Read Stranded With a Hero Online

Authors: Karen Erickson,Coleen Kwan,Cindi Madsen,Roxanne Snopek

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors), #Collections & Anthologies, #friends to lovers, #playboy, #enemies to lovers, #sheriff, #firefighter, #opposites attract, #snowed in, #officer, #holiday romance, #Christmas, #rebel

Stranded With a Hero (10 page)

BOOK: Stranded With a Hero
7.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Hmm, that’s a worry.” She gestured at the street outside. “Why don’t you take a break now and grab an early lunch?”

“What about you?” he asked, aware that Naomi had been working far harder than he, as she’d had to manage the café as well as the gallery.

“I’m going to have a quick coffee and sandwich here now that Beth’s arrived.” She hesitated, then added uncertainly, “I thought you might like a stroll outside, but you’re welcome to join me, if you prefer.”

Aaron didn’t want a stroll outside. Small towns were the same the world over, whereas Naomi…well, there was still so much he wanted to find out about Naomi and not much time to do it.

“I’d love to join you.” He gave his dimples another workout.

As Naomi sat down at the table with Aaron, she tried to ignore the cheeky wink from Beth, their part-time waitress, who was wiping down a nearby table. Beth had been all agog over Aaron as soon as she’d spotted him, and she wasn’t the only one. Just about every regular customer wanted to know about the handsome, charming American helping out at the store. Who was he; where did he come from; how long was he staying? At one stage, Aaron had almost been mobbed by a group of ladies from the country club. All good for business, and Aaron had proved himself surprising adept at selling. So why had it niggled her to see him surrounded by admiring women, and why had the niggling intensified when she observed his suave manner with them? Could she actually be jealous?

Aaron lowered the tray containing their coffees and sandwiches, and she busied herself distributing the food. She couldn’t be jealous over him. Sure, those twinkling brandy-colored eyes and flashing dimples were entrancing, and she appreciated him giving up his time to help her out, but they weren’t compatible and had nothing in common.

“Is something the matter?” Aaron broke into her thoughts. “You have a very intense expression on your face.”

She looked up and forced her facial muscles to relax. “Just thinking about…about Christmas decorations,” she improvised and took a big bite of her egg-salad sandwich to forestall any further comment.

“Don’t you have enough?”

She chewed for a few seconds. “One can never have enough decorations, and I still have five days to Christmas.”

“Yup.” Sighing, Aaron pulled off his elf hat and ruffled his hair before biting into his chicken-and-Camembert sandwich.

Naomi straightened. “I just had a thought. You could buy some of your Christmas presents here, maybe for your mum and sister.” She paused, then shook her head. “But you probably bought all your gifts before you came to Australia.”

He drank some coffee and rested his elbow on the table, his stance casual. “No, I didn’t.”

Naomi stared at him. “But you’re flying out on Friday, and Christmas is on Sunday. When on earth will you have time to do any shopping?”

“I have an hour’s layover in LA. I’ll do my shopping then.”

“At the airport?” She couldn’t help gaping at him.

“They have some good stores there.” He paused, and her disbelief must have bothered him, as he added, “It’s no big deal. I always buy my gifts on Christmas Eve.”

“Typical male.” Naomi shook her head, contemplating her sandwich. “But what if you get to LA and can’t find anything suitable? What will you do then?”

“I don’t know.” He didn’t seem at all worried. “I guess I’ll get them gift cards.”

“Gift cards! That’s—that’s…” She couldn’t think of the right description.

“Hey, you’re getting stressed on my behalf for no reason.”

Naomi downed a gulp of coffee in an effort to calm herself. She didn’t know why she was getting so worked up. Knowing Aaron’s attitude to Christmas, she shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I hate to think of your poor family getting gift cards.”

He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed for a while. “I never know what to buy,” he said eventually. He drank some coffee before continuing, “One year I received a good bonus and decided to treat my family. So I bought my parents a deluxe Caribbean cruise and a new car for my sister and her husband, and I set up college funds for my nieces.” He shook his head. “The 529 plans were a nice surprise, but they were real embarrassed over the rest. You’d think I’d given them edible underwear.”

Naomi’s heart sank as she recalled the Mulberry handbags and Asprey bracelets that Justin had bought her—luxuries she’d never expressed any interest in. The expensive presents were to show off how well he was doing. She hated thinking Aaron had done the same thing to his closest relatives. But as she studied his slightly glum expression, she recognized that at least Aaron had noticed his family’s reaction, whereas Justin had never heeded her dismay. Bitterness lingered in her. Men like Justin thought money could buy them anything.

“Sometimes, I don’t get my parents at all,” Aaron said, his gaze on his plate.

He was pulling bits off his sandwich, she realized, and he appeared perplexed. “Why?” she asked.

“They were proud of me when I got into Columbia. It was a big financial strain on them, even with my student loans and two part-time jobs. They were really anxious for me to do well. But now I’ve got this good job and great prospects, and they don’t seem so proud. It’s like they’re reluctant to talk about my career.” He shrugged. “I guess New York and corporate finance are alien to them. They’ve spent their whole lives in Mecklenburg, and they’d never dream of moving anywhere else.”

“I’m sure they’re extremely proud of you,” she said quickly. “Maybe they’re just afraid of losing you to the Big Apple.” The uncertainty in his eyes made her want to reach out and press her hand over his.

“Yeah, they’ve never been keen on city life, especially not New York. Too brash and fast for them. But I never felt I belonged in Mecklenburg.” He lifted his shoulders. “I’ve always been upfront with them about wanting to leave, and I enjoy living in New York, but it’s not like I’ll ever forget them. They’re the best parents in the world.”

Naomi’s heart warmed even more at his frank affection. Maybe she’d been a bit harsh in her initial judgment of Aaron.

He wolfed down the rest of his sandwich with renewed appetite, then looked at her with fresh interest. “And what about your job? Do you enjoy teaching?”

His interest momentarily took her by surprise before she replied, “Yes. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Never considered any other career.”

“It’s a tough job, teaching.”

“But also rewarding.” He nodded, seeming keen to know more, so she added, “In the UK I was a substitute teacher at several schools. It seemed the sensible option because I wasn’t sure about the future, but it wasn’t very satisfying. I’m looking forward to starting my new position next year.”

“Sounds like a good opportunity,” Aaron said. “And your parents? They must be proud of you.”

“My dad passed away seven years ago. My mum struggled a bit raising me and my sister Rachel by herself, so she’s proud we both graduated from university.”

“Is your mom upset you’re not staying with her now?”

“She might have been, if it weren’t for Kenneth.” Naomi grinned at the thought of her mother’s new gentleman friend. “For the first time in years she has a man in her life, and he’s just moved in with her. When I first got back from London, I stayed at my mum’s place for a week, but it was pretty clear I was making them awkward. Then Tyler asked me to help, and I jumped at the chance to give Mum and Kenneth a little privacy.”

Kenneth was wonderful to her mother, and the two of them were inseparable. Naomi’s smile faded a little. Recovering from a broken heart was all the more difficult when she was surrounded by loved-up couples—her mum and Kenneth, Luke and Tyler, the hugely pregnant Ally and her anxious husband. Everyone around her appeared to have found their perfect mate, so why couldn’t she?

Damn. She hated sounding like a whiny, little wuss, even if it was only to herself. Straightening, she glanced about the store to see several customers milling about unattended. She’d been so engrossed in conversation with Aaron, she’d forgotten about work.

She instantly pushed to her feet, reaching for the tray to load their plates and cups. “I forgot the time. We’d better get back to work.”

“I’ll deal with this.” Aaron forestalled her by taking hold of the tray. He stood tall in front of her, eyes fixed on her. “May I take you out to dinner tonight?”

The sheer unexpectedness of his request made her cheeks heat. Part of her leaped with eagerness at getting to know Aaron better. But another part warned her off. They were opposites, and in some respects he was too much like her ex. But her reservations about him were wavering, especially after their surprisingly frank lunchtime conversation, and the warmth in his eyes was doing terrible things to her resistance. Flustered, she became aware of two elderly women at the next table eavesdropping without shame.

“Uh, dinner, huh?” she echoed in a weak attempt to buy herself time to think.

“Yeah, it’s that meal we have at the end of the day,” he replied, poker-faced. “I figure if the afternoon shift is anything like the morning’s, we’ll both deserve a night out in a nice restaurant. Can you recommend any around here?”

She gulped and stared at him, feeling as naive as a schoolgirl.

One of the women at the neighboring table leaned toward Aaron. “Carlotta’s Bistro is very good.” She smiled and nodded encouragingly.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Aaron said to the woman in that snappy American accent of his. He lifted his eyebrows at Naomi. “Well? Shall we go to Carlotta’s Bistro tonight?”

“A-another time, perhaps,” she stuttered. “I have to walk Milo and finish up my Christmas cards and—and…” She licked her lips, out of ideas.

“And wash your hair?”

Now he was making fun of her. And he didn’t seem the least put out by her refusal. She braced her shoulders. “Precisely. I’d better see to those customers over there,” she said before walking off.

As she hurried away, she heard the woman at the next table cluck sympathetically and say, “Never mind, son. Just keep on asking, and she might come round.”

Aaron’s chuckle made the blood in her cheeks pound harder. “Good advice, but she seems determined not to.”

Naomi’s steps slowed as she neared the house, but Milo tugged impatiently at his lead, his pink tongue lolling madly. As soon as she and Aaron had returned home after work, she’d grabbed dog and leash, shoved her mobile phone into the pocket of her dress, and told Aaron she was taking Milo for a walk. She’d hurried off before he could suggest joining her, and now, as she opened the front door, she felt guilty for her discourtesy. She hadn’t meant to be rude. She’d only been desperate for some air to clear her mind, and some distance away from Aaron. She had to admit at times she found his presence overwhelming.

As soon as she unclipped Milo’s leash, the dog bounded into the house, barking up a storm. She followed him, only to find the puppy in the kitchen greeting Aaron with ecstatic licks and furious tail-wagging.

“Hey, fella.” Aaron crouched down to scratch the puppy’s head, and Milo went into a frenzy. “Nice to see you’ve missed me.”

A comment directed at her, Naomi felt but decided to ignore. “I’ve been talking to Luke and Tyler,” she said.

“Yeah?” All his attention focused on her as he quickly rose to his feet. “What’s the news?”

“It’s good news. Tyler’s mother has a heart murmur. She’s not in any danger, but for the time being she has to remain in hospital under observation.”

“That’s a relief. So they could be away for a week or more.”

“Oh, no. Tyler and her mother aren’t that close, and her mother doesn’t want her hovering by her bedside. According to Luke, they’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“Just in time to say good-bye to me.” Aaron pulled a face. “I was really looking forward to spending more time with them.” His gaze intensified on her as he grinned faintly. “Good thing you’re here.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, so she coiled up the dog leash and laid it on the kitchen counter.

“I’m just about to cook pasta for dinner.” He gestured to the stove where a pot stood ready.

“But you’re the guest here.” She stared in surprise at him. “I should be cooking you dinner, especially after the long day you had at the store.”

“Neither of us would need to cook if you let me take you out to dinner.”

He rested his hip against the kitchen counter, his lean figure relaxed yet agile. His eyes were warm like chocolate, and his sensual smile sucked her in, jangling the rhythm of her heart. She was all too conscious of his biceps stretching his T-shirt, the faint stubble shadowing his square jaw, his pearly white teeth.

Say yes
, a sneaky voice said inside her.
Let him take you out to dinner, let him wine and dine you
. Instantly she envisaged herself with Aaron at a cozy, little table, chatting and laughing, maybe even flirting. Just one night with a handsome guy who admired her… A shiver of longing ran through her, quickly chased by misgiving. She wasn’t thinking straight. She was still on the rebound, and Luke had warned her about Aaron’s reputation with women. Best to steer clear.

“I don’t need fancy dinners.” She shrugged. “Pasta is fine with me, as long as you don’t mind.”

“Hey, I wore a frigging elf hat for you today. Of course I don’t mind cooking you pasta.”

As he turned back to the stove, Naomi allowed herself to smile at his answer. He’d been a fantastic sport to wear that hat. She couldn’t imagine Justin doing that for her. Or cooking her dinner after a long day’s work.

Aaron picked up a couple of vine-ripened tomatoes and juggled them in the air before catching them expertly. Whistling softly, he filled the pot with water and lit the stove. As he reached for a knife, his jeans stretched snug across his butt, and a fresh shower of flutters burst in her stomach.

Excitement. Trepidation. Desire.

BOOK: Stranded With a Hero
7.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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