Authors: Tracey Alvarez
Hide Your Heart
Far North Book 1
Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
Tracey Alvarez/Icon Publishing
PO Box 45, Ahipara, New Zealand.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Book Layout ©2013 BookDesignTemplates.com
Cover Art by Kellie Dennis at Book Cover By Design
Hide Your Heart - Tracey Alvarez -- 1st ed.
For Toni…my best friend in ‘Bounty Bay.’
You’ve always had my back and cheered me on.
Thank you. Love you, hun. xx
Lauren Taylor smacked the steering wheel. “Right. It’d better work this time, or I’ll kick the bumper so hard it’ll pop out the exhaust pipe.”
Giggles erupted from the passenger seat and she shot her four-year-old son, Drew, a weary smile. Her station wagon had skidded off the gravel road in the rain, and the front wheels were wedged in a muddy ditch. After stuffing branches under the tires for traction, Lauren had returned to the driver’s seat cold, wet and gritting her teeth at her own stupidity. Raised in New Zealand’s subtropical Far North, she knew better than to trust the unpredictable summer weather.
She turned the ignition key, and the engine coughed to life. “Please,
work this time.”
Remembering Todd’s instructions, Lauren trod on the clutch and slotted the gearstick into reverse. “C’mon, old girl, you can do it.”
The steady pressure on the gas pedal as she teased the clutch pulled the car backward over the branches in jerky hops. Mud-slicked tires hit another slippery patch, and one wheel rotated with a high-pitched hum. Lauren kept her foot down, as if sheer will alone could drag them from the ditch. Black smoke poured from the tail pipe. The motor stalled, the station wagon sliding back into the thick mud.
She leaned her head against the seat. Tears prickled in the corners of her eyes.
Drew patted her arm. “Don’t cry, Mummy. We can stay in the car tonight and have a ‘venture. I’ll be okay without my nightlight.” His voice quavered on the last word.
Ever since they’d fled their Manhattan apartment two years ago, Drew needed his nightlight to keep the multi-limbed monsters in his head at bay. But better his imaginary monsters than the one on two legs who still stalked Lauren’s nightmares.
She squeezed her son’s hand. “Don’t worry. It’ll take more than mud to stop me from tucking you up in bed tonight.”
Java jumped over the stack of luggage in the back seat, and a warm tongue licked the back of her neck.
“Back you go, boy.” Lauren pushed the dog’s black and tan head away from her shoulder.
Java whined but returned to the rear of the car.
Lauren ruffled the spill of dark curls across Drew’s forehead and undid his safety belt. “Mummy’ll get out again and have another go. Taylors never give up the fight, do they?”
Drew shook his head and grinned. “Never, ever.”
No. Never, ever again. “I won’t be long.”
Rain pounded the roof, a relentless roar drowning all other outside sound. With a bracing breath, Lauren opened the door and lowered a foot straight into ankle-deep mud.
“Why don’t you move back to Bounty Bay with us?” She mimicked her brother’s cheerful voice. “You’ll have privacy galore, surrounded by native bush seething with history.”
History? More like prehistory. Even the cellphone coverage up here was spotty at best.
Great idea, Todd.
Lauren climbed out and slammed the door before the wind could snatch it from her hand. A howling gust hurled a volley of raindrops at her face. She smoothed her hair and swiped rain, like cool tears, from her eyes. Fists on hips, she sloshed around to the hood to consider her predicament. Though her first attempt hadn’t worked, it wasn’t too shabby an effort. For a city girl.
Except she was no longer a city girl.
She grimaced at her watery reflection in the windshield. A clump of mud inched down her cheek, and her tee shirt clung in sodden wrinkles. Oh, if the tabloids could see her now.
With an unladylike snort, Lauren smeared the mud off her face. Back to business—more
branches ought to do it. She braced her knee to climb out of the ditch, but a chunk of dirt shifted and collapsed beneath her foot, wrenching her ankle to the side as it slid backward. Lauren sprawled on the road and her startled cry flushed a family of quail from the bush.
“Mummy? Mummy!” Drew’s muffled shouts were followed by a frantic knocking on the car’s window.
She rolled over to wave at him and sent him a shaky thumbs up.
Lauren used her shirt to blot the blossoming specks of blood on her palms. Goddammit that stung! Teeth clenched, she tested weight on her ankle, but jolts of agony arrowed up her left leg. Walking home was not an option.
She crawled onto the road and using the car’s hood, hauled herself upright.
Drew wound down the window, his nose peeping through the small gap. “Mummy, are you okay?”
Stuck on a little-used road in the rain with daylight fading? She was anything but okay.
Lauren forced a breezy note into her voice. “I’m fine, sweetie, just a little ouchy.”
The unmistakable rumble of an approaching engine catapulted her heart into her ribs. Teeth mashing her lower lip each time her left foot touched the ground, Lauren hobbled to the center of the road. A black Range Rover crested the hill. Caught in the beams of the headlights, she raised a hand and squinted at the vehicle.
Too expensive, too fancy, and too clean for a local’s.
The pitch of the motor dropped as the Range Rover coasted to a halt a dozen feet behind her station wagon. Wipers swept rhythmically across the glass, blurring her view of the driver.
The engine died, and Lauren’s stomach twisted into macramé-tight knots. She debated the wisdom of letting Java out to stand beside her. Injured and facing a stranger on a deserted road, she figured the dog’s stocky body and wicked incisors would be reassuring.
Drew’s nose and palms pressed against the misted windows, as he no doubt watched her move farther away from their car. No…Better if Java stayed with her son. Nobody would hurt Drew with a hundred pounds of Rottweiler protecting his family.
Nobody would hurt Drew, period.
A huge blue and white umbrella unfolded out of the vehicle, followed by two legs clad in a masculine-sized pair of gumboots. The driver nudged the door shut and ploughed through the downpour like a striped galleon, only his oilskin coat and denim-clad calves showing. He stopped in front of her and lifted the umbrella so it covered them both. Wiping rain from her eyes, Lauren glanced up—way up—into startling green eyes.
“Looks like your car is well and truly stuck. Do you need a hand?” His gaze travelled down, and his brow creased. “Wait a sec—are you hurt?”
“W-What?” Lauren’s thoughts leaped to the raised scar on her cheek, the first thing most people noticed. But no, the man’s gaze didn’t shift above her legs. Of course he was talking about her injuries. One vertebra at a time stiffened as she transferred her weight onto her good leg. “It’s not that bad.”
“You’ve grazed your knees, and your ankle’s starting to swell.” His tone was that of a teacher explaining a difficult concept to a child.
He stared down at her, and his advantage of at least three inches made her feel dainty at five-foot-ten. The suggestion of broad shoulders under the oilskin caused a pearl of sweat to gather on her top lip.
He was too big, too close, and too vividly male.
“Really, I’m fine.” Lauren half-turned toward the car. “I just need someone to—”
“Sure, hold this a moment.” He shoved the umbrella handle into her hand and crouched at her feet.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up. Blue-tinted light and shadow played over the slight kink marring his otherwise patrician nose. One wisp of brown hair in the center of his forehead flicked off in a winsome cowlick, but nothing else about his cool expression gave any indication of a matching personality. Her eyes widened, riveted to the long fingers reaching for her ankle.
A tall, dark-haired man with large hands
…She forgot to breathe as memories flashed into her mind.
The perfume of red roses clogging her throat, mixed with the feral stench of fear—her fear. The coppery taste of blood slick on her tongue. A hand clinching her ankle, grinding bones together as he dragged her along the parquet floor.
The man’s fingertips brushed a trail across her puffy flesh. Lauren’s head spun in carousel circles.
“Don’t.” She lurched backward, jolting her full weight on her injured ankle. Her knees buckled, and her vision blurred into hazy greens and greys.
A hand gripped her elbow as the world tilted sideways, and then arms scooped her up against a broad chest. She blinked, cold rain and sheer determination keeping her from fainting.
A car door slammed, and a dog barked.
“Put my mummy down, you big bully!”
Her son ran toward them, his trembling fists raised in a boxer’s stance as he tried to defend her. Jagged pieces of her heart plummeted to the ground.
Drew stomped on the man’s instep with his little gumboot. “Put her down or I’ll—I’ll set Java on you.”
The arms supporting her knees and upper back flexed. A voice grunted by her hair, whether in laughter or pain she couldn’t tell. Slight movement as the man twisted to stare behind his shoulder. Java’s bark turned into a growl.
“Your mum’s hurt. I don’t think she can stand by herself at the moment.”
The man’s voice sandpapered her skin, abrading what remained of her nerves. She wriggled in an attempt to ease out of his arms. Java’s growls exploded into a series of deep, echoing barks, but the man didn’t flinch or loosen his grip. He was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Stone chips rattled as Java edged closer.
“Drew? It’s okay.” She kept her voice pitched in a calming monotone. “I got a little bit dizzy, and Mr.—?”
“My name’s Nate.”
“And Nate caught me when I started to fall.” Lauren pushed her hand against a chest with all the flexibility of sculptured marble. Did he have to hold her so tightly?
Drew cocked his head and stared in solemn silence. She could almost see his thought process, using four-year-old logic to determine whether this adult was trustworthy.
“And you are?” the man asked.
She slanted a peek at his chin, and another cloud of dizziness fuzzed her mind. Good question. Who was she, really? Sexy Lexy, short-lived catwalk darling? Alexandra Lauren Knight, the mogul’s ex-wife? Or just Lauren Taylor, Drew’s mum and nobody noteworthy?
Lauren inhaled the subtle spice of the man’s cologne. It did nothing to calm the storm manifesting inside her. “
A beat passed, a gap of expectation as if he waited for more information or the innate friendliness of most New Zealanders. Well, he would wait. Uncomfortable as this situation had become, she didn’t owe him access to her world.
Java advanced into her line of vision, hackles lifted in a spiked trail along his spine.
She held out a palm. “Java. Friend.”
Java’s growl tapered off to a loud pant, and Lauren breathed easier. The last thing she needed was a publicity circus should her dog attack.
“I’m all right now. You can put me down.”
The eyes that clashed with hers were the color of seaweed eddying under a turbulent ocean, but beneath their cool depths she detected a shimmer of humor.
He tilted his face toward her car. “Lady, you’ve proven you’re not fit to stand, let alone drive.”
“I’m quite capable—”
Before she could finish her argument, a hand tugged on the hem of her shirt.
“Mummy,” Drew stage-whispered. “It’s almost night time. Can we go home now?”
Nate’s car could tow hers from the ditch, but unable to put any weight on her left ankle, she couldn’t drive a stick shift. She swallowed her unease, lifting her chin in response to the man’s quizzically raised eyebrows.
“I’d be grateful if you’d stop at my brother’s house and let him know where we are. He’s ten minutes farther along the road.”
Drew tugged on her shirt again. “I don’t wanna stay here. Can’t the man take us home? It’s not far.”
“Drew, he’d already be going out of his way by stopping at Uncle Todd’s.”
“I’m happy to take you both home.”
Her scalp tingled as she scanned the man’s face, trying to gauge his intentions. His eyes reflected only keen intelligence, but intellect sometimes masked a violent nature. A lesson she’d learned the hard way.
Nate lowered her to the ground and stepped away to pick up the umbrella from where it had fallen into a puddle. “You and your boy have nothing to fear from me.”
“I don’t even know your last name.”
“Fraser. Nathan Fraser but I go by Nate.”
“Nate Fraser?” She scanned his face, the ripple of unease inside her muting from shout to whisper as recognition dawned. “As in the photographer?”
“I’m a photojournalist.” He shook out the umbrella, offered her the glimmer of a smile. “Photographers capture nouns; photojournalists shoot verbs.”
“You published a book of photos a couple of years ago?”
He nodded. “You’ve heard of me—so you don’t need to be afraid, right?”
“Right.” Though the idea of getting into his car chilled her blood, at least they’d have Java with them should he try anything funny.
“So, how about you make up your mind before it’s pitch black outside?”
Drew wrapped his arms around her leg. “Mummy, I want to go home now.”