Read The Most Magical Gift of All Online
Authors: Fiona Lowe
Her heart rate picked up as fear trickled through her.
Change the topic now!
âIt sounds like you want kids of your own, Jack.'
âMaybe one day, but right now I can't see past my trip.'
âStill, after the trip, if you decided that you wanted
to settle down and start a family that would involve a relationship, right?'
He tensed, his eyes wary. âWhat are you getting at, Sophie?'
The goddess woke up and saw a chance to talk about sex and touch base with the bad boy, hopefully bringing him out to play. Sophie smiled, loving the flirting rush. âWell, you have to have sex to make a baby, Jackâand isn't your insane “no sex in Barragong” rule going to make conceiving a tad tricky?'
His stunned expression was like that of a deer caught in headlights as he processed the fact that the situation had just changed. He shot to his feet. âDon't go there, Sophie. We've talked about why we can't have sex again.'
âBecause you believe you have to be an upstanding citizen.' She stood up; her towel fell from her waist and right on cue, his gaze fell to her hips. She stepped in close, her breasts mere millimetres away from his chest, gazed up into his eyes and spoke softly. âI think your reasons are based on an illogical rationale.'
âNo. They're. Not.' He ground out the words but he didn't move away from her, and raging need burned in his eyes.
âI don't want a relationship, Jack, and unlike your ex-wife I'm not going to tell you that you have to choose me or the town because I'll be moving on the moment my contract finishes. But here's the thing that I do want from youâDecember is really hard for me and I'm struggling in this Christmas-infested house. Sex with you would really help me out.'
A pulse bulged in his neck. âSex is your stress management?'
She nodded, realising with a start that he was spot
on with his assessment. âUncomplicated sex can be cathartic, Jack. It has to be better than the tension we've been living with this last week, trying to ignore the fact we both want to tear each other's clothes off every time we see each other.'
He jerked as if hit by an electric shock and then his mouth took hers, hard, fast and gloriously wicked. Her Jack was back. She gripped his shirt as her bones melted and she closed her eyes, wanting to block out everything except his wondrous touch and taste. He tasted of heat, of repressed need, of thundering and earthy lust, and she sucked it all in like a parched tree in the desert.
His fingers trailed across the thin Lycra of her bikini top and her nipples pebbled into hard, aching nubs desperate for the touch of his mouth. The strain of the last week fell away and nothing existed except his mouth on hers. She spun out on a stream of bliss as sensation upon sensation built inside her, sending her soaring towards the promise of ecstasy. Her head fell back and she heard herself moaning as his mouth trailed down her neck to the soft skin of her breasts. Heat pooled between her legs as he pressed himself against her, his arousal matching her own.
As his hands cupped her buttocks and she prepared to be lifted off the ground so she could wrap her legs around his waist, she doubted they'd make it to either one of their bedrooms. He suddenly pulled back and her eyes snapped open.
His chest heaved raggedly and a duel raged deep in the navy of his eyes: wildness and restraint. Need and duty. Longing and denial. His hands gripped her upper arm and his voice, raspy and hoarse, scratched her skin. âThere have to be rules.'
Her heart spasmed and her desire died. This wasn't
the Jack she wanted. The Jack she'd met on that first day wouldn't have had rules. He would have taken her offer and taken her right by the pool. But this was the constrained and caged Jack, and she wanted to shake him. She didn't want rules, she didn't want sensible, she just wanted to lose herself in him, live for the moment and forget.
Blinking back tears of disappointment, she stepped out of his grip. âRules are for wimps, Jack.'
His eyes flashed royal purple. âThat's rich coming from someone who's hiding behind sex.'
The arrow struck her with uncanny accuracy. âAnd you're hiding from the life you want.' She scooped up her towel and somehow managed to force her unsteady legs to carry her to her room.
Jack fell back into the chair, shaking as Sophie slammed the door to the east wing behind her. She'd offered him straightforward sex, no strings attached, but instead of taking it at face value, no questions asked, he'd tried to control her offer. He ran his hands through his hair. What the hell was wrong with him? His body called for hers constantly; it only took one whiff of her perfume and he was hard and fantasising. It had taken every ounce of his self-control, and then some, not to pull her down into this chair and take her on his lap.
She'd called him a wimp but there was no way in the world a wimp could have walked away from her offer. His request for rules was to protect Imogen. She needed stability.
The Armitages see the big picture, Jack. We're blessed with money and position and it's our responsibility to care.
His father's voice floated through him. âHell, Dad, the price is getting pretty steep.'
Was he hiding from life? He poured himself another
cool drink, envying Sophie the freedom she had in her life, the way she just went for what she wanted and roved the world, working and grasping life with both hands.
She's doing that because she's running.
With a shaft of utter clarity, he suddenly realised that perhaps the freedom he was so envious of wasn't really freedom at all. He wanted a break from Barragongâhell, he needed a long and relaxing breakâbut he wasn't certain he wanted to leave forever. Sophie hadn't been home in years and that in itself meant her perceived freedom to go anywhere she wished was a falsehood. He grimaced as he pictured her cutting response to
thought if he ever floated it past her.
I'm struggling in this Christmas-infested house.
Her obvious desire for him hadn't been enough to mask the pleading in her eyes. She wanted to use him to get through December. He scratched his jaw, the end-of-the-day stubble rough under his fingertips. He sensed she'd accepted her brother's probable death and had got on with her lifeâshe wouldn't have qualified as a doctor otherwiseâbut he acknowledged the association of the festive season with all the ensuing unhappiness, would make December a really tough month.
He sighed and slumped in the chair. He had two females in his home who really needed a positive and happy Christmas experience, but for two very different reasons. Exactly how he was going to achieve that was the big question.
Sophie peered at the list of reports she'd accessed online from the Flinders Medical Centre pathology department and made notes. When she'd come back from her early-morning run, Jack had greeted her with a smile. She hadn't expected that. Usually calling a man a wimp
meant he really didn't want to talk to you much after that. But Jack being Jack had confounded her yet again by not taking the expected path, and had added to the surprise by making her breakfast. Then he'd insisted she come to into work while Imogen was at kinder.
âYou're on paperwork only, and you can take the medical phone queries which will free up nursing time.'
But his expression had been loaded with understanding and her heart had quivered. He knew being in the decorated house on her own was tough for her and that coming to work would keep her busy.
âAnything we should know about, Sophie?'
The words brought her back to the here and now and she spun her chair around to Diana, who was standing behind her looking weary and rubbing her lower back.
âMr Rowan's blood cultures haven't grown anything so it looks like the fever's viral. I'm still waiting for his liver-function test results.'
Diana blew out a breath. âOK, so no changes to treatment at the moment?'
Sophie nodded her agreement. âBut you're looking worn out. Should you even be here with the baby so close?'
Diana gave what Sophie was learning was the laconic Australian shrug. âJenny Palmer's child is sick and Geoff's out mustering, so she needs to be at home. It's a crazy time of year and hard to get staff at short notice, so here I am.'
âAnything I can do to help?'
âReally, I'm happy to do anything that doesn't involve bodily fluids because of this hand.'
The nurse looked uncertain. âWould you mind doing the morning drug-round?'
âWhat's no problem?' Jack's genuine smile raced through dark stubble, curved around his dimple and sparkled in his eyes which were fixed on Diana.
A green flash of jealousy ripped through Sophie so hard it hurt. She'd seen him smile at Imogen like that, and now at Diana, but not at her. Since Parachilna his smiles for her were tight and so filled with tension they almost cracked.
âSophie's doing the drug round for me.' A patient buzzer sounded at the desk and Diana hurried off to answer it.
He leaned over the counter, staring down at her. âWill you have that done by noon?'
She wanted to reach up and bury her hands in his hair but she reminded herself that her desire was for the physical Jack and not this man of duty. âYes.' She gritted her teeth. âYou don't have a monopoly on duty, Jack. I don't break my promises, and I know I'm collecting Imogen from kinder at twelve-fifteen p.m.'
âActually, that wasn't why I was asking.'
His quietly spoken words added to her already jumbled and contrary emotions, and she wanted to scream. It should have been so simple: just sex. Jack wanted her. She wanted him. But he'd changed into someone she feared on a visceral level and knew she needed to avoidâthe caring man who deserved a family. The type of man she didn't want to like because the risk of hurting him was just too high. She'd learned from Simon, which was why she'd tried so hard to tempt the bad boy back out again so she could feel safe. But just lately, when
he looked at her as he was doing right now, she felt her resolve against the nice guy slipping.
She breathed in deeply. âWhat do you want me to do at noon?'
He gave her a mysterious smile. âI'll meet you here. By the way, have you got an update on Lara's pathology?'
Glad to be back on safe territory, she moved the mouse over Lara's name and brought up the file. âDo you remember how she'd had symptoms of Giardia or some other parasitic infection? Well, it turns out it was Crohn's disease.'
A contemplative expression crossed Jack's face. âAnd, undiagnosed and untreated, it perforated her bowel. She was damn lucky we were in Parachilna that night.'
She smiled up at him in total agreement. âIt was a good save. We do good work, Jack, and we're appreciated.' She wondered if part of his love-hate relationship with the town was due to feeling under-appreciated, or whether he was just frustrated by the delay in his trip. She pushed an envelope towards him. âWe got a lovely letter and card from Lara and Paul in today's post, thanking us for all we did.'
âThat was kind of them.' He pocketed the letter and gave her a wave. âClinic calls; back at noon.'
Sophie gave a weak smile and stood up to start the drug round, thankful she had patients to talk to who'd keep her mind off what Jack had planned.
noon Imogen rode into the hospital on Jack's shoulders, her eyes shining, waving a piece of paper like it was a flag. âSophie, Sophie, guess what?'
The child's enthusiasm was hard to resist and Sophie smiled. âI don't think I could possibly guess.'
âI'm the emu in the 'tivity play at kinder.'
âThe emu?' She shot Jack a confused look. âThey had an emu at the birth of Jesus?'
He winked. âAbsolutely. Along with three wise wombats, two kangaroos, a baby joey and a few scurrying bilbies.'
His warmth and humour washed through her and she hugged it close.
Let it go; not wise.
âAn emuâOK, then, obviously I'm not up to speed with things.' She smiled up at the little girl. âThat's brilliant news, Imogen.'
Imogen grinned. âAnd, Sophie, I gotta wear a costume and bring a plate of biccies, and Jack said we could make gingerbread men with lolly buttons.'
Sophie's chest tightened as she caught Jack's eye. âWe?'
A sheepish grin played across his lips and he jangled his keys as if to say, âwalk and talk'.
They headed out the door, the trip to the car hot and slow as Imogen excitedly told everyone she met about
the kinder concert. Jack strapped Imogen into her car seat, put headphones over her ears and pressed start on a talking book. She immediately started singing along to the opening music.
He swung up into the driver's seat, his body filling the seat and his aura filling the car. His arm landed on the back of her headrest as he reversed out of the car park. âNext stop, home.'
Her head started to tilt towards his arm as everything about himâhis scent of sunshine and work, his sparkling eyes, golden skin and his unexpectedly relaxed attitudeâcalled to her.
It's not your home; you don't want one, remember?
She straightened up, snapped her seat belt in place and shot him a questioning look. âLet's go back to the “we”, Jack.'
His sheepish expression returned with a plea-bar-gaining edge. âHere's the thing, Soph. I can follow a recipe and make a fair attempt at gingerbread, but I can't sew.'
She scoffed. âYou sewed up my hand beautifully.'
Apprehension crawled along his cheeks. âPut it this way, then, I have no clue about an emu costume.'
Panic skittered through her. âAnd you think I do? I'm English!'
âSo what are we going to do?' His voice rose uncharacteristically. âLast year Kylie took off in early December with Im and she missed out on being part of the concert, so it's really important that she takes part this year. I know the kinder teacher says keep it simple, but I also know there are mothers out there who've spent the last month making their kid a costume. Her costume has to be equal to theirs because I won't have Im feeling like she doesn't belong.'
His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel as tension rolled back in and he glanced at her, his eyes filled with such care and gallantry that Sophie had to stifle a gasp. She wondered what it would feel like to be the focus of such attention.
She bit her lip, holding the memories of Minty at bay, because she wanted to help but she felt totally clueless. âI don't even know where to start.'
He groaned. âI know what you mean. This is where we need Mum. She'd just go into the cupboard under the stairs, rustle around a bit and come out with the perfect thing.'
âThere's a cupboard under the stairs?' Sophie sat up a bit higher in the seat and tossed her curls back off her face. âI guess we start there, then.'
An hour later, Sophie emerged from the treasure trove that was the âcupboard' under the stairs, although it was really more like a small room complete with a sewing table. She walked into the sunroom, her hands behind her back. âHey, Imogen, where's Sheils?'
The little girl slipped off the high kitchen stool where she'd been âhelping' Jack bake and picked up the abandoned toy bird from the couch. âHere she is.'
Sophie glanced at the toy and couldn't help smiling at her perfect find. âClose your eyes, Imogen.'
Sophie breathed in slowly. âYou'll see.'
Imogen stared at her for a long moment, and a trickle of unease bubbled along Sophie's veins, but then the little girl closed her eyes.
Sophie knelt down so they were both at head height and wrapped a bright feather boa around Imogen's neck, the exact vivid blue of the toy emu's neck. âYou can open them now.'
Imogen did as she was told and when she saw the boa her eye's widened into pools of wonder. âI got a blue neck too.' She shot forward, her body slamming into Sophie's chest and her small arms looping around her neck in a full-on body hug.
Sophie nearly toppled backwards and she wrapped her arms around the little girl to steady herself. Imogen's body stayed snuggled in against her own, warm, trusting and giving, and Sophie hugged her back.
Deep down inside her, something moved.
But children aren't your thing.
Stunned and disoriented at the odd sensation that had come and gone so quickly that she wondered if she'd imagined it, she extricated herself from the child. âI'm glad you like it.' She stood up, brushing blue feathers off her shorts and walked into the kitchen, pressing a glass against the cold-water dispenser of the fridge. She drained it in one gulp.
âThat's a great idea, Soph, thanks.'
She turned to meet Jack's all-seeing eyes and smiling face, complete with flour on his cheeks, and her insides rolled again, only this time she recognised the emotionâlustâpure but, oh, so not simple. âIt's a start, and I know what we'll be doing tonight.'
His brows rose as if he was going to warn her again about not bringing up the topic of sex but he didn't say a word.
She tilted her chin. âIt involves feathers, a leotard, cardboard and a glue-gun.'
His eyes darkened to deep purple and his lips twitched. âSounds kinky.'
The glass nearly slipped out of her hand. Jack had just made a joke, the first one since he'd left for Parachilna, and a delicious warmth rolled through her. She laughed
and spun past him, loving the gleam in his eye. âThat depends entirely on where you put the feathers.'
He threw his head back and laughed.
âI want to make the lolly buttons.' Imogen clambered up onto the stool, still wearing the boa, and with Sheils tucked under her arm.
Jack's laughter lines morphed into a
serious expression. âSorry, but I don't think emus eat lollies or make gingerbread men.'
âIt's just me, Jack, and I'm a girl.'
He scratched his chin. âAre you? You've got a blue neck, which means you're an emu.' He pressed the cookie cutter into the fragrant dough.
Imogen quickly took off the boa. âLook, I a girl like you, aren't I, Sophie?'
The itch of her eczema faded slightly and she nodded. âYou're a girl, just like me. Let's put three sweets on the gingerbread man's tummy and one in our mouths.' A streak of lightness raced through her as she grabbed a handful of chocolate buttons, dropped them in her mouth and laughed.
Jack wanted to cheer. For the first time he saw real happiness in Sophie's eyes and he wanted to pull her against him and kiss her until they fell onto the kitchen bench and explored each other's bodies from top to toe, with or without chocolate sauce from the fridge. But he was wearing an apron, covered in flour and had a five-year-old girl in front of him wanting to cook. âHey, Im, are we going to let Sophie get away with stealing all the lollies?'
âSweets.' Imogen corrected him, using the English word and trying to sound like Sophie.
He laughed. âSweets or lollies, honey, she's eating way too many of them.'
âI promise I'll be good.' Sophie's eyes danced and her fingers darted towards the bowl.
âIm, it's tickle time.'
âOh, no.' Sophie dodged out from the kitchen bench and into the sunroom.
âGet her, Jack.'
Jack grabbed Sophie around the waist as Imogen hopped off the chair and threw herself at Sophie with a rugby tackle around the knees. Fingers tickled under arms, around waists and behind knees, and laughter rained over them all until, exhausted, the three of them fell onto the couch.
Sophie ended up across Jack's chest and Imogen sat on top of Sophie. Sophie's weight against his body reminded him of the day they'd met. The scent of her hair brought back the memory of how amazing it had been to bury his face in it, and her laughing lips taunted him that they could be his again if he chose. She reminded him of everything he'd given up.
You're hiding from the life you want, Jack
âI surrender.' Sophie gasped, struggled to sit up, and fell back.
Imogen crossed her arms and stared down at her. âWhat does that mean?'
Jack smiled. âIt means Sophie is going to be a good girl and do what we tell her.'
âI don't know about that.' Sophie tilted her chin back so her eyes met his and he recognised the need burning there as hot as his own.
I don't want a relationship, Jack, I just want sex.
There's more than one solution to every problem, son.
Jack couldn't believe he'd been so stupid.
Sophie managed to sit up and she lifted Imogen off
her lap. Rising to her feet, she tried to tuck her curls behind her ears, but it was a hopeless task and she gave up. Instead, she put her hand out to Imogen. âLet's get back to work, shall we? Those gingerbread men might run away if we leave them alone for too long.'
This time the British nanny sounded a lot more relaxed, and Jack smiled.
Sophie sat on the couch with her laptop, reading an email from her father filled with hints about her coming home for a visit, when she suddenly realised the house was uncharacteristically quiet. She glanced towards the corner of the sunroom where less than three minutes ago Imogen had been drawing at her little table. She wasn't there.
âImogen.' Sophie hurriedly pushed back her chair, and started walking down the hall towards the bedrooms. âImogen?' The room was empty.
She noticed that the door to Jack's mother's room was open and she walked in. âImogen?'
âI hiding here.' The little girl's voice was muffled.
Sophie opened the door to the
but it was empty. Puzzled, she called out again. âImogen, where are you?'
âIt's hidey. You have to find me.'
Sophie smiled at the five-year-old's version of the game where she'd forgotten to tell the seeker they were playing. âI wonder where you can be?' A moment later she heard a giggle.
She checked under the bed but all she could see were neatly wrapped Christmas gifts. Perhaps Jack got his organisational skills from Min. âYou're not under the bed.'
Another giggle. âI know.'
The only other place left was the enormous wardrobe with its intricate carving. Surely she wasn't in there? She put her ear against the door and said, âI'm coming to get you.'
She heard more muffled giggles.
Opening the latch, she pulled open the door. It was filled with beautiful clothes and boxes of shoes, and it was hard to imagine Imogen could possibly be inside. She peered under the clothes into the darkness and stretched out her hand, expecting to hit the back of the wardrobe, but she only touched space. She moved out some shoe boxes and crawled in.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she made out Imogen sitting in the far corner and cuddling Sheils. She reached out towards her. âGotcha!'
Imogen squealed with delight and sat in her lap. âLook, Sophie, Min has a light.'
Sophie saw an old-fashioned pull-cord light and she reached up and turned it on. They sat surrounded by shoes and clothes and hats. âThis is amazing.'
âI like to play here.' Imogen rested her head against Sophie's shoulder. âTell me the story about Christmas when you were a little girl.'
The familiar ache that always bored through Sophie when she thought of Christmas rose inside her, but she pushed past it, thinking instead of the Christmas in Surrey spent in a rambling house not dissimilar to this one. She remembered the glowing, open fires, a fresh pine-tree, snow on the ground, playing hide and seek inside the house with Chris and her sisters, and skating on the pond on Christmas afternoon. The memory made her smile. âWhen I was a little girl, a bit older than you, my brother and sisters and I built a snow man.'
âTell me another Christmas story.'
âMy mother used to make plum puddings and hang them in the attic.' Sophie leaned back against the back of the deep wardrobe and settled in for a story-telling session, because if she'd learned anything in a week it was that Imogen had an inexhaustible amount of questions.
âDr Armitage, we've located Kylie in Tamworth.' The voice of Carmel the social worker came down the line.
His anger bubbled out. âWhat guitar-playing country singer did she chase there this year?'
Carmel ignored his rhetorical question. âShe said she's interested in pursuing a career as a country and western singer and she's agreed to permanent care for Imogen.'
He grunted. âShe has this week, anyway.' Kylie had a history of changing her mind. He remembered the night he'd delivered the bright-eyed Imogen into the world, and the days following when Kylie had toyed with the idea of giving Im up for adoption, before changing her mind at the last minute and thus setting up the roller-coaster that was the little girl's life.
âNo, Jack, we were very clear on what that meant. We offered her extra help and support if she returned to Barragong but she isn't interested in being a parent any more. The only thing she was quite specific about was that she wants you and Min to raise her child.'
âRespite care is one thing, Carmel, but permanent care is a huge deal.' Jack rubbed the back of his neck, feeling trapped. âI can't make any decisions until my mother gets back, especially as I'm heading off on long-service leave for a few months.'