EPISODE THREE

Chapter Seven

Lorelei

 

“So this was a good week… Until today,” Sienna says as she slumps into the chair opposite me in our office late Friday afternoon.

I drag my attention away from my computer and eye her. She looks defeated, and Sienna never looks defeated. “What happened?”

“I was so close to gaining a new client—a guy who would have brought me a lot of business—when he decided to go with another company. He would have been the equivalent of about three clients with how busy he would have kept me.”

“There’s no way you can try and talk him around?”

She shakes her head. “I tried. He’s sold on this other company because they seem more solid to him. I guess with me just being a one-woman show and all, I don’t project the kind of image some people want.”

“And yet you are more than capable of looking after your clients just as well as the big boys.” I can’t hide my annoyance. Sienna and I come up against this time and time again, and it’s frustrating.

She sighs. “Do you ever feel like it’s all too hard?”

“If I’m honest, yes, some days it does. But then I give myself a talking to and figure I’ll show the doubters just what I’m capable of by proving them wrong.”

“I wish I was more like you.”

My eyes bulge. “What do you mean? You’re one of the few women I know who are super switched on and always positive.”

“Ugh, no. I pretend to be, but on the inside I’m wailing like a baby. I listened to you all those years ago when you drilled into me that we needed to fake it until we made it. I just can’t help wondering how much longer I’ll be faking it for.”

“I know what you mean. Thirty is just around the corner and I always thought I’d have my life more together by then.”

She’s quiet for a moment. “Do you wish things had turned out differently between you and Boston? And have you heard from him recently?”

My heart constricts at the sound of his name. The guy I thought I’d marry… until the day he asked me to marry him and I said no. “I want to say no, and that I’ve made peace with the way things went, but that would be a lie. I don’t know why I said no. I think I panicked. And, no I haven’t heard from him since he left.” Five months of radio silence from the guy I spent over three years of my life with. The guy who waited around for three months hoping to change my mind after I said no to his marriage proposal.

“Do you still love him? Because you know I have a theory about you and men.”

“What’s your theory?” Sienna is always coming up with theories for everything in life.

“I think you have this overwhelming fear of loss after losing your mum at such a young age. You’re a hopeless romantic, but when men get too close you push them away before they can leave you.”

She’s right. I know this because I’ve put hours into analysing myself. And yet I can’t seem to change. I pushed Boston away by fighting with him for three months. “I ruined what Boston and I had, Sienna. We fought so much those last three months and then we had that huge fight that ended it… There’s no coming back from that.”

She gives me a wistful smile. “There’s always coming back from things, babe. If he’s who you want in your life, you just need to tell him. Boston Haynes fucking adores you. He only left town because he was hurting too much.”

“Well, he did have a job come up overseas he could hardly turn down. Let’s be honest, Boston’s career is in America. He doesn’t have half the opportunities in Australia that he’ll have over there.”

She lifts a brow. “And you don’t think that man would give all that up in a heartbeat for you?”

“I wouldn’t want him to.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Do you still love him?”

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last five months. The heartache I felt when he left was extreme enough for me to know I did truly love him, but the thought I’ve been left with is—if I love him, why don’t I still think about him everyday? “I will always love Boston. He was my first real experience of love. But I don’t know if I am still in love with him.”

Just as she opens her mouth to speak, we are interrupted by the sound of a deep voice at the door. “Lorelei Winters?”

Turning, I find myself looking at a man who reminds me so much of Ashton Scott that it can’t be a coincidence. Even his voice has that same kind of deep, husky sexiness to it that Ashton’s has.

I stand. “I’m Lorelei. I presume you’re Mr Scott.”

His eyes glitter with subtle amusement, as if he’s humoured by me. That does not start us off on the right foot, because as good-looking as he is with his silver-fox sexiness (that goatee he’s sporting is hot), I refuse to be swayed by anything other than his personality. He walks to where I am standing and extends his hand. “Gregory Scott.”

Sienna stands and excuses herself, leaving me alone with Ashton’s father. Damn her. I would prefer not to deal with this man alone.

I hold my hand out towards the table. “Please, make yourself comfortable. Can I get you a drink at all?” God, my need to use manners irritates me sometimes. I do not want to give this man any reason to stay longer than necessary.

With a shake of his head, he says, “No. I’ll just get straight to the point Miss Winters. I’ve come to make you an offer on your property at Willow Street.”

What is with these men trying to buy that property?

“I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time then, because that property is not for sale.”

“Oh, I think we both know that everything is for sale, Lorelei, if the price is right.” So damn arrogant. I see where his son gets it.

“That may be the case in your world, Mr Scott, but it’s not in mine.”

“You haven’t even heard my offer yet.”

“I don’t need to hear it, because I’m not selling. I’m sorry, but no price can convince me.”

“Three million,” he says, his gaze steady on mine.

I don’t blink. I don’t show my surprise in any way, shape or form. But holy hell, that figure is about one million more than the property is worth.

He desperately wants this.

But why?

I stand a little straighter. “No.”

Gregory Scott maintains his own poker face. We watch each other silently for a while before he eventually says, “I’ll leave you to think about it, Miss Winters.” He hands me his business card. “Contact me when you change your mind.” With that, he turns and exits my office.

Jesus, what’s with these Scott men?

Call me when you change your mind. Not if, but when. So bloody presumptuous.

Well, they can think again if they believe I’m an easy sell. I’m not.

 

 

Chapter Eight

Ashton

 

“I love you, Ashton, but seven on a Saturday morning is taking our relationship to a whole new level,” Jessica mumbles into the phone.

“It was urgent.”

Silence.

And then—“Oh, you should have said that sooner, boss. I mean, hell, why didn’t you call earlier? I could have done urgent at three this morning.”

“Smartass,” I murmur, but my mouth curls into a smile. Jessica’s snarky ways endear her to me. They hands-down beat the way most people pander to me in an effort to get closer and potentially gain something from a relationship.

“Ugh, Ashton, you could have at least sent me over some coffee to wake me up.”

“It’s on my list. Although, I’ll have to get my assistant to organise that,” I say with a grin, making a mental note to send coffee over as soon as this call is over.

“My, you’re unusually fun this morning, Mr Scott. Did your vagina hunting pay off?”

I lean back in my office chair. I’ve been working in my home office for two hours this morning and the time has flown by. A strange occurrence around here on weekends lately. I’ve felt adrift recently and this feeling is only magnified on weekends when I’m alone. The fact I haven’t felt the pull to socialise much hasn’t helped. “The way you master the English language is astounding, Jessica.”

“I’m glad you’ve recognised that. I look for new words to impress you with daily. Now, what is so urgent you dragged me from the best sleep I’ve had all week?”

“Have you managed to track down Lorelei’s schedule yet?”

She groans. “Honestly…” she mutters, her voice drifting off. “Okay, Monday afternoons between one and four she usually visits that nursing home I’ve already told you about. She goes to spin class at the gym five minutes from her office on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at five. Sunday mornings are usually spent at the local farmer’s market. She also does salsa dancing, but this appears to be an irregular activity. It’s at that dance studio around the corner from Willow Street. Oh, and on Saturday mornings she often visits her Willow Street property.”

“Impressive. You got all this from Facebook?”

“See, if I told you my sources, you wouldn’t need me anymore. Let’s just say, my investigative process involves more than Facebook. Now, you owe me. Make it a double shot and make it snappy.”

“Mornings aren’t your strong suit, are they?”

“Pay attention, Ashton—they can be with caffeine.”

I chuckle. “Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

“Wait, before you go… How are we looking for Asshole Monday? Do you think it’ll be on next week or not?”

“Goodbye, Jessica,” I say as I end the call.

After I order coffee to be sent to her home, I make my way into the kitchen. Jack surprises me when I find him in there.

“Morning,” I say. “I thought you’d be asleep after last night.” After his long flight, he slept for hours yesterday and as a result was wide-awake at midnight.

“I slept for about four hours. Been tossing and turning for two hours, so I figured I may as well get up. I’m going to visit Mum today.”

I narrow my eyes to take in his appearance. He still looks as bad as he did when I picked him up from the airport yesterday morning. This is the worst shape I’ve seen my friend in for years. He’s lost weight, his skin is pallid, his hair needs a good cut and he’s wearing don’t-give-a-shit clothes.

“You want me to drop you off at her house?”

“That’d be great.”

We haven’t had a chance to talk yet. I’m hoping his mother might talk some sense into him, but in the meantime, I need to know he’s travelling okay. “I’m concerned, Jack. What the hell happened in LA?”

He watches me for a beat. “You want coffee for this?”

I nod and he pulls another mug from the cupboard. “Do you ever wonder how you ended up where you are in your life, Ashton?”

I think about that for a moment. This is important to Jack and I want to give him the most honest answer I can. Finally, I nod. “Yeah, some days. Actually, a lot more lately than ever before. Not to do with my work, though. That has been a carefully planned strategy. But the rest of my life feels a little empty these days.”

He passes my coffee and I slide onto one of the stools at the kitchen counter while he stands on the other side.

“Do you remember back when we finished school? You and I had so many plans. I don’t feel like we achieved any of the important ones.”

I frown. “What haven’t we achieved, Jack? We’re both doing work we set out to do and, hell, we’re both successful at it.”

He shakes his head. “No, not work. We always said we’d give back once we made our millions. We always said we wouldn’t become our fathers, and yet we both have. We’re workaholics who are too fucking busy to look beyond ourselves. Well, I’m done, and I’m ready to get back to basics.”

“I give time to a business group and donate to charity. What else can I do?”

“I’m not talking about giving cash here. I’m talking about changing the fucking world.”

Fuck, he’s on about this again.

Jack always did have aspirations to change the world, and he’s right—I wanted in on that endeavour when we were younger. These days I live in reality and understand that concept is futile. “You can’t change a world that doesn’t want to be changed.”

“Fuck, Ashton, when did you become so negative?”

“When I realised the truth in life.”

“And what’s the truth?” His voice is full of scorn and I do my best to ignore it, but I’m feeling agitated with this conversation. I just want him to work on himself first, and then I don’t give a flying fuck if he dedicates the rest of his life to being the next Mother Teresa.

“The truth is that the challenges facing humanity are insurmountable unless people open their eyes and take a long honest look at it all, and sort the bullshit from the facts, all without being led by powerful people with hidden agendas. And then there’s social media that drains people’s attention and encourages superficial engagement with life. Shit, these days people think that supporting a cause is as easy as giving a fucking like on Facebook or sharing a post. If you want to change the world, you better be ready to yell long and loud just for a few to hear you.”

He stares at me as if I’ve got two heads. “So much cynicism, my friend… I’m not talking about reaching billions all at once. I’m talking about changing one life at a time.”

I lean forward. “Well, I know one that you can work on first,” I say softly.

He processes that and then nods. Draining his coffee mug, he rinses it and places it in the dish rack before saying, “I’m working on it.”

I watch as he leaves the kitchen. “Fuck,” I mutter under my breath. Not the way I wanted to start the day.

 

***

 

After I drop Jack off at his mother’s house, I steer the car towards Willow Street. It’s just after nine and I’m hoping to catch Lorelei there. It takes me nearly half an hour in traffic to reach my destination and after I cruise the street a few times looking for her, I decide to park my car.

The street is busy today and it takes me a good fifteen minutes to find a park. By the time I’m standing in front of her building, my patience is fraying. But one glance at the empty retail shop I know so well soothes my irritation as the memories come flooding back. It’s been a good fifteen years since I’ve been here, but it feels just like yesterday.

“That shop isn’t for lease anymore,” a woman says from behind me. “I’ll be opening a florist there in a few weeks.”

I turn to see a plump middle-aged woman eyeing the shop with excitement. When her eyes finally meet mine, I say, “What about the shop next door?” Lorelei’s building houses three retail shops, of which two are currently vacant.

She shakes her head. “Nope, it’s taken too. A café I think, which is a perfect match for the hairdresser on the other side and me.”

I have to agree. Grouping businesses together that women frequent, rather then slotting in a male orientated business, should give them a fighting chance at success.

“Thank you,” I say and take a step in the direction of the café I passed earlier. This is an older area of Willow Street, still untouched by corporations who have swooped in and knocked down the buildings to erect shopping centres in their place. The café I saw looked quaint and welcoming, and I have a hunch they’ll know how to make good coffee rather than the shit pumped out at the coffee chains.

“Sorry there’s no shops left for you,” the woman says as I walk away.

“I don’t need a shop,” I call back over my shoulder. I just need the woman who owns the shops. I haven’t been able to get Lorelei out of my mind since I made that promise to her two days ago. And I meant every word I said—she will be mine. She’ll be the best sex I’ve ever had, because sex you have to work for is a sweet victory.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting in the corner of the café, drinking what is perhaps the best coffee in Sydney. Mental note—tell Jessica about this place. The owner is a lively Italian woman, probably about forty and possibly the mother to a challenging brood if her frazzled state is anything to go by. She reminds me of Alessandra in this respect. Either her business is giving her hell or her family is. The café is a cluttered mess of knick-knacks and tables pushed too close together, but the customers seem more than happy to be here. With coffee this good, I can see why.

“Lorelei! Bless you for coming,” the owner says loudly while I’m getting lost in my thoughts.

My head snaps up at that name and my gut tightens when I catch sight of the stunning redhead I’m slowly losing my time to.

Fuck, can she get any more beautiful?

She’s wearing skin-tight leather pants that show off her long legs with a black biker jacket. Her feet are encased in stiletto boots. While I love the outfit, it’s her windswept hair and flushed face that pulses desire through my veins. It’s her lack of fake polish that screams at me. I inhabit a world of perfectly put-together women and I’m bored with the superficial perfection.

She swoops in and pulls the woman into a hug before kissing both her cheeks. “You know I’m here for you anytime, Francesca.”

Francesca hits her with a smile that communicates her extreme relief and happiness to see Lorelei. I watch as Lorelei moves to join the woman behind the counter. She grabs an apron and secures it around her waist, and then she gets to work helping serve customers.

The two women work hard for the next hour until a man joins them. I assume he’s Francesca’s husband by the way he kisses her and slips his arm around her waist. Then the three of them spend another half hour serving the remaining customers. This café is one of the busiest I’ve ever come across.

The couple thank Lorelei profusely before she slings her handbag over her shoulder and exits the café. I leave my table and follow her.

When I catch up, she’s waiting at a bus stop. Her gaze falls on me and she blinks her surprise. “Ashton.”

“Lorelei.”

Her brows furrow. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” Honesty is my preference at all times.

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

“No.”

“Did you have a plan in place for when you found me?”

“Of course. I’m not the kind of man to act without a plan.”

She shifts her weight onto one foot and crosses her arms over her chest. “What does this plan involve?” As much as she’s trying to project indifference, I’m hearing enough interest in her voice to know she’s into this.

I move a little closer, invading her personal space just enough to fluster her. “It involves me taking you to lunch and getting to know you. It also involves me showing you I’m not the asshole you think I am.”

“What about your arrogance? Does your plan have a clause in there for dealing with that?”

“I’m known as a closer, Lorelei. Anything a deal needs to make it go ahead can be arranged.”

“Oh, I bet.” She uncrosses her arms and points her finger at me before resting her fingertip against my chest. “I have to say, I’m not a fan of the way you do business.”

My hand wraps around hers. I love the sudden breath she takes. “That’s because you don’t fully understand my way of doing business, but I can tell that you are more than intrigued by it. Give me an hour and I’ll show you how good business can be.”

She takes a moment. “If I give you an hour and decide I’d rather stick to my way of doing business, do you promise to leave me alone after that?”

Lorelei Winters is a tough negotiator, but just as she believes, I’m arrogant as hell. Letting her hand go, I nod. “I do.”

“Okay, your hour starts now,” she says.

I don’t waste any time. I indicate the way to my car and place my hand on the small of her back, guiding her.

I’m cocky enough to believe she’ll be giving me more than an hour today, but I’m going to make the most of every minute I have with her.

 

Chapter Nine

Lorelei

 

I sit across from Ashton in the expensive restaurant he’s brought me to for lunch and stare at him, wondering how the hell he got me to agree to this. I’m fairly sure he brainwashed me. He smooth-talked me for sure. And then this whole other woman inside of me said yes. As for her, she’s a traitor and I’m ignoring her right now. Because right now, she’s hanging off every word Ashton says.

“So, I know your business imports home décor and you sell online. Do you work in the business or do you have a team who do that?” he asks.

“You’ve looked into my business?” I’m surprised a man as powerful as Ashton Scott has bothered to spend the time looking my tiny business up.

He raises his scotch glass to his mouth. “Lorelei, I’ve looked into you.”

The traitor inside me does a happy dance and butterflies flutter in my stomach. I ignore it all. “I’m not involved in the day-to-day running of the business. I have a manager for that. He runs the warehouse and the internet site. And honestly, he does a fantastic job, which allows me the time to put into other business ventures.”

“What other kinds of ventures are you interested in?”

“At the moment I’m looking over a proposal to invest in a pub. The deal also includes the property.”

His lips purse for a moment. “How many investors?”

“Four.”

How much each?”

“Half a million.”

“Have you had your accountant look it over yet?”

“Yes.” Does he think I’m a complete idiot?

“And?”

“He thinks it’s a solid investment.”

His lips purse again. “I don’t.”

“Ashton, you know nothing about the property for goodness sake. How can you even make that kind of judgement?”

“Because four partners in not only a property deal, but also a business running a pub is a recipe for disaster. There are too many options for disagreements if you all have a say, and if you’re silent partners instead, there’s too much potential for the business to fail. My advice to you would be to walk away and also to find a new accountant.”

It’s my turn to purse my lips now. “How dare you say that about my accountant? You don’t know him.”

He finishes his drink and places the glass on the table. “No, but I do know business, Lorelei. You need to think with your head and not your heart. Tell me something? Is the person who brought you this deal a friend?”

Even as my answer forms, I know he’s going to tear it to shreds. And the stupid thing is that I knew this. I freaking knew this, but didn’t want to face it. “Yes.” I refuse to show him the frustration I’m feeling with myself. Instead, I hold my head high and choose to project confidence. When my grandmother left me her money, she believed in me—it’s time I do too.

“I thought so. Never go into business with a friend. And never bring emotions into your deals.” His tone is matter-of-fact and overly confident. It feels like he’s lecturing me and I don’t appreciate it. Solicited advice is one thing, but I didn’t ask for this.

I want to wipe that look off his face—the one that says he knows everything. Instead, I stand. Looking down at him, I say, “You might know a lot about business, Ashton, but you know nothing about me and my life. In my opinion, your people skills also need some work. You might be able to control people and boss them around in your world, but out here in mine you have no say. I know I’ve got a lot to learn about business, but I don’t want to learn it from a man like you. And the other thing? We all have different goals in life and business—before you start lecturing someone, perhaps you should ascertain what their goals are so you can advise them accordingly.” I grab my handbag before adding, “I’m going to the bathroom. When I come back, I’d like a Moscato to be waiting for me, please.” With that, I move as quickly as I can towards the bathroom. I need a minute to get myself under control because this man is causing all manner of confusion inside me.

It takes a good ten minutes to sort myself out. Ashton brings out all kinds of emotions in me. I want to simultaneously punch and kiss him. By the time I’m calm enough to head back to the table, I wonder if he’ll still be waiting for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s decided I’m more of a handful than he wants, but as the table comes into view, so does Ashton.

I slide into my seat and find a bottle of Moscato chilling next to the table. Ashton reaches for it once I’m seated and pours me a glass. I take the opportunity to appreciate his good looks while he’s busy with the wine. He’s sporting a fairly casual look today with dark blue jeans and an untucked dark grey button down shirt. The five o’clock shadow I loved on Monday is still in place and his blue eyes are still sexy as hell. I actually think it might be his eyes that trip me up. The way he watches me so intently makes me feel like I’m the only person in the world to him. So while the words coming out of his mouth annoy the hell out of me, his eyes completely captivate me.

“I think we should start over, from the very beginning,” he says once he’s finished pouring the wine.

Reaching for my glass, I say, “And how do you propose we do that?”

He smiles. Holy shit. Holy freaking shit. When Ashton Scott smiles the world lights up. And my butterflies go into overdrive. Extending his hand, he says, “Hi, I’m Ashton Scott. I’m thirty-two, a property developer and I travel a lot with work. In my spare time I play golf, sail, watch motor racing and visit art galleries.”

My heart beats a little faster in my chest. For the first time since I met him five days ago, Ashton looks a little unsure of himself. He’s maintaining a confident expression on his face and his body language is strong, but there’s a new tone in his voice—vulnerability.

I shake his hand and return his smile. “Hi, I’m Lorelei Winters. I’m twenty-eight and began my own business two years ago when I inherited my grandmother’s money. Before that I was studying business part-time while selling travel with Flight Centre. I love anything outdoors—skiing and surfing are my favourites. Making art is my therapy. When the world gets all too much I lock myself away and paint. And travel is my ultimate goal. I’ve spent a lot of time in the States and have seen a little of Europe. One day I want to be able to work from anywhere so I can travel anywhere, anytime.”

He listens with complete focus and his eyes sparkle with obvious interest. “Did you finish your degree?”

“No, I wasn’t loving it. I always would have preferred to be doing rather than learning theory. My guess at the time was that I could learn on the job just as well as I could learn on paper.”

“And now? Do you still believe that?”

I take a sip of wine. “To a certain point, yes. But I’m now figuring out that while I’ll learn on the job, it can be a painful lesson. I wonder if learning some more theory first might shorten the learning curve I’m facing now.”

“I never studied business. I was like you and impatient to get out there and do. So straight out of school I went to work for a property developer and I spent five years learning everything I could from him. Those years were invaluable, because not only did I learn from a highly successful developer, I networked and made contacts that still benefit me to this day. My parents were angry with me for not going to uni, but as far as I’m concerned I could have spent years studying and not walked away with half the knowledge and contacts I did from five years of on-the-job experience.”

“See that’s exactly what I think. I probably should have found someone to work for and learn from before I threw money and time into my own business, though.”

He shakes his head. “Not necessarily. I would have done the exact same thing as you if I’d had the money behind me. I spent five years saving, and the only reason I was able to eventually get a foot in the industry was thanks to my friend, Jack, who backed me with cash.”

I frown. “Your family didn’t help you get started?” Ashton’s family is one of the wealthiest in Australia.

He scowls. “My father is a cold man and refused to help me because I didn’t go to university. And then when I chose a developer to work with that he didn’t approve of it just cemented his refusal to have anything to do with my work. We’d always had a hard relationship while I was growing up, but this was a slap in the face.”

I’m surprised he’s being so open with me, but I like his honesty. My heart hurts at the thought of his father treating him that way. “He must be so proud of you now, though.”

“I wouldn’t know what he thinks. We hardly talk these days. In fact, the last time I saw him was a good six months ago and that was only because we ran into each other at a charity gala. A year ago, I decided I’d had enough of him and the way he treats his children, so I stopped intentionally seeing him.”

“What does that actually mean?” I can’t imagine choosing not to see a parent. When you grow up not knowing who one of them is and losing the other at a young age, you spend a lot of time envying those who have both in their life.

“It means no family dinners, no Christmas together, no holidays together. I refuse to put myself in any situation where he can try and destroy my belief in myself.” His voice wavers and I can feel his pain. I can also see it in his eyes. They’ve lost their sparkle while he’s been talking about his father.

I’m not sure what makes me do it, because it’s not something I blurt out to people I’ve just met, but I share a piece of my soul with him. “I don’t know who my father is, and my mother died when I was eight. I grew up with my grandmother. I can’t imagine what it’s like having a parent who doesn’t build you up, because my grandmother dedicated her life to helping me become an independent woman with a good dose of self-belief.”

The sparkle returns to his eyes and he smiles again. “From the little I’ve seen this week, it appears she succeeded.”

When Ashton Scott switches off his inner asshole, he’s the kind of man who could charm every woman in sight without breaking a sweat. I’ve heard mixed things about him. Some say he’s a player. Others mention the long-term relationship he ended last year, noting that his ex still pines for him—they believe this shows he’s a good guy. I always prefer to form my own opinion of people, so I’m withholding judgement. It would seem, though, that my earlier assessment of him might have been a little hasty if this new side he’s showing me is anything to go by.

I drink the rest of my wine and decide to see how far I can push him to open up. “Tell me one of your favourite childhood memories.”

He refills my glass as he speaks. I’m impressed that he doesn’t hesitate to share the memory with me. “I was fourteen and on holiday with my mother and sister in France. Family holidays usually consisted of the three of us visiting some exotic beach destination. My mother would spend most of it by the pool with a cocktail while Alessandra took me exploring. This particular holiday, though, we went to France for three weeks and did a lot of sightseeing. Mum didn’t spend it drinking—she spent it with us. But on one of the days we were in Paris, she was ill, so Alessandra and I spent the day on the Metro and saw so many parts of the city we probably wouldn’t have if Mum had been with us. To this day, Paris is one of my favourite cities in the world. Every time I visit I’m reminded of that day.” He leans forward and says, “Tell me one of your favourite memories. I want to know what a beautiful woman like you remembers from her childhood.”

I take a longer sip of wine. He’s making me nervous. Because as much as he thinks he’s looking at a self-confident woman, I feel out of my depth with a man like him. A man who is so at ease in his own skin and who knows exactly what he wants and believes he will always get it. “I was nine and with my grandmother while she was visiting the Willow Street property. She liked to check in weekly with the business owners and make sure they were doing okay. If they were struggling for money or anything, she’d do her best to help them out. Anyway, it was a year after my mother had died and I was still feeling lost. I mean, my grandmother did everything she could for me, but sometimes you need someone outside your family to get you through. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it seems to be how some of the pivotal moments in my life transpire. So, while she was with one of the shop owners, I wandered into the newest shop there. It was a furniture store and the man who owned it, Victor, spent hours restoring the furniture before selling it. I didn’t spend that much time with him over the years, but the time we did have was some of the most important time in my life. That particular day, he invited me in and showed me how to sand a wooden table. We sat there for an hour sanding and talking. It was the first time I remember not feeling so lost. He didn’t know my history, so he didn’t look at me with sad eyes like everyone else in my life did. We talked about the world. He’d done a lot of travelling and he told me stories that made me want to see the world. Victor’s the person who gave me the travel bug.”

Ashton has been listening intently to everything I’ve said, but now he’s staring at me like he’s seen a ghost. The waitress interrupts us before I can ask him why. By the time we’ve given her our orders he’s recovered and watches me with warm eyes rather than that haunted expression.

“What’s the next trip you have planned?” he asks, and we lose ourselves in a long conversation about travel destinations.

I manage to consume three quarters of the bottle of Moscato during lunch. For a woman who doesn’t really drink, this is not good, and I can’t believe I’ve done this again in the space of a week. I’m more than tipsy—I’m on my way to being plastered. Wine goes straight to my head. When I asked Ashton to get me a Moscato I didn’t mean a whole bottle. But my nerves got the better of me and I just kept sipping.

The bathroom is calling and as I excuse myself and stand, Ashton eyes my wobbly state and looks at me with concern. He stands also and says, “Are you okay to get there by yourself?”

“Absolutely,” I say as I wave him away, full of fake alcohol-induced confidence.

The concern in his eyes doesn’t ease. “I’ll get the bill while you’re gone and then I’ll take you home.”

“No!”

He quirks a brow. “You don’t want to go home?”

“I meant don’t pay the bill. I’ll pay for my share.”

Amusement flickers across his face and he jerks his chin in the direction of the bathroom. “Go. I’ll get this one.”

I place a hand on my hip and attempt a stern glare. “No you won’t. I’m a woman who can pay my way.”

The amusement on his face gives way to a full grin and oh, how I love that grin. I want to kiss that grin right off his face. Oh, shit… No, I don’t. Oh, but I do… Damn you alcohol for making me want things I don’t want. He moves his face closer and murmurs low, “I know you’re a woman who can pay her way, but you’re also the sexiest damn woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating with and this is going to be the first of many meals I pay for.”

When he moves his face away from mine and gives me a look that says ‘Don’t argue with me’, I do what I’ve been told. Even my addled brain can figure out that it’s not worth arguing with him over this. I’m beginning to grasp that Ashton is a man who gets his way often and if we’re going to keep doing this dance together, I’ll need to choose my battles wisely.

EPISODE THREE WILL BE LIVE ON THE 9th MAY

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