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His Unexpected Family
By Robyn Thomas, Edited by Ann L. Kopchik
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Robyn Thomas
All rights reserved.
Ren Jamieson paused outside Hunter Realty for a last-minute check. She patted her loose bun, tugged on the hem of a jacket that was a bit too snug now, and gulped in a breath of coastal air.
"After you," an accented voice murmured as a muscular forearm reached past her to open the door.
Startled that she wasn't alone, Ren stepped forward, but the tanned arm, dusted with dark hair, had found an echo in her memory. It even came complete with a familiar and expensive diving watch. If it weren't categorically impossible, she'd say that arm belonged to her late husband, Danny.
Needing to confirm that wasn't the case, she spun around, intending to thank the unknown man for his courtesy, but speech had suddenly become a foreign concept. Along with breathing and standing upright.
The man was a stranger, and yet everything about him was as familiar as her own reflection. His presence made her question her sanity. Despite his casual attire, she knew he belonged in a safety harness with a helmet and protective clothing, BASE jumping off a skyscraper, braving arctic conditions on a record-breaking trek, or dangling by a rope from the upper bastions of Mount Kilimanjaro. The wrath of Mother Nature had taken her husband's life, and the urge to leap between this man and danger was terrifying.
Ugh, he'd better not be the mysterious desperate-to-buy-a-house-before-sundown client she'd dropped everything for, the one who'd made it necessary to leave her baby daughter's side for the first time. Building her hopes and dreams around an extreme adventurer had resulted in single motherhood and crippling debts. The chance of this guy destroying what was left of her life was slim, but it was possible.
The two-hundred-dollar bonus she'd been promised for helping her ex-boss out of a jam would be handy, but the commission from a sale would keep a roof over her head, literally. Her options had whittled down to one.
Closing this deal.
She'd let herself dream of success on the drive over, but Hunter Realty specialized in high-end properties with the kind of creature comforts that adrenaline junkies spurned, and price tags they couldn't afford. Sponsorship was hard enough to secure for expeditions. Day-to-day living expenses were best covered by an obliging partner.
That's how it'd been for her and Danny. This guy could almost be Danny's twin. He was tall, rugged, tanned, athletic. His dark hair was cropped short, and his ears stuck out the tiniest bit, making her want to smooth them back. But that was wrong too. Touching him was the last thing she ought to be contemplating.
Sharp blue eyes assessed her with an unsettling detachment.
"Tall skinny, half-caf latte?" he asked with that hard-to-place accent of his.
Whatever she'd thought he might say, that wasn't it. How would he know her exact preference in coffee? He looked like Danny and he was psychic?
"Renata Bailey?" he asked.
Bailey was her maiden name. When his brows pulled down in displeasure at her delayed response, she managed to nod and curl her fingers around the takeout coffee he thrust into her hand.
"Cole Matthews," he said before turning away.
Ren stared at his back, shocked that he'd deemed her unworthy of further attention. Wasn't it customary to wait for a how-do-you-do or pleased-to-meet-you after hurling your name at someone? Not that she wanted to talk to him, but there was no need for him to be rude.
"I trust you've chosen properties that meet all the criteria?" Cole asked of a frazzled-looking Kara as she shuffled papers behind the receptionist's desk.
Kara was blonde, petite, and so eager to please that she rarely upset anybody. Today she looked small as she kept her eyes lowered and gave a jerky nod instead of issuing one of her standard cheery responses.
Without weighing the consequences, Ren stepped forward and shot Cole a saccharine smile. "And I trust your attitude will improve with caffeine? Better drink up, Cole," she said, indicating the oversized coffee he still held, "because Aussie girls aren't big on rudeness."
To her amazement, he chuckled.
To her horror, he handed the coffee to Kara.
Apologizing was the obvious solution, but Ren couldn't bring herself to do it. An open cardboard container of sweets sat on one end of the counter, the proceeds from their sale to boost charity coffers. She took a two-dollar coin out of her purse and exchanged it for a roll of butterscotch.
"Here." She tossed it to Cole. "Maybe sugar will do the trick."
She ignored the look of astonishment Cole and Kara exchanged, and rounded the counter to collect the package of keys, photos, and information Kara had prepared for Cole's urgent house-hunting expedition. So far it was a disaster, but since they'd yet to leave the office, she had to believe there was hope of salvaging it.
Tugging her cloak of professionalism firmly around her shoulders, she aimed a smile at Cole and made a point of checking her watch. "Shall we, Mr. Matthews?"
He didn't answer, choosing instead to give his full attention to unwrapping a butterscotch candy. He raised it to his mouth, paused, the hint of a smile softening his weathered features as he met her eyes. "Not until you've had some coffee."
He slipped the hard candy through his lips, and Ren could almost taste the burst of sweetness on her own tongue. She looked away and took a gulp of her latte.
"Mmm," she murmured as the hot, sweet liquid warmed the back of her throat. She closed her eyes. Real coffee. She tipped her cup up for a second, more delicate sip. It was good. It'd been so long.
"Ren," Kara said sharply.
Ren's eyes opened to find Cole studying her with a strange mixture of disbelief and desire. Suddenly she felt exposed and embarrassed, as though she'd been putting on a show for his benefit.
"It's nice." She set her coffee on the counter and backed away. "We should go. If you st-still want to."
Now she was stuttering? Well, that was just perfect.
Cole laughed, but the warm sound invited her to join in. Somehow she knew he wasn't laughing at her expense. She'd say he felt as self-conscious as she did.
"If you can navigate while you finish your coffee then I'll drive."
Kara cleared her throat discreetly, but Ren was too unsettled to insist on adhering to the company policy of shuttling prospective buyers around in one of Hunter Realty's lime-green cars.
She'd only ever felt this unbalanced once before. The day she'd met Danny, three years ago.
"Sounds good to me. Bring it on." Her careless words came out sounding like a breathless acceptance of anything he cared to offer, but he had to know that wasn't the case.
* * *
Cole's instincts had been waging war over Renata ever since he'd first set eyes on her two hours ago. Most days he noticed there were other people in the world. He tolerated vague impressions of height, health, clothing choice, etcetera, but he never wondered about the lives of anyone he saw.
In the eight months since both his brother and his best friend had died in an avalanche, he'd been fixated on the future that Nate and Danny were missing. Waking up every day to the haunting thought that he might have been able to save them if only he'd stuck to the prearranged schedule, instead of delaying as he had.
Who knows, maybe he'd have talked them into waiting another day, leaving earlier, or turning back. Perhaps he'd have chosen another route.
He still ate, slept, and exercised, but he didn't work, didn't make plans or interact with anyone much. Flinging money at Danny's widow would be the first step on his journey back to living. Even if he never experienced another extreme thrill, he had to find a way to do Nate and Danny proud.
Selling his groundbreaking film production company had given him a lot of cash to play with. Using it to pursue Nate's and Danny's personal goals wouldn't be enough to validate his existence, and honor theirs. But if he mirrored their lives closely enough — first one man, then the other — he'd be able to offer their loved ones some peace and closure. Making amends for his absence on that tragic day was a necessity. It was the only way he could justify surviving when they had perished.
Redemption would be a long, hard road but it was his only hope. He'd have to claw his way out of the abyss of guilt one good deed at a time for Danny and Nate. If his mother ever deigned to speak to him, he'd consider it a victory. Reconciling with the family Nate had held so dear would be a start, but it wouldn't provide a future, wouldn't give their mother the grandchildren Nate had promised he'd provide. Danny had once said that being saddled with a wife and kids would be worse than death, and Cole had agreed. But Danny had tied the knot secretly a few years ago, and now Cole would have to deal with the woman.
Renata Bailey was the only living person he'd spared a second thought for since he'd lost Nate. And he couldn't stop thinking about her. Wondering. Speculating. Soft brown bedroom eyes revealed her confusion that he didn't want to go inside this property either.
"Can I ask why you don't want to look inside?" she asked, her tone completely at odds with her sarcasm back at the office.
Even as she spoke, he found that he did want to go inside the house. With her. Wanted to shut the world out and pretend, for a few precious moments, that the past eight months hadn't happened. She wouldn't be craving instant oblivion in quite the same way he was, but he knew instinctively that she'd like being kissed. He'd caught her contemplating it back in her office, two minutes after they'd met.
He could envisage following her into the house and muttering a gruff apology the second the door closed behind them. It would buy him enough time to free her hair from its respectable bun and toss the tortoiseshell clip aside. And while she geared up for another round of "Aussie girls aren't big on rudeness," he'd bracket her face with his hands and find out if her lips were anywhere near as kissable as they looked. His gaze dropped to her mouth and lingered.
"Cole?" She moistened her top lip with a rapid flick of her tongue, and he had to stifle a groan. Concern radiated out of her as she leaned in close, exacerbating every problem he had. "Is it too expensive, or is there something wrong with the house?"
"Cost isn't an issue."
She snorted. "I find that hard to believe. Adventuring doesn't come cheap, and sponsorship barely covers the necessities. You must have a generous benefactor to afford a house like this."
She thought he had a benefactor? What a strange assumption. "Sponsorship doesn't apply to me. I'm a filmmaker. For the past twelve years I've made documentaries, short films, and even the odd commercial, all based on extreme sports." He watched as doubt played over her features. "What I do pays insanely well, but I recently sold the company." Her scrutiny was unnerving. "It was time for a change."
"Hmm." Her teeth sank into her lower lip. "You're actually self-sufficient? I'm going to need a minute to get my head around that." After what felt like ten minutes of silence, she laughed. "Money in the bank, huh? The problem must be the house then."
"It's not the house," he said, and allowed himself a wry smile. Aside from a mouth made to sin, and a too-tight jacket that emphasized her full breasts, Ren wasn't overtly sexy. She certainly wasn't the kind of woman who'd normally get him hot and bothered. But the way she looked at him, so intently, made him feel cornered. He blew out a breath of impatience. "The other houses were both fine, too. Any house will do if the location's right."
Her gaze swept over the glorious view from their cliff-top parking space, and he sensed that she was intrigued by his definition of a perfect location.
"Why doesn't this location work for you? Besides some sunshine, what is it that you want that's not here?"
Asking him what he wanted wasn't in her best interests. His body had just this minute awoken from eight months' hibernation. Touching a woman, feeling her touch him in return, was right up there at the top of his wish list.
"Silence isn't really helpful, Cole. Am I supposed to guess what you want?"
"Privacy," he snapped. If she looked too hard, she'd see a man whose work ethic had cost the lives of two good men. His best friend, and his brother.
"I want a home base here where I can come and go as I please. What I don't want are neighbors."
"No neighbors at all?"
Well, good, he felt safer when she had her back up. Ever since they'd climbed into his car, she'd adopted a professional reserve, and he didn't like it. He missed that weird feeling of connection they'd shared right off the bat. No one had ever looked at him quite the way she had in those first moments.
There'd been recognition.
"No neighbors at all," she repeated, dragging him back into the present by handing him a photograph. "This is the only possibility. It's an underground house, although the north-facing wall is made of double-glazed glass."
She hesitated until he grinned at her. Real estate was a safe topic to focus on, and he was charmed by the simplicity of the earth-covered house in the photo.
Her eyes widened, and although she hid her feelings well, he'd caught that initial flicker of skepticism.
"It's secluded," she said, her eyes on the page before her, "environmentally friendly, and set on several acres of natural bushland."
"And you don't think I should buy it?" he said, laughing when guilt made her blush a soft pink. "Why not?" He hoped her answer would reveal something more about her. He hadn't discovered anything personal about her since they'd left her office.
He didn't want to reciprocate by sharing anything about himself — anything but that — yet he was curious about what made her tick. Why had she stopped being rude to him, and what would it take to make her start again? And why, when she was all buttoned up and businesslike, was he so certain she'd melt like an ice cube on hot concrete if he touched her?
She frowned and then shrugged. "If you want to live like a vampire in a perpetually dark and dank house then it's really none of my business."
"I take it you don't live in an underground house?"
To his delight she burst out laughing. "No. I live in the converted attic of a storybook cottage. It's narrow and cramped, but light floods in, and the stunning ocean view makes getting out of bed worthwhile even on the worst of days."
Her mouth clamped shut, and he sensed she hadn't meant to answer so freely. "I want to be as far away from people as possible while still retaining a Portsea address," he said. "Someone I once knew loved this place."
He started the car and gave a sigh of relief when she changed the subject.
"Where are you from?"
"New Zealand." Her look of suspicion made him smile. "Originally, but I've spent the last fourteen years traveling. All over," he added when it was clear she was going to ask, "but mostly in Europe."
"If you've moved around a lot, then that explains why I can't pinpoint your accent. What made you come here, or do you need an Aussie slant on that accent of yours?"
He sent her an admiring glance, impressed she'd given him two options for answering her question.
"I've come here to check up on someone. Ah," — he took a moment to collect his thoughts, not wanting to come across as some sort of mad stalker — "a woman from another life."
Her laughter was instant, although he noticed she was shaking her head too. "Okay, don't tell me."
"I'm serious, Renata."
"Ren," she corrected as her nose crinkled in distaste.
"Ren," he said, just to test it out. It felt nice on his tongue, and he liked that look of satisfaction on her face just a little too much. Living for three — himself, Nate, and Danny — was going to be a hell of a job. Locating Danny's widow would be difficult without a first name, but he'd find her.
The subtle downward sweep of Ren's long lashes gave him an instant alternative to the sympathy visit he was contemplating. Anything he could imagine would pale in comparison to touching her, even platonically. Just why he was so certain of that he couldn't say, but the urge to reach out and test his theory was incredibly strong.
She was pretty enough in a girl-next-door sort of way, but she wasn't his type. She had dark circles under her eyes, and stunning black eyelashes that had to be dyed, or painted. She drank coffee. He'd bet she hated the gym, and she had pointy, lethal-looking heels on.
"Me either," she said, and he racked his brain for what she might be referring to.
Excerpted from His Unexpected Family by Robyn Thomas, Edited by Ann L. Kopchik. Copyright © 2012 Robyn Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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