Chapter 1

 

You can’t always get what you want…

Natalie Fisher hummed the old Rolling Stones song while slicing tomatoes for a green salad. It was one of many dishes she and her friends Vee and Gracie had prepared for the thirty-something-mumble birthday barbecue for Owen, Gracie’s man. Almost a sacrilege in Bounty Bay tradition to do anything other than have a barbecue to celebrate getting another year older, it didn’t matter that summer had vanished and autumn was in full swing. In the subtropical Far North of New Zealand, autumn and winter never really got cold anyway. Just wet—really, really wet.

She glanced out Gracie’s kitchen window to the rain sheeting down outside, and crinkled her nose at her droplet-speckled reflection.

Give it an hour, and the sun will be out again.

That’s what Jackson used to say, usually before he dragged her into the downpour to dance with him until they were soaked through and wheezing with laughter. Sometimes he’d swoop on their daughter, Olivia, throwing her over his broad shoulder and then the three of them would run around their yard like crazy people. Her knife stilled on the chopping board. Nat squeezed her eyes tight, bracing herself for the wave of pain that would suck her under at yet another memory of her late husband.

Gracie rushed into the kitchen, blew out a sigh, and collapsed onto a barstool by the island counter. “Vee’s having trouble getting Ruby down for a nap in our room, and the teens are setting up party games for the younger kids.”

Owen’s two nieces and nephew had lived with their grandparents after they’d been orphaned, before Owen legally became their guardian earlier in the year. Some stories, some people, got to live out their happily ever afters. Nat wasn’t one of those people. But she wasn’t jealous of her friend’s happiness and ready-made family.

At least, not much.

You can’t always get what you want…

“Sounds as if you have everything under control.” Nat picked up her knife and transferred the last of the tomatoes into the salad bowl. “I probably won’t stay long once the guys get home. I’ll come back this evening and pick Olivia up if she can drag herself away from her BFF until school tomorrow.”

“Natalie. You can’t leave early,” Vee said from across the room.

Nat’s gaze shot to the doorway. Vee leaned against the frame, the red-cheeked, teary-eyed toddler that clung to her hip staring at Nat with the same accusation as her mum. Nat wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and walked toward her friend, holding out her arms for the baby.

“Don’t you Natalie me, Vanessa Mae Sullivan,” she said. “You want to come to Auntie Nat, Ruby Tuesday?”

Ruby released the fistful of her mum’s shirt and extended her chubby arms, opening and shutting her little fingers.

“There now,” Nat crooned, spinning the little girl in a circle and kissing one flushed cheek before settling her on her hip. “Auntie Nat understands that a pretty baby girl like you doesn’t want to miss any of the party.”

“She’ll be spoiled rotten because there’s C-A-K-E in the pantry,” Vee said to Gracie as she climbed onto the barstool next to her. “And she’s going through the ‘mine’ stage.”

“I’m going through the ‘mine’ stage, too.” Gracie cupped her chin on her palm with a goofy smile. “Still can’t believe I’m going to marry the sexiest man in Bounty Bay.”

Nat returned to the window, watching as Owen’s car pulled into the driveway. Gracie had sent him out half an hour ago on a last-minute grocery and drinks run.

“Well, he’s back,” Nat said. “So let’s hope he doesn’t overhear you saying that or his head’ll swell another two sizes.”

Owen ducked under a temporary awning to check on the barbecue which his dad was manning. Rain continued to fall, although in the last few minutes the downpour had tapered off to a light shower. The soft patter of rain on the roof couldn’t disguise the menacing V8 engine growl as a black SUV parked behind Owen’s car. Windshield wipers swept back and forth and Nat’s jaw clenched as the driver remained frozen in his seat. The SUV’s passenger door cranked open and a smiling dark-haired man appeared. It was Sam Ngata, one of Owen’s best mates. Sam leaned back into the open door of the vehicle and said something to the driver, but Nat couldn’t catch it.

“Daddy!” Ruby leaned toward the window, pointing at either Sam or Owen—it was hard to tell. “Daddy come here!”

Laughter came from Vee at the island counter. “Calling every male she sees ‘daddy’ is going to bite me in the ass one day.”

“It’s adorable,” Gracie said. “Though you’ve got quite a reputation among the cappuccino mums.” She paused a moment. “Um, Nat? I was just going to tell you about Isaac coming early. Owen texted me a few minutes ago.”

Isaac Ngata. Manager of his younger brother Sam’s kauri woodworking empire, ex-All Black who was once a champion on the rugby field instead of chained to a desk. Former teammate and friend of her husband, Jackson. Former friend of hers, former honorary uncle to Olivia. Now he was the one person in Bounty Bay she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with. Nat’s plans to avoid him had become harder now that their separate worlds once again intersected. Her new friend Gracie was engaged to Owen, whom Isaac and Sam had known since high school.

“I thought he wasn’t coming until later tonight?” Which was why she’d invented a workable plan of helping with the party prep, staying for a few congratulatory drinks, then gracefully excusing herself before Isaac arrived.

“Change of plans,” Gracie said in a tone that suggested she half expected Nat to throw a temper tantrum like the little girl in her arms.

That wasn’t going to happen. Nat had learned long ago that temper tantrums never yielded results. Nat risked another glance out the window. The wipers had stopped, the engine had fallen silent, but Isaac still hadn’t left his enormous vehicle.

She kissed Ruby’s dark curls and tried to lower her to the floor. Ruby squirmed, clutching onto Natalie’s top.

“See Daddy! See Daddy!”

Gracie laughed and hurried over to swing the toddler off the floor and onto her hip. “How ’bout you come outside with me and you can give Daddy a big smoochy kiss?”

“Kiss!” Ruby puckered up her cherub mouth and made kissy sounds while Gracie swept her out of the kitchen.

“You okay?” Vee came to stand next to Nat at the counter. “About Isaac being here?”

Nat ran the faucet, wiping down the chopping board under the cool water. “You know I’m not. But I’ll ignore his you suck glare and snarly Eeyore face and focus on eating my weight in barbecued meat.”

“I don’t think Isaac’s thinking ‘you suck’ when he looks at you.” Vee craned forward to look out the window. “But I do agree about his snarly Eeyore face.”

Nat followed Vee’s gaze to where Isaac emerged from his truck. His head appeared over the doorframe first, tilted up into the rain. His dark brown hair was cropped close, emphasizing the rugged angles of his face, his sharp jawline, and distinctive nose, evidence of his Māori heritage.

He uncoiled from the cab, rising to his full height of six feet two. A blue collared shirt concealed the powerful slabs of muscle that crossed his broad shoulders and upper body, though his jeans did nothing to hide the strong columns of his thighs. His legs were long—born to run the length of a rugby field with ease—but very few people had seen him dressed in anything but long pants since the accident that caused permanent damage to his left leg five years ago.

Isaac shut the car door and moved around the vehicle to open the SUV’s back door, his once panther-like prowl, surprisingly graceful for such a big guy, reduced to a slight hitch in his gait.

Outside, under the shelter of the awning, Ruby arched away from Gracie and yowled for her mum. 

“Bet you someone mentioned cake and now all hell’s breaking loose.” Vee sighed and opened the pantry. “Maybe one of your stethoscope cupcakes will tide her over.”

“Good luck with that,” Nat said as Vee snatched a cupcake and raced from the room.

Nat put the chopping board away and carried the salad bowl to the fridge. She was about to close the door when the hairs on her nape tingled, a reliable early warning system that Isaac was close by. She peeked around the stainless steel door, and sure enough, there he was filling up space in the kitchen doorway. He carried a cooler heavy enough to make the cotton shirt sleeves work hard to keep his biceps from splitting seams. His brown eyes that could be as warm as melted dark chocolate, or harsh enough to strip paint, locked on her.

If she were any other woman she might’ve felt one of two things. Apprehension that she was seconds away from being mugged, or hopeful that the sexy-as-sin guy in front of her wasn’t a cupcake-induced hallucination. She wasn’t any other woman, and she wasn’t scared of Isaac. Neither did she care if the man vanished like sugar on the tongue. He caused the pit in her stomach to sink to new depths.

“Room left in the fridge?” he asked.

Growled. Everything he said nowadays sounded like a growl. At least on the rare occasions when their paths crossed and civility in front of her thirteen-year-old daughter meant she had to adult and use her words.

“A little,” she said in a tone she’d use if a stranger asked her the time, or if a store clerk inquired if she needed assistance. “Probably not enough for all the beer you men have bought.”

He shot her a glance loaded with the usual intensity and strode into the room, the sheer bulk of him turning Gracie and Owen’s large kitchen into a coffin-sized space. Blood fluttered in her veins and she took a giant step backward, away from the fridge. He set the cooler down in front of the open fridge door.

“There’s probably room if you want to fit only a few cans in,” she said.

She badly wanted to run, but she wouldn’t. Not yet.

No, she wasn’t scared of Isaac, but she didn’t like her visceral reactions to him either. Reactions that grew more severe the further he invaded her personal bubble of space. His smell—a blend of rich ground coffee and musky cologne—singed her nose, and hurt. The shape of his hands, his long strong fingers that could catch and throw a ball with precise accuracy, hurt. The sound of his unhurried, unaffected breaths as he stood examining the fridge contents hurt. His very existence, when Jackson was lost to her forever, hurt most of all.

But out of respect for her friends, Nat would play nice for a socially acceptable moment longer.

 

***

 

Isaac noted that Natalie’s gaze remained fixed on the kitchen faucets as if he’d farted into the strained silence and she didn’t want to bring attention to it. In his past experience with her, an innocent case of passed gas would’ve caused less of a reaction than his polite inquiry about refrigerator space.

Past was the operative word.

In the past—five-plus years past—she would’ve greeted him with her jaw-dropping smile, her green eyes warm with welcome as she’d extend her arms for a brief hug. Then he’d brush a quick kiss on her cheek in keeping with his culture’s way of greeting female family and friends before stepping back into the friend-zone area. Now, entering the Natalie zone was like walking into a grocery store chiller room. You just wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible before your balls froze off.

He opened the cooler at his feet. “I can squeeze in a six-pack.”

“If you break them up, you could store two beside the potato salad and the rest on the bottom shelf by the bottles of juice.”

She still didn’t look directly at either him or the fridge, apparently having memorized the food and drink positions at some point today.

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.

Shit—‘sounds like a plan’? What a moron. Heat prickled along his cheeks. Thank Christ for blush-hiding facial hair. Unless his whole face turned scarlet—that’d be a dead giveaway. He snapped a couple of cans from the plastic rings and shoved them onto the shelves wherever he could find a spot.

Can three by the tomato sauce, can four next to the margarine.

He gave Nat the side-eye. He’d frequently risk glancing her way if he thought she wouldn’t catch him. He couldn’t help it. Her energy, her long curly hair the color of rich manuka honey, and her curves a man could happily lose count of, all drew his attention.

She’d stopped studying the sink and switched her attention to the fridge shelves, possibly about to suggest places for cans five and six. That was closer to acknowledging he was alive.

Progress.

“How’s Olivia getting on at Bounty Bay High?” he said.

Asking a single mum about her kid was a guaranteed way to get her talking, according to the guys’ rulebook on dating—not that he was trying to date Nat. Only to have a civil exchange.

“She loves it.”

“Good. It’s a good school. With good students, and, ah, good staff, too.”

Someone smack him upside the head with a thesaurus. Isaac loaded the final two cans into the fridge and bumped the door shut with his hip.

“So I’ve heard.”

He caught the corner of her mouth twitching. Was that almost a smile for him? His heart gave a girlish pirouette.

“They’ve got a great summer and winter sports syllabus, and their gymnasium is top notch. I’ll bet PE will turn out to be her favorite subject, like her—” Isaac’s brain finally caught up with his runaway tongue.

Like her dad.

He snapped his mouth shut but it was too late.

The upward mouth twitch vanished and her gaze, which for a moment he could’ve sworn held a glimmer of warmth, hardened to sheet ice.

“Speaking of Olivia,” she said with a tight, tooth-baring smile, “I’d better go and check on her and Morgan.” Then, spine rigid, she stalked from the kitchen.

Isaac didn’t attempt to stall her longer—because what the hell could he say? He just shook his head at his big fat mouth and set about dumping party ice around the remaining beers inside the cooler.

“Yo. Need help?”

Sam strode into the kitchen and walked straight to Owen’s pantry with the familiarity born of years of friendship. Since Owen had spent the latter part of his teenage years living with the Ngata family and helping raid their ma’s stash of Sunday baking, Isaac figured it was fair turnaround. His brother opened the pantry door, snickered, then snatched something off the shelf and stuffed it into his mouth.

“Awesome cupcakes,” he said around vigorous chewing. “Must be Nat’s.”

“Who’ll carve off your nuts if she was saving those for later.”

Isaac cracked open a beer. He damn well deserved one now.

“As if I’m scared of the frizzy little blonde like you are.” Sam licked frosting off his thumb, then stilled, half turning toward the kitchen door. “Was she in here?” he asked in a whisper. “Did you talk to her?”

What were they, bloody twelve? Isaac grimaced and took a swallow of beer. It slipped coolly down his throat but seemed to burn like acid in his gut. “If by talk you mean I asked if there was room in the fridge and she said no.”

“Shit. And then she bailed?”

“Then she bailed.” Isaac took another swallow and screwed up his nose. “Here, you want this?” He offered the can to Sam who shrugged and took it.

“Still can’t?” his brother asked.

Isaac’s gut twisted around the two sips of beer. “No.”

Add “drink alcohol” to the list of things he couldn’t do around Natalie. A list that included “avoid sounding like an asshole” and “act like a normal person.”

“She sees me with a beer and gives me that injured animal caught in a trap but will bite your hand off look. You know the one,” he added.

Sam tipped up the can and drank, then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Nope,” he said. “Nat likes me. Most of the time anyway. Sorry, bro. That’s a look she must reserve for you.”

Teasing mixed with sympathy filtered through Sam’s tone. But there was nothing either of them could do to change Nat’s icy reaction to Isaac. Nothing he could do—nothing he would do. Avoidance was easier for them both. Better for them both.

A little part of him had hoped today might be different.

“Guess it is.” He picked up the cooler. “I’ll take this onto the back deck.”

“Zac,” Sam said.

Isaac froze on the spot. His brother rarely called him by his childhood nickname, not unless he wanted his ass kicked. Sam stared at him with his own version of injured animal eyes, the world-weary gaze of a man whose reputation had also been blackened because of Isaac’s past yet never once complained about it.

“One day it’ll be okay between you two again,” Sam said. “Somewhere, deep down, she knows it wasn’t your fault.”

“Sure.”

That was the one thing Sam had wrong. It would never be okay between him and Natalie, not after everything that’d happened. It would never be okay, and it would always be his fault.

 

© Tracey Alvarez 2017