At a London salsa club, consultant Aaron Hughes catches sight of the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. Relationships are off the cards for Aaron, but one night with this perfect stranger can't hurt
For registrar Joni Parker, dancing and champagne are a remedy to what-would-have-been-her-wedding-night blues. Until she discovers an even better cureher first-ever fling! It started with no strings, but when Aaron walks into the hospital on Mondayas the new consultant!things get a lot more complicated
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'Welcome to London.' Aaron lifted his pint in a wry toast to himself.
It was his own fault that he was sitting here on his own at the bar in a salsa club. When Tim had suggested going out to celebrate Aaron's first weekend in London and catch up, of course he hadn't meant just going out for a quiet pint. Aaron should've remembered their student days: Tim had always been the life and soul of the party, and always ended up surrounded by a crowd of pretty girls. He was still the same in his thirties as he'd been in his late teens; right now, Aaron couldn't even see him in the crowded club.
So when he'd finished his pint, Aaron decided, he'd try and find Tim, say a quiet goodbye, and go back to the impersonal flat he'd rented near the hospital.
Or maybe he wouldn't even bother with the rest of the pint. He set the still halffull glass back on the bar and turned away, looking for Tim.
And that was when he saw her.
The woman with the most amazing hair: dark as midnight, flowing down almost to her waist, perfectly straight and shiny. She was wearing a short scarlet dress that set her hair off to perfection and showcased long, beautifully shaped legs. And somehow she was managing to salsa in a pair of seriously high heels.
Aaron blew out a breath. This wasn't why he was here. He wasn't looking for any kind of relationship right now, even a temporary one. Not when he was about to start a new job and all his time was going to be taken up with work.
Yet there was something about the woman that drew him.
As he watched her dance, she turned slightly and he saw her face properly for the first time. She was stunning, with a heart-shaped face, dark eyes and the most beautiful mouth he'd ever seen.
Her friend said something to her and she tipped her head back and laughed, revealing even white teeth.
Aaron forgot all about Tim. Forgot why he was here. Forgot about everything except the woman in the red dress. Instead of being the staid, sensible workaholic he'd always been, he found himself walking across the dance floor towards her. Moth to a flame.
And, right at that moment, he didn't care if he got burned.
'You are the best friend ever.' Joni hugged Bailey. 'And I love you.'
'I love you, too, sweetie.' Bailey hugged her right back.
'You were so right. Dancing and champagne. That's just what I need tonight.' It was pretty much what Joni had originally planned to be doing tonightexcept it would've been a different sort of dancing. A slow, elegant waltz in a floaty, frothy bridal dress to a romantic song; whereas right now the dancing was hot, sweaty, endorphin-boosting salsa and the dress she was wearing had the shortest skirt she'd ever owned, thanks to Bailey's encouragement.
'Of course I'm right. I'm a doctor,' Bailey teased. 'And exercise is one of the best medicines ever.'
Joni laughed. 'Says the specialist in sports medicine who's just a teensy bit biased.'
'It's true. I can quote tons of studies.' Bailey spread her hands. 'There are links to reduction in the risk of cancer and dementia, it works as well as drugs in curing depression, and it boosts academic progress in teenagers. Wins all round.'
'So salsa's the cure for everything?' Even a broken heart? Though Joni didn't quite understand why her heart should still feel broken when she'd been the one to call off the wedding, six months before.
'Endorphins rock. Plus salsa's fun.' Bailey grinned. 'Now, shimmy!'
Joni couldn't help laughing. And trust her irrepressible best friend to stop her moping on the day she'd been dreading for months: the day of the wedding-that-wasn't. Bailey specialised in sports medicine and Joni in tropical and infectious diseases; but even though they didn't actually work together they'd been best friends ever since they'd met on their first day at university. They'd supported each other through the dark times and celebrated the bright ones.
'Don't look round,' Bailey said, 'but there's a hot guy who was sitting at the bar. Right now he's heading in our direction, and he's looking straight at you.'
'He's probably wondering what on earth someone as coordinated as you is doing dancing with someone who keeps doing the steps totally wrong,' Joni said with a smile.
'I don't think so. Try "wow, who's the hot babe?" Especially as your hair's down.' Bailey wound the end of Joni's hair briefly round her fingertips. 'You know, every woman in this room would kill for your hair. Including me.'
Hair that Marty had wanted her to cut. Her ex was the latest in a string of men who'd made Joni feel that she wasn't quite good enough. And she'd vowed after Marty that she'd never make that mistake againshe wouldn't sacrifice her career or her self-esteem just to please someone else. From now on, it was equal or nothing.
'Earth to Joni.' Bailey waved both hands in front of her face. 'We agreed. No brooding and absolutely no thinking about Marty the Maggot. And I think Hot Guy is about to ask you to dance.'
Joni shook her head. 'Even if he does'
'Then you're going to say yes,' Bailey cut in. 'Doctor's orders. Dancing with a hot guy is good for you.'
'So if he asks you to dance' Joni began.
'He's not going to ask me, sweetie.' Bailey winked at her. 'He's only got eyes for you.'
* * *
Aaron stood close enough that she'd be able to hear him over the music, but not close enough to be creepy. 'Would you like to dance?' he asked. 'I, urn '
The blush made her look even prettier. And he liked the fact that she clearly wasn't aware of how gorgeous she was.
Even though his head told him this was insane, the rest of him most definitely wasn't listening. And then her friend smiled and said, 'Dancing's a great idea. My feet are feeling a bit sore right now and I really need to sit down for a few minutes.'
Aaron knew she was fibbing, because she'd been dancing without even the slightest wince as he'd walked over to them, but he appreciated her tact.
'Bailey!' There was the tiniest hint of panic in Ms Drop Dead Gorgeous's eyes as her friend waved and did a theatrical limp in the direction of the chairs at the bar.
Yeah. There was a fair bit of panic going on inside him, too, right now. He knew from experience that getting involved was a bad ideaemotions just led to painbut he'd asked her to dance and it was too late to go back. Too late for doubts.
'Hello. I'm Aaron,' he said, extending a hand. 'I'm Joni.' She took his hand and shook it nervously. 'Look, I'm sorry about my friend.
'There's no need to apologise,' he said with a smile. 'Though I might have to apologise to you in advance, as I'm not exactly the world's best dancer.'
'Neither am I. Bailey's the one who can dance, not me,' she said ruefully. 'Though I'll try not to tread on your feet.'
'Let's make that a mutual pact,' he said, and took her hand to dance with her.
Somehow, they muddled through the first half of the next track together; then the awkwardness between them seemed to vanish and the panic seeped away. And Aaron found himself really enjoying the throbbing Latin beat of the music.
Especially when the next song came on and everything slowed down. And then she was in his arms, right where he wanted her to be, all warm and soft and sweet. They swayed together, moving in time to the music; his arms were wrapped round her waist and her arms were wrapped round his neck.
He smiled down at her. Her dark eyes were gorgeous; up close, he could see that she wasn't wearing much make-up. She didn't need it. Just the tiniest bit of mascara to emphasise those long, long lashes, and soft red lipstick that made him want to kiss it all off. Even as the thought went through his head, he found himself dipping his head down towards hers. When his mouth brushed against hers, it felt like electricity prickling through every nerve end. Then she kissed him back, and the rest of the room seemed to vanish; there was only the two of them and the music.
But the next track was one with a much faster beat, and they were forced to pull apart. They stood there, just looking at each other, and Aaron wondered if Joni felt as dazed as he did.
This really shouldn't be happening. He didn't do this sort of thing. And yet.
'Hey. I'm going to get a taxi home,' her friend said as she joined them.
'I guess I'd better go, too,' Joni said.
But Aaron wasn't ready to let her go. Not yet. 'Stay just a little bit longer?' he asked. 'I'll make sure you get home safely.'
Bailey leaned in closer so that her mouth was hidden from view and her words were for Joni's ears only. 'Stay and have some fun,' she said. 'Don't start thinking or analysing.' She squeezed Joni's hand. 'Just enjoy it for what it is: a bit of a dance with a seriously hot guy. And, before you ask, no, your lipstick isn't all over your faceeven though you were snogging like teenagers just now.'
Joni felt the colour flood through her skin. 'Oh, God. I'm behaving like a tart,' she muttered.
'No, you're not. You're just having some fun on a night that would've been difficult for you otherwise. Nothing serious, no consequences. Just live for the moment and enjoy it. And, actually, snogging Hot Guy there will be very good for you. It'll produce more endorphins. We like endorphins. Endorphins are good.'
Trust Bailey to take that tack. Joni couldn't help smiling. 'Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?'
'I'm sure,' Bailey confirmed. 'Stay and have some fun. Call me tomorrow, OK?'
'I will.' Joni hugged her goodbye, then carried on dancing with Aaron until her feet were sore.
'Shall we have a break and get a drink?' she suggested. 'Great idea,' he said.
She liked the way he walked with her towards the bar, with a hand protectively at her back and yet not making her feel helpless and pathetic, the way her exes had always ended up making her feel. Aaron had beautiful manners, and he didn't seem the sort who would put a woman down to make himself feel better. Not that she trusted her own judgement on that score any more. She'd got it wrong so many times in the past, thanks to the rose-tinted glasses she couldn't seem to remove.
'My shout,' she said as they reached the bar. 'Bailey and I were drinking champagne, earlier. Would you like to join me?'
'Are you celebrating something?' he asked.
She certainly was. The luckiest escape of her life. Though, at the same time, part of her mourned the wreckage of her future plans. It should've been so good
For a second Joni looked sad, and then Aaron wondered if it had just been his imagination because she gave him a broad, broad smile. 'It's Saturday night, and that's always worth celebrating, isn't it?'
He had a feeling that she didn't mean anything like that at all, but he didn't push her to elaborate. He simply smiled and accepted the glass of champagne she'd offered.
Then they danced until most people had either drifted home or gone elsewhere, and the dance floor was almost empty. Aaron noticed that Tim hadn't bothered trying to find him or say goodnight when he left. But that was Tim all overa good-time guy who didn't think too deeply. Maybe he ought to take a leaf out of his old friend's book.
And he wasn't quite ready to see Joni home just yet.
'There probably aren't any cafés open nearby, so would you like to come back to my place for a coffee?' he asked.
She looked wary. 'Thanks for the offer, but'
'Hey,' he cut in softly, 'when I said coffee, I meant just coffee. I'm not expecting anything else.'
She bit her lip. 'Sorry, I'm not used to well '
She had to be kidding. That gorgeous, and she didn't date?
Or maybe she'd just come out of a relationship, one that had left her confidence shaky. Making him Rebound Man. Which was fine, because that meant she wouldn't want forever from him. 'It's OK,' he said. 'Me, neither.' He didn't date much. In between work, studying, work and more work, he simply didn't have time.
Wanting to lighten the atmosphere, he said,
'Though I can tell you that my coffee-making skills are a lot better than my dancing.' He'd worked as a barista to help put himself through university, and his expensive Italian coffee machine was the one gadget he'd never part with.
'Then thank you,' she said. 'I'd love a coffee.'
As they left the club, they were lucky enough to see an empty taxi passing. He hailed the cab, gave the driver his address, and held the door open for her to get in.
Joni was quiet in the back of the cab and Aaron didn't push her to talk; he simply curled his fingers round hers, and eventually the pressure was returned.
How long was it since he'd held hands with someone in the back of a taxi?
He reminded himself not to think. This relationship wasn't going anywhere. This was just for tonight; he didn't do 'for always'. Never had and never would.
When the taxi stopped outside his flat, he paid the driver and ushered her across to his front door.
She removed her shoes as soon as they were inside the front door. 'Um, may I borrow your bathroom, please?'
'Sure.' He indicated the bathroom door.
'I'll be through here in the kitchen when you're ready.'
She was a while in the bathroom. When she joined him in the kitchen, she said, 'Can I be immensely rude and cheeky and ask for a glass of orange juice and a sandwich as well as the coffee, please?'
Oh, help. He'd come across this before. Someone who was suddenly hungry and thirsty after going clubbing and then going to the bathroom. If he looked closer, he'd just bet her pupils would be pinpoints.
His thoughts must have shown in his face because she said, 'Actually, yes, a needle was involved.'
'But not drugs,' she said crisply.
'Not drugs.' He really wasn't following.
She took something out of her bag to show him. 'I'm a diabetic and this is a blood glucose monitor. I prick my finger and test the blood on a strip to check my blood sugar levels. Right now, my blood sugar's a bit out of whackprobably because I had a couple of glasses of champagne tonight and I don't usually drink very much, plus I've spent all night dancing. So right now I could do with some carbs to get my blood sugar stable. I'm not going to pass out on you or anything like that,' she reassured him swiftly. 'This just happens sometimes, and a sandwich and some orange juice will sort me out pretty quickly.'
He relaxed, then. Diabetes explained a lot. Joni might still be trouble with a capital T, but at least it wasn't going to get complicated and he wouldn't feel responsible for someone else making a bad lifestyle choice. And clearly Joni was very used to looking after herself properly because she'd explained exactly why her blood sugar was a problem right now and how it could be fixed.
He almost told her he was a doctor, but he didn't want to make her feel awkward. Instead, he poured a glass ofjuice and handed it to her.