December Heat Wave
123 pages
English

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123 pages
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Description

Following the death of her husband, Nicolette Oliver concentrates on re-establishing her career as a dancer, though still dealing with emotional issues relating to her life with Mark. When his friend appears on her doorstep, Nicolette honors her late husband’s invitation and invites Jake to stay. Jake Harrigan has always been attracted to Nic and sees her as untouchable, even though she is now on her own. They are opposites, their lives and expectations literally worlds apart. Drawn into a romantic interlude, the parting is difficult when Jake returns to Europe to resume his career as TV news journalist and Nic moves to Sydney to begin rehearsals for the show that will resurrect her career.

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Publié par
Date de parution 24 août 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781773628769
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

December Heat Wave
By JoanieMacNeil
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB978-1-77362-876-9
Kindle978-1-77145-296-0
WEB978-1-77362-877-6
 
Amazon Print978-1-77362-878-3
 

 
Copyright 2014 by JoanWright
Cover art by MichelleLee
 
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the publisher of this book
Prologue
 
There wassomething about the way a woman applied her lipstick. The way sheheld her mouth, soft, open, inviting.
Stridingsilently into the bedroom and through to the narrow walk-in closet,Jake hadn’t been aware of her at first, locating the bathroom hadbeen uppermost in his mind. But now, he stopped dead and admiredthe reflection of the attractive brunette as she added anotherlayer of earthy redwood color to her mouth, emphasizing the shapeof her full, sensuous lips.
He perceivedher as a princess. Maybe he’d had too much to drink and wasimagining things. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes for amoment, but the gorgeous woman was no apparition.
Why hadn’t henoticed her at the party before this?
His bodystirred and he adjusted his stance to ease the discomfort. Theprincess must have noticed the movement for she raised her eyes andcaught his gaze in the mirror; compelling him to remain focused onher while she replaced the lipstick cap, and slipped it into thesmall purse slung from her shoulder.
Breaking thegaze momentarily, she turned to face him, her hazel eyes round andexpectant. He’d never seen eyes quite like hers—neither the colornor shape. There was something special and alluring about them.
She steppedforward, and Jake stood aside to allow her passage through thenarrow gap between himself and the shelves. She turned side-on tomove past him, their bodies barely touching, but Jake could sensethe sizzle between them, feel the heat of her body caressinghis.
Unable to helphimself, he reached out, and leaned his hand on the shelf toprevent her from escaping. Her lips parted slightly, her expressionone of surprise. At the same moment, he lowered his mouth andkissed her soft, full lips. The tip of his tongue ventured further,tasting her. Jake, sure there was some reciprocation, convincedhimself she didn’t mind one little bit. He deepened the kiss.
Somethingyanked at his hair, dragging painfully at his scalp. Still lockedin his crazy fantasy, Jake wrenched his mouth away, his breath fastand shallow.
The sharp slapof her palm stung his cheek, shattering the sweet remembrance ofher kiss.
Her reactionstunned him. His hand moved to his face as he watched her walkaway, only then realizing what a foolish move he’d made. No matterwhat, Jake was certain there’d been at the very least, a flicker ofinterest in her initial response. A man didn’t imagine thesethings, nor did he need to rely on alcohol to know when a womanreacted sensually to him.
A short timelater, with the party still in full swing, Jake circulated amongstthe guests. He found Mark, his best friend and camera man, theother half of their news/documentary team.
“Oh, mate, I’vejust had the most incredible experience,” Jake said, and it irkedhim 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?
Preoccupiedwith the taste of her still on his lips, Jake didn’t notice Mark’sown excitement at first.
“That’s great,”Mark replied, only half-listening, Jake realized. What was thematter with Mark tonight?
“There’ssomeone I want you to meet.”
Jake followedhis friend’s gaze. His heart skipped a beat. The princess! Anintro. He couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and perhaps achance to apologize away his foolishness. He knew her kiss wouldhaunt him for a long time to come, even if he didn’t get to knowher better. Mark held out his hand in invitation for the woman tojoin them.
At first sheseemed a little reluctant, or was that Jake’s overactiveimagination?
She glided intoMark’s inviting embrace, her golden honey gaze traveling overJake.
“Jake, this isNicolette Oliver. We’re going to be married.” Mark beamed and drewher closer.
The bottomdropped out of Jake’s heart. Forcing a smile, he held out his hand.“Congratulations, Nicolette. Mark is a very lucky man.”
Nicolette’ssmooth 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 chillingglance. The woman gave him the briefest of forced smiles, but itwas the confusion in her eyes that taunted Jake the most.
“Are you in thenews field too?” he asked, merely to make polite conversation. Witha little luck she’d realize he wasn’t a complete moron.
“I’m a dancer,modern and traditional, some ballet...not exotic.”
One step aheadof him, she’d read his mind. Silently, Jake commended herperception.
“Perhaps I’veseen you perform?”
“Not likely,”she replied coolly. There was an air of superiority about her hedidn’t much care for. He sensed a coldness in her, a completecontrast to the woman who’d shared the heat of that erotic kisswith him. How on earth could a class act like Nicolette Oliver beattracted to a laid back ratbag like Mark?
If Mark didn’tknow what he was getting himself into, then it wasn’t up to Jake totell him.

Chapter One
 
 
Driven by aneed to get the long trip over and done with, Jake Harrigan drovehis rented car as fast as the speed limit and traffic allowed.Thanks to roadwork and an abundance of vehicles traveling in hisdirection, the trip from Sydney airport had been hell, and takenfar longer than he’d anticipated.
Finally, hereached the historic town of Windsor, nestled on the banks of theHawkesbury River at the foot of the rugged Blue Mountains. Onlyabout another thirty-five kilometers to Mark’s home, thank God.He’d had enough.
An underlyingsense of anticipation at seeing his old friend again kept himhumming during the long drive. He and Mark had shared many ahair-raising experience filming news and documentaries in theworld’s war-torn zones and hot spots. Mark’s daring and expertisewith a camera captured some amazing footage over the years.
Only Mark wouldunderstand what he, Jake, had suffered in recent months. Only akindred spirit like Mark could understand the need to heal bothphysically and emotionally, to enable him to return to his job asforeign correspondent. And only Mark, could help Jake recoversufficiently to do just that.
Jake turned hisattention back to his surroundings. The peaceful countryside wassuch a contrast to the places he’d been. The road wound throughflood plains covered with market gardens or turf-growing farms andsmall settlements, through bush, national parks and flower farms.Occasionally a jam and pickle stall punctuated the side of theroad. Further into the hills, the houses became even more sparselyscattered, an occasional dwelling embedded in the hillside andalmost hidden by bush.
The driveseemed endless, but he pushed on in the hope that any minute now heshould come to the mailbox marking the entrance to the drivewayleading to the home Mark shared with his wife.
Nicolette.
Jake’s thoughtscontinued to drift. In spite of the December heat, Jake couldn’tprevent the frisson of apprehension that skittered down his spine.Hell, why had Nicolette filled so much of his thoughts latelyanyway? For the hundredth time he wondered what Mark saw inher.
She was bossyand a snob, and had forced her husband to give up the adventurouslife he loved, not to mention an exceptional career.
But justbecause 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 hispresence as a threat to her cozy life try to boss him about as longas he was under her roof. Hell, no. He’d have none of that. He wasa man of the world, an adventurous spirit. Nothing, but nothing,would force him to do something he didn’t want to do.
He’d neverallow anyone that much power over him. Especially, not a woman.
But on lonely,desperate nights, that kiss returned to haunt him.
Maybe he’dmisjudged her. Hmmm. A possibility. After all, they barely kneweach other. But something had passed between them at that firstmeeting. That kiss had rocked him, shocked him. And Nicolette hadnever forgiven him for taking advantage. From her reaction, it wasvery clear to Jake that he hadn’t been the only one who’d beenshaken to the core.
If he’drealized who she was right at the beginning, he would never havebeen so brazen. Though alcohol may have coerced his brain intoacting foolishly, his senses had been on full alert. There’d beenheat in her response, and though she did her best to veil it, Jakeknew for certain it had been there, lurking just below the surface.Alcohol hadn’t dulled his senses one little bit.
Even thinkingabout that kiss after all this time took his breath away. With theprospect of seeing her again, no wonder he couldn’t get her out ofhis thoughts.
The mailboxstood out. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. A cow, mademostly of drums, and painted bright red. Even a blind man couldn’tmiss it. Jake smiled. That had to be Mark’s doing. He had anoutrageous sense of humor when it suited his purpose.
First checkingthe rear vision mirror, Jake indicated, then turned left and droveover the culvert, steering the car through the narrow gateway. Hecouldn’t see the house from here. Much to his surprise, the roadleading to the house was paved. It wound down the hill like a darkmetallic ribbon which he followed carefully, one eye on the viewover the Hawkesbury.
Then he saw thehouse nestled into the hillside. It was low at the front, the sidethat faced him, and from the angle of the road, he could tell thehouse was high at the back. Somehow he hadn’t expected that. Thebare timbered walls blended into the surrounding colors of thelandscape. The height of the balcony at the back would allow amagnificent view across the tops of the trees on the slope below,all the way to the river.
Jake whistled.“God’s own country,” he muttered as he drove closer to thehouse.
Just how in thehell did Mark stand living here in the middle of nowhere, so faraway from the action, day in, day out?
Jake swore itwould drive him crazy. If he weren’t such a worn out mess, hewouldn’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.
A taste of thequiet life, a change of pace, would be a novelty, though, givinghim a chance to heal both mind and body. He hoped the process ofhealing wouldn’t drive him crazy in such a far-flung backwater.
Sure, thescenery was something else, but the isolation would get to a man,Jake reflected as he brought the car to a halt in the paved parkingarea at the end of the drive, surrounded by native gardens. Beyondwas the river, wide, and brown shimmering in the heat, beckoninghim into its refreshing depths.
But then, Markhad Nicolette to keep him company and Jake wondered if she wasstill as he remembered. Probably. Women like that never changed.They just got worse. More bossy, with higher expectations. How didMark put up with her? Giving away one’s freedom seemed a high priceto pay for the company of a woman. Even if she was the love of yourlife.
Not that Jakedidn’t like women. There were so many to choose from, why would aman want to limit himself to just one? It took only one to break aman’s heart.
Jake shook hishead. Never in all his days would he understand the depth of powera woman held over a man. He’d yet to meet the woman who could moldhim to suit herself. He didn’t believe such a woman existed.
Jake easedhimself out of the car and slowly stretched his stiff, aching body.Most of his outer wounds had begun to heal, save for the bruisinghe’d sustained from the severe beating at the hands of the rebels.He should have stopped once or twice on the trip to ease thediscomfort of sitting for too long, but the thought of catching upwith Mark pushed him and he wanted the journey over with.
Jake glancedaround. The tall trees of the surrounding bush loomed a few metersfrom where he stood. The peace and tranquility were almosttangible. Mark did pick a pretty spot to spend his days. Even Jakehad to admit that. He pondered momentarily on the river, imagininghimself floating lazily along with the current, eventually coursingeast on the water’s journey to Broken Bay, before it spilled into,and mingled, with the Pacific.
The watershimmered in the sunshine, but the relentless heat of the Decembersun beat down on him, leaving him feeling more drained than ever.Jake grimaced. On such a glorious summer’s day like this, a manreally appreciated being alive, and God knew, he very nearlywasn’t.
Grabbing hisbag from the car, Jake took a deep breath of fresh, clean air, aworld away from the acrid smell of gunpowder, smoke, battle,hospital odors and death. His strength was sapped now after such atedious drive. He didn’t know how long it would be before he fullyregained his strength. He needed to get mobile again, get back intothe action. What else was there to do with his life? Certainly notspend it in some backwater like this.
Jake lethimself through the gate and followed the cobblestone path to thedoor. The garden was neat and tidy, mostly native species to blendin with the surrounding area.
In a farcorner, several cartons of empty wine bottles were stacked up alonga garden wall. He grinned, thinking Mark must throw quite a fewparties. A party. Now that wasn’t a bad idea, and would liventhings up a bit. Perhaps he could get to meet some of the localtalent, of the female variety of course. Hmm, things were suddenlylooking up.
He knockedbriskly, 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 catchup on.
The brightyellow door gave way to his knock and slowly opened.
At first, hecaught a glimpse of a baby cradled in the crook of an arm. Mark wasa father? He couldn’t believe it. But then, Jake realized he’d beenout of circulation for some time now.
The door openedwider to reveal an attractive slender woman. She was smaller thanhe remembered, though she wasn’t quite as thin as his memorysuggested. Surprise registered on her elfin, heart-shaped,face.
The delicacy ofher features was misleading, he thought wryly. Experience hadtaught him she wasn’t as fragile as she looked. The cutest lookinghat sat perched on top of her short honey-brown hair, the ends ofwhich fell to just below her ears, skimming her jaw. He rememberedher hair had been long. The one occasion he’d touched it, thestrands slipped silkily against his skin. He’d tried to run hisfingers through it right before she’d slapped him.
Hazel eyes roseto meet his. A spark of recognition flickered, and she quicklydragged the combination of raffia and large orange, yellow and pinkblooms from her head and tossed it to one side, beyond hisview.
Jake’s heartslammed into his chest.
Damn, justseeing her again brought back memories of the party. When he madethat ridiculous pass at her, a move she’d made him regret each timethey’d met since. Though she hadn’t said anything specific, it wasmore in the way she looked down that cute little upturned nose ofhers that told him exactly what she thought of him.
But now,there’d be no such passes. Even if he had to resort to severaldaily dunkings in the river, he would keep himself in check as heknew she would. Nicolette was a classy woman and he was left in nodoubt of her loyalty to Mark. And his own loyalty to his friend waswithout question.
Her gaze sweptover him and he did his best to ignore the warm feeling stealingthrough his body.
“Jake. This isa surprise.”
From the toneof her voice, a slight tremble, it was hard to tell whether she waspleased to see him or not.
“What are youdoing here? I mean...like this...out of the blue?” She shrugged asif there was nothing left to say, or if there was, she was toostunned to form the words.
The questioningsurprise on her face fed his smile. “Hello, Nicolette. It’s good tosee you again,” he said, feeling slightly nervous. She did that tohim, but strangely, this time she didn’t seem as unfriendly andcold as he’d expected, which threw him a bit. Instead, she lookedsmall and fragile and with a baby in her arms, her vulnerabilitysurfaced to shadow her eyes.
“Surprised tosee me?” He couldn’t resist asking. Her face remained impassive. Itwas as if she struggled to school her features. The myriad ofexpressions in her eyes told him she was far from calm.
Jake tried notto notice the way she was dressed, but the bright pink fluorobikini was hard to miss, especially the way the barely-there briefclung to her shapely though narrow hips, and the triangular patchesstretched taut to partially cover her full rounded breasts. Theshoe-string straps looked as if any minute, they’d give up the taskof holding everything together.
Jake’s gazeflicked to the movement of tiny fingers as they played on the softhoney-tanned flesh just above the pink scrap of material. Hisfingers curled in response. Any minute now he’d have to throwhimself in the river to cool off. His reaction had to stem from theDecember heat. He wasn’t used to it anymore, not since spending somuch time in the bitter northern winters.
“You could sayI’m surprised. Yes. What brings you here, Jake? I never expectedyou to turn up on the doorstep. Mark had just about given uphearing from you again.”
Well, shecertainly didn’t sound welcoming. Guarded, in fact. “I’m sorry,it’s been a while. I got caught up. Circumstances beyond mycontrol. You know the sort of thing.” But she didn’t know the halfof it.
She consideredhim with close regard.
“Besides, in awar zone, the postal service leaves a lot to be desired.”
Nicolettenodded. “I’m well acquainted with the kind of circumstances. Thosewhere you get whisked off to the other side of the world, to anyhot spot, with only a whisker of notice. When are you going to giveit up, Jake? You must be sick of that lifestyle by now.”
That soundedmore like the Nicolette whose path had crossed with his in thepast.
Jake sworeunder his breath. It was going to be harder than ever not to letthis woman get under his skin. One way or another, he was a doomedman.
“Never!” hetaunted. “You know me, fun-loving and adventurous, the sort whothrives on a good time and gets his thrills from running thegauntlet with danger and death.”
She noddedruefully. “I know it all right. The number of times you and Markgot into scrapes. Or more to the point, scrapes you got into andMark had to get you out of.”
“Ah, yes, wewere always there for each other, always will be.”
A curiousshadow flitted across Nicolette’s lovely eyes.
“He sent methis.” Jake fished the letter from his pocket. He’d kept it handyas Mark had written directions on how to get to the house. Hehanded it to her.
She studied theaerogramme, fingering the postmark. She paled. “I didn’t know he’dwritten this,” she said, in a hushed whisper, handing it back tohim. “He said he had trouble locating where you’d gone.”
“In the letterhe mentioned he’d only got hold of the address that day. He musthave been in a hurry to post it.”
Nicolettenodded. “Fate had a hand in that,” she whispered.
“No doubt,”Jake acknowledged, not quite sure exactly what she meant, insteaditching to satisfy his burning curiosity on another matter.
“He yours?”Jake nodded toward the sleeping infant. Motherhood suited her. Fromthe little he knew of her, he’d surmised that was the kind of womanshe was, someone who’d dedicate her life to her husband and family.But she was still the damn sexiest woman he’d ever met and the factshe had a baby seemed somehow to enhance her subtle sensuality.
God, he’d beenin this sun too long. What was he thinking?
“She. No, she’snot mine. I’m minding her for a neighbor.”
“Oh.” Why didhe sound so disappointed? He wasn’t one of those men who believedwomen should be barefoot and pregnant every damn day of theirlives. Women were made to caress and cuddle, to enjoy, for boththeir brains and their beauty, in and out of the bedroom. To livetheir lives in any way that fulfilled them as a woman and a person.After all, men were the ones to reap the benefits even then. And hereminded himself again that, as his best friend’s wife, Nicolettewas out of bounds.
The silencebetween them seemed to expand and grow taut. Jake felt sure he’dhear it snap at any moment.
The babystirred, its little pink fist stabbing at the air, drawing Jake’sgaze. Again a tiny hand came to rest against her breast, and Jakefound himself wondering if her skin was the same light tan beneaththe pink triangles.
“What are youdoing here, Jake?” Nicolette’s voice washed over him.
“I’ve come totake Mark up on his offer to spend a few days.” He patted his shirtpocket where he’d returned the letter for safekeeping. “It’s beenquite a while and we have some catching up to do. I have a few daysup my sleeve, so...here I am.” It was more than a few, but he hopeddesperately that they’d invite him to stay as long as heneeded.
Nicolettestudied him for a moment. He’d always liked her hazel eyes. At thismoment, they were tawny-colored, warm and inviting. Her long lashesfluttered. He could understand very well Mark’s attraction toher.
No wonder he’dbeen anxious to stake his claim on her, marrying her within a fewmonths after they’d met.
“I think you’dbetter come in, Jake.” She stood back to let him pass.
Jake enteredand followed her through the cool screened verandah, and into theopen and airy living room. The huge glass panels and double slidingdoors, which formed the best part of two walls, seemed to allow theoutside to filter into the house. Huge gum trees shaded the roomfrom the heat of the summer sun.
“Very nice,” hesaid as he drank in the surroundings. The floors were polished alight gold color, with bright scatter rugs providing a softness andwarmth to break up the effect of the wood. The furnishings werecasual, mostly cane and a lightly polished pine, and the deeplypadded lounge chairs appeared quite comfortable. He noticed howquiet it was, until the loud, musical chirp of the cicadasshattered the silence.
“Have a seat.”She indicated a chair. “I’ll just put this little thing to bed.Won’t be long. She usually goes down no trouble at all.”
He realized nowthat the scent, which assailed him as soon as Nicolette had openedthe door, was the soft sweet smell of baby, and woman.
“Take yourtime.”
Jake sank backin the comfortable chair. A man could get used to this, hereflected and wondered if the lifestyle would really suit him oncethe novelty of not being shot at, and sometimes hit, wore off. Hewatched Nicolette as she walked away. Barefoot, shapely bare legs,and a nicely rounded bottom he wouldn’t mind curving his palm tofit.
Where the hellwas Mark anyway?
When Nicolettereturned, minus baby, she’d dressed in denim cut offs and a whitesinglet top, short enough to expose a tantalizing strip of tannedmidriff. He could still see the fluoro pink mounds through thewhite stretch fabric. She looked even more appealing coveredup.
She dragged herhands through her short straight hair, her movements emphasizingthe suppleness of her lithe body. He watched as the loose strandsof hair fell back into place.
“Where’s Mark?”He broke the silence before it became too tense, but he wondered ifit was simply his own intensity which filled the air betweenthem.
Nicolettelooked troubled. Her lower lip quivered and she sank her teeth intothe soft flesh to keep it under control.
“Oh Jake, youdon’t know, do you?” Trembling fingers covered her mouth.

Chapter Two
 
 
A sense offoreboding coursed through Jake, and filled him with fear. He feltsick to his stomach.
He bracedhimself, scarcely game to breathe. “Know what?” His voice came in ahoarse, hushed whisper, his gaze remaining focused on her, on thehazel eyes that flickered with emotion.
She swallowed.“Mark...Mark died almost six months ago. The same day as thepostmark on that letter.” A tiny tear escaped from the corner ofher eye and trickled slowly down her cheek. She sniffed and dabbedat her eyes with her fingertips.
Aware of thesob in her throat and the waver in her voice, Jake’s heart all butstopped. His hands gripped the arms of the chair until his knucklesturned white. The breath he’d held for too long forced its way outthrough the thickening in his throat.
Shouldersslumped, he leaned back in the comfortably padded chair and closedhis eyes, aware of the dampness lurking there. He felt pain as alittle piece inside him shriveled and died. He couldn’t believe it.He felt as if he’d been knifed in the gut, the blade twisting andturning.
“No,” he said.“You’re putting me on.”
“Jake.” Hesensed her move closer and opened his eyes to watch her crouch infront of him, her hand resting on his knee. Concern filled hergaze. He lowered his lids again, and let her gentle voice wash overhim.
“I’m sorry youhad to find out this way. I had no idea where you had got to. Ididn’t know Mark had found your address. If I could have trackedyou down, I would have let you know. I’m sorry, Jake.”
She spokesoftly, her voice comforting, though the words themselves providedlittle to ease the sadness in his heart. He sensed her rise to herfeet and move away.
He opened hiseyes, his gaze sought hers, and he wished fervently she wasspinning him a yarn. The tortured expression on her face told himthis wasn’t one of Mark’s crazy tricks.
He pulled in adeep shuddering breath, dragged himself from the chair and movedtoward her. She looked drained, as if the recounting of such sadnews took everything she had. His heart went out to her.
“How?” Hisvoice was barely a harsh whisper. That lump was still lodged in histhroat.
Nicolettelooked away. Her mouth quivered. She took a breath and ran herfingers through her hair. She repeated the action before turningher gaze back to him. “It was...it was...a car accident.”
Filled with asense of injustice, Jake groaned. There was neither rhyme norreason why Mark should be dead. It wasn’t fair. A man in his prime,with a beautiful wife and everything to live for. Life was likethat, he knew, having witnessed a gutful of inequities in his lineof work. He just never thought such unfairness would hit so closeto home.
“You mean tosay, that after all we’d been through together, barely escapingbeing blown up and shot at, that he had to come home to be killedin a bloody car accident?” Jake’s distress caused his voice toraise a level. “He wouldn’t have quit his job and come home if ithadn’t been for you! He’d still be alive if he was left to do thejob he did best.” The thought made him crazy.
Nicoletteflinched at his barb, but rallied quickly. “Don’t you think I knowthat? I knew what your reaction would be. You always believed Ipersuaded Mark to give up his line of work. You didn’t want Mark tomarry me in the first place!”
The truth ofher comment, and her anger, fueled his grief. He felt sick atheart. He couldn’t help it. The past came rushing back—fleetingimages of his and Mark’s brushes with death. The first meeting withNicolette. The strain on their friendship, once Mark declared hisintention to end their working partnership, and settle down afterhis marriage to Nicolette.
Jake cursedsilently. He tried to talk Mark out of it, saying he was making afoolish mistake. Their lives had run smoothly until she’d arrivedon the scene. And since then, it seemed everything they’d worked sohard to achieve had come apart.
Now, Mark wasdead.
“All goodthings come to an end, Jake,” Mark once said, by way ofconsolation. And now, he was dead, and his words were poorconsolation indeed.
Jake hadn’teven had a chance to say good-bye.
He graspedNicolette’s arms. He didn’t realize just how firm his grip wasuntil she glanced to where his fingers wrapped tightly around herskin. Her gaze returned to meet his, a clear warning in herdarkened hazel eyes.
He let her go,though his voice remained charged with accusation. “You took himaway from the life he loved, the only thing he wanted to do.”
She held hisgaze, her own defiance evident in the tilt of her chin. Her finedelicate hands rested on her hips. She looked fit to kill.
“That’s whatyou truly believe, isn’t it? That I came between you two?” Herhands lowered to her sides.
He glared ather, daring her to refute his challenge.
“Whatever youmight think, it was Mark’s decision to end the partnership. Ididn’t want to influence him one way or the other. I just wantedhim to be happy.” Her voice faltered. “I was prepared to walk away,but Mark didn’t want that.”
Her voicelowered. “He wanted me.”
Jake consideredher briefly. “Maybe so. But you and he aren’t…weren’t right foreach other.” He couldn’t let it go. There was so much unspokenbetween them. Things that had been left to fester since that firstnight. That kiss.
“Oh? And how’sthat? How do you know what was right for Mark, what he needed, orwanted?”
The strainincreased the tautness in Jake’s chest. The distress on Nicolette’selfin features didn’t help. Hers was a face that shouldn’t suffersuch angst. And in spite of her bravado in standing up to him, hecouldn’t get past the fact her vulnerability showed, that she was awoman alone, without her mate, here in this isolated wilderness.His mind flicked briefly to the stack of empty wine bottles he’dseen outside and he wondered whether she’d sought solace in thebottle. The thought troubled him.
“I don’t wantto get into this any further,” Jake said, knowing if he told herall of what was on his mind, it would most certainly destroy thetenuous link between them. He didn’t think he could live with that.“Just leave it, Nicolette.”
“No, I won’t.You started this Jake, now let’s put the past to rest, shallwe?”
Fired up, hestalked around her. “I knew that night you kissed me, you weren’tMark’s type.”
She drew in aquick breath. “I kissed you? Ha! My recollection is that it was theother way around.”
Jake smirked.“Not the way you responded,” he quipped. “It was good too. Likesweet, warm honey.”
Again her eyessparked. She stepped closer and stabbed a slender finger at hischest. “You rotten hound,” she accused recklessly, her anger barelycontrolled. If looks could kill, he’d be dead in a heartbeat. “Itwas you who did the prowling, maneuvered me into a quiet corner soI couldn’t escape. What kind of a man kisses his best friend’sfiancée like that?”
“And what kindof woman responds to her fiancé’s best mate the way you did?”
Fire sparked inher hazel eyes, now tinged with speckles of yellow-gold. He’d neverthought she’d be capable of getting as angry as she had in the lastfew minutes. She’d always seemed too reserved, but now he realizedthere was a more passionate side to Nicolette she kept carefullyhidden away.
“Anyway, Ididn’t know you were Mark’s fiancée.”
“Would it havemade a difference?”
“What do youtake me for, woman, some sort of Casanova? Of course it would havemade a difference. No way would I impinge on a good mate’sproperty.”
“Property!” Hereyes flashed sparks at him.
“All right,partner then. I just used the wrong word, okay? A slip of thetongue. No big deal.” He scrubbed a hand over his face and sigheddeeply.
“You were a badinfluence on Mark,” she argued. “From the stories he told me, itwas you who always got into awkward situations, took chances,leaving him no option but to get you out. I would have left youthere to rot.”
“I bet youwould have.” He stepped closer to her and lowered his head untiltheir noses almost touched. He caught a whiff of that sweet perfumelaced with the fragrance of baby. His breath caught at thetightening in his body. He was too close, within kissing distance.Tempting. He could almost taste that long ago kiss. He wondered ifshe still tasted the same. No, don’t go there. He raised hishead.
“Maybe Markwasn’t as innocent as you make him out to be,” he shot back, hisvoice husky and menacing to his own ears. “Did you ever think hemight have told you only what he wanted you to know, that you gotedited versions?”
She shook herhead as if lost for words.
“There’sprobably a lot you don’t know about Mark, about our work, about me.Don’t you think it’s a little unfair to judge me when you barelyknow me?”
“I know all Ineed to know,” she said.
Jake pulledback a little. “Are you sure about that? What would you say if Imisjudged you?” Guilt swamped him. Now he’d given her ammunition.Serve him right if she used it.
She shrugged.“You already have, when you don’t know anything about me.”
“Exactly. Idon’t really know you, but I can form an opinion of you just thesame. You wouldn’t like it if you knew what I thought aboutyou.”
“Try me,” shesaid.
Jake bit backthe response to her innocent invitation. He knew what she meant,and she seemed not to be aware her words held a hidden meaning.
“I’ve alwaysthought of you as a stuck-up little snob,” he said, rather cruellyhe realized, once the words were out. “Too classy for Mark. You’rebossy, demanding, expect everything your own way. Staid, andstubborn too, to a fault. There, how am I doing?” Jake held hisbreath. She looked like she might deck him, and he wouldn’t put itpast her to try, at least once. She’d done it before, afterall.
He knew he’dsaid too much, but couldn’t seem to stop himself once he was woundup. Grief did funny things to a man.
“You’re way offtarget, Jake. You’ll never know what makes me tick.”
Maybe not, buthe’d sure as hell like to find out. She’d skin him alive if sheknew his thoughts.
“Mark was toogood for the likes of you,” she tossed at him. “At least he was agentleman.”
Jake chokedback his response along with his urge to shake her. He could havetold her stories about Mark that would have made her hair curl. Herefrained, not wanting to taint her precious memories of her latehusband, Jake kept his own counsel. There were some things he’dnever tell.
Tense quietfilled the room.
A distressedcry broke the silence.
“There. Now seewhat you’ve done.” Visibly upset, Nicolette rushed from theroom.
He wanted tosay he was sorry. Sorry for what? Mark’s death? His outburst?Waking the baby?
Filled withmisery and regret that it was too late to call back the harshwords, Jake walked out onto the balcony.
How had thingsgot so out of hand?
A few minuteslater, Nicolette returned. He’d half expected her to have the babywith her.
She folded herarms and glared at him.
“Is she allright?”
“Yes, no thanksto you. She went back to sleep.”
As their gazesheld, her expression softened. Her lower lip quivered slightly.“I’m sorry you had to find out like this, Jake. It must have comeas quite a shock.”
“That’s anunderstatement.” He took a breath, tilting his head back slightly.His heart cried out for the lost chance to say good-bye. Images ofsome of the near misses they’d shared flashed through his mind likemoving pictures. Of times when Mark had saved Jake’s life at therisk of his own.
Taking anotherbreath to help regain his composure, Jake lowered his head to lookat her.
Guilt hauntedhim. He knew it would always be there. She didn’t need to know thatthe last time he and Mark had seen each other, they’d argued...overher. Though they’d parted on good terms, Jake couldn’t quiteforgive himself for being so stubborn. It had been obvious at thetime that Mark was happy with the choice he’d made.
But Mark’sletter spoke of peace between them, barely mentioning theirdiscord. The letter had been a deliberate drawcard to get him tovisit. Odd though, that it was posted on the very day Mark died. Itwas almost as if Fate played a hand, making sure that somehow, theyreconnected.
“How are youcoping?” He saw the pain flicker in her eyes. Was she coping?
“I have gooddays and bad days,” she said quietly. “I try to keep busy, and thathelps. Life has to go on.”
The air betweenthem filled with the sound of cicadas. Jake had forgotten howpersistent their buzzy droning could be.
“Can I get yousomething to drink?”
Jake nodded,still unable to fully comprehend the news Nicolette had given him.This had to be a dream. A bad dream.
“Beer?”
“Yeah, thanks.”He followed her inside. From where he stood in the open plan livingroom, he could see her moving about in the tiny kitchen, tuckedaway in the corner. A bench and a narrow wall, which probablyprotected the back of the fridge, were all that separated the tworooms.
“Have you hadlunch?” she asked.
“No.”
“Would you likea sandwich?”
Jake realizedit had been a long time since breakfast and that part of thegnawing in his stomach was from hunger. “Yes, please, if it’s notrouble.” He rolled his shoulders to try to alleviate some of theirtension.
There were afew minutes silence as she prepared lunch, leaving Jake alone withhis thoughts.
“Don’t you findit lonely here, all by yourself?”
A thoughtstruck him that maybe she had someone else. He didn’t care much forthe idea, but wasn’t sure if it was because she was the widow ofhis good friend, and it was, in his opinion, too soon after Mark’sdeath to be seeing another man, or whether he was just plainenvious. He walked over to the glass sliding door that lead outonto a screened verandah overlooking the pool, below which the topsof eucalyptus stretched all the way down to the river.
“Yes, and no.It usually depends on whether it’s a good day or a bad day.”
Maybe there wassomeone else.
“Let’s eat onthe verandah,” she said.
He turned onher approach, and, glancing up at him, she stepped through the doorand lowered the tray to a wicker coffee table. He took a seat inone of the cane chairs and Nicolette handed him a bottle of lager.He knew it was one of Mark’s favorites and grief tightened its gripon his heart once again.
“Glass?”
He shook hishead.
“I didn’t thinkso. Mark always preferred to drink it straight from the bottle too.Something about not contaminating the brew by putting it in a glassthat had been used for a dozen other purposes.”
“Aren’t youhaving one?” he asked, then raised the bottle to his lips and tooka long drink. The ice-cold lager slid down his throat and settledin his gut like a stone.
“No, I neverdid care for the taste of beer,” she replied. “I just keep a few onhand, in case of visitors.”
Though he wascurious about the status and frequency of visitors, he was temptedto ask her about the empty wine bottles, but thought better of itnow that the friction between them had dissipated.
She lookedaway. “Do you still want to stay?” There was a softness, almost ahint of hope in her voice. Jake told himself he’d imagined it.Nicolette wouldn’t want him around. Not the way she’d treated himin the past. Not now Mark was gone. She had no obligations to himeven though he’d like them to be friends.
Jake hadnoticed the uncertainty in her eyes before she turned from him. Hewanted to; needed to, stay in this idyllic place so far away fromeverything that progressively had eaten into his soul these pastyears. Until now, there was almost nothing left. Perhaps being inMark’s home would help him heal. Though he was grasping forsomething he couldn’t put into words, Jake felt he had to try. Andnow, with Mark gone, the need to clutch onto this unknown entityintensified.
At least herehe could try to forget. With a woman who could make him forget.
The thoughttook his breath away.
That’s not whathe meant to think at all. Perhaps he should go. “I don’t want toput you out,” he heard himself say, but it was a feeble effort andhe knew he didn’t sound convincing.
He reallyshould go, before he did something stupid. The last thing he wantedto do was close the door on his and Mark’s relationship. And Markwould want him to keep an eye on her. Save her from herself, fromthe bottle too, if she needed saving from that. He hoped he waswrong in that regard.
Every fiber ofhis being told him not to go. Told him Nicolette needed him.

ChapterThree
 
 
Nicolette satin the love seat on the verandah and stared through the trees, notreally seeing anything. The gentle swinging of the seat helpedsoothe her. She’d spent hours in this spot on long lonely nights,just dozing or staring into the blackness, too afraid to encloseherself in her room.
She knew newsof Mark’s death took a heavier toll on Jake than he let on. Shestill hadn’t forgiven Mark for dying on her, for taking the easyway out.
Their marriagehad brought with it problems that neither of them had foreseen.Deep in her heart, she’d clung to the belief that, with her loveand support, Mark’s mental health would improve. But it hadn’t.
Mark—the Markshe’d fallen in love with and whose memory she tried to hang onto—would expect her to honor his invitation to Jake. At least,that’s what she told herself. There was no underlying reason formaking the offer to Jake to stay. She had her own plans for thefuture. Jake Harrigan’s bad boy image appeared battered and muchmore vulnerable than she remembered. He was less cocky, lessself-assured. It was more than the news of Mark’s death, she wascertain of that, since Jake had looked battle-weary even beforeshe’d told him. She’d been shocked at how exhausted he looked.
It wouldn’thave surprised her if Jake didn’t want to be alone. She could putup with him for a few days, surely, until he looked a little morelike his old self. But did she really want the wild and uninhibitedJake hanging around?
Nicolettepreferred not to think about the fact that she didn’t want to bealone either. Usually, on a good day, it didn’t bother her toomuch, but with Christmas approaching, she felt vulnerable andafraid. This was to have been her second Christmas with Mark, onlythe second Christmas for a long time she’d shared with someone sheloved. She’d anticipated her marriage would guarantee a long lineof Christmases with him. Now there was every chance she’d spendthis one alone.
Somewhere inthe depths of her chest, her heart felt like a chunk of wood, butas was her usual course of action, she took a deep breath, squaredher shoulders, brushed the tears from her eyes and went to check onthe baby.
“All settledin?” she asked Jake, while tucking the anxious Kylie close to herbreast. She murmured softly to the tiny warm bundle, proppingherself on the couch, feet outstretched, bottle poised. With barelyany coaxing, the baby’s hungry mouth latched onto the rubber teatand furiously sucked the warm milk.
“Yes, thanks.Is there anything you want me to do around here for you? Might aswell take advantage of an extra pair of hands.”
She looked upand smiled at Jake who seemed mesmerized by the baby. “Thanks, I’msure I’ll think of something. You might want to take the boat outsometime. It’s little more than a dinghy, but it’s sound.”
“I’d enjoy therelaxation. I haven’t been fishing in ages. At least that has apurpose.”
“This part ofthe river’s polluted with fertilizer from the farms. You won’t beable to eat the fish you catch. Maybe that will take the fun out ofit for you.”
He lookeddisappointed. “Pity. That explains the color. I expected the waterto be dark green and clear, reflecting the trees and blue sky. Itwas like that last time I passed through here.”
“That must havebeen a while ago.”
“Yeah. I was inschool at the time. That seems a lifetime ago now.”
“Well, youcould always go exploring. There are some lovely places along bothbanks of the river.”
The baby pausedand pulled her mouth away from the teat. Nicolette took advantage.Placing the half-full bottle between her knees and a nappy over hershoulder, she gently lifted Kylie to rest on the soft toweling, andbegan to stroke her tiny back.
Nicolette’sgaze roamed over Jake, who appeared not to notice, he was so takenwith the baby. Her gaze drank in the dark hair with the loose driftof waves that fell across the left side of his brow, that, likehim, refused to conform, hinting at his wilder self.
The nightthey’d met, those curls had seemed to mock her, draw her in,begging her to entwine her fingers with them...along with the curveof his mouth, shapely, inviting, and the kiss that was nearly herundoing. She’d tried to stifle the effect he’d had on her. Afterall, Mark was her chosen mate, her partner in life.
A fling withJake Harrigan would have ruined her future happiness and, even so,she wasn’t the type to indulge in a fling for the fun of it. Inspite of her fierce loyalty to Mark, she’d been unable tocompletely shake the knowledge and guilt that a little bit of herhad betrayed the man she loved, even though she’d put a stop toprogressing the kiss any further.
And she hadn’tencouraged it to begin with. A taste was all it took to shake herinner being, feed her curiosity. Excite her. As enticing as Jakewas, she wasn’t his type. He’d quickly tire of her and move on tothe next conquest.
Jake stretchedlazily, and she realized he’d been watching her assessment of him.Her face warmed. As long as he couldn’t read her mind.
“She’s readyfor the next half. Would you like to try?” she asked Jake, breakingwhat had become an intense silence. Even the lazy drone of thecicadas had quietened down.
“Sure, why not,but you’ll have to show me what to do. I haven’t done this before.”He rose from his chair and moved to sit on the couch besideher.
“Sit here, it’smore comfortable than in the middle.” She grabbed the bottle frombetween her knees, and rose to her feet. Then as he took his place,she leaned over to hand him the baby.
“Got her?” sheasked.
He nodded.“Sure thing. She’s so tiny, there’s nothing to hang on to.”
“Don’t hold hertoo tight,” Nicolette warned, the sweet freshness of clean babywafting around them.
“She’s so soft,cuddly...so small. She smells great, not at all like I expected ababy to smell. Never thought much about babies at all, to tell youthe truth.”
Nicolettesmiled. “I’m not surprised.”
Kylie snuggledinto him, making funny little whimpering noises.
“Are youcomfortable?”
“Yes.”
“Good.” Shehanded him the bottle, and watched as Kylie again latched on to thenipple, though a touch less enthusiastically than before.
“There, justhold the bottle a little higher, that’s it. Then she doesn’t haveto work so hard.”
“This iscozy.”
His soft wordsdrew her attention. Without realizing it, Nicolette had placed herhand over Jake’s as he grasped the bottle.
Suddenly awareof the warmth and strength of his hand as it flexed beneath hers,Nicolette quickly withdrew her hold, stood back and observed, gladto put some distance between them.

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