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'That's it! That's the one we want! Stop wasting time, you idiot, and take it!' The camera clicked the second before the bird took off from its rock and flapped away over the crystalline water. 'Didn't think I'd let you get away, did you?'
From her vantage point on the rocky hillside overlooking the shingle beach Kayla Young swung round with a swish of long blonde hair, embarrassed that someone might have overheard her. There was nothing but a warm wind, however, passing over the craggy scrubland, and the relentless sun beating down from a vividly azure sky, and Kayla's shoulders drooped in relief.
She wasn't sure when she had first started talking to herself. Perhaps coming away all by herself to this lovely island wasn't doing much for her sanity, she thought, grimacing. Or perhaps it was a defence mechanism against the knowledge that today, back in England, the man she had thought she'd be spending her life with was an hour away from marrying someone else.
The wounds of betrayal were no longer so raw but the scars remained, and in defiance of them Kayla brought the SLR's viewfinder to eye level again. Only her clamped jaw revealed the tension in her as, silently now, she appraised the beauty around her.
Misty blue mountains. Translucently clear water. Surprisingly hunky Greek
She'd been following a line inland, coming across the deserted beach, but now Kayla brought her viewfinder back to the shoreline in a swift doubletake.
Bringing her camera down, she could see him clearly without the aid of the zoom lens, and she found herself homing in on him with her naked eyes.
Black wavy hairwhich would have been way past his collar had he been wearing onefell wildly against the hard bronze of his neck. In a black T-shirt and pale blue jeans he was pulling fishing tackle from the wooden boat he had recently beached, and from the contoured muscles of his arms, and the way the dark cotton strained across his wide muscular chest, Kayla instantly marked him as a man who worked with his hands. A battered old truck was parked close to her rock, on the road just above the beach, and as the man started walking towards ittowards herKayla couldn't take her eyes off him.
For some reason she couldn't quite fathom she lifted her camera to zoom in on him again, and felt an absurd and reckless excitement in her secret survey. A few days' growth of stubble gave a striking cast to an already strong jaw, mirroring the strength in his rugged features. They were the features of a man toughened by lifea man who looked as fit as he was hard. A man not much more than thirty, who would probably demand his own way and get itbecause there was determination in that face, Kayla recognised, as well as pride and arrogance in the way he carried himself, in the straight, purposeful stride of those long legs.
A man one definitely wouldn't want to mess with, she decided, with a curious little tingle down her spine.
She could see it all in every solid inch of himin the curve of his tanned forehead and those thick winged brows that were drawing together now in a scowl because.
Dear heaven! he was looking up! He had seen her! Seen her pointing the camera straight at him!
As her agitated finger accidentally clicked the shutter closed she realised the camera had caught himand, as he shouted something out, she realised that he was aware of it too.
She stood stock-still for a second as he quickened his stride; saw him moving determinedly in her direction.
Oh, my goodness! Suddenly she was pivoting away with the stark realisation that he was giving chase.
Why she was running, Kayla didn't know. Surely, she thought, it would have been better to stand her ground and brazen it out? Except that she hadn't felt like brazening anything out with a man who looked so angry. And anyway, what could she have said? You caught my eye as I was sizing up the view and I couldn't stop looking at you.
That would really have been asking for trouble, she assured herself, with her blood pounding in her ears and her legs feeling heavy. She darted an anxious glance back over her shoulder and saw the man was gaining on her now, along the stony uphill path that led to the safety of the villa.
And why had she been looking at him anyway? she reprimanded herself. She had had enough of men to last her a lifetime! It could only have been because he had an interesting face; that was all. Apart from that she wouldn't have looked twice at him if he had rowed across that water accompanied by a fanfare. She had learned the hard way that men were just lying, cheating opportunists
Tripping over a stone, she struggled to keep herself upright, hearing her pursuer's footsteps bearing down on her.
Too late, though. She came a cropper on the hard and dusty path and lay there for a few moments, winded and despairing, but surprisingly unharmed.
She heard the pound of his footsteps and suddenly he was there, standing above her. He was breathing hard, and his tone was rough as he tossed some words at her in his own language.
Utterly awestruck by the speed at which he must have run to have caught up with her, Kayla raised herself up on her elbows, her hair falling like pale rivers of silk over her shoulders.
Having little more than a few words of Greek to get by with, she quavered, 'I don't understand you.' Like him, she was breathless, and shaken by his anger as much as her fall.
He said something else that she couldn't comprehend, while a firm hand on her shoulderbare save for the white strap of her sun toppulled her round to face him.
Up close, his features were even more arresting than she'd first imagined. His cheekbones were high and well-defined under dark olive skin. Thick ebony lashes framed eyes that were as black as jet, and his brooding mouth was wide and firm.
'Are you hurt?' His question, delivered roughly in English this time, surprised her, as did that small element of concern.
'No. No thanks to you,' she accused, sitting upright and brushing dust off her shorts, trying to appear less intimidated than she was feeling.
'Then I will ask you again. What do you think you were doing?'
'I was taking photographs.'
Kayla swallowed, fixing him with wary blue eyes. 'No, of a bird. I snapped you by accident.'
'Accident?' From the way one very masculine eyebrow lifted it was clear that he didn't believe her. His hostile gaze raked over her the pale oval of her face. 'What is this accident?' he emphasised pointedly.
His anger hadn't cooled. Kayla could feel it bubbling just beneath the surface. Despite that, though, his voice had a deep, rich resonance, and although his English was heavily accented his command of her language was obvious as he demanded, 'Exactly how many did you take?'
'Only the one,' she admitted, her breathing still laboured from that chase up the hillside. 'I told you. It was an accident.'
'Well, as far as I'm concerned, young woman, it was one accident too many. Exactly who are you? And what are you doing here?'
'Nothing. I mean, I'm on holidaythat's all.'
'And does the normal course of your holiday usually include sticking your nose into other people's business? Spying on people?'
'I wasn't spying on you!' From the way those accusing ebony eyes were studying her, and from the suspicion in his voice, Kayla began to experience real fear. Perhaps he was on the run! Wanted by the police! That would go some way to explaining his anger over being photographed. 'My camera ?' Trying to hide her misgivings, she glanced anxiously around and spotted the expensive piece of equipment lying in the scrub nearby.
Stretching out in a bid to reach it, she was dismayed when the man leaped forward, snatching it up before she could.
'Don't damage it!'
He looked angry enough, she thought. But her camera was something she treasured. A gift to herself to replace her old one after she had discovered Craig was having an affair. Some women comfortate. She went out with her camera and snapped anything and everything as a form of therapy, and over the past three months she had needed all the therapy she could get!
'Give me one good reason why I shouldn't?'
Because it was expensive! she wanted to fling back. And because it's got every photograph I've taken since I got here yesterday. But that would probably only make him more inclined to wreck it, if his mood was anything to go by.
'Perhaps I should simply keep it,' he contemplated aloud, his gaze sweeping over her still pale shoulders and modest breasts with unashamed insolence.
'If it makes you happy,' she snapped, needled by the way he was looking at her. But there was something about that gaze moving over her exposed flesh that produced a rush of heat along with a cautioning tingle through her blood. After all, she didn't have a clue who he was, did she? Supposing he really was wanted by the police?
A bird swooped low out of the pine forest above them, its frenzied shriek making her jump before it screeched away, protesting at the human intrusion.
For the first time Kayla realised just how isolated the hillside was. Apart from a cluster of whitewashed fishermen's houses, huddled above the beach at the foot of the mountain road, there was no other sign of human habitation, while the nearest village with its shop and taverna was nearly three miles away.
As she was scrambling to her feet a masculine arm shot out to assist her.
The sudden act of gallantry was so unexpected after all his hostility that Kayla automatically took the hand he was offering. It felt strong and slightly callused as he pulled her upright, bringing her close to his dominating masculinity. Disconcertingly close.
Her senses awakened to the outdoor freshness of him, to the aura of pulsing energy that seemed to surround him, and to an underlying masculine scent that was all his own.
Swallowing and bringing her head upin her flat-heeled pumps, she still only reached his shouldershe took a step back and said in a voice that cracked with an unwelcome tug of unmistakable chemistry, 'I'm not afraid of you.'
'Good.' His tone was terse, and still decidedly unfriendly. 'In that case you won't mind me telling you that I don't like interfering young women depriving me of my privacy. So if you want to enjoy your so-called "holiday",' he emphasised scornfully, dumping the offending camera into her startled hands, 'you'll stay out of my way! Is that clear?'
'Perfectly! And I can assure you, Mr Mr No-name,' she went on when he didn't have the decency to tell her. 'I've certainly got no wish to deprive you of anything. Least of all your privacy!' Deciding now that he was probably nothing more dangerous than a bad-tempered local, she pressed on, 'In fact you have my solemn promise that I'll do everything I can while I'm here to see that you maintain it.'
Kayla bit back indignation as he swung unceremoniously away, striding back down the path without so much as a glance back.
A few minutes later, coming up through the scrub below the modern white villa where she was staying, she heard the distant sound of a vehicle starting up, and guessed from the roughness of its engine that it was the truck she had seen parked at the head of the beach.
Kayla was still smarting from the encounter as she fixed herself a microwave meal that evening in the villa's well-equipped kitchen. With open-plan floors, exposed roof rafters above its galleried landing and spectacular views over the rolling countryside, the villa belonged to her friends, Lorna and Josh. Knowing how much she needed a break, they had offered Kayla the chance to get away for a couple of weeks.
She had barely met a soul since the taxi driver had dropped her off here yesterday, so why did the first person she bumped into have to be so downright rude?
Slipping the dish into the microwave oven, she stabbed out the settings on the control panel, her agitated movements reflecting her mood.
Still, better that he was rude than charming and lying through his teeth, she thought bitterly, her thoughts straying to Craig Lymington.
How easily she had fallen for his empty promises. She had believed and trusted him when he'd professed to want to be with her for life.
'He'll break your heart. You mark my words,' her mother had advised unkindly when Kayla had enthused over how the most up-and-coming executive at her company, Cartwright Consolidated, had asked her to marry him.
They had been engaged for two months, and Kayla had been deliriously happy, until that night when she'd discovered those messages on his cell phone and realised that she wasn't the only woman to whom he'd whispered such hollow and meaningless words.
'All men are the same, and the high-flying company type are the worst of the lot!' her mother had warned her often enough.
But Kayla hadn't listened. She'd believed her mother was simply embittered and scarred by her own unfortunate experience. After all, hadn't her own husbandKayla's fatherbeen a company executive? And hadn't he deserted her in exactly the same fashion fifteen years ago, when Kayla had been just eight years old?
Because of that and her mother's warnings she had grown up determined that the man she eventually decided to settle down with would never treat her in such an abominable way.
But he had, Kayla thought. And she had been rudely awakened and forced to admitto herself at leastthat her mother was right. They were the worst of the lot! It was a realisation doubly enforced when she had had to suffer the demeaning overtures of one or two other male members of management who had tried to capitalise on her broken engagement.
After leaving the company where she'd worked with Craig, trying to put the pain and humiliation of what he had done behind her, she might have been able to pick up the pieces of her life if she had been allowed to. But her mother's condescending and self-satisfied attitudeparticularly when she'd heard that Craig really was getting marriedhad made everything far, far worse.
Consequently when Lorna had offered her the chance of escaping to her isolated Grecian retreat for a couple of weeks Kayla had jumped at the chance. It had seemed like the answer to a prayer. A place to start rebuilding her sense of self-worth.
But now, as she took her supper from the bleeping microwave and prodded the rather unpalatable-looking lasagne with a fork, it wasn't thoughts of Craig Lymington that troubled her and upset her determined attempts to restore her equilibrium. It was the face of that churlish stranger she'd been unfortunate enough to cross this morning, and her shocking awareness of him when he'd pulled her to her feet and she'd felt the impact of his disturbing proximity.
Leonidas Vassalio was fixing a loose shutter on one of the ground-floor windows, his features as hard as the stones that made up the ancient farmhouse and as darkly intense as the gathering clouds that were closing in over the mountains, warning of an impending storm.