Unlocking the Millionaire's Heart, page 15
As they drove onto the bridge Jemma placed her hand on his arm, pointing upwards. ‘I was up there, Nate, right on the top arch. Because of you.’
Her eyes sparkled and warmth spread from her touch. Would she now be receptive to other challenges?
‘About those other extreme activities, Jemma...?’
She laughed, reminding him of a bubbling mountain stream, making him wish they were on the way home, not heading out for the evening.
‘Uh-uh. I’m going to write my own list.’
‘Do I get an invite to join you?’
‘Do you want one?’
Her eyes, dark and teasing, were issuing a challenge no man could resist. He cradled her cheek in his hand and covered her sweet red lips with his, forcing himself to keep the kiss light and short. Later there’d be the ride home...to his big, welcoming bed.
* * *
Jemma thought she’d burst with happiness as Nate helped her from the cab. She craned her neck to stare at the high-in-the-sky restaurant she’d pointed to...was it only four weeks ago? It had been a life-changing month.
‘You remembered, Nate!’
‘Everything you’ve ever said to me, Jemma.’
Hand in hand, they walked inside to the allocated lift that sped them skywards in seconds, and she couldn’t hold back her, ‘Wow!’ of joyful surprise.
Nate had booked window seats which were facing inland when they arrived. The circular room was packed, and the hum of happy patrons filled the air. The revolution was slow and hardly noticeable unless they watched the view changing outside. The city light show seemed to go on for ever, broken only by intermittent dark patches of undeveloped land.
Jemma was entranced, and didn’t want to miss a single moment. ‘It’s fascinating. Utterly different to Windy Point.’
‘Better?’ Nate teased.
‘I’d never try to compare them—or your views in Katoomba. And you must have seen some unforgettable sights abroad?’
She had a brief glimpse of something dark in his eyes as he swung his head towards the window. It had gone when he turned back to greet the drinks waitress.
Once she’d left they had a quick scan of the menu, then he sent her to the impressive array of serve-yourself food. She did a full circuit before making her selection.
‘That’s all you’re having?’ His eyebrows arched at the small portions on the plate she’d brought to the table.
‘This time. There’s so many nationalities—too many choices for one visit. Oh, what’s that weird structure coming into view?’
They ate, talked and laughed. Nate’s knowledge of buildings and landmarks was surprising, considering the years he’d spent overseas. And there were so many intriguing designs and shapes that Jemma would have happily drawn out the meal even longer, and vowed to come back with Mike and Cloe on a special occasion.
In the taxi on the return trip Nate drew Jemma close and cradled her head on his shoulder. She sighed, and nestled deeper into his side.
‘Today was magic, Nate. A mere thank-you seems inadequate.’
He cupped her chin with gentle fingers, his eyes scanning her beguiling face and his body aching with anticipation of the night ahead. He couldn’t repress his rough growl of contentment as his lips settled over hers.
Later, with Jemma asleep by his side, he lay awake staring at the night sky, dark memories clouding his mind, activated by her innocent remark. Some sights were better left forgotten. There’d been no reason for them to surface—though his recent calls from Dave and Tess and thoughts of tomorrow’s meeting, might have activated them.
* * *
Sunday afternoon’s trip home was delayed by Mike and Cloe insisting Nate stay for coffee, rather than just taking off with Jemma. Knowing how fond they were of her, he didn’t mind, but he was eager to return to Katoomba, to spend what time they had left together away from noise and other people.
He’d missed holding her last night, needing the comfort she gave him. He’d opened up more with the support group than he ever had before during the evening—another small step forward. However, he was still light years from believing that one day the damage he carried would lessen.
His spirits lifted with every kilometre they drove towards his home. Accepting that she’d be leaving within days, he determined to make every minute count. Morning swims, talks on a variety of subjects as they walked and watching television curled together on his roomy couch would be enjoyable preludes to having her warm and loving in his bed at night.
The downside would come with the progress they made on the manuscript. Every chapter, every page, every word he accepted as printable would bring her departure closer. And the Melbourne trip seemed too far away, like having to count the days down to Christmas as a child.
* * *
The following Sunday afternoon, he went out to the veranda where she was working, knowing that being out here alone would never feel the same as it had two weeks ago. He hunkered down by her recliner and kissed her, savouring the moment, exhilarating in the passion she returned. He had trouble controlling his breathing when he raised his head.
‘How will I ever get any writing done without you?’
Her blue eyes clouded, intensifying his own regret that she’d be leaving soon.
‘Easier, I guess, without distraction.’ Brave words spoken with a tremble.
‘The most engaging, welcome distraction a man could wish for.’ He kissed her again, lifted her computer from her lap and placed it on the deck. ‘I have something for you.’
He handed her a blue folder, labelled on the front with her name. Inside was a wad of printed pages, with her book title as the heading.
‘I’ve expanded and hopefully improved your narrative. You can edit as you feed it in—I’ll email a copy to you now I’ve given this to you.’
Her reaction was as illuminating as a sunburst on an autumn day, blue eyes shining, skin glowing and a beaming smile that sent his pulse soaring.
‘How...? When did you manage...? I... Thank you, Nate.’ She ran her fingers over the cover as if it were long-sought-after treasure.
Her delightful fluster made the time spent skim-reading the paperback romances he’d taken from Alice’s collection in the Sydney apartment worth every tooth-grinding minute. Now, contrary to his own wishes, he had to bring them both down to earth.
‘Have you phoned Meg?’
Her smile faded and he couldn’t resist kissing her again—quick and light.
‘I feel the same, Jemma. Does she need you?’
‘She said she can manage, but...’
‘We said two weeks only. As things are you’ll be finished on Tuesday, and the only flight with pet allocation before the weekend is Wednesday morning. I don’t w—’
She pressed her fingers to his lips.
‘I know. You’d better book it before someone else takes the spot.’
He nodded, stood up, then hunkered down again.
This kiss was firmer, longer. Hungrier.
* * *
Jemma had always loved airports, with their sense of adventure, of jetting off to new and exciting places. Not today. Every muscle was taut with the effort not to break down, her eyes kept misting, threatening to flood with tears, and her heart hurt.
She refused to look at the clock—didn’t want to know how little time she had with Nate, who had his arms around her. He’d hardly been out of her sight today, hardly said a word on the drive from Katoomba—but then neither had she. Even Milly had been quiet, as if sensing their mood.
‘Jemma?’ His voice had never sounded so husky, as if choking in his throat.
She looked up, and her heart squeezed at the sad expression in his storm-grey eyes.
‘Hell, it’s gonna be a long two weeks.’
An eternity. During heart-wrenching talks they’d agreed
She’d serve in the shop, paint and begin merging his new text into hers.
There would still be too many empty hours.
The airline staff moved to the check-in point and the passengers began to line up.
Nate kissed her as if his life depended on holding her close, and didn’t pull away even when her flight was called.
She was the very last person to board.
NATE HAD NEVER been so frustrated in his life. Dressed and ready to go to the charity event, he paced the floor of the suite Jemma had booked at the venue complex months ago. His query as to why she wasn’t staying with her sister had received a succinct, ‘My parents do. I don’t.’
A week ago, he’d put her increasing edginess over the phone down to nerves due to the upcoming function. Now he was convinced of the fact. He’d gone to Hahndorf hoping to coax her into telling him what she feared. Instead she’d refused to discuss it, blaming her headaches on too much painting and typing.
Baloney—she loved creating her miniatures, had never had even a slight headache in the time they’d been together. But without knowing the exact problem he could only keep reassuring her that everything would be okay.
Brian’s email on Thursday, telling them he was in negotiations with a publisher, had perked her up, and they’d celebrated at a local restaurant. In the morning her tension had resurfaced.
He checked his watch, brushed a non-existent hair from his cuff and tried not to picture her staying here, or at any other hotel, with her ‘bachelor friend.’
Impatient to see her, he strode to the bedroom, pulling up short in the doorway.
His eyes focussed on the motionless figure by the window—the entrancing woman who’d somehow become part of his life. She’d teased and cajoled him into reframing so many scenes in his book, forcing him to re-evaluate the bad experiences he’d depicted. Making him a better author.
Stunning, so entrancingly feminine, she’d twined strands of her hair into a knot at the back of her head, but thankfully left the rest to flow down her spine, over the shimmer of silver blended with shades of blue and green moulding her slender form. The full-length gown had thin shoulder straps, and thankfully the only jewellery he could see was a watch on her left wrist.
His chest swelled with pride at being her chosen escort, his pulse raced at the prospect of holding her as they danced and his heart... His heart never wanted to let her go. His head still doubted his capacity to forget, forgive and fully trust.
He spoke softly, as steadily as his choked throat would allow, and held his breath as she turned toward him.
His world spun out of orbit, and not one of the thousands of words in his vocabulary came anywhere near to describing the emotion in that split second when their eyes met. That ticking of time when nothing was hidden and their souls were bared.
She blinked and it had gone, replaced by the insecurity that she denied was there. He walked across and caressed her cheek as lightly as he would a baby’s.
‘Enchanting. You leave me speechless, Jemma. I’ll be the envy of every man in the room.’
She dropped her head to break eye contact, and spoke in a whisper. ‘Not true, but thank you for the compliment.’
He growled in exasperation, tilted her chin up and stared into her dark blue eyes. They were wary and unsure. He knew nothing he said would change her mind-set at this moment. Instead he took the necklace and bracelet of interlaced gold strands from his pocket and held them up.
‘I figured these would suit any colour you wore. A gift for all you’ve given me.’
* * *
Jemma tried to say thank you through her strangled throat. If only she could open up and explain how it felt to live in someone’s shadow without sounding needy. She couldn’t, and in a few moments, he’d be able to compare for himself when she introduced him to Vanessa.
‘They’re lovely. Thank you, Nate.’
Breathy and overwhelmed, she trembled at the touch of his fingers as he fitted the necklace and caressed her arms. His soft kiss on her bare shoulder increased her longing to close the door and stay here. Alone with him.
She’d never be ready to walk into a roomful of elite society couples—especially tonight on Nate’s arm. His height, sculpted build and striking features, along with the comfortable ease with which he wore his black suit and bow tie, were going to draw the eyes of any available woman. And many who weren’t.
* * *
The reception area was ablaze with lights, reflecting the colours and sparking jewellery of the people queuing up to be greeted on their way in to the dining room. Jemma wished she could guide Nate to any line bar the one where her sister and brother-in-law held court. But better to get the introductions over now, when there was no time to stop and chat.
‘This way. I have to say hello to Vanessa and Anthony.’
He looked ahead, stared for what seemed like an eon, then faced her with a stunned expression.
‘You and she are sisters?’
Even though she’d believed herself ready for any comparison, she felt her world shatter. Over the years she’d become accustomed to similar remarks, but coming from him it cut deep. It took every ounce of fortitude she had not to flee the building, and to feign a smile and nod before taking a step nearer to the pain of introduction.
Jemma could never tell if Vanessa’s greetings were genuine or part of her social persona. She smiled, returned her sister’s hug and air-kiss, then clenched her stomach as she turned towards Nate.
‘My friend Nate Thornton. Nate—my sister, Vanessa, and her husband, Anthony Bradshaw.’
She saw Vanessa’s green eyes widen, and couldn’t bear to see Nate’s smile focussed on her, so moved quickly to greet Anthony. He was nice enough in his own way, but she believed both of them cared more about their social standing than the people they associated with in order to get there.
As the men shook hands the announcement for everyone to take their places at the dinner tables was made. Theirs was to the side and one row back, and the other eight guests were already seated. After an exchange of names Nate held her chair as she sat, brushing his fingertips down her arm before taking his place.
She smiled, joined in the conversation and ate the food placed in front of her, all the while wishing she’d never agreed to him coming, wishing she wasn’t here. And vowing never, ever to come again.
Throughout the meal and the inevitable speeches Nate found reasons to touch her arm, nudge her knee with his or murmur compliments in her ear. An ideal date—if he hadn’t also kept glancing with a puzzled frown towards Vanessa at the main table. That she understood. It was his tender attention to her that was puzzling. Unless he was maintaining a façade.
Tables emptied as the band began to play, and she half hoped, half dreaded his asking her to dance. He didn’t—just took her hand and drew her to her feet, his eyes saying he’d brook no refusal.
Ignoring convention, he held their clasped hands on his chest over his heart, and brushed her forehead with his lips. Overwhelmed by his innate strength and power, she breathed in musky vanilla and Nate and let the world fade away until there was only them and the music.
* * *
If anything, Nate’s exasperation had grown during the evening. He felt her tension dissipate as they danced, and berated himself for never making the time to dance before, but then relaxed and savoured the sheer joy of the way they fitted together and moved in harmony. He’d never been so in tune with anyone, and his avowed defences for protecting his heart were crumbling, leaving him exposed and vul
She took him to meet her parents and he liked them—though it was obvious within a few minutes that their world revolved around cooking and their restaurant.
Jemma had told him she always left as early as possible, so he was quite willing to go when she asked. The shadows round her eyes revealed her fatigue to him, though she’d sparkled for everyone else.
She left space between them on the way to their suite, and neither spoke, but as soon as he closed the door she turned to him, her features guarded.
‘I’m very tired, Nate, and I’d like to sleep alone tonight.’
He reeled back as if he’d been punched in the stomach.
‘Why? That’s no reason to shun me, Jemma. You know I’d never ask for anything you’re not willing to give.’
Her eyes flashed with anger, and if his own temper hadn’t been rising he’d have found it stimulating. She’d never shown this spirited side—not even when he’d baited her in Brian’s office.
‘No, you were brutally honest, and I was never in doubt over the terms of our relationship. Your page-turning text and my emotional scenes complement each other. We’ve each gained what we wanted, and I don’t regret a moment.’
‘That’s a damn lousy explanation, Jemma.’
He moved towards her and she backed away, breathing hard and fast. He stopped, hands clenching and splaying at his sides. What the hell had he done? What the hell had changed?
‘It’s all I can give. You wanted no commitment, no ties. That’s what you’ve got.’
She spun round and, before he could react, was in the bedroom with the door shut.
Pride stopped him from trying the handle and calling her name. Glaring at that barricade and raking his fingers through his hair didn’t give him any explanation. Neither did taking a cold shower and going over every action of the day.
Nothing eased the pain of her rejection, and there was no one he could call to talk it out. He could only pray he’d be able to fix it in the morning.
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