Read an Excerpt
Camryn Henderson hated Valentine's Day.
A day designed to highlight over-the-top, mushy commercialism. All that hearts-and-flowers claptrap might work for those foolish enough to believe in romance, but she knew better.
Boy, did she know better.
'That was some turnout today, huh?'
Camryn stopped swiping at the immaculate stainless-steel surface behind the bar and mustered a tired smile for Anna, her best employee and closest friend.
'Our biggest day all year.'
She propped against the bar and shifted her weight from one aching foot to the other. Her favourite knee-high black leather boots with a two-inch block heel might look great and add to her street cred as a hip young thing running the trendiest café in Melbourne's Docklands, but built for comfort they weren't.
'Every café and restaurant along this stretch was packed today. Nice to know romance is alive and well.'
Camryn refrained from wrinkling her nose in disgust at the mention of romancejust.
'Sure, it's great for business but, personally, I think it's a bit lame. All pomp and show for one day when for the rest of the year those couples probably barely speak to each other.'
She'd worked Valentine's Day for the last six years, forced to watch cosy couples mooning over each other, the intimate smiles, the hand-holding, the roses, even the occasional marriage proposal.
She'd seen it all, had been relieved to have distanced herself from all that fanciful nonsense, but it was times like now, when the café had all but emptied and the tea candles had burned low, that she couldn't help but wish for something she'd once had on this day a lifetime ago.
'You're the only woman I know who doesn't have a romantic bone in her body.' Anna waved a finger in front of her face and tut-tutted. 'Maybe you should let the little fat guy with the bow fire an arrow your way for once.'
'Not on your life.'
She'd already been stung in the butt by one of Cupid's arrows and had the scars to prove it.
'Besides, I've found my niche.'
They laughed as she picked up a black serviette with a bold fuchsia Café Niche printed on it and thrust it towards Anna. 'See, it says so right here.'
And what the boss says goes. Yeah, yeah, I know.' Anna shook her head. 'Well, want to know what I think?'
Camryn grinned as she poured milk into a stainless-steel jug, hankering for a frothy cappuccino before wrapping things up for the night. 'You're going to tell me anyway, so go ahead.'
Anna smirked as she slid two cups onto saucers and readied the espresso machine.
'I think Cupid likes a challenge, and you, my friend, are it. The ultimate romantic rebel. Wouldn't it be a notch in his bow to get you all hot and bothered over some guy?'
'Sooo not going to happen.'
Her mouth twitched. If her friend only knew how hot and bothered she'd once been over a guy and what had happened on this particular day. 'Though I kind of like the thought of being a rebel. Makes me want to wear black leather to work.'
Anna raised an eyebrow and sent a pointed look at her boots. 'You already do.'
She grimaced as she wiggled a foot. 'Yeah, and it's killing me.'
'You don't get to look as good as we do without a little pain.'
Anna cinched her belt, made entirely of interlocking silver circles, tighter around her ample waist and patted what she proudly referred to as her 'bountiful booty'. 'Besides, wish I could get away with wearing what you do. However, skinny jeans, clingy silk tops and knee-high boots just aren't me.'
'You always look great,' Camryn said, silently agreeing the typical outfit she wore to work definitely wouldn't flatter her vertically challenged, curvaceous friend.
'Thanks, hon. Now, let me make the cappuccinos while you hustle the last stragglers out the door.'
Anna jerked her head in the direction of a table near the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the spectacular Melbourne city night skyline. 'It isn't as if they're here waiting for Cupid to strike.'
Camryn laughed as she glanced over at the two tradesmen, Dirk and Mike, who religiously frequented the café, poring over house plans spread across the table.
'Hey, you never know. Maybe they're planning on building their dream home?'
Anna quirked an eyebrow as both heads turned in sync as a blonde in a mini skirt walked past outside. 'Uh, I don't think so. Now, shoo! Give them a delicate shove out the door so we can put our feet up and get a decent caffeine hit before we lock up.'
Actually, the guys have organised a project manager to meet me here tonight to discuss the renovations on my apartment, so I'll have to wait around till he arrives. Why don't we skip the coffee and you head home? I'll lock up.'
'Sure thing, boss.' Anna sent her a mock salute and grinned. 'Want me to turn down the lights to discourage other customers from dropping in? And flick the sign on the door?'
'I'll do it. Thanks, have a good night.'
As Camryn walked the length of the bar to the power box, she glanced at her watch, hoping the project manager would arrive soon. She needed the renovations done asap, and all the other builders she'd tried had fobbed her off with 'I'm too busy' lines or tried to rip her off because she was a woman.
And she hated that. She hadn't got where she was today without being strong and independent and focused on her goals, something chauvinistic guys just didn't understand.
Flicking two switches to dim the lights, she had her finger poised over a third when a man pushed through the front door.
'Great. He's finally here,' she thought as she flicked the last switch and picked up the set of hefty keys to lock up, eager to get this meeting underway.
However, as she neared the door, the keys crashed to the floor, along with her hopes for a productive consultation, her heart stopping when she got a closer look at the man who'd just entered.
Scruffy, wind-tossed, ultra casual.
Faded denim, soft grey T-shirt, worn leather work boots.
Stubble shadows, laugh-lines around grey eyes, slight dimples bracketing a mouth made for smiling.
A mouth that was smiling at her, a wide, genuine smile filled with warmth, a smile that packed a punch, a smile she could never forget no matter how hard she tried.
And she'd tried. She'd tried for six long, lonely years, yet the minute Blane Andrews strolled in and smiled that all-too-familiar smile, she was instantly transported back in time.
To the first time she'd seen that smile, on Valentine's Day, as fate would have it, to a time when that smile rarely left his face, when he'd lavished her with attention, when they'd been crazy for each other.
Seeing him again after all these years was like being sucked into a vortex of swirling memories of love and laughter and sunshine on a hot summer's day beside a lazy, meandering creek.
Of sharing hot dogs perched on the back of his rusty old Ford, watching the sun set, wiping ketchup off each other with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts.
Of taking long slow walks hand in hand in the shade of towering eucalypts, oblivious to the bush beauty, focused solely on each other.
Of cuddling and kissing and floating on air, lost in the exquisite, heady perfection of first love.
Oh, yeah, falling for Blane had been a whirlwind of exhilarating highs, before being spit out the other side, left with nothing but pain and loss and devastation.
He'd ripped her heart out, and she never wanted to feel that way again.
'Everything okay, Cam?'
'You mean right now or are you asking how I've been the last six years?'
Trying not to show how rattled she was by his reappearance and the abbreviated form of her name only he had ever called her, she bent to pick up the keys at the same time he did, their fingers brushing, hers tingling, his long and warm and heartrendingly familiar.
She jerked back, straightening too quickly, and his hand shot out to steady her elbow, the barest of touches enough to give her dormant hormones a jolt.
He scanned her face as if looking for answers, those slate-grey eyes as frank and warm as they'd always been, beautiful, honest eyes that said trust me.
Foolishly, she'd once complied.
A big, fat lie if ever she heard one. How could she be fine when the love of her life, the man who'd walked out on her without an explanation, came waltzing in here on the anniversary of the day she'd first handed him her heart? Only to have it carved up three months later.
'What are you doing here?' she blurted, sliding the key ring from index finger to index finger, the jangle as the keys clinked and clanked against one another deafening in the growing silence.
'I came to see you.'
Her heart thudded at the sincerity in his eyes.
He was telling the truth.
She may not have seen him for six years but she'd never forget the way she could always read his moods by the blue flecks in his eyes.
Indigo indicated happinessthe kind of intense, spontaneous happiness they'd had for twelve all-too-brief weeks.
Cobalt indicated honestyshe'd believed him when he'd said she was the only girl for him, that they'd always be together, that he'd love her for ever.
Deep smoky-gentian meant passionthe mind-blowing, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime connection they'd shared.
Oh, yeah, she could remember each and every shade of those flecks, had lost herself in those grey depths for three blissful months. Until he'd walked away.
So what if those flecks glowed cobalt now? Did his honesty count for anything when he hadn't been able to face her with the truth before leaving?
Hating the surge of emotion making her tummy gripe, she stepped back, forcing him to release his hold on her elbow and instantly missing the contact.
Irrational, stupid and crazy, but her body had softened under his touch, had leaned towards him, recognising on some subconscious level the one guy to ever know her intimately. And by the strange heat seeping through her muscles, her traitorous body was rejoicing despite the hard-learned lesson that he couldn't be trusted.
'You came to see me? Well, here I am. Now that you've seen me, why don't you leave?'
He smiled, and she struggled not to gasp at the impact, her pulse doing a familiar tango through her veins.
'You can't get rid of me that easily.'
'Could've fooled me,' she snapped, mentally clapping one hand over her mouth while slapping herself upside the head with the other.
An emotional outburst like that would suggest she still caredwhich she didn't, she couldn'tand the last thing she needed was him hanging around trying to rehash the past.
To her chagrin he laughed, a rich, natural sound that warmed her better than any cappuccino she'd ever drunk. And she'd drunk the equivalent of a year's supply of Brazil beans after he'd left, to recapture half the heat he used to make her feel.
'Guess I deserved that.'
And the rest.'
The laugh-lines around his eyes deepened. 'Go ahead. Get it all out of your system.'
'Don't tempt me.'
She toyed with the keys, torn between the urge to take him up on his offer and tell him how heartbroken she'd been, how she'd searched for him for a year, how she hadn't let another guy close because of him and the emotional fallout from their intense relationshipand booting him out the door and never giving him another thought.
'Cam, I know you don't want to kick me out.'
Great, he could still read her mind, could hone in on how she was feeling, and there was something about the way he looked at her, as if he could see right down to her soul and knew better than she did that the last thing she wanted to do was kick him out.
For as much as she wanted him to walk right back out that door and never come backhe was good at thata huge part of her clamoured to know where he'd been, what he'd been doing and why he'd ripped their perfect world apart.
'You don't know what I want anymore,' she said, hating the flare of hurt in his eyes and how much her heart ached in response.
'I'd like to.'
His intent was clear, and she inhaled sharply, his poignantly familiar, fresh outdoorsy scent reminiscent of crushed cedar leaves in a spring shower, the tantalising trace filling her nose, her lungs, making her want to lean into the soft, sensitive spot under his jaw and nuzzle him as she used to.
Ignoring the incredible yearning to do just that, she rattled the keys.
'I'm closing up.'
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at the lights she'd dimmed. 'I can see that, but we really need to talk.'
'Actually, we don't.'
Because if she let him talk, let him explain why he'd run out on her all those years ago, she'd be compelled to relive the pain, and there was no way she'd go through that heart-break again.
She'd built a new life in the years since he'd split, a better life, an independent life where she didn't need anything or anyone, and she'd like to keep it that way.
Leaning forward, he touched her cheek, the calluses on his finger-pads rasping against her skin and sending a tiny shiver of longing through her.
She remembered all too well how those work-roughened hands felt caressing her body, how gentle yet arousing they could be. How they used to circle her waist, lift her up and spin her around till she was dizzy with the motion and the sheer joy of being with him. How strong and sure they'd been, stroking her that very first time, initiating her into pleasures she'd only ever dreamed about.
'I won't take no for an answer.'
His fingertips lingered an exquisite moment longer before he dropped his hand.
Shaking her head, she bit back the urge to laugh. There was nothing remotely funny about having the man she'd once loved badger her after all this time, but the young, impulsive guy she'd known back then had never been this determined, this stubborn.
'One coffee then you're out of here. Take it or leave it.'
'I'll take it.'
'Fine. Choose your poison and make it snappy.'
He grinned as he rocked back on his heels, hands thrust into pockets, confident he'd wear her down.
'You sure have a way with customers.'
'You're not a customer, you're my ' She trailed off, not wanting to go there. She'd shut the door on the past, why open it and risk the future she'd worked so hard to build?
'Go on, say it. I'm your?'
'You know,' she bit out, sending him a withering glare that made little impact if his widening grin was any indication. 'You better order that coffee before I renege and bundle you out of here right this very minute.'
He chuckled, and rather than it riling her, she could barely clamp down on the urge to join in.