Anna downed the shot of tequila and turned to face the group.
“Can I have your attention everyone?”
Nine expectant faces turned to face her. The talking stopped, glasses and bottles were put down, and the Peninsula Hotel bar fell silent.
“Thank you.” She smiled brightly and hoped she sounded as confident as she pretended. She’d worn her most capable outfit, a smart navy-blue skirt coupled with a white blouse, and her three-inch stilettos. Nothing like some extra height to give you a boost.
“Welcome to Discovery’s Southern Africa tour. Because this is our first meeting, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know each other a little better, before we set off on our first day of sightseeing around the Cape tomorrow.”
She took a deep breath.
“My name is Anna, and I’m your tour leader on this trip. I’m a Cape Town local, although I’ve spent much of the last ten years traveling the world and exploring new places. I’m so looking forward to getting to know you all over the next three weeks. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me anytime, day or night. I’ll be giving you all my cell phone number, just in case. Now, why don’t we go around the room and you can all introduce yourselves?”
Most of her group nodded happily, except for him.
Her eyes widened as she noticed the hulk at the front. Jeans over powerful thighs, a T-shirt he was bursting out of, and cobalt blue eyes set in a tanned, rugged face – he was every girl’s wet-dream.
This must be Cole Armstrong, the latest addition to their tour. He’d signed up yesterday, along with the balding Yorkshireman, Philip Cartwright, who she’d met in the lobby earlier, although as far as she knew they weren’t traveling together. He didn’t look too pleased with her idea, and those gorgeous blue eyes were now glaring at her.
“Let’s start with you, sir.” She smiled sweetly at the hot guy. That would teach him to scowl at her. She was just doing her job. How else were they supposed to get to know one another?
He gave her an icy stare, but then he seemed to collect himself and smiled at the group. Anna’s stomach did a back-flip. He had a wide mouth with a lopsided grin and the sexiest dimple in his right cheek. She wondered if he was single. Her eyes dropped to his left hand. No wedding band.
“My name is Cole and I’m from England. I’m here to get away from work for a little bit, and to see something of Africa.” He had a sexy accent too, like James Bond but not quite as posh. Anna wasn’t the only woman who noticed.
“Hi Cole,” came a few appreciative murmurs.
Anna dragged her eyes from his face and nodded to the woman beside him.
“Hi everyone. I’m Dee and this is my husband Anton.” She had a soft Canadian accent. “We’re emigrating to Canada next month, and this is our farewell trip to Africa.”
Anton waved. “It’s great to meet you all.”
Anna moved on to the next couple.
“I’m Bruce and this is my wife, Kelly. We’re from Texas and I work in the oil industry. His wife smiled shyly. He added, “This is Kelly’s first trip abroad.”
“How exciting,” gushed Anna, feeling the effects of the tequila as it hit her bloodstream.
The introductions carried on down the line.
“I’m Klaus, and this is my wife, Kirsten.” He had a strong German accent, but his English was excellent. “We’re from Munich and I’m a retired engineer. Kirsten is a retired school teacher. This is our first trip to Africa and we’re very much looking forward to it.”
Everybody smiled and nodded. Anna began to relax. Apart from the Men’s Health model in the front, everybody seemed really nice. The introductions were over, but Cole still watched her with a contemplative stare. She preferred it to the scowl, but it was still unnerving. He had a presence about him, perhaps due to his size, but he seemed to fill the room and cast a shadow over everyone else.
“And you, sir?” Anna directed her question to the Yorkshireman standing at the back of the room as if trying to hide behind the rest of the group. She almost hadn’t noticed him.
He hesitated before he replied. “I–I’m Philip. I’m also from the U.K. and I’m an accountant.”
That figured. He looked like an office-bound employee, kind of nondescript, with no noticeable features, not to be mean or anything. In fact, she felt rather sorry for him, so she gave him a bright smile. “Welcome, Philip. I’m glad you could join us.”
She turned to the last person in the group, a middle-aged red-head immaculately made up with hot-pink talons for nails.
“Hi there,” the vixen purred. “I’m Monica and I’m a legal secretary from Texas. I’m recently divorced and figured it was about time I did something for myself.” She gave a deep, throaty laugh. “So, here I am.”
Anna liked her immediately. “Welcome, Monica.”
Now the introductions were over, the group could interact amongst themselves. She ignored the sex-god in front of her and turned to Dee and Anton who were next closest and smiled, “What made you decide to emigrate to Canada?”
“I’m originally from Toronto,” Dee explained, “And with things the way they are in South Africa, we thought it was time to leave and start over before the kids grow up.”
“And before we’re too old to resettle,” added Anton, with a grin.
That made perfect sense. The political situation in South Africa was one of the reasons she’d left all those years ago. That, and bad-boy Brian, the Irishman she’d run away with.
“I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years in the U.K.” Anna told them. Cole turned and joined their group, making her feel jittery. There was no real reason for it, he just had that effect on her.
“Are you going back?” asked Dee.
“Not right now.” Anna bit her lip. “I think I’ll stay put for a while. I haven’t been home in a long time.”
Not strictly true but close enough. No one needed to know she was flat broke and couldn’t afford a ticket back to London. Not after she’d spent the last of her savings doing the Inca Trail with Nick, who’d deserted her in Cusco.
Bruce and Kelly came to join them, and the conversation turned to the state of the oil industry. Anna saw her window and escaped to the bar.
“A large white wine, please.”
The barman, a tall, lanky twenty-something with sun-streaked hair and a deep surfer’s tan, was only too happy to oblige.
She smiled, momentarily distracted by his sun-kissed beauty, but soon enough her attention wandered back to Cole. He was the kind of man that demanded attention. She wondered what his story was. A last-minute joiner. Did he have nothing better to do? And no one to do it with?
He was talking to Philip and it struck her how incongruous the two men were. Cole in all his fit, bulging-biceps glory towered over pasty, paunchy Philip. Still, she shouldn’t judge. Look where her penchant for gorgeous, sexy men had got her. Back at home, alone and broke, and forced to take a job in her brother’s farm to make ends meet.
Living with her mother had only served to remind her why she’d left in the first place. Runaway, in fact. To England. With bad-boy Brian, who had dreams of becoming a rock star. Unfortunately, things hadn’t worked out so well for Brian, but it had got her out of the country and away from her overly-critical parents. A silver lining, perhaps? The wine was making her feel warm and fuzzy inside. Perhaps things weren’t so bad.
Cole caught her eye over Philip’s balding head. At least she had him to perve for the next three weeks. She smiled to herself. Yep, things could definitely be worse.
“Gimme one of those, won’t you darling?”
Anna smiled at Monica and ordered another wine from the barmen. He gave the red-head the same sultry look he’d given Anna.
“Thanks, honey,” she beamed, winking at him.
“I’m in quite a state with all this talent around,” she confided, in a husky voice. “The hormones are buzzing.”
Anna giggled. “I know what you mean.”
“He’s quite impressive, isn’t he?” She didn’t have to point out who she meant.
Anna sighed. “I’d say.”
“I hear he’s single,” she confided.
“Really?” She tried not to appear too interested.
“I asked Dee who asked Anton to ask Philip who said he’s unmarried.”
“Good to know.” Anna fanned herself with her hand. It was suddenly very warm in the bar, despite the fact that the sun had set an hour ago.
“Do Cole and Philip know each other?”
“I don’t think so. They’re both unattached, I guess, so they gravitated towards each other.”
Monica patted her arm. “Like us, honey, the two single gals. We’ll have to stick together.”
It would be nice to have a friend, she’d been so anxious about leading the tour all by herself. Not that she had a problem making friends, it was just the responsibility was so overwhelming and she didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off.
“Excellent idea,” she replied.
“How about a couple of shots to go with the vino?” Monica’s cheeky grin was contagious.
Why not? thought Anna, conveniently forgetting she’d already had one. She deserved to enjoy herself too and it would help to take the edge of her nerves. The barmen poured them each a shot of tequila. They clinked glasses and threw the shots back. Heat stole through her body making her feel reckless.
“That’s better,” Monica said, then took her hand. “Now, I’m going to talk to that sexy man, are you coming?”
Not that reckless.
“Oh, um… I’m not sure.” She wasn’t nearly drunk enough to talk to that man. He was so disturbingly attractive she became a hot mess around him.
“Come on, let’s get to know the single guys a bit better.”
She was usually so good at mingling, what was wrong with her?
“Okay, why not?” She mustn’t be a prude. Besides, Monica was with her, in full cougar mode. It was unlikely she’d get a word in. The woman was on form tonight. Cole had better watch out.
Philip’s face lit up as they approached, while Cole’s stayed exactly as it was. “Glad you could join us, girls.” Philip held up a bottle of champagne. “I’ve just bought a bottle and Cole doesn’t drink the stuff.”
Cole held up his beer in response.
“Now, that’s a shame,” said Monica, fixing her gaze on Cole. Some of the wind went out of Philip’s sails. Anna felt sorry for him. “I’ll have a glass.”
She’d only just finished her wine, but what the hell? He filled up her glass with bubbles, and she felt them burst against her lips as she took a sip. Delicious.
“So, what do you do, Cole, when you’re not on vacation?” The question came from Monica.
Cole smiled, but it didn’t meet his eyes. “I’m a geologist.”
“A rock-hound, interesting. So, you’re an expert on time and pressure, then?” She put a hand on his forearm.
Anna shook her head. She ought to take lessons from this woman.
“You could say that.”
Cole didn’t flinch and his cool gaze didn’t waver. Anna felt a frisson of relief he was immune to Monica’s charms.
“What’s in store for us tomorrow, Anna?” asked Philip.
“Well, we’ve got a late start, and then we’re heading up Table Mountain. After that, we’ll explore one of the local markets where you can buy some African souvenirs. We’ve got two days in Cape Town, so there’s plenty of time to explore.”
“We’re not hiking up, are we?” Philip looked appalled. “I’m not very good with heights.”
Cole met her gaze and held it, rendering her speechless. Monica jumped in.
“Of course not, silly. There’s a cable car. Haven’t you seen the brochure?”
“No, I haven’t had time.”
“Oh yes.” She patted his shoulder. “I forgot you signed up yesterday. Spur of the moment thing, was it?”
Monica was obviously a very tactile person. Philip flushed. “Er, yes. Exactly.”
“Well, I’m mighty glad you two decided to join us,” Monica said. “It would be a travesty for Anna and me to be the only two singles on the trip.”
Anna flushed, and she’d be damned if she didn’t catch a glimpse of amusement in Cole’s expression. He was enjoying her discomfort.
Suddenly, she found her voice. “There’s nothing wrong with being single,” she said.
Monica laughed. “I couldn’t agree more, honey. It’s so much more fun than being married.”
Anna took a gigantic gulp of her champagne and tried not to cough as it shot up her nose. Get a grip, girl, she chastised herself. She blinked away tears from the bubbles in her sinuses.
“How long were you married for?” Philip glanced at Monica.
Cole chuckled and once again Anna was floored by the sight of his dimple.
“Have you ever been married,” she asked him.
He stopped laughing. “No, I’ve never had the pleasure.” Nor was he likely to, judging by the sharp look he gave her.
“It’s overrated, honey.” Monica held out her glass to Philip. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Cole snorted. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“What about you, Anna? You ever been married?” Philip’s question took her by surprise.
“Um, no. I haven’t even thought about it.” She couldn’t manage a long-term relationship, let alone marriage.
“Never mind. There’s plenty of time. You’re still young.”
Was thirty young? Maybe.
The evening wore on. More people came to join them, then some left. Eventually, it was only her and Monica at a table and Philip and Cole holding up the bar. Cole was engaged in a conversation about big wave surfing with the cute barman, while she and Monica drunkenly tried to decide who was more attractive.
“The barmen is young and vig–vigorous.” Monica struggled to get out the three-syllable word.
“But look at those arms,” sighed Anna. She had a thing for arms. And for bad-boys. And for men who made you weak at the knees. Cole was all three. A triple threat. “Imagine being wrapped in those all night.”
“You should go talk to him,” said Monica, stifling a yawn.
“Hmm…” Phillip had gone up to his room and left Cole alone at the bar.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said Monica. “I’m turning in.”
Yes, she ought to as well, except Cole was still sitting there, staring into his glass. His conversation with the barman had come to an end. The temptation was too strong to pass up.
“Hi,” she said, sauntering up. Over the course of the evening, her skirt had got higher and her blouse had got lower. The top three buttons were now undone.
“Hi.” His voice had a lovely deep timbre to it. “Have you had a good evening?”
He nodded. “Ready for tomorrow?”
She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. She swayed unsteadily and put a hand on his thigh. It was rock solid. She decided she liked the way it felt, so she left it there. He was watching her in amusement.
“Why do you do that?” she asked, suddenly.
“Look at me like that?”
“Would you rather I didn’t look at you?” His voice dropped a notch. It gave her goosebumps.
Now she was just confused. She was too drunk to play mind games.
“Actually, no. Scrap that.”
She swayed again and he put his arm around her waist. “I think it might be time for you to turn in,” he said. “I’ll walk you back to your room.”
“Okay,” she giggled. That sounded like a mighty fine idea.
“You’re very strong,” she murmured, as he led her into the lobby and to the elevator. “You must work out, a lot.”
He didn’t respond, except to press the button. It pinged open.
“Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
She giggled. “Good idea.”
He guided her into the lift.
She put her hand on his stomach, marveling at the feel of his abs beneath his shirt. Her fingers traced the hollows between them. He didn’t move, but she heard him give a sharp intake of breath.
The elevator opened and he helped her out. “What number are you?”
They walked down the passage, his arm still around her waist. “Here you go.”
She fumbled in her bag for her keycard, which took almost five minutes.
“Here it is,” she said, waving it in the air. He took it from her and opened the door.
She turned to him. “Thanks for walking me to my room. You didn’t have to.”
“It’s a pleasure.”
She gazed at him for a long moment, then put her arms around his neck.
“Do you want to come in?”
Heat filled his gaze, and she began to lean in for a kiss, but then he reached up and peeled her arms away from around his neck.
“Another time, perhaps.”
She blinked, unsure of what had just happened.
He handed her the key card. “Goodnight, Anna.”
Then, he left her there and walked down the corridor to his room