Charli slid out from the booth as a waitress delivered pizzas to the table. She’d only been in Australia for two days and was still suffering the effects of jet lag after the long flight east. Her body clock was telling her she’d been up all night and her stomach heaved at the thought of pizza for breakfast even though it was just a little after ten pm.
Her sister and her friends looked as though they were preparing to kick on and Charli needed something soft to drink if she was going to last any longer. Amy and her fellow ski instructors seemed to be able to hold their drinks far better than Charli ever could. She’d heard the Australians partied hard and she doubted she’d keep up even if she wasn’t exhausted.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent night’s sleep. It felt like years ago. She’d spent the past seven years studying hard and working part-time in her hours off. While she’d had plenty of late nights very few had been because she’d been out having fun. Medical school had been hugely demanding of both her time and effort and her two years of Foundation Training had been even more exhausting. Sleep had been hard to come by for many years and, most recently, it had been thanks to her lousy ex, but she’d come to Australia to forget about him and she refused to waste any more time thinking about past mistakes. She’d make a trip to the bar and order a round of drinks and then maybe no one would notice if she sneaked away early.
The bar was crowded, the crush of the après-ski crowd several people deep and Charli could feel herself swaying on her feet as she waited to be served. Her eyes drifted closed, just briefly, but it was long enough to cause her to lose her balance and stumble. She staggered backwards, bumping into the person behind her. Large hands grabbed at her elbows, steadying her.
‘Woah, are you okay?’
She heard a deep voice in her ear. She turned around and looked up into a pair of very dark eyes.
She blinked as she tried to clear her head. She felt foggy, disoriented and she focussed hard. Her first thought was that this man who had her by the elbows was cute. About her age, several inches taller than her, maybe a smidge over six feet, with messy dark hair to go with his dark eyes.
‘Are you okay?’
She could see his lips moving, she could see his teeth which were even and white in contrast to the shadow of a beard on his jaw. She heard him speak but the combination of jet lag and his broad Australian accent meant it took her a few moments to translate his words into something she could make sense of. She nodded. ‘Yes, sorry about that.’
‘Are you sure you should be ordering more drinks?’
‘They’re for my friends.’
He raised one dark eyebrow and she noticed he had a small scar just under his left eye. She must be standing way too close if she could notice that but the crowd around her, coupled with the fact that he was still holding onto her, meant she couldn't move away. His hands were warm and gentle and she found she didn’t actually want to step away.
‘I promise,’ she said, ‘I’m having a lemonade. I’m just jet-lagged.’
‘In that case, let me order for you. What are you having?’
‘A jug of beer-,’
‘And a lemonade,’ he added as he dropped his hands and turned towards the bar.
Charli nodded as she pulled her purse from her handbag, wishing he hadn’t let go of her. She still felt a little unsteady but this time she didn’t think it was solely because of the jet lag. She studied his back as he placed the order. Her eyes took in the breadth of this shoulders and the way his hair curled over the collar of his t-shirt. His shirt fit snugly, showing off his muscular physique. She lifted her eyes up to his as he turned back from the bar. ‘How much will it be?’ she asked.
‘Twenty bucks should cover it.’
‘Twenty? What colour is that again?’
‘I’m still getting used to your money,’ she said as she fished in her purse for the colourful note. ‘It’s pretty.’
She nodded. ‘Just arrived. Hence the jet-lag,’ she said, holding out the note. He reached for the money with his left hand and her fingers tingled as she placed the note in his hand. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring she noticed. Maybe her jet-lag wasn’t as bad as she thought.
‘Whereabouts are you from?’ he asked her.
‘London. Have you been there?’
‘Did you like it?’
‘To be completely honest, I prefer it here. Fewer people, better weather.’ He smiled at her, softening his words but she wasn’t offended. He’d probably be able to say anything that he liked without upsetting people as long as he said it with a smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners and his mouth turned up at the edges, his smile suited him.
‘In case you haven’t noticed,’ she said, ‘you’re in the snow. Snow is snow all around the world.’ Somehow, she managed to continue the conversation even though she was distracted.
‘Yes, but in Australia we choose to go to the snow, we don’t have to put up with it unless we want to and even in the snow we get our fair share of sunny days. There’s nothing better than wearing a t-shirt and getting a sun tan while you ski.’
‘You ski in a t-shirt?’
Her eyes roamed over him again, taking in the view from the front this time. It was even better than the back. His chest was broad, his stomach flat, his arms were tanned and muscular, lightly covered with dark hair - enough to be masculine, not enough to be off-putting – and his skin was olive. The t-shirt was tucked into a pair of red ski pants that had some official looking emblem on them but she couldn’t make out what it said in the dim lighting of the bar.
‘You bet.’ He spoke in the same laid-back, friendly manner that Amy’s friends used. Unhurried, relaxed. She’d have to get used to the Aussie way of speaking.
He paid for their order but made no move to pick up his drinks and leave the bar.
‘Hey, Reeves, a man is not a camel!’
Charli saw him turn a head at the comment. She followed the direction of his gaze and saw a group of men, all wearing the same navy and red uniform, standing around a tall, round table. ‘Are they talking to you?’ she asked.
‘I’d better let you go,’ she said, hoping he’d say he didn’t have to. ‘Thank you for your help.’
‘It was my pleasure-,’ he paused and she knew he was waiting for her name.
‘Charli,’ he repeated. She liked the way it sounded when he said it. ‘Maybe I’ll see you around.’
She hoped so she thought as she took the jug of beer and her lemonade back to the booth, sliding in next to her sister.
‘Who was that?’ Amy asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, realising belatedly that she had no idea. She had a name but no idea if it was his first or last.
‘I bet he could take your mind off your troubles for the next few days,’ her sister added.
Charli smiled but shook her head. She’d decided she was a terrible judge of character but even she could tell he had trouble written all over him. He was cute and confident and his smile had made her knees wobble but she suspected he had that effect on a lot of women and she wasn’t about to let him add her to his list. ‘I’m not looking for someone from ski patrol to take my mind off things.’
‘You should be, he was hot. But he’s not ski patrol, their uniform is red and white, not red and navy.’
‘Do you know what he does?’ She should have got more information she thought, even as she tried to tell herself she wasn’t interested. The last thing she needed was a rebound fling with a hot stranger. But she couldn’t deny he’d caught her attention.
Amy shook her head before she was dragged back in to conversation with one of the other ski instructors, a handsome, blonde Canadian. It looked as though Amy might get her own distraction tonight.
Charli scanned the room but she couldn’t see the cute guy or his friends from where she sat and she wasn’t about to go looking for him. She needed to clear her head, not complicate it, but if she had been looking she suspected he was just the type she would have fallen for. It would be safer if she just took herself back to Amy’s apartment and got a decent night’s sleep. Tomorrow was another day.
She leant over to Amy. ‘I think I might call it a night,’ she said as she picked up her jacket.
‘I’ll come with you,’ Amy said as she started to stand.
‘No, no, don’t leave on my account.’
But Amy was already up and had tucked her arm through Charli’s elbow. ‘You’ve come all this way to see me, Canadian Dan will understand,’ she smiled and raised an eyebrow, ‘unless you’re going to find that hot guy and don’t want me cramping your style?’
Charli shook her head. ‘No, I’m going home to bed, alone. I’m tired of being disappointed by men, I’d rather just go to bed with my fantasies than find out that the reality isn’t what I hoped for.’
‘Oh, Charli,’ Amy sighed as she hugged her younger sister close, ‘I know Hugo hurt you but not all men are bastards.’
‘Maybe not, but I’m not game to find out tonight.’
‘Well let me know if you change your mind. There are plenty of cute guys here who will happily let you try out your fantasies on them.’
Charli laughed. ‘Seriously, I’m fine. I’ll go and tuck myself into bed and I’ll see you in the morning.’ She kissed her sister’s cheek and gently pushed her back into her seat. ‘There’s no need for both of us to have an early night. Stay, have fun.’
She’d meant it when she said she wasn’t looking for a man to take her mind off things but, even so, she couldn’t resist one last glance around the bar on her way out.
He was still there.
He was leaning against the wall, surrounded by his mates but he was watching her. Her heart skittered as his eyes locked onto hers. He straightened up and her step faltered as he put his glass on the table and moved towards her. Somehow she managed to keep walking but her eyes didn’t leave his. He weaved through the crowd, his path at an angle to hers and she knew he would reach her before she got to the exit.
He waited for her and she stopped beside him, her feet deciding her course of action for her.
‘Are you leaving?’ His voice was calm and his dark eyes held her gaze, making her feel as though he could see into the depths of her soul.
‘Will you stay and have a drink with me?’
Should she? She wanted to but she really didn’t trust herself to make good decisions. Even when she wasn’t jet-lagged she made terrible decisions. ‘I don’t even know your name.’ She stalled for time.
‘It’s Patrick. Patrick Reeves.’
He continued to watch her closely and the rest of the crowd faded into insignificance as she hugged the sound of his name to herself. It was a nice name and he had an even nicer face and a fabulous smile. She was tempted, very tempted, but she was also exhausted. ‘I don’t think I’ll be very good company,’ she said, barely able to string two words together, although whether that was the effect of jet-lag or Patrick’s intense gaze she wasn’t sure.
‘May I walk you home, then?’
She hesitated, but only briefly. She knew she’d regret it if she walked out alone. She nodded. Decision made. ‘I’d like that.’
He held her jacket for her, helping her into it. ‘Where are you staying?’ he asked as they left the bar and he shrugged into his insulated jacket.
‘At Snowgum Chalet, with my sister.’ Her boots slipped on the icy path and Patrick reached out to steady her, wrapping an arm around her waist, catching her before she could fall. He lifted her slightly, settling her back on her feet.
‘Thank you.’ He still had his arm around her and her tongue felt too big in her mouth making her stumble over the words. ‘I seem to have trouble keeping my feet around you.’
He knew the feeling. She was looking up at him with big blue eyes. His heart missed a beat and he felt like he was falling too. ‘I’ll have to remember to watch out for you on the slopes,’ he said as he took her hand. It was small but fitted perfectly into his grip and he tucked her hand into his elbow. ‘I have a feeling you could be dangerous.’
‘I’m usually ok on skis,’ she replied, completely missing his meaning, ‘but I am very wobbly today. I’ll sure I’ll be alright after a decent sleep. Are you skiing tomorrow?’
He shook his head. ‘Unfortunately not.’
‘Do you work here? I saw your friends were all wearing the same uniform.’
‘Not exactly,’ he said as he changed direction, taking a path to the right that turned past Ironbark Lodge and headed down the hill to Snowgum Chalet. ‘We’re all paramedics, we’ve been doing alpine training exercises here. We’re part of the High Country Special Operations arm.’
‘That sounds exciting. What did you have to do?’
‘Avalanche training, helicopter drops into the back country, abseiling down cliffs, that sort of thing.’
‘Exciting and exhausting.’
He supposed it was both but there was nothing unusual in the hectic pace of his life. Working as a Special Ops paramedic meant his life moved rapidly from one disaster to another and he embraced the pace, especially over the past two years. Being busy meant he didn’t have time to think. Didn’t have time to dwell.
‘It’s been challenging,’ he admitted as they reached the front door of her lodge, ‘but it’s exhilarating too.’
It had been busy and he was knackered. He should be going home to bed, not chatting up pretty strangers in the snow but he’d been powerless to resist her. When he’d seen her heading for the door he’d known he couldn’t let her walk out without talking to her once more. He knew that if he let her walk out of the bar he would never see her again.
Charli let go of his hand as she searched in her bag for the key. She turned to him and for the briefest of moments he thought about what he’d say if she invited him in.
‘Do you think we could have that drink tomorrow night?’ she asked.
He should have been relieved that her words weren’t the ones he’d half-hoped to hear. A lack of an invitation meant he didn’t have to wrestle with his conscience, didn’t have to remind himself of all the reasons why he should say good night and go home to his own bed. She made the decision for him. He should be grateful but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
‘I’d love too but I have to go back to Melbourne.’ He was due to leave first thing in the morning but the disappointment left a sour taste in his mouth. Maybe he could postpone his departure for just a few hours? He’d have to make some phone calls, ask for more favours, but it would be worth it. He had to try. ‘Could I take you to brunch instead or are you planning to be out skiing bright and early?’
‘No, brunch sounds lovely.’ She smiled up at him and made him wonder if it was too soon to kiss her goodnight.
He’d known her less than an hour. He figured it probably was too soon.
‘Great,’ he said as he resisted temptation and waited for her to unlock her door to her ground floor apartment. He had no reason to delay the farewell any longer. ‘I’ll meet you here at ten.’
He headed towards his bed, feeling unexpectedly hopeful and positive.
Snow blanketed the ground beneath his boots but the evening sky was clear and dark. There were no clouds and no moon but hundreds of tiny stars studded the darkness, relieving the blackness. He stopped outside the bar and the background hum of the alpine resort village faded as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the fresh mountain air. The scent of snow gums, wood smoke and barbeque filled his nose.
He stood still for a moment longer, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere.
He could see the lights reflected off the snow as the machine operators traversed the slopes, smoothing out the ski runs ready for tomorrow but he turned his back on the runs and looked instead past the chalets and buildings of the Wombat Gully Ski Resort and further up the mountain where the stately snow gums lined the ski runs. They stood sentinel, their trunks smooth and ghostly white, lit only by the light coming from the lodges. There was no wind to rustle their leaves, the air was still and so was he.
He knew he was ok. He’d kept things together for two years. He’d come through the worst of it. He had a career he loved, he knew it could be all consuming but it had saved him from depression and misery and had given him something else to focus on. Between his work and Ella he had everything he needed. Not everything he wanted but life was good. He was doing ok.
He opened his eyes and took in the natural beauty that surrounded him and thought, for the first time in years, that it was good to be alive. No, not thought, but believed. There was a difference.
He breathed out and his warmth breath condensed into white puffs of steam in the frigid air. Perhaps it was time to look to the future.
He ignored the drone of the snow groomers and the constant thrumming of the snow making machines and the music drifting into the night from the bar behind him - none of that was anything to do with him – as his thoughts drifted back to Charli.
A sudden gust of wind swirled around him, startling him after the extraordinary stillness of the night. A jet engine roared behind them, its sound swallowing the background noise and the ground shook beneath their feet. Pat looked up but the sky was just as dark as before. He could see nothing untoward but the rumble continued, the ground unsteady, testing their balance. He felt his heart rate accelerate as he turned around, his eyes glued to the mountain searching for the source of the noise, his gut telling him it wasn’t a plane.
Was it an avalanche? Even though they’d spent hours on avalanche training he’d never heard, or seen, one. They were a rare occurrence in Australia.
His eyes scanned the slopes, glancing over the buildings as he looked to the tree line. Ironbark Lodge sat highest on the mountain and he could see it silhouetted against the snow, its windows lit up against the night sky. He saw the lights waver and flicker as though candles illuminated the glass instead of electricity. And then the lights disappeared leaving the lodge in darkness.
Pat looked down the mountain, expecting power outage, but the other buildings remained bright. Movement in the corner of his eye drew his gaze up again.
Ironbark Lodge at the top of the mountain looked as if it was moving.
He must be more tired than he thought.
He shook his head and rubbed one hand across his eyes before opening them again. He must be seeing things.
No. He wasn’t. The lodge was definitely moving.
‘Bloody hell!’ It took him a moment to process what he was looking at and meanwhile Ironbark Lodge continued to move. He watched on in horror and disbelief as the lodge slid down the side of the mountain.
Snowgum Chalet sat directly in its path.
Snowgum Chalet was where he’d left Charli.
He took off, sprinting along the icy paths, retracing his steps from moments before, running right into the path of the disaster.
He only had one thought as he ran towards the lodge.
His Little Christmas Miracle
Jess had refused to wear a dress. As if that meant she had some control over the situation. She didn’t want to feel like she was going on a date. They were just two old acquaintances catching up. She tucked her jeans into her boots and tugged a black turtleneck sweater over her head. She did put on make-up, she was too vain not to, but kept it simple. Foundation, mascara, some blush and lip gloss. She still wanted to look pretty but not desperate. Adding a red scarf for some colour, she headed out the door.
She’d insisted on meeting Lucas at the hotel. This wasn’t a date so he didn’t need to collect her, she was quite capable of walking a few streets. She stepped from the plaza into the lodge. She stopped briefly, gathering her thoughts as she admired the room. There were two beautifully decorated Christmas trees in the lobby, one at each end, and the lobby itself was festooned with lights, pine branches, red bows and mistletoe.
The lodge was celebrating Christmas in style and decorations were multiplying in the village too. The Christmas spirit was alive and flourishing in Moose River and Jess smiled to herself. As a child she had loved Christmas. She had looked forward to it all year, partly because the festive season also included her birthday, but it had been her favourite time of year for so many reasons. But then, one year, Christmas had lost its sparkle and Jess was desperate to put it back. Maybe this would be the year.
Jess felt someone watching her and she knew it was Lucas. She turned her head. He was walking towards her, coming to meet her in the lobby. He was wearing a navy suit with a crisp white shirt and a tie the colour of forget-me-nots. She’d never seen him in a suit before. His hair had been brushed, it wasn’t as tousled as she was used to, and she fought the urge to run her fingers through it and mess it up a bit. He looked handsome but she preferred him more casually styled. But perhaps the old Lucas wouldn’t have fitted into this fancy hotel. She wondered how much he’d changed. Probably not as much as she had.
He smiled at her. A dimple appeared in his cheek, a sparkle in his eye. Now he looked like the Lucas she’d fallen in love with.
He reached out and took both her hands in his then leaned down and kissed her cheek, enveloping her in his clean, fresh scent. The caress of his lips sent tingles through her as her body responded to his touch. She could feel every beat of her heart and every whisper of air that brushed past her face as his lips left their imprint on her skin. Despite what she thought, her body didn’t seem to remember that this wasn’t a date or that seven years had passed. Her body reacted as if it had been yesterday that Lucas had been in her bed.
She’d been on a few dates over the past few years but she’d eventually given up because no one else had ever had the same effect on her as Lucas had. The attraction she’d felt for Lucas had been immediate, powerful and irresistible, and she’d never felt the same connection with anyone else. Not one other man had ever made her feel like she might melt with desire. Not one of them had made her feel like she was the centre of the universe, a universe that might explode at any moment. What was the point in dating? she’d asked herself. Why waste time and energy on someone who wasn’t Lucas? If she couldn’t have Lucas she’d rather have nothing.
And it seemed he hadn’t lost the ability to make her feel truly alive. Just a touch, a glance, a kiss could set her off. She’d need to be careful. She’d need to keep her wits about her and remember what was at stake.
‘JJ,’ he said, and his voice washed over her, soft and deep and intimate. How could she feel so much when so little was said? ‘Thank you for coming.’
As if she’d had a choice.
Despite her show of determination she’d known her resolve wasn’t strong enough to withstand the temptation of knowing that Lucas was only a few streets away. She’d known she’d pick up the phone and call him.
‘I hope you don’t mind if we stay in the hotel to eat?’ he asked.
‘I’m not dressed to eat here,’ she said, as she took her hands out of his hold and shrugged out of her coat. Jeans and an old sweater were not five-star dining attire, even if the jeans hugged her curves and the black top made her blonde hair shine like white gold.
He ran his eyes over her and Jess could feel her temperature rise by a degree for every second she spent under his gaze. She could see the appreciation in his eyes and the attention felt good.
‘You look lovely,’ he said as he took her coat. It had been a long time since she’d wanted to capture a man’s interest and despite telling herself this wasn’t a date it was nice to know that Lucas liked what he could see. ‘And you’re safe with me. I can put in a good word for you if need be.’ He was laughing at her and she relaxed. His words reminded her of their first night together all those years ago. She’d felt safe then and she felt safe now.
‘Are you sure? I don’t want to drag down the standards.’
‘Believe me, you’re not lowering our standards.’ He ran his gaze over her again and Jess’s breath caught in her throat as she saw his forget-me-not-blue eyes darken.
He guided her into the restaurant, his hand rested against the small of her back. His touch was so light she should hardly have felt it but she could swear she could feel each individual fingertip and her skin was on fire under the thin wool of her sweater. He took her to a table positioned beside the large picture windows looking out over the outdoor terrace and onto the plaza. Lucas pulled out her chair for her and reached for a bottle of champagne that was chilling in a bucket next to her. He popped the cork and poured them each a glass.
‘To old friends,’ she said, as they touched glasses.
‘And new memories,’ he added. ‘It’s good to see you, JJ.’
She took a nervous sip of her champagne and looked out of the window. Christmas lights were strung up around the terrace and stretched across to the plaza. They surrounded the ice-skating rink and looped through the bare branches of the trees. The ice and snow sparkled under the glow of the lights as skaters glided around the rink. It was the perfect image of a winter wonderland.
‘It’s a beautiful view,’ she said as she got her breathing under control and returned her gaze to Lucas. ‘It’s a beautiful hotel.’
‘You like it?’
‘It’s perfect. Just looking at it makes me happy. Someone has done a very good job.’ The entire lodge conspired to make her feel as though the hotel was giving her a warm hug. Or maybe that was Lucas.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
Lucas nodded. ‘This is my vision.’
‘Really? I thought you were the hotel manager.’
‘That’s my official title but this is my hotel.’
‘Yours? You own it?’
‘Yes. This is my baby.’
‘You dream big, don’t you?’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You told me you wanted to work in the hospitality industry when you finished university, you never said you actually wanted to own a hotel.’
‘You remember that?’
she thought, but she said nothing.
‘I have you to thank for that,’ he told her.
‘I started planning this the day you vanished from my life.’
‘I didn’t vanish,’ she objected. ‘My father dragged me away. I didn’t have a choice.’
‘In my mind you vanished. I never saw you again. I looked for you, every day, until the end of the season, until the day I left, but you had disappeared.’
‘You looked for me?’ She’d never dared to imagine that he would have thought about her.
‘Of course. Did you think I would just let you go? It’s taken much longer than I thought it would to find you but now we have a chance to fill in all the gaps. Now I have a chance to find what really happened that day. To find out what’s happened since.’
‘I’m not the same person I was then, Lucas.’
She remembered that awful day as if it were yesterday. The shame. The heartbreak. She had felt as though things could never be worse. Until she’d found out that, really, they could. In fact, they could be a worse.
Everything had changed after that, including her. The only thing that hadn’t changed, apparently, over the past seven years was how Lucas affected her. As his eyes locked onto hers she knew she would jump right back into bed with him tonight if he asked. She could feel every cell in her body yearning for him. She felt as though if she didn’t keep tight control of her emotions her body would dissolve. The heat between them was enough to melt her core and she could feel herself burning.
She could get lost in him so easily and she couldn’t let that happen. She needed to resist him, needed to keep her distance, but when he looked at her like he was doing now, like she was the only person in the world, she didn’t think she had the willpower to stay away. Sitting there, looking in to his blue eyes, she could pretend that her life was still simple and easy and privileged.
But that wasn’t the truth.
She fought the urge to give in to him. To do so would mean telling him all her secrets. She knew that it was inevitable but she was terrified of what he would think when he found out. Would he forgive her? Would he reject her?
What a complicated situation. Coming back was supposed to be the answer. It was supposed to help her get her life on track but all she’d got were complications and confusion. All she’d got were more questions and fewer answers.
She suspected it would be impossible to get out of this with her heart intact and she wasn’t sure if she could stand to lose him a second time. But that wasn’t going to be her choice to make.
She picked up her glass as it gave her a chance to remove her hand from his, which was the only thing to do if she wanted to think straight. There were things she needed to tell him.
Jess sipped her champagne, steadying the glass on her lip to disguise the shake in her hand. All the times she’d wished he’d been with her and now here he was. It was time for the truth. She couldn’t keep her secret any longer. She took a deep breath and put her glass down on the table. Starting the tale would be difficult but she feared it wouldn’t be the worst part.
‘Lucas, there’s something I need to tell you.’
“A Kiss to Melt Her Heart”
Gabe tried not to watch as Sophie swung her legs out of the bed. He could see the swell of her breasts under the thin wool of her thermal top and he saw her nipples peak as her body registered the change in temperature.
He moved away but turning his back didn’t stop him from picturing the lines of her body, the softness of her skin, the touch of her fingers. He heard her feet hit the floor as she stood up and he imagined he could feel the air moving as she pulled on her clothes.
He opened the door as she finished putting her boots on and together they stepped outside. The sky glowed green and he heard her intake of breath as she looked up and stretched out a hand as if to touch the lights that danced above their heads. From one edge of the night sky to the other long fingers of light shimmered and glowed. The dark night sky had been overtaken by rich emerald green swirls tinged with sapphire blue and gold. Even the stars were dulled by the magnificence of the Aurora Australis.
Sophie turned in a circle to follow the lights as they danced across the sky. ‘It looks like the world has been turned upside down. I’ve seen these colours in the ocean but never in the sky.’ The colours were crisp and clear, translucent, and she lifted her hand again as if to reach out to touch them. ‘They are so beautiful.’
The lights shone like phosphorescence, splitting the darkness like laser beams. A curtain of coloured smoke wafting across the sky.
‘Do you want to get your camera?’
She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t think I could do it justice. I just want to sit and enjoy it.’
Gabe could feel the length of her thigh against his and he imagined he could feel her body heat even through the thick insulated suits. Indecent thoughts had been running through his head ever since he had enticed her out of bed and now that she was practically sitting in his lap his thoughts were getting more and more r-rated. Despite the fact they were both bundled up in myriad layers of clothing he could picture her shape and he could see her face under the emerald glow of the Southern Lights and that was enough to keep his blood boiling.
She had left her hair loose and the dark curls were poking out from beneath her beanie, spilling over the front of her red suit like a chocolate fountain. He resisted the urge to reach out and lift the weight of her hair in his hands.
Sophie gazed heavenward as the display continued in all its spectacular glory. ‘I can see how being here could become addictive. There’s nowhere else quite like it, is there?’
‘No, it’s hard to give up,’ he agreed. He missed the Ice whenever he left for a break. He was attracted to the wildness and the freedom of Antarctica. It really was the last frontier. Of course there were rules, particularly in terms of safety, but the expeditioners were a little community at the bottom of the Earth, remote and separate from the rest of the world, and that was one of the things he relished.
‘I had the impression that Antarctica was red, white and blue, but now I’ll remember it as emerald and gold,’ she said and he felt her leg twitch as she shivered.
‘Are you cold, Doc?’
Gabe stood up and reached for her hand. ‘Time to get warm,’ he said as he pulled her to her feet.
They were standing almost chest to chest and Sophie tipped her head back to look up at him. She wasn’t here to forget but to move on. She wanted to make a new start. She wanted new memories and sitting under the Southern Lights drinking hot chocolate was exactly the type of new memory she wanted. She would never see this anywhere else and now, whenever she thought of the Southern Lights, she would associate them with Gabe. Tonight would be a perfect memory. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s been a perfect day.’
Gabe’s eyes were dark. He wasn’t smiling but he was watching her so intensely that she could feel a yearning in her belly as though a fire was being stoked. She leant towards him as if she was the aurora and he was the South Pole. She was powerless to resist the pull of attraction. She put her hands on his chest and even through his thick jacket she could feel his strength. He felt solid and dependable and masculine.
She felt his arms wrap around her as he pulled her in even closer. He bent his head.
Her name was a whisper on his lips.
It was the first time in weeks she had been called anything other than ‘Doc’ and she liked how her name sounded when he said it. It made her heart sing.
And then the whisper was gone as his lips covered hers.
His beard was rough against her cheek but the contrast between the scratchiness of his beard and the softness of his lips was incredible. Her breath escaped in a sigh as she closed her eyes and opened her mouth to him.
He tasted of cinnamon and chocolate and she knew she would always associate those flavours with Gabe. It was amazing to kiss someone when the only thing you could feel was their mouth. Her hands were on his chest but because of all their layers the only exposed parts of them were their noses and lips. It concentrated her senses and sharpened her focus. Everything she could touch and feel was going into the kiss. Everything she could touch and feel was happening through her lips.
She melted into him, unable to tell where she stopped and he started. This was the kiss she’d been dreaming of but it was better than she’d imagined. Gabe’s lips were soft but his tongue was searching and as he explored her mouth a rush of heat shot from her chest to her belly and all the way to her toes. It was intense, powerful and all-consuming. It was an incredible feeling but did that make it right?
Sophie wasn’t sure. She pulled away, pushing her hands against his chest until their lips came apart.
Sophie lay her in bunk underneath Gabe trying to breathe quietly. Trying to sleep. But it was going to be impossible. Her mind kept replaying that kiss.
She expected to feel guilty but there was no denying she had wanted to kiss him. That she’d wanted to for days. It wasn’t wrong and she wasn’t going to feel guilty about something that felt so right. She was done feeling guilty.
Sitting under that magical sky had made her feel small and insignificant. It had put things into perspective for her and reminded her that they are all temporary. The lights would be there long after she and everyone else she knew had gone. The lights would bathe the world in their colours for eternity but she only had the here and now. She only had one chance at life and she needed to live it.
Life was short. She needed to be brave. She wanted to be fearless. She needed to take a chance and live each moment. She didn’t know how many she had left and she didn’t want to waste any of them.
He’d said it was her decision.
She wanted to feel alive. She wanted to feel happy.
She wanted to live her life without regrets.
It was her decision and she was willing to take a chance.
She wanted to share this night with Gabe.
She tugged her necklace over her head. She stuffed the chain and her wedding rings into the pocket of her fleece and whispered to Gabe. ‘Are you awake?’
Ellie’s eyes were stinging and she could feel tears welling up, accompanied by an unexpected lump in her throat as the coffin slid soundlessly on the stainless steel rollers and disappeared through the curtain. Behind the curtain, screened from the mourners in the chapel, her grandmother’s body would be taken to the crematory and reduced to bone fragments. Heated to a thousand degrees all that would remain would be able to be contained in a small urn. That urn would end up behind a small brass plaque, next to the ashes of Ellie’s grandfather and parents.
Jess was sitting to Ellie’s left. She was holding out a pack of tissues.
Ellie took one and smiled. ‘Yes, I’m ok.’ Her tears weren’t for her grandmother. Her grandmother was eighty-eight years old and her death wasn’t unexpected but it did mean that Ellie was now truly alone, the sole remaining member of her family. She was an only child and her parents had been killed when she was eleven. Her maternal grandparents had been her guardians and now they were both gone too. Her tears were selfish ones.
Surrounding her, flanking her, protecting her, were her closest friends. Jessica and Ruby sat on her left, Tilly on her right. She and Jess had been friends for several years now since meeting at university where they’d studied nursing together. They’d gone through the highs and lows of good and bad results, good and bad relationships and good and bad times generally. Ruby and Tilly had become her friends more recently, since they all lived together in Number 71 Hill Street and worked together at Eastern Beaches Hospital, but they had become as close as Jess in recent times. These three were like family to her but they weren’t family.
As she waited for the funeral music to stop playing Ellie thought back over the past two months. In the space of nine weeks she’d lost her boyfriend; well not so much lost as found out he was actually someone else’s cheating husband; and now she’d lost her grandmother, her closest relative. True, she had her friends but they weren’t what she longed for. She longed for a family to call her own. She wanted to belong. Her friends were fabulous but they weren’t enough. But they were all she had.
Stop being pathetic, she told herself. It was one thing to cry over the death of a loved one, that was allowed, expected even, but to sit here, at her grandmother’s funeral feeling sorry for herself was being a little too self-indulgent. She was twenty-three years old, she had friends, she would be fine.
But the empty spot in her heart refused to listen. Ever since her parents had died she’d been conscious of this space waiting to be filled. She knew it could only be filled by love but it was a spot for family and family alone. No matter how much she loved her friends that spot was still there, empty, waiting. What if she never found her soul mate, her one true love? What if that empty spot was never filled?
Ellie shook her head. She couldn’t think like that. She had to be strong. She had to be positive. Somewhere her perfect partner waited for her, she had to believe that. Rob had been a mistake, it didn’t mean her quest for love was over. At least she hoped not.
The curtain was closed, the music had stopped, the coffin was gone and her grandmother too. There was nothing left to do here.
She stood and her friends stood with her. They moved en masse to the lounge for the afternoon tea and shadowed her as she spoke to the funeral director and some of her grandmother’s friends, keeping a silent and protective eye on her until Ellie decided that she was able to leave without seeming rude.
‘Stat Bar anyone?’ Tilly suggested as they made their way out of the funeral home. The Stat Bar was their favourite after work haunt; a few hundred metres down the hill from the hospital where they all worked and only a few steps from the house they all called home, it was convenient and trendy.
‘Would you rather go somewhere else?’ Ruby asked Ellie. ‘Somewhere you can be anonymous?’
Ellie knew the Stat Bar would be crowded with hospital staff and she knew her friends would understand if she wanted to avoid it today but she shook her head. ‘No, that sounds good. I’m fine, really.’ A few familiar faces weren’t going to bother her.
The sun was still shining when they got back to Coogee Beach on Sydney’s south-eastern shore. It was a glorious afternoon, something Ellie couldn’t reconcile with a funeral. Funeral weather was supposed to be overcast at the very least, preferably raining, which is exactly the sort of weather she’d had on the day she farewelled her parents. But, she decided as she sipped her drink, the sun did boost her spirits.
They’d managed to grab a coveted outside table overlooking the beach and the tangy smell of salt in the air, the crisp white sand framing the ocean and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore all conspired to make her feel better. Maybe the fact she was on her second vodka, lime and soda was also helping to improve her mood.
The Stat Bar was beginning to fill up with the after work crowd. The allied health practitioners from the hospital were the first to file through the doors, followed by the junior doctors. As more people gathered in the bar Ellie decided it was time to freshen her makeup, she could only imagine the state of her foundation and mascara following the afternoon funeral. She stood up, hauling her bag from under her chair.
Her high heels clicked on the tiled floor as she entered the ladies room. She always wore heels when she wasn’t at work as a way of compensating for only being one hundred and fifty-five centimetres tall. She dumped her bag on the bathroom counter and examined her face. Her eyes were a bit bloodshot but not too swollen although the tip of her nose was still red from crying. She pulled a hairbrush and her make-up out from the depths of her handbag. Tipping her head back she squeezed a couple of eye drops into the corner of each eye before sliding the Alice band from her shoulder-length blond hair and running the brush through it. She repositioned the Alice band, using it to hold her hair off her face as she blended a little foundation over her nose. She leant forwards, overbalancing slightly on her high heels as she checked her eyes. The drops were working, her blue eyes looked a little brighter now. She straightened up and applied a fresh coat of gloss to her lips. She removed a few long blond hairs from her black dress, checking to see that she’d gotten rid of all the stray strands.
As she walked past the bar to return to her girlfriends she saw Rob, her lying, adulterous ex, paying for his drinks. His distinctive appearance made him easy to pick out in a crowd. He was over six feet tall with perfect posture and, as always he was well-dressed. He was out of his theatre clothes and was wearing an immaculately pressed suit, a sharp contrast to the more casual clothes and various hospital uniforms that surrounded him. He had his back to the ocean and to the rest of the room and she could pass behind him unseen. She hurried past as Rob picked up his drink and turned from the bar.
‘Rob’s here,’ Ruby pointed out when Ellie returned to their table.
‘I saw him.’
‘Are you happy to stay?’
Ellie nodded, ‘Yes, I’m fine. Completely recovered.’
She’d had to recover quickly. She and Rob worked together on the orthopaedic ward so she saw him on an almost daily basis and she hadn’t had the luxury of time to retreat to lick her wounds in privacy. She’d had to maintain a civil working relationship. Rob’s personality was aloof and cool at the best of times, something Tilly had always delighted in reminding Ellie of, and since the breakdown of their relationship he certainly hadn’t become any more amenable but mostly they managed to work together harmoniously. Although she didn’t want to socialise with him she had no problem being in the same bar as him.
‘I’m still embarrassed,’ she admitted, ‘but pleased the whole thing was such a secret that I don’t have to live out my embarrassment in front of the entire hospital. I know I got caught up in all the possibilities of the relationship but I think I might have learnt my lesson, for a while at least. I’m going to take my time from now on, not dive in head first.’
Ellie’s remark made Ruby grin and Tilly laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’ Ellie demanded.
‘Famous last words,’ Tilly replied. ‘I’ve never known anyone to fall in love as quickly as you.’
‘I admit I’m a hopeless romantic,’ Ellie replied to Tilly, ‘and when you fell in love with Marcus, and Ruby and Cort sorted out their lives, I got a bit carried away thinking I could be next but I’m going to be patient.’ She reminded herself that she was going to be strong. Positive. Her perfect partner was out there, she just had to be bide her time. She would find someone. ‘There’s someone out there for me and when the time is right he’ll appear.’
‘How about right now?’ Jess interrupted. ‘There’s a hot guy at the bar.’
‘I didn’t mean today,’ Ellie laughed.
‘Check him out before you cross him off your list,’ Jess advised, ‘he looks okay to me.’
Ellie turned her head. It wasn’t hard to see who Jess was talking about. Leaning on the bar, wearing faded jeans and a snug black t-shirt that hugged his sculpted arms and chest, was one definitely hot guy. He had one foot on the railing that ran around the base of the bar and his jeans were moulded to his very shapely backside. He was thin, not scrawny, but his waist was narrow. There was no sign of any spread around his middle and Ellie could see a slight ripple of abdominal muscles along his side. He looked naturally slim, not like he spent hours in the gym.
His face was in profile as he waited for his order. He had a square jaw darkened by a hint of stubble, full lips, one dark eyebrow that she could see and dark lashes. He got his order and turned away from them, unaware of their scrutiny as he moved through the crowd. Ellie straightened in her seat and followed his progress across the room. His walk was quite graceful, his long lean lines leant fluidity to his movement, and his steps were confident. He stopped to join the group of surgeons standing with Rob and Ellie watched, intrigued, as Rob introduced him to the others. How did Rob know him?
‘Do you know who he is?’ Jess asked. She’d shifted in her chair to get a better look.
‘No idea,’ Ellie replied.
She had a good view of him now. Standing beside Rob she could see he was a few inches shorter, around six feet tall. Rob was getting thicker around his middle and the contrast between hot guy and Rob made Rob look older than his thirty-three years. Rob’s hair was more grey than brown although it was still thick. Hot Guy had thick, almost black hair, with a definite curl.
‘If Ellie isn’t interested you should go and introduce yourself, Jess,’ Ruby suggested.
Ellie couldn’t remember saying she wasn’t interested in the hot guy specifically but she bit her tongue because she had just said she was going to bide her time.
‘No way. I’m not going to interrupt that group,’ Jess said.
Ellie understood her sentiments. As very recent nursing graduates they still felt there was a pecking order among the medical staff and their social standing in the hospital certainly didn’t allow them to fraternise with the surgeons uninvited out of hours. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the view.
She looked back into the bar. Hot guy was still talking to Rob but he was looking at her. Their gazes locked and something flashed through her. A jolt, a strike, a shock to the heart and the rest of the room receded as the spark of connection flared. She sat still, riveted to the spot as he looked her up and down without a hint of embarrassment. She should have been horrified but all she could do was wait for him to finish. Wait for his eyes to meet hers again. Without consciously acknowledging her actions she was waiting to see if she could work out what had happened with that first glance. What was it?
His gaze returned to her face and there it was again. A flash of what? Recognition? Ellie wondered if he knew who she was. She mentally shook her head. No. Rob would never have talked about her.
She didn’t move, she couldn’t move. She knew she was staring but she couldn’t stop. She felt a blush spread up her neck and into her cheeks but still she couldn’t look away.
His smouldering good looks had a slight wildness about them, an edginess, which drew her to him. She imagined she could feel the heat radiating from him. Her fingers itched to touch him and if he’d been standing beside her she knew she would have reached out to feel him. She could imagine the heat of his hands burning her skin and that made her blush even more.
He held her gaze, a hint of mischief in his eyes, almost as though he could read her thoughts, and then he grinned at her. Ellie smiled back. She didn’t mean to and she was surprised to find her face was capable of expression but her smile was an automatic response to the power of his.
His gaze had her held in place. She felt as though she were in shock, incapable of moving while he was watching her. She tore her eyes away from his, forcing herself to break the connection. She tried to focus on the conversation going on around her, tried to behave normally, tried to pretend she hadn’t just shared a moment with a hot stranger.
She had no idea how successful she was being but thankfully the arrival of Ruby’s fiancé, Cort, provided a welcome distraction.
Cort was an emergency specialist and Ellie wondered if he knew who the hot guy was. She didn’t have to wonder for long.
‘Do you know who the guy in the black t-shirt is over there? The one who’s talking to Rob Coleman?’ Ruby inclined her head in their direction as she asked Cort the question.
‘That’s James Leonardi,’ he said as he took in the group. ‘He’s a new registrar.’
‘In emergency?’ Ellie asked. Was the new reg working with Cort?
Cort shook his head. ‘Orthopaedics.’
‘Orthopaedics?’ Ellie repeated. She didn’t know whether to be nervous or delighted. The hot guy was an Orthopod? She was going to have to work with him?
‘He’s transferred from Royal North Shore. I understand the Director of Orthopaedics poached him, apparently there are high expectations of him.’
She was vaguely aware that Cort was still talking but her mind had wandered off in the direction of the hot guy. James Leonardi. His name sounded Spanish or Italian. She should have known. That would explain where the heat was coming from, he would have passionate blood running in his veins, it was almost tangible. It was in his eyes too, in the look he had given her. Fire, heat and passion.
There was a silent humming in the air around her. She could feel it and she was convinced it was coming from him. How was it possible to feel such an instant connection with a complete stranger?
She shifted in her chair. She needed to change position. She needed something else to look at. She was going to be working with the man. She needed to change her focus. She needed to picture him in a white coat, in a sterile environment. In theatre scrubs. No. That wasn’t helping. He looked just as good in her imagination.
Maybe she should go home. Maybe it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.
Noah was waiting for a shower and it was her job to help him. That was what she was being paid for. She wasn’t being paid to fantasise about getting into bed with him but undressing him did nothing to deter her imagination.
Ruby wheeled him into the main bathroom before carefully removing his shirt. It was the first time she’d seen him shirtless since the ICU and he looked every bit as good as she remembered. She tried not to stare but she did take her time pulling his t-shirt over his head which gave her a chance to check him out unobserved.
He had no body fat and his torso was smooth and trim with well defined pectorals and abdominal muscles but his arms were to die for. She was desperate to run her hands from his shoulders down over his biceps and forearms all the way to his fingers.
She chatted away as she removed his boxer shorts and helped him to transfer to the shower chair. She tried telling herself he was just like any other patient and to stop feasting her eyes on him but it was difficult to do. Every part of him was oversized and glorious. His skin was smooth and while his arms and legs were lightly covered with blonde hair his trunk was hair free except for a narrow trail of fair hair that ran south from his navel. Ruby averted her eyes, afraid she’d be caught out, as she settled him into the shower chair before removing his sling. He had no tattoos that she had seen and she could understand why. Why would he mess with perfection?
She ran the shower and adjusted the temperature before pushing the shower chair under the flow of water. Noah was able to take care of most of his ablutions using his left hand but Ruby needed to help him with his left side and his hair. But as she stood behind him to wash his hair she realised that the maxi dress she’d thrown on that morning to combat the forecast heat of the day was not the most suitable attire. She hadn’t considered the logistics of the bathroom when she’d dressed. It was spacious with ultramodern fittings. This was good because the shower chair had rolled easily behind the floor to ceiling frameless glass shower screen but the shower head was enormous and the water poured from it like a waterfall. It was nothing like the hospital showers and there was no way she was going to be able to wash him and stay out of the spray.
Noah’s hair was thick and long and it took ages just to get the water to penetrate the strands. She squeezed shampoo into the palm of her hand and worked it through his hair massaging it into his scalp. Noah closed his eyes and she felt him relax under her touch. Ruby took that as an invitation to feast her eyes on his perfect proportions as she washed his hair. She tipped his head backwards to rinse the shampoo out. His eyes remained closed and she was tempted to run her fingers over the planes of his face. His lips were slightly parted which made it look as if he was waiting to be kissed. She wondered what he’d taste like. Coffee, she suspected.
Rivulets of water were running down his chest, coursing between his pectoral muscles and gathering along his sternum. Ruby watched transfixed as the water made its way towards his stomach. He had dropped the washcloth in his lap, protecting his modesty, but Ruby’s eyes didn’t need to travel any further, she didn’t need to see what lay beneath the cloth, she had the perfect image captured in her memory. By the time she had finished rinsing his hair she was soaking wet and more than slightly aroused. She needed to gather herself together.
‘All done,’ she said as she flicked off the water and pushed him out of the shower. She exchanged the wet wash cloth in his lap for a towel and used a second towel to dry him off. She stood behind him to dry his hair, squeezing the water from it before moving around to stand in front of him to dry his arms and chest. Her wet dress clung to her breasts, stomach and thighs leaving little to the imagination and she could see him looking at her as she leant over him. Her temperature rose steadily as he devoured her with his eyes.
She dropped her gaze and her hands. Her head dipped as she dried his stomach. Her head was aligned with his. He was close enough to kiss. All she needed to do was lean in a fraction more. She wanted him to close the gap. She wanted him to kiss her.
He lifted his head. She met his eyes. They had darkened considerably as his pupils dilated. He put his hand over hers, stilling her movements. She waited to feel his lips on hers but he moved no further.
‘I can manage this bit,’ he said. He took over, drying himself from the waist down.
She waited for him to finish before helping him to put his arm back into the sling. She leant over him, fiddling with the straps. She could feel his breath on her cheek. She lifted her eyes. His lips were millimetres away, tempting and teasing her.
She still wanted him to kiss her but instead she put her arms around him and helped him to stand.
They stood, hip to hip, chest to chest. Noah was locked in her embrace. They were as close as lovers.
Ruby’s nipples were erect, reacting to the dampness of her dress and to the sensation of Noah’s body pressed up against hers. She could feel her nipples brushing his chest. She was aroused but she could feel he was too.
She looked up at him and met his blue-eyed gaze and this time when their eyes met he didn’t hesitate. He dipped his head and claimed her for himself.
Ruby met him half way, opening her mouth under the pressure of his lips, giving into desire. She held onto him a little tighter, wrapping her arms a little more firmly around his back, her hands pressed into his shoulder blades as she fought to maintain their balance as their kiss deepened.
He tasted just like she’d imagined. Soft, warm and sweet with faint traces of his morning coffee. She pressed her hands a little harder into his shoulder blades, trying to bring him closer as he cupped her bottom with his left hand and locked them together. Her knees felt like jelly and she wasn’t sure who was supporting who.
Noah broke first.
‘I have to sit down.’
Five simple words were enough to jolt her back to reality. And the reality was that he was badly injured and needed all his concentration to keep his balance while standing on one leg.
While she knew the attraction was mutual the bottom line was that he wasn’t physically capable of taking this any further. Not yet.
‘Don’t be sorry.’ He grinned as he lowered himself into the wheelchair. ‘You should be thankful. If I was fully fit you wouldn’t be able to keep up. If you start exercising now you might be able to handle me.’
Ruby raised an eyebrow as she dropped a towel into his lap. The towel concealed his erection but Ruby was pleased to see from his reaction that she affected him as much as he did her. ‘Is that a challenge?’ she asked.
‘If you want it to be. But it’s only fair to warn you that I love a challenge.’
‘Is that right?’
She was shivering now but she knew the goose bumps on her arms were more likely to be caused by the look in Noah’s eyes than by her wet dress. But that didn’t matter. If he wanted a challenge she’d give him one. She was eager to see how he coped with her next move.
She grabbed the skirt of her maxi dress and turned her back to him as she pulled her dress over her head. She wasn’t wearing a bra, she rarely did, but she kept her back turned towards him giving him an eyeful of naked skin but with just a hint of the curve of her breast. She grabbed another towel from the rack and began to rub herself down, drying herself off. She held the towel across her chest as she dried one arm and then the other. She lifted one leg and propped her foot on the edge of the bath to rub that leg before swapping to the other.
‘God, Ruby, that’s not fair,’ Noah’s voice was a soft, deep groan.
‘You’re not the only one who likes a challenge,’ she said as she straightened up and wrapped the towel around her chest, tucking one end inside the other to hold it in place. ‘We’ll soon see who can keep up with whom, won’t we?’