Authors: Nicola Marsh
‘Besides, you never know when I might need a handsome CEO.’
He loved this: her spontaneity, her flirting, her ability
to turn the mundane into something bright and sparkling and funny.
‘What are your plans for tonight?’
‘If you’re asking me to do some catch-up filing, I’m washing my hair.’
Her pause promised the world.
‘Though if you’re asking me if I’m busy because you have some nefarious plans you’d like a willing and able partner for, then I’m free.’
‘Good. In that case, I’m taking you out.’
‘How can a girl refuse an offer like that?’
Her soft tone held a hint of mystery and magic and he could hardly wait.
‘You can’t. I’m going to be stuck here longer than expected, so I’ll swing by the bungalow at seven.’
‘Where are we going?’
He glanced at the brochure one of the resort staff had given him.
‘You’ll find out.’
Her exasperated sigh made him smile. She didn’t take kindly to orders, and his being tight-lipped would be killing her.
‘What should I wear?’
With anticipation pumping through his veins at the thought of seeing her later, he lowered his tone.
‘That’s easy. Something sexy.’
He only just caught her sharp exhalation as he
snapped the phone shut, thrust it in his pocket and busied himself with finishing off the day’s work.
Tonight he’d make sure Starr was left in little doubt this trip wasn’t all business.
TARR PACED THE
bungalow veranda, stopped to stare out at the gorgeous ocean view, the pristine white sand, the lush greenery, jiggling from one foot to the other.
She hated waiting—hated feeling like this more. Not that she could articulate what
was, other than a confounding mix of blinding excitement, raging lust and soul-deep yearning.
Callum confused the heck out of her: flirting one second, pushing her away the next. He’d lightened up so much this past week, almost been a different man, yet the way he’d looked at her this afternoon…intense, annoyed, as if he was waging some huge inner battle.
Confused? She was completely bamboozled. But there was little doubt in her mind now that what they had had gone beyond the physical. Way beyond.
Where did that leave her?
She’d already lost one job and a home, courtesy of letting her heart rule her head, so what would happen if she got too involved here?
She loved living in the cottage, was thankful she finally had some money as a safety net.
And, while they’d connected on so many levels here on the island, she couldn’t shake the fear that once they returned to Melbourne Callum would revert to his stoic, solid best, content to focus on business, effectively shutting her out.
The signs were there. He’d pushed her away this afternoon when she’d got too close and, while he’d apologised, it didn’t change the fact she was scared. Heck, she was downright terrified he’d walk away from her without a backward glance at the end of all this.
Bringing her back full circle to her original worry: would she be back to where she’d started—homeless, jobless, penniless—when this fantasy they were living on the island crashed with the finesse of a high-kicking hora gone wrong?
The rumbling engine of one of the resort’s carts caught her attention, and she peered out into the dusk, her heart leaping when Callum’s cart slid to a stop in front of the bungalow.
He left the engine idling as he stepped from the cart and around it to open her door. She let him, impressed by his chivalry. She might be a modern woman, but having an old-fashioned guy spoil her went a long way.
‘Ready for a night you’ll never forget?’
‘Bet you say that to all the girls.’
‘Only ones in dresses short enough to pass as crop-tops.’
She didn’t tug the hem of her sequined primrose mini-dress down, enjoying his lingering stare on her thighs too much.
‘Oh, I like. Very much.’
He didn’t touch her—didn’t need to. Her skin was tingling under the heat from his stare until she squirmed in her seat.
‘So where are you taking me?’
‘It’s a surprise.’
‘Good. You know how much I love them.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
His low voice rippled over her and she swallowed, unable to ignore the growing feeling she was in over her head.
She wanted to have fun tonight, wanted to enjoy their last few nights, wanted to set the foundation for a possible future back in Melbourne, to see if they had anything substantial between them beyond a spark.
Spark? More like a raging bonfire, and if he didn’t put the cart into gear shortly they’d be right back to where they started: getting naked without talking first.
Slapping the dash with a healthy dose of fake bravado, she said, ‘Let’s hit the road. Surprise time.’
His intense gaze lingered a second longer before he smiled, focussed on steering the cart.
‘I’m really looking forward to tonight.’
Her heart rolled over, lay down and yelled
at the sincerity in his tone, and she reached across,
squeezed his hand on the steering wheel, unable to resist touching him a second longer.
Callum had it all planned out.
Take Starr to a fancy dinner at the water’s edge, followed by a romantic stroll along the beach, finish with dancing into the wee small hours.
A date she’d enjoy, a date to impress, a date to show how much he cared.
So much for planning.
‘You sure I can’t carry you to the cart?’
Shooting him an ‘are you for real?’ glance, she shook her head.
‘That’d be taking your knight in shining armour routine too far.’
Knight? He couldn’t feel further from one if he tried.
The five-star meal at the water’s edge had turned soggy when they’d borne the brunt of a freak tropical downpour, then they’d fielded some unwelcome guests in the form of ravenous mosquitoes, and their romantic beach stroll had taken a serious nosedive when the heel on one of her shoes had caught in the sand and snapped.
So here they were, limping up the beach: she was limping literally, his pride figuratively. He’d never botched an evening out with a lady so badly.
‘It’s no big deal, you know.’
Great—she must have picked up on his surly mood.
‘I wanted tonight to be—’
‘Special.’ She stopped, slipped her hand into his and squeezed. ‘It has been.’
‘How can you say that? The food got drenched, the mozzies were annoying, and—’
She gestured towards the ocean with her free hand, the broken shoe dangling forlornly from her fingertip a stark reminder of his broken dreams for tonight.
‘It’s a beautiful evening, we’re on a fabulous island, and we’re together. What more could you ask for?’
Buoyed by her constant optimism, he followed her line of vision, seeing the twinkling resort lights against a midnight sky, the endless ocean, the hulking shape of a mountain range.
He never took time out to admire his surroundings, considered Melbourne the business capital of Australia rather than the capital of the Garden State, as Victoria was known. As for leisurely strolls—try never.
Inhaling the pungent scents of fresh seafood and tapas and decadent desserts assailing him from a resort restaurant nearby, he wondered what it was about this woman that made him see and smell and feel everything differently.
At that moment the first strains of a soulful sax filtered towards them and he closed his eyes, hanging onto her hand for dear life, hanging onto the last of his resistance more.
He’d fought this.
Fought it with every rebellious cell in his tightly wound, tightly controlled body.
But he was a realist, if nothing else, and spending time with Starr tonight, after missing her in every second spent away from her when they weren’t working or playing together the last few days, cemented what he already knew.
He was in love with her.
And there wasn’t one damn thing he could do about it.
His eyes snapped open, focussed on her face. Her beauty slugged him anew. In the soft moonlight reflected off the water’s edge her eyes sparkled like blue diamonds, her lips curved into a half-coy, half-sexy smile, her hair was wild and tousled.
He wanted her so badly he ached, but he needed to save what was left of this disastrous first date, needed to prove he was as successful at this as everything else.
‘Dance with me?’
Her eyebrows shot up, her delighted surprise vindicating his decision to let down his famed guard and do something totally out of character.
He nodded, his gaze never leaving hers, hoping she could read half of what he was feeling, all of what he couldn’t articulate.
‘As some wise woman recently said, we’ve got the perfect backdrop, and then there’s the music…and us…’
Placing her shoe in his jacket pocket, where it dangled ludicrously, he didn’t wait, hauling her into his arms, holding her tight.
The sax had been joined by guitar, double bass, piano, drums, melding into a smooth jazz number
washing over them, surrounding them in rhythm and sync and magic.
‘I love how you move,’ she said, her head resting on his chest, her arms locked tight around his waist.
‘Wait ’til you see my tango and foxtrot.’
He had to make light of her admiration, had to lighten the mood before he blurted out his true feelings right here.
It was too soon for that—too soon to acknowledge anything other than they were good together out of the office.
‘You’re just full of surprises.’
She pulled back to look up at him, her eyes wide, her lips parted as her tongue flicked out to dampen them, that tiny innocuous gesture surprising him.
She was as overwhelmed by all this as he was, and the fact his confident, sassy Starr was probably just as nervous made him feel better.
‘Bet I can show you a few more surprises.’
His exaggerated wink had the desired effect and she laughed, slapped him playfully on the chest.
‘In that case, why don’t you come back to the bungalow and I’ll show you my tap shoes.’
‘Is that the same as asking me up for
Her hand slid downwards, a slow, erotic trail towards the waistband of his trousers, where her fingertips lingered, dipped, teased. He groaned, snagged her hand.
‘Come on. I have a sudden hankering to see your whole damn shoe collection.’
They laughed as she slipped off the other shoe, slid her
hand into his and all but dragged him along the beach back towards the cart, her feet flying, his stumbling to keep up.
Starr cranked her eyes open, her mouth relaxing into a smile when the first thing she saw was Callum propped on his elbow by her side, sleepy and dishevelled and adorably ruffled.
‘What are you thinking?’ she asked.
His gaze swept over her, intent, lingering, and she shivered at the passing shadow clouding his eyes.
‘That tonight far surpassed my expectations.’
‘You.’ He touched her bare shoulder, his fingertip skating across her skin, raising goosebumps. ‘Us.’
One tiny little word, one tiny little syllable that said so much.
After their week on the island they needed to have this talk. But something in his sombre expression made her heart clench in fear.
‘So there’s an us now?’
‘What do you think?’
Increasingly uncomfortable beneath his penetrating stare, she dropped her gaze, settled for fiddling with the sheets, pleating them into nervous rows.
Should she tell him the truth?
That she’d fallen head over heels, yet was petrified he’d morph back into an uptight, buttoned-up boss when they headed back to Melbourne?
That she felt as if she was holding her heart in the
palm of her hand, offering it to him each time she opened up to him, only to have him pat it patronisingly and push it back at her?
That allowing herself to feel like this about him, after what she’d been through, frightened her as much as the thought of losing him, losing everything?
‘If we’re going to make this work you need to be honest with me.’
Her hands shook beneath the sheets, her fingers digging into the thousand-count thread, her skin clammy at the thought of laying her heart on the line when she had no idea how he really felt.
But she had to do this—had to know before all the supposition and worry drove her insane.
She took a deep breath, exhaled through pursed lips. ‘I like you. A lot. But you confuse the heck out of me. You’ve been like a different guy this last week, and I have no idea if it’s going to last or if we’re living in some kind of fantasy here on the island.’
Silence greeted her blurted proclamation and she reluctantly looked up, expecting to see curiosity at best, derision at worst.
When her wary gaze collided with his, what she saw took her breath away.
An emotion that went beyond understanding or compassion or caring.
Uh-uh—what she saw in the drowning depths of his beautiful brown eyes was love.
A love she’d dreamed about since she’d never got enough from her flaky parents.
A love she’d craved and thought she’d found with Sergio.
A love she could only dream about having with a man as wonderful as Callum.
‘Who are you, Callum Cartwright?’ she whispered, wanting to fling herself into his arms but needing her question answered.
From the moment they’d moved beyond a fling she’d been dying to know more. Heck, she’d been dying to know everything about him.
‘I’m a guy who’s crazy about you.’
He smoothed her hair, her back, hauling her across the bed and into his arms, hugging her until she could barely breathe.
When he finally released her she wriggled back, watched him struggle with something before finally meeting her curious gaze.
‘I’m also a guy who doesn’t do relationships.’
He strummed her back, his fingers moving absentmindedly as she held her breath, filled with elation that he wanted more, yet half expecting a big ‘but’ to accompany his declaration.
‘I haven’t had time for a relationship—no interest in one, really. Too busy building the business.’
‘But it practically runs itself it’s so successful. Thanks to you.’
He paused, his expression solemn. ‘Not just me.’
She shook her head, confused. ‘I don’t get it.’
Swiping a hand across his face, he closed his eyes, snapping them open as she reached out in concern. The bleakness in their dark depths pierced her soul.
‘I took over from my older brother Archie when he died.’
‘I’m sorry. How old were you?’
‘Heck, that must’ve been tough.’
He nodded, pain contorting his features. ‘It was my fault.’
Wariness stole through her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’d been out with the boys. We were drinking, carousing, making nuisances of ourselves. The cops picked us up for being drunk and disorderly, threw us in the lock-up to teach us a lesson more than anything.’ His mouth twisted, his agony obvious. ‘I called Archie, like I always did. He was killed in a car accident on the way to the jail.’
Her heart broke at the raw emotion on his face, and she reached up, smoothed his cheek.
‘Accidents happen. You can’t control them.’
In a blinding flash she realised what was behind his obsessive drive, his absolute focus on business.