Harlequin Mills & Boon Sexy ~ September 2011 (Australia/NZ)
Harlequin Presents Extra ~ January 2012 (USA)
Lissa Sanderson hasn't seen her teenage crush, Blake Everett, since he left for the navy ten years ago. But she's not falling for his darkly brooding looks again. She's an independent woman now and determined to make it on her own - even if her world is about to crumble around her.
Wounded in action, Blake's looking forward to recuperating in peace and solitude - until his old mate's little sister, all grown up and gorgeous and way too distracting, shatters his intentions.
It's obvious Lissa needs help and he's the best man - the only man - for the job. She may be irresistibly sexy but as he discovers the honest, nurturing soul within, can he sail away again as easily as he thought?
It wasn’t the rumble of approaching thunder that woke Lissa Sanderson some time after midnight. Nor was it Mooloolaba’s tropical heat that had prompted her to leave the houseboat’s windows open to catch whatever breeze was coming off the river. It wasn’t even her seriously serious financial situation which had kept her tossing and turning for the past few weeks.
It was the sound of footsteps on her little jetty.
Unfamiliar footsteps. Not her brother’s — Jared was overseas, and no-one she knew would be calling in at this ridiculously unsociable hour. A shiver scuttled down her spine.
Lifting her head off the pillow, she heard the leafy palm fronds around the nearby pool clack together and the delicate tinkle of her wind chimes over the back door as the sound of approaching footsteps drew closer. Heavy and slow but with a sense of purpose.
Her thoughts flashed back nine months to Todd and ice slid through her veins. The Toad wouldn’t be game to show his face in this part of the world again. Would he? No. He. Would. Not.
Swinging her legs over the side of her bed, she scanned the familiar gloom for her heavy-duty marine torch then remembered she’d used it to check the new leak in the ceiling and left it in the galley. Damn it.
The jetty belonged to the owners of the luxury riverside home which was rented to wealthy holiday-makers, but her lease on the private dock wasn’t up for another two years. February was low-season and the house had been vacant for the past couple of weeks. Maybe new tenants had arrived and were unaware that the jetty was off-limits?
That had to be it. “Please let that be it,” she murmured.
The carport she used to gain access through the back yard and from there to her boat was security coded — who else could it be? She told herself not to overreact. Not to give in to the unease that had stalked her these past months. Both doors were secure, windows open but locked. Mobile phone beside her bed, both Jared and her sister, Crystal on speed dial.
The footsteps stopped. A weighted thump vibrated through the floor, tilting it ever-so-slightly beneath her feet for a second or two. The resulting ripple of water lapped against the hull and the hairs on the back of her neck prickled.
Someone was on her deck. Right outside her door.
Okay, now she could be officially scared. She pushed up, grabbing her mobile and punching in numbers then stared at the black screen. No charge. Great. Just great. Heart galloping, she darted to the bedroom doorway. From here she had a clear view down the length of the boat to the glass door where a light drizzle sheened the deck — and the stranger.
Tall. Male. His outline glistening with moisture.
Too broad-shouldered for Todd, thank God, but it could have been the hunchback of Notre Dame, his silhouette sharpening as silvery sheet lightning edged in bronze flickered behind him.
In the clammy air her skin chilled.
Then the hunch lifted away from his shoulders and she realised it was some kind of duffle bag. She pressed a fist to her mouth to stifle the hysteria rising up her throat. The bag or whatever-it-was hit the deck with a scuffed thud, then he straightened to a height and breadth rivalling her brother’s and she drew back instinctively. The sound in her throat turned to a choked gasp.
She swallowed it down. Even as she told herself that it was probably a new arrival checking out the grounds, she was pulling on her dressing gown, yanking the sash tight. She pocketed the useless phone.
She could exit via the rear door near her bed, but to leave the boat she’d have to pass within a close couple of steps of him on the narrow jetty then make it past the pool to the carport, wait for the roller door to rise… Safer to remain where she was.
And if he wasn’t a new arrival… How had he managed to get past the security-coded roller door?
Because he knew the code, right? Right. The thought was reassuring. Still, she had to force one foot in front of the other, her bare feet soundless over the linoleum as she skirted boxes and crates until she slipped on a pool of moisture that hadn’t been there a couple of hours earlier. Arms flailing and swearing to herself, she came to a slippery stop in her tiny galley, gripped the edge of her equally tiny table and looked outside.
His sheer size swamped her deck. A flash of lightning revealed black clothing, bare forearms and uncompromising features. Alarmingly good-looking for a potential burglar. Vaguely familiar. Short black hair silvered with raindrops, dark stubbled square jaw. Big hands as he patted his chest then slid them down the front of his thighs as if he’d lost something.
Dangerous. The errant thought of those hands patting her own chest sent an unwelcome thrill rippling down her spine and her nipples hardened against her thin nightdress. Her darkest fantasy in the flesh… Something shimmered at the edge of her earliest teenage memories. A guy. As out of reach and dangerous and darkly beguiling as this man…
She shook old images away. She’d been fooled by one too many tall-dark-and-handsomes to be fooled again. And this man was probably looking for his lock pick while she was standing here like a loon and letting him, when what she should have been doing was phoning the police. With her dead phone.
Her limbs went into lock-down while her slow-motion brain tried — and failed — to figure her next move. She could smell the calming scents of the jasmine candle she’d used earlier, the fresh basil she’d picked and put in a jar on the sink, the ever-present pervasive river.
Would they be her last memories before she died?
She watched, frozen, while he dug into a trouser pocket and pulled something out then stepped right up to the door.
Adrenaline spurted through her veins, propelling her into action. Reaching for the nearest object — a sea shell the size of her fist — she curled stiff fingers between its reassuring spikes and stood as tall as her five foot three inches would allow.
“Go away. This is private pr—”
Her pitifully thin demand was gulped over a dry mouth when she heard the heart-stopping click of a key being turned in the lock. The door slid open and the stranger stepped inside, bumping into her brass wind-chime on the way and bringing the fragrance of rain with him.
She yanked her phone from her pocket. “No closer.” His silhouette loomed darkly as he moved and her nostrils flared at the potent smell of wet male. “I’ve called the police.”
He came to an abrupt halt. She sensed surprise but no fear and she realised her voice had given her away. Female.
She lunged forward, the make-shift weapon in her other hand aimed at his throat. She felt the pressure as the shell’s prongs met flesh.
Before she could draw breath, his arm blocked hers. “Easy. I’m not going to hurt you.” His deep voice accompanied the thunder that rolled across the ocean.
“I don’t know that.” And she wasn’t giving him the chance. “You’re on my boat. Leave. Now.” Tightening her fist on her shell, she jabbed at him again but his forearm blocked her. It was like pushing against steel.
He made some sound, like an almost bored sigh. “You really don’t want to do that, sweet cheeks,” he muttered, disarming her as easily as drawing breath. As if he fought off women for a living. Then his hand loosened, skated down her upraised arm from wrist to elbow and she didn’t doubt that’s exactly what he did — and on a daily basis.
The limb that no longer seemed to belong to her remained within the heat of his hand of its own volition, while hot and cold shivers chased over her skin. “You’re on my boat,” she repeated, but it came out like more of a whisper.
“Yet I have a key.”
Before she could analyse that dryly delivered fact or think of a response, he released her, stepped sideways and flipped on the light switch. Then he raised both hands to show her he meant no harm.
She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the sudden glare. As she noticed the red mark where the shell had grazed a bronzed neck. As her brain caught up with the fact that yes, absolutely, he had a key and he’d reached for the light switch with such easy familiarity…
She sagged against the table but her partial relief was quickly chased away by a different kind of tension. He wore faded black jeans and a black sweater washed almost transparent with age. The shrunken sleeves ended half way down thick sinewy forearms sprinkled with dark masculine hair.