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"Ironic, isn't it?" said Gib with a somewhat crooked grin, shifting his back against the ice wall and putting on his jacket. It had been hot work climbing the last pitch, but at this altitude you soon lost heat. "The boot's usually on the other foot!"
Josh grimaced. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said slowly. "I always liked Mallory. You seemed really good together too."
"That's what I thought," said Gib wryly. "Mallory's a very special lady. Smart as anything and beautiful and independent ... I really thought she was going to be different."
He tapped the side of his crampons with his ice pick to loosen the balled ice. "But then the old C word started cropping up and I knew that was the beginning of the end."
"The what word?" asked Josh, diverted.
"Commitment." Gib stared morosely out at the spectacular view.
They had stopped for a rest on a frozen ledge, high up on the mountain. It was still some way to the summit, but you could look out at the hills stretching off to the hazy horizon. Gib loved the mountains. The air was clean and pure and the only sound was the wind cutting icily through the brilliant sunlight.
He was glad that Josh had called him up and suggested a climb. It was good to beup here where everything was simple and there was not a tearful woman in sight.
It certainly made a nice change.
"Why are women so obsessed with commitment?" he demanded. "They all start off pretending that they're independent and just want a good time, but you're lucky if you get to a third date without them planning their wedding dresses!"
"You and Mallory had been together a bit longer than three dates," Josh pointed out reasonably. "It's nearly a year now, isn't it?"
"Exactly!" grumbled Gib. "We were getting along great, everything was fine ... why did she have to go and spoil it?"
"What did she say?"
"Apparently I am completely unable to 'commit' or to 'relate.'" Gib hooked his fingers in the air to add sarcastic emphasis to the inverted commas. "According to Mallory, I just thought of her as part of some kind of smorgasbord of women!"
Josh looked blank. "A smorgasbord?"
"You know, one of those buffet affairs where all the dishes are set out along a big table and you go round to help yourself to whatever you fancy."
"Right," said Josh, none the wiser.
"Mallory's theory is that I treat women like so many different dishes, so that even if I find one I really like, I won't be content to stick with one because I'll always be wondering if there might not be one I might like even better further along the table." Gib gave an exclamation of disgust. "Don't you hate it when women analyse you?"
Josh didn't answer directly. Behind the dark glasses that protected his eyes from the glare, his expression was unreadable as he studied the view and considered Mallory's theory.
"She's right, though, isn't she?" he said at last.
"Listen, whose side are you on?" demanded Gib.
"You're the one who said that she's a smart lady."
"I just happen to like women," said Gib defensively.
"What's wrong with that?"
"And women like me." He scowled. "I love women! It's ridiculous to say that I can't relate to them properly!"
"Is that what Mallory says?"
"She says I've got no idea how to be friends with a woman." Gib sounded outraged. "Can you believe that?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, taken aback by the typically quiet, uncompromising reply. Josh was so ... so ... so British ... sometimes!
Josh was checking the ropes. "Have you ever had a platonic relationship with a woman? A good one?"
"When? Well, let's see ... when ... when ..." Gib searched his mind frantically. "OK, I can't think of anyone right this moment," he was forced to acknowledge, "but I'm sure there must have been someone. I bet you can't think of anyone either," he added, going on the offensive.
It didn't faze Josh. "Yes I can," he said calmly. "Bella is one of my best friends, probably the best friend I've got, in fact. We were students together, and we've been close ever since."
"And you've never slept with her?"
"I bet you wanted to!"
Josh shook his head. "No, that would spoil our friendship. Bella's always got some man in tow, and I have girlfriends, but it's different with her. I prefer what we've got. I can talk to Bella in a way I can't talk to anyone else. We understand each other.
"It's nothing to do with sex," he went on. "You could never be friends with a woman in the same way."
"Want a bet?" said Gib, ruffled.
Josh tied off the end of the rope and sat back against the rock. "I'll bet you ... let's say ten thousand dollars? ... to the charity of your choice that you can't be friends with a woman."
Gib laughed. "Ten thousand dollars? You're kidding, right?"
"You can afford it."
"Yeah, but can you?"
"I don't think I will have to," said Josh with annoying calm.
Well, Gib wasn't a man who could turn down a challenge like that! His eyes narrowed.
"Being friends is a bit subjective, isn't it? How would we decide if I'd succeeded or not?"
Josh unwrapped an energy bar and chewed meditatively for a while. "How would you feel about spending a few weeks in London?" he asked at last.
"It wouldn't be a problem, I guess," said Gib, a bit thrown by the apparent non sequitur. "It's easy enough to keep in touch with what's happening here wherever I am."
Absently he took the bar Josh handed him out of his ruck-sack. "As a matter of fact," he went on slowly, "it might suit me quite well. I've been thinking about developing more European connections and with this whole Mallory thing, I wouldn't mind leaving the country for a while. I could do without all those scenes about who takes what!"
"OK." Josh nodded briskly. "Here's the deal. Bella shares a house in south London with three other girls, but one of them is getting married soon, so they're going to have a spare room. I reckon I could arrange it for you to live with them for a while." He grinned. "I think it would be a real test for you! If at the end of six weeks Bella and Kate and Phoebe all describe you to me as a real friend, you name the charity and I'll send the cheque!"
"Hhmmnn." Gib looked a bit dubious. "What are these girls like?"
"They're just three very nice, very ordinary English girls."
"And that's it? I just live with them for six weeks and be their friend?"
"There's one more condition," said Josh. "You have to go incognito. You've had too many attractive, successful women falling over themselves for you here. Mallory's a psychologist and before that there was the TV presenter and that model ... what was her name? The one with the legs up to her armpits?"
"That's the one." Josh allowed himself to remember her legs for a moment. They really had been spectacular.
"Anyway, the point is, you're spoilt!" he went on. "It'll be different in London. The girls won't know anything about you, so you won't be able to buy their affection or impress them the way you do here. You'll just have to be yourself and if you can't be friends with them under those circumstances then you'll just have to accept that Mallory is right!"
Excerpted from Fiance Wanted Fast! by Jessica Hart
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.