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Waves lapping on a silver-sanded beach
A warm breeze sighing through palm trees
Or how about, a wide blue sky filled with marshmallow puffs of pure white cloud
Nope. No good.
Bella Lawrence's eyes snapped open and she bit her lip, focusing hard on the dainty French wirework chandelier currently under the auctioneer's hammer. There was absolutely no point in trying to think calm thoughts at the moment; not while her heart was beating at roughly twice its normal speed and her hands were slick with sweat.
Not while she could still feel his eyes on her.
She wasn't sure when he'd come in, only that he hadn't been there when she'd taken her place at the start of the auction. She'd felt a growing awareness of heat on her skin and a tingling sensation in the pit of her stomach, and when she'd turned her head he'd been there. Looking.
Maybe she had lipstick on her teeth
Sweeping her tongue nervously across them, she allowed herself another very swift glance from under her eyelashes, and felt her stampeding pulse rocket again. He was standing by the wall, making no attempt whatsoever to look interested in the rapid-fire voice of the auctioneer or the bids criss-crossing the crowded room. There was a compelling stillness about him that made her long to lift her head and gaze at him openly, letting her eyes linger on the breadth of his shoulders and the hard planes of his lean, tanned face. She needed to look at his mouth too, she thought desperately, staring hard at the chandelier. At first glance it had looked almost indecently perfectthe deeply indented upper lip sloping steeply upward from a full, sensual lower onebut she knew that if she looked again she might not be able to drag her eyes off him.
Maybe she knew him from somewhere?
Ha. Like she wouldn't remember a face like that.
Taking a deep, steadying breath Bella twisted her rolled-up auction programme between her hands and tried to redirect her thoughts, as the expensive therapist her brother Miles had insisted on finding for her had urged her to do. When she felt her emotions running high, threatening to overwhelm her, she was supposed to think of something calming. Obediently she tried the beach thing again.
He was still looking at her.
Surreptitiously she untucked her short bobbed hair from behind her ear and let it swing forward over her face in a dark curtain, shielding her from the impassive scrutiny of his stare. The problem was silver-sanded beaches were such a clich , and if she ever found herself on one she'd no doubt be bored to tears. There had to be some difference between feeling calm and feeling half dead with boredom, didn't there?
It was a question she had asked herself repeatedly in the last five months.
Bella shifted restlessly on the hard auction room chair and unfurled her programme. Two lots to go. The wire work chandelier was dismissed in a crack of the gavel and an earthenware confit jar took its place. If she leaned forward she could just catch a glimpse of the porter waiting at the edge of the room, carrying a large, heavily framed painting. The painting that in a few minutes would hopefully be hers, and then she could leave the stuffy, overcrowded room and the unsettling
arousing stare of the stranger.
Which, she had to remind herself sternly, would be a good thing.
She fixed her eyes on the painting, trying to focus on the greyish rectangle of the house against its backdrop of green anything to stop herself turning to look again at the man. This picture was completely and without a doubt the perfect present for Grandm re, and by bringing Bella to the auction rooms the very week that it had come up for sale it seemed that fate, for once, was on her side.
Although, actually, believing in fate was another habit she was supposed to be giving up. The expensive therapist said that it was important that she started to take responsibility for her own actions and reactions instead of blaming vague outside forces like fate or destiny. Or horoscopes. She sighed. It wasn't easy. In fact in her darker moments she worried that all those things she was trying to give up weren't so much habits as personality traits. Parts of herself.
What would be left afterwards?
The gavel dropped on the jar and Bella sat up. This was it. With a renewed sense of purpose and determination she kept her gaze averted from the dark stare of the stranger and focused all her attention on the auctioneer.
'Lot four-six-five,' he announced in a bored voice, as if he wasn't about to sell a momentous piece of Bella's family history. 'Charming amateur oil on canvas of a beautiful French manor house. Who'll start the bidding at twenty pounds?'
There was a shuffling of feet on the front row. A woman with dyed red hair raised her hand wearily.
'Twenty pounds at the front here. Thirty with you, sir
A rapid flurry of bids followed, raising the price to ninety pounds. Since leaving art college and going to work for Celia in her Notting Hill antique shop Bella had become something of an expert at auction tactics, and knew to wait for the right moment before joining the bidding. It came a second later when the auctioneer asked for a hundred pounds and the woman in the front row shook her head.
'A hundred pounds anywhere?'
Decisively, Bella raised her hand.
She was immediately outbid by a dealer she recognised two rows in front of her.
'One hundred and twenty?' asked the auctioneer. Bella nodded, and could have shouted with elation when she saw the dealer give a cursory shake of his head as the auctioneer upped the bid.
'One hundred and twenty pounds then, with the dark-haired young lady. Going once at one hundred and twenty
Bella thrust her hands into the pockets of her black linen jacket and crossed her fingers so tightly that it hurt. She couldn't afford to go much higher.
Just get on with it
she begged silently.
'For the third and final' The auctioneer broke off in surprise. 'Sir? Just in time, thank you. That's one hundred and thirty pounds from you, sir?'
Bella didn't have to look to know who had made the bid.
Somehow she just managed to bite back the extremely un-calm shriek of frustration that sprang to her lips. Glaring down at the floor, she uncrossed her fingers and balled them into tight fists. There was no point in resorting to superstitious good luck charms in a situation like this.
This called for a skilful combination of bluff and bravery.
Tipping her head back she resisted the temptation to turn and fix the man with a death stare, instead focusing all her attention on assuming an attitude of supreme confidence, tinged with a hint of bored irritation. She'd seen this happen before. Utter insouciance was key. She had to look as if she was buying at any price; as if she was the kind of woman who was used to getting what she wanted.
Fortunately, there was no time to dwell on the bitter irony of that.
Was that really her voice? Excellent. She actually sounded as if she knew what she was doing, and the realization brought a small smile to her face.
The moment of euphoria was very short-lived; his response was instant.
Feeling her mouth fall open in helpless and no doubt deeply unattractive outrage, Bella couldn't stop her head from being pulled round in the direction of his voice. It was low and husky and completely indifferentin fact, everything she had intended to convey herself, only genuine. He was looking straight at her.
She felt herself stiffen as her eyes locked with his.
'Miss? Do I have two ten?'
For a second Bella had forgotten about the auctioneer. And the picture. In fact, in that moment she would have been hard pushed to remember her own name. The man's eyes were dark incredibly darkand even at this distance she could detect a dangerous glitter in their depths. As she stared at him she saw one of his eyebrows move upwards a fraction. Questioningly. Challengingly.
'Two ten with the'
Bella closed her eyes for a second as the man's voice cut through the auctioneer's patter. He said the words quietly, almost apologetically, as if her defeat was a foregone conclusion. But there was boredom and an edge of impatience there too, and she sensed that he wanted this whole business over and done with as quickly as possible.
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. It was futilethat much was obvious from the impeccable cut of his dark suit and the indefinable aura of wealth that enveloped him like expensive cologne. But his palpable indifference caused a sensation like a thousand red-hot needles piercing her skin.
He'd barely even glanced at the painting. He couldn't want it as she wanted it. Which left the possibility that he was doing this just to annoy her, and two could definitely play at that game.
'Sir?' The auctioneer was flustered by this unexpected turn of events and his sudden loss of control. 'Is that three hundred and fifty-five?'
His mouth was quite incredible, she thought distractedly. It was a good thing his chin was exceptionally firm and square as his lips were so full and finely shaped they were almost feminine. As she watched they twitched into a smile which he quickly suppressed. It was as if he was enjoying some kind of private joke.
She felt as if she'd been hypnotized. Part of her mind remained aware, rational, firmly sceptical, while the rest of her threw off all inhibition and common sense and plunged into the thrill of the unknown without hesitation.
A ripple of interest ran through the room, like a sudden sharp breeze in a still summer field. Bella could feel eyes on her as people in the rows in front of her turned round to look. Only the man leaning against the wall remained supremely unruffled, his gaze fixed on hers, his face an impassive mask that was almost insolent.
Adrenalin burned and fizzed in Bella's veins. Tearing her gaze away from the stranger, she found the painting again. She had learned enough in the two years before she dropped out of her course at art school to be well aware that this was not an exceptional piecethere was a heavy-handed, painstaking quality about it that strictly limited its value. But it was the subject that mattered. This anonymous, half-forgotten painting depicted her grandmother's ancestral home. It was part of her heritage, and the thought filled her with renewed purpose.
'Five hundred and fifty.'
As if in slow motion she turned back to look at him, and saw his shoulders rise and fall slightly as he sighed. 'Six hundred.'
There was something mesmerising about his voice and the dark, dark eyes that never wavered from her face. Bella shivered. This wasn't about oil on canvas. Or cash. This was personal.
'Seven hundred and fifty.'
The numbers had no meaning. The rest of the room could have dissolved in a heap of ashes for all she cared. Darkness gathered and swirled in her head, and through it all she could see, all she was aware of, was the man standing a few feet away from her, his eyes searing into hers. She felt the colour rising into her cheeks and ran her tongue over lips that felt dry and oddly swollen. Suddenly she was unbearably hot, as if the blood in her veins had been heated slowly over a low flame.
Hastily she shrugged off her jacket, letting it fall onto the chair behind her and revealing the sober little black dress she wore beneath. She had lost all sense of time. Only the thud of her heart marked each passing second as she stared at him. His hair was dark too, an untamed halo of curls, like a knight crusader. Or a gypsy
Or a pirate. His mouth, she saw now, had a brutal sensuality about it that made her think of plunder, and was entirely at odds with the crisp perfection of his bespoke suit. The expression a wolf in sheep's clothing drifted though her dazed, distracted mind.
He lifted his head, tilting it back against the wall, but still his eyes pinned her to the spot like a butterfly in a case. Slowly, deliberately, hardly moving those beautiful lips, he spoke with a light foreign inflection that was straight from every clich d feminine fantasy, and he seemed to address her and her alone.
'One thousand pounds.'
Bella couldn't breathe.
'Miss?' The auctioneer's voice was stiff with surprise, and it seemed to be coming from a long way away. 'Any advance on one thousand? One thousand and ten?'
A terrible, languid recklessness stole through her. This must be what it felt like to jump from a plane, in the moment before the parachute unfurled: dizzying, terrifying, yet strangely peaceful. There was nothing to do but give in to the feeling, the irresistible pull of invisible forces beyond all control.
The painting was lost; that much was certain. There was no way she could compete. But there was more at stake now, and she wanted to push him just that little bit further, break through that infuriating, intriguing, madly provocative calm. She wanted to make him feel something. Even if it was only anger
Defiantly she met his gaze in a look of silent, brazen challenge.
'Yes. One thousand and five pounds.'
With an inner smile of triumph she waited for him to come back, upping the price. The room was very still.
'Sir? One thousand and ten?'
The stranger's eyes held her own, then with agonizing slowness travelled downwards. Her throat felt as if it was full of cement, and through the panicky darkness that gathered at the edges of her vision she thought she registered the slowly spreading smile on his lips. Then, as if from a great distance, through veils of horror and disbelief Bella saw him shake his head.
Her stomach tightened reflexively, as if she'd just been punched, and all the air was driven from her lungs in an instant. Her mouth opened in shock. Through the swirling haze of horror she was aware only of his eyes. Amusement and triumph shone in their dark depths.
'One thousand and five pounds, then.' The auctioneer's gavel hovered. 'All finished at one thousand and five
? Going once
With contemptuous grace the man levered himself up from the wall and stepped forward. His gaze was still locked on her, but suddenly all the amusement had gone from it.
'Second time at one thousand and five