Susan Stephens.

The Argentinian's Solace






So youre Diego Acosta? she exclaimed, unable to conceal her surprise. Trying to ignore the waves of awareness washing over her, she took a fresh look at the man towering over her. He still looked more like a disreputable pirate than an international polo player. Bracing herself, she extended her hand in greetingwhich he ignored and turned away.

Diego Acosta wasnt sophisticated and he wasnt charming. He certainly wasnt her usual wedding contact, most of whom looked to Maxie for guidance. The thought of this man looking to anyone for direction was a joke. Diego Acosta was a glowering tyrant who expected to be obeyed.

But she had dealt with difficult characters in the past, Maxie reminded herself. It was inevitable that she met a wide mix of personalities during the course of her work. Diplomacy was an essential part of her skill set and she was used to difficult men, having grown up under the iron fist of her father. She had learned how to handle him before illness had so cruelly diminished him, and now she must learn how to manage Diego Acosta.

About the Author

SUSAN STEPHENS was a professional singer before meeting her husband on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. In true Modern Romance style they met on Monday, became engaged on Friday, and were married three months after that. Almost thirty years and three children later, they are still in love. (Susan does not advise her children to return home one day with a similar story, as she may not take the news with the same fortitude as her own mother!)

Susan had written several non-fiction books when fate took a hand. At a charity costume ball there was an after-dinner auction. One of the lots, Spend a Day with an Author, had been donated by Mills & Boon author Penny Jordan. Susans husband bought this lot, and Penny was to become not just a great friend but a wonderful mentor, who encouraged Susan to write romance.

Susan loves her family, her pets, her friends and her writing. She enjoys entertaining, travel, and going to the theatre. She reads, cooks, and plays the piano to relax, and can occasionally be found throwing herself off mountains on a pair of skis or galloping through the countryside. Visit Susans website: www.susanstephens.netshe loves to hear from her readers all around the world!

Recent titles by the same author:

THE SHAMELESS LIFE OF RUIZ ACOSTA

THE UNTAMED ARGENTINIAN

RUTHLESS BOSS, DREAM BABY

(Men Without Mercy)

Did you know these are also available as eBooks?

Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk

The
Argentinians Solace
Susan Stephens


www.millsandboon.co.uk

For Carly.

Intuition tells me to be excited about my new editor.

CHAPTER ONE

SHE had to close her mind to the man on the shore.

Getting the old boat safely into its berth was more important. But he was like an elemental force, his gaze fixed and unswerving, with the most magnificent physique Maxie had ever seen. Tall, ripped and tanned, with wild black hair and dangerous eyes. A gold earring glinted in what light there was. Low-slung jeans over a flat, muscular belly were enough to throw anyone off course

So think of the snarling face that would stop a rhino in its track and your concentration will come flooding back.

She had sailed the boat this far and she wasnt turning back now.

Bringing the trawler through mountainous waves single-handed had been nothing short of a miracle. They had barely made it out of the harbour when the skipper had declared himself out of action after consuming the greater part of a bottle of Scotlands finest. Maxie would be the first to admit her qualifications for sailing a boat this size were slim. She had once helped to crew a sixty-eight footer, but this old rust-bucket was proving rather more cantankerous. And she was more than a bit rusty, Maxie accepted as the deck lurched beneath her feet.

Glancing at the man on the dock, she guessed he was waiting for her to fail. His massive forearms were crossed over his formidable chest, and his black eyes blazed with mockery and scorn.

Welcome to Isla del Fuego, Maxie muttered beneath her breath. But, however unfriendly the welcoming committee, she was going to berth this bucketing monster if it killed her!

Which it probably would, Maxie registered with panic as the ancient fishing craft crashed into the dock.

With relief she saw the elderly skipper had made it out of his bunk in time to take the wheel. Boiling black storm clouds suggested the weather wasnt about to change any time soon, which for a wedding planner on a scouting trip for an excited bride was somewhere south of perfect. And if the man onshore worked for the Acostas, who owned the island, he would need some serious retraining in the art of welcoming guests before the wedding, Maxie concluded, trying not to look at his glowering face.

She could always tell Holly the island was unsuitable

The idea flitted across her mind, but it wasnt an option. Shed seen Scottish castles in worse settings transformed into fairytale palaces on a warm spring day, and damp French ch?teaux revealed in all their ancient glory when the sun shone. Plus, she trusted Holly. The bride was a smart girl, and June was a famously fabulous month in which to get married. Bottom line? If Holly wanted to get married on Isla del Fuego then it was up to Maxie to make it happen and the man on shore would just have to suck it up.

Dios! What had the storm washed in? Some pin-thin, drooping violet with

With a very accurate and surprisingly powerful throw, Diego conceded as he caught the rope the girl tossed him. But she had no business sailing Fernandos fishing boatlet alone slamming into the dock, thanks to her poor reading of the weather. She was lucky to be alive after sailing to the island in a storm.

Are you ready? she called, preparing to toss a second rope.

With his stiff leg he could only move at half her speed. The second she turned her back he limped as fast as he could to get into position before she could see him lurching like a drunk.

Here it comes, she warned him, in a voice that was both light and musical, yet which somehow crested the howl of the wind.

Catching the rope, he secured it. It appeared fate had a sense of humour, sending an attractive girl to the island when he could least handle the action. Resentment swept over him as he watched her darting nimbly about the deck. When his brothers fianc?e had called to warn him the wedding planner was on her way he had accepted his self-imposed exile was over, but to have some lithe young girl call time was insulting. He had come down to the dock to meet the principal of the events companysomeone older and sophisticated, with a keen sense of stylenot some kid in jeans and a hooded top with long dark hair hanging in sodden straggles down her back. Was his brothers wedding of so little importance theyd sent some underling?

Well caught! she yelled, having fired another rope at him.

Well caught? There had been a time when nothing physical had been beyond him, but then his horse had rolled on him during a polo match, shattering the bones in his leg. It had been pinned in half a dozen places. He had been back on a horse and training rigorously, but it was more than a year since the accident and he had yet to regain the subtleties of sensation required for the top class game, leaving his future in polo uncertain.

No harm done, the girl yelled as she leaned over the rail to check the hull for damage.

It could have been a costly mistake, he roared back. Youve been lucky this time.

Lucky? She laughed.

He felt a surge of interest, but in his current state that was soon snuffed out. She could take a look around the island and report back to Holly, but the moment the wind dropped she was history.

No one had said planning a wedding on a remote island would be easy, Maxie reasoned, dashing spray out of her eyes. And time was of the essence, the bride had insisted. No wonder, Maxie had thought when shed seen a photo of the groom. She had always known organising a high-profile event on a tiny island would be fraught with difficulties, but she hadnt bargained on being met by a man who made her heart beat nineteen to the dozen. She had always loved a challenge, but as a scholarship girl at an upscale school, with a home life that could best be described as chaotic, shed made a choice early in life to remain safe on the outside looking in while other people enjoyed the arrangements she made for them.

Safe? Pulling back from the rail, she took a few steadying breaths before preparing to disembark. Nothing was safe hereespecially the hard-eyed man on shore.

Watch your step, he barked as she started her perilous crossing of the narrow plank.

I will, she called back tensely, wondering why he didnt come to help her if he was so concerned.

Oh, stop fussing. She could manage. She was fine. This commission was every wedding planners dream, and she had no intention of starting out by falling in the sea. A big society wedding between Ruiz Acosta, a fabulously wealthy Argentinian polo player, and Holly Valiant, a celebrity agony aunt who had made her name by writing a column based on living with Ruiz, would have readers hanging on Hollys every word. Having tamed the playboy, Holly was about to marry himand the world was waiting with bated breath to see the wedding. A wedding Maxie was going to arrange. It was a commission that would take her business to the next level, and as her income supported everything she cared about this trip was going to be a success.

The man onshore had turned his attention to the skipper. Maxie had the basics of Spanish, but she fell short where colloquialisms were concerned. Is he offering to help us? she called out.

Something like that, the elderly skipper admitted sheepishly.

I bet, she thought, hoping Se?or Acosta would have more charm. She stared at him again and quickly looked away. There was something in the mans eyes that said he had the sort of experience no woman with any sense would choose to get close to. And Maxie had plenty of sense. Though she was lousy at relationships, Maxie conceded with a shrug. Her ideal date was a civilised chat in a civilised restaurant with a civilised mannot a walk on the wild side with a barbarian with an earring and tattoos. She couldnt deny the mans edgy good looks had stirred something inside her, but he was food for her fantasies and nothing more.

Are you from the bridal agency? he demanded in a deep, husky voice.

Thats right, she confirmed, halfway across the sloping plank. Could you give me a hand? She had stopped in the middle of the plank, uncomfortably aware of the turbulent water churning greedily beneath her feet. If hed grab her suitcase she could hold the guide ropes with both hands.

Try walking tall, he suggested. Look where youre going instead of looking down

Thanks very much. Shed take her chances with the fishes. But when he turned his irritation on the skipper shed had enough. If you have anything to say, you can say it to me, she insisted in Spanish. I chartered the boat, and I made the decision to sail to the island.

His gaze darkened. You speak our language?

I would have recognised your tone of voice if youd been speaking in Ket a language spoken only in Central Siberia, she muttered to herselfbut he heard her.

If youre so clever you should have more sense than to persuade an old man to bring you out to the island in a storm.

Addressing his next words to Fernando, he spoke in a very different tone. You look chilled to the bone, Fernando. You will stay in the guesthouse until the wind drops. Ill have Maria come over with hot food and clean linen for you.

Si, Se?or Acosta, y muchas gracias.

Se?or Acosta? Maxie groaned inwardly. So youre Diego Acosta?

Correct, he confirmed.

The ironic twist to the firm mouth might make her senses roar but this wasnt the best of starts. Acosta might look more like a dangerous pirate than an international polo player, but his co-operation was crucial as he part-owned the island. Im very pleased to meet you, Se?or Acosta, she said as she stepped with relief onto the shore.

Ignoring the hand she had extended in greeting, he turned away.

Diego Acosta wasnt sophisticated and he wasnt charming. He certainly wasnt her usual type of wedding contact, who looked to Maxie for guidance. The idea of this man looking to anyone for direction was a joke.

Give me your bags, Fernando, he called out in Spanish, staring out to the boat over her head.

Diplomacy was an essential part of her skill set, Maxie reminded herself. She had dealt with plenty of difficult characters in the paststarting her training on her father, who had been a Class One bully when she was younger, before illness had reduced him to a shell. She had learned how to handle him and she would learn how to manage Diego Acostathough she would have to be subtle. She couldnt risk offending him. The Acosta family was so powerful they could destroy her hard-won reputation at a stroke. Im Maxie Parrish, she said, stepping in front of him so he couldnt ignore her. Hollys wedding planner?

The dark gaze blackened. What the hell had she said now?

Parrish? Memories festered inside him, though common sense told him Parrish was not an unusual name.

I spoke with Holly before I left the mainland the girl was explaining.

Parrish? he interrupted, powerless to stem the tide of memories.

Yes, Maxie Parrish, the girl repeated. From a company called Dream Weddings. Holly said shed call to warn you I was arriving today.

She did, he agreed, but she forgot to tell me your name.

Is there a problem with it? she demanded, smiling faintly.

Not at all, he assured her in the same detached tone. I suppose I was expecting someone older.

I wouldnt send anyone else to scout a job, she assured him in the same courteous tone. I always make the first visit and the last, Se?or Acosta, as well as every other visit in between.

She said this as if it were a gauntlet she was throwing down, but pleasantly. He wasnt fooled. He could sense the steel beneath the accommodating manner, and his hackles rose even as more basic needs surged in response to this intriguing combination of feminine fragility and rock-solid resolve. Either way, with his brother on a polo tour and his bride-to-be at his side, Diego was stuck with their wedding plannerlike it or not.

Diego Acosta was staring at her and frowning as if he thought they might have met before, which was impossible. She never forgot a faceand would never forget a face like his. I can only apologise if this is a bad time for you

And then she saw the cane.

She should cut him some slack, Maxie resolved. A man like Diego Acosta, stripped of his full physical powers, would not be having a bad timehe would be having the worst time imaginable. She had researched the family to get a sense of who they were, and knew one of the brothers had been injured in a riding accident, but she hadnt realised he was still suffering or that he would be her host on the island.

Ill take your suitcase, he offered brusquely.

Disaster struck as he lifted it. His cane skidded on a stone and he stumbled. She reached out to save him, but it was the worst thing she could have done. Cursing viciously, he snatched his arm away and made off in the direction of the car park with one leg dragging badly. In the faint hope of building bridges, she chased after him.

I hope the weathers better than this in June, she yelled against the wind. Even limping with a cane he had opened up quite a gap. This might not look like a great venue at first sight, but Im not easily put off. She wasnt even sure if hed heard her. They were heading down a stony path in the direction of a car park, where the only vehicle was a powerful off-roader. Holly assures me the island is beautiful in June

He wheeled around so suddenly she almost cannoned into him. And what do you think, Ms Parrish?

With Diego Acosta towering over her it was hard to think at all. I havent seen enough to make a judgement yet, she said honestly, wondering if her heart would slow down long enough for her to breathe. She had never experienced this sort of reaction to a man before, but Diego Acosta exuded a powerful sexual energy, which for someone with below average experience of men was quite something to take in.

Do you expect me to show you around? he asked, wincing as he eased his leg.

How kind of you to offer, she said mildly. She could feel the resentment crackling round him, but she wouldnt want anyone to see her in pain, eitherand at least he wasnt bundling her back on the next boat. I look forward to hearing everything you can tell me about the island.

I can see this is going to be an interesting trip, Ms Parrish.

Her composure was shattered by a single, burning glance. My thoughts exactly, she agreed, wafting the hair out of her face with a suddenly shaking hand. Shall I put my suitcase in the back?

Her intention had been to save him the risk of stumbling again, but shed only managed to create more offence.

Ill take it, he snapped, his expression darkening as he swung her heavy bag from the ground as if it weighed nothing.

Thats very kind of you. And please dont worry, Se?or Acosta. I wont be hanging around. This isnt a pleasure trip for meits purely business.

What else would it be? Folding his arms, he leaned his tight hips against the side of the vehicle.

Her heart juddered uncontrollably. Diego Acosta might be the most arrogant man on the face of the earth, but her body liked himfar too much. All I need while Im here is a map and a bike, she explained, doubting any woman could remain immune to quite so much man.

A bicycle? On these mountains? Resting his stubble-blackened chin on one shoulder, Acosta shot an ironic glance at the jagged peaks surrounding them.

A motorbike, Maxie explained. Your brother, Ruiz, said you have one on the island?

Did he? Diego Acosta replied coolly. Dark eyes narrowed in suspicion as he stared at her. I trust youre not suggesting I lend you my bike?

Her stomach tightened as he straightened up to his full, imposing height. I ride a bike at home. She had the satisfaction of seeing surprise colour his arrogant gaze, but in the interest of good business she decided not to push too hard on this yet. I quite understand if youd rather not lend your bike to a stranger

You havent seen my bike, he said, with all the confidence of a man who hadnt met too many women like Maxie before. I think youd be safer taking the Jeep.

She recoiled at the put-down, but all she said was thank you. Who liked being patronised? But this wasnt about Maxies pride. She was here for the bride, and to earn the money that kept her father safe and well looked after in a nursing home. Glancing inside the vehicle, she hoped Diego Acosta would take the hint. He might be impervious to the elements, but she was freezing cold and wet. She was glad when he swung the door wide, and launched herself into the welcoming warmth of the luxurious interior.

Now we wait for Fernando, he announced, bringing the gale from hell with him as he entered the vehicle. Tossing his cane in the back, he swung into the drivers seat using just the formidable power in his arms.

She hoped they wouldnt have to wait long. Every part of her was prickling with awareness in the confined space. They were seated so closetoo close. To distract herself she reached inside her bag to find her business card. You can check me out on this website. She held it out to him. There are plenty of reviews from satisfied clients. Im sure you wont be disappointed with the services I offer.

I should hope not.

Something in Diego Acostas voice made heat curl low in her belly in a way that was both inconvenient and inappropriate. Silence was her safest bet, Maxie concluded, noticing he barely glanced at her card before stowing it in a pocket on the door, where it would probably stay until it yellowed.

Fernando joined them soon after, much to her relief. She gripped the seat as they drove off, but she neednt have worried as Diego Acosta drove with the same arrant confidence with which he appeared to do everything else.

How long do you plan to stay, Ms Parrish?

Thats hard to say Her senses sharpened when he met her glance. Except Ill be as time-efficient as I can be. She guessed this was to reassure them both. She had a real sense of invading the dark space of a man who had retreated to this remote island after his accident and who wanted to be aloneand she was in no hurry to stay a moment longer than she had to.

How do you normally proceed? he demanded.

I spend a few days researching the brides preferred venue, deciding if its viable or not, and then I make suggestions, with photographs to illustrate my thinking.

And when the weathers like this? he said abruptly, making a gesture that encompassed the storm ravaged landscape outside the windscreen. How do you tempt the bride then?





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