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Мортимер Кэрол

The Fiance Fix

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‘GO INSIDE and hang up your school blazer, Lily,’ Joey told her daughter shakily. ‘I’ll join you in a few minutes.’

‘But, Mummy—’

‘Go inside, Lily!’ she snapped, before drawing in a deep controlling breath, forcing herself to smile reassuringly as her daughter’s bottom lip wobbled precariously at her unexpected terseness. ‘I’ll be in shortly,’ she assured her lightly. ‘Go and put a video on for a while,’ she encouraged, knowing this unexpected treat after school would soothe Lily’s ruffled feelings; usually television and videos were banned until the weekend.

‘Great!’ Lily enthused, before rushing into the house without a backward glance, their unexpected visitor already forgotten.

At least, by Lily…

Joey tensed once her daughter was safely inside the house, her shoulders straightening as she raised her head to look across at the man who had created this scene.

She narrowed her gaze, her expression one of puzzlement as she looked at him fully. ‘You aren’t Daniel,’ she realised slowly.

Oh, this man was very like Lily’s father—both men tall and blond, both having those cool, calculating blue eyes—but this man was older than the thirty-two Daniel would now be, was probably aged in his late thirties or early forties. But the likeness between the two men was enough for Joey not to feel entirely reassured by this fact…

‘My name is David Banning.’ The man spoke with a hard American drawl. ‘I’m Daniel’s brother.’

Daniel’s brother…Joey hadn’t even known he had a brother. Although she had no reason to doubt this man’s word. Besides, the likeness was unmistakable.

‘Daniel didn’t have the nerve to show his face here himself, then?’ she scorned.

The blue gaze became even more icy, the hard mouth tightening into a thin line. ‘That would have been rather difficult, in the circumstances,’ David Banning rasped harshly. ‘Daniel died four months ago!’

Joey could only stare uncomprehendingly at David Banning after he made this blunt announcement, unable to take in what he had just said, swallowing hard, swaying slightly, knowing a sudden feeling of light-headedness.

Daniel was dead…?

But how—? What…?

She shook her head as a sudden thought occurred to her. ‘He can’t be,’ she denied weakly. ‘I…He wrote to me. Just two months ago—’

‘That was me,’ David Banning interrupted.

D. Banning. The letter she had received had been signed ‘D. Banning’. This man, Daniel’s brother, was D. Banning too…

She had thought the signature on the letter a little formal, given the circumstances, but, as Daniel hadn’t been seen since the moment he was informed of Lily’s birth, Joey had decided he really was the stranger he obviously preferred to be.

But the letter hadn’t been from Daniel at all. Because he had already been dead two months when the letter was sent…

‘How did he die?’ she breathed huskily.

His brother shrugged dismissively. ‘The same way he lived—recklessly,’ he said harshly. ‘He was driving a high-speed motorboat—too fast—when it flipped over and sank. We recovered his body three days later,’ he added.

Joey thought back to the fun-loving, irresponsible man she had known seven years ago. Yes, she could see Daniel enjoying the power of going along on the water at high speed, could almost hear that huskily triumphant laugh of his as he challenged the sea gods.

And lost…

‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured dazedly.

‘Are you?’ his brother questioned sceptically. ‘I think the two of us need to talk, don’t you?’ he added hardly.

Joey stiffened defensively. She didn’t like the sound of that at all. This man had already told her all that she needed to know—hadn’t he…?

‘As you can see, I’m rather busy at the moment.’ She nodded vaguely in the direction of the house, the sound of the video playing inside audible in the quiet of early evening.

‘As I can see,’ David Banning echoed softly, moving around the car to stand only feet away from her, his light suit obviously expensively tailored, as was the white silk shirt and grey tie he wore beneath it. ‘She’s very like Daniel,’ he murmured huskily.

Joey recoiled at the claim. ‘She is called Lily,’ she snapped coldly. ‘And she is absolutely nothing like Daniel. Thank God!’

‘Just so,’ David Banning acknowledged with a mocking inclination of his head.

‘But I still say we need to talk—Josey, isn’t it?’ he drawled knowingly.

‘Joey,’ she corrected abruptly, desperately trying to take all of this in.

Just how much did this man know of what had happened seven years ago? And exactly what did he want to do about it?

‘Joey,’ he repeated with a hard smile. ‘I realise all this has probably been—a shock for you,’ he drawled. ‘I also accept that you’re tied up with…Lily at the moment, and that our conversation would be better taking place where she can’t be a witness to it.’ He frowned thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps you could meet me later this evening and we could go somewhere quiet and have dinner together—’

‘No!’ she cut in harshly. ‘No,’ she repeated more calmly as he looked at her with raised brows. ‘It isn’t possible to organise a babysitter at such short notice. Besides—’

‘Besides, you don’t want to have dinner with me later,’ David Banning finished. ‘I’ve come over from the States for the sole purpose of talking to you, Joey—’

‘My name is Delaney,’ she cut in forcefully. ‘Miss Delaney,’ she added pointedly. ‘I don’t know you well enough for you to call me Joey.’

She hadn’t known the man at the salon earlier well enough, either, came the unbidden thought, and yet she had invited him to use the familiarity! In retrospect, the fact that he owed her eight pounds fifty for a haircut was nothing when put into perspective with the damage this other man could wreak in her life!

‘Miss Delaney,’ David Banning mused mockingly. ‘It’s Irish, isn’t it?’

‘So what if it is?’ she challenged defensively.

‘No reason.’ He shrugged. ‘Let’s make it tomorrow evening, then,’ he continued hardly, his tone brooking no argument to what wasn’t even meant to sound like a suggestion.

Joey was aware that she had been outside talking to him on the pavement for over ten minutes already, and Lily wouldn’t remain enthralled in her video for long if Joey failed to appear. But she didn’t want to meet this man tomorrow evening!

‘I’m staying at the Grosvenor Hotel.’ He named the best hotel in town—although it was obvious from his tone that it didn’t come up to his usual standards.

Joey knew from Daniel that the Bannings were a very prominent banking family in New York, and that they lived up to that lifestyle one hundred per cent; obviously the little town in which Joey had chosen to make her home, with its three-star hotel, didn’t quite meet those standards!

‘That’s nice for you,’ she returned sarcastically.

David Banning’s mouth tightened at her obvious scorn. ‘I was suggesting that we meet there tomorrow evening for dinner,’ he rasped.

He hadn’t been ‘suggesting’ anything—it had been in the nature of an order! But the Grosvenor wasn’t a place Joey knew well, and the chances were that no one there would know her, either…Besides, she doubted this man would go away until he had spoken to her.

‘Very well,’ she accepted abruptly. ‘I’ll meet you there at eight o’clock tomorrow evening.’ She was sure the neighbour’s teenage daughter, who usually babysat for her on the rare occasions she went out, would be only too pleased to earn some extra money. ‘Now, if that’s all…?’ she added pointedly.

‘For the moment.’ He gave an abrupt inclination of his head.

‘Who was that man, Mummy?’ Lily turned to ask curiously when Joey entered the sitting-room a few minutes later.

‘Just a salesman trying to sell me something,’ Joey dismissed tersely; Lily had never known her father—she certainly didn’t need to know that the man outside was his brother! ‘Tea will be ready in fifteen minutes,’ she added lightly, before escaping to the kitchen.

Once there she took some time to gather her scattered thoughts together. The D. Banning who had written to her had been Daniel’s brother David, not Daniel himself. And now he had travelled all the way from America for the sole purpose of talking to her. There could be only one subject he wanted to discuss with her—Lily!

Well. Joey straightened decisively. He could say whatever it was he wanted to say, and then leave. Neither she nor Lily needed anything from him.

‘There’s a man in the salon asking to see you, Joey,’ Hilary told her lightly as she came out back into the tiny room Joey occasionally used as an office.

Joey instantly paled. David Banning! He hadn’t waited for dinner this evening, after all. Why hadn’t he? What had happened that he needed to see her so early this morning? It would be too much to hope that he had come to inform her he had to return urgently to the States!

‘Thanks, Hilary.’ She gave her assistant and friend a shaky smile as she reluctantly stood up.

The two women had met a year ago, when Hilary came to the salon for a job, and within weeks of working together the two women had worked out their system—Hilary finished work at the salon at three-fifteen every weekday, so that she could go to the school to collect Lily and Daisy, and cared for Lily at her home until Joey finished at the salon for the day. It was a system that worked well for both women.

‘He’s rather gorgeous,’ Hilary murmured admiringly.

Joey had barely noticed David Banning’s good looks the evening before, but, yes, she supposed he was rather handsome.

If you liked cold self-confidence that bordered on arrogance, that was. Joey didn’t—had been completely cured of that romantic image seven years ago when Daniel, also arrogantly confident, had walked out on them!

‘Perhaps,’ she answered noncommittally, moving around her desk to follow Hilary out into the salon, bracing herself for this second meeting with Daniel’s brother.

Her eyes widened with surprise as she saw the man waiting there. Not David Banning, after all, but the man from the previous evening who hadn’t been able to pay for his haircut!

He looked slightly less disreputable today, the shirt and denims looking relatively clean, at least.

‘You weren’t expecting me,’ he said slowly as he took in Joey’s surprised expression.

No, she hadn’t been, had been sure she’d been taken for a ride the evening before. But she was relieved to see that it was him rather than the man she had been expecting!

‘I told you I would be in this morning to pay for my haircut,’ he reminded her mockingly, handing her a ten-pound note.

Joey gave a shaky smile. ‘That’s very kind of you.’ She nodded, taking the money and putting it in the till.

The unexpected honesty had also gone some way to restoring her faith in human nature. Now, if she could just make David Banning go back to America without making any waves in her own or Lily’s lives…!

‘Keep the change,’ the man told her dismissively as she would have given him one pound fifty back. ‘We’ll call it interest paid, if you like,’ he added wryly.

‘The last I heard interest wasn’t as high as almost twenty per cent.’ Joey smiled wanly.

The man returned the smile. ‘Bad debts come slightly higher than normal—Hey, are you OK?’ He looked at her closely. ‘You look ill,’ he added, his brown eyes narrowing consideringly on the paleness of her face.

Joey was instantly on the defensive. She had spent a terrible evening after putting Lily to bed, worrying about David Banning’s visit here, and an even worse night as sleep evaded her, going over and over in her mind what Daniel’s brother could possibly want from her. Ultimately she had arrived at answers that were completely unacceptable to her.

She knew she looked awful, despite the make-up she had applied earlier in an effort to hide her sleepless night. But she couldn’t exactly say she appreciated this man commenting on the fact!

‘Of course I’m OK,’ she snapped irritably.

‘You don’t look it,’ the man persisted, making no effort to leave, despite the fact that he had now paid his ‘bad debt’.

Joey was aware of the fact that they were receiving curious looks. With the salon very busy at this time of the morning, staff and clients alike seemed more than a little interested in the conversation taking place between Joey and this ruggedly handsome man. And Hilary kept shooting them interested looks, even as she permed an elderly lady’s hair.

‘I really am fine, Mr—er—I’m fine,’ she repeated firmly as she realised she didn’t even know the man’s name.

‘Nick,’ he told her tersely. ‘And you aren’t fine,’ he refuted gently, taking a hold of her arm and turning her back in the direction of the tiny office she had just come from.

‘Really, Mr—Nick,’ she began indignantly. ‘You can’t just come in here and—’

‘And what?’ he prompted, releasing her once they were in the privacy of her office, the door firmly closed behind them. ‘Show a little concern for someone who, obviously tired from a day’s work last night, looks as if she had been run over by a steamroller?’

‘Thanks!’ Joey muttered drily, moving to sit behind the desk. She would feel better with a little distance between the two of them; her arm still tingled from where his fingers had held her!

‘Run over by a steamroller’. Was that really how she looked? Probably, she conceded—it was how she felt too!

‘Well?’ Nick faced her across the desk, arms folded stubbornly across the width of his chest.

Joey gave a dazed shake of her head. ‘I don’t even know you—’

‘What do you want to know?’ he rasped, dark eyes narrowed speculatively. ‘I’m thirty-five. Single. Financially independent—believe it or not,’ he added smiling wryly. ‘And I’m not leaving here until I find out what happened to the spiky, self-confident woman I met here last night!’

Joey stared up at him frustratedly, his sheer size making her very aware of just how small this office really was. ‘Nothing happened to me,’ she dismissed impatiently.

‘Liar,’ he murmured reprovingly.

She frowned. ‘I do not appreciate being called a liar,’ she snapped.

He shrugged unconcernedly. ‘Then stop being one,’ he advised lightly.

Joey drew in a sharp breath. ‘Don’t you have work to go to?’ she told him pointedly; after all, it was almost ten o’clock.

‘Eventually.’ He nodded. ‘I’m still waiting, Joey,’ he reminded her softly several minutes later, the silence between them stretched weightily.

She swallowed hard, totally overwhelmed by this man’s persistence. Ordinarily she would have just insisted he leave, but her sleepless night, her worry over David Banning’s presence in England, meant that her defences weren’t as firmly in place as they usually were. In fact, she felt quite tearful.

She didn’t just feel tearful, Joey realised as the tears began to fall hotly down her cheeks!

‘I thought so.’ Nick nodded, moving quickly round the desk to pull her up into his arms. ‘Poor baby,’ he murmured softly against her hair as he cradled her against the hard warmth of his chest.

‘I’m hardly that,’ she choked tearfully, devastated by her emotional breakdown. Maybe if Nick hadn’t been so kind to her… ‘This is ridiculous,’ she decided self-disgustedly, pushing away from him. ‘I’m ridiculous,’ she muttered, smoothing back the silkiness of her hair; it was preferable to meeting the concern in those dark brown eyes.

‘It’s nothing to feel ashamed of,’ Nick rebuked gently. ‘We all cry sometimes.’

Most people cried sometimes, Joey inwardly conceded. Although somehow she doubted that David Banning ever did; there was a hard steeliness about him that made him a more formidable force than his brother had ever been. Daniel had just ignored or laughed off anything he found unacceptable in his silver-spoon life. Things like having a daughter…

‘I’m not ashamed,’ she returned, back under control now. ‘But, as you can see, the salon is rather busy this morning—’

‘Have lunch with me?’ Nick cut in determinedly.

Joey almost laughed at the incongruity of the suggestion; lunch with a building labourer, and dinner with a powerful American banker. Could the two men be any more different? Although she knew which one she preferred!

‘Haven’t you missed enough work already for one day?’ she reasoned. ‘Even though you don’t work for Dominic Mason, I’m sure your boss can’t be this understanding!’

Nick shrugged unconcernedly. ‘I do more than my fair share of work,’ he dismissed. ‘Lunch, Joey,’ he said again. ‘You look as if you need a break from here. And something to eat might do you some good too,’ he added grimly.

It probably would; she had been too upset to do more than drink a cup of coffee before leaving the house this morning. But did she want to have lunch with this man? A man whose touch she could still feel, minutes later, tingling up the length of her arm…?

One look at his determinedly set face told her that she really didn’t have a lot of choice about it, that Nick wouldn’t leave here until he had her agreement to meet him for lunch.

She sighed heavily. ‘There’s a sandwich bar just down the road. I’ll meet you in there at one o’clock.’

‘A sandwich bar,’ he repeated drily. ‘Can’t we do better than that?’

They probably could. But, like her, he probably had a pretty tight budget—especially after his ‘heavy date’ the evening before! Besides, the way she felt at the moment, she wouldn’t do justice to more than a sandwich.

‘I only have an hour for lunch; a sandwich will be fine,’ she insisted.

‘Non-negotiable, hmm,’ he realised knowingly.

‘Non-negotiable.’ Joey agreed with a brief smile.

‘Then it will have to do.’ Nick nodded. ‘One o’clock. Don’t be late, or I’ll come looking for you,’ he warned in parting.

Joey stared after him, wondering how on earth she had got herself into this situation. One minute the man had been a written-off bad debt, and the next she found herself with a date to meet him for lunch!

She had thought yesterday was a bad day, but this one didn’t look as if it was going to be any better!


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