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It was hard to know what was putting the doof-doof into Romy Carvell's heartbeatthe illicit thrill of slipping a fine crystal ornament unseen into her coat pocket, or the lean, mean, gorgeous machine squatted chatting to her son two aisles away. She glanced surreptitiously in the convex mirror mounted over the counter. It was supposed to help them monitor the park gift shop but, right now, it conveniently gave her a perfect tool to watch anyone watching her.
The ornament clanked gently against the two other items she'd stolen as it nestled into the deep recesses of her light coat.
Her gaze drifted back to the crouched man talking to Leighton. Her son was listening but not responding, par for the course lately. Silence or conflict. Something about being eight years old. The fact he hadn't yet made a beeline for her side meant he was feeling comfortable about the stranger's presence, which instantly made Romy feel comfortable about it. The man straightened and reached for something on a nearby shelf.
Her gut twisted. Military.
Forget the due-for-a-cut hair, the three-day growthmilitary didn't just wash off. This stranger had the residual carriage, the unmistakable forced casualness disguising a well-honed subliminal alertness.
He moved just like her father.
The man smiled at her son and then stepped away, giving him the space he needed. Leighton relaxed further now his escape route to his mum wasn't closed off by a human roadblock, his gentle grey eyes searching her out.
And right on their tail was this stranger's piercing green ones; they locked on Romy in the security mirror. She looked away, her heart thumping.
Okay Definitely the man and not the shoplifting.
She shifted out of the mirror's range and pulled her focus back to the job at hand, fanning herself with the tourism postcard she'd plucked from the overcrowded carousel stand. A lot rode on her success this morning and she was taking a big risk going for one more. Not because of the oblivious cashier whose attention was locked firmly on Mr Military over therethat only made her task all the easier. But those too-casual jade eyes monitoring her every move They were the most likely danger to her chances of walking out of here with what she needed.
Romy drifted across his line of sight, feeling his focus glued on her even though his outward attention had returned to Leighton. Another military trait.
Just one more. Something spectacular. Something to really drive her message home. She picked up item after item and replaced them with care, moving casually towards the glass cabinet holding an array of opal and gold jewellery that probably sold like hot cakes to the wealthy tourists that frequented WildSprings Wilderness Retreat. The display was stupidly positioned, perfect for catching customer attention but in the worst possible spot for surveillance by the single cashier. And the mirror didn't quite throw this far.
Which suited her fine.
With the efficiency of someone who had nothing at all to lose, she slid open the concealed base to the cabinet and picked out the most expensive-looking clunker she could find. Hardly the sort of thing she'd ever wearher own tastes ran to something a little finer, something a lot cheaperbut she wasn't going to have it long. She tucked the gaudy brooch deep into her inside pocket and slid the drawer silently closed.
'Are you planning on paying for that?'
Romy was too well trained to flinch at the deep, cool voice, no matter how much her body itched to. She turned slowly, then tilted her gaze to his. Whoa. She'd thought he was a giant before
He had to be six foot three, maybe four, and was built like the tank she was sure he would have travelled in once. All hard angles and iron. Her stomach dropped, but she plastered on an intentionally vague expression. 'I'm sorry?'
'Will you be buying that or just keeping the flies off with it?' He nodded to the postcard in her hand, the one still automatically fanning her face. Her skin bristled. His tone was casual but she recognised the steel behind the smile all too well.
She'd grown up a human metal detector.
She started to move away, eager to escape the whirlpool surrounding his eyes. 'It's warmer than I expected, today.'
'Could have something to do with your coat,' he said lightly, following her. 'Wrong sort of day for a long jacket.'
Oh, Lord, she was sprung.
Her heart hammered. If he'd had anything solid on her he would have asked her to turn out her pockets by now, but he was definitely sniffing. She frowned. What was he, security? No, she was interviewing for the position of park security officer in about forty minutes, so who was this guy, some kind of good Samaritan?
She straightened to give herself one more pointless inch against him. 'Planning ahead. I heard the weather here on the south coast can be unpredictable.'
Those intense eyes weren't fooled. They scanned her down and up again as though he had X-ray vision, and when they returned to hers they were arctic.
Time to go.
She turned her face a fraction but didn't take her focus from the man in front of her. She couldn't if she'd wanted to. 'Leighton, honey. Let's go.'
Three feet of dark curls and sunshine bounded over to where Romy stood dwarfed by the stranger. He held out a card with tiny, four-toed footprints printed on it, his voice hushed. 'Mum, look. Frog prints.'
She dragged her attention down to her son and squatted. It was her personal rule. Leighton rarely sought attention these days, so when he did she gave it unquestioningly. So different to her own upbringing.
She tried to ignore the intense stare pounding onto her like a waterfall. 'Are they real?'
'Yeah. The frogs walked on the ink first, then the card. Non-toxic,' he said importantly, 'on account of the frog's sensitive skin, Clint says.'
Romy's hand faltered as it stroked her son's shoulder. She bit the inside of her cheek. Clint? Lord, even the name was sexy. And somehow he'd gotten more out of her son in two minutes than she had all day.
She flipped the card over and looked at the price tag. Inflated, but not completely out of the question, particularly if she could nail this job interview. She straightened. 'Tell you what, L, why don't you take your frog print and my postcard to the lady at the counter and we'll head out.'
'Is it time for your meeting?'
Romy winced. She didn't want Mr Military knowing her business. She handed her son the postcard and twenty dollars. 'Go ahead, honey. I'll be right there.'
The moment Leighton was outside hearing range, Clint spoke, suspicion narrowing his eyes even further. 'You have an appointment?'
Not that it's any of your business. 'Yes, and I need to be'
'What kind of appointment?'
Every part of her tightened like a slingshot. Oh, you really don't want to push that button, mister. She'd spent a lifetime being cut off by an overbearing bully. She didn't need it today of all days. She took a shaky breath.
'I've interrupted your shopping,' she said, all courtesy. Verbal Judo 101. 'And I must be going. Excuse me.'
She was sure it was no accident he'd positioned himself between her and the exit. She squeezed past his bulk in the narrow aisle, tucking her coat to the side so the objects hidden within didn't clank against him. As she passed, she caught a whiff of something divine. Sandalwood, earth and man. He might look as though he lived on the streets but he smelled heavenly. And all that bulk was hard as a rock, too, as she slid past him towards the counter, willing her heartbeat to settle.
So he hadn't let himself go, entirely.
'Perhaps I'll see you around?' He had the chest for such a cavernous voice. His words easily found her ears even though she'd moved halfway across the room. In her periphery, she saw him drift to the rear of the store and continue his browsing.
Lord, I hope not.
'Is that all?' the cashier politely asked.
Romy smiled at the girl, her heart beating loud enough to hear, conscious of the four stolen items hidden in her pockets and that the innocent cashier was likely to wear the temporary blame for their loss.
The angels will forgive me, she told herself.
'You want to take the interviews?' Justin Long stared at his brother, bemused. With good reason. Clint knew he hadn't involved himself in the running of WildSprings for months. Years.
'Not all of them, Justin. Only this last one.' He tapped the lone female name on the list for the park security vacancy. It had to be her. The irony was perfect; he couldn't pin it, but the dark-haired beauty in the gift shop was up to something.
She was too tense roaming those aisles. How many women got uptight shopping?
Justin's assistant stared at Clint as if he'd just hauled himself out of a sewer. Technically speaking, Simone was his assistant but she'd only ever worked with his brother so Clint forgave her confusion. It wasn't her fault he'd appeared out of nowhere, after all this time, looking like a feral animal.
He stared right back. Simone nearly stumbled in her haste to pick up something to do. Clint turned back to Justin.
'What time is this guy coming in?' He tapped the second to last name on the list.
'He's not, he withdrew this morning.'
'Can we bump Ms Carvell up?'
'I'm not even sure if she's'
'She's here. Let's bring her over in ten minutes.' He'd rather see her right now, throw her off her game, but he needed the time to sharpen up or Simone wouldn't be the only one thinking he'd stumbled in off the streets.
Justin glared at him. 'Where am I supposed to go while you use my office?'
'Where did you used to go before you had an office?' He deserved the filthy look Justin threw him; he didn't play the big-brother card very often, the boss card even less. But he wasn't moving on this one.
Eight minutes and a field shave later, Clint stretched back in Justin's chair and flipped open Romy Carvell's file. His eyes flicked unconsciously to her marriage status. She was a single mother. And trying out for a security coordinator role, despite her youth.
The assistant's voice interrupted him. 'Ms Carvell to see you, Mr, uh, sir.'
Clint snapped the file shut and pulled himself to his feet in an automatic at-ease. Romy Carvell may be up to no good but she was still a female and, in his world, a man stood for a woman. Romy smiled politely at Simone and passed her in the doorway, then stopped in her tracks when she saw who waited for her in the office.
You ? She didn't speak but her body said it for her.
'Welcome to WildSprings officially, Ms Carvell. I'm Clint McLeish.'
She recovered her composure in seconds, sliding calmly into the vacant seat opposite his and pinning him with those amazing eyes. Battle-ash grey.
'Do you always scope out potential staff before interviews?' she asked, referring to their earlier encounter.
'Purely opportunistic.' He sank into Justin's chair and studied the woman in front of him. Nervous, but hiding it. She wanted this job badly enough not to turn and walk out when she realised she was set up. Maybe she needed it? Clint thought about the young boy in the gift shop.
'How old are you?' He blurted it out before thinking.
Her lips thinned. 'My resume doesn't include that for a reason, Mr McLeish.'
'You think you'll be judged by your age?'
'You're judging me now. Wondering how someone my age accrued the experience I have.'
Her darkened eyes flashed and his body matched it, deep inside. The angry flush did amazing things to her bone structure. 'Actually, I was contemplating how you could possibly have a son Leighton's age. You must have been virtually a child yourself?'
She gasped and shot to her feet. Clint knew he deserved the outraged expression on her face. Man, he really had been away from people too long. He stood as well.
'Please, sit, Ms Carvell. I apologise, that was unnecessary.' He sank back into the chair as she reluctantly did, too. 'The point I'm trying to makerather badlyis you appear very young for someone in the security industry.'
He did the math; she had to be no more than twenty-six.
She glared for a moment. 'I learned a long time ago to turn my appearance to my advantage,' she said. 'It often gives me an edge over others. They underestimate me.'
I'll bet they do. He looked at those doe eyes set in smooth skin over knockout bone structure. The mouth, which would be full if it wasn't pulled tight with displeasure. Focus, McLeish. He forced his mind onto the task at hand, ignoring the daggers Little Miss Fierce stared at him.
'Uh, can you give me a recent example, please?' It was textbook interview protocol and he loathed that it was coming out of his mouth. But this wouldn't be the first time he'd done something he hated based on a hunch.
She regarded him for a moment, seemed to weigh something in her mind and then reached to unbutton her coat. 'I can give you a very recent example.'
Idiot, you didn't ask for her coat. He mentally shook his head. Maybe his Grizzly Adams days were catching up with him.
Bottomless grey steel looked hard at him. 'Why were you watching me in the gift shop?'
There was no good answer to that question, so he went for a half-truth. 'You looked shifty.'
Her lips quirked, taking all the ice out of those eyes, turning them from storm-grey to kitten-grey in a blink. 'Shifty? How?'
'Like you were up to no good.'
'I was up to no good. I was stealing you blind.' She reached into her pockets and pulled out an array of items he recognised. Stock from his shop. When she placed a clunky brooch on the desk, he knew exactly when she'd nabbed it. And under whose nose. Heat flared up his throat.
Bloody hell. He'd just been scammed by a rookie.
'You stopped me on instinct,' she said. 'Why didn't you take it further?'
Because I was too busy wondering what was beneath that coat of yours, and not of the stolen variety. He glared at her and realised with some pain exactly how far the mighty had fallen. He used to specialise in hostage extraction on foreign soil, now he couldn't even spot a shoplifter at six paces. He fought the stiffening of his body, knowing she wouldn't miss it. Not wanting to give her the satisfaction. 'Point taken, Ms Carvell.'
'This is hideous, by the way.' She pointed to the brooch. 'Why do you stock it?'
He had no idea; someone else did the stock selection for him. Yet another thing he'd relinquished control of since coming home. 'Because it sells?'
She shook her dark auburn hair, just like her son's but heavier and longer, and when she smiled a tiny dimple formed on her left cheek. 'It's still a crime against taste.'