Chef and single mom Lizzie Dumont is moving on. Returning to Dolphin Bay to make her new restaurant a success, she has no time at all for jaw-droppingly handsome Jesse Morganeven if she can't forget that incredible kiss they once shared!
Jesse can't forget their kiss, either. But the betrayal in Lizzie's past has made her wary of him, and he hates the fact that she can't see past his reputation as a heartbreaker. Now he's on a mission to change her mindand luckily it's the most romantic season of the year: Christmas!
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As Lizzie Dumont looked around at the soon-to-open Bay Bites café, her new place of employment, she vowed she would never reveal how she really felt about the way her highflying career as a chef had crash-landed into a culinary backwater like Dolphin Bay. Not when people here had been so kind to her.
She would put behind her the adrenalin rush of working at star-rated restaurants in the gastronomic capitals of Paris and Lyon. Give up the buzz of being part of the thriving restaurant scene in Sydney. Embrace the comparatively lowly life of a café cook.
Her sigh echoed around the empty café. Who was she kidding? That heady time in France had been the pinnacle of her career. But she'd been sinking in Sydney. Working shift after shift until past midnight in restaurant kitchensno matter how fashionable the venueshad hardly been compatible with being a good parent to her five-year-old daughter, Amy.
With no family in Sydney to fall back on, and few friends because she'd lived in France for so long before her divorce, she'd struggled to give Amy a reasonable life. Drowning in debt, swimming against the current of erratic babysitter schedules and unreasonable rosters, after less than a year she'd been going under.
By the time her sister Sandy had approached her to manage the new café adjacent to Sandy's bookshop, Lizzie had been on the edge of despair. She'd even been contemplating the unthinkableletting Amy live permanently with her ex-husband Philippe in France.
Gratefully, she'd grabbed the lifeline Sandy had thrown her.
And here she was. Dolphin Bay was a rapidly growing resort town on the south coast of New South Wales, with a heritage-listed harbour and beautiful beaches. It was also, in her experience, a gastronomic wastelandthe only memorable meal she could ever remember eating was fish and chips straight from the vinegar-soaked wrapping.
But Sandy had offered her sanctuary and a new life with Amy. In return, Lizzie would throw herself wholeheartedly into making Bay Bites the best café on the south coast. Heck, why stop there? She would use her skills and expertise to make Bay Bites the best café in the country.
She let herself get the teeniest bit excited at the thought. After all, she would be in charge. No cranky head chef screaming insults at her. No gritting her teeth at an ill-chosen item on the menu she'd been forced to cook whether she'd liked it or not.
She continued her inspection, her spirits rising by the second. Sandy had done a wonderful job of the fit-out. The décor was sleek and contemporary but with welcome touches of whimsy. In particular, she loved the way the dolphin theme had been incorporated. Hand-painted tiles backed the service area. Carved wooden dolphins supported the wooden coun-tertop and framed the large blackboard on the wall behind it where she would chalk up the daily specials.
There was still work to be done. Lots of it. Boxes were stacked around the perimeter of the café waiting for her to unpack. Large flat packages, wrapped in brown paper, were propped against the walls. She itched to get started.
But someone had started the unpacking. Outsized glass jars were already lined up at the other end of the counter to the cash register, their polished chrome lids glinting in the late afternoon sun that filtered through the plate glass windows that faced the view of the harbour.
She could envisage the jars already filled with her secret recipe cookies. Nearby was the old-fashioned glass-fronted rotating cabinet for cakes and pies she'd asked Sandy to order. The equipment in the kitchen was brand new. It was perfect. She would make this work.
Lizzie ran her hand along the wooden coun-tertop, marvelling at the intricacy of the carved dolphins, breathing in the smell of fresh varnish and new beginnings.
'Those dolphins are kinda cool, aren't they?' The deep masculine voice from behind her made her spin around. She recognised it immediately.
But the shock of seeing Jesse Morgan stride through the connecting doorway from Bay Books next door expelled all the breath from her lungs. Her heart started to hammer so hard she had to clutch her hands to her chest to still it.
Jesse Morgan. All six foot three of him: black-haired, blue-eyed, movie-star handsome. Jesse Morgan of the broad shoulders and lean hips; of honed muscles accentuated by white T-shirt and denim jeans. Jesse Morgan, who was meant to be somewhere far, far away from Dolphin Bay.
Why hadn't someone warned her he was in town?
Lizzie's sister was married to Jesse's brother Ben. Six months ago, Jesse had been the best man and she the chief bridesmaid at Ben and Sandy's wedding. Lizzie hoped against hope Jesse might have forgotten what had happened between them at the wedding reception.
One look at the expression in his deep blue eyes told her he had not.
She cringed all the way down to her sneaker-clad feet.
'What are you doing here?' she managed to choke out once she had regained use of her voice. She was aiming for nonchalance but it came out as a wobbly attempt at bravado.
'Hello to you, too, Lizzie,' he said with a Jesse-brand charming smile, standing there in her café as confident and sure of himself as ever. A confidence surely bred from an awareness that since he'd been a teenager he would always be the best-looking man in the room. But she noticed the smile didn't quite warm his eyes.
She tried to backtrack to a more polite greeting. But she didn't know what to say. Not when the last time they'd met she'd been passionately kissing him, wanting him so badly she'd been tempted to throw away all caution and common sense and go much further than kissing.
'You gave me a fright coming in behind me like that,' she said with a rising note of defen-siveness to her voice. Darn it. That was a dumb thing to say. She didn't want him to think he had any effect on her at all.
Which, in spite of everything, would be a total lie. Jesse Morgan exuded raw masculine appeal. It triggered a sudden rush of awareness that tingled right through her. Any red-blooded woman would feel it. Lots of red-blooded women had felt it, by all accounts, she thought, her lips thinning.
'I didn't mean to scare you,' he said. 'But Sandy told me you were in here. She sent me to give you a hand with the unpacking. I've made a start, as you can see.'
He took a step towards her. She scuttled backwards, right up against the countertop, cursing herself for her total lack of cool. She was so anxious to keep a distance between them she didn't register the discomfort of the dorsal fin of the wooden dolphin pressing into her back.
It wasn't fair a man could be so outrageously handsome. The Black Irish looks he'd inherited from his mother's side gave him the currency he could have chosen to trade for a career as an actor or model. But he'd laughed that off in a self-deprecating way when she'd teased him with it.
Which had only made him seem even more appealing.
How very wrong could she have been about a man?
'I only just got here from Sydney, after a four-hour drive,' she said. 'I I haven't really thought where to start.'
'Can I get you a drinksome water, a coffee?' he asked.
He sounded so sincere. All part of the act.
'No, thank you,' she said, regaining some of her manners now the shock of seeing him had passed. After all, he was her sister's brother-in-law. She couldn't just ask him to leave, the way she'd like to. 'I stopped for a bite to eat on the way down.'
Despite herself she couldn't help scanning his face to see what change six months had brought him. Heaven knew what change he saw in her. She felt all the stress of the last months had aged her way more than her twenty-nine years.
He, about the same age, looked as though a care had never caused his brow to furrow. His tan was deeper than when she'd last seen him, making his eyes seem even bluer. A day away from a shave, dark growth shadowed his jaw. His black hair was longer and curled around his ears. She remembered the way she had fisted her hand in his hair to pull him closer as she'd kissed him.
How could she have been so taken in by him?
She squirmed with regret. She'd known of his reputation. But one champagne had led to one champagne too many and all the tightly held resolutions she'd made after her divorce about having nothing to do with too-handsome, too-charming men had dissolved in the laughter and fun she'd shared with Jesse.
Was he remembering that night? How they'd found the same exhilarating rhythm dancing with each other? How, when the band had taken a break, they'd gone outside on the balcony?
She'd been warned that Jesse was a heart-breaker, a womaniser. But he'd been fun and there hadn't been much fun in her life for a long time. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world to slip into his arms when he had kissed her in a private corner of the balcony lit only by the faintest beams of moonlight. His kiss had been magicalslow, sensuous, thrilling. It had evoked needs and desires long buried and she had given herself to the moment, not caring about consequences.
Then a group of other guests had pushed through the doors to the balcony with a burst of loud chatter, and broken the spell.
It had been the classic wedding clichéthe chief bridesmaid and the best man getting caught in a passionate clinch.
Lizzie cringed at the memory of those moments. The hoots and catcalls of the other guests as they'd discovered them kissing. 'Jesse's at it again,' someone had called, laughing.
She'd never felt more humiliated. Not because of being caught kissing. They were both single adults who could kiss whomever they darn well pleased. She'd laughed that off. No. The humiliation was caused by the painful awareness she'd been seen as just another in a long line of Jesse's girls. Girls he had kissed and discarded when the next pretty face had come along.
But, despite knowing that, it hadn't stopped her from going back for more with Jesse that night. Why had she imagined he'd be any different with her?
What an idiot she 'd been.
Now she cleared her throat, determined to make normalif stiltedconversation; not to let Jesse know how shaken she was at seeing him again. How compellingly attractive she still found him.
'Aren't you meant to be gallivanting around the world doing good works? I thought you were in India,' she asked. Jesse worked for an international aid organisation that built housing for the victims of natural disasters.
Jesse shook his head. 'The Philippines this time. Rebuilding villages in the aftermath of a gigantic mudslide. Thousands of houses were destroyed.'
'That must have been dangerous,' she said. Jesse was a party guy personified, and yet his job took him to developing countries where he used his skills as an engineer to help strangers in need. She'd found that contradiction fascinating.
Just another way she 'd been sucked into his game.
'Dangerous and dirty,' he said simply. 'But that's what we do.'
She shouldn't feel a surge of relief that he had escaped that danger without harm. But she did. Though she told herself that was just because he was part of the extended family now. The black sheep, as far as she was concerned.
'So you're back here because ?'
'The "good works" led to an injured shoulder,' he said. He raised his broad right shoulder to demonstrate and in doing so winced. His so-handsome face contorted in pain and the blood drained, leaving him pale under his tan.
Her first reaction was to rush over and comfort him. To stroke his shoulder to help ease the pain. Or offer to kiss it better
No! She forced her thoughts away from Crazyville. Gripped her hands tightly together so she wouldn't be tempted. She was furious with herself. Wasn't she meant to now be immune to his appeal?
Getting together with Jesse Morgan at the wedding had been like nibbling on just one square of a bar of fine Belgian dark chocolate and denying herself the rest even though she knew it would be utterly delicious. Quite possibly the best chocolate she had ever tasted.
But she prided herself on her willpower when it came to chocolate. And men who offered her nothing more than a fleeting physical thrill.
Her aim was to build a new life for her and Amy. She didn't want a man around to complicate things. Not now. Maybe not ever. And if she did decide to date again it wouldn't be with someone like Jesse Morgan. She'd been there, done that, with her good-looking charmer of an ex-husband who had let her down so badly.
The next man for herif she decided to go therewould be steady, reliable, living in the same country as her and average-looking. She wanted a man who only had eyes for her.
Jesse was a player and Lizzie didn't want to play. Her party-girl days were far behind her. It would be work, work, work for her in Dolphin Bay. And being the best mother she could possibly be to her precious daughter.
Not that Jesse was giving her any indication that he had a real interest in her. Not now. Not then. It still stung. How could she have believed in him?
After they'd been interrupted on the balcony, she'd rushed away to look in on Amy. When she'd returned, out of breath from her hurry to get back to Jesse, she had found him dancing with a beautiful dark-haired woman, his head too close to hers, his laughter ringing out over the noise of the band. Had he taken her out onto the balcony and kissed her too? Lizzie hadn't hung around to find out. She'd avoided him for the rest of the evening.
'I'm sorry to hear you've been hurt,' she said stiffly.
Boy, had she wanted to hurt him back then.
'All in the line of duty,' he said. 'My own fault for grappling with a too-large concrete beam without help.'
'So you've come home to recuperate?' she asked. She became aware of the carving pressing into her back and moved from the coun-tertop, being careful not to take a step closer to him. Her reaction to him had unnerved her. She didn't know that she could trust herself not to reach out to him if she got too near.
'That's right,' he said. 'But I'm bored with all the physiotherapy and "taking it easy". I've been helping Ben and Sandy finish off the café.' He looked around him with a proprietorial air that she found disconcerting. 'Impressive, isn't it?'
'Very,' she said. 'I love the dolphin carvings. Every business in this town has to display some kind of dolphin motif, if I remember correctly. These are works of art.'