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Using the rear-view mirror to paint on her lipstick, Lily could almost hear her childhood ballet teacher's affected tones calling out for her to look happy and relaxed as she performed some excruciatingly painful manoeuvre.
And tonight's group session was going to be excruciatinghappy and positive were the absolute last things she felt this evening. Even an hour spent in front of the mirror, sweeping her blonde hair back in a smart French roll, carefully applying her make-up and dressing in her most snappy navy suit hadn't enabled Lily to muster the confident air that usually surrounded her. No amount of power dressing was going to save her tonight! The only thing she had to show for weeks spent wrestling with banks, realestate agents and mortgage brokers was a pounding headache and the appalling realisation that, this time, she couldn't protect her mother.
Now she had to go in there, into the community centre, and imbue confidence, try to convince these people that they could be anything they wanted to be, could attain any goal, if only they truly set their minds to it.
She felt like a charlatan.
Dabbing a touch of concealer on a tiny pimple on her chin, Lily wished that life was so easythat she could wave her magic wand and make problems disappear. Only problems didn't disappear, Lily thought darkly, watching as, despite fifty dollars a dab, her pimple shone through.
Slipping off her silver thongs, Lily rummaged on the passenger floor for a pair of high-heeled sandals, slipping her feet in and doing up the thready laces, wishing she were actually taking them offwishing that this day, this night was well and truly over.
Not that they weren't divine.
A mere inch of suede had somehow been crafted into the softest, most divine of foot coutureaccentuating her duskily painted toe-nailsthe spiky heels magically elon-gating her ankles, somehow adding that extra oomph Lily so badly needed tonight.
'Come on, shoes,' Lily whispered, feeling a touch like Dorothy clicking her heels. 'Do your stuff.'
Thick, heavy dots of rain hitting her windscreen dragged her out of her introspection and Lily knew that if she didn't want being drenched to add to her woes, then hiding in her car wasn't an option. The end of a long hot sultry spell that had hit Melbourne was, according to the forecast, about to be broken by a storm. Dashing across the car park, Lily just made it into the centre before the rain took hold, and as she stepped inside and saw her clients waiting for her, some standing alone and nervous-looking, as if they might flee at any moment, some mingling in groups, drinking the questionable coffee all turned to greet her as she entered. Lily's smile wasn't as false as she'd anticipatedshe felt genuinely glad to see the familiar and new faces of people who were looking to her to help them change their lives.
'Good evening, everyone.' Lily glanced up at the clock, glad to see that she was ahead of schedule. 'Carry on chatting among yourselves for a while. I'm a little early so we'll give everyone a chance to get here before we start.'
Pulling paperwork out of her briefcase, Lily did a brief head count, ticking off the names on her list and putting out self-help brochures for the group to take away if they wished. She smiled warmly as a very new, very nervous, participant entered the room. Blushing and painfully shy, the newcomer blinked as she looked around the room, wringing her hands nervously as she stood there, and Lily's heart went out to the stranger. She admired the huge step this woman was taking by coming tonight and immediately crossed the room to welcome her.
'My name's Lily,' she said warmly, offering her hand. 'Welcome to New Beginnings.'
'Amanda,' came the nervous reply. 'I didn't know if I needed an appointment.'
'Not here,' Lily said. 'I just need you to fill in a form and then you can grab a coffee and start getting to know a few peoplewe really are a very friendly lot!'
Helping Amanda through the form took a little while longer than normal. Amanda, as Lily found out, had recently lost a huge amount of weight, followed by her marriage, followed by the little confidence she'd possessed, but Lily could tell that behind the shy façade was a very strong woman and one Lily couldn't wait to see emerge.
'Right, that's all the paperwork done.' Taking the clipboard from Amanda, Lily was about to suggest that she get a drink when her attention was caught by the door openingwell, not so much the door opening, more the man that was coming through it!
Her first thought was that he must be lost. He didn't look lostanything other than that but men like the one appearing in the doorway did not belong at a self-help group meeting at the local community centre.
No, men like this one belonged in the middle of a glossy celebrity magazine or strutting his stuff down the catwalk, orLily gulped, blushing at the thoughtthey belonged in the giddy realms of a very private erotic dream.
She'd seen him somewhere before, Lily was sure of it, though simultaneously she doubted it because, if that were the case, surely she'd remember exactly the moment, for he was stunning.
Tall, long-limbed and lean with rakish good looks, his very dark brown hair, which was clearly superbly cut because as he dragged a hand through it it spiked into a perfect messy shapehis ice-blue eyes worked the room. Lean but certainly not skinny, Lily decided as he peeled off his jacket and shook the rain from it; beneath his white cotton shirt you could just tell his body was toned and muscular. His presence was so commanding it literally stopped the room, every head turning as he stood there for a moment, holding out his jacket as if he expected someone to collect it for him.
Someone did collect it for him!
Jinty, the housewife who till recently had washed down her morning cereal with a glass of vodka and orange, was first in the queue, taking his expensive jacket and hanging it on a peg as everyone else in the room, Lily included, sucked in their stomachs like a reflex action, staring in open-mouthed admiration at this Adonis who quite simply didn't belong in suburbia.
'Can I help you?' Lily attempted to greet him as she would any other newcomer to the centre, by walking across to him and trying to put them at easenot that this man appeared remotely uncomfortable. Quite literally he oozed confidence. It was Lily who was having trouble remembering how her legs worked, Lily feeling like a child in her mother's high heels as she teetered across the room and offered her hand to this stunning stranger. 'I'm Lily Harper.'
'Then I'm in the right place,' he drawled in a very well-schooled voice, 'I'm here to join the New Beginnings Group.'
'Oh!' Lily blinked, and then corrected herself, trying to remember to treat him like a mortal, trying and failing not to judge, to attempt to fathom what could possibly have bought him there. 'Well, welcome!' She was still holding his hand, pumping it up and down as if she expected to find water! 'I just need you to fill in a form.'
Sure, Lily repeated to herself, peeling her fingers from his hot grasp, trying not to appear flustered as she made her way to the table and handed him a clipboard with the necessary form attached. Only she was flusteredvery!
He smelt divine, like walking past the aftershave counter at an exclusive department store, Lily thought as she absorbed the heavy scent he emanated, trying not to notice the piercing blue of his eyes or the chiselled planes of his impossibly handsome face. 'Do you need a pen?'
'Please.' He stared at the rather grubby, very well-chewed pen that was being offered and then without a word declined, heading over to his jacket and producing one he, no doubt, deemed more suitable, before coming back to the table where Lily was now thankfully seated. The chatter in the room resumed again, but rather more subdued now, everyone's ears on elastic, trying to hear his answers as Lily walked him through the form.
'There's no need to put your surname,'Lily commented, 'or your address, though we do ask for your postcode.'
'Fine.' He was sitting loosely cross-legged beside her, resting the clipboard on one long slender thigh, leaving it for Lily to guess where he was up to on the form. 'I like your sandals, by the way.' Somehow he managed to address the form and run an experienced eye along the length of her calves right down to her toes, which Lily felt curl on cue.
'Thank you.' Lily coughed, every exposed inch of flesh blushing as she tried to concentrate on the blessed form. 'We ask for your salary rangeif it falls in one of top three categories'
'It does,' he interrupted. 'Then in that case ' Lily gave another small cough more than anything she hated discussing money. 'We ask if you'd consider paying towards the cost of the session depending what category you're in '
'The top one.'He squinted at the piece of paper. 'Easily.'
'Then we ask you to contribute fifty dollars, but you can always pay next time if you don't have it with you tonight, and if for some reason finding the money is a problem, please, don't let it stop you from coming to the sessions it really is a voluntary contribution.'
'It's no problem.' He pulled out a very sleek wallet and peeled off a note.
'I'll write you a receipt.'
'There's really no need.' He resumed filling in the form as Lily ignored him and started to fill in a receipt. 'Tell me something.' Thick beautiful eyebrows almost met as he frowned over at her. 'Why, if someone is earning in the top category, would you offer for them not to pay? It doesn't make good business sense.'
'This isn't a business.' Lily smiled. 'New Beginnings is a community-funded programmeit's available to everyone, rich or poor. Anyway, for all I know ' She stopped talking then, but still he stared.
'Well, you might have just come from the casino and lost everything, your business might have collapsed. There are many reasons people find themselves at this sort of groupit certainly isn't for me to judge your circumstances solely on the box you tick.'
'Glad to hear it.' He frowned down at the last bit of the form. 'What exactly do you want to know here?'
'Well, as the question suggests, we're trying to find out what brought you to New Beginnings.'
'It was suggested to me.' He shrugged. 'What do you hope to get out of it, then?' Lily smiled patiently. 'Most people are here for a reason, they're hoping to change a part of their life or want some guidance with goal setting, to help them move onto a better oneit just helps me if I know what you're hoping to achieve ' Her voice trailed off as he started writing again, and she couldn't be sure but there was a slight smirk on his mouth as, tongue clearly in cheek, he finished off the form and handed it back.
'Thank you,' Lily said, deliberately not peeking at what he had written, though she was aching to! 'Here's your receipt. Now, we'll be moving through to the meeting room in five minutes or so. If you'd like to grab a coffee before we start, you're very welcome.'She pointed over to the urn, but he shook his head.
'Just an iced water, thanks.'
He was joking, surely! But from the expression on his face he was clearly expecting her to stand up and fetch it for him, clearly very used to having people run around after him.
Well, not here!
It was Lily shaking her head now, managing not to smirk as she answered his rather derisive request.
'There's a water fountain at the entrance.'She gave a very sweet smile. 'Please, help yourself to a polystyrene cup!'
She stared at his extravagant handwriting, trying to glean a little more from his rather sparse summing-up on the form. He was 32 years old, he came from an exclusive city suburb and earned in excess of the top box. None of that came as a surpriseeverything about him screamed of excess, from the exquisite tailoring of his suit that skimmed his sculpted body to the flash of a heavy gold watch on his wrist and the bunch of notes he'd peeled the fifty-dollar one from. Even those icy blue eyes hinted at excess, slightly bloodshot with purple smudges beneath them, and the tiny squint as he had filled in the form had Lily wondering if he was recovering from one too many nights on the town.
Hunter Myleseven though he hadn't put his surname down, suddenly it came to herthat rather dangerous face placed now. He was a brilliant financiernot that Lily read the business pages much, she only skimmed through them if they'd moved her horoscopebut Hunter Myles had become somewhat the darling of housewives everywhere, writing the odd quirky little piece in magazines and offering share tips that over and over had proven golden. And now he appeared occasionally on breakfast television and regularly in all the social pagesa loose cannon in the staid world of finance, his party lifestyle legendary in the last year or so since Lily frowned in concentration. There had been some tragedy, some accident, something that had sent him skidding off the rails in such spectacular style Oh, what was it, now? And what, Lily wondered, was he hoping to achieve from New Beginnings? Staring at the form, Lily raised a neatly plucked eyebrow.
Oh, his tongue had been firmly in cheek as he'd written it. Lily had seen the smirk on his face, known that he was being glibbut there was one tiny chink in his impressive armor that she'd noticed, manicured but undoubtedly bitten nails had drummed on the table as he'd spoken and there had been a restless energy that had belied his confident stance. He might have been joking when he'd written it but, like everyone else, maybe inner peace was what Hunter was seeking.