Authors: Sharon Hartley
She can't make the same mistake again
Claudia Goodwin loved and trusted once. Now she's running from the man she thought would never hurt her. Hiding in the breathtaking beauty of a private Florida island until she can testify against her ex-husband, a ruthless terrorist, she has to stay focused on survival.
Sexy security expert Jackson Richards is the perfect man to have on her side, but trusting
âeven himâisn't an option. The one thing she can't keep hidden is the crackling attraction between them. And desire for the man keeping her safe might not be enough to protect her heart...or her life.
“Are your fingers numb?” he asked.
“I don't know. I can't feel them.”
He laughed, his chest rumbling beneath her cheek. “Let's sit down.”
He led her to the sofa, where they sat with the blanket tented around their shoulders. He gently chafed her frozen hands between his large warm ones.
As his body heat seeped into hers, Claudia became aware of the man next to her, of his planes and edges, muscles and bones. She knew better than to trust this man, a stranger really, but she relaxed. Because of the cold, she'd been holding herself stiff for hours. No, for days. She'd been constantly on guard since the night she'd fled her apartment, and the tension had exhausted her. Right now it felt good to just let go, to dissolve into a puddle of warmth.
She'd worry about the danger again when her body temperature returned to normal.
I loved writing
! The heroine, Claudia Romero (nee Goodwin), was a minor character in
The South Beach Search
, a 2014 Superromance, and her backstory always tugged at me. She's a courageous woman willing to testify against her murdering ex-husband even though she's been warned to keep her mouth shut. Her ex bribed someone in the US attorney's office, so she doesn't trust the federal government to protect her and refuses to go into a safe house. She doesn't dare involve her family or risk endangering them. Claudia is on her own, on the run and struggling to stay alive.
I had to know what happened to her. How did she avoid being killed by the terrorists that want to keep her quiet? She needed help, so Jackson Richards, sexy ex-cop and security expert extraordinaire, stepped up as her bodyguard.
Claudia doesn't trust anyone. Not herself and certainly not a man who turns her on every time she looks at him. Since Claudia lied her way onto the ritzy island where Jack works as security director, he's convinced she's a con artist stringing along a wealthy sugar daddy.
I hope you enjoy watching the sparks fly when these two strong-willed people fall in love.
recently survived (barely) a move from Miami to St. Petersburg, Florida. She still doesn't know where most of her clothes are, but hopes they'll turn up soon. Her orchids survived the trip, and, fortunately, so did her computer, where she can be found every morning creating stories where people make mistakes, endure perilous journeys, learn about life and always find a happy ending. She misses her friends in South Florida, but the birding is fabulous on Tampa Bay and she can practice yoga anywhere. Sharon loves to hear from her readers. Please visit her website at
Books by Sharon Hartley
The Florida Files
The South Beach Search
Her Cop Protector
To Trust a Cop
Other titles by this author available in ebook format.
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For my sister, Sandy Clark. I miss you every day.
into her assigned parking space at Brasilia Apartments, turned off her demon car and held her breath. This time the engine kept chugging for only about five seconds before it finally hiccupped to a stop. With a weary sigh, she pulled herself out of the old clunker and into the cool late-January evening.
Thank the nursing gods she was off tomorrow and could sleep late. Although first she had to check on Maude Spalding.
Claudia entered the pleasantly lit courtyard of the small complex and reminded herself she loved her job at West Miami Children's Hospital. She'd chosen the option of working three days straight and then four off. One of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time deals. Funny how lots of things seem like a good idea at first and later prove, hey, not so much.
Pushing away useless regret, she took a deep breath and inhaled the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. She closed her eyes to savor the scent and relaxed her shoulders. The courtyard was filled with tropical foliageâtowering palms, hibiscus, terrestrial orchids and bromeliads. Even a live oak or two. Meant to remind visitors of a mini rainforest, this garden-like refuge was why she'd moved in.
And she'd move again as soon as the trial was over. A niggle of worry about her testimony crept into her thoughts, but Claudia shrugged it away, rapping on her downstairs neighbor's door.
Though it was after midnight, Maude would be up. The feisty eighty-six-year-old seldom slept. She'd lived by herself in the Brasilia for over thirty years and refused to go into assisted living.
“Maude?” Claudia called softly.
“Come on in,” Maude answered in her breathy voice.
Claudia entered and, as always, felt like she'd been transported into an over-the-top holiday extravaganza. Every available surface contained some red-and-green or gold ornament. There were Santas, Mrs. Santas, snowmen, elves, wreaths, twinkling lights and hundreds of Christmas trees, big and small. Glitter everywhere.
Claudia called Maude Our Lady of Perpetual Christmas.
December 25th was long gone, but Maude kept Christmas year-round, never putting away any of her knickknacks. They reminded her of happier times, of her family, now all dead.
Claudia approached her tiny, gray-headed neighbor in the large recliner where she spent most of her time watching television, noting she was using her oxygen.
“You been upstairs yet?” Maude demanded, with an odd, excited expression. Her eyes appeared huge behind her thick glasses.
“No,” Claudia answered, feeling for her neighbor's pulse. “Any palpitations tonight?”
“Was some kind of ruckus in your unit,” Maude blurted.
Claudia dropped Maude's wrist. “Ruckus?”
Maude nodded. “Sounded like furniture being moved, dishes being thrown every whichaway. I almost called the police, but I didn't want to get you in no trouble.”
Claudia stepped back, her stomach cramping hard. Had Carlos finally decided to take action against her? “Why would you thinkâ”
“I been around a long time, Miss Claudia. I can tell when someone's got something in their past they're not proud of.”
Claudia looked up. Her unit was directly over Maude's. “I promise I'm not wanted by the police. My problem is I agreed to help them.”
“You may not be hiding from the law, but you're keeping your head down trying to avoid trouble.”
Hoping my ex forgets about me.
Claudia swallowed, suddenly worried about Moochie, the black stray cat who'd adopted her when she moved in to the Brasilia.
“Did you see anyone?”
“Two men ran down the stairs after the commotion. I didn't notice them going up.” Maude sighed. “With my eyesight, I couldn't tell you nothing about the way they looked.”
“I'd better go see what's going on,” she said.
“You still got that stun gun?”
Claudia nodded and patted her purse.
“Have it at the ready.”
Claudia hurried up to her apartment. Had Carlos decided she was a liability? Maybe it was time to go in to hiding.
Her front door stood open. Not closed and locked as she'd left it. She took a deep breath. Now the jasmine seemed sickeningly sweet, making her faintly nauseous.
Most people would call the police before entering, but she couldn't do that. Not because she was hiding from them as Maude thought, but because she didn't trust them to protect her. Cops could easily be bought. Her ex, the infamous Carlos Romero, had taught her that. So she'd made her preparations months ago. The day she realized she was being followed.
She was on her own.
Everything she needed, courtesy of a grateful patient's father, waited for her in a safe-deposit box.
Claudia pushed the door wide and gasped. She waited at the threshold, absorbing the chaos before her. Maude's description had nailed the condition of her home. Furniture had been tossed and ripped. Drawers opened and thrown. Dishes and appliances smashed on the kitchen floor.
No doubt they were looking for her journal.
“Moochie?” She stepped into the living room, her heart beating so hard and fast her blood pressure had to be off the charts. “Moochie,” she called again. “Where are you?”
She entered the bedroom and discovered more destruction. They'd ripped her nursing scrubs into shreds. Fearing the worst, she kept searching.
In the bathroom she found Moochie, drowned in the toilet.
She clamped a hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking.
Oh, Moochie. You poor sweet thing. I'm so sorry.
She raised her eyes to the mirror and stared at words scrawled in red lipstick: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.
* * *
the coffee he'd ordered from the dark-haired barista, thanked her and took a hesitant sip. Strong and hot. Just as he remembered. No one brewed a better cup than the Collins Island CafÃ©.
Jackson exited the cafÃ© into a cool, salt-laden breeze off the Atlantic Ocean and walked the short distance to the security office. He had a golf cart at his disposal, but he preferred to walk.
Colorful tropical landscaping and the soothing sound of waterfalls surrounded him. He was on the job, but this assignment was more like a forced vacation. His boss insisted he needed a break after his last two missions, which, yeah, had both been bitches. He took another sip of the excellent coffee.
Maybe Lola was right, but he'd resisted taking this cushy gig as Security Director on Collins Island, a private island off Miami Beach accessible only by boat where his employer, the Protection Alliance, provided security. PA operatives rotated in and out as the live-in chief, usually delighted for the opportunity.
Most of the residents were seasonal, and this was the height of the season. Crime was nonexistent on this island paradise. All he had to do for the next month was keep his staff on schedule, act friendly to the wealthy residents and enjoy the resort-like atmosphere.
But it was always boring as hell. And he hated sucking up to trust fund slackers.
A blast of hot air greeted him when he pushed open the door to the security office. He groaned at the decor as he moved to shut down the heat. Pink-and-gray Art Deco was definitely not his style. And what idiot had decided heat was needed just because a weak cold front had swept through south Florida last night? Not him. He was a north Florida man. Jackson opened a window.
He shrugged off his jacket and hung it in the closet. Another thing he didn't like about this gig was the requirement to wear a blue blazer. Damn thing made him feel like a polo player. His khakis and the knit shirt featuring the Collins Island logo over the pocket were enough of a uniform.
He sat at the desk to review the security force schedule. The most critical duty was clearing arrivals for the ferry on the Miami side. The ferry ran every fifteen minutes, and no one was allowed to place a toe on Collins Island without clearance from an owner. Even daily maids were checked and their bags searched. Two guards handled that assignment on three eight-hour shifts, with two more guards on the island side to supervise debarkation. Another two circulated the island on golf carts, constantly alert for any sort of trouble. Of which there was, fortunately, seldom any.
He noted all six positions on all three shifts were staffed with regular PA personnel for the next week. Excellent. That made the transition easier, but he'd make a late-night visit to the docks to ensure no one was catching a nap, looking to take advantage of the new guy in the director's chair. Not likely, though. Guards loved this job because it came with a lot of perks like big tips and expensive giftsâespecially during the winter season.
Still, you never knew what could happen. He wanted no screw-ups during his stint as chief.
Looking for any anomalies, he reviewed the security logs for the last week and reached for the phone when it rang.
“Hey, Action Jackson. Are you bored yet?”
Lola, the office manager from Protection Alliance's main office. He pictured her pink hair, always worn in short spikes. She looked crazed but possessed a laser-sharp mind and never forgot a thing. Jackson relaxed back in his chair, making the leather squeak.
“I've only been on the job forty-five minutes, Lola.”
“That's usually all it takes.”
“Maybe I'm looking forward to a month of not having to duck bullets.”
“Yeah, right. I'll remind you of that in a week.”
“Hey, this was your idea, boss. I'm ready to go back in the field anytime.”
“You are in the field.”
Jack snorted. “Field of dreams.”
“Did you get settled in the apartment? Everything to your liking?”
“Ocean view. Great coffee. I can walk to work through a tropical paradise. What's not to like?”
“Don't be sarcastic, Jack.”
“I'm going with the flow.”
Lola laughed, a throaty sound. “By the way, we received a very nice thank-you bonus from that rapper Jazzy Bones Boy yesterday. He's grateful for your services.”
He ought to be. The jerk almost got me killed.
“I think your cut will make you happy,” Lola said.
“Is that why you called? Couldn't have already been a complaint about me.”
“I wanted you to know there's a tenant arriving sometime today.” Jackson listened as Lola shuffled through paper. “A Mr. Rodolfo Santaluce has rented the pool house of his villa. He wants us to assist with the arrival, make sure security doesn't hassle his new tenant.”
“Isn't renting a bit unusual? I can't imagine the owners here needing extra income.”
“It put up a red flag for me, too, so I questioned his assistant, who informed me that Mr. Santaluce got where he is today by being frugal. The assistant's tone suggested it wasn't any of my business what his boss did.” Lola hesitated, then added, “I'm thinking it's a mistress.”
“Big deal Italian businessman. Married, two kids. The family is in Hong Kong for the winter.”
“Got it,” Jack said. “Give me his address. I'll meet the mistress and expedite her transition into the love shack.”
“Thanks, Jack. Her name is Louise Clark.”
After disconnecting, Jack donned his jacket and exited the office for a trip to the docks to give clearance for one Louise Clark, a lucky lady with a mega-rich sugar daddy. He could do that by phone, but wanted to introduce himself to his staff and make certain they alerted him when Ms. Clark boarded the ferry on the Miami side.
He climbed into the golf cart with
stenciled on the rear and turned a key conveniently in the lock, shaking his head. Weren't many places in south Florida where you could leave a key in the ignition without worry of theft. The quiet electric motor ignited immediately, and he headed toward the dock. Not a speck of trash anywhere on the streets or the neatly mowed grass. Palms, oaks and other landscaping were trimmed to perfection. Gently cascading fountains sounded all around him, clear of any leaf debris because they were cleaned twice a day.
Jack couldn't imagineâbut could easily find outâwhat the monthly maintenance fee was on Collins Island. Had to be astronomical because per square foot there weren't that many residences. Only ten large villas on the eastern shore of the islandâwhere Ms. Clark would soon take up residenceâand forty town homes on the west housed in four three-story buildings.
The graceful structures were constructed in a coordinated Mediterranean style with coral-color barrel-tile roofs, featuring arches and supporting decorative columns. Colorful ceramic tile mosaics detailed many of the architectural elements, including the addresses.
Nobody out on this fine Monday morning, except a maid actually dressed in a starched gray uniform walking two French bulldogs. Jack nodded at her, and she responded with a shy smile.
The 10:00 a.m. ferry, laden with only six vehicles, approached the dock when Jack arrived. He parked his cart by the guard shackâconstructed in the same architectural styleâand watched the dock personnel do their job. Tanned men and women in blue shorts and crisp white shirts efficiently tied the boat to the landing, secured the sturdy metal ramp and motioned for the cars to drive off in a particular order. Three walk-aboards also exited.
The guard on duty, a uniformed twentyish black male, watched the process with alert attention. All clearance was completed on the Miami side, so all he had to do was make a head count, answer questions and direct approved visitors to their destination.
When debarkation was complete, Jack approached the guard and shook his hand. “Jackson Richards.”
“Ike Gamble. We were expecting you today, sir. Welcome to Collins Island.”