Read an Excerpt
The big three zero.
If ever there was a birthday to inspire the determination to make a change in her life, this was it.
Elizabeth Flippence assessed her reflection in the mirror with a mixture of hope and anxiety. She'd had her long brown hair cut to just below her ears and layered so that it fluffed out around her face in wild waves with bangs across her forehead. It was a much more modern look and softer, more feminine, but she wasn't sure she should have let the hairdresser talk her into the vibrant auburn colour.
It was certainly striking. Which was probably what she needed for Michael Finn to really notice her todaynotice her as a woman instead of taking her for granted as his superefficient personal assistant. She desperately wanted their relationship to shift from its consistently platonic level. Two years was long enough to pine for a man who seemed fixated on not mixing business with pleasure.
Which was ridiculous. They were so well suited to each other. Surely Michael knew that in his heart. It couldn't be more obvious. Her frustration over this stand-off situation had been simmering for months, and Elizabeth had decided that today was the day she was going to try smashing down his guard. This makeover should at least capture his attention.
And the hairdresser was right about the auburn tones making her dark brown eyes look brighter. The new hairstyle also seemed to put her rather long nose in better proportion with the rest of her face. It highlighted her slanted cheekbones in a strangely exotic way and even her slightly wide full-lipped mouth looked more right somehow.
Anyway, it was done now and she fiercely hoped it would promote the desired result. When Michael commented on her changed appearance, she would tell him it was her birthday present to herself and maybe please, please, please he would suggest celebrating the occasion by taking her out to lunch, or better still, dinner.
She didn't want to be his Girl Friday anymore. She wanted to be his every day and every night girl. If that didn't start happening Elizabeth took a long deep breath as she faced the unavoidable truth. Thirty really was the deadline for a woman to give serious consideration to finding a life partner if she wanted to have a family of her own. Michael Finn was her choice but if he didn't respond to her differently today, she'd probably be wasting her time to hope for any change from him in the near future. Which meant she would have to move on, try to meet someone else.
She quickly banished the downer thought. It was imperative to be positive today. Smile and the whole world smiled back at you, she told herself. It was one of Lucy's principles and it certainly worked for her sister, who invariably carved a blithe path through life, using her smile to get her out of trouble. A lot was forgiven with Lucy's smile.
Elizabeth practised her own as she left the bathroom. She was just slipping her mobile phone into her handbag, ready to leave for work when it played her signature call tune. Quickly flipping it open she lifted it to her ear, anticipating the caller would be Lucy, who had spent the weekend with friends at Port Douglas. Her sister's voice instantly bubbled forth.
'Hi, Ellie! Happy birthday! I hope you're wearing the clothes I bought for you.'
'Thanks, Lucy, and yes, I am.'
'Good! Every woman should look bold and beautiful on their thirtieth birthday.'
Elizabeth laughed. The beautiful butterfly blouse, basically in glorious shades of blue and green but with the wings outlined in brown and enclosing a vivid pattern in red and sea-green and yellow and lime, was definitely eye-catching, especially teamed with the sea-green pencil skirt. The outfit was a far cry from her usual style in clothes, but under Lucy's vehement persuasion, she had let herself be seduced by the gorgeous colours.
'I've had my hair cut, too. And dyed auburn.'
'Wow! Can't wait to see that! I'll be back in Cairns later this morning. I'll drop in at your office for a peek. Got to go now.'
The connection clicked off before Elizabeth could say, 'No, don't!'
It was probably silly but she felt uncomfortable about Lucy visiting her at work and had always deterred her from doing it. Because of Michael. As much as she loved her ditzy younger sister, there was no escaping the fact that men seemed irresistibly drawn to her. Her relationships never lasted long. Nothing with Lucy lasted long. There was always another man, another job, another place to go.
For several moments Elizabeth dithered over calling her sister back, not wanting this day to be spoiled by a possible distraction from herself. Yet, didn't she need to test Michael's feelings for her? He should value her worth above Lucy's honeybee attraction. Besides, he might not even see her sister drop in. The door between her office and his was usually closed.
She didn't feel right about putting Lucy off this morning. It was her birthday and her sister was happy and excited about seeing her. They only had each other. Their mother had died of cancer when they were still in their teens, and their father, who had since settled in Mt Isa with another woman, wouldn't even remember her birthday. He never had.
In any event, Michael would have to meet Lucy sooner or later if the closer involvement Elizabeth was aiming for came to pass. Accepting this inevitability, she picked up her handbag, slid the mobile phone into its compartment and headed off to work.
The month of August was a pleasant one in Far North Queensland, not too hot to walk the five blocks from the apartment she and Lucy shared to The Esplanade, where the head office of Finn's Fisheries was located. Usually she drove her little car, leaving it in the space allocated for her in the underground car park of her boss's building, but she didn't want to be tied to driving it home today. Much better to be free to do anything.
The thought brought another smile to her face as she strolled along. Michael really was the perfect man for her. Finn's Fisheries was a huge franchise with outlets all around Australia. They not only stocked every possible piece of fishing geara lot of it importedbut the kind of clothing that went with it: wetsuits, swimming costumes, shorts, T-shirts, hats. The range of merchandise was fantastic and Michael dealt with all of it. She loved how he never missed a beat, always on top of everything. It was how she liked to be herself. Together they made a great team. He often said so himself.
If he would just see they should take the next step, Elizabeth was sure they could team up for life and make it a very happy one, sharing everything. He was thirty-five. It was time for both of them to start building a far more personal partnership. She couldn't believe Michael wanted to remain a bachelor forever.
In the two years she'd known him his relationships with other women had never lasted long, but Elizabeth reasoned it was because he was a workaholic. It would be different with her. She understood him.
Despite all this positive thinking, her heart fluttered nervously as she entered her office. The door to Michael's was open, which meant he was already in, organising the business of the day. It was Monday, the beginning of a new week. The beginning of something new between them, too, Elizabeth fiercely hoped as she took a deep breath to calm herself and walked purposefully to the opened door.
He was seated at his desk, pen in hand, ticking off items on a sheet of paper, his concentration so total he didn't sense her presence. For a few moments Elizabeth simply gazed at him, loving the clean-cut perfection of the man; the thick black hair kept short so it was never untidy, the straight black eyebrows that gave slashing emphasis to the keen intelligence of his silver-grey eyes. The straight nose, firm mouth and squarish jaw all combined to complete the look of the alpha male he was.
As always he wore a top quality white shirt that showed off his flawless olive skin and undoubtedly he would be wearing classy black trousershis customary work uniform. His black shoes would be shiny and he was just perfect.
Elizabeth swallowed hard to clear her throat and willed him to give her the kind of attention she craved.
'Good morning, Michael.'
'Good morn' His gaze lifted, his eyes widening in shock. His mouth was left slightly agape, his voice momentarily choked by the unexpected sight of an Elizabeth who was not the same as usual.
She held her breath. This was the moment when the only-business attitude towards her had to snap. A host of butterflies invaded her stomach. Smile, her mind wildly dictated. Show him the warmth in your heart, the desire heating up your blood.
She smiled and suddenly he grinned, the silver eyes sparkling with very male appreciation.
'Wow!' he breathed, and her skin tingled with pleasure.
'Great hair! Fabulous outfit, too!' he enthused. 'You've done wonders with yourself, Elizabeth. Does this mean there's some new guy in your life?'
The high that had soared from his first words came crashing down. Associating her makeover with another man meant the distance he kept between them was not about to be crossed. Although maybe he was tempted. Maybe he was just checking if the coast was clear for him to step in.
She rallied, quickly saying, 'No. I've been unattached for a while. I just felt like a change.'
'Super change!' he warmly approved.
That was better. Warmth was good. Elizabeth instantly delivered the planned hint for him to make his move.
'I'm glad you like it. The clothes are a gift from my sister. It's my birthday. She insisted I had to look bold and beautiful today.'
He laughed. 'Well, you certainly do. And we should celebrate your birthday, too. How about lunch at The Mariners Bar? We can make time for it if we get through this inventory this morning.'
Hope soared again. A lunch for two at one of the most expensive restaurants in Cairns, overlooking the marina full of million-dollar yachts her heart sang with joy. 'That would be lovely. Thank you, Michael.'
'Book us a table. One o'clock should see us clear.' He picked up a sheaf of papers, holding it out to her. 'In the meantime, if you could check this lot.'
Business as usual, but there was a rainbow at the end of it today. Elizabeth could barely stop her feet from dancing over to his desk to collect the work that had to be done first.
'Bold and beautiful,' Michael repeated, grinning at her as he handed over the papers. 'Your sister must have a lot of pizzazz.'
It killed the song in her heart. He was supposed to be showing more interest in her, not wondering about Lucy. She shouldn't have mentioned her sister. But there was no taking it back, so she had to live with it.
'Yes, she has, but she's terribly ditzy with it. Nothing seems to stay in her head long enough to put any order into her life.' It was the truth and she wanted Michael to know it. The thought of Lucy being attractive to him in any way was unbearable.
'Not like you,' he said appreciatively.
She shrugged. 'Chalk and cheese. A bit like you and your brother.'
The words tripped off her tongue before Elizabeth could catch them back. The anxiety about Lucy had caused her control to slip. It wasn't appropriate for her to make any comment about her boss's brother. Normally she would keep her mouth firmly shut about him, despite the heartburn Harry Finn invariably gave her with his playboy patter. She hated it when he came into the office. Absolutely hated it.
Michael leaned back in his chair, his mouth tilted in a musing little smile. 'Working behind a desk is definitely not Harry's thing, but I think you might have the wrong impression of him, Elizabeth.'
'I'm sorry.' She grimaced an apology. 'I didn't mean to to '
Now she was lost for words! 'It's okay.' Michael waved off her angst. 'I know he seems very casual about everything but his mind is as sharp as a razor blade and he has his thumb on everything to do with his side of the business.'
Charter boats for deep-sea fishing, dive-boats for tourists wanting to explore the Great Barrier Reef, overseeing the resort they'd built on one of the islandsit was playboy stuff compared to what Michael did. Elizabeth's opinion of Harry Finn didn't shift one iota.
'I'll try to see him in that light in the future,' she clipped out.
Michael laughed. Elizabeth's toes curled. He was so charismatically handsome when he laughed. 'I guess he's been ruffling your feathers with his flirting. Don't let it get to you. He's like that with every woman. It's just a bit of fun.'
Oh, sure! Great fun! For Harry Finn.
Elizabeth hated it.
However, she managed to paste a smile on her face. 'I'll keep that in mind,' she said. 'Must get to work now. And I'll book our table at The Mariners Bar.'
'Do that.' Another grin. 'We can discuss brothers and sisters over lunch.'
No way, Elizabeth thought as she walked briskly to her own office, firmly closing the door behind her to ensure that Michael didn't see Lucy when she dropped in. She didn't want her sister sparking any interest in his mind. Nor did she want Harry Finn intruding on any part of this special lunch date. This precious time together had to be about moving closer to each other on a really personal plane. All her hopes for a future with Michael Finn were pinned on it.