Unlocking the Millionaire's Heart, page 7
Her phone, keys, tissues and emergency money fitted into her black clutch bag, and she left it on the hall stand while she checked on Milly. Finding her curled up asleep in her bed in the dining area, she shut the door to the hall so she wouldn’t come out and hide while she was alone.
Waiting had never been a problem for her. She let her mind wander to plots and scenes, and never noticed time passing. Tonight was different. Her mind refused to co-operate, and would only dwell on her encounters with Nate.
She was grateful when the glare of his headlights in her driveway announced his arrival.
She went outside—and almost lost her footing stepping off the front porch as Nate came around the front of a silver sedan and stopped, taking his time to look her over.
Wow, he really scrubbed up well for a date. Not that this was one—it was a meal between two literary associates. All she had to do was ignore the pheromones bombarding her senses and stay calm and unaffected. Easy, right? Like heck.
Freshly shaved, and wearing a dark suit and a navy tie over a pale grey shirt, he’d draw every woman’s attention. Her fingers itched to dishevel his neat, thick hair, which would make him even more desirable, and even more dangerous to her never-to-be-hurt-again plans for the future.
She dug one set of fingers into her palm and firmed the other on her bag.
‘Hi, Jemma, you look...good.’
For an irrational moment she’d have given anything to know the word he’d caught back. But, sliding into the vehicle while he held the door open, giving her the full effect of newly applied cologne, she resolved not to care. If he wouldn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t worth hearing.
Buckled in, with the motor running, he turned to face her. ‘Do you have any problem taking the winding route? The GPS offers that. Or do you want to go right down to the suburbs and up another way?’
‘I’m lucky—never suffered from motion sickness.’
‘Good.’ He selected the setting and backed into the road.
A DISTURBING BATTLE raged in Nate’s head. Taking Jemma—whose appearance deserved a much more flattering word than the one he’d stumbled over—to dinner being purely business against the growing desire to be closer to her. To hold and kiss her.
On the way to pick her up he’d reinforced every reason he had for staying unattached and alone. His failure to distinguish the lies behind the sweet talking of a scheming woman, which had taught him to be cautious. The suffering he’d seen which had left him sceptical of the façades most people projected. He never took anyone at face value.
He’d believed he was in control until she’d stood there, sweet and delectable, her blue dress and matching jacket making the colour of her eyes appear darker and more alluring. He’d stopped dead, his throat had dried up, and his pulse had rocketed. And he’d barely managed an inane remark not even worthy of a randy teenager.
Glancing at her composed profile, he saw her chin lift a little, as if she’d sensed his action. Was she projecting a façade, like him? If he could see her eyes he might know. Unlike many of the sophisticated women he knew, she hadn’t learned the art of deception. For the sake of the man who’d one day win her heart, he hoped she never would.
‘You’re very quiet, Jemma. Having doubts?’
‘Over agreeing to come to Katoomba or to dinner? The answer’s no to both, Nate. You’re driving a hired car on a curving hilly road and the sun is beginning to set. You need quiet to concentrate.’
He recalled places where there’d been the added dangers of military conflict and gave a wry smile. ‘Thank you for your consideration, but I prefer conversation over silence. How come you had to cancel your previous booking at Windy Point?’
Her barely audible intake of breath, and the hitch in her tone, told him more than her verbal answer.
‘My date’s sudden meeting—compulsory attendance.’
‘Hmm. So we get to share the pleasure of a first visit here?’
She surprised him by laughing—a melodic sound he wished didn’t stir him so easily.
‘You’ve travelled around the world. You must have eaten in exotic and famous places I’ve only heard of or seen in magazines.’
‘True. But I’ve also eaten meat and vegetables I wasn’t game to ask the name of or to refuse. Consider every offer you’re given, Jemma. Even bizarre memories are better than nights of wondering what if?’
‘I’ve accepted yours.’ She was resolute and firm.
‘And I swear you’ll never regret it. Make sure you pack warm tops; the evenings can be quite cool.’
‘Yeah, I guess it’s pretty similar.’
‘Except your winters are more severe and your snowfall higher. Do you ski?
Jemma’s question threw him for a moment. He hadn’t skied since returning home—didn’t want to revive memories of covert trips in wintertime Europe.
‘Not for a long time. I’ve been otherwise occupied. Do you?’
‘I’ve taken a few weekend trips with friends. Never got higher than the beginners’ slopes but I had lots of fun.’
He pictured her in a fitted ski outfit, hair flying, cheeks flushed and radiant, eyes sparking with joy. Hands tight on the steering wheel, he sought for a diversion.
‘I’m serious about bringing Milly. Write me a list of everything she’ll need—or, better yet, email or text. Then I’ll have it on my phone. I’ll be shopping before you come.’
‘She’s not fussy...likes wet or dry food. Do you have a rug or old towel she can sleep on?’
‘Not on your bed? That wouldn’t worry me—our pets always did. Mum tried to dissuade them—and us. Eventually she accepted the inevitable.’
‘I’d prefer she has a familiar setting—like a corner somewhere. I’ll bring a couple of her toys.’
For the rest of the trip he told stories of the pets in his past, and Jemma loved listening to the escapades he, Sam and Alice had got up to, growing up in the suburbs.
She had a few dim memories of playing with Vanessa, but had rarely experienced sibling moments like her friends. Midway through her teens she’d realised the six-year gap between them wasn’t the reason. Her sister had always been focussed on a modelling career and had had no time for games or any distraction such as a younger sister.
They arrived in the restaurant’s car park earlier than expected, and Jemma felt pampered when Nate walked around to hold her door as she alighted.
‘Can we go and watch the sunset?’
As a teenager, she’d often come here with friends—some of them dates, hoping for a kiss. Or more. She was glad her ex hadn’t been one of them and her memories of this place were sweet.
‘Fine by me. Looks like our timing is perfect.’
They walked down the path to a lookout, then further to a lower one at the edge of the hill, where the vista was partially blocked by trees. In the gaps there was a clear view, with the city sprawled from left to right from the lower tree line to the ocean’s edge. Just below them cars negotiated the bend in the road, some with headlights already on.
Jemma sucked in a breath and blew out a long, ‘Ohhh...’ How could she have forgotten how incredibly beautiful it was?
The sun hung like a glimmering yellow-and-gold UFO, appearing to be balanced on a wisp of dark grey cloud above the horizon. Its mirror image skimmed across the translucent blue sea towards them. Above and below, and spreading across their vision, the spectacular colours morphed into oranges and reds. Fascinating. Soul-warming.
As the lower curve of the sun dipped behind the cloud Jemma pulled out her mobile and snapped a few shots. She gasped with joy and clicked three or four times in succession as the dark shape of a plane, climbing after its take-off from the airport, flew across the split sun.
Glancing at Nate’s face, seeing him moved by the ex
‘Different, isn’t it?’ Even though there was noise from the traffic below, she found herself whispering.
‘Incomparable is a better word. A panorama of city and suburbs, with true blue gumtrees almost within reach, and the ocean and the sunset in the background. Indescribable.’
‘Not for an aspiring author, surely?’
His brow furrowed, then cleared as he twigged that she was ribbing him. ‘Is that a challenge, Jemma?’
‘Not tonight.’ She looked away from his too-knowing eyes. ‘As the sun sinks lower those colours intensify, then fade, leaving the sea pitch-dark unless there’s a boat passing. Shall we go in?’
Neither her dim memories of glimpses through the window nor the photos on her computer did justice to the dining area, with its curved glass windows ensuring a clear panoramic view for every table on each of the three levels. Jemma noted very few were unoccupied as they were led to a setting for two on the highest.
She had less than a minute to admire the crisp white of the linen, the soft glow of candles on each table and the comfortable upholstered chairs, before the roof began to open up, letting natural light in.
‘Oh, someone told me that you dine under the stars, but I’d forgotten. It doesn’t happen all year round, so our timing’s perfect.’
‘Sam mentioned a unique attraction and wouldn’t clarify. Now I understand why.’
He stared upward for a moment, then scanned across the view and back. Jemma had already memorised it, and sensed he was doing the same.
‘I remember thinking that at night-time, with all the different coloured streetlights and building lights, it looked like a true fairyland.’
A waitress brought them a carafe of water and asked if they would like to order drinks. She looked towards Nate, to ask if he wanted to share a bottle of wine, and felt her pulse hitch at the warmth of his direct gaze. It sped up at his words.
‘Seeing as I’ll have a special cargo on that winding drive home, I’ll have one glass of wine and then stick to water.’ His voice lowered to a conspiratorial tone as he added, ‘We’re in your territory, so you may choose a red to complement my Scotch fillet.
She’d happily comply if only she could find her voice after his compliments—the first more amazing than the second. Her reply sounded foreign, breathy and a little exotic, as she asked for two glasses of her favourite Shiraz, having already decided she would have the lamb dish from the online menu.
They chose Turkish bread to start, and Jemma declared she’d skip an entrée in favour of dessert if she wasn’t too full.
Leaning forward, and keeping his voice low, Nate said, ‘I’ve researched the selection and I’m betting you won’t be able to resist.’
Outwardly she pretended to bristle, but inside she quivered at the intimacy of his soft yet edgy tone, her reaction heightened by the knowledge that he was probably right.
He requested medium rare for his fillet, and she shivered. He noticed, waiting until they were alone before asking, ‘Not the way you like it?’
‘It’s a matter of taste. I prefer overcooked to under every time.’
‘But don’t let your parents know, huh?’
She joined in his laughter.
‘They guessed when, aged around eight, I took some slices of roast beef back to the kitchen and grilled them.’
Their wine arrived, and he repeated the salute he’d given in Darling Harbour. This time she echoed his movement, and he nodded in response. After savouring the flavour, she set her glass down and traced her finger around the base. He’d seen her home, how she lived, but had only mentioned the location of his.
‘Is your home old or new?’
‘As modern as yours is colonial. It has everything I want and need and nothing I don’t.’
‘You designed it?’ Of course he had—from the bricks to the door handles.
His shrug drew her gaze to the perfect fit of his tailor-made jacket, and she had a sudden vision of his toned, sculpted torso, glistening in the sun as he stood poised on a diving board.
The clatter of cutlery from an adjoining table broke her reverie in time for her to catch his next words.
‘With professional help. The location was paramount, and there was no problem with demolishing the seventies-style building in need of major repairs. My architect drafted the original plans from a rough sketch of mine and included everything I deemed essential. I now have the home I visualised.’
She’d bet her favourite paintbrush there’d been nothing ‘rough’ about his sketch. Every line would have been straight, and all the extras neatly depicted.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing it.’ She knew she’d learn more about his true character in a short stroll through his home than he’d revealed so far. ‘Is it cat-proof?’
He smiled. ‘Should be. Guess we’ll have to keep an eye on her and find out. I’ll add “research flight regulations” to tomorrow’s list. How old are you?’
His out-of-the-blue question took a few seconds to register. Did it make a difference?
‘Twenty-eight. Is that relevant to our agreement?’
He gave that almost-smile she was beginning to find endearing.
‘I turned thirty-two the day before Brian told me how awful my one-on-one scenes were.’
She tried not to chuckle...didn’t quite succeed. ‘Happy birthday, huh? How does the view compare now?’
Apart from the discernible trees near the building, they were surrounded by a band of black. Its furthermost reaches were sprinkled with lights, their number and variety of colour and size increasing until they ended in a ragged edge of darkness to infinity, broken only by the rising moon and its reflection. Above them stars were beginning to emerge in the ebony sky.
Nate didn’t say a word, and his enigmatic features hid whatever he was thinking.
Jemma sipped her drink, torn between intrigue over his reporting years abroad and the necessity not to become familiar with his history and personality. Agreeing to live with him for two weeks made the latter hard to maintain. But not impossible.
‘I have to admit, Jemma, this is unique. Who’d have thought Adelaide could compete with the sunset spectacles of the world?’
‘Every true Adelaidean,’ she declared with pride, and was rewarded with genuine laughter.
‘Remind me to show you some photos while we’re in Katoomba!’
* * *
Nate had expected his unease regarding having Jemma in his home for two weeks to grow stronger as his body responded to her enthusiasm for the sunset and the venue. Instead curiosity about the woman he’d aligned his literary aspirations with overrode any misgivings—though only at surface level. There was a line in the sand he’d sworn never to cross. If that danger surfaced he’d walk away—even if it meant breaking their deal.
Her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled at even the smallest event—like the timing of that plane moving through the sunset. She was bright and intelligent...an enchanting dinner companion. There had been no awkward silences as they ate their main courses, approving of the flavours and the choices they’d made. The discussion had progressed to sunsets around the world, and places she’d seen in movies and would love to visit in the future.
As he’d predicted, she was now poring over the dessert menu, seesawing between two items before selecting sorbet with fresh fruit and herbal tea. He ordered the same, with coffee.
‘Doesn’t drinking coffee this late keep you awake?’ Jemma asked him.
‘I guess I’ve grown immune to the effects over the years. There are places I’ve been where you couldn’t rely on the quality of the water, or what the coffee grinds or tea leaves might actually consist of. Boiling hot coffee became the safest bet, and I caught the habit.’
Her eyes had w
Their desserts were served, their flavoursome tang enhanced by the complimentary handmade chocolates accompanying their hot drinks. An ideal ending for a memorable evening.
His only regret was the way it was going to end: saying goodnight at her front door with space between them. At this moment the idea of shaking hands and walking away didn’t appeal at all.
* * *
Late the following Tuesday afternoon Jemma sank into her plane seat, worrying about Milly all alone in another part of the aircraft. Their visit to the vet for the required certificate for flying—luckily she was over the minimum age—had gone smoothly. The delay had been because this flight was the first available to have an allocation for pets.
Nate had arranged for a specialist firm to handle Milly’s transportation in a regulation carrier from Hahndorf to Adelaide airport, and to collect and deliver her to them in the Sydney terminal. He’d also emailed chapters three to six of his book to her computer between phone calls on Thursday, while she’d prepared a ham and salad lunch. The final few pages needing her revision were in her satchel, to be worked on during the flight, along with a book and magazine.
On Saturday he’d asked her to send him her full romance, telling her he needed to read it all to assess the storyline. Their contract was for him to advise and help her, but she hadn’t expected him to want it so soon. He’d flown out later that day, promising to be there to collect them when they landed, and she’d instantly both missed him and felt slight relief when he drove away.
Two full days of seeing his efficiency at work had left her wondering what she’d agreed to. And whether she could stand up to his strong will if they had a conflict of opinion. She hadn’t had a skerrick of unease for her physical safety—not for a second since they’d met. It was the underlying allure, the subtle dismantling of the rigid barriers she’d erected to protect her heart, that caused concern.
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