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Everything inside Mitch Goodwin tensed at his sister's casually delivered piece of news. Chantal was kidding, right? Looking to get a rise out of big brother on his first night back in Plenty. Welcome home to Australia, Mitch. Now you've unpacked and enjoyed a nice neighborly dinner, here's something to get your blood pumping.
And of all things guaranteed to get his blood pumping, his son's former nanny topped the list. With careful control he slotted another plate into the dishwasher. "And you didn't think you should mention this development when you rang me? When you said "Guess who's moved back to Plenty?" and I asked how she was doing?"
"How, not what," Chantal corrected mildly.
"You said she was fine."
"A change of occupation doesn't necessarily mean a person's not fine and/or dandy."
Mitch gave up all pretence of calm and slammed the dishwasher door shut. "The back bar of the Lion is some kind of change."
"Hey, it's not so bad since Bob Foley took over. As a matter of fact, the last brawl -"
"I don't give a damn if it's the Ritz. She's a trained nanny, for cripe's sake, not a barmaid!"
His angry outburst stopped Chantal midstride. For several surprised seconds she stared at him, the coffee cups in her hands suspended midway between cupboard and bench. "I thought that information would interest you in a more positive way. As in, you moved back here to write, you need a good nanny."
Precisely. And knowing that the best nanny was pulling beers in the town's seediest pub added urgency to his objective as well as heat to his conscience. "Joshua can stay here with you and Quade for an hour or two?" he asked.
"Of course," Chantal answered automatically before she saw him start for the door. Then she threw down a handful of teaspoons with a metallic clatter.
"Wait there, just one minute."
Hand on the doorknob, he started counting down the sixty seconds.
"You've been driving half the day, cleaning and unpacking for the rest of it. Go home and sleep. Introduce yourself to a razor and see Emily tomorrow when you're not looking quite so primitive." She paused, eyes narrowing as she studied him head to foot. "I assume you do want to engage her services?"
No, want didn't really cover it. He needed Emily. He and Joshua both.
That steely determination must have shown in his expression because Chantal sighed and shook her head. "Go easy on her, Mitch. I know you've had a tough couple of years, but so has Emily."
Mitch knew all about Emily Warner's tough years, and the fifteen-minute drive into Plenty provided plenty of time for that knowledge to turn him inside out. His ex-wife dismissing her as Joshua's nanny for no good reason. Her grandfather's death and the subsequent battle over his estate. That injustice still boiled Mitch's blood ... although not half as much as his own error of judgment.
Error of judgment? He snorted with self-disgust. That didn't even begin to describe how he'd abused his duty of care two months after reemploying her, how he'd taken advantage of her warm, compassionate nature and shattered her trust.
As Joshua's nanny, she'd lived in his home, and the night he learned of Annabelle's death ... His hands tightened on the wheel reflexively. He remembered the gut-kick of intense, impotent anger and the numbness he sought at his local bar. Emily had fetched him home, Emily with her gentle brown eyes and her comforting arms and her soft words of sympathy.
He'd kissed her, possibly to shut off those platitudes. Possibly because he'd ached to lose himself in something softer and sweeter and more supportive than a whiskey bottle. Oh, yeah, he remembered the kissing and the falling into bed and then ... a dark, black hole in his memory.
A vision of Emily as he'd last seen her, dressed in nothing but his white linen sheets and a soft, pink flush, drifted through his thoughts and rubbed every raw edge of his conscience. He might not recall what happened that night, but he would never forget the morning after. Her wariness, his clumsy questioning, her insistence that nothing had happened. Except, hot on the heels of that "nothing" - while he and Joshua were traveling to Annabelle's funeral - she packed her bags and disappeared.
Frustration twisted his gut into a tight, hot knot as he pulled into the car park behind the Lion and switched off the engine. Six months wondering and worrying over the consequences of that night, and he didn't think he could wait another minute, certainly not the hour until closing. From the near-empty lot he figured she wouldn't be too busy - the impending rain had kept most sane folk home. He jumped down from the cab, shut the door and - city habit - paused to lock up. He almost missed the small, female figure that slipped from a side entrance. As she hurried off down the street, the wind tore at her hooded parka. Long hair, stick straight, shone silvery pale under a streetlight.
His pulse kicked, an instant response to the tumult of sensations that swamped his body. Most of them he didn't want to identify, so he concentrated on the quick surge of anger. She was walking home alone, through the dark streets, and she didn't even have the sense to pull her hood over that luminous beacon of hair. Might as well shout, Here I am, young, blond and female. Come and get me.
Suddenly the door to the bar swung open, and two men veered toward Mitch, two men he recognized as former classmates at Plenty High. He had nowhere to hide as Dean Mancini did a classic double take.
"Mitch Goodwin? Stone the crows! I heard you were coming back. Moving into the old Heaslip place, aren't you?"
"That's right." Beyond the mens' shoulders, Mitch could see Emily's rapidly retreating figure. "Sorry, mate, but I -"
"Lucky break, your sister getting married and letting you take her place." Rocky O'Shea rode right over the top of Mitch's attempt to end the conversation. "But then you always were a lucky bastard."
Dean planted an elbow in his mate's side and Rocky, eventually, caught on. His gaze skittered, his Adam's apple bobbed, and Mitch didn't really want to hear whatever fumbling words came next. "I have to be somewhere," he said shortly. "Catch you another time."
Dean cleared his throat. "Sorry about your ... you know."
Excerpted from A Tempting Engagement by Bronwyn Jameson Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 7, 2011
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