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Trying to ignore the high thrum of the airplane engine, Sass leaned back against her seat and shut her eyes. She'd forced her shoulders into a semblance of relaxation but her hands remained clenched in her lap. Only another ten minutes.
Sass opened her eyes and looked into the sympathetic face of the woman across the tiny aisle. She tried to smile.
"I don't like flying too much."
Sass Walker was a terra firma kinda gal. She liked to feel the earth beneath her feet, preferably with a comforting layer of asphalt. She also liked maps and lists. Fine print was her forte, which made her great at her job. She liked order and control. Especially control. And right now this tin can of an airplane didn't feel at all controlled. Neither did her life.
The woman smiled. "Don't worry. It's really very safe."
The six-seater sure didn't feel it. Sass bet that if she punched the side, her fist would go right through.
"Besides, we're nearly there," the woman continued. "See, there's the harbor coming into view right now."
Every one of the six passengers had a window seat, and Sass forced herself to look out. Most people, she knew, would have been spellbound by the generous antipodean harbor surrounded by shaggy green mountains, but she was horribly jet-lagged and still smarting from life's unfairness.
Sass nodded. She saw the woman's gaze travel down her caramel Prada suit to her black Christian Loubou-tin pumps with their trademark red soles.
"I know who you are! You're the lawyer come to set up the tourist resort in Aroha Bay."
The heavy-jowled man diagonally in front of Sass spun around. "Come to destroy the bay, more like!"
"Oh, come off it, Reg, the town could do with a boost to its economy and you know it."
Inwardly Sass groaned. It was starting already, the dissidence she was here to calm. Kurt the Incompetent had ballsed up big-time, rushing in with multimillion-dollar schemes without consultation, without checking the facts, and now she'd been sent in to clean up the mess. And while she was exiled here at the Back-of-Beyond at the bottom of the world, Kurt would be smarming his way into the promotion she'd been killing herself with eighty-hour weeks, years on end, to win. All her frustration, her fury, now turned on New Zealand, though Sass was careful to smile.
"I'm just here to listen to what all you folks have to say. My company is concerned to discover there's local opposition to what they thought would be a wonderful business opportunity for Whangarimu."
"And it is!" the woman agreed.
The man scowled. "We don't need Americans coming in and taking over. It's a bloody disgrace. Did you see the plans? Amazon ruins in the middle of New Zealand forests? What did he call it—Jungle Paradise? Utter tosh."
The man had a point. Sass herself had been speechless when Kurt had unveiled his brainchild back in New York. Paradise Resorts prided itself on its theme-based holiday locations, and Kurt had seen the New Zealand forest as the perfect setting for a Mayan complex topped by a large "temple" casino.
The plane's shrill engine changed tone as it began its descent. Sass was deeply relieved to see the airport below; grateful not to have to continue the discussion any longer, grateful that this interminable trip of nearly thirty hours was over. She craved the silence of a hotel room, a hot shower and a glass of chilled white wine. Most of all she craved a cigarette.
Touchdown was soft, and within seconds the pilot had flung open the door of the plane and lowered the stairs.
"Welcome to Whangarimu!"
Knees wobbly, she stepped out of the plane. The brilliant late afternoon sunlight was like a slap in the face. She walked across the small runway toward a one-level building she assumed was the airport. Several people were gathered, waiting to greet the arrivals, and she searched for someone holding up a card with her name on it, Kurt having assured her she'd be met. Nada. Great, just great. She began to make her way to the counter when a hand on her arm waylaid her.
She didn't know who she'd been expecting, but certainly hadn't pictured a man who could tower over her, even when she was wearing her highest heels. She also hadn't expected such breadth of shoulders under his faded T-shirt or the green eyes, so startling against the tanned face.
"I'm Jake Finlayson."
Surprised and very wary, she asked, "As in one of the Finlayson brothers spearheading the protests?"
She took in his battered surf shorts, his tawny, salt-encrusted curls. His long legs. He must be the one who'd upended the scale model Kurt had presented at a town meeting three weeks earlier. The one who'd thrown Kurt out of the hall. The reason she'd been sent in Kurt's place.
"An act of lunacy," Kurt had explained to The Boys. "This Finlayson is a deadbeat surfer who rents a house on Aroha Beach. Nothing to worry about, he's a nobody."
Though it was amazing how quickly this nobody and his lawyer brother had whipped together enough ecological concerns to keep Paradise Resorts tied up in legal battles for months if not years. Was this guy here to bundle her back onto the airplane?
"I'm here to take you to your accommodation."
His voice betrayed no emotion, but he radiated hostility, and Sass was damned if she was going anywhere with a man who'd threatened to emasculate her colleague—however much he deserved it.
"That's very kind of you, Mr. Finlayson," she said brightly, "but don't you worry, I can manage by myself. If you tell me the name of my hotel, I'll take a cab."
The Kiwi raised one eyebrow. "Hotel? We were informed that you were insistent on staying out at Aroha Bay, despite the lack of facilities. Of course, seeing as your company owns the land now, you are entitled to be there."
Kurt! He was really out to get her on this trip. Already he'd failed to give her the files, with apologies for a crashed computer. He'd briefed her quickly, of course, but she knew he'd been holding out on her. He wasn't about to let her succeed where he'd failed.
Sass smiled tautly. "Seems like wires got crossed somewhere over the Pacific, Mr. Finlayson, but hey, no problem. I'll book into whichever hotel has a vacancy."
"Call me Jake. We don't stand on ceremony in New Zealand. I don't see what the problem is. Branston," he said, making the name sound like a swearword, "was explicit that you would be staying in the sleep-out at my house. It's right on the beach where you want to build your resort. He said you were very keen on getting the full ambience of the place."
Sarcasm and accusation were equally balanced. For a second Sass could only stare as the full extent of Kurt's perfidy dawned on her. He was sending her straight into the lion's den. Looking up at the implacable face in front of her, Sass saw that Kurt had, at the same time, revenged himself on his enemy, too. As low-down, dirty tricks went, it was pretty inspired.
Jake frowned. "Look, if you've changed your mind—"
"No, not at all."
She couldn't afford to seem indecisive, would have to bluff through for the moment, the best she could. Just wait till she got her hands on that conniving son of a bitch, though.
"That's fine," she added. "Of course it is. Great. Now, where's the baggage claim?"
"It's in the shed out back. I'll take you."
He led her around the tiny airport building to a shed where, in the gloom, she saw the other passengers sorting through the pile of luggage on a trolley.
"Which one's yours?" he asked. She pointed and he swung the large suitcase off easily. "Good, follow me."
"Wait. There's also that one, and that bag, too."
He didn't need to say anything; his expression said it all as he scooped up her other luggage. Well, she thought defensively, who knew how long she was going to be here? Also, not knowing what setup she was coming to, she'd packed outfits to suit every occasion. He didn't need to look like that!
Her current outfit, however, didn't fit this occasion. Jake led her to an open-topped Jeep where a large dog of indeterminate lineage presided in the front seat, tongue hanging out with the heat. Jake walked to the back of the vehicle, shifted a surfboard to one side and began throwing her suitcases in. Exhausted and bad-tempered as she was, Sass couldn't help noticing his easy athleticism. In another situation she might have found him attractive, sexy even, in a rumpled, outdoor man kinda way. But Sass never mixed business and pleasure. Besides, this guy was dangerous.
"I can move Gerty to the backseat if you like, but she leaves a shocking mess of hairs behind her. You might not want to get them on your clothes. It's your call."
Again, there was nothing overtly hostile in his manner, but Sass knew he resented her almost as much as she resented this whole damned country.
"No problem, I'll take the backseat."
It was a challenge. Sass pulled her tight skirt halfway up her thighs to scramble in. She wished she hadn't changed in Auckland, but it was her creed never to be seen tousled or crumpled. Her immaculate appearance was one of her strongest weapons—and defenses.
Jake swung himself into the front seat and adjusted the rearview mirror slightly. He surveyed her, his eyes cool, green and unwavering, like a knight staring through the visor of his helmet. Yet there were laughter lines, too. As she wriggled, trying to pull her skirt down to her knees, Sass wondered what he looked like when he smiled. The backseat was scorching and the seat belt metal burned as she buckled herself in. Her eyes were scratchy from the long flight and she narrowed them against the glare. Damned sunglasses were in her other bag.
In silence, they drove out of the airport and came almost immediately to a T-junction where the left-hand sign read, Whangarimu City Centre and the right-hand sign read, Whangarimu Heads. They turned right.
Jake watched her profile as she took in the scenery, and wondered how it would strike a stranger. The road hugged the contours of the harbor, threading through the myriad bays, each rimmed by a horseshoe of modest homes and with a cluster of small yachts bobbing on the late-afternoon tide. A seagull wheeled above with its hoarse, stuttering cry, and Jake's stomach churned at the thought of developers coming in to ruin it all. He blamed the Lord of the Rings movies for alerting developers from all over the world to the beauty of New Zealand. Locals didn't stand a chance against foreign currency, and coastal properties advertised on the Internet were now being snapped up at insane prices. That American braggart had bought Aroha Bay for a few million dollars in one brief visit. Money no object. People, place, nature of no concern. Well, Jake had got rid of him but it seemed the Americans were using a different sort of attack now. Easier on the eye, but this lady gave nothing away.
"Those are nice," Sass said, nodding at the huge, ancient trees that reached sprawling, gnarled branches out over the water's edge. Her accent was warm and made him think absurdly of honeysuckle and soft summer nights.
"They're pohutukawa. We call them our Christmas tree because they have red flowers in December."
"They're really something." Her hand was halfway to her handbag. "Mind if I smoke?"
"I do, actually. I hate the smell of smoke in the car."
Their eyes locked. The wind was whipping her long hair about her head, and the smell of dog punctuated the air. He knew she knew he was just being contrary.
"No problem," she said, and sat back, breaking eye contact and looking out over the water as though she didn't give a damn. It gave him a chance to examine her. Nobody should look that good after a thirty-hour flight. Her eyes were so blue, he wondered if she wore colored contact lenses. She had delicate bones, white-blond hair and a fair complexion.
"You'd better be careful," he said. "The sun here is fierce and you'll soon fry with that white skin of yours."
Her eyes met his. "Thanks for the warning, but I've come prepared for things to be pretty hot down here."
He knew she wasn't talking about the sun.
"Wise," he said. "Foreigners get burned very quickly."
Jake thought he saw her eyebrows arch slightly, a smile of challenge flitting across her face, but it might only have been the effect of sun and shadow from the overhanging trees flashing past.
"Don't you worry about me, Mr. Finlayson. I can take care of myself."
With that, she captured her flying hair and somehow twisted it into a knot, untidy but tamed.
"Jake," he corrected. "Where's your name come from? I've never met a Sass before."
"It's a nickname from Sasha."
"As in sassy?" he hazarded.
She laughed. "No, as in pain in the proverbial. I had two younger brothers who resented their bossy older sister. Our mom didn't allow cussing."
Their gazes met again. For a second he saw humor glimmer in her eyes, then Jake looked back at the road. He wasn't about to start liking her—Miss Pain-in-the.
They fell silent, and instead of trying for more lame conversation, he switched on the stereo, letting the Chili Peppers take them down the length of the harbor. Just as they were about to swing onto the dirt road leading to Aroha Bay, she called out, "Stop."
It sounded like "Staap." Jake pulled over and waited as the lawyer took stock. It was, he resentfully acknowledged, an idyllic location for a resort. The Jeep sat on the top of a long, narrow ridge that flattened and rounded into a small peninsula, ending in a long sand spit. The view was almost three-sixty, looking down the harbor on the right-hand side and over the open ocean on the left. It would suit all types of holiday-makers. Aroha Bay below them was flat and tranquil, offering safe swimming all year round. On the seaward side, waves unfurled with lazy uniformity right along the coast. On both sides pohutukawa clung to the cliff faces while flax bushes fanned the sands. The only sign of habitation was his dilapidated house near the beach. Jake wondered what Sass saw—the bay as it was now or some future travesty of it in her head.
"Aroha Bay is a pretty name. What does it mean?"
"Aroha is the Maori word for love." He sounded curt, but couldn't help it.
She just nodded and asked, "What's that?" pointing to where the ridge ended in a hill with grassy terraces.
"The pa—an old Maori fortification. Maori used to have pa up and down the coast, but this one is particularly significant."
"Oh?" It was hard to read her expression. "Kurt never mentioned it."