drop. "And are you good at that little bit of everything?"

"You won't have any complaints." She took refuge in shop talk to quell her feelings. "The hotel is very well run. Everyone, from Tom Wilson, the manager, on down, very efficient. All the employees work as hard as if they owned the place."

"Is that what you'd like to do someday, own a hotel?"

The question took her by surprise. "I'd like very much to manage one. But to own a hotel? No. It sounds exciting and glamorous, but there are too many pitfalls."

She thought of Carrie Brand, who owned the Island Sands Hotel. She'd had to trim the staff to the bone, and for the past two months had been operating without an assistant. The obvious stress she suffered was beginning to mar her youthful good looks.

"Still," the man was saying, "people brave those pitfalls every day. If not, there'd be no Hiltons or Sheratons or—"

"Please." Dana admonished him with a laugh. "We don’t mention the competition around here. It's strictly forbidden."

"In that case, I give you my word their names will never pass my lips again. Shall we shake on it?" He held out his hand.

She hesitated a moment, caught between the desire to be touched, even so briefly, by him, and her instinct that warned her to be wary of a man who already had such an effect on her. Then the moment passed. Dana gave him her hand, feeling the strength in the fingers closing around hers.

"This makes us conspirators," he said with a wink.

Reluctantly, she let her common sense return and slid her hand from his grasp.

"Well." She adopted a brisk, businesslike tone. "I trust you'll enjoy your stay in Hawaii." There was a conclusive ring to her words, and she expected him to leave the salon.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" That same spark of mischief flared in his eyes.

"Forgetting?"

"If we can't have coffee together, I'll almost have to insist on the lei you promised."

He would remember that. But, to his credit, the way he worded the request made it sound, if not totally innocuous, then at least only mildly suggestive. With a sigh of resignation, she picked up a lei strung with ginger blossoms and held it out to him.

He glanced at the strand of flowers, their heady, perfumed scent filling the air around them. With a surprisingly light touch, he fingered the pearly-white petals, suggesting to Dana that those strong hands could be gentle, as well.

"Aren't you going to put it around my neck?" The deep timbre of his voice sent Dana's gaze upward to meet his. For a moment, she remained motionless. Then, somehow, she found herself moving around the table toward him, her pulse beating rapidly in her throat, her hands damp with sudden perspiration.

He moved closer, inclining his head. Still, he was so tall--and Dana felt like a dwarf in her flat sandals—that she had to stretch on her tiptoes to put the lei over his bowed head and onto his shoulders. Next, her heart racing, she brushed first one of his cheeks with her own, and then the other. Her nostrils filled with the pungent aroma of the flowers and the refreshingly cool scent of his cologne. Finally, she stepped away, almost dizzy with the strong emotions sweeping through her.

His grin managed to be both innocent and seductive at the same time. "The aloha greeting needs a little more warmth. May I show you?"

Before Dana could answer, he picked up a pikake lei and placed it around her neck over her sleeveless flower-print dress. His warm hands on her bare shoulders, he bent to her upturned face. Bringing his lips to her cheeks, he kissed each slowly, deliberately, as if tasting some sweet nectar that lingered there.

In an instant, Dana felt as if the air had become charged with an electric current. In spite of acknowledging the intensity of her attraction to him, she pulled away. She would put a stop to that, and the sooner the better.

She turned away from him, but he drew her back, seemingly oblivious to the dozens of people who milled about the salon. He raised his hands from her shoulders to her cheeks, and this time his lips descended on hers. They were firm and cool and for a brief moment her own clung to them willingly.

Her eyes closed automatically at his kiss, then good sense overruled her emotions and they flew open. She pushed him away. "That is not the way it's done."

"But my way is more fun, especially when, as in this case, the recipient is so attractive."

"The aloha greeting, in this case, is strictly business." She looked at him in what she hoped was a cold, aloof manner. Yet her hands, her face, her entire body, felt anything but cold.

"I'm sorry to hear it. Maybe I'll change your mind about that sometime."

Dana nervously fingered the leis that remained on the table. "It would hardly be worth the effort."

As he surveyed her body, his gaze was provocative, his eyes frankly and pleasantly appraising. "Since I'm staying at your hotel, I expect we'll be seeing a lot of each other."

Her lips felt tight, but she managed to answer. "I wouldn't allow my expectations to get too high. The management seldom mingles with the guests."

He laughed. "Not permitted to fraternize?"

"Something like that." That was no rule, but good sound judgment. Lasting relationships, the only kind she wanted, were not forged by becoming involved with hotel guests. After all, they were tourists and business people, whose stay rarely lasted more than a week or two. No electricity, no chemistry, between them—and, heaven help her, this was stronger than anything she had ever felt before—could overcome her natural instinct that such a relationship contained a built-in destruct mechanism.

In spite of her coolness, his smile remained open and friendly, his voice teasingly warm. "Now that we've become so well acquainted—" He emphasized the last two words, then paused, "—don't you think it's about time you told me your name?"

"I'm Dana Gifford."

"What a lovely name. It suits a very lovely lady. I'll look forward to seeing you again, Miss Gifford. Until then, aloha." With a parting smile, he turned and left the salon.

Dana stared at his retreating back, knowing he most likely wouldn't see her again. So she was terribly attracted to him: his kiss had sent her blood pressure soaring. Nevertheless, she wouldn't let herself get involved. The Ocean Breeze was not a very large hotel, only four stories high, and most of her work was done in the office behind the lobby. If she wished, she could avoid him quite easily, and, she promised herself with finality, that's exactly what she'd do.

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