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Мортимер Кэрол

The Fiance Fix

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CHAPTER THREE

‘COME on, Joey, choose a sandwich,’ Nick encouraged smilingly as she continued to study the menu, despite the hovering waitress. ‘The government doesn’t take this long to make a decision!’

The problem was, she didn’t feel like eating anything. As the morning had progressed the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach had deepened—and it had nothing to do with hunger. Being forced into meeting this man for lunch was guaranteed not to improve that hollowness.

After Nick had gone this morning she had spent at least ten minutes remonstrating with herself for being badgered into having lunch with him at all—although she didn’t doubt for a moment that he would carry out his threat to ‘come looking for her’ if she didn’t turn up. His presence at the salon this morning had already created enough speculation, without adding to it.

She closed the menu. ‘Just cheese on brown bread. Oh, and a cappuccino,’ she told the waitress with a smile.

‘It took you ten minutes to decide that?’ Nick teased once they were alone again.

Joey didn’t know how he had spent the intervening three hours, but he looked just as clean and tidy now as he had at ten o’clock this morning. Not that it mattered to her what he had been doing, she hastily told herself. Except she was starting to become intrigued in spite of herself, was totally aware of everything about Nick…

Which, in the circumstances, was ridiculous. She already had enough to contend with without having to deal with Nick as well. It was amazing, really; there hadn’t been a man even on the most distant horizon for over two years, and just when she least needed the complication Nick decided to force his way into her life. Next time a man asked to have his hair cut after hours she would just say the salon was closed and have done with it!

‘Is it because you’re having to close the salon?’ Nick prompted gently.

Joey stopped pleating the tablecloth between agitated fingers, looking up at him. ‘Sorry?’

‘You’re frowning again,’ he explained lightly. ‘I wondered if your obvious lack of sleep last night was due to worry over relocating your salon?’

She grimaced. ‘Amongst other things.’

Although, in all honesty, she hadn’t given the problem of the salon another thought after David Banning’s visit the evening before. Closing down and relocating the salon paled into insignificance when compared with trying to guess the reason David Banning had come all the way from America to see her. Or, rather, not her; he had obviously come to see Lily. Which was even more worrying.

‘Other things?’ Nick prompted softly.

Joey gave the slightest beginnings of a smile. ‘You’re very astute.’

‘For a rough and ready building worker,’ he added drily.

She gasped. ‘I didn’t say that—’

‘You didn’t have to.’ He grinned. ‘It was there in the surprised tone of your voice.’

‘Sorry.’ She gave an awkward shrug, totally disarmed by the effect his grin was having on her. In any other circumstances—But, no, she must concentrate on the problem at hand, not create more for herself.

‘So tell me what “other things”,’ Nick encouraged huskily. ‘I can keep a secret. Honest,’ he added persuasively.

‘Most men can,’ Joey acknowledged drily. ‘It’s the one thing they’re really good at!’

‘Ouch!’ Nick winced at her scathing tone. ‘I gather from that remark that you’ve met more than your fair share of male chauvinist pigs? Or is that term out of fashion now?’ he added derisively.

She smiled. ‘I believe we just refer to them all as selfish bastards nowadays.’

He raised dark brows. ‘Not very flattering to their mothers.’

Joey instantly sobered. ‘No,’ she acknowledged hardly, inwardly wondering whether, when the baby was born, if it had been a boy instead of a girl Daniel would have taken more interest than he had. After all, a boy would have been the Banning heir…

But it was no good wallowing in such conjecture; the baby had been her beautiful, totally adorable Lily, and now Daniel himself was dead, anyway. Without ever having seen his daughter…

She drew in a ragged breath, deliberately meeting the warmth of the enquiring brown gaze across the table from her own. ‘I’m a single mother,’ she stated flatly.

‘Ah,’ Nick murmured with a slow nod of his head.

As if he finally had the answer to all his questions, Joey thought bad-temperedly. Which was ridiculous. Dozens of women brought children up on their own these days. For many reasons.

‘Ah, nothing,’ Joey snapped, leaning back slightly so that the waitress could place their sandwiches and drinks down in front of them. ‘Being a single mother has its problems,’ she conceded. ‘But it also has its benefits,’ she added determinedly.

‘Such as?’ Nick prompted interestedly, before taking a hungry bite of the club sandwich he had ordered for himself.

‘Such as no negative input from an uninterested father!’ she bit out with feeling.

Daniel had dealt with the responsibility of having Lily as his daughter with as little trouble to himself as possible: namely he’d paid a set amount of money into a bank account each month.

An amount that had continued to be paid in the four months since he had died, Joey realised slowly. On David Banning’s instructions…? If so, why? Daniel’s death four months ago had surely completely nullified any responsibility the Banning family might, or might not, feel towards Lily?

‘You’re frowning again, Joey,’ Nick probed softly.

She drew in a ragged breath, at the same time shaking her head in self-derision. It was simply no good tormenting herself with all these thoughts and questions; no doubt she would have the answer to all of them this evening. When she had dinner with David Banning. It was the waiting that was killing her.

‘Just ignore me,’ she told Nick ruefully, before biting into her own sandwich.

‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,’ Nick told her huskily, his gaze suddenly very intense. ‘You intrigue me, Joey,’ he added softly.

She stiffened, looking across at him with clear green eyes. ‘I wouldn’t waste your time, if I were you; I’ve just told you all that there is to know about me,’ she bit out dismissively.

‘It’s my time to waste.’ He shrugged. ‘And so far it hasn’t been wasted,’ he assured her.

Joey found herself mesmerised by the warmth in those deep brown eyes, by the sensual nature implied by that fuller lower lip; she didn’t doubt for a moment that Nick would be a caring as well as passionate lover—

Lover? Now she really had gone too far!

She put her half-eaten sandwich back down on the plate. ‘I have to go—’

‘No, you don’t,’ Nick cut in assuredly. ‘I checked in the appointment book earlier while I was waiting in the salon to talk to you; your next appointment—for a perm, I believe,’ he added drily, ‘isn’t until two-thirty.’

He had checked earlier?

Did that mean he had intended inviting her out to lunch all the time? Why else would he have checked the appointment book…?

‘Look, Nick, I think you might have misunderstood the situation,’ she began hardly.

‘Let me see,’ he murmured thoughtfully. ‘You agreed to cut my hair last night because you had a little time to kill before going home. You didn’t believe for one moment that I would return this morning with the money to pay for it, and were obviously surprised when I did,’ he continued determinedly as Joey would have spoken. ‘You’re a single mother. You don’t have a lot of time for—or faith in—men. Understandably,’ he accepted. ‘Have I “misunderstood” anything so far?’ He raised mocking brows.

Joey closed her mouth, looking at him with narrowed eyes. No, he seemed to have got the gist of circumstances so far. ‘You missed out the fact that I’m not interested in a relationship at the moment,’ she finally told him firmly.

‘Or at any time in the near future, if I’ve read the signs correctly,’ Nick acknowledged good-humouredly.

Joey glared at him frustratedly. If he had read those signs, what was he doing here?

More to the point, what was she doing here…?

She knew the answer to that only too well; Nick had read the signs, he had just chosen to ignore them. And he had decided to make her ignore them too.

But not any more. ‘Exactly,’ she told him determinedly, bending to pick her bag up from the floor. ‘Now, if you will excuse me—’ She broke off as Nick reached out and took a firm grasp of her arm, looking first at his hand against the paleness of her skin, and then across at the man himself. ‘Would you please let me go?’ she demanded evenly.

‘In a minute.’ He nodded abruptly, making no attempt to set her free. ‘Joey, don’t let one bad experience sour the rest of your life,’ he told her huskily.

‘One bad experience?’ she returned mockingly.

‘However many there have been,’ he dismissed impatiently.

Joey wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that! ‘Actually, personally, there’s only been the one,’ she conceded grudgingly. ‘But I’ve seen dozens of other terrible relationships to know it’s a lottery out there, and that the man usually has the advantage.’ She shook her head. ‘I used to say that if I ever “came back” I wanted to be a man. But then I gave it a little more thought—and realised that by the time that happened the women would probably be in charge!’ She grinned at the thought.

‘I think you would get on well with my sister,’ Nick said, finally releasing her. ‘She is of similar sentiments,’ he explained ruefully as Joey sank back down into her chair.

‘You have a sister?’ Joey asked interestedly. And not just because it would turn the conversation away from her for a while; she was interested in this man in spite of herself!

Nick gave a grin. ‘And a mother and father,’ he admitted sardonically. ‘In fact, I went up to London and had dinner with them all last night,’ he added drily, brows arched over teasing brown eyes as he saw Joey’s look of surprise. ‘Not the “heavy date” you had in mind?’ he taunted lightly.

Not exactly, no, she inwardly acknowledged. ‘Tell me about them,’ she invited softly, relaxing back in her seat now that Nick no longer had that grip on her arm. But, as before, her skin tingled where he had touched her…

‘Not a lot to tell, really.’ He shrugged. ‘My father is something in the City; my mother is the perfect wife and mother. My sister is two years older than me, editor on a newspaper, divorced—and intending to stay that way,’ he revealed drily.

Joey gave a rueful smile. ‘There’s a lot of it about!’

‘Unfortunately, yes,’ Nick agreed heavily. ‘It’s a bit tough on us men when all you women have decided that marriage and motherhood aren’t for you,’ he explained wryly.

Her mouth twisted. ‘I’ve usually found it’s the other way round—marriage and fatherhood aren’t for you!’ she explained as he raised his brows questioningly.

He shrugged. ‘Speaking personally—’

‘I really do have to go, Nick,’ she cut in firmly—she didn’t want to know how he ‘personally’ felt about the subject. Or any subject, for that matter. In fact, the conversation had become altogether too personal for two people who had only met briefly the previous evening! ‘I have some shopping to do before my two-thirty appointment,’ she added, at the same time taking some money from her bag to pay for her lunch.

‘Don’t,’ Nick warned softly as she would have put the money on the table. ‘I think I can manage to pay for a sandwich you haven’t eaten,’ he added mockingly at her questioning look.

No doubt he could, but it was a fact that most men expected you to pay your own way, even for a sandwich! ‘Thank you,’ she accepted, putting the money back in her bag.

Nick chuckled softly. ‘Very graciously done, Joey. Even if it did almost kill you!’ he added, still laughing.

Joey returned his smile. ‘It was that obvious, was it?’

‘I don’t know what sort of men you’ve met in the past, Joey—’ Nick shook his head ruefully ‘—but when I take you out I’ll do the paying.’

When he…? But this was a one-off—wasn’t it…?

‘Don’t look so worried, Joey.’ Nick reached out and lightly touched her hand as it rested on the table. ‘I only want to invite you to have dinner with me this evening.’

The intensity of his gaze easily held hers, and Joey found that her breathing suddenly seemed laboured, her hand once again tingling where he touched her.

What was it about this man that caused her to react in this way? Oh, he was very attractive, ruggedly so, and he could also be extremely charming; that smile could melt even the most hardened of hearts. But even so…

‘Don’t say no, Joey,’ he urged tensely.

She gave a regretful smile. ‘I’m afraid I have to. ‘I—I already have a date for this evening,’ she revealed reluctantly. Her arranged meeting with David Banning this evening couldn’t exactly be described as a date, but she didn’t know how else to explain it; saying she had to meet the American uncle of her daughter would be revealing too much.

‘I see.’ Nick abruptly released her hand as he sat back in his chair, his gaze narrowed on her speculatively now.

‘I doubt it.’ Joey shook her head. ‘Would you rather I had said I was washing my hair this evening?’ she added impatiently as he continued to look at her in that insulting way.

He shook his head. ‘So much for all those brave words on the worthlessness of men!’ he scorned.

Her cheeks became flushed. ‘I don’t believe I actually said that!’ she defended heatedly. ‘Besides…’ she broke off, biting her bottom lip.

There was no way she could explain about David Banning without totally letting her defences down. And she had needed those the last seven years. Needed them still!

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she dismissed briskly as she stood up. ‘Thank you for lunch,’ she added challengingly.

Nick nodded. ‘You’re welcome,’ he returned tightly.

Leaving Joey with no choice but to walk out of the sandwich bar with as much dignity as she could muster. Which was quite a lot, really. She had needed her pride the last seven years, too!

Another potential romance blown, she accepted ruefully to herself as she wandered around the supermarket picking up something for Lily’s tea—not a Mason’s supermarket; she refused, as a matter of principle, to use that particular chain of supermarkets!

It was a pity, really, that she and Nick had parted so badly, because she quite liked him—actually, more than liked him. There was a physical awareness between the two of them that was impossible to deny. Although there was no guarantee that it would ever have been any more than that, she argued with herself. Even if she had wanted it to be. Which she probably didn’t…

Probably? Get a grip, Joey, she admonished herself. Nick was thirty-five, still single, so what did that tell her about him?

That he just hadn’t found the right woman?

Romantic nonsense. The sort of thing she had believed in when she was sixteen years old. Real life wasn’t like that. If you were lucky you managed to find someone to share your life with that you were reasonably compatible with; if you were less lucky you managed to live with those differences in uneasy harmony. There simply wasn’t a ‘right’ man or woman in the world for everyone. Mr Right did not exist!

So decided, Joey put Nick firmly from her mind, paid for her purchases and returned to work. She had the much more pressing problem of David Banning to deal with this evening…

She dressed with care for her evening out; a simple black dress that reached her knees, teamed with an emerald-green short jacket that matched the colour of her eyes. It was formal enough for dinner, almost businesslike, in fact. Which was exactly the impression she wanted to give David Banning this evening.

Even from her brief meeting with Daniel’s brother the previous evening, Joey knew he was going to be a formidable adversary. Because adversary he most certainly was. When it came to Lily, anyone, or anything, that threatened the even tenure of her carefree young life came under the heading of enemy as far as Joey was concerned. And she had a definite feeling that was exactly what David Banning intended…

‘Miss Delaney,’ he greeted, standing up smoothly as Joey joined him in the lounge of the hotel at exactly eight o’clock. ‘You’re looking very nice,’ he added evenly.

And God, how it hurt him to say that, Joey observed derisively as she sank down into the chair opposite the one where he was now resuming his own seat. It made her wonder exactly what he had expected the mother of his brother’s child to be like. Hard? Grasping? Calculating? She wasn’t any of those things. Although he would find she could be as fierce as a lioness guarding her cub if anyone threatened Lily!

‘So do you,’ she returned drily.

His clothes might be a little over-the-top for this particular hotel, but there was no denying that David Banning did the tailored evening suit and white silk shirt justice, emphasising his broad shoulders, tapered waist and long legs. The black leather shoes looked as if they might be handmade too. And why not? The Banning family were one of the most wealthy in New York.

‘The niceties over, I suggest we go in to dinner.’ He stood up, looking down at her coolly with those icy blue eyes.

Joey stood up too, a humourless smile curving her lips as she accepted the short duration of those ‘niceties’; this evening was going to be every bit as awful as she had known it would be.

Although the last thing she had expected to see, as she preceded David Banning into the hotel dining-room, was Nick seated across the room at a corner table!

.

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