He is a football player, you know, the rough kind. And he has to deal, amongst other stuff, with a kitten. Somehow, it’s a picture I can’t wipe off my mind, and it makes me chuckle. Also, it makes me want to put this on my Kindle because seriously, the man is in distress, and I love reading about big, angry men in the sort of distress not involving weapons.
Even a hard man needs a soft side.
Marko Sendoa isn’t a beach man. He’s not an Auckland man. He’s a hard man. Born Basque, raised in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and bred on hard work, discipline, and getting the job done. It’s not easy for a rugby flanker to make it to age 32 at the top of his game, but he’s done it. Next year is the Rugby World Cup, and he’ll do whatever it takes to be on the field in the black jersey when the anthems are sung.
He doesn’t need a kitten.
He doesn’t need a pregnant cousin.
He definitely doesn’t need a too-short, distractingly curvy, totally unimpressed Maori barista and part-time pet portraitist who fills his house and his life with too much color, too much chaos, and too many secrets.
He’s getting them anyway.
Nyree knew it was two kilometers to Achilles Point. She didn’t look at her watch to see how long it was taking. The point was, she made it. She puffed her way up the final incline, which felt more like a mountain, tried to tell herself, Gorgeous sea view, and failed. Maybe it was the black spots that were swimming in her vision. She bent over from the waist to haul in a few precious breaths and focused on not being sick.
When she stood up again, she saw him. He’d just run the stairs from the beach. She didn’t even want to walk the stairs from the beach. And he wasn’t breathing hard.
He dropped to the boardwalk, began doing press-ups in a leisurely manner, and said, “I’ll take your apology now.”
“P-p-pardon?” It came out wrong. She still couldn’t breathe.
“I didn’t blame you at the start,” he went on, sounding as if twenty press-ups were nothing but a warmup. Which they probably were. He started them over again, then said, “I ran up behind you. Startled you. Fair enough. But afterwards? Did you thank me for my generous offer? Did you give me a dignified way out? You did not. You ran away and left me with a bona fide footy expert. I’m not even going to comment on the fact that if you’d let me turn off your headlights, you’d have been up here ten minutes faster.” He eyed her more closely. “Maybe fifteen.”
The sun was too hot, and her face was still dripping with sweat and probably flushed to beetroot state. Still, she felt a bit better. “Your new mate had something to say about your performance last night, did he? Could be you just lost to a better side.”
He hovered for a long moment at the top of a press-up, then leaped to his feet in one smooth movement. “Now, I call that cruel. And if you knew who I was, why did I get all that talk about Macing me? I was sweating.”
“You were not sweating. It takes more than that to make you sweat.”
He grinned at her, lifted the collar of his singlet, and wiped his face, exposing a flash of taut, ridged midriff in a quite possibly delicious shade of golden brown. And a thin line of dark hair leading south from his navel, straight into the top of those black shorts. “Could be you’re making me do it,” he said. “But I’m happy you’ve noticed.”
She tore her gaze away and back up to his face fast, but not before he’d caught her looking.
At fourteen, she’d thought he was her knight on a white horse. At seventeen, she’d learned better. Ten more years had done him some favors in the body department, but she wasn’t sure they’d improved his character.
She smiled back at him, saw the answering smile get cockier, and said, as sweetly as she could manage, “I’m so impressed by that, I’ve come over a bit faint. Time for me to go.”
“If you’re faint,” he said, “I reckon I’d better buy you lunch.” So confident, like he had only to offer himself up, and the world and all its women would be his. She wasn’t fourteen anymore, though, and she didn’t have any illusions about the romantic intentions of rugby players. Even All Blacks weren’t necessarily all they were cracked up to be.
“Cheers,” she said, “but no. I need to go. Thanks for telling me about my headlights. Goodbye.”
Sometimes, if you were very lucky, you got a second chance. You might still be able to fit your fist into your mouth, but at least the braces were gone, you hadn’t dropped any food, and you definitely didn’t feel like slinking away and dying.
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