SHE dreamed of the desert.
She dreamed of dunes turning red gold under the burning fire of the sun and of the clear blue waters of the Persian Gulf lapping beaches of soft white sand. She dreamed of savage mountains and palm-shaded pools. And she dreamed of a Prince—a Prince with eyes all shades of the night and the power to command armies.
‘Avery!’ He was calling her name but she carried on walking without looking back. The ground crumbled beneath her feet and she was falling, falling …
‘Avery, wake up!’
She rose through clouds of sleep, the voice jarring with the image in her head. It was wrong. His voice was rich, deep and everything male. This voice was female and amused. ‘Mmm?’
The delicious aroma of fresh coffee teased her and she lifted her head and stared at the mug that had been placed next to her on the table. With a groan, she sat up and reached for it, half blind from sleep. ‘What time is it?’
‘Seven. You were moaning. That must have been some dream.’
Avery pushed her hand through her hair and tried to wake herself up. She had the same dream every night. Thankfully when she woke it was to find herself in London, not the desert. The discordant blare of taxi horns announced the start of the morning rush hour. No mountains and no shaded oasis—just Jenny, her best friend and business partner, pressing the button on her desk to raise the blinds.
Sunshine poured into the spectacular glass-clad office from all directions and Avery felt a sudden rush of relief to be awake and realise that the ground hadn’t crumbled beneath her feet. She hadn’t lost everything. This was hers and she’d built it from sheer hard work.
‘I need to take a quick shower before our meeting.’
‘When you ordered this couch for your office, I didn’t realise the intention was to sleep on it.’ Jenny put her coffee down on Avery’s desk and slipped off her shoes. ‘Just in case you don’t actually know this, I feel it’s my duty to point out that normal human beings go home at the end of the working day.’
The disturbing dream clung to Avery’s mind like a cobweb and she tried to brush it off, irritated by how much it could affect her. That wasn’t her life. This was.
Barefoot, she strolled across her office and took a look at her reality.
Through the floor to ceiling windows, the city sparkled in the early morning sunshine, mist wrapping the River Thames in an ethereal cloak as delicate as a bride’s veil. Familiar landmarks rose through the milky haze and down on the streets below tiny figures hurried along pavements and cars were already jammed together on the web of roads that criss-crossed beneath her office. Her eyes stung from lack of sleep but she was used to the feeling by now. It had been her close companion for months, along with the empty feeling in her chest that nothing could fill.
Jenny was looking at her. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘Nothing to talk about.’ Avery turned away from the window and sat down at her desk. Work, she thought. Work had been everything until her world had been disturbed. She needed to get that feeling back. ‘The good news is that in my extended insomnia moment last night I finished the proposal for the launch in Hong Kong. I’ve emailed it to you. I think I’ve excelled myself this time. Everyone is going to be talking about this party.’
‘Everyone always talks about your parties.’
The phone she’d left charging overnight buzzed. Back in business mode, Avery reached for it and then saw the name on the screen. Her hand froze in mid-air. Again? It was at least the fifth time he’d called.
She couldn’t do this now. Not so close to the dream.
Her hand diverted and she switched on her computer instead, her heart thundering like a stampeding herd of wild horses. And layered under the panic was pain. Pain that he could intentionally hurt her like this.
‘That’s your private number. Why aren’t you answering it?’ Jenny peered at the screen of the phone and her head jerked up. ‘Mal? The Prince is calling you?’
‘Apparently.’ Avery opened the spreadsheet she’d been working on and noticed with a flash of irritation that her hand wasn’t quite steady. ‘I should have changed my number.’ He had no right to call her private line. She should have cut all ties. Should have made sure he wasn’t able to call her except through the office.
‘Over’ should have meant just that except that he’d made sure that couldn’t happen.
‘All right, enough. I’ve ignored what’s going on for too long.’ Jenny plonked herself down in the chair opposite. ‘I’m officially worried about you.’
‘Don’t be. I’m fine.’ The words had been repeated so often they fell out of her mouth on their own. But they didn’t convince Jenny.
‘The man you loved is marrying another woman. How can you be fine? In your position I’d be screaming, sobbing, eating too much and drinking too much. You’re not doing any of those things.’
‘Because I didn’t love him. We had an affair, that’s all. An affair that ended. It happens to people all the time. Shall we get to work now?’
‘It was so much more than an affair, Avery. You were in love.’
‘Good sex doesn’t have to mean love; I don’t know why people always think that.’ Did she sound calm? Did she sound as if she didn’t care? Would anyone guess that the numbers on her screen were nonsense? She knew that people were watching her, wondering how she was reacting as the wedding of the Crown Prince drew closer. There were times when she felt like an exhibit in a zoo. It seemed that the whole world was waiting for her to drop to her knees and start sobbing.
And that, she thought, was a shame for them because they were going to be waiting a long time. She’d throw out her stilettos before she’d sob over a man. Especially a man like Mal, who would take such a display of weakness as a sign of another successful conquest. His ego didn’t need the boost.
The ringing stopped and then immediately the phone on her desk rang.
Jenny looked at the phone as if it were an enraged scorpion. ‘Do you want me to—?’
‘He’s very insistent.’
‘He’s a Prince—’ Avery muted her phone ‘—he can’t help insisting. Mal only has two settings, Prince and General. Either way, he’s commanding someone.’ No wonder they’d clashed, she thought numbly. No relationship could have two bosses.
There was an urgent tap on the door and Chloe, the new receptionist, virtually fell into the room in her excitement. ‘Avery, you’ll never guess who is on the phone!’ She paused for dramatic effect. ‘The Crown Prince of Zubran.’ Clearly she expected her announcement to have more impact than it did and when neither of them reacted she repeated herself. ‘Did you hear me? The Crown Prince of Zubran! I tried to put him through but you weren’t picking up.’
‘Insistent and persistent,’ Jenny murmured. ‘You’re going to have to answer it.’
‘Not right now. Chloe, please tell him I’m unavailable.’
‘But it’s the Prince himself. Not his assistant or his adviser or anything, but him. In person. Complete with melting dark voice and a very cultured accent.’
‘Give him my sincere apologies. Tell him I’ll call back as soon as I can.’ As soon as she’d worked out her strategy. As soon as she was confident she wasn’t going to say, or do, something she’d later regret. A conversation like that had to be carefully planned.
Chloe gaped at her. ‘You sound so relaxed, like it’s normal to have someone like him just calling on the phone. I can’t believe you know him. I’d be dropping his name into every conversation. He is so gorgeous,’ she confessed in a breathy voice. ‘Not just in the obvious way, although I wouldn’t object if he wanted to take his shirt off and chop wood in front of me or something, but because he’s just such a man if you know what I mean. He’s tough in a way men aren’t allowed to be any more because it’s not considered politically correct. You just know he is not the sort to ask permission before he kisses you.’
Avery looked at their newly appointed receptionist and realised with surprise that the girl didn’t know. Chloe was one of the few people not to know that Avery Scott had once had a wild and very public affair with Crown Prince Malik of Zubran.
She thought about the first time he’d kissed her. No, he hadn’t asked permission. The Prince didn’t ask permission for anything. For a while she’d found it exhilarating to be with a man who wasn’t intimidated by her confidence and success. Then she’d realised that two such strong people in a relationship was a recipe for disaster. The Prince thought he knew what was best for everyone. Including her.
Jenny tapped her foot impatiently. ‘Chloe, go to the bathroom and stick your head under cold running water. If that doesn’t work, try your whole body. Whatever it takes because the Prince is not going to be kissing you any time soon, with or without permission, so you can forget that. Now go and talk to him before he assumes you’ve passed out or died.’
Chloe looked confused. ‘But what if it’s something really urgent that can’t wait? You are arranging his wedding.’
The word sliced into Avery like a blade through soft flesh, the pain taking her by surprise. ‘I’m not arranging his wedding.’ The words almost choked her and she didn’t understand why. She’d ended their relationship. Her choice. Her decision, freely made. So why did she feel pain that he was marrying another woman? In every way, it was the best possible outcome. ‘I’m arranging the evening party and I sincerely doubt that he is calling about that. A Prince does not call to discuss minor details. He won’t even know what’s in the canapés until he puts them in his mouth. He has staff to deal with details. A Prince has staff to do everything. Someone to drive his car, cook his meals, run his shower—’
‘—someone to scrub his back while he’s in the shower—’ Jenny took over the conversation ‘—and the reason Avery can’t talk to him now is because I need to talk to her urgently about the Senator’s party.’
‘Oh. The Senator—’ Visibly impressed by all the famous names flying around the office, Chloe backed towards the door, her legs endless in skinny jeans, bangles jangling at her wrists. ‘Right. But I suspect His Royal Highness is not a man who is good at waiting or being told “no”.’
‘Then let’s give him more practise.’ Avery pushed aside memories of the other occasions he’d refused to wait. Like the time he’d stripped her naked with the tip of his ceremonial sword because he couldn’t be bothered to unbutton her dress. Or the time he’d …
No, she definitely wasn’t going to think about that one.
As the door closed behind the receptionist, Avery groped for her coffee. ‘She’s sweet. I like her. Once we’ve given her some confidence, she’ll be lovely. The clients will adore her.’
‘She was tactless. I’ll speak to her.’
‘Why the hell are you doing this to yourself, Avery?’
‘Employing inexperienced graduates? Because everyone deserves a chance. Chloe has lots of raw potential and—’
‘I’m not talking about your employment policy, I’m talking about this whole thing with the Prince. What possessed you to agree to arrange your ex’s wedding? It is killing you.’
‘Not at all. It’s not as if I wanted to marry him and anyway I’m not arranging the actual wedding. Why does everyone keep saying I’m arranging his wedding?’ A picture of the desert at dawn appeared on her computer and she made a mental note to change her screen saver. Perhaps it was the cause of her recurring dreams. ‘I’m responsible for the evening party, that’s all.’
‘All? It has the most influential guest list of any party in the last decade.’
‘Which is why everything must be perfect. And I don’t find it remotely stressful to plan parties. How could I? Parties are happy events populated by happy people.’
‘So you really don’t care?’ Jenny flexed her toes. ‘You and the hot Prince were together for a year. And you haven’t been out with a man since.’
‘Because I’ve been busy building my business. And it wasn’t a year. None of my relationships have lasted a year.’
‘Avery, it was a year. Twelve whole months.’
‘Oh.’ Her heart lurched. A year? ‘OK, if you say so. Twelve whole months of lust.’ It helped her to diminish it. To label it neatly. ‘We’re both physical people and it was nothing more than sex. I wish people wouldn’t romanticize that. It’s why so many marriages end in divorce.’
‘If it was so incredibly amazing, why did you break up?’
Avery felt her chest tighten. She didn’t want to think about it. ‘He wants to get married. I don’t want to get married. I ended it because it had no future.’ And because he’d been arrogant and manipulative. ‘I’m not interested in marriage.’
‘So these dreams you’re having don’t have anything to do with you imagining him with his virgin princess?’
‘Of course not.’ Avery reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of indigestion tablets. There were just two left. She needed to buy more.
‘You wouldn’t need those if you drank less coffee.’
‘You’re starting to sound like my mother.’
‘No, I’m not. No offence intended, but your mother would be saying something like “I can’t believe you’ve got yourself in this state over a man, Avery. This is exactly the sort of thing I warned you about when I taught you at the age of five that you are responsible for every aspect of your life, including your own orgasm.”’
‘I was older than five when she taught me that bit.’ She chewed the tablet, the ache in her jaw telling her that she’d been grinding her teeth at night again. Stress. ‘You want to know why I said yes to this piece of business? Because of my pride. Because when Mal called, I was so taken aback that he was getting married so quickly after we broke up, I couldn’t think straight.’ And she’d been hurt. Horribly, hideously hurt in a way she’d never been hurt before. There was a tight, panicky feeling in her chest that refused to go away. ‘He asked if it would feel awkward to arrange the party and I opened my mouth to say yes, you insensitive bastard, of course it would feel awkward but my pride spoke instead and under its direction my mouth said no, no of course it won’t feel awkward.’
‘You need to re-programme your mouth. I’ve often thought so.’
‘Thanks. And then I realised he was probably doing it to punish me because—’
Jenny lifted an eyebrow. ‘Because—?’
‘Never mind.’ Avery, who never blushed, felt herself blushing. ‘The truth is, our company is the obvious and right choice for an event like that. If I’d refused, everyone would have been saying, “Of course Avery Scott isn’t organising the party because she and the Prince were involved and she just can’t handle it.”’ And he would have known. He would have known how much he’d hurt her.
But of course he already knew. And it depressed her to think that their relationship had sunk that low.
‘You need to delegate this one, Avery.’ Jenny slid her shoes back on. ‘You’re the toughest, most impressive woman I’ve ever met but organising the wedding of a man you were once in love with—’
‘Was in lust with—’
‘Fine, call it whatever you like, but it’s making you ill. I’ve known you since we were both five years old. We’ve worked together for six years but if you carry on like this I’m going to have to ask you to fire me for the good of my health. The tension is killing me.’
‘Sorry.’ Out of the corner of her eye Avery noticed that her screen saver was back again. With a rush of irritation she swiftly replaced the desert with a stock picture of the Arctic. ‘Talk to me about work. And then I’m going to take a shower and get ready for the day.’
‘Ah, work. Senator’s golden wedding party. Fussiest client we’ve ever had—’ Jenny flipped open her book and checked through her notes while Avery cupped her mug and took comfort from the warmth.
‘Why do you insist on using that book of yours when I provide you with all the latest technology?’
‘I like my book. I can doodle and turn clients into cartoons.’ Jenny scanned her list. ‘He’s insisting on fifty swans as a surprise for his wife. Apparently they represent fidelity.’
Avery lowered the mug. ‘The guy has had at least three extramarital affairs, one of them extremely public. I don’t think this party should be celebrating his “fidelity”, do you?’
‘No, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way to say that when he called me. I’m not you.’
‘Then think of one and think of it fast because if he mentions “fidelity” to his wife on the big day we’ll have a battlefield, not a party. No swans. Apart from the fidelity connotations they have very uncertain tempers. What else?’
‘You want more?’ With a sigh, Jenny went back to her notes. ‘He wants to release a balloon for each year of their marriage.’
Avery dropped her head onto her desk. ‘Kill me now.’
‘No, because then I’ll have to deal with the Senator alone.’
Reluctantly, Avery lifted her head. ‘I don’t do balloon releases. And, quite apart from the fact that mass balloon releases are banned in lots of places, isn’t our Senator working with some environmental group at the moment? The last thing he needs is publicity like that. Suggest doves. Doves are environmentally friendly and the guests can release them and have a warm, fuzzy eco feeling.’ She sat back in her chair, trying to concentrate. ‘But not fifty, obviously. Two will be fine or the guests will be covered in bird droppings.’
‘Two doves.’ Jenny made a note in the margin and tapped her pen on the pad. ‘He is going to ask me what two doves signify.’
‘A lot less mess than fifty swans—OK, sorry, I know you can’t say that—let me think—’ Avery sipped her coffee. ‘Tell him they signify peace and tranquillity. Actually, no, don’t tell him that, either. There is no peace and tranquillity in their relationship. Tell him—’ She paused, grappling for the right word. She knew nothing about long-term relationships. ‘Partnership. Yes, that’s it. Partnership. The doves signify their life journey together.’
Jenny grinned. ‘Which has been full of—’
‘Exactly.’ With her free hand, Avery closed down the spreadsheet on her computer before she could insert any more errors. ‘Take Chloe to help at the Senator’s party. We need to cure her of being star-stuck. It will be good experience for her to mingle with celebrities and she can help out if the doves become incontinent.’
‘Why don’t you let us do the Zubran wedding without you?’
‘Because then everyone will say that I can’t cope and, worse than that—’ she bit her lip ‘—Mal will think I can’t cope.’
Was he still angry with her? He’d been furious, those hooded black eyes as moody as a sky threatening a terrible storm. And she’d been equally angry with him. It had been a clash from which neither of them had pulled back.
Jenny looked at her. ‘You miss him, don’t you?’
Yes. ‘I miss the sex. And the rows.’
‘You miss the rows?’
Avery caught Jenny’s disbelieving glance and shrugged. ‘They were mentally stimulating. Mal is super-bright. Some people do crosswords to keep their minds alert. I like a good argument. Comes of having a mother who is a lawyer. We didn’t talk at the dinner table, we debated.’
‘I know. I still remember the one time you invited me for tea.’ Jenny shuddered. ‘It was a terrifying experience. But it does explain why you can’t admit that you cared for the Prince. Your mother dedicated her life to ending marriages.’
‘They were already broken when she got involved.’
Jenny closed her book. ‘So this wedding is fine with you? Pride is going to finish you off, you know that, don’t you? That and your overachieving personality—another thing I blame your mother for.’
‘I thank my mother. She made me the woman I am.’
‘A raving perfectionist who is truly messed up about men?’
‘I won’t apologise for wanting to do a job properly and I am not messed up about men. Just because I’m the child of a strong single parent—’
‘Avery, I love you, but you’re messed up. That one time I came for tea, your mum was arguing the case for doing away with men altogether. Did she ever even tell you the identity of your father? Did she?’
The feelings came from nowhere. Suddenly she was back in the playground again, surrounded by children who asked too many questions.
Yes, she knew who her father was. And she remembered the night her mother had told her the truth as vividly as if it had happened just yesterday. Remembered the way the strength had oozed from her limbs and the sickness rose in her stomach.
She didn’t look at Jenny. ‘My father has never been part of my life.’
‘Presumably because your mother didn’t want him interfering! She scared him away, didn’t she?’ Jenny was still in full flow. ‘The woman is bright as the sun and mad as a bunch of bananas. And don’t kid yourself that you had to say yes to this party. You did the launch party for the Zubran Ferrara Spa Resort. That was enough to prove that you’re not losing sleep over the Prince.’
The knot in Avery’s stomach tightened but part of her was just relieved that the conversation had moved away from the topic of her father. ‘There was no reason to say no. I wish Mal nothing but happiness with his virgin princess.’ There was a buzzing sound in her head. She had to stop talking about Mal. It was doing awful things to her insides. Now she had hearing problems. ‘I’m doing the wedding party and then that will be it.’ Then everyone would stop speculating that she was broken hearted because of a man. ‘You call him, Jen. Tell him I’m out of the country or something. Find out what he wants and sort it out.’
‘Does his bride really have to be a virgin?’ Jenny sounded curious and Avery felt something twist in her stomach.
‘I think she does. Pure. Untouched by human hand. Obedient in all things. His to command.’
Jenny laughed. ‘How on earth did you and the Prince ever sustain a relationship?’
‘It was … fiery. I’m better at being the commander than the commanded.’ The buzzing sound grew louder and she suddenly realised that it wasn’t coming from her head, but from outside. ‘Someone is using the helipad. We don’t have a client flying in today, do we?’
As Jenny shook her head, Avery turned to look, but the helicopter was out of view, landing above her. ‘It must be someone visiting one of the other businesses in our building.’
Flanked by armed bodyguards, Mal strode from the helicopter. ‘Which floor?’
‘Top floor, sir. Executive suite, but—’
‘I’ll go alone. Wait here for me.’
‘But, Your Highness, you can’t—’
‘It’s a party planning company,’ Mal drawled, wondering why they couldn’t see the irony. ‘Who, exactly, is going to threaten my safety in a party planning company? Will I be the victim of a balloon assault? Drowned in champagne? Rest assured, if I encounter danger in the stairwell, I’ll deal with it.’ Without giving his security guards an opportunity to respond he strode into the building.
Avery had done well for herself since they’d parted company, he thought, and the dull ache that was always with him grew just a little bit more intense as did the anger. She’d chosen this, her business, over their relationship.
But he couldn’t allow himself to think about that. He’d long since recognised the gulf between personal wishes and duty. After years pursuing the first, he was now committed to the second. Which was why this visit was professional, not personal.
If he knew Avery as well as he thought he did, then pride would prevent her from throwing him out of her office or slapping his face. He was banking on it. Or maybe she no longer cared enough to do either.
Maybe she’d never cared enough and that was just another thing he’d been wrong about.
Mal passed no one in the stairwell and emerged onto the top floor, through a set of glass doors that guarded the corporate headquarters of Avery Scott’s highly successful events planning company, Dance and Dine.
This was the hub of her operation. The nerve centre of an organisation devoted to pleasure but run with military precision. From here, Avery Scott organised parties for the rich and famous. She’d built her business on hard work and sheer nerve, turning down business that wasn’t consistent with her vision for her company. As a result of making herself exclusive, her services were so much in demand that a party organized by Avery Scott was often booked years in advance, a status symbol among those able to afford her.
It was the first time he’d visited her offices and he could see instantly that the surroundings reflected the woman. Sleek, contemporary and elegant. A statement of a successful, confident high achiever.
A woman who needed no one.
His mouth tightened.
She certainly hadn’t needed him.
The foyer was a glass atrium at the top of the building and light flooded through the glass onto exotic plants and shimmered on low contemporary sofas. A pretty girl sat behind the elegantly curved reception desk, answering the phones as they rang.
For this visit he’d chosen to wear a suit rather than the more traditional robes but apparently that did nothing to conceal his identity because the moment the receptionist saw him she shot to her feet, panicked and star struck in equal measure.
‘Your Highness! You’re … ohmigod—’
‘Not God,’ Mal said and then frowned as the colour faded from her cheeks. ‘Are you all right?’
‘No. I don’t think so. I’ve never met a Prince in the flesh before.’ She pressed her hand to her chest and then fanned herself. ‘I feel a bit—’ She swayed and Mal moved quickly, catching her before she hit the ground.
Torn between exasperation and amusement, he sat her in her chair and pushed her head gently downwards. ‘Lean forward. Now breathe. That’s it. You’ll soon feel better. Can I get you a glass of water?’
‘No.’ She squeaked the word. ‘Thank you for catching me. You’re obviously every bit as strong as you look. Hope you didn’t put your back out.’
Mal felt a flash of amusement. ‘My back is fine.’
‘This is seriously embarrassing. I should be curtseying or something, not fainting at your feet.’ She lifted her head. ‘I presume you’re here to see Miss Scott. I don’t suppose there is any chance you could not mention this? I’m supposed to be cool with celebrities and famous people. As you can see, it’s still a work in progress.’
‘My lips are sealed.’ Smiling, Mal straightened. ‘Sit there and recover. I’ll find her myself.’ At least the receptionist hadn’t pretended her boss wasn’t in the building, which was good because his extremely efficient security team had already confirmed that she was here. The fact that she’d refused to pick up the phone had added another couple of coals to his already burning temper but he wasn’t about to take that out on this girl. He only fought with people as strong as him and he rarely met anyone who fitted that description.
Fortunately Avery Scott was more than capable of handling anything he dished out. She was the strongest woman he’d ever met. Nothing shook that icy composure. Apparently not even the fact that he was marrying another woman.
Temper held rigidly in control, he strode away from the reception desk and towards the offices and meeting rooms.
Deciding that Avery would choose a corner office with a view, he swiftly calculated the direction of the Thames. There was a large door at the end of the glass atrium and he thrust it open and there, seated behind a large glass desk and talking to another woman was Avery, immaculate as ever, that sheet of shiny blonde hair sliding over a pearl coloured silk shirt.
In those few seconds before she saw him, a tightness gripped his chest.
He felt something he only ever felt around this woman.
As always, the image she presented to the world was impeccable. She projected glamour, efficiency and capability. No one meeting Avery Scott could ever doubt that she would get the job done and that it would be done perfectly. She had an address book that would have made an ambitious socialite sob with envy but few knew the woman beneath the surface.
She’d shut him out. The closer he’d tried to get, the more she’d blocked him.
He almost laughed at the irony. He’d spent his life preventing women from getting too close. With Avery that tactic had proved unnecessary. She was the one who’d erected the barriers. And when he’d pushed up against those barriers too hard, she’d simply walked away.
They’d been lovers for a year, friends for longer, but still there had been days when he’d felt he didn’t know her. But there were some things he did know. Like the way a tiny dimple always appeared in the corner of her mouth when she smiled, and the fact that her mouth was addictive. Remembering that taste stirred up a response he’d thought he had under control.
The first time he’d met her he’d been attracted by her confidence and by the way she squeezed every drop of opportunity from life. He’d admired her drive, her success and her utter belief in herself. But the same qualities that had attracted him were the reasons they’d parted. Avery Scott was fiercely independent and terrified of anything she believed threatened that independence.
And he’d threatened it.
What they’d shared had threatened it. And so she’d ended it. Crushed what they had until there was nothing left but the pain.
People assumed that a man of his position had everything.
They had no idea how wrong they were.
Mal stood for a moment, tasting the unpalatable combination of regret and anger and at that moment she looked up and saw him.
He searched for some evidence that his unexpected appearance affected her, but there was nothing. Outwardly composed, she rose to her feet, elegant and in control and displaying the same unflappable calm she demonstrated even in a crisis. ‘This is a surprise. How can I help you, Mal?’ Cool. Professional. No hint that they’d once been as close as it was possible for two people to be, apart from the fact that she’d called him Mal.
His name had slipped from those glossy lips without thought and yet only a handful of close friends ever called him that. And Avery had once been in that hallowed circle.
She knew his closest friends because she’d been one of them; one of the few people indifferent to his wealth or his status. One of the few people who’d treated him like a man and not like the next ruler of Zubran. For a while, when he’d been with her, he’d forgotten about duty and responsibility.
Mal thrust that thought aside along with the others. Those days were gone. Today’s visit was all about duty and responsibility. He wasn’t going to make this personal. He couldn’t.
He was about to marry another woman.
‘You didn’t pick up your phone.’ He dispensed with formal greetings or pleasantries, considering them unnecessary.
‘I was in a meeting. You, a world leader who is generally considered an expert in the art of diplomacy, will surely understand that I couldn’t interrupt a client.’ She spoke in the same neutral tone he’d heard her use with difficult clients.
Somewhere deep inside him he felt his nerve endings spark and fire and he remembered that their verbal sparring matches had been their second favourite way of passing the time they spent together.
As for the first …
His libido roared to life and Mal turned to the other woman in the room, because privacy was essential for the conversation he was about to have. ‘Leave us, please.’
Responding to that command without question, the woman rose. As the door closed behind her Avery turned on him, blue eyes ice-cold.
‘You just can’t help it, can you? You just can’t help telling people what to do.’
‘This is not a conversation I intend to conduct in public.’
‘This is my office. My business. You are not in charge here. Whatever your reason for being here, nothing justifies you walking in without knocking and breaking up my meeting. I wouldn’t do it to you. I don’t expect you to do it to me.’
It was as if a high-voltage electrical current had suddenly been diverted through the room. It crackled, sizzled and threatened to leave them both singed, and it aggravated him as much as he knew it irritated her.
‘Why wouldn’t you take my calls?’
Two streaks of colour darkened her cheeks. ‘You called at inconvenient moments.’
‘And does ignoring your clients’ phone calls generally work well for you? I’d always assumed that customer service is everything in your business.’
‘You weren’t calling about business.’
‘And you weren’t thinking about business when you refused to take my calls so let’s stop pretending we don’t know what’s going on here.’ Deeply unsettled by the strength of his own feelings, Mal strode to the huge glass windows that enveloped her office and reminded himself that his reason for being here had nothing to do with his past relationship with this woman. That was irrelevant. It had to be irrelevant. ‘Nice views. You’ve done extraordinarily well for yourself. Your business is booming while others fold.’
‘Why do you find it extraordinary? I work hard and I understand my market.’
Her reply made him smile but he kept that smile to himself. ‘Less than five minutes together and already you’re picking a fight.’
‘You’re the one who landed a helicopter on my roof and barged into my office. I would say you were the one picking the fight, Mal.’
For the first time in weeks he felt the energy flow through him. Not to anyone would he have admitted how good it felt to have someone speak without restraint. To argue with him. To challenge—
‘I was merely congratulating you on the astonishing growth of your business in a difficult economic climate.’
‘You could have done that in an email. I have absolutely no idea why you’re here or why you’ve been phoning me every two minutes but I’m assuming you don’t want to talk about guest lists or colour schemes.’
‘I am not remotely interested in the details of the party. That is your job.’
‘For once we’re in agreement. And now I’d be grateful if you’d leave so that I can do that job.’
Sufficiently energized, he turned. ‘No one but you would dare speak to me like that.’
‘So fire me, Mal. Go on. Do it. Take your business elsewhere.’ Those eyes locked on his and he wondered why she would be encouraging him to back out of what must be for her a prime piece of business. Under the perfectly applied make-up, she looked tired. His gaze slid to her hands and he saw her fiddling nervously with the pen she was holding.
Avery never fiddled. Avery was never nervous.
His attention caught, he watched her for a moment, trying to read her. ‘I’m not firing you.’
‘Then at least get to the point. Why are you here?’
‘I’m here because at the moment the party cannot go ahead. Something crucial is missing.’
The mere suggestion that something might be less than perfect had her bristling defensively as she always did if anyone so much as questioned her competence. That beautifully shod foot tapped the floor. Those eyes narrowed as she mentally scrolled through the checklist she kept permanently updated in her head. ‘I can assure you that nothing is “missing”, Mal. I have been over the plans meticulously and checked every last detail personally. It will all be absolutely as planned.’
She had complete confidence in her own ability and that confidence was justified because Avery Scott never overlooked anything. Nothing escaped her. Her attention to detail drove her team mad. It had driven him mad, and yet at the same time he’d admired it because she’d built herself a successful business on the back of nothing but her own hard work. This woman had never freeloaded in her life. Nor had she ever asked anyone for anything. She was the first woman he’d met who wasn’t interested in anything he had to offer.
For a moment he felt a pang of regret, but regret was a sentiment he couldn’t afford and he moved on quickly.
‘You misunderstand me. I’m sure that everything your company has planned is perfect, as ever.’
‘So if that is the case, what can possibly be missing?’
Mal paused, hesitating because he was about to trust her with information that he hadn’t entrusted to another living soul. Even now he was wondering whether coming here had been a mistake.
‘What am I missing? The most important thing of all,’ he drawled softly. ‘I’m missing my bride.’