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'It's settled. You're coming home with me.'
The low murmur at Vanessa Craig's back left her nape tingling, as if her skin had been brushed by an intimate kiss. Drawn from stacking the last of the special diet dog food, she curled some hair behind her ear, then slowly edged around. She tried—but failed—to keep her eyes in her head.
Of course, the attractive man standing nearby hadn't spoken to her. Heck, he didn't know she existed, even if Vanessa was acutely aware of every sensitised cell in her body suddenly glowing with life.
Powerhouse height, pitch-black hair, a strong shadowed jaw and eyes bluer than any Vanessa had seen. The precise cut of his trousers, the immaculate polish of his shoes—everything about this man didn't simply say he settled for the best.
He was the best.
When the man-god shifted his weight, the ledge of his magnificent shoulders went back. His attention drifted from the small tank, which contained a single goldfish, and landed on her.
'Afternoon.' His mouth curved up at one side as he quarter-turned to face her. 'You work here?'
Vanessa swallowed the knot of hot desire tugging in her throat. 'I'm the manager.'
'Great. I'm interested in that fish.'
Vanessa studied the goldfish, who was busy studying the man. She smiled over. 'Not half as interested as he seems to be in you.'
While she spoke, the light changed in her customer's ocean-blue eyes, as though something in her face or her voice, made him wonder if they'd met before. Not on this side of her dreams.
As his sexy smile returned, he tilted his head at the tank. 'I'm wondering can you tell his gender?'
Although Vanessa had answered that questionregarding fish many times in the past two years, the majority of people who visited her Sydney pet store— Great and Small—seemed content to while away some time fawning over the puppies and kittens. Who could blame them? Cute bundles of fur bouncing around, pressing their squishy wet noses against the window, desperate for a cuddle. Searching for a home.
Caring for her animals was a labour of pure love, but the real joy came when one went to a family whom she knew would truly care. Friends were great: Josie and Tia, her buddies since high school, were the best. But family, real family well, everybody wanted one.
Did this man have a family? Was he an uncle? A father?
She set a hand on a corner of the cool tank. 'Males can have tiny dots on the gills and pectoral fins. Like those.' She waggled a finger at the little guy's fins, then filtered in an interesting detail. 'Did you know that the Japanese have been keeping goldfish as pets for over a thousand years?'
His gorgeous eyes smiled and sparkled. 'Is that right?'
She nodded. 'It's also a bona fide fact that watching fish swim can be soothing to the nerves.'
'Well, that's got to be cheaper than the psychiatrist I'm seeing.'
Vanessa's jaw dropped, but then he lifted a brow and smiled—a sultry gotcha smile that burrowed beneath the skin and coddled every inch of her.
'Actually, a friend of mine has a large aquarium,' he admitted. 'He says nothing's more relaxing at the end of a long, hard day. No fuss, no bother. No noise.' The impressive breadth of his chest expanded beneath its dark wool blend shirt as he retrieved his wallet from a back pocket. 'Do you take Visa?'
But before he could extract the card, his attention shifted to a nearby glass pen and its excited scramble of Rottweiler pups. Aware her scent was Perfume de la Birdcage from the tray she'd cleaned earlier, Vanessa swiped both hands down her jeans and moved closer. 'They're pretty special, huh? Only came in this morning.'
When the lines of his classically cut profile intensified, as if he were considering a change of tack, she subtly tested, 'Have you owned a dog before?'
Attention fixed on the pups, the dark slashes of his brows fell together. 'I grew up with dogs ' His Hollywood jaw shifted. 'Kind of.'
She grinned. 'Kind of grew up, or kind of dogs?'
His crystalline gaze met hers again; the contact rippled through her blood like the aftermath of a fiery liquid touch.
'Poodles.' His gaze dipped to her mouth, traced the sweep of her lips, then flicked back to her eyes. 'I grew up with poodles. The tiny, yappy ones.'
Only half recovered from the sizzle of his gaze, she dug her hands into her pockets and rocked back on her Reeboks. 'Whatever size, poodles are a highly intelligent breed.'
'They certainly know how to get what they want.'
'The family pooches were pampered?'
'Like every other female in the house.' His brows crunched together again. 'Sorry. Too much information.'
She didn't mind. She was intrigued.
So he had a mother as well as sisters, sounded like. The fine lines branching from the corners of his eyes said late twenties, early thirties at the outside—too old to live at home with the brood. Had he grown up overrun by female siblings and a domineering matriarch? Perhaps his father had been away often, a foreign diplomat for some exotic far-off land; the dreamy slant to his eyes and coal-fringed lashes suggested a Mediterranean connection maybe.
She smiled at herself.
And maybe she needed to get a life. Whatever his background, she wouldn't get to know him well enough to hear it.
'These pups are only eight weeks old. They'll grow a whole lot bigger. I'd suggest a good quality bed.' She selected one from a nearby display. 'We recommend this brand.'
Close to where her hand rested, he rubbed and pinched the foam. 'Hmm. Firm yet soft.'
As if on direct dial, the tips of her breasts picked up, tightening to responsive beads beneath her T-shirt. Vanessa surrendered to the delicious undercurrent before managing to shake herself free.
Good Lord, Josie was right. She needed a holiday. But with her most recent business crisis breathing down her neck, sipping piña coladas beneath palm fronds wasn't likely any time soon. She'd take a holiday when she was back on her feet, when her business was back in the black. She wasn't about to give up on her dream.
She set the dog bed down and cleared the thickness from her throat. 'Rotties make great guard dogs as well as companions.'
On cue, the only male pup set his big front paws on the window; his tail whipped around back so hard, the motion almost knocked him over. Anyone who thought dogs didn't smile didn't know dogs.
She weaved around a giggling toddler, who clapped as Mr Cheese went hell-for-whiskers on his mouse wheel. 'He'll need walks. And puppy school to help socialise him.'
'Like kindergarten for dogs.' His arms crossed, then he scratched his temple. 'How much time are we talking about? I get home late. I work most weekends too.'
Vanessa's heartbeat slowed. She should have guessed. His aura exuded energy and no-nonsense efficiency. Not that 'handsome high-powered executive' was a turn off. Just everyone seemed so busy these days—the twenty-first century treadmill gone mad. No one had time to walk their dogs and smell the flowers any more.
Her gaze flicked to his left hand—large, tanned but no gold ring. Still, not all those who were taken wore bands. As she'd found out.
'Perhaps your wife could help.'
'I'm not married.'
She was curious—only for the dog's sake. A workaholic man-god descended from warriors wouldn't be interested in an ordinary girl working her way up the ladder lately one rung up, three rungs back.
'My housekeeper comes in once a week.'
She cut him a wry grin. Not the same.
She had a thought. 'If a dog's too much responsibility and a fish maybe isn't enough, perhaps a—'
'Don't say cat.' His chin and its deep cleft came down. 'I don't do cats.'
She almost rolled her eyes. What was it with men and moggies?
A bird then? We have some lovely budgies. Or a parrot? You can teach them to talk. Sit on your shoulder.'
The nostrils of his hawkish nose flared. 'I don't think so.'
She indicated a cage. 'What about a reptapet?'
'You mean a snake?' He visibly shuddered, a full body shiver. 'Pass.'
He skirted around an elderly man in a grey fedora squeaking at the guinea pigs to return to that tank and scrutinised the fish. Hovering above its yellow and blue bed stones, the fish blew a bubble and stared back. Looking closer, he lifted a hand to knock on the glass.
When she touched the platinum watch on his wrist—fish and tapping was a no-go zone—the fiery sensation of his skin on hers released a crackling zap hurtling up her limb. The scrumptious shockwave carried an arrow straight to her chest and stole the air from her lungs.
He straightened and looked at her oddly—a curious glint in his eye as if he might have felt the charge too. Or maybe that look simply said hands off.
Stepping back, she drew her tingling hand away. 'Plenty of people have satisfying relationships with fish,' she said in an unintentionally husky voice.
An intrigued smile swam in the depths of his eyes. 'Do you?'
Her glance took inventory of the wall of tanks behind them. 'We have scores of fish here.'
'But do you have fish at home?'
'I'm not allowed.'
His brows jumped. 'You live with your parents?'
She blinked twice. 'I rent.'
'But you have family close by.'
Her stomach lurched at his assumption. Orphaned at a young age, she'd been brought up by an aunt on the rural east coast of Australia. She had no brothers or sisters, grandparents or cousins. Other than Aunt McKenzie, she had no one.
She swallowed against a flush and regained control. 'I'm not sure that has anything to do with you buying a fish, Mr '
'Stuart. Mitchell Stuart.'As if annoyed at himself, he waved a dismissive hand. And, no, it doesn't. Totally off track.' He narrowed his focus on the gaping fish again and slowly grinned. 'I think he'll do nicely.'
She forced her thoughts away from family—or lack thereof—and back onto business.
For a moment she'd wondered if this customer might enjoy a closer connection someone to walk and have fun with. Guess she'd been mistaken.
But she was pleased for the fish; clearly he was going to a good home. She was sure he'd be fed the finest fish food and have his home regularly cleaned by the housekeeper.
She went to lift the tank. 'Do you have any names in mind?'
Frowning, Mr Stuart took over the weight of the tank. 'Fish have names?'
At the counter, she collected flakes, stabilising drops, a complimentary miniature Poseidon and his trident, then went through everything with Mr Stuart regarding the care of his new goldfish. After he'd scrawled a signature on the transaction slip, she handed back his card. 'I'm sure you'll have no problems.'
'If I do?'
She whisked a business card from its holder. He gripped it, genuine victory shining in his eyes. 'I feel good about this.'
'Then so do I.'
Mr Stuart collected his bundles. On his way past the puppies, he faltered, but then shot a glance over his shoulder and held up the fish with a smile that said, Right decision.
She winked and saluted. Another satisfied customer. And the puppies would go quickly to homes filled with love and adequate attention. Maybe one day Mitchell Stuart would return when he was ready for a bigger commitment.
Would she still be here? She had to believe tomorrow's appointment with her bank manager would save the day. She couldn't bear to think of the alternative.
Two hours later, she flipped the sign on the door as the phone rang. If that was the feeders and drinkers supplier after a payment, the cheque was definitely in the mail. If it was the landlord reminding her to be out in two weeks
She held her nervy stomach. Maybe she wouldn't answer.
When it rang again, she buckled and picked up. No hello from the other end, just a straight out, 'I've found a name for my fish.'
That deep voice was even more bone-melting over the phone—low and unconsciously inviting against her ear.
'Mr Stuart. Hello.'
She stammered. 'B-Beg your pardon?'
'He won't quit jumping out of the tank. He's on a suicide mission.'
She sank down onto a chair and rubbed her brow. Oh, dear. 'That sometimes happens.'
'I filled the tank, added the right amount of drops, set up the filter, gave him a feed. When I turned my back, he jumped out. I put him back in. He jumped out again, and again.' His voice dropped to a growl. 'Clearly he's not happy.'
'Could be a couple of things, like not enough water.'
'I've already put more in.'
'Maybe there's too much.'
His voice cracked. 'A fish can have too much water?'
'Only in so far as making it easier to leap out.' She gnawed her bottom lip. 'And then there's the possibility '
'Some fish are just, well, jumpers.'
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