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Maybe friends really do make the best lovers…
Barista Maddie Stalwart-Jones has known Todd Kaihanga all her life, but no matter where her brain wanders when she’s not vigilant, she refuses to consider her brother’s best mate as anything other than off limits. It would be all wrong, right? The self-proclaimed pessimist is intent on ignoring the fact her cafe manager is the only guy she can relax and be herself around, and the only person she’s comfortable talking about her dead brother with.
Intent on escaping Wānaka, where everyone seems to have an opinion on her intimate business and family history, falling for Todd would be highly inconvenient.
Todd’s a patient guy, but he’s over waiting around for Maddie to notice he could be so much more than a shoulder to lean on. When Maddie’s mother finally agrees to accept some much needed help with her run down property, it’s a perfect catalyst for Todd to prove to his high school crush that his optimistic streak isn’t a curse, it’s the perfect yin to her yang. The wedding of the year is about to kick off, and there’s only one woman he wants to be dancing with.
A mid-summer Valentine’s Day novella, TANIWHA CREEK joins Stephanie Ruth’s award winning Otago Waters series, set in the beautiful South Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Each book stands alone, but reading them in order provides a deeper experience. Intended for readers who enjoy their slow-burn, feel-good romance on the steamy side, with the promise of a happily ever after.
Reader discretion advised, this novella deals with the trauma of a past road accident, and hoarding.
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He Falls First:
“Your mother thinks the sun shines out of your every orifice. You’d think you really were born a cherub.”
“Are you harassing my hair again?
“No. I thought I was harassing your dimples.” He turned his head to look at her, but she was gazing directly up at the night sky, profile framed by vines.
He touched one forefinger lightly to the crease in her left cheek, then leaned across so his mouth could follow suit, whispering a kiss.
Maddie didn’t pull away.
“I love it when your dimples flicker like that…” he murmured against her skin. “When you’re not really smiling yet, but I know you’re happy. I know you’re content.”
“Why does it mean so much to you that I’m content?”
He leaned back. “I told you. You’re a part of me.”
Grumpy versus Sunshine:
“I love this place.”
“What, the vineyard?” He stared at her silhouette, skin so pale it almost appeared silver in the moonlight. “It looks like a whole lot of hard work to me. I see pruning, picking, and line-maintenance on the watering system.”
She smiled. “Yes, the vineyard, but I was also meaning Wānaka. The air is different here is… So clean, so fresh. I really missed it when I was studying in Dunedin.”
“Then why are you always calling it ‘This Godforsaken Town?’ Is that your idea of an endearment?”
Maddie shrugged, though they both knew the answer to that one. To express a connection was to risk owning up to the fact something meant a great deal, and to lose something like that could break a person.
Friends to Lovers:
“I am so filthy it’s not funny,” Maddie complained as she swung up into Todd’s passenger seat, looking down at her cobwebby cut-offs and grimy thighs.
“You and me both.” Todd grinned. “I was thinking of heading down to the swimming hole to cool off. You up for that?”
The swimming hole was on Todd’s family property, though all the local kids used it. A cool oasis hidden behind lush green bush.
At least it used to be. Maddie hadn’t been there in years.
“I don’t have my togs,” she lamented.
Todd snorted. “That never stopped you before. Going all city-girl on me?”
“Then you’ll come?”
“Yes.” Though Maddie was suddenly trying to remember what state her underwear was in.
What bra and knickers had she sleepwalked into this morning?
She went to take a sneak-peek under the neck of her T-shirt, but scrapped the idea when she realised Todd was watching her. He started the engine and shoved his ute into drive, swinging the vehicle in a smooth u-turn before powering away from Sian’s.
The further they got from her childhood home the lighter Maddie felt, and the more welcome the idea of swimming seemed.
Just like old times.
Just as Maddie was beginning to have second thoughts about swimming in her knickers, Todd punched her arm lightly, gaining her attention as yanked on the handbrake. There was a world of mischief in his eyes.
“Race you!” The rugby winger was out of the ute and running before she even had time to blink.
“Wait… What? That’s not fair!”
Todd yanked his T-shirt over his head in a one-handed slide, turning back to laugh at her through the windscreen.
“You gonna sit there complaining and just give me the win?” he taunted, acres of bronze skin and ancestral tattoos glinting in the sun.
“Son-of-a…” Maddie hesitated for one second, and one second only, before springing to action. Hauling her sneakers off one after the other and biffing them in the vague direction of the backseat, she catapulted out her door and left it swinging, just as Todd had.
Button, zipper, shorts—gone. She dumped them as she ran, nearly tripping on one of Todd’s discarded boots before bowling into the man himself around the curve in the path. He was hopping on one foot, trying to wrench his second boot off with his rugby shorts around his knees.
“Oof! Jesus. You’re booby-trapping the path, now?”
“Not so fast, Mad-one.” Todd grabbed at the back of her old Exponents T-shirt as she tried to shimmy past, getting a good hold on the stretchy fabric.
Maddie used the tension to her advantage, twisting and backing away from him, bending at the midriff until the shirt simply slipped over her head and outstretched arms.
She stumbled free.
The muttered cursing behind her had her laughing all the way to the waterhole.
“I had a knot in my bootlace.” Todd’s lament came from the bank and Maddie turned to take in the view of him, standing there in his close-fit cotton boxers.
Dark skin and defined pecs, oozing athletic grace.
“Aww. Shame,” Maddie mock-commiserated, but her words came out a lot more strangled than she’d intended, missing the sarcastic bent she’d been aiming for.
Todd was no longer a lanky teenager, and if he hadn’t been Mitchell’s best friend Maddie would’ve definitely given herself leave to notice that salient point long before now.
“You were never one to pass up a challenge.” Todd grinned as he waded out towards her. “A surefire way to know you wouln’t give up was to make everything into a race.”
Flipping onto her back to stop herself staring, Maddie pushed off, moving further away from the guy she didn’t quite recognise.
“Though you were never one to make it a fair fight,” she countered.
“Not fair? I always play fair!” But Maddie could hear by the tone of Todd’s voice the declaration was paired with his boyish grin, so wasn’t to be trusted. “You only won today because I let you.”
“I won because you tripped yourself up, didn’t plan ahead, and believed a mere T-shirt could stop me getting past you,” she scoffed.
“Last in. I guess that makes me Taniwha, then.” Todd’s soft threat came a second before he went under.
Maddie was nervy enough to let out a muted squeak.
Todd’s wade-in had stirred up a bit of sediment from the bottom of the waterhole, and Maddie panicked when she realised it made him all but invisible when paired with the dappled light reflecting off the surface.
Being chased had always ratcheted up her adrenaline, and adding lack of visibility to the game only upped the ante.
Kicking away from where she’d seen him last, Maddie free-styled towards the deeper water near the bank where the flow was clearer. Hearing Todd re-surface behind her, she turned just in time to see his feet disappearing again as he trailed her underwater like a sly crocodile.
Her squeal came unbidden when something touched her foot, and her reactive kick connected with a solid body.
Not reptilian. Definitely human.
She was laughing when Todd finally stopped mucking around, pulling her under by the feet as the game dictated.
When they resurfaced it was together, but only Maddie was spluttering.
Todd was suddenly very close, and practically naked. “Your knickers are totally see-through underwater,” he teased.
If her knickers were, then her bra definitely was, too.
Brothers Best Friend:
“Why can’t you just get an eyeful and keep your mouth shut like everyone else?”
Todd looked around pointedly. “But there isn’t anyone else.”
“Not this time.”
“Not this time,” Todd repeated more slowly, blinking. The little gems of water on his eyelashes caught a shaft of afternoon light, and sparkled.
So he remembered it too—the last time they’d swam here together.
“I hadn’t thought it through. The wet T-shirt, I mean.”
Todd laughed. “The wet T-shirt was epic. Every hetero-eighteen-year-old-guy’s wet dream.”
At the time, Maddie hadn’t realised her ‘modesty’ T-shirt had plastered itself to every damn curve she’d been trying to hide until it was too late.
Her sixteen-year-old-self’s embarrassment had been minor, she was among friends after all, but was compounded tenfold by her brother’s over-the-top reaction.
Trying to cover Maddie from head to toe with a random towel, Mitchell had ordered his ogling mates to look the other way.
“Bloody Mitchell,” she muttered.
Todd grinned. “If you need me to act all protective and cover you up, I can do that.” He held two hands up, palms cupped as if holding her chest, making Maddie snort.
“Hey, how are you doing that without going under? Are you touching bottom?”
“Tippy toes,” Todd admitted.
It wasn’t just their clothing missing, something else had eased off between them, slowly worn through by continual proximity and shared history. Maddie slid one hand onto Todd’s shoulder, using him as support so she didn’t have to tread water anymore. It felt so natural there, she followed suit with the other one, framing his neck.
“You planning on dunking me?” Todd’s eyes glinted with amusement, but there was something else there too.
A light. A spark…
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Maddie informed him loftily, though to be honest, she was seriously considering his mouth as her next move.
A shiver of excitement ran through her.
“Want to get out?”
No. She most definitely did not want to get out.
Maddie gave up trying to pretend she wanted to be anywhere but all over her brother’s best friend, slinging one leg around his hips to hold him close as she plundered his mouth.
Then Todd was kissing her back, his arms snug around her waist, slick skin curling tightly around and keeping her warm.
He groaned as she re-angled her hips, rocking her core more snugly against his hard-on.
“You two aren’t having sex in there, are you?” The woman’s voice broke through Maddie’s dream of a kiss like a brick through glass, and she yanked her mouth off Todd’s in surprise, blinking.
“No, Auntie,” Todd calmly assured the older woman who’d turned up out of nowhere.
Only One Bed:
The first thing she was aware of the moment she woke up was the heat of him.
“It’s like coming-to in a pizza oven,” she grumbled, hurling the coverlet off.
“Whazzit?” came Todd’s somewhat bleary answer near her ear.
Todd chuckled, sounding suddenly a whole lot more awake as he hauled her bodily back against the curve of his muscular legs. “Mmm-hmm. We already determined that yesterday.”
“No! Not hot… Hot!” she insisted.
“Get outa that T-shirt, then,” he murmured into the curve of her neck.
“Oh, my God. Are you naked? You’re naked,” she realised aloud.
“I always sleep naked,” Todd informed her. “Don’t you?”
“You just steal random guy’s T-shirts and sleep in them?”
Though she couldn’t see the expression on his face, she could hear the smile in his voice.
“You’re not some random guy. You’re Todd.”
“Ah, you say the sweetest things to me,” he mocked, shifting the weight of her hair to give her nape a nip that sent a shiver of pure pleasure down her spine.
Award winning New Zealand contemporary romance novelist and short story writer, Stephanie Ruth lives in the South Island, Te Waipounamu, with her husband, three children, and an ever expanding array of animals. If it doesn’t have a happy ending in some form or other, Stephanie’s not writing it.