Aria Simons hovered just inside her boss, Derek’s, office, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt. Derek had summoned her and her colleague Johnny Chen, the sports reporter for the South Canterbury Chronicle, to his office a few minutes ago with no explanation. It made her nervous. Aria loved her job reporting on local community issues and generally sailed under the radar, avoiding contact with upper management. In her last job, appearing too friendly with management had gotten her in trouble, and she’d been determined not to repeat her previous mistakes when she started at the Chronicle.
Johnny leaned against the doorframe beside Aria, both of them uncomfortable being singled out by Derek, who looked totally in control, poring over tomorrow’s articles behind his massive oak desk. He hadn’t glanced up since they entered, although he knew they were there. Power play. How Aria hated it.
Finally, he raised his head. “Miss Simons, Mr. Chen, thank you for coming. You may have heard that Kaia Anglem has resigned.”
Aria shook her head and glanced at Johnny, who seemed equally surprised. “When does she leave?”
“Four weeks. She handed in her letter yesterday. She’s moving to the Christchurch Press.”
Aria clutched her stomach as it roiled uncomfortably. The Press. Even the name dredged up a host of unpleasant memories. Wilson Jones’ creepy advances, the judgement, the censure. She prayed Kaia would be smarter than she’d been.
“She’ll be missed,” Johnny replied. He’d pushed off from his position against the doorframe and stood tall, his arms folded over his chest. “And she’ll leave a real gap in the organization.”
Ah, now she realized why they were here. The pain in her stomach fizzled out, replaced by excitement, and she fought to hide a grin. It wouldn’t do to get ahead of herself.
“Exactly.” Derek was smiling now. “I’ve spoken with the other editors, and they’ve nominated the two of you for promotion to Kaia’s position as senior reporter.”
“That’s fantastic,” Aria began, but Derek silenced her with a hand gesture.
“Unfortunately, as you see, there is one position and two of you.”
Aria met Johnny’s eyes and saw them narrow. As a natural athlete, being competitive was in his blood. In contrast, Aria had kept her competitive side under wraps since leaving the Press. She’d always thought of her Type A personality as an advantage, until suddenly it wasn’t. Putting it behind her had taken a lot of effort, and she just knew Derek was about to bring it to the fore.
Derek slapped his palms down on the desk and leaned forward, his smile taking on an edge. “I will be reading all of your articles over the next four weeks, and whoever has stirred the most public interest at the end of that time will be given the promotion.”
“Thank you for the opportunity,” Aria said, pressing her palms together nervously. “I’m sure we’ll both do our best.”
This was it. Her chance for redemption.
Johnny nodded to her. “May the best man win.”
* * *
“We need to meet. Now.”
Aria recognized the voice on the other end of the phone immediately. “Hello to you too, Eliza. What can I do for you?”
She’d called Eliza Brown and a few other contacts earlier, looking for a good story to start earning her promotion. Eliza had murmured something typically vague and hung up. One of two real estate agents based in Aria’s hometown, Itirangi, Eliza was grey-haired and stern, reminiscent of a school headmistress—it certainly wasn’t her bubbly personality or welcoming smile that sold houses. Eliza was efficient. Frighteningly so.
“I need to talk to you. I have some news you might be interested in.”
Regardless of how desperate Aria was for a juicy story, she had a four o’clock deadline and two articles to finish. “Now doesn’t suit. How about first thing tomorrow morning?”
“Now, Miss Simons.” The words were sharp. In another life, Eliza Brown would have made an excellent drill sergeant. “It will be worth your while. Meet me at the bakehouse.”
Aria glanced at her watch. Just past one o’clock. She could finish her stories at home and email them in. If Eliza’s story could help her win a promotion, she’d be a fool to ignore her. “I’ll see you soon.”
New Zealand-famous for its award-winning pies and magnificent backdrop, Itirangi’s bakehouse was built on a terrace above Lake Itirangi and looked out over an enormous body of azure water that stretched into the distance, ending at the foot of the Southern Alps. Suspended glacial sediments produced the rich blue of the lake. ‘Itirangi’ translated to ‘Little Sky’ in Maori, and the reason for the name was obvious to anyone who visited on a fine day. For then, they would see a perfect reflection of the heavens upon the water.
Eliza was yet to arrive, but Aria’s friend Emily Parker, the local florist, was sitting at a table by the window. Redheaded and lovely, Emily was Itirangi’s businesswoman of the year. Aria took a seat next to her and checked the time. A full three minutes had passed since the last time she’d looked.
She turned to her friend. “Hey, Em.”
“Hey there.” Emily greeted her, looked up from the newspaper and grinned. “I’m just reading the article you wrote yesterday about the increase in local housing prices. Interesting stuff.”
Aria grimaced. Human interest stories were her favorite; economics, not so much. “If you say so.”
Emily returned to reading. Aria tapped her foot and wondered why she’d been called here. She hated not knowing. It was her mission in life to know everything, and to know it first. She called it journalistic instinct. Her friends called it nosiness.
Finally, Eliza arrived and took a seat across from her. She cleared her throat and rested her hands on the table. “Miss Simons, I’m sorry for being brief on the phone. I wanted to discuss this in person.”
“You said you have a story for me?”
“I do.” Eliza summoned a waitress and requested a pot of tea. “You’re aware, of course, that an investor has purchased the remaining land at the Lakeview subdivision.”
“Yes.” It had been a major coup. Itirangi had once been owned entirely by locals, but within the last few years, out-of-towners had begun investing in holiday homes and accommodation businesses. Only a few weeks earlier, an unknown quantity had purchased the large property left over from a residential subdivision. The subdivision, on the top of a hill, had a clear view over the township to the lake, and the newly purchased block of land was a prime piece of real estate—too pricey for most locals.
“I’ve investigated the company who purchased the land and have some disturbing news,” Eliza said. “They’re planning to build a shopping complex and a motel.”
Aria’s eyes widened in surprise. Once a rural backwater, Itirangi was becoming a popular tourist destination thanks to its warm summers, gorgeous lake, view of the mountains and proximity to the ski fields. Despite that, it retained a small-town charm, and she hadn’t imagined any commercial property developers would be seriously interested in it.
Boutique clothing stores, souvenir shops, and jewelers lined the main street. A shopping complex and an accommodation complex would mean competition for the local stores.
“Oh my god,” Aria said. “Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. It’s my understanding that the council received an application to build on the site this morning.”
Eliza was right. This was a good story. A new shopping complex would change the atmosphere of Itirangi. “Surely, the councilors won’t approve it. Something of this scale would mean a change of direction for the town.”
Emily put aside her newspaper and interrupted. “They almost certainly will. Dad thinks it’s a brilliant idea. From what I’ve heard, the other councilors are also on board. It’ll create job opportunities and bring in more tourists. It was bound to happen eventually.”
“But what about the existing businesses?” Aria asked. “A new development will mean more competition for them.”
“But it will also mean more variety for shoppers. They can see potential for an overall benefit to the town. Councilors Jackson and Reynolds plan to set up shop in the new premises.”
“Which is why I called you.” Eliza turned her black eyes on Aria, the corners of her mouth upturned. Some might say it was a smile, but Aria knew otherwise. Eliza never smiled. And if it was silly to be afraid of a little old lady, then Aria was a fool, because Eliza terrified her.
“Why, exactly?” she asked, dread bubbling in the pit of her stomach with the surety that Eliza hadn’t invited her here purely to help her with a story.
“You have the power to ruin this company with bad publicity. Make it so difficult for them that they decide it’s not worth building here. Turn public opinion against them.”
“Public opinion will already be divided.” As with all change, some people would think of it as an opportunity and some would resist.
“To a certain extent,” Eliza agreed. “But no one outside of Itirangi realizes how special this place is the way it is. You can reach a wider audience than I can. People respect you, Miss Simons. They listen to what you have to say.”
“I want a big story,” Aria said. “I need one, and this could give me a whole mini-series, so thank you for that, but I won’t set out to demonize the developer. If that’s what comes of it, then so be it, but I’ll go wherever the story takes me.”
“Do whatever you can.” Although Eliza’s expression didn’t change, Aria had a sense that Eliza was pleading with her. She had to set her straight. “If I write about this, I can’t promise you what the outcome will be.”
Eliza sighed. “It will have to do.”
Closing her eyes, Aria sucked in a breath. Yes, this might just give her the story she needed, but Eliza’s revelation had wider implications. When Aria returned home to Itirangi after eight years away, she’d envisioned weekends spent kayaking, swimming, or reading in the sun in her quiet backyard. The thought of major companies taking an interest in developing Itirangi had crossed her mind. How could it not, when property prices were soaring, and the hotels were constantly full? But, somehow, she’d convinced herself it wouldn’t really happen. That Itirangi wouldn’t become yet another bustling lakeside tourist town like Queenstown. Not that there was anything wrong with Queenstown, but it was a hive of activity. Aria preferred the laidback lifestyle of her hometown.
She felt sick to her stomach. Mouth dry, she pushed away from the table and stood. “I’ll do some research tonight and should have something to publish in the next couple of days.” Reaching over, she shook Eliza’s hand, conscious that her own felt cold and clammy, then turned and strode toward the exit.
* * *
Elijah Lockwood stalked from one end of his Auckland-based office to the other, tracking a path across the lush carpet. Outside the window, the pinnacle of the Sky Tower stood prominently against the skyline.
“You told me we’d have the go-ahead a month ago,” he barked to the foreman on the other end of the phone. The man was handling his latest development, in a hick town fast on its way to becoming a tourist hotspot. “I have a timeline to work to. Now I have to adjust it. I have tradesmen booked. Engineers and interior designers I’ll have to reschedule. Remind me why we’re having these problems.”
“A few of the locals aren’t cooperating,” the foreman explained. “They’re throwing up roadblocks wherever possible.”
“Why?” Eli asked, beginning to pace again, forward toward the window looking out over the central business district, then back to the dark mahogany desk. “And how many?”
“Just a handful. They’re campaigning to ‘keep it local’. Complaining that their businesses will lose customers.”
Eli groaned and rubbed his temples. “This will be good for them. They’re just too set in their ways to see it. What can I do to smooth things along?”
He wasn’t generally a diplomatic person. Not charming or good at handling people. But he did have a talent for frightening them into submission. It wasn’t his preferred tactic. He slept better at night when business was amicable, but he understood that scare tactics were sometimes necessary.
“Maybe you could come down here and deal with it yourself,” the foreman suggested. “Conflict isn’t really my thing.”
Eli glanced at his calendar, which was booked full of meetings and appointments for the foreseeable future. No personal time, no time off. He hadn’t dated in months, rarely saw his family, and had long since lost contact with all the friends who weren’t also colleagues. He simply didn’t have the time.
Massaging his temples again, he thought of the time and effort he’d put into this latest project. His decision to build in the small town was a first, but he’d done his research, and the tourism industry in Itirangi was growing exponentially. Dozens of wealthy men and women were purchasing holiday homes there, and the local accommodation was booked months in advance.
This investment would pay off in spades. The research said so, the numbers said so, and most importantly, his gut said so. Eli was a logical man, but he had a really good feeling about this, and he was willing to make sacrifices. Unfortunately, taking time away from his office in New Zealand’s largest city was nigh on impossible.
“I’ll think on it,” he said. “In the meantime, do what you can.”
* * *
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly for Aria. She hammered out her stories and submitted them. Then she looked over property records for the Lakeview subdivision site and made a call to Hemi Densom. She needed to know exactly what this Lockwood Holdings company was proposing.
Hemi was a town planner. They’d been on a date once, but they were better friends than lovers. He was perfectly nice: funny, smart, and charming, and at six feet tall with broad shoulders, a swarthy complexion and dark hair, also pretty damn hot. But he didn’t make her pulse quicken, give her butterflies or make her tongue trip over itself.
The call connected. “Hemi Densom speaking.”
“Hi, Hemi,” she said. “It’s Aria here.”
“Aria! Kei te pehea koe? How are you?”
“Kei te pai au,” she replied. “Better now that I’m talking to you.”
“You smooth talker.” He chuckled. “Did you ask someone for my number? Because I don’t remember giving it to you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Are you stalking me, Ri?”
“Nothing that exciting.” Aria’s tone was wry, her fingers crossed. “I’m hoping you might do me a favor.”
“What kind of favor?” Hemi sounded wary. “You know that most of my work is confidential.”
“I only want some public information,” she assured him.
“You’ll have to be more specific.” His guard was up.
“Did you receive an application for a mall development in Itirangi?”
“Word spreads fast.” Obviously, he’d discounted the town’s penchant for gossip.
“Sure does. I’ll take that as a yes. Can I get a copy of it?”
“You could have come to the council and asked at the front desk. Why call me?” Hemi’s frustration was clear, even if she didn’t know the reason for it.
“Then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of talking to you.” She was laying it on a bit thick but couldn’t help it. Hemi had a sarcastic sense of humor, as well as a natural irreverence, and he brought out the same in her.
“Not funny, Ri.”
Sighing, she admitted the truth. “I was hoping to hear your opinion. You know, how it looks, whether it’s likely to be approved. I’ve heard that the councilors support it.”
“You know I can’t tell you my opinion,” he chastised her. “And who told you that the councilors support it?”
“Councilor Parker talks too much,” Hemi grumbled. “Emily isn’t much better.”
“Hemi!” Aria was shocked. Rude comments were a world away from what she’d come to expect from him. “Emily is lovely.”
“Yeah, she is.” He sighed. “Aroha mai. Sorry, it’s been a rough day. Do you know how many people have knocked on my door today, wanting to know about this development?”
“A few,” she guessed. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Eight,” he said. “Five angry ratepayers who think we should dismiss the application without even considering it, and three who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
Hemi sighed again, and she could hear paper rustling in the background. “I’ll email the application through to your work address. The most I can say is that they’re complying with the council’s standards for the building design.”
“Thanks, Hemi. I really appreciate it.”