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How do you stop a past that still haunts you rising up to threaten your future happiness?

Laura is heading home to help out at her parents’ hotel while her father is in hospital. Her boss, handsome, charming and confirmed bachelor Christopher Devereaux is with her. He’s hiding from ex-girlfriend Lucina, whose two brothers think he got her pregnant. Chris knows the truth, as does Lucina, but until until Lucina’s scans reveal the true timing of her pregnancy and let him off the hook, he needs to be out of reach of their anger.   

A part of Laura Champion’s job is sorting out Chris’s problems, but his frantic call to help him evade Lucina’s brothers surprises her. She’s his go-to-girl at the office, but this is the first time she’s been involved so deeply in his personal life. A life she dare not get too close to for fear she’ll fall for him even more than she already has, and become one of his conquests.

Not that he’d touch her with the proverbial barge pole if he ever discovered the truth about her past life.

Excerpt:

“So, where do you see yourself in the future?” Chris asked, out of the blue.

“In the future? I have no idea.”

“Don’t you want to help run the hotel with your parents? This is a sweet place, and you obviously love being here. I can’t help but wonder why you’re not a permanent member of the team.”

“Oh, well, I just fancied a change. Something different. One day I’ll be back to stay.” One day.

“I’m always surprised you’ve not already been snatched up by a doctor or a lawyer, and have five children vying for your attention.”

“I’d settle for the children, but do they have to come attached to a man?”

His voice held amusement. “You’ve a problem with men?”

“No, not really.” Only one, and he ruined any future relationships she might have once considered in the future.

“So you want children?”

She had more of a chance sailing single-handedly around the world in a barrel, but why not play his game? “Yes. Maybe not five, but at least two or even three. I’ve a soft spot for babies, and before you lecture me I know they’re like puppies.” She grinned. “They will grow up and change, and just as a dog is for life, so is a child.”

His laughter echoed around the quiet waste ground. “Interesting analogy, and very true. Puppies are similar to babies. Noisy, chew everything in sight, disruptive and messy.”

“Joyful, playful, interesting, fun to be with and a whole lot more. I think the positive outweighs the negative. How about you? Are there any little Devereaux’s on the horizon someday?”

“Who knows? As you are well aware I’m very careful with my…um…”

“Asset?” she offered.

For a few seconds silence stretched between them, and then they simultaneously exploded into laughter, causing something lurking in the overgrowth to scamper for cover.  

“Maybe it’s time to change the subject. How is Robert this evening?”

“Dad? If the level of complaining is a guide, then much better thanks. Julie popping in helped take his mind off not being able to work. He mentioned in more detail your investment suggestion and crazy scheme for putting yurts on this ground. I didn’t get a chance to talk about it much with Julie’s arrival, but you’ve sparked an interest in him. Are you sure you want to invest in us?”

“I am, and if he’s interested, then my work here is done.”

“It’s a wonderful offer, so thank you, Chris. It’ll make a world of difference and help ease Dad’s worries about the future, which can only be a good thing.”

“Glad to help.” He sipped his drink. With a sideways glance her way he murmured in a softer, gentle tone. “I envy the familiarity you have with your family.”

“You do? I suppose I take it for granted. I find it sad you’re not close to yours.”

“I see my mother, but Dad is always busy living the tycoon lifestyle. Time is money, and he needs to make it more than he needs to see any of his children.”

To anyone else, his light, almost flippant tone would sound fine, but she knew him too well, and sensed the underlining note of resentment running through it.

“How sad, I didn’t realise. Has he always been the same?”

“Yes and no. I remember doing stuff with him up to about eight years old, but then he sort of drifted out of my life. Mum and Dad divorced after I had a few health problems, so I’ve always connected going into hospital with them not staying together.”

“What sort of health problems?”

“Something and nothing. Childhood stuff which turned nasty for a short time. Anyway, we Devereaux’s have all been brought up to know our place, and Father’s is at the head of the household. King over all he surveys. He’s constantly working his socks off to ensure there are no challenges to his reign.”  

He laughed, but his voice lacked real humour, only a hint of sadness. It made her want to reach out and hug him. She folded her arms until the urge passed.

“And what is your place, exactly?”

He shook his head, his eyes lifting skyward, as if the stars held the answer to his melancholy. “I’ve never really been sure. When you stepped into the bosom of your family without even missing a beat, it registered how dysfunctional mine really is.”

She bumped shoulders with him. “But you see your mother?”

“Yes, when I can.”

“And you said they divorced when you were eight?”

       “Well, separated. I came out of hospital and she’d gone. Divorce followed at a swift pace.”    

“How awful. I’m glad you’re still in contact with her.”

“We have a scheduled meet twice a month. We spent a lot of time separated from each other so I always take her flowers. I guess I’m trying to make up for all those Mothering Sundays and birthdays I missed.”

“It’s lovely you do that, and I bet she appreciates it.”

 “She does.”

He stayed silent, his eyes still Heavenward. In the distance cars hooted, reminding them the Zone had almost closed and people were queuing to leave. Another thirty minutes and the music and lights from the Zone would cease, and then the only sound would be the crackle of the open fire and the odd hoot of an owl on the prowl. Right now, if they glanced behind, they’d see a colourful spectrum of lights still on from the Zone filling the night sky, but with their backs turned it didn’t exist. Nothing did, only them.  

“Your father remarried, didn’t he? I seem to remember seeing his wife with him at some big business takeover that hit the headlines a few years back.”

“You saw Charlotte. He married her sixteen years ago, and it seems to be working.”

“So you were….how old when they married?”

“Fourteen.”

“Not a good age to welcome in a new mother.”

“Oh, I’d grown kind of used to it by then.”

She looked his way. “I’m sorry?”

“After Mum left he married Sarah and had Charles, my half-brother.”

“Oh. So Charlotte came later?”

“Charlotte arrived about four years and another divorce later. She gave him Alexander. I’m hoping now he has more heirs he’ll stop producing.”

“How do you and your brothers get on?”

“Not too bad. I’m friendlier with Charlie, but there is a ten year difference between us. I was well into my teens, complete with acne and excited hormones by the time he hit five and started getting interesting. When junior Devereaux popped out I found him more of an embarrassment than anything else.”

Chris with acne, it hardly seemed possible. “I can’t imagine you growing up less than perfect.”

“Not the best time in my life. So, you know about my family tree. What about yours? I’m guessing no divorce.”

“No. We’re run-of-the-mill-everyday-people.”

“Sounds great to me.”

“Really? You come from a household with wealth and power.”

“And you presume money and position makes for happiness? I spent most of my teenage years longing for everyday-run-of-the-mill.”

“And I wished for money and excitement. I guess the grass is always greener elsewhere.”

She sipped her drink, savouring the deep, rich chocolaty flavour, or perhaps being with Chris made it tastier. He tossed another log on the fire. Sparks flew through the air only to vanish in an instant, while around them shadowy shapes swayed like exotic dancers caught on the wind.

She’d heard a sadness in Chris’s voice when he talked about his family. No wealth and power in her circle, but for certain they did love each other.

“So, how do you like your visit to the wilds?” His voice sounded loud in the silence.

“It’s…different.” She could hardly admit to the pleasure being with him brought. “Are you sure you want to stay here all night?”

“I am. You know, in bed it’s going to be warm inside the yurt. With the flap zipped up, two bodies close together will produce enough heat to ensure neither of us freeze to death.”

And there it was. His family history and feeling sorry for him all a prelude to luring her between the sheets. She’d fallen for fake sympathy before, and it nearly left her for dead. When would she learn handsome, charming men could never be trusted?”

 “I see. With no customers you can hit on, you thought you’d tell me your sob story and lead me sympathetically to your bed.”

“What? Hey no not really…I was just…you know.”

Disappointment transformed into anger, which flared quicker than a flash of lightning. She tossed the thermos through the opened flap of the yurt. “There’s enough for one more cup in there. I’m sure it’ll keep you from freezing to death.”

He leaned toward her, a smile on his lips. Lips she yearned to feel on hers.

“Come on, Laura, we’re both adults. It was just a suggestion. Something different for us both, and you can’t deny we have chemistry.”

Something different? In Laura’s world, something different usually came with regrets. She lived life on a straight line – no surprises, no mistakes. And no room for a man with warm blue eyes and a tempting offer. “Someone different, you mean.”  

“I was just pushing my luck. Trying it on. You can’t blame me. I’m here with an attractive woman, in the dark, under the stars. It’s kind of romantic.”

She told herself she didn’t feel disappointed he thought her that easy, except when it came to him… In an instant Chris seemed too close. Too inviting. Way too persuasive. Clouds covered the moon as she shrugged off the blanket and tossed it after the thermos. “Keep that too. I won’t need it in my solitary bed”

"Laura, stay. Please. Can’t we just talk? Don’t go.”

The open door of the yurt beckoned her to enter the darkness inside. To share intimacy with this tempting man the way they did in her car. To smell his aftershave, hear him breathe, relish in his seductive presence. If she let him, his words would convince her to stay, but he told his sob story as a tactic to do just that. After all, he was Christopher Austin Devereaux, renowned womanising playboy and slayer of all things innocent. She may not be the pure, simple, naive soul he assumed, but stepping off that narrow line for a night of indulgence led to a slippery slope she didn’t dare risk. "Enjoy yourself in the yurt without me, and don’t be late for work in the morning.” 

She struggled to her feet, slipped the crutches beneath her arms and made her way across the wasteland. She never looked back, because she knew if she did, the open yurt would be too hard to resist a second time.

And, as much as she protested, deep inside, where she locked away her most private secrets, her desire sparked at the idea of being in Chris’s bed.