Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt: Tempted by the Single Mum by Caroline Anderson

41mX8cT+AJL.jpgCHAPTER ONE

Why? Why today, when she was already running late before she’d even started, did someone have to make it even worse?

          She glared at the car reversing neatly into the one remaining doctors’ space—a car she didn’t recognise, and she’d never seen the driver, either. He certainly wasn’t one of their doctors, so whoever he was he had no business parking there.

          Didn’t seem to bother him. He either didn’t know, or didn’t care, but he flashed her a smile as he got out of the car, then locked it and headed for the surgery without a backward glance.

          Who did he think he was? Cocky, arrogant—argh! There weren’t words for what she felt. The expensive car, the confident stride, the easy charm—not to mention the insanely good looks. Clearly a man for whom everything had always gone his way. Well, not now. Whoever he was—probably a drug rep—he was about to get his comeuppance.

          Still fuming, she reversed into the last available space in the car park, not really wide enough but doable—or it would have been, if she hadn’t been so cross.

          She heard the scrape, closed her eyes and breathed, then shuffled the car slightly further from the offending wall, squeezed out of the ridiculously narrow gap she’d left herself, slammed the door and headed across the car park.

          Seriously, could today get any worse? Well, his could. If he was still in Reception—

          He was. He was chatting to the receptionist, leaning forward engagingly as he spoke, and that easy charm was obviously working on Katie, which just infuriated her more. His hands were shoved casually into the pockets of immaculately cut trousers that fitted his neat, strong hips to perfection. Of course they did. They wouldn’t dare do anything else.

          She eyed his shoulders, broad and yet not heavy, the legs strong and straight below firm, taut buttocks. He probably worked out in a fancy gym somewhere. You didn’t get a neat, sexy bottom like that by accident.

          She dragged her eyes up to head height.

          ‘You’ve parked in a doctor’s space,’ she said crisply to his back, keeping a lid on her temper with difficulty, and he straightened up and turned towards her, that infuriating smile still on his face.

          ‘Yes, I—’

          ‘I know parking’s tight, but that is just not on. There was another space, so why not park there yourself? Or anywhere else, frankly! Or was that the only space big enough for your ego? Thanks to you I’ve scraped my car, I’m now ten minutes late and I’ve got patients waiting!’

          An eyebrow rose a fraction. Over his shoulder she could see Katie gesturing wildly, but she ignored her and stood her ground, and he shook his head slowly.

          ‘Maybe you need to get up earlier,’ he murmured, and she stifled the urge to growl at him.

          ‘And maybe you need to learn to read!’

          ‘Ellie! Dr Kendal!’ Katie chipped in, getting to her feet and looking even more flustered, and his eyebrow went up a little further, a lazy smile now playing around his aggravatingly beautiful mouth.

          ‘I think we’d better start again,’ he said, holding out his hand, the smile tugging at his lips. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr Kendal. I’m Nick Cooper. Dr Nick Cooper.’

          The new—and desperately needed—member of their team.

          Brilliant.

          Why didn’t the ground just open up and swallow her?

*

He had to stifle his laugh.

          Her jaw sagged, and for a second she was speechless. Then she shook her head, mumbled what could have been an apology and fled through the staff door as Katie opened it, her face flaming.

          He dropped his hand back to his side, shrugged and smiled at the receptionist who was looking horrified and fascinated all at once.

          ‘So, that’s Dr Kendal,’ he murmured, vaguely intrigued.

          ‘Yes. Ellie. I’m so sorry, she’s normally lovely. I don’t know what’s got into her.’

          He pulled a face and walked through the door into the back of Reception, closing it behind himself. ‘I do. I took the last doctor’s space, and now she’s scraped her car. Oops. If I’d known who she was I would have moved, but I didn’t have a clue.’

          ‘She’s only part time, so if she wasn’t on duty when you came for your interviews you wouldn’t have met her—and she does normally walk. You weren’t to know.’

          He nodded. ‘No. Ah, well. I have no doubt we’ll have time to catch up later.’

          Katie gestured towards the other doorway, still looking flustered. ‘Come in and I’ll introduce you to the admin team, and I’m sure Dr Gallagher will be out in a minute to talk to you. I’ve let her know you’re here.’

          She led the way, and he followed her into the office and scanned it for any sign of his fiery new colleague, but she’d gone.

          Pity. Never mind. He was here all day, there was time, and he could look forward to what was bound to be an interesting conversation…

*

Why had she done that?

          Torn him to pieces without even giving him a chance to speak? And if he’d been a patient, he would have been well within his rights to complain. No, it was even better than that. He was a colleague, her senior, and she’d just hurled abuse at him in their first interaction.

          Marvellous. Just marvellous.

          Not that he’d been exactly polite himself, telling her to get up earlier. She’d been up before half five as it was to do the laundry, and if Maisie hadn’t been a diva and Evie hadn’t needed her nappy changed again and Oscar hadn’t lost one of his shoes and then had a meltdown, she wouldn’t have been late and then none of this would have happened.

          She felt her eyes prickle, and clamped her jaw shut hard, blinking furiously as she closed her consulting room door behind her and leant against it. It could have been worse. There could have been a whole bunch of patients in Reception, so at least she hadn’t had an audience while she’d made a total fool of herself.

          ‘Breathe,’ she said softly, and closed her eyes, sucking in a long, slow breath through her nose and out through her mouth. In…and out… In…and out—

          The quiet tap on the door made her jump, and she leapt away from it and wrenched it open, to find herself face to face with her worst nightmare, no doubt coming to tear her apart in private. Well, it was certainly justified, and he probably hated her already.

          Or maybe not…

          ‘Katie thought you’d want this,’ he said quietly, holding out a mug of tea without a trace of a smile, and she stared at it suspiciously.

          Beware of strangers bearing gifts…

          ‘Why are you bringing me a peace offering? I’m the one who should be apologising—or have you slipped something into it?’

          His mouth twitched. ‘Don’t tempt me,’ he murmured, and gave her a wry smile. ‘It’s not a peace offering. Katie was about to bring it to you, and I suggested I do it. I thought we could do with clearing the air.’

          She took it from him with fingers that weren’t quite steady, then made herself meet his eyes. He held her gaze, his searching, thoughtful, the smile gone now. She was quite glad she didn’t know what he was thinking…

          She felt her shoulders drop in defeat. ‘Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t know who you were, which is no excuse whatsoever, I know that, but—’ She broke off, still mortified and wondering if there was any way she could rescue the situation. ‘I hadn’t realised you were coming in today, I thought you’d be starting on Monday, so I wasn’t expecting you, I didn’t recognise you, and then you took the last reserved space, and as if that wasn’t enough I scraped my car parking by the wall, which was just the icing on the cake—’

          ‘Ellie, breathe! It’s OK. Forget it. You’re right, I am starting on Monday, I’m just having an induction today, learning the ropes a bit, finding my feet before I start. I guess nobody told you. And I’m sorry I took your parking place, but Lucy told me to park there because you usually walk to work. Obviously not today.’

          ‘No. I should have been, I nearly always do, but I got—held up,’ she said, for want of a better way of putting it.

          ‘So it seems. Parking’s tight, isn’t it? Lucy said it’s a regular occurrence with the building work going on.’

          She nodded, sighing with relief because he had every right to be unreasonable about this. ‘It is, but they should be finished soon and the builders’ vans will be gone, and not a moment too soon. Look, I’m sorry, can we do this later? I don’t mean to be rude—again—but I do have patients waiting and I’m already on the drag.’

          ‘Of course. And I’m sorry about the parking—and your car.’

          ‘Don’t be sorry. You had every right to park there, as it turns out, and I massively overreacted. And thank you for the tea. I haven’t had time for one today.’

          His eyes softened at the corners, that flickering smile sending strange little shivers through her body. ‘My pleasure,’ he murmured. ‘We’ll catch up later.’ His lips twitched again. ‘You can teach me to read, and I can teach you to tell the time.’

          She rolled her eyes. He might have forgiven her, but he clearly wasn’t going to let it drop.

          ‘Oh, I can tell the time,’ she told him wryly. ‘I was up at five twenty-seven, for what it’s worth.’

          A silent ah, and he backed out, fingers waggling. ‘Better not hold you up any more, then. I’ll see you later.’

          She nodded, and the door closed softly behind him.

          Shaking her head and wishing she could wind the clock back, she put the tea down, washed her hands and fired up her computer, her mind refusing to let go of that lazy, sexy, fleeting smile.

          Stupid. She was nearly twenty minutes late now, and it would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the day. She didn’t have time to daydream, and particularly not about a man who probably practised his smile in the mirror!

          ‘Get a grip, Ellie,’ she told herself, took a gulp of her tea and pressed the button to call her first patient.

*

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels, New Releases

Reunited By Their Secret Daughter, Emily Forbes, March 2020

3MedicalMarch

Her three-year-old secret…

…is about to be revealed!

Between her job with Queen Victoria’s Air Ambulance and raising her three-year-old daughter, midwife Chloe Larson’s too busy to find love. Only maybe love has found her… Xander Jameson—the gorgeous Australian doctor she had a fling with and who disappeared without a trace—has joined her team! The attraction is definitely still there. But first, Chloe must tell Xander he’s a father.

 

 

Excerpt

The barman served Chloe’s gin, placing it on the bar. She couldn’t believe Xander had remembered her favourite drink and the idea that he had pleased her.

Xander picked up her glass and put it in front of her. His leg brushed against hers and the contact made her jump. It was nothing really, his knee just brushed the outside of her thigh but she could feel his body heat and her body responded to his touch.

She took a sip of her drink and tried to ignore the fact that his leg was still resting against hers. Sitting at the bar with Xander felt the same but different. Familiar but strange. Things had changed. At least for Chloe. She was no longer young and carefree. She was a single mother with responsibilities. But the chemistry was still there. She was still drawn to him. She longed to touch him properly, to see if her memories were real.

He was still gorgeous. Still a Norse god. His grey eyes still held a trace of melancholy. She’d always attributed that to his divorce but surely that couldn’t still be the case. He’d been divorced almost five years now. He must have put that behind him?

She forced herself to focus on the present. She couldn’t dwell in the past.

‘How long have you been living in Wales?’ she asked when she recovered her power of speech. She was desperate to know where he’d been and what he’d been doing for the past four years but she couldn’t ask such a direct question.

He frowned, his grey eyes cloudy. ‘I don’t live in Wales.’

‘Oh, I thought Rick said you had come down from Wales to cover Eloise’s sick leave.’

‘I’ve been working in Wales with their air ambulance unit but it wasn’t permanent. It was a six-month rotation. I was glad to get out of there to be honest. I didn’t mind Wales but it wasn’t the smartest move, spending winter there. I should have timed it better.’

‘And what are your plans when you finish with us?’ she asked. She needed to find out where he was going next. Did she need to tell him about Lily if he had no plans to stay in England? Was there any point in disrupting everyone’s lives? She and Lily were fine, they’d been fine for years on their own. They didn’t need Xander and he might not need them.

He might not want them.

He might not want her.

The drink he had bought her could be for old time’s sake. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a wife or significant other waiting for him somewhere.

‘I haven’t worked it out yet.’

‘Are you travelling with family?’ she asked as the barman cleared the remnants of Xander’s dinner away.

‘No. It would seem we’re both still single. What are the chances?’

‘Coincidence?’ She said with a smile.

‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’

‘Me either.’

He was holding her gaze and she was lost. She couldn’t think. She could only feel.

He reached for her and the clocks stopped.

He tucked a stray curl behind her ear and Chloe’s knees trembled. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said as she held her breath. ‘It’s good to see you. Did I mention I’m staying just around the corner?’

The invitation was unspoken but there was no mistaking it. But she couldn’t accept. She had to get home. To her daughter. Their daughter.

‘You did.’

‘Would you like to come back for a coffee?’

Chloe smiled. ‘You know I don’t drink coffee at night.’ She wondered if he remembered that too.

‘I do.’

Her smile got wider. ‘Will you take a raincheck? I’m on an early tomorrow.’

He nodded as she slid off the barstool and picked up her coat. She needed to get out of there while she still could. Before she made a hasty, hormonal decision that she would more than likely regret when her head overtook her heart again.

‘I’ll walk you out to a cab.’

‘It’s ok, I’m taking the Tube.’

Xander shook his head. ‘No, it’s late. That doesn’t sound safe.’

‘I do it all the time after work.’

‘Really?’

She nodded as he held the door for her.

She stopped on the footpath, reluctant to walk away but knowing she had to go. A cab pulled up on the street beside them.

‘Please, let me pay for a cab,’ Xander offered. ‘I’ll feel better.’ He reached out and opened the door, ensuring the cabbie couldn’t drive away, but then he took her hand, holding her back before she could step inside.

She turned to him. Instinctively. Her breath caught in her throat as he stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb. She was pinned by the force of his grey eyes. Held immobile by the intensity of his gaze. She couldn’t breathe. The air was thick with tension. Her mouth was dry, her skin warm, her cheeks flushed. Her heart was beating quickly and her stomach was fluttering.

‘Are you sure you have to go?’

She nodded.

He bent his head until his mouth was next to her ear. His breath was warm on her cheek as he repeated her earlier words back to her. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to find out what happens next?’

She knew what was coming and she was powerless to resist. She didn’t want to resist.  She turned her face towards him and whispered. ‘I know what happens next.’ And then his lips were on hers. Warm, soft. Then harder.

She parted her lips and tasted him. He tasted familiar. He tasted sweet.

Her body remembered his touch. Her skin remembered the softness of his mouth. Her tongue remembered his taste.

The years fell away as the memory of him returned.

Xander’s fingers were on her face, on her bare arms, her skin was on fire and she melted against him as her body responded to his touch. She was aware of nothing else except the sensation of being fully alive. She wanted for nothing except Xander.

One hand was pressed to her spine, holding her close and she could feel the heat of his palm through the thin fabric of her shirt. She felt her nipples harden as she pressed herself against his chest instead as she kissed him back. All her senses came to life and a line of fire spread from her stomach to her groin. She deepened the kiss, wanting to lose herself in Xander.

‘Do you want the cab or not?’

She jumped as the cab driver’s voice interrupted their moment. Her eyes flew open as Xander straightened up. He was studying her face as if committing each of her features to memory.

He smiled as his fingers trailed down the side of her cheek sending a shiver of desire through her. Her heart was racing in her chest and her breaths were shallow.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to come back to my apartment?’

She hesitated. The kiss was wonderful. Magical. She felt as if time had stood still and brought her back to Xander, back into his arms but she couldn’t stay with him.  She had responsibilities.

‘I can’t,’ she said as she stepped back, breaking their connection. ‘You promised me a rain check, remember?’

She waited for him to agree before she made herself get into the taxi. Made herself leave him.

He closed the door and blew her a kiss.

Chloe gave the driver her address but scarcely recalled getting home. Her world suddenly felt full of possibility but she needed to be sensible. She needed to be careful not to get carried away.

Last time she got carried away she’d wound up pregnant.

***

3MedicalMarch

 

Reunited by Their Secret Daughter is available hereMills&BoonAusMills&BoonUK and Harlequin USA

Read a review here https://harlequinjunkie.com/review-reunited-by-their-secret-daughter-by-emily-forbes/

 

London Hospital Midwives quartet

Book 1 — Cinderella and the Surgeon by Scarlet Wilson
Book 2 — Miracle Baby for the Midwife by Tina Beckett
Book 3 — Reunited by Their Secret Daughter by Emily Forbes
Book 4 — A Fling to Steal Her Heart by Sue MacKay

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels, New Releases

Taming Her Hollywood Playboy, Emily Forbes, December 2019

Taming Her Hollywood Playboy, Emily Forbes, Dec 2019

My new book in time for Christmas 🙂 A taste of the Australian outback in Coober Pedy, South Australia where my hero, Hollywood actor, Oliver Harding has been sent in order to keep him out of trouble. Needless to say – it doesn’t work!

I have some photos of Coober Pedy taken on my recent visit/ research trip on my facebook page if you would like to see more.

Book available here  and Mills&BoonAus plus Mills&BoonUK and Harlequin USA have Black Friday sales (use code BLACKFRIDAY19 at checkout).

 

CHAPTER ONE

Oliver massaged the lump on the side of his head. He’d taken a couple of paracetamol for the dull headache but fortunately he’d escaped serious injury yesterday. The bump on his head and some slight bruising on his shoulder were minor complaints and he had no intention of mentioning those aches and pains. The ATV had taken a battering but could be fixed. The repairs meant a change in the filming schedule but nothing that couldn’t be accommodated. A serious injury to him would have been far more disruptive.

Despite his luck, however, the incident had made George, the director, wary and Oliver had agreed to hand over some of the stunts to the professionals. The movie couldn’t afford for anything to happen to its star and he didn’t want to get a reputation as a difficult actor. George had been good to Oliver; he’d worked with him before and he’d been happy to give him another role when other directors had been reluctant, but Oliver knew that being argumentative, disruptive or inflexible wasn’t a great way to advance a career. He wasn’t stupid, he knew actors were a dime a dozen. He wasn’t irreplaceable. No one was. A reputation as a ladies’ man was one thing; a reputation as being problematic on set was another thing entirely.

He stretched his neck from side to side as he tried to rid himself of the headache that plagued him. The schedule change caused by his accident meant he wasn’t required for filming this morning, but now he was bored. He wandered around the site, knowing that the heat was probably compounding his headache but too restless to stay indoors.

A whole community had been established temporarily in the middle of the desert just for the movie. Transportable huts were set up as the production centre, the canteen, the first-aid centre, lounge areas for the cast and crew, and Oliver, George and the lead actress all had their own motorhome to retreat to. Marquees surrounded the vehicles and more huts provided additional, and much needed, shade. The site was twenty miles out of the remote Australian outback town of Coober Pedy, which itself was over three thousand miles from the next major town or, as the Australians said, almost five hundred kilometres. No matter which way you said it, there was no denying that Coober Pedy was a mighty long way from anywhere else.

He’d been completely unprepared for the strangeness of this remote desert town. He’d imagined a flat, barren landscape but the town had sprung up in an area that was far hillier than he’d expected. The main street was tarred and lined with single-level shops and a few taller buildings, including his hotel, with the houses spreading out from the centre of town and into the hills. Along with regular houses there were also hundreds of dwellings dug into the hillsides. He’d heard that people lived underground to escape the merciless heat but he hadn’t thought about what that meant in terms of the town’s appearance; in effect, it made the town look far more sparsely populated than it actually was.

He knew he should hole up in his trailer and stay out of the heat but he wanted company.

Generators chugged away in the background, providing power for the film set, providing air-conditioning, refrigeration and technology. He was used to having a shower in his trailer but because of water restrictions apparently that was a no-go out here in the Australian desert.

If he moved far enough away from the generators he knew he would hear absolute silence. It should be peaceful, quiet, restful even, and he could understand how some people would find the solitude and the silence soul-restoring, relaxing, but it made him uneasy. He needed more stimulation. He wanted crowds, he wanted noise, he didn’t want a chance to be introspective. He was an extrovert, a performer, and as an extrovert he wanted company. He needed company to energise him and as a performer he needed an audience.

He wasn’t required on set but he decided he’d go and watch the filming anyway. It would kill some time and give him someone to talk to.

He slipped his sunglasses on as he stepped into the heat. Rounding the corner of his trailer, he heard an engine and noticed a dust cloud billowing into the air. He stood in the shade at the corner of his trailer and watched as a car pulled to a stop beside the mess hut. It was an old four-by-four, its brown paintwork covered in red dust, like everything else out here. A haze rose from the bonnet of the car, bringing to mind the story about it being hot enough in Australia to fry an egg in the sun. He believed it.

The car door opened and he waited, his natural curiosity getting the better of him, to see who climbed out.

A woman.

That was unexpected.

She stood and straightened. She was tall, slender, lithe. Her hair was thick and dark and fell just past her shoulders. He watched as she scraped it off her neck and tied it into a loose ponytail, in deference to the heat, he presumed. Her neck was long and swan-like, her limbs long and tanned.

She was stunning and the complete antithesis of what he’d expected, judging from the car she was driving. She reminded him of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

He blinked, making sure it wasn’t the after-effects of the bump to his head causing his imagination to play tricks on him.

She was still there.

She wore a navy and white summer dress, which must have been lined to mid-thigh, but from there down, with the morning sun behind her, the white sections were completely see-through. He wondered if she knew but he didn’t care—her legs were incredible. Magnificent.

Oliver was literally in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing of interest to look at. Until now. The middle of nowhere had just become a far more attractive proposition.

He watched as she walked towards him. Graceful. Ethereal. Sunglasses protected her eyes but her skin was flawless and her lips were full and painted with bright red lipstick. The shade was striking against her olive skin and raven hair.

He’d seen plenty of beautiful woman in his thirty-two years, he was surrounded by them on a daily basis, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen a woman as naturally beautiful. The ones he worked with had all had some help—a scalpel here, an injection there—and he’d swear on his father’s grave, something he hoped he would be able to do sooner rather than later, that she hadn’t had any assistance.

He watched, not moving a muscle, scared that any movement might startle her, might make her shimmer and disappear, mirage-like, into the desert.

Maybe his headache was affecting his thought processes; maybe he’d been out in the sun for too long, or simply in the outback for too long. Other than the cast and crew he’d barely seen another person for days. The hot, dusty streets of Coober Pedy were, for the most part, empty. The locals hunkered down in their underground dwellings to escape the heat, venturing out only briefly and if absolutely necessary, scampering from one building to the subterranean comfort of the next. But perhaps many of the locals looked like this. Perhaps that was the attraction in this desolate, baked and barren desert town.

She had stopped walking as her gaze scanned the buildings, looking for something or someone. Looking lost. His curiosity was piqued. His attention captured.

Her gaze landed on him and she took another step forward. Belatedly he stepped out of the shadows and walked towards her; he’d been so transfixed he’d forgotten to move, forgotten his manners, but he wanted to be the first to offer her assistance.

‘Hello, I’m Oliver; may I help you?’

She stopped and waited as he approached her.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m looking for George Murray.’ Her voice was deep and slightly breathless, without the broad Australian accent that he’d heard so many of the crew speak with. She glanced down at her watch and his eyes followed. Her watch had a large face, with the numbers clearly marked and an obvious hand counting off the seconds. Her fingers were delicate by comparison, long and slender, with short nails lacquered with clear varnish. He was trained to be observant, to watch people’s mannerisms, to listen to their voices, but even so he was aware that he was soaking up everything about this woman. From the colour of her lips and the shine of her hair, to the smooth lustre of her skin and the inflection of her speech. He wanted to be able to picture her perfectly later. She lifted her head. ‘I have an interview with him at eleven.’

‘A job interview?’

She nodded. ‘Of sorts.’

‘Are you going to be working on the film? Are you an extra?’

‘No.’

‘Catering? Publicity?’

‘No and no.’ Her mouth turned up at one corner and he got a glimpse of perfect, even white teeth bordered by those red lips.

He grinned. ‘You’re not going to tell me?’

Her smile widened and he knew she was enjoying the repartee. ‘No, I don’t think I am.’

Two could play at that game. ‘All right, then,’ he shrugged, feigning disinterest, ‘George is out on set but he shouldn’t be long. Filming started early today to try to beat the heat, so they’ll be breaking for lunch soon. Let me show you to his trailer.’ He’d take her to where she needed to go but he wouldn’t leave her.

He bounced lightly up the two steps that led to George’s office and pushed open the heavy metal door. He flicked on the lights and held the door for her. She brushed past him and her breasts lightly grazed his arm but she showed no sign that she’d noticed the contact. She stopped just inside the door and removed her sunglasses, and he caught a trace of her scent—fresh, light and fruity.

He watched as she surveyed the interior. An enormous television screen dominated the wall opposite the desk, which was covered in papers. A laptop sat open amongst the mess. A large fridge with a glass door was tucked into a corner to the left, and a couch was pressed against the opposite wall with two armchairs at right angles to it and a small coffee table in between.

He wondered if this was what she’d expected to see.

‘Have a seat,’ he invited as he waved an arm towards the chairs. She sat but avoided the couch.

‘Can I get you something to drink?’

She nodded and the light bounced off her hair, making it look like silk. ‘A water would be lovely, thank you.’

He grabbed a glass and two bottles of mineral water from the fridge. He twisted the tops off and passed her the glass and a bottle.

‘I’ll be fine waiting here,’ she said as she took the drink from him. ‘You must have something you need to do?’

He shook his head as he sat on the couch. He leant back and rested one foot on his other knee, relaxed, comfortable, approachable, conveying candidness. ‘I’m not busy. The scene they’re filming doesn’t involve me.’

‘You’re an actor?’

He looked carefully at her to gauge if she was joking but her expression was serious. Her mouth looked serious, her red lips full but not moving. But was there a hint of humour in her dark eyes? He couldn’t read her yet. Perhaps she was an anomaly, someone who didn’t immediately recognise him, or maybe he just wasn’t famous out here in the middle of nowhere.

Should he tell her who he was?

No. That could wait. She still hadn’t told him what she was doing here. She’d said she wasn’t publicity but she could be a journalist. He didn’t need more reporters telling stories about him. But if that was the case, surely she would recognise him.

Unless she was a better actor than he was, he was certain she wasn’t a reporter.

He settled for vague. ‘I am,’ he said as the door opened again and George entered the trailer.

‘Kat! Welcome.’ He was beaming. Oliver was surprised; George never looked this pleased to see anyone. George was a little rotund, always in a hurry, and seemed to have a permanent scowl creasing his forehead. Seeing him so delighted to see another person was somewhat disconcerting.

He crossed the room as the woman stood. Kat or Kate, Oliver thought George had said, but he wasn’t quite sure. Oliver stood too; manners that had been instilled in him, growing up as the son of a strict military man, remained automatic.

George greeted her with a kiss and Oliver was more intrigued. There was obviously some history here that he wasn’t privy to. Who was she?

‘I see you’ve met our star, Oliver Harding.’

‘Not formally.’ She turned to him and extended her hand. ‘I’m Katarina Angelis, but call me Kat.’ Her handshake was firm but it was the softness of her skin and the laughter in her eyes that caught Oliver off guard. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’

He realised she’d known exactly who he was. Which put him at a disadvantage. He still knew nothing about her. But he did know her name seemed to suit her perfectly. He was sure Katarina meant ‘pure’, and Angelis had to mean ‘heavenly’.

‘The pleasure is all mine,’ he said.

George cleared his throat and Oliver realised he hadn’t let go of Kat’s hand. He also realised he didn’t want to. Beautiful women were everywhere in his world, but there was something more to Kat. Something intriguing. Something different.

Her skin was soft and cool. Flawless. She looked like a desert rose, a surprising beauty in the harshness of the outback, and he found himself transfixed by her scarlet mouth. Her lips brought to mind ripe summer cherries, dark red and juicy. He wondered how they’d taste.

‘If I might give you some advice, my dear,’ George said to Kat as Oliver finally let her hand drop, ‘you should stay away from Oliver.’

‘Hey!’ he protested.

‘You don’t have to worry about me, George,’ Kat replied, ‘I can handle myself.’

George shook his head. ‘You’ve never met anyone like Oliver.’

Kat was looking at him now. Studying him, as if sizing him up and comparing him to George’s assessment. Oliver smiled and shrugged and spread his hands wide, proclaiming his innocence. He had to take it on the chin; he couldn’t remonstrate with George in front of Kat—it would be better to laugh it off. He couldn’t afford to show how she’d affected him. It was safer to return to his usual persona of charm and confidence, of not taking himself or anyone too seriously. She had floored him and he needed to gather his wits and work out what to do about it. About her. But, for now, he’d play along. ‘George is right, Kat, I’m the man your father warned you about.’

She laughed. ‘Don’t go thinking that makes you special. My father is always warning me about men.’

He cocked his head and quirked one eyebrow. This was even better. He had never been one to back away from a challenge.

‘Don’t make me regret hiring you.’ George eyeballed them both. ‘Either of you.’

Oliver laughed; he was used to being told off, but he was surprised to see that Kat was blushing. She looked even more delightful now.

‘I mean it, Oliver— don’t mess with Kat.’ George looked him straight in the eye. ‘There aren’t too many places left for you to run to and if you hurt her you’ll want to start running, believe me.’

So now they were both going to put a challenge to him. Of course, that only served to entice him even more. George could warn him all he liked but Oliver had never been one to steer clear of a challenge. But he knew he had to tread carefully. He couldn’t afford any more scandals.

‘Go and find something to do,’ George told him. ‘I need to talk to Kat.’

Oliver left but he knew it wouldn’t be the last he saw of Kat Angelis. He was glad now that she hadn’t admitted that she recognised him, that she hadn’t said his reputation preceded him. Perhaps she’d have no preconceived ideas about him and he could try to impress her without any rumours or innuendo getting in the way.

He was still none the wiser as to her actual reason for being on set but, if George was hiring her, he’d make sure their paths crossed again. If he was going to be stuck in this town for the next few weeks he might as well have some fun. He knew it was his choice, almost, to be here—George had made him an offer that his publicist thought was too good to refuse—and timing was everything. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself. He wouldn’t misbehave, but even if he did he doubted anyone would ever hear about what went on out here. Coober Pedy and the Australian outback seemed to exist in its own little time capsule. It really was a whole other world.

 

 

 

Kat watched on as George shooed Oliver out of his office. Of course she’d recognised him—Oliver Harding was a star of multiple Hollywood blockbusters. He had been the lead actor in several recent box office hits and he played action heroes just as well as he carried romantic leads. He was in the news regularly, if not for his movies then for his off-screen exploits with his leading ladies or other Hollywood ‘It’ girls. Kat may be a small-town girl, living out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, but she had television, magazines, the internet and the local drive-in movie theatre, which showed new movies every Saturday night. Oliver Harding was famous and she would have to be living under a rock not to know who he was. The thought made her smile. She did actually live underground, like so many of the local residents, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know what went on in the rest of the world. Oliver Harding appeared in a new movie every six months, and with a new woman far more frequently. Having met him now, she could understand why. He was handsome on the silver screen but incredibly gorgeous in real life. He had charm, charisma and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes that had made her lose her train of thought on more than one occasion already.

‘I’m serious, Kat,’ George cautioned her again. Had he mistaken her smile to mean she wasn’t paying attention to his warning? ‘I’ve seen that look in his eye before. You really don’t want him to set his sights on you. Stronger women than you have fallen for his charms. He loves the thrill of the chase and he hates to let a pretty girl go unappreciated, but he has a tendency to leave a trail of broken hearts behind him.’

He had a cheeky appeal and amazing eyes and his smile made her stomach tumble, but Kat wasn’t about to succumb to his charm. She’d met charming men before and didn’t intend to be another notch on his bedpost. And she hadn’t been kidding when she’d said she knew how to handle herself. There was no denying Oliver Harding was gorgeous and charming but she was not the type to fall for charming and handsome. Well, that wasn’t technically true but she wasn’t the type to have flings with famous men who were just visiting. That was something irresponsible people did. Spontaneous people. And she’d learnt not to be either of those.

‘Don’t worry about me, George. I really can handle myself. Now, why don’t you explain more about what you need from me?’

She listened as George ran through his ideas. When he finished they made arrangements going forwards before Kat took her copy of the filming schedule and stepped out of the trailer and found Oliver waiting for her.

‘Now are you going to tell me what you’re doing here?’ he asked as he fell into step beside her. His voice was deep and pleasant, his accent neutral. She’d expected more of an American flavour. Had he been taught to tone it down?

‘I live here.’

‘Really? Here?’

She could hear the unspoken question, the one every visitor asked until they got to know Coober Pedy. Why?

She never knew where to start. How did one begin to explain the beauty, the peace, the wildness, the attraction? She loved it here. That didn’t mean she never entertained the idea of travelling the world and seeing other places, but this was home. This was where her family lived. And family was everything.

She had no idea how to explain all of that, so she simply said, ‘Yes, really.’

‘And why do you have a copy of the filming schedule?’

She stopped walking and turned to look at him. She had to look up. She wasn’t short—she was five feet nine inches tall—but still he was several inches taller. ‘Are you always this nosy?’

‘Yes.’ He was smiling.

‘I’m going to be working on the film,’ she said, hoping to surprise him.

‘Doing what?’

‘Keeping you out of trouble,’ she said as she continued towards her car.

‘Trouble is my middle name,’ he laughed.

She didn’t doubt that. She’d only known him for a few minutes and regardless of George’s warning she already had the sense that he was trouble. But she couldn’t help smiling as she said, ‘So I hear.’

Kat reached her car and stretched her hand out to open the door, which she hadn’t bothered locking, but Oliver was faster than she was. He rested his hand on the door frame, preventing her from opening it.

‘And just how exactly do you plan to keep me out of trouble?’ His voice was deep and sexy, perfect for a leading man.

She turned to face him. He was standing close. Her eyes were level with his chest. He was solid—muscular without being beefy, gym-toned. He didn’t look as if he’d done a hard day’s work in his life, and he probably hadn’t, but that didn’t stop him from being handsome. With his chiselled good looks, he could have come straight from the pages of a men’s fashion magazine.

He smelt good. He looked even better.

His blue eyes were piercing, his square jaw clean-shaven. His thick brown hair was cut in a short back and sides, slightly longer on top, like a military-style haircut that had been on holiday for a couple of weeks. She wondered if it was to fit the movie script or if it was how he chose to cut his hair. It suited him. It emphasised his bone structure.

‘I’m your insurance policy,’ she said.

He frowned and raised one eyebrow. She wondered if that came naturally or if he’d cultivated that move. Was it possible to learn how to do that?

‘I’m a paramedic,’ she continued. ‘I’m going to be on set for the stunt work. Just in case.’

She’d expected him to object but he took it in his stride.

‘Good,’ he said simply before he grinned widely. ‘I’ll be seeing plenty of you, then.’

He was so confident, so comfortable. She wondered if he’d ever been told he couldn’t do something. She imagined that if he had he would have chosen to ignore the instruction.

His arm was still outstretched, passing beside her head as he leant against her car. ‘So, Kat, tell me your story.’

‘Why do you want to know?’

She was caught between his chest and the car. She could step out, away from the boundaries he’d imposed, but she didn’t want to. She didn’t feel threatened. He was smiling at her. He looked genuine, friendly, but she needed to remember he was an actor. He was probably trained to smile in a hundred different ways. She remembered George’s warning but she chose to ignore it. Just for a moment. She wanted to see what would happen next. She felt as if she was in a movie moment of her own.

His smile widened, showcasing teeth that were white, even and perfect. His blue eyes sparkled. ‘Because I want to make sure I’m not overstepping any lines when I ask you out.’

He looked like a man who was used to getting his own way and she didn’t doubt that; with women, at least, he probably did. But she did doubt that she was the type of woman he was used to meeting. ‘And what makes you think I’d go out with you?’

‘I didn’t say you would, I’m just letting you know I will ask you to. The choice is completely yours.’

‘What did you have in mind?’ She shouldn’t ask but she wanted to know. She should heed George’s warning and get in her car and drive away but it had been a long time since she’d been asked on a date and she was interested to hear his thoughts. She was interested full stop.

He smiled. ‘I don’t know yet but I’ll think of something.’

There weren’t a lot of options in Coober Pedy and Oliver, not being a local, would know even fewer.

Kat couldn’t remember the last time someone had flirted with her or the last time she’d met anyone she wanted to flirt with. She couldn’t deny she was flattered by the attention. She’d need to be careful. She’d been hurt before; a monumental break-up had left her questioning her own judgement and she’d avoided getting romantically involved ever since. She wanted her own happily-ever-after but she’d been scared to go out to find it. She’d focused instead on her career and her family and it had been a while since she’d even thought about going on a date. George’s warning repeated in her head again but she had no idea if she was going to be able to heed it.

The touch of Oliver’s hand had set her pulse racing and the look in his eye had made her wish, just momentarily, that she was the sort of girl who would take a risk, take a chance.

But that wasn’t her. She’d learnt that taking risks was asking for trouble, and Oliver Harding had trouble written all over him.

 

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Pups that Make Miracles – Book 2

It’s my turn today, to introduce you to the second book in the Pups that make Miracles quartet.  I’m thrilled to be book-buddies with Susan Carlisle this month (our books are both out today!), and next month we’ll be having excerpts from Annie O’Neil and Karin Baine’s books.

This excerpt from Festive Fling with the Single Dad  introduces Flora and Aksel, along with another very important character.  Dougal is a puppy, rescued by Susan’s heroine and his story runs through all four of the books.  I don’t think I’m giving away too much to mention that Dougal will be finding his forever home in the final book of the series!

Chapter One

x500_277403d2-0c69-4134-b65a-8e71cb79fbd9_540x.jpgUp close, he looked even more…

More outdoorsy. Taller and blonder and… Just more. A two-day beard covered a square jaw, and his mane of shoulder-length hair was tied at the nape of his neck. His casual shirt and worn jeans gave the impression of an off-duty Norse god, and Flora McNeith resisted the temptation to curtsey. It was slightly over the top as a greeting for a new neighbour.

‘Hi. I’m Flora. From next door.’ She gestured towards her own cottage, tugging at Dougal’s lead in a fruitless attempt to get him to sit down for just one moment. ‘Welcome to the village.’

He looked a little taken aback when she thrust the food box, containing half a dozen home-made mince pies into his hands. It might be more than three weeks until Christmas, but the lights of the Christmas tree in the village had already been turned on, and in Flora’s book any time after September was a good time for mince pies.

‘That’s very kind.’ His voice was very deep, the kind of tone that befitted the very impressive chest that it came from. And it appeared that whatever kind of deity Aksel Olson was, language and communication weren’t part of his remit. He was regarding her silently.

‘I work at the Heatherglen Castle Clinic. I hear that your daughter, Mette, is a patient there.’ Maybe if she explained herself a little more, she might get a reaction.

Something flickered in his eyes at the mention of his daughter. Reflective and sparkling, like sunshine over a sheet of ice.

‘Are you going to be part of Mette’s therapy team?’

Right. That put Flora in her place. Apparently that was the only thing that interested Aksel about her.

‘No, I’m a physiotherapist. I gather that your daughter is partially sighted…’ Flora bit her tongue. That sounded as if everyone was gossiping about him, which was half-true. The whisper that Mette’s father was single had gone around like wildfire amongst the female staff at the clinic. Now that Flora had met Aksel, she understood what the excitement was all about.

‘You read the memo, then?’ Something like humour flashed in his eyes, and Flora breathed a small sigh of relief. Lyle Sinclair must have told him about the memo.

‘Yes. I did.’ Every time a new patient was admitted a memo went round, introducing the newest member of the clinic’s community and asking every member of staff to welcome them. It was just one of the little things that made the clinic very special.

‘Would you like to come in for coffee?’ Suddenly he stood back from the door.

‘Oh!’ Aksel’s taciturn manner somehow made the words he did say seem more sincere. ‘I shouldn’t… Dougal and I are just getting used to each other and I haven’t dared take him anywhere for coffee yet. I’m afraid he’ll get over-excited and do some damage.’

Aksel squatted down on his heels, in front of the ten-week-old brindle puppy, his face impassive.

‘Hi, there, Dougal.’

Dougal was nosing around the porch, his tail wagging ferociously. At the sound of his name he looked up at Aksel, his odd ears twitching to attention. He circled the porch, to show off his new red fleece dog coat, and Flora stepped over the trailing lead, trying not to get snagged in it. Then Dougal trotted up to Aksel, nosing at his outstretched hand, and decided almost immediately he’d found a new best buddy. Finally, Aksel smiled, stroking the puppy’s head.

‘I’m sure we’ll manage. Why don’t you come in?’

Two whole sentences. And the sudden warmth in his eyes was very hard to resist.

‘In that case… Thank you.’ Flora stepped into the hallway and Dougal tugged on his lead in delight.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – from Heartache to Forever, by Caroline Anderson

We’ve got a slightly longer excerpt today – but when you reach the end of Caroline’s first chapter we think you’ll see why.  Have your hankies at the ready, ladies!  From Heartache to Forever is published in September.

41mP7wk-SyL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_CHAPTER ONE

‘Ah, Beth, just the person. I’ve got a favour to ask you.’

Her heart sank. Again?

‘How did I know that was coming, right at the end of my shift?’

She turned towards James with a wry smile and then everything ground to a halt, because the man standing beside the ED’s clinical lead was painfully, gut-wrenchingly familiar.

His strangely piercing ice blue eyes locked on hers, his mouth opening as if to speak, but James was still talking, oblivious to the tension running between them.

‘Beth, this is Ryan McKenna, our new locum consultant. Ryan, this is—’

‘Hello, Beth.’

Her name was a gentle murmur, his eyes softening as he took a step forward and gathered her up against his chest in a hug so warm, so welcome that it brought tears to her eyes.

‘Oh, Ry—’

He let her go long before she was ready, stared down into her eyes and feathered a kiss on her cheek.

‘OK. So I’m guessing you two know each other already, or this is love at first sight,’ James said drily, and Ryan laughed a little off kilter, taking a step back and giving her some much-needed space to drag herself together.

‘Yeah, we know each other,’ Ryan said, his voice oddly gruff. ‘We—er—we worked together, before I went abroad. Best scrub nurse I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.’

There was a whole world left unsaid, but James just nodded, still unaware of the turmoil going on under his nose.

‘Well, it’s good to know you got on, we rely on team work. Beth, I was going to ask you if you could be a star and give Ryan the once-over of the department and then take him for a coffee? They really need me in Resus, and I’m sure you’d like to catch up?’

‘What, now?’ she asked, feeling a flicker of something that could have been panic.

‘If you can spare the time. I’d be really grateful and they do need me.’

She met Ryan’s eyes, one eyebrow raised a fraction. ‘Are you OK with this?’ he murmured.

As if James had left her with a choice…

‘It’s fine, Ry. I don’t have to be anywhere,’ she said quietly, surrendering to the inevitable, and she turned back to James. ‘Go. You’re right, they could really use you. Sam’s tearing his hair out and Livvy’s rushed off her feet. We’ll be fine.’

He nodded, his face relieved. ‘Thanks, Beth. You’re a star. And while you’re at it, if you could convince him to apply for the permanent post, you’ll have my undying gratitude.’

Her heart thudded, the flicker threatening to turn into a full-on panic attack.

‘I thought the application window was closed?’

‘It’s been extended. So—if you could twist his arm?’

He was smiling, but his meaning was clear, and they were desperate for another consultant, but simply seeing Ryan again had sent her emotions into freefall and her hard-won status quo felt suddenly threatened. A locum post was one thing, but she didn’t know if she could cope with him here on a permanent basis, not when she was finally putting her life and her heart back together after the last two agonising years.

Not that it, or she, would ever be the same again…

Anyway, it wasn’t relevant, because he was committed to Medicine For All, the aid organisation he’d been working with for the past two years, and she knew how strongly he felt about that. He’d walked away from Katie because she didn’t understand, so there was no way he’d be looking for a permanent job and he obviously hadn’t been clear enough with James.

‘Leave it with me,’ she said, which wasn’t a yes but it was the best she could do, because she was oddly torn between wanting to run away and wanting to talk to him, to find out how he was.

Because something had changed him, she could see that at a glance. He was thinner, his face slightly drawn, shadows lurking in the back of his eyes. The same shadows that lurked in hers after all that had happened between them? Or other shadows, from the things he’d seen in those two years? Both, probably.

‘Sure?’ James asked, maybe finally picking up on the tension running between them, and she nodded.

‘I’m sure. Go. Leave it to me.’

‘Thank you. I know you’ll do your best. I’ll see you on Monday, Ryan. I’m really pleased you’ve agreed to join us.’

‘So am I. I’ll look forward to working with you.’

They shook hands and she watched James go, then Ryan turned back to her with a wry smile that touched her heart.

‘Forget the guided tour. Is there somewhere quiet we can go and get a coffee?’

She felt a wave of relief and nodded. ‘Yes. There’s a café that opens onto the park. We can sit outside.’

The café was busy, but they found a little bistro table bathed in April sunshine and tucked out of the way so they could talk without being overheard, and he settled opposite her and met her eyes, his searching.

‘So, how are you?’

Her heart thumped. ‘Oh—you know.’ She tried to smile. ‘Getting there, bit by bit. You?’

That wry, sad smile again, flickering for an instant and then gone. ‘I’m OK.’

She wasn’t sure she believed him, but there was something else…

‘So, how come you’re here, in Yoxburgh? Is that deliberate?’ she asked, needing to know if he’d sought her out or just stumbled on her by accident, but he nodded slowly.

‘Yoxburgh? Yes, sort of. I needed a job, there was one here, and I know it’s a lovely place. But I didn’t know you were here, if that’s what you’re asking, not until I saw you.’

‘Would you have applied if you’d known?’

He shrugged. ‘Not without talking to you first to see if you were OK with it.’

‘Why? If you needed a job—’

‘There are plenty of jobs.’

‘But not here.’

‘No. Not here, and I wanted to be here, but now—well, that depends.’

Her heart hiccupped. ‘On?’

‘You, of course. If you’re working in the ED, we’ll probably be working together. I’m OK with that, we worked well together before, but us—you and me—that’s different. Much more complicated, and the last thing I want is to make things difficult for you, so I need to know if you’re going to be OK with me being underfoot all the time?’

Was she?

‘Just so long as you don’t expect to pick up where we left off. Well, not that, obviously, but—you know. Before…’

He frowned, his eyes raw. ‘I don’t expect anything, Beth. The way we left things, I’ve got no right to expect anything. For all I know you might be back with Rick.’

‘Rick?’ It startled a laugh out of her because after everything that had happened Rick was so far off her radar it was almost funny. ‘No way. He was a lying cheat, why would I be back with him, any more than you’d be back with Katie?’

He gave a startled laugh. ‘OK, I can see that, but—someone?’

‘No. It’s just me, and I’m happy that way. You?’

He laughed again. ‘Me? I haven’t had time to breathe, never mind get involved with anyone. Anyway, people get expectations and then it all gets messy.’

‘Not everyone’s like Katie.’

‘No. They’re not.’ He studied her, his eyes stroking tenderly over her face. She could almost feel their touch, but then he closed them and shook his head with a little laugh. ‘I can’t believe you’re in the ED. What brought that on? I thought Theatre was your life.’

‘You can talk. I thought surgery was yourlife.’

He shrugged. ‘People change. I was facing a lifetime of increasing specialisation, and I didn’t want to spend every day doing the same thing over and over again until I’d perfected it. I wanted a change, and MFA provided me with that, and over the course of my time with them I realised I like trauma work. I like the variety, the pace, but you…’

‘I wanted a change, too.’ Needed a change, because everywhere she’d looked there’d been reminders of what she’d lost, and she’d found working in Theatre with anyone but him just plain wrong. ‘So, when did you get back?’

‘Two weeks ago. I’ve been back a few times on leave, picked up a bit of locum work here and there to refill the coffers and keep my registration up to date, but this time it’s for good.’

For good?

She felt her eyes widen, and her heart thumped. ‘Really?’

His smile was sad. ‘Yes, really. I’ve seen enough horror, lost some good friends, seen way too many dead chil—’

She flinched, and he gave a quiet groan.

‘Sorry. I didn’t…’

‘It’s OK,’ she lied. ‘And I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like. So, was it after you lost your friends you decided to come back?’

He gave a wry laugh. ‘No. Oddly, that was when I decided to stay on longer, to carry on the work they were doing because it was so necessary, but there’ll always be others waiting to take my place and it was time to come home because I’m just as needed here in many ways. My grandparents are frail and my mother’s shouldering the whole burden on her own, and it just seemed like it was time. Time to move on with my life, to get back to the day job, as it were. Back to the future.’

With her?

He’d said it was time to move on with his life, but he was the one who didn’t do relationships. Not after Katie had tried to get pregnant to stop him going away.

But what if he’d changed now, got MFA out of his system and was ready to settle down? It sounded like it, and maybe he wanted to try again with her? Maybe a bit more seriously this time—although it could hardly have been more serious than the way it had turned out. But if he did?

She wasn’t sure she was ready for that, not yet. She was still working through life day by day, hour by hour, step by step. She stared down into her coffee, stirring the froth mindlessly.

‘So that’s me,’ he murmured. ‘How about you? Are you happy here, in Yoxburgh?’

Happy? She could hardly remember what that felt like.

‘As happy as I can be anywhere,’ she said honestly. ‘It’s a lovely place, and that weekend we spent here—it was really special, the walks, the feel of the sea air—we said then what an amazing place it would be to live, and then a job came up here and I thought, why not? I was sick of working in an inner city, the noise and the dirt and the chaos, and I wanted to get away from all the reminders. I just needed peace.’

Peace to heal, to reconcile herself, to learn to live again, and where better than here, where it all began—

She sucked in a breath and looked up again. ‘So how come you applied for the locum job?’

He shrugged. ‘Same reason, I guess. I loved it here, the peace, the tranquillity of the coast and the countryside, and I needed that, after all I’ve seen. And there were the memories. I know we were only here for a weekend, but it was hugely significant.’

He looked away, his brow creased in a thoughtful frown, then he looked back and met her eyes. ‘If I’d known you were pregnant, Beth, I wouldn’t have gone away—not then, at least. I would have found a way out of it, delayed it or something. Not that it would have changed anything, but at least I could have been there for you. And I did try when I knew, but you didn’t seem to want me there, and I couldn’t really do anything anyway, nothing constructive, so I left and I tried to airbrush you out of my life, out of my thoughts, but I couldn’t. I realised that, the moment I got back when all I could think about was seeing you again, making sure you were all right.’

He’d tried to airbrush her out of his thoughts? And failed? Well, that made two of them. Even so…

‘Why didn’t you act on it? You’ve been back two weeks and you haven’t contacted me.’

‘You’ve changed your phone number.’

She felt a twinge of guilt. ‘I know. I’m sorry, I suppose I should have told you. But you could have found me if you’d really wanted to. You know enough people.’

He nodded. ‘You’re right, and I was going to as soon as I knew what I was doing, where I was going to be, but whatever, I’ve found you now, I’m here, I’m back for good, and at least I know you’re all right. Well, as all right as you can be, I guess.’

Their eyes locked, his heavy with understanding, and she felt her heart quiver.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she said, the admission wrung from her without her consent, and he smiled sadly.

‘I’ve missed you, too. I didn’t realise how much, until I saw you again. All that airbrushing just didn’t work.’

Her eyes welled, and she blinked the tears away.

‘Ry, I’m not the person I was. I’ve changed.’

‘I’m sure you have. So have I. Don’t worry, I don’t expect anything, Beth, but it is good to see you again and I’m so sorry I let you down. I wish I could undo it.’

She nodded, looking away from those all-seeing eyes, turning her attention back to the froth on her coffee. She poked the last bit of froth with the spoon, then looked up again.

‘So if you really are done with MFA, are you going for the permanent post? James was groaning the other day about the calibre of the applicants so they’ve obviously had to extend the closing date, and it sounds like he wants you to apply.’

He looked thoughtful. ‘That depends.’

‘On?’

‘You, again, of course.’ He shrugged again. ‘I don’t want to do something that you don’t want, Beth. If you don’t want me here, I won’t apply, especially since we’ll be working together. I know I’ve accepted the locum job, but if that’s an issue, too, I can always pull out. I haven’t signed anything yet.’

She frowned at him. ‘But you’ve said you’ll do it! You’d never go back on your word.’

‘I would if it would hurt you. The last thing I want is to hurt you again.’

She shook her head. ‘You didn’t hurt me, not like Rick hurt me. You didn’t lie and cheat and sleep with my best friend and then pretend it was over when it wasn’t. Your only failing was your commitment to Medicine For All, but I got that. I understood, and I admired you for it.’

‘Katie didn’t.’

‘I know, but I’m not Katie, and you’re not Rick, and you’ve never hurt me. And you were there for me when it mattered, and you stayed until it was over. That meant so much.’

‘I could have stayed longer. Shouldhave stayed longer.’

‘No. I didn’t want you to, Ryan. You needed to go back, to fulfil your commitments, and I needed to be on my own. You were right, you couldn’t do anything constructive to help me, and there were people in other parts of the world who really did need you. Don’t feel guilty.’

‘But I do.’

‘Well, don’t. I don’t need your guilt, I’ve got enough burdens. You did the right thing.’

She straightened up and smiled at him, pushing back the shadows. ‘Why don’t I give you that guided tour James was talking about, and introduce you to some of the others? And then you can decide if you want to apply.’

‘You don’t mind? I might get it. You have to be sure.’

She shrugged. ‘Ryan, we’re in desperate need of another consultant and I can’t stand in the way of that, but I can’t promise you a future with me, not in any way, so if you’re thinking of applying because of that—’

‘I’m not. I’ve told you, I don’t expect anything from you.’

‘Good. Let’s go and do this, then.’

*

The department was much as expected—modern, well equipped, but ridiculously busy, and he could see why he was needed.

And they had a permanent post going. It would be a great job, a perfect place to settle down—with Beth?

No. She’d warned him off, said she’d changed, and so had he, and yet he’d still felt his heart slam against his chest at the sight of her, felt a surge of something utterly unexpected when he’d pulled her into his arms and hugged her.

Love?

Of course not. He didn’t do love, not any more, and anyway, it wouldn’t work. She wanted other things from life, things he didn’t want, things that didn’t include him, but they could still be friends. They could work on that, and it was still a great hospital in a beautiful part of England. What more could a man want? And anyway, it was only a temporary post at the moment. It wasn’t like he was committed. If they couldn’t work together, he could always leave it at that and move on.

‘Seen enough?’

He met her soft grey-green eyes, so bad at hiding her feelings, and he could tell she wanted to get away.

‘Yes. Thank you, Beth. I need to get on, anyway, I’ve got to find somewhere to live by Monday. Any idea who to ask?’

‘Hang on, Livvy Henderson might know.’ She stuck her head back into Resus. ‘Livvy, do you know if anyone’s moved into the house you were renting? Ryan’s looking for somewhere.’

‘Ah, no, Ben’s got a new tenant.’ She flashed him a smile. ‘Sorry I can’t help. I hope you find something, Ryan.’

‘I’m sure I will. Never mind. Thanks.’ He turned back to Beth. ‘So—any other ideas?’

‘Baldwins? They’ve got a few properties near me advertised to let. Might be worth asking them. They’ve got an office on the High Street. It depends what you want.’

He laughed, thinking of some of the places he’d slept in over the past two years, and shook his head. ‘I’m not fussy. Just so long as it has a garden. I need to be able to get outside. And somewhere to park would be handy.’

‘Go and see them. I’m sure they’ll have something.’

He nodded. ‘I will. Thank you. I was thinking I’d check into a hotel and maybe look at some places tomorrow.’

Something flickered in her eyes and then was gone, as if she’d changed her mind. ‘Good idea,’ she said, but nothing more, and he wondered what she’d been going to say. Whatever, she’d thought better of it, and he realised he had some serious work to do to rebuild their friendship.

Baby steps, he thought, and then felt a stab of pain.

‘Right. Well, I’ll see you on Monday.’

The eyes flickered again, and he could see the moment she changed her mind. ‘Give me a call, tell me how you get on.’

‘I don’t have your number, remember.’ And nobody changed their number unless they wanted to hide, so from whom? Rick? Him? Or from the others, the well-meaning friends who hadn’t quite known what to say to her? He could understand that. He’d blocked quite a few numbers.

He pulled out his phone and found her entry. ‘OK, give it to me?’ Then he rang her, and heard her phone buzz in her pocket.

‘OK. I’ll let you know how I get on with—Baldwins?’

‘Yup. Good luck.’

*

Was it those words, or was it just that the fates had finished playing Russian roulette with him?

Whatever, the agent showed him a whole bunch of stuff, none of which appealed, and then said, very carefully, ‘There is something else. It was for sale but it didn’t shift, so the owner got tenants in and they’ve done a runner and left it in a state, but he’s disabled and can’t afford to pay someone to sort it out, so if you didn’t mind rolling up your sleeves I’m sure I could negotiate a discount. It’s a great place, or it could be. It’s a three-bed bungalow on Ferry Lane, overlooking the marshes and the harbour, and you can see the boats on the river in the distance.’

The river? He could feel his pulse pick up. ‘Does it have a drive?’

‘Oh, yes, and a double garage and a big garden. They had a dog so the house smells a bit, but with a good clean and a tidy-up…’

‘Can I see it?’ he asked, impatient now, because it sounded perfect, doggy or not, and he’d grown up with dogs.

The agent glanced at his watch. ‘I can’t take you today, I’m on my own here, and I’m out of the office until eleven tomorrow, but I can give you the key. I take it you’re trustworthy?’

Ryan laughed. ‘I think so. After all, what can I do to it that the tenants haven’t? Apart from clean it?’

‘Good point. Here. And take my card and give me a call.’

‘I will. Thanks.’

He hefted the key in his hand, slid it into his pocket and headed back to the car, cruising slowly along the clifftop before turning onto Ferry Lane and checking out the numbers. And there it was, a tired-looking bungalow set back at the top of a long concrete drive with weeds growing in the cracks.

Uninspiring, to say the least, and it didn’t get better as he went up the drive, but as he got out of the car he caught sight of the view and felt peace steal over him.

He slid the key into the lock, went through the front door and was confronted by multi-coloured chaos.

The agent was right, it did smell of dog, the kitchen and bathroom were filthy and the garden was a jungle, but every time he looked out of a window and saw the river in the distance his heart beat a little faster.

It might be awful now, but with a good scrub, the carpets cleaned and the grass cut, it would be transformed. Oh, and about a vat and a half of white paint to cover the lurid walls and calm it all down. All he had to do was roll up his sleeves and get stuck in.

He pulled out his phone and rang the agent.

‘I’ll take it,’ he said, and the man laughed.

‘I thought you might. Your eyes lit up when I mentioned the river.’

‘Yup.’ He laughed. ‘So, where do we go from here? It’s just that I am in quite a hurry, I start work on Monday. Is there any danger we can sort it by then?’

‘Yes, we can do it today. We’re open until seven tonight. If you come in at six, that’ll give me time to get it all sorted.’

So he rang Beth, although he hadn’t meant to, and told her about it.

‘Where is it?’

‘Just up Ferry Lane on the left. It’s number eleven.’

‘Are you still there?’

‘Yes—why?’

‘Can I come? I’m only round the corner and I have to see this.’

He laughed. ‘Sure. You’ll be shocked, it’s pretty dire, but I’ll get my bodyweight in cleaning materials and paint and it’ll be fine.’

‘It can’t be that bad.’

He just laughed again, and went outside to wait for her.

*

‘Oh, my word…’

‘Yeah. Great, isn’t it? You’ve got to love the shocking pink. But look.’

He wrapped her shoulders in his warm, firm hands and turned her gently towards the window, and she felt her breath catch. ‘Oh—you can see the river! It’s where we walked that day—’

The day he’d lifted her off the stile and into his arms and kissed her, and she’d fallen a little bit in love with him. The day it had all begun…

‘I know,’ he murmured, his voice a little gruff. ‘It’s beautiful down there, and the thought of having it on my doorstep, being able to look at it all the time, is just amazing.’ He dropped his hands and stepped away from her, but she could still feel the echo of his fingers, the warmth that had radiated off his body.

‘Come and see the rest. He said it’s got three bedrooms but I only got as far as the first one and gave up.’

She could see why. The place was dirty and untidy, as if the tenants had picked up their things and walked away without a backward glance, and there was a pervading odour of dog. There was a lot to do before it was a home.

They walked through it, examining all the rooms, finding the third bedroom at the opposite end to the other two, tucked away beyond the kitchen with a patio door to the garden. It even had an en suite shower room.

‘So will you make this your bedroom?’

He shook his head. ‘No. I’ll use it as a study because of the door to the garden. Do you know what, the house is actually in pretty good condition under all the dirt. I don’t think it’ll take a lot to turn it around.’

She eyed the grubby carpets, the faded curtains, the filthy bathroom. ‘If you say so.’

‘It’s only dirt. I’ll get on it in the morning. I’ve got to go down to the office now to sign something, then I need to eat and find a bed for the night. Any suggestions?’

Why? Why did she say it? She had no idea, but without her consent her mouth opened.

‘I’ve got a spare room, and a casserole in the slow cooker that’s enough for three meals so that should do us, so we can eat after you’ve done the paperwork and then come back here and make a start if you like? I’m on early tomorrow but I can help you now, and again after my shift. Bear in mind it’s Friday tomorrow, so you’ve only got three days before you start work and I guess you’ve got other stuff to do first. Like find some furniture, for starters.’

He laughed. ‘Furniture would be handy.’ His smile faded as he searched her eyes, his own unreadable. ‘Beth, are you sure? That’s a lot to ask.’

Sure? She wasn’t in the slightest bit sure, but it seemed the sensible thing to do, the most practical, and she was nothing if not practical.

‘I’m sure,’ she lied. ‘And anyway, you didn’t ask, I offered.’

She just hoped it wasn’t a huge mistake.

*

It was just as well she’d agreed to help, because the house was worse than he’d thought.

After they’d eaten he changed into jeans, rolled up his sleeves and they went straight back to tackle the mess, armed with the contents of her cleaning cupboard. She hit the kitchen while he tore up the bedroom carpets, and by the time he’d done that it looked a whole lot better. Then he studied the sitting room carpet.

Was it salvageable? Doubtful, but with a clean…

He turned back the corner to see what was underneath, and blinked. Seriously? An original wood block floor? He pulled back more, then more, and started to laugh because it was so unexpected and wonderful.

‘Hey, come and see this,’ he called, and Beth went into the sitting room, clad in shocking pink rubber gloves that matched the awful walls, a streak of dirt on her cheek, and his heart crashed against his ribs.

How could she look so sexy?

‘Wow! That’s amazing. It’s gorgeous!’

It wasn’t alone. He dragged his eyes off her, looking way more appealing than she had any right to look with dirt on her face and her hair all sweaty, and studied the floor. ‘Well, I don’t know about gorgeous, but it knocks spots off the carpet and it’ll save me money. I wonder if the hall’s the same?’

It was, so was the dining room, and he was stunned.

‘It’s incredible. I love it. I think you’re right, a bit of polish and it will be gorgeous. Right, let’s go. It’s late, you’re working tomorrow and I could kill for a cup of tea.’

‘Me, too. It might wash the dust out of my throat.’

He chuckled, and her eyes softened with her smile. Without thinking, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her, burying his face in her hair and breathing in dust and bleach and something else, something familiar that made his heart ache.

‘Thank you. Thank you so much for all you’ve done. You’ve been amazing and I wouldn’t have got nearly as far without you.’

She eased away, leaving him feeling a little awkward and a bit bereft. ‘Yeah, you would, because you wouldn’t have stopped. Right, time to go.’

*

‘Tea or coffee?’

‘Tea would be lovely, thank you. Want a hand?’

‘No, you’re fine. Go and relax, I won’t be long.’

Relax? He was too wired for that, and stiffening up nicely after all the heaving and bending. He was going to hurt in the morning. Ah, well. At least they’d made a start.

He flexed his shoulders and strolled over to the shelves in the corner of her sitting room beside the fireplace, where a silver trinket box had caught his eye. It was a heart, he discovered, smooth and rounded, incredibly simple but somehow beautiful, and crying out to be touched.

He picked it up, and it settled neatly into the palm of his hand as if it belonged there, the metal cool against his palm, the surface so smooth it felt like silk. There was something written on it, he realised, and he traced it with his fingertip, his heart starting to pound as he read the tiny inscription.

A date. A date he recognised, a date he could never forget because it was carved on his heart, too.

He heard her footsteps behind him.

‘Tea,’ she said, her voice sounding far away, the clink of the mugs as she put them down oddly loud in the silence. He turned slowly towards her, the heart still nestled in the palm of his hand.

‘What’s this?’ he asked gruffly, knowing the answer, and her smile nearly broke his heart.

‘Her ashes.’

Her face blurred, and he bent his head and lifted the tiny urn to his lips, his eyes squeezed tightly shut to trap the tears inside.

‘You kept them,’ he said, when he could speak.

‘Of course. I didn’t know what else to do. You weren’t there by the time I picked them up, and I didn’t want to stay where we were because of all the reminders and I knew if they were there I’d feel tied, so I had to keep her with me until we could decide together what to do.’

He looked up, blinking so he could see her face, and her smile cracked.

‘Oh, Beth…’

He reached out his free arm and pulled her against his side, and she laid her hand over the delicate little urn in his hand, her fingers curling round over his as she rested her head on his shoulder.

‘Grace didn’t suffer, Ry. At least we know that.’

He nodded, and she lifted the little heart gently out of his hand, kissed it and put it back on the shelf, next to a pretty cardboard box. She touched it fleetingly.

‘That’s her memory box,’ she said softly. ‘The midwives gave it to me in the hospital. Would you like to see it?’

He shook his head, mentally backing away from it, unable to face it. ‘No. Not tonight. I’m too tired, Beth. I think I might head up to bed. I’ve got another long day tomorrow and you’re working.’

Her smile was understanding, as if she’d seen straight through him.

‘When you’re ready,’ she said gently, but he’d spent two long years running away from it and he wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready for what he knew must be in that memory box.

Time to stop running? Maybe, but not now. Not tonight.

Not yet…

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – Falling for her Italian Billionaire by Annie Claydon

NEWRelease1First impressions matter, but often a heroine has to wait before she hears what a hero really thinks of her.  But I decided to ring the changes a little in this book, which is the first of my ‘London Heroes’ duet.

Gabriel DeMarco wakes up in hospital with a beautiful woman by his bedside.  The after-effects of the drugs that were slipped into his drink last night mean that he’s not able to stop himself from voicing exactly what’s on his mind…  

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

Gabriel DeMarco opened his eyes. That seemed to be quite enough work for today, so he closed them again.

‘How are you feeling?’ A woman’s voice flowed over him like warm honey. It was a nice voice, quiet yet firm. The kind of voice that any man should take notice of.

‘I could go back to sleep.’ The words slipped out before he had a chance to tell himself that sleeping probably wasn’t what the voice wanted him to do. And at the moment it seemed like a siren’s call, which couldn’t be resisted. ‘Or…I could wake up.’

It sounded as if the voice was smiling. ‘Why don’t you wake up? You’re in hospital.’

Really? The thought didn’t bother him as much as it should. He was comfortable and relaxed, as if lying on a cloud. He tried opening his eyes and light seared through his brain, making his head hurt. He’d just have to keep them closed for a while…

‘Which hospital?’ Not that it mattered particularly. But talking might convince the voice that he’d complied with her request.

‘The Royal Westminster. You’re in the private wing.’

That made sense. Someone must know who he was, and that the son of Leo DeMarco, head of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in Europe, could stand the cost of a night’s stay in hospital. Or maybe he’d been here longer than just one night. Gabriel couldn’t remember.

He flexed his fingers, running his hand across his chest and then moving his legs. Everything appeared to be working. No pain. Whatever he was in here for was probably very minor…

‘Open your eyes.’

No… He didn’t want to. Maybe he said as much, without knowing it, or maybe the voice just read his mind, because he felt the touch of a hand against the side of his face.

‘Come on. Open your eyes.’

He couldn’t resist. This time the pain wasn’t so bad, because the hand was shading his face. When he turned his head in the direction of the voice, a mass of red-blonde curls and a pair of blue eyes snapped suddenly into focus. What had happened to him suddenly came a very poor second in importance to who she was.

‘What’s your name? Are you a nurse?’ Stupid question. She wore a dark blue sleeveless summer dress, which seemed to be held together by a few buttons and a belt around her waist. Clearly not a nurse unless they’d changed the uniform from sensible to sexy.

‘My name’s Clara Holt. I’m not a nurse, although I’m medically trained. Your father sent me.’

His father? Since when had he started sending women to sit at Gabriel’s bedside? The thought occurred to him that maybe his father had, for once, made a marvellous choice. She was perfezionemolto bella… Porcelain skin and shining gold hair. Right now, making the gorgeous Clara happy was all he wanted to do…

‘Grazie.’ Her lips curved into a slight smile. He’d missed out her lips, and that was unforgivable…

‘You speak Italian?’

‘Only a few words.’

She knew the ones that mattered. Every woman should understand the words a man said when he called her beautiful.

Wait. How many of his thoughts had sprung to his lips by mistake, and what language had he voiced them in? The feeling that this wasn’t right was beginning to nag at the edge of his consciousness. If he thought a woman beautiful, he usually had the manners to wait, and make quite sure it was the kind of compliment she wanted to hear.

Gabriel shook his head, trying to clear it, and struggled to sit up. Pain shot across his temples and he suddenly felt very nauseous. The wonderful Clara reached out, gently pushing him back down onto the pillows.

‘You’ll feel better in a moment, just take it slowly.’

She was an angel. Clara could take him up to her cloud any day of the week and…

No! He still wasn’t thinking straight. He fought to locate a sensible question in his head, and came up with only one.

‘What’s the matter with me?’

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – Her Secret Miracle by Dianne Drake

We have a treat for you today – an excerpt from Dianne Drake’s new release, ‘Her Secret Miracle’.  Take it away, Dianne!

9781474090018

Bound by their miracle baby

Dr Michi Sato will never forget her passionate night with surgeon Eric Hart—especially as it resulted in her longed-for son. Now his heart condition means Michi must fly to New York for treatment…and tell guarded bachelor Eric he’s a father!

 

 

Chapter One

MICHI SATO LOOKED UP at the massive building, wondering how many stories high it was. She guessed somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, all belonging to Eric and, maybe someday, Riku?

She really hadn’t given Eric’s status much of a thought up until now, and simply seeing his name in gold looming over the massive bank of revolving glass doors caused her stomach to churn. Even as outgoing as she was, she wasn’t up to this. Finding herself so close to Eric now, after all this time, caused too many unanswered questions to come to mind.

Her motivation for that night, his motivation as well. Certainly nothing long term had been meant. They’d both made that clear during pillow talk and foreplay. Then look what had happened. Especially after her doctor had told her only weeks before it was an impossibility. That her condition had gone from bad to abandon all hope.

“I’m so glad he was wrong,” she said, kissing Riku on the cheek. “Mommy hasn’t done everything the best way she could have, but that’s all going to change now.” After Eric knew he had a son. After Riku’s surgery. There were so many things weighing her down now, so much guilt she had to come to terms with, she didn’t know where to begin. But she was here to start a new course. At least, that was what she kept telling herself. New course, new direction, new leaf turned over. It sounded good, but in practice…well, that was the part she wasn’t sure about. But the first step was behind her now, and that was good.

Of course, she’d told herself other things, too, that she’d backed away from, hadn’t she? Namely, not telling Eric he was daddy to her two-year-old. She’d tried, had made futile attempts at calling, texting and using any other means of electronic communication available. Then she’d given up. But that didn’t make things better. In fact, in the long run it would make things worse than she could probably even imagine.

“Mommy’s going to make it all better,” she said. How? She didn’t know. But she’d figure it out.

And now, on the second step of her journey—trying to figure out how to tell him—here she was, looking in Eric’s window, holding his son, and so confused her head was spinning. In just a few days Riku’s long-awaited surgery would take place—a surgery Eric should know about as it had been his specialty when he’d been a practicing surgeon.

Of course, that would have meant telling Eric somewhere along the way that he had a son, then also telling him his son had a heart defect. Neither of which she’d done. Yet. Except the yet part was looming like a black raincloud over her. All the good intentions in the world wouldn’t stop it from bursting and pouring down on her. It was up to her to make the plan that would avoid it—step into a doorway or, in this case, Eric’s office.

But, no. Instead, here she was, like a little girl with her nose to the toy-store window, hoping for the prettiest doll inside. Expecting to get it but fearing she wouldn’t. Expecting Eric to overlook that she’d kept his son from him all this time but fearing he would not forgive her. And in some fragmented way, hoping the three of them could become a family on some level. All while the black cloud was getting closer and closer to bursting.

“Be glad you’re too young to know about responsibilities,” she said to Riku, turning so her body would shield his from the slight gust of warm wind whipping up the streets and down the alleys. “Or how to make something right you’ve already made such a mess of.”

Realistically, she wasn’t counting on things turning out well as far as Eric was concerned. Sure, he could walk away from the entire situation, which didn’t seem at all like the man she’d known for little more than a night. Or he might recognize Riku as his son, then want more of Riku in his life than she was prepared to give him. And that seemed the greater possibility. But would he go so far as try for full custody since she’d hidden his sick child from him for two years? Or argue that she was negligent given how he was an expert in the procedure his son needed to have done?

This was what scared her. And why Eric scared her. He might want more of Riku than she could bear to give up. Now, she feared, she was about to find out just how much, and she wasn’t sure what she’d do once she knew. Wasn’t ready for that, wasn’t ready to face the consequences she’d set into motion, whatever they might be.

Still, she had always to remember this was about Riku, not her. Not even Eric. Right now, her son was the only one who counted, and when she did tell Eric about him, she hoped he would be able to see that was the case. At least until after Riku’s surgery.

“Your daddy’s inside that building, Riku,” she said, turning again so the boy bundled in her arms could look through the window. “He’s a very nice man. And kind. A perfect man to be your father. I know you don’t understand what I’m telling you, but you will someday.”

And she prayed he didn’t hate her when he did understand, even when she’d finally gathered the courage to correct her mistakes long before Riku would be old enough to hate her for what she’d done.

That was another fear she had to live with: the possibility that Riku could turn away from her once he was old enough to know what his mother had done. If that day ever came, well…she wouldn’t think about it. The way she hadn’t thought about other consequences.

So, true to form, she wasn’t going to deal with that now, when she was so confused, so angry at herself, and so afraid for her son’s life. Especially not when every ounce of everything inside her was devoted to Riku and what was ahead for him.

“I wish you could tell me what to do,” she told Riku, snuggling him in even closer to her. “Your mommy didn’t make some wise choices and now she’s very discouraged that what she’s done might touch you in ways I never intended to happen.”

Riku’s response was to reach up and grab Michi’s hair, then giggle.

“Do you know how cute you are?” she asked, trying to extricate herself from his playful grip. This child was her world, nothing else mattered. And it still surprised her how much she’d changed in such a short time. “OK, so you’re not going to answer me. But take my word for it, you’re the cutest little boy ever.”

It was a mild November day, the sun was bright, the slight gusts of wind warm enough that people had taken off their jackets to enjoy the unexpected rise in temperature. But Michi tucked Riku’s little fist into the blanket in which he was wrapped. So maybe she was overprotective. What of it? She’d had so much difficulty bringing him into this world.

She’d lost count of how many times she’d almost lost him before his birth; didn’t know how long she’d been hospitalized to prevent a miscarriage early on and a stillbirth later. It had been such a struggle, then afterwards a beautiful baby boy…with a heart defect. All of it had been so much to deal with, the hysterectomy after Riku’s birth being the least of her concerns. That mess with the social worker calling her unfit had been traumatic. So, if she wanted to be overprotective, she had good cause.

In her defense, she’d tried contacting Eric early on, but the information on him from the seminar had been old, and she’d refused to ask her aunt to forward information on to him as that would have revealed her pregnancy long before she’d wanted to. So, she’d put it off. Had promised herself she’d do it later. But later had brought her pregnancy difficulties, then a sick baby, outside complications…too many “laters” had added up until she’d known she’d passed the point of reasonability. All that, plus she simply hadn’t been coping. One step at a time. That was all she had been able to manage. One difficult, often heartbreaking step at a time.

Still, she had always intended to find Eric at some point, maybe when Riku was through the worst of it. Or maybe when she wasn’t so consumed by guilt and confusion and strange emotions she couldn’t even identify.

Even with all the mistakes she’d made, though, look what she had. The world. Riku was the whole world to her. And now, as she hugged him and stood looking into the Hart building, the urgency to make this right was pounding at her. “He’s in there somewhere,” she said, hoping yet not hoping to catch a glimpse of Eric. “Anyway, it’s silly standing out here, not sure what I’d do if I did see him,” she said to her son. “Besides, look who’s here.”

She twisted so Riku could see his great-aunt walking with outstretched arms to greet them. Riku stretched his arms out to her as well.

“Just what we need,” Agnes Blaine said. “A whole afternoon to spoil my nephew.”

Michi laughed. “Not too much spoiling, I hope.”

Takumi, Agnes’s partner of twenty-five years and Michi’s uncle, stepped to Agnes’s side. “That would be between Riku and us.” He bent over and kissed his nephew. “And maybe the clerk in the toy store.”

Michi loved these people. They’d been there for her at the end of her pregnancy, then through some of Riku’s early tests. And they were part of the small circle of family she’d trusted enough to let them care for Riku for a few hours, or even a full day.

“The amount of spoiling we bestow upon our nephew is a personal matter,” Agnes teased, looking up at the gold embossing over the building: Eric Hart Property Management. “You haven’t…?”

Michi shook her head, then stepped back. Agnes and Takumi knew to leave it alone. Her whole family did. Yes, everybody knew Eric Hart was Riku’s father, but it was not a topic anyone ever discussed. At least, not in front of Michi. “He’s just up from his nap, so he should be good for a while. And I shouldn’t be gone long.” Just long enough to spend some time alone, to think.

“We’ll be back home when you get there,” Takumi said, pulling Michi into his arms. “Be patient with yourself,” he said. “Everything will be as it’s meant to be.”

And, in the blink of an eye, she was alone on the sidewalk in front of Eric’s building. It was the first step. And her second step would take her inside.