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There was a lot to be said for spending a day sitting beneath a striped blue and white beach umbrella on a little Greek island. Serena Comino, however, had been sitting beneath this particular beach umbrella every day for five months nowrenting fifty cc motorbikes to tourists and there wasn't a lot to be said about it any more.
The view never changed, as glorious as it was. The faces of the tourists changed with each docking ferry but their desires stayed the same. Get wet, lie on a beach, rent a Vespa, eat Nothing ever changed.
Five months. Only one more month to go until she returned to Australia and the Greek-Australian arm of the family, or better yet didn't return home to the family bosom at all. Serena leaned back in the rickety director's chair until the front two legs left the ground, her eyes shaded by sunglasses, her head tilted towards the vivid blue sky beyond the umbrella. Maybe it had grown somewhat more interesting in the last five minutes. A passing cloud, a bird, a plane.
'Who suggested this?' she muttered.
'Your father,' said an amused voice from the direction of the goat track behind her. The track started at the edge of the village and meandered up the hillside, past her grandparents' rambling whitewashed cottage, and on to the road above, where Serena and the Vespas spent the better part of the day.
'Sad, but true.' She turned her head, a minimal movement, and offered up a smile for Nico, her cousin on her father's side, which meant the Greek side. The details weren't important, they were related. And it was their turn to pull carer duty for their eighty-two-year-old grandparents, not that they needed nursing care, for they were in remarkably good health. No, truth was, she and Nico were here to run the business enterprises Pappou refused to surrender. Nico's working day started at four a.m. on the fishing trawler and finished around lunchtime. Serena's started at nine, finished at five or six, and didn't involve fish. She still thought she had the better deal. 'Lunchtime already?'
'If you wore a watch you'd know.'
'I can't wear a watch any more,' she countered. 'Once upon a time when I had places to go and things to do I wore a watch. Now it's just too depressing. What's for lunch?'
'Greek salad, calamari, and Gigia's pistachio baklava.'
Okay, so there were some advantages to small Greek islands after all. She sat up, the front two legs of her chair hitting the dirt with a thud, and looked around to see why Nico hadn't taken his usual seat in the chair beside her.
He wasn't alone. A tall black-haired man stood beside him with the body of a god and a smile guaranteed to make any woman look twice. Serena only looked once but made up for it by taking her time. Not Superman, she decided finally. Superman was square of jaw and neat as a pin. Wholesome.
This man was what happened when Superman took a walk on the wild side.
'Do you fly?' she asked him.
'I knew it. Women can sense these things.'
'What's she talking about?' he said to Nico. He had a great voice. Deep. Dreamy. Amused. Australian.
'Does it matter?' she countered. 'Are we caring about that?' She sent him a smile she knew damn well could make a man tremble. He countered by removing his aviator sunglasses to reveal eyes as bright and blue as the sky above. Impressive. She stared at him over the top of her sunglasses to see if the tint was making them brighter than they actually were.
'Rena, this is Pete Bennett. Pete, my cousin Serena. Her heart is pure. Much to the family's dismay, the rest of her is pure sin.'
'Serena.' Pete Bennett's smile was lazy, very lazy, his eyes appreciative without being bold. Superman-for-bad-girls knew women. Knew how to woo them, knew exactly how to play them. Always a bonus. 'That's quite a combination.'
Serena felt her smile widen. 'So I'm told.'
Sighing, Nico shoved the lunchbox in her line of sight and when that didn't draw her attention away from the delectable Pete Bennett he stood in front of her and blocked the view completely.
'Thank you,' she said begrudgingly as she reached for the lunchbox.
'You're welcome,' countered Nico dryly, everything about him telegraphing a warning about flirting with handsome strangers, even ones he'd just introduced.
Nico was all Greek and wholly protective of the womenfolk in the family. Serena was half Australian and born and raised in Melbourne, and his protective streak rankled even as it amused her. 'So ' Given that the flying one wasn't here for her entertainment he was probably here for business. She put the lunchbox beside the chair, got to her feet, and set about taking care of it. 'Care to rent a Vespa, Pete Bennett?' He looked like a man who appreciated a lick of speed. Not that a fifty cc two stroke was going to provide a great deal of that. 'It just so happens I can let you have the second fastest bike on the island.'
'What happened to the fastest bike?'
'That would be my ride.'
'He's not here for a bike,' said Nico.
'Then why is he here?'
Pete Bennett answered the question himself. 'I'm looking for a room.'
'Tomas's room,' added Nico.
Tomas was the grizzled old charter helicopter pilot who had first claim on the bedsit at the back of her grandparents' cottage whenever his customers elected to overnight on the island. 'Tomas's helicopter landed first thing this morning and hasn't left yet,' she countered. She knew this on account of her close personal relationship with the sky. 'What happens if he wants to stay over?'
Tomas is in hospital with his leg broken in two places,' said Pete. 'I'm filling in for him for a time.'
'Oh.' Serena felt a slow smile begin to spread across her face again, she couldn't help it. 'You really can fly. As in forty-five minutes to Athens. Five hours to Rome. I'm very impressed. Why didn't you say so earlier?'
'I did,' he said, and to Nico, 'How long has she been here?'
'Too long.' Nico eyed her narrowly. And she doesn't always stay in the shade.'
Pete Bennett's lips twitched and Serena favoured both men with a narrow eyed glare of her own. 'The shade is the size of a postage stamp. This island is the size of an envelope. You sit here for five months solid and see how well you cope.'
'I offered to swap,' said Nico. 'I offered to mix it up. A day on the boat here and there, but no ' He shook his head sadly. 'The daughter of a Melbourne fishmonger with family holdings that include three trawlers, six seafood outlets, and two restaurants, and she doesn't like fish.'
'You don't eat fish?' asked Pete Bennett.
'Wash your mouth out,' she said. 'I just don't like catching and preparing fish, that's all. Gutting them, scaling them, boning them, that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with eating them. We do a lot of that around here.' But back to business. 'So you want the same deal as Tomas?'
'That's the plan,' he said. 'If it's all right by you, that is. Nico wanted to run it past you before he agreed.'
'Fine by me.' Serena slid her cousin a sideways glance. 'You didn't need to ask.'
'He's younger than Tomas,' said Nico with a shrug.
'And single,' said Nico.
Serena felt her lips tilt. The good news just kept coming.
'Might set tongues wagging, what with the grandparents away and me leaving for work so early in the mornings,' said Nico next.
There was that. But she was feeling rebellious when it came to the gossip mafia. She'd done nothing but behave since coming to the island and still the gossips watched her every move as if she were about to run amok at any minute. 'Let them wag.' She eyed Pete Bennett speculatively. 'Although we may need to tweak the deal somewhat to preserve my honour and accommodate your youth. I usually make Tomas's bed up for him. You can make your own.'
'Oh, that's cruel.' Pete Bennett shook his head and turned to Nico. 'I thought you said she had a good heart?'
'I lied,' muttered Nico. 'Take it as a warning. Women are cruel, as cruel as the sea and twice as unforgiving. Sirens all of them, luring innocent men to their doom.'
Definitely not Nico's usual take on the world. Usually Nico embraced the notion that women were there to be cared for. He had a sweet streak a mile wide, did Nico. Thoughtfully, Serena studied her cousin. He looked much the same as usual. Same kind brown eyes, strong handsome face, and sinewy body. The unhappiness lurking within those eyes, however, ran deeper than usual. 'You've been arguing with Chloe again,' she deduced finally. Chloe ran the island's largest hotel and was the bane of Nico's otherwise peaceful island existence.
'Did you hear me argue?' Nico asked Pete. 'Did I make any comment whatsoever that could be construed as an argument?'
'Nope,' said Pete with a shake of his head. 'You did not.'
'Uh-huh,' she said. 'So what exactly weren't you arguing about?'
Nico scowled. 'The usual.'
Which meant they'd been arguing about Chloe's nephew, Sam. No quick fixes there. 'How bad was it?'
Nico looked away, looked out to sea. 'Breeze is picking up. Figure I'll take the catamaran out this afternoon. Don't wait dinner for me.'
Bad. 'I'll save you some,' she told him. 'And make sure you eat it when you come in.'
Nico looked back at her and this time his smile did reach his eyes. 'Tomorrow I'll bring you another beach umbrella. A bigger one.'
He would too. 'And dinner with pilot Pete here? Shall I feed him or send him down to the village?' Tomas usually ate with them. Pilot Pete might have other ideas.
'I trust him.' Nico shot a warning glance in Pete's direction. A man of honour would not abuse my hospitality.'
Are you a man of honour, Pete Bennett?' she asked him.
'I can be,' he said with another one of those lazy grins that made breathing a challenge.
'I'll dress platonic,' she told him. Honourable or not, she was looking forward to his company at dinner.
'Appreciated,' he murmured.
'Dinner's at seven,' she said as a pair of likely customers rounded the bend of the road and headed towards them. 'The kitchen door's the one on the other side of the courtyard, directly opposite your door. The picnic table in the middle of the courtyard's the dining room.' She slid him a parting smile and started towards the tourists, trying to gauge where they were from. Their top-of-the-line Mercedes-quality sandals and backpacks were a dead giveaway. 'I'm thinking German,' she muttered.
'Dutch,' countered Superman, sotto voce.
They'd soon find out. 'Yassou, Guten mittag, Goede middag,' she said cheerfully.
'Goede middag,' they responded with wide white smiles, Dutch all the way to the tips of their German-made sandals.
Pete Bennett settled into the granny flat out back of the little white cottage on the hill with the ease of someone with wanderlust in his soul and no fixed address.
He'd been born and raised in Australia and he still called it home, no question. It was home to childhood memories, good and bad. Home to working memories too, some of them uplifting and some of them downright tragic. Not that it was the memories that had driven him away from Australian shores. No, he wouldn't say that.
He preferred to call it exploring his options.
Pete showered away the dirt of the day beneath a lukewarm drizzle from an ancient showerhead and dressed casual in loose khaki trousers and a white T-shirt. If the goddess could dress platonic then so could he. Besides, it was the only change of clothes he had. He checked his watch, not quite seven, grabbed his damp towel from the bed, and stepped outside, heading for the single strand of washing line strung between two poles.
Movement at the edge of the grassy garden area warned him that he wasn't alone. A small boy with black hair, big eyes, and a narrow, pinched face stood at the edge of the garden. The same boy Nico had taken under his wing down at the fishing dock earlier that day until the fiery-eyed Chloe had come for him. 'Nico's not here,' he told the boy.
'Doesn't matter,' said the boy with a shrug, finding a home for his hands in the pockets of his ratty board shorts. 'Looking for you.'
Pete slung his towel over the line and reached for a peg, wondering just why the kid would be looking for him. The boy would get around to revealing what he wanted sooner or later. That or head back to wherever he'd come from. 'You've found me.'
'You saw what happened earlier,' said the kid after an awkward pause. 'I thought maybe you could talk to my aunt.' The last word was dragged from his mouth as if he resented the family connection with every fibre of his being. 'You know ' added the kid when he stayed silent. ' Chloe. It's not as if wanting to work on a fishing boat is a bad thing. She oughta be glad I want to pay my own way.'
'How old are you, kid?'
The boy scowled. 'Eleven.'
Small for eleven. But the eyes were older. Pete thought of the luscious Chloe, who'd torn strips off Nico's hide earlier that afternoon when she'd caught the boy helping him unload the day's catch. Thought of the way Nico had listened in stoic silence, his silence giving the boy hope and his eyes promising Aunt Chloe retribution in the not too distant future. 'Why would your aunt take any notice of me?' Why for that matter was she riding herd on him instead of his parents? 'I'm a stranger here.'
The kid shrugged. 'She might.'
'Why not ask Nico to talk to her? He knows you. Hell, he knows you and your aunt.' And all the politics involved. 'I'm assuming it's Nico's boat you want to work on?'
The kid nodded. 'She won't listen to Nico. All she does is fight with him.'
'But you you got no percentage either way.'
'She'd listen to you without getting angry about other stuff.'
Pete ran a hand around the back of his neck and looked to the sky for inspiration. The boy reminded him of his younger brother just after their mother's death. He had that same mix of defiance and vulnerability about him and it got to him, caught at him, and tugged at memories best forgotten. 'The way I figure it, you still have a few years of schooling left before you can leave. The way I figure it, going to school is non-negotiable.'
The boy's scowl deepened.