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Never Settle by Kate Richards (1)

Chapter One

 

When she became president, heads would roll. Until then, she’d have to accept the edicts of the single person in the company with authority over her. But she didn’t have to like it.

Surely no island the size of a postage stamp could have an airport. Arabella Carmichael craned her neck, trying to find a break in the thick greenery covering the center of the landmass edged with pale-pink sandy beaches. Some people’s idea of paradise, she supposed, but not hers. The prop plane circled half a dozen times before lining up with, well, with something the pilot could see even if she couldn’t. Having never flown on anything smaller than a jumbo jet, traveling between company offices in New York, San Francisco, and other civilized places, she found it difficult to consider the red-and-white six-seater emblazoned with Island Hopper suitable transportation. She’d moved up to first class a decade earlier and saw no reason to go backward.

If they wanted her to go to a desert island for two weeks, they could have waited until the company jet came out of annual servicing. Arabella had survived for over a decade without taking a vacation. Why the sudden urgency? If her rival for the senior position hadn’t been on maternity leave, she’d have suspected her of setting in motion a plan to get her out of the way.

Everything about her trip, since she’d boarded her last leg in Miami, screamed economy. Perhaps allowing the company travel coordinator to arrange a vacation without her input had been a mistake, but she, after all, had expressed no desire to take any time off work, and her boss had set it up sans Arabella’s knowledge or approval.

Vacations were career killers. Those who lounged around, basting themselves in coconut-banana oil on white sandy beaches—pink, in this case—or spent long weekends skiing the slopes in Utah or Switzerland rarely progressed at the speed she required of herself. As senior vice president in charge of marketing, she stood next in line for president when old Harley Mack retired next year. Just in time for her fortieth birthday.

She would have more than enough time after reaching the position to yacht the Greek Isles, climb Everest, or ride the Matterhorn at Disney World. Or whatever silly things people did when away from the office. She shuddered.

Turquoise seas dotted with sailing vessels and powerboats offered a panoramic view. Below the crystal surface, movement indicated a plethora of sea life. Islands dotted the horizon. Only the pilot knew their destination. Where she would spend two weeks was a “surprise,” a reward for hard work, entirely on the company dime. What a way to wobble the bottom line.

But in the twenty-first century, location mattered less than in previous times. As long as she had strong Internet access, the location, wherever it was, wouldn’t even slow her down. HR had been insisting she use some of her vacation time for years, but she’d managed to put them off. She didn’t even date anymore, much less take trips for no good reason. Keeping her libido in check was hard enough.

She didn’t date people from work. Her former fiancé had been the one exception, and one she should never have made.

Perhaps lack of sex more than downtime led to this debacle. The bastards had ganged up on her when she’d announced, after one too many eggnog martinis at the company Christmas party, her last intimate encounter had taken place after the previous year’s festivities. No one had commented at the time, but their expressions of pity said it all. And someone had told Harley. Three months later, an email appeared in her inbox informing her of a special vacation planned on her behalf. She hadn’t even had time to go home and pack. Her traitorous personal assistant had been dispatched to purchase an entirely new resort-suitable wardrobe and, since she kept her passport in her office safe, and her cursed sense of organization had her caught up and then some, she had no excuse to defy her boss.

Not for lack of trying. But when she flounced into his office to inform him she would not go, the old gentleman assumed, or at least acted as if, she was there to thank him, even accompanied her down to the lobby and handed her over to the driver of a town car from the company fleet. “You’ll be able to work twice as hard when you come back,” he’d said.

Did they really think she’d be grateful, that she really did want to frolic somewhere for a while? Perhaps they hoped she’d pick up a guy and get her rocks off. But if they expected her to return a mellow boss, easy to walk over, they’d crossed the wrong dragon lady. Her tension had risen to epic levels, and the list of people who would pay for this lengthened by the hour.

“Seat belt fastened, Miss Carmichael?” called the pilot over his shoulder. “We’ll be on the ground in a minute.” His worn blue jeans and faded T-shirt emblazoned with I Love to Fly was not exactly the ensemble she expected from her flight crew. He needed a shave, as well, sporting more than a fashionable scruff of red beard on his freckled face.

“Yes, I never unbuckled.” Why would she? She had nowhere to go. This plane had no executive lounge, no sleeper seats...no bathroom. Since they also offered no beverage service, the lack of facilities mattered less. Dehydration made her headache worse.

Would they even stock her preferred brand of alkaline water wherever she was going? Accustomed to a detailed itinerary, Arabella had not had a chance to notice the lack of one until her first flight took off.

“Charlie, where did you say we are going again?”

The pilot guided the little plane closer and closer to the runway, if one could consider it such, a narrow beige strip flanked by tall, bushy trees for its entire length. “We’re here, Miss Carmichael. We are not going anywhere.” The plane bounced as their wheels touched down. “We have arrived.”

Yes, they had. Unless she was going to board an even smaller plane, or perhaps a kayak, she’d know soon enough where they were. “They must pay you well for your silence.”

He chuckled as they slowed, approaching a bright-blue painted shack with a shiny tin roof. “Nah. I get paid to fly the plane. Torturing the passengers, I do for fun.”

“I’m glad to brighten your day.” She gathered her purse and briefcase. “As soon as I check into the hotel, I can get back to work. How far away is the resort, anyway?”

The island had not appeared very large on approach, so she should not have more than another half hour of downtime, max. She’d seen no buildings, either. But maybe their angle coming in had hidden the hotel?

“Not too far.”

“You know where we are. What island this is?”

“Oh, I do.”

Arabella stifled a huff of annoyance and summoned her sweetest, most persuasive tone. The one that brought new clients around to her way of thinking. “But you won’t tell me?”

She should have opened her own firm, years ago. If she’d seen this affront coming, she would have.

“No, ma’am.”

“So, you also won’t tell me where I am going from here?”

“No can do.” The plane made a small circle in front of the shack and bumped to a stop. “You’ll know soon. It’s my favorite place to stay, if that helps.” Great. He seemed the type to like fishing and probably craft beers. They had nothing in common.

He unbuckled his seat belt, stood, and opened the door, letting in a blast of warm, humid air scented with some kind of flowers. Jasmine? Maybe hibiscus.

She swallowed her irritation, forcing her voice to remain even. “You aren’t going to take me in to the terminal?” Since the gate wasn’t even in sight, she’d have a heck of a hike. “Will the tram come out this far?” Even as she asked, she knew the answer. A single runway hemmed in by trees on a tiny island…

The pilot hopped out and held a hand up to her. “Ma’am, we are parked at the terminal. If you’ll head into that blue building there, Customs will process your arrival.”

Arabella accepted his help down the three steps and onto the gravel runway. Gravel! “Right there, you say? That rundown shed?” Her temples throbbed in time with her words. The garish paint had been slapped on ancient, cracked stucco, wire poking through at odd points.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll bring your luggage inside in a moment.”

With no alternative, she started toward the open door, her heels scraping against rocks. As soon as she checked in, she’d send to HR a bill for the Italian leather creations. Four-inch heels with hidden platforms taking her an inch higher were never intended for gravel and dirt. The miserable things were hell on her feet, despite being custom-made. At just over five feet tall, she’d worn such shoes to work every day since college graduation.

With a little notice, she’d have been able to change to more practical footwear.

Of course, with a little notice, she’d have managed to create a situation to prevent her leaving. Dammit.

Outside the “terminal,” she paused to study the open doorway. A sign beside it announced she’d arrived at an international airport. If the rest of the letters hadn’t been so faded, she might have known which one. Stepping from blazing sunlight into the dim interior, onto the blessedly even concrete floor, Arabella lifted her sunglasses onto her head and blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust.

She was about 99 percent sure she’d arrived in the Bahamas. She didn’t know if other areas of the Caribbean had pink beaches, though. Most of her coworkers traveled there often, but she didn’t have time to listen to stories about their vacations.

A single counter stood against one wall in the small building, manned by a beaming dark-skinned woman in a sleeveless cotton dress the same brilliant blue as the building she worked in.

“Welcome to the Bahamas. May I see your passport?”

Okay. At least they’d established the country.

An hour later, she’d managed to get through Customs. Three minutes of flashing her passport and fifty-seven of chitchat from a woman with lots of time on her hands.

Finally, she stood outside the hut again, next to her new silver Tumi hard-sided luggage full of whatever Emily, her PA, thought she might want to take on the trip. She prayed either it was suitable or the resort had a good boutique. Despite working for her for over five years, the young woman still wore pleated skirts and button-down blouses that made her look like a Catholic schoolgirl. If they allowed them eyebrow piercings and blue hair. Still, her business degree and basic common sense made her an asset. But she’d never had the nerve to send her shopping…

According to the Customs lady, she had a half hour wait for a land taxi to take her to a water taxi to take her to the resort on the opposite side of the island. Before her car arrived, the pilot emerged from behind the building, deep in conversation with a tall man whose olive-skinned good looks made him a candidate for a magazine ad for high-end skin care products. Unlike Charlie’s ginger bristles, his neat black scruff clung to a chiseled jaw, making her fingers itch to touch it. His hair was combed, but a wisp of breeze lifted a lock and dropped it over his forehead, giving him a youthful jauntiness. Jeans, loafers, and a polo made up his ensemble. He walked with an easy, long-legged stride as if he hadn’t a care in the world. What must that be like?

Pausing before climbing the stairs to the plane, he turned and, one raven brow arched, held her gaze. Her breath caught. Don’t leave. But Charlie hollered something, and he nodded and, lifting a hand to her, boarded.

A moment later, they taxied off down the runway and then disappeared between puffy white clouds in the cerulean sky.

Sure, the one hot guy on the island left as she arrived. For one heady moment, she’d almost had the flash of an idea about a vacation romance. Or a fling. Sex filled a basic human need. One she’d been neglecting for quite some time.

Lucky she had work to keep her company. As always. She’d learned her lesson about romance long ago and didn’t often indulge in sex even for release. She had her eyes always on the prize. The presidency.

Dammit. I could have found an hour or two for him.

When she became president, nobody would be forced to take time off. For now, Arabella could settle into her room and work. Room service. Internet. Work. Comfort.

She removed her beige linen suit jacket, smoothed her skirt, and winced at her scraped-up shoes. The heat surging through her blood was related to the weather, and not the man who’d left. Getting all hot and bothered for someone she’d never see again held zero purpose.

 

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