His Christmas Pearl (Rainbow Cove Christmas, #4)
One gourmet party. Four potential couples. The taste of love?
The last thing Kiet Viravaidya wants to do on Christmas Day is deliver oysters from his farm to a party that he’s not invited to. But duty calls-the party is being hosted by Christophe, a chef who is a regular client, and having been stung by embezzlement, Kiet’s business needs the money. Kiet doesn’t want to talk to people, and history has taught him he can’t trust anyone, especially not the gorgeous stranger in a ridiculous Christmas dress with dangling Santa earrings.
Zoe Russell loves Christmas but thanks to her family, the last couple of Christmases haven’t been much fun. When she’s invited to Christophe’s Christmas party, she leaps to say yes. Zoe spies Kiet shucking oysters in the kitchen, and something about his competent hands draws her to him. She wants to know more about him, and as a forensic accountant, she can’t resist the thrill of figuring out who is embezzling from his business.
It seems like the perfect reason to spend time together.
‘I shouldn’t have agreed to this. I hate Christmas.’
Zoe grinned at her sister. ‘No, you don’t. Or at least, you used to love it. Plus everyone here is cool.’
Zoe had spent weeks cajoling Jade to agree to come to her boss Xander’s orphans’ Christmas party; technically, the party of Xander’s chef, Christophe. Instead of going inside to enjoy themselves, Zoe and Jade sat in Zoe’s car, Betty, outside Christophe’s house in Marandowie. Several other vehicles were parked along the road, notably a grubby ute and a white van with ‘Rainbow Cove Oyster Farm’ sign-written on the side of it.
‘Says you. You aren’t the only bisexual woman in a shitty small town,’ Jade grumbled.
Statistically, Jade wasn’t correct. Towns like Marandowie and neighbouring Rainbow Cove had enough of a population that five percent of people definitely added up to more than just Jade. Zoe knew her sister wouldn’t appreciate the maths lesson, so she bit her tongue. Most people didn’t like numbers in the same way she did.
‘Settle. I know most of these people, and so do you. You went to school with Joe and a few others that’ll be here today, same as me.’
Jade huffed. ‘Yeah. Joe was a year above me, from memory. He’s alright. But remember I went to school here too. I know how these people think.’
‘Not everyone is like our parents. Come on. Xander always has the best wine.’
Jade laughed. ‘Fine. I’ll drink your boss’s wine and eat his food, but you can’t make me like Christmas.’
‘It has to be better than last year’s Christmas.’
‘Just us two at your place? I spent the whole day listening to you second-guess yourself over your decision not to send our parents a present.’
‘And you were right. If they can’t love you, then they don’t deserve anything. I’ll figure out how to deal with the guilt one day.’
‘Guilt they taught you.’
‘Come on. Enough of that. Let’s go in.’
Zoe jumped out of her car. The sticky heat of the day slammed into her face, a rude shock after Betty’s cool air-conditioning. She grabbed Xander’s present from the back seat and followed Jade towards Christophe’s house. The front door was open and the happy sounds of many people having fun floated out of the house. Jade sashayed in as if to say ‘let’s get this party started.’ Despite her encouraging words to Jade, Zoe felt herself hovering, uncertain. Until two years ago, she’d spent every Christmas Day with her parents at their cottage on the other side of town. Today, her parents would be eating alone, the family split irreconcilable. Last year, she’d assumed their mother would try to heal the gap between Jade and their father, but their mother had sided with him. That rigidity turned the crack into a chasm. Zoe would never set foot in their house again—not until they accepted Jade completely.
Time to forget their parents and enjoy herself. She placed Xander’s present on a sideboard in the hallway and ducked her head into the kitchen, pulled in by the sight of a man standing at the sink shucking oysters. His broad shoulders were bent to his task, as he steadily picked up an oyster, opened it with his knife, and cleaned it under the trickle of water from the tap he’d left running. Zoe clenched her fingers together; better that than turn off the water. The wasted water irritated her, but at least he had a low stream going and he was using it as he efficiently worked his way through the sink full of oysters. How many people was Christophe planning to feed today? She shrugged—given the way Xander had casually mentioned Christophe was holding a party for people who had nowhere else to go on Christmas Day, and to make sure she invited Jade, she assumed he was planning for a big day. All small towns had their fair share of broken families, and people who couldn’t afford to travel away over the holiday break.
The oyster shucker worked quickly. A shock of black hair hung down over the man’s forehead, hiding his face from her as he stayed bent over the sink. He wore a short-sleeved blue polo shirt with a tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve on his right arm. His forearms were strong, with plenty of muscle definition as he went about his task. On one hand, he wore a steel-mesh glove and in the other hand, he held a short-bladed knife. Well, she couldn’t stand here ogling him forever, so she either had to sneak out or introduce herself. Two years ago, she would have left and waited for a formal invitation. Not today—today she would keep going on her journey of stepping away from old expectations.
‘Hi, I’m Zoe.’
‘Kiet.’ He glanced up momentarily, dismissed her, then went back to shucking oysters. In that second, she gained the impression of a man who knew exactly what he wanted in life. His tanned face spoke of a life outdoors, and his features painted him as someone with Asian heritage—unusual, but not unique, for a small country town in Australia like Rainbow Cove. A rush of nerves curdled in her stomach. Handsome men always made her nervous.
‘Where do …?’ Zoe blurted. She knew him from somewhere but couldn’t place him.
‘I come from? Seriously? That’s your small talk? Would you ask the white guys that?’ His growly voice sent a tremor across her skin. She wanted to press her hand against her stomach and tell him he wasn’t helping her nerves. Why did he have to sound sexy too?
‘I’m sorry.’ Zoe apologised out of habit. ‘If you’d let me finish, I was going to ask, where do I know you from?’ Zoe hovered, suddenly unsure if she should stay. But there was something about the competent way he moved his hands with the shucking knife, and the square strength in his shoulders, that kept her rooted to the spot. Kiet. The name rang a bell. Oh, that’s why he looked familiar—she’d been in the same year as his younger brother Sam at school.
‘You try growing up here and having to justify your existence to everyone over and over again.’
Zoe swallowed. ‘I can see how that would be irritating.’ She recalled that Sam’s father was an immigrant from Thailand. Kiet had the same sharp cheekbones, and family resemblance that painted him as Sam’s brother. Marandowie and neighbouring Rainbow Cove, where Xander’s resort was, didn’t have very many non-white people when they were growing up, so she should have worked it out faster. There were several Asian families in town, hence her thought ‘unusual, but not unique’. She’d had to think to place him, because she hadn’t seen him or his brother in years. People grew and changed over time, and he’d strengthened into a masculine presence that overwhelmed her senses and made her heart race a little faster.
‘And I suppose you think …’ Kiet growled.
‘Please don’t put words in my mouth.’ It wasn’t like her to argue with someone. She wanted to rub away the little pinpoints of heat on her cheeks. This awkwardly stilted conversation was why she didn’t enjoy parties. Now she was justifying something she didn’t even say. He seemed determined to think the worst of her.
‘You said it yourself. You know me from somewhere. I know we’ve never met.’
‘Kiet, I went to school with your brother Sam.’ It’d been years since she’d seen Sam, and he’d been a gangly geeky teenager then, so different to the man standing at the sink. Kiet was at least four years older than her and Sam—a mystery to her teenage self—and she hadn’t really known him at all back then. Oh boy, did she ever want to get to know him now!
‘Zoe …’ His hands stopped working and he stared at her intently. His dark brown eyes lingered, seeming to notice everything about her. She wanted to cross her arms and hide from his gaze, and at the same time, she wanted him to keep looking because her skin felt tingly in a surprisingly good way. ‘You were in Sam’s year? Zoe Russell?’
It was probably her imagination, but she heard a tang of disdain in his voice. ‘That’s me.’ She paused to suck in a shallow breath. ‘Look, I’m not who I was at high school. A lot has happened since then.’ Her argument sounded weak, particularly with the way she’d unwittingly offended him right off the bat. Damn, she should keep to her accounting files rather than talk to people. At least numbers made sense.
‘Sure.’ He went back to his task and she immediately missed his gaze.
‘How do you know Christophe?’ She should have opened with this question. She might have avoided all his assumptions if she’d just stopped to take a breath and not nervously blurted about his familiarity. He’d taken her initial question ‘where?’ and inserted a meaner question about his place in the world. She hated that she’d even given a hint that he didn’t belong, when his easy actions and Aussie accent showed he did.
‘I supply his oysters. Obviously.’ He glanced up at her with a little hint of a grin. His brown eyes crinkled at the edges and the corner of his mouth twitched. A dimple in his left cheek was the sexiest thing she’d ever seen, and she wanted to taste it. She blinked—it wasn’t like her to get all swoony over a dimple. Stab, twist, slice, wash. He placed the oyster on the bed of shaved ice beside all the others he’d prepared. The previous one—done while she’d apologised—was slightly crooked and he moved it to line them up neatly. The tiny change appealed to her sense of order and she grinned.
‘They look delicious.’
‘Here. Want to try one?’ He shucked another one, cleaning it under the water, and handed it to her.
Zoe reached out, her fingertips touching his as she took the rough-shelled oyster from him. A tingle flew up her arm just like when she tested an electric fence with a blade of grass. She nearly dropped the delicate morsel, her hand shaking a fraction as she lifted the shell to her lips and let the oyster drop into her mouth. Heaven. Salty, fresh, with exactly the right balance of meatiness and the purity of the sea. She opened her eyes—suddenly realising she’d closed them as she tasted the fresh oyster—to see Kiet staring intently at her mouth.
‘I was in your brother’s year at school. Sam.’
‘We already established that.’
Zoe flushed. So they had—butterflies leaping in her stomach inhibited her ability to think.
‘What’s he up to now?’ Zoe couldn’t line up this strong masculine man in front of her with what she remembered from high school. Sam had been slim, and so reserved that she’d barely known him even though they shared several classes, whereas this man—Kiet—gave her the impression of barely contained energy.
‘Works with me on the farm.’
‘Oh. You must be doing alright then.’ Zoe wasn’t sure why he gave the impression of success, not as he did manual work in the kitchen sink, but perhaps it was the confident way he held himself.
He glanced at the kitchen door. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘I don’t know. Just …’ An impression. Zoe wanted to fan herself as her cheeks warmed. She waved the empty oyster shell. ‘Where shall I put this?’
‘In there with the others.’
Zoe saw the box where he’d thrown the top halves of the oyster shells after he’d shucked them and nodded. She leaned forward to put the shell away but straightened instead as her top gaped a little. She’d bought the Christmas-themed dress online because she’d fallen in love with the cross-over halter neck top, but it was just a fraction too tight across her breasts and when she bent down, the dress pulled across her cleavage, drawing attention where she didn’t want it.
‘I can take it if you want.’ He held out his gloved hand and she gratefully dropped the empty shell in his open palm.
‘Thanks. My aim is terrible. I’ve always been bad at sport, unlike you.’
His eyebrows rose. ‘So many assumptions today.’
She swallowed, her face ablaze with heat. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just, well …’ She glanced down over his well-muscled torso, which filled out his polo shirt. The nerves in her own stomach galloped as she stared at his fit, strong chest.
‘Do you?’ She wanted to know what he thought she saw. ‘I meant that you look rather fit and healthy, that’s all. You’re right, I assumed you’d be good at sport, and—’
‘Fit?’ A grin broke out on his face and she almost melted at the sight. Gosh, if she’d thought he was handsome when he was concentrating on work, it was nothing compared to how his smile made his eyes glow with humour. And that dimple!
‘Never mind.’ She glanced down. Being brought up to be a good girl hadn’t prepared her for flirting with anyone. She’d been brought up with concepts like virtue and faithfulness, and until now she’d never really experienced this rush of sensations. Was this the lust her parents had warned against? She shook her head. No, they had no control over her life anymore. Their version of virtue didn’t include loving their queer daughter, which meant they didn’t have the power to influence her anymore.
‘Come on now. You can’t run your eyes all over me and then do nothing about it.’
She frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Stop faking. It’s obvious. You are just another woman who wants to use her charms—’ he glanced down at her breasts, ‘—to get what you want.’
She covered herself with her hand. ‘What?’ She stared at his frown and pinched expression, slowly lowering her hand in a deliberate motion. Why should she cover her gorgeous dress?
‘Who burnt you?’ She wasn’t sure why she assumed he’d had a bad experience with an ex, except for the way he seemed to be angry at her for flirting with him. Was that even what she was doing? Yes, she admitted. She wanted to throw off the shackles of her upbringing—finally—and he was here and hot. Yes, she’d been flirting with him. But why did that make him so mad?