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All for Love - 3 Series Starters

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ALL FOR LOVE

3 SERIES STARTERS

Featuring

The Boat Builder’s Bed (Wicked in Wellington Book 1)

Melting His Heart (The Heartlands Series Book 1)

Taken by the Sheikh (Sheikhs of Al Sounam Book 1)

Kris Pearson

ISBN 978-0-9951021-1-8

These three novels introduce you to the first three series of my work. I hope you enjoy them. Visit http://www.krispearson.com to explore all my books and sign up for my newsletter.

Copyright © 2017 by Kris Pearson

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.

 

THE BOAT BUILDER’S BED

Kris Pearson

A windy day…a flyaway signboard…a hideous crunch. Sophie Calhoun can’t imagine how she’ll pay for the damage to the luxurious car. She’s struggling to launch her design studio and make a home for her daughter.

Out of the black Jaguar storms super-yacht tycoon Rafe Severino. Steaming mad. Totally gorgeous, desperately in need of a top-line decorator for his spectacular harbor-side mansion.

Love and thanks to Philip for the unfailing encouragement and computer un-snarling. And thanks to my neighbor, Joseph, who told me about growing up whangaied—and breathed a whole new book into life.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is co-incidental.

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1 — Bang!

Rafe Severino pounded his fist on the steering wheel in time with the old Rolling Stones anthem. The Stones weren’t getting any ‘satisfaction’ and neither was he. His company, Severino Superyachts New Zealand, seemed unstoppable. Personally though, Rafe was lost in the desert.

And he knew it.

He hated that his marriage had been a mess. Hated being the last son to establish his own family. Hated the way his parents fawned over his younger brothers and their kids—and barely acknowledged his existence.

He hated even more that he let it matter.

Ahead of him a truck swung out across the road prior to reversing into an alley. Rafe slowed and then stopped to give the driver space.

The wind from the sea had risen. A flag flapped and rattled on a nearby pole. An empty Coke can tumbled along the gutter. Inside his Jaguar with the volume up high, Rafe saw both but heard neither. ‘Satisfaction’ seemed a long way off.

He sucked in a deep breath and tried to drag his brain onto something else.

His eyes drifted to the legs of a high-heeled blonde as she edged through a nearby doorway with a sign-board. The wind tugged at the long tendrils of her hair, concealing part of her face with a sexy golden veil, but still something about her seemed familiar.

Then the hem of her filmy blue skirt flipped up and Rafe sharpened his attention.

To the girl’s obvious consternation the sign-board started to collapse, and he easily lip-read her short sharp curse. His mouth quirked at her frustration as she swiped at her flying hair with one hand and clutched the sign with the other.

Recognition streaked through him then—an assistant of Faye’s. Josie or Susie— something like that. Maybe his ambitious ex-wife had new premises he didn’t know about? Was she going up in the world or down?

A combination of curiosity and his grandmother’s long ingrained code of chivalry made him turn the big car into a vacant space and kill the engine and the music. At that instant a more vigorous gust of wind wrenched the sign right out of the girl’s hands and flung it onto the sidewalk. The two halves parted company and she jumped onto one to hold it down, for all the world like a child playing hopscotch. The other flew up and hit the front of his car.

There was a bang. A crunch. A sound that could only mean bad news. Rafe added his own curse to hers and swung his long body out. He closed the door with a savage ‘thunk’ and strode around to assess the damage.

The girl stayed frozen, all legs and flying skirt and hair, as though she was perched on her own little surfboard.

Once she’d gathered the gleaming strands up in both hands her mouth became a perfect ‘o’ of horror and her eyes grew almost as round.

Rafe’s quick inspection confirmed his corner light needed repairing in a hurry. He shot her a glacial glare. “Nice work.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said in a crushed voice.

Not trusting himself to speak further, he dug out his mobile and started running through the pre-sets to find the Jaguar dealer.

“So, so sorry,” she repeated. “I’ll pay for it somehow.”

“Of course you will.”

“It was a total accident,” she added with a hint of defensiveness.

Rafe held up a hand to silence her as the dealership answered. He turned away to conduct his conversation and concluded it with, “Around two? Thanks buddy—I owe you.”

He returned his gaze to the girl. She stood very straight now, clutching her half of the sign with an absolute death grip and looking as though she expected the guillotine blade to fall any second.

Christ man, lighten up! It wasn’t her fault and they can fix the car this afternoon.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, softening his manner as he took in her obvious panic. “No-one’s fault. It was only the thought of not being able to use the car tonight.”

“Bad things seem to happen in threes,” she said. “At least that’s the whole three out of the way. First your light. Then not being able to use your car. And third, my broken sign. I really need that sign.”

Rafe turned and picked up the other piece, undamaged apart from its hinged top. “It’ll never stay together with these tiny screws. It’s Josie, isn’t it?”

She shook her head. “Sophie. And you’re Mr Severino. I worked—”

“—for Faye. Yes, I know. I’ll fix the sign for you.”

“Why would you do that? After I damaged your car?”

He ignored the sharpness in her query. He’d over-reacted. No wonder she sounded prickly.

“Because I’m a helpful kind of guy. Is Faye about?”

“Faye? Faye and I—have gone our separate ways,” she muttered, avoiding his eyes.

“That’s apparently the current thing to do. Faye and I have also gone our separate ways.”

“No! When?” she blurted, looking at him with those wide grey eyes again. Then she recovered her manners. “Sorry. I’m surprised. I didn’t know. I thought you were the perfect couple.”

His mouth flattened into a grim smile.

“That was my understanding too, until a few months ago.”

So Faye had been hiding the fact they’d parted? Interesting.

He inspected the sign more closely. “Is this place any good?”

“Very good indeed.”

He sensed defiance or defensiveness in the three abrupt words. He waited for her to say more. She didn’t.

He thought of his almost finished house and its current unloved interior. “I need a decorator. Someone as good as Faye.”

She rolled her eyes at that. “I’m better than Faye. I actually listen to what customers want.”

“You work for this place?”

“I am this place.” She turned away and pushed at the door, indicating he should follow. “There’s only me. I opened today—or would have if the crummy sign hadn’t fallen apart.”

“I’ll fix it for you,” he repeated as he followed her inside. The sign was competently painted but the carpentry looked dire. Would offering his expertise make up for his initial burst of temper? He hoped so. “I suppose you used the screws supplied with the hinges?” he asked, and then surprised himself by adding, “Have you got any more sensible shoes?”

“What?” she demanded, apparently thrown by his change of subject.

“As I said, I need a decorator now I don’t have Faye. I’ve been letting things slide. Do you want to see my house and submit a proposal? It’s still a bombsite. You won’t get around it in those.” He eyed her high heeled sandals, and the slim ankles and light golden calves above them, pleased to have the excuse to inspect her openly.

“You’re serious? A proposal to decorate your house? Faye’s house? After I damaged your car?”

“Forget the car. It’s fixable. Yes—the house above the water. But it’s not Faye’s any longer.”

He watched as she squeezed her big eyes shut and buried her even white teeth in the cushion of her lower lip.

“I can’t just drop everything,” she objected after a few seconds. “I’ve stuff to arrange.”

“Pretend you’re not open for business yet. It’s only nine-fifteen.”

“But I’m having a drinks and nibbles function to let clients see my new studio. I sent all the invitations out saying five o’clock Monday.”

“Then you’ve plenty of time.” He handed her the other half of the sign. “I’ll get my tools.”

As he walked to the car he thought about Sophie’s lack of surprise when he’d offered to turn handyman. Maybe Faye had made fun of his background? On brief reflection he decided that wasn’t Faye’s style. Happy to be known as the wife of the founder of mega-successful Severino Superyachts, yes, but he’d bet his balls she hadn’t admitted to marrying a part-Maori carpenter from a small forestry settlement.

The irony of handing over the decorating of his ex-wife’s dream house to her younger assistant amused him. He might just do it if she was any good. God knows it was time he got around to doing something with the place.

*

Sophie had almost fallen off her sandals with shock. Rafe Severino? Here? And he’d offered her the chance to work for him?

Why on earth had she been so rude? Told him she couldn’t drop everything? Submitting a design proposal for his house was the opportunity of a lifetime—the ideal way to launch her new business. Even if no work followed, when word got around she’d been invited to quote it would bring her untold kudos.

But she’d been totally thrown by his sudden appearance. So unnerved by the waves of undiluted masculine power rolling off him it was like being stalked by a marauding tomcat.

She watched, a mesmerized sparrow pinned to the spot, as he approached his luxurious car, popped the trunk and lifted out a well-worn metal toolbox. And saw him glance up as he carried it back inside. Above her windows a shiny new sign proclaimed SUBTLE in large stylish letters and interior design studio in much smaller ones.

“Interesting name,” he said, pushing the door closed against the wind.

“It sums up my style,” she managed. “Tranquil, timeless, modern without being outrageous. Is that what you’re looking for in your house?”

He shook his head. “So far I’m only certain of what I don’t want.” He sent her a swift assessing glance. “I’ve had a chap in a bow tie and tweed cap who wants to kit the place out like an old English castle. There’s a little gay guy who insists bright pink accents are the latest thing in Paris…”

“Craig Kennedy?” she queried, feeling a smile tugging at her lips.

“You know him?”

“We all tend to know each other slightly.” She tried to stifle her grin, and hoped she sounded professional.

“Okay, I’ve also seen Hilda Bergermeyer with the terrifying teeth, and Willa Rushworth…”

“You’re hard to please. Willa’s supposed to be good.”

“We weren’t on the same wavelength.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I want a family home. Something relaxed and informal. Somewhere for my children to grow up feeling loved and safe.”

Sophie felt surprise and vicious pain flash through her. Her old boss had a family she’d never talked about? Sophie had had to relinquish her own beloved daughter. Why did some people have all the luck?

She drew a calming breath. “Faye never mentioned the children.”

“There are no children,” he grated. “She didn’t want any, but she took her time letting me know that.”

“Ah.” The solid ground slid away, and Sophie cast about for something else to say while she considered this unexpectedly personal revelation. Total strangers sometimes shared amazing confidences. She could remember pouring her heart out to a sympathetic florist when it became obvious she could no longer keep tiny Camille with her in Wellington. Talking to the barely known woman in the flower shop had brought more comfort than discussing the huge problem with her doctor or landlady or her best friend, Fran. And she’d known all of them so much better.

“Sometimes those who want don’t get, and vice versa,” she hazarded, catching sight of her reflection in the corner window and attempting to drag her fingers down through her tousled hair to return it to some sort of order. Lord, she looked a mess!

But why would a woman not want children from Rafe? They’d be beautiful—dark haired, dark eyed—and as for making love with him to conceive them… The thought simply fried her brain.

She flicked a glance up at his hard-planed face.

He returned her gaze very directly for a moment, then hitched his impeccable trousers up at the knees and hunkered down to attend to the broken sign.

His expensive suit fabric threatened to make contact with her newly oiled hardwood floor. A wave of panic washed through her. What if his trousers were ruined? She zipped out to the washroom and grabbed an old navy blue towel.

“Kneel on this,” she begged. “I didn’t finish that until yesterday.”

You oiled the floor?” He gazed around the studio with more attention.

“I did everything. It’s a bit smaller than I wanted, but the location’s good—right in the heart of the design district.”

“You painted it too?”

“Mmm. Hired a portable scaffold, bought the paint and oil, and just went for it.”

“It’s come up well.” He stroked a finger over the glowing floorboards and then rose lithely to his feet. Sophie waited, on edge for his opinion.

His dark eyes wandered around the airy space.

“Dangerous doing it on your own—a little thing like you.”

She saw him calculating the height of the lofty ceiling, and decided to ignore the comment about her size. She was a perfectly adequate five feet five. He was somewhere over six feet.

“Couldn’t afford to pay anyone,” she admitted. “It was terrifying to start with, but I tried to be very careful. I needed to conserve my funds for professional signwriting and things like that…” She trailed off as his gaze came to rest on her face again.

“And a chandelier?” His eyes held hers for seemingly endless seconds, and she looked away and swallowed before she could speak again.

“No—pure luck. I found most of it here in an old box. I thought it was too good to waste, so I gave it a clean and bought some extra glass beads from the craft shop and… sort of strung them around.”

She wondered why she was telling him that. He could afford anything in the world, and certainly wouldn’t want to know about her scrimping.

“It’s a pretty touch,” he agreed, gazing up at the spangles of white light and rainbows of pale apple green and aqua dancing on the fresh sunlit paint. “Quite grand for a girl on a budget.”

Was he teasing her? Sophie stole a sideways glance at him as he stood in her private space—tall, swarthy skinned, with an unnerving air of absolute authority. Anyone else in a snowy shirt and a black Armani suit would look ridiculous grasping a chunky power-tool. In his large hand it seemed perfectly acceptable.

“Nice toy for a ‘boy’,” she countered, indicating the drill and wondering where her courage had come from.

“Points to you.” A sudden smile softened his austere face. “Why did you put your work table so far back? It looks professional. People would like to see you in action.”

She shook her head and tried to sound sensible. Sensible? Most of her was acutely on edge, and her head felt filled with fog.

“No—I can plug my lamp and computer in back there. And I really didn’t want to feel like a goldfish in a bowl. I thought it was more important to have the fabrics and mood-boards where people could see them, anyway.”

He nodded, and began to pace past the wall-mounted boards with their glossy photos and small samples of paint colors, carpet, tile and fabric.

“I recognize that. It’s one of Faye’s.” He stabbed a finger at a photo of a silver and white dining room.

Sophie lifted her chin and stared him down. “About half of them are Faye’s. Her clients, but absolutely my ideas and execution.”

He sent her another devastating grin. “Don’t be so touchy.”

“I worked damned hard on those projects.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly, not wanting to sound annoyed and nervous when she needed to appear calm and organized.

“They look good,” he agreed, flourishing the drill at the beautiful interiors. “Where are your fabrics going?”

Sophie raised her eyes to the ceiling. “That’s the next job I need to do. I’ve got some display lengths for up there.” She indicated a row of six high chromed curtain rods suspended on nylon cords.

He glanced up at the rods, then down to her.

“Not in those shoes. I’ll do them for you.”

What?”

“By way of a trade. I presume you have a ladder somewhere if the scaffold’s gone?”

“Out the back,” she agreed in a small voice.

“So I’ll hang your fabrics to save you breaking your neck.”

Sophie decided she could forgive his arrogance because she hadn’t been looking forward to that job. It had been hard enough getting the screw-eyes into the ceiling and the rods sitting evenly. But accepting his assistance felt strange because she was unused to anyone offering help.

“And what’s the trade?” she asked, narrowing her eyes because she knew from long experience nothing was truly free.

“You visit the house with me this morning and see what you can come up with.”

So he hadn’t been joking? “It’ll take more than a morning, and I charge an hourly fee.” She knew she’d almost be willing to work without payment to include such a prestigious job in her portfolio.

“Naturally.”

She gathered more courage. “Can I offset my first consultation against the cost of fixing your car? It would really help with my start-up expenses.”

“Forget the damn car. Insurance will cover it.”

“You said I’d be paying.”

He shook his head. “Pay me with this consultation if that makes you feel better, but there’s no need.”

She said a silent prayer of thanks, and then he added, “Come to lunch with me. It’s a business thing. Faye will probably be there. But you’re younger than her, you’ve cut yourself loose from her apron strings, and you might enjoy rubbing her nose in it. I know I would if I were you.”

Lunch with Rafe Severino, just like that?

“No.” She pitched her voice flat and determined. “I won’t be the meat in your matrimonial sandwich if that’s what you’re suggesting. You’re not using me to get back at her for something that’s none of my business.”

She heard him draw a sharp breath.

“There’s no ‘matrimonial sandwich’ as you so charmingly put it. That’s long done with.” He glanced back at the mood-boards. “But I need a decorator instead of Faye. I’d quite like her to know she was easy enough to replace.”

“So I’m the easy option?”

“A damned prickly option so far. I’ve offered to mend your sign, hang your fabrics, let you loose on the best new house in the city, and buy your lunch. I’m not asking for anything in return.”

“Good, because you won’t be getting anything.”

Then a flood of embarrassment rushed through her, and she clenched her hands together in front of her breasts. What would he think she meant by ‘anything’?

“Sorry,” she added in a small voice.

“Opening day nerves?”

“I didn’t mean to sound so rude.”

To her annoyance he burst into deep husky laughter.

“Yeah, well I did get a glorious mental picture of what ‘anything’ might include, but…”

“No, I wasn’t thinking that at all.”

“Whatever that was.” He reached across and touched her hair, re-positioning one long strand.

Hot little waves instantly skittered down her spine, and a slow insistent throbbing invaded her panties. “Leave it please.”

He took no notice and stayed standing too close, running his fingers right to the end of it. “You need to tie it up when it’s windy. Great hair though.”

Sophie managed a nod of thanks and backed away, face burning.

“I’ll leave your sign until later,” he added. “I’ve no screws the right size here, so I’ll get something better from the guys at the house while you have your look around.” He set the drill back in his toolbox. “Do you have some more sensible shoes, or do we collect them on the way?”

Sophie tried to damp down the sensations racing through her body by switching her mind to the old paint spattered trainers hidden in the washroom. She could imagine how silly they’d look with the floaty-paneled blue designer skirt she’d found at the Labels Live Again shop.

“Yes, of course,” she said, trying for cool and competent. “But I put this skirt on for the opening. It’s hardly suitable for a building site. If we could call in to my apartment on the way I’ll change into trousers.”

“Lead me to your fabrics, then.”

So he was serious? She watched as he shrugged off his suit jacket and tossed it onto the low settee that ranged along one wall below the mood-boards. Did it look good enough in the studio? It was a thrift shop find, disguised by one gloriously extravagant throw and two others of much more humble origin. She’d sewn four cushions from deleted silk samples, trimmed their corners with real feather tassels, and arranged them against the throws.

“I’ll get the ladder,” she said over her shoulder, heading for the dank washroom before he could see what a mess it was. “It’s those bolts of fabric by my work table.”

He insisted on taking the stepladder from her the moment she re-appeared, so she took over unrolling the length of fabric he’d started on.

“This is very kind of you,” she finally acknowledged, ashamed of her less than gracious reaction to him. “I could put my other shoes on, you know.”

“I’ve got a bit more reach than you, and I’m used to ladders and heights. I just throw this over the rod, do I?”

“Ummm—not quite. See those little clippy things? Fold the raw edge in and squeeze the top of the fabric into them.”

He climbed until his glossy shoes were level with her face. Sophie looked up to admire the graceful folds of her soft taupe linen, and instead found her eyes riveted on a pair of long masculine legs. The trouser fabric pulled taut as he stretched. She could easily imagine the muscles of his hard sinewy thighs and tight butt.

Higher, his fine white cotton shirt spanned powerful shoulders.

And all that beautiful man might be available.

No longer involved with his talented wife, he’d asked her out to lunch. Was it possible he had no other current woman in his life?

Not likely, she thought with sudden derision. He was a magnet to women, especially if he was separated now. Why would he want Sophie Anne Calhoun with her thrift-shop clothes and paint speckled hands when he could choose anyone in New Zealand—or the whole world? He’d asked her to lunch for one reason only. To annoy Faye.

She decided she’d harden her heart and not be the least bit impressed by him. The only time she’d ever mixed business with pleasure had been disastrous; it had led to the birth and ultimate shattering loss of little Camille. No way in hell would she make another mistake like that one.

Rafe Severino could be a huge and profitable source of business, but that was all. She’d allow herself just this one indulgent moment and then banish the warm rush of possible pleasure from her mind.

Possible? Guaranteed pleasure, surely? To be kissed by that mouth, caressed by those long capable fingers, covered by such a prime body?

As he clipped the length of fabric up, Sophie watched him and unconsciously licked her lips.

Chapter 2 — Surprise Proposition

“Something like that?”

“Fine.” She cleared her throat. “Shall I hand you up the next one?”

“I’ll move the ladder.” He stepped down beside her and lifted it sideways.

“You’re faster at it than I would have been.” She unrolled a length of sheer gold and cream striped voile. “Be careful with this—it might snag.”

Rafe smiled, undid his belt buckle, pulled the black leather strip from his trousers, and tossed it onto the sofa with his jacket. “Can’t have that, can we?”

Sophie’s eyes widened as he removed his square cufflinks and gold Rolex, and turned his sleeves back on themselves several times. “Stop that!” she finally exclaimed.

“Nothing sharp left now,” he said, smiling broadly and extending his hands toward her as though she was a school teacher doing fingernail inspection.

“I’m sure you’re safe.” The desperate squeak in her voice indicated it was far from the truth. The man was hurling sex all around her new studio. She wanted to bite his beautiful arms. How ridiculous!

She thrust the length of voile toward him and stood well out of his way, knowing nothing about him was the least bit safe. He gave her dangerous thoughts, and made her hot and bothered, and now he was flirting?

Rafe Severino—teasing me? Doing a sexy little striptease, sending me his big-bad-wolf grin and making me feel far too warm?

She set her hands on her hips and pushed at her back with her fingers. Yup, her spine was still there.

Well come on then, stiffen up, spine! I need to think of him as a great source of business and forget any other ideas about him. Help me here…

She watched his long legs as he climbed, and some wicked little brain-demon started stripping his clothes away.

Okay, just a few more moments of indulgence.

“Do you do any sailing?” He’d braced himself high up the ladder again.

Sophie tried to banish her picture of long tanned legs dusted with dark hair, a smooth muscular back, and rippling shoulders. And gathered her scattered thoughts together to remember the endless to-and-fro inter-island ferry trips she took every single Sunday to see Camille.

“A bit. Not in your kind of boats though.”

“Faye used to handle some of the marine decor for me. Would you be up to that?”

Too much, too soon, she told herself, glad his back was toward her. Surely he couldn’t be serious? Boats? The amazing Severino Superyachts?

His spectacular body receded just a little in her imagination.

“The interiors?” She somehow managed this query without croaking or squealing. “Wall finishes, fabrics, flooring?”

“Yup. More or less,” Rafe said, trying to pleat the voile into the clips.

“I don’t see why not. I’d love to try. I’ll have stuff to learn, but the basics won’t be too far different. A luxury look and improved practicality?”

She watched his tight butt cha-cha-ing back down the ladder, and then averted her eyes before he turned and found her looking.

“Absolute luxury. The best of everything. Sometimes no practicality at all.” He raised an eyebrow. “We’ll see. A thought for the future, maybe. You have possibilities, Ms…?” He scooped one of Sophie’s new business cards off the neat stack on the end of her work table. “Ms Calhoun.”

“Sophie.”

“Rafe.”

There seemed to be more invitation in his eyes than the insistence on using his first name. Hot waves of wanting rolled through her like approaching thunder. Shaking her senses. Rattling her resolve.

He’d been ‘Mr Severino’ all the time she’d worked for Faye, and she’d seen him mostly in photographs because he didn’t visit the design studio often.

Mr Severino—who was so gorgeous, so rich, so entrepreneurial, so sexy and so far out of reach. Not someone to be fantasized about and addressed casually.

“Rafe,” she repeated, determined not to sound overawed. She wondered how much more courage she could dredge up after that unexpected lightning strike of lust.

He reached over to the settee, rummaged in his jacket pocket, and produced a card in return. Black. Printed in silver. Rafe Blackhawk Severino, with a phone and cell number. On the reverse were business details.

“Blackhawk?” It was curiously right for him. Dark and predatory and different, all the things he was himself.

He smiled and she saw wolf, not hawk.

“Cherokee. My grandfather was John Blackhawk.”

She blinked. “Faye said you were Italian.”

“My father’s Italian, but he’s a fair haired northerner, almost Swiss. I’m something of a mongrel. A throwback to my grandparents.”

She just couldn’t help but ask, “Well how on earth did you get a Cherokee grandfather?”

Instantly she imagined him in fringed buckskins, his midnight hair long and plaited, his cheekbones decorated with stripes of ochre. He looked sensational.

“He was a Marine, stationed here in New Zealand in 1942. Up the coast at Paekakariki.”

“And? There’s got to be more to the story than that?” She struggled to banish the devastating warrior image from her brain.

“And he met a pretty Maori girl called Matakino at a military dance…”

He sighed and shrugged his big shoulders. The fine cotton shirt lifted and fell. “John left her pregnant with my mother. Died on Okinawa, so I never knew my grandfather from anything but a snapshot.”

He pushed Sophie’s card into his trouser pocket and turned for the next bolt of fabric.

Had she asked too many questions? The following two display lengths went up in total silence and she could see conflicting emotions chasing each other across Rafe’s expressive face.

But on his next trip to floor level he said, “Children should be with their parents. I was never with mine.”

His black eyes meshed with hers. It was definitely not the right moment to admit she had a daughter she’d been unable to continue caring for.

“Never with your parents?”

“Not after my brothers were born.”

The shutters slammed down on his lively eyes. So he knew he had brothers? And he knew who his parents were? Why had they not all been together?

“Family circumstances can sometimes make things difficult,” she hazarded, thinking of Camille’s constant colicky crying, and her own furious studying, and Adrian’s hang-gliding smash, and the endless hopeless hours she’d sat at his hospital bedside.

“Children should be with their parents,” he repeated, more softly this time.

She nodded, and reached for the fifth length of fabric. Yes, Camille should be living here in Wellington with her, not stuck in a small town down in the South Island with her granny where the house prices were so much lower than the capital city. It was the best compromise she and her mother had been able to arrange.

She ached to share cuddles with her tiny daughter every morning instead of only on Sundays. Yearned to admire each colorful painting Camille brought home from kindergarten; to praise her efforts and make her big blue eyes light up.

Instead, a couple of Camille’s past daubs greeted her each day—stuck to the refrigerator door with the awful bright pink plastic flower magnets that were a birthday present from her absent child. They never failed to tear at her heart and remind her of the less than adequate mothering she gave her precious daughter.

But maybe now, if she secured some work from Rafe, she could at last retrieve her and make their lives normal? It mattered so much she hardly dared imagine it.

Camille back where she belonged?

Her mother finally able to reclaim the freedom she’d so generously given up to care for her grand-daughter?

And the weight of guilt lifted from Sophie’s own overburdened shoulders? It was everything she’d slaved the last three years for. Everything.

She unrolled the last bolt of fabric and handed it across with slightly shaking hands. Then she stepped back so he could climb the ladder for the final time.

*

Sophie insisted on sweeping up the jagged shards of glass from the Jaguar’s light before leaving. There must be nothing to detract from her new studio’s appearance. She juggled the glass into one of the expensive bags she’d had printed with the Subtle logo, winced at the cost, taped it tightly closed and dropped it into a nearby garbage bin.

Soon they were gliding along Thorndon Quay in the opulent car with Norah Jones keeping them company. She wished the music was something boppy or poppy—the soft piano and Norah’s sultry voice kept pulling her thoughts back to that most inconvenient flash of attraction to Rafe.

“So what’s this lunch about?” she asked, trying to sound brisk.

“Just a collection of like-minded business people.”

“And?”

“And we get together every month at the Wakefield Club to discuss how things are progressing in our city.”

Surely he was being evasive? Her skin prickled with a strange awareness—a sensation that didn’t often let her down. Of course it could be the prospect of facing up to Faye again, or the daunting task of the Severino home. But deep down she knew it was Rafe. A force-field surrounded him. It pulsed and crackled as though he exuded pure energy. It set him apart from any other man she’d met.

She tried to relax but kept being distracted by his husky voice and his beautifully shaped and sensual lips. It was a mouth to brand a woman and steal her soul, and reduce her to a begging, yearning mess. She could easily conjure up the sensation of his warm insistent kiss. Was that why the strangest quivers were invading her thighs and turning her muscles to water?

Oh this is terrible, girl. Behave.

But seeing him up close in the flesh thrilled her. She’d sometimes glimpsed him from a distance as he loped in to see Faye, and in the glossy magazines, but most often in the photographs in matt silver frames on Faye’s office wall.

In one, Rafe wore a tuxedo and Faye a shimmering scarlet gown against a window filled with Manhattan’s night-time skyscrapers. In another, Rafe in a black T-shirt held a huge fish, and Faye had draped herself around his shoulders. In the third, Rafe and Faye wore wedding finery. Faye’s pearl encrusted strapless ivory dress and triumphant smile screamed ‘got him’.

They were photos of Faye rather than Rafe. So why had she always seen the beautiful coffee skinned man instead of her flamboyant boss?

She clenched her fists so her nails dug into her palms as punishment.

He’s strictly business, she told herself, trying to drag her brain back in that direction.

“How big is your house?” she asked.

“Just over ten thousand square feet.”

Huge! She sucked on her bottom lip as she considered how much work it could provide. And reminded herself there was no guarantee she’d get even a fraction of the job.

“Aren’t you up to it?”

“Just watch me,” she flashed back. “I’m ambitious and focused. I’m determined Subtle will succeed.” She tugged her skirt down to her knees. He seemed to be paying a lot of attention to her legs, which wasn’t helping the quivering-thigh problem. “Ten thousand square feet—how did you find enough seafront land to build something that size?”

“Cut a cliff away. Made a shelf. Easy.”

She let out a puff of laughter. “Easy with untold heavy machinery and unlimited funds.”

“And if you’re determined to create something amazing.”

“I bet planning permission…?”

“…took forever,” he finished, sending her a wry smile. “I’m turning a boring uninhabitable chunk of rock into a spectacular showplace. You can’t see it from the road. From the harbor it’s currently very visible, but once the exterior timber has weathered and the landscaping’s completed, it’ll blend in beautifully.”

“You hope.”

“I’m positive. I don’t start a job unless I can finish it. You’ll learn that as you get to know me.” He reached out to reduce the volume as Bruce Springsteen started belting out ‘Born in the USA’.

Sophie’s eyes swept over his hand. Big. Long fingered. Deeply tanned. His nails were short and neat, with one so bruised she wondered if maybe he’d hit it with a hammer. It looked incongruous with his impeccable clothes.

And he’d said she’d be getting to know him? He sounded serious about considering her design ideas and letting her pitch for the work on his amazing home. A tremor of hope ran up from her toes to the top of her head.

“So you’re thinking a casual look for the house?” She hoped she was right. This was so important.

“It’s high above the water. Lots of glass. Big views. I don’t want the outlook overwhelmed with anything too fussy or too patterned.”

“No red velvet swags or big splashy flowers, then?” she asked, nipping at the inside of her cheek as he glanced across to make sure she was teasing.

“Neutral. Timeless.” A black eyebrow winged up in amusement at her suggestions.

“Subtle, in other words.” Sophie took a deep breath and a big chance. “So the Subtle Design Studio should be just what you’re looking for. I have commissions I’m working on already, but I’d be a fool not to treat you seriously. At least until we know if we see eye to eye.”

Would he bite? Was he serious about the work? Or just using her to taunt Faye? Whatever his motives, she knew she needed to be on her guard. If he genuinely wanted a decorator for his big house, that was fine. That was wonderful. It would be the hardest work she’d ever done, but what a chance.

So she’d have to keep Camille an absolute secret. Rafe needed a talented and dedicated decorator, not a struggling single mother with a child to worry about. Certainly not a single mother who’d had to give up that child because she simply couldn’t cope any longer.

What would he think of her if he discovered that? He’d said ‘children should be with their parents.’ Said it twice, so he obviously had strong views on the subject. No way could she let him know Camille existed.

As the car purred on she became ever more curious about why he’d never lived with his parents and brothers. She sensed it still rankled with him even though he was now a wealthy and very successful man. She itched to ask.

“Left up here,” she said as they reached the turnoff in Tinakori Road.

He nodded, and she watched the sheen of sunlight dance across his ebony hair, wondering if it would be crisp or silky to touch.

“How far?”

“Ummm…?”

How far up the road?”

“Oh—just the other side of the bus stop, but parking’s almost non-existent.”

“I’ll pretend I’m a bus for a sec. Will you be long?”

Relief washed over her. She could get away from him and try to regain her equilibrium while she changed clothes. “Two minutes, tops.”

He sent her a skeptical glance. “I’ve never known a woman change her outfit that fast.”

“Not Faye, maybe.”

The big car slowed.

“Check your watch,” she joked. “Back in no time.”

And then, right on cue, a van pulled out of a space ahead and he swung the Jaguar in.

Sophie’s spirits plummeted when he opened his door in time with hers. “Don’t bother coming in. I’ll be very quick.”

“If I see where you live I might learn something about your decorating skills.” He ignored her brushoff and stepped out of the car.

She gritted her teeth and tried for polite. “Not much. I rent the place, so all I’ve been able to do is paint some walls and hang a few pictures. And it’s tiny—there’s no scope for more than that.”

She pushed the creaky old gate open, and he followed her up the path. Far too close. She felt herself herded along with no choice but to fall in with his wishes. Her briefcase bumped against her knee as she hurried over the uneven surface of the pavers.

She cast her mind back to earlier that morning. She’d departed in a rush. How tidy had she left things? Her cereal bowl and coffee mug would be in the sink, but that was better than having them cluttering the small kitchen counter. The flowers on the sideboard were on their last legs but he probably wouldn’t notice those. The dining table had some paperwork spread out, but nothing confidential and nothing too messy.

“You’re close to town.” His husky voice caressed her ear.

How far away was he? Inches only. Sophie tried for bigger steps but feared his long legs would easily keep up.

“Walking distance,” she managed. “And I have the botanic gardens nearby, too. The best of both worlds.”

“Do you run?”

“It’s a great place for that. Some of those tracks through the wilder parts. Yes, when I can. Watch the steps,” she added as the path took a sudden dip.

She clattered down as fast as her high heeled sandals allowed, racing to put some room between them. “Around here.”

They arrived at the back door of the old timber cottage. A huge climbing rose frothed over a trellised archway—the path seemed ankle deep with its pink petals.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to sweep all of this up, or Mrs Ferris the landlady,” she added. “She lives upstairs and does the gardening.”

A sudden gust of wind shook a shower of petals down as she hunted for her key.

“The Rose Queen.”

Sophie stilled at his quiet murmur. He’d stopped right behind her to sift petals from the wavy strands of her hair. So he had a thing for long hair?

She shivered as she felt him touching her. “Don’t. I’ll get rid of them in a minute.”

It felt unnerving having him so close again. Maybe he just intended being helpful but her jangling nerves told her she needed more distance between them.

And the jangling grew even louder when he moved in front of her and continued to pluck at the rose petals with his dark face now only inches above hers. She squeezed her eyes closed, unable to look at him. But she could smell his faint cologne over the swirling rose perfume.

And feel his hands.

Gentle but insistent.

“All gone,” he said, and she opened her eyes in time to find him holding the final petal. He brushed it over her mouth before he tossed it onto the path. Back and forth in the softest of caresses that made her think of warm days, gentle breezes, time to spare on sensual pleasures. How long since she’d been so instantly lost?

She parted her lips to object and Rafe grinned disarmingly.

“Just tidying you up. You looked like something out of a fairy story.”

“Not businesslike,” she snapped as her commonsense leaked back. “This is a business arrangement.”

Yeah, right, her body jeered, quaking at the knees, moistening and buzzing where an entirely different business seemed to be under way.

She shrugged aside and jammed the key in the lock, relieved when it turned at the first attempt. Once the door swung open she stepped past him, releasing a huge and grateful sigh. Now she could hurry into the bedroom and get out of his disturbing presence.

“Have a seat,” she called back over her shoulder, indicating the only armchair, and hoping he’d sit instead of prowling around. “I’ll truly be fast.”

To her annoyance he chose the sofa, slouched down, leaned back against the cushions, crossed his very long legs at the ankle, and looked thoroughly at home.

Sophie bit back her resentment. Why did some people have all the confidence in the world? Money helped of course, but there was more to it than that.

Look at him—taking up half the room as though he owns the place.

She pushed the bedroom door almost closed.

“Definitely compact,” she heard him remark.

“More affordable that way,” she shot back, rattling her small selection of hangers along the wardrobe rail.

“Just the one bedroom?”

“All I need.”

“There’s only you?”

“I see plenty of clients during the day and like peace for my paperwork at night.”

“All work and no play…?”

She could hear definite amusement in his voice now.

“Plenty of play when it suits me,” she insisted, peeling off her skirt, struggling into her black jeans, and hopping about until she had both feet on the floor again. She zipped the jeans up with a savage rasp. They were much more sensible for a building site, but might they have to double as her lunch outfit? They looked okay with her white silk camisole, anyway.

If I take my leather jacket, that should work.

She glanced at her watch. No way would she exceed her estimated two minutes.

Shoes. Damn. Take the sandals, wear the ankle boots and hope the site is somewhere near civilized.

“And what do you consider play?”

She sighed to herself. There wasn’t much play…

“Dinner with friends. A run in the gardens. My art class. Movies, clubbing, all the usual stuff.”

She grabbed her black bomber jacket, hooked a finger through the straps of her sandals, and sneaked a quick look in the mirror. Her hair looked terrible. She gave it a few desperate strokes with her hairbrush, bundled it into a hair-tie, picked up her sandals and jacket again, and hurried back to the little sitting room.

She halted abruptly. Rafe was nowhere in sight. Then he leaned out of the small alcove that housed her kitchen. Camille’s splashy paintings dominated the fridge door.

“You have a child?”

Chapter 3 — Cable Car Ride

Her heart skidded to a halt. Everything might be ruined if she confessed to being a mother. So, feeling horribly guilty, she drew a deep breath and hoped for the best. “I have a niece,” she lied, looking down at the floor, and scuffing the toe of her boot over an imaginary spot there.

Sorry Camille darling. It’s business. He wants a career-woman, not a frazzled Mom. If I can just get us through these final few months we’ll be okay.

“Are we going?” she asked too sharply, desperate to get him out of her private space. Away from bedrooms and roses, and especially signs of Camille.

“I’m pleased I came in. You have a clever eye. The retro china display on the bookcase. The way you’ve grouped those prints in the corner. The colors of your cushions.”

“You see more than most people, then.”

“You forget I lived with a designer for years—and that I’m in the design business, too.”

“Boats?” She felt her eyebrows rise.

“Lines and curves. Attractive spaces with maximum efficiency.”

“I suppose…” she conceded, lifting her briefcase and hurrying to the door.

“Why do I get the feeling you want me out of here?”

He lounged at ease against the end of the kitchen counter. Sophie sensed steel behind his casual enquiry.

She shook her head and huffed with annoyance. “I’ve got heaps to do today. I need to inspect your house, go to this lunch, get my evening function organized…”

“So you do,” he agreed. “But the house is only a preliminary look. The lunch will take exactly an hour and a half because we’re all busy people, and I need to drop the car in for its repair. And I’ll be your barman this evening if you like? Or are you employing caterers?”

“Fat chance of that.”

“So I’m hired?”

She realized she’d been set up by an expert.

Dammit, dammit, I could do without this.

“The pay’s really bad,” she flannelled.

“I’ll work for wine.” A lazy smile touched his lips.

“Staff don’t get to drink.”

“Mean boss, eh?”

Sophie felt a grudging grin sneaking over her face. He’d certainly add class to the event, and affirmation her design skills were in demand by the city’s best. Why was she resisting his offer?

She knew all too well why. Because it meant being trapped in his dangerous company for another couple of hours; evening hours, when a glass of wine on a near empty stomach could cause all her good intentions to melt, and her commonsense to evaporate.

Especially if tall handsome Rafe was on the prowl.

She watched as he pushed away from the counter and sauntered toward her.

“If the pay’s that bad I’ll need some other compensation.”

He brushed a hand through her long pony-tail on his way out and her heartbeat rocketed to panic level.

I have to stay clear of him…

To her relief he strode off along the path, leaving her to lock up and follow.

Other compensation? She stilled for a moment, trailing her fingers across some of the luscious roses on the trellis, enjoying their sensuous texture and wondering if his dusky skin would feel as good. More petals floated down to join the feathery mass below. Once again she felt the soft glide of that single pink petal across her lips, and her mouth tingled in anticipation of his.

Then she shook the fantasy away and dashed after him, thinking, ‘Dream on, Rafe Severino. You’re one hell of a hunk but I’m not letting sex mess up the best assignment I’m ever likely to get.’

*

He drove her around the harbor to the wild south coast where long rolling waves surged and crashed against sharp rocks far below.

The Jaguar bounced to a halt beside a cluster of tradesmen’s vehicles on the rough ground at the side of the road. There was no sign of a house.

“So where is it?”

Rafe turned to her with half a smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners and his teeth glinted very white against his dark golden skin.

Sophie bit her lip at her body’s unmistakable reaction to his masculinity. She knew she was noticing every tiny delicious thing about him—dangerous considering how much she needed his business.

“Right here.” He waved a hand at thin air and opened the Jaguar’s door.

She followed suit. If he wanted to play games that was over to him. And goodness, he had a great way of moving.

He guided her between a red pickup truck and a huge rusty shipping container, and when she hesitated, took her hand and led her toward the edge of the cliff. Lord, she hadn’t wanted that. She tried to tug free but he caught her eye and his grin widened.

“Just keeping you safe.”

To Sophie his warm clasp felt anything but safe.

The waves roared, but not as loudly as a screaming saw, and an explosive nail gun, and the music from a radio somewhere below. The construction noises swirled around her as she picked her way through tufts of tussock and muddy puddles and remnants of broken pavers. For the moment her eyes were employed finding a safe route to walk, but when Rafe drew her to a halt she became acutely conscious of his hand again. She looked about for any other diversion, and gasped.

They were almost at the harbor entrance. On the far hills, over the swathe of ruffled water, the old Pencarrow lighthouse stood silhouetted against the gold-green vegetation. To the right the Pacific Ocean stretched forever.

One of the familiar inter-island ferries ploughed through the blue sea half a mile or so distant. The little white ship bucked in the windy conditions, sending great surges of spray up into the sunshine. Sophie had just enough time to feel relieved she wasn’t on the seesawing ferry before the magnificent position of the house claimed her whole attention.

She hardly registered Rafe pushing a button on a nearby post. The noise of the winch engine wasn’t obvious over the nail gun, but when the small metal cable-car rose into view and shuddered to a halt she turned her attention back to him. “It’s incredible.”

“Nice site?”

She peered over the cliff edge. “How on earth did you get machines down there to create the platform?”

“Dug in from the top. Craned them out. Slow going, but worth it, don’t you think?”

“Now I’ve seen it, yes.”

From this angle the cableway dropped almost straight down to an expansive timber deck cantilevered over the water. The house roof seemed to cover most of the other available ground. A flight of narrow steps also led down to the house, but they were half overgrown with fennel and other seaside vegetation, and plainly hardly ever used.

She eyed the small cable-car with trepidation. Its walls were only hip high and there were very thin looking sheet-metal doors on the sides. No seats, no roof, just a high post in each corner. Rafe rattled a door open, stepped on board and drew her toward him.

“Don’t worry. It’s safe.”

“I’m not scared,” she muttered, willing herself to believe that a flimsy box plunging almost vertically down a steel rail was not in the least hazardous. “I’ve seen nicer ones.”

He grinned. “It’s only for the construction work at this stage. The proper weatherproof cab with seats isn’t far off.”

She nodded at that, imagining how many loads of timber and fittings must have traveled up and down this way.

As though reading her mind Rafe said, “We used a chopper for the big stuff. A tough job for the pilot—there are tricky up-drafts off the sea.” He crowded her against one of the corner posts and slid an arm around her waist before he pushed a green button and sent them whirring downwards. Sophie was grateful for the arm, not that she would admit it. She grasped the post and tried to ease away from his too-close chest. His grip was inescapable. She was trapped there, head tucked under his chin, far too aware of his body as they dropped toward the huge expanse of slatted timber. His heart beat steadily in her ear. His cologne displaced the ocean’s salty fragrance. Then she heard a rumble of laughter deep in his chest.

“Stop struggling.”

“I’m not.” She could feel her face heating with a telltale blush.

“Could have fooled me.”

“You’ve probably done this dozens of times.”

“Hundreds. It’s not far. It’s perfectly safe.”

But I’m not, she thought as flickers of sensation rampaged low in her belly. She felt so sexy. So deliciously damp and strangely swollen.

For heaven’s sake stop it, she begged her twitching flesh. Okay, he’s gorgeous. But he’s a possible client. Keep it that way and you’ll get Camille back sooner.

Their transport juddered to a halt and Rafe released her so he could unlatch the door.

“Mind the gap—and everything else.”

There were power tools and timber offcuts strewn around the planking. A builder in ear protectors worked on, unaware of them, as he banged away with the nail gun at the end of the sun drenched deck. The tang of the sea rose strong and salty as waves pounded far below.

Rafe crossed to where a railing edged the surrounding glass barricade. He stared out toward Pencarrow, surveying the view for thirty seconds or so. Then he turned his back to it and leaned, elbows on the railing, long legs silhouetted against the restless sea. “Come and see it from here.”

Sophie stepped unwillingly closer.

Rafe sent her another dark eyed glance. “Don’t look so worried. Everything’s way over specification. This might seem as light as air—I hope it does—but you’d be hard-put to break the glass with a sledgehammer. I wasn’t planning for anyone to crash through and end up down there.”

It wasn’t the glass that worried her. She gazed about, and suddenly her imagination caught fire. She saw his small dark haired sons yelling and whooping on tricycles… outdoor furniture and a big gas barbecue placed close to the house… tubs of bright seaside flowers flanking the wide doors. It would be a wonderful home once it was complete.

When construction was first under way, Faye had boasted about it. The staff at Severino Design had suffered her gloating descriptions with tight nods and pasted-on smiles. They’d all been glad when she’d dropped the subject, not that they’d known the reason why.

Sophie sighed. Leaving the house would have been bad enough, but leaving the man even harder. Yet Faye had shown no sign of regret; dropped no hint of what had happened.

Rafe had sounded surprised his marriage breakdown wasn’t public news in the small gossip ridden design community. She concluded Faye must have worked very hard to keep it that way.

She chose her own piece of railing a few feet from his and examined the long glassed front of the house with attentive eyes.

“Tiles for the entranceway,” he said. “Maybe a greyish blue? See what you can come up with. Perhaps I should tile the whole of the top floor?”

“Is there another?”

“Another two. Bedrooms below this. Self-contained guest accommodation and a gym and spa pool on the bottom level.”

She swallowed and nodded, and thought how pitiful her tiny apartment must have seemed to him. “How many bedrooms?”

“There are plenty of options. Depends whether they’re slept in or used as playrooms or studies or whatever. There’s a big master suite. I’d want maybe three other dedicated bedrooms plus the guest suite. Tell me what you think.”

“I think it’s bigger than mine.”

He sent her one of his killer smiles, no doubt at the woebegone note in her voice. “Hard to find anything smaller,” he agreed.

*

He pushed away from the railing, took her hand again before she could object, and led her across the tool and timber strewn deck. He’d been super-aware of her taut body as he held her steady in the cable-car. Her waist was slender, but he’d felt the start of her curvy hips, and seen the swell of her breasts when he’d looked down to tease her about trying to escape from him.

There’d been a glimpse of white lace—the neckline of her camisole had gaped out a little. The low cut lacy bra cradled creamy breasts which looked so absurdly virginal and enticing that enough of his blood had headed south to make him at least half hard.

They’re no bigger than a schoolgirl’s. Get your mind off them. She’s here on business. And why the hell are you hanging onto her again?

He let go of her as though she was red hot. “Careful of your footing, there’s stuff everywhere.”

“I’m used to doing site inspections.”

He almost heard her sniff of disdain. Certainly she sent him a glance that spoke of cool competence rather than distressed damsel.

And then she followed it with a flustered blush, downcast eyes, and a sudden turning aside.

Hmmm, not entirely immune then, Ms Calhoun. You’d be fun to play with.

He watched as she stepped over more timber offcuts and skirted a pile of boxes which had originally held plumbing fixtures. The place was a mess—walls all lined with sheetrock, joins plastered and sanded, but with no further hint of finishing. White dust coated everything.

“I’ll get the building crew to tidy up for you. Make your work easier.”

“It doesn’t matter too much at this stage.”

And just like that he decided the job was hers. He had enough faith in her taste from what he’d seen at the studio and in her little apartment. Annoying Faye would be a satisfying bonus of course. But right now he felt more alive than he had in months. He wanted progress on the house. Progress that would keep Sophie in his life for a while.

She was way different from the women who usually threw themselves at him. Nothing like egocentric Faye, for sure. Faye had certainly never oiled a floor or painted a ceiling in her life.

Sophie seemed self-contained and self-sufficient. She’d only grudgingly allowed him to hang her fabrics. She seemed to have no need of him. Rafe didn’t like that. He was used to being in charge. Being the provider. Things would be changing between them if he managed to take this any further.

“Okay, main living area.” He stretched his arms and rubbed his neck just so his hands couldn’t wander back in her direction.

“Formal sitting room or casual family area?”

“I’ll grab a copy of the plans for you, but formal sitting here. Casual family at the far end, down past the kitchen. And there’s a media room behind that.”

“Then I’d tile it through to the end of the kitchen. Use some big textured rugs to define your seating areas. You’ll need a soft floor in your media room for good acoustics, of course.”

“True.”

She stopped and pivoted, eyes everywhere. Rafe watched, fascinated by the strength of her concentration.

Her tongue licked over her full lower lip. He wanted it to be his tongue.

One hand pushed some wisps of hair back from her face. He wanted it to be his hand.

Her fingers tapped on the delicate end of her nose as she stood there, deep in thought. He imagined his fingers smoothing over her warm skin. “Color?” he asked, trying to ignore the dusty smudge now decorating the black denim over her curvy butt. He itched to brush it off.

She gave him a distracted smile and looked away again too fast for his liking.

“I’ll consider your blue-grey suggestion for the tiles. More grey toned than blue, for sure.”

About the color of your eyes, he thought. Those big cool grey eyes I’d like to drown in as I slide into your tight little body. As if that’s going to happen any time soon.

“I can get some samples together for you.”

“Sorry?”

“I can get some samples together for you. Tile samples?”

He nodded, still distracted.

Sophie turned to inspect the immense sweep of blank wall against the cliff.

“What are you planning here?”

Rafe made a supreme effort to drag his mind away from her dusty derriere and tantalizing grey eyes. “It’s a good place for some of my bigger pieces of art. Far enough from the sun to avoid UV damage, and it’ll break the space up well.”

“Yes of course, but I presume you’d like me to suggest a finish for the wall to make it more of a feature? Something not too noisy so your art doesn’t get overwhelmed? A paler tint of the tile color perhaps? There are some wonderful new textured French wall coverings I could show you?”

He felt himself nodding as he tried to get back to practicalities. French wall coverings, French kissing, French knickers…

French champagne!

He cleared his throat. “Sounds good. You can bring me some to consider?”

He watched as she jotted a few words on her notepad. Her hands were small, her nails varnished a soft pearly pink. He could imagine those nails digging into his shoulders as she pulled him close. Could picture her hair in disarray again, hear her soft moans.

“What have you arranged about the kitchen?”

“Uhhhhh—Faye started with Casa Fiori, I think.”

“So I’ll liaise.” She made another note before turning away from him and walking to the far end of the floor. “I see there’s wiring in for electric rollershades,” she called back. “Block-outs or sunscreens?”

I see there’s dust decorating your butt,” he heard himself say. “Brush it off before I lend a hand.”

Sophie turned and raised an eyebrow. “Don’t even think about it, Mr Severino.”

“Rafe.”

“He’s not to think about it either.”

But Rafe caught her grin as she twisted to inspect her jeans.

Chapter 4 — Dusty Butt

They proceeded down the stairs to the bedroom level. Here the noise was deafening, although there was no-one visible. Rafe snapped the battered radio off and sudden ear-ringing silence fell.

“Hey!” someone bellowed.

“Leave it alone, you—” another voice yelled.

“Lady on the premises,” he grated, managing to drown the colorful description which would no doubt have followed.

“Sorry Chief…”

“Just need a few minutes to hear ourselves talk.”

Sophie heard workboots clumping across a nearby floor, and then a shaggy head peered through a doorway.

She smiled at the sawdust covered apparition. From amongst the tangled hair and beard, blue eyes twinkled and an affable grin appeared.

“Sophie, meet my foreman, Chris. He’s an ugly brute, but he knows what he’s doing.”

“Just cutting those final architraves for the deck doors, Chief. I’ll give the big saw a rest for a while. Time for a break, eh?” He shook himself like a dog shedding sea water and headed for the stairs. The scent of newly sawn timber followed him.

She wondered if Chris called any boss ‘Chief’ or whether it was a nod to Rafe’s Cherokee blood.

“Donny! Crank! Smoko time!”

Other men materialized and also trooped down to the floor below. Sophie suffered their interested inspections as she stood quietly beside Rafe. Then she heard a door slam and they were alone with the sound of the sea.

She trailed him into the first of four large identical spaces. Like the living area, they were fronted with floor to ceiling glass sliders which opened onto more decking. As he’d promised, there were other rooms too.

They walked without haste. Sophie made suggestions, took notes, enjoyed the unhurried wander.

It was easy to picture his children splashing in the bathrooms, fighting interplanetary battles on the sunny bedroom floors, and poring over computer screens and keyboards in the studies. She could almost hear their skateboards swishing along the deck in years to come.

The hairs on her nape suddenly rose.

“We’re going to have to do something about this dust all over you,” Rafe murmured, too close behind her, hands settling on her hips.

She dared not turn toward him.

Wet warmth tingled between her thighs. The intense sexy throb had reappeared so fast she had no defense against it. “Black was probably a silly choice,” she agreed, making a token effort to pull away. Much more token than effort.

His grip was gentle, but he seemed determined she wouldn’t slip free. She knew she should whirl aside and put on a show of outrage. Presumed he’d release her if she did, because he wasn’t grabbing her like some lustful roughneck, even if he was built like one. This was Faye’s civilized husband—or separated husband, she corrected herself frantically.

Almost available. Definitely gorgeous.

Still way forbidden.

She summoned all her determination and found most of it missing. His hands burned hot around her waist, thumbs rubbing lightly against her ribs. “Look, I don’t want to go complicating a business situation.” She heard the faltering desperation in her voice.

“This has nothing to do with business.”

“But the work would be very valuable to me.”

“Then the work’s yours.”

What?” she gasped, still staring out at the ocean. Still standing trembling between his big hands. “How much of it?”

“All of it. Easy decision.”

Hot joy rushed through her. Closely followed by chilling disbelief. “All of it? The whole huge job?”

“Yup, the whole huge job.”

She tried to absorb the fact she’d just been awarded the city’s most prestigious décor contract.

Her new studio was now assured of success.

She could reclaim Camille in plenty of time to start her first crucial year of school in Wellington.

And finally life would be normal and enjoyable after all the years of hard struggle.

Just like that? It was too much to take in. She wanted to yell and scream and leap about with joy. Instead she stood frozen and blitzed by the enormity of it all.

Rafe’s warm breath caressed the side of her face and suddenly a most unwelcome thought hit home. Did getting the job depend on her willingness to fall into bed with him? He’d definitely been flirting, and still stood far too close.

She feared she’d make no sense if she attempted to ask. Overcome with shock she tried to step away, but his grip held firm.

“I wasn’t joking about the dust,” he said, loosening one hand to swat gently at her butt. Sophie knew it was close to a gentle sexy spanking, and as her commonsense slowly swam back to somewhere near normal, she made a more serious effort to free herself. He felt too good, too dangerous, too much like everything she’d been missing.

*

Rafe registered Sophie trying to lever herself away. God, she had more willpower than he did! He was uncertain quite how he’d got his hands on her again, but he knew he wanted more than a quick fumble in the echoing shell of his half finished house.

Paddling her pert curvy butt was some consolation, but not enough… not enough. He needed to take his time somewhere private and warm, wanted to explore and delight her and lose himself in her rose scented softness.

He hoped she was only trying to fight him off because of the damn work. Okay, he needed to tread carefully, but he’d taken a direct hit when he least expected it and no way would he give her up now.

His hands slid up to cup her face, and he tilted it so their eyes meshed. “Stop panicking. And don’t start thinking the work’s tied to anything personal. It’s yours regardless.”

He felt her relax a little and then saw her earrings dangling against his hands. He’d noticed them earlier—small cubes of blue stone edged with silver. He pushed a cautious forefinger behind one of her ears. The silver wire hook slid through the piercing and an earring slipped forward into his waiting hand as she pulled away from him.

He smiled to himself as he dropped the jewel into his trouser pocket.

A reason to see her again.

The door on the lower floor slammed at last. Once the builders had thudded back up to the middle level he walked her to the stairs and snapped the radio on again. Chris had it tuned to an old classic hits station. Billy Joel pounded out “Uptown Girl’. The big saw restarted its raucous screaming.

“Master suite,” Rafe said, glancing in the direction of the noise. “We can see that later.”

“So where are we going now? Should I take notes?”

He shook his head as he led her down to the lowest level of the sprawling house and closed the door. “Not yet. Treat this visit as a quick recce and come back properly once you have more time.”

She put a couple of quick steps between them and he let her go with reluctance, knowing his need to be close to her would only grow. He wouldn’t be giving up without a fight, that was for sure.

“Ground floor.” He felt super-aware of his thudding heartbeat, his faster breathing. He hadn’t reckoned on being anywhere near this attracted to her. Strange reaction considering they’d met over his shattered headlight!

Far too warm, he pulled off his jacket, tossed it onto a chair, and reached out for hers as well when he saw the flush on her cheeks. “Guest accommodation. Currently the site office and lunch room.”

He watched as her big grey eyes inspected the spacious area. One corner had been set up as a compact kitchen with a well-used electric kettle and microwave oven on the counter. Battered plastic chairs and a rough table sat alongside it, and plans covered the wall above a paper strewn desk. But the rest was much more luxuriously appointed, and he saw her registering this.

“Some site office?” she queried. “Leather sofa…big-screen TV?”

“Night watchman’s perks.”

Her eyes widened. “You have an actual night watchman?”

“You’re looking at him.”

“You?”

“When I’m in Wellington. It works well. It’s the best site office in town. Better than the shipping container up the top ever was. I got the guys to fit out this floor first. Painted everything white for starters so you’ve got a blank canvas.” He turned, surveying his domain. “This’ll be the guest suite when the rest of the house is finished. Right now it’s mine.” He grabbed her hand and led her across to a doorway. “My temporary home office.”

Sophie glanced in at his state of the art equipment.

“And this way to my bedroom,” he continued, grinning broadly as he opened another door.

*

He really does live here.

She stared open mouthed at his kingsize bed with its crisp navy and white striped cover. At the sleek Scandinavian Ash chests of drawers. And at the industrial shelving along one wall which held books, squash racquets, a crash helmet, beautiful model boats, and scuba gear.

She heard herself make a strange strangled noise as he pulled her further into his room. “No, Rafe.” She tugged her hand out of his.

He had a killer smile. Cocky and confident, but not threatening. She was torn between trying to wipe it off his face and doing a little flirting right back at him. Commonsense won out. “I don’t socialize with clients.”

“Maybe I don’t have socializing in mind?”

Above them the saw screamed and Billy Joel played on.

“Well to speak plainly, I don’t sleep with men I work for.” Had she been too direct?

His expression changed slightly. “You don’t work for me. With me, maybe, but that’s a big difference. No pressure. Nothing to get in the way.”

She somehow held his dark eyed gaze, astounded to find she burned to feel his hands and lips all over her; desperate to welcome him deep, deep inside where she ached and itched and felt full of slippery heat. “You’re lovely, but I just don’t do things like that,” she said as primly as possible.

*

Rafe breathed out in a rush. Nothing—nothing—felt better than being genuinely wanted. That Sophie wanted him he had no doubt. All the signs were there, even though she was trying to hold on to her defenses. Her dark pupils almost filled her grey irises… her lips were softly parted… her nipples had peaked into hard nubs against the silky fabric of her camisole.

What had started as idle attraction on his part had turned uncomfortably intense.

If only he hadn’t stopped to help with her damned sign-board! He needed a partner with domestic talents and a deep maternal streak, not another ambitious, strong minded, career focused woman.

But hell, she was sweet.

*

Sophie cast him a cautious glance. What was she doing? Breaking the most important rule she’d ever set for herself. Mixing business with pleasure again. “What are we really here for?” she asked. “What had you planned?”

Rafe suddenly looked the soul of innocence. “A walk around the house for a preliminary inspection… and to grab some screws for your sign-board.”

“Not anything more, because…” She broke off in confusion. Maybe she’d got things totally wrong? Perhaps she’d mistaken his motives?

“Not yet, anyway. Although I did think of asking you out to dinner and trying my luck.”

“When?” she demanded, trying to ignore the leap in her heart.

“When you said I wouldn’t be getting anything, and then turned on that sexy blush and went all apologetic to me in your studio.”

“I did not!”

“You absolutely did. Said you ‘weren’t thinking of that’, and suddenly I was thinking of ‘that’ quite a lot.” A smile curled the edges of his mouth. “And when we got here you mentioned French wallcoverings and my hopeful brain made the leap to French knickers and French champagne…”

Sophie gave an unladylike snort.

“How about I buy you a dozen bottles of nice fizz for the studio launch,” he continued. “And we’ll go out for a meal afterwards. Somewhere on the waterfront?”

He’s making it sound so easy, but I can’t. I can’t.

“I need to be home around six-thirty for an important phone call.” She wasn’t quite able to look him in the eye as she said that.

He quirked an eyebrow. “Later then? I can wait.”

Sophie felt he wouldn’t want to wait if he knew she was phoning her four year old daughter—the daughter she’d had to give into her mother’s care. He’d said twice that children should be with their parents.

She sighed and stood deep in thought for a few moments. Although it was agonizing, she needed to try and stop things right now. Make this a once-only moment of madness and somehow salvage a businesslike relationship from the tempting situation she found herself in. “Rafe,” she began.

“Hmmm?”

She took a deep breath and huffed out a sigh, glad he seemed to be treating this as a game and not taking offence at her comments. “I seriously think,” she began again, “that’s not a good idea. This is a business arrangement.”

“Feels pretty businesslike to me, too.” His smile was now wide and warm, and Sophie feared her resolve might melt all too soon under its powerful wattage.

“Stop it. Concentrate. This is a huge deal for me. Your house has been talked about in the design community for months. And that means architects and other decorators and suppliers will all be watching like hawks. I want to do a fantastic job for you. I will do a fantastic job for you. But the last thing I need is people saying I got the work because they think we’re sleeping together.”

Rafe raised a skeptical eyebrow. “They can think what they like but they can’t prove anything.”

“Well, we’re not.”

“Of course we’re not.”

Was he trying to suppress a sneaky little grin? She ploughed on, determined to clarify her rules. “So being seen out at dinner is a terrible idea.”

“It’s only dinner.”

“Yes, but…”

“No buts. We can keep it to ourselves while we get to know each other. No-one knows you’re here.”

“Your builders know.”

“They know you’re on the premises. Discussing the house. They wouldn’t know if you were in my bed.”

“Well I won’t be,” she somehow managed. “And anyway—”

“So that takes care of that worry.”

“Yes, but lunch.” She threw him an imploring glance. “Rafe, what are people going to think if we turn up to lunch together?”

“That I’m mentoring you, as I’ve mentored other new business people in the last couple of years.”

That took the wind out of her sails a little. “You’d better keep your hands off me, then,” she said, taking half a step away. But only half a step, because he somehow gave her the courage to stay close when she knew she should be running full-tilt in the opposite direction.

“I can manage that in public, Ms Calhoun. But in private?”

And although he hadn’t gone into details, she could supply those details all too readily for herself. Her whole body sparked. She’d never had a man speak so directly so soon, and she knew it wasn’t a one sided attraction. Oh hell…

“No,” she objected, giving him a light punch high on his arm, and leaving her hand there because… well she didn’t know quite why, but he felt warm and alive and lovely.

No, Sophie?”

“No.” There was a short silence. “No,” she murmured again. The waves crashed on the rocks far below. “No, we mustn’t,” she decided, finding determination from somewhere. “It’s a really bad idea. No.”

She sighed.

“I’m glad we got that settled,” Rafe chuckled, as though there was nothing set in concrete.

Sophie’s fingers stroked idly down from where she’d punched him, pinching gently, smoothing over the long muscles under his shirt.

“Fancy me, do you?”

“As if,” she retorted, grabbing her hand away with a guilty glare. “But you don’t have a businessman’s body, that’s for sure.”

He smiled at that. “I was a carpenter, like my Koro—my adopted grandfather. From a small forestry settlement up north that I bet you’ve never heard of. I’ve always worked hard physically. Played rugby for the locals. Typical Kiwi boy.”

“Typical half Italian, part Cherokee Kiwi boy,” she teased. “I bet there’s not another one like you anywhere.”

“There are two. Same bloodlines, but you’d never know it to look at them.”

“Your brothers?”

“My much more acceptable, paler skinned brothers,” he said, sleepy eyes suddenly spitting sparks.

She scanned his face, searching for further clues, but he let nothing else slip.

*

Rafe sighed as they climbed the stairs again to the living area. How could his brothers intrude, even here?

He had nothing left to prove to his parents. Nothing to prove to his brothers, either. But still they invaded his consciousness, taunting him with their fertile wives, their fast arriving families. For all his money and outward success Rafe had not won that particular race. Wasn’t even in the running yet.

The fierce craving burned whenever he thought of the children he’d expected to father by now. The dancing eyed daughter. Long limbed sons to carry his name forward. They’d never lack for parental love as he had.

Nanny and Koro had been wonderful to him but they weren’t his mother and father. Somewhere buried deep within him was the urge to show Luca and Huia exactly how parents should treat their children.

He drew a long, brooding breath and imagined the ice that must rim Luca’s heart. Okay, every father hoped his son would be a replica of himself. Rafe understood that. And he looked so unlike Luca Severino he could almost forgive the indifference.

But as for his mother… What woman willingly gave away her first-born child? The dark thoughts swirled around his brain as he looked across at Sophie silhouetted against the sunny deck. Another career woman like Faye? Should he cut his losses and make it all business from now on?

No. There was something about her. He’d keep her close for the decorating and see where it led.

Chapter 5 — Ex-wife’s Lipstick

“I wish you success, Sophie,” Councilor Duncan said, inclining his wine glass toward her. “In these uncertain times it takes a lot of determination and a little bit of extra luck to make a new business succeed.”

Sophie nodded gravely. Didn’t she just know that! And so much was riding on ‘Subtle’ making a profit. Her rent in Thorndon Quay was horrendous. Her tiny apartment ate up more than two hundred dollars every week. Her ferry fares to see Camille each Sunday… her mobile and broadband bills… electricity and food… the expenditure seemed endless.

“Thank you. I’ll be working very hard,” she agreed. “And I think—I hope—my extra luck turned up this morning. A very nice big house.”

Rafe’s fingers pinched her waist and she tried to keep a straight face.

“Our beautiful capital city has some glorious properties,” the councilor agreed. “My wife and I have just tendered on a new apartment. Possibly you’d like to view it if the sale goes through?” His bushy eyebrows rose in inquiry.

Sophie was quick to hand him one of her new business cards. “Do ask your wife to call me any time for a consultation,” she murmured as he moved away.

“Trying to poach my clients?” Faye’s cut-crystal voice sliced from somewhere close behind them.

Sophie flinched, and felt Rafe’s hand tighten at her waist and then release her. “I don’t need to poach your clients,” she replied, turning to face her former boss. “When they approach me, it’s perfectly fair to offer my services.”

She raised her chin a little, held her drink steady, and stared Faye down. Faye sent her a disdainful sniff and turned aside to Rafe. “Darling,” she purred, touching his tie, flicking a nonexistent speck of lint off his lapel, and stretching up on tiptoe to brush a scarlet kiss onto his cheek. “Fancy seeing you here. How lovely.”

Sophie clamped her teeth together so hard she almost popped chips off the enamel. Anger boiled up her throat. How dare the woman act all cuddly after treating him the way she had? Leading him on. Waiting years before telling him she didn’t want his children.

She watched as a slight smile tugged at Rafe’s gorgeous mouth. At least he hadn’t kissed the bitch back…

“Business good?” he drawled. “You’re managing without Sophie’s help, are you?”

Oh, that’s really done it. Now wave a red cape at her, Rafe.

“I was sorry to have to let her go, of course,” Faye said in a slightly too loud voice.

“You didn’t ‘let me go’. I couldn’t wait to leave and set up my own studio.”

“Ladies… ladies…” Rafe’s grin broadened as he leaned in between them, ostensibly to lift a canapé from a circulating waiter’s silver tray. “Nibble, anyone?”

Sophie shook her head and stepped away. She was damned if she’d play this game.

Rafe’s long arm shot out and caught hers, forcing her to turn back to him. “Sophie’s decorating the house for me,” he threw into the frigid air. “I felt it needed a fresh approach, a younger eye perhaps?”

The three of them stood like statues in the midst of all the business babble. Seconds ticked by.

“Good luck with that idea, Rafe. As you know, I like to bring something distinctive to a commission. Leave my mark, so to speak.”

Sophie, who’d been so in awe of Faye for several years, just couldn’t resist. She set down her glass. “But we’ll remove this one,” she said, taking Rafe’s handkerchief from his breast pocket, stretching up on tiptoe and wiping the scarlet lipstick from his cheek. “He’s not your commission. He’s mine now.”

Faye stared daggers at her for a few seconds, then turned and flounced off.

“That went well,” Rafe said.

Sophie felt his grasp around her wrist soften, but he didn’t release her.

*

It felt damn good having the two of them scrapping over him. He knew it was petty, but his male pride had been stroked by those few choice comments. To see Sophie extend her claws and effortlessly get the upper hand had been a surprise.

And how he’d liked the way she’d said he was her commission and not the house. Slip of the tongue? He hoped not.

To have Sophie laying claim to him in front of Faye had boosted his satisfaction to very comfortable heights. Add that to the fact he now had a decorator, forward progress on the house, and a woman who piqued his interest, and he was a thoroughly happy man.

“Almost time to eat,” he said, stroking her wrist.

“I’m quite hungry,” she agreed.

“A little excitement does that, don’t you find? Increases all sorts of appetites?” He watched, amused, as Sophie blushed and huffed and tried to pull away. “Where’s your earring?”

Her hand flew up to grope at her ears and found one missing. “Darn—somewhere in your house I expect.” She unthreaded the other to match.

“We’ll find it tonight after dinner.”

“No, Rafe,” she hissed. “This has got to stay business.”

“We’ll see.”

“We certainly won’t.” She stopped whispering as the silver haired city councilor approached again. “Ah, Rafe, want a word,” he boomed.

Rafe followed the man to one of the impressive looking dining settings and pulled a chair out so Sophie could sit. Councilor Duncan turned aside for a moment to exchange pleasantries with a nearby crony.

“If you want your earring back you’ll need to come out to the house and collect it,” Rafe said, leaning low as he pushed the chair in for her. “They’re starting the big clean-up tomorrow and it might get swept up with all the dust and rubbish.”

Her grey eyes spat sparks at him. “That’s blackmail.”

“Surely not?” He smiled at her outraged expression. “I want you there. I nearly always get what I want.”

“So do I,” Councilor Duncan claimed, turning back and overhearing half of their conversation. “And what I want m’boy is your opinion on the proposed redevelopment of the Miramar wharf area.”

Rafe put on his public face and offered opinions on slipways and winches and parking facilities. Faye’s spiky dark hair and cutting-edge lime green jacket were visible across the big room, but far enough away that Sophie could relax a little and join in the general conversation at the table. She wished Rafe hadn’t rubbed Faye’s nose in the situation with quite such glee though. She’d be a formidable opponent, and the design scene in Wellington wasn’t huge. But how good it felt having him at her side.

And how good it would feel if she agreed to go back to the house with him. But that wouldn’t happen unless it was strictly business.

She sighed and forked up the last bite of her peppery beef.

“Nothing to follow except coffee or tea, I’m afraid,” Councilor Duncan said. “And the ladies do seem to like a little something after their meal.”

“They do indeed,” Rafe agreed.

“I’m fine without,” Sophie insisted.

The guest on her other side was taking every opportunity to harangue the city councilor about the increasing number of pigeons in the park near his business premises.

“Filthy little creatures… fouling the footpaths… smelling like a sewage plant… need to be shot…”

Sophie’s lips quirked as she caught Rafe’s amused glance. Surely there were more important problems than this in the capital city?

He laid down his fork, edged his chair closer to the table, and sent the other diners a benign smile. “A bird in the hand?” he suggested as his fingers slipped under the voluminous white damask tablecloth and squeezed her thigh.

*

“Not funny!” Sophie was close to exploding as she hurried down the marble steps of the Wakefield Club a little later. A flush of reined-in fury stained her face. Her eyes blazed with temper. And her body burned with wanting him. “You said I’d be your business guest. You were supposed to be mentoring me, not groping me under the tablecloth. If anyone had noticed, all my credibility would have gone out the window in a flash.”

“Instead of all your composure?” He grinned, unrepentant. “Sophie, you have no idea what a turn-on you are when you’re blushing and wriggling and trying to look prim.”

“Prim? I was trying to look respectable. It was very hard.”

“Well, something certainly was. Just as well that was a big tablecloth.”

She snorted at that, and sent him another mutinous scowl as they walked back to the Jaguar.

He reached to take her hand. She slapped it away.

He opened the car for her.

“Rafe?”

“Yup?”

“Stop it. I don’t want to mess this job up. It’s important to me. My whole future depends on it.”

“You won’t mess it up, Sophie. I have complete faith in you.”

“Not the decorating,” she insisted as she swung her legs in. “I have plenty of experience. I have good contacts and excellent tradespeople to call on. I have qualifications and my own high standards to live up to. But…”

“Then you’ve nothing to worry about.” Rafe closed the Jaguar’s door and left her cocooned in its leathery luxury. She fumed as he sauntered around to the driver’s side, and seated himself.

“It’s not the decorating,” she repeated. “It’s the you-and-me thing. If we socialize and then get a couple of weeks into the house job and can’t stand each other, where does that leave me? I’m just starting out. ‘Subtle’ has been all I’ve planned and saved for, for several years now.”

“While you were working for Faye?”

“Yes, of course. I hate to admit it but I’m jealous of her. Of her beautiful big studio. Of her fantastic clothes and great clients.”

She took a deep breath and released it slowly, willing herself to sound calm and rational. “I want the same for me. Every dollar I’ve been able to save has gone toward it. If I fail, I fail big-time. I have so much riding on this—more than you can possibly imagine.”

She bit her bottom lip to hold back any further admissions. She would not let him know about Camille and her failure there.

Her nerves fluttered with desperation. She’d taken such a risk. Lived on fresh air and hope during the weeks she’d renovated the studio. Her savings were almost gone, and her optimism felt as though it was shored up with string and paper clips.

The corner of Rafe’s mouth twitched. “If it’s any consolation, she’s no hotshot businesswoman. She enjoys being known as the owner of Severino Design. Throwing my name around, having me to bail her out when jobs went bad in the past. Sure, she’s talented enough, but her concept of profit and loss is laughable.”

Sophie stared at him open-mouthed for a few seconds before recovering her train of thought.

“But I presumed she must have been making a mint. She always seemed to have new jewelry… great holidays…”

“All bought with the boats. When I saw you this morning, part of the reason I stopped was your gorgeous legs, and the other was I wondered if she was expanding or retrenching.”

Sophie’s heart plummeted. “You expected she was going backwards? You think I’ve chosen a bad location?”

“It’s an excellent location, and you know it is. Stop being so female!” He aimed a mock punch at her jaw and turned it into a quick sensuous caress. “Thorndon Quay’s taking over as the decorator district. You’ll do well there.”

“I’ll do well on the reputation of your beautiful house, and that’s what worries me,” she said, shaking her head. “I really don’t want to risk mixing up the business side of my life with the personal side.”

Rafe closed his eyes for a second. “Okay, back to basics. The contract in no way depends on that. The job’s yours. I should have pulled finger weeks ago. I had a word with Chris when I was getting a few screws for your signboard. Told him to clean everything up so you can go for it. I know it’s getting toward the end of the year, but at least start things rolling for me?”

He reached over and clasped her hand, with more success now they were sitting close together. “Chase the kitchen people, Sophie. Bring me samples. Fast as you like. I won’t mess you around and I won’t let anything personal get in the way of your work.”

He brought her hand to his lips. “But I’d really like to see you after hours—yes?”

“No,” she said, trying to glare at him, and feeling the corners of her mouth lifting instead. “You’re a bulldozer. You just expect you’ll get your own way, don’t you? All that flirting and those muscles. That fabulous damn smile. Yes, that’s the one,” she added as Rafe flashed her another wicked grin.

“I can wait.” He fired up the engine and checked the traffic. “If I have to.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

“Snippy little thing, aren’t you? And so brave with big bad Faye. I enjoyed that.”

He accelerated into a gap and concentrated on driving while Sophie tried to steel herself against his charm offensive and wished she didn’t have to.

“I’ll be back at the studio by five with champagne,” he added. “Anything else you need?”

She shook her head and sighed. “Lord, I hope not. They’re keeping the wine and juice chilled for me at McAllisters’ until later on. I’ve hired glasses and plates, I’ve ordered platters of nibbles from the deli, bought paper napkins.” She ticked them off on her fingers as she itemized. “Sent out invitations and lots of people have replied. There are plenty of business cards to give away. I didn’t get brochures printed because my website tells them everything. That’s all I can think of. Let’s hope most of them turn up and some of them book consultations.”

“Let’s hope they don’t tie you up so much you’ve no time left for me.”

Her lips twitched. “Ha, wouldn’t that be wonderful? That’d solve my problem.”

“But not mine, Ms Calhoun. I have need of your services. I want a fair share of your attention to get my house moving toward completion.”

“As long as that’s all.”

She caught his brief smile before he returned his attention to the traffic.

Chapter 6 — Champagne Celebration

As the sun started to cast long shadows in Thorndon Quay and the final guests departed, Sophie flopped down on the studio’s sofa, kicked her high sandals off, and rotated her aching ankles. She stretched her arms sideways with a long soft groan.

“Give her to me,” she suggested to her best friend Fran, reaching out for two year old Lucy. “And take some weight off your own feet as well. That was hectic.”

Fran Spence handed over her dark haired daughter and collapsed beside Sophie. “You’re well and truly launched, babe. And in style,” she added, sending a hopeful glance in Rafe’s direction. “Is there another little dribble of Moet for a frazzled mom?”

“You’ll be drunk in charge of a stroller,” Sophie said, expertly arranging Lucy on her knee. She buried her face in the toddler’s soft hair and blew a raspberry onto her scalp.

Lucy squealed and giggled and looked up with adoration.

“So have you brought me good luck, you unexpected guest?”

Fran bit her lip. “Sorry I had to bring her. Pete was going to be home in plenty of time, but they couldn’t take off from Auckland with that sea fog. God knows when he can fly in now.”

“She was fine. She was really good. And she reminded me I need to get a couple of picture books and maybe some blocks or puzzles to keep clients’ children occupied.”

“More chippie?” Lucy begged, turning blue eyes up to Sophie.

“No way, Luce. You’re already full of them. If you have any more you won’t eat the good things like broccoli and spinach Mom’s going to give you for dinner.”

“Yuck,” Fran said unwisely as she turned to accept her half glass of champagne from Rafe.

“Yucky-yuck,” Lucy echoed. “Chippie!” she bellowed.

*

Rafe stepped back behind the makeshift bar and smiled to himself. Lucy was a handful, no doubt about it, but Sophie didn’t seem too fazed by her.

No chippie,” she replied, lifting up one of the silk cushions and tickling Lucy’s nose with a feather tassel.

“Hungry…”

“I’ll bet you are. Desperate for a nice big dinner? I don’t think so.”

“Chippie,” Lucy tried again, but with less insistence this time.

“Cuddle,” Sophie suggested, gathering the little girl closer. “Cuddles are the best thing in the world. Better than chippies any day.”

Rafe’s gut give a sudden churning twist. Sophie looked beautiful sitting there with the baby in her arms. What if she was cradling his own child? Dark haired like this one. Fractious, but soon calmed by her warm teasing manner. He forced himself to look away and stop dreaming. Sophie wasn’t the one, any more than Faye had been.

Faye’s last vitriolic anti-maternal outburst had ended their partnership as surely as if she’d shot him through the head. Six years of marriage, and finally the truth. She didn’t want his children. Had never wanted children. Was still taking birth control pills and concealing it from him. And wouldn’t be changing her mind.

Obviously Sophie felt the same. She’d just launched her new business and had huge ambition for it to succeed. She was pretty and fun, and good for a fling, but that was all.

He’d never felt so conflicted. He didn’t want another shallow affair. But he wanted Sophie. Go figure…

Months earlier, after separating from Faye, he’d told Chris and his team it was full steam ahead with the lowest level of the cliff house. He knew there was no point in looking backward to things that couldn’t be.

But right now there was no real reason to look forward, either.

He shook his head at his own stupidity. All very well picturing Sophie as an alternative to Faye, but she seemed every bit as ambitious… every bit as determined to devote her time and energy to her new business. Her earlier comments about wanting the same success flooded his brain, causing his gut to twist again.

“You look like the ideal young mother,” he couldn’t help suggesting. He heard the bitterness in his voice, and wasn’t at all taken aback when Sophie shrugged and said, “Me? You must be joking.”

He’d fixed his attention so firmly on Sophie cradling Lucy that he failed to see Fran’s look of puzzled surprise.

*

Sophie felt the dread roll right though her. What if Fran said something damning in front of Rafe? She lurched up and set Lucy on her feet. “Sorry to throw you out, but I’ve had it for the day,” she said quickly before Fran could spill any beans.

She dived into the washroom to retrieve the stroller. Lucy’s bottom lip trembled, her eyes scrunched up and she howled in protest when Sophie returned a few seconds later.

“Gotta go, Luce, sorry.” She bent and tried to console the little girl. “Want to phone my Mommy and tell her how my new shop went.”

“Damn well, that’s how it went,” Fran confirmed, reaching out and stroking Lucy’s hair before up-ending the last of her champagne and handing the glass back to Rafe.

“Need a ride?” he offered, quirking an eyebrow as she stumbled slightly.

Fran shook her head and grinned, unoffended by Sophie’s abrupt dismissal and Rafe’s suggestion she had the wobbles. “We’ll be fine, won’t we Luce?”

Lucy continued her sobbing.

“Some nice fresh air will do us both good. We’re just around in Hobson Street,” she added to Rafe. “Close as. Not even any roads to cross.”

“Can you manage this then?” He pushed an unopened bottle of Moet toward her.

“Not what the baby bag generally contains,” Fran said with a delighted smile. She bent and rummaged for the roomy quilted mauve carrier. “But I think we can squeeze it in beside the emergency banana. Looks like Pete gets to toast Subtle’s future success after all.” She turned toward Sophie as she persuaded Lucy into the stroller. “Say hi to your Mom for me. Shame she and Camille couldn’t make it.”

Sophie encouraged her out through the doorway and walked with her for a few seconds, waving to Lucy and hoping Rafe hadn’t heard, or wouldn’t ask.

Heart racing, she turned back and picked up the sign he’d mended. As she stepped back into the studio she said, “Mom lives too far away.” Would that stall any questions from him? She changed the subject adroitly. “Where did you get your uniform?”

Rafe glanced down at the black waiter-style apron he’d worn for the occasion. He’d bought it for a joke, but had been pleased enough to have it protecting his trousers once his barman’s job got busy.

“Saw a display of them at the liquor store.”

“Very smart. You absolutely looked the part. I’d like to offer to pay you for all the lovely champagne—”

“You can forget about that.”

“—but right now it’s way beyond my budget.”

“It was a ‘good luck’ gift, Sophie. You won’t be paying for it.”

“You’re very generous. Too generous. It gave my opening a lot more class. Thank you.”

She sighed, and turned to survey the studio. The sofa throws were rumpled, someone had looped the lengths of display fabric back to make more room, and the glowing timber floor was scattered with crumbs from the snacks and nibbles. Empty glasses garnished every level surface.

“What a mess,” she added, inspecting the floor and then releasing the fabrics so they hung straight again. “Let me just grab the remains of the food. I’ll come in early tomorrow and sort everything else out.”

She stuffed the snack platters and their wilting lettuce leaves and kebab sticks into a garbage bag and secured the top while Rafe removed his apron. Then she hurried into the washroom and came out carrying her pink and silver crash helmet.

“What’s that girly thing?” he teased.

“It matches my Vespa.” She sent him a challenging look that told him he’d be pushing his luck if he commented further in that vein.

“You’ve got a little Italian stallion?”

“If you insist. I love it. It’s cheap to run and I can squeak it into Mrs. Ferris’s garage beside her car.”

“All that throbbing power between your legs?”

“Not as much power as you have between yours.”

He raised an eyebrow, obviously wondering if she was talking dirty.

She waited a couple of beats, and added “I saw a crash helmet in your bedroom. I doubt you’re buzzing around on a scooter.”

She enjoyed the guilty grin that spread across his gorgeous face. So he had at least one weakness…

“A Ducati Multistrada. Until the garages are finished up by the road I lock the Jag in the boatyard overnight and use the bike to get to the house and back again next morning. You don’t leave a car like that sitting unprotected on a cliff top.”

“And what about the bike at night?”

“Locked inside the shipping container, along with a lot of my other stuff. Not ideal, but it works.” He bundled up the apron, grabbed the remaining unopened bottle of Moet by its neck, and pulled the studio door open.

Sophie felt the prickle of desire wash through her as she moved past him. She could easily picture him in motor cycle leathers—a big rangy man in black, carving through traffic as though he owned the road. Owned the world.

A drift of his earthy cologne reached her and she closed her eyes for a moment to savor his scent. Combined with the freshly laundered cotton of his shirt and his clean skin and the faint bouquet of good champagne, he smelled wonderful. Everything about him invited her closer, but she knew closer could lead only to disaster.

She stood for a moment looking back at her new venture, hoping fervently for even a fraction of the success Rafe had achieved. Then watched as he pulled the door shut and gave it a joggle to check it had locked.

They walked as far as his nearby car, now returned to showroom condition.

“I can picture you on something fast,” she said, choosing her words with care. “But why the Jag? You should have an Italian car like a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.”

Rafe compressed his lips and avoided her gaze. “I’ll explain some time. You might not like the answer.” He glanced up the road to where a lone pink Vespa kept company with a Harley and a Suzuki in the nearly deserted bike park. “So that’s yours?”

“All mine.”

“Are you going to be safe on it?”

She sent him a withering look. “You were the barman. You know how much I drank—or didn’t drink. I did so much talking I didn’t get more than a few sips.” She drew a deep breath and let it out in a noisy sigh. “Rafe, I’m absolutely wrecked. You weren’t serious about dinner, were you? After the big lunch and those nibbles I’m barely hungry anyway.”

“Tomorrow then?”

“Not dinner—you know how I feel about being seen in public together—but maybe I could spend some more time prowling around the house and taking measurements later in the afternoon if you’re free? Are you safe to drive?”

“My mean boss said her bar staff weren’t allowed to drink.”

She sent him a wry grin at that and set down her bag, twisted her long hair up into a rough topknot and dragged the helmet down over it.

“I’ll see you tomorrow then. I can’t wait to phone Mom.”

“And have a little boast?”

“Got it.” She slammed the visor down on the helmet before he could quiz her further, picked up her bag and headed off toward her pink Vespa.

*

Rafe stood on the now quiet sidewalk, fingering the earring in his pocket and watching her walk away. He considered his progress so far. Not falling at his feet, that was for sure. Not even saying ‘no’ and meaning maybe. She was self-contained. Coolly aloof. With just an occasional smile that promised—what? Not much yet.

But now he’d found such an intriguing woman there was a tug of war to follow. His whole body hungered. If he had to use a few wiles to attract her, well, sex was a game and a damn fine one.

As Sophie buzzed off up Thorndon Quay he pulled the earring from his pocket and stood in the late sunshine, tossing the little jewel from hand to hand. It had been an absolute impulse to lift it, and of course she’d ‘find’ it without difficulty, but it pleased him to have it as ammunition.

It fell silver side up, then blue side up.

Heads she will, tails she won’t.

Chapter 7 — Pulse Rate Rising

Sophie waved farewell at the last intersection and smiled at his goodbye toot. He was gone, and just as well. The last thing she needed was for him to overhear her talking to Camille.

As soon as she’d set the Vespa on its stand she pulled off her crash helmet, breathed a sigh of relief, and dashed along the path.

The rose perfume pooled sensuously in the sheltered porch. The wind had died away as it often did in the evenings. It would be beautiful at his house tonight; shame she wouldn’t be there to enjoy it.

Her mobile’s ringtone sounded as she jiggled the key into the lock. She glanced at the caller ID and smiled.

“Hi Sweetie.” She edged inside and let her helmet slide down onto the sofa.

“You can have Camille in a moment,” her mother’s excited voice said. “I want you first. How did it go? I’m bursting to hear.”

“You should have waited for me to phone you,” Sophie admonished, thinking of Nancy’s tight finances. “Now I’m officially in business for myself I can claim my calls as a legitimate expense.”

“So how did it go?”her mother repeated

“Hmmm… just about the best day of my life. The studio opening was amazing—so many people turned up for a look.”

“And a free drink and nibble, I suppose?”

“Yes Mom, but it worked. Someone gave me a dozen bottles of champagne, and the biggest new job you can imagine!”

“Slow down, darling. Free champagne?”

“Real French stuff, too. And I went out for lunch, and met a city councilor who’s buying an apartment and might want that decorated, and—”

“Was the champagne from the city councilor?”

“No Mom, not him, another man.” She hesitated for a moment, then hurtled on. “You remember Faye Severino who I used to work for? Her husband. Well, they’re separated these days. And he has this huge house he wants finished now he and Faye have split up.”

She hugged herself with her free arm and did a little dance through to the bedroom where she kicked off her sandals.

“Goodness, Sophie, you’ve really had a day of it.”

“You can’t imagine. But I’m absolutely whacked. I’m going to do some quick paperwork, make an omelet, and crash into bed pretty darn soon. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow morning once I’ve calmed down.”

“As long as it’s good news.”

“More than good. I’ll ring you before eight, okay? Can I have Camille for a moment now?”

She waited through some muffled noises and then her tiny daughter said “Hi Mommy.”

Immediately her heart swelled with love and ached with loss. She pictured Camille’s petal-soft skin and flossy hair, and could touch neither. She should be crouching beside her little daughter, kissing her, swinging her up into her arms. Instead the too-short Sunday visits and frustrating evening phone calls were the only current possibilities.

“Hi Sweetie. How are you today?” She hoped her voice was steady and betrayed none of the intense emotion that swamped her every time she spoke with Camille.

“Good, Mommy,” came the piping reply.

“Did you have a nice time at kindergarten?”

“We painted elephants.”

“And I’ll bet yours is wonderful. What color is it?”

“Blue.”

“Of course,” Sophie agreed, smiling sadly. “A lovely big blue elephant. You could hang that on Nanna’s fridge door, couldn’t you? Or you could give it to me and I could hang it on mine with those pretty pink flower stickies you gave me?”

“And we did sand castles with flags on. And red harbottles.” Camille chattered on, unaware of her mother’s distress.

“Goodness,” Sophie managed, wondering what on earth red harbottles could possibly be. Any other evening she’d stop and ask. “You’ve really been busy, haven’t you? Well, so have I, and I’ve made your Barbie a princess dress with silver sparkles. Okay?”

“And new shoes, Mommy?”

“Not yet, Cammie. But maybe I’ll find some that will be just perfect. I’ll see you on Sunday morning darling. Can I talk to Nanna again? Big kisses.” She blew some into the phone and Camille did the same.

She closed her eyes, trying to feel Camille’s soft lips on her cheek, the brush of her golden hair. Imagining she was hugging Camille close instead of consigning her love to the empty air.

“Sorry to dash so fast, Mom,” she apologized once her mother had the phone again. “It was an amazing day. Unbelievable. The studio looks great—or it will by the time I’ve tidied up tomorrow morning. Maybe you could come over for a day or two sometime soon? I’ll bring you some photos, but it’s not the same, is it?”

“I’ll enjoy your photos anyway.”

“I’d love you to see the real thing.”

“We’ll see what we can manage. Get a good night’s sleep, honey, and I’ll catch up again tomorrow.”

“Bye Mom.”

“Bye darling. So proud of you.” And the line went dead.

*

“So this is what you get up to when I’m not keeping an eye on you?” Rafe said, pushing the studio door further open next morning. He strode in with the two takeaway coffees he’d bought, pleased to see Sophie’s guilty jump. He set them on her desk, well clear of the fabric swatches she was flipping through, and grinned at her discomforted expression. The most visible sample featured blue and white stripes with pink rosebuds. Definitely not for him.

“You’re not my only client,” Sophie said, interpreting his expression correctly.

Was that a blush climbing her pretty cheeks?

“Pleased to hear it. Is this for a little old lady?”

She laughed at that and shook her head. “A little old lady’s dog, if you can believe it. A white Bischon Frise, and Miss Templeton wants to pretty up the plastic dog bed so she’s going to have a quilted cover made from this.”

His lips quirked. “You’re wasting your time on dog beds? Lots of money in that is there?”

Sophie sent him a killer glare. “Not wasting my time at all, Rafe. This dog bed is in a beautiful old house belonging to two eccentric sisters, and they need sofas re-covered, and curtains replaced in at least three rooms, and maybe a new rug for their big front entrance hall. We’re starting small and working up to the big stuff.”

“You hope.”

“I think we’ll get there. They seem pleased to be taken seriously.”

He separated the coffees from their carry-tray and handed one across to her. “You said you might come out to the house later for a better look?”

“Yes, four o’clock or so?”

He shook his head. Why make it easy for her? “I’m tied up until about 5.30. Will that work?”

He watched her fighting her annoyance, and decided he’d keep the pressure on. He wanted more time with her than a quick work related session.

“Sure,” she said slowly. “I could go to the Fabric Library and maybe get some sample books for you…”

“I’ll collect you here in case they’re heavy.”

“From the apartment, if you don’t mind, Rafe.”

And, feeling he’d won a small victory, he agreed and took his coffee across to the sofa.

“You got this place back in good shape pretty fast,” he said, checking out the studio. The glasses and platters stood stacked in their hire-boxes and the floor gleamed as the morning sun lit up the grain of the old planks. He watched as she took a couple of sips and set her drink down again.

“It wasn’t too bad. No damage to anything.”

“I could drop those boxes back if you like? Or will they be collected?”

She glanced across at the stack. “No—I thought I’d get a taxi.”

“Right, that’s a job for me then.” He was pleased to have another small way to plant himself in her mind, and lounged back enjoying his coffee in the sun. “So I’ll collect you somewhere around six at your apartment?”

She nodded and sipped, a small frown creasing her forehead and then clearing away. What was she thinking?

Eventually he rose to drop his cup in the trash basket under her desk. “I like the skirt,” he added, trailing a finger up her thigh until it reached the white linen, and then ducking clear before she swatted his hand away.

He swung out of the studio with a huge grin on his face, leaving Sophie no doubt shooting daggers into his back from her big grey eyes.

*

That evening she stepped out of her white linen skirt, pulled the wardrobe door open, and considered her best plan of attack from its meager contents. It boiled down to jeans again, whichever way she looked at it. If she was going there to work and to look for her earring then it had to be something casual, easy-care, and able to foil Rafe’s wandering hands.

She tossed her old blue Levis onto the bed.

But she was woman enough to want her top half to have a bit more class. The long white tunic, maybe? She lifted the hanger out, pictured the loose-knit fabric snagging too easily in the unfinished house, and hung it up again.

The black scoop neck T-shirt? It would have to do, and she’d add her silver snake-chain to dress it up a little.

She changed quickly, pulling on socks and flat shoes, nodding with a grin of satisfaction as she thought what passion killers the black socks were.

A spritz of perfume, a brush through to untangle her long hair from its crash helmet twist, a lick more lip gloss. Done. She was determined not to ‘dress up’. Hopefully that would help squash any spark of attraction he might feel for her.

Or was he just a typical unattached male trying his luck with any available woman? Strange how it seemed easier to think this when she wasn’t right next to him, breathing in his warm masculine scent and running her fingers down his tanned forearm.

This had to stay business. Right now she was very determined about that.

And she really didn’t feel like a big meal after the Thai food her old workmate, Steve, had unexpectedly brought to the studio at lunchtime. When had she ever eaten more than a sandwich or a salad in the middle of the day? Maybe she could talk Rafe into takeaways…

She took one last look in the mirror, pulled a gruesome face at herself, and checked she had her phone.

*

Rafe glanced across as he pulled up on the bus stop. Sophie jogged down the path in a blur of movement—hair flying, sample books clutched against her hip.

She looked like a carefree teenager, not one of the city’s newest businesswomen. And damn if she wasn’t wearing jeans in place of the skirt he’d been looking forward to all day…

He reached over and pushed the door open for her.

“Hi Rafe, another great evening.” She pushed the samples into the foot-well, sat, pulled the door closed, and snapped her seatbelt on.

“I’m hoping so.”

She shot him a slitty-eyed look. “Weather-wise.”

“That too,” he agreed as he moved out into the traffic.

Her slitty-eyed look grew more intense. “Don’t get too hopeful.”

“Hopeful about what?” He hoped his air of baffled innocence seemed realistic. He kept his eyes on the road ahead and refused to give her the satisfaction of direct eye contact.

“You know absolutely about what.”

“Finding your earring? It must be there somewhere.”

Not about finding my earring. But it better be, because they were a twenty-first birthday present from my partner.”

He slowed for the Hobson Street intersection and waited for a car to cross in front of the Jaguar as the shock washed through him. Had she been married at twenty-one? Just the thought of her with another man set his teeth on edge. “So how old are you now?”

“Twenty-five.”

He accelerated into Hobson Street. “And what became of the partner?”

He finally glanced sideways. Sophie had turned away, shutting him out.

“He died in a hang-gliding accident,” she muttered.

Rafe caught his breath, and remorse hit him hard. “Hell, I’m so sorry. I wish I’d never asked.”

“More than three years ago,” she added, bringing her eyes over to his again and giving a faint shrug. “It’s okay. It seems a while back now. He was my first boss’s son…”

Rafe considered that for a minute or so, wondering what else he could possibly say.

“That’s where Fran and Pete live,” she said, pointing to a large old white house with a weeping elm cascading over the lawn.

“Nice place,” he agreed, hardly sparing it a glance.

Her first boss’s son. Is that why she’s keen to keep me at arm’s length? No mixing business with pleasure a second time because the first ended badly?

“I’m sure we’ll find the earring,” he said after another short gap. “On one of the two lower floors. I can’t see how it would have fallen out anywhere else.”

He felt like an absolute heel now—partly from teasing her, and partly from stirring up bad memories.

“I don’t have much jewelry. It’d be good to get it back.” And she promptly changed the subject to paint colors as he drove on across the city and out through the suburbs. Soon they were high above the crashing rollers of the south coast again.

*

Sophie knew what to expect this time. She stepped straight out of the Jaguar and would have hurried across to the cable-car except that Rafe said, “Hang on, are you strong enough to carry this?”

‘This’ turned out to be a heavy cardboard box labeled ‘Siesta Chair. Assembly required’.

She hefted up the box, amazed to see Rafe tucking an identical one under his long arm before lifting out his battered metal toolbox, setting that on the rough ground, closing the trunk and locking the car. He picked up the toolbox again, and they proceeded to the cable-car at the cliff edge. She knew he carried twice the weight she did, and his strength didn’t appear challenged in the least. Plainly he hadn’t been joking when he’d told her he’d been used to working physically hard.

“Can you get the door for me?” he asked.

She put her box down and unlatched the sliding sheet-metal door. Rafe stepped aboard and stowed his cargo. Sophie added hers.

“Going to struggle again this time?” he asked, snaking an arm around her to steady her against the corner post.

“No,” she said, biting her lip and glancing up.

Lord, he still had exactly the same effect on her as he’d had yesterday. The seam of her jeans felt maddening. It pressed up between her thighs. Surely it didn’t usually? Her body felt sensitive, swollen, delicious. And it would only get worse if he kept looking down at her like that.

As though he was her protector. As though her wellbeing seriously mattered to him.

He pushed the green button and the cable-car lurched into its slow descent. He held her secure against the sway of the little carriage. “Warm enough for you?”

Was he teasing? She decided to ignore the possibility. “Yes, it’s real summer now. And when the wind drops like this it’s wonderful.”

She gazed out across the harbor, willing her body to take no notice of his. Trying to ignore the steely strength of his arm, his soft breath as it stirred her hair, the thud of her heart and the thump of his where her cheek lay cradled against his chest. She pressed her hand against the pulse in her throat and was astounded to find their heartbeats equalizing. She didn’t want to believe it possible, but as they dropped lower she heard the unmistakable evidence. His big heart was picking up pace slightly as her own pulse slowed its hectic beat against her fingers.

“Pencarrow lighthouse looks spectacular,” she murmured. Anything to distract herself from what she’d just discovered.

They surely weren’t in tune any other way. She scrimped along from day to day and he had money to buy expensive champagne for strangers. She was serious and self-contained, he an extroverted flirt. That their hearts could do this felt too intimate to contemplate.

As the cable-car jerked to a halt Rafe tightened his grip to prevent her leaving.

“Watch.” He nodded toward a glitter in the far sky. As they stood together it materialized into a silver airliner which floated steadily lower, past the old white lighthouse, past the far hills, until it was almost level with the sea. Seconds later the muffled roar of its reverse-thrust reached them as it touched down at the international airport.

“Not just boats, but planes as well. I’ll never get tired of this view.”

He released her at last, slid the door aside and they lifted their cargo out. She was still astounded by the heartbeat thing. How had they tuned in to each other like that?

She paced across to the glass barrier at the deck’s edge and clung to it with one hand, nonplussed. The other she used to touch her face, gauge her temperature. Her skin felt burning hot despite her lack of jacket.

A sharp ripping noise behind her made her whirl around to investigate. Rafe knelt on the deck attacking one of the boxes with a knife from his toolbox.

“What are you doing?” she asked, walking closer.

“Making us a couple of decent chairs.”

“Change out of your suit then.” She said it without thought, so used to giving Camille guidance on her Sunday visits.

“Yes, Mom,” he teased, never knowing how the words hurt.

She hesitated a moment before speaking again. “Steve from Faye’s place turned up at the studio with Thai lunch.”

“Spying?”

“Spying for Faye? I hope not. I always liked him. Big Steve with the horn-rims.”

“Steve from ‘Noo Yark’? Yeah…watch out for Faye though, she holds a grudge forever. You’re not too hungry then? Pizza maybe?”

“Fine by me.”

“Any special orders? No anchovies? Double parmesan?”

She shook her head. “Whatever you usually have.”

He dug out his mobile and beeped through to one of the pre-selects as he walked toward the house. So he was a regular customer? Sophie pictured him here on his own eating takeaways. But he wouldn’t be on his own, she swiftly corrected herself. There’d be a woman for sure.

She tried to banish the scene from her imagination. None of her business. She couldn’t possibly get involved with him, so what did it matter…

She occupied herself for the short time he was gone by unpacking the first box. She set the seat cushions aside and placed all the timber components in an organized line. Then she unfolded the instruction sheet, looking up from the diagrams as she heard the door close.

Rafe walked across the deck toward her.

And she felt her pulse soar up through fast, through disturbed, past urgent to total hammer.

Chapter 8 — Trapped and Trembling

He sent her a broad smile, white teeth against dark skin, and continued on past as far as the cable-car.

Sophie drew a quick panicked breath as he reached in and pushed the ‘up’ command. The winch motor whirred. The carriage door rattled momentarily and then became quiet. It started to climb.

She was now trapped halfway down a cliff face with no-one else in sight—except for a huge strong man who was—

Who was what? Totally naked?

Less than half dressed, anyway.

“You’re going well.” He set down two champagne flutes and the bottle of Moet, and tossed a white cloth aside.

She dragged her eyes up his long, seriously muscled legs to his flat belly, up past his hard chest and shoulders to that devastating smile again. She swallowed. “I just… thought…” she mumbled.

What? What the hell did I think?

“…that I’d make a start for you.”

He squatted beside her and surveyed the collection of legs and crossbars and heaven knows what else.

She saw now that he wore dusty brown elastic sided ankle boots—standard issue for Kiwi builders. And soft old khaki shorts, slung low on his narrow hips. That was all.

It wasn’t nearly enough, but at least it was more than her first startled impression. His dark gold skin and khaki shorts and brown boots had all merged in the warm evening light into one long tanned naked body. A body with no apparent genitals, now she thought about it more lucidly.

“These won’t take long to assemble. Want that drink we both missed out on yesterday?”

She swallowed again and nodded, trying hard not to supply the missing pieces to her fantasy.

He rose to his feet and peeled the foil off the bottle’s neck. Sophie sighed as the muscles of his arms stood out in sharp relief as he wrenched at the cork.

“She’s a tight one.” He reached for the piece of cloth to get extra traction, eased the cork out with the barest pop, gave a grunt of satisfaction, and bent down to pour.

Sophie upended the empty box so they could use its flat base as a makeshift table.

He raised his glass to her, sipped, then set it down and began to arrange pieces of timber. A plastic zip-loc bag contained screws and washers. “I’ve been meaning to do this ever since the weather came good,” he said. “The lightweight chairs blow around if the wind picks up. These’ll be a lot more stable.”

He pulled the white fabric closer and tipped the contents of the plastic bag onto it so no small pieces could escape through the gaps in the decking. Sophie now saw it was a somewhat paint spattered T-shirt. She handed him the instruction sheet.

Rafe shook his head and grinned. “If I can build a boat I can manage a kitset chair.”

She silently acknowledged the truth of that, watching him arrange the jigsaw without effort. “Can I hand you things then?”

“A screw and a washer each time? That’ll speed it up.”

They worked without talking, Rafe fitting the pieces together, inserting the screws that Sophie offered, and driving them in deep and fast with a noisy tool that spat and rattled in his big hand.

He set the first chair aside just a few minutes later. Sophie retrieved the cushions and sat. He split open the second box.

“Is it to madam’s liking? Or are you still mademoiselle?”

“What?”

“Did you marry him—Mr. Hang-glider?”

“No,” she said, surprised Rafe had asked. “He was just a friend who persuaded his mother to give me my first job. I was grateful. He was fun.” She shrugged, not wanting to give him any more of her story.

She’d conceived Camille even though they’d always used condoms. Marriage had never been discussed until that point, and was quickly dismissed. They were both far too young and had little in common apart from their child. Sophie was organized, and determined to make something better of her situation. Adrian was a laidback thrill-seeker, and seeking those thrills had taken his life only days after he’d given her the silver and lapis earrings.

“Grateful for the job he got you?” Rafe queried. “How’s the chair? Is that making you feel grateful, too?”

Sophie heard the laughter in his husky voice. “Not that grateful. Sorry Rafe, I’ve grown up a bit since then. The chair’s good,” she added, wanting to change the subject.

Rafe finished assembling the second one, and they sat together and drained their glasses before prowling the top floor of the house, checking measurements and discussing details. They’d barely returned to the deck when there was a shout of “Yo, pizza!” from road level.

A few seconds later the cable-car began its descent.

Sophie walked across to the landing platform and waited for it to arrive, feeling silly now she knew why he’d sent it up the cliff. Not to strand her. Not to leave her at his mercy.

Indeed he seemed intent on looking after her. He’d hung her fabrics because he thought it was too dangerous for her to do. Taken her to lunch and introduced her to influential people. Bought her the champagne… been willing to play barman so she could devote her whole attention to her clients… foregone the dinner he probably wanted.

She decided she needed to slightly review her opinion of him as a rash and arrogant womanizer. Damn—that was going to make her situation even worse.

She picked up the warm box and padded back across the huge deck in her rubber soled skate-shoes, determined to be pleasant to him.

By the time she returned he’d poured more champagne and lounged in one of the chairs with his long legs extended and his arms tucked back supporting his head. He stretched like a lazy cat and Sophie watched as all his muscles tightened and then relaxed again.

She laid the pizza down and sat quickly, hoping for respite from the maddening throb which had just returned double-strong right against the centre seam of her hitherto comfortable jeans.

“This you’ve got to see,” he said.

She shot a sideways glance at his acres of bare skin. “I’ve seen plenty, thanks.”

He repeated the cat-stretch thing. The pizza box sat unopened.

“What?” she demanded, spooked and apprehensive all over again.

“Just wait. See that glow over the top of the hills?”

She drew a deep breath. Was this a game?

Slowly the edge of the moon rose over the skyline. More than the edge. Even more.

“To new beginnings,” Rafe said, reaching for his glass and tilting it in her direction. Sophie sat, entranced, as the final curve of a huge golden disc emerged from behind the dark hills across the harbor.

She tilted her own in answer. “New beginnings,” she agreed. “For my little studio. For your lovely house.”

“For us as well?”

She shook her head. “Thank you, but no thank you.”

She hoped Rafe sensed it wasn’t an angry turndown. Hoped he knew she found him attractive, but circumstances were against them. She flicked a cautious glance sideways and saw he was staring out to sea, face neutral, body long and taut in the moonlight. He tipped his glass up and swallowed. She watched his throat constrict and was hit again by that hot sexy throb.

Was she mad? Should she go along with his flirting and see where it led?

No, she daren’t. It would be far too easy to fall for him, and agonizing once he’d had enough of her. And what else could she expect but eventual dismissal?

Sighing, she reached across to the pizza box and levered the lid up. The steam carried parmesan and tomato and oregano into the still air. “Eat,” she said. “It smells fantastic.”

Rafe turned and reached for a slice. “Yeah, they do a good one. Even my Italian sisters-in-law don’t turn their noses up too far at this.”

“Both your brothers married Italian girls?

“At Papa’s suggestion. He never left his roots far behind. Even after all these years in New Zealand he’s as Italian as they come.”

“But your mother’s not Italian?”

“Huia is certainly not Italian, although if you saw a photo of her at twenty and didn’t know she was half Maori/half Cherokee, you’d easily believe she came from somewhere around the Mediterranean.”

“Would you show me? The photo of her?”

“I don’t have one,” he said, sharp and cold. “My mother never did any of the mother-things other women do. Why would I want a photo of her?”

*

He took a savage bite of pizza and chewed for too long while he decided what to say next. Sophie silently took a slice and bit into it less fiercely than he had.

Finally he swallowed, knowing he must have shocked her with his comment. He considered what he could offer in explanation.

After a gusty sigh he said, “When I was born, I looked so unlike my father, he more or less disowned me. I’m not sure he ever believed I was his child.” He fell silent for a while longer, and then added, “I know I am. I sneaked some of his DNA a couple of years ago and had the tests done. Just for my own curiosity.”

He took another bite of pizza, wondering why he’d told Sophie that. He’d never told Faye or anyone else. But hell, what did it matter now? Grudgingly he continued. “He put up with me for a few months after I was born, but when my mother fell pregnant with the twins, he persuaded her to whangai me until her new babies arrived. Know what I mean by whangai?”

He saw her tentative nod. “More or less. It’s an unofficial adoption thing the Maori people sometimes do.”

“Close enough,” he agreed. “There are Maori kids whangaied all over the place. Mostly for perfectly good reasons. Orphans brought up with cousins. A baby handed on to a childless woman by her over fertile sister.”

“I’ve heard of that. How can they bear to do it?”

“It solves both sides of the problem I suppose. No different from surrogate mothers if you look at it that way.” He took another bite and chewed for a while longer. “Parents in shearing gangs or traveling for other seasonal work sometimes park their children with friends or rellies so the kids can stay in school. It can be short or long term.”

“And how long were you whangaied?”

“For my whole life.”

He heard her shocked intake of breath as he upended his glass and drained it. “Children often move easily between their real family and their whangai family,” he added as he set it down deliberately on the box. “They’re loved and wanted by both. That wasn’t what happened to me.”

“So who…?”

“My mother’s mother. Matakino from the military dance all those years ago. She married Koro after John Blackhawk was killed. Brought my mother Huia up, but never had any more babies, which was unusual for the times.”

“And she was good to you?”

“Wonderful. And as angry as me about why Huia and Luca never took me back. I heard the arguments…”

Oh yes, he’d heard the arguments all right. His grandmother insisting it was time for him to live with his parents and brothers. His mother equally insistent there was no room in their house… not enough money to raise a third child… that he looked nothing like her twins, which would make it ‘awkward’.

He’d listened outside the open kitchen window, keeping well down out of sight, petrified he’d have to leave Nanny and Koro, and just as scared he’d have to stay with them because Huia and Luca still didn’t want him.

As he grew, Koro encouraged him to take utu—Maori revenge.

Do everything well, boy. Do it better than them. Be a better rugby player, better at your job. Outshine them everywhere. Tramp on their pride. Go far, and leave them sniveling in your dust.”

It had been a big challenge for a gangly twelve year old, but it had got him through, and got him ahead. Got him three boatyards, a socialite wife, and a house the talk of the capital city. So why didn’t it feel like enough?

He reached out to pour himself more Moet, topped up Sophie’s glass at the same time, and set the bottle down again.

“Poor little boy,” he heard her say.

He shook his head sharply. “I was better off with Nanny and Koro. They wanted me.”

“Even so…”

He cut off her sympathy by adding, “Nanny’s a kuia now— a respected elder of her people. She’s heading for eighty. Getting frail. Almost ready to rejoin John and Koro.”

He sat forward as the memories washed over him. He didn’t want Sophie seeing his face for a while.

*

She glanced across, knowing he’d deliberately moved so his eyes were out of her line of sight. He planted his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands, and stared out across the water, still as a statue.

Able to finally look her fill, she admired his beautiful moonlit thighs. Sinewy, packed with power and lightly furred with dark hair. His calves were long and strong, muscles bunched, tendons tight. His ankles where they met the boots were lean.

She saw he still wore the black socks he must have worn with his suit. A narrow cuff showed above each scuffed brown boot. She’d chosen black socks herself because she’d thought them off-putting; how wrong could she be! Rafe Severino had the sexiest legs in the world—even better than her imagination had conjured up when he’d climbed the ladder in her studio.

She slid her eyes upward again. His smooth golden back sat in semi darkness, but from this angle the moonlight illuminated the highest bumps of his spine and the impressive breadth of his shoulders.

He was sex on a stick, but he was hurting.

Hardly knowing she did it, Sophie ignored her champagne and walked across to him. She smoothed a hand over his shoulders and said, “Don’t be sad.”

Chapter 9 — Unhappy Families

His nearest arm enclosed her and drew her against his side.

“Not sad. Just thinking.” But his voice was not quite that of the confident man she’d become used to, and his arm pulled her very close. The heat of his skin burned through her T-shirt in nano-seconds, and breathing became infinitely harder.

“I can maybe understand how a man couldn’t accept a son who looked nothing like him at all,” Rafe continued huskily, “but my mother… my hard-hearted bitch of a mother… she knew I was hers.”

He turned away from the sea and laid his face against Sophie’s breast—so much like a child seeking comfort, so unlike a man hoping for sex—that she raised her other hand and pressed him to her, stroking softly through his hair again and again.

“I’m sure she wanted you,” she murmured. “It must have been hard for her too? Being without her first-born? No mother wants that.”

She’d certainly not wanted Camille ripped away from her. Had fought every way she could to keep her. It had been hard enough while Adrian was alive, but they’d somehow survived by working different hours…by leaving Camille in a spare crib in the room behind his mother’s shop for a short time each day…by foregoing casual pleasures they should have been able to take for granted. Life had been tough, but she’d proved they could make it work.

Then Adrian had slammed into a rock face in a tangle of fabric and wires, and as Sophie tried to maintain her studies, continue with her job, spend time at his bedside and care for Camille, her life had disintegrated. Camille became difficult, Sophie exhausted, and when Adrian died of an unexpected hemorrhage, her mother took over and saved her.

“I’ll take Camille until you’re feeling better.”

“…for a few more weeks, darling.”

“…until you find a full time job and a crèche.”

“…only until the end of the year.”

“…so you can get your studio up and running.”

“…just until she’s ready to start school.”

And so far, guilty and grief stricken, and still fumbling for stable ground, she’d not been able to reclaim her tiny daughter.

Rafe sighed and relaxed his death grip a fraction, finally letting the hurt pour out. “When I was a baby it didn’t matter to her because she had the twins to look forward to. And it didn’t matter to me because I was too young to know better. But a couple of years later, by the time I was three or four, I knew damn well where I should have been.”

Sophie’s hands stilled in his hair.

Three or four. Camille’s four. If he ever finds out about her he’ll think I’m as bad as his mother. Worse, because I’ve no other children to worry about.

She slipped out of his embrace and resumed her seat, mute and trembling.

Rafe swiveled toward her as he continued. “Koro got me into carpentry, and that meant I could work anywhere in the world. I took off when I was still nineteen to find some of my grandfather’s Blackhawk relatives if I could.”

“And did you?” She lifted her half eaten slice of pizza and then put it down. There was no way she was hungry any longer.

Does Camille feel as deserted as Rafe did?

Does she see me as a fly by night visitor who swoops in once a week and then leaves her again?

“In Oklahoma and Wyoming,” Rafe said, dragging her away from her distressed thoughts. “Before you could easily Google things, of course. I had to do a lot of traveling, but I knew a bit about his war record so that was a place to start.”

“Were they nice?” she asked, functioning on automatic.

How would she keep Camille a secret? Should she just confess right now? But if she did, and Rafe was as offended as she expected, it was goodbye to his contract, and goodbye to Subtle’s possible success, and therefore goodbye to her chance of claiming Camille back too. She was trapped.

“Nicer than the Severinos,” she heard him say. “The Blackhawks were different. Quiet people. Stoic about what they’d had to endure.”

“At least you found them.”

“Some of them, anyway.”

“Anyone really close?”

“My cousin Joe,” he said with more warmth in his voice. “He persuaded me to try boat building work in San Diego. And that turned my life around.”

*

He looked more intently at Sophie. She seemed light years away. Had he bored her? She was too damned easy to talk to. He’d told her things he probably shouldn’t have. Things he’d sworn never to tell anyone. Right now she looked as though she hadn’t heard any of it, but her replies had been succinct and appropriate. He watched her as she sat there, so distant. “Earth to Sophie?”

“I’m listening.”

“Could have fooled me. You went away for a while.”

“Mmmm…”

“And you’re still not back.”

“I’m here. Just considering a problem.”

“A house problem?”

“No, not at all,” she said, sounding slightly irritated. “But I don’t know when you expect me to get this whole big place finished for you. It’s the worst time of the year with Christmas around the corner.”

She reached down for the sample books and began to flip through the fabrics. It was far too dark now to see the colors with any accuracy.

Somehow he didn’t think the house was the problem. The expressions which had flitted across her face weren’t work related. She had something personal going on. Something much larger than paint colors or curtain fabrics. Something that didn’t include him.

“I’m not expecting miracles. I’m comfortable enough. But there’s no point leaving the house like this any longer.” He leaned back in his chair a little and she set the samples down on the deck again. “Chris and the boys are just about due to start the garages so they’ll be out of your way any day now.”

That brought no response at all.

They sat on in silence as the moon rose higher. Rafe ripped into another slice of pizza, still uneasy about her distracted manner. Sophie did a little more nibbling.

“Better find your earring,” he finally said, not wanting to leave the restless waves and the soft summer air, but knowing she must be tired after the stress and excitement of her first full day at the studio. Maybe that was all? Perhaps he was worrying about nothing?

He rose, grabbed the sample books with one hand, and held out his other toward her, pleased when she took it, although she appeared almost trance-like.

“You’re still a long way away.” He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles in a gentle caress and she gave the smallest of laughs and came back to him.

Casting a doubtful look at the darkening sky, she asked, “How much is the house lit yet?”

“Wiring’s all finished, and there are some pretty nasty lightbulbs here and there. Very little you’d approve of.”

“But we’ll be able to see downstairs?”

“Well enough.” He led her inside.

“It’s so different at night.” She stared around the huge area of the darkened top floor. “This gives me other things to think about.”

The big house sat silent apart from the sea noises. No radio, no nail-gun, no screaming saw. No timber offcuts or plumbing boxes strewn over the floor, either.

“They’ve already started tidying up?”

He heard the note of concern in her voice. “Only on this floor. Your earring wasn’t here, I’m sure.”

Because I’m damn sure it’s on my bed where I put it when I came in to change.

*

God, I wish he had a shirt on!

Sophie walked beside him feeling short and overwhelmed. The little black boots she’d worn yesterday morning had heels no higher than tonight’s shoes so that wasn’t the answer. He’d been tall enough in his dark suit. Why did he seem much taller in his old shorts and all this smooth touchable skin?

Skin her fingers itched to stroke.

In the harsh glare of a suspended lightbulb she saw all the long lithe pieces that made up his body; legs and arms packed with smooth muscles, that endless toned torso which started with a hard flat belly above the low-slung shorts and led up and up to his beautiful chest. She didn’t dare look at his face in case he caught the hunger in her eyes.

Quads and abs and pecs, she recited to herself as a distraction, remembering the chart in her doctor’s waiting room, drawn like something out of an old-fashioned medical textbook. The muscles on the chart were striped black and white and fussily labeled—nothing like these warm sweeps of taut flesh.

Deltoids. And glutes. The ones on his butt.

She sneaked a look behind him. Damn, just as good.

They started down the stairs. Each tread had been covered with a protective slab of fiber board, taped down to hold it firm.

“What’s the timber underneath?” she asked, fighting to re-establish her professional manner.

“Jarrah—very dark.”

“Good choice. It’ll wear well.” She scuffed at an end of tape threatening to come loose, suddenly far too conscious of his warm hand now they were amongst bedrooms. “You’ll want these rooms carpeted?”

“You don’t have to work at this hour,” he growled, setting down the sample books. “Yes, I want the bedrooms carpeted. Something soft and thick and warm so I can spread you out and ravish you on it.” He pulled her close before she could escape.

Sophie gave an enraged squeal—not so much at his suggestion as his sudden unexpected embrace.

“Not the floor then?” he teased, sliding his hands under her butt and hoisting her up level with his waist. She instinctively clamped her legs around him so she didn’t slide down into more dangerous territory.

“Pity you haven’t got that skirt on tonight. I was looking forward to enjoying your skin against mine.” He leaned up and kissed the corner of her mouth.

The hot wash of lust flowed like liquid honey along every nerve. Right down to her tingling toes. Right out to her traitorous fingers which took no notice of the ‘keep away’ messages her sensible brain sent with ever-increasing panic.

No, her fingers slid over his gorgeous shoulders and curled around his neck like sweet-pea tentacles. Held him tight. Gripped like fury.

She gave a long breathy moan as she tilted her face away. In answer his mouth burned hot on her neck, traveling slowly up until his sharp white teeth nipped her earlobe. His lips brushed over the sensitive skin right beside her eye and progressed with excruciating slowness to the edge of her jaw until they were millimeters away from her mouth again.

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Kiss you.”

“Like this?” His lips rubbed softly over hers.

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, I don’t want to kiss you.”

“So that’s a ‘no’?”

“Yes… Oh God, Rafe… definitely a ‘no’. Stop it.”

“Stop doing this?” His lips brushed against hers again, and paused.

“Yes. Stop doing it right now,” she murmured against his mouth, confusion and longing running hot along her nerves to join the lust already simmering there.

As she said that infuriated ‘now’, her mouth opened and somehow settled either side of his bottom lip. She sucked gently. He tasted like wine and pizza and moonlight, and she drew in a deep frustrated breath. He smelled like paradise.

“Stop right now, hmmm?” Sophie found it hard to understand that. Their lips seemed to be more entangled than she’d planned. And one of her hands had smoothed down from his neck to his shoulder, and then back up to his neck and into his hair. This was nothing like the caresses she’d given when he’d seemed in need of soothing. This was a demanding ‘gimme more’ message.

Rafe seemed good at translating. He gave her more without stinting. More light and luscious kisses. More little nips and nibbles. And then, with a deep sigh, he changed his grip so he held her whole weight against him with one arm. His other hand rose to cup her face and angled it so he could kiss her more deeply.

He swept his tongue across hers and Sophie groaned, but it wasn’t with outrage this time; it was absolute appreciation. Nothing had ever felt so good. She finally relaxed and responded to him with no thought for the possible consequences, on fire everywhere their bodies met.

He tasted and smelled divine. Her fingers ran over skin as smooth and soft as suede. And there was so much of it to enjoy. In return his hands stroked dreamily through her hair, sifting, tangling and tugging to pull her close.

Long minutes later she dragged her lips away from his and tried to gather her wits. Tried to breathe. Tried to focus on his too-close face with its high cheekbones and hungry eyes. Tried to summon up the least skerrick of resistance against his potent kisses.

She ached and burned all over. Had he relaxed his grip on her or she loosened her grasp on him? An impressive masculine bulge now pressed exactly against the centre seam of her Levis, right where the throb and the damp heat were almost unbearable.

He took one step sideways and the sensation kicked up a notch higher.

His arm released her so her boneless legs slid down beside his. Her feet touched the bottom step of the staircase, one higher than where he stood on the floor. She swayed against him to brace herself and he tightened his grip again. God, his scent…

“My legs have gone all funny,” she gasped.

“Not as funny as some of me,” he countered, nudging his hips against hers to demonstrate. They pressed together forehead to forehead, laughing softly.

She saw him glance at his watch.

“Time I was getting you home. You must be dead on your feet after today.”

What??!!’ her aroused body screamed. He planned to leave her like this at fever pitch? He was suddenly the gentleman again? She stared at him, astonished. Relief warred with thwarted lust.

Chapter 10 — Goodnight Kiss

“Fine,” she heard herself say, and she didn’t sound gracious. “Are we going to look for my earring before we go?”

“Let’s start on the lowest level and work our way up.” He took her hand again as if they hadn’t just spent the last few minutes plastered together trying to climb inside each other. “Coffee?”

She shook her head. It would be hard enough relaxing with those kisses surging through her memory; a late night caffeine hit would guarantee no sleep at all.

“Master bedroom suite’s through there, by the way.” He indicated the door Chris had appeared through yesterday morning. “I’ll show you another time.”

Sophie thought another time would be excellent. She didn’t want to see where he planned to sleep with anyone else after he’d decided she wasn’t good enough.

They descended the final flight of stairs to his living quarters. Sensors turned on small recessed lights low on the walls as they walked down.

“Carpet all through this level as well,” he added, setting the fabric samples on the table. “Tile in the spa-room and bathroom, and this kitchen area of course.”

“Of course,” she agreed stiffly, still trembling from the sensation of his big body against hers. How could he move from French kissing to floor coverings without missing a beat?

She was missing lots of beats herself—big thumping heartbeats. Something behind her ribs galloped along in a most erratic manner. Damn the man. How could he do that to her? Just switch off, leaving her way switched on.

With a trembling finger she eased the top of her jeans down a little, hoping the centre seam would drop a fraction and give her sensitive body some respite.

She drew a deep breath and glanced around the kitchen and living area for any sign of her missing earring.

Rafe crossed to his office. “Won’t be in here,” he said, giving the room a cursory inspection. “You didn’t come further than the doorway.”

“Hopefully your bedroom, then.” But she saw no immediate sign of it.

“Blue, was it?”

“Blue lapis, set in silver.”

He checked the shelving and the floor.

“Ah. Not easy to see.” He picked up the silver and blue earring from a dip in one of the bed-cover’s navy stripes.

Sophie tried to take it, but he smiled and pushed her hand aside, and instead cradled her face so he could thread the hook through the piercing himself.

She had no idea why she let him. She hadn’t wanted to be so close to him again while her breathing was still erratic and her pulse rapid. Didn’t want to let him know the effect he had on her.

But his hands were magic—big and warm and careful. Against her will she felt somehow treasured.

“Tricky little beast.” He jiggled the hook with patience until it slid, unfelt, through the tiny hole in her earlobe, then brushed a kiss over the side of her face.

Sophie gave a soft, breathy grunt. Just surprise, she told herself. Or agreement with his comment about the earring being tricky. It absolutely hadn’t been desire.

*

Rafe pulled away with reluctance. God, he was getting into deep water here…finding it hard to keep his hands off her. Sure, he’d taken the earring so he could entice her back to the house. Deliberately placed it on the bed so he’d have a reason to get her into his room again. She’d left just enough doubt yesterday about whether his attentions would be welcome.

But she’d been so sweet up on the deck, helping him build the chairs and trying to console him when she knew he’d been hurting. How could he turn into a grasping Neanderthal?

He’d meant it to be no more than a playful hug a few minutes earlier, and instead he’d wrapped her around himself in a band of glorious temptation.

He’d intended only to tease her by nipping her ear, but his lips had wandered down to hers, and for those heady minutes while she’d responded he’d been on fire.

Drawing her attention to the late hour had given him just enough breathing space to think rationally.

And now he had his hands on her again… his mouth heading for hers… his body still hard as hell.

He pulled back, muttering a soft curse, and pushed her toward the stairs.

*

A short time later, as they drove back across the city in his big quiet car, he said, “So you don’t think I’m a Jaguar kind of guy?”

Sophie saw the flash of his eyes against his dark skin as he turned to her with the question.

She shrugged. “It’s a beautiful car, but I just thought a man like you would have something a bit… racier.”

“You won’t like me when I tell you why I have the Jag, but I’ve told you the rest, so what the hell.”

“What do you mean by ‘the rest’?”

“My family situation. The non-relationship with my mother and father.”

She bit her lip before saying, “at least you have a father to have a non-relationship with.”

He left a small wondering silence before asking “You have a stepfather?”

“No,” she said, making it clear by her tone she wouldn’t be telling him more. “So why the Jag?”

The car purred on. She’d almost given up hope of a reply when Rafe muttered, “because my father only considers Italian stuff good enough. I wanted to annoy him so I didn’t buy the Ferrari.”

Her interest spiked high at that. He’d forgone his dream car as some sort of payback? It was a huge concession for a man with the money to afford exactly what he wanted.

“Cutting off your nose to spite your face?”

“Maybe. Probably.”

“But your motorbike?”

“I haven’t let on about the Ducati. My guilty little secret. Luca would preen if he knew.”

Sophie let out a small puff of amusement. “How much do you see of your parents these days?”

She heard his regretful sigh. “Weddings and funerals. As little as I can get away with.”

His fingers scraped over the bristles of his late-night stubble as he rubbed his chin.

Sophie knew her skin probably bore the marks from it. “You were a hurt little boy having a tantrum.”

“I was a full grown man throwing my money around to offend someone.”

“As long as you can see that now?”

“I see it, and I don’t much like it.”

“I suppose,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “that everyone has different sides to their personalities, and things they’d prefer to keep hidden.” She knew she wanted to appear a cool and confident designer, au fait with the latest decorating trends. She absolutely didn’t want him seeing her as a guilty and worried absentee mother.

They drove on, mostly in silence, until Rafe pulled up on her bus stop.

“Thank you,” she said, “for all sorts of things. For the pizza, and the champagne, and for being a great barman yesterday.”

“At my best in an apron, am I?”

At your best in those shorts, she thought to herself, glancing sideways at his long thighs. At least she’d been spared the sight of his chest on the drive home—he’d pulled on the old white T-shirt as they’d crossed the deck to the cable-car.

“I’m very grateful for the chance to decorate your house,” she said politely. “It’s a dream start for my new studio.” She opened her door. Relief flooded through her; he’d made no move to kiss her goodnight.

Then Rafe pushed his door wide.

“No!”

“Yes,” he replied with equal firmness as he stepped out and closed his door. “I don’t let women go wandering off into the dark alone. My grandmother taught me better than that.”

“I’m perfectly fine. I walk along this path most nights on my own.”

“But not tonight.” His big presence loomed over her, blocking out the nearest street-light. “And who do you walk with when you’re not on your own?”

“None of your business.”

“Maybe I’d like it to be,” he shot back.

“We’ve been through this. It’s asking for trouble to try and mix a personal relationship with a business one.” She elbowed him aside and strode up the path, managing much better speed in her flat rubber soled shoes than she had in yesterday’s high sandals. She hesitated at the dark corner of the house. “Damn. Where are those steps?”

“Slow down or you’ll break your neck.” He grabbed one flailing arm and yanked her against him.

Sophie let out a long angry breath. “I wouldn’t have to hurry if you weren’t rushing me.”

“I’m only rushing because you are. Go slower. Have some sense.”

“I just want to get away from you. I said I didn’t need you to see me safely along the path.” She felt her way down, trying to shake his hold on her arm, and annoyed he seemed determined to keep her in his grasp.

They rounded the house together and entered the deep darkness of her rose scented basement porch.

“You need a security light on that path. Anyone could jump you.”

“There’s one on the top corner of the house. The bulb blew a couple of days ago. Mrs. Ferris is getting her son to replace it. And no-one’s ever jumped me yet.”

“They’d only have to do this,” he said, spinning her around with strong hands and pushing her shoulders gently back against the door. His hips sank against hers, anchoring her there.

“Let me go, Rafe,” she gasped, struggling against his daunting strength.

“Wouldn’t want anyone else doing this to you.” His long fingers cupped her face and angled her mouth up to his. His kiss was hot and dangerous. In seconds her body responded with surges of deep wet wanting, and the only sounds she could make were soft gasps of appreciation and need.

Her fingers threaded into his hair, pulling him down. Her hips tilted up. The heat went everywhere. Singeing, smoking, sparking. Her tongue slid over his as she lost herself in his taste and smell and power again.

She had no idea how long they stood there, mindless with sensation, drowning in each other.

Finally Rafe wound his hands into her long hair and trapped her head against the door while he drew back, breathless. “Remember that while I’m gone,” he growled. “Open the door, Sophie. Go inside so I know you’re safe.”

His grip on her hair relaxed.

“Gone? Where are you going?”

“The San Diego boatyard, too damned early tomorrow morning. Get inside before I do something really stupid.”

“When are you back?”

“Next Wednesday. I’ll be in touch.”

He waited.

She fumbled for her keys with trembling fingers, unlocked the door, found the light-switch. The sudden shaft of hard light showed his chest rising and falling fast under the thin white T-shirt, his fists clenched at his sides, his eyes huge and black.

“Night, Soph,” he said before the darkness swallowed him up.

She dashed straight to the bedroom mirror and stared. She looked every bit as desperate as he had. Her breasts heaved, her nipples peaked, her face was patchy with abrasions from his rough stubble, and her lips were plumply swollen.

She huffed out a huge sigh and crossed to the window, wondering if he was still out there, keeping watch over her.

Just in case, she blew a kiss into the darkness before drawing the curtains closed.

At last she could get out of her too-tight jeans and let some cool air flow over her heated skin. She peeled them down, hung them in the wardrobe, and flopped onto her bed.

To hell with it, the T-shirt stifled her as well. She sprang to her feet again, hauled it over her head, and threw it hard at the clothes hamper in the corner. It bounced back off the wall and landed on the floor. She marched across and dropped it in with the rest of the waiting laundry.

And her bra. And her panties. She removed them both, still feeling hot and bothered.

She scuttled out to the kitchen, bending low until she’d tweaked the blind closed. Water. Cold water and ice cubes would help. It was a warm, humid night. She needed to dilute the effect of the champagne and get herself better hydrated.

She ran the water until it was really cold, filled a big tumbler almost to the brim and plunked in a couple of ice cubes.

Gasped as cold water splashed out over her bare belly.

Swiped at it with the kitchen towel.

Caught the tumbler with the tail of the towel and upended the lot into the sink. The two ice cubes skated around in a mad race as she glared down at them.

It was his fault. No doubt about it. She was never uncoordinated like this.

She scooped up the ice cubes, ran more water and prowled her little kitchen alcove, sipping and fuming. Then she heard the ringtone of her mobile.

It had to be him. No-one else knew she was still up and awake. Unless it was her mother and there was an emergency with Camille of course. She scrambled for her phone, heart galloping, checked the caller ID, and relaxed.

“Not asleep then?” His husky drawl slid into her ear like the softest breeze, stirring her skin all over as tiny hairs rose in reaction to him.

“No,” she grouched, unnerved he could affect her like that with just three words, spoken miles away. “I’m in the kitchen, drinking water.”

“What are you wearing?”

She considered her answer for a couple of seconds. She felt braver now he wasn’t right there beside her, pinning her to the door, tall and furious and acting all protective.

“Not much.”

“Tell me.”

No way in the world.

“Tell me what you’d like me to be wearing,” she hedged, knowing she should manage some semblance of politeness. He was a client, after all…

“A smile?”

A smile? She could hear that he was smiling. His voice sounded warm. And his warmth seemed to be flowing through the phone to her, undoing all the good work the chilled water had done.

“Uh-huh, I’m smiling.” She tipped her head back and stretched her shoulders to relax the sudden tension there.

“And what else?”

“My earrings.”

And now I can feel you nipping my ear.

“And…?”

“My watch. Goodness, look at the time. I should be in bed by now, Mr Severino. And you shouldn’t be on the phone if you’re driving.”

She heard his soft chuckle.

“And…?” he repeated.

Oh, what will it matter!

“No, can’t see anything else.” Surely this was what he’d rung for? A bit of silly late night teasing to pass the time on his way home? If he was trying to wind her up, she could turn the tables on him just like that.

His groan of frustration transformed her smile into a grin of utmost satisfaction.

“The reason I rang…”

“Mmmm?” Had she judged things wrongly? Was this going to be a business query after all? Her blood ran cold at the thought.

“…was to thank you for that little kiss you blew me. It’ll keep me company right across the Pacific tomorrow. See you next Wednesday for dinner.”

And he was gone before she could disagree.

Chapter 11 — San Diego

‘So that’s Monday and Tuesday out of the way,’ Sophie thought as she slipped into bed at last. She’d certainly had an eventful start to the week.

She was now dead tired and totally wide awake. Her body felt weary but her brain sparked with energy, nowhere near switching off. Rafe knifed through her memory no matter what else she tried to think about.

Rafe at the studio, hanging her fabrics, long lean body stretched up her ladder.

Rafe at the unfinished house, promising her his huge contract and suggesting they’d be good together.

She now had no doubts about that!

But… she wanted the work, she didn’t want the complications, and she certainly didn’t want him finding out about Camille—which would surely put paid to the work in any case.

Her thoughts churned around and around.

Rafe at lunch yesterday, slipping his hand under the tablecloth and bringing her whole body awake with the delicious danger of his illicit touch.

Rafe as barman, with his generous gift of champagne.

Rafe building chairs on the big deck earlier, before they sat in the moonlight talking together for hours.

No, he did the talking and I told him nothing. How could I tell him anything after what he told me?

Rafe picking her up as though she weighed nothing, wrapping her around him and creating havoc with her senses all over again.

Rafe turning protective when he drove her home. And then telling her he’d be gone for the next eight days as though it didn’t matter a damn.

Eight days. She’d already worked it out. Eight long days before he’d be annoying her again. Or possibly trying to seduce her.

She shuffled over to the other side of the bed, feverishly hot and annoyed, restless and missing Camille. And mad at him. She’d had plenty of daytime excitement without having her nights disrupted as well.

The big green numbers on the bedside clock-radio read 12.43. Then 1.49. Then 2.17. Then, wonderfully, 6.02.

Outside, in Mrs. Ferris’s trees, birds welcomed the new day with cascades of song. Sophie stretched and yawned before easing out of bed, pulling on her soft old white robe, and heading for the kitchen.

As the water heated for coffee she glanced around her tiny apartment. What a contrast to Rafe’s incredible home.

She itched to bring his house to life. Today she’d chase up Casa Fiori and see how advanced the kitchen was. Or maybe nothing had happened with Faye off the scene? For sure Rafe would be stuck with his small ground floor kitchen for a while to come.

By the time he returned from San Diego she wanted to have tile samples and carpet samples to show him. And a kitchen progress report. Wall color suggestions. Possible rug and sofa designs for the main living floor. Curtain fabric for the master suite. That should be plenty for starters.

She made coffee and took her mug to the door. The morning was magic, filled with the scent of roses and without a hint of breeze.

She remembered the half dead flowers on the sideboard and replaced them with several stems of fresh pink roses from the porch trellis while her coffee cooled to drinking temperature.

‘The Rose Queen’ she remembered—once again feeling Rafe’s fingers brushing the petals from her long hair. That had been less that thirty-six hours ago, and now seemed like weeks.

She stood leaning against the doorframe, sipping her drink, thinking carpets and colors. What would he like? Something deep and velvety? Something short and nubby, maybe with a slight fleck? One of the new textured mini-geometric weaves? That’d be a better choice if children were to run and play on it. Not sisal—too hard on their tender skin if they toppled over. New Zealand wool, for sure.

He’d said ‘relaxed and informal’ when they first talked. But he’d said ‘soft and thick and warm, so I can spread you out and ravish you on the floor’ last night!

Her pulse kicked up as she thought about that.

How serious was he about blue-grey tiles? Perhaps she could influence him toward some that were less like cold stone and more like sunny windblown sand—ideal for the house in her opinion.

She ambled barefoot to the dining table, set her almost empty mug down, grabbed her pencil and started to make notes on the big sketchpad which lived there ready for the times when inspiration struck.

The sun had begun to filter through the trees and across the tabletop before she glanced at her watch again. Somehow it had become nearly seven-thirty; she needed to shower and get to the studio.

She pushed the sketchpad aside, then pulled it back again and stared in disbelief.

Yes, there were notes. There was also Rafe, lounging against the glass surrounding his big deck. She’d drawn him half lit by moonlight, all long lithe lines and masculine power. A super-rich, superyacht builder in barely-there shorts and battered boots. One hip hitched up a little to tug the muscles of his thigh taut. His darkly shadowed eyes stared straight at her.

“Get out of my brain,” she yelped, ripping the page away—only to reveal a different Rafe, face down on a striped bed cover and minus his shorts and boots.

She gazed, horrified, at her tall dark pursuer. At his long back bisected by the shaded groove of his spine. At his even longer legs with their pure male strength. And at the two tight creamy cheeks of his butt.

Her pencil had apparently raced over the paper with a life of its own, shading much of his skin to bronze but leaving that tempting backside handsomely highlighted.

She scrunched her eyes closed, but his likeness remained burned into the back of her eyelids.

Fearfully she peeked at the page underneath. Oh please God she hadn’t flipped him over and drawn the full-frontal version! But to her immense relief no superbly built superyacht builder lay staring up at her.

*

“So where did you meet him?” Fran demanded as she wheeled the stroller into the studio on the dot of ten.

“Loooooonnnngggg story.”

“Give it up or no hot chocolate.” She produced a holder with two cups from the tray under the stroller. “I texted you two or three times last night. Where were you?”

“With a very big new client. Sorry—didn’t want any distractions.”

Fran narrowed her eyes and plunked herself down on the sofa. “You’re looking very bouncy for someone who worked late?”

Sophie picked up her sign-board and took it outside. Fran narrowed her eyes further until they were slits of icy blue suspicion.

“Okay,” Sophie said as she stepped back in and claimed her drink. “That’s how I met him. I was carrying out my sidewalk sign on Monday and the wind caught it. Just about blew me over. I ended up dropping it and it broke apart and one half hit his car and smashed into it. He’d just stopped.”

Fran’s eyes lost very little of their disbelieving glint. “I’ll bet,” she muttered.

“Absolutely true. He recognized me from Faye’s place, and I think he was checking to see if she was opening up in another location.” She heaved a deep sigh. “It was just about the last straw. I thought I’d have to pay for it. He was stroppy to start with but then, amazingly, he offered to fix the hinges. Hang on a moment.” She hefted up two bricks from behind the door and returned to the sidewalk to push them into a sling between the two sides of the sign. “Insurance,” she explained. “Rafe’s invention to stop it blowing over again.”

Fran retrieved the pink rabbit Lucy had just hurled out of the stroller. “Do we believe that, Luce?”

Lucy pitched the rabbit out again.

Sophie smiled. “You need that on a piece of elastic. I did that with a couple of Camille’s favorite toys.”

“Need you on elastic. Come on—back to the story.”

Sophie took a sip of hot chocolate, enjoying Fran’s impatience. “Well, as I said, he offered to fix the sign, and he asked about Faye. I didn’t know they’d split up. Some months ago, it seems. She kept it very quiet.”

“And?”

“And he went out to his car and got his tools but the screws were too short.”

“Short screws—story of my life, too,” Fran said naughtily.

“So,” Sophie continued, trying not to laugh, “He said he’d get some longer ones off the builders at his house. And he asked if I was interested in seeing it and pitching for the business.”

“No!”

“Truly. Just like that. I locked up here and went with him of course. The place is huge.”

“I’ve read a bit about it. Halfway up a cliff?”

“That’s the one. It’s going to be fantastic.”

“Best of luck with getting the job then. Or even some of it, if the house is so big.”

Sophie tried to keep a straight face but finally gave in and squealed, “I’ve got the lot!”

Fran’s eyes shot wide open and her pretty mouth followed.

“Can you believe it?” Sophie knew her smile must be just about splitting her face in half. “I don’t think I do yet.” She set her cup down, hopped up, and did a little jig of joy.

“It’s definitely on?”

“He seems serious. I guess the Moet was to seal the deal.” She reached over to remove a very gooey biscuit from Lucy’s waving fist before it landed on the most expensive of the sofa throws, then sat and retrieved her drink. “So you know what that means don’t you? I can get Camille to Wellington in time for the start of her first year at school. And by the way, you’re sworn to secrecy there. He thinks he’s got an ambitious go-ahead designer, not a frazzled single mum, so not a whisper about Camille if you meet him again.”

Fran dug a replacement biscuit out of the baby-bag and handed it over to placate Lucy. “So that’s why you got rid of me so fast on Monday night? She’s a big secret to keep.”

“He’s a client, Fran. He doesn’t need to know.”

“The way he was looking at you, he wouldn’t mind being more than a client.”

There was a definite query in Fran’s voice. Sophie decided to ignore it.

“The Severino Residence. That’s going to look so good on my CV. And hopefully I can get some photos of the finished job on my boards.” She glanced around the studio, wanting so much for it to be true.

“Are you seeing him tonight?” Fran persisted. “It was him you saw last night, I assume?

“He’s gone to San Diego for a while. Has another big boatyard there. So no, I won’t be seeing him. And it was business last night because he was going away early today, so don’t read anything more into it, okay?”

The ‘ding’ of an arriving email saved her from further questions.

“There’s your next client.”

Sophie set her cup down again and headed for the computer.

“Well, maybe,” she said as she skimmed through the message. “Hopefully… oh good.”

“Someone from Monday’s drinks?”

“Someone from Monday’s lunch. City Councilor Ian Duncan. Looks like his apartment sale has gone through, but he only wants the bedrooms quoted for starters.”

“Monday’s lunch?”

“A business thing.” Sophie saw the question in Fran’s eyes and quickly added, “What are you doing for the rest of the morning? Is there a chance you could look after the studio for an hour or two? Or else this afternoon? I don’t mind which, but I need to get out to the Severino site and pop off some more photos for reference. It was getting a bit dark last night.”

“Only if you show them to me so I can see his house.”

“That would be a breach of client privacy,” Sophie said in a mock-officious tone. “But seeing he’s met you, I might be able to overlook it. What time’s best for you?”

“Now’s fine.” Fran rummaged through the baby-bag. “I can probably stand about one more read through of ‘Tigger Ted and the Magic Jungle’.”

“Or,” Sophie suggested “something of Camille’s. After Lucy reminded me on Monday night I should get a couple of books and games for visiting children, I burgled the toybox at the apartment.”

She swallowed the last of her chocolate before dashing into the back room for a few seconds and emerging with a couple of picture books and a box of colorful plastic shapes.

“You’re quite sure, Fran?”

“I’ll just be taking messages, won’t I? Lucy’s in a good mood. Make the most of it.” She offered her daughter a book. “Look Luce—‘Tigger Ted and the Christmas Pudding’. How cool is that?”

“I’ll hurry,” Sophie said, making another dive into the back for her crash helmet and bag. “Smile.” She framed her studio minders and popped off a couple of shots.

“Come round for dinner and show me those, and the house,” Fran called after her.

Chapter 12 — Long Distance Love

“So did they arrive?”

Sophie’s phone had jerked her wide awake from her daydreaming. She sucked in a deep breath and her heart thudded as though she’d completed a half hour run. “What on earth’s the time there?”

“Details as always, I see,” Rafe’s amused drawl teased down the line. “I’m twenty hours behind you.”

“It’s the middle of your night then?”

“More or less. And it’s nine p.m. in New Zealand?”

“Yes, and you only just caught me in. I’ve been at Fran’s, showing her some photos I took of—er—her and Lucy this morning.” She prickled with a sudden flush, knowing she’d come close to giving away the fact she’d been showing his house around when she had no right to.

“You came up that unlit path on your own again?”

The drawl was not so amused now.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! I’ve walked up that path for ages on my own, Rafe.”

She swung her legs onto the floor. She’d been lazing on the bed, flicking through décor magazines, but she couldn’t talk to him lying down. It was too easy to imagine him lying there beside her, all tawny and relaxed and tempting.

“And when you’re not on your own?”

Not so relaxed then…

“Not your business,” she said as coolly as she could.

“Keeping a woman safe is always a man’s business.”

There was a small thrumming silence while she considered that. Did he mean any woman or her in particular?

“I’m perfectly safe. You don’t have to worry.”

Then she took a deep deliberate breath and changed the subject. “Yes, the flowers arrived. Thank you so much. It was very extravagant of you and not at all necessary.”

“White lilies? I asked them to send white.”

“Yes, white lilies. Far too many of them. Their scent is amazing. I had to put them in the floor-cleaning bucket for a while until I worked out what to do with them.”

“Red plastic is the new décor trend, then?”

She could hear his smile, and picture one black eyebrow quirked in enquiry.

Purple plastic. Even worse. But they’re very classy now. I rescued half a dozen of the empty champagne bottles, grouped them together, and shared the stems around. They look worth millions.”

“Nothing but the best for my new decorator.”

She relaxed at that. Fran’s earlier query about it being ‘definitely on’ had eaten at her confidence a little. “So what time is it in San Diego?”

“Somewhere around two. Haven’t got my watch on. I’m fresh out of the shower.”

And just like that her nipples contracted into pebble-hard peaks and pressed against the lace of her bra as though his fingertips had reached out and touched her.

Vivid pictures of him flared in her brain; a predator at ease in his patch of jungle, but ready to leap from the dappled shadows at a second’s notice.

Was he lying on his belly, strong and tanned and spangled with water? Maybe his chin rested on one fist and his other hand held the phone pressed against his ear, very like she’d inadvertently drawn him before breakfast.

Or was he leaning back on a pile of pillows, long legs crossed at the ankle, deep chest rising and falling with each slow breath?

Of course with a white hotel towel wrapped low on his narrow hips.

Yeah, right.

“What are you doing still awake this late?” she stammered, trying not to embroider the second image of him too extravagantly. She knew he was potently endowed from yesterday’s embrace, but still…

“Can’t sleep. Jetlag. Work to do.”

“You probably should have been working in Wellington all Monday,” she apologized, “Instead of messing around with me.”

“Sophie…” he murmured, slow and low and so husky that desire drifted over her like a tropical breeze. Warm, insistent, overwhelming. “I very much enjoyed ‘messing around’ with you on Monday. As well as last night.” He let the suggestion hang in the air while she fought to re-wrap her mental bath towel around him.

She cleared her throat. And heard his laugh from right across the vast Pacific Ocean.

Damn—he knows the effect he has on me.

“I went back to your house today and took photos,” she said, trying desperately for a businesslike tone. “I’ve imported shots of all the rooms, so I have instant on-screen references. And I’ve architectural software that lets me overlay my suggestions for colors and so on for you. I can give you a virtual tour from my desk.”

“I’d rather you walked me through the house again. You know I’d enjoy your personal service…”

Oh didn’t she just!

“Some things we can do long distance,” she insisted, trying to stay focused. “I can email you ideas, and maybe I can make progress before you come back. I’ve had some luck with a very good painter, for instance. I was sounding him out for early next year, and found his current contract’s just gone belly-up.”

“I don’t want someone off the scrapheap.”

“No, listen. Roy’s excellent, but the builders have had a major disaster because of a plumbing flood. They need to re-line a lot of that house, and then re-plaster. He has various smaller jobs to choose from, but he’d rather have one big one like we all would. I’ll put some pressure on him if you’d trust me?”

“Well, the walls and ceilings are all stopped and sanded…”

“So we could get quite a lot of it out of the way. The children’s bedrooms, the halls, stairs, utility rooms? We’ll leave the major rooms until you’re back here, for sure.”

“Get him to do the media room while he’s at it,” Rafe said. “It’ll always be half dark in there. Go for it, Sophie. Something neutral. I can get it painted over again later.”

She bristled at that. “I’d rather get it right first time, thanks! I’ll send you some color references—okay?”

So that was Wednesday.

*

Thursday she did the hardest day’s work of her life, cross matching samples of paint, tile, carpet, and fabric. Re-evaluating, discarding, re-combining, overlaying final choices on her photos, letting the phone take messages while she concentrated.

She called Chris to establish how the cleanup was progressing, and mentioned her contact with Roy the painter. Finally she emailed some of her schemes to Rafe, grabbed a chicken and avocado sub for dinner, and called Camille.

And that was Thursday.

*

On Friday she awoke on tenterhooks, wondering how long it would take him to respond.

She’d arranged an early site meeting with the painter so he could see the scope of the job and order the sealer and undercoat he’d need. Then she zoomed back into the city.

As she unlocked the studio the phone rang. She wrestled her crash helmet off and shook her hair free, every bone in her body knowing it was going to be him.

“Subtle Interior Design Studio; Sophie Calhoun,” she said in her crispest voice.

“Rafe Severino.”

The two words were softly spoken yet they were enough to send a tidal wave of pleasure washing over her. “What time is it there?”

He gave an exultant laugh. “I bet myself ten bucks you’d ask. It’s after lunch, and it’s yesterday as far as you’re concerned.”

“So?” she faltered. “What do you think?”

“That I might bring back a piece of local artwork for one of my smart new rooms.”

Her brain buzzed at the compliment. “You like some of my ideas, then?”

“Almost all of them. I’d need to see samples of the bedroom carpets before I decide…”

“I could courier them to you, if you don’t mind paying for fast service?”

“…because I want to know you’ve chosen something soft and thick enough for the ravishing I mentioned.”

Sophie hitched a breath in very fast, and tried to hide her reaction by reciting slowly as though she was taking notes, “Carpet… needs… to be suitable… for debauchery.”

God, the man had just made her damp and twitchy from halfway round the world!

A little later the orchids arrived. A bouquet of exquisite pure white moth orchids, nodding gently on long stems. With them came a tall plain crystal vase in a gold box. The card said ‘Plastic bucket replacement. Rafe.’

Sophie shook her head in disbelief. His beautiful lilies were now on the wane, but she’d recently cut the faded ones from the stems and regrouped the best of them. She was so used to making do and stretching her money and possessions to go further, that such things had become automatic. Extravagance had never been part of her life.

*

On Sunday she rose early, showered, and pulled on her black jeans and a white T-shirt. She checked she had the silver sequined Barbie dress, her studio photos, and a library book in her bag. Then, yet again, she caught the Inter-islander ferry across Cook Strait to go and see her tiny daughter.

The routine was second nature by now. Sneak the scooter into a narrow wedge of the parking lot and check in by seven-forty for the eight-twenty-five departure. Buy a coffee and eat a health bar for breakfast in the hubbub of the terminal. Be among the first to board, and grab a corner seat so she could read in peace for the three hour crossing.

Today was different though. Today she wanted to be as close as possible to Rafe’s harborside home.

Once they were under way she gave her full attention to the view she’d long ago stopped noticing. The steep green hills of Wellington basked under a perfect blue sky. Sunlight twinkled off the windows of timber houses making use of every high vantage point. No wonder Rafe had needed to create his own building site.

And finally she saw the house—gliding by too fast now the ferry was up to speed. The pared down cliff was still an ochre colored gouge. She could just discern the cable-car rail beside it. The three levels of floor to ceiling glass caught the sun and flashed her a greeting. The wide timber decks overhung the restless water, defying gravity. It was magnificent, and all hers to make her reputation with.

She raised her camera and focused in close before taking several shots. Only after rounding the harbor heads to the open sea did she sit again and open her novel.

The ferry started to buck as it hit open water but she was used to the steady roll of the Cook Strait waves beneath her. Much later, having been engrossed in the book, she noticed the open ocean had given way to the dark green forested hills of Queen Charlotte Sound.

The little white ship ploughed on down the long sheltered passage to Picton. Sophie heard two teenagers trying to sound cool as they spotted a pod of dolphins cutting through the sunlit water not far distant. Once younger children joined in, shrill excitement took over.

The ferry slid into Picton on time, and she disembarked quickly and walked the few blocks to her mother’s house.

Cammie waited for her, perched behind the gate, toes wedged into the gaps between the timbers. It was the game they always played. Sophie bent to kiss her daughter and then swung the gate gently open.

“I’m flying, Mommy.”

“Right into Nanna’s pretty garden, if I let go of you. How are you, darling? Going to show me your elephant painting?” She held the gate steady while Cammie climbed down. Hand in hand they walked to the open front door of the modest timber house. Nancy Calhoun bustled toward them, having no doubt heard the snap of the gate latch.

“My daughter the businesswoman,” she said, pride showing in her wide smile and soft blue eyes. She led them through to her kitchen. The electric kettle clicked off as they entered. She poured the boiling water into waiting mugs, and Sophie automatically took the milk from the fridge for her mother’s tea before they sat down at the table.

“Tell me everything,” Nancy insisted.

“Well, I took some photos of the house from the ferry, so maybe you’d like to see those to start with?”

“Me see, Mommy.”

Sophie held the phone so Camille could view the screen first. Satisfied she was missing nothing, the little girl returned to dressing Barbie in her new silver gown.

“It’s quite something,” Nancy Calhoun agreed, giving the house a lot more attention than her grand-daughter had. “I’m so glad for you, darling—it’s about time.” She clicked through the other shots and drew a swift surprised breath. “Wherever did you get the glorious phalaenopsis?”

“Mmmm?” Sophie enquired, coming to lean over her mother’s shoulder. “Oh, the orchids? They’re quite something, aren’t they?”

“We sell those plants for around forty dollars each at the garden centre and they mostly have only one flower stem apiece. That’s a very expensive bouquet.”

“It was a good luck present from a client,” Sophie said, secretly horrified when she multiplied the forty dollars by a dozen stems and added the florist’s fee, and delivery, and the beautiful crystal vase as well. Even if she called each stem only half that it still meant Rafe had spent hundreds more dollars on her.

“And speaking of the garden centre, I’d better bustle to get there on time,” Nancy added with a sigh. “There’s a picnic lunch in the fridge for my girls. I thought you might like to take it to the park seeing it’s so warm today.”

She cast around for her bag and gave them both a kiss on the cheek. “See you at the ferry terminal just after five.”

*

Later that day the three of them sat sipping fruit juice while excited passengers milled around them.

“Busy afternoon at work?” Sophie asked.

“It’s always good on a fine Sunday. I think they’re pleased enough to have me for the extra time, and it’s another few hours’ pay.”

Sophie bowed her head. She knew her mother sacrificed a lot to care for Camille.

“I don’t know how many bedding begonias went out the door today. Dozens and dozens, and a lot of new buxus, too. Those little box hedges are so popular now.”

“Buxus, buxus, buxus,” Camille’s treble voice chanted, pleased with the new word she’d learned.

“But it means I don’t get to see so much of you any more, Mom.”

“You come to see your daughter, not to see me.”

“Both of you!”

“Ah well. Maybe not for much longer if your business goes as well as you hope.”

Sophie raised her glass or orange in a mock toast. “And then you can come and see us instead. Why not come over anyway? Check out the actual studio—the photos don’t show everything. See a bit more of Wellington and enjoy the shops now they’re filling up with Christmas goodies.”

Nancy nodded agreement. “Perhaps over and back one Thursday/Friday if I can get a couple of mornings off? Not for a week or two because Maureen’s had that wrist operation I told you about.”

“Fine,” Sophie said, just as the announcement boomed out to inform passengers booked on the five past six sailing to Wellington they could now embark.

Three more hours of sitting down. She hoped her book would last that long. Hoped the sea would be calm. Hoped most of all the weekly time consuming ferry crossings would soon be at an end.

“See you next Sunday, gorgeous girl.” She stroked Camille’s long blonde hair until the last possible moment, and then rose to leave. There were kisses all round and tears in both women’s eyes as Sophie grabbed her bag and crash helmet and walked away fast.

Chapter 13 — Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

She’d expected another phone call so she could thank Rafe personally for the orchids, but there were only several short and businesslike emails.

That was it? She was just the designer?

Probably she hadn’t seemed interested enough; well, she only had herself to blame. And really it was best this way. If she’d fallen for him and they’d had an affair she’d be hurting bigtime now.

Instead of only medium-big.

But their passionate embrace at the foot of the stairs had burned itself into her brain. And memories of his possessive and protective behavior when he’d walked her to her door had thrilled her again and again.

His emails seemed cold by comparison so she was unprepared for his sudden appearance in the studio, mid afternoon Wednesday, duty-free bag dangling from a long tanned finger.

“Rafe!” she squeaked, rearing up in her chair and clicking the mouse when she hadn’t intended to. The ivory bedroom curtains on the screen turned bright orange.

“Sophie.”

His warm voice wrapped around her in a drugging mist.

So she wasn’t quite off the menu? Should she be pleased or annoyed?

He lowered the shiny bag onto the desk beside her and bent to brush a swift kiss over her astonished and trembling lips. “I bought you perfume.” Then he turned away and dropped onto the sofa, apparently exhausted.

She grimaced at the alarming orange curtains and rolled her chair back from the desk. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that to get a good job out of me, you know.”

Rafe seemed too tired to react. He simply said, “That was one pig of a trip. Thank God it’s over.”

She rose, took half a dozen shaky steps across to him, and peered down. The laugh lines around his normally joyful dark eyes looked more like worry lines today. The devil-may-care tycoon was human after all. “What was so bad?”

And why did I throw him such an ungrateful comment about the perfume?

He blew out a frustrated breath. “One accountant trying to fiddle the books, as I suspected. Nasty scenes. Sad when you trust someone. One inept salesman who nearly wrecked a huge deal. I pulled that back, by a miracle.” He reached out for her hand and grasped it. “One jumped-up Gelcoat rep who needed shooting. One cute little designer who wasn’t there.”

He gave a swift tug and Sophie overbalanced onto his lap.

“Better,” he said, sliding his arms around her to confine her. He kissed her again—with much greater thoroughness this time, and in full view of anyone who wished to look through the studio windows. Somehow she didn’t have the strength to fight him off. She wondered if she was even trying.

No, not trying at all. Fingers running through his inky hair now. Tongue sliding into his hot sweet-tasting mouth. Heart beating like a bongo drum. Thighs losing all muscle tone. Damn…

“Stop it Rafe,” she finally managed, making a half hearted effort to struggle free. Her white linen skirt had rucked up to indecent heights, one shoe had fallen with a thud onto the oiled floorboards, and at least half her hair had escaped from its feathery top-knot.

“Don’t want to stop it.” He assumed a petulant little-boy expression which teased a reluctant grin from her. “How’s business?” he asked in another lightning fast change of topic.

“Let me up and I’ll tell you.”

“Kiss me again and I might.”

“Promises, promises.” She leaned close enough to nibble his bottom lip and then wriggled away to pull her skirt down into place. How could he apparently switch off like that? Her hands wanted to rip his shirt apart so she could bury her nose against him, and smell and taste all that golden skin. She itched to peel him out of his conservative business clothes and help him raise a sweat—right there in front of arriving customers, if need be.

She shook her head in an effort to clear it of such incendiary thoughts.

Resist him, resist him. Don’t risk messing up the house deal whatever you do.

She breathed out quietly, hoping for calm. “The business is slow but steady. Better than I was expecting. Every day someone new wanders in or phones up and makes enquiries.”

Or ravishes me on the couch.

“Not rushed off your feet?”

“Not yet for a bit. I didn’t expect to be.” She reached out for his hand to steady herself, and stood on one leg while she pushed her other foot into the shoe that had fallen off when he’d tumbled her into his arms.

“So you’ve got time to be my personal consultant?”

He tightened his grasp on her hand to stop her moving away, and his dark brown eyes locked with her grey ones. It was a long intrusive candid invitation, and it was Sophie who looked away first.

What had he really asked? The words were innocuous enough but his gaze burned deep into her soul. His personal consultant? Surely she was that already? She shrugged and decided to take his query at face value.

“What do you think of the house progress?” she asked, trying to extricate her fingers from his warm grip. “Do you like the staircase walls?”

“I’m straight off the plane—haven’t been home yet.”

She bit her lip at that. The house was much closer to the airport than her studio. He should have gone home first; unpacked, grabbed some sleep, whatever he needed to help him wind down and relax.

“Not talking about the house, Sophie. I’m talking about me.” He finally released her and leaned back into the cushions, arms behind his head, legs slightly apart to accommodate the visibly distended trouser fabric between his thighs.

“You mean ‘me, Rafe Severino? Me the man’?” she teased, wanting to keep it light, trying not to let him see she’d noticed how aroused he was.

“Me the man,” he agreed, eyes following her hands as she gathered up her hair and attempted to tidy it. “You the woman. How about a weekend in the tropical north? I need to visit the boatyard up in Whangarei.”

Panic whispered over every nerve ending.

He’s still hoping I’ll sleep with him, even though I’ve tried to explain why I can’t.

She sought for a cool, neutral tone—not easy with that blatant bulge on display—the place her eyes kept sneaking back to, even as she willed them to stay clear. “A weekend away with you?”

“Change of scenery, nice hotel. You’d enjoy it.”

Sophie knew she would. And knew just as certainly that she couldn’t let it happen.

She shook her head. “Sorry Rafe, Sunday’s out for me. I already have a family commitment.”

“I thought you were interested in design work on the boats?”

Was this another attempt at persuading her into his bed?

“I certainly am, but wouldn’t a weekday be better?” This time she managed to stare him down.

The ends of his mouth twitched in the tiniest of grins. “I own the place, Sophie. I have the key and the security code. I can show you around any time at all.”

“It would probably be helpful to see it while your staff is working?” she tried.

“No, much better on a weekend. We’d never hear each other over the music and power tools. They all wear ear protectors, so you won’t be chatting to anyone except me.”

“Or we could visit your Wellington yard—”

She saw his slight grin blossom into a full high voltage smile.

“—and see everything there?” she suggested, knowing it was a lost cause from the expression on his face.

“Composite and carbon fiber repairs? Not what you need, Sophie. I want to show you the big boats, the ones that make the money.” He eyed her speculatively. “Money doesn’t really do it for you, does it? Faye used to grab it with both hands. You haven’t even looked at your perfume.”

Sophie turned aside and obediently reached for the duty-free bag. “I’ve looked at my orchids every day,” she countered, glancing at the ethereal bouquet drinking from its crystal column on a side table. “They’re amazing. I’ve never had anything so beautiful or extravagant.”

“But a bunch of daisies would have pleased you just as well?”

“Maybe two bunches,” she suggested with a small smile. “Sorry about before, Rafe. You surprised me, arriving out of the blue like that. And you looked exhausted so I was worried. I didn’t mean to ignore your gift.”

She pulled her chair forward, sat, and dug into the bag. “Er, gifts, plural.” She stared at him, astounded, and then lifted out four elegantly decorated boxes, each containing a different French perfume. She lined them up beside her keyboard.

“I didn’t know which one you’d like.”

She swallowed. Never in her life had she been given such luxury. “So you bought the whole store?”

He shrugged and grinned, unrepentant.

A warm blush prickled up her neck. She’d never be able to repay his generosity. “I still won’t go to Whangarei with you.”

“I’m not trying to buy you.” A shadow flickered across his face, chasing the grin away.

Sophie sighed. “I never thought for a moment you were. But I can’t. As I said, Sunday is reserved for something else.”

She wondered if this might be the moment to admit to Camille’s existence. The words trembled on the very tip of her tongue but somehow didn’t emerge. What if he thought really badly of her for giving her daughter into her mother’s care, just as he’d been given to his own mother’s mother? If he cancelled her work on his house she’d be scrambling for enough money for the bigger apartment she’d need, the after school care, and all the extra expenses of tending to a young child.

“Okay, your call,” he conceded, leaning back into the sofa cushions again.

“I could do a weekday,” she repeated. And then cursed her runaway tongue.

“Up and back the same day? Doesn’t give us much time? I suppose I can’t take you away from your new enterprise for too long, can I?”

“No.” She was pleased he’d thrown her that lifeline. “But I can manage one day. A weekday would be good. Anyway, you need to rest up a bit and get over your jet lag.”

“And that’s really going to happen. God knows what sort of chaos has broken out here while I’ve been gone.”

She watched as he stretched and then relaxed. His eyelids drooped… his eyes slowly closed… his breathing calmed, and his head slumped a little to one side. As fast as that, he slept.

Without thinking too much about it she reached into her nearby briefcase for the ever present phone, made sure the auto flash was off, framed him, and clicked. He didn’t stir.

She returned the phone to her bag and crept closer. She’d always loved watching Camille sleep—so trusting and unguarded and abandoned. Totally relaxed, with only tiny snuffles and twitches. These days Sophie enjoyed that pleasure very rarely; during her Sunday visits to Picton her daughter was a bundle of energy and seldom off her feet.

And here was Rafe similarly abandoned to her care. She knelt beside him, finally able to gaze her fill.

His Native American heritage was obvious in his high cheekbones, long almond eyes, and almost straight black brows.

She presumed his Maori grandmother’s genes had reinforced his glossy black hair and golden skin. Maybe his long aquiline nose was from her as well? The Maori people varied from heavy-set with broad features to lean and haughtily aristocratic, depending on which tribe they descended from. Rafe resembled the latter far more than the former.

And his beautiful, sharply defined mouth simply had to be Italian. She leaned a little closer, wondering if she dared drop a soft kiss on his lips while he drowsed.

He twitched and sighed. She reared back, watching as he settled a little deeper into the cushions.

Silly idea Sophie. You’ll wake him, and he’s obviously desperate for sleep.

She rose and went back to her desk, deciding to check the flights north to Whangarei so she could call the shots on travel times.

She pulled a face at the orange curtains on the screen, changed them back to ivory, and navigated to Air New Zealand’s website.

Sophie had flown overseas exactly once in her life; Faye had taken her whole staff to a design exhibition in Melbourne two years earlier. Thrilling though it had been, the cost of getting a passport had put a severe crimp in her budget that month.

She’d had to forego two trips to see Camille, hating the lies she’d told her mother about the exhibition running over the first weekend, and about the flu she seemed to have picked up and preferred not to spread around during the second.

She glanced across to Rafe, still deeply asleep. She supposed he’d paid for her Australian airfares and accommodation if Faye was so slipshod with her accounting.

He gave a sudden shudder and his eyes shot wide open. Sophie felt relieved beyond measure she wasn’t leaning over him with a yearning expression on her face, but it made her voice a little sharper than she intended.

“You need to get home and go to bed for a few hours, Rafe. Get some rest. Forget taking me out to dinner tonight. Let me come over later and bring some food from the deli so you don’t have to bother at all.”

When he started to object she jabbed a finger at him and added, “I’ll see you about seven-thirty. I want to check the color on the staircase walls under artificial lights anyway. Are you safe to drive?”

He blew out a long breath between pursed lips before pushing himself upright and leaving. “You’ll be one tough mother,” he grouched as he pushed the door open. “If you ever get around to it.”

Chapter 14 — Deli Dinner

‘One tough mother…’

She was no sort of mother at all. She was a very part time mother, doing the best she could, and all too aware it wasn’t nearly enough.

Feeling uneasy and out of sorts, she sent Fran a text.

‘COFFEE?’

The reply arrived almost instantly. ‘CU SOON’.

She grinned at that, and her spirits rose a notch. Maybe Fran was already on her way? Just as well she hadn’t breezed in fifteen minutes earlier…

It was a bare sixty seconds before the stroller appeared, closely followed by Fran, whose sharp eyes missed nothing.

“Wow. Who gave you those?”

Sophie glanced across at the orchids, but to her consternation Fran had pounced on the boxes of perfume beside the duty-free bag.

“It was him, wasn’t it?” She scooped the bag up and waved it at Sophie gleefully. “You said he had business in America for a while. So he’s back?”

Sophie tried to ignore her and instead hunkered down beside Lucy, talking to the little girl about today’s red hair ribbon and the velour rabbit that seemed to be the week’s favored toy.

Fran examined each of the perfume choices in turn, making noises of approval. Sophie felt herself getting pinker and more embarrassed by the second.

They were interrupted by the telephone, but as soon as the enquiry had been dealt with Fran was in hot pursuit again. “Four, and all expensive. He’s after you.”

“No way, Fran.”

“Lilies,” Fran said, holding up a finger.

“Champagne.” Another finger followed.

“Those dreamy orchids.” A third finger.

“No…” Sophie protested.

“Yes,” Fran said, keeping the third finger up. “You didn’t think I knew about those, did you?”

Sophie shrugged.

“And now bucket-loads of perfume. He’s after you.” She held up a triumphant fourth finger.

“You forgot the pizza,” Sophie muttered. “You may as well make it the whole hand.”

“I forgot the coffee, too.” She bent to lift the holder containing two flat whites from under the stroller. “Okay, when was the pizza?” She set the coffees on Sophie’s desk.

“Tuesday night—when I went out to his house because he was going away early next day. It was business, Fran. But yes, there was a pizza so add it to your rolling total.”

“Bunny…” Lucy grizzled.

Fran reached down to retrieve it and gave it back to her. “What are you going to do about him?”

Sophie closed her eyes and shook her head. “I have no idea in the world. I’d be kidding you if I didn’t admit he’s an absolute hunk. You can see that for yourself. But he’s my meal ticket to getting Camille back. It sounds terrible saying it, but I need to keep working for him because he’s worth money to me. And his house will be an incredible boost to my reputation. It’ll establish me right where I want to be.”

“And…?” Fran cajoled.

“And no. How can I?”

“How can’t you, you mean?”

“No, I seriously can’t, Fran. That’d wreck everything. A hot little affair might be good for my ego, but once it’s over, working together would be impossible.”

Bunny!

“Poor Lucy—we’re ignoring you.” Sophie picked up the toy and snuggled it against the toddler.

She sipped her coffee again, took a deep breath, and huffed it out, tempted and frustrated. “It’ll be weeks and weeks before all the work in the house is completed so it’s best not to start anything.”

“It might not end,” Fran objected.

“It doesn’t stand a chance. Believe me, there are issues.”

“Such as?”

“Such as his ex-wife for one. I worked for her, remember? And she’s not even his ex-wife—they’re only separated. He’s not available.”

“And?”

“Camille.”

“He’s Italian, Sophie. They love kids. He’ll adapt to her.”

“I don’t want my daughter ‘adapted to’, Fran. And anyway, he’s part Maori and there’s a whole other story there.”

Fran raised her eyes in silent enquiry.

“He was whangaied. You know much about that?”

“Fung-eyed?”

“Given away to someone else in the family. Not an official adoption—apparently it happens quite a lot. And he’s still gutted about it. Really messed up.”

And I can’t reveal any more of his secrets. He told me about his family in confidence, I’m sure.

Sophie pulled down the corners of her mouth. “If he gets a whiff of Camille being packed off to Mom for years on end he’ll see it as the same thing and I’ll be off the scene. Money lost.”

Aping Fran’s former action, she held up a finger. “Daughter not retrievable.”

She held up the second. “Reputation ruined. Heart smashed too, I daresay.”

She raised fingers three and four. “What a mess.”

“But you like him?” Fran persisted.

More than I’m willing to admit, even to myself.

“Yes, of course I like him. He’s tall, dark, rich and gorgeous. What’s not to like?”

She sipped her coffee and sent Fran a sudden wicked grin. “And he’s built. You should have seen him the other night with his shirt off.”

“You said nothing happened?” Fran’s face had transformed into a study in disbelief and curiosity. “How did you get him out of his gear?”

“It was a very warm evening,” Sophie teased.

“Sounds more than warm?”

“He would have liked it to be.”

“And you?”

“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth. “He turns me on more than anyone I’ve ever met. But I can’t let it happen. I can’t let it happen.”

She sipped her coffee again and eventually added, “We sat on his deck for hours the other night. He’s so damned dangerous I almost don’t dare be around him.”

She left a small silence.

“Which is probably why I’m taking him something to eat there tonight.”

Fran gave a whoop of triumph. “Sophie,” she squealed. “You go, girl.”

*

Rafe stretched and ran a hand through his hair.

How do I get to her? She’s more interested in the house than in me. More thrilled to be given work than flowers or perfume. A twenty buck pizza and a bottle of great French fizz made about the same impression as each other. She kisses me like she means it and then turns away.

He drew a deep breath and rubbed his eyes.

She’s Ms Independence. And then she comes over all warm and bosses me out of my suit or tells me I need to rest as though she might actually care…

The late sun soaked into his chest and shoulders through the black T-shirt. He’d stripped off his travelling clothes, showered, and pulled on his old jeans. Then he’d hefted one of the timber chairs across to the deck railing so he could look up toward the road because he wanted to see her arrive.

He’d plummeted asleep of course. She’d been right.

But now he was drowsily awake, wondering quite what he was up against.

Rafe knew when a woman was interested. And he could tell whether his money or his body interested her more. These days the money always won.

Sure, Sophie was interested in his money, but apparently only in return for her work. She seemed more taken by his body. He’d seen the looks. The covert admiring glances. The small, quick, assessing inspections when she thought he wasn’t watching. He’d been checking her out in return, with his eyes, and with his hands whenever possible.

Although she sent enticing signals, she still shied away whenever he got too physical. What the hell was holding her back?

There’d been a lot of women, but he was no longer a randy kid. These days he could wait for what he wanted. And what he wanted was a determined little decorator with a pink motor scooter and long blonde hair.

A girl in love with his house but resisting its master.

A girl who coped easily with fractious Lucy even as she professed to be interested only in business success.

He could measure their acquaintance in days; the time they’d spent together in hours. It was downright crazy to be so affected.

He turned his head to distinguish the puttering buzz of her Vespa from the swoosh of the waves below. Yes!

He burst out of his contemplative bubble into full energetic wakefulness, strode across the deck to the cable-car, and started it climbing. Standing spread legged for balance, he punched one fist into his other palm over and over as though it would hurry his progress to the top.

When the carriage stopped he saw she’d set the scooter on its stand beside the big rusty shipping container and the framed up garage. She pulled her crash helmet off and reached for a bag. He was there before she had time to take a single step in his direction. And while both her hands were full he moved in close, cupped her face up and went for broke.

“Mmmmfff,” she responded as his mouth claimed hers.

Rafe knew she didn’t intend that as encouragement, but she tasted so good and smelled so damn female that stopping wasn’t any kind of option. Even though he’d not broken through to her yet, forbidden fruit was always the sweetest, and Sophie was as sweet and forbidden as he’d ever found. If he had to push a little to enjoy an illicit slice of paradise he was up for the challenge.

He held her immobile by tangling one hand into her soft hair and grasping her around her hips with the other, dimly thinking that the denim of their jeans must be close to spitting sparks.

Fireworks exploded somewhere. White explosions in his brain pulsed in time with his tongue as it slipped and slid against hers in the hot cavern of her pretty mouth.

His hand dropped lower—a perfect fit around one cheek of her peachy butt.

And she hit him hard on the thigh with her helmet.

He jerked back, aware he’d almost lost control again. How the hell did this happen?

“You obviously got some sleep then,” she needled, regarding him with narrowed eyes.

He stood there half as big again as she was, feeling like a shambling mutt of a dog who’d just been zapped across the nose by a feisty kitten. “Yeah, I crashed out in one of the chairs on the deck while I was waiting for you. Maybe I’m still asleep and dreaming.”

“You looked half dead in the studio, so that’s an impressive revival you just demonstrated.” She cast an amused glance down at his straining zipper.

He saw the corners of her mouth twitch.

“Are you making fun of me, Ms Calhoun?”

She rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t look like fun to me.”

Rafe privately agreed. It felt no fun at all being so turned on with no definite prospect of release.

“Use your wandering hands for something useful and carry the dinner,” she suggested as she passed him the bag. “And don’t give the cheesecake the same treatment you were giving my backside.”

He watched her turn away from him—black jeans, blue and white striped T-shirt, black leather bomber jacket, pink crash helmet and half a yard of tousled blonde hair.

What was it about her? What the hell was it?

“Garage is coming on well,” she said.

*

Sophie locked her knees to steady herself as the cable-car dropped down the cliff face. She clung to one of the corner posts and stared across the water, mind whirling.

Every time he kisses me I slip further into danger. And I like it. I like . But there’s too much at stake. I don’t dare, however much I want…

She sent him an embarrassed glance. “Sorry I hit you. I’ve never hit anyone else in my entire life.”

What a stupid reaction it had been. She didn’t know which was worse—hitting a really lovely man or hitting a client. A client! No way to ensure business success…

“It was only a bump.”

“It was the hardest bump I could manage.” She looked up again and found herself trapped by his lively dark eyes.

“I’ll live. To fight another day, I suspect.”

She watched as he drew a deep breath, hesitated a second or two, and then appeared to make a decision.

“Why do you keep pushing me away? You know the attraction’s mutual.”

His eyes held hers—probing, hopeful, almost tender. She couldn’t untangle the emotions she saw there. Certainly couldn’t untangle her own at that moment. Huge yearning was part of the mix. And confusion. And sorrow for the girl inside her who’d had to grow up too soon and attempt too much. And utter determination not to give in and lose everything she’d worked so hard for. “Things,” she said softly. “Things are in the way.”

“Don’t include Faye among those things.”

She shook her head. The cable-car stopped, and he opened the door.

“No, not Faye. I think I saw enough at the Wakefield Club to know you and she are done with.”

“So what things? Are they fixable?”

“Not like my broken signboard was.” She worried at her bottom lip as she walked across the deck.

He nodded slowly, and the ghost of a smile touched his face. “So a handyman’s not the answer?”

“It’s personal stuff, Rafe. Not handyman stuff. Yes, partly Faye being my old boss and your wife makes things…difficult.”

“My ex-wife,” he cut in. “Emphasis on the ex.”

“You’re not divorced yet.” She focused on the closely spaced timber planks as she walked, unable to look him in the eye now she’d voiced such private thoughts.

“Married in Nevada. Divorced in Nevada. It takes six weeks.”

She stopped dead. Her stomach dropped through the deck. He was single again? Available? Did this make things better or worse? It certainly added huge confusion to the mix already spinning in her head.

“But… but…” she stammered. “Your wedding photo was in her office. And I recognized the curtains from the Wakefield Club.”

Rafe’s beautiful mouth flattened into a travesty of a smile. “We had a party when we got home. Not a wedding; a trumped-up dressed-up celebration party. Faye and her mother’s idea of course.”

Sophie breathed out slowly, not knowing how she should react to his unexpected revelation. “God, six weeks. Not long to change your mind. I thought it took two years.”

“Two years in New Zealand. Six weeks in Nevada. We gave the marriage more than six years. We’ll never get back together—total guarantee on that.” He pulled the house door open and held it for her.

She stepped into the huge living area. The solid floor may as well have been quicksand. Now she had no idea how to maintain the space between them, no safe path to follow. She decided to appeal to the ambitious businessman in him. “Well I’m still serious about needing to keep my business life separate from the personal stuff. You’ve done all your hard setup work, Rafe. You’ve earned your success. I’m just starting out, and I’m so grateful you’ve given me this chance.”

She heard his derisive snort.

“I don’t want grateful. I thought I was getting the city’s best decorating advice?”

She looked up then—to find his killer grin taunting her. “Watch it or I’ll hit you again,” she muttered.

“I’ll be ready next time.”

“Next time?” She pretended to be outraged. “You think there’s going to be a ‘next time’, do you?”

“Or a ‘this time’?” He set the deli bag on the floor.

Sophie froze as he placed his hands on her shoulders. She tightened her fingers around the crash helmet strap, ready to bop him again if need be.

“You,” he said, gazing down at her with apparent affection, “are the most infuriating, most tempting little thing I’ve ever had to contend with.” He smoothed his fingers down her leather covered arms and up to her shoulders again. “I don’t beg, Sophie. Begging did me no good when I was a kid. My mother never took me home with her; I learned my lesson.” He shook his head slightly. “But these days I’m a good negotiator. I don’t give up until I reach the win/win point.”

His thumbs moved to and fro on the bare skin at the neck of her T-shirt, and her pulse started to skitter and lurch like a small anxious animal.

Rafe continued his dreamy caresses and dropped his voice to a husky murmur. “Every time I get really close, you go up in flames with me, then you pull back. Something’s in the way. I’d like to know what the hell it is. I sense room for compromise, so we’re going to negotiate.”

“No,” she choked out. “I won’t negotiate. I can’t.”

He bent, slowly, slowly, until his lips were a heartbeat away from hers. “Are you going to pull back this time, too?”

“Yes!”

But she couldn’t move.

He shook his head, just enough to brush his lips across hers and back again.

“No you’re not.”

She let out a long anguished groan of frustration. Her aching nipples threatened to machinegun him dead. The sexy flicker in her panties danced and taunted like a tiny electric shock.

“Yes I am,” she wailed, wrenching her head to the side and scrunching her eyes closed so she wouldn’t see the derision and disappointment on his face. And then opened them wide when she heard his throaty chuckle.

“Doing better,” he said, releasing her and picking up the dinner bag. “Are we eating outside or down below?”

Outrage and confusion flooded through her. He’d been playing games?

“How can you just switch on and off like that?” she demanded, staring up into his teasing face.

He laughed again and took her hand in his big warm grasp. “Not long now until we’re at win/win, Sophie. Good to know.”

Chapter 15 — Win/Win?

She attempted to push her jacket off as they walked; sudden heat had flooded through every inch of her. Instantly Rafe stepped behind her, peeling the sleeves away. He tucked the jacket over his arm and used his spare hand to gather her hair aside. His lips touched her nape. So soft and warm that her breath caught in a helpless gasp.

Desperate to avoid any more of his stealthy seduction she leaned sideways and peered down into the void beside the staircase. “When does the elevator get installed?” Damn, her voice sounded so breathy!

“A few weeks yet.” She heard his amusement all too clearly. “The walls need to be finished first.”

She glanced up and pretended the paintwork was fascinating. “Roy’s good,” she said. Even in the harsh light of the bare bulbs, the walls and ceiling were looking wonderful. “Nice surface.” She ran a hand over the smoothness. “And I’ve tracked down some amazing light fittings for you to consider.” She dared to flash a challenging glance in his direction. “Some might be just a little ‘out there’ for your taste, but we’ll see.”

“Try me.” Rafe turned to guide her through the middle level of the house. The floors were now swept clean, ready for the eventual carpet. The walls had been sealed and undercoated. Some were finished a soft shade of parchment.

“Any decisions for the panels behind the beds?” She stooped to pick up one of the blue sample squares she’d set there for his consideration. “This is a nice one for a boy’s room.”

“If I ever have a son.”

She sensed the deep, dark bitterness in his quiet remark. “Your parents had three of them. Boys seem to run in your family.”

“Girls run in yours?”

“Not really.” She and Camille were both the only children of their generation. “I’ve no brothers or sisters.” She set down the color square, and then felt the appalling heat of yet another lie wash over her. Would he remember she’d claimed Sophie’s drawings were by her ‘niece’? If she had no brothers or sisters, where had the niece come from?

“Did you miss having them, Soph? When you were growing up?” He lowered the dinner bag to the floor.

“I never… had anyone else for comparison. There was just me. I suppose it made me self-sufficient.”

She looked over and saw his tightly guarded expression, his grim mouth.

“I was surrounded by big families,” he said. “Where I grew up the number one entertainment was probably sex. Well, drinking at the pub and then sex. Followed by rugby, once there were enough kids old enough to kick a ball around.” He left a small silence. “But I was on my own with Nanny and Koro. I would have liked… more.”

“How often did you see your brothers?”

“When Huia brought them up to see Nanny. A week each January in the summer school holidays.”

“And that was all?” She knew her voice reflected her appalled feelings.

“She considered that was her duty done.” His tone remained flat and dismissive. Sophie’s heart ached for the solitary boy he must have been. She’d had a loving mother who would sacrifice anything for her—and was still doing so.

“Or maybe it was my father’s doing,” Rafe grated. “He stayed fiercely Italian. My brothers are Giancarlo Tauhai Severino and Allessandro Apanui Severino. Enough said; the Italian names take precedence over the Maori ones.”

“And Rafe Blackhawk?”

“Raffaello.” He spat it out savagely. “But I won’t be called by the name he gave me.”

“Raffaello,” she murmured. “No, Rafe suits you better. It’s decisive and ambitious, just like you.”

“That’s how you see me?”

Sophie shrugged. “Well, you are, aren’t you? You know what you want and you go and get it. How do you expect me to see you?”

He narrowed his eyes again. The bitterness had left his face and been replaced with something like mischief.

“Warm,” he said, surprising her. “Hopefully I got that from Nanny and Koro. I don’t think Huia or Faye managed to beat my upbringing out of me.”

She managed to return his sizzling smile. “Only warm? I’d say heading for hot.”

Rafe grinned and gave his chest a few light pats. “Hot, huh? I said we were heading for win/win.”

The sudden sound of his cellphone intruded, breaking the moment.

“Heading for dinner.” Sophie snatched up the bag with relief and left him to his call.

A few minutes later she had plates and cutlery arranged on the downstairs site office table. By the time Rafe arrived she’d spooned out egg salad, bean salad and mesclun greens from three deli pots, and was starting to arrange slices of ham and pastrami beside them. There were two wedges of sinful looking lemon cheesecake waiting in the refrigerator and she’d blown half her food budget for the week.

Rafe yawned and stretched, surveying her efforts with apparent pleasure.

“I’ve had an idea for Saturday.” He produced a bottle of chilled Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge. “You’re tied up on Sunday—right?”

Sophie nodded, fearful he’d quiz her further. To her intense relief he continued, “Let’s take the bike up the Kapiti Coast. Grab lunch somewhere. Go for a walk on the beach.”

Your bike?”

“Well, Pinky isn’t exactly made for the open road.”

Sophie bit back the defensive comment that threatened to escape. Her bike was beautiful.

But, a whole day out, after all the weeks of unrelenting work? She could unkink the muscles in her neck and back that had seized up from painting the studio and sitting hunched over her computer late every night. Breathe in the salty blue air. Not to mention spend an hour each way pressed against Rafe’s body, her arms tight around his waist and him unable to grab her in return.

“As far as Peka Peka maybe?” He opened the bottle and poured them each a glass. “There’s sand forever there—great for walking.”

Oh give in Sophie. You deserve it. He can’t jump you on a public beach in broad daylight.

“Sounds great,” she said. “I’ve been so busy I’ve barely even gone running in the last few weeks. I’ll be getting out of shape.”

He passed her a glass of wine, taking a few seconds for a leisurely survey. “Yep, way out of shape.” The gleam in his dark brown eyes told her otherwise.

They ate, Rafe wolfing down his food with appreciation, Sophie eating more slowly, watching him from under her eyelashes when she thought he wasn’t looking. To her attentive eyes he still seemed weary. His smile looked just a little strained, his expression guarded.

“Right,” she said once they’d finished. “Bed.”

She stood to retrieve her jacket.

Rafe shook his head and clasped a hand around her wrist. “No, the clothes come off, Soph.”

She grinned at his everlasting optimism. “You’re dead on your feet, Rafe. You went to sleep on my studio couch. You went to sleep on your chair on the deck. This time you pass out in your own bed and get some proper rest. Saturday would be lovely. What time?”

“Nine thirty? Bring your shorts so we get some sun. What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Chasing light fittings for you, and curtain fabrics for a nice Greek lady, and starting on a kitchen design for a man who probably can’t afford it. But you never know… And then a baby shower at Fran’s for our friend Cassie. Lots of bibs and booties and little frilly dresses and giggling.”

He pulled a face. “Girls still do that? How about Friday then?”

“More appointments—including your friend the city councilor. I’m hoping the fabric sample book for your main bedroom might be available then, too. I’ll let you know. And Friday evening’s my art class. Life drawing.”

His eyes widened. “Naked people?”

She smiled like a cat with cream. “Great fun. So I’m afraid your win/win’s on hold for the next couple of days, unless that book turns up in time for a quick lunch meeting. See you Saturday morning.”

“If that’s really the best you can do,” he grumbled, standing to hold her jacket so she could slip her arms into the sleeves. He carefully lifted her hair out from under the collar, smoothing his fingers through it before she could object.

“Get some sleep,” she repeated, loving the feel of his hands as they moved slowly over her scalp and shoulders but knowing she should discourage him so she could keep the unacceptable absence of her daughter a secret.

Together they retraced their steps up the two flights of stairs and out onto the big deck again. The wind had freshened; the waves slapped harder on the rocks below. Clouds obscured the moon now, and she was glad of his company in the darkness.

“I need to get the outside lighting hooked up,” he said, setting the cable-car on its upward journey and pulling her in against him as usual. She didn’t try and get away this time. After all, she was safe now. Escaping. Out of his clutches.

But his shower soap and his freshly laundered T-shirt and his warm skin blended into a potent masculine fragrance that held her close… drew her closer… She turned her face toward him a fraction more, sniffing deeply and quietly, feeling herself filling up with frustrated longing.

“Yeah, your scent gets me, too.”

The amusement in his deep voice was obvious. And the sexy edge of danger.

Because she had her head tucked in under his chin, Sophie couldn’t see his face. And the arm that held her safe wasn’t letting her draw away in the slightest.

“You can’t fool me, Soph. I felt that big deep breath. You like the way I smell. I like the way you smell, too. Win/win.”

The cable-car continued its quiet upward climb, but Sophie felt as if she was plummeting down into an ever more dangerous pit. She’d really given herself away that time. And with something so small. Yes, she loved the scent of him. Loved the taste of him, too, but she wasn’t going to admit that as well. He was becoming more and more difficult to resist, but she had to find the strength from somewhere—she simply had too much at stake.

*

She woke to birdsong and sunshine on Saturday morning. A day by the ocean had never seemed so inviting. After enjoying the luxury of reading until eight o’clock, she showered, slipped into her white robe, and took a slice of toast and chocolate hazelnut spread out into the garden. Mrs. Ferris already worked at the back border, forking out weeds and tossing them into a wheelbarrow. Sophie wandered barefoot over the slightly damp lawn until she was within comfortable talking range. “Fantastic day.”

“Isn’t it just.” Mrs. Ferris pulled energetically at a small sycamore sapling which had taken root in the wrong place. “How’s your new business working out?”

“Slow but steady. I’ve got one really big commission I’m working on. The Severino house on the south coast. The superyacht man,” she couldn’t help adding.

“The one halfway up the cliff? I read something about that.” The landlady pushed her hair back from her face with a muddy glove. “I’ll be planting begonias around here. They’ll look nice from your window.” Obviously her garden interested her far more than any multi-million-dollar home.

“They’ll be pretty. Mom says they’re selling well at the garden center in Picton.” She took another bite of her toast and turned back toward her door, pondering the ever-present question of what to wear.

Blue jeans or black jeans? They were the only possible choices for Rafe’s big bike. Okay, blue jeans and her white silk camisole would be suitable for lunch. She’d wear her flat black boots and take her old flip-flops and shorts for the beach walk. Her bikini? She’d tuck it into her little daypack in case.

*

Sophie stood waiting by the gate, crash helmet and jacket in hand. Rafe roared up, performed a flashy turn, and stopped. He pushed his visor up and grinned.

“Never thought I’d have a pillion in a pink helmet,” he yelled, swinging one long leg over the shuddering machine and setting the bike on its stand.

To Sophie’s surprise he pulled off his gloves and helmet and put them on the seat before taking her jacket, helping her into it, and making sure the little pack was secure on her back.

“Sunscreen? Can’t have my blondie burning.”

“I’m not yours,” she objected, “and I’ve got plenty for both of us. But you’ll burn less than me.”

“One of the benefits of a built in tan.”

She nodded. “Did you get some sleep?”

“Like I was dead.” He cupped her face in his big hands and drew her up for a kiss she hadn’t expected. Now she saw why he’d taken his helmet off! She leaned into the kiss, overwhelmed by his tall body all in black, and his hot eyes and beautiful mouth.

Why did she have no resistance to him? He was danger in every way. Danger because things might go wrong between them and spoil the work that would ensure Subtle’s success.

Danger because the closer he got, the harder it would be to keep her single-mother status a secret.

And most of all, danger because she knew her heart—indeed her whole carefully ordered life—was now under unrelenting siege.

So unfair! The last thing she needed was a new lover. But she wanted him fiercely, stirred by his scent, his taste, his constant care for her, and his knockout good looks.

She parted her lips and his tongue slid against hers, sweet and slippery, before she found the presence of mind to pull free.

“Better,” Rafe said. “We just need to keep up the practice.” He glanced down at the front of his black jeans with a wry expression. “See, I’m keeping up my practice, no trouble at all.”

*

Once they were on the expressway he relaxed into the rhythm of the day, gunning the powerful bike so it surged ahead of slower traffic, threading around small hatchbacks with elderly drivers, and overtaking SUVs and wagons full of families headed for the northern beaches. He vowed that one day it would be him at the wheel, his wife by his side, his children waving from the back seat of such a vehicle.

But for now at least he had Sophie pressed against him as they wove from lane to lane, and around the curves of the road. Her arms encircled his waist. She’d threaded her thumbs through the front belt loops of his jeans, and her fingers were so close… so close to where he craved them.

Faye wouldn’t have done this. Getting her into a convertible took major negotiation; the complaints about ruined hair and windblown clothes had taken away all the carefree pleasure of blatting along a highway with the top down. As for Faye in a crash helmet? Never.

He emerged from the tree-arched road above Pukerua Bay and started the long glide down the hill toward the ocean. Sophie leaned against him more firmly as the slope of the road increased and her weight shifted. The soft mounds of her breasts nudged his back. Her hands tightened around his waist. Rafe sighed, loving the feel of her so close.

“It’s wonderful,” she yelled.

He half turned his head. “Want to stop?”

“No,” she called back. “Not yet.”

On their left, the ocean twinkled and heaved. Long rollers washed in over the rocks, and only the wire-cable safety fence separated them from the tossing water. On their right the hills rose steeply, clothed here and there with swathes of wild orange nasturtiums. A silver and yellow commuter train emerged from a tunnel high up the slope, slid around a bend, and was gone again.

Rafe dragged the fresh salty air deep into his lungs. For once he felt like a carefree tourist with no timetable to keep to, no problems to solve.

Soon enough he’d have to head off to Europe for the boat shows, but for now he was content to enjoy the day, and the woman riding behind him.

He turned off the main highway at Queen Elizabeth Park, chugged slowly toward what looked like a collection of army huts, and pushed his visor up. “Come and meet my grandfather.”

Sophie pushed her own visor up. “What do you mean?” The bike growled quietly under them.

He braked. “Hop off for a minute.”

She dismounted, pulled off her helmet, and wandered across to the photographic displays that recorded and celebrated the time American servicemen had spent in the local area.

“More than sixty years ago,” she murmured, reading the caption under one of the big pictures.

Rafe pulled his own helmet off and wrapped his arm around her. They stood looking at the assembled Marines. All so young and hopeful, mostly with their war still ahead of them.

“He might be there somewhere, my grandfather John Blackhawk.”

“Yes, he might be,” she agreed. “Can you see anyone who looks like him?”

“In all that crowd?” He shook his head. “Only photo I have is a copy from Nanny’s, and it was pretty well thumbed by the time I got to see it.”

He dipped his head and kissed her brow. “But I like to think he’s here somewhere.”

“Looking forward to the dance where he met your grandmother?”

“Nicer thought than worrying about going off to fight.”

Sophie traced a finger across one of the Perspex-cased photos.

“They don’t look worried. But I suppose some of them were scared. Mostly they look excited, and so young.”

Rafe sighed and tightened his grip around her, and they idled past the rest of the display before riding on.

*

They stopped and loitered over coffees at the big Coastlands Shopping Mall. Community fundraisers had a barbecue fired up outside the main doors. Children clutched delicious smelling sausages and fried onion rings wrapped in buttered bread. Tomato ketchup leaked over T-shirts. Babies howled, mothers soothed, fathers looked on indulgently.

Sophie saw Rafe watching and misinterpreted his gaze.

“Want one?”

He shook his head, eyes on twin boys in a double stroller. He pointed. “Those two could just about be my brother’s sons.”

“The twin had twins of his own? They’ll keep his poor wife busy.”

“And she’s just given birth to a daughter. Eve’s well named. She’s a real earth mother.” He set his cup down abruptly. “Have you finished? Want a look around the shops?”

What had spooked him? A moment earlier he’d been the epitome of relaxed; now he was jumpy as a flea. She tipped up her cup, swallowed the last of her coffee, and rose to accompany him.

They walked hand in hand, going nowhere in particular. She watched as Rafe appeared to settle and regain his customary good humor. Time slid by. She found the perfect tiny silver shoes to go with the dress she’d made for Camille’s Barbie doll.

“For the little girl whose drawings are on my fridge,” she said in answer to Rafe’s enquiring expression.

They continued north on the big bike until he turned in under trees flanking a casual café attached to a thriving plant nursery. Sophie dismounted and Rafe remained sitting, pulling his gloves and helmet off and thrusting a hand into his hair.

She reached over and ruffled her fingers through it to re-arrange it. Then she froze, and tried to pull away.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, Sophie. You’re giving him reasons to think you want him.

Waves of dismay rolled through her as he caught her wrist and pressed his lips into her palm. His almost black eyes locked onto hers as he ran a string of small soft kisses over her skin and out along her middle finger.

Everything had tipped sideways again just as she thought things were under control.

She gasped as he sucked the very tip of her finger and teased it with his tongue. Deep inside, her muscles clenched and relaxed, clenched and relaxed, flickered and flamed.

Surely her face must have mirrored the sensations because the corners of Rafe’s mouth curled up in a soft smile as he eased off the suction.

“Hold that thought right through lunch,” he murmured after she’d yanked her finger free.

And now she was sitting, elbows on the rustic table, head plunged into her hands, silently cursing herself as he went to place their order. Why had she touched him? He could have tidied himself in the rear vision mirror.

But something had drawn her fingers into his dark hair. And she’d loved its crisp softness… loved being so close to him she could feel his heat and dangerous desire… loved the way he’d kissed her hand so sensuously.

A taunting little voice whispered in her ear. Insistent. Ever-gaining in volume.

Give in and enjoy him Sophie. Think how good it’ll be to make love with a man who has you almost coming in a crowded parking lot in broad daylight.

Chapter 16 — Afternoon Delight

She expected Rafe would stop near public changing rooms so she could slip out of her jeans and into her shorts for the promised walk along the shore. Instead, right before the beach, he turned the bike in to a private driveway, reached into one of the pockets of his leather jacket, and aimed a remote control at the broad garage door of a spectacular two-level house.

The door opened. They moved forward. He closed it behind them again.

To Sophie’s consternation, the ground floor was entirely taken up with a huge swimming pool. Placid, blue, and lit by shafts of sunshine through wide windows and floor-to-ceiling glass doors, it seemed to pulse with invitation. The paved expanse where they’d parked was obviously intended for vehicles, but otherwise the whole area invited family recreation. Inflatable toys and outdoor furniture leaned against one wall. Two small kayaks hung from hooks in the ceiling. A big stainless steel gas barbecue stood beside a matching refrigerator.

Sophie struggled off the bike, pulled off her helmet, and shook out her long hair. “Where are we?” she demanded.

Rafe removed his helmet more slowly. His eyes held the same sexy invitation that had mesmerized her at lunchtime.

Hot. Suggestive.

And yet his voice was quietly matter of fact with no hint of impropriety. “A friend’s house. Not currently in use because he’s taken his wife to Sydney for the week. It’s ours today.”

Sophie’s heart started to thud and heat pooled low in her belly. She knew she was in real trouble now. All her fantasies were colliding, and that persuasive internal voice had gained in volume and persistence. “But you said the beach.”

“The beach is only a few feet away. It’s there any time you want it. We can get changed here in private, grab a drink, lock our stuff up safely.”

She glared at him. Damn. She’d been depending on the public beach as her defense. It was her only weapon left against the dark insistent wanting that pulsed through her in unrelenting waves.

Public beach equaled safety.

Private house equaled every possibility of giving in to his leisurely charm drenched pursuit.

She watched his long leg swing over the seat as he dismounted. The tough denim pulled taut over his butt and down his thigh, reminding her exactly what great shape he was in. Her longing grew stronger.

Rafe set the bike on its stand. The slight sounds of cooling metal intruded over the muffled roar of the nearby ocean. He unzipped his jacket, shrugged it off, and hung it over the handlebars. Underneath he wore a fine white linen shirt, through which Sophie could just discern his dark nipples and maybe a drift of chest hair.

Her heart began to thump even harder. Why couldn’t he have a thick and boring T-shirt on? With advertising for fried chicken or car tires or something else crass and unattractive?

“Want to see the rest of the house?” He indicated an open-tread staircase to one side of the pool.

She set down her crash helmet and climbed. Rafe followed only a few steps behind.

The light almost blinded her on the top floor. Even the gauzy curtains were no real defense against the sun. He drew one aside to show her the view of the long golden beach—as he’d promised, very close indeed. Only a band of low, scrubby vegetation separated them from the sand.

“Nice sitting here with a cold beer on a hot day,” he said, unlocking one of the big sliding doors and rolling it aside to let fresh air flood in. When he walked out onto the timber deck Sophie followed, wriggling to rid herself of the day-pack and jacket. Instantly Rafe moved behind her, strong hands stripping them away, then gathering her hair to one side so he could drop a kiss at the junction of her neck and shoulder.

Someone moaned. Probably her.

Someone chuckled. Definitely him.

Give in,’ the little voice said.

Sophie sighed very deeply and tried for another ounce or two of resolve while Rafe carried her jacket and pack into the main living area and laid them on a long leather sofa.

“This house of Matt and Annie’s got me thinking about mine,” he said as he returned to the big deck. “I like the casual comfortable feel of it. Faye wanted something much sharper.”

They leaned on the deck railing companionably for a few minutes, watching the long rollers powering onto the shore. Then he held out a hand.

After a slight hesitation Sophie took it and they walked together through the main living area and into a light filled atrium.

Bedrooms… Oh I shouldn’t.

“We can’t just prowl through someone else’s house,” she objected, trying to tug her hand out of his as the reality of the situation hit her.

“They’ve prowled through mine.”

“But yours isn’t finished. It’s not… um.”

“Not private? Not full of beds?” One corner of his gorgeous mouth twitched in challenge.

She stood there battered by indecision. “I really want to see the house if it’s made such an impression on you,” she assured him. “It might give me ideas about what I can specify for yours.”

“So come and see it.”

“But… I don’t want you to think…”

His scent drifted across the small gap between them, and she remembered him saying two evenings ago, ‘You like the way I smell. I like the way you smell. Win/win.’

Yes, he was a big strong sensual man who smelled like everything missing from her life. She’d vowed to keep things businesslike between them, but he tempted her with privacy, and beds, and his warm eyes. Her decorating studio and her treasured daughter had been the total focus of her life for the past few years but now Rafe had forced his way in beside them.

Hesitantly she stepped closer, pressed her face against him, and breathed him in, soaking up the intoxicating scents of clean fabric and hot sexy man.

Two top buttons undone…

If I just tweaked another one, stroked his chest, tasted his skin…

Her restless fingers found it, slipped it through the hole, and pushed the two sides of his shirt apart. Lost at last, she nestled in so her nose and mouth brushed against his flesh. With an incoherent murmur she squeezed her eyes closed and inhaled again, savoring his scent for several deep slow breaths, feeling his arms wrapping around her and pulling her hips against his to confirm he was as turned on as she was.

The hairs on his chest tickled her face so she licked them flat. He tasted slightly salty and totally tempting.

“This is your way of discouraging me, is it?” she heard him demand in a hoarse whisper. “You eat me alive?”

She tried to pull back, feeling the flush spreading up her neck and over her face, but he held her close, rocking their bodies slowly together. “Why would I let you go now?”

“We can’t…” she tried one last time.

“We can.”

“Your friends…”

“Won’t be home until next weekend. No-one will know, Sophie.”

“I just don’t do things like this,” she insisted, fumbling far too enthusiastically with the rest of his shirt buttons as her final shred of restraint disappeared. She pushed the fabric back, and all her breath rushed out. At last she could touch him.

Mesmerized, she trailed her fingers over his sculpted chest and shoulders and on down his arms as she peeled the shirt away. Her hands roved, smoothing and kneading spice-brown flesh.

Rafe held still for her, although she knew how aroused he was and sensed the tight leash he had on his desire. She eased away and stroked down over the warm corrugated muscles of his torso. And then slid her arms around his waist, drew him close again and raised her face in a silent demand to be kissed.

She felt some of the tension leave his big body as he absorbed her surrender.

“Sophie,” he whispered. He smoothed her hair back, sifting the long strands through his fingers and tangled enough of it in his hands to hold her where he wanted her. His lingering kiss sizzled hot as a branding.

*

“Through here,” he demanded when he finally couldn’t bear the layers of fabric between them. He led her into the guest suite and pushed the window open to the cooler air, then cupped her face up in his hands and hauled her against him again. God she was sweet. Tasted like strawberries—and he was sure she hadn’t eaten strawberries for lunch. He nudged her across to the bed, never breaking the connection between their lips. When she overbalanced and sat with a gasp, he dropped to his knees in front of her.

Somewhere outside a radio played Elton John. The frantic piano dipped and soared in the warm air, pounding along in time with his pulse.

A fortnight ago he’d been antsy and out of sorts. Now he felt wildly alive. The thrill of the chase, the unexpected pursuit of this desirable if prickly woman had his blood surging, his breathing deepening, and all his senses finely tuned.

The sun burned sharply brilliant. The salty smell of the sea drifted through the window, a counterpoint to Sophie’s own warm and enticing fragrance. He leaned forward and pressed his face between her breasts, sucking in her skin-scent.

Her fingers threaded into his hair, possessive and urgent, holding him close. He knew he’d give her anything… anything. He breathed deeper, drawing her right into his lungs, his drug of choice, his addiction.

Finally, desperate for more, he leaned away and gathered her camisole upward to reveal the hipster top of her jeans just below her navel. A small gold stud gleamed there. He touched it, intrigued. A bolt with a hex-nut—who’d have thought?

He bent and slid the tip of his tongue over the ornament and down into the hollow below. Sophie rewarded him with an indrawn breath and a horrified “No!”

“Not nice?”

Too nice,” she protested, wriggling in his arms. “Too sensitive.”

He smiled to himself, loving her reaction. She was a little volcano, pressured to bursting point, ready to erupt. And soon he’d split her open and release all that scalding passion.

Outside, Elton John faded and Rihanna took over. A lawnmower droned somewhere close. Lost in pleasuring her, they were only dream noises against the background of the restless ocean. He barely heard either as he raised her camisole higher, enjoying her slim supple build, then closed his eyes and let his lips and teeth graze ever upward over her sweet-smelling skin until they hit the scratch of lace.

Sophie pulled the camisole up over her head and tossed it sideways. Rafe sat back on his heels, parting his thighs in a futile search for comfort, and looked his fill.

Her hair hung tousled and silky over his hands as he reached to stroke the topmost slopes of her pale breasts. How long ago had he sneaked that tantalizing glimpse down her neckline in the cable car? He’d told himself then they were no bigger than a schoolgirl’s, but he’d been wrong; she had irresistible curves.

He leaned forward with a groan, clamping his mouth around one of the hard peaks pushing against the white lace. He suckled, thrilled by the sounds of pleasure he drew from her throat.

He felt her flex, and flicked his eyes open. He’d have sworn he was already at full stretch but the sight of her swaying backward to unhook her bra sent yet another surge of blood southwards until the pressure was damn near intolerable. When she shyly lifted the lace away and her luscious uptilted breasts settled into his waiting hands he couldn’t hold back his animal growl of appreciation.

Delicate creamy mounds, big hard rosy nipples—a thrilling study in contrasts.

He bent and enjoyed as his lust level rocketed even higher.

*

Sophie’s lips parted in astonished pleasure. Waves of intense sensation raced through her, swirling and circling until they were concentrated deep in her belly, flickering like flames, hot as any furnace.

She plunged her fingers into Rafe’s shining hair again, kneading and caressing, loving all the dark jet and sable shades that were such a contrast to her own fairness. From somewhere came the panicky thought that if she could see him so clearly, he could also see her—and therefore see the faint silvery stretchmarks over her hips.

Would he recognize them for what they were? Signs she’d been pregnant sometime in the past? Would he demand to know where her child was, and castigate her for not keeping Camille, as his mother had not kept him?

Frantically she prized his head away. “Curtains,” she begged. “What if someone’s watching?”

“Not going to happen,” Rafe protested, eyes hot and hungry. “We’re one floor up. No-one’s going to see you except me. And I want to see everything.”

Just what I’m afraid of.

But to her intense relief he let her breasts slide gently from his hands, and stood.

“Shy, Sophie? I don’t believe it. You’re beautiful.”

He crossed to the window and started to draw the curtains closed. Sage green hemp she noticed, even in her agitated state. The hot panic of possible discovery receded a little. But oh, his back! So broad and long, and with rippling ridges of dense golden muscle flexing either side of his spine…

While he was silhouetted against the sunny brightness she launched herself across the room and scraped both hands possessively from his shoulders to his waist, nails less than kind. She heard Rafe’s breathing fracture, and she added a line of flickering kisses down his back by way of shy apology for her greedy claiming. She wanted him outrageously now, her previous reticence gone like a drift of sea fog.

“Sorry,” she whispered, lips against his skin.

The curtains moved gently in and out with the breeze from the open window. In and out as though they were breathing with the same surging excitement she was.

“You’re beautiful too, Rafe. I like how you’re hard where I’m soft. Rough where I’m smooth.”

She wrapped her arms around him. The sensitive skin of her inner arms slid silkily around his waist until she could tweak along the fine line of hair feathering down his belly.

Her hands stopped at the center front of his jeans, and her body flooded with the same sensation as when he’d removed his belt so casually in the studio the day they’d met.

She tugged at his waistband button, caution deserting her on rapid wings. She sensed his chuckle more than heard it with her cheek pressed against his warm shoulder. Right under her hands his sex stood hot and hard, barely contained by his jeans. Rafe let loose a growl of appreciation, or was it frustration?

She unzipped him, pushed a hand in, and grasped him through the soft fabric of his boxers, stroking and squeezing the long firm shaft that led down and down. She plunged a little further south and curled her fingers around the heavy handful. She imagined beautiful dark haired babies, and tried to banish that thought.

A pumped-up man was magic for sure, but this man felt pumped to the extreme. She swallowed in anticipation and pulled her hand free.

Chapter 17 — No Return Now

Almost past governing his raging hunger, Rafe turned and grabbed her, hauling her close with one arm. He pushed at his jeans with his other hand; the desire to bury himself deep inside her primal and barely controllable.

Sophie responded by wrenching her own zipper undone.

“My job,” he rasped, and scooped her up in his arms. Somewhat impeded by his pants around his thighs he took several unsteady steps and tossed her onto the bed.

She twisted below him, wriggling like a sinuous fish as he pulled her jeans down below her knees.

Yes, she wore the tiny white thong he’d imagined the first day he met her! His brain sparked red for a moment at the sight of the lacy scrap. Her slippery flesh shone through the barely-there fabric.

She moaned, eyes huge.

Rafe bent, forced her legs apart, tweaked the elastic aside, slid his tongue over her, pushed in, sucked hard.

Her gasp was a long breathy inhalation—the sexiest sound in the world to him.

Her hips lifted in an instinctive ‘take me’ invitation, and he dragged the thong down to join her jeans.

“Sophie…” he whispered, smoothing his cheek over the fragrant skin of her belly and then dipping lower to explore the hot wet well between her thighs again. This time he was gentle, and Sophie rewarded him with soft grunts of satisfaction and appreciation, fingers fisting in his hair and then sliding out over his shoulders.

He pulled back, smiling up at her dazed face and gripping her jeans. He peeled them down until the unexpected barrier of her boots had him cursing.

“I’ll do me, Rafe, you do you,” she insisted, struggling to sit up and undo them.

Rafe stripped his jeans and boxers away, kicked off his shoes, and hurled them aside.

Sophie’s boots fell to the floor with two sharp thuds.

“Better,” he growled, grasping her jeans where they bunched at her ankles. He tugged them off, and at last his eyes lazered over her whole fair skinned, super-female, utterly desirable body.

He hoped he wasn’t scaring her standing over her like a rampant stallion. He saw her bite her lip. Sensed her tiny hesitation. Then she blinked slowly and lifted her arms toward him in welcome. He bent, smoothing his hands up her pretty legs, dropping tender kisses over her hips, her waist, and her beautiful breasts before claiming her luscious mouth.

*

Sophie scarcely dared breathe in case the dream bubble burst. She lay flat on her back on the huge bed with Rafe lying half across her. One of his thighs pressed between hers, pinning her down. His lips wandered over her shoulders and breasts, soft as curious butterflies. Despite his possessive weight she felt she could have drifted up and floated—light, carefree, wonderful.

She gloried in their obvious contrasts. In the few seconds she’d glimpsed him before he joined her on the bed she’d seen deeply tanned skin and the fascinating fine trail of black hair down his belly which fanned out to provide the perfect frame for his high-rearing dark sex. He was both frightening and wonderful. Powerfully strong yet treating her now as though she might break.

He was still just in control.

She wanted him wilder.

As he suckled her nipples and sent thrills shooting deep into her body, she pushed her hand between them and smiled when his breath caught at her touch. She wrapped her fingers around his cock, remembering the way he’d thrust up toward her like an animal seeking prey.

Now she was the hunter and he was her captive.

She tightened her grip, sliding the silky skin up and down over his steely core until he groaned in protest.

“How long do you expect me to last, woman?”

“Exactly long enough,” she teased, wondering where such confidence had come from.

He kissed her deeply, cradling her face in a big hand, seeking out the places that gave her most pleasure with the other. She arched up as his fingertips trailed down her neck charting her pulse-points and lingering whenever she reacted with a twitch or a sharp intake of breath.

“Your turn first,” he murmured, drawing back far enough to lock eyes with her in a long, smoldering gaze. Then, fast as lightning, he slid down her body, forced her legs apart, bent her knees up over his shoulders, and held her helpless.

His wicked grin shone full of promise before his slippery tongue stroked over her exposed clitoris. Sophie dragged in a deep astonished breath. How long since anyone had done that for her? And that it should be Rafe! Oh. My. God. She gasped and trembled and slammed her eyes shut. Then couldn’t bear to miss the sight of his head lodged between her thighs. Her hips hitched and soft groans of pleasure escaped as her took her higher and higher until her breath rushed out and she convulsed and screamed. Rippling waves ran from her scalp to her toes and her brain bled white with sensation.

Nothing existed except for that insistent wet slide and her out of control body. When the pleasure hit pain level she dragged his head away, gasping “no more…no more…too much…” in a voice that sounded as though it was somewhere outside, high over the sun-drenched beach. He’d sent her flying halfway to heaven.

*

Rafe closed his eyes and smiled. She’d gone off like a rocket, and didn’t that just make him feel powerful.

He turned his head and kissed her soft inner thigh, brushing his lips to and fro. Her scent surrounded him—not the innocent sweetness of roses or the fragrance of French perfume now, but the salty mysterious aroma of aroused woman seeking man.

He breathed her in as he traced his lips and tongue over her delicate skin… wandering slowly higher to her breasts again. He kept his attentions languid and dreamy until he’d gentled her down.

“And again,” he finally murmured, repositioning himself so his hands could explore.

Sophie sucked in her breath and gasped a horrified “no!”

Rafe held her astounded silver-grey gaze as he slowly licked the pad of his thumb. He doubted she needed any extra lubrication—she glistened with her own natural juices—but it was worth it just to see her eyes blaze with molten fire.

“Yes.” His thumb made contact.

Sophie’s hips jerked up.

His sex responded with a jerk of its own, and he just about lost it, wanting so much to be sliding deep into her hot little body.

He gritted his teeth until he was back in full control, then began to rub her in tiny slippery circles.

As Sophie breathed harder he pressed a finger below his thumb and watched, enthralled, as it sank deep into her heat. Soon he felt the slight tremors of her next approaching orgasm.

He glanced up to her face again. Fluttering eyelids now hid her beautiful eyes. Her lips were swollen and inflamed from his kisses, and her head thrashed from side to side on the pillow. Small moans grew into ecstatic gasps.

He twisted his finger up, caressing her from the inside as well. She parted her legs even further. Rafe grunted with pleasure, gratified at her reaction, even as his own body burned for release.

His thumb continued to circle above, and warm triumph blasted through his whole body as he felt her tense and tense and tense, and finally let go with a deep groan and contractions almost strong enough to break his finger.

God it’s going to be superb taking her…

He bent and suckled each of her rosy nipples in turn, then moved up the bed far enough to slide his hands into her hair and pull her face up for deep ferocious kisses.

He was all animal now, primed and pumped, vitally male and feverish to mate. He fumbled for one of the condoms he’d tossed onto the bedside cabinet, and somehow managed to rip the pack open and sheath himself. “Sophie,” he groaned on a desperate exhale, positioning himself and starting to tease her open. He pushed home in a long delicious slide, gazing deep into her eyes, wanting her to know exactly who was claiming her.

He pulled back and repeated his slow invasion several times until he was wedged deep, waiting until he felt her relax enough to welcome the strong thrusts of his full penetration.

“More,” she begged, but he had no intention of hurrying now he was finally where he wanted to be. He moved with deliberation, dancing a sinuous ballet, building the sensations until they rolled through him as intense and powerful as the nearby ocean waves.

“Rafe,” Sophie breathed. “You’ll kill me!”

She angled her body to take him even further into her slippery heat, enticing him to the limits of his restraint. An instant before he came, he felt her starting to quiver and clasp around him, and he somehow hung on for another few teeth-clenching seconds until she was right there with him.

They soared together, mouth on mouth, heart to heart, and flew.

*

Sophie lay cradled in the crook of his arm. His pulse surged like thunder right under her ear. His big hand stroked over and over her hip.

What have I done? she agonized. Broken the most important rule I ever set for myself. Mixed business with pleasure again for sure.

Or should that be mixed pleasure with business? There’d been more pleasure than she’d ever experienced. More pleasure than she’d imagined possible.

Rafe had swept her into bed when she’d been expecting a walk on the beach. He’d treated her as though she was precious and desirable, to be cherished and indulged instead of used for his own amusement. He’d been sensual and playful—and then he’d taken her with such hunger and intensity that her emotions whirled around like debris in a roaring hurricane.

“Okay?” he whispered, smoothing his hand higher to cradle her breast.

“Definitely okay.” She dared to look up at him at last. His dark eyes were half closed, drowsy and relaxed. A smile played about his lips.

“More than okay for me,” he said. “Very special.”

“Yes.”

She’d never felt so cared for and beautiful. Her wellbeing had never been such a focus for any other man. And still he held her instead of leaping out of bed and putting an abrupt end to their lovemaking.

But what a situation she was in now… She sighed with vexation and regret, and he tightened his arm around her, having no inkling of the problem she faced.

Now I have a lover who doesn’t know about my child.

Now I can’t possibly tell him for all sorts of other reasons.

Now I’m in really deep trouble.

“Win/win?” he suggested.

Win/lose,’ she thought, fearing what must surely follow.

*

“Back soon,” he said, finally rising on one elbow and holding the condom in place. He picked up the empty wrapper and walked the few steps to the en suite, knowing Sophie’s eyes were all over him. He hoped she liked what she saw. Hoped she’d enjoyed what they’d just done. Hoped even harder she was up for more.

When he returned a few moments later he found her kneeling on the bed, searching under the pillows and bending over to pat the carpet.

He crossed the room in a few swift strides and sank onto the bed, curving an arm around her waist. “Lost something?” he asked, pulling her against his hardening body.

“Another earring. A little bead on gold wire. I should get some with push-on clips instead of ones that just hook through.” She drew a startled breath as his intentions became clear. “Oh!”

“Just the sight of you is enough,” he said huskily. He nipped her shoulder. “The sight of your beautiful bare butt in the air is one hell of a turn-on. Bend over for me.” He knew his voice was thick with desire. Knew that wasn’t the only thing thickening. “Please,” he added, making a late effort at courtesy.

Without a word Sophie bowed over again and rested her arms on the pillows. Rafe stroked a possessive hand down her back and over her rump. She held still for him as a thoroughbred mare might, trembling slightly, her submissive posture thrilling him.

He moved behind her, repeating his caress with both hands now, running them down her back, thumbs pressing her thighs a little further apart each time. Neither spoke. The loudest noise in the room was the eventual ripping of the next condom packet.

Rafe glanced down at himself as he rolled it on. Obscenely stiff, veins standing out, itching to be inside her again.

Twice in just a few minutes? Not for years now. Sophie had turned him into a sex fiend, and he had no objections as long as she didn’t.

He moved closer. She pushed back toward him, and with a groan he lined up, clasped her waist, and slid slowly into hot heaven. “Still okay?”

Her only response was to raise her hips and bend her arms so he could sink deeper. And deeper.

She trusts me so much?

Sophie gave a tiny grunt.

He pulled back a fraction and waited until she was comfortable.

After a few seconds she pressed slowly backward, her invitation clear. “Stretch me,” she whispered.

Rafe closed his eyes the better to appreciate her heat and wetness and her close clasp around him. Incredibly tight from this angle, and buried so far he barely dared move in case he hurt her.

But Sophie had other ideas. “More,” she murmured. “That feels amazing.”

So she didn’t mind his caveman approach? He withdrew and slowly slid deep again, appreciating his view of her smooth back and the spill of her tousled hair over the pillows.

She had him entranced. Unable to think straight unless she was part of the picture. And it wasn’t the sex, it was Sophie herself. He wanted to protect her, encourage her, nurture her, make her pregnant, reserve her only for him.

Marry her?

You’ve got it bad, man! Surely it’s once bitten, twice shy?

But this felt different. Sophie was no clinging vine demanding support. She’d shown him she could stand up for herself and manage her life on her own.

Rafe, who could afford to buy anything, had the sudden nasty suspicion he’d just found something he couldn’t.

She’d accepted his gifts but made it clear she wasn’t expecting them. She’d seemed more pleased with his phone call from San Diego than his extravagant offering of French perfumes when he returned.

He was due to leave soon for the yearly round of boat shows in Europe—time when Sophie might choose to be with someone else. That thought appalled him. He had a frantic fleeting vision of losing her before he’d properly established his claim.

But right now she was his, completely deliciously his. He thrust harder, desperate to imprint himself all over her.

*

Sophie planted her elbows more firmly as Rafe bent over her, driving deep and fast this time. He made her feel so female… so desirable. His strong forearms flanked hers, ensuring she wasn’t pinned uncomfortably by his weight. And with every deep slippery thrust the front of his thighs brushed the backs of hers and his testicles slapped against her, intensifying her impression of his virile masculinity.

His long powerful limbs, his lean hard-driving hips, thrilled her.

And he seemed to want her so much.

She’d never felt so dainty and cherished and raunchy and bothered and totally sexy all at the same time.

“Harder,” she gasped, wanting every fraction of him stroking over her nerve endings and fuelling the lovely fire growing deep inside.

Rafe pounded into her, one arm tight around her waist to hold her steady. Rougher now. Near to losing it. And then she heard him give a huge gasp and a vicious curse, and felt him pulsing deep inside her as he fought for breath and rasped her name and bit her shoulder in his passion.

The sensation of his convulsing muscles, together with her elation at doing this for him, were enough to make her go liquid with pleasure and clasp around him repeatedly as her own orgasm hit. Deeper this time. Darker. Like a dewy crimson rose unfurling its petals and then folding them closed, again and again, around a glorious golden intruder.

They collapsed together, silent and stunned.

Chapter 18 — Suspicion

Sophie had plenty to think about next morning on the three hour ferry trip to Picton. The words in her library book swam in and out of focus as she relived their lovemaking, and the hurried laundry that had followed.

They’d made coffee and sat close together on the big deck, talked about Matt and Annie’s home, and discussed further details of Rafe’s house on the cliff.

Once the sheets were washed and tumbling around in the drier, Sophie had pulled on her white cotton shorts over her bikini, and Rafe had donned navy boardshorts before they’d walked hand in hand down the endless, wide, sandy beach. Despite the fine day and the wild beauty of Peka Peka, there were few people about. Most seemed to prefer the shops and cafes a little further to the south.

Such solitude had meant it was easy to idle along, touching and teasing, lingering for passionate kisses and tender embraces.

And when they’d returned to find the sheets warm and dry, re-making the guest bed felt almost more intimate than their previous joyous coupling in it.

She’d watched Rafe across the snowy expanse of the fragrant bed linen, and couldn’t help imagining he was her husband and she his much loved wife.

She easily pictured him in the master bedroom suite of his own finished home, walking barefoot on the velvety carpet she’d ordered for him, silhouetted against walls finished a paler shade of his own delicious skin color, drawing the floor to ceiling curtains of bronze silk she’d suggested.

As the sun sank lower, they’d returned to the ground floor where the Ducati was parked, and to Sophie’s delighted surprise Rafe had stripped off again and stood, tall and strong and at ease with his body, and dived in to the luxurious pool once she’d started to undress as well. The water lapped around them as she moved into his arms.

Much later he’d cast an eye up toward the two kayaks on their hooks.

“Wanna race, lady?” he’d drawled.

Sophie had dissolved into giggles at the image of them racing kiddie-canoes in an indoor swimming pool. “How many children do they have?”

“One of each.”

“Nice planning.”

“I’m their honorary uncle.”

“Good for birthday presents?”

He glanced up again. “They were a big hit, anyway.”

As she sat in the gently rolling ferry, she remembered again his bitter regret about Faye not wanting his children. How offensive that would have been to any man, but especially to Rafe. Faye had known about his solitary upbringing and his desire to create a family to redress the hand life had dealt him. Yet still she’d refused?

And here Sophie was on the way to visit the daughter she’d avoided mentioning for career reasons, and now couldn’t possibly admit to for very much more personal ones. He’d never forgive her if he found out, and God she wished she’d been honest that first day…

*

Rafe stretched his arms up to the sun as he stood gazing out toward Pencarrow lighthouse. He un-kinked the knots in his shoulder muscles and dropped his hands onto the deck railing. He laughed inwardly. His shoulders had been given a hell of a workout the day before, and wasn’t he feeling pleased about that!

He wondered if Sophie had woken yet, and decided to surprise her before she went out. It was barely eight. Surely after a day like yesterday she’d still be in bed? Maybe he could join her there again? Especially if he took breakfast.

He showered and shot out on the Ducati minutes later, hurtling too fast around the bends of the coast road, enjoying the machine and the sparkling morning. As he neared the central city, one of the inter-island ferries edged out from its berth—a white wedge in a blue harbor dotted with early morning yachts.

He stopped at the French bakery, bought pastries and coffees, balancing the latter precariously between his thighs as he coasted along Tinakori Road.

He knocked on her door, feeling an absurd tingle of anticipation as he imagined her, drowsy, welcoming, and maybe in a skimpy nightdress.

“Looking for Sophie?” a voice asked.

Rafe swiveled, and found a woman of forty or so, dressed for gardening and clutching a spade. Presumably this was the landlady?

“She’s already gone,” the woman said. “Goes out well before eight o’clock every Sunday. Not back ‘til quite late at night.”

His spirits dropped through the floor of the petal strewn porch. So much for his sexy reunion fantasy…

As he opened his mouth to ask more, there was the creak of a window being opened above them.

“Mom! Mom!” an aggrieved teenage voice wailed. “Hurry—it’s Auntie Jen on the phone. Uncle Bob’s had to go to hospital.”

The woman muttered an exclamation. “Sorry,” she said, tossing the spade on the lawn and dashing away.

Rafe stood there, mystified and wrong footed. Where the hell did Sophie go to ‘well before eight o’clock every Sunday’? And how late was ‘quite late tonight’?

On his way down the path he turned for the front door of the house and set the coffees and pastries beside it, suddenly not the least bit tempted by either. He knocked loudly and left, hoping the teenage wailer might find them and enjoy them.

He could phone Sophie. Should phone her. But he’d prefer to look her in the eye and gauge the honesty of her answers.

Every Sunday? She’d been perfectly open about not being available today, but she’d avoided giving details, now he thought about it. She certainly hadn’t indicated it was an on-going arrangement. He turned his thoughts around and around as he roared home, stewing on unpleasant possibilities.

Once he was there he strapped on his tool belt and took out his frustration on the boxing timber around the garage foundations, wrenching it away from the sides of the concrete slab with a wrecking bar and the brute force of his long arms. He threw the splintered lengths aside, not caring about the wastage.

Who did she go to? And why?

*

At nine on Monday morning Sophie glanced up from her screen and drew a swift surprised breath.

Rafe stood in the open doorway, backlit by the bright sun. He held two coffees. “You’re deep in thought.”

“I’m just confirming your top floor tile order as it happens.”

He smiled at that and came in, placing the coffees out of her way. “Good day yesterday?”

“Fine… yes.” She decided to say no more. She’d already lied by omission, and she knew that was very cowardly. She certainly didn’t want to tie herself up in further knots and cobwebs of deceit, so any more lies were out of the question.

He stepped around the desk, cupped her face in his hands, and bent to kiss her. Softly. Lovingly, she almost felt. She grew warm all over, flustered, boneless, unable to resist his potent attraction, knowing he got her like this every time.

He drew back, his face only inches away from hers. “So where did you go?”

She swallowed. No help for it now, not with those enquiring eyes staring straight into hers. “To see my Mom.”

She hoped she wasn’t blushing and giving the game away. Surely not—she had been to visit her mother.

Rafe released her. “Where does she live?”

“Picton.”

“Long way to go for a visit?”

His eyes seemed to be asking more than that, but she hoped she’d manage to keep her expression neutral. “Mmmmm… That’s why she couldn’t come over for the studio opening.”

He pushed a coffee toward her. “Thought you could maybe do with this.”

“Thanks. And what did you do yesterday?” she asked, grateful to have the coffee to glance away to.

“Took the bike out for a while. Tore the boxing timber off the garage foundations. Things.”

“It’s coming along well, your big garage,” she said, trying to keep the topic right away from herself. Trying to stop from reaching out and touching him, too.

“They’ll be coating the exterior this week. Salt proof, corrosion proof. Once the doors are on and we’ve secure storage, the old shipping container goes. Then there’s only the off-street parking area and landscaping to finish.” He took his coffee and moved across to the sofa. “You need a chair by your desk for visitors,” he added.

“Yes, maybe in a week or two when I can afford it.” She lifted her coffee and sipped.

He did the same, still looking at her far too intently for her comfort. “Why don’t I make you an advance? You’ve done hours of work for me so far.”

Sophie definitely felt the blush this time. It was so embarrassing having to be careful with money every single day of her life. Especially with someone as wealthy as Rafe.

She cleared her throat. “Well, um, yes, that would be wonderful. I charge an hourly consulting rate, and then ask for a half deposit when things are ordered. Like your tiles.” She swallowed.

Why was this so difficult? Because she liked him so much? Because she’d fallen into bed with him and held nothing back? Or because Camille’s concealment really ate at her conscience now? “I was a bit overwhelmed to be doing your work, and I didn’t go into the details to start with, did I?”

Rafe smiled. “Give me your account number. Five thou do for starters?”

Sophie blanched “That’ll buy a lot of chairs.”

“Tell me how much you need to cover the tile order and whatever…”

“Yes,” she agreed, taking another sip of her coffee and inspecting him over the rim of the cup. All that money meant nothing to him.

He looked amazing. Businesslike and reserved instead of naked and muscular and hotly aroused. She liked the second version best. He was almost intimidating in the superb black suit, pale grey shirt and muted tie. Now he was Faye’s handsome occasionally glimpsed husband again—a serious man going about serious business—instead of her own playful lover.

“I wanted to confirm our trip up to the Whangarei yard,” he said. “I’m hoping tomorrow’s okay with you because I can send you home ahead while I stop off for some appointments in Auckland.”

“That’s fine.”

“And I’ll book us a night’s accommodation, shall I? After Saturday?” His eyes shone warm with invitation now. “Can you spare another half day away from your studio?”

Sophie thought of his five thousand dollars and felt almost as though she’d been bought for his evening’s entertainment. But what did she have to lose? She was eager to spend any time at all with him.

Their fiery lovemaking at Peka Peka had been followed by another even hotter session at her apartment. Turning him out of her bed at midnight so she could make an unobserved getaway to the ferry yesterday morning had cut her to ribbons.

She’d wanted to stay curled in his arms, slumberous and sexy. Wanted to share a sun dappled breakfast with him, explore and admire him once she’d woken refreshed. But she’d held firm, citing Mrs. Ferris and her children and the early morning gardening as reasons to make him leave. Now she had another chance. “So we can have a whole night together? Yes please.”

And with that he smiled and suggested, “Or two? Stay with me at the house tonight. It’s closer to the airport—we won’t have to leave as early tomorrow.”

Sophie pretended to consider that for a moment or two, but in reality she was working out how to reschedule her evening phone call to Camille. “Are you playing chauffeur or do you want me to come on the bike?”

“I want you to come anywhere you can,” he said, raising a suggestive eyebrow and widening his smile into his trademark killer grin. “Although on the bike might take some ingenuity. I could bend you over the handlebars, perhaps? Or lay you down flat on the seat and lick you to death?”

Every trace of the reserved businessman had suddenly disappeared, and Sophie’s body instantly responded to his suggestions. She looked down at her peaking nipples.

“Now look what you’ve done.”

Rafe clicked his tongue in mock dismay. “Can’t help yourself, eh? Me either.” He stood and nudged at his very conservative trousers, and Sophie was left with a glorious mental picture as he headed for the door.

“I’ll collect you around six?” he called over his shoulder.

“Or a little after? Give me time to pack?”

And phone Camille.

“Don’t bother bringing any pajamas,” were the last words she heard.

Chapter 19 — Pearls and Diamonds

Five nights later Rafe called at the Wellington boatyard as soon as he was off the plane. He worked for an hour, finally closed his laptop, yawned, stretched, and checked his watch. His body and brain hummed with possibilities. He felt contented and excited in equal measure.

Things were going well. Monday night at the house had been everything he’d anticipated. Sophie had been playful and warm and inventive. To wake with her in his arms on Tuesday morning—to slowly bring her out of sleep with gentle kisses and caresses—had pitched them both into a frenzy of need again.

The trip north to Whangarei had gone as he’d hoped. The humid heat of the northern city made it feel different and exotic. Sophie had certainly been impressed by the size of the boatyard and the luxury of the almost completed forty meter superyacht destined for a Hong Kong billionaire.

He’d shown her around the huge undercover area, and the slipway and wharves with access out to sheltered deep water. Introduced her to several of the senior staff, including managing director Grant Jacobsen. Enjoyed Grant’s admiring inspection of her, and the ‘very hot’ signal that had passed from one man to the other.

They’d dined properly at last—no pizza or deli food this time. And between the lobster and the chocolate hazelnut torte he told her he’d be out of New Zealand for a while.

“I can’t afford to neglect the northern hemisphere business. Having the owner on site sometimes swings huge sales our way.”

“So where are you going?”

“Barcelona for starters. For the last few days of the International Boat Show.”

“Spain…”

Rafe heard the longing in her voice.

“Like to come with me?”

Sophie shook her head and sighed. “You can’t afford to neglect the boat shows and I can’t afford to neglect my new studio. And where to after that?”

“London. Earls Court. Home in a couple of weeks.”

She started to prod her dessert in a distinctly distracted manner. “Damn—I was just getting used to having you around.”

“So we’ll make tonight memorable.”

And later, in the privacy of the hotel suite their lovemaking had been way beyond anything he’d anticipated. He’d burned for more of her even as he’d subsided into exhausted sleep.

On Wednesday morning he’d reluctantly put her on the plane back to Wellington while he attended to business in Whangarei, and then spent two more days of profitable meetings and client schmoozing in Auckland.

Now it was almost midnight on Saturday—too late to call by her apartment. But by God he’d be there first thing tomorrow, early enough to unravel the mystery of her Sunday disappearances.

If she went to see someone else, he wanted to know who. And put a stop to it. She was his now.

*

At seven-fifteen next morning he parked the Ducati a short distance away and waited less than patiently to see what transpired. He wore his oldest jeans and an army style camouflage patterned jacket one of the builders had left on the top floor. In his pocket were wraparound sunglasses and a long-billed cap. He felt disgusted with himself, yet nothing would have stopped him. Stalking her was abhorrent, but not knowing where she went felt even worse.

Finally she appeared. Rafe followed her at a discreet distance and saw her turn off to the inter-island ferry depot. He watched as she parked her pink Vespa and headed for the terminal building. He did the same, removing his helmet, sliding the sunglasses on, and pulling the cap down low. Perhaps she had a Sunday job here?

He kept well back, watching in astonishment as she checked in, bought a coffee, and sat down to read. She was going to the South Island again. Who was she really visiting?

No wiser, but a good deal more on edge, he returned home, packed, and headed for the airport. He flew out that afternoon to Europe.

*

He landed back in Wellington in time for the next municipal lunch, and strode in to see Sophie just minutes after she’d unlocked the door to the studio.

She straightened from smoothing out the throws and cushions on the sofa and dashed across to him. “Missed you, missed you, missed you!” she exclaimed as he swept her into his arms. The heat bubbled up, intense as ever. His mouth slanted over hers, possessive and passionate. Their hands wandered to unwise places given how publicly on display they were.

“Good to be back,” he murmured. “Calls and emails just don’t do it.”

“Nice to have you back, with a welcome like that.”

“Missed you too. All business and no pleasure.”

“I should hope so,” she teased, chafing against his growing erection. “Saved that just for me, did you?”

“Any time you want him, he’s all yours.”

“Soon… please…”

“Greedy girl. And clever girl, too—the house is coming on well.”

“You like the carpet? Suitable for ravishing me on?”

“Want to try it out after today’s lunch at the Wakefield Club?”

“Can we wait that long?”

He pulled back and grinned. Glanced across at the big window to the street. “If you don’t mind giving the world an eyeful, I don’t.”

She sent him a bashful grin. “Maybe this evening then?”

He ran his thumb softly over her bottom lip, watching her eyes, enjoying the sexy little hitch in her breathing.

“I’ve kissed off all your lipstick, baby—you’ll have to put some more on.”

“Not until I’ve had enough of kissing you.”

Their lips met and parted, met and parted.

“Thank you for all the phone calls,” she added when he finally drew away. “Nicer than the emails, for sure. The sound of your voice gives me goosebumps.”

Rafe reached into his pocket. “Here’s something else I’m hoping might give you goosebumps.” He handed her a flat leather covered jeweler’s box.

“What…? What have you bought me now?” She raised the lid of the box with trepidation. “Rafe!”

“You said you needed earrings with proper clips instead of just hooks.”

She touched a reverent finger to the Tahitian silver-grey pearls that gleamed against their black velvet bed. Two earrings and a pendant—each with a perfect round dark pearl suspended from a string of three fiery white diamonds.

She looked up into his face and shook her head sadly. “I can’t accept these.”

“Of course you can. I chose them to match your eyes.”

Sophie bit her lip. “They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” she murmured. “They belong in a glossy magazine or on someone rich and famous. Not on me.”

“They belong,” he said with mock severity, “on you. They belong to you, and I want to see them being worn right now.”

He smoothed her blonde hair back behind her ears and unthreaded the silver and lapis cubes that hung there. It felt good removing another man’s gift and replacing it with his own. Marking her as his. Expressing appreciation of his precious new woman.

He narrowed his eyes in concentration as he pushed the first platinum post through the piercing and secured the clip. The shining pearl glowed against her pale skin; the diamonds spat sparks of light. He tilted her head, fixed the second jewel in place and leaned back to enjoy the effect. “Almost as pretty as the girl who’s wearing them. But only almost.”

She smiled at that, and looped her long hair up so he could attend to the pendant. “Should I turn around?”

“Might make it easier.”

She swiveled, and he set his teeth into her neck with a grunt of satisfaction. “Mine,” he said roughly. He kissed the place he’d bitten. “I wish I could have taken you with me.”

“And then you’d have no carpet and no tiles, and no other progress on the house either.”

“I can think of better uses for you than tarting up my home. You could have been decorating my bed every night.” He fastened the catch of the pendant and buried his face in her fragrant hair, smoothing his hands down the soft fabric that covered her upper arms. “I like this little blouse,” he added, turning her to survey the finished effect. “Very prim and proper. A wonderful contrast with the sexy body underneath.”

“It’s old,” Sophie said. “Edwardian I think. I’m not the first owner. It’s quite fun exploring the stores that sell pre-owned clothing.”

*

And, she thought sadly, it would be a lot more fun if I could explore the designer boutiques.

“Second-hand?” It sounded as though he disapproved.

“It’s been washed,” she said, rather too sharply. If only he knew how she had to economize…

He stroked a long finger over the Tahitian pearl pendant and continued right on down between her breasts until he hit the lace-line.

“I’ll collect you at lunchtime, Soph. You look like something out of a glossy magazine yourself now. I’m glad I bought them.”

“Thank you,” she said again, rising on tiptoe for a final kiss. “And I’m glad you’re back. See you.”

As soon as he left, she hurried into the washroom and inspected herself in the blotchy mirror. Even the awful old glass couldn’t disguise the lustrous beauty of the pearls or the glow on her face. She gathered her hair up in a rough bundle. Yes, she’d wear it up for lunch and show off her beautiful treasures.

She wondered if Faye would be present again. The past Mrs Severino wouldn’t be dampening her spirits this time.

*

“White, thanks,” Sophie said in answer to Rafe’s inquiry. He returned a minute or two later with their wines, and guided her across to a circle of people discussing the up-coming rugby tournament. His hand remained in the small of her back, moving backward and forward across her black suit jacket.

“Some of last year’s spectators looked totally indecent,” a potbellied man declared. “That stretchy fabric on the so-called ‘aliens’ didn’t leave a lot to the imagination. You could see the outline of… everything.”

“Bet you didn’t mind the see-through tops on the mermaids though, Jim?” someone else said.

Sophie recognized the pigeon-poop complainer, sounding much more cheerful this time.

The man called Jim bristled. “Some standards have to apply,” he said. “Can’t have everyone half naked and half drunk. Bad for the city’s image.”

“But fantastic for business,” a smoky-voiced redhead purred.

“It’s all right for you, Suzy. Your bar does well out of it every year. I doubt I sold one extra roll of wallpaper over that weekend.”

There was a burst of laughter at that.

“Horses for courses, Jim. No-one stocks up on DIY supplies if they’re here for the rugby.”

The good natured banter continued. Sophie caught Rafe’s eye and smiled. “I think it’ll be the same for me,” she said. “People don’t come to watch a big sporting event and book a decorating consultation on the side.”

Her new earrings swung from her lobes—a tiny sexy caress each time she turned her head. Happiness bubbled right through her.

“But think of the locals streaming by your windows on the way to the stadium and remembering you later on?” Rafe suggested.

“Maybe.”

“Oh hardly, Rafe!” Faye’s strident voice intruded as she joined the group. “Good designers earn their reputations one job at a time, and word of mouth is by far their most powerful sales tool.” She laid a hand on his other arm. “Friends telling friends, and so on.”

Sophie flinched. Knew Rafe would feel it. She was grateful when his fingers slid around her waist and tightened a little.

Faye flicked her glamorous eyes around the circle.

“So—new business going well?” she asked, singling Sophie out.

“Very well indeed thanks, Faye.” She tried hard to match Faye’s casual tone.

An elegant eyebrow arched. “Of course your idea of ‘good’ is probably not up there with my idea of good.”

Sophie shrugged. “My studio may be new, but I can already see my margins will be healthy. Maybe better than yours? Not so many overheads?”

Faye sniffed and turned her attention to Rafe. “I had dinner with Jane and Joe Bateson on Sunday, darling. They’re off to Perth for Christmas. Too hot by far, I thought.”

“It was damned cold in Europe last week.”

“Oh—of course—the boring boat shows. Poor you.”

“My bread and butter Faye, as you well know.”

“You’ll be getting through plenty of bread and butter,” Faye needled, eyeing Rafe’s possessive hand, “now you’ve got a start on the little family you’ve been so frantic for. Shame it couldn’t be your own child, darling, but I suppose secondhand is better than nothing where you’re concerned?”

Her malevolent smile flared scarlet; her teeth flashed very white against her vivid lipstick.

Sophie felt her world beginning to crash.

Chapter 20 — Faye’s Bombshell

“What?” Rafe demanded.

“Little Camellia—the daughter she’s had hidden away for years. Surely you knew about her?”

“Camille,” Sophie corrected, feeling absolute desolation engulf her. There was no point in denying Camille’s existence, but at least the bitch could get her child’s name correct.

“Camille, that’s right,” Faye cooed. “The girl she disposed of to her mother. Just like you were parked out of sight with your granny for all those years, Rafe. How history repeats itself.”

Sophie felt Rafe’s hand loosen its comforting grip and slide away from her waist.

She tried to find some oxygen in the suddenly starved atmosphere, and somehow dared to look up at him. His dark eyes bored down into hers, searching for the truth. And she saw the very moment he registered that her correction of Camille’s name had confirmed Faye’s story.

“And how old is…”

“Camille? Almost five.” She held her chin high, silently pleading with him to understand.

The rest of the circle had fallen silent the instant Faye dropped her bombshell. Now there was a hectic rush of babble to cover the awkward situation.

“Five years old?”

She heard his strong censure slicing her to shreds. Recalled him saying that by the time he was three or four he’d known he should have been with his parents. Obviously he felt the same about Camille.

She somehow held his accusing gaze. “Four and three-quarters, she says. She’s due to start school in February.”

“And how much longer were you going to keep her a secret? Keep me in the dark?” His eyes held no warmth at all.

“It’s not about you, Rafe. It’s not even about her. It’s about—” She threw her hands up in a gesture of defeat. The remains of her wine almost slopped over the rim of her glass. “Survival,” she finished, reaching over to set it on a nearby windowsill before she lost it. Before she threw the dregs in his handsome face for reacting so coldly, perhaps? “Listen,” she pleaded.

“Excuse me.”

She stood there speechless as he strode away. He’d left her to the mercy of Faye and these near strangers at the worst moment of her life?

“Ooops,” Faye said, looking delighted.

Sophie ignored her and watched as Rafe approached the bar and upended his glass. He swallowed the rest of his wine in one savage gulp. She saw the movement of his Adam’s apple… the stretch of the tanned neck she’d stroked and nipped and kissed with such tenderness.

She swung her attention back to Faye, and her fury boiled out. “You sad disgusting cow! Why are you trying to break us up? He wouldn’t take you back if you were the last woman on earth.”

Faye smirked. “I wouldn’t have him back if he begged. Not after the stories that are spreading around town. How do you think I feel, hearing he’s run off with my assistant and set her up in her own business?”

“What?” Sophie almost shrieked. “Set me up? Never! Subtle is entirely my project, my money.”

Faye gave her a supercilious smile. “And how are you going to convince people of that? How do you think it looks? People assume the two of you have been carrying on behind my back for years. No-one does that to me.”

“Get real,” Sophie hissed. “Rafe’s got more class than that, and so have I.” She snatched a fierce breath and thrust her face closer to Faye’s. “And get this straight, too—there’s nothing secondhand about my daughter. Just because you don’t want children, you’ve no right to try and to spoil other people’s pleasure in them.”

To Sophie’s annoyance, Faye’s brittle smile grew wider and more complacent. “She was just the ammunition I needed, wasn’t she… He’ll never have you back now.”

“I don’t give a damn about that.” Sophie raised her voice to include the others. “Camille hasn’t been ‘disposed of’. What a stinking thing to say.” She rounded on Faye again. “You know what happened. Her father died, and my mother took care of her to help me through a terrible time.”

“But he’ll never have you now,” Faye repeated.

“You’ve totally twisted the situation,” Sophie snapped. “You wouldn’t recognize a kind deed if it bit you on the ass, Faye. And everyone who knows you feels the same.”

She whirled away and stared out the window. Was Faye’s ego really that fragile? Had she seriously launched her vitriol just to stop people thinking her husband might have cheated on her?

Her shoulders drooped in defeat. Oh, what did it matter now? The harm was done.

She turned around as Rafe strode back. He made an all too obvious point of standing a couple of feet away from her while he sipped the large whiskey he’d just collected.

Was his shock any worse than hers? She’d endured four long weeks of dread, knowing sooner or later he’d have to be told. As they’d gotten increasingly close it had become ever more impossible to confess. It seemed doubly unfair it should be Faye who’d dropped her in the putrid mud.

And wasn’t the woman enjoying it! Another triumphant glance from her heavily made up eyes flashed in their direction.

Rafe moved closer so only Sophie could hear him. “You thought you’d found a wealthy sugar daddy to spring your kid onto?” he demanded.

She stepped away a little and he followed.

“I thought I’d found a big enough commission that I could afford to bring her back home to live with me at last. You didn’t come into it on a personal level until you absolutely forced yourself into my life.”

“I did no such thing.”

“You grabbed me and touched me and kissed me every opportunity you got. I told you again and again that I needed to keep it just business.”

“You didn’t tell me why.” His eyes flamed with passion, and his beautiful lips compressed with resentment.

“Why should I? You were a client. My personal life had nothing to do with you. I gave you perfectly good business reasons.”

“You’re a cold little bitch, Sophie. Surely you could have told me?”

Her hopes shriveled even further at his accusing tone. “When did you have in mind, Rafe? When you described your dysfunctional family while we ate that pizza on the deck? I was itching to tell you, but I had to balance your possible disapproval—”

Possible?” he sneered.

“All right, your certain disapproval, with the chance to reclaim Camille. And she won.”

A spoon rang out against someone’s glass.

“If everyone could take their seats for lunch please?”

Mutters of anticipation and general shuffling toward the dining room ensued. Rafe turned away from her, mouth tight, eyes furious.

So just like that it was over?

Sophie held back a little, reached for the clasp on her exquisite pearl and diamond pendant and undid it. She released each of the matching earrings and cupped them in her palm.

Many of the men had started removing their suit jackets in readiness for a relaxed lunch in the warm room.

Moving like an automaton, she approached the table Rafe had headed for. When he settled his jacket over his chair-back she slipped her briefly owned treasures into one of its pockets, and kept right on walking.

His attention was already on someone else. She didn’t think he even noticed her leaving.

Unable to face food, and sick with desolation, she walked until she was back at the studio.

Every time she thought of his cold voice, her heart froze a little more. If she’d been the least bit important to him surely he’d have invited her to leave, and driven her somewhere quiet and neutral to talk reasonably about the situation?

One of the harbor lookouts would have been fine. They could have stared at the view if they couldn’t stand to look at each other. She might have been able to explain things better without Faye’s intrusive and gloating presence.

Without everyone else in earshot.

But it seemed he’d wanted a toy for his bed, not a real human being with a life and problems of her own. She was disposable.

Well, her daughter was not.

She bit down hard on the tip of her tongue, trying to make something else hurt more than her battered heart.

Overwhelmed by sudden worry as well as grief, she called up his file on her computer and reviewed her financial situation. God, she now owed more money than she could imagine! How would she ever repay it?

The advance Rafe had given her would not be used on chairs for clients. She’d ordered tens of thousands of dollars worth of carpet and ceramic tile in her own name, and so far he’d paid only the fifty percent deposit toward them.

She’d asked Roy to charge him direct for the paint and his labor, so at least that was out of the equation. One small mercy anyway.

If all the hours she’d spent consulting, sourcing and planning were never paid for, that was tough. Her valuable time would have been wasted but at least there were no outgoings attached, only total lack of income.

Because Faye had started negotiations with the kitchen supplier months previously, that account would land on Rafe’s plate. She blew out a slow breath of relief— the kitchen had cost as much as a small house.

But hell, the electric roller-shades she’d ordered were mega-expensive. Some of the curtain fabrics were way at the luxury end of the spectrum too. They’d been cut and dispatched. They’d all be charged to Subtle Interiors, along with the huge rugs and heaven knew what else.

Sophie buried her head in her hands and felt her stomach beginning to roll and boil with terror.

What if Rafe dragged the chain on paying her? He could hold up his money for months. She’d be ruined before she’d properly started. Her business would die a painful premature death. She’d be declared bankrupt. Camille would never leave the South Island.

Sophie would hate him forever.

*

Rafe scraped an aggrieved hand through his hair and over his tired eyes. He surely hadn’t seen this mess on the horizon.

So that accounted for all the trips down to Picton? Guilt trips because Sophie had deserted her daughter. What a fool he’d been to fall for her, and start imagining her as anything more than his decorator.

Of course she’d looked competent with Lucy in her arms—she was well used to children, even if she’d pretended to be so career oriented.

Scheming liar.

Of course she’d be taking part in baby showers and hanging childish paintings on her refrigerator door.

He should have seen the signs. He had seen the signs. And somehow persuaded himself to ignore them.

His cellphone rang. He grimaced when he saw Sophie’s name on the screen.

“Severino,” he barked, wanting to hurt her, wanting her to know she meant nothing to him.

“Rafe?” She lapsed into silence.

“Yup.” Flat and cold. He’d be damned if he’d offer her any encouragement or help.

“We need to talk.”

“You might need to. I don’t.”

“You judged me, without knowing anything about me. You didn’t even let me explain.”

“So explain. You had a baby, you farmed it out to your mother, you went on living your own sweet life as far as I can see. Not a million miles different from Huia.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be so judgmental. You saw me as a talented designer before you knew about Camille. And that’s how I had to keep things. Now you see a selfish solo mother who didn’t look after her own child?”

“That’s exactly it, Sophie. You’ve summed yourself up beautifully.”

No! I’ve only told you what you’ve assumed. What you’ve wrongly assumed. You have no idea of the situation. I’m nothing like your mother—and at least her husband stood by her.”

There was another deathly silence. He was damned if he’d tell her how gutted he was.

That he’d hoped to explore making a life with her.

That he’d found the jewelry in his pocket and seen it as a cruel brushoff and a sign she wanted no more to do with him. He’d spent a lot of time finding a perfect gift to please her, and already she’d thrown it back in his face.

“If that’s the best you can do, then goodbye,” he said, breaking the connection.

*

Bastard, bastard, bastard! Sophie thought. Rotten bastard. Filthy bastard. Unfeeling bastard.

Earlier that morning he’d hung pearls and diamonds on her, bitten her neck and told her she was his woman. Now she was pond scum?

She slapped her phone down, leaned her elbows on her desk, and buried her face in her hands.

I mustn’t cry. I cannot let him make me cry. I need to stay civil and calm so he’ll pay me what he owes.

After a few minutes she drew a long, shuddering breath and raised her head. Everything outside on Thorndon Quay looked summery, carefree, relaxed. Everything inside her beloved studio seemed tense, shadowy and dismal.

She cupped her chin in one hand and used the fingers of the other to peck around the keyboard and compose him a slow and careful invoice.

The carpet was all laid. That would have to be paid for. The electric blinds were ordered and probably half made by now. They couldn’t be cancelled. There were also the fabrics and the specially woven rugs for the living areas. The wet areas on the middle and lower floors were already tiled.

At least she could cancel the tile installation on the big main floor and send all those heavy boxes back for a refund, even though the cartage would be a cruel extra expense. She had to assume there’d be no more work.

She wrapped her arms across her body and rocked to and fro, trying to find some comfort. Trying to gain some confidence back. Trying to suppress the awful hot burn in her throat. She would not cry.

Finally she sighed and sat up straighter. Her eyes barely functioned, blurred with pain and unshed tears. She corrected mistake after mistake as she keyed in wrong numbers, but no way would she give him any excuse to question her invoice. She concentrated harder until it was perfect in every detail. After she’d printed it she creased it carefully, slid it into a heavy cream envelope and positioned her Subtle Interiors address label in the corner.

But how did she get it to him? She really didn’t want to post it to the boatyard because that would take extra time. There wasn’t a mailbox at the house yet, unless Chris had incorporated one into the big garage by now.

She hadn’t been there since Thursday. Maybe she could hand deliver her envelope, and have one last look while Rafe wasn’t there? One last look at what might have been.

*

Rafe took the long way home, avoiding as much civilization as possible so he could let the Ducati have its head. He needed to do something violently physical to burn Sophie out of his brain and body, but killing himself on the road wasn’t the answer. He coasted into the almost finished garage and locked the bike.

Five minutes later he’d changed his suit for shorts and started hacking away at the fennel and blackberry that choked the timber steps from the clifftop down to the far end of the deck—the alternative access if the cable-car failed. Right now even a cat would have trouble slinking through.

Every chop and hack and heave helped to dispel his anger a fraction of a degree. After an hour he’d calmed from savage to simmering. Sweat rolled off him. He was dirty and scratched, and feeling the burn in his arms and legs and back. As he scrambled down to the deck to grab another bottle of water he heard the winch mechanism of the cable-car switch on. And then saw Sophie starting to descend.

He stood, feet apart, knees braced as he sucked the liquid down. He drank half; tipped the rest over his chest and shoulders.

And waited, hot and dripping and hating her.

She stepped out, looking like a thief. “I wasn’t expecting you’d be here,” she faltered.

“Bad luck. I am.”

“It doesn’t matter. I just wanted one last look at how things went today and then I’ll be out of your life.” She produced a long cream envelope with the SUBTLE logo and held it out toward him with an unsteady hand. “My invoice for the rest of the work I’ve done, and the balance for the carpet and the tile work.” She gave an almost audible swallow. “I don’t suppose you want me to get the top floor finished off now? I can send those boxes back if you like?”

Rafe had to admire her courage.

He curled his lip as he reached across for the envelope and stuffed it into the pocket of his shorts. “Come and see it then.” His tone was brusque but he half extended a hand in invitation.

Sophie hesitated a second or two and then crossed the deck to the doors while Rafe slapped and wiped at his wet chest and belly.

*

They walked down the stairs without talking. She clutched the handrail, overcome by all that skin, his quiet air of menace, and her dependence on him settling his account with her.

“It’s good,” she said, trying to sound much calmer than she felt. “It’s how I hoped it would look. You think it’s okay?”

“I think it’s fine. No worries with the house, Sophie, but what the hell happened to us?”

She shrugged, and then said with exaggerated calm, “Oh, that’s easy. I thought you cared for me, and you didn’t even give me a chance to explain before you finished it between us.”

“Explain to me now.”

She shook her head. “What good would it do? You’re not going to see past the fact I’ve left my daughter in my mother’s care since she was a baby. You don’t know I phone her every night. You don’t give a damn I make the effort to spend every Sunday with her—whole weekends when I can. That I travel on that wretched ferry three hours each way when flying would be so much faster and nicer.”

“I do know you see her. But why do you always sail?”

Because it’s half the price of flying! I can afford to go twice on the ferry compared to once by air. It was the only way I could manage to give Mom money for Camille’s care and save something toward the studio as well.”

Her gaze sought his. “Have you ever seen me wear anything that’s not black or white or blue?” she demanded.

“What the hell’s that got to do with it?”

“Because it’s all I have. It’s what I can afford. My clothes all go together different ways. I don’t have spare stuff. I wear it all. None of it’s fancy designer gear like yours and Faye’s—and most of it’s secondhand. You and I live in different worlds and always will. I was mad to ever start hoping.”

She turned and dashed up the stairs, frustration and anguish warring for supremacy in her aching heart.

He was never going to listen properly. Never going to understand. She might as well be talking to a brick wall. He saw what he wanted to see, and that was all.

“Sophie…”

What he wanted to see was obviously not her and her daughter.

“When the hell were you planning to tell me the truth?” he shouted after her as she ran across the deck to the cable-car and set the carriage in motion.

“Sod off, Rafe!” she yelled, half blinded by tears of impotence and fury.

Chapter 21 — Fairy Does Flips

Rafe spent the next few days in an agony of indecision.

The twinkling light that was Sophie had been switched off, and there were shadows where sunshine had been before. He missed her soft skin and her scent and her laughter. Missed her cheeky comments and her enthusiasm. His life seemed flat as a punctured tire.

But… she’d sneakily deceived him. Kept her huge disgusting secret from him, and seemed to have no intention of ever letting him know about her daughter.

And still he was haunted by the taste of her, the feel of her tongue sliding against his, the throaty catch of breath between her kisses.

He missed her beyond belief.

As the time dragged by he forced himself to consider if she was really as bad as his hard hearted mother.

Huia had virtually given him away. Was Huia that much under Luca’s thumb? Or—and the thought startled him—had she been so much in love with Luca that she’d been willing to bend to his wishes and give up her dark skinned child because that’s what her fair complexioned husband had wanted and demanded?

Had Rafe been left in his grandmother’s care because his mother loved her husband more than she loved her son?

He had to concede that hadn’t been the case with Sophie and Camille. Sophie’s partner had died. Her world had no doubt been thrown into chaos, and she’d been left on her own. Young, grieving, and maybe without much financial support.

He roamed around the deck above the surging waves, feeling more and more uncomfortable when he contrasted the relative positions of the two women. His mother might have been heartbroken, but she’d made her own choice. Sophie had had her choice ripped away.

But she should have told him. She didn’t trust him. He was no ogre; she should have known he’d understand.

*

On Friday morning, after endless anguish and confusion, he paced his splendid master bedroom suite. The walls and carpet and en suite bathroom were perfect. Only the curtains remained to be finished. Indeed they hadn’t even been started. The fabric sample book still leaned against the dressing room door.

Sophie had been gnawing at his composure, wrecking his concentration, messing with his mind at the most inopportune moments. If he got this final reminder of her out of the house perhaps that would put paid to things once and for all.

Or is it the excuse I need to see if there’s a chance of re-igniting what we had?

He lifted the heavy book up and riffled through the swatches, pausing at the one she’d pinned a yellow Post-it note to.

He nodded, confirming the rightness of her taste yet again. At the very least he should get the curtains under way—get the room completed. He needed to somehow go on with his life.

An hour later, clutching the book, he opened the studio door and found she had a customer, a short-haired blonde woman inspecting photos.

Sophie called across to him coolly, “I’ll be with you in just a minute.”

He would have laid the sample book down and returned at a more auspicious time except that the customer’s child peeked around the edge of the sofa and then ducked back out of sight with a giggle.

“There’s a fairy behind the sofa,” he whispered, which made the fairy pop its head up again. She had immense blue eyes and a cheeky grin. “Can you do flips?” she asked.

He thought about that for a moment or two. “What—cartwheels? Somersaults?”

“No—flips. You know?”

“Not really,” he said, setting the heavy book aside. “Show me how and then I’ll know.”

She huffed her breath out as though he had a lot to learn. “Like this,” she said, trotting across to the other wall of the studio and launching herself into an exuberant run and tumble. Rafe threw himself sideways and caught her the instant before she smashed the orchids off their stand and scattered crystal and flowers and water the length of the room.

“Camille!” Sophie yelped, and looked across at her ex-lover and her daughter, collapsed on the sofa together, both laughing their heads off.

Rafe drew back to inspect the child, although it was difficult with her determined little arms twined around his neck. “I’ve heard about you,” he said. He didn’t dare glance at Sophie, but here she was in miniature, cuddled on his knee. Long blonde hair, rose-petal skin, eyes to drown in. “Not a good place for flips, eh?”

He adjusted his arms around her.

“Mom, this is Rafe,” he heard Sophie gulp. “The man with the house…”

Rafe glanced sideways at the sample book. “The man who’s come to order his bedroom curtains,” he said, hoping not to be instantly dismissed. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs Calhoun.”

“Have you really?” Sophie asked, her voice far from steady.

“Nice to meet you too, Rafe. My daughter’s just been showing me some photos of what she’s doing for you.”

His gaze finally homed in on Sophie’s. “I like the sample you’re suggesting.”

“Can we please have one conversation at a time?” she asked, back to being the snippy little organizer who’d captured his heart and then broken it.

“My Barbie’s got new silver shoes,” Camille confided, right in his ear. “Your face smells nice.” She twisted so she could look across at Sophie. “Come and smell this man’s face, Mommy.”

*

“So much for trying to raise a child who won’t climb into cars with strangers,” Nancy said a little later. Her tone was dry but her eyes were warm.

“Camille knows I’m safe.”

“About as safe as a boa constrictor,” Sophie murmured.

Rafe continued to sit, unwilling to leave. Camille played with his five hundred dollar tie, spreading sticky marks over it from the Barbie hair-gel she’d been showing him how to use.

Sophie had taken three phone-calls, checked several emails and signed for a courier delivery.

“You’re busy,” he said. “I should get out of your way.” He stayed seated.

“We should all get out of her way,” Nancy agreed, also making no move to leave.

“How about I take the three of you out to lunch?” he asked.

“McDonald’s?” Camille begged, eyes wide and pleading.

“Or maybe somewhere close to Santa,” Rafe suggested, winking at her, finally rescuing his tie, and rising to his feet. “I’ll be back about 12.30. Okay?”

*

They lunched at the pretty upstairs café in McKenzie and Raines’ department store. After they’d eaten, Nancy took Camille to see the Santa grotto with its myriad Christmas decorations and lights and automated figures, just as Rafe had hoped she would.

Once he and Sophie were alone he reached across and took her hand, rubbing his thumb softly over her knuckles. “I have something here of yours.” He rummaged in a pocket with his other hand and rescued the pearl and diamond jewelry. “I know I’m still on shaky ground but will you at least wear this for me?”

Sophie closed her eyes for a second or two and then looked up at him. “The ground seems a bit less shaky now—or am I only imagining that?”

He heard definite caution in her voice but the words held enough hope to warm his heart. “I’m so, so sorry the way things went, Soph.” He lined up the earrings and started to shake the pendant’s chain free of its tangles. “I made assumptions, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Based on your own past.”

“Wrong assumptions. How could I be so stupid? My mother still had my father. Your partner wasn’t around any longer… and was never coming back.”

“I sent Camille away for the best.”

“I know that now. But I hurt you. Must have hurt you a lot, saying what I did.”

“It wasn’t great,” she agreed. “But I gave you a fairly large earful in return as I recall. And I’ve been wishing all week I could take back the ‘sod off’ I yelled when I stomped away.”

He grinned at her bashful face. “No, I quite enjoyed that. Showed you hadn’t lost your spirit. That you still had plenty of fight left.”

Sophie tried to stifle her smile, without success. “I’ve had to stand up for myself,” she said, taking the pendant from his big hands and making easier work of the tangles than he was. “The only way to get out of the situation was to let Mom help. I never imagined it would take so long or be so hard. Weeks turned into months.” She set the pendant down on the table. “Months turned into long hopeless years.” She sighed and was quiet for a moment. “I thought if I could get the studio up and running I stood a chance of giving Camille a decent future. The only other choice was to struggle along on welfare payments with no end in sight.”

Rafe bowed his head. Yes, she was a fighter. Willing even to stand up to him in his foulest mood. “So how long?”

“Since she was about a year old. I was dead of exhaustion and worry. Mom put her life on hold so I could live mine. Which made me feel even guiltier of course.”

“I don’t imagine either of you had it easy?”

“I was guilty on all counts,” Sophie continued, ignoring his question. “Guilty for giving up my baby. Guilty for wrecking years my mother should have been able to enjoy. Guilty for not telling you about Camille. I wish I’d told you right at the start. You’ll never know how bad I feel about not doing that.”

She flicked her gaze down to the table top and began to arrange the fine chain so it made a frame for the earrings. “But I hoped maybe—maybe—your work was going to be the big break to bring my life right and miraculously return my daughter to me. I was so sure you wouldn’t employ me if you knew.”

She ran the tip of her finger around the earrings in a tight figure of eight pattern.

When she raised her eyes again he asked, “You really thought I was so biased?”

She shrugged.

“Hold your hair out of the way,” he said, picking up the pendant. “And think about this while I’m fiddling with that little catch.” He rose to secure it around her neck. “Can we start again? Take it slow. Make it honest this time. Honest on both sides.” He bent and pressed a tender kiss onto her nape, then closed his hands around her long tail of hair and smoothed it down her back before he sat again. “I wanted you so much I probably rushed you off your feet.”

“Just a bit.” She picked up one of the earrings, and held it dangling so the diamonds danced under the lights. “I quite liked it, if you want the truth.” She hid her face with her other hand, and then looked at him over the tips of her fingers. Her shoulders shook with mirth.

“You can put your own earrings on after telling me that, Ms Calhoun.”

“Yes, Rafe,” she said meekly. And slipped off a shoe so she could rub her foot up and down his leg under the table.

*

A week later, as they drove home from one of the harbor-front restaurants, Rafe finally shared what he’d been turning around in his mind for the last several days.

He reached across and clasped her hand, steering the big car easily with the other. “I know I said we should take it slowly, so I want to give you time to think about this. Would you three consider sharing my house? In time for Camille to start school in February?”

He heard her indrawn breath and pressed on. “Once we’ve got things a bit more finished, of course.” He tightened his warm grip. “Think about it for me? Your mother would be very private in the suite downstairs, apart from me wandering by to use the gym.”

“With half your gorgeous body on display?

“Possibly.”

“I’d want to supervise that,” she said.

Rafe heard the laugh in her voice and smiled as the Jaguar scythed through the darkness. “She could rent out her Picton house for some extra income until she decides what to do longer term,” he added. “She’d see plenty of Camille this way. She could work part time or help you in the studio or mind Camille after school. Whatever the two of you decide. You seem to be a good team.”

He knew Sophie’s eyes were on him, and he kept his own on the winding road. She’d said nothing in the affirmative yet.

He continued with his negotiating. “Camille can take her pick of at least four different bedrooms. And ours is all finished bar the curtains. We could manage without curtains for a while, couldn’t we?”

“Couldn’t we?” he asked again when there was no immediate reply from her.

She squeezed his hand, and puffed out a quiet laugh. “I asked for express service on them a couple of days ago.”

Hope thumped in his big heart. “You belong with me, Sophie. Don’t mess me about.”

“You and me and Mom and Camille?”

He nodded in the darkness. “I want to put a ‘reserved’ sticker on you until you’re sure things are okay between us. I’ll buy you one hell of a ring and ask your mother’s permission on one knee if I have to.” He slowed, retrieved his hand, and signaled the garage door to open.

“And my daughter’s permission too?” she asked as the lights flickered on and the door started to slide up.

He shook his head and grinned as he braked to a halt. “Nah—she’s a pushover. She was mine the instant our eyes met. Just like I was hers.”

He reached across and turned Sophie’s face toward his for a gentle kiss. “Just like her gorgeous mother was.”

*

The months drifted by in the house above the sea. Sophie supervised the completion of Rafe’s whole project, and Subtle became a quiet but definite success. The eccentric dog-bed sisters proved to have a number of friends keen to upgrade their dated homes. Councilor Gordon’s wife offered to keep a stack of Sophie’s business cards in the reception area of her beauty spa. Contacts led to more contacts.

Nancy Calhoun moved to Wellington, working mornings at the studio and dividing her afternoons between attending craft groups and caring for Camille after school.

With three females who adored him, Rafe began to relax a little—even toward his estranged parents.

February thirteenth the following year dawned fine and started early; it was Cammie’s sixth birthday. After school that afternoon, while the adults enjoyed a quiet drink by the barbecue, classmates and cousins in fancy dress rampaged over the deck, begged for rides on the cable-car, sprawled on the media room floor for the latest animated movies, and ate too much candy and too many chippies.

There were two angels, a cowboy, a pirate, an odd looking dinosaur, a Red Indian, a beauty queen, a ghost, a rosebud, a clown, a ballerina, and a mouse.

Rafe tucked a drowsy Cammie into bed soon after seven and returned to the kitchen for dinner. A little later, Sophie sat thumbing through a magazine. “Mmmm, that went so well,” she said. “Luca and Huia enjoyed themselves, don’t you think? It seems to be easier between you now? I know their gift was a big hit with her.”

Rafe shrugged, still not entirely comfortable about his parents. “Our daughter was a big hit in return.”

She smiled, then rubbed a hand across her eyes and stretched. “I’m going to have a long soak and a really early night.”

“I’ll be there to scrub your back in fifteen.”

She dropped a brief kiss on his cheek.

“Cammie had a wonderful day,” he added.

Yes, she did, Sophie thought as she walked down. We all had a wonderful day, and it’s not over yet.

She began to fill the big spa bath, and added scented gel. Fragrant steam and bubbles billowed up as she slowly undressed. With the water nearly deep enough she lowered herself in, groaning with satisfaction as it lapped around her shoulders and breasts.

A little later she heard Rafe in the adjoining bedroom.

“Still awake?” he asked as he sauntered in for his shower.

“And just as well,” she murmured. “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a sight like you.”

He grinned at her admiring gaze and stepped into the glass walled shower cubicle.

Sophie’s eyes followed everything. Every bend and flex of his beautiful tall body. Every slide of suds over golden skin and ebony hair. Every shining sluice of water that exposed him again for her admiration.

He turned off the mixer and reached for a towel.

“I especially like the bit where you hold that behind you and seesaw it to dry your back,” she said. “All my favorite bits jiggle.”

Rafe smiled and jiggled for her, then wrapped the towel around his hips.

“Ready for a backrub?” he asked, stepping close.

“Ready for a front rub,” she countered, sneaking a dripping hand up under his towel.

“I thought you were tired?”

“I very carefully said ‘ready for bed’. Not the same thing at all.”

He closed his eyes.

“Goodness,” Sophie said. “You’re making that towel go all bulgy.”

“Watch it or I’ll make you go all bulgy. Come on, sit up, I want you out of there and in the bedroom.” He slathered gel on the big sea-sponge and began to work it into her shoulders.

Minutes later, clean and scented and shot through with anticipation, she walked into the dimly lit bedroom—and choked and laughed until tears ran down her face and she had to bend double.

Rafe sat cross legged in front of the pillows. His arms were folded over his chest, Hollywood Red Indian style.

He wore the garish feather headdress abandoned by their small party guest, a stripe of lip gloss across each cheekbone, and a salacious grin.

He raised a hand. “How,” he said.

Sophie hiccupped and giggled and groaned. “That’s some totem pole you’ve got there Chief,” she spluttered as she pulled the headdress off him, kneeled up on the bed, and wrapped him in her arms.

She looked down into his shining eyes. “Let’s turn the tables for a while,” she murmured. “You’re always the one who’s kissing the lip gloss off me. Tonight it’s going to be me kissing it off you.”

She licked across his cheekbones, then sucked and licked some more. Watched his long eyelashes droop until his eyes were fully closed to intensify the sensation of her mouth on him.

With tenderness she kissed his eyelids, then progressed down the line of his jaw until she reached his mouth.

“I love you,” she whispered before feeding him hot, deep, tongue-stroking kisses. Then she smoothed her cheek down his neck, and nipped along the hard ridge of his shoulder.

“Lie down Chief Bighawk.”

“Blackhawk.”

“Not from where I’m looking.”

His mouth twisted in an amused grin and he stretched full length on the bed so Sophie could continue her torture.

“What did I do to deserve someone as lovely as you?” she asked as she shuffled further down to anoint his chest with soft kisses and nibbles.

“Goes both ways, Soph.”

“No, I’ve got a whole new life.”

“Win/win. I have a gorgeous daughter and a wonderful wife.”

She started to stroke her tongue down the fine line of dark hair that bisected his belly, and then paused.

“Thank you for this incredible year, Rafe. Thank you for letting me be a proper mother to Cammie at last. For giving me time to get the studio up and running. For taking me traveling with you. Letting Mom live here…”

“How would we manage without her?”

“Not as well as we do, I suspect.”

He smiled at that, and she resumed her progress southward.

“There is one thing?” she murmured.

“Mmmmmmmm…?”

“You’re going to have to put up with a bit more of this for the next little while.” Her lips closed around his cock and he groaned in appreciation. She sucked. She slid her tongue to the places he liked. Then wrapped her hand around the hard hot shaft and started to massage and tease him.

She heard his sharp intake of breath, his soft exhale.

“I won’t be complaining about that.”

She lifted her head just long enough to say, “Because the doctor advises going a little gently for the next few weeks. Until the baby’s nice and safe.”

She waited for his reaction.

Felt the absolute instant her news sank in—all the rest of him went rigid, too.

“Happy Valentine’s Day for tomorrow, darling,” she whispered.

Epilogue

Sunlight poured over the wide planked deck where two little dark-haired boys splashed and squealed in the portable paddling pool.

Sophie glanced sideways from her lounger and smiled at Rafe. “Are they getting cold yet?” she asked.

He reached out and placed a big palm on each twin’s back.

“Don’t, Dadda,” Kahu wailed, edging away.

Not cold,” Rico insisted, slapping his plastic submarine down onto the surface of the little pool. Water flew everywhere.

“Stop that, Rico,” Sophie said. “Daddy doesn’t want to get wet.”

“Daddy’s plenty wet already,” Rafe said with a grin. “They feel fine for a while longer.”

Kahu gave a loud squeal as he grabbed the submarine and tossed it out of the pool.

“Ow!” Rafe exclaimed as it landed on his bare foot. “They don’t call this age ‘the terrible twos’ for nothing, do they?”

Sophie watched as he bent to rub his toes. Even now, the sight of her husband wearing only swim briefs and his wedding ring sent a thrill right through her. “They’ll get past it,” she said. “Camille wasn’t a total angel at two, either.”

Rafe moved out of the way of other possible missiles and settled into one of the Siesta chairs beside her. A noise behind them had their heads turning in unison.

“Good girl, Cammie,” Sophie said as her daughter carried a tray out through the front doorway and lowered it onto the nearby table. “Want me to pour?”

“I can do it,” Camille said, setting out the unbreakable tumblers and attempting to unscrew the big bottle of orange juice. Her pretty face contorted as she wrenched at the cap. “Why do they make them so tight?” she complained, giving in and handing it to Rafe.

He twisted it easily and set it back on the tray. “You’ll soon be as strong as me.”

Cammie blew him a rather grown-up raspberry. “Yeah, right!”

Sophie rolled her eyes and Rafe sent her a wink in return. “Seems like no time,” he murmured.

“Since what?” Cammie demanded, all pre-teen cheek and sharp hearing.

“Since you galloped across the studio and almost smashed the orchids over.” He reached out and grabbed her before she picked the bottle up again. “And ended up like this.” He pulled her off her feet, wrapped both arms around her, and plunked her onto his lap.

“You’re wet, she squealed.

“So are you now, but you’ll dry out in the sun.” He pressed a kiss onto her pale hair. “And you’re growing up so fast you’ll soon be too big for my knee.”

She wriggled so she could look up at him. “No I won’t. You do this to mommy, too. I’ve seen you.”

Sophie coughed. Rafe laughed. Cammie sighed and nestled closer to him.

Rafe glanced across to his twins, and seeing no mayhem, said to Sophie, “I’ve been thinking about a bigger swimming pool so we could all fit into it.”

“Not much chance of that on land like this,” she said, eyebrows raised.

“Yes, Daddy,” Camille said. “That baby pool’s no fun.”

Rafe wrapped his hand around his daughter’s pony-tail and tugged it gently. “We’ve got a couple of options, ladies. When I built the house I made provision for a pool under the gym. Floored it over for use in the meantime, but it wouldn’t take much to convert it.”

Sophie tipped her head on one side. “It’d be messy though. All the building materials would have to come up and down through the house.”

He nodded. “Swings and roundabouts. It would be an indoor pool, and heated. But we wouldn’t have sunshine like this.”

“And no gym any more.” She reached across and prodded his tanned bicep. “I do enjoy having you in good shape.”

“No gym where it currently is,” he agreed, lips twitching. “But we could relocate the gear to the end bedroom. Nancy won’t need the guest suite once she’s married to Leon.”

Sophie sighed and stretched, yawning mightily. “I’m so glad they found each other. She deserves her whole new life after giving up so much for me.”

“Done willingly, Soph. You and Camille were her big project. And you’re both a credit to her. I’m sure she knows that.”

“My flower-girl dress is so pretty,” Camille said. “Like a princess.”

Sophie smiled at Cammie before she turned back to Rafe. “You said two options? You’re not thinking of digging more of the cliff away?”

He raised his determined chin. “Could be. Just down to this level. It’s a costlier option, but we’d end up with a pool closer to the living area, and we’d have the sun. Getting planning permission would no doubt be a total beast…”

“What kind of beast, Daddy?” Camille peered up at him again.

“A big black bear of a beast,” Rafe said. “With long claws and sharp teeth, but I’ve gone through it once, and I have a much bigger reason to jump through all the planning hoops this time.”

“Us!” she declared.

“You,” Rafe agreed, tweaking her nose. “Your pretty mother, and my lovely daughter, and Kahu and Rico, my two naughty sons.”

Sophie watched as he leaned back in his chair—a man at peace with his world at last. Suddenly he sat up again and fixed his gaze on her. “Or both?” he suggested. “One for summer and the other for winter?”

She exploded into giggles. “Relax, Rafe. Stop working for once in your life. One pool will be quite sufficient.”

After a few moments’ extra thought, he said, “Or we could do the downstairs version and add a deck outside it for sun at least part of the day?”

She shook her head in mock dismay. “Okay,” she conceded. “Whatever you like. I can see there’s no way you’ll give up.”

He settled back again, one arm around Camille, and the fingers of his other hand drumming on the timber chair arm.

Yes, Sophie thought, there’s no stopping him. But would I want him any other way? My man who builds incredible boats, and fantastic houses, and creates beautiful children. My man who bothered to stop and help when the new studio sign blew away in the Wellington wind.

She closed her eyes against the sun as she lay back in the lounger, and started to plan.

Her mother’s wedding was only a fortnight away. After that, Nancy would move out to live with Leon in his city apartment.

Rafe was considering demolishing the gym to create an indoor pool. The end bedroom might become the new gym. Where would she locate the crib?

Sophie was now more than a week late, and her breasts were already tender. It was still her delicious secret, and she’d vowed to keep the news to herself for a few more days until she was sure. But if all went well, she and Rafe would be adding to their family again in the spring. A sister for Cammie, she hoped—just to keep the numbers even—because the thought of four strong-minded Severino males taxed even her patience and organizing skills.

 

The End

***

THE BOAT BUILDER’S BED is the first of my standalone Wellington Series. You can read them in any order, with one exception. SANTA CLAWS leads on from THE WRONG SISTER.

 

The Wellington series –

 

The Boat Builder’s Bed http://krispearson.com/the-boat-builders-bed

Resisting Nick http://krispearson.com/resisting-nick

Seduction On The Cards http://krispearson.com/seduction-on-the-cards

The Wrong Sister http://krispearson.com/the-wrong-sister

Out Of Bounds http://krispearson.com/out-of-bounds

Hot For You http://krispearson.com/hot-for-you-games-for-two

Ravishing Rose http://krispearson.com/ravishing-rose

3 novels, boxed set http://krispearson.com/wicked-in-wellington-books-123

Santa Claws http://krispearson.com/santa-claws-a-christmas-novella

***

Excerpt of Book 2, The Wellington Series

RESISTING NICK

Sammie Sherbourne took the stairs at a half run, hoping jeans with a polo shirt and Nikes were appropriate for the sporty atmosphere of the fitness center. She bounced up into a deserted reception area and slowed to watch through the long glass wall as clients stretched, pedaled, and grunted at the various machines. One dark haired man finished his workout on a cross-trainer, slung a towel around his neck, and moved toward her with a loose-limbed stride.

She tried not to stare, but his dampened shorts and tank showed off a tall, sculpted body that appeared hard-disciplined and a great advertisement for the place. The nearer he got, the better he looked. A month here, before she escaped from New Zealand, might be no hardship at all!

She dragged her attention away from his powerful thighs and up past the sweaty tank that showcased his gleaming chest and shoulders. Then found bristling stubble, an impatient scowl, and snapping black eyes.

“You’re the replacement temp?”

She nodded. “Samantha.”

“Nick. You made it on time. Good.”

He scrubbed the towel over his hair, and Sammie darted another glance downward. So this was the boss?

He got as far as saying, “If you can—” and his cell phone rang. He wrestled it from his shorts pocket, which pulled the thin fabric mouthwateringly tight, and waved a hand at the desk.

Sammie took this as in invitation to sit, and watched from the swivel chair as he stalked off sounding far from pleased about something.

She waited. And she waited. Ten minutes passed before he reappeared.

In that time, she’d checked the desk drawers and stowed her bag in the bottom one which was empty apart from a box of staples.

She’d answered the ever-ringing phone. Yes they were open; no, Nick wasn’t available right now but she’d take a message; yes, their special $299 package ran until the end of the month (because she’d read the poster on the glass wall); no, Nick wasn’t available right now but she’d make sure he phoned back as soon as possible; no, she wasn’t Julie. Or Tyler.

Where the hell had he got to?

He came back still barking into his phone, but now smelling sexy as sin and wearing a black suit, charcoal shirt open at the neck, and beautiful shoes. He leaned over the desk while he continued his phone conversation, raised an exasperated eyebrow at her, rummaged amongst some papers, and produced a list that he thrust in her direction.

“Okay?” he mouthed silently.

She shrugged, nodded, and handed him the phone-message slips. He jammed them in a pocket, took the stairs at a lithe run, and disappeared.

And thank you too, she muttered to herself.

Sammie found the list only partially helpful. In slashing black writing it bullet-pointed ‘clear mail box’, (where?) ‘accept no calls from Gaynor or Brian Sharpe’, ‘April promo’, and a number of other items which looked well within her scope but lacked useful details.

As she answered the phone for about the twentieth time— ‘BodyWork Fitness, Samantha speaking’—a very pregnant dark-haired woman appeared at the top of the stairs and lowered herself gingerly onto the reception-area sofa.

“Sorry,” she said once Sammie had concluded the call. “Meant to be earlier, but…” she patted her belly in explanation. “I’m Tyler, Nick’s old assistant.”

Sammie sent her a doubtful smile. Did this mean she no longer had a job?

“I thought you’d left.”

“Yes, I did—three weeks ago. I’m ready to pop. I’m not Julie.” She pulled an exasperated face. “She replaced me and then walked out, leaving Nick totally in the crap.”

Sammie nodded, only partially enlightened. She took the sheet of paper across to Tyler. “He gave me a list of duties but it hasn’t been much help so far.”

“Riiiight…” Tyler’s lips twitched. “He meant well, but a few more details would have helped you. Second drawer down has the mailbox key. The box number’s on the tag, and it’s the big Marion Street depot a couple of blocks away.”

“If you’re here now should I go and clear it?”

“Closer to lunchtime’s better. First up—coffee machine lessons. If Nick doesn’t get his coffee he’s not nice to know.” She heaved herself off the sofa.

“Maybe that’s why he hasn’t been too welcoming yet…”

“Too much on his mind. He’s launching another fitness center in Auckland next week. Sussing out Sydney for possible expansion, too. There are family things he’s trying to sort with his brothers. And Julie leaving of course. God knows what else by now.”

The phone intruded again.

“BodyWork Fitness, Samantha speaking.” She listened a few seconds. “Personal trainers, yes. Hold just a moment please.”

Tyler took over with the ease of long experience, and Sammie learned what she could. “Got a bag?” Tyler asked as she disconnected. “Follow me and I’ll find you a locker.”

She led the way along a carpeted corridor and waved a hand toward the rear of the building. “That’s Nick’s office—big, but no great view.”

Sammie saw the name Nick Sharpe on the door. Nick Sharpe? Something prickled in her brain.

“Rich Richmond, money-man for the whole chain,” Tyler continued as she passed another door. “Not an early starter.” She puffed out a sigh and rubbed her lower back. “Bathrooms there, staffroom in here. The end locker’s spare. If you’ve brought lunch, there’s a fridge.”

Nick Sharpe. The name danced and shimmered in Sammie’s subconscious as she listened to Tyler’s coffee-maker instructions. Surely he couldn’t be Nicky from Grandpa’s orchard? Nicky the surly kid who didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to work without being paid, and definitely didn’t want to be trailed around by a lonely little girl all those years ago. Was his name Sharpe? Or something similar?

‘Her’ Nicky had been dark-haired, too. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, often angry. Sixteen when she’d last seen him. A squat, powerfully built boy with hormones running rampant, hair darkening his jaw and chest, and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Pacific Ocean.

She’d been totally enthralled by him.

At thirteen she’d been getting curious about boys. A glimpse of Nicky skinny-dipping in the river on the north boundary of the orchard was a thrill beyond anything she’d ever imagined. Catching him peeing into the hedge…seeing him with his shirt off as he flourished the sprayer at the weeds around the edge of the huge packing shed…things like that had made him seem so grown-up, so out-of-bounds and fascinating.

But best of all were their times together in the dark, deserted implement shed. She’d shown him the numbers to the combination lock on the side door, and if she saw him slip in she’d shyly follow. Although he always pretended to be annoyed, she thought he was maybe pleased to have company sometimes. Because he did such dirty, exciting things.

*

Nick bounded up the stairs again soon after nine. Sammie got such a fleeting look at his face that comparisons with Nicky from the orchard were impossible.

“You want coffee?” Tyler called after him.

“Yup.” And he disappeared.

Rude bastard, Sammie thought to herself. “Shall I make it?” She rose to her feet.

“Please.”

“When’s your baby due?”

“Two days ago.”

Sammie grimaced. “I’d better make good use of you while I have you, then.”

“Bring one for each of us,” Tyler called after her.

The machine co-operated, the coffee looked and smelled like coffee, and she carried a mug into Nick’s office a few minutes later. Without looking up from the keyboard he was furiously pounding, he prodded the top of the desk as an indication of where to set it down. Sammie obeyed, finding no reason to review her opinion of him as unpleasantly arrogant when she received only a distracted grunt in place of thanks.

He just might be Nicky. He’s rude enough.

His jacket hung over the back of his chair, and he’d pushed his shirt-sleeves up to expose strong, dark-haired forearms. Although freshly shaven, his jaw still showed a heavy beard shadow. He’d looked tall in his shorts and tank. Too tall to be Nicky. Did boys grow much after sixteen?

“Nick’s still working full-speed,” she said to Tyler as she set down their coffees. “Does he ever thank you for anything?”

Tyler tipped her head on one side. “Sometimes. He’s a fair-enough boss. You always know where you are with him. He’s not mean with money, and if you need time off for important stuff he never quibbles.” She rubbed her bump. “Stop that,” she said sternly to whoever was inside. “Do you want to see the Outwards Payments next? We do it all on-line so it’s pretty straightforward. The Inwards is a bit messier because some people still insist on sending checks in the mail.”

An email pinged through.

Samantha.’

She raised an eyebrow at Tyler. “Is that what he always does?”

“You’ll get used to him. He’s busy.”

“A ‘please’ would have taken half a second.”

Tyler grinned.

“Yes,” Sammie snapped from Nick’s doorway. Her tone brought his head up, and he regarded her coolly with glinting dark eyes. His too-gorgeous lips quirked with slight amusement. Well, tough if he didn’t like her attitude. She didn’t like his either.

*

See more, and all the e-store links to buy the book at

http://krispearson.com/resisting-nick

 

 

Melting His Heart

The first of the Heartlands books

Kris Pearson

 

 

Kate Pleasance is on her best behaviour. Matthew McLeod is certainly not. She really needs the job he’s interviewing her for. He totally wants the unexpected candidate in his bed. But is Kate spying for her famous father? Should Matthew trust her in the least?

 

Love and thanks to Philip for the unfailing encouragement and computer un-snarling. And to my lovely friend Shirley Megget—gardener, writer, teller of wonderful tales.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is co-incidental. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.

 

Chapter One — Met by Matthew

Kate Pleasance scrolled through the online job ads for the morning, and stopped when SUPERWOMAN WANTED jumped out at her. Could she be a superwoman? She huffed out a sigh. She’d been pretty damn super for the last three months!

With nothing to lose, she emailed her CV and a slightly cheeky letter. She was exactly ready for a different life—away from the sad memories of her mother, and far away from all the people and places she’d known when she was Simon’s partner. This definitely sounded different—something she could get her teeth into and distract herself with—and in New Zealand’s most famous alpine resort, too.

As she alighted from the commuter jet a bare week later, the biting June air seeped through her cream Merino suit jacket, through her camisole, into her very skin. From the plane, Queenstown had looked deceptively summery—blue sky from edge to edge—even though there was an icing-sugar dusting of snow on the surrounding mountains. She’d left sixteen degrees at home, way to the north in Auckland. Here it was a crisp and shimmering eight.

She scanned the arrivals lounge where other passengers were greeting friends and relatives. Charlotte had said she’d be there to meet Kate, but what did Charlotte look like?

Not like the elderly lady in the blue hat. It hadn’t been a quavery old voice on the phone.

Hopefully not like the harassed-looking woman with the screaming child— although she certainly seemed in need of a helpful companion.

And certainly not like the tall dark man with his head down, studying something. They were the only people who’d not claimed their passengers yet. Perhaps Charlotte was still finding somewhere to park her car? Kate strode resolutely on.

Matthew compressed his lips and lifted his eyes from the photograph clipped to the CV. That had to be the Pleasance girl in the cream suit. The photo showed a pale young woman with her dark hair pulled back and pinned up. She stared primly into the camera lens—trying to look businesslike, he supposed. Trying to look innocuous enough to gain access to his home where she could spy for her ruthless father, more like!

He saw now that she was unusually tall, moved with easy grace, and had hair right out of a shampoo ad—thick, glossy, and flowing down past her shoulders today. His fingers twitched at its imagined softness and warmth. Scheming bitch! The severe CV photo certainly didn’t do justice to candidate number three. For the interview, she was apparently turning on all her feminine wiles in an effort to put him and Lottie off their guard.

He reached out and touched her arm as she moved past.

“Kate Pleasance?”

Kate whirled around, dislodging his hand. Obviously he expected her if he knew her name. So who was he? And where was Charlotte?

He was tall, so she relaxed a fraction. At five-eleven she constantly disguised her height; at least she didn’t have to do her telescoping act with this unknown man. But he had curiously hostile eyes. Silver-blue and somehow menacing. If he was here to greet her, why did he seem less than welcoming?

“Matthew McLeod,” he said, thrusting out a hand.

For her to shake? Or to take her luggage? Kate put her overnight bag down. He chose her hand, not the bag. His handshake was warm and firm—almost too hard. Better than a jellyfish ‘soft-for-a-lady’ effort though, she thought, returning part of his masculine pressure.

“Lottie broke her ankle this morning,” he said. “I’ve left her at the hospital. Okay with you if we go straight back there?”

Lottie? Charlotte? Kate supposed so. She nodded, summoning up a concerned expression for the woman she’d never met, but hoped to be working for.

Matthew scooped up her bag and indicated the terminal doors with a nod. Kate found that even with her long legs she had to bustle to keep pace with his uncompromising stride.

The winter sun was low and dazzling. She gained no further impression of Charlotte’s husband except height and dark hair until they were seated in his big mud-spattered silver SUV. She tried not to stare, but no matter how firmly she instructed her eyes to look away, they insisted on taking sneaky peeks at him.

He was somewhere between thirty-five and forty, with a wide sensual mouth and deep smile lines etched either side of it. A mouth she could imagine quirking humorously, snarling with displeasure, or kissing like the devil. It was set in a lean and battered outdoor face with few other traces of softness.

His long nose had been broken sometime in the past and imperfectly reset. His hair was almost army-short. Not a man to pick a fight with. Yet undeniably sexy if you liked hard, arrogant men.

She didn’t. Definitely not. That’s what her head said. But something deep inside her responded to him, dammit. She decided to put it down to too much worry and too little sex. No sex for several months—enough to make a girl very twitchy when faced with a prime specimen like Matthew McLeod. Thank God, he was off the menu.

“Are you clumsy?” he threw sideways at her.

“Is this part of the job interview?” Kate demanded, somewhat taken aback.

He surprised her by laughing—a deep husky chuckle which buzzed right through to her bones. “Well, you’ve got a bit more spirit than the other hopefuls. They were disappointingly polite.”

She allowed herself a small smile, and relaxed very slightly. She had no idea how to reply.

“No—not part of the job interview,” he continued. “But Lottie’s clumsy. Bad balance. She went for a skid by the pond this morning and fell onto the rock garden. Hence the broken ankle. Concussed herself too, possibly.”

“I hope this won’t be a wasted visit for you then,” Kate murmured, still amazed the McLeods had paid for her to travel so far south for the interview. And Matthew had mentioned ‘other hopefuls’, so several airfares had apparently been provided. She wondered what the chances were she could get the job.

“Lottie liked you on the phone.”

Kate sensed he’d weighed his words carefully. Only sensible in this sort of situation, but she wished she could get some sort of handle on him. Maybe he’d taken an instant dislike to her? Perhaps he’d do everything possible to ensure she wouldn’t be the successful job seeker? She was much less comfortable with him than she’d been during her phone call with Charlotte. There was… definite wariness emanating from him. She watched him draw a deep breath.

“I can tell you a bit more now I’ve met you,” he continued, glancing across as he slowed to let another car pull out.

Kate had never seen eyes so hypnotic. Bright as rushing water… or icy winter sky. She felt helplessly ensnared—like some poor struggling animal in a trap. It was impossible to look away. Not because it would seem impolite, but because he somehow had her under his control. She didn’t like that sensation at all, and shifted restlessly in her seat. Her former slight sense of relaxation had entirely disappeared. Now she was truly edgy.

“We put her name in the ad as Charlotte McLeod, which it legally is,” Matthew said. “But you might know her better as Lottie Janssen?”

It took only a few seconds for the name to register. “The painter! Oh goodness…” For the moment, Kate could find no other words. Lottie Janssen was famous far beyond her New Zealand homeland. Kate had seen a TV documentary about her a few months previously. Lottie’s huge angry landscapes sold almost exclusively in London and Amsterdam for prices that made most people gasp.

“The painter indeed,” Matthew said dryly. “She loses herself in her painting. Doesn’t look after herself well enough. I’m away from home a lot, so we need a sort of lady’s companion—although nothing that prissy.” He checked the rear view mirror for a second and changed lanes. “A minder. An organiser. A Personal Assistant and much more. Someone to feed her if she forgets… to go for supplies… keep her functional. Be her chauffeur sometimes. Pick her up if she falls over, too, it would seem.” He shot her another searching look. “We have a weekly cleaner, so there’s no drudgery. Lottie needs a mother hen. Able to take over her correspondence and admin and leave her free to paint. The ad covered most of it. And her phone call, I suppose. Have I managed to put you off?”

Kate shook her head. “I’m bowled over.”

“She is… a rather daunting task,” Matthew continued. “We need absolutely the right person. Strong but subtle?” He locked eyes with her again. “Would you be strong but subtle, Miss Pleasance?”

He’d raised the hairs on the back of her neck with his simple query. Most of her seemed to be in turmoil. Her nipples had peaked (with the cold, surely) and butterflies looped the loop in her stomach. She clasped her hands together in her lap so she wouldn’t pick nervously at the cuticles. How had he done this?

“I’ve had to be pretty resourceful in the past,” she replied, braving his very direct gaze again. “It’s time for a big change in my life. I thought this sounded ideal—things I can do, and some new tasks, too. I’d like the chance…?”

He nodded, apparently satisfied for the moment, and returned his attention to the traffic. He said nothing more, leaving Kate to wonder what sort of an impression she’d made so far.

She wanted the job very much. It would be like escaping into fresh air… a new start after months of horrible turmoil. Now she knew Charlotte’s real identity, it added an exciting twist to the situation. There might be overseas travel involved; that hadn’t been mentioned during the phone call.

She’d instantly liked Charlotte—enjoyed her enthusiastic, slightly foreign way of speaking and her big sudden laugh. She’d felt comfortable chatting with her, but was much less sure of herself with Matthew. With Charlotte in hospital, Matthew might be the one to decide her future. And Kate was curiously uneasy in his brooding presence.

He turned into the parking lot at the District Hospital, and the sun slanted through the window onto his hands. Huge capable hands, with long fingers and a smattering of inky hair disappearing up inside his sleeves.

Her internal muscles gave a disconcerting twitch of pleasure and she blinked with surprise.

No, no, no, Kate—that’s not the deal at all.

But she couldn’t quite banish the thought of those big hands stroking her skin, touching, caressing.

She forced herself to relax back into the comfortable seat again until he drew to a halt. Matthew was obviously not available. She’d keep her vivid scenarios safely locked away in her brain—and what harm would a little fantasising do?

But there was something—his confidence, or his direct probing gaze, or his long lithe body—that had her hormones humming. She smiled softly as she emerged from the SUV, assuming it was because Simon had been out of her life for three months now. She’d spent all of that time physically and mentally exhausted, but the first stirrings of sensuality were definitely returning—and they felt delicious.

 

Chapter Two — A Honey Trap?

Matthew led the way briskly along the antiseptic-scented corridor, then stood aside for Kate to enter Lottie’s room ahead of him. She moved hesitantly forward—she’d seen too much of hospitals while her mother’s life drew to its sad end. Sat too long in waiting rooms and the final hospice room filled with flowers and hopeful cards.

She was relieved to see Lottie looked plump-cheeked and peaceful, with long red-blond hair plaited into a thick braid draping over one shoulder of the pale blue hospital gown. “I think she’s sound asleep,” Kate whispered. “Don’t wake her.”

She watched as Matthew stroked a tender finger over one side of Lottie’s forehead, avoiding the dressing over what must be a nasty bump. The patient didn’t stir.

“Probably best,” he said, glancing across. “She was hurting quite a lot. Come and we’ll get some lunch and try again later. Or did they feed you on the plane?”

Kate shook her head. “Only a couple of biscuits.”

In fact she had been so jittery, she’d had no breakfast either. The job interview had been on her mind for several days. It was a wonderful chance to start a new life, and she’d fussed around, wanting everything to be as perfect as possible, until she heard the taxi’s imperious hoot and dashed out unfed.

“Right— there’s a cheerful Italian place here you might like. Do you know Queenstown well?”

“Hardly at all,” she admitted, wondering if this would count against her.

“I’ll give you a quick tour on the way to lunch,” he said. “Lottie’ll be awake after that, with any luck.”

They climbed back into the SUV and Matthew drove leisurely around the pretty resort town, pointing to items of interest, and sometimes pulling out of the traffic to give longer descriptions.

“Lake Wakatipu—deepest lake in New Zealand,” he said, glancing across at the sparkling water. “They say the lake is as deep as the mountains are high.”

Kate peered up at the surrounding crags. “So how deep then?”

“No-one knows for certain. I suppose they’ll survey it all properly one day. They haven’t found the bottom in places.”

She shivered, thinking how icy the water must be at such extreme depths.

“While you’re here you must go for a cruise on the old Earnslaw,” he added, drawing her attention to the trim antique steamer.

She nodded, wondering how such a large craft had found its way to the inland lake. “However did they get it here?”

“By rail.”

“It’s too big for that!”

“Nope—by rail. I did some research to go with photos to celebrate her centenary. She was built in Dunedin, then they dismantled her and brought her to the far end of the lake by rail.”

“And stuck her together again?” Kate could barely believe it possible.

“Yup—reassembled her, launched her, and she’s been here a hundred years. Still going strong. She does several trips across to Walter Peak Station every day.” He sent her an amused glance. “That’s a high-country sheep station, not a railway station.”

Kate glared at him. “I knew that.”

“We’ve had visitors who didn’t.”

“More fools them,” she snapped, and then worried she might have been offensive about his friends.

Matthew appeared unruffled. “She’s said to be the oldest coal-fired passenger-carrying vessel still operating in the southern hemisphere. Quite a rarity.”

Kate nodded, and inspected the little steamer with more interest. The straight-bowed boat was more to her taste than the colourful cable cars that swung perilously up the opposite hill. She wasn’t fond of heights, but Queenstown was besotted with them. Everywhere she looked, travel shops and adventure depots promoted bungee jumps, helicopter flights, ski tours, and snowboarding trips.

“What a crazy place this is,” she said. “Everyone after thrills.”

“It’s where the town’s wealth comes from; the thousands of tourists who visit every year for the extreme sports. We couldn’t live without them.” He cast another amused look at her. “You could always go walking—is that safe enough for you?”

Kate bristled. So now he thought her a wimp? She definitely needed to dispel that notion.

“My boyfriend and I used to sail in Auckland,” she said in her defence. “The Waitemata’s a wonderful harbour.”

“I know—I was at school up there. They let us loose in the little P-class yachts if we were lucky.”

“His was rather bigger than that,” she said with satisfaction.

“But you’re planning to leave him behind? Dragon lady are you?”

She managed a good enough smile. “It’s falling apart. I’d rather have a quick end…”

In fact it was Simon who’d left her, but Matthew definitely didn’t need to know that. She and Simon had planned to travel to London together and work. But her mother’s condition had finally been diagnosed just before they intended leaving, and then there was no question of Kate departing right away.

Yes, Simon had the new job, and no doubt wanted company in the huge new city, but she’d have waited longer than three months for him

Matthew sent her a speculative glance, wondering if perhaps her surname was only a co-incidence. Would she seriously come spying without assuming an alias when her real name was so damning?

Was she indicating she was available? Interested? If there was no boyfriend in the picture, might she be willing to use her body to get what she wanted—always supposing she really was here at her father’s behest. She was beautiful. Had made his body hum in the most pleasurable way from the moment he’d laid eyes on her—even though he’d been most suspicious of her motives.

He spotted a parking space that had just become vacant, grunted with satisfaction, and swung the SUV sharply around and into it. Despite her seat belt, Kate joggled sideways and hit her head against the window.

“Ow,” she gasped, clutching her ear, surprised by the sudden impact.

Matthew cursed under his breath, unclipped his belt, and leaned across to her. He cupped her face in his hands and inspected her with care.

Kate appeared to shrivel under his scrutiny, and squeezed her eyes closed. He saw faint violet shadowing on her lids, and lashes so dark and long that she must have some sort of miracle mascara. Either that or nature had been very kind.

“No blood, anyway,” he murmured, unable to resist running his fingers down her jaw instead of lifting his hands from her skin.

“Sorry—I was miles away,” she muttered. “I should have held on tighter.”

She fumbled her seat belt undone with rubber fingers and slid out, relieved to escape, regretful to be released, and totally furious with herself. It was one thing to be enjoying a little fantasy, but quite another to drift off so far that she no longer knew where she was. She must have seemed dazed and dreamy—hardly the keen, efficient, job seeker she’d hoped to appear. And his hands had felt wonderful.

She slammed the heavy door a little harder than she’d intended, folded her arms across her breasts as the cold air hit her again, and muttered ‘pull yourself together’ under her breath.

Matthew led the way in to the busy café—ordering cannelloni as they entered, without consulting her.

“Okay with you?” he asked over his shoulder. “You don’t want to get spaghetti sauce over a suit that colour—any more than I do over this.”

Kate watched as he stripped off his dark blue down-filled jacket to reveal a pale grey jersey moulded to an impressive chest. A tough man in prime condition—lucky Lottie…

“That’s fine. I’m not such a messy eater,” she murmured, mind overloaded with his body. Maybe he was a climber or did a lot of skiing? Now that he’d removed the jacket she saw he had narrow hips and very long legs. No wonder he walked so fast.

She paced after him to a table in the sunny rear courtyard. He threw his jacket around the back of a seat, and Kate took the one opposite before he could do any gentlemanly chair holding for her.

“All right?” he asked.

Kate nodded. Could he sense her unease? A warm flush crept up her neck. Even here, outdoors with a chilly little breeze flicking around her, he made her hot and flustered simply by looking at her. It would be murder working close to him. Perhaps she should escape while the going was good? Turn down the position if she was lucky enough to have it offered? Darn it—this had seemed the ideal job, but maybe not…

Matthew was plainly known at the café—a bottle of merlot and two glasses appeared on their table with no apparent instruction from him. He waved the waiter away.

“You seem very at home,” Kate dared to say.

“My brother helped set the place up, some years ago now, when his vineyard was newly planted.”

“And he still has shares in it?”

Matthew shook his head. “Not any longer, but I like the way they’ve kept his standards up. Lottie and I stop by every couple of weeks for a quick meal, so they’re used to having me here.” He picked up one of the big glasses and tilted the bottle over it.

“Not too much for me,” Kate said.

“Frightened I’ll get you tipsy and discover the real woman behind the calm facade?”

She grinned at that. “So I’m faking it successfully so far?”

“Faking it? That remains to be seen.”

Kate bit her lip. “No, I didn’t mean that exactly. But surely everyone’s slightly on edge in situations like this? ‘Am I good enough’ and so on…”

Matthew reached across and set her glass down. His ice-blue eyes roamed over her in a thorough and unnerving inspection. “What do you think, Miss Pleasance? Are you good enough?”

She tilted her chin up. “I think I’m very good indeed. I wouldn’t have applied for the job unless I was sure I could do everything Lottie wants done.” It gave her a savage little tingle of satisfaction to slightly emphasise Lottie’s name. After all, it wasn’t Matthew who’d be her boss. She raised the glass so she could inhale the wine’s bouquet, took a sip, and closed her eyes to cut him out as she appreciated the flavours.

“You’re a woman who likes wine, then?”

Her eyes shot open again. “Not to excess. Why do you say that?”

“It’s the way you approach it. With reverence and concentration.”

Kate shrugged. “My parents generally had wine with dinner. I suppose when you’re familiar with something…”

“Are you familiar with Lottie’s paintings?”

“I know about her, of course. But not specific works. If I’d known it was her I might be working for, I could have done some research.”

Matthew’s mouth quirked at one corner. “We’d have had every celebrity chaser in the country applying for the job if her name was in the ad. No way…”

Kate took another sip of wine. “Yes, I suppose you have to be careful.”

Matthew sipped too. Kate watched as his lips shaped themselves to the curve of the glass. Sensuously full lips now. Her own tingled with awareness as she imagined kissing him. Ridiculous of course, but he was hard to ignore.

“Lottie needs peace and privacy,” he continued, flicking his tongue over his bottom lip to remove the traces of wine. Kate tried to rip her eyes away, and failed.

“Her paintings are better than ever, but her health isn’t so good. She’s working herself into the ground. Hence the need for an assistant.”

“Of course,” Kate agreed, sipping again. The wine tasted wonderful. Although she’d resolved to drink very little so she could guard her comments, the sultry dark liquid slid so softly over her tongue and down her throat that Matthew had poured her a second glass before their food arrived.

She’d attempted to dissuade him by raising a hand, but he’d beaten her to it and the rich ruby wine gurgled into her glass. “I never have a second at lunchtime,” she protested. “And never even a first unless it’s with my mother at the weekend.” She bowed her head for a moment and corrected herself. “Was with my mother at the weekend. You know about that? I presume you’ve read my CV?”

A slight grimace touched his mouth. “Not until the airport this morning. A fairly brief run through, but I gather you nursed her.”

“Not exactly nursed, but I did everything non medical I could.”

“She was lucky to have you.”

“We were very close.”

“So no carousing with friends on Saturday nights? A pretty girl like you?”

Kate compressed her lips and ignored the compliment. “Some things had to take a back seat for a while.”

She certainly wouldn’t be telling him about her break-up with Simon and her subsequent awkward situation in their couples-oriented group. With much larger worries on her mind, she’d almost not noticed herself drawing away from them.

Mercifully the waiter arrived at that moment with their cannelloni. The distractions of moving glasses aside and setting down the big white plates and the bowl of grated parmesan were just what Kate needed.

“Yum,” she murmured, breathing in the richly fragrant aromas. She dug in with gusto, airline biscuits a faint memory.

She found herself talking far more than she’d intended. Matthew was engaging and inquisitive. He questioned her closely. However much she tried to make little of her life, he had a way of digging—quietly, persistently—until she told him far more than she’d meant to.

She tried to convince herself that of course he’d want to vet her thoroughly if she was to become Lottie’s assistant, but there seemed to be something more. She was puzzled about what it could be.

Matthew sighed and tipped his face up to the sun. He was no further ahead. Was she Rob Pleasance’s daughter or not? Rob was a big man. This girl was tall. But Rob had sandy hair and hers was gloriously dark. Unless she’d coloured it as part of a disguise.

Damn Lottie for not letting him know the names on her shortlist until it was too late! He’d have had Kate Pleasance off it in nano-seconds. The last thing he wanted was to grant the daughter of his wily and successful business rival the run of his home. He’d worked too hard to have all that progress put in jeopardy.

He thought briefly and bitterly of his ex-wife, Martine. What a disastrous choice she’d been—initially bewitching and beautiful, but, soon enough, grasping and immoral. He’d been determined to guard his heart and his secrets ever since Martine’s defection. Delicious Kate Pleasance wouldn’t be getting close to either, that was for sure—even though she was by far the best candidate for the job.

After they’d eaten, they continued to sit, enjoying coffees. Latte for her, black for him. As he sipped, he glanced across at her and caught her inspecting him.

She instantly ripped her eyes from his, and began to screw up the tiny paper tube that had held her teaspoon of sugar, pressing and twisting at it until it became a small hard pellet.

Matthew watched without commenting. Was this a little show of tension? Of nerves? He let her play with the paper for a few more seconds, and decided he had nothing to lose by asking her identity. It might be the easiest way after all.

“Pleasance,” he said. “Unusual name. No relation to Rob I suppose?”

Kate jerked her head up and met his gaze. “Rob’s my dad,” she said. “I don’t… throw his name around because he’s a bit too well known, and it might look like I expect things because of it.”

She began to roll the little pellet of paper to and fro on the table top again.

He considered her reply. Was she being very, very clever or was she genuine? “There’s nothing about telecommunications in your CV?” He let the words hang between them, hoping to force some sort of useful comment out of her, but all he got was a shrug and a vague smile.

“Lord, no,” she said after a few seconds. “No, not my field at all. Marketing—that’s me. Until I stopped work to help my mum. After that, I wanted a total change. Change of job, change of scenery. So here I am.”

Matthew nodded slowly, never taking his eyes off her. Okay, she’d admitted her true identity. But surely such candour was designed to put him off her trail? No way would he believe Rob Pleasance’s daughter was here in Queenstown innocently. Of course she’d had to admit who she was when he’d asked so directly. Now he wished he’d done it much earlier in their interview and saved himself a lot of time.

There wasn’t a hope in hell he’d allow her to have the job, but Lottie had offered accommodation for the night and he could hardly refuse Kate that courtesy. It might even be possible to twist things to his advantage—turn the tables and see where it led. If the boyfriend was now out of the way, it could lead to a night of pleasurable passion.

He watched as her glossy hair bounced and glinted. As her long lashes hid her eyes when she glanced demurely down. As her cheeks flushed delicately pink. Might she be on for a brief no-strings affair?

A prickle of excitement stirred his groin, and he closed his eyes as he allowed it to thread its way through his whole body. How long had it been since he’d initiated the pursuit of a woman? And how much sweeter would it be if the woman was Rob Pleasance’s pretty daughter? He smiled slightly as his cock stirred and lengthened, safely hidden beneath the table-top. God—it would serve the scheming pair right!

Eventually he stretched, and rose from his seat. “Better try the hospital again,” he said, lifting Kate’s chair away so she could stand with ease.

Finding herself uncomfortably close to him, she stepped sideways. “Ouch,” she exclaimed, as one of the spokes of a big sun umbrella stabbed her scalp.

“You’re in the wars today,” he said, reaching out to steady her and then running his fingers through her hair to check for injury.

“I’m fine,” she assured him, unnerved by the intimate caress, and trying to shrug away from him to regain her own space.

“Indeed you are,” he said with a broad grin.

Kate marched toward the door, sensing the flush rising up her neck again, knowing she must look pink and offended. He’d only been offering help to a visitor, after all. Why had she reacted so gauchely?

She knew he followed close behind her; could still picture that sudden devastating smile, and feel his hands in her hair and on her skin as she bolted ahead in confusion and consternation.

Leaving him to pay for lunch, she stood outside the cafe, hoping the crisp winter air would make her feel cooler and calmer. Her reaction to Matthew McLeod was simply ridiculous. She tried to convince herself of this as people streamed by… as the huge lake sparkled ahead of her… as her thumping heart gradually slowed.

She saw another smile twitch at Matthew’s lips as he opened the door of the SUV for her. He waited until she’d climbed in before gently closing it. Kate pulled her fashionably short skirt down and smoothed it across her thighs. It had never seemed too short before. Surely he was simply being courteous? Why did she keep imagining it was anything more than that?

She simmered away in silence as he drove back toward the hospital. Erotic pictures floated through her mind. She didn’t want to be attracted. Couldn’t possibly be attracted. And yet… something hummed between them. An edgy awareness. And, unwelcome as it was, she couldn’t banish it.

She gazed out the window as the view of leafless trees and dark conifers rushed by. Inspected the houses on the surrounding slopes with their stony colours and unusual angles. Stared up higher toward the snow-dusted peaks glistening in the hard sunlight. All new, all different, and none of it as spectacular as the man beside her.

He turned into a parking space at the hospital and said, “Better luck this time.”

Kate unclenched her hands, stretching out fingers she hadn’t known were twined tightly together. “I hope she’s not in too much pain. She’ll need a nurse rather than a P.A. if that’s the case.”

Matthew opened his door. “I’ve been wondering about that. She’s as tough as old nails though. Won’t give in and show any weakness. We’ll see what they say.”

They entered the warm shining reception area and paced side by side to Lottie’s room again. She was still very drowsy when they reached her bedside.

“Doctor’s not certain she’s concussed,” the nurse informed them. “We had to give her a little sedation. She’s very excitable, isn’t she?”

Matthew’s description of ‘a daunting task’ floated back into Kate’s brain. What might she be getting herself into? An ‘excitable, daunting’ boss didn’t sound ideal. And a husband as disturbing as Matthew was just plain dangerous.

He smiled at the nurse, who beamed in reply. “Ah well, we’ll phone again later and see how she’s doing.”

He touched Kate’s arm to usher her out, and she jumped at even that small contact.

“Looks like I’ll have to take you home for a look around,” he suggested. “We’re out by the Shotover River,” he added, as they returned to the parking lot.

“Where the jet-boats rush along? I saw one loading passengers at the jetty while I waited for you outside the cafe.”

He beeped the SUV unlocked and opened the door for her. “Yes, but we’re high above all that, and some way distant. We don’t really hear them.”

Soon they were humming along the highway. After several miles, Matthew turned off where dark trees threw a pool of dense shadow over the road. Kate shivered in the sudden shade. “It’s colder here than I expected,” she said.

“So I see.” He glanced at her folded arms and smiled slightly. “I can turn the heating up further if you like, but I hope you’ve got something warmer than that to wear?”

“Of course,” she said, glaring at him. “But I wanted to look businesslike to meet Charlotte—not padded out like an Arctic explorer.”

He smiled more broadly. A truly killer grin that didn’t settle her nerves in the least. Delicate shivers chased up and down her spine.

“Fair enough,” he said. And a little later; “Here we are.”

His home was huge—long and low, with a second storey at one end only. It was entirely clad with the local silver-grey schist rock. Kate had plenty of time to be impressed as they progressed up the curving driveway. Gravel crunched under the big tyres, then the garage door rose, and the house swallowed them.

Matthew lifted her overnight bag from the rear seat and led the way in to another world. He dropped the bag at a branch in the main hallway, but kept walking.

Amazing artwork covered the walls. It was blessedly warm inside. Kate followed as he stripped off his bulky navy jacket, eyeing his big shoulders as she trailed behind him.

“Main living area through here,” he said, waving a long arm into a vast honey-coloured room with windows around three sides. “Kitchen, there.”

Kate had never seen so many electrical appliances.

“Dining room. Formal sitting room… which we hardly use… and my study.”

Kate glanced in as he rushed her by. It was a serious place of work; she registered several computer screens, assorted business machines, big desks and capacious filing cabinets.

He swept back along the main hallway. “Master bedroom wing… spa pool and gym over this side… guest bedrooms along this way.” He reached down for her bag and led her into a suite with a view of floor to ceiling mountains only a few miles distant.

“Wow,” she gasped.

“Your accommodation for the evening, Miss Pleasance. I’ll leave you to freshen up.”

“Thank you. It’s wonderful.” As soon as he left she unbuttoned her jacket, peeled it off, and tossed it on the bed; then unzipped the bag to find the soft red jersey she’d packed.

“Sorry, I meant to ask—” she heard him saying as he returned, unheard, on the thick carpet.

Kate attempted to haul the jersey over her head, but it snagged on the big spring clip holding the top of her hair back. She tugged, infuriated, but the jersey held firm, and she was blind above and far too bare beneath. She struggled, enraged and embarrassed.

“Oops, sorry,” Matthew murmured, sounding anything but. “Hold on—I can see where you’re snagged. Stop tugging like that.”

“Go away,” she spat, through gritted teeth.

“Kate, you have two pretty layers over your enticing body—pretend you’re decent,” he said.

One of his warm hands pushed up over her face and into her hair, working the clip free. She would have given a lot not to have been wearing the sexy black and red bra and camisole she’d put on to boost her confidence. ‘Two pretty layers’ he’d said. Obviously he’d checked them both out.

“Good girl,” he said, finally sliding his hand away.

Furious, she pushed out through the polo neck of the jersey and faced him, flushed and dishevelled, thrusting her arms through the sleeves and dragging some cover over her body at last. “What did you want?” she demanded.

“I just wondered if you’d rather have tea or coffee.” It looked as though he was working hard to keep his face blank and neutral.

Kate glared at him though a curtain of tangled hair. “Coffee—please.” To her own ears she sounded barely civil.

“In the living room in five minutes then.” He raised a dark eyebrow and left her to recover any bits of composure she could.

Darn, darn, darn! That was so unprofessional.

She heaved a deep sigh and collapsed onto the bed in despair. How could she hope to be taken seriously after displaying such tarty underwear? It had only been a joke. A private laugh. She and her friend Shelley had each bought a set at a lingerie party a few weeks ago. A bra so low-cut it was barely decent, with transparent lacy cups. And a gauzy black camisole with matching scarlet trim. Also far from concealing. No doubt he’d seen right through both. Kate’s confidence shrivelled even further.

She stretched his five minutes out nearer to ten while she summoned the courage to face him again. She unpacked her overnight bag, and gave her hair a vigorous brushing, leaving it loose now she was out of the wind. As she prowled back through the enormous house, a car gave a cheerful toot somewhere close. She paused, out of sight. Heard Matthew opening the front door. A woman responded to his greeting.

“Good to see you,” he said.

“How is she?” the woman asked. Kate stayed concealed.

“Distraught of course. Major dramatics. But genuinely damaged, poor dear.”

It sounded as though he was talking about a farm animal, not a wife. Could this visitor be more than a friend? He looked the sort of man who’d collect women easily. Debauched. Dissolute. Kate tried to think of other suitable words for someone with such a hard, lived-in face.

“Kate,” he yelled.

Guilt made her jump. “Just coming,” she called back, rounding the last bend between them.

“Kate Pleasance… my sister-in-law, Diana,” he offered by way of introduction. Kate had to work hard to hide her surprise. She’d been half expecting a slinky creature in designer gear, but what she found was a cheerful short-haired blonde in jeans and a bulky brown jersey. “You’re right in time for coffee, Di,” Matthew added, striding off toward the living area, plainly expecting the two women would follow.

“You live close?” Kate asked, as they strolled more slowly behind him.

“Not far. About five miles. You’re not from here?”

“Auckland. We have our green volcanoes, but no scenery like this.” She waved at hand at the nearby mountains.

Diana laughed, and led the way to a group of chairs by the window. Kate chose one with her back to the expansive view—she wanted the light on Matthew’s face. She watched him covertly as he set the tray down on a low table. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans wrapped around them.

He moved very quietly for a big man—no wonder she’d not heard him turn back to her room. She pictured him stalking prey in the wild, sliding noiselessly over rough ground. A predator. She was pleased with the word.

He sat—and her eyes immediately flew to the fabric of his dark trousers. Legs that might have been thin proved to have powerfully muscular thighs. “Are you a climber?” she blurted.

He glanced across and began to pour the coffee. “I enjoy tramping, but I don’t feel the need to scale mountain peaks.” He passed her a steaming cup. “It would be a shame not to go out and enjoy spectacular countryside like this. I’ll buy you some decent walking boots if you get to stay.”

It was probably the oddest offer she’d ever had. But it spurred Diana into sudden conversation. “Oh—you’re the helper for Lottie,” she exclaimed. “I thought you were one of Matthew’s friends.”

He gave a sardonic smile. “She’s from the big smoke,” he said. “Might find it a total bore around here.” Kate knew he was watching for her reaction.

“Oh, surely not,” Diana chuckled. “You and Lottie are enough to entertain half the country.”

“Nothing’s settled yet, Di.”

Kate sensed a warning in the words. Maybe he’d decided she wasn’t suitable?

“It was time I did something different,” she replied to Diana. “This seemed like an interesting change.”

“I can’t imagine there’s another job like it in the whole of New Zealand. You’d need to make it up as you go along, I should think.”

“If I get offered the job. And if I decide to take it.”

She caught the slight flicker of surprise on Matthew’s face as he handed Diana her coffee.

He stood. “Talk amongst yourselves, ladies,” he said. “I’m going to try the hospital again.”

He fingered his mobile, but then crossed the big room to the landline, needing to get away from her. The trickle of sexual awareness had spread through his body again—advancing until it was a positive tide of sensation.

Damn, but simply being close to her made him react like a teenager. How delicious it would be to have a couple more days with her, here in the privacy of the house. No rushing, no pressure—just letting things take their natural course. Surely he’d be able to keep her under close surveillance for so short a time?

He rubbed a finger unthinkingly backward and forward along his bottom lip while he waited for the hospital to answer. The nerve endings in the sensitive pad of flesh set up a desperate clamour to have soft lips sucking and sliding over his skin. With a silent curse, he tore his finger away but the sensation tingled on.

Diana smiled at Kate. “I’m sure you’d find this an invigorating atmosphere.”

“Maybe too much so?” Kate inquired, flicking a glance toward Matthew as he stood by the phone.

“Ahhhh…” Diana murmured. And said no more on that subject. Kate would very much have liked to quiz her further, but it was difficult to find suitable words. In any case, Matthew concluded his call very quickly. She presumed the small hospital was easier to communicate with than the giant complex at home in Auckland.

He returned to his chair and stood for a moment, staring out toward the mountains, body tense, legs braced back. Kate watched him, fascinated. His eyes glittered like mercury in the low sun.

Suddenly he turned further toward her. “Kate—can you stay for a few more days? They want to keep Lottie overnight, but we can have her back tomorrow. I’d appreciate you being here for a bit, if you can arrange it?”

She found him impossible to refuse, and nodded. “Yes—that’s okay.” She had nothing urgent to return to Auckland for, and staying and being helpful might count in her favour, job-wise. At least she’d get to meet Lottie, even if no permanent offer of employment followed. And it would give her more time to size up the situation. To see how difficult it might be living close to Matthew.

“Good—let’s go shopping, then. I’ll get you some warm clothes and decent boots and things.”

“I won’t need boots,” she protested.

“Going to spend the whole time in those pretty little heels?” he suggested, running appreciative eyes down her legs. He turned to Diana. “This could be fun. Where shall we go?”

Kate shook her head as his words sank in and Matthew and Diana discussed shops. She didn’t want to be treated like a paper doll, to be dressed up as some sort of game to amuse him while Lottie was out of the house. “I’ll buy a few things for myself tomorrow,” she said firmly.

Matthew glanced at his watch. “There’s plenty of time,” he said, clattering the coffee cups back onto the tray.

“No, it truly doesn’t matter today,” she insisted.

“We’re off now,” he insisted. “There are other things that need doing tomorrow.”

Diana shrugged and gave Kate a conspiratorial smile. She seemed not to mind being dismissed so ungraciously. “Nice to meet you, Kate,” she said. “We’ll see you about eight tonight, Matthew,” she called as she departed.

Kate closed her eyes with annoyance and sighed gustily. She rose with resignation. What had she just got herself into?

 

Chapter Three — Games and Gifts

How easily the chance had presented itself! Matthew smiled, unseen, as he led her along the main hallway again. Now he had several days to enjoy the company of the delectable Miss Pleasance. Not to mention dig around and find out what she was really here for. With Lottie so conveniently injured, he could devote most of his time to Kate. It would certainly be no hardship.

Her CV had listed a business degree and indicated she had a marketing background. Business degrees seemed to be a dime a dozen these days. And ‘marketing’ covered everything from serious strategic planning to supermarket shelf stacking as far as he could see.

He thought wryly back to bouncy Penny Carew who’d made a play for him after he’d parted from Martine. Penny’s ‘marketing’ job had proved to be running a demo stand at the deli—frying and handing out bacon samples. He wondered what Kate’s marketing job had entailed, and if it had even existed. There was every chance it was a fake. He’d get her checked out.

But there was nothing fake about her body, that was for sure. He knew he should have knocked when he turned back to her room earlier, but her door hadn’t been closed, and only seconds had passed. She’d certainly moved swiftly to get her jacket off and her jersey half on in that short time. Half on. His gut gave another pleasant kick at the thought.

Her tailored business suit and elegant shoes had not led him to expect such sexy lingerie. What a turn on. High breasts only barely confined in an exceedingly low-cut bra. The startling contrast of black and red lace against ivory skin. And her hair tumbling free in glorious confusion.

There was no way he could have kept his hands off her. And in the guise of helpfulness he’d been able to draw close, touch her, smell her soft female scent, tease her and un-nerve her for the battle of wits ahead. Even better, her hair had been left entirely loose once she’d re-appeared. It fell down her back in a riot of shining dark waves, bouncing and floating as she moved. He couldn’t wait to thread his fingers back through it and pull her into his arms.

Kate followed him through the house, and he switched on the light in the storeroom before they entered the garage. An enormous amount of wine lay in racks against one wall, and several jackets hung waiting on hangers. He rummaged amongst them, unhooked a plump, down-filled white one, and held it out to her.

“You’ll look like the abominable snowman in that, but it’ll keep you warm.” When he reached across to help her into the jacket, Kate stepped swiftly aside. So much for hoping to get close to her in the doorway…

“Not so abominable,” he amended, as she slid the zip up.

“I’ll get my bag,” she said, trying to turn away.

“Not for the clothes, you won’t,” he retorted, restraining her with a hand on her arm. “My shout entirely. I asked you to stay, so I’ll provide anything you need.”

And if that makes you feel beholden to me, so much the better.

“I’d rather buy my own clothes, thank you.”

“Nonsense, Kate. Let me have a little spend-up.”

She shrivelled at the thought. Wife out of the way in hospital… husband offering to buy goodies for the hired help? She didn’t like the feel of that at all. And they were apparently to sleep in the big house together with no-one else present. Hundreds of yards from the nearest neighbours. “No thank you, Mr. McLeod,” she said as sharply as she dared.

“Matthew,” he drawled lazily. “Mr. McLeod is my father.”

He was still standing far too close to her, running a lazy hand up and down her arm. “I’m not short of a dollar, Kate. For God’s sake let me have some fun with the money,” he urged, finally letting her go.

He shrugged his own jacket back on and turned her toward the garage. She gritted her teeth with annoyance. How dare he just take her over like this?

As they drove out, she glanced around with more attention. The huge house really was fantastically sited. It looked as though it had squatted there forever, but surely it must be only a couple of years old?

It had been very cunningly landscaped. Kate could now see the gravelled walkways and paved areas were abundantly edged with plantings of native tussock grasses and low sprawling shrubs. There was a big rock-edged pool, and a sloping outcrop of jagged stones and vegetation—no doubt also rather recently created. Maybe this was the rock garden where Lottie had slipped?

Matthew’s thoughts echoed her own. “She fell just over there,” he said, pointing. “There was a hard frost this morning. You’ll need to be careful what you wear on your feet outside.”

Kate nodded, thinking she’d need to be careful of more than that. She vowed to keep her whole body well concealed from his unsettling eyes. No more catching her in her underwear! No further chances to touch her. Disturbing little tremors shot right through her whenever he was near. And it seemed he was always near. His sense of personal space was way different from hers.

At least while they were driving his seatbelt kept him away. Even so, a charged silence stretched between them, and an acute awareness.

“Coronet Peak,” he said as they swung around the last curve of the long driveway. Kate’s gaze followed the direction of his pointing hand toward the nearest mountains. The sun had slid lower, gilding the peaks a rosy gold.

He wore no wedding ring—no other ornaments of any kind. Not a jewellery man, she thought. A man with a taste for understated classic design. No doubt his dark trousers were beautifully cut and tailored, but she’d registered his long, strong thighs rather than the garment covering them. His fine-knitted wool jersey was unremarkable in its design, but beautifully finished. His dark blue zip fronted jacket proclaimed itself expensive by the symbol on the pocket, but the style was little different from hundreds of others in Queenstown.

He was very tall, and Kate always felt that gave a man authority. Perversely she found her own height a drawback.

Big, arrogant ‘we’ll do things my way’ Matthew was a force to be reckoned with. His face was hard as a gangster’s—until he flashed one of his engaging wide smiles. What would a man with a face like that be capable of? Kate easily imagined ruthless business deals just inside the law but skating dangerously across thin ice. How had he made his money—or was it all Lottie’s? She couldn’t see him as a kept man. And his office had looked very business-like.

Plainly he was used to getting his own way. She was still astounded at how quickly he’d disposed of Diana, bulldozed her own objections aside, and set out to take her shopping.

They drove in near silence the rest of the way back into Queenstown. The hard blue light had softened to hazy gold. It filtered down through the bare mid-winter trees, dusting the houses and the lake with magic; gilding the tall conifers.

Kate’s mind roamed free as the lovely scenery floated by. Suddenly she remembered something her father had said in happier days. He’d bought her mother a lacy black nightgown and negligee, and teased that he therefore had the right to dress her in them. Kate froze at the thought that Matthew might feel the same.

“What is it, Katie?”

She flinched. Was she so transparent he could read her mind? And wasn’t ‘Katie’ too familiar? “Nothing much,” she replied. “But I’m not happy about you paying for anything. I was thinking of something my father once said—about a man feeling he had the right to dress a woman up if he’d provided the clothes.”

Matthew gave a sudden surprised laugh. “I’ll show you how to lace your walking boots up properly, but you can put your own panties on.”

Kate caught her breath and stayed speechless for a second. He was being far too familiar. She was really on her guard now.

“I won’t need any panties, thank-you,” she insisted, trying to sound cool and sophisticated and in control.

“How many pairs did you bring?”

What!?”

“One spare pair, I imagine. You thought you were only stopping overnight.”

“I’ll wash today’s out and they’ll be dry in good time,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument. She looked sideways and caught the corner of his mouth quirking with amusement. Right—if he wanted snappish behaviour she could oblige…

“Sorry, sorry,” he soothed, just before she exploded. “But it’s so nice to have someone to spar with.”

“What about Lottie?”

“God, she’s too Dutch. No sense of the ridiculous.”

“And my panties are ridiculous?” Kate asked, softening despite herself.

“I don’t know Katie—are they? Black and red to match the rest, I hope…”

Despite her best intentions, a sneaky chuckle escaped. “Is that a job interview question?” she asked, trying to keep a straight face.

His answering laugh filled the SUV, and guilty pleasure flowed right through her. Maybe he’d only been teasing?

“Not a question I felt like asking the worthy Miss Humphries or the scary Ms Darkmoor…”

“And what were they like?” she asked, wondering why she was holding her breath.

“Baggy pink bloomers and a studded leather chastity belt, I imagine.”

Kate collapsed with mirth at his unexpected reply. She pictured the women who might wear such undergarments. Obviously he’d found neither of them right for Lottie. And they weren’t to his taste either. Her spirits lifted, because maybe her chances of getting the job were now better than she’d expected.

“Anyway, you’ll need some warm trousers and a couple of jerseys for the next few days, Matthew continued.

Such an abrupt right turn from chastity belts had Kate blinking and trying to stifle her laughter.

He ploughed firmly on. “A better jacket maybe? T-shirts? Thermals? And I’m serious about the boots—you can’t trot around in heels all the time.”

“I’d still rather pay for things myself.”

“Not a show. You stay, I pay. End of story.”

She drew a sharp breath but held her tongue after that.

He turned into a parking space with exaggerated care.

“It’s all right—I’m holding on this time,” she said, giving him no chance to pounce on her again.

They walked briskly into the vibrant outdoor clothing store he’d discussed with Diana. An assistant approached within seconds. “Mr. McLeod—how can I help you today?”

“Hi Sharon—Lottie and I have a friend staying with us unexpectedly. Kate needs a few days’ clothing—and a decent pair of walking boots.” He drew a slip of paper from his pocket. “There’s your budget. Choose whatever you need to keep her warm.”

Sharon glanced briefly at the ‘budget’ and smiled broadly. “No trouble, Mr. McLeod.”

Matthew turned to Kate. “I’ve something to do for a while, so have fun.” He sauntered away.

“I won’t need much really,” Kate said.

“Make the most of his money,” Sharon said. “He’s got plenty—and think what I could do with the commission.”

Kate shrugged. She’d been outmanoeuvred by experts.

Sharon selected several ensembles, and gathered up little extras to compliment them. Kate disappeared into the fitting room with armful after armful.

It was a whole new experience to shop with no regard to cost. Her previous salary had been perfectly adequate, and she was fond of nice clothes, but still… this was heaven. She was determined to keep expenses to a minimum though. The less she was indebted to Matthew McLeod, the better.

Matthew strode down the mall trying to stifle his grin. Where was the lingerie boutique? The window displays had often caught his eye, although he’d never shopped there. A few pairs of pretty panties would be the ideal next step in his campaign. He’d never met a woman who didn’t enjoy lingerie, and after his teasing conversation with Kate they’d almost be an appropriate gift. Almost. His grin grew wider. They’d be a compliment and a goad in equal measure. He concocted a suitable story as he drew nearer. Something to hide in Christmas crackers, perhaps?

He pushed the door open, and warm fragrant air surrounded him. Please God the saleswoman wouldn’t be one of Lottie’s close friends. A tiny green thong on a display stand screamed for attention, and he paused, picturing the scrap of lace and elastic on Kate’s lithe body.

“Good afternoon, sir. How may I be of help?”

The girl looked barely twenty. At least ten years younger than Lottie. Good.

“I need half a dozen pairs of assorted panties,” he began. “We’re having a mid-winter Christmas party, and I’m in charge of finding favours to fit inside the crackers. Something small and pretty? And I guess we go for medium sized?” He glanced at the green thong again.

“That’s from our Mint Julep range,” the assistant said, sensing a customer willing to spend serious money. “We import the line direct from New York. The same designer has this amazing Scent of a Rose collection, too.” She produced another skimpy thong—this time black, and with a deep red rose printed on the front panel. Tiny crystal dewdrops sparkled among the petals. “The fabric is specially perfumed with rose essence. It’s guaranteed to last the life of the garment.”

Matthew’s lips twitched. The few square inches of fabric weren’t large enough to qualify as a ‘garment’ in his opinion. “One of each then,” he said, imagining Kate’s annoyance when she discovered them. “What have you got that’s a bit more concealing?”

The girl searched rapidly through a rack labelled ‘Silkies’ and held up a hanger with a pair of French knickers. “Very retro Hollywood,” she suggested. “Pure silk, with Brussels lace. There’s this cream and ecru option, or… violet and black.”

“The violet.”

“And something more modern?” From further down the rack she drew a pair of black satin boxers printed with silver stars.

Matthew had a sudden flash of Kate wearing them with her black and red camisole. Kick-boxing. Long legs flying. “Perfect,” he agreed. “And, regrettably, we’d better have something more everyday to balance the selection out.”

The girl grinned. “Cotton,” she said. “But we have beautiful fine eco-cotton from Egypt.” She led him to a bin of white bikini panties, each embroidered with a different motif on the hip. “Flower? Angel? Fairy?”

Matthew opted for the angel.

“Look—just right as a pair,” she said, pulling out a small cartoon devil.

He laughed and agreed. “So there’s my six.” He followed her to the sales counter and watched as she removed the price tags, carefully folded each pair, settled them into a nest of lilac tissue paper, and slid them into a shiny bag printed with the boutique’s name and address.

“Anything else, sir?” she asked as he produced his credit card. He thought for a moment. Kate’s overnight tote had been surprisingly small; plainly she’d packed the bare minimum of what she might need. “A robe?” he suggested. “Something long and warm?”

She indicated a rack at the side of the store. “Velour from Italy. They come with matching slippers.”

He took a moment to imagine Kate padding around his home with very little under her robe. “A medium in cream—and the slippers had better be large because she’s tall.”

“They’re backless,” the girl said, checking the sizes, “So I don’t think they’re too critical…. but… yes, we have both.”

Kate emerged from the fitting room wearing black leggings and a soft possum jersey in riotous mauve, tangerine and fuchsia just as Matthew returned. She managed two or three slinky steps and a twirl before losing her nerve and standing, eyes cast down. How did he do that to her?

“Does the jersey come in any other colours?” he asked Sharon.

“Lime, kingfisher and royal.” She held up the alternative for his inspection.

“One of each then.”

“I don’t need both,” Kate objected.

“But I do. I’ll enjoy seeing you in those,” Matthew replied, unperturbed. “What else has she chosen, Sharon?”

He turned and sorted through the pile of clothes. Kate felt her last shred of privacy being ripped away.

“Not that,” he said, casting aside a long-sleeved khaki shirt.

“Why not?” Kate objected.

“Any other colours, Sharon?”

“Grey, chocolate… black.”

“Chocolate then,” Kate said.

“Black,” he said firmly. They each reached for a hanger. He stood behind her, eyes locked with hers in the mirror. He was at least half a head taller. His warm breath stirred her hair… his dark dangerous cologne and the bitterness of fresh wood-smoke floated on the air around him. So good. She tried not to gulp great breaths of his scent as she held the chocolate shirt against her body.

“You’re not a brown person,” he murmured, his deep voice only inches from her ear. “The khaki was wrong. The chocolate is wrong.” He took the hanger from her unresisting fingers and dragged the shirt past her breasts in a tingling caress. He replaced it with the black.

Kate wanted desperately to be further apart, but how was she to manage that without giving him a sharp jab in the ribs with her elbow? So tempting—but goodbye to any prospect of getting the job if she did.

“See what I mean?” he said. “That’s much better with your skin.” Again he dragged the shirt away past her sensitive nipples.

She could do nothing. Here, in a well-lit store, in front of an assistant who knew him by name, he was openly flirting and she was helpless to escape. And worse, her body was responding with enthusiasm to his arrogant masculinity.

“How would you know?” she demanded, privately conceding that maybe he was right.

“I have eyes. I live with an artist.”

She shrugged and turned away, conceding defeat.

“Let’s see that jacket on you,” he suggested.

Kate had been determined to choose sensible, inexpensive fleece instead of the other beautiful fabrics on offer. She’d tried to resist the buttery-soft raspberry leather jacket that Sharon had shown her, but now Matthew was practically forcing her into it. Sighing, she slunk into the fitting room to change, knowing she’d have his intrusive eyes inspecting her again in seconds.

She slithered out for his scrutiny.

Matthew nodded slowly, stepping closer. He gave the collar a small tweak, brushing his fingers through her hair as he did so. “Yes, beautiful. Consider it sold. You like it?”

Kate ignored his question and whirled away, back to the privacy of the fitting room. What right did he have to treat her like that? A few suggestive remarks when they were on their own were bad enough. Touching her in front of someone else was so much worse.

She slumped down on the little bench, mortified and scarlet. The curtain between them billowed in a slight breeze. She heard Matthew and Sharon concluding his purchase, and the crackle of bags as her clothes were packed up.

She removed the raspberry leather, the leggings and the amazing jersey. Slid into her own clothes and the borrowed white jacket, and emerged with the last armful. She refused to look at him as Sharon finished folding the garments. He was overpowering—a bully—he stole the air from around her! She gave him the merest nod as she gathered up two of the bags.

Outside the bars and cafes, hard-bodied thrill seekers clustered, comparing their day’s experiences. Music throbbed from an upstairs aerobics studio. Kate walked, almost oblivious to her surroundings, and still fuming at his high-handedness, as Matthew led the way back to the SUV.

On her seat she found a further present—a grey and apricot package with a silken draw-cord securing it. She stood it on the dashboard until they were under way, then pulled the cord aside and found a froth of lace and satin snuggled in a nest of lilac tissue paper.

“What!?” she exclaimed, snapping flinty eyes to his amused face.

 

Chapter Four — Lottie Awakes

“I had fun. See what you think.”

With trembling fingers, she withdrew a tiny green lace thong. A pair of violet silk French knickers. Another thong that was mostly a print of a dark red full blown rose with tiny twinkling dewdrops. Two pairs of innocent white knit bikini panties, and shiny black boxers embroidered with silver stars.

“How dare you buy me things like this,” she snapped, trying for ice and outrage.

He took no notice. His slow burning grin widened, and his crackling eyes danced with humour. “I thought you were probably a medium. Slim without being bony. Curvy without being voluptuous. A happy medium.”

Kate snatched an enraged breath. “A most unhappy medium.”

“If they don’t suit, you can exchange them.”

“Oh sure. I’ll just waltz in to the shop and say ‘nice Mr. McLeod bought these for me but I’d rather have something else?’”

“Kate—what is your problem?”

“You are!”

“Well, I thought you’d need underwear.”

“And you thought these would be to my taste?”

“Some more than others, Katie. Some more than others.” His eyes held hers in a steady stare as they waited at an intersection for two pedestrians with snowboards. One eyebrow lifted slightly. Then his wide kissable mouth compressed again as though holding back further mirth.

“And don’t ‘Katie’ me,” she lashed.

“Look—I hoped there’d be something here you’d find useful or suitable or pretty.”

She shot him a killer glance.

“I didn’t know if you wore those little things or something a bit more… concealing. Who knows what women prefer? Not me—but I can picture you in that rosy arrangement…”

“Well, stop picturing me, thank you.”

He tossed her a cavalier grin. “Pretty picture though.”

She snorted. “None of your business,” she muttered.

“And there’s something else in the back that might be handy,” he continued, unperturbed.

Startled, she glanced over her shoulder and found another much larger offering from the same store. Matthew slowed for a turning vehicle. Kate reached backward and dragged the bag over to her seat, quivering with embarrassment.

First, she unwrapped a pair of cream slippers, which looked exactly her size. She had a sudden chilling picture of him prowling her bedroom, long fingers roaming through her possessions, checking her spare pair of shoes. Surely he’d had no time to?

“Just right,” she said coldly.

“Took a punt, seeing they’re backless.” She relaxed a little.

The rest of the big bag contained a soft full-length velour robe to match. Kate ran her fingers along the pale pink silk piping edging the pockets and lapels. She would never have treated herself to anything as luxurious and expensive. “Thank you. It’s very… nice.” It was a tepid word, she knew, but she hoped not to enrage him again. And she certainly didn’t want to encourage him. At least he wasn’t expecting her to flit about his big house in something short and transparent. She was relieved about that, anyway. She packed the robe away as best she could, and sat staring straight ahead, still far too aware of him.

It was early dusk when they reached the hospital again. This time Lottie was awake—and fractious.

“Ach, this place,” she complained, pushing away the remains of her dinner. Kate hung back as Matthew moved her food tray aside and stood close. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and bent to kiss her forehead. She leaned against him, burying her face against his body and releasing a long noisy sigh.

What an easy affection they had, Kate thought. A sharp tweak of jealousy twisted her heart. It was a long time since her parents had been so relaxed together. A long time since Kate had been embraced as casually and easily. Simon had touched her often, but tended to expect a sexual response in return. To hug with no follow-up wasn’t his style.

“And this is why you are so late to see me?” Lottie asked, turning her wide blue eyes in Kate’s direction.

Matthew grimaced. “Third time lucky, Lotts. We came by this morning as soon as I’d collected Kate off the plane but they had you well sedated. We came back after lunch and you were still dead to the world. At last you can meet Kate. Kate Pleasance—Lottie Janssen.”

Kate stepped forward, hand outstretched to shake Lottie’s. “It’s amazing to meet you. And a great surprise.”

Lottie clasped Kate’s carefully manicured hand between her own surprisingly rough ones. It was not a handshake—it was the warmest of welcomes. Her blue eyes twinkled. “The names, ya? I need to be a little careful and not give everything away so soon.”

“I was amazed when Matthew told me.”

“Not too scared off?”

“Not yet, anyway.”

Lottie nodded and finally let go of Kate’s hand. “We see how we go,” she said.

Matthew smiled only faintly. “You can have a big chat tomorrow when we take you home. The doctor says you need to stay the night because of your head. But we’ve got Kate for a few days extra to help look after you.”

Lottie slid her eyes back to Kate’s. “So you stay—how long?”

Kate looked across at Matthew and shrugged. “Sunday?” she asked.

“Here for the party then,” Lottie said with satisfaction. “He is the little brother,” she added, wagging her head at Matthew. “Hamish is forty today, and the birthday party is at the vineyard on Saturday.”

Kate couldn’t imagine towering Matthew being anyone’s ‘little’ brother.

“Good thing I made that curry yesterday,” Lottie continued. “You can do some rice and a salad? Diana’s bringing her Banoffie pie. They’re still coming?”

Kate had lost the thread of the conversation entirely. Who was coming? When?

Matthew nodded. “Eight o’clock. Kate can eat your share.” He glanced across at her. “Only Diana and my brother Hamish,” he explained. “We’d planned a celebration dinner at home on the actual birthday. Lottie’s missing out now.”

Kate relaxed slightly as his gaze washed over her. Thank heavens they wouldn’t be alone in the house after all. Or not until much later in the evening. She’d just have to cope with that when it happened. She vowed to keep conducting herself as the cool collected job-seeker, and hoped it would send him the appropriate message of non-availability.

“I’ll need to take you shopping again,” he said.

Kate gazed at him warily. “Whatever for?”

“A party dress for Saturday.”

“I can wear my suit, surely?”

He shook his head. “Real party, Katie. Pretty dresses and tuxedos. We do things properly here in the deep south.”

“Oh that’s ridiculous. I just won’t go—that’ll be easiest.” She looked across to Lottie for back-up.

“Kate, you must come with us—a mysterious guest to make a little thrill for our friends.”

Well, that was no help!

Do be our mystery guest, Katie,” Matthew encouraged.

Her eyes shot him full of razor blades.

“What shall we dress her in, Lottie?” he continued, including Kate in his lazy smile. “Black or wine-red? Green for the eyes or …?

Kate felt herself being outmanoeuvred again.

“Ya—the wine-red for the vineyard—why not? That would suit you very well Kate. Let him buy you a dress. There’s nothing in my wardrobe that will fit a tall model-girl like you.” Lottie indicated her own generous bosom. “The money is very little to us—at least we have been lucky that way.”

Kate sensed a hint of misfortune in the comment. What could possibly be wrong in their apparently idyllic lives?

“And the hair tied up with…” Lottie circled her hands to indicate cascading tendrils.

In two long strides, Matthew arrived beside Kate and plunged his hands into her luxuriant mane. He quickly twisted up a rough topknot and held her captive. She tried to pull away but his warm fingers were steel-strong. He tugged, less than gently, so her eyes had to meet his. She glared, helpless, but unwilling to make a scene in front of Lottie.

“That’s hurting me,” she said very quietly. He was too close. Making her heart race and her palms break out with anxious dampness.

“Then relax, and it won’t.”

“Let me go please.”

“In a minute.” He turned toward Lottie. “Something like that? To show off her lovely long neck?” Very slowly he ran the fingers of his other hand down Kate’s nape before releasing her and moving away.

“Doesn’t she have beautiful hair?” he asked Lottie, face a picture of innocence.

Kate itched to smack it. Hard.

“Surely you should be playing with Lottie’s hair?” she suggested with saccharine sweetness.

Matthew didn’t react to that, but Lottie did.

“I have it always in the braid to keep it out of the paint,” she said.

“Then I shall fasten mine up out of the way, too,” Kate agreed, sending Matthew a furious glare.

“You’ll spoil my fun,” he said.

She nodded. “With any luck.”

“Ah well,” he said, glancing at his watch and then at Lottie. “We’d better get that curry heated. We’ll be back for you after ten tomorrow. Hope you sleep well.

Kate added her farewell and they paced back down the corridor in silence.

I’m mad if I stay, she thought. He’s total trouble. I should run while the going’s good.

She turned the various possibilities over in her brain: leave right away and find accommodation in town for the night. Suffer this evening’s dinner party and chance one night alone in the house with him. Wait until Sunday, as agreed, on her guard the whole time. Or take the job for as long as it lasted, somehow keeping out of Matthew’s way.

Okay, he was away from home a lot. He’d said so. How often? For how long? She wondered how she could find out, because working for Lottie was an awesome opportunity. What an addition to her CV Lottie Janssen’s name would make.

Kate had been attracted to the job the moment she’d read the advertisement. Had been pleased to be short-listed… impressed to be flown south at the McLeods’ expense for the interview. She’d fallen instantly in love with Queenstown during their brief pre-lunch tour. It was the ideal diversion from Auckland, where memories of her mother and Simon lurked. It was smaller, totally different—a winter place instead of a summer one.

She’d felt immediately comfortable with Lottie, even after the warning from Matthew that she could be difficult. Not as difficult as a dying mother, she thought sadly. Not as difficult as Matthew! It was a heaven sent opportunity—apart from him.

He opened the door of the SUV for her, tall and silent, his face cast into deep shadow by the garish security lighting. Kate nodded her reluctant thanks and the door clunked shut. She watched as he walked around to the driver’s side and slid in, his breath visible on the cold air. She was grateful for her borrowed jacket—the temperature felt only a degree or two above frost-point.

“So you’re the ‘little’ brother?” she said, to fill the lengthening silence.

“The younger,” he corrected. “Lottie’s English is a bit eccentric, even after all these years.”

“How long has she lived here?”

He thought for a while. “Mmmm—she’s six years younger than me…born in Samoa, and taken to the Netherlands by her mother when she was five I think. Came back to New Zealand ten or eleven years ago. She’s lived all over the place. Speaks scraps of various languages.”

“I liked her.”

“See how you get on tomorrow, then.” He punched the engine into life.

Once they’d left the lights of Queenstown behind, Kate could still discern the jagged outline of mountains against the star sprinkled sky. Surely the horizon was growing lighter, not darker? She queried Matthew.

“Full moon due up in a while,” he said. “It’ll be good in the spa pool tonight. We can put the lights off.”

We?

 

Chapter Five — Slicing Lemons

Kate thought about that while the SUV carried them the rest of the way home. A secluded little seduction scene? A foursome with Diana and Hamish? Surely not. Her wary mind ran riot with possibilities until they rolled into the big garage and he switched the engine off.

A wicked extra scenario had sneaked in among the options she’d assembled earlier; make the most of him while they were alone for the night and desert him in the morning. By an odd co-incidence it was her birthday, too, and she felt like a treat. Matthew McLeod was the biggest treat she’d ever laid eyes on.

No, she wouldn’t. Of course not. But she knew he found her attractive. And he stole her breath away with his powerful physical presence… his self-assurance… his hypnotic silver-blue eyes… that sudden incredible smile.

He’d unsettled her the moment they’d met at the airport. Since then her feet had not quite touched the ground. He annoyed her immensely, constantly, outrageously. He was an itch just begging to be scratched… and Kate’s fingers were now twitching with the temptation.

Matthew shucked his dark blue jacket off as they left the garage, and turned to collect hers as well. He opened the door to the adjoining storeroom.

“Is it Hamish’s wine?” she asked, eyeing the huge collection, and remembering the vineyard comments. She shivered. It was cooler in there.

He reached for a bottle and held it label-up for her.

“McLeod Brothers. Both of you?”

“His know-how. My money. Except these days I’ve got some know-how and he’s making money.” He replaced the bottle in the rack, then thought better of it, holding it by its neck and closing the door. “Do you want to take the clothes to your room? There’s plenty of time—Diana and Hamish aren’t due until eight. Or will you help me with a salad first?”

“I may as well take the bags to the bedroom. But I can hang them up later,” she added, hoping that would dismiss him. To her annoyance, he insisted on carrying most of them.

She preceded him down the wide hallway, acutely conscious they were once again alone in her bedroom. She’d left her chaste white nightgown draped over the foot of the bed, and his inquisitive eyes fastened on it as he laid his bags down. Kate felt a bubble of mirth threatening to escape. He must surely think it a surprising contrast to her rather risqué underwear.

She saw him glance at her small collection of makeup on top of the chest of drawers. Watched as he drew a deep breath and breathed the traces of perfume she’d already left in the room. This felt far too personal—she wanted him out right away.

“Thank you.”

“No trouble.” He didn’t move.

“I’ll be with you in the kitchen soon.”

He nodded absently, standing relaxed with one hand on his hip, the other hanging by his side. He was taking up a huge amount of space. He suddenly sighed, returned to the present moment and turned for the door. Kate wondered what he’d been thinking about. She was sure the light level dimmed as he left.

“Put that black shirt on for dinner,” he called back.

It was not a suggestion. It was a command.

She gained some much needed breathing space by sliding the clothes from their bags and smoothing them out on the bed. Her fingers ran sensuously over the soft possum, the supple leather, the cuddly velour of the robe.

She tipped the outrageous underwear from its pretty packet and stroked the silk and satin, smirking as she pictured him sorting through the displays in the no doubt classy boutique. She hoped he’d been embarrassed, choosing such intimate items. But perhaps he often shopped there for Lottie? Or a stray mistress or two? Kate couldn’t quite picture the buxom Dutchwoman in such flimsy finery, but who knew how other people lived? Her own mother—past sixty—had worn only lacy black undergarments, right up until her death.

Ignoring his suggestion of the new shirt, she slipped into the blouse she’d intended for the flight home next day. Emerald silk—good with her green eyes. She was certainly not going to let him dictate what she wore.

It was rather too business-like. She undid a button. Then another. Better. It would do. And she twisted her hair up and secured it out of his way.

Strolling back to the kitchen, Kate took time to admire the extraordinary collection of artwork displayed on the long gallery-style walls of the main hallways. Carefully directed lamps threw pools of light onto majestic and outrageous paintings. Some were Lottie’s… others were signed with famous names she’d seen only in exhibitions.

She stopped just short of the doorway, enchanted by three bizarre photographs. What was it about them? They were recognizable flowers, but had they somehow been manipulated to resemble insects? She leaned closer. Matthew’s shadow intruded. Once again she’d not detected his silent approach.

“Native orchids,” he murmured, standing close behind her. “Tiny things—no bigger than this.” He touched a hand to her sensitive earlobe and she flinched. A finger slid behind her ear. He held her lobe between his finger and thumb and tugged gently. Sensation shot to the pit of her belly. She willed the shivers to die down, certain he knew the effect it was having.

“Stop touching me all the time,” she snapped, pulling free.

With that tiny connection, he’d had total control of her body. Below waist level her hormones rampaged, her muscles twitched, she throbbed and moistened. His cologne wafted around her, and she forced herself to breathe slowly. Her eyes met his, reflected in the glass protecting one of the photos.

“Did you Photoshop them?” she asked, hoping she hadn’t offended him to the point that she’d lost all hope of getting the job. “They’re yours, I presume?”

He appeared unruffled by her sharpness. “One of the bonuses of tramping so far from the bright lights. These days I take a lot of photos for Lottie. She can’t really get into the wild country any longer.”

“And she paints from them?”

“Never a direct copy. But she chooses a bit from here, a piece from there… makes a whole new landscape.” He fell silent and at last turned away. “She’s not as well as she should be.”

Kate followed him the few strides to the kitchen. His face had closed up, forbidding her to ask more. He kept his back to her, removing the casserole of curry from the refrigerator, sliding it into the oven, rattling about in the cutlery drawer and going through to the dining room with a handful of knives and forks.

“See what you can do by way of a salad,” he called over his shoulder as he left the room.

She explored the huge pantry and the refrigerator. There were myriad salad vegetables and every kind of prepared dressing she could possibly need, but she perversely decided to make fresh vinaigrette using one of the plump lemons from the bowl on the marble counter. She sliced it in half, enjoying the fierce sharp progress of the knife through the juicy flesh, imagining she was slicing Matthew out of her life.

She worked quietly, absorbed in what she was doing. And a few minutes later found his reflection in the window glass in front of her. He’d changed into an open-necked shirt in some dark shade. A heavy gold chain lay on the olive skin that the unbuttoned collar revealed. She smiled, despite herself. She’d been wrong about his taste.

“Hmm?” he questioned.

“Nothing really. I just didn’t have you down as a jewellery man.”

She concentrated on peeling the slippery avocado in front of her, and looked up in surprise as the gleaming chain descended past her eyes and settled around her exposed throat. Her hands were too messy to bat him away.

The chain burned hot from his body. It was dazzling with the emerald silk of her blouse.

“Looks better on you,” Matthew murmured, too close to her rapidly heating ear.

“It’s beautiful. But take it away please.”

He ignored her. “Present from my ex. She chose the chain and got it right. I chose the woman and got it wrong.”

He thought bitterly about Martine as he walked his fingers along the flat gold links, pressing them against Kate’s skin. Martine—the bitch of all time—who’d seen the way to obtain a huge divorce settlement by very creative blackmail. He wouldn’t be leaving himself open to anything like that again. Kate Pleasance was gorgeous. She’d kick-started his body into raging life again, but he was far from ready to trust without knowing a great deal more about her. If she was spying for Rob, she’d be out the door so fast she wouldn’t know what had hit her.

His fingers progressed leisurely down past Kate’s collarbone—a slow intrusion that never touched her skin. Searing shivers of anticipation and dread rocketed through her body. If he slid his strong fingers off the chain to caress her breathless waiting flesh, what then? She had no idea.

“Stop it!” she gasped, just as the door knocker thumped. She’d never in her life been so glad of an interruption. Matthew laughed softly and turned away to welcome his visitors.

The instant he was out of sight, Kate bent and laid her heated face against the cold marble counter, rolling from one flushed cheek to the other until she heard footsteps nearing.

Diana breezed into the kitchen with dessert. “Banoffie Pie—have you tried it, Kate? Bananas and caramel. Hamish’s favourite.”

Kate smiled shakily, still greatly affected by the piercing waves of lust and dismay washing through her.

Matthew and Hamish followed Diana, both tall, both dark, so obviously brothers. Hamish was just a little shorter, a little paunchier, noticeably several years older.

She shook his hand. No electric spark.

If it had been Matthew, she knew the jolt through her body would have been extreme. Lord, she didn’t need his whole warm hand to unsettle her. Just a finger jiggling her earlobe seemed to be enough to make her lose control.

Despite Matthew’s earlier assertion that they rarely used the formal sitting room, he led them through to there. Drinks had been set out on a low table. A bowl of salty cashew nuts and another of excellent olive oil sat beside the glasses. Diana carried in a platter of cubed-up crusty Italian bread for dipping, and Kate chose the seat on the sofa beside her, hoping to avoid Matthew. Hamish took the big armchair at the end of the table.

She sat quietly, enjoying listening, but adding very little to the conversation. The brothers talked contingency plans for the spring frosts… wind machines, helicopters… the price of French oak barrels. Diana discussed arrangements for Saturday’s party.

Kate watched Matthew covertly from her seat opposite. No-one else in the room really existed for her. With the other big couch all to himself, he sat relaxed, legs thrown open, one arm ranged along the sofa-back. He raised a foot and hitched his ankle up onto the opposite knee. The trouser fabric stretched tighter, over his long thighs and the enticing bulge displayed so blatantly between. The triangle of his open legs drew Kate’s eyes like a magnet. Warmth buzzed and tingled in her groin. She drew a sharp surprised breath.

What would he be like to make love with? Assertive and demanding, much as he’d been with her today? Expecting her to fall in with his wishes all the time?

Or tender and restrained, as she’d seen him with Lottie?

A sensualist for sure. His gentlest touch had lit Kate’s skin with a trail of incandescence. And he’d be physically impressive. A tall, fit man—used to tramping the surrounding mountains. The clues she’d gathered through his clothing screamed lean, strong, hard-muscled, olive-skinned. Her eyes roved once again to the apex of his thighs. She dragged them away just as he caught her looking.

 

Chapter Six — McLeod Brothers Wine

Heat rushed up her neck, flooding her face in a mortified blush. He had to know she’d been inspecting him right there. Thank heavens he couldn’t be sure what she’d been thinking. Or did he have a fair idea?

Sending her a speculative smile, he drew his knees together and made a great show of spreading one of the paper napkins over his lap so he could dip the bread cubes with no risk of dripping oil onto his trousers. He’d hidden her treat.

Kate bowed her head, refusing to look at him for long moments. “So you run the vineyard together?” she finally croaked, desperately trying to cover the moment.

His smile grew broader. “No. Hamish is the viticulturist. I just tag along and obey orders.”

“Rather more than that,” Diana said. “He’s a computer man, Kate. Saw the possibilities of the Internet early on. Set up a provider service and then made his fortune by selling it to one of the big boys.”

“And negotiated a seat on their board to keep life interesting,” Matthew added, reaching out to snare a cube of bread.

“So you’re not home all that much?”

“Depends on the attractions here.”

Kate compressed her lips. That hadn’t exactly been a helpful reply, and she suspected he knew it.

“And I’ve set up a publishing company for some of my photographic projects,” he continued. “Based in New Zealand, but I sell globally. I travel on Lottie’s behalf, and for my own work.”

That still didn’t give Kate a lot to go on. She wondered what sort of clever questions she’d have to ask to break through his slick defences. It was a game he excelled at.

“Shall we eat?” Diana suggested a few minutes later.

Grateful for the distraction, Kate rose. And found Matthew instantly at her side, hand on her upper arm, guiding her into the dining room. Ready to flinch away at his touch, she noticed Hamish escorting Diana in the same fashion. So the brothers were protective men with impeccable manners? She softened a little and walked with him to the impressive dining table. He’d set four places at one end, and soft lamplight glowed on the folds of long linen curtains and polished timber.

“Girls’ night off,” he said, pulling out a chair for her. “Hamish and I’ll bring the rest of the food.”

“You’re having it easy,” Diana teased. “I happen to know Lottie made the curry, and I suspect this lovely salad is Kate’s creation.” She cast an approving eye over the big bowl of crisp vegetables.

“Yeah, yeah, and you made the pie,” he agreed. “Okay, I managed the rice. Happy now?” He departed with a grin.

The men returned carrying a bowl each, and set them onto heat-absorbing cork mats. Hamish pulled out his chair and sat.

Kate smiled to herself as she watched Matthew take their padded oven gloves out to the kitchen. She hadn’t expected that glimpse of domesticity. He brought back dishes of yoghurt, toasted coconut and other condiments. “Dig in,” he said, handing Kate a big serving spoon.

“Guest of honour should go first,” she countered, trying to hand it to Hamish.

“You’re the visitor,” Hamish returned cheerfully, already helping himself to rice. “Some for you, hon?” he asked Diana. She handed her plate across and he piled it up.

Kate spooned out some curry, wondering how fiery it would be, and sniffing cautiously.

“It’ll be fairly hot,” Diana said, interpreting her hesitation correctly. “Lottie’s mother is Indonesian Dutch, so the spices are authentic. You can cool it down with the yoghurt.”

“Or a cold beer?” Matthew suggested.

Kate shook her head. “Not after the wine, thanks.”

“Anyone else?” he asked, glancing around the table. Heads were shaken. “More wine all round then,” he said, striding out to the kitchen and returning with four fresh glasses and a different bottle.

Kate glimpsed the distinctive McLeod Brothers label again. “Do you always drink your own wine?” she asked.

“Someone has to,” Hamish said with a wry smirk.

Diana smiled. “He keeps a keen eye on the competition—by sampling their fine products of course.”

“But we trot out the good stuff when it’s family,” he confirmed, taking a closer look at the label as Matthew positioned the glasses. “I thought you’d finished this vintage?”

“I kept a few bottles aside for special occasions.”

“And it is an important birthday,” Diana inserted.

Matthew poured, and handed the wine around. “Absent friends,” he said, lifting his glass in a toast. “Shame Lottie’s not here. All the family together.”

Everyone sipped and set their glasses down.

“Do you have brothers or sisters, Kate?” Diana asked.

Kate shook her head. “Only child. I would have liked a sister at least, but my mother… had problems in that department. I have a younger female cousin I’m fond of. Alfie.”

“Alfie? For a girl?”

“Poor thing—she’s named after her grandfather. He’s Alfred. She’s Alfrieda. I don’t see her often because she lives way out on a farm.”

Diana sent her a soft smile. “Two boys for us.”

“I bet they’re good company for each other.”

“Most of the time,” Hamish agreed. “Until one of them pinches something belonging to the other. Then all hell tends to break loose.”

Matthew laughed. “Sounds like you and me when we were younger.” He turned to Kate. “You’ll meet them on Saturday, if not before.”

“If I’m still here.”

“You’ll be here,” he confirmed with arrogant off-handedness. “I’ve already re-booked your ticket. Sunday evening to Auckland. Okay?”

Kate held his gaze without flinching. “So you’re sending me home. No job?”

He shrugged. “We’ll see. Everything’s been turned on its head now Lottie’s injured. You’d have to go home eventually to collect the rest of your clothes anyway.”

So just like that, she’d be dismissed? It stung.

“Oh yes, clothes,” Diana exclaimed. “How did the shopping go?”

Kate forked up some more curry and swallowed it before answering, wondering if Matthew would comment first. “It was fine,” she eventually replied. “I don’t think I needed everything we bought, but I was ganged up on. So I have jeans, leggings, a couple of jerseys, a leather jacket I certainly wouldn’t have chosen…”

“It looked good on you,” Matthew interrupted. “You can borrow the padded one again if you want.”

“…and a cardigan and some shirts and a lovely warm robe.”

She noticed neither of them mentioned the lingerie.

“Good work,” Diana said. “And you’ve met Lottie now?”

“Finally awake,” Matthew confirmed. They must have given her horse tranquiliser.”

“I don’t blame them,” Hamish muttered. “She can be a hell of a drama queen.”

“Yep, she was having a moan about the food when we arrived,” Matthew agreed, apparently not the least put out to have Lottie referred to so unkindly.

Hamish and Diana laughed.

“Nothing wrong with this food,” Kate said, spooning out a little more curry.

Diana nodded. “True. I wonder if Lottie could make me a nice big pot of it for the party? Maybe a little milder?”

“Consider it done,” Matthew said. “Although she’ll probably achieve it by barking orders at Kate or me while we skivvy for her.”

He turned to watch Kate. The soft lamplight brought out dark red highlights in hair that otherwise looked black. She’d pulled it away from her face and fastened it with the big spring-clip so a luxuriant mane of waves tumbled down the centre of her back. Her emerald green shirt emphasised the colour of her eyes. And in the unbuttoned opening at her throat, his chain sparkled and glimmered like a line of golden fire. Under the table, his groin stirred. He parted his thighs, making no effort to suppress the pleasurable sensation.

What was she really here for? So far, she’d shown no real signs of interest in his work. Had sent his office only the briefest of glances from the doorway when he’d given her the house tour. And seemed more interested in the vineyard than anything else. Rob Pleasance wasn’t associated with the wine industry, so there was no danger of industrial espionage in that direction. Undoubtedly Rob might have shares in some of the leading brands, but Matthew knew enough about him to be certain wine wasn’t the focus of her sneaky investigations. He eased his thighs further apart, leaning back in his chair to savour the sensation, and thinking back to her frank appraisal as they sat together in the sitting room. Thank God for big white paper napkins, or he would have given his interest away entirely. And in front of his brother and Diana, too…

It had been bad enough driving her around the town. Worse sitting at the cafe, watching her across the table, seeing the breeze flirting with her hair where his fingertips itched to wander. Worse again every time her serious big green eyes flicked up to his as they talked. He’d been half-hard for most of the day.

She was cool and classy; no femme fatale. There was nothing he could interpret as flirty encouragement or sexy suggestion. Even when he’d teased her about the panties she’d responded with annoyance rather than mirth. She was a total enigma. A challenge and a temptation. And his to keep watch over until Sunday.

Kate turned to Diana as she laid down her knife and fork. “Can I be any help with the party?

“Another nice salad like this one? Everyone’s bringing something, rather than getting caterers in. I’m hoping that’ll get around the birthday present problem.”

“I’ll be lucky to get off scot-free there,” Hamish muttered.

Diana touched his arm and sent him a fond smile. “You must let them have their little jokes if they want to. I happen to know Joanie and Len have been working away at something on your behalf.”

Hamish rolled his eyes, and Kate laughed. It felt good to be part of easy family banter like this. She’d missed it since her parents had divorced. Being in the company of just one of them hadn’t been the same. And trying to relax with any of her father’s new ‘friends’ was excruciating.

“Time for dessert?” Diana asked, stacking Hamish’s plate and cutlery onto hers, and rising. Kate sprang up too, and reached for Matthew’s. The two women walked out to the kitchen together, leaving the brothers alone. Kate made one more trip to the dining room to gather the curry casserole, the rice dish and the smaller bowls onto a tray while Diana retrieved her Banoffie Pie from the refrigerator.

“This is so full of calories,” Diana said with a guilty smile. “I don’t make it often, but for his birthday…?” She attempted to stand a candle in the centre of it. “Mmm—might have to do that at the table,” she decided as it leaned drunkenly over.

“Shall we light it out here and I’ll carry it?” Kate offered. Together they managed to get pie and candle to the table. As soon as they appeared, Matthew began to whistle ‘happy birthday to you’ with surprising sweetness.

Wedges of pie and dark smoky coffee completed the meal. Diana stacked the dishwasher. Conversation became desultory, and finally Matthew rose. “Port in the spa, everyone?” he asked, threading his long fingers around the stems of four glasses set ready on the sideboard, and taking the bottle by its neck. Kate tagged along uncertainly, wondering if she could escape now.

But Diana ushered her into the changing room, inviting her to choose from the half-dozen swimsuits kept there for the use of guests. Kate slid into the plainest and most concealing she could find, bundled up all of her hair on top of her head, then followed Diana next door. Relief washed over her once she saw the pool was huge.

Matthew stood fully clothed by the big folding glass doors forming two walls of the room. His eyes caressed her, burning down the length of her legs, blatantly appreciating the curves of her breasts and hips. He unsnapped the door-locks and slid the misted panels aside. Frosty air and moonlight poured in, as magical as any film set. Lord of the Rings mountains shimmered, crystal clear, impossibly close.

Diana submersed herself in the warm bubbling water with an exclamation of pleasure, and Kate followed rapidly to escape Matthews’s hungry eyes.

She sat mesmerised as he slowly pulled his shirt free from his trousers. Long fingers slid the buttons through their holes. With a shrug, he shimmied the shirt down his arms, baring his body for her, still holding her eyes with his own.

Kate would not have noticed if someone had punched her in the stomach. She’d stopped breathing. She’d stopped thinking. She’d started wanting, mindlessly.

Her hands longed to smooth and stroke his powerful shoulders and arms. Her lips and tongue needed to lick and slide over his hard chest and lean torso.

His fingers located the catch on his trousers, and the dark fabric slipped a little down his hips. This granted her the briefest glimpse of an intricate band of tattooing circling his waistline before he stepped away and disappeared into the changing room.

 

Chapter Seven — Touching His Tattoo

Nothing had prepared her for this. She’d arrived in Queenstown hoping for a job. She might still be successful in her quest. She was coming to terms with her possible new boss being famous… the house being so large and beautifully appointed.

She had managed—just—to cope with Matthew for the day. Had resisted his potent charm, fielded his intrusive questions, not quite fallen apart when he stood too close, arrogantly playing with her hair, caressing her ear.

But his taunting little strip-tease was her undoing. His hard flesh was lean and streamlined. It was the body of a fully mature man, with no boyish softness, no unwanted fat, no hint of city slackness. The combination of his vineyard labours, high-country photographic hikes, and the professional gym next to the spa room had made him tough and toned, sinewy and sexy. She might have imagined him as gorgeous as this, but now she knew.

And so far she’d seen only half of him.

Desperately she turned to Diana as a distraction.

“Matthew says I’ll need a proper party dress for Saturday. Is he teasing me again?” she asked in a voice that was less than steady.

Diana smiled. “For once he’s not teasing. We thought we’d give everyone the chance to really dress up—quite fun in mid-winter.”

Kate nodded, trying to think of anything else to say. “He was most extravagant buying me clothes today, and now he wants to pay for this dress as well. It’s embarrassing.”

“He wouldn’t know the meaning of the word.”

She thought of the lingerie selection and silently agreed.

“He’s probably quite enjoying spoiling you. Lottie’s no fun to buy for. She practically lives in his old shirts—well-daubed with paint.”

Kate smiled. She could picture that. “All the same, it doesn’t feel right…”

“He does exactly as he wants, Kate—you’ll have a job stopping him. This one’s bad enough,” she added as Hamish padded in from the changing room.

“Who’s bad enough?” he asked, giving Diana’s short blond curls an affectionate ruffle as he stepped into the pool.

“You are, birthday boy, but your brother’s even worse.”

“Matthew? Total shocker. What’s he done now?”

“He wants to buy me a party dress,” Kate murmured.

“Hit him up for shoes as well,” Hamish said, grinning, and lowering himself into the water. “Ahhhh… much better. What on earth does he want the doors open for? It’s cold as sin out there.”

“Philistine,” Matthew said, surprising everyone. Kate dared not raise her eyes to look at him. “Appreciate the contrast… cold air and hot water. Moonlight on the mountains. The noises of the night.”

Somewhere in the distance, a car backfired and they all collapsed laughing. It broke the ice, and she was able to relax and accept the glass of port he handed her.

She was slightly miffed to find there was absolutely no more of him on display. A little less, indeed—there was no glimpse of the tantalizing tattoo. He now wore blue elastic-waisted board shorts that reached below the side of the pool. From Kate’s low vantage point, she couldn’t see his legs at all.

He switched off the wall lamps, and by the time her eyes had accustomed themselves to the moonlight, he was in the water with them. He raised his glass in a toast.

“To Hamish—happy fortieth. To Kate—happy thirtieth.”

“How on earth did you know?” she asked, dismayed.

“How do you think?” He half closed his eyes and smiled, leaving her floundering. After a few seconds, he took pity on her. “Lottie gave me your CV this morning. Date of birth, swimming medals, business degree. Easy as that.”

“Happy birthday to you both then,” Diana chuckled.

Kate and Hamish raised their glasses in each other’s direction. The port was coal-black in the moonlight—rich and persuasive. They all sipped in silent enjoyment as the water fizzed and frothed around their shoulders.

“Perfect end to a good day,” Hamish said with satisfaction.

“Was it a good day for you, Katie?” Matthew asked.

In the half dark, in company, she found the nerve to meet his compulsive eyes. “It had its moments.”

“Which were?”

The port had given her courage. She smiled and listed the parts of the day he wouldn’t be expecting. “Lovely flight—the mountains looked fantastic. Great to meet Lottie—a huge surprise. Seeing this house. The landscaping here is amazing, and my bedroom is beautiful. Meeting Diana and Hamish… ” She paused.

“Lunch?”

“Oh yes, lunch was all right.”

“Shopping?”

“Good to get it out of the way.”

“Dinner?” he growled.

Hamish and Diana were chuckling.

“You’ve met your match there,” Hamish said, giving his brother a friendly nudge.

“And I thought you were so obedient, Katie,” he murmured.

In an instant, her nerves jumped to full attention.

“When what’s expected is fair, I’m happy to oblige,” she said, finally looking away from him. It was as sharp a rebuke as she dared give him in the current company.

Hamish set his empty glass aside with care.

“Another?” Matthew asked.

“Best not. I won’t be safe to drive.”

“Enjoy the port and stay. Kate’ll be grateful to have a chaperone. She’s worried I’m going to pounce in the night.”

“I am not,” she gasped, astounded he’d voice her thoughts aloud in front of Hamish and Diana. Because he’d certainly been right. With Lottie out of the house, she’d conjured up all sorts of sexy scenarios. Her face burned. Thank heavens for the cool moonlight washing over the spa-room…

Hamish held out his glass, and she relaxed a little. There’d be others in the house after all.

“So you’re a swimmer, Kate?” Diana asked.

“Not for a while now, but yes, I was okay.”

“More than okay from what I read,” Matthew softly inserted. “Commonwealth Games medallist.”

“Of course,” Diana exclaimed. “I knew your name was familiar.”

Kate shot Matthew an annoyed glance. “I’ve given up the serious competitive swimming now, but I coach talented children every week.”

His gaze sharpened. “What about this week? You said you had nothing to prevent you staying here.”

“No, they’re doing some mid-winter pool maintenance, so it’s fine.”

“You’re sure?”

Kate turned further toward him in exasperation. “It’s absolutely fine. No classes.” She inspected his impressive shoulders, and couldn’t help imagining the rest of him. “Were you ever a swimmer?”

He raised a watery hand. “Swam like a fish.”

“We lived in the water,” Hamish said. “Our father had several postings up in the Pacific Islands. It was a great life for kids.”

“I hated being sent back to New Zealand for school later on,” Matthew added.

“You took it harder than me. But it should have been easier for you—I was already here.”

“Four years older—that’s a vast gap at the ages we were. You had your own life by the time I arrived.”

Suddenly Kate saw him in a different light. Had he been lonely as a teenager? Surely his innate confidence and bantering charm would have got him through anything?

“Me being older was the best thing that could have happened to you,” Hamish said with certainty. “You lost yourself in those computers. Jumped the queue. Got so far ahead of everyone else, it set you up for life.”

Matthew grinned wryly at his brother. “It’s okay looking back from here,” he said. “Not so much fun at the time. Too much, too soon.” He turned to Kate. “I was good at tennis though. Grew tall very fast. Had long arms—very handy.”

“Spider-man,” Hamish added, and they all laughed.

“What about you, Diana?” Kate asked.

Diana closed her eyes and leaned back against the edge of the pool. “I’m a country girl—mad on horses. Pony Club gymkhanas… Hunt Club… would have loved to be a jockey actually, which horrified my mother.”

“But your brother had a friend who was irresistible,” Hamish suggested.

“I didn’t think you were all that great to start with,” she teased.

“I grew on you,” he said complacently.

“Like a rash,” she agreed. She gave him a fond kiss on his nearest cheek and pushed herself up out of the water. “That’s enough for me—I’m turning into a prune,” she said, inspecting her hands. Kate rose up as well, and the water poured down her legs in silvery streams. The air in the room was now bitingly cold. She shivered and folded her arms across her breasts.

Matthew surged up and reached for the big soft spa towels on a nearby shelf. He tossed one to Diana, but shook the other out and wrapped it around Kate, pinning her arms to her body as she stood in the water, suddenly far too close to his gleaming shoulders and chest.

“Can’t have our tropical flower catching cold,” he said, rubbing her back and arms through the towel. The hand against her back started making slower and slower circles.

Her breath caught in her throat. What if there was no towel? If his strong, long-fingered hand was sliding against her bare skin? She wrenched herself away, regretful and desperate, emotions once again in turmoil. Stepping from the pool, she struggled out of the towel so she could mop at her legs, and fled.

Too late, she realised her clothes and jewellery were still in the changing room. She’d collect them in the morning. The thought of running into him again in the darkened hallway was too much to contemplate.

She crouched behind her closed door, pulse racing, as she rubbed the towel more thoroughly down her legs. She’d given herself only the most perfunctory rub-down in the spa-room—just enough to save the floor from a trail of water.

She’d totally ignored Matthew, calling back a collective goodnight as she bolted away from them all… from him… of course from him. And his glorious shoulders. And his clever hands. And his compelling icy eyes.

She expelled her breath in a frustrated rush. What was she going to do?

She crossed the dense carpet to the en suite bathroom and peeled the swimsuit off. Her bed lay piled with all the new clothes he’d bought her. She turned back and gathered up the concealing robe, again running her fingers with pleasure along the pink silk trim. She slipped her arms into the sleeves and caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror. Oh, Katie, Katie, she muttered.

She stopped, regarding her huge-eyed face with desperation. What a giveaway! How could she ever hope to outwit him—she was a lamb ready for his slaughter. And wearing the soft cream covering he’d provided, too… what a cruel joke.

But not a bad looking victim, she decided, holding the robe open and turning her tall body to advantage in the flattering light. Legs that went on forever—it would be a pity to hide them with a long-skirted dress at the party. Maybe she could find something with a revealing split?

A slender waist. Hips that were womanly without being wide. Her years of swimming training had seen to that. Breasts that were a nice handful but no more—and high and perky because of it. Prominent collarbones, smooth shoulders, a long neck.

And heaps of hair. She pulled it free of the fastening and shook it around her in a luxuriant cloud. She’d cursed her tangled curls as a child, and found them a real nuisance under a bathing cap, but now she blessed the volume and bounce. Even on a bad day, she still had good hair. Black and shiny as plump Christmas cherries. Soft as thistledown. Thick as the summer floss on pampas grass.

She turned for a glimpse of her long back, and then dropped the robe lower. Simon had adored her butt—never missed an opportunity to give her a little pat on the way by. But Simon was gone.

She thought about him as she pulled the robe back over her body and sashed it. Simon was gone. Gone and somewhat forgotten, she was surprised to find.

She took pleasure hanging her unexpected clothes in the big wardrobe. The soft possum jerseys were jewel-bright and sinfully warm. Maybe she’d wear one with her new jeans in the morning.

Once the bed was clear, she stowed the cosy robe away, had the quickest of showers, and smoothed freesia-scented body lotion over as much skin as she could easily reach.

Sighing, she pulled the soft white nightdress on and slipped into bed.

Darkness and silence enveloped her. She dozed for an unknown time, and then came abruptly awake.

A noise. A rhythmic creaking. Diana’s soft laugh through the wall. An exclamation of pleasure. Silence. A grunt from Hamish and a tortured moan.

“Ssshhh!” That from Diana. Sharp and commanding.

A chuckle from Hamish.

Silence again for several minutes. Had Kate been imagining it? No—the faint creaking resumed, faster this time.

The house was so isolated there were no other noises to drown out their lovemaking. No traffic. No soughing wind.

God, she didn’t need this. Not with the temptation of Matthew, the memories of Simon, the delicious awakenings stirring through her as she attempted to begin a new life.

Kate’s absolute aloneness hit her like a hammer. She clamped her arms around her ribs in an effort to quell the disturbing trembling that shook her from head to toes. Surging waves of misery washed the length of her body. Unbidden tears sprang from her eyes and she swiped at them furiously.

Terrified she’d lose control, and weep noisily enough to be heard by the lovers through the wall, she tossed back the bedclothes, sank her feet into the deep wool carpet, stood, and tip-toed out along the hallway on shaky legs.

She turned into the wide main gallery and headed for the living area, well away from the bedrooms. Sensors switched on low lights as she moved forward, making it easy to find her way. Here the floor was tiled and harder underfoot, but blessedly warm from the under-floor heating. She wished she’d stopped long enough to find her slippers, but it was too late now. She sank down into one of the chairs by the huge windows and let her tears roll as everything collided to reduce her to a ball of misery.

Her beloved mother was dead. Her father had found new happiness with another woman. Simon was definitely in the past. And now, in this new place, she was even more alone. No local friends. No certainty of what lay ahead. It was suddenly all too much for her; she wept without restraint.

Matthew snapped alert as he detected the light level brightening outside his partly closed door. He rose silently from bed. Someone was creeping about, and there were secrets in his office he’d rather keep safely away from strangers’ eyes—especially the enticing green eyes of the gorgeous and mysterious Miss Pleasance.

Robert Pleasance headed SouthernTel, a rival company. The lucrative telecommunications world was cutthroat beyond belief. The two men had often crossed swords.

Matthew had quizzed Kate energetically at the cafe, learning nothing about Rob more than establishing he and Kate were father and daughter. She’d acted puzzled, innocent, and dismissive she was the least bit important.

He sighed, and rubbed a hand over his jaw. Maybe this was the evidence he’d been waiting for. There was no reason to leave the bedrooms at night. Each had an en suite bathroom. He’d lay odds it was Kate moving about his house in secret, finally making her move.

He walked with caution, clad only in slippery black pyjama bottoms. Even in winter, he hated anything wrapped around his neck in bed. He drew level with the office door and peered in. Nothing. No small bobbing torch light. No Kate. So far, so good.

He approached the living area, all his senses alert. She was there somewhere—he’d been drawn through the house by her faint fragrance.

He felt as well as heard her distress. Tension charged the air with humming energy. And then he noticed a new shape on the far side of the big room. He found her crumpled into one of the chairs where they’d sat with Diana for the afternoon’s coffee. She’d thrown back her head, and tears shone on her face in the moonlight. Her long throat jumped convulsively every few seconds. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, as though for comfort, but plainly she’d found none. She’d squeezed her eyes shut, trying to prevent the tears from escaping, but still they leaked out from under her sooty lashes, trickling like quicksilver down into her cascade of hair.

“Katie,” he growled, bending close.

She jumped, and clamped a hand across her mouth to muffle a scream.

“Don’t panic… don’t panic… only me,” he murmured, smoothing his fingers down her cheek, trying to find the reason for her distress. She turned and burrowed her face into his palm, grabbing it with both of hers and holding it there. He felt her damp eyelashes, her soft lips, the tremors which still shook her. He stroked over her glorious hair with his other hand as though she was a lovely exotic animal needing gentling down after frightening treatment.

After a few moments, she released him with a low breathy moan. “Oh God, sorry.”

“Whatever’s wrong?” he asked with huge concern, squatting down beside the chair.

“Diana and Hamish are making love,” she whimpered.

He gave a sudden bark of mirth. The answer had been utterly unexpected. “Still gets a bonk on his birthday, does he? Good old Diana.”

“No,” she whispered, embarrassed and shuddering. “That’s not what I meant. It’s me. It’s me… I suddenly felt so alone. I was madly busy until Mum finally died and—” she sniffed back her tears—“I had to keep going and get everything done. And it’s all just hit me, being away from home and hearing other people so happy… and everything.” She pushed her hair back with an impatient hand and raised her tragic wet eyes to his.

“Delayed reaction,” he said. “Stand up.”

He took her by the upper arms and pulled her against him, fitting his hipbone into the join of her thighs and pressing her head down onto his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and rocked her against his body. A long quiet sigh escaped from between her lips. He felt it flutter over his skin.

Kate continued to weep, but less convulsively now. It was just a hug. A lovely consoling human hug from someone who cared enough to ask what was wrong. She slid an arm around his waist, and settled her face more comfortably against his shoulder, absorbing his heat and strength as it soothed and healed her. “This is very kind of you,” she murmured with polite resignation. “I’ve been quite rude to you today—”

“I’ve been asking for it,” he muttered.

“Yes, you have, actually,” she said with more spirit, making a small effort to pull away, and finding herself very firmly confined. She relaxed against him again, wondering how long before she could escape without seeming impolite… and wanting desperately to stay just where she was. What could she say to make the hug last a little longer? “May I see your tattoo?” she tried.

“No.”

“Why not? I saw some of it in the spa room.”

“I thought those shorts covered it.”

“Yes, but when you were teasing me, your trousers slid down a bit…”

She felt him nod. “Ah.”

“So why not—seeing I’ve already seen it?”

“It’s not for public consumption.”

“Is it obscene?”

“Not in the least. But it’s a personal thing. Only for me.”

She moved her hand around his waist, rubbing over his velvety skin. “Am I touching it?”

Matthew closed his eyes and gave silent thanks he’d not settled her against his groin. God—the sensation of her breasts against his skin… Her nightgown was thin and soft. Barely there. She may as well have been naked. “Yes. Some of it. Feeling better now?”

Kate nodded as she pulled away from him. Her hand trailed over his hip, pushing the loose pyjamas just a little lower.

“Scheming woman,” he said with mock severity, realising exactly what she was up to. And then some little devil made him cup a hand over his groin to hold the pyjamas close, and he undid the waistband for her. She slid the soft black fabric aside, pushing it down his flank a few inches, her breath catching as she uncovered whorls and curves and bands of pattern in the moonlight.

“Matthew….” she breathed. “It’s amazing….” She tried to push the fabric further, but he stopped her with his other hand.

“That’s distracted you quite enough,” he said, turning aside to conceal himself again, and re-fastening the waistband.

“How far does it go?”

“As far as I wanted it to.”

“How long have you had it?”

“Since I was sixteen. That was the start of it.” He motioned her to sit down again, and took the chair beside her. She’d recovered her composure, but a little more time away from Hamish and Diana might be wise. “Dad was posted to Samoa for several years. They have the most amazing tattoos there—especially the chiefs and high born men. This is nothing…” He stayed silent for a few seconds, remembering. “They start far enough up to show above their lava-lavas and go right down to their knees. It’s the mark of a brave man if he can endure the process. It’s primitive.”

“And you endured it?”

Matthew shook his head. “Whole different deal, Katie. I designed what I wanted and had it done while I was at school in Auckland. A piece at a time as my pocket money allowed. In a safe commercial parlour. Starting where my father would never see it.”

“Surely they weren’t allowed to tattoo schoolboys?”

“Borrowed Hamish’s I.D. We looked enough alike in the photos. Each time I went home for the holidays, I wore a bigger swimsuit to hide the evidence.” He gave a small snort of amusement. “Dad probably thought I was turning into a prude.”

“And what did your friends think?”

“The boys at home were impressed. The teachers at school were horrified. But it was too late by then. As I told you, it’s for me—not for the rest of the world.”

“Everyone’s doing it now,” Kate said. “Not me yet, but I wondered about a little butterfly or something.”

“A ‘butt’-erfly,” he suggested.

“Yes, maybe,” she said, getting the joke and laughing softly.

They sat on in companionable silence for a while, Kate no longer sobbing, and now obviously curious about how far the tattoo extended; Matthew wondering if Hamish and Diana had concluded their celebrations.

He glanced at his watch, angling the face of it to the moon. “Almost one o’clock, Katie. We need some sleep so we can look after Lottie tomorrow. You’re better now? I’ll walk you back—okay?”

He held out his hand, against his better judgment, and she rose like a graceful ghost and took it. It seemed a very small consolation after their earlier full-body embrace.

He was no closer to discovering why she was really in Queenstown. Her distress had certainly appeared genuine, and there’d been so sign of any house searching. But had she simply been testing the water? Experimenting to see how far she could explore without being detected?

They returned, unspeaking, to their rooms. When no other movements were apparent, the floor-lights gently dimmed and switched off.

 

Chapter Eight — Studio Scene

Without her wristwatch Kate had no idea of the time. She peeked through the heavy curtains and found the sun up, the frost down. The world was white. Everything sparkled and shone.

Fearing that she’d overslept—marvellously, deeply, dreamlessly for once—she drew on the robe, found her slippers, and retrieved her clothes and jewellery from the changing room. Matthew’s gold chain glimmered at her, reminding her of the serpentine curves of his amazing tattoo.

It was past eight-thirty, she discovered to her surprise. They were due to collect Lottie around ten. She’d better hurry.

She walked down the long main gallery to the kitchen, and found coffee brewed but no other sign of habitation. She filled a mug, and took it across to where big glass doors had been folded open to the air.

It was totally still, crisp and cloudless again. Matthew threaded his way through the big clumps of frosty tussock grass some distance from the house. She smiled shyly as he drew nearer. “Good morning.”

“So Sleeping Beauty awakes?”

She sighed. “I slept really well. It’s so quiet here.”

“Mostly,” he said with a grin.

Kate lowered her gaze, remembering the noises in the night. “Have they gone?” she asked with trepidation.

“Dogs to feed. Speaking of food, what will you eat? I brought breakfast to your room earlier but you were dead to the world.”

Had he watched her sleeping? She supposed so, from his Sleeping Beauty comment. Her skin prickled at the thought. She’d feel more comfortable once Lottie was home and deflecting his attention.

“Thank you. Just toast will be fine. I’d better hurry now I’ve slept in.”

His eyes roamed over her with masculine possession. Kate lifted a hand to the collar of the robe and drew it more closely around her. Matthew’s smile grew wider, and she turned and fled back to her bedroom.

She showered and dressed at top speed, and gulped another cup of coffee and a slice of whole-wheat toast and apricot jam before they climbed into the SUV. Matthew drove with care because of the ice-covered roads.

She looked everywhere but at him. She’d stroked his naked hip! He’d undone his pyjamas and she’d drawn closer instead of turning away. It seemed unreal now, but she knew quite well it had happened. Her body knew, almost more surely than her brain.

Each time she’d been close to him this morning, some perfidious internal place had trembled, heated, expanded, felt special. She wouldn’t be returning from Auckland after Sunday. There was no other viable decision now. However spectacular the surroundings, however desirable the job, Matthew had made it impossible for her to stay.

She clenched her hands together and stared out of the window. No hardship with such scenery. In the chilly morning air frost still covered each blade of grass and twig. The low angle of the sun set everything sparkling. Drifts of mist rose from hollows. Mountains thrust into the cloudless sky whichever way she looked. The Remarkables with their distinctive jagged outline. Coronet Peak with its heavier mantle of snow. Maybe there were already keen skiers and snowboarders up there, enjoying the fantastic morning? She cleared her throat, wondering if she should ask, and then couldn’t voice even such an innocuous remark.

Matthew broke the silence when the lake became visible. “Wakitipu’s looking great in this light.” He pulled to the side of the road for a moment. As they watched, a bright red boat burbled slowly out. “Shotover Jet. He won’t be doing that speed for long.” Sure enough, a plume of spray eventually kicked up from the stern, the boat shot forward, and they dimly heard the roar of its powerful engine splitting the tranquillity of the still morning.

Lottie was chafing to get home, already seated in a wheelchair close to the reception desk.

“I thought you’d be on crutches,” Kate said, surprised.

Lottie beckoned her to bend. “Sometimes it’s okay to have the famous name,” she murmured. “I told them ‘really big house—too far to walk on crutches—painter can work sitting in the wheelchair… And so—” She looked very pleased with herself. Kate laughed.

“I hope this folds up,” Matthew interrupted, bending to inspect the other side of the chair.

“Oh ya,” Lottie said airily, patting his shoulder as he crouched beside her.

He turned and kissed her wrist. “How’s your head?” he asked.

“Little bang. Not so bad.”

“And the ankle?”

“Horrible.”

He flashed a big grin up at Kate. “Welcome to the world’s worst patient.” He unfolded to his full height and pushed the chair around to face the exit. “Anything I have to sign?”

“All done,” Lottie said, leaning back, content as a queen with her attendants. They proceeded out to the parking lot.

“Will it be easier for you in the back or the front?” Kate asked, surveying Lottie’s ankle.

“The back, maybe. I can go sideways.” Kate helped her in to the SUV, flinching at each of Lottie’s dramatic grimaces and groans. Matthew chuckled, and left them to it to while he wrestled with the chair.

“He’s not very sympathetic, is he?”

“Always the same,” Lottie agreed, finally settling. She turned her twinkling blue gaze to Kate’s. “Good idea for a new painting today,” she said. “Quite different for me. Could be woman, could be hillsides. Fun, ya?”

Kate nodded cautiously, not seeing what Lottie saw.

“So my new assistant’s first job is model, okay?”

“A portrait?”

Lottie waggled her hand in a maybe/maybe not gesture. “Perhaps not your face at all. Your hips, your back… keeping the panties on of course.”

Damn right! Kate thought, caught unawares. This wasn’t quite what she’d bargained on. And there weren’t many panties to keep on, drat it. She hadn’t been able to resist the tiny green lace thong. She needed to change into something more concealing… the French knickers perhaps. She relaxed a little at that thought as Matthew drove them back through the icy-clear day and into the big garage.

He pushed the chair along the wide main hallway of the house, then stopped at a door which was neatly concealed just around a corner. He pressed a button. The door folded sideways. Kate had her first view of Lottie’s private elevator.

Lottie motioned her in and waved Matthew away. The door closed and they ascended.

“Good to carry all sorts of things up, ya? And maybe me when I’m older and don’t do the stairs.”

Kate nodded, impressed. “Good for big paintings, too,” she agreed.

“My studio is the top floor. Lots of room. Lovely light. Matthew designed it all as I needed.”

The door opened on another world. Kate stood astounded.

The paintings were powerful, dominant, fierce. Lottie may not have lived permanently in New Zealand, but her love for the terrain was obvious—in every stroke and slash, every line and gradation of colour. There were canvasses in all stages of progress, leaning on walls and against furniture. Bookshelves, storage cabinets, easels, tables… the litter of painting paraphernalia was everywhere. Sketch pads, coffee mugs, wine glasses, and magazines spread in a rising tide on every level surface. A big book of Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite life drawings lay open on a chair. A tome of French impressionists had fallen to the floor.

A circle of black leather recliner chairs around a low oak table formed the only island of sanity Kate could see in the huge space.

To one side there was a smaller room, obviously set up for sleeping.

Along the back wall a kitchen counter had sliding doors to conceal it—except they were not closed, and the litter of unwashed plates, orange peel, and paint spatters looked far from hygienic.

Lottie laughed at her reaction. “My eagle’s nest,” she said with satisfaction, waving a hand toward the surrounding views.

“Incredible,” Kate whispered. There was no other word. The long line of windows had been positioned to frame the up-thrust peaks of The Remarkables—for all the world like a gigantic canvas on which a supremely talented artist had produced their life’s masterpiece.

But Lottie allowed her scant time to admire it. “So, we have the red couch there,” she said, pointing. “Can you put those papers off? Anywhere will do.”

Kate shuffled them into a tidy heap, cast around for somewhere clear, shrugged, and finally balanced them on some magazines.

“And you pull it around this way a little? Good.”

Lottie sat, considering, eyes narrowed. “And Kate—in the bedroom there are lamps. Can you bring them?”

The bedroom was perfectly civilized. The lamps were easy enough to retrieve.

“Ya—one there, one the other side. You find the wall-plugs?”

Kate fossicked around as instructed.

“Now—you sit. Lean over. The other way. Onto the cushions?” She tipped her head on one side. “I think you move this lamp further out, and bend its arm so it is low…”

Lottie took an elderly Polaroid camera from the table beside her and inspected it. “Now the clothes off and we see how the shadows fall.”

Kate was appalled. “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know if I can…?”

“Ach—nobody sees,” Lottie said comfortably. “Katie, if you had studied at art school you would know this is not hot stuff.”

Kate giggled unexpectedly at the description.

“Leave the bra and panties on. And on the couch like before.”

“The panties are very tiny,” Kate said, blushing, removing her jersey and the shirt underneath, and standing unwilling in her bra and trousers. Lottie looked up with expectation.

“Ya—off,” she said. Kate slowly peeled off her jeans. Lottie didn’t blink. “And lying down… turning the head away…”

Kate heard a click and a whir. “So—come and look.”

The photo was all too revealing, but Lottie seemed pleased enough.

“Again, Katie—and the legs stretched out more this time. Can you reach out and bend the other lamp down lower, too?”

Another shot. Another short wait. “Good. You come and see?”

Kate looked most unwillingly.

“Ignore all the windows Katie, and half-close your eyes. See the hills and valleys and shadows? Is she a woman or not? Is different, ya?”

Kate scrunched her eyes up and suddenly saw what Lottie saw. “Uh! That’s a real surprise.”

“Okay, so we do the real thing. With the bra off and being very comfortable on the cushions…”

Kate returned to the couch, removed her bra once she’d turned decently away, and settled down. She heard Lottie readying her painting gear. The house was warm… the lamps added heat of their own… this was not too bad.

“Hello—what have you brought for us?” Lottie asked a few minutes later.

Kate’s blood turned to ice.

“Just some sandwiches,” Matthew said. “Katie had very little breakfast, and it’s almost lunchtime. I thought you could both do with them.”

She lounged there, stunned, exposed, and embarrassed beyond belief. She dared not move and upset the pose for Lottie. Or display herself still further to Matthew.

Neither could she possibly stay like this with him in the room. Obviously he’d crept up the stairs instead of using the elevator. The predator had caught his prey.

She flinched as something touched her foot. She jerked her head sideways. He stood right there, far too close. And he gently lowered a soft concealing bed-sheet over her. She closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He stepped away, out of sight. She heard him set down a plate and glass for Lottie, then he moved back in her direction, pulled a hard-backed chair across, and sat, knees apart, so he could move in close. One hand held a half full tumbler of wine and the other a plate of tiny bite sized sandwiches. He propped a drinking straw into the tumbler and raised it to her mouth. She drank gratefully. He fed her the tiny ham and camembert sandwiches one by one, with sips of wine between each. She barely needed to move—the pose would not be ruined.

“So what do you think of the studio?”

It was such a normal question that she could have been walking through town with him instead of lying naked under a thin sheet.

She did her best to find some insouciance. “Extraordinary. It must be wonderful for Lottie to have everything she needs so close.”

“And quite a few things she doesn’t need.”

“Yes. Well.” That had Kate at a loss for further words.

“You can see why she needs her own Superwoman. She’s an artist, not an organiser.”

Kate nodded silently, opening her mouth so he could slide the final tiny sandwich in. Matthew held it just out of reach. She glanced up at him. He ran his tongue around his top lip and she snapped her mouth shut.

“I thought you were being nice to me now,” she hissed.

“You’ll know when I’m being nice to you, Katie. You’ll know when I’m being a lot more than nice.” His reply was the softest whisper, inaudible to Lottie, fifteen feet away. He held out the little sandwich and she opened her mouth for him again. He tucked it in very slowly, pushing it home with his forefinger, intruding, invading, entering right into her body. She closed her lips around the finger and bit, quite hard.

He smiled, tolerating the pain until she released him. He licked his finger clean. Still holding her eyes, he drew up the last mouthful of wine through the straw and swallowed it. She watched the muscles and tendons moving in his strong golden neck, thinking that she could strangle him for his game.

He glanced across at Lottie, and apparently finding her turned away, bent and kissed Kate swiftly on her relaxed and unsuspecting mouth.

She froze rigid. Made no sound. Didn’t move a fraction to draw any attention to what he had done. And continued to lie there stunned as he drew the sheet off her body again in a soft and devastating caress.

He’d take a chance like that? In front of Lottie?

The danger had a powerful effect on Kate. Every tiny hair on her flesh stood up. Her skin tingled and twitched. Her arms and legs felt lead-heavy—there was no way she could jump to her feet and flee.

Her mouth burned, tasting of wine and surprise and wanting.

The insistent throb was back in her belly—but worse—warmer and wilder than before. Her blood pulsed, thick and heavy. She felt it travelling around her body, making her heart pump harder, stiffening her nipples and preparing a welcome between her thighs.

This was outrageous! She had no answer for such arrogance. Well—none that she dared acknowledge. If he really wanted her, she knew she now had very little resistance left. And she could never ever let him know that.

Lottie moved her plate out of the way. Kate heard it scrape across the bench-top.

“Can you get me that bigger canvas? The long one. I didn’t plan to do it so big, but she looks good, don’t you think?”

“She looks beautiful.” Matthew said quietly. “And who’d have thought she’d wear sexy little panties like that? I had you down for white cotton, Katie.”

She seethed, caught so easily when she’d scoffed at his gift. She stayed silent.

He chuckled. It took no imagination to see the corners of his mouth kicking up, his icy blue eyes flashing with unholy glee.

Anger and embarrassment surged through her. Would he never leave?

She heard a chair drag across the floor, the rustle of stiff pages turning. His soft grunt of satisfaction as he found what he wanted.

Something moved in the corner of her vision. She slid her eyes around. Matthew sat, tilting a big sketching pad on his lap, looking directly at her from quite a different angle to the one Lottie had chosen. His charcoal stick raced over the paper, capturing her curves. He regarded her intently, and rubbed a finger to smudge the black to a softer shadow. Eyed her again. Drew some more. Stroked and blended. Kate became acutely aware of his hands as the pad of his thumb shimmered along her thigh. Pushed at her buttocks with a lighter touch, shading and buffing her skin.

She had no idea what Lottie was doing. Matthew had taken her over. He worked with absolute concentration until he was pleased with his sketch, then he ripped it noisily from the pad. He showed it to Lottie. She passed a quiet comment.

Kate heard the scrape of the chair again, and then he stood right in front of her, and laid the sketch on the floor for her to see. She drew a sharp breath. Lottie might be turning her into an ambiguous stretch of countryside, but Matthew was a consummate draftsman. He’d drawn a flesh-and-blood woman, faithfully recording her long back and shapely rear end and the barely-there panties.

“Great backside,” he whispered. “Butterfly would look very hot.”

She squeezed her eyes shut to remove the devastating image from her brain.

“This is still comfortable for you, Kate?” Lottie asked.

Never been less comfortable in my life.

“I’m fine,” she called back. “How’s it going?”

“Will be good I think. Not too much longer now—hard for you to hold the pose, even lying down, and the sun will alter all the shadows soon.”

Matthew sat again—much closer this time—and surveyed her in silence. Then he took up the charcoal and she saw he was roughing in her shoulders and breasts and tumbling hair. His face became serious as he concentrated. His lips grew sensuously fuller as he pursed them together, but his eyes stayed alert and assessing.

Kate kept her eyes on his lips. Anywhere but his eyes, she decided desperately.

He kissed me. Tasted me, teased me. With that sinful mouth.

He saw where she’d fixed her eyes and flicked his tongue briefly out, drawing it down the centre of his top lip and back out of sight again. Kate felt a devastating slippery flick much further down her body. She wriggled and caught her breath. He grinned.

She clenched her eyes shut and kept them that way. A short time later she heard him relax, sigh, and lay down the sketching pad somewhere close.

“How did I do?” he asked in a husky drawl.

She opened her eyes at last and stared at the black and white woman with the wet lips and peaked breasts and wild hair.

He’d captured her more accurately than any camera. The desire was palpable, the wanting extreme. Did she really look like that to him? With drowsy come-to-bed-eyes? A mouth swollen already from kisses? And nipples demanding to be sucked and bitten?

He hadn’t showed this one to Lottie. This was for him, as private at his tattoo, perhaps. And for her, to confirm the invitation of his kiss.

 

Chapter Nine — Yours for a Thong

Lottie’s wheels squeaked faintly on the polished timber floor. “Enough Katie—you do very well. I finish another time.”

Did that mean she could relax? Could escape? Could try to recover her dignity? She sagged down onto the cushions, finally hiding from Matthew behind her curtain of hair.

She’d not acknowledged his drawing. Would not. Could not. She was totally drained with the effort of holding still for so long, and from her pent-up emotions. She’d never survived anything like that before. Hoped never to have to again.

She heard Matthew stand. The sketchpad rustled up from the floor. And a warm finger landed gently between her shoulder blades. As he stepped away he drew his finger slowly downward, slid it under the thong, pulled, and let the elastic snap back against her flesh. Her humiliation was complete.

If Kate was a mass of nerves, Lottie seemed not to notice.

“Come and see how you’re looking.”

Kate knew how she was looking—hot and bothered, naked and knackered, mad as hell.

She snatched up the sheet and wrapped it around herself; then stepped over to the easel in front of the wheelchair.

Matthew had disappeared, and just as well, too. The studio was full of sharp objects, just right for skewering him.

She surveyed the partly finished painting. She saw her hip, the slope of her back, the jut of a shoulder, a long thigh. Or did she? Translated into countryside colours she almost disappeared. But it was a softly contoured range of hills that Lottie played with—in contrast to her more usual dramatic landscapes.

“I wouldn’t know it for a Janssen,” Kate said, relaxing a little now she saw the way she looked. She compared the painting with the photo. It was her and yet not her.

“Can I rip the other one up?” she asked hopefully.

Lottie nodded, and poked around on the table without finding it. “Maybe on the floor?” she asked.

But when Kate bent and looked, there was no sign of the first photo. Still, the studio held so much mess you could probably lose the Titanic.

She wriggled into her clothes again as a drained-looking Lottie took care of her brushes and palette knives.

Kate drew a deep breath. If she was supposed to be looking after her famous charge, now was the time to start. “It’s probably time for your painkillers,” she suggested. “And shouldn’t you be resting, so soon out of hospital?

Lottie gave her a faint smile. “Ya. I do that next, I think. For two hours maybe? And you wake me up with coffee?”

Kate surveyed the messy kitchen area. “I’ll have a little tidy-up while you’re lying down. Just kitchen work,” she added, when Lottie looked alarmed.

“The kitchen—okay, but not the paintings?”

“I wouldn’t dare touch them.”

She helped Lottie from the wheelchair onto the bed, brought her pills and a glass of water from the attached bathroom, and got to work. Collecting up mugs and glasses and plates was kitchen work—even if they were scattered out amongst the paintings. She restored a small amount of order, ignoring the dishwasher, and scrubbing energetically at long-crusted items. She presumed the plates and glasses Matthew had brought up to the studio should go back downstairs. She included them in her wash-up and carried them away. He was busy in his office—something whirred as she tried to slip by.

“Kate.”

Darn. Either he had eyes in the back of his gorgeous head or his hearing qualified him as a guard-dog.

She stopped one pace inside the door.

“I’m sorry you didn’t think my drawings were good.”

She flinched at the memory of his eyes on her. At the wanton woman he’d turned her into. “Your drawings were excellent. I just wasn’t comfortable with the subject,” she replied stiffly.

He looked at her for a long moment. “I thought the subject was utter perfection.”

“Don’t. Please don’t. You tease me and make fun of me and it just makes things so difficult.”

“What things?” His voice was dangerously quiet.

“Helping Lottie. Being in the house. I’m only here until Sunday and then I’m gone.”

Fury flared in his heart. Dammit—she was beautiful and lively, and drawing her had turned him on outrageously. All of a sudden, he cared a little less about the possibility of her being a spy for Rob Pleasance. He threw caution to the wind. “You were by far the best person for the job. And Lottie likes you. When can you come back?”

She shook her head.

“Katie?”

“I can’t. Just make use of me for the next few days and call it quits…” Her voice trailed off.

“We’ll need to change your mind somehow. What will it take?”

What?

“We’re not without the means.” He waved his hand at the surrounding land.

“No.”

“My treat—anything you want.”

Kate stared at him, horrified to feel so tempted.

I want you, but you’re not on the menu.

“Chilli prawns, fried rice and a green stirfry,” she blurted, remembering the combination she sometimes chose from the Asian takeaway at home in Auckland.

“You’d stay for that?”

“No, of course not,” she said, back-tracking madly, aware how strange her request must have sounded. “Sorry. It just slipped out. I’ve never been offered the choice of anything I wanted before. It threw me.”

He regarded her steadily and then nodded. “It’s a start anyway. Chilli prawns for dinner and we’ll see what else we can come up with.”

She stepped a little further into his office and he swung his chair around so he faced the huge computer screen again. His finger hit the keyboard and the image in front of him disappeared.

“Sorry,” she said, backing off, presuming he was working on something confidential.

“Just playing,” he said. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. “It’s amazing what you can do with modern technology. Photography’s come a long way from Lottie’s old Polaroids. One of these days I’ll persuade her to use a tablet in the studio. Come back in ten minutes or so?”

Dismissed, she resumed her walk to the kitchen. She stowed the plates and glasses away, and then wandered out through the huge open doors. The weather was perfect. Cold, but so still and sunny the air had no real bite.

She sat down in one of the outdoor chairs on the wide paved terrace. The sun soaked into her shoulders, soothing and warm. The ordeal of posing in the studio receded a little. She supposed there’d have to be another session or two if Lottie asked, but she’d make damned sure Matthew was nowhere around next time.

And really, it was flattering to have been chosen to model for such a famous artist. How thrilled her darling mother would have been if she’d ever known.

Kate relaxed as she idly considered the surprising offer Matthew had made. Was he serious? Anything so she would stay? But even the enticement of huge wages… a trip around the world… diamonds to die for… wouldn’t convince her to remain where she’d found exactly what she wanted but could never have.

She closed her eyes, enjoying the sun and the soft air.

A warm hand settled on her shoulder and she jerked awake.

“Doing your Sleeping Beauty act again?” Matthew asked.

She glanced at her watch, alarmed to find she’d been dozing, and that almost an hour had disappeared. She stifled a yawn as she tried to gather her wits about her.

“I thought you were coming back to the office?”

She looked at him through half closed eyes, still trying to adjust to the bright light. He was more casually dressed today. Soft old black jeans hugged his narrow hips and long thighs. A dark grey ribbed jersey stretched across his chest and shoulders. The collar of his shirt was visible, one button undone. She wanted to undo the rest… see the rest… trace her fingers over the whorls and curves of his extraordinary tattoo. Still barely awake, she wondered if he and Lottie made use of the spa-pool every evening.

Lottie! Kate had promised to wake her with coffee. She rechecked her watch and pushed herself out of the chair. “Sorry, I’m needed upstairs,” she declared.

Matthew narrowed his eyes. “I’m next in the queue then. I have something to show you. Come back when you can.”

She bolted. Absolutely bolted. Away from his too-gorgeous body and his too-sharp eyes and his too-clever hands.

But she’d had no need to panic. Lottie was fine, awake but unworried. Kate set the promised coffee brewing and sneaked another look at herself-as-countryside. The painting was rough yet, but the bones of it were there. She wondered how much more detail Lottie planned to add. Would she leave it loosely daubed like a Toss Woolaston, or refine it until it was as polished and perfect as a Grahame Sydney? Somewhere in between, she hoped. The last thing she needed was to be rendered so photographically perfect she was recognisable.

She took the coffee through to Lottie, asking if she needed anything else.

“Can you tell Matthew dinner up here tonight? I go to bed properly, I think—I have a visit to make tomorrow.”

Kate wondered if she should offer to help her undress.

“Rest of the day off for you,” Lottie said cheerily, dismissing her with a wave of a paint-smeared hand and a wide smile.

So it was back to see what Matthew wanted.

She dawdled down the thickly carpeted stairs. No wonder she hadn’t heard him approaching with their lunch. On the landing there was another vast window. Kate stopped and drank in the perfectly framed view. Everything about this house had been planned to please. How much of it was Matthew’s work? Lottie said he’d designed the studio ‘all as I needed.’ He’d probably decreed exactly where that range of jagged mountains sat in the countryside, too.

Lottie might be a painter, but Matthew was a draftsman. His meticulous recording of her body confirmed that. Her skin prickled as she thought of the two big charcoal sketches. Where were they now? She wanted to have them safely in her own possession. To keep them private for herself, because it would be a travesty to destroy them.

She pondered how to retrieve his work as she gazed out. The peaks were a soft grey-blue with a mantle of white only along the higher ridges. They’d be magnificent after heavy snow. Perhaps it had been a mild winter in Queenstown? New Zealand was so long and narrow that farms could be snowed-over in nearby Southland while the hibiscus bushes still flowered in the far north.

Sighing, she resumed her descent. A descent into hell, maybe. What sort of temptation or humiliation had he lined up for her this time?

She wandered slowly, enjoying the magnificent art collection as she progressed along the main hallway to his study and peered in. There was no sign of him, but maybe he’d put the sketches there? She took a few cautious steps into the big room and glanced around. She had no idea where to start searching.

“Katie?”

She jumped as he came through the door.

His piercing gaze pinned her in place. “What are you looking for?”

“You. You said to come back.” Had she imagined it, or did his hard face relax a little?

“Come and have coffee. I’ve spread something on the table. Needed more room.” He stretched out an arm, and she flinched away from his grip.

No more touching, no more kissing. She’d see he didn’t get within feet of her again.

She moved forward and he pulled the door closed behind him. Kate had the definite feeling he hadn’t wanted her in his study. The sketches must be there somewhere. Good to know. Relief washed through her.

But worse awaited on the big timber table in the living area. He’d laid out a sinuous design like a many-chambered nautilus shell. A repeating pattern in assorted colours, spiralling in and in, getting smaller and smaller toward the centre.

She smiled. It was unusual and eye-catching.

“Amazing what you can do with a computer these days, isn’t it,” he said, leaning over her shoulder and placing strong hands on the table edge either side. She bent a little further to increase the distance between them.

“We could call it ‘Yours for a thong’.” She heard the teasing laughter in his husky voice. With a sudden jolt, she recognised her own body, manipulated, many-coloured, used as patchwork to produce a totally different work of art. He’d reproduced just her hips and the tiny panties—again and again.

You stole the other Polaroid,” she gasped, swinging around and fending him off. “I want that destroyed. It’s embarrassing. It’s awful. I don’t want anyone to see it. Please?”

She thrust out her hand imperiously, willing him to give it back to her. She shook with rage. Matthew parted his lips.

Now,” she snapped, beating him to it.

“Katie…”

Right now.”

He swung around and strode back to the study. She raced along behind. He raised the lid of a scanner; the photo lay there. Kate snatched it up, ripped it in half and then in half again.

“And I want it out of your hard drive, and wiped off anything you’ve transferred it to.” She stood tall, trembling, absolutely outraged. How could he just treat her like meat?

“Katie, I was only having a bit of fun. You inspired me. I thought the finished result was great, actually.”

“Well, it wasn’t actually your backside, Matthew. Why couldn’t you at least ask? Did you really think I needed one more dose of humiliation? Are you so used to getting what you want with all your money? Didn’t you think at all?”

He placed his hands carefully on her shoulders. She flinched but stood her ground, staring straight into his eyes, and praying she’d be able to keep her gaze level.

“Katie, I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I… maybe… didn’t think at all. I certainly didn’t want to hurt you. But you’re beautiful—I enjoyed playing with you.”

The apology sounded sincere enough, but she wasn’t about to back down.

He dropped a kiss on her forehead. A light, quick, ‘sorry-and-let’s-be-friends-again’ sort of kiss. So much for keeping well clear of him! “Forgive me? I’ll buy you a stunner of a party dress.”

“Money doesn’t always do it,” she snapped, still far from mollified.

“It’ll do it tomorrow. You can have any dress in town.”

“I want the backless one split up to the hip,” she demanded ungraciously.

“Where did you see it?”

“In my dreams.” She wriggled away from his hands with a sharply indrawn breath. Forgiveness was a way off yet, even though his kiss had been chaste and his regret seemed real.

“We’ll see what we can find tomorrow then.”

Kate hovered, eyes still searching for the sketches. Matthew had hidden them well. Where could they be? He’d closed the study door on her before, but this was another chance to try and retrieve them.

“What do you do here?” she asked, playing for time.

He took a long slow breath. At least she’d changed the subject. Maybe that was a good sign, even though two spots of colour stained her cheekbones, and the rest of her face still looked chalky white with fury. “Internet projects. Some years back I created a very good Service Provider—an ISP—with a friend. We sold it for… more than I could have dreamed of. That’s what set me up. And I’m on the board of the company who bought it.”

“And?”

“Other business interests. I’m quite involved with the vineyard these days. And a graphics enterprise—I’ve always been keen on photography. Lottie’s not the only artist in the family.”

“As you so ably demonstrated today,” she agreed, flicking him a look of disdain.

He watched as she returned her gaze to his shelves and desk-tops. “Yes… well… my biggest project—where my brain really is right now—is the software I’m working on.

Kate nodded, but her eyes continued to avoid his.

“And that’s why I need you to stay and help Lottie,” he added. “I need time and concentration for this.”

Kate turned away with a sigh. She knew there was no way she could stay—and survive.

There was no sign of the sketches. Maybe he’d slid them between the filing cabinets? The sheets of paper were too big for any of the drawers, and she couldn’t see them on the shelves. She wasn’t prepared to beg for them. Not yet.

She glanced at her watch. “Lottie sent me down with a message. She wants her dinner brought upstairs. She’s decided to sleep up there tonight. Okay with you?”

Tough if it isn’t.

She turned and left him to it, but he followed her to the study doorway. She knew he was watching; his eyes almost burned holes in her spine. She tossed her hair back as she walked, and tried to make her long-legged stride confident and graceful.

“I’m going out for a while,” he called after her retreating figure.

She didn’t look back. Simply kept going, although she did raise a hand in a half-hearted acknowledgement of his comment.

Good. He’d be out of the way, and Lottie was upstairs and didn’t need her. She could have a proper search for the damned sketches in a little while. She returned to her seat in the lowering sun.

Matthew swung himself into the SUV with a quiet and heartfelt curse. Offending Kate had been the last thing on his mind. He needed someone for Lottie. Needed someone desperately, so he could live his own life again.

Lottie was not properly well—some sort of neurological problem, as yet undiagnosed. Multiple Sclerosis? It was early for that. She’d be very young to have it. So far the major symptom was her clumsiness. Her feet didn’t always know where the rest of her body was.

She was his responsibility, and he’d look after her whatever the eventual outcome. But she was demanding. And she was scared—however vigorously she appeared to be getting on with life.

Kate was by far the best applicant for the job. If he could persuade her to stay it would take a big weight off his mind (and maybe bring all sorts of other problems, he acknowledged grimly.) There was nothing for it except to jump in, feet-first, and see what happened. For the next few days at least, he had someone to share his ‘Lottie-watching’ duties. He was confident he could prevent Kate from discovering anything too vital about his business before Sunday. And equally confident that by then he’d know a whole lot more about her.

He accelerated sharply once he hit the road, roaring along far past the speed limit until the major intersection forced him to slow down and blend with other traffic. He felt edgy, super-aware of his skin and the blood coursing warmly just beneath it.

He’d enjoyed seeing Kate really angry, although he regretted being the one to upset her. She’d revealed herself as strong willed and passionate—a challenge to any virile red-blooded male. She could certainly stand up for herself when she felt the situation warranted it.

She’d make a feisty lover. His body stirred again, thinking of her. Naked and eager for him. Her glorious hair tumbling over his pillows. Arms upraised in welcome, urging him to take her, tugging him down so they were skin to skin and mouth on mouth.

He looked forward to the vineyard party with extra enjoyment now, picturing her tall body in a slide of wine-red fabric—heavy, shining, figure-hugging. The dress she’d seen in her dreams. In his, too, by the sound of it.

She had dynamite legs; he’d enjoyed them in the spa-room the previous evening when he’d gotten a quick glimpse before she submersed herself. Not to mention a couple of hours ago in the studio. Yes, a long split skirt to show them off.

Friends would notice her and start speculating immediately. They’d all want to know more, and be curious as hell. He grinned to himself. It was time they thought he had a new woman, even though the truth might be far from that.

It was a long time since he’d felt so attracted. Kate had appeared like a flash of lightning through a thunderous sky—so desirable he could barely keep away. He needed her as an employee, but he also wanted her as a woman.

Dangerous choice, he muttered to himself. Was she the bait in a honey-trap? She wouldn’t be the first pretty woman sent to distract a man while making off with his secrets.

He’d trusted his ex-wife, Martine. Loved her. Thought she’d loved him. Had never seen the sting coming. Ever since then, his electronic security arrangements had been extreme.

He’d call Sy Karlsen and ask him to check Kate out. He’d scan that CV for starters, and email it off. Sy was a discreet and thorough investigator. If Kate Pleasance had things to hide, Sy would lay them bare. And in the meantime, Matthew decided he’d pursue her for the pure pleasure of it.

 

Chapter Ten — Searching for Sketches

Once he’d left, Kate prowled along the main hallway and slipped into Matthew’s study. She peered between all the cabinets, and anywhere else he could have hidden the big sketches. She found nothing.

She quickly searched the luxurious sitting room, although she found it an unlikely hiding place. Nothing. Except memories of a pleasant evening, and the knowing look he’d given her when he caught her inspecting him. Again, she felt the delicious heat flowing through her; the ridiculous craving and edgy excitement.

Get back to the job in hand, Kate!

There were no sketches in the magnificent dining room, either.

Bedrooms, then? She peeked into the room next to hers where Diana and Hamish had slept. Nothing under the big bed. Nothing in the generous walk-in wardrobe. Nothing in any of the drawers. Or in the en suite bathroom.

Nothing in her own room, naturally.

Nothing in the two bedrooms further along the hallway.

Nothing even remotely resembling sketches in the chilly storeroom, although the racks of wine were impressive, and she found skis and snowboards, and all manner of other things there.

Could he have deviously hidden them up in the studio? She trod up the densely carpeted stairs and peered around. Lord—that was a mission…

She crossed to Lottie’s bedroom, ostensibly to check on her wellbeing.

“Would you like any more coffee? Or anything?”

“Ach, Katie—you’re a good girl. No thank you. Just dinner when it’s ready. How is that painting looking now?”

Kate grimaced. “Very different from the sketches Matthew did.”

Lottie grinned at her expression. “I never saw the second one. How was it?”

“I’ll see if I can find the pad for you,” she said, pleased to have an excuse to dig around. But a further search amongst the mess brought no result.

She returned downstairs, hurried to the front of the house, and checked for any sign of him returning. The long driveway was empty.

There were no sketches hidden in the wonderfully appointed gym where very hot scenes featuring a bare-chested Matthew floated through her mind and would not be erased.

The spa-room and changing room weren’t really options, although she glanced quickly into each.

So that left only the main bedroom, and now her search was getting far too personal. She hesitated by the half open door, breathing fast, heart lurching and fluttering as though she’d just run for miles. Then she took two quick steps inside, pushed the door almost closed, and tried hard to concentrate. This was where he slept, where he showered, where he made love. Where the scent of him lingered.

It was a huge calm silver-grey room with silky black curtains and a very large bed with a throw of the same glossy fabric. Kate crouched and peered underneath. It was low to the floor. Nothing.

There were black lacquered chests set either side of the bed. Not big enough to conceal the sketches. She hesitated, fingers caressing one of the drawer-pulls, wondering if she dared to open it. Wanting to open it and share a little more of his life. But perhaps this was Lottie’s side of the bed? The clock-radio and empty coffee mug on top gave no clue. The other chest had nail scissors, a hank of ribbon, and a box wrapped in birthday paper. Sighing, she turned away, resolved not to spy unnecessarily.

Her gaze drifted to two comfortable armchairs set by floor-to-ceiling glass doors in front of a sunny terrace. A table between them held magazines, books and framed photographs.

She bent to see better. A younger Hamish and Diana with boys and dogs. Matthew, Lottie, and a small, dark-haired child. The same small boy again, close-up, held in masculine arms. Lottie beautifully dressed at a formal ceremony. Matthew, impassive behind sunglasses, lounging against a small plane.

She touched the glass with a finger, sliding over his face, down his body, all the way to his booted feet. Felt the arousing sensations that even a photo of him caused.

You don’t like him. You don’t want him. He’s not available. He’s nothing but an arrogant tease.

She made herself turn away and scan the huge walk-through wardrobe for anything that could be his sketches. Nothing—unless they were concealed in the travel bags on the topmost rack, which seemed unlikely.

She turned back to the table. Whose was the child? She’d not detected any sign of children in the house, nor heard any mention. She stole another look at the photos, intrigued and confused. The small dark-haired boy looked nothing like Hamish and Diana’s sons. But was that Matthew’s Rolex just visible below the cuff of the shirt? Could Matthew have a son somewhere?

She jumped as the telephone shrilled. Not wanting to be in such a private space for a second longer than needed, she raced back to the living room to answer it.

“Kate, it’s Diana. Is Matthew there?”

“Can I ask him to phone you back? Or you could try his mobile? He’s out, but not for too much longer.”

“Well, it’s just about the movie tonight. The new James Bond thing. He gave us tickets for the charity premiere and I wanted to ask a couple of questions.”

“I’ll tell him you rang.”

“How’s Lottie doing?”

“She’s gone to bed, very sensibly. But she says she’s going on some sort of visit tomorrow. She seems good, but I don’t know her well yet of course.”

“If she’s in bed, she won’t be going to the premiere. Will you come with us? Shame to waste a hundred dollar seat?”

Kate sighed, tempted to spend more time with such pleasant people. “I’ve nothing fancy to wear.”

Diana chuckled. “Lord, it’s not a dress-up deal! Only a movie. No sequins required.”

“Well, okay. Maybe. I’ll get Matthew to phone you as soon as he’s back.”

The distant rumble of the garage door signalled his return a few minutes later. He loped in to the kitchen where Kate was making coffee, and dumped several packages onto the dark green marble counter.

The moment he entered the room, her body screamed into emergency mode. She found it impossible to ignore him, feeling him intruding on her personal space even from several feet away. “Diana phoned about your movie tonight,” she said.

He looked blank for a moment. “Oh, the charity thing? That’s crept up faster than I expected. Tonight?”

Kate nodded. “Apparently. I said you’d get back to her.”

“Damn… so much for a leisurely dinner.” He grabbed his phone. “Di? Kate said you rang?”

She watched him in profile. Thick dark lashes, long nose with its imperfectly mended break, beetling black brows over ever-alert eyes, the uncompromising jut of his jaw, the hard ridge of his cheekbone. Nothing soft anywhere. Totally male. A tough face apart from those surprisingly lush eyelashes.

“Yes, of course she will,” Kate heard. “We’ll see you there at a quarter to.”

She watched as he set a plateful of last night’s leftover curry and rice to heat in the microwave oven.

“Can you make some more of that salad?” he asked, opening the fridge and retrieving a part bottle of wine.

“For Lottie?”

“Gets her out of the way. We’ve lost a bit of time with that movie.”

Kate complied, and took the tray upstairs. By the time she returned, Matthew had fried rice under way in a wok and pungent chilli sizzling in a pan. A pile of huge tiger prawns awaited transformation, and he’d poured two glasses of wine.

“How’s she feeling now?” he threw over his shoulder.

“Well enough to tackle food, anyway. Asking for you.”

He grimaced at that. “Better do it right now. Can you keep an eye on this?” He banged his stirring spoon against the side of the wok and laid it on a chopping board. “And deal to these?” he suggested, indicating the bags of bok choy, bean-sprouts and celery on the counter.

So he was quite domesticated? Kate wondered about that as she stirred and chopped. Would it be his first wife’s influence, or Lottie’s? Probably the wife who’d bought him the beautiful gold chain. The wife he’d described as ‘wrong’. Lottie seemed not to have an ounce of kitchen pride to judge by the filthy dishes upstairs. Although the curry had been delicious… Her speculations swirled around until Matthew bounded back in. “Nothing but drama,” he muttered, tipping the prawns into the pan where they hissed and sizzled.

“Who taught you to cook?” she asked.

“Me.”

It was such a cold and uncompromising answer that she turned away and took cutlery to the table. The same table where, a little earlier, her butt had made a spectacular statement in his artwork. Moments later, he set her hot and fragrant requested dinner down in front of her.

“Thank you—this looks… delicious,” she said, trying not to sound too grateful.

He turned away, and returned with the two glasses of wine.

By then she’d torn the tail off a succulent prawn and popped it into her mouth.

His quicksilver gaze sought and held hers. “You’ll come to the movie with me?”

Not a request, she noted. A statement. Again.

She swallowed. “The premiere tonight? Maybe.”

One corner of his mouth kicked up, and he reached for one of his own prawns. “I don’t see Lottie managing the cinema stairs in her present condition.”

Kate smirked to herself. She’d be safe enough with him in a big crowd like that. She tore the tail off another prawn, licking her fingers as the juice spurted out. Matthew’s eyes followed her every move.

“You can’t eat these with a knife and fork,” she protested.

He shook his head, agreeing.

“Or chopsticks,” she added.

“I’m pleased to see you enjoying them.” He reached toward her chin as though to touch it.

She reared back out of his reach. “Don’t do things like that,” she snapped.

“Boyfriend a bit too recent?” he asked.

Wife a bit too close, she thought. “Something along those lines,” she murmured.

Matthew leaned back in his chair with a broad grin, looking as though he could wait if he had to. Looking as though he had unlimited patience when it came to solving problems, which he probably had for the work he did.

Kate reminded herself to remember that and keep her distance.

She walked automatically to the passenger door of the SUV, but Matthew called her back. “Around the other way. We’ll take the car tonight.”

She’d glimpsed a racy red vehicle on the other side of the big garage and taken no particular notice of it, assuming it to be Lottie’s.

“You rather suit each other,” he added as he handed her in to the passenger seat of his very new, very powerful Alpha Romeo.

Kate tugged her skirt down and inhaled. The expensive upholstery smelled divine.

Matthew reached for the seatbelt and squatted beside the low-slung car to fasten it for her. He leaned inside, invading her space outrageously, and his own scent wafted through the air, even more enticing than the luxurious leather.

“I can do that, thanks,” she said, trying to fend him off.

“I’m sure you can,” he murmured, taking no notice and gliding the belt down over her breasts and clicking it into place. “But I wouldn’t want you coming to any harm while you’re in my care, Katie.”

His face stayed only inches away. His dangerous wonderful mouth was so easily within reach again. His eyes laughed at her discomfort. It was all Kate could do not to lean forward that tiny distance and bite him with furious longing.

Matthew trailed his big hand from her hip, along her thigh to her knee. He gave it a hint of a squeeze as he stood again to push the door shut. The moment he’d gone, Kate wanted him back, no matter that it could lead nowhere. She dared not have him. She was desperate to touch him. She had to resist…

Her defences were crumbling to dust.

The sleek scarlet car purred and roared and spat as he wound it up to high speed on the long straight before the main road. Every corner of Kate’s body throbbed, although was it from the sexy car or the sexy man?

He wore a hand-tailored dark suit, a snowy shirt, and a misty grey tie. Conservative. Expensive. Devastating.

He’d recently shaved, and his short hair still looked shower-damp. She longed to reach out and ruffle it up, comb her fingers through it, and scrape her nails lightly down his neck.

In the pulsing darkness of the car, she drank him in while he concentrated on the road.

She’d worn her cream suit and the black shirt he’d ‘persuaded’ her to buy. When she’d appeared, he’d subjected her to a thorough and appreciative inspection, and said, “Better than the chocolate.” Kate knew he was right. The black set off her skin and hair the way the chocolate never would have.

His photographer’s sense was acute. The details of the house were totally his. The unexpected flashes of colour in clever juxtaposition to each other, the skilful arrangements of the wonderful pieces of art, the fittings and finishes in every room… all Matthew, all superb, all the result of his sharp and clever eyes.

She hoped she met his standards, whatever they were. She’d pulled her hair up in an elegant twist, out of the way of his long exploring fingers, and applied her makeup lightly but with care. Yes, it was only a movie, and they’d be sitting in the dark, but she had her standards, too. “Are you sure Lottie will be all right without us?” she asked as he eased off the accelerator before the main road.

“She’s safe enough in bed. It’s only for a couple of hours, Katie. Relax and enjoy some time off.”

Relax? With him?

But being dressed up, transported in such a slinky car, and looked after by a man whose every glance suggested extreme pleasure could be hers if she’d only say yes, was certainly no hardship.

“So what’s this movie?”

“The latest 007. Guns, girls, gadgets. One of the service clubs is raising money for things. Child cancer research from memory.”

He fell suddenly and unnervingly silent.

Awareness flooded through her. Was that what had happened to the boy in the photo? The little dark-haired boy who was possibly his son? There was no way she could ask—Matthew had never mentioned him. She’d only discovered him by spying.

“You can enjoy the girls and I’ll enjoy James then,” she said as lightly as she could.

“Your sort of man, is he? Vicious? Dangerous? Single-minded?”

“In your dreams.”

She saw the snowy flash of his teeth as Matthew smiled. They were into the town now, and the streetlights slid long shadows and bright moving pools of gold over the car’s interior.

“You should have worn that chain with your shirt,” he said.

“It’s in my room. I meant to give it back to you, but the day took some interesting twists.”

“Agreed.”

She shot him a suspicious glance. What did he mean? “So?”

His face remained innocence itself. “You’re on a fairly difficult mission, Katie.”

“Well, I’m only on it for a few more days.”

“More’s the pity. Never mind, we’ll make the most of them.” He slowed to a crawl and pressed the button on a remote control unit before turning into an alleyway. “Not the sort of car you leave out on the street at night, if you can avoid it,” he added as a warehouse door rumbled open and lights flickered on.

Kate caught her breath. Waves of apprehension skittered up her spine. She hadn’t expected this. “Where are we?”

“A little place I own. Nice and central for parking. We lived upstairs while the house was being built.”

“Not so little,” she said, relaxing slightly and gazing around.

“Space for Lottie to paint. And to store the furniture and fittings we collected for the house. I don’t use it for much, now. Hamish has a remote, too.”

Right on cue, another vehicle rolled inside.

The door crept slowly down again as he and Kate climbed out of the Alpha. “You going to be warm enough?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Is it far?”

“How’s Sis?” Hamish asked her before Matthew could answer. “Driving you mad yet?”

Kate prickled hot and cold, suddenly alight with suspicion. Could he mean Lottie?

She swallowed.

Sis?

If Matthew and Lottie were not man and wife, that put a totally different spin on things. Made an affair between him and herself possible—and even more impossible.

“She… um… insisted on starting a painting as soon as we arrived home.”

Sis? The name scorched and sizzled in her brain.

“And then she sensibly… went to bed for a rest…”

Hamish laughed. “Minor miracle,” he agreed, apparently noticing nothing strange in Kate’s hesitant speech.

“Nice to see you again,” Diana said, as if Kate’s world hadn’t just been tossed upside down.

“Yes. And you,” she murmured, fighting tremors of dread and delight.

Matthew led the way through the building. He opened the door to the street. It was only a short walk in the chilly air before they were inside the cinema, but Kate shook for the whole distance as shivers danced up and down her spine.

She feverishly reviewed the family’s composition. Hamish and Matthew were brothers. Diana was Hamish’s wife. Surely Lottie was Matthew’s wife? No-one had said she wasn’t. But when she thought about it carefully, no-one had actually said she was, either. Her mind whirled with possibilities, probabilities, complications.

Matthew had mentioned a stepmother. His father had married twice. Could Lottie be the child of the second marriage? A half-sister to the two boys?

Or maybe a stepsister? No blood relation at all? In which case Matthew could perfectly well have married her. Kate had a friend who’d done just that, so she was no further ahead with her speculating.

They handed in their tickets. Diana greeted friends and introduced Kate. Beside them, Matthew and Hamish discussing pruning the vines. Everything was normal. And everything had just been blown apart. How could she find out for sure?

Matthew took her arm as the queue moved slowly forward, and Hamish positioned himself beside Diana. Kate was dismayed to find they’d not all be sitting together; Hamish and Diana had seats three rows in front of Matthew. His were at the far end of the back row, in the darkest, most private corner.

 

Chapter Eleven — Double-Oh-Sexy

She stared at him in disbelief. Her face must have spoken volumes because he laughed softly and bent to whisper close to her ear. “Top-secret seat next to the wall, Katie. Heaps of leg-room. I’m too tall to be really comfortable anywhere else.”

And she had to admit there was indeed room for his long legs because of the way the seats were arranged.

They sat. Kate was now wedged right beside him for the rest of the evening. She held her arms close against her sides so they wouldn’t rub against his, but the scent of his cologne floated in her direction. The heat of his big lean body came with it, wrapping around her. She became ever more conscious of his impressive physicality, his broad shoulders, his unyielding strength. No-one had yet arrived to claim the next seat, so she leaned a little in that direction while she could.

It was exquisite torture to be so close, and to still have no answer to her ‘Sis’ dilemma. How could she ask him without giving herself away? The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was curious about his marital status and open to starting anything that could have no satisfactory end.

After two or three excruciating minutes, the lights dimmed. The service club president appeared with a microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s wonderful to see so many of you here this evening. I thank you for your generosity in supporting these two most worthy causes.” A scattering of applause broke out and she waited for silence. “Yes, our community will be making a substantial donation towards child cancer research. New Zealand has leading scientists in this field, and your money will be put to excellent use.” Again, the audience applauded. “And,” the president continued, “of huge importance in this area of the country is the work of the mountain rescue teams. The police and experienced volunteers pluck locals and tourists alike from life-threatening situations in our mountains and rivers. They need specialised equipment to carry out this dangerous work, and that’s where the other half of this evening’s contributions are headed.”

This time louder applause erupted from the audience.

And as the lights slowly dimmed further, Matthew slid an arm around Kate’s shoulders.

She drew a sharp breath as the warm weight settled about her.

“This is pleasant, isn’t it?” he said.

She shot him a venomous glare. His lips twitched, laughing at her, teasing her.

“As long as it stays pleasant,” she said in a tight voice.

“I’m sure I can promise you that,” he murmured as the lights faded to full darkness.

“Take your arm away please.”

The opening music was strident… the volume high. He either hadn’t heard or pretended he hadn’t.

She leaned closer and put her lips against his ear. “Take your arm away please.”

It lifted from her shoulders, but instantly his big hand cradled the back of her head, holding her captive unnervingly near to his face. He nudged the tip of her nose with his own, and slowly, softly, began to explore her mouth. Gentle kisses. Hardly making contact. But Kate sensed every nerve ending leaping to panic level as he moved his lips over hers with delicate butterfly brushes. His tongue traced the outline of her mouth, and he leisurely kissed the bow of her top lip, each corner, and then nipped softly as he slid lower.

She’d instantly tried to pull away, but his grip was sure. His mouth swallowed her exclamation of annoyance, and then her resistance fled on swift feet. She’d wanted this. Wanted him. Wanted to know the taste of him. Wanted to touch and take. Her fingers slid though his short thick hair, caressed his neck, cupped his jaw.

His scent swirled around her—earthy, musky, male.

He tasted sweet. Dark. Dangerous.

Kate parted her lips, and he responded by deepening his kiss, plunging his tongue inside her mouth to duel with hers. She heard herself moan. Thank God for the noisy movie soundtrack!

She’d not been expecting to have to fend him off so soon.

Fend him off? What a joke. She was pulling him closer with each passing second.

She dismissed a twinge of guilt about Lottie. Lottie would never know. Must never know. It was just a kiss. Only a kiss. No way would it lead to anything more.

And she mightn’t be his wife, anyway.

Delicious warmth ricocheted everywhere as his assured tongue explored. Deep in her belly, she quivered, hot and liquid. Tiny muscles clenched and relaxed in a foretaste of ecstasy.

You should pull away from him right now, her brain commanded.

But not for a few more seconds, her body argued.

And to her utter devastation, it was Matthew who broke the contact, leaving her confused and abandoned, awakened and shaking, and on fire.

He settled back into his seat with a sigh, linked his fingers through hers, and laid her hand high on his thigh, confining it there with the pressure of his own. The back of her wrist registered his cock was rock-hard. She sat there, stunned.

Her mind had embroidered that kiss into something truly sinful. It had obviously affected Matthew, too, but it seemed he’d remembered he was married. Or decided she wasn’t really worth the bother. Or, worse still, proved he could get her to respond to him and felt no need to take the game further.

She’d wanted him so much. Today was Thursday. She had three days to enjoy being close to him without actually falling into his bed. Now he seemed engrossed in the movie! She felt his long thigh muscles responding to the action…tensing with the car-chase excitement… shaking with laughter during the lighter moments… jerking with the gunshots. He made no other move in her direction, but he was sure as hell still violently aroused.

She seethed—furious with him, even more furious with herself. He thought she was so easy, did he? And she’d damned well proved him right.

She had no idea what was happening on the screen—Matthew had taken over her brain. Sweet surrenders and sharp rejoinders whirled around in a vivid and sickening mess. She felt cheap and foolish. And alive and desirous. And angry beyond belief.

As the movie ended, he turned to her. “Fair enough way to spend an hour or two,” he said, seeming to think she’d feel the same.

Kate tried very hard to keep her cool. No way would she let him know she’d been demolished with lust for him, and shaking with disappointment at his desertion.

She summoned up a small nod, not trusting herself to speak. Not trusting herself to even look him in the eye after what he’d done. And after the way she’d reacted.

He finally released her hand. What would Hamish and Diana have thought if he hadn’t? God, it didn’t bear thinking about!

The four of them met in the foyer, and strolled together back to the cars. “Who’s for the spa?” Matthew enquired.

Diana shook her head. “Early start tomorrow,” she said.

“Not if you’re opening those damn doors again,” Hamish added.

“Looks like it’s just you and me then, Katie.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said tartly.

The temperature had plummeted. Freezing mist haloed the street-lights. Already tiny spikes of ice stood glistening on every level surface. A soak in the spa would have been heaven, but not after what had happened at the cinema, and certainly not if they’d be alone this time.

Matthew laughed—his warm breath a steaming wreath in the sub-zero air. He seemed not to mind either way.

“Love to Sis,” Hamish called. “Tell her we missed her.”

And there it was again. Kate prickled hot and cold, desperate to know the truth.

Hamish beeped his car unlocked, and in seconds, he and Diana were seated and reversing out of the warehouse.

Matthew opened the Alpha Romeo, and watched as Kate arranged her long legs. “Silly car for tall people, but it was a promise I made myself.”

“It’s yours then, not your… Lottie’s?”

How could she find out if they were married or not? She didn’t want to ask him outright, and possibly broadcast her interest in him.

He appeared not to notice her hesitation. “She hardly ever drives. This would be your toy if you stayed…?”

She drew a sharp breath and shook her head. “Not really my style.”

“Too flashy for you? I’ll buy you something else then. A nice, sedate little Beamer?”

“I’m not coming back, Matthew. I can’t.” She reached for her seatbelt and snapped it into place.

“Why not?”

Because my body is screaming for yours. Because you turn me on by just looking at me. Because your mouth tastes like honey, and your hair feels like feathers, and your skin is as hot and smooth as polished timber in sunshine. Because, after all, you might actually be available. And that’s too much to contemplate right now.

She shook her head again, willing her voice not to tremble. “It’s not quite the situation I had in mind, and you haven’t offered it to me anyway, so no harm done.”

He stayed silent, watching her with total attention before closing her door and walking around to his own. He’d scanned her CV and sent it to Sy Karlsen while she changed for the movie. Had she decided to make a graceful exit because her attempt at industrial espionage had proved difficult? Or because he and she were so hot together she was running scared?

Their one kiss had pressed every panic button in his big body. Another embrace like that and he’d have slung her across his shoulder, and marched out of the cinema intent on fucking her until they both expired from lust.

 

Chapter Twelve — Moth to a Flame

The car ceased its throaty growl. Kate released her seatbelt and slid out with all possible speed, hoping to make a dash for her room. Matthew’s door was closer to the hallway though, and he intercepted her with ease. “Will you join me?”

Hoping he meant in the spa, she shook her head. “No thank you. I’m tired. I’ll sleep easily tonight. You need to go and check on Lottie.”

And I’m certainly not giving you the chance to start anything again.

“You’re running away from me?” One dark eyebrow rose in challenge, and a corner of his mouth kicked up in a slow burn of a grin.

“Of course I’m not,” she insisted. Warmth spread everywhere as her body reacted to the invitation implicit in his expression. She’d known from the moment she met him he’d have a devastating smile, but hadn’t calculated on its effect on her. All of her. Places that had no right to be wet and willing suddenly felt very wet and willing indeed.

He shook his head slowly. “Lottie can wait. She’s probably asleep by now anyway.”

Kate pictured her. On the other floor of the house. Well away from here. Unable to walk easily. She’d never discover us…

Her face flamed at her unsettling thoughts, and something in her expression made Matthew pause and look at her with extra intensity. “Not my night then?”

“Absolutely not. Whatever made you think it would be?” She held her breath at the outrageous challenge she’d thrown him.

“The small matter of that kiss,” he said, raising a hand and running a finger along her cheekbone and delicately around the curl of her ear.

“I should have slapped your face. Or moved to that empty seat.”

“But you didn’t, Katie. You left me with a little bit of hope. Just like you’re doing now.”

“Hope for what?” she demanded, pushing at his hand too late. Oh, she was making a real mess of this. She should have flounced off in a temper; shown him she wanted nothing to do with him. Something held her there though. Attracted as a moth to a flame.

“Hope that you might finally be relaxing and starting to enjoy your time with us.” He caught her hand in his much larger one and turned her so she was obliged to step through into the hallway. “With me.”

“Of course I’m enjoying it,” she protested. “The house is beautiful. Lottie is a real pleasure to know—even if she caught me unawares by expecting I’d pose for her.”

“But I don’t get a mention?” His mercurial eyes pinned her in place.

“Why would you expect a mention? All you’ve done so far is tease me and make fun of me. Draw me while I was practically naked and couldn’t move…” She glared at him. “I’d like those drawings of me returned please. Where have you put them?”

“We’ll worry about those tomorrow. Right now, I need to check on Lottie, as you’ve so dutifully reminded me. If I really can’t tempt you to the spa?”

“No, you can’t. I’ve already said that. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about those sketches.” She pulled away, and Matthew let go of her hand with apparent reluctance. “Good night,” she added, somewhat more graciously. “Thank you for the movie.”

“Sleep well then.”

Not a chance.

But eventually, of course, after what felt like a whole night of frustrated wide-awake tossing, she did fall gently asleep. And between the fine cotton sheets, under the lightest goose-down quilt, in the deeply luxurious bed, he was there. Everywhere in her dreams, he was there.

In the spa-pool again, taking outrageous liberties with her body.

At the movies, where her panties seemed to have disappeared.

In the car, which had suddenly grown plenty big enough for him to lower his tall body over hers, entering her, sliding provocatively until her body clenched around his and she shrieked with the jolting, searing sensations that he summoned.

“Katie?”

She lurched bolt upright in bed.

“What were you muttering about? I couldn’t quite hear.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God. Thank heavens he couldn’t!

“It’s a great morning. Tea or coffee?” He crossed to the window and drew the thick curtains aside. A shaft of sunlight spilled across the floor.

Kate had been deep asleep, dreaming vividly, hot with wanting. She turned her flushed and confused face up as he approached the bed again, and jerked the covers to her chin. “Don’t you ever knock?”

“Twice. You must have been dead to the world.”

She gazed at him sleepily, narrowing her eyes against the light, and willing her heart to stop its frantic thumping.

Matthew grinned. “Sorry if I woke you. But it’s a fantastic day, and it’s almost nine o’clock. We need to buy that dress, and then I thought I’d fly you down to Milford for lunch.”

“Milford Sound?”

“Where else? There’ll be marvellous views of the mountains today.”

Kate swallowed. “Coffee, thanks.”

Oh, this was ridiculous! This was way out of her league. He’d suggested a flight in a private plane as though it was a bus ride around town. Preceded by a nerve-jangling shopping trip where he’d play sugar daddy again.

“I’m supposed to be helping Lottie,” she tried.

“She’s gone out with some painting friends—miles off toward Glen Orchy. There’s no stopping her,” he added when Kate exclaimed with distress. “They’ll look after her,” he threw over his shoulder as he turned to retrieve a laden tray from the hallway. Tea and coffee pots. Sleek white crockery. A warm Danish pastry. Three huge strawberries. He set it on the nearby chest.

Kate blinked at the selection. “Is this breakfast?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t know what you’d want. Lottie always likes a couple of biscuits with her first drink of the day.”

“Crumbs in the bed,” Kate said.

“Fate worse than death,” he added, and they dissolved into unexpected laughter together.

He poured the coffee she requested, then filled the second cup for himself, ignoring the comfortable armchair by the window and sitting companionably on the end of the bed. “Di’s suggested a suitably expensive shop for the party dress,” he said. “And some of the hotels have very good boutiques. We can try anywhere you like.”

Kate sat up and tucked the sheet firmly around her breasts to shield them from his very interested eyes. “I wouldn’t have a clue,” she said eying him over the rim of her cup as she sipped the strong smoky coffee. He wore blue jeans and a navy sweatshirt with no visible layer beneath. A small expanse of tanned skin teased her where the sweatshirt dipped in front. It was the most casually dressed she’d seen him, but he still looked a force to be reckoned with.

Some men just had it. Matthew had it—whatever it was. Even in the most basic clothes, slouched on a bed, he looked like he could take on the world and win. Add the private plane, the incredible house, the classy car, and it was still the man who intrigued her the most, though.

“Why did you kiss me like that at the cinema?” she blurted, horrified to hear her words aloud when she’d meant only to turn the question around in her mind.

He smiled very slightly. “I haven’t taken a pretty girl to the movies in ages.”

“That’s not an answer,” she pressed. Okay, she’d already put her foot in it—she might as well totally demolish herself. There was nothing left to lose now.

“Couldn’t resist you.”

She held his eyes with hers. “So why did you stop?” she asked less bravely.

She’d invented a dozen reasons. Because one kiss was all I wanted. Because I’d got you. Because you didn’t fight me off. Because of Lottie. Which would he choose?

“Because a crowded cinema’s not the right place for what I had in mind.”

Kate dropped her gaze. What an arrogant son-of-a-bitch he was. So sure of himself—and sure of her too, apparently.

She exhaled quietly, hoping to hide the tension that had made her hold her breath. “I felt what you had in mind. Much too hopeful of you, I thought.”

He snarled—laughing, deliberate—like a cartoon tiger. Then stood, placed his cup on the tray and left her alone in her room.

Far too slowly, her blood pressure subsided toward something near normal. Well, she’d be safe enough in the boutique with him. Annoyed maybe, but safe.

He could hardly make a play for her while piloting the plane.

And Milford Sound was such a tourist attraction there’d be hundreds of people there to prevent any dangerous privacy. Even though Lottie would be out of the picture, today shouldn’t be too perilous.

Kate swung her legs out of bed and stepped barefoot across the deep carpet to take a stinging, steaming shower. If only she could wash him off with soap…

What should she wear for trying on party gowns and flying over the Southern Alps? The raspberry leather jacket seemed suitable for flying. She teamed it with jeans, her new walking boots, and a cosy cream angora cardigan. Sharon had persuaded her to buy the matching scarf and ski-cap. She decided to take them in case it was cold in the small plane. It was certainly frosty outside, even though the sun now cast long hard shadows and brilliant slides of light over everything.

The delicious aroma of bacon floated toward her as she drew closer to the kitchen. She’d enjoyed her Danish and the strawberries, but the savoury tang still turned her taste-buds on. She claimed a couple of rashers from the grill tray and joined Matthew at the table, folding them into a slice of whole-wheat bread to make an impromptu sandwich.

Minutes later, they set off for Queenstown in the SUV—Matthew again driving slowly because of the slippery roads.

The ‘suitably expensive shop’ had some dazzling dresses, but nothing quite as wine-red and low-backed as Kate had imagined. She declined to try anything on.

But at the first hotel boutique they struck lucky. Matthew lifted a hanger off the rack with a jubilant laugh. A slim black dress. But with a slippery dark red facing across the fitted bodice that ran down to a waist-deep V at the back. And repeated around the hip-high slash in the skirt. Definitely a dress for a woman with high breasts, long legs and a smooth spine. Kate’s mouth watered.

He swooped it up over his other arm and presented it to her. She checked the size, inclined her head graciously, and disappeared into the changing room.

“When do we get to see it?” he called after a while.

“When I’m ready,” Kate grunted. She’d had to unlace the boots to get her jeans off, and the struggle was taking time.

A minute or two later she flipped the curtain aside and stepped out. Her striped socks didn’t help the total look, but the dress was perfection. It clung and hung in all the right places, totally decent, but leaving very little to the imagination.

Matthew rose from his chair and examined her closely.

She performed a slow turn for him. It was a dream of a dress—she knew she’d never find anything better. He reached out and ran a finger across her back, tweaking one of the slender straps that supported the bodice.

“You’ll have to take your bra off an hour or so before you put it on,” he said. “Nice back, Katie—but not with elastic marks across it.”

Was that the best he could manage? Was it even a compliment? She whirled around to face him, claws at the ready, searching for the perfect pithy reply. He grinned broadly, knowing he’d won that point.

Kate stilled. She took a deep breath, watching his silvery eyes as they settled on her breasts. She slid her long creamy thigh provocatively through the satin-edged slit of the skirt. His gaze followed. Kate laughed inwardly, twitched the skirt back into place and waltzed in triumph back to the fitting room. Gotcha.

“Bring your boots out here,” he called a little later. The curtain stopped a little shy of the floor—no doubt he’d seen her jeans were now on and the boots still off.

She pushed the fabric aside and lifted her hair up to free it from inside the jacket collar. “Why bring the boots out?”

“So I can do them up properly for you.” His eyes still roved over her hair.

Kate handed the dress to the sales assistant. “We’ll take it,” she said, flinching only slightly at the outrageous price.

Matthew rose from the chair and indicated she should sit. He knelt in front of her, legs parted. And set one of her feet firmly and precisely where his thighs joined. Kate caught her breath and tried to wriggle away.

“Mmmm,” he hummed. “Nice action, Katie.”

She stopped her wriggling. One striped sock and a layer of blue denim separated her from his warm and willing body—and it was becoming more willing by the moment. Horrified, she felt him slowly lengthening and hardening beneath her toes. And he held her foot right there as he leisurely loosened off her bootlaces with the fingers of his other hand.

He looked up at her and quirked an eyebrow as he finally slid her boot on and repositioned her foot again. At least the tough ridged sole was now between them. She resolutely locked her eyes on his until he looked down with a small chuckle and started to rethread the laces. Two could play at this, she decided.

The immaculately groomed sales assistant stood only feet away, folding the dress, making a great crackle with sheets of tissue paper on the countertop. It gave a whole new meaning to menage a trois, Kate thought, suppressing a giggle.

He finished his job and set her booted foot aside.

Kate gracefully lifted the other and positioned it as he had, adding a wriggle of her toes and a little nudge from her heel as though she was settling herself comfortably.

“Goodness, Matthew,” she said. “What a nuisance that must be for you.”

He compressed his lips, refusing to comment, but a snort of laughter soon rewarded her.

She had the measure of his game now. And the measure of more besides. Okay, he wanted to play. She wasn’t about to let him win again without a decent fight. She pressed a little harder, flexing her toes against him. He unlaced her other boot and then ran a finger caressingly under her arch as he inserted her foot. Kate jerked and caught her breath.

“I must see how to do this,” she said, once the sensation had lessened off a little. She leaned over, ostensibly to watch his fingers rethreading the laces. Her hair swung forward in a soft concealing cloud, brushing over his face, surrounding him in shadowed fragrance.

“Katie…” he growled.

“Am I making things difficult for you?” she asked with mock-innocence.

He turned his head, grabbed a mouthful, and tugged.

She gasped at the small sharp pain. “You’re a hurter, are you?” she whispered.

“Never.” He unclamped his teeth and released her. “But you’re deliberately winding me up.”

Kate leaned back in the chair and smiled as he finished lacing the second boot. “You think?” she teased. “No more than you deserve.”

 

Chapter Thirteen — Yes

Kate’s spirits soared as high as the little plane. Matthew had helped her in, belted her up, made sure her headphones were comfortable, and then ignored her. He ran through his park-up checks with meticulous attention, called the controller, and received permission to start his engine and taxi to his holding point on the runway.

“Ready for departure.”

“Cleared for runway.”

Suddenly he clapped a big hand on her thigh, flashed a broad grin, and the engine note increased. They picked up speed, racing along through the clear morning air. Then he pulled back on the control column and they rushed up into the dark blue sky. Queenstown receded to the size of a town-planner’s model. Lake Wakatipu sparkled; the cableway looked tiny; the mountains became magnificent.

It was noisy but fascinating. She peered from side to side as they threaded their way past vicious drops and over snowy peaks. This was nothing like flying in a commercial airliner. They were close enough to see unexpected little lakes and tarns full of velvety green water, thousands of feet above sea level. The alpine vegetation became sparse. The up-thrust rocky crags were majestic as organ pipes.

Matthew drew her attention to some fleet-footed animals swarming up and over a sharp ridge—some sort of deer she presumed.

Through the headphones she heard, “Himalayan Tahr. We might see some Chamois, too.”

“How do they keep their balance?” she called back.

He grinned and shrugged.

For much of the journey they were the only people in the world—no visible farmhouses, no fences, no roads, no power pylons. She was astounded how empty and undeveloped the country was. Prehistoric. Truly the earth as it must have been when dinosaurs roamed the plains they’d left behind.

The winter sun glanced off the pristine snow below them. Sometimes it even felt possible to reach out and touch it as Matthew piloted them through passes and gullies, and the plane floated past jagged snow-dusted rock faces.

The engine note changed and she looked across at him with alarm. He smiled and shook his head. Tipped a hand down to let her know he was starting his descent. She nodded and relaxed.

They droned ever lower, below the tops of the mountains down to dense green forest that lay like a huge crumpled quilt over the primeval land.

A veil of cloud sped by, sunlight winking through it. He pointed across to the end of the valley and Kate recognized the scene every Kiwi calendar featured sooner or later. Mitre Peak—so triangular and tall that wispy clouds passed by less than half way to the summit.

The icy dark water of Milford Sound sparkled with a trail of sunshine. The airfield was close now. A surprising number of other small planes and helicopters had already landed, and a umber of coaches were parked near the famous hotel.

Matthew set down with a gentle bump, taxied off the runway and rolled to a stop.

Within minutes, Kate found herself boarding a boat named Water Nymph. Not one of the big tourist craft… this was a nicely appointed pleasure cruiser belonging to a tanned and bearded friend of Matthew’s. She could hardly refuse—he’d apparently arranged yet another treat for her, and now he’d neatly separated her from the crowds. She drew a deep breath, clenched her jaw, and managed a tight smile of appreciation.

Bob of the beard waved cheerily as Matthew piloted the boat out. “Lunch in the fridge,” Bob shouted over the increasing gap. “Don’t drink it all at once.”

They burbled out onto the huge fiord. The surrounding mountains rose straight from the water, for these were old drowned valleys carved during the Ice Age. Waterfalls plunged a thousand metres or more down the sheer sides.

Kate sat outside, marvelling at the scenery. The frisky breeze tugged at her hair, so she twisted it up and pulled the knitted angora cap over it. She’d expected to be part of the tourist throng at the hotel or on one of the big boats, but Matthew had thwarted that scenario with ease and left any signs of civilisation far behind. They were soon hundreds of yards from shore and quite alone. He cut the engine, and they drifted. The only sounds were water sucking and lapping at the boat’s sides, the muted roar of distant waterfalls, and occasional calls from birds.

He settled into the seat beside her, unzipping the jacket he’d added over his sweatshirt. The breeze was less chilly now they were still. “You don’t need this on any longer,” he said, pulling her cap off so her hair cascaded loose.

She drew a sharp breath. He was far too close again. Now she regretted her game with him in the boutique.

She leaned away and stood, but the rocking of the boat made balancing difficult. She stumbled—and grabbed his shoulder for support. His arms snaked around her waist in an instant, yanking her to stand between his knees. He slid forward and trapped her with his thighs.

“Kiss me,” he said, tilting his head back at her.

She stared down, horrified, at his handsome demanding face.

“No, Matthew. Sorry.”

“Kiss me,” he repeated. “Bend over so your hair falls all around me again.”

“No,” she exclaimed, trying to twist away. “I don’t steal other people’s husbands.”

“However much you might be attracted to them?”

Oh hell. She made a supreme attempt to keep her gaze locked with his. “However much.”

“So you are?”

“You’re very nice,” she said carefully.

He gave a snort of amusement. “You’re thinking more than nice. We’d be fantastic.”

“Perhaps.”

“You know we would, Katie. We’ve been fencing around each other for two long frustrating days. Kiss me.”

“I’ll be gone on Sunday,” she tried, attempting again to escape, and knowing she really wanted him to hang on tight and make the decision for her.

“I’ve waited long enough.”

“You might feel like that, but maybe I don’t? And I told you—I don’t steal other people’s husbands.”

“Very laudable of you, but I’m no-one’s husband any longer. Whose do you think I am?”

She had no way of avoiding the topic now. “You’re Lottie’s of course.”

Her world stood still as he slowly shook his head.

“But…” She snatched a quick breath. “Charlotte McLeod… Matthew McLeod…” the same names, living in the same home. You’re—”

“Her half-brother. Same father.”

She stayed poised above him, brain rapidly re-running the data. Her suspicions were now confirmed. But did that make things better or worse? Awash with longing and relief, she stared down at his infuriating triumphant face. “Why didn’t you tell me that?” she demanded.

“Didn’t occur to me. You knew she slept upstairs.”

“No I didn’t. I knew there was a bedroom there. Maybe for when she painted late. That’s all I knew.”

He shrugged. “Did you ever see me treat her as a wife? Did I ever kiss her like a husband would?”

Their chaste embrace in the hospital flooded back into her memory. A pat on the shoulder. A peck on the forehead. Now it was Kate’s turn to shrug. “Why didn’t you just say at the airport, ‘Hello, I’m Matthew, Lottie’s brother’?”

He gazed at her with a thunderous expression. “Jeez Kate, maybe because I was totally thrown. She really hurt herself in that accident. Blood all down her face.” He shook his head sharply, perhaps to banish the scene from his brain. “She couldn’t walk. And I had to get her to hospital somehow, worrying about how bad the bang on her head was. Not to mention suddenly finding I had to entertain you as well. I’m sorry. It probably didn’t occur to me.”

She relented slightly. “You’re very kind to her.”

“She is my much loved sister, Katie. My wife is long gone. Did you really think I’d make a play for you if I already had a woman in the house?” His eyes held hers—magnetic, serious.

Kate bit her lip, willing her thumping heart to calm down. He’d become everything she wanted, and everything she’d tried to steer clear of. “Some men might?” she said, realising she’d offended him.

“That’s quite an opinion you have of me.” His eyes now flashed with undisguised annoyance. “You really thought that?”

“Some men wouldn’t be so scrupulous.”

“I’m not among them. So kiss me.”

Oh God, she wanted to so much. Wanted to do a lot more than just kiss him. But the job? Their living arrangements? Surely kissing him again would throw everything into turmoil?

“No,” she said, bending a little lower so her hair slipped past her shoulders and started to curtain him. She shook her head. The soft dark wings brushed his hard-planed face. He waited.

“No,” she repeated softly, as she lowered herself enough to feel his breath feathering over her.

“Yes,” he whispered, threading his hands into her hair and tugging her the tiny remaining distance.

The moment Kate’s lips touched his, her fragile resolve evaporated. She followed his lead as he nipped and licked in a long, slow, delicious exploration. Matthew gathered her closer and closer until she finally lost her balance, fell on top of him, and they broke apart, laughing.

“God, the things I want to do with you,” he said, pulling her onto his lap with surprising ease. “But probably not out here with hundreds of tourists training their binoculars on us.”

He cupped her face in his palm, and stroked his thumb gently over her cheek.

“They’re a long way away yet,” she said, exploring his face in return. Her fingers traced the edges of his mouth, and he closed his silver-blue eyes. Kate laid her lips on his again and they sank into another long, dizzying kiss, arms sliding around each other until they pressed tightly together.

She breathed him in. Cologne and clean cotton. Spices and honey. Heat and temptation. Tasting like heaven.

So big and strong that for the first time ever she felt almost petite.

Time slipped by until the wake from one of the big tourist boats reached them, setting them bobbing and sloshing, and making them draw apart with surprise.

“How many binoculars?” Kate gasped. How long had they been lost in each other, oblivious to the approaching vessel?

“They’ll survive the sight.” Matthew held her close to counteract the water’s chop. “They’re plenty far enough away.”

She peeked over his shoulder. “If they’re even looking.”

“Yeah, probably not, but we should go inside because I have more than this in mind.” He kissed her again, this time with deliberate intent, and finally drew away. Their boat continued to dance and sway. He held out a hand. Kate shuffled off his lap, stood, and wrapped her fingers around his. They staggered toward the cabin.

He threw off his jacket, and reached for hers before drawing her down onto one of the padded seats and cupping her face in his hands. “Now,” he murmured, “let’s do that again.”

And he did. Slowly, gently, teasingly. His lips brushed over hers in taunting caresses, lifting, returning. Kate burned for more, yet wanted the wash of tempting sensation to last and last. No man had ever turned her on so fast or so surely. She’d die now if he stopped. She drew in a quick quivering breath as he trailed his fingers down her neck and undid the top button of her cardigan.

He nipped and nuzzled, strengthening his kiss as she responded with tiny moans and gasps. The second button slipped free, then more. His tongue stroked along the edge of her sensitised top lip as his fingers glided across her breast. She shuddered with the blissful slippery promises he offered. The confusion and uncertainty slid away. There was only now—and she was alight and alive under his hands.

She’d never felt so desired, so claimed. Matthew had made it clear he wanted her, would enjoy her, and would provide unlimited enjoyment in return. She had no doubts he’d deliver on his promise.

Desperate to touch his skin, she curled her fingers around his neck and threaded them into his hair, but it was nowhere near enough. She ran her hands over his hard chest, lower, lower, until her fingers made contact with the waistband of his jeans. He breathed in sharply. But no—if he was making her wait, she’d play the same game. She burrowed up under his sweatshirt, sliding her hands around his back and pulling him close. Hot, smooth, supple. Her fingers kneaded his dense muscles, and she scraped her nails along his spine, pushing and clawing as their lips and tongues danced in ever-increasing passion.

Kate gasped as Matthew tipped her backward along the seat, folded the fronts of her cardigan aside, and dropped to his knees beside her. She smiled dreamily as he bent to sprinkle small kisses over the tops of her breasts.

He drew back. “Need that T-shirt off. Up you get.” And he pulled her upright again, slid her out of the cardigan, and began to peel her out of her tee. He smiled when he uncovered her barely decent black and red bra. “This again,” he murmured, no doubt remembering her caught up in her jersey, embarrassed, and on display.

“All I have with me.”

“Not complaining in the least,” he said, laying her down again, stroking where he’d kissed her, advancing slowly toward the lacy edge, and finally tucking the cups down.

Kate drew a deep breath of anticipation as he hovered above one nipple, holding her eyes with his. He laughed in triumph as she finally growled and pushed herself up to him. Then he took her between his teeth, worrying at the beaded peak until she just had to have more. She grabbed his head and pulled him close, her body tingling white-hot with wanting as he sucked and licked and nipped.

Slowly he released her, and looked down into her eyes again. “You smell like flowers,” he murmured. He lowered his nose to her skin and inhaled, then turned his cheek and smoothed his face down over one breast, into the valley between, and up again until his lips captured her other nipple. He gave it a little nip—and his mobile intruded with a polite trill.

“No…” she groaned. “Horrible timing. Ignore it.”

Cursing, he rummaged for it in his discarded jacket, dividing his attention between the caller’s name on the little screen and Kate’s breast.

“Bob,” he said pleasantly, blowing cool air over her and making her tighten even further.

She growled, and he smiled. But his attention was slowly diverted. Kate covered herself up, furiously disappointed that he’d desert her for the phone, and trying not to let it show.

He concluded the call and shot her a wry grin. “To be continued,” he said. “See what he’s left us for lunch. We have to get back to Queenstown in a hurry.”

Kate parted her lips to object, and he nodded. “Yeah—not fair at all—but there was heavy weather expected through here tonight, and the front’s coming in faster than they calculated. We need to get the plane out well before the storm hits.”

She gave a shivering sigh. Her body had not switched off after being so skilfully aroused. “You had me half way there.”

“You had me more than half way there in that boutique,” he said, tugging his sweatshirt down and re-starting the engine. “And just for the record, if you thought I had a wife, why were you turning me on like that?” he called over his shoulder.

“You started it, grabbing my foot and planting it where I couldn’t wriggle free.”

“Enjoyed your attempts though.”

“So I felt.” She rose and pulled her cardigan on again. Then went to stand behind him, pressing her face against him, enjoying his scent in return.

Matthew reached an arm back and pulled her closer. “I had no idea if you’d give in and play.”

Kate set her hands on his waistband, pushed up under his sweatshirt again, and linked her fingers over his taut belly. “I could hardly slap you away in front of the boutique lady,” she said. “And by then, I wasn’t certain about things anyway. Hamish threw a comment out last night that made me wonder. ‘Goodnight to Sis,’ I think.”

She felt him flinch. “Why didn’t you ask, Katie? We wasted the whole night. I was dying for you.”

“Not the sort of topic you can easily raise without giving the game away,” she suggested.

“What game?” His tone was sharper than before.

She wondered why, and whispered right in his ear, “Figure of speech. I wanted you too, but if I’d asked about Lottie being your wife, it would have been a pretty transparent invitation.”

Was it only her imagination, or did he relax a little?

Matthew turned his head far enough to nuzzle her hair. “I’d have accepted in a heartbeat. Get the lunch, woman. And do those buttons up or we’ll never get home.”

Kate grinned, and left her cardigan unsecured and her bra on display as a deliberate tease. She bent to the little fridge and investigated what Bob had provided. Ignoring the very nice bottle of champagne, she removed a beer and a juice, and the big platter of chilled kebabs. Juicy chunks of succulent lobster had been threaded on skewers for easy eating, and a bowl of peppery dipping sauce and slices of crusty buttered baguette accompanied them. She set everything on the built-in table beside Matthew. “Beer or juice if you’re flying?”

“Precious cargo,” he said, choosing the juice. He glanced sideways, then reached across swiftly and touched the cold bottle to her nipple, rubbing it up and down as she tried to jerk away.

“That’s going to need warming up now,” he said, keeping one hand on the controls, and bending to fasten his hot mouth on her breast. “And we’ll never bloody get home at this rate,” he mumbled through a mouthful of bra. “Stop tempting me.”

Matthew stared ahead as he piloted the Water Nymph back across the deep dark waters of Milford Sound. Kate had retrieved her T-shirt, done up her cardigan, and donned her jacket again. She fed him skewers of lobster and slices of baguette, and he tipped his bottle of juice up now and then to wash the crumbs down, but his mind was far away.

Was she here to spy? To relay information back to her father?

And if so, why hadn’t she jumped his bones the previous evening? He’d made it more than obvious he was interested in her. If the delicious Ms Pleasance had visited Queenstown as the bait in a honey trap, she should have made the most of her opportunity. Tried to worm her way further into his life instead of worrying about him being married to Lottie. That sounded too moral for the role he’d cast her in.

He frowned, barely concentrating on the boat, and much more occupied with Kate. This morning had been pure enjoyment. Taking her shopping was unexpected fun—especially after seeing her in that devastating dress. And most especially after she’d reacted to his boot-lacing game. God, his eager cock had certainly given his interest away, but she’d joined right in with her wriggly toes in those ridiculous socks, and he’d known there’d be more flirtation to follow.

The flight had been magic. The spectacular scenery had wowed her, and it was great seeing things through someone else’s eyes. Someone else who mattered.

He breathed out a long, slow sigh. Yes, she mattered. He hadn’t wanted her to matter until he knew more about her. Sy Karlsen had sent an out-of-office reply, indicating he’d gone to Fiji for his daughter’s wedding. There’d be no investigation until he returned.

So. Kate. Even when he should be worried about flying in ever worsening weather and beating the storm clouds home, Matthew had her front and centre of his mind. Beautiful. Desirable. Willing. And possibly treacherous.

Already there was a difference in the air. Kate pulled her cosy cap on again, wound the scarf a couple of turns around her neck, and drew her jacket close. The small planes were deserting the airfield like a swarm of insects.

“Will we be okay?” she asked, eying the darkening sky.

Matthew sent her a broad grin. “Right as rain, but we need to bustle. The wind’s rising faster than they predicted.”

He waited impatiently for his turn, drumming his fingers on his thigh, and taking to the air without delay. The little craft bucked and shuddered in the less stable air. Kate caught her bottom lip between her teeth.

The mountains still sparkled, but far to the south, a bank of threatening cloud advanced. She flinched as she surveyed the vast area of steep uninhabited country below them. What were the chances of finding such a small target if the worst happened?

The turbulence steadily built. Matthew sent her another slashing smile as he reached across and caressed her knee, but the challenging flying conditions soon diverted his attention from her again.

Kate tried to allay her concern by reliving their embraces on the boat. He’d wanted her fiercely, and had told her and shown her with passion. He was not Lottie’s husband, after all—she could enjoy him and see where it led. If it spoiled the chance of working with Lottie, so be it; Matthew had totally deflected her attention from the job.

A huge buzz of anticipation spread through her body, and the present sense of danger only heightened it. She ached to be on the ground and in his arms again, surrounded by the scent of his skin.

The little plane droned ever on, see-sawing, rising, dropping, its engine note changing as Matthew compensated for the conditions. At last she heard, “Soon be home,” and he dropped the nose a little. Lake Wakatipu crept into sight, and Kate glimpsed the now familiar sight of the old Earnslaw steaming across the ruffled water.

Relief swamped her as the plane finally touched down with a heavier bounce or two, taxied out of the way, and rolled to a halt.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

“Really?”

“Glad to be home, actually. That’s going to be quite nasty.”

“What about Lottie? Will she be safe?”

“She’s with friends. They’ll look after her. I made sure she had her medication with her.”

They alighted. The wind bit through fabric, and sent icy fingers under cuffs and collars. The temperature had plummeted, and the sun lay buried in a mess of poisonous bruise-coloured clouds. Kate pulled her jacket close and wrapped her arms across her chest.

The gale whined around the SUV as it sped along the spookily darkening highway. She was pleased once they were inside the house again, and safe.

Safe? With Matthew? The real danger is just beginning…

 

Chapter Fourteen — Spa in the Storm

Matthew stripped off his jacket and tossed it over the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. “Hang your party dress up first,” he suggested, handing Kate the bag he’d carried in from the SUV.

He strode up the hallway toward the big sitting room, and she turned for her bedroom. A hiss and flare greeted her as she arrived back at the double doors. He squatted in front of the wide stone fireplace, absorbed in lighting the kindling under a pile of logs.

Feeling more certain of her ground now, she said, “I thought you didn’t like this room?”

One corner of his mouth kicked up. “Real fireplace, Katie. Big deep rug. Thick curtains for privacy.” He rose and crossed to the huge window to draw them, shutting out the view of tossing tussock and the fading mist-shrouded mountains. The room became surprisingly dark. As he returned, he snapped on a pair of lamps at either end of the long bookcase. A golden glow reflected off the walls. “Just imagine what we could do in here. It might become my very favourite room in the house.”

“The sitting room?” She’d been expecting the privacy of his bedroom.

“It’s the only real fireplace. The rest is central heating.” He sent her a hard hot glance. “I’ve pictured you spread out in the firelight here for the last couple of days. Your dynamite legs…” He’d moved close enough now to cup her breasts. “These beautiful things. And all that hair tumbling free…”

Kate’s body buzzed with anticipation. “But what about Lottie?”

“She might stay over if the weather gets much worse. I’ll phone and see what’s happening.”

He reached for his mobile and pulled Kate close, nudging a hipbone into the notch of her thighs and chafing slowly against her. God, he felt good there! Kate snuggled nearer. He kissed the side of her face as he keyed in the number. His lips moved to hers, and he held the phone so close she heard the signal, and then Lottie’s voice. “Ya?”

They regretfully, moistly, murmuringly parted.

“Matty, are you kissink someone?” Lottie demanded.

“I’m kissink Katie,” he chuckled, releasing her. Kate smiled and wandered across to the fireplace, crouching down to watch the small lively flames. She took no real notice of his conversation, her imagination now occupied with the very near future. He was not Lottie’s husband. She would not be stealing. The intensely desirable had become astoundingly possible.

Maybe she could return to Queenstown after all? A lover to Matthew and companion for Lottie. Or might that combination prove too difficult?

He laid down the phone. A predatory gleam lit his eyes. “No Lottie to spoil things for us. It’s already snowing there—they’ve decided to camp in the lodge.”

“She’ll be all right?”

“She’ll be fine. But not as fine as us.” He drew Kate up to stand beside him again. “We’ll start in the spa,” he murmured, smoothing her hair aside so he could nip her earlobe. “And by then, those logs should be as hot as we are.”

She was already on fire. He’d unsettled her from the moment she’d met him. Attracted her. Confused her. Enraged her.

Matthew challenged her in the most basic way, and everything female in her sparked and crackled when he was near. Now he ran his fingers through her hair, down her back, and into the curve of her waist. They walked step for step through the huge house as far as her bedroom door. “There’s something I need a few minutes for,” he said, lips quirking as he turned away.

What was he thinking? Kate dreamily removed everything except her underwear, deciding she’d give him the fun of removing that. Then, on impulse, she slipped out of her French knickers and pulled on the rose-printed thong. He’d said he could picture her in it; she’d enjoy providing the reality.

The warm air swirled around the steamy spa room as she closed the door behind her. A dozen fat candles flickered in the half-dark, exotically fragrant. Matthew had stripped, and now wore a white knee length towelling robe.

“You’ve been planning this,” she exclaimed, glancing across to the romantic candles reflecting in the mirror.

“Thought I’d better not inflict my tattoo on you in too bright a light.”

“Aahhh… your tattoo,” Kate murmured, stroking the slice of brown chest exposed by the robe. She attempted to push it open, and he caught her hands in his.

“That’s a treat you’re going to have to earn.”

She made a little moue, and tipped her head back enquiringly.

“We’ll have this off for starters.” He reached around and unhooked her bra, pulling it out from between their bodies.

Kate managed to plant both hands on his chest. She spread her fingers, sensuously massaging his firm flesh. God, he was beautiful. Hot and hard and utterly male. She wanted him now. Wanted him against her, inside her, dominating her. Wanted him fiercely and desperately.

Matthew drew a deep breath, then cupped her face in both hands and pulled her close, claiming her parted lips with possessive intent. She closed her eyes and their tongues meshed like magic, finding and fitting… sliding and slipping. He smoothed his fingers over her shoulders, down her spine, and yanked her in against his hips. Through the bulky robe, he felt huge.

They stayed glued together, groaning and gasping and kissing in a greedy frenzy until the need for air took precedence, and they broke apart, panting.

“You have no idea… no idea…” His chest rose and fell, and he gazed down into her eyes before coaxing her face onto his shoulder and resting his cheek on her hair. His arms moved restlessly, pulling her closer and closer until their bodies pressed together from chest to knee.

“Maybe I do,” she protested, nipping at his neck. His pulse hammered under her lips. “Maybe I need you every bit as much.” She tried to loosen his robe, wanting to touch, wanting to see. He released her and sank down onto the edge of the big spa pool. The robe fell open, but the flickering candles cast her wavering shadow over him. Still no proper view of his magnificent body.

His mouth was now exactly level with her breasts. He leaned forward, and licked and sucked and teased, sending deep tremors down to flicker in her clit.

Kate nudged in between his thighs, pressing for contact, but he held her away, smoothing his hands into the dip of her waist, out over her hips, and around to cup her ass.

“Knew you’d look great in this,” he said, tweaking the narrow elastic of the rosy thong. The tiny panties left her very… accessible. His fingers crept down to play, exploring delicately until they slid out of bounds.

She jerked as he investigated, groaning softly, and thrusting against his hands, but he continued to caress her everywhere except where she really craved. “Do it,” she insisted. “Do it where you know I want it.”

She was no longer her normally decorous self. Now she was hungry for him to take her, growling, frustrated, and feisty.

One finger finally wandered to exactly where she needed it, circling, probing, circling again. She almost fainted with pleasure as the deep tremors shot upward. He deserted her clit a minute or two later with a knowing smile.

Kate was willing to beg on her knees for more.

“Perhaps if we just slid this down,” he conceded, peeling the tiny rosy thong off with agonizing slowness. His big hands were warm and strong, and nowhere near fast enough. Kate dragged his face upward, and pressed her lips to his to increase the contact between them. His tongue flicked out, and for long moments there was only the damp slide of warm lips and tangling tongues and husky murmurs of encouragement and desperation.

She drew away, and glanced into the mirror on the opposite wall. Her hair had tumbled everywhere. Her breathing was erratic, and her breasts rose and fell, nipples long and hard. Her eyes shone, hugely dilated in the flickering candlelight—dark pools of desire.

“I look as though I’ve run a marathon,” she gasped.

“I’ll mess you up worse by midnight,” he promised, pushing her thighs apart and pulling her forward to straddle him. “Just as well I got myself ready for you while you got undressed.” His cock reared up darkly in the dim light. He grabbed one of Kate’s hands, holding it there so she registered the condom. Her breath hitched, and she curled her fingers around him, squeezing and sliding. A tall man with big hands, and oh yes… built to scale all over. She kicked her panties away.

Matthew pushed his hips forward in blatant invitation, and gripped the edges of the pool for balance. Kate bent her knees. “You’re too low,” she whispered. She nudged him into place and Matthew slowly stood, filling her absolutely, pressing into her ready body almost to the point of pain. “Ooohhh…” she protested.

“Not for long,” he muttered hoarsely, lifting her with ease, and wrapping her legs around his hips. He shifted inside her. A hot slide. Deep and total possession. A slight withdrawal before he rocked forward again with a tortured grunt. “Better?”

She clenched around him, primitive instinct driving her now. “God, yes…”

“Jesus, Katie—you’ll kill me.”

He took two steps forward, and set her down on the edge of the long, hip-high cabinet, pushing some of the candles aside before taking her mouth in another explosive kiss. She was right in line with him, totally accessible. Kate locked her ankles; the angle was magic. He thrust slowly, stroking and teasing her, until her slick and sensitized flesh relaxed and allowed him deeper still.

His slow-burning smile grew wider. “Fitting fine now.”

Kate’s breath rushed out. He certainly was. Better than fine. Incredible. “Well, come on then,” she demanded, wriggling against him. She turned her flushed face up, locking her eyes on his as he plunged into her, again and again.

He was barely in control, and she was the cause. This fantastic big man was hers to command, hers to enjoy. She tilted her pelvis and wrapped her legs tighter around his waist.

Matthew’s eyes slammed shut. “Higher,” he grunted, reaching back and grabbing her ankles so he could hitch her legs up even further. Then he rammed into her without restraint, taking his pleasure as deeply as possible.

Kate dug her nails into his shoulders, bracing herself against his furious possession. And abruptly he slowed, capturing her mouth in another searing kiss, invading with his tongue, and tearing at her heart with the sudden change of pace.

“Not too much for you?” he whispered, pulling back so he could focus on her eyes, sliding slowly so all of her length was exquisitely caressed.

“No. Not too much. More please.”

He growled deep in his throat, and subtly changed the angle of his entry. Kate bucked as he contacted another million or two nerve endings.

“There?” he demanded hoarsely, pushing deep again.

“Yes, there.”

He grinned, pulled back, pushed deep, drew back.

Kate gasped, and gasped again, and clenched her teeth in a futile effort to stifle her noisy cries. Wild heat raced through her, melting her bones. She soared, and her whole body trembled, took flight and clenched around him. Matthew gave an exultant shout, crushed his mouth onto hers, and rode her joyously home.

Minutes passed as they slumped, panting, disbelieving, in each other’s arms. Eventually Kate drew a long shivering breath and straightened a little. “God,” she muttered.

He chuckled. “That was… definitely satisfactory.”

She rolled her eyes, smiling at him as he drew away and left her for a few moments to dispose of the condom. His white robe was somehow still on. When he returned, he shrugged it to the floor and Kate’s jaw dropped as the sudden flash of his glorious body. He vaulted into the spa-pool.

“No—I want to see you,” she protested.

“Come and join me, then.”

She followed, immoderately fast. “Stand up,” she urged, because he’d buried himself to chest level in the fizzing, frothing water. The brief midnight glimpse of his tattoo had intrigued and beguiled her. Now she wanted to see the whole hidden work of art.

“You might find it too much?” he suggested.

“I find you too much, so it’s probably okay.” She slid her arms around his neck for a languid kiss.

Once their lips parted, he pushed himself up. Again, Kate saw the tattooed band around his waist that had first alerted her to its existence. A fierce contrast to his golden skin—dark and dramatic as the man himself.

“This piece is pure Samoan,” he said, pointing to it. “We lived there for several years. Dad married Lottie’s mum there. She went back to Europe eventually, and took Lottie with her.”

“Did you lose touch?”

He shook his head. “Always close.” He rose up a little more. Kate caught her breath at the sinuous black lines snaking across him.

“Very Celtic, these pieces,” he said, touching the curving designs that spread over his hip-bones. “That’s for the McLeod in me.”

Kate laid her hands over each. “More,” she said.

With the slightest hesitation, he covered her hands with his own, and drew them down to hide his genitals as he finally emerged from the water. From waist to mid thigh, he was etched with fantastic swirling curves and lines—too much to appreciate at a glance.

He swivelled a little. “Maori round here,” he said, nodding down at the spirals decorating his buttocks. “I’m one eighth Maori, officially.”

“Enough to give you a suntan all winter,” Kate suggested.

“Straight from my father.”

Kate moved her hands under his. “And?” she asked.

“Nothing to see there,” he said dismissively.

But plenty to feel. She gently hefted him.

Dense, weighty, smooth.

He growled her name, and Kate smiled. Her touch had him already stirring again. She pushed his hands away and watched.

“He’s as primitive and savage as your tattoo,” she whispered as his glistening cock rose slowly to full attention for her.

She leaned forward and placed a reverent kiss on the rearing velvety tip.

“He’s beautiful,” she said, running her fingers along his firm length, glancing up to his face and the expressions that flickered rapidly across it. “He’s frightening, too,” she added. “So fierce.”

She sank lower and began to explore him with her tongue.

Matthew watched as she softly, sensuously, licked down his hot shaft and then progressed upward again to investigate the smooth ridge above his foreskin. He jerked as her tongue slipped and slid. Then she closed her mouth around him, surrounding him with wet heat, as one hand cupped his balls and the other searched for the pleasure point at the base of his spine.

He towered above her, spread legged and silent, fighting to retain his control. “You’re pushing me to the point of no return, Katie,” he eventually said in a strangled voice.

He felt her laughing around him. Sighing, he wound his hands into her hair and stroked the long soft strands as the ecstasy of release raged ever closer.

 

Chapter Fifteen — Final Inking Idea

Much later that evening, Matthew brought a plate of toast and pate back to the rug where Kate lay sprawled in front of the fire. He bent and spread a savoury dab on her belly, and followed it with his tongue. She giggled as he licked at her. “Again?” she asked hopefully.

“No—we need to eat or we’ll die from exhaustion.”

“Not me,” she assured him.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Take it how you like.”

“I’ll take you how I like.”

“I thought you already had.”

He smiled and handed her a slice of toast. “To build up your strength for bed,” he suggested.

“An actual bed? That’ll make a change from the spa room and the sofa and this lovely rug…” She stretched like a cat, watching as his eyes roamed over her nude body. “I like this rug,” she murmured. “I like what you did to me on this rug…” Vivid pictures and sharp sensations flooded her mind.

“I’m not out of ideas yet,” he said. “For instance I could—” and his fingers and tongue roamed over her again, summoning a squeak and a blush and eventual capitulation to his wishes. And there was still bed, she thought, as her body responded to him and the pleasure came flooding back again.

Kate had never experienced sensations as intense as those Matthew created for her. She fell deeper and deeper into a web of fantastic feathery nerve-thrills, a sleek musical instrument awaiting his skilful touch. As his warm mouth and clever hands whispered over her; as his husky voice encouraged and suggested; as she took him deep within her, she soared and trembled until he tipped her over to shatter in yet another exquisite soft explosion of heat and near-pain. Then she found herself gently rocked in the languorous warmth of his arms as his eyes approved of her reaction to him, and his lips again found hers.

“I need to send an e-mail,” she said, near eleven o’clock. “It’s too late to phone them now, and my phone’s in my room, anyway. Can I use one of your computers?”

Matthew’s euphoria deflated just a little as his former doubts returned to niggle and tease at him. Surely she hadn’t given herself to him with such apparent passion to disguise the fact she wanted access to his secrets?

He thought bitterly of Martine, who’d downloaded some of his most sensitive files as they were arranging their divorce. A wonderfully creative piece of blackmail, he had to admit. Another two million please or I’ll hand these on to someone who’d really appreciate them.

He hadn’t let her get away with it. Had brought the full force of the law down on her, but the fact that she’d tried and nearly succeeded still stung like hell.

But surely not Kate too? He was now more impatient than ever to know what Sy Karlsen could trace about her.

“I’ll make some fresh toast,” he said, inspecting the cold and curling slices they’d abandoned for each other. “And get my iPad. That do you?”

“Great.”

So she didn’t seem worried about not getting into his office? And she’d never be able to access anything without knowing his passwords. Unless she was very, very clever. He relaxed slightly as he padded off, naked, to grab it. Tomorrow he’d check out whatever she’d sent.

By the time he returned, Kate had wrapped the huge possum-fur throw from the end of the sofa around herself.

“Cavewoman,” he said. “With all mod cons.” He handed her the iPad.

She grinned. “Including caveman.”

“You know the address you want?”

“Just my Dad. I should have thought about this much earlier. He doesn’t know where I am, or for how long.”

Matthew’s buoyant mood evaporated further. “Thought you were a free agent?”

“Free as a bird,” she said, still smiling at him.

Was it a smile of treachery or innocence he saw on her pretty lips?

“It’s only a celebration I said I’d try and attend tomorrow,” she added. “I need to let them know I won’t be there after all.”

Only a celebration? He wouldn’t feel too bad about snooping on that.

She settled the iPad on her lap. “Any chance of something to drink with that toast?”

He dropped a kiss on her shoulder. “Coffee? Juice?” His fingers glided down her arm in a soft caress.

“Juice would be great.”

Kate’s eyes roved over him as walked away. Long legs, strong and sinewy. That fantastic tattoo, looking almost like shorts in back view—except his cute butt-wiggle gave away the fact that it was sensational skin. His strong back. Even stronger shoulders. No wonder he’d been able to lift her with ease and wrap her around his waist like a sinuous vine.

Surely, surely, she could make something good of this situation? Had the on-again off-again possibility of the job now switched in her favour? Matthew’s initial cool reception had definitely thawed. Her own flip comment after they’d returned from the movie—about the job being ‘not quite what she’d been expecting’—seemed a long way in the past. She hoped he’d quietly forgotten it so they could move forward together and see where things led.

Sighing, she turned her eyes down to the screen. ‘[email protected]’ she keyed in. She hesitated. Perhaps she should phone him in the morning instead. Oh, to hang with it—do it now. She completed the address.

Dad—needed to let you know things are not running quite according to plan. I can’t be with you tomorrow because I was asked to stay on—too good an opportunity to miss, and the extra time is proving interesting, to say the least. You and Terry will hardly miss me. There are complications here I hadn’t foreseen, but compensations, too. Good luck for your big merger announcement. I still think you’re going to stun people, but we must all look to the future instead of the past. Back Sunday evening. Kate xx.’

She sent the message just as Matthew arrived with two tall glasses and set them on the low table by the sofa. “Done,” she said.

He reached for the iPad and turned for his office. “Nearly ready for bed?” he threw over his shoulder.

“Right after this.” She raised her glass in a small salute. “If I have the energy for it,” she added. She smiled as the man who’d been a mysterious, out-of-reach stranger just two days ago gave her another spectacular eye-full.

A few minutes later, he said, “Stay just like that. I want to draw you.”

“Not again.” She glanced down. “At least I’m covered this time.” She reached out to put her half-empty glass on the table.

‘No. Just as you were. Holding the glass. Link your fingers like you had them before.”

Kate obeyed, albeit with an enquiring expression. Matthew collected a pencil and some sheets of computer paper from his office and tossed them onto the table. He sat on the floor, fixed his glittering gaze on her hands, and started to sketch. The pencil raced across the paper in a complicated pattern. He regarded his handiwork, grimaced, and crumpled the sheet into a ball. “Next time,” he muttered, starting again.

She watched his face. The corners of his mobile mouth curled up into the slightest of grins as the drawing started to take shape again.

“What are you up to? I can’t work it out.”

“I’ll show you in a minute.” He continued to sketch, flicking his eyes up occasionally. The slight grin became a wide and wicked smile. Finally, he laid down his pencil, rolled the paper into a tube, and held it up for her to see just as she took another sip of juice. It was her hands, beautifully drawn, clutching not a glass, but an erect penis.

“In your dreams!” she exclaimed, coughing through her giggles as the juice went down the wrong way. Once she’d recovered, she said, “Did you know Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, ‘The function of muscle is to pull, not push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue?’”

Matthew tossed the drawing onto the table. “I gather he knew a good bit about both. Led an interesting life, old Leonardo. Can you picture this as the final piece of my tattoo?”

Kate’s eyes grew wide, imagining the pain. “You can’t. You’d have to go without sex for weeks.”

“And that bothers you?”

“Not as much as it’ll bother you. You’re not serious?”

Matthew gave a shout of laughter. “You should see your face,” he said.

She had no idea if he really planned to do it. Her mouth grew dry at the thought.

They walked, embracing, through the huge warm house, and Matthew drew her down onto his bed.

“Lie still,” Kate said. “I want to explore you.”

She angled one of the bedside lights down and traced around the curving black Celtic panels with the pad of her index finger. She moved lower. “There’s a fish!”

“There are several fish,” he said, raising his head to watch her. Her cloud of hair brushed across his belly in exquisite torture.

“And flowers,” she discovered.

“Renga lilies. Kowhai. And fern fronds to lead into the Maori panel. There’s a tiny jokey windmill for Lottie somewhere there, too.”

“I like the little fish,” she said. “And this big fish is just wonderful.” She’d closed her fingers around him before he could protest. He flexed in her hand.

“That fish can’t wait to get caught,” he murmured. “He’d like to be swimming in the dark soft sea of your hair.”

She pushed herself up and knelt astride his thighs. Swept her tumble of waves over his chest… down his torso… and then luxuriantly back and forth across his hips.

Matthew heaved a huge gusty sigh.

Hidden beneath her hair, Kate’s tongue started to tease him. The fish jerked helplessly on her silken line.

 

Chapter Sixteen — Caught!

She woke with a start. Something was different.

The bedroom curtains were open—Matthew had never made it as far as the windows to close them the night before. She turned toward the light and gasped. There was nothing outside except soft white snow forever. Any noises were hushed by the muffling blanket. It was like being afloat on a sea of foam.

Her beautiful man was still deep asleep—his broad chest rising and falling with each slow breath. He looked younger, more relaxed. Or maybe a night of great sex had done that for him?

She stretched. Her body felt about three hundred percent alive—thoroughly used, thoroughly pleasured. She’d never been so receptive, so inventive, so entirely wakened to her senses. Her plane ticket to Auckland was booked for four o’clock the next afternoon. She couldn’t wait to tidy up her life there and fly back south to Matthew.

Her mother’s stylish townhouse in Herne Bay was now hers. She’d rent it out until she knew what her longer term plans might be.

But snow right outside! To a girl from the north, this was a novelty. She slid from the bed and crept to the window to look. White forever. And the view would be even more spectacular from the front of the house. She let herself out of his room, collected her robe and slippers from her own, and went exploring. It was only just light, but every window she peered through brought a vista of untrodden, uninterrupted snow. The mountains and foothills were pristine. The big expanse of tussock garden bulged and dipped under a lumpy white coverlet. The driveway had disappeared.

She leaned close to Matthew’s study window, admiring the jagged mountains, now sifted with even more snow. As she turned away, her gaze landed on a long ribbed cylinder. Inspiration struck. She’d been searching for big flat sketches the day before, but of course they could be rolled and concealed in a tube like this. She reached for it and started to wrestle the end off.

“What do you think you’ll find in there?”

His voice was cold, flat and hard.

She was horribly disconcerted. “I…well, nothing maybe…but…it doesn’t matter now anyway.”

“It matters to me. What are you looking for?”

She put down the cylinder and crossed the room to him. He backed away, avoiding her touch.

“No, it really doesn’t matter now,” she insisted. “I’ve been wondering where you hid those sketches of me. I wanted to find them and get them… out of your ownership.” She dropped her gaze. His eyes were so frigid and accusing she could no longer look at them.

“Those are the house plans, Kate. Nothing to do with you.”

“No. Fine. Sorry.” She stood like a chastened child. Matthew moved deliberately further away. When she glanced up again she saw his mouth had twisted into a savage grimace. All his warmth from the night before had evaporated.

She remained stock-still and shaken. He jerked his head toward the hallway to indicate she was to leave his office. Why was he so upset? It made no sense. She’d told him the truth, and agreed it didn’t matter now whether she found the sketches or not. He’d seen a lot more of her last night than his drawings had revealed! “What the hell’s wrong, Matthew? I only want those sketches. I’ve already asked you twice where they are and you’ve avoided answering.”

“So you thought you’d come and do a sneaky search on your own?”

“I was looking at the snow. It’s amazing.”

“Feeble excuse, Kate. You’re in my office while you thought I was safely asleep. I saw what you were doing.”

His expression and tone of voice, and swift withdrawal of warmth, made it somehow impossible to argue further. Once she’d slunk out, he slammed the office door and stalked off, leaving her to return in confusion to her own bedroom. Why did the house plans matter so much to him? She crawled into her bed. The sheets were cold and unwelcoming against her skin. She retrieved her robe and wrapped it around her for comfort. But there was little comfort to be found.

Matthew controlled his breathing with a will of steel as Kate turned her innocent eyes on him. What an actress. What had she really been looking for? And what was the message she’d sent last night while he’d been out of the way? He strode back to the office as soon as she disappeared to her room, and retrieved the email she’d been so keen to send.

His blood ran cold. There it was—as clear and cruel as it could be.

To Rob Pleasance. Her father. At least she hadn’t lied about that.

Dad—needed to let you know things are not running quite according to plan.

Not now, anyway, Matthew vowed.

I can’t be with you tomorrow because I was asked to say on—too good an opportunity to miss, and the extra time is proving interesting, to say the least.

Yeah. Right. He slowly sat.

You and Terry will hardly know I am missing.

Terry Halstead of Geni-Tel? Or Sir Terrence Quaid, one of the Brits sniffing around the industry? Matthew’s imagination ran riot as he considered possibilities… probabilities… as he computed the known facts and extrapolated them into myriad distasteful scenarios. What the hell was the opposition up to? And how was Kate involved?

There are complications here I hadn’t foreseen, but compensations, too.

Was he the compensation? He didn’t like being described as that. Only minutes after he’d slipped from her body, she’d thought of him just as ‘compensation’? Evil bitch. She’d fooled him absolutely. Had him almost begging on his knees.

Good luck for your big merger announcement.

Now he was truly troubled. He’d heard no talk of a takeover. No whiff of a merger on the rumour mill.

I still think you’re going to stun people.

And he was certainly one of them. He sat welded to his chair, staring at her words, wondering what he’d missed, bitterly regretting his night of incredible passion with the woman who would now have to be somehow wrenched from his heart.

Kate stood under the stinging shower for long, numbing minutes. Matthew had been furious—far more vicious than a couple of sketches warranted. Okay, it had been cheeky of her to look for them, but he hadn’t handed them over when she asked for them earlier. And she’d asked for them more than once.

It seemed she’d now lost any chance of getting them back.

She dried herself and dressed, still wondering about his reaction. Their extreme intimacy had evaporated in a few seconds. She was heartsick and confused. What would the rest of the day bring?

Clad as warmly as possible, she ventured outside. The tearing winds of the night before had piled snow along the southern side of the house. But the north was much more accessible. Now it was eerily fine and calm. The storm had been swift to arrive and swift to depart. She hoped Matthew’s foul mood passed as rapidly.

She looked back at her footprints in the snow and then forward to the smooth blank carpet. There was her life—laid out behind her in safe regular steps, but stretching ahead full of possibilities. An hour ago, she’d been sure he was one of those possibilities.

As of now, no way.

She saw movement through the kitchen window, and deserted the snow. After stomping her boots clean on the bristle mat by the back door, she walked inside. He pointedly left the room.

“Get whatever you want to eat,” he snarled from the hallway. “Lottie will be back about ten-thirty. I’m going across to the vineyard. The office is locked, in case you’re tempted to try again.” He stormed away.

She heard the low throb of the SUV, the shudder of the garage door opening—and soon after, closing again. And she was alone.

Any other day, she’d have been famished. Yesterday’s dinner had been a couple of slices of toast and pate, and they’d certainly worked off those calories. But now she was unable to eat. She picked at a boiled egg. Pushed a muffin around her plate. Sat there brooding until the painting cavalcade arrived with cheerful toots.

Lottie hopped heavily through the shallow snow, clutching at two friends.

“Katie—what a time we have had. The views are fantastic. The light is amazing.” A third friend retrieved the wheelchair from the following vehicle. Together, they got her organised.

“Ya—a good thing we took the chains for the wheels, or we would have been totally stranded,” she added with wide eyes and a dramatic flourish.

From the amused look on the face of one of the friends, Kate surmised it had been far from an emergency.

“Wonderful that you’re home then,” she said. “Shall I make coffee? Tea? What would anyone like?”

But the other painters were keen to get home, and departed as soon as they knew Lottie was in good hands.

“Matthew is here?”

Kate tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “No—he’s gone to the vineyard. To help with the party preparations, I expect.”

“And left you alone?” Surprise and outrage lit her mobile features.

Kate shrugged. “It’s okay. He’s busy.”

Lottie glanced back over her shoulder as Kate pushed her chair into the elevator. “So you and Matthew are getting on well?”

Kate laughed less than humorously. “We were last night, but I think it’s gone up in smoke. He seems to have changed his mind.”

The elevator door slid aside and they entered the studio. “Ach, Katie, surely not?”

“Well, I was searching for those sketches he did of me and he found me looking for them in his office. He hit the roof.”

Lottie nodded slowly. “But you told him it was the sketches?”

“Yes, of course. And he didn’t believe me.” Kate halted the wheelchair and perched on a nearby sofa arm, eyes downcast.

Lottie sighed. “He does not trust easily after… something that happened before. He is a proud man, my brother.”

“He’s a cold man,” Kate snapped.

“I thought you were good for each other. He relaxed with you. I saw him smiling and looking happy again.” She reached across for Kate’s hand. “It’s at least a year since he sat in the studio and worked with me. I saw how he looked when he fed you lunch. How his eyes were warm when he sketched you. There was life in his eyes. More life than I’ve seen for a long time. You make him thaw.”

Kate shook her head. “Now he’s frozen up again,” she muttered.

Lottie released Kate’s hand. “Did you find a pretty dress for the party? That could be all it takes?”

“Beautiful. But I don’t think…” Her voice trailed away. She drew a deep breath. “I don’t think I should go to the party after all. It might only annoy him further.”

“Nonsense Katie. If it was good, can be good again. Pretty dress, nice wine, a little dancing?” Lottie smiled. “We patch him up—you wait and see.”

“What are you wearing tonight?” Kate asked, wanting to change the subject.

Lottie sighed. “My new evening trousers I bought will not go over this ankle plaster. What do you think are the possibilities? Have a look with me and say.”

The proceeded to the bedroom and opened the big wardrobe doors. Together they investigated the extraordinary collection of clothes inside.

“Everything is here. Many years of buying. No years of cleaning out.” Lottie poked a finger at a silver skirt. “Top name. Real haute couture. See the label?”

Kate unhooked the skirt and Lottie grinned as her jaw dropped. “But I don’t wear now. Live a different life, and I’m not so thin.” She pointed to a check shirt. “From the local market. Good for painting. More my style these days.”

Kate held up a brilliant pink silk jacket, edged with orange braid. It was tiny, and her eyes held questions.

“That was before Carlo,” Lottie said. “My lovely son. Dead two years back. He was my darling.”

Kate sent her an anguished glance. “I didn’t know. I saw a photo of a little boy in Matthew’s room last night, but I thought he might be his.”

“No—my boy, my dear boy. A tumour.”

Kate bowed her head. “They look so alike, Matthew and… Carlo?”

“Like my father, both of them,” Lottie agreed. “The same intense eyes.”

Kate turned back to the wardrobe and began to rummage along the racks. Lottie’s grief was raw. It was difficult to find any suitable words of consolation. “I could help you sort some of this out,” she offered. “The older things. The ones that don’t fit any more? We could see what’s best then as party outfits?”

“Good to get it done. Not the sort of thing you expected with this job?”

Kate grimaced at that. “I don’t think the job is a possibility now. Not after the way Matthew reacted when he found me in his office.”

“There’s something I will tell you,” Lottie said. “Matthew was married. Not to a suitable woman. It was a bitter divorce after she stole his business information and asked for money to give it back.”

Kate’s expression softened with understanding, and then resignation took over. “No chance for me then,” she said, turning back to the wardrobe. “Bad luck—I would have loved to work for you.”

By one o’clock, they had five jumbo plastic garbage bags packed up ready for the local charity shop. The ladies there would soon be having a field day.

“So—this long dark green velvet skirt and the gold tabard over the rusty silk blouse?” Kate suggested. “Or the navy patio pants and jacket with this amazing silver mesh top…?”

Lottie considered them both. “Ya—those wide pants would hide my plaster. That blouse is good with my hair. Maybe the blouse, okay?”

“And what are you doing with your hair?”

“Matthew will take me for my three o’clock appointment.”

“We’d better have lunch then,” Kate said.

But Matthew had not returned by two-thirty. Kate listened while Lottie phoned the vineyard. Hamish said he’d left there soon after twelve. Lottie tried his mobile. He’d switched it off. “So you take me, Katie.”

Kate shook her head, horrified at the thought. Not in Matthew’s precious Alpha Romeo! And definitely not on snowy roads. “Let’s call a taxi.”

“No time left,” Lottie said implacably, fishing out a bunch of keys from her bag. “That one,” she added, suspending the others from it.

Getting Lottie into the low car took a bit of doing, but two determined women are rarely beaten.

Kate had no idea how to put chains on a car, or if the Alpha even had any. The snow had now melted in places. The driveway was clearly marked by short posts topped with lanterns. Egged on by Lottie’s enthusiasm, she crept down to the main gates in the tracks Matthew’s SUV had made… into the slushy road below… and with slightly more confidence along the main highway which had been cleared and gritted. They made it to the hairdresser only a few minutes late.

Her nerves were in shreds after driving the capricious and powerful vehicle. It was probably worth more than an up-market house! And Lottie’s exuberant but vague instructions had not made for an easy journey. Kate helped her into the salon and bolted out to guard the car.

Moments later, Matthew drew up beside her. He strode to her window and indicated she should lower it. She fumbled with the unfamiliar controls. He waited, and said from his superior height, “Trying it on for size? Checked all the pockets?”

“Taking Lottie to her hair appointment,” she snapped.

He had the good grace to look slightly chagrined, but didn’t apologise for his absence. “You’ll be back when?”

“No idea. Her appointment was at three.”

“Take it carefully on the way home.”

“I took it carefully on the way here, seeing that you didn’t turn up. It wasn’t my idea.” She stared straight ahead, willing him to leave.

He must have taken the hint because the SUV roared off a few seconds later, although she never saw him slide away from her window.

The party invitations stipulated drinks at seven, dinner from eight, dancing until dawn—for the youngest guests maybe. Kate wondered how long she could survive the festivities if Matthew remained determined to freeze her out. The prospect of his cold presence was daunting. How far away was the vineyard? About five miles if she remembered Diana’s comments rightly. She’d be trapped there for hours with no means of escape.

His comments after he’d arrived at the hair salon had been far from encouraging. He was still in a foul temper, and all because she’d been looking for something which she considered rightfully hers.

She’d made several forays into the salon to check progress, and finally Lottie’s red-gold hair was swept up and sculpted into a tower of coils and curls. She was obviously taking the party seriously.

Kate sighed. At this rate her temporary assistant had better summon up some party spirit too.

The ride home was not quite as bad as the ride in to town, and she escaped to her bedroom with a book once she’d done everything she usefully could. Matthew was still avoiding her—leaving the room if she entered, coldly turning down her offer of coffee.

She feared she’d made a very great fool of herself, falling for him so fast. But how could she have resisted? He was the most charismatic and commanding man she’d ever met. He’d pursued her relentlessly, teased her, bested her at every turn until her brain was as useful as custard… her body a-quiver like jelly.

Then he’d devoured her like the big bad wolf he apparently was, and now he was spitting out the bones.

Kate had not expected cruelty like this. Although he’d made his interest obvious, he’d proceeded only at the pace she’d allowed. He’d not pressed her until she’d joined him in the electrifying game at the boutique. She’d presumed him a gentleman who’d play by most of the rules. His sudden desertion and stinging indifference shocked and confused her.

The print in her novel wavered on the page. Something—or someone else—had all her attention. From his current cold manner, she saw very little chance of him softening toward her again.

So one day and night would be all there was.

A teasing trip to buy the dress… the amazing flight over the Southern Alps… the time on the boat where he’d demanded her kisses, and dropped the wonderful bombshell of his availability.

Then the sweet caresses and sizzling embraces here at the house.

One night in his bed and goodbye.

Well, she had her pride. She would somehow manage to put on a good enough show for the evening, even if she crashed and burned once it was over.

Remembering his jibe about elastic marks across her back, she slipped her bra off in good time.

She showered. She carefully made up her face. She pinned up her hair and pulled down some tendrils. Applied deep damson-plum nail enamel to match her dramatic lipstick. And slid into her dream of a dress.

She’d never looked better or felt worse.

His cold eyes blazed hot for an instant when she stepped from the twilight of the hallway into the glow of the main living room, but the heat was gone in a second, smothered in ice again.

Kate’s heart lurched at his betrayal. Matthew stood tall and furious in an impeccable tuxedo. Impossibly gorgeous and hopelessly out of reach. The snowy evening shirt and black velvet bow tie were the ideal foil for his hard face and big lean body. He looked, quite simply, amazing. He held out his arm, taunting her with the illusion of affection. “Lottie wants a photograph,” he said, with barely controlled sarcasm.

Kate drifted across and positioned herself next to him, avoiding his iceberg eyes. What emotions seethed deep under the surface? Nothing that he cared to show or share with her.

Iceberg eyes. How utterly appropriate. Glittering like ice in sunshine when he was amused or playful, but with turbulent emotions hidden fathoms deep in the freezing sea below.

Lottie used the iPad and took several shots, holding it out to show them how they looked. Matthew turned on his heel and ignored his sister. Kate shook her head and sent her a sad smile.

The air was biting cold… snow still on much of the ground… icy fur on every level surface. Lottie produced a dramatic black cape for Kate to wrap herself in. Matthew donned a cashmere overcoat. Lottie chuckled and admitted to a thermal vest under her thin blouse. She added a handcrafted wool shawl for the trip to the vineyard.

Hamish had reserved a parking space close to the front door because of Lottie’s ankle, so the extra layers were dispensed with as soon as they’d wheeled her inside.

Kate decided she was on wheelchair duty. It would keep her out of Matthew’s way.

She gazed around the rustically styled house with appreciation. Pools of light from black iron sconces flooded the mellow ivory walls. Polished native timber floors gleamed under jewel-toned rugs. Chunky exposed beams supported an open gallery around the second storey. It was relaxed and different.

Diana greeted them with glasses of spicy mulled wine. “Hamish says it’s a great way to ruin a nice red, but I think it’s festive,” she said, laughing and apparently noticing nothing amiss.

The hot wine raced right down to Kate’s toes. Blissful warmth invaded her body, giving her much needed extra confidence.

Matthew introduced her to one of his friends as ‘our spy from the north’.

“Checking out our wine industry, are you?” the sandy-haired friend asked.

“Checking out jobs,” Kate said evasively. “But the working conditions in Auckland are more straightforward.”

“But do they have the same ‘compensations’?” Matthew asked with exquisite emphasis.

“The ‘compensations’ can sometimes be attractive. But that changes very fast, I’ve found.” Her eyes held his in cool defiance.

“May I get you another drink?” the friend asked. Kate moved away with him to escape.

She returned to Lottie as soon as possible. Hamish squatted on his haunches beside her, enquiring about the ankle.

Kate touched a tentative hand to his shoulder. “Happy Birthday, Hamish. Lovely party.”

He looked up at her, raising his eyebrows appreciatively at her tall body in the spectacular dress. “My brother is a fool,” he said. “You weren’t seriously searching his office, were you?”

Kate tried not to take offence. “I was searching, but not seriously,” she muttered. “For something that was much more mine than his.”

He sent her a very speculative look.

“Truly,” she added.

“If you say so, Kate.” He rose to his feet and moved away, apparently unwilling to take sides.

“Where shall I wheel you?” she asked Lottie with false brightness. She’d have to survive somehow—the house was too far away to flee back there.

“Now here’s someone,” Lottie said, beckoning to a serious boy carrying a plate of tiny pastries. “Kate, this is Alistair, one of Diana and Hamish’s sons.”

He nodded and held out the food so they could make their choices.

“Alistair and Ben are twins,” Lottie continued. They look the same as Matthew and me.”

“Like nothing at all the same,” the boy said gruffly.

He was as blond as Diana. Kate presumed his brother must be dark. “Do you mind being twins?” she asked.

“I’m pleased we’re not identical,” he mumbled, trying not to stare at Kate’s cleavage.

She smiled and took another morsel before he moved away.

“Fourteen,” said Lottie, as though that explained everything. “Good boys. Nice boys. Home from boarding school for this weekend.”

Across the room, Matthew’s tall presence had become the centre of attention for three women. Kate clenched her jaw.

One had taken hold of his hand and laughed, head thrown back. The second flipped her rippling blonde hair around rather obviously. The third reached for his free arm to steady herself so she could fiddle with her shoe. She returned her foot to the ground but retained the arm. He glanced down at her, but did nothing to shake himself free.

Kate tried to ignore them, but his face, his body, his scent had all sunk deep into her psyche now. Her eyes wandered to him every few minutes. She could have throttled the whole group. Her relief was palpable when he moved away from the trio.

Not that she lacked for company herself. The ‘spy from the north’ man stuck close for a while. The other twin—darker and much more self-assured—arrived with nibbles and a good line of chat. Several of Lottie’s art admirers clustered around, including Kate in their conversation.

Soon after eight the dinner gong rang out and Hamish called for silence. After cheerful abuse the animated conversation faded away.

“My dear friends,” he began pompously. Someone popped a couple of balloons and general laughter broke out. “Look—dinner is ready. Do go through and help yourselves, and find a seat wherever you can. We’ve spread them around all over the place.”

Diana threaded her way through the guests and took his arm. He smiled down at her and said something meant for her alone. Then he raised his voice again. “Thank you Di and the rest of my family for going to all this trouble for me. And thank you all for the horribly offensive cards and good wishes. It’s almost worth turning forty to have you here tonight. Now eat up all the lovely food you’ve brought us.”

Kate drew a regretful breath. They were such nice people. Relaxed and cheerful and interesting. They’d made her feel so welcome. And she would never see them again.

Guests gave way to the wheelchair. Kate pushed it around the laden table and Lottie chose her food. Matthew appeared beside her and took over the handles. “Get some for yourself.” His tone was ungracious.

“I’m not all that hungry, thanks.”

“That makes two of us, then.”

Lottie glanced up, but when she started to remonstrate with him, he turned the chair aside, excluding Kate from any further conversation.

She served out as much as she felt like eating and went to top up her glass. Not far away, another man was looking to do the same. He moved closer. “Now why would a pretty girl like you be finding her own drink?” He had a soft Irish accent, with twinkling Irish eyes to match. Such an obvious come-on that Kate couldn’t resist. She looked at him from under her lashes, and batted them. “Because the chap who drove me here has other things on his mind right now.”

His mouth quirked. “I’m Patrick Donovan.”

“Kate Pleasance.”

He reached for her hand and held it a little longer than necessary. “And you’re not from round these parts, that I can tell. You’re a girl from the city for sure.”

Kate laughed at his blarney and retrieved her hand to pour the wine.

“Good guess,” she said. “Auckland. Some for you?”

He held his hand over hers to steady his glass. Definitely one of the touchy-feely brigade. She glimpsed Matthew watching from across the room. She avoided his eyes and smiled at Patrick. “How do you know Di and Hamish?”

“There’s a bit of a story to that,” he said, bending close. Closer than he needed to be. Kate retreated a fraction. “Some years ago now—” and he embarked on a long rambling description of a trip through vineyards in the south of France.

Kate nodded along, sipping her wine and forking up her food. Although she stood next to Patrick, it was Matthew who kept drawing her attention. Every now and again he glowered across in her direction. With nothing to lose, she transferred her weight from one foot to the other so the long split skirt revealed an equally long leg. And turned her sinuous sweep of back on him.

It took perhaps thirty seconds before he strode across and poured himself another drink.

“Better go easy if you’re driving,” she said sweetly.

He gave her a withering look, opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, snapped it closed, and departed.

“A friend of yours?” Patrick asked.

“A lover from the past,” she dismissed.

He leaned a little nearer.

She shrank a shade away. “I must attend to Lottie, if you’ll excuse me?”

She took her glass across to the wheelchair and bent to speak, well aware Matthew had a generous view of her breasts from that angle. “Can I get you anything else? Or will you wait for dessert? More wine maybe?”

“Dessert I think, Katie. Another little drink until then.” Kate stepped away with the empty glass and a strangling grip on her wrist pulled her up short.

“I’ll do it.”

“I’m happy to, Matthew.”

“I said I’ll do it. Stay here.”

As if! She glanced at Lottie to find delight in her eyes and a half-hidden smile on her lips. Kate raised her eyebrows.

Lottie relaxed into a cheeky grin as soon as Matthew turned away. “Serve him right,” she said. “I think he bites off his nose.”

Kate snorted at the half-phrase, and grinned back.

“Why do men do this?” Lottie demanded. They both cast their eyes down and hid their smiles at Matthew’s rapid return.

So—he didn’t want her himself, but neither did he want anyone else taking over. Victory of a kind, she supposed.

There was a renewed surge toward the table once the selection of decadent desserts appeared. Tea and coffee followed, and then the men cleared the floor for dancing. They rolled up the rugs and pushed the furniture to the extreme edges of the big room. Hamish cranked up a party compilation. Alistair circled seriously, shaking talcum powder. Ben slid and whooped across the floor to spread it around.

The music soon had toes tapping and heads nodding. Diana and Hamish were first on the floor, encouraging everyone to join them.

“Now this I cannot do,” Lottie said with regret.

“Just once around,” Matthew insisted, scooping her up, protesting, in his strong arms. He managed a good imitation of a man dancing with a partner for a couple of minutes and returned her to the chair.

“That was kind,” Kate said. He nodded curtly.

The Irishman headed her way again. She didn’t fancy his touchy-feely act on the dance floor.

Neither did Matthew, apparently. “Our turn, Miss Pleasance,” he said, giving her no option as he swung her out onto the floor seconds before Aerosmith gave way to the Blue Danube waltz.

“Something for everyone,” Hamish confirmed as he and Diana circled by.

Matthew drew Kate closer, cursing softly, refusing to look at her. He curved a hand around her waist; the other enclosed her fingers. She rested her left hand tentatively on his shoulder.

She would have been so much happier bopping around to the rock music. Untouched. Further apart. Impersonal. It was agonising being held like this. His cologne drifted across the small gap between them, pumped into the air by the throbbing pulse she saw in his strong neck.

She’d licked him there last night. Kissed him and smoothed her fingers very close to there, and then slid down and spread her hands wide to knead his firm flesh.

He’d laughed and tensed his pecs for her, and his chest had become hard and perfect. Now he held her just close enough to look polite, but much too far away to be the least bit friendly. He was as icy as the weather.

Kate wanted no part of this stiff chilly charade of a dance. “That’s enough,” she hissed, trying to pull away. But he clamped her rigidly into position as she attempted to escape. They circled on around the floor, together but apart.

“Let me go, Matthew. This is no sort of a dance. You may as well be holding a broomstick.” She tried to escape his grasp again. Still he confined her with his iron hands.

He looked down at her with the oddest expression. “Broomstick?” he queried, suddenly pulling her hard in against him. She was shocked to find him stiff with desire. Long with lust. Hidden under his beautifully cut tuxedo, a whole different story lurked. The civilized man the others saw was wildly, potently, ready to mate. And one big hand now clutched the small of her back so they rubbed and chafed together as they danced amid the throng of unsuspecting party guests.

“I don’t like what you were trying to do, but it seems I still want you,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything, and I don’t like you either,” she ground back.

“But do you want me? That’s a whole different question, isn’t it Katie.” He stared at her intently, so snug against her she easily imagined every detail of him.

The music finished.

“No,” she lied, wrenching herself away from him, escaping just barely alive.

She somehow lasted through the rest of the party. Matthew occupied himself elsewhere, which both relieved and destroyed her.

Lottie was happy to depart quite early; they drove back to the house in near silence.

And it seemed to Kate that she spent every hour of the long night tossing and turning as she re-lived the party, and the contradictory messages he’d sent her as they danced.

 

Chapter Seventeen — Desertion

He spoke exactly thirteen cold words to her the next morning: “I’ve booked a taxi to take you to the airport. I’m going flying.” He turned and left.

Lottie watched with concern. “Katie—still not good? You looked so beautiful in that dress, and I saw you and Matthew dancing close?”

Kate shook her head. “Punishment, not forgiveness,” she muttered. “Your brother doesn’t know what he wants.” She closed her mouth before she said anything further that might offend Lottie.

“My brother wants someone to love him.”

Kate laughed—a sharp little snort. “He has a funny way of showing it, then. You have to trust someone before they’ll love you.”

“His first marriage ended badly. No children, thank heavens. But his wife was—what you say—mercenary? After money?” Lottie nodded at her choice of word. “Ya, it went badly. He was hurt.”

“It doesn’t excuse him, Lottie. I wasn’t after money. He kept trying to spend it on me, but it was his choice, not mine. The clothes. That party dress. And I’m not taking any of them with me. He can throw the stuff away, for all I care.”

After breakfast, Kate scrupulously packed exactly what she’d brought with her: one spare blouse, one pair of panties, one pair of shoes, one red jersey, her makeup and nightgown. All of his clothes she left in the wardrobe. All of his lingerie she left in a drawer.

To pass the rest of the long morning she helped Lottie. There were letters to prepare. Exhibition details to confirm. A painting had been commissioned by one of the big corporations for their boardroom; money and timing needed discussing. Notes for a prestigious lecture had to be located amongst the clutter in the studio.

“Katie, I wish you could stay. It would be so good to have you here.”

Kate shook her head. “I know, Lottie. I’d enjoy it enormously.”

“When I travel you would be such a help, too. Not so easy on my own these days. And I cannot expect Matthew to be always with me.”

“It’s not possible for me to stay. Not with him like this.”

“I know. The only decision you can make right now.” Lottie sighed and glanced across at her easel. “He’s out of our way if he’s flying. We could have one more little session for your painting, maybe?”

Kate agreed. Her fight was not with Lottie. Once again, she collected and placed the bedroom lamps, and after inspecting the painting so far, stripped to her panties and resumed the pose. She wondered if she’d ever see the finished work. “Send me a photo when it’s done?” she asked.

“I Polaroid it for you,” Lottie agreed as she began to squeeze the paints onto her palette.

This time there was no excitement; no darkly handsome visitor, no feverish distraction or nerve tingling inspection from intrusive silver-grey eyes. Kate tried very hard not to imagine him sitting just feet away, watching and sketching, feeding her sandwiches and snapping the elastic of the tiny panties he’d bought her. She saw it all in a different light now, knowing he was not Lottie’s husband.

The swift kiss he’d branded her with still sizzled on her lips when she thought of him. But she mustn’t think of him like that ever again. It was over. However much her heart felt wrung dry, however much her throat ached with unshed tears, Matthew didn’t trust her. Didn’t want her any more. Couldn’t even be polite.

She arrived back in Auckland in time for a solitary dinner—chilli prawns, fried rice, and stir-fried greens from her local takeaway. Not a patch on his Queenstown meal. She had no-one to flirt with, no-one to gaze across the table at as she pushed the food around with her chopsticks.

He didn’t trust her. Maybe he’d never trust a woman properly again. What a waste of a life. She gave in to her misery, and tears slid slowly down her cheeks as she thought about resuming her job search. She’d use the time before starting a new job to do some work on the townhouse she’d inherited from her mother. Plainly she wouldn’t be moving south to work for Lottie, so she’d update it to her own taste.

Her mother had collected blue and white china. Kate laid down her chopsticks and began to plan. She decided to pack away the pretty ornaments, and paint over the rose-strewn wallpaper in the dining and sitting rooms. A neutral shade as a base to display paintings on. The Queenstown house had intensified her interest in artwork.

She’d search out a rich tribal patterned rug to liven up the plain carpet. Something like Diana had on her hardwood floors. A total change. Sooner or later the past would recede.

But Matthew was constantly on her mind. Next day, after hurrying to the nearest paint store, she worked the roller up and down over the roses and recalled their first meeting at the air terminal, and the ride to see Lottie in hospital. The Italian lunch, the clothes buying spree, the dinner and subsequent spa. His body. God, his body…

His sinful mouth. His taste. His silky skin. His scent.

She finished the first coat over the walls by mid-afternoon, made coffee, and took it to the outdoor table to enjoy the unexpected winter sunshine. The steam spiralled up, carrying the drink’s rich fragrance. Kate dropped her head into her hands and closed her eyes, blotting out the reality of drab winter in sub-tropical Auckland and exchanging it for sparkling Queenstown.

She remembered every moment of ecstasy in the spa, in front of the glowing fire, and in his bed. She’d never imagined she’d abandon herself so absolutely to a man. She’d lowered her defences and given him her total trust—and where had that got her? Back home. Alone. Hurting deeply.

After the extreme rapture Matthew had created for her, the pain he’d inflicted was agonising. She vowed never to leave herself so open to rejection again.

Two days later, she returned with a handsome rug and spread it on the floor. She set a bunch of golden chrysanthemums in a tall black vase, and gazed around with satisfaction. Redecorating the sitting room had been a success—she’d tackle the main bedroom next and try to create some sophisticated ambience. Two coats of low sheen paint… she’d be finished in another couple of days. Three silver-grey walls with deep charcoal on the fourth behind the bed. Not to remind her in the least of Matthew, she told herself, but because she’d seen the scheme in a décor magazine on the flight home from Queenstown. The pale curtains and carpet would be fine as they were.

She bundled up her mother’s flounced bedspread to donate to the church shop, deciding to replace it with the geometric grey and cream bed linen she’d seen in the Bed’n’Bath boutique. Her mother’s peachy scheme was soon just a memory. If only she could wipe Matthew from her life so easily…

The next afternoon she bought the linen and visited several galleries, searching for the perfect painting to complete the charcoal wall. She couldn’t afford anything in Lottie’s league, but maybe a dramatic and sombre nude would look good in the room?

She wondered where in the world the countryside/woman painting would be hung. Her final morning’s work in Queenstown had given her a deeper understanding of what a truly international figure Lottie was. It would have been a wonderful job.

But…

By early Friday, Matthew was still waiting with barely controlled patience for the results of Sy Karlson’s investigation. Surely Sy must be back from his break in Fiji by now?

He was desperate for ammunition to blast Kate out of his mind. His concentration had been shot to pieces. She wandered through his thoughts uninvited, hour after hour.

But she was Rob Pleasance’s daughter. He had found her in his study more than once. And the second time, when she’d thought him safely asleep, he’d seen with his own eyes she’d been searching for documents. Her excuse about the sketches had been feeble.

The evening before that, she’d not wanted him to see her e-mail. Asked him to get the glasses of juice to give her privacy. Sent the message off the screen the instant he’d returned. When he’d retrieved it, he could certainly see why. But he was still in the dark about the mysterious merger.

She was poison—no other interpretation was possible.

He sighed as he shuffled some papers together and snapped his briefcase shut. Auckland later today for a board meeting. It would be even harder to keep her from invading his mind there, knowing she was only a few minutes’ taxi ride away.

The early morning flight was full. Most of the passengers were business people. Holidaymakers didn’t travel at crack of dawn as a rule. Matthew found himself seated next to an older woman who didn’t appear to be a frequent flyer. She peered about nervously, and gave her full attention to the safety demonstration. When the flight attendant came by offering magazines, the woman accepted two. She opened the first, and tilted it to the light.

The hairs on Matthew’s neck rose, and a sputtering buzz filled his brain. The other magazine lay on her lap. A nubile blonde smiled in triumph over a screaming red headline: ‘Terry to marry her tycoon.’ Behind her lurked Rob Pleasance.

He made an undignified grab for it, causing the woman to jump.

“Sorry—just spotted someone I know on the cover.” He snapped the pages over until he found the story.

So that was the merger? A marriage—not a business deal at all. He skimmed through the article, voracious for facts.

Top businessman Rob Pleasance, blah blah blah, had proposed to well-known socialite Terry De la Hunt, blah blah blah, and the couple would marry on picturesque Waiheke Island in September. He had considerately waited until his former wife, Jennifer, had passed away from cancer before proposing to his new love. His only child from the former marriage, swimming champion Kate Pleasance, had given her blessing to the new union. The bride’s dress would be designed by Trelise Walker. Terry’s six-year old son Damien would be a pageboy. And so on, ad infinitum.

The merger was a marriage.

He read through it again with growing dismay, appalled he’d jumped so easily to the wrong conclusion. Kate had mentioned letting people know she’d be unable to attend a celebration of some kind. The engagement bash, apparently.

She’d said some people would be stunned. The ambitious Terry was about half the age of her prospective groom—more his daughter’s age than his own. His ex wife was very recently dead. Yes, people might indeed be surprised.

Acid burned Matthew’s gut as he thought of the way he’d treated Kate. His furious words, his cold-shoulder treatment. His rudeness at the party. His cavalier manner on the dance floor—holding her against her will, and then so violently demonstrating his fierce lust for her body even as he threw unkind words in her face.

What had Sy Karlsen discovered about her? Anything more to back up his own suspicions? Or would Sy’s report show Kate was pretty much what she claimed to be?

Damn the cell phone suppression on the plane! He had to get his hands on the facts today. If he’d been as wrong as now seemed possible, he needed to make one hell of an apology—and fast.

But was there the least chance he could patch things up between them? Recapture the blissful state they’d achieved in the snowbound house?

He’d never been so attracted to a woman. Despite all his suspicions, head over heels in half an hour. Inventing excuses for her to stay. Buying her clothes whether she wanted them or not. Foisting his choices on her as though she was a doll to be dressed to his wishes.

Within minutes of meeting her, Kate had his body and brain in turmoil.

He’d been in both paradise and purgatory when he held her sobbing in his arms while Diana and Hamish made love. Only a miracle had stopped him from ripping his pyjamas down and showing her a hell of a lot more than a slice of his tattoo.

He’d grabbed her and kissed her in the cinema like a love-struck sixteen year old, and had no idea how he’d summoned up the strength of will to stop at one kiss. It had taken all his steely determination to try and lose himself in the movie as a distraction from the beautiful desirable woman pressed close against him, smelling so good, tasting so luscious.

Joining Lottie in the studio and sketching Kate had been a real turn-on. The charcoal had re-created her for his private pleasure, sliding smoothly over the paper just as his hands itched to wander over her lustrous skin. He’d consigned the drawings to the back of the SUV, and taken them to a picture framer before he bought the prawns for that evening’s meal. They must be almost ready by now. Mounted in black. Framed in sleek chrome. A tribute to her desirable body.

He was glad he hadn’t told her. Now they might be the only way he’d see her again.

He squeezed his eyes shut and fought for equilibrium. His world had just lurched off its axis. He’d made a total fool of himself and probably alienated her forever. It would take a miracle to get her back.

The instant they opened the plane’s doors in Auckland, he thumbed through his phone for Sy Karlsen’s listing.

 

Chapter Eighteen — Angel Over the Bed

Kate chose a conservative ivory blouse and her best black business suit. She’d decided not to take her car into the central city so it would be easier to hand-deliver her CV to three of the city’s top employment agencies. She hoped for an interview with one of their consultants. (Or should she phone ahead? Her heart wasn’t really in this!)

Then she’d have lunch with her old friend and workmate, Shelley, and ask how her successor was coping… just in case there was an opening there again.

And after that she’d get the bus back to the gallery in Newmarket and hope they still had the painting which had most appealed the previous day. It wasn’t by a big-name artist, but the talent was obvious, and who knew what the future held for them?

It was a naked angel—a hard-muscled man lazing on something that might be heavenly clouds. A huge feathered wing cast enough shadow to make him almost decent. The rest of the body was definitively beautifully male. She’d need a taxi to bring him home.

Later that afternoon Kate paid the driver and eased out of the cab with the long painting. Steering the angel safely around the corner in the front entrance would be difficult. She dug the garage remote from her bag and zapped the door. It shuddered upward, and she sidled past the car and through to her bedroom. She stood the angel on end against the big chest of drawers. Her mother’s basic tool-kit was stored in the wardrobe, and she lifted it out in readiness. Then she kicked off her shoes and headed toward the kitchen.

And froze.

How long had he been sitting there?

From the kitchen counter she had an unobstructed view through the dining room and out to the sheltered timber deck. A graceful wisteria vine twined around the supports and framed the view in spring and summer. Now it was winter-bare, and the tall dark haired man was clearly visible in profile. He sat on one of the chairs at the outdoor table, unmoving. Kate crept a few steps closer to see him better.

Definitely Matthew.

Drawing breath was almost impossible.

Why was he still there? He’d have heard the garage door opening and closing, and known she’d returned.

Kate shuffled backward, groping for the end of the counter, and sagging against it. Her hands trembled and her heart beat frantically. Presumably he’d knocked, and not finding her at home, had opened the side gate and decided to wait her out. She’d been gone since mid morning. How long had he been there? It was four-thirty now—hours might have crept by.

She made coffee. One coffee.

Stood there sipping as he sat unmoving. Was he waiting for her to go out and beg his forgiveness? When she’d done nothing except try to find the sketches of her own body? She finished the drink, slowly regaining her courage, and turning dark thoughts over in her mind.

Matthew pushed back the chair and rose. Kate trembled all over again and grabbed the counter for support.

She waited for him to knock.

He never did.

She had no idea how long she stood there, tense and trembling, wondering what he’d say and what she’d reply.

Finally she realised he’d gone. He’d come to see her, and she’d ignored him as though he didn’t exist.

She yelled his name and raced along the hallway, wrenching the front door open, leaving it swinging wide. Down the steps, shoeless. Over the rough paving of the long cobbled driveway, heedless of her pantyhose being snagged and shredded, and the ladders whizzing up her legs. She dragged her skirt up so she could run faster, sprinting along toward the now distant man walking away from her, cell phone to ear.

She finally swerved to a halt in front of him, eyes wide, hair wild, breasts heaving.

“Forget the cab for now,” he said, slipping the phone into his pocket and meeting her accusing gaze.

“You didn’t knock,” she panted. “You were right there and you didn’t knock.”

“You didn’t ask me in,” he replied quietly. “It was your call, Katie. I messed it up. You knew I was there. You knew I’d come all this way to you. I waited as long as I could bear to.”

As he could bear to? He couldn’t possibly feel as wretched as she did, could he? Tiny sparks of hope ignited in her brain like fireflies. She tugged her skirt down, grimaced at the ladders, then returned her eyes to his. “You should have knocked.”

“Should I? I assumed you wanted nothing more to do with me when you didn’t come out. I wouldn’t blame you.”

She tried to speak again. Her throat had the biggest lump, and she almost couldn’t force her voice past it. “Come back and have coffee at least,” she begged.

His lips twitched. “Will you make two this time?”

Oh God, how cruel that must have looked.

She swallowed. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Just needed something to calm my nerves… give me time… I didn’t know you could see me.”

He sighed, reached a hand toward her, then pulled it back again as though he had no right to touch her. “I can’t see anything else. I haven’t seen anything except you since the day you left.”

Kate gazed into his glistening eyes, heart thumping madly.

“Good,” she said. “Me either.”

Matthew reached across again, this time to touch her hair.

“Must be a mess,” Kate said, shrugging.

“Beautiful mess.” He smoothed his knuckles down the side of her face, stroking softly, barely believing she hadn’t slapped him away. “Need to talk about things,” he muttered. “Need to tell you why I was such a bloody fool.”

Kate tipped her head on one side and regarded him as though he was a laboratory specimen. Then she glanced down at her feet. “It better be good,” she said. “Not such a beautiful mess down there.”

Matthew looked too, squatted, and cursed softly. Her pantyhose were in rags. A couple of her pretty little toes oozed blood. He held out a hand. “Show me.”

Kate leaned on his shoulder for balance and gingerly placed her foot on his upturned palm.

He cursed again. “You shouldn’t have run after me without shoes.”

“Wasn’t thinking. I wanted to see why you were here.”

He bent his head with relief, and then kissed the side of her knee. “I’ll give you a piggy-back home.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can walk.”

“Not being ridiculous. You’re bleeding, and you know perfectly well I can carry you.” He glanced up, pleased to see she’d bitten her lip, and was maybe remembering how he’d carried her across the spa room impaled on his cock before he set her down on the cabinet and fucked her so urgently. Her quick sprint along the street had brought colour to her face, but he also detected a hint of bashful recollection, thank God. “We need to sort things out, Katie. Let me carry you. I’ll probably find it easier to talk if I don’t have to look you in the eye.”

She snorted at that. “I won’t know if you’re telling me the truth.”

“Yes you will. I’ve never lied to you and I’m not starting now.”

“You’ve got some pretty warped ideas about the truth, then.”

He ignored her jibe because the chance to make things right between them was too important to jeopardise. He stood and turned, squatting enough to encourage her to climb on his back, and knowing he deserved her scorn after the way he’d treated her.

“How are you going to carry your briefcase now?” she asked after he’d straightened up.

He heard the trace of humour in her voice and put her down again. “Can you carry it if I carry you?

She sent him half a grin. “Probably. But I’ll hardly be decent,” she added, hitching her skirt way up her thighs again.

Matthew’s eyes followed, and he groaned out loud before handing her the briefcase and turning his back on her. He wanted those legs wrapped around his waist right now. And later in bed. Wanted to push his face up between them and drive her insane with his tongue. Wanted her so badly he didn’t know how to start telling her. “Hop on,” he said in a strangled voice.

“Thank you. You don’t have to do this.”

“I’m offering. Make the most of me.” He braced himself to take her weight, settled his arms under her legs, and smiled unseen as she wrapped a hand around his chest and grumbled about having to carry the briefcase.

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what was inside.”

“What?”

He didn’t reply as he set off walking.

What?”

“Files you father would give his right arm for.”

“Dad?”

Matthew detected genuine confusion in her tone, and knew this time he could believe her. “We’re in total competition as far as business goes.” He hitched her a little higher on his back and walked on, waiting to see if she’d make the connection. She left him in no doubt when she whacked him on the thigh with the briefcase.

“Put me down!”

“Not a hope. I’ve got you now, and I’m keeping you.”

He heard her annoyed exhalation right next to his ear. Felt her soft hair caressing his neck and the side of his face.

“You thought I was a spy?” she accused.

“Wondered. A bit.”

“Ridiculous man.” But she said it with a hitch in her voice that gave him hope.

“Forgive me, Katie. I’d just had a real shock with Lottie falling. Her ankle was giving her hell and she was screaming blue murder. Her head was bleeding torrents.”

“How is she now?” Kate demanded.

“Too darn stroppy. Doing well.” He turned slightly and smoothed the side his face against hers as he continued walking. “I got her to hospital and she dug out your CV. That’s when I found the girl I had to entertain for the day was named Pleasance. And you were tall, like Rob…”

“You weren’t very welcoming. I wondered why you were so cold.”

“Not cold. Worried for sure. About both you and Lottie.”

“Cold,” she repeated.

“I bought you a nice lunch.”

“And quizzed me like a criminal! I knew there was something you were trying to dig out of me. Well bad luck, Matthew, there was nothing to dig.” She nuzzled his ear and nipped the rim of it before locating his lobe and sucking it briefly. “Go on. You’re not nearly forgiven yet.”

Matthew closed his eyes for a few seconds and strode on. The sudden heat of her mouth had been a wonderful shock. “I was married to someone who tried to take me for a lot of money. My fault. Obviously I didn’t treat her well enough or something…”

Kate snatched a deep breath and huffed it out again. “Or you chose wrong.”

“Yeah, lost all the ladies I loved and trusted when I was too young. Had no nice examples left.”

“Lottie?”

“My mother first of all. It was only appendicitis, but up in the Pacific the medical help can be far away, and Dad got her there too late.”

“How old were you?” Kate asked softly, shifting her weight.

“Five. It’s too young to lose your mum. Dad married again pretty fast. I guess he was lonely, and felt Hamish and I needed a mother.”

“And that didn’t work?”

“Worked fine for two young boys. Cornelia was warm and outgoing. Won us over in no time.” He shook his head, enjoying the way Kate’s hair brushed the side of his face. “But she couldn’t stand the island life. Held on for several years, but finally gave in and took Lottie back to her family in The Netherlands.”

“So you lost your mother, your stepmother and your sister?”

“Yeah.” He fell silent.

“How long were you married?”

“Three years. I had to travel a lot. Left her on her own too much. She found someone else.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Kate protested, voice soft in his ear. “It takes two.”

“It took two on that occasion. He was a scheming bastard—almost as bad as she was. The telco business is cut-throat. Martine was a clever bitch with the same background. Made the most of her knowledge to try for a very big divorce settlement. Stuck with me just long enough for the half-and-half law to kick in.”

“And she got half?”

Matthew turned into the driveway of Kate’s townhouse, adjusting the length of his stride because of the slope. “No. Tried very hard for half. Thought she was entitled, and tried to swing things that way. But there’s a difference between what they class as ‘relationship property’ and ‘separate property’ under New Zealand law. Thank God I hadn’t built the house by then.”

“Or they’d have awarded her half?”

“Yep. So, when I found you searching my office…”

“But I wasn’t looking for anything secret. Put me down.” She tried to wriggle off again, and Matthew used his superior strength to hold her firmly in place.

“There’s more to it than that. Stay there—thirty seconds and you’re home.” He walked as far as the open front door and set her down. “Not room for two of us to get round that bend.”

Kate glared at him. “That’s why I brought the painting in through the garage.” She motioned him to the outdoor table. “Unless you want to make coffee while I get cleaned up and find the first aid kit?”

Matthew watched her limp up the hallway toward what he presumed was the bathroom. “Can I help? I’m looking for an excuse to grovel at your feet, after all?”

“Make the coffee,” she said, trying for stern but letting a giggle break through.

He caught the flash of her smile, and his hopes rose a notch. By the time she returned, he had the coffee-maker going and had found two mugs.

“Just a bit of skin,” she said. “Nothing that won’t heal in a few days.”

He stepped closer and drew him against him, burying his nose in her hair. “But it’s your skin, and I’m very fond of your skin.”

“My thieving skin,” she mocked, trying to pull away.

He knew better than to hold her against her will. “At least let me tell you the rest. You can’t think me much more of a fool than you already do.” He poured the coffee into the mugs.

Kate reached into the fridge for milk, and snagged a sugar bowl from the pantry. She carried both to the outdoor table and sat. “I’m listening.”

He looked across at her and sighed. “You’ll hate me for this.”

Kate raised her brows and sipped. “Does it get worse?”

“Hell, yeah. I turned the tables and started spying on you.”

“I wasn’t spying.”

“I know that now. I didn’t know it then.” He took a spoonful of sugar and stirred it into his coffee, eyes down to avoid hers. “We’d had that fantastic trip over to Milford, and you were starting to relax, and I thought I had a chance after all.” He ran a hand over his hair and closed his eyes briefly. “And then we got the not-married-to-Lottie thing straightened out, and you kissed me, and things got better and better.”

“Apart from having to fly home.”

“Still getting better and better though. Home safe. No Lottie. Fantastic sex.”

He watched as Kate tried to suppress a grin. And failed. “So all good, and then you wanted to send an email. You sent me off to get drinks so you could write it in private.”

“No I didn’t.” She sipped her coffee again.

“Felt like it to me. By then I was half crazy about you. Didn’t want you in touch with the boyfriend.”

Kate shook her head. “Not likely!”

“You sent the message the instant I came back so I couldn’t be sure.” He reached a hand across the table and enclosed hers. “You said your Dad, but maybe not. I had no way of knowing.”

Kate turned her hand over and threaded her fingers through his. “Jealous?”

A warm flush had crossed his cheekbones. “Jealous as hell. The more fantastic the night got, the deeper I fell.” He looked across at her, eyes intense. “And in the morning you’d gone. I found you in my office, pulling the end off a document tube. What the fuck was I supposed to think?”

She tried to pull her hand away but he held on tightly.

“You should have believed me,” she said.

“Nah—in too deep to be rational. I retrieved the message you’d sent, and it confirmed all my worst fears.”

“It was to my Dad!”

“Precisely. The last person in the world I wanted knowing my business. And you described me as ‘a compensation’ as though I was a booby prize, and congratulated him on the merger and said people were going to be surprised….” He trailed off, gazing at her across the table.

“And that was all it took?” The corners of her mouth twitched. “Matthew, you twit! He was getting engaged. Family building, not empire building.”

“I know that now!” Matthew roared. “I didn’t know it then. At that instant, I felt everything good was being stolen away. Just when it was perfect.” He glared across the table at her.

“Perfect?” she whispered.

His glare faded to an expression that laid his emotions bare and told her he was bracing for, and expecting, the worst. “Perfect for me, anyway.”

She pushed her chair back and limped around to stand beside him, slid her arms around him and cradled his head against her breasts. “Pretty damn good for me too,” she said. He relaxed against her, pulling her close, sighing deeply.

Coffees forgotten, they were soon naked in each other’s arms.

Finally they lay exhausted together, sated, slippery, sleepy. Matthew twisted his head to look at the painting standing on end a few feet away.

“You brought him to remind you of me,” he said, stroking her hair.

“He’s nothing like you,” Kate murmured. “No tattoo. None of these bits.” She reached down and fondled them. “And if you had wings like him, I couldn’t lie on you like this, could I?” He lay flat on his back and she’d draped herself, boneless and possessive, across his chest. They’d crushed hell out of the new bed linen.

“We should phone Lottie,” he said.

“To see if she needs a lady’s companion?” Kate asked, still playing with him.

“I thought I might keep you fully occupied myself.”

“In your dreams.”

“Filthy dreams. Are you sure you’re up for them?” He buried his face in her hair, trying to find an ear to nip, or a neck to lick. She turned her face to him and offered a swollen sensuous mouth. “I can feel you are,” she said, squeezing gently.

He drew her down for another lingering kiss, hands wandering along her satin-smooth back and out over her gorgeous warm butt. “Katie Pleasance, you’re a total turn-on,” he said before kissing her again. “The moment I saw you… the instant we shook hands… I knew I was in big trouble.”

“One touch?” she queried.

“Didn’t you feel it, too?”

Kate kept him waiting a few seconds, and then relented. “You grabbed my hand so hard. I noticed that.”

Matthew raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, I felt it,” she agreed. “I sort of didn’t dare look at you and couldn’t keep my eyes off you at the same time. I thought you were totally unobtainable, of course.” She kissed his chest. “I let myself have some little fantasies though…”

Matthew grinned. “Tell me.”

Kate smiled down at him. “You were far too hot to handle. I imagined enjoying you quickly and running while the going was good.”

“You knew I was interested, did you?”

“No, of course not,” she said, lips curving. “I thought Lottie was your wife, and that maybe you had Diana as well until you introduced her as your sister-in-law. Why would you be interested in me?”

“Because,” he said, gathering up her hair and holding it back from her face, “you challenged me at every turn. You laughed with me and didn’t give an inch when I teased you. You flew into wonderful rages when I bought you clothes.”

“When you bought me underwear,” she corrected. “It was far too soon for that.”

“I wanted to spoil you. I wanted to keep you with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of you going away again. I wanted to touch you all the time and make sure you were real.”

“I was real,” Kate said. “I was real and I was falling for you so fast I was scared witless. Why does it happen like that for some people?”

“Because we’re the right people for each other. It was time for us to be lucky.”

“I could have killed those women flirting with you at the party.”

“And I nearly throttled that smarmy Irish guy.”

“But we almost lost each other.”

“Never in a million years.” He said it with the certainty of a man who at last had exactly what he wanted. “You’re a strong passionate woman, Katie. I’ll have a hard time getting the better of you. Not,” he added, “that I’ll ever stop trying.”

Kate heaved a huge sigh of contentment.

“Not,” she countered, “that I’d expect you to…”

They dozed, and finally roused themselves enough to raid the kitchen for supper.

“I wasn’t expecting a guest. I could do you melted cheese on toast with some bacon on top,” Kate said, peering into the refrigerator.

“And after that I’ll have you on toast with me on top.”

“Melted Matthew,” she grinned, enjoying his long lithe body lounging against the cabinets.

He watched as Kate switched on the grill and placed the slices of bread to brown. As she turned, he tugged the sash of her robe undone.

“Hey,” she objected.

He pulled her close and planted a tender kiss on the end of her nose. Thus distracted, she found he’d parted the fabric and pressed himself against her skin again.

“I’m remembering something you told me in Queenstown,” he whispered, his breath warm in her ear. “You said if a man bought clothes for a woman, he could dress her in them. I think undressing you is so much more fun, even if this isn’t the robe I bought you.” He slid his hands luxuriously over her breasts and found her nipples with his thumbs. They rose at his bidding into firm peaks, and his smile broadened.

Kate gazed at his ruffled hair, his huge relaxed grin and boyish air of triumph. How had she ever thought his face tough, his expression hard? He was quite simply the most sensational man she’d ever met. And apparently he was hers.

“Do you want supper or not?” she asked, reaching sideways for the cheese knife—trying to look menacing, and failing entirely.

“I’m starved,” Matthew admitted, giving in and smoothing her robe back into place. “But you’re wearing too many clothes.”

Kate set the knife down and re-tied her sash. “And you’re not wearing enough. We don’t want the bacon spitting hot fat anywhere. I’d get those fancy tattooed pants out of here if you know what’s good for you. A little splatter-burn on my favourite piece would stop you in your tracks—even faster than that extra design you were joking about.”

She watched with amusement as Matthew feigned fright and turned away. And couldn’t resist goosing his gorgeous butt as he sauntered out of her kitchen.

She heard hammering a minute or two later, and went to investigate as the cheese and bacon started to hiss and bubble. Matthew had found the tool-kit.

“Lift that end up for me?”

Together they raised their muscular guardian angel onto the hangers he’d attached to the wall.

 

Chapter Nineteen — Snow Glow

“I suppose I should rent this place out for a while,” Kate said as they lazed in bed the following morning.

“Keep it for us. I’m in Auckland for regular board meetings. The rent you’d get would barely balance out our hotel bills.”

“Us?”

“I do hope so, Katie. Pack up some of your things and come back to Queenstown with me. We’ll stay here each time I’m up on business. You can have a tickle around your garden and catch up with friends.”

She rose on one elbow and gazed down at him. “I quite fancied some rent coming in.”

“I’ll pay you wonderfully exorbitant rent. You can spend it all on feminine frippery and drive me wild with lust.”

“Wilder than last night?”

He smiled and stretched. “Who knows, Katie? You peeled all your frippery off pretty damn fast last night. I could quite enjoy helping you to remove tiny green panties and—”

She squealed and flung herself down on him. He subdued her with very little effort, twisting her over, pinning her there, and holding her helpless beneath him.

“God, you’re a turn-on,” he whispered. “How am I ever going to love you enough?”

Kate heaved a blissful sigh as he left her bed. “Give me twenty-four hours to settle things here, okay?”

Matthew grimaced. “I need to get back to Lottie today.”

“I know. But I’ve things to arrange. I need to let Maurie know I can’t continue with the swimming coaching for a while. Job applications to put on hold. Things like that. I promise I’ll come and see you both tomorrow.”

“If you don’t, I’ll fly up and kidnap you.” He bent and smoothed her hair back from her brow. “Is your shower big enough for two?” he asked hopefully.

This time, there was much more snow everywhere. In the two winter weeks she’d been gone, Queenstown had changed from a pretty scenic resort to an icy fairyland.

Kate gazed out of the window as the plane dropped lower and lower in the crisp clear air. Somewhere down there, he waited for her—the tall terrifying pussycat of a man who’d stolen her heart and transformed her life.

The plane bumped gently down and raced along the runway. Finally it wheeled around and came to rest close to the terminal building. Kate unfastened her seatbelt and lifted down her small cabin bag. Two big suitcases of her belongings were stowed away below—the excess luggage charge had been horrendous.

She walked eagerly into the arrivals hall.

Fingers touched her arm and a deep voice said “Kate Pleasance?”

She hurled herself against him, not caring who saw.

 

Lottie greeted her from the back seat of the SUV.

“Katie, is so good you’re back. He has been like the bear with the sore head,” she said, wagging a finger at Matthew.

Kate could well believe it—she’d been like the bear with the sore head herself.

They drove the few miles out to the house, everything sparkling under the low sun.

This time Matthew took pleasure in hefting her suitcases into the main bedroom.

And Kate stopped dead.

On the wall were his two big sketches, beautifully framed, looking wonderfully right. “Angels over both our beds,” he said.

“I looked everywhere for those,” she exclaimed. “If you’d seen some of the searching I did while you were out, you really would have had grounds for suspicion. Where on earth did you hide them?”

Matthew shook his head, smiling at her frustration.

Lottie took pity on her later over dinner.

“He told me when he brought them home,” she said. “Straight into the car and off to the picture framers. They were never here for you to find.”

“So the ‘spy from the north’ didn’t stand a chance?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why on earth didn’t you just talk to me?” she demanded. “I was the marketing assistant for a breakfast cereals company, for heaven’s sake. I can tell you heaps about oat-bran and dried apricots and the merits of foil over cardboard packaging. And all about yoghurt-covered raisins and how cornflakes get made. But I haven’t a clue about internet services or anything else to do with telecommunications.”

He looked ever so slightly abashed. “Well, why didn’t you ask me if Lottie was my wife?” he countered.

“I didn’t want to give you ideas.”

“I already had ideas.”

“Yes, I know. So did I.”

Lottie grinned at her brother and then patted Kate’s hand. “So my helper is back again. Plenty of work tomorrow Kate. I think I have an early night.”

After coffee, Kate walked with Lottie to the private elevator and waved her in with a smile.

She drifted back to Matthew. “Shall we have an early night too?” he asked.

“Goodness yes—I’m exhausted.”

She saw his beautiful mouth quirk.

“I’ve got just the cure for that,” he said.

They walked hand in hand through the huge house, and slowly the lights dimmed when they detected no further movement.

Matthew drew the curtains closed in the main bedroom.

Kate picked up the photo of Lottie and her son from the low table. “Carlo,” she said. “Nice name. Lottie told me a little about him the last morning I was here.”

He stood close beside her. “She called him after herself. Carlo for Charlotte. There was never a father mentioned. Which is a pity, because children flourish better with both parents.”

“Mine stuck together for a long time, but dad should have left much sooner. It was easier once they parted—until my mother got sick of course.”

Matthew slid an arm around her waist. “Things were bad after my mother died,” he said. “Dad didn’t come alive again for us until he remarried. Even though Cornelia stayed only a few years, they were good years. She was so ‘European’—and dad was such a rough diamond. But we loved having a little sister.” He ran a finger along the photo frame. “Carlo was a real character. Such a fighter. So bright and sparky. One day, maybe…”

Kate turned toward him as she set the photo back on the table. “One day you’d like your own Carlo?”

“Or a little Katie. Or both.” He held his breath, cursing his runaway tongue. It was much too soon to be discussing such things. He would panic her; turn her away; lose her again for sure. He couldn’t imagine being without her again.

Kate sent him a long, intent, wondering gaze. “You’re serious?” she asked.

He nodded, wordlessly, trying to gauge her reaction.

“Is this… do you want me to stay… and live here?”

“Forever,” he said. “With our children, if we’re so lucky. Kate and Matthew McLeod—and the famous Auntie Lottie, who will want to be a bridesmaid I imagine.” He drew her closer.

“Matron of Honour,” Kate corrected. “My little cousin Alfie can be bridesmaid.” She drew her brows together in an endearing frown. “This is awfully fast,” she added.

“I love you beyond anything I ever expected to feel, Kate.” He could barely get the words out past the lump in his throat. “You’ve brought me back to life, and it’s you I want to share that life with. Yes—it’s fast. But not too fast for me. Do you have doubts?”

He watched as her eyes widened with sudden amusement.

“Only one, but it’s a big one. What about the father of the bride? He might be a huge problem?”

Matthew dropped a kiss on the end of her nose. “The only problem, my darling, will be if you turn me down. I can always keep him away from the computers,” he said with absolute assurance.

“When he visits his grandchildren?” Kate asked.

“Is that a ‘yes’, Miss Pleasance?”

“Totally, Mr McLeod.”

“So when will you marry me?

“Double wedding on Waiheke Island in September?” she suggested with a gleeful giggle, reminding him of her father’s forthcoming high-profile celebration.

“I’m not sharing our wedding with anybody,” Matthew said, picking her up and dumping her on his huge bed.

Kate’s eyes sparkled with joy and desire, far eclipsing those of the woman on the wall above. He lowered himself beside her and began to make up for their fortnight apart.

 

The End

 

The Heartlands series –

 

Melting His Heart http://krispearson.melting-his-heart

Christmas Holiday Hearts http://krispearson.com/christmas-holiday-hearts

Cowboy Wants Her Heart http://krispearson.com/cowboy-wants-her-heart

3 novels, boxed set http://krispearson.com/3-novels-the-complete-heartlands-series

***

Excerpt of Book 2, The Heartlands Series

 

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY HEARTS

 

Ellie woke with a jump. Bright New Zealand sunlight streamed in from the balcony. Unfamiliar countryside noises floated on the summer air. Several of the farm dogs barked up a frenzy not too far away, and the ocean roared incessantly in the background.

A glance at her watch had her cursing softly. A quarter to eight—no way to impress her new employer. And what about the twin daughters she was here to tutor? She didn’t want them waiting in their schoolroom, wondering where their tardy teacher was.

Scrambling from the huge bed, she showered in haste, then dragged on the first clothes that came to hand—the jeans she’d travelled in yesterday and a fresh yellow and white striped T-shirt. She pulled her dark hair into a ponytail and ran peachy gloss quickly over her lips.

Embarrassed, and still somewhat dishevelled, she raced down the grand staircase and into the deliciously scented farmhouse kitchen.

“Bacon and eggs?” an amused male voice asked. There was a rustle of newsprint, and the farmer lowered his paper and glanced over the top of the pages at her.

Ellie registered dark eyes. A cleft chin. Hair cut brutally short. A once-loved face that now showed both sorrow and exhaustion.

He managed to speak before her astounded brain found any words. “Ellie? Ellie McKenna? What the…?”

There was absolute silence for a little time as she collapsed onto the opposite chair, fighting for her self-possession. “Tony?” she finally whispered.

He laid the farming paper aside and lifted big shoulders in a shrug. “Tony—Robbie—whatever.”

“You’re Robbie?”

“Tony Robinson.” Smiling, he proffered his hand.

Stunned, she reached out and shook it.

“We’re being very formal, considering…” He left the rest of the sentence hanging.

Ellie wrenched her fingers free, buried her face in her hands, and stayed frozen as waves of memory and need and confusion rolled over her.

His grip on her hand had been firm and warm. One touch and he’d marked her as his again, as surely as when they’d been lovers in Sydney a decade earlier.

Finally she raised her eyes to his. “Sorry,” she croaked. “That was silly. It’s just such a huge shock, meeting you out of the blue again like this. I had no idea…”

Her pulse now pounded at least as rapidly as it had the night her flat caught fire and she’d struggled frantically to rescue everything she held precious.

He shook his head. “Nor me. I asked Ginny to arrange the tutor for the twins. Your name would have meant nothing to her, and she only told me you were Ellinore.”

“Awful name. Ellie’s better. She called you ‘Robbie’ on the phone…” Ellie floundered into awkward silence, fiddled with a knife on the table, then tried again. “And Wharemoana Homestead didn’t register with me. If she’d said ‘Robinson’s Farm’, then maybe…”

“Maybe you’d have wondered?”

“Perhaps. Who knows?” She tried to keep her tone light as her eyes roved all over him. Because of course she would have wondered. Tony had vividly dominated her mind for months after she’d met him. Later, she’d deliberately forced his memory further and further back as her baby son claimed her heart and her life.

But why now? Why, after eleven long years had her past collided head-on with her present, threatening to wreck everything she’d struggled so hard to achieve?

She felt young and gauche. Defensive and insecure. Tony had disappeared from her life after one intense week and never reappeared. She might have hoped, but she’d never expected to see him again. She knew he was somewhere in New Zealand because over the past several years she’d heard the odd local reference to him—a forestry item on the radio, something to do with cattle breeding on TV. She’d Googled him the first time on one of the classroom computers, made sure it was him, and then done her best to close him out of her mind again. But despite her best efforts, here he was across a sunny breakfast table as though the huge gap in time had never happened.

Her hungry eyes raced over him again, confirming he’d become an impressive man—still with that infectious smile now he’d relaxed a little. Thirty-five, she calculated. With beautiful shoulders straining the fabric of his blue polo shirt.

He reached a tanned arm across to the counter and set the toaster going. Ellie watched his long fingers threading the bread into the slots. Once again her heart pounded along like a racehorse; her blood racing and raging through her body. Those fingers had traced every inch of her skin, teasing and taunting her—making it impossible to say ‘no’ on the softly scented evening they’d first made love.

“The hair’s a bit different,” she said, desperate to break the silence that had settled between them.

He raised a hand and ran it over the soft bristles. “Fundraising scheme for cancer research. With my wife the way she was…”

Ellie nodded, still disconcerted.

“… some of us volunteered to have our heads shaved in public at a local charity auction a couple of weeks ago. Raised thousands. Easier than selling raffle tickets or whatever. It was in the papers.”

She must have missed it in the staff-room. She didn’t pay out even the small amount for a newspaper if she could save it toward her soon-to-be new house, and she’d been too busy to spend much time on the internet news sites lately. But she could picture all too clearly the cruel clippers buzzing over his scalp, and the dark silk of his hair cascading onto the floor.

Years ago she’d run her fingers through it, delighting in its thick softness. “You had lovely hair.” She bit her lip, angry she’d let slip such a telling comment, but he took no apparent notice.

“It’ll grow. Not a great price to pay in summer.” He changed the subject abruptly. “And you became a teacher? You said that’s what you wanted, back in Sydney.”

Ellie was surprised he’d remembered. “Yes,” she said, thinking of the sacrifices she and her mother had both made to bring it about. Going without the daily newspaper had been the least of it.

“And there was a fire? Ginny said something about that. She’s out picking flowers to arrange at the local church, by the way. She’ll be back inside soon.”

Ellie nodded. Ginny had welcomed her yesterday, shown her to her room, and provided a delicious dinner. She’d been surprised not to see her this morning. Just as well she hadn’t been in the kitchen a few minutes ago!

“The place I was renting burned down,” she murmured, remembering the panic-stricken night, and Cal’s screams, and the crackling pitiless flames. “There wasn’t much that escaped. I grabbed a few clothes and the photo album, but that was all I saved.”

And my lovely son, she added to herself. Your lovely son from all those years ago. The best thing in my life.

She took a deep breath, hoping to relax the searing tension out of her spine. “I’m close to moving into a new house I’m having built. When I’ve finished my contract here, it should be ready.”

“So—the job you wanted. A new house. A husband, too?”

The query hung between them like a monstrous multi-coloured elephant.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” she replied, trying to keep her voice level and non-committal, but not managing to hold his gaze.

*

See more, and all the e-store links to buy the book at

http://krispearson.com/christmas-holiday-hearts

TAKEN BY THE SHEIKH

Kris Pearson

The first of the ‘Sheikhs of Al Sounam’ books

Abducted. Seduced. Purring. Laurel de Courcey is captured by terrorists, chained up in a disgusting bunker, and videoed for a ransom demand which is shown worldwide. Ooops—wrong hostage! Who’d expect a shy Kiwi nanny to be worthy anything?

 

For more information visit http://www.krispearson.com

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is co-incidental.

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.

 

Chapter One — Hostage Horror

Laurel de Courcey stared at the cliff in dismay. After her exhausting trek through the desert she had to climb that?

The unexpected barrier at the end of the gully rose up steep and crumbling. The tiny stream she’d been following seeped out from under the daunting rock face. What was on the other side? Rafiq hadn’t warned her about this—simply ordered her to walk, and said she’d find ‘a house’.

Well, there was no house in sight. And did she trust him anyway? He might be all taut muscles and flashing eyes, but she had to remember he was only the lesser of two evils. The other men in his group? Her body convulsed in a sudden shudder just thinking about them.

She tried to banish the hideous memory and gulped the last of her water, refilled the bottle from the life-saving trickle, clenched her teeth, and attempted the hazardous scramble up out of her temporary hiding place. How she wished she had his strength and endurance!

Long minutes later she hauled herself over the top and lay panting. Black spots whirled across her vision. She squeezed her eyes closed, and still the spots flickered and jumped. Finally she raised her head.

Indeed there was a house—or some sort of half concealed building anyway. A high plastered wall hid much of it, but an arched gateway, softened by cascades of pink blossom from a gnarled tree, looked inviting.

She rose wearily and staggered onward. Palm fronds and other lush greenery came into focus as she limped nearer, and she feared the unexpected oasis might be a mirage after the endless inhospitable miles of sand and rock.

But no—the gate was real. She stood in the dancing shade of the blossoms and tugged the bell-rope. Within seconds a small wrinkled woman appeared, bustling toward her with colorful long skirts fluttering around her legs.

Laurel pulled Rafiq’s note from her jeans pocket and smoothed it out. Would this be the woman she was supposed to give it to? She held it forward.

The impassive dark face lit up. The gate swung open. The little woman whisked the note from her fingers and became extremely animated, urging her in and rattling away with great enthusiasm.

“Laurel,” Laurel said, tapping her chest with a finger.

“Yasmina,” the woman replied, thumping her own.

“Yasmina,” Laurel tried. This brought nods and smiles.

“Rafiq?” she asked. More nods and smiles, but also an unmistakable gesture of ‘not here now’.

Oh darn.

Yasmina re-read the note with close attention, all the while chattering in her own language, and drew Laurel along the path and in through the doorway of a turreted old house with thick stone walls. The blinding light outside made the interior seem dim and restful, and the relative coolness washed over her skin like a blessing.

After progressing through a long hallway, they arrived in a high-ceilinged bedroom. Yasmina threw open a further door, and Laurel stood amazed as the servant started water gushing into a marble bath from an ornate gold spout. She must look desperately hot and dirty if this was how she was welcomed!

The little woman emerged—smiling and gesturing that Laurel was to treat the room as her own. She trotted off, and Laurel sank down on the bed before her legs gave way under her. What on earth would happen next?

The bath looked blissful once she managed to rise to her weary feet again. Yasmina had thrown a handful of fresh rose petals into it. Laurel assumed she’d been tidying up full blown blooms as they proceeded up the path together, but plainly the flowers had been intended for this. Fragrant foam grew ever deeper in the water as the bath filled. A selection of French soaps spilled from a basket at one end of the huge tub. It all seemed way over the top for a semi-deserted relic so far from civilization.

She stripped and bathed, shampooing the gritty sand from her long fair hair and letting the delicious warm scented water soothe away her aches. When she returned to the bedroom she found all her clothes had disappeared and a gauzy mauve robe had been laid on the bed. She slipped it on, admired its bands of amazing gold embroidery, stretched out on the bed to consider the strange turn her life had taken, and plummeted into an exhausted asleep.

 

 

At once the nightmare hit again. The wind from the desert moaned eerily. Palm fronds clattered, but otherwise very little moved as the small seaside resort of Kalal drowsed in the afternoon heat.

A solitary vehicle coasted to a halt just behind her.

Laurel turned when she heard the door creak open, but she had only a split second to register the fast-moving dark shape of a man before brutal hands dragged a bag down over her face. As quickly as that, she’d been trapped.

A scalding cascade of horrendous possibilities flooded her brain. Terrified, she screamed at top volume, dropped her sketching pad, and kicked backward with every ounce of her considerable determination. The heel of her shoe connected with what she hoped was her captor’s shin.

It caused a guttural male voice to let loose a vicious curse in the local language, and she enjoyed a fleeting flash of triumph. But then an iron-hard hand closed over her face, pressing her lips painfully back against her teeth. And a steely arm wrapped around her waist and heaved her forward and face down.

Her scrabbling fingers told her she’d landed on a slab of foam rubber on a hard floor.

Doors banged, a motor revved, and she jerked backward as the vehicle took off at high speed.

Shudders of panic took over then. Huge fluttery tremors ran up and down her spine.

She was blind. Cruel hands had yanked a drawstring tightly around her neck so the bag was closed, and cut off any vestige of light… any hope of seeing where she was being taken.

She struggled and kicked in the swaying vehicle, and suffered the further insult of a warm weight moving to pin her down to the no doubt filthy mattress.

“Be still!” a man’s deep voice growled close against her ear.

She was so astounded to hear accented but obvious English she momentarily froze before resuming her frenzied bucking and struggling. But she had no hope of escaping from under his strong body.

Hard hands grabbed her wrists, and she heard the snick of handcuffs and felt the smooth hard metal against her skin. Her whirling brain registered she was now one step more helpless.

Fingers trailed from her wrists to her elbows and back to her useless hands. It was almost a caress. Her heart thudded even more rapidly as the implication sank in.

“Be still,” he muttered again. “We do not mean to hurt you as long as you cooperate.”

With her shoulders flattened down under his chest, Laurel’s breasts were squashed against the floor. The man’s hips were exactly above hers. His bony pelvis ground against her bottom as the vehicle swayed and braked. A long hard thigh clamped either side of her own, pinning her down, holding her captive.

And between those impressive thighs the firm masculine bulge felt all too obvious. Desolation engulfed her then.

“Lie still and it will go easier for you,” he growled, lifting his upper torso off her which at least gave her poor breasts some relief.

But the shift in weight drove his hips even more firmly into hers, and there was no escaping the intimate press of his body. She willed her legs to weld together as shattering images exploded across her brain.

What did they want from her? One minute she’d been wandering happily in the sun, thinking of the children she was caring for, and inventing a family of her own. In an instant, future imaginings had been ripped away and replaced with the desperate danger of the present moment, and this cruel man, and not nearly enough air.

Blind and half deaf, she used the senses she had left to get some sort of fix on her situation. There was him—who was strong and muscular because he now had her firmly confined. There was the driver. And there seemed to be another hoarse voice in the front seat, too. Presumably that was the man who’d grabbed her in the street and pushed her in to be held down by this one?

So three of them at least. Awful odds. She didn’t stand a chance.

Absolute terror engulfed her as she tried to drag big gulps of dead air into her laboring lungs.

“I can’t breathe,” she shrieked in a panic—almost more scared of suffocating than of any other eventual fate.

Hands slid around her neck, probing until they located the drawstring holding the bag fastened. She shuddered to feel callused fingers on her exposed nape… on the tender skin under her jaw. Her heart thudded with a fast panicked beat.

“Not another sound,” the man grated. But at least he’d loosened the drawstring and let in a little light and some much fresher air.

Laurel lay there gasping like a stranded fish, gulping in oxygen—oxygen laced with the oily smell of the vehicle and a soft spiciness from the man who pinned her down on the mattress.

She heard a hoarse and somehow dirty comment from the front seat. Her captor chuckled above her. The vibrations from his body travelled down into hers, setting her nerves even further on edge if that was possible.

“What?” she snapped, with little hope of a translation.

“He says I have the best job,” came the unexpected reply in that deep husky voice. “But only as long as you remain sensible. I don’t want to hurt you, but if you struggle I may have to.”

To her horror a terrified moan escaped from her throat, and a cackle of laughter erupted from the man in the front.

The vehicle—some sort of van, she assumed—continued to career along, swaying from side to side, bumping into hollows, grinding up slopes and tipping down again. They’d left the dusty level streets of Kalal miles behind, and must be out in the desert country by now.

The endless empty inhospitable desert country—where it would be very hard to find her.

The man eased his weight away to one side, which provided a small increase in comfort.

“Thank-you,” she muttered. For surely she should co-operate as fully as possible to ensure her eventual safety?

“My pleasure,” his voice murmured right beside her ear.

His pleasure to move to a more comfortable position for himself? Or to have enjoyed the proximity of her body to his?

Pig! she thought. Utter pig. Disgusting criminal kidnapping terrorist pig.

She tensed as his hands slipped around her neck again, sliding in under her jaw and up over her mouth. The temptation to bite his hateful fingers was almost beyond her conscious control.

But somehow she held still and was rewarded by her suffocating blindfold being eased upward until the air flooded in and her face was in daylight at last. Her red cap—or rather Maddie’s red cap—had been knocked askew when the bag was forced down over her head. Finally she nudged it back up into position so the stiffened peak no longer rasped at her nose.

She turned and glared at her captor.

He was so close it was difficult to focus, and she wrenched her face away again—but not before she’d registered a pair of very dark eyes under determined straight black brows, and tobacco-brown skin stretched over high cheekbones.

A cruel imperious face—ancient, proud, and unyielding. It could have been carved from stone for all the softness it showed.

Laurel’s heart shrank. It truly seemed to shrivel inside her ribs. There was no compassion evident on his harsh features… no hint she was in anything but the most dire danger.

And then he started stroking her hair, and she shuddered.

“So pale,” he growled. “Not like the women of my country.” He tugged gently at the long blonde tail she’d threaded through the gap at the back of the cap to keep the heat off her neck.

“Leave it!” she snapped, pushed to her limit by his unwelcome attention. Sudden tears spilled down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes closed and burrowed her face down into the mattress to hide her fear.

The mattress, she noticed in her few seconds of proper vision, appeared to be perfectly clean—probably brand new and bought for the job. At least that was better than being held helpless on something filthy and vermin ridden. She felt almost willing to be grateful for such a small mercy. But oh, she didn’t want to cry and let him know how terrified she was.

His hand continued to move over her hair as if it might soothe her, and Laurel had no fight left to repel him.

Would she ever see Mrs. Daniels and the children again? Ever walk once more on New Zealand’s green grass under tall trees? Or would this be the end of her life—in a strange dry foreign land, far away from everything she’d grown up with?

She trembled and shivered as the three men began a rapid conversation in a language she couldn’t hope to comprehend. The faint spicy fragrance continued to waft past her nose, just discernible over the oily smell of the vehicle. At least her captor was civilized enough to use soap or cologne.

After what seemed like forever the vehicle changed to a lower gear, ground up a slope, slowed and braked. The engine coughed and died.

“We’re here. It’s time to get out.”

Laurel’s heart increased its frantic hammering. Where was ‘here’? And what were they planning to do to her? She raised her head and gazed around, knowing her eyes must be wide with fear.

The van looked hard used, the backs of the seats scuffed and pocked. The mattress only partly covered a bare metal floor. And the windows were heavily tinted, giving the sky an odd greenish tinge.

She heard a rattle and a clunk. Behind her, the van’s doors swung open on squealing hinges.

“Out,” her jailer repeated, rearing above her and clamping his hands around her waist. He lifted her without apparent effort, and twisted to set her down with her feet dangling only inches above the sand.

And the blinding desert stretched for miles. She saw nothing but pale rocks and golden sand under harsh sunlight, all the way to the hazy horizon. Undulating dunes and higher hillocks rose up occasionally, but no signs of civilization at all.

Laurel scrunched up her eyes and stared aghast at the short thick-set man who’d opened the doors. Roughly dressed, he cradled a huge black automatic weapon in his arms. Fabric swathed his face to hide his features. Only his keen cruel eyes were visible. Presumably he was the street-grabber? She hoped his shin ached like fury.

He jabbed the black monstrosity viciously higher as a signal she needed to stand.

Laurel shrank back against the man who had, until now, been so terrifying. His whipcord body and husky voice were infinitely preferable to the alternative outside.

He grasped her elbows and pushed her up and out.

“Careful,” he snapped, releasing her. She stepped unsteadily away, and turned to survey the rest of her surroundings. Nothing apart from the white van and the animal with the gun. What in the world were they planning? They could do anything to her in this unobserved place.

The driver’s door swung open and the other occupant slid out, also dressed as roughly as the gunman—coarse-spun trousers tucked into heavy boots, the long shirt/coat garment all the local men wore, and a head-dress arranged to hide most of his features. This third man threw a few amused words in her direction and earned what sounded like a sharp rebuke from the one who’d pinned her down for the terrifying ride.

A hand grasped her long tail of hair to prevent her moving further away and yanked her head back so she almost lost her balance. Another hand fastened about her upper arm and she was turned, very much against her will, to stand nearer to mattress-man.

“Stay close,” he insisted, fixing her with intense black eyes.

She managed a hopeless grim smile. “To you?”

“Yes, if you value your life.”

“You’ve made me feel really safe so far.” Tough if she offended him. How much worse could her situation possibly be?

“I’m a better bet than the others.” His voice sank softly into her ear, and his warm breath stirred the tiny hairs on her neck. “Watch,” he added.

And Laurel did watch—amazed—as the other two started to drag a sand colored cover aside to reveal steps down to a buried building.

“How on earth do you find it?” she gasped.

“I know it well,” came the enigmatic reply.

Then she looked properly at his face for the first time. If she’d seen him in a foreign movie—or at a diplomatic reception, or perhaps a less formal social gathering—she’d have thought him a wildly exotic and handsome man.

He was several inches taller than the other two. Laurel stood a bare five-four; he must be six-two, six-three? He moved with a flexible grace that put her in mind of a gymnast or professional dancer.

Unlike the others he wore nothing over his face, unless you counted the short well kept black beard which lay close to his lean jaw. The other men appeared to have much bushier efforts just visible beneath the folds of their head-dresses.

His hooded dark eyes bored into hers, inspecting with clinical coldness.

Still a cruel face, she thought. Still primitive and proud and unyielding. The face of a hard disciplined soldier who would deal unswervingly with the task at hand.

A soldier? Maybe not, but he was wearing khaki trousers with lots of pockets and zips, and well worn boots. He seemed somehow military, and right now she knew with bitter certainty she was his task at hand.

“Fayez!” he called.

One of his henchmen jumped to attention. A rapid stream of instructions followed. The man unloaded a box of supplies from the van and carried it down the steps and into the underground lair.

“And now we go,” her captor insisted, steering her firmly by wrists and pony-tail toward the hidden prison.

Laurel had no option but to obey. She stumbled down the rough steps to a low doorway, ducked her head when he tugged on her hair, and entered. A smelly lantern burned fitfully. Its light dispelled the gloom a little, but hardly made the bunker an attractive prison. She stared around, appalled. Spooky caverns in Indiana Jones movies came to mind.

“Nazim!” More curt instructions were issued. The third man dragged the mattress down the stairs, forced it through the doorway, and stood there leering.

Fayez and Nazim, she thought, trying to lodge the names in her memory in case she ever got free of this hell and had the chance to tell anyone. So who was he?

“Rafiq,” he said, as though reading her mind. “I’ll see that as little harm as possible befalls you while you are here.”

He pulled a hard wooden chair from under a rough table, set it close to the wall, and eased her down onto it. Apart from the mattress and a couple of crates, this seemed to be the bunker’s only furniture.

Rafiq, she thought. Handsome vicious Rafiq. I won’t forget your face if I ever get out of here.

He produced a smartphone from one of his many pockets and concentrated on the screen. It was the last thing she’d been expecting right out in the desert. Surely there was no reception?

“Amazing the movies we can make on these little things,” he said, setting it down on the table.

Pornography flashed through her brain, and then, more menacingly, snuff movies. Dear God, surely not.

She sat there bewildered and terrified, held helpless by the handcuffs and desperate for a pee after the long bouncing trip on the van floor.

“And now,” Rafiq said, “we will video our little American and see what she is worth.”

“America!” echoed Nazim, spitting on the floor beside her feet.

Laurel tensed at his vicious tone, and then her whirling brain registered what they were saying.

“Not American,” she insisted. “Kiwi. New Zealand.”

Rafiq took no notice. Simply pushed the red cap further back so her face was in view and kept recording. She glared first at the evil phone and then up at him.

“I am not,” she repeated. “Who the hell do you think I am? Someone you can use to bargain with?”

Rafiq stopped her by reaching out, tightening his hand around her jaw, and tipping her face back to the angle he wanted. “Quiet!” he roared.

She would have continued arguing, but the man with the automatic weapon took up station beside her, pressed the muzzle against her head and began a hoarse taunt of “America, America,” for the benefit of the recording. She prickled all over as certain death looked her in the face, and time ground to a halt.

“Good,” Rafiq said a few second later. He checked the picture and nodded.

Laurel stayed speechless and frozen until the gun was removed.

“I am not American,” she quavered. “I’m from New Zealand. I’m a nanny. I’m working for an American diplomatic family but I am not American.”

“You are Madison Daniels.”

“I’m Laurel de Courcey.”

Rafiq shook his head, eyes icy. “Don’t lie.”

“I’m Laurel de Courcey,” she insisted. Born in Wellington, New Zealand. I’m twenty-three. This is my first time overseas. I’m the nanny for the younger Daniels children.”

“You are Madsion Daniels. Blue jeans, white shirt, long blonde hair, red baseball cap. You have been watched.”

“I’m Laurel de Courcey!”

There was no-one around to hear, but letting loose with more volume felt wonderful. “Blue jeans, white shirt, long blonde hair and Maddie’s baseball cap. She loaned it to me—my sunhat wouldn’t stay on in the wind.”

They glared at each other. Rafiq reached over and twitched the Cincinnati Reds cap from her head. Her pony-tail slid easily through the hole in the cap’s back.

“You are a western woman,” he snarled. “You will do.” He followed this pronouncement with a long and incomprehensible rant in the direction of one of the other men. Laurel wondered if he was being reprimanded for kidnapping the wrong woman.

Whatever, Rafiq was not deterred. He pulled a rattling handful of chain from one of the crates and began to wind it around her wrists until the handcuffs were obscured. She flinched as the links pressed against bones. Then he reached behind her.

She twisted, and saw he was unhooking a large clock from the wall, altering the time by several hours, and replacing it.

“Take two,” he said with no apparent irony. He resumed his place and produced a second phone.

“You have to believe me,” she insisted. “I am Laurel de Courcey.”

“So you’re intent on talking? Tell us more.”

“Pig!” she spat back. “I’ll tell you nothing if you’re too stupid to even kidnap the right woman.”

Rafiq’s big hand clamped around her face again. “Be careful who you insult, little one,” he said with silky menace. “It’s unwise to speak like that in your current position.”

She sat there glaring at him, willing herself not to dissolve into tears.

Again he checked his recording and looked satisfied. He barked an instruction and one of the other men took the clock down and altered the time.

But it was Rafiq who busied himself with her hair, gently removing the elastic tie that held the long glistening strands together, and combing them through with his fingers to arrange it over her shoulders in a pale tousled waterfall. Laurel shivered as he touched her. Even here in the burning desert he sent cold tremors right down her spine.

He unwound the heavy chain from her wrists and then unlocked the handcuffs. She chafed at her skin to bring some feeling back after the constriction of the chains. But her relief was short-lived. He crouched in front of her, unwound a length of bright orange polyester rope, and tied it around each of her wrists, leaving perhaps two feet of it between her hands.

“Hold very still,” he instructed, producing a cigarette lighter from one of his trouser pockets, and proceeding to weld the knots together by melting the rope into unyielding lumps. Her relief at being freed ebbed away. The flame licked against her flesh, although he was careful not to burn her. He tied a much longer length to the first one and handed it to Fayez or Nazim—she still couldn’t tell them apart.

“Forgive me this,” Rafiq said, brushing his fingers along the dusty floor and spreading grimy smears onto Laurel’s face and the front of her high-necked long-sleeved white shirt. His fingers felt hot through the thin cotton fabric, and she shrank away from his touch on her breasts.

“We need to make it look as though several days have gone by. As though you are now dirty and desperate. Fayez?”

Fayez grasped the rope in one brown hand as though she was a poor sad mongrel on a lead and stood impassively beside her.

Rafiq produced yet another phone and began recording again. Then he muttered something. Suddenly Laurel’s head was dragged backward and a huge curved knife pressed against her throat. She screamed in total terror.

“No, please! Please don’t! I’m not who you think I am!” At last she burst into the tears that had never been far away.

“America…” Fayez sneered as he allowed her to slump forward in a sobbing heap.

“Good, it’s all done,” Rafiq confirmed in a businesslike tone, checking his work and setting the final phone aside. He let her cry for several more minutes and then asked, “Are you thirsty? We have Coca Cola or orange juice, both quite cold.”

She raised her ruined face and stared at him in disbelief. “You think you can put me through that and then act all hospitable?”

He shrugged. “It’s hot. You need to drink.”

“You’re a maniac. You’re all maniacs. What the hell was that filming charade all about?”

“Dear young lady—whoever you are—you are the currency we will bargain with. The first recording will let the authorities know we have you, safe and alive. The second, which they will receive in a few days’ time, will show them you are still alive but in grave danger. The third—that your plight is now desperate.” He shrugged again. “It’s the way we achieve what we need.”

“Is this religious or political?”

“One is tied so closely to the other.”

“In this part of the world, yes,” she sneered. “I thought it would be exotic and beautiful and cultural when Mrs. Daniels said they’d been posted to Al Sounam.”

“We are undoubtedly exotic and beautiful and cultural, as you say.”

“Not from where I’m looking.” She stared around the bunker in panic. One wall appeared to be made of huge boulders. She assumed it was disguised as a rocky outcrop on the outside.

Slivers of light shone through in places, so at least she wouldn’t run out of fresh air. “How long are you keeping me here?”

“For as long as it takes for certain people to see sense.”

“But what about… plumbing,” she asked in a very small voice, feeling the blush spread up her neck and over her face.

“We have that most admirable invention, the Porta Pottie.” He pointed to the far corner and she suddenly realized what the other boxy object was.

“And decadent American Coca Cola,” she muttered.

“As you say.”

She was almost certain there was a tiny quirk at one end of his stern mouth.

Rafiq tied the longer piece of tough orange rope around one of the heavy table legs so she was tethered, dissolved the knot together, and motioned the other men to leave. “We will give you some privacy for a few minutes. We have important things to arrange outside.”

She stayed sitting, acutely embarrassed, until his long legs disappeared from view, then she crept across to the corner.

Minutes later, she knew she was never going to be able to unpick the melted-together knots. She’d worried at them unceasingly since the men had retreated outside, and all she’d achieved were very sore fingertips and one broken nail. Finally she gave in, fixed her hair back into its pony-tail again, and reclaimed the red cap.

She heaved a deep sigh. Almost anything would be better than this. She’d settle for the noisy hostel, or her dump of a flat, or even the Gorridge’s awful foster home in preference to her current situation. If life had seemed bad before, it was infinitely worse now.

Snatches of conversation drifted down the steps. She had no idea what was being discussed because her grasp of the local language was restricted to the most basic words yet.

The wind still sounded high. It whistled over the dunes and sent a sifting of sand down the stairs. She heard the van engine fire up, and then the vehicle ground away, leaving eerie silence. She trembled with fear and disbelief. Surely they hadn’t abandoned her here, albeit with toilet facilities, Coca Cola, orange juice, and possibly some sort of food if there was drink? There was no way she could bear to be confined in the dismal bunker all alone for heaven knows how many days. She eyed the foam mattress warily. It seemed a very real possibility.

And then terror engulfed her again as she detected footsteps on the stairs, followed by one masculine silhouette against the rectangle of daylight. Which of them had returned?

It was the pig.

 

Chapter Two — Blood in the Desert

“Up,” Rafiq urged, grasping her wrists and helping her to stand on trembling legs. He produced small clippers from one of his pockets and severed the tough rope. Laurel rubbed at her sore skin and watched numbly as he fashioned new loops to make it look as though she’d somehow slipped free.

“Quickly.” He grabbed two bottles of orange juice in one big hand and her arm in the other and hustled her up the stairs.

“The wind should shift enough sand to cover our tracks before they get back from delivering the first recording. Walk exactly in my footprints so it looks like one person’s feet, just in case.”

The sudden turn of events confused her so thoroughly that Laurel became like a mechanical toy. She followed without protest, fitting her sneakers into the dents made by his boots, plodding across the endless sand in the whistling, stinging wind.

“Are you okay?” he called back after a time.

“Yes!” she yelled, panting hard. He’d set a blistering pace.

After twenty mind-numbing minutes they reached a deep hidden gully. Rafiq picked his way down the crumbling side, turning to offer his hand so she could negotiate the steepest parts. She trembled as she touched him, but knew she was likely to fall if she spurned his help. She still felt his fingers in her hair, on her neck, on her breasts. She burned with confusion and fear, but resigned herself to following him and hoping for better than the hideous bunker.

It was more sheltered on the gully floor, and a tiny unexpected trickling stream ran through amongst large stones and rocks. He retrieved the original piece of rope from his pocket, heaved one of the rocks up, and concealed the rope beneath it. Then he quickly scooped up a few handfuls of water and drank.

“You must take this,” he said, wiping his hands roughly on his trousers and producing a pen and notepad. He wrote instructions to someone unknown, and Laurel watched, mesmerized, as the pen raced over the paper in a strange curling script. He handed her the little page, then ripped several more off as well, tore them into small shreds and set them to float away in the water before returning the pad to his pocket.

“Walk only on the stones so you leave no prints. An hour’s walk from here you’ll find a house and servants. Give this to the woman.”

“Why?” she asked, still confused and in shock.

“Because you were not safe with Fayez and Nazim. They are thugs and murderers.”

“And you’re not?”

“Not as they are,” he said grimly. He glanced at his watch and thrust the bottles of orange juice towards her. “Start moving. I need to get back and make arrangements.”

And as lithely as a cat he spun about and ascended the near vertical cliff face.

Laurel stood stunned, paper in one hand, bottles of juice held against her overheated body by the other. At least the gully was out of the stinging sandy wind, but that meant the temperature seemed even higher.

She squinted up as he deserted her. He climbed with deceptive ease, hauling himself from one hand-hold to the next. She had no idea how she’d managed to scramble down the steep, barely formed track. From here it looked impossible.

As he gained the top, he turned and stared down at her. “Drink!” he commanded, and stood with his hands on his hips until she stowed the precious note in her jeans pocket and wrenched the top off one of the bottles of juice. He waited a few more moments until he was satisfied she’d obeyed, then disappeared.

 

She picked her way from stone to rock to boulder, being careful to leave no footprints on the sand between. Her breathing calmed as she walked. Progress was much slower here. Another hour of this? Could she walk for so long? She tipped the bottle up again, savoring the tart golden juice. Nothing had ever tasted as good. She swished it around her teeth to moisten her dry mouth, and then let it trickle over her tongue and down her parched throat.

She was thirsty beyond belief—and surely he must be, too? But he’d left both bottles with her. A tiny unwilling flicker of gratitude and admiration crept into her brain.

She presumed he intended to repeat his long march back to the bunker. He might be a man of the desert, but he still needed more than a few handfuls of liquid.

She shook her head sharply. He was a disgusting kidnapping terrorist pig she reminded herself, sneering at the sudden moment of concern she’d spared him.

He had manhandled her and handcuffed her and held her captive against her will. He’d rubbed himself up against her and touched her breasts. He’d scared her half to death with the video routine. His wellbeing was not worth considering. Had he considered hers?

She lost her train of thought for a moment as she concentrated on a tricky patch of rocks. She jumped across a larger than usual gap and yelped with alarm as she dropped the second bottle of orange juice and it ricocheted down from one hard surface to the next. Happily the bottle was plastic. She’d be able to retrieve it, and almost more importantly, not leave any telltale pile of broken glass to give her route away.

Her thoughts returned to Rafiq. Yes, he had manhandled her, but he hadn’t been too rough. A few bruises maybe, but no broken bones or blood. He’d somehow prevented the other two men from mistreating her, although the gun and the knife had been terrifying.

And he had—maybe—led her toward some sort of safety. Either that or he’d stranded her alone and lost in the burning desert, to flounder onwards until she dropped from exhaustion and died from heat and thirst. Perhaps he’d simply disposed of her? He and his men had achieved their kidnap of a western woman and had the recordings they wanted; if she was now surplus to requirements this would save them the bother of killing her.

But… the second bottle of orange juice gave her a glimmer of hope. Why had he given her two? Why did he not drink the other one himself? It seemed he intended she should live.

She’d long ago drained the last mouthful from the first bottle and followed his example of the rope; crushed it under her shoe, screwed the lid back on to keep it flat, and concealed it under a rock.

She glanced at her watch. Nearly 3.45. The Daniels family was holidaying at the seaside resort of Kalal—which was why she’d been free to go sketching on her own. Any other week she’d have been collecting eight year old Oscar and Jefferson from school in the capital of Al-Dubriz, or transporting six year old Mindy to dancing lessons. Had anyone noticed their nanny was missing yet? Probably not.

An unexpected sob wracked her body. No-one would even be looking for her! It might be several more hours before anyone did. The trail would be truly cold by then, and the tire tracks in the desert obliterated by the constantly moving sand. Maybe no-one would even think to look until someone saw the recording. The ‘take one’ version—where she still had Maddie’s red cap on and the metal handcuffs that had been snapped around her wrists in the van.

She levered herself down between the rocks and managed to catch up the bottle of juice she’d dropped. She squealed as a brilliant blue-green spiny lizard scuttled away from the small patch of shadow the bottle had cast. How could anything live in this unrelenting heat? And what on earth did it eat? Sure, there was the small trickle of water on the gully floor, but no plants or insects were visible.

“And that’s a stupid camouflage job,” she yelled at the iridescent creature as it vanished from view between two rocks. Anything to distract her from her desperate situation… anything to make it seem like she wasn’t so alone in the world.

From rock to boulder to stone. From stone to rock to boulder. Laurel pushed endlessly on, grateful for the odd few seconds when she was close enough to the overhanging bank to be out of the sun’s furious glare.

She twisted her wrist to check her watch again. 4.07. How long had she been struggling through the wretched gully? He’d said ‘an hour’s walk’. At his own desert-devouring speed or at her slow stagger? Thank goodness she’d been wearing sneakers instead of her new backless sandals. That thought cheered her up until 4.11, and then she sank onto a large rock beside the tiny stream and looked longingly at the second bottle of juice.

She knew she should hoard it for later, but she quivered with thirst and heat and exertion. Rafiq had drunk from the tiny stream—perhaps it was safe for her too? She dipped a hand into the tepid water and cupped up a small amount.

She sniffed. Nothing. She tasted. Nothing. She swallowed. Bliss! She dipped and swallowed several more times, then opened the bottle and chugged the juice down in a greedy torrent. When the bottle was empty she refilled it from the shining trickle, screwed the lid on, and resumed her trek feeling totally triumphant.

 

 

Yasmina peered around the bedroom door again, noting that her unexpected guest finally rested quietly. Poor girl—she was obviously exhausted. How far had she walked? Where had the master found her? And how much longer before he arrived to explain the delicious mystery?

As Laurel slept and dreamed, Rafiq lay exhausted and dehydrated in the bunker. He remembered turning away from the cliff-top once he’d seen the girl stow his note in her jeans pocket. She’d opened the first bottle of juice and raised it to her mouth. The harsh sun had highlighted the movements of her ivory throat as she drank. He’d imagined brushing his lips down that creamy soft skin. Cupping his hands around her plump little breasts.

But not yet. For now he’d done all he could, and she was free.

He’d cast about for a suitable stone. Something fist sized and jagged, hoping it would do its work swiftly.

As he resumed his long march back across the burning sand, he willed his mind to become blank and feel no pain, his body to keep moving and ignore its screaming need for something more to drink.

Something wet and cool and refreshing.

Something which would dilute the thudding ache bouncing from ear to ear, and which would only get worse in the foreseeable future.

He counted the times his boots bit into the sand. With every twentieth pace he clenched his teeth and struck the sharp edge of the stone against the same piece of his brow until blood flowed.

His head pounded. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. His legs moved on automatic. But at last, once he bled, he could stop his self-induced torture. He licked the stone clean, grimacing at the metallic taste of his own blood, slipped it into a pocket, and continued striding at the same merciless pace.

Finally the bunker appeared. A huge wave of relief swept through him—the van had not yet arrived back.

He fingered his brow. The blood had dried in the fierce heat. He retrieved the stone from his pocket and ground it against the same tender place until the crust burst apart and it was bloodied again. Then he bent and buried the stone and his clippers deep in the sand. He smoothed the hole over—the wind would finish the concealment in a few minutes.

With a silent prayer of thanks, he lurched the last dozen paces and staggered into the shade of the bunker. He overturned the wooden chair, dabbled his fingers against his brow, and smeared a patch of blood onto one of the legs.

Hopefully that would fool them.

He checked the melted knots in the orange rope and transferred a little blood onto them as well, wanting to make it look as though she’d somehow struggled free.

Then he collapsed onto the mattress and waited, desperate to drink, but knowing he must appear dazed and disoriented if his ruse was to be successful. Nazim and Fayez were wily and experienced campaigners; not easy to fool.

An indeterminate time later he heard the van slide to a halt. He tensed as boots thudded down the steps. He had no idea how bad his head wound looked. Bad enough to be convincing, he hoped.

Nazim was first to enter. “How was the American bitch? Is it worth us taking a turn?” His eyes darted swiftly around the half dark bunker. “She got free?”

“Free but dead,” Rafiq croaked. “She can’t survive out there.”

“You were too kind with your knots.”

“I wanted her responsive—able to move for me a little.”

“But she escaped?”

“And hit me with that.”

Fayez righted the chair, fingering the dark blood.

He bent and touched Rafiq’s wound. “Not too bad,” he said with little sympathy. He dropped his hands lower and ran them over Rafiq’s body, ostensibly to check for other injuries. Rafiq knew he was being searched.

“Drink…” he groaned.

Nazim handed him an orange juice but didn’t bother unscrewing the top for him. Icy suspicion glittered in his eyes.

“She grabbed a couple of bottles and ran for it,” Rafiq muttered. “Towards Akajar. I followed her prints for a while once I could. She’ll never make it. She’s dead for sure.”

Fayez checked the drinks crate. Three juices now missing, the Coca Cola untouched. The numbers tallied.

Rafiq struggled with the screw-cap. Fayez took pity on him and opened it. Rafiq practically inhaled the juice. Fayez handed him another.

“The first phone is at the TV station?” Rafiq asked once he could speak more easily.

“Into the drop-box, and the bell was rung as you instructed.”

“Then we’ve succeeded. Now all we have to do is wait for them to comply.”

“And if we can’t produce the girl?”

“You know they’ll take their time and try to negotiate. It’ll be a fortnight at least before we have to worry. It hasn’t been a problem before.” He smiled—blazing white teeth against dark skin. “Load the gear. We stay apart for the time being. Let’s go home. I want to see the TV news tonight.”

 

Chapter Three — See-through Robe

Laurel jerked awake in full darkness to the solid thumping of an approaching helicopter. She struggled to a sitting position, and sat blinking and confused on a bed that wasn’t hers. The unfamiliar room was dimly lit from light that spilled in from the adjoining bathroom.

Damn—not a weird dream then. She was still here…

A knock thudded on her planked door. Yasmina’s thin arm snaked in from the hallway and switched on the black iron chandelier.

“Rafiq,” she said, coming further in and pointing to the sky.

Laurel plainly still looked half asleep because Yasmina whirled one hand to simulate helicopter rotors, and said again “Rafiq.”

“Rafiq,” Laurel agreed, nodding furiously. She struggled off the bed and did her best to indicate she required her jeans and T-shirt. No way was she meeting the pig in a see-through robe and nothing else.

Yasmina shook her head and mimed wringing out washing with her bony brown fists.

Laurel clapped a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. Well, she could add her sneakers and the baseball cap to the robe, but that was it. Not a good look! It seemed even her bra and panties had been dealt to by her unexpected personal maid.

She drew the all too transparent robe around her body, hoping to manage a double layer of fabric at least over her breasts and groin. There were no other clothes visible in the shady room; the chandelier gave out only fitful light. Yasmina had scuttled off—plainly she’d provide no further help.

The helicopter’s thudding was now deafening. Its swishing rotors chopped at the air, and it sounded to be landing very close to the house. A couple of minutes later eerie silence fell, disturbed only by the distant screeching of wakened birds.

Laurel thrust her feet into her sneakers, struggling to lace them up with fingers that seemed all thumbs. Then she combed her hands through the long strands of her newly washed hair. She was as ready as she would ever be, and she was going to deliver the tirade of her life.

She strode with false bravado down the hallway to where the lights shone brighter and the air was scented with delicious cooking aromas.

“Ah, you have arrived safely, Miss Kiwi,” a husky voice said. She whirled around and found herself being inspected by piercing dark eyes. Eyes which had no doubt been enjoying an excellent view of her bottom under only one layer of flimsy fabric.

“No thanks to you,” she retorted, feeling a hot blush rushing up her neck and over her face.

“You think not?” The query was soft, but she sensed steel behind it.

“Leaving me there on my own to walk all that way? In such disgusting heat?”

“Spiriting you away from two dangerous animals? Oh please…” His eyelids drooped. “You’d rather I’d left you to defend yourself? I’m sure you would have done it so well, a big strong girl like you.”

Laurel drew herself up to her full five-feet-four and clenched her fists.

“I see they got the better of you anyway,” she said with satisfaction, indicating the clotted bruising above his eye.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” He seemed unruffled by her jibe.

Yasmina bustled towards him with a bowl of water, antiseptic and a sponge. The tiny woman dumped her equipment down with little regard for the table top, tugged Rafiq onto one of the dining chairs with even less ceremony, draped a small towel over his shoulder, and attacked his wound with tender dabs and much clicking of her tongue and ai-ai-ai-ing.

Rafiq suffered this attention without comment, and his intent dark gaze pinned an embarrassed and furious Laurel where she stood. She clutched the robe even more tightly around her and crossed her arms over her breasts. She’d be damned if she’d turn away and display her butt again…

Why on earth had she pulled her sporty shoes on? They must look ridiculous under the pretty robe with its borders of sensuous gold embroidery. The floors were smooth stone strewn with soft patterned rugs—she’d had no need of tough rubber soles.

The pig looked amused, damn him. As though he positively enjoyed her unease. After everything he’d subjected her to that afternoon, he now thought it fair to laugh?

Having subdued her and held her down with his disgusting masculine body?

And handcuffed her, and played with her hair?

And manhandled her into the hideous bunker by grabbing her by the pony-tail?

Recorded her without permission, and put her through the hell of having those weapons thrust in her face?

Snarled at her to impress his friends?

She knew she could go on and on, piling accusation upon accusation.

“I hope that hurts,” she said, eyeing Yasmina’s efforts.

“Quite a lot, thank you.”

“Good. Excellent. It serves you right. At least you can take me back to Kalal in the helicopter now—except she’s washed my clothes and I’ve nothing to wear.”

He nodded, and intensified his gaze, travelling without hurry from the top of her head down to her ankles and the incongruous shoes.

“Yes, I can see you are wearing nothing,” he finally agreed. “They suit you very well, these non-existent clothes. You’re a pleasant diversion from Yasmina’s torture.”

Laurel seethed, but managed somehow to hold her tongue and not react to his taunting. Right now she needed his flying skills more than she needed to defend her own pride.

Yasmina heard her name spoken and gave Rafiq a fond pat on the cheek. He threw a few soft words in her direction and then returned his attention to Laurel.

“Well you can’t go travelling if you’ve nothing to wear, can you Miss Kiwi? The International Aviation Federation forbids it on grounds that pilots may be distracted and rendered unsafe to fly.”

“What!?” Her eyes blazed at his insolence.

His own much darker ones stared her down. Surely he had his tongue tucked into his cheek and was trying to annoy her?

“And anyway, this pilot is hungry. He needs feeding and resting before he’s fit to fly again.” He turned his attention back to Yasmina, leaving Laurel stunned and silent.

 

 

“What have you cooked for us?”

“Lamb stew with cumin and tomatoes, My Lord Rafiq. Ripe apricots to follow with your coffee.”

Yasmina gave his forehead a final close inspection and appeared as pleased as she was ever going to be.

“She has made us lamb stew, my old nurse and nanny. We can’t just fly off and disappoint her.” He grinned at Laurel’s outraged expression. “We’ll eat and then we’ll see.”

“We’ll eat and then we’ll fly,” the girl snapped.

“Perhaps.” His eyes continued to roam around her body, stopping now at her small hands with their pearly pink nails, next on her pale throat which had so drawn him as she gulped at the orange juice after their frantic march across the swirling sand, then down to the crossover neckline of the robe where her breasts were pushed together by her arms holding the fabric tight.

She was not sport for the likes of Nazim and Fayez. He knew all too well what her fate would have been if he’d not intervened. She’d been disposable the moment the recordings were complete.

And he would have had to let them have her because so much time and planning had gone into the mission, and so many other lives were at risk because of it. The scene his mind insisted on summoning curdled his blood. She was a pretty thing—soft and young, feisty but unsophisticated. She wouldn’t have stood a chance.

“I can’t eat dinner wearing only this,” she objected, glaring down at the fabric.

Rafiq dragged his brain back from rape and murder to the tiny problem of the see-through robe.

“Yasmina has very few clothes, and she would be embarrassed for you to borrow any of them.”

“But… this isn’t decent.”

“Poor Miss Kiwi. I held you underneath me this afternoon for many minutes so I’m well acquainted with your body. Why should you be worried after that?”

“You’re disgusting!”

“I’m realistic. There are no other ladies’ garments in the lodge. Although…”

He pushed back the chair, unfolded to his full height, and placed the towel on the table top.

He enjoyed her disbelieving stare as he pulled his shirt from the waistband of his trousers. He slipped the topmost button undone, then moved down to the next, and the next. His eyes sent her a mischievous challenge as he progressed downwards. As he’d hoped, Laurel found it impossible to look away. She swallowed.

He saw the small convulsive movement, and something gave a kick deep in his gut. So he was turning her on a little? Not as much as her compact curves in that transparent confection were affecting him!

He drew the unbuttoned shirt fronts apart and stopped, his torso still shadowed by the fabric, but now on display for her from neck to navel.

 

 

Laurel swallowed again and cleared her throat. Surely he was made of milk chocolate, smoothly molded and glossy? The lamplight shone on his hard-muscled dark-nippled chest and the warm sweep of taut flesh below. She let her eyes slide down to his narrow hips and back up again to his face.

Half a smile caressed his lips.

Damn you. You know I’m enjoying the view…

“Yes, you would be more concealed in my shirt,” he said. “It’s clean. I showered and changed before I flew out here.” He shrugged the cinnamon colored garment off and held it to his nose.

She was disappointed to find it hid quite a lot of his body like that, but she’d gained the view of his broad shoulders and the smooth length of his muscular arms in return. Reasonable compensation, she decided after a few electric seconds.

“I think your pretty robe may have been left here”—he punctuated the sentence with a telling pause—“by a friend.” Did one dark eyebrow twitch?

A girlfriend! Suddenly Laurel couldn’t wait to rip it off. She grabbed the cinnamon shirt from him and dashed back to her room to change.

 

 

Rafiq’s gut swooped again at the sight of her soft peach of a bottom under the mauve gauze. Two beautiful handfuls. Or should that be hands-full? What the hell did it matter, as long as they were his hands that were full?

Soon would be good.

Soon would be so good. Today’s mission had gone well, but it had been nerve-wracking and physically draining. He’d worked hard with his brain and even harder with his body. The danger of being discovered had been constant. The danger to Laurel had been horrendous.

His body needed release.

He doubted Laurel would be the one to supply the release in her current mood. She didn’t know it yet but she’d be sleeping in the deep desert tonight, and he’d be the one to decide when she left the lodge.

She’d be staying, however much she might wish to leave. And that wouldn’t improve her mood one little bit.

 

Laurel glared at herself in the long, ornately framed mirror. He’d known—of course he had. The pig’s chivalry extended only so far. She might now be concealed from neck to mid-thigh but the lowest button on his shirt sat barely level with her crotch. And her cotton bikini panties were unavailable, undoubtedly still damp, and unable to be worn yet.

Rafiq had a lean and streamlined build, and his shirt was cut to follow the lines of his body. Laurel’s feminine curves pushed the garment to its limits. She was no better off. She was worse off! Now she’d have to clutch and tug at the shirt tails whenever she was in his presence, and be very careful what she sat on.

She smelled again his faint spicy fragrance on the shirt. Not exactly spice, but something exotic and eastern. She turned her face sideways and sniffed at the fabric. The terrifying swaying van ride thundered back into her brain. Once again she felt his body holding her confined, and heard the hoarse comments and laughter from the men in the front seat. Rough, hard living men, all three of them.

A bubble of suspicion rose in her brain. Why was a filthy terrorist now dressed in a shirt like this? She ran her fingers along the sleeve, admiring the soft, close weave of the fabric and the meticulous tailoring. Earlier, his homespun shirt had been abrasive as he ground against her. But this one sat smoothly on her naked skin, even if it was nowhere near concealing enough.

So he fancied himself as a man of fashion?

Spoil his fun Laurel, she muttered. She prowled around her bedroom, wondering how she could do it, peering into the empty wardrobe and the drawers of a carved timber chest, and finding nothing the least bit useful.

But there were towels in the adjoining bathroom. Large and luxurious ones. Why hadn’t she thought of them earlier? With great delight she wrapped one around her hips and tucked the overlap in to make an instant skirt.

She sashayed back to the big kitchen, new-found confidence improving her mood no end.

“A perfect fit,” she said. “Thank you.”

She enjoyed the way Rafiq narrowed his eyes and glowered at her. Well, she was resourceful! If he’d been expecting to see her bare legs and maybe a scoop of her bottom below the hem of his shirt, he was out of luck. Now they were swathed in thick toweling, and she’d done every shirt button up. Her only worry was that her breasts might be visible through the fine linen.

She gazed at him as he sat bare chested at the table, a tall glass of fruit juice in front of him. Her turn to enjoy the view. His body might be relaxed and no doubt weary, but he was still well worth inspecting.

I’ll give you a taste of the same, she vowed, sending her eyes wandering all over him just as his had wandered over her. He looked fighting fit. Long hours in a gym? Or did the terrorist cell he belonged to insist their men trained hard? His desert march had seemed second nature to him. He’d barely raised a sweat by the time he’d led her down into the twisting rock-filled gully.

“As you can see I’m now decent enough to be flown back to Kalal,” she announced, sitting and taking a sip of her own juice.

“As you can see, I’m far from ready to fly you anywhere yet.”

“So when?”

“Later.”

“After dinner then?”

“We’ll see.”

“Yes, we certainly will.”

His black eyes held shadows of fatigue, but surely after resting for a while and having a meal he’d be okay?

“Be quiet, Miss Kiwi,” he muttered.

“Miss de Courcey,” she corrected. “Laurel de Courcey.”

She continued her enjoyable inspection of his body.

He had scars! A small puckered lump on one shoulder. Long jagged lines down his left arm. The longer she looked, the more scars she found. A skin graft on the side of his throat. Well healed but definite slashes over his chest. Was this why he’d only partly opened his shirt and then held it to conceal his body while he pretended to sniff at it? Was he embarrassed by his appearance?

Well he had no need to be in her reluctant opinion. If he’d been hairier, many of the scars would have been hidden. But he was wondrously smooth and supple looking. Only the tiniest dusting of glossy black hair bisected his flat belly and disappeared down into his trousers.

Suddenly she wanted to treat him like one of the children, and trail her fingers over his dusky skin to soothe the wounds that must have caused him unimaginable pain. How absurd! But when and how had he become so injured?

“Was that a bullet?” she demanded, trying to hide her concern, and pointing at the lump on his shoulder.

He heaved a sigh and straightened somewhat.

“That one, yes.”

She knew her eyes must be wide with shock.

“And the others?”

“No.”

“Then how did you get so hurt?”

“As you saw today, I lead an active life.”

“Well that’s a lot of injuries to get from your job.”

“It would have been—yes.” His face closed up and he turned aside to avoid her questioning. Laurel fumed at his insolence.

“Yasmina,” he called, indicating he was ready to eat.

Instantly the obedient nanny arrived with woven placemats and dinner plates, followed by a casserole of spicy-smelling stew. Then she brought a rice dish with nuts, and a green salad which Laurel soon discovered had a bitter but refreshing flavor. She’d eaten nothing in almost nine hours and did full justice to the food.

 

 

Rafiq watched her with amusement, grateful for the diversion the meal provided. He had no wish to explain his battered body to her.

“Yasmina will be pleased by your appetite.”

The girl looked up from her food for a moment. “Was she really your nanny?”

“Of course—from my birth until I was seventeen.”

“Seventeen’s a bit old to have a nanny.”

“She’ll be mine for my whole life. It’s the way of our people.”

“So what happened at seventeen?”

Rafiq compressed his lips. He really didn’t want to answer that. “You ask a lot of questions, Miss Kiwi.”

“Laurel.”

“Laurel,” he repeated, nodding.

“So what happened?”

Hell she was determined! Should he explain? He needed a measure of co-operation from her or the whole mission might yet fail. He had no desire to keep her in handcuffs for the next two weeks.

He remained silent for a short time, tapping his fork against his thumbnail.

“My parents were assassinated, and I had to go into hiding,” he finally rasped.

The shocking words sliced across at her. She sat unblinking, staring back at him.

“For real?” Her voice had fallen to a croaky whisper.

“For real.” His own was husky with memory and sorrow.

“So who are you? Someone quite important?”

He drew a deep breath.

“I am the rightful King.”

She wrinkled her pert little nose.

“Pull the other one,” she said.

 

Chapter Four — Ash Gets Lucky

Ash Winthrop gazed down as the sun crept over the piece of rolling green New Zealand countryside he owned. He checked the time on his scratched gold Rolex, sighed and stretched his stiff shoulders. The early morning news bulletin would be on TV in eight or nine minutes, he always liked to be sitting in his favorite chair with a cuppa by then. It made a peaceful start to the day.

He pushed away from the fence and quickened his pace along the sweeping asphalt driveway of Trinity Stud, sniffing with satisfaction at the scents of hay and horse dung floating on the slight breeze.

He kicked at one of the potholes that needed patching. Grimaced at part of the fence overdue for painting. The barns and yards were all starting to look a little run down. He knew he should sell up now, while things were still just in good enough repair.

But it was home. And it had been home for almost forty-five years. He couldn’t picture himself in a compact new townhouse or highrise apartment in the city. No lawns to mow maybe, but not much of anything else either as far as he could see. He was used to plenty of space after seventy-four years of being a country boy.

He’d poured all his money and energy into the stud. It had been his entire life until Marion had passed three years ago. Somehow the lights had dimmed after she’d gone and nothing seemed quite so important any more. He’d be a wealthy man if he sold up, but until then the maintenance and running costs of the thoroughbred stud were appalling.

Ash climbed the steps to the wide front terrace of the homestead, ambled inside, and switched on the electric kettle. The preheated water boiled again in no time; he poured it over his tea bag and lowered himself into his favorite blue La-Z-Boy chair. The News headlines blared out as soon as he clicked the remote.

“Rioting as fuel grows scarce in Nigeria; a man falls to his death on an Auckland building site; All Black injuries a worry for the coach; and a young New Zealand woman held hostage by terrorists in the Middle East. Good morning, I’m Benedict Martin.”

Ash took a sip of his tea. Nothing great there…

“We begin this morning’s coverage with breaking news from the small oil-rich Kingdom of Al Sounam. Laurel de Courcey, New Zealand-born nanny to an American diplomatic family, has been captured by members of a previously unknown group calling themselves Soldiers of the Ninth Crusade. The group supplied the following recording, with the warning that Miss de Courcey will be killed unless seven named terrorists are released from prison.

Ash clapped a hand to his chest and stared in disbelief as the face of his long-lost daughter appeared on the screen. The tea slopped unheeded down the front of his hairy tan jersey.

“Not American,” Debs insisted. A dark-skinned hand appeared and pushed her red cap further back so Ash saw her anguished face more clearly.

“Kiwi. New Zealand,” she insisted. She glared straight at Ash and said, “I am not American. Who the hell do you think I am? Someone you can bargain with?”

Again the hand on her face, this time with a barked instruction of “Quiet!”

And to Ash’s horror, a rough looking man with an AK47 entered the frame, pressed the muzzle against her head, and began chanting “America, America.”

The screen went dead.

The newsreader continued smoothly. “Twenty-three-year-old Laurel de Courcey was born in Wellington, according to the passport supplied by her American employers. She has not been seen since one o’clock, Al Sounam time.”

Ash heard no more. Who was this Laurel? It had been Debs—his lovely lost daughter, Debs. Debs who had disappeared after her eighteenth birthday, twenty-four years ago.

De Courcey? The name danced and jiggled at the back of his brain.

It took some time for the shock to wear off and for him to do the math. If not Debs, then it must be her daughter. His grand-daughter. His twenty-three-year-old unknown grand-daughter, in danger of dying before he ever met her.

He finally found the presence of mind to press the record button in case there was a recap later in the bulletin. It was imperative he saw her again.

He brushed at the spilled tea on his clothing and set his cup down. There were photos of Debs in the main bedroom—on Marion’s dresser. They’d been there like a small sad shrine for almost a quarter of a century. Feeling very old, yet curiously energized, he stumped off to collect them.

Far too early he did the infuriating rounds of the Government answer-phones. “For immigration, press one. For visitor information, press four.”

What number did you press for ‘hostage status’? He drummed his fingers on the sideboard with ever growing irritation. A little later he thought to phone the main Auckland TV newsroom and all hell broke loose.

 

Chapter Five — Scars and Emeralds

Laurel watched as Rafiq shrugged his broad scarred shoulders.

“Life is interesting, is it not, Miss Kiwi? Who knows what will happen on any given day?”

She sat in a kind of trance while his words sank in.

The rightful King? I’ve been kidnapped by the King?

Finally she cleared her throat.

“Not funny. Kings don’t go kidnapping people and holding them hostage. Kings don’t have the sort of disgusting friends you do.”

She edged away from the table a little to distance herself from him, annoyed she’d been feeling sorry for him because of all his scars. Assassination indeed! “And they don’t live in creepy isolated houses like this one either,” she added. “Who are you really?”

“The only surviving son of the late Sheikh Abu Ali al-Husayn bin Khalid. This was my father’s hunting lodge.”

She tossed a disbelieving laugh across the table. “You’re kidding. There’s nothing to hunt. Nothing lives here. Camels and lizards maybe. What did he think he was going to find?”

Rafiq’s dark eyes left her face and drifted to somewhere far away. “Solitude and peace,” he said into the quiet night.

Such an unexpected answer made Laurel feel almost inclined to believe him. She let his words wash over her as she considered how wonderful it would be to have to search for solitude. She’d had far too much of it. No-one had ever really wanted her or had time for her. She’d been fostered in various houses, and there’d been bedlam in some of them, but she’d never felt a true part of the families.

Later, the hostel they’d sent her to had teemed with girls—squealing, borrowing clothes and makeup, playing music until lights-out, and then giggling and gossiping in loud whispers—but she’d still been intensely lonely there.

Sharing a flat had been better, but the girls all had their own families and boyfriends, and moved on so fast she’d never really had a best mate. She’d take herself off for a walk on the beach at Oriental Bay or a quiet read in Waitangi Park or a wander through the shops of Lambton Quay and Willis Street to get away from the places where everyone seemed to belong except her.

Certainly no-one had ever sought her company. The only times she’d ever been the centre of attention were when groups of noisy children all demanded different and equally impossible things of their hired and none-too-generously-paid nanny. She was well used to solitude.

“So I suppose he had a busy life?” she needled, thinking of all the magazine articles she’d seen about royalty and their myriad social activities.

“He worked impossible hours. He was devoted to his people. My people now.”

Laurel stayed silent for a while before asking anything else. Rafiq had ‘people’? He seemed to be serious. But why should she believe his outrageous claim?

“Is Rafiq your real name?”

“One of them. I have many.”

“Are you fighting to get the throne back? Is that why I was kidnapped? Am I a hostage so they’ll re-instate you?”

Despite looking so tired, he roared with laughter.

“What?”

His chuckles subsided. “I wish it were that simple.”

“Don’t just laugh at me,” she snapped. “I’ll have to let Mrs. Daniels know where I am. She’ll be horribly worried by now. Is there a phone?”

He shook his dark head.

“Do you have a mobile then?”

“There’s no reception way out here.”

“I’ve got to let her know somehow.”

“Not a chance, Miss Kiwi. No-one must know where you are—for your own safely as well as my own. You’ve ended up as the meat in a most unpleasant sandwich. Not your fault in the least. But for now you must stay out of sight and out of contact with the rest of the world. It’s necessary that certain people think you are dead.”

“I’m not the least important.”

“As Laurel the nanny, possibly not. But as Laurel the hostage you’re vital to the success of my current mission. And many other lives hang in the balance because of you.”

She drew her brows together. “But how? Why?”

“Just believe that it’s so. I can’t tell you everything. It should be enough you have a King’s word.”

She blew out an exasperated breath. “Prove you’re a King, then. I don’t know why you expect I’ll go along with that fantasy.”

“Would you recognize my parents, the late King and Queen, if I showed you their photographs here in this house?”

She shrugged. “I doubt it.”

“Then I have no other way of convincing you right now. You’ll be well looked after but you’ll be staying here, out of sight and out of contact.”

He spoke over the top of her next question. “The world won’t stop turning without you. Leave it for tonight. We’ll talk more in the morning. Yasmina!” He gestured for coffee.

Laurel stayed poised with her mouth open, ready to object to such cavalier treatment. How dare he just cut her off like that? He’d stolen her freedom and apparently had no intention of giving it back. Taken her away from everything familiar and safe. A furious burn started at the back of her throat. She willed herself not to give in to tears.

The servant hurried across with the coffee pot and poured two small cups of aromatic liquid almost thick enough to stand the spoons in. A brass bowl of fresh apricots followed.

“Thank you Yasmina. Good-night.”

“Good-night My Lord Rafiq.”

She tipped his injured forehead to the light, inspected the dressing one last time, and sniffed her disapproval before leaving them alone.

“What did she call you?”

“What she has always called me.”

“And what’s that?”

A slow smile spread across his handsome face. “Do you wish to call me the same, Laurel?”

“I doubt it,” she said with spirit, somehow sensing from the unnerving gleam in his eyes that she didn’t.

“I doubt it too,” he agreed. “Yasmina has always addressed me as ‘My Lord Rafiq’.”

She sniffed. “How absolutely feud