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White-Hot Holiday

By:Coleen Kwan

Chapter One


Aaron Cade muttered an expletive as his rented Porsche Boxster lurched to a stop with its front just inches from the hedge marking the end of the driveway. He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the machine or driving on the left side of the road, but it had been a blast zooming down from Sydney to his destination, the small country town of Burronga in the Southern Highlands.

When his boss had ordered him to take a two-week vacation, Aaron had decided to make his maiden trip to Australia. His week on the Barrier Reef had been fun, but now he was really looking forward to catching up with his old Aussie buddy, Luke Maguire. He’d met Luke when they both worked part time in a bar while studying at Columbia University, he an undergraduate, Luke enrolled in the MFA program. Now a world-renowned author, Luke had recently married and settled with his family in this sprawling timber house where Aaron had just pulled up.

He got out of the car, and heat immediately sizzled against his skin. Christ, it was hot here, especially after he’d sat in air-conditioned comfort for ninety minutes. The front door of the house banged open, and a slim, young woman hurried out. When she spotted Aaron, she paused, eyebrows lifting before they drew together into a frown. She marched down the stairs toward him, moving with a brisk energy that made her hair seem to crackle. Aaron found himself staring at her.

“Look what you’ve done.” The furry, red reindeer antlers perched atop her head quivered with exasperation as she jabbed a finger at his feet.

Three small potted conifers lay crushed beneath the car’s front tires. “Hey, I’m sorry.” He hunkered down to haul out one of the plants. “I didn’t see them when I pulled up.”

“No wonder you didn’t, driving around in that thing.” The woman cast a withering glare at the Porsche as she bent beside him to inspect the damage. “Oh, this is too bad. They were going to be the centerpieces for Christmas lunch,” she lamented as she lifted the limp remains of a squashed conifer.

Aaron shook his head. How could anyone be even thinking about Christmas lunch in this stinking heat? A week ago he’d left a grim, wintry New York and was still acclimatizing to the Australian summer, despite several sultry days at the Great Barrier Reef.

This woman didn’t appear too fussed by the hot weather. A green tank top and red shorts showed off her slender figure and lightly tanned skin. Thick, chestnut-brown hair drifted casually about her shoulders. Her feet were bare, toenails painted a frosty pink, a thin silver ring on her middle toe. Luke’s wife was a jewelry-maker. Was this her? She didn’t resemble the redhead in the few photos Aaron had received, but Luke was notoriously bad at sending up-to-date photos.

Whoever she was, this woman was quite something, despite the frown. As he studied her more closely, noting her blue eyes fringed by dark lashes and the faint dusting of freckles across her nose, a shaft of attraction streaked through him. Surprised, he pulled back. Insta-lust? For God’s sake, she might very well be his friend’s wife.

He dragged out the two remaining pots from beneath the Porsche, put them carefully to one side, and stood, dusting his hands. “I’ll gladly replace the plants, er, is it Tyler? Tyler Maguire?”

The woman shot him a startled look before laying aside the ruined conifer and rising to face him. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not Tyler. I’m Luke’s niece, Naomi. Naomi Spencer.” Her expression grew uncomfortable. “And you must be Luke’s friend from New York. Aaron Cade, right?” She wiped her right hand against her leg before offering it to him.

Relieved, Aaron shook hands, noting the absence of any rings on her fingers. No, he wasn’t disappointed. Quite the opposite. He grinned at Naomi. “That’s me.” She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, he figured, trying to place her in Luke’s extended family. “Is your mom one of Luke’s four older sisters?”

“That’s right. My mum’s Helen. She’s the oldest, and Luke’s the youngest, so he’s more like an older brother than an uncle to me. Everyone’s out at the moment except for me, but Luke did warn me you’d be arriving.” She glanced at the sleek, black Porsche Boxster that gleamed like a spaceship in the quiet suburban countryside, and the disapproving set to her lips returned. “Do you have a thing for sports cars?”

“Not exactly. I don’t own a car back home, so I rented this on a whim.” He patted the roof of the car briefly before he had to snatch his hand away from the burning metal. Both the Porsche and the vacation were out of the ordinary for him. He wasn’t used to taking time off or renting sports cars. Or young, attractive women eyeing him with reproach. “You don’t approve?”

“Oh, if you want to drive flashy cars, that’s up to you.” She shrugged, cool and offhand, then hooked a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the house. “Why don’t you bring your luggage inside, and I’ll show you your room?”

So Naomi didn’t think much of men with flashy cars. Aaron tucked that tidbit of information away before hauling out his single suitcase from the maligned Porsche and following Naomi up the stairs. Inside the house it was blessedly cooler, with overhead fans whirling in the spacious interior. Green garlands with red baubles festooned the living room. Lines of Christmas cards were strung across a mantelpiece. A giant copper bowl filled with fir cones spray-painted gold and silver sat in the unlit fireplace. The incongruity of Christmas decorations sparkling in the energy-sapping heat made Aaron shake his head again.

“At my hotel in Sydney last night, they were serving eggnog at the bar. Eggnog in the middle of summer.” He swiped a forearm across his damp forehead. “I just can’t get my head around a hot Christmas.”

Naomi pursed her lips. “Well, I’m loving a hot Christmas again.”

“You mean you’ve been missing out?”

Her voice lowered as she glanced away. “Yeah. I’ve been in London for the past eighteen months. Just got back a month ago.”

“Were you working in London?”

She nodded tightly. “Teaching.” The single word shot out before her mouth compacted.

His curiosity rose at her rigid stance. He was willing to bet she hadn’t enjoyed her stay in Britain. A moment later, she shook back her hair and became businesslike again, moving briskly down the hall and off to a side passage.

“We’re in the annex,” she said over her shoulder as they skirted a paved courtyard filled with climbing roses.

“We?”

“I’m helping Tyler in her store over the busy period, so I’m staying here temporarily. This is the guest annex. There’re two bedrooms and a shared bathroom. This is my room.” She gestured to a shut door nearest them. “And this is yours.” She opened another door.

Aaron wheeled his suitcase into the guest room and gave it a cursory inspection. It looked clean and comfortable, but its best feature was being next door to Naomi Spencer. He hadn’t expected a gorgeous, single woman at Luke’s place. Though he’d barely known her ten minutes, and she didn’t seem much impressed by him, he was strongly drawn to her. She was prickly, quirky, definitely different. During his visit to the Barrier Reef, he’d met plenty of pretty Aussie women who liked his company, but none of them had grabbed his attention as instantly as Naomi had. He wanted to know her better. Wanted to know how long she was staying here, whether she honestly liked wearing those ridiculous reindeer antlers, and why she had a smudge of glitter on her chin.

Aware of the silence between them, he realized he’d been staring at her without shame. She backed up a few steps, as if suddenly alert to the fact she was home alone with a strange man who couldn’t stop ogling her.

“Um, I’ll let you get settled in.” She hesitated. “I was just about to make myself a cup of tea, if you’d like one.”

A cup of tea when his T-shirt was sticking to his back? But, determined to improve on the poor first impression he’d made on Naomi, he said, “I’m all settled in, and I’d love a cup of tea.”

She eyed him doubtfully before nodding. “Okay.”

She led him to the back of the house where a country-style kitchen adjoined a casual family room. There were photos on the walls, toys and books scattered on the couches, and a basket of towels in front of the TV. The place reminded him of his sister’s place back in Mecklenburg in upstate New York. Donna, her husband Bill, and their two kids lived a five-minute drive from his parents. Thank God for Donna. At least she didn’t make him feel guilty every time he visited his hometown, which, according to his mom, was much too seldom.

While Naomi filled the kettle, Aaron moved to the kitchen table and inspected the assortment of cards, paints, and glitter strewn across the surface.

“Just some last-minute Christmas cards,” Naomi said.

So that explained the glitter on her chin. “You make your own Christmas cards?” He picked up a red card adorned with a gold angel.

She nodded as she lifted two mugs from a cupboard. “I like to, though it’s time-consuming. You probably buy yours, like most sane people.”

“I don’t send out Christmas cards.”

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