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Zach Jones stood in the shadows of a lush potted palm in a dark corner of the Waratah House lobby, narrowed eyes locked on the figure skipping down the wide stone steps leading away from the main building of the Juniper Falls Rainforest Retreat.
There weren't many reasons why his resort staff would contact him directly, ever, his reputation being that he was akin to a bear with a sore tooth at the best of times. That was as kind a character reference he could have hoped for, considering his years of unequivocal lack of co-operation with the press.
Despite all that, the rumoured arrival of the woman currently whipping off her cap and trying and failing to tuck her mass of dark curls beneath it had been deemed important enough to give the bear a nudge.
The bear was thankful they had.
After his daily run, he'd lain in wait for her to show her face. In the end he'd missed out on that privilege. She'd scooted through the lobby, head tipped down. Nevertheless, he'd recognised her in an instant. There wouldn't be many a red-blooded man in this corner of the world who would not.
Even though she was dressed down in shorts, vest top, sneakers and cap rather than her usual society princess razzmatazz of designer frocks and diamonds, there was no mistaking her. Not with those sexy dark curls, that hourglass silhouette in miniature, the kind Zach couldn't help imagining just begged for fifties-style dresses and high heels to make the most of it, and the ridiculously confident, rock-and-roll sway of those infamous hips.
The woman who'd sent his staff into a tizz the moment she'd zoomed up to the front gates of the resort earlier that week in a growling red convertible filled with designer luggage and equally designer friends was none other than Meg Kelly.
'Dammit,' he said loud enough a group of guests heading out the doors gave him a sideways glance. He slid deeper into the shadows, a place he'd always found far more comfortable than being under any kind of spotlight.
Much less the kind of spotlight Meg Kelly seemed to carry on her person, such was her magnetism for the kind of rabid media attention usually reserved for royalty and rock stars. That kind of attention made her exactly the kind of guest most resort owners would give their right arm for.
Not him. Not now.
She disappeared for a moment behind a fat spray of red Waratah flowers and he felt himself leaning to catch her coming out the other side. He rocked himself back upright and planted his feet into the marble floor.
She popped out eventually only to bend from the waist to tug at the heel of what appeared to be brand-new sneakers, her shorts curving tight over her backside, her thigh muscles tightening, her calf muscles lengthening.
He glanced away, but not soon enough to stop the quickening in his blood. He ran a hand over his mouth, his palm rasping from the effects of three days' worth of stubble growth, and told himself it was the after-effects of his run.
He glanced back out of the window only to have his gaze catch on the sliver of pale, soft skin that peeked between the back of her shorts and her top Was that a tattoo?
His eyes flicked to the heavens and he drew in a deep breath through his nose, attempting to temper the swift kick of attraction.
Not her. And most certainly not now.
The little-known truth that he'd stayed put in the one place for the past few months, rather than jet-setting about the globe in a constant effort to exponentially expand his empire of international resorts, would be enticing news for the kind of gossip-hungry media for whom Meg Kelly was the poster girl.
As far as he was concerned they could all go jump. Not since he'd jumped off the merry-go-round of foster homes and orphanages he'd grown up in had he let anybody tell him who he was, who he was not, how low he might fall, or how high he dared reach. His successes and mistakes were only his own to judge.
And of all the successes and mistakes he'd ever accomplished in his life the reason why he was now stuck in the middle of nowhere was the most inviolable yet.
In fact, he'd missed a call from his 'reason why' already that morning, and now she wasn't answering the mobile he'd bought her specifically so they could always be in touch.
Then his man on the ground in St Barts had left a message saying the government was playing hard ball on signing off on the final inspections of his latest resort site. And then there was Meg. All that before the day had even officially begun.
He didn't see how this week could get any worse.
Meg couldn't imagine how her week could get any better.
'Ouch, ouch, ouch!' she barked as a blister spontaneously popped up on her right heel.
Okay, so a handy supply of Band-Aids might have made it ever so slightly better, but everything else was heavenly. She simply shifted her stance to compensate and breathed deep of the glorious fresh air, sunshine and fifty acres of beautiful resort and her world was close to perfection again.
The breath turned to a yawn, which turned into a grin, which she bit back lest she be caught laughing to herself in the middle of the patch of lawn in which she'd come to a halt. Apparently she'd already been declared AWOL by the gossip hounds today—she didn't need to add loony to the list.
A funny sensation skittered down her back. Years of experience gave her the feeling she was being watched. She did a casual three-sixty-degree turn, but in the early morning, the resort grounds were quiet and still and she was all alone. It was probably just the rising sun sending prickles over her pale skin, and teasing her curls into damp springs on the back of her neck.
Another deep breath, another blissful smile as she skipped onto the immaculate lawn, which she figured would be kinder on her feet.
If her big brothers could see her now—up and at 'em before the birds, in a jogging outfit of all things—they'd be in hysterics. She wasn't exactly built for the great outdoors and her way of life meant that the only time she ever saw a sunrise was when she'd yet to go to bed the night before!
But this week she wasn't Meg Kelly, socialite. This vacation was not about to turn into some last-minute Kelly Investment Group junket in disguise. This week, thanks to her angelic best friends, she was just a girl on a summer holiday.
Sure, when Rylie and Tabitha had turned up on her doorstep two days before, told her they'd cleared her schedule, shoved her into her car and demanded she drive them to a wellness resort high in the hills of the Gold Coast Hinterland, she'd had a moment or two of panic.
Events had been planned. People had been counting on her—dress designers she was meant to be wearing, charities whose events she was attending, local businesses she was turning out to endorse, the several staff she kept in gainful employ, the women and children at the Valley Women's Shelter. There was such inertia to her life it was almost impossible to bring it to any kind of halt.
But even after Tabitha had explained that the 'wellness' in wellness resort was more about detoxing one's life by way of eating granola and valiantly trying to put one's left ankle behind one's head while meditating thrice daily, and not so much code for cocktails, chocolate fountains and daily massages at the hands of handsome Swedes she'd soon begun to warm to the idea.
As the city lights had dropped away from her rear-view mirror and the scent of sea air had filled her nostrils the idea of getting away, of having one blissful, dreamy, stress-free, family-free, paparazzi-free, drama-free week had almost made her giddy.
Not that drama, paparazzi and family issues bothered her. They'd been par for the Kelly course from the day dot.
Though, when she thought about it, the past few months had been particularly dramatic even for her family—engagements, elopements, near-death experiences. The kinds of things that made the paparazzi that touch more overzealous, and a touch harder to avoid when she tried to sneak away for much-needed private time.
Meg shook off the real-life stuff creeping up on her and glanced back at the main building. Still no sign of the girls. Her girls. Her support crew. The ones who'd obviously sensed she was floundering just a very little even if she hadn't uttered a word. Girls who were right now both probably still fast slept in their snug, warm beds.
She headed off; this time with slower, shorter steps in the hopes the girls would catch up. Soon. Please!
A resort staff member passed, smiling. 'Good morning.' 'Isn't it just?' she returned.
His smile faltered and he all but tripped over himself as his neck craned to watch her while he walked away.
Meg's smile turned wry. So the cap and sunglasses and still-so-white-they-practically-glowed sneakers she'd bought from the resort's well-stocked shop the night before might not fool everybody as she'd half hoped they just might.
It had been a long shot anyway.
Meg stood happily at the back of the morning jogging group— primarily a group of middle-aged strangers in an impressive array of jogging outfits—collected on the track that ran along the edge of the overhang of thick, lush, dank, dark rainforest.
In an apparent effort at warming up, Tabitha lifted her knees enthusiastically high while jogging on the spot. Rylie, the Pilates queen, stretched so far sideways she was practically at a right angle. Meg, on the other hand, tried not to look as dinky as she felt without her ubiquitous high heels.
'Now that man is worth the price of admission all on his own,' Tabitha said between her teeth.
'Shh,' Meg said, only listening with half an ear as she tried to make out what the preppy, bouncy 'wellness facilitator' at the front of the large group was saying. 'Please tell me she didn't just say we're jogging four kilometres this morning!'
'She said five.'
Meg slid her sunglasses atop her cap and gaped at Tabitha. 'Five?'
'Five. Now pay attention. Hot guy at six o'clock. He's been staring at you for the past five minutes.'
'Not news, hon,' Rylie said, touching the ground with her palms and casually glancing between her legs before letting out a long, slow 'I take that back. This one is big news.'
Meg rolled her eyes. 'I'm not falling for that again.'
'Your loss,' Rylie said.
A husky note in her best friend's voice caught Meg's attention. 'Fine. Where?'
'Over your right shoulder,' Tabitha said. 'Faded T-shirt, knee-length cargo shorts, sneakers that have pounded some miles, cap he ought to have thrown away a lo-o-ong time ago.'
Rylie laughed, then gave Meg's leg a tug so her knee collapsed, turning her whether she wanted to or not.
Meg didn't even get the chance to ask Rylie what was so funny. She didn't need to. There was no way any woman under the age of a hundred and twenty was going to miss the man leaning against the trunk of one of the massive ghost gums lining the resort's elegant driveway.
He was tall. Impressively so. Broad as any man she'd ever met. His chin was unshaven, the dark curls beneath his cap overlong. With the colour of a man who'd spent half a lifetime in the sun and the muscles of a man who hadn't done so standing still, he looked as if he'd stepped out of a Nautica ad.
She tucked a curl behind her ear and casually bent down to tug at her ankle socks, not needing to look at the guy to remember exactly what she'd seen. Her hands shook ever so slightly.
He was the very dictionary definition of rugged sex appeal. For a girl from the right side of the tracks, a girl who was a magnet for stiff, sharp, striving suits, a girl whose planner had become so full of late she had to diarise time to wash her hair much less anything more intimately enjoyable, he was a revelation.
She glanced up as she stood. He hadn't moved an inch.
The skin beneath her skimpy clothes suddenly felt hot, and the fact that it was thirty-odd degrees and muggy had nothing to do with it. She was a Kelly, for Pete's sake. It took something extra extraordinary to make a Kelly sweat.
Though she couldn't see his eyes beneath the brim of his soft, worn cap, she could feel them on her. Her right shoulder tingled. The sensation moved up her neck. It finally settled in her lips. The urge to run her fingers across them was so strong she had to curl them into her palms.
Then he finally moved. He pressed away from the tree and shifted his cap into a more comfortable position on his head before crossing his arms across his chest. His strong, tanned, brawny arms. His broad chest.
She breathed in deep, releasing it on a long, slow, deli-ciously revitalising sigh.
What if this was what she needed more than even a holiday right now? More than granola or t'ai chi. More than early-morning jogs or internal reflection classes. A little bit of something for herself.
Could she? Should she? Considering every step and every misstep she experienced outside the walls of her family home somehow ended up being known by the whole country, it took something extra extraordinary for her to put herself out there. The lanky stranger who would not take his eyes off her was exactly that.
She took another deep breath, faced him square on and gave him an honest, inviting, unambiguous smile.
Needless to say, after all that build-up, it was more than a bit of a shock when she didn't get one in return. Nada. Not a twitch, a nod, not any kind of acknowledgement that he was paying her any attention at all.
Her cheeks heated from the inside out, her fingernails bit into her palms, and her lungs suddenly felt very, very small.
Meg fair leapt out of her skin when Tabitha leant on her shoulder and sighed. 'Imagine,' she said, 'if we hadn't kidnapped you to this place this moment never would have happened.'
'I'm trying my very best to imagine it right now,' Meg said on a mortified croak.
Pathetically late though the attempt at saving face was, Meg let her gaze glance off Mr Tall Dark and Silent Rugged Man, then up into the sky as if she were pondering the time and using the sun as her guide.
'I might well be seeing things,' Rylie said, finally upright and now staring brazenly at the silent stranger, 'but isn't that Zach Jones?'
Posted January 3, 2013