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'What the hell do you want?'
Kate Crawford kept the polite smile pinned to her lips as she confronted the man who had wrenched his front door open with an impatient snarl.
Framed in the doorway he appeared intimidatingly large, his broad shoulders and muscled chest straining the seams of a well-worn grey tee shirt, scruffy blue jeans encasing his long, power-packed legs. His short-cropped hair stood up in untidy spikes, as if he had been running his large, battered hands through the dark brown thicket, and his deeply tanned face was chiselled into tight angles of hostility.
In spite of his obvious bad temper he was devastatingly handsome, a potent combination of classic male beauty and simmering testosterone. In fact, he looked more like a professional athlete than a best-selling author who spent a good portion of his time sitting at a desk.
'Sorry to disturb you, but I wondered if I could borrow some sugar?' she said, lifting up her empty cup and watching the shock that had rippled across his sculpted features congeal into a shuttered wariness. She was suddenly glad that she was wearing a casual sundress rather than the tailored elegance that was her signature in the city. The last thing she wanted to do was look as if she had dressed to impress. She hadn't even bothered with make-up. After all, she was now officially in holiday modethe old-fashioned, do-for-yourself, bucket-and-spade, sand-in-the-sandwiches type of holiday, the kind that she had never had as a child.
'I've just moved in next door,'she explained pleasantly, affecting not to notice his stony silence as she waved her free hand towards the beach-front property on the other side of the low,neatly clipped boundary hedgea small, ageing wooden bungalow, which was dwarfed by the modern, two-storeyed, architect-designed houses that had sprouted up on the two adjoining sections.
'I'm renting the place for a month, and thought I'd brought everything I needed with me, but when I went to make myself a cup of coffee I realised I'd forgotten one of the basics,' she continued with a rueful lift of her slender shoulders. 'I know there's a general store a few kilometres back but, well I've just spent four hours driving down here from Auckland and I'd rather avoid having to get back in the car for a while. So, if you wouldn't mind tiding me over until tomorrow, I'd appreciate it; and of course I'll pay you back in kind '
She kept her voice steady, confident that she looked a lot more composed than she felt. Although she was only a little taller than average, the willowy curves, elegant bone structure and haughty facial features that Kate had inherited from her undemonstrative mother helped project an air of cool sophistication and graceful poise, regardless of her inner turmoil. It had never mattered to her mother if the serenity on display was only skin deep. Strong emotions were ruinous to logical thought processes, and therefore to be discouraged. An ambitious criminal lawyer determined to be the youngest woman appointed to New Zealand's judicial bench, Jane Crawford had wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but Kate had proved a severe disappointment on all fronts. A gentle and imaginative child, she had worked hard at school for only average results and had acquired neither the academic credentials nor the desire to compete with her brilliant, perfectionist mother. In quiet rebellion she had chosen to follow a totally different career path, one that had proved unexpectedly successful and wholly satisfying.
However, at times like this she was thankful for those chilly early lessons in rejectionthey had built up her emotional independence and equipped her to face scathing criticism and hurtful rebuffs with a calm resilience that frustrated her opponents.
If she had been relying on the world-famous author to play the gallant hero to her damsel-in-distress routine she had obviously chosen the wrong man, she thought wryly. As a storyteller, his speciality was constructing tough, gritty, anti-heroes who were rude, crude and lethal to knowliterally so where female characters were concerned. His creations, much like the man himself, were usually loners, alienated from society by their cynical mistrust of their fellow human beings and stubborn refusal to play by the rules.
Now that he had mastered his initial shock, the gorgeous, dark brown eyes were smouldering at Kate with angry suspicion.
No one was supposed to know where Drake Daniels sequestered himself to write his hugely successful thrillers. He lived mostly out of hotel rooms when he wasn't writingpartying up a storm, generating all the publicity his publisher could wish for on a merry-go-round of talk-shows, book-signings and festivals and special eventsostensibly enjoying his peripatetic lifestyle to the full. But sandwiched between the bouts of public hyperactivity were intervals of total anonymity. Every now and then he would drop out of sight for periods ranging from a few weeks to several months, and each year there would be a new novel on the shelves to delight his fans and confound his critics. To Kate's frustration, a lot of the readily available information about him had turned out to be cleverly placed disinformation. Even his publisher and agent had claimed not to be privy to where in his native New Zealand his private bolt-hole was located. It had taken a great deal of determination, cunning and several strokes of unbelievable luck to finally track him down to the sleepy fishing and farming community of Oyster Beach, tucked away on the east coast of the upper Coromandel Peninsula.
Kate raised her delicately arched brows along with the proffered cup in a gentle hint that she was still waiting for his response, but just as he seemed about to break his stony silence her complacency was shattered by the sound of a throaty feminine voice floating out from the cavernous hall behind him.
'Who is it, darling?'
Kate barely had time to glimpse the tall, voluptuous redhead in a short white towelling robe before the tall masculine figure turned away, blocking her view with his broad shoulders.
'Nobody.' As he spoke he kicked the door closed with his heel, leaving Kate blinking at the honey-gold panels of oiled timber.
For a moment she merely stood, stunned by his insulting dismissal, the blood thundering in her ears. Then she forced herself to walk away, her stomach churning like a washing machine.
Get over it. Move on.
She had done what she came to do. Fired the first shot in her personal little war. There was an old saying that a man surprised was half beaten, so by that measure she could consider herself well on the way to success. But now that she had sacrificed the element of surprise she needed to regroup her defences.
Her flimsy sandals crunched on the crushed-shell path as she retraced her steps along the side of the house with measured strides, resisting the urge to disappear in a cowardly short cut over the low hedge.
The few metres of sandy lawn between the sprawling rear deck of the house and the public beach seemed to take for ever to traverse, but Kate maintained her unhurried pace, acutely conscious of the burnished bank of tinted windows that angled around the back of the house on both upper and lower floors, affording the occupants a clear view of the three-kilometre beach as far as the mouth of the tidal estuary.
Were they watching her retreat, or had they already returned to whatever it was they had been doing before the unexpected interruption? The desire to look back over her shoulder was almost overwhelming, and it took an effort of will for Kate to cling to her feigned air of indifference.
As she reached the lip of the beach a slight, salty breeze riffled through her sun-streaked, caramel-brown hair, sending a few of the long, layered strands feathering across her slender throat. She paused to brush them back, tunnelling her hand under the rest of the silky-straight mass and flipping it free from the textured cotton bodice of her sundress to ripple down between her tense shoulder blades, welcoming the fan of air against the self-conscious burning at the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes narrowed against the splinters of late-afternoon sunlight reflecting off the shifting sea as she tried to gulp in some much-needed oxygen and ease the tightness in her chest. Boats rocked gently at their moorings out in the sheltered bay and, even though it was a glorious spring day and the tide was fully in, the narrow strip of beach was all but empty.
Oyster Beach was only just being discovered by the eager developers who had swallowed up large tracts of coastal land farther south and regurgitated them as fashionable beach resorts. With Auckland only a few hours'drive away, the cove was being promoted as the latest 'unspoiled' getaway for jaded city dwellers. Expensive new holiday houses sporting double garages and en suite bathrooms were starting to muscle in on the simple beaches and old-style family homes on their large, flat water-front sections and up in the sheltering hills 'lifestyle blocks'were being shaved off the fringes of productive farmland.
At present the permanent local population was only a few hundred, but that number ballooned to thousands over Christmas and New Year when the schools were out for the long summer break and the pressure on holiday accommodation and facilities was intense. Kate knew that her timing had been serendipitous because November was exam-time at New Zealand high schools and universities. If she had been a few weeks later she would have had little chance of finding anywhere in Oyster Beach for rent, let alone right next door to her quarry. Even the local camping ground was booked out several months in advance for the height of the summer.
At any other time Kate might have been inclined to linger and drink in the tranquillity of the scene in front of her, but at the moment all she could think about was making it back to the sanctuary of her temporary home.
Half-buried boulders wrapped in plastic netting shored up the grass bank at the edge of the beach, protecting the valuable, low-lying land along the foreshore from being eaten away by storm surges. Kate stumbled as she made the short jump down onto the powdery white sand and discovered that her knees were seriously wobbly. Her hands and feet felt cold and heavy at the end of her limbs and her ears had started to ring. She was, she realised with grim awareness of the irony, suffering some of the classic effects of shockalthough she had been the one supposedly delivering the jolt!
She stepped back up onto the coarse, springy grass on her side of the hedge and huffed a sigh of relief when her shaky legs proved equal to the task. Moving a little more quickly, she sought the shadow of the creaking verandah and slipped in through the sliding glass door that she had left open to the fresh air.
'Gee, that went really well,' she muttered to the empty house, her fingers whitening around the empty cup as she relived those awful moments of hot humiliation when the door had slammed shut in her face. She had been tempted to storm off vowing never to speak to him again, but she was a mature, twenty-seven-year-old woman, not a sulky, self-absorbed teenager. She had questions to ask and a responsibility to uphold and, as her mother was so fond of telling her, failure was not a viable option!
She put the cup down on the kitchen table and flexed her angry fingers. Realistically speaking, what else had she expected? Drake Daniels had a reputation for freezing off people who became importuning and she had just doorstepped him like a crazed fan, or member of the despised paparazzi. Given his reclusive work habits, she should consider herself lucky that he had opened the door at all.
On the bright side, at least she now had confirmation that she was in the right place at the right time. When she had put her money down for the holiday rental she had been acting as much on gut instinct as on the elusive facts, although her instincts had certainly led her astray in one important aspect: she had not expected to have to cope with a mystery redhead as well as an angry author. Naively, perhaps, she had believed the myth that he crafted his compelling stories in total seclusion.
But that was what she had come here for, wasn't it? To separate the man from the myth? To explore his true character, not just the parts of him that he wanted people to see. Even if it was a truth she found hard to stomach.
She had to get a grip on herself, and not jump to hasty conclusions. Perhaps the woman was a visiting relative, although her research hadn't turned up any mention of living family members.
The slippery coils of nervous tension that had been shifting in her belly all day suddenly tightened, and a rush of saliva into her dry mouth gave Kate just enough warning to make it into the roomy, old-fashioned bathroom before vomiting up the small salad roll that she had made herself eat at a roadside café on the drive down. So much for thinking that it would calm her uneasy digestion!
Kate rinsed the sourness out of her mouth at the basin and dabbed a little refreshing cold water onto her face, dewing her cheeks. Without make-up to emphasis her ghostly silver-blue eyes and narrow mouth she should have looked pallid and uninteresting, but the age-spotted mirror above the basin was reassuring. One of the few positive legacies she had inherited from her irresponsible, absentee father was a honey-gold complexion that only needed a slight touch of the sun to deepen to a tawny glow. New Zealand was experiencing an unseasonably hot spring, and the meteorologists were predicting more of the same warm, dry weather in the coming weeks, so, if this holiday proved a disastrous mistake in every other way, at least she could return home with a tan that would be the envy of her work-bound housemates, Kate thought wryly.
She flicked her layered fringe aside from its central parting, smoothing it down from her temples to rest alongside the high cheekbones that gave her pale eyes their faintly feline tilt. She accepted that she wasn't beautiful, like her glacial blonde mother, but her sharply etched features were nicely symmetrical, and some men found her unusual eye colour attractive rather than off-putting. Her smile was her secret weapon; when genuine it bestowed a warmth that vanquished the natural aloofness of her expression. She practised it now, to give her wavering spirits a cheerful boost. If you look confident, you'll act confident, was another of her mother's bracing maxims, along with aggressive creed, Don't get mad, get even!
Purged of her energy-sapping queasiness, Kate suddenly found herself feeling peckish. She fossicked amongst the fresh supplies she had unloaded into the fridge and ate a pottle of yoghurt and some hummus and rice crackers while she waited at the bench for the electric kettle to boil. As she tried to keep her mind from fretting over her next move her gaze swept around the clean but shabby, open-plan kitchen, a far cry from the upscale, central Auckland town house she shared with her friend Sara, and Sara's cousin Josh. The appliances here were all basic models, functional rather than stylish, probably installed when the house was built. The green clocked wallpaper, faded Formica bench and patterned vinyl flooring looked original, too, but what would have seemed highly trendy three decades ago were now sadly dated. She had barely given herself time to unpack before she had trotted out on her abortive begging expedition, but her impression was that the whole place could do with a facelift. The three-bedroom weatherboard house was well-maintained but there was no sign of any attempt at expansion or renovation over the years, and Kate guessed that its present owner had inherited or bought it with the intention of keeping it as a landbank.
The kettle burbled and Kate occupied herself with the mundane task of making a cup of tea. She discarded the sodden tea bag in the sink and added a splash of milk, stirring it in with unnecessary force as her thoughts returned to the complicated tangle her life had become. Choices that had once seemed clear and simple were now fraught with danger, she thought, staring out the kitchen window at the gnarled pohutukawa tree whose grey-green leaves blocked out the concrete palace that was in the final stages of completion on the other side of the chain-link fence. She hoped that she wasn't about to get strangled in the web of deceit she had been busily weaving.
She raised the steaming cup to her lips for her first sip when a sudden, intangible sizzle of tension in the air made her stiffen. She jerked around, her heart leaping up into her throat as she realised she was no longer alone.
Standing silently in the arched opening between the kitchen and the living room, looking no more friendly than he had a few minutes earlier, was Drake Daniels.
She hoped he put her little choke of dismay down to the hot tea that had spilled onto her fingers. 'What are you doing in here?' she demanded, switching hands to shake off the burning droplets, disgusted to hear that her voice was high and breathless rather than cool and clipped.
'The door was open,' he said, jerking his head in the direction of the verandah. 'I took it to mean that you were expecting me to follow you '
'It's open because the house is hot and stuffy,'she snapped. She knew she should play it cool, but the sarcastic words came spilling from her lips before she could stop them: 'What the hell do you want?'
His dark eyes glinted. He placed a small plastic container down on the Formica table, centring it with a mocking precision. 'I brought you the sugar you said you needed.'
'Oh.' Kate hugged her tea defensively to her chest as she wrestled with her conscience. 'Thank you,' she said begrudgingly, knowing full well that his meekness was a sham.
Sure enough, as soon as she had humbled herself, he unsheathed his sword.
'So, tell me: are you going to leave when you find out you're wasting your time here? Or is it going to take men in white coats and a restraining order to get rid of you?
'Are you stalking me?'