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The last thing Sam Kirby needed was another pretty woman in his life.
His personal assistant, who spent her days juggling his crowded social calendar with his hectic business appointments, had told him so on many occasions.
So when he rushed into his downtown Seattle office straight from his latest corporate battle, he didn't expect to find a photo of a beautiful, bikini-clad girl smack on top of the paperwork needing his immediate attention.
'Ellen, what's this?' He spun around so abruptly he almost collided with his assistant, who'd been following faithfully at his heels.
Her eyes flicked anxiously to the photo. 'It came this morning in a courier express package from Australia.' She picked up several sheets from his desk. 'The operator of an island holiday resort sent it along with a news clipping and a letter.'
He frowned. 'If it's just an advertising gimmick, throw it in the bin. The way things are at present I won't be free to take a holiday any time in the next decade.'
'It's not advertising, Sam. I'm afraid there's more to it.'
With a grimace of exasperation, he took the clipping Ellen held out. The photo showed a lovely blonde standing on a postcard-perfect, tropical beach. Her name, the caption claimed, was Meg Bennet and she was holding an old bottle.
For a little longer than was strictly necessary, he let his gaze linger on her.
She wore a bikini top and a simple sarong in different shades of blue tied loosely around her slim hips. Her midriff glowed honey-gold and her hair was a pleasing tumble of sunshiny curls.
But she wasn't just another remarkably pretty girl.
What Sam found unexpectedly interesting, almost magnetic, was the disturbing directness of her smiling eyes as they looked straight out of the page at him.
It bugged him that he couldn't determine the exact colour of those eyes but, for a heady moment, he thought how interesting it would be to see them close upjust before he kissed her.
'Sam, your social diary is fully-booked well into next month,' his long suffering assistant remarked dryly, 'and that particular young woman lives on the other side of the Pacific.'
'Too bad,' he responded with a quick grin and a shrug before he refocused his concentration on the clipping from an Australian newspaper. 'Love letter found in bottle on tropical island,' he read aloud and, letting out an impatient sigh, he silently skimmed the rest of the story.
When he finished, he looked at Ellen with a puzzled frown. 'I don't understand why we've been sent this. Some American airman wrote a love letter to his bride back in 1942 and stuck it in a bottle and now it's turned up on the Great Barrier Reef almost sixty years later. So what?'
'Perhaps you were too side-tracked by the photo to notice,' Ellen prompted. 'But the story also mentions that they're trying to trace the American who wrote the letter, or his descendants.'
'But what has that to do with us at Kirby & Son?'
Ellen straightened her impeccably neat suit jacket.
And Sam felt a nasty jab of alarm. 'Ellen, what is it?'
She smiled gently. 'According to this letter from the manager of the island resort, the man who wrote the message in the bottle has been identified and his descendants have been traced.'
'And his name was Thomas Jefferson Kirby' 'My grandfather,' Sam completed in a choked, disbelieving whisper. 'Yes.'
'Whew!' He closed his eyes for a second or two. Slowly, he looked at Ellen again and shook his head. 'Tom Kirby died during the war. My father never even knew the poor guy.'
Again he stared at the photo and the bottle in the girl's hand. 'Who would have thought?' He held out his hand for the letter. 'What else does this Australian have to say?'
As he read, his stomach tightened an extra notch. 'What's he playing at? He reckons there was a new will in the bottle and he won't release the details until someone from my family goes over there.'
'There's no way your father could undertake that kind of journey.'
'Of course he can't, he's far too frail, but how the heck does this guy expect me to just drop everything and head off to some tropical island down under?' Groaning, he clapped a hand to his forehead. 'I don't have time to deal with this.'
Ellen looked at her young boss over her half glasses. 'There's a lot at stake. Kirby & Son has been in your family for four generations.'
'I know. I know.' Sam pushed aside thoughts of what such stress might do to his ailing father. 'There's something suspicious about this Aussie. I don't like the way he's refusing to hand over the letter unless I show up in person.' With one hand rubbing his jaw, he added, 'I'll have to give this some thought.'
Ellen nodded and returned without comment to her desk in the adjoining office.
Tossing the photo and the papers onto his desk, Sam shoved his hands deep in his trouser pockets and strode towards the huge plate-glass window that overlooked the Seattle waterfront and the Bell Street Pier.
This sudden news about his grandfather had caught him way off-base.
It was the last thing he needed. Since his father's heart attack, Sam had sole responsibility for running the family's huge multimillion dollar construction company. He'd been working at a killing pace for the past three years and there was no sign of things slowing down.
Now, he'd been pitched a curve ball by an ancestor he'd rarely thought about and had never even mourned. He drew in an huge breath and let it out slowly, trying to diffuse the overwhelming sense of pressure.
Gloomily, he stared through the window at the world outside. From his vantage point, the whole of Seattle seemed stripped of any colour this afternoon. Although it was late spring, grey skies, and grey office blocks overlooked a grey waterfront. Even the offshore islands were dark charcoal smudges floating on dull slate-coloured water.
The idea of escapeespecially of escaping to sunshine and warmthhad distinct appeal. He could collect this letter, steal a few days to dive on the coral reefs and smell the fran-gipani. Check out the colour of Meg Bennet's eyes
Pacing the carpet back to his desk, his mind tussled with his dilemma. What he needed to know was whether this new will in Australia was genuine. If any of his competitors got wind of a will that could question the legal ownership of Kirby & Son, it would be like having an ace up their sleeves in a multimillion-dollar card game.
A discreet cough from the doorway interrupted his thoughts. 'Sam.' Ellen sounded hesitant, looked sympathetic. 'I just had a phone call from a reporter at the Seattle Times. He wants to talk to you. It seems the media already know about the bottle.'
Sam cursed under his breath.
'The press will make a field day out of it,' Ellen agreed. 'Especially after that society columnist dubbed you Seattle's favourite bachelor last week.'
He thrust an irate hand through his thick dark hair. 'I think I'm fast running out of options. I'll have to go to Australia and get this bottle business sorted out as quickly as possible.'
Ellen nodded. 'I can start making bookings.'
'Yeah, thanks. And I want my lawyers alerted to have someone on call round the clockjust in case this guy tries any tricks about my grandfather's will.' Sam paused and looked thoughtfully at the photo of the girl with the bottle.
Ellen followed his gaze and she sighed. 'Poor Meg Bennet.'
'Why do you say that?'
'She looks rather sweet. I can't help thinking that if you're planning to zip over to her quiet little island for a few days and zap straight back here again, you should be wearing hazard lights.'
Sam frowned and looked affronted. 'I'm not a danger to women. I'm just attracted to them.'
'Of course,' Ellen replied, but she walked away muttering something about charm having its own perils and wouldn't it be fitting if the tables were turned one of these days.
His glance flicked to the picture of the intriguing Meg Bennet. There was a spunky intelligence and honesty about her lovely face that suggested she wouldn't let any man get the better of her unless she wanted him to.
But he quickly dismissed such thoughts. It was the will, his grandfather's message in the bottle, that he was going to Australia to pick up. Not the beautiful girl who'd happened to find it.
Meg was pleased. The reef was looking its best this morning. As she snorkelled back towards the shallows of Florence Bay, no breath of wind stirred the surface of the pleasantly warm water, and the sun shone from a cloudless sky. The underwater visibility was perfect for her group of tourists to view the spectacular fantasy below.
Beneath them now, copper and gold butterfly-fish with elongated snouts were probing vibrant red coral clumps. Nearby, forests of branching staghorn coral, bright blue with deep pink tips, shimmered, pretty as Christmas trees.
A spotted ray, camouflaged on the sea bed, suddenly exploded in a cloud of white sand, the tips of its flat body rippling as it arched away.
All morning, she'd been guiding the resort's guests through a treasure trove of natural beauty. She always got a kick out of sharing the excitement of first timers when they discovered the incredible secrets of the tropical sea.
Reaching the shallows, she stood and balanced first on one foot and then the other, as she pulled off her flippers. Then she removed her snorkel and mask and waited for the holiday makers she'd been escorting to join her.
The American, who was closest to her, ripped off his face mask and exclaimed, 'That was just fantastic. I never expected to see so many varieties of damselfish in the one spot.'
'So you know about damselfish? Sounds like you did some research before you came on holiday,' Meg suggested as they waded towards the crescent of sand that fringed the bay.
'I haven't had any time for research recently, but I've been interested in tropical fish since I was so high.' He gestured somewhere near his knee and grinned.
Oh, boy! Meg gulped as the full impact of that grin hit her. This man's smile outranked the big screen efforts of most movie stars.
And his eyes were an unexpected drowsy blue. She was perturbed by the way that just looking at him made her breathing quicken, dislodging the comfortable friendliness she usually shared with resort guests.
Dropping her snorkelling gear onto the sand, she reached for her towel and made a business of squeezing excess moisture from her hair. What was the matter with her? This American wasn't the first handsome tourist she'd taken skin-diving.
She promised herself that a reaction like that wouldn't happen again. This fellow could smile as much as he liked and she would remain immune. She'd seen one or two of her workmates get themselves into dreadful emotional pickles, breaking their hearts over resort guests. It just wasn't worth it.
Waving to the group of German tourists, who were making their way out of the water, she decided that it must be this blue-eyed boy's excitement about the reef that gave him an extra edge of attractiveness.
But she felt ridiculously self-conscious about unzipping the full-length Lycra bodysuit she'd worn as protection from marine stingers.
Her companion didn't hesitate to shed his suit and Meg found herself stealing a peek at the tall, wide-shouldered and tautly muscled body that emerged clad in simple bathers. She had no alternative but to step out of her suit, too. Nevertheless, she avoided his gaze.
It was very annoying that she should suddenly feel so bothered about something she did every day.
When they both hauled on T-shirts, she felt better, but there was still a self-conscious edge to her voice when she said, 'We'll head back to the resort now. You'll have time for a shower before lunch.'
The Germans, who had their own hired vehicles, were talking animatedly amongst themselves and so the American helped Meg to pile the snorkelling equipment into the back of the resort's Mini Moke and he sent her another breath-robbing grin. 'Thanks for a great morning.'
'My pleasure,' she murmured.
They both jumped into her Moke and, as she steered the little vehicle up the winding track leading out of the bay, her passenger leaned comfortably back in his seat, turned to her and asked, 'OK Miss Recreation Officer, what's planned for this afternoon?'
Surprised, she shot him a calculating glance, but smiled as she said, 'You Americans are so energetic when you come on holidays, aren't you? It's go, go, go the whole time.'
His eyebrows rose. 'That's so unusual?'
'I don't suppose so,' she admitted. 'But we don't have a huge number of guests here at the moment and most of them seem to be fairly independent, so I didn't have anything organised for this afternoon.'
'I was hoping you might be able to take me on a guided tour of one of the island's walks.'
Meg pursed her lips. Was this fellow making a play for her already? When she'd come to work at the resort just three months ago, she'd discovered that far too many male visitors arrived on the island and assumed the female staff were part of the room service along with the free tea and coffee. She'd developed some pretty useful brush-off tactics.
'If you have a look in that glove box, you'll find a pamphlet that outlines all the walks. You're a big boy. You don't need a guide. Anyhow
' she added a white lie as an extra measure of protection '
I'm busy all afternoon. There's a VIP coming soon.'
'Big deal is it?'
'Oh, just some hotshot millionaire.' Meg rolled her eyes.
'You don't think much of millionaires?'
Her scowl was automatic. Five years ago, she'd watched her father's career and health suffer at the hands of a money-hungry tycoon and she'd developed a seriously jaundiced view of wealth. 'I'm sure those types are so busy counting their money, or protecting it, or making it grow, they don't have time for the important things in life.'
'I'm sure you're right,' he said in a strangely flat voice that made Meg look at him sharply.
They crested the hill and in front of them stretched a magnificent vistaa string of pretty blue bays sparkling in the midday sun like sapphires on a necklace.
As the American admired the view, he said casually, 'I heard something about a bottle being found on one of those beaches.'
'Yes.' A sudden sprinkling of goose bumps broke out on Meg's arms. 'I found it,' she told him.
Sam's guilty conscience gave him a bad time as he watched Meg's face grow wistful. He should come clean and confess to her that he was the very millionaire she had been talking about. He should tell her right now.
But an equally strong instinct urged him otherwise. She was already wary of him and a confession like that would make her clam up completely. Then he would miss this heaven-sent opportunity to pick up inside information about the bottle and its message before he tackled her boss.