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It was the burst of beauty that caught Darius unaware. He didn't regard himself as a man vulnerable to beauty. Efficiency, ruthlessness, financial acumen, these things could be counted on.
He'd been driven to hire a helicopter on the English mainland and fly five miles across the sea to the little island of Herringdean. Since it was now his property, it made good sense to inspect it briefly on his way to an even more important meeting.
Good sense. Cling to that, since everything else had failed him.
But the sudden vision of sunlit sea, the waves glittering as they broke against the sand, stunned him and made him press closer to the window.
'Go lower,' he commanded, and watched as the helicopter descended, sweeping along the coast of Herringdean Island. From here he could study the place with a critical eye.
Or so he believed. But there was no criticism in the glance he turned on the lush green cliffs, the golden beaches; only astonished pleasure.
The cliffs were sinking until they were only a few feet higher than the beach. He could see a large house that must once have been elegant, but was now fast falling into disrepair. In front of it stretched a garden leading to a plain lawn, close to the sand.
In the far distance were buildings that must be Ellarick, the largest town on the island: population twenty thousand.
'Land here,' he said, 'on that lawn.'
'I thought you wanted to fly over the town,' the pilot protested.
But suddenly he yearned to avoid towns, cars, crowds. The beach seemed to call to him. It was an unfamiliar sensation for a man who wasn't normally impulsive. In the financial world impulsiveness could be dangerous, yet now he yielded with pleasure to the need to explore below.
'Go lower,' he repeated urgently.
Slowly the machine sank onto the lawn. Darius leapt out, a lithe figure whose fitness and agility belied the desk-bound businessman he usually was, and hurried down to the beach. The sand was slightly damp, but smooth and hard, presenting little threat to his expensive appearance.
That appearance had been carefully calculated to inform the world that here was a successful man who could afford to pay top prices for his clothes. a few grains of sand might linger on his handmade shoes but they could be easily brushed off, and it was a small price to pay for what the beach offered him. Peace.
After the devastating events that had buffeted him recently there was nothing more blessed than to stand here in the sunlight, throw his head back, close his eyes, feel the soft breeze on his face, and relish the silence.
So many years spent fighting, conspiring, manoeuvring, while all the time this simple perfection had been waiting, and he hadn't realised.
Outwardly, Darius seemed too young for such thoughts; in his mid-thirties, tall, strong, attractive, ready to take on the world. Inwardly, he knew otherwise. He had already taken on the world, won some battles, lost others, and was weary to his depths.
But here there could be a chance to regain strength for the struggles that lay ahead. He breathed in slowly, yielding himself to the quiet, longing for it to last.
Then it ended.
A shriek of laughter tore the silence, destroying the peace. With a groan he opened his eyes and saw two figures in the sea, heading for the shore. As they emerged from the water he realised that one of them was a large dog. The other was a young woman in her late twenties with a lean, athletic build, not voluptuous but dashingly slender, with long elegant legs. Her costume was a modest black one-piece, functional rather than enticing, and her brown hair was pinned severely back out of the way.
As a man much pursued by women, Darius knew they commonly used swimming as a chance to parade their beauty. But if this girl was sending out any message to men it was, I wear what's useful, so don't kid yourself that I'm flaunting my body to attract you.
'Can I help you?' she cried merrily as she bounced up the beach.
'I'm just looking round, getting the feel of the place.'
'Yes, it's wonderful, isn't it? Sometimes I think if I ever get to heaven it'll be just like this. Not that I expect to go to heaven. They slam the gates on characters like me.'
Although he would have died before admitting it, the reference to heaven so exactly echoed his own thoughts that now he found he could forgive her for interrupting him.
'Characters like what?' he asked.
'Awkward,' she said cheerfully. 'Lots of other things too, but chiefly awkward. That's what my friends say.'
'Those friends who haven't been driven away by your awkwardness?'
He indicated the house behind him. 'I believe that belongs to Morgan Rancing.'
'Yes, but if you've come to see him you've had a wasted journey. Nobody knows where he is.'
Rancing was on the far side of the world, hiding from his creditors, including himself, but Darius saw no need to mention that.
She stepped back to survey him, a curious look in her eyes. Then it vanished as though an idea had occurred to her, only to be dismissed as impossible.
'You're lucky Rancing isn't here,' she observed. 'He'd hit the roof at you bringing down your machine on his land. Nobody's allowed on his property.'
'Does that include this beach?' he asked, regarding the fences that enclosed the stretch of sand.
'It certainly does.' She gave a chuckle. 'Be a sport. If you see him, don't say you caught me on his private beach. He disapproves of my swimming here.'
'But you do it anyway,' he observed wryly.
'It's so lovely that I can't resist. The other beaches are full of holidaymakers but here you can have it all to yourself; just you and the sun and the sky.' She flung out her arms in a dramatic gesture, smiling up at him. 'The world is yours.'
Darius nodded, feeling a curious sense of ease at the way her thoughts chimed with his own, and looked at her with renewed interest. Despite her boyish air, she wasn't lacking in feminine charm. There was real beauty in her eyes, that were large and deep blue, full of life, seeming to invite him into a teasing conspiracy.
'That's very true,' he said.
'So you won't tell him that you saw me on his private beach?'
'Actually, it's my private beach.'
Her smile vanished. 'What do you mean?'
'This island is mine now.'
'Rancing sold it to you?' she gasped.
Without knowing it, she'd said the fatal word. Rancing hadn't sold him the island, he'd tricked him into it. In a flash, his goodwill towards her vanished, and a stubborn expression overtook his face. 'I told you it's mine,' he said harshly. 'That's all that matters. My name is Darius Falcon.'
She drew a quick breath. 'I thought I'd seen your face before, in the newspaper. Weren't you the guy who?'
'Never mind that,' he interrupted curtly. He knew his life, both private and business, had been all over the papers, and he didn't like being reminded of it. 'Perhaps now you'll tell me who you are.'
'Harriet Connor,' she said. 'I have an antique shop in Ellarick.'
'I shouldn't think you get much trade in this place,' he said, looking around at the isolation.
'On the contrary, Herringdean attracts a lot of tourists. Surely you knew that?'
The question, How could you buy it without knowing about it? hung in the air. Since he wasn't prepared to discuss the ignominious way he'd been fooled, he merely shrugged.
From behind Harriet came a loud yelp. The dog was charging up the beach, spraying water everywhere, heading straight for Darius.
'Steady, Phantom,' she called, trying to block his way.
'Keep him off me,' Darius snapped.
But it was too late. Gleeful at the sight of a stranger to investigate, the dog hurled himself the last few feet, reared up on his hind legs and slammed his wet, sandy paws down on Darius's shoulders. He was a mighty beast, able to meet a tall man face to face, and lick him enthusiastically.
'Get him off me. He's soaking.'
'Phantom, get down!' Harriet cried.
He did so but only briefly, hurling himself at Darius again, this time with a force that took them both down to the ground. As he lay helplessly on the sand, Phantom loomed over him, licking his face and generally trying to show friendliness. He looked aggrieved as his mistress hauled him off.
'Bad dog! I'm very cross with you.'
Darius got to his feet, cursing at the wreck of his suit.
'He wasn't attacking you,' Harriet said in a pleading voice. 'He just likes people.'
'Whatever his intentions, he's made a mess,' Darius said in an icy voice.
'I'll pay to have your suit cleaned.'
'Cleaned?' he snapped. 'I'll send you a bill for a new one. Keep away from me, you crazy animal.'
He put up his arm to ward off another encounter, but Harriet threw her arms protectively around the dog.
'You'd better go,' she said in a voice that was now as icy as his own. 'I can't hold him for ever.'
'You should know better than to let a creature that size run free.'
'And you should know better than to wear a suit like that on the beach,' she cried.
The undeniable truth of this soured his temper further, leaving him no choice but to storm off in the direction of the helicopter. He guessed his pilot had seen everything, but the man was too wise to comment.
As they lifted off, Darius looked down and saw Harriet gazing at the machine, one hand shielding her eyes. Then Phantom reared up again, enclosing her in his great paws, and at once she forgot the helicopter to cuddle the dog, while he licked her face. So much for being cross with that stupid mutt, Darius thought furiously. Clearly, he was all she cared about.
He thought of how he'd stood on the beach, alone, peaceful for the first time in months, and how clumsily she had destroyed that moment. He wouldn't forgive her for that.