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'Run that by me again.' No way could Isobel have heard him correctly. She was used to Alex asking if he could sleep on her sofa while he was in London between digs or on a flying visit his own flat in London was let out to tenantsbut this request
She must've been hearing things.
'Will you marry me?'Alex repeated.
Exactly what Isobel thought he'd said.
Was this some kind of joke?
Unlikely, because he looked serious. Besides, Alex didn't make that kind of joke. She frowned. 'I don't understand. Have you gone temporarily insane, or something?'
'No. I just need to get married. And I think you'd be the perfect wife.'
Oh, no, she wouldn't. She'd already failed spectacularly with Gary. 'You get women posting their knickers to you. You could get married to any woman you wanted.'
He laughed. 'They don't post their knickers to me, Bel. That's a vicious rumour started by Saskia.'
Saskia was Alex's baby sister and had been Isobel's best friend since they were toddlers. Though Isobel wasn't so sure the comment was just sibling teasing. 'I know for a fact you get asked out by more women than most men even dream about.'
'Women who fantasise about The Hunternot about me.'
'You're one and the same, in their eyes.' In hers, too: Alex had presented three series of a popular television archaeology programme, based on a series of articles he'd written for a leading Sunday newspaper, and when Isobel had curled up to watch the programmes she'd thought he came across just as he was in real life. Clever and extremely well read, but with a bit of flamboyance that had women dropping at his feet and the kind of easy charm that meant he made friends effortlessly and couldn't go anywhere without half a dozen people hailing him by name. It had been like that even before he'd been catapulted to fame as 'The Hunter', an explorer who delved in ancient places and found treasure; but nowadays, with national television exposure, he was recognised by people he'd never even met.
'Just let it slip to one of your gossip-column friends that you're looking for a wife and there'll be queues for miles,' she suggested.
'Gossip-column journos aren't anybody's friends except their own,' he corrected. 'And none of those women would be like yousensible and settled.'
She coughed. 'You're digging yourself deeper into that hole, Alex.' He wanted to marry her because she was sensible? Give her a break. That wasn't why people got married.
Then again, marrying for love hadn't exactly worked for her, had it? Her marriage hadn't survived its final crisis.
'Why do you need to get married anyway?' she asked.
'Because I need to get a job.'
'This is beginning to feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass. The harder I try to understand this, the weirder it seems.' She shook her head. 'Apart from the fact that you don't need to get married to get a job, why do you even need a job in the first place? You're loaded.'
Alex waved a dismissive hand. 'It's got nothing to do with money.'
'So what, then?'
'It's complicated,' he hedged.
She leaned back against the sofa. 'You're not getting out of it that easily, Alex. Explain. Why do you need to get married?'
'Because of this job. It's perfect, BelChief Archaeological Consultant for a firm that works with all the big property developers. When the developers plan to build on a site and discover remains of some structure they hadn't even known existed, or we already know there are remains in the area that need to be conserved or recorded before any development work can start, I'd be in charge of a team of archaeologists who'd excavate the site.'
A desk job, you mean?' She shook her head, scoffing. 'No way. You'd last five minutes before you came down with a case of terminal boredom.'
'It's not a desk job. I'll be doing the initial site visits and setting up the exploration, liaising with planning officers and talking people into giving us more time than they really want to for excavation work. Plus I'd be talking to the press, explaining the significance of the find.'
Put that way, it sounded just the sort of thing he'd enjoy doing. Alex would love the chance to be the first one in maybe hundreds of years to discover something. And the time pressure to excavate the site as thoroughly but as quickly as possible, so the builders could finish their job on schedule, would just add to the thrill for him. He thrived on being too busy.
'I still don't understand why you need a job. Aren't you going to do the Hunter stuff any more?'
'Of course I am.' He shrugged. 'But it's only for a few weeks a year.'
She understood where he was coming from. Alex was a workaholicit was the only way to explain how he managed to pack more into two days than the average person did in a working weekand he liked it that way. 'In other words, not enough to keep you busy and out of mischief.'
He laughed. 'Exactly. I could do more TV work, I suppose, but I've talked to my agent and I agree with him that over-exposure would be a mistake. It's better to keep the series the length it is and leave people wanting more, rather than them seeing my face and thinking, Oh, no, not him again, and switching off. So I need something else to keep me occupied.'
'What about your articles?'
He shrugged. 'As you say, a desk job would drive me crazy. I need something with a lot of variety.'
'Lecturing, then? If you had tutorial groups as well, that'd give you the variety because your students would all be different.'
He wrinkled his nose. 'I've had offers, but to be honest I don't really want to teach.'
Isobel frowned. 'What's wrong with what you do now?'
'Nothing. I love freelancing. But I'm thirty-five, Bel. I need to be realistic about the future. In ten or twenty years I'm not going to want to spend hours at a time on my knees in a trench in the pouring rain. So I want to make the right career move now, while all my options are still wide open.'
It was a fair point, although Isobel thought Alex had enough strength of personality to make his own opportunities. She had a feeling there was a bit more to it than what he was telling her, but she couldn't work out what. A relationship that had gone wrong? Surely not, because Alex kept his relationships light and very casual and in all the years she'd known him she couldn't remember a girlfriend lasting more than half a dozen dates.
Maybe she was asking the wrong questions.
'I still don't understand where the married bit comes in.'
'Apparently, the guy who owns the company wants a married man for the job.'
She snorted. 'No way. That's discrimination. It's against the law, Alex.'
'They're not going to be able to ask me outright about my marital status,' he agreed. 'But it seems the last two guys they hired lasted all of six weeks before they got an offer they couldn't refuse forI quotea really glamorous dig abroad.'
They both laughed, knowing that real archaeology wasn't glamorous in the slightest. The stuff Alex did on TV accounted for a tiny fraction of the hard graft behind the scenes, and certainly didn't take account of being on your knees in a muddy trench for hour after hour, or the long gaps between finds.
'So third time around they want someone settled,' he continued. 'The word is they're looking for someone who'll commit to the project for at least two years. And, you know as well as I do, a married man's seen as more dependable than a single guy because he's already made a commitment.'
She flinched. 'Marriage doesn't always mean commitment.'
He winced. 'Sorry, honey. I didn't mean to rip open old wounds.'
'I know you didn't.' Alex didn't always think. Mainly because he did things at a hundred miles an hour and his head was stuffed full of the pastjust like her own. Which was one of the reasons why she'd always got on so well with him.
He took her hand and squeezed it briefly. 'But you know what I mean. My reputation's going to count against me. The Hunter, a gypsy vagabond.'
She rolled her eyes. 'You're hardly a vagabond, Alex.' Even though he did have itchy feet and didn't tend to stay long in one place.
'But I'm part gypsy. My mother says I'm a throwback to her grandfather'
'Who met your great-grandmother when she accompanied your great-great-grandfather to a dig in Egypt in the nineteen twenties, and your great-grandfather fell in love with her,' Isobel finished. She knew the story, and she'd always privately thought it really romantic.
Archaeology was in Alex's blood. And so too was the gypsy heritage. Which was why 'The Hunter' was his perfect screen persona: dressed in jeans with a white shirt, and a battered Akubra hat worn at a rakish angle, Alex Richardson made women swoon. That and his dark curls, his hair worn slightly too long, his exotic olive skin, and those piercing light grey eyes, completely unexpected with the rest of his colouring.
'Look, I've spent the last few years travelling the world. On digs or for the show, admittedly, but still travelling.'
'Which shows commitment to your job,' she pointed out.
'It's not enough.' He shook his head in apparent frustration. 'The series played me up as the sort who won't obey ordersa maverick who'll go his own way regardless.'
She couldn't argue with that. Besides, that was exactly what Alex was likenot that there was any point in telling him.
'So that's why I need a wife. To prove I'm settled.'
'I still think it's a crazy reason to get married. And why ask me?'
'I already told you. Because you're settled.'
That stung, and she couldn't help sniping, 'You mean I'm staid and boring.'
He laughed. 'No. Just I've known you for ever. You're the girl next door.'
'Strictly speaking, I haven't lived next door to you since I was thirteen and you went to Oxford,' she said dryly. 'Which is the best part of seventeen years ago.'
'You were still there when I came home for the holidays,' he reminded her.
The girl next door. As familiar as wallpaper. Alex hadn't noticed her as a woman.
At her continued silence, he sighed. 'Look, I never planned to get married. Archaeology's my lifejust as the museum is yours. There isn't room in my life for another relationship.'
She raised an eyebrow.
He winced. 'Sorry, Bel. That came out wrong. Mouth in gear, brain not. What I mean is, if I'm going to get married, I want to marry someone I like a lot. Someone I've got a lot in common with. Someone I trust.'
It should've warmed her that he felt that way about her. Trusted her. Liked her a lot. Exactly the way she felt about him. But she couldn't help asking, 'What about love?'
He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. 'I don't believe in it.'
She knew where he was coming from. She didn't believe in love any more, either. She'd loved Gary, but it hadn't been enough to make their marriage work. Though at the same time, marriage without love seemed wrong, somehow. All three of your sisters are married,' she remarked. And if they weren't happy and in love with their husbands'
'I'd take their husbands apart,' he admitted. 'Very slowly. And remove their hearts with a rusty spoon.'
Although Alex rolled his Rs and his eyes, she wasn't sure that he was being entirely dramatic.
'But it's different for the girls.'
Sexism? From Alex? Now that she hadn't expected. 'Since when did you turn into a chauvinist?'
He frowned. 'I'm not. It's got nothing to do with gender. Just that ' he lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug ' I'm not like them.'
'So this marriage businessyou're looking for someone you like, someone who shares your interests, and who's not going to tie you down.'
'I'm not planning to have a string of girlfriends or be unfaithful to my wife, if that's what you're asking.'
Alex dated a lot. Which meant he had a lot of sex. If he was giving that up did that mean he was planning to have sex only with his wife?
The last twelve years suddenly unravelled, back to when she'd been eighteen and Alex had kissed her. Just once. But what a 'once' it had been. He'd actually taken her breath away. For one mad moment she'd thought that Alex had noticed herthat instead of seeing her as just his little sister's best friend, the girl he'd known for years, he'd seen her as a soul mate. Someone who shared his interests. Someone he was attracted to. And then she'd realised he was being kind. Showing her that just because her rat of a boyfriend had dumped her, it didn't mean that she'd never be kissed again.
He'd even said as much. Said that she'd soon find someone else. Added that she had a whole world to conquer.
That kiss hadn't meant the same thing to him as it had to her. And Isobel was pretty sure things hadn't changed since then. Alex saw her as a frienda close friend, but just as a friend.
So no way would this marriage work.
She couldn't do it.
She'd already ended up in one loveless marriage, and she really couldn't face starting another on the same basis. She dragged in a breath. 'I'm sorry, Alex. I can't marry you.'
Alex schooled his features into neutral. 'Why not?'
'Because it's wrong to get married without loving each other.'
He flapped a dismissive hand. 'Of course I love you, Bel.'
'But not in that way, Alex. And I'm not putting myself through that again.'
Alex stared at her. 'Hang on. Are you telling me Gary didn't love you? That he was unfaithful to you?'
She shook her head. 'He didn't break his marriage vows, no. Let's just leave it that our marriage turned into a mess.'
She looked uncomfortable, and Alex knew Isobel wasn't telling him the whole storybut he also knew not to push her. She'd talk to him when she was ready. She always had.
'Though it didn't take him very long to find someone else.' Isobel dragged in a breath. 'His new partner's just had their first baby.'
That had clearly hurt her. He'd never asked Isobel why she'd split up with Garybecause it wasn't any of his business and he didn't want to rake open any painful woundsbut he'd always supposed that Gary had wanted a baby and she hadn't been prepared to make any compromises with the career she loved.