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?
Generally speaking Lacey is a fun character. I was hooked right away with her quest to save her job.
Luke was cute, though as an AP Macroeconomics teacher, the rare time he spoke economics, I was thrown out. This happened once in my memory. I can’t imagine most people having this issue, and I do get right back into a brainy hero whose sexy an outdoorsy. Wish men were more like that myself.
Great story. Rebecca Heflin’s is going on my growing list to watch out for.
The flight was treacherous. Luke gripped the yoke with white-knuckled force. The so-called break in the rain lasted long enough for them to take off, before it began pelting the plane with renewed force. This squall brought the added danger of strong winds.
Lacey braced for more stomach-dropping turbulence. She’d never hurled on a plane before, but this trip was shaping up to be a first for many things.
Luke spoke to air traffic control, but she couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation. His face was grim. She didn’t like that. “What?”
“What are we going to do?” Lacey asked. From the look on Luke’s face, she didn’t want to hear the answer.
Luke pushed down on the yoke and pressed on the rudder pedals. The plane banked to the left, rising on a crosswind, before dropping precipitously. “We’re landing on that dirt road.”
Lacey peered out the window. In the distance, she could barely make out a short road running parallel to the coast. It seemed a road to nowhere. There appeared to be no buildings, no landmarks, nothing but forest.
Luke pushed down on the yoke a little more, bringing the plane in for a short landing. Cutting the engine, he released the breath he’d been holding and shook out his aching hands. “Looks like we’ll be spending the night here. Puerto Jimenez should reopen in the morning.”
Lacey groaned inwardly. A night in a small plane was not what she had in mind. Aside from her desire to sleep in a real bed (she was definitely getting soft), the thought of sleeping in such close quarters . . . alone with Luke . . . elicited a response she’d rather not have. Covering the true nature of her thoughts, she shrugged. “I’ve survived worse.”
Luke’s brow knitted at her flippant remark, but he let it pass. “If you want to make a run for it, there’s an outpost over there that serves pretty decent food.”
Lacey could barely see the building through the rain. “What on earth—out in the middle of nowhere—they can’t get many customers.”
“They cater mainly to the miners in the area who come down from the mountains every few months or so with their meager gold dust for a hot meal, a shower, and a bed.”
“Okay. Sure, I could eat.”
The two donned their raingear and sprinted across the sloppy meadow to a small, flat-roofed concrete-block building with a porch overhang. The glassless windows emitted a dim light. Smoke poured from a chimney and the enticing smell of refried beans and corn tortillas reached Lacey’s nose, prompting a vociferous growl from her stomach.
Inside the dark, smoke-filled room, two women, one barely a teenager, toiled over a hot griddle, both standing barefoot on the dirt floor. The building had no electricity and clearly the chimney was not drafting well. Unable to stand the smoke any longer, Lacey returned to the relative fresh air of the covered porch while Luke ordered their dinner.
“Señora Lopez, dos picadillos, por favor.”
Luke brought out a couple of beers, handing one to Lacey as he sat down at a small wooden table across from her.
“Thanks,” Lacey said, reaching for the beer.
“I hope you’re okay with warm beer. It’s the safest thing to drink around here.”
They sat in silence, sipping their beers watching the rain fall in sheets. Out of the monsoon emerged three figures stooped against the elements. The men were soaked through, their heavy beards and long scraggily hair dripping with the excess water.
“Miners,” Luke said under his breath, “come to spend some of their hard-earned gold.”
“Hola,” Luke said to the men as they stepped out of the rain and onto the porch.
The men returned the greeting before entering the makeshift outpost.
“Those men, and others like them, lead a hard life,” Luke said, his voice gruff.
Surprised by the emotion in his voice, Lacey looked into his eyes and saw compassion in their stormy depths.
“Yes,” she replied. “There are many in this world who lead equally hard lives, but the ones I pity most are the women and the children, many who have no way out, either for cultural or religious reasons, or because they have no education, no skills. Women whose lives have been torn apart by a war they didn’t start and don’t understand.”
Luke’s gaze held hers. He imagined she’d seen a lot of that in two war zones. He lifted his hand, intending to smooth away the lines that creased her brow.
“Dos picadillos.” The young girl’s words as she placed their plates before them interrupted his movement, and he dropped his hand to his lap.
“Graçias, Señorita Amaya.” Luke winked up at her smoke-smudged face as he took his plate.
“De nada, Señor Luke.” Openly testing her feminine wiles on
Luke, Amaya leaned over his shoulder, just brushing her long ink-black hair over his neck, before smiling and sauntering off.
Lacey smiled at the teenager’s blatant flirtation. “Come here often?” she asked, eyebrow arched.
“Often enough. Oh, you mean that,” he said, acknowledging Amaya’s attentions. “I’ve known Amaya since she was a toddler. She’s like . . . well, she’s like a niece to me.” He shrugged.
“I think she’d like to be more than that.” Lacey laughed and shook her head at his horrified expression. Even teenage girls weren’t immune to Luke’s sex appeal.
“Oh please,” he said around a mouthful of savory vegetables, “she’s barely fifteen. I’m old enough to be her—”
He looked unpleasantly surprised by that realization. Hiding his chagrin, he took a gulp of his beer as Lacey sniggered. “Uncle. I was going to say uncle. And you’re how old?” he retorted.
“Old enough to be her mother—”
“As if,” she replied with a snort. “Besides, I’m not the one she’s infatuated with.”
He let that pass for a few beats. “Do you have any children?”
She glanced up at him, her face aghast. “Definitely not.” “Got something against children?”
“No. I happen to love children, but with my job, do you really think I could be a mother?”
His mouth turned up in a wry grin. “Oh, you can be a mother all right.”
“Ha! A wilderness guide and a comedian. Got any other hidden talents?” she asked as she speared a sweet plantain with her fork.
“Oh, a few. I’d be happy to show you some time.” A wolfish grin replaced the wry one.
“You can just keep those, um, talents to yourself.” After taking a pull on her beer, she asked, “How about you? You got any little beach bums running around?”
“Not that I know of.” From the disgusted look on her face, his intended joke had fallen flat. “No, I don’t.”
She nodded and they finished their meals in silence.
Luke took their plates and empty beer bottles and gave them back to the proprietress, thoughtfully saving her a trip, or rather, avoiding a repeat performance from Amaya.
While Luke chatted with Señora Lopez, one of the miners stepped out onto the porch to smoke. He pulled on the cigarette, turning his face upward. As that first draw reached his lungs, a look of sheer bliss spilled across his craggy features, transforming his face, like a woman biting into a rich dark chocolate treat. Lacey wished she had her camera. It made a great shot. She’d call it ‘Better than Chocolate.’
Luke stepped out, stopping when he saw the slight smile on Lacey’s face and the direction of her gaze. “That’s probably his first smoke in months. I’ve seen a similar expression on your face.”
Lacey spun toward him with a start, wondering when he could have possibly seen such an expression on her face.
Seeing her surprise, he replied, “When you get your first hit of coffee in the morning.”
He gave her a broad grin, making her stomach do a little back-flip. “Oh.” She felt the flush creep up her neck and over her cheeks.
How did he do that? Lacey wondered. Manage to make a jaded photojournalist blush with just a smile? Or maybe it wasn’t just the smile, but also what his comment revealed. He’d noticed how much she enjoyed her coffee. And he’d remembered it.
“Let’s go,” he said as he picked up his jacket. “Rain’s let up for the moment, and we should hit the sack.”
Lacey reluctantly followed. Her previous thoughts of being alone with Luke returned with a vengeance after their little exchange.
Lacey watched as Luke crawled to the back of the plane and began moving boxes, backpacks, and supplies out of the way. He spread their sleeping bags out on the floor, side-by-side. They might as well have been sharing a bed for all the space between the two bags.
“We’ll leave at first light,” Luke said as he stretched out on his sleeping bag.
Darkness had barely fallen. The rain returned and blew against the plane, an occasional gust of wind off the water rocking it. Lacey hesitated.
“Don’t worry,” Luke said, eyes closed, “I’m not going to try anything.” Much as I’d like to.
“As if I’d let you.” Okay, maybe. She crept to the back in the dimming light, faltering when she encountered his large form blocking the path to her bag. Unsure what to do, she crawled over him, and for good measure, gave him a knee to the abdomen.
“Hey! Watch it!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” she asked, all innocence.
“Just go to sleep.” He rolled away from her, giving her his back. But he didn’t close his eyes to sleep. As if sleep was possible with Lacey lying less than a foot away from him. It was going to be a long, long night.