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Bella, hon, Alex has this friend he's been doing business with.
Single Gorgeous Clever Loaded .
And he's really up for meeting you.
I know you're not keen on blind dates, but I've met him and I think
he'd be perfect for you.
So what do you say?
PSWhat are you doing for your birthday?
How long did it take to type 'Over my dead body' and 'Burrowing beneath my duvet'? Bella wondered, re-reading the email that had just landed in her in-box and glancing up at the clock.
Seeing that she had ten minutes before her two o'clock appointment was due, she swivelled back, shook her head in bemusement, and hit the reply button.
What planet was Phoebe on? Not keen on blind dates? That was the understatement of the century.
How could her so-called friend have forgotten the endless nights they'd spent dissecting the disastrous blind dates Bella had been on in the last six months or so?
How could Phoebe possibly have forgotten about the man who'd showered spittle over her every time he opened his mouth? The man who'd spent the entire evening addressing her cleavage? Or the man who, after insisting they go Dutch at a restaurant he'd invited her to, had got his calculator out to apportion the service charge?
Clearly Phoebe was so deliriously happy with Alex and so wrapped up in wedding plans that her memory had short-circuited.
Ignoring the sharp pang of envy at her friend's whirlwind romance and her subsequent state of bliss, Bella frowned. She was the first to admit she was eager to settle downspending one's childhood trailing after a mother who'd had a racy, unstable, and, at one particularly low point, criminal past as well as a morbid fear of stagnating could do that to a womanbut she wasn't desperate. Or at least not that desperate.
And frankly, she thought tartly, if this friend of Alex's was as gorgeous, clever and as rich as Phoebe claimed, why was he still single? What was wrong with him?
As for celebrating her birthday, well, what was there to celebrate about that?
Once, when she'd been twenty-five, someone had asked her where she thought she'd be in ten years' time. She'd blithely replied, saying that on top of the multimillion-pound business, she'd have the husband, the family and the security she'd always longed for. She'd had no doubt whatsoever that it would happen.
But had it? No. Here she was, about to turn thirty-five and still single, without even a whiff of the boyfriend on the horizon, let alone the peal of wedding bells and the pitter patter of tiny feet. The last thing she wanted was to celebrate her failure on that front.
Bella resisted the urge to throw herself onto the floor and wail. Where had it all gone wrong? She was reasonably attractive. Interesting. Fun. And not entirely devoid of brain power. So why was she still sitting there, gathering dust, on an increasingly empty shelf?
It wasn't even as if she were particularly fussy. She didn't require a full head of hair or a six-pack in a husband. She didn't need fireworks and spectacular sex. She didn't demand five-star holidays or dinners in the finest restaurants the world had to offer.
All she wanted from a man was a desire to commit. To her. Well, that and an ability to keep bodily functions more or less under control, which possibly did narrow the field somewhat. But was a decent man really too much to ask for?
Bella sighed, planted her elbows on her desk and stuck her chin in her hands, and considered her position.
Maybe she was being too fussy. By the time you got to your mid-thirties, single, available men didn't exactly grow on trees. If you wanted one you had to grasp any opportunity that came your way, and following the recent spate of dating disasters, she had rather opted out of the game.
So perhaps it wasn't any wonder that what she'd longed for since she was a teenager was still nothing more than a distant dream.
Hmm. Maybe she ought to stop being so sceptical and give this friend of Alex's a chance. She didn't have a whole lot of other options, and how could one date hurt?
In fact, instead of mentally blasting Phoebe for setting up another blind date, she ought to be grateful that her friend hadn't yet given up on her. Positivity was the thing, she thought, sitting up and hauling her spirits up from where they were languishing somewhere around her feet. Because who knew? Friend of Alex might turn out to be The One.
Flexing her fingers, Bella typed a reply along the lines of 'Sounds great' and 'Trying to forget about it', and hit the send button.
A split second later the sound of the buzzer ricocheted through her workshop.
Abandoning the rest of her emails, Bella jumped to her feet. That would be her two p.m. appointment. Expecting an experienced jeweller and a valuation for a number items of jewellery, not a woeful woman with a penchant for self-pity.
Fixing a smile to her face and pulling her shoulders back, Bella sailed through the door into her shop. And stopped dead. Her heart thumped and the breath shot from her lungs.
The man standing on the other side of the front door, cupping his hand to the glass and peering in, was nothing short of gorgeous. He was tall and dark and broad-shouldered. Wearing a navy overcoat open to reveal a pale blue jumper, a scarf and jeans, and sporting a tan that couldn't possibly be attributed to London in October.
Bella swallowed hard. When they'd spoken on the phone his voice had done the oddest things to her stomach, but she'd never imagined it would translate into real life. In her experience things rarely did. But William Cameron was just as attractive as his voice had promised.
And about her age, she thought, perking up considerably and automatically wondering whether he was single and available.
He straightened, gave her the barest glimmer of a smile as his eyes locked with hers, and Bella's mouth went dry. A strange kind of heat rippled along her veins. Her legs wobbled. Her stomach fluttered and then bubbled with excitement. Her entire body heated from the inside out and her bones began to melt.
He lifted his eyebrows enquiringly, gave her another half-smile, as if he knew exactly what was running through her mind, and pressed the buzzer again.
The sound brought Bella careering back to reality and she jumped. Blinked. And gave herself a quick shake.
Good one, Bella. That's the way to do business. Leave the client standing on the doorstep while you gawp at them. Very professional.
Ordering herself to get a grip and fervently hoping he wasn't a mind-reader, she walked over to the wide display table that sat in one corner of her shop.
And caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that hung above it.
Oh, good Lord.
He wouldn't need to be a mind-reader to figure out what was going through her head. All he'd have to do was take one look at her face and he'd know. He probably already did. Because her cheeks were flushed and her eyes had darkened. Her breathing was erratic and her chest was heaving. Thank goodness the pattern on her dress disguised the rest of her body's reactions.
God, perhaps this was what was wrong with her, she thought, leaning down and pressing the button on the underside of the counter. Perhaps she was just too obvious. Perhaps she gave off desperate commitment-needy vibes or something. She stifled a shudder as she straightened. Heavens. If she did, how excruciating would that be?
It would probably be a good move to stop eyeing up every man she met as potential life-partner material, she told herself, taking a deep breath and plastering a smile to her face as he pushed the door open. Especially clients. However good-looking.
Cool, aloof and polite was the thing. The consummate professional, in fact. How hard could it be?
Deepening her smile, Bella walked forwards. And then came to an abrupt stop. Her shop wasn't small by any stretch of the imagination, but the minute he set foot inside all the oxygen apparently whooshed out. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart lurched and all her blood rushed south, and for one horrible second she thought she was going down. Locking her knees and gulping in a shaky breath, she steadied herself and just hoped she'd managed to recover before he'd had the chance to notice.
Without the barrier of the door separating them, the overall impact of him was really quite startling. She couldn't work out which of her senses was most overwhelmed. Her vision when confronted with short straight hair the colour of obsidian, eyes as blue as iolite and the cheekbones that could have been chiselled from marble? Or her sense of smell when assaulted by the heady combination of sandalwood and spice?
As heat began to whip along her veins every inch of her itched to hurl itself at him to see if his body was as lean and muscled as it looked.
Oh, God. The man was not only gorgeous, he was practically magnetic.
So much for being cool, aloof and polite, thought Bella a little desperately as she fought to resist his pull. She was hot, bothered and feeling very rude indeed.
The door closed behind him and the lock automatically clicked into place. He tensed. Winced. And paled a fraction beneath his tan. For a split second she wondered why, but then he started running his gaze slowly over her, sliding down from her face to her breasts, her waist and then lower, and any curiosity she had vanished. As her body began to throb with awareness his lips curved into a faint smile, dragging her attention to his mouth, and all she could think about was what it might feel like on hers. Wanting it on hers. Hot and wet, hard and demanding.
The sudden thump of lust that walloped her in the stomach nearly knocked her off her feet and brought her slamming back to her senses. Bella blinked twice and battled for control. She really had to stop this. Yes, she wouldn't be averse to a relationship, and yes, she'd decided that she ought to grab any opportunity that came her way, but she drew the line at ravishing a client on the floor of her shop.
Belatedly reminding herself that she wasn't a teenager and she didn't throb, with anything, ever, she cleared her throat and lifted her chin. 'Good afternoon,' she said, holding out her hand. 'Bella Scott.'
'Will Cameron,' he said, wrapping his fingers around hers and giving her hand a firm shake before letting it go.
Two more of her senses hit the deck. His deep, wickedly lazy voice teased her ears, and her whole body tingled with the aftershocks of touching his hand.
The only sense left unaffected was that of taste, and that could be easily corrected. All she'd have to do would be to take one quick step towards him, reach up and plant a kiss on his mouth. Wind her arms round his neck, press herself against him, slide her tongue between his lips and she'd be able to find out exactly what he tasted like and exactly how hot, hard and demanding he was.
Agh, this was awful, she thought frantically fighting the instinct to swoon. It simply wouldn't do. Grappling for her elusive self-control, Bella drew in a deep steadying breath.
'Please,' she said, finally managing to get a grip and waving a hand in the direction of the chair on the other side of the table. 'Do sit down.'
Will folded himself into the chair and leaned back, taking up far too much space and, more disturbingly, far too much air. 'Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice.'
'Not a problem.'
As breathing, however, apparently was something of a problem, she wished that at the time she'd said she was too busy. Which she was. Ever since one of her necklaces had featured on the catwalk last year, Bella had had more work than she could really cope with. But the mesmerising tones of Will's voice over the phone had captivated her and the secret little longing to find out if the rest of him lived up to it had been impossible to resist.
'You mentioned you had some items to be valued?' she said, thinking that as it was way too late for regrets she'd better get on with it.
'Oh,' she murmured. 'I'm sorry.'
He shrugged and his mouth twisted into what she presumed was supposed to resemble a smile. 'Just one of the many formalities to get through.'
Hmm. That wasn't quite what she'd meant, but his relationship with the deceased was none of her business. Or, to be honest, of nearly as much interest as what he'd brought her to value. She might have forged a career designing jewellery, but her first love would always lie with gemmology.
Bella's mouth watered as tiny thrills of anticipation began to course through her. 'May I see?'
He reached into his pocket, drew something from its depths and then leaned forwards and held it out to her.
She lowered her gaze and her breath hitched in her throat.
Oh, good Lord.
Catching her lip with her teeth, she took the ring from him, so mesmerised by its beauty that she barely noticed the tingles that rippled along her fingers when they brushed against his.
Utterly transfixed, she twisted the ring one way, then the other, and stifled a sigh of longing. She'd never seen anything quite so magnificent. The emerald-cut diamond solitaire was set in the platinum band and sparkled in the weak sun that had briefly broken through the heavy grey cloud of the autumnal afternoon and bathed the room. The stone had to be three carats at least. And flawless, judging by the perfect symmetry of the shards of light that were flashing all across the table.
'So what do you think?'
Yes, she thought as her heart twanged. Oh, yes. Ifno, whenshe got engaged she'd love something like this.
'It's beautiful,' she murmured, unable to stop the trace of wistfulness that crept into her voice.
'I couldn't care less what it looks like,' Will said flatly. 'I'm only interested in what it's worth.'
Bella jerked her eyes up to his and her little daydreamy bubble burst with a splat. What? How could anyone with an ounce of feeling in them be unmoved by such a beautiful thing?