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Luke Hargreaves had never seen such an unholy mess in all his life. Uprooted trees competed for space amidst the smashed and splintered building debris. Dangerous electrical and glass hazards lay strewn everywhere. Only one out of the dozen buildings that made up the five-acre property where the Tropicana Nights had sprawled for forty years had survived intact.
Holy crap. The resort was never going to recover from this.
It was hard to believe standing underneath the perfect untainted blue of a tropical north Queensland sky, listening to the gentle kiss of waves as they lapped at the crescent beach fringing this idyllic tourist spot, that weather could be responsible for such violence.
That the light breeze could build to cyclonic, that the cloudless sky could blacken with ominous intent and the calm ocean could rage and pound.
Sure, cyclones were one of the hazards of living on the northern Australian coastline and the resort had sustained damage in the past from such events that regularly stalked the coast from November to March.
But never like this.
This one had been a monster and Crescent Cove's number had been up.
A decade in the UK had anaesthetised him to the dangers of tropical storms, but, looking at the destruction now, it was a miracle no one had been killed.
All thanks to Claudia.
Luke's gaze trekked from the devastated resort to the devastated figure standing on the beach, her back to the ocean as she surveyed the damage. Avery had told him Claudia was taking it all in her stride. But he knew Claudia Davis well. Too well. And her look of hopeless despair was evident even from this distance.
Somehow inside his head, despite the march of time, she'd always been a skinny six-year-old with blonde pigtails and skinned knees. And there was something just as gut-wrenchingly innocent about her today. Her ponytail fluttering in the gentle breeze, her petite frame encased in the God-awful polyester Tropicana uniform that hadn't changed since the seventies, that damn stupid clipboard she always carried around clutched to her chest.
The intense little wrinkle of her brow as if she was trying to wish it all better from the power of her mind alone.
He sighed. He was not looking forward to this.
He shucked off his shoes and stripped off his socks leaving them at the row of lopsided palm trees that formed a natural demarcation between beach and land. Or what was left of them anyway.
Crescent Cove's beloved palm-tree avenue, which hugged the long curve of beach, was looking equally devastated. Whole trees had been ripped out by the roots, plucked clean from the ground and thrown around as if they'd been mere matchsticks, some still lying on the path or beach wherever they'd been hurled.
It would take a lot of years to build it back to its former glory.
The hot sun beat down on Luke's neck, a far cry from chilly London, and he shrugged out of his jacket too. He undid his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves on his business shirt. He turned his phone to silent and slipped it in his back pocket. He didn't want to be disturbed when he spoke to her and he'd already had three urgent texts from the office.
Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he stepped onto the beach and headed towards the woman he'd known nearly all his life, his footsteps squeaking in the powdery sand.
Claudia stared at the wreck before her, a sense of helplessness and despair overwhelming her. She should have known that only a cyclone named Luke could cause this much damage.
She refused to give into the harsh burn of tears scalding her eye sockets. She would not cry.
Crying was for wimps and she was not a wimp. She'd spent a year of her life renovating her beloved family resort and just because it lay in a shambled ruin in front of her didn't mean it was time to give into a fit of girly histrionics.
She held tight to the comfort of her clipboard. They would recover from this. They had to.
But how? a little voice asked somewhere in the back of her brain, bleating away in time to the distant drone of generators that had filled the air for days now. The same voice she'd been hearing every time she stood on the beach and was confronted by the true horror of the destruction of the only home she'd ever known.
Well, there was the main resort buildingthe original structurefor a start. Even now its white stucco façade gleamed beneath the full morning sun like a beacon amidst the rubble, its sturdy stone construction having somehow miraculously survived Mother Nature's fury with only minimal damage.
How, Claudia had no idea.
How had the dinosauror White Elephant as Luke had coined itmanaged to survive when the newer edition bungalows, made to the highest ever cyclone specifications, had perished?
It didn't make any sense. It had been four days since Cyclone Luke, a huge category-five juggernaut, had crossed the coast right on top of them, and it still didn't make any sense.
None of it did.
Tears threatened again and Claudia blinked them back. She refused to cry as Avery had done. Tears wouldn't get the Tropicana back on its feet and Claudia was determined to hold it all together if it killed her. She'd been doing that since Luke had deserted her to run the place by herself, since their respective parents had handed the keys over to them and entrusted twenty years of their life's work to their children.
She would not be cowed by the mammoth task ahead of her just as she'd refused to be cowed by Luke's ultimatum this time last year to have the resort turned around in twelve monthsor else!
She hadn't needed him to elaborate on his threatand it really hadn't been an issue because she had turned it around. They'd had a bumper summer, there was money in the bank and they'd been poised to welcome their best ever winter season in over a decade.
And then along came Cyclone Luke. As determined as the other Luke in her life to take away everything she'd ever known and loved.
'Bloody hell, Claude. You're never going to recover from this.'
Claudia blinked as the eerily familiar voice behind her caused everything inside herher heartbeat, her breath, the metabolism in her cellsto come to a standstill.
She turned and there he was. Standing right there. Every tall, lean, clean-shaven inch of him. Close enough to touch. Close enough to feel a very familiar pull down deep and low.
The boy she'd hero-worshipped, the teenager she'd crushed on, the man who'd disappointed her more than she'd ever thought possible when he'd turned his back on their legacy.
You're never going to recover from this?
His words were like a jolt to the chest from a defibrillator and then everything surged back to life. Her lungs dragged in a swift harsh breath, her heart kicked her in the ribcage with all the power of a mule, her cells started metabolising again at warp speed.
You're never going to recover from this?
Oh, no! He had to be kidding. This had to be a monumental joke. A very bad one.
But no, here he was, in a freaking business shirt and trousers. On the beach. Gloating. A tsunami of emotion Claudia had been stuffing down for four dayshell, for the last yearrose in her chest and demanded to be expressed.
'What the hell are you doing here?'
Luke's eyes widened at the distinct lack of welcome turning her normally chirpy voice deeper. Darker. He shrugged. 'I saw it on the tele I just came.'
And he had. As much as he'd resented the weird pull this place still had over him, he couldn't not put in an appearance. Escaping to the other side of the world a decade ago, immersing himself in a completely different life had dulled the pull, but one look at the devastation and it had roared back to life.
Claudia blinked at his explanation, then let loose a laugh that bordered on hysteria. But if she didn't laugh she was going to cry. And it wasn't going to be dainty little London tears he was no doubt used to from his bevy of gorgeous sophisticated Brits, it was going to be a cyclonic, north Queensland snot fest.
And she'd be damned if she'd break down in front of Luke.
'How'd you even get here?' she demanded. 'The road is still cut in both directions.'
'Jonah picked me up in his chopper from Cairns airport.'
Claudia vaguely remembered hearing the chopper a little while ago and she silently cursed Jonah for being so damned handy. She made a mental note to tell Avery to withhold sex from him as his punishment for fraternising with the enemy. Because as far as she was concerned, Luke Hargreaves was public enemy number one.
Not that Avery wouldthose two were still so loved up it was sickening.
'Well, you came, you saw,' she snapped. 'Now you can leave. Everything's fine and dandy here.'
Fine and dandy? Luke looked at the unholy wreck in front of him. It was the complete antithesis of fine and dandy. He shoved his hands in his pockets. 'I'm not going to do that, Claude.'
Claudia gave an inelegant snort. 'Why not? Isn't that what you do? Leave?'
'I thought I could ' Luke flicked his gaze to the flattened resort ' help.'
'Help?' Her voice sounded high even to her own ears. 'Now you want to help?'
'Claude ' Luke sighed, unsurprised she was still carrying a grudge that he hadn't wanted anything to do with their parents' giant folly when they'd decided to retire and pass on the management to their children last year. 'I can help with the clean-up. And there will be partnership decisions that need to be made.'
A sudden surge of anger burned white-hot in Claudia's chest. Partnership decisions? What the hell? Did he think she'd be too distraught to not understand the true meaning behind such a casual announcement?
She drew herself up to her full five feet one inch, and jammed a hand on her hip. 'You think you have the right to waltz in here'
Claudia broke off as a pressurerage and something more primitivebuilt in her sinuses and behind her eyes. It threatened to explode and robbed her momentarily of the ability to form a coherent sentence.
'To just sweep in when everything is such a bloody mess and think you have a right to any decisions? You forfeited any rights when you walked away from the Tropicana last year.'
Luke tried to stay calm in the face of her anger. But Claudia always had driven him more nuts than any woman in the history of the world. She'd always been a firecracker where the resort was concerned, her petite, perennially cheerful disposition slipping quickly to growly Mummy bear when her precious Tropicana was threatened.
He kept his hands firmly buried in his pockets lest he succumb to the urge to shake her. Part of the reason she was in this mess was because she'd refused to listen to reason. If they'd gone the way he'd wanted to go with the resort they'd have been making money hand over fist as part of a bigger chain and therefore sheltered financially from such a monumental disaster.
But no. Claudia had wanted to keep the resort completely independent. Run it the way their parents had in some grand vision of yesteryear.
And he'd been too busy dealing with the disarray left by his ex, both personally and career-wise, to really care. But this mess was going to require some big decisions.
'Well, actually, that's not entirely true, is it?'
Claudia knew exactly what he was alluding to and hated that he was right. Hated it. But his name was still on the partnership agreement their parents had made them sign and he did have equal sayhe just hadn't been interested in claiming it before today.
Claudia sighed, feeling utterly defeated all of a sudden. 'Look, I get it, you're here out of some misguided sense of responsibility. But you really don't need to worry. Everything's fine and dandy. Just go back to London. I can only deal with one Luke at a time.'
Luke was torn between picking her up and dumping her in the ocean and pulling her into his arms. 'I'm staying. I have a week off. I can help with the clean-up.'
This time Claudia's laugh did not border on anythingit had lapsed into full-blown hysteria.
'A week?' she demanded, her voice high and shaky. 'Well, gee, Luke, thank you for sparing seven lousy days out of your busy and important life to help out poor old Claude.'
She shook her head in disgust at him, the urge to slam the clipboard down on his head riding her as hard as the threatening tears. She would not cry!
'Take a look at this place,' she demanded, flinging her arms wide to distract from the crack in her voice. 'Do you think this is going to be cleaned up in a week?'
Luke looked. He doubted it would be cleaned up in a month. But he had a major account on the hook, one that would erase for ever the big one he'd lost because he'd foolishly trusted the woman he'd loved. He couldn't afford to spend a lot of time away. Hell, he couldn't even afford seven lousy days.
But he was here, wasn't he?
'Let's just take it one day at a time,' he suggested, holding onto his temper.
Claudia glared at him. 'Don't patronise me. I have an entire army of people ready, willing and able to help me clean up when we get the all-clear. We don't need someone whose heart isn't in it and who doesn't give a damn about the Tropicana.'
Luke clenched his fists in his pockets. Just because he hadn't chosen to slavishly devote himself to a forty-year-old white elephant, didn't mean he didn't care. He glaredat her. 'And I suppose walking around with that damn clipboard and wearing that God-awful Hawaiian shirt and those polyester capris proves your level of give a damn?'
Claudia gasped at his insult. The uniform had been around since the beginningit was iconic, damn it! But it gave her something else to focus on other than the prickle inside her nose caused by building emotion. 'I'm on duty,' she snapped.
It was Luke's turn to snort. 'For what? There's nobody here, Claude.'
Claudia held herself erect. 'I'm never off duty.'
And that, as far as Luke was concerned, was one of her problems. She was twenty-seven years old and, apart from her brief sojourns overseas with Avery every couple of years, the resort had been her entire focus.
'You really need a life,' he muttered, still smarting from her stinging judgment of him.
'I need a life?' She laughed again, all high and shaky. 'This from a man who wears a freaking suit to the beach.'
'I got the first flight I could,' he said. 'I went straight from work to Heathrow. I know it's hard for you to believe but there are other people in this world just as dedicated to their jobs as you are to yours. Although I think manic obsession probably fits better in your case.'
'The Tropicana isn't a job. It's our legacy,' Claudia snapped.
Luke shook his head as a storm of frustration and disbelief raged in his gut. God, her doggedness was infuriating.
'It's not our legacy. It's just an old-fashioned relic from a different time and everybody's moved on but you. You're not in Dirty Dancing, Claude, and this' he threw his arms wide at the destruction before him 'isn't freaking Kellerman's. Johnny Castle isn't going to drop by and demand that nobody puts you in a corner.'
Claude blinked. A pain flared in the vicinity of her heart as he took everything she believed in and crushed it into the hot, white sand. Yes, she was sentimental and a romantic and she not only believed but had proved that there was a market for the style of resort he was so disparaging of. She just hadn't realised he'd thought so little of the things that were important to her.
It made her feel small. Insignificant. Unvalued.
And so very sad. For her and for him. His divorce sure had made him cynical.
And it was her undoing. Her vision blurred, the emotion she'd been holding back for days coming now whether she liked it or not. A solitary tear spilled down her cheek.