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Yours to Give (PAPERBACK)

Yours to Give (PAPERBACK)

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A dare, a marriage, a happily ever after?

Yours to Give is the first book in the Lantern Bay series of heartwarming, contemporary women’s fiction—high on emotion but with no explicit sensuality.

YouTube sensation Laura McKinney has one goal—to live life to its fullest by accepting challenges from all around the world and filming them. She believes long-term relationships are for idiots, and marriage is ridiculous.

Max Connelly reckons that makes her exactly his kind of woman. But Max is pursuing his own dream, building his mountain resort into the place to be in the southern hemisphere. He knows what her publicity could do for his resort so he issues his own challenge—to get married. After all, it wouldn’t mean anything to either of them. Would it?

—Lantern Bay—

  1. Yours to Give
  2. Yours to Treasure
  3. Yours to Cherish
  4. Yours to Keep
  5. Yours Forever
  6. Yours to Love

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CHAPTER ONE

Max Connelly narrowed his eyes against the bright sunlight and gave a long low whistle as a young woman tore by on a state-of-the-art mountain bike. She wore ripped jeans and a tiny top. Strands of long blonde hair escaped her safety helmet and flew behind her as she hurtled at breakneck speed down the steep grassy slope. Within seconds she’d reached the edge of the bluff and flew off, into the air.
Max held his breath like everyone else around him, waiting to see if she and her bike would part ways. Only the most experienced bikers ever attempted that jump. As she landed with a thud and a wobble, there was a collective outrush of amazement. But she didn’t stop. Instead, she hurtled along the ridge, either side of which precipitous cliffs plunged.
Max gripped the balustrade of the terrace and cursed under his breath. Surely she wouldn’t risk everything merely to get to the edge—a challenge reserved for only the most extreme sporting aficionados. At the last moment she twisted the bike around. Dust flew up around her as she jammed on her brakes and came to an abrupt halt at the very edge of the drop.
She gave a whoop of exultation and Max grinned—partly sharing her excitement and partly in relief. Her infectious laughter filled the small valley as she jumped off the bike and went to join her friends.
Without looking away from the woman, he placed his drink on the table and leaned over the balustrade of the Lodge’s wide terrace, shaking his head in disbelief. “Did you see her? Man, she can move!”
“Max!” He looked around to find his sister, Lizzi, grinning at him. “Is that the owner’s perk—checking out young women?”
“Who is she?” Max asked, ignoring her question. “An actress or model or something?”
“No idea. Whoever she is, she’s popular. Looks like she’s got quite a circle of admirers.” Lizzi laughed. “Good luck with that one, bro!”
Max’s eyes strayed back to the woman who’d unclipped her helmet and was shaking out her blonde hair. Like everyone else, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
The bright light seemed to emanate from her like an aura, but he knew it was more likely the effect of them being over five thousand feet up in the Southern Alps.
She was gorgeous. She was also either courageous or stupid—he didn’t know which but he decided then and there he’d find out. And there was something else, another quality, which was totally disarming. She moved with an ease and unselfconsciousness, as if she had no clue how truly compelling she was. She tossed her helmet to someone and now stood, hands on slender hips, legs slightly apart. Not girly feminine, but definitely attractive. Very attractive.
“That’s Laura McKinney,” said Rachel, one of his other sisters who he’d managed to persuade to join him at his summer party at the mountain lodge. “She’s the new YouTube sensation. She accepts dares and films them as she goes. She’s quite something. Haven’t you come across her? She’s the darling of the media in the US. She’s over here for a few weeks.”
“In Queenstown? For a few weeks?” Max turned to Rachel. “How come I haven’t heard of this?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “An oversight of your staff, I’m sure.”
“My staff managed to get you here. That’s a near miracle.” He frowned. “How did they manage to tear you away from Wellington, anyway?” It was as if a cloud descended on Rachel and she looked away. Max looked across at Lizzi to see if she was aware of a change in Rachel, but Lizzi was in a world of her own since she’d met Pete. He was glad but it didn’t help him any. He made a mental note to find out what was bothering Rachel. But not now. Later. He looked back at the vision below him. “So how come they didn’t tell me about the famous Laura McKinney? She could be good for business.”
Rachel rested her folded arms on the railing and looked up at him. His first instinct was correct. Something had unsettled Rachel. He could see it in her eyes but before he could ask her what the matter was a cheer went up as waiters, carrying bottles of Champagne, approached Laura and the crowd which had gathered around her.
“Laura doesn’t do planning. She arrives, she surprises, and then she’s gone again. I doubt even Chelsey knew about Laura’s intentions.”
“Huh,” grunted Max. “I pay her to know this kind of stuff.”
“Why are you so annoyed?”
“Because that’s the whole point of the summer party—to raise the Lodge’s profile, to draw visitors to it—both summer and winter. That’s why I have a PR team.” He huffed an irritated sigh. “And, besides, I’ve made arrangements to leave for Australia in a couple of days.”
“Ah, I get it,” said Rachel. “Now you’ve seen Laura, you’d prefer to hang out here, rather than enjoy Sydney’s high life. Although, seriously, Max, I don’t think Laura is your type.”
Max frowned. “And what’s my type?”
Rachel and Lizzi exchanged knowing glances. “You know. Super sophisticated, wealthy types. Jimmy Choo shoes, Birkin handbags, Ray-Ban sunglasses.”
Max’s frown deepened. “None of that means anything to me.”
“No, but the type of women wearing them do.”
“Give up, Rachel,” said Lizzi. “He’s a lost cause.”
But Max was oblivious to their teasing and continued to watch the blonde below the terrace.
“You won’t get anywhere there, Max, so I wouldn’t even bother,” said Rachel.
The idea of a woman turning him down was a new one to Max. “Why? Doesn’t she like men?”
“Oh, she likes them all right. Likes them enough to insist that she’ll never go out with anyone longer than a month. She’s publicly stated that long-term relationships are for idiots and marriage is ridiculous.”
“My kind of girl, then.”
Rachel laughed and shook her head.
“See you later,” said Max, descending the steps towards the blonde.

Laura breathed deeply of the fresh clear air, sucking it into her lungs, feeding the blood that surged through her veins. She lived for moments like these. Her perceptions were always intensely heightened after a challenge—a result of the adrenaline she assumed. Whatever it was, she needed that rush more than food or water.
She glanced at the jump she’d leaped off and grinned. It looked impossible from this angle. Just as well she hadn’t seen it from this angle then. But she knew she’d still have done it. Doing the impossible gave her an even bigger thrill.
“You’re crazy, Laura!” shouted her best friend and manager, Kelly, who handed her a bottle of Champagne. One of the men tried to take it from her to prize off the cork, but Laura held onto it.
“Maybe.” She turned to the man and pulled the bottle away from his hands, with a smile. “But if I can make that jump, I’m pretty sure I can take the cork out of a bottle of Champagne.”
Cameras clicked and flashed all around as the Champagne exploded in her hands and she lifted the bottle to drink from its foaming neck. She tilted her head, looking up at the bright blue sky and the white-topped mountains and swallowed Champagne, as more spilled down the sides of the bottle and flowed onto her hand and arm. She’d never felt more alive. And that’s what this was all about, wasn’t it?
Choking slightly, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and looked up again as she heard a cry from above. She watched, mesmerized, as a large hawk flew directly overhead. For a strange moment she felt as if she were that hawk, looking down on them, all powerful, each beautiful wingtip responsive to the wind, adjusting, feeling, living, constantly moving. She could sense its vibrations in her own limbs.
The hawk sailed past on the air currents and Laura looked down, straight into a pair of eyes which held the same acute focus as the bird.
The eyes were narrowed in a tanned face, a strong face, and one which had an air of total authority. She didn’t think he’d even noticed the other people around her. He was the kind of man who was supremely confident, able to avoid anything that wasn’t of interest to him.
Seemed she was of interest to him. She swallowed and licked her lips. There was no man she liked better than a confident one.
“Hi!” She smiled and passed the bottle to someone, without shifting her gaze from the stranger.
“Hi!” There was a silence between them which was all she could hear, despite the clamor, shouts and laughter of the people all around her. He glanced down at her Champagne-soaked t-shirt that stopped short of her pierced belly button. She didn’t mind being looked at. She was used to it after seven years of traveling the world in search of new challenges. And she particularly didn’t mind his look of appreciation. So long as it stayed at that. She dressed for herself, not for anyone else. She’d always hated to feel restricted by clothes. If a side-effect was that men liked to look at her, she didn’t mind. She could look after herself.
“That was quite some jump,” he said, but she could see that his eyes held an interest in more than just the jump. It was reinforced by the smile that told her that he was thinking quite different thoughts.
“Sure was. That was the whole reason I came here.”
“Is that right? Not to see our beautiful country, the Southern Alps, the oceans, the fiords, the beaches?”
She could listen to him talk forever. There was something in his macho Kiwi accent that tugged at her in a place it really shouldn’t. He was saying one thing, but her body was responding as if he was running his hand up her arms, and curving his fingers around her neck, stroking her. Get a grip!
“I’m sure they’re all amazing, but it’s not what I’m in to.”
“And what are you in to?”
“Thrills and spills.”
“I’m glad you didn’t spill.”
“That’s kind.”
“No, it’s not. I own this place and if you’d spilled, it could have dragged me down, too.”
Laura wasn’t fazed by his rebuke. There was humor in his tone and his eyes still held that interested light which took the edge off his words. “I wouldn’t have wanted to drag you down.”
“Come to think of it, it might have been interesting.”
The electric buzz of attraction fizzed in the pit of her stomach. If she loved adrenaline, the double buzz of lust and adrenaline was a sure-fire winner. She stepped forward and drew her hand down his arm. “Would hate to have had that lovely shirt dirtied in the process, though.”
She smiled as his eyes narrowed even more, in a way that made her stomach flutter with desire. She could just imagine the thoughts going around his brain, and his body. “I don’t mind getting dirty, darlin’. Just say the word.”
She gave a throaty laugh and stepped away. His expression didn’t change. She had him where she wanted him—if she wanted him.
“Hey, Laura!” She glanced around to see Rachel Connelly put her arm around the stranger. “I see you’ve met my big brother, Max.”
Max looked from one to the other. “You two know each other?”
Laura grinned. “Rach and I met in Wellington a few months ago. She invited me onto her cooking show. I didn’t do so bad, did I, Rach?”
Rach grimaced. “Not so good, either. I didn’t see you eating anything you made.”
“I’d only have done that if there’d been a challenge attached.” She looked back at Max. “So this is your big brother you were telling me about.”
“You been talking about me, Rachel?”
“Yep.” Rachel grinned, obviously enjoying his discomfort.
“Nothing bad I hope,” said Max.
“Nothing good, or else I wouldn’t have been interested,” said Laura.
“So that means you are interested?” he asked.
“Maybe. Although the way Rachel described you I thought you’d be, I’m not sure, meaner looking somehow.”
“Rachel,” said Max in a low growl as he glared at his sister. “What have you been saying about me?”
“Only that you’re my bossy big brother, who thinks he knows best in every situation. You don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way—business or pleasure.”
“So basically a ruthless bastard then.”
“That about sums it up.” Rachel shrugged. “Oh, and I might have said that you change women like you change jackets.”
He shrugged. “Seasons change, needs change.”
“Good point,” said Laura. “Sometimes, it’s warm and you like something light and easy. And sometimes, it’s cold, and you need something hotter.”
“My point exactly. You see, Rachel.” Max didn’t take his eyes off Laura. “Laura and I have a lot more in common than you thought.”
Rachel looked from one to the other. “Maybe you’re right. What do you reckon, Laura?”
Laura shrugged, not wanting to admit that she reckoned she and Max had a whole lot in common. Max looked pretty confident, pretty sure of himself. She had an urge to put a dent in that sureness. “Well, we both dress to the season. But then so do millions of others. So… I don’t know. I’d have to know more about your big brother before I made a decision on that point.”
“I’m sure my big brother won’t be unhappy to get to know you better.”
Laura stood beside Rachel pretending to consider Max whose brow lowered in irritation. “I’m not sure if your big brother is looking very happy now.”
“I’m sure he is.” Rachel wrinkled up her nose. “He pretends he doesn’t like being talked about but he does. It massages his macho ego.”
Laura grinned. ”Still not looking happy.”
“I will be when you stop talking about me as if I weren’t here,” growled Max.
“Aww, Max, don’t be grouchy,” said Rachel, linking her arm through his. “It’s only because we love you.”
“I don’t love him,” Laura pointed out.
“Oh, you will,” said Rachel with complete confidence. “Everyone loves Max.” She thought for a second. “At least they do while he loves them. Happily, he loves his family, even if he doesn’t show it.”
Max shook his head. “God knows why I love my family when they’re such pains in the ass.”
There was a shout and Rachel glanced up to the Lodge. “It’s Lizzi. Looks like lunch is ready. Coming, Laura?”
“I’d love to, but I’ve a TV crew waiting in Queenstown to interview me.” Laura stepped toward Max, unable to stop flirting. It was fun seeing a macho man on the wrong side of the balance of power for once. “But maybe I’ll see you at dinner, Max?”
He didn’t move, only shifted his eyes to look at her as she stepped away with a smile. “Oh, you will. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Maybe we can discover if we have anything else in common other than changing jackets according to season?”
She left before he could answer.
* * *
“Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!”
Chelsey Jones, Max’s marketing manager, paced away from Max toward the window, but Max knew she wasn’t admiring the view. She stood with her hands on her suited hips, blonde hair smoothed into a French twist, as elegant as ever, but unusually disconcerted.
“Damn!” she added for good luck before turning back to Max. “They made the booking under another name. I had no idea.”
“Rachel tells me Laura and her team are out of here the day after tomorrow.” He tapped a finger irritably on the wooden armrest of the couch. “If only we’d known we could have capitalized on her visit with some publicity of our own.”
She shook her head. “I know. I’m sorry, Max. I dropped the ball. I should have been on to it as soon as they arrived. But I was in Wanaka and…”
As irritated as he was that they’d let the opportunity slip through their fingers, Max couldn’t stay angry with Chelsey for long. They went back a long way and, from the slight droop of her shoulders, he could see she was more angry with herself. “That’s okay. Everyone’s entitled to time off.”
She turned to face him, her expression stern. “No, it’s not all right. If I’d only known I could have arranged some meetings… a few situations to showcase the Lodge and all it has to offer. I could have done what you employed me to do—make Queenstown Lodge the place to be in the Southern Hemisphere.”
He rose and went to her and laid his hand on her tense shoulders. “Chill, it’s okay.” He lifted her chin so she was forced to face him. “But tell me…”
She frowned. “Yes?”
“Why only the Southern Hemisphere?”
She smiled and stood straighter. “Because your ego needs to be contained, Max Connelly.” She paced away from Max once more, tapping her cellphone against her lips.
Max sighed. It was always a bad sign when Chelsey was deep in thought. It usually meant work for him. She turned and caught his gaze.
“What can we do to keep her here?” she asked.
He shrugged. “She doesn’t strike me as the sort of person you can keep anywhere.”
“If you can make her stay for at least a week, that’ll give me time to get some national media attention.”
“She’s on YouTube all the time. Won’t that do?”
“Not by itself. We need to get you two together, engage the media, and get them pointing to Laura’s YouTube channel, and it should snowball from there.”
“Me and Laura. Together.”
“You know what I mean. Judging by the video clips from this afternoon, it’s not going to be hard for either of you.”
“You think a little flirtation would be good for business.” He didn’t phrase it as a question. He knew it was what they were both thinking. He also felt unaccountably ill at ease with the idea.
“Don’t tell me you have qualms about that, because I won’t believe you. Business always comes first with you.”
“You know me so well.”
She walked up to him, and tapped her cellphone on his chest. “Yes, I do.”
She looked up at him with a wistfulness which disarmed him. He’d called off their relationship a year ago and he didn’t think he’d ever be able to do enough to recompense for the hurt he’d caused her—a hurt that rarely showed through. He’d thought he saw a glimpse of it now, but it was too quickly gone to be sure.
“I’ll get in contact with Kelly, Laura’s PA,” Chelsey continued. “If she’s as smart an operator as I think she is, she’ll see the benefit in staying around for another week. Leave it with me. You go and flirt outrageously with Laura and I’ll do the rest.”
“You’re using me for my hunky appeal, Chelsey.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.”
“True,” he said, walking toward the door. “We all have to play to our strengths.”
He closed the door on Chelsey’s groan.

Max’s meeting with Chelsey had made him late for dinner. He took a short cut along the front terrace, noting the old lantern hanging, unlit, by the entrance. Most people assumed it to be a broken antique, there for its charm alone. But in his grandparents’ day it had worked. His grandmother had said it was a guide in the darkness to bring friends and family home. It was a tradition his mother had brought to his family home in Akaroa—and one he’d let slip. He closed his eyes briefly as grief at losing his late mother hit him afresh. When he could bear to think of his mother’s passing without pain, he’d fix the lantern, not before.
He paused on the threshold of the restaurant and looked around. The place was packed with Lodge guests and casual diners enjoying the finest wines and food prepared by the French chef he’d persuaded to move here. The chandeliers glittered overhead, sparking light from the crystal glassware. The concertina windows were pushed back to allow the cool night air into the warm room.
He was proud of the Lodge, what it had been, and what it had become. He’d built on the old-fashioned charm of the original Lodge, keeping its character but bringing it into the twenty-first century. But his ambitions for it hadn’t stopped—not by a long way.
A quick scan revealed Rachel sitting next to Laura, surrounded by others. Ignoring Rachel’s knowing grin, he walked over, persuaded the person sitting on Laura’s other side to leave with the lure of free wine, and took the place himself.
“Mind if I join you?”
“And what if I say no?” said Laura.
“Then you’ll have to inform the owner who, I’m afraid, has my best interests at heart.”
“Maybe I will,” she said, sitting back, an eyebrow raised in query. “What do you think he’ll do about it?”
He flashed a quick smile at the waitress who set a new place for him. “Probably tell you that you should reconsider.”
“Really? And why should I?” She leaned in toward him, flirtatiously. “Is he such great company? Is he so utterly charming, witty, and interesting?”
Max raised his eyebrows. “He’s all that but, more importantly, he’ll sulk if you don’t let him sit beside you. And you really don’t want to see a grown man sulk.”
Laura laughed, a laugh that wrapped around inside him and gave a sharp tug. It was adorable—strangely natural and innocent for all her worldliness and flirtatious, danger-seeking nature. “You’re right. I don’t. You’d better make yourself comfortable then.”
Max signaled the waiter who brought him a plate of hors d’oeuvres. He helped himself as a wine waiter poured him a large glass of his favorite Central Otago pinot noir. “So how are you enjoying Queenstown?”
“It’s wonderful. It has everything I love here. Extreme sports, beautiful scenery, but with an airport so you can escape to the city if you want to. I could live here.”
“You should.”
“No, I won’t. What I mean is, if I had another job, another personality, another life, I could live here.” She shook her head. “But I don’t settle.”
“I can understand that. I only returned here a year ago after traveling pretty much constantly overseas.”
“What did you do?”
“Everything. Made money through various businesses. Tried my hand at different things.”
“Successful?”
“Yep. Made enough to buy this place and some other properties in the area.”
“So why come back?”
Max didn’t speak immediately. He drank from his glass and put it down carefully on the table before turning to her. “I’d had enough. I wanted to stop, spend time with my family, my friends. I wanted to know them. I wanted to know this place. After a while, traveling becomes tedious. You must find that.”
Laura looked uncomfortable. “Not really. I find it exciting. Besides, I like to keep things simple. And it’s simpler to keep moving.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That sounds kind of… restless.” She didn’t respond. “You don’t find that way of life lonely at all?”
“Are you kidding me? I’m always surrounded by people.”
He looked around. “And you’re close to all these people?”
Whether it was the way he’d asked the question, or the question itself, something made her pause. Her green eyes flickered over his and he could see enticing glimpses of doubt behind the bravado. Bravado was alluring, but doubt was intriguing.
“No,” she said. “Only a couple of them. The rest are”—she shrugged—“just there. That’s enough for me.”
“Really?” he asked gently, his curiosity piqued by her response. “And I thought I liked a minimalist life.”
She raised an eyebrow and indicated all around with her glass of soda water. “Minimalist? With all this? You’re kidding me!”
“Good point. This is probably the least minimalist part of my life. I came here with some mates a year ago and, once I’d seen this place again, I couldn’t let it go.”
“You fell in love with it.” She looked around. “I’m not surprised—it’s a wonderful place.”
“Oh, I’d fallen for it over thirty years ago.” He smiled at her confusion. “You see, it belonged to my grandparents. My mother used to bring me here as a youngster to get me away from my dad.”
Laura shot him an interested look. “You don’t get on with your dad?”
“No. Still don’t. Anyhow, this place meant more to me growing up than my own home. My grandparents died while I was overseas and it was left to a cousin of mine. Mum had passed away by then and Dad wasn’t interested. But when I came back here the place was falling into ruin.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t walk away from it.”
“So you bought it off your cousin?”
“Yeah. He was relieved. He had no interest in it and had been trying to sell it for years. But it needed a lot of money pouring into it.”
“So… you poured the money in and you’ve made a wonderful place. But…” She hesitated.
“Go on,” Max prompted. “Ask away.”
“But why? I wouldn’t have taken you for the sentimental type. And you’re so far away from most other countries it must be hard to keep it commercially viable.”
Max didn’t answer immediately. Was he sentimental? He’d never thought of himself like that but it was true, he’d done it because, somewhere deep down, he’d heard his mother’s voice saying it was the right thing to do. He’d always been guided by that voice because it had never failed him.
“I’m not sentimental. I do what I think is right. Simple as that. And it’s going just fine. And we have plans. Big plans.”
“You’re going to make your grandparents proud.”
He nodded. And his mother. Though he wasn’t going to tell Laura that. She might call him sentimental again and he had an image to maintain.
“They’d be pleased. It was the holiday place to come to in the 1920s, when my great-grandparents ran it. And if you think it’s out of the way now, you should have tried to get here then. It took a week to get here from Christchurch and half of that was from Cromwell, where the rail line ended. It was a challenge all right.”
“One I’d have been up for.” She grinned.
He smiled back. “You know? I can just imagine you here, in the middle of last century, clipping on your wooden skis, trekking out to get wood for the fire.”
“Right. I get the picture. You see me as some kind of pioneer, a colonial woman come to claim her place in the world. I’d have liked everything except the claiming part. I don’t want to claim anything for my own.”
“Looks pretty much like you’ve claimed the world if the number of views on YouTube are anything to go by.”
She raised her chin. “You’ve been checking me out online.” She grunted softly. He liked the sound.
“Simply keeping myself informed about my visitors.”
She pushed away her empty plate and sat back in her chair, nursing her glass of soda water, and shot him a challenging look. “So tell me, what have you learned about me?”
“I’m pretty sure you know what I’ve learned about you. Your life is an open book. But I can read between the lines,” he said, unable to resist teasing her.
“Between the lines? Nothing there but empty white space, I should imagine.”
“Should you? Then you’d be wrong.” He paused, intrigued by the flash of doubt which lurked behind her eyes—darker, more mysterious now. He liked mystery, and he also liked women.
Her phone beeped and she picked it up. “Excuse me.” She rose and walked outside. He watched her as she went and realized he wasn’t alone. Those diners who hadn’t moved to the bar next door, were glancing her way. She had that knack of making people look at her, without revealing a shred of self-consciousness.
She returned to the table, sliding the phone onto it, and cocked her head to one side. “So, it seems Kelly wants me to extend our stay a week. Kelly and your marketing manager believe it’ll be good for business.”
“You okay with that?”
“Is there enough around here to keep me occupied for a week?”
“I’m sure of it. Lots of things to explore. Lots of attractions.”
“Is that right?”
“I can guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself.”
“Well”—she rose out of her chair and turned, arms crossed under her perfectly formed breasts—“in that case, how can I refuse?” Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked across the room, toward the door. “Goodnight,” she called without turning around.
“Goodnight.” He watched her walk, barefoot, along the wooden veranda, her long blonde hair skimming her back and shoulders. His gaze dropped to her rear, perfectly enhanced by the worn jeans.
This was going to be an interesting week.

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