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The first draft of Chapter 1 of Fearless.

1 (Only the Pretty Ones)

The rest of the world be damned, it was the sea he loved.

Pushed by the cool September wind, the rolling, breaking wave called to him like nothing else he’d ever known, and he answered. The farmers and fishermen might have loved spring, and the tourists loved summer, but for Ross Finch, autumn was Harbram’s finest season.

Not unlike her sister villages along the north coast of Cornwall, Harbram’s weather was rather temperate all year round; there wasn’t much significant variance between board shorts and rash guard shirts in June, and trousers and hooded jerseys in January. But the onset of autumn meant that the stinking mulching season was past, the fruits of those labours fully and readily available from Crispin’s, the local grocer on Thyme Street; and the herds of tourists – recreational swimmers, underfoot sunbathers, and amateur surfers – who had crowded the golden beach the whole summer through were long gone, now, making it the sole territory of Harbram’s own again.

Because it was the beach, and that beautifully clear, rolling sea that constantly swept over it, that really mattered to Ross: the sun-sparkling swells on which he’d spent nearly every moment of the last twenty-two years of his life. There had been, of course, the moderate breaks for necessary distractions like food and sleep and the occasional fulfilling fuck (though there hadn’t been quite enough of that last for his taste in recent months, the flashy, fleshy tourist season notwithstanding). But ever since he’d ridden his first little foam surf board at seven years old, he’d never quite looked back. Neither school nor work – not even two years at Her Majesty’s Ship Raleigh in Torpoint when he turned eighteen – could dissuade his interest in those waves. He was still in the RNLI even now, though that was mostly just to keep Mum happy (not because of Dad, no matter what anyone said). That, and he knew three times as much about steering a ship – even a tiny D-Class lifeboat like the one the volunteer corps used – more than any of the other sods in Harbram’s volunteer rescue squad.

The sea was the one constant in his life, as it was in the life of every villager. She gave and took in equal measure, unlimited in her bounty and untenable in her fury. She rocked him to sleep when she was calm, and she had him pissing in his boots when she crashed against the rocks around the lighthouse and lifeboat station. He never took her for granted, and she never let him down.

Which made her a damn sight more trustworthy and reliable than any actual woman he’d ever known.

So, not surprisingly, he loved the sea more truly and more completely than anyone or anything.

Even now, she whistled through his fingers, which he’d spread wide to catch her cresting foam curling above his head as he cut through her barrel with his favourite Rusty longboard, seemingly soundless but for the rush of air past his ears and the frothing churn of the rolling break left in his wake. Across his toes, too, she splashed, and into his face, pattering like misty raindrops against his skin.

She overtook him quickly, though (didn’t she always?); suddenly, he was no longer carving the path but starting to feel crowded by the press of her all around. So he got down low, crouching until his shoulders were almost over his knees to stay in the tube for as long as he could, protected from everything else.

Somewhere close by, he heard a hoot of warning or exultation, and then the wave came down upon him and his board, tumbling both between curling swell and full ocean. And if he could have done so in the water, Ross would have laughed.

As it was, he broke the surface a few long moments behind the still-moving wave with a grin, forcing saltwater from his nostrils and between his teeth.

Not far away, Neville hooted again. The other man was shoulder-deep in the water, too; he hadn’t fared any better in that last swell. But he was grinning, too, as he pulled his floating board back toward him.

Ross glanced behind him; his own board was bobbing in an almost lonely fashion upon the undulating surf, less than three metres away, like a lost toy. He pulled it close again by its leash, grasping it just as Neville came paddling up beside him.

Fancy one more go?” the other man asked around a toothy smile. “Or do you want to pack it in?”

Hauling himself up onto his board again, Ross snickered. “I never know how to answer when you ask me that question.”

Neville laughed, too, and then blew away a clump of long brown hair that had fallen in front of his eyes. “I’d be doing the packing, in that case,” he replied blithely.

Ross wrinkled up his nose. “Oh, mate, don’t…!” he groaned. “I don’t want that image in my head!”

Neville just laughed again. “Then don’t give me an opening,” he said. But then he cocked his head to the side, adding with another grin, “Or, do give me an opening, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Ross groaned once more, as he pulled his legs up onto his board again and dropped his hands into the water to start a slow paddle. “You are the most foul gay I know,” he muttered.

Neville followed him, still chirruping. “I’m the only gay you know,” he said. “You should consider it a privilege that I bare my soul to you.”

Just so long as you don’t go baring anything else at me,” Ross told him, and he glanced over one shoulder, to gauge the distance of the next wave.

A few metres away, the water was starting to rise and curl again, and toward it Ross gave a nod.

This one looks good,” he said, mostly beneath his breath, and he angled his board to catch the rise, not even bothering to check if Neville was going to follow him.

There was a familiar welcoming roar of roiling water behind him; he could almost feel it speeding up to catch him, like a wanting lover. Then he was up and standing and the water was all around him again, honest and clear and inviting, the finest mate he’d ever known.

It wasn’t just one more wave, of course; it was almost never just one more wave. So it was almost thirty minutes later, then – when the two of them were suitably and acceptably breathless, dripping water from hair and noses and chins and tracking it over the increasingly rocky beach as they walked back up toward the village proper with their boards beneath their arms – that Neville turned to Ross and asked, seemingly from nowhere:

You going to the Harvest Fete dance tonight?”

Ross stopped abruptly, the rubber soles of his canvas shoes nearly skidding over the flat rock. He faced Neville with a sneer. “Why in Hell would I want to go to that shit?”

Neville stopped, too, and shrugged his shoulders, as a look of startled and innocent curiosity crossed his normally serene face. “I dunno,” he answered. “Just thought you might be interested.”

Ross resumed walking with a shake of his head. “There’s nothing there to interest me,” he muttered.

Neville followed again, matching the other man’s stride. “I just thought, you know, everybody’s going to be there.” He looked sidelong at him, his mouth curling into a jaunty and coercive smile once more. “All the available girls in the village, at any rate.”

Ross shook his head again and gave a snort. “I’ve already had all the girls in this village worth having,” he said.

You never did get Jade,” Neville replied with another chuckle.

I said, girls worth having,” Ross corrected him, and kept on walking with another snort; Neville’s particular brand of animated and playful attitude was usually brightening, at least enough for a laugh, but right now he found it annoying.

It was true that Jade Macallain was one of the few women in Harbram whom Ross had been unable to coax or charm into his frameless double bed in the loft above the shop…but she was a special case. Just like with Neville, Ross had known Jade since they’d been schoolmates. And while the two of them had had a brief mutual interest in each other as teenagers, at the time Ross had known little more about the opposite gender than simply what made their blouses and skirts round out in such fascinating ways. But Jade, in typical coy female fashion, hadn’t been willing to enlighten him as to the precise reason for such. By the time he’d actually developed any kind of technique with women (almost three years later, after his two-year tour at Torpoint), she’d moved on to a series of conquests of her own, and the two of them had never crossed amorous paths in that particular way of possibilities since.

Not that he didn’t still try, of course…though he could have filled a book by now with all of the ways she’d turned him down.

Nor Sam,” Neville added now with a needling smirk.

Ross scowled. Jade was pushing it, but bringing up Samantha Hogget was just plain inexcusable. “Don’t mention that name to me,” he grumbled.

Neville twitched his nose as he leaned out over his board toward Ross. “Oh, are you still upset about that? That was years ago!”

Ross kept scowling.

Two years ago or no, Sam was still the only woman who had ever flat-out used him for her own purposes (not including Susanna, of course…but he didn’t like to think about Susanna). And, two years ago or no, the memory still stung. Not so much for her reasons (which had been selfish of her and humiliating for him, but at least he had understood the impetus), but for the way she’d confronted him, after a week of stringing him along with teasing smiles and tickled touches:

Don’t pretend you thought I actually cared for you,” she’d told him, with that same obdurate impassiveness that his instructors at the Raleigh had used to discuss helm commands and ship mechanics. “I only used you to make Freddie jealous.” And then she’d stood up from beside him with a fluttering of skirts, leaving him looking stupid and slack-jawed and staring after her, as she’d told him, “You know that I just did what you always do, to all the girls in the village.”

He’d never mentioned to anyone – not even Neville, whom he often considered to be his best friend, despite all of the mocking and needling – how he’d sat there on the beach after Sam had left, the echo of her stone-cold accusation ringing in his ears for far too long a time.

I think I’m going to give up women for Advent this year,” Ross muttered now with a duck of his head, ostensibly to watch his feet as they crossed the slick stones at the edge of the beach before the pier.

You abstain for Lent,” Neville said knowingly. “Not Advent. Besides,” he added, turning cajoling again with a snicker, “you know you can’t stay away from all those pretty, bouncy tits and arses. They’re the lifeblood of breeders like you!”

Ross wasn’t certain if he should chuckle or scoff. In the end, his response came out as a coughing, half-realised laugh from between the sneering curl of his lips.

Come on,” Neville offered this time, shrugging his shoulder close to Ross with one uneven step as they strode up onto the paved pier. “Let’s get something from Crispin’s before we head back to the shop. Dunno about you, but I’m starving.”

With an agreeable nod, the argument was gone and forgotten, and Ross gave a relaxed kind of sighing breath as he followed Neville this time, toward the wooden cart display piece in front of the grocer’s at the bottom of the hill.

From around a short line of customers, Andrea Crispin shouted to them at the doorway:

Don’t you lot dare track your water into my shop!” she scolded, pointing one long finger first at Ross and then at Neville. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon mopping up after Danny.”

Neville gave a quick and amused grimace, shooting it aside to Ross. “Yes, mum,” he muttered, easing back toward the street. “Mind if we get a few apples, though? They look gorgeous today!”

Ross offered the older woman a cloying smile. “Just like you, mum.”

You stifle your nonsense, Ross Finch,” Andrea told him with a disapproving frown, while the two men snickered to each other. “And get your bums back outside before I tan both your hides!” Then she craned her head toward the curtained doorway behind her, calling, “Danny! Your friends are here.”

Not a minute later, Danny came around from the back of the shop, wiping his hands on his semi-white smock as he walked toward the main entrance door. “What you two want?” he asked, and then picked up a pair of apples at Ross’s silent point and suggestion. He gave them a quick shine on his apron, then tossed one to one man and the second to the other.

We’ll pay you back later,” Neville told him, already crunching at the juicy meat as the three of them stepped outside.

Danny sniffed. “Sure you will,” he muttered. But then he shrugged, reaching out to touch the smooth fibreglass of Ross’s yellow-and-blue Redline board propped against the brick wall of the shop. “How were the waves?” he asked, changing the subject to one more favoured between the three of them.

Off the Richter,” Neville replied, and Ross agreed with a nod.

Danny gave a hum as he scratched at an errant bump on the board. “Weren’t shit this morning,” he said. “Nothing but white water. Couldn’t even catch a two-footer.”

Ross shared a sympathetic look with Neville, then grinned and punched Danny in the arm. “You still went out, though, yeah?”

Andrea Crispin’s oldest son grinned back. “’Course I did!”

See?” Neville said, and he turned and gave Ross a punch in the shoulder, now, for some reason.

Ross wrinkled his nose and rubbed at his offended arm. “What’d you do that for?”

You got to get out there, no matter what,” Neville told him with a bob of his head.

Danny looked them both up and down. “What are you two talking about?”

Neville nodded again, in Ross’s direction. “Tell this glib-tongued tosser he should go to the Harvest Fete dance tonight,” he ordered.

Ross scoffed and rolled his eyes away, as Danny turned to him.

Go to the Harvest Fete dance tonight,” the younger man echoed, then added, “…you tosser.”

Oh, shut up,” Ross told him.

Unwilling to let the subject drop, Neville pressed pointedly of a sudden: “What else are you going to do? Stay in your flat and wank off to pictures of Kate Beckinsale? You can do that anytime.” He swayed on one leg, leaning in toward Ross again. “Come on, Finchy. Come out with the rest of us. So what if you can’t pull-”

I didn’t say I couldn’t pull!” Ross snorted back at him. “I said there wouldn’t be anyone there worth pulling, that’s all.” He glared at Danny, too, now. “That’s why I’m not going. It’s just a waste of time.”

There was almost a minute of silence between them, uncommon when they weren’t on the water, and it made both Neville and Danny fidget and shift on their feet. Then Danny gave another shrug of his narrow shoulders.

Suit yourself,” he said, and he turned to Neville. “You can come with me and Jade, mate.”

At that, Ross lifted his chin. “…What’s that?” he muttered, as he narrowed his eyes at Danny. “Since when did you and Jade get together?”

Neville hissed, and there was a low smack! sound as he swatted Danny in the arm. His brown eyes flashed to Ross, as he offered something like an apologetic smile. “Ah, yeah,” he said with a drop of his shoulders. “We were going to tell you, but….”

…It just, sort of, happened,” Danny finished with another sheepish shrug.

Ross blinked at him, feeling his chest deflate.

Dark-haired Danny Crispin was his friend…but he was also skinny as a stick, and not terribly bright: as a Year Ten, he’d barely eked his way through his maths GCSEs. He was a passable athlete, but hardly in Neville’s or Ross’s league; when their crew (the three of them, along with Niall and Scott) had been training for the Quiksilver Skins competition, Danny had almost always come in last, whether it was running, swimming, or surfing. And all that wasn’t even to mention, working in his family’s grocery, stocking fruit and veg all day in between breaks for the waves, he likely didn’t clear fifteen thousand pounds in a good year.

And Jade had still passed on Ross for that?

Fuck, but that was a blow to the ego. Now he really did want to go back to the flat and drown his pities in a good wank….

You’re not upset about this,” Danny abruptly ventured in a halting voice. “Are you?”

Ross looked up at him with another blink. Then he let go a hushed breath that was almost a sigh, but not quite.

So what if Jade didn’t know a good thing when it came knocking? Danny was all right (despite the obvious flaws). And the poor sod obviously carried a torch for her. Who knew? Maybe they even deserved each other.

No,” Ross told him with a brief shake of his head. He pushed an unaffected smile to his face and gave the younger man a pat on the shoulder, in an effort to be casual. “No, of course not. Why would I be upset?”

Well, after what happened with Susanna-” Danny began, but Neville quickly shut him up with the swiftest and firmest punch in the arm he’d yet given him.

Danny flinched, but Ross just tongued the front of his teeth, poking at a sliver of apple caught around one eyetooth. “Yeah, whatever,” he answered, and he tossed the core of his eaten apple into the husk bin beside the door.

Neville shot him another hiss, and Danny mumbled, “Sorry,” into his chest. Then he pressed his lips together and tilted his head in the direction of the shop. “Uh, I’d better get back to work,” he said. “See you later?”

Yeah,” Neville replied. “Maybe.” Then he gave an unenthusiastic wave of his hand before grabbing his board and following Ross at a trot.

They were halfway up the bend of the street before Neville caught up to him, nearly at the surf shop.

Sorry, mate,” Neville murmured, gesturing over his shoulder toward the grocer’s and the way they’d come. “I’m sorry. Danny’s a good guy, but he’s just…he’s a dullard. You know? He didn’t mean anything by it-”

Whatever,” Ross said again, cutting him off. “I don’t much care. And it’s ancient history, anyway.” And he forced another happy-go-lucky grin that he didn’t exactly feel, but it usually worked well enough to distract the ladies.

Neville wasn’t a woman, of course (although he wasn’t far from it), but the result was still the same. He peered at Ross with a faintly cautious and somewhat curious smile, bending his head near to ask, “…Yeah?”

Ross gave a swift nod. “Yeah,” he echoed blithely. “Lots of fish left in the sea, right?” Maybe not like Jade or Sam (…or Susanna…), but what could they have really offered him, anyhow? Listening to them yack on about work at the bar or in the office; boring nights in front of the telly eating take-away; maybe a fine shag once in a while, but probably not enough to keep him satisfied. No, despite the twirl of some of their skirts and the squeeze of some of their pullovers, the women he knew (especially the ones who’d turned up their prissy noses at him) had little to offer him in exciting or stimulating companionship. He was better off on his own.

The two of them stopped before the surf shop, settling their boards against the chiselled brick wall, and it was then that Neville asked again:

So, does that mean you’ll come to the dance tonight, then?”

Ross snickered. What better way to rub Jade’s and Sam’s noses in his resiliency than to show up at the local losers’ parade with his chip firmly on his shoulder? “Yeah, why not,” he drawled, as he peeled open his collar and reached behind him, to grab the leash on the zip of his wetsuit. Now he grinned, mostly earnestly, adding, “Maybe if we’re lucky, the PC’s wife’ll get pissed and fall out of her dress again!”

Neville laughed as he did the same. “She almost did that the other day,” he said, “at the pub. Did you hear about that?”

Ross pulled the back of his suit open, water trickling free from against his tight-fitting rash guard shirt as he turned to the task of manoeuvring his arms loose from their sleeves. “I’m not surprised,” he answered with a laugh of his own. “Have you seen her tits lately? She’s like a cow walking around on its hind legs!”

She’s nursing,” Neville told him in a tone that made it sound like he was making an excuse for the constable’s recently overly-busty wife…but he laughed, too, even as he eased his hand beneath the shoulder of his suit. “And I thought that’s what you liked best about your birds?”

She’s got to have a decent set on her, yeah,” Ross agreed as he finally peeled one arm free. Then he felt his lips curl into a wicked snicker, and he added, “But so long as she’s got a fine jack and danny, I can forgive whatever’s up top.”

Neville paused with one shoulder out of his suit. “That must be what women find so attractive about you,” he muttered with a sarcastic sniff. “Your sensitivity.”

Ross grinned back at him. “Like you’re so much better, you crafty butcher! I saw you checking out the summer tourist buffet.”

Neville shot him a silent sneer, then reached out with one hand to give Ross a shove, sending him to the ground with his body still caught in the tight wrap of his suit. But then they both just laughed again, tossing puckish jokes and impish insults back and forth between them for the rest of the afternoon. The prankster attitude faded, though, after they closed up the surf shop (early, because there weren’t any classes today, and there wasn’t much rental business without them) to get ready for the evening’s festival dance.

With the exception of his three wetsuits and an assortment of rash guard wear, Ross’s closet didn’t have much beyond basic casual attire, most of it tee shirts, boardies, and khakis. But he didn’t think this locals-only party deserved much more effort than that. So he ran his hand through his jagged, shower-damp dark blond hair, checked the state of his shave, and then trundled down the stairs of the flat toward the shop below, whistling lowly between his teeth.

Neville was already waiting, checking his button-down shirt cuffs in patient distraction. At the sound of Ross’s approach, he stood up from leaning against the front counter, straightening the legs of his fitted trousers as he did so, an easy smile already on his face. But then it quickly fell, as he looked the other man up and down.

You’re not seriously wearing that?” Neville asked, his nose wrinkling up in not-well-hidden disapproval.

What?” Ross countered, shrugging his shoulders in his long-sleeve fitted tee. “It’s supposed to be casual.”

Dressy casual,” Neville corrected.

Who are you, my mum?”

Maybe you should have had her dress you,” Neville muttered with frowning disdain. “She likely would have done a clear sight better than…whatever you call that ensemble.”

Ross snorted. “Oh, piss off, you leary poof.”

I may be a poof,” Neville replied, without shame, “but at least I know how to dress for a party.” And here he lifted his arms in a half-shrug and turned left and then right on his waist, in dramatic presentation. His longish hair tied back in a ponytail, it only swayed a little as he cocked his head to one side at Ross, as though challenging him to disagree with this self-assessment.

Unfortunately, Ross could do no such thing.

Whatever Neville’s sexual proclivities (and about that Ross had never pressed for any sordid details: because they were friends; because there seemed to be a dearth of openly out homosexuals in their tiny country hamlet; but mostly because he just didn’t want to know, frankly, what his friend could possibly find sexually attractive in someone who wasn’t a dishy female with smooth legs and a round arse and bouncy tits), he was an impeccable judge of both clothes and characters. Ross often found himself standing in silent and bemused awe of his friend’s ability to turn on the charm with women on the beach or in the shop or at the pub, and yet have absolutely no interest in wanting to take that interaction to the next level. Part of the other man’s aplomb with women was just his personality, of course (Neville was, admittedly, an almost universally friendly and accommodating guy – that was why he taught the beginners’ surfing classes at the shop), but Ross was certain that females also noticed Neville because of his looks.

Because that was just how women worked.

Snorting a low breath, Ross now crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Remind me again why I should make anything more than a basic effort for this?”

Neville let go a low breath, too, but his came out as a weary-sounding sigh. “Because I know the way you think,” he said, and he offered Ross a faint and knowing smile. And when he next drew another breath and opened his mouth to speak, what came out was an almost-non-stop and eerily accurate rattling off of the inner workings of Ross’s mind:

You’re my best friend, mate,” he said. “But you are also a vain bastard bordering on narcissistic, and I know that you would like nothing more than to walk into that hall tonight and have Jade and Sam and every other woman in attendance take one look at you and decide that you are, categorically and without contention, not only the most eligible but also the most desirable heterosexual man in the entire room. And when, after an evening of showing off just how eligibly desirable you are, one of those women asks you to come home with her, you can then turn around and reject her with the unflappable self-assurance and bullet-proof ego of a handsome rogue who has nothing better to do than break pretty girls’ hearts with your killer smile…because there shouldn’t be any woman in her right mind who can turn down the incomparable Ross Finch and not regret that decision when she goes to bed at night.” He paused for a single breath, his gaze steady and piercing. “Do let me know if I’ve left anything out?”

Ross shifted his lower jaw to one side and then back again; damn Neville and his x-ray vision. After a long moment, he muttered through mostly-clenched teeth: “You are not wrong.”

His friend’s smile returned, briefly, a mark of victory. Then it fell again, and he gestured one arm in the air. “Well, none of those women is going to give you a second glance if you’re wearing jeans and your Newcastle United shirt. You’re not Becks, man; you can’t get away with that shit.”

So what are you suggesting I do wear?”

It seemed as though Neville didn’t even need a second to consider the question. “What about that slim-cut black jacket you’ve got?” he said, and then he made a quick up-and-down motion in front of his neck. “The one with the zip collar.”

That one is rather tight.”

Tight’s good,” Neville told him. Then he grinned. “Tighter the better, in fact. Trust me, you look hot in that.”

Ross glowered at him. “Please tell me you haven’t been checking me out this whole time,” he muttered.

Not to bum you or anything,” Neville assured him with his usual easygoing composure. “Just making observations. Oh, and real trousers,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “Neutral-coloured, if you’ve got ’em, but anything that’s not white or black’ll do.”

Ross rolled his eyes but didn’t complain further. “Anything else, Tyra?”

Neville smiled smugly again. “I can only work with what I’ve been given,” he replied. “I’m not a magician.”

It was far easier to do as Neville requested than to stand there and argue with him all evening (and, as much as Ross might not have cared to examine too closely the reasons behind any “observations” his friend was making about him, when Neville said you looked hot, you indeed looked hot). So twenty minutes later, as he stepped into the village’s festively-decorated town hall, Ross found himself in the decreed ensemble of close-cut collared jacket and tan khakis (a look of which Neville had distinctly approved with a teasing waggle of his brows as he murmured, “Dishy!”).

There were plenty of faces he knew (most of them, actually) – Scott was on the temporary half-stage playing cliché dance hall hits on his bass with the band; Niall was hovering near the refreshments table, double-fisting drinks and appetisers; even the village’s recognisable old guard was playing at being young and stylish by making fools of themselves on the dance floor – but no one worth taking his hands out of his pockets and doing anything more than stepping out of their path or offering a passing nod or civil smile as he eventually made his way over to a tall cocktail table pushed against one wall, to survey the floor over a weak bitter and carrot and celery sticks.

Neville had followed him, but not at pace. Instead, he’d broken stride every few seconds as he’d crossed the floor of the hall, to exchange politely idle chatter with this or that villager, to grin and laugh with a few drunken cohorts, even to spin and dance for a bit with a cluster of tarty young gossips.

Ross blew a disgusted breath into his pint, riffling the liquid inside.

Where in Hell were Danny and Jade? Or Sam and Freddie? He was almost even willing to take his chances with seeing Susanna tonight. Somebody whom he could impress with his imperturbability…!

After almost thirty minutes of waiting for one of his old would-be or could-have-been conquests to show, Ross was ready to tell Neville that maybe it would be better for everybody if he admitted defeat for tonight’s plan (which he now had to acknowledge had been pretty damn stupid and more than a touch petty), and just go home. It was still early, but he could get a good night’s sleep and start tomorrow off right with some waves at dawn.

Though when he turned to Neville to say as much, it wasn’t the other man standing near his side, but a petite blonde girl he’d never seen before.

Even at a second’s glance, she was quite darling: twenty-something, young and very firm, in a tartan orange mini-skirt with solid black tights and calf-high boots that made even her shorter legs look like they went on forever. Up top, she wore a sheer, rose-coloured pullover that was basically see-through over a tight-fitting camisole with lightly lacy trim. He wouldn’t have called her very buxom, but where curves mattered – legs, hips, waist, tits – she certainly had them, and in a most delightful combination. His brain even wondered briefly if, when the main door to the hall opened again and the evening breeze blew in, she might give a little shiver and her nipples might perk against her vest top….

Hi,” he said, and with a slow and curling smile he shifted automatically and effortlessly from his sullen mood of a second ago into confident pick-up mode.

The girl returned a sparkling smile of her own, her blush wine lips mesmerising with their smoothness, fullness, and shine. He almost didn’t hear her when she said hello back to him; it had been too long since he’d kissed lips that fine, or felt them rolling over his cock.

He pulled a deep breath through his nostrils, silently willing himself to slow down; it wouldn’t do anything for his first impression if he popped a stiffy at her after just saying hello. That was strictly pimply-faced, squeaky-voiced teenager shit; Ross Finch was far more suave than that.

Introductions first, then; after that, they could move on to the more interesting stuff. “I’m Ross,” he said simply, extending one hand to her.

She took it and squeezed at his fingers. Her hands were soft, but her grip was strong, though not in a forceful way. It was almost as though she were grateful for the offer of his hand, and likely for his attention, too.

Fuck, pulling this little bird was going to be easy!

Amber,” she told him, her smile softening. He liked that look of her, too: still eager and interested but somehow gentler, now.

I haven’t seen you around before,” he said, and, in an effort to look nonchalant, he relaxed his stance, leaning back on one elbow against the rise of the table. “You here visiting someone?”

She shook her head, and he noticed of a sudden that she had subtle curls in her flaxen hair, like the glassy waves that rolled in at low tide when there was no wind. “Just moved,” she explained. “From London.”

London,” he echoed with mild interest. So, no naïve bumpkin, then, to be beguiled simply by a devilish smile and a cocksure swagger. That was fine, though; he appreciated a bit of a challenge.

Welcome to Harbram, then,” he said, and he smiled again, half-teasing but mostly charming. “I’d hazard to say that it’s a far more enchanting place with you here, now.”

She blinked her eyes – they were a strange shade of almost brown but not quite, little green flecks scattered among the maple whole, like leaves too stubborn to vacate the branch after a frost – as though surprised. But then she grinned, dropping her gaze and her chin toward the floor as a delightful pink blush flushed her cheeks.

I’ll bet you say that to all the new girls,” she said as she raised her eyes to him again; he was pleased to see that he hadn’t been imagining those dappled green specks.

Only the pretty ones,” he admitted truthfully, and then he shrugged his shoulders, unconcerned. She’d likely heard just as silly lines in London, probably more.

She didn’t walk away, though, and she didn’t stop smiling. In fact, she took a step toward him, her arm touching the edge of the table. “You think I’m pretty,” she said; it didn’t sound like a question.

Ross snickered; this girl was brassy, too. Nice. “I think you know the answer to that,” he replied, and he lifted his chin, to offer her an appraising look from down the straight line of his nose.

Glancing over her head, he caught sight of a familiar face – Sam – standing with Freddie on the opposite side of the hall, across the dance floor, where Neville had changed dancing party partners from the teenage gossips to their forty-something equivalents.

Ross felt his smirk jump a little as he saw Sam stiffen up when she looked his way. Then he turned back to Amber with his best winning smile. “So, what brings you?” he asked her, now.

Amber tilted her chin to one side. “You seemed lonely,” she said plainly. “Everybody else is dancing and having a good time, but you’re all the way over here by yourself. I thought you might like some company.”

This time it was Ross’s turn to blink in surprise. (Lonely? Where did she get that?) But he only flustered for a second, before he chuckled and cleared his head with a gentle shake. “I meant, what brings you to Harbram,” he clarified.

Oh!” she said, her eyes momentarily going wide. “Um, well, my mum was born here. But she left a long time ago. I’d never been, but she always said it was the most lovely place she’d ever lived. After she died, I thought, why not?” And here she gave a low and off-handed shrug of her shoulders, making her breasts bounce a little beneath her top.

This girl was nothing if not scrumptious, and so Ross just trusted his tongue to lead the way. “Well, if you want someone to show you around,” he drawled, “stop by Fearless sometime. I’ll be happy to give you the grand tour.”

Fearless?” she repeated quizzically, her pale brows peaking.

He nodded and smiled again. “It’s the surf shop at the bottom of Anchor Street,” he told her, “by the dock. I’m always there.” He thought a moment, then added, “Or out on the water.”

A surf shop,” she echoed, though she didn’t sound that surprised. When he nodded again, she did the same, and muttered, “That explains it.” But before he could press her about just what that was supposed to mean, she asked, “So…are you?”

Am I what?”

She dipped her chin, to look up at him through her drifting, side-swept fringe, and another smile came to her lips, one much more elfin and fetching than any to have come before. And then, in a hushed voice that he nonetheless managed to hear perfectly even through the lively music and chattering party-goers, she prompted:


Ross felt his nostrils flare, in eager anticipation and of their own accord. “You’ll just have to find that out for yourself,” he told her, in a voice pitched equally low. Then he swayed up from his leaning stance, to stand up close over her; she barely came to his shoulder even in her boots, but he liked the way she looked up at him, with her head tilted back to show off her neck and, beyond that, the scooping collar of her pullover.

He eyed her figure for a second longer, and then reached out with one hand, to stroke two fingers very lightly and lazily over her sleeve, down toward her wrist. “Care to dance?” he asked, just as he grazed the skin of her hand.

She stepped into his space, turning her hand in his so that their palms touched, and drew a long breath that made her chest puff. There was no chilling breeze – not that he could feel, anyway – but he distinctly noticed her nipples starting to strain against her top.

She smiled, a pleasing mix of coy and coltish. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said, and the squeeze of her fingers was once again gentle but strong around his.

She stepped back then, slowly, and he was about to follow, when something like the roar of waves over the surf in a storm nearly blew out his ears:

What in the bloody Hell do you think you’re doing?!”

Ross looked away from Amber at that moment, to see Sam barrelling toward him, her paisley skirts and ringlet curls flying as she pushed her way between a pair of dancing couples, who had frozen on the floor at her outburst. Freddie was a few steps behind her, and he paused briefly to apologise for the interruption before striding along again after Sam, no doubt to offer backup if it came to blows…which Ross didn’t put past that loud-mouthed ginger skirt.

Oh, push off-” he began, when Sam gave him a shove in his chest and instead grabbed Amber by the arm, yanking her hand from his.

Sam!” Amber cried, tumbling against the other woman. “What are you-”

You keep away from him!” Sam growled at the smaller girl. She pushed Amber toward Freddie, barking, “Get her home. Now!”

We were just talking-” Amber started to say, but Freddie shook his head.

You don’t ‘just talk’ to his lot,” he muttered as he started to lead her away.

Ross didn’t have time to react to that insult, though, because in the next second, Sam was up in his face, her nose wrinkled up nearly into her forehead, like the furrowed snout of an angry dog.

I’m warning you, Finch,” Sam said in a low and threatening snarl. “You lay one finger on Amber, you misplace one hair on her head, and I will have you strung up in the town square so fast that the gulls will be at your intestines before your head stops spinning!”

One of the older dancers who’d stopped at Sam’s first shout – Caroline Heller, the schoolmarm and doctor’s wife – coughed in shock and offence. “Samantha!” she scolded. But neither Ross nor Sam looked her way.

Sam was still glaring daggers…but as he glanced for a second at Amber being led toward the door (her head half-turned over her shoulder, with her golden hair curled beneath her chin like a tiny wave as she looked back to him), Ross almost smiled as he started to put the pieces together.

When he’d seen Sam recognise him from across the hall, he’d thought he’d pressed her jealousy button, but that hadn’t been it. She specifically didn’t want Amber to be with him. That meant that the two women were connected somehow, even if Ross didn’t know in exactly what way. Family, perhaps, or friends of some kind. Regardless, it was bound to drive Sam bonkers if he could get Amber to fall for him. And, judging by the events of just the last few minutes, that didn’t seem like a difficult prospect, at all.

Oh, this was going to be brilliant.

Ross couldn’t have helped the smug smile from forming on his face even if he’d wanted to. He leaned his weight on his back foot and crossed his arms in front of his chest, lifting his chin. “Oh, I haven’t done anything to her,” he said, and then he felt his smile turn to a grin, which wolfishness he didn’t even try to hide. “Yet.”

Sam’s nose quivered, and Ross would have sworn that she was about to start smouldering from beneath her tight red curls at any minute. Then she thrust her finger into his face, pointing between his eyes. “You keep your distance,” she warned lowly. Then, with one last snarl, she spun on her heel and pushed her way through the dance floor once more.

This time, the party-goers parted for her like the Red Sea for Moses, and as Sam stalked away toward the door, where she snatched her coat from Freddie, Neville approached Ross, looking back over his shoulder as though he half-expected Sam to come charging back at any moment, fists swinging. She didn’t, though, just shoved her arms into her coat and started to hustle Amber up the steps of the hall.

What’s up Sam’s duff?” Neville asked, still glancing between Ross and Sam.

Ross held his ground beneath Sam’s parting glare, flicking his eyes away for just a moment to follow Amber’s embarrassed but sexy slink as she walked between Sam and Freddie to the door. “Don’t rightly know,” he muttered back to Neville. Then, as he watched the way that Amber walked, and the shift of her hair as she turned her head, and the delightful sway of her slender body, he said, “But I do know one thing.”

Neville looked at him. “What’s that?”

Ross nodded at Amber’s back, as a chuffed grin spread wide across his lips. “I am having that girl.”