When Fate Decides
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For too long Tessa has seen herself as plain and dowdy, just an ordinary suburban housewife. With her confidence eroded after being married to a bully who humiliated her at every opportunity, why wouldn’t she presume she was unattractive, and someone no man would find the least bit worth bothering with? But now Tessa is a widow, and relishing her new state of independence. Her world is turned upside down by Jack Delaney, a man she spent hours fantasizing over when he worked for her husband. A man who gave her a deliciously secret outlet from her miserable marriage. When Jack enters her life again, professing he finds her attractive, why would she believe him? Especially as he is now wealthy, successful, still extremely handsome, and to add to that, years younger than her.



Publié par
Date de parution 12 octobre 2014
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781771459280
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.


When FateDecides
Challenge theHeart Book 1
By TriciaMcGill
Digital ISBNs
EPUB 9781771459280
Print ISBN9781771459310

Copyright 2014 byTricia McGill
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.
To all thewomen out there who dream of having a man like Jack in their lives,and to all those lucky enough to have one.
Chapter One
Liberated,serene, relaxed. All these feelings swirled inside Tessa as shesniffed one of the roses that lined the driveway leading to herhome. She’d seldom felt so calm during the years of her marriage,that was certain.
Letting herselfinto the house, she relished the sense of enveloping peace. Leaningback against the closed door, she sighed. Tossing Velvet’s leashonto the hallstand Tessa smiled as the spaniel ran to the kitchenfor a drink of water.
Going throughto the living room, she shrugged out of her windcheater, and with agreat deal of satisfaction, dropped it on one of the soft beigeleather chairs. Des wouldn’t be pleased.
But Des wasn’there to nag her, was he?
No, since hisdeath four months ago, life had taken on a pleasant hue. Her fewreal friends knew how relieved she was to be a widow. It wasobscene how good she felt. Did those same friends guess at theoccasional twinge of guilt she experienced at this blessed relief?Probably not.
Des had nevertaken the trouble to bother himself with her friends; and likewisethere was no love lost between them and him. Alice, the closest,urged her often to leave, to pack up and turn her back on hisbullying.
In the kitchenTessa pulled off her walking shoes, and with a grunt of pleasurelet them stay where they dropped. Velvet snuffled about and thencame to sit at her feet. Absently she bent to stroke the spaniel’ssoft ears.
“Guess we oughtto start thinking about preparing dinner, eh girl?” She wiggled hertoes as the dog replied with a soft woof.
Most peoplewould be horrified if they knew how happy she was to be her ownwoman at last.
Her ownwoman.
An odd title,but in her case it signified exactly how she felt. After twenty-twoyears of marriage to a man who treated her like a doormat, shelooked forward to a life of independence. She’d spent so many yearstrying to please Des, trying to be the kind of woman he seemed towant that it was going to be difficult changing.
But change shewould. She sighed again. She’d done lots of sighing in the past fewweeks. And a lot of smiling. Perhaps she was indecently wicked tobe this happy so soon after being widowed. She’d tried hard toplease her demanding husband. And in his eyes failed on everycount.
She put thekettle on for a cup of tea. Her kitchen was well equipped. Onething could be said for being married to a successful man; her homecontained everything required to make it comfortable. Thefurniture, updated often, had been purchased more to satisfy Des’sego than anything else. Des delighted in gloating over hispossessions, and sadly she had been counted among them.
Even so, Tessaliked her home in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Caulfield. Desbuilt the red brick two-storied home soon after their marriage,after knocking down his grandparents’ house, which had been willedto him. Years ago, in his grandparent’s time, the local horsetrainers led their thoroughbred charges by the house on the way totheir morning exercise session at the nearby racecourse, but theroads were too busy nowadays, and that halcyon era was longgone.
As she sippedher tea, Tessa ticked off items on her list of things to be done.The hairdressers would come first. Her hair showed the first signsof gray and, for some reason, Des hadn’t wanted her to have itcolored. He’d probably been worried she might attract the attentionof other men. Hah! What a joke. No man in his right mind would giveher a second look. Not with her ordinary figure, plain face, andmousy hair.
The phoneinterrupted her reverie.
“Hi Mum,” herson said.
“Gary? What isit? I was just about to prepare dinner. Thought we’d have spaghettibolognaise. What do you reckon?”
“Damn! Myfavorite. Sorry Mum, won’t be there.” He sounded as if he was in ahurry. “Jodie wants me to go to a friend’s house to pick up somestupid giftware she ordered at a ridiculous selling party she wentto.”
“Are you sureshe wants you to go with her, Gary?”
“Of course!” Heobviously thought that was the stupidest question in the world.“We’ll grab a meal out. See you in the morning.”
Before Tessacould get a word out, he put the phone down. She grimaced as shereplaced the receiver. Was he tagging along because he didn’t trustthe girl out of his sight? Tessa sometimes worried about her son.Worried he was becoming too much like his father. Jodie, ateighteen, was a tad shy. And Gary tended to be domineering, adisaster for such a malleable girl. Jodie reminded Tessa of theinnocent she was at the same age, and Gary was beginning to be toomuch like Des.
There was not alot she could do about it, except keep reminding Jodie not to givein to him. But the poor girl was besotted, which was not good newswhen up against someone so forceful. Still, at twenty-one, Gary hadtime to change. Tessa worried that it might already be toolate.
“Dinner,Velvet?” After opening a can of dog food and satisfying her pet’sneeds, Tessa washed her hands and idly stood applying cream tothem. As Velvet finished licking her dish, her ears pricked. Thedoorbell chimed, and she barked her way across the hall. “Notanother salesman,” Tessa grumbled, as she followed the spaniel.
As Tessa pulledthe door open, the words of rebuke died on her lips. It mostdefinitely wasn’t a salesman. The man who stood there, smiling, wasone she’d never expected to see again in her lifetime.
“Mrs Browning.I don’t know if you remember me,” he said. Oh, how she rememberedhim, and that rich voice of his. “The name’s Jack Delaney. I didsome work here a few years back for your husband.” When shecontinued to stare at him in shock, he added, “We built the gamesroom and extra toilet and shower room.” He shrugged. “Another guyand me were here for a month or so? You’ve probably forgottenme.”
If there wasone person Tessa would never be likely to forget, it was him. Hisvoice sounded deeper, but still held that same undercurrent ofsensuality that caused her toes to curl.
“I know it’snot exactly the done thing to turn up like this on your doorstep,but I’d like to speak to you about your late husband’sbusiness.”
“Mr. Delaney,”Tessa managed to get out. “Of course I remember you.” Good grief,she was blushing like a schoolgirl; she just knew it. “Please comein.” She stepped aside, ushering him into the spacious hallway.
“Jack, please.I recall you called me that when we met last time.”
Tessa did herbest to pull herself together as he smiled, the corners of his eyescrinkling. She guessed he still laughed easily. There was no guilein his expression. This part of him hadn’t changed.
“And you mustcall me Tessa. We don’t stand on ceremony around here.”
Not anymore.Des would have had a fit if one of his employees called her by herChristian name. But Des wasn’t here. That thought sent a dart ofpleasure through her that was definitely wicked.
He wore a veryconventional dark suit, and looked as if he’d just stepped out of aboard meeting. Tessa recalled vividly how he looked in faded denimshorts, navy blue singlet, and work boots, which was what he’d wornwhen working here. She recalled too how she’d discreetly spent manyhours watching him. Watched his sweat-streaked torso and arms as hetoiled beneath the sun. Heat enveloped her as if she was backthere, avidly spying on him from her kitchen window.
This thoughtsent Tessa hurtling back to days in midsummer. Thirty-five thatyear, and already highly disillusioned with her marriage, the entryof a good-looking young man into her boring existence added somemuch-needed spice to the dreary days. Jack gave her something todream about. Heaven knows she’d needed dreams to replace the awfulemptiness an unhappy marriage enveloped her in.
She was wearingan ordinary pale pink sundress of washed-out cotton on the day heturned up, looking like an Adonis, rugged and overwhelming. Herhair probably looked a sight too—pulled back in a ponytail, if sheremembered correctly. He was so handsome, fit, and full of youthfulvitality, that she felt flustered, self-conscious and downrightawkward in his presence.
It was likelyhe was forever imprinted on her brain. His brown eyes haunted manyof her nighttime dreams, and daytime fantasies. Jack Delaney, ofthe black curly hair, muscular body, and easy charm, with thestrength and power to make her weak with wanting.
If he wasgood-looking ten years ago, he was superb now. His hair had beentamed—the curls not quite so unruly, although he still wore itfairly long. It reached his shoulders, whereas it used to behalfway down his back. He seemed larger, broader. Not many mentowered over Tessa, but he did. Her height was the bane of herlife. Des was always scathing about it, probably because hecouldn’t look down his nose at her. Des liked people to feelbeneath him. Had loved to talk down to people.
Eyes as dark aschocolate assessed her, and Tessa’s skin quivered beneath theirwarm scrutiny. He’d always possessed the power to make every nerveending come alive, and hadn’t lost that power. It was unnerving toknow he could still have this effect on her. Tessa wasn’t sure howto deal with this handsome fantasy from her past.
He held out ahand and she stared down at it, in the brief moment aware of hissquare-tipped fingers and clean nails. There was a dusting of blackhairs on the back of his hand, and his white shirt cuff with itsgold links contrasted vividly with skin darkened by long hoursspent outside.
Tessa put herhand in his, every pulse going into overdrive as he gripped herfingers. It took an effort to drag her hand from his warm clasp.She was achingly aware that her skin was glowing, which had nothingto do with the heat in her house. A strange feeling she couldn’tput a name to was taking her over. No other man ever aroused such afeeling. Not since this one, ten years ago.
“We’ll go inhere.” Tessa walked towards the living room. The spaniel begged forattention by making a soft sound in her throat as she followed, hertail wagging exuberantly, and Tessa admonished, “Velvet, leave ourguest alone.”
“It’s allright. So, you’re Velvet are you?” He bent to stroke the dog’sears, grinning up at Tessa when Velvet licked his hand withenthusiasm.
Tessa feltunaccountably nervous. “She likes people,” she said, then gesturingto the three-seater couch, added, “Please sit down.”
When he wasseated, she sat opposite on one of the matching chairs. Crossingher legs, she noticed his glance resting momentarily on her ankles,and touched a hand to the goose bumps on her nape. With an innergroan Tessa regretted her disheveled state—her grubby jeans, andbare feet. Good God, her hair must be a mess. She’d been working inthe garden before taking Velvet for her daily walk.
But then shepulled herself up short. Idiot. What difference did it make if shelooked all of her forty-five years? So what if she wore thegrubbiest clothes she possessed? What was she thinking of? He mustbe a good fifteen years her junior. And, she recalled with asinking heart, married, probably with half a dozen children by now.She remembered thinking then that he was far too young to bemarried and wondered if perhaps he’d been pressed into marryingbecause his wife was pregnant—often the cause of youthfulmarriages.
A vivid pictureof a dark curly-haired boy with his father’s soft eyes and cheekygrin came to mind, and something gave inside her.
Tessaswallowed. “Forgive me? Can I get you a drink?” She was up andturning to the cabinet at the side of the room as she spoke.
“A coffee willbe fine.” A roguish grin tugged at his mouth. “As I recall you makethe best coffee in town.” His soft chuckle sent wild sensationstingling through her. He looked completely relaxed, while she feltlike a schoolgirl hauled before the headmaster. Stop acting like akid, she scolded, nodding before going through to the kitchen.
As she put thekettle on, a movement startled her, and she put a hand to her heartwhen she realized he’d followed her.
Just a fewpaces away, he stood studying her, his expression unreadable. “Whathappened to your cat?” he asked.
She was amazedhe’d remembered the black kitten the children brought home. “It gotrun over about four years ago.” Tessa pushed back her hair.
“You’ve hardlychanged.” She felt the heat running up her face again as he saidthis. “You’re just as slim, and still have a lovelycomplexion.”
Tessa stared athim. Struck speechless, she began to prepare the cups and saucers.A tremor in her fingers made the crockery rattle.
“I’m sorry.I’ve obviously overstepped the bounds of good manners.” He’d movedfurther into the kitchen and now stood quite close, making her feelmore unsettled. Those broad shoulders lifted in a small shrug. “Ihave a bad habit of being blunt. My best friends tell me it’ll getme into trouble one day. I believe honesty is the best policythough, don’t you?”
Tessa nearlydropped a cup and he reached to take it from her fingers, whichonly shook more. “Oh yes,” she managed to get out, while he set thecup down. He then leaned back against the bench and folded hisarms.
As the kettlebegan to boil she turned her back on him, hoping he hadn’t spottedher stupidly blushing cheeks.
“How old areyour children now?” he asked, as he turned to the fridge. He tookout the milk as if he’d done it in her house a hundred timesbefore.
Trying to soundnormal, Tessa cleared her throat, before saying, “Gary’s twentyone, and Laurel just turned sixteen.” Despite her efforts it stillcame out huskily, and she could have kicked herself.
What was wrongwith her? She was acting totally out of character. Des may havetreated her like a doormat most of the time, and humiliated her incompany, but she usually managed to carry on like a mature womanwith strangers. Yet, in front of this man she felt as insecure asan adolescent. But then he wasn’t exactly a stranger, was he? Thestarring character in so many of her past dreams, he was more likea lover, once well known.
“You still onlyhave two?”
“Yes, Desdidn’t want any more.” For a brief moment she dwelt in the past.Des didn’t care one way or the other once he had his son, and waseven more disinterested when Tessa produced a daughter. Her darlingLaurel helped to fill the aching void in her life. “What about you?Do you have any family?” Tessa picked up the tray and he followedher back to the living room.
He waited, ahand in his trouser pocket, until she sat, then sat too,unbuttoning his jacket. When Tessa glanced up, she saw his eyes hadturned serious. “No, I never had any. My wife and I divorced.” Heshrugged indifferently.
“Oh, I’msorry.” It sounded mundane. And she knew it was a lie. An alienfeeling flowered inside her, one she couldn’t put a name to—akin toanticipation.
“Don’t be.” Herubbed his jaw and looked away. “It was all over a long time ago.We were together only two years. Two painful years I might add. Wewere both too young to have enough sense to get up in the morning,let alone make a relationship work.”
Tessa shook herhead. To her way of thinking he’d seemed to be very levelheaded,and certainly more mature than most twenty year olds. “And younever married again?”
Thatanticipatory flutter returned.
“I haven’t metthe woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. Yet. And Iwon’t settle for anything but a lasting relationship next time.” Heslanted a roguish grin her way again, and Tessa’s heart tilted.
“Milk? Sugar?”She held up the jug. “Do you still like your coffee sweet?” Tessacould have curled up in a heap. Fancy letting him know sheremembered this about him.
“Milk please,but no sugar. I try to keep the sugar intake down now.” He pattedhis middle. “Have to watch the weight.”
Tessa disputedthat. There was little wrong with his shape.
“You know myhusband died.” Tessa nibbled at her lip as she passed his cup.
“Yes.” Hehesitated a moment. “I’ve heard his business is about to go on themarket. That’s what I want to speak to you about.”
Tessa tiltedher head. “I can’t think how on earth you got such an idea. My sonis running everything at the moment.”
She’d alreadyhad one flaming row with Gary over the business, despite what shetold this man. It was obvious to everyone her son was incapable ofrunning it single-handedly. When she offered to assist him, he’dlooked at her as if she’d taken leave of her senses. And that lookreminded her explicitly he was his father’s son. Too much like Desin many ways for comfort.
But she had toadmit that she was just as much to blame for Gary being hotheadedand arrogant—she’d managed to spoil him. Too much affection hadbeen showered on her children to compensate for the lack of lovefrom her husband. While Laurel had turned out sweet and caring fromthis surfeit of affection, Gary tended to be petulant and bullishat times. Definitely traits inherited from his father.
“The subject ofselling hasn’t come up.” For a moment she stared at the weddingband on her finger as she turned it around. Why hadn’t she taken itoff? She would do so soon. Momentarily she wondered how thatthought had sprung into her mind.
“I see.” Hedidn’t seem about to pursue the subject. Tessa covertly watched himas he drank. Not only was Jack Delaney handsome, but also one ofthe nicest men she’d ever met. No, nice was too soft a word. Hepossessed the power to make her feel special—listening withinterest to what must have been mundane comments.
Mind you, backthen she hadn’t met many men in anything but a hostess capacity.Her arrogant husband always froze men out if they tried to get tooclose to her. Des liked to think of her as an appendage, nothingmore. Later, he hadn’t really cared one way or the other. And shehadn’t met anyone after Jack who roused enough enthusiasm in her toconsider any indiscretion.
Instinctivelyshe knew, despite his strength, this man would always treat anywoman he cared for with exquisite gentleness. That was a headycombination—strength and gentleness.
For the life ofher, Tessa couldn’t remember what the other young man who workedalongside Jack looked like. Jack made her long for things way outof reach. Made her yearn for things she didn’t dare admit toanyone—hardly admitted to herself, except in the dead of night whenno-one could see her eyes—eyes she knew grew dazed with the depthof her longing.
* * *
Jack sipped hiscoffee as he watched her over the rim of the cup. Fancy herremembering he liked lots of sweet stuff back then. It might besmall and insignificant but was something in his favor. Heremembered practically everything about her, from the certain wayshe had of looking at him, as if about to run and hide at anymoment, to the soft curve of her mouth when she smiled.
And he hadn’tlied; she’d barely altered in ten years. He could hardly believeit. If anything she was more beautiful than the last time he sawher, with slightly exotic almond shaped eyes, dainty chin,patrician nose, skin begging a man’s touch, and amazing bonestructure.
And still asunsure of herself. Christ, what had her mangy dog of a husbanddone? If she was his woman, she would be glorying in herfemininity.
Her long legsdrew his gaze as she crossed them. Lord, but they brought out thesavage in him. This woman’s ingrained elegance attracted him fromthe moment he set eyes on her ten years ago. In the jeans andsweater, he could see her figure was still as willowy, yet curvedin all the right places. He’d always liked tall women, perhapssince he developed a crush on this particular one at the tender ageof twenty.
What a contrastto the bitch he married. Sometimes he wondered if perhaps hismarriage, never made in heaven, had started to go decidedlydownhill once he met Tessa. No, it was a fact—held beside Mary, hisgreatest mistake, Tessa was a goddess.
Her eyes hadheld a wariness since he walked in, and she kept looking away everytime he tried to hold her gaze. He liked the shyness she projected,had been endeared by it from the start, hoped it was still part ofher make-up, not just something manufactured by his imagination. Nodoubt she was unaware of her attractiveness. And there was no doubtthat she was unaware of his strange tug of the heartstrings just atthe sight of her. God, but she brought out the romantic in him.
Jack recalledthe first time he walked into her kitchen years ago as if it wasyesterday. Des instructed him and Geoff to turn up at seven thirtyand they arrived on the dot. Despite the early hour, she was up andabout, unlike Mary who still snored beneath the blankets when heleft her at home. Tessa was in the midst of preparing lunches forher two kids, and looking as fresh as a dew-kissed rosebud. Withflustered confusion, she offered them a cup of coffee. It was thefirst of many she made them in the weeks they were here. Until thisone he had now, he’d never tasted its like. Perhaps it hadsomething to do with the fact that she made it. It was likely hewould drink hemlock and enjoy it if it was made by Tessa Browning’sslender hand.
“What ashame.”
What was ashame? Jack looked at her curiously. Deep in his reminiscences,he’d forgotten completely what they were discussing.
“Yourmarriage?” She gave a slight nod.
“Ah, that? Notreally, we were unsuited.” Boy, was that an understatement! “Maryfound herself someone else, and I was glad it was all over.”
That seemed toshock Tessa. What would she say, he wondered, if he told her shewas possibly behind his indifference to Mary. The indifference thatgrew steadily while he worked in this house. Tessa always looked sofresh, regardless of the heat, and always treated him and Geoff asif they were important, not just two tradesmen working for herhusband. He’d never met another woman like her, before or since. Noother woman came near to stirring his senses. No other came closeto bringing out every protective instinct, every lustfulresponse.
“You came todiscuss Des’s business,” she said, and Jack had to bring histhoughts back to the subject. “As I said, it’s not up for sale.” Hegot the feeling she wasn’t a hundred per cent sure about this.
“And is yourson capable of carrying on? I heard he’s making a real hash ofthings.” Jack bit his lip, wishing he’d bitten his tongue.Damnation on his bluntness.
Her browslifted at that, as she said sharply, “Who told you this?”
Right! He’dopened his big mouth and put his flat foot right in it.
“You know whatthe building game is like…Tessa. There’s not a lot goes unnoticed.”He shrugged. Like any large manufacturing industry there was anetwork of spies, forever passing on snippets of fact or fiction.“I don’t doubt that Gary will be capable in a few years, but asthings are at this present moment you’ll start to lose orders if hedoesn’t get his act together. I’m willing to let him work for meand I’m quite prepared to carry on where Des left off and give himevery help and encouragement.”
Uncertaintyclouded her hazel eyes. The dog was flopped at her feet, and shebent to stroke its ears. “Gary thinks he’s responsible enough tomake a go of it on his own.” She didn’t sound positive.
“Of course hethinks he is. I remember when I was his age. I thought I knew itall.” Jack ran a palm over his nape. He hadn’t been handed abusiness on a plate though, and thus had to fight harder tosucceed—having more to lose. “I’m prepared to pay the highestprice. Think about it, Tessa. But I should warn you; you’ll haveall the vultures on your back before long. I’d hate to see you getcheated.”
Her slenderhands straightened the denim over her knees and he swallowed hard.The simple action set off all sorts of reactions. With a harshintake of breath, he waited while she seemed to mull over hiswords.
Then, to hisutter surprise and delight, she said, “I was going to do spaghettibolognaise for Gary’s dinner, and he’s not coming home. Would youstay and share it with me?”
Would he ever?“That’d be nice.”
Nice! Good God,it would be bloody marvelous. “Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’thave offered if I wasn’t.” She smiled, as with her wonderful grace,she stood and reached to take his empty cup. Roses. She still worethe same perfume. It wafted about him, making his head spin, hissenses reel. “Another cup?”
“I’ll get it.You go ahead and do whatever you have to do with the spaghetti, andI’ll top up our cups.”
She wasblushing again. Christ! If it happened too often he would fallapart. Could she be such a delightful shade of pink all over? Witha sharp silent reprimand, he told himself to keep it cool. If hewasn’t careful he could frighten the life out her.
“I’d rather nothave another. But you go ahead and help yourself.” She nodded asshe picked up the tray.
Jack followedTessa to the kitchen and, while she started to get a saucepan fromthe cupboard he refilled his cup, then leaned back against thecounter to watch her.
“Am I in theway? Just tell me to go jump if I am.” Could he be making hernervous? Was that a tremor in her fingers, or simply his ownawareness playing tricks on him? She shook her head and, with anendearing little smile, carried on.
His gutclenched. “So, your daughter’s sixteen. Is she a problem teenager?”Perhaps as stupid question but he desperately wanted to set her atease. He loved the sound of her voice, and could listen to it allday. It was soft as a summer breeze, with a slight huskiness to it.Made a man think of forbidden things, like sultry nights of passionand sweat-sleeked bodies.
Her warm smiletold him she adored her daughter. “Laurel a problem? Heavens, no—Icouldn’t wish for a better daughter.”
Jack pulled histhoughts back to the mundane question he’d asked. “You must be oneof the lucky ones. I have friends with teenagers who reckon theyare a pain in the neck.”
“I am lucky.”She frowned as she said that. “Des was like your friends—inclinedto look on girls as not worth the bother it takes to raise them.”As if she regretted being so outspoken, she bit her lip before sheturned her back on him.
Jack couldn’timagine dear old Des being the kind of father a girl would enjoyhaving. He was far too dogmatic and unbending. Too mean and nastyto have the sensibilities needed to rear a daughter.
“Laurel wantsto be a nurse.” Her smile had returned when she turned back to facehim. “She’ll be a good one too. Her dolls have been her patientssince she was a toddler. Every one of them sported a bandage on onelimb or other since she was old enough to wrap it.” Pride shonefrom her eyes. “I think she’ll probably want to go overseas to helpthe refugees or displaced people. She has a very compassionatenature.”
“Is she asbeautiful as her mother?” Damn! Now she’d gone all wary again, buther blush told him his revelation pleased her.
Laughingnervously she eyed him across the small space separating them.“Don’t be daft.”
“Daft to thinkanyone could be as lovely as you, you mean?” With a grin, hewatched the peachy stain travel from her throat and up her face.God, she was endearing.
She gave a softsnort as she held a spoon aloft. “You should see about gettingglasses.”
“My eyesight isperfect.” Fascinated, he watched her movements. Yes, she wasflustered for sure. “Surely Des told you how lovely you are. Andthere must have been many men over the years that commented on it.Unless they are the ones who needed glasses.”
She emptied apacket of spaghetti into boiling water as she protested, “I’m apast her prime mum and my hair’s going gray.”
Jack made arude sound. “Rubbish! Past your prime? You have the face and figureof a twenty-year-old, Tessa. Your skin’s like silk, and I happen tolike the touch of silver in your hair.” Would dearly like to see ifher skin felt as soft as it promised to be. Itched to run hisfingers through that sleek hair.
“How did we getonto this subject?” He couldn’t quite make out if she wasembarrassed by his bluntness or pleased at his compliments.
“Well, mainlybecause I was commenting on your beauty and you were arguing withme.” Now he knew she was pleased with his observations—herflustered movements gave her away. Obviously he was right—she justwasn’t used to having someone tell her she was lovely. “How do youkeep so slim?”
“I walk the dogevery day as well as doing exercises. And I do Tai Chiregularly.”
“Really? I’vealways wanted to have a go at that? Where did you learn?” Hewatched as she stirred the pot. A delicious smell rose from thesauce she’d poured in.
Her eyes wentwide. “I went to the local community center. You’re kidding me,right? I can’t see you doing anything so sedate.” A small sound ofdisbelief left her lips. “I would reckon karate would be more inyour line.”
“Funny youshould say that.” Jack nodded. “I did start learning after mymarriage flopped. It was one way to get the anger out of mysystem.”
“Anger?” Shestopped stirring to frown at him.
“Yes. Mary wasa bitch of the first degree.” Another understatement. Bitch camenowhere near describing his ex-wife’s selfishness. “I spent thefirst year after our split wondering where I went wrong. Until itdawned on me I had nothing to do with the way she was.” For amoment he stared pensively down at the dog now snuggled in herbasket. “I came from Adelaide. I don’t know if I told you.”
“Yes, you saidyour mum and dad lived there. Your father was a plumber, wasn’the?”
“That’s right.”Jack was astounded she’d remembered so much of what he told her solong ago. “They both died within a couple of years of each other.Dad first, then Mum three years ago.”
“Oh, I amsorry.” She put placemats, condiments and cutlery on the table.
Jack shrugged.“Don’t be. Mum didn’t have much interest in life once dad hadgone.”
Her eyes turnedwistful again. “It must be lovely to care so deeply for someonethat you can’t bear life without each other.” As if realizing she’ddisclosed too much, she turned her back on him and began to takedishes from the cupboard. “So, you came over from Adelaide and metyour wife.”
“Yes, andwasn’t that just about the worst mistake I made in my life. I guessshe saw me coming. A dope from the back-blocks. I thought she wasglamorous and sexy, and let’s face it, I was as green as grass. Isoon found out what she was really like. She was showy and tacky,self-involved and lazy.” He sighed. “Mary was only looking out fornumber one. She wouldn’t have known how to share a life withsomeone. I pity the bloke she went off with.”
“At least therewere no children to complicate matters. It’s always worse when kidsare involved in a marriage breakdown.” For a moment he thought shewas about to disclose some deep dark secret, but as if pullingherself up, she went back to her cooking. “What if you don’t meetthis woman of your dreams, who will share a lifelong relationshipwith you? What then? Will it worry you not to have children?”
Jack turnedaway, plunging his hands into his pockets. Now here was a trickysubject.
When he turnedback to her he said, “Life has a funny way of working itself out.What is meant to be, will be.”
“That’s true.”She busied herself stirring the pot again.
The ringing ofthe phone saved him from making any more comments on the subject.Truth was, he would have liked kids once, but now wasn’t so sure itbothered him one way or the other.
Now, wanting acertain woman, now talking animatedly to what he presumed, by theconversation, was her daughter, was as certain as day followingnight.
What would shedo if he just came right out with it and declared his feelings?
Probably slaphis face and tell him to get out and never darken her door again.Which was the last thing he wanted to do. Now that he was thisclose to her again, he would do whatever it took to have herwelcome him into her life.
Chapter Two
She put thephone down, confirming Jack’s suspicion by telling him it was herdaughter.
“Laurel went toa friend’s place after school. They study together, and then she ishaving dinner there. It’s my turn to put on dinner tomorrow.”
“Is sheinterested in boys yet?” he asked, indecently pleased that thedaughter would not be coming home for dinner.
She gesturedfor him to be seated at the oval table and, when he did, she putthe dish containing the steaming spaghetti in front of him. “Helpyourself.” Then she sat with the grace he found fascinating.“Laurel’s a normal teenager with all the usual romantic notions.She can be very serious and conscientious, but that doesn’t mean tosay she and her friends don’t have their silly giggling sessions. Ihope to goodness when she does start dating she picks someone withher sensitivity and not one of these no-hopers that aboundtoday.”
“I guess allmothers have the same fears. Fools jump in feet first and live toregret hasty decisions later.” Jack took the dish of sauce shepassed, and ladled a good share on top of his spaghetti. God,hadn’t he done just that? Married the first woman who attracted himphysically without looking beneath the surface? And would alwaysregret it. Looking back, he still couldn’t believe he’d been sohasty. Still, at that age, lust drove young men to makemisjudgments.
“Right. I wastwenty-three when I married, yet had less sense than Laurel has atsixteen.” She worried her bottom lip, as she seemed to rue tellinghim that piece of information. “I hope you don’t mind us eating inhere, by the way.” She glanced around her large shiny kitchen. “Inever thought to ask. I’ve gotten into the habit of having my mealshere. I like to watch the birds in the garden.” She nodded towardsthe sliding door leading to the paved patio, now shrouded indarkness.
“Not at all.”Jack grinned. “I have very good memories of this room. Long cooldrinks and cups of your superb coffee.” Amongst lots of otherthings he couldn’t tell her right now. Such as, watching herprepare school lunches and meals, always so efficient yet nervousin his company.
She blushedagain. “Now, hadn’t we better get onto why you called?” She hadgone all businesslike.
“Ah, yes.” Jackreally didn’t want to discuss it now. But she would likely wonderwhat he was doing at her table, accepting a meal from her, if hedidn’t at least make some mundane remarks concerning Des’s buildingcompany. “I’m willing to offer a very substantial sum, Tessa. Theway I see it, Gary has neither the experience, nor foresight, tomake a go of it. I don’t know if you’ve involved yourself inthings—”
A slight frowncreased her brow. “Des never brought matters home. I haven’t anotion of what’s going on down there. I guess I should poke my nosein more now. I thought Reg Beck was capable of carrying on. WithGary’s help of course.”
“Yes, there’sReg Beck.” Jack wondered how much to disclose. He didn’t want tomake her wary of his motives. “I know for a fact that Reg has beenmore worried about feathering his own nest. The man isn’t concernedwith profits. Without Des to keep an eye on him, he’s gatheringmomentum.”
Her frowndeepened. “I don’t believe you—he’s been with Des for years. Hewouldn’t think of swindling us, surely?”
Wouldn’t he?The man was untrustworthy and sly. Good company for Des, no doubt.There wasn’t a lot to choose between the two. “Human nature’s afunny thing, Tessa.” Jack ate in silence for a while. “Anyway,let’s not go into Reg’s doings at the moment. I’m willing to offera fair price, and I suggest you think about accepting it. It’s inthe best interests of your son, as well as yours.”
“I’ll have tothink this over.” His insides did a flip when she looked right athim, her rosebud lips curving in a smile. It was all he could do tokeep his seat and not reach out to grab her.
“Of course.Only please remember what I said, Tessa. I’m not in this forprofit, I should add. I’m as successful as I want to be for now. Ihave enough contracts lined up to keep me and my staff occupied forthe foreseeable future.”
The smiledisappeared as she eyed him. “I’m left to wonder just why youshould take the trouble to bother in that case.”
Perhaps heshould tell her why he was bothered. Hell, no, his big mouth alwaysgot him into trouble. The wariness in her beautiful eyes was enoughto make him exceptionally cautious.
“That I canwell understand. Let’s say anyone can see Des’ company is worthhaving. As I said, the vultures will be round before you can clickyour fingers. They’re already sniffing blood, I assure you. Peoplehave approached me with rumors and questions.” Jack looked hard ather for a moment, and then plunged on. “I know you don’t want tohear this about your son, Tessa, but he’s too young and arrogant tolead such a large company successfully.”
Slowly shenodded, as if fully agreeing with him. “Des was arrogant when Imarried him.” He saw something resembling pain flicker across hereyes as she divulged this. It didn’t come as any surprise. “I knowhe was older than Gary is now, but he took the business over fromhis father. I guess Gary feels capable of doing the same.”
“It was likelyDes had more reliable staff to help him. I recall a man namedSpence as manager when I was there.”
“That’s right.Spence died soon after you finished the work here. It was verysudden.”
“Did he? Iliked the old fellow.” Jack finished his dinner and passed her theempty plate. “That was delicious, Tessa.”
“Thank you.”She went to put the plates and leftovers on the draining board.“I’m afraid I have nothing prepared for dessert, but I have icecream if you’d like some.”
“Would I ever!It’s my favorite.” Jack grinned and her eyes settled on his mouth.God, he knew what he wanted for dessert, and it definitely wasn’tice cream.
As if readinghis lustful thoughts, she licked her lips, her cheeks turning adelightful pink again as she opened the fridge, murmuring, “You’reeasily pleased.”
“Don’t believeit. Choc chip really is my favorite.” She scooped out two servingsfrom the container into glass dishes. Actually, he couldn’tremember the last time he’d eaten ice cream. Yes, he could. It wasthe morning she’d come into the nearly complete extension. Smellingof roses and dressed in an outfit of pale blue, she’d looked like agoddess. Her hair, piled on her head, had somehow formed a halo,and those gorgeous long legs of hers were encased in figure huggingpants.
When his matepassed some lascivious comment on those legs and her cute bottom,Jack felt like flattening him for daring to look at her in such away. In fact, Geoff likely guessed way back then where his feelingslay, by the way Jack blasted him after that comment.
“I think you’rekidding me, Jack Delaney.” As she sat opposite him, her hazel eyessparkled with a mischievousness he found endearing. She’d alwaysbeen so serious, and he’d wanted to be the one to bring a smile toher face—the one to bring a little sunshine into her life.
“Do youremember bringing us ice cream one morning? I have a feeling it hadchoc chips in it too.” He was telling fibs now, but it was worth itto see the sparkle again.
“Jack! Iwouldn’t have a clue what morning you’re talking about, and I don’tthink you do either.” As she laughed, showing her even white teeth,her head went back, displaying the fine arch of her throat. Heclenched his fists to curb the desire to jump up and press his lipsthere.
Instead, heblurted, “I love to hear you laugh.” He then felt like a fool ather stunned expression, and tried to make amends. “I’m sorry.” Butit was too late, for her eyes had gone wary again. “I shouldn’thave said that. Damn! Yes I should. I have to tell you, Tessa, Ilike many things about you, your laugh being just one.”
Abruptly shestood, and he cursed beneath his breath at his stupidity as shescolded, “Jack Delaney, I think you’re just trying to wind me up.”He could tell that she was agitated by the way she turned on thetap and filled the sink with hot water, then squirted somedetergent into it.
“All I’m doing,Tessa Browning, is being truthful. One thing you’ll find out aboutme is that I’m blunt, and as honest as a high court judge.” Jackstood, and moving to stand behind her placed his hands on hershoulders. A quiver ran through her, while his body shook with therestraint he was putting on it.
“Don’t,” shewhispered, turning the tap off. As his fingers pressed onto hershoulders she hunched them slightly.
“Don’t what?Don’t warn you I’m to be trusted? Don’t touch you? Turn around,Tessa,” he asked softly. “I want you to look at me while I tell yousomething.”
She didn’tturn, and with gentleness, belying the flare of somethinganimalistic roaring through him, Jack turned her, sliding his handsdown until they rested lightly on her waist.
“I fancied youlike crazy when I was a raw twenty year old, Tessa,” he saidsoftly.
“No!” Her mouthparted. He almost groaned with his need to smother it with his ownwhen her pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
“Why do youdeny it? You must have seen how I looked at you. Des knew. The oldbastard took delight in taunting me.”
Had he ever?And warned him off on one occasion. “Touch my wife,” he’d saidsavagely. “And, let me tell you fella, you’ll not get a job in thistrade in the next thirty years.” And he had been capable offollowing through on the threat. But this hadn’t been the reasonJack didn’t try to seduce her. His honor wouldn’t let him touchanother man’s wife. It was one of the rules his father instilled inhim. And there was also the added moralistic dilemma of a wife ofhis own—albeit one he didn’t love.
Her head wasgoing from side to side—her lips still parted. “Yes. Anyway, Des isgone. I don’t know how deep your grief is, Tessa, but I have towarn you about this. As soon as you feel you’re ready, I’m goingafter you. I’m not twenty anymore; I’m a mature man with all theusual needs. It’s no good looking at me as if I’m stark raving mad.I never did anything about it while you were a married woman, butnow you’re as free as me and I’m going to make you want me as muchas I want you.”
“You are mad,”she spluttered, pushing at his arms as they tightened about herwaist until their bodies met. The spiral of need shooting throughhim sent messages through to his soul.
“Mad aboutyou.” She plucked at his sleeves as his lips hovered abovehers.
“Don’t bedaft!” With a kind of frantic appeal, she tilted her head to putmore space between their mouths. “I’d have to be at least fifteenyears older than you. I have grown up children. My hair has gray init, and you are good looking enough to get anyone you want.” Inagitation she pushed at his forearms. Every muscle tensed at thefeel of her hands on him, burning through the fabric of hissleeves.
Jack grinned.“I’m glad you think I’m good looking. We’ve made a start. It wouldbe awful if you reckoned I was as ugly as an old boot.”
“Stop it. Thisis no joking matter, Jack, and take your hands off me!” Shestruggled to get free, slapping where she had just gripped hisarms. But Jack held fast. He’d seen the telltale signs of herarousal through the soft fabric of her sweater, and wasn’t about tolose any advantage.
“Okay, I’lltake my hands off you if you tell me bluntly you haven’t theslightest desire to taste me. If you tell me you aren’t in theleast bit aroused by having my body this close to yours. If youadmit knowing I’ve never been as hot and hard in my life fromholding a woman as I am right now doesn’t turn you on, I’ll releaseyou.”
Her head wentback further, showing him the perfect arch of her throat, theshadowed valley between her breasts, and Jack groaned. It soundedloud in the short silence after his announcement.
“I have nodesire to... to... taste you,” she said through her teeth.
“Liar!” Gentlyhe shook her. “Come now, Tessa, I’ve been honest with you. Isn’t itabout time you were honest with yourself?”
“I am beinghonest.” She turned her head to one side and, before he couldprevent it, his mouth nuzzled the pure whiteness of her throat. Hersmall moan of protest, or desire, sent a shudder through him.
“Now, that’shonest.” He felt her small shiver down to his toes as she liftedher hands until they rested on his chest. Just the gentle touchsent a thrill like a lick of flame through him. “Tessa, Tessa.”
His heartbeatsraced, and for a moment, Jack wondered at his own forbearance as herestrained the desire shouldering through him like wildfire aboutto go out of control. But through the haze of desire he knewwithout a doubt everything depended on how he handled things now.For all she knew he could be a rapist on a rampage. All she’d knownmost of her life was a man who treated her with little respect.
Gently hebrushed his lips across hers, and almost collapsed when she didn’tpull away. She seemed to be as cautious as he, compliant as hesavored her, nibbled at her mouth, and then covered it with as muchgentleness as he was capable of at that moment.
She yielded,and he felt like whooping for joy. Or would have done if he wasn’tso entranced by the taste of her. Her mouth was like heaven,ambrosia, everything sweet in this world.
Pulling herinto the contours of his body, Jack marvelled at how well they fittogether. This was where he wanted to be for the rest of hislife.
As if unawareof it, her fingers played with the hair at the back of his neck.Jack almost bounced out of his skin at the feelings her toucharoused. Good grief, if he could get so hot by a simple touch, whatwould it be like to have her caressing him more intimately? But hedidn’t only want to possess this woman in the most basic sense, hewanted to cherish her, to be allowed to worship her as was herdue.
Such was hisdazed state, it was a while before he realized that, far fromholding him, she was pushing at him with all her strength, thentugging at his hair instead of fondling it.
“What?” hemumbled.
“What the helldo you think you’re doing?” With a slap and thump at his chest, shemanaged to duck away while he was still befuddled. When Jack’s eyesfocused, and his equilibrium was restored to something resemblingnormalcy, she was at the other side of the table, her indignantexpression and apricot-hued cheeks making him want to chuckle. Butlaughing would be about the worst thing he could do right now.
“I didn’tthink. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was kissing you and youwere responding. Wholeheartedly.” He ran shaking fingers throughhis hair. “Don’t try and duck out of it, Tessa. You were kissing meback.”
“I was not! Isthis some kind of sick joke?” She twisted her long fingers togetherand then jerked her head up. “I get it. You think I’ll be morelikely to sell you the business if you seduce me, is that it?”
Jack made asoft sound of denial. “Now you’re the one being ridiculous. I havenever seduced a woman in my life to get something I want. Inbusiness I’m down the line in all my dealings.” He sliced a handthrough the air and slapped it on his other palm. “I told you, I’man honest bloke.”
Her answeringsnort made him mad.
“You think I’mlying?” He managed to sound calm and conceal his anger.
“Of course youare. I’m not a silly young girl who is easily bowled over by a fewkisses, Jack Delaney.”
“I do wish youwouldn’t keep calling me by my full name, sweetheart.”
“Don’t yousweetheart me.” Her dainty chin shot up as she wagged a finger hisway. “And don’t get off the point. I’m too old to be taken in by asmooth talking...gigolo like you!”
“Gigolo.” Jacklaughed out loud—he couldn’t help it. “Lady, I’m about as far awayfrom a gigolo as you’re ever likely to get. And stop harping onyour age. You’re about fifteen years older, not fifty. And you lookyounger. A few years means nothing in the scale of things. I’dstill fancy you if you were thirty years older. What is it aboutyou?” His hair suffered the onslaught of his fingers again as hestrode around the table and took hold of her hands.
She backed up,a frightened look in her eyes. It struck him to the core. “Don’tlook at me as if I’m about to bash you, Tessa. For God’s sake! I’venever set a finger in anger on a woman in my life and am not aboutto start now. Give us a chance, why don’t you?”
“I can’t, don’tyou see?” With a tug she took control of her hands, and heragitation was clear as she played with the gold ring on her thirdfinger.
“No such wordin my vocabulary. But for argument’s sake tell me why youcan’t.”
“People wouldlaugh. My kids would say I’d gone mad. Gary would think it was aploy to get the business without any hassles. Laurel would probablythink…well, I’m not really sure what she would think, but mostpeople would think I was cradle snatching.” He made a rude noise atthat. “I’d get hit with all those crude ‘toy boy’ jokes.”
“What utterrubbish. I’m sorry, Tessa. I shouldn’t have said that, but it istotal crap. I can’t see myself as a toy boy in my wildestimaginings. Sorry, it doesn’t compute. You’ll have to come up witha better excuse to get rid of me.”
“All right,here’s one, Jack Delaney. I’ve just buried my husband of twenty twoyears, and you expect me to jump into bed with you!”
“Point taken.”He sat and, after glaring at him for a minute, she sat too. “Iwasn’t expecting you to jump into bed with me right away either, Ishould point out. I would have been satisfied with a bit of honestwooing for a start.”
Her face stillshowed her suspicion. Jack didn’t like that. “I’ve alreadyexplained. I’m as blunt as they come, Tessa. I always speak thetruth. Ask anyone who knows me. I want you so much I’m willing todo almost anything to make you mine. I’m sure you’re notindifferent to me, and given time I know I can make you fancy me asmuch as I desire you.”
“Make me?” Herface went pale and her nostrils flared.

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