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Callie Umberto has had enough of dating disasters after the holiday fling of a lifetime ended abruptly and she swore off men for good.
Now her ex-flame is back in her life. Pro surfer Archer Flett might be as gorgeous as always, but his commitment phobia is just as active. She must be out of her mind to agree to be his date for his brother's wedding! But there's something about Archer that has always tempted Callie to throw caution to the ...
Callie Umberto has had enough of dating disasters after the holiday fling of a lifetime ended abruptly and she swore off men for good.
Now her ex-flame is back in her life. Pro surfer Archer Flett might be as gorgeous as always, but his commitment phobia is just as active. She must be out of her mind to agree to be his date for his brother's wedding! But there's something about Archer that has always tempted Callie to throw caution to the wind.
'If you mention weddings or tinsel or Secret Santa one more time I'm going to ram this wax down your throat.'
Archer Flett brandished his number-one-selling surfboard wax at his younger brother, Travis, who grinned and snatched the wax out of his hand.
'Resist all you like, bro, you know you're fighting a losing battle.' Trav smirked and rubbed a spot he'd missed on his prized board.
When it came to his family it always felt as if Archer was fighting a losing battle.
Despite making inroads with his brothers Tom and Trav, nothing had changed with his parents over the years—his dad in particular. That was why coming home for his yearly obligatory Christmas visit set him on edge. And why he rarely stuck around more than a few days.
This year would be no exception, despite Travis turning into a romantic schmuck.
'What were you thinking?' Archer stuck his board vertically in the sand and leaned on it. 'A Christmas wedding? Could you get any cheesier?'
His brother's eyes glazed over and Archer braced for some more claptrap involving his fiancée. 'Shelly wanted to be a Christmas bride and we saw no point in waiting.'
Archer placed his thumb in the middle of Trav's forehead and pushed. 'You're under this already. You know that, right?'
'We're in love.'
As if that excused his brother's sappy behaviour.
The Fletts were third-generation Torquay inhabitants, so he could just imagine the shindig his parents would throw for the wedding. The entire town would turn up.
Christmas and a wedding at home. A combination guaranteed to make him run as soon as the cake had been cut.
'You're too young to get married.' Archer glared at the sibling who'd tagged after him for years, pestering him to surf.
He'd spent the bulk of the last eight years away from home and in that time Travis had morphed from gangly kid to lean and mean. Heavy on the lean, light on the mean. Trav didn't have a nasty bone in his body, and the fact he was marrying at twenty-two didn't surprise Archer.
Trav was a marshmallow, and while Shelly seemed like a nice girl he couldn't imagine anything worse than being shackled to one person at such a young age.
Hell, at twenty-two he 'd been travelling the world, surfing the hotspots, dating extensively and trying to put his folks' deception out of his mind.
A memory he'd long suppressed shimmered into his subconscious. South coast of Italy. Capri. Long hot nights filled with laughter and passion and heat.
Annoyingly, whenever anyone he knew was loco enough to tie the knot his mind drifted to Callie.
'So who're you bringing to the wedding?' Travis wrinkled his nose. 'Another of those high-maintenance city chicks you always bring home at Christmas?'
Archer chose those dates for a reason: women who demanded all his attention, so he didn't have time left over to spend one-on-one with his folks.
He'd honed avoidance to an art, ensuring he didn't say things he might regret. Like why the hell they hadn't trusted him to rally around all those years ago.
He wasn't the flighty, carefree surfer dude they'd assumed him to be and he'd prove it this trip. He hoped the surf school he'd developed would show them the type of guy he was—the type of guy he wanted to be.
'Leave my date to me.' He wriggled his board out of the sand and tucked it under his arm. 'Planning on standing here all day, gossiping like an old woman? Or are you going to back up some of your big talk by showing me a few moves out there?'
Trav cocked his thumb and forefinger and fired at him. 'I'm going to surf your show-pony ass into oblivion.'
'Like to see you try, pretty boy.'
Archer took off at a run, enjoying the hot sand beneath his feet, the wind buffeting his face, before he hit the water's edge. He lay prone on his board, the icy chill of Bell's Beach washing over him as the lure of the waves took hold. He'd never felt so alive. When he was in the ocean he came home.
The ocean was reliable and constant—two things he valued. Two things his parents didn't credit him as being.
He paddled harder, wishing he could leave the demons of his past behind, knowing he should confront them over the next few days.
He'd made amends with his brothers four years ago, at a time when Tom had needed his support. His relationship with his mum had thawed too, considering he didn't blame her for what happened; she'd do anything for Frank.
But things were still rough with his dad. He'd wanted to make peace many times but a healthy dose of pride, an enforced physical distance and the passing of time had put paid to that fantasy.
He'd tried making small efforts to broach the distance between them, but the residual awkwardness lingered, reinforcing his choice to stay away.
Maybe, if he was lucky, this visit home would be different.
Callie went into overdrive as an Argentinian tango blared from her surround sound.
She bounced around her lounge room, swivelling her hips and striding across the floor with arm extended and head tilted, a fake rose between her teeth.
She'd cleaned her apartment for the last two hours, increasing the volume of the music as her scrubbing, polishing and vacuuming frenzy did little to obliterate what she'd confront this afternoon.
A face-to-face meeting with her number one client.
The client her beloved CJU Designs couldn't afford to lose.
The client who might well fire her lying butt when he discovered her identity.
Archer Flett didn't do commitment. He'd made that perfectly clear in Capri eight years ago. So how would he feel when he learned he'd committed his new mega campaign to a woman he'd deliberately walked away from because they'd been getting too close.
She stubbed her toe on a wrought-iron table and swore, kicking the ornate leg again for good measure.
She was furious with herself for not confronting this issue sooner. What had she expected? Never to cross paths with Archer physically again?
Yep, that was exactly what she'd expected.
It had been three years since she'd tendered for the lucrative Torquay Tan account, completely unaware the company was owned and run by the surf world's golden boy.
It had come as a double surprise discovering the laid-back charmer she'd met eight years ago had the business nous to own a mega corporation, let alone run it. It looked as if the guy she'd once been foolish enough to fall for was full of surprises.
Now she had a chance to take on her biggest account yet: the launch of Archer's surf school in Torquay, his home town. To do it she had to meet with the man himself.
She should have bowed out gracefully, been content to be his online marketing manager for lesser accounts.
But she needed the money. Desperately.
Her mum depended on her.
The music swelled, filling her head with memories and her heart with longing. She loved the passion of Latin American music—the distinct rhythms, the sultry songs.
They reminded her of a time gone by. A time when she'd danced all night with the stars overhead and the sand under her feet. A time when she'd existed on rich pasta and cheap Chianti and whispered words of her first love.
The music faded, along with the sentimental rubbish infiltrating her long-established common sense.
These days she didn't waste time reminiscing. She'd given up on great loves and foolish dreams.
Watching her mum go through hell had seen to that.
She was like her hot-blooded Italian father, apparently: they shared starry-eyed optimism, their impulsiveness, their passion for food and fashion and flirting. She'd considered those admirable qualities until she'd witnessed first-hand what happened when impulsive passions turned sour—her dad's selfishness knew no bounds.
And just like that she'd given up on being like her dad. She didn't give in to grand passion or fall foolhardily in love. Not any more.
Sure, she dated. She liked it. Just not enough to let anyone get too close.
As close as Archer had once been.
'Damn Archer Flett,' she muttered, kicking the table a third time for good measure.
Housework might not have worked off steam but she'd do the next best thing to prepare for this meeting.
Choose a killer business suit, blow-dry her hair and apply immaculate make-up.
Time to show Mr Hot Surfer Dude he didn't affect her after all these years.
Not much anyway.
The tiny hole-in-the-wall office of CJU Designs didn't surprise Archer. Tech geeks didn't need much space.
What did surprise him were the profuse splashes of colour adorning the walls. Slashes of magenta and crimson and turquoise against white block canvases drew his eye and brightened an otherwise nondescript space.
Small glass-topped desk, ergonomic chair, hardbacked wooden guest chair opposite. Exceedingly dull—except for that startling colour.
Almost as if the computer geek was trying to break out of a mould, trying to prove something to herself and her clients.
Well, all CJ had to prove to him was that she could handle the mega-launch he had planned for his pet project and she could hang the moon on her wall for all he cared.
He glanced around for a picture. Not for the first time he was curious about his online marketing manager.
He'd internet-searched CJU Designs extensively before hiring their services and had come up with nothing but positive PR and high praise from clients, including many sportspeople.
So he'd hired CJ, beyond impressed with her work. Crisp, clear, punctual, she always delivered on time, creating the perfect slogans, pitches and launches for any product he'd put his name to.
Trailing a finger along the dust-free desk, he wondered how she'd cope with a campaign of this size. Launching the first Flett Surf School for teens had to succeed. It was a prototype for what he planned in the surf hotspots around the world.
He'd seen too many kids in trouble—kids who hung around the beaches drinking, smoking dope, catching the occasional wave. They were aimless, trying to look cool, when in fact he'd seen the lost look in their eyes.
This was his chance to make a difference. And hopefully prove to his family just how wrong they'd been to misjudge him.
He'd never understood it—had done a lot of soul-searching to come up with one valid reason why they hadn't trusted him enough.
Had he been too blase? Too carefree? Too narcissistic? Too wrapped up in his career to pick up the signs there'd been a major problem?
Tom and Trav hadn't helped when they'd discussed it a few years ago. He'd asked, and they'd hedged, reiterating that they'd been sworn to secrecy by Frank, embarrassed that their complicity had contributed to the ongoing gap between them.
So Archer had made a decision right then to forget his damn pride and re-bond with his brothers. They might not be the best mates they'd once been but their sometimes tense relationship now was a far improvement on the one they'd had previously—the one he still had with his dad.
It irked, not knowing the reason why they'd done it, and their lack of trust had left a lasting legacy. One he hoped opening the surf school would go some way to rectifying.
Thinking about his family made him pace the shoebox office. He hated confined spaces. Give him the ocean expanses any day. He never felt as free as he did catching a wave, paddling out to sea, with nothing between him and the ocean but an aerodynamic sliver of fibreglass.
Nothing beat the rush.
He heard the determined click-clack of high heels striding towards the office and turned in time to see Calista Umberto enter.
His stomach went into free fall, as it had the first time he'd caught a thirty-foot wave. That rush? Seeing Callie again after all these years topped it.
While he stared like a starstruck fool, she didn't blink. In fact she didn't seem at all surprised, which could only mean one thing.
She'd been expecting him.
In that second it clicked.
Calista Jane Umberto.
The fact he remembered her middle name annoyed him as much as discovering the online marketing whiz he'd been depending on for the last three years was the woman he'd once almost lost his mind over.
'I'll be damned,' he muttered, crossing the small space in three strides, bundling her into his arms in an impulsive hug before he could process the fact that she'd actually taken a step back at his approach.
The frangipani fragrance hit him first—her signature bodywash that instantly resurrected memories of midnight strolls on a moonlit Capri beach, long, languorous kisses in the shade of a lemon tree, exploring every inch of the deli-ciously smooth skin drenched in that tempting floral scent.
Any time he'd hit an island hotspot to surf—Bali, Hawaii, Fiji—frangipanis would transport him back in time. To a time he remembered fondly, but a time fraught with danger, when he'd been captivated by a woman to the point of losing sight of the end game.
In the few seconds when her fragrance slammed his senses, he registered her rigid posture, her reluctance to be embraced.
Silently cursing himself, he released her and stepped back, searching her face for some sign that she remembered what they'd once shared.
Her lush mouth—with a ripe red gloss—flat-lined, but she couldn't hide the spark in her eyes.
Flecks of gold in a rich, deep chocolate. Eyes he'd seen glazed with passion, sparkling with enthusiasm, lighting with love.
It was the latter that had sent him running from Capri without looking back. He'd do well to remember that before indulging in a spin down memory lane and potentially ostracising his marketing manager.
'Good to see you, Archer,' she said, her tone polite and frigid and so at odds with the Callie he remembered that he almost took a step back. 'Take a seat and we'll get started.'
He shook his head, the fog of confusion increasing as he stared at this virtual stranger acting as if they barely knew each other.
He'd seen her naked, for goodness' sake. For a week straight. A long, hot, decadent week that had blown his mind in every way.
'You're not serious?'
Her stoic business persona faltered and she toyed with the bracelet on her right wrist, turning it round and around in a gesture he'd seen often that first night in Capri.
The night they'd met. The night they'd talked for hours, strolled for ages, before ending up at his villa. The night they'd connected on so many levels he'd been terrified and yet powerless to resist her allure.
She'd been brash and brazen and beautiful, quick to laugh and parry his quips, slow to savour every twirl of linguini and rich Napolitano sauce.
She'd had a passion for everything from fresh crusty bread dipped in olive oil to hiking along pebbly beach trails to nights spent exploring each other's bodies in erotic detail.
That passionate woman he remembered was nothing like this cool, imperturbable automaton.
Except for that tell with the bracelet he would have thought she didn't remember, let alone want to acknowledge the past.