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Sol slammed through the house and out of the back door to the veranda. Gripping the railing, he hauled in a breath. Then another. Half an hour. He'd been back half an hour and already he was dying to get out of here. Nothing had changed.
For Pete's sake, you'd think after ten years He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the tension that had them wedged up tighter than double-lapped dovetail joints. His eyes swept across the backyard. What a mess. The fence needed mending, the lawn needing mowing, and the
His angry thoughts slammed to a halt. He squinted into the afternoon sun, but two giant oleanders on the other side of the fence prevented him from making out much of the house in the yard beyond. Did Cassie Campbell still live there?
Cassie Parker, he amended. She'd married ten years ago. And had been widowed for eighteen months. Some things had changed.
He dragged a hand down his face. Cassie wouldn't live there now. She'd live in the centre of town with the rest of the Parkers. She didn't need to live on the outskirts any more. And since her mother had died
An ache hollowed out his chest. He hadn't come back for the funeral. He hadn't come back for Brian's funeral either.
He stared hard at what he could see of the house and yard, trying to imagine someone else living there, but he couldn't. His gaze came back to the tree squatting in the corner. His lips curved upwards and the tension seeped out of him. Back then the only thing that had kept life bearable around here was Cassie Campbell.
Cassie Parker, he reminded himself, and his smile faded. He clenched the veranda railing again. What did he think he was doing?Trying to catch a glimpse of her? He had an insane urge to butt his head against a veranda post. He'd left all thoughts of Cassie behind ten years ago.
Yeah, right. Which is why you're craning your neck over her back fence with your tongue hanging out.
He made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. It wouldn't even be her fence any more. He went to turn away when a leg dangled out of the treea long, lean, female leg. He blinked and shaded his eyes.
His breath hitched, but curiosity propelled him down the back steps and across the yard all the same. That was a damn fine leg, and he was real curious to see who lived in Cassie's old place now.
A mumbled half-smothered expletive drifted out of the tree as he drew near, and for some reason it made him grin. He quickened his step and, without waiting for his eyes to adjust to the shade, glanced up. The breath was punched out of him and a strange choked noise emerged from the back of his throat. He couldn't have uttered a single coherent sound if his life had depended on it.
Dancing violet eyes swung around to stare down at him. They raked across his face, then generous lips formed a perfect O. 'Good Lord, if it isn't Sol Adams, home for Christmas at last.'
His heart started to pump hard and fast. He swallowed. The sound rolled in the spaces beneath the tree, loud in the summer afternoon. 'Hey, Cassie,' he finally managed to get out.
'Hey, Cassie?' She rolled her eyes. 'After ten years that's all you can think to say?'
Then she smiled. Really smiled. Cassie had always put her whole heart into a smile. It outshone the hot summer sun. He blinked, but he couldn't look away. His groin ached. The entire surface of his skin tightened, as if he'd grown too big for it.
Her smile wavered. 'You didn't even say goodbye.' Her soft words speared through him, and in that moment he'd never regretted anything more in his whole sorry life. If in this very instant he could go back ten years
She grinned suddenly, and every thought in his head fled. 'Help me out here, will you, Sol?'
Help ? With ? Then he noticed the kitten clutched in her arms.
She bent down and handed it to him. 'Don't you let it go,' she warned, as she disappeared back along the branch. She returned with a second kitten that she promptly handed to him. Disappeared again. In a daze he took a third, until his arms were nothing but a wriggling, curling mass of kitten.
She grinned. 'It doesn't look as if you have a spare hand to offer the lady.'
Her skin had the look of soft pink rose petals, and Sol wanted to reach out and take her hand, help her down. Touch her. He wanted to know if she felt as cool and soft as she promised. He tried to rearrange the bundle in his arms but it kept changing shape.
'Don't you let those kittens get away, Sol Adams.'
'No ma'am,' he said weakly as she leapt down beside him. Her fragrance filled his nostrils. She smelt of something flowery, tropical, like frangipani. He wanted to bury his face against her neck and inhale.
'I've been jumping out of this tree for more years than I can count. Do you seriously think I need a hand?'
'You are wearing a skirt,' he pointed out. And it fitted her like a dream. It swished around her thighs as if dancing in joy because it was wrapped around Cassie Campbell.
Parker, he amended.
He reckoned he'd be pretty darn happy if he were wrapped around Cassie like that. He blinked at the thought. 'Iumm.' He cleared his throat. 'It could, uh, hamper your tree-jumping, is all. That's what I meant.'
She grinned and lifted the skirt and his eyes near bugged clean out of his skull. How the hell did she expect him to keep hold of an armful of kitten when she
Bike shorts! He let his breath out in a whoosh. She was wearing bike shorts under the skirt.
Her eyes twinkled mischief before she dived to her knees by the fence and pushed a loose paling to one side. Another kitten, smaller than its siblings, poked its head through the gap. 'Well, come on, then,'Cassie patted her knee. 'We haven't got all day.'
Man, she wouldn't need to call him twice, Sol thought. Without further ado, the kitten squeezed through the gap and flew straight to her lap. Sol didn't blame it.
Cassie picked the kitten up and rose to her feet. 'C'mon, then.' She hitched her head in the direction of Sol's back veranda and he followed in a daze. Once there she closed the little gate, popped her bundle on the floor, then plucked the kittens from his arms one by one to join it.
Sol glanced at them, then grinned. 'Jeez, Cassie, these are the ugliest batch of kittens to ever grace the earth.'
She drew herself up to her full height of five feet ten inches. 'Ugly?'
Sol was one inch over six feet. Most women had to throw their heads back to look him in the eye. Cassie didn't.
He got a crick in his neck from kissing most women. He wouldn't get a crick in his neck from kissing Cassie.
As if she'd read that thought in his face, Cassie let her gaze drop to his lips and Sol held himself rigid. Nothing moved except the pupils of her eyes, dilating and contracting. Then she shook her head and stepped back, and Sol heard the soughing of the breeze in the trees again, and the wings of a flock of rosellas as they swooped through the yard and over the house.
'Ugly?' Cassie's voice was strong, dragging him back into the present. 'What would you know about the matter, Sol Adams? These kittens aren't ugly; they're beautiful.'
He made himself look at one. Boy, she was stretching the truth there.
'I love these kittens.' She hitched up her chin. 'And when you love something it's beautiful. So you keep your ugly comments to yourself.'
He glanced at the kittens again. Okay, maybe ugly wasn't the right word. Maybe
Cassie seized the littlest one and pushed its face close up to his. 'Look at it,'she ordered. 'Can you seriously call that ugly?'
It mewed plaintively and he couldn't help it. He reached out a finger and ran it across the tiny head. 'It's cute,'he finally mumbled, when Cassie kept eyeing him with that ferocious glare. On the spur of the moment he cupped his hands around hers and rubbed his cheek against the kitten's fur. Cassie's skin felt warm and alive. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh at something you love.'
Her eyes widened. Something arced between them. Something sweet and pure he couldn't put a name to. She stepped back and he let his hands drop.
'Hey, Alec,' she called through the back screen door.
Alec wheeled to the door. 'You're early, missy.'
Sol stared at Cassie. Early for what?
'I haven't come to see you.' She winked at Sol. 'But make yourself useful and bring us out some drinks. It's hot.'
Sol's jaw dropped.
'Get them yourself, you hussy. I'm in a wheelchair.'
'Don't go playing the invalid with me. You know how to drive that thing. I'm timing you,'she called back, settling herself in one of the two chairs that sat either side of a small table.
Sol glared at the screen door, then at Cassie. 'Since when have the two of you been so chummy?'This was Alec, the man who'd raised him. Not someone Cassie would usually laugh with or joke with. He scowled and lowered himself to the other chair. At least she wouldn't have ten years ago.
Violet eyes surveyed him across the table. She rested her chin on her hand and for a long moment she didn't speak. 'So ' she said at last. 'He finally talked you into it, huh?'
Her long dark plait had gone, replaced with a sleek bob that brushed her shoulders. When she moved a certain way a curtain of hair fell across her face, dark and shiny. His fingers itched to run through it, to find out if it were as
He shifted, hoping he hadn't been staring. 'Talked me into ?'
'Coming home for Christmas.'
She frowned when he remained silent. 'He didn't?'
She shot a glance at the door and sighed. 'He's his own worst enemy, you know?'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean he's been whingeing and moaning at me for months now that you never come home.' Her eyes started to dance. 'I told him it served him right. I told him if I was you I'd never come back either.'
That jerked him around. 'You didn't?'
'Yes, I did.' She folded her arms and lifted her chin. 'I told him he was a mean old man.'
She had. She would. Sol suddenly threw his head back and laughed. It shifted something inside him too long held in check. He glanced at her, and a surge of affection shot through him. Cassie might have changed her name, but she was doing what she'd always donemaking bad situations not so bad, making them bearable.
Her smile faded. 'Now he's just a scared old man.'
The back screen door slammed open and Alec wheeled out, a tray balanced on his lap. 'Mind my kittens,' Cassie warned. 'I've brought them for a visit.'
Alec grumbled, but kept his eyes fixed on the floor. He dumped a jug of iced water and two glasses on the table. Sol blinked. The jug contained slices of lemon and ice cubes. Surely Alec hadn't?
'You're not joining us?'
'I'm watching the test match, as you well know, missy.'
'Well, don't let me keep you.'
Sol watched in amazement as a reluctant grin spread across Alec's face. He couldn't remember Alec smiling for well, he guessed it'd be eighteen years.
'Watch your back around this one,' he told Sol. 'She's just as likely to stick the knife in and twist it as not.'
It was the longest sentence Alec had uttered in the last half an hour. Sol had been gone for ten years. Ten years. But when he'd walked through the front door Alec had glanced up and muttered, 'So you're back, then,' as if Sol had just returned from the corner shop.
He'd been tempted to walk back out and book into a motel. 'And don't you forget it.' Cassie laughed as Alec wheeled back inside. She poured out two glasses of water and pushed one towards Sol. 'He's getting better. He didn't bellyache at me about the kittens.'
'Why do you say he's scared?'
She frowned, as if he'd disappointed her. 'Wouldn't you be scared if you were dying, Sol?'
He stared back, speechless. Ice trickled down the collar of his shirt and dripped down his backbone.
Cassie's eyes widened, then her hand flew to her mouth. 'You didn't know?'
Nope. Nobody had bothered mentioning that.
'But isn't that why you're home? I thought you'd talked to Dr Phillips.'
'I did.' He dragged a hand down his face. 'All he said was Alec needed to go into the nursing home. And that he expected a spot to become available after Christmas.'
Air whistled between her teeth. 'Of all the spineless
Wait till I get hold of him. I'm sorry, Sol, I'd never have blurted it out like that if'
'It's not your fault, Cassie.'It was his. He'd stayed away too long. Questions clamoured through him, but as a kitten used his leg as a scratching post one of the least pressing popped out of his mouth. 'What are you doing with all these kittens?'
'They're Christmas presents for my senior citizens.' Who were her senior citizens? Water sloshed over the sides of his glass as he dropped it back to the table. 'Good God, you're not giving one to Alec, are you?'