USA Today Bestselling Author Susan Stephens
Susan Stephens' Books
The Untamed Argentinian
The Shameless Life of Ruiz Acosta
The Argentinian's Solace
A Taste of the Untamed
The Man From Her Wayward Past
A Christmas Acosta e-novella
CHRISTMAS NIGHTS WITH THE POLO PLAYER
Acostas Box Set
Her mother told her never to play with fire...
Living her life vicariously through a camera lens, photojournalist Romy Winner is happy to stay in the background capturing other people's happiness. Until former Argentinian polo champion turned Special Forces soldier Kruz Acosta challenges her to step out of the shadows-and into his bed!
Their recklessness has one startling repercussion that would never be linked to a man with such a wicked reputation. If Romy is to secure her child's future, she must get beneath the mask that hides his scars and learn how to tame the wild Acosta.
Two people in the glittering wedding marquee appeared distanced from the celebrations. One was a photojournalism known as Romy Winner, for whom detachment was part of her job. Kruz Acosta, the brother of the groom, had no excuse. With his wild dark looks, barely mellowed by formal wedding attire, Romily—who preferred to call herself no-nonsense Romy—thought Kruz perfectly suited to the harsh, unforgiving pampas in Argentina where this wedding was taking place.
Trying to slip deeper into the shadows, she stole some more shots of him. Immune to feeling when she was working, this time she felt excitement grip her. Not just because every photo editor in the world would pay a fortune to get their hands on her shots of Kruz Acosta, the most elusive of the notorious Acosta brothers, but because Kruz stirred her in some dark, atavistic way, involving a violently raised heartbeat and a lot of ill-timed appreciation below the belt.
Perhaps it was his air of menace, or maybe it was his hard-edged warrior look, but whatever it was she was enjoying it.
All four Acosta brothers were big, powerful men, but rumours abounded where Kruz was concerned, which made him all the more intriguing. A veteran of Special Forces, educated in both Europe and America, Kruz was believed to work for two governments now, though no one really knew anything about him other than his success in business and his prowess on the polo field.
She was getting to know him through her camera lens at this wedding of Kruz's older brother, Nacho, to his beautiful blind bride, Grace. What she had learned so far was less than reassuring: Kruz missed nothing. She ducked out of sight as he scanned the sumptuously decorated wedding venue, no doubt looking for unwanted visitors like her.
It was time to forget Kruz Acosta and concentrate on work, Romy told herself sternly, even if he was compelling viewing to someone who made her living out of stand-out shots. It would take more than a froth of tulle and a family reunion to soften Kruz Acosta, Romy guessed, as she ran off another series of images she knew Ronald, her editor at ROCK!, would happily give his eye teeth for.
Just one or two more and then she'd make herself scarce?
Maybe sooner rather than later, Romy concluded as Kruz glanced her way. This job would have been a pleasure if she'd had an official press pass, but ROCK! was considered a scandal sheet by many, so no one from ROCK! had received an invitation to the wedding. Romy was attending on secret business for the bride, on the understanding that she could use some of the shots for other purposes.
Romy's fame as a photographer had reached Grace through Holly Acosta, one of Romy's colleagues at ROCK! The three women had been having secret meetings over the past few months, culminating in Grace declaring that she would trust no one but Romy to make a photographic record of her wedding for her husband, Nacho, and for any children they might have. Inspired by the blind bride's courage, Romy had agreed. Grace was fast becoming a friend rather than just another client, and this was a chance in a million for Romy to see the Acostas at play—though she doubted Kruz would be as accommodating as the bride if he caught her.
So he mustn't catch her, Romy determined, shivering with awareness as she focused her lens on the one man in the marquee her camera loved above all others. He had a special sort of energy that seemed to reach her across the crowded tent, and the menace he threw out was alarming. The more shots she took of him, the more she couldn't imagine that much got in his way. It was easy to picture Kruz as a rebellious youth who had gone on to win medals for gallantry in the Special Forces. All the bespoke tailoring in the world couldn't hide the fact that Kruz Acosta was a weapon in disguise. He now ran a formidably successful security company, which placed him firmly in charge of security at this wedding.
A flush of alarm scorched her as Kruz's gaze swept over her like a searchlight and moved on. He must have seen her. The question was: would he do anything about it? She hadn't come halfway across the world in order to return home to London empty-handed.
Or to let down the bride, Romy concluded as she moved deeper into the crowd. This commission for Grace was more of a sacred charge than a job, and she had no intention of being distracted by one of the most alarming-looking men it had ever been her pleasure to photograph. Running off a blizzard of shots, she realised Kruz couldn't have stood in starker contrast to the bride. Grace's gentle beauty had never seemed more pronounced than at this moment, when she was standing beneath a flower-bedecked canopy between her husband and Kruz.
Romy drew a swift breath when the man in question stared straight at her. Lowering her camera, she glanced around, searching for a better hiding place, but shadows were in short supply in the brilliantly lit tent. One of the few things Grace could still detect after a virus had stolen her sight was light, so the dress code for the wedding was 'sparkle' and every corner of the giant marquee was floodlit by fabulous Venetian chandeliers.
Mingling with the guests, Romy kept her head down. The crowd was moving towards the receiving line, where all the Acostas were standing. There was a murmur of anticipation in the queue—and no wonder. The Acostas were an incredibly good-looking family. Nacho, the oldest brother, was clearly besotted by his beautiful new bride, while the sparks flying between Diego and his wedding planner wife Maxie could have ignited a fire. The supremely cool Ruiz Acosta clearly couldn't wait to get his firebrand wife, Romy's friend and colleague Holly, into bed, judging by the looks they were exchanging, while Lucia Acosta, the only girl in this family of four outrageously good-looking brothers, was flirting with her husband Luke Forster, the ridiculously photogenic American polo player.
Which left Kruz.
The only unmarried brother. So what? Her camera loved him, but that didn't mean she had to like him—though she would take full advantage of his distraction as he greeted his guests.
Those scars. That grim expression. She snapped away, knowing that everything about Kruz Acosta should put her off, but instead she was spellbound.
From a safe distance, Romy amended sensibly, as a pulse of arousal ripped through her.
And then he really did surprise her. As Kruz turned to say something to the bride his expression softened momentarily. That was the money shot, as it was known in the trade. It was the type of unexpected photograph that Romy was so good at capturing and had built her reputation on.
She was so busy congratulating herself she almost missed Kruz swinging round to stare at her again. Now she knew how a rabbit trapped in headlights felt. When he moved she moved too. Grabbing her kitbag, she stowed the camera. Her hands were trembling as panic mounted inside her. She hurried towards the exit, knowing this was unlike her. She was a seasoned pro, not some cub reporter—a thick skin came with the job. And why such breathless excitement at the thought of being chased by him? She was hardly an innocent abroad where men were concerned.
Because Kruz was the stuff of heated erotic dreams and her body liked the idea of being chased by him. Next question.
Before she made herself scarce there were a few more shots she wanted to take for Grace. Squeezing herself into a small gap behind a pillar, she took some close-ups of flowers and trimmings—richly scented white roses and lush fat peonies in softest pink, secured with white satin ribbon and tiny silver bells. The ceiling was draped like a Bedouin tent, white and silver chiffon lavishly decorated with scented flowers, crystal beads and fiery diamante. Though Grace couldn't see these details the wedding planner had ensured she would enjoy a scent sensation, while Romy was equally determined to make a photographic record of the day with detailed descriptions in Braille alongside each image.
She nearly jumped out of her skin, but it was only a famous celebrity touching her arm, in the hope of a photograph. Romy's editor at ROCK! loved those shots, so she had to make time for it. Shots like these brought in the money Romy so badly needed, though what she really longed to do was to tell the story of ordinary people in extraordinary situations through her photographs. One day she'd do that, she vowed stepping forward to take the shot, leaving herself dangerously exposed.
The queue of guests at the receiving line was thinning as people moved on to their tables for the wedding feast, and an icy warning was trickling down her spine before she even had a chance to say goodbye to the celebrity. She didn't need to check to know she was being watched. She usually managed to blend in with the crowd, with or without an official press pass, but there was nothing usual in any situation when Kruz Acosta was in town.
As soon as the celebrity moved on she found another hiding place behind some elaborate table decorations. From here she could observe Kruz to her heart's content. She settled down to enjoy the play of muscle beneath his tailored jacket and imagined him stripped to the buff.
The only downside was Grace had mentioned that although Kruz felt at home on the pampas he was going to open an office in London—'Just around the corner from ROCK!,' Grace had said, as if it were a good thing.
Now she'd seen him, Romy was sure Kruz Acosta was nothing but trouble.
But attractive. He was off-the-scale hot.
But she wasn't here to play make-believe with one of the lead characters at this wedding. She had got what she needed and she was out of here.
Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed that Kruz was no longer in the receiving line.
So where the hell was he?
She scanned the marquee, but there was no sign of Kruz anywhere. There were quite a few exits from the tent—he could have used any one of them. She wasn't going to take any chances, and would head straight for the press coach to send off her copy. Thank goodness Holly had given her a key.
The press coach wasn't too far. She could see its twinkling lights. She quickened her step, fixing her gaze on them, feeling that same sense of being hunted—though why was she worried? She could look after herself. Growing up small and plain had ruled out girlie pursuits, so she had taken up kick-boxing instead. Anyone who thought they could take her camera was in for a big surprise.
He had recognised the girl heading towards the exit. There was no chance he would let her get away. Having signed off the press passes personally, he knew Romy Winner didn't appear on any of them.
Romy Winner was said to be ruthless in pursuit of a story, but she was no more ruthless than he was. Her work was reputed to be cutting-edge and insightful—he'd even heard it said that as a photojournalist Romy Winner had no equal—but that didn't excuse her trespass here.
She had disappointed him, Kruz reflected as he closed in on her. Renowned for lodging herself in the most ingenious of nooks, he might have expected to find Ms Winner hanging from the roof trusses, or masquerading as a waitress, rather than skulking in the shadows like some rent-a-punk oddity, with her pale face, thin body, huge kohl-ringed eyes and that coal-black, gel-spiked, red-tipped hair, for all the wedding guests to stare at and comment on.
So Romy could catch guests off-guard and snap away at her leisure?
Maybe she wasn't so dumb after all. She must have captured some great shots. He was impressed by her cunning, but far less impressed by Senorita Winner's brazen attempt to gate-crash his brother's wedding. He would make her pay.
He just hadn't decided what currency he was accepting today. That would depend on his mood when he caught up with her.
Romy hurried on into the darkness. She couldn't shake the feeling she was being followed, though she doubted it was Kruz. Surely he had more important things to do?
Crunching her way along a cinder path, she reasoned that with all the Acosta siblings having been raised by Nacho, after their parents had been killed in a flood, Kruz had enjoyed no softening influence from a mother—which accounted for the air of danger surrounding him. It was no more than that. Her overworked imagination could take a rest. Pausing at a crossroads, she picked up the lights and followed them. She couldn't afford to lose her nerve now. She had to get her copy away. The money Romy earned from her photographs kept her mother well cared for in the nursing home where she had lived since Romy's father had beaten her half to death.
When Romy had first become a photojournalist it hadn't taken her long to realise that pretty pictures earned pennies, while sensational images sold almost as well as sex. Her success in the field had been forged in stone on the day she was told that her mother would need full-time care for the rest of her life. From that day on Romy had been determined that her mother would have the best of care and Romy would provide it for her.
A gust of wind sweeping down from the Andes made her shudder violently. She wondered if she had ever felt more out of place than she did now. She lived in London, amidst constant bustle and noise. Here in the shadow of a gigantic mountain range everything turned sinister at night and her chest tightened as she quickened her step. The ghostly shape of the wedding tent was far behind her now, and ahead was just a vast emptiness, dotted with faint lights from the haci- enda. There were no landmarks on the pampas and no stars to guide her. The Acosta brothers were giants amongst men, and the land they came from was on the same impressive scale. There were no boundaries here, there was only space, and the Acostas owned most of it.
Rounding a corner, she caught sight of the press coach again and began to jog. Her breath hitched in her throat as she stopped to listen. Was that a twig snapping behind her? Her heart was hammering so violently it was hard to tell. Focusing her gaze on the press coach, with its halo of aerials and satellite dishes, she fumbled for the key, wanting to have it ready in her hand—and cried out with shock as a man's hand seized her wrist.
His other hand snatched hold of her camera. Reacting purely on instinct, she launched a stinging roundhouse kick—only to have her ankle captured in an iron grip.
'Good, but not good enough,' Kruz Acosta ground out.
Rammed up hard against the motorcoach, with Kruz's head in her face, it was hard for Romy to disagree. In the unforgiving flesh, Kruz made the evidence of her camera lens seem pallid and insubstantial. He was hard like rock, and so close she could see the flecks of gold in his fierce black eyes, as well as the cynical twist on his mouth. While their gazes were locked he brought her camera strap down, inch by taunting inch, until finally he removed it from her arm and placed it on the ground behind him.
'No,' he said softly when she glanced at it.
She still made a lunge, which he countered effortlessly. Flipping her to the ground, he stood back. Rolling away, she sprang up, assuming a defensive position with her hands clenched into angry fists, and demanded that he give it up.
Kruz Acosta merely raised a brow.
Mills & Boon Modern (UK)
Harlequin Presents (US)