Excerpt for All for Love - 3 Series Starters by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





ALL FOR LOVE –

3 SERIES STARTERS

Featuring

The Boat Builder’s Bed (Wicked in Wellington Book 1)

Melting His Heart (The Heartlands Series Book 1)

Taken by the Sheikh (Sheikhs of Al Sounam Book 1)



Kris Pearson

ISBN 978-0-9951021-1-8



These three novels introduce you to the first three series of my work. I hope you enjoy them. Visit http://www.krispearson.com to explore all my books and sign up for my newsletter.



Copyright © 2017 by Kris Pearson

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.


THE BOAT BUILDER’S BED

Kris Pearson

A windy day...a flyaway signboard...a hideous crunch. Sophie Calhoun can’t imagine how she’ll pay for the damage to the luxurious car. She’s struggling to launch her design studio and make a home for her daughter.

Out of the black Jaguar storms super-yacht tycoon Rafe Severino. Steaming mad. Totally gorgeous, desperately in need of a top-line decorator for his spectacular harbor-side mansion.

Love and thanks to Philip for the unfailing encouragement and computer un-snarling. And thanks to my neighbor, Joseph, who told me about growing up whangaied—and breathed a whole new book into life.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is co-incidental.



All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the author.







Chapter 1 — Bang!

Rafe Severino pounded his fist on the steering wheel in time with the old Rolling Stones anthem. The Stones weren’t getting any ‘satisfaction’ and neither was he. His company, Severino Superyachts New Zealand, seemed unstoppable. Personally though, Rafe was lost in the desert.

And he knew it.

He hated that his marriage had been a mess. Hated being the last son to establish his own family. Hated the way his parents fawned over his younger brothers and their kids—and barely acknowledged his existence.

He hated even more that he let it matter.

Ahead of him a truck swung out across the road prior to reversing into an alley. Rafe slowed and then stopped to give the driver space.

The wind from the sea had risen. A flag flapped and rattled on a nearby pole. An empty Coke can tumbled along the gutter. Inside his Jaguar with the volume up high, Rafe saw both but heard neither. ‘Satisfaction’ seemed a long way off.

He sucked in a deep breath and tried to drag his brain onto something else.

His eyes drifted to the legs of a high-heeled blonde as she edged through a nearby doorway with a sign-board. The wind tugged at the long tendrils of her hair, concealing part of her face with a sexy golden veil, but still something about her seemed familiar.

Then the hem of her filmy blue skirt flipped up and Rafe sharpened his attention.

To the girl’s obvious consternation the sign-board started to collapse, and he easily lip-read her short sharp curse. His mouth quirked at her frustration as she swiped at her flying hair with one hand and clutched the sign with the other.

Recognition streaked through him then—an assistant of Faye’s. Josie or Susie— something like that. Maybe his ambitious ex-wife had new premises he didn’t know about? Was she going up in the world or down?

A combination of curiosity and his grandmother’s long ingrained code of chivalry made him turn the big car into a vacant space and kill the engine and the music. At that instant a more vigorous gust of wind wrenched the sign right out of the girl’s hands and flung it onto the sidewalk. The two halves parted company and she jumped onto one to hold it down, for all the world like a child playing hopscotch. The other flew up and hit the front of his car.

There was a bang. A crunch. A sound that could only mean bad news. Rafe added his own curse to hers and swung his long body out. He closed the door with a savage ‘thunk’ and strode around to assess the damage.

The girl stayed frozen, all legs and flying skirt and hair, as though she was perched on her own little surfboard.

Once she’d gathered the gleaming strands up in both hands her mouth became a perfect ‘o’ of horror and her eyes grew almost as round.

Rafe’s quick inspection confirmed his corner light needed repairing in a hurry. He shot her a glacial glare. “Nice work.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said in a crushed voice.

Not trusting himself to speak further, he dug out his mobile and started running through the pre-sets to find the Jaguar dealer.

So, so sorry,” she repeated. “I’ll pay for it somehow.”

“Of course you will.”

“It was a total accident,” she added with a hint of defensiveness.

Rafe held up a hand to silence her as the dealership answered. He turned away to conduct his conversation and concluded it with, “Around two? Thanks buddy—I owe you.”

He returned his gaze to the girl. She stood very straight now, clutching her half of the sign with an absolute death grip and looking as though she expected the guillotine blade to fall any second.

Christ man, lighten up! It wasn’t her fault and they can fix the car this afternoon.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, softening his manner as he took in her obvious panic. “No-one’s fault. It was only the thought of not being able to use the car tonight.”

“Bad things seem to happen in threes,” she said. “At least that’s the whole three out of the way. First your light. Then not being able to use your car. And third, my broken sign. I really need that sign.”

Rafe turned and picked up the other piece, undamaged apart from its hinged top. “It’ll never stay together with these tiny screws. It’s Josie, isn’t it?”

She shook her head. “Sophie. And you’re Mr Severino. I worked—”

“—for Faye. Yes, I know. I’ll fix the sign for you.”

“Why would you do that? After I damaged your car?”

He ignored the sharpness in her query. He’d over-reacted. No wonder she sounded prickly.

“Because I’m a helpful kind of guy. Is Faye about?”

“Faye? Faye and I—have gone our separate ways,” she muttered, avoiding his eyes.

That’s apparently the current thing to do. Faye and I have also gone our separate ways.”

“No! When?” she blurted, looking at him with those wide grey eyes again. Then she recovered her manners. “Sorry. I’m surprised. I didn’t know. I thought you were the perfect couple.”

His mouth flattened into a grim smile.

“That was my understanding too, until a few months ago.”

So Faye had been hiding the fact they’d parted? Interesting.

He inspected the sign more closely. “Is this place any good?”

“Very good indeed.”

He sensed defiance or defensiveness in the three abrupt words. He waited for her to say more. She didn’t.

He thought of his almost finished house and its current unloved interior. “I need a decorator. Someone as good as Faye.”

She rolled her eyes at that. “I’m better than Faye. I actually listen to what customers want.”

“You work for this place?”

I am this place.” She turned away and pushed at the door, indicating he should follow. “There’s only me. I opened today—or would have if the crummy sign hadn’t fallen apart.”

“I’ll fix it for you,” he repeated as he followed her inside. The sign was competently painted but the carpentry looked dire. Would offering his expertise make up for his initial burst of temper? He hoped so. “I suppose you used the screws supplied with the hinges?” he asked, and then surprised himself by adding, “Have you got any more sensible shoes?”

“What?” she demanded, apparently thrown by his change of subject.

“As I said, I need a decorator now I don’t have Faye. I’ve been letting things slide. Do you want to see my house and submit a proposal? It’s still a bombsite. You won’t get around it in those.” He eyed her high heeled sandals, and the slim ankles and light golden calves above them, pleased to have the excuse to inspect her openly.

“You’re serious? A proposal to decorate your house? Faye’s house? After I damaged your car?”

“Forget the car. It’s fixable. Yes—the house above the water. But it’s not Faye’s any longer.”

He watched as she squeezed her big eyes shut and buried her even white teeth in the cushion of her lower lip.

“I can’t just drop everything,” she objected after a few seconds. “I’ve stuff to arrange.”

“Pretend you’re not open for business yet. It’s only nine-fifteen.”

“But I’m having a drinks and nibbles function to let clients see my new studio. I sent all the invitations out saying five o’clock Monday.”

“Then you’ve plenty of time.” He handed her the other half of the sign. “I’ll get my tools.”

As he walked to the car he thought about Sophie’s lack of surprise when he’d offered to turn handyman. Maybe Faye had made fun of his background? On brief reflection he decided that wasn’t Faye’s style. Happy to be known as the wife of the founder of mega-successful Severino Superyachts, yes, but he’d bet his balls she hadn’t admitted to marrying a part-Maori carpenter from a small forestry settlement.

The irony of handing over the decorating of his ex-wife’s dream house to her younger assistant amused him. He might just do it if she was any good. God knows it was time he got around to doing something with the place.

*

Sophie had almost fallen off her sandals with shock. Rafe Severino? Here? And he’d offered her the chance to work for him?

Why on earth had she been so rude? Told him she couldn’t drop everything? Submitting a design proposal for his house was the opportunity of a lifetime—the ideal way to launch her new business. Even if no work followed, when word got around she’d been invited to quote it would bring her untold kudos.

But she’d been totally thrown by his sudden appearance. So unnerved by the waves of undiluted masculine power rolling off him it was like being stalked by a marauding tomcat.

She watched, a mesmerized sparrow pinned to the spot, as he approached his luxurious car, popped the trunk and lifted out a well-worn metal toolbox. And saw him glance up as he carried it back inside. Above her windows a shiny new sign proclaimed SUBTLE in large stylish letters and interior design studio in much smaller ones.

“Interesting name,” he said, pushing the door closed against the wind.

“It sums up my style,” she managed. “Tranquil, timeless, modern without being outrageous. Is that what you’re looking for in your house?”

He shook his head. “So far I’m only certain of what I don’t want.” He sent her a swift assessing glance. “I’ve had a chap in a bow tie and tweed cap who wants to kit the place out like an old English castle. There’s a little gay guy who insists bright pink accents are the latest thing in Paris...”

“Craig Kennedy?” she queried, feeling a smile tugging at her lips.

“You know him?”

“We all tend to know each other slightly.” She tried to stifle her grin, and hoped she sounded professional.

“Okay, I’ve also seen Hilda Bergermeyer with the terrifying teeth, and Willa Rushworth...”

“You’re hard to please. Willa’s supposed to be good.”

“We weren’t on the same wavelength.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I want a family home. Something relaxed and informal. Somewhere for my children to grow up feeling loved and safe.”

Sophie felt surprise and vicious pain flash through her. Her old boss had a family she’d never talked about? Sophie had had to relinquish her own beloved daughter. Why did some people have all the luck?

She drew a calming breath. “Faye never mentioned the children.”

There are no children,” he grated. “She didn’t want any, but she took her time letting me know that.”

“Ah.” The solid ground slid away, and Sophie cast about for something else to say while she considered this unexpectedly personal revelation. Total strangers sometimes shared amazing confidences. She could remember pouring her heart out to a sympathetic florist when it became obvious she could no longer keep tiny Camille with her in Wellington. Talking to the barely known woman in the flower shop had brought more comfort than discussing the huge problem with her doctor or landlady or her best friend, Fran. And she’d known all of them so much better.

“Sometimes those who want don’t get, and vice versa,” she hazarded, catching sight of her reflection in the corner window and attempting to drag her fingers down through her tousled hair to return it to some sort of order. Lord, she looked a mess!

But why would a woman not want children from Rafe? They’d be beautiful—dark haired, dark eyed—and as for making love with him to conceive them... The thought simply fried her brain.

She flicked a glance up at his hard-planed face.

He returned her gaze very directly for a moment, then hitched his impeccable trousers up at the knees and hunkered down to attend to the broken sign.

His expensive suit fabric threatened to make contact with her newly oiled hardwood floor. A wave of panic washed through her. What if his trousers were ruined? She zipped out to the washroom and grabbed an old navy blue towel.

“Kneel on this,” she begged. “I didn’t finish that until yesterday.”

You oiled the floor?” He gazed around the studio with more attention.

“I did everything. It’s a bit smaller than I wanted, but the location’s good—right in the heart of the design district.”

“You painted it too?”

“Mmm. Hired a portable scaffold, bought the paint and oil, and just went for it.”

“It’s come up well.” He stroked a finger over the glowing floorboards and then rose lithely to his feet. Sophie waited, on edge for his opinion.

His dark eyes wandered around the airy space.

“Dangerous doing it on your own—a little thing like you.”

She saw him calculating the height of the lofty ceiling, and decided to ignore the comment about her size. She was a perfectly adequate five feet five. He was somewhere over six feet.

“Couldn’t afford to pay anyone,” she admitted. “It was terrifying to start with, but I tried to be very careful. I needed to conserve my funds for professional signwriting and things like that...” She trailed off as his gaze came to rest on her face again.

“And a chandelier?” His eyes held hers for seemingly endless seconds, and she looked away and swallowed before she could speak again.

“No—pure luck. I found most of it here in an old box. I thought it was too good to waste, so I gave it a clean and bought some extra glass beads from the craft shop and... sort of strung them around.”

She wondered why she was telling him that. He could afford anything in the world, and certainly wouldn’t want to know about her scrimping.

“It’s a pretty touch,” he agreed, gazing up at the spangles of white light and rainbows of pale apple green and aqua dancing on the fresh sunlit paint. “Quite grand for a girl on a budget.”

Was he teasing her? Sophie stole a sideways glance at him as he stood in her private space—tall, swarthy skinned, with an unnerving air of absolute authority. Anyone else in a snowy shirt and a black Armani suit would look ridiculous grasping a chunky power-tool. In his large hand it seemed perfectly acceptable.

“Nice toy for a ‘boy’,” she countered, indicating the drill and wondering where her courage had come from.

“Points to you.” A sudden smile softened his austere face. “Why did you put your work table so far back? It looks professional. People would like to see you in action.”

She shook her head and tried to sound sensible. Sensible? Most of her was acutely on edge, and her head felt filled with fog.

“No—I can plug my lamp and computer in back there. And I really didn’t want to feel like a goldfish in a bowl. I thought it was more important to have the fabrics and mood-boards where people could see them, anyway.”

He nodded, and began to pace past the wall-mounted boards with their glossy photos and small samples of paint colors, carpet, tile and fabric.

“I recognize that. It’s one of Faye’s.” He stabbed a finger at a photo of a silver and white dining room.

Sophie lifted her chin and stared him down. “About half of them are Faye’s. Her clients, but absolutely my ideas and execution.”

He sent her another devastating grin. “Don’t be so touchy.”

“I worked damned hard on those projects.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly, not wanting to sound annoyed and nervous when she needed to appear calm and organized.

“They look good,” he agreed, flourishing the drill at the beautiful interiors. “Where are your fabrics going?”

Sophie raised her eyes to the ceiling. “That’s the next job I need to do. I’ve got some display lengths for up there.” She indicated a row of six high chromed curtain rods suspended on nylon cords.

He glanced up at the rods, then down to her.

“Not in those shoes. I’ll do them for you.”

What?”

“By way of a trade. I presume you have a ladder somewhere if the scaffold’s gone?”

“Out the back,” she agreed in a small voice.

“So I’ll hang your fabrics to save you breaking your neck.”

Sophie decided she could forgive his arrogance because she hadn’t been looking forward to that job. It had been hard enough getting the screw-eyes into the ceiling and the rods sitting evenly. But accepting his assistance felt strange because she was unused to anyone offering help.

“And what’s the trade?” she asked, narrowing her eyes because she knew from long experience nothing was truly free.

“You visit the house with me this morning and see what you can come up with.”

So he hadn’t been joking? “It’ll take more than a morning, and I charge an hourly fee.” She knew she’d almost be willing to work without payment to include such a prestigious job in her portfolio.

“Naturally.”

She gathered more courage. “Can I offset my first consultation against the cost of fixing your car? It would really help with my start-up expenses.”

“Forget the damn car. Insurance will cover it.”

“You said I’d be paying.”

He shook his head. “Pay me with this consultation if that makes you feel better, but there’s no need.”

She said a silent prayer of thanks, and then he added, “Come to lunch with me. It’s a business thing. Faye will probably be there. But you’re younger than her, you’ve cut yourself loose from her apron strings, and you might enjoy rubbing her nose in it. I know I would if I were you.”

Lunch with Rafe Severino, just like that?

“No.” She pitched her voice flat and determined. “I won’t be the meat in your matrimonial sandwich if that’s what you’re suggesting. You’re not using me to get back at her for something that’s none of my business.”

She heard him draw a sharp breath.

“There’s no ‘matrimonial sandwich’ as you so charmingly put it. That’s long done with.” He glanced back at the mood-boards. “But I need a decorator instead of Faye. I’d quite like her to know she was easy enough to replace.”

“So I’m the easy option?”

“A damned prickly option so far. I’ve offered to mend your sign, hang your fabrics, let you loose on the best new house in the city, and buy your lunch. I’m not asking for anything in return.”

“Good, because you won’t be getting anything.”

Then a flood of embarrassment rushed through her, and she clenched her hands together in front of her breasts. What would he think she meant by ‘anything’?

“Sorry,” she added in a small voice.

“Opening day nerves?”

“I didn’t mean to sound so rude.”

To her annoyance he burst into deep husky laughter.

“Yeah, well I did get a glorious mental picture of what ‘anything’ might include, but...”

“No, I wasn’t thinking that at all.”

Whatever that was.” He reached across and touched her hair, re-positioning one long strand.

Hot little waves instantly skittered down her spine, and a slow insistent throbbing invaded her panties. “Leave it please.”

He took no notice and stayed standing too close, running his fingers right to the end of it. “You need to tie it up when it’s windy. Great hair though.”

Sophie managed a nod of thanks and backed away, face burning.

“I’ll leave your sign until later,” he added. “I’ve no screws the right size here, so I’ll get something better from the guys at the house while you have your look around.” He set the drill back in his toolbox. “Do you have some more sensible shoes, or do we collect them on the way?”

Sophie tried to damp down the sensations racing through her body by switching her mind to the old paint spattered trainers hidden in the washroom. She could imagine how silly they’d look with the floaty-paneled blue designer skirt she’d found at the Labels Live Again shop.

“Yes, of course,” she said, trying for cool and competent. “But I put this skirt on for the opening. It’s hardly suitable for a building site. If we could call in to my apartment on the way I’ll change into trousers.”

“Lead me to your fabrics, then.”

So he was serious? She watched as he shrugged off his suit jacket and tossed it onto the low settee that ranged along one wall below the mood-boards. Did it look good enough in the studio? It was a thrift shop find, disguised by one gloriously extravagant throw and two others of much more humble origin. She’d sewn four cushions from deleted silk samples, trimmed their corners with real feather tassels, and arranged them against the throws.

“I’ll get the ladder,” she said over her shoulder, heading for the dank washroom before he could see what a mess it was. “It’s those bolts of fabric by my work table.”

He insisted on taking the stepladder from her the moment she re-appeared, so she took over unrolling the length of fabric he’d started on.

“This is very kind of you,” she finally acknowledged, ashamed of her less than gracious reaction to him. “I could put my other shoes on, you know.”

“I’ve got a bit more reach than you, and I’m used to ladders and heights. I just throw this over the rod, do I?”

“Ummm—not quite. See those little clippy things? Fold the raw edge in and squeeze the top of the fabric into them.”

He climbed until his glossy shoes were level with her face. Sophie looked up to admire the graceful folds of her soft taupe linen, and instead found her eyes riveted on a pair of long masculine legs. The trouser fabric pulled taut as he stretched. She could easily imagine the muscles of his hard sinewy thighs and tight butt.

Higher, his fine white cotton shirt spanned powerful shoulders.

And all that beautiful man might be available.

No longer involved with his talented wife, he’d asked her out to lunch. Was it possible he had no other current woman in his life?

Not likely, she thought with sudden derision. He was a magnet to women, especially if he was separated now. Why would he want Sophie Anne Calhoun with her thrift-shop clothes and paint speckled hands when he could choose anyone in New Zealand—or the whole world? He’d asked her to lunch for one reason only. To annoy Faye.

She decided she’d harden her heart and not be the least bit impressed by him. The only time she’d ever mixed business with pleasure had been disastrous; it had led to the birth and ultimate shattering loss of little Camille. No way in hell would she make another mistake like that one.

Rafe Severino could be a huge and profitable source of business, but that was all. She’d allow herself just this one indulgent moment and then banish the warm rush of possible pleasure from her mind.

Possible? Guaranteed pleasure, surely? To be kissed by that mouth, caressed by those long capable fingers, covered by such a prime body?

As he clipped the length of fabric up, Sophie watched him and unconsciously licked her lips.





Chapter 2 — Surprise Proposition

“Something like that?”

“Fine.” She cleared her throat. “Shall I hand you up the next one?”

“I’ll move the ladder.” He stepped down beside her and lifted it sideways.

“You’re faster at it than I would have been.” She unrolled a length of sheer gold and cream striped voile. “Be careful with this—it might snag.”

Rafe smiled, undid his belt buckle, pulled the black leather strip from his trousers, and tossed it onto the sofa with his jacket. “Can’t have that, can we?”

Sophie’s eyes widened as he removed his square cufflinks and gold Rolex, and turned his sleeves back on themselves several times. “Stop that!” she finally exclaimed.

“Nothing sharp left now,” he said, smiling broadly and extending his hands toward her as though she was a school teacher doing fingernail inspection.

“I’m sure you’re safe.” The desperate squeak in her voice indicated it was far from the truth. The man was hurling sex all around her new studio. She wanted to bite his beautiful arms. How ridiculous!

She thrust the length of voile toward him and stood well out of his way, knowing nothing about him was the least bit safe. He gave her dangerous thoughts, and made her hot and bothered, and now he was flirting?

Rafe Severino—teasing me? Doing a sexy little striptease, sending me his big-bad-wolf grin and making me feel far too warm?

She set her hands on her hips and pushed at her back with her fingers. Yup, her spine was still there.

Well come on then, stiffen up, spine! I need to think of him as a great source of business and forget any other ideas about him. Help me here...

She watched his long legs as he climbed, and some wicked little brain-demon started stripping his clothes away.

Okay, just a few more moments of indulgence.

“Do you do any sailing?” He’d braced himself high up the ladder again.

Sophie tried to banish her picture of long tanned legs dusted with dark hair, a smooth muscular back, and rippling shoulders. And gathered her scattered thoughts together to remember the endless to-and-fro inter-island ferry trips she took every single Sunday to see Camille.

“A bit. Not in your kind of boats though.”

“Faye used to handle some of the marine decor for me. Would you be up to that?”

Too much, too soon, she told herself, glad his back was toward her. Surely he couldn’t be serious? Boats? The amazing Severino Superyachts?

His spectacular body receded just a little in her imagination.

“The interiors?” She somehow managed this query without croaking or squealing. “Wall finishes, fabrics, flooring?”

“Yup. More or less,” Rafe said, trying to pleat the voile into the clips.

“I don’t see why not. I’d love to try. I’ll have stuff to learn, but the basics won’t be too far different. A luxury look and improved practicality?”

She watched his tight butt cha-cha-ing back down the ladder, and then averted her eyes before he turned and found her looking.

“Absolute luxury. The best of everything. Sometimes no practicality at all.” He raised an eyebrow. “We’ll see. A thought for the future, maybe. You have possibilities, Ms...?” He scooped one of Sophie’s new business cards off the neat stack on the end of her work table. “Ms Calhoun.”

“Sophie.”

“Rafe.”

There seemed to be more invitation in his eyes than the insistence on using his first name. Hot waves of wanting rolled through her like approaching thunder. Shaking her senses. Rattling her resolve.

He’d been ‘Mr Severino’ all the time she’d worked for Faye, and she’d seen him mostly in photographs because he didn’t visit the design studio often.

Mr Severino—who was so gorgeous, so rich, so entrepreneurial, so sexy and so far out of reach. Not someone to be fantasized about and addressed casually.

“Rafe,” she repeated, determined not to sound overawed. She wondered how much more courage she could dredge up after that unexpected lightning strike of lust.

He reached over to the settee, rummaged in his jacket pocket, and produced a card in return. Black. Printed in silver. Rafe Blackhawk Severino, with a phone and cell number. On the reverse were business details.

“Blackhawk?” It was curiously right for him. Dark and predatory and different, all the things he was himself.

He smiled and she saw wolf, not hawk.

“Cherokee. My grandfather was John Blackhawk.”

She blinked. “Faye said you were Italian.”

“My father’s Italian, but he’s a fair haired northerner, almost Swiss. I’m something of a mongrel. A throwback to my grandparents.”

She just couldn’t help but ask, “Well how on earth did you get a Cherokee grandfather?”

Instantly she imagined him in fringed buckskins, his midnight hair long and plaited, his cheekbones decorated with stripes of ochre. He looked sensational.

“He was a Marine, stationed here in New Zealand in 1942. Up the coast at Paekakariki.”

“And? There’s got to be more to the story than that?” She struggled to banish the devastating warrior image from her brain.

“And he met a pretty Maori girl called Matakino at a military dance...”

He sighed and shrugged his big shoulders. The fine cotton shirt lifted and fell. “John left her pregnant with my mother. Died on Okinawa, so I never knew my grandfather from anything but a snapshot.”

He pushed Sophie’s card into his trouser pocket and turned for the next bolt of fabric.

Had she asked too many questions? The following two display lengths went up in total silence and she could see conflicting emotions chasing each other across Rafe’s expressive face.

But on his next trip to floor level he said, “Children should be with their parents. I was never with mine.”

His black eyes meshed with hers. It was definitely not the right moment to admit she had a daughter she’d been unable to continue caring for.

“Never with your parents?”

“Not after my brothers were born.”

The shutters slammed down on his lively eyes. So he knew he had brothers? And he knew who his parents were? Why had they not all been together?

“Family circumstances can sometimes make things difficult,” she hazarded, thinking of Camille’s constant colicky crying, and her own furious studying, and Adrian’s hang-gliding smash, and the endless hopeless hours she’d sat at his hospital bedside.

“Children should be with their parents,” he repeated, more softly this time.

She nodded, and reached for the fifth length of fabric. Yes, Camille should be living here in Wellington with her, not stuck in a small town down in the South Island with her granny where the house prices were so much lower than the capital city. It was the best compromise she and her mother had been able to arrange.

She ached to share cuddles with her tiny daughter every morning instead of only on Sundays. Yearned to admire each colorful painting Camille brought home from kindergarten; to praise her efforts and make her big blue eyes light up.

Instead, a couple of Camille’s past daubs greeted her each day—stuck to the refrigerator door with the awful bright pink plastic flower magnets that were a birthday present from her absent child. They never failed to tear at her heart and remind her of the less than adequate mothering she gave her precious daughter.

But maybe now, if she secured some work from Rafe, she could at last retrieve her and make their lives normal? It mattered so much she hardly dared imagine it.

Camille back where she belonged?

Her mother finally able to reclaim the freedom she’d so generously given up to care for her grand-daughter?

And the weight of guilt lifted from Sophie’s own overburdened shoulders? It was everything she’d slaved the last three years for. Everything.

She unrolled the last bolt of fabric and handed it across with slightly shaking hands. Then she stepped back so he could climb the ladder for the final time.

*

Sophie insisted on sweeping up the jagged shards of glass from the Jaguar’s light before leaving. There must be nothing to detract from her new studio’s appearance. She juggled the glass into one of the expensive bags she’d had printed with the Subtle logo, winced at the cost, taped it tightly closed and dropped it into a nearby garbage bin.

Soon they were gliding along Thorndon Quay in the opulent car with Norah Jones keeping them company. She wished the music was something boppy or poppy—the soft piano and Norah’s sultry voice kept pulling her thoughts back to that most inconvenient flash of attraction to Rafe.

“So what’s this lunch about?” she asked, trying to sound brisk.

“Just a collection of like-minded business people.”

“And?”

“And we get together every month at the Wakefield Club to discuss how things are progressing in our city.”

Surely he was being evasive? Her skin prickled with a strange awareness—a sensation that didn’t often let her down. Of course it could be the prospect of facing up to Faye again, or the daunting task of the Severino home. But deep down she knew it was Rafe. A force-field surrounded him. It pulsed and crackled as though he exuded pure energy. It set him apart from any other man she’d met.

She tried to relax but kept being distracted by his husky voice and his beautifully shaped and sensual lips. It was a mouth to brand a woman and steal her soul, and reduce her to a begging, yearning mess. She could easily conjure up the sensation of his warm insistent kiss. Was that why the strangest quivers were invading her thighs and turning her muscles to water?

Oh this is terrible, girl. Behave.

But seeing him up close in the flesh thrilled her. She’d sometimes glimpsed him from a distance as he loped in to see Faye, and in the glossy magazines, but most often in the photographs in matt silver frames on Faye’s office wall.

In one, Rafe wore a tuxedo and Faye a shimmering scarlet gown against a window filled with Manhattan’s night-time skyscrapers. In another, Rafe in a black T-shirt held a huge fish, and Faye had draped herself around his shoulders. In the third, Rafe and Faye wore wedding finery. Faye’s pearl encrusted strapless ivory dress and triumphant smile screamed ‘got him’.

They were photos of Faye rather than Rafe. So why had she always seen the beautiful coffee skinned man instead of her flamboyant boss?

She clenched her fists so her nails dug into her palms as punishment.

He’s strictly business, she told herself, trying to drag her brain back in that direction.

“How big is your house?” she asked.

“Just over ten thousand square feet.”

Huge! She sucked on her bottom lip as she considered how much work it could provide. And reminded herself there was no guarantee she’d get even a fraction of the job.

“Aren’t you up to it?”

“Just watch me,” she flashed back. “I’m ambitious and focused. I’m determined Subtle will succeed.” She tugged her skirt down to her knees. He seemed to be paying a lot of attention to her legs, which wasn’t helping the quivering-thigh problem. “Ten thousand square feet—how did you find enough seafront land to build something that size?”

“Cut a cliff away. Made a shelf. Easy.”

She let out a puff of laughter. “Easy with untold heavy machinery and unlimited funds.”

“And if you’re determined to create something amazing.”

“I bet planning permission...?”

“...took forever,” he finished, sending her a wry smile. “I’m turning a boring uninhabitable chunk of rock into a spectacular showplace. You can’t see it from the road. From the harbor it’s currently very visible, but once the exterior timber has weathered and the landscaping’s completed, it’ll blend in beautifully.”

“You hope.”

“I’m positive. I don’t start a job unless I can finish it. You’ll learn that as you get to know me.” He reached out to reduce the volume as Bruce Springsteen started belting out ‘Born in the USA’.

Sophie’s eyes swept over his hand. Big. Long fingered. Deeply tanned. His nails were short and neat, with one so bruised she wondered if maybe he’d hit it with a hammer. It looked incongruous with his impeccable clothes.

And he’d said she’d be getting to know him? He sounded serious about considering her design ideas and letting her pitch for the work on his amazing home. A tremor of hope ran up from her toes to the top of her head.

“So you’re thinking a casual look for the house?” She hoped she was right. This was so important.

“It’s high above the water. Lots of glass. Big views. I don’t want the outlook overwhelmed with anything too fussy or too patterned.”

“No red velvet swags or big splashy flowers, then?” she asked, nipping at the inside of her cheek as he glanced across to make sure she was teasing.

“Neutral. Timeless.” A black eyebrow winged up in amusement at her suggestions.

“Subtle, in other words.” Sophie took a deep breath and a big chance. “So the Subtle Design Studio should be just what you’re looking for. I have commissions I’m working on already, but I’d be a fool not to treat you seriously. At least until we know if we see eye to eye.”

Would he bite? Was he serious about the work? Or just using her to taunt Faye? Whatever his motives, she knew she needed to be on her guard. If he genuinely wanted a decorator for his big house, that was fine. That was wonderful. It would be the hardest work she’d ever done, but what a chance.

So she’d have to keep Camille an absolute secret. Rafe needed a talented and dedicated decorator, not a struggling single mother with a child to worry about. Certainly not a single mother who’d had to give up that child because she simply couldn’t cope any longer.

What would he think of her if he discovered that? He’d said ‘children should be with their parents.’ Said it twice, so he obviously had strong views on the subject. No way could she let him know Camille existed.

As the car purred on she became ever more curious about why he’d never lived with his parents and brothers. She sensed it still rankled with him even though he was now a wealthy and very successful man. She itched to ask.

“Left up here,” she said as they reached the turnoff in Tinakori Road.

He nodded, and she watched the sheen of sunlight dance across his ebony hair, wondering if it would be crisp or silky to touch.

“How far?”

“Ummm…?”

How far up the road?”

“Oh—just the other side of the bus stop, but parking’s almost non-existent.”

“I’ll pretend I’m a bus for a sec. Will you be long?”

Relief washed over her. She could get away from him and try to regain her equilibrium while she changed clothes. “Two minutes, tops.”

He sent her a skeptical glance. “I’ve never known a woman change her outfit that fast.”

“Not Faye, maybe.”

The big car slowed.

“Check your watch,” she joked. “Back in no time.”

And then, right on cue, a van pulled out of a space ahead and he swung the Jaguar in.

Sophie’s spirits plummeted when he opened his door in time with hers. “Don’t bother coming in. I’ll be very quick.”

“If I see where you live I might learn something about your decorating skills.” He ignored her brushoff and stepped out of the car.

She gritted her teeth and tried for polite. “Not much. I rent the place, so all I’ve been able to do is paint some walls and hang a few pictures. And it’s tiny—there’s no scope for more than that.”

She pushed the creaky old gate open, and he followed her up the path. Far too close. She felt herself herded along with no choice but to fall in with his wishes. Her briefcase bumped against her knee as she hurried over the uneven surface of the pavers.

She cast her mind back to earlier that morning. She’d departed in a rush. How tidy had she left things? Her cereal bowl and coffee mug would be in the sink, but that was better than having them cluttering the small kitchen counter. The flowers on the sideboard were on their last legs but he probably wouldn’t notice those. The dining table had some paperwork spread out, but nothing confidential and nothing too messy.

“You’re close to town.” His husky voice caressed her ear.

How far away was he? Inches only. Sophie tried for bigger steps but feared his long legs would easily keep up.

“Walking distance,” she managed. “And I have the botanic gardens nearby, too. The best of both worlds.”

“Do you run?”

“It’s a great place for that. Some of those tracks through the wilder parts. Yes, when I can. Watch the steps,” she added as the path took a sudden dip.

She clattered down as fast as her high heeled sandals allowed, racing to put some room between them. “Around here.”

They arrived at the back door of the old timber cottage. A huge climbing rose frothed over a trellised archway—the path seemed ankle deep with its pink petals.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to sweep all of this up, or Mrs Ferris the landlady,” she added. “She lives upstairs and does the gardening.”

A sudden gust of wind shook a shower of petals down as she hunted for her key.

“The Rose Queen.”

Sophie stilled at his quiet murmur. He’d stopped right behind her to sift petals from the wavy strands of her hair. So he had a thing for long hair?

She shivered as she felt him touching her. “Don’t. I’ll get rid of them in a minute.”

It felt unnerving having him so close again. Maybe he just intended being helpful but her jangling nerves told her she needed more distance between them.

And the jangling grew even louder when he moved in front of her and continued to pluck at the rose petals with his dark face now only inches above hers. She squeezed her eyes closed, unable to look at him. But she could smell his faint cologne over the swirling rose perfume.

And feel his hands.

Gentle but insistent.

“All gone,” he said, and she opened her eyes in time to find him holding the final petal. He brushed it over her mouth before he tossed it onto the path. Back and forth in the softest of caresses that made her think of warm days, gentle breezes, time to spare on sensual pleasures. How long since she’d been so instantly lost?

She parted her lips to object and Rafe grinned disarmingly.

“Just tidying you up. You looked like something out of a fairy story.”

“Not businesslike,” she snapped as her commonsense leaked back. “This is a business arrangement.”

Yeah, right, her body jeered, quaking at the knees, moistening and buzzing where an entirely different business seemed to be under way.

She shrugged aside and jammed the key in the lock, relieved when it turned at the first attempt. Once the door swung open she stepped past him, releasing a huge and grateful sigh. Now she could hurry into the bedroom and get out of his disturbing presence.

“Have a seat,” she called back over her shoulder, indicating the only armchair, and hoping he’d sit instead of prowling around. “I’ll truly be fast.”

To her annoyance he chose the sofa, slouched down, leaned back against the cushions, crossed his very long legs at the ankle, and looked thoroughly at home.

Sophie bit back her resentment. Why did some people have all the confidence in the world? Money helped of course, but there was more to it than that.

Look at him—taking up half the room as though he owns the place.

She pushed the bedroom door almost closed.

“Definitely compact,” she heard him remark.

“More affordable that way,” she shot back, rattling her small selection of hangers along the wardrobe rail.

“Just the one bedroom?”

“All I need.”

“There’s only you?”

“I see plenty of clients during the day and like peace for my paperwork at night.”

“All work and no play...?”

She could hear definite amusement in his voice now.

“Plenty of play when it suits me,” she insisted, peeling off her skirt, struggling into her black jeans, and hopping about until she had both feet on the floor again. She zipped the jeans up with a savage rasp. They were much more sensible for a building site, but might they have to double as her lunch outfit? They looked okay with her white silk camisole, anyway.

If I take my leather jacket, that should work.

She glanced at her watch. No way would she exceed her estimated two minutes.

Shoes. Damn. Take the sandals, wear the ankle boots and hope the site is somewhere near civilized.

“And what do you consider play?”

She sighed to herself. There wasn’t much play...

“Dinner with friends. A run in the gardens. My art class. Movies, clubbing, all the usual stuff.”

She grabbed her black bomber jacket, hooked a finger through the straps of her sandals, and sneaked a quick look in the mirror. Her hair looked terrible. She gave it a few desperate strokes with her hairbrush, bundled it into a hair-tie, picked up her sandals and jacket again, and hurried back to the little sitting room.

She halted abruptly. Rafe was nowhere in sight. Then he leaned out of the small alcove that housed her kitchen. Camille’s splashy paintings dominated the fridge door.

“You have a child?”





Chapter 3 — Cable Car Ride

Her heart skidded to a halt. Everything might be ruined if she confessed to being a mother. So, feeling horribly guilty, she drew a deep breath and hoped for the best. “I have a niece,” she lied, looking down at the floor, and scuffing the toe of her boot over an imaginary spot there.

Sorry Camille darling. It’s business. He wants a career-woman, not a frazzled Mom. If I can just get us through these final few months we’ll be okay.

“Are we going?” she asked too sharply, desperate to get him out of her private space. Away from bedrooms and roses, and especially signs of Camille.

“I’m pleased I came in. You have a clever eye. The retro china display on the bookcase. The way you’ve grouped those prints in the corner. The colors of your cushions.”

“You see more than most people, then.”

“You forget I lived with a designer for years—and that I’m in the design business, too.”

“Boats?” She felt her eyebrows rise.

“Lines and curves. Attractive spaces with maximum efficiency.”

“I suppose...” she conceded, lifting her briefcase and hurrying to the door.

“Why do I get the feeling you want me out of here?”

He lounged at ease against the end of the kitchen counter. Sophie sensed steel behind his casual enquiry.

She shook her head and huffed with annoyance. “I’ve got heaps to do today. I need to inspect your house, go to this lunch, get my evening function organized...”

“So you do,” he agreed. “But the house is only a preliminary look. The lunch will take exactly an hour and a half because we’re all busy people, and I need to drop the car in for its repair. And I’ll be your barman this evening if you like? Or are you employing caterers?”

“Fat chance of that.”

“So I’m hired?”

She realized she’d been set up by an expert.

Dammit, dammit, I could do without this.

“The pay’s really bad,” she flannelled.

“I’ll work for wine.” A lazy smile touched his lips.

“Staff don’t get to drink.”

“Mean boss, eh?”

Sophie felt a grudging grin sneaking over her face. He’d certainly add class to the event, and affirmation her design skills were in demand by the city’s best. Why was she resisting his offer?

She knew all too well why. Because it meant being trapped in his dangerous company for another couple of hours; evening hours, when a glass of wine on a near empty stomach could cause all her good intentions to melt, and her commonsense to evaporate.

Especially if tall handsome Rafe was on the prowl.

She watched as he pushed away from the counter and sauntered toward her.

“If the pay’s that bad I’ll need some other compensation.”

He brushed a hand through her long pony-tail on his way out and her heartbeat rocketed to panic level.

I have to stay clear of him...

To her relief he strode off along the path, leaving her to lock up and follow.

Other compensation? She stilled for a moment, trailing her fingers across some of the luscious roses on the trellis, enjoying their sensuous texture and wondering if his dusky skin would feel as good. More petals floated down to join the feathery mass below. Once again she felt the soft glide of that single pink petal across her lips, and her mouth tingled in anticipation of his.

Then she shook the fantasy away and dashed after him, thinking, ‘Dream on, Rafe Severino. You’re one hell of a hunk but I’m not letting sex mess up the best assignment I’m ever likely to get.’

*

He drove her around the harbor to the wild south coast where long rolling waves surged and crashed against sharp rocks far below.

The Jaguar bounced to a halt beside a cluster of tradesmen’s vehicles on the rough ground at the side of the road. There was no sign of a house.

“So where is it?”

Rafe turned to her with half a smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners and his teeth glinted very white against his dark golden skin.

Sophie bit her lip at her body’s unmistakable reaction to his masculinity. She knew she was noticing every tiny delicious thing about him—dangerous considering how much she needed his business.

“Right here.” He waved a hand at thin air and opened the Jaguar’s door.

She followed suit. If he wanted to play games that was over to him. And goodness, he had a great way of moving.

He guided her between a red pickup truck and a huge rusty shipping container, and when she hesitated, took her hand and led her toward the edge of the cliff. Lord, she hadn’t wanted that. She tried to tug free but he caught her eye and his grin widened.

“Just keeping you safe.”

To Sophie his warm clasp felt anything but safe.

The waves roared, but not as loudly as a screaming saw, and an explosive nail gun, and the music from a radio somewhere below. The construction noises swirled around her as she picked her way through tufts of tussock and muddy puddles and remnants of broken pavers. For the moment her eyes were employed finding a safe route to walk, but when Rafe drew her to a halt she became acutely conscious of his hand again. She looked about for any other diversion, and gasped.

They were almost at the harbor entrance. On the far hills, over the swathe of ruffled water, the old Pencarrow lighthouse stood silhouetted against the gold-green vegetation. To the right the Pacific Ocean stretched forever.

One of the familiar inter-island ferries ploughed through the blue sea half a mile or so distant. The little white ship bucked in the windy conditions, sending great surges of spray up into the sunshine. Sophie had just enough time to feel relieved she wasn’t on the seesawing ferry before the magnificent position of the house claimed her whole attention.

She hardly registered Rafe pushing a button on a nearby post. The noise of the winch engine wasn’t obvious over the nail gun, but when the small metal cable-car rose into view and shuddered to a halt she turned her attention back to him. “It’s incredible.”

“Nice site?”

She peered over the cliff edge. “How on earth did you get machines down there to create the platform?”

“Dug in from the top. Craned them out. Slow going, but worth it, don’t you think?”

“Now I’ve seen it, yes.”

From this angle the cableway dropped almost straight down to an expansive timber deck cantilevered over the water. The house roof seemed to cover most of the other available ground. A flight of narrow steps also led down to the house, but they were half overgrown with fennel and other seaside vegetation, and plainly hardly ever used.

She eyed the small cable-car with trepidation. Its walls were only hip high and there were very thin looking sheet-metal doors on the sides. No seats, no roof, just a high post in each corner. Rafe rattled a door open, stepped on board and drew her toward him.

“Don’t worry. It’s safe.”

“I’m not scared,” she muttered, willing herself to believe that a flimsy box plunging almost vertically down a steel rail was not in the least hazardous. “I’ve seen nicer ones.”

He grinned. “It’s only for the construction work at this stage. The proper weatherproof cab with seats isn’t far off.”

She nodded at that, imagining how many loads of timber and fittings must have traveled up and down this way.

As though reading her mind Rafe said, “We used a chopper for the big stuff. A tough job for the pilot—there are tricky up-drafts off the sea.” He crowded her against one of the corner posts and slid an arm around her waist before he pushed a green button and sent them whirring downwards. Sophie was grateful for the arm, not that she would admit it. She grasped the post and tried to ease away from his too-close chest. His grip was inescapable. She was trapped there, head tucked under his chin, far too aware of his body as they dropped toward the huge expanse of slatted timber. His heart beat steadily in her ear. His cologne displaced the ocean’s salty fragrance. Then she heard a rumble of laughter deep in his chest.

“Stop struggling.”

“I’m not.” She could feel her face heating with a telltale blush.

“Could have fooled me.”

“You’ve probably done this dozens of times.”

“Hundreds. It’s not far. It’s perfectly safe.”

But I’m not, she thought as flickers of sensation rampaged low in her belly. She felt so sexy. So deliciously damp and strangely swollen.

For heaven’s sake stop it, she begged her twitching flesh. Okay, he’s gorgeous. But he’s a possible client. Keep it that way and you’ll get Camille back sooner.

Their transport juddered to a halt and Rafe released her so he could unlatch the door.

“Mind the gap—and everything else.”

There were power tools and timber offcuts strewn around the planking. A builder in ear protectors worked on, unaware of them, as he banged away with the nail gun at the end of the sun drenched deck. The tang of the sea rose strong and salty as waves pounded far below.

Rafe crossed to where a railing edged the surrounding glass barricade. He stared out toward Pencarrow, surveying the view for thirty seconds or so. Then he turned his back to it and leaned, elbows on the railing, long legs silhouetted against the restless sea. “Come and see it from here.”

Sophie stepped unwillingly closer.

Rafe sent her another dark eyed glance. “Don’t look so worried. Everything’s way over specification. This might seem as light as air—I hope it does—but you’d be hard-put to break the glass with a sledgehammer. I wasn’t planning for anyone to crash through and end up down there.”

It wasn’t the glass that worried her. She gazed about, and suddenly her imagination caught fire. She saw his small dark haired sons yelling and whooping on tricycles... outdoor furniture and a big gas barbecue placed close to the house... tubs of bright seaside flowers flanking the wide doors. It would be a wonderful home once it was complete.

When construction was first under way, Faye had boasted about it. The staff at Severino Design had suffered her gloating descriptions with tight nods and pasted-on smiles. They’d all been glad when she’d dropped the subject, not that they’d known the reason why.

Sophie sighed. Leaving the house would have been bad enough, but leaving the man even harder. Yet Faye had shown no sign of regret; dropped no hint of what had happened.

Rafe had sounded surprised his marriage breakdown wasn’t public news in the small gossip ridden design community. She concluded Faye must have worked very hard to keep it that way.

She chose her own piece of railing a few feet from his and examined the long glassed front of the house with attentive eyes.

“Tiles for the entranceway,” he said. “Maybe a greyish blue? See what you can come up with. Perhaps I should tile the whole of the top floor?”

“Is there another?”

“Another two. Bedrooms below this. Self-contained guest accommodation and a gym and spa pool on the bottom level.”

She swallowed and nodded, and thought how pitiful her tiny apartment must have seemed to him. “How many bedrooms?”

“There are plenty of options. Depends whether they’re slept in or used as playrooms or studies or whatever. There’s a big master suite. I’d want maybe three other dedicated bedrooms plus the guest suite. Tell me what you think.”

“I think it’s bigger than mine.”

He sent her one of his killer smiles, no doubt at the woebegone note in her voice. “Hard to find anything smaller,” he agreed.

*

He pushed away from the railing, took her hand again before she could object, and led her across the tool and timber strewn deck. He’d been super-aware of her taut body as he held her steady in the cable-car. Her waist was slender, but he’d felt the start of her curvy hips, and seen the swell of her breasts when he’d looked down to tease her about trying to escape from him.


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