Falling for a Stranger

By: Barbara Freethy

Chapter One

Ria Hastings was in the mood for trouble. It was a warm tropical night on Isla de los Sueños, a small island off the coast of Costa Rica, known for its white sandy beaches, water sports, deep sea fishing, and rum drinks. On one side of the island, several large estates sat on the rugged hillsides with spectacular views of the ocean. The rest of the town lived near the beach, where three hotels and a dozen restaurants competed for tourist dollars.

Ria wiped a strand of blonde hair off her sweaty forehead. The temperature hovered around eighty degrees at just after midnight, and the beachside bar was packed with tourists. Ria had been tending the bar since seven, and she was ready to call it a night. She'd been hit on four times already, and while she was used to handling men who were a little too drunk or too interested in her, she was tired of wearing a polite smile, but she would do exactly that for another hour. She couldn't risk getting fired, nor could she afford to draw any attention to herself. She'd been blending into the local scene for months. Now was not the night to stand out.

As she wiped down the counter, her gaze caught on a man sitting at the far end of the bar. He'd arrived two hours earlier with a friend—a loud, charming, and now hammered, sunburned blond by the name of Tim. Tim had been doing tequila shots since ten and was now hosting a trio of beautiful girls at a nearby table. The man at the bar seemed to have no interest in joining his friend's party and had been nursing a vodka tonic for the better part of an hour. He also hadn't responded to any of the women who'd slid into the seat next to him, although his gaze had swung in her direction on more than one occasion.

He was an attractive man, athletically built, dressed in khaki shorts and a navy blue knit shirt. His dark brown hair was on the short side, and he had an air of discipline about him. Military, she thought. Just out or on leave, but close enough to his service that his body was still toned and on full alert.

She hadn't missed the fact that his gaze darted to the door almost as often as hers did, as if he were waiting for someone or didn't want to be taken by surprise. Maybe he was military intelligence.

That idea made her frown. The last thing she needed was military intelligence to show up on the island.

She told herself not to let her imagination run wild. A lot of ex-military guys came to the island to decompress and let off steam. Since the location had become a popular destination for bachelor and bachelorette parties, there was usually a good deal of action available for anyone who wanted to find it.

But this man didn't seem interested in escaping reality with alcohol or with women, so what was his story?

Glancing down at her watch, she told herself she had better things to worry about than a random stranger, no matter how sexy he was.

In a few hours, the plan she'd put into motion six months earlier would finally be launched. She'd gone over the details a thousand times in her head, and while she wanted nothing more than to go off by herself somewhere and review everything again, it was more important for her to maintain her usual routine.

The man at the end of the bar caught her eye again. There was something in his dark gaze that beckoned to her, a pull of attraction, desire, feelings that she hadn't allowed herself to feel in a very long time. She couldn't afford to answer his call. She was too close to the end to get sidetracked by a man, especially a man who set her nerves tingling with just one look.

On the other hand…

As two men approached the bar, she moved down the counter toward her fellow bartender, Martin, a twenty-two-year-old ex-Harvard-dropout, who had come to the island to find himself. So far, the only thing he'd found was a love for tequila and bikini-clad girls.

"Switch with me," she said.

Martin's gaze moved past her to the men sliding into stools at the other end of the long bar. "Trouble?"

"I'd just prefer not to wait on them."

"Got it," he said.

She walked toward the handsome stranger. At this moment, he seemed the less dangerous choice, or at least, the less obvious dangerous choice. It had been a long time since she'd allowed herself to trust anyone.

"Can I get you another drink?" she asked.

His eyes were a deep, dark brown, and there were shadows in his gaze, things he'd seen, things he didn't want to see again, she suspected. But there was also courage and strength in his eyes, a resilient defiance. He might have been knocked down, but she doubted that he'd stayed down.

"Sure, why not?" he replied, with a lightness that was in contrast to his tense posture.

"I can't think of a reason. Same? Or do you want to change it up a bit? We have an island special you might like."