Excerpts, Guest Blogs

Excerpt – The Paris Wedding by Charlotte Nash

We’re thrilled to have Charlotte Nash with us again today, with an excerpt from her latest release.  ‘The Paris Wedding’ is released on 27th June 2017 and can be pre-ordered from: iBooks,  Kobo,  Google Play (Charlotte Nash Author Page),  Amazon AU,  Booktopia

FINAL COVER_PARIS WEDDING_800x519 Chapter 1

The day after the funeral, Rachael by force of habit, woke near dawn and made two cups of tea. She dumped the teabags in the sink, then, remembering it would annoy Tess, squeezed them out and tossed them in the bin. It took her longer to register that the second cup wasn’t needed.

She poured her mother’s tea away and braced her hands on the sink, looking out the window. Their harvest had finished two weeks ago and the wide rolling fields of stubble were grey before the sunrise. A beautiful grey, like a dove’s feather, joining the pale soft light at the horizon. As the sun appeared, it gilded the cut stalks, and the single majestic gum on the rise seemed to float on a sea of burnished gold.

Seven, Rachael thought. Seven sunrises without my mother.

She pressed her hand to her mouth. The tears kept boiling up unbidden, the wound still raw and open. Mercifully, Tess, Joel and the children were still asleep. She had time to pull herself together.

‘You’re up early.’

Rachael jumped and sucked back the tears. Tess had padded into the kitchen in thick, silent socks. Her checked robe was tightly knotted at her waist, her blonde hair stowed in a neat plait. Rachael involuntarily touched the unbrushed, ragged clump behind her head, the result of sleeping on her ponytail. Amidst the frizz were bits of broken elastic sticking up from the overstretched band.

‘So, we’re getting started on Mum’s things?’ Tess asked, flicking on the kettle.

‘What?’

‘Mum’s things. I asked you about it last night. You said we’d do it today.’

‘When?’ Rachael said. She couldn’t remember a single thing that had happened yesterday, apart from those two women talking outside her window. The day had been a blur of tears and hymns and the scent of white lilies.

‘This morning.’

‘No, I mean when did you ask me?’

‘After dinner. When Joel was doing the dishes.’

‘I don’t remember.’

She didn’t even remember eating dinner. She took her tea from the windowsill, but didn’t drink it. She wouldn’t have been able to swallow around the lump in her throat.

‘Look, have some breakfast,’ she said, dodging around Tess.

‘I’ll eat later. Where to first – lounge or bedroom?’

‘We don’t need to start right now,’ Rachael said, trying and failing to keep the wobble out of her voice.

‘But it’ll be a huge job. Her wardrobe is overflowing. What a woman on a farm wanted with all those fancy clothes, I don’t know.’

‘She made a lot of them for other people – for formals and weddings and things like that.’

‘What are they doing in her cupboard then?’

‘Because people brought them back and she’d modify them for someone else. She didn’t—’

‘I bet you don’t even know what’s in there,’ Tess said. ‘I bet that ottoman’s still stuffed with winter woollies nobody wears. Don’t worry, Joel will feed the kids and keep them away.’

Rachael had a vision of her sister striding around her mother’s room and stuffing garbage bags with dresses and quilts and other precious things, mixing up what was going where. ‘No,’ she said.

‘I don’t understand. We have to get back to the farm in a few days, so I won’t be around to help later. You said you wanted to get started.’

Rachael threw her hands up. ‘I don’t remember what I said! It was her funeral, Tess. Besides, I was here with her the last ten years. I know what she wanted. If you have to go home, that’s fine. I can manage.’

‘Oh, I see. This is about me choosing to go with Dad when we were kids.’ Tess folded her arms, bringing out a well-worn bickering point like a favourite toy. ‘Well, someone had to. It doesn’t mean I didn’t care about her. And I’m just trying to make things easier for you.’

Tess delivered her speech without a shred of sadness. Rachael was utterly unable to understand how her sister was navigating the grief so easily.

‘It’s not about that,’ she said.

Though she couldn’t help remembering standing beside her mother on the day Tess and her father drove away. Rachael had pressed herself against her mother, her eight-year-old eyes unbelieving. Marion had squeezed her fiercely, tears in her eyes, though she’d held her voice calm and level. ‘She’s still your sister,’ she’d said. ‘This will always be home. She’ll be back one day. She’ll be back.’ Over and over the same words, as if they had the power to make it true.

Now, Tess pursed her lips. ‘Well, can I at least make some lists for you? There’s all the medical hire equipment that needs to be returned, and someone should throw out all the tablets.’

‘Why would I need a list?’

‘So you don’t forget.’

Rachael stared. Was it possible that Tess still thought of her as a dreamy girl with her sketchbook and pencils, often late and forgetful? Yes, that’s what she had been, once. But she’d worked very hard in her last years of school; and then had come ten years of looking after her mother’s appointments, medicines and meals, toilets and showers, and the farm. All that had changed Rachael forever. Tess simply hadn’t been here to see it.

‘I’m not going to forget,’ she said.

‘You forgot what you said yesterday.’

Rachael gritted her teeth. All she wanted today was to be left alone, to stare down the fields or wander round the house, to be as lost as she needed to be. Choosing retreat, she abandoned her tea and headed for her room.

Tess followed. ‘Well, what about cleaning out the fridge? There’s tonnes of food from the wake that needs organising.’

‘Then take it home for Christmas.’

‘Speaking of Christmas, I think you should come up to Dubbo. You shouldn’t be here all by yourself. Or, a better idea. I’ve got someone I want you to meet.’

Rachael spun back. ‘Why would I want to be fixed up with anyone?’

‘Who said anything about fixing up? It’s Joel’s cousin, nice man. He’s bought a farm near Orange and he doesn’t know anyone yet. Family’s all in WA, so he’s going to be alone too. You can talk shop and keep each other company.’

Rachael rubbed her face. She hadn’t slept much this week, her mother’s last days in the hospital replaying in her thoughts at night. Worries about the farm and the future were also accumulating like fallen leaves. Couldn’t Tess understand how tired she was, how upset? How the smallest things seemed like mountains?

She started back down the hall. ‘Will you please just leave it alone? We only just buried Mum.’

‘I thought it would take your mind off everything, and besides it’s time you found a man. There’s been no one since Matthew.’

Rachael froze with that same sick feeling she’d had yesterday, as if his name had dropped a cage around her body, one that was so tight she could barely draw breath. She steadied herself on the wall. Retreat wasn’t enough; she needed to escape. The door onto the rear verandah was right there. She suddenly found herself outside, boots on, striding through acres of field, mowing down a row of cut stalks in her haste.

‘I’m just trying to help!’ Tess yelled at her back.

Rachael didn’t turn around. Out under the sky, she pulled out her hair band and sucked in the warming air, trying to shake off the shock. Finding that Matthew’s name could still hurt was an unpleasant surprise. She thought she had packed him away so deep in her heart that he couldn’t affect her any more.

She strode south, trying to lose herself in her steps, and avoiding the long field where a dip in the ground lay hidden in the wheat stalks. Sadly, avoidance didn’t help. If she closed her eyes, she could still imagine lying in that hollow with Matthew, the earth cool against her arms, his body warm beside her. She had lost hours lying against his chest, twisting his curly brown hair in her fingers, staring into his eyes, and listening to his plans for them both. She’d been so excited by the prospects he’d effortlessly sown in her mind: of university, and then coming home to work and build a home together. Dreams that were still tied to the earth and the baked-straw scent of the fields, to everything Rachael was.

He’d broken off and given her his broad smile. ‘I’m going on.’

‘No,’ she’d said. ‘I want to hear more.’

So he’d brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, cradled her face, and said, ‘I’ll love you forever.’ Fierce and certain, he’d sealed his promise with a kiss and her heart had lifted with joy.

Rachael wrenched her mind back with an exasperated curse. That same straw scent was in her nose, but everything else had changed. They’d both been seventeen when he’d made that promise, imagining a different life than the one that had happened. And yet she knew she would never love anyone like that again.

She walked until she hit the south fence and still the ache clamped around her like a too-tight belt. The sun was behind a cloud, shooting beams of filtered orange across the sky, and birds wheeled and skimmed low over the stalks. Across the highway in a neighbour’s field, a combine turned a lazy circle at the end of a row, the distant grumble of its engines competing with sporadic traffic. Rachael lifted the hair off her sweating neck, but couldn’t put it up again; she’d lost the band somewhere in the field. She leaned on a fence post to pick the prickles off her socks, then chewed the remaining nail on her left hand as a truck rumbled down the highway towards Parkes. Another passed a minute later. Rachael lingered, watching.

The next truck had cowboy western murals painted over its cab. Then came two caravans, and two sedans. A sheep truck was next; the driver waved. Then she spotted a green Corolla flying down the highway. Rachael straightened. Just as she made out the mismatched door panel, the car flicked its lights at her and ploughed onto the hard shoulder.

The driver’s door flew open and Rachael almost cried again, this time in gratitude. Sammy was here.

‘I thought that was you,’ Sammy called, negotiating the slope to the fence, the breeze ruffling her choppy fringe. She had a blonde pixie cut, dimpled cheeks and long eyelashes. ‘What are you doing out here?’

‘Avoiding the house.’
Sammy raised her eyebrows. ‘Tess?’

‘She wants to get into Mum’s stuff.’ Rachael’s voice caught.

‘She’s being really awful. I don’t understand how she can be so…’

‘Callous? Invasive?’

‘Yeah. She’s worse than normal.’

Sammy hugged Rachael awkwardly across the fence. She was wearing her black work pants and blue blouse with Parkes Country Motor Inn stitched over the breast pocket.

‘Are you on your way to work?’ Rachael asked, confused. It was far too early for a shift at the motel; Sammy was more likely to have been at her second job, at the bakery.

‘Later. I came to see how you are. I brought food.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘I know. But I bet your nieces and nephew will be. Come on, I’ll give you a ride back to the house.’

Rachael glanced over her shoulder, gauging how long it would take to walk, then bent to slide through the fence. ‘Probably a good thing. Tess might have decided to clean things out on her own.’

‘I’m sure she wouldn’t,’ Sammy said. ‘But leave Tess to me. You’ve got enough to deal with.’

***

Charlotte Nash - Author Charlotte Nash grew up obsessed with horses and good stories, and is now a bestselling author of contemporary romantic novels. She came to writing after an eclectic past in engineering and medicine, and loves writing about brave women in testing circumstances, finding love and themselves. She lives in a cosy Brisbane cottage with her family. The Paris Wedding is her fifth novel, released 27 June 2017. 

Facebook: facebook.com/AuthorCharlotteNash/
Twitter: @CharlotteNash79
Website: http://www.charlottenash.net/

 

Excerpts

Excerpt – The Shipbuilder’s Daughter by Emma Fraser

51QRrTnj+zL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Prologue

Glasgow, 1920

The scream was like nothing Margaret had ever heard before and seemed to go on forever. She dropped her book and clasped her hands over her ears. Almost worse was the awful silence that descended a few moments later.

Her heart hammering, she ran to the window and looked outside. Although her father’s office was on the third floor, only a fraction of the shipyard was visible; the rest, sprawling alongside the Clyde, was hidden from view. Beneath her a crowd was gathering, converging on something she couldn’t quite see through the grimy window.

She used the sleeve of her dress to clear a patch, but all she managed to do was smudge it more. As urgent shouts filled the silence of moments before, she sped downstairs, emerging into the soot-filled air, her breath coming in painful gasps. She hesitated, suddenly reluctant to discover what horror had precipitated the blood-curdling screams.

‘Where are you going, Miss Bannatyne?’ a man asked, grabbing her by the elbow.

‘What’s happened? Is it my father?’

His lip curled. ‘No, it’s not your father. What would he be doing down here? It’s an accident. Nothing unusual, but not summat a young lass like you should see. Better go back indoors.’

She shook his arm away. ‘Let me go!’ she couldn’t just go back inside – she had to see for herself.

Eyes fixed on the huddle of men obscuring her view, she threaded her way through the grim-stained figures, their stale sweat mingling with the smell of burning coal, welded steel and other odours too foreign to identify, until she was standing inside the circle of onlookers. One of the workers, his face deathly pale, lay on the ground, pinned down by several steel girders. Blood seeped from beneath him, staining the dust red and, just visible through his torn trousers, white bone glistened through a ragged gash in his lower leg Margaret clamped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out. Part of her wanted to turn away, to slip back through the mass of bodies and return to the safety of her father’s office, but another, stronger part couldn’t tear her eyes away from the scene unfolding in front of her.

The injured man groaned, sweat trickling down his face and pooling in the hollow of his neck. He looked up at his colleagues with frightened, pain-filled eyes. ‘Help me. For God’s sake.’

His please galvanised the group into action. Several men jostled past her, almost pushing her to the ground. One of them crouched by his side and grabbed the end of the girder. He turned back to the watching men. ‘We need to get the weight off him. Come on, men, put your backs into it.’

‘Stop!’

The shout, loud enough to be heard over the clanging metal, stopped the men in their tracks. Way above her head, so high up she had to crane her neck to see, a shipyard worker was standing on the scaffolding surrounding the ship currently under construction.

Ignoring the ladders connecting the different levels, he ran across a narrow plank, grabbed hold of a steel pole and swung down to the levels below. As he descended at breakneck speed, Margaret held her breath. If he wasn’t careful, he could easily plunge to his death.

But within moments he was on the ground and the crowd parted to let him through.

‘Jimmy,’ he said, addressing the man who had ordered the others to move the girders, ‘we’ll not be able to lift those off him without a crane. Get one over here. Toni, fetch the stretcher. And a cart too.’

The new arrival couldn’t be much older than her, yet to her surprise the men did his bidding without argument. He shoved dark hair out of his eyes and knelt by the injured man’s side. ‘How are you holding up, Hamish?’

‘I’ve been better, Alasdair. I’ve a feeling I’ll no’ be home for my tea.’

A brief smile crossed the younger man’s face as he ran his hands across Hamish’s body. ‘Aye, well. I’ll get someone to let the wife know. In the meantime, let me have a look see.’

Why didn’t they lift the girders off Hamish? He needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. Why were the workers listening to this man? Where was her father? He should be here, telling them what to do.

‘Alasdair, lad, we have to get him out from under that weight,’ one of the men said. It appeared she wasn’t the only one wondering about the delay.

The dark-haired man shook his head. ‘He’s punctured an artery at the top of his leg. The pressure of the girders is stopping him from bleeding like a pig. If we take them off without putting on a tourniquet first, he’ll not last more than a few minutes.’ He yanked off his belt and wrapped it around the top of the injured man’s thigh. ‘Hold on, Hamish. We’re going to move you in a bit. I just need to do something first.’

He glanced up, his eyes narrowing as he caught sight of her. ‘You. Do you have anything I can use as a bandage?’

Margaret stiffened. He’d spoken to her as if she were a nobody. Anyway, she didn’t have a handkerchief and her dress was stained with soot from the yard. ‘No. I’m sorry.’

‘You’re wearing a petticoat, aren’t you? Tear a strip off and pass it to me.’

As several pairs of eyes swivelled in her direction, she blushed. ‘I can’t do that. Not in front of everyone.’

‘You’re going to have to. There’s nothing else. I need something to staunch the bleeding that’s not covered in muck.’

‘That’s Bannatyne’s lass,’ one of the men said. ‘Best leave her out of it.’

‘I don’t care if she’s the Queen of Sheba. She shouldn’t be here but since she is, she can help.’

Her face burning, Margaret lifted the hem of her dress. She tried to rip a piece off her petticoat but couldn’t make even the tiniest tear. ‘I can’t.’

Alasdair gave an exasperated shake of his head. ‘Someone help her.’ When no one made a move, he rose to his feet. ‘Is the crane here?’

‘Aye, son. And the stretcher.’

‘Right then, secure the poles.’ While the men started tying ropes around the girders, Alasdair stepped towards her. Before she could stop him, he lifted her dress and tore a strip from her petticoat with his teeth.

He looked up at her and a smile flitted across his face. ‘Sorry, Miss Bannatyne.’ He was so close she could see the freckles scattered across his face. Thick, long lashes framed eyes the colour of the sky in winter.

As soon as the ropes were tied, Alasdair knelt once more on the ground beside the injured man. ‘Hamish, I know it hurts like buggery now, but it’s going to hurt even more when we lift the girders. You can yell as loud as you like. No one here will mind.’ He squeezed Hamish’s shoulder. ‘Right, lads. As slowly and as carefully as you can.’

The ropes tightened, then inch by inch, the lengths of steel began to lift. Hamish screamed, his arms thrashing about in agony. Margaret watched in horror as blood spurted over Alasdair’s hands.

‘Hold still, Hamish. For the love of God, just hold still.’

If Hamish could hear Alasdair he was in too much pain to pay heed. He continued to flail his arms, trying to push Alasdair away.

‘Someone hold him down, for God’s sake!’ Alasdair shouted, his bloodied fingers slipping on the straps of his makeshift tourniquet.

One of the men pressed down on Hamish’s shoulders and Alasdair tightened the belt until the blood slowed to a trickle. Satisfied, he moved on to the gash in Hamish’s lower leg, wrapping the strips of Margaret’s torn petticoat tightly over the wound. Within moments his temporary bandage had turned red.

‘Pass me some planks,’ he ordered.

Eager hands thrust several at him. He discarded a few before selecting four of equal length. He placed one on either side of each of Hamish’s legs and tied them quickly with more belts.

‘Let’s get him onto the stretcher, lads,’ he said. ‘Go carefully. His legs are likely broken. The planks will help – but only a little.’

As they moved him, Hamish screamed again, then mercifully fell silent. They laid his unconscious body on the stretcher and set it on the back of the cart.

‘Take him to the Infirmary. As quickly as you can. Avoid the potholes. I’ll let the boss know what’s happened, once I find out what went wrong.’

‘Is he going to be all right?’ Margaret asked, grabbing Alasdair’s arm.

‘You need to leave, Miss,’ he replied curtly. His expression softened. ‘There’s no more any of us can do here. It’s up to the doctors at the hospital now.’ He turned back towards the men. ‘Right. Those who have nothing to say about what happened, back to work.’

As the cart rolled away she looked up. Her father was standing at his office window, staring down. Doing nothing. Just looking.

 

The Shipbuilder’s Daughter is available from Amazon.co.uk and The Book Depository now, and will be available from Amazon.com in October.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – English Rose for the Sicilian Doc by Annie Claydon

9781474051507 This book almost didn’t get written!  I so loved doing the research that I would have quite happily spent all my time on that 🙂  But – as you can see – I did manage to tear myself away, and start to write.  And I was glad I did, because my archaeologist heroine gets to explore the beautiful island of Sicily, and solve a mystery.  And, to complete my writing bliss, she does so with the help of a handsome doctor!

Chapter One

The building shone white in the sunshine, a line of tall palm trees announcing that this was a place of some importance. Rose Palmer gripped her son’s hand, walking through the wide entrance doors and into a spacious reception area, refreshingly cool after the heat of the afternoon.

A building like this showed intent. Any archaeologist would tell you that buildings gave an insight into what a community thought was important, and Rose was no exception. The high ceilings and clean lines were a clear statement that the work that went on here was both vital and serious.

She hung on tight to William’s hand, for fear of losing him in amongst the melee of people who criss-crossed the space. She couldn’t see a reception desk, and she supposed the best thing to do was to ask someone. Easier said than done. Everyone seemed too intent on getting wherever they were going to stop and give directions.

‘Scusi…’ A woman in a white top that bore the insignia of the hospital stopped, and smilingly asked her something in Italian. Hopefully she wasn’t in need of directions too.

‘Inglese.’ Rose proffered the piece of paper that her friend Elena had given her, with details of William’s appointment, written in Italian.

‘Ah. Sì…’ The woman scanned the paper and shot a brilliant smile at William. Rose was getting used to the way that Sicilians always reserved their brightest smiles for young children, and so was her son. William reached up, and the woman took his small hand in hers.

‘Terzo piano…’ The woman gestured towards the lift and then thought better of it. Taking a pen from her pocket, she walked over to a water dispenser, leaning on the side of it to draw on the paper, smiling at William as she did so. Then she proffered the hand-drawn map, holding up her thumb and two fingers and pointing to the lift to indicate that Rose should go to the third floor.

Third floor, turn right and then the second on the left. She got it. Rose nodded and smiled and thanked the woman falteringly in Italian. William waved goodbye, and the woman responded cheerily, watching her all the way to the lift.

Upstairs, the corridors were less grand and more utilitarian. Rose followed her map, and found herself in a small, comfortable waiting room. A receptionist scanned her written directions and waved her towards the rows of chairs, before picking up her phone.

Rose made her way to the far corner, and sat down. She would rather have flown back to England to do this, but Elena and her husband would have none of it. All of the visiting archaeologists working at the dig were covered by private health insurance and this hospital was one of the best in the world. They would make the appointment for her and request a translator, and William would be in good hands. She was a guest on the island, and anything less would be considered as a lapse in hospitality.

And the one thing that Rose had learned very quickly was that you faulted Sicilian hospitality at your peril. So she’d accepted the offer and driven here, privately deciding that if the language barrier turned out to be more than she or William could cope with, she’d find an excuse to be on the first plane back home for a couple of days.

Someone laughed, and Rose looked up to see a man chatting with the receptionist. Her face was animated, smiling up at him in the way that women did when someone they liked also happened to be breath-catchingly handsome.

And even by the rigorous standards of the island this man was handsome. Straight, dark hair, grazing his collar. Smooth olive skin, high cheekbones and lips that were meant to smile. Rose couldn’t see his eyes, but she imagined them chocolate brown.

Only a man so immaculate could have got away with that jacket. Dark cream, obviously linen—on anyone less perfect it would have looked rumpled. But on him it seemed as if every crease had been carefully chosen and styled, to make the most of his broad shoulders and the slim lines of his hips.

Suddenly he turned, looking straight at her. His eyes were brown. Dark, seventy per cent cocoa, with a hint of bite. Rose dropped her gaze, embarrassed to be caught staring.

‘Mrs Palmer?’ He’d walked over and dropped into a chair opposite her. His voice was like chocolate, too.

‘Ms Palmer.’ It was a convenient halfway house for a single woman with a child. ‘Um… Parla Inglese?’

He grinned and Rose felt her ears start to burn. ‘Yes, I speak English. I’m Matteo Di Salvo, and I’m here to translate for Dr Garfagnini. He’s the paediatric specialist who’ll be seeing William today.’

Perfect. His English was clear and almost unaccented, although the slight difference in tempo made it sound seductive. Or perhaps that was just the way he spoke. Seductive just about summed him up.

Rose took a breath, trying to concentrate on the practicalities. ‘Thank you. You’re the interpreter here?’

‘No, I’m a doctor. Our interpreter is busy with some English tourists in the emergency department…’ He gave a shrug, which indicated that the matter shouldn’t be given a second thought. ‘Dr Garfagnini is running a few minutes late, and I wondered if I might take the opportunity to get to know William a little.’

Handsome and kind. And he spoke English. This man was a bit too good to be true.

‘Thank you so much, Dr Di Salvo. I appreciate it.’ Rose remembered that a handshake was usual in these circumstances and held out her hand.

‘Matteo, please…’ The caress of his fingers was just as alluring as the rest of him.

‘Rose.’ She snatched her hand from his, feeling her cheeks burn, and curled her arm around her son.

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels, Hot Docs!, New Releases

Excerpt from Forbidden to the Playboy Surgeon by Fiona Lowe

London

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

MEDICAL3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parkouring in the dark?

    Alive not dead, thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Always. Problem?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Alistair,’ she started purposefully and then stopped.

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

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

With that mouth, she’s hardly plain.

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

His blood leapt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That won’t be necess—’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – A Mother to Make a Family

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

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was alive.

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

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

‘Lila!’

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

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

‘It hurts.’

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

‘My back.’

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Could you do it?’ he asked.

‘Yes. But it hurts.’

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

Tears spilled from Lila’s lashes onto her cheeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you know what happened?’

‘I came off Fudge.’

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

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

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

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

‘Is she going to be okay, Dad?’

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

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

‘You can fix her, can’t you, Dad?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

And waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

Things were different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I know what you’re doing,’ she said.

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

‘You want me to talk to Rico.’

‘He’s a nice guy.’

‘I’m not saying he’s not but-’

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

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

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

*

 

‘Could I have your number?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure.’

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

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

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

           

*

 

He was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wait!’

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

‘Thank you for getting those pencils for Lila.’

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

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

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

***

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Excerpt – No Job for a Girl, by Meredith Appleyard

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

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

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll have sparkling water, please.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You disapprove?’

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

‘Maybe I don’t have one?’

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

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

‘Cakes? You take cakes to the studio?’

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

‘I thought models starved themselves.’

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

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

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

‘Exactly.’

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

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

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

‘No, I haven’t eaten. Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Who was she?

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

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

Much more.

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

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

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

‘Fancy a stroll along the sea front?’

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

‘Me, too.’

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

Red shoes, no pants…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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