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Gianna exited her Main Beach apartment block and walked the short distance to where the Pacific ocean's incoming tide brought rolling waves crashing gently into shore. The early morning sky was pale blue and cloudless, the spring sunshine promising warmth.
Change is good, Gianna assured herself, as she stepped onto the pale golden sand.
Although why she'd chosen a jog along the beach instead of her customary session in a local gym wasn't something she was prepared to examine in any depth.
The phase of the moon? A restless night due to intrusive dreams?
Whatever Being outside in fresh sea air held an appeal, and here she was, ready to banish any lingering demons.
Forty minutes of exercise, coffee-to-go to kick-start the day, before returning to her apartment to shower, breakfast, dress and leave for work.
Bellissima, the luxury gift boutique she owned in one of the Gold Coast's trendiest suburbs, had gained a favourable reputation for its mix of imported and local stock. Exquisite scented candles, beautiful soaps, ornamental glassware, small sculptures whose graceful lines in crystal, ebony and silver drew attention. Embroidered napkins on fine Irish linen, silk pillow-covers, quality gift cards were just some of the wares she offered for sale.
Fate had provided the opportunity for her to purchase the boutique almost a year after being employed as manager during the owner's absence. Now, two years on, a new shop-fit, quality stock, a twice-yearly catalogue, and turnover had increased dramatically.
Life, Gianna reflected as she broke into a jog along the tightly packed sand, was good. At the age of twenty-eight she owned a successful business, an apartment, and she had carved out a satisfactory existence.
Moved on, she assured herself as a faint sea breeze caressed her skin, from the break-up of her brief marriage to the powerful Spaniard she'd met four years ago at a party during a holiday in Mallorca.
In his late thirties, tall, dark, ruggedly attractive and dangerous to any woman's peace of mind.
Who could resist him? What woman would want to?
One look was all it had taken for her to melt into an ignominious puddle at his feet. Well, not quite.
She'd fought him at first, then herself. Knowing even then if she succumbed she'd be lost completely, utterly.
Gianna shivered despite the increasing warmth of the sun as she headed south along the shoreline.
What they had shared had been more than just sex. It had been intimacy at its zenith intense, mesmeric, primitive. Six perfect months together, living in the moment, unable to bear being apart.
A time when Raúl had clocked up air miles as if they were nothing, and she'd used allocated holiday time and sick leave to meet him wherever
Until the moment she had agreed to relocate to Madrid and move into his luxurious apartment in residential Salamanca. Dear heaven, the life she'd shared with him
A slip, just one gap, where a differing time zone had ensured she slept during a long international flight to Sydney, to attend her brother Ben's wedding, and she had missed taking a low-dosage contraceptive pill.
She vividly recalled the day when she had first suspected she might be pregnant. Worse, the precise time the pregnancy test had registered positive a test she'd taken three times within forty-eight hours to ensure there was no mistake.
How she'd agonised for days before telling him. The calm manner in which he had received the news. Even more controlled had been his solution marriage.
Her spontaneous, 'Because ?' hadn't brought the avowal of love she'd longed to hear.
Somehow his, 'No child of mine will be born out of wedlock,' had failed to compensate.
The abortion route wasn't an alternative she'd been able to condone or consider. Nor his insistence that marriage was the only option.
Yet what had been the alternative? A choice of returning to Australia and raising the child alone? Fighting a custody battle with Raúl one he'd surely win? Or marriage?
At the end of the day days, she amended, when she'd tortured herself in order to reach the right decision it had been no contest.
Raúl's widowed mother's delight and genuine blessing had provided the persuasive factor. A child deserved to have a father in its life, family.
Something which struck a chord with Gianna, for her own mother had been killed in an auto accident years ago. Her father had met someone else, relocated to Paris and remarried. There was a step-family now. Gianna rarely saw them just a series of e-mails, attachments with photographs, and the occasional phone call.
Ben, her brother, to whom she remained close, kept in weekly contact via phone and regular e-mail.
Girlfriends the genuine kind with whom she maintained contact were few, and located in different countries in the world.
Consequently she'd opted for a new beginning in a different locale from Sydney, the city in which she'd been born, educated and employed.
Another stateQueensland, with its sub-tropical climate, beautiful beaches and Australia's tourist meccahad beckoned, and now, almost three years later, it felt like home.
Raúl had cared for her, this much she knew. So what if it hadn't been love? Care was enough and who could predict what the future might hold?
Bittersweet words, Gianna reflected, given she'd suffered a miscarriage within seven weeks of becoming Gianna Velez-Saldaña.
It had been a time when she'd desperately wanted, needed his comfort. At night she had lain awake, long after he slept, craving his touch. More, so much more, than simply being pulled close and held securely in his arms.
Grief, sorrow dammit, hormones, had succeeded in providing an altered reasoning. Together with the sweetly delivered but nonetheless heartless words from Sierra, one of Raúl's ex-lovers, who had essayed it might have been prudent to wait until closer to the child's birth before rushing into marriage.
From there, it had been downhill all the way, with Raúl spending more time in his city office, caught up with meetings, leaving before she woke most mornings and frequently missing dinner for some seemingly valid reason or another, occasionally arriving home long after she'd retired to bed.
Communication between them had become reduced to the perfunctory. Polite exchanges in private, while maintaining the required image in public.
The explosive meltdown had come when she had called his cellphone one evening while he was on a business trip in Argentina and Sierra had answered, almost purring with delight as she'd revealed that 'now is not a good time comprende?' As if the implication might be misunderstood, Sierra had sharpened the verbal barb with unvarnished clarity. 'Raúl is filling the spa-bath. Need I say I'm about to join him?' And cut the connection.
After the numbness had come anger, followed by a crying jag then she'd calmly packed her bags and called a taxi to take her to the airport, where she'd caught the first available flight home.
Old news, she remonstrated in self-castigation.
She'd moved on, sought solace in the familiar, ensured a new life for herself a successful one and rebuilt her confidence and self-respect.
The cry of a lonely seagull rent the early morning quietness, providing a distraction, and Gianna watched the bird's graceful glide to settle at the water's edge. Its red beak dug into the wet sand and emerged with a tidbit a baby sand-crab, perhaps? Then, apparently delighted with its find, it sent up a shrill, keening cry which soon brought several gulls to the scene.
Apartment towers lined the Esplanadetall concrete sentinels of varying architectural design bearing exotic names.
Already the incoming tide was beginning to swell with white-crested waves that broke and rolled gently into shore a precursor of bigger waves ideal for surfing.
Within minutes she changed direction and headed up the slight sandy incline to the boardwalk, where she crossed the road to a pavement café and ordered a latte to go.
Already several tables were occupied, as holiday-makers sought an early breakfast beneath colourful shade umbrellas.
It was almost seven-thirty when Gianna entered her apartment, and she stripped off her clothes, showered, dressed, ate fresh fruit and yoghurt, then caught up her laptop and bag, filched her keys from the side-table adjacent to the front door, and took the lift down to the basement car park.
A short drive brought her to an upmarket complex, unique in design, with its arched sails reaching skywards, housing various boutiques of which Bellisima was one, and a faint smile softened her mouth as she took a moment to check the window display.
Visually attractive, she conceded as she bent low to unlock the front doors. Perhaps she could replace the pewter vase with the crystal conch-shell, add a collection of silk flowers. Exchange the stunning beaten silver platter with the pair of multi-coloured glass birds.
The gift boutique was so much hers, with the art of display reflecting her excellent taste, her instinctive knack of placing unusual items together to draw maximum attention to the mirrored walls with their glass shelving.
Each item gleamed beneath the fluorescent lighting, the colours like fine jewels in their brilliance, and she allowed herself a moment of pride before crossing to the service desk, where she prepared for the start of a new business day.
Morning trade was fairly brisk, with purchases made and those chosen as gifts wrapped with exquisite care, earning delighted gratitude from each customer.
Gianna derived immense pleasure in providing warm and friendly service. Something which had earned her a loyal and select client base.
She'd made the boutique her life, constantly searching for unusual items to attract her customers. She also provided a comprehensive catalogue, and maintained a constantly updated Web page to showcase upcoming imports and deliveries.
The fact she'd achieved it on her own, with loan funds from the bank, was a source of pride. Monthly amounts paid by Raúl directly into a separate bank account remained untouched.
Work had become all-involving, filling her waking hours. Her focus was now, and the immediate future.
There were a few good friends, but, while she occasionally socialised, she didn't date. Dinner and pleasant conversation didn't include an automatic agreement for consensual sex at evening's end. At least not in her book.
She tried she really did. Her friends meant well. They wanted to see her happy, content, with a regular man in her life who cared.
'He's wonderfula real gentleman' didn't hold true, she had discovered to her cost.
'You'll adore him, he's so charming ' Uh-huhif you enjoyed the obsequious type.
No matter how well-intentioned, their efforts failed. Or perhaps she failed for moving on from Raúl wasn't happening.
He was there, his physical image so easily summoned to mind she almost expected to see him, and occasionally felt the breath catch in her throat whenever she sighted a tall, broad-shouldered male whose stance at first glance seemed achingly familiar. Followed by a heart-lurching few seconds when everything within her peripheral vision froze into a fixed tableau until she glimpsed his profile and saw the face of a stranger, and her personal world returned to its normal kilter.
Oh, for heaven's sake, she chastised in self-castigation. There was work to do. Stock to arrange. Deliveries to check. And her clientele. A business to run.
Busy was good. A steady flow of people wanting assistance ensured there was little time in which to think or reflect, and Gianna welcomed Annaliese, the part-time assistant who helped out in the boutique from ten-thirty to four, seven days a week.
It was an employment arrangement that worked well, and had done so for the past two years.
Attractive, intelligent, sunny-tempered, with a droll sense of humour, Annaliese was a superb salesperson and, importantly, dedicated.
'Hi. One double-shot skim latte for madame.'
Delivering coffee, hot and strong, had become a welcome habit Annaliese had initiated during the first week of her employment.
'Thanks.' Gianna's gratitude was genuine, and Annaliese offered a warm smile as she took the capped takeaway cup to the small back room. 'Busy morning?'
The day brought several customers into the boutique. There were the serious buyers, and those who merely browsed, as well as a few regulars.
It was almost five when Gianna checked the sales register. The recorded total revealed a satisfactorily high figure sufficient to warrant ordering replacement stock. Something she'd tend to prior to closing time.
A faint prickle began at her nape and slipped down her spine as she cut the phone connection to her supplier with bare minutes to spare before she was due to walk out through the door.
The electronic door buzzed, and she summoned a pleasant smile only to have it freeze with shock at the sight of the man entering the boutique.
His powerful frame appeared no less imposing than she remembered, and his dark hair gleamed beneath the artificial lighting, emphasising broad-boned facial features, a strong jaw, wide cheekbones, the Mediterranean skin tone and eyes so dark they appeared almost black.
Ex-lover, estranged husband and a man she had fervently hoped never to see again.
Dear heaven. What was he doing here?
For a startling moment she was flung back to a time when her life had been everything she could want it to be.
Until it had all fallen apart in those wretched few months following her miscarriage, when the pain of grief had wrought such havoc.
He'd phoned, and when she had refused to take his calls he'd arrived on her doorstep, demanding she return with him to Madrid.
Except she'd stood her ground, wanting time and space alone and he'd left, assuring her the next move had to be hers.
'Nothing to say, Gianna?'
The slightly accented drawl curled round her nerve-ends and brought her crashing back to reality as she took in his etched features.
Eyes as dark as sin, with tiny lines fanning out from the edges. Vertical grooves bracketing each cheek, which seemed slightly deeper and more clearly defined.
She lingered a little too long on his mouth The sensual curve revived a host of memories she fought hard to control. Vivid, primitive so much so she could almost feel the touch of his lips, the wicked sweep of his tongue.
Oh, God. The silent despairing groan remained locked in her throat. Don't go there.
It took all her effort to tilt her head a little and summon a wry smile.
'What would you have me offer? Hello, how are you? seems ' She paused deliberately.
'Incredibly banal,' Gianna concluded, and saw his eyes darken.
'Now, there's an interesting word.'
She glimpsed a muscle bunch above the edge of his jaw and felt a moment of satisfaction as she enjoyed the small visible sign of his tension.
Even though she wore high heels Raúl still towered above her, and she tilted her head in order to align her eyes with his.
'What brings you here?'
'Australia? The Gold Coast in particular?' he drawled, and she swept an arm to encompass the boutique.
One eyebrow lifted in cynical query. 'To see you.'