Each year, Hong Kong's most kissable businessman Oliver Harmer allows himself one Christmas present: a lavish meal with off-limits Audrey Devaney. Keeping her at arm's lengthquite literally!is a battle of epic proportions for Oliver, but also an irresistible temptation. Until the year she doesn't come.
Now the rules have changed! Because, this Christmas, Audrey is single, and Oliver must decide if he will let her run away at midnight for good, or fight for her to stay until morning!
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December 20th, four years ago
Qingting Restaurant, Hong Kong
Audrey Devaney flopped a gainst the back of the curved sofa and studied the pretty, oriental-style cards in her hands. Not the best hand in the world but when you were playing for M&M's and you tended to eat your stake as fast as it accumulated it was hard to take poker too seriously.
Though it was fun to pretend she knew what she was doing. Like some Vegas hotshot. And it wasn't too hard to imagine that the extraordinary view of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour stretching out behind Oliver Harmer was really out of the window of some casino high-roller's room instead of a darkened, atmospheric restaurant festooned with pretty lanterns and baubles in rich, oriental colours.
Across from her, Oliver's five o'clock shadow was designer perfect and an ever-present, unlit cigar poked out of the corner of his grinning mouthmore gummed than smoked, out of respect for her and for the other patrons in the restaurant. It only felt as if he bought the whole place out each Christmas, it wasn't actually true. Though it was nice to imagine that they had the entire restaurant to themselves.
'Thank you, again, for the gift,' she murmured, letting the fringed silk ends of the cobalt scarf run between her fingers. 'It's stunning.'
'You're welcome. You should wear more blue.'
Audrey studied Oliver over her cards, wanting to ask but not entirely sure how to raise it. Maybe the best approach was the direct approach
'You know, you look pretty good for a man whose wedding just fell through.'
'Good' as in well. Not 'good' as in gorgeous. Although, as always, the latter would certainly apply. All that dark hair, long lashes and tanned Australian skin.
He took his time considering his hand and then tossed three cards face down onto the ornate carved table. 'Dodged a bullet.'
That stopped her just as she might have discarded her own dud cards. 'Really? Last Christmas it was all about how Tiffany might be "the one".'
Not that she'd actually believed him at the time, but a year was the longest relationship she'd ever known him to have.
Maybe she was just in denial.
'Turns out there was more than one "one" for Tiffany.' The tiniest glimmer of hurt stained his eyes. Oh, no. 'Who called it off?' His answer came fast and sure. 'I did.'
Oliver Harmer was a perpetual bachelor. But he was also Shanghai's most prized perpetual bachelor and so she couldn't imagine the average woman he dated being too fast to throw away her luxury future.
But she knew from Blake how seriously Oliver felt about fidelity. Because of his philandering father. 'I'm so sorry.'
He shrugged. 'She was with someone when I met her; I was foolish to think that I'd get treated any different.'
Foolish perhaps, but he was only human to hope that he'd be special enough to change his girlfriend's ways. And if ever there was a man worth changing for Audrey dropped two cards onto the table and Oliver flicked her two replacements from the top of the pack with confident efficiency before taking three of his own.
'What did she say when you confronted her?' she murmured.
'I didn't see any purpose in having it out,' he squeezed out past the cigar. 'I just cut her loose.'
Without an explanation? 'What if you were mistaken?'
The look he threw her would have withered his corporate opponents. 'I checked. I wasn't.'
'Checking' in Oliver's world probably meant expensive private surveillance. So no, he wouldn't have been wrong. 'Where is she now?'
He shrugged. 'Still on our honeymoon, I guess. I gave her an open credit card and wished her the best.'
'You bought her off?' She gaped.
'I bought her forgiveness.'
'And that worked?'
'Tiffany never was one for labouring under regret for long.'
Lord, he had a talent for ferreting out the worst of women. Always beautiful, of course and*cough*agile, but utterly barren on the emotional front. To the point that she'd decided Oliver must prefer them that way. Except for the trace of genuine hurt that had flitted across his expression.
That didn't fit with the man she thought she knew.
She studied the nothing hand in front of her and then tossed all five cards down on the table in an inelegant fold.
'Why can't you just meet a nice, normal woman?' she despaired. 'Shanghai's a big city.'
He scooped the pile of bright M&M's towards himthough not before she snaffled yet another one to eatand set about reshuffling the cards. 'Nice women tend to give me a wide berth. I can't explain it.'
She snorted. 'It would have nothing to do with your reputation.'
Hazel eyes locked on hers, speculative and challenging. Enough to tighten her chest a hint. 'And what reputation is that?'
Ah no. 'I'm not going to feed your already massive ego, Oliver.'
Nor go anywhere near the female whispers she'd heard about Oliver 'the Hammer' Harmer. Dangerous territory.
'I thought we were friends!' he protested.
'You're friends with my husband. I'm just his SouthEast Asian proxy.'
He grunted. 'You only agree to our ritual Christmas catch-up for the cuisine, I suppose?' 'Actually, no.'
She found his eyesheld themand two tiny butterflies broke free in her chest. 'I come for the wine, too.'
He snagged a small fistful of M&M's and tossed them across the elegant, carved coffee table at her, heedless of those around them sharing the Christmas-themed menu sixty storeys above Hong Kong.
Audrey scrabbled madly to pick them up. 'Ugh. Isn't that just like a squazillionaire. Throwing your money around like it's chocolate drops.'
'Play your hand,' he griped. But there was a definite smile behind it. As there always was. Christmases between them were always full of humour, fast conversation and camaraderie.
At least on the surface.
Below the surface was a whole bunch of things that she didn't let herself look at too closely. Appreciation. Respect. A great, aching admiration for his life and the choices he'd made and the courage with which he'd made them. Oliver Harmer was the freest human being she knew. And he lived a life most people would hunger for.
She certainly did from within the boundaries of her awkward marriage. It was hard not to esteem his choices.
And then below all of that. The ever-simmering attraction. She'd grown used to it now, because it was always there. And because she only had to deal with it once a year.
He was a good-looking man; charming and affable, easy to talk to, easy to like, well built, well groomed, well mannered, but not up himself or pretentious. Never too cool to toss a handful of chocolates in a fine restaurant.
But he'd also been best man at her wedding.
Blake's oldest friend.
And he was pursued by women day in and day out. She would be two hundred per cent mortified if Oliver ever got so much of a hint of the direction of her runaway thoughtsnot the least because it would just inflate his already monumental egobut also because she knew exactly what he'd do with the information.
Not a damned thing.
He would take it to his grave, and she would never fully know if that was because of his loyalty to Blake, his respect for her, or because something brewing between them was just so totally inconceivable that he'd chalk it up to an aberrant moment best never again spoken of.
Which was pretty much the right advice.
She wasn't like the women he normally chose. Her finest day was the day of her wedding when she'd been called 'striking'and by Oliver, come to think of it, who always seemed to say the right thing at the right moment when she was on rocky emotional ground. She didn't look as good as his women did in their finery and she didn't move in the same circles and know the same people and laugh overly loud at the same stories. She wasn't unattractive or dull or dimshe'd wager the entire pile of M&M's in front of her on the fact that she could outrank every one of them on a MENSA testbut she certainly didn't turn heads when she was in the company of the beautiful people. She lacked that stardust that they had.
That Oliver was coated-to-sparkling in.
And in all the years she'd known him, she'd flat out never seen him with someone less beautiful than he was.
Clearly some scientific principle of balance at work there.
And when even the laws of nature ruled you out.
'All right, Cool Hand Luke,' she said, ripping her thoughts back to safer territory. 'Let's get serious about this game.'
That treacherous snake.
Audrey clearly had no idea whatsoever of Blake's latest conquest. Her face had filled just then with genuine sympathy about Tiffany, but nothing else. No shadows of pain at the mention of someone's infidelity, no blanching. No tears for a betrayal shared. Not that she was the tears-in-public type, but the only moisture in those enormous blue eyes was old-fashioned compassion.
Which meant that either Blake had lied and Audrey had no idea that her husband considered their marriage open, or she did know and Blake had worn her down to the point that she just didn't care any more.
And that awful possibility just didn't fit with the engaged, involved woman in front of him.
Oliver eyed her over his cards, pretending to psych her out and throw her game but really using the opportunity to study the tiniest traces of truth in her oval face. Her life tells. She wasn't flat and lifeless. She was enjoying the cards, the food, the conversation. She always did. He never flattered himself that it was him, particularly, that she hurried to see each year, but she loved the single day of decadence that they always shared on December twentieth. Not the expenditureshe and Blake were both on healthy incomes and she could buy this sort of experience herself if she really wanted toit was the low-key luxury of this restaurant, this day, that she really got off on.
She was the only woman he'd ever met who got more excited by not being flashy with his money. By being as tastefully understated as she always was. It suited her down to the ground. Elegant instead of glitzy, all that dark hair twisted in a lazy knot on top of her head with what looked like bamboo spears holding it all together. The way her hands occasionally ran across the fabric of her tailored skirt told him she enjoyed how the fabric felt against her skin. That was why she wore it; not for him, or any other man. Not because it hugged the intriguing curve of her thighs almost indecently. The money Audrey spent on fashion was about recognising her equal in a quality product.
Whether she knew that or not.
Which was why he struggled so badly with Blake's protestations that Audrey was cool with his marital excursions. He got that they didn't have the most conventional of marriagesdefinitely a meeting of mindsbut she just didn't strike him as someone who would tolerate the cheapening of her relationship through his playing around. Because, if nothing else, Blake's sleeping around reflected on her.
And Audrey Devaney was anything but cheap.
He refocused to find those sapphire eyes locked hard on his. 'Sorry. Raise.'
She smiled at his distraction and then flicked her focus back down to her cards, leaving him staring at those long, down-curved lashes.
Did she know that her husband hooked up with someone else the moment she left town? Did that bother her? Or did she fabricate trips specifically to give Blake the opportunity, to give herself necessary distance from his infidelity, and preserve the amazing dignity that she wore like one of her silk suits. He'd never got the slightest sense that she evened the score while she travelled. Not that he'd necessarily know if she didshe would be as discreet about that as she was about the other details of her lifebut her work ethic was nearly as solid as her friendship. And, as the lucky beneficiary of her unwavering loyalty as a friend, he knew that if Audrey was in Asia working then that was exactly what she'd be doing.
Working her silk-covered butt off.
And, if she wasn't, he'd know it. When it came to her, his radar was fine-tuned for the slightest hint that she was operating on the same wavelength as her husband.
Because if Audrey Devaney was on the market, then he was in the market.
No matter the price. No matter the terms. No matter what he'd believed his whole life about fidelity. He'd had enough hot, restless nights after waking from one of his dreamsriddled with passion and guilt and Audrey up against the cold glass of the window facing out over Victoria Harbourto know what his body wanted.
'Call.' She tossed a cluster of M&M's onto the pile, interrupting the dangerous direction of his thoughts.
But he also knew himself pretty well. He knew that sex was the great equaliser and that reducing a woman that he admired and liked so much to the subject of one of his cheap fantasies was just his subconscious' way of dealing with the unfamiliar territory.
Territory in which he found himself fixated on the only woman he knew who was genuinely too good for him.
'Your game.' Oliver tossed aces and jacks purely for the pleasure of seeing the flush Audrey couldn't contain. The pleasure that spilled out over the edges of her usual propriety. She loved to win. She loved to beat him, particularly.
And he loved to watch her enjoy it.
She flipped a trio of fours on top of the mound of M&M's triumphantly and her perfectly made-up skin practically glowed with pleasure. Instantly, he wondered if that was what she'd look like if he pushed this table aside and pressed her back into the sofa with his lips against that confident smile and his thigh between hers.
His body cheered the very thought.
'Rematch,' he demanded, forcing his brain clean of smut. Pretty sad when throwing a card game was about as erotic as any dream he could conjure up. 'Double or nothing.'
She tipped her head back to laugh and that knot piled on the top and decorated with a bit of stolen airport tinsel wobbled dangerously. If he kept the humour coming maybe the whole thing would come tumbling down and he'd have another keeper memory for his pathetic fantasy-stalker collection.
'Sure, while you're throwing your chocolates away.'
She slipped off her shoes and pulled slim legs up onto the sofa as Oliver dealt another hand and, again, he was struck by how down to earth she was. And how innocent. This was not the relaxed, easy expression of a woman who knew her husband was presently shacked up with someone that wasn't his wife.
Which meant his best friend was a liar as well as an adulterer. And a fool, too, for cheating on the most amazing woman either of them had ever known. Just wasting the beautiful soul he'd been gifted by whatever fate sent Audrey in Blake's direction instead of his own all those years ago.
But where fate was vague and indistinct, that out-of-place rock weighing down her left hand was very real, and though her husband was progressively sleeping his way through Sydney, Audrey wasn't following suit.
Because that ring meant something to her.
Just as fidelity meant something to him.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book has enough depth to fill the ocean. It is so rich with the color of Hong Kong. It is moving and emotional this story. It felt like i was reading a novel not a series
Cute quick read with some twists.
New premise plus well written. The ending was a little abrupt but otherwise very enjoyable read. Would recommend.