Melting Into You – Chapter 1
Ben Harland slept late one Saturday morning and dreamed.
Not an inspirational dream or a combination of fleeting images jumbled into meaningless nonsense, but a down and dirty, Technicolor extravaganza involving Stewart Island’s seriously hot widow, Kezia Murphy. She smacked a wooden ruler across his knuckles as he slid a hand up her skirt.
“Worth it, babe.” He rolled onto his side, dragging his pillow with him.
In his head, Kezia’s no-nonsense boss rapped on the classroom door shouting at Ben to keep his hands and mouth off Oban’s prettiest teacher. Damn busy-body, he hadn’t even tasted Kez, yet, and—
The rapping from his dream merged with banging on his front door, accompanied by the repeated bzzzzt of the doorbell. Ben groaned and opened his eyes, flinging an elbow over his face at the sunlight streaming through his bedroom windows.
Kezia. Off limits—since lusting after her broke his personal decree: Don’t mess around with local women and/or one of your sisters’ friends. Yet he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
He flipped over to check the alarm clock. Nearly eleven. Late, even by his standards. But with no shark cage tours booked, he deserved to sleep in.
The doorbell gave another blast.
“Coming,” he hollered.
With a last longing squint at his mattress, Ben rolled off his bed and shambled halfway across the wooden floor before a chill whisked over his bare skin.
Oh. Right. Clothes.
Ben snatched yesterday’s jeans off the floor and yanked them on. Another flurry of knocks. Hell’s bells, what was their problem? Everyone knew everyone on New Zealand’s southernmost island, so why didn’t they just—
His shoulders hunched close to his ears. First job after downing a gallon of coffee? Remove the doorbell’s batteries.
“The door’s unlocked. Just come in, for Pete’s sake,” he muttered, tugging a tee shirt over his head as he stepped out of his bedroom.
At the far end of the hall, a distinctively female figure stood outlined in his front door’s patterned glass, making no move to enter his house. The figure was too short for either of his sisters, and his mother would wear a red mini-skirt when a practical joker manhandled it onto her unconscious body. Kezia, she of the Mona-Lisa smile and wooden ruler, had a more conservative dress sense. And yeah, he’d noticed.
A potential client, maybe?
He zipped his jeans, checked the wall mirror and winced. Having nearly lost his diving business, he couldn’t afford to scare off customers. Fixing a welcoming smile on his face, he hustled down the hallway.
Ben opened the door to a blonde with a big fake smile and bigger, faker boobs. Boobs trapped in a half-unbuttoned white blouse that threatened mutiny under the weight of so much cleavage. She looked to be in her late twenties, with an upturned nose, blue eyes, and a curtain of long, straight, straw-colored hair.
He didn’t know her.
Or did he? Her slight nasal tone bristled along his nerve endings and tickled a vague memory. His smile flat lined.
The woman’s smile slipped at his silent regard and then grew wider. “Don’t you remember me, cutie? I’m Marci, Marci Roberts—well, Carter now.” She giggled, a shrill, twitter-y sound, snipped off when her teeth clamped down on her lower lip.
The name Marci Roberts didn’t jingle any warning bells, but the piercing giggle and “cutie” did. They jingled him back to his twenty-year-old self—back when he’d nail any willing woman.
For two nights they’d screwed like minks before she left for her home in—actually, he had no idea where she lived. He folded his arms. Why in God’s name was she on his doorstep?
The woman pulled a ridiculously pouty duck face. “I was here on holiday with my girlfriends nine years ago—”
“Oh.” That giggle again.
Ben attempted a not at all impatient smile. “Why are you here, Marci?”
Her blue eyes grew flinty and she sucked in a breath, which made her scary-ass boobs wobble. “Still not much of a conversationalist, I see.”
He shrugged. Why deny the truth?
She huffed, causing another boob wobble. “I’ll get to the point then. Jade?” She flicked her fingers at her side in a “come here” gesture.
Frost drifted down his spine. Jade? Her point was a semi-precious gemstone? What the—?
Ben stepped over the threshold. A little girl in a green dress and a pink backpack sat huddled on an over-turned suitcase in the corner of his front porch. Her sandy hair—tinged with auburn—was pulled into two pigtails and her hazel eyes, the same color as his sister, Piper, locked onto his.
His heartbeat hit warp-speed as Marci impatiently extended a hand to the girl. “Jade. Come say hi to your daddy.”
Kezia stabbed her trowel around a stubborn weed and yanked until it slid from the soil. Autumn sunlight speared through the leaves of a bay tree in the corner of her front garden and dappled across the raised beds. This afternoon, she and Zoe would plant spring bulbs.
A miniature wilderness had surrounded their three-bedroom cottage when she arrived in Oban with her eight-year-old daughter last year. But during the summer school holidays, the two of them had tamed both the front and back yards. Come spring, they’d have neat rows of daffodils and jonquils to welcome the warmer weather.
She stood and stretched out her spine, glancing for about the sixtieth time up the road. Still no sign of them. Not that it was any of her business.
Thirty minutes ago, the blonde woman and little girl had stopped to ask for directions to Ben Harland’s house. Since her mamma raised no idioti, Kezia had pegged the child as Ben’s in three seconds. And since her housemate, Shaye—who happened to be Ben’s little sister—had never once mentioned a niece, someone could be in for a shocker of a morning. Unless Ben had kept secrets from his family? No…Shaye and Ben were tight.
So Ben was a daddy. Kezia shook her head. Ben knew kids like she knew car engines—which was to say, not at all. Not judging, just an observation. She’d watched him all summer from her classroom window. His sisters had twisted his arm into coaching cricket after school. He’d never seemed relaxed with the kids, just kept them busy with the game. But he’d caught her eye more than once—out there on the field—running, batting…muscles flexing as he bowled to a student.
And…cutting off inappropriate thoughts now. Kezia crouched and plunged the trowel into the soil. Ben was not her type. Actually, she hadn’t had a type since Callum died over four years ago. But if she did have a type? She sure wouldn’t go for men whose relationships didn’t last as long as the dairy products in her fridge.
“Mamma?” Zoe bounded around the side of their little cottage.
Kezia brushed her dirty hands on her apron. “Yes, bella?”
Her daughter ran to her side and Kezia kissed the girl’s mahogany curls.
Zoe tipped up her face, her dark-chocolate eyes sparkling. “Has the little girl come back yet?”
“Not yet. But remember, I said she might only be visiting for the day.”
Zoe raised her wrist and held her Hello Kitty watch under Kezia’s nose. “They can’t leave until the three o’clock ferry. That’s plenty of time for us to play—look. Here they come!”
Zoe darted out the gate and waved madly, calling, “Hi! Hi!”
Kezia hurried after her, but Zoe bulleted up the road. The blonde woman teetered down the hill toward them in cute but totally impractical red wedges that made Kezia’s rubber gardening booties look like clodhoppers.
Zoe bounced to a halt. “Where’s-your-little-girl-what’s-her-name-can-I-play-with-her-please?”
The woman stopped and shot Zoe a pinched smile.
“Hello again.” Kezia touched her daughter’s shoulder, which trembled with bottled-up energy. “Sorry, we didn’t mean to ambush you, did we, Zoe?” She smiled at the woman. “You found Ben’s place okay?”
“Yes.” She smoothed out non-existent wrinkles in her hot-tamale skirt and glanced down the road at the cluster of buildings forming the tiny township.
“I’m Kezia Murphy, and this is my daughter, Zoe. We’re both friends of the Harland family.”
The woman’s gaze travelled from Kezia’s hair—which no doubt contained bits of fauna, snagged in her curls—to her dirt-smeared gardening clothes and rubber boots.
She dredged up a polite smile. “I’m Marci Carter, and my daughter’s name is Jade. She’s spending the school holidays with her dad, and I’m sure she’d love to play with you, sweetie.”
“Ben’s her daddy?” Zoe’s words came out in a high-pitched squeak. “And she’s staying for two whole weeks?”
A prickly knot formed in Kezia’s stomach. Suspicions confirmed. This Marci had slept with Ben, created a child with him. Shaye and Piper, her two best friends on the island, were the girl’s aunties. The family resemblance between them and little Jade was unmistakable.
And what did that prickly little knot mean?
Sensing the multitude of questions bubbling through her daughter’s veins, she tugged on one of Zoe’s corkscrew curls. “Bella, why don’t you let me talk to Jade’s mum about play dates?”
“Okay-okay. I’ll go tidy my room so Jade can come over.” Zoe flashed a quick grin, and then galloped along the road, disappearing through their garden gate.
Zoe voluntarily cleaning her room? Miracle upon miracle.
Kezia turned back and modulated her voice to her professional, politically correct, teacher-dealing-with-parent tone. “This must be a very stressful situation for the three of you.”
Marci whipped out her cell from her tote bag and tapped the screen with one blood-red talon. She frowned at the phone then slipped it away again. “I thought it was time Jade got to meet her father and his family.”
“You’ll be staying at Due South or one of the B&Bs then?”
Marci tossed her mane of hair. “Oh, I’m not staying. Just Jade. I’m returning to Auckland tonight.”
Kezia stared. Blood thrummed crazily in her head until her ears buzzed. Her politically correct teacher-self got kicked to the curb and the Italian mamma in her roared to life. “Merda! You’re leaving her here? Alone?”
Marci’s forehead creased into a “V,” her baby blues frosting. “Jade’s eight, not a baby. She’ll have a blast, especially with someone her own age to keep her entertained.”
A blast? Being left with a complete stranger on a tiny settlement over nine hundred miles from home when you were eight years old was not a blast.
Kezia sucked in a deep breath and forced the lava rush of blood in her brain down to her boot soles. “But your little girl doesn’t know Ben.”
Cocking a hip, Marci folded her arms. “They’ll get along fine. He’s a bit of a cold fish, but he’s still a good guy. He’ll look after her.”
Kezia’s belly gave an inappropriate little flutter. When Ben crossed her mind, as he’d started to do a lot recently, the first adjective she thought of wasn’t cold.
“Yes, he’s a good man.”
“Great.” Marci slid a not-so-subtle glance at her watch. “I’m going to peek into that little gift shop in town, then relax with a coffee before the ferry leaves. It’d be wonderful if Zoe could be friends with Jade. She’s a little…shy.”
Kezia bit her tongue. Literally nipped her teeth down on it so it wouldn’t get her into trouble. She remembered Jade, with her chin sunk to her chest, her white-knuckled hands gripping the pink Barbie backpack, trudging up the road after her mother. None of your business, Kez. Hah. None of her business said no red-blooded Italian woman ever.
“Zoe will love having someone to play with. There aren’t any girls her age on the island.”
“Well, this tiny outpost is pretty, of course. But why would people actually want to livehere?” Marci blinded Kezia with a dazzlingly insincere smile. “Anyway, nice to meetcha.”
With a toodle-loo wave, Marci stepped aside and clopped down the road as fast as her ridiculous wedges would allow.
Kezia walked to the back door of her cottage and toed off her rubber boots. She padded in thick socks across the tongue-and-groove flooring to the sink. Filling a glass, she watched a bellbird on one of the many trees surrounding their home. He shook his olive-green feathers and his mate fluttered to the branch next to him, cocking her head inquisitively.
She rolled her eyes as Zoe poked her head around the kitchen door.
“Mamma, can I have a muffin since I’ve been cleaning so hard?”
Kezia cast another glance out the window, even though she couldn’t see Ben’s house up the hill. What about Jade? Dumped on a big, intimidating stranger who likely couldn’t cope with her unexpected arrival. While there was no shortage of love in the Murphy household, would the poor girl find any affection with Ben?
The blueberry muffins she’d baked earlier sat on the counter. “How about we take some muffins up to Ben’s place?”
Zoe grinned. “And I can meet my new friend? Cool!”
“Jade’s only here for the holidays, cara. She’ll go home to Auckland once school starts.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “There’s such a thing as e-mail, Facebook, and Skype, you know.”
“Let’s just welcome her to the island first. She might be feeling a little scared right now.” Since her mother chose to shop, instead of making this difficult transition easier.
“I’ll be a good friend, ‘cause I know what it’s like being scared in a strange place.”
Kezia crossed to her daughter and hugged her tight. She refused to allow the vision of sterile hospital corridors and rooms filled with hollow-faced children back in her head. “I know you’ll be a good friend to Jade. You’re the bravest kid in the world.”
Zoe snickered and wriggled out of her arms. “Not the world but probably on the island.”
“You’re the bravest kid in my world, because you are my world.”
“Yeah, Mamma, I know. Can we go?” Her nose crinkled. “But maybe you’d better have a really quick shower first. You don’t smell nice, and there’s a leaf in your hair.”
Kezia chuckled and gave her daughter’s butt a gentle swat. “See if you can change out of your gardening clothes by the time I’ve finished getting beautiful again.”
Zoe skipped down the hallway to her room. “You are beautiful, Mamma. Not the most beautiful lady in the world but definitely on the island.”
Yes, more than enough amore filled their little home. With Zoe, Kezia had everything she needed.
Ben sat. Jade sat.
He stared. She looked at her hands.
He coughed. She startled and flinched away.
Angling his head, he glared at the ceiling. How could Marci just spring this kid on him and walk away? This wide-eyed, terrified kid? This little girl swamped by his armchair, her black boots dangling off the cushion at least five inches above the floor. So small.
What was he supposed to do now? A bead of sweat trickled down his ribs, and he pulled his tee shirt away from his throat.
Marci had left fifteen minutes ago, and, so far, his entire conversation with his daughterconsisted of him asking awkward questions and her shaking or nodding her head.
Ben hunched in his chair and tried to appear small and unthreatening. A near-impossible task for a guy who’s six-foot-two and built like an armored tank. “Sure you don’t want some juice?”
Pigtails flicked from side to side.
Time to pull out the big guns. “There’s Coke in the fridge. You could have that instead.”
“Mum says Coke rots your teeth.” Her voice was half a pitch above a whisper.
But still, longest sentence since she’d arrived. Progress.
“Yeah, she’s probably right about that.” He wracked his brains. Bingo. “It’s Easter next weekend, so the Easter Bunny will bring you chocolate eggs.”
Wait, did eight-year-old girls believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny still? Jade raised her chin and stared at him incredulously. Guess that was a no.
“I’m not allowed too much chocolate, or I’ll get fat.”
Ben recoiled. Fat? Where did a kid get an idea like that?
“Listen, kiddo—” The knock on his front door saved him from attempting to tackle that mine-loaded topic with his daughter.
Jesus Christ on a souped-up moped. He still couldn’t get his head around the idea.
Ben leaped out of his chair and bolted for the door.
Please let it be Marci. PleaseletitbeMarci!
He wrenched open the door to Kezia with her knuckles poised to knock again. For a moment he forgot all about unexpected hook-ups from his past and the unexpected progeny of said hook-up.
Not a pencil skirt in sight but the brunette bombshell in front of him still blew brain-cell after brain-cell. Leggings clung to her lower curves, and the orange cardigan thingy she wore acted as a beacon, directing his attention to her amazing rack. His gaze jerked up to the mass of curls spiraling over her shoulder and her lush, wide mouth. A mouth made for the kind of sin he’d dreamed of this morning before his rude awakening.
“Ben?” Dark chocolate eyes snapped with amusement and something else he may’ve been able to identify. If he could herd his remaining brain cells together.
Who was he kidding? When it came to this woman he couldn’t identify crap. Every time he ran into her she rendered him half mute with baffled lust. He hadn’t a fricken’ clue what went on behind her smile.
But right now, Kezia Murphy was his savior—because Kezia knew kids. Beside her stood Zoe, a second, shorter version of his redeemer. While his usual modus operandi involved avoiding any person under the age of ten, he’d never been so glad to see this mini-chatterbox in his entire life.
Ben didn’t question what they were doing on his doorstep, he just jabbered, “Come in, come in.”
Zoe stepped out of her polka-dot gumboots and walked inside. She shoved a basket into his arms. “We brought muffins. Where’s Jade?”
He started and flicked a gaze to Kezia, who shrugged.
“In the family room.”
“I’m gonna go say hi.” Zoe streaked toward the doorway, her socks skidding on the wooden floor.
Zoe had been in his place a couple of times while Shaye babysat. They’d stopped by with some leftovers for Shaye’s poor, domestically challenged bachelor brother. Handy having a sister who was a sous chef—her leftovers beat micro-nuked baked beans any day.
Kezia, however, had never been in his home.
“Muffins.” Ben looked down at the basket and took a whiff. Sugar and spice, but not as delicious as Kezia’s perfume. Her exotic scent wafted around him as she moved closer. “Thanks.”
From his family room drifted Zoe’s excited greeting and the softer murmur of his daughter. Kezia laid a hand on his forearm and he froze.
“A bit of a shocking morning for you, hmm?”
She squeezed his arm and dropped her hand away. “Have you eaten? Had your three cups of breakfast coffee?”
He mustered a faint grin. “Heard about that, did you?”
“Shaye’s mentioned your caffeine addiction.”
His stomach growled and she laughed, a smoky chuckle that rolled over his frazzled nerves like silk.
“Point me to your kitchen, and I’ll make you some coffee to go with the muffins.”
She partially turned away from him, and before he could stop himself he grabbed her wrist.
“Kezia,” he blurted. Her gaze locked with his. “I can’t do this.”
(c) Tracey Alvarez 2014
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