Book 2 of Billion-Dollar Mediterranean Brides
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Michelle Smart is the Queen of adventure and passion driven romances with characters who are likeable and who have stories you keep turning the page to read more.
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The Forbidden Innocent's Bodyguard
CHAPTER ONE (opening excerpt)
ELSA LOPEZ COULDN’T stop pacing. She’d spent the past week hiding in her Viennese apartment obeying her mother’s request to stay inside until the man tasked with escorting her home to Valencia arrived, and her nerves were shredded.
Her usually unobtrusive security detail had quadrupled with no warning a week ago. She now had a bodyguard stationed outside her front door, another guarding the front entrance to the apartment building and another guarding the back entrance. In a top-floor apartment on the other side of the courtyard were more guards watching every person who came within its vicinity. Her trip home to Valencia for her sister’s engagement party had been bought forward. Her mother wanted her home and within the safety of the Lopez estate as soon as possible. That could only mean there had been a specific threat against Elsa.
Still pacing, she read her mother’s latest cryptic email again. Their communications were supposed to be secure but both women worked on the assumption that every call was listened to and every written communication read. After what had happened to their family, paranoia was to be expected. Jumping at shadows had become a part of Elsa’s life.
Be ready to leave on the day of Samson’s birth. Your escort has made all the arrangements. Trust him. Trust no one else.
Samson had been Elsa and her sister Marisa’s first pet. Their parents had bought the dog for them when they’d been in infant school. They’d faithfully celebrated his birthday on the ninth of July for every one of his twelve years of life.
Today was the ninth of July.
There was a rap on her front door. She checked the security camera before opening it, just in case. Since her father’s murder a year ago, ‘Just in case’ had become something of a mantra.
‘Your escort has arrived,’ the unsmiling guard told her.
‘Is he one of your men?’
He shook his head.
‘Who is he?’
Her question went unanswered. The guard indicated the oversized handbag sitting by the door. ‘Is this all you’re taking?’
She picked it up and secured it over her shoulder. ‘Yes.’ She always travelled light when she returned to Valencia. She’d lived in Vienna for five years, but her childhood bedroom was still hers, the wardrobes still stuffed with all her clothes and accessories. All she’d packed were her cosmetics, purse and passport.
Elsa’s apartment was set above a pizzeria and book shop in a beautiful building with white walls and green window frames. She followed the guard down the narrow stairs to the ground floor and stepped out into the cobbled courtyard. Mid-morning and the coffee shop on the other side was spilling over with people. Summer in Vienna was hitting its stride, the students and hipsters who usually made up the bodies wandering through this laid-back district increasing rather than decreasing in numbers.
A tall, well-built figure with a full, thick black beard standing propped against a lamppost caught her attention. Arms with biceps the size of her thighs were folded across a powerfully built chest. There was something familiar about him, something that made her heart give a sudden jolt. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the rising sun, she stopped walking and stared.
It couldn’t be...?
She dropped her hand from her brow and stared some more. The figure moved towards her. Incongruously dressed for the weather and bohemian vibe of the district in a pair of dark grey trousers, a dark blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck and a charcoal waistcoat, the unruly curly black hair had been slicked back, dark shades along with the new beard covering much of the face she’d tried her hardest to forget.
Her mother had sent Santi.
He was standing in front of her before she could unfreeze her shocked brain, straight white teeth flashing in a wide smile, bear-like hands lightly gripping her shoulders. He leaned down and placed his cheek against hers as if this was a planned meeting between two close friends and whispered, ‘Smile and look pleased to see me.’
But her shock was too great. The cologne she’d caught in ghostly fragments over the years had already engulfed her senses. The skin on her cheek tingled from the soft brush of his beard. Elsa reared back. Her frozen mouth managed to form one word. It came out like an accusation.
He tightened the hold on her shoulders and increased the wattage of his smile. ‘Me. Now, as delightful as this reunion is, we need to get moving.’
His gravelly voice dived straight into her stunned senses. The courtyard began to swim around her. Of all the people in the world she’d have wanted to escort her home, Santiago ‘Santi’ Rodriguez would have been at the very bottom of the list.
It had been five years since Elsa had left his bed crushed, shamed and chastened but those years melted away and, cheeks now burning under the weight of his stare, the old humiliation slapped her afresh.
In desperation, she turned to the bodyguard who’d accompanied her but he’d melted away too.
Santi hid his impatience and kept the smile on his face as he released Elsa’s slender shoulders to take her hand. She tried to jerk away but he didn’t relinquish his hold. ‘We don’t have time for this, chiquita. We need to move. Now smile and come with me.’
Tugging at her hand, he set off, forcing her to move alongside him.
‘Of all the places you could have set up home, you had to choose a pedestrianised area?’ he joked in an effort to ease the tension as they weaved through the crowds and onto Mariahilfer Strasse. ‘I thought I might have to kill someone for a parking space.’
She didn’t respond. Her pretty face was clenched from smooth brow to heart-shaped chin.
Using his excellent internal sense of direction—Santi had never been lost in his life, had only to look at a map once to memorise it—they crossed the wide road bursting with shoppers and slipped down a side street. Although Elsa trotted beside him in mute obedience, he didn’t release her hand. His intuition, which was as excellent as his sense of direction, told him strongly that should he let her go, she would bolt.
After the way she’d ignored him at her father’s funeral, he hadn’t expected her to greet him with whoops of joy but did she have to act so repulsed when he was putting his life on the line for her? The woman who’d once been his little shadow now recoiled from him. The first word she’d spoken to him in five years had been hissed at him as if he were dirt on her shoe.
The last time they’d spoken was the night he’d found her in his bed. Considering how drunk she’d been, he’d be surprised if she remembered any of it, actions or words.
He’d done his damned best to forget it too.
They reached the Naschmarkt, a mile-long market already bursting at the seams with locals and tourists. If anyone was following them, this was where Santi intended to shake them off. Keeping a firm hold of Elsa’s hand, he cut through food stalls and restaurants, backtracked a few times, cut through a coffee bar and then led her outside and down another side street where the car he’d acquired was parked.
Elsa took one look at the tiny, battered white car and raised a brow. ‘You’re saving me from what I assume are kidnappers in that?’ The car had to be the same age as her and could in no way be called a classic.
He grinned and unlocked the passenger door manually. ‘If you aren’t expecting it then the kidnappers aren’t either.’
This confirmation of her suspicions hit her like a needle of ice being injected directly into her veins and she grabbed hold of the opened door to stop her weakening legs dropping her to the ground.
Santi must have read something on her face for his smile fell. ‘You didn’t know?’
She tried to get moisture into her arid mouth. ‘I knew there was a threat to me but not the details,’ she croaked. ‘Mamá said my escort...you, I suppose...would explain.’
‘I’ll explain everything once we’re on the road,’ he promised.
In the car, she dropped her head between her knees and breathed deeply. At least she hadn’t fainted. That was one good thing.
Santi leaned in through the driver’s door. ‘I need your phone.’
‘Why?’ she asked dimly.
‘They’re probably tracking it.’
Mutely, head still dipped, she pulled it out of her bag and handed it to him. He dropped it to the ground. It crunched beneath his giant foot.
‘I have a replacement for you in the boot.’
‘Okay,’ she whispered.
‘Are you okay?’
She raised her head and took another deep breath. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Then buckle up, chiquita, and let’s get this heap of junk to the airport.’
From Vienna to Valencia…
In the arms of her billionaire protector!
Elsa Lopez has spent five years abroad trying to forget her foolish infatuation after Santi Rodriguez rejected her. But with her family’s lives threatened, she has no option but to trust he’ll bring her safely home…
Elsa’s been off-limits to self-made billionaire Santi since her father took him in as an unruly teen. Now, traveling alone with Elsa, so different from the wild girl she once was, bodyguard Santi faces true temptation. He’ll offer her every luxury, every protection, but to offer any more would be the most dangerous mistake!