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Jessica Baxter stared at the champagne glass twirling between her thumb and forefinger. It was empty. Again. How had that happened? Best fill it up. She reached for the bottle nestled in ice in the silver bucket beside her.
'You planning on drinking that whole bottle all by yourself?' The groomsman sat down beside her, his steady green gaze fixed on her. Eyes so similar to his sister Sasha's, yet far more dramatic. The way they were sizing her up at this moment sent shivers of anticipation through her. But it was more likely she had whipped cream and strawberry compote on her nose rather than anything earth-shatteringly sensual going on.
Her finger shook as she wiped the top of her nose. Nope. All clear of dessert. So what was fascinating Jackson Wilson so much that his head seemed to have locked into position and his eyes forgotten how to move? Maybe if she answered him he'd get moving again.
So she told him, 'Yes.' Every last drop.
'Then I'll have to get my own bottle. Shame to have to move, though.' Jackson smiled at her, long and slow, making her feel as though she was the only person in the marquee. The only woman at least.
Which was blatantly untrue. Apart from Sasha, who was looking absolutely fabulous in a cream silk wedding gown, there had to be half the female population of Golden Bay in this marquee. Hadn't Sasha said she wanted a small wedding? Define small. Jess looked at the bottle in her hand. Had she drunk too much? Not yet. 'This has to be the best champagne I've ever tasted. Your father went all out.'
'Can't argue with that.'
She wasn't looking for an argument. Her mouth curved upwards. Just some more champagne. The bubbles sped to the surface as she refilled her glass. The sight was enough to turn a girl on. If you were the kind that got turned on easily. Which she definitely wasn't. Her eyes cruised sideways, spied Jackson's legs stretched far under the table, and stilled. Well-toned thighs shaped his black evening trousers to perfection. Her tongue stuck to the top of her mouth, her skin warmed, and somewhere below her waist she felt long-forgotten sensations of desire. Maybe she was that kind of girl after all.
She lifted the bottle in Jackson's direction. 'Got a glass?'
'Of course.' He presented one with a flourish. 'I never go unprepared.' That gaze had returned, stuck on her, apparently taking in every detail of her face.
She paused halfway through filling his glass, raising a well-styled eyebrow. 'Has my mascara run or something?'
Jackson shook his head. 'Nope.'
Spinach in my teeth? Except spinach hadn't featured on the wedding dinner menu. So what was he looking at? Looking for? Jackson Wilson had never taken much notice of her before. They hadn't even liked each other much during the two years she had gone to school here; both had been too busy trying to steal the limelight.
The last time she'd seen him had been at their school graduation party. Thirteen years ago. He'd been the guy every girl had wanted to date. She'd been the girl everybody had invited to their parties because she could supply anything money could buy. They'd never hooked up.
'Hey, stop.' He said it quietly, in that bone-melting voice of his. 'My glass runneth over.'
'What?' Eek. Bad move. She'd been so distracted she'd started pouring again without realising. So unlike her. Worse, he knew exactly what she was distracted byhim. Suck it up, and get over him. He's a minor diversion.
Jackson raised his fingers to his mouth and lapped up the champagne. Had he heard her telling herself to suck it up? She shivered de-liciously. The gesture was done so naturally that she had to presume Jackson hadn't meant it as a sexual come-on. But, then, why would it be? She'd be the last female on earth he'd come on to. They probably still wouldn't get on very well; she was a solo mum, he was used to glamorous, sexy ladies who didn't sport stretch marks on their tummies.
Wait up. He'd only been back in Golden Bay for five days and before today she'd only seen him at the wedding rehearsal. She might have that completely wrong. She was open to having her opinion changed. He didn't look so full of himself any more. No, rather world-weary and sad, if anything.
Then Jackson seemed to shake himself and sit up straighter. Lifting his glass carefully, he sipped until the level dropped to a safe place, before clinking the rim of the glass with hers. 'To the happy couple.'
'To Sasha and Grady.' She should be looking for her friends as they danced on the temporary floor in the centre of the marquee, but for the life of her she couldn't drag her attention away from Jackson. When had he got so handsome? Like so handsome she wanted to strip him naked. Back at school, she'd never been as enthralled as all the other girls, but maybe she'd missed something. His body was tall and lean. His face had a chiselled look, a strong jawline and the most disconcerting eyes that seemed to see everything while giving nothing away.
'Has my mascara run?' he quipped.
Her face blazed. Caught. Why was that any different from him scrutinising her? It wasn't, but she never normally took the time to look a guy over so thoroughly. She usually wasn't interested. 'Yes.'
'Wonderful. My macho image is shattered.' His deep chuckle caught her off balance.
That made her study him even closer. There were deep lines on either side of that delectable mouth. More of them at the corners of those eyes that remained fixed on her. What had caused those lines? To avoid getting caught in his gaze she glanced at his hair, dark brown with a few light strands showing in the overhead lights. Grey, yet not grey. She glanced back to those eyes. 'You look exhausted.'
Jackson blinked, tipped his head back to stare at the top of the marquee. His mouth had tightened, instantly making Jessica regret her words. There was no way she wanted to upset him; she didn't want him to think she was probing, being nosey. 'Sorry. I take that back.' She sipped her champagne, the glass unexpectedly trembling in her hand.
'I am totally beat.'
Phew. Still talking. 'Jet-lag?' She supposed it was a longish haul from Hong Kong.
'Nah. Life.' His hand groped on the tabletop for his drink.
'Here.' She pushed it into his fingers.
'Thanks.' Sitting straighter, he took a deep taste of the nectar. 'You're right. This is superb.'
Again she wondered what hiccups there had been in his life to make him look so shattered. From what she knew, he worked as an emergency specialist in a huge hospital in Hong Kong. That would keep him busy, but many specialists put in the long hours and didn't end up looking as jaded as Jackson did right now. He'd be earning big money and no doubt had a fancy apartment and housekeeper, along with the to-die-for car and a string of women to ride alongside him. Maybe one of those women had caused a ripple in his otherwise perfect life? 'Why Hong Kong?'
'To live? I did part of my internship there and was offered a position in the emergency department for when I qualified.' Now he stared into his glass, seeming to see more than just the bubbles rising to the top. 'Hong Kong was exciting, buzzing with people, and completely different from Golden Bay. It was like starting a whole new life, unhindered by the past.'
'You sound like you hated it here.' What had happened to make him want to head offshore?
'I did at times.' Draining the glass, he reached for the bottle, peered at it. 'We need another one. Be right back.'
Jess watched Jackson stride around the edge of the dance floor, ignoring the women who tried to entice him to dance with them. So he was determined to sit with her for a while and share a drink. Why? Why her of all the people here? There had to be plenty of family and friends he knew from growing up in Takaka, people he'd want to catch up with. Come to think of it, she hadn't noticed him being very sociable with anyone in particular all day. Not that he'd been rude, just remote. Interesting. There must be more to this man than she knew.
Was she a safe bet, unlikely to molest him because she sat alone, not leaping up to shake and gyrate to the music? Well, he'd got that right. She didn't come on to men any more. Not since the last one had made her pregnant and then tossed 'Don't send photos' over his shoulder on the way out, heading about as far north as earth went.
The sound of a cork popping as Jackson returned was like music to her ears. 'What is it about champagne that's so special?' she asked, as he deftly topped up her glass. 'Is it the buzz on the tongue?'
'That, the flavour and the fact that champagne goes with celebrations. Good things, not bad.' Somehow, when he sat back down, his chair had shifted closer to hers.
'I guess you're right.' Goose-bumps prickled her skin and she had to force herself not to lean close enough to rub against his arm. Bubbles tickled her nose when she sipped her drink and she giggled. Oops. Better go easy on this stuff. Then again, why not let her hair down and have a good time? It had been for ever since she'd done that.
'Of course I'm right.' He smiled, slowly widening his mouth and curving those delectable lips upwards, waking up the butterflies in her stomach and sending them on a merry dance. Then he said, 'That shade of orange really suits your brown eyes and fair hair.'
'Orange? Are you colour blind, or what? Your sister would have a heart attack if she heard you say that. It's apricot.' She fingered the satin of her dress. Being bridesmaid for Sasha had been an honour. It spoke of their growing friendship and being there for each other. One of the best things about returning home to Golden Bay had been getting to know Sasha, whom previously she'd only thought of as the girl about the bay who was younger and wilder than her. But that had been then. Nowadays they both were so tame it was embarrassing.
Jackson shrugged. 'Orange, apricot, whatever. You should wear it all the time.'
'I'll remember that.'
'Do you want to dance?'
What? Where had that come from? Dancing had nothing to do with dress colours. 'No, thanks.'
'Good. I'm hopeless at dancing. Always feel like a puppy on drugs.' His smile was self-deprecating.
'Then why did you ask?' She seemed to remember him gyrating around the floor at school dances.
'Thought you might want to.' He chuckled again. Deep and sexy.
'Luckily for you I'm not into dancing either.' She could get addicted to that chuckle. It sent heat zipping through her, warming her toes, her tummy, her sex. Once more her cheeks blazed, when they'd only just cooled down after the last time. What was going on here? She never blushed. It must be the drink. She stared at her glass belligerently and tried to push it aside, but couldn't. Not when she was letting her hair down for the first time in years and enjoying a drink or three. Nicholas was staying with his little friend, Bobby, just down the road at Pohara Beach. Tonight was hers to make the most of, mummyhood on hold for a few hours. Tomorrow reality would kick back in and she'd pick up the reins again. Not that she ever really let them go. But for one day and night it was great to be able to stop worrying.
'How old is your little boy?'
So mindreading was one of Jackson's talents. 'He's four and a handful. A gorgeous, adorable handful who keeps me on my toes nonstop.' He'd looked so cute at the marriage ceremony in his long trousers and white shirt.
'What happened to his dad?'
This man was blunt. 'Which rumour did you hear?' she asked, as she contemplated how much to tell.
'That he was a soldier on secondment who didn't take you with him when he left. That he was the married CEO of a big company who liked beautiful young women on his arm.' Jackson drank some more champagne. Was that what had made him suddenly so talkative? 'That he was an alien visiting from Mars for a week.'
Her growing anger evaporated instantly and she dredged up a smile. 'Guess you know you're home when everyone starts making up stories about you.'
'Which is why I hightailed it out of here the day after I finished school.'
'Really?' Jess could feel her eyebrows lifting and brought them under control. How much would he tell her?
The steady green gaze locking onto her lightened. 'Really. I hated it that I couldn't sneeze without someone telling me I'd done something wrong.'
Not much at all. Memories niggled of a rumour about Jackson and a pregnant girl, something to do with a set-up. 'It's like that, isn't it? Claustrophobic.' She shuffled around on her chair, all the better to study him again. 'But there's also security in that.'
'You haven't told me which story is true. I'm guessing none of them.'
Persistent man. Or was he just shifting the focus off himself? She didn't talk about Nicholas's father. Not a lot of point. 'I prefer the alien one.'
He nodded. 'Fair enough.'
That's it? He wasn't going to push harder for information? Most people wouldn't care that the subject had nothing to do with them. She could get to like Jackson Wilson. Really like him. 'How long are you home for?'
'Almost three months.'
Her eyebrows were on the move upwards again. Three months? That seemed a long time when Sasha had mentioned this was his first visit in thirteen years. Of course, his mother had MS now. And there was Sasha's baby girl, Melanie, to get to know. 'Amazing how weddings bring people together from all corners of the world.'
'You're fishing.' He grinned at her.
'Am I catching anything?' She grinned straight back.
His grin faded. His focus fixed on her. Again. She was getting used to his intense moods. 'I need a break. A long one.' He stretched those fascinating legs further under the table and crossed them at the ankles. 'And now you're going to ask why.'
Putting all the innocence she could muster into her gaze, she tapped her sternum. 'Me? No way.' Then, unable to hold that look, she grinned again. 'If you don't tell me I'll have to torture you.'
His mouth curved upwards as his tongue slicked over his bottom lip. 'Interesting.'
Idiot. She'd walked into that one. Now he'd make some smutty comment and ruin the easy camaraderie between them. 'Um, forget I said that.'
'Forgotten.' Did he add, 'Unfortunately,' under his breath?
She so wasn't into leather and handcuffs, or whips and ice. At least she hadn't been. Her mouth twitched. Maybe she should head home now, before the champagne made her say more things she shouldn't.
Where were Sasha and Grady? Right in the centre of the floor, still dancing, wrapped around each other as though they were the only people there. A sudden, deep envy gripped her, chilled her despite the summer heat.
She wanted what they had. Wanted a man who loved her more than anything, anyone else. Who'd put her first. A man to curl up against at night, to laugh and cry with. A man like Her eyes swivelled in her head, away from the dance floor right to the man beside her. A man like Jackson? No. For starters, he was her best friend's brother. Then there was the fact he was only home for a few months. Add his sophistication and Jackson was so not right for her.
Hold that thought. Focus on it. Believe it. Remember how she'd thought Nicholas's father would give her all those things, only to be shown just how wrong she'd been. Instead, she'd found a man incapable of commitment, even to his wife back in the States. A wife she hadn't had a clue about.
Unfortunately for her, right now, all the reasons for not getting involved with Jackson seemed to have no substance at all.