Authors: Kristi Avalon
What do you mean, legal action is pending?
” Carter Stratton glared at his broker over the rims of his aviator sunglasses deflecting the Miami sunset.
“Keep your voice down,” Neville hissed.
Patrons standing on the Vice Lounge’s VIP-only deck paused to stare, then returned to their martinis, cigarettes and conversations when the two of them moved to the deck’s lower level.
Strain creased Neville’s forehead like an accordion. “I said
“I want answers.” Brisk wind riding in off the ocean did nothing to cool Carter’s temper. “You have five seconds before I call my lawyer.”
“No!” Neville cleared his throat. “That won’t be necessary. It’s the Pierce acquisition—there’s a petition to scrap the project.”
Carter reeled with shock. “On what grounds?”
“Environmental activists determined your future hotel goes two-hundred yards into a wildlife reserve. And there’s a mandatory three-hundred-yard distance between commercial property and the protected land.”
Yanking off his sunglasses, Carter stated, “I’m out five hundred yards of prime beachfront property I’ve staked fifty million on, because you didn’t do your research?”
At the mention of his cash flow, two emaciated blondes in miniskirts who’d been eyeing him all night reasserted themselves in his personal space.
Carter turned away, heading to the edge of patio. Late fall wind streamed through his hair. The sun sank into the watery horizon, dragging with it dreams of his most high-profile real estate transaction since he went into business for himself.
Neville sidled up to him. “There’s still a chance—”
Carter shook his head. “I’m out.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Brows lowering, Carter warned, “If you signed anything without my knowledge...”
“I put up collateral. That’s what you told me to do.”
“Before I knew the property had major setbacks.” He shook his head. “When things sound too good to be true, they are.” He used to have a nose for rotten deals. He should’ve handled this himself, staked the grounds personally, calculating exact measurements, weighing benefits against risks.
Gripping the wooden railing, he looked down at neon bar lights glinting off the waves. Had he lost his Midas touch?
He’d never been this careless when so much was at stake. Admittedly, he’d grown lax about his investments, stepping back the way Amanda had hounded him to do for months, letting other people take care of the details.
“Never again,” he swore to himself. He turned to Neville. “I should fire you on the spot. Except—”
“I’m the only person who can get your money back,” Neville completed his sentence.
“I’m all for saving the planet. Can’t this be resolved behind the scenes?”
“Not when the father of your recent ex-girlfriend is an official at the Florida Environmental Protection League.”
. He couldn’t win for losing. “How much was the collateral?”
Carter slammed the heels of his hands against the railing. “Unbelievable.”
“Here’s the deal. If you walk away now, your name is in the clear. Let me work my magic. I’ll protect your status in the beachfront real estate industry.”
“In the meantime, my funds are tied up in this mess.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Yeah, well I’ve already shaken hands with the devil. I won’t get burned twice.” Despite the mild southern climate this late in the year, he felt a chill creep through him he couldn’t shake. “You have five business days to resolve this, starting Monday.”
“It takes time—”
Carter reached into his leather coat pocket for the three-week-old newsprint he’d torn out of
Elite Southern Properties Magazine
There in black and white was a small advertisement printed in bold letters.
: Elegant hotel on El Dorado
Island, beachfront property, historically significant, unmatched charm. Repairs assumed by buyer. Auction commences November 31. Call with inquiries.
It listed a phone number still stamped on his brain despite twelve years passing since he dialed it.
“My advice,” his broker continued, “is to lay low. You don’t need to be sucked into a legal battle just because your relationship took a swan-dive like all the others.”
“Motivational speaker—that’s your calling, Neville.”
“You’ll have your money. I swear on my second home.”
Carter’s jaw tightened. “You can’t drop once you’ve hit bottom.”
Neville’s expression revealed a mix of hurt and determination. “I won’t let you down.”
“I’m retaking control of all my investments. From now on, nothing happens without my verbal and written approval.”
Neville held up his palms. “You’ve made yourself clear.”
“I need to take care of some unfinished business. When I get back to Miami Friday night, I want my name spotless and five million back in my bank account. Are we understood?”
Neville nodded vigorously.
“I’ll be in touch.” Carter pushed through the Saturday night crowd that bobbed to the thumping beat of D.J. Tiesto, on his way to the valet. When they pulled his car up, he slid into his pewter Porsche Boxster, slammed it into gear and peeled out of Miami’s Gold Coast as fast as he could. He headed for the small airport where his private jet waited.
Something else awaited him, too. Not just reprieve from the Pierce acquisition, but something far more personal and satisfying.
Despite the grim scenario here, his need to leave town gave him a chance to settle a score with someone whose memory had never left him alone. The only woman who’d slipped under his defenses and put a crack in his heart he’d never been able to fill.
That jagged fissure festered inside him, and became the grounds for every one of his failed relationships since then. That’s what people kept telling him, anyway. After Amanda, he was finally inclined to believe them.
Amanda Estelle—model, activist, sophisticate, intelligent, everything he should want in a woman...but didn’t.
The wheels of his Porsche squealed as he took a curve too sharply. City lights whipped past in a blur.
Maybe he couldn’t mend things with his now-ex-girlfriend and her connections. He needed to let that go, something he’d never been good at doing.
But in the tangled web of another dream he secretly harbored, he could tear down a few rusty barbed-wire fences from his past. Finally achieve the satisfaction he’d craved since he left El Dorado Island at twenty-two, twelve years ago.
Suddenly nothing seemed more compelling than arriving unannounced when Ellie Montgomery needed him most. He had looked into her hotel property three weeks ago when he’d first seen the ad and hadn’t believed the price. Now he understood why the property was so cheap. The Montgomery Hotel was falling apart, a shadow of its former nineteenth-century glory. Few investors would go near it. Unless they had an agenda.
He’d fly in with an offer and become Ellie’s savior. Right up until she admitted she needed him, body, heart and soul. Then he’d take her to his bed and keep her there for days. Making love to her until she begged him to stop, and then begged him for more. After he had his fill and sealed the fracture inside him, he’d leave her behind. Like she’d done to him, without telling him why—just the attitude of, “Hey, it’s been fun, but I’m done with you, so have a nice life.”
This reunion had been a long time coming.
Gloved hands gripping the steering wheel, the real estate ad in his jacket pocket, Carter pulled onto the tarmac where his plane waited. The Porsche’s wheels spun rubber as he hit the breaks, leaving black streaks across the hangar. He got out and tossed his keys to the man in the guard booth.
Climbing the steps that were lowered for him, Carter entered his jet’s cabin. “Captain Bromstead,” he addressed his pilot. “Destination: El Dorado Island. Due southeast of Hilton Head, South Carolina.”
After punching in the coordinates, Bromstead cocked his head and touched his earpiece. “Sir, they don’t allow jets on the island. You’ll have to take a hopper from the mainland.”
Carter checked his watch. Nine-thirty. That should put him there by midnight. “Tell the hopper to be ready when we land.”
Consumed with worry, Ellie Montgomery ran down her list of VIP accommodations with the woman who knew the Montgomery Hotel almost as well as she did.
“Did you make the bed with monogrammed sheets?” she asked. They showed less wear than the ones they used for regular guests.
“Check,” Matilda said triumphantly. Her graying curls and thick chin bobbed with a nod.
“What about his wakeup call?”
“Of course, but—”
Ellie didn’t have time for second-guessing. She’d received only a few hours notice that a new investor had suddenly taken interest in the hotel. He’d arrived late last night.
Her heels clicked on imported marble flooring as she continued her rapid stride toward the first floor colonial State Room. “Fresh flowers?”
“Umm, about that...”
Ellie drew up sharply. The housekeeper almost bumped into her. Matilda refused to meet her eyes, wiping her palms on her apron. Ellie frowned. “What about
Matilda scrunched her apron in her fists. “See, it’s like this.” She hesitated, then the words poured out in a rush. “Well, when I went to Sam’s Flower Shop, Sam gave me the scolding look. You know that look he gets. So, well, he...” She glanced pleadingly at Ellie. “He says our credit isn’t good there anymore.”
Panic flooded Ellie’s veins. This was the last thing she needed. Every touch had to be perfect for the investor in Suite 1A. Her eyebrows pulled together. “No flowers?”
“There are flowers,” Matilda confirmed. “I paid for them myself. Miss Montgomery, I didn’t know what else to do—”
“Sam should know better.” But Ellie suspected the day would come when a promise from the Montgomery Hotel made people turn away. On a small island like El Dorado, locals depended on revenue from the only luxury hotel. They had suffered financially in the past three years, as much as Ellie had emotionally since the death of her father. The hotel
to remain intact. Or dozens of lives and livelihoods—including her own—would be swept away with the Atlantic tide.
Ellie sighed. “I’m sorry you had to be in that position.” Her throat tightened. “At this time, I can’t offer to...”
“I know.” Matilda straightened proudly. “I bought them because I know how much this place means to you. To all of us.”
Ellie suppressed the tears that stung the backs of her eyes. “I promise you,” she said, touching the housekeeper’s shoulder, “I will make it up to you. No matter what I have to do.”
Even if it means subjecting my future to Arnoff Applestone
. She shuddered at the thought of the first—so far the only—investor, king of bad comb-overs and sleazy hotel casinos. She swallowed hard. “I will take over your duties for the afternoon.”
“Oh! No, I’d never expect that.”
“It’s the least I can do. I’m sorry for your trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all.” Matilda’s eagerness drove a knife through Ellie’s heart.
The housekeeper knew Ellie forfeited any income to keep a skeleton crew on staff. All Ellie had was credit backed by the word of four generations of Montgomery’s. And the singular hope of landing an investor who’d buy the 135-year-old hotel in “as-is” condition. In the current dismal real estate market, her chances were bleak.
“It’s all right, Ellie.” The housekeeper sent her a look of sympathy. While Ellie appreciated the gesture, nothing about their dire straights was all right with her.
“No, it’s not alright. But I will make it better.”
No matter what it takes
At that moment Matilda’s husband, James, rushed up to them. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Madam, I regret to inform you, the gentleman in Suite 1A has not responded to our wakeup calls. And his breakfast tray is cold to the touch.”
The blood drained from her face. “Didn’t he check in last night?”
“The guest sheet has initials scratched there, but it’s indecipherable.” James shrugged.
“No one has seen him?” When James and Matilda shook their heads, Ellie experienced a rush of humiliation. “If we went to all this trouble and expense for nothing...” She set off toward the suite.
She would not let this place be run into the ground—financially through foreclosure, or morally through Arnoff Applestone. Something had to come through. They were practically giving the hotel away. She’d be left with nothing in the end, but hopefully she could keep her job as hotel manager and earn a paycheck.
The problem was she had few other work skills to offer. Plus she’d be competing for work in this depressed island economy against the very people she’d grown up with, but apart from. Everyone who had watched her once-wealthy father, and then Ellie, fall from grace. That notion became a bitter pill that lodged in her digestive tract, slowly churning into an ulcer of constant anxiety.