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The scent of her grandmother's perfume was the first sign. The prickle at her nape was the second. While Gran's scent was benign and loving and familiar, the second sign sent a shiver down her spine.
Carissa Grace never ignored signs.
Anxious, she scanned the stream of cars outside Sydney's Cove Hotel. Her stepsister Melanie had insisted on picking her up since Carissa's gig at the piano bar had finished after midnight tonight. That had been twenty minutes ago.
Hurry up, Mel. Something's
The screech of brakes sheared through the balmy night, an agony of metal on metal over the mellow sound of sax drifting from a nearby nightclub. As the dented Holden mounted the kerb, its headlights loomed like silver lasers before her, terrify-ingly stark against the subtle orange glow of the city night.
For a stunned second Carissa couldn't move. She was one with the crowd as it held its collective breath, movement halted, time suspended, minds frozen.
An instant later the car was gone, leaving only the acrid smell of exhaust fumes and hot bitumen.
'Anyone hurt?' a male voice demanded in a deep timbre that rippled down Carissa's spine like an arpeggio. In the awed hush that followed, a man emerged from the knot of people huddled against the hotel's sparkling lobby windows.
Tall, broad-shouldered. Awesome. He looked as dangerous as the chaos around him, from the heavily shadowed jaw and unkempt brown hair that curled over his neck to the faded black jeans and T-shirt. Not the kind of man she'd have expected to get involved in anything but trouble. Every 'bad boy' fantasy Carissa had ever had vibrated into shockingand inappropriateawareness.
'Someone call anambulance.'His order snapped with authority.
Then she saw the form sprawled on the concrete. In two strides he was there, crouching over the slumped figure, speaking low. It was an old woman, Carissa realised, the bag lady she'd seen scrounging through the bin only moments ago. Despite the heat, she was covered from neck to ankle in a filthy coat. Her limbs flailed as she struggled up.
With no hesitation the man scooped a hand beneath her head, holding her against his thigh, murmuring soothing noises against her ear.
Carissa pulled herself together and hurried to rescue the woman's over-stuffed garbage bag nearby. Ignoring the crowd, which was curious but unwilling to get involved, Carissa set the bag down and crouched beside them. 'Here you go.'
The woman shot her an accusing glare as she grabbed the plastic.
'Is she okay?' Carissa asked.
'I reckon so,' he said, taking the woman's dirt-smudged fingers in his own large hand. 'But I'll get her checked out to be sure.' Preoccupied with his patient, he didn't look at Carissa.
Mingled with the odour of unwashed woman, she detected the distinct smell of male. A purely feminine appreciation sharpened her senses. It had been a long time since she'd smelled earthy masculine sweat. Alasdair always smelled of fancy French cologne. Nor could she imagine her fiancé handling this situation with such calm confidence.
The man sat the woman upright and stroked her back through the coat. His forearm twisted, drawing Carissa's attention to the gleaming silver of an expensive watch on his wrist. A disconcerting tingle spread through her limbs as she watched the muscles bunch and flex beneath his tanned skin. 'Do you think you can?' A car's horn drowned the rest of his words to the old woman.
Carissa glanced at the street. Her ride. She raised a hand to Melanie as she backed away. Clearly he had everything under control and didn't need her assistance.
'Sorry I'm late,' Mel said as Carissa climbed in. 'Emergency was a war zone tonight. What's going on?' She honked her horn again and pulled into the traffic.
'We've had something of our own war zone.' Carissa's heart was still pounding with the drama. 'It's all under control now.' Thanks to the hero of the day.
Her gaze remained glued to the man as he ushered the bag lady towards the Cove's gleaming entrance. She could see the powerful square shape of his shoulders and his black T-shirt taut over one thick bicep.
A wildly sexy, dangerous man. He looked as if he'd just stepped out of one of her forbidden erotic dreams. The ones she'd been having with disturbingly increasing regularity of late.
She let out a sigh. She'd not seen Alasdair in a year, which made any man with half the rugged sex appeal of that stranger dangerous.
Not that she hadn't been more than willing to wait while Alasdair finished his PhD in France. But the promised twelve weeks had stretched into twelve long months.
She took one last look at temptation before turning to the red rear lights of the cars in front. A girl could only wait so long before that temptation reached out to tickle her fancy.
She shook away the delicious little shiver at the thought of the stranger's long, thick fingers reaching out to tickle her fancy And bit back a moan. It was sexual frustration, that was all.
In seven days Alasdair would be home, and her bed was already turned down in anticipation. There'd be no more of that waiting he'd told her was the 'right thing'to do. Her already sensitised body hummed at the thought. Everything would be fine when Alasdair came back.
'Alasdair's not coming back.'
With the single handwritten page in her fist, Carissa sat down on the back step beside Melanie. The numbness had worn off enough to trust herself to talk about it. Rationally. Calmly. Maybe.
Mel's eyes widened. 'Oh, Carrie.' She set her iced tea on the verandah and reached for Carissa's hand. 'I'm so sorry,' she said quietly. 'You two have been together, what, seven years? What happened?'
'He's met someone else. I should've expected it with him studying overseas and all those chic mademoiselle research assistants.' She closed her eyes. 'But I didn't expect him to tell me his new love's name is Pierre.'
'Oh. God.' Melanie let out a slow breath. 'I don't know what to say.' She twined their fingers together. 'Are you okay?'
'I will be.' Carissa squeezed their hands briefly, then stood. A restless energy she didn't know what to do with was coursing through her body. 'I trusted him; I waited for him. Even though I wasn't sure any more that he was the One, I waited, at least until I saw him again. I must be the world's most naïve fool.'
'No. It's not your fault he's a two-timing creepin the worst way. You sure you're okay?'
'Fine.' Enclosing that energy into a tight fist, she crumpled the paper and squinted against the glare of the parched backyard. The hot summer wind kicked up, rattling the loose drainpipe she hadn't gotten around to fixing yet.
'It's been so long, I'm used to it. My life will go on as usual. I've got my own place, such as it is.' She frowned at the sagging porch trim. Her grandparents' old home needed major repairs.
'And a job.You've still got me,' Mel said quietly.
'I know.' She met Mel's eyes with shared affection before turning away. 'Want to know a secret, Mel? I've still got my well-past-its-use-by-date virginity.'
'You mean you and Alasdair never ? Oh '
Carissa paced up the verandah and back. 'Now I know why Alasdair was so noble and self-sacrificing. Every time I came on to him he said I'd thank him for making me wait.'
'So days before your twenty-sixth birthday, you're still a virgin?' Melanie blew out a breath. 'Wow.'
'At this rate, on my fifty-sixth birthday, I'll be taking out a full-page ad.'
The urge to lash out rose up like a black wave. She needed to channel the energy productively. Some serious piano-pounding. Something dark and passionate. Bach, she decided. The fly-screen door squeaked on rusty hinges as she swung it open.
Melanie followed. 'Do you really want your life to go on as usual? No man, no sex, no fun?'
Carissa's hand paused on the door. Don't answer that.
'You need a fling, Carrie, a one-night stand.'
The suggestion was outrageous. And at this point Carissa felt almost reckless enough to consider it. 'You know, Mel, I just might take your advice.' She tossed the balled paper in the bin on her way.
'Don't rush it, though,'Mel warned as if she'd gone cold on the idea already. 'You want your piano tuned, you don't call a plumber.'
'So what's wrong with a plumber if he's got the right equipment?' Carissa couldn't help smiling at Mel's frown. She slung an arm around the one person she could always count on to look out for her. 'I'll be careful.'
The usual Saturday evening crowd buzzed in the Cove Hotel's piano bar. Carissa's eyes roamed the faces while she played her selection of dreamy Chopin nocturnes. She noted the few regulars, but most were anonymous tourists with a couple of hours to kill before heading off to Sydney's nightclubs.
So much for finding a man. Working six evenings a week seriously impinged on one's social life. She hadn't had a social life in so long, she wasn't sure she was ready for centre stage in the dating scene just yet.
She saw him the moment he entered the room.
He filled the doorway, all six-feet-four-if-he-was-an-inch of him. Her fingers faltered as she drank in the rock-solid body crammed into faded denim and black T-shirt.
Her mouth watered. God help her, if she could choose, she wanted that body, naked and next to hers. It was the kind of body that made women forget all about sexual equalitythere was absolutely nothing equal about it.
Her fingers automatically drifted into Moonlight Sonata as her eyes followed him to the bar. She watched him order a beer, then move to a table near the window where the last rays of sunset turned the water beyond to liquid fire and the white tablecloths crimson, and glittered on his fancy silver watch.
Oh. My. God. It was the guy she'd seen last night. Her pulse rate zipped straight off her personal Richter Scale. He'd shaved.
But he was still dangerous.
She shifted on her stool for a better view of yesterday's hero.
The evening glow accentuated the angular contours of a tanned face on the wrong side of pretty-boy handsome and a strong, shadowed jaw. Mid-thirties, give or take. His teak-coloured hair, although shorter, was still somewhat dishevelled, as if he'd run his fingers through it, prompting images of lazy lust-filled afternoons on black silk sheets.
She should be so lucky.
But he had the most soulful eyes she'd ever seen. She watch and sighed. for the nightbut Ben Jamieson flicked an eye over the pianist, then returned for a longer, in-depth perusal. And decided his evening had just taken a turn for the better. Why spend it alone dwelling on his own personal anguish when the distraction he needed was right here?
Rave would tell him to go for ithe could almost see his mate grin and raise a glass in salute to women everywhere. For tonight at least he could appreciate the soothing harbour view while he watched those cleverand ringlessfingers on the keys.
Kicking back, he took a large gulp of beer and studied her. The way those fingers tickled the ivories, he imagined they could do a pretty good job on a man.
So classical wasn't his thing. The classic lines of the pianist more than made up for it. That full-length slinky sapphire number she'd poured herself into begged to be taken off. Slowly, an inch at a time. You didn't hurry over a body like that.
Tall, he noted, but not too tall. Like a long, slim candle. He'd bet she'd burn with a cool blue flame, and damned if he didn't want to singe his fingers. And that haira loose twist of sunshine at the crown of her head, held by a sequinned clasp. There was something about upswept hair that made his fingers itch. That smooth, exposed nape, and all that silk tumbling into his hands.
It was shaping up to be an interesting evening after all.
As Carissa launched into another bracket of light classics she couldn't resist another peek. He didn't look the classical type. His music preferences didn't bother her. His head turned as if he'd felt her watching him, and their gazes collided over the raised lid of the baby grand. Instant heat flooded her body.
She dragged her eyes away, fumbled with the keys again and swore softly. She'd played the cocktail bar Friday and Saturday nights for two years and not missed a note. With her brain threatening meltdown, she reached for her sheet music and refused to look his way again.
Concentrate on the important issues, she reminded herself. Such as not losing this gig and how she was going to pay the land-tax bill. Her Monday to Thursday job at the suburban café paid half what she made here. Even the extra money a lodger would bring in would only skim the top of the pile, and if she didn't get someone pronto she'd have to advertise beyond the staff cafeteria; something she didn't want to do. Always risky for a woman living alone.
She'd always been able to put distractions aside when she played. Not tonight. Tonight she couldn't raise the shield that shut out the rest of the world. She was all too aware of the clink of glass and ice and money, conversation, the light outside as it changed from dusk to dark.
At ten-thirty Carissa closed the piano, shuffled her music into a neat pile and slipped it into its folder.
'Can I buy you a drink?' The deep liquid voice with its hint of gravel made her jump.
The scent of aftershave and beer hit her as she turned, her habit of a cool smile and polite refusal already on her lips, but the words died in her throat.
Something like panic leapt up and grabbed her by the throat, then worked down to her stomach, squeezing the air out of her lungs on its way. 'Sorry, management doesn't permit employees to socialise with guests.'
Refusingwas she nuts? Taking a deep breath, the new, un-attached Carissa smiled. 'Leastways, not in the hotel.'
He grinned. 'A walk, then, and a drink by the waterfront. The name's Ben Jamieson.' One corner of his mouth lifted crook-edly, revealing the most kissable dimple in his right cheek. Up close she saw that his eyes were bright jungle-green and sparking with interest.
She clutched her folder to her chest to hide the sudden tremble in her hands. 'I've a train and a bus to catch, and I don't like to leave it too late.'
'I'll pay your cab fare home.'
'Oh I '
'Walk with me. It's a pleasant evening and we'll only go as far as you want.'
Those erotic images popped into her head again, but if he'd intended it as a double entendre he was astute enough to show no sign.
She smiled as she pushed in the piano stool. 'It's the best offer I've had all night.' The best in years, in fact, and the mind-set was still taking some adjustment.