Veronica Langdon lifted the green beer bottle to her lips as she surveyed the crowd in the trendy bar overlooking the Viaduct Basin on Auckland’s waterfront. A visiting rugby team enjoying a night on the town swelled the Friday night revellers.
“I can’t believe you dragged me here,” she shouted in Tania’s ear over the din of hard rock being belted out by the live band. “I thought Milas was coming?”
Be honest, had I sat at home brooding, I might have resorted to slitting my wrists.
Her friend angled closer, fiery curls subdued in the dim light. Her blouse fell off one shoulder revealing a good portion of her black lacy bra.
“He’ll be here.” Grinning wickedly, Tania Morecombe nursed her beer. “Love the skirt, Vic.”
Veronica lifted her bottle in mock salute. “Have to ditch that schoolmarm tag.”
Earlier Tania had accused her of being staid and in a rut. Stinging from the jibe, Veronica dug into her closet for the black leather miniskirt and a vivid, stretchy halter top that showed way too much cleavage. Now, she was self-conscious and kept tugging at the skirt’s hem.
“If I had legs that good I’d never cover them.” Tania took a swig of her beer. “Look at Cathy.”
Veronica followed the direction Tania pointed with her stubby to where their friend was kissing a hunky footballer. “He’s devouring her.”
The guy broke the kiss and tugged Cathy further into a dim corner, only the pale flash of her white off-the-shoulder top visible in the crush.
“Looks like she’s the one about to get lucky.” Veronica, consumed with a spurt of envy, averted her gaze. “What’s holding Milas up?”
“He’s collecting a colleague on his way.” Tania’s eyes gleamed through the fan of her lush lashes.
Veronica distrusted that look. Was she being set up on yet another blind date? Glancing past her friend, she saw Milas. “And speak of the devil.”
Strong, tanned hands slipped around Tania’s waist, yanking her back against a solid muscular chest. She tipped her face up for his kiss.
Veronica offered Milas a mock salute with a slant of her beer bottle. “Oh, for cripes sake! Take her dancing instead of making out in my face.”
“Gladly.” Milas laughed, pulling Tania onto the postage stamp sized dance floor, leaving Veronica alone. She tugged at her short skirt to no avail; it still revealed too much leg.
At the end of the bar she caught sight of another couple doing a tonsil dance, lost in lust and booze. Veronica looked away, uncomfortable and feeling far too much like some sneaky voyeur.
If she had the guts, she’d be like Cathy and hook up with a hunky footballer and enjoy a night of hard, mind-blowing sex.
The surge of heat and sensation in her belly caught Veronica by surprise. Suddenly, she ached to feel a man’s hands on her body. It had been so very long, but could monkey sex dull her thoughts?
Make her forget this unforgettable day?
She studied the green bottle in her hand, drawing patterns in the condensation on the outside of the glass with a fingernail, swallowing a touch of melancholy.
The insidious pull of memory was too strong.
Once, she’d been told, today would become just another day. Ten years on it hadn’t happened.
She huffed out an impatient breath.
Someone solid and heavy knocked into her from behind. Beer sloshed all over her breasts and down the front of her top. With a muttered curse, she dabbed at her chest with a tissue.
A strong hand latched around her arm to steady her. She glanced up at the owner of that hand and the breath left her lungs in a resounding whoosh.
Bereft of words, she gazed into once familiar grey eyes. Eyes she’d never expected to see again in this lifetime. In this dimly lit bar, they gleamed silver.
Time crystallized into frozen stillness.
“You’re a hard woman to track down.” Leon Karvasis leaned close to her ear so he didn’t have to shout.
Veronica shivered as the heat of his breath stroked across skin still damp from spilled beer. His deep voice caressed every sensory nerve into shocked awareness. Blood careened through her body.
A black, collarless shirt, open at the neck, did little to disguise the muscles she knew it covered. He stood closer to her now than any man had in more than a decade. Heat radiated from him, warming the sudden chill that enveloped her.
The hairs on her arm stood to attention.
She slid off the bar stool, the movement bringing her closer to his chest. A ragged breath filled her senses with a heady mix of woodsy cologne, smoke and warm male musk, the pheromones radiating from him made her knees weak.
She swallowed and tried to find her voice. He’d always been big, but this close he was huge.
“What are you doing here?” The words scraped past vocal cords almost paralysed with shock.
“Looking for you.”
Someone jostled her and she lost her balance. He tried to steady her, but she fell against him anyway.
Time hung suspended.
It was impossible not to notice that this hard body so close to hers belonged to a male in his prime, or that he too, was equally aware of her.
For one brief, fantastic moment, she imagined that the past had never happened. But the fantasy faded as quickly as it surfaced. A fantasy in which the man standing oh-so-close to her was a stranger and she a woman he’d just met in a bar.
Veronica stepped back into grim reality.
The reality was that this man—and his wife—had ripped the heart from her body, without anaesthetic. And she was left to somehow get on with her life, without that vital organ.
“I need to talk to you, Ricki,” he said, grey eyes hooded and wary. “It’s impossible here. Can we go somewhere quieter?”
Fury surfaced, ripping away the veil of shock his presence triggered.
“My name’s Veronica,” she said through clenched teeth. “As for going anywhere with you, do I look fucking stupid?”
Once I was a fool and trusted this man. Never again.
“Wait, Ricki. It’s important.”
She tugged her arm free and shoved her way towards the exit, uncaring who she elbowed out of her way. A glance over her shoulder revealed Leon cutting a path through the crowd. Panicked, she darted down the dimly lit corridor where she’d seen Cathy vanish earlier and sought sanctuary in the women’s toilet. Surely Leon would not follow her here?
Finding a vacant stall, she entered, and rammed the lock home behind her. She slumped onto the seat, face buried in her hands as pain surged through her in torrents. She’d never known she could hurt this much.
What the hell was Leon Karvasis doing here in New Zealand?
And why seek her out?
Was he the colleague Milas Yeager had told Tania he was collecting?
Dear God what was she to do?
Hell! That certainly went well!
Leon watched the woman he’d travelled from Melbourne to find, disappear. He caught glimpses of her bright blouse as she pushed and shoved her way through the crush.
When one brawny reveller grabbed her arm, Leon’s hand fisted as he shouldered his way through the mass of bodies to reach her, but in a quicksilver move, she eluded the man and disappeared.
He pushed his way to the entrance and scanned the floodlit pavement, landscaped courtyards and the outdoor eating areas. Music and the noise spilled out of the open doors of the bar into the night. Light caught and splintered in the rippling water lapping at the harbour breakwater.
Shit! I’ve lost her.
He stood raking a hand through his hair.
He’d hung back while Milas greeted his lady, taking advantage of the crush to observe Ricki.
And discovered he’d been unable to drag his eyes from a killer pair of legs shown to advantage by the scrap of leather that passed as a skirt. His gaze had fastened on luscious, full creamy breasts and shoulder length hair.
Ricki was sleek, sculptured chic.
That she would have matured, he had expected. That she would have grown from a mousy little dab into a golden haired stunner came as a huge surprise. Had her hair always been that colour?
Bitterness roiled in his gut.
She’d obviously never once looked back. She’d dismissed the past and gone on with her life.
And I’ve banked everything on her caring enough to help.
“Who the hell are you? And what did you do to Veronica?” The feisty redhead Milas had been dancing with and holding as close as a second skin shook his arm, long fingernails digging into his flesh.
“Hey steady on, Tania.” Milas slipped a muscular arm around the infuriated redhead’s waist. “Leon’s with me.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass if he’s with you or arrived here with Martian outriders.” She rounded on Milas. “I want to know what the hell he did to Veronica.”
Leon held both hands up in a gesture of surrender as he took a step back from the irate woman. “All I did was say hello.”
If he thought this would satisfy her he was mistaken. Her eyes flashed fire.
“Tonight maybe. In the past never.”
“My business is with Veronica, not you.” Leon’s eyes narrowed as he watched Ricki’s friend warily. He’d never expected her to have such a staunch ally.
He looked past Tania and saw Ricki emerge from the nightclub. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice and allow her to evade him.
He knew the moment she saw him standing there with Milas and her spitfire friend. Her spine stiffened, chin lifted at a haughty angle, every line of her body stiff with repudiation, but this time she didn’t run.
Long, long legs crossed the cobblestones in ground eating strides, every step another spike of doom in his hopes. That excuse for a skirt coupled with heels high enough to give any other woman a nosebleed, set off those magnificent legs.
He had no business noticing her stunning, female attributes, nor was he thrilled when his near-dead libido stood to attention and shouted; Hello? Remember me?
He wasn’t quite dead. Yet.
“You have one hell of a nerve, Karvasis,” she said, enough venom in her voice to kill at ten paces. “What swamp did you crawl out from?”
Thank God she’s not a snake.
A grin almost escaped at the inconsequential thought. That would be a mistake, a big, big mistake.
Arriving without warning had been the wisest choice. Had this fire-breathing virago known of his intention she would have vanished. He would have wasted valuable time looking for her. And time was something he could not afford to waste.
It was exceedingly precious.
“Are you muddling me with my brother again, Ricki?” If he thought the question would throw her, he was left in no doubt he’d failed.
“Don’t call me that.” She stepped right into his face.
If looks could kill, he’d be dead meat. He couldn’t afford to let her get the upper hand.
“Then what name would you like me to call you? Which one of many, would suit you best?”
It was dirty and underhand, but the subtle threat made her outrage sputter and die. He caught the cornered glance she directed at the redhead and Milas.
So the best friend doesn’t know about me? Or Jordan?
Leon didn’t know whether that was a good omen or not.
“What do you want?” Veronica demanded, her tone and attitude far less belligerent.
“I need to talk to you. Will you be home in the morning?”
“Maybe, but then again maybe not?”
He tamped down anger at her deliberate challenge. He knew she was well within her rights to refuse. She had few reasons to feel any kindness toward his family.
“I’ll call on you at nine thirty,” he said quietly. “Be there, Veronica.”
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the redhead bristle and Milas lay a restraining hand on her arm. Guilt laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. Impatiently, he dismissed it. He could not allow guilt, sentiment or even fair play to railroad him. He didn’t like it and Veronica would resent it, but he would do what he had to.
Jordan’s life depended on it.
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