Nicola Marsh.

Wife and Mother Wanted






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 for the latest news of her books.

Found: His Family #1836

Wife and Mother Wanted
Nicola Marsh


www.millsandboon.co.uk

To the Sirens, for their friendship, support and cyber hugs

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

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

EPILOGUE

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.





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