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Authors: Joanie MacNeil

December Heat (6 page)

BOOK: December Heat
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Yes,
but not with you.

His
hand touched her elbow and they continued to walk along the edge of the river.

“Not
particularly, except to say I don’t think either of us was really prepared for marriage. Mark gave up so much by quitting his job. I should never have let him do that. It wasn’t the right thing for him...for his personality.”

Once
again, Jake paused and turned to face her. His hand rested lightly on her shoulder. At his touch, her heart shivered in anticipation. Of what, she couldn’t have said. It was just one of those sensations that left her feeling on the crest, ready for a new turn in her life.

“It
was his own choice, Nic. From what you’ve said, there probably wasn’t anything you could have done about it anyway. You know now stubborn Mark could be. Once he’d made up his mind about something, that was usually it.”

The
soft reassuring tones of his voice pampered her. “You knew him well.”

He
smiled, a wistful expression on his face, as if remembering something he and Mark shared. His arm dropped to his side and she missed the warm gentle pressure of his touch.

“I
couldn’t have not known what he was like, since we spent so much time together in stressful situations. Those kinds of circumstances tend to show what makes a person tick.”

“He’d
changed, Jake. Somewhere in those months after he quit working with you, he changed. And that’s the part that’s hardest to deal with.”

She
saw curiosity in the depths of his dark eyes, felt moisture threatening in her own. If she said any more, she’d lose her fragile control of those tears and tell him more than she was comfortable with.

Nic
still wasn’t sure if she’d been the sole cause of the unhappiness leading to Mark’s depression. They’d had their difficulties adjusting to married life. Had she expected too much of him? Not given enough of herself? Lord knows she’d questioned herself over and over about where she might have gone wrong until she thought she’d lose her sanity. Eventually she resigned herself to the fact that she’d never really know, that speculation resolved nothing, simply made her feel worse.

“Are
you hungry?”

Jake
blinked at her sudden change of subject. He studied her a moment longer and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. As long as he didn’t ask questions she wasn’t prepared to answer.

“Come
on, let’s go check out this historical inn.”

He
smiled at her, that smile she found hard to resist.

“Yes
please. I’m hungrier than I thought.”

Relief
washed through her as Jake escorted her back to the car. A few moments and he pulled up across the road from the pub, climbed from the car and walked around to open her door.

She
liked that about him. The gentleman beneath the wild adventurer. In spite of what she’d told Jake earlier about Mark being a gentleman, he’d always left her to fend for herself. That in turn had caused her to wonder if Mark really respected her. His subsequent change of behavior had led her to wonder a lot of things...things she’d never have an answer for.

Jake
ushered her around the car, checking for oncoming traffic before escorting her across the street.

“How long ago did you say it was built?” His gaze roamed over the sandstone colonial style building with its green and cream trim, the colors clean and sharp in the bright sunshine.

“1817.”

Nicolette glanced at her surroundings.

“Do
you want to sit outside or inside?”

Always
the gentleman, looking after his lady. Jake’s thoughtfulness made her feel warm, special, protected. Was he like this with all his women? She couldn’t help the tiny smile that played around her mouth though she didn’t want him to think he amused her. And since when did she consider herself one of his women? Heavens, entertaining that thought would get her into serious trouble.

She
couldn’t help but wonder if colonial ladies kept company with handsome rascals of their times...the equivalent of bad boys like Jake. “Let’s eat out. It’s such a lovely afternoon.”

“Fine
by me.”

A
few bikers sat at the wooden picnic benches nestled beneath the tall palms. A rock wall defined the boundary of the eating area, separating it from the footpath.

Nicolette
took a seat. “Look at those lion heads on the brick pillars. I wonder how old they are.”

“Quite
old, most probably. There’s a lot more to Wiseman’s Ferry than I’d imagined. Who would have thought a place like this would boast a bowling club and a golf club.”

Nicolette
smiled. “It’s quite a popular getaway spot on the weekends.”

“I
can see why. Are you ready to order? I could eat a horse and chase the rider.”

Nicolette
laughed. “Yes, let’s order. I’m starved too.”

 

* * *

 

Nicolette pushed her plate away. “That was so good.”

“I’m
glad you enjoyed it.” Jake watched her as he pushed his own plate toward the center of the table.

“Do
you want dessert?”

She
shook her head. “You have some if you want. I’ve already got an excess kilo or two to work off, so no dessert for me, thanks.”

Instantly
Jake thought of that fluorescent pink bikini, the way it barely covered her. His blood began to heat, and not from the warmth of the day.

“You
look great in that pink bikini. You don’t need to lose anymore weight.”

Her
honey-gold gaze washed over him. His heart warmed even more with her smile.

“That’s
very kind of you to say so, but if I’m to resume my dancing career quite soon, I have to keep in shape.”

Now
wasn’t that typical of a woman...impossible to convince her body was perfect the way it was.

“So,
you’re still dancing?”

“Yes,
though I did have a break for a while.” She hesitated as if unsure about something. Then she went on. “A dancer friend told me about a new production he’s putting together early next year. I’d very much like to be part of that.”

She
graced him with one of her brightest smiles, her eyes alight with hopes for resuming her career. “Now that Mark’s gone, dancing is my life. There’s nothing else I want to do.”

 

* * *

 

Nicolette didn’t tell Jake how apprehensive she was about going back on stage, facing an audience, being in the public eye again. She’d barely mixed with anyone since before Mark’s death. Only recently she’d begun to realize what a reclusive existence she’d lived these past few months. She hoped and prayed her former level of confidence would surface when she needed it most.

Mark
might have given up his career for her, but she’d also given up part of herself for him. The marriage, or more Mark’s depressive illness, had taken a heavy toll on both of them.

She
watched Jake sip his coffee. Would he have gone to pieces if he’d found himself in Mark’s situation?

Hardly
likely. Jake was nothing like Mark. He would never have got himself in such a predicament in the first place. A timely reminder not to fall for his considerable and ever-present charm.

“Tell
me about yourself, Jake,” she said as he put down his cup, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. “I know very little about you.”

“There’s
really not much to tell.”

“Oh,
come on. Of course there is. Tell me.”

The
coaxing softness in her voice surprised her. Did she sound as seductive to Jake as she did to her own ears?

“Where
did you grow up? How did you get to where you are now?”

His
eyes darkened. “The lady is full of questions.”

“So,
if I don’t ask, you won’t tell me, will you?”

He
flashed a broad grin at her. “Probably not.”

Nic
crossed her arms, pretended to pout.


Oh, all right, if you’re going to sulk...I can’t cope with a sulky woman.”

She
gave him a knowing smile.

“Devil
woman,” he retorted. “You tricked me.”

“Mmm.”

“I grew up in Canberra. My mother died just after I was born and my older sister took care of us.”

“Us?”
she prompted softly.

“Yeah,
Luke and me. He kind of adopted us as his family when we were about eight. His own parents didn’t much care about him.”

“That’s
sad,” Nic said, her heart going out to the small boy and the anguish he must have gone through.

“Yeah,
it is.” His thoughts seemed to drift off to somewhere Nic knew she couldn’t reach.

“Luke
and I left home to go to university in Sydney. Within a year, my father died, my sister married and from then on, as there was no home base anymore, I seemed to fall into a wandering lifestyle. I studied journalism, worked at one of the local TV networks, one thing lead to another and here I am.”

“No
special woman in your life?”

Was
that a hurt expression that fleetingly reflected in his eyes?

“Not
anymore.”

His
voice sounded a touch gravely.

“That’s
when I decided settling down wasn’t for me. I had to make a career choice, one that didn’t include a wife and family. That and my job just don’t mix.”

“And
you plan to continue your wandering lifestyle?”

“Sure,”
he said. “What else is there?”

 

* * *

 

Relaxing in the love seat on her verandah, Nic reflected on her outing with Jake.

Had
she made a mistake inviting him to stay?

She’d
asked herself that question so many times she was thoroughly sick of it. And she still couldn’t decide on the answer. That, and how he seemed to chafe her vulnerability, bothered her even more.

She
still grieved for Mark, supposed she always would in some small way. At the moment, she had no choice but to let that process take its course, however long it took.

Somehow,
Jake had gotten under her skin. He had a softer heart than she’d given him credit for. He was all contradiction—not quite the smart alec she’d pegged him to be. She tried not to think about his tender caresses that promised so much more at the slightest invitation.

Getting
involved with Jake, no matter how briefly, wasn’t an option. She needed to move on with her life, re-establish her own career and secure a future for herself, under her own steam.

And
never again would she allow herself to become involved in a relationship which demanded as much as her marriage had done. Mark gave up a career he loved for her, and it had lead to his destruction and almost taken her with it. Nor would she become involved with a man who preferred to live an adventurous life.

Like
Mark.

Like
Jake.

Jake.

Jake’s image filled her thoughts. One intimate moment with him and she knew she’d be lost forever. He was definitely hands off.

“So
much for taking my mind off things,” she mumbled, tossing aside the dance culture magazine. With a deep sigh, she leaned back in the love seat and closed her eyes for a moment.

Just
what would it be like to be involved with someone who lived and worked in another country? Impossibly miserable. What would be the point? Hadn’t she considered that with Mark? Her memories blurred. A long distance relationship just wouldn’t work for her. Entertaining such thoughts was leaving yourself open to heartache, her inner voice cautioned as she recalled Jake’s closeness in the kitchen the other morning. She’d wanted him to kiss her so badly and it had taken all her will power to deter him from doing just that.

Another
deep sigh brought her to her feet. She stretched and made her way to the end of the screened verandah.

Her
heart did a little skip at the sight of Jake walking toward the house from the river, fishing rod in his hand. His smooth, easy stride, taut, bare chest, open shirt lifting in the gentle breeze, and the fitted worn jeans, washed to the palest of blue, hugging his long legs—all physical, sensual male.

Nicolette
opened the door and took the stairs slowly, her heart reacting irresponsibly yet again as she absorbed the triumphant grin on his face.

BOOK: December Heat
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