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Authors: Joanie MacNeil

December Heat (7 page)

BOOK: December Heat
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“Hey,
Nic.”

On
reaching her, he stopped. His dark gaze slid over her, almost melting her, just like the heat of the sun. She felt strangely flattered by his obvious interest.

Handsome,
daredevil Jake who’d curl any woman’s toes with that far-from-innocent little boy smile of his. No wonder he’d had a string of females at his beck and call, if Mark were to be believed. Broad-shouldered, built the way she liked, Nicolette knew she was more drawn to him than she cared to be.

“How
many did you toss back in the water?”

For
some women, Jake’s smile would be a real turn-on, but not for her. She knew what lay beneath. Power, passion, excitement, adventure, sex. Never a dull moment. Jake would promise the moon and do his best to deliver it, gift-wrapped. As long as the package didn’t include giving all of himself.

Could
she settle for less if that’s all that was on offer? The very idea caused Nicolette’s heart to beat faster than it should.

“Three
big ones, about this size.” He leaned the rod against the stump of a tree and extended his hands to demonstrate the size of his catch.

“Talk
about beginner’s luck,” she teased, smiling back at him and doing her best to ignore the flutter of her heart.

“Witch,”
he said, his voice soft and deep. “My success was more than beginner’s luck, I’ll have you know.”

She
laughed. “Whatever the reason, well done.”

She
rose on tiptoe to brush a quick kiss on his cheek.

He
looked at her more closely. A muscle tensed in his jaw. His eyes darkened. “If this is going to be the customary welcome home, then I’ll make sure I catch and toss back at least three fish every day.” His deep voice caressed her. “How about,” his eyes lit up with mischief, “I get a kiss for each fish? Starting now.”

Tension
filled the air on Nicolette’s sharp indrawn breath. Or was it the heat suddenly making her more aware? Maybe her overactive imagination? She hesitated, then rose on her toes, aimed for his cheek, and closed her eyes.

Jake
was too quick for her. His mouth intercepted hers and a strong arm swept around her, holding her to him. His lips were soft, his kiss firm, his tongue warm in its quest to taste her lips.

Her
insides felt scrambled. Her brain was scrambled. Why did she let him do this? The kiss was nothing like the one they’d shared all those months ago, or in his room that first night. That long-ago kiss had been illegal, given she was engaged to Mark. Maybe that was its appeal. Jake had been off limits. Forbidden. But he wasn’t out of bounds now, and the chaste kisses the other evening had made her want more.

She
slid her arms around his neck.

But
now, even though she was free, and though this kiss was more gentle, something deep within her stirred at the taste of him, and the intimacy of his mouth open against hers.

With
some alarm she realized she kissed him back. Should she do this? Should she allow this?

His
kiss deepened for a moment, as if to steal one last taste of her, and then with a groan, he eased her away from him. She hadn’t realized until then how snugly her body fitted against his. Even now, thanks to her heated memories of being in Jake’s arms, her heart beat faster than it usually did when she exercised.

“You
taste like fish,” she said after she’d caught her breath.

He
grinned down at her.

“And
you, Sweetheart, taste like heaven.”

Heaven.
The kisses they’d shared in his bedroom tasted like heaven. Lord, she was losing it.

“You’re
a wicked man, Jake Harrigan.”

His
grin broadened. “And you wouldn’t have me any other way.” His deep mellow voice caressed her, teased at her heart, her senses.

She
was going to have to watch herself here. Jake was too close, too charming, too convenient. And she was too vulnerable.

As
for furthering her friendship with Jake. That would be inviting trouble with a capital T.

 

Chapter Six

 

 

Jake
secured the boat to the iron ring in the old tree stump and propped his fishing rod against it. No fish today, but he’d enjoyed the morning out just the same.

It
didn’t matter that he couldn’t keep the fish he’d caught. Already there were enough fish in Nic’s freezer, she’d told him, because she needed to trim off another kilo or two and eating lots of fish would speed up her metabolism.

He’d
told her she was perfect the way she was. And she’d smiled at him. The smile had reached her eyes, causing his gut to twist. Again he reminded himself Nic was off limits for half a dozen good reasons.

Loud
music drifted from the direction of the house. Nic usually didn’t play her music very loud. He’d often wondered why not when there were no close neighbors.

Joe
Cocker’s distinctive, gravely voice filled the air. The words, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” drifted to him in the warm sunshine. A fairly suggestive song, not Nic’s taste at all, he was sure of it. The erotic, sensuous images of a woman in the act of undressing played in his mind. Jake’s thoughts flicked back to a scene in a movie he’d seen some time ago. Though he couldn’t remember its title, the images the steamy scene evoked caused a hike in his temperature. What was Nic doing?

Curious,
he headed toward the direction of the music which seemed to be coming from beneath the house. Usually the door was locked and Jake assumed a storeroom was tucked underneath. Today, the door stood open, and he estimated the room ran the length and breadth of the cottage and then a bit more. The far wall must have been dug into the side of the slope.

His
heart almost exploded when he saw Nic, who seemed unaware of his presence, despite the mirrors around the wall. From where he stood just outside the room, he could observe and remain unobserved.

Nic
moved in time with the music, every move calculated and smooth, erotic.

He’d
never seen her like this, using her body in a way designed to turn a man on, set him on fire. She wore three quarter length skin-tight black pants that showed every dip and curve of her body, and a brief figure-hugging cropped top which also left nothing to the imagination. Her bare midriff added to the allure of her outfit and her lithe, rhythmic movements.

J
ake’s breath caught. His body tightened, reacting in a way that made his personal resolve to keep things simple seem ridiculous and impossible. He was mesmerized. By the music. By Nic and the rhythm of her body. Just where she planned to shed those extra couple of kilos he couldn’t tell.

Only
then he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Someone else was in the room. A figure stepped into his vision. Some guy he’d never seen before, in soft black jeans and black too-tight muscle top. He was dark-haired, quite reasonable looking, at least a head taller than Nic. But that wouldn’t be hard, she was only a little thing. Nic danced and slithered against this stranger, wound her legs around his, he put his hands on her, touching her in a way and in places Jake could only dare to dream about.

His
fists clenched. He knew it was an act. But that wasn’t the point. It looked too real. He felt sick to his stomach. What would Mark think? Had she danced like this in front of Mark? With other men? Did she dance with this man? How often?

A
strange mixture of anxiety, lust, envy and something else he couldn’t define, whipped through him.

The
guy stood to the side, just behind Nic, so that their bodies touched. She leaned back slightly, raised her arm and bent it back so her hand touched the back of his head, her body open, unguarded. Vulnerable. Her lips, slightly parted, grazed his cheek. Horrified, Jake watched as male fingertips stroked the length of Nic’s body, skimming the side of her breast.

Jake
sucked in a breath, but it did little to cool or calm him.

Nic’s
palm caressed her partner’s cheek. Jake knew first-hand what it was like to have her caress his, to feel her soft skin, warm and inviting. Hell, this was driving him crazy.

Nic
seemed unaware of his presence and Jake watched, getting hotter and hotter as she continued to dance. He wished she’d dance like that for him. But why would she? She wasn’t interested in him. She was still getting over Mark. Or was she?

Watching
her was pure torture, but he couldn’t drag himself away.

He
noticed now that her eyes drank in this man, burned for him. He sensed a bond between them, was it just the dance, the music, or was there something more? And he wished he could swap places with this man who could take liberties with her. Who the hell was he anyway? Her secret friend? Lover? Was there more to the relationship? Did they have a relationship when Mark was alive? Hell, Jake didn’t want to entertain that possibility.

His
heart sank. Torture though it was, he had to continue to watch. To protect. If this guy touched her like that when they stopped dancing, Jake knew he’d rush into the room and deck the creep. Time for questions later.

Finally,
the music ended. Relief swamped him. He watched as Nic breathed hard. While she danced she hadn’t appeared to breathe at all. She made dancing look so easy. Jake had to agree her partner had done the same. But enough was enough. Now as Nic and the creep hugged and smiled at each other, Jake strode into the room. If this guy didn’t take his hands off her now, Jake knew he’d deck him so hard the guy would end up half way across the Hawkesbury.

Yes,
he liked that idea. Liked it a lot.

“I
didn’t know you could dance like that, Nic,” he said, his eyes only for her. He handed her a towel which he’d picked up from the chair by the door. Looking surprised to see him, she moved away from the guy in black, breathing more easily than moments ago.

“You
didn’t ask,” she said lightly, a hint of devilment in her eyes.

He
moved beside her and slid his arm possessively around her shoulders.

“G’day,”
Jake said, holding out his hand to the other man. “I’m Jake. I suppose Nic has told you all about me? We share this place.” Indeed, it was the closest thing to home Jake had experienced in a long while.

At
his bald statement, Nic’s shoulders tensed, and he knew that later, she would make him suffer for his outspokenness. But it would be worth it, just to keep this guy from getting any ideas away from the dance floor. Just so he didn’t get too big for his average-sized boots.

“Jake,”
she said, and he flinched, knowing full well he hadn’t imagined the subtle warning in her voice. Nor did he imagine her arm slipping around his waist, and the sharp pinch she delivered. Little minx. He’d make her pay for that.

“No,”
the guy said. “As a matter of fact she didn’t.” His glance roamed over Jake and their gazes met, and held.

After
a moment or two of mutual silent assessment he reached out and grasped Jake’s hand. “Danny’s the name. No doubt Nic has told you about me?”

“No,
as a matter of fact she hasn’t,” Jake replied, noting the guy’s hands weren’t as soft as he’d expected. When he thought where those hands had just been, his jaw tightened. He wanted to beat the guy senseless. Instead, he did the more polite thing, and released his grip on Danny’s palm.

“So
what’s the go here?” he turned to Nic. Was there a slight hint of amusement in her eyes?

“Danny’s
offered me the role of female lead in the new production I told you about. This is a great opportunity for me to re-establish my career.”

Her
excitement seemed to bubble over. And he supposed she had a right to be excited. This was her life, dancing was important to her and he appreciated she had an opportunity to move on. He had no claim on her, but he felt a slight tug at his heart. Like a sense of loss, or at least, a sense that the tenuous bond between them was being stretched to the limit. Definitely not jealousy though. He didn’t know how to be jealous.

“From
what I’ve seen, Danny seems to know what he’s talking about.” He shot a glance at the young man who’d retrieved his towel from the chair and now had it slung around his neck.

“Nic’s
more than ready for it.”

Jake
ignored Danny’s comment, wondering exactly what he referred to.

“Danny’s
the principal male dancer in the company, as well as choreographer.” Nic’s excitement shone in her eyes.

“Impressive,”
Jake agreed, having no real idea whether it was impressive or not.

“So
Nic, what are you going to do?”

She
looked over at Danny and smiled hesitantly. “I’m tempted.”

By
him! Jake couldn’t believe it, then he realized what she’d meant, that she was tempted to take up the offer to rejoin the dance company. It took all his resolve not to let his breath whoosh out in relief.

“She
hasn’t lost her touch,” Danny announced.

“No,
I can see that,” Jake said, not meaning to sound so curt. From what he could see, Danny hadn’t lost his touch either.

“Mark
would want me to,” she said quietly and he thought he detected a defensive note in her tone.

“What
do you want to do?” Jake prompted. “Shouldn’t you do what you want, not what you think Mark would have wanted? Not what Danny here wants?” She was going to find herself in real trouble if she began to take guidance from a dead man, or any man. God, what had got into him today? The morning had started out fine, but now he felt distinctly moody and fractious.

“I
wouldn’t need to start rehearsals until after Christmas. By that time, you’ll be gone,” she said, looking up at him. Still that defensive tone, but he detected a touch of wistfulness in her expression.

“I’ll
need something to keep me busy.”

“Then
go for it,” he encouraged. She was right, he’d be long gone, and he had no right to oversee her life, then or now, from near or far. He tried not to conjure up the images of Danny dancing with Nic, touching her every night, on stage or behind the scenes, while he was in some God-awful place, probably being shot at for reporting current events to the world. Unhappiness gripped his heart. Whatever Nic chose to do with her life was none of his damn business.

“You
did well,” Danny said to her. “I can’t believe how well you’ve kept in shape all these months.”

She
grinned at him, obviously pleased with the compliment.

“It
wasn’t too hard at first, harder after Mark died.” Sadness touched her eyes. “But once you presented me with a goal, the fitness routine fell into place again.”

“I
know how difficult it was for you. You did well,” he said again. “I’m proud of you.” He kissed her on the cheek and a smile lit her face.

“Stay
for lunch?” she asked, her hand resting on his arm.

“Sure
thing, that’s if you don’t mind, Jake?”

Feeling
dour, Jake shook his head. “Of course not.” But of course he did mind. He wanted to talk to Nic alone, find out what was going on before his curiosity got the better of him.

“Good,
I’m going to take a shower before we eat,” she advised. “You know where the bathroom is if you want to have a shower before lunch too, Danny.”

So
he knew his way around the house. Jake’s fists clenched. What he wouldn’t give to deck this guy. Wipe that self-satisfied expression from his good-looking face.

He
turned to Nic, his feelings confused.

“Come
help me with lunch in a little while?” she invited. Her gaze almost made him melt.

He
felt like a little kid wanting his own way, wanting to ask why the hell she’d asked Danny to stay. He, Jake, didn’t want him here. But he simply said, “Sure. I’ll be there in a minute.”

He
watched her walk away, the movement of her body hugged by the black tights almost more than he could cope with without losing his cool.

He
realized Danny’s eyes were on her too.

“She’s
a very special lady,” Danny said and turned to Jake. “The night after Mark was killed, Nicolette worried for you. She fretted she couldn’t get in touch with you. She didn’t know where you were. That alone caused her concern.”

Jake
grimaced. He knew where he was when Mark was killed. He was in some hellhole reporting on the atrocities of war. It wouldn’t have made any difference if Nic had known his whereabouts. There wouldn’t have been a thing she could have done to get word to him.

Danny’s
words echoed in his head. “You spent the night with her?” he asked of Danny.

Danny
leveled his gaze. “Someone had to be with her. She was in no state to be on her own. He put her through hell. She never said much, preferring to push herself along, but you could see in her eyes that things weren’t right.”

BOOK: December Heat
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