When Taylor rang to invite her to a party that night, Danika’s first instinct was to decline. She already had plans, and she needed to work on fixing her jetlagged body clock. But then Taylor reminded her that there was no time like the present to reclaim her crown.
‘Everyone will be there, Danny, and a bunch of us are keen to welcome you home,’ Taylor had explained.
‘When you say everyone…’
‘Yes, that includes Malik’s gang, but hey, this is the perfect opportunity to put them back in their place, right?’ It figured that those scumbags would be mixing with the elites. A town like Moonlake was not big enough for a happening nightlife and word travelled fast; so even when you planned a small gathering, it turned into a full-fledged party that attracted most of the under thirties.
This was how she got wrangled into going out after dinner and stargazing with her parents. The doorbell chimed as she was applying her last coat of lip gloss, and voices drifted up the stairs a moment later when Michael, their butler, let Taylor inside. Glancing in the mirror, Danika inspected herself one last time. Satisfied that her hair and makeup were perfect, she smiled at her choice of outfit: a red, off-the-shoulder minidress and matching heels that she picked up from a London boutique.
Taylor whistled from her chair in the front sitting room. ‘You look hot, Danny girl! You’ll definitely knock ‘em dead in that.’
‘Good, because that’s the plan.’ Grabbing her matching purse, Danika followed Taylor out to a sporty little Mazda and hopped into the passenger seat, thinking that she ought to get herself a new car soon.
The venue—a large red-brick Federation mansion with cream coloured iron lacework—belonged to the Marshall family. Their daughter, Elise, had been one of Danika’s friends at school, although they had drifted apart during their university years. As they strode around the side of the house, thumping bass permeated through the walls, joining the sounds of laughter, shrieking, and water splashing as people dived into the pool. Everyone turned their gaze upon Danika as she stepped onto the patio.
‘Oh my God! Danny!’ Elise screamed, jumping up from a sun lounge to meet her. ‘Welcome back!’ She threw her arms around Danika.
‘Thanks, Lise.’ She surveyed the crowd, a mix of alumni from the district’s three high schools, ranging in age from eighteen to thirty. While it was possible that a few younger siblings were present, the underage kids tended to stick to their own parties. There were even a few new faces she did not recognise.
One guy in particular caught her attention as he climbed out of the pool, stealing Danika’s breath. Beads of glistening water clung to tanned skin that stretched over toned muscles. After shaking his head and combing long fingers through his dirty blond hair, more droplets trickled down over his broad shoulders. Then his eyes locked with Danika’s and the world began to swirl.
‘Holy cow! Who is he?’ Danika asked in a hushed voice.
Elise giggled. ‘That’s my cousin, Grayson. He just moved here from Sydney. You might want to wipe the drool from your chin before he reaches us.’
Using the pads of her thumb, she dabbed the moisture that pooled in the corners of her mouth and composed herself in the nick of time.
‘Hey Grayson, this is my friend, Danika. We went to school together,’ Elise explained. ‘She just got back from studying in London.’
He took the hand that Danika offered, pressing a chaste kiss to the back of it. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ The deep timbre of his voice sent electric sparks through her body and down to the tips of her toes that curled in response.
Danika licked her lips when he hesitated to release her hand. ‘What brings you to Moonlake, Grayson?’
‘Work. I accepted a teaching position at Lakeside Grammar. What about yourself? Do you intend to stay or are you just passing through?’
‘I’m staying as part of the research team that will be based at the new space observatory just outside of town.’
Perfectly sculpted brows rose as his sapphire eyes widened. ‘An astronomy major. I’m impressed.’
A cacophony of voices drew their attention to Malik who emerged from the house with his entourage in tow. He swaggered over to Danika, sporting his usual scowl. ‘Hey Shortcake, who’s the new blood?’
Danika rolled her eyes as Elise made the introductions.
‘What Elise failed to mention,’ clarified Danika, ‘is that Malik did not go to school with us. He attended Moonlake Area School.’
‘Okay?’ Grayson replied.
Shaking Grayson’s hand firmly, Malik sniggered. ‘They also forgot to tell you that I own this town.’
‘So, you’re a businessman then?’ Grayson inquired.
One side of Malik’s mouth curved into a sly grin. ‘Indeed, I am. You’d do well to remember that all local transactions show up on my accounts.’
Danika felt the blood drain from her face. Have things really changed that much around here? Did Malik manage to buy out all the small businesses in Moonlake? Or is he just bluffing? She decided that it warranted investigation and possibly a few investments of her own.
‘Good to know,’ replied Grayson. ‘I’m looking to buy my own house soon. I can’t very well sponge off my Uncle forever.’
‘Does that mean you are staying here in the meantime?’ Danika asked, pulling his attention back to her in a concerted effort to ignore Malik.
‘Yes, I am. Uncle Grant was kind enough to put me up in the guest house.’ Grayson waved toward the modern addition to the Marshall property that was set further back beyond the pool. Despite being dwarfed by the main house, the building would have comfortably housed a family of four. ‘So at least I have some privacy while I stay here.’ He winked at her.
She prayed to God that there was enough makeup on her face to conceal the colour in her flushed cheeks. ‘Privacy is good,’ she rasped.
Grayson’s eyes darkened to a midnight blue. ‘Would you like to join me for a drink?’
Grabbing the arm that he extended, she smiled demurely as he led her inside. ‘Gladly.’