Read an Excerpt
'I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but I don't think he's the one for you.'
Elly Ruddock, GP, community member of Coast-Care, and desperately late for the annual 'blessing of the fleet' dinner, spritzed perfume on her wrists, slid an emerald-green bead necklace around her throat and tried unsuccessfully to block out the conversation she'd had earlier in the day with her friend, Sarah.
'Dev is a good man.' Elly had defended her date for the evening. 'Besides, you're the one who sat me down two months ago, called me a "one-date wonder" and said I'd sabotaged every attempt at a relationship since I'd arrived.' She'd over-stirred her latte as indignation had partnered up with disquiet. 'Besides, this is my fifth date with Dev and now you're telling me he's not right. You can't have it both ways, Sarah.'
The nurse and mother had rescued her keys from her toddler and sighed. 'Just be careful you're not confusing good and solid with dull and boring.'
Thankfully Elly's mobile phone had rung at that exact moment, ending the conversation, and she'd rushed to the hospital to treat a child who'd been knocked off his bike by a car. The emergency had consumed the rest of the afternoon and was the reason she was now so late for the dinner.
She threw lipstick and her phone into an evening bag and snapped it shut. Dev Johnston was not boring. He was CEO of the shire, reliable, dependable, coached the under-twelves' cricket team and, most importantly, he was unlikely to break her heart.
'I love you, El, but I can't give you what you want.'
She tugged on her wardrobe door and rummaged through her evening shoes, most of them rarely worn these days because Midden Cove's night life didn't come within a bull's roar of Melbourne. When she'd told her friends and family she was relocating to the verdant island of Tasmania, she'd dealt with raised brows and knowing looks. Her mother had accused her of running away. Her sister, Suzy, who was happily married with twin daughters, had said, 'Hobart isn't Sydney, sis,' which was code for the dating pool being small. There was an element of truth in both statements.
But when they'd found out she was bypassing Hobart completely and going to an isolated coastal hamlet, they'd threatened therapy. She'd retaliated by saying that good men, men who wanted the same things out of life as she did, turned up in unlikely places. At least she'd know straight up that living in a country town would be something both she and a future partner wanted.
So far, after two years in Midden Cove, she'd met a lot of good men. Most of them married, many of them grandfathers, and far too many were her patients. That left the guys who came to town and worked the season in the tourist industry, the principal of the primary school and the shire employees. She'd dated them all and Dev was the last eligible bachelor left in the district.
The old grandfather clock chimed seven and the doorbell pealed. Unlike her, Dev was never late. She grabbed her shoes and ran.
Dr Gabe Lewis stroked the heads of his sleeping children and found it hard to believe that whirling tornadoes could look this angelic in sleep. He stifled a yawn, his body wanting to fall into bed with them and crash into a deep and uninterrupted sleep; a sleep he hadn't known for well over a year.
'Gabe, you'll be late if you don't leave now.' His mother spoke quietly from the doorway. 'Dad and I have got everything under control.'
I wish I did. 'Thanks, Mum.' He really didn't want to go to the yacht club but his parents thought they were helping by giving him a night off and he didn't have the heart to disappoint them. His reputation as the party guy had taken such a severe battering in the last eighteen months that he hardly recognised himself. 'Ring me if you need me.'
'I raised you, your brother and sister, and I'm sure I can handle your three for a night.' Concern was etched deeply around her eyes. 'Visiting us is supposed to be a holiday for you as well as the kids. Go out and have some fun, Gabe. You need it.'
Fun. He'd forgotten the concept.
The speeches were over, dessert had been eaten and the band swung into a retro set. The music filled Elly's veins and her feet tapped under the table but Dev didn't move from his chair. He was totally engrossed in outlining his plans for the foreshore conservation project and the protection of the fairy penguin colony. It wasn't that she wasn't interested, she was, but he'd spoken about it in such detail that she knew more about the programme than the workers who'd be implementing it.
He suddenly gave a self-conscious laugh. 'I'm boring you.'
She shook her head, almost too quickly. 'It's wonderful that you're so passionate about your job.'
Leaning forward, he picked up her hand. 'You look lovely tonight, Eleanor.'
She smiled, pushing down deep the fact that she'd asked him to call her Elly at least five times. 'Thank you.'
'I really enjoy spending time with you.' 'So do I.' Mostly.
'We share a lot of things in common and five dates is a bit of a watershed, don't you think?' His serious brown eyes roved over her face. 'I want to spend a lot more time with you.'
The noise of the room seeped away, deafened by the pounding of blood in her head. A lot more time meant a serious relationship. A chance at a family?
'I don't want children, El, it's just not me.'
Dev cleared his throat. 'I'm not rushing you, Eleanor, but I need you to understand that I'm looking for a relationship that's going to move forward into the future. One for the long haul with a view to marriage, kids and a superannuation portfolio. We can go slowly, but if what I've just said isn't something you can see in your future then let me down now.'
'You've sabotaged every relationship in twenty-three months.'
His fingers stroked hers but only a slight shimmer of warmth wove through her, like weak sunshine on a cold day.
Without warning, vivid recollections from the past thundered in, mocking her tepid response. Memories of molten lust pounded her, reminding her how need had once poured through her so strong and fast that she'd been incapable of standing, and that long desire-fuelled days had been spent in tangled sheets. But all of that wonder had ended with her heart being shattered.
'Sexual attraction is overrated. Dev's a good man, you share things in common, and you both want children.'
She bit her lip, pushed her past down deep and squeezed his hand. 'I want to try.'
He shot to his feet, dropped a perfunctory kiss onto her forehead and twirled her out onto the dance floor. The tiny parquet floor was crowded as everyone rocked and jived, dancing in a communal group rather than as intimate couples.
Dev laughed as he spun away from her, joining in an impromptu twist competition. Elly smiled, watching the dancers strut their stuff, and reminded herself that this was what living in a small community was all about. Sharing. After all, it wasn't like Dev had just proposed to her, but that didn't stop disappointment from niggling that he wasn't dancing with her cheek to cheek as a sign that something significant had just happened between them.
'We've had a request from the commodore for the barn dance.' Joel Rubens—the grandson of the commodore—whose spiked black hair and body piercings made him look like he'd be more at home playing punk rock than parlour music—obviously knew that payment came only if he did as he was asked. 'So can all the ladies make a circle and then you blokes go stand next to the woman you came with.' He leaned into the microphone and winked. 'Of course, you might not get to go home with her after this raunchy dance.'
Elly stepped into the circle and Dev found her, sliding his arm lightly around her waist as the traditional folk music started up. She stepped in closer, fighting the feeling she was dancing with her brother.
Dev tightened his arm around her and smiled as he expertly executed the steps to the dance. 'Enjoy yourself,' he said, and he danced her into the arms of the next man.
As she danced around the room, she danced with the mayor and with schoolboys who loved to sail, she danced with shopkeepers and wood turners, sawmill owners, hobby farmers and fishermen—the eclectic and caring community of Midden Cove; her adopted town and one she loved. Her feet were taking a pounding as not all Midden Cove men had smooth moves but she forgave them as the sense of belonging washed over her. The burly woodcutter thanked her for caring for his mother recently and then twirled her on.
Strong, tanned arms, with a smattering of golden hair enveloped her, as did the scent of musk, soap and danger. Her head jerked up and suddenly she was looking into the bluest-of-blue eyes that sparkled like the facets of a sapphire. Eyes she knew. Eyes that had dazzled her before and had once flickered with undiluted lust just for her.
Her breath turned solid in her chest, all words sticking in her throat, and her feet stumbled, pushing her against his broad and muscular chest. A chest whose every convex and concave line was tattooed on her brain for ever. It only took one brief touch of his hand and her body lit up like the fireworks-filled-sky on New Year's Eve.
Long fingers laced through hers, pulling her arm up in a perfect dance square. His other arm gripped her waist, holding her upright as her legs melted. 'Deep breath, El. It's just one dance and it'll soon be over.'
And less than five steps later she'd been spun out to her next partner. Somehow she managed to finish the barn dance and join in with the enthusiastic clapping at the end. But as Dev's hand reached for hers, her eyes strayed across the room to the bar, taking in very familiar sun-bleached hair, and broad, dress-shirt-clad shoulders. Her head spun, making silver spots dance before her eyes. What was adventure-seeking, high-living Gabe Lewis doing in tiny Midden Cove?
Elly's heart hammered so hard she was sure everyone could hear it. As the band took a break, people drifted off to the bar and out onto the deck, and she excused herself, dashing to the ladies.
Deep breath, El.
She gulped air into her cramping lungs. Gabe had always been the calm one. Calm, laid back and easygoing, unless crossed. When people hit his stubborn streak for the first time, it always led to shocked surprise. She should have heeded the warning the first time their opinions had differed.
Her breathing almost steadied as she gave herself a stern talking to. What did it matter that Gabe was in town? It didn't matter at all. Sure, they shared a past but that's exactly what it was: history. They'd broken up almost two years ago, their relationship floundering on the rocks of irreconcilable differences.
She raised her eyes to the mirror and groaned at her pale image. How could she be so rattled by seeing him again when he'd looked so composed and at ease? Damn it, she'd spent months getting over him and she was furious with herself for turning into a quivering mess at one brief touch. She stiffened her spine. She was over him. She had to be over him. With trembling fingers, she smoothed down her hair. This reaction was just the unexpected shock of seeing him again after all this time and the next time she saw him she'd be just as cool as he'd been.
You go, girl. She opened her evening bag, wound out her lipstick and swiped cherry red across her lips; ignoring the fact it was the only colour on her face.
Women drifted in and out of the bathroom, smiling and chatting, and Elly knew she couldn't stay locked away much longer. She took one last glance in the mirror, tilted her chin and pushed open the door.
Joel had the microphone in his hand and was nodding to the bass guitarist, who was plugging in his guitar. 'We're going to play you a song we wrote so stand by as we rock this room.'
The screeching noise of feedback squealed through the amplifiers and the guitarist put down his instrument and adjusted the sound. 'Sorry, guys, we're just gonna change amps.'
Elly started to move across the crowded room toward the deck, thinking that the best place to hear an original Fires' composition was as far away from the amplifiers as possible. As she reached the halfway point, the lights suddenly flickered then almost simultaneously a deafening bang ricocheted around the room. An arc of silver-white light flared and the room was plunged into darkness as a stomach-curdling, piercing yelp rent the air.
'Doc Elly!' Joel screamed in terror. Elly swung round and helpful hands pushed her forward, as she used the moonlight to find her way. Just as she reached the stage a hand gripped her upper arm and tugged her back.
A smooth, deep voice spoke firmly but quietly in her ear.
'Wait. I don't want you fried too.' With his fingers still pressing into the soft flesh of her arm, Gabe called out in a commanding tone, 'Has the power been turned off?'
'Yes.' The barman held up a torch providing much-needed light.
'Are you absolutely certain?'
He gave a brisk nod. 'I did it myself.'
'Go.' Gabe's arm fell from Elly's.
She pulled her dress up above her knees before clambering onto the stage. As her eyes searched in the dim light around all the sound equipment and musical instruments, she heard Gabe announcing he was a doctor and instructing someone to get his medical bag from his car. She bumped into the drum kit, the cymbals clashing loudly, and then she saw Joel crouching down over the inert body of the guitarist.
'Will plugged in the amp and…and then he flew backwards.' Joel's shadowed eyes reflected the horror of watching his mate being electrocuted.
'Gabe, call an ambulance!' She rushed forward, her fingers reaching for the unconscious man's carotid pulse. She felt around. Nothing.
'Mate.' Gabe's firm step sounded on the stage and he touched Joel on the shoulder.
Joel stared at him blankly.
Gabe spoke slowly. 'Go to the front of the yacht club and meet the ambulance so you can bring them straight to us, OK?'
'Will he be OK?'
'We're doing our best.' Elly checked her patient's mouth for any obstruction and then with her fingers under his chin she tilted his head back.
'You breathe, I'll compress.' Gabe knelt beside her, his expression wry. 'Just like old times, El.'