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From the moment Nina Petrelle opened her eyes, she was painfully aware of three things.
One: she had a pounding great bump on the back of her head. Two: her ankle was stuck in what felt like a soggy, splintered vice. Three: cool, salty water was lapping the length of her prostrate body… was filling her mouth and her lungs.
Choking on seawater, Nina came fully to. She sat bolt upright and, an instant later, yelped in hair-raising agony. Gritting her teeth, she clutched at her thigh. When the red-tipped arrows firing up her shin gradually eased, Nina withered back down.
But she wouldn't give in to the tears. Damned if she would. Instead Nina thumped both fists hard against the sand.
Little by little over the last two months she'd felt tiny pieces of herself falling away. The sense that she was losing the battle kept rubbing and chipping at her strength until this afternoon, after a gruelling shift, she'd fixed her heart upon escape. But what she'd truly wanted to leave behind—the question she didn't want to face—had followed her.
Lately it had haunted her.
Who am I?
She didn't know any more.
Once life had shone out before her like a glittering golden path. Her father had owned a highly successful engineering firm and, growing up, she'd thought nothing of her family's numerous house staff, nor her expectations of having the best clothes, the best food—the best of everything. Of course that had been before her father had died, her manic mother had stripped the family coffers clean and her usually responsible kid sister had got pregnant by a deadbeat who hadn't hung around.
While her mother had gone into a tailspin, Nina had pulled up her sleeves. After completing her university degree, she'd landed a job in publishing—a fast-paced, intense world she adored. Until recently she'd worked as the features editor for an acclaimed teen magazine, Shimmer.
Then the blunt axe had fallen.
Along with a number of other staff she'd been retrenched. With a sizeable mortgage, and other commitments, she'd needed a job, but well-paid positions weren't so easy to come by, particularly in her field. With everyone tightening their belts, the shrivelled industry grapevine was as quiet as a church.
One morning, while prioritising her mounting bills, a long-time friend had called. Alice Sully's family owned a travel agency and, if Nina was desperate, her dad could wangle her a stint working on an exclusive holiday retreat; he knew the owner. Waitressing hours there would be long, Alice had warned her, but the money was great.
Slumping with relief, Nina had accepted, and these past six weeks she'd worked her butt off at Diamond Shores, Australia's premier Great Barrier Reef resort.
And not one moment went by when she didn't wish herself back home.
Most of the other staff had let her know they weren't happy that she'd swung a ticket here via the back door. A job at what many considered Australia's holiday Mecca was supposed to be hard-won, and two years helping part-time at the uni cafeteria didn't make muster.
But, needing the work, she'd been determined to do her best. So she held her head high, when most of the time she felt like a big fat pretender. She smiled till her face ached. Even when pampered patrons accused her of getting their orders wrong. Or commanded her to do silly things, like massage their temples for ridiculous amounts of time if they felt a headache coming on. And that was only the beginning. When she crashed, late at night, her dreams were a jumble of spilled cocktails, tumbling plates and an endless parade of growling, super-rich guests.
That was the hardest.
Once Nina Petrelle had lounged on the A list. She'd sipped chilled Cristal cocktails and worried about little other than her designer tan, acrylic tips, or the lack of room to accommodate her ever-expanding wardrobe. Now, existing on the other side of the glass wall, that kind of over-indulgence near sickened her. She wanted to shake these out-of-touch squillionaires and let them know there were real people out there and they were doing it tough.
But alongside her indignation lived another emotion. A desire that, in the still dead of night, made Nina's cheeks burn with shame.
Secretly she craved to cast off her uniform and rest her weary limbs. She wanted to sprawl out on one of those sunwashed deckchairs and beg, borrow or steal the chance to return to the decadence of her previously worry-free life—if just for a day or two.
She hadn't thought she'd miss extravagance. Had never imagined ever wanting to be a society princess again. She had a new life, and obscene luxury simply wasn't her any more.
Yet here she was—torn between opposing self-indulgence and desperately wanting it back.
A monster of a wave crashed on the shore and Nina was brought back to the harrowing present. As the sea rushed in, a cry slipped from her throat, but, with water flooding her windpipe, her "Help!" came out a spluttering cough.
Who would hear anyway?
Determined to keep her mind off her troubles, and maybe trim up those saddlebags, this afternoon she'd strolled along the powder-soft sand until she'd reached the island's unpopulated southern tip. Collecting shells and other flux, she'd happened upon a tree fallen across the full width of the beach. Its trunk had looked solid enough, but as she'd leaped over, her foot had broken through a patch of rotting wood. Off balance, she'd tumbled back, and had struck her head on something hard.
Nina touched that stinging lump now, and winced at the same time as another vivid memory flashed to mind.
A heartbeat before passing out she'd seen an angel standing on a nearby cliff… a brilliant vision, arched against the unsettled sky, which had made her heart hammer as well as melt.
She pushed up onto her elbows and angled her throbbing head. Tropical sunshine struggled through darkening clouds to bounce off the jagged ledges, but no angel adorned the cliff's peak.
Pity. The image burned into her brain was of a male with raven's wing hair, linebacker shoulders and a set of windblown white wings. Given the distance, those few delicious details ought to have been it. And yet a deeper, unshakable impression remained…
Strong, chiselled features. Mesmerising ice-blue eyes. A bare chest bronzed the colour of warm oak. His confident stance had conveyed not only a sense of authority but also…
What was it?
Destiny? Perhaps purpose? And what about the raw sexuality that had rippled off him in blistering waves? Did angels have dibs on that stuff? She'd never seen anything more powerful.
Before she'd slipped into darkness Nina imagined their eyes had met and a message had passed between them. He'd told her not to worry, that he knew and would protect her.
She looked around, and a slightly hysterical laugh slipped out.
How wild was that? And how fitting. These past months she'd needed a guardian angel and, with another enormous breaker rolling in, never more than now.
The rush of cool water flooded in, higher this time. As the wash ebbed out Nina tried to rotate her trapped ankle, but bit her lip when splinters pierced the skin. She tried sitting up to pry the wood away, but while the area her foot had penetrated was weak, the surrounding timber felt like concrete.
Slumping back, she covered her face with both wet, gritty hands and prayed.
Before her father had died her brother had also passed away, in tragic circumstances. Now her mother, her sister Jill and nephew Codie were the only family Nina had left. She would give anything—everything— to get out of this and get back home to see them all again.
Another wave smashed on the sand. Frothy scallops swirled up, and this time Nina barely held her chin above water. Jill had always said her sister's one big flaw was her reluctance to accept help. Nina only wished Jill were here now. She wouldn't merely accept help, she'd happily beg. That roller about to break looked big enough to drown.
Assessing the dense grey-green foliage behind her, she waited for the cackle of a kookaburra to fade. Then she filled her lungs and, giving it her all, cried out—
"Heeeelp! Can anyone hear me? I need help!"
Long before Gabriel Steele heard the distant cry for help, he was hyper-aware of three things.
A: the thousand branches lashing at his flesh as he tore down the slope hurt like a bitch.
B: his new track shoes were worth their weight in gold.
C: he was running out of time.
His heart belting against his ribs, Gabriel kept his eye on each footfall as he rushed to negotiate the rugged decline. Fast was good. Reaching the bottom in one piece was better. He'd be as useful to that woman as a tiger with no teeth if he broke his leg—or his neck.
And why, in high heaven, had she wandered so far from the resort complex anyway?
Standing atop that cliff earlier, contemplating its drop and the danger, he'd seen her advance along the beach— had watched, unconcerned initially, when she'd skipped across that log. As if the wood were paper, her foot had plunged straight through. She'd toppled back, and when her head had hit that rock he'd felt the thwack to his bones.
And, because things could always get worse, the tide was pushing in.
He could boast better than twenty-twenty, but a blind man could see the situation looked grim.
Now, with shirt-tails flapping behind him, Gabriel bounced down the same steep track he'd climbed half an hour earlier. So much for stealing time to face a challenge that, for once, had nothing to do with corporate tax law.
In truth, he loathed taking time out from his position as director of Steele Chartered Accountants. During his decade-long rise up the corporate ladder he'd accrued a sizeable fortune, but he still had a way to go before his personal worth equalled that of his more affluent clients. He'd worked too damn hard to slack off now—particularly after breaking a cardinal rule.
Four weeks ago he'd taken a huge gamble, investing nearly all his equity in a venture he felt to his bones would pay off. The business's solvency had dropped close to bankruptcy, but if he made every move the right one he knew he could not only turn the entity around, he would also make it the envy of every tycoon in Australasia.
Now was "make or break" time. There was zero room for sentimentality. Less room for weak links.
"Help. Pleeease. Help!"
Brought back, Gabriel upped his pace. When a surprise branch whipped his forehead, his roar of a curse rattled the treetops. Once he'd shaken off the stars, he pushed all the harder. He had to reach that woman in time. He'd do the same for anyone.
Wished he could have done the same—
He tamped down futile memories to concentrate on his task, on that woman… and on the not unpleasant sensation that had curled in his stomach as he'd watched her from his vantage point earlier.
She seemed somehow familiar, her hair a caramel-gold waterfall pouring down her back, her legs endless, shapely and tanned. Stooping to collect a shell here and there, she'd conveyed a grace that only fine breeding could assure.
And yet her cut-offs were ragged around her firm thighs, and her feet were bare. No Manolo Blahnik flats in sight. Not that those legs needed expensive accessories. He could have watched her toned calves flex all day as she'd sifted through the powder-fine sand and—
A boulder sprang up out of nowhere. Gabriel hurdled and landed safely at the same time as a notion struck.
That was why she seemed so familiar. Watching her in those cut-offs had reminded him of a long-ago childhood vacation by the sea, when he'd gone barefoot twenty-four-seven and his fishing rod hadn't left his hand. Aunt Faith had been a gem, providing her studious nephew with plenty to eat and lashings of love. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding his mother's disappearance, from the age of four Gabriel had enjoyed a well-rounded, relatively hassle-free upbringing.
Then his best friend had died.
At last Gabriel tore through the last layer of brush and burst into the light. His lungs burning from lack of air, his body lathered in sweat, he spotted the woman twenty metres away. He dug deep to mine what remained of his strength, then sprinted as the spill from a colossal wave consumed her.
His gaze held the circling froth where she'd disappeared until, plunging into the wet cool, he found her and urged her head clear of the torrent. As her arms shot out, and she gasped and coughed, he summed up the dire situation. Her ankle was locked at an ugly angle. No telling if bones had been broken.
One arm supporting her shoulders, he cleaned the filigree of clinging hair from her face as she struggled to take in air. If he'd had time to dwell he'd have said she was beautiful, in a bedraggled, drenched kitten kind of way.
"Can you hear me?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
She grasped the top of her leg and found a grateful smile. "I am now. I'm just a little—" She flinched. "A little in pain."
As the wave sucked back out he laid her down, then manipulated his fingers between her ankle and the wood. It seemed her foot had slipped through a knot; sadly, the surrounding shell felt tough as nails. She wouldn't have been able to budge it even if she'd had the strength to try.
After a couple of tugs, attempting to weaken the wood, he was quietly worried. He inhaled, rallied determination, and gave another, more serious wrench. A small piece broke off, then a bit more. No screams of pain; she gave little more than a thankful shudder as he freed her foot a second before water swept up and their world became a muted, cold-rush blur.
Fully submerged, holding his breath, he relied on his sense of touch to scoop the woman up and heave them both clear of the churning pool. He trudged well out of tide range and, on a sparsely grassed knoll, laid her down. Any minute the steady pump of adrenaline would give way to the burn of muscle fatigue, but for now he'd keep moving.
How bad were her injuries?
As she worked to catch her breath, Gabriel knelt close and collected her ankle. No compound fractures. When he rode two fingers over the arch of her foot, her peach-polished toes flexed up. Cupping her heel with one hand, his other palm resting on her shin, he applied a token amount of pressure to test the ligament. When she didn't complain, he applied a bit more. She cringed, but didn't cry out.
There were nasty scratches and welts that would ripen to bruises. She'd need an X-ray, and a day or two of rest, but—fingers crossed—in a month or so her ankle would look as good as new.