THE DARKNESS WAS SINISTER, lit with only bits of light from glassless windows covered by ragged fabric. Alleys curved like grasping fingers over the hillside, stretching across the slums in broken half streets of cracked concrete slick with rain.
Ellie had barely turned down the first alley before she knew she'd made a horrible mistake. She tripped on the uneven ground, tumbling into a tumult of taffeta skirts. She felt a sudden pain in her left wrist and an involuntary sob escaped her lips.
“Onde você está indo?”
A man came out of the shadows. Behind him, a younger man with blackened teeth jeered, looking her up and down. “Você está perdida, gringa?”
She didn't understand their words, but the insolent way their eyes stripped her naked screamed danger. Using her unhurt hand, she pushed herself up.
“Excuse me,” she whimpered, backing away. “I'll go…”
The younger man blocked her path, even as a third man appeared from the shadows. All three surrounded her, coming closer until she could see their leers in the semidarkness.
“What a pretty bride,” the first one said in heavily accented English. “I'll have that big diamond off your finger, gringa.”
Her hands trembled as she pulled off Timothy's engagement ring and threw it on the ground. She hoped it would distract them long enough for her to get away. She turned to run, but the younger man stopped in front of her. He gave her a smile, and she was close enough to see his missing teeth and smell his foul breath.
“Now,” the first man said in thick English behind her, “I'll have that dress…”
She screamed as the men closed in.
Suddenly, Diogo was between them, protecting her. He fought off the first man with a punch then a round kick, knocking them all back. The ferocity in his eyes, gleaming in the sharp burst of light as lightning crashed across the narrow bit of sky, scared her—even as she clung to him in the danger of the favela.
The older man pushed past the others, narrowing his eyes as he looked at Diogo with recognition. “Serrador,” he sneered, then spat on the ground. “Você está aqui em férias?”
“Sai fora, Carneiro,” Diogo said. His lip twisted as he added in English, “This woman is mine.”
The other man gave a harsh laugh as he motioned his companions forward. “You were stupid to come back here.”
Diogo moved swiftly, whirling against the three men, keeping Ellie carefully behind him. In a series of supple, acrobatic movements, he pushed his attackers back with one sweeping kick after another. He dropped into a one- handed cartwheel, kicking his opposite leg upward in a fluid, deadly blow that snapped back Carneiro's head. Diogo slammed into the second man with an elbow punch, and knocked the third to the ground with a crack of his skull against the man's forehead. Cursing him, the men stumbled away into the darkness.
Ellie turned with a pounding heart to watch them disappear into the shadows from whence they'd come. Then Diogo grabbed her shoulder, whirling her around.
“You little fool,” he ground out. “They'll be back with more. I should just leave you here!”
“Do it then!” she cried. “I'd rather take my chances with them instead of you!”
His hand tightened on her shoulder, spreading shock waves through her body. She forgot the pain of her wrist. Something started trembling deep inside her.
“You're eager to give your body to ten or twelve men?” he said furiously. “To be passed from one man to the next?”
She blanched at his crude suggestion. Then clenched her hands into fists. She wouldn't let him succeed in scaring her. “I want to go home!”
“Back to your lover?” he sneered.
“Timothy's not my lover!”
“But you are desperate to return to him—desperate enough to risk our child's life!”
“I would never risk our child!” she gasped.
“You ran away!” Lightning flashed again and she saw the dark fury in his eyes. “Do you know what would have happened if I hadn't found you in time?”
Aftershocks of terror washed over her. Diogo was right. She'd risked her baby's life!
“And all because you are so in love,” he said scornfully.
“I'm not in love with him! I was only going to marry him because I couldn't have you!” she cried out, then covered her face with her hands. “I just want—to—go ho-ome!”
Another flash of lightning crashed above them. She barely felt the rain pounding against her wet clothes and skin, barely heard the warm wind howling in her ears.
Then suddenly he took her into his arms.
“Shh, Ellie,” he whispered, tenderly kissing her temple. “It's all right. Everything is going to be all right.”
He held her close, caressing her tenderly. But his kindness only made her cry harder.
Diogo was right to be angry, she realized. What if he hadn't found her in time? What if he hadn't been able to save Ellie and their baby from her foolish decision to run into the slums? What would have happened to them—because of her?
“I can't believe I did it,” she whispered. “I put our baby at risk!”
“It's my fault,” he murmured against her skin. “I was wrong to scare you. You're safe now, querida. Both of you.”
He scooped her into his arms as if she weighed nothing at all. Both of them were wet with rain in the desolate gray alley of Rio's slums, and yet somehow, cradled against his chest, Ellie suddenly felt warm…and safe.
Maybe it really was going to be all right, she thought in a daze, looking up at his handsome face. Maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe she could trust him after all…
“Come, querida.” His expressive, dark eyes shone down at her. “Let me take you home.”
ELLIE'S EYES FLUTTERED OPEN. She saw bright morning sunlight sparkling on the waves of the ocean. Outside the car window, food vendors were opening colorful umbrellas on the white sand of Copacabana Beach. People were already gathering on the beach to work and play, wearing the tiniest of bikinis or even club clothes from the night before. Cariocas let nothing stop their pursuit of pleasure…just like Diogo.
She sat up straight, realizing to her horror that she'd fallen asleep on his shoulder. Not only that, but she'd even drooled a bit on his shirt!
“How—how long was I sleeping?” she whispered.
He smiled down at her. “About twenty minutes.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks went hot. She surreptitiously gave her mouth a wipe. What was wrong with her? She'd never fallen asleep around Timothy. Not once. Of course, he was a stable, steady, respectable guy. Her screwed-up instincts could apparently only relax cuddled up in the backseat of a Bentley with the dark playboy of the Western world!
I'm just tired, she told herself. Since she'd gotten pregnant, being tired was a constant state of existence. But why did the safe man make her tense—and the dangerous one make her feel so relaxed? There was something really, really wrong with her.
The Bentley pulled beneath the porte cochere of the Carlton Palace. Ellie looked up at the 1920s white- stucco landmark, a luxury hotel and condominium resort in elegant Louis-XV architecture like a wedding cake.
“Do you remember this place?”
Of course she remembered. She'd seen it constantly in her dreams: the place where he'd seduced her. The place where he'd made her drop every shred of decency she'd ever known, along with her clothes…
She shivered as heat flashed through her body, causing a bead of sweat to form between her breasts. “Yes.”
Once he took her upstairs, there would be no escape. He could do whatever he wanted to her. Anything. If he wanted to seduce her, she wouldn't be able to resist. He could just reach out and take her. She wouldn't be able to stop him.
If she wanted to stop him…
Getting out of the car, Diogo came around the Bentley to open her door himself.
“You said you were taking me home.” She looked up timidly. “This isn't my home.”
“I want it to be.” He held out his hand. “But you are wet and tired. We can discuss all that later. For now, you need rest, food, a hot shower.” When she didn't move, he said, “Please. Give me the chance to treat you with the care you deserve.”
A shower and breakfast sounded like heaven. But even more captivating was the smile he gave her as he held out his hand. That smile won her over as all the force in the world couldn't.
She looked down at his strong, muscular hand. He had thick, masculine forearms, laced with dark hair. The hand of a fighter. He'd already proven that. But it was also a hand that could make her lose her mind with his sensual, masterful caress….