Susan Stephens is passionate about writing books set in fabulous locations where an outstanding man comes to grips with a cool, feisty woman. Susan’s hobbies include travel, reading, theatre, long walks, playing the piano, and she loves hearing from readers at her website. www.susanstephens.com
Screwing up her eyes as she stared at the screen. Grace blinked and tried to clear her vision. The virus she had contracted must be affecting her eyesight, she concluded, reading on: 'Romily Winner, our Up-Town sleuth, reports on the trail of who's hot and who's not.'
Now there were white spots dancing in front of her eyes and the monitor screen was flashing. Pushing her chair back, Grace stood to stretch her aching limbs and inhale a lungful of stale basement air. She squeezed her eyes shut again and then blinked several times.
Relieved to find the problem had cleared, she checked the PC connections.
Tiredness, Grace concluded. It was almost one a.m. Working as a cocktail waitress in the half-light of a nightclub in Cornwall and then sitting in the club's office working on accounts for half the night was hardly going to make for happy eyes.
Tired or not, Grace made one last trawl over the countless images of aggressively handsome men featured on the society pages of ROCK! magazine, finding it hard to believe that she had met the infamous Nacho Acosta in the hard, tanned flesh. They could hardly be said to inhabit the same world, but fate played funny tricks sometimes.
Finally managing to drag her gaze away from the photographs of Nacho, she got on with devouring every word the journalist had written about him
With the wild Acostas all grown up and fully fledged, this reporter doubts that Nacho—at thirty-two the oldest of the notorious polo-playing Acosta brothers—will be in much hurry to quit the London scene, where he seems to be finding plenty to keep him entertained!
Grace felt a pulse of arousal even as her stomach clenched with jealousy at the thought of all the other women entertaining Nacho, as the reporter so suggestively put it. Which was ridiculous, bearing in mind she'd only met him twice, and on each occasion had felt so clumsy and awkward in comparison to Nacho's effortless style she hardly had any right to feel so much as a twinge of envy.
But she did.
The first time they had met had been at a polo match on the beach in Cornwall, which Grace's best friend and Nacho's sister, Lucia, had arranged. Nacho had done little more on that occasion than lean out of the window of his monster Jeep to give Grace a quick once-over, but no man had ever looked at her that way before, and she could still remember the effect on her body of so much heat. She'd spent the rest of the day watching Nacho playing polo from the sidelines like some lovesick teenager.
They had met for a second time at Lucia's wedding, held at the Acosta family's main estancia in Argentina. This trip had been the greatest thrill of Grace's life—until she'd seen Nacho in the giant marquee and his keen black stare had found her. He'd been tied up for most of the evening, hosting the event, but she had felt the effect of his powerful charisma wherever she went, so that by the time he'd found a chance to speak to her she had only been able to stare at him like a fool, wide-eyed and stumped for words.
Growing up with parents who had extolled her virtues to anyone who would listen had left Grace with crippling shyness, for the simple reason that she knew she could never be as beautiful or as gifted as they made her out to be. A lot of that shyness had been knocked out of her at the club, where the patrons appreciated her efficiency, but it had all come flooding back that night at the wedding in front of Nacho, transforming what could have been a flirty, fun encounter into a tongue-tied mess.
Shifting her mind from that embarrassing occasion, Grace studied another shot of the man who'd once rocked her world. There was yet another beautiful woman at his side, and Grace had to admit they made a striking couple. And the girl's expression seemed to warn every other woman off.
'You can have him,' Grace muttered, dragging her gaze away. Nacho Acosta might be gorgeous, but that night at the wedding had proved he was well out of her league.
The sound of the nightclub pianist running through his repertoire provided a welcome distraction for Grace, who had always found company in music and books. Her parents had once had high hopes that Grace would become a concert pianist, but those dreams had ended when her father had died and there had been no more money to pay her fees at the conservatoire. Grace hadn't realised how cossetted she had been until that moment, or what loss really meant. Losing her place at college had been devastating, but losing her father had been far, far worse.
Leaving music college had forced Grace to find a job, and she had been grateful to find a position in a nightclub where one of the top jazz musicians of the day performed. Being close to music at that level had been a small comfort to Grace, who had still been suffering greatly from the death of her father.
Turning back to the computer screen again, Grace studied the picture at the end of the article showing Lucia and her brothers. Lucia was smiling, while each of her brothers either appeared dangerous, brooding or stern. Nacho was at the dangerous end of the spectrum.
It must have been hard for Lucia, Grace reflected. The only girl in a family of four men, how had Lucia ever made herself heard, or seen, or taken account of at all? Lucia had once mentioned that being alone in the Acosta family had never been an option. It was little wonder that she had made a bid for freedom, Grace mused, leaving the family home to work in the club where the two girls had met. Nacho had raised his siblings when their parents had been killed in a flood, and though Lucia was always upbeat by nature she referred to that time as like being under the heel of the tyrant.
Grace shivered involuntarily as she studied Nacho's face. Everyone knew Nacho Acosta to be a forceful man, who got everything he wanted.
She turned at the sound of Clark Mayhew's voice as he poked his head around the door. Clark was the club pianist she so loved to hear.
'Come on, Grace,' Clark prompted. 'Shut that computer down and get out here. You've got a real talent.'
'Not like you,' she said, smiling.
Clark shrugged. 'The only difference between you and me is that I have more confidence.'
'I wish!' Grace exclaimed, laughing as she walked across the club, sat down and adjusted the piano stool. 'I can't even play without music like you. I only wish I could.'
'But you can,' Clark insisted. 'Close your eyes and let the melody flow through your fingers.'
A bolt of panic hit her as Grace realised she had no option but to close her eyes. The moment she tried to focus her eyes on the music notes and lines began to wheel and collide on the page.
'Close your eyes, Grace,' Clark encouraged, oblivious to what was happening. 'Didn't I tell you?' he said when she managed a few bars.
She would definitely have to cut down her screentime, Grace realised when she opened her eyes again. The flashing lights plaguing her vision hadn't gone away. If anything, they were getting worse.
Two years later
The girl had been eyeing him up since he'd entered the ballroom. It was a magnificent room, currently set out for a formal dinner with small tables laid for eight. An armada of glass and silverware glittered beneath huge Venetian chandeliers, which proved the perfect spotlight for the girl trying to attract his attention. Her figure alone was enough to scramble any man's head, and the heated invitation in her eyes promised only one conclusion—if he were interested.
He'd pass. He was restless tonight, and bored by the round of engagements his PA had set up for him in London.
Tonight was a so-called power dinner, for movers and shakers in the wine industry. Nacho was better known for playing polo at an international level and running an estancia in Argentina the size of a small country, but his decision to restore the family vineyards was something he had been forced to do in order to protect his siblings' inheritance. Nothing else would have persuaded him to return to that particular family home in Argentina.
He turned to see the dapper figure of Don Fernando Gonzales, the chairman of the event, approaching. 'Don Fernando.' He inclined his head politely, noting the sultry beauty was now standing at the chairman's side.
'Nacho Acosta—I would like to present my daughter, Annalisa Gonzales.'
As Don Fernando stepped back an all too familiar sensation came over him as he briefly clasped the woman's carefully manicured hand. He'd heard Don Fernando was in financial trouble, and the portly chairman wouldn't be the first father to parade his pretty daughter in front of Nacho. Everyone knew Nacho held the reins to the family fortune, though they seemed unaware that Nacho was wise to schemes born out of desperation, or that he could do more damage to those he cared about than those misguided parents could possibly imagine.
It was almost a relief when he was distracted by the glimpse of a shining blonde head. He stared across the room, trying to work out if he had met the blonde before. His sixth sense said yes, but with only the back of her head to go on it was hard to be sure.
'Am I keeping you, Senor Acosta?' Annalisa Gonzales asked him with a knowing look.
Her father had peeled away, Nacho noticed, giving them the chance to get to know each other better. 'Forgive me,' he said, forcing himself to concentrate on what was undeniably a beautifully designed face.
'Are you really as bad as they say you are?' Annalisa asked, as if she hoped it were true.
'Worse,' he assured her.
They were both distracted by the sound of a dog barking, and Annalisa laughed as she turned to look for the culprit. 'If I had known dogs were permitted at this dinner I would have brought Monkey, my Chihuahua—'
'Who would have provided a tasty snack for Cormac, my Irish Wolfhound,' he countered. 'If you will excuse me, Senorita Gonzales, I believe the MC is about to call us to our tables.'
Grace sat down, relieved to have the woman sitting next to her introduce herself right away. Elias, Grace's elderly employer and mentor, was sitting on Grace's other side, but he had been immediately swept into greeting old friends and colleagues, and Grace was keen to prove that she could do this by herself. This annual event in celebration of the wine industry was Grace's first major outing since becoming blind. It was also the first big outing for her guide dog, Buddy, and Grace was as nervous for Buddy as she was for herself. She hoped they would both get through the evening without making too many blunders.
While Grace was chatting easily to the lady at her side she took the chance to discreetly map the tablecloth and all the various hazards confronting her. A battalion of glasses was waiting to be knocked over—and then there was the cutlery she had to get right. And the napkin she had to unfold without knocking anything over. There were a lot of different-sized plates, along with groups of condiments and sugar bowls. The potential for sugar in her soup and salt in her coffee loomed large.
'Here's the pepper, if you want it,' the lady next to her remarked, flagging up the arrival of the soup. 'I like pepper on everything,' she added, 'though you may want to taste first. It might need salt—'
Grace felt a rush of emotion as the woman placed a second container close to her hand, where Grace could feel it. Small kindnesses counted for a lot now she was blind. They meant she could leave the house and do things like this. Elias was right. All she had to do was buckle on her courage each morning along with Buddy's harness. It was harder doing that sometimes than talking about it, but it helped to know there were some really nice people in the world—and thank goodness for them.
'You work for one of the great men in our industry,' the older woman commented, obviously impressed when Grace explained that Elias had trained her to be a sommelier.
'I guess Elias is the closest thing I've got to a father figure,' Grace admitted. It wasn't enough to describe Elias as her employer when he'd done so much for her.
'You lost your father?' the elderly lady prompted gently.
'Yes,' Grace murmured, growing sombre as she thought back.
'I lost my father when I was very young. You're lucky to have Elias on your side. He's a kind man and a good man, and there aren't many of those around—though I'm sure you'll meet a good man of your own one day and get married.'
'Oh, no!' Grace exclaimed. 'I could never do that.'
'Why ever not?' Grace's companion demanded as Buddy barked at the change in Grace's voice.
'I wouldn't want to be a burden,' Grace explained.
'A burden?' her new friend exclaimed. 'Whatever gave you that idea?'
Grace would run a mile rather than be a burden to anyone. She'd felt the same way when her mother had found happiness again after her father's death and had wanted to marry a man with children of his own. Grace hadn't wanted to get in the way of her mother's happiness, and had taken the marriage as her cue to leave home for good. Then, when her sight had deteriorated, she had become doubly determined not to be a trouble to anyone.
But she wasn't about to spoil this evening with dark thoughts. 'I've still got a lot to learn and a lot to get used to,' Grace said lightly, 'so I think perhaps I'd better get myself sorted out before I go looking for love,' She laughed, realizing what she'd said. 'Perhaps it would be better if I let love come looking for me.' She stilled, feeling a warm, papery hand covering hers.
'You're a brave girl, Grace. You deserve the best,' Grace's new friend insisted. 'And don't you dare settle for anything less.'
Nacho was growing increasingly impatient—although as Annalisa shrugged her slender shoulders and walked away he was forced to ask himself when the chance to accept a free gift in such attractive packaging had become so meaningless.
The past had made him hard and cynical, Nacho concluded. Most of the women he encountered seemed so obvious and shallow, and they all wanted the same thing: someone—anyone—to take care of them, financially and emotionally. And, having spent his teens and twenties caring for his siblings, he found his emotional bank was drained.