And beautiful it is. Beautiful and unspoiled, with native grasses and trees, dunes, and shell-scattered beaches.
Whatever the military had been doing here, it didn’t harm the natural habitat. In fact, the only signs of civilization are right where we’ve landed. This area sports a tarmac sufficient for two helicopters, a boat dock, a small metal building used for equipment storage, and another small building with two chemical toilets. There’s also a Bobcat, a generator, and various other bits of machinery that have been carted in so that the process of clearing the land can begin. Not to mention the two security cameras that had been mounted to satisfy both Stark International security and the insurance company.
There is a second copter beside the one that Clark set down, and beyond it is a makeshift path that leads away from this ramshackle work area to the still-wild interior of the island. And, presumably, to Damien, his wife, Nikki, and Wyatt Royce, the photographer Damien hired to take seaside portraits of his wife and also predevelopment photos of the island.
While Clark remains with the bird, I follow the path. Almost immediately, I regret not taking the time to change out of my skirt and heels before making this jaunt. The ground is rocky and uneven and my shoes are going to end up scuffed and battered. I’d planned to put on jeans and hiking boots, but I’d been in a hurry, and if I can get this project back on track, then I figure my favorite navy pair of heels are a small price to pay.
The ground slopes up gently, and as I crest a small hill I find myself looking down at a sandy inlet nestled against a cluster of rocks. Waves batter the stones, sending droplets of water up to sparkle in the air like diamonds. On the beach area, I see Damien slide his arm around his wife’s waist as she leans her head upon his shoulder while they both look out at the wide expanse of the sea.
Nikki and I have become good friends, so it’s not as though I’ve never seen the two of them together. But there is something so sweetly intimate about the moment that I feel as though I should turn back and give them time alone. But I have no time to squander, and so instead I clear my throat as I continue forward.
I know of course that they won’t hear me. The sound of the ocean crashing against the shore was sufficient to drown out the helicopter’s approach; it’s certainly enough to cover my small noises.
As if to prove my point, Damien presses his lips to Nikki’s temple. Something tight twists inside me. I think of the magazine in my tote—and the image of the man on the cover. He’d kissed me the same way, and as I remember the butterfly-soft caress of his lips against my skin, I feel my eyes sting. I tell myself it’s the wind and the saltwater spray, but of course that’s not true.
It’s regret and loss. And, yes, it’s fear.
Fear that I’m about to open the door to something I desperately want, but know that I can’t handle.
Fear that I screwed up royally so many years ago.
And the cold, bitter certainty that, if I’m not very, very careful, the wall I’ve built around myself will come tumbling down, and my horrible secrets will spill out for all the world to see.
I jump a little, startled, and realize that I have been standing there, staring blankly toward the sea, my mind far, far away. “Mr. Stark. Sorry. I—”
“Are you all right?” It’s Nikki who speaks, her expression concerned as she hurries toward me. “You look a little shaky.” She’s beside me now, and she takes my arm.
“No, I’m fine,” I lie. “Just a little motion sick from the helicopter. Where’s Wyatt?”
“He set up down the beach,” Stark says. “We thought it was best if he went ahead and got started on the shots for the brochure.”
I wince, because I am over an hour late. The plan had been for me to spend the morning in Los Angeles while Nikki, Damien, and Wyatt came early to the island. I’d arrive later, once they’d had time to complete the private portrait shoot, and I’d spend the rest of the morning working with Wyatt to capture a series of shots that we could use in the resort’s marketing materials.
Damien would pilot his copter back to the city, and then Wyatt, Nikki, and I would return with Clark. Nikki and I recently discovered that we share a love of photography and Wyatt has offered to give us some pointers after the work is finished.
“You didn’t bring your camera,” Nikki says, her forehead creasing into a frown. “Something is wrong.”
“No,” I say, then, “okay, yes. Maybe.” I meet Stark’s eyes. “I need to talk to you.”
“I’ll go check on Wyatt,” Nikki says.