When one wedding leads to another
Kate Parker distracts herself from her memories by keeping busyand how better than organizing weddings for Dolphin Bay's sweethearts? But tall, dark and handsome tycoon Sam Lancaster's arrival suddenly has Kate forgetting where she left the confetti .
And mysterious Sam will be around awhile longer than the cutting of the cakebecause he's got to oversee Kate's building project! There's no time for distractions but is it time to stop running from happiness now that it's led them to each other?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
As she went about her lunchtime front-of-house duties at the Hotel Harbourside restaurant, Kate Parker was only too aware of the ill-concealed interest in her. The too-interested glances quickly averted; the undertones; the murmurs. Poor Kate.
If she heardor sensedthat phrase one more time, she'd scream.
Her and her big, big mouth.
Why, oh, why had she made such a big deal of her childhood crush on Jesse Morgan? She wished she'd never told a soul, let alone all and sundry in her home town of Dolphin Bay, that the next time Jesse was back she'd finally let him know how she really felt about him.
Because now he was home, now she had kissed him for the first time since they'd been just kids fifteen years ago, and it had turned out a total disaster. She'd felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Instead of turning her on, his kiss had turned her off. She'd fought the urge to wipe her mouth with the back of her hand.
And Jesse? He'd been as embarrassed and awkward as she'd been. They'd parted, barely able to look each other in the eye.
She cringed at the memoryas she'd cringed a hundred times alreadyas painfully fresh today as it had been three days ago when it had occurred.
And now everyone in their small community knew she'd made an utter fool of herself by believing there could be anything more between her and Jesse than the affection due to a family friend she'd known since they'd both been in nappies.
The air was thick with pity for her. She looked around the restaurant; many of the tables were already full for Sunday lunch.
She wanted to run out the door, down the steps onto the beach below and get home to lock herself in her bedroom with the music turned up loud.
Instead, she girded herself against the gossip. She forced herself to smile. First, because a warm, confident smile was essential to any role in hospitality. And second, because she couldn't bear for any of those too-interested townsfolk to guess how churned up, anxious and panicky she was feeling inside.
It meant nothing, people, she wanted to broadcast to the room in general. Less than nothing. I walked away from that darn kiss completely unaffected.
But that wouldn't be completely true.
Because the Great Kiss Disaster had left her doubting everything she'd believed about who was the right man for her. She'd discovered the man she'd thought was Mr Perfect was not, in fact. So where did she go next? How could she ever trust her judgement of men again?
Smile. Smile. Smile.
The restaurant in the award-winning hotel was one of the best places to eat in Dolphin Bay. More people were arriving for lunch. She had a job she valued. She wanted to be promoted to hotel manager and she wouldn't achieve that by moping around feeling sorry for herself.
She took a deep, steadying breath, forced her lips to curve upwards in a big welcome and aimed it at the next customera man who had pushed his way through the glass doors that led from the steps from the beach and into the restaurant.
She nearly dropped the bottle of wine she was holding with hands that had gone suddenly nerveless. He caught her smile and nodded in acknowledgement.
Where the heck had he come from?
She'd never seen him in Dolphin Bay before, that was for sure.
Dark-haired, tall and powerfully built, his broad shoulders and muscular arms strained against his black T-shirt, his hard thighs against the worn denim of his jeans. His heavy black boots were hardly seaside resort wear, but they worked. Boy, did they work.
No wonder the two young waitresses on duty stampeded past her to show him to the best table in the house. She had to hold herself back from pulling rank and elbowing them out of the way to get to him first.
His stance was easy, confident, as he waited to be shown to a table. Her heart started to pound double-quick time. When had she last felt the kind of awareness of a man that made her ache for him to notice her?
But, when his gaze did turn in her direction, she quickly ducked her head and studiously read the label on the wine bottle without registering a single word.
She looked up again to see the young waitress who had won the race to get to him first looking up at him in open admiration and laughing at something he'd said. Did the guy realise half the female heads in the room had swivelled to attention when he'd strode in?
Not that he looked like he cared much about what people thought. His dark brown hair was several months away from a haircutshoved back off his face with his fingers rather than a comb, by the look of it. The dark growth on his jaw was halfway to a beard.
He looked untamed. Sexy. And dangerous.
Way too dangerous.
She was shocked by the powerful punch of attraction that slammed her, the kind of visceral pull that had caused her such terrible hurt in the past. That was so different from how she'd felt for safe, familiar Jesse. She never wanted to feel again for any man that wild compulsion. The kind, when it had got out of control, that had led her down paths she never wanted to revisit.
Not now. Not ever.
She let the smile freeze on her face, stepped back and watched the other girl usher the handsome stranger to his table. She would hold off on her obligatory meet and greet to a new customer until she'd got herself together enough to mask her awareness of his appeal with breezy nonchalance. To use the light, semi-flirtatious tone that worked so well in hospitality.
Because, after all, he was just a stranger who'd breezed into town. She'd overreacted, big-time.
She didn't need to fear that rush of attraction for an unsuitable man. He was just a customer she would never see again after he'd finished his lunch and moved on. He didn't even seem the kind of guy who would leave a generous tip.
Sam Lancaster knew he should be admiring the glorious view of the Dolphin Bay Harbour with its heritage-listed stone breakwaters, its fleet of fishing vessels and, beyond, the aquamarine waters of the Pacific Ocean. This stretch of the New South Wales south coast was known for its scenic beauty.
But he couldn't keep his eyes off the even more appealing view of the sassy, red-haired front-of-house manager who flitted from table to table in the Hotel Harbourside restaurant, pausing to chat with each customer about their orders.
Sam wasn't in the habit of flirting with strangers. He wasn't the type of man who always had a ready quip for a pretty flight attendant, a cute girl behind a bar or a hot new trainer at the gym. Consequently, he was stymied by his out-of-the-blue attraction to this woman.
She hadn't reached his table yet, and he found himself willing her to turn his way. In his head, he played over and over what clever remark he might utter when she did.
She wasn't movie-star beautiful, but there was a vibrancy about her that kept his gaze returning to her again and again: the way the sunlight streaming through the windows turned the auburn of her tied-back hair to a glorious, flaming halo. The sensual sway of her hips in the modest black skirt. The murmur of her laughter as she chatted to a customer. All were compelling. But, when she finally headed his way, the warmth of her wide smile and the welcome that lit her green eyes made him forget every word he had rehearsed.
Her smile was of the practised meet-and-greet type she'd bestowed on every other customer in the room. He knew that. But that didn't make it any less entrancing. She paused in front of his table. This close, he could see she had a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and that her smile was punctuated with the most charming dimples.
What was a woman as sensational as this one doing in a backwater like Dolphin Bay?
Good manners prompted him get up to greet her, stumbling a little around the compact, ultramodern chair not designed for a man of his height and build. Her startled step backwards made him realise she was just doing her job and a customer would usually remain seated. He gritted his teeth; he really wasn't good at this. Where was a clever quip when he needed one?
But she quickly recovered herself. 'Hi, I'm Kate Parker; welcome to Hotel Harbourside. Thank you for joining us for lunch.' Her voice was low and throaty without being selfconsciously sexy and transformed the standard customer greeting spiel into something he'd like to put on a repeat loop.
He thrust out his hand in greeting. 'Sam Lancaster.'
Again she looked startled. He'd startled him-selfsince when did he shake hands with waitresses? But she took his hand in a firm, businesslike grip. He noted she wasn't wearing a ring of any kind.
'Hi, Sam Lancaster,' she said, her teasing tone making a caress of the everyday syllables of his name. 'Is everything okay at your table?'
He cleared his throat. 'F fine.'
That was all he managed to choke out. Not one other word of that carefully thought out repartee.
He was a man used to managing a large, successful company. To never being short of female company if he didn't want it. But he couldn't seem to get it together in front of this girl.
He realised he'd gripped her warm, slender hand for a moment too long and he released it.
She glanced down at the menu on the table, then back up at him, the smile still dancing in her eyes. She knew. Of course she knew. A woman like this would be used to the most powerful of men stuttering in her presence. 'Have you ordered lunch yet? I can recommend the grilled snapper, freshly caught this morning.'
'Thank you, no. I'll order when my friend gets to the table.'
One winged auburn eyebrow quirked. 'Oh,' she said. 'A lady friend?' She flushed. 'Forgive me. None of my business, of course.'
'Nothing to forgive,' he said, pleased he'd given her cause to wonder about the sex of his lunch companion. 'While I'm waiting for him, I'm admiring the view of the harbour,' he said. 'It's really something.'
But the view of her was so much more enticing.
'No charge for the view,' she said. 'It's on the house.' She laughed, a low, husky laugh that made him think of slow, sensual kisses on lazy summer afternoons.
He couldn't look at her in case he gave away the direction of his thoughts. Instead he glanced to the full-length windows that faced east. 'I reckon it must be one of the most beautiful harbours on the south coast.'
'Hey, just on the south coast? I say the most beautiful in the whole of Australia,' she said with mock indignation.
'Okay. So it's the very best harbour in Austra-liaif not the world,' he agreed, playing along with her.
'That's better,' she said with a dimpled smile.
'I like the dolphins too.'
'You mean the real ones or the fake ones plastered on every building in town?'
'I didn't see them on every building,' he said. 'But I thought the dolphin rubbish bins everywhere had character.'
She put her hand on her forehead in a theatrical gesture of mock despair. 'Oh, please don't talk to me about those dolphin bins. People around here get into fights over whether they should go or they should stay, now Dolphin Bay has expanded so much. It was such a sleepy town when they were originally put up.'
'What do you think?' he asked.
'Me? I have to confess to being a total dolphin-bin freak. I love 'em! I adored them when I was a kid and would defend them to the last dorsal fin if anyone tried to touch them.'
She mimicked standing with her arms outstretched behind her as if there was something she was shielding from harm. The pretend-fierce look on her face was somewhat negated by her dimples.
In turn, Sam assumed a mock stance of defence. 'I'm afraid. Very afraid. I won't hurt your dolphin bins.'
Her peal of laughter rang out over the hum of conversation and clatter of cutlery. 'Don't be afraid.' She pretend-pouted. 'I'm harmless, I assure you.'
Harmless? She was far from harmless when it came to this instant assault on his senses.
'Lucky I said I liked the bins, then,' he said.
'Indeed. I might not have been responsible for my actions if you'd derided them.'
He laughed. She was enchanting.
'Seriously, though,' she continued. 'I've lived here for most of my life and I never tire of it, dolphins and all. April is one of the best times to enjoy this area. The water's still warm and the Easter crowds have gone home. Are you passing through?'
He shook his head. 'I'm staying in Dolphin Bay for the next week. I'll check in to the hotel after lunch.'
'That's great to hear.' She hit him with that smile again. 'I'm the deputy manager. It'll be wonderful to have you as our guest.'
Could he read something into that? Did she feel even just a hint of the instant attraction he felt for her? Or was she just being officially enthusiastic?
'Let me know if there's anything you need,' she said.
A dinner date with you?
Gorgeous Kate Parker had probably spent longer than she should at his table. There were other customers for her to meet and greet. But Sam couldn't think of an excuse to keep her there any longer. He was going to have to bite the bullet and ask her out. For a drink; for dinner; any opportunity to get to know her.
He was just about to suggest a date when his mobile phone buzzed to notify him of a text message. He ignored it. It buzzed again.
'Go on, please check it,' Kate said, taking a step back from his table. 'It might be important.'
Sam gritted his teeth. At this moment nothingeven a message from the multi-national company that was bidding for a takeover of Lancaster & Son Constructionwas more important than ensuring he saw this girl again. He pulled the phone from his pocket and scanned the text.
He looked up at Kate. 'My friend Jesse is running late,' he grumbled. 'I hope he gets here soon. After a four-hour trip from Sydney, I'm starving.'
Kate's green eyes widened. 'Jesse?' Her voice sounded strangled. 'You mean Jesse Morgan?' 'Do you know him? I guess you do.'
She nodded. 'Yes. It's a small town. I I know him well.'
So Kate was a friend of Jesse's? That made getting to know her so much easier. Suddenly she wasn't just staff at the hotel and he a guest; they were connected through a mutual friend.
It was the best piece of news he'd had all day.
Kate was reeling. Hotter-than-hot Sam Lancaster was a friend of Jesse's? That couldn't, couldn't be. What unfair quirk of coincidence was this?
Despite her initial misgiving about Sam, she'd found she liked his smile, his easy repartee. She'd found herself looking forward to seeing him around the hotel. No way was she looking for romancenot with the Jesse humiliation so fresh. But she could admire how good-looking Sam was, even let herself flirt ever so lightly, knowing he'd be gone in a week. But the fact he was Jesse's friend complicated things.