Hide Your Heart – Chapter 1

 

Lauren Taylor smacked the steering wheel. “Right. It’d better work this time, or I’ll kick the bumper so hard it’ll pop out the exhaust pipe.”

Giggles erupted from the passenger seat and she shot her four-year-old son, Drew, a weary smile. Her station wagon had skidded off the gravel road in the rain, and the front wheels were wedged in a muddy ditch. After stuffing branches under the tires for traction, Lauren had returned to the driver’s seat cold, wet and gritting her teeth at her own stupidity. Raised in New Zealand’s subtropical Far North, she knew better than to trust the unpredictable summer weather.

She turned the ignition key, and the engine coughed to life. “Please, please work this time.”

Remembering Todd’s instructions, Lauren trod on the clutch and slotted the gearstick into reverse. “C’mon, old girl, you can do it.”

The steady pressure on the gas pedal as she teased the clutch pulled the car backward over the branches in jerky hops. Mud-slicked tires hit another slippery patch, and one wheel rotated with a high-pitched hum. Lauren kept her foot down, as if sheer will alone could drag them from the ditch. Black smoke poured from the tail pipe. The motor stalled, the station wagon sliding back into the thick mud.

She leaned her head against the seat. Tears prickled in the corners of her eyes.

Drew patted her arm. “Don’t cry, Mummy. We can stay in the car tonight and have a ‘venture. I’ll be okay without my nightlight.” His voice quavered on the last word.

Ever since they’d fled their Manhattan apartment two years ago, Drew needed his nightlight to keep the multi-limbed monsters in his head at bay. But better his imaginary monsters than the one on two legs who still stalked Lauren’s nightmares.

She squeezed her son’s hand. “Don’t worry. It’ll take more than mud to stop me from tucking you up in bed tonight.”

Java jumped over the stack of luggage in the back seat, and a warm tongue licked the back of her neck.

“Back you go, boy.” Lauren pushed the dog’s black and tan head away from her shoulder.

Java whined but returned to the rear of the car.

Lauren ruffled the spill of dark curls across Drew’s forehead and undid his safety belt. “Mummy’ll get out again and have another go. Taylors never give up the fight, do they?”

Drew shook his head and grinned. “Never, ever.”

No. Never, ever again. “I won’t be long.”

Rain pounded the roof, a relentless roar drowning all other outside sound. With a bracing breath, Lauren opened the door and lowered a foot straight into ankle-deep mud.

“Why don’t you move back to Bounty Bay with us?” She mimicked her brother’s cheerful voice. “You’ll have privacy galore, surrounded by native bush seething with history.”

History? More like prehistory. Even the cellphone coverage up here was spotty at best.

Great idea, Todd.

Lauren climbed out and slammed the door before the wind could snatch it from her hand. A howling gust hurled a volley of raindrops at her face. She smoothed her hair and swiped rain, like cool tears, from her eyes. Fists on hips, she sloshed around to the hood to consider her predicament. Though her first attempt hadn’t worked, it wasn’t too shabby an effort. For a city girl.

Except she was no longer a city girl.

She grimaced at her watery reflection in the windshield. A clump of mud inched down her cheek, and her tee shirt clung in sodden wrinkles. Oh, if the tabloids could see her now.

With an unladylike snort, Lauren smeared the mud off her face. Back to business—more manuka branches ought to do it. She braced her knee to climb out of the ditch, but a chunk of dirt shifted and collapsed beneath her foot, wrenching her ankle to the side as it slid backward. Lauren sprawled on the road and her startled cry flushed a family of quail from the bush.

“Mummy? Mummy!” Drew’s muffled shouts were followed by a frantic knocking on the car’s window.

She rolled over to wave at him and sent him a shaky thumbs up.

Lauren used her shirt to blot the blossoming specks of blood on her palms. Goddammit that stung! Teeth clenched, she tested weight on her ankle, but jolts of agony arrowed up her left leg. Walking home was not an option.

She crawled onto the road and using the car’s hood, hauled herself upright.

Drew wound down the window, his nose peeping through the small gap. “Mummy, are you okay?”

Stuck on a little-used road in the rain with daylight fading? She was anything but okay.

Lauren forced a breezy note into her voice. “I’m fine, sweetie, just a little ouchy.”

The unmistakable rumble of an approaching engine catapulted her heart into her ribs. Teeth mashing her lower lip each time her left foot touched the ground, Lauren hobbled to the center of the road. A black Range Rover crested the hill. Caught in the beams of the headlights, she raised a hand and squinted at the vehicle.

Too expensive, too fancy, and too clean for a local’s.

The pitch of the motor dropped as the Range Rover coasted to a halt a dozen feet behind her station wagon. Wipers swept rhythmically across the glass, blurring her view of the driver.

The engine died, and Lauren’s stomach twisted into macramé-tight knots. She debated the wisdom of letting Java out to stand beside her. Injured and facing a stranger on a deserted road, she figured the dog’s stocky body and wicked incisors would be reassuring.

Drew’s nose and palms pressed against the misted windows, as he no doubt watched her move farther away from their car. No…Better if Java stayed with her son. Nobody would hurt Drew with a hundred pounds of Rottweiler protecting his family.

Nobody would hurt Drew, period.

A huge blue and white umbrella unfolded out of the vehicle, followed by two legs clad in a masculine-sized pair of gumboots. The driver nudged the door shut and ploughed through the downpour like a striped galleon, only his oilskin coat and denim-clad calves showing. He stopped in front of her and lifted the umbrella so it covered them both. Wiping rain from her eyes, Lauren glanced up—way up—into startling green eyes.

“Looks like your car is well and truly stuck. Do you need a hand?” His gaze travelled down, and his brow creased. “Wait a sec—are you hurt?”

“W-What?” Lauren’s thoughts leaped to the raised scar on her cheek, the first thing most people noticed. But no, the man’s gaze didn’t shift above her legs. Of course he was talking about her injuries. One vertebra at a time stiffened as she transferred her weight onto her good leg. “It’s not that bad.”

“You’ve grazed your knees, and your ankle’s starting to swell.” His tone was that of a teacher explaining a difficult concept to a child.

He stared down at her, and his advantage of at least three inches made her feel dainty at five-foot-ten. The suggestion of broad shoulders under the oilskin caused a pearl of sweat to gather on her top lip.

He was too big, too close, and too vividly male.

“Really, I’m fine.” Lauren half-turned toward the car. “I just need someone to—”

“Sure, hold this a moment.” He shoved the umbrella handle into her hand and crouched at her feet.

“What are you doing?”

He looked up. Blue-tinted light and shadow played over the slight kink marring his otherwise patrician nose. One wisp of brown hair in the center of his forehead flicked off in a winsome cowlick, but nothing else about his cool expression gave any indication of a matching personality. Her eyes widened, riveted to the long fingers reaching for her ankle.

A tall, dark-haired man with large hands…She forgot to breathe as memories flashed into her mind.

The perfume of red roses clogging her throat, mixed with the feral stench of fear—her fear. The coppery taste of blood slick on her tongue. A hand clinching her ankle, grinding bones together as he dragged her along the parquet floor.

The man’s fingertips brushed a trail across her puffy flesh. Lauren’s head spun in carousel circles.

“Don’t.” She lurched backward, jolting her full weight on her injured ankle. Her knees buckled, and her vision blurred into hazy greens and greys.

A hand gripped her elbow as the world tilted sideways, and then arms scooped her up against a broad chest. She blinked, cold rain and sheer determination keeping her from fainting.

A car door slammed, and a dog barked.

“Put my mummy down, you big bully!”

Her son ran toward them, his trembling fists raised in a boxer’s stance as he tried to defend her. Jagged pieces of her heart plummeted to the ground.

Drew stomped on the man’s instep with his little gumboot. “Put her down or I’ll—I’ll set Java on you.”

The arms supporting her knees and upper back flexed. A voice grunted by her hair, whether in laughter or pain she couldn’t tell. Slight movement as the man twisted to stare behind his shoulder. Java’s bark turned into a growl.

“Your mum’s hurt. I don’t think she can stand by herself at the moment.”

The man’s voice sandpapered her skin, abrading what remained of her nerves. She wriggled in an attempt to ease out of his arms. Java’s growls exploded into a series of deep, echoing barks, but the man didn’t flinch or loosen his grip. He was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Stone chips rattled as Java edged closer.

“Drew? It’s okay.” She kept her voice pitched in a calming monotone. “I got a little bit dizzy, and Mr.—?”

“My name’s Nate.”

“And Nate caught me when I started to fall.” Lauren pushed her hand against a chest with all the flexibility of sculptured marble. Did he have to hold her so tightly?

Drew cocked his head and stared in solemn silence. She could almost see his thought process, using four-year-old logic to determine whether this adult was trustworthy.

“And you are?” the man asked.

She slanted a peek at his chin, and another cloud of dizziness fuzzed her mind. Good question. Who was she, really? Sexy Lexy, short-lived catwalk darling? Alexandra Lauren Knight, the mogul’s ex-wife? Or just Lauren Taylor, Drew’s mum and nobody noteworthy?

Lauren inhaled the subtle spice of the man’s cologne. It did nothing to calm the storm manifesting inside her. “Ms. Taylor.”

A beat passed, a gap of expectation as if he waited for more information or the innate friendliness of most New Zealanders. Well, he would wait. Uncomfortable as this situation had become, she didn’t owe him access to her world.

Java advanced into her line of vision, hackles lifted in a spiked trail along his spine.

She held out a palm. “Java. Friend.”

Java’s growl tapered off to a loud pant, and Lauren breathed easier. The last thing she needed was a publicity circus should her dog attack.

“I’m all right now. You can put me down.”

The eyes that clashed with hers were the color of seaweed eddying under a turbulent ocean, but beneath their cool depths she detected a shimmer of humor.

He tilted his face toward her car. “Lady, you’ve proven you’re not fit to stand, let alone drive.”

“I’m quite capable—”

Before she could finish her argument, a hand tugged on the hem of her shirt.

“Mummy,” Drew stage-whispered. “It’s almost night time. Can we go home now?”

Nate’s car could tow hers from the ditch, but unable to put any weight on her left ankle, she couldn’t drive a stick shift. She swallowed her unease, lifting her chin in response to the man’s quizzically raised eyebrows.

“I’d be grateful if you’d stop at my brother’s house and let him know where we are. He’s ten minutes farther along the road.”

Drew tugged on her shirt again. “I don’t wanna stay here. Can’t the man take us home? It’s not far.”

“Drew, he’d already be going out of his way by stopping at Uncle Todd’s.”

“I’m happy to take you both home.”

Her scalp tingled as she scanned the man’s face, trying to gauge his intentions. His eyes reflected only keen intelligence, but intellect sometimes masked a violent nature. A lesson she’d learned the hard way.

Nate lowered her to the ground and stepped away to pick up the umbrella from where it had fallen into a puddle. “You and your boy have nothing to fear from me.”

“I don’t even know your last name.”

“Fraser. Nathan Fraser but I go by Nate.”

“Nate Fraser?” She scanned his face, the ripple of unease inside her muting from shout to whisper as recognition dawned. “As in the photographer?”

“I’m a photojournalist.” He shook out the umbrella, offered her the glimmer of a smile. “Photographers capture nouns; photojournalists shoot verbs.”

“You published a book of photos a couple of years ago?”

He nodded. “You’ve heard of me—so you don’t need to be afraid, right?”

“Right.” Though the idea of getting into his car chilled her blood, at least they’d have Java with them should he try anything funny.

“So, how about you make up your mind before it’s pitch black outside?”

Drew wrapped his arms around her leg. “Mummy, I want to go home now.”

Lauren wove her fingers through Drew’s mop of hair. “I know, sweetie.”

Nate didn’t say a word, just crooked an eyebrow.

She pulled her soaked jacket closer together and straightened her shoulders. “Thank you. We’d appreciate a ride home.”

In the distance, over mist-shrouded kauri and totara trees, thunder grumbled through the valley. An omen of turbulent weather still to come.

“If I help you to my car, will your dog decide I’m fair game?”

“Only if you make a threatening move toward us.”

He huffed out a sigh, offering her his arm. “Lean on me and you can hop.”

 

***

 

Ten minutes later, the Range Rover’s headlights passed over the bogged station wagon. Wipers swept fans of rainwater off the windshield, clearing the blurred landscape outside before the next deluge splattered across the glass. Lauren pulled the borrowed blanket around her shoulders, fighting not to let her teeth chatter. Drew yawned in his booster seat behind her, squashed between rescued luggage and Java panting at his feet.

Nate stopped in front of a closed gate across the road and hauled on the parking brake. She moved toward the door handle, remembered her ankle, and froze mid-reach.

“I’ll get it.” His voice was a study in exasperation as he flung open his door and plunged into the rain.

She swiveled in her seat. “How’re you doing, my big boy?”

Drew shrugged while pulling on Java’s jowls. The dog licked his hand and continued to pant.

“Okay.”

“That’s good. You were a bit scared of Nate, but he was only trying to help.”

Drew’s eyes were far too knowledgeable for those of a four-year-old. “I thought he was a bad man. Like Daddy.”

Lauren focused on the throb of her ankle. Anything to block out the hurt his words caused. “I know. You’re my big, brave boy.”

“Is Nate…” Drew’s fingers latched onto Java’s collar. “Is he a good guy?”

Lauren turned to stare through the windshield so Drew couldn’t see her expression.

Rain glistened on Nate like liquid mercury in the headlights, shimmering over the bold planes of his profile as he unlatched the gate. Straightening, he looked back at the car. The force of his gaze released a flurry of butterflies low in her stomach. He moved with purpose, not with the casual swagger more suited to the stockman coat he wore.

“Yes. I’m sure he’s a good guy.” If he wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter after tonight. “We’re very grateful to him that you don’t have to carry me all the way home, aren’t we?”

Delighted she’d coaxed another giggle from him, she still wore a smile as Nate climbed back inside. His eyes locked with hers, direct, intense, and assessing. Lauren dropped her gaze, staring at her reddened fingers wrapped around the blanket’s edge. Rain dripped off his coat onto the leather seats. The silence stretched, wind hissed and wailed, the engine purred.

He drove through the gate, stopped, and got out to re-latch it.

“Mummy, can we have monkey-roni for dinner?” Drew said after Nate walked away.

Lauren blew out a quiet breath. “Sure. Monkey-roni and cheese it is.”

“Yay.”

After a moment, Drew’s head slumped to one side, his eyelids drooping. His fingers slid from Java’s jowls and curled on his lap. The weight on her shoulders lightened. Her son was coping, so she’d pull up her big-girl panties and endure this awkward situation for a little longer.

When Nate returned to the car, Drew’s snuffles had evened out into a rhythmic snore.

Nate fastened his safety belt and looked over his shoulder. “That was fast. Your boy must’ve been tired.”

Lauren followed his gaze. “He’s always been able to conk out no matter what stressful situation he’s in, just like that.” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “I wish I could fall asleep so quickly.”

The instant the words slipped off her tongue, she regretted revealing anything of herself, and she jerked her head toward her window. Nate drove into the oncoming darkness, his shadowed profile offering no trace of emotion when she risked a sideways glance.

She directed him to turn off into her driveway fifteen minutes later. Thunder boomed overhead, and flashes of lightning lit the yard in front of her house to brilliant pewter, the headlights paling to insignificance.

He killed the engine, and intermittent spots of rain dripped on the roof.

Nate flicked on the overhead light and held out his hand. “Pass me your keys. I’ll open up and help you inside.”

Drew smacked his lips sleepily in the back seat. Lauren gripped the straps of her handbag, warring with the urge to remain in control. Damn it, what choice did she have?

She rummaged through her purse, found her keys, and dropped them into his palm. “The gold one opens the back door on the other side of the house. If you follow the deck around past two sets of French doors…”

He dangled the keychain under the tiny bulb. “‘Kia Kaha.’” A wry note reverberated through his voice as he read the commonly known Maori phrase. “Do you need a reminder to ‘be strong,’ Ms. Taylor?”

His speculative stare pinned her in place. The luxurious amount of space between their seats suddenly felt cramped and claustrophobic. A tidal flow of warmth heated her cheekbones.

She swallowed a snippy comeback and set her jaw. “The keychain was a gift from my sister-in-law, and yeah, on some days, I do.”

Neither blinked as their gazes clashed under the steady drip, drip, drip of rain. Then Java whined, pawing at the door.

A muscle in Nate’s jaw twitched. “Today was one of those times, I imagine. Let’s get you all inside.”

 

***

 

A swooning woman, an agitated kid and a ridiculously named Rottweiler that looked as if it’d enjoy gnawing a chunk out of his leg. Not what Nate had in mind when he’d come north from Auckland this afternoon. In good conscience, he couldn’t have driven past, but playing the Good Samaritan was proving to be a pain in the ass. He wanted a hot shower, a cold beer and to be left the hell alone for the next seven weeks.

After unlocking her back door, he scooped the woman out of his car and trudged through the rain. Tucked away at the base of a hill covered in native bush, the house was small but welcoming. He stepped into an open-plan kitchen and dining room, where timber countertops and brickwork provided a rustic touch. Two couches covered with striped Mexican blankets, and fresh-cut flowers on top of a circular dining table gave the living room area a homey feel.

Nate helped the woman onto a kitchen chair and propped another under her injured ankle. He wasn’t getting that shower and beer anytime soon.

“Before I go back for the kid—”

“His name’s Drew.” Her voice was devoid of the earlier flare of passion.

“Got it. So, before I get Drew, do you have any bags of frozen veggies in your freezer?”

“Sorry?”

You’d think he’d asked an intimate question. Shaking his head, he walked past her into the kitchen. “Never mind.”

Nate opened the fridge and scanned the contents. Vegetables, yogurt, and stuff in neatly labeled containers that looked way too healthy lined the shelves. Maybe she was on one of those no-fat, no-taste, no-bum diets?

But the tactile memory of her pressed to his chest was only a heartbeat away. His fingers had accidentally grazed her breast while preventing her from collapsing on the road, and he’d cupped her firm thighs carrying her around. No…some wonderfully wicked curves hid under those baggy clothes.

He found green beans in the freezer below and wrapped the bag in a dishtowel.

“Here, Ms. Taylor, a make-do icepack.” Nate settled the dishtowel-wrapped beans on her ankle.

The muscles along her calf coiled tighter than old-fashioned rolls of film. Was everyone living in this godforsaken backwoods so edgy?

“Oh. Thanks.” She slanted him a glance from under dark lashes. “I guess you should call me Lauren.”

Defrosted a little, had she? “You’re welcome, Lauren. And here”—he patted the pocket of his coat and drew out her key ring—“your keys.”

Her gaze narrowed then flew wide. “I just remembered—you didn’t use my keys to unlock the gate, so where did you get a set to our private road? My brother and I are the only landowners who have access.”

Back to being prickly and suspicious again. “You’re not the only landowners anymore. Didn’t the local grapevine tell you someone bought Old Mac’s land?”

What?

He captured and categorized the emotions flickering across her face the same way he would’ve with his viewfinder pressed to his eye. Line up the shot, frame by frame. Disbelief, click. Recognition, click. Fear, click. The struggle for control. Click.

Bright overhead bulbs spot lit her widened hazel eyes. Her nut-brown hair curled in wet clumps, framing the slight flush on her high cheekbones, one of which bore a raised, crescent-shaped scar. Not an in-your-face beauty but she possessed a haunting loveliness that stirred something in him. Strangely familiar too.

When her shocked silence threatened to suck all the oxygen from the room, Nate scrubbed a hand over his face. “Look, I’d better bring in your boy. Will he be okay if he wakes while I’m carrying him inside?”

Lauren’s shoulders hunched forward. “He’s a pretty solid sleeper once he’s out. He’ll be fine and, ah, thank you.”

He hesitated, out of his element in her neat-and-oh-so-cozy kitchen, with its framed herb watercolors and a collection of crayoned pictures stuck to the fridge. Outside the French doors, Java sat with his nose pressed to the glass, his black eyes tracking every move. The dog didn’t worry him, but the kid’s terrified face and raised fists? That did his head in.

Nate moved past her to slip back on his gumboots.

Out from the roof’s shelter, rain dribbled down his collar and soaked with icy efficiency into the legs of his jeans. Java followed, claws clicking on wood as he kept pace.

“I’m not gonna hurt your kid, mutt.” He hustled down the deck steps and across the grass to his car. “Because the sooner I get him inside, the sooner I can leave.”

Asleep, the kid slumped against the booster seat in a state of relaxation only animals and the very young could achieve. Once he’d figured out how to release the straps on the contraption keeping the boy bound in place, Nate found maneuvering the boy into his arms was as easy as picking up a sack of potatoes. Only potatoes didn’t wrap tiny arms around your neck and snore against your shoulder.

He retraced his steps, keeping the sleepy boy close to his chest as he toed off his gumboots at the back door. The sound of a beep and the tinny, recorded voice following it had him cocking his head.

“Hey, sis. Hope your visit with Louisa and the kids was fun. We’re sneaking away for a night while Sophie’s at a sleepover, and we’ll pick up the Camaro on the way back. Catch ya tomorrow.”

Lauren jabbed a button on the small machine beside her and leaned back in her chair. He stepped inside, walking past the island countertop that split the kitchen and dining room in half.

Next to a brick archway sectioning off the darkened area behind it was a raised fireplace. And a fire needed to be lit sometime soon, because a rash of goose bumps dotted the kid’s skin.

He laid the boy on a couch, plucked a throw blanket from the back of it, and draped it over him. “Your brother’s not home?”

“No.”

“Better call a friend.”

“Yes, I’ll do that.” Her gaze darted to the left, the tip of her tongue swiping across her top lip. “I appreciate all you’ve done.”

“You do have a friend to call?”

“Of course.” She studied her thumb, rubbing her index finger along the side of the nail over and over. “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry about us.”

The boy was asleep but shivering under the blanket in his rain-blotched tee shirt and shorts. Nate’s attention shifted back to Lauren and the dishtowel-wrapped bulge on her ankle. He had spotted steep stairs through the first set of French doors he’d walked past. How would she navigate those? Not your problem, a voice hissed in his ear. Don’t get involved.

Great plan, in theory, but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to leave an injured woman and her kid in the middle of nowhere without help.

That cold beer got farther away every second.

 

***

 

Inside Lauren, a slow fuse of unease smoldered. She was injured and stuck with a stranger in her home. Strike that. Not just a stranger, but also her new neighbor. Super. And Nate—a photojournalist who was only one degree removed from a card-carrying member of the paparazzi—wouldn’t acknowledge her hints to leave. In fact, he’d stripped off his coat and hung it on a hook to dry.

“Where’s his room? I’ll get some fresh clothes.”

“Upstairs but that’s really not necess—” Her bare toes curled, and her fingers clamped around the chair seat as she attempted to stand.

“Stay.” He pointed his finger and disappeared through the archway leading to her family room and staircase.

She stared after him. As if she could do much else. Her ankle now resembled an inflatable armband like the ones her son used for swimming. Nate’s footfalls thudded dully around Drew’s room, followed by several moments of silence. Then the floorboards in her bedroom above creaked. A dresser drawer rattled on its tracks.

He was in her room, pawing through her sensible panties and plain cotton bras.

She struggled to her feet and hopped to the stairs, each small jolt causing sweat to pop out on her forehead. Above, more drawers opened and shut. Prickles sped along her body, her skin flushing hot enough to melt metal.

Lauren balanced on one foot, hanging on to the bannister. “Nate?”

Footsteps clicked across the floor, and his head appeared around the doorjamb.

“I can get my own clothes later.” Her leg trembled with strain as she fought to stay upright.

Nate flicked off her bedroom light and jogged down to her. “Thought I told you not to move?”

Fingernail tips carved half-moon craters into her palm. Just what had he seen in those drawers? “I could’ve got—”

“Bathroom through here?” He pushed open the door at the foot of the stairs.

“Yes, but wait a minute, you can’t—” She hopped after him.

“Is this where you keep your towels?” He stood in front of her linen cupboard. “I couldn’t find any upstairs.”

“Towels?” she parroted.

“Yes, you’re soaking wet.”

His deep, patient voice decimated her poise to that of a tongue-tied schoolgirl standing in the principal’s office.

“Bottom shelf.” It was then Lauren noticed the clothes tucked under his arm.

Drew’s red and blue Superman pajamas, and her much-worn sweatshirt and yoga pants. No boring cotton underwear in sight. Thank goodness.

“Here you go.” He passed her a towel and placed the stack of clothes beside the washbasin.

“Thanks.” She buried her heat-stained cheeks in the soft folds and scrubbed at her hair.

Get with it, Lauren. He’s just being nice. Kind and helpful and nice. Nate Fraser certainly didn’t seem like the type of man to rummage in a woman’s lingerie for kicks.

She lowered the towel, her hope he’d become bored while she’d dried her hair dashed. Still there. Dominating the room, gaze steady as he draped a towel around his wide shoulders. As if he didn’t intend to leave any time soon. Short of knocking him unconscious with the nearby bathroom scales, she couldn’t imagine a way of removing him.

He opened the medicine cabinet. “Is your first aid kit in here?”

She nodded, and he plucked out a plastic container with a white cross taped to the lid.

“Now.” He leaned back against the washbasin, crossing his ankles and flashing a feral smile. “Can you manage removing those wet clothes by yourself, or do you need me to help?”

Blood napalmed the length of her body again. “I can handle it.”

“If you’re sure.” He rubbed the towel along the back of his neck with lazy strokes. Broad shoulders and defined pectoral muscles shifted beneath his black tee shirt with each up and down motion of his hand.

Lauren blinked. What on earth?

Nate turned and sauntered out of her bathroom.

Don’t. Have some pride.

But she couldn’t prevent her gaze from dropping from the width of his back to his hips…and lower. The man possessed an A-plus example of a tight, male ass.

Lauren hopped forward and shut the door. She rested her brow against the cool wood until her pulse slowed from a crazy gallop to a respectable trot. Maybe she’d knocked her head earlier and now suffered from some weird form of concussion.

She stripped out of her wet shorts and tee shirt then perched on the edge of the bathtub to tug on the dry clothes. Alone, she would’ve remained in the bathroom for a few moments longer. But if Drew woke to find a strange man in their home, it could wipe out everything she’d worked toward these last two years.

Using the walls for balance, she grabbed the Superman pajamas and hopped all the way into the kitchen. Her gaze darted to Drew—still out of it, thank goodness. She looked toward Nate, who sat at her dining table, dark hair tumbling onto his brow, long, concert-pianist fingers rifling through the first aid kit. He plucked a tube of Arnica cream from the container and laid it beside a roll of elasticated bandage.

“Sit down, and I’ll wrap your ankle.” He pitched his voice low, flicking a glance at the couch.

“You don’t have to do this,” Lauren said from the archway.

“I’m happy to drive you to Bounty Bay’s hospital, if you’d prefer.”

A forty-minute trip each way into town. Plus curious faces, medical records, questions…

After one more look at her son, she slid her gaze back to Nate. “I don’t need to go to hospital for a sprained ankle.”

“So sit, and I’ll stick a compression bandage on it.”

She hopped to the seat opposite him and sat.

He held out his hand. “Foot.”

“Do you always administer first aid to strangers?” She tugged up the leg of her yoga pants and placed her left foot in his outstretched palm. Warmth soaked into her skin. She nearly squirmed.

Nate rested her heel on his knee. “Only the pretty ones, but not usually ones with big, vicious dogs.”

Lauren rolled her eyes, ignoring the shivers spiraling up her leg from the rough denim touching her skin. “Java’s not vicious.”

“Another misunderstood Rottweiler, huh?” He twisted the cap off the Arnica cream.

Wild flutters exploded inside her stomach. She didn’t want his touch, didn’t want him this close. Close enough that the enticing top notes of sandalwood in his cologne tickled her nose.

He must’ve felt her foot shift, as his green gaze jerked to hers.

“I’ll try not to hurt you again.”

Did he remember her overreaction on the road? Better he think her a wimp than suspect the real reason. “I guess I have a low tolerance for pain.”

“Don’t we all.” Nate bent forward, squeezing a small amount of the cream onto her ankle.

She flinched and grabbed the chair edge.

He crooked an eyebrow. “That couldn’t have hurt.”

“No, it didn’t hurt. It’s just cold.”

Their gazes met, held for an awkward beat before she looked down at the blob of cream. His fingers slid under her calf to support the weight of her leg, while his other hand stroked ointment over the swollen skin. Each stroke of those long fingers sent warm swirls of sensation dancing up her back and across her scalp. She should’ve spread the cream on herself, which begged the question of why she hadn’t.

Lauren risked a glance up from her ankle to find Nate watching. She cleared the half dozen frogs from her throat.

“Have you taken first aid courses?”

He gave a brief shake of his head. “Not formal ones. My mother’s a nurse, so I picked up the basics. The rest I learned on the job.”

“As a photojournalist, not a photographer.”

After unraveling the end of the bandage, he wound it around her foot and ankle in a figure eight. “Uh-huh.”

“Is it a dangerous job?”

“Sometimes. Mainly when bullets are flying.”

“You’ve been shot at?”

“More than once.”

She winced as Nate secured the bandage with a safety pin. “Maybe you should’ve chosen to be a wedding photographer; it sounds safer.”

“You ever witness a bridezilla on her wedding day?” He smiled, the transformation from serious to stunning causing the stomach fluttering to escalate.

Refusing to acknowledge the tension between her shoulder blades thanks to the prolonged contact of Nate’s hand, Lauren allowed a brief grin to cross her mouth. “No, I haven’t.”

But she’d been on photo shoots with young women high on amphetamines and low on proper nutrition, both of which contributed to their hysterical temperaments.

“Yeah, well me either—and I don’t intend to. I’ll leave the psychotic brides and screaming babies to someone else. Political coups are much more my scene.”

“I bet you can’t wait to get back to the action?”

Back to the action and far, far away from the safe little life she’d clawed out for her and her son. At least the man wouldn’t be hanging around over summer, inviting his nosy reporter pals up for a few beers.

“Absolutely, I—”

A murmur and rustle from the couch, a whimper.

“Drew—”

Lauren pushed herself off the chair and Nate’s hand slipped from her foot.

But she was too late.

Caught in a nightmare’s grip, his mouth twisted and contorted, Drew cried out. “No, Daddy! No. Please!”

 

 ©2015 Tracey Alvarez

 

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