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Mr. Imperfect

By:Karina Bliss

Mr. Imperfect
Karina Bliss

       "You're off the hook. I refuse your help."




Just what Christian wanted to hear; still, he was inexplicably annoyed.  "I don't want to be involved any more than you want me to be, but it  would be respectful to at least consider her last wishes."

Kezia thrust out the letter, waiting until he took it. "I can manage on my own."

It had always been her mantra-more than that, the truth. Now the words  rang hollow, but she could not allow Christian back in her life. And she  wouldn't cry in front of him, though she wanted to. Worse than the  prospect of losing her heritage was realizing her grandmother hadn't  trusted her enough to confide her troubles. She lifted her hand to her  heart and pressed against the almost physical surge of pain.

"Don, more whiskey." Christian guided her to the couch with gentle hands  while the older man hurried from the room in search of the bottle.  "Relax." His breath was warm on the nape of her neck. "I have no  intention of coming back."





Dear Reader,

In Mr. Imperfect, an old lady's will is the catalyst for bringing two  people together. My father died suddenly when I was halfway through  writing this book, and a couple of months after I'd taken a year off  work to follow my writing dream. The money he left me allowed me to  extend that year to two and resulted in the sale of this, my first book.

I feel very much as though his spirit imbues it, not with grief, but  with the power of love-even beyond the grave. I hope that emotion shines  through when you're reading it.

Karina Bliss

www.karinabliss.com




To my wonderful mother, Kathy Bliss, for instilling self-belief in a  born skeptic. And to the memory of my father, Derek Bliss, who believed  having five daughters made him immortal. It did, Dad.






CHAPTER ONE




CHRISTIAN KELLY CRIED at funerals. For a man who never wept it had been  an appalling discovery. He figured the combination of somber hymns,  gentle sobbing and church rituals struck some sentimental Irish chord  and caused him to blubber like a baby.

He solved the problem by never attending funerals, which solidified his  reputation as a hardened sinner. So it was a testament to his affection  for Muriel Medina Rose that he came back to the New Zealand hometown he  loathed, wearing the darkest pair of shades he could find, and stole  into the last pew midway through a stirring rendition of "When the  Saints Go Marching In."

Kezia Rose appreciated the irony. Knew her grandmother would have, too.  Still, it started a fit of giggles she fought to control-hysteria wasn't  far away. It didn't help that she stood in full view of the  congregation, shaky hands clasped, waiting to do her reading.

She dug one spiky heel into the top of her other foot until tears came  to her eyes. Then looked at the coffin and had to force them back. Not  yet. Not until she'd done her grandmother proud.

Why hadn't she expected him?

When she felt herself under control, Kezia looked again, coolly now, to  where Christian sat, a big-city cat among country pigeons. Maturity had  chiseled his features back to strong bone, his thick black hair finally  tamed by an expensive cut. Beneath a pair of reflective sunglasses he  held his full mouth tight, almost disdainful. In thrall to a newer,  stronger grief, she looked-and was not burned. A small sigh of relief  escaped her.

The music faltered to a stop in that ragtag way of amateurs and the  minister gave her the signal. Three steps to the podium, deep breath.  She found her place in the Bible's tissue-thin pages.

Her voice cracked on the first line; she stopped. Began again, one word  at a time, found a rhythm, shut out emotion. The mantle of  responsibility soothed her, reminded her who she was. A pillar of the  community-teacher, chair of numerous country guilds, churchgoer. New  owner of a hundred-year old ramshackle hotel in Waterview.

The bone-dry Hauraki Plains town had sprung up around the Waterview pub,  both named by Kezia's Irish forbears in a fit of whimsy and not-as  Christian had once joked-to provoke a powerful thirst in the locals.

Not thinking about him right now.

The words on the page ran out; the last full stop looked like a bullet  hole signaling the end of one of the happiest times of her life. Dazed,  she looked up to see Christian, in classic Armani, disappear through the  arched church doors. And she was glad. Glad he'd made the effort to  come, gladder he'd left without making contact. She had enough to cope  with today without saying goodbye to someone else she had loved.

And lost.



CHRISTIAN STUMBLED TOWARD the car park, barely able to see through his  fogged sunglasses. Damn it! Temples pounding, he groped through the open  window of his car for a box of tissues, yanked off the shades and  mopped up the damage. Kezia's fault. The first break in her voice had  brought a lump to his throat, then her words-thin, brave and clear-had  sliced at his self-control like stiletto knives until he had to get out  of there.                       
       
           



       

He swung around to face the gabled church and glared at its white  clapboards and gray iron roof, mottled with lichen. An old-fashioned  church, gravestone companions rising to the left, rose beds to the right  in a riotous clash of pinks, reds and yellows. Whoever had planted the  damn things had been color blind. Funny he'd never noticed that when he  was growing up.

But he remembered the scent. Sweet. Lush with summer heat. He'd always  been attracted to women wearing floral scents-now he knew why.

Kezia.

In a prudish black suit at odds with her body. Christian was annoyed at  his relief that she still wore her dark hair long. Of course he'd  expected her to still be beautiful in that remote, untouchable way that  had once driven him mad-but that no longer attracted him. He preferred  easy women these days, easy to win, easy to leave. He'd even expected to  feel something when he saw her again. A backwash of teenage emotions  agitated by shared grief. A reflex, no more. Like crying at funerals.

He hadn't expected to be irked by her lack of recognition. Christian  grimaced at his egotism. Maybe Miss September had been right. He was  shallow and self-centered. Beholden to no woman and proud of it.

Then why was he wiping away tears in the backwater he'd left in anger  fourteen years ago? Wearily he replaced his sunglasses and turned back  toward the car park.

Beholden to one woman, then. Muriel Medina Rose. A surrogate mother to a  motherless boy-when he'd let her. Which hadn't been as often as she  would have liked.

He'd loved that old woman.

Loved taking her out gambling on the rare occasions she visited the  city. She, outrageously provocative in an ancient fox-fur stole with its  glassy eyes and tidy paws draped nonchalantly over one shoulder and  carrying an equally impolitic diamanté-studded cigarette holder. He, in  his sharpest suit, entertaining his best girl with his wildest stories.

And not even residual bitterness toward her granddaughter-and this hick town-could keep him from paying his last respects.

"Christian Kelly."

His hand on the car door handle, Christian turned, an easy smile  disguising his irritation. "Don-how are you?" He reached for the  lawyer's hand, still as dry as he remembered. In fact, everything about  the sandy-haired old man suggested he was slowly crumbling into dust,  from the furrowed jowls and droopy eyelids to the rounded shoulders and  widow's hump.

Except he'd looked like this twenty years ago when he'd first  represented Christian in the local courthouse. They'd come to know each  other well in a resigned "not you again" sort of way until Muriel  stepped in and Christian's life as a juvenile delinquent came to an  unceremonious end.

"Sad day, sad day." The lawyer shook his head. "Good to see you here,  though. Muriel would have liked it and it saves me a stamp."

Christian tried to make the connection but failed.

"The will," Don explained kindly. "Or rather, the letter. She was most particular about you getting the letter."

"I thought her heart attack was unexpected?" The notion that Muriel's  final illness might have been deliberately kept from him increased his  sense of misuse.

Don glanced back as though to ensure he hadn't been followed, and  Christian remembered the man had a flair for the dramatic. "Doc told her  two months ago she could keel over anytime," he confided, "but she  didn't want a fuss. Told Kezia she was retiring to get her to take over  running the hotel. When the end came, my girl was playing bridge-a glass  of whiskey in one hand and a grand slam in the other."

Their eyes met. The two men exchanged the "Muriel smile"-equal parts  tribute and frustration. Over at the church, the organ started up with a  wheeze and voices rose in song for the final hymn. Christian's hand  tightened on the car keys.

Don noticed. "Nice Bentley. A Continental GT, if I'm not mistaken." He  ran a finger across the silver-gray bonnet, his rheumy eyes twinkling.  "A bit understated for you isn't it?"

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