A long, hot summer — with the tycoon!
Lily has spent her whole life working to a plan. Until losing her best friend makes her realize that she’s forgotten to live. Lily’s first step is to head to her grandmother’s Croatian island property, beautiful Fire Cove. Her second is to say yes to a fling with playboy Damir! Surely she can afford to live a little dangerously, especially now — just as long as she doesn’t fall in love…
Mills & Boon Forever — Be swept away by glamorous and heartfelt love stories.
A GOLDEN SLANT of sunshine broke through a chink in the curtains to shine directly onto Lily’s closed eyelids. She muttered, moving to escape the brightness, but with that movement came consciousness. She wasn’t in her own bed, on her expensive sprung mattress, between her four hundred thread Egyptian cotton sheets, but on an old iron bedstead in a plain white walled room. Despite that she’d slept more deeply than she had for months.
Squinting a little against the sunlight, Lily slipped out of bed and padded across the cold tiled floor to throw open the curtains and to take her first proper look out of the wooden framed window. She inhaled sharply. Sky so blue it defined the colour greeted her, lit by an early morning silvery sun. For the first time in several months the pain inside Lily’s chest eased. It felt as if it had done nothing but rain all year in England, and on the few dry days glowering cloud still greyed the sky. This vibrant, warm Croatian beauty was as foreign to her as the language and currency, but so very welcome.
She’d arrived late the evening before, a delayed plane meaning it was already dark by the time she’d cleared passport control, retrieved her bags and stumbled into a waiting taxi. The long day of delays and airports had left her so tired and wrung out she’d barely squinted out of the car window into the dark to try and get any idea of her surroundings. Even the night-time boat ride bringing her to the small island of Lokvar had failed to excite her, it was if she had brought the London gloom with her.
But the beauty of the early morning scene cleared the last remnants of that gloom, instead a hint of anticipation filled her. Reluctantly dragging herself away from the window, Lily darted into the small adjoining bathroom, jumping into the shower to clean the travel grime and sleep from her body, slipping into her comfiest jeans and a T-shirt and bundling her still-wet hair into a loose bun. Less than ten minutes later she was ready to go, running down the winding staircase that led to the main hallway of the large, empty villa.
Empty now, but in just a few weeks this villa would be filled to capacity with holidaymakers all relying on her and her team to ensure their stay ran smoothly. She looked over at the reception desk and her stomach clenched. It seemed impossible that just a week ago she had been Lily Woodhouse, lawyer, London dweller, city worker who routinely worked sixty-hour weeks and rarely saw daylight. What did she know about running a hotel, let alone a hotel in a country where she didn’t speak the language, on an island with no cars and just three boats daily into Dubrovnik?
Fighting back the panic, Lily did her best to regulate her breathing, concentrating on inhaling and exhaling until the panic began to fade away, answering each of her panicked mind’s questions as calmly as she could. She wouldn’t be alone here, experienced help was on its way, and she still had time to find her feet before the tourist season really swung into action and the island welcomed the hordes of visitors who visited every summer. Today she was allowed to take time out and settle in. Today she was going to explore.
She’d bolted the villa’s front door the night before, even though common sense had told her that on an island of barely three hundred residents and no way in or out other than by boat, she was safer with an unlocked door than she was behind the padlocks of her London apartment, but old habits died hard and over the last few months Lily had learned all about regret. Slipping her feet into her discarded trainers and grabbing her bag, she unlocked the door and wrenched it open before stepping outside, fumbling for her sunglasses as her eyes adjusted to the light.
The view from the window was nothing compared to the real thing. It might be early but the sun was already warm and she felt its welcome heat permeating through to her tired, tired bones whilst the vibrant colours—green, blue, turquoise—warmed her soul.
The villa faced onto a wide shallow cove, the beach sandy, unusual on this famously rocky coastline. The only building on this side of the island, it ran as a B&B and a beach café through the summer months, a reasonable part of its income derived by renting beach chairs, sunbeds and umbrellas to the day trippers escaping the heat and crowds of Dubrovnik. Lily had never visited Lokvar before, she hadn’t even been to Croatia, but she’d seen so many pictures of the villa and Fire Cove, she felt like she’d come home.
Her stepfather, Josip, had described his boyhood home to her many times, and every autumn, after the season ended, his mother, Lily’s baka, spent several months with them, full of stories about the season just gone, her guests and staff and her friends and neighbours who lived on Lokvar year-round. Josip would sometimes join in, but too often he would leave the room, jaw tight and eyes shuttered. He’d left Dubrovnik at the end of the Balkan conflict, never to return. Lily had never asked why, not knowing how to frame the question, but as she breathed in the fresh sea air and her eyes drank in the glorious scenery she knew his reasons must be deep and dark to prevent him from returning to such beauty.
As if on cue her phone buzzed and Josip’s name filled the screen. She fumbled to answer the call, walking down the beach to watch the soft waves roll in as she did so. ‘Hi. What time is it there?’
‘Six, but your mother couldn’t sleep until she knew you were okay.’ Lily could hear the smile in his voice as her mother called out something she couldn’t quite hear. Josip had lived in the UK for nearly thirty years now, his accent softened but still clear, and her heart filled with love for the man who had brought stability and peace to her turbulent childhood.
‘I texted when I arrived last night,’ she protested.
‘I know that and you know that, but you know how your mother is.’ Lily did know, just as she knew her mother would have liked to have accompanied Lily over to Lokvar and helped her ready the B&B for the season ahead, always trying to make up for the chaotic first decade of Lily’s life. But she didn’t like to travel anywhere without Josip, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t return to Croatia. Lily prided herself on her independence, but she had to admit that part of her would have liked her mother and her stepfather here as she negotiated her way through the start of her summer.
‘Well, tell her I’m fine, at least I will be when I have found some coffee and breakfast.’
‘And make sure you get your first grocery order in. Everything is delivered from the mainland, so you need to plan in advance. Ana will be with you tomorrow, she has worked at the villa for years, she will be able to help you with anything you need.’
‘I know. I am so glad she has agreed to come early and help me prepare.’ The truth was that Ana, Josip’s cousin, could quite easily have run the villa without any of Lily’s input, having assisted her aunt for the last decade or so. But Lily had needed a change of scene and direction and so when Marija, her step-grandmother, had announced her intention of taking a summer off while she visited cousins in America and New Zealand, Josip had persuaded Lily that the only way his mother would be able to fully enjoy her time away would be if she knew that Lily was keeping an eye on her home.
‘She’s not getting any younger and I think she needs to take the time to really rest and relax,’ he had told Lily. ‘I know she spends a couple of months with us every year, but London in late autumn and early winter is so damp and cold, she doesn’t get out much. She deserves the chance to really enjoy her time off.’
There was just enough truth in that statement for Lily to agree without feeling too manipulated. It was becoming clear that running her beloved B&B was starting to take its toll on seventy-year-old Marija, and every November she arrived in London looking a little frailer than the year before.
She had confided in Lily that she had received a very lucrative offer for the villa at the end of the last season, but the buyer wanted the land and the access to the beach, not the graceful old villa that had been in her family for generations. ‘I want my Josip to return one day, not sell his birthright out from under him,’ she had said with a sigh.
Lily just wished she had actually spent a summer here with Marija, after all she’d been invited often enough. But then there were so many things she wished she’d done differently. Too many to name.
She wrenched her attention back to the here and now as her stepfather spoke. ‘So what are your plans for today? After coffee, of course.’ The jocularity in Josip’s voice didn’t hide his worry, and Lily hated that she was responsible for it.
‘Explore, start making lists of what we have to do,’ she said as carelessly as she could, as if getting a small B&B ready for the start of a busy season was completely part of her skill set. ‘Maybe a little sunbathing while I have time. I know it’ll be harder to relax once the tourists arrive.’
‘Well, enjoy. And, Lily? Let me know if you need anything at all.’
‘I will,’ she promised. ‘Love to Mum.’ Lily swallowed as she disconnected the call, as if by doing so she had disconnected herself from her life. But then her life had already been disconnected three months ago when she’d received the phone call telling her that Izzy, her best friend and flatmate, had been knocked off her bike and was in a coma, and her world and everything she’d thought she knew about who she was and what she wanted had shattered irrevocably.
Inhaling deeply, Lily slipped her phone into her pocket. She was here to make a new start, to try and make some sense of her life. To try and live differently, to be different. More spontaneous, impulsive, to actually live her life, not plan her way through it. And she couldn’t do that by dwelling on the past. ‘Carpe diem,’ she said, her voice wavering as she said the words.
Her old motto, one she and Izzy had adopted at school as they’d competed for the top grades, the top prizes, the university places, had been an only semi-ironic Veni, Vidi, Vici. Young, bright and ambitious, they had been so sure that the world was theirs for the taking. And it had been, until a lorry had taken a reckless turn and in one screech of brakes had made a waste of all Izzy’s talent and brains, her careful plans, her savings and dreams. So much time spent working and planning, so little time spent actually living. Lily had stood by Izzy’s hospital bed and promised her comatose friend that she would do enough living for the both of them. Now she just had to figure out how.
Her new motto felt strange in her mouth. ‘Carpe diem,’ she said again. Louder this time. ‘Seize the day!’ And then again and again until she was yelling it out to sea, hoping that by sending the words out across the waves and into the sea she could somehow make them true. Somehow.
Damir rounded the sandy path leading to Fire Cove and paused. Someone was shouting, calling out as if all the hounds of hell were after them. Adrenaline spiked. Lokvar was one of the safest places on the planet, especially out of season, but nowhere was completely safe. Croatians knew that all too well. He set off at a run, speeding down the slope and onto the beach, skidding to a halt as he looked out to sea, hoping not to see a drowning person, a boat in distress or any of the other scenarios that flashed through his mind as he heard the anguished cry.
His prayer was granted. The only person in view was a woman standing on the edge of the sea, shouting out her pain to the birds and fish. He paused, uncertain. Whoever she was she clearly thought she was alone. She would probably be mortified to know that she been witnessed, but at the same time just walking away and leaving a fellow human being in such a state felt wrong. Damir swore softly. He wasn’t so good at the touchy-feely people stuff. His ex-wife had made that all too clear.
To his utter relief, the woman stopped shouting before he intervened. She still stood with her back to him so he had no idea if she was laughing or crying, but she didn’t look as if she was in any imminent danger: she wasn’t wading into the waves or pulling at her hair. She just stood, slumped, unhappiness radiating from her almost palpably. He should just leave her to it, whatever it was. Damir took a step backwards. And as he did so his gaze snagged on the graceful, white villa overlooking the sea. He narrowed his eyes, looking from the villa to the woman.
He didn’t recognise her, knew no one with long, honey-blonde hair, currently falling out of its makeshift bun. He didn’t know any woman of that exact height and build, tall, curvy and toned, with long lean legs. She could be a tourist as a few did visit out of season, lured by the quiet promised by the island. But she wasn’t staying at his hotel, hadn’t eaten in his restaurant, and none of his apartments had been let, which left her with very few possible places to stay. One of which was staring him in the face.
Damir retreated quietly until he was sure he was out of earshot of the beach. He pulled his phone from his pocket and found the contact he needed. Less than two rings and the phone call was answered.
‘Damir?’ The voice was sleepy, as if woken by the call. Damir smiled wryly. His cousin liked to take things easy. The only thing he worked hard at was partying.
‘Goran, did you have any passengers yesterday?’
‘No, at least nobody new. Just the usual Saturday marketeers. But I believe Igor had a late-night commission. An English girl, needed to be brought over from the mainland.’
Damir’s pulse quickened. ‘An English girl? Where is she staying?’
‘You’re best off speaking to Igor, but I think he had arranged a buggy to take her over to the villa at Fire Cove.’
‘Yeah, Marija’s place. Igor said the girl is Josip’s stepdaughter—he married an English woman a while back, that’s why Marija always goes to England over Christmas. But he didn’t get much more out of her. A looker he said, but pretty quiet. Why are you so interested anyway?’
‘No reason,’ Damir lied. He didn’t want anyone, not even his cousin, to know how badly he wanted the villa. Not everyone on the island was happy with how much of the island’s economy his family controlled. If word got out that he was trying to buy the villa—and with it the lucrative beach trade, he knew he would soon have competitors vying against him. They would be unlikely to be able to afford to outbid him, but they might put the price up. ‘Like you say, she’s a looker and it’s not often pretty girls visit the island out of season.’
‘If she’s Josip’s stepdaughter I guess that makes her one of us.’
‘I guess that does. I’d better go make her welcome. Thanks.’
He pocketed his phone and stared back at the narrow sandy path leading to the beach. The one sandy beach on the whole of the island, one of the very few along this rocky coastline. Its perfect curve, fine white sand and gradual shelf made it a safe swimming spot, the tides predictable and gentle, a great place to learn to boat or paddle board or kayak. The sun hit early and continued to beam down until the spectacular sunset. No wonder it was a must-visit destination for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who visited the Dalmatian Riviera every year.
Most came as day trippers, but an increasing amount chose to stay on the island for a night or few, some for even a week, loving the feeling of exclusivity as the last boat pulled away. Damir owned the island’s only hotel along with nearly all the apartments available for holiday lets, the island’s best restaurant plus a harbourside café-bar, and he had a stake in several other businesses too. The ice-cream stall was his, the little local store and the bakery.
It was small fry compared to his investments in Dubrovnik itself and the rest of the Dalmatian Riviera, but Lokvar was where he was from, where his father and grandfather were from, and it was here that he had made his promise to make the Kozina name respected throughout the city, throughout the country. To achieve the dreams his father and grandfather had hatched throughout the years of repression and conflict. It was a promise that had cost him his marriage, but a promise he was well on the way to achieving.
If he could purchase the villa then his work here on Lokvar would be done. The owner of the villa—and more importantly, the land it stood on—owned the access to the beach, the land overlooking the famous bay, and had all the rights and means to capitalise on the tourists who visited there. Marija kept things simple; a modest B&B, a café-bar and a few sunbeds. Damir’s plans were far more exciting. He could turn the bay into Croatia’s premier resort. An island getaway. He just needed the villa and, with Josip, Marija’s son, clearly settled in England, and Marija beginning to slow down, it had seemed that his time had come.
A grudging smile curved his lips. Trust Marija to make things complicated, saying she needed a year to think about it. With prices around Dubrovnik rocketing with every month and every film or TV series filmed in the scenic capital, a year could prove costly. Unless Damir could get the rest of her family onside…
He didn’t know Josip himself. The older man had once been a close friend of Damir’s own father, and with him had joined the volunteers tasked with defending Dubrovnik during the siege in the early nineties, but had left his island and country soon after, never to return, and the friendship had died. Any business with Josip would be impersonal, despite the age-old friendship between the families, conducted by lawyers. Unless he could get the stepdaughter to look favourably upon his bid.
She might be here just for a night, checking in on the family’s property or for a holiday before the season swung into place. Either way time was of the essence. Damir hesitated, picturing again the girl’s defeated pose, the raw hurt in her cry, then set his jaw. He had a job to do, and she might just be the key he needed. It was time to show her just how friendly the locals could be.