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by Serenity Woods
Description: When lust turns to love, it's one fire he can't extinguish? Merle Cameron's not looking for love. Between her job as a university lecturer and caring for a mother recovering from breast cancer, she has no room in her schedule for a demanding relationship. While visiting her sister in New Zealand, however, she's happy to indulge in some hot holiday sex with kind, hunky firefighter Neon Carter. After all, they live on opposite sides of the world. There's no chance things will turn serious. Neon Carter is a catch. At least, that's what the ladies apparently think. All they seem to want is a quick trip down the aisle, but Neon's in no rush to settle down. Light-hearted summer loving with a sexy blonde is something different, though, and Neon's happy to offer his services until Merle has to return to England. The weather's hot, the sex even hotter. But when it's time for Merle to go home, they both realize they're in deeper than they thought. And there's no solution that won't break someone's heart. Warning: Please do not read if you are allergic to any of the following: love at first sight, one-night stands in a one-man tent, rugby hakas, firemen rescuing children, and rough caveman sex guaranteed to put hairs on your chest. May contain nuts.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: December 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [298 KB]
Reading time: 194-272 min.
"Every woman over the age of twenty-five suffers from tinnitus."
Having made this profound statement, Neon Carter heaved a sigh and stretched out on the honey-coloured sand of New Zealand's Ninety-Mile Beach, letting the breeze from the Tasman Sea wash over him and provide some relief from the scorching December sun.
Lying next to him, his cousin Jake raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare and stared at him, clearly confused. "Eh?"
"Tinnitus. Ringing in the ears. Wedding bells?"
"That sounds like a quote from an old black-and-white fifties comedy."
"That's because it is a quote from an old black-and-white fifties comedy. Don't knock the classics."
Jake frowned. "Don't you think you're generalising a bit?"
Neon sighed again, covering his face with an arm, wishing he had his sunglasses. "I guess. It just seems that with every woman I've been out with recently, we get to the third date and they start discussing the colour of the bridesmaids' dresses."
Jake raised an eyebrow. "Was Ella pressing you, then? Bree told me you split up with her."
Neon looked over at him, exasperated. "We dated for three weeks and she wanted her own space in the wardrobe. I mean, she'd not even been to the house."
"Well, of course not. God forbid you actually let a female member of the species onto that hallowed ground."
Neon frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." Jake grinned. "I guess they think you're a catch. I have no idea why."
Jake laughed. He studied his cousin thoughtfully. "I suppose you can't blame them for wanting to snare you. You have your own house, the sort of job women fantasise about and you're not bad looking."
"Thank you for that effusive compliment." Neon shifted uncomfortably in the hot sand and sat up to look longingly at the sea. "Are we going back in? I'm roasting like a Christmas turkey here. Everyone on the beach will be getting out their cranberry sauce."
"Dude, give a guy a break--my arms are like noodles. We've been surfing nonstop for two hours."
"I thought being a newlywed built up your stamina."
Jake grimaced. "Actually, I'm having trouble keeping up with her. She's like a kid with a new Barbie doll for Christmas--she wants to play with me all the time." Then he grinned. "There are some advantages to being married."
"Hmm." Neon fell silent and let his gaze drift to the boats on the horizon.
He wasn't opposed to marriage. Quite the opposite, in fact. And Jake's wife certainly hadn't put him off the concept. Bree Cameron--well, Bree Warren now--had a great figure, a sharp brain, a quick wit and an impish smile, and Jake hadn't batted an eyelid before asking her to marry him. Okay, so she wasn't blonde, which was fairly high up on Neon's list of "Top five qualities required in the ideal wife", but he envied his cousin more than he cared to admit. He'd be happy to settle down with the right woman and get married, have kids, the whole package deal, some day. But not yet, and certainly not with a woman he'd only been dating for three weeks. It took months, maybe even years, to make sure you were compatible for life--didn't it?
He looked over at Jake. "How long had you known Bree before you realised you wanted to marry her?"
Jake laid an arm across his eyes. "About thirty minutes. Give or take." Neon swore at him, and Jake shrugged. "I'm serious. You'll understand one day. You'll turn around and see her--the one woman you're meant to be with--and she'll knock you for six straight off the bat."
"No cricket analogies, Jake, you know I hate the game."
"Don't change the subject."
Neon sighed. "Come on, what you've got is unusual. It doesn't happen to everyone."
"More than you think. It's called falling in love, and it exists--why else are there so many songs written about it? You may have escaped Cupid's clutches so far, but he's got his arrow set on you, my friend. And don't come crying to me when you beg her to marry you and she accuses you of having tinnitus."
Neon laughed. "Fair enough. I'll be happy to step in front of his bow when the time comes along. But until Ms. Right turns up, what do I do? I could understand it if I'd been going out with a girl for a couple of years and she was getting twitchy, but three weeks? I feel so bad when I back off and they get all upset."
Jake shrugged. "You could try not dating any more women until you find her."
Neon frowned. "How will I find her if I'm not dating anyone?"
"I told you, you'll know as soon as you set eyes on her. Just abstain from sex until then."
"You're kidding me? I might not meet her till I'm fifty."
"Jake, I'm not staying celibate for the next twenty-three years." Neon sighed. "I happen to like sex. What I need to do is find a girl who likes it as much as I do but who's not booking the church as soon as I take her out to dinner."
Jake laughed. "Sounds like you're in need of a holiday romance."
"Oh yeah." Neon tipped his face up to the sun. "Hot sex and no worries about getting serious. Sounds ideal." He glanced across at his cousin. "Hey, wait a minute. Isn't your sister-in-law arriving this afternoon? Strange name like Pearl or Twirl or something?"
Jake looked at him warily. "Her name's Merle, and you can forget about making a move on her. Bree would kill me if she thought I was setting her up with you."
"What's Bree got against me? I thought she liked me?"
"She does like you--she just wouldn't want Mr. Anti-Commitment anywhere near her sister."
Neon frowned. "I'm not anti-commitment. I'm anti-three-week-commitment."
Jake sighed. "It doesn't matter. Merle's a regular bluestocking, not your type at all."
"Hold on, where are you from, 1952? Who the hell uses the term 'bluestocking' anymore?"
"It fits Merle perfectly," said Jake wryly. "She's a university lecturer in archaeology, of all things, elegant, cool and as British as cucumber sandwiches. And there's absolutely no way she'd ever consider a holiday romance, so you can wipe that look off your face."
"I haven't got a look on my face."
"Yes, you have, you've got that hmm, sounds like a challenge look."
Neon grinned. "Well, hmm, it sounds like a challenge."
Jake sat up, the sand sticking to his wet skin, making it look like a sheet of sandpaper. "Seriously, she's only in New Zealand for two weeks. She works really hard, and she looks after Bree's mum--she just needs to relax while she's here."
"Hey, I'm only thinking of the young lady. What better way is there to relax than to have wild holiday sex?" Neon laughed at the look on Jake's face. "It's all right, I won't make a move on her, I promise. But can I ask you one thing--if my natural charm works its magic and she propositions me, can I say yes?"
Jake smiled. "Believe me, I know Merle. There's absolutely no way she'd ever sleep with anyone without dating them for six months first. She's not exactly what you'd call impulsive."
"She's not met me yet." Neon winked at him. "I have animal magnetism."
"If that animal's a skunk, yeah."
Neon pretended to look offended. "A hundred bucks says she's in love with me before the end of her holiday."
"Done." They shook hands on it. Then they both burst out laughing.
Neon picked up a shell and threw it into the sea. In spite of his teasing, there was no way he'd make a move on Bree's sister--he was far too fond of both Bree and his cousin for that. And anyway, just because she was Bree's sibling didn't mean she'd be as gorgeous as Jake's wife. He didn't normally go for the intellectual type. She probably wouldn't appeal to him at all.
He sighed. Enough of this sitting around. He put Merle Cameron to the back of his mind and got to his feet. Doing nothing didn't come naturally to Neon. The sea was too blue, the white foam too attractive for him to continue to laze about. He picked up his board. "Are you going to lie around like a stranded whale all day or are you hitting the surf with me?" He kicked sand over his cousin, who yelled at him and picked up his own board, running down the beach after him and plunging into the sea.
They swam out past the breakers, ready for the rollers heading toward them, and spent a pleasant half an hour surfing, tiring themselves out on the powerful waves.
"Last one," Jake yelled out finally. "Bree's car's just pulled up."
Neon nodded, ready for a drink and a five-minute laze on the sand. Together they popped up on the boards, catching the surf and riding the white foam toward the beach. He steadied himself on the board, feeling the exhilaration that never grew old as the wave lifted him and bore him toward the sand.
He glanced up at the skyline and did a double take. A woman stood on the shore, watching him, her hand raised to shield her eyes from the blinding glare.
The rest of the girls on the beach wore bikinis or T-shirts and shorts, some with a baseball cap, bodies bronzed from a lifelong gradual exposure to the sun. This girl's skin was pale, and she wore a flowy dress that fluttered in the light breeze, clinging to her curvy figure. Presumably she had no idea the dress was transparent with the sun behind her, and he could see the outline of her long, long legs. With her wide-brimmed hat, her blonde hair lifting beneath it like a scarf, she looked as if she'd stepped off the set of a nineteenth-century English drama.
He registered all this in a split second--but it was long enough to break his concentration. The board slid under him as he shifted his weight, and with a curse, he fell backward into the foam.
Merle Cameron watched with amusement as the taller of the two surfers tumbled into the sea. She'd been drinking in the beauty of her holiday destination, her toes sinking into the soft sand, the tension in her shoulders--which had been building over the several days she'd spent travelling--slowly beginning to ooze away. The air tasted salty and clean, and her spirits lifted at the sight of the seagulls and the smell of a barbecue from farther along the beach. She couldn't believe it was the twenty-second of December. A hot Christmas--how odd was that? Talk about an upside-down country.
"Where's Jake?" she'd asked her sister, scanning the beach, and Bree had pointed out to sea.
Merle had followed her gaze, looking out over the glistening water at the two surfers, thinking how effortless they made it look as they popped up easily on the boards. Now, however, she smiled at the clumsy display. Even she could fall off more elegantly than that.
"Wow." Bree put her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. "Something must have distracted Neon. He's usually stuck to that board with superglue."
"Neon?" Merle watched Jake skid to a stop on the sand, jump off the board and pick it up, then walk up the beach toward them.
"Jake's cousin," Bree explained. "It's short for Napoleon, but don't tell him I told you or he'll kill me." She walked forward and put her arms around her husband, giving him a hug in spite of his wet body.
Merle waited, smiling, thinking how great they looked together. Jake had been so good for Bree. Handsome in a boy-next-door kind of way, with slightly curly brown hair, he was down-to-earth and sensible, a suitable balance for Bree, whose impulsiveness had got her into trouble in the past.
Jake detached himself from his wife and came over and kissed Merle on the cheek.
"It's so good to see you," he said, grinning.
She laughed. "You look well. Marriage agrees with you." She wasn't kidding either--Jake glowed with health and well-being, his skin deeply tanned and glistening where it wasn't covered with sand.
"It certainly does." He grabbed Bree and planted a kiss on her shoulder. "Thank you for giving your sister to me."
"It was good to get rid of her. She only ever drove me mad anyway."
He laughed, turning as Neon finally approached the three of them. "Stylish landing," Jake said, amused.
"Not quite the entrance I'd hoped to make." Neon shook his head, sending droplets scattering. "But then someone distracted me." He looked over at Merle, his smile making it clear she'd been the one to claim his attention. "You must be Bree's sister. I'm Neon." He held out a wet hand.
"I'm Merle." She offered her own hand, conscious of his compliment. He gripped hers in a firm handshake, his brown skin making hers look absurdly white. A tingle ran all the way down her spine at the physical contact. As he released her hand, Merle couldn't help but let her gaze roam over him. He was gorgeous. And huge! Three or four inches taller than Jake--and she knew her brother-in-law was six foot--Neon had broad shoulders and a muscular, deeply tanned body, with a striking black Maori tattoo circling his upper left arm. The tips of his light brown hair were golden from the sun, and as her gaze settled on his face she saw he had the most beautiful deep brown eyes that crinkled very slightly at the edges with half a dozen laughter lines.
He looked her over at the same time, his gaze skimming down her figure and back up to her face. When his eyes met hers, they were filled with lazy admiration.
Jake cleared his throat. Merle suddenly realised she'd been staring as if she'd met a movie star, and heat rose in her cheeks.
Neon studied her, then looked up at the sky, shading his eyes. "Warm day, isn't it?"
"Very," she agreed, realising he was trying to cover up her blush. How nice. He didn't fool her sister, though. Bree began to walk up the beach, not even bothering to hide her amused smile.
Merle bit her lip and turned to follow her but didn't miss the way Jake elbowed his cousin in the ribs and the playful push Neon gave him back. She lowered her eyes, trying not to laugh. What were they, twelve? It was fun for a moment, to pretend to be ten or fifteen years younger, thinking about nothing but boys. Real life was so much more demanding. She gave a sigh, turning her attention to the scene before her. It had been a pretty intense year, and she'd managed to escape her demanding life by the skin of her teeth, and then only for two weeks. She desperately needed to relax.
When was the last time she'd had a holiday? Worryingly, she couldn't remember. She'd had that weekend away with Phil over a year ago, but it had only been to Cornwall, and he'd spent most of it on the phone, sorting out some case with his partner at the law firm. The last time she'd actually got away, out of the country, to somewhere warm and foreign, had been while her father was alive, more than three years ago. That had been to Minorca, and Bree had come with them. It had only been a package deal, basic bed and board, hardly the holiday of a lifetime, but the landscape and climate had been hot and alien, and they'd all enjoyed the seafood, the warm sea and the golden sand. It had been the last time they'd been happy as a family.
"No unhappy thoughts are allowed in New Zealand," Neon stated, surprising her. She hadn't realised he'd drawn alongside her and was watching her as she gazed out to sea.
She glanced at him, seeing his eyes were kind, thoughtful. "Sorry. I was thinking about my father. He'd have loved it here." She smiled at how exotic the scene looked from a British perspective, the sea a startling blue, Neon and Jake fit and tanned, surfboards under their arms. It was quiet and peaceful, the only sound the cry of the seagulls and the squeal of children as they ran in and out of the waves--not that there were many people on the beach. In what she was beginning to recognise as true Kiwi style, only half a dozen families dotted the golden sand, enjoying the sunshine. "You'd never get this kind of view at Margate."
He laughed. "I'm guessing England's beaches aren't its best selling point."
"Let's just say similar weather in the UK would bring people out the way jam draws ants. You wouldn't be able to move on the seafront. Have you ever been to the UK?"
"Well, don't bother. You wouldn't like it." As the words left her mouth, she realised how arrogant she sounded and flashed him an apologetic smile--who was she to say what he would or wouldn't like? But he didn't seem to mind.
"You're probably right." He bent to pick up a stone, brushed the sand off it, looking at the colours, then skimmed it into the ocean. "Jake wasn't impressed."
"What did he say about it?"
"I think his exact words were 'It's fucking cold'." She burst out laughing and he joined in. Then he brushed the sand off his hands and sent her a wry look. "Sorry. I've only just met you and I'm insulting your country. I'm sure it's got many redeeming qualities. I'd love to visit some of the historical sites--we haven't got anything like that here, apart from Waitangi and the Stone Store, and they're hardly ancient."
"Its history is its main attraction, I think," she said. "Unfortunately, though, many of the places are overrun by tourists, and it's difficult to get a sense of atmosphere." She went to say more, but they were approaching a group of about seven or eight other men and women sprawled out on towels, soaking up the sun, and Jake had walked up next to her.
"Come and meet the rest of the gang."
Merle smiled nervously as Jake led her up to the rest of the party. Bree had told her they were staying in a beach house that night with some friends, and Merle had nearly decided to stay behind in Kerikeri. She wasn't keen on parties or socialising in general and felt out of her depth in this country with the athletic, tanned women who were comfortable prancing around in the tiniest bikinis. But as she approached, everyone sat up, smiling, and when Jake introduced her, the chorus of hellos made her feel welcome.
Bree shook out the two towels she'd brought from the car and collapsed on one, indicating for Merle to sit beside her. She did so, stretching out her legs and leaning back, letting the sun warm her through. It had been a cold autumn in England, with snow in November, and she'd thought she'd never be warm again.
"Beer? Or Diet Coke?"
Neon crouched beside a cooler, holding up two bottles.
"A beer would be lovely." She didn't normally drink it, but the idea of a cold lager appealed in the heat.
He twisted off the top and handed it to her, and she thanked him. Nodding, giving her a smile, he stood and walked off with Jake to where some of the guys were starting to throw a Frisbee around.
Merle glanced across at her sister. Bree had been watching them, and now raised her eyebrows and laughed.
"What?" said Merle. "He was just being nice."
"Yes, he was. He also wants to rip all your clothes off."