AGNES CANESTRI

Sweet Romance For All Ages

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Chapter One

 

Matteo shifted the paper sign from his left hand to his right and glanced at his watch. The plane was late, dang it. Why did he let James talk him into this again? He wasn’t a taxi driver.

     A colorful poster glistened by the entrance of the waiting hall. Welcome to Triquol Island, the place you’ll never want to leave.

     Oh, please. He snorted and rubbed his temples. This was no paradise, at least not for those who come to work here.

     The intercom announced that the flight from Boston had just landed.

     Thank heavens. He really needed to get back to the hotel as soon as possible. Everything had to be tip-top before the new season opened.

     Heat prickled at the back of Matteo’s neck. His assistant, Hugo, was probably making a mess of the bookings for the upcoming diving trips. Hugo was an amiable guy, but he had no sense of business. Plus he hated swimming. Who on Earth gets assigned to help out in the diving center when they dislike water?

     Matteo’s fingers slid across the sign and it dropped to the floor with a flutter. He kneeled down to collect it, and for the first time, his gaze drifted to the name written on it. Helena Whitemaker. The new girl from the animation team. James had mentioned something of the sort.

    Matteo grabbed the sign and straightened back up. Probably another one of those brainless eye-candies he’d had the pleasure to drive last week. Something was going awfully wrong with the hiring process of Deep Blue resort. If it was up to Matteo, he would set higher standards. But it wasn’t up to him.

     He checked the time again. Five to noon. If this Helena managed to claim her baggage quickly, he would still have time to check one of the dive sites before sunset. He pictured the map folded up on the table in his office, and his pulse accelerated. Who knew, maybe today was his lucky day?

      A shrill buzz sounded to his left. He snapped his head toward it. The sliding doors opened, and a slender blonde exited.

     The woman rubbed at her eyes with one hand then looked around. When her glance fell on Matteo’s sign, her face lit up. She strolled toward him, dragging two extra-large valises behind her. A few strands escaped from her tight bun and bounced playfully around her cheeks with each step.

      So, she was the new animator. Matteo swallowed and squared his shoulders.

     She stopped in front of him. “Hi, I’m Helena Whitemaker.” She pointed at her name with a smile on her lips. “But I guess you knew that. Please, call me Eleni though. Are you one of the staff members?”

     Her eyes sparkled as the sun shone on her face through the large windows.

     Matteo folded the paper sign. Wow, this woman is a looker. What a smile.

Eleni shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “So, are you going to tell me your name, maybe?”

     Right. He’d forgotten to introduce himself.

      He shoved the crumpled sheet into his back pocket and held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Matteo Biagi. I’ll give you a ride to the Deep Blue resort.”

     Eleni shook his hand.

     Her fingers were cold and smooth. They felt almost unreal in his large palm.

     “Nice to meet you, Matteo Biagi. Are you from Italy?”

     Matteo’s eyebrows shot up. The last animator girl he’d had the privilege to accompany thought Canada was a state in America.

     “Good catch. My father’s from the old continent, but I grew up in California. I visited Italy each year, though, during school holidays. We still have family there.”

     He cleared his throat. What’s wrong with me? Why am I babbling on? He had no reason to share his personal life with this woman. Even if her wide eyes did make him feel at ease.

     Eleni tilted her head and smiled. “Oh, that must’ve been great. I’ve never been to Europe, but it’s my dream to go there someday…” A shadow passed her eyes and her smile faded. Then she shook her head, as if to cast aside a disturbing thought. “Maybe in the not too distant future. Who knows, right?”

     Matteo scratched his chin. Not too distant future? Hadn’t she just gotten here? The idea that Eleni wasn’t going to stay long on the island made Matteo’s stomach twitch.

     Why did it even bother him? He shouldn’t care at all where Eleni wanted to travel. He didn’t even know her. No, the only thing he should be thinking about was delivering her to the main building and then getting back to work. Maybe Eleni wasn’t interested in keeping her job in the resort for the long term, but he sure was. Or at least until he found the Pearl.

      He shrugged. “Aha, great. Good luck with that. Now, however, we need to get going. They’re waiting for you at the hotel. Come, my car is outside.”

     Eleni’s lips pressed into a line and her jaw tightened.

     Maybe he’d brushed off her last comment too briskly. No, he was just being pragmatic. She couldn’t expect them to stand here chatting away all afternoon, could she?

Eleni grabbed the handles of her luggage and winked. “Sure, you’re the boss. Just show me the way, and I’ll follow.”

     Matteo relaxed. A grin spread across his face. She looked fragile, but she had more spunk than he’d given her credit for.

     He pointed at her valises. “Give these to me. They must be pretty heavy. You just go ahead, straight out the main door. I’ll follow you.”

     Eleni nodded. “Thanks, that’s nice of you.”

     As she released the handles, her fingers brushed across the underside of his arm. A soft tingling skittered across his skin.

     She drew back her hand. “Sorry.”

     Matteo threw her a sideways glance. Had she felt it, too? He increased his grip on the luggage. Why was Eleni having this effect on him? First the babbling, then these zangs of electricity?

      Eleni turned and walked toward the exit.

     Matteo followed her. It had been a bad idea letting Eleni lead the way. He gaped at her long legs and at the way her capri jeans hugged her hips.

     He dropped his glance to the floor and observed her flats sliding on the pavement, rustling with each step. Thank heavens she hadn’t put on heels. The brunette who had arrived in stilettos two weeks ago popped into his mind. She had stumbled across the sandy road like a clown on stilts.         

     Matteo chuckled.

     Eleni whipped around. “What’s so funny?”

     Wow, she had amazing eyes. In the sunlight, they didn’t look hazel anymore, but rather a rich light-brown like fresh honey.

     “Nothing, I just remembered a time I had to pick up one of your colleagues. Let’s just say the girl wasn’t dressed properly for a sandy tropical island.”

     She lifted her eyebrows. “And I am?”

     Matteo gave her a slow once-over then raised his head to meet her gaze.

      Eleni blushed and waved with her hand. “You know what, don’t answer that.” She turned her head from left to right. “Okay, where do we need to go from here?”

     Matteo pointed at the red Suzuki Jeep on the other side of the road. “That’s our ride.”

      Once at the car, he tried to squeeze the two valises into his trunk, but they didn’t fit. He had told James, hadn’t he? It would’ve been better to send the shuttle.

      Matteo pulled out one of the bags and dropped it to the ground. “You’ve brought too much stuff. Are you sure you’re coming for work and not vacation?”

     Eleni furrowed her brows but didn’t answer. Instead, she opened the car door, grabbed her bag from the ground and shoved it onto the backseat. “There. With one, you should manage.”

      She climbed in and slammed the door.

      Matteo scratched his head. Eleni wasn’t the average animator girl, for sure. He nudged the other bag into place and closed the trunk.

      As Matteo hopped into the driver’s seat, Eleni stretched her arms above her head and waved her fingers. She looked like she was trying to taste the air through the open roof. Her eyes darted around, exploring the scenery around the airport. “This island is enchanting. This fragrance…” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “…it’s almost intoxicating.”

     Matteo peeked at her face. His lips moved into a smile. He’d been like this the first time he’d arrived on the island. “Yeah, this place is quite the gem. And we’re still at the airport. Wait till we get to the resort. It isn’t a coincidence that they call it the Deep Blue.”

       “Ah, yes. The Deep Blue.” Eleni rolled the name on her tongue. She opened her eyes and beamed at him.

      Matteo’s stomach was warmed by her pure excitement. Judging by the size of her bags, Eleni might have some obsession with clothes, but she didn’t seem superficial. It had been wrong of him to let Eleni’s job title influence his opinion of her character. She clearly didn’t fit Matteo‘s preconceptions.

     An image of his sister’s freckled nose popped into his mind. Bianca would be upset with him now. She hated when her brother was too quick to judge people.

      A loud growl echoed through the air, followed by a sharp howl.

     Eleni shivered and snagged Matteo’s arm. “What was that?”

     His eyes flicked toward her fingers engulfing his wrist. A heat travelled into his shoulders. “It’s just a howler monkey. You’ll get used to it.”

    She peered down and, as if she’d just realized that she was holding him, withdrew her hand. “Sorry for that.” Her cheeks became crimson.

     Matteo’s heart swelled. Why had Eleni come here to work as an animator? Did she know she was going to have to entertain dumb, rich guys all day? It was an ideal job for someone like Rosalie. But Eleni seemed like a sweet and genuine person.

     Matteo grabbed the steering wheel. Oh well, she probably had her reasons. He wasn’t here because of his passion for the resort visitors either.

     He switched the key in the ignition. “Ready to go?”

     She bit her lip then drew in a breath. “Yes, let’s go.”

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

The Jeep moved suddenly, pressing Eleni against her seat. She shifted her weight to regain her balance. So, here she was. After all the madness, she had finally arrived at Triquol Island.

       She turned her head slightly, attempting to peek at her companion without being discovered. Matteo held the wheel with firm hands and stared at the road.

       Holy moly, if he wasn’t a sight for sore eyes. Eleni’s gaze travelled up his muscular arms to his strong jaw, and then up to his dark hair that shimmered in the tropical sun. She swallowed and forced herself to look away.

      She wasn’t here to fall under the spell of the first cute stranger she met. Those prickles she’d felt when their skin touched were nothing. No, she was here to turn her life around. Or to ruin it?

     Her stomach tightened as she watched the sandy dunes drift by. What had Laura called it? The worst decision of her life. But Laura couldn’t be objective—she was Connor’s sister after all—and neither could the others. They all thought they knew what was best for Eleni. She snorted and squared her shoulders. But they didn’t.

     Matteo glanced at her. “Did you say something?”

     Eleni clutched her palm to her mouth. Dang, the snort had been too loud and probably very unladylike. “Nope, I was just admiring the…” She looked to the side in search of something interesting to point out. “The sand dunes.”

      Matteo stifled a laugh. “Yes, they are bright yellow this time of the day.”

      Eleni fidgeted with her seat belt. Was he making fun of her? “So, Matteo, do you work for the Deep Blue resort as well?”

      He pointed at his chest. “Mhmm.”

      The small symbol on his white shirt was the hotel’s logo. Of course. Could her questions get any smarter? What was this brain freeze she was falling into?

      She cleared her throat. “Are you the pick-up driver?”

      Matteo’s jaw hardened and his voice became cold. “I’m driving you there, yes, but, no, I’m not the official driver.”

      She’d stepped on his foot there. “Oh okay, sorry. My mistake. Then do you work for the animation team? You look like you might.”

      He fit exactly the stereotype she had about her future colleagues. Healthy, fit, and handsome. Judging by the look on Matteo’s face, he didn’t agree with her.

      His lips pressed into a hard line. “No, for heaven’s sake. Do I look like a brainless cheerleader type to you?”

      So that’s what he thought about her? The frown on his face when he’d eyed her luggage came to mind.

     “Sorry if my future work is so offensive to you.”

     Matteo’s eyes softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude but, frankly, jumping around the whole day for the likes of a bunch of rich folks and having a constant smile plastered on my face isn’t for me.”

      It didn’t sound appealing to Eleni either. But that wasn’t the job she was hired for, was it? She shook her head. “You’ve got it wrong. That’s not necessarily what an animator does. We’ll each have our own responsibilities. I, for one, was hired to take care of the children in the kids club and teach them dance.”

     His eyebrows shot up. “Seriously? Well, you won’t be very busy then. We hardly get any kids in this resort.”

     No kids? The man on the phone had assured her this was a market the resort was expanding into.

     She raised her chin and leaned forward. “Maybe you’re just unaware of the new strategies of the management.”

      What did this Matteo know, anyway? He wasn’t the hotel director. She didn’t even know what he did in the hotel.

     A smile tugged at his lower lip. “Sure, could be. I’m not involved in the hotel’s daily business. I’m certain your arrival will open up new possibilities for the Deep Blue. Important thing is that you’re convinced.”

      Yes, she was convinced. Still, she didn’t need a stranger to discourage her before even starting. Maybe, just maybe, she had her own doubts. But who wouldn’t when flying to an unknown tropical island to work in a luxury hotel?

      Eleni snapped her head toward Matteo. Oh, that sly smirk. Without thinking, Eleni reached out and gave him a hard poke between his ribs. “That’s for mocking me.”

      He cringed then laughed. He reached over with one hand and tried to tickle her.

      She angled her body away, scooting to the edge of her seat. “No, pleeaase. I’m ticklish.”

      His fingers managed to brush only her shoulders, but where they reached, thrills shot through her skin.

      The tires hit a small bump, and Matteo withdrew his hand to straighten the wheel. “We’ll pick this back up later.” His dimples deepened as his grin grew.

      Eleni, still panting from the giggles, stared at him. It was the first time he had truly smiled since they’d met. His lips had curled up in a polite way before, but this smile reached his eyes.

      Eleni’s heart skipped a beat and a warm feeling ran up her spine. This had been a bad idea. It would be better never to provoke Matteo physically again. She pressed her hands to her belly. She didn’t need these knots in her stomach. Turning her life around mustn’t involve new relationships. Not when she wasn’t done mourning the old ones.

      Matteo’s voice ripped her from her thoughts. “By the way, I didn’t mean to judge you before. I’m just not a fan of the animation team. This year, they’ve recruited lots of new employees based purely on their good looks. I first thought you belonged in that category.” He paused and pressed his lips together as if regretting what he’d just said. “I shouldn’t have been so hasty with my judgement, sorry.”

     Did Matteo just say he thought she looked nice? Why did she even care about that? The guy didn’t mean it as a compliment. He was just excusing himself because he’d put her into the ‘dumb beauty’ category.

       She rubbed her hands together. “Jeez, thanks, I guess. That’s kind of you to say. So now that you have taken off my stupid tag, would you mind telling me what it is that you do in the resort?”

Matteo straightened in his seat. “I manage the Deep Blue for the resort. I’m the dive center’s manager.”

      Eleni gasped. “Oh, I see.”

       A lump formed in her throat and she swallowed hard. It shouldn’t come as any surprise. The bright shoulders, the beach-boy look, and his cocky nature were all good clues. She folded her arms across her chest. But didn’t he know he was playing with his life down there?

       The Jeep came to an abrupt halt.

       Eleni glanced out the window. Were they here already? The resort must be at least a half-hour drive from the airport. Where had the time gone?

       Matteo jumped out of the car and came around to open her door. He offered his hand to Eleni but she didn’t take it.

       “Thanks, I’ve got this.” She didn’t need another physical reminder that this man could be trouble for her.

       Matteo nodded and stepped aside. He pulled out Eleni’s bags and placed them in front of her. “Here we are. It was a pleasure meeting you, Eleni. I wish you the best of luck here in the Deep Blue.”

       “Nice to meet you too, Matteo. Where do I go now?”

       Matteo pointed at the first side entrance. “That’s where you register. You’ll get your room assigned and the rest sorted out. Will you be fine on your own?” He peered at this watch as if he was running late for an important meeting.

       Eleni nodded. “Sure.” As Matteo turned to leave, she called out. “Thank you. You know, for the ride and all.”

       He swiveled around and met her gaze. “It was my pleasure. Once in a while, being the pick-up driver isn’t so bad after all.” He flashed a smile at her.

      Eleni’s breathing quickened. Were his eyes this blue at the airport? How had she not noticed them before? Oh, for heaven’s sake, what was she doing? She shouldn’t react to him like that.

        “Well, see you then,” she murmured.

        Matteo stepped over to the Jeep and hopped in. As his car drove away, Eleni sighed and turned toward the hotel. Her eyes moved to the giant logo above the entrance. The Deep Blue. How fitting that Matteo worked for this place.

        She shook her head. The thought had no place in her head. They’d arrived, and from now on, she wouldn’t be seeing Matteo that often. He’d said he doesn’t mix much with the hotel’s business, right?

         This island was her chance. A clean, new start. Was it for the better? Maybe, maybe not. But she had no choice. Not after what Connor did. She had to get away from her present, otherwise… She shook her head and grabbed her luggage.

          She walked inside the building.

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