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Authors: Sami Lee

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BOOK: A Man Like Mike
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Looking at him now, Eve saw the shadows were no longer beneath his eyes. His hair was shorter, cut close to his nape with a little length left on top—a style just short of neat. The afternoon sun shot highlights the colour of hazelnuts through its dark brown thickness. Above Bailey’s head, he offered her the easy grin she remembered from the wedding and from the few photographs in Jacinta’s collection that featured him, his teeth even and pearly white against the fine covering of stubble that graced his strong jawline.

Eve was startled to realise that her heart rate had picked up, and heat infused her face.

It was no wonder she was uncomfortable, she told herself, given how she had blubbered all over him the last time she’d seen him. Embarrassment made her voice brusque. “What are you doing here anyway?”

He tilted his head at her tone. “Didn’t you get my email?”

“If you’re referring to the one that mentioned you’d come by soon, the one that came a couple of weeks ago, then yes, I got it. I figured you’d call.”

“I tried this morning. There was no answer.”

Probably when she’d taken Bailey for a walk. Checking the message service was yet one more thing that tended to slip her mind lately, although she had always considered herself an exceedingly organised person. It was one of the things that made her such a good accountant. It had helped her obtain her degree with honours and her certification as a practicing accountant by her mid-twenties and had ensured she was on the fast track to upper management in the accounting division of Fine Furniture, the company she had worked for since she finished university seven years ago.

Her newfound forgetfulness was one thing, but Mike could have tried calling again before turning up here in her back yard and sending her into conniptions. Yet it was so like Mike to be impulsive—at least according to his brother, and Eve knew of nothing that would contradict Derek’s assessment.

“I knocked before I came around the back, but I guess you didn’t hear me. I’m sorry I scared you.” The apology sounded genuine, but the intentionally disarming smile that accompanied it made Eve’s hackles rise. She supposed he thought he could charm her as easily as he seemed to do most women.

“That’s okay.” Even her ears detected little veracity in the words. Belatedly, she realised she was still sprawled inelegantly on the grass, her ankle length skirt bunched around her knees so her paler-than-alabaster legs poked out.

She caught Mike surveying the length of them with a look she realised with surprise was speculation. Yanking down her skirt, Eve made to stand, only to feel the warm weight of Mike’s large hand touching her elbow. “Let me help you up.”

“I can stand on my own.”

“I’ve no doubt.” Mike smiled with an irony that made her bristle further. So he had a problem with independent women, did he? “But why don’t you let me help anyway. Come on.”

He held out his hand and, afraid any attempt to rise from the position she was in would appear inelegant at best, Eve felt it sensible to accept the offer.

Her fingers tingled at the contact, and she felt her heart flutter as he pulled her with the ease of masculine strength to her feet. Pulling her hand away a little too quickly, Eve avoided his eyes by brushing grass off the back of her green cotton skirt. “Thank you.”

“Any time,” he told her, something in his voice overriding her reservations and compelling her to look at him.

His gaze traced over her face with an inscrutable look. Feeling immediately self-conscious, Eve swiped at her cheeks. She’d eaten a chocolate bar earlier—her guilty pleasure. Had she smeared the dark chocolate and cherry treat around her mouth? “What?”

“You look different.”

She looked worse, was what he meant. She’d barely had the time or acuity since the nightmare of Jacinta’s death to feed and clothe herself and Bailey, let alone get to the hairdresser as she desperately needed to do. She missed the expert cut she used to be able to blow dry into a chic, chin-length style, the subtle highlights that had tempered the vivid carmine-red of her natural hair colour. Now the strands had got out of hand, falling limply to her shoulders and curling at the ends, the flattering highlights faded. All she did lately was pull it back into a stubby ponytail and stick the wayward strands back with bobby pins. Today not being a workday, she hadn’t even bothered.

On top of that, he had come by unexpectedly, catching her without the make-up that would have lent her face a badly needed touch of colour, and wearing dowdy house clothes to boot.

Not that it mattered. She was not trying to impress Mike.

“You look much the same,” Eve said, silently cursing him for looking even better than he had in the past. Healthy and tanned—a legacy from his recent time in the Greek Isles no doubt—with a smile that was too engaging for the good of any woman in close range. There was a roguishness about him that made him appear younger than his thirty years.

“I’m not sure how to take that,” he said amiably. He bent down to lift Bailey who, staring with fascination at his uncle, went willingly into his arms. “So I’ll just move on and ask—any chance of a cup of coffee?”

“Oh. Sure.” Eve stepped around him to move toward the house, an older-style cottage Jacinta and Derek had bought from a carpenter who had lovingly refurbished it. It was painted a buttercup yellow, the window frames eggshell white. French doors led onto a back deck that had been added to the original structure in deference to the Australian love of the barbecue. Located in Shorncliffe, a small community in the far northern suburbs of Brisbane that abutted the calm waters of Moreton Bay, the cottage was set back two streets from the water. Today’s light autumn breeze brought with it the faint smell of salt and sand.

Jacinta had loved the house on sight, and had at once started a campaign to convince Derek to move out of the inner city suburbs to the more relaxed community by the bay. It hadn’t taken her all that long to get what she wanted, especially once she had become pregnant with Bailey. From the moment they met, Derek had been besotted with Jacinta.

“You know you can have anything you want,” Eve told Mike, moving Bailey’s plastic push-along fire truck aside with her foot as she approached the back door. “It’s your house after all.”

“And you live here. Like I told you—you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like.” He had said as much by phone, after the terms of the Wilcox’s last will had been revealed; Derek and Jacinta had left Mike their house, and Eve their son. His ownership of the house aside, Mike had suggested she move in until he figured out what he was going to do with the place.

Eve hadn’t really wanted to leave the comfortable familiarity of her one bedroom apartment in the city, but what could she have done? The sterile apartment building full of single professionals was not exactly a suitable place to raise a child. It was bad enough that Bailey had lost both his parents in one catastrophic moment; she couldn’t possibly have taken him away from the only home he had ever known as well.

Eve led Mike into the house and up the internal staircase, which ascended to the cosy living room. A fireplace graced one wall. Twin sofas covered with velvety purple fabric were arranged in an L before it—a reminder of Jacinta’s former occupancy. She had loved bold, rich colours and had teamed the sofas with an expansive red and purple rug, the heavy timber dining table with red upholstered chairs. Canvases dotted the off-white walls—abstract geometric shapes in green, orange and, of course, purple—the works evidence of Jacinta’s most recent attempts to re-connect with her youthful love of painting. She had given up her job in public relations while pregnant with Bailey, staying home before and after he was born to paint and play with her son.

Walking into the rustic-look kitchen that was nonetheless appointed with all the usual modern amenities, Eve busied herself putting on a pot of coffee. “Like I told
you
,” Eve said in response to the reminder of Mike’s largesse, “I’ll pay rent for use of the house.”

She had been setting the fair market value of rent aside each week, even though he had refused to accept any payment from her. Having been forced at one point in her life to accept the charity of Joan and Carl Drysdale—Jacinta’s parents—when her mother had died and they had opened their home to her, Eve had since made it a point to never again allow herself to be in such a position. She had a well paid, professional job. She didn’t need Mike’s financial hospitality.

Mike waved a hand, his dark brows furrowing. “I don’t need the money.”

“Come on. I know you’re not independently wealthy.”

“How would you know anything about my financial situation?”

Wondering if she had offended him by bringing up the subject of money, Eve shrugged. “You work for a living, like anyone else. And I imagine all that travelling eats up a lot of cash.”

His silence made her look at him. He stood on the other side of the breakfast bench, still holding Bailey, who was happily toying with a button at the opening of his casual white knit shirt. Eve felt her eyes stray to the spot where a V of tanned chest, lightly dusted with dark hair, was visible. Pushing out a frustrated breath at her wandering eye, she snapped her gaze back to his face. His expression lay somewhere between amused and aggrieved.

“And I suppose Derek said money falls through my fingers like rainwater, that I don’t have a prudent bone in my body,” he said, so accurately pinning the image his brother had drawn of him that Eve had to fight to keep from blushing.

Why should she be embarrassed? She had no reason to suspect Derek of lying. Fiercely dedicated to climbing the corporate ladder in his career as a financial advisor, Derek had always indicated that in contrast, working was, for Mike, secondary—a way to make enough money to travel, live the good life and chase women.

Eve had a hard time imagining Mike had to do much chasing. She’d bet his masculine energy drew females toward him like a magnet, each victim helpless to resist.

Luckily,
she
was too smart to fall for his particular brand of charm.

“For the record, I had quite a good business going in Greece. I sold my share of the
taverna
for a tidy profit.”

“You sold it?” Mike had been living and working on the Greek Isle of Santorini for going on eighteen months, almost as long as Jacinta and Derek had been married, and she’d had no indication that was about to change. It’s where he had jetted off to after the wedding, having temporarily returned to the country from a stint in London.

And just why did she remember so much about Mike’s comings and goings?

Mike nodded in answer to her question. “It’s why I had to fly back right after the funeral. I had things to settle, and I wanted to get it done right away so I could get on with my life back here.”

“You mean you’re moving back to Australia?”

“I mean I
have
moved back. I’ve been staying at Mum and Dad’s the last few days.”

Eve went back to watching the coffee drip through the filter into the glass carafe while she processed that information. She wondered what that meant for her. He would probably want to see Bailey, wouldn’t he? Which meant she was bound to run into him more often than she had ever anticipated.

Pushing aside her discomfiture at that thought, she asked, “How are Denise and Allen?” Eve tried to ignore the stab of guilt. She had taken Bailey over to see his grandparents in Moorooka only once since the accident, knowing it should have been more often, that she should have issued invitations for them to visit her and Bailey. He was their grandson after all, and all they had left of their eldest son.

But Eve felt exceedingly uncomfortable around Mike’s parents, especially Denise. She felt as though she were being inspected, her ability to care for Bailey judged, and judged harshly. A person hardly forgot words hurled hysterically across a lawyer’s office: ‘They wanted
Eve
to take Bailey? You can’t be serious! How is she going to manage it?’

Eve was all too aware that, as Bailey’s grandparents, Denise and Allen still had the right to legally challenge Bailey’s parents’ wish that she raise him, if they thought it in his best interests. Being essentially a single parent now, and not a blood relation to Bailey, Eve had every reason for concern that Bailey might be taken away from her.

She couldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t let Jacinta down. She had been entrusted with an awesome responsibility and, whether fulfilling her obligation came easily or not, she was going to do her best at it.

It suddenly occurred to her that Mike’s surprise visit today might have an ulterior motive. Had Denise sent him over unexpectedly to catch her in a moment of weakness? Was she searching for signs of poor parenting?

“They’re holding up,” Mike said in answer to her question, and Eve knew there was a wealth left unsaid behind the statement. They’d lost a son, certainly not something any parent recovers from easily. “They send their regards. They hope to see Bailey again soon.”

“I try to get over there, but it’s hard with work and ferrying Bailey to childcare during the week…” Eve sighed, knowing she sounded like she was making excuses, although she also felt it wasn’t possible to overstate how difficult day-to-day living was when you found yourself suddenly charged with caring for a young child. It had been hard enough the first couple of weeks, but once she had had to return to work, it had been darn near impossible to keep so many balls in the air. “I’ll take Bailey over again soon. I promise.”

“Hey, I don’t want to get in the middle of anything.” Eve watched as Mike added a splash of milk to the steaming mug she slid across the counter. “Besides, I can probably take him over for a visit.”

A feeling much like dread began to creep up Eve’s spine as her mind caught on that statement. “What do you mean—
take
him over? I thought you were staying with them.”

“Yeah, about that…” Mike began, and sent her his smooth, disarming smile. Eve’s heart rate accelerated again. “I was thinking I should bunk here for a while.”

Chapter 2

“Stay
here
?” Eve repeated. “With
me
?”

BOOK: A Man Like Mike
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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