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Excerpt from Forbidden to the Playboy Surgeon by Fiona Lowe

London

Being invited to be part of the Paddington Children’s Hospital series was an honour and it was great to work closely with a group of medical romance authors. Forbidden to the Playboy Surgeon is the second book in the series and there’s a nice twist. I have an uptight Australian female surgeon matched against a laid-back British neurosurgeon. Claire and Alistair are chalk and cheese but they have valid reasons for their different approaches to life, but that doesn’t stop them from rubbing each other up the wrong way.  I hope you enjoy getting to know the two of them. Here is an excerpt from Chapter Three.

MEDICAL3

 

Alistair high-fived Tristan Lewis-Smith. ‘Way to go, Tris,’ he said with a grin.

The kid had just whooped him at virtual tennis— twice— but he didn’t care. He was too busy rejoicing in the fact that the ten-year-old had been seizure free for a week. That hadn’t happened in two years and it was moments like these that reminded him that what he did each day mattered. Hell, it reinforced his mantra that each day mattered and life should be lived to the full.

He’d almost lost the opportunity to do that and when he’d woken up in the coronary care unit, he’d vowed never to forget how life could change in a heartbeat— or the lack of one as the case may be— and how close he’d come to death. He’d been blessed with a second chance and he never took it for granted. He was thrilled to be able to give Tristan a second chance at a normal life.

‘Right-oh, mate.’ He pulled down the sheet and patted the centre of the bed. ‘Time to tuck in and pretend to read or the night sister will have my guts for garters.’

Full of beans and far from quiet, Tristan bounced onto the bed. ‘You’re just saying that because you’re scared if you play another game I’ll beat you. Again.’

‘There is that,’ Alistair said with a grin. ‘Hurry up, I’ve got somewhere I need to be.’

Tristan scrambled under the covers. ‘Nurse Saunders said you couldn’t stay long because you’ve got a hot date.’

‘Did she now?’ Funny that Lindsay appeared to know more about this hot date than he did. He found himself automatically tucking the sheet around the little boy only this time an odd feeling of something akin to emptiness accompanied it.

He immediately shook off the feeling. He had no reason what so ever to feel empty or lonely. Life was good. He had a job he loved and a spacious and light-filled apartment just off the Portobello Road that he’d filled with curios from his world travels. Three years ago, he’d added to his property portfolio and bought a pretty stone cottage surrounded by fields of lavender in Provence. When he was there, he revelled in the sensory delights of sunshine, hearty Mediterranean food and great wine. He visited at least once a month either alone or with companionship depending on whether or not the woman he was dating was still focussed on having fun. The moment a woman started dropping hints about “taking things to the next level” she was no longer welcome in France. Or in Notting Hill for that matter.

He loved women but he didn’t do next levels. It was better to break a heart in the early days, well before things got serious, than to risk shattering a life, or worse, lives. His childhood was a case in point and on top of that devastation no one ever knew precisely the duration of a second chance.

Surprised by the unexpected direction his musings had taken him— he didn’t do dark thoughts and he certainly wasn’t known for them— he left Tristan’s room and contemplated the hour. It wasn’t quite eight. As it was a Thursday night there’d be a sizeable hospital crowd at the Frog and Peach and he’d be welcomed with open arms for his dart skills. Oddly, the thought didn’t entice. He had an overwhelming urge to do something completely different. Something wild that would make him feel alive.

Parkouring in the dark?

    Alive not dead, thank you very much.

    Still, parkouring in daylight this coming weekend was worth investigating. He pulled out his phone and had just brought up a browser when he heard, ‘G’day, Alistair.’

Astonished, he spun around at the sound of the broad Australian accent. Although he’d heard Claire Mitchell use the informal Aussie greeting with other people, she’d always been far more circumspect with him. Well, with the exception of one or two lapses. In general, he knew she tried to be polite with him and that she found it a struggle. Did it make him a bad person that he enjoyed watching her keep herself in check? The woman was always buttoned up so tightly it wasn’t surprising she cracked every now and then.

Now she stood in front of him with her hands pressed deep into the pockets of her once starched, but now very end-of-day limp, doctor’s coat. Her hair was pulled back into its functional ponytail and a hot pink stethoscope was slung around her neck. A tiny koala clung to her security lanyard along with a small pen on retractable elastic. Her utilitarian white blouse and medium length black skirt were unremarkable except that the skirt revealed those long shapely legs that taunted him.

Her feet were tucked into bright red shoes with a wide strap that crossed her instep just below her ankle and culminated in a large red button that drew the eye. He suddenly understood completely why Victorian Gentlemen had waxed lyrical over a fleeting glimpse of a fine ankle.

He scanned her face, looking for clues as to why she was suddenly attempting a colloquial greeting with him. ‘G’day, yourself,’ he intoned back with a fair crack at an Aussie accent.

Behind her sexy-librarian style glasses, her eyes did that milk and dark chocolate swirly thing he always enjoyed and— Good Lord. Was she blushing?

‘Do you have a minute?’ she asked, quickly pushing her glasses up her nose as they continued walking toward the lifts.

‘Always. Problem?’

‘Um,’ she surreptitiously glanced along the corridor taking in the nurses’ station that was teaming with staff. She suddenly veered left into the treatment room.

Utterly intrigued by this uncharacteristic behaviour, he followed. ‘Shall I close the door?’

She tugged hard at some stray strands of her hair before pushing them behind her ears. ‘Thanks.’

He closed the door and flicked the blinds to the closed position before leaning back against the wide bench. Claire stood a metre or more away, her plump lips deliciously red. He shifted his gaze and— Damn it! His eyes caught on a fluttering pulse beating at the base of her throat. She really had the most gloriously long, smooth neck that just begged to be explored.

That as may be, but remember most of the time she’s a pain in the ass. Not to mention, she’s your trainee.

‘Alistair,’ she started purposefully and then stopped.

‘Claire.’ He couldn’t help teasing back. He’d never seen her at a loss before and it was deliciously refreshing.

She took in such a deep breath that her breasts rose, stressing the button he was pretty certain sat just above her bra line. Was it delicate sheer lace or plainly utilitarian? It was his experience plain women often wore the sexiest underwear.

With that mouth, she’s hardly plain.

As if on cue, the tip of her tongue peeked out, flicking the bow of her top lip.

His blood leapt.

She cleared her throat. ‘I hope you won’t take this the wrong way but…’

Trying to look utterly unaffected by her, he cocked one brow and reminded himself of the times she’d been critical of him. ‘My sensibilities haven’t stopped you from giving me your opinion before.’

This time she definitely blushed but somehow she managed to wrestle her embarrassment under control with dignity. ‘True, but that was work. This doesn’t exactly fall into that category. Although I suppose it does technically if you—’

‘You’re babbling,’ he said hoping it would force her to focus. At the same time, he had an absurd and unexpected need to rescue her from herself.

Her head jerked up so fast he was worried her neck might snap but then she hit him with a gimlet stare. He forced himself not to squirm as an unsettling feeling trickled through him. Did she see straight through the man he liked to show the world? Had she glimpsed the corner edge of the bubbling mess he kept securely sealed away?

‘As the head of the department of neurosurgery,’ she said tightly, ‘I think it’s important you lead by example and attend the Spring Fling.’

The Spring Fling? Surely he’d misheard. ‘You mean the neurosurgery spring symposium?’

She shook her head and once again the blush bloomed on her cheeks. She swallowed and that damn tongue of hers darted out to moisten her lips. This time as the zip of heat hit him, he pushed off the bench to try and shake it off.

‘I mean the fundraising ball,’ she said slowly as if the words were being reluctantly pulled out of her.

He couldn’t resist. ‘Are you inviting me to the ball?’

Her eyes widened in consternation. ‘No!’ For a moment, indignation spun around her before fading with a sigh and a fall of her shoulders. ‘I mean perhaps. Yes. In a manner of speaking.’

His mouth twitched. ‘It’s good to know you’re so decisive.’

Her chin shot up jabbing the air. ‘You can tease me all you like, Mr— Alistair, but you know as well as I do that at the bare minimum there should a neurosurgery staff table at the ball.’

Damn it to hell. She was absolutely right but how had she found out he wasn’t going? He’d been keeping that bit of information on the down low more out of embarrassment than anything else. A couple of months ago, just before Claire had arrived, he’d had a particularly tough day. He’d lost a patient— a two year-old boy with a brainstem glioma— and for some reason he’d avoided the sympathetic eyes of his staff at the Frog and Peach. He’d hit a trendy bar in Soho instead and in retrospect, he’d consumed one whiskey too many.

It had been enough to scramble his usually accurate crazy-woman detector. As a result, he’d allowed himself to be tempted by the Amazonian features of Lela. The thirty year-old was a fitness instructor as well as being a part-time security guard. They’d had a lot of fun together until he’d realised her possessive streak wasn’t limited to bedroom games.

He knew the ball committee had flagged the idea of auctioning off the chairs next to eligible bachelors. Usually he’d have been fine with the concept and embraced it, but he’d been worried Lela might turn up and cause a nasty public spectacle. Or worse, buy the ticket. To save himself and the hospital embarrassment he’d decided not to attend the ball but to make a sizeable donation to the cause instead. The only person he’d mentioned this plan to was Dominic.

Stupid! Stupid, Stupid. The paediatric trauma surgeon had obviously broken the bro-code and told Victoria. What was it about a man in love that made him prepared to throw his mate under the bus just to stay in sweet with his lady? Now the i-dotting and t-crossing Claire Mitchell was calling him out on a perceived lack of social etiquette.

He ploughed his hand through his hair. God, he’d been raised on etiquette and the irony that an Australian with their supposedly class-less society was reminding him of his social responsibilities almost made him laugh. Perhaps he could turn this whole Lela-and-the-ball mess around and use it to his advantage.

‘Let me get this straight,’ he said with a lazy smile. ‘You’re prepared to spend an evening with me just to make sure I do the right thing?’

This time she was the one to raise an eyebrow. ‘As your 2IC, I can’t expect you to attend the ball if I’m not prepared to attend.’

‘Ah, yes, that sucker duty gets you every time.’

She stiffened. ‘But it seems you’re often immune.’

Ouch. Her words tried to scratch him like the sharp tip of a knife but he didn’t need to justify himself to her. He was very well aware of his duty. Ironically, duty had arrived in a rush just after he’d vowed to make the most of every new day that had been gifted to him. It was the juxtaposition of his life.

‘None of us are immune, Claire. It’s just I try to have a bit of fun with duty and not take it too seriously.’

She narrowed her eyes, ‘And you’re inferring that I don’t have fun?’

Not that I’ve seen. ‘Have you had any fun since arriving in London?’

She looked momentarily nonplussed. ‘I…um…yes. Of course.’

Liar. But he was planning on having some fun with her right now and killing two birds with one stone. ‘Excellent. I can certainly promise you fun at the ball. Especially considering how you’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty and bought the seat next to me.’

‘What?’ She paled, her expression momentarily aghast and then she rallied. ‘I don’t get paid enough for that.’

‘Brutal.’ He exaggeratedly slapped his chest in the general area of his heart, his long fingers grazing the lower edge of his pacemaker. ‘And here I was thinking I was your date. I tell you what. I’ll pay for both of our tickets.’

‘That won’t be necess—’

‘It’s the least I can do,’ he interrupted, waving away her protest. ‘I imagine it was Victoria who dropped you right in it.’

She grimaced. ‘You’re not wrong there.’

He made a huffing sound more at the absent Dominic than her. ‘The good thing is you’ll be saving me from having to play nice all evening.’

Effrontery streaked across her face. ‘Well, when you put it like that, I can hardly wait,’ she said drily.

Her sarcasm was unexpected and delightfully refreshing and he heard himself laugh. He wasn’t used to a woman viewing an evening with him as a trial. The women he dated erred on the appreciative side and often went to great lengths to make him happy. Not Claire Mitchell.

A streak of anticipation shot threw him. Without realizing, she’d just thrown down a challenge. He wasn’t totally convinced she was capable of having fun and he had a sudden urge to know what she looked like when she was in the midst of a good time.

She’d smile like she did when you let her operate solo. Remember how you felt then?

    He disregarded the warning that it was probably unwise to be looking forward to the ball quite this much.

‘So will you be picking me—’ His phone rang with the ICU ringtone and as he pulled it from his pocket, Claire’s pager beeped.

‘North,’ he said answering the call just as Claire mouthed to him ‘ICU?’

Listening to the nurse on the other end of the line, he nodded at Claire and opened the treatment room door. As she walked quickly past him, her crisp scent of the sea drifted back to him and he was suddenly back on Bondi Beach when his life had been simpler and with few restraints placed upon it.

‘We’re on our way,’ he told the worried nurse. Stepping out into the corridor, he followed Claire down the fire escape, taking the fastest way to ICU.

****

You can buy Forbidden to the Playboy Surgeon and all the other books in the series at Mills & Boon UK, Harelquin USA and Mills & Boon Australia

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – A Mother to Make a Family

A Mother to Make a Family USA April 2017  I’m so excited that this book has finally made it. This is the third in my “Tempted & Tamed” series which started in 2014 with ‘Doctor by Day…’ and ‘Tamed by the Renegade’. These are the stories of the Anderson sisters, Scarlett, Ruby and Rose, and Rose is finally getting her turn in ‘A Mother to Make a Family’. It might have taken me a while but I’m happy with how things have turned out for her 🙂 Hope you enjoy it, Emily.

CHAPTER ONE

A scream split the air, cleaving through the thick muggy silence that suffocated the land.

Mitch recognised the sound and it sent a shiver of fear down his spine.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose up and the wrench fell from his hand as he sprinted from the machine shed.

He was halfway to the horse yards before the scream ended and the silence that followed stabbed at his heart. He’d never known silence to be so terrifying. It was ominous. After thirty-nine years he knew the sound of trouble.

The sound of his boots as they slapped the dirt echoed across the ground and the pounding of his feet imitated the pounding of his heart that had lodged somewhere in his throat. He listened for more noise, another sound, anything, as he ran, anything would be better than the oppressive silence.

Time stood still. Red dust flew from under his boots but the red dust might as well have been quicksand. The horse yards weren’t getting any closer.

He rounded the corner of the staff quarters and almost collided with his six-year-old son.

‘Dad, Dad, come quick. It’s Lila.’ Jed grabbed Mitch’s hand but Mitch didn’t slow his pace and his hand pulled out of his son’s grasp. Mitch still didn’t stop. He would make better time without him. He kept running, knowing Jed would follow.

He had to get to Lila. He had to get to his daughter.

He skidded into the horse yards and felt Jed come to a stop beside him. He scanned the enclosures, searching for his two other children.

Charlie was standing still. He was holding Ruff, their Australian terrier, in his arms. The little dog was squirming and wriggling, desperate to get down. Ruff wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the horse yards but Mitch didn’t have time to think about that now.

His daughter lay flat on her back on the hard, red ground. Her face was ashen and she lay as still as a corpse, her eyes open. His heart was lodged firmly in his throat now and he fought to breathe. The air was thick and muggy, choking him as he tried to force it into his lungs. He’d already lost one daughter. He couldn’t lose Lila too. His children were all he had left.

And then he saw her chest move. Rising and falling as she breathed.

She was alive.

The lump in his throat dislodged and he sucked in a breath.

Ginny was kneeling over her and Mitch crouched in the dirt beside her.

‘Lila!’

He wanted to gather her into his arms, to pick her up and carry her away but he didn’t dare move her. He knew it wasn’t safe.

His daughter’s lips were parted, her eyes huge and dark in her pale face. They brimmed with tears and her bottom lip wobbled.

‘It hurts.’

Mitch could hear the catch in her voice and it was almost more than he could bear. ‘Where?’

‘My back.’

Shit.

‘You haven’t moved her, have you?’ he asked Ginny. He hadn’t acknowledged the governess until now. He was far too intent on Lila.

‘No.’ Ginny shook her head. ‘She fell like this.’

The ground was a hard as concrete. They’d had no rain in this distant corner of Queensland for three years, even the river was dry. The station was relying on water from the artesian basin for the cattle, there was nothing spare to soften the ground or water the gardens. Who knew what injuries Lila might have sustained? What damage had been done?

Mitch slipped his fingers into Lila’s palm. ‘Can you squeeze my hand?’

He relaxed ever so slightly as he felt the reassuring squeeze.

‘Don’t move your legs,’ he told her, ‘but see if you can wriggle your toes.’

Lila was wearing elastic-sided riding boots. He couldn’t see if she was moving but she winced.

‘Could you do it?’ he asked.

‘Yes. But it hurts.’

That was a good sign, Mitch thought. Not that he wanted his daughter to be in pain but pain was often absent in serious spinal injuries. ‘I know, sweetie, you’re being very brave.’

Tears spilled from Lila’s lashes onto her cheeks.

Mitch wiped the tears from her face. ‘It’ll be alright, Lila.’

Thankfully she’d been wearing her helmet. Thank god she’d had some protection. He didn’t remove it. He couldn’t risk the movement. Not until her injuries had been assessed. He knew what to do but she needed more attention than he was able to give her and somehow, when the situation was personal, it became harder to remain objective. He didn’t want to do the wrong thing. And that was the trouble – he didn’t trust his own judgement anymore. Lila needed medical attention but they were in outback Queensland, hundreds of kilometres and a five-hour drive from the nearest hospital.

‘Go to the house,’ he instructed Ginny. ‘Call the flying doctor on the satellite phone and bring it back to me along with the medical chest.’

She stood up and Mitch noticed that her knees were shaking, her hands too, and her face was ashen. Everyone was on edge. ‘Take the dog,’ he called after her as she hurried away. Ginny came back and took Ruff from Charlie’s arms. ‘And make sure he’s tied up.’

‘Do you know what day it is, Lila?’ he asked.

‘Wednesday,’ she replied, and Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

‘Do you know what happened?’

‘I came off Fudge.’

As far as assessments for concussion went it was as basic as they came but hearing the correct responses was a positive sign.  Her eyes were open, she wasn’t confused and she could move independently even if it hurt. Fourteen points out of a possible fifteen on the Glasgow coma scale, Mitch thought automatically, although that was only part of the story.

He sat in the dirt and held Lila’s hand as he waited for Ginny to return. Waiting was the hardest thing. He was useless until he had the medical chest and even that wouldn’t be enough. He was pretty certain that Lila had sustained some fractures and there was the risk that she had also suffered some internal injuries but he didn’t want to start an assessment. He didn’t want to be the one to cause her pain. He’d wait for the medical chest, at least then he’d be able to check her blood pressure which would give him a bit more of an indication as to what they were dealing with but he was convinced Lila would have to be evacuated. They needed the flying doctor.

He kept talking to her. Soft, nothing words, just sounds really, letting her know he was there, that he wasn’t going to leave her.

Her eyes fluttered closed and he fought back another wave of panic while he reminded himself that she didn’t seem concussed. She seemed alert enough, even if she was in pain.

‘Is she going to be okay, Dad?’

Jed stood beside him and Mitch noticed that he had his arm wrapped around his little brother, comforting him. Mitch should be doing that but he found himself stretched to the limit, as had been the case so often in the past two years. There just wasn’t enough of him to go around.

‘She’ll be fine,’ he replied. He had no other answer. He didn’t want to lie but he had to believe she would be okay. He had to believe his own words.

‘You can fix her, can’t you, Dad?’

‘I’m going to need some help, Jed, but the flying doctor will be here soon. Why don’t you and Charlie go down to the kitchen for smoko?’

He hadn’t heard the bell for smoko but it must be nearly time for morning tea. The station staff would all converge on the kitchen and a drink and a piece of cake would keep the boys occupied.

Ginny returned on one of the quad bikes. She had the medical chest strapped to the back of the bike and a blanket thrown over her lap. She carried the medical chest over and put it down beside Mitch before draping the blanket over Lila. Mitch hadn’t thought of the blanket, the temperature was nudging thirty four degrees Celsius, but if Lila went into shock he might need it.

‘The plane is on its way and the base is holding for you,’ Ginny said as she handed him the satellite phone.

Mitch knew that depending on where the plane was coming from it could take an hour to reach them. He took the phone as he instructed Ginny to get his head stockman and pilot to prepare the runway for the plane.

He spoke to the doctor at the Broken Hill base and relayed the little information they asked while he opened the medical chest and found the few things that he needed. He checked her blood pressure, kept her warm and gave her some pain relief and then he waited.

And waited.

Time stood still as his daughter lay in the dirt, in pain.

Lila looked so like her mother that Mitch’s heart ached every time he looked at her. Dark hair, dark eyes. All three of the children had his dark eyes but the boys were much more like him. They had the same white blond hair he’d had as a child. His hair had darkened with age. And had even gone a little grey with stress.

He had been trying his best not to let his feelings show over the past two years. He didn’t want the children to grow up sensing his pain. His loss. It was their loss too but he knew they felt it differently. They were so young, so much more resilient than he felt, but he had vowed to do his best by them.

He had become very good at disguising his feelings, an expert at pretending everything was okay. But he didn’t know if he had the strength to get through another tragedy. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that but if it did he’d have to find the reserves somewhere. The children were all he had and he was all they had.

He knew he had to keep his composure, had to stay calm, and he was grateful that no one else had been injured. He’d seen more than his fair share of injuries, and even a couple of fatalities, from accidents with horses. But being around horses was a way of life on the station and Mitch knew it was important that the children were familiar with them. But he had always insisted that they wear helmets when they were riding and fortunately that was a rule they had never broken. Lila’s accident could have been much worse; it wasn’t as bad as it got but it was close.

In the distance he heard the sound of an engine. The familiar whine of the flying doctor plane. He heard it coming from the west and he looked to the sky, searching for a flash of silver and white. There. The plane was silhouetted against the endless, clear blue sky. He watched as it dropped lower, heading for the dirt landing strip behind the out buildings and waited again for the doc to get to the stables.

Darren, the head stockman, pulled up in a dusty four-wheel-drive and the doc and the flight nurse piled out. He recognised Doc Burton. Mitch reckoned he’d worked with all of the doctors over the years. He nodded in acknowledgement and then relayed what he knew of the events, what he’d given Lila for pain relief and her medical history which was pretty minor, he knew she had no allergies but had to guess her weight, and then he stepped aside to let them examine his daughter. He wasn’t one of them anymore, he was just Lila’s father.

Lila was alert and talking as they checked her pupils, got her to move her fingers and toes and gradually worked their way up her limbs. She seemed to be able to move her upper limbs reasonably comfortably but her legs were a different story. Doc Burton gently palpated Lila’s neck before removing her helmet. He moved to her abdomen as the nurse retested her blood pressure.

Lila cried out in pain as the doc pressed on her pelvis and Mitch had to restrain himself from leaping in and stopping the doc’s examination right there. He couldn’t stand to see Lila in more pain.

‘Temp 36.2 degrees, pulse 100, respirations 22, BP 90 on 60, oxygen 98%.’ The flight nurse relayed Lila’s vital statistics.

‘Can you run 500mls of normal saline and draw up 5 milligrams of morphine? I want to give her a shot before we move her,’ the doc finished speaking to the nurse before turning to Mitch.

‘I agree with you,’ he said, ‘there’s no apparent head injury and her spine seems okay but it looks like she has a fractured pelvis so we’ll need to take her with us to the Base.’ Back to Broken Hill, to the hospital. ‘I don’t think she has major internal injuries, her observations are quite reasonable, which suggest that there’s no excessive internal bleeding but I won’t really know until we get her to Broken Hill for scans. She may need to go to Adelaide but you know the drill.’

The doc took the syringe from the nurse and injected the morphine into Lila’s abdomen. ‘This will sting a little, Lila, but it will work fast to take the pain away,’ he told her.

Mitch knew the drill all too well. Doc Burton would take away the pain and then he’d take Lila. Mitch had known that would be the case. He’d known her injuries were too severe to be treated out here. He’d known she would need to go to hospital and he would follow. He hadn’t set foot in a hospital for two years but that was all about to change. He’d known the day would come when he’d have to face up to the past and that day was now. He would have to cope, for Lila’s sake.

He picked up Lila’s hand, holding it, not sure whether he was comforting her or himself.

‘Alright, we need to get her in the plane.’ Doc Burton looked at Mitch and Mitch knew his face would be pale under his tan. ‘You’re coming?’

            Mitch nodded as the doc and the flight nurse wrapped a brace around Lila’s pelvis and rolled her onto a spinal board.  He’d managed to avoid the hospital for two years but he’d wondered what it would take to get him back there. Now he knew. This was it.

            He climbed into the plane choosing a seat from where he could keep watch.

Lila was drowsy now, the pain relief was working, and as the engines started up her eyelids fluttered and closed.

Through the window Mitch watched the station fall away as the pilot lifted the plane into the air. Red dirt, chestnut cattle, the dry, stony creek, grey-green trees and the silver, corrugated tin roofs of the buildings that glinted in the sunlight. He looked down onto Jed and Charlie as they stood at the edge of the runway and watched him leave.

He could see it all laid out before him, his entire life, and he wondered when it would get back to normal. Would it ever?

The past two years had been the most difficult of his life. How many more traumatic events could they be expected to endure?

The last time he was in the flying doctor plane on his way to Broken Hill he’d been with his wife and unborn child.

He turned away from the window, his gaze seeking Lila. He was determined to come back with his daughter. He couldn’t bear the thought of returning alone again.

 

***

 

‘Is she asleep?’ Rose asked as her sister walked into the kitchen.

Scarlett had been settling her daughter, Holly, for her afternoon nap while Rose had chopped what felt like a mountain of cabbage and carrot to make coleslaw. But she’d been glad to have a job to do. She was hoping it would keep her mind busy which would leave her no time to think about gorgeous men with kind faces and daughters in hospital. Lila’s father had unsettled her. Her reaction to him had her on edge but she found if she kept herself occupied she could almost manage to push him to the back of her mind. Wielding a sharp knife was making sure she stayed focussed on the task at hand. She scraped the vegetables into a bowl and started tossing them together to make the salad.

‘Yes,’ Scarlett replied, ‘but she was fighting sleep every step of the way. I think she has too much of her father in her – she knows there’s a party going on and she doesn’t want to miss out!’

Rose smiled. Her brother-in-law did like a party.

Like Jake, the old Rose had loved a party too. She enjoyed attention and she knew she got more than her fair share but now that attention made her uncomfortable. Now it made her more aware of everything that had happened to her. Aware of the contrast between the pretty Rose of her youth and the new Rose. She felt much, much older than her twenty-three years. She been through a lot in the past two years and had come out the other side a lot less positive about the future. She knew now that some things were out of her control and just because she had a plan didn’t mean that life had the same one for her.

Things were different now.

Rose had been avoiding parties but Scarlett had refused to listen to any of her excuses and the only reason Rose had agreed to come to the barbeque was because Scarlett had threatened to withhold time spent with Holly if she didn’t attend. It was emotional blackmail – Scarlett knew Rose couldn’t bear to think of being separated from her niece. Holly was one of the few highlights in her life. One of the things that Rose had fought so hard for. She adored Holly and Holly adored her.

Having a family of her own was all Rose wanted. It had been all she’d wanted since she was eight years old. Her dreams had been so different to those of her two elder sisters yet now they were both married and Scarlett had a daughter. Scarlett and Ruby were living Rose’s dream and Rose couldn’t help feeling a tiny pang of jealousy when she thought about it. Scarlett had professed that she was never going to have kids, she always intended to focus on her career, yet look at her now; a qualified anaesthetist and mother to the most adorable little girl.

Ruby, the middle of the three Anderson sisters, was a different kettle of fish altogether. She was nomadic, nothing remotely like Rose who was the epitome of a homebody, and marrying Noah was the first ordinary thing Ruby had ever done and even then she’d gone for the unusual. Not too many people were married to professional race car drivers. Ruby always had a point of difference, whether it was her dress sense, her living arrangements or her boyfriends, no one could ever accuse her of being ordinary whereas Rose longed for an ordinary life; a husband who adored her, perfect children and her own happily ever after.

She wanted to recreate that perfect world she used to live in. The world she’d inhabited until the age of eight. She wanted to fall in love and have her own family. She believed in true love and part of her still hoped it would happen for her. She still imagined her white knight would come and sweep her off her feet. He would give her the world and would be so blinded by love that he wouldn’t notice all her flaws.

The Anderson sisters had grown up with their own labels. Scarlett was the clever one, the career girl, Ruby was the fun one, the slightly wild and offbeat sister and Rose, not overly ambitious, had been content to be the pretty one. Until recently.

She used to be so confident.  She used to be able to walk into a room and know that men would look at her. She knew she was pretty and her blonde hair and big green eyes lent her an air of innocence that men couldn’t resist. But Rose didn’t feel pretty any more. She was scarred, emotionally and physically, and she didn’t want anyone to see those scars.

She was also scared. Scared that no one would want her now.

Scarlett kept telling her to give herself time. To get back out into the world without expectations. To relax, have fun and see what happened. Her psychologist was telling her the same thing – give yourself time – but Rose wasn’t convinced that time was the great healer that everyone professed it to be.

She was scared and scarred and she didn’t believe that was a combination conducive to finding love.

Scarlett held out a tray of burgers and shashliks to Rose.

‘Would you take these out to Jake for me please?’

Rose could see her brother-in-law at the barbeque talking to one of his friends.

‘I know what you’re doing,’ she said.

‘What?’ Scarlett replied, all wide-eyed and innocent.

‘You want me to talk to Rico.’

‘He’s a nice guy.’

‘I’m not saying he’s not but-’

‘ “You’re not ready.” Scarlett finished the sentence for Rose with her usual retort but that hadn’t been what she was about to say. ‘I’m worried about you Rose. You need to get out there. You’d have fun with Rico. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything more than platonic fun but at least you’d be out and about. Working and spending time with Holly isn’t enough. You’re twenty-three, have some fun.’

It was on the tip of Rose’s tongue to say I’ve met someone but that would be a ridiculous admission. Scarlett would want to know who and where and when and Rose didn’t know who. She’d said barely a dozen words to him, he was, quite literally, the tall, dark, handsome stranger she’d dreamt about since she was a teenager but she couldn’t share that with Scarlett. She’d think she’d gone mad.

She reached out and took the tray of barbeque meat, resigned to the fact that she would have to let Scarlett win this round. Scarlett won most rounds. She was the bossy older sister. Rose knew she did it out of love and so she gave in. It was easier that way. ‘Alright,’ she sighed, ‘I’ll go and talk to him.’

*

 

‘Could I have your number?’

Rose had been chatting to Jake and Rico for several minutes when Rico asked the question. She was glad he’d waited until Jake had taken a tray of cooked hamburgers inside to Scarlett. She didn’t think she had the heart to turn him down in front of his mate but she couldn’t give him what he wanted. Rico was handsome in a swarthy, dark, Mediterranean way, he had a great body, hours in the gym had toned it to perfection, and he seemed genuinely nice but there was no spark. Rose wondered if she’d ever feel that spark again. Rico was just the type of man she normally fancied, tall, dark, good-looking, a few years older than her but she wasn’t interested. She hadn’t been interested in a long time.

Not quite true she thought as she remembered a man with chocolate brown eyes, a triangular jaw and an easy smile. She might make an exception for a man like him. But that was just a silly fantasy about a complete stranger. She didn’t even know his name.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m not dating at the moment.’

She knew she had to figure out how she was going to fulfil her dream of having a family when she didn’t feel ready for a relationship. She still dreamt of finding love but in reality she was scared. She knew she couldn’t wait for ever, she didn’t want to wait for ever, but she was afraid to take that first step back into the dating game. She knew that first step would lead to others which would lead to her having to share parts of herself and that was the part she wasn’t ready for.

Rico looked as if he might be getting ready to plead his case and Rose tried to remember how she used to turn invitations down without appearing rude. ‘Why don’t you give me your number,’ she added, ‘and if I change my mind, I’ll call you.’

‘Sure.’

‘Great,’ she replied, pleased he wasn’t going to argue with her, ‘I’ll just grab my phone.’

She ducked inside and rifled through her handbag. Her phone was lying in the bottom of the bag under a tin of coloured pencils she had bought for Lila. She pulled the pencils out with the phone. She’d get Rico’s number and then she would go and see Lila. She’d had enough of the party. She knew it would only be more of the same. Talking to Jake’s friends, getting asked for her number. She made her excuses to Scarlett promising to call back later, hoping that Jake’s friends would have left by then and she could play with Holly without interruption.

But right now, there was somewhere else she’d rather be. Someone else she’d rather talk too.

           

*

 

He was there.

He was sitting beside Lila’s bed, his long legs stretched out in front of him, feet crossed at the ankles, watching as his daughter scrolled through what appeared to be photos on his phone.

She couldn’t deny she’d been hoping to see him but now she was ridiculously nervous. What had she expected? That she could just feast her eyes on him from a distance, hiding in the shadows without being seen herself?

That was exactly what she’d hoped. She hadn’t thought about the reality of seeing him. Of talking to him. She wasn’t ready to make scintillating conversation. She had nothing to say. She was completely out of practice.

But she couldn’t stand in the doorway for ever. She crossed the room and the movement caught his eye. He lifted his head and his chocolate eyes followed her progress. He stood up as she got closer and Rose put another tick in the box that would be beside his name if only she knew what it was. He had manners. She adored men with manners.  Having someone who would open a door for her or pull out her chair at dinner and seat her first, not because he thought she was incapable, just because it was a nice thing to do, always made her go weak at the knees. She always thought it gave a little glimpse about what he would be like as a husband or a lover. A mark of consideration and kindness. A man with manners would treat a girl properly.

‘I didn’t mean to interrupt,’ she said. ‘I just brought some drawing things for Lila.’

He smiled at her and Rose’s knees wobbled as the ground tilted a little under her feet. She’d liked his smile yesterday when he had smiled at his daughter but that was nothing compared to having his smile directed at her. His face brightened and his brown eyes warmed and darkened like melted chocolate as he looked straight at her. ‘You’re not interrupting, Rose.’

A rush of pleasure flooded through her and she could feel a faint blush stealing over her pale cheeks. He remembered her name!

She stopped next to Lila’s bed before realising she should have continued to the opposite side. She was standing far too close to him. Her head barely reached his shoulders, if she turned her head towards him all she could see was the powerful breadth of his chest, if she looked down she got an eyeful of a narrow waist and long, lean legs. If she breathed in she could smell him. He smelt clean and fresh as if he’d not long been out of the shower, and his scent overrode the antiseptic smell of the hospital.

Her heart was racing, making her hands shake. She wasn’t sure why but he really unsettled her and she was unbelievably nervous. As she reached forwards to pass the pencils and sketch pad to Lila the tin slid from her moist hands. The lid popped off as the tin hit the ground and pencils spilled across the floor around their feet.

His reaction time was faster than hers. He crouched down and gathered the pencils up as she stood there trying to work out what had just happened. His head was level with her knees and she could look down onto the top of his head. His hair was cut short but thick and she had a sudden urge to reach out and thread her fingers through it. She curled her fingers into a fist at her side to resist the temptation.

He stood and handed her the pencils but the touch of his fingers sent a jolt of awareness through her that was so strong she almost dropped the pencils a second time.

Maybe it had been a mistake coming here. She was well and truly disconcerted and had lost all trace of coherent thought.

‘I can’t stay,’ she said as she finally managed to put the pencils and sketch book on the end of Lila’s bed. ‘These are for you,’ she said before she bolted for the door.

Lila’s father followed her from the ward. She didn’t turn around but she could feel him behind her. Her whole body was tense, her nerves taut, fighting against her as she tried to walk away.

‘Wait!’

Her steps slowed of their own accord as he called to her and then he was beside her, his hand on her elbow, sending her heart crazy. She turned to face him.

‘Thank you for getting those pencils for Lila.’

She was looking into a pair of eyes that were so dark she could see her own reflection. Her eyes were wide, startled, and she knew that he had caused that look, his touch had sent her body wild.

‘I meant to bring her things with me,’ he said. ‘She asked me to, but with all the other hundred things I had to organise to get away I forgot. Her brothers have been acting up, they’re missing Lila and upset with me for leaving them behind, and with all their carry-on I got completely distracted and forgot to pack Lila’s things.’ He paused to take a breath and gave her a half-smile along with a slight shrug of his shoulders. ‘But you don’t want to hear about all of that.’

Oh, but she did. She wanted to know everything.

***

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – No Job for a Girl, by Meredith Appleyard

Chapter 1

xno-job-for-a-girl.jpg.pagespeed.ic.srNlgeGzMFIf there’d been any other way, Leah would have taken it, welcomed it with open arms. But there wasn’t. She rolled her tongue around her mouth, trying to make enough moisture to swallow, and scrubbed sweaty palms across denim-clad thighs.

Another patch of rough air and the tiny twin-engine plane dropped like a stone. Leah’s stomach lurched into her throat; hands flew to the armrests, knuckles blanching. Cold sweat prickled between her shoulder blades. Being buffeted about in a small aluminium capsule thousands of metres above sea level had just rocketed to the top of her list of least favourite pastimes.

She risked a look sideways. The man crammed into the seat across the narrow aisle hadn’t even looked up from the Guns & Ammo magazine spread across his lap. Her gaze darted around the small cabin and the remaining four occupants appeared just as unperturbed. And the pilot was laughing and chatting to the passenger in the seat beside him.

The moisture she’d been searching for moments before flooded her mouth when the Piper Chieftain shook and shuddered like a boat tossed about on a wild sea. More of this and her hastily eaten breakfast would reappear. Were the experts lying when they said air turbulence wasn’t that dangerous?

She plunged her hand into the seat pocket but came up empty. Great. No airsickness bag. She did a rapid inventory of the contents of her hand luggage. The only bag she had was the canvas carryall.

Her eyes watered. She licked her lips and swallowed hard, held onto the armrests until her fingers ached, silently drafting her eulogy. Always did her best . . . Not afraid to stand up for what she believed in . . . Scared witless by turbulence when flying in small aircraft.

The pilot’s voice sputtered through the tinny intercom. ‘Apologies for the bumpy ride, folks. It shouldn’t be much longer. Keep yourselves belted in and I’ll see what I can do.’

The small plane bounced and chopped some more. Leah squeezed her eyes shut, mentally rehearsed the brace position and hung on. After what felt like an eternity, the twin engines changed pitch and the flight smoothed. With considerable effort she relaxed the death grip she had on the armrests, flexing her fingers.

She would have to get used to this. Flying in a small aircraft was the way she’d get to and from work for the next months. Being sick in her own lap or, worse, onto the bloke sitting next to her wouldn’t be a stellar start to what was already a tenuous position.

Leah made herself look out the tiny Plexiglass window. She tried to concentrate on the dry watercourses snaking their way through the desert below instead of rehashing, for the umpteenth time, her final interview with Cameron Crawley, the Head of Safety, Security and Environment.

She scanned the blindingly bright salt pans, the intermittent drifts of red sand. But there it was again, that interview . . . The man in his slick-looking suit with his thinly veiled misogyny; an attitude at odds with his age and his position in the company. Cameron Crawley had looked younger than Leah’s thirty-eight years, and although she’d bumped up against similar prejudice before, it had usually been from the more senior, blue-collar male workers.

The horizon flatlined into infinity. She pushed against the ache that tightened her throat. In the interview he’d made his position abundantly clear, more by what he hadn’t said than what he had. He would have preferred the job went to someone, anyone, with more testosterone. He’d kept reiterating how rough and tough the construction fly camps were for men, the subtext being how did she think she’d survive out there? Few women did, and only by being as rough and tough as their male counterparts.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – Their Meant-to-be-Baby, by Caroline Anderson

CHAPTER ONE

0217-9781488020285-bigw‘Someone bail on you?’

The low voice sent a quiver through her, making every nerve-ending tingle. She knew whose it was. He’d been sitting at the other end of the bar and he’d been watching her since she walked in.

She’d noticed him straight away—hard not to, with those killer looks and a body to die for—but she wasn’t looking for that kind of trouble so she’d ignored him, even though she’d been aware of him in every cell of her body. She slid her phone into the back pocket of her jeans and tilted her head back to meet his eyes.

Close to, she could see they were blue—a pale, ice blue, strangely piercing and unsettling.

There were crow’s feet at the corners that might have been from laughter, or spending a lot of time outdoors squinting into the sun. Both, maybe. He had that healthy outdoor look about him, a sort of raw masculinity that sent another shiver through her body, and she lowered her eyes a little and focused instead on a mouth that was just made for kissing…

No! No way. She pulled herself together sharply. She was done with that—with all of it. She went back to the unsettling eyes.

‘Is that your best shot? I’ve had better chat-up lines from a ten-year-old.’

Her voice sounded more brittle than she’d meant it to, but he just laughed, a soft huff of wry humour which reeled her in just a teensy bit, and those lips tilted into a smile that creased the corners of his eyes and made them suddenly less threatening.

‘Sorry. I wasn’t trying to hit on you. I just read the expression on your face when you answered your phone. Sort of “so what do I do now?” which is pretty much what I was trying to work out myself.’

Unlikely. Why would anyone that gorgeous have any difficulty working out what to do on a Saturday night? Not that she was interested, or cared at all about this total stranger, but that sinful mouth quirked again and something inside her lurched.

‘I take it your other half’s busy tonight, then,’ she said, telling herself it was utterly irrelevant since this was going nowhere, but his mouth firmed and for a moment she didn’t think he was going to answer. Then it twitched in a rueful smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

‘No other half,’ he said quietly, and his voice had a tinge of sadness which made her believe him. ‘The friends I’ve been staying with had something else on tonight, and I’ve got to hang on till tomorrow so I’m just killing time in a strange town, really. How about you?’

It begged an answer, and not even she was that churlish. ‘I was meeting a friend,’ she offered reluctantly, ‘but she’s been called into work.’

‘Ah. My friends are having way more fun than that. They’ve gone to a party, so I was well and truly trumped.’

He smiled again, a wry, easy grin this time, and hitched his lean frame onto the bar stool beside her and caught the barman’s eye. ‘So, can I get you a drink? Since we both seem to have time on our hands?’

She did, but she didn’t want to spend it with a man, and particularly not a man with trouble written all over him. She was sworn off that type for life—and probably every other type, since she was such a lousy judge of character. And gorgeous though he was, it wasn’t enough to weaken her resolve. Out of the frying pan and all that. But she had to give him full marks for persistence, and at least he was single. That was an improvement.

He was still waiting for her answer, the barman poised in suspense, and she gave a tiny shrug. She could have one drink. What harm could it do? Especially if she kept her head for a change. And it wasn’t as if she had anything else to do apart from tackling the mountain of laundry in her bedroom.

She let herself meet his eyes again, those curious pale eyes that locked with hers, beautiful but unnerving, holding hers against her will. They made her feel vulnerable—raw and exposed, as if they could see things about her that no one was meant to see.

Which makes having a drink with him a really bad idea.

She mentally deleted the name of the lethal cocktail she might have shared with Petra and switched to something sensible. Something safe.

‘I’ll have sparkling water, please.’

One eyebrow quirked, but he nodded to the barman and asked for two. So he wasn’t drinking, either.

‘I’m Sam, by the way,’ he said, offering his hand.

‘I’m Kate,’ she replied, and, because he hadn’t really left her any choice, she put her hand in his and felt it engulfed in something warm and nameless that brought her whole body to life. Their eyes clashed again, and after a breathless second he released his grip and she eased away and shifted on the bar stool, resisting the urge to scrub her hand against her thigh to wipe the tingle off her palm.

‘So, Kate, how come you’re living in Yoxburgh?’

‘What makes you think I’m not passing through like you?’

His mouth twitched. ‘On the way to where? It’s stuck out on a limb. And anyway, the barman knows you. He greeted you like an old friend when you walked in.’

His smile was irresistible, and she felt her lips shift without permission. ‘Hardly an old friend, but fair cop. I do live here. Why is that so hard to believe?’

He shrugged, his eyes still crinkled at the corners. ‘Because you’re young, you’re—’ he glanced at her ring finger pointedly ‘—apparently single, and it’s just a sleepy little backwater on the edge of nowhere?’

It wasn’t, not really, but it had a safeness about it which was why she’d chosen it, exactly because it felt like a quiet backwater and she’d thought it might keep her heart out of trouble. Except it hadn’t worked.

She ignored the comment about her being single and focused on Yoxburgh. ‘Actually, it’s a great place, not nearly as quiet as you’d think, and anyway I love being by the sea.’

‘Yeah, me, too. It’s been great staying up here for the last couple of days. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed the sea.’

‘So how long are you here for?’ she asked, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to be showing an interest.‘Only till tomorrow morning. I spotted a boat for sale just as I was leaving this afternoon, and the guy can’t see me till the morning, so I’m staying over to see if I can strike a deal.’

‘What kind of a boat?’ she asked, telling herself she was just being polite and wasn’t really interested in the boat or anything else about him, like where he was staying or how he was going to pass the next twelve hours—

‘An old sailing boat. A wooden Peter Duck ketch—’ He broke off with a grin. ‘I’ve lost you, haven’t I?’

‘Yup.’ She had to laugh at his wry chuckle. ‘Go on.’

‘Nah, I won’t bore you. If you don’t know anything about Swallows and Amazons it won’t mean a thing. Anyway, it needs work, but that’s fine. It’ll help pass the time, and I’m not afraid of hard physical work.’

She just stopped herself from scanning his body for tell-tale muscles.

‘So what do you do when you’re not rescuing old sailing boats?’ she asked, against her better judgement. Not that she had a better judgement. Her entire life was a testament to that and she was still hurting from the last time she’d crashed and burned, but her tongue obviously hadn’t learned that lesson yet.

He gave a lazy shrug, which distracted her attention from his kissable mouth to those broad, solid shoulders just made for resting her head against.

‘Nothing exciting. I spend most of my life trapped indoors governed by unmeetable targets, and I sail whenever I get a chance, which isn’t nearly often enough. Hence the boat. Your turn.’

‘Me?’ She let out a slightly strangled laugh and shifted on the bar stool. For some reason, she didn’t want to tell him the truth. Maybe because she was sick of men running their latest symptoms by her or fantasising about her in uniform the second they knew she was a nurse, or maybe something to do with her latest mistake who’d moved on to someone brainless and overtly sexy when she’d found out he was married and dumped him? Whatever, she opened her mouth and said the first thing that came into her head.

‘I’m a glamour model,’ she lied, and his eyebrows twitched ever so slightly in surprise.

‘Well, that’s a first,’ he murmured, and to his credit he didn’t let his eyes drop and scan her body the way she’d wanted to scan his. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

No. She’d hated it, for the massively short time she’d done it all those years ago, when she’d landed in the real world with a bump. Another mistake, but one forced on her by hunger and desperation.

‘It pays the bills,’ she said. Or it had, way back then.

He didn’t bother to control his eyebrows this time. ‘Lots of things pay the bills.’

‘You disapprove?’

‘It’s not my place to disapprove. It’s none of my business. I just can’t imagine why someone with a brain would want to do it.’

‘Maybe I don’t have one?’

He snorted softly and picked up his glass. ‘I don’t think that’s quite true.’ He sat back, propping his elbow on the bar and slouching back against it. ‘So, when you’re not cavorting around in not a lot, what do you do for fun?’

She shrugged. ‘Meet up with friends, read, go for walks, bake cakes and take them into work—’

‘Cakes? You take cakes to the studio?’

Oh, hell, she was such a hopeless liar. ‘Why not?’ she flannelled airily. ‘Everyone likes cake.’

‘I thought models starved themselves.’

Ah. ‘That’s fashion models,’ she said, ad-libbing like crazy. ‘One reason why I could never do it. Glamour models are expected to have…’

She dwindled to a halt, kicking herself for engineering such a ridiculous conversation, and he finished the sentence for her.

‘Curves?’ he murmured, his voice lingering on the word and making her body flush slowly from the toes up.

‘Exactly.’

His eyes did drop this time, and she felt the urge to suck in her stomach. She had no idea why. He wasn’t looking at her stomach. He was way too busy studying her cleavage.

His eyes flicked away, and he drained his glass and set it down with a little clunk. ‘Have you eaten? All this talk of cake has reminded me I’m starving.’

She was all set to lie again, but she was ravenous and if she didn’t eat soon she was going to fall off the bar stool. Not a good look.

‘No, I haven’t eaten. Why?’

‘Because I was debating getting something off the bar menu here, or going to a restaurant on my own, which frankly doesn’t appeal. So what’s it to be? Solitary scampi and chips here, or shall we go somewhere rather nicer and work on your curves? It would be a shame to let them fade away.’

No contest. She was starving and her fridge was utterly empty. ‘Just dinner, no subtext,’ she warned, just to be on the safe side after his comment about her curves, and he gave a strangled laugh.

‘Sheesh, I don’t work that fast,’ he said with a grin. ‘So, any suggestions for somewhere nice?’

Nice? Only one really great place sprang to mind, and judging by the cashmere jumper under the battered but undoubtedly expensive leather jacket he could afford it, but James and Connie were at Zacharelli’s, and the last thing she needed was her boss asking questions on Monday morning. And anyway, they didn’t stand a chance without a reservation and they were like gold dust.

His phone beeped and he pulled it out with a murmured apology and scrolled around for a moment. It gave her time to study him, to notice little things that she hadn’t registered before, like the strength in his hands, the fact that he took care of them, the nails clipped and scrupulously clean. His hair was short, but not too short, and his jaw was stubbled, making her hand itch to feel the bristles rasp against her skin, right before she threaded her fingers through that dark, glossy hair and drew his head down to kiss his delectably decadent mouth…

‘Sorry. I’ve turned it off now,’ he told her, shifting his hips so he could slide the phone back into the pocket of his jeans. The movement drew her attention down, and she felt her mouth dry. ‘So, any suggestions?’ he asked.

Her body was screaming with suggestions, but she drowned it out. ‘There’s a nice Chinese restaurant on the front? In fact there are a few good eateries of one sort or another down there, so we should find somewhere with a table.’

‘Well, let’s go and check them out, then.’ He stood up, held a hand out to her to help her off the stool and she took it, struck first by the old fashioned courtesy of the gesture and then, as their skin met for the second time, by the lightning bolt of heat that slammed through her body at the brief contact.

She all but snatched her hand away, and then a moment later she felt a light touch over the small of her back as he ushered her through the crowd towards the door. She fastened her short jacket but his hand was just below it, the warmth spreading out to the furthest reaches of her body until there wasn’t a single cell that wasn’t tingling.

Oh, why hadn’t she said no? This was such a mistake!

‘Walk or drive? My car’s just round the corner at the hotel if we need it.’

‘Oh—walk. I know it’s cold, but it’s a nice evening for January, and it’s not far.’ And the confines of a car would be way too intimate and dangerous.

‘OK. You’ll have to lead the way. I’m in your hands.’

I wish…

She hauled in a breath and set off towards the sea front, and he fell in beside her, matching the length of his stride to hers as they strolled down through the town centre, their breath frosting on the cold night air.

‘So what’s Yoxburgh like to live in?’ he asked casually, peering through the shop windows as if he could find the answer in their unlit depths.

‘OK. Quiet, mostly, but there’s a lot going on even so and there’s an interesting vibe. I like it. It suits me.’

He turned back to eye her searchingly. ‘You wouldn’t rather be in London?’

No way. She’d lived in London all her life, worked there while she was training, and hated every second of it. ‘No. You?’

‘Oh, no, I hate it. I’ve been working there for a while now and I can’t get away quick enough. I need a seaside town with good sailing like the one I grew up in.’

‘You’d love it here, then. Lots of yachting types.’

He shot her a grin. ‘I don’t know that I’d call myself a “yachting” type, exactly. I just like messing about in boats. I was reared on Swallows and Amazons. Free spirits and all that. I guess I’m just trying to recapture my misspent youth.’

She laughed and shook her head. ‘I bet you were a holy terror growing up.’

His mouth twitched. ‘My parents would have an opinion on that but they didn’t know the half of it. The most important lesson I learned in childhood was that you can break any rule you like, just so long as you don’t get caught. What about you?’

What about her? She’d broken every rule going during her own disastrous childhood, but she wasn’t going into all that with him, and certainly not on a first date. She forced herself to meet his eyes. ‘I had my ups and downs.’

‘Didn’t we all?’ he said with an easy laugh. ‘I got sent to boarding school when I was ten.’

Which just underlined the differences between them, she thought. Not that it changed anything, because as soon as they’d finished dinner she’d make her excuses and leave, and that would be it.

She stopped outside the restaurant. ‘Here we are, but it looks pretty busy.’

‘The town’s buzzing,’ he said, sounding surprised.

‘Saturday night, though. It’s quieter mid-week. There’s the café next door if they don’t have a table here—they do great pastries and really good coffee, so we could give it a try— Oh, hang on, those people are getting up. We could be in luck.’

He opened the restaurant door for her, and they were shown to the window table that had been vacated by the couple.

‘That was good timing,’ he said. ‘I’m seriously starving and it smells amazing in here. So what would you recommend?’ he asked, flicking the menu open.

‘They do a good set meal for two, but it’s quite a lot of food. We often stretch it to three. Here.’

She reached over and pointed it out, and he scanned it and nodded. ‘Looks good. Let’s go for that. I’m sure we can manage to do it justice. Do you fancy sharing a bottle of wine as we’re not driving?’

Did she? Could she trust herself not to lose her common sense and do something rash?

‘That would be lovely, but I’ll only have one glass,’ she said, and ignored the little voice that told her it was the thin end of the wedge.

*

‘That was gorgeous. Thank you. I’ve eaten way too much.’

‘Nah, you need to maintain your curves,’ he said lightly, and looked down at her, at the wide grey eyes that wanted to be wary and didn’t manage it, the slight tilt of her smile, her lips soft and moist and dangerously kissable.

Who was she?

Not a glamour model, of that he was damn sure, but beyond that he knew nothing. Did it matter? He hadn’t been exactly forthcoming to her, either, but hey.

He leant over and kissed her cheek, brushing his lips against the soft, delicate skin, breathing in a lingering trace of scent that teased his senses and made him want more.

Much more.

‘Thank you for joining me. I hate eating alone.’

‘I’m used to it,’ she said. ‘My flatmate’s moved out and it’s eat alone or starve.’

They fell silent, in that awkward moment when they should have said goodbye and gone their separate ways, but he realised he didn’t want to. Didn’t want to say goodbye, didn’t want to let her go, knowing he’d never see her again.

‘Fancy a stroll along the sea front?’

There was a slight hesitation, and then she smiled. ‘Why not?’ she said, as if she’d answered her own question. ‘I love the sound of the sea at night.’

‘Me, too.’

They fell into step, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to put his arm around her shoulders and draw her up against his side, but he could hear the click of her red stiletto boots against the prom with every step, and it was driving him crazy.

Red shoes, no pants…

The saying echoed in his head, taunting his imagination, and he tried to haul it back into order. They weren’t really shoes anyway, he told himself sternly, more ankle boots, and her underwear was none of his business, but her hip nudged his with every step and it was all he could think about.

They’d walked past the cluster of restaurants and cafés and holiday flats to where the amusements started, but being out of season everything was shut and it was deserted, with nothing and no one to distract him from the click of her red stilettos.

The lights there were dim and spaced far apart, and between them there was a section of the prom that was hardly lit at all, only enough to make out her features as he drew her to a halt.

‘Listen,’ he said, and she tilted her head and listened with him to the soft suck of the waves on the shingle, rhythmic and soothing. In the distance someone laughed, and music blared momentarily as a car passed them and turned the corner, the silence wrapping itself around them again as the music receded.

‘The sea’s quiet tonight,’ she said softly. ‘Sometimes it’s really stormy. I love it then. Wild and dangerous and free.’

‘Mmm.’ He stared down into her eyes, lifting a hand to stroke a stray wisp of hair away from her face. Her skin was soft, cool under his fingertips, and he let them drift down her cheek, settling under her chin and tilting it up towards him as he lowered his head slowly and touched his lips to hers.

She moaned softly and opened her mouth to him, giving him access to the touch of her tongue, the sharp, clean edge of her teeth, the sweet freshness and bitter chocolate of the after-dinner mint teasing his tastebuds as he shifted his head slightly and plundered the depth and heat of her mouth.

His body was already primed by the time he’d spent with her as they’d lingered laughing over their meal, tortured further by the nudge of her hip and the tap-tap-tap of those incredibly sexy little boots on the prom as they’d walked, and now it roared to life.

He drew away, lifting his head from hers, searching her face for clues as his heart pounded and his chest rose and fell with every ragged breath, but it was too dark to read her eyes. He could hear the hitch of her breath, though, feel the quiver in it as she exhaled and her breath drifted over his skin in tiny pulses.

‘Stay with me tonight,’ he said on impulse, and she hesitated for so long he felt the sinking disappointment in his gut; but then she smiled, a wry, sad smile as she lost some internal battle and nodded.

‘Your place or mine?’ she murmured, and his body gave itself a high five.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt Wednesday-Alejandro’s Sexy Secret by Amy Ruttan

Okay, maybe it’s no real secret what Alejandro’s Sexy Secret is. I mean, if you the blurb you sort of know.

medical2Alejandro is the youngest of the Valentino brothers and some sites list my book as the first book in the Hot Latin Docs, but I’m actually book two of four. And I have to say this was so much fun to write. I know, I know I keep saying that, but it’s true. I just loved working with Annie, Amalie & Tina.

We created the “ugly” brothers, as they affectionately refer to one another and we’re the “ugly” sisters. And yeah, there’s more stuff from us in the works, we just have to get our crazy squirrels in a row (we don’t have ducks).

Last week Annie had you pull up a chair at Mad Ron’s, but since this is Alejandro, he’d like you to take a seat while he shares his routine with you! 😉

 

KIRI WAS WALKING the halls of a darkened Buena Vista. She’d been working late again and as she walked she realized that no one else was around.

What was going on?

She turned and the lights dimmed. Alejandro was at the end of the hall dressed in a suit, his head lowered, his hands behind his back. She was completely confused.

“Dr. Valentino?”

Music started and he began to dance. Just like that night in his hotel room in Vegas. Right down to the same suit.

Kiri sat down in a chair that suddenly appeared. She wanted to tell him to stop dancing, that it wasn’t appropriate to do his routine in the hospital, but she lost her voice and suddenly it didn’t matter that he was doing this in the hospital.

She was transfixed as he undid the knot in his tie, slowly pulling it off. Those dark eyes were glittering in the dim light and were focused on her. Holding her captive.

Kiri realized then she was at his mercy. Her body thrummed with need as he pulled off his jacket and shirt. She ran her hands over his body, over his hard, rippling muscles. Then he leaned over her, his lips brushing her ear.

“Mi tesoro,” he whispered. “I want you forever. Always. Only you.”

She closed her eyes and waited for a kiss.

Instead a blaring noise echoed in the hall and he moved away…

Kiri woke with a start. Her alarm clock was going off. It startled her and as she groggily reached for her glasses, she fumbled to find the alarm and shut it off.
With a sigh she sank back into the pillows. Sunshine was peeking in through the venetian blinds that covered the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows in her apartment bedroom.

“Good Lord,” she groaned. Alejandro was invading her dreams again and even though it had just been a dream her body was craving the kiss she’d been waiting for. The kiss that was in her imagination. She hadn’t had an erotic dream about Alejandro in a long time.

Any dreams she’d usually had about him since the miscarriage had brought tears to her eyes and reminded her of what she’d lost. What she’d been denied.

So dreams about him were more like nightmares.

Except for the one she’d just had, which still made her blood burn with need.

–Excerpt Alejandro’s Sexy Secret, Available Now!

You can find out more about Amy at her website or follow her on Twitter.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Santiago’s Convient Excerpt!

medical3 Hola everyone! It’s time to salt up your margarita glass or down a Cuban coffee as it is Valentino Brother o’clock. I’ve got an excerpt here from a couple of chapters in. There has already been a “meet” between our hero (Santiago) and heroine (Saoirse – pronounced Seer-shuh)….but only during work hours.

The action has moved to local Miami Cantina, Mad Ron’s where things are a bit more relaxed…or are they? (I think I might’e messed up the spacing on this so apologies in advance!)

 

“Here you are, mija.”

Saoirse reached out both hands to take the iced glass, loaded to the brim with a freshly whizzed margarita. With salt. It was a take-no-prisoners cocktail and about as well deserved as end-of-day drinks got.

“Your parents named you well, Ángel!” She gave the bartender a grateful smile. It had been a lo-o-o-ng day. New Year’s Day celebrations seemed to have lasted two weeks in Miami. One of their patients had only been adorned in a swirl of glittery tinsel. Didn’t he know it was bad luck to leave his decorations up so long? Or take quite so many little “magic” pills? It was one way to start the New Year with a bang. His girlfriend had looked exhausted.

“Murph!”

She looked up, scanning the growing crowd, eyes eventually landing on her friend Amanda waving to her from the entryway to the patio, arm crooking in a get your booty over here now arc. She took a huge glug of the margarita, convincing herself it was to make sure the drink didn’t spill as she wove her way through Mad Ron’s Cantina to the picnic-table-filled, blue-tiled garden area already overflowing with well-wishers for Joe. She’d been lucky when she’d landed him as a mentor in her work-study program. The guy had seen it all. Not to mention the fact that, forty years on, an ambulance had helped him accrue a vast pool of friends. The place was heaving.

“Hey, girl! What took you so long?” Amanda gave her one of those American half hug things she was growing to like. Irish people weren’t huggy like this, but after the day… No. Make that the year she’d had? The blossoming friendship was a much-needed soul salve.

“I wanted to stop by the hospital to check on a patient.”

“Oh? Bit of a hottie, was he?”

Saoirse snorted. Mostly to cover up the fact it had been the roadside stranger she’d been hoping to see, not the tattoo-covered vet they’d saved.

“Not so much. But he’d been out a long time—cardiac arrest—and I wanted to see what his recovery was like. Curiosity. Never seen a guy make it through who’d had over twenty minutes of compressions.”

“You did that? Twenty minutes?” She blew on her fingers in a color-me-impressed move.

“Don’t be mad!” Saoirse waved away the suggestion, trying to shake the “the mental image of Mr. Mysterioso’s very fine forearms as she did. She had a thing for forearms and his had launched straight to Number One on the Forearms of the Week list. Not that she actually kept a list or anything. She blinked away the image and forced herself to focus on Amanda. “No mad compressions for me. I would’ve stuck my magic electric shockers on him straight away.” She made her best crazed-scientist face to prove it was true.

“You’re such a diligent little paramedic, aren’t you?” The verbal gibe was accompanied by an elbow in the ribs.

Saoirse jabbed her back and laughed. “Hey! Don’t be shortist!”

“As long as you promise not to be tallist!”

They clinked glasses with a satisfying guffaw. Amanda towered over Saoirse and rarely missed a moment to comment on her friend’s diminutive stature. Just about the only person in the world who could.

A swift jab of pain shot through her heart at the memory of her fiancé—ex! Ex, ex, ex! Ex-fiancé resting his head on top of hers. To think it had made her feel safe! What a sucker. She shook off the scowl the memory elicited and replaced it with a goofy smile when she saw Amanda’s questioning look. The woman had laser vision right into her soul. “Wouldn’t it just be my luck to come across the lippiest desk nurse in the whole of Miami?”

“Not everyone’s prepared to take all your blarney, Murph. Fess up. Why were you really at the hospital? Don’t tell me you’re a margarita behind the rest of us just because of quizzical interest. You got exams coming up or something“?

Saoirse avoided the light-saber gaze her friend was shooting at her and took another thirst-quenching glug, a shiver juddering through her as the ice hit her system.

“Oh. My. Word.” Amanda’s eyes were well and truly cemented across the heaving garden. Saoirse’s shoulders dropped. Phew. Dodged a bullet. Looked like eye candy had saved the day.

“Three o’clock,” Amanda murmured. “Tall, dark and too freakin’ sexy for the word sexy. I’m going to get a cavity in my eye from the sweetness of this man. Murph—what’s better than sexy?”

Mr. Mysterioso popped into her head and quite a few words jostled for pole position. “Edible? Scrumptious? Lip-lickingly perfect? Luscious?”

Hmm…there was a bit of a food theme going on here. Couldn’t have anything to do with the perfect caramel color of the knight in shining motorcycle gear’s forearms, could it?

“Luscious,” Amanda repeated, her voice all soft and swoony. Was she remembering she was happily married?

“Three o’clock?” Saoirse had to at least take a glimpse. Looking never hurt, right? It was the feeling part that hurt—and she wouldn’t go down that stupid, heart-crushing path again.

Her eyes flitted from face to face, none of them fitting into the knee-weakening territory Amanda’s stranger clearly dominated. “I can’t see him!”

“Get up on the picnic bench, then.” Amanda didn’t wait for Saoirse to protest, all but lifting her up and aiming her toward the entryway. “You’ve got to get a look. This guy could fill up a calendar all by his lonesome. Then they’d have to make up some more months just for fun… Can you imagine it? Mr Yes-Ma’am-uary!” She gave a military salute before giving Saoirse an additional prod to hurry her up on her quest to steady herself on the bench seat.

“For crying out loud, Amanda. Quit your pushing, will you? I can get on the bench by myself—Oh…”

They said lightning never struck twice. But that had been disproved. And today was blasting another hole in the theory.

“You see what I mean?”

Did she ever? And when Saoirse’s eyes connected with the object of their evaluation…she needed to get down from the bench. Quick smart.

“He’s all right. I’ve seen better.” Saoirse jumped down and took another spine-juddering slurp of her icy drink. Her jets needed cooling. Big time.

“You’ve gone mental.” Amanda’s jaw all but dropped in disbelief. “The man rocks it!”

“Rocks what exactly?” Saoirse went for a dismissive snort and ended up cough-choking. Awesomely sexy. Not.

Okay. So she didn’t really need to ask the question because she knew exactly what he rocked. And it wasn’t just her boat. He was rocking her tummy. Which was currently doing some sort of loopy ribbon-twirling fest thing with the half of margarita it had inside it. He was rocking her heart. Which seemed to have kicked up a notch—or seventeen—in the pace department. Her entire nervous system was experiencing a takeover as if he were playing a goose-bump xylophone along her arms…then down her back and in a sort of heated swirl around her—

“Uh.” Amanda pressed a hand to her friend’s forehead. “Are you sure you weren’t at the hospital to make sure you aren’t going clinically insane?” She drew out the last word just to make super sure Saoirse knew her friend thought she was nuts. “How on earth are we ever going to find you a hot boyfriend to marry in the next two months if your taste in men is so weird as to not find that amazing specimen of a man…?” Her hand shot out in a pointy gesture and made contact. With a chest. A chest Saoirse had already had the good fortune to stare at for some length of time earlier that day.

Amanda’s jaw dropped again.

“Miss Murphy. We meet again.”

“YOU KNOW HIM?

That’s what Amanda’s wide-eyed look said. And then she said it out loud for good measure.

“Ha!” Saoirse barked. “No.”

Saoirse’s eyes darted between her friend and Mr. Mysterioso. This was awkward. Why wasn’t the earth being kindly for once and swallowing her up in a freak sinkhole incident? Now would be a pretty good time for Mother Nature to intervene if she was ever going to show her largesse. She hadn’t bothered when her fiancé had left her standing at the altar like a complete and utter ninny in a ridiculous meringue of a dress… Well…it had rained a lot so it had masked the tears, but Hop to it Mummy Nature—now’s your chance to make things right!

“Santiago.”

He stretched his hand forward toward Saoirse, who ignored it, and then to Amanda, who—after exclaiming how fun it was that he was a lefty—took it, gave it a stroke with her other hand to check for a ring and shook it in slow motion, all the while mouthing to Saoirse “You know him?”

“Santi, if Santiago’s too much of a mouthful.”

The comment was aimed directly at her. And elicited some images that would’ve sent a nun straight to the burning flames place.

Saoirse drained her glass. It wasn’t ladylike and rocketed a brain freeze straight to the neurotransmitters that would’ve helped her with witty rebuttals, but…tough. Mr. Created-for-Calendars here had made an impact and she’d been working long and hard on the impenetrable fortress built around her heart, not to mention her—ahem—golden triangle. Or whatever it was called these days. ”

 

Excerpt From: Annie O’Neil. “Santiago’s Convenient Fiancée.” iBooks.

 

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – The Doctor’s Diamond Proposal by Annie Claydon

Some time ago now, I had a conversation via Facebook with the very lovely Lynne Marshall and the equally lovely Kate Hardy.  Lynne had managed to include Zombies into her latest Medical Romance, and we were reminded of Kate’s venture into the world of Plague Squirrels.  In an attempt to keep up, I mentioned that I’d included a little Space Opera in my latest work-in-progress 🙂

I had enormous fun with this first chapter of The Doctor’s Diamond Proposal which is available from all the usual outlets from 1st January.  (And for those of you who aren’t fans of space opera – may I reassure you that my hero and heroine come back down to earth with a bump in Chapter Two!)

9781474051262CHAPTER ONE

Ten years ago…

The party had got off to a slow start, but by eleven o’clock the house was packed with people and Leo Cross was beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable in his costume.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Orion Shift was less of a TV show to the six medical students who shared the sprawling house in West London and more of a Friday evening ritual. The one hour in the week that didn’t belong to study, girlfriends or the urgent need for sleep. So what better way to celebrate their third year exam results than decorate the living room with as much tinfoil as they could get their hands on and suspend inflatable planets from the ceiling?

Dressing up as the crew of the interstellar spacecraft Orion Shift had been the next logical step. But a hot summer’s evening wasn’t really the time to be wearing a heavy jacket with a high collar, and Leo was beginning to wish that personal temperature regulation fields really had been invented.

A girl in blue body paint and a leotard sidled up to him. ‘Captain Boone! You look particularly delicious tonight.’

‘Maddie. How are you doing?’

‘You want a Tellurian cocktail?’ Maddie draped her arms around Leo’s shoulders. Clearly she and Pete had been arguing again. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable reconciliation, but at the moment Pete was on the other side of the room taking a great deal of interest in a red-haired girl dressed as a Fractalian hydra and Maddie had clearly decided that she was going to give him a taste of his own medicine.

Leo disentangled himself from Maddie’s grip. ‘No. Thanks, but…’ Just no. If Pete and Maddie wanted to play games that was fine, but Leo knew better than to get involved.

‘Leo…!’ Maddie stuck out her lower lip in a disappointed pout as he retreated quickly through the press of people.

He pushed his way to the kitchen, avoiding the usual group around the beer keg, and slipped outside into the back garden, sighing with relief as the warm breeze brushed his face. The paved space at the back of the house was packed with people, drinking and talking, and Leo made good his escape, dodging across the grass and into the pool of darkness that lay beneath the trees at the end of the garden.

He bumped into something soft and sweet-smelling and saw a flash of silvery-green luminescence. A shadow detached itself from the other shadows and stumbled into a pool of moonlight. It was Lieutenant Tara Xhu to a T.

‘Another fugitive?’ A smile played around her lips.

‘You could say that. So how did you manage to make it out of there?’

Tara—or whatever her real name was—shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. I’ve only watched one episode, and that was to get the costume right, so I don’t really know what Tara’s strategy might be.’ Her mouth twitched suddenly into a flirtatious smile. ‘So you’re Captain Boone?’

Leo’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness and the more they did so, the more he liked what he saw. She was dressed all in black, thick leggings, boots and an off the shoulder top that followed her slim curves and displayed the green scales which spread across Tara’s shoulder. A fair replica of an immobility gun was strapped to her thigh and twisted metallic strands ran round her fingers and across the back of her hands. Her dark hair was streaked with green and anchored in a spiky arrangement on the top of her head with Tara’s silver dagger pins.

Leo had been in love at first sight before, but suddenly the other times didn’t seem anything like the real thing. She raised one jewelled eyebrow and Leo realised that his gaze had been following the path of the scales that ran down the side of her face and neck and disappeared beneath her top.

‘Um… Great costume. Your scales look…really lifelike.’ Captain Thomas Boone would undoubtedly have managed something a bit more urbane, but then he had more experience of the galaxy than Leo.

‘Thanks. Iridescent body paint. I felt a bit of an idiot on the bus, on my way here.’ She grinned at him and moved back towards the old picnic bench which stood under the trees. ‘So are you really escaping something, or do you just want some fresh air?’

‘A bit of both.’ Leo sat down next to her, stretching his legs out in front of him. This replica Tara had a lightness about her movements, a kind of joy about her, which broke through the warlike quality of the real Tara’s appearance. Even though she was sitting a good two feet away from him, Leo could almost feel her warmth.

‘You live here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you must be a medical student.’

‘That’s right. Starting year four in a couple of weeks, so this’ll probably be the last party we have for a while.’

‘I hear it’s a tough year. An interesting one, though…’

That was exactly how Leo felt about it. He knew that his clinical attachment was going to be hard work, but he couldn’t wait to start putting all that he’d learned into practice. ‘What do you do?’

She shrugged. ‘Nothing at the moment. I’m just back from a year in Australia.’

‘Yeah? What’s it like?’ All Leo wanted to do right now was sit here in the darkness and listen to her talk.

She laughed. ‘Bit too big to describe in one sentence. I loved it, though.’

Leo imagined that she’d taken every moment of the last year and squeezed the very most out of it, in the same way that she seemed to be draining every drop of potential from these moments. It was infectious.

She was fiddling thoughtfully with the bright silver strands across the back of her hand. ‘Did you always want to do medicine?’

‘Yeah. My uncle’s a doctor, and when I was nine I saw him save someone’s life. That settled it for me, and there’s never been anything else I wanted to do.’

She nodded quietly. ‘So you have a calling. A mission in life.’

Sometimes, poring over his books late at night, it didn’t seem so. But Tara made it all sound like something special.

‘Yeah. Guess I do.’

‘I’m still looking for mine. There are so many possibilities and I don’t think I can settle on just one. So I’m going to be helping out on my dad’s farm for the next year while I think about putting in my university applications.’

‘You’ll find the right thing.’ Leo applied all of the weight of his twenty-one years to the problem. And all of the certainty from the last five minutes, that whatever she decided to do she’d do it wholeheartedly.

‘I suppose I will.’ She seemed to ponder the idea for a moment, then smiled suddenly. ‘Nothing like mucking out to concentrate the mind on your aspirations for the future.’

‘Would you like me to go and get you a drink?’ Leo hoped she’d say yes. That they could continue this conversation alone, out here, rather than going back to the heat and noise of the party.

‘Thanks, but no. I tried one of those blue cocktails and it was too sweet.’ She hesitated, then seemed to come to a decision. ‘That coffee bar around the corner. Think it’ll still be open?’

‘It’s open all night.’ Sweet promise stirred in Leo’s chest.

‘You fancy making a break for it, then?’

*

Theirs weren’t the most outlandish costumes amongst the coffee bar’s customers that night, but she had still tugged awkwardly at her green hair and silver jewellery. Leo had laughingly persuaded her to stay just as she was, saying that since he was dressed as a spaceship captain, it was practically expected that his First Lieutenant should be accompanying him.

They’d talked all night, fuelled by coffee and then ham and cheese toasties at three in the morning. At six, she’d refused to allow him to see her all the way home and he’d had to content himself with walking her to the bus stop.

‘May I call you?’ Leo made a silent wish that the bus wouldn’t come just yet.

‘I was hoping you would.’ She smiled at him, reaching into her jacket for her phone and reeling off the number. Leo repeated it over in his head, his fingers shaking unaccountably as he pressed the keys. He hit dial, and her phone chimed. Even her ringtone seemed fresh and full of joy.

‘That’s it.’ She rejected the call and gratifyingly saved his number.

‘Lieutenant Tara.’ Leo grinned, spelling out the words as he typed them into his phone. ‘What’s your real name, though?’

‘Alex…’ She turned as a bus drew up at the stop. ‘This one’s mine. You will call, won’t you…?’

‘Yes.’ Leo wondered whether it would be appropriate to kiss her goodbye and decided that he’d already missed his chance. The night had been perfect as it stood, a meeting of minds that had nothing to do with any alien powers, and when he kissed her he wanted enough time to do it properly. She got onto the bus, pressing her ticket against the reader, and turned to wave at him.

The bus drew away. Calling her now would be too soon. He turned to walk back home, and his phone buzzed.

May we meet in other worlds.

Her text mimicked Tara’s habitual farewell.

And get some sleep.

Leo grinned, texting back his reply, watching until the bus turned a corner and disappeared.

*

He called that evening and she didn’t reply. Perhaps she’d decided to have an early night. The next day she didn’t reply either.

Leo counted the number of calls he made, knowing that each one would show up on her phone. Half a dozen was beginning to look a little stalkerish, so he sent a text instead.

No answer. He left it a week and called again, leaving a carefully scripted voicemail and resolving that if she didn’t reply this time he’d take the hint and give up. Clearly, the gorgeous, vivacious Lieutenant Tara had decided that, of all the glittering possibilities she saw ahead of her, he wasn’t one of them. It was time to retreat gracefully and get on with the next chapter of his life.

CHAPTER TWO

Time warp to the present day…