Publish Date: November 2010
2011 RT MAGAZINE REVIEWERS CHOICE FINALIST
Even the toughest of soldiers need someone in their corner.
Security consultant Romy Carvell grew up under the iron-glove of an army father, so the last person in the world she wants to be answering to is an ex-military boss. But a security vacancy at a remote wilderness retreat provides the perfect excuse to take her frog-mad eight-year-old far out of the reach of his domineering grandfather.
Three years of self-imposed exile undoubtedly takes the polish off a man’s social skills but former Raptor Squad operative, Clint McLeish, knows that Romy’s independent streak would have challenged him even before his trust in humanity was shot to Hades in the Middle East.
Romy itches to run again when her little boy starts showing too much interest in Clint’s military background, but some strange happenings in the forest convince her that the emotionally scarred soldier is at risk of further damage. But will saving him from hurt only wound him more.
Copyright © 2010 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
The Soldier’s Untamed Heart
It was hard to know what was putting the doof-doof into Romy Carvell’s heartbeat–the illicit thrill of slipping a fine crystal ornament unseen into her coat pocket, or the lean-mean-gorgeous-machine squatted chatting to her son two aisles away. She glanced surreptitiously in the convex mirror mounted over the counter. It was supposed to help them monitor the park gift-shop but, right now, it conveniently gave her a perfect tool to watch anyone watching her.
The ornament clanked gently against the two other items she’d stolen as it nestled into the deep recesses of her light coat.
Her gaze drifted back to the crouched man talking to Leighton. Her son was listening but not responding, par for the course, lately. Silence or conflict. Something about being eight years old. The fact he hadn’t yet made a beeline for her side meant he was feeling comfortable about the stranger’s presence, which instantly made Romy feel comfortable about it. The man straightened and reached for something on a nearby shelf.
Her gut twisted.
Forget the due-for-a-cut hair, the three-day-growth; military didn’t just wash off. This stranger had the residual carriage, the unmistakable forced casualness disguising a well-honed subliminal alertness.
He moved just like her father.
The man smiled at her son and then stepped away, giving him the space he needed. Leighton relaxed further now his escape route to his mum wasn’t closed off by a human roadblock, his gentle gray eyes searching her out.
And right on their tail was this stranger’s piercing green ones; they locked on Romy’s in the security mirror. She looked away, her heart thumping.
Okay… Definitely the man and not the shoplifting.
She shifted out of the mirror’s range and pulled her focus back to the job at hand, fanning herself with the tourism postcard she’d plucked from the over-crowded carousel stand. A lot rode on her success this morning and she was taking a big risk going for one more. Not because of the oblivious cashier whose attention was locked firmly on Mr Military over there–that only made her task all the easier. But those too-casual jade eyes monitoring her every move… They were the most likely danger to her chances of walking out of here with what she needed.
Romy drifted across his line of sight, feeling his focus glued on her even though his outward attention had returned to Leighton. Another military trait.
Just one more. Something spectacular. Something to really drive her message home. She picked up item after item and replaced them with care, moving casually toward the glass cabinet holding an array of opal and gold jewelry that probably sold like hotcakes to the wealthy tourists that frequented WildSprings Wilderness Retreat. The display was stupidly positioned, perfect for catching customer attention but in the worst possible spot for surveillance by the single cashier. And the mirror didn’t quite throw this far.
Which suited her fine.
With the efficiency of someone who had nothing at all to lose, she slid open the concealed base to the cabinet and picked out the most expensive looking clunker she could find. Hardly the sort of thing she’d ever wear, her own tastes ran to something a little finer–something a lot cheaper–but she wasn’t going to have it long. She tucked the gaudy brooch deep into her inside pocket and slid the drawer silently closed.
‘Are you planning on paying for that?’
Romy was too well trained to flinch at the deep, cool voice, no matter how much her body itched to. She turned slowly then tilted her gaze to his. Whoa. She’d thought he was a giant before…
He had to be six-foot-three, maybe four, and was built like the tank she was sure he would have travelled in once. All hard angles and iron. Her stomach dropped, but she plastered on an intentionally vague expression. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Will you be buying that or just keeping the flies off with it?’ He nodded to the postcard in her hand, the one still automatically fanning her face. Her skin bristled. His tone was casual but she recognised the steel behind the smile all too well.
She’d grown up a human metal detector.
She started to move away, eager to escape the whirlpool surrounding those eyes. ‘It’s warmer than I expected, today.’
‘Could have something to do with your coat,’ he said lightly, following her. ‘Wrong sort of day for a long jacket.’
Oh Lord, she was sprung.
Her heart hammered. If he’d had anything solid on her he would have asked her to turn out her pockets by now, but he was definitely sniffing. She frowned. What was he, security? No, she was interviewing for the position of Park Security Officer in about forty minutes; so who was this guy, some kind of good Samaritan?
She straightened to give herself one more pointless inch against him. ‘Planning ahead. I heard the weather here on the south coast can be unpredictable.’
Those intense eyes weren’t fooled. They scanned her down and up again as though he had x-ray vision and when they returned to hers they were arctic.
Time to go.
She turned her face a fraction but didn’t take her focus from the man in front of her. She couldn’t if she’d wanted to. ‘Leighton, honey. Let’s go.’
Three feet of dark curls and sunshine bounded over to where Romy stood dwarfed by the stranger. He held out a card with tiny, four-toed footprints printed on it, his voice hushed. ‘Mum, look. Frog prints.’
She dragged her attention down to her son and squatted. It was her personal rule. Leighton rarely sought attention these days, so when he did she gave it unquestioningly. So different to her own upbringing.
She tried to ignore the intense stare pounding onto her like a waterfall. ‘Are they real?’
‘Yeah. The frogs walked on the ink first then the card. Non-toxic,’ he said importantly, ‘on account of the frog’s sensitive skin, Clint says.’
Romy’s hand faltered as it stroked her son’s shoulder. She bit the inside of her cheek.Clint? Lord, even the name was sexy. And somehow he’d gotten more out of her son in two minutes than she had all day.
She flipped the card over and looked at the price tag. Inflated, but not completely out of the question, particularly if she could nail this job interview. She straightened. ‘Tell you what, L, why don’t you take your frog print and my postcard to the lady at the counter and we’ll head out.’
‘Is it time for your meeting?’
Romy winced. She didn’t want Mr Military knowing her business. She handed her son the postcard and twenty dollars. ‘Go ahead, honey. I’ll be right there.’
The moment Leighton was outside hearing range, Clint spoke, suspicion narrowing his eyes even further. ‘You have an appointment?’
Not that it’s any of your business. ‘Yes, and I need to be–‘
‘What kind of appointment?’
Every part of her tightened like a slingshot. Oh, you really don’t want to push that button, mister. She’d spent a lifetime being cut off by an overbearing bully. She didn’t need it today of all days. She took a shaky breath. ‘I’ve interrupted your shopping,’ she said, all courtesy. Verbal Judo 101. ‘And I must be going. Excuse me.’
She was sure it was no accident he’d positioned himself between her and the exit. She squeezed past his bulk in the narrow aisle, tucking her coat to the side so the objects hidden within didn’t clank against him. As she passed, she caught a whiff of something divine. Sandalwood, earth and…man. He might look like he lived on the streets but he smelled heavenly. And all that bulk was hard as a rock, too, as she slid past him toward the counter, willing her heartbeat to settle.
So he hadn’t let himself go, entirely.
‘Perhaps I’ll see you around?’ He had the chest for such a cavernous voice. His words easily found her ears even though she’d moved half way across the room. In her periphery, she saw him drift to the rear of the store and continue his browsing.
Lord, I hope not.
‘Is that all?’ The cashier politely asked.
Romy smiled at the girl, her heart beating loud enough to hear, conscious of the four stolen items hidden in her pockets and that the innocent cashier was likely to wear the temporary blame for their loss.
The angels will forgive me, she told herself.