Unlocking the Millionaire's Heart, page 12
She swivelled in a circle and decided she didn’t look too bad. The alternative was not to use the pool at all. Shoulders squared, she splayed her fingers at her image and left the room.
* * *
Keyed up with anticipation, and needing to expend nervous energy, Nate powered up and down the length of the pool, checking for Jemma at every end.
Her appearance was worth every second of the wait, and he was grateful for the distance of the pool between them, and for the fact that only his head and shoulders were above water as his body immediately reacted to the perfection of hers.
A shade lighter than her eyes, the blue swimsuit moulded her breasts and shaped her alluring curves, drawing his attention to enticing thighs and shapely legs. He trod water, fighting for breath, his heart jolting as she balanced on the pool’s edge and raised her arms. Lord, what he wouldn’t do for a camera right now.
Her smooth dive shook what little equilibrium he had left, and with each stroke bringing her nearer he wavered between catching her in his arms and striking out past her to the other end. In the end he kicked to the metal ladder, grabbed it and waited, fascinated by the coiled knot of her hair dipping into the water at each turn of her head.
She executed a faultless turn, then twisted to swim back and hold onto the edge, breathing evenly, her shining eyes and radiant smile directed at him.
‘I am now officially envious of you. This would be a perfect way to start any day—or, like now, to ease muscles stiff from sitting and typing.’
He had another way in mind, but refrained from voicing it, not wanting to diminish the moment.
He dog-paddled over to her. ‘A tiled hole full of water impresses you more than everything else?’
‘I have almost everything else—in a more economical price range, of course. You have top-range. I’m enjoying every moment, and I aspire to the comforts, but this is extra-special. One lap and I feel refreshed and alive.’
That’s how I feel watching you swim, looking at you now.
‘You’ve had lessons? That was a spot-on turn.’
‘In my early teens, with a friend. She made the team and I got toned and fit.’
‘I noticed.’ He couldn’t hold back his grin as his eyes followed the rise of her blush from her cleavage to her forehead.
She retaliated to his teasing, taking him by surprise. Placing her hands on his shoulders and pushing herself upwards, she thrust him under the water before sprinting away. He came up sputtering and followed, passing her halfway along. An easy flip-turn and he surfaced in front of her, forcing her to stop or crash into him.
She saw him and backed away. Pity... He might have had an opportunity to hold her.
‘You wanna play, Jemma?’
‘No.’ She feigned innocence. ‘I want to keep fit. How many laps have you done so far?’
‘Wasn’t counting. How do you get all that hair into that small knot?’
‘Practice. You’re in my way, Nate.’
‘My apologies, ma’am.’
He dipped his head and moved aside, liking the fact that she was more at ease with him than she’d ever been. If this was what it took, he was prepared to swim any time of the day.
* * *
Jemma slowed her pace, her movements automatic, her body acutely conscious of Nate whenever he swam past, her mind recalling the strength of his muscles under her palms. And the invitation in his eyes as he’d asked if she wanted to play. She couldn’t believe she’d dared to dunk him.
She lost count of her laps and stopped at the far end for a moment, taking deep breaths. He flicked her a grin as he turned, the force of his leg-thrust sending him a fair way underwater before he surfaced. She counted three powerful arm swings, then took off again.
As they passed his fingers brushed against her and she faltered, almost going under. Trying to ignore the tingles dancing over her skin, she turned at the end, wondering if it had been accidental or if he’d repeat the action.
Instead he caught her by the arm, pulling her to a halt, reactivating the sensation. His other arm slid around her waist, supporting her, holding her captive. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t find her breath, and he wasn’t immune. His chest was heaving for the first time since she’d entered the pool. Desire darkened his grey eyes and a yearning to wrap her arms around his neck flared inside her.
With a sudden shake of his head he refocussed, his raspy tone betraying how much he’d been affected.
‘I’m heading out at the end of this lap. Take as much time as you like.’
A gentle caress of her cheek and he swam away, leaving her to scramble for the poolside and hang on. She watched his progress to the ladder, and if she hadn’t still had that hand grip as he stepped up she’d have sunk as mind and body went to mush.
From shoulders to calves he was sculpted like an athlete, his taut, trim and tanned image broken only by leaf-green swimming briefs. He was temptation plus, glistening with water sheen, drops flying around him like diamonds as he shook his head.
Her mouth gaped and then dried up. She couldn’t breathe, and if her heart beat any faster she thought it might implode. As he began to turn towards her, hand raised to wave, she pushed off, ducking her face into the pool, not wanting him to see her gawking at him.
Three laps later she climbed out, wrapped herself in a towel from the nearby shelf and went to her room. She neither heard nor saw Nate on the way.
Showered and dressed, she went onto her balcony for a few quiet moments to prepare herself for another editing session. There was a light breeze through the treetops, and the distant hum of traffic on the road and an occasional bird call were the only sounds. Heaven. She leant her head against the pillar and blanked the rest of the world out.
‘Next week at the earliest.’
Nate’s voice floated up from the veranda, startling her into the present.
There was silence for a moment, then, ‘Nothing that I wouldn’t leave to come if you need me, Tess. You know that.’
Jemma backed slowly away from the rail into her room and shut the door, wishing she hadn’t overheard.
Nothing he wouldn’t leave? What about his declaration of ‘the sooner we finish the amendments the better’?
It wasn’t until she was in bed, mulling over the events of the day, that she recalled him mentioning a Tess once before, during his phone call at Circular Quay. From his tone, she had to be a friend... Not her business.
She fell asleep, waking early from muddled dreams of hot encounters in foreign places and tender caresses in cool oases.
* * *
On being awoken by the sun she went straight to the pool, and Nate joined her after his run. After that, apart from breaks—one of which Jemma spent walking—they worked solidly through the day.
Watching some recorded news after dinner, Jemma realised he always fast-forwarded through any items involving terrorist action or the military.
Did they trigger bad memories? How many of the scenes he’d written had he witnessed? He showed no sign of traumatic stress, but then he’d hardly share personal information like that with her.
* * *
Saturday was a repeat of Friday up until mid-afternoon, when Nate came out onto the veranda, where she was working, wearing grey trousers and a green polo shirt. Fashion-magazine-elegant. His mobile lay loose in his hand.
‘We have an invite from my friend Grant for dinner tonight. He and his wife, Susie, own a hotel in town. If you want to go in now, we can have a stroll around first. There’s a couple of great bookshops you might like.’
She knew—had seen the websites when she’d researched Katoomba and hoped for a chance to visit them. Without hesitation she logged off, stood up and began to collect her belongings.
‘Leave that to me. You go freshen up and change. It’s casual and friendly.’ He gave her a smile no red-b
His grey eyes twinkled, and if he’d been trying for severity in his voice he’d failed. The words sounded cajoling, seductive, as if he were suggesting more than a meal with friends.
A sense of excitement accompanied her up the stairs.
* * *
Nate, after admiring the view, took her computer and other paraphernalia inside and closed the drapes. He put food and water out for the kitten, and talked to her as if she understood.
‘Am I losing the plot, Scamp?’ She rubbed against his leg and he picked her up. ‘Three weeks ago I was prepared to work from dawn to dusk to get these rewrites done. And I expected, or hoped, that she’d put in good hours too.’
Now he found himself thinking that they were going too fast. At this rate they’d finish within his two-week stipulation, and he’d have no excuse to go to Hahndorf. They’d have a contract tie and, assuming Brian did a deal for them, there’d be publisher’s revisions to do. But she might not be involved with them, and it wouldn’t be the same as working together.
He determined to spend some extra time on the storyline he was writing for her romance, and then...
He hadn’t heard a sound, and yet he knew she was there. He spun round, clutching Milly to his chest, and recognised the blue patterned top from their first meeting, now teamed with blue trousers and black low-heeled shoes.
Her beauty caught his breath in his throat, and quickened his pulse as she turned from closing the stair gate to face him, dark blue eyes sparkling and red lips begging to be kissed.
Wishful thinking, Thornton. Cool down and get a grip.
‘I’ve got two minutes to spare. Shall I go back up?’
The gentle taunt in her tone was rousing, causing his stomach to tighten.
‘No.’ It came out blunt and harsh, and she halted halfway across the space between them, eyes blinking in disbelief.
‘Sorry. Let’s settle Scamp and we’ll head off.’
Eyes flashing, she took Milly from him, cradling the kitten to her body, sending his body into overdrive, and slapped her hand on his chest.
‘Her name’s Milly, Nate Thornton. Don’t you dare teach her to answer to any other name or...’
‘Or you’ll revert to calling me Mr Thornton? Can’t be having that, can we, Milly?’ He tickled her ears and she purred. ‘See—she likes my touch.’
He’d looked up at Jemma, and their eyes met as he spoke. If his had widened and darkened to the same awareness as hers they could be in trouble. Were they on the same wavelength? Imagining his hands caressing her body with gentle strokes?
Hell, now he was thinking the way she wrote. The sharp tug in his gut told him they’d better get out of here—now.
‘Ready to go?’ And he was sounding as raspy as she claimed his hero would when interacting with his heroine.
Unless he felt they were warranted, he didn’t do explanations. With Jemma, he couldn’t justify walking away unless she understood. By the end of their stint here she’d probably know his inner self better than Sam or his best mates. But not the deep stuff—not the dark side that kept him from bonding with women, the hard, frozen core preventing him truly trusting again.
He gave a self-justifying grunt as they approached the SUV and he activated the locks. She had personal issues not for sharing too.
Pausing for a moment with one hand on the driver’s door, he swiped the other across his mouth, then gave a wry grin. He was sliding on ice and had no inclination to jump off.
* * *
‘Alice got a grey kitten for her sixth birthday and named her Rosebud...’
They were on the road to Katoomba and it was the first time either had spoken since her blunt ‘okay’ to his curt question.
The straightening of her body and her head-turn in his peripheral vision told him he had her interest.
‘I mean, fair go—what did she expect from Sam and I? No way were we going to call that out when we went looking for her in the garden.’
He heard a stifled sound, suspiciously like a giggle, and glanced sideways to see one hand trying to smother her laugh and a sparkle in her eyes.
‘So you dubbed her Scamp? I trust Alice got revenge.’
‘Oh, yeah—with interest—a year or so later. He was an Alsatian Labrador cross, big and butch and a great guard dog. While we were out after school and on the weekends, she taught him to answer to Snookums.’
Her unrestrained laughter delighted him, and he took mock umbrage.
‘Hey, do you have any idea how mortifying it is to have your mates see the dog you’ve built up as a fearsome protector race off in answer to such a sooky name?’
By the time he’d described how they’d bribed Alice, persuaded their friends not to tell, and reinstated Wolfhound as the only name the dog should respond to they were in town and entering the car park behind his mate’s hotel.
He parked, glanced at the names on the two texts that had come through on the journey in, then put his phone into his pocket. He saw Grant was busy behind the bar, so he signalled that they’d be back and led Jemma onto the street.
* * *
Jemma usually loved browsing alone through bookshops, reading the blurbs on new or used novels of assorted genres, and also in second-hand emporiums, inspecting items for collector friends’ birthdays or her own home. So why the hollow sensation in her stomach when Nate stopped at the corner, telling her he had to answer his messages?
‘One’s a client who wouldn’t text unless he has genuine concerns, so I’m not sure how long it’ll take. I’ll catch up with you. Enjoy yourself—and remember we can pick up anything heavy or too big to carry later.’
He took advantage of a gap in the traffic and crossed the road.
She had no right or reason to complain—he’d told her where the bookshops were and given her freedom to wander at will. It was her own fault that she’d let herself look forward to his opinion on anything she might like.
With a sudden change of mind, she walked down a side street, intent on a different shopping trip.
An hour or so later, cheered up by her purchases, she was near the same corner, on the other side of the main street, debating whether to call Nate or stop for a drink alone. Her decision was made at the sight of him through a café window, still talking on his mobile.
His expression pulled her up short, and then had her racing past, praying he didn’t look up and see her. That tender expression on his face had torn at her heart, reviving memories of her ex’s ability for deception.
She circuited the block, disappointed at herself, and at the speed she’d judged him without justification. He was close to his parents and his siblings—it could be any one of those. Most likely his mother or sister. He owed her no emotional loyalty, and she had no right to expect any.
The café was not far ahead now, and she moved to the kerb, ready to cross over and check from the other side. Her ringtone sounded as she looked to the left and she spotted him, phone to his ear, facing away from her.
She walked towards him, steeling herself to be cool and calm.
NATE SWIVELLED AS she came up behind him, his lips beginning to curl into a smile, then falling open as his gaze flitted from the bags in her hands to her face, and back. Twice.
‘Someone having an irresistible “going out of business” sale? No sensible offer refused?’
There was genuine laughter in his tone, and her misgivings slid back to the deep, deep place they’d held for the last few years. She smiled, pleased there was no tension between them.
‘I’ve written a novel—even if it’s not publishable at the moment—and I have a contract to help revise yours to that status. I deserve to splurge on new clothes. So I did.’
He tucked his hands
‘Do I get a fashion parade when we get home?’
He arched his eyebrows like an old movie villain and laughter bubbled up inside her—followed by a sobering image of her sister on a catwalk. She’d never compete with her—wouldn’t try—but the pain from this acknowledgment was less than usual.
‘No, I’m not a model.’
‘But you’re beautiful, and every inch a woman. Let’s put these bags in the car and have dinner. Maybe if I ply you with expensive wine you’ll change your mind.’
Maybe it was his sincere compliment, or maybe she was happy with her new clothes. Or maybe it was purely the brush of his skin against hers as he took the bags from her that sent ripples of electricity across her skin.
One or all of them had her wishing with fervour that he’d take her hand and keep it in his as they strolled to his vehicle.
* * *
Jemma dozed on the way home, mentally tired from the day’s revisions, her impulsive purchasing spree and staying up late talking to Grant and his wife, Susie. They and Nate shared the kind of close bond she had with Cloe and Mike, but they’d ensured she was included in the conversation.
Her sleepy thoughts churned through the comments Nate had made about his family, the group he belonged to in Sydney and his friends in the Blue Mountains. Did he keep them in isolated pockets of his life? Would they intermingle when he became a successful author? That he would had never been in doubt as far as she was concerned.
She would be an interlude for him. They’d finish the book, he’d help her with her basic storytelling and then learn to write his own personal scenes. She’d resume her solitary life in the Adelaide Hills.
She sighed, only realising it had been out loud when he spoke.
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