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Life is too short for this. Callie Jamieson stepped onto the dimly lit balcony and let the plate glass door swing closed behind her, gladly trading the glitz of the New Year's Eve wedding reception for the silent reflection of lights on Sydney's Darling Harbor.
Relaxing her grip on her champagne flute, she moved away from the pulsing beat of the music to the shadowy corner that offered not only the most privacy, but the best view of the glistening water. She shook her head and allowed herself a smile. What had she been trying to prove? The exercise regime, the new dress, new hairstyle. And at the end of it all she'd rather be walking barefoot along the water's edge. Alone.
She made her resolution then and there. Stop searching for a future or wallowing in the mistakes of her past, and start enjoying the present.
The music washed louder over her and she tensed with the knowledge that someone else had come onto the balcony. She stayed still, facing the water, hoping that the night and the slender potted palms positioned in front of the handrail would screen her from the casual observer.
"Rosa wanted me to call." A deep, resonant voice carried to her. "She insisted I do it right now. So, how's it going?" There was a long pause. "Congratulations. I guess we really do have to excuse you for not making it to the wedding." Did she imagine the catch of emotion in that warm voice? Curiosity got the better of her and Callie turned her head. A man stood midway along the balcony. With the light behind him, the only thing she could be sure of was that he was tall and that his crisply cut dark hair had a hint of a wave. With one hand he held a phone to his ear, and in his other hecarried a glass of champagne the match of hers.
"Give me the details so I can pass them on to the family. We'll do the cigars when we get back." His accent was predominantly Australian, but with an underlying hint of something more exotic.
Callie glanced from her unknown companion to the balcony door and back again. Hopefully, he'd finish his call and be the one to go. She just needed a little peace, a little space before she reentered the fray and then made a discreet exit from this entire fiasco. Tomorrow morning she would be on the plane back home to New Zealand.
"Give Lisa our love." From the corner of her eye, Callie saw him start toward the door. A sigh of relief welled within her, but was cut short at the ringing of his phone.
Nick? Brusque. Strong.
"What is it, Angelina?" The warmth she'd heard earlier was gone. His deep, measured voice was resigned and somewhat displeased. The contrast intrigued her, and Callie turned a little more. He'd stopped partway toward the doors, and the light spilling onto him revealed broad shoulders tapering to lean hips. In the stark lines of his profilethe strong jaw, the nose with the slight bump midway alongshe recognized one of the groomsmen.
There had been plenty of time during the hour-long service to contemplate the bridal party: the striking, petite blond bride, the five rose-pink, ruffled and frilled bridesmaids and the equal number of groomsmen, most of them dark-haired, and all of them good-looking.
This one's mix of careless elegance and intensity had piqued her curiosity. Was he naturally serious, did he have a problem with the wedding, or would he, like her, just rather be somewhere else?
During the second scriptural reading she had imagined a moment's eye contact, as though he'd sensed her study of him, and her mouth had run dry. Logic told her that, from her position at the rear of the cathedral, that sensation of connection, of heat, was surely impossible.
Now, as she had then, she looked away. He wasn't a friend of Jason, the groom, so his link had to be with the bride.
"You ended it, Angelina, and it was the right decision. I hadn't realized how much your expectations had changed." It wasn't as easy to stop listening as it was to stop looking. There was a long pause before he spoke again. "We agreed at the start that neither of us was looking for that sort of commitment."
Callie focused on the city lights, and though she knew she shouldn' t be eavesdropping, still, a part of her waited for him to speak again. There was another even longer pause. "I'm sorry." His voice had gentled. "But no. You know this is for the best." With a heavy sigh he snapped his phone shut. "Damn," he said quietly into the night.
Callie felt for the unknown woman. She had done her time with a man who didn't want to commit. She knew the pain and sense of inadequacy that brought. She wouldn't ever go there again.
Today, she had watched the man she once thought she would marry pledge his love to another woman.
She glanced over her shoulder, and between the arching fronds of a palm saw Nick rest his forearms on the balcony railing. A warm breeze sifted through her hair. It was no hardship to wait him out. Taking a sip of chilled champagne, she looked back at the play of lights on the ink-black water. For long, restful minutes she considered how she could re-create the effect with oils.
"Solitude is one thing and loneliness another. Which is it for you?"
The words were so quietly spoken, Callie wasn't sure they were directed at her. She looked over to see that the stranger had turned in her direction. Dark eyes were fixed on her. But how to answer? Was this solitude or loneliness?
A phrase of her mother's popped into her head. "If you're choosing between bad company and loneliness choose the latter." Except, that wasn't quite right. The loneliness had been inside the dazzling reception, surrounded by others. Outside was the blissful solitude. Callie was suddenly struck by how insulting the remark could seem. Especially by a member of the wedding party. Her mother would have softened the remark with a toss of her head and a gurgle of throaty laughter.
Callie, who usually prided herself on being nothing like her mother, could carry off neither.
The man assessed her anew, curiosity rather than affront in his gaze. "Should I ask about the bad company or the loneliness?"
She sought to deflect that interest. Hopefully, he didn't know she was the ex-girlfriend, here only because she and Jason were determined to keep their relationship amicable. "Perhaps like you, I came out to take a phone call."
A half smile lifted one corner of his mouth and his amused gaze flicked over her, bringing a frisson of awareness as he took in the sleeveless, red sheath that skimmed her curves, finishing at her ankles. It was a dress she never would have worn if she'd still been with Jason. He preferred muted colors and conservative styles. There was no place on this dress for even the slimmest of phones, and her evening bag still lay on her seat between Jason's overly friendly uncle and his unfriendly cousin. Dark eyebrows rose appreciatively. "Technology is a marvelous thing."
She smiled reluctantly. "Or perhaps I just came out for some fresh air." Surreptitiously, she returned his assessment. The cut of his suit whispered tailor-made rather than off-the-rack. And no distortion of its classic lines betrayed the phone he'd slipped into a pocket.
"Or solitude?" he asked.
Her smile widened. "Definitely that."
Holding her gaze, he lifted his glass. The pale liquid shimmered golden in the light from inside, bubbles glinted like tiny jewels. "To solitude."
She raised her glass in return. The irony of toasting solitude with someone else wasn't lost on either of them.
He touched his glass to his lips and took a sip, and Callie watched the slide of his Adam's apple, then looked away, conscious of her awareness of him. For a time they remained silent. Out on the harbor a launch motored toward the bridge, the low murmur of its engine drifting across the water.
"So, is there someone waiting impatiently inside for your return?"
The undisguised spark of interest warmed her ego. "No." And for the first time that evening it didn't seem such a bad thing that Marc, her colleague, had bailed on her at the last minute. The guests and the bride and groom were supposed to have seen her dancing gaily with a gorgeous man. It was meant to demonstrate how well she had gotten on with her life.
"Then I propose another toast. To new beginnings, new lives. To freedom."
Is that what he felt over the end of his relationship? Callie lifted her glass. "To freedom." She tested the concept. And in saying the words she recognized the feeling that of late had been unfurling within her. They both took another sip.
"Unfortunately, however, I'm not as free as I'd wish tonight." He glanced inside. "Duty calls." In three strides he was at the door. He paused with his hand on the saucer-size silver disc that served as its handle and turned back to her. "Perhaps a dance later?"
His gaze, full of promise, held hers as she answered. "Perhaps." She got the feeling he wasn't often refused.
He smiled, teeth gleaming white in the night, his eyes reflecting the glitter of light from inside. It was the first smile she'd seen from him, and Callie revised her opinion as she gripped the railing for support. Merely intriguing when he wasn't smiling, he was knee-weakening when he was. He even had a dimple.
Just one, low on his left cheek. He probably had a litany of faults, but certainly none of them were obvious to the eye.
Nick pulled open the door and disappeared. Mesmerized, Callie watched the glass panel swing slowly shut behind him. She gave her head a quick shake, trying to dislodge the schoolgirl sensation of enchantment that had enveloped her while they'd been speaking.
"Perhaps" was no commitment on either of their parts. She was free to go. She had come, seen Jason married, and felt almost nothing. Certainly no pain, only regret that they had stayed together for as long as they had. If he'd told her the truthnot that he wasn't ready to get married yet, but that he wasn't ready to marry herthey could have parted sooner. Six years seemed such a colossal waste.
She gave herself a few more minutes of the view and the peace, then crossed to the door. Blinking against the bright lights, she stepped inside. The high-ceilinged ballroom was hung with crystal chandeliers and brimmed with women in shimmering dresses and men in tuxedos. Laughter and music filled the air.
Callie glanced toward the dance floor in front of the head table and saw Nick expertly leading a plump woman in a waltz. Grinning, he lowered his head toward her silver curls and said something. The woman laughed and slapped his shoulder. Nick laughed back.
With an unexpected twinge of regret that she would never know what it was like to be held in his arms, Callie sought the exit. The doors beckoned on the far side of the room. Surely no one would either notice or care if she left now. Tonight, thoughts were turned to celebration and new beginnings. And she'd got that much herself. Closure of a chapter, a fresh page to start her life on. Tomorrow a new year would begin. She had proved, at least to herself, that she was well and truly over Jason. She wished him and Melody only the best.
She would retrieve her evening bag then slip away. But as she got closer to her table she found her way blocked by a cluster of bridesmaids, heads conspirato-rially close together.
Callie tried to edge behind them, there was just enough room.
"It's not public knowledge yet," one of the bridesmaids whispered dramatically. "But Melody and Jason are both over the moon about the news. Jason hasn't stopped grinning since they found out."
Callie froze, her hips pressed against the back of a chair swathed in linen and gold.
"He's almost mollycoddling her," the whisperer continued. "Of course, she loves it."
"When's she due?" asked another.
Despite how much Callie wanted children, Jason had insisted that he didn't. Not yet. She had persuaded herself that she was content to wait. Obviously, his denial should also have come with the same qualification as his sentiments on marriageand not with you.
Her grip on her champagne flute tightened. She had been so naive, searching for the perfect life, hoping for a future where there was never going to be one. Because, in reality she had been his holding patterncompany, while he waited for the right woman. Her chest constricted. The sensation that out on the balcony had felt like blossoming freedom withered into soggy loserdom.
She closed her eyes. She had tried so hard, and it hadn't been enough. Taking a fortifying breath, she straightened her spine and opened her eyes. The past couldn't be changed, but the present could. She had to get out of here. She didn't even care about her evening bag. There was nothing in it she needed.
Except her room key.
Her heart sank, but she rallied. Never mind. She would go for a walk and come back for it later. With a careful sidestep, she eased herself back the way she'd come, and with escape beckoning, spun around.
And collided with Melody.
Callie's champagne coursed down the intricately beaded front of the bride's designer wedding gown.
For a second they both froze in horror. Aghast, Callie snatched up a linen napkin and blotted frantically at the dress. "Melody, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay." Melody tried to help. "It was an accident." But the bride's distress showed clearly in her wide eyes and the hitch in her breath.
Two bridesmaids rushed over looking daggers at Callie. She took a step back and was about to apologize again, when a deep voice cut through the bridesmaids' dramatic squawks. "Good thing it wasn't the merlot."
Callie looked up to see Nick rest his hand on Melody's shoulder. "It'll be okay." His quiet assurance calmed the bride, who smiled ruefully. They seemed close, and Callie wondered, not for the first time, what their connection was. She guessed Nick to be maybe a decade older than Melody's twenty-four.
"I thought it would be me who spilled the wine." Melody laughed hesitantly.
"Didn't I hear you say earlier it was time to change into your going away outfit?"
Melody nodded her agreement and was escorted away by a posse of bridesmaids, two of whom cast accusing glances back at Callie as they left.
Nick turned to her, a half smile playing about his lips. "I believe you owe me a dance."
She shook her head. "I should go."