Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages
Get on the List

Sexy as Sin Sneak Preview

Sexy As Sin by Rosalind James

Sexy as Sin (Sinful, Montana: Book 3)

Available now!

 

Serious men don’t eat red Popsicles.

Brett Hunter’s life isn’t unicorns and rainbows, and it sure isn’t sparkles. He’s a businessman, a disciplined man, a money man, and if he ever believed in magic, it was a long time ago. He’s not a hero, and he doesn’t play one on TV. Oh, and he really doesn’t like the water.

What’s he doing, then, on an Australian beach in a custom-made Italian suit, up to his waist in the waves and helping a red-haired mermaid save the day?

No matter how crazy his life gets, not being in control isn’t an option, and neither is veering from his path or falling for mermaids. Also, serious men don’t eat red Popsicles. 

Sneak Preview

 

Ch. 1 – Fins

Brett Hunter did only one thing well: make a lot of money without making a lot of enemies. But he did it very, very well.

Did that sound bleak? Maybe it was. By the time he turned forty, though, a man ought to know what he was good at. You focused on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Your strengths would bring you home.

So what was he doing on a beach? That was some solid-gold weakness right there.

Desensitizing, that was what. Or, possibly, taking his mind off his latest and most far-flung international deal, and the way he’d hung himself and his investors right out on the line.

No. It was a calculated risk, and risk was his life. Self-improvement was a much preferable motive. He was in Australia, right? Australia was all about the ocean. A luxury-property developer who was afraid of the water was absurd, it was limiting, and it had to stop. No better time to tackle that than today. The beach was broad, the sand was white, squeaky-fine, and firm under his bare feet, and the Southern Hemisphere sun was early-February warm even at seven in the morning. Anybody in the world would look at a video of this scene—a businessman standing barefoot on the sand, his dress pants rolled up, an endless expanse of blue ocean spread out before him like a gift—and want to trade places.

He didn’t have to go in the water. He just had to walk next to it. Nothing easier. He set the timer on his phone for fifteen minutes. He’d walk as far as he could towards the bluff where the lighthouse stood guard, and when the timer went off, he’d walk back. Disciplined. Easy. Zero danger. Thirty minutes.

He got the occasional curious glance from a surfer, possibly because nobody else out here was wearing a tie. He’d already exercised, shaved, and showered this morning, too. The beach walk had been an impulse, which was another indulgence he didn’t permit himself. He wasn’t sure why today felt like the day.

He could have said that he started watching the girl as a distraction, but it would have been a lie. He started watching her because . . . because . . .

Because the sunlight had lit up the copper of her hair, was why. It was pulled back tightly from her narrow, fine-featured face and hung down her back in a braid, but you couldn’t miss that shine, bright as a new penny. The top of her short wetsuit was still around her waist, which meant that he was looking at a black bikini on skin much too fair for the strength of this sun. As he watched, she pulled the wetsuit up, shoved her arms into the sleeves, and pulled the zipper up, so that was sad. After that, she picked up a baby-blue surfboard covered in rainbows, glitter, and unicorns, ran into the water on endlessly long legs, and started paddling out, and that was sadder.

He wasn’t going to watch her surf. The motion of the waves was making him sick, their thunder a menacing roar he felt all the way through his muscles—at least, they were tightening up, making it hard to breathe. People said this was restful? People were crazy. He kept walking, and not looking at the ocean. Focusing on Cape Byron instead, where the lighthouse stood. The most powerful lighthouse in Australia, situated at the country’s most easterly point. If you stood out here at dawn, you’d be the first person in the country to see the sun rise.

Facts were always helpful.

His phone finally began to chirp, and he reached for it, hit the Stop button, and turned around. Fifteen minutes down, fifteen to go, and he hadn’t had a heart attack yet.

When he got back to the spot where the girl had gone in—well, the woman, because she hadn’t been a teenager, despite the skin, the rainbows, and the unicorns—fortunately, or he’d have been a pervert—he did look out at the water.

He didn’t spot her at first. The waves, which didn’t seem terribly large, rolled in nearly perpendicular to the shore, an odd configuration he hadn’t realized existed, and there had to be twenty people out there. Some of them were kids. Their parents let them surf alone at seven in the morning? That was dangerous, surely. There were two surfers riding one of those waves right now, and one of them was his redhead. She was too far away to see the color of her wet hair, but there was that braid and those long, slim legs. Besides, something in her posture, the angle of her head, told him so. She looked . . . relaxed. Confident. Free.

She’d dropped down onto her board and was paddling out again, parallel to the shore, when he saw the fin.

* * *

You’re free, Willow Sanderson told herself as she paddled out into the surf. Feel free, dammit. That was why she’d come out on the water on three hours’ sleep after finishing the prep for this afternoon’s event. Now, trays of ribbon sandwiches, of tiny vegetarian empanadas, of skewered beef and chicken and barbecued prawns, of honeydew melon and watermelon both red and golden, and much, much more, sat neatly slotted into the racks in the walk-in cooler. The day before that, she’d piped chocolate mousse into dozens of tiny individual shortbread crusts, filled others with creamy, intensely flavorful lemon curd, and dipped more dozens of huge strawberries in melted chocolate.

This was an open-air event, though, a summer celebration, and she’d tried to bring some extra life to it with something brand-new, a playful touch of her own. The melon had given her the idea, and experimentation had convinced her it was a good one. Nourish’s freezer was filled with fresh-fruit ice blocks made of mango and orange, lime and pineapple, and strawberries and beets, and the vibrant orange and green and red of them made her smile. She’d serve them in a galvanized tub filled with ice, and the whole thing would look so festive and fun, and so uniquely Byron Bay. This event was about selling the Aussie lifestyle, so she’d do her bit. This was the town, however large it had grown, whose hand-painted Welcome sign still told you to “Cheer Up. Slow Down. Chill Out.” Anyway, food should be fun.

The rest of the menu, she’d agreed upon in advance with the client’s representative, a PR woman businesslike to the point of abruptness, who clearly hadn’t read the sign. The ice pops were Willow’s bonus. A little cheeky, a little offbeat. She was allowed to be that. She was a partner now, which meant she was free to try.

Everything was in place, in fact. Amanda Oldmarsh, the company’s founder and senior partner, had scheduled the wait staff and setup. All Willow had to do was to load the van, turn up with the food, and supervise the service and cleanup. Nothing she couldn’t handle after ten years in the catering business. And, for now, surf to get into the right head space. She did not have to think about Gordy Atkins, the supposedly laid-back events coordinator who owned more pairs of board shorts than he did actual trousers and whose messy, white-blond curls always looked like he’d just come from the beach, or about what he’d said day before yesterday, when he’d rung her in the midst of shortbread-making.

It was like not thinking about pink elephants. She did have to think about it, now that she’d thought about it.

“I’ve got a thing on at the Station Pub Sunday night,” Gordy had said. “You might like it.” Which didn’t exactly make your heart go pitter-pat, did it, as a “You’re Special” invitation?

“Hang on,” she’d said. “I have to check my calendar.”

“Just once,” he’d said, “I wish you’d just say ‘yes.’”

“I can’t just say ‘yes,’” she’d answered, “since I could very well be prepping for a Directors’ luncheon the next day, piping whipped cream and putting mint leaves onto the chocolate cups for a dinner for twelve. I can’t be in two places at the same time.”

“Right.” He’d sounded not so much boyish as sulky. “I’ll come by after, then.” He’d hung up before she’d had time to check her calendar for that. Or even to say “yes” or “no.” Wasn’t he meant to ask? Wasn’t that how it was meant to work?

Why, when you wanted good-natured and easygoing, did you so often end up with “feckless and irresponsible”? Not to mention “still leaving his dirty clothes on the floor?” Couldn’t you be easygoing, fun, and a full-grown man?

She’d better decide what she meant to do about it, because at this moment, the thought of Gordy coming through her back window at one in the morning was filling her more with irritation than desire.

The next wave looked like a good one, though, and she was here. Beside her, a blond girl of eight or nine was looking back as well. Willow called out, “We’ll both take it,” and the girl nodded and smiled happily. All teeth, coming in too big for her face, the way teeth did.

That was the great thing about the waves at Belongil Beach. They weren’t big and powerful, but you didn’t have to fight for them. You shared them, and riding them was communion. With your neighbor, and with the sea. She popped up, the blond girl did the same, their boards rose and carved through the sea, and Willow laughed out loud.

Never mind Gordy. Never mind Nourish, and her brand-new partnership. Never mind feeding a hundred people who were celebrating breaking up the countryside she loved best in order to put up more houses for rich people. Right now, she was riding this wave all the way down the beach. Right now, she could fly.

Until she dropped onto her board again and saw the bloke on the shore, wearing, for some bizarre reason, a dress shirt and tie, waving his arms overhead like he’d gone mad.

He was pointing, too. Pointing, shouting, and running into shallow water, despite his clothes. She couldn’t hear him, not over the surf, but somehow, her breath was coming short. What she saw was alarm. Or worse. Fear.

Nothing in front of her. Where was he pointing? She looked over her shoulder, beyond the little blond, and saw it.

Gray. Triangular. And closing in on the girl’s board.

A fin. A big one.

A shadow in the water, much bigger.

Shark.

 

 

Ch. 2 – Battle Cry

She moved faster than she ever had in her life.

She got to the back of the girl’s board the same time the shark did, stared into a gaping, meter-wide mouth at three rows of triangular teeth, and time froze.

The shark bit straight into the end of the surfboard, centimeters from the girl’s feet, and Willow felt the heavy, dull thunk of it like a truck had jumped the curb and slammed into a bakery. Just as shocking. Just as out of place.

The girl screamed. Willow heard her, but only dimly. She had nothing to hit with. Nothing but the ragged end of a surfboard, which the shark had spat out again, but she grabbed that and did hit. She bashed the shark in the nose, and then she bashed it again. The foam-and-fiberglass piece broke, useless, and she tossed it and hit the shark’s nose with her fist. Twice. Three times.

She was looking down at herself from above, somehow. Taking in great gasps of air, sobbing them out. Pulling herself closer to the shark, not farther away.

Too late to run. Time to fight.

Stab the eyes. The shark’s eye was cold, staring, and black. She sent all four of her fingers straight into it, and the shark retreated. Not gone for long, surely. Gone for a second.

It doesn’t want us. It doesn’t like us. We don’t taste good. She was thinking it, and she was grabbing the girl’s surfboard. Thankfully, she’d had the courage and wits to hold tight and hadn’t fallen off.

“Paddle,” Willow told her fiercely. “Paddle hard. Straight to shore.” She kept hold of the girl’s board, paddled with her free hand, and didn’t look back.

Oh, no. The others. There was a boy out here who couldn’t be more than seven. And Amber Hawkins, who’d finished her chemo a month before and still didn’t have hair. Amber had two kids.

She gave the girl’s board a hard shove towards shore, saw the bloke in the tie wading out, and shouted, “Paddle!” Then she turned around and moved towards the group of surfers with her arms going like windmills.

Some were heading in. They’d seen, then. Others, though, farther out, hadn’t. She levered herself up with one palm flat on her board, waved the other over her head, and shouted, “Shark! Shark! Shark!”

Heads turned. She kept waving, kept shouting. The few people on shore were running and shouting, too. The man in the tie was beckoning them on, urging them into action. They had their arms waving over their heads, were yelling, calling.

The surfers came in fast, paddling like their lives depended on it, and Willow thought, Eleven attacks in four years between here and Ballina. Three deaths. Thirty kilometers of coastline, and too many great whites.

Everyone was going in, she saw with relief that made her temporarily weak, her arms threatening to shake. A man had hold of the young boy’s board, was paddling him in, and the bloke in the tie was in water to his waist, reaching for him, hauling him out. Willow saw it in a glance, but a look the other way showed her something else. Amber Hawkins, paddling in the other direction, off to catch the next wave. She hadn’t heard.

Willow hesitated for an awful moment. Going back out there felt like stepping straight into those jaws. But . . . Amber’s younger girl, Charity. Five years old. When Willow had catered Amber’s “Kicking Cancer’s Bum” celebration at the end of her chemo, Charity had taken her back to her bedroom to show off her new school uniform, a green-and-black-plaid dress, and told her, “Mummy says she won’t be sick anymore, so she can take me. We’re going to have a photo on the first day. Me and Grace and Mummy, all together. We’re the Three Nusketeers.”

She didn’t realize she was doing it until she actually was. She was paddling out. Paddling to Amber, expecting that cold eye at any moment. It was the eye, not the teeth. It was the eye.

Her dad’s voice. Nearly twenty years ago now. Looking up from his papers on a hot African night, rubbing a hand over his closed eyes, under his unfashionable black glasses, squeezing the bridge of his beaky nose. She’d been on the couch, reading a book. Trying to be ignored, so nobody would order her off to bed.

“He’s taking a hell of a risk,” he’d said quietly. Talking to himself. “But what good is living if you don’t live right?”

She paddled on grimly, and, finally, Amber turned. Willow raised her arm again, waved it, and pointed to the beach. Amber stared—at Willow, at the empty sea, at the mayhem on shore­—then started paddling in, closing the gap fast, like a woman with two kids at home who needed their mum. And, at last, Willow turned and headed in, too. Knowing that jaw was opening. Knowing the teeth were coming. Planning to kick. Planning to fight.

It’s not over until you’re dead, and you’re not dead.

Never surrender.

She paddled, and she kept paddling. She saw Amber reach the shallows, be pulled in by a dozen willing hands. Safe. And then the man in the tie, his trousers soaked and his shirt just as bad, was wading out, reaching Willow’s board and pulling it backwards, running through the dragging surf with it.

Fit, she thought dimly. Bloody good-looking. Dark hair cropped close, with silver at the temples. Broad shoulders, muscular build. He didn’t fit the clothes. That is, the clothes fit him perfectly, but there was something wrong about them, too.

One part of her mind knew she was concentrating on him because she couldn’t bear to think about the shark, about the moment when she’d seen it coming for the girl, the sound of her scream. The other part of her mind stayed where it was safer. She looked at the strength of the arm beneath that rolled-up shirt sleeve, at the muscles bunching with effort. At the hands that helped her off her board, and the solidity and warmth of his body against hers as she finally slid off and staggered in the water. He had his arm around her, and she was dragging her board along by the leash, its weight like lead.

Words. He was saying words. “Are you all right?” He’d said that before. It sounded American.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. Fine. I’m fine.” Up the sand, where knots of people stood, looked out to sea, looked at her, and talked excitedly. She didn’t want to look at them. She was shivering, and then she was shaking, her teeth chattering.

She got the leash unfastened somehow, and the man pulled her straight down to the sand in front of him, his legs on either side of hers and her body sprawled over his, and held her. This should be scary, she thought dimly. I don’t know you. His arms were so solid, though, around her, her head was on his shoulder, and his legs scissored over hers so he was holding her there, too. And she felt safe.

 

 

3 – All About Emotion

Brett held her and thought, Whoa. Whoa. She was shaking, cold and fear and adrenaline, and she wasn’t crying. He might be shaking a little himself.

“I hate the ocean,” he said, when he could say anything.

She laughed, just a huff of breath, and said, “Yeah? I’m not too fond of it myself just now. Here’s a tip for next time. Most people don’t wear suits to the beach.”

Feisty as hell. He smiled. “Where’s your towel? You’d be better off dry, surely.”

“Yeah. It’s . . .” She waved a hand. “Somewhere. Over there. I don’t know.”

A shadow fell over them, and Brett looked up. A blond woman stood there, a toddler on her hip, her arm tight around the girl at her side like she could hold her safe. The girl who’d been on the board.

The woman told the redhead, “Thank you. Thanks for . . . for saving my baby.” She choked up on the last words, and the hands that clutched the girl shook. “Thank you,” she said again.

The redhead started to scramble to her feet, and Brett helped her up. “No worries,” she told the mother. “Anybody would’ve done the same.”

“No,” the woman said. “I don’t think so. When I looked up and saw the board half gone, and the water churning, when I realized it was Melody on there, and then, when I saw what it was . . .” She was shaking for real now. More than the girl, but then, the girl hadn’t seen those teeth. She’d been turned the other way. Brett had seen them, though, and Melody’s mother was right. Not many people would have faced down a great white, because that was surely what it was.

More people had come over now. One of them, the man who’d towed in the little boy, asked nobody in particular, “How many times have we said we need shark nets? This isn’t happening in Sydney, because they got smart and got proactive. We need those nets now. What’s it going to take? When a shark has a kid’s leg off, will that do it? When she bleeds out in the water?”

Melody’s mother stiffened in shock, and beside Brett, the redhead did the same. He held up a hand and said, “Stop,” in his calmest, most authoritative tone. The man opened his mouth again, and Brett talked right over him. “Good thoughts for later, I’m sure. For the meeting somebody’s bound to set up to talk about those nets. But the kids don’t need to hear it right now. Everybody’s safe. Look, they’re putting up signs already. Closing the beach. That’ll do for now. Could you help me find this lady’s towel? She needs to get warm and dry.”

“Uh . . .” the redhead said. “It’s blue, has a rainbow on it. And my bag. Cloth bag. Blue and yellow stripes. I think . . .” She put a hand to her forehead. “Up the beach a bit, toward the Cape.”

“No worries,” the man said. “I’m on it. Come on, Andy.”

The little crowd moved off, finally, and the redhead held it together. She pulled the zipper on her wetsuit, struggled some getting it off, and made a noise in her throat, so Brett gave her a hand yanking the stubborn material down. Black bikini, long, slim arms and legs, and subtle, pretty curves. None of her was what you’d call bodacious, but somehow, it all worked just fine. Surfer girl, brave and strong. Surfer body.

He shouldn’t be noticing. He couldn’t help noticing. He asked again, “All right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Thanks for getting rid of him. I don’t . . . I can’t think about that now, and I can’t help it. It keeps playing in my head.”

She got her bag and towel back at last, and the man and boy moved off. Brett said, “You need a hot drink. Food. I’d like to take you to get it.” 

“I rode my bike down.”

He raised his brows. “Carrying a surfboard?”

“Yeah. That’s Byron, hey. It straps on the side.” She was getting some composure back. A spine of steel, and no mistake. “I’m honestly not sure I’m up to riding home, though I hate to admit it.”

“Breakfast, then,” he suggested. He had calls to make, preparation to do, figures to double-check. But right now, all he wanted was to take this woman to breakfast. Her eyes were a deep sea-green, her mouth was wide, her cheekbones were high, and her skin was so translucent, he could see the blue veins at her temples. Of course, her face might be that white from shock and fear, everywhere except the faint freckles that dotted her nose and forehead. She was scared, yes, but she hadn’t hesitated for a second before going after that shark.

“I have breakfast things at home,” she said. “Ready to go.”

“Surely it would be better to let somebody cook for you.”

She shook her head. “It makes me feel better to cook. That’s my comfort zone.” Some hesitation, and she said, “You could come with me, though. There’s enough for three. Flatmate.”

“Yes,” he said, and she smiled. 

He hoped the flatmate wasn’t a man.

* * *

Willow stuffed her wetsuit into her bag and handed the towel to her new friend. “Here,” she told him. “You’re soaked yourself.” She had a million questions, suddenly, probably because she wanted anyplace to rest her mind besides that cold black eye. She wanted to know what an American who hated the sea was doing on an Australian beach in business attire. What his name was, and who he was besides confident and muscular. Not to mention dark and handsome. Broad shoulders, big hands, big feet, and plenty of strength under the suit when he’d held her. Long toes, and high arches. Really good feet.

Was it a fetish if you noticed a man’s hands and feet? Probably not, because she’d noticed his shoulders, too, and his abs. He might have a bit of silver at his temples, but his body was just bloody fine. 

There was that bigger question, too. Whether he was married. He wasn’t wearing a ring, but that didn’t always mean what it ought to. 

She didn’t ask any of it. Too much work, and she was knackered. She wanted a cup of tea.

When she headed up the beach, he took her surfboard from her, which was nice. Her muscles, somehow, felt wobbly. He made a detour for his socks and shoes—black and leather, respectively, and looking as expensive as the rest of him—and she walked the track through the dunes ahead of him and didn’t stop at the outdoor showers. There was a queue there, as you’d expect when everybody left the beach at the same time, and she wasn’t up for questions and congratulations and arguments. About drumlines and nets, bycatch of dolphins and sea turtles, and the sharks’ right to live unmolested in their own sea. They’d already be talking about all of it, their passion needing an outlet, and she didn’t need to be battered by all those words. 

The man was quiet, which she appreciated. He’d talked when he’d needed to, when the overexcited dad had been going on about kids bleeding out. He’d shut that down fast, but other than that, he’d held her tight and hadn’t said much of anything. Also, why did American accents always sound so . . . well, commanding? In a good way.

Her overprotective cousins, Rafe and Jace, would have told her not to get into a strange man’s car, but she didn’t need that argument, either. She needed to get home, she needed to cook, and for whatever reason, she wanted this man with her while she did it. Like a shark would be looking in her kitchen window otherwise. Hopping on its tail, coming after her like Moby Dick. It was an image that made her smile, even though she’d never read Moby Dick. She’d tried. It was boring. She’d seen the movie, though. She’d also seen Jaws. Right now, she wished she’d never seen either. 

Never mind. It would pass. She’d get back into the sea again. Just not today. 

When they reached the bike racks, she unlocked her own, a sturdy cruiser in sunny yellow, and said, “I wasn’t thinking. I can’t leave my surfboard here, and surely you can’t fit it in your car, or my bike, either. I’ll make it home OK, but you can still come to breakfast. Everybody called me the hero out there, but I’d never have seen the shark if you hadn’t warned me, and neither would anybody else. That little girl could be dead right now. Instead, she’s going home. Surely you deserve breakfast.”

“I wasn’t the one hitting it in the nose,” he said. “Or going out again, knowing it was probably still out there. Was it as big as I think it was?”

“Yeah. Great white. About four meters, I’m guessing. Female, I’d say, unless it’s the fear exaggerating. Females are bigger, but none of them are exactly cuddly. And you were the one who hated the sea and waded out in it to drag us in anyway.” 

“Right,” he said. “We’re both extremely brave, although I reserve the right to call you braver.”

“Practically superheroes.” She was getting some of her lightness back, although maybe that was him. He was so solid, you could come to rest against him until you’d caught your breath, then bounce off again when you were ready. That was nice. “I’m Ocean Warrior, and you’re, uh . . . Ready Man.”

“Ready Man?”

“I was going to say Steady Man,” she said, “but it sounded a bit dull. All right. Batman. No superpowers, just clever, on the spot, and dressed in black. Also rich, but I can’t quite tell about that one. Could just be the suit. Is Batman better?”

He looked too staid to find that funny, except that she knew that wasn’t all of him, like he did have an alternate persona. She could tell by the twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“Much better,” he said gravely. “And I think you’ll find that my car has amazing powers when it comes to fitting things inside. We’ll give it a try.”

He was driving an SUV. And, yes, it was a big black one with tinted windows. She gave it some side-eye and said, “You’re either in the Secret Service, or you learned two colors as a baby and figured it would be more efficient to stop there. Also, you don’t mind paying twelve dollars an hour to park at the beach. Wait. Maybe you are Batman. Or you’re in the Mafia, except that we don’t have it here. Our organized crime is mostly things like outlaw bikie gangs, and you’re not tattooed enough. You could be the advance team, of course.”

“Getting your personality back, I see,” he said. “Along with your rainbows.” He’d already folded down the car’s black leather rear seats with a few quick motions, and now, he was lifting her bike into the car as if it weighed nothing, then setting the surfboard carefully to one side of it.

“You’re wondering why rainbows and unicorns.” She set her bag down with the rest of her gear, but kept out her towel. Whatever he said, she wasn’t sitting on his beautiful leather seats with salt and sand all over her. “You’re wondering whether I’m seventeen, or just a general idiot.”

He smiled, the first time she’d seen him do it, and it was full-on charm. Gray eyes showing heaps of warmth, a firm mouth, and all that calm certainty. Strength practically radiated out of this man. “I know you’re not seventeen,” he said. “I wouldn’t be putting you into my car if you were.” Which he was, opening the door for her, waiting for her to get settled, then closing it after her. A gentleman. Gordy could take lessons, except that she didn’t care if Gordy took lessons.

“When you get to the main road,” she said, “take a left. The rainbows and so forth started as a joke, or as a pushback, maybe. I got tired of people saying the world isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, when I’d try to bring some light into the situation. Like it’s better to be angry and hostile than to make a joke and look for the best. I don’t want to see the world that way.”

“Your affirmation,” he said. No ridicule in his voice.  

“Could be. I thought about fluffy bunnies, too, but there’s only so far you can take it. The glitter could have been over the top, except that it makes me laugh. Take a right at the next crossing. You drive decently for an American on the left side of the road. Or are you Canadian? Do you come here often? And no, I’m not picking you up.”

“First time, on the driving,” he said, waiting for the Byron-heavy traffic to clear and then zipping across the intersection. “Though I’ve been here before. It hasn’t been too bad. Just takes focus.” He glanced at her, then back at the road again. “Like most things.” 

“Next left,” she said. “Are you ever not calm?”

He lost the smile and got thoughtful. “Not often, no. People tend to think the loudest voice wins. Not true. Generally, the prepared mind wins, and the mind that reads the room, holds onto its strategy, and keeps ego out of the picture.”

“In business.”

“Oh,” he said, “I’d say anywhere. You have to know your goal, what you’ll compromise on, and what you won’t. You have to know what matters most. When to deal, and when to walk away. You can’t do that if your mind is clouded by emotion and ego. You could say I’ve worked on that for a while, but every habit starts with a day when you decide to do things differently.”

“Huh,” she said. “But then, I’m a redhead with bad habits, and my mind generally is clouded by emotion. Emotion’s where the big ideas come from, if you can call food a big idea. For a chef, it is, and that’s me. What’s fun, what’s pretty, and what’s delicious. What will make people happier, and how much trouble they want to go to. Emotions all the way.”

“What trouble?” he asked. “Is eating trouble?”

“When you cater a funeral,” she explained, “you make eating easy, because people feel like they can’t handle one more hard thing. They can’t make a decision. They want things bite-sized, and not too different or spicy or scary. When you cater a wedding, you make the food fun, like a beautiful adventure. It’s all about feelings in my world.”

“Good thing everybody doesn’t have to be the same,” he said—yes, calmly. “Where to now?” 

“Slightly shonky big white building on the corner,” she said. “Park around the back.” And told herself, Slow down. 

Except that she didn’t want to slow down. And that he was glancing across at her, not looking at her body, but so aware of it. She could feel it, and she wanted it.

Yeah. It was all about emotion.

 

 

Ch. 4 – Delicious

Brett followed the redhead through the door and into the living room of an apartment that was short on size and elegance, but long on visual stimulation. The square table against the wall, dining and work table both, was painted pale green, and the legs were painted with flowers, yellow and red and purple and orange. A silk scarf in green and burgundy was draped across the back of a scruffy-looking couch, and another one, purple and blue, covered an easy chair. Magazines and books were piled on a coffee table that had been painted black and then covered with an image of an enormous pink rose, with tiny rosebuds on long stems trailing down the four legs, before the whole thing had been lacquered to within an inch of its life. Books lay scattered on the table as if the reader had stepped away for a minute, and a magazine called Delicious lay open over the arm of a chair.

And then there were the photos on every wall. They were all birds, caught up close, blown up to different sizes and all presented the same: white mats, thin black frame. Three rainbow-colored parrots on a tree branch, looking like they were having a conference. A tiny brown and gray bird, its tail feathers fanned out in a wedge, its head cocked jauntily. A white heron, wings spread, standing still and proud. A little round bird with an iridescent head and breast patterned in navy and deep sky blue, looking puffy and perky, with its blue tail sticking up behind. How did he know it was little? He just did. That one was cute, like you could hold it in your hand, and making you want to. And so many more birds, it would have taken a while to study them all.

“Nice,” he said. “Somebody stood still for a while to get these shots.” The mat around the little round bird’s photo had a title and what might be a signature. Superb Fairy Wren, he read on the left side, and on the right, Willow. What, or who, was Willow?

“Is that your favorite?” the redhead asked. “You’d be unusual, then. He’s tiny, smaller than your palm. Men usually go for the powerful birds. Birds of prey. Killers. Size matters, you know. Or so they say.”

Spoken like a woman who’s never known the difference, he thought, and did not say. Or maybe like a woman who’s been with a man who thinks all he has to do is bring himself to the party, job done. If your only tool was a hammer, everything looked like a nail. He preferred using the whole toolbox.

He didn’t say any of that, either. “There’s room for more than one kind of bird in the world,” he said instead. “And I like this one. All round and cuddly and all.”

Another woman came into the room on the words. Short, dark, and, yes, round and cuddly. She looked startled, and Brett said, “The bird, I mean,” and had to smile.

“I like him, too,” the redhead said. “I know birds aren’t actually happy. That’s anthropomorphizing them, but that’s how that one looks to me anything. Sabaḥul khayr, Azra. I brought a guest home for breakfast. We had an adventure.”

“Good morning,” the darker girl—woman—said. Her accent was cut-glass British English, which made Brett blink. Nothing about this morning had been what he’d expected. “I covered your dish and left it in the oven to keep warm when you hadn’t returned, Willow. I’m afraid I ate more than I should have first, though. What was the adventure?”

“Wait,” Brett said. “You’re Willow? The photographer? I thought you were a chef, but these look professional.”

“I am,” the redhead said. “A professional chef. And I need to take a shower. Fairly desperately.” She looked him over and added, “Come on back. We’ll find you something dry to put on. After that, you could fry up some turkey bacon for us, make yourself even more useful.”

“I’m off,” the other woman, Azra, said.

The redhead—Willow—turned around on her way out the door. “You can’t stay for second breakfast? I’m doing caramelized bananas. You love those.”

“I can’t stay and keep my job,” Azra said with a laugh. “We wouldn’t want my father to be right. Just as well. You don’t do my diet any good at all. Ma’a salama. Good luck on feeding the horribles.” She gave Brett a cheery wave. “Lovely to meet you.”

Brett ended up in Willow’s bedroom. Not in the way he’d have preferred. In the sense that he was following that black bikini into a back room, its single window opening onto nothing, and watching her rifle her way through dresser drawers until she came out with a T-shirt and pair of shorts, which she tossed to him. “Those should fit, more or less,” she said. “The owner isn’t quite your size, but not too far off. You can change in here while I’m in the bath.”

He looked at the shirt, a lime-green tee that said Chill the Fuck Out, and the shorts, which looked . . . well, short, and were splattered with a black-and-white pattern like jagged teeth. Board shorts, he guessed, but not the kind he was used to. Sized for a fourteen-year-old, maybe. “Uh . . .” he said.

More of that mischievous smile, cute all the way to the freckles on her straight nose despite the finely-cut features, and she said, “Come on, mate. This is our new beginning. I stared into the jaws of death today and came out alive, right? And you helped me do it. A message from the universe to take a chance and step into the unknown. Who knows? There could be unicorns and rainbows out there. Have you ever worn a shirt with the word ‘Fuck’ on it? Signs point to ‘no.’”

“No,” he said. “I can definitely say that I have not.” It was so hard not to smile back. She radiated warmth and light like she had a lightbulb inside her, and she was switched all the way on. Her voice was rainbows and unicorns itself, as if she were singing the words. “Although I’d like to know whose clothes these are.”

“No, you probably wouldn’t.” That wasn’t anything close to the answer he wanted. He’d been going for something along the lines of “brother.” She added, “And my new beginning already seems to have started, doesn’t it? I invited a stranger home to breakfast, some weird fella who wears a suit to the beach, and I’m not even worried about it. I’m off to take a shower. You could fry that bacon once you’ve changed. Sorry it’s not pork. Azra’s Muslim, and I never did get used to eating pork anyway. Not halal.” She pulled something purple from her closet, said, “If you don’t get your skates on and make up your mind, I could be back in here again while you’re still changing. Bloody nightmare.” And walked out.

* * *

Willow showered fast, but she still felt all the tingles. Too close a brush with Death, as she’d told—him? She’d never even asked his name, she realized with another of those shocks she’d been getting all morning. The kind that didn’t feel scary, or only half scary. They felt exciting instead. Forbidden.

Face it. It wasn’t just the brush with death.

She didn’t dry her hair. It took too long. She’d used body conditioner in the shower, a tub of goopy marvelousness that had been part of her Christmas present from her cousin Rafe and his new wife, Lily. Now, her skin felt luxuriously soft, and she smelled like all the good things. Almond, vanilla, and a hint of rose.

She had a feeling her new friend was a secret dessert lover, although he’d keep that sinful desire firmly tamped down in the interest of self-discipline. Disciplined people could still fall victim to temptation, though.

Bloody hell. Was it just being alive when you’d thought you were dead? Or was it really him? She couldn’t tell, but she did know that her insides were fluttering.

Steady on, girl. You don’t know him. It’s breakfast. He could be married. She wasn’t taking another woman’s man, no matter how strong his arms felt when he held her. She brushed on a little mascara, then pulled on her new sundress, a violet mini with a double-ruffled skirt, a wrap waistband that emphasized what curves she did have, and a deep neckline, low back, and crossover spaghetti straps that meant you absolutely had to go braless, and everyone would know it.

Azra had made her buy it two weeks ago. “You’re lucky to have such cute little breasts, so you can wear it,” her friend had insisted, fortunately in Arabic, so everyone around them hadn’t turned to stare at the Amazing Boobless Woman. Azra had held the dress up higher on its hanger and shaken it at Willow. “Look at it. It’s saying ‘Try me on. I was made to be yours.’ If I wore it, I’d look like a currant bun. When you wear it, you’ll look like a sex goddess.”

Yeah, right. Willow had never looked like a sex goddess, and so far, she hadn’t worn it, except once, riding home from the beach, over her bikini. You didn’t wear that kind of thing to cook, much less at an event, and the past month had been all work anyway, with summer wedding season in full swing. The “maybe you’d like to come along” event Gordy had almost-invited her to, in fact, would be their only going-out-with-clothes-on date in weeks. She’d been with him, though, on that ride home from the beach after a surfing outing, had pointed out that the dress was new, and he’d said, “Yeah? Huh. Nice.”

“No good?” she’d asked, keeping it light. Your opinion, mate, she’d tried to think, but that was never easy.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s pretty. Makes it obvious you’ve got no tits, though. Maybe something sort of . . . filled out would be better. Sexier.”

She’d almost broken up with him then, but had decided he was just honest. Men liked big breasts. That wasn’t news. If she broke up with Gordy, the next bloke would like big breasts, too. Besides, Gordy was a brilliant surfer, and he liked the things she liked. Wasn’t compatibility meant to be the most important thing?

Now, she put the dress on. She liked it, anyway. She liked everything she saw in the mirror, or at least she accepted it. It was her. Wild, curly ginger hair, freckles, and untannable skin. An athletic body that could run and bicycle and surf and swim with equal ease and no heavy-duty support garments. Giraffe-long legs, height, and all the rest of it.

People were different, and she was fine. Surely, she was fine.

She wanted more than that, though. She wanted a man who didn’t want her to wear anything padded, because he thought she was beautiful as she was. She wanted him to take off her clothes, and she wanted his breath to catch when he finally saw her naked. She wanted her heart to melt at the way he kissed her, soft and tender and thorough, like he couldn’t get enough, and like only she would do. She wanted his hands and mouth all over her, and she wanted him to love her for hours. Or at least for more than ten minutes.

Why were all those “Love you all night long” songs so popular? Because it was a fantasy, that was why. Well, she wanted the fantasy at least once. She was thirty, and this day could have been her last. Surely it was time to stop settling for less.

Right now? She wanted to wear this dress like she meant it, and to find out whether her new friend actually was wearing a shirt with “Fuck” on it. After that, she wanted to cook breakfast, tease him out of his seriousness a little more, see if his heart was doing the same dance hers was, and not think about sharks. So she headed out there to start doing it.

She hadn’t died, and life was for living.

Ch. 5 – Reality Bites

Brett dropped the package of bacon, made a grab for it, and watched helplessly as the meat slithered out of its plastic wrapping and fell greasily onto the tiled floor.

He’d meant to set it on the counter. But Willow had walked into the kitchen, and somehow, his hand hadn’t made it to the counter.

It was the hair, maybe. It was wet, and it was wild. Copper ringlets, falling below her shoulders like fire. It was also the dress, all feminine flirtation, the top cut down to her breastbone in the middle, the hem ending halfway to her knees. And the way she walked in it, like she knew exactly how sexy she was right now, and exactly how much she made him want her. She had that part right.

He recovered and bent down to pick up the meat, she did the same thing, and their heads bumped. She said, “Ow!” and staggered, her bare foot slipped on the pseudo-bacon, she fell straight back onto her pretty ass with that flippy skirt all the way up her thighs, and she started to laugh.

This never happened to James Bond.

“Sorry,” he said. He had to laugh himself, and then he was giving her his hand, pulling her up, and not looking down her dress. “I’m getting it,” he told her, somehow unable to stop smiling. “Don’t join me this time, all right? I’m trying desperately to maintain my cool here.”

She was hopping towards the sink on one foot, grabbing for a paper towel, dampening it, and wiping off her greasy foot. One of her shoulder straps fell down, and no, he wasn’t actually going for the bacon package at this moment, because he didn’t even have to look down her dress. Her nipple was pink, it was pretty, and . . . There James Bond went again, his suaveness flying straight out the window. Also, these stupid shorts were much too tight. Another minute of this, and he’d be embarrassing himself.

“Whoops,” she said, looking down, pulling up her strap, and laughing some more. “I didn’t mean to actually flash you. Righty-ho, then. This is one big ‘fail.’ I wanted to wear something pretty, but I wasn’t planning to strip naked over the bacon. Are you turning that?”

He jumped, swore, and grabbed for the pan. The bacon wasn’t exactly burned, but it wasn’t exactly not, either. He turned it over, and she smiled some more and said, “This is my first time wearing this dress. Obviously, or I’d have discovered its failings. Not to mention mine.” She reached over the stove for another frying pan hanging from a pot rack, stood next to him at the stove, turned the gas fire on under the pan and tossed in a generous knob of butter, then focused on a bunch of bananas in a wire basket on the counter, which she peeled, sliced, and shook sugar onto with an efficiency of motion that told him that, yes, she was indeed a professional.

“What do you mean, yours?” he asked. “Also, if you show me the coffee, I’ll fix it. I’m better at that than bacon.”

“No coffee.” She gave her butter a swirl with a spatula. “I don’t have any. Just tea.” She gestured with her chin. “Switch the kettle on, would you?”

He did it, then asked again, “What do you mean, your failings? Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with you or that dress. I’m loving it.” The top of her head was only a few inches below his, and he was six-one. Kissing her would be so easy, even if you were inside her. He got an image of those fiery ringlets spread around her on a white sheet, her arms flung up over her head, and his hands running slowly from her shoulders to her wrists, then holding her there while he kissed her, deep and slow, and ground himself into her in that way that provided maximum friction for her, too . . .

He forgot his bacon again.

She reached over with her spatula, flipped his bacon for him, and turned a laughing face to his. “You’re hopeless, boy. Go make the tea. I’ve got this.”

He stepped back, pulled two mugs from hooks—an orange one and a blue one, because matching wasn’t high on her priority list—and said, “Failings.”

“You’re also relentless,” she complained.

“So often,” he agreed. “If the failing’s that you weren’t embarrassed by any of that, that you laughed instead—I love that, too.”

She sighed and slipped her sugary bananas into the pan, where they set up a most satisfying sizzle. “I was referring to the fact that I couldn’t even hold up the straps.”

He blinked. “Pardon?”

“Kettle’s boiling,” she pointed out, and he poured the tea. “I’m small-breasted,” she said. “It’s been noted. Recently. In this dress. And if I’m blushing? It’s because I am a redhead, and because you made me spell it out. Also, are you married?”

“Uh . . . no,” he said. “Not married, and not entangled. How about you?”

“Yes,” she said, and something in him fell. He hoped it wasn’t his heart. “Entangled. Somewhat. Call it a partial tangle.”

“If he was the one who said you were small-breasted—too small-breasted,” he said, “he doesn’t count. I can do better.”

“You mean, I can do better.” She’d turned the bananas and turned off the fire under the bacon. It all smelled amazing.

“I don’t know what you can do,” he said, “but I know what I can. And I promise you, I can do better.”

Something changed in her eyes, but all she said was, “Grab some knives and forks and a couple serviettes and take them out the back door to the table there, will you? I’m so hungry by now, I could eat fast food.”

She needed a minute? He’d give her a minute. He opened the back door and found a minuscule patio, nothing but a tiny table, two chairs, a red umbrella for shade, and a banana tree, but there was a vine growing up from a pot and over the door, putting out a spectacular display of pink and red flowers, and it all worked fine. He set the table, such as it was, and in a minute, she brought out two orange plates and set one down in front of him, and he was looking at something that should have been in a food magazine. A generous wedge of gold and brown crispy-creaminess that was like no French toast he’d ever seen, topped with toasted, sliced almonds, with a generous spritz of whipped cream on one side. Caramelized bananas sprinkled with sliced strawberries, and the poor relation of the party, his semi-charred bacon.

“One second,” she said. “Tea.” She came back with it, sat down and picked up her fork, and at last, he took a bite.

“Wow,” he said, when the creamy deliciousness had all but melted on his tongue. “That’s good. You went surfing this morning and still managed this?”

“Not hard at all,” she said. “I cooked from six AM yesterday, and I didn’t finish until—well, until a long time later. This didn’t take any effort. It’s just mixing up a couple things and bunging a dish into the fridge so Azra and I would have something filling to eat this morning. I won’t have a chance again until evening, because I’m doing an event. Reason for all the cooking. It’s for a bunch of wankers out to spoil the countryside, but then, you can’t always choose your clients.” She smiled at him. “Prejudices on full display, just like my body. How do you like me now?”

He smiled, or he kept smiling. “Full display works for me.”

She sighed and said, “You are so good for my self-esteem,” and he laughed out loud.

“I should be asking some more about that entanglement of yours,” he said, “but instead, I’m just going to say that I like your hair. A lot.”

She was too direct to look at him from under her lashes. He liked that, too. “Not everybody shares that opinion, either,” she said. “Not easy being a ginger.”

“A ginger?” He was having trouble focusing. It seemed he was looking down her dress again, and the amazing food wasn’t helping. Everything about this was sensory overload. The smell of the food, and some more sweetness in the air that he thought might be her. Not perfume. Something more delicious. The blue sky and the breeze and the pink and red flowers, the colored crockery, and the sweet and savory flavors of the food. And, of course, her.

“A redhead,” she said. “What, you don’t say that?”

“No. We don’t. As a bad thing? No. Nothing but . . .” He tried to get it together. It wasn’t easy. “Nothing but good, as far as I’m concerned. You’re like one of those Maxfield Parrish pictures.”

She blinked. “I am? What’s that?”

“An illustrator. We’re going all the way back to the 1920s here, so fortunately, I don’t have to say it’s a generation gap. Maybe an American thing, though. Paintings. Murals. Romantic. Very popular. A sky of lapis lazuli, the way it looks after sunset, the first stars barely coming out, and a woman. A beautiful one. That would be you.”

She was eating her breakfast, so clearly enjoying it all the way, and she was paying attention, too. White shoulders, intelligent, mobile face, and copper corkscrews of hair, wild and free. “You realize,” she said, “that you can never go wrong telling a woman she reminds you of a beautiful painting.”

“Better than knocking her to the ground on a slab of bacon?” he asked.

“Much better. And you’re stalling. Tell me the rest.”

He sighed. “So . . . there she is, standing on the rocks, by the shore. At least you imagine she’s by the shore. A breeze, but she isn’t cold. She’s wearing some kind of clingy dress, Grecian-looking, her face turned to the sky. She may be reaching for the moon.” He looked at her, straight on, no smile. “He loved to paint women like you.”

“What’s a woman like me?” She’d tried to make it light, but it didn’t quite come off.

“Women who look all the way alive from their head to their toes, and not afraid to reach for what they want, even if it’s the moon. Women with short hair and long hair, with curvy bodies and slim ones, and all of them beautiful. I think—” He broke off. What was he doing, talking about a long-dead painter? He was wearing an obscene slogan T-shirt and too-tight shorts in an Australian beach town, with a surfer who had to be more than a dozen years his junior, who lived eight thousand miles from him and somehow, despite the courage, seemed much too vulnerable for a fling.

“What do you think?” she asked. “I really want to know.”

“I think,” he said, as her eyes, the clear green of dark emeralds, looked into his, “that I remember them because they were beautiful, and they were fantasy, but they weren’t sexual, or not just sexual. He didn’t seem to see them through that lens. They were about freedom, and magic, and beauty, and living all the way. They appealed to my adolescent self, you could say. The idea that reaching for the moon and stars was a wonderful thing, and you should go for it. And hit a shark in the nose to get there, if you had to. Most people never do get there. Most people never come close.”

The world had narrowed to this. To the two of them, this tiny table, flowers and fruit and scent and color. To her gaze fixed on his face. “You hate the sea,” she said slowly. “Yet you were on the beach, in a suit. Why?”

Exactly where he didn’t want to go. But if you had this moment, you had to take it. “Because it was time to try. I don’t hate the ocean, or not just the ocean. I hate the water, when it’s powerful.”

“There’s a reason,” she said.

A pause. “My father drowned in a river,” he said. “A long time ago. I was there. It was thirty years ago. Time to leave that fear behind.”

Wonderful. Now she felt sorry for him. Never your desired response. “Which you did,” she said. “You were out there to your waist, pulling that little girl in. Pulling me in.”

“Not exactly pounding a great white shark on the nose.”

“No. But close enough.”

A long moment, when they floated there. And then she started, asked, “What time is it?” and he looked at his watch, which had survived the traumas of the morning, as per advertised specifications, and said, “Almost ten.”

She closed her eyes and mouthed something that could have been a curse, and he stood up and said, “You need to get started.”

“Yes. I do. That event. Those rich wankers spoiling the countryside. I need to feed them.” She smiled, painfully now, and said, “You think you weren’t as brave as you wanted to be. I think it every day.”

“When can I see you?” he asked.

A sigh. “Tonight. If you’ll buy the pizza and pay for the stupid movie we stream, because that’s all I’ll want to do. If you’ve got a couch to lie on, though . . . I’m there.”

He glanced down at himself. The slogan didn’t look any better upside-down. Chill the Fuck Out. Never his mantra. “I’m an exclusive kind of guy,” he said, not that he wanted to say it.

“You’re not a resident kind of guy, though,” she answered. “Or are you?”

“Not even close. And yet.”

She smiled faintly. Ironically. And said, “Then not tonight, I reckon. You’ve caught me midstream, it seems. Reality bites, hey. You can keep the clothes.”

 

 

Ch. 6 – When It Turns to Custard

An hour and a half later, and another change of clothes. Why had she worn that dress? Why had she invited him to breakfast? Why had she done any of it? Call it temporary insanity, or the aftermath of the shark. Or maybe just his insane attractiveness, even in Gordy’s ridiculous clothes.

What was it? That he knew who he was, and that who he was—was somebody. He was powerful. That was the only word for it. Batman hadn’t just been a joke, and bloody hell, but that was sexy. And it was the way he paid attention. The way he’d listened, the way he’d looked at her when her dress had fallen down . . .

How carefully would a man like that kiss you? How long would he want to look at you? How seriously would he take the slow, sweet job of pleasing you? He’d want you to sit in his lap while he kissed you, too. She’d bet money on it. And he’d be so deliciously possessive.

How warm could you get in an air-conditioned van?

She needed to break up with Gordy. You couldn’t help your thoughts, but these were too many thoughts for a woman in love. There was only one answer. She wasn’t in love. Why hadn’t she faced it before? Because she’d wanted to have somebody. Bad reason.

She couldn’t have lied and said she wasn’t entangled. How would she feel if she found out he had? Horrible, that’s how. Betrayed. And if the way he’d drawn back on hearing it only made her want him more—well, that was those thoughts again.

He was American, he was nowhere close to being a resident, her fantasies were just that, because she had no idea who the bloke really was, and the episode was over. She didn’t even know his name. And, yes, if she’d been thinking faster, she could have said she’d get herself disentangled, but she so rarely did think that fast. Anyway, it would have sounded so desperate. Was a night on the couch with him worth feeling desperate? Plus whatever she’d feel afterwards?

“Nah, mate,” she muttered aloud. “Not so much.” You didn’t get into the match when you could already see you’d be bowled out.

Never mind. She’d see Gordy on Sunday night, and they’d have the talk. Too late for Mr. Hotness, but at least he’d shown her what she was missing. Meanwhile, it was time to get back to the part of her life that was actually going somewhere, which was why she was steering the white van off Coolamon Scenic Drive and onto a gravel road over which a brand-new white banner moved with the breeze.

Coorabell Heights

The Place of the Four Winds

Luxury view homesites selling now

The potholes on the onetime farm track had been filled, and the gravel was newly laid, probably about the same time that the rosebushes in their half-barrels lining the drive had been lifted off some truck. The rolling hills, though, in shades from lime to emerald, that unfolded like a rumpled patchwork quilt all the way to the sea in a hundred-eighty-degree view of serenity, space, and peace, were the same as always, and so were the birds calling from the trees, all trills and squawks and liquid melody, making her wish for a camera and a free afternoon.

Serenity and space and peace for now, that is. You could see the Cape all the way over to the right, and you could even see the lighthouse. That would add a half million to every overpriced property, she was sure.

Well, you couldn’t change the world. The Council had given its approval, and the development was going ahead. Hence today’s celebratory party/sales event, the kickoff before the earthmovers and heavy machinery came rumbling in and the peace went away.

An event that wasn’t going to fly if the tables weren’t even set up in the marquee. Bloody hell. She’d pulled the van to a stop and was jumping out on the thought, approaching Jamie, one of the waiters, because he was closest.

“Why aren’t the tables set up?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “Dunno. The hire firm dropped everything off and scarpered.”

“Well, did you ask them?” she asked.

“Not my job, was it,” he answered sulkily. “I reckoned they were going for a smoko and they’d be back. How was I to know?”

She closed her eyes for a second, counted to three, reminded herself, You are a partner. It’s nobody’s job to fix this but yours, and opened them to find Jamie sidling away. She said, “Well, we’ll take care of it now. Grab the others, and let’s get cracking.”

Crystal, a pretty brunette who was, Willow was fairly sure, sleeping with Jamie, asked, “Are you sure we should be setting up? It’s an injury risk, surely.”

Willow kept her temper, if only just. “Well, we’d better do it all the same,” she said, managing a reasonably cheerful tone, “or none of us is going to get paid. Thank goodness the marquee’s up, anyway. That would’ve been a stretch.”

“What do we do about cutlery, though?” Crystal asked.

“What?” Willow asked. “Surely it’s here.” She walked over to a plastic tub beside the flat-folded tables and chairs and opened it. Wine glasses. Fine. Past that, pasteboard cartons from the wine dealer holding red wines, and sparkling and white wines in tubs of ice.

But no silverware?

No. No silverware. And no plates. Bloody, bloody, bloody hell.

More crunching of gravel and slamming of car doors in the makeshift car park, and the rest of the wait staff, consisting of Beatriz, a Portuguese girl with liquid dark eyes and a lilting accent, and Martina, a blond German, hustled up. Martina asked, “Why aren’t we set up? We need to start, surely.”

Martina, Willow thought as usual, deserved a pay rise. She and Beatriz, unfortunately, wouldn’t be here long. Working holiday visas. “Yes,” she said, “we do. Here.” She beckoned them along with her. “We’ll do the tables in an elongated C, as usual, in the marquee. Two facing the sea, just here, and a leg on either side. The side toward the road,” she thought to specify. If she didn’t, Jamie was perfectly capable of setting them up on the seaward side, giving the guests a lovely view of the road, and then sulking when he had to move them. “Work space over to the left, behind the trees, where I’ll park the van once we unload some of this, so carry two tables over there, please. Jamie and Crystal, you take that, then start on the chairs. Conversational groups, please, off to the sides, beyond the marquee, in the shade of the trees. Or where the shade will be in an hour or two. Pretend it’s your party, and you want it to go. Martina and Beatriz, table linens, and then get started on the van.” Jamie had his mouth open, and she told him, “‘Other duties as assigned.’ They’ve just been assigned. Make a decision.”

He muttered something she could have foreseen, then headed for the stack of folding tables with zero enthusiasm.

“What are we going to do, though?” Crystal asked. “There aren’t any forks. We can’t serve without forks. Or plates.”

How about if we stand here and moan some more? Willow thought. How do you suppose that will work? “I’ll worry about that,” she said instead, as firmly as she could manage. She made sure they were starting to move, then retreated to the van and pulled out her mobile.

Damn the party suppliers. What had they been thinking? And why didn’t Nourish have its own basic stock of flatware and dinnerware, and another couple dishwashers in the kitchen? Why were they paying somebody else’s overhead and markup?

Before she could ring up, Coorabell Partners’ PR, Wendy Mulligan, came around the corner. Black hair pulled back into a knot, red lipstick, and severe summer-weight black trouser suit that said, I’m either your boss or a possible serial killer, her red mouth pressed into a thin line.

Oh, bugger.

“I was assured,” Wendy started out, like a woman auditioning for the role of “Bossy Headmistress” in the end-of-term play, “that your lot would have everything set up well before one. Here you are, nothing at all set up, and you have, what, four staff? How is that going to work?”

Not well at all, if you don’t bugger off and give me a chance to get it sorted, Willow thought and didn’t say. “I have it under control,” she said. “It’s not one yet.”

“How?” Wendy demanded. “Exactly how do you have it under control? Explain, please, because this is a dog’s breakfast, and it’s not what I paid ninety-five dollars per person to see.”

“Problem?”

The voice that came from behind Willow was calm. It was assured. And, she realized with an absolute sinking of her heart, it was familiar. She was glad to have had that brief heads-up, though, before she turned to look at him. He just looked gobsmacked.

Whatever his name was.

She asked, “How did you get your suit cleaned that fast? Or . . . how many of those do you own?”

“This one’s mid-gray,” he said. “The other was charcoal. If you explain the problem to me, maybe I can help.”

He wasn’t wearing his Chill the Fuck Out T-shirt anymore. But then, he didn’t need the shirt. He was already there.

“I’m handling this, Mr. Hunter,” Wendy announced—yes, bossily. “I’ll report in.” She definitely needed the shirt.

“Excuse us,” he told her pleasantly. She hovered a moment, then retreated three paces and pulled out her mobile, as if she were barely restraining herself from calling the Disaster Police and reporting Willow for Conduct Unbecoming a Caterer.

“You’re one of them,” Willow said. “You’re the client.”

“Yes. One of the ‘rich wankers spoiling the countryside,’ in fact. I looked up ‘wanker’ after I left you. That wasn’t very nice.” Before she could think of an answer to that, he looked around and said, “I don’t know much about catering, but I know something about unexpected wrinkles in the program. In fact, you could say they’re my specialty by now. Tell me what’s going on, and we’ll see what we can do.”

She sighed. “It’s so hard to hate you.”

He smiled. His calm, she’d discovered, was contagious. “I know. It’s my gift. What’s going on?”

“I’m finding out. Five minutes, and I’ll have a report and a plan.”

He nodded. “Five minutes.”

It took her longer than that. To start off, Amanda, her partner, who’d presumably engaged this particular underperforming vendor, or whose husband had done it, wasn’t answering, which closed that avenue. She finally ran Todd Ehrlich, manager of the party supply firm, to earth, and had the dubious pleasure of hearing him say, “I’ll ask Jim why he didn’t set up the tables. Must be a reason. As far as the rest of it—if it’s not there, we weren’t contracted for crockery and flatware. If it had been ordered, it’d be there.”

She did some channeling of Mr. Whatever-his-name-was Hunter and said, as evenly as she could manage, “Never mind that for now. Can you bring them?”

“Don’t have a truck,” he said. “They’re all out on calls. Sorry. Wedding season, you know.”

Of course she knew. “How about bunging a few boxes into the boot of your own car, then, and driving them up to me?”

“I’m on a job, love,” he said, already sounding bored. “Sorry.”

“Your wife,” she suggested. “Your teenaged child. Your kids’ nanny. Somebody who could meet me with a key, even.”

A pause. “I’m gay.”

She stopped talking, breathed, and said, “Is there some reason you’re not able to be more helpful? Something we’ve done that’s annoyed you? Tell me what it is, and I promise, I’ll help work it out.”

“Other than paying late every time, you mean? And having to ring Tom and remind him?”

Oh. “If I remind you that I’m Amanda’s new partner,” she said slowly, resisting the urge to wipe her palms on her trousers, “and tell you I’ll be taking care that it doesn’t happen again, does it help?”

“Sorry, love,” he said, and actually sounded a tiny bit that way. “I really can’t. Everybody with keys is scattered to the four winds at the moment.”

“Right,” she said, and forced herself to think. “So tell me. Pretend I’m your . . . your friend, just getting started in the business, and I’m up here near Coorabell with no lovely white plates or handy flatware, and heaps of shiny people with too much money will be turning up in a . . .” She consulted her watch. “An hour and a half. What’s your advice, as an expert?”

“If you have glasses,” he said, “start them on drinks. And then somebody drives like hell. Sorry. Got to go. The bride’s mum is looking frantic.”

He rang off, and Willow swore. And, yes, there was Mr. Too-Cool Hunter again. He asked, “What can I do?”

Never complain, never explain. Fake it till you make it. She’d heard it a hundred times. The last thing she should do was to tell the client that he’d be getting anything second-best. She abandoned all wisdom and confessed instead. “No plates. No silverware. And my last resort just threw me to the wolves.”

“Right,” he said. “Is there someplace close enough for our purposes that sells an approximation?”

“No,” she admitted. “Not the good stuff. It’s going to have to be Woolworth’s best disposables, but it’s at least twenty minutes each way. More, on Friday afternoon. I have one girl I could send and trust to make good decisions, but then I’m short here, and we need to be serving sparkling wine in less than an hour. And I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. I should be making it work, so you don’t realize it was meant to be any other way and try for a discount.”

“Hmm.” There was a light in his gray eyes, and he was very nearly smiling. Easy for him. It wasn’t his brand-new partnership, and even if it had been, he clearly wasn’t reaching for that moon anymore. He was already there. “And you can’t go for them, or you won’t be serving sparkling wine in an hour. Right, then. We’re expecting eighty people? A hundred?”

“A hundred was what I cooked for. I’ll double that on plates, because you don’t put sweets on your nibbles plate. It could even be mix-and-match at Woolie’s. If they’re eating off Winnie-the-Pooh plates, do me a favor and pretend you don’t notice.”

“I’ll notice,” he said, “because I’m going. It’s my event,” he went on when she would have said something, “and I do trust my judgment. We’ll make it a picnic. In the States, we’d have red-checked tablecloths. Does that work?”

“Oh!” It was like he’d flipped the Idea Switch, and she wasn’t going to argue anyway. She needed help. “Australia Day next week. They’ll have some sort of paper tablecloths for it at Woolie’s. Get as many of those as you can grab. That’ll help. Blue and white plates, maybe, as sturdy as you can get them. And flowers, if you can find galvanized buckets for them, or anything at all rustic. We’ll put wine bottles around them, and ice inside, like it’s a theme. Country picnic. That’s what you’re selling, right? Everyone’s personal slice of previously pristine Aussie hinterland?”

“I’m ignoring the sarcasm,” he said, “and heading out to get it.”

“Wait,” she said. “You need the van, except that it’s full of trays of food. Bugger.”

“You forget that I’m in the Secret Service. The back of that monster folds down, remember? Useful for bicycles, surfboards, and anything else that might crop up in the course of a busy man’s day. You hold them off. I’ll be back.”

Why would you do this? she wanted to ask as he left. Fast, but not running. He probably never ran, not unless he’d planned to and was dressed appropriately, in which case he’d win the race in the last hundred meters, because he’d have moved up one by one on the flashy leaders and overtaken them.

She answered herself, too. It’s his event, he wants it to succeed, and, clearly, he takes the long view. He doesn’t look for blame, he looks for solutions. Which anybody would do. Anybody who’s as bright as this man. Which is almost nobody.

Pity her stubborn heart refused to believe it.

Also, she still didn’t know his name.

 

 

Ch. 7 – Sweet Temptation

One thing Brett could say about his ocean warrior. She had resilience. By the time he got back from Woolworth’s with the back of the SUV loaded down, she had a drink in the hand of every early arrival and the servers circulating with trays of nibbles, toothpicks, and cocktail napkins. Some kind of wonton cups, it looked like, and savory tartlets, all of it finger-and-napkin food. She’d draped streamers of red crepe paper at waist height around the open-sided white marquee and fashioned bows at the corners, as if ready for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Inside, the tables nearly groaned under temptingly arranged platters, and more than one guest was sneaking a look like a kid at a birthday party wishing it was time for cake. Remembering Willow’s rendition of French toast, Brett couldn’t blame them.

He was a disciplined man with a disciplined waistline, though, and he tried to view food as fuel. When you came from a long line of loggers, you knew that the pleasures of the flesh were temporary, and inadvisable to the point of disaster if they made you unfit. Best to resist.

After an inquiry of one of the waitresses, he found Willow hidden in the trees beside her van, piping whipped cream onto tiny two-bite tarts of the sweet variety. She’d dressed like her servers today, in a white blouse and black pants. It wasn’t nearly as appealing a look on her as a bikini or a sundress, and the hair she’d coiled into a firm knot at the nape of her neck seemed unhappily confined and begging to be set free.

Of course, that could have been his imagination. It had proven fairly unruly today. It could also have to do with being in Australia, a country where “discipline” didn’t seem to be the governing principle, and also, possibly, with the faint sweetness that hung in the air here. Or it could be red hair, nearly translucent skin, sunshine, flowers, and the memory of a sundress falling off a woman who’d been born for pleasure.

He said, “The cavalry has arrived,” and she jumped, missed with her cone of whipped cream, and spoiled a lemon tart.

“You scared me,” she complained, but she was laughing. “How’d you go? I realized, after you’d left, that people could eat everything I made with their fingers if they had to. Going without plates might be pushing it, though.”

“Come see.”

“Eat this first. Please. I need to know that it works.” She picked up the spoiled lemon tartlet and held it for him. “Smells good, doesn’t it?” she said when he didn’t bite. She waggled it in front of his nose, her green eyes teasing. “Come on. It’s dee-li-cious. You know you want it.”

All right. So he had another of those tricky moments when he was accepting a tiny morsel of temptation off her fingers, all melt-in-your-mouth butter, silky sweet-and-sour lemon curd, and whipped cream, then watching her eat the rest, then stick her index finger into her mouth and suck off the residue while she looked into his eyes and smiled. Slowly. Any man would have had issues with that.

“Good, huh,” she said, her smile growing wider at his expression.

“Yeah,” he managed to answer, and wondered exactly how hot it was out here. She turned away to wash her hands in a portable sink, and he took a breath and got himself under control again.

This day was important. This day was the main purpose of the trip. It was the kickoff in the football game, your best chance to establish your position. He had a joint venture and investors back home to think about, and this deal was out of their comfort zone. Big, expensive, and risky. He didn’t need to add anything to the list. He was a man who focused on the plan, and this was the plan. You decided and you moved on, and he’d already decided.

Entangled. Partially.

And so forth.

While he was still wrestling with his libido, she covered her trays, shut them back into a refrigerated compartment in the van, and then walked down the hill with him. He’d driven around to the far side of the marquee, away from the crowd, and had backed the SUV up as close as he could manage. She took a look at the contents and said, “Oh, perfect on the buckets and flowers. You are so good. Or you could be amazing. I’m going with ‘amazing.’”

“Tell me where,” he said, trying not to let that sink in too deeply, “and I’ll start moving them in.”

“You have guests. I can get one of the staff to help.”

“I have partners, too, and they’re already on the job. I’ll do it. Ten minutes. Maybe I’m like your gift-wrapped marquee, and I need to make an entrance. The star attraction.” He grinned at her hastily muffled snort of laughter. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. And seriously,” he added as he reached for galvanized buckets and an armful of sunflowers and Asiatic lilies in fiery red and orange, “it may work, especially as I’ve been realizing you’re right. I’m overdressed. I’ll need to turn that into an asset. I’m the serious guy who’s bringing the serious money. Something like that.”

“You could take off your jacket.” She’d hopped up inside the SUV and was loading up on buckets and flowers. “And your tie. You’d be closer to ‘not weird,’ anyway. We’re fairly casual around here. It’s a surf town, money or no.”

“Nope. I’m going to roll with it. Here’s a useful phrase. ‘I meant to do that.’ And on that note, they were out of the flag tablecloths, so I improvised.”

“No worries,” she said, and kept moving. “We’re rolling with it.”

She worked fast. He had a hard time keeping up with her. Within ten minutes, she had makeshift bouquets arranged, along with the white wine, in her unconventional galvanized-pail ice buckets, and the tables looking cheerful and inviting. And when he brought her the flag-bedecked paper plates and hot-drink cups, she laughed.

“Awesome,” she said. “Lemons into lemonade and all. We have a theme party here. I meant to do that. See? I’m practicing.”

“One more thing.” He brought it out. A half-dozen packs of bunting flags, the Union Jack and the Southern Cross on each jaunty triangular piece, to hang around the edges of the tables and the marquee entrance. “Also,” he said, showing her, “a staple gun. Better than flag tablecloths, that’s our new position. I’ll staple, and you do your next thing. When you’re ready to open the gates to the mob, bring me a scissors, and we’ll have the mayor declare the marquee open.”

“You’re good.” Her hands kept moving, tweaking flowers and arranging food, as he stapled, and the whole thing began to look cheerful. Less like a function, and more like a party.

“No,” he said. “I’ve just had a lot of things go wrong over a lot of years, until it’s not even ‘going wrong’ anymore, it’s just a curvature in the plan. There’s always some answer, some way out, and most people won’t care unless you do. Most people won’t even notice.”

“Ah. The Julia Child approach. She’d say, if you can’t flip the potato pancake or your chicken falls on the floor, turn it into something else lovely. Never apologize, and never explain. What do people want? They want to eat and drink delicious things, and they want to have fun. They don’t care what your original plan was.”

“Exactly. Which is why we’re having a picnic.”

She smiled at him, and something in him caught and held, stuck in that smile and that face and that voice. “And we have awesome sweets,” she said, “if I do say so myself. Julia also said that a party without cake is just a meeting. Do you like sweets, Mr. Hunter? Did you like mine?”

He’d stapled all the way around the tables. He needed to do the entrance, then get out there. But he was a foot from her, and how could he go? Her skin was flushed, and tiny tendrils had already escaped the severe knot of hair. “Yes,” he told her. “I think you know I do. I like sweets, and I liked yours. I try not to eat them, though. Too decadent. Too self-indulgent.”

“Mm.” The smile got a little more assured. “I may get you to try some more of mine all the same. I’m very, very good with sweets. The trick is to make them delicious, of course, but then to go that step too far. The magic happens when you take things over the top. Bananas are fine. Caramelized bananas with vanilla bean whipped cream, though, the bananas heated into creaminess and coated with all that crackling burnt-sugar crunch? They’re pure sin. Looking at them, smelling them, tasting them. That’s when you’ve got pleasure.”

Entangled, he told himself. Wrong.

It wasn’t working.

“Mr. Hunter?”

He closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them and turned.

“Yes, Wendy?” he asked the PR woman. She was efficient, he’d give her that. If she reminded him of his fourth-grade teacher, that wasn’t her fault. It also wasn’t her fault that he hadn’t liked his fourth-grade teacher. She’d been all about the rules, like they’d been set down by God, whether that was how many paragraphs your book report had to be or that you could only be absent four times a quarter without your grade dropping. She’d thought order mattered more than fairness, more than progress. He’d disagreed then, and he disagreed more now. Part of him, however well disguised, would always be that rebel pushing it too far.

“The partners are asking where you are.” Wendy’s gaze flicked between him and Willow. “And they’re eyeing the food as well.”

“Good.” He grabbed a chair and lifted it over the crepe-paper barrier. Something to stand on. “Nothing like anticipation to whet the appetite. I need to put on the finishing touches anyway. Let me know when you’re ready, Willow,” he said, turning back to her and wishing, despite every better intention, that she’d unbutton one more button on that plain white blouse. Or that he could do it. Slowly. “We’ll see how the anticipation pays off, and whether we can get this group all the way to ‘pleasure.’ I’m betting on yes.”

Available on Amazon now!

 

 

 

This website uses cookies for a better browsing experience and to analyze site traffic (anonymous IPs) to improve site performance. Find out more about how cookies are used on this site and how you can manage cookies in your browser by reading the Cookie Policy.