Love Me Tender

by

Ally Blake

It was love at first sight…

When her Papa loses his job, indomitable Serafina Scott insists it’s her turn to take care of him – meaning landing a well-paying job…and fast. Which is how she ends up working for the Cinderella Project, a high-end matchmaking business, even though she’s certainly no expert on affairs of the heart. Until she meets Murdoch, the gruff builder restoring her extravagant new work place. He’s inscrutable, infuriating, and gorgeous…

Convincing them was a whole other matter.

Murdoch finds Sera confounding…and luminous. But beneath her firecracker exterior, she is dangerously soft-hearted, and the last thing she needs is a broken brute like him.

While Sera does her best to convince Murdoch that they are a match made in heaven, Murdoch makes it his mission to prove her wrong. Will it come down to who’s the most convincing…or who’s most willing to be convinced?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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Serafina Scott knew things.

Her papa always told her that his nanna back in the old country was notorious for having had ‘the sight’ – a sixth sense that had given her guidance through the most significant moments in her life. He was convinced Serafina had been gifted the same.

For example – from the kickoff of the first game of the 2006 World Cup she’d known Italy would win the whole thing. Bingo.

And when she’d been offered scholarships to three different universities and had chosen the one closest to home her papa had been convinced her most excellent decision had come down to ‘the sight’.

Then there was the time Serafina tracked down her mother—more than a decade after her mother had unceremoniously walked out on Serafina and her father—and had convinced her to meet for a coffee. The moment Serafina had entered the café she’d known her mother wouldn’t show. She’d been right.

Over the years, her papa’s theory had been proven enough times she’d begun to believe that – at the very least – her instincts ought not to be ignored.

Mind you, her papa was also convinced that Elvis was alive and well.

And that Serafina would know in an instant when she met The One.

The thing was, as the only daughter of an immigrant, working-class, single father, Serafina had grown up surrounded by men. They’d taught her food was sustenance, television was for sports, and hard work was good for the soul. They’d also taught her how to swear in Italian and that muscle cars were the chariots of the gods. Needless to say, men held little in the way of mystique for her, meaning she pretty much humoured her incurably romantic papa on that score.

That fresh springtime afternoon in Sydney, standing on the rosebush-lined footpath, with her own muscle car ticking and cooling behind her, Serafina double checked the address on her phone. She was at the right place.

Huh. A big, posh house in stately, old-money Vaucluse was not where she’d imagined she’d land a job interview.

When she’d made the herculean decision to defer her PhD and give up her scarce tutoring position at the university, she’d hoped to land somewhere a little more, well, avant-garde. A radio station. Or gaming company. A concert promoter. Or hip retailer. Somewhere she could use her eclectic mishmash of life skills.

Instead, she stood before a life-sized doll’s house, its columns trimmed in curling ivy. Elegantly arched windows looked darkly over a lawn bordered by neck-high hedges. And atop the heavily-canted third storey roof loomed turrets. Turrets!

And yet…Serafina felt a stirring deep down inside. A familiar sense, in her very bones, that she was about to land in some luck.

Holding onto that thought, she slipped through the gate and walked up the neat front path – her toes bumping into the tips of her zebra-print Doc Martins, her canvas satchel swishing against her black, leather tights, her heart clanging against her ribs.

Up the front steps, across the portico, Serafina took the doorknocker in hand and…closed her eyes.

She took a moment to imagine herself working as a professional digital branding consultant rather than studying, researching, tutoring as she had been for her entire adult life.

It was a mental trick her neighbour, Marcy, stood by. She called it the “if you build it he will come” method and insisted it had landed her a boyfriend.

Only Serafina wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.

Not that she didn’t like men. She loved men. Serafina’s favourite person in the whole wide world was a man. It had been her and her dad since she was nearly five and she wouldn’t change a day of it.

As for boyfriends, she’d had a few. Her theory on that score was see a guy, like a guy, kiss a guy and it had landed her car lovers, game lovers, occasional lovers. Things always seemed to fizzle for her once that first flash of attraction was assuaged. Though, to her credit, she’d stayed friends with each and every one. What was the point of letting things end badly? She knew how that story went.

Marcy joked that her ovaries were merely dormant. That one day they’d erupt and the explosion would be so astronomical it would block out the sun. Marcy was also seventeen.

Serafina didn’t spend any time thinking about it. It simply wasn’t a concern in her life. For all his certainty that she’d know when her time had come, her papa’s story of finding The One certainly hadn’t had a happy ending. But he’d had a happy life since her mother left them.

He’d had her. They’d had each other.

Which was why she so badly needed this job.

“Enough prevaricating,” Serafina muttered. Then knocked three times, and—

Before she’d even let go of the knocker the door opened with a flourish and a woman appeared on the other side – glorious in a draping cream pantsuit, diamonds at her throat and ears, and sparkly high heels that caught the sunlight and left spots dancing in front of Serafina’s eyes.

“Darling!” said the paragon of elegance, giving Serafina in her neck to ankle black a brisk once over. “Aren’t you something?”

Serafina bit her lip so as not to say the same right on back. Instead she smiled. Stood tall. Tried to look professional. And indispensable.

“I’m Serafina Scott. Sera’s fine,” said Sera, holding out a hand.

“Welcome, Serafina. I am Hazel Hamilton-Hayes. Do call me Hazel.” She took Sera’s hand as if expecting her rings to be kissed. “Come in, come in. Watch your step.”

The woman took off into the house and Sera followed, madly taking in her surroundings. Any optimism she’d harboured about the rightness of being there sank fast.

While on the outside the house was like a slumbering queen; inside, the place was a holy mess. The wide, front hall had holes in the floor which Hazel avoided using some kind of sixth sense of her own, leaving Sera to skip over them at the last second. The rooms darting off the hall were in various stages of disrepair; wallpaper peeled from the walls, the floors had the pale, rough look that came from being denuded of old carpet, and naked light fittings swung from ceilings half-hidden by dangling tarps.

And beyond the tap-tap-tap of Hazel’s precariously high heels came the bang of a hammer, the whir of a grinder, some deep, male voices followed by deeper male laughter. Sera wondered if she oughtn’t to have requested a hard hat.

Then Hazel stopped and turned so fast Serafina nearly slammed into her back.

“Now, let me get a better look at you without all that garish sunlight getting in the way. Serafina, you say? Perfection. Excellent foundation there. You might be a little tall but your hair is passable. A quick trim and it’ll be good as new. As for your skin…?”

Sera dug her heels into the floor so as not to topple back as Hazel moved in closer again, eyes pouring over Sera’s face.

“Darling, your skin is divine. What’s your background? Greek? Yugoslavian?”

“I’m half Italian.” What ‘divine skin’ or being ‘a little tall’ had to do with building a website and social media platforms, Sera had no idea. If it meant the woman liked her then, yay! Right?

“Excellent,” Hazel said, and then she was off again, stopping when they entered a room straight out of a magazine.

Daughter of a colour-blind mechanic, Sera had never seen anything quite so white in her life. White walls. White furniture. Glossy white picture rails. White vases so jam-packed with sprays of white flowers she couldn’t see their stems. An array of fancy magazines scattered across an asymmetric glass coffee table afforded the only splash of colour.

“Sit!” Hazel insisted, waving her hand towards a couch so white it was terrifying. “Sit, sit!”

Sera sat, teetering on the edge in her black pants, clutching her ancient satchel to her chest.

Hazel, on the other hand, perched elegantly on the edge of a heavily-carved white chair. “Have you filled out ‘The Paperwork’?”

“Paperwork?” Ack! Had she missed something in the application? The ‘feeling’ that something about this place was meant to be showed a few more cracks.

“Yes, darling,” Hazel said, bending lithely from the waist to re-spread the magazines before licking a finger and rubbing it over a phantom spot on Channing Tatum’s abs. “I know it seems like oodles of questions, and some might appear a tad intimate, but they are absolutely necessary if we are going to get you the ‘Man You Deserve’.”

Sera opened her mouth to say…who knew what?

Hazel held up a hand. “No, no you’re absolutely right. Our mission is to find the man who deserves you. Yes, brilliant. I should write that down.” Hazel looked around as if in search of a pen, only to move on with startling alacrity. “But first – if we are you to find you a God Among Men – I need to know more about you than your predilection for…” Hazel paused, her long, sharp nails fluttering in the direction of Sera’s, well, everything. Then she hit home with, “Ironic footwear.”

Sera looked down at her Doc Martens, the swirly stripes of the faux zebra print creating a kind of optical illusion against the fluffy white rug beneath them.

But hang on a second. What was this about a man? “Ms. Hamilton –”

“Hazel.”

“Hazel, I’m sorry, but you seem to have mistaken me for someone else.” Heaven help them whoever they may be. “I’m here to interview for the digital branding consultant position.”

Hazel’s eyes blanked, as if she was hoping to find a memory of such a position at all. Sera’s good feelings scattered like dust on the wind.

“Website design? Social media presence?” Sera spelled out.

“Ah,” said Hazel, disappointment oozing from the tiny word.

It was nothing compared to the disappointment Sera would feel if she missed out on another job and another chance to get her father’s finances back on track.

Figuring she had about sixty seconds before Hazel’s attention span would be completely exhausted, Sera shuffled forward, near toppling from the couch. Righting herself, she propped her reading glasses onto her nose, then slipped her MacBook from her satchel and plonked it upon Channing Tatum’s newly cleaned stomach.

“Then it’s my job to show you how an integrated web presence can be one of the most exciting, powerful and fun selling tools at your disposal.”

Hazel’s fluttery attention was suddenly razor sharp. “Hmm, so those boots aren’t merely for show. Our girl’s a fighter.”

Scrappy, her dad called her, pride gleaming in his eyes. As a skinny kid she’d learned fast how to assuage bullies who saw a girl with car grease under her nails as a prime target – figure out what they want and find a way of selling it to them. No wonder she’d ended up in marketing.

The ad for the job had been light on detail, leaving Sera to collate all the clues Hazel had given so far. Doll house. Diamonds. A woman in charge. The “Man She Deserved”.

Her thumb swiped over the trackpad and the churning inside of her calmed as she sank into her happy place. Where desire met design and infinite choices had controllable outcomes.

She flicked through the website templates she’d created as a part of her masters – creations of mood, and feeling, of sensory engagement and found one that was jewel-bright aquamarine on white with swirling fonts. It was elegant, slick, sparkly; like Hazel herself.

Sera dived into her stock image files and found gold glitter. In a few deft clicks she softened it to silver, added a couple of light flares, and created a banner using Hazel’s name.

She glanced over her glasses to find Hazel eyeing the page with real interest.

“Isn’t that fabulous?” the older woman said on a release of breath.

And the feeling in Sera’s bones bloomed back to life as her heart began to ba-da-boom.

Fingers hovering over the keyboard, Sera asked, “I could create a proper banner if you have a business name.” It would also help Sera get a clue as to what she was maybe – please! – getting herself into.

“I have been thinking long and hard.” Cue eye sparkle. “It needs to be succinct. Sexy. Strong. The way my clients will feel once, through my process, they are reinvented.” Hazel’s eyes zoomed in on the lone, blank wall in the room, her hand creating a marquee in the air. “Marvellous Match! Hmmm, no. How about Dating Divas? Loves Labours… Levitated?”

And it all became clear.

Sera was interviewing for a job with a matchmaking business.

When Hazel looked to Sera for an opinion, Sera didn’t think it was the moment to tell her she was looking at the wrong girl.

“It will come to me,” said Hazel with absolute certainty. “For our purposes here today, my mission is to bring men and women together the old-fashioned way; by way of beauty, seduction, allurement. Like a well-lit Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance scene, using smoke and shadows and intimation, my clients will find partners befitting. And by the time we are done with them, the men will be delighted to have been found.”

In the pause, Sera opened her mouth to query the idea that life could be like a dance movie. Then again, she thought, spying Hazel in her contemporary throne, perhaps Hazel’s life was exactly like that after all.

Attention span exhausted, Hazel glanced at her watch. “Darling, we’ll leave it there. I’m off to meet with a possible John. Handsome devil, if his Insta-whatsit account is anything to go by. Worried he might be slightly gay.”

Hoping to blind Hazel with a final flash of brilliance, Sera tried to picture a graphic for the website header – a cartoon of Hazel looping a diamond encrusted lasso around the neck of a slightly gay devil as she dragged him—smiling, euphoric even—down the aisle. Her hands—smartly—left the keyboard.

“Do you remember the way out?”

Nope. Sera nodded. “And thanks for the opportunity.”

Hazel’s high heels tapped their way to the door.

She turned at the last, her cultured voice bouncing so beautifully off the walls it was as if the room had been designed to make it so. “When my latest husband, Frank, suggested I find a hobby to occupy my time, I do believe he imagined I might volunteer.” Hazel gave an elegant little shiver. “This,” she said, gazing around the room before pinning Sera with keen regard, “will be so much more fun. I have your number?”

Sera’s chest gave a little kick. Like she might be about to hiccup. Thank everything good and holy that was as far as it went. “If not, I have yours.”

“Fabulous.”

Once Hazel had left in a cloud of glinting platinum hair and expensive perfume, Sera slowly deflated until she was deep in the belly of the couch. She set a hand to her belly where a new feeling had taken up residence.

Hope. Mixed with a good healthy dose of pure terror.

Maybe that was all her ‘gift’ was after all. Not moments of preternatural knowledge, but a peculiar incarnation of fight or flight.

Right then she felt caught smack bang in the middle of both. Desperately wanting the job while also wishing she could fly back to her old life – late mornings, long lunch breaks spent reading in the quad, the scent of damp wool and mouldy air that pervaded her snug broom closet of an office…

Hope. She erred on the side of hope.

After all her father had done to take care of her, it was her turn to take care of him.

Head spinning, she tilted back in the chair and blinked up at the ceiling to find an actual crystal chandelier blinking back at her – the real world according to Hazel Hamilton-Hayes.

Trippy.

And time to go.

Wriggling forward—carefully so as not to crumple the couch—she looped the strap of her satchel over her head before she put her MacBook away. Then caught sight of her shoes.

Ironic or not she tucked them in to avoid the white shag pile rug. Saw she’d already left a few specks of dirt behind. Leaned over the brush them away.

And her MacBook went sliding off her lap.

She plunged after it.

And missed.

Fortunately it slid peaceably into the shag.

Sera wasn’t quite so lucky; landing with a thump on her hands and knees, her long hair flopping messily over her face, her nose an inch from the glass coffee table.

Stilled by equal parts ignominy and relief that she’d waited for Hazel to leave the room before making such a goof of herself, Sera took stock. Her knees hurt, as did her wrists, while her blood pounded hard enough it roared behind her ears. Other than that, she was hunky dory.

Until a half second later when she heard a distinct shuffle of shoe on wood.

The skin on the back of her neck prickling like she was riddled with static electricity, Sera flicked her hair off her face and looked up.

Past a pair of scuffed men’s work boots – paint-flecked, huge.

Past faded jeans that fit like their substantial owner had swum in them and let them dry against his skin.

Past a rough and rustic tool belt, slung low.

Past a blue, chequered shirt rolled up to the elbows revealing forearms roped in muscle.

To find a man; broad shoulders cutting a shadow into the bright white light of the chandelier above, a smear of dirt marring his brown neck, hard jaw shadowed in stubble.

To top it all off he was holding a puppy.

Yap! Yap, yap, yap! Eyes bugging out of its fluffy head it started wriggling like it might implode if it didn’t lick Sera right now. The puppy that was.

Sera’s heretofore decidedly quiet ovaries found themselves on the receiving end of such an overload of stunning masculine signifiers they sparked to life, squeezed like crazy, and burned like nothing she’d ever felt.

And the hiccups Sera had kept at bay could no longer be denied.

End of Excerpt

Love Me Tender is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

October 12, 2015