The whine of the jet’s engines did nothing to block out the nagging pain in Waverly Sinner’s side or the calamitous thoughts that swirled in her head. She shifted in her seat and grimaced as Lake Tahoe fell away beneath her.

“You’re still bleeding, but it’s slowing down,” her friend and personal assistant Kate York said, probing the gauze.

Waverly set her teeth as Kate prodded a little too hard.

“Did you call in?” she asked.

Kate nodded and let Waverly pull her bloodstained sweater back down.

“Yeah, when the doc was stitching you up.”

“And?”

Kate shook her head. “No bodies.”

“What about Dante?”

“No bodies,” Kate said again. “No Dante.”

Thank God. It meant there was a possibility that he was still alive after the ambush. Waverly would cling to that hope that the man who had given her a chance to change her life could still be among the living. “Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“Belize. They’re flying in a very nice, very discreet plastic surgeon to patch you up so you don’t look like you just got shot. Your orders are to lay low, very low.”

Waverly’s phone signaled in her lap. It was her mother. “What’s the story?” Waverly asked before answering.

“You’re going to hate it,” Kate warned.

 

——–

 

Xavier Saint’s attention was fixed on one of the three TV screens in his office. The one with a publicity shot of Waverly Sinner floated about the ticker that threw out the news casually as if it hadn’t moved the earth under his feet. DUI accident. Injuries. Rehab.

The vulture announcers with their peroxide grins gleefully speculated on the scandal and what it would mean for the actress’s career. There was speculation, of course, that Waverly had been on a downward spiral since her last breakup with leading man Dante Wrede. Their on-again, off-again volatile relationship had been fodder to the gossip sites and tabloids for two years.

Xavier wanted a drink. A cigarette. A coma. Something, anything, to get the need for Waverly out of his system. It had been five years. Five years since they talked, five years since he felt her body under his, five years since she’d nearly died in front of him. And yet it felt like yesterday. He could still remember her scent, that layer of exotic spice and a sweetness that never faded.

He muted the TV and made himself another cup of coffee.

Nothing he’d done in those five years had been able to erase her from his mind. Invictus Security had grown, first from the blood and sweat that he and his partner Micah Ross had put into the start-up and then from the notoriety of the Ganim case. Now they had offices in L.A., New York, D.C., and a brand-new chapter starting in London. He’d long-since retired from fieldwork and instead focused on training, consulting, and the day-to-day of running the top private security firm in the country.

Everything he’d worked for since his time in the Army and Defense Clandestine Service was now his. Except her.

He’d followed Waverly from the safe distance that entertainment news provided. Every movie, every award, hell, even her college graduation. She’d finished a degree in psychology and international relations from Stanford in three years while still managing to release a movie a year. That still lit the spark of pride in him. She’d been smarter than anyone around her gave her credit for. And now the world was taking notice.

The last two years had been one hit after another. The following that she’d earned from being the near victim of serial killer Les Ganim five years ago had grown into a huge, legitimate fan base.

Waverly Sinner was officially a star in her own right now. She pulled in bigger paydays than most of her male co-stars. And comparisons between her and her mother, screen goddess Sylvia Sinner, were now entirely complimentary.

He barely recognized her public persona these days. Gone was the frightened girl who built walls to protect herself. In her place was a ballsy, vivacious woman who didn’t take shit from anyone.

When her publicist announced that Waverly was dating her co-star Dante Wrede, Xavier polished off a bottle of whiskey alone in his apartment, and when he surfaced from his hangover, he vowed that Waverly Sinner was out of his system. He tried to get over her. He’d dated, casually. And even attempted not-so-casually dating. He’d met a nice enough woman who had a busy career of her own. They’d talked marriage a few times—well, she had—but he’d never made a move in that direction. And when she’d ended things, he felt as much relief as he did guilt.

Xavier stared at Waverly’s picture on the muted screen and felt it. The buzz that something wasn’t quite right. He knew her, and despite the last five years of distance, he was sure there was something rotten with this story.

He’d watched her for the last two years as Waverly had put herself in every situation that she’d despised within the Hollywood experience. She’d club-hopped and shopped and gotten into shoving matches with aggressive photographers. Her new best friend, Petra, was the daughter of a Russian billionaire, and the two downed vodka tonics by the gallon as they partied their way around L.A.

Her hair was a little shorter now, a darker honey blonde instead of the silvery Rapunzel tresses he’d had his hands in years ago. But the eyes, those sea witch eyes, were the same.

This wasn’t some rebellion. Not the timeless Hollywood trap that she’d made herself immune to. This was something else.

Xavier punched a number into the phone on his desk.

“I need a favor. I need a police report.”

 

——–

 

Waverly hid her wince as she climbed aboard the private water taxi on the dock in San Pedro. The in-your-face island beauty had never failed to strike her since the first time she visited Ambergris Caye shooting a movie. And this visit, though wounded and exhausted, was no different. The blinding turquoise of the water butted up against sugary sand beaches. On one end of the island was the bustling golf cart hub of San Pedro. On the opposite, endless peace and quiet. She’d bought a home here a year ago, finding the easy commute between L.A. and Belize City irresistible, and made sure to escape here as often as she could. The airy, canary yellow two-story was tucked in between resorts and protected by a thick grove of palms.

There wasn’t a housekeeper or a paparazzo to be seen. Here, she traded Hepplewhite for hammocks and bulletproof SUVs for a golf cart. And hopefully she would heal here.

The water taxi captain must have been under orders to go slow because they clipped along at a far more relaxed pace than the usual break neck speed. The town blurred by in a hodge-podge of colors. The docks became farther apart, the resorts more spectacular. And finally, there was her own little dock, jutting out into the Caribbean waters, a palapa offering shade and a place to swing in a hammock at the end.

They bumped alongside the dock, and Kate helped Waverly out of the boat. Their only luggage, two go bags, was easily hefted over the side. Kate tipped the captain, and with a wave, the taxi zoomed away leaving the two women alone.

They turned their back on the boundless blue of the ocean and slowly made their way down the dock. Palm trees shivered a welcome in the balmy breeze.

Waverly made it up onto the wraparound porch of the first floor before lowering herself onto the rust orange cushion of an outdoor sofa.

“Don’t get blood all over that,” Kate warned her as she jiggled the key in the lock. The side door, a thick wedge of tropical hardwood, opened inward.

Waverly gingerly held herself upright while Kate bustled inside. A moment later, the storm shutters that ran the length of the first floor began their intrepid journey upward. Shutters stowed, Kate shoved open the accordion glass doors until the porch and interior living space became one.

Kate joined her on the porch and flopped down in one of the wicker chairs. “Okay, there is literally no food here, and since we left in such a hurry, I didn’t have time to call the grocery service. I can leave you here and go into town, or I can call them now.”

For once, food didn’t sound remotely good to Waverly, but some time alone to think did. “If you don’t mind going into town, that would be great. Just start with some basics until we know how long we’re going to be on lockdown.”

Kate nodded and rose. “Cool. I’ll stop at that tiki bar place on the way back and bring home dinner.”

“Kate?” Waverly stopped her. “Thanks for being awesome. You don’t know what it means for me to be able to count on you like this.”

“I love your face, too.” Kate threw her a grin and a mock salute before heading back into the house.

Waverly dragged herself to her feet and plodded inside.

The main living space was a towering two-stories with glass from floor to ceiling, taking advantage of the ocean views. There were two wings each with a bedroom downstairs and a master upstairs.

Waverly slowly made her way up the concrete staircase to her room. With her last ounce of energy, she opened the storm shutters and pushed open the terrace doors. She grabbed towels from the bathroom, tossed them on the bed, and let herself collapse.

It was just a flesh wound. But there were other, worse implications that would come out of the events of today. Rehab? She snorted into a pillow. The studio didn’t care what a ding her reputation would take or how the lie would hurt her still healing parents. After all, a splashy comeback from rehab would only up her pull at the box office and make her other role as Hollywood’s party princess more sellable.

If she were to think about how she got herself into this mess, she could pinpoint the exact second she’d set off down this path. When Xavier Saint had walked out on her.

It had been a different wound then, five long years ago. A knife instead of a bullet. She’d been utterly helpless at the deranged hands of a serial killer and again when the only man she’d ever loved had told her she was damaged, toxic. She’d made a vow to herself that she would never again be helpless, never again be vulnerable.

She would never let herself be dependent on someone else for safety or love.

And that’s what it had been, she thought, fingering the medallion she wore around her neck. A gift from a lover. Even though she loathed the man who gave it to her, she couldn’t bear to part with it. A lucky charm, a superstition. And as long as no one knew what hung on that long chain dangling between her breasts, what harm could it do?

She would never understand why Xavier left. Not after watching the footage of her brutal attack. It had taken her months before she felt strong enough to face the visual evidence of the night that had cost Waverly her heart and very nearly her life. The screams, the headlights, the knife.

And then Xavier, tenderly curling over her, blocking out the rest of the world so he could whisper his love for her over and over into her ear. He had killed for her, and then he had held her as if she were fragile glass. Tears and pleas slipping from him, gently, reverently. She remembered everything from that night.

He had loved her, and he had left her. That was all there would be to their story. She would never forgive him for conning her into opening up to him, to giving him her heart, only to destroy that fragile trust, that delicate confidence.

Her mother had been right about so many things, even in the depths of her alcoholism. Chasing happiness and love only lead to heartache. The real satisfaction in life came from pride in her successes. No one could take that away from her. She was in control of her effort and her outcomes. There would be no going back to helpless and vulnerable.

No matter how many times she dreamed that she was still in Xavier’s arms only to wake alone. Nearly every night, but she shouldn’t be thinking of Xavier now. She needed to be thinking of Dante.

How ironic, she thought. That neither of the men who had changed the course of her life was hers.