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KRISTEN LEWIS had a thing for hotels.
She loved the luxury, the hustle and bustle, even those tiny toiletries designed to slather and splurge and make a weary soul feel like a million dollars for that split second in time.
But most of all she loved the anonymity, that people from all walks of life passed by without knowing or caring why a successful thirty-five-year-old woman would be sitting alone at a bar sipping a spritzer.
'Men,' she muttered, stabbing at the lemon wedge in her glass with a swizzle stick, wondering if their ability to blow off other people was a genetic thing.
Even as friends they couldn't be trusted.
She took another stab at the piece of lemonwhich was starting to resemble Swiss cheese with the number of jabs she'd taken at it in the last five minutesas she glanced around the Oasis bar of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore.
She loved this place, with its sleek chrome lines, trendy black furniture with the occasional splash of red, and had spent many hours here with clients and work colleagues during her four-year stint working at a Singapore TV station. The hotel's grandeur screamed 'special occasion', the reason why she'd chosen to meet Nigel here tonight, envisioning a fun evening with her best work buddy, celebrating the completion of her latest project.
Unfortunately, Nigel had had a better offer from a twenty-two-year-old temp and had given her the brush-off in the foyer.
'Buddy my butt,' she muttered, taking a sip of her favourite white-wine-and-soda combination as her gaze locked with a guy sitting at the other end of the bar.
Not bad flashed across her mind as she took in his dark eyes, dark hair, slight bump in thenose, which added character to his model-handsome face, and sardonic expression highlighted by the slight quirk of his lips.
Dropping her gaze quickly, she returned to studying coasters while mentally listing Nigel's faults, the main one being that he preferred a romantic evening with a bimbo over a night out with a long-term friend. Not that she should be surprised. If Nigel had a choice between wining and dining his latest prospective conquest or sharing a drink with a friend, she'd lose every time.
Letting her gaze sweep the room again in a general fly-by, it unerringly zeroed in on the good-looking guy, and she prepared for a quick look-away. From past experience, guys who looked like that sitting alone at a bar would still be staring at her, trying to make eye contact before moving in for the kill.
Instead, Mr Handsome was staring morosely into his drink, a sombre expression on his striking face, and crazily she sighed in disappointment. She'd never believed in fate or karma or any of that airy-fairy rubbishyet when she'd locked gazes with the guy a second ago something intangible had zinged between them, almost like kindred spirits meeting and shaking hands before fading away.
Now he wore the same brooding, gloomy expression which matched her mood perfectly, and for an irrational moment she wondered if she should go over there and share sob stories with him.
Shaking her head, she finished off her spritzerthere had to be more wine than soda in it for her to be contemplating such an uncharacteristic actionand scrummaged in her handbag for money.
'Is this yours?'
Looking up from the giant, cavernous hole which sucked up purses, tissues, pens, make-up and everything else she needed on a daily basis, making them vanish with a flick of its clasp, she stared into the darkest eyes she'd ever seen.
A dark chocolate, they stared at her with polite interest, as if expecting something from her.
'Is this your coat?'
His voice washed over her as deep and mysterious and impressive as his eyes, and she blinked, realising he did expect something from her: an answer.
'Oh. Yes, thanks. Was it on the floor?'
She couldn't look away, lost in his hypnotic stare, floundering when she would usually have given Mr Handsome a confident smile, a polite nod and terse reply.
He was probably pulling some slick, practised move on her, and she gave guys like that short shift. Instead, she stood there like a mannequin, stiff and wide-eyed, unable to shake the feeling that this guy was on her wavelength.
Smiling, he nodded.
'Yes, you knocked it off the back of your stool while searching in that suitcase of yours.'
If his eyes had mesmerised her, they had nothing on his smile, which had her surreptitiously leaning against the bar for support.
He pointed to her handbag.
'Looks big enough to store the odd suit and a pair of shoes or two.'
She laughed, and snapped the suitcase shut.
'I'm on the go a lot, so like to have everything at my fingertips. You know, important stuff, like pens and notebooks and all the other paraphernalia I couldn't possibly find anywhere if I left all this at home.'
His smile widened but somehow it didn't reach his eyes, a flicker of sadness darkening their depths to almost black, and she felt another twinge, an uncharacteristic urge to reach out and comfort him.
'Speaking of being on the go, I should catch some sleep. I've got an early plane to catch tomorrow.'
'Here on business?'
'Ah, too bad for you that it's just a short trip,' she blurted, filled with a desperate urge to keep him talking, to find out more about the mysterious guy who saved ladies' coats from death by trampling, yet wore an invisible cloak of sadness around his broad shoulders.
'Emphasis on "for me"? By your Aussie accent, I assumed you were here on business too.'
'Not exactly. I could be on holiday,' she said, hating the stilted conversation they were having standing up, which was exactly why she didn't usually hang out in places like this.
'You're not on holiday.'
She raised an eyebrow, surprised by his matter-of-fact tone.
'How do you know that?'
'Because holidaymakers have a relaxed look about them, an excited glow, and you don't have it.'
'Gee, thanks. So I've lost my glow too,'she muttered, wondering what she was doing here, making small talk with a guy she didn't know and who'd only stopped because she was a klutz.
'You've got a glow,' he said in a tight, strangled tone which made her look up and register the fleeting interest in his eyes.
'Just not a holiday one.'
Kristen didn't know if it was her bruised ego courtesy of being stood up by Nigel, the spritzer she'd had on an empty stomach or the nebulous connection she felt for this sad stranger, but she found herself doing something completely out of character.
'If you're not too tired and can hold off on the z's a while longer, maybe you'd like to hear about my non-holiday glow?'
He didn't move, surprise mingling with something else in his eyesregret, hope, desire?and she wished the ground would open up as heat surged into her cheeks.
'Look, don't worry. I'm sure you have more important things'
'I'd like that,' he said, hanging her coat over the back of the stool and holding it out for her.
She sat down, baffled by her behaviour and the simple pleasure derived from his acceptance.
'Would you like a drink?'
'A lemon, lime and bitters, please.'
If the splash of wine in the spritzer had been responsible for her erratic behaviour, she'd better stick to the soft stuff otherwise there was no telling what she might do.
After placing their order with the waiterwho had a knowing smile, like he'd seen this scenario a thousand times beforeMr Handsome turned to her.
Smiling, she held out her hand.
'I'm Kris. Non-holidaymaker. Living in Singapore and loving it.'
Warmth enveloped her hand as he shook it with a solid grip. She liked that. She hated it when guys gave her the limp-fish handshake because of her sex, though she usually showed them, turning their condescension into awe when she wowed them in the business arena.
She shook her head, wondering if he was fishing for info about a significant other, before ditching the idea.
Nate seemed too up-front to play those sort of games. If he were interested he would've asked, and sadly she had a feeling he was sitting here chatting to her out of pity rather than desire for her as a woman. Something in the way he'd looked at her when she'd invited him to share a drink, as if he'd have liked to refuse but didn't want to hurt her feelings.
Oh well, she didn't care. Right now it felt good to talk to someone, especially with a guy who looked like Nate, regardless of his motivations for sitting here with a sad case like her.
'No, I don't have much family. Two sisters back in Sydney, that's it. I've been here working, producing one of Singapore's travel shows.'
He thanked the waiter as their drinks were placed in front of them and signed the bill, giving her ample opportunity to study him.
White business shirt unbuttoned at the collar and rolled up at the sleeves revealed strong forearms, and shirt tucked into the waistband of black trousers encased long legs ending in a pair of designer shoes. However, the clothes weren't the interesting part, it was the body beneath: lean, streamlined, a physique hinting at subtle strength.
Very, very nice.
Usually, she wouldn't have given a stranger the time of day, let alone have invited him to share a drink, yet there was something so so haunting about him, an underlying vulnerability that had her wanting to cuddle him close and pat him comfortingly on the back.
'Can I ask you something?'
Her gaze snapped up from somewhere in the vicinity of his collar, where it parted to reveal a tantalising V of tanned skin, an expanse of skin she found infinitely fascinating for no other reason than what it hinted at, as the rest of his chest filled out the shirt rather well.
'You were muttering into your drink earlier. Is everything okay?'
Once again, heat seeped into her cheeks. Could this get any more embarrassing, the gallant guy having a pity drink with the desperately ditched girl?
'You know what they say about talking to yourself being the first sign of madness? Well, I'm mad all right. Mad enough to want to throttle my buddy Nigel for bailing on me.'
Nate winced and she squared her shoulders, ready to rebuff his pity. Instead, she saw a glimmer of amusement lighting his eyes.
'Did he stand you up?'
'Sure did, the louse. Said he had a better offer from this girl he's been chasing for a while, so he ditches a friend for a bit of fluff. Nice.'
'Very poor form,'Nate said, his eyes twinkling beneath a mock frown.
'Friends should always come first.'
He was making light of her situation and, rather than being insulted, laughter bubbled within her at the big deal she'd made out of something pretty insignificant.
'Why did you think he stood me up?'
Nate's amusement spread to his mouth, tilting it upwards at the corners.
'Well, one look at that bag and the maniacal gleam in your eyes, any man would've made a run for it.'
She laughed, surprised the annoyance of being stood up by Nigel had receded, replaced by an unexpected need to share confidences with this guy.
'Ah, but you didn't. You're sitting here, aren't you?'
He tipped his glass in her direction before taking a long sip of beer, his gaze never leaving hers.
She couldn't figure him out.
He wasn't flirting with her or making suggestive comments, or even hinting at anything untoward, but when he stared at her like thatsteady, unwavering, loadedthe air between them sizzled with an invisible current, and had her reaching for her own drink which she gulped down in record time.
'You know it's his loss, right?'
Breaking the hypnotising eye contact, she said, 'Yeah, I know. The guy's got his priorities all wrong.'
'So he wasn't the love of your life?'
Kristen snorted, picturing scruffy, laid-back Nigel as anything other than a work buddy she could offload to at the end of a rough day.
'No way. Nigel and I are purely platonic.'
'Then he's definitely not worth worrying about now. You can give your friend an earful when you next see him.'
Suddenly, she realised how trivial her complaint against Nigel was, and wanted to know more about the sadness she'd glimpsed in Nate when she'd first seen him.
'What about youany life stories to tell?'
If she'd doused him with her icy drink she would've got the same response: shock combined with pain, sorrow quickly masked by an enforced blank mask.
'Not really. I'm married to my job; don't have time for anything else.'
'I know the feeling,'she said, trying to cover her monstrous gaff in prying into things which didn't concern her.
'Just call me Mrs TV Producer. So, what do you do?'
He hadn't lost his shuttered expression, and he waited before speaking, as if weighing up every word.
'I'm involved in the entertainment area too, though on the business side of things.'
'So you're one of the corporate bigwigs who control the purse strings, right?'
At last, a glimmer of a smile.
'You could say that. I'm the CEO of my own company and, apart from handling sporting rights for everything from rugby to the Olympics, we branch into other areas too.'
'Well, if I ever need a job I'll know who to come to,' she said, hating how her mind immediately latched onto his use of the word 'handling', and conjuring up startling images of him doing exactly that with her!
'You do that.'
He drained his beer and she braced herself for the inevitable parting, totally confused by her reluctance to let him go.
She didn't know this guy.
She didn't want this to end.
She didn't have the foggiest idea what to do.
'I'm hungry after that beer. Do you want to join me for dinner?'
Trying to hide her reliefand elationshe said, 'That would be great. The buffet here is the best in Singapore.'
'So I've heard. Come on, let's try it.' Sliding off her stool, Kristen ignored her voice of reason which yelled What do you think you're doing, having dinner with a guy you barely know? Are you nuts?
'I don't usually do this type of thing,' he said, handing her the infamous coat.
'Having dinner with women I just met.'
'That makes two of us.'
Happily ignoring her voice of reason, she sent him a shy smile and headed for the restaurant.