Authors: Julia James
As she stood before him in the rich, lustrous beauty she was finally revealing to him, anticipation speared within him for what he knew would be the delights of the evening ahead.
Not that she gave any sign yet of realizing that was to happen. She was, he knew, quite unconscious of whatâwith absolute inevitabilityâlay ahead. It would, of course, make seducing her even more
âeven more enticing!
And now, the evening was about to begin.
“Shall we?” he invited.
She walked with superb grace, he noted, although there was the very slightest tension in her shoulders. As if she were not entirely at ease.
Yes, she was indeed well worth his time and attention. Pleased with his choice, Guy relaxed fully into the leather seats and appreciatively continued his surveillance. To his pleasure, the evening stretched ahead of him.
And the nightâah, the night would be exceptionalâ¦.
lives in England with her family. Harlequin
novels were the first “grown-up” books Julia read as a teenager (alongside Georgette Heyer and Daphne du Maurier), and she's been reading them ever since.
Julia adores the English countryside (and the Celtic countryside!) in all its seasons, and is fascinated by all things historical, from castles to cottages. She also has a special love for the Mediterranean (the most perfect landscape after England!). She considers both ideal settings for romance stories! Since becoming a romance writer, she has, she says, had the great good fortune to start discovering the Caribbean, as well, and is happy to report that those magical, beautiful islands are also ideal settings for romance stories! “One of the best things about writing romance is that it gives you a great excuse to take holidays in fabulous places!” says Julia. “All in the name of research, of course!”
Her first stab at novel writing was Regency romances. “But alas, no one wanted to publish them!” she says. She put her writing aside until her family commitments were clear, and then renewed her love affair with contemporary romances. “My writing partner and I made a pact not to give up until we were publishedâand we both succeeded! Natasha Oakley writes for the Harlequin
Romance line, and we faithfully read each other's works in progress and give each other a lot of free advice and encouragement!”
In between writing, Julia enjoys walking, gardening, needlework and baking “extremely gooey chocolate cakes”âand trying to stay fit!
autumnal sunshine was filtering through the kitchen window of Alexa's flat on the borders of Notting Hill, illuminating the pinewood table set for breakfast for two. The simple but elegant pottery creamware and silver-plated cutlery had been acquired painstakingly and piecemeal from antiques shops. Bright flowers adorned the table in a glass vase, and the aroma of freshly made ground coffee hung in the air.
So did a tension that Alexa would have had to be a block of stone not to feel.
She had had no inkling of it until this moment. Until this moment her mood had been languidâsensual, evenâfor making love upon waking was something that never failed to leave her with a sense of rich well-being that lasted all the day longâeven on days like this when, unlike the previous night, she would go to bed alone.
But she was used to that by now. Used to going from a night of sensual overload that left her dazed, swept to shores she had once known nothing of but to which now she was a familiar, oh, so familiar traveler, to abstinance. But as she stood by the table, coffee pot in hand, her slender body concealed by nothing but a pale green silk peignoir, her long, still slightly tousled hair rippling down her back, she felt her throat give a little catch, as though her
bodyâmore than her bodyâremembered with absolute clarity that sense of wonder, almost disbelief, that would sweep her away on a tsunami of emotion.
Not that she ever revealed that emotion. Only the passion with which it was expressed. The emotion itself could never be acknowledged.
For a momentâan endless, empty momentâbleakness showed in her eyes. Then it was gone. She had accepted, had
to accept, that all she could have was what she had now. These brief, precious times when she would burn with an intensity that transformed her life, which carried her through the intervening days and nights of celibacy until her phone would ring and everything else became secondary, inconsequential, irrelevant. Her friends, her work, her whole lifeâall put aside.
And then for one night, perhaps two, perhapsâso rarelyâmore, when the call summoned her to a private airfield and whisked her away within an hour of the summons to some continental city orâeven more rarely, even more blissfullyâto some Italian villa, some Alpine ski lodge, some Monagasque penthouse, she would give herself entirely to the moment. However brief, however fleeting.
Was she rash, foolish, intemperate to be so? Of course she was! She knew itâknew it with every last ounce of sense within her. Good sense. Sense that tempered, as it mustâshouldâthat volatility of emotion which was the other half of her, that intensity of emotion that fuelled not just her life but her art. Sense that kept her outward persona cool, composedâcontrolled.
That was what others saw. The persona she deliberately projected. Few of her friends, especially those in the heady and passionate world of art, realised that her outward appearance of dispassionate calm in fact concealed an inner intensity of emotionâemotion that she channelled only
into the art that she painted for herself, not for her profession. Others saw a tranquil beautyâa pale, silken-haired English roseâbut few recognised the flame that burnt deep, deep within her.
Raised by parents who had led ordered, intellectual lives, Alexa knew that they had been taken aback to discover their only child was as artistically talented as soon became evident during her schooldays. They had not opposed her choice of subjectâfar from itâbut Alexa had always recognised that they found it faintly astonishing that their daughter should have taken so to art which, to their sedate minds, was associated with stormy passions, extreme emotions and, worst of all, a tendency to lead disordered and messy lives.
Was that whyâalmost as a favour to her parents, perhapsâshe had schooled herself to be as unlike a temperamental artist as she could? Why she enjoyed a tranquil, ordered existence, keeping her outward life calm and temperate and restraining her emotionality to her work? Yet she knew that it also came naturally to her to be reserved, dispassionate, self-contained, and once she had graduated from art school she ran her professional life as smoothly as her personal life.
As for menâ¦ Drawn by her pale beauty, they had come and goneâbut mostly gone, for they had not, Alexa had known, been special to her. So she reserved herself on that score as well, enjoying the company of a select few boyfriends, with whom she mostly enjoyed going to the theatre, to concerts, to art exhibitions. Emotionally, though, she was untouched, and physically none had ever set her afire to explore the sensual promise of the body. No one had succeeded in lighting that flame hidden so deep within her.
No one but the man who stood there now, paused in the
doorway, a man who, every time her eyes rested on him, made the breath catch in her throat, her pulse quicken. Every time.
As it did now.
He stood there, dominating the physical space just as he dominated her mental space, six foot of lean masculinity sheathed in an immaculately hand-made pale grey suit, with an effortless elegance about him that only served to emphasise his maleness while indicating his continental heritage. Guy de Rochement would never be taken for an Englishman, yet his French surname was only a fraction of the complex pan-European inheritance that had made the banking house of Rochement-Lorenz a byword for wealth, prestige and power.
Now, those extraordinary long-lashed eyes that could melt Alexa into quivering jelly by a single glance were resting on her. She felt, as she always did, their power, but now, for the first time, she also felt, deep within her, something differentâthe tension that seemed to set the air between them vibrating with a fine disturbance of the equilibrium.
She paused, waited, the coffee pot that she had been holding as he'd walked into the sunlit kitchen still in her hand. Suddenly the kitchen seemed less bright, less warmed by the sunshine. Time stretched between them, tangible, tenseâit seemed to last for ever, and yet it was only the beat of a single heart.
Then he spoke.
âI have something to tell you.' Guy's accent in English was almost perfect, but not quite, still holding a faint sussuration of French, Italian, Germanâany of the half-dozen languages he'd grown up speaking amongst his polyglot relatives. His voice was clipped, and as she heard it Alexa
felt the first tremor of emotion deep within herâan emotion she would have given the world not to feel. It was an emotion she would give no name to, would deny completely, because to admit it would be to open within her a door so dangerous it might destroy her. It was a door she must never openâno matter what Guy did, what he said.
Even when it was the words he was saying now. She heard the words, but they came from very far away, from a place she'd dreaded, feared. His clipped, reserved expression told her far more than the words themselves, though each syllable was like a scalpel slicing across her bare flesh.
âI'm getting married,' said Guy de Rochement.
Alexa was standing very still. Almost as if she were a statue, he thought irrelevantlyâfor his mind was doing strange things to him, despite the self-control he was ruthlessly exerting on himself right now. A statue by one of those absurd and over-inflated contemporary artists with no more talent than an ability to mock greatness, a woman in a kitchen holding a coffee pot as if it were a Greek urn. He, too, seemed frozen. Or at least his mind did. He had walked into the kitchen knowing what he had to say, and knowing the implications of it.
Those implications were clear. Unambiguous. Unavoidable.
Completely obvious to him.
A minute frown shadowed his eyes momentarily.
Were they as obvious to her, though?
He went on studying her for the space of another heartbeat as she stood there, perfectly motionless, as if frozen in time. Nothing seemed to register in those luminous, clear-sighted eyes that had so entranced him from the very
first moment he had seen her. Eyes arrestingly beautiful, set in a face that even
high standards for female allure could not fault. Her beauty was completed by possession of a figure of slender perfection that had immediately, irrevocably captured his interestâan interest that he had pursued with all his customary ruthlessness when it came to such matters.
Some women, when he had shown an initial speculative interest, had sought to intrigue him further by playing pointless gamesâwhich, he assumed, they believed would entice him the more, encourage his pursuit or, even more presumptuously, serve as a means to exert control over him. But Alexa had, to his satisfaction, shown no such predilection for futile attempts to manipulate him. From the first she had shown no disingenuous reluctance, coyness or coquetry, and even when seduction had been accomplished, and he had begun his affair with her, she had recognised implicitly the terms under which it was to be conducted, and complied with them without demur.
Complied without demur with everything he wanted. Right from their very first night togetherâ¦that unforgettable nightâ¦
In his mind, memory flickered like a flame in dry undergrowth. He sluiced it instantly. That fire must be put outâpermanently. With all the discipline he habitually exerted he doused the flickering memory. This was not a time for memoryâit was a time for clarity.
Brutal clarity if need be.
He needed to say it. Not just for her, but for himself as well. To make it crystal-clearâ¦
She was standing immobile still, and something in her very stillness made the tension pull at him. Tension he did not want to feel.
Time to make things clear.
Cool and terse, the words fell into the space between them.
âI shan't be seeing you again, Alexa.'
For the space of another heartbeat time held still. An eternity of time in the briefest span. Then, like a film starting to play again, her body unfroze. With her customary graceful movements she lowered the coffee pot to its slate mat on the table and started to depress the plunger, letting the dark pungent liquid settle, then pouring it carefully out into one of the creamware cups. Gracefully she lifted the cup and saucer, proffering it to the man standing such a short space away from her.
Such an infinite distance now.
âOf course,' she answered. Her voice was serene, untroubled. â
C'est bien entendue
âthat's the correct French, isn't it?' Her tone was conversational, unexceptional. âAre you having coffee before you go?'
There was no emotion in her face as she spoke.
She would permit none.
In her hand, the coffee cup she was rock-steady. Not a tremor. She caught the scent of coffee coiling into the air, the molecules wafting upwards. Her eyes were resting on his face, limpid, untroubled. As if he had merely uttered a pleasantry of no consequence or significance.
He did not take the cup. His face remained closed, unreadable. But then she did not seek to read it. Sought only to hold the cup as steady as a rock, to hold her gaze as steady. It was as though a section of her brain had dissociated itself from the rest of her and was operating in a space all of its own.
For one last heartbeat she held the cup, then slowlyâinfinitely slowlyâlowered it to the table. Her regard went
back to him, still showing nothing in her eyes except politeness.
âI hope you will permit me to wish you every happiness in your forthcoming marriage,' she said, her voice as untroubled as her regard.
Smoothly, she moved towards the door, indicating thereby that she recognised he would take his leave nowâcoffee untouched, affair disposed of. She did not pause to see if he was following her, merely headed unhurriedly, gracefully, the silken length of her peignoir brushing against her bare legs, across the narrow entrance hall of her flat to the front door.
She heard rather than saw him follow her. She slid back the security bolts that were inevitable in London, even on a quiet, tree-lined road such as the one she lived on. She stepped back, holding open the door for him. He came forward, halted one moment, looked at her one moment. His face was still closed, unreadable.
Thenâ¦ âThank you,' he said.
He might have been thanking her for her felicitations, but Alexa knew that he was not. Knew that he was thanking her for something he appreciated far more. Her acceptance.
His eyes still held hers. âIt has been good,
Laconic to the last. She, too.
âYes, it has.'
Briefly, like swansdown, she leant forward to brush with the lightest touch his cheek.
âI wish you well.'
Then she stood back.
âGoodbye, Guy,' she said.
For one last time her eyes held him. Then, with the merest nod of acknowledgement of her farewell, he walked out.
Out of her life.
She did not watch him go. Instead she shut the door. Slowlyâvery slowly. As if it weighed more than she could bear. Then slowlyâvery slowlyâshe leant back against it, staring expressionlessly across the hallway. There was no sound. Not even his footsteps descending the flight of steps.
Guy was gone. The affair was over.
Slowlyâvery slowlyâher fingers curved into the palms of her hand.
Guy's car was waiting for him at the kerb. He'd phoned for it as he dressed, knowing that he would want it there for as soon as he'd told Alexa what he must. He had put it off for as long as it was possible. Until it was no longer possible to stay silent. As he walked down the stone steps from the front door of the terraced house of which Alexa's apartment occupied the top floor, his driver got out and came round to open the rear passenger door for him. He got in, barely acknowledging the gesture.
As he sank back into the soft leather seat his face remained expressionless.
Well, it was done. Alexa was out of his life. And she wouldn't be coming back.
Guy reached for the neatly folded copy of the
his driver had placed carefully beside him, and started to read.