The Single Dad's Patchwork FamilyŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďI donít want to do something that will disrupt my daughterís life. I donít want to do anything that might get complicated.Ē
For a moment Regan stared. Was Chase still talking about work? Or did he mean heróthem?
He caressed her cheek, smoothing his thumb lightly across the skin. A soft gasp escaped her throat when he bent his head and kissed her other cheek.
Slowly he lowered his gaze to her lips, and his warm brown eyes became intent.
Then he pulled back and stared at her. She had a moment of confused hope before reality came crashing in.
Kissing him was a bad idea. A very bad idea.
Sheíd been attracted to Chase since theyíd met, she realized now. Sheíd been bewildered by the feeling.
Hadnít accepted it. But it had been there all along.
Now it seemed that Chase might have been fighting the same feelings.
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The Single Dadís Patchwork Family
Like many authors, Claire Baxter tried several careers before finding the one she really wanted. Sheís worked as a PA, a translator (French), a public relations consultant and a corporate communications manager. She took a break from corporate communications to complete a degree in journalism and, more importantly, to find out whether she could write a romance novelóa childhood dream. Now she canít stop writing romance. Nor does she plan to give up her fabulous lifestyle for anything. While Claire grew up in Warwickshire, England, she now lives in the beautiful city of Adelaide in South Australia, with her husband, two sons and two dogs. When sheís not writing, sheís either reading or swimming in her backyard poolóanother childhood dreamóor even reading in the pool. She hasnít tried writing in the pool yet, but it could happen. Claire loves to hear from readers. If youíd like to contact her, please visit www.clairebaxter.com.
In memory of my dad (1924Ė2002)
REGAN JANTZ took a flute of champagne from a circulating waiter, then made her way to an alcove from where she scanned the mix of Japanese businessmen and local industry representatives.
ĎYou look like you donít want to be here.í
Startled, she swung towards the deep male voice.
Its owner smiled down at her. Being smiled down on wasnít exactly a first but it was unusual enough to make Regan give him more than a cursory glance. She hadnít realised there was someone already occupying the vantage point sheíd chosen.
She pasted a professional smile on her face and at the same time took in the expensive suit, confident stance and clean-cut lines of the manís face. ĎIím sorry?í
He leaned forward and spoke softly. ĎYou donít look as if youíre enjoying yourself.í
ĎOh.í Regan stepped back. He might be tall and good-looking and have a nice gentle voice, but she didnít know who he was.
She saw understanding in his face and, for an instant, wished she could undo the automatic reflex. He was only trying to be friendly after all.
ĎIíve only just got here,í she said in answer to his remark. ĎI was running late.í
Glancing at her watch, she said, ĎIím hoping it wonít go on too long.í She had to get home before her sons went to bed. ĎBut Iím sure Iíll enjoy it,í she finished with a smile, just in case the handsome stranger had an involvement in the eventís planning.
He took a sip from his glass and surveyed the guests filing into the function room. After a brief silence, he said, ĎDo you think itís a good ideaóthe tourist trail?í
ĎOh, yes, I do.í The enthusiasm in her tone was genuine.
The purpose of the cocktail party was to launch a new initiative of the state governmentís tourism departmentópackaging South Australiaís Eyre Peninsula into an activity-filled holiday experience aimed specifically at Japanese tourists and marketed to the Japanese travel industry.
ĎI think itís a great idea,í she said and not just because he might have been instrumental in developing the concept.
She paused, tempted to leave it at that, but something about the keen interest in his face made her go on. Most people at these events made polite small talk and avoided showing real interest in anything.
ĎIím not completely convinced that I should be getting involved with it, though.í
ĎWhy not? Whatís your business?í
ĎI run a tuna farm.í She sipped her champagne, studying his eyes as she spoke. He had kind brown onesónot as dark as her Italian ex-husbandís eyes, which both her children had inherited, but a warm reddish brown. Like the rich red-gum honey that her son Cory loved on his toast fingers.
ĎI can see why tourists would want to visit the seahorse farm,í she went on. ĎItís a real novelty. And at the oyster farm they can sample the product, which is a treat, but when they come to visit us, well, all theyíll get to do is ride out to the pontoon in a boat and see the fish in captivity. And hear us talk about the process. It doesnít compare, does it?í
ĎIím sure youíll make it interesting.í
She shrugged. She wasnít so sure that was possible, but sheíd do her best, of course. ĎSo, what about you? Why are you here?í
ĎIím here on behalf of friends. They run trips for tourists at Leo Bay, taking them out to swim with the sea lions.í
She nodded, smiling. ĎThe trailís a perfect opportunity for them. They couldnít make it tonight?í
He lowered his voice. ĎI owed them a favour. They donít like functions like this.í
ĎAnd you do?í
He gave a slight grimace. ĎNo. Thatís why I was hoping Iíd found a kindred spirit when I saw you slinking over here.í
ĎWell, I admit itís not my favourite part of the job, but it has to be done.í
He gave her a rueful smile. ĎIím out of practice.í
ĎSmall talk. With adults.í
The age lines around his eyes and mouth were just what his face needed to give it definition, she decided. Men had an unfair advantage when it came to such things.
Two vertical lines above the bridge of his nose told her heíd spent a lot of time frowningóor deep in thought. She could relate to that.
His hair too was a lighter, warmer brown than Giacomoís. Its casual style didnít go with the sharp image he presented in all other respects.
Overall, he was the most attractive man sheíd seen in a long time. Suddenly, she realised heíd stopped talking and she was still staring.
Embarrassed, she glanced away. ĎUm, my main reason for coming tonight was to practise my Japanese,í she said. ĎSo Iíd better go and mingle.í
ĎIt was good to meet you. Iím Chase, by the way.í He held out a hand. ĎChase Mattner.í
She shook hands with men all the time; it was a necessary part of her business, and sheíd experienced all sorts of handshakes from the bone-crunching squeeze to the wet lettuce leaf effect. Sliding her hand into Chase Mattnerís, however, wasÖdifferent.
For a split second she enjoyed the warm strength of his hand enfolding hers. Enjoyed the strange mixture of comfort and excitement that filled her.
But that was a ridiculous reaction. She didnít have time to go around enjoying handshakes and, besides, someone so attractive couldnít possibly be unattached.
Not that she wanted to know.
ĎRegan Jantz,í she said.
ĎMaybe weíll bump into each other again later.í The gleam in his eyes told her he hoped they would.
With a nod, she walked away from him. It was only then that she registered heíd said something about a lack of adult conversation. So he had children. Sheíd known someone so attractive couldnít be unattached. Not that it mattered. She recognised a local hotel owner and crossed the room to talk to her.
Chase watched Reganís graceful progress across the room, then looked for a waiter. There was a time when heíd have been a sucker for a blue-eyed brunette, especially one as tall and striking as Regan Jantz. But that time had long gone. Heíd stopped noticing women of any type once heíd married Larissa. And since then, with everything heíd been throughólosing Larissa and learning through trial and error how to raise their child aloneóheíd lost the urge to notice.
Regan was lovely, though. He swapped his empty glass for a fresh one and glanced across the room to where sheíd settled into a discussion with one of the overseas guests. Her beauty was in her bone structure and sheíd never lose it. She was one of those women whoíd become even more beautiful as she aged.
As she dipped her head to hear what the man was saying, her straight dark hair hid her face but he clearly remembered the curve of her cheek, her bright, intelligent eyes. So bright and so blue heíd thought she must be wearing coloured contacts.
Women did that nowadays, heíd heard. But once heíd started talking to her, heíd decided there was nothing fake about Regan Jantzónot the hint of auburn in her dark brown hair, not the length of her eyelashes, not even the soft pink of her lips. She was as straightforward as they came and for a moment thereÖ
No. Not attracted. He couldnít have been attracted to her. It had been a slight tug of recognition, that was all. Recognition of the fact that she was the type of woman he could have been attracted to, if things had been different. Very different. In another life.
It was too soon to even say he liked Regan but instinct told him he could like her given the chance. She reminded him of Jan in an obscure way and he valued Janís friendship. Jan and her husband Mike were the reason he was here tonight. In a suit.
With a shrug, he shoved his free hand into the pocket of his trousers, pushing back the jacket. He wasnít just out of practice at small talk, he was out of the habit of wearing suits and didnít even know why he kept them. Theyíd be out of style by the time he needed them for work again. He couldnít see himself returning to working life while Phoebe was still young enough to need him and, as she was about to turn four, that day wasnít even close.
Dragging his gaze away from Regan but reluctant to join in the general chatter, he turned to the window. The function room overlooked the Port Lincoln foreshore and, as it was still early evening, he had a panoramic view of the spectacular blue waters of Boston Bay, from the tip of Port Lincoln National Park to Point Boston. The island-dotted bay was more than three times the size of Sydney Harbour but without the big city on its shoresóa fact that he guessed suited the fifteen thousand inhabitants of Australiaís richest town just fine.
Port Lincoln had more millionaires per capita than any other town or city in Australia. Many of the local tuna farmers had made a packet from selling sashimi to the Japanese. He wondered if Regan was one of them.
She didnít look like a millionaire, but then he, more than anyone, should know that looks could be deceptive. His own parents were rich but they spent most of their time dressed as a pair of backpackers and avoiding the luxuries they could well afford.
Theyíd made it clear he was welcome to their money but could expect nothing else from them, not even their time. He didnít need their money; he had enough of his own. But he could have done with their support after Larissaís death, would have been grateful for their help with Phoebe. Theyíd been somewhere in Africa at the time and he hadnít seen them since.
Stifling a sigh, he warned himself not to let his thoughts go there now. He drained his glass and forced himself to face the room again. He really should follow Reganís example and mingle. Having made the trip, he owed it to Jan and Mike to represent them well.
An hour or so later, Regan found herself in the same group as Chase although they were involved in separate conversations. She wondered whether heíd engineered the coincidence. When the speeches started and all heads turned towards the small stage, he moved to her side and she tried not to feel pleased, but her nerve-endings twitched and took note of his presence.
ĎI think Iíve spoken to everybody in the room,í he said in a low voice. ĎWhat about you? Did you get plenty of practice?í
She turned to look into his face. Hunger gripped her stomach as she did so. At least, she hoped it was hunger. If not, it was a completely inappropriate reaction. ĎPractice?í
Sheíd meant to whisper, but she hadnít meant to sound breathless. She took in a deep breathówhich didnít help since all it did was fill her nose with the clean masculine scent of Chase Mattner.
There was something about this man that threw her off her game and she didnít like it. Well, maybe she did like it, but she shouldnít.
The volume of the crowd noise had dropped further and his warm breath brushed her ear as he leaned close to whisper. ĎJapanese.í
ĎOh, yes. I did,í she whispered back.
He nodded, then looked towards the front of the room while she continued to study his profile, his tanned cheek, the strong line of his jaw. His lips parted slightly as he gave all his attention to the speaker. And then he laughed.
Vaguely aware of the sound of general laughter around her, she was still watching as he turned to share the joke with her, his eyes sparkling, deep creases around themÖ
He frowned. ĎAre you okay?í
His face blurred. She tried to nod but, instead of her head, it was the room that moved. It spun one way, then the other. ĎI feelÖa bitÖdizzy.í
Within minutes she was sitting at a table in the bar sipping iced water. Sheíd been awareóall too awareóof his arm supporting her on the way there, but sheíd been too woozy to object. Not that sheíd wanted to. Which confused her.
She rolled her eyes. ĎIím fine. I donít know what happened.í
ĎYouíre not the fainting type, then?í
ĎGod, no!í She was as far from the fainting type as it was possible to be. ĎIíve never done that before.í
ĎWell, it was pretty warm in there. Lots of bodies.í
ĎYes.í And sheíd only been aware of one. The one standing next to her. She took another sip from her glass and felt the cool water slide down her throat. She was warm, but not warm enough to explain what had just happened.
She looked up when he hesitated. ĎNot what?í
ĎYouíre not pregnant?í
He nodded. ĎIt was just a thought.í His face clouded. ĎI remember my wife fainting in the first few weeks of her pregnancy.í
She breathed in and out, very slowly. Sheíd guessed he wasnít unattached so why did the mention of his wife slice through her? It wasnít as if she cared.
ĎIím definitely not pregnant.í
ĎWhat about food? Did you eat any of the finger food in there?í He gestured towards the function room theyíd left.
ĎNo. I never do eat at these things. Iím always too worried Iíll get something stuck in my teeth.í
After a brief burst of laughter he stilled, watching her face. ĎYouíre serious, arenít you?í
She nodded. She couldnít believe sheíd said it out loud. What was it about this man that made her forget who she was? First she was fainting, then she was telling him her private thoughts. She was usually much better behaved.
ĎWhen did you last eat, then?í
She frowned, thinking. ĎI had breakfast.í
ĎNothing since then?í
ĎI donít think so.í
ĎYou donít remember?í
ĎItís been a busy day.í She saw him look her over. She knew she was thin, but not skinny enough to cause the frown on his face.
ĎI do eat. Itís just that Iíve been busy.í
ĎHave dinner with me.í
It didnít sound like a question.
ĎI canít. I have to get home. Damn.í She stared at her watch. It was later than sheíd thought. On the rare occasions she couldnít be home in time to tuck her children into bed, she always made a point of phoning them to say goodnight. But tonight sheíd forgotten.
ĎYes. My children will be asleep by now.í
She fervently believed that all children needed to know they were loved and wanted, but when theyíd already been rejected by one of the people who was supposed to love them unconditionally it was even more important to make the effort to let them know she was thinking about them. But that was the problemóshe hadnít been thinking about them.
The truth made her chest heavy with guilt and she sucked in her bottom lip. She was normally so careful about things like this. She knew from experience how it felt to be forgotten by a parent. She didnít claim to be the worldís best mother, but she did try to make up for being the only parent the boys had. She really tried.
ĎIs your husband with them?í
Her head jerked up. ĎNo. My mother.í
His eyebrows rose in a silent question.
ĎIím divorced. My mother lives with us.í Her guilt eased a fraction. It wasnít as if they were entirely alone. Their grandmother was with them and, as Regan looked at her watch again, she knew that her boys would be fast asleep by now.
But this was the first time sheíd forgotten to call them. The knot in her stomach wound tight again.
ĎWe have something in common.í He smiled. ĎWeíre both single parents.í
Her stomach flipped. He was unattached.
But she shouldnít care. She didnít needóor wantóa man. Her jaw hurt. Sheíd been clenching it, she realised, and that was doing her no good at all. She sighed and lifted her eyes to meet Chaseís understanding ones. ĎIím too late to say goodnight to my sons,í she said. ĎItís the first time I havenít done it.í
He grimaced in sympathy. ĎIím sure theyíll understand. Kids can be very forgiving. How old are they?í
ĎWillís seven and Cory is five.í
ĎAnd I have a daughter whoís nearly four.í His face softened. ĎPhoebe.í
She guessed he hadnít forgotten to phone home.
He got to his feet. ĎIíd better reserve a table for us in the restaurant before they fill up.í
She opened her mouth to object, but the words wouldnít come out. Because at that moment she couldnít think of a good reason not to have dinner with him.
She nodded and watched him walk across the bar. For once sheíd let someone else take the decision out of her hands, allowed someone else to take control. It felt weird, but she was a little tired of being the one who everybody came to for the answer.
Between her employees, her children and her extended familyÖsometimesÖit was all too much.
A touch on her shoulder made her jerk, her eyes wide.
ĎRegan?í Chase crouched beside the chair. ĎSorry to make you jump. I couldnít get your attention. Are you sure youíre feeling okay now?í
ĎYes. I was justÖthinking.í
He smiled and her stomach went into freefall. Oh, boy, she must be much hungrier than sheíd thought.
ĎItís a bad habit. Iím always being told I do too much of it.í He nodded towards the restaurant. ĎThey have a table ready for us now.í
He rose to his feet and held out a hand. She looked at it. If she took it, would he think she was interested in him in a romantic way? Because she wasnít.
He dropped his hand and stood back, giving her space. Part of her was glad. But, as she bent to retrieve her handbag from the floor, another part wished sheíd just taken his hand. Now heíd think she was an uptight, unfriendly woman who didnít know how to act around a man.
It wasnít true but, after the experience sheíd had with her ex-husband, the last thing she needed was to feel attracted to this man. Or any man.
At their table, Regan accepted a menu from the waiter with a smile. She selected the King George Whiting, a local speciality popular with tourists and for good reason. Chase ordered the same, then took the menu from her and handed it to the waiter, pushing the basket of bread rolls across the table at the same time.
ĎHere, have some bread while weíre waiting for the fish. You need to get something inside you before you keel over again.í
She groaned and took a bread roll. ĎI often miss lunch but Iíve never felt dizzy before. I donít think thatís the reason.í
ĎCan you think of another one?í
She shook her head.
ĎMaybe you should get checked over? Go to the doctor?í
ĎNo.í She flapped a hand. ĎTotal overreaction. Itíll probably never happen again.í As if sheíd waste her precious time in a doctorís surgery when there was nothing at all wrong with her.
She brightened. ĎI know what it wasÖI had a glass of champagne on an empty stomach and I donít often drink.í
ĎThat would do it.í He nodded and took a bread roll himself. ĎHow long have you been in tuna farming?í
ĎMy family has been in the industry for a while. My father started the business when the quotas were cut in the late eighties. His father was a tuna boat owner and Dad inherited the boat when he died but he saw that the future of the industry was in farming, not fishing.íŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ