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According to her horoscope, this was Abigail Seymour's lucky day. And with a house named 'Capricorn,' she'd figured she couldn't go wrong.
She stared up at the run-down house from the base of the stairs, comparing it to the photograph in her hand. The weathered board on the veranda trim pronouncing that this was indeed 'Capricorn' hung at a dejected angle and swayed on rusted hinges in the sultry breeze.
In the photograph, the classic Queenslander home stood on stilts for air circulation, enclosed with open latticework. Wooden stairs led to a shady wrap-around veranda, which would catch the sea air and provide stunning views of the coastline. Tropical plants added a lush green aspect.
With several coats of paint, some time and energy correction: a lot of time and energyit could be that enchanting dwelling once again. She'd be having a few choice words with the agent about false advertising.
Which reminded herwhere was he? They'd arranged to meet here this morning. She checked the e-mail printout in her hand, then her watch. A bad feeling cranked up her spine. A very bad feeling. This Gold Coast house was supposed to have been the premises for her new business, Good Vibrations.
At the moment the only vibrations seemed to be coming from somewhere within. And they weren't good. They were the hammering-and-drill-and-not-ready kind. And since she hadn't organised any interior renovations yet She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Think blue, Abby, and calm down.
Right now it didn't help.
'What the heck's going on?' she muttered. She climbed the stairs, found the front door unlocked and pushed it open.
And stopped in the middle of what looked distressingly like a demolition site. Her fingers clenched around the lease. The signed and dated lease that stated this place was hers from tomorrow.
Wood shavings and lengths of wiring littered the floor. Strips of faded wallpaper hung from one wall above where a large mirror might have hung once upon a time. Dust motes swirled in a thin beam of sunlight and over a wide plank supported by stocky A-frame trestles and covered in tools.
Worse, the place smelled of new wood and old mould, so not the way a massage and aromatherapy centre should smell. Everything was brown and beige and grey.
The usually cheerful jingle of her anklet and beaded sandals sounded out of place on the bare floorboards as she crossed the room. 'Hello?'
No reply. Just the high-pitched whine of a drill.
Picking her way over assorted debris, she skirted the plank table and headed for a door at the back. In the next room a ladder was propped open in a corner near another trestle table. The tinny sound of a transistor radio drifted through the manhole above.
She'd have to settle for grilling the workman. She rapped on the wall. 'Excuse me ?'
The drill reverberated to life again, drowning her voice. Okay, forget the fact that she didn't like heights and that she was trying for a bit of professional decorum here. Setting her bag and papers on the floor, she slipped off her sandals and hitched one side of her skirt under her panty strap.
The loud curse that rolled through the hole was followed by the overhead thump of heavy footsteps. One very bare, well-muscled masculine calf stepped onto the ladder. Then another. Tanned and liberally covered with dark hair. The thighs were no less impressive, and went up and up until they disappeared beneath briefand loose-bottomeddenim shorts.
Oh my. Abby swallowed as those legs descended, followed by one firm, taut backside. She glimpsed a thick ridge of scarring on the back of one thigh disappearing beneath his shorts, then more bare skin, more shifting muscle as his back and a pair of plaster-showered shoulders came into view.
She took an involuntary step backonto her discarded shoes. The movement caught his attention and the hunk swivelled his head and looked down at her.
Piercing blue eyes met hers. The kind of eyes that looked straight through a woman's clothing and saw her naked. Except this man's eyes never left her face. Still, she had the sensation that he knew exactly what she was wearing right down to her red lace panties.
'Can I help you?' His whisky and sandpaper voice shimmied down Abby's spine like the slow sweep of an exfoliating glove.
She shifted her shoulders inside her T-shirt to ease the tingle. Wiggled her toes back into her sandals. Tugged at her hitched-up skirt and smoothed it down her thigh. She was here on business. He, on the other hand, with his impressive sweat-sheened body and bulging biceps, looked more into brawn than business. More like a personal trainer?
Her pulse did a little bump. Blue, blue, blue. Ice-blue. Sky-blue. Lake-blue like his eyes. Oh, for heaven's sake, get on with it. 'I'm looking for the owner of this ' She swept an encompassing hand over the clutter.
Lips that were full and sensual and wasted on a man stretched into a smile, creasing his cheeks in a way that made her want to trace the grooves with a finger.
'You found him,' he said, descending the ladder two rungs at a time.
'You?' Mr Tall, Dark and Delicious? She belatedly covered the crack in her voice with a throat-clearing as he approached. Amazingeven at five feet eleven she still had to look up. Early thirties, dark hair, chiselled cheekbones. His slightly off-centre nose was part of the charm.
She wasn't here to be charmed.
Shaking herself into business mode, she retrieved her papers from the floor, straightened her shoulders. 'Mr '
'Zachary Forrester.' He offered a hand along with another one of those stunning smiles.
Like everything about him, his grip was firm and tan-talisingly brief. But not brief enough for her to miss the sensation of hard, calloused palm against hers. The sparkle of awareness that tingled up her arm.
'Abigail Seymour. Abby. Mr Forrester, I'm ' She trailed off, frowning down at the paper in her hand. Zachary Forrester wasn't the name on the lease. She fought a sudden spike of nausea as he grabbed a towel slung on the ladder, swiped it over his sweat-damp hair.
'If you're the insurance rep ' His brow creased as he glanced at her attire.
'Do I look like an insurance rep?' She blew out a breath. 'I'm your new tenant.' She tapped her thigh with the document that proclaimed that fact. 'What's the deal here, Mr Forrester? Because I'm confused.'
His cute dimples winked out and his gaze narrowed. 'That makes two of us. You sure you have the correct address?'
'It says so on that rusted excuse for a mailbox. "Capricorn."' Stepping forward, she shoved the document at his chesthis broad, hairy chestand caught a whiff of honest-to-goodness male sweat and dust. 'I have a lease for business purposes, starting tomorrow.'
Still frowning, he tossed the towel and reached into the pocket of his shorts, drawing her attention to the way the faded denim Keep your eyes above the belt, Abby. Except he didn't have a belt, and the view above was just as dangerous. Neat little navel, tempting tanned skin She looked up quickly and saw him slip on a pair of reading glasses.
As he skimmed the paper he raised an eyebrow and one corner of his mouth kicked up. 'Good Vibrations.'
Abby drew herself up to her full height. Just like a man to take it the wrong way. 'Do you find this funny, Mr Forrester? I assure you, I do not.'
He regarded her over his spectacles, all trace of humour gone. 'Nor do I. This building is a private residence. What kind of business is it exactly it's Miss Seymour, I presume?'
'Yes.' Her hand moved towards her throat as a flush of heat crept up her neck, thanks to the redheads' Curse. 'What are you implying, exactly, Mr Forrester? My application was accepted. I have a signed lease to prove it.'
'Not signed by me,' he said over his specs.
'Oh ' She closed her eyes as the lump in her stomach rose to her throat. Was she really standing here letting a sexy stranger witness her business inexpertise?
When she opened them again she was still here and he was still watching her, only now he'd added sympathy and curiosity to the mix.
'I'm sorry, Miss Seymour, but you've been conned.' He tapped the signature with one large blunt finger. 'Not mine. This isn't worth spit. It's not even a legal document.'
If he'd used his hammer, the words couldn't have hit harder. Not legal. Her throat constricted. Where had the money for the bond and first three months' hard-earned rent gone? Anger pushed through the emotions swirling through her. 'I signed it in good faith, I need this place, and I need it now.'
'How did you find this property?' he said, his attention still focused on the paper in his hand.
'On the Internet. We handled most of the details by e-mail. I had no idea'
She bristled at the know-it-all tone. Obviously Zachary Forrester was a lawyer, as well as a handyman. Which had her wondering how much did lawyers charge?
She wished he'd just hand the paper back and let her go. But, no, he was still reading the fine print. She hadn't read the fine print. Who put fine print on an illegal lease anyhow?
Her fingers flexed and curled against her chest. She'd executed the whole deal on her own, not even asked for legal advice. Stupid. Aurora would have told her to check it out before putting down her hard-earned cash, and she'd have been right, but she'd wanted to surprise the woman who'd been mother, mentor and friend for the past ten years.
Since her stroke Aurora had been frail, and Abby was determined to find a place away from rural Victoria's cold, damp climate where she could live out her days in peace. And she'd fallen in love with the picture of the little house
Now here she was in tropical Surfers Paradise with a phoney lease, a second-hand van of supplies and barely enough money to live on. Talk about Paradise Lost. The deal was also supposed to have included a small self-contained living area so she was now officially homeless, as well.
'Tell me you didn't hand over any money,' Zachary Forrester said, setting his glasses on the trestle.
She bit her lip.
He sighed. A long-drawn-out hiss between his teeth that underscored her own stupidity.
She tried to take the paper but he held it firm, the same way those eyes held hers. 'How much did you give him?' He shook his head. 'We might be able to trace the cheque, I suppose.'
'Um. I paid in cash. In Melbourne. He offered a discount for cash, said he was an agent '
'Can you describe him? You'll need it when you report the matter to the police.'
'I think so ' Bearded. Blond? Mr Average. She lifted her chin. 'I'm sorry I bothered you, Mr Forrester.'
'Hang on, are you just going to leave it at that and walk away?' He shook his head, incredulous azure eyes searching hers.
'Of course not.' She tugged until the paper slid from his grasp, broke that unnerving eye contact and bent to pick up her bag all in one hurried movement. 'I have your name and address. Count on it, I'll be in touch.'
'What are you going to do?'
'I'm going to report it, then take some time and consider my options.' Without you watching, she thought, sliding the useless document into her bag.
The universe was still out there, she just had to find her place in it. And that place was Queensland's Gold Coast until she sorted out the mess she'd made. Just the thought had her mouth turning as dry as the sand on the nearby shore.
'What options?' His mobile buzzed. He unclipped it from his waistband. 'Forrester. Hi, Tina, honey.' Genuine affection brightened his voice. 'Something came up.' His luscious-looking mouth curved at something Tina Honey said, then he glanced at Abby and it instantly flat-lined as the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. 'No. Nothing like that.' Pause. 'Plenty of time. Yeah. Soon.'
Disconnecting, he clipped the phone in place and said, 'You're not a local, then?'
'No, I arrived from Victoria this morning.' She licked her dried lips, flapped a hand when she saw him frown. 'I'll be fine. My mistake, my problem.'
'Looks like you could do with a drink.' The sandpaper was back in his voice. 'I have a bottle of water in the cooler, or a carton of iced coffee if you prefer.'
Tempting, since she hadn't had anything since her muesli-bar breakfast. But she had more urgent problems than quenching her thirst with an attractive man. This mess wasn't his fault and she'd not involve him any more than she had to. She hitched her bag onto her shoulder. 'Thanks, that's not necessary. And Tina Honey's expecting you.'
A corner of his mouth twitched. 'She's a worrier. It's her son's christening in a couple of hours and I'm the kid's godfather.'
'Congratulations. I'll let you get on with it.'
'Miss Seymour Abby, we need to discuss this further'
As he spoke she turned, the sole of her shoe skidded on something, twisting her ankle and sending a shard of pain through her foot. She struggled for balance, her arms pin-wheeled and
Two hard hands were suddenly supporting her elbows from behind. Embarrassment was stronger than pain as she raised her throbbing foot and glared at the small drill bit on the floor that had caused such an undignified exit. 'This place is a health hazard,' she muttered.
'I'm sorry. I'm renovating on my own Are you okay?'
As he spoke his breath stirred the hair at her nape, his body heat radiated over her back. And all she could smell was male. Healthy, sweaty male that just begged her female hormones to come out and play. 'It's nothing, I'm fine.' Or she would be if he'd just step away and let her breathe.
'Let's take a look.'
'Just to be sure.' He cut off her protest as he slid an arm beneath her knees and deposited her on the trestle.
Her feet dangled off the flooran absolute first. She scoffed to herself. Swept off her feet, the clichéd damsel in distress. Then, with a shifting of shoulder muscles, he hunkered down in front of her and she nearly did the unappealing swooning bit. Which made her stiffen and straighten up.
'Which foot?' His voice had lowered fractionally.
'It's just a strain. It'll be okay in a couple of minutes'
'Which foot?' he demanded again.
He slipped off her sandal and cupped her bare foot in one rock-steady hand. Heat spread up her calf as his fingers probed for swelling. The man had the most marvellous touch. Up close, his bent head showed threads of grey amongst the brown.