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Regan Jantz took a flute of champagne from a circulating waiter, then made her way to an alcove from where she scanned the mix of Japanese businessmen and local industry representatives.
'You look like you don't want to be here.'
Startled, she swung towards the deep male voice. Its owner smiled down at her. Being smiled down on wasn't exactly a first but it was unusual enough to make Regan give him more than a cursory glance. She hadn't realised there was someone already occupying the vantage point she'd chosen.
She pasted a professional smile on her face and at the same time took in the expensive suit, confident stance and clean-cut lines of the man's face. 'I'm sorry?'
He leaned forward and spoke softly. 'You don't look as if you're enjoying yourself.'
'Oh.' Regan stepped back. He might be tall and good-looking and have a nice gentle voice, but she didn't know who he was.
She saw understanding in his face and, for an instant, wished she could undo the automatic reflex. He was only trying to be friendly after all.
'I've only just got here,'she said in answer to his remark. 'I was running late.'
Glancing at her watch, she said, 'I'm hoping it won't go on too long.' She had to get home before her sons went to bed. 'But I'm sure I'll enjoy it,' she finished with a smile, just in case the handsome stranger had an involvement in the event's planning.
He took a sip from his glass and surveyed the guests filing into the function room. After a brief silence, he said, 'Do you think it's a good ideathe tourist trail?'
'Oh, yes, I do.'The enthusiasm in her tone was genuine.
The purpose of the cocktail party was to launch a new initiative of the state government's tourism departmentpackaging South Australia's Eyre Peninsula into an activity-filled holiday experience aimed specifically at Japanese tourists and marketed to the Japanese travel industry.
'I think it's a great idea,' she said and not just because he might have been instrumental in developing the concept.
She paused, tempted to leave it at that, but something about the keen interest in his face made her go on. Most people at these events made polite small talk and avoided showing real interest in anything.
'I'm not completely convinced that I should be getting involved with it, though.'
'Why not? What's your business?'
'I run a tuna farm.' She sipped her champagne, studying his eyes as she spoke. He had kind brown onesnot as dark as her Italian ex-husband's eyes, which both her children had inherited, but a warm reddish brown. Like the rich redgum honey that her son Cory loved on his toast fingers.
'I can see why tourists would want to visit the seahorse farm,'she went on. 'It's a real novelty.And at the oyster farm they can sample the product, which is a treat, but when they come to visit us, well, all they'll get to do is ride out to the pontoon in a boat and see the fish in captivity. And hear us talk about the process. It doesn't compare, does it?'
'I'm sure you'll make it interesting.'
She shrugged. She wasn't so sure that was possible, but she'd do her best, of course. 'So, what about you? Why are you here?'
'I'm here on behalf of friends. They run trips for tourists at Leo Bay, taking them out to swim with the sea lions.'
She nodded, smiling. 'The trail's a perfect opportunity for them. They couldn't make it tonight?'
He lowered his voice. 'I owed them a favour. They don't like functions like this.'
'And you do?'
He gave a slight grimace. 'No. That's why I was hoping I'd found a kindred spirit when I saw you slinking over here.'
'Well, I admit it's not my favourite part of the job, but it has to be done.'
He gave her a rueful smile. 'I'm out of practice.'
'Small talk. With adults.' The age lines around his eyes and mouth were just what his face needed to give it definition, she decided. Men had an unfair advantage when it came to such things.
Two vertical lines above the bridge of his nose told her he'd spent a lot of time frowningor deep in thought. She could relate to that.
His hair too was a lighter, warmer brown than Giacomo's. Its casual style didn't go with the sharp image he presented in all other respects.
Overall, he was the most attractive man she'd seen in a long time. Suddenly, she realised he'd stopped talking and she was still staring.
Embarrassed, she glanced away. 'Um, my main reason for coming tonight was to practise my Japanese,' she said. 'So I'd better go and mingle.'
'It was good to meet you. I'm Chase, by the way.' He held out a hand. 'Chase Mattner.'
She shook hands with men all the time; it was a necessary part of her business, and she'd experienced all sorts of handshakes from the bone-crunching squeeze to the wet lettuce leaf effect. Sliding her hand into Chase Mattner's, however, was different.
For a split second she enjoyed the warm strength of his hand enfolding hers. Enjoyed the strange mixture of comfort and excitement that filled her.
But that was a ridiculous reaction. She didn't have time to go around enjoying handshakes and, besides, someone so attractive couldn't possibly be unattached.
Not that she wanted to know.
'Regan Jantz,' she said.
'Maybe we'll bump into each other again later.' The gleam in his eyes told her he hoped they would.
With a nod, she walked away from him. It was only then that she registered he'd said something about a lack of adult conversation. So he had children. She'd known someone so attractive couldn't be unattached. Not that it mattered. She recognised a local hotel owner and crossed the room to talk to her.
Chase watched Regan's graceful progress across the room, then looked for a waiter. There was a time when he'd have been a sucker for a blue-eyed brunette, especially one as tall and striking as Regan Jantz. But that time had long gone. He'd stopped noticing women of any type once he'd married Larissa. And since then, with everything he'd been throughlosing Larissa and learning through trial and error how to raise their child alonehe'd lost the urge to notice.
Regan was lovely, though. He swapped his empty glass for a fresh one and glanced across the room to where she'd settled into a discussion with one of the overseas guests. Her beauty was in her bone structure and she'd never lose it. She was one of those women who'd become even more beautiful as she aged.
As she dipped her head to hear what the man was saying, her straight dark hair hid her face but he clearly remembered the curve of her cheek, her bright, intelligent eyes. So bright and so blue he'd thought she must be wearing coloured contacts.
Women did that nowadays, he'd heard. But once he'd started talking to her, he'd decided there was nothing fake about Regan Jantznot the hint of auburn in her dark brown hair, not the length of her eyelashes, not even the soft pink of her lips. She was as straightforward as they came and for a moment there
No. Not attracted. He couldn't have been attracted to her. It had been a slight tug of recognition, that was all. Recognition of the fact that she was the type of woman he could have been attracted to, if things had been different. Very different. In another life.
It was too soon to even say he liked Regan but instinct told him he could like her given the chance. She reminded him of Jan in an obscure way and he valued Jan's friendship. Jan and her husband Mike were the reason he was here tonight. In a suit.
With a shrug, he shoved his free hand into the pocket of his trousers, pushing back the jacket. He wasn't just out of practice at small talk, he was out of the habit of wearing suits and didn't even know why he kept them. They'd be out of style by the time he needed them for work again. He couldn't see himself returning to working life while Phoebe was still young enough to need him and, as she was about to turn four, that day wasn't even close.
Dragging his gaze away from Regan but reluctant to join in the general chatter, he turned to the window. The function room overlooked the Port Lincoln foreshore and, as it was still early evening, he had a panoramic view of the spectacular blue waters of Boston Bay, from the tip of Port Lincoln National Park to Point Boston. The island-dotted bay was more than three times the size of Sydney Harbour but without the big city on its shoresa fact that he guessed suited the fifteen thousand inhabitants ofAustralia's richest town just fine.
Port Lincoln had more millionaires per capita than any other town or city in Australia. Many of the local tuna farmers had made a packet from selling sashimi to the Japanese. He wondered if Regan was one of them.
She didn't look like a millionaire, but then he, more than anyone, should know that looks could be deceptive. His own parents were rich but they spent most of their time dressed as a pair of backpackers and avoiding the luxuries they could well afford.
They'd made it clear he was welcome to their money but could expect nothing else from them, not even their time. He didn't need their money; he had enough of his own. But he could have done with their support after Larissa's death, would have been grateful for their help with Phoebe. They'd been somewhere in Africa at the time and he hadn't seen them since.
Stifling a sigh, he warned himself not to let his thoughts go there now. He drained his glass and forced himself to face the room again. He really should follow Regan's example and mingle. Having made the trip, he owed it to Jan and Mike to represent them well.
An hour or so later, Regan found herself in the same group as Chase although they were involved in separate conversations. She wondered whether he'd engineered the coincidence. When the speeches started and all heads turned towards the small stage, he moved to her side and she tried not to feel pleased, but her nerve-endings twitched and took note of his presence.
'I think I've spoken to everybody in the room,' he said in a low voice. 'What about you? Did you get plenty of practice?'
She turned to look into his face. Hunger gripped her stomach as she did so. At least, she hoped it was hunger. If not, it was a completely inappropriate reaction. 'Practice?'
She'd meant to whisper, but she hadn't meant to sound breathless. She took in a deep breathwhich didn't help since all it did was fill her nose with the clean masculine scent of Chase Mattner.
There was something about this man that threw her off her game and she didn't like it. Well, maybe she did like it, but she shouldn't.
The volume of the crowd noise had dropped further and his warm breath brushed her ear as he leaned close to whisper. 'Japanese.'
'Oh, yes. I did,' she whispered back.
He nodded, then looked towards the front of the room while she continued to study his profile, his tanned cheek, the strong line of his jaw. His lips parted slightly as he gave all his attention to the speaker. And then he laughed.
Vaguely aware of the sound of general laughter around her, she was still watching as he turned to share the joke with her, his eyes sparkling, deep creases around them
He frowned. 'Are you okay?'
His face blurred. She tried to nod but, instead of her head, it was the room that moved. It spun one way, then the other. 'I feel a bit dizzy.'
Within minutes she was sitting at a table in the bar sipping iced water. She'd been awareall too awareof his arm supporting her on the way there, but she'd been too woozy to object. Not that she'd wanted to. Which confused her.
She rolled her eyes. 'I'm fine. I don't know what happened.'
'You're not the fainting type, then?'
'God, no!'She was as far from the fainting type as it was possible to be. 'I've never done that before.'
'Well, it was pretty warm in there. Lots of bodies.'
'Yes.' And she'd only been aware of one. The one standing next to her. She took another sip from her glass and felt the cool water slide down her throat. She was warm, but not warm enough to explain what had just happened.
'You're not '
She looked up when he hesitated. 'Not what?'
'You're not pregnant?'
He nodded. 'It was just a thought.' His face clouded. 'I remember my wife fainting in the first few weeks of her pregnancy.'
She breathed in and out, very slowly. She'd guessed he wasn't unattached so why did the mention of his wife slice through her? It wasn't as if she cared.
'I'm definitely not pregnant.'
'What about food? Did you eat any of the finger food in there?' He gestured towards the function room they'd left.
'No. I never do eat at these things. I'm always too worried I'll get something stuck in my teeth.'
After a brief burst of laughter he stilled, watching her face. 'You're serious, aren't you?'
She nodded. She couldn't believe she'd said it out loud. What was it about this man that made her forget who she was? First she was fainting, then she was telling him her private thoughts. She was usually much better behaved.
'When did you last eat, then?'
She frowned, thinking. 'I had breakfast.'
'Nothing since then?'
'I don't think so.'
'You don't remember?'
'It's been a busy day.' She saw him look her over. She knew she was thin, but not skinny enough to cause the frown on his face.
'I do eat. It's just that I've been busy.'
'Have dinner with me.'
It didn't sound like a question. 'I can't. I have to get home. Damn.' She stared at her watch. It was later than she'd thought. On the rare occasions she couldn't be home in time to tuck her children into bed, she always made a point of phoning them to say good-night. But tonight she'd forgotten.
'Yes. My children will be asleep by now.' She fervently believed that all children needed to know they were loved and wanted, but when they'd already been rejected by one of the people who was supposed to love them unconditionally it was even more important to make the effort to let them know she was thinking about them. But that was the problemshe hadn't been thinking about them.
The truth made her chest heavy with guilt and she sucked in her bottom lip. She was normally so careful about things like this. She knew from experience how it felt to be forgotten by a parent. She didn't claim to be the world's best mother, but she did try to make up for being the only parent the boys had. She really tried.
'Is your husband with them?'
Her head jerked up. 'No. My mother.'
His eyebrows rose in a silent question. 'I'm divorced. My mother lives with us.' Her guilt eased a fraction. It wasn't as if they were entirely alone. Their grandmother was with them and, as Regan looked at her watch again, she knew that her boys would be fast asleep by now.
But this was the first time she'd forgotten to call them. The knot in her stomach wound tight again.
'We have something in common.' He smiled. 'We're both single parents.'
Her stomach flipped. He was unattached.