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Wife and Mother Wanted

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Wife and Mother Wanted Nicola Marsh HarperCollins EUR Brody Elliott is a single dad, struggling to bring up his young daughter, Molly. Brody blames himself for the loss of Molly's mother, and is determined to protect his little girl from heartbreak again. So when Molly befriends their pretty and lively new neighbor, Carissa Lewis, Brody is immediately wary.Braving Brody's hostility, Carissa instantly bonds with Molly. Brody's doing his best, but it's obvious his little girl needs a motherand Molly wants Carissa for the job! If only challenging, infuriating and gorgeous Brody was willing to let go of his past and give in to their reluctant attraction, maybe Carissa could be his, too. She shouldnt flirt with him. She really shouldnt. But a little demon was prodding her with its pitchfork. I dont have much to do. Maybe you still want to play? Carissa asked, leaning against the wrought-iron table in a provocative pose. Uh, no, thanks, Brody muttered, looking delightfully flustered, and she bit back a grin, enjoying this more than she should. He had loosened up a lot over the past month. However, that didnt mean she couldnt have a little fun at his expense. Youre running scared, she said, taking a step toward him. Scared of what? He backed away. This. She took another step and poked him in the chest, expecting him to make a run for the house at the brief physical contact. However, he didnt move a muscle, his dark gaze unreadable, and her pulse accelerated madly. And this. She ran a finger down his cheek, enjoying the rasp of stubble against her fingertip. He grabbed her hand and lowered it, regret mixed with desire in his eyes. Im not scared. Im just wary, he said. Nicola Marsh has always had a passion for writing and reading. As a youngster, she devoured books when she should have been sleeping, and later kept a diary, which could be an epic in itself! These days, when shes not enjoying life with her husband and son in her home city of Melbourne, shes at her computer, creating the romances she loves in her dream job. Visit Nicolas Web site at www.nicolamarsh.com (http://www.nicolamarsh.com) for the latest news of her books. Found: His Family #1836 Wife and Mother Wanted Nicola Marsh www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To the Sirens, for their friendship, support and cyber hugs CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE (#u4f22abd2-0b40-5891-b2ac-dc4a17514a00) CHAPTER TWO (#u2487a82c-99ea-5d8b-b84a-4432b2737790) CHAPTER THREE (#u55845e18-274b-5448-a7bc-42555d3df9be) CHAPTER FOUR (#u69e9bb9e-fd7a-50df-9091-1ceb760293c4) CHAPTER FIVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIX (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ELEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWELVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER THIRTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FOURTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIFTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIXTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) EPILOGUE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE I DONT believe this! Carissa Lewis collapsed into a garden chair and resisted the urge to throw her mobile phone into the nearby pond. Though she wouldnt risk it. The way her luck was running today shed probably decapitate Fred, her favourite ceramic frog. Instead, she took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and lowered her voice. Peter, how could you do this to me? To the children? We were counting on you. Her boyfriend of eight monthseight far too long monthssaid, Yeah, well, you shouldnt ask so much of people. Personally, Ive had a gutful. She shook her head, wondering if the late nights shed been keeping in preparation for the annual Easter pageant had melted her brain. How could asking Peter to play the Easter Bunny for the local kids in town be asking too much? The guy didnt have a hearta fact shed slowly realised over the course of their lukewarm relationship but hadnt got around to doing anything about. So she had a thing for comfortable boyfriendsguys who didnt challenge her, or demand anything of her, or set off any fireworks in her vicinity. So what? She liked it that way. Comfortable was good, and the antithesis of her totally uncomfortable childhood, when she would have given anything for someone to depend on. She tried a different tack. Peter, this is important to me. Please, wont you reconsider? Sorry, Carissa. I want out. Of everything. Her heart stilled for all of two seconds before the adrenaline kicked in again. Are you dumping me? Why, you weak, spineless, no-good The dial tone hummed in her ear and she let out a frustrated yell, leapt to her feet and jumped up and down on the spot, like a two-year-old having a doozy of a tantrum. What are you staring at? she said to Fred, finding his wide froggy grin smug rather than endearing at that moment. Where am I going to find an Easter Bunny now? It had to be the time of year. Things always went wrong at Easter. Her parents had died at Easter when she was three, shed been adopted out a year later to the family from hell, and she always seemed to hang onto some loser like Peter to avoid being alone with her memories around this time. Yep, Easter stankand it looked as if this year was no exception. My daddy says to look under the nearest bush, a small, high-pitched voice said from somewhere over her new neighbours fence. Though everyone knows its way too early for the Easter Bunny to arrive. Hes practising his hopping ready for next week. Carissa looked up and spied a splash of red in the towering eucalypts lower branches, the bright material ending above a set of scraped knees covered in a patchwork of Mickey Mouse sticking plasters. Mmm, you could be right, Carissa said, hoping the pint-sized person to whom those legs belonged knew her way around trees. Shed hate for the little girl to take a tumble. Shed heard about her new neighbours, who had barely moved in a week ago. A single father with a girl of about six. Though shed been meaning to welcome them to the neighborhood, she hadnt got around to it yet. Or maybe it had something to do with the brief glimpse shed caught of the father as hed unloaded his car. Long, lean legs and a firm, cute butt in faded denim as hed bent over his car boot had had her taking a second looka long second look, which had almost culminated in her steering her car onto the lawn rather than up her driveway. And, though shed barely caught a glimpse of his face when hed looked up to see what the commotion was about as shed grazed a rubbish bin while over-correcting, that one illicit ogle at his posterior had sent her welcome committee plans up in smoke. Shed been way too embarrassed to face him after hed witnessed her parking skills. Whats your name, sweetheart? Carissa asked, hoping to talk the little girl out of the tree and put a face to the stubby legs. Mines Carissa. Molly Jane Elliott. The little voice pronounced it like a title bestowed by the Queen. But you can call me Molly. Smiling, Carissa wandered over to the fence and peered into the trees lower branches, still unable to catch sight of the friendly little girl. Pleased to meet you, Molly. Would you like to come down and meet Fred? Hes my favourite frog, but I have loads of others. Molly hesitated for all of two seconds before scrambling down in a flash of legs and arms, landing in a none-too-gracious heap at the bottom of the tree. You okay, sweetie? Molly nodded and raised her head. Yeah, thats how I always land. I get a Mickey Mouse every time. She pointed to her knees and grinned, displaying a darling gap where a front tooth should be. However, Carissa didnt glance at Mollys knees. Instead, she stared at the girls face in shock, seeing a startling resemblance to herself at that age: messy blonde curls, wary blue eyes and a defiant expression that warned Dont mess with me. I may look little, but Ive seen plenty. You look kinda funny, Carissa. Molly had an adorable lisp, courtesy of the missing front tooth, and combined with her attitude, it had Carissa almost scrambling over the fence in her haste to pick up the pint-sized dynamo and cradle her in her arms. Thats because I cant find the Easter Bunny, remember? Nice save, Lewis. That was all she neededfor Molly to go running to her dad and tell him about their nutcase neighbour, who stared at his daughter as if she wanted one of her very own. Which was totally true, of course. Shed give anything to have a family of her own: loving husband, delightful kids, white picket fence, the works. Unfortunately, all she had was the fence, and that had taken a week of blisters and a cricked neck while she put the darn thing up and painted it herself. Though one thing was for sure. When she had a family of her own they would love each other, support each other and be the exact opposite of what shed faced growing up. Oh, yeah. Molly stood up and dusted off a red cotton pinafore that had seen better days. But you said you had some frogs for me to see? I sure do. Though maybe you should ask your dad before coming over to play? Molly shook her head, blonde curls bouncing around her chubby face, defiance in her blue eyes. Uh-uh. Hell just make me go inside, like he always does. Great. Now what was she supposed to do? She couldnt encourage the child to leave her back yard without permission, but she didnt want to disappoint Molly either. Shed had enough of that emotion growing up, and there was something about this child that begged her not to dish out more of the same. As if on cue, a loud voice bellowed from the rear of the rundown house next door. Molly Jane. Time for lunch. Inside. Now. No please. No coaxing. No gentle words of love. Yeah, she knew exactly what that felt like and it still hurt twenty years later. Dont want to. Molly yelled back, and folded her arms and stamped her foot while Carissa bit back a grin. Oh, yeah, looking at Molly was like taking a step back in time and seeing a mirror image of herself at that age. And her heart went out to the little girl all over again. The town gossips had said Mollys father was a single dad, and shed assumed that meant he was divorced. From Mollys scruffy appearance and rebellious attitude, it looked as if the girl hadnt had her mothers influence in quite a while. Was that why Mr Elliott had moved out here? To get away from an ex? In that case, he was selfish. Because anyone could see this little girl needed a womans touch. And if hed deprived her of her mother, wella guy like that needed someone to talk sense into him. And she knew just the personwith enough firsthand knowledge of what it was like to grow up without a loving motherto do it. Molly! I said now! Trying not to grimace at the mans impatient tone, Carissa said, Molly, why dont you go have your lunch and Ill talk to your dad? Maybe you can come over later? Some of the tension eased out of Mollys shoulders. Really? Carissa smiled and nodded, hoping she could talk the ogre into letting his daughter come and spend some time with a stranger. Not that she intended to be a stranger for long. Really. Now, run along. Molly sent her a brief, beatific smile before racing across the yard to her back door. Dad! Dad! Carissa wants to talk to you. Shes got loads of frogs and everything! And shes looking for the Easter Bunny. And she said I can come over and play with her after my lunch. Whats for lunch? Will it take long? I wanna play. Mollys words spilled out in a rush and Carissa saw a mans shadow bend down to the little girl before she ran inside. Then the man straightened and stepped out of the doorway. Oh, boy. Carissas breath hitched as she caught her first fronton glimpse of the ogre. Tall, lean, fighting machine sprang to mind as the man exited the doorway and loped across the back yard towards her. Tension radiated from him in waves, as if he had a surplus of energy coiled tight within, and his body languagefolded arms, perpetual frown and compressed lipsread Im in a bad mood, so lay off. Never mind that the folded arms displayed a great set of biceps at the edge of his short-sleeved black T-shirt, or that the colour of the T-shirt heightened his dark, brooding good looks. This guy had bad attitude written all over him, and shed dealt with his kind before. Mr Elliott. Im Carissa Lewisyour neighbour. He halted about two feet in front of her and the rest of what shed been about to say died on her lips as she struggled not to gawk. If shed thought he looked impressive strolling across the lawn, it had nothing on the man close up. Sure, the frown was still there, and the lips had thinned further into disapproval, but those eyes! Dark brown, the colour of melted chocolatethe same colour she happily drooled over every night when she dipped ripe strawberries into the mix of milk and bitter chocolate in her fondue pot, her latest eclectic buy. Their unique colour was accentuated by the longest set of eyelashes shed ever seen on a guy, giving him a sexy look at odds with the crinkle between his browsthe one that looked like a permanent fixture. The names Brody, he all but barked. You shouldnt get my daughters hopes up like thatsaying she can come over and play. Hating that he had her on the back foot already, she said, I said that she should discuss it with you first, but Id love to have her over. I dont know you. His frown deepened, doing little to detract from his good looks. Though she had no intention of getting involved with a guy for a long time, after her latest disaster in the dating stakes, if someone came along who looked like thiswell, shed have a hard time not taking a second glance and thinking about it twice. Perhaps if she went for guys who werent so safe, guys who were gorgeous and had danger written all over them, shed have more luck? This is real life, honey, not fantasy land. And if anyone should know, she should. Losing her parents in a freak accident had landed her in an orphanage at the age of three, from where her two sisters had each been adopted out, leaving her to spend a year alone, battling bullies, starvation and a mouse infestation that left her shuddering at the thought of the little critters to this day. When shed finally been adopted herself a year later, shed taken one look at her new parents and all but launched herself into their arms. However, if the orphanage had been a bad dream, living with the Lovells had been a nightmare. For all their fancy clothes and refined manners, Ron and Betty Lovell had been cold, callous people who shouldnt have been allowed to parent any child. Ron had been an abusive drunk, and Betty a woman who would do anything to keep up the perfect family fa?adeincluding ignoring the verbal and psychological abuse that Carissa had been subjected to from the minute shed set foot in their home. Yeah, that had been her real world. Paint it any way and it still looked the same: miserable and depressing, a childhood filled with enough bad memories to last a lifetime. And, also seeing the vulnerable look beneath the defiance shed glimpsed on Mollys face, she would do anything to prevent the little girl shed just met going through half of what she had. Listen, Brody. Im an upstanding citizen. I pay my taxes, I run my own business, and anyone in this town can vouch for how much I love kids. Heard of Fey For Fun? He shook his head. I havent been here long, and Ive had my hands full settling the house and getting school organised for Molly. At least she couldnt fault him for that. I run a fairy shop. Kids love it. And she did too. It was her one little slice of magic in this all-round dreary world. Whether it be stocking the shelves with fairy dust or elves gold, the latest in pink tulle tutus or silver-spangled wings, she relished every part of her job. And when it came to dressing up herself, for the local kids fairy parties, wellshe absolutely, positively had the best job in the world! Fairy shop? His brows relaxed out of their frown to shoot skyward instead. He made it sound as if she ran a brothel. The best this side of Sydney, she said, not knowing why she needed to justify the success of her business to this man. Besides, he looked like the type of guy who would scoff at anything make-believe. Fairies, huh? For a moment she thought she glimpsed a softening around the corners of his mouth. However, the movement was gone in a flash, and she knew she must have imagined it. She sighed and glanced at her watch. And wizards and elves and Santas and Easter Bunnies. You knowall the stuff a guy like you wouldnt believe in. Speaking of which, I need to find an Easter Bunny urgently, so if youll excuse me? A guy like me? Uh, you dont strike me as the type to go in for magic stuff, thats all, she finished lamely, her attention captured by the spark of interest in his dark eyes. Is that right? She nodded, desperately trying to hide her surprise. If the flash of interest in his eyes had shocked her, it had nothing on the hint of a smile that played around his mouth. The guy could actually crack a smile? Well, in that case, I guess its useless me trying to help you find this missing Easter Bunny? Hes not missing. He pulled out at the last minute and has left me in the lurchnot to mention thirty of the local kids. She tried to ignore the sad feeling that suddenly swamped her, muttering, The rat, under her breath at the same time. Though her sadness had nothing to do with Peter exiting her life, but was for the fact that the kids looked forward to the Easter pageant as much as she did and she hated to let them down. By the expression on your face, it looks like that particular bunny is stewed the next time you see him. And then it happened. Brody Elliott smiled and the effect was breathtakinglike the sun coming out from behind thunderous clouds, illuminating everything within its sphere and warming her in the same way, right down to her soul. Trying to recover her wits, she said, I wont be seeing him. Not if he knows whats good for him. His smile dimmed and he glanced away, looking uncomfortable. Jeez, this guy really needed to loosen up. If smiling made him feel bad, he needed to practise more often. Sounds like youre in a bind. His gaze returned to hers and he frowned again, the angry indentation between his brows slipping into place with ease. While nothing short of disastrous plastic surgery could mar his good looks, he appeared so much friendlier when he wasnt glowering at the world. Yeah. Though its the kids I feel for. Theyll be terribly disappointed if the Easter Bunny doesnt show tomorrow. And nobody could relate to how theyd feel better than her. The nuns at the orphanage had talked up Santas impending visit for an entire month before Christmas, and though shed been barely old enough to grasp the whole concept shed looked forward to his arrival with the fervent passion of a child who had nothing else to look forward to. Of course the man in the red suit with his treasure trove of presents had never arrived, and she still remembered the acute emptiness that had made her sob her little heart out. Anyway, enough of my troubles. Its not like youre going to volunteer to help me out or anything. Okay, so she was being more than a tad cheekybut, hey, she was desperate, and if laying down a challenge to her grumpy neighbour in the hope that he would run with it could get her out of a fix, shed do it. His frown deepened as he fixed her with a surly stare. Youre right. Seems like youve got me all figured out. So, on that note, Ive got a lunch date with my daughter. Molly! Shed almost forgotten the whole reason behind this conversation, what with meeting the ogrethe very ogle-worthy ogre. Speaking of Molly, Id love it if she came over to play. She seems like a lovely little girl, and Ive got loads of stuff she can check out in my gardenplus lots of stock from the shop. He shook his head. I dont think so. Now, if you dont mind, I really must go in. She did mind! What was with this guy? Didnt he know when to loosen up? When to let his daughter have a little fun? Granted, he didnt know her, but anyone in town could vouch for her. And, just like that, an answer to the placate-the-dad-help-the-daughter problem popped into her head. Okay, I wont keep you, but why dont you bring Molly along to the Easter pageant? All the local kids will be there, and you can witness my kid-friendly skills first-hand. Its at my shop in the main street, eleven oclock tomorrow morning. It will give Molly a chance to meet and mingle with some new friends. And it might give you a reason to chuckle. Though, seeing the intense frown which deepened at her words, she doubted it. I dont know. Im probably busy tomorrow. For Petes sakeOuch! Poor choice of P word. Would she ever get through to him? Eleven oclock. Fey For Fun. Molly will love it. She wanted to add be there or be square, but didnt think hed appreciate a bit of high-school frivolity. In fact, she had a feeling her brooding new neighbour wouldnt go in for frivolous at all. Now I need to find me an Easter Bunny. See you tomorrow. She sent him an airy wave and walked away, biting back a grin at the final glower he sent her way. So Brody Elliott was a grumpy grouch? Shed handled worselike her adoptive fatherand come away unscathed. She just hoped hed do the right thing by Molly. Though shed only just met the little girl, it looked as if Molly could do with some TLCand shed happily volunteer to inject some fun into her life. Now all she had to do was hope big, bad Brody would come to the party. Literally. CHAPTER TWO DAD! Wow, look at all the fairies and stuff. Isnt this shop the coolest? Molly bounced through the front door of Fey For Fun and Brody followed reluctantly, wondering what on earth had prompted him to do this. He had enough to worry about without wasting time with a bunch of kids hed never met. Maybe he should be using the time to figure out how to raise his own child rather than secretly enjoying the brief taste of freedom from responsibility that the day would bring. Glancing at his surroundings, he took in the filmy pink gauze draped around the shop, the silver stars spangling on a midnight ceiling and the staggering array of fairies, elves, goblins, wizards, frogs and princesses in every shape, texture and size. If hed been a kid he wouldnt have wanted to leave this place. As a grown-up, he was intrigued by the enigmatic woman who ran itand already berating himself for it. His meeting with Carissa Lewis yesterday had been brief, and hed been his usual prickly self, yet something about her had piqued his interest and hed found himself spending far too many hours last night thinking about his nosy neighbour. He didnt have the time or inclination to waste on another woman. Molly was the only female in his life these days, and he intended keeping it that way. He sighed and looked at Molly, who flitted from one item to another in the shop, her face alight with delight. His precious daughter was a bundle of energy and a constant source of amazement, consternation and worry in his otherwise drab life, and he loved her to bits. He knew he fell short as a parent, and his constant guilt at causing the death of her mother was a burden that manifested itself in many waysmost of them directed at his beautiful daughter. Hed turned into a taciturn grump, and as much as hed like to change his ways he couldnt. Guilt did that to a mana terrible, all-consuming guilt that ripped at his soul on a daily basis, draining him till he had nothing left to give, no matter how much he wanted to. Poor Molly. He sure as hell wouldnt win any Father of the Year contests. Now, to complicate matters, that interfering woman next door had practically challenged him to turn up here today and hed jumped at it. How stupid could he be? Real stupid, if his gut reaction was any indication as he caught a glimpse of his neighbour through a rear window, smiling and chatting with a group of kids as they sat on giant toadstools. Carissa Lewis had a smile that could light up a room and, combined with the soft blonde curls framing her heart-shaped face, the guileless blue eyes and a cheeky dimple that could tempt a saint, she had him focussing on a woman in a way he hadnt in a long time. Hed initially been annoyed that shed befriended Molly. His daughter had suffered enough loss in her brief life without growing attached to a woman who obviously could only offer a days entertainment. However, when hed confronted Carissa, hed been totally unprepared for his own reaction to the woman. Awareness had flooded his body for the first time in years, making him more terse than usual. But instead of being scared off, as his abrupt manner made most people, shed stood up to him with something akin to challenge in her fathomless blue eyes, and hed been prompted to do all sorts of uncharacteristic thingslike take her up on it. And here he was. And though that seemed stupid to him right now, it had nothing on the stupidest decision of them allthe one where hed pulled over a speeding driver all those years ago and let the kid go with a warning, only to stare into that cocky face just months later, when the jerk had been charged with vehicular manslaughter for killing Jackie, his wife, in a head-on collision while speeding again. Yeah, that topped the list of dumbest things hed ever doneand hed been paying for it every day since. Come on, Dad. I wanna meet the Easter Bunny, and Carissas calling us. His head snapped up as a loud tapping on the rear window brought him back to the present, and he ruffled Mollys hair. Sure thing, munchkin. Lets go meet this bunny. However, as he led Molly into the quaint cottage garden at the back of the shop, and saw Carissas expression as she took a call on her mobile, all his old cop instincts screamed that there was something wrong. Theres Jessie, Molly squealed. Shes in my class at school. Can I go play with her, Dad? Go ahead, munchkin, he said, his gaze riveted to the storm of emotions clouding Carissas expressive face. He shouldnt get involved. He didnt want to get involved. But it looked as if the matter might be taken out of his hands as Carissa hung up and turned to him with a stricken look on her face. You came, she said, not looking particularly thrilled. Yeah, it sounded like something Molly would like. Everything okay? To his amazement, Carissa shook her head, collapsed into the nearest chair, and looked as if shed burst into tears at any second. Oh-oh. Tears to him were like Kryptonite to Superman. He just couldnt go there. My stand-in bunny just pulled out. Old Mr Hill has a twisted bowel, or some such thing and wont be here. Can you believe it? Those poor kids. She gazed out through the back window, looking so forlorn he wanted to pat her on the back and tell her everything would be okay. Yeah, I guess theyll be pretty disappointed. He knew Molly would be, and he hated that. His daughter had been let down enough in her lifetime. Disappointed? Theyll be distraught! She jumped out of her chair and stalked to the window, staring out at the kids. If only there was something I could do And in that instant, as she whirled to face him with a maniacal gleam in her wide blue eyes, he knew that shed hatched some crazy scheme and that, somehow, it involved him. You! She jumped up and down on the spot like Molly did when she was really excited about something. You can do it! Youre big enough for the bunny suit, youre hereits the perfect solution. No way. He held up his hands to ward her off and backed up a few steps, wondering briefly if it was too late to make a run for it. Come on. She latched onto his arm and dragged him towards the back room, leaving him little option but to follow. We dont have much time. The natives are getting restless. And you wouldnt want to be responsible for disappointing all those cute little children now, would you? Damn, she was good. How could he say no when she put it like that? He couldnt disappoint Molly. He wouldnt. And, by the clever glint in Carissas eyes, shed known just the right buttons to push. His gaze skimmed over her, the simple outfit of white flowing trousers and pink fitted top accentuating her piquant beauty in its simplicity. On any other woman the combination would have looked plain. On her it looked stunning. Hey! Carissa snapped her fingers in front of his face. You better pay closer attention when youre with the kids, otherwise theyll whip those choccie eggs out of your basket in no time at all. Look, about the kids Come on. We havent got long to get you dressed and into the garden at the back of the shop for the egg hunt. She opened a door to a back room and all but shoved him aside. He should have blurted out any old excuse. He should have slammed the door shut, locked it and bolted through the sole window. Instead, at the first touch of her hand on his arm, all thought of abandoning her fled and he found himself staring at the giant pink and white bunny costume hanging on the back of the door and wondering what it was about this woman that made him want to jump through hoops. Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it, she said, unzipping the plastic covering over the suit and handing him a cotton tail. HereIm sure you can do the honours with this. Just leave it, he snapped, the thought of her placing that cute little tail anywhere in the vicinity of his tail sending his blood pressure soaring. Shame on you, Brody Elliott. Mind your manners. He blinked in surprise at the echo of his wifes phrase. During their brief marriage hed often felt like a gauche boy being chastised by the lady of the house, and any love hed had for his society wife had soon waned while his love for Molly, the reason theyd married in the first place, had grown daily. Everyone had been right. Jackie had made him pay for getting her pregnanteven though hed used protection, and even though hed done the right thing by her. Their marriage had been based on guilt right from the start. His guilt. Guilt at ruining Jackies life, according to her snobby family. Guilt at robbing her of a life on easy street if shed married the right man from her socio-economic sphere. Guilt at how much hed blamed her for the loss of his freedom. And, for the last four years, the gut-wrenching guilt that her death might have been prevented if hed done things differently. Hey, if you dont want to do this Ill understand, Carissa said, the concern in her eyes reaching out and enveloping him in a warm embrace, no matter how unwelcome. Damn it! As a cop, hed been a master of the poker face. In fact it had been one of the skills that had kept him at the top of his game. However, like everything else in his life, hed let his job slide, and it looked as if his skills had followed suit. Slipping his poor excuse for a poker face into place, he said, Im ready. Just leave me to it. Searching his face, she appeared satisfied and nodded. Ill wait for you outside. Just hop on out when youre ready. And as he watched her walk out, struggling to keep his eyes averted from the way her butt moved beneath the soft white cotton of her pants and failing miserably, he wondered for the hundredth time in the last hour if hed lost his mind. Carissa was proud of her ability to read people. Shed mastered the skill from an early age, learning to blend into the background in the hope that shed avoid drawing attention to herself and earning a harsh word or a cruel putdown from Ron in the process. Being able to blend in allowed her the freedom to observe people, to look, listen and pick up on non-verbal cues. And now, as she watched Brody cavorting with the children as if hed been born to the role of Easter Bunny, she had no idea what to make of her new neighbour. Looks like your bunny is doing a good job with the kids, Tahnee, her younger sister, said, plopping into a garden chair next to her. I didnt know Pete had it in him. Its not Peter. Carissa wrinkled her nose as if shed just smelt something nasty. In this case, eau de dumped. Tahnees astute gaze fixed on her in an instant. Trouble in paradise? Being with Peter was never paradise, Carissa muttered, knowing shed hung around their dead-end relationship for eight months for one reason and one reason only. Familiarity. And in her case it had definitely bred contempt. Yay! Tahnee clapped her hands and bounced in her seat. Sayonara to the loser. I knew he wasnt worthy of you. Why didnt you say something earlier? Tahnee rolled her eyes, the exact shade of blue as her own, and once again Carissa was struck by the likeness between the three Lewis girls. She thanked God that theyd found each other after all these years. In fact she would never have set up shop here in Stockton if it hadnt been for Tahnee. When theyd been reunited, shed been so thrilled to finally have a loving family again that shed moved to the small town two hours north of Sydney just to be closer to her sister, who had lived here for years. Because I dont interfere in my sisters relationships, much as Id like to. Speaking of which, have you heard from Kristen? Mick has spirited her away for a week in Perth before she heads back to Singapore and I havent heard from her. Another loser, Tahnee snorted. Miserly Mick, that is. I bet Kristens the one springing for the holiday, not the other way around. That guy has long pockets and short arms when it comes to spending money. Carissa chuckled, but happened to agree with her sister. As long as shes happy. Mark my wordsKristen will be joining us in happy singledom in a few weeks if Im not mistaken. Spending more than a few hours with that creep will open her eyes quick-smart. Well see, Carissa murmured, her attention suddenly diverted by the amazing sight of the Easter Bunny grappling with Timmy Fields, a gorgeous little blond boy whod lost both parents recently and had had her silently crying for him in empathy. Hey, Timmy. Take it easy on the Easter Bunny. You might pull his ears off. Though maybe that wouldnt be such a bad idea. It might get Brooding Brody to listen to her for all of two seconds. Hed barely spoken more than a few words to her since theyd met, and she still hadnt convinced him to let Molly spend some time with her. That little girl needed some attention, and she was just the woman to give it to her. From her dishevelled appearance to her defiant attitude, Molly craved affectionand if her father spoke to her like he did to everyone else, Lord help her! So whos in the bunny costume? Tahnee unwrapped a chocolate Easter egg and popped it in her mouth. Mmmheaven. Actually, I shouldve known it wasnt Pete. This bunny is way too tall and broad-shouldered to be Puny Pete. Meet Brody Elliottmy new neighbour. Tahnee sat up so quickly she almost tipped out of her chair. The Brody Elliott? Uh-huh. Heard of him? Heard of him? Tahnees voice rose and Carissa shushed her. Sis, where have you been hiding? Dont you listen to the Stockton grapevine? I dont usually have the time. Your loss. Okay. So maybe she could make an exception in this case. So tell me about the Brody Elliott, anyway. Tahnee leaned closer and dropped her voice to an almost-whisper, no mean feat for her loud, brash sibling. Hes an ex-cop, lived in Sydney his whole life. Has a real bad-boy reputation. Knocks up some society chick, marries her, has a child he adores. Then the wife dies, about four years ago, when the girl is a toddler, and hes raised her on his own since. Carries a huge chip on his shoulderlike he blames the world for his problems. Carissa shook her head and stared wide-eyed at her sister, knowing that if the rumour mills were true what shed just heard about Brody went a long way to explaining his grumpy manner. It sounded as if hed had a rough time and then some. Where did you hear all that? Daisy Smythe is the dead wifes aunt. Thats one of the reasons hes come to live hereso that his daughter can get some female influence in her life. Old Daisy told Pat at the pharmacy, and I overheard the whole thing. You mean you eavesdropped? Tahnee had the grace to blush. Well, it wasnt like the old duck was talking in whispers or anything. Youre unbelievable! So, how did you get big bad Brody to be your bunny? Tell all. Carissa remembered the look on Mollys cute face when theyd first met, and Brodys subsequent glower. She could hardly believe the taciturn man had found it in his heart to help her out at short noticelet alone throw himself wholeheartedly into the task, as indicated by his current wrestling match with half a dozen of the cherubs. She shrugged, not wanting to add fuel to Tahnees thirst for news. Looks like the guy has a soft spot for kids. He saw how much I needed help when old Dave Hill dropped out, and he put his hand up. With a little helpful twisting of it behind his back from yours truly, of course. Tahnee chuckled. So the guy really has a soft spot? Carissa understood her sisters scepticism if what Tahnee had learned from Daisy was true. And, from what shed observed first-hand in his general demeanour, the guy didnt exactly strike a welcoming chord with everyone he met. In fact, he looked about as friendly as Scrooge. Not that she put much stock in anything old Daisy said. Daisy Smythe, a strait-laced spinster whod lived in Stockton her entire life and shunned anyone she considered foreigneven those who came from Sydney, a scant two hours awaywas notorious for her shallow views. And this was the woman Brody had chosen to be the female influence in his daughters life? Poor Molly. He seems nice enough, Carissa said, trying to forget exactly how nice Brody wasparticularly some of his impressive physical attributes. Wish I could see him without that costume on. Tahnee popped another egg into her mouth and delicately licked chocolate from her fingertips like a kitten lapping up the last of its cream. I like bad-boy types. He has a daughter to raise. I doubt Brody would be up for a flingespecially in a small town like this. Ooh. Tahnees eyes narrowed as she fixed her perceptive gaze on Carissa. You sound mighty sure of what the man in question wants. Is there something youre not telling me? Like youve got dibs on him? Little wonder Pete is out of the picture. For your information Peter dumped me, not the other way around. And I havent got dibs on anyone. Her interest in Brody Elliott stemmed from a desire to make his daughters life easier, not some ill-placed lust for him. Hes my neighbour. Im just helping him get acquainted with the town. Tahnees grin spoke volumes. Riiight. Thousands wouldnt believe you, Sis, but I will. She stood in one lithe movement and Carissa lamented that her two gorgeous sisters had got all the height genes in the Lewis family. She barely made it past five footand that was in heels! Anyway, I better dash. I have a deadline to meet and my editor waits for no one. See you later. Tahnee kissed her cheek and strolled from the garden, a tall, slim blonde in hipster jeans and matching denim jacket. Yeah, her sister was beautiful, all right, and if she ever set her sights on Brody hed be toast. Glancing at her watch, she realised the last hour had flown. Brody had done such a good job entertaining the children shed hardly had to do anythingincluding calling on her back-up plan of distributing mass amounts of choccie eggs if the bunny had been too moody to play. Thankfully the bunny had been one hop ahead of her all the time, and it had been a pleasure seeing him bring joy to so many little faces. She loved this motley bunch of kids, ranging in age from four to nine, all locals whose parents patronised her shop on a regular basis looking for gifts. Shed been hired to organise fairy parties for all the little girls in town over the last few years, and knew almost every kid in Stockton personallywhich was why she went the extra yard at Easter and Christmas, organising the pageant and Santas cave for the darlings. Clapping her hands, she called the children to her. Okay, its time for the Easter Bunny to go. What do we say to the bunny? Thank you, Easter Bunny. Come again next year, thirty voices rang out in unison, in the peculiar monotone theyd rehearsed a few hours ago. Brody waved to the kids and hopped towards the back door of the shop. She smiled at him, wondering if he could see her through the peepholes in the rabbits mouth. In response, he turned, wiggled his cute little cotton tail butt at her and hopped into the shop, shutting the door behind him. Well, well, well. Maybe there was more to Brooding Brody than he let on? CHAPTER THREE YOU didnt have to do this. Brody took one look at the table Carissa had set for dinner and wanted to bolt home. It looked too cosy, too inviting, and far too scary for his peace of mind. He didnt do dinners. He didnt do dates. And this meal shed cooked as thanks for him helping her out with the bunny thing looked like a frightening combination of both. She turned from the stove, brandishing a wooden spoon filled with rich bolognaise sauce in one hand and a fairy-covered pot holder in the other. I know, but I wanted to. Its the least I can do after the show you put on for the kids yesterday. He managed to look affronted for all of two seconds. That wasnt a show. Far from it. Hed enjoyed himself more than he had in agesacting like a goofball with the kids, enjoying their rough-house tactics. He never played like that with Molly, was too scared hed hurt her. She was all he had left in this world and hed do his best to protect herafter doing such a lousy job with her mum. No? She tasted the sauce and smiled the self-satisfied smirk of a cook who knew she was good and is proud of it. And, despite his wariness of this whole situation, his mouth watered at the spicy aromas wafting through the small kitchen: a rich combination of garlic, tomatoes, oregano and basil infused the air, and he wondered if hed ever smelt anything so tempting. Or seen anything so tempting, as he watched Carissa turn back to the stove, the simple movement causing the short black skirt she wore to flip around her knees in a provocative swish. She was barefoot, her shapely calves beckoning him to feel their contours and keep heading north to the hidden delights underneath that flirty skirt. He swore silently and thrust his hands in his pockets, feeling more uncomfortable by the minute. What the hell was he doing here? He needed to escape. Fast. The bunny act was nothing and this really isnt necessary. So, thanks anyway, but I need to check on Molly. He sidled towards the door, unprepared for the flash of anger in her eyes as she swung around to face him. I thought you said Molly is with Daisy? Yeah. And didnt you also say she adores her great-aunt? He nodded, feeling like a fool. What harm could a simple meal do? He could eat and run. Besides, Molly had raved about the great time shed had at Daisys yesterday afternoon, and had been more than eager to spend a few hours with her this evening. Thankfully, old Daisy had become an ally of his since hed moved to town, and it didnt take a genius to figure out the old ladys softened stance had a lot to do with Molly. The way he looked at it, the severe spinster would be a good influence on Molly, giving her some female stability in her topsy-turvy little world. The world hed turned topsy-turvy through his own stupidity at letting that brash young driver off the hook. Hed seen something of himself in that guyconfident, cocky, with the gift of the gaband hed taken the soft option. Pity the soft option had turned out to be the hardest one for his motherless daughter. As for dinnerhe could do this. As long as his long-dormant libido didnt get any crazy ideas. In four years he hadnt looked sideways at a woman, and now that he finally felt settled for the first time in ages maybe his imagination had just been hot-wired into action? Though it probably had more to do with the surprising woman wearing a fitted I Luv Chocolate T-shirt, a short skirt and no shoes than anything else. Its settled, then. You uncork the wine; Ill serve up. She thrust a corkscrew into his hands before he could change his mind and all but pushed him into a seat at the table. Hope you like Shiraz. Ive been saving this. Dont open it on my account. I love a good red, so go ahead. Carissa almost bit her tongue in frustration. She was trying to be nice here, to repay Brody for helping her out yesterday, but it wasnt working. Dinner with her moody neighbour had been a bad idea. He obviously didnt want to be here, and she hated having to watch her ps and qs, being careful not to stir up her neighbours latent temper. Racking her brain for some small, innocuous comment to break the awkward silence that enveloped them, she said, Tell me about your job. Im not working at the moment. He poured the wine into glasses and handed one to her, his frown a clear indication that he didnt want to discuss his employment status further. Undeterred, she ploughed on, determined to get him to lighten up, to give her some glimpse of the man behind the terse fa?ade. She knew hed had a hard time, and there was something about Brody Elliott that had her wanting to hug him, pat his back and make it all better. I heard you were a cop before you came to Stockton? Who told you that? You know what small towns are like. Everyone knows everyone elses business. Laying his wine down on the table after taking a healthy swig, he folded his arms and leaned forward. Yeah, well, I just wish theyd butt out of mine. Being a cop is in the past, and Id like to keep it that way. What else are they saying about me? Bringing over the pasta and sauce, she suddenly wished she hadnt gone down this track. Perhaps she was rushing things? Pushing him for private information too soon? Hed probably clam up for good, and then shed never get anything out of him. That youre a widower. Well, thats certainly true. Jackie died four years ago. Not surprised that he didnt volunteer more information, she bustled about the kitchen before she pried any furtherlike asking how it had happenedlaying the meal on the table and ushering him to sit before she joined him. It mustve been awfully hard for you and Molly. He nodded and offered her the salad while he broke off a chunk of garlic bread. Molly wasnt quite two. One of her favourite words at that time was Mum and she walked around for months afterwards saying Mum gone. It was heartbreaking. He stuffed the bread in his mouth and she wasnt sure if shed heard correctly when he muttered, Still is. Im sorry, she saidfor the loss hed suffered and for the pain that obviously still hung over him like a dark shroud. He must have loved his wife very much, and if anyone could understand the long-term effects of grief she could. There wasnt a day that went by when she didnt think about her parents and what her life would have been like if theyd lived. I know how Molly feels. I lost both my parents when I was three. I was devastated. A flare of interest sparked in his eyes as he fixed that all-seeing gaze on her. What happened? Dad was a geologist and loved travelling the world. Mum accompanied him on a trip to the Alpsprobably for a break from the three of us. They died in an avalanche. Im sorry too, he murmured, his genuine sympathy bringing an unexpected lump to her throat. Shed had years to come to terms with her grieflong years when shed cried herself to sleep every night while huddled beneath the blankets, trying to stifle her sobs from her angry adoptive fatheryet here she was, about to blubber in front of a virtual stranger whod offered a kind word. You said three of us? he asked. I have two sisters. Tahnees the youngest and Kristens the oldest. They split us up at the orphanage. Tahnee and Kristen got adopted out first; I spent a year in that hellhole. We found each other about six years ago. My God, he said, taking hold of her hand across the table. How awful. It had to have been a purely instinctive gesture, but the minute his hand enveloped hers she couldnt think straight. His touch elicited a response she couldnt comprehend. But it was far too early to feel anything other than respect for this manrespect for a single father doing the best he could in raising his daughter. She slid her hand from his on the pretext of dishing up a plate of spaghetti bolognaise and managed a weak smile. Listen to usa real pair of agony aunts. She handed him a plate, being careful to avoid touching him again. Otherwise hed probably end up wearing hot pasta on his crotch. Heretry this. Its my favourite recipe. Casting a quizzical look her way, he took the plate she offered. Thanks. It smells delicious. And, with that, they dug into their meal, only pausing to make the odd casual remark like Pass the Parmesan, please or More dressing on your salad? She would have liked more conversation but, as meals went, it wasnt the worst shed had with a man. In fact, there was something strangely comforting about a guy who didnt feel obliged to babble about his business or sporting prowess all through dinnerwho seemed happy to eat in companionable silence without spouting off. Thanks for the meal. Ill help you clean up, and then I think its time I left. He stood up from the table so quickly his chair teetered on two wooden legs before slamming back on the floor. Whats your hurry? We havent had dessert yet. He patted his stomach, drawing her attention to the hard planes evident beneath the white cotton T-shirt and putting a new slant on dessert in her mind. Ill pass on dessert, but thanks for a magnificent meal. Now, do you want to wash or dry? Leave it. Ill use the dishwasher, she said, turning away before he saw the wistful expression on her face. She didnt want him to leave. She wanted him to stay and share dessertperhaps talk some more, maybe even laugh a little? They were neighbours, and it wouldnt hurt for them to be on friendly terms. Who knew? He might even lighten up and let her spend some time with Molly. Though, by the surly expression that had returned to his face, she doubted it. HereI made extra for you and Molly to have tomorrow. She held out a plastic container, surprised by the resentment that flashed across his face. Thanks, but were fine. I can cook, you know. I never said you couldnt. The food grew heavy in her hand and her outstretched arm drooped. I just thought Molly might like some of this. Molly is fine. Anger shot through her body, surprising her with its intensity. Carissa rarely lost her temper, viewing anger as a wasted emotion for the gutlesslike her adoptive father, who had wielded it every chance he got. However, Brodys defensive act annoyed her. So the guy had a chip on his shoulder the size of Ayers Rock? There was no need for everyone around him to suffer because of it. I didnt say she wasnt. Whatever. I better go. God, he was touchy! She hadnt seen him around his daughter, but if this was how he spoke to Molly it went a long way to explaining the wary look in the little girls eyes shed glimpsed the other day, when theyd first met. Uh-huh. Their gazes lockedhis angry, hers challenging. Shed stare him down if it killed her, the big grump. Look, thanks again for dinner. Ill let myself out. He headed for the door, almost wrenching the knob off in his hurry to leave. Brody, any time Molly wants to play over here is fine by me. Just send her over, Carissa said to his rapidly departing back. If she could do anything to bring a spark to the little girls world, she would. From what she could see Molly spent far too much time alone in her back yard, perched in that giant eucalypt, wearing a glum expression on her cheeky face. At first appearance Molly seemed a lonely girl who needed attention, and if anyone knew how that felt she did. Ron and Betty had ignored her from the minute shed set foot in their impressive house, and though shed wanted for nothing materially, emotionally shed craved affection. Shed been a model daughteryearning for a kind word, a gentle caress from her new parents. And what had she got for her trouble? Harsh putdowns and scathing verbal attacks that gave her nightmares to this day. Molly probably couldnt remember too much of her mother, but loneliness was an emotion that could strike at any age, and Carissa wanted to do something to help alleviate the little girls pain. If the occasional play session could brighten Mollys day, shed stand up to big bad Brody every day of the week to get her way. Brody turned to face her. Why the interest in my daughter? His fierce gaze didnt scare her. Not much, that was. I love children, and Mollys new in town. She shrugged, as if his response didnt mean much, when in fact she hoped hed have the sense to take her honest answer at face value and give her a chance to get to know Molly. I guess I thought she could use some friends. His frown lessened for about two seconds before he said, Well see, and walked out the door. Well see. She imitated his terse reply under her breath, shaking her head and trying not to break plates as she shoved them into the dishwasher. CHAPTER FOUR DADDY, is it okay if I make hot cross buns with Carissa? She has to make a whole heap for Easter, and she needs my help. She has flour and sugar and a special big mixing bowl and everything. Can I? Please, Daddy? Please? Brody rubbed the spot between his eyes, the one which permanently ached these days, and looked down at his daughter, hopping from one foot to the other. Her blue eyes sparkled, but a dirty smudge streaked down the side of her face, one plait had come undone, her dress was buttoned up wrong and a buckle on her Mary-Janes had come loose. Hell, she looked like Orphan Annieand a neglected Orphan Annie at that. Molly deserved so much more than he could give, but right now he could barely face each day, let alone find an abundance of attention to spill over to his daughter at the end of it. He was tiredso damn tired. Tired of the long, endless days, tired of having no focus and, worst of all, tired of the never-ending guilt because hed deprived his precious little girl of her mother. Despite the passing years, it didnt get any easier. Nothing sparked his interest any more, and if it werent for Molly he probably wouldve become a beach bum by nowliving like a hermit in the far north tropics, not seeing another soul for years on end. However, he couldnt run away. He had responsibilities, and the main one was currently staring up at him with those brilliant blue eyes so like her mothers. Okay, but dont be too long. You need to have a bath before dinner. But Carissa said we could eat the buns for dinner. Molly pouted, another action reminiscent of Jackie, who had made an art form out of the gesture in an attempt to get her own way. He sighed, deciding to give in this once. Hed gone out of his way to avoid his nosy neighbour since shed cooked him that thank-you dinner a few days ago, not in the mood to make polite small talk with someone he had no intention of seeing any more than necessary. However, Carissa seemed like a woman with a steady head on her shoulders, and from what hed seen she was good with kids. Perhaps it wouldnt hurt to let Molly befriend her. After all, why let Molly suffer because of his anti-social personality? Sure thing, munchkin. You can eat the buns for dinner. Yay! Daddy, youre the best! Molly flung herself at him and he scooped her up, snuggling into her as she wrapped her arms around his neck, his heart filled with love but his head wishing he could be a better fatherthe type of father she deserved. But not too many, okay? Otherwise you might get a tummy ache. Mollys eyes widened and she wrinkled up her nose, obviously remembering her last attack of the gripes. Shed moaned for what seemed like hours, and hed felt totally and utterly helpless, waiting for the paracetamol to kick in. So what was new? He usually felt helpless around her anyway. I promise to only eat two. She held up her fingers and counted. One. Two. See? Only this many wont give me a tummy ache, will it? Chuckling, he dropped a kiss on her nose. Two will be just fine. Ill come and get you from Carissas in an hour, so be good. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925202&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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