‘It can’t be him.’ Ellie Flannery stopped in her tracks and squinted into the brilliant Australian summer sunshine.
It bounced off the perfect, white sand all around her and beamed right up into her face like a flash light, half blinding her. It was only ten in the morning, but already, the blazing, January sun warmed her bare legs and the warm tickle of the Pacific Ocean waves lapped her toes as she sank a little into the sand and stared at the distant figure in the water.
‘You’re totally imagining things,’ she told herself. ‘It’s simply not possible.’
The bay of One Mile Beach was surrounded by sand dunes and natural scrub, and the beach curved between two jutting headlands that marked the coast like bookends. Ellie’s best friend Bron had recently moved there, and Ellie had scored an extra day off work to visit the small coastal town. She’d thought she was the only one on the beach that quiet Monday.
She shook her head. Maybe the sea air and the glare had fired up her imagination. She shielded her eyes with a flat hand and tried to focus on the person in the distance to make sure she wasn’t going mad.
It wasn’t the shoulders she recognised – lots of surfers were built like Olympic swimmers. And it wasn’t the height. Or the tanned. Or the abs or the flat stomach. Or the black board shorts which looked vacuum-sealed against his hips and his muscular thighs. Everywhere she turned in Australia she copped an eyeful of guys like that.
It was the hair. The shoulder length cascade of blond that the man pushed off his forehead with a wave of his hand as he emerged from the surf. Wet and slick and his trademark.
She would know that hair anywhere. She would know him anywhere.
It was him. One hundred per cent.
It was Chris Malone.
He was just as famous for his photographs of war-torn and disaster-ravaged parts of the world as he was for his locks. He’d been shot at by the Taliban, almost swept away by hurricanes, been thrown in jail, and come perilously close to causing diplomatic incidents a number of times. All because he used a camera like a weapon to reveal horror, show compassion, and expose the truth.
Ellie was a reporter on a small Sydney suburban paper and knew him by reputation. One of his stills from the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami was her computer’s screen saver. She looked it every day, and every day it inspired her to try and capture with her words what he’d managed to capture with none.
‘It’s Chris Malone,’ she whispered in to the salty breeze. ‘I knew it.’
He was striding towards her, a surfboard under his right arm, half-walking, half-jogging out of the water. And Ellie tingled. It had nothing to do with the body heading in her direction and everything to do with the realisation that she had a scoop on her hands. And the chance to ask him a favour she knew he wouldn’t be able to refuse. She glanced up and down the beach. No one else was around.
There was just her and Chris Malone. She’d caught the world-famous photojournalist, surfing on an isolated beach, two and a half hours north of Sydney. She was already writing the headline in her head.
Ellie reached into her loose shirt and pulled her iPhone from her swimsuit. It was the only place she could tuck the thing and she never went anywhere without it. She could use it to record an interview, since she didn’t have a pen and notepad with her, and then snap a few pictures.
He was twenty feet away and she was staring. She couldn’t help it. It was Chris Malone. With the hair. And the reputation.
Then he was ten feet from her.
She noticed a heavy, black watch on his left wrist and followed a vein all the way up to the crook of his elbow. If he had a tan line on his hips she couldn’t see it, and there wasn’t a mark on his chest to ruin the sheer perfection of his muscles and corrugations and his perfectly rounded pecs.
And then there were only a few strides between them.
He was so close she could see the droplets of water drizzling down his stunning chest.
Her heart began to thump wildly and her pulse set off on a jog. The words came out before she could stop them, tumbling from her parched lips like the waves on the sand behind them.
‘Good surfing out there today?’ She wanted to kick herself. Her voice made her sound like a groupie and not like the professional colleague she was. Not that she thought she was in his league by any stretch, but still. She had skills, although they’d apparently deserted her at that very moment.
He stopped. ‘Excuse me?’ Malone raised his eyebrows in a question. The grains of sand that were caught in his neatly trimmed beard were shimmering in the sunlight. When Ellie looked into his eyes they were curious rather than annoyed.
They were the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. Pale and translucent. Like light blue sapphires.
He was looking at her. In a friendly way, actually. And when his gaze dropped from her face to her breasts, that pulse exploded from a jog into a sprint. His gaze settled on her mouth for a moment before meeting her eyes. She realised he was waiting for her to speak.
Something clenched in her chest. All she could think was, don’t blow this. Don’t be an idiot.
‘Any good waves?’ she managed.
‘Yeah, not bad out there today.’ And then Malone half-smiled at her and she forgot her own name. He was so much more beautiful in person than in any of the photos of him she’d ever seen. He was always portrayed with his camera, with a flak jacket on, a grim expression and serious eyes, with toppled buildings and rubble behind him in a dusty haze.
But now, here, on the beach, he seemed the opposite of all those things.
‘Do you surf yourself?’
‘Oh no, I’m just… I’m here… well. What I’m trying to say is that I’m a huge fan, Chris. I mean, Mr. Malone,’ she stammered. ‘It’s an honour to—’
His reaction was sudden and jarring. His piercing, friendly eyes became steely and his shoulders stiffened. He took a step back on the sand.
Holy crap. She’d blown it.
‘Shit,’ he grunted and shook his head.
‘Wait. Please. What I meant was—’
Malone raised a hand as if to dismiss her and didn’t say another word. He took off up the beach, his long, strong legs not bothered at all by stomping through the soft sand as he walked to a path in between the coastal shrubs. The sand flicked angrily behind him as he strode away.
Ellie couldn’t move. Her feet were still planted in the sand and when she looked down, she realised she was still clutching her phone. She hadn’t even taken a damn photo.
‘I really like your work,’ she called half-heartedly into the wind and to the empty beach.
If he’d heard her, he didn’t turn around.
So much for the middle of freaking nowhere, Chris thought ruefully as he stashed his board into the back of his four-wheel drive. After stripping off in the car park, and changing into dry clothes, he’d driven away with the distinct feeling his day was ruined. His plan had been to get as far away from anyone he knew and just have a quiet surf. Him and the clean, clear waters of Australia’s east coast and the sound of nothing but the roar of the ocean in his ears, the taste of salt in his mouth, and a board under his feet.
Was that really too much to ask?
He’d learnt a long time ago that he couldn’t escape being Chris Malone, no matter where he went. Australia was a huge country, with twenty-two thousand miles of coastline, but of all the damn beaches in all the damn country, he managed to find one where the only other person on the damn beach knew who he was.
And when that only other person was a gorgeous woman with long legs, shoulder-length hair the colour of caramel, and big brown eyes – which he wouldn’t have minded looking into for a little while longer – it was even more disappointing.
Chris had taken the road out of Sydney earlier that day to hit the waves in a place he figured he could be anonymous. It was impossible these days to surf on any of the city’s best beaches without running into someone he knew. He’d been around a long time and he had fingers in a lot of pies. He had connections in the media, in surfing, across a whole range of sports clubs from his youth and, despite his best attempts to stay as far away from it as humanly possible, the business world his father and one of his younger twin brothers, Callum, inhabited.
He’d flown back to Australia four weeks before from Moscow via London, determined to escape the bitter winter and the dark days, with a plan to stay away from everybody. He hadn’t let his father or Callum know where he was. And as for his other brother? Cooper was always chasing a wave somewhere in the world. The rest of the family kept up with his life by checking his surfing competition victories in the sports news.
Chris hadn’t told them he was back because he hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone or see anyone or to answer the inevitable questions about why he’d returned home. He didn’t want to explain the truth. After more than ten years roaming the globe, with a rucksack and a camera and a well-stamped collection of passports, jumping from one continent to another, from one disaster to another, seeing things no one should ever see, he was simply exhausted.
He needed a break.
He’d been running for ten years on adrenalin and reputation and his street smarts and his addiction to the chase, but it had all caught up with him now. Chris wound down the window and let the cool sea air blow his hair around, so he could feel something other than sheer mental and physical exhaustion.
There were a hundred new jobs lined up back in the world’s trouble spots, ready to be documented as soon as he bought a ticket and got back on a plane.
But right now, all he wanted was solitude and all he wanted to think about was the surf and the sun.
‘Are you really sure it was Chris Malone?’ Bron looked doubtful.
They were walking to a local café with Sophie to have lunch before Ellie drove back to Sydney later that afternoon. When Bron and her husband Peter had their little girl six months before, they’d left the crazy whirl of their city newsroom behind. Ellie tried to visit her goddaughter as often as she could, even if it was just for the day. When Sophie had gone down for a nap earlier, Ellie had taken the opportunity to head down to the beach for a walk. She loved the solitude up here and, compared with the crowds of people at Bondi, which looked like Grand Central Station most of the time, the unspoilt beach here was bliss.
‘Oh, it was him all right. He was perfectly nice when he figured I didn’t know who he was. I believe he even checked out the girls.’
‘You’ve been nursing too long. Yes, my breasts. My rack. My norks. But once I let the cat out of the bag, he looked away pretty damn quick. He became downright rude, actually.’ Ellie sighed. ‘Maybe it’s true what they say about never meeting your idols.’
‘Well, he is super famous, right? Do people like him get groupies?’
Ellie laughed. ‘You calling me a groupie? I’m just a huge fan of his work, Bron. Nothing else.’ She tried not to think about his body, those rock hard pecs or the rest of his sculpted torso. Or the way she felt when he looked at her. As if she was melting. ‘And anyway, I really wanted to ask for his help, not for his phone number.’
Ellie pushed open the door of the café and Bron pushed the stroller inside. Once they’d ordered some sandwiches and coffee, they chose a table near the front, by the wide-open windows, wanting to capture the sea breezes that blew up from the beach.
‘What did you want his help with? And please, tell me it was to rescue you from your pitiful love life.’ Bron smiled warmly at her friend. She was the only person alive who knew how true that was. Ellie had been without a man for two years. Her dry spell was turning into El Nino. And it wasn’t for lack of trying or options. It was just that the options often turned out to be lying bastards. She was so tired of finding a half-bad man and trying to make him half-good.
‘I think the love life’s a lost cause, don’t you?’ Ellie sipped her coffee and glanced down at the sleeping Sophie, so peaceful and sweet. Her chubby little legs hung over the end of the stroller and Ellie wanted to kiss each and every one of her cute toes. She loved being a godmother and had been so honoured and thrilled when Bron and Peter had asked her. ‘The way I’m going, I reckon Sophie will snag a boyfriend before I do.’
‘Ellie,’ Bron whispered fiercely.
Ellie looked up at her friend. ‘No need to be snappy. I meant when she’s at least twenty-five-years old with two university degrees behind her, of course.’
‘No, it’s not that.’ Bron leaned in and her eyes widened. ‘Look who’s just walked in. That’s him, isn’t it?’
Ellie put her coffee down on the table, took a deep breath, and spun in her chair, aiming for a nonchalant glance to the doorway.
Her pulse tripped into overdrive at the mere sight of him. It was indeed Chris Malone. His hair was still damp and pushed back off his head in a way that looked so sexy Ellie ached in places she couldn’t even remember having. He’d changed into faded denims and a white T-shirt. He’d hooked one of the arms of his sunglasses inside it, so the front pulled down, revealing a hint of the curved pecs she’d admired back on the beach. He was staring intently at the menu board on the wall behind the counter. There was no indication he’d seen her. He didn’t turn and scowl or anything.
Ellie swivelled back to face Bron and gulped the rest of her coffee down. She’d screwed up the first time she’d got his attention. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
‘I’ll be right back,’ she announced.
Bron planted her hands on the table and leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. ‘Are you trying again?’
‘Yes,’ and Ellie found her confidence once again. ‘I need that man, and I’m damn well going to go get him.’
Ellie Flannery stood, straightened her shoulders, tried not to think about the punk band throbbing in her chest cavity where her heart was supposed to be, and summoned every bit of her professional cool.
She walked to the end of the queue which had formed in front of the counter and reached up to tap Chris Malone on the shoulder.
End of Excerpt