Switching It On

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Stimulated, Book 3

Lexxie Couper

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-944003-20-3

Copyright © 2016, Lexxie Couper.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Sydney, Australia

They say she’s a real ball-buster.”

Michael Bailey gave the man beside him a sideways glance, noting Julian was attempting to hide his mouth with a mug of steaming coffee. The fact the extroverted, in-your-face weather reporter was attempting to hide his mutter with a hot beverage from their new executive producer spoke volumes to Mike.

Returning his attention to the woman currently crossing the conference room on legs any hot-blooded male would give his left nut to feel wrapped around his hips, Mike felt a familiar knot twist in his gut.

It seemed he wasn’t as prepared for Lena Wilkes to be back in his life as he’d hoped.

Fuck.

“I heard,” Julian continued, his voice the epitome of a conspirator’s whisper, “she fired the main cameraman on her old news program the day after his wife was told she had cancer because the poor bastard missed his cue by thirty seconds.”

Unable to stop himself, Mike ran his gaze down Lena’s body. As always, it looked incredible. She’d never been skinny, but the voluptuous curves she had were toned by dedicated hours on a StairMaster. The silk, black sleeveless shirt she wore for today’s introductory meeting showed off her arms, shoulders, and breasts with just the right amount of professional flirtation. Her burgundy pencil skirt highlighted the subtle strength of her thighs and calves, along with the narrow dip of her waist and the perfect form of her butt.

On her feet were stilettoes Mike guessed to be somewhere in the six-inch range. That would put Lena at five feet seven. Barefoot, the top of her head reached his solar plexus.

“And the network backed her up,” Julian’s voice sounded both mortified and awestruck, “because the news program jumped five points in the ratings the week she took over the EP role.”

Mike’s gut knotted again, dragging his stare from Lena to his own lukewarm coffee.

He remembered the incident Julian was referring to well. It turned out the cameraman had fabricated the cancer scare to avoid being fired for being drunk at work. Not a smart move. Mike had been there the night the drunken cameraman caused major problems during a live feed.

He’d been the program’s main sports reporter. He was sitting behind the desk, waiting for the camera to cut to him when the Ando—the cameraman—completely missed the cue. As a consequence, the female news anchor had been caught on live television scratching her nostril with a well-manicured nail.

He’d enjoyed working for that program. There’d been a real sense of fun there. He’d been earning almost six-figures back then just for talking about something he loved. He was earning more than that now, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing really was, since—

He killed the thought and took a sip of coffee. Was there any chance he’d get through this meeting without Lena acknowledging he was there?

No. What chance is there you’re going to get through it with your balls intact?

His balls. God, the last time his balls and Lena had been in the same thought, he’d been staring at a yellow-gold band sitting at the bottom of a loo.

“I also heard,” Julian went on, obviously hell-bent on drawing attention to himself and Mike regardless of their new EP’s reputation, “she took her ex-husband to the cleaners. Eviscerated the poor bastard through her lawyers. Took his dignity and his Maserati. All because of unsubstantiated rumours the guy had a thing with their dog-walker.”

“There was no thing,” Mike growled, before he realized what he was saying.

Everyone in the room snapped their attention to him. Everyone—News at Nine’s two news anchors, the program’s producer and associate producer, the news director, the social media manager, and N@9’s three news writers.

And Lena Wilkes.

At Mike’s side, Julian let out a surprised snort.

Mike bit back a curse, drew a deep breath, and met N@9’s new executive producer’s steady, ice-grey stare.

“Lena,” he said. He curled his lips into the patented Michael Bailey smirk, the one that had landed him the title of TV Week’s Sexiest Man on Television three years running.

He’d always found the accolade a laugh.

Until that title was used as a weapon against him, of course.

At the end of the table, Lena Wilkes raised an eyebrow, her own lips curling. Fuck, those lips… He hadn’t thought of those lips in quite a while.

Quite a while.

Bullshit. You thought about them last night. Wrapped around your—

“Mikey,” Lena said, her husky voice going straight for his jugular.

Mike slumped down in his seat, threaded his fingers behind his head and let his smile turn toothy. “Ah, c’mon, Button. You know how much I hate the name Mikey.”

Something dark flickered in Lena’s grey eyes. He’d only ever called her Button after crazy, wild sex. The kind of sex that left one person questioning how they’d existed without the other in their life.

For five years he’d questioned that very thing every time he and Lena lay together in their marital bed, sated and panting and glistening with sweat.

Five years.

And then seven and a half months ago, one psycho dog-walker with a serious crush climbs into said marital bed while Lena is out of town. Not just climbs in, but takes selfies of herself naked beside him while he’s equally naked and sound asleep.

Takes selfies and posts them on Instagram.

And before Mike knew it, he was being handed divorce papers.

Divorce papers he’d yet to sign. In fact, where the hell were they? Somewhere in his apartment.

Maybe.

Hmm, he should look into that.

“Let’s get this meeting started, shall we?” Lena’s voice filled the stretching silence. A silence Mike recognized as awkward and curious.

Yeah, when this was over, he was in for some interrogation. And ribbing.

Shit.

He looked around the room, noticing how everyone but Julian avoided making eye contact with him. Everyone in here apart from Julian knew he and Lena had been married. Everyone in here had kept silent about it when the head of the network announced she’d joined the team. That announcement had come—conveniently, in Mike’s jaded opinion—while he’d been in Brisbane covering the Cricket World Cup. All he’d gotten was a text message from N@9’s main news anchor saying Hey, you know the new EP.

It wasn’t until Mike returned to Sydney the next day that he found out it was Lena.

Twenty-four hours before this meeting now. Not enough time for Mike to tell the head of the network what he thought of the situation. Not enough time for Mike to tell the owner of the network what he thought of him either.

Apart from Julian, the team must have known how Mike was going to react. Julian only got a pass because a) he was an imbecile, and b) new to the team. New to the country, in fact. Julian still wore a Union Jack vest under his suit jacket whenever he wasn’t on-screen. In fact, he sometimes wore it even then.

The team must also have known long before Mike found out and hadn’t said anything.

There could only be one reason why the entire N@9 team, from talent to crew, had kept mum about the situation.

Because the owner of the network—a multi-billionaire media mogul who’d been born in Australia but now lived in the US, a man who got off on manipulating every living soul in his employ and was, in Mike’s opinion, a Grade-A wanker—had instructed them not to tell him.

One of these days, Mike was going to tell that Grade-A wanker exactly what he thought of him. That day might very well be this day. Possibly in the next hour.

“Are you okay with that, Mikey?”

He blinked at the subtle acerbity in Lena’s question.

He remembered that tone well. She used it to perfection back at their previous news program when dealing with the prima-donna behavior of the news anchor. Mike had always found it sexy.

And now here it was, directed at him.

Christ, was that a semi hard-on in his pants?

Fark.

“What, Button?”

Her eyes narrowed at the pet name.

“I said, I’m moving you off the Ricardo West interview. I’m assigning you to a human interest piece at the St. Xavier Primary School’s athletics carnival.”

“Are you?”

She nodded, placing the pen she’d been holding onto the table. “I am. I think it’s time to shake things up a little. Surprise the viewers. So Jilly is going to interview West.”

Mike didn’t blink. “Jilly? Fresh-out-of-university intern Jilly is going to interview the three-time World Heavyweight Champion?”

“Yes.”

“A man notorious for threatening those who interview him with physical violence.”

“Yes. I think she can handle him.”

“Jilly is going to conduct the interview the network has been promoting as my interview for the last month?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m…”

“Going to run in the three-legged race with Mrs. Kowinski.”

“Mrs. Kowinski?”

Lena’s lips twitched. A little. “St. Xavier’s principal.”

The room had never been more silent. Mike held Lena’s stare. “Is she hot?”

Julian broke the silence with a baying laugh. “Is she hot?”

Mike threaded his fingers behind his head again and directed a wink at his ex-wife.

Wife. She’s not your ex yet. Not until you sign the papers.

The rest of the meeting flew past. He had no idea what was said. He spent the duration watching Lena. Noting how many times she flicked a glance his way.

How many times she caught herself just before chewing on her bottom lip.

How many times she snagged the gold-ball pendant of her necklace with her fingers and ran it along the gold length of chain.

He recognized the behaviours for what they were—Lena’s tells. The little quirks that told him she was nervous. That screamed loud and clear, to him at least, she wasn’t prepared for the impact of being in the same room with him.

Mike chuckled more than once throughout the meeting. Every time he did, everyone at the table looked at him. Except Lena, of course. Lena only flicked surreptitious glances his way. And—once—lost her train of thought, which made Mike chuckle again.

The end of the meeting was signaled when Lena rose to her feet.

Before she finished straightening, Mike was on his.

“I’m outta here,” he told Julian loud enough he had no doubt the declaration would reach Lena’s ears. “Gotta get to the gym to prep for Mrs. Kowinski. Want to look my hottest for her.”

Julian, true to form, burst out laughing as he, too, stood.

“Mikey?”

Everyone stopped.

Half the employees stared at Mike, half stared at Lena.

Mike met her steady gaze across the table. “Button?”

Something unreadable flickered in her eyes, there and gone in a blink.

“I want you to stay behind for a moment.”

“Someone’s in trouble,” Julian singsonged beneath his breath.

Mike gave him a grin. In his chest, his heart kicked up a notch. Was he prepared to be alone in the same room with his wife?

“Sure, Button,” he said, directing his grin—correction, his infamous smirk—back at Lena. “I’ve never been able to say no to something you want.”

Julian sniggered. The rest of the N@9 crew and staff let out their own nervous guffaws.

Lena’s lips thinned to a line.

Mike’s heart beat faster.

Oh man, he really was in trouble.

*

The bastard.

He’d done it to her again. Thrown her for a loop when she’d been so sure she’d been on solid, steady, level ground.

Not just content with stomping on her heart when she’d given it wholly to him, he now had to show up at the N@9 meeting looking hotter than hell, sexier than sin, when she’d expected him to be looking like the sheepish, guilty, cheating bastard he was—and calling her the name he’d only ever called her after great sex.

The bastard.

You know, you were unprofessional first, by calling him Mikey. You were the one who set the tone for this awkward reunion. You were the one who thought you were over him…

The second she’d seen him there, sitting at the end of the table with his top button undone, exposing the strong column of his throat she remembered kissing and biting all too easily, she’d been shaken to the core.

The second she saw the dark stubble on his chin and jaw—at least three days’ worth—and his dark hair an artful just-climbed-out-of-bed mess, all her meditation and preparation and you’re-over-him mantras were null and void.

All her strength, her promises to herself, shot.

And what had she done? Behaved like an unprofessional bitch and pulled him from the interview with Ricardo West just to prove she had the power.

Petty behavior. Not like her at all.

The bastard had done it to her again. With one look, she wanted to strip him naked, strip herself naked, climb him like a pole, and slide down until all their bits fit together in the sinfully perfect way she knew they did.

The bastard.

And as for saying no to her?

Huh. He…he…

Lena ground her teeth, her stomach clenching. Actually, when they were together, Mike pretty much worshipped the ground she walked on. He’d spoiled her. Idolised her.

She’d met him a week before discovering her previous boyfriend—a game-show host with a killer smile—was cheating on her. She had been his EP on his first-ever news job. She’d known who he was before his journalist career began of course, had already been an admirer of his sporting prowess on the hockey field, and had been immensely impressed by his natural charisma and chemistry with the camera. Had been even more impressed by his natural talent as a journalist.

He’d also been the perfect rebound: a hot jock with a hot body and a quick mind who knew how to use both to make her girly bits melt. Just what she’d needed after busting her game-show host boyfriend sexting with his game-show assistant.

When she’d confessed to Mike a month later, on the night he whispered “I love you” in her ear as they lay in her bed together, that she’d only ever intended him to be a rebound, he’d laughed and told her it didn’t matter to him, that he loved her all the same.

A week later, she realized she’d been fooling herself. He wasn’t the perfect rebound, he was the perfect everything, and she loved him as well.

Which was why it had hurt so much to discover he’d been unfaithful.

With their freaking dog—

“The divorce papers,” she said, fixing him with a look she hoped screamed I am so bored with this already.

He raised his eyebrows, lips twitching with that smirk of his that made women strip their undies off and post them to him. Or throw them at him during live interviews.

“What about them?” he asked, standing at the conference room’s open door.

Open door.

Lena glimpsed the rest of the main N@9 team suspiciously lingering a few feet beyond it.

Blowing out a stream of exasperated air, she folded her arms over her breasts and gave the gaping window into their marital situation a pointed look. “Can you close the door, please?”

Mike let out a dry laugh, turned on his heel and wrapped his fingers around the steel knob. “Sorry, guys,” he said to the rapidly scrambling people on the other side of the threshold. “Show’s over.”

He closed the door.

Lena couldn’t help but notice the way the muscles in his shoulders and arms bunched and coiled as he moved the heavy tempered glass.

The pit of her belly fluttered. And then contracted when Mike locked the door. Locked it. This time, however, the tension radiated lower into the junction of her thighs. Her clit prickled with a sudden rush of blood.

“So…” He turned, leant his broad back against the glass—glass she knew was soundproof—and crossed his arms over his chest. “Divorce papers? That’s what you want to talk about? Sure you don’t want to talk about all the pendant-dragging and lip-chewing?”

She frowned. “The what?”

He levered away from the door and began to walk towards her. It was damn hard not to match his every step in retreat.

“The dragging-that-ball-on-your-necklace-up-and-down-the-chain thing.” He made a move with his hands beneath his chin that looked as if he was waving an invisible fan.

Lena frowned more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He laughed.

Drew closer.

She stood her ground. Clenched her hands into fists and glared at him.

Much to her dismay, it didn’t slow his pace.

Before she could moisten her lips—for some reason, they’d become quite dry—with a quick swipe of her tongue, he was standing right in front of her.

She shot a quick glance through the conference room’s glass door and walls. Everyone on the other side of the soundproof glass was doing anything humanly possible to appear as if they weren’t watching.

Damn it, perhaps taking this job had been a bad idea after all. Surely the ridiculous amount of money the network’s owner had waved in her face to lure her here couldn’t make up for the drama?

“The necklace-dragging thingy,” Mike said, jerking her stare back to him. Mirth danced in his blue eyes. Christ, it was sexy.

And as annoying as all hell.

“This,” he murmured, plucking the gold-ball pendant resting in her cleavage with nimble fingers and slowly sliding it sideways along the length of her chain.

She gasped.

Not at the audacity of his actions, but at the traitorous way her nipples beaded at the soft brush of his fingertip against her breast.

Snatching her pendant from his hand, she glared up at him. “Stop it.”

He chuckled, a low, arrogant sound that did exactly what it used to do. Made her pussy throb with a desire she had no control over.

But when it came to Mike, she and control had little interaction.

Until he threw away everything over their—

“So,” he murmured, “you don’t want to talk about the thoughts going through your mind for the duration of the meeting?”

Christ, when had he got so close she could feel his body heat?

Lena swallowed, clenching the little gold ball in her fist. “Sure, let’s do that. I was thinking ‘look at him, the cheating prick who stuck his prick into our barely legal dog-walker. God, I wish I could castrate him’.”

Mike threw back his head and laughed.

The relaxed sound bounced around the enclosed space, mocking her rage even as it played merry hell with her sanity.

Like everything else about Mike, his laugh—open, bawdy, and completely without shame—affected her on a physical level.

“That’s so not what you were thinking,” he said, returning his gaze to hers.

An emotion she couldn’t deny burned in his eyes. An enigmatic and yet somehow familiar emotion that sent fresh waves of tension through her lower body. An emotion she used to see in his eyes often when he looked at her while they were still together. That always made her heart quicken.

It made her want to move just a little closer to him, just a little, to feel the heat from his tall, hard body seep into hers. To breathe in his distinct scent. To see if his hands would find her hips as easily as they used to.

“But I’ll let you go with that if it helps,” he finished.

“Helps what?” she croaked.

When in the hell had she lost the balance of power in this confrontation? She was going to demand he give her a day, a time for delivering the signed divorced papers. Instead, he was almost rubbing up against her, making her stupid pussy throb and pulse with his smirk and laugh, and playing with her necklace. What the hell was she doing?

“Helps you live with our fucked-up ratings because you pulled me off the West interview.”

Lena blinked. A prickling heat rushed through her. Anger.

Serious anger.

“You and your goddamn ego,” she snarled, rolling her eyes. “Here I was, thinking—”

She stopped.

Her blood drained from her face. Her lips tingled with the sudden loss.

Oh God, she’d almost confessed she thought he was thinking about them, and how messed up they both were now.

A muscle in Mike’s jaw bunched. “Thinking what, Button?”

Sucking in a steady breath, Lena stiffened her spine and fixed him with a level stare. “Thinking I can’t wait to see you attached to Mrs. Kowinski via the leg. You’ll be expected to lose the race, by the way. We’ll run ads for the event for the week leading up to broadcast. Just think how many viewers are going to want to see the Mike Bailey running a three-legged race with an octogenarian? Entertainment at its finest. And so much better for ratings, yes?”

That muscle in his jaw ticked again.

She didn’t move.

His stare dropped to her lips.

For a terrifying, tantalizing second, Lena swore he was going to kiss her. As punishment? To prove he could?

And then he returned his focus to her eyes. “I didn’t fuck our dog-walker,” he ground out.

An invisible fist punched into Lena’s heart. “All evidence suggests otherwise, Michael,” she said, her voice as dusty as the dreams she’d once had.

“Those images on Instagram. That’s it. Not a lot of evidence there. I thought we had trust, Lena. I thought we had perfection. I knew how much you’d been hurt before we met, and you should have known I would never do that to you.”

His words scraped at the rawness of her conviction.

If only it were just images on Instagram…

Drawing in another breath, she released her pendant and finally took a step backward. “I would like those papers signed by the end of the week,” she said. “And I want you at the St. Xavier athletics carnival from the first event to the last. Do I make myself clear?”

Something dark flickered in his eyes. His nostrils flared. And then he grunted out a laugh devoid of any emotion at all.

“Sure, Button. I can do that.” He pivoted on his heel and strode to the glass door. “You know me,” he threw over his shoulder as he unlocked it. “No matter how I try,” he yanked the door open, “I just can’t say no to you at all.”

He didn’t look back at her as he exited the room.

For some reason, Lena found no triumph in that.

Chapter 2

Pacing his office didn’t help anything.

Googling St. Xavier Primary School didn’t either.

Well, apart from discovering Mrs. Kowinski was at least sixty-five years old in the shade, wore purple tortoiseshell-framed glasses, and proudly “walked with God every step of her life”.

Leaving work early achieved fuck-all.

Eating handful after handful of peanuts at the pub around the corner from the station was equally unproductive, a bizarre ritual he’d fallen into since joining N@9 that normally helped clear his head whenever work frustrated him.

All he could think about, all he could focus on, was how goddamn incredible Lena had smelt when he’d stood directly in front of her, how soft her skin had been as his fingers brushed against her cleavage.

How much he fucking wanted her.

How much he missed her.

How much he loved her.

Still.

After seven and a half months, he still missed her.

It didn’t matter she’d found it easier to believe him a liar than to believe their dog-walker had set him up, he still loved her.

Damn it, it hurt.

Cradling the glass of mineral water he’d ordered upon arriving, its temperature now approaching tepid, he stared at the image smiling up at him from his open wallet.

Lena. On their wedding day.

It was his favourite photo from that day. His favourite photo of Lena, and during their time together, he’d taken quite a few photos of her.

This one…

He’d snagged their photographer’s camera while the man had been in the loo, whistled at Lena as she was talking to her parents, and snapped the shot when she’d turned to him, capturing what could only be described as honest, pure joy on her face.

Their marriage, their life together, had been about joy.

And then his status as an Australian sex symbol had started to grow.

Then the envelopes began to arrive at their home, full of women’s undies and bras and suggestive photos and offers…

He and Lena had laughed them off. All of them. She’d trusted him and he’d loved her, desired her too much to be remotely interested in the indecent proposals sent his way. They’d given them no second thought.

At least he’d thought they hadn’t.

But when the incriminating Instagram images broke…

There’d been no joy on Lena’s face then. No laughter. Only broken trust and pain.

He’d thought he’d helped her get over the pain her previous boyfriend had wrought upon her, but apparently those wounds ran deep. So deep, she’d refused to believe him. She’d listened to him, silently, then opened the day’s paper to a double-page spread containing the Instagram images enlarged to a size that still made his gut churn. She didn’t look at those images. He suspected she’d already had her fill of them.

She just looked at him, her eyes full of grief, and asked him to leave. Which he had, sick with confusion and anger.

Two days later, shocking the hell out of him, she’d cancelled their planned lunch to talk about the situation and informed him she wanted a divorce instead.

And just like that, the world he’d known was destroyed.

“Fuck,” he muttered, slapping his wallet shut. He was torturing himself. He’d barely looked at the photo of Lena since then, barely acknowledged its existence in his wallet apart from the odd flippant observation to his sister that he needed to get rid of it.

He needed to go back to that mentality. Go back to the “Do you think I give a rat’s arse?” attitude he’d had before Lena strode back into his life.

Yeah. That attitude, Mikey? You know it was all bullshit, right?

“Fuck,” he repeated, shoving his wallet back into his hip pocket.

Picking up his now lukewarm water, he held it out, staring at his reflection in the mirrored wall opposite him. “To sticking it to the boss.”

“Really?” a female voice tickled his ear beside him, smooth and ripe with mirth. “That’s the toast you’re going with?”

Mike flicked the stunning brunette on his right a glance before raising his glass to his lips. “It is,” he told his sister before gulping the warm water in three mouthfuls.

RG chuckled. “Mum would be so proud.”

Mike placed his empty glass on the bar, inched it away with the back of his fingers, and then turned to his sister. “She would.”

RG, born Rosemary Grace but only ever called that by their mother, snorted. Today, Mike noticed, she wore a skin-tight white tank that read Jabba Was Misunderstood, faded denim shorts so damn short it was a wonder she hadn’t been arrested the second she walked out in public, and knee-high Doc Martens. Her hair, thick and wavy and glossy with a hint of their father’s Irish-red colouring, hung over one shoulder.

It couldn’t very well hang over both, given the left side of her head was shaved to buzz-cut length.

He raised an eyebrow. “She’d be proud of that, as well.”

RG grinned, skimming her palm over the shaved section. “Good thing she’s not here to see it, eh?”

Dorothy Grace Bailey had passed away from alcohol poisoning when RG was fifteen and Mike was eighteen.

Eighteen years of mental and emotional abuse at the hands of the woman who was meant to nurture and care. Eighteen years of cowing and being manipulated by selfish guilt.

A childhood spent smiling because his mother insisted he did whenever she begged forgiveness from him for spending his lunch money on alcohol, or for failing to collect him and his sister from school because she was passed out in her car outside a pub somewhere.

Teenage years spent hiding her bottles of vodka, scotch, cooking brandy, only to be beaten bloody until he handed them over to her. Years protecting RG from Mum’s drunken anger over the fact her daughter was prettier than she was, smarter. Days spent hungry at school and at home because she’d found the money he’d been hiding and poured it all down her throat via the quickest bottle of grog she could find.

Teenage years—those years that were meant to be fun, carefree—being emotionally manipulated into accepting every apology she gave him. Long, draining years believing every promise that she was going to sober up, every lie that she was going to be better. Years smiling for her when she begged him to do so because it made her feel less guilty for the shitty job she was doing as a parent.

Years spent in a situation too fucked-up to forget.

Mike remembered trying to cry at her funeral. He also remembered digging RG in the ribs often with his elbow as she spent said funeral texting on her phone.

Their estranged father, equally as enamored with alcohol, had been a no-show. He’d turned up at the wake with a woman who, to this day, Mike was convinced his father had met on the way there. Had called Mike Mitch and asked if RG was Mitch’s date.

Suffice to say, Mike and RG had grown up with a warped notion of family.

Mike had believed he’d been well on his way to righting that warped view with Lena. She’d saved him from the bleak reality behind his charismatic smirk. She’d been his light, his promise, his hope, his present, and his future. She’d helped him put his history behind him.

RG hadn’t bothered to right what was warped. She’d made a living out of it instead.

Of course, RG didn’t live in the real world. At twenty-six, RG was one of the best online gamers out there, who spent most of her waking hours seducing unwitting foes to their doom in Hell’s Harbour, the game that had made her a millionaire.

“So…” He dragged out the single-word sentence. There was no need for him to finish it.

“She’s back in your life, eh?”

Mike snorted, lifting a hand at the barkeeper. “You could say that.”

RG studied him. Didn’t say a word.

“And you can just keep your opinions to yourself about finding me in this place,” he said without looking at her. “The peanuts here are the best.”

RG sighed. “Man, our parents really fucked us up, didn’t they? You can’t come to a pub when your wife rips out your heart again without the fear of becoming a raging drunk, and I can’t exist in reality without feeling like I’m a fraud.”

“Who said Lena’s ripped out my heart again?”

A grin curled RG’s lips, part melancholy, part snarky. “I’ve been in here watching you for the last ten minutes. In that whole time, you didn’t look up from that photo of her in your wallet, or notice the barkeeper hitting on you.”

Mike slid his gaze to the hot blonde behind the bar heading in their direction.

She smiled as she leant her elbows on her side of the marble bar and bent towards him, squishing her boobs together with her upper arms as she did so to present him with a view of the most incredible rack money could buy. “What else can I give you, Mr. Bailey?”

Beside Mike, RG burst out laughing. There was nothing demure or self-conscious about RG’s laugh.

“Just water, Lucy,” he muttered, pressing a palm to his sister’s shoulder and shoving.

RG didn’t fall off the stool.

He didn’t want her to anyway.

Lucy barely acknowledged RG’s existence as she traced the tip of her tongue over her top lip and mooshed her boobs closer together. “Sure thing, Mr. Bailey.”

She pushed herself from the bar and sashayed away.

RG laughed again. “See? She’s been doing that since I’ve been in here.”

Mike gave his sister a curious frown. “How did you know to find me here anyway? And while we’re at it, why did you know?”

She flashed her teeth in a wicked smile. He noticed her lips were a vivid purple today. Oh, and was that a nose piercing? When had that happened? “I’m a techno genius, brother. You know that.”

He cocked an eyebrow and waited.

She chuckled. “Your phone’s location service is activated, you doofus. All I had to do was bring up your contact details in my phone and it showed me exactly where you were on the map.”

Mike winced. “I thought I’d turned that off after…”

He petered off. He hated talking about the dog-walker who’d destroyed his marriage.

RG shoved her butt off the stool, leant over the bar, and snagged herself a wedge of lemon from somewhere behind a small raised partition. “After Little Miss Wants To Bone My Brother, you mean?”

Mike twisted on his stool and glared at the two guys ogling the view of her posterior from their booth. “Oi!” he called. “Stop perving at my sister.”

RG plonked back onto the stool, tossed the guys a quick glance, and then shoved the wedge into her mouth.

Mike watched her, his gut a tight knot.

She had no clue how gorgeous, how intimidating she was. Nor how vulnerable. He wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and protect her forever. Of course, she’d nipple-cripple him if he tried, and submerge herself even more in the world of Hell’s Harbour, to the point he’d likely never see her again.

For RG, Hell’s Harbour wasn’t just the way she made a living; it was a sanctuary from the brutal realities of a world she couldn’t control. A safe place without manipulative mothers who cut off all your hair when you were ten so they could sell it for the cost of a cheap bottle of whisky. An enticing place with magical beings and savage battles and, from what he’d seen of the ads for it, some seriously intense sex.

Thank God that intense sex all took place in virtual reality. He’d probably lose his shit if he knew his little sister was—

“I saw that you were here,” RG said around the wedge of lemon, her voice a mumbled muffle, “and guessed it was either the fact the Sydney Swans had lost the premiership or The Wife had entered the scene again.”

She removed the wedge and its now-depleted flesh and flicked it at him with a grin.

“It wasn’t until I googled the AFL results that I realized it’s not AFL season, so I figured it must be The Wife.”

Mike laughed. He could almost hear the uppercase T and W in her voice. “Your talent for deduction astounds me, Goober.”

RG preened. “Of course it does. But I am the smart one of us, remember? You just watch sports for a living.”

“Hey.” He pouted. “I don’t just watch it. I also talk about it, y’know?”

Whatever fresh insult his sister was about to throw at him—said with more love than RG would most likely care to admit—Lucy arrived back with his water. “Here you go, Mr. Bailey.” She did the whole leaning/boob-squashing/cleavage-presenting thing again. “Let me know if that doesn’t satisfy you and I’ll do what I can to fix it.”

RG burst out laughing again.

Lucy frowned at her, smiled at Mike, tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, and strutted away to the other end of the bar and the patrons waiting there for service.

“Seriously,” RG snared Mike’s water before he could, “I didn’t think people like her actually existed, but oh man, am I proved wrong.” She took a sip from the sweating glass and grinned. “Bet her mum’s proud of her as well. ‘What did you do today, honey?’ ‘Oh, I hit on a famous sports reporter and served intoxicating drinks to the masses.’ ‘Oh, go you. Such a productive day’.”

“RG.” Mike dragged her name out in warning. “Be nice.”

She poked her tongue out at him and offered his water back.

“So, you came here to stop me from succumbing to the powers of a pub?” he asked, glass half-raised to his mouth. “Or to get the gossip about Lena?”

RG shook her head. “Neither.”

Mike frowned. “Then why—”

She wriggled her fingers at him, palm facing upward, in the universally recognized please-give-it-to-me gesture. “Hand over your phone, Doofus.”

Without hesitation, Mike shifted on the stool, withdrew his mobile from his pocket, and handed it to his sister.

“I came,” she said, swiping her thumb over its screen and then jabbing in his lock code, “to make sure no other psycho stalker can fuck up your—”

Mike’s phone burst into loud life in her hands, AC/DC wailing “Highway to Hell” with jarring volume.

Mike’s gut dropped. His heart smashed into his throat. His breath caught there along with it.

On the stool opposite him, RG read the name of the incoming call, a wide grin stretching her lips.

“Give it to me,” Mike said, his turn to make the finger-wriggling gesture.

RG laughed and twisted away, taking his phone with her. “Hell no.”

AC/DC continued to wail about being on that highway and its hellish destination.

Only one person in his contact list had that song assigned to them. One person…

“RG,” he said, standing, heart a smashing sledgehammer in his chest. “Give—”

Smirking at him, his sister jabbed her thumb to his phone’s screen and pressed it to her ear. “Michael Bailey’s phone,” she said, affecting the most ridiculous prissy voice he’d ever heard. “Who can I say is calling?”

Mike stared at her face. A charged energy thrummed through him.

Lena was calling him. When was the last time she’d done that? Over seven and half months ago? And why was he so damn unsettled by the fact she was doing so now?

RG’s lips twitched. And then a frown pulled at her eyebrows. “Hi, Lena,” she said, suddenly serious. “I can do that. Bye.”

Expression guarded, she held his phone out to him.

And then jerked it back to her ear as he reached for it.

“Oh, before I go, Lena,” she said, holding Mike’s gaze. “If you hurt him again, I’ll come after you. And you don’t want that, okay? I’ve got enough money to make sure no one ever finds you again. Bye.”

She handed Mike the phone, grinned and then, before he could do or say a thing, leapt from the stool, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “See you later, Doofus. Remember, you did nothing wrong. And she got to keep the dog.”

She spun on her heel and crossed the pub to the door. Mike couldn’t miss the two guys who’d checked her arse out earlier, tracking her path with their eyes. He focused his glare on them, for a moment ignoring the phone in his hand.

As if aware of his scrutiny, the two guys slid furtive glances his way.

He raised a pointed eyebrow. Didn’t say a word.

Both guys dropped their attention to the beers in their hands.

Mike grunted in approval and pivoted on his seat, returning his attention to his glass of water and the phone call awaiting him.

A steel band of pressure as hot as his water was cold wrapped his chest.

Why was Lena calling him?

Was it in her role as his boss? Or his wife?

Ex-wife. All that’s left until she’s your ex-wife is your signature.

Pulling in a deep breath and then letting it go in a ragged chuckle, he pressed his phone to his ear. “Button.”

“Really?” Her exasperation cut the word. “Do you have to piss me off straight away, Mike?”

Mike closed his eyes and scrubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “’Twas once a time you loved hearing the name Button.”

“’Twas once a time you only stuck your—You know what? I’m not doing this. I’m not going there. It’s not why I called.”

Mike dug his blunt nails into his scalp. He opened his eyes and stared at the glass on the bar in front of him. Why had he done that? Antagonised her? To what end? “I’m sorry,” he said, throat thick.

Silence greeted the apology.

Stretched for longer than he knew what to do with.

“Lena?”

“Why are you sorry, Mike?” she asked, a hesitancy in the question he’d never heard from her.

A dry bark of a laugh fell from him. “For pissing you off straight off the bat,” he said. “I know you refuse to believe me, but I’ve got nothing else to be sorry for.”

Another stretch of silence.

He closed his eyes and drew an image of her into his mind. Imagined her in the EP’s office, now her office. Imagined her chewing on her bottom lip as she sat behind the massive desk made of glass and brushed steel.

He’d always joked the old EP had been overcompensating for something when it came to that desk. It was a behemoth of industrial strength and design.

It didn’t suit Lena at all.

As an EP, she was good, the best out there, but it was all about calm control and subtlety with her. She knew how to get the best out of her news team, how to work their emotions when it came to the events they were reporting, without slamming it into the viewers’ faces.

She was smart, quick-thinking, and could gauge the viewers’ concerns and interests with a deft mind.

He’d always been proud of her, even when they’d clashed over how he’d conducted an interview.

He still was proud of her.

Still proud of her.

Still in love with her.

Still hurt by her.

Still sexually attracted to—

“Can you come to the apartment in an hour?”

Her soft question jerked his spine straight. Turned his pulse into a thumping cannon.

“Please?”

He sucked in a breath of air tainted by the smell of stale alcohol.

The apartment?

Their old apartment?

The image of her in the EP’s office morphed into her sitting cross-legged in the middle of their king-size bed. She wore those loose merle-grey yoga pants he loved so much and a loose mint-green T-shirt that hung skewed on her body, exposing one of her shoulders and the top of her breast. Her hair was a casual ponytail that kissed the skin of that shoulder, some of the strands slightly damp from her recent shower. Her reading glasses rested on the bridge of her nose and she ranted to him about the incompetence of Australia’s current Prime Minister.

Lena.

Fuck, he missed her so much he could hardly breathe.

“Mike?”

He scrunched his eyes shut as her voice—that hesitant, shy voice so foreign to her—played with his senses. His sanity.

“Why?” Hell, it sounded like his throat was suddenly lined with sandpaper. “If it’s to talk about the divorce papers, about when I’m going to sign them, I think I’ll give it a miss.”

“It’s not.”

Mike’s heart smashed into his sandpaper-lined throat.

“About the interview? With Ricardo West?”

“No.”

He gouged his fingers into his scalp. His blood roared in his ears.

In his mind, Lena lifted her head, removed her glasses and smiled. You think I’m crazy, don’t you? she’d asked him that night. Want me to shut up?

He’d shaken his head at her, giving her back his own smile. I think you’re perfect, he’d answered.

They’d made love until dawn. They’d both been late for the breakfast production meeting with the network owner. They’d played footsies under the conference table throughout the entire meeting.

A week later, while she’d been in Canberra lining up an interview with the country’s openly gay deputy PM, the fucking obsessed dog-walker had fucking ruined his—

“Lena…” Her name was nothing more than a scratched breath. “If you want—”

“Please come to the apartment, Mike,” she said. He had no hope of deciphering the emotion behind her request. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

She ended the connection without another word.

“Is there anything I can give you, Mr. Bailey?”

Mike jerked his head up at the sultry female voice.

Lucy leant on the bar in front of him, magnificent cleavage presented, lips freshly glossed in cherry-red lipstick, eyes offering anything he wanted.

Anything.

He rose to his feet and, with a smile, shook his head. “No thanks, Lucy,” he answered, tapping the bar twice with his index finger. “I’m good.”

He left.

He only wanted one thing.

And he wasn’t going to get it here in the pub.

End of Extended Sample

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