Publish Date: February 2017
Return of the secret billionaire…
For Mila Nakano, Coral Bay’s coast is more than just paradise, it’s a safe haven… Until gorgeous visitor Richard Grundy arrives–sending her senses into overdrive!
Secret billionaire Rich has come to the Bay looking for business opportunities, not romance. This single–minded tycoon prides himself on making decisions with his head, until he’s captivated by gentle, exotic Mila! Now he has his toughest job yet…persuading Mila he has good intentions: to make her Coral Bay’s newest bride!
Copyright © 2017 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
The Billionaire of Coral Bay
The luxury catamaran had first appeared two days ago, bobbing in the sea off Nancy’s Point.
Except Mila Nakano couldn’t, in all fairness, call it lurking since it stood out like a flashing white beacon against the otherwise empty blue expanse of ocean. Whatever its crew were doing out there they weren’t trying to be secretive about it, which probably meant they had permission to be moored on the outer fringes of the reef. And a vessel with all the appropriate authorisation was no business of a Wildlife Officer with somewhere else to be.
Vessels came and went daily on the edge of the Marine Park off Coral Bay; mostly research boats, often charters and, occasionally private yachts here to enjoy the World Heritage reefs. This one had ‘private’written all over it. If she had the kind of money that bought luxury catamarans she’d probably spend it visiting places of wonder, too.
Mila peeled her wetsuit down to its waist and let her eyes flutter shut as the coastal air against her sweat-damp skin tinkled like tiny, bouncing ball-bearings. Most days, she liked to snorkel in just a bikini to revel in the symphony of water against her bare flesh. Some days, though, she just needed to get things done and a wetsuit was as good as noise-cancelling headphones to someone with Synaesthesia—or ‘superpowers’ as her brothers had always referred to her cross-sensed condition—because she couldn’t hear the physical sensation of swimming over the reef when it was muted by thick neoprene. Not that her condition was conveniently limited to just the single jumbled sensation; no, that would too pedestrian for Mila Nakano. She felt colours. She tasted emotion. And she attributed random personality traits to things. It might make no sense to anyone else but it made total sense to her.
Of course it did, she’d been born that way.
But today she could do without the distraction. Her tour-for-one was due any minute and she still needed to cross the rest of the bay and clamber up to Nancy’s Point to meet him because she’d drifted further than she meant while snorkelling the reef. A tour-for-one was the perfect number. One made it possible for her to do her job without ending up with a thumping headache—complete with harmonic foghorns. With larger groups, she couldn’t control how shouty their body spray was, what mood the colours they wore would leave her in, or how exhausting they’d be just to be around. They had a fantastic time out on the reef, but the cost to her was sometimes too great. It could take her three days to re-balance after a big group.
But one… That was doable.
Her One was a Mr Richard Grundy. Up from Perth; the solitary, sprawling metropolis on Australia’s west coast, tucked away in the bottom corner of the state, two day’s drive—or a two-hour jet flight—from here. From anything, some visitors thought because they couldn’t see what was right in front of them. The vast expanses of outback scrub you had to pass through to get here.
The nothing that was always full of something.
Grundy was a businessman, probably, since Ones tended to arrive in suits with grand plans for the reef and what they could make it into. Anything from clusters of glamping facilities to elite floating casinos. Luxury theme parks. They never got off the ground, of course; between the public protests, the strict land use conditions, and the flat-out ‘no’ that the local Leaseholder gave on development access through their property, her tours-for-one usually ended up being a tour-of-one. She never saw them, their business suit or their fancy development ideas again.
Which was fine; she was happy to do her part in keeping everything around her exactly as it was.
Mila shed the rest of her wetsuit unselfconsciously, stretched to the heavens for a moment as the ball-bearings tinkled around her bikinied skin and slipped into the khaki shorts and shirt that identified her as official staff of the World Heritage Area. The backpack sitting on the sand bulged first with folded wetsuit and then with bundled snorkelling gear, and she pulled her dripping hair back into a ponytail. She dropped the backpack into her work-supplied 4WD then jogged past it and up toward the point overlooking the long, brilliant bay.
She didn’t rush. Ones were almost always late; they under-estimated the time it took to drive up from the City or down from the nearest airport, or they let some smartphone app decide how long it would take them when a bit of software could have no idea how much further a kilometre was in Western Australia’s north. Besides, she’d parked on the only road into the meeting point and so her One would have had to drive past her to get to Nancy’s Point. So far, hers was the only vehicle as far as the eye could see.
If you didn’t count the bobbing catamaran beyond the reef.
Strong legs pushed her up over the lip of the massive limestone spur named after Nancy Dawson—the matriarch of the family that had grazed livestock on these lands for generations. Coral Bay’s first family.
‘Long way to come for a strip-show,’ a deep voice rumbled as she straightened.
Mila stumbled to a halt, her stomach sinking on a defensive whiff of old-shoe that was more back-of-her-throat taste than nose-scrunching smell. The man standing there was younger than his name suggested and he wasn’t in a suit, like most Ones, but he wore cargo pants and a faded green t-shirt like they were one. Something about the way he moved towards her… He still screamed ‘corporate’ even without a tie.
She spun around, hunting for the vehicle that she’d inexplicably missed. Nothing. It only confounded her more. The muted red of his t-shirt was pumping off all kinds of favourite-drunk-uncle kind of associations, but she fought the instinctive softening that brought. Nothing about his sarcastic greeting deserved congeniality. Besides, this man was anything but uncle-esque. His dark blonde hair was windblown but well-cut and his eyes, as he slid his impenetrable sunglasses up onto his head to reveal them, were a rich blue. Rather like the lagoon behind him, in fact.
That got him a reluctant bonus point.
‘You were early,’ she puffed.
‘I was on time,’ he said again, apparently amused at her discomfort. ‘And I was dropped off. Just in time for the show.’
She retracted that bonus point. This was her bay, not his. If she wanted to swim in it before her shift started what business of his was it?
‘I could have greeted you in my wetsuit,’ she muttered, ‘but I figured uniform would be more appropriate.’
‘You’re the guide, I assume?’ he said, approaching with an out-thrust hand.
‘I’m a guide,’ she said, still bristling, then extended hers on a deep breath. Taking someone’s hand was never straightforward; she never knew quite what she’d get out of it. ‘Mila Nakano. Parks Department.’
‘Richard Grundy,’ he replied, marching straight into her grasp with no further greeting. Or interest. ‘What’s the plan for today?’
The muscles around her belly-button twittered at his warm grip on her water-cool fingers and her ears filled with the gentle brush of a harp. That was new; she usually got anything from a solo trumpet to a whole brass section when she touched people, especially strangers.
A harp thrum was incongruously pleasant.
‘Today?’ she parroted, her synapses temporarily disconnected.
‘Our tour.’ His lagoon-coloured eyes narrowed in on hers. ‘Are you my guide?’
She quickly recovered. ‘Yes, I am. But no-one gave me any information on the purpose of your visit—’ except to impress upon her his VIP status ‘—so we’ll be playing it a bit by ear today. It would help me to know what you’re here for,’ she went on. ‘Or what things interest you.’
‘It all interests me,’ he said, broadly, glancing away. ‘I’d like to get a better appreciation for the…ecological value of the area.’
Uh-huh. Didn’t they all… Then they went back to the city to work on ways to exploit it.
‘Is your interest commercial?’
The twin lagoons narrowed. ‘Why so much interest in my interest?’
His censure got her flushing. ‘I’m just wondering what filter to put on the tour. Are you a journalist? A scientist? You don’t seem like a tourist. So that only leaves Corporate.’
He glanced out at the horizon again, taking some of the intensity from their conversation. ‘Let’s just say I have a keen interest in the land. And the fringing reef.’
That wasn’t much to go on. But those ramrod shoulders told her it’s all she was going to get.
‘Well then, I guess we should start at the southern-most tip of the Marine Park, then,’ she said, ‘and work our way north. Can you swim?’
One of his eyebrows lifted. Just the one, as if her question wasn’t worth the effort of a second. ‘Captain of the swim team.’
Of course he was.
Ordinarily she would have pushed her sunglasses up onto her head, too, to meet a client’s gaze, to start the arduous climb from stranger to acquaintance. But there was a sardonic heat coming off Richard Grundy’s otherwise cool eyes and it shimmered such a curious tone—like five sounds all at once, harmonising with each other, being five different things at once; it wiggled in under her synaesthesia and tingled there, but she wasn’t about to expose herself too fully to his music until she had a better handle on the man. And so her own sunglasses stayed put.
‘If you want to hear the reef you’ll need to get out onto it.’
‘Hear it?’ The eyebrow lift was back. ‘Is it particularly noisy?’
She smiled. She’d yet to meet anyone else who could perceive the coral’s voice but she had to assume that—however normal people experienced it—it was as rich and beautiful as the way she did.
‘You’ll understand when you get there. Your vehicle or mine?’
But he didn’t laugh—he didn’t even smile—and her flimsy joke fell as flat as she inexplicably felt being robbed of the opportunity to see his lips crack the straight line they’d maintained since she got up here.
‘Yours, I think,’ he said.
‘Let’s go, then.’ She fell into professional mode, making up for a lot of lost time. ‘I’ll tell you about Nancy’s Point as we walk. It’s named for Nancy Dawson…’
Rich was pretty sure he knew all there was to know about Nancy Dawson—after all, stories of his Great-Grandmother had been part of his upbringing. But the tales as they were told to him didn’t focus on Nancy’s great love for the land and visionary sustainability measures, as the Guide’s did, they were designed to showcase her endurance and fortitude against adversity. Those were the values his father had wanted to foster in his son and heir. The land—except for the profit it might make for WestCorp—was secondary. Barely even that.
But there was no way to head off the lithe young woman’s spiel without confessing who his family was. And he wasn’t about to discuss his private business with a stranger on two minute’s acquaintance.
‘For 150 years the Dawsons have been the leaseholders of all the land as far as you can see to the horizon,’ she said turning to put the ocean behind her and looking east. ‘You could drive two hours inland and still be on Wardoo Station.’
‘Big,’ he grunted. Because it’s what anyone else would say. Truth was he knew exactly how big Wardoo was—to the square-kilometre—and he knew how much each of those 10,000 square kilometres yielded. And how much each one cost to operate.
That was kind of his thing.
Rich cast his eyes out to the reef break. Mila apparently knew enough history to speak about his family, but not enough to recognise his surname for what it was. Great-Grandma Dawson had married Wardoo’s leading hand, Jack Grundy, but kept the family name since it was such an established and respected name in the region. The world may have known Jack and Nancy’s offspring as Dawsons, but the law knew them as Grundys.
‘Nancy’s descendants still run it today. Well, their minions do…’
That drew his gaze back. ‘Minions?’
‘The family is based in the city now. We don’t see them.’
Wow. There was a whole world of judgement in that simple sentence.
‘Running a business remotely is pretty standard procedure these days,’ he pointed out.
In his world everything was run at a distance. In a State this big it was both an operational necessity and a survival imperative. If you got attached to any business—or any of the people in it—you couldn’t do what he sometimes had to do. Restructure them. Sell them. Close them.
She surveyed all around them and murmured, ‘If this was my land I would never ever leave it.’
It was tempting to take offence at her casual judgement of his family—was this how she spoke of the Dawsons to any passing stranger?—but he’d managed too many teams and too many board-meetings with voices far more objectionable than hers to let himself be that reactive. Besides, given that his ‘family’ consisted of exactly one—if you didn’t count a bunch of headstones and some distant cousins in Europe—he really had little cause for complaint.
‘You were born here?’ he asked instead.
‘How long have your family lived in the area?’
‘All my life—’
That had to be…what…all of two decades?
‘—and 30,000 years before that.’
He adjusted his assessment of her killer tan. That bronze-brown hue wasn’t only about working outdoors. ‘You’re Bayungu?’
She shot him a look and he realised that he risked outing himself with his too-familiar knowledge of Coral Bay’s first people. That could reasonably lead to questions about why he’d taken the time to educate himself about the traditional uses of this area. Same reason he was here finding out about the environmental aspects of the region.
He wanted to know exactly what he was up against. Where the speed humps were going to arise.
‘My mother’s family,’ she corrected, softly.
Either she didn’t understand how genetics worked, or Mila didn’t identify as indigenous despite her roots.
‘But not only Bayungu? Nakano, I think you said?’
‘My grandfather was Japanese. On Dad’s side.’
He remembered reading that in the feasibility study on this whole coast: how it was a cultural melting pot thanks to the exploding pearling trade.
‘That explains the bone structure,’ he said, tracing his gaze across her face.
She flushed and seemed to say the first thing that came to her. ‘His wife’s family was from Dublin, just to complicate things.’
Curious that she saw her diversity as a complication. In business, it was a strength. Pretty much the first thing he’d done following his father’s death was broaden WestCorp’s portfolio base so that their eggs were spread across more baskets. Thirty eight baskets, to be specific.
‘What did Irish Grandma give you?’ Rich glanced at her dark locks. ‘Not red hair…’
‘One of my brothers got that,’ she acknowledged, stopping to consider him before sliding her sunglasses up onto her head. ‘But I got Nan’s eyes.’
A decade ago, he’d abseiled face-first down a cliff for sport—fast. The suck of his unprepared guts had been the same that day as the moment Mila’s thick dark lashes lifted just now to reveal what they hid. Classic Celtic green. Nothing notable on their own, perhaps, but bloody amazing against the richness of her unblemished, brown skin. Her respective grandparents certainly left her a magnetising genetic legacy.
He used the last of his air replying. ‘You’re a walking billboard for cultural diversity.’
She glanced away, her mocha skin darkening, and he could breathe again. But it wasn’t some coy affectation on her part. She looked genuinely distressed—though she was skilled at hiding it.
Fortunately, he was more skilled at reading people.
‘The riches of the land and sea up here have always drawn people from around,’ she murmured. ‘I’m the end result.’
They reached her modest 4WD emblazoned with Government logos half way down the beach she’d first come wading out of all golden and glittery.
‘Is that why you stay?’ he asked. ‘Because of the riches?’
She looked genuinely horrified at the thought as she unlocked the vehicle and swung her long, sandy legs in. ‘Not in the sense you mean. My work is here. My family is here. My heart is here.’
And, clearly, she wore that heart on the sleeve of her Parks Department uniform.
Rich climbed in after her and gave a little inward sigh. Sailing north on the Portus was seven kinds of awesome. All the space and quiet and air he needed wrapped up in black leather and oiled deck timber. He’d even unwound a little. But there was something about driving… Four wheels firm on asphalt. Owning the road.
Literally, in this case.
At least for the next few months more. Longer if he got his way.
‘Is that why you’re here?’ she asked him, though it looked like she had to summon up a fair bit of courage to do it. ‘Drawn by the riches?’
If he was going to spend the day with her he wasn’t going to be able to avoid the question for long. Might as well get in front of it.
‘I’m here to find out everything I can about the area. I have…business interests up here. I’d like to go in fully informed.’
Her penetrating gaze left him and turned back to the road, leaving only thinned lips in its wake.
He’d disappointed her.
‘The others wanted to know a bit about the history of Coral Bay,’ she almost sighed. ‘Do you?’
It was hard not to smile at her not-so-subtle angling. He was probably supposed to say ‘what others?’ and she was going to tell him how many people had tried and failed to get developments up in this region. Maybe he was even supposed to be deterred by that.
Despite Mila’s amateurish subterfuge, he played along. A few friendly overtures wouldn’t go astray. Even if she didn’t look all that disposed to overtures of any kind—friendly or otherwise. Her job meant she kind of had to.
He settled into the well-worn fabric. ‘Sure. Take me right back.’
She couldn’t possibly maintain her coolness once she got stuck into her favourite topic. As long as Mila was talking, he had every excuse to just watch her lips move and her eyes flash with engagement. If nothing else, he could enjoy that.
She started with the ancient history of the land that they drove through, how this flat coast had been sea-floor in the humid time before mammals. Then, a hundred million years later when the oceans were all locked up in a mini ice-age and sea-levels had retreated lower than they’d ever been, how her mother’s ancestors had walked shores on the edge of the massive continental drop-off that was now five kilometres out to sea. How many of the fantastical creatures of the Salt-water people’s creation stories may well have been perfectly literal—hauled out of the deep sea trenches even with primitive tools.
The whole time she talked, Rich watched, entranced. Hiring Mila to be an ambassador for this place was an inspired move on someone’s part. She was passionate and vivid. Totally engaged in what was obviously her favourite topic. She sold it in a way history books couldn’t possibly.
But the closer she brought him to contemporary times, the more quirks he noticed in her storytelling. At first, he thought it was just the magical language of the tribal stories—evocative, memorable…almost poetic—but then he realised some of the references were too modern to be part of traditional tales.
‘Did you just call the inner-reef ‘smug’?’ he interrupted.
She glanced at him, mid-sentence. Swallowing. ‘Did I?’
‘That’s what I heard.’
Her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. ‘Are you sure I didn’t say ‘warm’? That’s what I meant. Because it’s shallower inside the reef, the sand refracts sunlight and leads to—’ she paused for half a heartbeat ‘—warmer conditions that the coral really thrives in.’
Her gaze darted around for a moment before continuing and he got the distinct feeling he’d just been lied to.
Again, though, amateurish.
This woman could tell one hell of a tale but she would be a sitting duck in one of his boardrooms.
‘Ten thousand years from now,’ she was continuing, and he forced himself to attend, ‘those reef areas out there will emerge from the water and form atolls and, eventually, the certainty of earth.’
He frowned at her augmented storytelling. It didn’t diminish her words particularly but the longer it went on the more overshadowing it became until he stopped listening to what she was saying and found himself only listening to how she said it.
‘There are vast gorges at the top of the cape that tourists assume are made purely of cynical rock, but they’re not. They were once reef, too, tens of millions of years ago until they got thrust up above the land by tectonic plate action. The enduring limestone is full of marine fossils.’
Cynical rock. Certain earth. Enduring limestone. The land seemed alive for Mila Nakano—almost a person, with its own traits—but it didn’t irritate him, because it wasn’t just an affectation and it didn’t diminish the quality of her information at all. When she called the reef smug he got the sense that she believed it, and because she believed it, it just sounded…possible. If he got to lay about in warm water all day being nibbled free of parasites by a harem of stunning fish he’d be pretty smug, too.
‘I’d be interested to see those gorges,’ he said, more to spur her to more hyper-descriptive storytelling than anything else. Besides, something like that was just another string in his bow when it came to creating a solid business case for his resort.
She glanced at him. ‘No time. We would have had to set off much earlier. The 4WD access has been under three metres of curi—’
She caught herself and he couldn’t help wondering what she’d been about to say.
‘—of sea-water for weeks. We’d have to go up the eastern side of the cape and come in from the north. It’s a long detour.’
His disappointment was entirely disproportionate to her refusal—sixty seconds ago he had zero interest in fossils or gorges—but he found himself eager to make it happen.
‘What if we had a boat?’
‘Well, that would be faster, obviously.’ She set her eyes back on the road ahead and then, at this silent expectation, returned them to him. ‘Do you have one?’
He’d never been prouder to have the Portus lingering offshore. But he wasn’t ready to reveal her just yet. ‘I might be able to get access…’
Her green gaze narrowed just slightly. ‘Then this afternoon,’ she said. ‘Right now we have other obligations.’
She hit the indicator even though there was no other road-users for miles around, and turned off the asphalt onto a graded limestone track. Dozens of tyre-tracks marked its dusty white surface.
‘About time you got wet, Mr Grundy.’