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Emma had been frowning at the spreadsheet since six in the morning and now, almost twelve hours later, the glitch still troubled her. And instead of being able to stay on and fix it properly, she had to go and be social with work colleagues she couldn't exactly count as friends.
She stood, stretched, then opened the window, letting the gentle breeze blow the gauzy curtains about her. Fresh air. She breathed deeply.
The conversation from the courtyard below floated up without hindrance. High-pitched female voices that carried far in the still, warm evening.
'Do you think she'll come?'
'She wouldn't know how.'
The women snorted with laughter. Emma recognised them as Becca and Jules.
'Hell, yeah, the woman needs loosening up.'
'I'll say. I don't know what's stronger, her grip on the purse strings or the lock on her knickers.'
She stiffened as waves of cold then hot humiliation flooded through her. They were talking about her. The financial controller for Sanctuary, she was the one with the purse strings. And the lock on her knickers? Ouch. Just because they spoke the truth didn't mean she couldn't feel hurt. There was a lockof sorts, but more through circumstance than choice. She'd been too busy on her career path. Most of the time she was still too busy to care, but this very second she'd give a lot to change the situation.
They were still talking. And she, foolishly, was still listening.
'I kind of feel sorry for her. All she does is work. Talk about out of balance.'
'Sorry for her? I don't. She's a slave-driver. Just because she wants to work like a dog doesn't mean she has to make the rest of us. I want a life, thank you very much. She's onlytwenty-six and she's hard as.'
Well, that was what you got for eavesdropping. Like reading someone else's diary, you invariably learnt all the things you didn't want toabout yourself.
And now she had to go to the bar to mingle with these women and the rest of the staff of the exclusive hotel who probably all thought the same thing: that she was a workaholic with no life.And wasn't it true?Yes, she worked hard and, yes, she expected others to. That was how she'd been raised. She'd followed her father's rules: you work hard, you get the rewardsthe praise, the attention and maybe even the love. So why wasn't she quite as happy as she should be given her career success? The fighter in her charged her weapons, but she had to admit she was a little lacking in ammo.
As quietly as she could she shut the window. She'd heard enough. She wasn't going to let them get to hermuch. But she did want to prove them wrong. Was she coming? Hell, yes. Some time. Somehow. She'd go to those drinks and smile and laugh and act interesting even if it killed her.
She checked her perfectly applied lipstick and ensured there was no stray wisp of hair escaping her immaculate French roll. Appearances were everything. And after all, the perfectionist retentive look was what they expected.
She paused on her way out to bend and take in a whiff of the white hyacinth in the single-stem specimen vase that sat on her desk. It was the only personal item to feature in her self-imposed clean-desk policy. A little revived by the fresh scent, she tossed her head high and pretended she didn't care.
Once she was at the bar her resolve fragmented and she gravitated, as usual, to Max as soon as she arrived. In no time at all they were locked in work discussion. Work on the refurbishment of the hotel was due to start tomorrow and there was a myriad of issues surrounding it. A workaholic, Max saw her in the same mould. He'd taken her on as a graduate and through his mentoring she'd rapidly progressed. Working all hours, she'd more than met the challenge. Now he'd sold the hotel to a larger chain specialising in unique boutique hotelshence the refurbishment. Not far off retirement, Max had taken the opportunity to cash in, but he predicted a glowing future for her. The chain had hotels in several cities and if she played her cards right, she could have her pick of any of them.
Problem was, she didn't know if she wanted to go through with that. Bigger hotel. Bigger hours. And she was beginning to think she might like more of a life. She'd spent all of it so far fulfilling the expectations of others. And she wasn't sure the results were worth it. But she couldn't tell Max that, not when he'd given her such an opportunity, not when he was one of those people she felt compelled to please.
She glanced over to where the other women were grouped giggling, guzzling lurid-coloured cocktails and flirting with the bar staff. Here she was, still talking shop with the sixty-five-year-old boss and sipping slowly from the dry lemonade in her hand.
Dull, dull, dull. Those women were right. Depression weighed in her stomach. She'd been working so hardand for what? Whose dream was she chasing?
She excused herself and went to the bar, getting the bartender to add a splash of gin to her glass. Taking a sip, she turned and glanced away from her colleagues and out across the bar. It had yet to really fill up; a few patrons sat at tables and across the way a couple of guys were playing pool. She couldn't help but watch the one currently taking a shot. He had his back to her and was providing a great view of a particularly great butt. Just because she didn't get to play, she could still look and appreciate. His long legs, slightly spread, were clad in denim. His white tee shirt pulled tight across broad shoulders and muscular back. He held the pool cue with an easy, practised hand and as he bent over the table the whole effect of beautiful-bodied male was magnified.
He took the shot and sank it. His mate groaned. One more shot from the same angle and the game was his. The player rose and walked around the pool table to collect his drink and that was when Emma really stared. She knew that face.And well she knew the cheeky smile that so often graced it.
The depression evaporated and a childlike joy filled her. She hadn't seen him in years, but he'd always shown her a friendly face. And a friendly face was the lift she needed right now.
She forgot the fact that as a teen she'd scarcely been able to look at him without blushing because she'd had such a crush on him. She was so pleased to see him that without thinking she marched straight over, beaming. 'Jake Rendel. How are you?'
The look of shock on his face would have been enough to send her scuttling back to the corner fast if it hadn't been replaced so swiftly by the gorgeous smile that had always knocked her pulse way off kilter. That lock on her knickers rattled.
'Emma Delaney, what a surprise.' His voice was as warm as his smile.
Her pulse skipped another notch higher. She'd forgotten how handsome he was. She had another quick sip of her drink and somehow got the guts to smile back.
She glanced behind him and saw Jules and Becca staring at her. She seized the ammo. She'd prove she could have a conversation with a gorgeous guy and it not be about work. They didn't have to know she'd known him all her life. She widened her smile, looked right back into Jake's eyes and said in the sassiest way she'd ever attempted, 'It's been far too long.'
He blinked. 'It certainly has. You're all grown-up now.' His gaze skittered over her. 'And definitely as successful as you were always going to be. What are you doing here?'
'Work drinks. You?'
'Similar.' His mate seemed to have slunk off leaving them in the corner by the pool table.
There was a pause. Emma struggled to think what to say. Struggled not to stare at him. He'd done some growing up too in the last few years. That fit teenage boy had turned into an even fitter, broader male. Was it possible for a man to be beautiful? If so, Jake Rendel was the definitive example.
The silence was bordering on too long and she became aware he was staring at her as much as she was him. She ran her tongue across her lip, the way his attention was focussed on her mouth, she thought something must be out of place.
Finally Jake elaborated. 'I'm working on a building contract at the hotel nearby for a few weeks.'
'Sanctuary?' she asked, relieved the conversational ball was rolling again.
He nodded. 'I'm the financial controller there.'
He grinned. 'So our paths will be crossing some more. Excellent, you can introduce me round.'
She could. And then stand back and watch as the women queued up. She looked over to where they stood, sorry the fantasy that she'd been flirting with some hot guy would be shattered so soon. He'd be at work tomorrow and they'd know she'd just been talking shop with him tonight.
'You've always stayed in Christchurch?'
She looked back to Jake and answered his conversation-filler question. 'Never left the place. School, then uni, now the job at Sanctuary. It's what I know.'
She'd been packed off to boarding-school from age six. Christchurch was far more her home than the country town where her parents and Jake's mother lived in neighbouring properties.
'You look beautifulvery much the professional city slicker.'
Beautiful? Visions of his old girlfriends leapt into her mind and dampened her smile. She wasn't his kind of beautiful.
'We are what we are, Jake,' she said a little ruefully, wishing her life wasn't all white-collar work. Still smarting from the opinions of her co-workers.
'Well, sometimes we're what we're required to be,' he answered.
She looked at him, disconcerted. The comment was a little close to her own doubting thoughts for comfort. His smile was still easy, but his eyes were astute. She decided to try to keep up the sass, play it light and cool as Jake himself always seemed to. 'You think? What are you required to be, Jake?'
He took a moment to reply and when he did light danced in his eyes and the slow grin revealed his rascal-like humour. 'Well, I can be anything you want me to be, Emma.'
He seemed to have moved nearer, with his body now blocking most of the room from her view, making it feel as if there were no one else there. His voice dropped and she had to lean a little closer herself.
'Is that so?' Her voice had dropped in pitch too. She glanced over to where the others were standing. They were still staring. Glancing back at Jake, she discovered that somehow he'd moved even closer.
'Sure. Anything you'd like. Got any suggestions?'
She couldn't stop the twist to her lips. She could think of a few off the top of her head and not one of them could she utter aloud. Not in this universe. If she were starring in an X-rated movie maybe. The crush she'd had as a teen came rushing back. She liked him. Always had. Of course, so had the rest of the female population and he'd liked them right back. But not her; he'd only ever been that scamp of a boy living next door who once was a friendly ear that day in the park. Since then she hadn't been able to look at him without turning the colour of an overly ripe tomato. The tomato effect was happening right now, she could feel the heat. Her suggestions? Secret dreams destined to remain silent.
Her silence didn't seem to bother him. 'You know what I'm thinking?' He was looking inspired. 'I'm thinking I should have given you a "hello again" hug. Seeing it's been so long.'
How long had it been? Must be at least eight years. But she was vaguely aware of what he'd been doing in that time. Her sister Lucy was his sister Sienna's best friend. So she knew he wasn't marriedchances of that seemed minute. Jake played around. Everyone knew that.
'A hug?'Her attempt at a confident social persona slipped a little.
'Yeah, or maybe even a kiss.'
She tried to look away. She really did. She even managed it for a split-second before she gave up and stared back into those beautiful big blue eyes twinkling at her. Daring her.
'A hello kiss? Just friendly?' She was thinking peck-on-the-cheek friendly, but she wasn't so sure Jake was.
'Sure. Friendly. Maybe we could see how friendly. What do you think?'
Think? How could she think when he seemed to be getting ever closer, his voice lower? Invading her space, spellbinding her. He'd had the reputation for being fast back then. Clearly it was deserved.
She glanced away again, not focussing on the girls that time; she was looking inwards as her heart hammered. Jake Rendel had just asked to kiss her. Maybe today wasn't so bad. Becca's words came back to haunt her'she wouldn't know how'; 'needs loosening up'; 'hard as'that was the one that hurt most. The pain pushed her into crossing her own boundaries.
'OK.' Totally breathy, not remotely sassy and not the answer she'd meant at all. She was supposed to have laughed the suggestion off.
Too late. He edged nearer the wall, eyes glittering. The rest of the room disappeared. She stared up at him. One teen dream about to be realised. What would he be like? Hell. What would she be like? Embarrassment overcame her. The heat in her cheeks was at boiling point and her nerve failed. She was no good at this sort of thing, those women were rightshe didn't know how and she was about to make a colossal fool of herself. But just as she went to duck away and escape he leaned in, brushing his lips against hers. Ever so gentle, ever so light. She froze. The sensation was soft and warm and she couldn't move away.
He brushed again. Now she didn't want to move away. Her lips parted slightly as she breathed and instead of brushing lightly the third time, he lingered. His mouth moved over hers, slow, warm, increasingly insistent. And without thought, without will, she opened to him.
His response was immediate yet still slightly measured, a gentle exploration that teased and tantalised and held the promise of sensual secrets. No other part of their bodies touched. It was as if he knew she felt flighty and he was giving her every opportunity to take off if she wanted to.
She didn't want to.