Yours to Treasure (ebook)
Yours to Treasure (ebook)
A celebrity chef returning home to face her past mistakes, a principled ex-rugby player who wants a life away from the spotlight, and a heartbreaking secret which threatens to tear them apart…
Celebrity chef Rachel Connelly has it all—brilliant career, friends and family. But, at 28, she wants a relationship with a man who doesn’t consider using compromising photos of herself to be a career move, and who doesn’t believe it’s his manly duty to make love to as many women as possible. After one failed love affair too many, she realizes she needs to sort herself out and there’s only one way to do that. Return to the place where it all began—Belendroit, her family home—and uncover the secrets surrounding a decision she made ten years earlier.
Ever since his birth mother uprooted him from his happy childhood, ex-professional rugby player Zane Black, has been determined to succeed—but only on his terms. He’s principled, he’s focused, and he refuses to compromise on anything. Particularly when it comes to protecting the two things in the world which are most important to him—his loved ones and his people. But when he has to hurt one loved one in order to protect another, his black and white world shatters...
- Yours to Give
- Yours to Treasure
- Yours to Cherish
- Yours to Keep
- Yours Forever
- Yours to Love
- A Place Called Home
- Secrets at Parata Bay
- Escape to Shelter Springs
- What You See in the Stars
- Second Chance at Whisper Creek
- Summer at the Lakehouse Café
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Rachel Connelly placed her jandal-clad feet either side of the dried arrangement which her father liked to call a ‘dormant’ camellia shrub, and gripped it as close to the base as possible. She gave a small tug to test. Nothing. This sucker was tougher than it looked. She took a deep breath and shifted her weight from foot to foot, gaining a more secure stance. Then she gripped it lower down and gave a short, sharp tug. It came away easily—too easily, Rachel thought with a small cry, as she found herself flat on her backside on the grass.
“Hey!” a voice called through the woods. “Are you okay?”
She turned to see runner’s shoes and legs—strong, brown, hairy legs—running up to her through the small copse of trees which lay between the house and the road. She twisted onto her stomach and looked up, at the same time as the knees bobbed down and a concerned face came into view. A strangely familiar face.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying, but not succeeding, to place the face. Another glance at the face and the familiarity receded. She definitely didn’t know this man.
“Here.” He reached out and placed a large hand under her upper arm. “Let me help you up.”
Before Rachel could reply, the hand lifted her as if she were a feather. She definitely wasn’t a feather.
“Oh! Well, thank you.” She slowly looked up, past running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt which revealed a body that was built. Really built. She didn’t know whether her gasp was audible or not, but by the looks of his grin, she suspected it was.
He ducked his head to inspect her face. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, it was only a tumble.” She waved around the dead shrub she was still holding, unable to move her gaze from his. “It came away easier than I thought.”
He looked at it with a smile. “It would do. It’s been dead these past couple of years. Like much of these woods. I’ve been wondering when someone would do something about it.”
“Ah, that someone is my father. And he’s still not convinced anything needs doing.”
“You’re one of the Connellys, then?”
“Yes. Rachel Connelly.”
He stuck out his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Zane Black.”
She frowned. The instant she’d seen him she’d thought she’d known him, but she didn’t. His name wasn’t familiar and she was sure she wouldn’t have forgotten someone like him.
She took hold of his hand and it felt good—big, strong, and yet gentle. It didn’t grip you as if it was trying to make you submit, trying to make you aware of how strong he was. There was obviously no need for that.
“Good to meet you, Zane. You live round here?”
“Yeah, in the next valley. Up from Ti Tahi Bay.”
There was a small flutter in her stomach. Ti Tahi. It sent memories flooding back of the time when she was only barely out of childhood and anxious to become an adult—a sexual adult.
“Ti Tahi,” she repeated.
“Yeah. It’s up in the hills near here. It’s a small community built around a meeting house. My ancestors have lived on the land for centuries. It’s steeped in history.”
You bet it is, she thought. Including mine. “Yes, I know where it is.”
“You do? Have you met my family?”
“No. Never. At least I don’t think I have.” She’d only known the boy who’d taken her virginity. She’d never met his family.
“I’ve seen you before.” He suddenly looked unsure, as if he suspected he’d said too much.
“Where?” Surely she wouldn’t forget someone as striking as him?
He looked around as if hoping someone would rescue him. There was no one. He turned back to her. “Oh, around.”
“You like cooking?” she asked. Most people recognized her from her shows.
He shrugged and looked even more confused if that was possible. “Why?”
“Just wondered… about where you might have seen me before.”
“Ah,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
“Rachel?” A voice came from the house behind them. She turned and saw her father, Jim Connelly, waving at her. “Amber’s been trying to reach you on the phone!”
“Okay!” she called, retrieving the quietly vibrating phone from where she’d left it, perched on a mostly empty wheelbarrow. “Excuse me,” she muttered to Zane. “Hello?” She half-turned away. “Amber! Hi! Yes, sure, I’ll be at the café mid-afternoon at the latest. See you then.” She smiled as Amber made kissing noises down the phone. She finished the call and glanced up to see a pair of interested eyes quickly look away.
“I’d better go,” said Rachel. “Things to do… Places to go…” She smiled uncertainly, feeling uncomfortable standing so close to this giant of a man who was clad only in brief shorts and t-shirt, exposing dark skin and a muscled body. Stunning, she thought, trying to keep her gaze away from his body, and focused on his face. Trouble was, that was impressive, too, in an uncompromising kind of way.
“Sure.” He grinned and his face lit up, softening his features and revealing perfect teeth. He looked like a different man. He took a few steps back and indicated the garden. “Go easy on the weeding.”
She nodded, and tossed the dead shrub into the wheelbarrow, feeling unaccountably shy. He turned away and began to jog back to the road. “See you,” said Rachel impulsively. Some urge made her want to say something more to him, to keep the connection going.
“Yeah.” He turned and grinned again. “You will.”
Rachel walked away, determined not to be caught watching him run along the road. She paused beside a tree. He wouldn’t notice now if she took a peek. She turned and soaked up the view of this tall, broad-shouldered man, running. It was the kind of jog which professional athletes do, the body powerful, contained, as if the effort were nothing, his arms and legs pumping with precision and total control. He looked like he could control anything. The thought made her go weak at the knees. At that moment he was about to round the bend and he turned and caught her staring at him. He grinned, a very masculine satisfied grin, waved and was gone before she could say, “caught red-handed.”
“Dad?” she called out, as she walked up to the house. He’d disappeared again. He disappeared every time she tried to sort out the garden. He’d always hated gardening, and it had to be said, he was particularly bad at it, and had always left it to his wife to do. But it had been six years since she’d died and everything was going from bad to worse. What was once charming, had now become dilapidated.
“Dad?” she called out again, as she walked up the steps to Belendroit. She looked around and then heard him. He was standing with his back to her, looking out across the bay, one of the old lanterns after which their bay had been named, jutting out from the house beside him. He was holding a phone and obviously intent on listening to every word. He suddenly guffawed with laughter. “Absolutely right, Laura, my darling. And if that ever happens again, you know exactly what to say to him.” He laughed again and then farewelled the newest member of the family.
“Darling!” he exclaimed, as he replaced the phone. “You’ll never guess who that was!” Her father always spoke as if he were on a stage. He’d multiplied the family inheritance through his financial investments but his first love had always been the theatre.
“Yes! She rang to tell me what she and Max have been up to.” He laughed at the memory of the conversation. “You’ll never believe—”
Rachel placed her aching butt into a chair and poured herself a glass of lemonade. Her father’s stories were notoriously long, often taking longer to describe than the actual incident itself. But this time she was interested in hearing about Laura’s latest exploit. Seemed marriage to her big brother, Max, hadn’t slowed her down in the least. She might have re-focused her energies into a smaller geography and be working alongside Max now, but their lives were pretty much the stuff of legends in the making.
Her father paused and looked at her carefully. “You look tired. I know you’re here to sort things out, but you shouldn’t exhaust yourself.”
“Someone has to,” she said pointedly. “That garden needs a good overhaul. Weeding, pruning… and all those other things which people do to gardens. I wish you’d let us hire someone to sort it out.”
He took a sip of the lemonade and narrowed his gaze, looking out at the overgrown garden, for all the world like a member of landed gentry inspecting his estate. Which, knowing their family tree, Rachel supposed he was. Maybe looking out at it now, he’d realize the state it was in.
“Wasn’t it a wonderful wedding?” He smiled at Rachel and she groaned. His mind was miles away from his surroundings, as usual.
“Yes, Dad, it was.” Rachel finished her glass and rose.
“Laura looked gorgeous, didn’t she?”
“Of course she did. I don’t think there’s any other way that Laura could possibly look.”
“And Max. I’ve never seen him happier.”
“Yeah.” Rachel softened at the thought of Max, remembering how he’d broken down in the hospital when Laura was ill. She’d never seen her big brother so distraught. She’d known then, that he adored Laura.
“I wish you would tie the knot.”
It was like a punch in the gut. You never knew when it was coming, but it came all right. She jumped up. “Yeah, right, Dad.”
She couldn’t take this any longer. Somehow, with unerring ability, her father found that small place deep inside her that was raw and hurting. He was right. She’d returned to sort things out. He thought she meant the garden and the house. And she did. But there was more to sort out than those things.
“Where are you going?”
“I told Amber I’d call into the café.”
Her father grimaced. “At least she’s not allowed to cook in the café. Give her my love. I don’t know why she took that tiny house in town when she has a perfectly good room here,” he grumbled.
“Maybe because she’s twenty and wants to spread her wings?”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “But hopefully she’ll come back. Just like you have.”
“Hopefully, unlike me, she won’t have to,” Rachel muttered, out of earshot of her father, as she grabbed her bag and headed for the shower. She was done with gardening for the day.
* * *
A few hours later Rachel gunned her red Mini Cooper down the road toward the small town of Akaroa. The roof was down and the sea breeze whipped up her hair. She tried to focus on the beauty around her, on the sun beating down on her head, but her father’s words had stirred thoughts she’d prefer to forget.
She parked the car some distance away from the café on purpose. As she walked past the school she glanced in. The school grounds were empty. She usually came later when the kids were on recess.
She swallowed her disappointment and continued on, lost in her thoughts. She glanced back at the school just as she was turning a corner. She stumbled into a wall, or not a wall, she thought as a hand reached out and held her steady.
“Hey, sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.” Then she looked up. “You!”
Zane Black grinned. “Yeah, me. And no problem. You were too busy looking at the school. Looking for your kid?”
She jumped back. “What? No! I mean, I don’t have a kid. I… well…”
“Sorry. I assumed… Anyway, are you okay?”
“Sure.” She flexed her wrist, realizing that it hurt most where he’d grabbed her. And looking at his hand, she could see why. It was the size of a dinner plate. She slowly looked up, past casual shorts now, and a different colored t-shirt. He’d obviously showered and changed, luckily not into anything more concealing. It would have been a crime to cover up that body. “So… this is a coincidence.”
He cleared his throat and looked briefly embarrassed before looking back at her with a lopsided grin. “Not really. I hear there’s a real good café round here.”
“Yes, I’m going there. It’s where my sister works.” It suddenly dawned on her that he’d overheard that much from her phone conversation with Amber. “Ah…” She raised an eyebrow, hesitating. Wasn’t she here to avoid all of this? To clear her head of distractions and sort herself out?
“I wondered if you’d like some company? I hear their iced teas are good.”
She laughed and glanced again at those broad shoulders and that gorgeous, heart-stopping grin and melting brown eyes, and the answer slipped out of her mouth before she had time to engage her brain. “You know, I think that would be great.” His grin broadened. “So, you enjoy iced tea?” she asked, as they walked toward the sea front.
He glanced at her as if she was mad. “Me? No way. Too fancy. Either beer or water.”
“Oh!” She didn’t think she knew any man whose tastes were so black and white.
“Is that a problem? I guess I’m not the sophisticated type.” He stopped walking. “Say so if you don’t want to go any further.”
She looked up at him and wondered if anyone ever did anything else but agree with him. He was at least six foot four and he spoke with an authority which seemed entirely natural. “We’re going for a cup of tea—or water—yes?” She wondered if she’d missed anything. Again that gorgeous grin.
They walked in silence to the door of the colonial-style building, with its big windows and high stud which overlooked the road and water, and walked inside.
“Rach!” squealed Amber, as she walked over. She was dressed all in black as was de rigueur in the cool café. “You’re here at last!” She gave her a big hug and only then looked behind her and her eyebrows rose. “And… you’ve brought someone.” She cocked her head to one side. “And not just anyone. Hello, Zane.”
“Hey, Amber, how are you doing?” said Zane, with a smile.
“Good, thanks. Is this a social call or are you here to eat?”
Rachel and Zane’s eyes met. “To eat,” they both said at the same time. They laughed and Amber looked from one to the other with interest, and showed them to a table by the window.
“I’ll fetch some menus while you… relax,” she said, smiling at Rachel, “and enjoy the scenery.”
Rachel watched Amber walk away and marveled once more at her sweet sister—stunning with her red hair and unencumbered for once by her hippy clothes. She turned to say something to Zane to find him watching her closely. He immediately looked away.
She smiled. “Seems you know everyone around here, except me.”
He held her gaze and looked thoughtful. He checked over his shoulder and shifted in his chair, then met her gaze once more, his eyes warmer. “I might not know you, but I’ve seen you around.”
“Oh… around town.”
Rachel frowned a little. Around town? Surely she couldn’t have met the only person around here who didn’t watch her TV show?
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No, not at all. It just feels unnerving when people know me but I don’t know them.”
“You’re not into rugby, then?” He looked up at her with a grin.
Suddenly light dawned and she sat back in her chair. “You’re the All Black!” She slapped the palm of her hand against her forehead. “Of course! I’ve heard about you. How could I have been so dumb?”
“Maybe because you don’t follow rugby?”
She laughed. “I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t. Probably the only one in my family who wouldn’t recognize you. How come you don’t play now?”
He tapped one sturdy knee. “Cartilage damage. I could have gone on and had an operation and driven my body into the ground, but there were other things I wanted to do.”
She was about to ask what those things were, when her phone buzzed and she took it out of her pocket. She glanced at it, heart sinking, and slid it onto the table away from her.
“Take it if you want.”
“No. It’s no one I want to speak to.”
He glanced at the image which had appeared on the phone. A frown briefly fell onto his broad strong face as she quickly switched off the phone.
“So… what were these other things you wanted to do?” she asked.
“Lead a real life.”
His answer was so profound, so unlike the superficial chat she usually had with men, that she was stunned. “That’s… that’s quite something.”
He cocked his head to one side. “Why?”
“Most people, from my experience, want anything but real.”
“They want glamor, excitement, sensation.” She waved her hands expansively. “Fame and fortune.”
“Is that what you want?”
It was a question no one had ever asked her before. People always assumed she’d sought out her high profile career for one reason—to be famous—and wished to continue on that path for the same reason.
“I… I’m not sure.” She shrugged. “Maybe I did once.”
He leaned forward. “And now?”
She felt uncomfortable. This conversation was getting way too serious, way too quickly.
“And now?” She laughed. “I’m here, aren’t I? In this backwater, tucked away from the rest of the world. What do you think?”
His face fell. He knew she was avoiding the question and was disappointed by the answer.
“Anyway,” she continued. “Where have you seen me before? I’m intrigued.”
“I run every day and I’ve seen you at the house on the point. In the garden. I saw you up a tree once.”
“The oak? Yeah, I managed to get one branch chopped, but the rest defeated me.”
“And I saw you trying to mend the fence last week. It didn’t look like you succeeded.”
“No.” She grimaced. “I didn’t. I only managed to wrench half the wretched piece of rotten timber and got a splinter for my troubles.”
“That’s no good. You need a man to sort things out.”
She bristled. “I don’t need a man to do anything of the sort!”
“Well, you don’t seem to be doing so well on your own.” His voice wasn’t accusative, he was merely stating a fact, but his words still rankled.
She took a deep breath. “No, I guess I don’t. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound short.”
“And I didn’t mean to sound like a male chauvinist. I simply meant you needed someone a bit stronger. I’m happy to help.”
She sat back in her chair. “I couldn’t. I mean that’s very kind of you, but we don’t know each other.”
“You know my name, you know I used to play with the All Blacks, you know where I live, you know I only drink water or beer. What else would you like to know?”
She shrugged. “What do people usually need to know about the other?”
“I’ll reel off some stuff and then you can tell me when you know enough about me.”
“I work here in Akaroa, as well as on the marae, and for the Ngai Tahu Tribal Council. I’m a straightforward man—I either like things or I don’t. Some people have called me black and white, but I prefer to see it as having old-fashioned values and knowing my own mind. Enough?”
“You can carry on if you like.” She could have gone on listening to him forever, continued to look into those wonderful dark brown eyes, allowing her gaze to stray over his strong face, sensuous lips and occasionally down to his muscled forearms which rested on the arms of his chair. He was a big man, an impressive man, and definitely a man comfortable in his own skin—from his calm and assured gaze down to his strong body, which was relaxed and at ease.
“The rest you can find out yourself. If you want to, that is.”
Again the uncertainty warmed her heart. It had been years since she’d met someone as endearingly uncertain about her as this man.
She smiled, determined to ignore the implication that he wanted to spend time with her. “I think that’s enough to be going on with. And, yes, that would be really nice of you, if you could help us out in the woods and garden. It’s a mess and beyond me. Dad doesn’t seem interested and refuses to allow his sons to work on it, let alone hired strangers. I’d have to clear it with him first.”
“Oh, I’m sure Jim will be okay about it. Whenever we’ve worked on community projects together we’ve got on fine. I’ll come by after work tomorrow.”
“You know my dad, too?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t know your dad?”
It was a reasonable question, given her father knew everyone in and around Akaroa, not only because he’d spent his whole life there but because he was as nosy as hell, and was a member of any club, any community activity, that was going.
“Hey!” said Amber, suddenly appearing and thrusting menus onto them. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything!”
Rachel looked up feeling strangely guilty. There might not appear to be anything going on, but in her imagination there was, and Amber had obviously sensed it. “Of course not.”
“Right, whatever you say.” But from her grin, Rachel knew she didn’t believe her answer. “So…” continued Amber. “What can I get you? We’ve some lovely cakes, including some I made.” She grinned. “The boss doesn’t know, but I reckon we needed some vegan, non-dairy options.”
“Thanks, Amber, but I fancy one of those custard squares today.”
“Sure. With Earl Grey tea?”
“That would be lovely.”
“And for you, Zane?” asked Amber.
“I’ll have the usual, thanks.”
They grinned at each other.
“You come here often?” asked Rachel.
“I bring my taua—my gran—in here when we’re in town, along with my sisters sometimes.”
“Your gran is so impressive,” said Amber. “She has great mana, great dignity. And she sorts you guys out like you were five-year-olds.”
Zane grinned. “That’s my gran. A force to be reckoned with.”
“Maybe, but she’s always charming to me.”
They both watched Amber walk away.
“That’s because your sister’s sweet,” explained Zane.
Rachel felt an unexpected twist in her gut. It was something like jealousy, she thought with surprise. She also hadn’t felt that in years. She glanced up at lips that weren’t full but were definitely sexy, and into thoughtful dark eyes which changed the twist into desire. She looked away quickly and poured herself a glass of water.
“Yes, Amber’s lovely. She wouldn’t hurt anyone, she’s as gentle as they come, and yet she’s strong about the things she believes in.”
They both looked up as Amber approached laden with food and drinks. Zane politely accepted a bowl of french fries and Rachel waited to see if he flirted with Amber, but he didn’t. Neither did he watch her walk away in her tight skirt—both of which Rachel had expected. She sat back and sighed. She really had been spending too much time with the wrong kind of man. And their behavior around women wasn’t the only difference. The men she’d been hanging out with worked in media, careers which didn’t tend to attract people who could lift a piano single-handedly, which the man sitting opposite her definitely could do. He was different all right, and that was no bad thing, given her track record.
“My kids love her,” he said.
There was that wrench in her stomach again. It was strange that this man could inflict so many contortions to her stomach in such a short space of time. Maybe different wasn’t so good after all.
“So how many kids do you have?” Rachel asked, in what she hoped was only a vaguely interested voice.
“Fifteen,” he said with a straight face.
“Fifteen?” She couldn’t get her head around that number.
“But of course I don’t bring them here all at once. That’s a treat if they’ve done something to deserve it.”
It could only mean one thing. “Like? Good marks or something?”
“Maybe. More likely a group of kids who worked well together as a team.”
She grinned. “Okay, you’ve had your fun. You’re a sports coach.”
“So, it’s teamwork you reward, not winning?”
“Me mahi tahi tatou, kia manawa nui, kia toa. The Maori rugby motto—work as one, in spirit and heart we are strong.”
“That’s so cool.”
He leaned forward and grinned. “And we love to win.”
She laughed. “So, you coach the local team… what else do you do around here?”
“I teach math and PE. I’ve seen you walk past the school. And I thought…” He paused. “That maybe you’d seen me. Haven’t you?” he asked hesitantly. “You seemed to be looking around pretty intently.”
She shook her head, alarmed that she’d been seen. She’d hoped she hadn’t been too obvious about what she’d been doing. “No.”
He sat back in his chair and laughed. “You really know how to wound a guy.”
“Because I’m a big macho man who likes to be noticed… especially by a beautiful woman.”
The blush started in the pit of her stomach and slowly rose—there was no stopping it—until her face was glowing.
“Hey, that blush made up for it.” Zane grinned and took another french fry. “Don’t tell me you don’t get called ‘beautiful’ all the time. You must be used to it.”
Rachel shrugged. “The world in which I work calls everything ‘beautiful’, nothing is ever less than superlative. I guess it sounded different coming from you.”
“Well, I don’t know where your world is, but I only ever say things I mean.”
“That makes you very unusual.”
“And that makes you very cynical.”
Rachel opened her eyes wide in surprise and lifted her cup of weak black tea, trying to hide her discomfort. She took a sip and their eyes met above her teacup. He looked concerned.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sure you’re not cynical. I didn’t mean to imply…”
“It’s okay. I just hadn’t thought of myself as being cynical. But I guess you’re right.” She replaced the cup in the saucer. “So tell me about you. How long have you been working as a teacher in Akaroa?”
“Coming up to a year. Before that I was based in Auckland.”
“But…” She frowned. “Your family is here, at Ti Tahi?”
His smile faded a little. “They are. But I moved to Auckland when I was ten.” He paused. “My mother lived there. She liked the idea of me living with her.”
“Like the idea?”
“Yeah. It didn’t last. With the help of my step-father who didn’t last much longer than me with Mum, I went knocking on the door of St Stephens. It’s a Maori boys’ boarding school. I decided pretty early on that was my best option.”
“They must have been surprised.”
“If they were, they didn’t let on. They got in contact with my whanau and I stayed that night and then for the next seven years.” He toyed with a french fry, dunking it into some ketchup and then wiping it off again, before looking up at her. “It saved my life. My mother wasn’t what you’d call maternal and the only other option, where she lived, was the gangs.”
“It must have been hard for you.”
He shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“And you returned. You don’t find Akaroa small after Auckland?”
“Yes. That’s why I came. I couldn’t stand the city. I couldn’t breathe.”
She smiled. “I was the opposite. I grew up in Akaroa and felt I couldn’t breathe so went to Wellington.”
“Could you breathe there?”
It was a simple enough question, but not one that had been asked before. She nodded. “For a while I thought I could. But it wasn’t the right sort of breathing, if you know what I mean. It just passed for breathing.”
“Then you should stay away. What is it exactly you do?”
She nearly choked on her tea. He really didn’t have a clue, and she decided to keep it that way. It was refreshing. He wanted to talk with her, to be with her, simply because of who she was, not what she was, or what she could do for him. “I’m a chef. All us sisters are foodies. My other sister Lizzi runs this great café in Tekapo, the Mackenzie country. I have a couple of commitments from my old job and then I’m free to decide what to do next. I’ll see what comes up.”
“Why not stay here? I take it that breathing is easier here?” he asked with that disarming grin.
“It’s better. Definitely better. But it has its challenges. Dad, being the main one.”
“I’ve always found your father to be pretty cool. He’s on the Board of Directors at our school and he seems to be one of the good guys.”
“He is. But he’s getting older and refuses to deal with things. Like the garden. Like the house. He sees anything we kids offer to do, or try to do, as an insult to him, as if we’re easing him into old age. We’re not, but…”
Zane slipped his hand across the table and placed it on hers. She stopped speaking and stilled instantly, glancing down at his large hand over hers. There was no pressure, no possessiveness, only a brush of comfort. She looked up into his eyes, their brown, darker now, like the best kind of dark melting chocolate, pure and delicious.
“But he doesn’t see it that way,” Zane finished her sentence. “It’s hard because you’re his kid. My father’s the same. I’m forever finding him knee-deep in mud trying to rescue a lamb or something. But we have our secret weapon—my gran. She’ll divert him and let us kids get on and fix things up. That way, it’s all done and he keeps his mana, his respect. That’s what your dad’s scared of losing.”
He withdrew his hand and Rachel felt its loss. Like a soft mohair blanket—light but warm—withdrawn on a chilly day. She shivered. Both at the loss and his words. He was right.
“How come you’re so wise?”
His grin cracked open his face, like a shaft of sunlight on his dark features. He shrugged. “Born that way, darlin’.” As soon as he said it, the grin faded, as if he was concerned that he’d been too familiar.
Rachel couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been worried that they’d been too familiar with her.
“I reckon you were. And I reckon your gran did a great job bringing you up in those early years.”
“She’d appreciate that. She’s always telling me what a fantastic taua she is. Trouble is, she’s right.”
“She sounds wonderful. I’d love to meet her.” The words were out before she could censor them. They came straight from a place she hadn’t spoken from for a long time. Her heart.
“Then you must come to the marae and I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
“That would be nice.”
“And I’ll come over and help sort your dad’s garden out.” He paused. “How shall I get in touch?”
She hesitated. She’d had so much bad stuff from her ex via her phone, that she was reluctant to give her new number to anyone. She pulled a napkin toward her, he passed her a pen, and she wrote the phone number of Belendroit on it. Somehow it felt right. More traditional.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’d really appreciate it. As would my brothers and sisters. And even Dad will eventually. But, you must let me do something in return.”
He frowned. “We’ve a fundraiser coming up. It would be great if you could help out.”
Rachel was disappointed. She’d thought he hadn’t known about her fame. But maybe he’d simply been clever in not acknowledging it. Because it sure looked like he wanted to use it.
“You don’t have to, not if you’re busy,” he said, obviously reading her expression.
“No, you’re helping me out, so it’s only right for me to help you. It’s fine, honestly. It’s what I do.”
“Well, if you’re sure. That would be great. I’ll ask the organizer to get in touch with you.”
“Sure,” she said with a tight smile, rising out the chair. “Look, I’d best get back.” She went to pay but he rose and placed his hand more firmly this time over hers as she brought out a note from her purse.
“Please, allow me. I butted in on your afternoon with your sister.”
Again, that feeling as if she’d stepped into a different world. The veil of suspicion, which had lowered at the mention of her involvement with a fundraiser, lifted. He was such a gentleman, and such a hunk, that instead of feeling suspicious about his motives, instead of feeling insulted that he wanted to pay, she felt wonderfully cosseted, like a treasure he’d found and wanted to protect from harm.
“Well, okay, thanks.”
Outside, the town was busy with tourists enjoying the summer sunshine on the beach and on the shady verandas of cafés, overlooking the harbor.
“It’s been great talking, Rachel. I’ll call you later, okay?”
She nodded. It was more than okay. Again that grin before he walked away. She watched him, unable to look away. Apart from the impressive physique, he was an impressive man. Confident in himself, sure of himself and—something she hadn’t thought about in relation to a man for a long time—he was kind. He turned suddenly and she was caught for a second time. She blushed and he grinned, before walking across the street and disappearing around a corner.
She was embarrassed to have been caught out—not cool, not cool at all—but the embarrassment passed. Cool was something for Wellington, not here. Cool was about appearances and it seemed Zane Black wasn’t concerned at all about them. He took things as he found them—if he liked them, that was. And, she grinned to herself, it seemed he liked her.
For a brief moment, she wondered what her future would have been like if Zane Black had been her ex-boyfriend from Ti Tahi Bay marae; if he’d been the reason that she’d returned to Akaroa, the reason why she kept looking into the schoolyard, trying to find a dark-haired girl of ten years of age. She wondered how different things might have been if Zane Black had been the father of her child.