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Authors: Joanie MacNeil

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BOOK: December Heat
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“What
kind of work did he do? We lost contact for a while. I’ve no idea what his life was like.”

Not
what you think, she could have told him. “You probably knew him better than I did in some ways. He changed his mind often about what he wanted to do. You know he was keen on photography?”

Jake
nodded.

“He
got quite good at it too. For a while he enjoyed it, but then he slowly lost interest.” Lost interest in life, she’d almost said but stopped herself in time. There wasn’t any point in Jake knowing that Mark had just given up. Already she’d said too much. Jake’s gaze burned into her.

“Would
you like to see some of his work later?”

It
was too late to recall the words. She hadn’t meant to offer, but felt she had to say something to change the subject before Jake’s curiosity forged questions she’d prefer not to answer. “Only if you want to, of course.” Surely he’d decline. She crossed her fingers behind her back.

“You
don’t mind, do you?”

Disappointed,
she shook her head. “No, of course not.”

She
kicked off from the side of the pool and began to swim its length in long slow strokes. At least if her face was in the water, Jake wouldn’t see the effect the conversation had on her. She’d give Jake a selection of Mark’s work, and then stay out of the way until he’d seen it all.

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

“Nicolette,
there’s a man getting out of your pool!”

Magenta,
with Kylie resting on her mother’s shoulder, stared through the sliding glass door which led out to the pool.

“Wow!”
Her breath rushed out. “Look at him. He’s gorgeous.” She fanned herself with her hand.

Nic
smiled at her friend’s reaction. “Eyes off, Magenta, you’re a happily married woman...and a mother!”

“What’s
that got to do with enjoying the local scenery?” she asked indignantly, her gaze glued to the window.

Nicolette
followed her vision beyond the glass.

Jake
walked to the lounger where he’d left his towel. His tautly muscled body glistened in the sun. He looked magnificent, and she related well to how he’d captured Magenta’s attention. Her own heart felt like it was doing pushups.

“How
long have you been hiding him away in this lonely house of yours? He’s gorgeous, Nicky.”

“I’m
not hiding him. He’s a friend of Mark’s. He’s not my lover, for goodness sake.” She drew away from the glass, not wanting Jake to know he was being observed and talked about, but Magenta had no qualms about openly drinking in the sight of him.

“They
used to work together. He’s staying here for a little while. He’ll be gone again right after Christmas.”

Magenta
dragged her gaze away from Jake and turned to Nic who knew her friend well enough to know what was coming next. Magenta raised an eyebrow, suspicion written all over her face. “Sure, Nicky,” she said. “Pull the other one.”

“It’s
true! There’s nothing going on here.”

“Would
you like there to be?” Magenta’s voice was soft, coaxing.

“No,
not at all. He’s just a friend. That’s all there can be between us. He works in Europe, my life is here. And we are too different, want different things from life.”

“You
know they say opposites attract.”

“I
know, but in this case, it would be a disaster. One day I’d like a family, a baby just like Kylie.” She stroked the back of her finger gently on Kylie’s tiny delicate fingers. “I could never have that with Jake. He likes to keep on the move. I want someone who will share a house with me, be there when I need him, day in and day out.”

“You
had that with Mark.”

“Yes,
I know. And look what a disaster that turned out to be. Mark and I weren’t right for each other, but we didn’t realize it at the time. I don’t want the same thing to happen again.”

Magenta
nodded in understanding. “Even so, you can’t closet yourself away indefinitely. Take advantage while he’s here. Live a little.”

That’s
what Nic was afraid of...that she’d give in to temptation and enjoy it too much. Jake’s departure would be too much of a wrench on her already fragile emotions.

“So
what’s your friend’s name?”

“Jake...Jake
Harrigan.” Nic waited for the penny to drop.

“Oh,
not the Jake Harrigan, from the television?”

“The very
same.”

“Oh
my. I didn’t recognize him without his clothes. He’s even more gorgeous in the flesh.” She stole another glance through the window. “Look at the way he moves. Why Nicky, he almost prowls.” She gave a low feminine growl. “Great body too.”

Nic
couldn’t resist. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Magenta
spun around. “Lord, Nicky, when are you going to start living again?”

“When
I’m ready, and not before,” she said, watching Jake make his way toward the glass sliding door.

“Morning,
ladies,” he said as he entered the room, towel slung low on his hips, his gaze lingering on Nic.

“You
must be Jake.” Magenta held out her hand. Jake turned his attention to her, grasping her hand in both of his.

“That’s
me. You must be Kylie’s mum.”

“Magenta.”

He smiled at her, Magenta beamed back at him, and Nic thought she might as well not have been present, but then Jake turned to her and gave her one of his smiles that he seemed to save especially for her. A personal kind of smile, a smile that sparked a warmth in his eyes. Her heart raced, she warmed all over, and smiled nervously back at him.

She
felt Magenta’s gaze flick from her to Jake and then back again. Nic tried not to give anything away beneath her friend’s scrutiny.

“Breakfast
is ready if you’d like some,” Nic suggested, not knowing what else to say and trying desperately to hang on to her cool.

“Thanks.
I’ll just put some clothes on first.”

Nic
glanced at Magenta, knowing what her friend’s likely comment would be. Magenta looked innocently at her and Nic returned the look with a frown.

“Are
we looking after Kylie today?” Jake asked, directing his question at Nic.

“Yes.”

“Good. She’s so beautiful,” he said.

“You
should see him with her.” Nic couldn’t help it. “She just loves him.”

“The
baby has great taste, like her mother,” Magenta replied. “Now, on that note, before you frown at me anymore, Nicky, I’d better be off or I’ll be late.”

“Here,
let me.” Jake held out his arms.

Magenta
handed her precious little bundle to Jake who cuddled the baby close to him.

“I’ll
see you out,” Nic offered. Anything to get her away from the semi-naked Jake who looked way too appealing cuddling a tiny baby to his well-muscled chest.

She
walked Magenta to the door. “He likes babies,” she whispered. “How could he not be interested in having a family of his own?”

Nic
shrugged. “Take it from me, Magenta. He’s not into that sort of thing. It definitely wouldn’t work for us.” She opened the door for her friend.

“Seriously,
Nicky, you’re going to have to get a life.”

“Dancing
is all the life I want right now. At least that doesn’t cause me any heartache.”

“Maybe
so, but you’re a vibrant young woman going to waste here in the wilds. Don’t wait too long or you might regret it.”

With
that, Nic closed the door and turned to face Jake.

But
he was gone.

She
found him in the room where Kylie slept, and watched silently from the door as Jake changed the baby’s nappy. All the while he crooned softly and Kylie looked up at him, her little fists stabbing at the air, a trusting expression on her face as she cooed back at him.

Nic’s
heart clenched. If only she could trust her own heart to Jake in the same way. She could do it easily enough...if there was no risk of permanent damage.

 

* * *

 

Nic rubbed Kylie’s back gently. “There, there,” she cooed softly. Kylie’s little legs tucked up under her as the whimpering grew louder. “Let’s get rid of that nasty old pain.” She continued with her stroking movements, applying slight pressure to the tiny defenseless body slumped on her shoulder.

A
hard burp filled the air. “There, that’s better.” Exhausted, Kylie relaxed against Nic’s shoulder and sighed.

Nic
sat in the love seat on the verandah and began rocking gently. Jake’s gaze focused on her the minute she’d arrived with the baby.

“You
seem to know what you’re doing there.”

Images
of Jake changing Kylie’s nappy popped into her mind. I’m not the only one. She would cherish that memory long after Jake was out of her life. She doubted anyone else had seen that side of him. Not even Mark.

Nic
shrugged. “I suppose so. It’s not that hard when you know what to do. Sometimes in high school, when we lived in the city, I’d baby-sit for the neighbors.” She rested her cheek against Kylie’s warm head, the barely visible covering of hair like soft downy velvet against her skin.

“Are
you doing anything special for Christmas?”

Nic’s
heart tumbled. I want to spend it with you, were the first words to enter her head. “Nothing special.” Her voice trembled and she hoped Jake hadn’t noticed.

“Not
going to spend time with family, friends?”

“Magenta
suggested I spend Christmas with them, but I haven’t decided yet.” Anything would be better than spending it alone.

Should
she ask him?

“And
what about your family, parents, brothers and sisters? Surely they aren’t abandoning you, not this Christmas.”

“I
don’t have any brothers or sisters. My parents were posted to London last year. That’s why Mark and I were able to live in this house. They were coming home in time for Christmas, but Dad’s posting has been extended for another six months.”

Jake
nodded.

“I
don’t have any plans to join them.”

“Why
not? It beats sitting here in the bush on your own. London is exciting at Christmas. It’s a world all its own...so far removed from the December heat.”

Nic
was almost too embarrassed to tell him exactly why not. Most people laughed and told her she was a big baby. She took a deep breath. “I...I don’t like flying, especially as far as the UK. So, there’ll just be me.” Regret laced her voice. She dreaded being alone at Christmas.

Jake
didn’t laugh and she silently thanked him for it. “A lot of people don’t like flying. Have you ever tried?”

She
nodded. “Once. I flew to New Zealand with the dance company. Was sick as a dog all the way there and back. It was a real nightmare. That’s how I met Mark. He was sitting beside me on the way over and helped me through it. He made me laugh.”

She
paused at the memory. “At that point I didn’t care if I lived or died. I just wanted to get off that plane, get my feet on the ground. I promised myself never again.”

She
laughed gently. “He couldn’t believe that on the flight back to Sydney, he’d been allocated the seat next to mine. He told me at least he knew what he was in for during the flight and was more prepared. After the first time, there could be no surprises for him.”

“Mark
had a weird sense of humor sometimes.”

“Yes,
he did. And what about you?”

Their
gazes met and held. Kylie sighed heavily into the silence.

“I
don’t think my sense of humor is as weird as Mark’s was.” He looked thoughtful, as if trying to recall some past example.

“I
meant Christmas. I know you don’t have a problem with flying.”

“You’re
not the adventurous sort, are you?”

She
shook her head. “I like my home. It’s where I feel comfortable, safe.”

Jake’s
smile warmed her, gave her courage.

“If
you don’t have any plans, you’d be most welcome to stay on for Christmas.”

“Thanks,
I’ll keep that in mind. I’ve made tentative arrangements elsewhere, but nothing is set in stone.”

She
smiled, not sure if she was relieved Jake would be out of her hair or disappointed he might be.

“Tell
me about you and Mark, Nic,” he said softly. “There’s so much about your lives I don’t know. From what you’ve said, there were, er, problems....”

This
was dangerous ground. How much should she tell him? Would he think less of her if he knew the truth about Mark’s death? She’d barely been able to admit it to herself, let alone voice her thoughts, except to Danny in a weak moment. But she knew he’d take her secret to the grave with him.

“When
I gave up my career to take care of Mark....”

“You
gave up your career for Mark?”

“You
didn’t know that, did you?”

“No,
I did not. When you said you’d taken a break, it never occurred to me it was...well...permanent, and I’d always assumed...never mind. Go on.”

“Mark
had made a decision to walk away from a job he loved to do. It was...it was something I needed to do.” It had been a wrench to give up all she’d worked so hard to achieve. But Mark had needed her and she felt she’d had no choice. She’d done all in her power to help her marriage survive its first crisis. But there were just some things that couldn’t be done single-handed.

“You
must have loved Mark very much.”

BOOK: December Heat
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