Read an Excerpt
Elliott Garvey leaned on the bleached timber boardwalk like a seasoned stalker, watching the woman frolicking with her dog where the coastal rock slid down into the aquamarine ocean.
It didn't matter that this lookout and the long, sandy path leading to it were public, the map in his hands and the occasional sign wired to the fence lining the gravel track in this remote, picturesque spot reminded him very clearly that the property all around him was upper-case P private. So, technically, was the beach below. In fact, it barely qualified as a beach since- private or not-it was only about twenty metres long. More a cove, really, eroded out of the hard rock either side of it, protected and quiet.
Back home they'd have turned this into a boat-launching area, for sure. It was perfect for it.
Then again, back home they wouldn't have had anything even remotely like this. Where he was from, further north up the coast, the ruling landform was sand, not the stunning limestone rock forms of the Morgan property. The lookout under his feet 'looked out' over the cove about twenty metres away, as it happened, but its intended view was the spectacular Australian coastline beyond it. Rugged and raw and beaten to death by pounding seas in the off season.
But today the sea was flat and gentle.
His eyes dropped again.
Judging by the very determined way the woman was not looking up at him, she was either trying very hard to pretend he wasn't there, spoiling her serenity, or she wasn't supposed to be there. A tourist, maybe? That would explain the long cotton dress that she'd hiked up her bare legs instead of the swimsuit a local would have turned up in. And clearly this was a tourist who liked to travel with her dog. The soggy golden retriever bounded around her, barking and celebrating life in a shower of droplets, and the size of the lead bundled in the woman's right hand suggested her dog was a handful most of the time. But right now it just circled her excitedly as she danced.
Danced? More flowed, really. She practically ebbed in time with the soft waves washing onto the beach and retreating again, her feet lightly skipping in the wet sand. The wet bottom of her long summer dress wanted to cling to her legs, but she kept it hiked up, out of the way, as she splashed in and out of the water with her movements. Dipping and twisting and undulating her whole body to music he couldn't hear.
Out of nowhere, a memory surged into his crowded mind. Of him and his mother, the only trip they'd ever taken away from the city when he was about eight.
He'd hung his lean little body half out of the open window of the car she'd borrowed from a friend, overwhelmed to be doing something as exciting as leaving the city, hand-surfing on the wind that whipped past. Riding the current, rising and dipping on it with both hands. Dreaming of the places it would take him if only he were light enough to catch its updraft.
Just as that woman was dancing. There was no wind to speak of down below in the protected little cove, but that didn't seem to cause her the slightest trouble as she moved on air currents no one else could feel. Not him. Not the still coastal wildflowers lining the tiny sandy strip. Not the barely interrupted surface of the water.
Just her, her dog and whatever the heck drugs she must be on to put her in such a sublimely happy place.
Elliott used his camera lens to get a surreptitious look at her while pretending to photograph the bigger view. Her long hair was as wet and stringy as the golden retriever's, and not all that different in colour, and the water from it soaked anywhere it touched: the fabric of her strappy dress where it criss-crossed her breasts like a bikini top, the golden stretch of her bare shoulders, her collarbones. It whipped and snapped as she circled in the retreating water, her head tipped back to worship the sun, staring right up into it for a moment.
He adjusted the lens just slightly.
The paleness of her skin and the liberal dusting of freckles across it fitted perfectly with the strawberry blonde hair. Maybe if she did this less often out in the harsh Western Australian sun she'd have fewer marks on her skin. But then, maybe if she did this less often she wouldn't have that smile on her face, either. Blazing and almost too wide for the pointed shape of her jaw.
He lowered the lens and stepped back, conscious, suddenly, of his intrusion into her private moment. As he did so, the weathered timber under his left foot creaked audibly and the retriever's sharp ears didn't miss it. Its sandy snout pointed up in his direction immediately, joyous barking suspended, and it crossed straight to the woman's side. She stopped and bent to place her free hand reassuringly on the dog's shoulder but-luckily for Elliott-she didn't follow the direction of its intent stare.
Not waiting to be busted, he retreated down the lookout steps and along the path to the gravel track where his luxury car waited. The only car here, he suddenly realised.
Ah, well, if Little Miss Lives-Life-on-the-Edge liked to take that skin outside at noon, trespass on private property and stare directly into the sun, then she was probably illegally camped around here somewhere, too.
Either way ? Officially none of his business. He was here to talk the Morgans into taking their company global. Not to police their perimeter security for them.
He had one more shot at this. One more chance to eclipse bloody Tony Newton and his questionable success and get the vacant partnership. Being good- or even great-at your job was no longer enough. He needed to be astounding at what he did in order to win his spot on the partners' board and cement his future. And Morgan's was the brand to do it. Newton was too busy schmoozing his cashed-up tech and dotcom clients to notice what was right under all their noses-that Morgan's was about so much more than honey. Whether the board realised it or not. And if they didn't ?
That was okay. That was what they had him for.
'What is a "realiser" exactly, Mr Garvey?' Ellen Morgan asked him politely an hour later, studying his slick business card.
Falling straight into his corporate patter was second nature. 'Realisers are charged with the responsibility of identifying clients with potential and then helping them realise that potential.'
'That's a strange sort ofjob, I'd have thought,' announced Robert Morgan as he marched into the living room with two cups of coffee to match the one his wife already cradled and handed one to Elliott.
'It's a speciality role. A different focus to my colleagues'.'
Ellen didn't quite bristle, but offence tickled at the edges of her words. 'You believe we have unrealised potential here, Mr Garvey? We consider ourselves quite innovative for our industry.'
'Please, call me Elliott,' he repeated, despite knowing it was probably pointless. He wasn't in with them yet. 'You absolutely are innovative. You dominate the local market and you're top three nationally-' if they weren't a company like Ashmore Coolidge wouldn't touch them '-and yet there's always room for growth.'
And profit. And acclaim. Particularly acclaim.
'We're honey farmers, Mr Garvey. One of a multitude in the international marketplace. I'm not sure there's room for us overseas.'
As if that was all they were, and as if their operations weren't perched on one of the most stunning and sought-after peninsulas on Western Australia's ten-thousand-kilometre coastline.
But it wasn't the local market that interested him. 'My job is to help you make room.'
'By nudging someone else out?' Ellen frowned.
'By being competitive. And ethical. And visible.' Currently they were only a twofer.
'You think the enormous sun on our packaging fails to stand out on the shelf?'
The new voice was soft, probing, and very much rhetorical And coming from the doorway.
Elliott turned as Helena Morgan walked into the room. Ellen and Robert's daughter and reputedly the talent behind Morgan's ten-year surge to the top-
His eyes dropped to the sandy, damp golden retriever that galloped in behind her.
-and also the woman from the beach.
Of course she was.
All the rapport he'd built with the parents since arriving suddenly trembled on whether or not Helena Morgan realised he was the one who had been watching her with her wet dress clinging to her body earlier.
If she did he was dead in the water.
But she didn't comment, and she didn't even glance at him as she crossed into the kitchen, trailing elegant fingertips along the benchtop until she reached the extra coffee mug Robert Morgan had left out. For her, presumably. As tactics went, her dismissal was pretty effective.
'I'm not talking about shelf presence,' Elliott said in his best boardroom voice, eager to take back some control. 'I'm talking about market presence.'
'Wilbur!' Ellen Morgan scolded the dog, who had shoved his soggy face between her and her coffee for a pat. He wagged an unremorseful tail. 'Honestly, Laney.'
The woman made a noise halfway between a whistle and a squeak and the dog abandoned its efforts for affection and shot around the sofa and into the kitchen to stand respectfully beside Helena.
The nickname suited her. Still feminine, but somehow earthier.
'Our customers know exactly where to find us,' Laney defended from the kitchen.
'Do new ones?'
She paused-the reboiled kettle in one hand and two fingers of the other hooked over her coffee cup edge-and looked towards him. 'You don't think we do well enough on the ones we have?'
One Morgan parent watched her; the other watched him. And he suddenly got the feeling he was being tested. As if everything hinged on how he managed this interaction.
'All markets change eventually,' he risked.
'And we'll change with it.'
She poured without taking her eyes off him, and his chest tightened just a hint as steam from the boiling water shimmied up past her vulnerable fingers. That was a fast track to the emergency room. But it certainly got his attention.
As it was supposed to.
'But we've never been greedy, Mr Garvey. I see no reason to start being so now.'
Her use of his name gave him the opening he needed as she walked back into the living room with her fresh coffee. 'You have the advantage of me.'
Half challenge, half criticism. And formal, but not out of place; she had a very regal air about her. The deliberate way she moved. The way she regarded him but didn't quite deign to meet his eyes.
'Apologies, Mr Garvey,' Robert interjected, 'this is our daughter and head apiarist Helena. Laney, this is Mr Elliott Garvey of Ashmore Coolidge.'
She stretched her free hand forward, but not far enough for him to reach easily. Making him come to her. Definite princess move. Then again, the Morgans did hold all the power here. For now. It was a shame he had no choice but to take the two steps needed to close his hand over her small one. And a shame his curiosity wouldn't let him not. Maybe her skin wasn't as soft as it looked.
Though it turned out it was. His fingers slid over the undulating pads of hers until their palms pressed warmly and his skin fairly pulsed at the contact.
'A financier?' she said, holding his hand longer than was appropriate.
'A realiser,' he defended, uncharacteristically sensitive to the difference all of a sudden.
And then-finally-she made formal eye contact. As if his tone had got him some kind of password access. Because he was taller than her-even with those legs that had seemed to go on for ever down at the beach-her looking up at him from closer quarters lifted her thick lashes and gave him a much better look at deep grey irises surrounded by whites of a clarity he never saw in the city.
Or in the mirror.
Healthy, fresh-air-raised eyes. And really very beautiful. Yet still not quite there. As if her mind was elsewhere.
Some crazy part of him resented not being worthy of her full attention when this meeting and what might come out of it meant so much to him. Perhaps cautious uninterest was a power mechanism on the Morgan property.
'I studied the proposal you emailed,' she said, stepping back and running the hand that had just held his through her dog's wet coat, as if she was wiping him off.
'And it was very interesting.'
'But you aren't very interested?' he guessed aloud.
Her smile, when it came, changed her face. And instantly she was that girl down by the beach again. Dancing in the surf. The mouth that was a hint too big for her face meant her smile was like the Cheshire Cat's. Broad and intriguing. Totally honest. Yet hiding everything.
'It sounds terrible when you say it like that.'
'Is there another way to say no?'
'Dozens.' She laughed. 'Or don't you hear it very often?'
Her parents exchanged a momentary glance. Not of concern at their daughter's bluntness, rather more speculative. She ignored them entirely.
'I'd like to learn more about your new processes,' he risked, appealing to her vanity since their new processes were her new processes. 'And perhaps go further into what I have in mind.'
She dismissed it out of hand. 'We don't do tours.'
'You'll barely notice me. I'm particularly good at the chameleon thing-'
Two tiny lines appeared between brows a slightly lighter colour than her still damp hair and he realised that wasn't the way in either.
'And your Ashmore Coolidge health-check is due soon anyway. Two birds, one stone.'
That, finally, had an impact. So Laney Morgan was efficient, if nothing else. His firm required biennial business health-checks on their clients to make sure everything was solid. By contract.
'How long? An hour?' she asked.
His snort surprised her.
'A day, at least. Possibly two.'
'We're to put you up on no notice?'
Who knew a pair of tight lips could say so much?
'No. I'll get a room in town '
'You will not,' Ellen piped up. 'You can have a chalet.'
He and Laney both snapped their faces towards her at the same time.
'You have accommodation?' That wasn't in their file.
Ellen laughed. 'Nothing flash-just a couple of guest dwellings up in the winter paddock.'
That was the best opening he was going to get. Staying on the property, staying close, was the fastest way to their compliance he could think of. 'If you're sure?'
Laney's face gave nothing away but her voice was loaded with meaning. Too late. The offer was made. A couple of days might be all he needed to get to know all of the Morgan clan and influence their feelings about taking their operation global.
'Thank you, Ellen, that's very generous.'
Her face gave nothing away, but Helena's displeasure radiated from the more subtle tells in her body- her posture, the acute angle of her neck, as if someone was running fingernails down a chalkboard on some frequency the rest of them couldn't hear. Except her dog couldn't hear it either-he'd flopped down behind the sofa, fast asleep.
'Laney, will you show Elliott up to the end chalet, please?'
That sweet, motherly voice wasn't without its own strength and it brooked no argument.
When Laney straightened she was back to avoiding eye contact again. She smiled with as few muscles as possible, the subtext flashing in neon.
She made the squeak noise again and her dog leapt to attention. She turned, trailed her hand along the back of the sofa and then around the next one, and reached for the cluster of leather he'd seen in her hand down at the beach from where it now hung over the back of a dining chair. As she bent and fitted it around the crazy, tearaway dog it totally changed demeanour; became attentive and professional. Then she stood and held the handle loosely in her left hand.
And everything fell into place.
The death-defying coffee pour. The standoffish outstretched hand. The lack of hard eye contact.
Laney Morgan wasn't a princess or judgmental- at least she wasn't only those things.
Laney Morgan-whom he'd seen dancing so joyously on the beach, who had taken a family honey business and built it into one of the most successful in the country, and who had just served him his own genitals on a plate-couldn't see.