Claire Baxter.

The Single Dad's Patchwork Family






I dont want to do something that will disrupt my daughters life. I dont want to do anything that might get complicated.

For a moment Regan stared. Was Chase still talking about work? Or did he mean herthem?

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.

Shed been attracted to Chase since theyd met, she realized now. Shed been bewildered by the feeling.

Hadnt accepted it. But it had been there all along.

Now it seemed that Chase might have been fighting the same feelings.

If youre looking for fresh, sparkling and
warmly emotional stories, curl up and relax with a Claire Baxter book today!

Claire is a new Australian author who writes

feel-good, contemporary romances. She will sweep you away to gorgeous settings where youll meet lovable characters.

Claire Baxter makes a noteworthy debut with Falling for the Frenchman, a sweet, sensual and sometimes funny reunion tale.

Romantic Times BOOKreviews

Claire Baxters Best FriendFuture Wife combines a deceptively simple plot with fabulous, multi-faceted characters. Its pure magic.

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Claire Baxter is an author who pens stories about characters that have a history, but its a history that will leave you spellbound.

www.CataRomance.com

Claire Baxter
The Single Dads Patchwork Family


Like many authors, Claire Baxter tried several careers before finding the one she really wanted. Shes 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 novela childhood dream. Now she cant 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 shes not writing, shes either reading or swimming in her backyard poolanother childhood dreamor even reading in the pool. She hasnt tried writing in the pool yet, but it could happen. Claire loves to hear from readers. If youd like to contact her, please visit www.clairebaxter.com.

In memory of my dad (19242002)

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

EPILOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

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.

You look like you dont want to be here.

Startled, she swung towards the deep male voice.

Its owner smiled down at her. Being smiled down on wasnt exactly a first but it was unusual enough to make Regan give him more than a cursory glance. She hadnt realised there was someone already occupying the vantage point shed 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 mans face. Im sorry?

He leaned forward and spoke softly. You dont look as if youre enjoying yourself.

Oh. Regan stepped back. He might be tall and good-looking and have a nice gentle voice, but she didnt 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.

Ive only just got here, she said in answer to his remark. I was running late.

Glancing at her watch, she said, Im hoping it wont go on too long. She had to get home before her sons went to bed. But Im sure Ill enjoy it, she finished with a smile, just in case the handsome stranger had an involvement in the events planning.

He took a sip from his glass and surveyed the guests filing into the function room. After a brief silence, he said, Do you think its a good ideathe tourist trail?

Oh, yes, I do. The enthusiasm in her tone was genuine.

The purpose of the cocktail party was to launch a new initiative of the state governments tourism departmentpackaging South Australias Eyre Peninsula into an activity-filled holiday experience aimed specifically at Japanese tourists and marketed to the Japanese travel industry.

I think its a great idea, 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.

Im not completely convinced that I should be getting involved with it, though.

Why not? Whats your business?

I run a tuna farm. She sipped her champagne, studying his eyes as she spoke. He had kind brown onesnot as dark as her Italian ex-husbands 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.

I can see why tourists would want to visit the seahorse farm, she went on. Its 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 theyll 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 doesnt compare, does it?

Im sure youll make it interesting.

She shrugged. She wasnt so sure that was possible, but shed do her best, of course. So, what about you? Why are you here?

Im here on behalf of friends. They run trips for tourists at Leo Bay, taking them out to swim with the sea lions.

She nodded, smiling. The trails a perfect opportunity for them. They couldnt make it tonight?

He lowered his voice. I owed them a favour. They dont like functions like this.

And you do?

He gave a slight grimace. No. Thats why I was hoping Id found a kindred spirit when I saw you slinking over here.

Well, I admit its not my favourite part of the job, but it has to be done.

He gave her a rueful smile. Im out of practice.

At what?

Small talk. With adults.

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 hed spent a lot of time frowningor deep in thought. She could relate to that.

His hair too was a lighter, warmer brown than Giacomos. Its casual style didnt go with the sharp image he presented in all other respects.

Overall, he was the most attractive man shed seen in a long time. Suddenly, she realised hed stopped talking and she was still staring.

Embarrassed, she glanced away. Um, my main reason for coming tonight was to practise my Japanese, she said. So Id better go and mingle.

It was good to meet you. Im Chase, by the way. He held out a hand. Chase Mattner.

She shook hands with men all the time; it was a necessary part of her business, and shed experienced all sorts of handshakes from the bone-crunching squeeze to the wet lettuce leaf effect. Sliding her hand into Chase Mattners, however, wasdifferent.

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 didnt have time to go around enjoying handshakes and, besides, someone so attractive couldnt possibly be unattached.

Not that she wanted to know.

Regan Jantz, she said.

Maybe well bump into each other again later. 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 hed said something about a lack of adult conversation. So he had children. Shed known someone so attractive couldnt be unattached. Not that it mattered. She recognised a local hotel owner and crossed the room to talk to her.

Chase watched Regans graceful progress across the room, then looked for a waiter. There was a time when hed have been a sucker for a blue-eyed brunette, especially one as tall and striking as Regan Jantz. But that time had long gone. Hed stopped noticing women of any type once hed married Larissa. And since then, with everything hed been throughlosing Larissa and learning through trial and error how to raise their child alonehed 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 shed settled into a discussion with one of the overseas guests. Her beauty was in her bone structure and shed never lose it. She was one of those women whod 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 hed thought she must be wearing coloured contacts.

Women did that nowadays, hed heard. But once hed started talking to her, hed decided there was nothing fake about Regan Jantznot 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 there

No. Not attracted. He couldnt 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 Jans 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 wasnt just out of practice at small talk, he was out of the habit of wearing suits and didnt even know why he kept them. Theyd be out of style by the time he needed them for work again. He couldnt 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 wasnt 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 shoresa fact that he guessed suited the fifteen thousand inhabitants of Australias 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 didnt 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.

Theyd made it clear he was welcome to their money but could expect nothing else from them, not even their time. He didnt need their money; he had enough of his own. But he could have done with their support after Larissas death, would have been grateful for their help with Phoebe. Theyd been somewhere in Africa at the time and he hadnt 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 Regans 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 hed 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.

I think Ive spoken to everybody in the room, he said in a low voice. What about you? Did you get plenty of practice?

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. Practice?

Shed meant to whisper, but she hadnt meant to sound breathless. She took in a deep breathwhich didnt 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 didnt like it. Well, maybe she did like it, but she shouldnt.

The volume of the crowd noise had dropped further and his warm breath brushed her ear as he leaned close to whisper. Japanese.

Oh, yes. I did, 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 them

He frowned. Are you okay?

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. I feela bitdizzy.

Within minutes she was sitting at a table in the bar sipping iced water. Shed been awareall too awareof his arm supporting her on the way there, but shed been too woozy to object. Not that shed wanted to. Which confused her.

Feeling better?

She rolled her eyes. Im fine. I dont know what happened.

Youre not the fainting type, then?

God, no! She was as far from the fainting type as it was possible to be. Ive never done that before.

Well, it was pretty warm in there. Lots of bodies.

Yes. And shed 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.

Youre not

She looked up when he hesitated. Not what?

Youre not pregnant?

No!

He nodded. It was just a thought. His face clouded. I remember my wife fainting in the first few weeks of her pregnancy.

She breathed in and out, very slowly. Shed guessed he wasnt unattached so why did the mention of his wife slice through her? It wasnt as if she cared.

Im definitely not pregnant.

What about food? Did you eat any of the finger food in there? He gestured towards the function room theyd left.

No. I never do eat at these things. Im always too worried Ill get something stuck in my teeth.

After a brief burst of laughter he stilled, watching her face. Youre serious, arent you?

She nodded. She couldnt believe shed 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.

When did you last eat, then?

She frowned, thinking. I had breakfast.

Nothing since then?

I dont think so.

You dont remember?

Its been a busy day. She saw him look her over. She knew she was thin, but not skinny enough to cause the frown on his face.

I do eat. Its just that Ive been busy.

Have dinner with me.

It didnt sound like a question.

I cant. I have to get home. Damn. She stared at her watch. It was later than shed thought. On the rare occasions she couldnt be home in time to tuck her children into bed, she always made a point of phoning them to say goodnight. But tonight shed forgotten.

Problem?

Yes. My children will be asleep by now.

She fervently believed that all children needed to know they were loved and wanted, but when theyd 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 problemshe hadnt 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 didnt claim to be the worlds best mother, but she did try to make up for being the only parent the boys had. She really tried.

Is your husband with them?

Her head jerked up. No. My mother.

His eyebrows rose in a silent question.

Im divorced. My mother lives with us. Her guilt eased a fraction. It wasnt 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 shed forgotten to call them. The knot in her stomach wound tight again.

We have something in common. He smiled. Were both single parents.

Her stomach flipped. He was unattached.

But she shouldnt care. She didnt needor wanta man. Her jaw hurt. Shed been clenching it, she realised, and that was doing her no good at all. She sighed and lifted her eyes to meet Chases understanding ones. Im too late to say goodnight to my sons, she said. Its the first time I havent done it.

He grimaced in sympathy. Im sure theyll understand. Kids can be very forgiving. How old are they?

Wills seven and Cory is five.

And I have a daughter whos nearly four. His face softened. Phoebe.

She guessed he hadnt forgotten to phone home.

He got to his feet. Id better reserve a table for us in the restaurant before they fill up.

She opened her mouth to object, but the words wouldnt come out. Because at that moment she couldnt think of a good reason not to have dinner with him.

She nodded and watched him walk across the bar. For once shed 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 familysometimesit was all too much.

A touch on her shoulder made her jerk, her eyes wide.

Regan? Chase crouched beside the chair. Sorry to make you jump. I couldnt get your attention. Are you sure youre feeling okay now?

Yes. I was justthinking.

He smiled and her stomach went into freefall. Oh, boy, she must be much hungrier than shed thought.

Its a bad habit. Im always being told I do too much of it. He nodded towards the restaurant. They have a table ready for us now.

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 wasnt.

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 shed just taken his hand. Now hed think she was an uptight, unfriendly woman who didnt know how to act around a man.

It wasnt true but, after the experience shed 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.

Here, have some bread while were waiting for the fish. You need to get something inside you before you keel over again.

She groaned and took a bread roll. I often miss lunch but Ive never felt dizzy before. I dont think thats the reason.

Can you think of another one?

She shook her head.

Maybe you should get checked over? Go to the doctor?

No. She flapped a hand. Total overreaction. Itll probably never happen again. As if shed waste her precious time in a doctors surgery when there was nothing at all wrong with her.

She brightened. I know what it wasI had a glass of champagne on an empty stomach and I dont often drink.

That would do it. He nodded and took a bread roll himself. How long have you been in tuna farming?

My 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.





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