May 27, 2014
May 27, 2014
Miller Sisters Book #2
Also published as
Also published in the UK as
The Notting Hill Diaries
He was breaking up with me.
I shouldn’t have minded. I should have been used to it after all the experience I’d had, and it wasn’t as if I were in love or anything—do I look stupid?—but every girl likes to think she’s irresistible and being dumped hurts, especially after the day I’d had at work.
There is nothing worse than every part of your life going wrong at the same time. You see the whole thing unravelling and you don’t know which bit to grab.
‘The thing is, Rosie, this just isn’t working out. We’re not compatible. You’re not very—’ he squirmed in his seat ‘you know…’
No, I didn’t know, but that was one of the things that annoyed me most about Brian. He never finished his sentences. He stopped before the end and I was supposed to guess the missing words. Of all the infuriating habits I’d ever encountered while dating, not finishing sentences was the most exasperating—and that’s from someone who once dated a delightful individual who threw his beer bottle at the bin and missed every time, despite having perfect aim when glued to the Xbox killing aliens. I’m the sort of girl who reads the last page of a book first to check how it ends, so cliffhangers aren’t for me. Just give me the bad news and get it over with. Don’t make me wait.
I’d blown two weeks’ rent on a dress and now it was going to waste. This place was expensive. Right on the river with a view across to the London Eye. I loved the London Eye. It was a fairground ride for grown-ups, a giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank that offered a perfect view of the city. The glass capsules made me think of a monster with big buggy eyes. I wished it would come and gobble up Brian.
I heard laughter coming from the bar area and saw a group of men, shirts unbuttoned at the neck, jackets slung carelessly over the backs of chairs, drinking champagne like soda. It was Friday night and they were office types with money to burn. Lawyers? Bankers?
One of them was watching me. He caught my eye and smiled.
I didn’t smile back.
What was there to smile about?
The fitness club where I worked had been bought by a company I knew nothing about, which meant the job I loved was threatened. Who knew what changes the new management would want to make? There had been more rumours than workouts for the past few weeks and the uncertainty was driving me mad. And now my fragile love life had crumbled to dust. All in all it wasn’t turning out to be my best week.
Feeling gloomy, I looked away and saw a couple laughing together, lost in each other. The man was handsome, the woman beautiful. His hand sneaked across the table and covered hers, as if he couldn’t bear to not be touching her. Her eyes smiled into his. Their wine was untouched. So was their food. They were too wrapped up in each other to notice anything around them, especially not the girl being dumped at the next table. I wanted to step out of my world and join them in their shiny happy place.
Even as I watched, they stood up simultaneously, gazes still locked. I should have looked away, but I couldn’t. There was something mesmerizing about the intensity of their chemistry. I stared, fascinated, envious, as the guy threw a bundle of notes on the table without counting them. So cool. I’ve only ever seen that happen in the movies. If I’d done the same thing I would have showered the table with receipts, expired discount vouchers, chocolate wrappers and a ton of other crap that somehow finds its way into my purse. He strode purposefully to the door, his hand locked in hers. I knew, I just knew, that they weren’t going to make it to the car without ripping at each other’s clothes. I’d never seen two people so into each other. Or maybe I had. Ever since my sister, Hayley, had got it together with Nico Rossi, the two of them had been like that. I was scared to open the door to our apartment in case I tripped over the pair of them in the hallway. I joked that it made me mildly nauseous, but honestly, I was happy for my sister. Neither of us found relationships easy. I was glad one of us had managed to find someone.
‘Rosie? Are you even listening to me?’
I turned back to Brian, telling myself I wasn’t jealous. Chemistry that intense was a bad thing. It could scorch a person. I knew. I was much better off sticking with this bland version of a relationship, even if it did fizzle out like a firework on a wet night. Better that than being burned.
‘I’m listening. I was waiting for you to finish your sentence. You were telling me we’re not compatible.’ It was like one of those stupid reality shows where they’re about to tell you who this week’s loser is, who is going home, only instead of just doing it, they make you wait and wait against the backdrop of a drama drum roll until the whole nation is yelling, ‘For fuck’s sake get on with it,’ at the TV. To kill time, I glanced round the room. Sleek black tables shimmered with silver and candles. We were surrounded by the low hum of conversation and the clink of glass. A roomful of people enjoying an evening. People who were in relationships.
And then there was me.
Rosie the rejected.
I could hold water in my hands longer than I could hold a man. Not that I wanted a long relationship but hanging on to him until the end of dinner would have been confidence building.
‘Look at you.…’ Brian waved a hand and I looked down at myself in alarm, wondering if I’d had a wardrobe malfunction. We’re big on those in my family—just ask my sister, Hayley. But as far as I could see, it was situation normal. Same legs. Same flat chest. When my sister and I were dividing up the family DNA, she got the big-breast gene. Who am I kidding? She got the whole breast gene. All of it. I’ve always liked to put a positive spin on things, so I told myself a flat chest gave me a better view of my impressive abs. I’d worked hard enough to get them.
‘I’m looking. I don’t see a problem.’
‘There isn’t a problem! You’re really pretty. Great bone structure, cute face, gorgeous smile and your legs are—’ He cleared his throat. ‘You’ve got great legs. Great body. It’s not the way you look! On the outside you look feminine and fragile, but on the inside you’re not.…’
‘I’m not what? Brian, for the love of all that is holy, please finish your sentences.’
‘You said “inside you’re not.” What am I not?’
‘You’re not at all fragile.’ His face was scarlet and the colour didn’t suit him. ‘There isn’t even a hint of vulnerability about you.’
‘You want me to be vulnerable?’ I thought about the mess that lay in my past. I thought about my childhood, when I’d spent half my time feeling vulnerable. Looking back on how I’d been then made me cringe. And he was telling me he wanted me that way?
He finished his food and put down his fork. ‘You’re tough, Rosie.’
That didn’t sound so bad to me. ‘So is diamond. And it sparkles.’
‘I was thinking more of Kevlar.’ He sighed. ‘You have to admit your interests are…unusual.’
‘What’s wrong with my interests?’
‘Oh, come on!’ His glance said it should have been obvious. ‘You’re a girl and you like fighting. How do you think that makes me feel?’ He glanced quickly to the left to check no one was listening, as if simply being seen with someone like me might be enough to knock lumps off his manhood.
I put my fork down, too. Not because I’d finished eating—being dumped wrecks my appetite—but so I wouldn’t be tempted to stab him. ‘Martial arts, Brian. You make it sound as if I’m pounding on people in the street.’
‘What you do is violent! You kick people. You could kick me.’
I had to rein myself in.
I told myself it wasn’t an invitation.
All the same I was tempted.
My shoes had a particularly sharp heel. They deserved a workout before they went back in the box.
A couple had arrived at the recently vacated table. I decided they didn’t deserve to have their evening ruined. I glanced idly in their direction. She was pretty. Blond hair. Elegant. The man had his back to me but I could see his hair was black as night and his shoulders broad and strong. There was a stillness about him, an economy of movement that told me he could handle himself. I spent my day training with men strong enough to lift a small car with one hand, so there was no reason to give him even a second look but there was something about those shoulders, the way he held himself, that caught my attention. Something familiar.
My heart bumped my ribs and I felt a moment of sick panic and then I noticed half the women in the room were also looking at him.
I forced myself to breathe. He was a smoking-hot guy, that was all. Even from the back, he looked insanely good. Who wouldn’t look?
It wasn’t anyone I knew. Just some random stranger who had happened to pick the same restaurant as us.
‘Rosie?’ Brian sounded irritated that he’d lost my attention and I tried to forget about Muscle Man seated to my right. I didn’t need a hot guy in my life. I had enough trouble with the lukewarm variety.
‘Relax. I don’t want to hurt you, Brian.’ I was lying. Right at that moment I wanted to. Wondering what I’d ever seen in him, I sat back in my chair and tried to visualize fluffy kittens and other gentle soothing images to calm myself. ‘We’re supposed to be dating. Why would I want to hurt you?’
‘I’m not saying that you do. Just that you could. And that feels a little weird, if I’m honest. A man likes to feel like a man, you know? And that thing you do…’
‘That thing? Are you talking about Muay Thai or karate?’ I noticed that the man at the next table sat a little straighter. I had a feeling he was listening to my conversation.
‘Both! Whatever it’s called, it’s scary. I don’t mind that you work as an instructor and a personal trainer—’
Detecting sarcasm, he sent me a swift frown. ‘It’s the fighting that’s embarrassing.’
‘You mean sparring? Competitions? Why is it embarrassing?’
‘Let’s say, for the sake of argument, we carry on seeing each other. Eventually I’m going to want to introduce you to my mother. What would I say? This is Rosie Miller—just ignore the fact she’s limping. She has the best scissor kick on the circuit.’
‘I’m proud of my scissor kick. I work hard on my scissor kick.’
‘For the record, the last girl I dated liked baking and book club.’
Baking and book club?
I stared at him, wondering whether to kill him now or wait until after dessert.
It was chocolate brownie, my favourite, so I decided to wait. I wasn’t hungry, but no woman ate chocolate because she was hungry.
‘Given that you’re breaking up with me, let me give you some feedback here.’ I leaned forward and pushed my arms against my sides to gain his attention—it was the only way I could produce any cleavage. ‘Firstly, I am not interested in any relationship that culminates in meeting a guy’s mother. Secondly, your manhood should not be threatened by who you date.’
‘That’s easy for you to say.’ His desperation was coloured by a hint of sulk. ‘We both know that if we were attacked, you’d be the one defending me, not the other way round. How is that supposed to make me feel?’
‘Er…relieved?’ I heard the man at the next table cough and I turned my head sharply but he was leaning toward his companion, attentive. I wondered if he was telling her she should join a book group.
‘It makes me feel humiliated!’ Brian hissed. ‘All I’m saying is that it would be nice if you at least pretended to be a little vulnerable. Once in a while you could act like a girl.’
It was the lowest of blows.
He was telling me I wasn’t feminine.
I felt the sting of tears behind my eyes and blinked furiously.
Why did I even care? It wasn’t as if I thought Brian was my happily-ever-after. But happy to the end of dessert would have been nice.
And I had no intention of changing who I was to make him happy. My mother had done that and it had led to misery for all of us. I was determined to find someone who liked me the way I was.
Could the evening get any worse?
I sat there trying to catch my breath and then the man at the table finally turned his head and my evening was suddenly a whole lot worse, because it wasn’t some stranger who sat there. It wasn’t some nameless, faceless hot guy who a woman could fantasize about but never see again.
It was Hunter Black. Hunter, the first guy I’d ever dated. The first guy I’d slept with. The man who had taught me that a broken heart was more painful than a broken bone.
His dark gaze burned into mine and suddenly I couldn’t breathe.
I’d really believed I wouldn’t feel anything if I saw him again. I’d told myself that if he ever reappeared in my life, I probably wouldn’t even notice him. I’d walk right past, thinking he looked liked someone I used to know.
I hadn’t expected this gut-wrenching reaction. I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck and left in the gutter like roadkill.
Looking away, I stood up, scrabbled for my purse and knocked over my wine.
Brian cursed and tried to save his jacket and tie from the flood. ‘Rosie, what are you doing?’
I was running. Running like hell. ‘You’re breaking up with me. I don’t see the point in hanging around to watch the whole movie when I already know the ending.’ I opened my purse and dropped a couple of notes on the table and, yes, a lot of other crap, too—I was probably the first person to try and pay a bill in old train tickets. ‘As I threaten your manhood, I’ll assume you don’t want me to walk you home.’
Exercising supreme dignity and awesome balance, I strode out of the restaurant as fast as I could on those heels. My legs turned to liquid—not vodka, sadly—my heart was hammering and my palms were clammy.
Don’t let him follow me. Please don’t let him follow me.
And I wasn’t talking about Brian.
I kept telling myself Hunter was with a woman, that he wouldn’t just walk out on her, but that logic didn’t reassure me.
How could it, when he’d once walked out on me?
Hunter did what suited him. If he wanted to walk, he’d walk. And if he wanted to follow me, he’d follow me.
I couldn’t calm the feeling of panic or the wild need to put as much distance between myself and him as possible.
I heard voices behind me and I was so desperate to get away I almost stepped into the road.
A horn blared.
I looked frantically over my shoulder and saw the group of men who had been drinking at the bar appear at the door of the restaurant. Apart from wondering why they’d left when they’d appeared to be having a good time, I barely spared them a glance. I was too busy looking for Hunter, still terrified that he was going to follow me, although why I thought that, I had no idea. I hadn’t seen him for five years and he’d not sent me as much as a text, so he was hardly likely to be rushing to exchange news and phone numbers.
Relieved there was no sign of him, I dived down the alleyway that ran down the side of the bar and connected with the main road. Far ahead I could see lights as cars whizzed past, but here in the narrow street it was dark and quiet.
I walked quickly, heart pounding. What was he doing here? Was he back in London permanently? Did he live close by?
The questions ran through my head and all I could think about was getting out of there.
Hayley was at home. We’d open a bottle of wine and watch the latest episode of Girls.
Scrunched-up newspaper brushed against my ankles and I picked my way through the mess, wondering why people had to be so gross in their habits. A cat crossed my path, eyes glinting in the darkness, and I was trying to remember if that was lucky or unlucky when I heard footsteps behind me.
They came at me without warning. Surrounded me.
And I knew, cat or no cat, my luck had run out.
I turned, thinking it was a good job my hobbies didn’t include baking or book group, because these guys didn’t look as if they wanted a cupcake or my tip for a good bedtime read.
There were four of them, the men from the bar, and only now did I realize that walking down this alley had been a mistake. I’d been intent on getting away from Hunter. I hadn’t thought about anything else. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I hadn’t thought about my personal safety.
‘Hey, pretty girl, looks like you walked out on your date.’ The one who had smiled at me took the lead. ‘Good decision. Want to go someplace and have some fun?’
‘No.’ I said it clearly so there could be no mistake. ‘I’m going home. Alone.’ I checked out my options swiftly. I was halfway down the street, so there was no obvious escape and there was no other person in sight.
I was on my own apart from the cat, but he’d walked away with a disdainful flick of his black tail. You can always rely on a cat to do his own thing in a crisis.
I taught people to be aware, to walk away from a fight, and here I was slap bang in the middle of a risky situation. In my haste to put distance between Hunter and me, I’d broken all my own rules.
The second man stepped in front of me. He was bigger, heavier than the first guy, probably a little out of condition but his bulk gave him advantage and I could see from the glitter in his eyes he’d been drinking.
I stepped back, still hoping to walk and talk my way out of the situation.
‘What’s the rush? Don’t you think that’s a little unfriendly?’
‘What I think,’ I said clearly, ‘is that you should go wherever you’re going and leave me to go where I’m going. And those two places are not the same.’
‘Maybe they are, kitten.’ The smile held just a hint of nasty. He moved toward me, pressing me back against the wall, crowding me, caging me. I didn’t hesitate. I lifted my knee, power driving through my hips as I kicked him. The transformation from kitten to tiger caught him by surprise. He doubled over and I spun and caught him with my elbow. Shock gave me the window I’d been hoping for to escape but sprinting was impossible in my heels and I’d barely made it a few steps when two of them yanked me back. My head smacked against the wall and pain exploded.
I’d lost the element of surprise and I was about to scream when Hunter emerged out of the darkness. His face was barely visible, his bulk menacing in the shadows.
‘Let her go.’ He didn’t raise his voice, but I felt the man’s hold on me slacken.
The guy I’d kicked was rubbing his leg. ‘Walk away. This is nothing to do with you.’
Hunter didn’t move. That might have surprised them but it didn’t surprise me. He never had been any good at following orders. He’d grown up in a part of London that most people avoided, so a dark street filled with litter and city types who couldn’t hold their drink was unlikely to elevate his excitement levels.
‘I told you to let her go.’ He stood dangerously still, powerful legs braced apart. He was so damn sure of himself and my stomach curled and my limbs felt like overcooked spaghetti.
That confidence and assurance had been irresistible to an underconfident eighteen-year-old. To me he’d seemed like a cross between a god and a guardian angel. I’d wrapped my shaky, uncertain self around him like a plant desperate for support, using his strength instead of developing my own. When he’d walked away, I’d crumpled.
It embarrassed me to remember how pathetic I’d been. The memory was so humiliating I tried not to think about it. I tried not to think about him. Deep down I knew he’d done the right thing to break it off—although I didn’t think he needed to have been quite so brutal in the execution. I’d been so clingy, so dependent, so good at leaning on him I’d forgotten how to stand upright by myself. Never had a girl been so crazily in love with a man as I’d been with Hunter.
And I should have known better. My sister and I had camped out on the battlefield of our parents’ divorce, and believe me, it was a bloody experience. We’d both graduated from childhood totally screwed up about relationships.
When you witness a savage divorce, it can do one of two things to you. Either you decide marriage is something to be avoided at all costs, which is what my sister, Hayley, did, or you decide you’re going to do it differently. That was what I did. I was never going to make the mistakes my parents made, because I was going to pick the right guy.
And then I’d met Hunter and I’d thought I’d fallen into the fairy tale. Compared to him Prince Charming would have looked like a loser.
The man holding me let go of my wrist and stepped forward. ‘There are four of us and one of you.’
Still Hunter didn’t move. ‘It’s an uneven fight, which is why I’m telling you to walk away.’
I was the only one who understood his meaning. The four men thought the odds were in their favour.
I knew differently.
Mention Hunter’s name in the world of martial arts, and everyone will know who you’re talking about. His skill had been noticed at an early age and it was that skill that had won him championships and sent him across the globe to Japan and Thailand to study with the very best.
He had choreographed fight scenes for movies and appeared in a few. Not that I’d ever seen him on the big screen. I’d been trying to get him out of my head, so the last thing I needed was to be looking at a magnified version.
These four city types didn’t look further than the suit.
They saw one man. They didn’t see the power.
They came at him simultaneously and he unleashed that power in a series of controlled movements that had two guys bent over and groaning in pain within seconds and the other two retreating in shock. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Hunter was respected, revered in some circles, as a strong, aggressive fighter and an inspirational instructor. But still, watching him in action made my stomach swoop.
I suddenly realized I was no longer being held.
‘Get in the car!’ His rough command penetrated my brain but I simply stared at him, frozen, because he was suggesting I go with him. For the first time in my life I understood the phrase ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea.’ And he wasn’t the sea.
My teeth were chattering and I heard him curse softly. ‘Rosie, get in the damn car. Move.’
I turned my head and saw the low black sports car parked at the side of the road with the door open. Was it really a step up to be trapped alone in a car with Hunter Black?
Without giving me more time to make the decisions, he grabbed my hand and hauled me the short distance, all but bundled me inside and closed the door.
I breathed in the smell of expensive leather and elite super car.
Apart from thinking that Hollywood obviously paid well, I wasn’t surprised.
Hunter had always been obsessed with power and speed. On my eighteenth birthday he’d given me a ride on the back of his motorcycle. I’d sat there, pressed against the power of the bike and the power of the man as we’d roared over London Bridge at two in the morning, realizing I’d never truly felt excitement before that moment. It was that night, right there wound around Hunter’s hard, muscular frame, that I’d discovered the difference between living and being alive. That was the night our relationship had changed. Before that we’d had hidden places. Secrets. By the time we woke up in the morning there were no secrets left.
After that everything had been a lot like that bike ride. Wild, exhilarating and dangerous.
I’d loved the fact that he knew me. Really knew me.
He slid into the car next to me and the doors locked with a reassuring clunk.
I hadn’t seen him since the day he’d walked out and now here we were, trapped together in this confined space. I was so aware of him I could hardly breathe. The scent, the power, the man. The air was thick with tension. I could have reached out and touched that strong, muscular thigh but instead I kept my hands clasped in my lap and my eyes straight ahead.
I’d assumed if I ever saw him again I wouldn’t feel a thing.
I hated being wrong.
I felt as if I’d been plugged into an electric socket. The air hummed and crackled with unbearable tension. He was insanely attractive, of course, but I knew that wasn’t what was happening here. It was something deeper. Something far more scary and uncontrollable.
I wondered if it was just me but then he turned his head at the same time I did and our eyes met. That brief exchange of glances was so intense I half expected to hear a crash of thunder.
His eyes were a dark velvet-black and the way he was looking at me told me he was feeling everything I was feeling. How could a single glance be so intimate?
My heart was pounding. I wanted to get out of the car so I could work out what all of this meant.
I wanted to get home.
I waited for him to ask me where I was living so he could drop me home, but he didn’t. Instead he pulled away and joined the flow of traffic. He didn’t say a word. No ‘How have you been?’ Or ‘I’m sorry I left.’
Just tense, pulsing silence so heavy and oppressive it was like being covered in a thick blanket. And awareness. That throbbing, skin-tingling awareness that only ever happened when I was with this man.
The restaurant was close to Fit and Physical, where I worked, overlooking the river. Usually I loved London at night. I loved the lights, the reflection of buildings on the water, the trees, the crush of people and the general air of excitement that comes from living in the capital. Tonight I barely looked at the city that was my home.
I heard a throaty growl and for a moment I thought it was the car and then realized it was him.
‘Why were you with him?’ His jaw was clenched, his tone savage and I glanced across at him, stunned by the depth of emotion in his voice because Hunter was the most controlled person I’d ever met. He was the original Mr. Cool. Not tonight. He was simmering with fury and right on the edge of control. I realized that the reason he hadn’t spoken was that he was angry.
‘Who I’m with is none of your business.’
‘Why would you choose to spend your evening with a guy who thinks you should be doing baking and book club?’
He’d heard that?
I’d thought embarrassment was a split dress at a wedding—ask my sister about that one—but I discovered this was far, far worse.
Let’s be honest. When a girl finally meets up with the guy who broke her heart, she wants everything to be perfect. She wants perfect hair, a perfect body, a perfect life. Most of all she wants to be in the perfect relationship so that he can see what he gave up. She doesn’t just want him to feel a sting of regret; she wants him contorted with it. She wants to smile and admit that breaking up with him was the best thing that ever happened because it put her on this path to lifestyle nirvana. The one thing she absolutely doesn’t want, especially in my case, is for him to have to rescue her.
I wanted to crawl onto the floor of his car and curl up there unnoticed.
I wanted to rewind time and spend the evening in a deep bubble bath with the latest issue of Cosmo. Most of all I didn’t want to feel this way. The truth was I dated men like Brian because I didn’t want to feel as if I’d been singed by wildfire.
‘You can drop me here and get back to your date. I’ll take the underground.’
‘Because walking down a dark alleyway alone at night wasn’t enough of a bad decision?’
He’d always been protective. He’d always tried to keep me from being hurt. The irony was that in the end he’d been the one who had hurt me.
‘I travel on the underground all the time.’
‘Not when you’re with me.’
Heat flooded through me. ‘I’m not with you.’
‘Right now you are.’ His tone was savage. ‘And unlike your useless date, I’m not leaving you.’
‘Why? Have you suddenly developed a conscience?’ I watched as two streaks of colour highlighted his cheekbones and knew I’d scored a point. ‘Look, I’ve never been one for reunions, so just stop the damn car and—’
‘What the hell were you doing going out with a guy like him in the first place? He’s not the right man for you.’
‘You don’t know anything about me.’
‘I know everything about you.’ His husky tone was deeply personal and I felt everything tighten inside me.
The chemistry between us had always been explosive.
I’d assumed it was because he was my first, but I was fast realizing his ranking had nothing to do with it.
I stole a glance at his profile, wondering what it was about him that made me feel this way. He had the same features as anyone else: eyes, mouth, nose—his nose had been broken a couple of times. But something about the way those features had been assembled on him just worked. He looked tough, like someone who could handle himself—probably because he could—and the combination of rugged good looks and a hard body was pretty irresistible.
I felt a pang of regret that I’d wasted the time I’d had with him. Instead of just enjoying myself and having fun, which was what I should have done at eighteen, I’d been clingy and needy. Part of me wished I’d met him a few years later. Then we would have set the world alight.
But it was too late for all of that.
‘Just drop me off and go back to the blonde.’
‘You don’t need to be jealous. She’s a colleague.’
‘I’m not jealous.’ But I was, and I hated that. I hated the fact that he made me feel that way after all this time. ‘Fuck you, Hunter.’
And I had, of course. If there was one thing we’d been good at, it was sex.
His knuckles were white on the wheel.
His head turned briefly and his gaze met mine again.
It was like the collision of two tectonic plates. I felt the tremor right through me from the top of my scalp to the soles of my feet and for a moment I was back there in the madness of it, my mind twisted by the ferocious sexual chemistry that only happened when we were together.
With a soft curse, he dragged his gaze from mine and shifted gears in a savage movement that made me flinch. ‘You saw those guys looking at you and yet you just walked out and let them follow you.’
‘I’m not responsible for their bad behaviour. A woman should be free to walk where she likes without fear of being accosted by losers.’
‘You put yourself in a position where those losers could have hurt you.’
‘So you’re saying it’s my fault they behaved badly?’
He clenched his jaw. ‘No, I’m not saying that.’
I kept my hands clasped in my lap because the craving to touch him was scarily strong. ‘I didn’t know they were behind me. I wasn’t paying attention. I was upset.’
‘Because that guy told you to learn to bake cakes?’
No, because I’d seen him. All I’d wanted to do was run.
I was a coward. I prided myself on being gutsy and strong and I’d fled like a rabbit being chased by a fox.
‘I didn’t see any point in prolonging the evening. I’ve had a long week.’
‘Did you run because of me?’
‘Oh, please.…’ Now I was doing a Brian, leaving my sentences unfinished, but in my case it was because I didn’t want to tell the truth and I was a hopeless liar.
Hunter didn’t bother inserting the words I hadn’t spoken. He didn’t have to. He already knew the answer to that one. He’d always been able to read me. We probably could have had an entire conversation without opening our mouths.
Keeping his eyes fixed on the road, he drove past the Houses of Parliament up to Buckingham Palace and then drove through Hyde Park, headlights bouncing off trees and sending a shimmer of light across the Serpentine pond. I didn’t own a car. For a start, I didn’t have the money to run one, but in London there was no point. Why spend the whole day sitting in traffic?
Hunter reached into a pocket in the car and handed me a dressing pad. ‘Your head is bleeding.’
‘It’s nothing.’ A bit of blood was the least of my worries. I had bigger concerns, like the fact my heart was hammering. It didn’t feel normal to me. ‘I had the situation under control. You didn’t need to help out.’ I took the pad, ripped it open and pushed it against my forehead, wondering what else he carried in this car. I hoped he had a defibrillator, because I was pretty sure I was going to need one.
‘If I hadn’t arrived when I did, you’d be a crime statistic.’
‘I was doing just fine.’
‘Your balance was wrong. You need to watch the way you drive your leg. You’re straightening too soon and losing power. You need a ninety-degree angle. You need to bend more. And turn your hips.’
I was trying not to think about my hips. I was trying not to think about any part of my body, especially not the parts that were near my pelvis. I was worried I was about to catch fire.
For a moment I wondered if I was the only one feeling this way and then I saw his knuckles, white on the wheel, and realized he was struggling, too.
‘Why did you follow me?’
‘Because I knew you were upset. I wasn’t going to leave you alone in that situation.’
‘Why? You left me without a backward glance five years ago, so it’s a little late to develop a protective streak.’ I thought it was hypocritical of him to pretend he cared about my well-being when he’d once left me in a million pieces bleeding. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but that’s how it felt.
His shoulders tensed and I realised that, far from seeming indifferent, I’d just revealed a wound the size of a continent.
The first thing our mother taught us was never to show a man you’re broken-hearted. I’d virtually dropped the pieces of mine in his lap.
‘What I mean is, I’ve learned to look after myself.’ I realized we were in Notting Hill and felt unnerved. ‘How do you know where I live?’
‘There are some things we need to talk about, but first I want to check that head of yours.’
I wanted to check my head, too. What had possessed me to climb into a car with Hunter Black? Obviously I had a concussion. I needed a health check, or at the very least a reality check.
‘We don’t have anything to talk about, but I do want to know how you have my address.’
He didn’t answer me. Instead he took a right and then a left into the leafy, tree-lined street where I lived with my sister.
Our apartment was on the top floor of a lovely brick building, with views over the rooftops toward Kensington Gardens. If you stood on tiptoe and stuck your head out of our bathroom window, you could see Prince Harry (only kidding, sadly). We were right in the middle of shops, restaurants and the market. I loved it. Of course, since Hayley and Nico got together—you probably felt the ground shake—I’d had it to myself quite a bit. I didn’t mind that. It meant I could practise in the living room without accidently kicking her or getting yelled at when I knocked a lamp off the table. Normally coming home soothed me. Tonight I was officially freaked out.
‘Good night, Hunter. Thanks for the lift.’
‘Is Hayley home?’
‘How do I know? And why do you care?’
‘You had a blow to the head. I’m not leaving you alone.’
‘I want you to leave me alone.’ I was fumbling with my seat belt, fingers slippery and shaky with nerves. Turned out I couldn’t even do that without help and I felt the warm strength of his hand as it covered mine.
His fingers were warm, strong and totally steady and it irritated me that he had so much control when I had none.
He leaned forward and his jaw, dark with stubble, was only inches from my eyes. I looked at the sensual curve of his lips and the urge to press my mouth against his was almost painful.
And then he looked at me and I knew he was fighting the same urge.
For a moment we sat there, the moment of intimacy disturbed by the flash of headlights from a passing car.
Mouth tight, he unclipped my seat belt. ‘You’re bleeding. I should have taken you to the E.R.’
‘It’s nothing.’ I was struggling to focus, but it had nothing to do with the blow to my head. There was something about being close to Hunter Black that made the most level-headed of women dizzy. ‘I’ll be fine. Good night. Great to catch up with you again after all this time. Have a nice life.’
I never was any good at delivering sarcasm, a fact confirmed by his smile. It was a slow, sexy, slightly exasperated smile that acknowledged everything that lay between us. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. I preferred to step over it with my eyes shut.
Desperate to get away from that smile, those shoulders, the man, I virtually scrambled out of his car and sprinted to the door.
‘Stairs or elevator?’ He was right behind me and I gritted my teeth. When I was eighteen, he’d left me at acceleration speeds that would have left his car standing, but now I couldn’t shake him off.
‘You’ve spent too long in Hollywood. We say lift. And you can go now.’
‘Not before I’ve seen you safely home.’
‘I’m home.’ I didn’t feel up to the stairs—not that I would have admitted that in a million years—so I stepped into the tiny lift but the moment he stepped in after me I realized my mistake. We were on the second floor. To be honest, it was crazy that we even had a lift in this building. The space was barely big enough for two people. It certainly wasn’t big enough for two people who were trying to keep their distance. My arm brushed against his and I flattened myself against the doors.
It was only two floors but it felt like going to the top of the Empire State Building. Every one of those floors felt like twenty. Every second felt like an hour. I could feel his gaze on me and it took all my willpower not to look at him.
I was determined not to.
I wasn’t going to.
I turned my head.
My eyes moved to his chest, to the narrow strip of his tie, the silk of his shirt and upward to the dark depths of his eyes. I hated him for walking away so easily, for not finding me impossible to leave—and I hated myself for caring so much—but that didn’t change the fact he was spectacular. His features were intensely masculine, his hair black as the devil, cropped too short to soften those hard features. No one would argue that Hunter’s hotness factor was right up in quadruple figures. And I didn’t need to wonder what it would be like to be kissed by him. I knew. The memory was embedded deep in my brain. I hadn’t been able to delete it.
I told myself it was the bang on my head that was making me feel swimmy. Anything other than admit it was him.
I hated him for making me want him again.
‘It’s good to see you again, Ninja.’ The combination of his tone and the way he was looking at me made me feel as if someone had kicked my legs out from under me.
‘I don’t feel the same way. And don’t call me Ninja.’
It made me think of the day we’d first spoken. I was sixteen and I’d lost a competition to a girl from a rival karate club. I’d been furious with myself, not least because I should have won. I would have, but I hadn’t been concentrating. Instead I’d been glancing around the room to see if my parents were going to show up and embarrass me. They went through a hideous phase where they both showed up to everything, not because they cared but because they were trying to outdo each other in proving who was the better parent. In the end neither of them came. I probably should have been relieved they hadn’t been there to witness my humiliation, but I wasn’t. It just proved what I already knew. Th at neither of them cared.
I sat at the edge of the gym on my own, putting more energy into holding back tears than I’d ever put into beating my opponent, when Hunter squatted down in front of me.
I knew who he was. Who didn’t? All the girls were crazy about Hunter. He was twenty years old, a skilled fighter, the youngest black belt our club had ever had and seriously hot, but he was too focused on training to be interested in a relationship, and anyway, he wouldn’t have noticed me, because I was too young. Right at that moment I would have fast-forwarded time if that had been an option.
‘Are you all right?’
I looked at him. ‘I lost. I made mistakes.’
‘That’s the past. Next time you’ll win, Rosie.’
For some reason the fact that he knew my name made me feel better.
‘It doesn’t matter anyway,’ I muttered. ‘No one will be watching.’
‘I’ll be watching.’ He held out his hand and pulled me to my feet. ‘Now go back out there, forget what’s in the past and start fresh. Watch your balance. Keep your focus and concentration. Mistakes are learning experiences. Move on. Forget everything else in your life. That’s what I do.’
I looked up at him, skinny, angular teenage me, and tried to imagine this broad-shouldered god having anything in his life he needed to forget. ‘You have stuff you need to forget?’
He gave a faint smile and brushed a stray tear away from my face with the pad of his thumb. ‘Everyone does, Ninja.’
I liked the name. It made me feel strong and suddenly I didn’t feel like crying anymore.
He might have said something else but at that moment my sister flew across the room, school bag heavy with books banging against her hip. Her hair had half escaped from her ponytail and her breasts were doing their best to push the buttons of her shirt right out of the holes.
‘Sorry I’m late. I had extra maths tuition and then Mum and Dad were arguing about where we were going to spend Christmas, so I gave up and left them. I ran all the way.’
My parents hadn’t made it but my sister was here.
Hunter smiled at me and let his hand drop. ‘Now you have two people watching you.’
I fell in love with him right there and then. Not because he was hot but because he cared.
There were a hundred other things he could have been doing, girls he could have been smiling at or flirting with, but he’d chosen to spend his time watching gawky, awkward, messed-up sixteen-year-old me in her karate competition.
From that moment on I no longer minded whether my parents turned up or not. I had Hunter. He was the one certain thing in my very uncertain world. He watched every competition; he offered advice; he trained with me. I knew he wasn’t interested in me like that. I was just a kid. But suddenly I wasn’t a kid anymore and on my eighteenth birthday he stopped treating me as one.
Everything changed that night, apart from the fact he still called me Ninja.
It was my nickname and it made me feel warm and special.
Hearing him saying it now was like having a knife twisted in my insides because it reminded me so much of that horrible messed-up time.
I felt the breath moving in and out of my lungs and I was holding myself still so there was no chance I’d accidently brush against him a second time. I could feel the heat in my cheeks and I stared at the wall even though I could feel him watching, cool and calm.
I stumbled out of the lift in my haste to get away from him, took the few stairs that led to our attic flat and had my keys in my hand when the door opened.
Hayley stood there. She was wearing skin-tight jeans and a top that emphasized the fact she’d inherited the breast DNA. The fact that her hair was loose and messy told me that Nico had been round. ‘How was boring Brian?’ Her voice trailed off as she saw my forehead. ‘Oh my God, what happened? Only you can come back from a dinner date with a black eye.’
‘It’s not a black eye.’
‘Did it happen at work? You need another job. Or at least a different hobby. I recommend astronomy.’ And then she saw Hunter. She couldn’t have looked more surprised if Mars had bashed into Pluto. Her eyes went wide and then flew to mine.
I couldn’t exactly blame her for looking confused.
For the past five years I’d refused to talk about Hunter. He was a subject we avoided. And suddenly here he was, dominating our doorstep.
I could tell she didn’t have a clue what she was supposed to say.
She just didn’t get it and I didn’t blame her.
She sent me a look that said ‘WTF.’
I sent her a silent transmission. Play it cool.
‘I’m hallucinating,’ she muttered. ‘For a moment I thought I saw a rat on my doorstep.’
‘Hayley.’ Unmoved by the less than effusive welcome, Hunter placed his hand on my lower back and urged me into the apartment.
‘She needs to sit down.’
I heard my sister mutter, ‘She’s not the only one,’ and suddenly felt a flood of relief that she was here and I was no longer on my own with this. I’d heard people say how much they loved being an only child, how great it was to have all that attention. I’d never understood that. I couldn’t imagine what my life would look like if it didn’t have my sister in it. I was pretty sure it would be awful. I’d probably pretend it was great, because that’s what people did, wasn’t it? There were some things you were stuck with and some things you’d never admit to not liking.
Being stuck with my sister was the best thing that had ever happened to me (apart from the fact she ended up with the whole breast gene. I found that hard to forgive).
‘What are you doing here, Hunter?’ Hayley sounded so fierce I jumped, but Hunter didn’t react.
‘Bringing Rosie home. I need ice and dressing pads for her head.’
‘I can sort out my own head.’ Actually I couldn’t. If I could have sorted out my own head, I would have done it long ago and I wouldn’t have been so screwed up about him. When it came to Hunter, my brain was as tangled as the cord of my headphones.
‘What happened to her head?’ Hayley sounded furious. ‘If you’ve hurt her again, Hunter Black, I swear I will donate your body to medical science.’
‘That happens when you’re dead. I’m still alive.’
My sister sent him a dark look. ‘I could fix that.’ She had her arm round me and was drawing me toward the sofa. ‘Don’t get blood on it. You know I’m a rubbish housekeeper and I’m still dealing with the coffee stain from last month.’ My sister’s idea of dealing with a coffee stain was simply to turn the sofa cushion over.
But I could tell she was worried and she paused for a moment, torn between the need to stop my head bleeding and a reluctance to leave me alone with Hunter.
Hunter didn’t wait to be shown around our apartment. He found the kitchen, grabbed ice packs out of the fridge, wrapped them in a towel and brought them back to where I was sitting.
He was a good person to have around in a crisis. The problem was that in my case he was usually the one causing the crisis.
My sister tapped her foot. ‘You should go now, Hunter.’
‘I’m not leaving until I know she’s all right.’
‘Of course she’s all right,’ my sister snapped. ‘She’s with me. Who do you think looked after her when you walked out? I did. And you didn’t exactly hang around to check on her, did you? So you can stop pretending to be caring. You left her in pieces.’
So much for my dignity. ‘Hayley—’
‘She cried every night for six months! She didn’t eat. She lost weight. So don’t think she’s going to agree to start that whole thing with you up again just because you happen to have shown up in her life again.’
Holy crap. ‘Hayley!’
‘She pretends she’s over you—’
‘I am over him!’
‘—but she hasn’t been serious about a man since.’ My sister was in full flow, raging forward like a river that had burst its banks. ‘She dates men she can never, ever fall in love with, which basically means she has a boring sex life, and no girl of her age deserves a boring sex life, especially when she’s in her sexual prime! Do you know what I bought her for her birthday last year? A vibrator! And batteries are fucking expensive! And it’s your fault.’
Hunter blinked. ‘It’s my fault batteries are expensive?’
‘It’s your fault she gets through so many. You are responsible for that, Hunter Black. You and no one else.’
I was going to kill her. I would have liked to do it slowly but as I was about to die of humiliation, there was no time to waste. I glared at her, hoping she’d take the hint and shut up but it was too late—Hayley was in full protective-sister mode, firing on all cylinders like one of the rockets that fascinated her so much, and Hunter was looking at me with that smouldering, intense gaze that stripped me bare.
He was one of the few people, possibly the only person apart from Hayley, who had ever understood me. There was a time when that had turned me on. Now it was just a great big fat inconvenience. I didn’t want him in my head, poking around in my deepest, darkest secrets. It made me feel vulnerable.
I wasn’t that girl anymore. I’d grown up. Sure, I had a few scars, but who didn’t?
As he’d once said to me, everyone had something.
‘You should leave now,’ I said stiffly. ‘Thanks for the lift.’
He didn’t budge. He stood there, those powerful legs spread, towering over us like a conquering warrior. ‘Before I leave, I need to talk to you. There is something I need to say.’
Hayley pursed her lips. ‘If it’s sorry, then you’re about five years too late.’
I was starting to wish my sister would turn into one of those people who never finished their sentences.
‘There is nothing you need to say, Hunter. You were the one who told me to treat mistakes as learning experiences.’ I closed my eyes because looking at him made my head hurt and my heart hurt. ‘I learned. It’s all fine.’
‘It’s not fine and you should definitely leave.’ Hayley repeated my words like some sort of recording device. ‘We know you’re good at that because you’ve done it before.’
He stood there like Apollo, or maybe it was Zeus—sorry, Greek gods aren’t my thing—his eyes on my face as if he was working something out.
Then his mouth tightened. ‘All right. We’ll do this another time.’
Another time? Over my dead body. This one time had been more than I could handle.
I was fast coming to the conclusion that reunions weren’t for me.
As he strode out of our apartment, I waited for the click of the door and then flopped back on the sofa, on top of the magazine Hayley had been reading and the stuffed llama I’d bought her for Christmas.
Hayley flopped back with me. ‘Holy crap.’
‘Yes.’ The llama was digging in my back and I pulled it out and flung it across the living room. ‘What the hell were you thinking, telling him I was broken-hearted?’
‘I’m sorry! I went into shock when I saw him standing there. My mouth and my brain lost the connection.’
‘I know the feeling. Do we still have that fire blanket in the kitchen? I might need you to throw it over me to put out the flames.’
‘He is hot, that’s for sure.’
‘I was talking about the flames of my embarrassment.’
‘What were you thinking, saying all those things?’
‘I don’t know! I wasn’t expecting to see him. You could have warned me! You should have texted me or something. I had no idea Hunter was even back in London.’
‘Neither did I until an hour ago.’
My sister thought about that. ‘He is smoking hot.’
‘He is not smoking hot.’
‘Yeah, that’s right, he’s the scrawniest, most pathetic specimen of manhood that ever stepped over our threshold. It’s amazing a gust of wind hasn’t blown him over. Are you seriously trying to pretend you don’t still want to rip his clothes off?’
‘If I’d met him for the first time this evening, maybe. But we have history. It’s all too complicated.’
‘Only if you let it be. What did he mean when he said “We’ll do this another time”?’
I pressed the ice pack against my head. ‘Don’t know, because I am never going to see him again.’
‘But if you do?’
‘I’ll ignore him.’
She stuck her feet up on the arm of the sofa. ‘He’s even hotter than he used to be and that’s saying something.’
‘I don’t need to hear that.’
‘And you look great in that dress. He didn’t take his eyes off you. The two of you have insane chemistry.’
‘I don’t need to hear that either.’ Every time I thought about my embarrassing behaviour, I wanted to slide under the sofa—except you never quite knew what you were going to find under our sofa. ‘I feel hot all over.’
My sister stood up. ‘I’ll get you that fire blanket.’
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