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Chelsea flicked a stray streak of wet mud off the nose of the beagle motif on her old umbrella as she ducked under the silver and black striped awning of Amelie's, a newly opened Melbourne restaurant a stone's throw from the Yarra River at South Bank.
She peered through the floor-to-ceiling windows to see the place was peppered with bright and shiny types decked out in designer gear. While the chocolate-brown knee-length skirt she'd found in the back of her closet sat at a slightly askew angle to hide a fresh doggie shampoo stain.
'In a couple of hours I'll be out of these high-heeled boots and back into sneakers,' she said aloud. 'While you'll all have bunions before you're forty.'
As some kind of perverse justice, her boots teetered beneath her as she twirled out of the way of a rushing pair of suits barging out of the restaurant barking into their mobile phones rather than looking out for stray women on the pavement.
Not wanting to push her luck, she slipped inside the glass doors and patted the criss-cross of bobby pins holding back her too-long fringe to make sure they were still in place and not dangling from the end of her hair like some odd mobile.
'Do you have a reservation?' the skinny, bald maître d' in head-to-toe black asked.
'I'm Chelsea London,' she said, leaning back slightly to make sure he wouldn't get a waft of the mothball scent of her recently de-cupboarded fancy clothes. 'Meeting Kensington Hurley. She's always madly early. I'd be happy to sneak through and find her myself'
'Not necessary.' He gave her a cool smile.
Phoney schmuck, she thought as she gave him a weak smile in return.
He ran a bony finger down the pale pink diary page and nodded. Then said, 'Your phone, please.'
'Excuse me, my what?' said Chelsea.
phone,'he repeated, more slowly this time. 'They are a nuisance to other customers thus we don't allow them in the restaurant. You would have been told at the time of reservation.'
'My sister chose this place,' she explained through gritted teeth.
'Nevertheless, you need to check it into the cloakroom.'
She bit her lip while she made up her mind about what to do. Her whole life was in her phone. Her address book, her appointments calendar, her grocery list, her emails, the profit and loss statements to take to the bank later that morning now that she'd finally made an appointment with a loan officer to see about expanding Pride&Groom, her pet-grooming business, from one salon to three. He might as well have asked for her future firstborn child for all it meant to her.
She sank her hand into her oversized handbag and held it tight as she asked, 'What if I don't have a phone?'
He kept his hand outstretched, palm up.
'Okay, fine,' she said, doing a quick, obsessive-compulsive message check before handing it over. 'But couldn't you just ask everyone to turn their phone to silent? And confiscate those who don't comply?'
'This isn't high school, Ms London. We believe mobile phones are antisocial. And haven't you come here today to be social?'
High school is for ever, she thought. Those in new uniforms compared with those in hand-me-downs, all living out the failures or successes of their parents like some great evolutionary joke.
She kept her theory to herself and instead muttered, 'I came here today because my sister has the kind of big brown cow eyes you can't say no to.'
He gave her a pink ticket with a smudged black number written upon it in return, then she pressed on into the restaurant.
Weaving her way through the tightly packed tables past a plethora of 'new school uniform' types with money and time and an apparent desire to be social on a Tuesday morning, she made a determined beeline for Kensey's curly brown 'do. Thus she didn't notice a gentleman prepare to slide back his chair until it was too late.
She put on the brakes but her inexperience in her high-heeled boots meant she lost her grip upon the swanky silk carpet. Her momentum pitched her forward and everything from that point on seemed to happen in slow motion.
The man turned, alerted by either the whoosh of air she displaced before her, or perhaps the frantic oath she'd emitted a second before that. As she fell she found herself amidst one of those time-stood-still-while-my-life-flashed-before-my-eyes moments as she made eye contact with her attacker, whose features burned onto her brain one after the other.
A toothpick between perfect white front teeth. Smooth dark hair so neat it looked as if it had been cut that morning. A jaw line so defined it made a girl want to reach out and run the back of her finger along it. Dark glinting eyes the colour of the Pacific just before dusk.
Even that tremendous collection of visual stimuli wasn't enough to stop the laws of physics. Chelsea had no choice but to reach out and grab him by two handfuls of his suit jacket to stop herself from going completely head over heels.
He instinctively slid both arms around her middle, slowing her momentum until she came to a complete stop. Upright, or almost, considering her legs were twisted, she clung. Bodily against him. Her breasts pressed into his chest. Her stomach hard against the zipper of his trousers. Her shaky right knee clamped snug between both of his. She knew enough about the shape of him that in some cultures they'd be considered betrothed.
She curled her fingers gently beneath a lapel or two. His suit felt really nice. Expensive. The fabric was soft and warm. And it smelled so good. Like falling leaves and crisp fresh air. At least she assumed it was the suit. Maybe it was just him.
When time finally caught up with her, the surrounds of the restaurant swarmed in. Clinking cutlery. Tinkling laughter. Steam from the kitchen. The feel of his long thin wallet beneath her knuckles and next to his heart. And the intermingling whisper of the pair of them breathing heavily.
'Are you okay?' he asked. His voice was husky. Deep. It rumbled through her hands and into her chest until it found a home deep within her stomach. She gave into the need to lick suddenly bone-dry lips.
'Hey,' he rumbled again, and tucked a finger beneath her chin, lifting her gaze to his face as he repeated, 'Are you okay?'
His skin was unblemished and evenly tanned, his eyes so blue it hurt, and he truly smelled beautiful, like the rainy autumn day she'd left outside. All that glowing, carefree perfection made him as tempting as the yummiest forbidden fruit. But this gal had already eaten away her lip-gloss, her clothes were a decade old, and she smelled like wet dog and mothballs. Thus forbidden fruit would never be hers to have.
She slowly let her grip abate.
'I'm fine,' Chelsea said. 'Dandy, in fact. Embarrassed, but there seems to be no permanent damage to the patch of carpet my boots did their best to take on. It could have been worse.'
'True,' he said. 'If there'd been a dessert cart in the vicinity we would very quickly have become a scene out of a Pink Panther film.'
Her cheeks twitched in amusement. 'Can't you imagine a barrage of chocolate cream pies flying through the air and landing on that table of coiffed princesses until they are dripping in pearls and chocolate sauce?'
The man's eyes darted sideways to the table of women who had been eyeing Chelsea as she had walked in. And he said, 'It would certainly have added a dash of sunshine to such a drab morning.'
As he smiled at her some more, his eyes now twinkling, his toothpick twirling as though behind his teeth his tongue was hard at work, Chelsea's stomach felt unnaturally hollow. And she didn't think it had all that much to do with hunger for food.
She smiled back, all lips, no teeth, and then proceeded to disentangle herself as elegantly as she could manage. But once she'd let go she discovered she'd scrunched up his lovely suit lapels something awful. She spent a good ten seconds flattening them out, running her hands along the soft wool, which did little to hide the hard body beneath.
'Though I'm not sure I could handle any more sunshine than I have right now,' he said, his voice ever deeper, and so close she could feel the air of every word brush against her fast-warming cheek.
She bit. 'And why's that?'
'I've never before had a woman fall for me quite so quickly. Usually I count on an introduction and a little flirtation before the sunshine part.'
She glanced up into his eyes again. Deep. Absorbing. Blue as the heavens. He was pure charm. And she had the distinct feeling he knew it. Which meant he also knew she was no longer hanging onto him for balance.
She stopped her fussing and said, 'One little hint? Next time you're looking to land yourself a girl, don't bother with the chair. Props are for amateurs.'
His playful smile faded until it was no more than a glimmer in his eyes. He breathed in through his nose, she felt it in the swell of his chest, and then realised that to all intents and purposes she was still feeling the guy up. She gave his lapels one last tug, then said, 'Now nobody will know I was ever here.'
He removed the toothpick and with his deep voice so low only a person a mere breath away would be able to hear him he said, 'I'll know.'
His words slid through her, hot, liquid, and unimpeded by any kind of sense or self-defence. In a stab of unadulterated desire it occurred to her that if she slanted her head an inch, two at the most, she could find out if his smiling lips tasted anywhere near as good as they looked.
She took an abrupt step back and bumped his table hard enough his full latte glass rocked mercilessly and sloshed a gulp or two over the edge. Mr Suit and Tie leapt for the glass and caught it just before it tilted all the way over.
Free of his autumnal scent, his magnetic gaze, and the pleasure of luxurious wool, Chelsea slid out of his gravitational pull. 'That's my cue to leave before I accidentally set you on fire.'
'No, wait,' he said, putting the glass back on the table, and patting down the polished wood with a napkin.
But she hitched her handbag higher onto her shoulder, and then eased around him and hurried to join her sister on the other side of the restaurant.
Kensey stood, kissed her cheek. 'Tell me you got his phone number,' were the first words out of her mouth.
Chelsea dumped her bag beneath the table, sat, then threw her hands over her face, cooling her hot cheeks with her freezing palms. 'And when was I meant to have done that in between throwing myself in his arms and knocking over his drink?'
'What's your number, honey?' Kensey said. 'You can find time between anything for four such important words. Especially for such a specimen as that one.'
Chelsea came out from behind her hands to glare at her sister. 'And this from a married woman.'
'You're comparing Greg to that?'
Chelsea glared some more. 'Don't you dare intimate Greg isn't the best thing that ever happened to you.'
Greg with his thinning hair and thickening middle wasn't Chelsea's type, but every time she saw the two of them together it only reminded her she shouldn't be so picky. Kensey and Greg were mad for one another while she didn't have any man who'd take her hand as they walked down the street, whose shoulder she could lean on at the movies, to hold her when she fell asleep.
'How do you think a girl gets herself married these days?' Kensey asked. 'It takes putting herself on the shop shelf to begin with.'
'I like dating,' Chelsea said. 'Especially men with muscles and dark eyes and all their teeth. I'm on the shelf.'
'Right. With a big Do Not Feed the Animal sign slung around your neck. One sideways glance at another woman, one bounced cheque, one hint he might have feet of clay and you bite the hand that fondles you. Whereas that creature over there is so-o-o on the shelf fluorescent lights aim towards him wherever he goes.'
Chelsea scoffed, then twisted to sling her cropped jacket over the back of her chair and spared a glance back through the restaurant to the man in question. He was standing talking to another guy in a suit. One hand was pushing his jacket back as he searched his trouser pocket, revealing an expanse of neat white business shirt stretched just tight enough across a broad chest to make it difficult to look away.
Like the first wisp of smoke heralding a coming fire, a thread of longing curled through her stomach. Her fingernails dug patterns into her palms as she imagined tearing open that flawless expensive starched white shirt until the buttons popped off.
She blinked hard at the ferocity of her reaction. It wasn't as though she didn't come in contact with any number of good-looking men every day of her life. Her job gave her a veritable platter to choose from. Nice men, responsible men, men who loved dogs, men who were well and truly within her comfort zone.
In the past couple of months there had been an Alsatian owner who was also a plumber. Cute. Brawny. He'd unblocked her pipes in the shop but not in any other way worth mentioning. She'd let him go when he'd let on he loved betting on the greyhounds. Then there'd been the Bijon Frise owner, a single dad who only had the dog as he'd inherited it in his divorce along with the kids every second weekend. She'd let him go when he'd cried watching a long-distance phone ad. And the consultant with the matching set of fox terriers called Mitsy and Bitsy. She'd turned him down after one dinner for obvious reasons.
But comparing those dating experiences with three minutes spent looking into a pair of Pacific blue eyes made her wonder briefly if responsibility, sense, and comfort were all they were cracked up to be. Mr Suit and Tie and Flirty Look in the Eye made her hanker for fire, flash, flare, electricity, excitement, heat, danger, no care for the consequences