Finding the Billionaire by Macie St. James

1

Missing Billionaire Has Silicon ValleyBuzzing.

Renee Forrester skimmed the article on her smartphone screen for a long moment before returning her attention to the scene outside her window. She’d promised herself a screen-free week, just enjoying her favorite inn on her favorite island off the coast of California.

Yet Silicon Valley seemed to have followed her here.

“Can I top you off?”

That came from a server named April who had stopped by here no fewer than seven times in the past fifteen minutes. Renee was the only customer, probably because everyone else was at work. It was one of the few perks of suddenly finding herself unemployed.

Renee nodded, and the server poured some coffee into the giant mug on the table in front of her. “You picked a great week to visit,” April said as she stepped back, holding the coffee pitcher in front of her. “The busy season starts up in two weeks.”

“I’m sure the storms are keeping a few people away.” Renee nodded at the window in front of her, where dark skies loomed over a choppy ocean.

“Yeah, we get a lot of traffic from boats. Not too much boating going on this week, I guess. But with all the cancelations, you pretty much get the inn to yourself.”

Nodding, Renee picked up the tiny creamer container and filled her coffee mug the rest of the way. “I didn’t really check the weather when I left. Just got in the car and drove to meet the ferry. I guess I was lucky I came in last night when the weather was still good.”

Halfway through that last sentence, it became clear that Renee was talking to herself. April’s attention had drifted to the general direction of the entrance to the dining area. Renee didn’t bother to turn to look as the server scurried off to greet the person. If someone else was staying here, she didn’t need to know about it. She wasn’t here to make friends. She was here to rest, recharge, and figure out what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

“Table for one, please.”

The deep, masculine voice almost tempted Renee to turn around. Almost. She didn’t take the bait, though. She closed her eyes as the memory of her boss’s voice came back to her.

We’re going in a different direction. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the nature of the business.

Renee had expected to be fired eventually. She was a TV news reporter, after all, and it was an industry where even the most talented, hardest-working women were often replaced by someone twenty years younger. But she was only twenty-seven. She’d been keeping her highlight reel up to date in the hopes that she’d be the one someone hired as that younger replacement reporter.

“Do you have eggs Benedict?”

Great. The guy’s voice sounded way too close. This was a fairly big dining room, too. Did the server have to place him right behind her?

“It’s a continental breakfast,” April explained in a voice that sounded a little too apologetic for the situation. “Muffins and pastries. We do have oatmeal and granola if you’d like that.”

“I’ll just have coffee,” he said.

The server scurried off and Renee took a deep breath, planning to resume her relaxation. Mr. Deep Voice had other plans.

He didn’t speak. Instead, he rustled around, moving his silverware, coughing, shifting in his seat. Somehow, he managed to make even shifting in his seat noisy. Astounding.

“Here you go,” April chirped a couple of minutes later. The sound of liquid being poured followed.

“Looks like a pretty fierce storm’s coming this way,” the man commented.

“Renee and I were just talking about that.”

Renee squeezed her eyes shut at the sound of April bringing her into the discussion. She picked up the phone, deciding the best course of action was to pretend she was so distracted, she hadn’t heard the mention of her name.

“Renee?”

So much for that. The man was saying her name.

Now the server’s voice again. “This lady right here. Looks like you two are our only guests right now.”

As much as Renee wanted to hide from the world right now, there was no denying her curious nature. It was what attracted her to being a reporter in the first place. She had to turn around and take a look.

She already had her greeting ready to go before she saw him. But as the words spilled out, she caught a glimpse of the man seated there.

Yes, he was gorgeous. Breathtakingly so. He had dark, short-cropped hair and an intense stare. There was a dimple in his chin that somehow made him just a little more interesting to look at than everyone else.

But that wasn’t what made her heart speed up a little when she saw him. She knew him. Well, she knew that face, anyway. It had just been on her screen a few minutes ago.

He was the missing billionaire.

Renee stared at him, not sure what to do. Should she mention it? No, that wouldn’t be a good idea. She had to stay silent, sit on the information a while. Then decide what to do with it.

It was the reporter in her. She couldn’t help it. Anyone else would think about calling the police or asking him straight out if he was the guy making news. Not Renee. Even unemployed, she was considering how she could use this to her advantage.

Derek Hughes nodded, then thanked April. But Renee had already abandoned all thoughts of ignoring the other guests at the inn. This was an opportunity, she was sure of it.

In San Francisco, Renee had been known as a reporter who went after a story, full speed ahead. That part of her personality kicked in and she stood, grabbed her cup of coffee, and moved a couple of seats over at her own large, empty table so she could see him without turning around in her seat.

First step: Make sure he didn’t recognize her. He did live in the San Francisco Bay Area, part of her TV station’s market. But she was hardly a household name, even locally.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

He looked up at her as if surprised she was still there. Yeah, mega successful dudes like him weren’t used to having conversations with average Joes. But he was a missing successful dude, for some reason. That made him a little less elite.

“Nowhere,” he responded, looking past her out the window. “And a little bit of everywhere.”

Okay. What did that even mean?

Before she could ask, he answered, “I live on my sailboat. I come ashore when I can, but never overnight unless the weather turns.”

He punctuated that with a nod at the window. Yeah, she got it. The weather was bad. But she found it pretty intriguing that a missing billionaire now defined himself as living on his boat. A sailboat, no less. She’d bet there was no way to trace him on that boat. That device on the table next to him was probably a burner phone.

“That sounds exciting.” She smiled wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that.”

She wasn’t lying. Traveling the world was a dream of hers. A sailboat might be a bit rustic. A giant cruise ship run by professionals who knew how to navigate around bad weather would be more her speed.

“I highly recommend it,” he said.

She frowned. “What do you do for work, though?”

Mostly, she was curious how he’d answer that question. Would he admit he didn’t have to work because he’d made a bunch of money in Silicon Valley on yachts or something?

Yachts. Boats. She suddenly got the connection.

“I’m in boating,” he said. “I travel around, selling. Boring stuff. What do you do?”

She couldn’t help but notice how swiftly he’d changed the subject. It would work with most people, actually, but she liked to ask the questions, not answer them.

As she searched for the answer, April returned, setting down a dish in front of her. It held a bowl of oatmeal, artfully arranged with an orchid on top, along with a blueberry and strawberry, both perfectly positioned.

Very chef-like.

“I’m a chef!” Renee blurted as April headed back to the kitchen.

Had that sounded as loud as she thought? She nervously looked around. She knew nobody else was here, but she did it out of habit.

“Interesting.” Derek leaned forward. “So, what do you think of the oatmeal?”

She looked down at the bowl. It was pretty, but she knew all too well that didn’t mean it was tasty. She picked up the spoon at her place setting and took a tentative bite of the oatmeal. Then she took another, much more generous one.

“Thick,” she said when she finally swallowed the second bite. “But the oats haven’t held their shape well. The key to good oatmeal is to soften the oats up just enough. Mushy is bad.”

“Mushy is bad.” He smiled at that, and for a moment, she wondered if maybe she’d strayed a little too far away from professional chef territory with that comment. “You know what? I think I’ll try some.”

As if summoned, April suddenly came through the kitchen door, walking straight toward him. “Is everything okay? Need a refill?”

“I’ll have the oatmeal.” Derek gestured in Renee’s general direction. “Maybe with extra fruit.”

April nodded and rushed off to the kitchen. Renee couldn’t help but notice she moved faster and was a little extra helpful when she waited on Derek.

“Do you think they can hear us back there?” Renee whispered once April was safely in the kitchen. “She seemed to know you wanted something.”

“It’s possible.” He shrugged. “Or she’s just bored.”

“She did check on my coffee way too often before you showed up. I was glad to see you.”

“Really.” He smiled, leaning forward a little.

She’d meant the statement in a lighthearted way, but she didn’t want it to sound like she was glad to see him for personal reasons. The last thing she wanted right now was any sort of romantic thing. She had to get her own life in order before she even thought about dating.

Besides, Derek Hughes was way, way, way out of her league. No, he was the key to getting her career back on track. She had to stay focused.

“Just to get her off my case,” Renee said, taking another bite of her oatmeal. It was really good, but she couldn’t seem to get past her description of it as mushy. All she tasted now was mush.

“What brings you to the island?” Derek asked.

Renee looked up from her food. He was asking her questions again. That had to stop.

“This is my favorite place.” She looked out the window. “The first time I came to California as a child, it was to this island.”

“So, you aren’t from California?”

She laughed. “Is anyone?”

Maybe that gave away a little too much. Outside L.A. and San Francisco, there were plenty of people who had lived here from birth. Those two cities just seemed to be known for their transplants.

“I’m from Indiana,” she said. “Hoosier, born and raised.”

“Sports fan?”

“Basketball. My dad was a high school coach, so it was pretty much required.” She smiled, fondly remembering all the hours she’d spent sitting in bleachers, cheering her father’s team on. It was one of the best parts of growing up in a small town.

“I’m more a baseball guy myself.” He sat back in his chair and stared at her. The scrutiny was a little unsettling. “It sounds like you and your dad are close.”

“We are. My mom, too. I just wish I could see them more often.”

She was giving away far too much here. She had to find a way to stop this before she poured out her entire life story to the guy.

Derek didn’t ask. He waited a while, silently, for her to continue, then straightened in his seat as the server returned.

“I added some extra fruit for you,” April said as she stepped away. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

Renee almost laughed out loud. At first, she’d assumed Derek was getting preferential treatment because he exuded “billionaire,” but now she saw it for what it was. April clearly found him attractive. He probably got that sort of reaction everywhere he went.

She wondered how he planned to hide out for the next however long when he would draw attention everywhere he went.

“You’re right. This is delicious.”

She nodded. At least she wouldn’t blow her cover as a chef.

“So, where’s your restaurant?”

His question threw her off. She looked over, mentally backtracking to recall when she’d given him the impression she owned a restaurant.

“I’d love to come try your cooking next time I’m in town.”

“I never said what town,” she pointed out.

That was deliberate. She wanted to make sure he hadn’t recognized her and was keeping it a secret. There was no way he would assume she lived in Northern California. She’d merely told him she was from Indiana and visited this island off the coast of Southern California when she was younger.

“You didn’t, but I travel around, remember?” He pulled a handful of sugar packets from the dish in the center of his table and began opening and dumping them, one at a time, onto his oatmeal. “Geography doesn’t apply.”

“I’m between jobs right now,” she said, setting her spoon in her half-eaten bowl of oatmeal and pushing it away. That was one thing about oatmeal. It was filling. “I’m here trying to figure out my next move.”

He paused in eating and stared at her. “So, you’re looking for work.”

“Maybe.”

She was curious about where he was going with this. No doubt he knew a bunch of people who owned restaurants. One problem with that: She wasn’t looking for a job as a chef, but she couldn’t let him know that.

He was still eyeing her, this time in a way that seemed like an assessment. “I may have something for you, but I have to make sure you’re the right person for the job.”

She couldn’t be more wrong for whatever job he was considering, but she had a feeling going along with this was key to spending more time with him. And spending more time with him was key to getting the best story. By the time the storm blew over and he was back on his sailboat, she’d be able to write an in-depth story on who he was, where he was going, and why he’d gone into hiding.