EXCERPT: NO CHANCE
Eight years ago
“You do know there’s more where that came from, don’t you?” a softly teasing female voice asked.
Hunched over his plate, engrossed in stuffing himself with the feast before him, Gabe Maddox jerked his head up to glare. At the sight of the vision in front of him, his irritation at being interrupted and possibly mocked disappeared, along with his mouthful of food. Choking and gasping for breath, Gabe made a grab for his napkin.
“Oh, hey, I’m sorry. Are you okay?” She rushed behind him and pounded on his back.
A hot wave of embarrassment flooded through Gabe. Only half of the food had gone down the wrong way. The other half he’d spewed out. Thankfully, the girl seemed too concerned with his health to notice the half chewed piece of steak glistening on the table.
Finally catching his breath, Gabe wiped his mouth and eyes and looked at her as she came around to stand in front of him. Breath left him all over again. Beauty as he’d never imagined gazed down at him.
Long, thick mahogany hair, pulled back in a ponytail, drew attention to exotic cheekbones, skin the color of cream satin, full, beautiful lips and eyes the color of a spring sky. He could do nothing but stare at the vision.
Her eyes darkened with concern. “Uh-oh, are you in some kind of shock or something? Should I call a doctor?”
Pulling in a wheezing breath, Gabe shook his head. “I’m fine. You just startled me.”
He told himself she couldn’t be real. She was an apparition. A figment of his over-active imagination brought on by a year of starvation and torture. No one could be so beautiful. No way in hell could this woman be real.
And then she smiled. Suddenly, Gabe didn’t care if she was a fantasy. Her smile was the kind poets wrote sonnets about. The exotic sky blue of her eyes was so clear he felt as if he could float away in them. Words he hadn’t thought of since his college literature class burst into his mind. Breathtaking. Mesmerizing. Unforgettable.
Her smile tilted down a bit as she grimaced. “Sorry about sneaking up on you. I have a tendency to do that to people. My dad tells me I’m like a cat.”
She stood for a few seconds as if waiting for something. Gabe still couldn’t speak. Had no idea what to say. After a year of seeing only a handful of people, all of whom spoke a different language, his conversation skills were close to zero.
White teeth chewed delicately at her plump lips as if she were nervous. “Well, I guess I’ll be going. Sorry to interrupt your meal. And, uh…sorry for almost killing you.”
Before she could take another step, Gabe jumped to his feet. The movement, awkward and clumsy, almost knocked his chair over. He still had no idea what he was going to say to this beautiful creature. He only knew that if he allowed her to leave, he’d regret it for the rest of his life.
His abrupt move apparently startled her, because her eyes widened, but she didn’t back away.
He finally forced words from his frozen mouth. “Would you like to join me?”
Though still thin from his year of deprivation, he was almost a foot taller than her, and felt like a skinny, scraggly, pine tree towering over an exotic, delicate flower. He was also known more for his hard, grim looks than his charm, so when she took several steps toward him, he was astounded. Stupid, really, but for some reason, he almost backed away. She was just that beautiful.
Her eyes examined and questioned; Gabe got the feeling she was searching for something. Finally she held out her hand and said, “I’m Skylar James. What’s your name?”
Gabe’s hand engulfed hers as he said, “Gabriel Maddox.”
“Nice to meet you, Gabriel.”
“Call me Gabe.” He paused for half a second to swallow nervously, then added, “Nice to meet you…Skye.”
Something odd flickered in her face and then that smile returned. “I’d love to join you. I’ve had dinner but was seriously contemplating the hot fudge sundae for dessert.”
Remembering his manners wasn’t easy. Where he’d been for the last year, humanity, even in its lowest forms, hadn’t existed. However, his stepmother’s soft instructions from years before finally kicked in and he held out a chair for her.
Skye sat down. Then, without missing a beat, she took the napkin in front of her and scooped up the food Gabe had spit on the table when he’d been choking. Placing it on the edge of the table for the waiter to pick up, she leaned forward and whispered as if she had a secret to share: “I heard if you compliment the chef, he’ll put extra ice cream in the sundae. Want to try it?”
The innocence and sheer love of life shining in those unbelievable eyes melted every defense Gabe had erected over the last few years. The darkness that had enveloped him for so long began to evaporate and a new hope, a new beginning, emerged.
Skylar could feel Gabe’s midnight blue gaze on her face as she ordered two hot fudge sundaes. Flashing a smile of thanks to the waiter, she turned back to look at the man across from her. Her heart began an unusually loud thumping in her chest. She’d never seen anyone like Gabe Maddox before. Only fierce determination and the mountain of pride etched in his face overshadowed his gaunt, half-starved appearance. Despite his thinness, he was attractive, even handsome, but that wasn’t what drew her to him. There was something in his eyes, his expression, that made her want to know more about him.
She hadn’t meant to embarrass him about gobbling his food. When she’d seen him hunched over his plate so protectively, as if someone might remove it at any moment, she’d blurted out her thoughts. One of her failings was her tendency to say whatever popped into her head. It had gotten her in hot water countless times. And poor Gabe had almost choked to death.
The instant he’d raised his head, she had regretted her words. He’d thought she was mocking him. Instead, she’d almost killed him.
Now Gabe continued to stare at her without any indication that he would say anything soon. She’d been making small talk since her preteens days, but that intense blue gaze made her forget every conversation starter she’d ever heard. She felt nervous and all fluttery inside. Not a normal feeling for her at all.
Clearing her throat, she said, “Are you here on vacation?”
“Sort of. You?”
“Yes, just got here a couple of days ago.” She frowned at the odd phrasing of his words. “What do you mean sort of?”
His thin shoulder lifted. “Kind of recovering.”
“From what?” she blurted out and then winced. When would she learn to control her mouth?
Mario, the young waiter who always flirted with her when she visited, set two giant sundaes in front of them and winked at her.
She smiled her thanks and then looked at Gabe, wondering if he’d seen the wink. He hadn’t. His eyes were almost as large as their sundaes as he stared at the mounds of ice cream like he’d never seen anything so beautiful.
Deciding conversation could wait until they finished, she dipped her spoon into the ice cream and took a small bite. Gabe dug into his, overloading his spoon and shoveling it into his mouth. It was a humbling experience to realize that the dessert in front of Gabe was more enticing to him than she was. For a girl who’d had more guys ask her out than the population of a small city, it was both intriguing and exciting. Gabe had no idea who she was.
As he scooped gobs of ice cream into his mouth, Skylar continued to spoon small amounts into hers and watched him, fascinated. She’d never seen anyone eat like that before.
The instant she heard him scraping the bottom of his bowl, she pushed hers toward him. “That was delicious, but I’m stuffed. Can you finish mine for me?”
He eyed her for several seconds. “Are you sure?”
Gabe needed no second urging. He grabbed her bowl and proceeded to devour it until, once again, he was scraping the bottom of the bowl.
Skylar swallowed past the lump that had developed in her throat. Gabe wasn’t just enjoying his food; he was relishing it as if he had never had anything like that in his life.
“You said you’re sort of on vacation. What does that mean?”
Wiping his mouth, he gave her a look that did something to her insides. Her heart took a flip and her breathing increased. She’d never had that kind of reaction to a guy before. She’d kissed a few and had even thought about going all the way with a couple of them, but never had she felt all these tingly, achy feelings.
“I’ve been in prison.”
Skylar couldn’t control the gasp that left her mouth. If anyone else had said those words to her, she would have gotten up and run. Her reaction to Gabe’s announcement was telling. By the solemn, desolate expression on his face, she knew whatever had happened had hurt him deeply. She also knew that she had nothing to fear from him.
“Can you talk about it?”
He glanced around at the open-air restaurant. Other than a few waiters, the place was almost empty. “We probably need to leave so they can close up.”
Disappointed and slightly hurt at his obvious ignoring of her question, Skylar pushed back her chair to stand. Gabe was there before she could move, pulling her chair out farther for her and then holding his hand out.
Skylar looked down at the hand. Though his skin was tanned, he didn’t look like he’d spent a lot of time outside. The hand was large but bony, like the rest of his body. Placing her hand in his, she was surprised at how small and dainty it looked enveloped in his.
He pulled her to stand but didn’t move away, causing her to look up at him. Those deep blue eyes drew her as nothing ever had before. Surprising herself probably even more than Gabe, she rose up on her toes and pressed a soft kiss to his grim, unsmiling mouth.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
He held her gaze for the longest time and Skylar felt frozen, unable to do anything but return the stare. It was as if he were delving into the deepest part of her soul. Then that stern mouth moved up slightly. “It was nice.”
And Skylar’s heart did a triple flip.
Gabe drew in a deep, appreciative breath as they meandered along the brick walkway. The air was scented with the sweetness of flowers, freshly mowed grass, and the ocean. Breathing clean, open air was a gift he would never take for granted.
He eyed the young girl who walked so quietly beside him. She couldn’t be real. Girls like that—beautiful but with an innocent exuberance and naturalness he found enchanting—didn’t really exist outside of fantasies. Gabe inwardly cursed his fascination. How many times did he have to get kicked in the teeth before he learned his lesson?
“Can you talk about it?”
He knew she was referring to his bald statement in the restaurant. Most girls would have gotten up and left. Skye’s expression had held a myriad of emotions; not one of them had been fear.
And because of the lack of judgment in her eyes, he found himself telling her everything.
She listened intently, her eye wide with horror, then soft with compassion. “So the entire village was decimated?”
He clenched his jaw. The pain had faded somewhat, but he would never forget the bloody horror and smells of the massacre. “Everything was destroyed. The huts, the houses we built. The clinic. The schoolhouse. They even burned the fields.”
He shrugged. That kind of question had been asked for centuries. “Why does anyone attempt to conquer and destroy? Power? Ego? The sheer enjoyment of destruction and death? The villages had once been allies, but had a disagreement and grew apart. Then one man decided he wanted them together again so he could control them both. They were already at war when I arrived, but it was only the occasional raid, nothing major.”
Gabe looked out into the black night and saw her face. The face of betrayal. Pretty but not beautiful. Seemingly innocent but as deceitful and manipulative as the devil himself.
“One of the missionaries had a daughter. She wanted to go back home but didn’t have the funds to get there. She helped them sneak into the village during a celebration when she knew security would be at its weakest. They attacked them at their most vulnerable time. About a hundred people were killed. Most escaped with whatever they had on their backs. Some were captured and imprisoned.”
He heard her swallow and it touched him unlike anything had in a long time. She barely knew him and yet her compassion seemed deeper and truer than the majority of people he’d met in his life.
“But aren’t you an American citizen? How could they do that to you?”
How many nights had he lain in his hole of a cell, looked up at the stars and wondered the same thing.
“Turns out no one knew about us for a long time. The village was burned to the ground. Funds were low so it took a while before the bodies could be identified. Then it took time for them to ferret out that we were being held and where. After that, it took months to free us.”
“How many were there with you?”
“Eight. Only two of us were Americans. Not that I ever saw the other guy. They kept us as far away from each other as possible. That was part of their punishment. No one else spoke English.”
“They punished you?”
“Mostly just worked us from dusk till dawn. Gave us little food and no freedom.”
“Worked you how?”
“Anything they wanted done, we were their slaves to do it. Building…tearing down. Whatever they needed.”
“How did you get out?”
“Group called Free Makers. They negotiated our release.”
“How did you end up here…at this resort?”
“The group is funded by several philanthropists. After they checked me out, gave me a clean bill of health, I was offered a month of recovery at a resort. They gave me ten choices. This one sounded the best to me. So here I am.”
“I’m glad you chose this one.”
His mouth curved up again. “Me too.”
“So where do you go from here?”
“Not really sure. I have a few weeks left to make a decision.”
“What about your family?”
Gabe drew in a breath. He should be used to the stabbing pain in his chest by now. It’d been almost four years. At some point, the hurt had to stop, didn’t it?
“My family’s gone,” he said.
Spotting a bench along the sidewalk, Gabe headed toward it. Odd. He’d never talked to anyone about the accident that took his father and brother, but for some reason, he wanted to tell Skye.
“My dad and brother were killed in a mining accident.”
She dropped down beside him and put her hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”
The vast ocean was before him but all Gabe saw was the darkness of that day. The darkest day of his life. “We’d just started work when it happened.”
“You were there, too?”
He swallowed hard. “Yeah, there were nine of us.”
“And your brother and father were killed?”
“Everyone was…but me.”
“You feel guilty about that, don’t you?”
He jerked at her perception, surprised someone so young could understand his feelings so accurately when so many others never had. “Hard not to feel guilty. Sons, fathers, brothers. They all died. I was spared and their loved ones died. They had a right to be resentful.”
“They resented that you lived?”
“It’s a normal—”
He was surprised when she jumped to her feet and stood in front of him. “That’s not normal at all. They should have been happy that you lived.”
A small smile lifted his lips at her indignation. He’d probably smiled more tonight, since meeting Skye, than he had in years. But he couldn’t help himself. He’d known this girl less than an hour and she was happier that he was alive than the people he’d known all his life.
“I understood their feelings. It hurt but I understood.”
“What about your mother?”
“My mom took off when I was a baby. Divorced my dad. I don’t know where she is. My dad married my stepmom when I was four. She was a widow with a son a couple of years younger than me.”
“And that was your brother…the one who died?”
“Yeah.” The tightness in his chest grew more painful as he allowed himself to think about the bright, funny kid that became his brother the instant he met him. “He was never my, ‘step’, anything though.”
“But your stepmom. She’s still alive?”
He stared into the night again. “I believe so.”
“She was one of the ones, wasn’t she?”
He looked back up at her. “One of the ones what?”
“That resented you for being alive?”
He shrugged. “She lost both her son and her husband.”
“And one of her sons survived.”
Gabe swallowed. Dammit, he hadn’t allowed himself to think about that hurt in years. Even though he’d understood the grief his stepmother was feeling, it had torn him apart to see the questions in her eyes. Why had he survived? What made him so damn special that he had lived when everyone else had died? He had never been able to answer that question. Admittedly, before his capture, when he’d worked tirelessly beside the villagers, he’d believed he had discovered the answer. Then that theory got blown all to hell.
Aware she was still waiting for an answer, he said, “It’s all water under the bridge now. I’m sure she’s made a new life for herself. She’s probably got another family now.”
Her body trembling with anger, Skylar clenched her fist to hold in her emotions. Gabe was acting as if it were completely normal to have people resent his survival. Instead of celebrating that he had lived, apparently they’d begrudged him for it. She might be able to understand strangers feeling that way. But people who knew him? And his stepmother? A woman who’d raised him, supposedly loved him? Not only was it inconceivable, it was indefensible.
She wanted to stomp her foot and tell him he should get mad, too. But she could see it in his expression—he had long ago accepted their treatment.
“You know, it suddenly occurs to me that you now know everything about me and I know nothing other than your name.”
Skylar tensed for a new reason. Now that he’d explained where he’d been the last few years, she knew why he didn’t know who she was. Her parents had only started allowing her to model when she was seventeen. Any photographs of her before that were published only in the society pages of the local papers and magazines. The modeling was still only occasional, but she quickly became a celebrity.
She had a choice to make. Tell Gabe and see his expression change to one of wariness. He would treat her differently. See her differently. Might even end their brief acquaintance immediately.
Or she could allow him to think she was just an average American college girl taking a vacation on her own. The resort staff wouldn’t out her. Most of the guests were here for the very same reasons she was. Escape. An opportunity to be themselves. She’d already spotted a couple of actors and a musician. They’d barely looked her way, as she had them. This place was all about privacy.
Could she take this time and be a different Skylar James? The lure of being treated like a normal person as opposed to the American princess the media liked to dub her was just too enticing to resist.
Holding out her hand, she smiled and said, “Let’s walk and I’ll tell you all about Skye James.”
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