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Timidity was not an absolute measurement but a relative one. And therein lay the problem. Second youngest of the four West siblings, Poppy had never measured up to any of her nearest and dearest when it came to confidence and the conquering of fear. Didn't mean she was a mouse. Didn't mean she wasn't perfectly functionaljust that she preferred book-reading to skydiving and murmured agreement to heated argument. Nothing wrong with that.
Some might even call it sane.
Of course, there were also those who believed she was too shy for her own good and that she needed to step away from her work and get out more and make new friends. As if her admittedly small circle of friends wasn't enough. As if new friends just happened by on a daily basis.
Tomas was a friend. Cryptology mathematician and co-project manager, Tomas brimmed with confidence enough for both of them and he understood the language Poppy spoke best. Namely, code.
Tomas had also offered her the use of his private island on which to do some code breaking, with very few questions asked and only one small favour required in return.
Which had been good of him, she told herself over and over as she stepped aboard the Marlin III fishing cruiser and politely asked the skipper for a life jacket.
Very, very good of him.
So here she was, back in Australia, her country of birth, with only a boat ride across the open waters of the Pacific separating Poppy from her destination.
Poppy's spray jacket came off and the life jacket went on and then her jacket went back on over the top of that, never mind the skipper's silent amusement. The ocean was not her friend. They were about to travel across it. Nothing wrong with taking a few precautions.
Sunshine. Blue sky. Calm sea. Shiny big boat, manned by the best skipper the bustling Cairns marina had to offer. A boat fully outfitted with GPS and radar and whose skipper had filled out a travel plan sheet in his tiny office, right there in front of her eyes, and handed it to the office manager, who'd pinned it to a board behind her desk. A careful man who took precautionsnothing less would do.
So the journey had started out well, but the clouds moved in fast and so did the wind, and it was against them, making the trip longer, rougher and altogether more unpleasant as the minutes crashed on.
Not that skipper Mal seemed to mind. The lanky, blue-eyed sports-fishing operator proclaimed it an excellent day for a boat ride, and he should know, seeing as he'd worked the Marlin-fishing arm of the family's charter-boat business for the past twenty years. The only issue to concern Captain Mal was their destination.
'Seb knows you're coming, right?' he asked for the umpteenth time.
'Yes,' said Poppy for the umpteenth time. 'He knows.'
'Because I can't get him on the radio.'
'I know.' Mal had been trying to contact Sebastian Reyne every ten minutes for the past hour. Way to lessen anxiety there, Mal.
Fisherman Mal had also wanted to put a couple of Marlin lines out and strap Poppy into the fighting-fish chair on the way across, seeing as Poppy was already paying him top dollar for the run, but Poppy had disabused him of that notion fast.
'No, thank you,' she'd told him politely. 'I'm not big on game fishing.' Or any other fishing that required one to actually be on the water. 'I've read The Old Man and the Sea. I know how it goes.'
Mal had laughed and told her that the fishing process had moved on somewhat since then, but he hadn't pushed her, and around half an hour into their journey he'd finally twigged that Poppy had a quiet case of rapidly escalating terror on her hands.
'Problems with Seb?' he'd asked, eyeing her sharply as she stood behind him, as close as she could get to the man without assaulting her personal space limits or his.
'Not yet,' she'd said. 'Not that I know of. You know how some people have a fear of heights? I have one of open water. I look at the ocean and it's bottomless and the only way is down. I don't usually travel by boat if I can help it. Unfortunately, it's the only way to get to the island.'
'Couldn't Seb have come to you?' the skipper had asked, and Poppy had smiled at the man through her fear and edged a little closer.
'I'm not going there to see Seb. I don't even know the man.'
Poppy had lapsed into uncertain silence after that, and skipper Mal had ordered her up into the seat next to him and made her pour him a mug of coffee from a thermos, and one for her, too. He had sugar cubes on hand, the old-fashioned kind that horses loved, and he hadn't waited to see if she'd wanted any, just plopped three in her mug and told her to drink up.
He tried conversation, but she didn't have any to spare.
He tried putting music on, but his taste ran to heavy metal, the kind used to rev up the troops right before they opened fire or, conversely, went down in a blaze of glory.
'So what do you do for a living?' he asked. Casual conversation attempt number thirty-eight.
'I write mathematical code,' said Poppy. 'It comes in handy for securing online interactions and the like.'
'You mean cryptology,' said Mal and grinned when Poppy blinked. 'Same as what Tom does.'
'Yes.' Poppy nodded. 'Tomas and I work togetherwe're in business together. Hence the loan of the island.'
'You're sure Seb knows you're coming,' said Mal again.
'I'm sure.' But given that Mal wasn't sure, it probably wouldn't hurt to know a little more about Tomas's reclusive brother. 'Is there something you know about Tomas's brother that I should know?'
'Hard to say,' murmured Mal. 'What do you know about him so far?'
'I know he's wealthy,' offered Poppy. 'I know he and Tomas bought the island together and that Sebastian designed and built the house on it. But what does he do?'
'Whatever the hell he wants,' said Mal. 'As a rule.'
'I don't suppose you could be a little more specific?'
'Seb's a marine engineer. Heads up a company that runs maintenance on offshore oil rigs. Runs capping and clean-up operations as well. Whether he's running projects from the island is anyone's guess.' Mal turned those wise blue eyes of his in her direction. 'You do realise that no one but Seb lives on this island?'
'I do. But apparently there's a guest house as well as the main house. I'm to have the guest house. Tom's arranged with Seb for it to be fully provisioned. I don't see a problem.'
'In that case, you try getting Seb to answer.'
Poppy had no aversion to taking control of radio communicationsit helped keep her mind off the seemingly endless blue water all around them. But by the time they reached the island and docked the Marlin III at the sweetest little floating pier, nestled within the shelter of a picturesque horseshoe bay, they still hadn't raised a soul and Poppy's nerves had stretched spider-web thin.
'Seb's quad's here,' said Mal as he tossed her carryall onto the pier and leapt nimbly up beside it before turning back and holding out his hand to haul her uponly Poppy was busy taking the life jacket off and then putting her coat back on. She hesitated before taking skipper Mal's outstretched hand, only the tiniest of hesitations, but it was there and the man noticed it. Nothing personal, wariness was just her way, but she offered up a small, rueful smile of apology and brought out her manners and said, 'Thank you,' as he hauled her up beside him.
Land was Poppy's first thought. Solid, stable land, just a short walk away.
Her second thought concerned Mal's earlier remark. 'You said Seb's quad is here?'
'Over there behind the boatshed.'
'That's a boatshed?' she said of the long, narrow building that began on the beach and stretched a good fifty metres out over the water. 'Looks a little overde-signed.'
'Yeah, well, I'd keep that opinion to myself if I were you,' said Captain Mal dryly. 'It doubles as a warehouse and sometimes an emergency shelter. There's cot space in the loft, a decent-sized cruiser up on rails. I've sheltered there a time or two when the weather's run foul.'
Which the weather looked to be doing rather rapidly, thought Poppy with an anxious glance skywards. 'You're booked to collect me two weeks from today, right? Or earlier if I call you and we can arrange a time that suits. You're booked. I've paid.'
'You're booked, you've paid, and pickup's weather-dependent. Having said that, the forecast isn't showing any big bad.'
'Those clouds don't look big and bad to you?' she asked.
'Nah. They're nothing.' Skipper Mal reached for his pocket and pulled out his phone. Turned it on and showed her his screen saver. 'This is a cloud.'
No, Poppy was pretty sure that was a cyclone front. 'I'm glad you kept that picture to yourself on the way over. Were you out on the boat when you took it?'
Poppy shuddered. 'Better you than me.'
'You really don't like the ocean, do you?'
'No. Even inland rivers and lakes don't really work for me. But I'm very fond of baths.'
'You mean six inches of lukewarm water in a tub?'
'That's not a bath.' Poppy reached inside her coat pocket for her phone and scrolled through her photos for the rose be-petalled white stone glory of a bathhouse she'd visited in Turkey last year. 'This is a bath.'
Mal snorted. Poppy grinned. Captain Mal was okay. Captain Mal had got her here in one piece.
They reached the side door to the warehouse, a studded metal door with an oversized door handle and an equally impressive-looking lock. Mal greeted it with a loud fist.
No answer from behind the door. Mal reached for the door handle next. It wasn't locked. 'He's very trusting,' said Poppy. 'That he's not,' said Mal. 'Oy, Seb!' No answer.
They checked the warehouse area. They checked the space where a gleaming white cruiser sat up on rails. He wasn't in the tiny, untidy office.
They found him in the loft.
Sprawled out, face down on one of the cots as if dead to the world.
Mal sighed. Poppy just stared.
And it wasn't just because he had no shirt on.
Sebastian Reyne was not a small man.
His feet dangled over the edge of the bed, and his shoulders seemed almost too wide for it. His jeans clung lovingly to superbly muscled thighs and his butt was taut and round and altogether perfect. And then there was his back.
Sun-bronzed and magnificently proportioned to fit the rest of him, it was a study in the play of skin over musculature and the hills and valleys that came of it. Painters and sculptors would love Sebastian Reyne's back. They'd commit it to memory and drive themselves insane trying to capture every last nuance of its power and beauty.
It seemed only wise that Poppy too should commit such a study in masculine perfection to memory.
Just in case she ever decided to take up sculpting or painting.
His chest moved and from what little Poppy could see of his face beneath all that shaggy black hair, his colour seemed good.
An almost empty Scotch bottle lay on its side beside the bed.
Not dead, then.
Just dead drunk.
'Miss West, meet your host,' said comedian Mal as he reached down and gave the sleeping giant a nudge.
Seb groaned. Muttered something about Mal going away and the words he used were not from the book of manners.
Nothing Poppy hadn't heard before.
'Oy! Seb!' bellowed Mal, and shoved him in the shoulder. 'Package for you.'
'Leave it on the floor,' murmured Seb and his voice rippled over her, darkly delicious and heavy with sleep.
'Yeah, about that,' said Mal, and turned to Poppy.
'Comprehension could take a few minutes. Maybe you should wait in the office.'
'It's okay,' said Poppy mildly. 'I have brothers.'
'Brothers who go on benders?'
'Brothers who do what they want,' she countered quietly, and put her hands to her knees and bent low so as to see Seb Reyne's face. It was quite a face, stubble aside. It put her in mind of fallen angels and very bad boys.
Wouldn't hurt to commit his face to memory too.
'Mr Reyne? I'm Ophelia West. We've spoken on the phone. I'm Tomas's business partner. I'm here to do some work.'
Long, dark lashes lifted a millimetre or two before closing again, giving Poppy a brief glimpse of forest green.
'Am I dead?' he murmured. 'Not quite.' 'You sure?'
'I'm sure.' Poppy straightened and turned to Mal. 'I'm pretty sure he's going to say "Welcome to the island" next.'
Another curse. More of a whimper.
'Give me five minutes with him,' said Mal, and hauled a protesting Seb upright and headed for the door, and then the cove, and then the ocean, dragging the altogether larger Seb along with him.
Poppy stayed on the pier and watched as the pair headed across the sand and into the water until they were both waist deep in it, at which point Commander Mal unceremoniously let the other man go.
Doubtless that would've been her older brother's solution too.
Poppy leaned against the railing as Mal dunked Seb again, maybe to wash his mouth out this time, but eventually Mal waded back towards the beach and Seb waded into deeper water, scrubbing at his hair and disappearing beneath the surface with the sleekness of a seal.
Definitely not afraid of open water, that one.
'He won't be long,' said Mal when he reached her. 'Seb's had a rough time of it these past couple of months. He lost one of his business partners in an offshore rig explosion. Another one of his crew went deaf in the same accident. Seb blames himself. Did Tom not tell you any of this?'
'Not a word.' And there would be words between her and Tom about his reticence on the subject. Lots and lots of noisy, robust words.
'You sure you don't want to come back with me?' asked Mal. 'Find some nice little house on the mainland to hole up in?'
'Believe me, I would if I could.' Poppy cut her gaze towards her host, who was in the process of emerging from the ocean, torso bare and body beautiful. She could feel the pull of him from here, the sleekness and the sensuality, and it thrilled and terrified her in equal measure. 'Will I be okay here with him?'
'I can't see him physically harming you, if that's what you mean. Can't see him being overly polite either '
'What about the drinking?'
'It looks worse than it is,' said Mal flatly. 'He's not drunk. Just tired.' 'From doing what?' Watching the fish swim by? Poppy was used to indecision. Not knowing how to respond to a social situation. Not knowing which instinct to trustthe one that said go back to the mainland with Mal or the one that assured her she'd be safe with this man if she stayed.
Seb was Tomas's brother and Tomas was a friend. Tomas knew when to tease and he knew when to offer up support. He could be a touch protective of her at times. Surely he wouldn't have sent her here if he thought it unsafe? Surely his brother wouldn't be all that different?
Seb strode towards them as if he owned the placewhich he didand with a scowl on his face guaranteed to frighten small children.
The scowl didn't frighten her. What frightened her was her response to his nearness. The way she kept taking an invisible tape measure to those broad shoulders, made all the broader by the trimness of his waist. The way she automatically wanted to move closer to him rather than further away, never mind the kick in her pulse and the hitch of her breath. It was the bane of her social interactions, the amount of space she needed to put between herself and others. An arm's length at least. Preferably a table's length. Even with Tomas, whom she'd worked with for over two years now, she kept her distance.
Sebastian Reyne took one last step towards her; Poppy's instinctive step back should have been well and truly activated by now.
But it didn't come.