Unlocking the Millionaire's Heart, page 4
‘It’s so incredible—so powerful and strong.’
‘Walking up there is an entirely different experience. Keep it in mind for another visit.’
Swinging round, she bumped into his body as he stepped forward, pointing his finger to the top of the bridge. Her pulse surged as he caught her by the waist for support, and it didn’t ease off when he let go.
‘Not for me,’ she stated with emphasis.
His eyebrows rose and he grinned—a genuine magnetic smile, stirring butterflies in her stomach. Heat flooded her veins and her heart pounded. Such potency...she was glad he normally withheld it from her.
‘You’re toned and fit. What’s the problem? Fear of heights?’
He’d checked out her body? Fair was fair...she’d checked out his.
‘No, I just have no inclination to try anything I consider extreme.’
Or to become involved with the self-assured, super-confident men those activities attract.
‘Ah.’ He straightened his back and crossed his arms in mock umbrage. The quirk at the corner of his mouth and the gleam in his eyes belied his stance. A new personality was emerging—one that was engaging and amiable, much harder to keep at a distance. With luck it was only transient.
‘And that encompasses skydiving, mountain climbing and abseiling, huh?’
His words sounded deeper too, making the abrasion more appealing.
‘I’m not anti them. I can almost understand the compulsion to try them. But not the repeated temptation for disaster. Everyday life is challenging enough.’
‘Don’t you ever feel the need for an adrenaline rush?’
‘Mine come from seeing a koala with her new baby, or a rainbow appearing over the hills in a rainstorm.’
His soft chuckle evoked an alien feeling in her stomach, warm and exciting.
‘Oh, darling, you are so missing out on life.’
Her mood altered in an instant and she moved away towards the city. He walked by her side, seemingly oblivious to the word that had rendered her speechless and torn at her heart. It marked him as a man who used endearments as a matter of course, making them meaningless; it had been a habit of her ex.
Glancing at him, she caught his lips curling as if she’d amused him and the penny dropped. He’d listed the extreme sports he’d participated in, was prepared to risk his life for the so-called ‘rush’ she’d heard people rave about. Nothing they’d said had ever convinced her to try any, and she doubted reading about them—they had to be part of the action in his novel—would change her mind.
Was he even now classifying her as boring, doomed to fail in her attempt to revise some of the passages in his high-adventure book?
She stopped and swivelled to face him, square-on. ‘You’ve done all those activities?’
* * *
Nate couldn’t deny the accusation. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded. ‘Multiple times—plus a few others over the years, here and abroad.’
If they stayed in touch for a lifetime Nate figured he’d never get used to the way she breathed slow and even, her lips slightly parted and her eyes wide and focussed as they studied his face. It made him feel virile, yet vulnerable at the same time—a totally alien sensation.
Better she didn’t know that some of those activities had been to gain access to high-risk areas, following leads for stories. Others had been for the adrenaline rush—to prove he was capable of feeling after the sights he’d been exposed to had completely numbed all his emotions.
Racking his brain for something to divert her attention, he saw it over her shoulder. ‘Where does sailing qualify?’ he asked, gesturing towards the water.
She twisted to follow his gaze. A few yachts had emerged from under the bridge and were tacking from side to side, skilfully avoiding impact.
Moving to the mesh protection, she craned her neck to watch. ‘Mixed. My sister and brother-in-law in Melbourne own a yacht, and I’ve sailed with them. I love the wind in my hair, the smell of salt water and the sense of the ocean below us as we skim across the waves. Wearing life jackets. Ocean-racing in rough weather—like the Sydney to Hobart some years—is out.’
He’d bet any advance he might get on his book that she had no idea how captivating she looked: features animated, eyes sparkling and hands gesturing. Or how the inflections in her voice proved that she wasn’t immune to the thrill—no matter how much she said so.
NATE DIDN’T DO YEARNING, or hankering for unattainable dreams. So why did the image of him standing on a boat, his arms on either side of her, guiding her hands on the wheel as they sailed along the coast, imprint itself into his mind?
There had been no conscious thought to move nearer. Had he shifted? Or had it been she who’d taken a step? He’d swear there’d been an arm’s length between them a moment ago.
The uneven breaths he took filled his nostrils with her subtle aroma. Time froze. Sounds blurred. And Jemma’s face filled his vision. The strong-minded man he believed he was might have fought the urge to kiss her. Here, in this moment, there was no option and he bent his head.
With a shudder she jerked away, remorse replacing the desire in her eyes. Guilt and wanting warred for prominence inside him. Neither won nor lost, and his mind was blank of any words to appease her.
Her gulp of air was followed by a short huff—an unsuccessful attempt at a laugh. ‘I don’t go there very often. They have full social lives, and I have my work and commitments.’
It was an addition to her last statement, spoken as if those few special moments hadn’t happened.
She glanced towards the city, took a step that way, and his regret was heightened at seeing her effort to regain composure.
He fell into step beside her, leaving extra space between them and taking up the conversation where she’d finished.
‘In the Adelaide Hills? Apart from the firefighting trip, the only time I’ve been to South Australia was in my teens, when my family holidayed on the South Coast. Great beaches and surfing. My brother Sam, who’s with the air force at Edinburgh, reckons it’s a cool place to be stationed.’
‘I like it. Oh!’
She gasped and he turned his head in time to see a speedboat and a yacht come close to colliding.
‘Does that qualify as extreme?’ he asked as the vessels swung away from each other.
‘Only the attitude of whoever’s steering the motorboat.’
‘If the yacht’s skipper reports him he’s in trouble. If not, I hope he’s had a sobering scare.’
She didn’t reply, and he let the conversation lapse, thinking about their near-kiss and cursing himself for his moment of weakness. It might have screwed up any possible co-writing deal, and that was what this was about.
He presumed Jemma was a stay-at-home girl—painting and writing syrupy love stories, never taking any chances outside her comfort zone. But, no, not quite. It took guts and willpower to send a manuscript to a stranger for assessment and possible negative feedback.
Submitting had been his intention from the moment the characters and plot had first formed in his head. How long had Jemma dithered before pressing ‘send’? And why this strong attraction when there were gulfs of difference between them?
* * *
Jemma opted for a café with outdoor seating near the quay. She ordered a banana and caramel ice cream sundae and a glass of water—well-earned by all the walking she’d done today. Nate opted for sultana cake and coffee.
Having him hold the seat she chose, and adjust the umbrella to shade her, was flattering and she thanked him.
He sat on her left, shuffled along until their knees bumped, then pulled back. The contact sent a tremor up her leg, spreading to her spine. It didn’t seem to affect him at all.
He’d told her he’d run over the bridg
‘You run regularly? Apart from the bushfire training?’ An acceptable question as he’d initiated the topic.
‘I like to run or swim every day—sometimes both. There are some great hiking tracks near my home.’
His phone rang. He turned his head and held it to his left ear. She averted her gaze to allow him privacy, concentrating on the passing pedestrians.
‘Hi, Dave.’ He listened for a while. ‘No, we’re good. Tess will be there Saturday night, so we’ll arrange it then.’ A shorter pause, then he said goodbye and tapped her arm.
One side of his lips quirked as he peered over her shoulder ‘This looks positively evil, Jemma.
* * *
Leaning away to allow her dessert to be placed on the table, Jemma felt her eyes widen at its size. And Nate apparently found her dilemma amusing.
She flashed him a fake warning glare and then, with a honeyed tone, thanked the waitress and asked, ‘Could we please have an extra spoon for sharing?’
‘Of course. I’ll bring one out.’ She set Nate’s plate in front of him and walked away.
‘Don’t worry about your figure, Nate, you can always run over the bridge again.’
Her laughter slipped back into her throat as their eyes locked and the amusement in his slowly morphed into something deeper. Something perplexed and conflicted. Or was she transferring her own feelings?
He blinked, and she found herself facing the sombre features he’d shown at their initial introduction, as if he’d reverted to his distrust of her. How could he switch so fast? And why?
* * *
Nate’s jaw tightened and his stomach clenched as Jemma’s mirth abated and her eyes softened and glowed, mesmerising him. He’d allowed his guard to slip, had forgotten how easily a woman could deceive with her inviting glances and enticing lips.
He’d paid a life-changing price once, and wouldn’t ever risk the pain and humiliation again. This relationship must be kept casual and friendly—nothing more. Proximity had to be the reason for the desire Jemma aroused, and that would end when she returned home.
‘Water, a long black and another dessert spoon. Enjoy.’
The waitress broke the spell and was gone in the time it took him to refocus. Jemma bent over as she picked up a spoon, her long hair falling forward to hide her face. She didn’t brush it away.
They needed to set ground rules and fix boundaries for their own protection. Nate reached across the table and covered the hand dipping to scoop up ice-cream. Ignoring its trembling, he held on until she raised her head, her expression wary.
‘Trust me, Jemma, I don’t want you to have any regrets for the decisions either of us make.’
Her lips parted and her eyelids fell, concealing her emotions, and her chest rose as she breathed in, drawing his attention, threatening his resolve. Her fingers fisted under his, and he became aware of his thumb caressing her knuckle.
Then, with a sudden loosening of her fingers, a deep intake of air and a challenging message in her dark blue eyes, she replied in a clear, steady tone, ‘I won’t commit unless I understand exactly what’s required of me, and I’m sure I can deliver to your satisfaction.’
Sensation akin to a lightning bolt shot through him at her ambiguous statement. Innocent or deliberate, it created mental images that would keep him awake tonight. Or give him memorable dreams.
He released her hand, tore open two sugar sachets and stirred sugar into his coffee, his mind searching for a topic to discuss that would avoid personal revelation.
‘How do you rate a visit to Sydney against Melbourne?’
Her hand froze centimetres from her parted lips and her eyes grew bigger, highlighting their colour. Hell, she was alluring—even when caught unawares. And she was smart, cottoning on to his diversionary tactic in an instant.
‘That depends on the season and the reason for going there.’
A discussion followed, with inputs about Adelaide from Jemma, centred on the city’s central attractions and the entertainment value of international musical celebrities.
Nate ate the remainder of her sundae without mentioning that he wasn’t fond of such sweet offerings. Nor did he protest when she checked her watch and said she needed to leave. He insisted on escorting her to the station, told her he’d be in touch, and shook her hand for slightly longer and with slightly more pressure than convention dictated.
As he climbed the steps up to the bridge he remembered her gentle goad. Setting a steady-paced jog, he recalled their meetings, her reactions to the things he’d said and done and his own to her.
A seagull flew past, soaring upward, and he followed its flight to the top curved girders. If the chance arose in the future, maybe he’d persuade her to take that climb.
* * *
Jemma had the electric jug boiling and an open packet of biscuits waiting on the kitchen table for Cloe’s homecoming after work. She’d missed the closeness she shared with her best friend since her wedding and move to Sydney. Somewhere in her future there had to be a man who’d love her as faithfully as Mike loved Cloe.
The one secret she’d kept from her was the love stories that she’d expanded into full novels. Brian’s review had proved her judgement to be right. But if she was ever offered a contract Cloe would be the first to know.
‘So how did you spend your day?’ Cloe arched her back to relieve the kinks of the day and sipped her tea.
‘Window shopping, exploring The Rocks area and walking over the bridge. Plus two meetings that are confidential at the moment. Oh, and I did have lunch with someone who’ll be involved if the project goes ahead.’
She tried for nonchalance, not mentioning Nate, but heard the new inflection in her tone and felt her cheeks flush.
Cloe jerked upright, scanned her face with narrowed eyes, then clapped her hands. ‘You like him.’ A delighted grin split her face. ‘You’re blushing, Jemma! You like him a lot. Come on—give.’
‘Nothing to tell. He was at the morning meeting and we had lunch together. He lives here, and as far as I know may have a wife or girlfriend. I live in South Australia, and am not interested in a relationship.’
She told herself it was the truth, attributing her reaction to him as natural in the presence of a ruggedly attractive man. So why hadn’t it happened when her friends had set her up for dates in the three years since her break-up?
The back door opened, distracting Cloe. Jemma had often witnessed Mike’s loving kisses for his wife, so why the blip of her heartbeat and the sharp wrench in her abdomen this time?
* * *
That night, after an evening of reminiscing and lively conversation, she snuggled into her pillow, mulling over the past. Her initial reaction to finding out that the man she’d contemplated marriage with was cheating on her had been gut-wrenching anguish. She’d hidden away and cried, cursing them both to the walls of her bedroom, and had deleted every image of him—even shredding printed copies.
A few weeks later a koala with a baby clinging to her back had trundled across in front of her on a photo-taking walk in the hills. She’d stopped, her hand over her mouth in awe, silently watching their progress into the scrubland. Being that close to an active mother and her joey had been awesome. Inspiring.
She’d laughed out loud, realising that life went on and that it was only her pride and self-esteem that had suffered damage. Her heart might have cracked a little, but it wasn’t broken and it would heal with time.
That was the moment she’d decided to move from the city.
Later she’d become
Deep inside she still harboured a dream that there was someone out there who would love her as Mike loved Cloe, and would show it proudly and openly. She’d know him the moment he gazed into her eyes, held her in his arms and kissed her.
Nate Thornton intrigued her, and she’d felt a physical reaction to his smile and touch that was normal for any mature female. It could be a sign that she was ready to move on—though not to trust on sight.
She woke in the morning with a smile on her lips, ready for a day of shopping with Cloe and their friends, plus a lunchtime meet-up which would last all afternoon.
Sunday afternoon at the airport, Cloe hugged her and whispered in her ear. ‘Let me know if your meetings lead to anything. Of any kind. Your happiness is my greatest wish.’
* * *
Some time in the early hours of Friday morning Nate jerked upright in bed, throwing the sheet away from his sweat-soaked body. Heart pounding, he swung his feet to the floor and bent over, dragging great gulps of air into his lungs.
The details of the nightmare—his first for over a year—were already fading apart from occasional vague shadowy images, but the aftermath stayed. He strode to the wardrobe, dragged on a pair of shorts and went out onto the balcony, to look at the welcoming view of the city lights.
Why now? Long ago he’d accepted that images of the horrific sights he’d seen in war zones and wherever terrorists preyed on the innocent would have a lasting effect on him. Others reported the sickening acts—he’d chosen to write about the indomitable spirit of the victims and their families, keeping a tight control on his own feelings.
He’d got past the initial bad memories and traumatic dreams when he’d written the novel, repeating the mantra, These are only words on a page. Nothing had changed, except...
He gripped the railing as a shiver ran down his spine—always a danger sign.
Jemma. Caught unawares when he’d first seen her, he’d let her slip past his guard, triggering emotions he’d tamped down, refused to acknowledge unless for family.
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