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'Yes, of course,' Victoria answered brightly, ignoring the burning muscles in her hand. 'Absolutely.'
She'd do whatever it took. That was what entrepreneurs did, right? Made sacrifices. Worked all night. She'd read You Too Can Be a Billionaire months ago, so she knew. Not that she wanted to be a billionaire or even a millionaire. She'd settle for solventno more of that screaming red ink on her bank statement, thanks.
Anyway, writing another five place cards in flourished copperplate was nothing on the number she'd already done. So long as those passed their impending inspection. They'd better. So much depended on this.
Victoria watched her client, Aurelie Broussard, cross the ornately furnished room to the large writing desk where she nervously waited. Like everyone else who'd ever been in Aurelie's presence, Victoria couldn't help staring. The 'in-another-realm' woman glowed in a long white summer dress and navy shrug. Her hair fell to the middle of her back in long, loose curls. Its colour matched her eyes, as glossy and dark and sensual as hot fudge sauce. Athlete, model, businesswoman. And about seven months pregnant judging by the graceful swell of her belly. Victoria hadn't known about the baby, but then she didn't know much about the former world-champion surf star other than that she was getting hitched in five days' time. Victoria deliberately didn't take an interest in water sportsthey flowed too close to deep-buried, sharp-edged memories.
She'd never met a more beautiful woman. Or anyone with the power to improve her business so drasticallyor destroy it. If Aurelie liked her work, she'd be set. If she didn't, Victoria was screwed. And brides were notoriously pickyespecially brides with squadrons of celebrity friends and a 'super wow factor' wedding to pull off in less than a week.
Victoria slowed her movements to hide her nerves, carefully laying out some of the completed cards on the antique wood. Aurelie silently studied them. They'd taken Victoria more hours than she could count, working under bright lights all through the night to get them finished. She'd been contracted at the last minutenot ideal for a calligrapher whose craft required light, space, time and serenity to get it right.
'They are beautiful.' Aurelie finally gave her verdict. 'Exactly what I wanted.'
Victoria rapidly blinked back burning tears of relief. Two hundred and thirty-four painstakingly calligraphed cardsso many in such a short time she was in pain. But she wanted to be sure all were perfect.
'I've done them exactly as they were written on your list but someone will double check them?' she asked. She didn't want some A-lister offended by having her name incorrectly spelt.
Aurelie nodded. 'My assistant. Perhaps you can do the extra five while you're here?' She slid open the top drawer of the desk and drew out a sheet of paper with a list of names typed on it.
'Of course I can ' She'd brought her pen and ink and spare card with her, but the implication of five more guests suddenly hit and caused tunnel vision. 'Umm with the extra guests ' Victoria's innards shrivelled. 'Does that mean you've changed the seating plan?'
That plan had taken so very, very long already. One large board with all those two hundred and thirty-four names written yet again in flourished copperplate, plus titles for the tablesurf beaches. The thought of redoing the entire thing sent Victoria's brain spinning. The nerves in her hand shrieked.
'Yes.' Aurelie turned her beautiful face towards her, and drew up to her full heightalmost a head taller than Victoria. 'Will that be a problem?'
'Not at all.' Victoria somehow stretched her mouth into a smile and lied. She'd stitch back her eyelids and work round the clock for the next five days and nights to get this doneand she was going to need every one of those hours to do it.
She remembered being a bride, wanting everything to be perfect. She'd work as hard as she could to help Aurelie have everything the way she wanted. But while Victoria's own ceremony had been fairy-tale pretty, her marriage to Oliver hadn't been perfect. It had been a slow-imploding mess.
Working on Aurelie's wedding would help her recovery, financially at any rate. There were so many privileged people coming, with her best work on show, she might get more commissions.
The irony of having a career where she helped people create their perfect weddings wasn't lost on her, given her own spectacular matrimonial failure. But she wasn't cynical. For the right couple, a wedding was a wonderful beginning.
Hopefully Aurelie's fiance was a decent guy. Victoria knew even less about him than she did about Aurelie. She hadn't looked up any Internet infothe turnaround time was so tight she'd had to get straight on with writing. But she'd recognised the names of some of their guestselite sports people, celebrities, models.
'I'm sure I can count on you.' Aurelie smiled.
It was one of those smiles with an 'I'll kill you if you screw up' edge. Well, while Aurelie was counting on her, Victoria would be counting on coffeedump trucks of it.
'I can do the cards here and now if you'd like, but I'll need to redo the table plan at home. I don't have the supplies here.'
Aurelie nodded. 'I'll get my assistant to email you the changes for that.'
'And I'll bring it here as soon as it's done.'
'And when will that be?' The ice cool question, the smile. No pressure at all.
Victoria hesitated, desperate to please but not wanting to over-promise. 'Well in time for the wedding.' Victoria clung to her smile as Aurelie looked at her for what felt like hours.
Finally Aurelie smiled back. 'Thank you.'
Great. Victoria put her bag on the chair and took out her pen case and ink bottle. Five cards shouldn't take that long and she'd please her client. Then she'd rest up on the train and study the seating changes at home. And call by the shop on the way to load up on stay-awake supplies.
'Do you like the candles?' Aurelie suddenly asked.
Victoria turned. Aurelie had opened the lid of a big box stacked beside the desk. It was filled with tissue-wrapped cylinders neatly packed end to end. Aurelie lifted one out and unwound the delicate covering and revealed a candle in a gorgeous soft white.
'They're surfboard wax scented.' Aurelie giggled. 'My favourite.'
Victoria grinned at the quirkiness. To be married in a French chateau by candlelight with handwritten calligraphy and lace and silk everywhere? Not to mention fireworks and orchestra and fountains? Aurelie might be doing some things slightly out of order, but there was a lot that was traditional in her plansand fun. She was having it all. Good for her.
'They're beautiful. This whole place is beautiful. It is going to be enchanting.' Victoria meant it, she really did.
Aurelie put the candle back. 'It is going to be parfaitl'
'It is.' Victoria drew in a breath for courage. 'Now, the menu hasn't changed, has it?' she asked, mentally crossing every crossable part of her body as she waited for the answer.
'No.' Aurelie laugheda peal of infectious amusement that had Victoria smiling again. 'I see why you were recommended,' Aurelie said. 'You don't get flustered. You just say yes.'
Victoria maintained her smile despite the tweak on her nerves. In two minutes Aurelie had nailed her. Victoria had been so good at saying yes. To her parents, to Oliver. To the people she'd been desperate to please more than anythingmore than herself. And then what Aurelie had said registered.
'I was recommended?' Who'd have done that? She'd only been in Paris seven monthsmost of her income was derived from the secretarial work she got from an agency. She'd only recently relaunched her online calligraphy and personal stationery design business. Perhaps it was a contact from when her company had been flying high in London? Either way she was gratefuldespite the last minute panic that Aurelie had just dumped on her.
But Aurelie didn't answer, she'd swiftly crossed to the window. Now Victoria too heard the crunch of the gravel outside. A car.
'Oh, no,' Aurelie gasped. 'He's here. He can't see any of this. If he comes in here, hide it. Everything.' With superior athletic grace, even with that burgeoning belly, Au-relie ran from the room.
Victoria blinked at the suddenly empty atmosphere. Presumably he was the groom. Curious to see what kind of guy had landed the incomparable Aurelie, she walked over to the window and peered down the two levels to the grand entrance.
The discreet-but-gleaming black car parked right in front was empty. As she watched, one of the conservatively clad assistants strode across the courtyard towards it. No doubt he was going to park it somewhere where it wouldn't ruin the picture-postcard perfection. While it might be a 'miniature' chateau, it was still one of the grandest buildings Victoria had ever been in. Surrounded by formal gardens with long avenues and hidden nooks and a selection of trick fountains, it was gorgeous.
She went back to the desk, picked up the completed cards and dropped them back in their protective box. She didn't want any damaged; she had too much to redo already. She took out several blank cards from the other box she'd brought in case, frowning as she arranged them.
The desk was beautiful, but it wasn't angled like her one at home. It'd be better if she could do these there, but she wasn't about to say 'no' to Aurelie.
She prepared her pen, drawing up ink, and worked on a practice cardwarming up her fingers and getting the ink to flow smoothly.
'Aurelie, you in here?'
Victoria froze, her pen digging into the card. Shock curdled her blood. Ink spilled but she hardly noticed. Because she knew that voice. That warm, laid-back, confident call.
She turned her head as he walked into the room. Her heart paused for a painfully long time between beats. She held her breath even longer.
Utterly gorgeous, absolutely unattainable Liam?
Her eyes were so wide they wanted to water. But that wasn't happening. Not in the presence of this particular guy. Never ever.
He paused, barely noticeably, before walking towards her. But, as always, Victoria noticed every tiny thing about him, so she saw that slight hesitation. She also saw his heighthis tall, lean, muscled physique. He'd always been an athlete and more competitive than most. Dangerously competitive. Liam Wilson wanted to win, no matter the cost.
And he'd won the best, hadn't he? Aurelie.
His sunflower-flecked brown eyes locked on her. Staring right back, Victoria saw the trademark easy-going stubble covering that sharp-edged jaw. She saw the dark brown hair, cropped closer than it had been the last time she saw him. Only vaguely did she take in the jeans and white tee because she was fully mesmerised by his expressionthat intense, purposeful focus. OM freaking G.
Liam Wilson. She couldn't believe it. Completely thrown, she looked down for a sec to collect her scrambled thoughts. How could he have grown even more attractive? How could she take one look and want all over again?
Pulling the plug on the visual didn't work. Because now she remembered so much of a time that had been so short. Now she wanted to hide. No one had ever exposed her the way Liam once hadwith just one look.
She fixedly stared at the ink-splodged mess she'd made on the card, aware he'd stopped a few feet from her chair.
He cleared his throat. 'Long time, no see.'
She heard the smile. He'd always spoken with that easy-as smile. That innate confidence had been part of what had drawn her to him. The kind of confidence she'd never had. She'd been jealous of his 'I-don't-give-a-damn-what-youall-think' attitude too, because she'd never had that.
Focused, hungry, fascinating. Liam had an edge Victoria hadn't encountered before or since. Tall, strong, determined to do what he wanted, he'd sliced through any opposition.
Until Oliver. And her.
Unable to resist, she chanced a glance back at him. That element of danger? It was still therenow lethal. Because, despite that smile, his eyes weren't just focused and relentless, they were hard.
There was no point clearing her throat. It wasn't going to work. Nothing in her bodyespecially not her brainwas working this second. Or the next.
'How've you been?' he asked.
Oh, he had to be kidding. Five years since she'd last seen him, five years since he'd interrupted her own wedding proposal and here he was five days from his wedding and he was greeting her like some old schoolmate?
Then again, how else to handle it?
She looked at the blank cards on the desk, glad she'd packed the others away. Aurelie hadn't wanted him to see them.
Aurelie Broussard was marrying Liam Wilson.
Liam was the father of Aurelie's baby.
Liam was getting married.
Why was it so hard to compute?
She'd once had the chance to say yes to Liam. Not to marriage but to something. She hadn't. She'd said yes to someone else and life had moved on for all of them. And she was okay with that, wasn't she?
She straightened, ignoring the churning riot of recollections and emotions inside. She was happy. And she'd act like it.
'Fine, thanks.' Score. Her voice sounded almost normal. 'How are you?' 'Stunned to see you.'
Hardly stunned. He was still standing, tall and fit in those blue jeans and soft leather boatshoes and an eye-wateringly bright white tee with seams that had to cling hard to contain his broad shoulders. It ought to be impossible, but the guy was more gorgeous than he'd been back then. But what really stunned her was the glint in his eyes. He blatantly staredat her hair, over her face, seeming to take in each featurelingering on her mouth and then dropping below, taking in her figure. Was he sizing her up as he had that very first time they'd met? Back then it had been excusablehe'd not known who she was. But now?
Victoria tensed beneath his inspection, willing her body not to let the remnants of that old attraction show. Because that was all it was, like muscle memoryan imprint of an old infatuation. Not real. Certainly not worse. It couldn't be.
'It's been a long time,' he said. 'And, as impossible as I'd have thought it, you're even more beautiful now.'
Her breath quickened as her body absorbed his wordswords that mirrored her thoughts of him. Her system responded so inappropriately. Heat shot everywheremost of all deep and low in her belly.
Her brain clicked more slowly, taking too long to realise that it was meaningless, just his usual flirt talk. That was all it had ever been. Talk. But he had no right to tease her. Not that she could put him in his place the way she wanted to. Not when it was his fiancée she was working for. No, she was going to remain calm and professional and brush him off politely.
'You're looking good too,' she said crisply. She even smiled. She could handle this unfortunate coincidence and she could handle him. Of course she could.
He leaned against the table right next to where she sat. Her feet tingled, her legs itched. But she wasn't running, not showing how badly he got to her. She knew he was playing. He'd played with her before. She remembered that exact roguish expression from the first night she'd met him in the guest bathroom at Oliver's parents' place. Then, as now, Liam looked like a wicked cat who'd just spied a juicy mouse and he was going to have fun devouring it ever so slowly.
Victoria Rutherford was never going to be a mouse again.
'Thank you,' he drawled.
Her eyes narrowed as anger seeped through her polite armour. He really was the same game player? After all this time? Even now he was about to get married?
'Victoria,' he murmured softly, as he'd once murmured her name before. Now, as she had then, she steeled her heart.
How could she be this affected again by his mere presence?
Victoria froze as he moved, leaning across herfar, far too close. She held her breath but it was futile. He still smelt of ocean spray, sunshine and freedom. A heady, intoxicating mix that had once made her almost crazy high. The ultimate, forbidden temptation. Her boyfriend's best friend.
As her client's fiance, he was even more forbidden now. So her suddenly over-excited hormones could just go back into dormant mode. Liam Wilsoneven if he was singlewould never be hers.