Perhaps the woman called Kiara who owned and ran the Two Tails rescue centre was a fan of Italian food. Or maybe spaghetti and tinned tomatoes and onions and garlic were things most people had in the pantry. Not everyone had pots of basil growing on the kitchen windowsill, however. Or a chunk of parmesan cheese in the fridge.
Not everyone had a gorgeous-looking Italian man to take over a kitchen and create the most delicious smelling food, either. Maia was quite happy to lean against the end of the bench, sipping a surprisingly nice red wine and watch Leo work. Pleasantly tired after a long session of exercising several dogs, cleaning out pens and sorting meals and medication she knew she’d made the right decision to stay here and help out at Two Tails. She was not only distracted from any disturbing memories—she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
‘Have you had a look around this house? It’s full of the most amazing old stuff. Like some kind of museum.’
‘Not really. By the time I read up the instructions for the formula, got Cassidy to finish his bottle and then settled him into the pouch, I thought I’d better get started on dinner.’
‘Cassidy?’ Maia was laughing as she glanced towards the cardboard box that held a handmade pouch full of a sleeping joey. ‘As in “Hopalong”?’
‘You got it.’
Oh…that grin. The sparkle in those dark, dark eyes. Leo had that European kind of male charm going on, didn’t he? And Maia could appreciate it because she knew he wasn’t going to hit on her. She was completely safe. Which was exactly what she wanted.
‘Are you hungry?’
Leo expertly twirled the spaghetti onto plates and added shavings of parmesan. ‘Where shall we eat?’
‘It hasn’t started raining yet. Could we sit outside? I love that we’re in the middle of the forest here.’
‘Sounds good to me.’
They sat on the steps that joined the wide veranda of this tumbledown old cottage to its rambling garden in this forest clearing. When they’d finished his impressively well-cooked meal, they stayed sitting on the steps, sharing the rest of that great bottle of wine.
The companionable silence was broken by a mournful two-note cry.
‘Is that an owl?’
‘I reckon.’ Leo nodded. ‘We’re out in the wilds here.’
‘This garden isn’t so wild. I can smell something gorgeous.’
‘Is it?’ Maia turned to smile at Leo. ‘You know about everything, don’t you?’
He didn’t return her smile. ‘I’ll never forget that smell,’ he said quietly. ‘My wife wore those flowers in her hair when we got married.’
Maia’s breath caught in her throat. For some reason, she’d assumed that Leo was not interested in another relationship because his marriage had been so unhappy, but the tone of his voice suggested something very different.
‘You really loved her, didn’t you?’
‘We loved each other. Too much.’
It was all too easy to sense that this was not a happy story. ‘Sorry… I didn’t mean to pry.’
There was no sparkle in his eyes as they caught her gaze this time. The darkness in them was sad enough to pull at her heartstrings hard enough to hurt.
‘I never talk about it,’ Leo said. ‘But…that smell…it brings everything back.’
It felt like he wanted to talk about it, but it was too painful. Sometimes, they were the things that needed talking about the most.
Maia’s voice was no more than a whisper.
‘We met at medical school and it was love at first sight.’
For the first time ever, Leo wanted to tell someone his story. No, not just someone. Maia. Because he knew how rare it was to find the kind of trust that seemed to have been between them from the moment they’d met.
‘We got engaged the day we graduated and we spent that whole night making plans for our wedding and where we’d work and where we’d live and when we’d have our babies but…it was already too late.’
Too late…? Maia didn’t have to say anything aloud. The question was there in her eyes.
‘She got diagnosed with cancer a week later. She battled it for a few years. We both did. But it was a battle we were never going to win. Sophia’s last wish was to have the wedding we’d planned. With all the people we loved around us. With her wearing her beautiful dress and with the frangipani flowers all through her hair.’
There were tears in Maia’s eyes now. She knew…
‘It was a living funeral. We all got to tell her how much we loved her. Me, most of all. I was the happiest—and saddest—man on earth that day.’
Had he taken hold of Maia’s hand himself or had she taken hold of his? Not that it mattered. He laced his fingers through hers, accepting the comfort.
‘It’s nearly ten years ago,’ he told her. ‘I should be able to get over it and move on with my life, like my mother and nonna tell me I have to, if I ever want to be truly happy again.’ He squeezed Maia’s hand gently. ‘I should be more like you. I love the way you’re celebrating having survived a loss that must have hurt so much. You’re braver than me.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The smile she offered him wobbled a little. ‘I’ve never had a one-night stand. I haven’t even kissed anyone since…since then.’
Since some bastard had dumped her having made promises that should have been for the rest of their lives. Since she’d been made to feel that she wasn’t good enough to marry?
Maia was a stunning woman and as she’d said herself, she’d had a hell of a year. She needed to know that she deserved way better than that. That it was a good thing she hadn’t ended up marrying someone that didn’t appreciate her enough.
He couldn’t think of what to say, though. Not when he was caught by big, brown eyes that still held a glimmer of tears. Not when that gaze was holding his own as if what he thought was suddenly the most important thing in the world.
But maybe he didn’t need to say anything. He could let her know what he thought of her in a different way. He could offer her something she might not realise she needed. Something that might help her move into the kind of future she really deserved.
Could a kiss be that something…?
Leo was looking at Maia’s lips now and a silence had fallen which made it obvious that she knew what he was thinking. If he lifted his gaze, he’d know instantly whether it was something she wanted. And if it wasn’t, he’d let it go instantly and have another sip of his wine instead.
He looked up. Then he put his wine glass down and took Maia’s glass from her unresisting fingers to set that down on the step beside his without breaking that eye contact for even a heartbeat.
And then he touched her jawbone very lightly with his fingertips before slipping them beneath her hair and around her neck and cupping the back of her head as he leaned down to touch her lips with his own.
He only closed his eyes the moment he saw Maia’s drifting shut.
Oh, dear Lord…
That first brush of Leo’s lips against her own…
Maia could almost feel some kind of imaginary power cord attached to her body and plugged into a socket on a wall. She could see the switch that had been turned off a year ago and…she knew the instant it was flicked back on.
A part of her that she’d truly believed had probably died had just come back to life. The tingle of sensation from that oh, so gentle contact between lips was running through her entire body, lighting it up as it went. With increased pressure and then the slide of Leo’s tongue against hers, that internal light coalesced into something incandescent, deep in her belly.
Desire. Pure and simple.
Maia wanted this. Not simply sex. She wanted this man. She wanted his touch on her body. To see desire ignited in his eyes. To feel him as intimately as it was possible to feel another human being.
That first kiss ended slowly. Reluctantly. Even when there was a tiny gap between their lips, it got closed again instantly and it was impossible to tell who had decided they weren’t ready to stop yet.
When they finally drew far enough apart to see each other’s eyes, Maia felt like she was falling into Leo’s. That, if he kept a hold on her, she might even drown.
His voice was like liquid on gravel. ‘Do you want this, Maia? As much as I do?’
She could only nod. She didn’t trust herself to say anything out loud.
‘Are you sure? When it’s only going to be one night?’
She nodded again. That was why she was so sure, wasn’t it? This could only ever be a one-night stand and that was what made it safe. What made it possibly the biggest step she could make in moving forward with her life.
How wrong had she been to believe she never wanted to be this close to anyone again? Maybe she’d just needed to meet Leo. To learn that there was a different way to look at satisfying a physical need without risking heartbreak. That she didn’t need to always be alone in bed for the rest of her life.
It was still scary, though. The owl hooted again as they stood up to go inside and it reminded Maia that she was alone with a man that was virtually a complete stranger, in a patch of forest on the edge of a vast wilderness. It wasn’t the idea that she might be physically in danger that sent a chill down Maia’s spine, however. She couldn’t quite shut down the tiny voice in the back of her head that belonged to the man who had jilted her.
Sorry, but you’re just not enough for me, you know? Especially in bed…
If her hand wasn’t enclosed by the warm grip of Leo’s fingers, Maia might have chickened out as they walked back into the house.
‘What about Cassidy?’ she found herself asking as she saw the kitchen door. ‘Does he need feeding again?’
‘Not yet,’ Leo said. The softness in his eyes told Maia that he understood how nervous she suddenly was. She knew that she could back out of this if she wanted to. She could decide that she needed to check on the rescued dog in the clinic again. Or, she could just say ‘no’ and have no doubt that it would be respected.
But Maia didn’t want to back out.
Her heart skipped a beat, in fact, as she realised that she wanted this more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.
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