There's an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that's not really the case. The road to hell is paved with intentions that are careless, lustful, or mean. Good intentions—in proportion to their true goodness—tend toward heavens of pleasure.
Twain Morgan watched the DIY removal van rumble past the giant snow gums in front of his house. When he’d moved out here some five years ago, he hadn’t been anticipating neighbors anytime soon. Five years was too soon. He liked his solitude, enjoyed the peace that came with the absence of people. Certainly he did not look forward to having some stranger wandering around in ‘his’ space. A man needed to be able to lounge on his veranda naked if the mood took him. What he really didn’t need was a family full of kids haring through the bush to disturb his tranquility.
The house down the road had been vacant for at least six months, and Twain had entertained great hopes that it would remain that way forever. Originally he’d bought his own worker’s cottage as a retreat, a place to get away from the smog and glassed-in cages filling the city that his wife had so loved. When they’d moved out here to start his business, she’d compromised by flitting between Sydney and the Hunter Valley, never once complaining about the travel. Neither had she told him how tired all the driving had made her. But that wasn’t something to think about now. Shaking Sophie from his head, Twain scowled at the truck still shuddering and bouncing its way down the road to Pepper Tree Place.
His dog did not pick up on the pensive mood swamping him. The seven-month-old German Shepherd bounded around his veranda, barking excitedly as though welcome friends were arriving for a visit. “Sit down!” The stern command saw his canine companion plant his butt and wriggle across the decking boards, tail still wagging with pleasure at the thought of guests. Twain winced at the splinters his dog could collect from the new timber surface. He’d lived in the cottage for years, but only just lately rediscovered the urge to renovate.
Snapping his fingers, he indicated for the animal to ‘come.’ The last thing in the world he wanted was to spend his weekend picking splinters from a dog’s tail. Sadly, ‘come’ was not an instruction his animal had really taken to. In fact, obedience for this dog seemed more a matter of convenience for the animal than a will to please his master. As they’d only known one another for six weeks now, Twain was willing to concede to an adjustment period.
“Abel!” he roared after the diminishing figure of his dog as it chased the removal van down the road. What kind of dog could do ‘sit’ and ‘fetch’ but didn’t respond to its own name? “Abel!” Even as he put his fingers to his lips, whistling shrilly and loudly for the dog, he began the walk down the road. Come to think of it, Twain mused, scuffing his boots in the dust beside the pot-holed bitumen … he’d rather pick splinters from his dog’s tail than meet new neighbors!
Jarrah Donaldson dragged on the steering wheel of her hideously aged truck. The rutted road caused a jolting in her body that had already happened in her head. The banging and clanging inside her skull was now just a numbing and constant reminder of how long the drive from Sydney had been in this dreadful excuse for transportation.
Grief glutted her throat as she drove slowly down the street to what was going to be her new home. The house and its owners had had their own home in her heart for years now. Today it was empty. Clenching her jaw, she gritted her teeth and blinked back tears. A crying jag wouldn’t help her headache at all. Best to leave the crying for when she was full of painkillers … or wine.
Surprisingly, Jarrah didn’t feel half as empty as she’d expected and certainly not as desolate as her new house currently looked. She was full to the brim with tumbling, opposing emotions. Sadness and fear swirled around hope and excitement. Today was the first day of her new life. That George and Joy wouldn’t see her make the change, wouldn’t know that she’d finally done what they’d urged for so long, tainted her delight, but didn’t extinguish her thrilled excitement at a new beginning.
The truck rattled the last few meters to the driveway. Thank heavens she’d arrived. The entire trip from Sydney she’d been willing the rattletrap vehicle to keep running. Double-clutching at the entry to the driveway, the familiar smell of old-fashioned tea roses wafted through the driver’s-side window. With the scent came the memories, reminding her of why she was here. They’d known she’d come, known she’d take care of their house. Rarely ever wrong, the old couple had not misjudged her.
Lost in her thoughts and reminiscences, Jarrah jumped from the cab of the truck, only to be assaulted by the ferocious snarl of an oversized dog. Don’t run! The thought flashed through her head rather pointlessly, because paralyzing fear stilled her booted feet anyway. She was wearing steel-capped work boots. A braver woman might have stepped forward, taken aim and toed the dog into someone else’s property. Sadly, she was definitely more panicked than brave. While she loved dogs, she really didn’t like any kind of hissing, snarling or slavering beasties at all. Placid, happy animals were much nicer and easier on the nervous system.
Plastered against the door of her removal van, she’d have to turn her back on the growling beast in order to return to the safety of the vehicle. Not good! Need a new plan! Attempting to quell the fear rolling over her in waves, Jarrah looked around for alternatives. No trees were close enough to climb. The house was still locked up and no knight in shining armour had appeared to rescue her. Damn!
Lack of choice led her to hold her upturned hands out toward the dog. Having read somewhere that animals were less inclined to attack if they didn’t sense a threat, Jarrah tried to communicate using body language. She forced her shoulders to relax and looked at the ground rather than challenging the dog with a fixed stare. Convincing the well-toothed predator that she wasn’t any kind of a menace should have been easy. Nothing was more convincing than the truth, after all.
“Good dog,” she wheedled. “Please don’t eat me. I’m tough, stringy and not very tasty.” No tail wagging followed her words, so she tried again. “Good dog, promise not to eat me, and I’ll feed you something really yummy later. You like pizza?” The growling grew worse. Obviously not a fan of junk food. “Oh, Jesus, dog. Please stop looking at me like that!”
The canine tilted its head sideways as though considering her offer. Who would have thought a dog on an adrenaline rush would understand complex sentences? Then she heard the real reason for the dog’s change in demeanor. Smug male laughter rolled down the driveway to meet her. Mere moments later, the man himself appeared.
Had she not just lost her entire sense of humor, Jarrah might well have laughed herself. She probably did look ridiculous, and she was well-known for her warped sense of humour. But at that moment, she was still recovering from the horror of possibly being eaten by a strange dog in her new front yard. Humour was not high on her list of emotions. Outrage was right up there, though.
“Jesus bloody Christ, do you not have a leash for that beast?” The angry words leapt from her lips before she could stop them.
The man smiled in the face of her attack. “Never thought anyone would be afraid of Abel. He’s not a killer. Dopey, excitable and completely disobedient…” At this point the human male scowled down at the canine fiend. “—but never a woman eater. He’s just excited to have visitors.”
Jarrah clicked her jaw to the left, trying to ease the ache building there. Clenching her teeth when trying to be polite had become a habit of late. “Yeah, he’s looking really excited … over his next meal! Besides, I’m not a visitor, I live here, dammit! So if you can’t keep him under control, I’d suggest you start building a fence.” Preferably electrified!
“I’ve got one, but we were in the front yard together, and he hasn’t seen much in the way of traffic before, so I didn’t know to keep a hold on him. Really, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. If you’d just introduce yourself to him, you’d see.”
“Oh, all right. What’s his bloody name again?” Sighing in exasperated surrender and completely incapable of maintaining a bad mood, Jarrah stepped forward into the personal space of both man and dog.
Her heart was yet to settle, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t from panic anymore. Indeed, she had a sneaking suspicion that her elevated pulse had more to do with the muscular blond man standing in her driveway.
“His name’s Abel.”
Jarrah snorted “What’s that? Short for ‘Able-to-eat-you’?”
The man’s chuckle was deep and husky. All confident male, the rumble made her breath catch in her chest. “You could be right. He already had his name when I got him from the RSPCA. I presumed he was named for Adam and Eve’s good son.”
Jarrah eyed her human visitor surreptitiously while the canine licked his way up her hand to her wrist. The man was not her usual type. Normally her heart got the flutters only in the face of smooth, dark-haired, giant-sized men. The kind she’d made a habit of avoiding lately. This guy was barely an inch taller than her own five foot eight. His physique, though, was enough to set anyone’s heart racing. Wide shoulders and muscular chest stretched his grey T-shirt in all the right places. What killed her most were his forearms. She had a thing for well-formed forearms, thick and corded, with strong wrists and broad hands. Jarrah could weave entire fantasies around a nice pair of arms. This man had the kind of arms that might feed a thousand daydreams.
A hand let go of Abel’s collar and offered itself to her in greeting.
“I beg your pardon?” Wound up in an imagined embrace with those biceps and hands, she’d missed his name.
“I’m Twain Morgan.” He smiled straight into her eyes. Jarrah felt her heart lurch before leaping back to life. He had amber eyes and hair that curled, even though it was short. Forget the arms, the entire package was worth some contemplation!
“Oh.” She wiped a dog-slobbered hand on the back of her jeans before shaking the one he’d proffered. “Jarrah Donaldson. I take it you own the little house down the road?”
“Sure do.” Even as they looked straight into her, his tawny eyes were still smiling. “I bought it because I was looking for somewhere quiet, but not too far from work.”
Only an idiot would have missed that hint. He wasn’t keen on having neighbors, eh? Too bad. This was her house, it was a free country and she was staying. “Looks like Abel might put a spanner in the works for you on that front,” she returned. He tensed at her words. Jarrah watched his shoulders shift and fingers curl almost imperceptibly. The reaction of a man insulted by her attitude. Maybe she had been a bit snappy.
She felt instant contrition. She hadn’t meant to create friction, just to point out that if his peace were disturbed it would not be her fault. “Look, I’d love to offer you a coffee or something.” The very thought of finding a jar of instant coffee amongst the dozens of boxes in the back of the truck made her head pound harder. Again she watched his eyes flicker, giving the distinct impression he’d rather be somewhere else, and Jarrah knew she wouldn’t have to go searching for her stash of caffeine.
“No. I’d really better get going … unless you need a hand moving in?”
The offer sounded forced and there was no way she was starting her new life by begging favors from an unwilling neighbor. “I’ll be all right, thanks. I don’t have anything really heavy. The truck has a lifter, and there’s a trolley in the back, anyway.” In truth, the very thought of moving all that furniture by herself again was almost enough to make her cry. Unfortunately, her neighbor and his dog were already halfway up the drive, effectively avoiding any chance that she might change her mind.
Exhaling loudly, Jarrah leaned against the back doors of the removal truck, propping her foot against the bumper bar. The sun was making its way further west, even as she watched. A previously powder-blue sky darkened in the early afternoon light. There wasn’t a lot of time to get her stuff inside. Already the birds had grown noisy in the cooling air. If she did all her moving this afternoon, there would be no time at all to wander through the garden.
The garden was her favorite part of the house. A low rose garden, edged in old railway sleepers, lay before the front veranda of her cottage, but that was by no means the best part. Sometimes the best parts of life were hidden, and that was certainly the case with Pepper Tree Place. Happiness beckoned almost irresistibly, and she felt childlike in her need to do everything at once.
In the end, she did a deal with herself. She’d move all the things she would need for the night into the house, then wander around the garden until nightfall. In the morning she would shift the rest of her gear inside. Jarrah often found herself striking these types of internal compromises. The efficient, businesslike side of her personality demanded that everything be done as quickly and neatly as possible. The whimsical daydreamer in her preferred to roam through the bush or contemplate the morning dew on a lemon blossom. When she’d taken up horticulture as a profession, Jarrah had been certain she’d found a way to combine both halves of her nature. Then she’d become successful.
Taking a position in a landscaping and outdoor design company, Jarrah had fast become the golden girl of gardens. She’d been commissioned to design, then oversee, the building of rooftop gardens for corporate enterprises. The occasional movie star had requested her expertise in refurbishing their million-dollar views. Even politicians and their wives had acquired her services. More than one magazine had interviewed her, and she’d been featured occasionally on television gardening segments. At the same time, she’d been expected to represent the company in various exhibitions and showcases. In short, the pressure to perform had been much greater than she’d ever anticipated.
Many a night she’d fallen into bed with nothing in her stomach but her late afternoon ‘pick-me-up’ coffee. More than once, George and Joy had scolded her for her new, ‘scrawny’ look. Headaches had become an everyday occurrence, and she’d known all too well why she got them. She’d lost her balance, the equilibrium she’d learned to strike between her desire to achieve and her need for peace.
Sadly, it had taken for George, and shortly thereafter Joy, to die, before she’d realized what she was missing in her executive rush through life. She was missing the important things. The friendships and laughter, the peace as well as the purpose. Somehow she’d become all work and no play. For a brief and frightening moment, life had lost all its sparkle. For all those reasons, this afternoon she was especially missing George and Joy. Blinking hard, she clicked her jaw to either side and turned to face the truck. If she focused on the task at hand, on the excitement inherent in a fresh start, the bittersweet twang might disappear from her heart.
Holding tight to Abel’s collar, Twain half jostled, half dragged his dog down the road. “Nice first impression buddy. What were you thinking?” The very words brought him to a dead halt. What did he care what Jarrah Donaldson thought? She was pretty in a quirky kind of a fashion. Nut-brown skin and long, dark hair were nothing spectacular separately. It was the combo that would make him care if he let it. Mixing up the long hair and pretty skin with the full mouth and wide brown eyes, slip in her angular, fragile, somewhat underweight body, and before you could blink, she was a wood nymph.
Behind the broad smile though, he’d sensed a kind of quiet desperation. She’d wanted to be neighborly, but at the same time wanted him to hurry up and leave. The way her eyes had flickered toward her gate had been a dead giveaway. At the time he’d been more than happy to oblige. Now, halfway to his house, he felt guilty. He should have stayed to help her move.
She wasn’t very big after all, looked like a strong breeze might blow her over, actually. And he’d left her there to heft furniture all by herself. What kind of man was he? A man who didn’t want neighbors, that’s who! Even pretty, smiling ones.
“Dammit!” In the middle of the road, he spun a complete hundred and eighty degrees. Helping her would probably turn out to be a colossal mistake, but he was doing it anyway. Manners and decency demanded it.
Without the dog dragging and waggling around him as a hindrance, it took less than three minutes to get back to her front gate. From the back of the truck, groans and dark mutterings punctuated by the occasional swear word met his ears. He grinned. Apparently she’d finished smiling for the moment. Scuffling, dragging noises led him to find her exact position.
She was hanging off the end of a blanket which was positioned beneath her refrigerator. From what he could tell, she was using the blanket to decrease friction between the smooth truck floor and the fridge. Not the easiest option, but it could work. Her back to him and engrossed in her trials as she was, she didn’t notice him until he spoke.
“Need a hand with that?”
“Jesus Christ!” She sprang like a cat, jumping and spinning to face him. Recognition flashed across her face, and she smiled. “You’re determined to kill me this afternoon, aren’t you?” She held up a hand while making a drama of catching her breath. “I mean, I understand that you’re not keen on neighbors, but this is ridiculous!”
How did she do that, he wondered, the way she smiled and talked at the same time. “No, I don’t want to kill you. But my mother would kill me if she ever found out I’d left a tiny thing like you to move furniture by yourself.”
“Excellent!” Jarrah shot him two thumbs up. “I love a well-raised man. Especially one with muscles to spare.” Her mouth dropped slightly open as though surprised at her own words. Quickly, and slightly more pink in the cheeks than she’d originally been, she turned back to her fridge. “But you should tell your mother that a woman who’s five foot eight is about six inches too tall to be tiny.”
Ignoring her self-deprecating tone, he turned instead to her biggest problem at the moment, certainly not her size. “I thought you had a trolley.” He raised an eyebrow questioning her sanity and perhaps her truthfulness.
She kicked a flat tyre on the discarded trolley. A screw lay on the floor of the truck where it must have been flung by a petulant Jarrah. “That is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.” Her voice dripped barely repressed frustration, and her lip curled with disgust for the helpless trolley.
“Well then, I guess your way is the next best thing. I’ll drag it if you help me lift it up the steps, okay?” He almost laughed when her shoulders drooped in relief, and her face lit up with a grin. She did have a very pretty smile. More of a grin, actually, that revealed perfect teeth, and better still, her smile reached all the way to her eyes, crinkling them up at the corners until little laugh lines formed. He had a feeling she wouldn’t care about a few lines. Jarrah Donaldson had a face built for happiness.
Twain felt some of the tension he’d built up that afternoon ease its way out of his muscles. Maybe this wouldn’t turn out to be such a mistake. Watching her neat body sweat and strain was certainly not going to be something he’d live to regret. Dressed in jeans, singlet top and work boots, she was a pleasure to watch. And he had every intention of watching a lot!
* * * *
With all the necessary furniture moved into her new home, Jarrah stood away from the box of crockery and kitchenware she’d just hefted onto a bench in the kitchen. Arching the ache from her back, she wondered how much more pain she’d be in if Twain hadn’t lent a hand.
“That’ll do for now, I think. I really just wanted all the vitals inside tonight. I can move the rest tomorrow.”
“You tell me that now.” The man of the moment grunted loudly, dumping a box of books onto the living room floor.
“Ah, now, don’t you worry. There are rewards for you, just give me two seconds.”
Jogging back out to the truck, she retrieved her cooler from the foot-well on the passenger side of the cab. Planning ahead always paid off. Well and truly pleased with her own cleverness, it strained her self-control not to skip back inside.
Plonking the foam container onto her kitchen counter, she began removing the items she’d packed earlier in the day. “Suddenly, I feel just like Mary Poppins.” She smiled across the room at Twain, who was watching her performance with a narrow, concentrated gaze. A stare like that meant one of two things. Either he was regretting his chivalrous behaviour and had reverted to his previous dislike of neighbors, or he was aware of the fact that her jeans had stretched during the day and were now slung so low on her hips that a good portion of her belly was visible beneath her singlet top. The top itself had shrunk in the dryer, so was less than a perfect fit. Threading a finger through a belt loop, she hitched the jeans a little higher before stretching the singlet a little lower.
“You don’t look anything at all like Mary Poppins.”
Jarrah shrugged, not in the least perturbed by his serious tone. Obviously it was his nature to be thoughtful and serious, just as it was hers to be dreamy and glib. Ah well, each to his own. In her line of business she’d learned to give leeway to all types of people. “Probably not. Besides, my magic bag contains much better stuff.”
By the time she’d removed the contents of her cooler, the bench was littered with an array of cheeses, semi-dried tomatoes, olives, salami, and last but not least, a lovely bottle of white wine. “As I’m moving into the Hunter Valley, I figured this would be the best possible way to christen my new house, what do you think?” She displayed the label for his inspection. A local wine with an interesting label, but a wonderful flavour. The Hunter Valley was one of Australia’s prime wine-growing regions. Better still, it was pretty, the weather was good, and she could earn a living here. Part of her long-term plan for living here was to learn more about wine. At the moment she still chose according to how attractive she found the label.
“Splash…” He nodded in recognition of the name. “—probably Scarborough’s best chardonnay yet.”
Jarrah eyed him suspiciously. “Tell me you’re not a wine critic.”
He did smile at that, laughed even, the same low, sexy rumble she’d heard earlier in the afternoon. The expression dug dimples in his cheeks, even as the sound sent little frissons of excitement to ricochet inside her stomach.
“Lord, never let it be said that I criticized any wine offered by a wood nymph.” The words were as endearing as the dimples, and Jarrah felt heat rush over her face. She loved her men bold and fearless. No sneaky seducer was ever so blatant with a compliment. Unless she missed her guess, Twain Morgan had just begun the chase. Excitement spiraled through her.
He cleared his throat, perhaps unnerved by his blatant remark. “Besides, I’ve lived here five years now. You can’t be around vintners, sommeliers and restaurateurs without picking something up.”
Concentrating hard so as not to let her nerves show, Jarrah poured wine carefully and hastily assembled her platter of treats. No one could mess up this kind of food. Picking up both her glass and the dinner plate she’d fished from a box to use as a serving dish, she beat a retreat to the back veranda. Deliberately, she moved in a brusque and businesslike fashion. Chin up, eyes straight ahead, no fluttery hand movements allowed. Good Lord, she hadn’t even moved in yet, and already he felt like he’d invaded her territory.
The screen door swung open with a nudge of her foot against the lower panel. As there was only one chair on the veranda—George’s old sun-lounge—out of politeness Jarrah left it for Twain. Balancing the plate on the veranda railing, she took a seat on the bottom step, appreciating the solidity of rich dark soil beneath her feet.
By and large, she was a barefoot girl. On site, workplace health and safety regulations demanded she wear steel-capped boots. In meetings with clients, her company required that she dress to impress, so pretty, ladylike shoes had somehow generally nestled between her boots and running shoes at the bottom of her wardrobe. As soon as she set foot in her house, though, Jarrah kicked off her footwear, letting her feet help her relax into her environment.
Digging her toes into the grassless patch immediately below the back steps, she breathed in the scent of moist earth, the slight curry smell of pepper trees and the bouquet of her wine. With the first sip, she felt her shoulders lower and her jaw unclench. While change was good and the prospect of a new life exciting, it had been a long day. Top it off with the handsome man whose very presence behind her kept her blood pressure up, and the wine was a necessary sedative!
The birds were already a deafening cacophony of noise, the sky a blend of orange and crimson as the sun made its last moments the most spectacular. In that moment, on that day, it seemed that all of the Hunter Valley welcomed her to its heart. This period of settling before evening might have been a soothing experience but for the creak of George’s chair as Twain moved to a more comfortable position in the canvas sling.
“You certainly come prepared.” He broke the magic with his need for speech, his ability to disturb her peace.
“It’s a habit. When I work on site, if I’m not prepared, I go hungry. I might not be health conscious, but even I can’t stomach the disgusting slop that comes from those mobile lunch trucks.” She watched him blink at the word ‘site,’ his tiger eyes dark, and his blond hair glinting with gold in the dying light. Most men found the thought of a woman on a construction site unsettling. Most men found her capacity for work unnerving at best. At worst, they were downright threatened. There was no reason he’d be any different.
“Really?” His tone gave away none of his opinion. “What do you do that takes you onto a work site?”
Jarrah grinned, realizing that for the first time in a long, long time, her reputation had not preceded her. Wiping any remaining cracker crumbs off her fingers and onto her jeans, she offered her hand for the most confident handshake possible, while her stomach churned with nerves about actually touching him.
“Jarrah Donaldson,” she repeated her name, just in case he’d forgotten already. “Garden designer to the debauched and disgustingly wealthy. Pleased to meet you.”
“You’re a gardener?”
For some reason the thought seemed to amuse him. His eyes twinkled and lips twitched as though trying to keep from laughing.
“Some would say ‘landscape architect,’ others would say ‘horticulturalist,’” she returned tersely, disproportionately aggravated by the derogatory way he said ‘gardener.’ Perhaps she wasn’t quite as ready to give up success and reputation as she’d first thought. His hand enclosed hers nonetheless, warm and strong with calluses and rough patches that endeared them to her even more. Many of the men she’d dated in what she now considered her ‘previous life’ had smooth, soft hands and manicured nails. While she liked a man who looked after himself, there was something disconcerting about having harder hands and a stronger handshake than her boyfriend.
“So, who have you designed for?”
She blinked back to the present. His question sounded like a challenge, as though he didn’t believe a smallish woman could design, much less build, a garden of any type. Never one to back away from a challenge, Jarrah listed off the first four of her celebrity clients that popped into her head. She counted them off on her fingers as she named them. Then, to purposely belie how important these things had been to her, how her chest still swelled with pride in her accomplishments, she picked up a cube of her favorite cheese and popped it into her mouth. Lasciviously, she sucked the brine from the crumbling feta before biting into the finely textured cheese. She forgot to censor her groan of appreciation and could have sworn she heard a similar if quieter groan from Twain.
“Like that, huh?”
There was something more than a smile in his voice now. An undercurrent that leapt out of the shadows and told her he’d do lots of things she’d really like. Small, fluttery contractions in the muscles of her tummy were proof of the effect his voice had on her body. He truly did have one of the sexiest voices she’d ever heard. A cross between a growl and a rumbling purr, his voice suited his eyes.
“Mmm, my favorite.” The words rolled blissfully across her newly reawakened taste buds. “So, you haven’t told me what you do.”
His chuckle accompanied a mischievous half-smile as he offered his hand again. This time there was less of a businesslike shake and more of an exploratory caress about the way their palms met. “Twain Morgan … maker of Jarrah Donaldson’s favorite cheeses.”
“Really?” Somehow the words she’d meant to sound like a pleased exclamation came out sounding like an invitation.
“Really,” he affirmed, gorgeous, sandpapery voice washing goose bumps all across her skin. Obviously he’d heard the tone in her words, the tone that said, ‘You’re really rather stunning, and I think you should take me to bed,’ because he responded in kind.
Cool evening air was heavy between them. His eyes roamed over her face and body like a big cat appraising a meal. Wanting to be eaten, but not knowing how to initiate the next move, Jarrah felt adrenaline begin its rushing course. Suddenly she was aware of everything about him, from the size and shape of his body to the rhythm of his breath. She’d never dealt with anyone as overwhelming as Twain before, so just the thought of how they might proceed left her warm and quivering with anticipation.
He didn’t leave her to wonder for long. She smiled when his hand came to cup her neck. His thumb gently rubbed the skin just below the angle of her jaw.
“You really do look like a wood nymph, you know.” His mouth moved closer with each word.
“Is that a good thing?” she asked, trying to keep the mood light, despite the drowning sensation slowing her thoughts.
“Yeah, that’s a very good thing.” His lips whispered across hers.
She lifted her hands to his shoulders, murmured wordless encouragement and felt him respond. He deepened the kiss, angled his lips across hers. Jarrah felt a snap of recognition crack across every nerve in her body. She felt him all the way to her toes. The sensation was one of plunging into a warm bath. Something in the core of her rippled into life, drawn deep and low and in need of him.
The blond curls of his hair were soft beneath her fingers as she held him close. The recesses of his mouth were warm with the lightly fruity flavor of her chardonnay. He groaned, dragging her closer as though she might melt into him and they could be one. The last clinging tendrils of light disappeared from the sky, leaving Jarrah in the dark, but feeling right at home. Her body belonged right here in his arms. Thrilling tingles sang along her taut nerves. She whimpered with the need to be closer, feel nothing between them.
Twain stiffened. She felt the change in him just a moment before he disentangled her fingers from his hair. Removing his hand from where his fist had grasped the waistband of her jeans, he cupped the nape of his own neck and looked everywhere but at her.
“I … I’d better go.” His words were ragged. Obviously he was as affected as she by what had passed between them, no matter what his distant gaze might otherwise have led her to believe.
“If you like.” She tilted just one corner of her mouth at him, hoping to appear calm and cool in the middle of the heat still flowing like lava in her blood. If he thought she was going to beg for the pleasure of his company, he had another think coming.
“Yeah, I really should.” She barely caught his quiet words. Cicadas, crickets and geckos had begun their nighttime calls. Amid nature’s racket, she watched him turn, slap his thigh and bring Abel to heel. Of all the times for the damned dog to learn manners! In three steps, Twain Morgan disappeared into the black sheet of night that fell just outside the perimeter of her porch.
Shit! Jarrah collected her plate and the wine glasses. Inside she kicked the back door shut and leaned her full weight against it. She flexed her jaw to release some of the tension building there. Who had ever known a straight male to knock back a roll in the hay? What was wrong with her? She never behaved this way, never threw herself at men. Especially not pensive, quiet men she’d only just met. Tapping her foot back against the door, she waited for her pulse to settle and the disappointed tears to clear. Sighing, she eased away from the door to dump the plate and glasses on the bench. A little seduction wouldn’t have hurt her new life. In fact, that had been part of her vows to herself when she’d decided on this new life. No more forcing issues or relationships. No more trying to fit into social norms. In her new life she would take her pleasures where she found them and not fret over tomorrows. She flicked off her kitchen light as she made for the lounge room and her mattress on the floor. From now on, she was making hay while the sun shone. Sprawled across her low and mournfully empty bed, she listened to the night noises of her new home. From somewhere in the darkness, came a deep, sonorous, owl-like cry.
Jarrah knew just how it felt.
* * * *
Twain was halfway home and still kicking himself. What was he thinking? Sure she was pretty … in a soft, doe-eyed kind of way. Looking into Jarrah’s eyes, he hadn’t seen a single scar, not the slightest glint of hesitation. While she might wear steel-caps to work and move her own furniture, Jarrah Donaldson was as soft as butter. Completely unlike him.
Scuffing his boots across the starlit road, the white-grey trunks of eucalypts and the heavy shadows of pine trees for company, Twain couldn’t think of a single reason why he’d kissed her. So she’d loved his cheese, big deal, lots of people did. So she’d flicked his dog little pieces of salami, any normal personal would do that, too. So what if she looked like she sprang from a hidey hole in the forest every morning; surely other women looked that way also.
What had really killed him had nothing to do with the way she looked, he decided. What had buckled his knees … was her openness. In one short afternoon, he’d watched the way her mood wandered across her face and affected her stance. She’d fluttered a hand to cover the lovely expanse of belly her too-short shirt had exposed, and he’d adored the shake in her fingers as she did. He’d seen the excitement spark in her eyes when he’d made his comment about wine from a wood nymph.
Then he’d felt her.
Smoothing her tanned olive skin beneath his fingers had kicked all the air from his lungs. His heart had leapt to sit somewhere in his throat, and somehow he’d wanted more. In one kiss, he’d known how it would feel to be inside her. Even now his gut clenched at the thought. In the heat of her response, he’d figured that she might be one of the few women in the world with whom he could have an affair. Standing with her golden-brown ponytail clenched in his fist and the slide of her tongue against his, he’d actually considered it possible.
Then he’d felt guilt.
That’s why he was here in his driveway facing the shadowed windows of his own home, instead of rolling across the mattress on her floor getting his fill of Jarrah-flavoured sex. He wasn’t honorable, he wasn’t noble. He was a bloody traitor.
From somewhere in the distant dark, an owl who-whoo-ed into the night. Good question, he thought … who, indeed?
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