“What the fuck, Hunter? You’re dating Bailey?” Nick said to him when they were standing at the first hole after having teed off. The other three groomsmen had already set off in their golf cart in pursuit of their balls which left him alone with Nick.
“Yeah, so?” Hunter said, grabbing his club and heading back to the cart. “Do you have a problem with it?”
“Yes, I fucking do,” Nick replied, slamming his club into his golf bag and climbing into the cart. “Bailey and I have history and fucking unfinished business.”
Hunter started the cart and depressed the accelerator. “But that’s just it, Nick, it’s history. Bailey’s with me now and you’re fucking getting married. I’d say your business is well and truly finished.” Hunter gripped the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles turned white. If he didn’t, he feared he would grip something else, like Nick’s fucking neck, and squeeze until the stupid shit stopped breathing.
“Are you doing this just to piss me off?” he asked. “With all your money and connections you could have anyone, so why Bailey?” Nick’s voice was like a whiny kid who was told he had to share his favourite Legos.
“Are you really such a narcissistic asshole that you think the entire world revolves around you?” Hunter asked with a shake of his head. “I had no idea that Bailey knew you when we met and we didn’t even make the connection until the subject of the wedding came up.” Hunter took a breath and said with a smile, “She never even mentioned you.”
“But Bailey’s mine,” Nick growled.
“No,” Hunter said, “Bailey may have been yours at some point but you gave up any right to her when you got engaged to Ainsley.”
“You know why I’m marrying Ainsley. I’m doing it for dad, for the business.”
“Nick, you’re fucking thirty years old and this isn’t the dark ages. You don’t need to marry just because it’s good for business and you’re old enough to make your own fucking decisions without waiting for your father’s approval. What, were you hoping that Bailey would just wait around for you and then be content with a weekend here and there with you while you lived the marriage dream up here with Ainsley? Bailey deserves more than that. She deserves the fucking world.” Hunter couldn’t believe what he was hearing coming out of Nick’s mouth. He’d always known that the shithead was spineless and a suck-up, but he hadn’t realised just how much of a selfish prick he was too.
“But Bailey is not the marrying kind,” Nick whined. “I need someone who will support me and my career, who will organise the dinner parties and charm the wives of the men we do business with. Bailey has her own career and she wouldn’t be happy giving it up.”
“You’re right, Bailey would never be happy being your fucking trophy wife and you’d be an absolute fuckwit if you expected her to be. But that doesn’t mean she’s not the marrying kind and if you can’t see what an amazing life partner she could be then you should just leave her the hell alone. She’s with me now anyway and I like that she’s independent and has her own career. You are not fucking JFK and you don’t get to have both Jackie and Marilyn. You made your choice, now stay the fuck away from my girlfriend.”
Hunter stopped the cart next to the other one and got out to find his ball. What he really wanted to do was plough his fist through Nick’s face for being such a fucking douchebag. No, Bailey wasn’t the kind to stand in the background and play the ‘hostess with the mostest’ but Hunter would never ask her to be. She was fucking perfect just the way she was…well except for her illogical attachment to Nick.
Fuck. Damn. Shit.
What the hell did she see in the guy and why was she happy with the way he had treated her? Maybe it was true what they said, women do really prefer assholes.
The one thing he couldn’t deny, though, was how her body responded to him. That wasn’t an act. Her body fucking lit up like a Christmas tree whenever he was near her and she responded to his little touches and kisses involuntarily. And the one night they’d spent together? That was like fucking New Year’s Eve with all the fireworks that were set off between them. Why couldn’t she see that he’d be so much better for her than Nick?
But that was just the thing, wasn’t it? They weren’t really in a relationship, they weren’t really boyfriend and girlfriend and they had only slept together the one time. This was all an act to make Nick jealous and by the end of the weekend, Nick would either come to his senses and drop Ainsley for Bailey or he would convince Bailey that their arrangement was what she wanted and Hunter would be left out in the cold.
Bailey didn’t want Hunter, no matter how much her body seemed to want him. Bailey wanted the fantasy with Nick and there was nothing that he could do to change that. He’d gone into this deception with the intent to win Bailey over, to show her what a mistake she was making with Nick. But he was getting in far too deep and his heart was in danger of forgetting that what they had wasn’t real.
He’d known from the moment he and Bailey had shared those shots of tequila that she was someone he could fall in love with and he’d wanted more than just a one night stand. When she hadn’t called, he’d tossed up the idea of trying to find her, but he had nothing to go on. She hadn’t even given him her name.
Now he had a second chance with her, a second chance to prove that there was something amazing happening between them. Except that she was still hung up on her ex and she was only here with him so that she could make said ex jealous. There was no way he could win with all that baggage still hanging around in her life and he’d be better off just walking away.
Which made sense in theory, but was shot to hell whenever he walked into the same room as her. The need to touch her, to breathe in her floral scent, to feel the warmth of her body next to his…that broke down his defences every single time. He was powerless around her and he fucking loved it. Did that make him some sort of masochist? He didn’t care. It was a sweet and wonderful torture, which he knew he would pay for in the long run, but one which he knew he was unable to walk away from.
Bailey looked over at Ainsley, confused when she pulled into the underground parking garage of Oceans Resort. There wasn’t a bridal boutique anywhere near here.
“What are we doing here?” she asked as Ainsley parked and turned the car off.
“This is where I’m meeting the dressmaker,” she explained. “I didn’t like any of the places here on the coast and I’d heard about this strange woman who had a boutique in Paddington, so I booked her. She’s kind of weird, but I like her work.”
Bailey followed Ainsley out of the car and they met the other bridesmaids at the elevator. They all piled in and Ainsley pressed the button for the penthouse. When the doors opened onto the hallway, Bailey saw two doors. Ainsley headed to the one on the left and Bailey wondered if the one on the right was Hunter’s suite. He hadn’t given her his room number, but the guy was a billionaire so no doubt he would have booked the penthouse.
Ainsley knocked on the door and it was opened by a small mousy looking woman.
“Hello Annette,” Ainsley said politely, “is Madam Hilda ready for us?”
“Yes, Miss Rusch, please come in.”
They all trooped into the suite and Bailey had to grit her teeth to stop her jaw from hitting the floor. Bailey was not poor by any means, but she also couldn’t afford to stay in a place like this. It was gorgeous and had a spectacular view of the Sunshine Coast, the glittering blue ocean stretching out for miles in front of her. All Bailey’s room afforded her was the view of the high rise behind them.
“Please take a seat,” Annette said. “I’ll get Madam Hilda for you.”
They sat on the large sectional sofa and faced the expansive picture windows that displayed the view. Bailey sighed. She could sit here and look at this all day.
A door opened behind them and Bailey turned to see an older woman bustle out of one of the bedrooms. She looked like a gypsy with her brightly coloured handkerchief skirt and off the shoulder blouse. Her hair was tied up in a scarf and large gold hoops hung from her ears.
Ainsley stood and clasped hands with the woman, but the woman’s eyes narrowed in on Bailey. She felt like she was being judged, sized up like a horse at auction.
“Madam Hilda, I’d like you to meet Bailey. She’s filling in for Penny.”
Madam Hilda walked towards her and Bailey stood. The older woman took her hands and Bailey felt a little buzz of static electricity when they touched that zinged through her body. Madam Hilda smiled.
“Yes,” she said in a strange accent that seemed to fit her like a glove, “you’re perfect.” She turned and starting dragging Bailey with her towards the room she just walked out of. “The rest of you stay here. Annette will bring your gowns.”
Madam Hilda pushed Bailey through the door and closed it behind them.
“Now let me get a better look at you,” she said. “Take off your clothes.”
Bailey wasn’t a prude, but she didn’t exactly feel comfortable stripping in front of this strange old woman. She took her time removing her shoes and belt and then lowering the zipper of her dress. She’d known they were having a dress fitting so she’d worn decent underwear, thank god, but she hadn’t realised she would be doing the full Monty with an audience.
“Don’t be shy,” Madam Hilda said to her without turning around. “I’ve seen it all before and I need to look at you to make sure the dress is right.”
Bailey slipped off her shift and laid it on the bed. Madam Hilda took her hand and pulled her to the centre of the room and then did a slow circuit around her, looking her up and down.
“Yes,” she said again. “Perfect. Okay, you try on dress now.”
Madam Hilda walked over to the large walk-in robe and disappeared inside, reappearing a moment later with a beautiful chiffon dress. Yes, it was pink as Ainsley had warned, but it was more a blush than really pink.
Madam Hilda helped her step into the dress and pulled it up. She slipped her arms through the thin straps and then the other woman zipped up the side. The dress had a v-neck, with spaghetti straps and was cinched under the bust with a chiffon sash. It was also backless, with a deep swag of chiffon that hung from the shoulders. The dress was floor length and the colour just on the pink side of nude. It was gorgeous and Bailey was surprised at Ainsley elegant taste. She’d imagined something hideous chosen to make sure the bridesmaids didn’t out shine the bride.
Madam Hilda fussed with the dress, checking the fit and length, adjusting the fall of the fabric here and there, but she needn’t have bothered. The dress fit perfectly, like it was made for her.
“Wonderful,” Madam Hilda murmured then she looked up into Bailey’s eyes. “He is going to fall in love with you in this dress.”
But Madam Hilda just smiled. “Come, let us see how the others are getting on.”
Bailey picked up her skirts and followed Madam Hilda back into the lounge room where the other bridesmaids waited wearing the same dress that she was. Ainsley looked fit to be tied.
“These are not the dresses I ordered,” she grouched.
“No,” Madam Hilda said, “but these are the dresses you’re getting.”
“That’s not how this works,” Ainsley said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m the bride, I get to decide what my bridesmaids wear.”
“That may be how it usually works,” Madam Hilda said calmly, “but when you walked into my shop and demanded I make dresses for you, you agreed to my stipulations.”
The corner of Ainsley’s mouth turned up in a sneer, but Madam Hilda wasn’t bothered by it.
“You signed the contract,” the older woman went on. “Shall I have Annette read you the clause you agreed to?”
Annette started to read without waiting for Ainsley’s reply. “Madam Hilda reserves the right to change the design of the dress as she sees fit in the event of, but not limited to, the client’s bad taste, lack of foresight or abominable fashion sense.”
“You signed the contract and agreed to my terms.”
Ainsley’s pretty face screwed up into something resembling a toddler on the brink of a total meltdown.
“The dresses do look really nice,” Bridesmaid One chimed in with a soothing tone.
“They really do,” Bridesmaid Two added. “Much better than Felicia’s bridesmaids.”
Ainsley turned to her bridesmaids and looked them over critically.
“Yes,” she said in a thoughtful tone, “they do look better than the ones Felicia made her bridesmaids wear.”
“And they will look amazing in the photographs,” Bridesmaid Three added. “So elegant and sophisticated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave you a two page spread in ‘Weekend Brides.’”
Ainsley continued to circle the four of them with a critical eye. “Hmmm.”
“And my hair doesn’t clash,” Bailey said helpfully, “so that’s a bonus.”
Ainsley spared her a withering look before turning back to Madam Hilda. “Okay,” she said, “I approve. Now where is my dress?”
The next couple of hours were spent in the suite with Madam Hilda, as Ainsley tried on her dress (which was exactly what she ordered and a little on the over-the-top side for Bailey) and Madam Hilda made adjustments. Bailey’s dress was the only one that didn’t need to be altered which was a little perplexing since she had been the last minute addition and nobody had measured her for the dress in the first place.
Once both Ainsley and Madam Hilda were happy with the fit, they went on to choose shoes and accessories, right down to the underwear they would wear. Madam Hilda provided it all. By the end of the ordeal, Bailey was exhausted. She liked trying on new clothes and shoes as much as the next person, but Ainsley had made it an Olympic sport.
Finally, she was ushered back into the bedroom to undress and as Madam Hilda helped her out of her gown, she noticed the other woman’s eyes on her, like she was deciding whether to say something or not.
“What is it?” Bailey asked nervously.
Madam Hilda smiled and shrugged. “It’s right under your nose, you know,” she said cryptically.
“What is?” Bailey asked.
“Everything you want. It’s right there just waiting for you to see it.”
“I don’t understand,” Bailey said, feeling a little creeped out.
“But he’s not going to wait for you forever,” she said before she left the room leaving Bailey to chew over what she said.
The woman was strange, but what she said resonated with Bailey. Was the woman talking about Hunter? Could he be everything that she was looking for? But how could she know? How could she even perceive the mess and confusion that was in Bailey’s head. For the last five years, Nick had been the only one she’d wanted. Whenever she’d imagined her future, it had always been beside Nick. Now that future looked different. She still loved Nick, but she wasn’t prepared to only have part of him. If she couldn’t have all of him, then she wasn’t sure she wanted him at all.
And what about Hunter? The man had bulldozed into her life and had her so discombobulated that she didn’t know which side was up. And he made her body sing. Sex with Nick had always been good but it paled in comparison to the night she’d spent with Hunter. At the time, she’d put it down to it being new and different, but now she was starting to wonder if it was more than that. Whenever he was in the same airspace as her, her body responded carnally and without conscious thought. Her body craved Hunter even as her mind battled with her heart over Nick.
In her brain, she knew that what Nick offered her set women back hundreds of years and as a card-carrying feminist she was appalled that she even considered becoming Nick’s mistress, but her heart couldn’t, wouldn’t, give him up. Not without a fight, anyway.
So, with her body wanting Hunter, her mind telling her Nick needed to choose one or the other and her heart telling her that it had always been Nick and would always be Nick, Bailey was a mess of confusion.
She was in a daze as they said goodbye to Madam Hilda and stepped out into the hall. Bailey begged off from the early afternoon cocktails that the other women had organised and instead said she would just head to her room for a nap, seeing as though her room was only a couple of floors down. The other woman waved her off and stepped into the elevator as Hunter stepped out and her knees turned to jelly at the sight of him.
“Bailey,” he said, his voice concerned, “were you looking for me?”
She shook her head, biting her lip. “No, ah, I…I mean we were just in there,” she said indicating the other door, “for the dress fitting.”
“Oh,” he said, stopping in front of her, fidgeting with his hands.
“You’re back early,” she said, looking up at him. “Surely you can’t have finished eighteen holes already.”
He grinned. “No,” he said, “but I reached my asshole limit.”
She smiled and shook her head.
“Do you want to come in,” he asked, “for a drink?”
She looked down at the ground and then peeked up at him, she wanted to but didn’t know if she should. This morning he had been so cold towards her and then at brunch he had been affectionate. Now he was being friendly, and she really didn’t know how to take him.
He stepped closer to her and tucked a curl behind her ear. “I promise not to bite,” he whispered. “Not unless you ask me to.”
She searched his eyes and decided she wanted to spend some more time with him, time without expectations or interruptions or the need to pretend that they were more than they were. She wanted to get to know him, really get to know him, hear his story, figure out what made Hunter the man he was.
“Okay,” she said.
He smiled and pulled the keycard out to unlock the door. Bailey followed him into the suite and took in the plush surroundings. It was just as fabulous as Madam Hilda’s suite except that Hunter’s view was the opposite direction. Madam Hilda’s windows faced north, Hunter’s south, but both were equally lovely.
Hunter stood at the kitchen bench. “What can I get you?” he asked. “I have a fine selection of mini bar favourites.”
“Actually,” she said, “I’d quite like a beer.”
He quirked his eyebrow in that way he had and her stomach flipped. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink beer,” he replied. “In fact, I would have placed a quite significant wager on the fact that you didn’t drink the stuff.”
She chuckled. “You hardly know me, Irish,” she said. “We haven’t even been on a date.”
“An oversight I intend to remedy. But for now, I have Corona or Hahn Light?”
“Corona,” she replied as she flopped onto the couch and looked out over the ocean.
He joined her a minute later, sitting close, but not touching. He handed her the Corona and put his bare feet up on the coffee table in front of them before he sipped his beer.
“This is the only thing I miss living in Melbourne,” she said to him.
“Oh?” he said and then he nodded. “That’s right, you grew up here.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I don’t miss the humidity or the small town atmosphere, but I do miss the view.”
“No plans to move back here then?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I considered it, but being back here, it reminds me of all the reasons I left.”
“It’s a beautiful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to do business here,” Hunter said.
“Where did you grow up?” she asked, looking over at him. He stared straight ahead, out the window into the late afternoon sunshine.
“Carlton,” he replied. “I still live there.”
“Oh?” she asked. “In the same house?”
He nodded. “I bought it off my mum when she decided she needed a sea change. It’s an old house, but I’ve done some extensive renovations on it.”
“So why the hotel room in the city?” she asked.
“They were working on the bathrooms and the water was turned off,” he replied, looking over at her. “I was only going to be in town for a couple of nights, so I figured a hotel room would be easy enough. Besides, I know the owner and he always gives me a good deal.”
“You know the owner of The Mayfield?” she asked, surprised. He nodded and she shook her head. “Of course you do,” she said, “you’re a freaking billionaire.”
He huffed out a laugh. “I’ve known Declan since uni. We’re good friends and I like his hotels. I’m glad I stayed there that night.”
His eyes heated as he stared at her.
She blinked up at him, warmth and a low level buzz swirling inside her.
“Me too,” she whispered.
He leaned towards her, just a fraction, and then seemed to catch himself. He gritted his teeth, the muscle in his jaw jumping and he sat back, turning away from her and swigging from his bottle.
She cleared her throat, not quite sure what was going on with him. With them.
“So, do you travel a lot?” she asked. “I know you have an office in Canberra.”
He nodded sharply. “Yeah, I split my time between the two offices. Madeline and a couple of other key staff members travel with me. I find it more efficient if we all travel together.”
“Canberra’s pretty,” she said, “but I don’t think I could live there.”
“No,” he said, “I have an apartment there, but it’s more just a place to sleep. My house in Carlton is home, not that I’m there very often.”
“So, are you a pilot?” she asked, loving the chance to get to know him a bit better, to ask the questions that had plagued her. “Is that how you got into the whole airline thing?”
“My dad was,” he said. “He started the company with a single plane and he would fly charters. I got my pilot’s license when I was old enough and we’d fly together, but I didn’t love it like he did. The business side of it was where my passion was. I started making changes to the business and before we knew it, we had several planes and pilots and were making enough money that dad didn’t have to fly anymore.”
“Do you still fly?” she asked.
“Occasionally,” he said with a sad smile, “to keep my certification current mainly, but also as a way to stay close to my dad.”
“What happened to him?” she asked softly, her hand snaking out to curl around his as it lay on the couch between them.
“Cancer,” he replied. “He was a smoker, tried to give it up, but just couldn’t shake the habit. It was a hard time for my mum, watching him die that way.” He turned his hand over in hers so they were palm to palm and wove his fingers through hers, squeezing gently.
“How long ago was that?” she asked.
“Five years,” he replied. “Mum moved to the Sunny Coast eighteen months later and met Patrick in the first six months. They’ve been married nearly three years now.”
“She seems happy,” Bailey said, tracing a pattern on the back of his hand with her other hand.
He smiled. “She is. For all Patrick’s faults, he loves my mother and he takes care of her.” He shifted so his body was angled towards hers. “What about you?” he asked. “How did you find yourself living and working in Melbourne?”
She sighed. “Well, I grew up here. My parents still live here in fact. Middle class, average upbringing, which I kind of hated.” She smiled. “I wanted more. I loved the city and as soon as I graduated high school I applied for universities in all the major cities. Finally got accepted at Monash, so I packed up my life and left the Sunny Coast behind in my dust. I haven’t looked back since.”
“You don’t miss your family?” he asked.
“I keep in fairly regular touch with my sister,” she replied, “but my parents and I have what you would call a…tenuous relationship.”
“They didn’t like you moving to Melbourne?” he guessed.
Bailey shook her head. “They didn’t understand why I had to leave. My mum and dad are very bland, if that makes sense. They like to keep the status quo, not rock the boat. They’re the kind of parents that don’t encourage their kids to dream too big or reach too far just in case they fail.”
“Wow,” he said shaking his head. “I think I would have gone insane if my parents hadn’t encouraged me and given me opportunities to spread my wings.”
“Yeah, so that’s why I had to leave. I don’t even get points for making a success of my life either,” she said, feeling the old anger. “It’s like they’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop and for my world to fall apart just so they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
He lifted a hand to her hair and picked up a tendril, letting it slide through his fingers.
“I’m glad they didn’t break your spirit, Blue,” he said, his voice low and husky. “It would’ve been such a shame for you to lose that sparkle in your eye.”
God, what could she say to that? They had only just started to get to know one another, but already Hunter got her. He understood her more than anyone else ever had. She gazed up at him, wanting…something. They had such a tangible connection and if it wasn’t for Nick, then she could see herself giving in to his overwhelming presence.
He stood suddenly and the moment was gone.
“Should we order room service?” he asked.