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Мортимер Кэрол

A Marriage Proposal For Christmas

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THE TWO OF THEM continued to stare at each other, Cally challengingly, Noel Carlton’s expression now completely unreadable as he looked at her with those deep blue eyes.

In Cally’s opinion, it wasn’t fair that one man should be so good-looking. As well as that overlong hair being thick and darkly waving and his eyes being a beautiful deep cobalt-blue, his nose was straight and arrogant, his lips perfectly sculptured—the lower lip sensually fuller than the top—his jaw was square and determined, and his body tall and muscular, totally belying the thirty-five years or so that Cally guessed him to be. All that and rich too, Cally dismissed scathingly.

‘Er—do you two know each other?’ Pam was the one to break the chilly silence that had descended after Noel Carlton’s initial outburst, her gaze accusing as she shot Cally a pointed glance.

Completely deserved, Cally accepted with an inner wince. But she simply hadn’t had a chance yet to calm down enough to be able to rationally discuss the full events of this morning with her sister. Not that she thought Pam would be too impressed with that explanation, but it was the only one she had.



Noel Carlton and Cally spoke at the same time, Cally in the negative, Noel Carlton in the positive.

But if he thought having invited her out to dinner two months ago, and then promptly forgetting he had ever made the invitation, along with the argument this morning, gave him any right to claim an acquaintance with her then he was sadly mistaken; in fact, it was the opposite!

Pam gave the two of them a gleeful smile. ‘Come on, now, which one is it?’ she taunted.

‘We most certainly do not know each other,’ Cally answered before he even had chance to do so.

‘Oh, come on, Cally,’ Noel Carlton drawled, those deep blue eyes mocking now as he looked at her challengingly. ‘That’s not the impression I had earlier this morning.’

Cally’s eyes widened indignantly, a blush creeping into her freckle-covered cheeks as Pam repeated, ‘Earlier this morning, hmm?’

‘Don’t take any notice of him, Pam.’ Cally glared at her infuriating neighbour. ‘He’s just trying to be clever!’

‘And succeeding,’ Pam pointed out. ‘Dare one ask how it is the two of you happened to be together earlier this morning?’ The look she gave Cally clearly said, You certainly didn’t tell me that!

Cally drew in a sharp breath at her sister’s speculative expression. ‘It’s really quite simple—’

‘Oh, very,’ Noel Carlton agreed mildly. He folded his arms across the width of his chest now as he looked at the two women. ‘Tell me, are the two of you related? I seem to see a certain resemblance in the colouring and bone structure…’

‘Sisters,’ Cally supplied economically, not seeing what possible interest that could be to this man; if he had come here to cause trouble, then why didn’t he just get on with it instead of standing there looking so damned irresistibly attractive?

Because he most certainly was! Cally found her pulse was beating rather faster than it should be, that blush having stayed in her cheeks as she became fully aware of his mere physical presence—mere? There was nothing ‘mere’ about this man!

Everything about him was overpowering, from the way he looked, to the way his height and size just dominated the room. And the people in it!

Well, they would see about that, Cally decided, giving herself a mental shake. Okay, so the man was good-looking and rich as Croesus, but that didn’t mean that every woman he met had to fall down worshipping at his feet. Even if, that little voice taunted inside her again, her real anger towards him was based on the fact that he had never followed up on that dinner invitation…!

‘Hmm, I should have guessed.’ Noel Carlton gave Pam a smile warm enough to melt the flesh from her bones.

Something her elder sister welcomed, Cally realized disgustedly as she saw Pam return that smile and look at him from beneath lowered lashes.

Really, her sister had been happily married to Brian for the last eight years, had two little boys of school age, and yet here Pam was blushing like a schoolgirl herself just because Noel Carlton had smiled at her!

‘I can’t imagine why you should,’ Cally dismissed. ‘And while I appreciate that you went to some trouble to find me, I really have no intention of continuing our earlier conversation here.’

‘That’s very good,’ he mocked, turning to smile at Pam once again. ‘Your sister seems to be—the more emotional one of the two of you, shall we say? Has she always been that way?’ he enquired.

‘Always,’ Palm confirmed, grinning at Cally’s obvious discomfort at being discussed in this way. Her sister had patently decided it was the least Cally deserved after not telling her that she had actually met this man earlier this morning.

But there was a perfectly good reason why she hadn’t told Pam about that meeting. In fact, there were several reasons. Firstly, losing her temper was never something she was particularly proud of. Secondly, even as she had been losing her temper with Noel Carlton she had found herself once more attracted to him. Thirdly, she had been able to tell by the warmth in his gaze that he returned the attraction…

‘Hmm,’ Noel Carlton murmured now appreciatively, at the same time giving Cally a look that it was impossible to see as anything else but a totally male assessment, taking in the rich redness of her long hair, the wide green eyes, her heart-shaped face dominated by those freckles, her determinedly raised chin, her slenderness in the black business suit, the long length of her legs.

Really, Cally thought crossly, did this man ever switch off his playboy mode?

‘Could you just say what you want to say, Mr Carlton, and then leave?’ she encouraged impatiently.

‘Of course. I’m sure we’re all busy people.’

‘Nice of you to realize that,’ she drawled.

‘Cally,’ Pam began warningly.

‘Oh, don’t be concerned, Pam,’ she assured her sister lightly. ‘Mr Carlton is perfectly well aware of my opinion of him!’

‘Now, let me see…’ Noel Carlton paused for dramatic effect. ‘“A rich, overindulged, totally selfish, egotistical idiot” was the phrase you used earlier, I believe. Did I miss anything out?’ he asked, eyes openly laughing at her now.

‘You know that you didn’t!’ Her cheeks were burning with indignation at the realisation that she had obviously amused him. And something else. It was that ‘something else’ that caused her to look away from him in some confusion.

She simply couldn’t still find this man attractive! Oh, of course he was good-looking, but as far as she was concerned, after inviting her out and then not even bothering to call her, he had nothing else to recommend him, and she had no intention of being taken in by looks alone.

That had already happened in her life once, and look what a disaster that had turned out to be…!

‘Actually—’ he glanced at the name on the badge attached to the lapel of her jacket ‘—Mrs Turner—’

‘Miss,’ Cally corrected. ‘Miss Turner,’ she enlarged almost defensively as he looked at her enquiringly, at the same time waiting for some cutting comment from him. One of the things she had thrown at him this morning in their heated exchange—well, to be honest, hers had been heated, Noel Carlton had looked as if not too much made him exert himself at that time of the morning!—had been that he had woken not only her up with the arrival and departure of that helicopter but her young daughter too. It wasn’t true, of course. Lissa had still been fast asleep, but it had sounded good at the time.

His brows rose slightly before he spoke again, ‘Miss Turner,’ he acknowledged with an inclination of his head. ‘Well, I hate to disappoint you, Miss Turner, but I’m afraid my being here today has absolutely nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the unfortunate predicament I find myself in.’

Cally blinked, staring at him in disbelief. Was he seriously expecting her to believe his coming to her workplace was just a coincidence?

‘What predicament would that be, Mr Carlton?’ Pam was the one to ask. ‘I did detect a certain element of desperation in the telephone messages you left earlier,’ she added sympathetically.

‘Desperation!’ He gave a huff of grim laughter. ‘I’m beginning to wish I could just scrap Christmas altogether.’

‘Bah, humbug,’ Cally murmured tauntingly.

‘Just call me Ebenezer,’ Noel Carlton conceded. ‘Not that I have anything against the present giving, or the decorations, or the fact that we get in more food and drink than we will ever be able to consume in two days—’

‘Then what do you object to?’ Cally queried with a puzzled smile. ‘You seem to have got Christmas more or less covered there!’

‘That’s the problem—I haven’t.’ He sighed heavily. ‘I don’t object to any of it—I just haven’t done any of it!’ His voice started to rise in agitation. ‘My parents and my two siblings are due to arrive from the States in two days’ time, and I haven’t done a damned thing towards providing them with the English Christmas they’re all so looking forward to!’

‘Ah,’ Cally breathed as understanding slowly began to dawn. ‘And you thought Celebrations may be able to do it for you?’

After all, it was what she and Pam did; arranged parties and weddings, and even Christmas, for people who were too busy, or just too disorganized, to be able to manage it for themselves, organizing decorations, food, drink, staff if they were needed—in fact anything a client needed to make the celebration a success.

The two sisters had started out quite small five years ago, working from Pam’s home, as a way of them both earning some money, with the added bonus that they could arrange their jobs around the demands of their young children. During that five years they had built up a solid reputation, but unfortunately only locally, with other parents from school, or recommendation from them by word of mouth. And so they had discussed it with Pam’s husband, and decided that, although it would be a struggle financially for a while, the only way for them to make a real success of the business—to eventually make money!—was to enlarge the business by moving into premises in town.

Something they had done only six months ago…

Cally just hadn’t thought that Noel Carlton would be one of those disorganized people they were called in to help.

She smiled. ‘Well, I’m really sorry about this, Mr Carlton.’ the brightness of her tone telling him that she wasn’t sorry at all ‘.but I’m afraid that we’re fully booked this week—’

‘Actually, we’re not,’ Pam admitted softly.

Cally turned sharply to her sister. ‘What do you mean, we’re not?’

Her sister gave a shrug. ‘I haven’t had chance to tell you yet, but the Neilsons telephoned early this morning and left a message on the machine too.’ She gave Noel a smile. ‘Apparently they have had some sort of emergency in Sweden, have had to return home unexpectedly, and don’t expect to return to England until after the New Year.’

‘But I was due to go and put all the decorations up today! And what about all the food we have stored in the freezer?’ Cally gasped her dismay, having been working exclusively on the Neilsons’ Christmas for the last week. ‘What are we supposed to do with all of that?’ She groaned at the thought of all that work wasted.

And the fact that they weren’t going to get paid!

‘Excuse me,’ Noel Carlton put in pointedly.

Cally shot him a narrow-eyed glare as she easily caught his meaning. ‘Forget it,’ she bit out, at the same time knowing that she and Pam couldn’t afford to lose all the money they had expended on the Neilsons’ Christmas; the deposit paid by the Neilsons wasn’t refundable, but by the same token it in no way covered what had already been spent.

‘But, Cally, it would seem to be the perfect solution to everyone’s problems,’ Pam reasoned, a worried frown furrowing her brow as she also thought of the money they were going to lose.

‘This is my mother’s first visit to England since she remarried and moved to America twenty years ago,’ Noel Carlton argued persuasively. ‘The last thing I want to do is disappoint her and my stepfather by not giving her the sort of Christmas she remembers.’

‘Shouldn’t you have thought of that earlier?’ Cally frowned, not at all impressed by his attempt at emotional blackmail—even as she felt a faint stirring of concern for a woman she had never met.

The perfectly sculptured mouth firmed, his eyes narrowing to angry slits of dark blue. ‘I did think of it. It’s just—a series of—unexpected events have unfortunately made it impossible for me to complete my plans,’ he explained.

‘Oh, yes? And just what sort of “unexpected events” could a man like you—?’

‘A man like me?’ he interrupted in a softly, dangerous tone of voice.

‘I think Mr Carlton has already told us as much of his predicament as we need to know, Cally,’ her sister declared, standing up decisively. ‘Mr Carlton has come here to ask for our help. Because of a last-minute cancellation, we are in a position to provide that help. I may be wrong, but I thought that was what we were in business for?’ She gave Cally a pointed look.

They were. Of course they were. There was nothing more rewarding, after days, possibly weeks, of hard work, than to see the look of happiness on a client’s face when their particular celebration passed off successfully because of Pam’s and Cally’s efforts. Cally just wasn’t inclined to see that look on Noel Carlton’s face. Unfortunately she could see by the stubborn set to Pam’s mouth that her sister, quite rightly, was thinking of the overdraft on their bank account rather than whether or not Cally was comfortable with this commission.

‘We still have the Neilsons’ deposit,’ she tried halfheartedly, knowing it wasn’t enough. ‘Besides, you’re completely tied up at the moment with the arrangements for the Gregorys’ wedding on Christmas Eve,’ she reminded her sister hopefully.

‘Yes, I am,’ Pam confirmed, glancing down at her wristwatch. ‘In fact, I have an appointment at the florist’s in fifteen minutes,’ she realized. ‘But you, Cally, on the other hand, are totally free for the next three days.’

‘I’m more than willing to pay extra, petrol money, whatever, if you will just agree to help me out,’ Noel Carlton enticed.

‘Bribery and corruption usually work, do they?’ Cally snapped.

He grinned. ‘Every time.’

‘I thought so.’ Cally gave a disgusted shake of her head.

‘Cally!’ Pam gasped reprovingly.

‘Sorry,’ she muttered, feeling as if she were swimming upstream—and rapidly losing the battle. Besides, a part of her knew that Pam was quite right to grasp this replacement commission with both hands. If only it weren’t Noel Carlton’s hands they were grasping!

‘There’s the added benefit that you’ll be working close to home,’ Noel Carlton encouraged, his smile one of false brightness when Cally gave him another frown for reminding her that he was her neighbour from hell. As if she needed any reminding of that!

But, in actual fact, it would be a benefit, more so than this man probably realized, if she agreed to arrange Christmas for him and his family.

She would be able to pick Lissa up from her sister’s house much earlier in the day. Brian was looking after the children, school having finished for the Christmas holidays. It didn’t happen very often that either Pam or herself couldn’t care for the children during the holidays, but Christmas was such a busy time that it invariably ended with Lissa staying with her uncle Brian, a self-employed accountant who worked from home, for part of the Christmas holidays. Not that Lissa didn’t enjoy being with her cousins, because she did, but it was a lot to expect Brian to cope with three children instead of two for long hours.

‘I really do have to go now, so I’ll leave you two to discuss it,’ Pam stated briskly, moving to collect her outer coat. ‘But, whatever the outcome, I do sincerely wish you a happy Christmas, Mr Carlton.’ She gave him a warm smile.

In other words, Pam was leaving the decision completely up to Cally as to whether or not they took pity on the man and agreed to work for him.

More to the point, her sister was leaving her with the knowledge that if she didn’t agree to do this because of present—and past!—resentments towards Noel Carlton, then they probably wouldn’t even have enough money in their bank account to cover their monthly rental on the shop premises.


Just great!


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