Authors: Joanie MacNeil
By Joanie MacNeil
Books We Love Ltd.
Copyright 2014 by Joan Wright
Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright 2014
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book
There was something about the way a woman applied her lipstick. The way she held her mouth, soft, open, inviting.
Striding silently into the bedroom
and through to the narrow walk-in closet, Jake hadn’t been aware of her at first, locating the bathroom had been uppermost in his mind. But now, he stopped dead and admired the reflection of the attractive brunette as she added another layer of earthy redwood color to her mouth, emphasizing the shape of her full, sensuous lips.
perceived her as a princess. Maybe he’d had too much to drink and was imagining things. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes for a moment, but this gorgeous woman was no apparition.
hadn’t he noticed her at the party before this?
body stirred and he adjusted his stance to ease the discomfort. The princess must have noticed the movement for she raised her eyes and caught his gaze in the mirror; compelling him to remain focused on her while she replaced the lipstick cap, and slipped it into the small purse slung from her shoulder.
the gaze momentarily, she turned to face him, her hazel eyes round and expectant. He’d never seen eyes quite like hers—neither the color nor shape. There was something special and alluring about them.
stepped forward, and Jake stood aside to allow her passage through the narrow gap between himself and the shelves. She turned side-on to move past him, their bodies barely touching, but Jake could sense the sizzle between them, feel the heat of her body caressing his.
to help himself, he reached out, and leaned his hand on the shelf to prevent her from escaping. Her lips parted slightly, her expression one of surprise. At the same moment, he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her soft, full lips. The tip of his tongue ventured further, tasting her. Jake, sure there was some reciprocation, convinced himself she didn’t mind one little bit. He deepened the kiss.
yanked at his hair, dragging painfully at his scalp. Still locked in his crazy fantasy, Jake wrenched his mouth away, his breath fast and shallow.
sharp slap of her palm stung his cheek, shattering the sweet remembrance of her kiss.
reaction stunned him. His hand moved to his face as he watched her walk away, only then realizing what a foolish move he’d made. No matter what, Jake was certain there’d been at the very least, a flicker of interest in her initial response. A man didn’t imagine these things, nor did he need to rely on alcohol to know when a woman reacted sensually to him.
A short time later, with the party still in full swing, Jake circulated amongst the guests. He found Mark, his best friend and camera
man, the other half of their news/documentary team.
mate, I’ve just had the most incredible experience,” Jake said, and it irked him that he didn’t even know her name. If he should see her later, would she accept his apology or dismiss him as a stupid jerk?
with the taste of her still on his lips, Jake didn’t notice Mark’s own excitement at first.
great,” Mark replied, only half-listening, Jake realized. What was the matter with Mark tonight?
someone I want you to meet.”
followed his friend’s gaze. His heart skipped a beat. The princess! An intro. He couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and perhaps a chance to apologize away his foolishness. He knew her kiss would haunt him for a long time to come, even if he didn’t get to know her better. Mark held out his hand in invitation for the woman to join them.
first she seemed a little reluctant, or was that Jake’s overactive imagination?
glided into Mark’s inviting embrace, her golden honey gaze traveling over Jake.
this is Nicolette Oliver. We’re going to be married.” Mark beamed and drew her closer.
bottom dropped out of Jake’s heart. Forcing a smile, he held out his hand. “Congratulations, Nicolette. Mark is a very lucky man.”
smooth palm lightly grazed his as if she didn’t want to touch him. She looked down her nose at him, summed him up with one chilling glance. The woman gave him the briefest of forced smiles, but it was the confusion in her eyes that taunted Jake the most.
you in the news field too?” he asked, merely to make polite conversation. With a little luck she’d realize he wasn’t a complete moron.
a dancer, modern and traditional, some ballet...not exotic.”
step ahead of him, she’d read his mind. Silently, Jake commended her perception.
I’ve seen you perform?”
likely,” she replied coolly. There was an air of superiority about her he didn’t much care for. He sensed a coldness in her, a complete contrast to the woman who’d shared the heat of that erotic kiss with him. How on earth could a class act like Nicolette Oliver be attracted to a laid back ratbag like Mark?
Mark didn’t know what he was getting himself into, then it wasn’t up to Jake to tell him.
by a need to get the long trip over and done with, Jake Harrigan drove his rented car as fast as the speed limit and traffic allowed. Thanks to roadwork and an abundance of vehicles traveling in his direction, the trip from Sydney airport had been hell, and taken far longer than he’d anticipated.
he reached the historic town of Windsor, nestled on the banks of the Hawkesbury River at the foot of the rugged Blue Mountains. Only about another thirty-five kilometers to Mark’s home, thank God. He’d had enough.
underlying sense of anticipation at seeing his old friend again kept him humming during the long drive. He and Mark had shared many a hair-raising experience filming news and documentaries in the world’s war-torn zones and hot spots. Mark’s daring and expertise with a camera captured some amazing footage over the years.
Mark would understand what he, Jake, had suffered in recent months. Only a kindred spirit like Mark could understand the need to heal both physically and emotionally, to enable him to return to his job as foreign correspondent. And only Mark, could help Jake recover sufficiently to do just that.
turned his attention back to his surroundings. The peaceful countryside was such a contrast to the places he’d been. The road wound through flood plains covered with market gardens or turf-growing farms and small settlements, through bush, national parks and flower farms. Occasionally a jam and pickle stall punctuated the side of the road. Further into the hills, the houses became even more sparsely scattered, an occasional dwelling embedded in the hillside and almost hidden by bush.
drive seemed endless, but he pushed on in the hope that any minute now he should come to the mailbox marking the entrance to the driveway leading to the home Mark shared with his wife.
Jake’s thoughts continued to drift. In spite of the December heat, Jake couldn’t prevent the frisson of apprehension that skittered down his spine. Hell, why had Nicolette filled so much of his thoughts lately anyway? For the hundredth time he wondered what Mark saw in her.
was bossy and a snob, and had forced her husband to give up the adventurous life he loved, not to mention an exceptional career.
just because she ruined, no, dictated Mark’s life, didn’t mean that he, Jake, had to fall prey to her demands. And no doubt, she’d see his presence as a threat to her cozy life try to boss him about as long as he was under her roof. Hell, no. He’d have none of that. He was a man of the world, an adventurous spirit. Nothing, but nothing, would force him to do something he didn’t want to do.
never allow anyone that much power over him. Especially, not a woman.
on lonely, desperate nights, that kiss returned to haunt him.
he’d misjudged her. Hmmm. A possibility. After all, they barely knew each other. But something had passed between them at that first meeting. That kiss had rocked him, shocked him. And Nicolette had never forgiven him for taking advantage. From her reaction, it was very clear to Jake that he hadn’t been the only one who’d been shaken to the core.
he’d realized who she was right at the beginning, he would never have been so brazen. Though alcohol may have coerced his brain into acting foolishly, his senses had been on full alert. There’d been heat in her response, and though she did her best to veil it, Jake knew for certain it had been there, lurking just below the surface. Alcohol hadn’t dulled his senses one little bit.
thinking about that kiss after all this time took his breath away. With the prospect of seeing her again, no wonder he couldn’t get her out of his thoughts.
mailbox stood out. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. A cow, made mostly of drums, and painted bright red. Even a blind man couldn’t miss it. Jake smiled. That had to be Mark’s doing. He had an outrageous sense of humor when it suited his purpose.
checking the rear vision mirror, Jake indicated, then turned left and drove over the culvert, steering the car through the narrow gateway. He couldn’t see the house from here. Much to his surprise, the road leading to the house was paved. It wound down the hill like a dark metallic ribbon which he followed carefully, one eye on the view over the Hawkesbury.
he saw the house nestled into the hillside. It was low at the front, the side that faced him, and from the angle of the road, he could tell the house was high at the back. Somehow he hadn’t expected that. The bare timbered walls blended into the surrounding colors of the landscape. The height of the balcony at the back would allow a magnificent view across the tops of the trees on the slope below, all the way to the river.
whistled. “God’s own country,” he muttered as he drove closer to the house.
how in the hell did Mark stand living here in the middle of nowhere, so far away from the action, day in, day out?
swore it would drive him crazy. If he weren’t such a worn out mess, he wouldn’t be here. He’d be taking leave somewhere more adventurous, white-water rafting, skiing the snowfields of Europe, skydiving, hot air ballooning, bungie-jumping off impossibly high cliffs. Anything to feed the thrill of an adrenaline rush.
taste of the quiet life, a change of pace, would be a novelty, though, giving him a chance to heal both mind and body. He hoped the process of healing wouldn’t drive him crazy in such a far-flung backwater.
the scenery was something else, but the isolation would get to a man, Jake reflected as he brought the car to a halt in the paved parking area at the end of the drive, surrounded by native gardens. Beyond was the river, wide, and brown shimmering in the heat, beckoning him into its refreshing depths.
then, Mark had Nicolette to keep him company and Jake wondered if she was still as he remembered. Probably. Women like that never changed. They just got worse. More bossy, with higher expectations. How did Mark put up with her? Giving away one’s freedom seemed a high price to pay for the company of a woman. Even if she was the love of your life.
that Jake didn’t like women. There were so many to choose from, why would a man want to limit himself to just one? It took only one to break a man’s heart.
shook his head. Never in all his days would he understand the depth of power a woman held over a man. He’d yet to meet the woman who could mold him to suit herself. He didn’t believe such a woman existed.
eased himself out of the car and slowly stretched his stiff, aching body. Most of his outer wounds had begun to heal, save for the bruising he’d sustained from the severe beating at the hands of the rebels. He should have stopped once or twice on the trip to ease the discomfort of sitting for too long, but the thought of catching up with Mark pushed him and he wanted the journey over with.
glanced around. The tall trees of the surrounding bush loomed a few meters from where he stood. The peace and tranquility were almost tangible. Mark did pick a pretty spot to spend his days. Even Jake had to admit that. He pondered momentarily on the river, imagining himself floating lazily along with the current, eventually coursing east on the water’s journey to Broken Bay, before it spilled into, and mingled, with the Pacific.
water shimmered in the sunshine, but the relentless heat of the December sun beat down on him, leaving him feeling more drained than ever. Jake grimaced. On such a glorious summer’s day like this, a man really appreciated being alive, and God knew, he very nearly wasn’t.
his bag from the car, Jake took a deep breath of fresh, clean air, a world away from the acrid smell of gunpowder, smoke, battle, hospital odors and death. His strength was sapped now after such a tedious drive. He didn’t know how long it would be before he fully regained his strength. He needed to get mobile again, get back into the action. What else was there to do with his life? Certainly not spend it in some backwater like this.
let himself through the gate and followed the cobblestone path to the door. The garden was neat and tidy, mostly native species to blend in with the surrounding area.
a far corner, several cartons of empty wine bottles were stacked up along a garden wall. He grinned, thinking Mark must throw quite a few parties. A party. Now that wasn’t a bad idea, and would liven things up a bit. Perhaps he could get to meet some of the local talent, of the female variety of course. Hmm, things were suddenly looking up.
knocked briskly, aware of the slight rush of adrenaline, his life’s blood. Man, it would be good to see Mark again. There was so much to catch up on.
bright yellow door gave way to his knock and slowly opened.
first, he caught a glimpse of a baby cradled in the crook of an arm. Mark was a father? He couldn’t believe it. But then, Jake realized he’d been out of circulation for some time now.
door opened wider to reveal an attractive slender woman. She was smaller than he remembered, though she wasn’t quite as thin as his memory suggested. Surprise registered on her elfin, heart-shaped, face.
delicacy of her features was misleading, he thought wryly. Experience had taught him she wasn’t as fragile as she looked. The cutest looking hat sat perched on top of her short honey-brown hair, the ends of which fell to just below her ears, skimming her jaw. He remembered her hair had been long. The one occasion he’d touched it, the strands slipped silkily against his skin. He’d tried to run his fingers through it right before she’d slapped him.
eyes rose to meet his. A spark of recognition flickered, and she quickly dragged the combination of raffia and large orange, yellow and pink blooms from her head and tossed it to one side, beyond his view.
heart slammed into his chest.
just seeing her again brought back memories of the party. When he made that ridiculous pass at her, a move she’d made him regret each time they’d met since. Though she hadn’t said anything specific, it was more in the way she looked down that cute little upturned nose of hers that told him exactly what she thought of him.
now, there’d be no such passes. Even if he had to resort to several daily dunkings in the river, he would keep himself in check as he knew she would. Nicolette was a classy woman and he was left in no doubt of her loyalty to Mark. And his own loyalty to his friend was without question.
gaze swept over him and he did his best to ignore the warm feeling stealing through his body.
This is a surprise.”
the tone of her voice, a slight tremble, it was hard to tell whether she was pleased to see him or not.
are you doing here? I mean...like this...out of the blue?” She shrugged as if there was nothing left to say, or if there was, she was too stunned to form the words.
questioning surprise on her face fed his smile. “Hello, Nicolette. It’s good to see you again,” he said, feeling slightly nervous. She did that to him, but strangely, this time she didn’t seem as unfriendly and cold as he’d expected, which threw him a bit. Instead, she looked small and fragile and with a baby in her arms, her vulnerability surfaced to shadow her eyes.
to see me?” He couldn’t resist asking. Her face remained impassive. It was as if she struggled to school her features. The myriad of expressions in her eyes told him she was far from calm.
tried not to notice the way she was dressed, but the bright pink fluoro bikini was hard to miss, especially the way the barely-there brief clung to her shapely though narrow hips, and the triangular patches stretched taut to partially cover her full rounded breasts. The shoe-string straps looked as if any minute, they’d give up the task of holding everything together.
gaze flicked to the movement of tiny fingers as they played on the soft honey-tanned flesh just above the pink scrap of material. His fingers curled in response. Any minute now he’d have to throw himself in the river to cool off. His reaction had to stem from the December heat. He wasn’t used to it anymore, not since spending so much time in the bitter northern winters.
could say I’m surprised. Yes. What brings you here, Jake? I never expected you to turn up on the doorstep. Mark had just about given up hearing from you again.”
she certainly didn’t sound welcoming. Guarded, in fact. “I’m sorry, it’s been a while. I got caught up. Circumstances beyond my control. You know the sort of thing.” But she didn’t know the half of it.
considered him with close regard.
in a war zone, the postal service leaves a lot to be desired.”