After the Fall, by Katy Ames
Grace glared at the door, then down at her phone. Then back at the door. She shouldn’t be there. She shouldn’t be the one dealing with this. With him. But the hotel’s general manager was nowhere to be found, and if the man inside called the front desk one more time, Grace knew Carrie would quit.
“Mr. Donovan,” Grace called out as she knocked forcefully against the heavy door. When she heard no signs of life, she knocked again. Louder. Pressing her ear to the surface, she tried to pick out any sounds from inside. Given the frequency and volume of his phone calls over the past hour, Grace knew he was in there. Swiping past the messages from Carrie clogging up her phone, Grace was about to try the villa’s landline when she heard a crash followed by a muffled shout.
“Mr. Donovan. This is Grace Fitzgerald from the Seven Winds Resort,” she shouted through the door, digging out her master key. “Is everything alright, sir?” The only answer was a loud thud. “Sir, I understand you’re having an issue.” Though not one that warranted so much noise, she thought. Steeling herself, Grace continued, “Mr. Donovan, I’m coming in.”
Grace swiped her key and pushed open the door, stepping into the luxuriously understated living room of the Seven Winds Villa. Perched halfway up the island’s long-dormant volcano, the two-floor suite boasted some of the most breathtaking views in the Caribbean. With the primary living area on the top floor and the lower-level bedrooms opening up to the sprawling patio below, guests were surrounded by well-appointed luxury in all of the many rooms. The sterility of the suite’s more high-tech amenities was softened by a palette of whites and creams and sky blues, thick area rugs, and lush flower arrangements. The expansive wall of windows on the far side of the living room was broken up by a series of French doors, all of them currently open, the white linen curtains blowing in the breeze, the warm azure of the ocean visible between each shift and sway.
Looking around, Grace confirmed that nothing was glaringly wrong, at least not on the main floor. From her position in the living room, she could see the kitchen was empty. As was the dining area, if she didn’t count the abandoned coffee cups and rocks glasses weighing down the enormous glass table.
Taking a second glance, Grace registered that the villa’s sole occupant had left a wide array of debris scattered across most of the available surfaces. More cups and a few plates of discarded food were stacked on the coffee table bracketed by the living room sofas. Grace scowled as she noticed thick drops of coffee splattered across the pristine white fabric of one. A laptop was open, its screen black, abandoned on the corner of a side table. As she made her way over to close its lid, Grace’s foot connected with something on the floor. Whatever it was rolled away, only coming to a halt when it encountered a throw pillow left carelessly near one window.
Grace scowled as she retrieved the bottle from the floor. Glenrothes 1970. The five-thousand-dollar bottle of Scotch was completely empty. Perhaps you should make sure he isn’t in the pool. Face down. On that morbid thought, she raced to the terrace beyond the French doors and checked the infinity pool on the patio below. Empty. Thank God.
At the same time, a loud crack split the air beneath her.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Grace dropped the forgotten bottle and ran down to the lower level. Whatever she’d expected to find on the ground floor of the resort’s most expensive villa, this wasn’t it.
There, sprawled on the ground, eyes closed, lips skewed in an off-kilter smile, wearing nothing more than a wrinkled pair of shorts, was Mark Donovan, co-founder and CEO of D&A International. Sinfully handsome, wildly successful, obscenely wealthy, unerringly cocky, undeniably brilliant, famously flirtatious. And, Grace was horrified to realize, unconscious and sporting a wicked cut above one eyebrow.
“Oh, no, no.” Grace rushed towards him and crouched over Mr. Donovan’s motionless form, her hands fluttering just above his face. Get a grip, Grace. Check to see if he’s breathing, check to make sure nothing is blocking his airway. She focused with a deep breath and shifted her brain to autopilot, running through the CPR procedures all hotel staff were required to know.
Grace’s pulse calmed substantially when she saw Mr. Donovan’s chest rise in a steady, heavy breath. Definitely not dead. Thank the good Lord. Grace tipped her head back in relief. Skimming her fingers across his forehead, she gingerly checked the cut to make sure nothing was lodged in it. The blood had stopped, a dark red trickle disappearing into the ashy-brown eyebrow that arched defiantly even then. Running an assessing glance across his head and body, Grace confirmed that other than the bruise blossoming beneath the cut, Mark appeared to be perfectly fine. Though unconscious.
An incoherent mumble broke free of his lips, followed by a muffled snore. Grace amended that last part. Not unconscious. Asleep.
Slumping back, Grace rearranged herself so she could sit more comfortably on the floor, her eyes fixed on her unwitting patient. Mark was stretched out and motionless, giving Grace an unparalleled view of his starkly beautiful face and meticulously sculpted body. His dark blond hair was a mess, chunks of thick strands stuck up on end where he must have repeatedly raked his fingers through it. His eyes were closed and Grace’s gaze wandered across the sharp ridges of his cheekbones and refined slope of his nose, both of which drew her attention down toward his wide, generous mouth, his lips parted, soft puffs of air brushing the strong, supple lines on every exhale.
Determined to ignore her sudden impulse to taste those lips, Grace shifted her eyes away. But she only got as far as the tanned skin of his neck, Mark’s pulse kicking with a regular rhythm at the base, just above the wide stretch of his collarbone. Refusing to stare, Grace tried to focus on something innocuous. Like her cuticles, or the weave the carpet. Or the inviting water of the pool outside. But a particularly deep inhale dragged her back, this time her attention landing on the long planes of his broad chest, light wisps of blond hair dusting the hard curves that came to an abrupt halt against the repetitive ridges of his abdomen.
Grace, you need to stop staring. Seriously. Stop staring!
But Grace’s eyes had a mind of their own. She could hardly blame them. As Mark breathed, the play of the muscles across his stomach and sides was hypotonic, the slopes and dips elegantly formed, exquisitely defined. Grace’s mouth formed an ‘O’ as she tracked his torso to where it tapered into sharp angles before stretching beneath the waistband of his shorts. Of its own volition, Grace’s tongue slipped across her lower lip as she caught the hint of dark ink dancing across the shadow of one hipbone.
God help her, he was beautiful. Every delicious detail all the more enticing at that precise moment because his eyes weren’t flashing in distain. And his voice wasn’t dripping with irritation. Mark Donovan, silent and still, was perfect.
Awake and entitled? Not so much.
“Typically, I expect a woman to buy me one drink, at least, before she gets to enjoy such an up-close and personal view.”
Grace squeaked in surprise and tried to scramble back, but Mark anchored one of her wrists in a warm, inflexible grasp.
“You had an accident. I found you on the floor. I was making sure you weren’t injured.”
Confusion, then recollection flashed in the deep indigo of his eyes. Pressing his free hand to the bump on his forehead, he cocked his lips into a crooked grin. “From what I can tell, my injuries are up here. Not”—he nodded in the direction of his crotch—“down there.”
“Just being thorough.” Tugging herself free, Grace pushed off the floor and stood above his still-prone form. After a second’s hesitation, she reached her hand out to him. “Do you need help getting up?”
For a large man who’d been completely immobile just moments before, Mark pulled himself up in one surprisingly fluid motion, his weight never coming to rest against Grace’s hand despite having wrapped it in one of his. Grace expected Mark to let go once he was upright. Instead, he threaded his long fingers between her much smaller ones. Which was a good thing, she supposed, because only a few seconds later he stumbled, his eyes narrowing in pain, a groan low but audible.
Grace’s frown went from irritation to alarm. “Mr. Donovan. Mark. You need to sit down. Come.” She guided him to the nearby loveseat set between two sets of patio doors. Mark followed without protest and dropped with a grunt as soon as they were close enough. Releasing another squeal, Grace followed, a jumble of limbs as Mark dragged her down with him.
Grace pulled her fingers from his and watched the furrows on his forehead fade as Mark took long, slow breaths, his lids closed, his head resting against the back of the sofa. Angling herself so that she could watch his face, Grace rested a hand on his bare shoulder and bit the inside of her cheek to stop her fingers from sinking into the banded muscle.
“Hmmmm….” Mark didn’t bothering opening his eyes.
“Mark.” Grace gave him a gentle shake. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“How you ended up on the floor.”
“Yes, that.” Obviously. Grace was starting to worry the damage went deeper than a bump on the head. “What else would I be talking about?”
“I thought you might be referring to the thorough once-over you were giving me.”
“Oh, for the love of….” Grace gritted her teeth and hauled back the frustration building in her throat. Because it was unprofessional. And because he was right. She had been studying him. Thoroughly. Grace could feel the embarrassing truth singed pink across the tops of her cheeks.
Brilliant blue flashed under Mark’s lids as one corner of his lips lifted. “Nothing to be embarrassed about, Ms. Fitzgerald. It was surprisingly gratifying. I felt like a prize racehorse. Or a very rare painting.”
A dark chuckle rumbled in Mark’s chest when Grace jumped up from the loveseat. But he was quick, and Grace actually growled in annoyance when Mark hauled her back down again.
Looking pointedly at where his hand held hers, Grace tried to pull free. “Mr. Donovan. I appreciate that you’re a very valued guest here at the Seven Winds. And that our mission is to ensure that every guest is completely satisfied during their stay. But that in no way extends to holding staff hostage. So, if you’ll excuse me….” Grace arched an eyebrow and waited for Mark to let her go. But all he did was raise one insolent brow back. The one not darkened with blood.
“That might be, Ms. Fitzgerald. But I think you’ll find that you are the one who came into my room. And since you decided to interrupt my solitude against my wishes, I think it’s only fair that I get to keep you for a while. Against yours.”
“Against your wishes?” This time Grace’s voice was tight. “That knock to the head must have done more damage than I thought, because you seem to have forgotten that you’ve been harassing my front desk staff all morning, calling over and over again. And that I came here because you were on the verge of causing a very nice young woman to have a mental breakdown.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” Mark huffed.
“You must be f—” Grace hauled herself back before she swore in front of—no, at—one of the hotel’s most important guests. Inhaling slowly, she continued, her tone calm, steely. “Mr. Donovan. We don’t need to discuss the finer points of your conversation with Carrie. Instead, why don’t we address the reason you were so disgruntled? Perhaps there’s something I can help you with?”
Something that doesn’t involve shoving your shirt down your throat. If you were wearing a shirt. God damn it, why aren’t you wearing a shirt?
Grace, stop staring!
Grace wasn’t sure which emotion was winning the battle for top billing on her face. The irritatingly compelling attraction she felt for this infuriating man. Or her determination to do her job and address whatever inane issue had Mark Donovan’s exceptionally well-cut shorts in a bunch. She really hoped it was the second one.
Mark considered her for a moment, something dark and fleeting in his eyes, before he adopted an expression of casual amusement. “As it happens, Ms. Fitzgerald, despite your implication, my issue wasn’t with…what did you say her name was? Carrie? No”—he gave his head a small shake—“she was doing a perfectly acceptable job. All things considered.”
Grace winced at his use of ‘acceptable,’ but ignored it. “All things considered?”
“Yes.” Her hand still captured in his, Mark traced his thumb across the swell of her palm, his attention never wavering from Grace’s face. “Considering that neither she, nor you, were the ones I was trying to drive into a mental breakdown. As you so succinctly put it.”
Grace cocked her head in confusion. And dismissed the urge to curl her hand more tightly around his.
Mark shifted on the sofa, his large, bare upper body lifting free of the deep cushions. “You weren’t the one I wanted here.” Grace flinched as a pang of disappointment flared, then mentally cursed herself for even caring. She definitely didn’t care.
Mark gave the sensitive inner surface of her hand another calming stroke. “But now that you’re here, Ms. Fitzgerald….” Mark looked at her expectantly, his question lingering.
“Grace,” she conceded.
Mark moved again, his knees coming to bracket one of Grace’s, the thin linen of her pants no barrier to the heat pouring off his thighs. “Now that you’re here, Grace, I find myself overjoyed that my intended victim wasn’t available.”
Her mind skipping haphazardly, Grace found that she wasn’t actually interested in what—or who—had driven Mark to the brink. She was too preoccupied with the sunbaked glow of his shoulders, the intoxicating closeness of his body, the swell of pleasure creeping up from where his hand held hers. And the languid intent burning in his velvety blue eyes, the rich color disconcertingly similar to the bruise blossoming above his lid.
Clearing her throat, Grace clung to the distraction. “Are you going to tell me? How you ended up on the floor?”
Mark’s lips parted into a sheepish smile, but the interest in his eyes didn’t dim. “I had an unfortunate altercation with the patio door. Which I thought was open. Turns out it wasn’t. And I was just giving myself some time to come to terms with that fact.”
“On the floor. With your eyes shut.”
“I didn’t see you complaining. Grace.”
He said her name with slow precision, the lilt of his voice falling into a rough murmur. A seductive call.
So this is what it feels like. The thought flitted through her mind. This is what it’s like to be the center of someone’s attention. To be the one wanted. To not be the one discarded, dismissed.
Grace wasn’t sure why she didn’t stop him. She saw it, the way he leaned towards her, steadily erasing the space between them. Her eyes stayed open, mesmerized by the latent fire flashing in his. She even felt it, the gentle breath that broke across her cheek before his lips grazed hers.
They stayed like that, frozen. Their mouths not quite touching, their gazes locked. Grace tried to say something, she was sure of it. That’s why her lips parted. Not to encourage Mark, not to let him in. She was about to tell him to back off. Absolutely.
But as soon as Mark felt her mouth open beneath his, he pressed in. One hand wrapping around her hip, the other curving around the side of her neck, Mark teased the inside of Grace’s mouth with his tongue, the leisurely sweep gentle but firm. On the second caress, Mark closed his eyes. On the third, so did Grace, her lips parting wider, her own tongue reaching out to welcome his.
He was delicious. Grace rested a hand on one of his legs, relishing the solid feel of him as she tasted his mouth. Warm and clean and a hint of spice. And….
Grace recognized the flavor lingering on Mark’s tongue at the same time she used her grip on his thigh to break their kiss. His hands still anchoring her, she didn’t get far. But Grace eased back enough to give him an appraising look.
“Are you drunk?”
Mark watched her lips form the question and had the audacity to laugh. “Maybe.”
Grace shifted, trying to put more space between them. But Mark’s grip was strong, and all Grace managed to do was wedge her hip more securely into his large hands.
“Mr. Donovan, I’d like for you to let me go now.”
“It wasn’t a request.”
Mark’s lips twitched. “Sure sounded like one.”
“I was being polite.” Grace kept her attention trained on his eyes, even as he stayed focused on her mouth. Which was having the unfortunate effect of making her want to lick her lips.
“I appreciate your attempt at professionalism, Grace. But there’s no need to be polite. Not here. Not with me.”
Grace’s eye ticked. “I’m afraid I disagree, Mr. Donovan.” She worked to keep her voice steady. And chose to ignore the fact that her hand was still wrapped around his upper thigh. “I came here to ensure that we at the Seven Winds are being responsive to your needs. As a guest,” she enunciated carefully. “I only stayed because you appeared to be in distress. And I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
When Mark flashed his eyes up to hers, his lids were heavy. The look in them sent a flush racing down her neck and set something off balance deep inside her.
“Then let me concede, Grace, that you’ve done a stellar job so far. I appreciate your efforts, on behalf of the resort. That said”—Mark’s fingers threaded through the fine blonde hairs at the base of her skull, his hand tipping her closer—“I don’t think you’re done quite yet.”
“No.” Grace intended it to come out as a statement. Instead it sounded like a question.
“No.” Mark shook his head, his nose brushing the tip of hers. “I think you need to stay a little longer. Make sure all of my faculties are in place. That my coordination hasn’t been affected. By my accident.”
Or by the excessive amount of alcohol you drank, Grace wanted to retort. But Mark beat her to it, the tug of his mouth erasing her words and thoughts. All except one.
God, it feels good to be wanted, to be wanted by this man. So very good.
In a matter of seconds, Grace was following the tug of Mark’s hands, settling herself on his lap, her thighs straddling his, her fingers laced through his disheveled hair, each tug and pull of her own hands adding to its glorious disarray. His determination was too much, or hers simply not enough. Either way, Grace let herself fall into Mark’s embrace, her mouth melding with his, her tongue coaxing his into fervent, greedy strokes. He was cocky, arrogant, demanding, and far too pleased with himself. But as a hum of exhilaration tickled the back of Grace’s throat, she allowed that he was also a brilliant kisser. Skillful, ardent, and, yes, demanding. But in a way that tempted her to curl her toes and sink down into him as deeply as she could.
Mark wanted that, too. His hands were no longer patient, their movement no longer lazy. As Grace felt his desire harden into undeniable thickness between their legs, Mark’s arms tightened around her waist and his fingers danced with avid strokes against her back. For every track he made down her spine, Grace leaned closer. For every touch he dragged up to the base of her neck, she could feel the muscles of his chest flex beneath her breasts.
As the minutes passed, Grace began to regret her wardrobe choice. Under Mark’s sensual sweeps and powerful grip, her temperature was spiking and the silk of her blouse was no longer soft, only stifling.
Grace felt a tug at the placket of her shirt and thought for a second the rough command had been hers. But dragging her mouth from Mark’s, she looked down to see his fingers trembling as he began to loosen the buttons of her blouse.
Grace wrapped Mark’s hand with hers, stilling it as their hazy gazes met and held.
“Off,” Mark repeated. This time a question danced around the demand in his eyes.
Her chest heaving under their combined touch, Grace stopped, considered. From her perch on his lap, she stared down at Mark. Paragon of men. Archetype of entitled assholes. Yet, as he kept his face lifted, the severely beautiful lines free of guile or hollow charm, Grace thought she glimpsed something more lurking behind his stunning surface. Something that he was giving her the chance to lure out into the bright light of day. A piece of himself that was peeking through lust-filled eyes and confessing a secret. A need. One that Grace thought might be mirrored in her own.
An intrinsic longing.
The basic want. To be wanted.
That flare, the recognition of what his eyes were telling her, what the flush of her skin answered in return. It was enough to bring Grace to the edge of indecision, enough to push her right over into madness.
Slipping her hands beneath his, Grace linked her fingers around the top button, her tongue slipping out in concentration, the pink tip wetting her bottom lip. Mark groaned and his hips surged up, his erection an exquisite friction against the sensitive apex of her thighs.
“Ahhh.” Mark swallowed Grace’s murmur as his hands became frantic, one dragging her mouth to his, the other tugging her shirt free from her waistband.
“Off.” His voice guttural, Mark’s vocabulary had dwindled to almost nothing as his body tensed beneath hers. “Take it all off.”
And, God help her, Grace was going to. Was starting to. When her work phone split their insulated cocoon apart with a shrill ring.
“Ignore it,” Mark ground out, his hands biting into her sides.
“I….” Grace tipped her head back, eyes closed, as she tried to calm her erratic breathing. “I can’t.” Slowly slipping the top button back into place, Grace pushed herself off his lap. Mark reflexively tightened his grip but let his hands fall as he caught the mixture of longing and frustration on Grace’s face.
“That ring, that’s the emergency line. From the front desk. Marcus, my boss. He’s….” Grace stopped shy of revealing that the hotel’s general manager was MIA. “I’m responsible for handling any emergencies that arise at the moment. I can’t ignore that call. I’m sorry.” And she was. Truly. Grace couldn’t decide which was more surprising: how sorry she was to be prying herself off this virtual stranger’s lap, or the fact that she’d felt more at home there than should have been remotely possible.
Ignoring his pensive expression, Grace answered her phone just before the call rolled into voicemail.
On the other end, Carrie was almost frantic. Grace could hear the cause of it in the background, a woman’s piercing shouts echoing across the hotel’s lobby. The faster Carrie talked and the louder the woman screamed, the more rapidly Grace pulled herself together. Pants straightened, shirt tucked in. Shoes on, hair smooth. Assuring Carrie she’d be there as soon as she could, Grace hung up and turned to Mark.
“Mrs. Avery, your business partner’s wife. She’s here. And apparently Mr. Avery wasn’t expecting her. Her name isn’t on the reservation, so we can’t just give her a key. I have to go, sort it out.”
The arousal in Mark’s expression gave way to surprise, then something that looked very much like alarm.
“Yes.” His response was abrupt, all irritation at the interruption gone. “I’m positive Jack isn’t expecting her. You need to go.” Mark watched her stand there for a moment, a darkness collecting in his face. “Immediately.”
“Well, yes. That’s the general idea,” Grace shot back. Mr. Donovan had returned. Commanding. Dour. And irritating beyond all belief. “I’m—”
Grace stopped when Mark pulled her phone from her hand and typed something before handing it back. “Call Jack.” He pointed at her phone. “Tell him who’s here. Now.”
She bristled under his order, a potent mix of anger and shame rising as she thought about how she’d been straddling him—practically riding him—just seconds ago. And now he was commanding her like she was there simply to do his bidding, every hint of vulnerability and openness wiped away by the harshness of his voice.
Grace was preparing a retort. Something witty, cutting, she was sure. But in those few seconds while she tried to think of one, Mark disappeared through the open door of the master suite.
Calling on her remaining ounce of pride, Grace started a dismissive goodbye but was cut off again.
“Now, Ms. Fitzgerald,” was Mark’s sharp, disembodied response.
Mark Fucking Donovan, Grace fumed as she ran up the stairs, eager to escape the villa, is the world’s original asshole, Grace. No different from the rest, from the other one. Don’t you forget it.
Grace looked in the mirror one last time before clicking the compact shut and tossing it into her desk drawer. A quiet ding came from her computer, the fifteen-minute meeting reminder jumping to the center of her screen. Standing, Grace smoothed her charcoal-gray dress across her hips, slipped her feet into her nude heels, and swept her hand across her blonde hair, feeling for any strays that might have escaped her carefully constructed chignon.
She was overdressed. At least she would be on any other day. Wool had no place on a Caribbean island, not even the light-weight sheath she’d dug out of her closet. Given all of the activity that took place on the resort’s beach, wedges were far preferable to spiky heels. And the fine threads of her hair were going to lose the battle against the constant tug of the tropical trade winds, all of those bobby pins and hairspray be damned.
Regardless of her position as head of guest services for the premier resort in the West Indies, Grace preferred her regular and perfectly professional ensemble of well-tailored pants, flats, and airy tops to the more confining silhouettes of business dresses and gravity-defying stilettos, both of which seemed to be the preferred uniform of her colleagues on the mainland. And there was no way she was going to wear an honest-to-god suit at a place surrounded by white sand and wealthy vacationers stripped down to the smallest of bathing suits. Nope, no way.
But she’d compromised for this day. She and the rest of her co-workers at the Seven Winds were about to meet their new boss—the resort’s new owner—for the first time. And if the hotel’s new owner with his New York City sensibilities wanted his department heads stiff and stodgy, that’s what he’d get. Just this once.
Making her way towards the staff lounge, Grace silently recounted everything that had happened over the past four months, everything that had brought them to this moment.
Marcus Baker, the resort’s self-absorbed and erratic general manager, had become increasingly, well, self-absorbed and erratic. He disappeared for stretches at a time, without letting anyone know where he’d be and when he’d be back. And when he was on property, he locked himself away in his office, only emerging for ill-timed and unnecessary interventions in department activities.
It hadn’t been long before his poor decisions had leaked from internal issues to interactions with guests. Like the vacation package he’d insisted they pitch to entice new visitors, but then skimped on providing once people actually arrived. Or the fire-eater he’d hired to “entertain” diners during dinner, who’d managed to cough up enough smoke that Grace had been forced to offer complimentary dry cleaning to more than a dozen guests, promising to have the smudges out by morning. And no one could forget Marcus’s abject refusal to stop hacking up coconuts with a machete on the main lawn under the pretense of tapping the water inside. The beverage director had been forced to remove coconut water from the menu for weeks. And the head concierge, Peter, was the only one who knew where all of the machetes were now hidden.
Of all of it, the worst had been what happened with Jasper. Though Marcus had never been described as a leader, his erratic absences had made the awful circumstances of Jasper’s termination even more so. Especially since Grace had assumed all of the responsibilities that Marcus had willfully abandoned. Including firing.
Grace shuddered at the memory. She, along with every breathing woman over the age of twelve in a ten-mile radius of the hotel, had had a crush on Jasper Cox. Killer smile, brilliant blue eyes, and the well-muscled build of a surfer, Jasper had always been very aware of his favorable attributes. And how to make the most of them—an aspect of his personality which Grace had always known, but never really minded. She didn’t want to marry the guy, after all. Just enjoy herself with him. A thrilling fling, an opportunity for a little excitement. Something the bartender had been enthusiastic about. Or so she’d thought.
To Grace’s astonishment and horror, lurking underneath Jasper’s carefree exterior was a malicious, obsessive man, one who’d stalked then assaulted her good friend Sadie while she’d been sunbathing poolside at one of the resort’s private villas. Grace had hardly believed it when she’d heard. Over the course of Sadie’s visits to the island, while she’d been preparing for and then executing an event for her client, D&A International, Jasper had become enthralled, then irritated when Sadie didn’t return his interest. Then enraged when he discovered she was sleeping with Jack Avery, the handsome and immensely wealthy co-owner of D&A, best friend and business partner of Mark Donovan.
Self-consciously twisting her watch around her wrist, Grace cringed, recalling the humiliating brush-off Jasper had given her a few days before he accosted Sadie.
He’d stood her up. They’d all but done the deed, their mismatched schedules and staff accommodations not exactly conducive to romantic assignations, so Grace had finally skirted some rules and booked them a modest but private room at the resort. Alluring outfit donned, bottle of sparkling wine popped, Grace had waited hours, alone and antsy, until it became painfully obvious that Jasper wasn’t coming. And Grace had been ready to write him off, once and for all, and file the entire experience under month-long-example-of-poor-decision-making.
But then he’d apologized. Practically groveled. Explained why he hadn’t made it, that he’d gotten waylaid by an assignment from Marcus, that he’d gone to sleep tormented by visions of all the things he’d wanted to do to her in the privacy of that room. And, idiot that she was, Grace had forgiven him. Not only that, she’d given him a second chance. That very night. In a cabana. By the hotel’s main pool. Talk about poor decision-making. Grace felt ill every time she thought about how willingly she’d gone with him, how willingly she’d given him access to her body. And a particularly virulent brand of shame shook her every time she remembered what he’d said to her the next morning.
We’re done. I guess it was fun. But you’re not the one I want, Grace. There’s someone else. Someone I want so much more. You weren’t my favorite distraction, but there are worse ways to waste time.
That would have been bad enough. Grace hadn’t been interested in a long-term relationship. But to be flung aside so easily? To realize that he’d never thought of her as more than an easy piece of ass, barely worth his time? That had hurt. But not nearly as much as knowing that Jasper had not only lusted after her friend all along, but was the kind of guy to try to steal what he couldn’t have, to attack where he wasn’t welcome. Thankfully for Sadie, a well-timed head-butt had deterred Jasper long enough for her to break free. And had provided enough time for Mark Donovan to haul Jasper away by the throat.
He was the other reason Grace felt a sharp slice of embarrassment every time she remembered that day.
Releasing a slow and steady exhale, Grace stopped just outside the staff lounge and straightened to her full height, her five-and-a-half-foot stature significantly enhanced by her four-inch heels. Blinking rapidly, she banished all memories of those vibrantly blue eyes, the ropes of muscle spanning those expansive shoulders, and those wide, smooth lips that incited a riot of feelings low in her abdomen. Nope, it had been almost four months since she’d last seen or heard from Mark Donovan. And today was not the day she was going to let him distract her from impressing the shit out of the formidable new owner of her hotel.
A sentiment that was all well and good until Grace pushed through the windowless door and came face to face with a hooded pair of indigo eyes, broad shoulders expertly wrapped in an exquisite custom-tailored suit, and lips curved into a cold, thin smile.
“Ah, Ms. Fitzgerald. How nice of you to join us.”
Mark. Fucking. Donovan.
Grace’s tongue wrapped around the words even as she clamped her lips down, hauling them back. Her throat burned with the effort. Unable to form a response around the curses clogging her mouth, Grace just blinked.
“If you wouldn’t mind, Ms. Fitzgerald.” He gestured to the only empty chair left in the room. Which happened to be right in front of him.
He definitely shouldn’t be here. There was no reason for him to be here. What the fuck was he doing here, now….
Knowing her colleagues were watching, Grace carefully picked her way across the room and glared at the chair before sitting. Crossing her legs and smoothing down her skirt, Grace looked ahead. Studiously. At the wall just to the left of the man in front of her.
“Good, now that we’re all here.” Mark gave her a pointed look, and Grace was tempted to check her watch. She knew she wasn’t late. But she stayed still, unwilling to give him the satisfaction. “Let’s get started.”
Started? On what? What the fuck is going on?!
Drawing himself to his impressive height, Mark surveyed the room. “Thank you for taking the time out of your day to meet with me. I understand that everyone’s busy, and I’ll try to limit meetings like this in the future. But it’s important for us to get started off on the right foot. And I wanted to give you a chance to ask questions after I update you on the current state of things at the Seven Winds.”
Grace kept her hands where they were in her lap, fingers laced tightly together, ignoring the clamminess beginning to slick her palms.
What does he mean, “in the future”? And “the current state of things”? Oh, Grace, nothing about this can possibly be good.
Mark’s deep, steady voice broke through her growing unease. “To avoid as much negative publicity as possible, we’ve made a concerted effort to keep the details of this acquisition quiet up until the last moment. But now that it’s time to begin implementing some large structural changes, I thought it would be best to get everyone together and cover all the basics at once.
“As some of you may have already guessed, Donovan Holdings is the new owner of the Seven Winds Resort.” Mark paused, letting the announcement sink in. Her back straight in her chair, Grace refused to meet his eyes, even as she felt them touch her face then her hands then her knees, where they were exposed beneath the hem of her dress. “And,” Mark continued, “since I find that a hands-on approach is usually best with my newest companies, especially those that are about to undergo transitions, I will be working on-property with you for the next several months, overseeing things like staffing changes, infrastructure improvements, and an overhaul of the resort’s marketing campaign.”
Grace was sure she hadn’t sat in a swivel chair. That between the four wooden legs and her own, she was still solidly earth-bound. Then why was her head spinning? Because she was pretty certain that the man who occupied her dreams and nightmares in equal parts had just announced that not only was he the new owner of the hotel, but that he would be staying on the island. At the resort. For months.
Shifting her grip to the arms of her chair, Grace looked up in time to see Mark’s eyes flick off the bottom her ankle, lingering longer than necessary on one foot punishingly wrapped in nude patent leather.
Hands-on, my ass.
“What sort of changes?”
Mark looked at her, and Grace couldn’t decide if she was relieved or offended that his gaze was neutral, no hint of the memory of their kiss banked in the stoic blue. “Were you not paying attention, Ms. Fitzgerald?”
“Excuse me?” Where Mark’s voice had been low, bored, Grace’s came out tinny and sharp.
Calm down, Grace. You didn’t put on this eight-hundred-dollar designer dress you magically found for one-fifty for nothing. Woman up.
When Mark’s only response was a cock of the head, Grace continued, her tone equally flat. “Yes, you mentioned a few areas. Staffing, infrastructure, marketing. I was hoping—I’m sure many of us are hoping—that you’d be willing to expand on those. Seeing as we’re all here, together. You do have a captive audience.” Grace gestured towards the room behind her, hoping that her colleagues were at least looking in Mark’s direction, if not with expectant stares.
“A reasonable request, Ms. Fitzgerald.” Mark crossed his arms over his chest. “Is there a particular area you’d like me to elaborate on?”
“Well, seeing as I’m sure all of us would like to know how this acquisition will impact our jobs, perhaps you can start there.” Grace heard a few murmurs of agreement behind her and watched Mark assess the crowd.
He gave a sharp nod, beginning, “Some of you might remember that I was a guest here a few months ago. Not just for a few nights, but for close to two weeks. During that time, I had an up-close and personal view of how many of you perform in your jobs. And, overwhelmingly, I was impressed. Not only was your professionalism on display, for the most part.” Grace held her breath, but Mark kept his attention on the room behind her. “But the welcoming attitude exemplified by almost all of the staff was the perfect complement to the luxurious accommodations.”
From the corner of her eye, Grace caught some of her colleagues smiling or bobbing their heads in appreciation, and Mark even looked like he might be on the verge of smiling. But then he shifted, and the room’s mood plummeted.
“That said, during my time here I also witnessed some appalling behavior. And not”—he swiped a hand in front of him, cutting through the knowing whispers—“just in the way you might think. There is no need to publicly dissect the criminal activity of one former employee. But I also cannot ignore some of the other inexcusable events that took place during that time. So, to answer your question, Ms. Fitzgerald, I’ll definitely be restructuring departments in a way that makes sense for the business and also addresses some lingering concerns I have about a few remaining staff members.
“Long story, short. Yes, some individuals will be let go. And the quality of references will be based on a thorough look into their history here.”
Indignation flared in Grace’s chest. “Mr. Donovan, are you suggesting that after spending two weeks at the hotel as a guest, you’re an expert in the quality of our staff? That you’re already so confident about the inner workings of this place that you can accuse some of us of inappropriate behavior?”
Grace could hear her co-workers shuffling behind her, small, anxious movements. But she didn’t know if they were caused by Mark’s announcement or her response to it. Ignoring them, she narrowed her eyes and met his, unflinching. “Don’t you think you need to spend more time here before you make decisions that will leave some of us unemployed?”
With those two words falling precisely, slowly from his tongue, Grace was pulled back to that morning in his villa, and she could practically feel the lick of his breath against her lips. Repressing a shiver, she didn’t let her gaze drop as Mark continued.
“I appreciate your loyalty to your fellow employees. And though this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion, for the sake of transparency I’ll agree that two weeks is not nearly enough time to accurately understand everyone’s performance, their capabilities or skills.
“On the other hand”—Mark’s hypnotic mouth lifted into a knowing smirk—“there are some of us who make important decisions after considerably less thought. And with significantly less information. Those who, I’m sure you’re aware, enter into surprisingly intimate arrangements having known the other party mere minutes. People who willingly—what’s the phrase?—jump into bed with virtual strangers.” Pausing, he traced his bottom lip with one long finger. “So, in comparison to those people, my approach appears quite studied. Doesn’t it?”
Ho-ly shit. He didn’t just…. After months, months of zero recognition that their kiss ever took place, he was bringing it up now. Here. What an asshole!
Grace’s brain was exploding with words, none of which she could say out loud. She knew, without doubt, that her cheeks were ruddy with a mix of embarrassment and anger. Her fingers were biting down on the chair so hard she thought she’d rip the upholstery. And Mark. Fucking. Donovan. He just stood there, a telling grin twisting his mouth and an inciting spark flashing in his eyes.
“Mr. Donovan,” Grace managed to grind out. “Despite your efforts, I don’t think that comparison works in your favor.”
Grace almost snorted at how much male smugness he jammed into that one word.
“No.” She shook her head. “Because I think you’ll find the individuals you’re referring to usually regret their impulsive decisions. That almost as soon as the deal is done, they consider the hasty partnership a mistake. One they would undoubtedly annul, given the opportunity.” Seething, Grace missed how Mark’s face hardened at the word ‘mistake.’ “And if it takes only a minute to act on such a huge error of judgment, it’s pretty arrogant to assume that you’d do much better in what is, in the grand scheme of things, not a significantly longer period of time. Certainly not in comparison to how long many of us have worked here.”
Pausing for breath, Grace became aware of two things. First, the room was utterly silent, the air around her strung so tight Grace thought she could feel it vibrating with the mounting tension. Second, all of the distance that had existed between her and Mark Donovan was gone. Registering a crick in her neck, Grace realized that while they hadn’t broken eye contact, Mark had come to stand over her. And she was sitting, neck craning, dwarfed by his towering form.
His response, however calm, did nothing to lessen the threat of his body ranging above hers. “I find your logic, Ms. Fitzgerald, both fascinating and flawed. Not to mention insubordinate. On this particular occasion I’m inclined to let it slide. Especially since my presence—not to mention my position—here must come as a shock. But I respectfully ask that you refrain from any further outbursts until we’re in a place that allows me time to consider and respond. Without an audience.”
At the word ‘insubordinate,’ Grace was at the edge of her chair, on the verge of lunging at the man in front of her. The man who, her mind was struggling to remind her, was her boss. And as the owner of the resort, perfectly within his rights to fire her. But even the more temperate part of her brain was protesting his patronizing tone.
Outburst?! No fucking way. Pretty sure if Peter was the one standing up for the staff, Mark Fucking Donovan’s response wouldn’t be so damned condescending.
Her colleague Carrie must have noticed just how close she was to pouncing and stepped in before Grace was able to let loose with a career-ending slap.
“Mr. Donovan?” At any other time, Carrie’s voice wouldn’t have reached them from her spot in the back of the room. At that moment, however, it was clear and calming. And pulled both Mark and Grace back from whatever precipice they were teetering on.
Scanning the crowd, Mark found Carrie as she continued, “Mr. Donovan, is it true that Mr. Baker no longer works here?”
Grace and Carrie had heard the rumor that morning, one that Grace had completely forgotten at the sight of him.
Mark cleared his throat. “Thank you for your question, Ms. Harris. I’d planned to make that announcement, before I was sidelined….” His head leaned in Grace’s direction. “But since you bring it up,” Mark retreated from Grace’s chair, casually smoothing down his tie, returning to his position at the front of the room.
“The answer is, yes, Marcus Baker is no longer employed at the Seven Winds. His last day as general manger coincided with my first day as the new owner. And”—Mark looked daggers at Grace—“before anyone jumps to his defense, Mr. Baker was not an asset to this property. Both his leadership and decision-making were questionable, at best. Harmful, at worst. I do not regret my decision to remove him. And”—he raised one hand to stop the murmur rippling through the crowd—“I plan on announcing his successor in the next few days.”
God, the man hadn’t even bothered to find a replacement for Marcus before firing him.
Not that Grace disagreed with his decision. On the contrary. It was exactly what she would have done in his place. As soon as she’d learned the hotel was under new management, she’d known Marcus’s days were numbered. Still. Someone who wasn’t quite so cavalier about the future of the resort would have a new GM ready to step in.
A point Grace was about to make when her phone rang.
Mark glared at her, even as Grace saw a hint of recognition flash in his eyes. It was the emergency line, after all. The same one that had saved her from ‘jumping into bed with a virtual stranger,’ as he’d so charmingly put it.
“Is there somewhere you need to be, Ms. Fitzgerald?”
“As it happens. Yes. There is.” Rising, Grace made her way across the room, only stopping when she reached the door. Looking over her shoulder, she ignored the riveted stares of her co-workers. “Welcome back to the Seven Winds, Mr. Donovan. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have work to do.”
What in the name of all that was holy had she been thinking?
Storming through the cocktail lounge towards the lobby, Grace wracked her brain and tried to figure out what had ever convinced her to kiss Mark Donovan.
That morning in the villa, she’d arrived frustrated, thoroughly pissed at Marcus for never being where he was supposed to be, never doing what he was supposed to do.
She’d been furious with Jasper, for so many reasons. For toying with her. For taking advantage of her obvious crush, for humiliating her with his callous dismissal.
And she’d been incensed with herself. She’d known who Jasper was. Or she’d thought she had. Had known they weren’t in a serious relationship and were never going to be. But that didn’t mean his rejection had hurt less, that the dent to her pride had been any less deep.
Still, none of that made up for her glaring error in judgment, made up for a moment in which she’d allowed vulnerability and maybe just a little bit of loneliness to drive her into the lap of that exasperating man.
Why Mark, of all people? He was domineering, arrogant, and demanding.
Rude, abrasive, and self-satisfied. A certified asshole. Exactly the kind of guy she should want an ocean’s width away.
Yet, despite the fury and self-recriminating shame pounding through her, Grace couldn’t forget the possessive heat of his kiss, the solid strength of him beneath her thighs. Or the guileless look he’d given her that morning months ago, a look as open as it had been deep, as tempting as it had been hopeful.
Cursing under her breath, Grace told herself that she preferred the hard, flat, emotionless stare of Mark the businessman to the vivid, velvet depths of Mark the lover any day of the week. And twice on Sundays.
Because the first one she could handle. No matter how obnoxious or infuriating.
The second one? Well, that was a different problem all together.
After his new employees returned to their departments, Mark gave himself a moment to breathe. Looking around the staff lounge, he was thankful that the windows were limited to the back of the room, lush tropical vegetation obscuring the view out. And concealing the view in.
Loosening his tie and dragging his fingers through his hair, Mark dropped into a chair in the far corner. As far away from where she’d been sitting as possible.
It’s not like he hadn’t thought about her. A lot. What it would be like to see her again, to breathe in her soft, exotic scent, to watch her thoughts dance through the cool gray swirl of her eyes. Oh, no. He’d thought about her, dreamed about her. Hell, fantasized about her. Pretty much every hour since he’d first tasted her mouth and felt the erotic press of her against his groin.
In the silence of the lounge, Mark heard the groan that escaped unbidden and rubbed his eyes, hoping to erase the memory of her perched on his lap, beautiful and wanton.
What a mess that morning had been. The ache of the cut on his forehead. The call that had interrupted them. Shit, even the embarrassment of being found unconscious and more than a little drunk on the floor of his villa. Despite all of it, the last thing he’d wanted Grace to do was leave. And he’d been on the verge of convincing her not to when he’d learned who was raising hell in the lobby.
Christina Avery. Eternal pain in the ass and now-ex-wife of his best friend and business partner, Jack Avery. Uninvited and unwelcome, Christina’s arrival on the island had practically destroyed Jack’s new-found relationship with Sadie Carter, the event planner who’d been running their company’s big-ticket events for years, and the woman Jack had been in love with for just as long.
That day had made a shitty week even worse. Mark and Jack had barely managed to salvage their positions at their own firm after Mark’s uncle Max had attempted to turn the board against them. And while the friends had exposed Max’s scheme just in time to save their own skin, Jack had told Mark that same night that he was stepping down as EVP in order to pursue a relationship with Sadie. Mark hadn’t been thrilled, but he hadn’t been surprised either. He’d known his friend would do whatever it took to keep Sadie. Which made everything that happened next so much worse.
First, Christina had shown up. Which would have just been awkward if Jack had already come clean and told Sadie that, though separated for years, he and Christine were still technically married. But he hadn’t. So awkward hadn’t even begun to cover it.
As soon as Grace had told him that Christina had arrived, Mark had rushed to Jack’s room. He’d hoped to give his friend the heads up but hadn’t made it in time. At least not for that.
What none of them had known was that while Jack was confronting Christina in the lobby, the hotel employee who’d become obsessed with Sadie had snuck into Jack’s villa and found her sunbathing naked by the pool, a circumstance he’d interpreted as an invitation to sexually proposition her. Forcefully and against her will. Thankfully, Mark had arrived just in time to haul the asshole away. Sadie had managed to bloody him up, but God knows what Jasper would have done if Mark hadn’t shown up when he did.
As if that wasn’t awful enough, Jasper had been the one to tell Sadie about Jack’s wife. So it hadn’t been surprising that the fallout for the couple had been near fatal. Sadie had broken things off and left the island that same day, while Jack had fallen into a drunken, despondent stupor. No amount of rational discussion or physical threats could drag him from his pity party. Which was how both men had ended up staying on the island for an additional week. Jack near comatose and refusing to let anyone into his villa, and Mark doing everything possible to drag him back to reality—and the mainland—before he was so unrecognizable Sadie would never take him back, no matter how much he groveled.
During that entire time, Mark had tried to pretend that the kiss with Grace had never happened. It had occurred in a moment of weakness, he told himself. It had been a diversion. An impulsive decision born of too much alcohol and a residual panic he couldn’t suppress. And once sober, Mark had known that the last thing he needed was another distraction. Not when he was determined to pour all his energy into paying Max back for his betrayal.
So, he’d avoided Grace as much as possible, always making himself scarce when she showed up to try to coax Jack from the villa. He’d limited how often he ventured to the main part of the resort, keeping to his well-stocked rooms and private pool. That was the beauty of a place like the Seven Winds: anything and everything that he could possibly want, they could deliver. All except the fiery, intoxicating woman filling his dreams at night and fueling the fantasies for his self-gratifying showers each morning.
Even now, Mark couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. The jolt his system felt every time he got within a twenty-foot radius of Grace. Christ, especially this morning. Mark had prepared himself. Or so he’d thought. Banishing his memory of her flushed skin and eager lips and budded nipples, Mark had reminded himself—forcefully—before the meeting that sex with Grace wasn’t an option. Not now. Not ever. Because he needed something from her that was much more important. Regardless of how much the unrelenting hardness below his belt petitioned otherwise.
But fuck. He’d practically heard the tremor that shook his willpower when she walked into the room. The gray dress had flawlessly highlighted her tempting curves while bringing out the stormy color of her eyes. Her legs had looked endless in her elegant pumps. And his fingers had burned with the need to slowly pull every pin from her hair and unwind the sleek, gold strands until they teased the tips of her breasts.
Even then, it was the look she gave him that did the most to threaten his resolve. Surprise and confusion had quickly morphed into suspicion and anger. Yet somewhere in between, Mark swore he’d seen a flash of lust, basic, carnal, and undeniable. Which made his situation harder. Literally. But also sent a pulse of satisfaction running through him. Because maybe, just maybe, Grace knew something about the frustration he suffered daily. Wanting something he couldn’t have, craving something he shouldn’t want.
Standing up, Mark gave his cuffs a sharp tug and resettled his suit jacket across his shoulders. Sleeping with Grace might not be a possibility, but that didn’t mean he was entirely out of options. If he was tormented by their attraction, there was an equal chance Grace was too. Mark might find his clothes uncomfortably tight and his pulse alarmingly fast whenever she was around, but he was getting the distinct impression that Grace was suffering a similar discomfort.
Good, he thought, a small smile breaking free. That meant he wasn’t alone. And, as much as he was reluctant to admit it, Mark was weary of going through things alone.
He’d be subtle. He couldn’t jeopardize her role in what he had planned for the Seven Winds. But this was a game he knew how to play, and play well. He was Mark Donovan. CEO of D&A International and now sole owner of Donovan Holdings. A man considered equally brilliant in the boardroom and the bedroom. A man who had honed his tactical skills over years of battles lost but wars won. A man who knew how to set a woman on fire without getting singed, who knew how to fly high without getting scorched by the sun.
Stepping into the hotel’s cocktail lounge, Mark felt excitement surge in his blood. Being with Grace might be off limits, but Mark didn’t need to suffer alone. Not this time.
Oh, he thought to himself, this is going to be fun.
After the Fall, available on Amazon.