Authors: Alexia Praks
(Kiwi Bride Series: BookOne)
SmashwordsEdition License Notes
(Kiwi Bride Series: Book1)
Copyright © 2014 by AlexiaPraks
This is a work of fiction.Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product ofthe author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and anyresemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businessestablishments, events, or locales is entirelycoincidental.
All rights reserved. Thisbook was self-published by the author Alexia Praks under PrachanPress. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, ordistributed in any printed or electronic form without agreement andwritten permission of the author. Please do not participate in orencourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of theauthor’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
The author can be reached at:www.alexiapraks.com
Published worldwide byPrachan Press
KIWI BRIDESERIES: BOOK ONE
A L E X I A P R A K S
Shocked to thecore,Jayden wonders if thisis what it’d feel like at that vital moment when you realize youjust might die. The world stops, or perhaps time, the world, andeverything in it ceases to have meaning for him.
The richness of the Sheraton’s Ambassador Suite surroundshim as it had for the last three days, but he sees none of it. TheVictorian-style decor, the luxurious furnishings, and the majesticviews of Hyde Park and Sydney Harbor all fade from sight. The air,once heady with the scent of fresh roses and vanilla, now stinks ofbetrayal. He feels a queasy sickness in the pit of his stomach asthe bouquet of perfect red roses slips from his grasp and scattersacross the plush Persian carpet.
He watches, unable to tearhis gaze away.
On the king-sized four-poster bed, two sweat-soaked nakedbodies writhe in ecstasy—intertwining, touching, and heaving withexertion. As he stands transfixed, a female face swims into focus.It’s Sarah Taylor; her long blond hair in wild disarray, her faceflushes with passion, and her head presses into the shoulder of herbedmate. Her eyes flash open, and she gasps, pushing the manaside.
“Jayden, you’re back!” sheshouts, her voice a heavy mix of shock, fear, and anger.
Jayden glances at the manwho’s disentangling himself from the embrace of Sarah’s long,tanned legs. Kyle Shore, a man he treats like a brother, looks likethe proverbial cat with the cream, a smug and knowing smile playingacross his face.
Hurt, betrayal, disgust—empty words for the emotions churning within him—twistingand burning, a white-hot pain inside. Violence and agony surgethrough his trembling muscles as a million questions fill the airlike a flock of frightened birds.
Why are you doing this? When did it start? What did I dowrong? Why Kyle?Why?Why?
His hand clenches the doorhandle, his knuckles white, his face a mask of confusion andanger.
“Happy anniversary, Sarah,” he says, his voice lost in theboom of the door slamming shut.
* * *
The Blackberryclatters carelessly across the glass surface of the coffee table.Jayden swears under his breath, his long, lean fingers rakingthrough his thick, blond hair in frustration. What the hell is hesupposed to do now? This is supposed to be his holiday, and aholiday is supposed to be stress-free. No work. No family. Justpeace and relaxation.
No work? Yeah, right! As a self-confessed workaholic, it’sunsurprising now that his five out of eight companies have recentlybeen floating in the international market, hitting themultibillion-dollar level on the way. That kind of money needslooking after, nurturing and feeding. Still, he loves the job, evenmore so now that he doesn’t need to be in the office twenty-fourseven. He can simply flick an e-mail from wherever he is, whetherin a hotel room in some lush French wine valley, a Hong Kongrestaurant, or even his own bed! Whenever, wherever he is, hispeople can handle everything he throws at them.
Sadly, the current focus of his stress is his family—morespecifically, his grandmother. His mother, Gracie, married to hisfather, Tom McCartney, for thirty-five years, insisted he bring hiscurrent girlfriend to attend his sister Kelly’s upcoming wedding inorder to meet the whole family for the first time. Tom’s mother,Elizabeth, known to them as Granny Beth, had agreed to this withthe reminder that it’s high time his girlfriend is measuredagainsthercriteria of what makes a suitablegranddaughter-in-law.
As he gazes out at thesnow-covered mountains standing stately around the clear, coldazure waters of Lake Wakatipu, Jayden draws up a mental checklistof those criteria.
Well off: Beth’s meaning—her familymustpossess a substantial business and propertyportfolio.
Good family background: Beth’s meaning—her familymustbe either of royal blood or of blue blood (the old-moneytype).
Pretty: Beth’smeaning—could pace the catwalk with confidence.
Excellent manners: Beth’smeaning—a socialite (polite with a hint of bitchiness).
If at allpossible, Granny Beth added, it should be in that particularorder.
Jay steps back from the open window and sits down on theleather sofa. He takes a deep, calming breath. The fresh,apple-crisp air that seems so unique to Queenstown fills the roomwith a delicious coolness. The echoes of that damned phone call,however, have already destroyed any peace of mind he might expectfrom this trip. There seems to be no solution. He can’t beg Sarahto go and pretend nothing has happened, that he hadn’t caught herwith his best friend. Even the unspoken presence of her name in hismind causes a crippling ache in his chest.
Should he have seen itcoming? Were the clues just lying all around them, waiting for himto pick them up in the earlier stage of their lovingrelationship?
Loving!It’s such astupid word, ringing hollow in his ears. He can’t shut out thatscene that night in Sydney three weeks ago. The pain is stillsharp, piercing him in the lonely hours.
He shuts his eyes, and his mind fills once again with thesmoothness of her skin, the curves of her naked buttocks, and thetiny moan escaping her lips as Kyle Shore moved over her. She hadbeen beautiful even in that moment, but that beauty is tainted now.When he tries to picture her face, it’s as if a shadow lies acrossit. God, it seems like such a cliché—his best friend and his girlfriend!Yet, he would never have bet on such apossibility, especially as they seemed so different and that thereappeared to be so much hate between them. Perhaps that’s it. Heonly saw what theywantedhim to see.Perhaps even bursting in on them in Sydney has been part of alarger plan. Either way, Jay knew in that instant that therelationship was over.
In the days that followed, he told her no future existedfor them. Oh, how she begged him to forgive her, to take her back,and that it was not what it looked like.
“Not what it looked like!”he shouted at her, his face contorted with rage and regret.“You were screwing him!” And he told her, “I don’t know what isworse, your betrayal or his,” before refusing to listen to any moreof her lies. He told her to get the hell out of his life, and shedid go, telling him that she had never loved him by way of aparting shot.
Further days of binge drinking had not brought the expectedoblivion. Then one night, nursing a beer in a nameless yetexpensive bar, Peter Thompson, a good friend from New Zealand, orGodzone, as they call it in those parts, put a strong hand on hisshoulder and told him, “She’s gone. Let it go, man. Plenty morefishes in the sea.”
He laughed when Peter suggested flying halfway around theworld to indulge in someinterestingandsomewhat suicidal sports. He agreed because he felt the need to dosomething—anything—and suicideby itself was not an option. Besides, even in the bleakest moments,he felt that there was much more for him in this life.
So he flew with Peter to Queenstown, the adventure capitalof New Zealand, if not the world, and threw himself off bridges,out of airplanes, and into raging rivers. Once they even strappedon skis and jumped out of a helicopter over the high, snowboundsouthern mountains. He hadn’t killed himself, wouldn’t have countedas suicide anyway, and the combination of exhilaration andexhaustion had driven away any thoughts of Sarah or Kyle—for alittle while at least. He knew the healing process would take farlonger, and that he found a little peace here in this isolatedplace.
Now Beth asked him to bring his girlfriend to Kelly’swedding. If he didn’t bring Sarah, they will want to know whathappened, in excruciating detail naturally, and they will startmatchmaking again—a thought that brings a shudder to hiscore.
Jay rests his head back and lets his mind wander. He canjust see it all now. Gracie and Beth bringing in a hundred or soeligible bachelorettes for dinner, tea parties, and balls. Himswamped with faceless, beautiful women.
He springs from the sofa,pacing back and forward, agitated. Good grief! What he needs is aplan.
“Think, Jay, think!”he chants to himself.
He pauses. Somebody iswhistling in the corridor. Has Peter returned from his morningjog?
He rushes across the living room and sees the man he needsmost at this time of crisis. He grabs Peter by the collar and haulshim in.
“Whoa! Jay, mate, what’sup?” Peter says, chuckling and smoothing down his unruly redhair.
“I just got a call fromGracie and Beth,” Jay mutters.
Peter raises an eyebrow.“Well, from the look you’re wearing, it doesn’t soundgood.”
“Of course it’s not good,Pete.”
Jay glances at his friend he first met at HarvardUniversity. “They’re at it again,” he says, annoyance clear in histone.
“What, matchmaking?” Pete chuckles. This is hardly a newsituation.
“Jesus man, it’s notbloody funny! What the hell am I going to do?”
“I suppose they are getting worried. You are thirty. Notgetting any younger, bro,” Peter says, heading to the refrigeratorin the kitchen. He opens the door and roots around among thevarious brands searching for a bottle of Heineken. “Want one?” heasks over his shoulder.
“Yeah, sure,” Jay replies distractedly.
Peter takes two out andtosses one to Jay.
Six bottles of Heineken,two packs of Blue Bird chips, and four packets of Giant Cookieslater, they are still contemplating the dilemma at hand.
“Any suggestions?” Jayasks finally.
Peter glances sideways at his friend. “I suggest you findyourself a new girl, bro, and take her to New York.”
For an extended moment in the complete silence thatfollows, Jay’s blue eyes stare intensely into Peter’s green ones.“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope,” Pete replies. Hestuffs some crisps in his mouth, chews loudly, and takes a solidgulp of beer.
Jay considers this for asecond. “I’m not up for it, Pete. You know I’m not.”
Peter raises his eyebrowsin question. “Sarah?”
“It’s still too new,” Jay mutters. No, he’s not over Sarahyet, and dating again right now just seems wrong and odd, like theyremain linked in some way. Basically, he’s just notready.
“Look,” Peter began. “Youdon’t have to do this dating thing yet. I said you just need tofind a girl and take her to meet your parents. You don’t have todate her.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”Jay looks at his friend in a weird way.
“Meaning you hire a girl and take her to see yourparents.”
Jay doesn’t make any comment, but his expression quiteclearly says—seriously, dude,can’t you come up with a better plan than that?
No, wait. It’s supposed tobe a joke. Peter is simply joking with him, that’s all. On cue, Jaystarts laughing. He laughs so hard that his stomach begins to hurt.When he manages to stop, he looks at his friend and asks, “You arejoking, right?”
Peter’s face, however, isserious. “No.”
“Just hire a girl.Simple.”
It must be a Kiwi thing, and he couldn’t stop himself fromblurting out, “Who the hell is desperate enough to want topretendto be my girlfriend?”
“Lots,” Peter says.“Professionals.”
Jay narrows his eyes. “Oh, no. I’m not hiring those typesof girls. Gracie and Beth have criteria.”
Peter, who has just taken another gulp of his beer, nearlychokes. “What? Your girlfriend has to fit your grandmother’scriteria?” It’s his turn to start laughing.
“Damn it, Pete! Help me out here.” Jay snaps and punchesPeter on the arm.
Peter continues chucklingas he rolls away from the punch, though the hard glare from Jaymanages to dampen his amusement.
“Okay,” he sayscalmly. “You need a new girlfriend, a fake one. I think I justmight know where you can find one.”
“She better not be a professional. She has to beperfect,” Jay says, and he manages to sum up the criteria forPeter.
“Nope, she’s not aprofessional at all.” Peter confirms. Grinning like a Cheshire cat,he adds, “In fact, she’s the total opposite.”
* * *
Jayden gazes out atthe sleeping town as Peter maneuvers the SUV through the streets ofQueenstown. He hadn’t realized until then just how much he actuallyenjoys this place. He loves the view, the placid waters of thelake, the food, the people, and even the crazy sports. This is aperfect holiday spot. He’d definitely be back.
The drive is exhilarating, and Jayden lets his eyes feaston the rough beauty of the Central Otago area. Coarse, snow-coveredmountains, pristine blue lakes, and twisted, gusting rivers cometogether as one in picturesque harmony. Now and again, distantwinding roads lead to vineyards and orchards and the remoteformless dots of farmhouses. Sometimes the roads are so close tothe edge of the cliffs Jay feels they’re toying with the end of theworld.
Three and a half hours ofdriving later, they arrive in the city of Dunedin on the eastcoast.
“So this is it? This isGeorge Street, the center of the city?” Jay asks as they comethrough the short length of the Octagon toward the north end of thetown.
“Yep,” Pete responds, coming to a stop at the traffic lightson Hanover Street. “It’s a small town, bro. The Edinburgh of theSouth, they call it. We’ll have to park in the Meridian car parkbuilding. Damn busy on a Friday. Bloody studentseverywhere.”
“A city of students, huh?”Jayden comments, eyeing the crowd crossing the streets in front ofthem.
“Yeah,” Pete responds,taking out his cell phone.
Jay glances at his friend,his eyebrows rising. “Not supposed to be texting whiledriving.”
Pete chuckles, and his thumbs move faster like he’s on atexting marathon.
Jay shakes his head and turns his attention back to thestreets. There’s a thick crowd of students, and they areexceptionally well-dressed. There are young men in fashionablejeans and coats (a few in shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops) whilethe young women wear flimsy coats, super skinny jeans or leggingsand miniskirts, and three-inch heels. They stride and mingle asthey laugh and chat with their shopping bags in hand. The flawlessfaces of the girls are similar to that of the supermodels back inNew York by design, no doubt. Not bad for a small city from anear-forgotten country. Certainly few in New York would be familiarwith this place.
Perhaps it’s for this veryreason that his eyes are suddenly drawn to a young woman stridingacross the street. She’s completely different from the others. Shewears a bright blue coat that has seen better days, and her long,dark hair is a mess, streaming around her as she dashes across thestreet. She darts her way through the crowd, passing through themlike a trained soldier racing through a minefield. He notices thatshe isn’t wearing the high heels so liked by others. Instead, shewears a pair of white sneakers that are a complete contrast to herblack jeans. Jay has to shake his head. She has no sense of fashionwhatsoever.
“Done! You didn’t seethat,” Pete says.
Jay glances at his friend and sees Peter slotting his cellphone back into his jeans pocket. As the traffic lights change togreen and Pete’s foot presses on the accelerator, Jay glances atthe girl in the blue coat. He notices that she has slowed down herpace. She slips her hand into the pocket of her coat and pulls outa cell phone. As she strolls toward a door, her head is down asthough she’s reading a message. Jay glances up and sees the logo inblue, big bold letters that sayANZ Bank.
Not long after that, Jayden finds himself in the DunedinPublic Hospital cafeteria. He looks about his surroundings inastonishment. The atmosphere is as grey and dull as the faded wallpaint, washed-out carpet, and the smell of hospitalfood.
He can’t believe he actually agreed to cancel their week offun extreme sports and drive all the way from Queenstown forthis.Looking at patientseating their lunch?If thisis Peter’s idea of a joke, then it’s in extremely poortaste.
He watches an elderlypatient sitting across the table from them trying to pick up asandwich with wrinkled, liver-spotted hands that shake with thedesperate determination of old age.
“What the hell are we doing here?” he hisses. “I thought wewere supposed to, you know—” He suddenly feels ratherself-conscious. Even though he has dressed down, it now occurs tohim that the people in here couldn’t care less what they or helooks like. Most are dressed in baggy clothing. But then again, Jaytells himself, theyarein ahospital.
“Looking for the perfectgirlfriend for you,” Peter says enthusiastically.
“Very funny,” Jay snaps, picks up his ham sandwich, andtakes a bite.
They’re looking in thewrong place. No proper socialite chick, even one desperate enoughto be hired for whatever reason, would be found in this type ofplace.
At that moment, a large group of young doctors comes intothe cafeteria with trays of food and drinks in their hands. Someare wearing scrubs while the younger ones wear semi-formal clothingwith stethoscopes hanging around their necks. Jay notes that a fewof the female doctors look quite appealing.
“Hey, I can tell you likethe looks of this,” Peter says, his mouth full of food, as theywatch the doctors taking their seats not far from them.
“Is she a doctor?” Jayasks.
Peter shakes hishead.
“A nurse?” Jay watches apack of young and old nurses wearing dark blue scrubs file into thecafeteria.
Again Peter shakes hishead.
“What does she do then?You said you know her,” Jay says, watching a pretty female headingtheir way.
She looks very attractive, long legs in heels, medium brownhair that flows down her back, full lips, and bedroom eyes.Perfect!
Peter nods. “Of course I know her. She’s exactly what thecriteriaarenot.”
“What? But she’s perfect.” Jay watches the woman glidestoward him. Then she smiles at him.My God, she’s beautiful. She could be a model if she wantsto; only she’s a doctor, which is even better. She has brains andpossibly a good family background. What about manners?He has no doubt she has excellentmanners. He can't imagine her yelling and screaming insanely at hersick, elderly patients.
Yup, she fits the criteriaall right.
“Really, that’s good. I’mglad you agree,” Peter says, eyeing the woman coming toward them.He waves as she approaches the seat opposite them.
“Hey, you,” she says, greeting him. “I thought you were onholiday. What are you doing back here?”
Jay likes the sound of hervoice. It’s soft and sweet.
“Mary, this is Jayden, a friend of mine.” Peter introducesher, nodding toward Jay, who rises and offers his hand.
“Hi,” Mary says. “I’mPete’s cousin. I’m a trainee intern.”
Jay likes her hand, too. It’s soft. He can sense bothgentleness and strength in it.
“So how is your holiday going?” she asks. “You’re not backto work yet, right?”
Peter shakes his head.“Not for another week.”
She nods prettily andturns to Jayden with a sparkle in her eyes. “So where are youfrom?”
“The States,” Jaydenreplies promptly.
“I like your accent.” She laughs delicately, brushing herhair over one shoulder. “So what brings you to NewZealand?”
“Having fun so far?” She leans toward him across the table.Then beep, beep, beep. She glances down. “Oh, damn, my pager.Excuse me for a second.” She gets up and hurries to the phone onthe far side of the room.
“She fits some of thecriteria so far,” Jay comments, watching Mary. He sees her eyeinghim as she’s talking into the phone and jotting downnotes.
“How do you know when youhaven’t met her yet?” Peter asks.
Jayden glances at hisfriend, frowning in confusion as he brings the cup of hot coffee tohis lips. “Mary?”
“Nope, not Mary—her.” Peter nodstoward the far entrance of the cafeteria.
Jayden glances in that direction, and his eyes widen inshock. His breath catches at the back of his throat, and he startsspluttering—hot liquid burning his tongue.
“Hey, are you allright?”
“Yeah,” Jay mutters, wiping his mouth with the napkin. Heglances up and watches intensely, his frown darkening into a scowl.This female—the girl in the blue coat he saw in the street—the girlwho is walking toward them with a satchel over her shoulder and acup of tea in one hand—is nothing like what he expected. Shedoesn’t fit the criteria.Period!
She’s average height. She’s not pretty. In fact, she’splain. Her baggy jersey is an odd, dull grey color and doesn’t exactly enhance her skin toneeither. It makes her face look pale and ghostly. Her long, darkhair is a mess and hangs forward in long bangs that hide hereyes.
As she walks toward them, Jay can’t help but stare at her.She looks nervous.
She glances at them, givesPeter a fleeting smile, and then rushes past them.
“What do you think?” Peterasks.
“Not her.” Jay feels hisgut retching with dread. “Please tell me it’s not her.”
“It’s her.” Peter chuckles. “Once your family sees her, theywill leave you alone.”
“How do you know that forsure?”
“Because they will give up. If you show them thatsheis the type of girl you are in love with—and, mate, I knowyou are not at the moment—they will give up in the end and leaveyou alone.” Peter smiles smugly, crossing his arms across his chestas he leans back in his chair.
Mary finishes her phonecall and joins them.
“You look busy,” Petersays.
“I am,” Mary replies. “Every patient in ED seems to havepneumonia. Then there are those with colds and flu. Can’t they justgo to their GP?” She turns to Jayden, who has suddenly gone veryquiet and has a trancelike look on his face. “Are youokay?”
“Huh? Oh, I’m fine.” Jaysounds much like a deflated balloon.
“Hey, we should go out Saturday night,” Mary suggests,eyeing Jayden. “Dinner, a movie, a quiet drink, andthen—”
Jay raises his eyebrows.Peter clears his throat and nods. “How about inviting the othersalong too? It’ll be fun.”
Mary frowns at Peter. Hesimply shrugs his shoulders and tries on an expression ofinnocence—which fails.
* * *
Though her eyes are onher book, Alexandra Stewart, known simply as Alex to close friendsand relatives, knowsMr.Hot-Chocis still watchingher. Perhaps he wants to sit next to Mary St. Clair, which wouldn’tsurprise her at all. Her ex-classmate from high school is popularwith everyone. Her catwalk figure, dark brown curls, and brightblue eyes steal the tongues right out of the mouths of the boys.You could say she’s perfect, almost. If only she didn’t act likesuch a bitch, thinking everyone is beneath her and that no one elseis as deserving of her perfect life.
Alex could never behave like Mary.She would rather hide in a closet or do dishes thanflirt with a guy. In her world, she isn’t pretty enough to have theconfidence that seems to exude from Mary.
And now Mary looks to be hitting onMr. Hot-Choc. Again, Alex isn’t surprised. The man is a hunk, tall andtrim, blond hair, and blue-eyed. She’s sure she has never seen himaround Dunedin. He walks around the long table with thatloose-limbed grace usually only seen in big cats. A true-bred alphamale, he has that powerful aura about him that fairlyscreams:Don’t challenge me,or I’ll eat you for breakfast.
Why does he watch her with such intensity? Who is he? Whyis he with Peter and Mary? Are they friends?
And why name him Mr. Hot-Choc?Because he’s damn hot, and at the moment, she’scraving a cup of hot chocolate. Only she can’t afford one. Herbudget is tight. Every cent goes to support the family.
She nibbles her lower lip and tries to concentrate on hernovel. Hercules Poirot uncovers the murderer, the motive is laidbare, and all from brilliant deduction of seemingly insignificantfacts. She couldn’t figure out how, and now her mind, withoutwarning, flips to her dad, Jacob Stewart.
How longcan he waitfor a heart to be available?
His condition is getting worse. He needs a new heart andfast, as Peter, the cardiologist and long-time family friend, toldher. Finding a donor, however, is difficult. There’s the option ofgoing to a private hospital.There is no way they can afford that. There are the costsof flights to Auckland, the accommodations, the surgery, and ofcourse the heart itself. But they are desperate, and her mother,Mali Stewart, has been willing to apply for a personal bank loanjust so Dad could get his surgery done more quickly.
Unfortunately, Alex found out half an hour agothe bank rejected the application.The risk of nonpayment set against her modest income as a labscientist and the mortgage on the family home is too much. On topof that, she has her student loan and family living costs. Thenthere’s Timothy and Emma, her younger siblings. Tim is just aboutto finish high school, and a university education is on thehorizon. Emma still has a couple of years to go.
Alexgrinds herteeth. It’s one thing after another. The company Dad worked forclosed the Dunedin factory and moved it overseas, chasing cheaplabor in their quest of the almighty dollar. Jacob’s services wereno longer required. What a bitter day that was! Dad went intooverdrive trying to find another job. The stress led to his suddenmassive heart failure six months ago, and it was a miracle hesurvived.
Alex hoped he had takenout health insurance, but as the ambulance sped him to thehospital, a frantic search of his papers revealed nothing. Too latenow, she thinks, but her mind isn’t in the mood for staying on onesubject today. She remembers the text message she received fromPeter. She takes out her cell phone and reads the messageagain.
Happy Bday, Alex. Bck frmQtwn. Catch up? Coffee?
I hve a frnd u shuld meet.He can hlp u & yr dad. C ya soon :P
A grin creeps across her face. Peter always remembers herbirthday, and his gifts are usually thoughtful. But lately he hasbeen trying to find her a guy, which is annoying. It startedinnocently enough with some simple suggestions. That was until lastyear, when he arranged a blind date for her. The guy, Andrewsomething-or-other, seemed pleasantenough to begin with, although the evening was awkward. Then, asthe hour grew late, he made a quite inappropriate move on her, andshe slapped his face and left. When she told Peter about theincident, he ended his own short friendship with the man. Petermeant well, but she doesn’t have the time for aboyfriend.
The light trillof awoman’s laughter draws her attention. Mary is giggling away loudlyand enthusiastically, leaning closer toMr. Hot-Choc.Alex can’t help but admire the way he’s handling the situation.Mary is an outrageous flirt, confident that the men around her willbe enchanted, but he seems unaffected. In fact, it looks as if he’splaying the game and playing it well, in full control of thesituation.
Suddenly, he catches Alex looking at him. She glances away,her heart pounding and her cheeks hot and flushed with guilt. Shepretends to be interested in her phone, but she feels his amusementfrom across the room. The urge to be somewhere else, anywhere else,is strong but not as strong as her curiosity about thisextraordinarily handsome man. Then a thought strikes her, and shestarts texting.
Hey, Pete, sorrydidn’t join u cos u wth frnds.
Coffee sunds good. Sunday?2:30? SAN Cafe?
A push of a button and the message is on its way. She looksup and sees Peter checking his cell phone. He turns around to faceher with a big grin, waves, and nods.Mr. Hot-Chocwatches her with interest, the gentlest of smiles playingwith his lips. She’s about to smile back when she notices Mary’shateful glare. The message is clear—Piss off! He’s mine!Alex blushes and dives for cover into the musings of thegreat Monsieur Poirot.
Ten minutes later, she glances up. Peter,Mr. Hot-Choc, and Mary are heading toward the exit. Well, sheshould get going too. Back to work for her. She tidies up, wrapsthe satchel over her shoulder, and picks up her half empty cup ofcold tea.
She’s deep in thought, and her eyes see only the threadbarecarpet as she heads toward the conveyer. She slams into a body.She’s aware of cold tea seeping quickly through her jersey andchilling her skin. She feels strong hands holding her as shetotters. She looks up straight into a guy’s clear blue eyes as hepulls her upright, almost in an embrace. Warmth and strength seemto flow from him in an intoxicating mixture.
“Are you all right?” The tone of his voice is low, deep, andrich like the calm of a great sea gently tasting the pebbles on theshore.
She takes a deep breathand is overcome with the scent of fresh spices floating on a springbreeze. Snapping back to reality, she stares in disbelief at thecold tea that has somehow transferred itself from her old jerseyonto his expensive-looking jacket.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to,” she says, herhands dabbing at his jacket. “I’m sorry.” She glances up athim.
It’s him! It’s Mr.Hot-Choc!
She spirals away into the fathomless depths of his cobaltblue eyes. The color reminds her of those lovely summer days yearsago at the farm where she used to work as a fruit picker. The skywas huge, and the air hummed with the busy sounds of insects.Suddenly, shecan smell thesweetness of ripe strawberries. She remembers the feel of the long,soft grasses and the cool sprinkling of water against herskin.
The intensity of his gazedisturbs her from her reverie, and she blushes as she lowers herhead and says, “I’m sorry. It was my fault. Let me get something toclean it off.” She picks up the empty cup from the floor and putsit on the food conveyer belt. Then she grabs a handful of napkinsfrom a nearby table and starts to pat his jacket dry.
“That’s okay.” Hetakes hold of her hands again, softly but with insistence. Thecontact makes her nerves jump, and excitement courses through herbody. It’s a touch filled with intimacy and promise.
“It’ll wash out.” He notices her discomfort and lets go ofher hands.
“I’m truly sorry,” she says, realizing he has anaccent—an Americanone. “I’m not usuallythisclumsy.” She glances up and sees him raise an eyebrow.“There. It’s kind of dry now.”
“Don’t worry aboutit.”
There it is again, that voice! A delicious shiver ticklesits way along her spine. She clears her throat. “Sorry,” she says,walking over to the bin and tossing the wet napkins in. “You have agood day.” She waves as she turns to the corridor.
He catches her before shehas walked more than three steps. “Hey, you work here?”
She nods. “Yeah, are youlost? Or has Peter deserted you? He sometimes doesthat.”
“No, he didn’t.I—um—what’s your name? Are you a friend of Peter?”
“Yeah, he’s a friend,” she replies and then hesitates for amoment. “It’s Alexandra, by the way. Look, I have to go back towork. To get out, just go this way and turn right and then down thestairs to the main reception.”
“Sorry again about the tea. As I said, I’m not usually thisclumsy. Bye now,” she says, and then she’s gone.
Jayden’s grin stays withhim all the way to the bottom of the stairs.
Her eyes are such a deep brown, like the color of meltedchocolate. And she seems sweet and delicious too! Something aboutthose eyes drew him in and left him slightly breathless.
Peter is waiting for himby the reception desk.
“What took you solong?”
“I couldn’t find thebathroom after all,” Jay replies.
As they walk through the door of the hospital, Jaythinks,So she’s not usuallythat clumsy, is she?
* * *
Alex gasps, her eyes squinting inthe sudden darkness. Damn! She’d have to get the torch and replacethat light bulb again.
She shakes her hands out of the soapy water, wipes them drywith a clean towel, and heads around thebenchtop. As she gropes her way into the living area,she hears a giggle, which sounds much like Emma. There, floating inthe darkness, is a chocolate cake, candlelight flickering acrossits surface. Her dad is holding it, and her mom, with her arm inhis. Her best friend, Ruby Williams-Chan, comes into view, removingany doubt over whose idea this is. Nikita Buchannan and IsabellaRobertson are there, too. Everyone is wearing big, sloppy birthdaysmiles.
“Oh, my God!” Alex murmurs.
Emma giggles again, as though she can’t contain herself,and rushes to stand next to her. The strains ofHappy Birthdaysung in the traditional arrangement of out-of-tune voices,fills the room. A sudden eruption of light reveals Timothy with hishand on the switch. Alex blinks away the afterimage.
Alex laughs. She hadn’texpected this, not after a busy day at work. Usually Saturday israther quiet, but not this one. It has been hectic, and she’s deadtired. She hadn’t expected anything more than a family dinner andthen a good night's sleep. This is such a surprise.
She blinks back tears asshe tightens her arms around her mom.
“Happy birthday,sweetheart,” Mali says, squeezing her hard. “Now make awish.”
Alex looks at the people surrounding her. Emma urges her toblow the candles out so she can have some cake.
“You guys didn’t have todo this,” emerges from her suddenly tight throat.
“Don’t be silly. It’s your birthday. We have to do this,”Ruby says, her braced teeth flashing with candlehighlights.
“Please, just blow the candles out. We want cake,” Emmasays.
“Make a wish, sweetheart,”Jacob says.
Alex looks at her dad, and her eyes flood with tears. Sheonly has one wish.
“Dear lord,”shewhispers to herself,“I wishDad would get his heart transplant and that he’d get well.”She opens her eyes and moves closerto the flickering candles. She takes a deep breath and closes hereyes—an image ofMr.Hot-Chocappears in hermind.What?She shakes her head to clear theimage away, confused.
“Come on, Alex, blow!” Nikita squeals.
She closes her eyes, lowers her head, and blows. All thecandles wink out, followed by the sound of ever-so-slightlysarcastic cheering and clapping.
“So what’d ya wish for?”Tim asks.
Alex looks up at her younger brother. He’s gorgeous, withjet-black hair, dark brown eyes, straight nose, and Hollywood jaw.He’d break lots of hearts.
“Can’t tell,” she replies, hoping her wish will cometrue.It has to cometrue.
“So, who wants cake?’ Momasks.
“Me!” That’s Emma—surprise, surprise. “I’ll help you cut.”She’ll make sure she has the biggest piece, too.
After the last of the cake crumbs has been licked from theplates, Alex’s friends drag her into town claiming she needs tohave some fun. Soon she finds herself in the Octagon with herfriends and, it seems, half of the student body and a largepercentage of the town’s population.
The air is crisp and cold, and Alex is glad she choseboots, skinny jeans and a blazer—much like her friends. If she hadworn a flimsy dress and four-inch heels like most of the othergirls on the crowded streets, she would have simply shivered andcollapsed on the spot, quite apart from the fact that she wouldn’tbe able to walk in those heels.
“Come on, Alex. You haven’t been in Electrica since Uni,”Isabella says with a pretty pout. “It’s time you had some fun,girl.”
Her friends drag heracross the street where a hundred or so people are stamping thecold away, waiting to get into the bar.
Alex laughs as Nikita fills the air with a youthful, “Yay!”She twirls around with her arms out. Nikita, Nikita! Always so boldand fun with her tomboyish ways.
The street is thronged with young people. A couple of guysare about to start a fight, pushing and shoving each other. Alexignores a group of men standing nearby. Most are smoking and makeno attempt to hide their obvious interest in her and her friends.Three of them are struggling to stay upright.
Half an hour later, they finally reach the door. Alex rubsher eyes and blinks. That’s what glaring down a microscope at redand white blood cells eight hours a day does to you—especially ifyou wear contacts. She should have put some eye drops in before sheleft the house, but the girls were in such a rush.
The huge doorman, probably Maori or Pacific Islander, wavesRuby, Nikita, and Isabella straight in. Not Alex. He asks for herI.D. She can’t believe it. She just turned twenty-five, and the manwants to see her I.D? Does she look that young? It’s bothflattering and annoying. The doorman glares at her driver’s licensefor what seems like a minute, the kind of look that says he knowsit’s a fake but can’t quite put his finger on why. He hands it backto her with narrowed eyes and steps aside to let her through. Rubygives her a look, but Alex just shrugs her shoulders as they rushdown the stairs.
Music thumps the walls ofthe lower ground floor. The place is bathed in darkness, lit bysudden flashes of neon light like lightning on a stormy night.Smoke snakes slowly across the dance floor, coiling around groupsof dancers. A group of students squeezes past, bumping theirshoulders. Alex glances around. The people and the smell of sweat,perfume, and alcohol suddenly seems overwhelming. But there isNikita, who enthusiastically pulls her into the crowd. Alex doesn’thave the heart to tell her friends she wants to get out ofhere.
Down on the dance floor, they excuse their way to themiddle. Their hips are swaying and arms making shapes in the smokyatmosphere. Alex feels awkward. She hasn’t been clubbing for solong she can barely remember any moves! Her gaze falls on Isabella,who seems frozen in place.
“Oh, gosh,” Isabella says.
“Hey, what’s wrong, Isa?” Ruby shouts. “Youokay?”
“Eric’s here,” Isawhispers.
Ruby glances at Alex, butshe only shakes her head. “What?” Ruby shouts.
“Eric’s here!” Isa points her finger toward the end of thebar where a group of young doctors is ordering drinks. Isa’scrush,Eric,is with them.
“Go say hi.” Nikita nudges her.
Isa shakes her head. “No!Don’t be silly, Nik.”
“Hey, what’s the harm? Heused to be our high school classmate.”
Isa shakes her head again.Nikita is about to drag Isa toward where Eric is when a troop ofnew arrivals bowls past them.
“Hey!” Nikita shouts inannoyance, but her voice is lost in the music. Then more peoplecome in, shoving through and separating them.
Alex finds herself in a dark corner. She has no idea whereher friends are. She stands on tiptoe, but all she can see are theshadows of wide shoulders and heads. She wishes she was taller. Notto mention her eyes are getting worse by the second.
Moving around the corner, she exits the dance floor andenters a quiet, dimly lit corridor. With the insistentboom-boom-boom of the music rattling the walls, she pays attentionto her eyes. She blinks and rubs a finger across thelids.
“Fudge!”she swears asthe contact lens flicks out of her right eye. In a panic, sheblinks harder and gropes around on the floor. Then the other onedoes the same.“Oh, for God’ssake!”Now she can’t seeanything. She is reaching into her handbag for her glasses when ahand grabs her upper arm and pulls her around.
Though she can’t see the man properly, she knows instantlyshe’s in trouble. She tries to shift away, to avoid him. He catchesher other arm and pulls her closer. The odor of sour alcohol washesover her face, and she wants to gag.
“Hey, sweetheart,” hebreathes.
“Let go.” She shoves athis arm. He catches her again, his fingers digging painfully intoher flesh.
“Come with me.” His voice slurs.
“Leave me alone,” shesnaps, shoving ineffectually at his chest. “Get lost!”
“What’s thatsweet—sweetheart? Co—come with me, ya know ya wanna.”
“Get lost!” she shouts, her heart beating faster, a coldsweat beading her skin. She’s frightened of what’s going to happen.She’s scared of what he’s going to do to her. She feels trapped.“Ruby? Nik? Isa? Where are you guys?” Her eyes dart around, hopingto see her friends—or anyone, for that matter.
She is pushed against the wall as his face looms closer tohers.Holy Crap!Alex doesn’t want to be kissed by adrunken man she doesn’t know. She feels his other hand fumbling ather belt. A sickening feeling rises up in her stomach. Her headstarts to swim. She struggles one hand free and slaps him in theface. He doesn’t let her go. He doesn’t even flinch. A scream isbuilding inside her when suddenly the man is yanked from behind,and a fist crashes against the side of his face, cannoning him intoa corner. His body crunches against the wall and slides to thefloor, blood welling from his nose and lips.
“Leave her alone!” Thevoice is icy, hard, and commanding.
Stunned and shaking, Alex looks up at her rescuer. She canonly make out a silhouette—a strong and powerful shape. The drunkman in the corner mutters something, but nobody islistening.
The newcomer gently pulls her to his side. The gesture isalmost feral—she’smine.It signals not justsexually but personally.His stance and theway he angles his body indicates his readiness and willingness topursue more violent action. Alex can feel his strength radiatingover her.
The drunk’s eyes widen. He holds up his hands, realizinghis mistake.
“No worries, bro. Thought she was free,” he mumbles as hepushes by them.
Alex squints at her rescuer, but without her contacts orglasses, she cannot see any detail, even this close. She glancesdown at the hand that still holds her wrist. Odd that only momentsbefore she felt frightened when she was alone with the drunken man,but now alone with this man, she feels safe.
She offers him a tentativesmile. “Thanks.”
“Why are you herealone?”
There’s that voice again! She can barely understand whathe’s saying. There is a hint of an American accent, familiarsomehow, but the connection eludes her.
“I don't know—the loud music—the crowd,” she says. “And mycontacts. I’ve lost my contacts. I can’t see properly.”
She tilts her head. She can’t see his features, can’tconcentrate, and tears well in her eyes. She’s going tocry.
Goddammit, Alex,shesnaps at herself internally.You’re a big girl. It’s stupid to cry in front of aguy.She blinks and wipes hereyes clean with the back of her hand. “I didn’t see that guycoming, that’s for sure.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Where are your friends?” The harshness isreplaced by soothing warmth.
“My friends?” She touchesher forehead hesitantly. “I’m not sure. I’ve lost them.” She shakesher head a little. “I’m fine,” she lies, wanting to go home. Shefeels tired. There’s still work tomorrow and then the meeting withPeter. A sigh escapes. “Can you help me find them?”
“Yeah, sure. Come on.”
Her hand is neatly enveloped by his as he leads her towardthe door. Ruby comes rushing through, the music swirling aroundher. “Alex? Alex! There you are. Are you okay?”
Nikita and Isa are just astep behind.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Can we gonow?’
Nikita gives her a look.“Yeah. I have had enough. Too many people here. No fun being shovedaround.”
Isa looks at the rescuerand grins. “Thanks for helping Alex find us. So you know eachother?”
He nods unseen in thedarkness as Alex interrupts, “No, we don’t know each other. Now canwe go?”
“Yeah,” Ruby says. “Let’sget out of here.”
As they make their waytoward the stairs, Alex turns. “Thanks for everything.”
At that moment, Jayden wants to pull her into his arms andcomfort her, but he damn well can’t do that, can he? He’s astranger to her. She would think he’s no better than that bastardhe pulled off her. Why he feels this way toward her he doesn’tknow, except she’s Peter’s friend—and possibly his futurefakegirlfriend.
He makes sure Alex and herfriends are safely out of the bar before he returns to Peter, Mary,and some other interns sitting in the corner.
Peter asks, “Longline?”
“Yeah,” says Jay, notwilling to tell the whole story. He picks up his Blackberry andsees a message. It’s from David Peterson, his executive officerfrom head office in New York for his real estate company the J.M.McCartney Group.
Hey, boss, contract ready for you. Documents allsorted. Need you to check andsign. Check your e-mail. How’s the vacation? Hope to see yousoon.
He leans across to Peter.“Hey, I think I’m gonna call it a night.”
Disappointment flashesacross Mary’s face, a slight blush reddening her neck.
“You all enjoy yourself. Bye, everyone. Nice to meet youall,” he says as he heads for the stairs.
Peter hides a smile atMary’s discomfort. “See you guys at work,” he says, followingJayden out.
* * *
The aroma of coffee greets Alex the moment she steps through thedoor of SAN café. It’s toasty warm inside compared to the sharp,cold air outside. She heads to the counter and orders herself thehot chocolate she has been craving since Friday. After grabbing hernumber, she takes a seat facing the door to make sure Peter will beable to spot her.
Alex glances about hersurroundings, noting the busy staff, the happy customers, and cozydecor of the restaurant.
SAN café makes the best hot chocolate in town, not tomention Cambodian food. She and her friends have always met herefor theirhot-chocsessions.
She takes off her blue coat nervously. In fact, her insidesare shuddering with anxiety as she waits for Peter and hisfriend,whoever heis, to show up.
Peter called her late last night. After he sang her a happybirthday song loudly, he told her she shouldn’t be nervous meetinghis friend, supposedly a nice person. She trusts Peter. He wouldnever introduce her to anyone who has a questionable character,except for thatone time withAndrew.
Peter said his name wasJayden, and Jay could help her with her problem. Peter hinted it’sabout her dad. Again that anticipation rises in herchest.
A pretty waitress arrivesand places the tall cup of hot chocolate on her table.
“Thanks.” Alex nods herhead at the waitress in appreciation.
“No worries. Enjoy,” theyoung woman says sweetly and then goes away.
Alone, Alex grins andinhales the steamy liquid, her nose almost touching the thickbrown, chocolaty foam. She picks up one pink marshmallow and dropsit into the hot liquid and then picks the white one and pops thatinto her mouth. She smiles as the light, sugary goodness melts onher tongue. She picks up the cup and takes a sip, the warmth andsweetness of the liquid soothing the coldness in herbody.
Who could Jayden be? Andhow can he help her and her dad?
She glances outsidethrough the cafe’s window and sees that it’s raining again. Shewatches as people wearing thick jackets with scarves wrapped aroundtheir necks rush back and forth in a hurry, even though it’s aSunday. She supposes they want to get away from the cold wind andrain.
She glances at theentrance again. A part of her wants to see Peter coming throughthat door, but the other part doesn’t. She picks up her cell phoneto check the time. It says 2:30 p.m. exactly. The tightness in herstomach intensifies. Then she feels a breeze of cold air. Sheglances up and sees Peter. Her heart skips a beat. She straightensherself and stands up just a bit to get his attention. That’s whenshe sees him.
Her heart does a tripleskip.
It’s him. It’s Mr.Hot-Choc! So he’s Jayden?
Gosh, he looks so—non-Kiwi. Not thatshe’s a full Kiwi herself. She’s half-Cambodian. Her mom was arefugee Cambodian who migrated to New Zealand years ago just afterthe Pol Pot regime. Then her mom married her dad, a real Kiwi bloketo boot who was one of the many refugees’ supporters along withPeter’s mom and dad.
Peter sees her after aquick scan around the cafe.
“Hey, Alex,” he says as he and Jayden advance toward her.“How are you?”
“Fine, thank you.” She can’t help noticing that her voice isshaking just a bit from nervousness.
“Alex, this is JaydenMcCartney,” Peter says, nodding his head toward the handsomeman.
“Hi.” Alex standsslightly, giving him a fleeting smile, avoiding hiseyes.
“Hey,” Jay says, offering his hand.
Alex looks at it as though she has just seen a pig fly.Hesitantly, she put her hand into his. They shake.
Jayden thinks her hand iscold, and it’s so small it disappears into his. She’s also toothin. She still looks plain, wearing those skinny jeans and purplejersey. She must be cold because she still has her pink scarf onthat is wrapped around her neck even in this cozy cafe.
As they take their seats, he notes her snuggling her chindeeper into the thick scarf.
“Did it come off?” sheasks, her voice low, her eyes watching him through herglasses.
Jayden has just noticed she’s wearing a pair of glasses. Hedidn’t remember her wearing them on Friday or lastnight.
He glances at Peter and sees his friend eyeing himquizzically. He says, “It did.” Not bothering to enlighten hisfriend ofwhatdid come off.
“Oh, good. I was so worried it wouldn’t.”
“Don’t worry, it came off,” he confirms, though he doesn’tknow how because he hadn’t been the one who did the cleaning. Thewashing machine did, and Peter’s mom, Mrs. Thompson, the High Courtjustice.
“So, Alex, how’s Mom andDad?” Peter asks.
“They’re okay,” shereplies, avoiding his eyes and fiddling with the cup of her hotchocolate. “Hey, don’t you want anything to drink?”
Jay can tell she doesn’t like talking about her family. Hewonders why. He thinks he senses a hint of pain, sadness, andfrustration in her soft, husky voice. Not a singing voice—just aplain, simple voice—like the rest of her.
“Yeah,” Peter says,getting up. “What do you want, Jay?”
“A flat white, thanks,”Jayden replies.
Peter nods and walks offto the counter to order. Only he isn’t the first in line becausethere is a bunch of Uni students before him.
Alex picks up her cup andnervously sips the hot chocolate again.
Jay watches. He wonders if she’s embarrassed about lastnight. But then again, she said she lost her contacts, and shedidn’t see the drunken man coming. That means she wouldn’t havebeen able to see him properly either. The look she gave him in thatdim corridor said so.
Alex swallows the warm liquid hard. It nearly chokes her.She tries not to make a scene.He is not going to eat you, you ninny,she tells herself internally. Just as thatthought pops up in her head, she glances at him and sees himsmiling at her, a very sultry smile that sends her insidesshuddering with excitement.Fireworks! It feels like fireworks going off in herbody!
She lowers her cup andclears her throat. “Sorry about that tea stain. I promise it won’thappen again.”
“Can you guarantee it?”Jay asks playfully, his eyes twinkling.
She blinks at him. “Saywhat?”
“Is it aguarantee?”
“You mean me promising notto spill tea on you?”
“I don’t know. It’s humannature,” she says, not sure where this is going. Of course shewould never spill tea on him again. She’s never going to see himagain anyway.
It’s such an oddconversation to have with a man. She’s pretty sure when a girl iswith a guy like Jay, she’d properly talk about something else.She’s not sure what, but she’s pretty sure it’s not about spillingtea.
“Human nature, and therefore not one hundred percentguaranteed,” Jay says, nodding his head and folding his arms acrosshis chest. “Which means there must be some type ofcompensation.”
“Yup,” he says, leaningtoward her, his elbow touching hers.
Alex tries not to notice just how good-looking he is andthe fact that he’s sitting beside her, very close to her, his elbowtouching hers.
“What do youthink?”
“All right,” she says,glancing at him. “I’ll wash the shirt for you if I were to spilltea on you again.”
Jayden chuckles, “You meanwith your hands?”
Alex loves the sound ofhis laughter. She flashes him a smile. “What about using a washingmachine?”
Jay’s face becomesserious. He simply stares at her. He realizes right then that hereyes just kind of light up when she smiles. He clears his throatand says, “What if the washing machine destroys myshirt?”
“Well, I’ll just have tobuy you another one. But I can’t guarantee that it’ll be the sameone. Maybe similar but cheaper.”
Jay throws his head back and laughs. Alex can’t help butsmile back.
“That sounds fine byme.”
“Sorry, guys,” Peter says,taking his seat. “Apparently, it’s rather busy. It’s going to be alittle wait.”
Alex nods. Luckily she came in early because there weren’ta lot of people half an hour before. But now, however, the place isalmost full, and there’s a long line of people at the counterwaiting for their turn to order. The town is always busy on aSunday, even in winter. The three young women and two men at thecounter look hectic rushing back and forth, taking orders, andmaking drinks. She’d hate to see what it’s like in thekitchen.
“So, Pete, how’s yourholiday so far? Did you enjoy Sydney and Queenstown?” Alexasks.
“Yeah. What about you, missy? Isn’t it about time you getyourself a holiday?”
“I have been warned.” Sheshrugs. “I have too many annual leaves left.”
“Sounds like a holidayaround the corner,” Peter comments. “Ah, our coffees.”
The waitress places two small white cups in front ofthem.
“Didn’t take long at all.”Peter hands one to Jay. “Thanks,” he says to thewaitress.
The young woman nods. Before she leaves, she winks at Jay,who grins back at her. Jay lifts the small cup to his lips andtakes a sip. He smiles in satisfaction and relaxes back in hischair. He straightens his long legs and accidentally kicks Alex’s.“Oh, sorry about that.”
“That’s okay,” Alexsays, shifting back. “Pete? Can we, like, talk?”
“Hmm,” Peter begins.“Let’s get on with it then.”
“Wait,” Jay says toPete. “I’ll do this.” He turns to Alex.
Alex glances from one manto the other, wondering what’s going on.
“Alex... may I call you Alex?” he asks.
Alex nods, her eyes onhim.
“Alex, I have a proposal for you. Just think of it like abusiness arrangement. It’s like I’m hiring you,” he says, watchingher carefully.
Alex blinks as shelistens, not knowing where this is going. “The problem is I alreadyhave a job.”
“Yeah, well, I know that.But this isn’t like a real job. I need your help.”
“What kind ofhelp?”
“It’s kind of personal.”He leans toward her. Looking deep into her eyes, he asks, “Can youpretend to be my girlfriend?”
Alex just stares at him.She got the word girlfriend, and that’s about it. She blinks.“Sorry? I don’t get it. I’m lost.”
Jay glances at Peter for help. Pete leans toward Alex.“Look, Alex, Jay has a hard time at the moment. His parents—well,more like his mum and nana—are demanding that he bring home agirlfriend or they’ll start matchmaking him again.”
“So? Alex, it’s a big deal. I’m simply sick of them tryingto sort out my life. I’m thirty.” That last bit he said with anexaggerated frown and a shrug of his powerful shoulders, whichtells Alex how annoyed he is. “I know we’ve just met,but—”
Alex looks down at herempty cup. Slowly, she begins to understand everything. “But whatabout your real girlfriend?” She does not dare look at him when sheasks him that question.
“We broke up.”
She studies him then, hereyes questioning him.
Jay understands herquizzical gaze. “It’s personal.” When he sees her hesitation, hesays, “Look, I’ll pay you. Like I said, you’re like my employee.I’m hiring you to do this. You just name the price. A hundredthousand?”
Alex nearly choked. She blinks.Money!Thedollar sign suddenly appears before her eyes along with the ding,ding, ding that sounds like Scrooge McDuck. She didn’t even buy alotto ticket, and she’s about to get a hundred thousand bucks justlike that? Is Jay rich? Well, she doesn’t need to ask him thatquestion. She can tell by his expensive clothing and his powerfulaura. He walks and acts as though he owns the world. Well, maybe hedoes, parts of it, anyway.
Suddenly, her dad’s hearttransplant doesn’t seem so out of reach after all. Maybe she couldalso use the money to pay off the mortgage, and her mum wouldn’tneed to work so hard.
Okay. So what if sheagreed? She licks her lips nervously.
“So, um, what do I have todo to pretend to be your girlfriend? Hypothetically, that is, if Iwere to agree with this, um, proposal of yours?”
Peter and Jay glance ateach other.
Jay says, “You know, theusual girlfriend stuff. I’ll take you back to New York andintroduce you to my family. It’s my sister’s wedding. It’ll only betwo weeks max. I promise.”
“All the way to New York, huh?’ she murmurs, her eyes largebehind her glasses. Okay. Girlfriend stuff. Intimate stuff likegoing out dating—movies, dinners, and picnics—stuff she isn’tfamiliar with. Well, considering the fact she has never dated orhad a boyfriend, she shouldn’t blame herself for being so ignorantabout this boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. But what if she really fallsfor him when they are fake dating? And then his ex-girlfrienddecides to come back into his life?
She glances at Jay, who is watching her, waiting for heranswer. No, it wouldn’t be hard to fall in love with him. Shethinks she is actually starting to do that right now. Oh, God, shedoesn’t want to get hurt. Yeah, Alex might be a romantic, alwaysdreaming about some hot guy like Jay coming in to her life andmaking a difference, but she is also a realist. Nothing like thatever happens in real life.
She pushes her cup awayand puts on her jacket.
Jay and Peter both watch her. Jay thinks she’s gettingcolder. Peter, however, thinks differently. He knows she’s backingout, and there’s nothing he can do right now.
She picks up her satchel and says, “I’m sorry, Jay. I don’tthink I can help you.” She gets up and rushes to thedoor.
Jay shoots up. He’s aboutto go after her when Peter stops him.
“What the hell happened?” he asks, confused. The girl istruly odd. One minute she was sitting there, listening andquestioning them, and then the next—poof!She’sgone.
“She needs time to think.The offer is too much for her.”
“Ludicrous, more like it.I think she thinks I’m nuts,” Jayden says, lifting his coffee cupto his lips.
“So tell me about her,”Jay begins, setting his cup down. “What is she like?”
“Sweet, innocent, andloyal,” Peter says. “There, I’ve summed it all up foryou.”
Jay narrows his eyes. “Very funny, Pete. Has she had anyboyfriends before?”
Jay cocks his head to oneside. “Maybe that’s why she’s scared.”
“She’s afraid of men. Thatexplains her nerves around me. She’s probably afraid I might hurther. That explains why she never has a boyfriend. Tell me, has shebeen abused?” He was actually thinking about last night. Perhapsthat kind of things is common in her life.
Peter has to try hard notto laugh in front of his friend’s face. As far as he knows, Alexhas a loving family. Jacob is the best. He loves his wife andchildren to bits.
“No, at least I don’tthink so.”
“You have to convince herto help me, Pete.”
“You’re close to her.She’d probably run away again if I approached her.”
“You’re right,” Peteragrees.
“Anything, huh?” Petersays, nodding his head. He knows just how to go about it.Oh boy, this is going to befun.
* * *
Alexandra is going nuts! She can’t concentrate or do anything rightafter that damn hot-choc with Peter and Jayden. Once she ran outthe door like the devil was on her heels, she was nearly run downby a car as she crossed the road. This was because she hadn’tlooked both ways. How stupid of her. Then she drove her car intothe wrong lane and got honked at twice plus a“Learn how to drive properly, Asian, and go backto your own country”from oneof the obese truck drivers. Yeah, right. Under normal circumstancesshe would have shouted back,“This is my country, you moron. I’m a Kiwi!”But of course she hadn’t been ableto think properly at the time.
Dammit! It’s allMr.Hot-Choc’sfault. She justcan’t stop thinking about him. His handsome face keeps appearing inher mind, his voice, and even the rhythm of his speech keepsechoing in her head.
Once home and alone in herbedroom, she throws her satchel on the floor and collapses on thesoft bed.
“You’ve sent me the wrongman,” she mutters under her breath, looking heavenward at the whiteceiling. She sighs and rolls over to lie on her stomach. “He’s noteven interested in me. He’s interested because I can help him.” Shepouts her lips. “His girlfriend must be very hot.” Then she thoughtto add, “And very stupid.”
She rests her chin on her palm as she stares at her pinknetbook screen.Well youbetter stop thinking about him and start paying bills, Alex,she tells herselfinternally.
Nodding her head and determined not to think about thathandsome American dude, she logs into her internet banking andstarts paying her electricity and phone bills. The balance in herbank account after that makes her feel terribly depressed. Shesighs. Oh, well, at least next Wednesday will be payday. Her spiritlifts with that thought; she moves on to check her e-mails. Shestares up at the ceiling as she waits for her login. When sheglances back at the screen, she gasps.
“Oh, my God!”
She blinks and stares at the screen harder. On the whitescreen it reads:Jayden hasrequested to be your friend. Press accept if you knowhim.
She nibbles her lower lip, excitement bubbling up withinher.Should sheaccept?Her finger movestoward the link below that would lead her to the Facebook loginpage.Click!
Oh, Alex, you’re not astalker, are you? No, no, Alex, you’re not a stalker. You’re simplychecking this American guy out, a guy who asked you to be his fakegirlfriend. What type of request is that, anyway?
So, okay, checkinghim out means she is simply doing her research. After all, shedoesn’t want to get into an agreement with a weird creep who’dprobably harm her now, would she?
His profile picture is of him skiing at the top of asnow-covered mountain.Queenstown?She can’teven make out his face. But he still looks hot even in that winterjacket, wool hat, and sunglasses.
Browsing through his Facebook, she finds he loves extremesports and he’s a fan of many sports clubs. She concludes he isreal. She notes he does not show his relationship status. He’sprobably still too heartbroken from the breakup.
After she’s had enough,she logs out of Facebook and turns off the laptop. She rollsherself over her double bed and sits up. Just then her cell phonerings. She wonders who it is as she reaches for it. She flips thephone on and sees that it’s Peter.
She grunts under herbreath and says, “Hey, Pete.”
“Hey, Alex, how’sthings?”
Before Alex could say that“Everything is not all right”because she keeps thinking about Jayden and seeing hishandsome face in her mind and that she has just finished stalkinghim via Facebook, he says,“Look, Alex, so sorry about this afternoon.”
Alex bites her lip. “That’s okay, Pete. I know you want to help your friend. At leastMargaret isn’t matchmaking you. Well, she doesn’t have to sinceyou’re already engaged anyway.”
She hears him laughing,loud and clear from the other side.
“Hey, so no hard feelings,right?”
“Yeah, no hard feelings. Iforgive you.”
“Thing is Jay isgay.”
Alex blinks. “Say what?” she shouts into the phone. Shedraws back, shocked at herself for bellowing like that. Shecan just imagine Peter rubbing hissore ear as he stared at the phone in a bizarre way.
“Yeah, he’s gay. And there’s no girlfriend. Jay made it up,so people think he’s—you know—straight. Anyway, you get the idea. You know, his family iswell known in New York. If this gets out—”
Alex just sits there, her mouth agape inshock. Oh my God! Jay is gay?That hot dude who loves extreme sports is gay?
“If his family knows, he’sin deep shit. Pardon my French.”
Alex blinks and asks,“That’s why he wants to hire me to pretend to be his girlfriend? Toprevent his family from finding out that he’s gay? So that they’dstop matchmaking him?”
She looks heavenward and shouts internally,You totally sent down the wrong guy,mister. He’s gay! Did you accidentally stuff up his genes beforeyou sent him down to earth or something? Is he supposed to have twoX's instead of an X and a Y for his sex chromosomes?
She says into the phone,“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, aren’t you going tohelp? Hey, he’s rich. This means more to him than making a millionbucks. Besides, you could use the money for your dad.”
Alex thinks that Peter is right. She could certainly usethe money, and her dad’s condition is getting worse. Hehad started to have fainting spellsagain. Not to mention chest pains, palpitations, and his depressionis getting worse. She shouldn’t be selfish in such a situation. Notthat she has ever been selfish in her life anyway.
“It’s like killing twobirds with one stone, Alex. You’re helping a man in need, and atthe same time, you’re helping your father.”
Bull’s-eye!Alex thinks Peter hits the targetright there.
“Hey, Peter, can I phoneyou back in like an hour or something? I have to think thisover.”
“Yeah, sure. Talk to yalater then.”
“Yeah,” she says and thenflips the cell shut.
She sits there on the side of the bed, deep in thought. Shedoesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to have to ask for help.And this is the weirdest help she has ever received. But thenagain, this isn’t help, is it? Jayden is, after all, hiring her. Soin effect it’s a job.A weirdone.
She leaves her room and comes into the living area. Shespots her dad taking his many medications. He’s still young, at the age of fifty-five, and hehas to go through all that?
“You okay, Dad?” sheasks. She knows he hates it that he, as the breadwinner of thefamily, is now depending on his family for survival. The verythought hurts him, and it threatens to kill him.
“Just a migraine,” Jacobsays.
She knows he’s lying. Sheglances at her mom and asks, “What’s for dinner?”
“Sweet and sour salmon soup and beef and mixed veggiestir-fry,” Mali replies. “Honey, why don’t you go lie down?” Shesuggests to her husband.
Jacob grunts and nods. Then he makes himself comfortable onthe La-Z-Boy chair, a birthday present from Peter and his familyfor Jacob last year.
Alex grabs the blanket andwraps it about him. “Comfortable?”
Jacob nods and closes hiseyes. Alex lowers her face to his and then gives him a peck on hischeek. “You’re not very good at lying, you know.”
“It’s genetic,” sheretorts.
After helping her mom with the veggies, Alex goes back toher bedroom. She throws herself on the bed and slouches on herstomach. Then she grabs her notebook and a pen. She writes down ontop of the page: PRETENDING TO BEMR. HOT-CHOC’SGIRLFRIEND. Then on the right side of the page she writes:ADVANTAGES, and on the left side she writes:DISADVANTAGES.
A lot of thinking,mumbling, writing, and furiously scribbling out later she readsaloud what she has written down.
“Advantages:help Dadpay for his heart surgery, pay off the mortgage, helpMr. Hot-Choc, get to see New York, get to go to a wedding, get aholiday, and get to seeMr.Hot-Choceveryday for twoweeks or so.”
She frowns at that last one and furiously scribbles it out.He’s gay, she reminds herself. Then she looks at the list below theword disadvantage.She reads,“Away from home and family.Mr. Hot-Choc’sfamilymight not like her.Whocares!”She cocks her head to one side. “Decision made.”That means she’ll have to hand in her annual leave on Monday. Shesmiles at that thought. Finally, it’s holiday time.
* * *
Margaret Thompson glances at Peter and Jayden from where she standsin the kitchen, armed with a knife and chopping board. She wonderswhat they’re doing, sitting there for almost an hour now, staringat the Blackberry that’s on the coffee table. It looks as thoughthey’re daring it to ring, so intense they are at their task. Theair is thick with tension and anticipation.
The telephone on the sidetable beside Peter shrills out, causing the two men to jump. Theyglance at each other. Jayden shakes his head and returns hisattention back to the motionless Blackberry. Peter ignores theringing phone beside him that seriously demands his attention andleans closer to his Blackberry. A second later, the continuousbuzzing is starting to annoy the men. They both frown at the damnthing and demand it to shut up.
Peter says, “Mum, aren’tyou going to get that?”
Margaretlooks up,her green eyes peering above her spectacles at Peter, her red hairbright and glowing under the light. “I’m busy, Peter, aren’t yougoing to pick it up?”
“I’m waiting for an important call, Mum,” Peter says,signifying that this could be a life-and-deathsituation.
“Well, your call must beveryimportant then,”Margaret retorts, shaking her head. She wipes her hands clean witha towel and rushes to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile, the two menturn their attentions back to the Blackberry that refuses to giveany sign of an urgent incoming call.
“Hello, Margaret speaking,” she says, heading toward thekitchen. A short pause and then, “Hello, Alex dear, how areyou?”
The two men snap their heads up and zero in on the phone inMargaret’s hand. They both jump up at the same time and rush towardMargaret, who is oblivious to their eager advance and is chattinganimatedly to Alexandra.
Peter races up andintercepts his mother. He says, “Mum, Alex?”
“What?” Margaret asks, clearly confused. “Of course it’sAlex. Wait! What are you doing?” she snaps as Peter tries to seizethe phone from her hand. “Don’t you dare! I’m talking to Alex.” Sheshoves the phone away from him.
“No, Mum, this isimportant,” Peter begs, his hand reaching outeverywhere.
“Yes, very important,”Jayden put in, nodding his head. “Please give him thephone.”
“What is so important? It’s only Alex,” Margaret says, thephone up in the air and away from their reach. “Besides, I haven’ttalked to Alex for ages.”
Pete snatches the receiverfrom his mother simply because he’s taller. “Sorry, Mum, you cantalk to her later.” He places the receiver against his ear. “Alex?That you? It’s Pete here.”
“So what is it? What’syour decision?” Pete asks as he eyes Jayden, who looks rathernervous all of a sudden.
“Look—um—I’ve beenthinking—I’ve—I’ve decided to help Jay.”
Peter grins and motions athumb up at Jayden, winking at the same time. Jay nods andsmiles.
Margaretsees Peterwinking cheekily and shakes her head as she goes into the kitchen.She says loudly, “Why don’t you invite her over fordinner?”
“Who? Alex? Okay,”Peter says and then to the phone. “Great, Alex. Good decision.Listen, why don’t you come over for dinner?”
“Oh, okay. I’ll bethere in a jiffy. Bye now.”
“Bye,” Peter says andhangs up. The two men laugh and do a high five.
Margaretsees thisand raises an eyebrow. She wonders if Peter is trying to set Alexand Jay up. She hopes so because that sweet girl deserves a fineyoung man like Jayden.
“She’s coming over,” Petershouts to his mum.
Jay said, “I still haven’tforgiven you.”
“About what?” Peter asksinnocently.
“About that lie. I’m notgay.”
Peter chuckles. “Hey, bro, I know you’re not, but it’s theonly way to get her to change her mind. She feels sorry for you.You ought to be pleased with that.”
Jay takes a seat and leansback against the comfortable sofa. “Yeah, I suppose Ishould.”
* * *
The room suddenly feels awfully small and the air so thick Alex hasto sit down and take deep, slow breaths to calm herself.
It’s done.She agreedto Jayden’s proposal, and her stomach still hasn’t stoppedfluttering. She wonders what it will be like to live withherMr. Hot-Chocfor two long weeks and have to seehim every single day.
Oh, shoot! Has she just referred to Jayden asherMr. Hot-Choc? Oh God!What was she thinking?
Shaking her head at hersilly thought, she rushes up and busies herself trying to findclothes for a quick shower. As she heads to the bathroom, sheshouts, “Mum, I’m going out for dinner tonight.”
“Will you be late home?”her mother asks from the kitchen.
“No, I won’t. I’m only going to the Thompsons’,” shereplies.
“Great, say hi to them forme, won’t you? Oh, we’ll have to give them some of our lettuces andsilverbeet.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll pickthem after my shower.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll doit.”
“Okay,” Alex shoutsand then shuts the door. When she’s out and ready to leave, her mumgrabs her attention. “Don’t forget this.”
Alex gets the plastic bag full of lettuce and silverbeet asshe says, “Thanks, Mum.” She glances at her dad in the La-Z-Boychair, now reading theOtagoDaily Times. His face is notas pale as before.
Jacob looks over to hisdaughter. “Drive safely, won’t you?”
“You know I do,” shecomments and comes over to kiss him on the cheek.
“Hey, I want to come,” Emma says over the many scatteredpapers and science books on the dining table. Her dark curls are ina wild mess, and her brown eyes are sparkling with hope as shelooks at Alex.
“No, you may not. Theyonly invited me. There will not be enough food for everyone if youcome along,” Alex teases.
Tim, his eyes narrowed as he glances at his younger sister,says, “Get back to your homework, missy, otherwise you won’t getinto Uni with your laziness. All you think about isfood.”
Emma pokes her tongue ather brother, telling him to bugger off. Then turning back to Alex,she says, “I don’t eat that much. I’ve been told I’m too thinanyway.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Alexmumbles. She turns to her mom and gives the woman a peck on thecheek. “Love you.”
“Love you, sweetheart,”Mali says.
Ten minutes later, Alex parks her Toyota Corolla in frontof the Thompsons’ house and gets out. She rushes to the door andrings the bell. As she waits, she glances at the beautiful viewbefore her.
The Thompsons’ house sits on top of a great hill thatoverlooks the harbor and the city below. On days like this one,though slightly breezy and cold, the view is spectacular. There’sthe turquoise blue of the glistening water, the dark blue of theclear sky above with the occasional clouds scattering here andthere, and the stunning green of the hills with dots of houses onthe other side.
The door opens. Alex glances up, smiling and expecting togreet one of the Thompsons. But it is not any of the Thompsons whostands there at the door, grinning down at her.It’s Jayden.
Her heart misses a beat and pumps faster.Calm down, old girl; it’s only Jay.And he’s gay. He’s not interested in you.
“Hey there,” she says cheerfully. “Whatare ya doing here?”
Jay, with his greetingsmile still fixed on his handsome face, says, “I’m staying here fora little while. Love the view.”
Alex nods in agreement.“Yeah, Waverly’s great.”
She waits for him to takea step back to let her through the door, but he doesn’t budge. Hejust stands there looking down at her from his great height. Shemakes an attempt to enter through anyway and ends up squeezingherself between him and the side of the door.
She glances up at him as she passes, her face red becausehe’s so near her she can actuallyfeelhim. She canfeel his warm breath on her forehead. She can feel his muscularchest brushing against the side of her arm.
Once she passes the threshold of the house, she bends downto take her shoes off.
“Alex, that you?” Margaret’s loud voice comes from theliving room.
“Yes. Hi, Margaret,” Alex says, shooting up as she doesso.
Bam!She collideswith Jay. Why is he behind her when there’s plenty of room in thehallway? It’s not like they’re in a tiny closet, for God’ssake.
“Sorry,” he says, grinningat her, and his face seems to be moving closer to her.
Alex smiles apologeticallyand strokes her fingers through her hair because she is gettingrather hot from being so close to him. Her body is workingovertime.
“That’s okay,” shemanages to say, avoiding his eyes as she walks into the livingarea, with Jay following close behind her.
“Oh my dear, I haven’t seen you for such a longtime,”Margaret says as shecomes around the bench, her arms wide open. She hugs Alex, pattingthe girl’s back as she does so.
“Sorry, I was quite busy with work and all,” Alex explains,moving back. “Here, it’s from Mum.” She hands Margaret the bagfilled with lettuces and silverbeets. “Mum said hi.”
“Well, she doesn’t have todo that. Tell her I say hi back and thank you for these.” Shegestures to the bag in her hand. “What would you like to drink,honey?” she asks as they both walk into the kitchen.
“Ribena would be good,thanks,” Alex replies, watching Jay, who is now on the other sideof the spacious, modern living room picking up his mug ofbeer.
“Ribena? You got it,” Margaret says, opening her largestainless steel fridge door.
That’s better—seeing him sitting on the other side of theroom makes her feel better.Space.She needsspace. She needs to breathe properly.
She leaves her satchel on the bar and then takes her jacketoff. Margaret hands her a glass of Ribena.
“Thanks,” she says, takingthe cool glass in her hands. “How come Jay’s stayinghere?”
Margaretglances upwith raised brows. “You know each other, huh?”
“I met him at thehospital. Peter was there with him.”
“Peter thought Jay needed company and a change,” Margaretsays as she takes out the roasted pork and vegetables from theoven. She grunts as she carries the hot, heavy tray across thesmall space and places it on the chopping block. “Why don’t you setthe table, dear?” She starts picking out the roasted potatoes,kumara, and carrots, and puts them into a large servingbowl.
“Sure,” Alex replies, putsdown her drink on the bench and proceeds to roll up her sleeves.“Smells delicious,” she comments. Then she shakes her hair andtucks the strands behind her ear so they are out of her face.“Where are the plates?”
“Behind you,” Margaret replies without looking up from herpork.
Alex nods and turns.“Shoot!” She gasps as she feels a hard body against her.
Jayden catches her arm with one hand to steady her. Heplaces the now-empty mug onto the benchtop as he searches herface.
She glances up, and her heart starts to beat faster. Oh,God, he’s touching her. Then she feels something wet about herbreasts. She glances down and sees that her jersey is soaked with adark liquid.
“You all right?” Jay asksin concern, still searching her face, his body way too close forher comfort.
“Sorry, I didn’t see youbehind me.”
Margaretlooks upfrom her pork. “Just an accident. Why don’t you clean up beforedinner, Alex?”
Alex turns to smile at Margaret. “Yeah, I’ll do that.Excuse me.” Then she squeezes herself between Jay, who doesn’t seemto notice that she needs some room and won’t move an inch, and thebench.
After watching her leavethe room, Jay says, “I think she’s upset with me.”
“Oh?” Margaret looks at him.
“I better go and see howshe’s doing since I’m the culprit.” Jay grins gingerly and leavesthe kitchen.
Margaretsmiles andgoes about preparing their dinner, humming to herself.
* * *
Jayden wanders along the hallway, cursing himself. What the hell iswrong with him? Why is he showing so much interest toward Alex? Andwhy did he have to stand so close to her just then?
No, wait. Pause rightthere, hot shoot!
He knows why. It’s becauseshe smells great, like spring or something. He wasn’t able to helphimself because he wanted to smell her again after she had squeezedpast him through the entrance door into the hallway. It’s not astrong, perfumery smell like most of the women used back in NewYork, but rather a subtle scent, just a hint of lovely floral thatpricks his interest, just a hint that makes him want to inhalemore.
He reaches the bathroom door, puts one hand on the knob,and knocks lightly a couple of times with the other. When hedoesn’t hear any reply, he opens the door slightly and pops hishead in.
He sees her busy cleaningherself with some Kleenex. She has her jersey off, which is lyingon the floor. She’s wearing only her white singlet and her skinnyjeans. He clears his throat. No response. He knows she probablydoesn’t hear him because she’s too busy frowning at her stainedsinglet. Jay has no doubt that she doesn’t like the look of thedark stain on the white fabric. The singlet looks new. Maybe that’swhy she’s upset. Then she yanks the material to her nose andsniffs. She makes a face as though she is disgusted. Jay guessesshe doesn’t like the smell of that beer either. Then she startspulling the hem of the singlet from her waist, ready to take itoff.
Not wanting to be seenpeeking in on her while she is undressing, he says loudly, “Alex,you all right?”
She had gotten half her singlet up to and covered her facewhen he said that.HolyMother of God!He could seethe lace of her bra coiling with her singlet, and it is goingup.
Alex turns around as sheyanks the singlet all the way off her body. She blinks once it isoff her person.
“Holy shit!”Jayswears under his breath, staring at her, the top half of her bodynaked. She has beautiful breasts. They are milky white, full, andround with light pink nipples.
Alex glances down and herface goes bright red. She quickly covers herself and startsmumbling something that Jay couldn’t hear.
Feeling guilty, he states,“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“No, no, no. It’s my fault. I didn’t lock the door. Butthat’s okay because you’re gay.” The moment she says that, Alexwants to die.
Where did that come from?You stupid girl! What have you done? You’ve hurt Jay’s tenderfeelings. You know very well that gay people are very sensitive,not only about this subject, but in everything else aswell.
Jay cocks his head to one side, studying her. She’s staringat the floor, completely mortified. Okay. He is supposed to be gay. This should come in useful.So instead of saying sorry to her, shutting the door, and leavingher alone like a real bloke would do, he comes into the bathroomand closes the door. He glances at her chest; the milky white fleshof her breasts is barely concealed from his prying eyes, what withher slender arms and the little material of the wetsinglet.
“Hey,” he finally says. “It’s okay.”
Alex looks up at him. “Ireally didn’t mean that, Jay. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I can’t helpthe way I am,” he says, his gut retching in disgust.
You’re damn right, yourascal. You can’t help with the way you are. You’re a male who isabout to take advantage of an innocent young woman.
He comes to stand right in front of her.Now then, what does a real gay mando when he encounters such an odd situation? He’d be understanding,and he’d give her a hug, like when a girl gives her girlfriend ahug after she finds out that her best friend got dumped.
Jay touches her arms andsays gently, “It’s all right, Alex.”
He tries, honest to God,he really does try. But he is just a mere man. He is not a monk. Hecouldn’t help himself, and so he glances down at her breastsagain.
She seems to be huggingherself harder, as though she is withdrawing from him because he istouching her. And in doing so she’s squeezing her breasts together.His mind starts reeling with sinful images. His mind startspicturing what he could do to her, particularly those amazingbreasts of hers.
He quickly looks away before his imagination gets anywilder. He stares at the wall instead andthinks—you rascal, you’returned on. Shit! You’re turned on. You’re in deep shit.
Think of something to say! Think of a joke! Make ajoke!
Alex looks up at him, hiswarm hands touching her bare arms.
“Jay?” she whispers, hereyes large beneath her glasses as she gazes up at him.
“Hmm?” he responds,finally looking down at her face that doesn’t seem so plainanymore.
“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Peter told me. I’m sorry. Ishould have kept it a secret. I mean, not mentioning it to you. ButPeter told me, and—oh, damn—I’m so lousy at this. But I was justwondering, so you like men?”
God, she is so cute trying to apologize. She doesn’t evenknow how to go about this so she won’t hurt hisso-calledfeelings even more.
As an answer to herquestion about him being gay, he swallows and manages tonod.
“So it’s okaythen,”she says quietly.
“Me half-dressed in front of you. I’m shy. But since you’regay and all, I think it’s okay. I heard people say gay friends aregenuinely nice, like they’re not—you know—maybe it’s good to haveyou as a friend. I think you’re a good man, Jay. I think that’s whyPeter is helping you out. And like can we not talk about this, youknow, to anyone? Can we like keep it a secret?”
Jay wants to laugh. She isdrawing all the wrong conclusions about him. She considers herselfsafe in his presence when she’s half-naked? And she thinks he is agood man?
“All right then. That’llfix it.”
“What’ll fix it?” Alexasks, looking up at him.
“I’ll get one of my shirtsfor you since I’m the one who spilled beer on you,” he says andreluctantly takes a few steps back. “And yeah, we’ll keep it asecret.”
“Thanks. Can you likehurry cos I’m hungry.”
Jay nods. “Right,” he saysand opens the door. “Back in a sec.”
Alex grins. Jay closes the door. Alone, she turns andglares accusingly at her old bra. It’s the bra’s fault, of course.She can’t believe the stupid thing coiled with her singlet and cameoff. Gosh, she needs to buy a new one.
* * *
In the dimly lit dining room, Jayden watches Alex from across thetable, grinning to himself. She has on his dark grey jumper. It’sway too big for her person, but she manages to make it look asthough it fits her perfectly, with the sleeves rolled up to herslim forearms.
“So how’s the houserenovation going, Pete?” Alex asks, glancing up from her plate ofroasted pork and various veggies.
“Not too well,” Petersays. “Did I tell you about that mold?”
Alex shakes her head asshe pops some pork into her mouth.
“We have to take down thewalls. God, more labor cost and more materials needed now,” hemumbles. “And Tracy is not very happy.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t behappy either,” Alex comments, thinking about the amount of moneyneeded for a house renovation.
“So, Alex,” Mr. Thompsonsays from across the table, sipping his glass of whitewine.
Alex looks over at Dr.Mark Thompson, who had only arrived five minutes before dinner. Hehad been busy at the Dunedin Public Hospital and at the lab. Well,as a head consultant hematologist, he is expected to be busy and heis expected to be called in at any time.
“How’s Dad?” heasks.
“He’s not doing too well,”Alex says, wondering if she should tell Mark her dad is gettingworse day by day.
Jay pops a piece of theroast meat into his mouth and chews as he listens to theirconversation. He wonders what’s wrong with Alex’s dad. Is that whyshe was reluctant to talk about her family back at SAN?
“He’s still having thosefainting spells now and again.”
“I suggest surgery if itgets worse,” Mark says.
Alex could only nod inagreement, as she doesn’t know what else to say. She turns herattention to Jayden and sees him watching her. Her stomach fluttersoddly as his gaze seems to be drawing her deeper into some kind ofspell. Then he looks away and pops another piece of sweet potatointo his mouth.
“You do like kumara?” sheasked, watching him.
Jay looks up at her.“Kumara?”
“Yeah, kumara,” Alex says,nodding her head. “You’ve had three big pieces already.”
“I have? I don’t remembereating them.”
Peter and Margaret starts to laugh. Peter says, “She meanssweet potatoes.”
“Yeah, we call themkumara. It’s a Maori word for sweet potatoes,” Alexsays.
“Kumara,” Jay tries outthe word. “I like the name.”
After a good, heartydinner and then dessert of ice cream and fruits, Alex says goodnight to the Thompsons and leaves. It’s cold and dark outside asshe rushes to her car. She is about to get in when Jay calls out toher. “Hey, sorry to bother you.”
“That’s okay,” shesays, shivering and hugging herself against the cold wind. “Oh,yeah, totally forgot. Your jersey.”
“No worries. You can giveit back to me tomorrow.” A good excuse indeed to see heragain.
“Tomorrow? What’shappening tomorrow?” Alex asks, confused.
“We have a lunch date,” hesays, grinning from ear to ear.
“We do?” she asks. Her brows rise, her heart beating just alittle faster than usual.
“Yeah.” He comes closer toher. He could smell a hint of that lovely floral scent of her hair,and he wants to get closer. He also wants to keep her out of thecold wind.
“Peter told me you saidyes. I thought we should meet tomorrow for lunch and arrangeeverything. How long do you have for lunch?”
“Only an hour, huh?” Hesounds disappointed. “That’s too short. How about we change todinner?”
“Okay,” she says,nodding her head, and rubbing her hands about her cold arms to getsome warmth. “Dinner it is, then. What time?”
“How about straight afterwork? What time do you finish work?”
“I finish at five,” shesays, inserting the key to start the engine.
“How about six-thirty?Gives you time to go home and change.”
“Why can’t we just meet atlike a quarter past five or something? I don’t need to change.” Shelooks up at him in the dimness of the night.
Doesn’t she need to change?Now that’s new to Jay. He thought every woman wants toshower and change into something nice before they go out for adinner date. Apparently not this one. Maybe she doesn’t think thisis supposed to be a date.
“That’s cool, it’s up to you. Five-fifteen it is,then.”
“Can we go to SAN? Imissed my salmon. You’re paying, right?”
“Yeah, it’s on me. SAN it is. Good night.”
“Night, Mr. McCartney,”she says and shuts the door.
Jayden watches as shedrives away into the darkness. “Mr. McCartney, huh?” he mumbles ashe makes his way back into the house.
He finds Peter by himself in the living room. He joins hisfriend on the couch and watches the sports news Peter currently hason TV. The Kiwis love their rugby, and he finds himself falling inlove with the sport too—what with the kicking, tackling, andvigorous running. But he’s not a fan of that Dan Carter guy whodoes ads for all kinds of things, especially for Jockey.Apparently, all the girls adore him because of his good looks. Hewonders if Alex is one of them.
A moment later when theads begin, Jayden says, “What’s wrong with Alex’s dad?”
Peter glances sideways athis friend. “Interested, are you?”
Jay grins. “If she’s goingto be my girlfriend, I have to know what’s going on in herlife.”
Peter chuckles. “You mean yourfakegirlfriend?”
“Nobody is supposed to know except for you, me, and Alex.Got that?”
“Got it. And Alex’s dadJacob has heart problems. Long story short, if he gets any worse,he needs a heart transplant. I personally think he needs it rightnow, but Alex doesn’t have the money.”
“I see,” Jay says, noddinghis head.
They both are silent as the ads end, and sports newscontinues. Jayden sits there and watches, though his interest hasalready waned. He is thinking about Alex and her dad. She needsmoney for her dad’s heart transplant. Maybe that’s part of thereason why she agreed to help him.
He smiles at thethought.
* * *
“Shit!”Jayden swears under his breath. He’s in a total panic,wondering where he’s supposed to find a white singlet. He has beensearching in every damn shop that sells women’s clothing acrossthis small town and still can’t find a single white singlet. Heglances at his watch and notes that it’s nearly five o’clock. Alexwill be finishing work soon, and she’d be meeting him for dinner atSAN.
He is now in the Meridian, one of their malls, looking likea lost little duckling. Not that he is little, for God’s sake. He’sover six feet tall and every female he passes, young or old, isgawking at him from head to toe. God, he hates shopping. How canpeople say shopping is fun? Even worse, how can people get addictedto shopping? Hold on, hot shot! You’re a guy, and guys never likeshopping.Period!
He walks toward the exit,shoulders slumped. The stupid weather doesn’t help with his moodeither. It’s raining again.
Sorry, Alex, can’t replace your singlet because—Whatthe!He does a double takeand grins. There it is.Thesinglet. Hehurries into the small underwear shop that is hidden away fromsight, and his spirit lifts. He browses through, wondering whatsize Alex is. Small? Yeah, she’d be a small. He picks one white,size small and then thinks he’d better take two. Grinning tohimself like an idiot, he strolls over to the counter where theyoung woman there is watching him with interest. Then his eyescatch the bras. He has never been into a lingerie shop before, andthis experience is completely new to him.
His eyes are big and wide as hetakes it all in, bras all in different colors andsizes, some plain and some with frills. He places the two singletson the counter and says, “Hi.”
“Hi,” the young womanreplies, smiling at him, her eyes appreciating what she sees. Shepicks up the two singlets and says, “You’re not from around here,are you?”
Jay shakes his head as heeyes her name badge. It says Brandy. He glances at her pretty faceand says, “No.”
She nods and says, “Foryour girlfriend?”
Jayden hesitates. Doesbuying underwear for Alex means she is his girlfriend? Just to beon the safe side, he shakes his head. “No, it’s for, um, mysister.”
Brandy laughs merrily. “Whoa! I’ve never seen guys cominginto this lingerie shop to buy their sisters underwear,” shecomments, her eyes intense on his face.
Jay smiles pleasantly.“Well, I’m not like most brothers.” Damn, he never thought he wassuch a good liar.
Brandy grins as she scansthe barcodes into the computer. She glances up and smiles prettilyat him, fluttering her eyelashes a few times at him. She does herbest flirting with him. Only he isn’t paying her the least bit ofattention. He’s looking at the rows of bras on the other side ofthe shop.
“You want to buy yoursister bras, too?” she asks curiously.
Jay glances at Brandy.“Yeah,” he says, walking toward the rows of bras.
Brandy follows him. “Doyou know what size she is?”
What size is Alex anyway?She must be a small, since she is rather tiny in person.
“She’s about this high,”he says, indicating with his hand to his chest. “And this thin,” hecontinues, also indicating with his two hands of the space in frontof him.
“I don’t think we can measure the size of her bra fromthat.” Brandy shakes her head. “But from what you’re telling me,she must be a size small?”
“I think we should try a size twelve. Now do you know what cup she is?”
Jay widens his eyes.“What?”
“Cups. Do you know whatcup she is? A, B, or C like mine?” Brandy points down, drawing outher chest just a little bit for him to notice.
Not looking at the sales assistant who is begging for hisattention, Jay glares at the arrays of bras and tries to fit thebras in front of him onto Alex’s breasts he glimpsed on Sundaynight.Shit!The memory comes to him vividly, andinstantly, his mind starts reeling with imagination.
B!He’s pretty sureshe’s a B.
He says to Brandy, “B.” Then he turns back and picks onethat is a size twelve with a cup B, which is designed beautifullywith light pink laces.
Brandy says, “You’redone?”
Once his purchase is done,Jay thanks Brandy for her help and leaves without a backwardsglance. If he were to look back, he would have seen Brandy watchinghim with longing as he walks away.
Jayden strolls the short distant to SAN and waits for Alexto turn up. He finds the place pleasant this evening as compared tothe hectic pace of that Saturday afternoon. The mood and theatmosphere are just right for a first date. The lovely soothingSoutheast Asian music, the golden hue of light from the waterfallchandelier, and the cozy décor of red, gold, and brown all set thetheme for a romantic night. A pretty young waitress places twomenus in front of him, pours him a glass of water, and politelytells him she’ll be back when his friend arrives. Jay nodspleasantly and then scans the menu. A moment later he sees Alexentering the restaurant.
“Hey,” she says, sliding into the chair oppositehim.
“Hey,” he replies. “Howwas work?”
“Good. Have you ordered?”she asks, taking off her jacket.
“No, I was hoping you’d be able to help me,” he sayssheepishly.
“That I can,” she replies,picking up the menu. “Don’t worry. The food here is very healthy.Do you like barbeque?”
“Good. I think you shouldgo for the Fusion. You get all kinds of barbeque meat in Cambodianstyle.”
“Sounds good. I’ll havethat.”
“Okay,” Alex says,smiling.
Once the young waitresshas taken their orders, Jay holds out the shopping bag towardAlex.
Alex glances up to see thepink bag, which looks oddly familiar, dangling in front of her.“For me?”
He nods. She takes it andpeeks inside. She sees the neatly folded singlets and bra. Thesinglets are exactly the same one he spilled beer on, and the brais unlike any she has ever used before. This one is pretty withpink laces and frills. She usually wears plain black or white. Sheblushes and gazes at him, her eyes large.
“You don’t have to dothat, you know.” She couldn’t imagine how on earth he managed tobuy her underwear.
“I know, but I want to,considering the fact that I’ve destroyed your singlet. Well, aren’tyou going to thank me?”
Alex blushes. “Thank you.” She doesn’t mind accepting thegift. After all, he did damage her singlet. Not that it’scompletely damaged, of course. It’s still wearable.
“Hey, I’ve got somethingfor you as well,” she says and takes out his jersey from her bag.“Here.”
“Oh, whoa, thank you very much. You didn’t forget afterall.”
“Nope, I didn’t. Okay,let’s get down to business then.”
Jay leans forward then.“Look, I’ll be leaving in two days’ time. How much are youasking?”
Alex bites her lip. “Areyou sure you don’t mind about the price?”
“Thing is I’m not exactlysure as yet. Can I tell you when I know? It’s the full price forDad’s heart transplant.”
Jay studies her for a moment and then nods. “Sure, that’sfine. But since I’m leaving soon, I’ll give you my cell phonenumber and my e-mail address. How about that?”
Alex agrees with a nod ofher head.
Their food arrives, andAlex watches as Jay enjoys his various barbeque meats marinated insauces he has never tasted before.
* * *
Eight Weeks later
NEW YORK CITY, USA
Alex is tiredand frustrated. Finally, she thinks with some small triumph, shehas arrived in New York City. Now standing there in the lobby ofLaGuardia Airport, she just wants to collapse on the floor andrest. Where is Jayden anyway? Oh, God! What if he forgot to comeand get her? Well, she can’t blame him if he has because she islate. She was supposed to have arrived yesterday afternoon. Butbeing the clumsy, inexperienced traveler that she is, she managedto miss the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and then the rest washistory. She is still upset she missed that flight. It was firstclass. Now she would never know what it’s like sitting in thatluxurious, comfy seat with the air hostess serving her everyneed.Damn!
Turning her attention back to her dilemma, she thinks ifshe doesn’t see Jay within the next five minutes, she’ll take ataxi and check into the nearest hotel. Then she’ll give him a ringto tell him where she is.
She drags her luggageacross the vast terminal and walks toward the rows of seats nearthe window. She searches around just in case Jayden is somewherenearby, waiting for her. When she sees only the faces of strangers,she sighs and slumps on the seat.
Her stomach knots. She turns. “Jay!” she murmurs. Herthroat is so tight her voice is barely above a whisper. She rushesover to him with her heavy bag in tow. Before she knows what she’sabout, she drops the luggage and hugs him hard. With her facesnuggled against his chest, her arms around his middle, and tearsbrewing in her eyes, she whispers, “Jay, I’m sorry.” Then it’ssuddenly too much for her. Perhaps she’s too tired and can’tcontrol her emotions anymore. She starts whimpering and tears rolldown her flushed cheeks.
Jayden wraps his arms around her quivering form. Peoplelook at them with knowing smiles on their faces.Ah, the lovers finallyreunited.
Alex draws back andglances up at him, her eyes red and lips trembling.
Jay sees her face, whichis inches from his, and his heart nearly breaks. She looks likeshe’s been through hell. He cups her face in his hands and saysgently, “Hey, I’m here now. I told you I’d be here, didn’t I?” Thenhe wipes her tears with his thumb.
Alex swallows and nods. “I know, but when I didn’t see youI thought—and then I saw you, and I—”
“Hey, come on. You’retired,” he says and then turns to pick up her luggage. “My car isthis way.”
Alex sniffs and then wipes her tears. “Okay,” she says andfollows him toward the exit.
The crisp night air soothes both Alex’s emotions and heroverheated skin. She takes a few deep breaths and tells herselfeverything is all right now. Yes, Jayden is going to look after herand nothing bad is going to happen. She glances at him to make sureher tired mind hadn’t played tricks on her. Just to confirm forherself, she touches his arm as he leads her to his car.
“Did you waitlong?”
Alex shakes her head. Shereleases her hold on his arm and lowers her head, wondering why shehas been crying and hugging him like a lover.
Alex can’t help but widen her eyes with admiration at theblackMercedes-Benz.
Jay says, “Hop in,” as heloads her luggage into the boot.
Alex wastes no timesliding into the passenger seat. “Nice car,” she comments, glancingat Jay beside her.
“Thanks,” Jay replies,starting the engine.
Even this late at night, or rather early in the morning,the roads are still busy with cars and trucks coming and going. Shewonders if the people in New York ever sleep. The city itself mustbe beautiful, if only she could see. It is rather dark even thoughthere are street lights everywhere, like dots of stars. A whilelater, after her fascination has waned, she settles herself morecomfortably in her seat and rests her head against the coolwindow.
Jay glances at her. “Areyou tired?”
She nods at him with aweary smile.
“I apologize for pickingthose flights for you. I should have chosen a flight straight fromAuckland to New York instead of—”
“Don’t worry about it, Jayden. I’m here, aren’t I? Soeverything’s fine,” she says, thinking that it has, in fact, neverbeen fine. As if getting disorientated and lost in another countrywasn’t bad enough, a taxi driver back in LA ripped her off and evenmade a move on her. The very thought of that fat, malicious mancauses her to shudder with anxiety. She wonders if all taxi driversare like that, trying to rape her because she looks young. Luckilyshe has a strong will. She shouted at him to leave her alone whenhe had driven her to an isolated spot and had tried to takeadvantage of her. Then he said that if she wanted him to let hergo, she’d have to give him all her money. She was angry then, andshe threw what cash she had on his face and rushed out of the car.Afterward, she found herself another taxi. Luckily this time thedriver was a woman.ThankGod!
“Are you cold?”
She glances at him andshakes her head.
Jayden knows something is wrong, and she refuses to tellhim what. He won’t prod. He’ll wait until she trusts him fully,then she’ll tell him when she’s ready.
He is still angry at himself for picking those flights forher. He knows she is an inexperienced traveler. She told him sonumerous times via their e-mails. He blames his impatience forthis. He wanted her to come as soon as possible and booked herflights for her before she even agreed. Now he wonders again forthe hundredth time why he was so eager for her to come to NewYork.
His heart skips a beat.Oh, yeah, you rascal, you know exactly why. You missed herso much that you couldn’t stop e-mailing her every day.In fact, he e-mailed her everychance he had. Not to mention he even visited her Facebook pagejust to see her profile picture and see what she was up to. Hewasthatpathetic.
“How’s Jacob?” he asks,suddenly feeling guilty at the thought of dragging her away fromher father.
“He’s recovering well,” she replies, thinking about thatdreadful week her dad had his heart transplant. In the waiting bay,she hugged him and wished him luck while her mom cried and prayedthe procedure would go well. Then the anesthetist wheeled him offinto the theatre, and she and her mom waited in dread for five longhours. She sighed with relief when her dad ended up in the wardinstead of ICU because that meant the procedure went well. But herrelief was short-lived when they found out a day later her dadcontracted pneumonia from the bacteriaStreptococcus pneumoniae. The doctor informed her it was quite common for anelderly man with a low immune system to be infected with it. Theygave him strong antibiotics, and within a week he recovered. Nowhe’s home and taking things easy.
“Thanks, by theway.”
“For the money. Without it, Dad wouldn’t have been able tohave his surgery.”
Jay couldn’t help but grinfrom ear to ear.
Alex sees this and laughs. “You’re so cute when you smile,”she comments. And silently adds—too bad you’re gay.“They are suspicious I have to go away.”
“Huh?” He is stillgrinning and thinking about her last comment.
“I told my family that I’mgoing overseas, New York City to be precise, to do some moretraining. I lied to them.”
Jay glances sideways ather. “You could just tell them the truth.”
“I can’t do that. I can’ttell them that I’m pretending to be your girlfriend, and now I’mcoming to New York to meet your family.”
Jay laughs. She frowns athim.
“Sorry,” he says cheekily.“You could have just told them you are my real girlfriend and thatyou are coming to meet my parents.”
“But we are not in a realrelationship. I mean you’re not my real boyfriend. You’regay.”
Good point. He totallyforgot about that. Shit! Lies upon lies. He wonders which is worse;lying to his family that Alex is his girlfriend or lying to Alexthat he is gay. No! He has to put that out of his mind. He has tothink about what’s going to happen when Alex meets his family, whenAlex meets Beth.
“We need to clearsomething up.”
“Clear what up?” Alexreplies sleepily.
She glances at him.“Us?”
“Yeah, us. We need to beclear about our story.”
Alex nods in understanding. “Oh, you mean you and me? Howwe met and stuff like that?”
“Uh-huh.” Jay nods, hisfoot pressing down on the brake pedal as the car comes to a redlight.
“Right. Go onthen.”
“First of all, we have tobe really close,” he says. The light changes to green, and he stepson the accelerator. “What I mean is we want to make people think weare in a serious relationship.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Good,” Jay says, making aright turn. “Secondly, to do this, you’ll have to start talking tome more intimately. Like words of endearment.”
“Yes, like sweetheart,honey. You know? Endearment.”
“Now I’m going to tell youa bit more about my family.”
“Okay,” Alex sayssleepily. The sound of the car engine humming is like a lullaby toher ears, and she closes her eyes.
“Okay, we’ll startwith my dad then. His name is Tom McCartney,” he begins. “He meetsmom ...”
Five minutes later,he glances at his passenger. He blinks. Damn, she’s already soundasleep. He shakes his head. Well, his family story would have towait. He steps harder on the accelerator as the car merges into thehighway. An hour later, the black Mercedes-Benz drives past rows ofgigantic, expensive mansions on the Upper East Side of New YorkCity and through wrought iron gates that open up automatically. Thecar comes to a smooth stop in front of an immaculately kept,massive three-story mansion.
Jayden slides out and rushes over to the passenger side. Hecocks his head to one side as he gazes down at Alex, who is stillasleep. He can’t blame her for being so tired, and he can’t blameher for looking so adorable, too. When people sleep in the car theydon’t look adorable, they usually look stupid. But Alex isdifferent.
He chuckles and brushes his fingers gently across herforehead. Should he wake her up? He knows his family would be up bynow, waiting to greet his fake girlfriend. No, he shouldn’t wakeher. It would be cruel. She needs her rest. With his mind made up,he effortlessly scoops her up in his arms, turns on his heels,kicks the car door shut, and strolls toward the house. Before hecan reach the bell, the large double-door is opened up forhim.
“Thanks, Maggie,” he saysto the plump, smiling housekeeper who is dressed in her veryspotless and immaculate uniform consisting of a black shirt andskirt.
“You’re welcome, MasterJayden,” the woman says warmly, her gaze resting on Alex, who issnuggling her face comfortably against Jay’s hard chest.
“Your girlfriend? Shelooks tired,” Maggie says. “I’ve arranged your room at yourrequest. New sheets, duvet, drapes, sofa, and, of course, abeautiful vase with a bunch of red roses. Oh, sobeautiful.”
“Thanks, Maggie,” Jaysays, grinning.
“You’re welcome, MasterJayden.” The housekeeper nods and shuts the door. “Just so youknow. Everyone is up.”
“Right.” He knows his family will be in the dining roomhaving their breakfast, and that they’d be expecting him to bringAlex there for introductions. Not yet. He feels it just isn’t theright time for that. Besides, he dreads what will happen when Bethmeets Alex. He has no doubt Beth will jump on Alex and claw her tobits, figuratively speaking of course.
Hoping that they are stillblissfully unaware of their arrival, Jay paces toward thestairs.
Jay groans inside. He slowly turns to see his grandmotherdown the hallway. As usual, she looks elegant. Nothing is out oforder on her person: perfect hair, face, and clothing. This morningshe wears a pretty pink suit that fits her slim body gracefully.His mother, Gracie McCartney, comes out from the dining room intothe foyer just then. She’s tall and slim. Her manner gives the auraof elegance and gentleness. Her blue eyes, very much like his, aregazing at the sleeping Alex, who is oblivious to the presence ofthe people surrounding her.
“She is tired, I suppose,”Gracie says.
“Jay,” a voice echoes fromthe top of the stairs.
Jay glances up and sees his sister Kelly. She is dressed ina pretty blue sundress, her blond curls resting about hershoulders.
“You’re back,” she says as she comes down the stairs.“Thought you’d be late withyou know whosodemanding and all.”
Jay knows who his sister is referring to. It’s Sarah. Kellyknows he and Sarah were dating. But Kelly doesn’t know they brokeup. Now he sees the puzzled look in her eyes, questioning him as towhat he is doing with another woman in his arms. Come to think ofit, Kelly was right. Sarah is a spoiled little brat who always getswhat she wanted. Why he didn’t see it before is beyondhim.
Kelly comes to a complete stop at the bottom of the stairsonce she sees Alex in Jay’s arms. She opens her mouth as though toask Jay who this person is when Granny Beth says, “Why is shedressed like that? Why is she sleeping in your arms?”
“She has just arrived andshe’s tired, Grandmother.”
“Well, she’d better be up before the dinner party starts,”Beth comments, gives one more glance at Alex in distaste, andstrolls into the lounge with her nose in the air.
Gracie shakes her head atBeth’s stiff attitude. “So this is your girlfriend?”
Jay manages to nod withoutflinching. He feels guilty lying to his mother. But he has nochoice.
Gracie comes to standbeside him and peeks at Alex. “She’s cute. Good choice,Jay.”
He glances down at thewoman in his arms. Yup, Alex is cute when she’s sleeping. She alsolooks peaceful, young, and very innocent.
“I bet she’ll sleep betterin a bed than in your arms,” Gracie suggests.
“I agree,” Jay comments,laughing. “Better take her up then.”
“Yes, yes. Don’t forget towake her before afternoon tea,” Gracie says, walking into thedrawing room. “We need to get to know her better before the guestsarrive. By the way, you’ve told her there’s a party for herarrival, yes?”
“Thought so,” Graciechuckles. “Better do it soon.”
“Sure,” Jayden responds ashe walks up the stairs.
Halfway up, he glancesdown at his sister. Kelly eyes him suspiciously, telling him he’dbetter tell her what the hell is going on. Jay nods in response toher silent demand. Kelly raises her brows and then goes into thedining room.
* * *
Alexandra has the mosthorrible headache ever. She flashes her eyes open and rubs hertemple, swearing silently. The bright sunlight doesn’t help either.She squints and grits her teeth.
“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.”
She snaps her eyes open,wondering who’s in the room with her. She licks her lips and turnsto look behind her. Jayden is standing just at the end of the bed,hands in the pockets of his trousers. His white shirt is unbuttonedhalfway, showing off his muscular chest.
Oh, my God!He’s so handsome—just like adevilishly hot Calvin Klein model. She has no doubt he’s wearingCalvin Klein anyway. She can’t breathe properly as she stares athim. Her heart is beating abnormally fast.
Okay, Alex, calmdown.Then she wonders whyJay asked her to be his fake girlfriend when he could have chosensomeone prettier—someone likeMary St. Clair.But thenagain Jay is gay. Because he is not interested in women, hewouldn’t know which is hot, which is pretty, and which is plainlike her. That explains why he wasn’t affected by Mary’s famouscharm. God made him a perfect creature, but—
She shakes her head andtells herself to stop thinking stupid things. She licks her lipsand does some more blinking.
Jayden chuckles and movesonto the bed. He comes to sit beside her. “What’swrong?”
Alex touches her templeagain and frowns. “I’ve got the most horrible headache.”
Jay moves closer and peersinto her eyes. “You poor thing.” Then he strokes her foreheadgently, rubbing her skin so that it’ll ease the tension within her.“You need some aspirin.”
“I don’t want any aspirin, thank you,” she says, her heartstarting to do a hard out disco dance.Oh, my God!He’sso close. She can feel his warm breath against her skin. Herinsides are exploding with hot, thrilling sensations.She loves it!Not good. This is not good. She can’t believeshe’s excited that a gay guy is paying her attention. How twistedis that!
“Why not? You’ll feelbetter after some.”
“Because I hate aspirin. Ihate any pills. I hate swallowing them. I can’t swallow themproperly, and they taste bitter.”
Jay chuckles. Then when he sees her seriousness, he stops.“Hey, you okay?” he asks, now cupping her face so that she willlook up at him.
Alex blinks and nibblesher lip, her headache now forgotten. “Yeah, why?”
“Your face is red. I know you look flushed when you’retired. Youaretired. I’m sorry aboutthat.”
Alex is staring at his sensuous lips as he’sspeaking.What is he talkingabout? Why is she staring at his lips?
Jayden laughs. “You poorthing. You can’t even think straight. You’re not even listening tome.”
That gets her attention. She glances up to his eyes andsees the mirth there. He’s making fun of her. Stupid man!Stupid. Hot. Gay man!
She brushes his hands awayand shifts out of bed. “Where am I? Are we at yourhouse?”
Jay makes himselfcomfortable on the bed. “You’re in our bedroom.”
Alex misses the word“our”. She simplynods and wonders where the bathroom is.
“There.” Jayden points to a door to the left.
“Thanks,” she says andrushes in.
Jay waits, and a momentlater, she comes back out. “I need my things. Where arethey?”
“Hold on.” He gets off thebed, opens the giant walk-in wardrobe, and grabs her luggageout.
Alex widens her eyes at the array of men's clothing inthere, all neatly arranged. Veryexpensivelookingclothing.
Jay puts her bag on thebed. “There you go. I’ll go down and find you thataspirin.”
“Jay, those clothes, whoseare they?” she asks, pointing to the wardrobe.
“Mine,” he says, winks ather, and then strolls out the room, whistling.
Alex just stands there,staring at the walk-in wardrobe. Those are Jay’s clothes? What theheck are they doing in there? Oh shoot! Her head hurts. She can’tthink anymore. She raids her luggage, finds the things she wants,and rushes into the bathroom.
She takes her sweet timeshowering. The warm water soothes her aching body. After shampooingher hair and cleaning her face and body, she feels a lot better.She dresses herself in the skinny jeans and T-shirt and then doesher makeup. Once all set, she rushes out and finds Jay sitting onthe bed, waiting for her.
She nods, suddenly feeling conscious of her shabbiness whatwith her inexpensive jeans and T-shirt she bought from K-mart atsale prices.
Jay gets up and comes to stand right in front of her. Hetouches her temples again with his fingers and thumbs and gives hergentle massages.
Alex nibbles her lipshyly, her eyes downcast.
“Not hurting asmuch?”
Alex shakes her head.“Uh-huh. I always feel better after a good, warmshower.”
“Good.” He moves to grabthe aspirin on the bedside table. “Here,” he says, the medicine inhand.
Alex stares at the twotablets as though those things are going to bite her if she isn’tcareful.
“Go on.” He brings hishand higher.
Alex shakes her head. “I’mfeeling better, thank you. I don’t need them.”
Jay tries hard to hide asmile. He can see she’s afraid she really has to take thosetablets. He wonders what she’d do if she had a fever or one of theyearly flus back in New Zealand.
“Go on. It won’t hurt.Just swallow.”
Alex shakes her head againand starts to dash away.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” he chuckles, grabbing her arm. He pullsher back, and to prevent her from running, he places one handbehind the nape of her neck. “Right, come on.”
Alex feels warm pleasurewhere his hand is touching her. Her stomach is all fluttery. He’smaking her feel things she has never felt before. To hide heremotion, she glares up at him. “You’re not my dad,” she snaps a bittoo sharply.
He chuckles. “No, I’m not. But since you’re here and I’mresponsible for you—you, missy, will do as I say. I don’t wantPeter or your dad to hunt me down and torture me if anything wereto happen to you.” He pushes the aspirin tablets in between herlips.
Alex keeps her mouth shut.Jay is determined and pushes the tablets into her mouth.
Alex can taste the bitterness, and she groans in disgust.She signals for him to get the glass of water for her, her fingerpointing and her face all scrunched up.
Jay chuckles as he quicklygrabs the glass. Alex downs the whole lot in at once—water andaspirin. Once she finishes, she shuts her eyes and covers hermouth.
“There, not that bad,right?”
Alex opens her eyes, seeshim smirking and slaps his arm. “Stupid man,” she murmurs andplaces the empty glass back on the bedside table.
“I’ve got something foryou.”
“More aspirins?” sheteases. When she turns, she sees him on the other side of the room,retrieving something.
“Of course not.” He comesto stand in front of her. “Here.”
Alex glances down and seesa Blackberry in his palm.
“It’s for you. Thought youwanted to ring home.”
She watches him grinning, her insides turning liquid warm.“But I’m only going to be here for a couple of weeks.”
“In case you get lost andcan’t find me. In case you get bored and want to text me. My numberis in there.”
“No worries,” he chuckles.“So are you up for it?”
She glances at him, herthought still on the Blackberry. “Up for what?”
“Oh, right. Yeah, I suppose. Let’s do it.”
“Uh-huh. Though I amrather nervous.”
“Nothing to be nervousabout. Come along.” He grabs her arm. Alex places the Blackberry onthe bedside table and follows him.
In the hallway, he says,“Don’t forget. Endearment.”
Alex, who is staring wide-eyed with marvel at her surrounds, says, “What would youprefer? Darling or honey?” Then she laughs.
“I like both.”
“Your house is big,” shecomments as they come down the stairs. She looks at hersurroundings and feels as though she’s in a celebrity’s mansion.Everything is so glamorous with white marble floor, enormous glasswindows that overlook an immaculate garden, crystal chandeliers,fancy drapes, and luxurious furnishing.
Jay pulls her closer andplaces his hand about her waist as they walk toward the drawingroom.
Oh, dear, this is not at all what she expected. Thisgirlfriend thing is going to be a bit too real.
The moment Alex steps intothe elegant drawing room, she knows she’s completely out of place.The three women sitting on that expensive looking sofa are alldressed in the latest fashion.
Jayden nudges her forward.Alex nervously glances up at him. Jay smiles at her and guides hertoward the armchair. She stiffly follows him.
Granny Beth frowns at thecouple, her blue eyes sharp. Gracie smiles at them, and Kelly justclamps her lips together as she waits for the two people to taketheir seats.
There is only one seat where Jay is leading Alex. Once hetakes that seat, Alex wonders what she should do. Stand or findsomewhere else to sit. Her decision, however, is taken out of herhands when Jay pulls her down and makes her half sit on his lap andhalf on the chair.
“Grandmother, Mother,Kelly,” Jayden begins, “this is Alexandra Stewart from NewZealand.”
At this point, Alex doesn’t know what to do.What does one do exactly when onefirst gets introduced to one’s boyfriend’s family?
“That’s Kelly, my sister.It’s going to be her wedding,” Jay supplies.
Alex smiles nervously andnods at Kelly. “Right. Hi,” she says to Kelly.
“That’s Mom, you can call her Gracie.”
“Nice to have finally metyou, Alex.” Gracie leans forward and grabs Alex’s hand. They shake.“Can I call you Alex?”
“Yes, of course,” Alexreplies, laughing nervously.
“I like your accent,”Gracie says. “Jay has been telling us so much aboutyou.”
“Oh, thanks.” Alex’s eyes meet Jay’s. He gives her a widegrin and winks at her. Alex blushes. She wonders what kinds ofthings he told his family about her. Oh dear! She’d better ask himwhen they’re alone.
Granny Beth frowns. Shedoesn’t seem to like what she sees and says, “So what do yourparents do?”
“Um,” Alex begins, lookingat Jay for help.
“Her dad is retired. Her mom is a sales manager,” Jay saysas he pulls Alex fully onto his lap. “Sweetheart, are you feelingbetter? That aspirin working?”
Alex blinks. Did Jay just call her sweetheart?Oh, my God!Jay just called her sweetheart.Okay.It’sonly part of their act. It’s nothing real. Calm down,Alex.
“Yes, my head doesn’t hurtas much now. Thank you,” she says, smiling at himtightly.
“I hate traveling,too,” Gracie says. “I get a headache sometimes.”
Alex nods inagreement.
“So whereabouts is NewZealand?” Beth asks, picking up her delicate Wedgewood china andbegins to sip her tea.
“Down south. It’s a smallcountry. We call it Aotearoa in Maori. It means the land of thelong white cloud.”
“Sounds romantic,” Kellysays.
“Maybe we should all go outside. It’s such a lovely day,”Beth interrupts. Though her voice is soft and gentle, there’s ahint of command that no one dares disobey.
“Yes, I agree.” Graciestands up.
“Oh, Britney is coming forthe dinner party tonight, Jay. You remember Britney Marcelo, don’tyou?” Beth asks, looking at her grandson.
“Britney? Oh, yes, I remember her,” Jayden says somewhatreluctantly. Just then he remembers he hasn’t told Alex there’sgoing to be a welcoming party for her.
“Yes, she is coming. Sucha nice girl, Britney is. Her dad is Mr. Marcelo. You remember Mr.Marcelo, don’t you?” Beth continues.
“Yes, I remember him. One of Dad’s good friends. Haven’t seen him for a long time,” Jaysays, glancing at Alex, wondering if he should mention about theparty now.
“They just got back fromRome,” Beth says excitedly. “Such a lovely girl, Britneyis.”
Alex looks at Beth andknows instantly something is up. She knows the old woman doesn’tlike her. Beth must be matchmaking Jay with this Britney Marcelo.No wonder he’s trying to get away from it all. She pats his arm toshow him her understanding.
Jay chuckles and winks ather.
“Come along now; we shallcontinue our tea in the garden,” Beth says, elegantly waltzing outthe door.
“Oh, it’s so nice to have finally met you,” Gracie commentsand hugs Alex.
“Yes. So good to meet you, too,” Alex replies. Once shemoved back, Kelly rushes in and hugs her.
“Good to meet you, Alex.We’ll have to find you a dress for my wedding.”
“Oh, right,” Alexcomments, moving back.
“Don’t worry. I know lotsof designers. They’ll be begging you to wear their dresses. It goesinto a high fashion magazine, you know, this wedding ofmine.”
“Really?” Alex isshocked. She didn’t expect that. High fashion magazine? Topdesigners? Oh, dear.
At the door, Kelly says toJay, “Don’t forget we have things to talk about, Jay.” Then she andGracie walks arm in arm down the hallway.
“They won’t be takingpictures, will they?” Alex asks Jay, looking up at him.
“Yes, they will. Youdon’t have to be in it if you don’t want to.”
“Come on then,” he says,pulling her toward the door.
As they stroll down thehallway, Alex says, “I haven’t forgiven you yet, by theway.”
Jay glances at her. “Whatabout?”
Alex squares her smallshoulders and replies, “You forcing those aspirins down mythroat.”
“I’ll do it again, youknow.”
“Yes, I will. And besides, the next time you’re sick, you’llbe begging for those aspirins knowing how effective they arenow.”
Alex thinks about this andsays, “You’re right. I feel better now. So, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Hegrins, leading her out into the sunshine. “By the way, there’s aparty tonight.”
Alex smiles. “I gatheredthat from what your grandmother said about this BritneyMarcelo.”
He glances at her. He’ssurprised she’s taking the news quite nicely.
“You’ll be the honoredguest. The party is to welcome your arrival,” he adds, watching herclosely.
Alex widens her eyes inshock. “What?”
Damn! There, not so nicelyafter all.
“I’ll be the honoredguest? The party is to welcome me?” she queries, pointing a fingerat herself.
“Yup. To introduce you tothe neighborhood,” he says, giving her the apologeticlook.
Alex swallows. “Right. SoI will have to make an appearance?”
Alex chews on her lower lip as they approach the others.Yeah, she sure hopes she’ll be okay.
* * *
How does one work thisblasted thing?Alex wondersas she stares atherBlackberry. She searches through themenu, finds the call section, and starts dialing. She brings theBlackberry to her ear and waits as the ringing noisecontinues.
A moment later, she hears her brother’s voicesaying,“Hello, Timspeaking.”
Alex smiles. “Hey, Tim,it’s me.”
“Alex?”Achuckle.“Man, you soundweird and so far away.”
“Of course I’m far away.I’m in America.” Her stomach knots. Gosh, she misses her familyalready.
“You got there all right,huh?”
“Yeah, I’m here safe andsound.”
“Hey, how’s Mum and Dad?”she asks, wondering if her dad is taking things easy or is he up tohis old, stubborn self again and working hard.
“Dad is taking thingseasy. Mum makes sure of that.”
Alex sighs with relief.“That’s good. Is Mum there?”
“Yeah. Hold on asec.”
A few seconds later, Alex hears her mum’s voice through thephone.“Hey, sweetheart. Gladto hear your voice. I’m worried, you know. I know you’re a big girlnow. Your dad’s doing well. I make sure he eats. He went to see Dr.Johnston today. He said your dad is making goodprogress.”
“I’m glad to hearthat.”
There’s a knock at thedoor. Alex glances up and sees Kelly poking her head in. “Hey, areyou ready?”
“Hold on a sec. Justtalking to Mum.”
“Okay,” Kelly says,walking into the room and takes a seat on the side of the bed.“Take your time.” She picks up a sports magazine on the bedsidetable and flicks through it.
Alex turns her attentionback to the Blackberry.
“Mum, I’m glad Dad isdoing well. I hope he’ll recover fully when I return. Anyways, loveyou and Dad and everyone at home. Miss you already. Byenow.”
“All right, sweetheart.You look after yourself. Love you.”
Alex grins and thenterminates the call. “I can’t believe I miss themalready.”
Kelly throws the magazinedown and pats Alex’s arm. “Sounds like you really love yourfamily.”
Alex nods. “More thananything.”
Kelly cocks her head to one side as though she’sconsidering something serious. She stands up. “Come on, missy.” Shepulls Alex to her feet and leads her out the door. “I hope you’renot upset with Beth.”
Alex shakes her head. Sheknows Beth doesn’t like her, but she’s not going to dwell onthat.
“Nope, of course not,” shereplies, thinking back when Beth asked her numerous questions abouther personal life. Everything seems to fall back to her financialstatus.
“I think she’s justwatching out for Jay.”
Kelly glances at Alex withinterest. She laughs; that rich, smooth sound belongs to a womanwho lives her life to the fullest and is afraid ofnothing.
“Yeah, she is,” Kelly sayswith a hint of doubt in her voice.
Alex wonders if Beth trulyis that worried about Jay’s love life. Does she think it’s her dutyto find the right woman for him? Well, Alex could safely concludeshe is not the girl for Jayden in Beth’s eyes.
Alex once again couldn’t help marveling at the richness ofthis gigantic house and the people who live in it. She is quitestoked she has the chance to know them and stay withthem.
“I hope at least one of mydresses will fit you,” Kelly comments. “Silly of Jayden not to tellyou to bring dresses and gowns. After all, the party was hisidea.”
Alex opens her mouth as if she is about to say something.But of course being shocked as she is right then, she couldn’tthink of what to say. Oh, my God! Jayden planned the party for her?What the heck for? And he never bothers to mention it to her allthose times they chatted on Facebook? She’d have to ask him whenshe sees him next. She doesn’t like parties, even normal partiesback home, either the BBQ type that mainly involves families andclose friends, or the loud parties some of her acquaintances threw.Often she is so shy and so tongue-tied she never makes goodconversations with anyone—especially guys. If she gets invited to aparty, she’d be there at most half an hour, unless her familyhappens to be there, and then she’d be out the door before anyonecatches her.
Kelly also said gown with the big “S” at the end. Gowns?Does she mean evening gowns? Are there going to be cocktail partiesand the likes?
Uh-oh! This is going a bit too far, and here she wasthinking she’d only be here for a couple of weeks so he’d get offthe hook from matchmaking and marriage.
“Whoa! This is very nice,”she says once they are inside Kelly’s huge, elegantbedroom.
“Thanks,” Kelly replies, frowning slightly. She’s thinkingshe must talk to Jay about what his real relationship with Alex is.Who is she really? Where is she from? What happened to SarahTaylor? Since he returned, he had never once spoken of Sarah. Thenthere was this morning. She thought Jay and Sarah were backtogether after their fight, but instead of seeing the demandingSarah at the front door, she saw Alex. How confusing everything is.She must admit though that Jay and Alex look good together. Sheknows Alex would never hurt Jay the way Sarah had.That,she bets with her Louis Vuitton bag which cost her at leasta grand.
“Okay,” Kelly says, strolling toward the walk-in wardrobe.“Let’s see what I have that fits you.”
Alex clamps her lips together nervously as she followsKelly. The first thing that comes into her mind is that thewardrobe is bigger than her parents’ master bedroom back home, andonly then does theOh, myGodkick in.
Kelly has thousands ofclothes—designer brands. She wouldn’t be surprised if thoseso-called “fashion boutiques” in Dunedin blush in shame whencompare with Kelly’s wardrobe.
Alex’s eyes are large withwonder as she touches and gazes at the beautiful clothes. She feelslike she’s a child in a candy store.
Kelly goes through themany dresses that are hung along one side of the wall. “Which one?”she mutters to herself as she expertly inspects each one in turn.“You’re smaller than I am, so I don’t know if there’s anything. Butof course I do sometimes wear a size smaller than I am. What sizeare you anyway?” She turns to look at Alex. “And don’t just standthere. Come here and help me pick.”
Alex hesitates. Shedoesn’t want to mess up Kelly’s perfectly arranged clothing, eventhough she wants to explore.
Kelly shakes her head atAlex’s lack of response. She grabs Alex by the wrist and says,“Wherever you’re from and whatever your relationship with mybrother is, I don’t care. I’m going to dress you up, and that isthat.”
Alex’s heart does astartled kick. “What do you mean?”
Kelly bites her lip for saying too much. Damn!“Nothing,” she says quickly. “If I guess rightly, you’re asize zero.”
“What? I’m not a sizezero. I’m a size eight.”
“No, you’re not. You’re asize zero.”
“Zero. Look at you. You’reso slim. You’re a zero.”
Alex cocks her head to oneside. A size zero? That is truly ludicrous. Unless they havedifferent size system here in America. That makes sensethen.
“Okay, I’m whateversize you’re saying,” she agrees.
Kelly nods in satisfactionand turns to pick a green day dress. She brings it out and shows itto Alex.
“What do youthink?”
Alex touches the silk fabric. It’s smooth and soft underher fingers. She loves the tiny frills and the pleats that gatherto one side of the shoulder. It reminds her of a Greek Empiredress, only this one has less fabric, is shorter, and in a paleleaf green instead of pure white or gold. She’s already falling inlove with it. She could never afford anything thiselegant.
“I can tell you reallylike it.”
Alex glances at Kelly.“Are you sure you don’t mind? But what are you going towear?”
Kelly laughs out loud atthat remark. “You silly girl, I have hundreds of dresses I canwear. Now, try it on.”
“Of course now,” Kellydemands, striding out the door. “Hurry up. We don’t have much time.We have to do your makeup as well.” She closes the wardrobedoor.
Alex quickly undressesherself and puts on the dress. Once done, she hesitantly scramblesto the full length mirror and stares at herself.
“Oh, my God,” she breathes. This is her? She looksdifferent. She looks pretty. Gently, she touches the frills on thedress and smiles.
“Are you ready yet?” Kellybursts in.
Alex quickly turns to lookat the laughing intruder.
“Well, well. You know, Inever look good in that dress. But on you, you’re a different storyaltogether. Jay’s going to love this. I hope he knows how tobreathe properly when he sees a pretty woman.”
“Why would he love this?”Alex asks naively.
Kelly laughs as she dragsher back into the bedroom. “Time for your makeup.”
“Oh, right,” Alex respondsas she is gently pushed into the seat in front of themirror.
* * *
Jayden never thought Beth would interrogate Alex as though she werea suspect in a murder case. Alex keeps looking at him for guidanceevery time Beth fires a question at her.
What does your dad do? What does your mom do? How manysiblings do you have?What’syour plan for the future? Where is New Zealand? What’s yourfinancial status? How many boyfriends have you had before you metJay?
As if any of that is important, Jay thinks gloomily. Herests his head against the back of the sofa and closes his eyes.Hecan feel a headachecoming.
Poor Alex. Why is hedragging her into his problems? What the hell is wrong withhim?
“Heard your girlfriend hasfinally arrived,” a voice says at the door.
Jay flashes his eyes open to see his dad, Tom McCartney,standing there with his hands in the pockets of his trousers. Tall,brown hair, and grey eyes—and right then dressed in a Zegna suit—helooks handsome and powerful. He must have just returned from theMcCartney Grand Hotel.
“Hey, Dad,” he greets.“Yeah, Alex is here.”
Tom comes to sit besidehis son. “You don’t look too happy.”
Jay thinks his dad couldsay that again. “Beth.”
“Ah, Beth,” Tom says as ifthat explains everything. “Has she mentioned Britneyyet?”
“Yeah. I hope she realizes it’s not going tohappen.”
“Don’t you mind Beth.She’s only watching out for your future. A perfectgranddaughter-in-law means everything to her. And you know how muchshe wants great-grandchildren.”
“Yeah,” Jay replies. Hesuddenly feels guilt mounting in his chest. Beth wantsgreat-grandchildren. It is his pleasure to provide her some. Heloves her despite her controlling ways.
“There youare,”Gracie says from the door. “The two most important men in my life.”She waltzes into the room and kisses her husband smack on the lips.“I’ve missed you today.”
“I’ve missed you, too,”Tom replies.
“The guests arearriving.”
“Already?” Jay mutters. He wonders if he should’ve cancelledthe welcoming party. Shit!Double shit!He knowsAlex is not prepared for this. After all, she was hardly preparedfor Granny Beth’s spiteful ways. He thanks God for Gracie’sunderstanding. She seems to like Alex.
“Don’t worry, honey,everything is in order,” Gracie says. “Come along.” She drags Tomby the arm and leads him to the door.
Jay groans and stands up. He thinks he’d better go up andsee how Alex is getting on. She’s probably so scared at the thoughtof meeting so many people she doesn’t know, people who’d probablybombard her with inconvenient questions, that she’s probably hidingsomewhere. The closet, perhaps?
As he comes out, he seesmany guests mingling at the foyer. The men are dressed in suits andthe women in their lovely, designer dresses. The hallway is in achaotic state of guests greeting.
“Ah, Jayden, how are you?” Mrs. Greenwood says, a ratherlarge woman with fiery red hair, large green eyes, and Irish skinthat tends to get red at the slightest ofirritation—emotionalirritation. She strollstoward him elegantly, and her red dress that doesn’t quite suit hercomplexion hangs about her body like a tent. She grabs his handsand smiles widely, showing her snow-white teeth that would havetaken the dentist many times to get to perfection.
“Where is this girlfriend of yours? I can’t believe she’sfrom New Zealand, so your grandmother told me. Where is NewZealand, anyway? A state in the US? I’ve never heard of it. Or isit some small town in the UK or France?”
“How are you, Mrs.Greenwood? How is your husband doing? And no, New Zealand is not astate in the US, nor is it a small town in the UK or France. NewZealand is a country of its own.”
“Really now? Why, yourgrandmother said it is such a ghastly place to have met a girl. Aplain place for a plain girl. She wonders why you went there in thefirst place,” she says, chuckling away enthusiastically.
“Oh, all right. We’ll chat again at dinner, yes?”
“Of course,” Jay replies. Then he struggles his way throughthe throng of guests who one by one stop him with their politegreeting. When finally he manages to reach his intendeddestination, which is the stairs, Beth elegantly steps in front ofhim with a big smile on her face.
“Jayden, you must come along and meet Britney,” she says.Without giving him any choice on the matter, she leads him to thedrawing room.
“You’ll love her, Jay.Britney is such a darling,” she says excitedly. “Britney darling,you remember Jayden, don’t you?”
Jayden notices a slim woman in a sexy red, designer dress.She is talking to a young man with light blond hair and grey eyes.Ted Wilson is his name. His family is extremely well off. They justmoved into the neighborhood of the Upper East Side a yearago.
Britney Marcelo turnsslowly and smiles brightly at him, showing her perfect, whiteteeth—as though she practiced that bit many times to perfection.She has dark brown hair that curls into loose waves about hershoulders, bright green eyes that Jay thinks are rather sharp, andfull ruby red lips that any man would want to kiss.
Whoa! Britney is one hotchick. And from the look of adoration from young Ted standing nextto her, she is not one to be missed.
Yes, Jayden finds her hotall right. But the dress is showing a bit too much ofher—especially her generous bosom that leaves little to theimagination.
“Jayden,” she says, hervoice smooth and sweet like melting chocolate. She touches his armand moves her face closer to him, which causes Ted to glare atJayden.
Jay can smell her strong perfume. A mixture of rose,vanilla, and some spices.
“Britney, long time nosee,” he says, managing a small smile that doesn’t quite reach hiseyes. He sees Beth nodding her head furiously, her smile brightwith glee. He knows she is up to her matchmaking tricks again.Somehow he’d have to convince her that Alex is his girlfriend andthat any other woman wouldn’t do.
Still dressed in hiscasual clothing, Jayden finds himself being dragged along with Bethand Britney to greet other guests that have just arrived. Andbefore he knows what’s going on, it’s dinner time.
Crap!He needs tofind Alex, fast. He feels like a jerk, leaving her to her owndevices like that. He only hopes Kelly is there with her, wherevershe is.
They are just passing the hallway into the dining roomalong with their fifty or so guests, when Jayden sees Kelly descendthe grand stairs. She is fetching in her yellow sun dress. But hedoesn’t notice her for too long because he glimpses someonedirectly behind her. Jay can’t make out who it is because it looksas though the woman is hiding and trying hard not to draw attentionto herself. He notices that Kelly has a smirk on her face. He knowsshe’s up to one of her mischievous plans again. He wonders what itis.
Kelly clears her throatloudly so that everyone turns to look at her in some sort ofexpectation. Standing there atop the stairs she says, “Evening,everyone.”
“Kelly, darling,” Mrs.Greenwood says. “My, you do look radiant. Heard your fiancé is nothere tonight. What a shame. Where is he, by the way? And who isthat behind you?”
Kelly politely says, “Yes,it is a shame Sam can’t be here. He is in Hawaii, sorting outbusiness there.” That out of the way, she proceeds to move to oneside. As she is doing so she says, “Why, Mrs. Greenwood, it’sAlexandra Stewart, of course.”
As Kelly steps aside,Jayden gets a good look at Alex, and silence falls intoplace.
All that Jayden can do isto stare at her as though he is in a trance, lost in another world.Alex looks enchanting in that emerald green dress, her long hairstyled in a loose bun like a Greek princess. He doesn’t know he’sgawking until Beth nudges him. Britney comments that the greendress is so last year.
Jay comes to his senses and then just realizes that hismouth is agape in marvel as he gazes off at his hired girlfriend.He clears his throat, and it is only then that he sees thenervousness in Alex’s posture. He steps up the stairs and reachesone hand to her. Alex glances hesitantly at his hands, smiles inrelief at him and then places her small, cold hand into his large,warm one.
Kelly giggles and rushesdown the stairs.
“So that’s Alexandra fromthe State of New Zealand,” Mrs. Greenwood states. “Such a prettylittle thing. Not so plain at all.”
As Alex steps down thestairs with Jay, she whispers, “Why did Kelly do that?”
Jay can hear the dread and embarrassment in her gentlevoice. He moves his lips to her ear and softly says, “She didn’tmean to embarrass you, darling. But I’m glad she didit.”
Alex feels his warm breath against her flesh and shivers.Her insides shudder with excitement. “Jay, how could you?”And he just called herdarling?
“How could I what,sweetheart?” This he said loudly so that everyone could hear him,and then he kisses her cheek. Alex sucks in her breath as her heartdoes a somersault. She turns to him. He smiles and winks at her,then proceeds to lead her toward the guests.
Alex is dazed.Oh, myGod!Jay was so hot when hesmiled and winked at her.Ah!Stop it! Stop, Alex, Jay is gay. Remember that!
* * *
Alex is exhausted. Her feet ache.She just wants to scream and kick the shoes off. She blames thefour-inch high heels or stilettos or whatever they’re called forthis because she’s unaccustomed to them. Sneakers and slippers areher best friends. When she has no one to talk to during their longdinner party she dreams of her thick, fluffy Sylvester the Catslippers. She dreams of how warm and cozy and soft they’d be on herfeet.
Her eyes are alsoirritated because of the dry weather. It’s worse when she wears hercontacts. She wants to take them out and put on some eye drops torelieve the irritation.
At least for the past twohours she found the conversation with the handsome Tom McCartneyimmensely stimulating. They talked about politics, which she knowsnothing about. She, however, managed to tell him a little bit aboutJohn Key, the prime minister of New Zealand. She also feels quitegood when she happened to mention Obama and how smart heis.
Tom has a pleasantpersonality, just like Jayden, and she likes him immediately. Shethinks he feels the same way toward her. At least she hopes so. Thelonger she looks at Tom, the more she is certain Jay inherited mostof his father’s traits.
She glances over the table at Jay, who is sitting besideBritney. Beth seems to be egging them on. Then Britney moves closerto Jayden, kind of shoving her generous boobs toward him. Thank GodJay doesn’t seem to be paying her any attention, at least the typeof attention a man pays to a woman.
“Tell me about life in NewZealand,” Tom says, picking up his wine glass.
“Oh, not much to tell, to be honest,” Alex replies,shrugging her small shoulders. “I love going to the farmers’market, though. I assume you have it here, too? It’s fun. Just outand about, buying fresh veggies from the farmers themselves. Ratherentertaining, too.”
“Ah, yes. I’ve never beento one. Always been too busy,” Tom replies.
“I find the simplestthings I do most enjoyable. I also love to observe people. Likeright now,” she says, eyeing Jayden and Britney.
Tom glances in thatdirection.
“Have they known eachother long?”
“Who?” he replies,pretending ignorance.
“Them,” Alex says, noddingher head toward Jayden and Britney across the end of thetable.
“They met when they wereyoung,” Tom replies. “Don’t worry. Jay’s not thatstupid.”
Alex turns to look at him,her eyes questioning. “He isn’t?”
“Of course not. Britney iswasting her time,” he says, eyeing his son. Jay is studying themand not listening to Britney’s continuous yapping.
“Yeah, she is,” Alexagrees. Jay will never be turned on by that type of woman—or anyother woman for that matter.
Finally, for what seems like an eternity for Alex, dinneris over and the guests slowly thank Mr. and Mrs. McCartney for thelovely dinner and then leave. And, yes, Alex has never felt so muchjoy as when she sees the door to her bedroom.
She rushes in, kicks off the stilettos, and throws herselfon the large, soft bed. She sighs and simply gazes up at the goldenchandelier, marveling at the bright lights. It feels so good to liethere and do nothing. Her pleasure dies a quick death when shefeels the sting in her eyes starting to play up again, and sheknows she has to take the lenses out.
She rolls off the bed andher knees land elegantly on the floor, her upper body still on thebed. She gives out another loud, weary sigh.
Jay enters the room at that moment. After closing the doorquietly so that he won’t disturb her, he leans his strong bodyagainst it, his hands in the pockets of his trousers. He cocks hishead to one side as he studies her. She looks as though she hasfallen asleep in her sitting position with her head resting on thebed.
“I see that you like mydad,” he says.
“Huh?” Alex pops her headup and looks at him. “He’s very nice, much like you.”
“Yeah? What are youdoing?”
“Huh?” And then. “Um,trying to make myself get up, I guess.”
“All this. You’ve just arrived, and then you have to meetall those people. You need your rest. Promise tomorrow will be arelaxing day for you.”
“That sounds good, thankyou,” she replies, closing her eyes, her head sinking deeper intothe cozy duvet. “Do I get to go sightseeing, by the way?” shemurmurs.
Jay thinks she looks likea toddler falling asleep before dinner, with her little bottom upin the air like that. He knows she is about to fall asleep if hedoesn’t do something fast. In two long strides, he’s beside her andscoops her up in his arms.
Alex flashes her eyesopen. “Uh? What are you doing?”
“You need to take thatlovely dress off and shower before you sleep, Madam,” he repliesand strides to the bathroom.
Alex wiggles herself in his arms. “Please put me down, Jay.I’m not so sleepy anymore. I’ll go and shower now.”
“You sure you don’t wanthelp?”
Alex nods, wondering if he means carrying her into thebathroom or helping her undress and then shower.Whoa!The idea brings on a delicious shiver down herspine.Good God! Suchthoughts in her mind?
“All right,” Jayreluctantly put her down.
Alex’s feet land quietlyon the soft carpet. She blushes as she gazes up at him through herthick lashes and sees him grinning down at her. She rushes to thewalk-in wardrobe to find her things.
“What are you doing?” hisvoice vibrates from the door.
“Finding my stuff,” shesays, trying to think what this stuff is that she’s looking for.Then she remembers that it’s her pajamas. Yup, her brain iscompletely dead tonight.
She finds what she wantsand rushes back to the bedroom. She collides against Jay’s hardbody, inconveniently at the doorway. She looks up at him, tellinghim to please shift so that she can pass. He doesn’t get her driftand just stands there, gazing down at her, his arms folded acrosshis chest.
“Have to go andshower.”
“You do that.”
Alex squeezes herselfbetween him and the door and rushes to the bathroom. “What a longday this is.”
“Yeah, totally agree,” hesays loudly so that she can hear him.
“Absolutely,” she shouts back. She is just about to closethe door when she pokes her head back out and says, “’Night,” witha lovely smile.
Jay grins. He can’t waitto see her reaction when she realizes that they are sharing a roomand a bed.
A moment later, he hearsthe shower going and knows she must be having a good time. As hegoes about retrieving his pajamas, he whistles to himself. Back inthe bedroom, he pours himself a glass of red wine and proceeds todrink slowly, enjoying the sweet, aromatic flavor.
Then he sees her comingback out; her hair wet down her back, her face fresh and clean, andher eyes sparkling. He knows she’s not wearing her contact lensesbecause she is squinting as she goes about the room, trying to gether vision to focus. Not to mention that the only thing she has onto cover herself is a thin towel.
Shit!Jay swallowsthe wine in his mouth loudly.
“Oh, you’re still here?”she says, her face going quite red.
Jay doesn’t know how toreply to that. This is his bedroom, after all. Is he supposed tosleep in the kitchen when bedtime comes?
He swallows his now-emptymouth, still staring at her.
“I forgot my cream,” shesays and then rushes to the wardrobe.
Jay watches her littlebottom as she runs, his mind reeling with ungodly thoughts. Thenext second she rushes back out, her lips clamping and her eyesdowncast as she races into the bathroom.
Jay takes another mouthful of his wine and then places theglass down on the table. He waits. Then a full ten minutes latershe reappears, fully dressed in her decent pajamas. They are lightpink with little pictures of Tweety Bird everywhere.
“So, um, aren’t you going to go to your own room?” she asksstupidly. “Oh, right. You want to make sure I feel comfortablefirst. Okay, I’m comfortable, and my head doesn’t ache at alldespite the fact that my eyes are really, really sore.Happy?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Justmake yourself at home,” he says and strolls into thebathroom.
Alex cocks her head to oneside, wondering why he’s going into her bathroom. Maybe he’sbusting and thinks he couldn’t get to the toilet in his own room intime. She shrugs her shoulders and jumps on the bed. She gigglesand makes herself comfortable.
Sitting cross-legged andwith the gigantic LCD TV on, she begins to stroke her long, wethair. When five minutes later he still hasn’t come out, she wondersif he’s all right in there. She is about to go and knock when shehears the shower going.
“Huh?” She scratches herhead and begins to doubt that it’s only peeing that he needs. Whywould he want to shower in her bathroom anyway? But of course shecouldn’t very well go and knock on the door and tell him to get outsince this is his house and not hers.
She continues to stroke the strands of her hair and watchTV when ten minutes later he comes back out, dressed in nothing buta small white towel about his waist.
Holy Mother of God!Alex nearly flips and her mouth nearly drops down to herlap, if that is at all possible. God help her, why does Jay have topresent himself to her in such a way? She can’t help herself, andshe just stares at the handsome man. She loves his toned musclesand not to mention the droplets of water on his tan, smooth skin.He looks like some ultra-hot model in an advertising poster, maybefor a perfume or something, half naked. She’s pretty sure all thewomen would drool if they saw him right now.
Alex wants to purr like a cat and leap on him.Holy smoke!She wants to leap on him and kiss him silly. Well,until she is silly. No, wait! She is silly right now for thinkingof such things. Her insides shudder with a longingexcitement.
Jay winks at her and thenstrokes his fingers through his short hair.
Alex clears her throat andsays, “Why did you shower in there?”
“Because I was stuffy andneeded a good shower. I feel better now, thank you.” He ends hisreply with a smile and then strolls into the walk-in wardrobe. Atthe door, he pauses. “Forgot.” He returns to the bed, picks up hispajamas, and then begins to pull on the T-shirt.
Alex just stares at him,wondering if he had just gone mad. “Why are you getting dressed inhere?”
Jay pops his head out ofthe shirt and says, “Because I brought my clothes here.”
When he puts his hands tohis waist and is about to pull the towel, Alex screams. “Don’t!Please don’t.”
Jay laughs. “Sorry.” Aftergrabbing for his trousers, he goes into the bathroom.
Alex places her palm on the left side of her chest. She canfeel her heart pumping hard and fast. “It’s okay now, Alex, calmdown. He’s going to go to his room when he’s out,” she whispers toherself. “He’s just being a very nice host,” she murmurs. “Too nicefor my liking.”
She lies down and staresup at the chandelier, taking in deep, slow breaths. “When he’s goneI’ll be able to sleep until morning in this wonderful bed.” Withthat thought in mind, she begins to roll about like a puppy in amud puddle.
“I see you’re reallycomfortable there.”
Her rolling comes to acomplete stop. She sees that he is fully dressed now—very decently,too. She smirks at him and says, “I love the bed.”
Jay comes around and sitson the side of the bed. “I do, too.” Then he gets in between thesheets.
Alex shoves herself back,shock. “What are youstill doing here?” She can’t help herself. She knows it’s rude toask him.
Jay raises his brows. Thenhe laughs, loud and clear.
“Hey, what’s sofunny?”
Once he has managed tostop his laughter, he says, “This is my bedroom. Where do yousuppose I go to sleep? The dining room? The long dining table as mybed? It’s a bit hard, but I suppose—”
Alex gasps. “Yourbedroom?”
“That it’s mybedroom.”
“Actually, this is yourbedroom, too.”
“No, what I meanis—”
“What do you mean?” Helooks at her curiously, folding his arms across hischest.
“I thought we’d have separate rooms.”
Jay shakes his head in the negative. He reaches out hishand for her. “Come here, missy.”
“Come here,” he says, signaling with his hand.
Alex reluctantly comes tosit beside him on the bed. Jay wraps his arm around her shoulders.“We are supposed to be a couple. We are in a serious relationship.A relationship so serious that we are, in fact, telling everyonehere that we are going to get engaged and then married and thenhave children together soon.”
“Since our relationship isso serious, what do you think people would say if we slept inseparate rooms?”
Alex understands then.“Oh, you’re right.”
“Are we cool?”
Jay smiles and then liesback. Alex watches as he makes himself comfortable.
“Well, aren’t you gettingin?”
“Yeah, sure,” sheresponds, her heart beating outrageously fast in herchest.
“Come on, let me helpyou.” He pulls the duvet back for her and pats the spot beside him.When she still hesitantly and uncomfortably looks at him as thoughhe is an ogre ready to devour her, he shakes his head and grabs herby the arm.
His action is so fast that Alex has no time to respond.She’s in his arms and her face merely inches from his. She can feelhis warm breath against her skin. She gazes into his blue eyes,lost in their glorious depths.
He smirks at her and thentucks her in beside him. He even has one arm under her head.“Comfortable?” he whispers into her ear.
Alex manages tonod.
“Good.” Then he proceedsto make himself comfortable again and snuggles even closer to her.“Good night, Alex.”
She nods, wondering how inthe world she came to be here, sleeping in Jay’s arms. Only he’sgay, so lying there beside him doesn’t mean anything to him at all.That’s the reason why he’s so comfortable with her. But God damnit! She’s not comfortable with him. Honest to God, she does try tomake her heart slow its furious beating, but it won’t listen toher. Why does he have to be so warm and cozy and manly?
“I don’t feelcomfortable.”
Jayden opens his eyes.“Why not? Am I squishing you?”
“Well, kind of,” shelies.
“Oh, sorry.” He moves awayfrom her, just a bit. “Better now?”
“A bit more?”
Jay moves a bit more tothe left.
“Maybe a little bit more?”she suggests, indicating with her hand as though she’s shooing himaway.
Jay does her bidding. Thenfinally he asks her, “Is this good?”
Alex turns her head to oneside and then smiles. “Yes, that’s good.”
Jay nods, a half smile on his face. He turns slightly andglances behind him. He sees that the floor is not far off. His backis half in the air and half on the bed. He wonders how he will beable to sleep like that all night.
Alex sees his dilemma andsighs. “Sorry, Jay. I’m not used to sharing a bed with a stranger,you know.”
Jay sits up and puts hisfeet on the floor. “So I’m a stranger to you, eh?” Then he grabshis pillow.
“Oh, no. Now you’re upset with me. Jay, I’msorry.”
“Don’t be, Alex. Iunderstand.”
“No, you don’t. What Imean is I’ve never shared a bed with anyone before. I’ve alwaysslept alone.”
“I know, Alex. Iunderstand,” he says, walking away from the bed.
“What are youdoing?”
He goes over to the sofa near the window and lies on it,resting his head on the pillow. “Making myselfcomfortable.”
“Jay, please don’t dothat. This is your room, after all. You sleep on the bed, and I’llsleep on the sofa.”
“Don’t be silly. Now, goto sleep.”
“Hush, missy. I’m a man. I sleep on the sofa. Do you want todamage my manhood?”
Alex couldn’t help but laugh at his comment. She wants tosay to him—“your manhood hasalready been damaged, Mr. McCartney; in my eyes anyway.”
Jay raises one brow. “Whatis so funny?” He is, in fact, smiling himself.
“Nothing. Are you sure youare comfortable on that lovely bed of yours?”
“Very sure, mademoiselle,” he says and then closes his eyes. “Goodnight.”
“All right then. Good night, Jay,” she replies. She turnsover and makes herself comfortable. She peeks at him and sees thathe looks as though he is asleep. She should do the same, she tellsherself. She closes her eyes and then drifts off to a soundsleep.
* * *
Jayden listens toAlex’s rhythmic breathing as she sleeps. Oddly enough, he finds itcomforting, and soon he, too, falls asleep. When he wakes up thenext morning, it’s to the smell of strong, black coffee and freshlybaked bread. Chef Leon must have just finished baking thatwonderful French bread he so enjoys. He breathes in deeply asthough he is inhaling fresh air into his lungs, enjoying thedelightful aroma. He can’t wait to go down for breakfast. Then hecan’t believe this will be the first time he’d be sharing breakfastwith Alex. Suddenly, he feels his chest puff up with—what?Happiness?He isn’t sure what, but he’s looking forward toit.
He stretches his body.Damn, his neck feels stiff. Apparently, the sofa doesn’t make sucha comfortable bed after all.
He sits up and starts tomassage his aching muscles. He turns his neck left and right as hegroans. Then he turns his neck too far to the right and it cracks,making a loud noise.
“Shit!” he mutters at thesharp pain erupting throughout his body. He stops short when hesees Alex watching him, a pretty smile on her lips.
“Good morning, Mr.McCartney. Good sleep last night?” she askssarcastically.
Jay sees the mischievousness in her glowing eyes andrelaxes back. Though his body is still sore, he’ll be damned ifhe’d show her his weakness. So he leans back on the sofa, his armscrossed behind his head. “Yeah, wonderful sleep,” he says, staringup at the chandelier, watching the color spectra of rainbowsforming as light hits the crystals.
Alex laughs, shaking herhead. “Really? Well, from what I saw just moments before, you don’tlook as though you had a good sleep at all, Jay.”
Jayden narrows his eyes at her. His lips form a thin lineas he says, “Well, that may be—”
“What?” he asks, eyeingher now.
“I’ll sleep on the sofatonight. I’m smaller.”
“Don’t be silly,” hescoffs, liking the glow of light playing on her person.
“I’m not being silly. I used to sleep on the floor with justa thin mattress when I fruit-picked at the farm,” she says,watching the muscle of his arms. She suddenly wonders what it feelslike under her touch. Would it be hard and smooth as she suspectsit would be?
“What was it like?Fruit-picking?” he asks, sitting up.
“Hard work,” she comments. Now she can see his seminudechest where it is exposed beneath his white nightshirt. Smooth,hard, muscular chest. She swallows and shivers.
“You’ve been working hardall your life, haven’t you?”
Alex shrugs her shoulders,casting her eyes down to look at her small hands instead. Gosh,what is she doing? Wanting to touch a gay man? Jay’d think she’s aloon.
“Nothing to it,” she says.“It was rather fun at times. The fresh air, the warm sun, the sweetsmells of ripe strawberries.”
“Sounds heavenly,” hecomments, watching her, wondering if her hair would be soft underhis fingers as he imagines it to be.
“Kind of,” she chuckles.“So, like, I was just wondering—”
“Do I get to go on a tour about New York or anything? I meancome on, this is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Can I please gosightseeing?” She manages to flutter her eyes a few times at him sohe’ll know she’s begging him to show her around.
Jayden chuckles once hesees her bright eyes full of enthusiasm. “That’s true.”
“Can we go to CentralPark? And the Central Park Zoo? They are in one place, right? Andthe Empire State Building? And can we go shopping? Not that I’mgoing to shop, just window shopping, you know. I mean I don’t evenhave the money to shop. Gosh, everything must be frightfullyexpensive here.”
“What?” She frowns, folding her arms across her chest.“What’s so funny? Okay. All right. Fine. Just because you’ve livedhere all your life and no doubt everything seems exceedingly lameto you here now.”
Jay manages to stop andshakes his head. “No, of course not. New York is never lame.Although I must admit I don’t like it much here.”
“So you don’t like livinghere?” Alex is astounded. Everyone wants to live in New York City,especially on the Upper East Side where all the rich and famouslive.
Jayden shakes hishead.
“Not my kind of scene. Iwant peace and quiet. I want a place where I can relax and thinkand not have to get involved with certain types ofpeople.”
She’s curious, so she can’t help asking, “Then why are youhere?”
Jay shrugs his powerfulshoulders. He’s not going to tell her that he wants a place likeQueenstown and that up until recently he only stayed in New Yorkbecause of Sarah.
“Because of work?” shesupplies.
Jayden changes the topicswiftly. “So you slept well?”
“And you are nottired?”
Alex cocks her head to oneside in serious thought. “Nope. Not at all tired. I feel betternow. So, um, no more parties, right?”
Alex blushes a shade ofpink. The richness of his laughter causes her heart to quiver withjoy. Oh dear! She wonders if that’s normal.
“Good,” he says. “We’ll gosightseeing today.”
“What? I mean, really?”she asks excitedly, hoping that he means what he said.
Jay cocks his head to one side as he studies her. Her longhair is in a wild mess, her eyes are bright, and her lips are redand kissable—enough to tempt a monk. And Jayden is not a monk,so…
“Really?” she says, hervoice soft and sweet. She’s giving him the puppy doglook.
Jay swallowsandquickly looks away. Shit! This is not good. He has just realizedthat he’s attracted to his hired girlfriend.
“Where should we go first? Oh, I know. I want to go toCentral Park. Would that be okay? I mean I’m not bothering you? Icould always go by myself, you know. I’ve got a map. I got it allworked out. We are in the Upper East Side of New York City, right?So...”
Jayden realizes that Alexchatters nonstop when she’s excited. And he finds that he likesthat just fine. Slowly, he relaxes and studies her as she ticks offwith her fingers all the things she could do at Central Park. Heloves her unguarded emotions, which clearly show on her face as shetalks so animatedly.
Suddenly, there’s a seriesof knocks at the door. Alex stops and glances in thatdirection.
“Jayden? Are you upyet?”
Jay bolts up and fires hisgaze at the door. “Shit!”
“What?” Alex asks, hereyes wide in confusion.
Jayden doesn’t have timeto answer. He leaps off the sofa and races to Alex with the blanketin tow. He hops in between the sheets, arranges the duvet aboutthem both, and pulls the surprised Alex into his arms. As he isdoing so, one of his hands is busy messing up his own hair and thenhe does the same to Alex.
Alex just looks at him asthough he has just gone mad.
Jayden stares at her. It seems as though he can’t helphimself after all. He cups her chin and slams his lips againsthers—tasting her soft, sweet mouth. As he deepens the kiss, hisfingers dig deep into her thick hair. He pulls her closer, wantingmore of her.
Alex is shocked to the core. She goes still as her heartdoes somersaults. Not to mention her body is soaring into the skylike an eagle. Jay is warm and hard against her. And he’s kissingher.Her! Plain AlexandraStewart from New Zealand!
The door opens andthen—“Jayden!”
Jay doesn’t want to stopthe kiss. But he reluctantly releases the dazed Alex and turns tolook at his grandmother who, no doubt, is demanding his attentionwith her stiff voice.
“My God! I can’t believe this,” Beth mutters, her lips thin.She glances at the disheveled Alex, hums disapprovingly, and thenturns back to Jay. “Please hurry, Jayden, we have an appointment atVera Wang for Kelly’s final fitting at ten this morning and thenlunch with Britney at twelve.” Then she sails out the room, herhead high.
Once the door is properlyclosed, Jayden relaxes with a sigh.
Alex bites her lip. Herheart shatters as she realizes that Jayden didn’t mean to kiss herat all. He only did it as a stage show for Beth.
Jayden turns to look at her. He feels his heart glow. Hewants to kiss her again. She is so soft, warm, and sweet—despitethe fact that she doesn’t even know how to kiss. He realizes thatshe hasn’t stopped blushing either. He strokes her tangled-up hair.Yup, it’s soft, all right.
Alex loves the way hetouches and strokes her hair. But she knows she must stop himbecause otherwise she’d like it too much, and it’d hurt her in theend when they parted. She touches his hand, stilling his gentlestrokes. “You don’t have to act anymore. Beth is gone.”
Jayden’s heart misses abeat. He frowns at her upset face and wonders what is wrong. Alexslowly gets out of the bed and goes to the bathroom, her shouldersslump.
“Shit!” Jay says, throwinghis head on the soft pillow.
* * *
Alexandra stares at herself in the mirror, her fingers touching herslightly sore, red lips. She can still feel that lovely sensationthat resulted from Jayden’s kiss. She groans. A feeling of sadnessbuilds up within her heart.
“Alex?” She hears hisvoice from the other side of the door, which is then followed by acouple of soft knocks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that toyou.”
Sorry?She doesn’twant him to feel sorry for what he did.
“Alex, you hearme?”
Alex sighs and reluctantlyreplies, “Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t be sorry, Jay. I know it’s not realanyway.”
She cuts him off by turning on the shower so she couldn’thear his explanations or excuses or whatever it is he’s trying tosay. She tiptoes to the door and listens to see if he’s stillthere. When she hears nothing, she relaxes and rests her headagainst the door. Oddly enough her heart hurts in an odd, painfulway. What could it be? A sign of love? Disappointment? Oh, dear.Didn’t she warn herself about that when she first met him? Didn’tshe tell herself it would be easy to fall in love with JaydenMcCartney? It’s obvious the man does not feel the same way towardher.
For the first time Alex wants to punch the wall. Only shewouldn’t because it’d hurt her knuckles and they’d probably bebruised for a couple of weeks. This wouldn’t look good if she weregoing to attend one of the biggest weddings in New York City,especially when she is pretending to be the girlfriend of thebride’s brother. She’d surely draw too much attention to herself.Goodness knows she has already drawn too much attention to herselfas it happened last night.
She sighs and then goesabout showering. Once she finishes, she wraps a thin towel abouther slim body and emerges back out into the bedroom.
She comes to a sudden halt when she sees Jayden watchingher. He’s out on the veranda, leaning against the rail, hispowerful arms crossed about his muscular chest. His eyes are sointense. She feels as though he could actually see deep into hersoul. Her body quivers in reaction. Her heart is pumping fast, asthough she has just finished a marathon, which she has never donebefore.
She curses herself forputting on her contacts after the shower because if she hadn’t putthe contacts on then she wouldn’t be able to see him properly andthen his stare wouldn’t have affected her so much.
She avoids his eyes and rushes into the walk-in wardrobe.As she goes about finding her things, one hand tightening on thetowel about her chest, she curses herself for not taking in herclothing before rushing into the bathroom. She’d have to do thatnext time so she wouldn’t have to suffer the humiliation of Jaywatching her as she goes about finding her things with barelyanything on. Of course, she reminds herself, she has been a bitabsent-minded this morning after that incredible kiss sheunexpectedly received from him.
She gathers her black skinny jeans, light sweater, andunderwear, which she hides well under the others so that Jaywouldn’t be able to see. Arms overfilled with her clothing, sherushes back into the bedroom. She’s in such a hurry, and becauseshe’s not fully in control of herself, she steps on the material ofthe jeans, trips on herself, and falls flat on her face.
She groans in humiliationand pain and silently curses herself for being so stupid andclumsy. She gathers herself up and sits on her bottom, her clothingscattering around her, her towel barely covering hernakedness.
“Are you all right?” Jay’s voice echoes close to her ear.Gosh! He’s fast. One second he’s out on the veranda, and the nexthe’s beside her. Suddenly, she can feel his warm hands wrappingabout her bare arms. She can feel his strength beside her, so closeto her like a brick wall. She can’t answer him because his touch issending glorious sensations in her being. Her brain is basicallydead.
“Alex?” his voice comeslouder.
She turns to look at himthen, her eyes large.
“You’re not feelingyourself today, are you?” he asks, one hand cupping her cheek, hiseyes looking deep into hers.
Alex shakes her head, asingle teardrop falls from her left eye down her redcheek.
Alex bites her lower lip.No, damn it! She’s not tired. She’s confused, and she wants to cry.Oh, damn it! She is already crying because he’s now wiping tearsfrom her cheek with his oh-so-warm thumb.
Not fair! She doesn’t want him to be so nice to her. Shewants him to treat her normally, like a stranger, so she won’t getso involved.
She shakes her head. “No,not that tired.”
Jayden chuckles. “You justneed a bit more rest.”
“Yeah,” she says, avoidinghis eyes that she knows are staring at her much too intensely. Shecan even feel his warm breath against her bare skin.
Jay gathers her clothes for her. She grabs them from himand tucks them securely in her arms about her chest.
“So does it fit?” he asks,a hint of curiosity in his deep voice.
Alex turns to look at him,her eyes questioning him at what he means.
“That,” he says, noddingat the pink laced bra.
Alex glances down and sees the bra he bought for her backin New Zealand parading proudly in her arms.She wants to die.
How is she supposed toreply to that odd question? She cocks her head to one side andnods. “Yes. Yes, it fits,” she replies stupidly.
“Really?” he prods, oneshapely brow rising.
Alex wonders where thisconversation is going. Apparently nowhere. She is getting rathercold from inadequate clothing even though it’s a lovely warmday.
Jayden moves in closer andwraps his arms around her. “Better?”
“I should go andchange.”
“Yeah, you do that,” hesays, refusing to move an inch. “I’m glad it fits.”
“I’m glad the bra fits.”He’s grinning, his eyes twinkling.
“Do I get tosee?”
“You with the braon.”
Alex’s face goes bright red. “Don’t be silly!” she snaps,giving him a dark scowl. With clenched teeth, she gathers herclothing, shoves herself out of his arms and runs to the bathroom.There, she quickly gets dressed and then does her makeup. Tenminutes later, she’s finished and feels quite hot. Apparently,rushing and thinking about Jay and his too-close-for-comfortactions at the same time doesn’t do well with her nerves. Shecouldn’t seem to do anything right. Yesterday she felt socomfortable with him and now she feels this weird tension betweenthem as though there’s some sort of electrical charge in theair.Jesus!What’s going on?
She cleans up her mess andthen rushes back out. She gives a quick glance at Jay, says, “I’mgoing down for breakfast now,” and paces to the door.
Jayden watches her with amusement as she rushes out thedoor. He can’t help admiring her little bottom and her slim,shapely legs in the black skinny jeans either. He quite enjoys theview. When she closes the door behind her, he feels upset becausehe wants to see more. Then his mind flashes back to when she cameout with only a thin towel wrapped about her small body. He canfeel his blood rushing with pleasure at the thought of her nearnakedness, as the slightly wet towel hid little of her nice,shapely body from his eyes. Not to mention the beads of waterglistening against her skin only roused his desire all the more.Then when she tripped on herself and fell to the floor, the towelnearly unwrapped itself from her body. He hoped that it’d fall, butshe was too quick for it, grabbing it just in the nick oftime.
He simply loves the feel of her smooth, wet skin againsthis palm. His mind suddenly starts reeling with ungodly images ofher.Shit!
My God, Jayden, you must stop it this instance!He shakes his head in disgust. Thisis Alexandra he’s thinking about. Alex is a nice girl. He shouldnot think of her in such a way. Then the thought of what he did toher early this morning, kissing her without her permission, turnshis gut. She must think him a playboy or a ladies’ man or somethingalong those lines, taking advantage of her. He’d have to keep hishands away from her; otherwise, he’d offend her again, and that hedoes not want.
He quickly showers andchanges into Jacob Cohen faded blue straight-leg jeans and a navyblue checkered Burberry shirt with the sleeves rolled up to hisforearms. He’s just coming out of the bathroom when he sees Kellyentering the bedroom.
“What’s up?” he asks whenhe sees her serious face.
Kelly is dressed in apretty Gucci light pink sun dress with a Prada heels. As usual, shelooks immaculate. She smirks at him as she folds her arm across herchest. “Good morning, Jay.”
“How is my sister today?You haven’t gotten cold feet, have you?” he half jokes.
“Of course not,” Kellyscoffs. “I never get cold feet. Just a bit nervous isall.”
Kelly brushes her blond curls over her shoulder. “It’sabout time you tell me what’s going on.”
“Uh-oh!” Jay narrows hiseyes at his sister. “Shoot.”
Kelly touches his arm andleans closer to him. “About you and Alexandra.”
“Jay, you have to tell me.What happened to Sarah? What happened in Sydney?”
“We broke up.”
“What? You andSarah?”
He sits down on the bed.He says through clenched teeth, “You were right.”
Kelly comes to sit besidehim. “About what?”
“Everything. She cheatedon me. I saw her with Kyle,” he says in disgust, suddenlyremembering that night at the hotel in Sydney. “I still can’tbelieve it.”
“Oh, Jay. I knew thatwoman was no good. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, Kelly. I shouldhave listened to you. But—”
“Not too late, eh? You didthe right thing. And Alex?” Kelly asks, eyeing her brother withinterest.
There’s a long pause. ThenJay reluctantly says, “I hired her.”
“You what?” Kelly shouts,her eyes large as she stares at her brother in shockedsurprise.
“I hired her. You knowvery well what Beth is like. Hey, you can’t mention this to anyone.Understand? It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s Alex.”
“Of course,” Kellymutters. “Ah, I see now. The matchmaking”
“Hey, Alex isn’t what youthink she is. She’s a good girl.”
“Oh?” Kelly chuckles.She’s curious as to why her brother is defending his hiredgirlfriend when she hasn’t said a bad thing about the woman. Infact, she likes Alex. Whatever circumstances brought Alex to Jay,she’s only glad it happened because she thinks Alex could helpJay.
“So what about you, missy?” Jay changes the subject. “Haveyou managed to kill Sam’s bank account with your extravagantexpenditures yet?”
“Of course not,” Kelly snaps. “What about you? What are yougoing to do with Alex when this is over? Ditch her? And what aboutBeth? And Mom and Dad? You know very well Beth wantsgreat-grandchildren.”
Jay feels a mountain ofguilt piling up. He hasn’t thought about that. “No. I’m not goingto ditch Alex. As for Beth, Mom, and Dad—I’ll tell them the truthwhen this is over.”
“When what is over?” Kellyasks, her brows rising.
Jay shrugs his powerfulshoulders. “When your wedding is over and when Alex returns to NewZealand.”
“And you expect everythingto go back to normal? To the way things used to be?” Kellyquestions.
“Yeah, I suppose,” hereplies, somewhat unsure.
“Well, I hope so, Jayden,”Kelly says as she strolls to the door, a hint of doubt in hervoice.
Jay glances at his sister.She looks as though she feels sorry for him. Damn it! He doesn’twant her to feel sorry for him, especially in his lovelife.
“For your sake,” Kellysays before she shuts the door.
Jay rakes his fingersthrough his wet hair, muttering, “What the hell is she onabout?”
* * *
Jayden comes down to breakfast still thinking about Kelly’s words.What the hell does she mean? Surely she doesn’t mean everythingwould fall apart. What about Alex when all this is over? Well,she’d be back in New Zealand, happy because she’d be with herfamily and not have to pretend to be his girlfriend anymore. Afterall, he suspects she doesn’t like him much. She only agreed to helphim because she needed the money for her dad’s surgery.
He wonders what herreaction would be if he were to tell her that he’s not gay. He hadnever thought about that. She’d probably slap him in the face andcall him a liar. Then she’d run home and never want to see himagain.
“You seem to be deep inthought, Jay.” Gracie calls out.
Jayden looks up to seehis mother and Alex at the dining table. Alexandra issmiling at him.
“Yeah,” he says, the dilemma wiped out of his mind. He comesto sit opposite them and takes a slice of toast. Then he pourshimself a cup of black coffee.
“Alex has been telling mehow you two met,” Gracie says.
Jay glances at Alex. Hesees her blushing. “Really? Do tell. I’m curious.”
Gracie chuckles. “Shespilled tea on your jacket.”
Jay takes a bit of histoast. After a bit of chewing he says, “She did.”
“Then you spilled beer onher,” Gracie continues. “How clumsy of you, Jayden.”
He throws the half-eatentoast down and grabs for the coffee.
“My gosh! It’s already9:30,” Beth announces at the door as she rushes into the room.“Come along now. We are late for Vera Wang.” She tsks loudly.“Where’s Kelly?”
“Calm down, Beth.She’ll be down soon,” Gracie says and winks atAlex.
Jay sees Alex hiding a grin. When she sees him watchingher, she winks at him. God! How she affects him. He wants to leapover the table and kiss her. Only he can’t because a) he issupposed to be gay, b) his family is with them, and c) he haspromised himself not to touch her. Shit! Shit! Shit!And more shit!He needs to get away from her; otherwise, hewon’t be able to control himself.
He thrusts the chair backwith a loud screech and stalks out of the room. “I’ll get the carready,” he announces as he’s leaving.
Alex slumps, wonderingwhat has gotten into him all of a sudden as she stirs her lumpyporridge.
A moment later, Kellyappears. “Oh gosh! We are late. Come along, Alex, you’re coming,too.”
Alex widens her eyes.“Me?” She points a finger at herself, her brows raise.
“Yeah. We can’t just leaveyou here. Besides, Vera Wang is on Madison Avenue where all thefashionable boutiques are. We can go shopping for your dress whenwe are done,” Kelly says, her hands clasped together inanticipation.
“Yeah,” Alex says,somewhat reluctantly.
Gracie grins. “Come on. Weare late.”
Alex nods, and then she is led by Kelly and Gracie oneither side of her to the car.
* * *
Leaning his shoulder against the black limo, Jayden watches as hisfamily and hired girlfriend finally make an appearance.
“Oh, we are late, we arelate,” mutters Beth. “We do not want to be late for lunch withBritney, too.”
Jayden sees Kelly smirk and whisper something intoAlexandra’s ear. Then they both giggle like school girls. Jaywonders what they are gossiping about. Him, perhaps? They areeyeing him with some sort of interest.
He opens the door for his grandmother, who mutterssomething about the weather being too hot for her frail body tohandle. Then Gracie slides in, followed by Alex. He nods at herwith a masklike face, and that’s the most he’s going to interactwith her from now on, he vows to himself.
Kelly says, “You look likeyou want to murder someone, Jay. Don’t worry, we won’t take long. Iknow how much you hate shopping.”
“Just get in the damncar,” he snaps and gives her a nudge.
Kelly chuckles and slides in. Jay follows her. He findshimself sitting beside his grandmother, who is busy on the phonetalking to Britney. In front of him are Kelly, Alex, and Gracie. Hethinks it’s better for him to sit in the front with their chauffeurJohn. Where he is now, Alex is too close for comfort.Crap!He doesn’t need this. She’s within reach, and he couldsimply put his hand out and pull her into his arms if he wanted to.Yeah, he certainly wants to do that, especially when she grins athim in that alluring way. She keeps nibbling her lip as thoughshe’s excited about something.
“Is Madison Avenue big?”Alex asks Kelly. “Is it near Central Park? Is Central Parkbig?”
Gracie laughs. “We’ll haveto take you on a tour, Alex.”
“Yes, please,” Alexreplies, at which point she turns her eyes meaningfully toJay.
Jayden suddenly gets the hint. Now he knows why she’s soexcited and keeps grinning at him. He promised to take her on atour today. Damn! He forgot about that.
“We are on our way to VeraWang, Britney dear. I assure you we won’t be late for lunch,” Bethsays to her Blackberry.
“Aw, Beth, do you have totell her we’re going to Vera Wang?” Kelly mutters.
Beth ignores Kelly. “I’mon the phone, dear.”
Jay turns over to thechauffeur behind him and says, “Vera Wang, John.”
John nods and starts thecar.
As they drive out of theUpper East Side of New York City, Alex widens her eyes with wonder,staring at the tall buildings. And Jay in turn finds himselfenjoying watching her expressive face.
Not long afterward, they are heading along77thStreet off Madison Avenue. The limocomes to a sudden halt in front of Vera Wang. Before Alex can enjoythe sight of one of the most fashionable streets in the world, sheis bustled away into the elegant store.
And what a store it is. There are beautiful, expensivewedding gowns on display, chandeliers with bright crystals hangingabove them, tall vases of flower arrangements giving off vibrantcolors and scents, and sofas and chairs arranged near the dressingroom and in the center of the store for comfort.
“You’re here!” a voicesings out.
Alex sees a pretty redhead rushing toward them. Kelly andthe woman hug and do some girlish giggle type of excitement. “Oh, Ican’t wait to see you in it.”
“I know. I know,” Kellychuckles. “Oh, this is Alexandra Stewart, Jay’s newgirlfriend.”
Alex turnsherattention to them.New?What does Kellymean by that? But before she can ponder on the subject any further,Kelly pulls her aside and introduces her to Stephanie Wilson, themaid of honor.
“So, Alex, how did youmeet Jayden?” Stephanie asks, a note of curiosity in hervoice.
“Back in New Zealand,”Alex says, eyeing Jay who is now sitting on one of the antiquesofas and making himself comfortable. He already looks as thoughhe’s bored to tears. She wonders if he hates shopping thatmuch.
“Well, come along now. We haven’t got all day,” Stephaniesays, pulling Kelly by the hand away toward the dressing room.“Nice to meet you, Alex,” she says over her shoulder.
Alex replies, “Same here,” with a bright smile. Then shewonders what she should do to pass the time. She thinks aboutjoining Gracie and Beth, who are now comfortably seated on the sofachatting and sipping their tea that a sales assistant has placedbefore them. She, however, decides against it and so busies herselfexploring and touching the lovely, soft fabrics of the wedding andevening gowns designed by Vera Wang. They are all so beautiful, thetype that she could never afford or ever dream ofwearing.
She has just finished her browsing when she sees a stash ofevening gowns near the back of the shop. Clearly they aren’tpopular to be left there out of the customer’s eye. Curious, shestarts browsing. They are all elegant, pastel colors with somemixtures of gold and silver laces. Then she finds one that catchesher eye. She picks it up and inspects the tag. There’s no pricemark. Furthermore, she realizes it does not have a Vera Wang labelon it.
“Have you found one youlike?”
Alex jumps. She twistsaround, her heart hammering in her chest. “Jay!” shewhispers.
“What?” he asks, his brows rise. “That one looks good,” hecomments, touching the lilac-pink, silk material in her hand. “Whydon’t you try it on?”
Alex widens her eyes.“What? Don’t be silly. I can’t afford it.”
Jay chuckles. “Just try iton.”
“No,” she says sharply,stacks the gown back in its place and turns to go. What the heck iswrong with him? Why is he so adamant that she should try on thedress?
Jay catches her arm and pulls her back. He is so close thatshe can feel his breath on her forehead.
“Come on,” he says, hishand on her wrist as he leads her toward the dressingroom.
“Jay,” she whisperssharply. She feels her panic rising as she realizes he’s seriousand that the dress is in his hand. “Jayden,” she snaps as she drawsherself back. It’s impossible because his hand is firm on herwrist.
She reluctantly follows him and then something flashes inher mind. It’s like a déjà vu. She glances up at Jay and then sherealizes.Oh my God!It was Jayden who helped her thatSaturday night in the bar when that drunken man tried to takeadvantage of her. And thus far he has never mentioned it toher.
He nudges her into a neatchanging room. He hangs the gown up for her before he leaves.“Don’t take too long now,” he says as he shuts the door.
“What a demanding man,”she mutters, grinning.
Alone, she fingers the soft fabric. No, she shouldn’t. Thegown is too expensive and elegant for her.
She leans back against thewall, her eyes gazing at the dress and a dreamlike smile on herlips as she imagines herself in it, dancing in Jayden’sarms.
Snap out of it, you sillygirl.
“Knock! Knock!” Jay’svoice comes from the other side.
Alex wants to laugh.Instead of knocking the door he said the words. He’s being silly,of course.
She moves forward andopens the door. He immediately pokes his head in, his eyes widewith expectation.
“That was fast,” he says.Then when he sees that she’s still in her own clothing, his facebecomes serious. “You haven’t gotten it on.”
Alex shakes her head.“It’s not for me.”
“Don’t be silly,” hemutters and comes into the changing room. “Come on, let’s get thison you.”
“Let’s take it back, whydon’t we?” she says with a smile, folding her arms across herchest.
“No. You have to try iton. You need help?”
Alex shakes her head. Shewants to leave as the room suddenly seems small and tight what withJay now in there with her. She finds him too close for comfort. Andthe fact that he’s standing right in front of the door doesn’t helpeither. It’s as though he’s blocking her in, refusing to let herout. She starts to get this odd fluttering excitement in the pit ofher stomach.
“Do you need help?” heasks again. “Come on then. I’ll help you change.” He puts his handto the hem of the sweater and starts to pull it up.
“Jayden!” she exclaims.“What are you doing?”
“I’m helping you change.”Then he starts pulling her shirt again.
“Don’t be silly! I canchange myself.”
He relaxes. “So you’ll tryit on?”
Alex is about to say nowhen she sees the glint in his eyes. She knows then that he’d makeher try the dress on no matter what. She sighs. “Yes, I’ll try thedamn dress on,” she mutters and puts her hands on his chest andshoves him back.
Jay lets her go, a smirkon his lips. Alex pokes her tongue at him in annoyance. He laughs.He says as he’s leaving, “Don’t forget to come out and let me havea look, my sweet. You know the shop owner does havekeys.”
In response to hisrequest, she shoves him out and slams the door on his smirkingface.
Alone, she silentlyseethes while she undresses. About two minutes later, she unlocksthe door and pokes her head out. She sees him leaning against thewall, waiting too patiently for her liking.
“So you wanna see or not?”she asks in anticipation.
He straightens up as hesays, “Of course,” with too much enthusiasm.
Alex readies herself forhis criticism as he approaches. She waits as he inspects her, herheart thundering loudly in her chest.
“Well?” she asks finallyafter a long silence.
Jay smiles at her. “Youlook good.”
“Yeah, right,” she responds. “I think it shows too muchskin.”
Jay moves closer to her, his nose just above her head. Hecan smell that lovely floral scent which is pulling him in. “That’snot such a bad thing, is it?” he says, his mind is elsewhere. He’sgazing at her smooth skin. His finger automatically comes up andstarts stroking her arm.
Alex feels that magicsensation within her. She tilts her head and gazes at him. She canfeel her senses swirling around her, sucking her in like awhirlpool. She wants to feel his lips on hers.
Jayden moves his headslowly toward her, his lips are an inch away from touchingher.
“Jay? Alex?” a female voice drifts to them.
Alex blinks. She realizes this is wrong. She almost kissedJay. What was she thinking? Jayden isgay,for God’ssake!
She takes a step back, herknees weak and her breath shaky.
The door opens. “Oh, thereyou two are,” Stephanie says with a bright smile. “You should comeand see Kelly. Aw, she is so beautiful.”
Alex pulls away uncomfortably as Stephanie is eyeing themtoo keenly. Jayden, however, doesn’t seem to mind nor does hesympathize with her that she is embarrassed. He’s actually pullingher closer, his hands about her waist and his nose and lips nowtouching her bare shoulder. She could feel the heat from him onher.Holy snap!
* * *
Alexandra doesn’tquite comprehend what’s going on except for the fact that Jayden isleading her by the arm out from the changing room, with Stephaniesmirking knowingly behind them. There’s a sort of excitement on herpretty face that leads Alex to wonder what the cause is. Sheglances back at the redheaded woman and sees her winking. That’swhen it hits her in between the eyes.
Oh, my God! Stephaniethinks she and Jayden were making out. Oh, no, no, no. She’d haveto explain to the woman that nothing of the sort happened. Thatit’s all a misunderstanding. Gosh, what a muck-up this allis!
“There you two are,” Kellyannounces. “What do you think?” She points to her dress.
Alex comes to a suddenstop, and the thought of explaining to Stephanie about her andJayden is completely wiped out of her mind once she sees Kelly. MyGod! The young woman is truly beautiful in that weddinggown.
It’s a dress like Alex hasnever seen before in real life, the type of dress she has only seenin high fashion magazines. The gown is an ivory white straplesswith a full A-line and a natural waist. There’s a bow of goldensilk on the side, and the skirt itself is asymmetrically drapedwith a bias tiered origami shape.
Kelly smiles. “I know,right?” Then she touches the material of the skirt.
“It’s a one of a kindpiece,” Victoria, the sales consultant says, who is standing justbehind Kelly.
The sales assistant who isstanding on the other side of Kelly says, “A lot of brides wantthis dress, but most can’t afford it.” She touches the fabric onthe side of Kelly’s skirt and spreads it out to show off thepieces.
“I’m so happy. I love it!Sam will love it!” Kelly announces.
“Of course he will,” Bethsays, smiling. “Now, come here and give your grandmother akiss.”
Kelly laughs as she putsher arms around her grandmother. Then she kisses the woman on bothcheeks.
“That’s my girl,” Bethsays. “You’re beautiful, just like me when I was yourage.”
A loud cheer goes up then.The room echoes with their laughter. Kelly can’t help beaming fromear to ear.
When the cheer dies down avoice says, “Yes, I do agree it is rather a beautifuldress.”
Alex glances to her right. There sitting on the sofa isBritney, dressed in a mini, sexy black dress, her long, slenderlegs crossed elegantly.
“If I were to get married,” Britney continues as she standsup. Then she sexily tosses her long hair behind her bare shoulders,similar to the action in a hair commercial. She comes to standbeside Kelly and says, “I’d wear a gown that’s a bit moreextravagant than this one.” She touches the fabric in distaste,which causes the shop assistant to frown darkly. “The skirt a bitfuller than this one. One with a long train like the one PrincessDiana wore on her wedding day. There’d be some red mixed with theboring white color. Gold doesn’t go with white, don’t youthink?”
There’s an uncomfortablesilence.
“But I like gold withwhite,” Kelly says. “I don’t care for red and white.”
“I agree,” Stephanie announces. “Gold and white go well withyour complexion, Kelly. It makes you look sweet and seductive atthe same time.” She turns to Britney. “I’m sure you’ll looksmashing when you wear a white and red wedding gownifyou are a bride, Britney,” she sayssarcastically.
Britney narrows her eyesdangerously at Stephanie but doesn’t reply. Kelly and Stephaniegrin at each other. Even Victoria hides a satisfiedsmile.
“Oh my, where did you findthat gown, Alex?” Gracie asks. Everyone turns to Alex, whose cheeksare almost the same color as the gown she has on.
“Oh, um, I kind of foundit at the back,” Alex says.
“That’s a MacKey eveninggown,” Victoria says. “It’s a new designer gown. Quite tasteful.And it fits you perfectly.”
“It is very nice on you,”Gracie comments.
“I agree,” Kelly says.“Perfect for the wedding.”
“Yes, it is rather, isn’tit?” Jayden comments.
Alex glimpses him eyeing her and thinks there’s way toomuch interest there. She casts her eyes downward for receiving somuch attention. She thinks about running back into the dressingroom to change, but it’s rude to do so when everyone is stillwatching her as though she’s on a stage show.
Britney does a catwalkover to Jayden and links her hands on his arm. She says, “Jaydendarling, Daddy wants you to join us for lunch today. I know it israther short notice, but Daddy insists you must come. Mr. McCartneywill be there as well, of course. I think he wants to talk businesswith you.”
Jayden is speechless.A business lunch with Mr. Marcelo?Who would have thought? Something big is definitely on themenu here.
“Jayden, I think youshould buy that dress for Alex,” Kelly cuts into interrupt the rudeBritney.
On cue Jay turns to Alexand says, “Well? Do you like it?”
Alex doesn’t know how to reply to that. Isn’t he supposedto be responding to Britney’s query? She clears her throatnervously because Britney is now glaring at her and perhaps wantsto murder her right there and then for stealing Jayden’s attention.“Yes, but—”
Jay chuckles. “Thatsettles it then.”
Britney switches her glareinto a lovely smile then, at Jayden of course. “So you’ll come tolunch?”
Jay turns to Victoria.“Could you please deliver that dress along with my sister’s weddinggown to the address noted?”
Victoria smiles brightly.“Of course.”
“But I don’t want it,”Alex puts in quickly.
“Why not?” Kellyasks.
Frowning darkly, Britney says sharply, “Yes, it rather is.It’s too expensive and too beautiful for someone as plain as you. Imean you’re vertically challenged. Look at you, the skirt issweeping all over the floor. Your skin tone is rather dull. Yourmakeup is just too boring. And your hair, dear Lord. May I use thisphrase?” She looks straight into Alex’s eyes. “Your hair ispositively medieval.”
Alex feels like she hasjust been slapped on the face. She has never been so humiliated inall her life. She realizes that Britney is a bitch.
“I think I better go andchange,” she murmurs. Refusing to make eye contact with anyone, shequickly makes her way back to the dressing room. She can feeleveryone’s eyes on her as she leaves.
Once she is in the comfortand safety of the changing room, she sighs and gently touches thedress, her heart quivering with a sickening feeling.
Yes, Britney is an absolute bitch. Don’t you listen to her,Alex,she tellsherself.Don’t you listen tothat woman.
But even as she tellsherself so, she can’t help but agree with Britney that she is plainand that the dress is too beautiful and expensive for her. Yes, herhair is positively medieval. It hurts when the truth is spoken outloud.
She turns her attention to the gown, admiring it. “It’s notmeant to be. You’re beautiful, even on such a plain girl like me,but—” She shakes her head and unzips the back.
Once the dress is off, shestands there in front of the mirror, touching the material andstaring into space.
The door opens. “Alex?”
Alex gasps, too shocked to do anything else when she seesJayden standing there. She thought she locked the door. Then sherealizes she’s half-naked with only her underwear on when she seeshim staring at her. She quickly covers herself with herhands.
“Jayden, I’m nakedhere.”
Jay shakes his head. “I’msorry, Alex. I was just, um, wondering if you’re allright.”
Alex sees he’s lapsinginto some sort of fixed trance again, gazing at her—especially onher chest she could barely cover with her hands.
He blinks. “Really?” heasks, looking at her now as though he hasn’t a clue as to whatshe’s talking about.
“Yes, I’m fine. What areyou doing here?”
Jayden clears his throat. “Just want to make sure you’reokay.” He comes closer despite the fact that she shows him clearlyshe wants him to leave so she can get dressed.
“You’re not hurt? I mean what Britney said back there wascruel.” Then he touches her bare shoulders, his hands sending warmsensations down her body. She wants to melt in his arms. She wantshim to hold her and tell her what Britney said is not true. She,however, manages to kill that longing and says instead, “Yes, it ishurtful. But I’m fine. What she said is right, anyway.”
Jay strokes her hairgently. “Don’t listen to her.”
“I’m not,” she says. Or atleast she tries telling herself so. She sniffs as tears brew in hereyes. “Stupid contacts,” she mutters.
Jayden chuckles. “Maybethey are past their use by date.”
She looks up, her eyeslarge and questioning. “Huh?”
“Let me have a look,” hedemands.
“You can’t. They are in myeyes.”
“Let me look anyway,” he says and proceeds to study hereyes. As he is doing so, he’s pushing her back against the wall,their bodies in intimate contact.
“I can’t see anything,” heannounces.
“You’re not supposed to see anything. They’re in my eyes,”she mutters.
“Quit your frowning andopen your eyes.”
“Jayden!” Alex snaps,pushing at his chest so he’d step back and go.
Jayden can feel her bare breasts against his shirt. Heglances down then slowly looks back up to her face. He stares ather luscious lips. He wants to kiss her again, and against hisbetter judgment, he moves his head toward her. His handautomatically moves to cup her face, his fingers digging into thethickness of her hair. He could feel the hot, electrifying heatfrom within her. Yes, he’s going to kiss her. He knows she’s readyfor him, waiting for him.
“Oh, my! Excuse me!”
Jayden twirls his headaround to look behind him and sees Victoria standingthere.
“I beg your pardon, Mr.McCartney, but I was here to get the gown to pack—”
Jayden wants to close thedamn door on the sales consultant’s face, shutting him and Alex inso that he can kiss her. But he’s a gentleman, and gentlemen don’tkick doors shut on a woman’s face.
He relaxes and evenmanages a handsome grin as he says, “Yes, of course.” He turns backto look at Alex. She’s staring at her bare feet in mortification.He wonders what he should say to her.
He sighs and walks out. He goes to sit down on the sofanear the window, waiting while the women finalize every minordetail of the dresses with Victoria, who is jotting notesfuriously, determined not to miss anything crucial. His cell rings.He sees that it’s his father calling.
“Jayden, look I know it’s short notice, but come to lunch.I’m meeting Michael at The Marcelo Hotel restaurant attwelve.”
“Business, huh?” Jay asks, eyeing Kelly, who looks as thoughshe’s about to approach him.
“Yes. Michael isinterested in selling you one of his islands. Thought you’d beinterested. Sounds like a great deal.”
“All right,” he says, seeing Kelly purposefully stridingtoward him. “I’ll see you soon.” He terminates the call.
Kelly comes to a stop infront of him and puts her palm out as though she has expected agift from him. Jay raises his brows and says, “You don’t expect meto pay for your wedding dress too, do you?”
“Of course not,” Kellysnaps. “Come off with it, Jay. Your credit card. We need to pay forAlex’s gown, among other things.”
Jay reaches for his black,checkered Louis Vuitton wallet in his back pocket as he says, “Whatother things?” He hands over his black American Express credit cardto his sister.
Kelly pinches it from hishand. “Many other things for Alex. You do realize she needs acomplete makeover and a whole new wardrobe, right?”
With Jayden’s blank look,Kelly frowns and snaps, “Oh come on, Jay. Didn’t you hear whatthat—” She wants to use the word bitch but catches herself just intime. She says, “Britney said to Alex?”
“Well, that’s whyStephanie and I are taking her out shopping.”
Jay chuckles. “Go easywith my money, won’t you?”
Kelly grins. “For yourlovely girlfriend, Jayden, only the best will do. Like you. You’rethe best.” She kisses his left cheek lightly and rushesaway.
Jay relaxes back againstthe sofa, smiling.
* * *
By the time Alexandracomes out of the changing room, she finds Jayden gone. When Kellytells her he’s going to lunch with Britney and Beth after all andthat they have no idea when he’ll be back, her heart shatters. Sherealizes he’s not going to take her to Central Park. She’s beenlooking forward to it. She wants to spend time with him doingsilly, regular things a girl does with her boyfriend. Not that he’sher real boyfriend, of course.
Stephanie says as they leave Vera Wang, “We have loads offun things to do.”
“What kind of things?” Alex asks curiously.
“Makeover and shopping!”Kelly shrieks excitedly.
“It’ll be fun,” Stephanie put in, clasping Alex’s hands asthey step toward the limousine.
“Cool,” Alex says, pushing the disturbing thought of Jaydenhaving lunch with Britney to one side. Perhaps the time spentwindow shopping with the girls might be fun after all, anexperience she knows she’d enjoy.
“I like window shopping,”she says.
John steps forward andopens the door for them.
“We are not windowshopping, Alex,” Gracie says. “We are shopping for your newwardrobe.” Then to John she says, “Thank you.”
The limo driver touchesthe tip of his hat.
“Say what?” Alexexclaims.
“You need a whole newwardrobe. And a complete makeover,” Kelly comments as she nudgesher in.
Alex looks at Kelly,confused, as she slides into the seat beside Gracie. “Ido?”
“Of course you do,”Stephanie remarks, taking her seat opposite Alex. “Or didn’t youhear what that—” she pauses, her face grim as she’s about to saythe word bitch. “Britney said?”
Alex sighs. Of course she heard. But what can she do? Shecan’t change the way she looks or who she is. After all, she’s notlike them, born with everything handed to them on a silverplatter.
Kelly sees the hurtexpression on Alex’s face. “Hey, don’t you listen to Britney. Let’sjust have fun, why don’t we?”
Alex looks at Kelly. Gosh, Kelly is so nice, just likeJayden. Her thoughts switch to the man.
Why did he leave without saying good-bye? Perhaps Britneyforced him? But then again perhaps Jayden wanted to go. Whowouldn’t? Britney is a sex vixen. Yes, Britney is oozing withsexiness, and Jayden is oozing with hotness. They’re perfect together!
“Besides,” Kelly continues, “we do want to polish you up formy wedding.My brother’s oneof the top ten bachelors in New York and not to mention one of theyoungest billionaires in the States. As his girlfriend, you have tolook good. Everyone will want to know who you are.”
Alex widens hereyes.
Stephanie leans forward asthe limo starts moving. “Oh, don’t be alarmed, Alex. Understandthat we are trying to help you out. Can’t you see? Britney istrying to steal Jayden from you.”
“Like asking him to lunchwith her dad, for instance,” Kelly says. “If people see, word willspread. She’s trying to show everyone that she and Jayden are acouple.”
“Now girls,” Gracie put incalmly, “Britney is not that bad. Shall I callLawrence?”
“Oh yes, Mom. It has to be Lawrence. Surely he must beavailable for us. This is an emergency,” Kelly says. “Besides, mybachelorette party is tomorrow night, and Alex must be ready bythen.”
Alex hears her name in the conversation and says,“Bachelorette party?”
“Oh, Mrs. McCartney, youdon’t know Britney. She’s capable of anything,” Stephanie comments.“Don’t you agree, Kelly?”
“Like mother, like daughter, I suppose,” Gracie murmurs asshe starts dialing on her Blackberry.
“What’s a bachelorette party?” Alex askscuriously.
“She’s no different from Sarah,” Kelly mutters, looking atStephanie. “I’m glad Jay’s over her.”
It takes a while for Alex to absorb that piece ofinformation. Once she realizes what it means, she shouts,“What?”
“Lawrence? Hello?Lawrence? Is that you?” Gracie shouts into her cell. “Ah, Lawrence,are you free this afternoon? We have an emergency.”
Kelly widens her eyes andbites her lower lip when she realizes what she has done.
“What do you mean? Who’sSarah?” Alex asks.
Kelly laughsuncomfortably. “She’s nobody, Alex. Don’t worry about it.” Then shequickly turns to Gracie. “Mom? Is Lawrence available?”
Gracie nods. Kelly does a thumbs-up. “How about lunchfirst? Where to?” she says, still trying to ignore Alex.
“I feel like Italiantoday,” Stephanie remarks. “What about you, Alex?”
Alex bites her lip. “Idon’t mind,” she replies, her mind still reeling on who Sarah couldbe.
Gracie says, “See you thisafternoon then, Lawrence. Thanks so much.” Then she ends the call.“There. All sorted. Now where were we?”
“Lunch,” Kelly puts inquickly.
“Yes, lunch,” Stephaniesays. “Italian?”
At Buon Appetito along Madison Avenue, Alex watches asGracie and Kelly stroll side by side into the flashy restaurant.When she is sure they won’t be able to hear her, she quicklycatches up with Stephanie.
“Stephanie? Can I ask yousomething?”
Stephanie gives her asmile. “Of course. Go ahead, sweetheart.”
“I was just curious. Well,I was kind of wondering, and you don’t have to tell me if you don’twant to. Who’s Sarah?”
Stephanie pauses and grabsAlex’s hand. “You poor girl,” she begins, patting Alex gently. “Jayhasn’t told you, has he?”
Oh, shoot!This doesn’t sound one bit good. Nowshe wonders if she wants to know who Sarah is.
“Well. No, not really,”she says, going along.
“She’s no good for him. Such a slut,” Stephanie says. “Heloved her so much, you know. Then she goes and hurts him, sleepingwith his best friend the way she did.”
Alex shuts her eyes for amoment, trying to take it all in. What is Stephanie talkingabout?
“Wait! Stephanie, wholoved Sarah? And who did Sarah sleep with?”
Stephanie sighs. “Come on.I’m hungry,” she says, and they start walking toward the restaurantagain. “It’s Jayden, of course.”
Alex comes to a halt. Shesuddenly feels sick.
“Hey, Alex?” Stephanie stares at her. “You allright?”
Alex blinks and says in ashaky voice, “I’m fine.”
“Good. Oh, Isee.”
Alex is confused. “Huh?What? What do you see?”
“You’re tired and hungry.You’re so pale just now. Come on. I don’t want you to faint. Wehave a lot to do this afternoon.” Then she leads Alex into therestaurant.
They see the maître d’ ina very neat black and white uniform leading Gracie and Kelly towarda table near the window. As they are approaching the two women,Alex asks, “Was Sarah Jayden’s ex-girlfriend?”
“Yes,” comes the promptreply from Stephanie.
Alex could feel the room swirling around her. “Who wasJayden’s best friend?” she asks. She can’t help herself. She simplyneeds to know.
“Kyle Shore. Never likedhim much, to be honest.”
Alex is feeling shaky as they take their seats. She grabsfor the glass of water Kelly pours for them and gulps it down. Shetells herself to calm down before she embarrasses herself andfaints.
“Alex, are you all right?”Kelly asks.
Alex puts the empty glassdown, her hands still shaking. “Where’s the restroom?”
“That way,” Kelly directs.“You don’t look too good.”
Alex sees that Kelly isstaring at her intensely, as though she thinks something hasdisturbed her emotionally. Alex knows she mustn’t let anyone knowJayden lied to her. She swallows. She could feel herselfsweating.
“I just feel sick at the smell of food, that’s all,” shelies, and before any of them can ask her any more questions, sherushes away.
Alex is in such a hurryshe doesn’t look where she’s going and bumps into somebody alongthe corridor.
“Sorry,” she saysapologetically, glancing up.
“Watch where you’regoing!” the woman snaps, her hazel eyes intense on Alex, her brightred lips twisting in obvious disgust.
Alex thinks the woman is incredibly gorgeous. She has longblond hair styled elegantly like a movie star’s and a pastel greensuit that fits her perfectly and shows off her Victoria’s Secretbody.
Alex wants to get past her, but the blond woman seems to bein no hurry to move.
“Excuse me,” she says,stepping forward.
“Ugh,” the woman gasps.“Don’t come near me.”
“Huh?” Alex is shocked andconfused as to what she means.
The blonde glares at her.“Get out of my way,” she snaps.
Alex quickly steps to oneside because the woman looks as though she’s about to shove herback. Before she goes, the blonde frowns at her and shakes herhead. “Your manager should train you better.”
Alex is too stunned toreply.
“You know you shouldn’ttreat people that way?” a male voice says from the end of thecorridor.
Alex glances to her leftand sees a handsome young man there, leaning against the wall withhis arms folded across his chest. The moment she meets his eyes,she regrets it. His stare sends a chill down her spine. There’salso a glint of something in his eyes that tells Alex he is not tobe trusted. He looks ruthless.
The woman flicks her blond curls over her shoulder andsays, “It’s none of your business, Kyle.”
Kyle moves forward and brushes his finger against hercheek. The blond shoves his hand away and snaps, “Don’t touch me.”She glances over at Alex and says, “She’s your type. Low and dirty.If you don’t get to sleep with that slut Britney tonight, go forher.”
“Sarah, that’s enough,”Kyle says, his voice hard.
“Make me,” she mocks, herface sneering at him.
Alex thinks this womanlooks like an angel, but her character is like the dark lord Satanhimself.
When Kyle glares at her,Sarah stands back and folds her arms across her chest insatisfaction. She turns to look at Alex and says, “Those toiletsare dirty. Do your job properly.” Then she strides away, herexpensive heels clip-clopping on the expensive marble floor. Kyleshakes his head and follows her.
Alex can’t believe it.There, another slap in the face. Once she has freshened up andfeels better, she returns to her seat.
“Feeling better?” Gracieasks.
“Yes, thank you,” shereplies.
As the other three women make small talk while they waitfor their food, Alex is consumed with anger. She can’t believeJayden lied to her. She can’t believe she actually believed him.Oh, how he tormented and teased her. Then the picture of her halfnaked in front of him rushes back to her in full force. She blushesat the thought. He saw her breasts, touched her bare skin, andkissed her. She’s furious thinking about it as she stuffs down herspaghetti Bolognese.
“Alex?” Kelly’s voiceechoes faintly in her head. “Are you all right?”
Alex pauses. She has just realized that her plate is a messof red sauce, meatballs, and spaghetti and that she is eatingwithout manners. She sighs. It’s all that damn Jayden’s fault. Shedoesn’t normally behave this way.
“I’m sorry. I’m justsuddenly very hungry,” she says apologetically, putting her forkdown. “This is delicious.”
Gracie reaches out andpats her hand. “You’ll need the energy for the long afternoon,” shesays, winking at her.
Alex blinks. “Yes, that’s true,” she repliesabsentmindedly. She’ll need all her strength to confront that lyingson of a—“Don’t swear, Alex,” she murmurs under herbreath.
“What was that?” Stephanieasks, looking at her.
“Nothing,” Alex replies,and even manages a full grin.
“Eating lots is good, aslong as you eat healthily. You are eating healthily, yes?” Gracieasks.
“Yes, of course,” Alexreplies, nodding her head.
Alex grits her teeth as she glares at themeatballs. Blast you, Jayden!I’m going to kill you when I see you.And blast that Britney! She’s going to have a completemakeover, and that’s that!
* * *
So that’s how a real gay manbehaves,Alex thinks toherself as she watches Lawrence gently stroking her long hair andgives every single dark strand his undivided attention.
Dressed in a bright pink-and-white-striped shirt neatly tucked in the dark grey skinnyjeans, he looks immaculate. Not to mention those crocodile skinshoes and that sleek bob hairstyle make him seem almost on theverge of being tipped over the fashionable scale.
Alex notices that Lawrence behaves nothing like Jayden.Lawrence is sweet-talking, his voice always high-pitched, and hishands are constantly moving in a wishy-washy fashion as he speaks.Occasionally, those hands touch the man’s backside wheneverLawrence happens to pass a particular male he fancies. Oh, yes!Lawrence—a sweet gay man who treats every woman like his bestgirlfriend—behaves nothing like Jayden.
“Darling, how could youruin your hair like that?” he says. “Simply not done, darling,simply not done.”
Alex, who is sitting on a high chair with a full-lengthmirror in front of her, wants to laugh at the situation she findsherself in. She is surrounded by beautiful, fashionably dressedpeople, Lawrence as the chief stylish, Lisa as a beauty therapistand makeup artist, and Mitch as a hairdresser. They are allexamining her and touching her hair, face, and hands.
“Can you do it?” Kellyasks finally from somewhere behind Lawrence which Alex couldn’tquite see.
“Of course I can do it,”Lawrence says, hands on hips. “Are you questioning my ability,darling?”
Kelly chuckles. “No, Lawrence, I’m not questioning yourability. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here, right?”
Lawrence does ahigh-pitched laugh, his hand delicately waving in the air. “Ofcourse, darling. Of course.” Then he turns to Alex. “Now then, Iassume you’ve had this dark hair since forever?”
“Ah. Boring color, this.Doesn’t suit your complexion at all, sweetie.”
“Yes. Too dark for yourfair skin. We’re going to change that.” Lawrence turns to Lisa.“Light brown, Lisa, with a hint of blonde. The cut? Layer! Lots andlots of layers. And some curls. Understand?”
Lawrence returns his attention to Alex. “Now then, sweetie,your skin needs special care. It’s so dry, and yet it’s oily aroundyour T-zone. I’m no dermatologist, but I can see that you need somehelp there.” He does another high-pitched laugh as he turns toGracie, Kelly, and Stephanie. “Luckily I have just the right personwho’ll be able to help.”
The three women, allsmiling, nod at him in acknowledgment.
Lawrence turns back toAlex and touches her chin. “Sweetie,” he says, a hint of jealousyin his voice. “You are one lucky gal. How could you hide yourselfin there? Your eyes, your straight nose, your full lips. It’s modelmaterial.” He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t mind trading my soul forthat pair of kissable lips.”