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Authors: Sami Lee

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BOOK: A Man Like Mike
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“And plenty of women have sucked at it.” Eve willed away the unhappy memories of her own mother that, once they flashed through her mind, wanted to get a grip and dig in their icy fingers. “I don’t believe in relying on instinct. If you think that makes me inflexible, that’s your problem.”

Eve took a sip of her tea, forcing herself to calm down. She would not lose her temper just because Mike was trying to push her buttons. Perhaps he wanted her to lose it, wanted her to admit she was having difficulty coping. That she needed him. “I’m surprised you’re so determined to get me to admit I might need you, Mike.”

He took a sip of his tea, gave an expressive grimace, and put the cup back on the counter. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Aren’t you afraid it might obligate you? That I might get used to your help and ask you to stay?”

He scrutinised her face, his own expression unreadable. “Is that what you’re afraid of—getting used to having me around?”

Her attempt to wrest the attack position from him so swiftly thwarted, Eve felt a moment of panic. Was it possible? Was she already beginning to lean on him?

No. It wasn’t possible in so short a time, not when she had spent her whole life relying only on herself and, in moments of necessity, Jacinta. With her best friend gone now, there was only her, and now she had more to do than care for herself. She had to care for Bailey.

It had been hard, harder than anything she had ever done, and the road ahead looked longer and more unpredictable than she cared to think about; but with Mike here, already things had changed. Already the knowledge that Bailey was with family when she went to work, instead of at a childcare centre, set her mind at ease. Knowing that Mike was here to take care of the home front had given her more comfort than she ever should have accepted.

She said, as much to reassure herself as to answer Mike’s question, “I wouldn’t be that stupid.”

His jaw set in a hard line. “I may not be my brother, Eve, but I can be relied on to help when help is needed.”

She knew that was true, at least for now, but Mike’s track record didn’t exactly speak to his stability, and he’d given no assurances that he planned to give up his fancy-free lifestyle. She couldn’t afford to forget that, ultimately, she was in this thing with Bailey alone.

To appease Mike, and because it was the truth and he deserved to have it acknowledged, Eve said, “I know. I haven’t thanked you for your…” she couldn’t say help “…being here the past few days. It has been a big … relief.”

Slowly, a smile spread across his face. His eyes danced green in the dim light. “That must have nearly killed you.”

Not nearly as much as that devastating smile of his. She found herself returning it. “You’ll never know how much.”

He stood and rounded the counter. Eve tensed as he approached. He might have brushed against her if she hadn’t shrunk back against the counter. He gave no sign that he had noticed her reaction, moving past her to tip his barely tasted cup of tea down the sink.

She forced lightness into her tone. “I thought you said you were willing to try anything once.”

He turned and saw she had indicated his unwanted chamomile tea. “I said I’d try it, I never promised I’d like it.”

Why did that comment make her anxious, nervous? Was it the comment or the deep timbre of his voice, the way he was looking at her with that soft smile in his eyes? Most likely, it was the fact that he had turned back toward her, was now standing mere inches away, all that exposed male flesh so close she could touch it … if she wanted to.

Oh, she wanted to.

But she wasn’t about to take up doing crazy things now. Mike was not something new she wanted to try. A woman who had never even played with matches didn’t suddenly take up pyrotechnics.

For a moment, she thought he would take the decision out of her hands. He stepped forward, so close his pant leg brushed against the hem of her robe. The cotton material suddenly seemed a barrier much too thin to ward off Mike’s sizzling energy. Eve’s breath caught in her throat. Trapped between his imposing length and the kitchen counter, she didn’t dare move.

He brought a hand up to touch her hair. He rubbed a wayward strand between this thumb and forefinger. “I like your hair down. You have the most amazing red hair I’ve ever seen.”

Eve felt his words hit her like a belt of straight scotch, warming her from the inside out. Disorienting her and making her weak. Her voice sounded strangled when she demanded, “Don’t. Don’t say things like that.”

He tilted his head, his eyes brushing over her mouth. Returning his gaze to hers, he looked about to say something. Maybe, again, he would ask her ‘why not’? She suspected Mike was a man who asked that question of himself a lot. Why not go to Greece and open a business? Why not be a part of his nephew’s life? Why not kiss Eve O’Brien?

Why not? Because I can’t afford to be weak around you, Mike Wilcox
.

After a tense, heated moment, he dropped her hair and stepped back. He nodded his head, once, to let her know he would grant her request. Then he said, his voice husky soft. “Goodnight, Eve. Sweet dreams.”

He had been gone almost a full minute before Eve moved. With a long sigh, she rinsed out her own cup and the teapot before turning off the kitchen light and heading back to bed.

Chapter 5

Mike pushed the bright red and blue plastic train across the living room rug, making pretend
choo-choo
noises as Bailey watched, a smile splitting his chubby face. When he got close enough, Mike abandoned the train and grabbed Bailey around the waist, letting out a mock growl and pretending he was a wolf who’d caught up with his prey.

Bailey squealed with delight at the game, twisting to release himself from Mike’s grip so he could dart behind his wooden toy box for protection. The knowing grin on his nephew’s face told him he was brimming with anticipation of the next such encounter and Mike gave him what he wanted, chasing him around the sofa on all fours, growling over Bailey’s musical laughter until his knees couldn’t take it anymore.

With a heartfelt sigh, he sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch. With the affectionate openness only the very young possessed, Bailey toddled over to him, sat down and placed his head on Mike’s knees. He looked up at him with such unqualified trust shining from his bright blue eyes that Mike felt something move against his ribs. He could swear his heart was expanding.

“Hey there, kiddo,” he murmured, reaching down to stroke his nephew’s soft downy hair.

“Dadada.”

He knew it was only gibberish. Those particular syllables coming from his nephew’s mouth shouldn’t have squeezed at his chest, but they did. In only a few days, his brother’s son had wormed his way into Mike’s heart.

His moving in here was supposed to have been simple, but Mike felt it growing more and more complicated by the hour.

Working the dinner shift at The Rusty Marlin was only temporary. As fun as it was to be trading jibes and jokes with Barry McClusky, who’d been a friend from as far back as their apprenticeship days, Mike wanted to do more than work in a pub kitchen. When he had decided to come back to Australia, he had got in contact with Jay Stephenson, his former boss in Melbourne. When Mike had left for London years ago, Jay had extended an open invitation for him to return to work in the one of the several top Melbourne restaurants he owned. Over the phone, Jay had been only too happy to reiterate the overture.

The money he would get working for Jay Stephenson couldn’t be equalled by anything he could get here in Brisbane, and at the time Mike had indicated that he would take up the offer once he saw his parents were coping and he had got to know his nephew a little better.

Yet a truth he hadn’t fully considered was now weighing heavier on his mind by the day. He was for all intents the most significant male role model in his nephew’s life. The part he had intended to play was a fairly major contribution for an uncle who lived in another city and saw him only a few times a year. He was going to teach Bailey to fish and ride a skateboard … and be the bearer of sage advice when he was older and had girl troubles. The more important things, like where the goldfish went when it died and where babies came from were definitely a father’s domain.

He couldn’t be the father figure. Derek’s shoes had always been way too big for him. But now, if Eve were to be believed about the likelihood of her getting married, he was it. As far as fathers went, he was all Bailey had, and the idea of leaving filled Mike with misgivings he didn’t know how to deal with right now.

The thought of Eve sent his mind careening off on another, equally disquieting, tangent. The other night, he had come way too close to kissing her. And it hadn’t been the first time the urge had almost overwhelmed him, so he couldn’t just write it off as a fluke midnight craving.

She shouldn’t have been so tempting, standing there in a modest white cotton robe with her hair all sleep-dishevelled and dark smudges of exhaustion under her eyes. But he had seen past all that, his attention more focussed on the occasional flash of cinnamon-coloured lace he saw poking out from between the robe’s lapels and the enticing softness of her pale pink lips, for the first time since last Sunday free of the dark red, concealing lipstick she wore to work.

If he hadn’t read such naked fear in her dark chocolate eyes, he probably would have kissed her, despite her voiced objections. He sensed that on some level she wanted him to. The chemistry that had developed between them was too strong; he found it hard to believe it was entirely one-sided. But it had taken them both by surprise, and Mike was glad he hadn’t acted on the impulse, as powerful as it had been.

At least, that’s what he told himself. He just wished he could somehow give his body the message that he had done the right thing. Then maybe he wouldn’t still be lying awake at night, his senses alert to the fact that Eve slept in the room directly above him, his mind’s eye picturing the rest of whatever that cinnamon lace thing was.

Mike groaned as the image reappeared in his mind. Picturing Eve in satin and lace was not going to help settle his runaway libido.

So what was?

Avoiding her hadn’t worked. The last couple of days he had stayed right away from her—a task made easier by his night work. He had chosen to leave as soon after Eve arrived home as he could, spending the minimum time required filling her in on Bailey’s day. She seemed more than willing to keep the tone of their conversations impersonal.

“So get over it, Wilcox,” he muttered to himself. With his future up in the air, he couldn’t offer her more than a fling right now, and Eve wasn’t fling material. He couldn’t risk alienating her if he wanted to continue having a relationship with his nephew. But they couldn’t go on like they were, stiff and formal and avoiding all contact.

He would have to make a gesture of friendship to assure her he wanted to be a help to her, not a hindrance. That the moments when they’d almost kissed had been nothing more than renegade fancies, the product of too little sleep and too much upheaval for both of them. He’d do whatever it took to make her believe that if it would make things run more smoothly around here.

But what?

The smell of the baking lasagne he had spent the morning preparing gave him an idea. With sudden decision, he stood and lifted Bailey into his arms. “Come on, kiddo,” he announced, “We’re going for a drive.”

The payroll clerk, a lanky brunette with short hair named Terri Howard whom Eve had never seen wearing anything that wasn’t black, gave a soft tap on Eve’s office door before pushing it open. “A few of us are going down to Mama’s House for lunch,” she said, referring to the Italian eatery situated just around the corner from the office and, as such, frequented by most of the staff at Fine Furniture. “Would you like to come?”

Eve glanced at the clock in the corner of her computer screen and saw that it was well past midday. As if her stomach read the time as well as her eyes, it let out a loud growl of expectation at the notion of Mama’s famously delicious pastas, but the work piled on her desk wouldn’t let her take a break. “I think you’d better bring me something back,” Eve said. “I won’t be getting away from these balance sheets anytime soon.”

She was bending over her bottom desk drawer for her purse when Eve felt sure she heard Bailey giggle. She dismissed the phantom sound with a shake of her head, but a few seconds later she heard it again, and this time she could swear she wasn’t imagining it.

Looking up, she saw that Terri was no longer standing in her doorway. Curiosity had her heading out into the hall, where she saw the payroll clerk, along with the rest of the mostly female office personnel, huddled in a crooning, tittering, group.

The Wilcox men were here, and the staff were swarming around them like bees around a hive.

Eve folded her arms and watched, surprised she had even heard Bailey above the cacophony of ‘he’s so cutes’ and ‘how adorables’. Mike was wearing the same well worn, holy jeans he usually wore around the house—didn’t he have any going-out-in-public wear?—and a red T-shirt with the slogan ‘Chefs Do It With Spice’ emblazoned in white across the front. The way he looked, Eve suspected it wasn’t just Bailey causing all the excited tittering amongst the office girls.

She was just wondering who was enjoying the attention of the doting females more—the little boy or the big one—when Mike caught her eye above his circle of admirers.

His smile widened at the sight of her, and Eve’s stomach did a peculiar flip-flop. She reminded herself she was starving and decided she was probably responding to the bag of what looked like plastic food containers he held up. “Thought I’d bring you some lunch,” he told her. “Hope you haven’t eaten.”

The group of women let out a soft chorus of ‘awwws’ and wistful laments about how long it had been since a man had brought
them
lunch. “She hasn’t eaten. I was just going to get her something,” Terri piped up, missing the look Eve sent her, so enthralled she was by Bailey, who was cheekily poking his tongue out at her.

BOOK: A Man Like Mike
6.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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