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Guy Wilder wasn't on the hunt any more. He'd given up chicks with promises of forever on their honeyed tongues. These days he poured his emotions into songs. Often tear-jerkers in the key of tragedy, best wailed after midnight in haunts for the broken-hearted. But they were tuneful, sexy, and always with a deep and honest soul beat. Songs a man could believe in, with no bitter twists at the end. Yep, he was still a single man, and it was all good. By day he built his company, by night he dreamed up songs, and the Blue Suede boys were keen to perform them.
However badly they murdered his lyrics, the Suede showed promise. So, on the night of his return from a work trip to the States, the boys' need for an emergency venue persuaded Guy to let them into his aunt's apartment above the Kirribilli Mansions Arcade. Auntie Jean wouldn't mind. Well, she was trusting him to hang there for a week or two.
The thing was, the Suede could pound out a pretty stirring beat. Guy did give some consideration to the noise. When the boys crowded through the door with their instruments he eyed the flowery fanlight above the neighbour's place, but the apartment was in darkness.
It wasn't late enough for sleeping. Who'd have guessed anyone was home?
He ordered pizza, but once he and the guys started on the song dinner floated from their minds. It wasn't until the tempo had hotted up and they were into laying down chords that the distant ding of the bell penetrated the boys' enthusiasm.
Calling a halt, Guy abandoned the keyboard of his aunt's fabulous old grand and headed for the door.
The pizza lad was out there, all right, but not at Guy's door. At the neighbour's.
'I assure you it wasn't me,' the woman was saying in a low, melodious voice. 'I never order pizza. It must have been whoever's in there, making that awful racket. Did you try knocking? Though you might need a sledgehammer to make any '
Impact. Guy finished the sentence for her in his head.
She swivelled around to look at him, as did the boy, and impact happened.
Violet eyes, dark-fringed and serious, and cheekbones in a piquant face. A mouth as ripe and sweet as a plum. Gorgeous, was his first dazzled thought. A gorgeous, desirable, tantalisingtrap. She was five feet six or thereabouts, unless his expert eye was dazzled out of whack, with long, dark, lustrous hair tied back. Gloriously rich, long, dark and lustrous. And legs Oh, God, legs. And heaven in between.
He couldn't see much of the heaven through the sweatshirt, but all the signs were there. Hills. Valleys. Curves. Anyway, a man didn't stare obviously at a woman's breasts. Or any other parts they might choose to conceal.
But if she happened to be wearing a short flimsy-looking dress thing, frilling out from under the longish sweatshirt, naturally his eye was bound to be snagged here and there. Particularly if she also had satin slippers on her feet. Tied on ballerina fashion, with criss-crossing strings.
He drank her in to the full, and she gave him every reason to believe she was eyeing him right backonly hers was a sternish scrutiny that seemed not to be dwelling on his manly appeal.
He smiled. 'I think they're for me.' He produced money and accepted the pile of boxes. 'Thanks, mate. Keep this for your trouble.'
The lad disappeared via the lift, the stairsor maybe he vanished through the wall.
'Sorry if you were disturbed, Miss ?'
'Amber O'Neill.' Her tone was earnest. 'I don't think you realise how much the sound reverberates in these apartments. It magnifies, actually, and the walls are very thin.'
He lifted his brows. 'Yeah? The sound magnifies. Now, that's interesting. A unique accoustic. Thanks for mentioning it.'
Amber, he was thinking, riveted on her irises, drowning in the violet. And her mouthso soft and full. A dangerous yearning stirred the devil in his blood. Oh, man, it had been a long, long time.
Apparently she still hadn't noticed his charm, for her luscious lips tightened. 'Some people have to work, you know. Some even have businesses to run.'
'Do they?' He smiled, refusing to be chastised at eight-thirty in the evening. Practically daylight. Enjoying stretching out the tease. Listening to her voice. 'Tsk. Don't those people ever play?'
Maybe he should suggest she throw him over her lap and spank him. Now, there would be an inspiration. And right next door, too.
At the exact moment his brain generated the backsliding thought, he noticed her flick a glowing little glance over his chest and arms and down below his belt buckle. Despite her indignation, her eyes betrayed an infinitesimal spark.
An intensely feminine spark that opened a Pandora's box of frightening possibilities.
Whoa, there. The hot rush on its way to his loins faltered and screeched to a halt.
Like a madman he turned back into his flat and shut the door. Stood paralysed, breathing for a dozen thundering heartbeats, before he realised the craziness of the impulse and snatched it open again.
Too late, though. She'd gone.
Breathing hard, Amber stood under the skylight in her empty sitting room and tried to resuscitate the mood.
Once more the ethereal chords of 'Clair de Lune' drifted on the air. Usually every note was a drop of silver magic on her soul, but though she rose on her toes and held up her arms to the moon filtering through the skylight. arabesque, arabesque, glisse
Hopeless. The magic was gone. Murdered.
She switched off the music. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so annoyed. No use attempting to dance her insomnia away now. She could still hear the appalling racket from next door, even though they'd toned down the volume a notch. The truth was she didn't want to be aware of them in the slightest. Of him.
And it had nothing to do with his mouth, or the way he'd looked in those jeans. She was used to well-built guys with chests. She was up to here with them, if the truth be known. And no way was it his eyes. She'd seen plenty of large grey, crinkling-at-the-corners eyes in her twenty-six years.
No, it had been the mockery in them. That amused, ironic assumption that since he was a man and she was a woman she'd be keen. He was so sure of himself he hadn't even bothered to finish the conversation.
How wrong could a man be? The last guy who'd persuaded her to take that plunge had reminded her of all a woman needed to learn about heartbreak.
She peeled off her slippers and crawled back into her bed. For a while she lay on her side, as tense as a wire. Tried the other side. Still no good. Tossed. Turned. And in no time at all her brain was back to its churning.
Money. The shop. The renovations. Aloneness. Men who mocked you with smiling eyes. Usually by late afternoon, the Fleur Elise end of the Kirribilli Mansions Arcade was quiet. This day, surely one of the longest in Amber's memory, not a shopper stirred. After three disturbed nights Amber welcomed the possibility of snatching a quick reflective snooze in the room where the bouquets were made up. Unfortunately Ivy, the book-keeper she'd inherited along with the shop, had come in to help out.
'.you're going to have to make cuts. Amber? Are you listening?'
Amber winced. It wasn't the first time she'd noticed the penetrating quality of Ivy's voice. With only the mildest exclamation the woman could break windows.
Amber laid her aching head on the bunching table. Sleep deprivation had brought her nerves to a desperate state, thanks to that man. For two days now there'd been this throb in her temples. Maybe if she ignored Ivy she'd shut up.
As far as Amber was concerned this was not the moment to be raking over her failures with the accounts. She was tired. She needed to brood on what was happening in Jean's flat night after night. The noise. The ructions. Thatguy. She clenched her teeth. The sooner Jean and Stuart got back from their honeymoon the better.
She so resented the way he'd looked at her, with that scorching glance, that lazy smile playing on his cool, very, very sexy mouth.
Maybe he'd thought she'd be flattered. What men didn't realise was that women knew when they weren't looking their best. If a woman was wearing an old sloppy joe over her nightie and a man happened to show a certain kind of interest in her, it wasn't flattering in the least. It immediately raised the likelihood that he automatically looked at every woman like that. In other words, he was likely to be the sort of chronic womaniser her father had been.
Oh, yeah. He looked the type, with that lazy grin. Typical narcissistic heartbreaker. If he saw her today, though, even he wouldn't look twice. She was a train wreck.
She rested her head on her arms. One of the songs his band had been bashing out was grinding an unwelcome path through her brain. To add to her irritation, when she'd been bathing this morning she'd heard him in his shower, actually whistling the same tune in a slow, sexy, up-beat sort of way.
Why hadn't Jean warned her? They were friends, weren't they? She was the one who was supposed to be looking after Jean's fish and watering her plants.
It was so unfair. With all she had on her plate, she shouldn't have to be so distracted.
' cut your overheads.' Ivy's voice hacked through the fog of Amber's musings like a saw-toothed laser. 'That Serena's a prime example.'
Shocked into responding, Amber said hoarsely, 'What? Did you say I should sack Serena?'
'Well, unless you cut your expenditure elsewhere.'
Amber was flummoxed. 'Oh, Ivy. Serena's our only genuine florist. Neither of us has her sort of talent. All right, I know she's needed a bit of time off since she had the baby. But when she sorts out childcare that'll get better. She really needs the work. She and the babe depend on her hours here.'
'I'm not running a blessed charity,' Ivy muttered. 'Next you'll be talking again about opening up the side door to the street and spending a fortune on redecorating.'
Amber felt her muscles clench all over. Ivy wasn't running anything. Fleur Elise was her shop. Her inheritance from her mother. The words burned on her tongue but with a supreme effort she held them back. That business course she was studying strongly advocated the need to stay calm in times of conflict. Maintain her cool professionalism.
She drew a long, cooling breath. Several long breaths. She needed to remind herself her mother had had a great deal of faith in Ivy. Ivy's legendary ability to avoid outlay was an asset, her mother had said. And it almost certainly was. Anywhere but a flower shop.
Amber's flower shop, at least. Her shop should be spilling over with blooms. Poppies and tulips, snapdragons and violets, jonquils, forget-me-nots. Masses of everythingand roses, roses, roses. She dreamed of her rich, heady fragrances drawing people in from the street and following them throughout the arcade.
All right, she was the first to admit she might not be quite up to scratch yet as a businesspersonshe was still in the early stages of her coursebut instinct told her Ivy's miserly cheese-paring approach wasn't the way to go.
What would attract the customers was a mass of colours, textures and tantalising smells. The sort that would appeal to any sensuous, voluptuous femme like herself.
The self she could be, that was. On a good day. When she'd had sleep. When her brain hadn't been tormented by noise. Today her sensuous, voluptuous quotient was at rock-bottom.
It was never any use arguing with Ivy, anyway. Nothing would shift her from her fixed position on any subject. If Amber hadn't been so punch-drunk with fatigue she'd have remembered that and kept her mouth shut. As it was.
'I'm thinking of getting a bank loan.' She yawned.
Oh, wow. Wrong thing to say. She'd have been better throwing a grenade. Ivy's short neck could stretch right out and swivel when she was outraged, alarmed and aghast.
The small woman's mouth gaped into an incredulous rectangle. 'Are you out of your mind, girl? How will you pay it back if something goes wrong with the trade?'
'Oh, what trade?' Amber growled, incensed at being called 'girl'. For God's sake, though she might dress like it, Ivy was hardly her grandmother. She was only thirty-eight.
Amber pressed a couple of cooling roses to her temples. 'Do we have to talk about it now, Ivy?' she moaned. 'I have a headache.'
And she needed to brood. About men and betrayal. Love and pain. Passion unrequited. She wasn't sure why these things had to occupy her mind right now, when she was so tired and noise-battered, but for some reason lately they'd been looming large.
For three nights, in fact. Ever since she'd laid eyes on thathoon next door.
It wasn't that she found him so hot. Oh, all right, he was sexyin a down-and-dirty, unshaven sort of way. Those jeans he wore should be dumped on the nearest bonfire. And as for that ragged old tee shirt she'd seen him in yesterday morning at the bakery It looked to her as if someone had tried to claw it off him. Some desperate person.
No, not like her at all. She wasn't desperate. She simply had a distinctive personality type that could be deeply affected by the sight of sweat glistening on bronzed, masculine arms. She was a highly sensual woman, with a sensual woman's needs.
Very much the Eustacia Vye type, in fact.
She'd discovered Eustacia yesterday, during a few guilty moments of escapist reading in the shop. Well, there were never any customers at that time. If Ivy hadn't insisted on coming in to help out this afternoon Amber might have had a chance to learn more about her exotic heroine. As it was she'd had to hide the book in her secret cache behind the potted ferns.
Eustacia was a woman so sensuous, so voluptuous, that if ever a dangling bough happened to caress her hair whilst she was rambling under the trees in the Wessex woods, the bewitching creature would turn right back and ramble under them again.
Fine. Amber accepted that she wasn't all that beautiful or bewitching. Unless swathed in tulle and feathers, that was. On stage, illuminated in a pool of magic light. She could be pretty bewitching then. Just stick her in front of the footlights with an orchestra swelling to a crescendo and Amber O'Neill could bewitch the pants off a sphinx.
And her hair craved caresses. Ached for them. Though preferably administered via a lean, masculine hand rather than a twig.
She yawned again. Weren't musicians supposed to have skinny arms and hollow chests?