In an attempt to pull them out of their dark thoughts, I joked about the utterly crap day I’d had at work. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights, I worked at Club 39. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during the day I worked as a personal assistant to Thomas Meikle, an accountant at Meikle & Young’s accountancy firm. Mr Meikle was a moody bastard and since ‘personal assistant’ was really just a posh word for ‘gofer’, I suffered constant whiplash from his colourful temperament. Some days were fine and we got along well enough; other days, like today, ‘I didn’t know my arse from my elbow’ – direct quote – and was utterly useless. Apparently my uselessness had hit a new record today: there hadn’t been enough sugar in his coffee, the girl at the bakery ignored my instructions to take the tomatoes off his sandwich, and I hadn’t mailed out a letter Mr Meikle had forgotten to give me. Thankfully, tomorrow was my day off from Meikle and his vitriolic tongue.
Braden once again tried to persuade me to leave Meikle and come to work part-time at his estate agency, but I declined to accept his help, just as I had refused Joss’s many offers of help in the past. Although I was grateful for the kindness, I was determined to always make my life work on my own. When you relied on people you cared about, put your trust in them with something huge like that, they inevitably disappointed you. And I really didn’t want to be disappointed by Joss and Braden.
Obviously feeling more persistent tonight, Braden was relaying the benefits of working for him. Suddenly I felt the hair on the nape of my neck stand on end. My muscles tensed and I turned my head slightly, Braden’s words becoming muffled as I checked out who or what had caught my notice. My eyes flickered across the room and then my breath hitched as my gaze paused on a guy who was staring at me. Our eyes met, and for some absolutely bizarre reason the connection felt physical, like acknowledging each other’s presence had actually locked me in place. I felt my heart rate pick up, the blood rushing in my ears.
There was a fair distance between us, so I couldn’t make out the colour of his eyes, but they were thoughtful and probing, his brow creased as if he was just as confused by the static between us as I was. Why had he caught my attention? He was not the kind of guy I usually responded to. Aye, he was pretty good-looking. Messy dark blond hair and sexy stubble. Tall, but not as tall as Malcolm. This guy was probably six feet tall and no more. I would stand a few inches taller than him in the heels I wore tonight. I could see the muscles in his biceps and the thick veins on his arms because the idiot was wearing a T-shirt in late winter, but he wasn’t built like the guys I dated. He wasn’t broad and beefy. He was lean and sinewy. Mmm, ‘sinewy’ was a good word for it. And did I mention the tattoos? I couldn’t tell what they were, but I could make out the colourful ink on his arm.
I didn’t do tattoos.
When his eyes lowered under their lashes, I inhaled at the shock-like feeling that jolted through me as his gaze travelled down my body and back up again. I felt like squirming, overwhelmed under his flagrant perusal, though usually, if a guy checked me out like that, I would just smile back flirtatiously. The moment his eyes came back to my face, he offered me one last searing look – a look that I felt like a callused caress down my body – and then dragged his gaze away. Feeling dazed and decidedly turned on, I watched him stride off behind one of the art walls that divided the gallery into sections.
‘Who was that?’ Joss’s voice broke through my fog.
I blinked and turned back to her with what I imagined was a stupefied look on my face. ‘I have no idea.’
Joss smirked. ‘He was hot.’
A throat cleared behind her. ‘What was that?’
Her eyes twinkled mischievously, but when she turned to face her scowling partner she had schooled her expression into one of innocence. ‘I meant from a purely aesthetic point of view, of course.’
Braden grunted but pulled her tighter into his side. Joss grinned back at me and I couldn’t help but smile. Braden Carmichael was this no-nonsense, straight-talking, intimidating businessman, and yet somehow Jocelyn Butler had managed to wrap him around her pinkie.
I think we stood there for about an hour, drinking the free champagne and discussing everything under the sun. Sometimes I felt intimidated when the two of them were together because they were so intelligent and knowledgeable. I rarely felt I had anything profound or interesting to add to the conversation, so I just laughed and enjoyed them teasing the hell out of each other. When I was by myself with Joss it was different. I knew Joss better than I knew Braden, so I was confident that she would never want me to feel like I had to be anybody other than myself. It was a nice change of pace from the rest of my life.
We chatted with some other guests, trying not to seem confused by their enthusiasm for the art, but after an hour Joss turned to me apologetically. ‘We have to go, Jo. I’m sorry, but Braden’s got a really early meeting tomorrow.’ I must have shown my disappointment because she shook her head. ‘You know what? No, I’ll stay. Braden can go. I’ll stay.’
No. Absolutely not. I had seen myself through situations like this before. ‘Joss, go home with Braden. I’m fine. Bored. But fine.’
She gave my arm an affectionate squeeze and took Braden’s hand. He gave me a nod, and I returned it with a smile and a ‘Goodnight,’ then watched as they walked across the gallery to the clothes rail where all the guests’ coats were hanging. Like a true gentleman, Braden held Joss’s coat for her and helped her shrug it on. He kissed her hair before he turned to pull on his own coat. With his arm wrapped around her shoulders, he led her out into the cold February night, leaving me inside the gallery with an unfamiliar ache in my chest.
I glanced down at the gold Omega watch Malcolm had bought me for Christmas, and as always when I checked the time, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t sell it yet. It was possibly the costliest gift I’d ever received, and would do wonders for our savings. There was always the hope, however, that my relationship with Malcolm would turn into something more significant and selling the watch would no longer be an issue. But I never allowed myself to get my hopes too high.
It was nine fifteen. My pulse picked up a little and I riffled through my tiny fake Gucci clutch purse for my phone. No messages. Dammit, Cole.
I had just pressed SEND on a text message reminding Cole to call me as soon as he arrived home, when an arm slid around my waist and the woodsy, leathery smell of Malcolm’s aftershave filled my nostrils. Not needing to tilt my head back to meet his gaze since I was wearing my five-inch heels, I turned and smiled, covering my worry for Cole as our eyes met. I’d gone for sophisticated in the Dolce & Gabbana red pencil dress that Malcolm had bought for me on our last shopping trip. The dress showed off my trim figure to perfection. I loved it. I would be sad to add it to my eBay pile.
‘There you are.’ Malcolm grinned at me, his brown eyes bright as they crinkled attractively at the corners. He had a head full of lush, dark hair with a sexy sprinkling of grey at the sides. He wore suits all the time and tonight was no exception, the Savile Row tailoring exquisite. ‘I thought your friends were coming tonight or I wouldn’t have left you all alone.’
I smiled at that and placed my hand on his chest. ‘Don’t worry. I’m fine. They were here, but they had to leave early.’ I looked at the phone still curled in my hand – where was Cole? Little gremlins awoke in my stomach to nibble anxiously at my insides.
‘I’m buying one of Becca’s paintings. Come and pretend with me that it’s brilliant.’
I chuckled and then immediately felt bad, biting my lip to stall the sound. ‘I’m so glad I’m not the only one that doesn’t get it.’
His eyes darted around the room, his lips curled in amusement. ‘Well, thankfully these people know more about art than we do, so I’ll at least get a return on my investment.’
He kept his arm around me and guided me through the gallery and behind a couple of walls, where Becca stood under a huge monstrosity of splashed paintwork. I almost tripped over my own feet when I saw who she appeared to be arguing with.
‘You okay?’ Malcolm glanced down at me, frowning as he felt the tension in my body.
I smiled brightly. Rule number one: never let him see you as anything but positive and charming. ‘I’m great.’
Tattoo Guy was grinning at Becca, his hand on her hip, trying to pull her to him, his expression bordering on appeasing. Wilfully, I ignored the catch in my breath at the flash of his wicked white smile. Becca still looked a bit put out, but I totally understood when she stepped into his embrace. I thought any woman would have forgiven the bastard anything when he smiled at her like that.
Averting my eyes from Tattoo Guy, I followed Malcolm as he came to a stop and the couple turned to us. Becca’s cheeks were flushed pink, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. ‘Just ignore me and Cam. We’re just fighting because he’s an eejit.’
I didn’t look at him, but I heard him chuckle. ‘No, we’re fighting because we have different taste in art.’
‘Cam hates my artwork,’ Becca said with a huff. ‘He can’t be like other boyfriends and lie at least. No. Brutally honest, this one. At least Malcolm likes my work. Did Mal tell you he’s buying my painting, Jo?’
You’d think I’d be jealous of Malcolm’s obvious affection for Becca, and I know it sounds horrible, but until I saw her artwork I was a little jealous. I wasn’t exceptionally smart, I didn’t draw, I didn’t dance, I didn’t sing, I was just an okay cook … Thankfully, I was pretty. Tall with legs that went on forever, I’d been told countless times I had a good body and great skin. Combine those with huge green eyes, long, thick strawberry blonde hair, and delicate features and you were left with an attractive package – one that had been turning heads since I was a teenager. Aye, I didn’t have much, but what I did have, I used to my family’s advantage.
To know that Becca was cute and talented had worried me a little. Perhaps Malcolm would get bored of me and go back to her? Actually, though, Malcolm’s less-than-enthusiastic response to her artwork made me feel better about his relationship with her. Not that that made any rational kind of sense.
‘He did. Good choice.’ I smiled at him and I could tell he was dying to laugh. His hand slid from my waist down to cup my hip and I moved in closer to him, chancing a glance at my phone. Still nothing from Cole.
‘Jo, this is Becca’s boyfriend, Cameron,’ Malcolm suddenly said, and I drew my head up quickly to finally study the man I had been avoiding looking at for the last few seconds. Our eyes met and I felt that frisson of excitement ripple through me again.
His eyes were cobalt blue and seemed to be stripping me back to nothing as they perused me for a second time. I watched his gaze quickly flicker over me, noting Malcolm’s hand on my waist. I stiffened as Cameron took us in, drew some kind of conclusion about us, and slammed his expression shut with the hard pressing together of his lips.