DUKE RYDER BALANCED his cell phone against his shoulder, listening to his buddy and investment partner Pierce Braden talk about their newest potential investment property as he followed the rickety wooden dock onto the white sandy beach.
“The dock just might be the most stable thing on Elpitha Island,” Pierce said. “Try to soak in a little sand and sun while you’re there. That’s the best part of the island.”
Duke’s eyes were immediately drawn to the sprawling oak trees he’d read about, standing sentinel over the forested acreage beyond. Long, thick branches spread like languid arms draped in moss, reaching for…what? One glance told him that there wasn’t much to reach for, save for a building that looked more like a forgotten Mediterranean villa than the welcome center of the small Southern island. The stone and wood building had a deep porch that spanned the entire length of the left side with stone pillars. A wooden trellis laced with the most captivating flowering vines shaded the area. Although the structure itself was in need of repair, it was surrounded by perfectly manicured, ornate gardens, which contrasted sharply with overgrown and unkempt bushes littering the far edges of the property.
“The proximity to the mainland isn’t bad,” Duke said to Pierce. He set his suitcase on the sand and looked back at the Atlantic. “It only took an hour fifteen to get here.” Elpitha was the smallest of the vacation islands off of South Carolina, and more than half of the land had been owned by the Liakos family for centuries. It was just over eight square miles, and not many investors wanted such a small tract of land, or to deal with families that were as entrenched as the Liakos family was thought to be. Some families might sell out, but they would fight tooth and nail against change, which could cause discourse on an island this small. Duke and Pierce weren’t deterred. The restrictive size of the property would only increase the value, making it an exclusive vacation spot for the elite.
“With Hilton Head and the other islands so overrun,” Pierce said, “Elpitha is ripe for development. Although we’ll have to work around that name. Who wants to go to an island called Elpitha? It sounds more like a disease than an island.”
Duke squinted up at the blazing sun and loosened his tie. “I don’t know. I kind of like it.” He noticed a plantation-style home tucked behind the trees in the distance. “They weren’t kidding about the strange mix of Mediterranean and Southern feel of the place. This should be interesting.” Duke knew some of the island’s history, and though he still didn’t understand why Greeks would immigrate to the South and try to re-create their country’s feel, it didn’t much matter. If he and Pierce decided to purchase the land, they would bulldoze every structure and give the island a complete Southern overhaul, making it the most desirable resort area in the South.
“Chuck called earlier and said Liakos’s granddaughter Gabriella is an attorney,” Pierce explained. “He thinks they might bring her in on things. Apparently their family keeps things tight. So if you meet her, play nice.”
The hollow clank of a screen door hitting its frame drew Duke’s attention. A woman stood on the porch of the old building, shading her eyes from the sun as she looked out at the water. Her long dark hair hung halfway down her back. Duke was too far away to see her features, but there was no missing her curvaceous ass and full breasts, not to mention legs that seemed to go on forever beneath her short summery dress. Duke watched with interest as he listened to Pierce relay the most recent information from the attorneys and engineers.
The woman glanced at her watch, then settled her hand on her hip. A voice rang out from inside the building, and the pretty woman hurried back inside.
“I just found proof of life,” he said to Pierce as he stepped onto the sandy path. “I’ll call you once I’ve done some recon.”
His black leather shoes quickly lost their shine from the dusty road as he approached the building. Voices filtered out the open windows as he mounted the steps. He glanced through the screen door, spotting the brunette he’d just seen. She was facing away from him, speaking heatedly in Greek, hands flailing as her exasperated voice pitched higher.
A thick-waisted man with salt-and-pepper hair sat at a table near the counter, amusement shining in his dark eyes as the brunette ranted to an older woman, and then the man said something Duke couldn’t hear.
“Ugh! Baba!” The younger woman threw her hands up in the air and flew out the screen door, nearly smacking Duke in the face.
He stumbled backward, giving the angry woman a wide breadth as she paced the front porch. She mumbled something in Greek and then crossed her arms, raised her shoulders, and dropped them quickly with a loud harrumph. Duke couldn’t help but drink in the flush on her smooth, sun-kissed cheeks. Her nose was small and straight, and her almond-shaped, dark—and currently angry—eyes were shadowed by lashes so long they brushed her cheeks.
Having grown up with a younger sister, Duke bided his time in announcing his presence, not wanting to take the brunt of her reaction to whatever the man had said to upset her.
She inhaled a deep breath, her breasts rising and pressing against the sheer fabric, then falling as she exhaled loudly. Her shoulders lowered, and the tightness around her mouth softened. She turned a full-lipped, mind-numbing smile to Duke, as if she hadn’t just come out in a firestorm.
“My father believes that no matter what he says, I hear something else.” She tilted her head to the side in a thoughtful pose, and in the space of a second her eyes filled with rebellion, making her even sexier. “Hearing and agreeing are two different things.”
Duke wondered what her father had just said that got her panties in a bunch. Christ. Now he was thinking about her panties.
“I’m Gabriella Liakos. Welcome to Elpitha Island.”
The granddaughter? Playing nice would not be a problem with this feisty beauty. Duke shook her hand, holding it a beat longer than he probably should, still mesmerized by the whirlwind of energy radiating from her. “Duke Ryder. It’s nice to meet you. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“No one intrudes on Elpitha,” she said sweetly.
Duke shifted his eyes to the screen door, and she laughed softly. It was the rare type of laugh that floated like the wind and wasn’t easily forgotten.
“We’re Greek,” she said with a shrug, as if that explained it all.
“When you combine a Greek father and a Southern mother, who learned all the best Greek ways, that’s what you get. Food, yelling, guilt, more food. Sweet love. Crazy love. More food. That’s who we are.” She dragged her gorgeous eyes down his suit to his shoes and put one hand on her hip as she had earlier, tapping her lips with the other.
Duke wouldn’t mind getting his mouth on those succulent lips for some crazy love.
“You’re the investor, checking out our island so you can line your pockets, right?”
He couldn’t tell if the look in her eyes was teasing or serious, but her sharp tongue piqued his interest even more. Duke respected confidence, and even though it wasn’t the greeting he’d hoped for, he liked knowing that Gabriella wasn’t a pushover.
“Something like that,” he answered casually.
As a real estate investor, Duke knew his clients were vulnerable and, more often than not, taking a deal they didn’t really care for because, by the time he swooped in to save the day, they had gotten a strong dose of what failure tasted like. A hard pill to swallow. Which was why Duke didn’t flinch as Gabriella measured everything about him, from his appearance to his answers. While other investors were cold as sharks, Duke had never quite mastered making ice flow through his veins. But he always got the job done.
Her eyes flicked toward the water, where another boat was nearing the dock. Her smiled turned genuine at the sight of a handful of children waving from the boat. She waved both arms over her head and yelled something in Greek, then settled her hands on her hips as she watched the children file from the boat.
“It was nice to meet you, Gabriella,” Duke said, hoping he’d see her later. The island had a population of just over two hundred and fifty people, so he imagined it would be hard not to see the same people throughout his stay. “I’ll just step inside and see about my room and a tour.”
“Lucky you,” she said, turning a steady gaze back to him, “I’m your tour host.” She didn’t wait for him to reply as she opened the screen door and hollered something in Greek to the people inside. Over her shoulder, she said to Duke, “Give me a sec to get your keys and the cart, and I’ll show you around and drop you at your place.”
It took a moment for him to remember that they drove golf carts or used bicycles on the island and that cars were prohibited.
She hurried inside and headed directly to her Baba, which Duke now knew meant he was her father, and said something that made the man laugh. She leaned in to kiss and hug her father, and her dress crept up, exposing the backs of her thighs and hugging her ass. He tried to ignore the stroke of awareness racing through him. She walked around the counter and grabbed a set of keys from a hook, then draped an arm around the shoulders of the woman with whom she was speaking earlier.
“Mama,” Gabriella said to the woman. Her mother’s hair was a shade lighter than hers. “Talk some sense into him, will you, please?” She whispered something, then kissed her, too.
The woman wiped her hands on an apron and smiled at Duke, catching him observing them. “Welcome to our island, Mr. Ryder. I’m Peggy Ann, and this is my husband, Niko.”
Her warm Southern drawl took Duke by surprise after hearing her speak fluent Greek, and he realized it shouldn’t have. They were in the South, after all.
He stepped inside. “It’s a pleasure to be here, and to meet you both.”
Gabriella’s father nodded. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Ryder.”
“I’ll meet you out front,” Gabriella said as she grabbed a large basket from the counter, then disappeared through a door in the back of the room.
As he stepped onto the porch, Duke had a feeling Pierce was wrong about the sand and sun being the best part of the island. Those things had nothing on the intriguing woman who’d just slipped out the back door.