All for love 3 series.., p.5
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       All for Love - 3 Series Starters, p.5

           Kris Pearson
 

  “Well to speak plainly, I don’t sleep with men I work for.” Had she been too direct?

  His expression changed slightly. “You don’t work for me. With me, maybe, but that’s a big difference. No pressure. Nothing to get in the way.”

  She somehow held his dark eyed gaze, astounded to find she burned to feel his hands and lips all over her; desperate to welcome him deep, deep inside where she ached and itched and felt full of slippery heat. “You’re lovely, but I just don’t do things like that,” she said as primly as possible.

  *

  Rafe breathed out in a rush. Nothing—nothing—felt better than being genuinely wanted. That Sophie wanted him he had no doubt. All the signs were there, even though she was trying to hold on to her defenses. Her dark pupils almost filled her grey irises... her lips were softly parted... her nipples had peaked into hard nubs against the silky fabric of her camisole.

  What had started as idle attraction on his part had turned uncomfortably intense.

  If only he hadn’t stopped to help with her damned sign-board! He needed a partner with domestic talents and a deep maternal streak, not another ambitious, strong minded, career focused woman.

  But hell, she was sweet.

  *

  Sophie cast him a cautious glance. What was she doing? Breaking the most important rule she’d ever set for herself. Mixing business with pleasure again. “What are we really here for?” she asked. “What had you planned?”

  Rafe suddenly looked the soul of innocence. “A walk around the house for a preliminary inspection... and to grab some screws for your sign-board.”

  “Not anything more, because...” She broke off in confusion. Maybe she’d got things totally wrong? Perhaps she’d mistaken his motives?

  “Not yet, anyway. Although I did think of asking you out to dinner and trying my luck.”

  “When?” she demanded, trying to ignore the leap in her heart.

  “When you said I wouldn’t be getting anything, and then turned on that sexy blush and went all apologetic to me in your studio.”

  “I did not!”

  “You absolutely did. Said you ‘weren’t thinking of that’, and suddenly I was thinking of ‘that’ quite a lot.” A smile curled the edges of his mouth. “And when we got here you mentioned French wallcoverings and my hopeful brain made the leap to French knickers and French champagne...”

  Sophie gave an unladylike snort.

  “How about I buy you a dozen bottles of nice fizz for the studio launch,” he continued. “And we’ll go out for a meal afterwards. Somewhere on the waterfront?”

  He’s making it sound so easy, but I can’t. I can’t.

  “I need to be home around six-thirty for an important phone call.” She wasn’t quite able to look him in the eye as she said that.

  He quirked an eyebrow. “Later then? I can wait.”

  Sophie felt he wouldn’t want to wait if he knew she was phoning her four year old daughter—the daughter she’d had to give into her mother’s care. He’d said twice that children should be with their parents.

  She sighed and stood deep in thought for a few moments. Although it was agonizing, she needed to try and stop things right now. Make this a once-only moment of madness and somehow salvage a businesslike relationship from the tempting situation she found herself in. “Rafe,” she began.

  “Hmmm?”

  She took a deep breath and huffed out a sigh, glad he seemed to be treating this as a game and not taking offence at her comments. “I seriously think,” she began again, “that’s not a good idea. This is a business arrangement.”

  “Feels pretty businesslike to me, too.” His smile was now wide and warm, and Sophie feared her resolve might melt all too soon under its powerful wattage.

  “Stop it. Concentrate. This is a huge deal for me. Your house has been talked about in the design community for months. And that means architects and other decorators and suppliers will all be watching like hawks. I want to do a fantastic job for you. I will do a fantastic job for you. But the last thing I need is people saying I got the work because they think we’re sleeping together.”

  Rafe raised a skeptical eyebrow. “They can think what they like but they can’t prove anything.”

  “Well, we’re not.”

  “Of course we’re not.”

  Was he trying to suppress a sneaky little grin? She ploughed on, determined to clarify her rules. “So being seen out at dinner is a terrible idea.”

  “It’s only dinner.”

  “Yes, but...”

  “No buts. We can keep it to ourselves while we get to know each other. No-one knows you’re here.”

  “Your builders know.”

  “They know you’re on the premises. Discussing the house. They wouldn’t know if you were in my bed.”

  “Well I won’t be,” she somehow managed. “And anyway—”

  “So that takes care of that worry.”

  “Yes, but lunch.” She threw him an imploring glance. “Rafe, what are people going to think if we turn up to lunch together?”

  “That I’m mentoring you, as I’ve mentored other new business people in the last couple of years.”

  That took the wind out of her sails a little. “You’d better keep your hands off me, then,” she said, taking half a step away. But only half a step, because he somehow gave her the courage to stay close when she knew she should be running full-tilt in the opposite direction.

  “I can manage that in public, Ms Calhoun. But in private?”

  And although he hadn’t gone into details, she could supply those details all too readily for herself. Her whole body sparked. She’d never had a man speak so directly so soon, and she knew it wasn’t a one sided attraction. Oh hell...

  “No,” she objected, giving him a light punch high on his arm, and leaving her hand there because... well she didn’t know quite why, but he felt warm and alive and lovely.

  “No, Sophie?”

  “No.” There was a short silence. “No,” she murmured again. The waves crashed on the rocks far below. “No, we mustn’t,” she decided, finding determination from somewhere. “It’s a really bad idea. No.”

  She sighed.

  “I’m glad we got that settled,” Rafe chuckled, as though there was nothing set in concrete.

  Sophie’s fingers stroked idly down from where she’d punched him, pinching gently, smoothing over the long muscles under his shirt.

  “Fancy me, do you?”

  “As if,” she retorted, grabbing her hand away with a guilty glare. “But you don’t have a businessman’s body, that’s for sure.”

  He smiled at that. “I was a carpenter, like my Koro—my adopted grandfather. From a small forestry settlement up north that I bet you’ve never heard of. I’ve always worked hard physically. Played rugby for the locals. Typical Kiwi boy.”

  “Typical half Italian, part Cherokee Kiwi boy,” she teased. “I bet there’s not another one like you anywhere.”

  “There are two. Same bloodlines, but you’d never know it to look at them.”

  “Your brothers?”

  “My much more acceptable, paler skinned brothers,” he said, sleepy eyes suddenly spitting sparks.

  She scanned his face, searching for further clues, but he let nothing else slip.

  *

  Rafe sighed as they climbed the stairs again to the living area. How could his brothers intrude, even here?

  He had nothing left to prove to his parents. Nothing to prove to his brothers, either. But still they invaded his consciousness, taunting him with their fertile wives, their fast arriving families. For all his money and outward success Rafe had not won that particular race. Wasn’t even in the running yet.

  The fierce craving burned whenever he thought of the children he’d expected to father by now. The dancing eyed daughter. Long limbed sons to carry his name forward. They’d never lack for parental love as he had.

  Nanny and Koro had
been wonderful to him but they weren’t his mother and father. Somewhere buried deep within him was the urge to show Luca and Huia exactly how parents should treat their children.

  He drew a long, brooding breath and imagined the ice that must rim Luca’s heart. Okay, every father hoped his son would be a replica of himself. Rafe understood that. And he looked so unlike Luca Severino he could almost forgive the indifference.

  But as for his mother... What woman willingly gave away her first-born child? The dark thoughts swirled around his brain as he looked across at Sophie silhouetted against the sunny deck. Another career woman like Faye? Should he cut his losses and make it all business from now on?

  No. There was something about her. He’d keep her close for the decorating and see where it led.

  Chapter 5 — Ex-wife’s Lipstick

  “I wish you success, Sophie,” Councilor Duncan said, inclining his wine glass toward her. “In these uncertain times it takes a lot of determination and a little bit of extra luck to make a new business succeed.”

  Sophie nodded gravely. Didn’t she just know that! And so much was riding on ‘Subtle’ making a profit. Her rent in Thorndon Quay was horrendous. Her tiny apartment ate up more than two hundred dollars every week. Her ferry fares to see Camille each Sunday... her mobile and broadband bills... electricity and food... the expenditure seemed endless.

  “Thank you. I’ll be working very hard,” she agreed. “And I think—I hope—my extra luck turned up this morning. A very nice big house.”

  Rafe’s fingers pinched her waist and she tried to keep a straight face.

  “Our beautiful capital city has some glorious properties,” the councilor agreed. “My wife and I have just tendered on a new apartment. Possibly you’d like to view it if the sale goes through?” His bushy eyebrows rose in inquiry.

  Sophie was quick to hand him one of her new business cards. “Do ask your wife to call me any time for a consultation,” she murmured as he moved away.

  “Trying to poach my clients?” Faye’s cut-crystal voice sliced from somewhere close behind them.

  Sophie flinched, and felt Rafe’s hand tighten at her waist and then release her. “I don’t need to poach your clients,” she replied, turning to face her former boss. “When they approach me, it’s perfectly fair to offer my services.”

  She raised her chin a little, held her drink steady, and stared Faye down. Faye sent her a disdainful sniff and turned aside to Rafe. “Darling,” she purred, touching his tie, flicking a nonexistent speck of lint off his lapel, and stretching up on tiptoe to brush a scarlet kiss onto his cheek. “Fancy seeing you here. How lovely.”

  Sophie clamped her teeth together so hard she almost popped chips off the enamel. Anger boiled up her throat. How dare the woman act all cuddly after treating him the way she had? Leading him on. Waiting years before telling him she didn’t want his children.

  She watched as a slight smile tugged at Rafe’s gorgeous mouth. At least he hadn’t kissed the bitch back...

  “Business good?” he drawled. “You’re managing without Sophie’s help, are you?”

  Oh, that’s really done it. Now wave a red cape at her, Rafe.

  “I was sorry to have to let her go, of course,” Faye said in a slightly too loud voice.

  “You didn’t ‘let me go’. I couldn’t wait to leave and set up my own studio.”

  “Ladies... ladies...” Rafe’s grin broadened as he leaned in between them, ostensibly to lift a canapé from a circulating waiter’s silver tray. “Nibble, anyone?”

  Sophie shook her head and stepped away. She was damned if she’d play this game.

  Rafe’s long arm shot out and caught hers, forcing her to turn back to him. “Sophie’s decorating the house for me,” he threw into the frigid air. “I felt it needed a fresh approach, a younger eye perhaps?”

  The three of them stood like statues in the midst of all the business babble. Seconds ticked by.

  “Good luck with that idea, Rafe. As you know, I like to bring something distinctive to a commission. Leave my mark, so to speak.”

  Sophie, who’d been so in awe of Faye for several years, just couldn’t resist. She set down her glass. “But we’ll remove this one,” she said, taking Rafe’s handkerchief from his breast pocket, stretching up on tiptoe and wiping the scarlet lipstick from his cheek. “He’s not your commission. He’s mine now.”

  Faye stared daggers at her for a few seconds, then turned and flounced off.

  “That went well,” Rafe said.

  Sophie felt his grasp around her wrist soften, but he didn’t release her.

  *

  It felt damn good having the two of them scrapping over him. He knew it was petty, but his male pride had been stroked by those few choice comments. To see Sophie extend her claws and effortlessly get the upper hand had been a surprise.

  And how he’d liked the way she’d said he was her commission and not the house. Slip of the tongue? He hoped not.

  To have Sophie laying claim to him in front of Faye had boosted his satisfaction to very comfortable heights. Add that to the fact he now had a decorator, forward progress on the house, and a woman who piqued his interest, and he was a thoroughly happy man.

  “Almost time to eat,” he said, stroking her wrist.

  “I’m quite hungry,” she agreed.

  “A little excitement does that, don’t you find? Increases all sorts of appetites?” He watched, amused, as Sophie blushed and huffed and tried to pull away. “Where’s your earring?”

  Her hand flew up to grope at her ears and found one missing. “Darn—somewhere in your house I expect.” She unthreaded the other to match.

  “We’ll find it tonight after dinner.”

  “No, Rafe,” she hissed. “This has got to stay business.”

  “We’ll see.”

  “We certainly won’t.” She stopped whispering as the silver haired city councilor approached again. “Ah, Rafe, want a word,” he boomed.

  Rafe followed the man to one of the impressive looking dining settings and pulled a chair out so Sophie could sit. Councilor Duncan turned aside for a moment to exchange pleasantries with a nearby crony.

  “If you want your earring back you’ll need to come out to the house and collect it,” Rafe said, leaning low as he pushed the chair in for her. “They’re starting the big clean-up tomorrow and it might get swept up with all the dust and rubbish.”

  Her grey eyes spat sparks at him. “That’s blackmail.”

  “Surely not?” He smiled at her outraged expression. “I want you there. I nearly always get what I want.”

  “So do I,” Councilor Duncan claimed, turning back and overhearing half of their conversation. “And what I want m’boy is your opinion on the proposed redevelopment of the Miramar wharf area.”

  Rafe put on his public face and offered opinions on slipways and winches and parking facilities. Faye’s spiky dark hair and cutting-edge lime green jacket were visible across the big room, but far enough away that Sophie could relax a little and join in the general conversation at the table. She wished Rafe hadn’t rubbed Faye’s nose in the situation with quite such glee though. She’d be a formidable opponent, and the design scene in Wellington wasn’t huge. But how good it felt having him at her side.

  And how good it would feel if she agreed to go back to the house with him. But that wouldn’t happen unless it was strictly business.

  She sighed and forked up the last bite of her peppery beef.

  “Nothing to follow except coffee or tea, I’m afraid,” Councilor Duncan said. “And the ladies do seem to like a little something after their meal.”

  “They do indeed,” Rafe agreed.

  “I’m fine without,” Sophie insisted.

  The guest on her other side was taking every opportunity to harangue the city councilor about the increasing number of pigeons in the park near his business premises.

  “Filthy little creatures... fouling the footpaths... smelling like a
sewage plant... need to be shot...”

  Sophie’s lips quirked as she caught Rafe’s amused glance. Surely there were more important problems than this in the capital city?

  He laid down his fork, edged his chair closer to the table, and sent the other diners a benign smile. “A bird in the hand?” he suggested as his fingers slipped under the voluminous white damask tablecloth and squeezed her thigh.

  *

  “Not funny!” Sophie was close to exploding as she hurried down the marble steps of the Wakefield Club a little later. A flush of reined-in fury stained her face. Her eyes blazed with temper. And her body burned with wanting him. “You said I’d be your business guest. You were supposed to be mentoring me, not groping me under the tablecloth. If anyone had noticed, all my credibility would have gone out the window in a flash.”

  “Instead of all your composure?” He grinned, unrepentant. “Sophie, you have no idea what a turn-on you are when you’re blushing and wriggling and trying to look prim.”

  “Prim? I was trying to look respectable. It was very hard.”

  “Well, something certainly was. Just as well that was a big tablecloth.”

  She snorted at that, and sent him another mutinous scowl as they walked back to the Jaguar.

  He reached to take her hand. She slapped it away.

  He opened the car for her.

  “Rafe?”

  “Yup?”

  “Stop it. I don’t want to mess this job up. It’s important to me. My whole future depends on it.”

  “You won’t mess it up, Sophie. I have complete faith in you.”

  “Not the decorating,” she insisted as she swung her legs in. “I have plenty of experience. I have good contacts and excellent tradespeople to call on. I have qualifications and my own high standards to live up to. But...”

  “Then you’ve nothing to worry about.” Rafe closed the Jaguar’s door and left her cocooned in its leathery luxury. She fumed as he sauntered around to the driver’s side, and seated himself.

  “It’s not the decorating,” she repeated. “It’s the you-and-me thing. If we socialize and then get a couple of weeks into the house job and can’t stand each other, where does that leave me? I’m just starting out. ‘Subtle’ has been all I’ve planned and saved for, for several years now.”

  “While you were working for Faye?”

  “Yes, of course. I hate to admit it but I’m jealous of her. Of her beautiful big studio. Of her fantastic clothes and great clients.”

 
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