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Was she ever going to start painting?
The woman had been sitting and staring at the blank canvas for the better part of an hour. Chase Bryant had been watching her, nursing his drink at the ocean-side bar and wondering if she'd ever actually put brush to paper, or canvas, as the case might be. She didn't.
She was fussy; he could see that straight off. She was in a luxury resort on a remote island in the Caribbean, and her tan capris had knife-edge pleats. Her pale-blue polo shirt looked like she'd ironed it an hour ago. He wondered what she did to relax. If she relaxed. Considering her attitude in their current location, he doubted it.
Still, there was something intriguing about the determined if rather stiff set of her shoulders, the compressed line of her mouth. She wasn't particularly prettywell, not his kind of pretty anyway, which he fully admitted was lush, curvy blondes. This woman was tall, just a few inches under his own six feet, and angular. He could see the jut of her collarbone, the sharp points of her elbows. She had a narrow face, a forbidding expression, and even her hairstyle was severe, a blunt bob of near black that looked like she trimmed it with nail scissors every week. Its razor-straight edge swung by the strong line of her jaw as she moved.
He'd been watching her since she arrived, her canvas and paints under one arm. She'd set her stuff up on the beach a little way off from the bar, close enough so he could watch her while he sipped his sparkling water. No beers for him on this trip, unfortunately.
She'd been very meticulous about it all, arranging the collapsible easel, the box of paints, the little three-legged stool. Moving everything around until it was all just so, and she was on a beach. In the Caribbean. She looked like she was about to teach an evening art class for over-sixties.
Still he waited. He wondered if she was any good. She had a gorgeous view to paintthe aquamarine sea, a stretch of spun-sugar sand. There weren't even many people to block the view; the resort wasn't just luxurious, it was elite and discreet. He should know. His family owned it. And right now he needed discreet.
She finished arranging everything and sat on the stool, staring out to the sea, her posture perfect, back ramrod-straight. For half an hour. It would have been boring except that he could see her face, and how emotions flickered across it like shadows on water. He couldn't exactly decipher what the emotions were, but she clearly wasn't thinking happy thoughts.
The sun had begun its languorous descent towards the sea, and he decided she must be waiting for the sunset. They were spectacular here; he'd seen three of them already. He liked watching the sun set, felt there was something poetic and apt about all that intense beauty over in an instant. He watched now as the sun slipped lower, its long rays causing the placid surface of the sea to shimmer with a thousand lights, the sky ablaze with myriad streaks of colour, everything from magenta to turquoise to gold.
And still she just sat there.
For the first time Chase felt an actual flicker of annoyance. She'd dragged everything out here; obviously she'd intended to paint something. So why wasn't she doing it? Was she afraid? More likely a perfectionist. And, damn it, he knew now that life was too short to wait for the perfect moment, or even an OK moment. Sometimes you just had to wade into the mire and do it. Live while you could.
Pushing away his drink, he rose from his stool and headed over to Miss Fussy.
Millie did not enjoy feeling like a fool. And it felt foolish and, worse, pathetic, sitting here on a gorgeous beach staring at a blank canvas when she'd obviously come to paint. She just didn't want to any more.
It had been a stupid idea anyway, the kind of thing you read about in self-help books or women's magazines. She'd read one on the plane to St Julian's, something about being kind to yourself. Whatever. The article had described how a woman had taken up gardening after her divorce and had ended up starting her own landscaping business. Lived her dream after years of marital unhappiness. Inspirational. Impossible. Millie turned away from the canvas.
And found herself staring straight at a man's muscled six-pack abs. She looked up and saw a dark-haired Adonis smiling down at her.
'I've heard about watching paint dry, but this is ridiculous.'
Perfect, a smart ass. Millie rose from her stool so she was nearly eye-level. 'As you can see, there's no paint.' 'What are you waiting for?'
'Inspiration,' she answered and gave him a pointed look. 'I'm not finding any here.'
If she'd been trying to offend or at least annoy him, she'd failed. He just laughed, slow and easy, and gave her a thorough once-over with his dark bedroom eyes.
Millie stood taut and still, starting to get angry. She hated guys like this one: gorgeous, flirtatious, and utterly arrogant. Three strikes against him, as far as she was concerned.
His gaze finally travelled up to her face, and she was surprised and discomfited to see a flicker of what almost looked like sympathy there. 'So really,' he asked, dropping the flirt, 'why haven't you painted anything?'
'It's none of your business.'
'Obviously. But I'm curious. I've been watching you from the bar for nearly an hour. You spent a long time on the setup, but you've been staring into space for thirty minutes.'
'What are you, some kind of stalker?'
'Nope. Just bored out of my mind.'
She stared at him; tried to figure him out. She'd taken him for a cheap charmer but there was something strangely sincere about the way he spoke. Like he really was curious. And really bored.
Something in the way he waited with those dark eyes and that little half-smile made her answer reluctantly, 'I just couldn't do it.'
'It's been a while?'
'Something like that.' She reached over and started to pack up the paints. No point pretending anything was going to happen today. Or any day. Her painting days were long gone.
He picked up her easel and collapsed it in one neat movement before handing it back. 'May I buy you a drink?'
She liked the 'may', but she still shook her head. 'No thanks.' She hadn't had a drink alone with a man in two years. Hadn't done anything in two years but breathe and work and try to survive. This guy wasn't about to make her change her ways.
She turned to him and folded her arms as she surveyed him. He really was annoyingly attractive: warm brown eyes, short dark hair, a chiseled jaw and those nice abs. His board shorts rode low on his hips, and his legs were long and powerful. 'Why,' she asked, 'are you even asking? I'd bet a hundred bucks I'm not your usual type.' Just like he wasn't hers.
'Typecast me already?'
His mouth quirked slightly. 'Well, you're right, you're not my usual type. Way too tall and, you know' he gestured around her face, making Millie stiffen 'severe. What's with the hair?'
'The hair?' Instinctively and shamefully she reached up to touch her bobbed hair. 'What about it?'
'It's scary. Like, Morticia Addams scary.'
'Morticia Addams? Of the Addams Family? She had long hair.' She could not believe they were discussing her hair, and in relation to a television show.
'Did she? Well, maybe I'm thinking of someone else. Somebody with hair like yours. Really sharp-cut.' He made a chopping motion along his own jaw.
'You're being ridiculous. And offensive.' Yet strangely she found herself smiling. She liked his honesty.
He raised his eyebrows. 'So, dinner?'
'I thought it was a drink.'
'Based on the fact that you're still talking to me, I upped the ante.'
She laughed, reluctant, rusty, yet still a laugh. This annoying, arrogant, attractive man amused her somehow. When was the last time she'd actually laughed, had felt like laughing? And she was on holidayadmittedly enforced, but she had a whole week to kill. Seven days was looking like a long time from here. Why not amuse herself? Why not prove she really was moving on, just like her boss Jack had urged her to do? She gave a little decisive nod. 'OK, to the drink only.'
'Are you haggling?'
Interest flared; deals she could do. 'What's your counter offer?'
He cocked his head, his gaze sweeping slowly over her once more. And she reacted to that gaze, a painful mix of attraction and alarm. Dread and desire. Hot and cold. A welter of emotions that penetrated her numbness, made her feel.
'Drink, dinner, and a walk on the beach.'
Awareness pulsed with an electric jolt low in her belly. 'You were supposed to offer something less, not more.'
His slow, wicked smile curled her toesand other parts of her person, parts that hadn't curled in a long time. 'I know.'
She hesitated. She should back off, tell him to forget it, yet somehow now that felt like failure. She could handle him. She needed to be able to handle him.
'Fine.' She was agreeing because it was a challenge, not because she wanted to. She liked to set herself little challenges, tests of emotional and physical endurance: I can jog three miles in eighteen-and-a-half minutes and not even be out of breath. I can look at this photo album for half an hour and not cry.
Smiling, he reached for the canvas she clutched to her chest. 'Let me carry that for you.'
'Chivalrous of you, but there's no need.' She strode over to the rubbish bin on the edge of the beach and tossed the canvas straight in. The paints, easel and stool followed.
She didn't look at him as she did it, but she felt herself flush. She was just being practical, but she could see how it might seem kind of. .severe.
'You are one scary lady.'
She glanced at him, eyebrows raised, everything prickling. 'Are you still talking about my hair?'
'The whole package. But don't worry, I like it.' He grinned and she glared.
'I wasn't worried.'
'The thing I like about you,' he said as he strolled towards the bar, 'is you're so easy to rile.'
Millie had no answer to that one. She was acting touchy, but she felt touchy. She didn't do beaches, or bars, or dates. She didn't relax. For the last two years she had done nothing but work, and sunbathing on the beach with a paperback and MP3 player was akin to having her fingernails pulled out one by one. At least that wouldn't take a whole week.
The manshe realised she didn't even know his namehad led her through the beach-side bar to an artful arrangement of tables right on the sand. Each one was shaded by its own umbrella, with comfortable, cushioned chairs and a perfect view of the sea.
The waiter snapped right to attention, so Millie guessed the man was known around here. Probably a big spender. Trust-fund baby or bond trader? Did it matter?
'What's your name?' she asked as she sat across from him. He was gazing out at the sea with a strangely focused look. The orange streaks were like vivid ribbons across the sky. He snapped his attention back to her.
'Chase.' She gave a short laugh. 'Sounds appropriate.'
'Actually, I don't generally do much chasing.' He gave her a slow, oh-so-sexy smile that had annoyance flaring through her even as her toesand other partscurled again.
'Charming, Chase. Do you practise that in the mirror?'
He laughed and leaned back in his chair. 'Nope, never. But it must be a pretty nice smile, if you think I practise.' He eyed her consideringly. 'Although, the more likely possibility is that you just think you I'm an arrogant ass who's far too full of himself.'
Now she laughed in surprise. She hadn't expected him to be so honest. 'And I could probably tell you what you think of me.'
He arched one eyebrow. 'And that is?'
'Uptight, prissy know-itall who doesn't know how to have a good time.' As soon as she said the words, she regretted them. This wasn't a conversation she wanted to have.
'Actually, I don't think that.' He remained relaxed, but his gaze swept over her searchingly, making Millie feel weirdly revealed. 'Admittedly, on the surface, yes, I see it. Totally, to a tee. But underneath ' She rolled her eyes, waiting for the come-on. Everything was a chat-up line to a guy like this. 'You seem sad.'
She tensed mid-eye-roll, her gaze arrowing on him. A little smile played around his mouth, drawing attention to those full, sculpted lips. Lips that were lush enough to belong to a woman, yet still seemed intensely masculine. And it was those lips that had so softly issued that scathing indictment.
You seem sad.
'I don't know what you're talking about.' As far as comebacks went, it sucked. And her voice sounded horribly brittle. But Millie didn't have anything better. Averting her eyes, she slipped out her smart phone and punched in a few numbers. Chase watched her without speaking, yet she felt something from him. Something dark, knowing and totally unexpected.
'What's your name?' he finally asked and, knowing she was being rude, she didn't look up from her phone.
'Millie Lang.' No work emails. Damn.
'What's that short for? Millicent? Mildred?'
She finally glanced up, saw him still studying her.
'Camilla,' he repeated, savouring the syllables, drawing them out with a sensual consideration that didn't seem forced or fake. 'I like it.' He gestured to her phone. 'So what's going on in the real world, Camilla? Your stock portfolio sound? Work managing without you?'
She flushed and put her phone away. She'd just been about to check NASDAQ. For the fifth time today. 'Everything ship-shape. And please don't call me Camilla.'
'You prefer Millie?'
He laughed. 'This is going to be a fun evening, I can tell.'
Her flush intensified, swept down her body. What a mistake this wasa stupid, stupid mistake. Had she actually thought she could do thishave dinner, have fun, flirt? All ridiculous.
'Maybe I should just go.' She half-rose from her chair, but Chase stopped her with one hand on her wrist. The touch of his fingers, long, lean and cool against that tender skin, felt like a bomb going off inside her body. Not just the usual tingle of attraction, the shower of sparks that was your body's basic reaction to a good-looking guy. No, a bomb. She jerked her hand away, heard her breath come out in a rush. 'Don't'
'Whoa.' He held his hands up in front of him. 'Sorry, my mistake.' But he didn't look sorry. He looked like he knew exactly what she'd just experienced. 'I meant what I said, Millie. It's going to be a fun evening. I like a challenge.'
'Oh, please.' His stupid comment made her feel safe. She wanted this Chase to be exactly what she'd thought he was: attractive, arrogant and utterly unthreatening.
Chase grinned. 'I knew you'd expect me to say that.' And, just like that, she was back to wondering. Millie snatched up a menu.
'Shall we order?'
'I'll have a glass of Chardonnay with ice, please.' 'That sounds about right,' he murmured and rose from the table. Millie watched him walk to the bar, her gaze glued to his easy, long-limbed stride. Yes, she was staring at his butt. He looked good in board shorts.
By sheer force of will she dragged her gaze away from him and stared down at her phone. Why couldn't she have one work crisis? She'd had a dozen a day when she was in the office. Of course she knew why; she just didn't like it. Jack had insisted she take a week's holiday with no interruptions or furtive tele-commuting. She hadn't taken any in two years, and new company policysupposedly for the health of its employeesdemanded that you use at least half of your paid leave in one year.
What a ridiculous policy.