Page 11 of The End of Faking It

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‘Come to dinner with me,’ she leant forward to whisper. ‘Be my pretend man.’

Carter’s blood was still burning from the horror of seeing her dance with someone else last night. He wasn’t a hypocrite—he didn’t expect women to have less experience than him, but the thought of her being in bed with another guy had made his stomach acid boil. The foreign jealousy rotted him from the inside out and he badly needed to ditch it. He’d spent all night awake wondering if she’d taken William home. And despite his vow to forget her, when he’d seen her in Reception this afternoon the urge had hit. He’d had to touch and find out—something, anything—like an animal scenting out a threat. So completely caveman and so unlike his usual carefree style.

And now, now the relief in knowing she hadn’t was making him positively giddy, because here he was about to say yes to the most stupid suggestion he’d heard in ages. But he was too intrigued not to. ‘Why did you make him up?’

Her gaze dropped. ‘I wanted everyone back home to think I’m happy.’

Was she not happy? ‘And you have to have a boyfriend to prove that?’

‘No,’ she said quickly. ‘I have a great life—great job, I travel lots. But the man was the icing for them. I know they worry I’m lonely.’

Which she wasn’t, of course. She had thousands of adoring suitors. She could have a man every night of the week if she wanted. But it was interesting that she didn’t want that. It was interesting that she wanted to kiss him.

‘So you want me to be the icing?’ he croaked. Because if that meant she’d use her tongue on him, he was so happy to oblige.

She tossed her head back. ‘It’s what we’re all supposed to want, isn’t it? Someone who cares, who holds you, who’s there for you. Companionship, commitment. Happy ever after. That whole cliché.’

She thought wanting a life partner was a cliché? Hell, where had she been all this time? Because he didn’t want a life partner either. He just wanted some uncomplicated fun. ‘But that’s not what you actually want for yourself?’

He could see the goose bumps on her arms as she recoiled. She really only wanted a lover for a night or two? That was fine by him—although he might have to push for a few nights. ‘So what did you tell them about your man?’

‘I never named him, always kept everything very vague.’

‘How long have you been mentioning him?’

‘Only in the last couple of months. They’ve been putting on the pressure for me to visit home and he was my excuse for saying no. Because we’ve been doing lots of little trips away.’

She didn’t want to visit home? ‘How long since you’ve been back?’

She looked away. ‘A few years. I’ve been travelling a lot.’

But there were thousands of planes crossing the globe daily. She could go to New Zealand for a visit and be back the same day. It was obvious there was more she wasn’t saying. Did he really want to know what it was?

Actually he was a little curious. But clearly she didn’t want to share and he respected her for that. Better than getting a massive ‘emo and drama’ dump as his ex had always done. But even so, he couldn’t let it go completely.

‘I still don’t really see why you had to make up a whole relationship,’ he said. ‘And why you want me with you so badly tonight.’

She froze. Carter’s radar screamed louder. She was totally hiding something. And he was only human. So he waited, making her reply by pure expectation.

‘The truth is I was one of those fat wallflowers as a teen.’ Her head bowed as she mumbled.

Carter gritted his teeth to stop his jaw falling open.

‘Overweight, acne, rubbish clothes.’ She turned away from him. ‘Total pizza face. The worst you can imagine.’

Her self-scathing tone rubbed him raw, making him feel an emotion he couldn’t quite define. And he couldn’t imagine actually. She had the smoothest skin—not a single scar marked her flawless features—and she was so slim—borderline too thin with a tiny waist and tiny wrists and tiny ankles. But she still had some curves that made his blood thicken.

‘I wanted to be a whole new me—fit body, jet-set life, great job, gorgeous guy.’

He sighed and reached out to stop those curves escaping from him altogether. So she wanted to look good with a suitable male accessory. He should not be flattered about being a good enough accessory for her. That should not be pleasing him the sick way it was. But he couldn’t help feeling for her. No wonder she was always so beautifully finished—the taunts of teenage years had obviously gone deep. But didn’t everyone have scars from those turbulent times? He sure as hell did—it was thanks to the women in his life then that he’d put the Teflon coating on his heart.

‘Okay.’ He pulled her close and tried to tease her smile back. ‘What do I get out of it? What are you going to offer me?’

Her lashes lifted and the black pools glittered at him. ‘You want me so much you’d sell yourself like some sort of escort?’

He was glad to hear her vixen tongue again and he leaned forward to reward her, whispering so close his lips brushed her ear. ‘You have to agree that we kiss like nothing else. I’m very interested to see what it’d be like if we did something more.’

‘If you wanted something more then why did you walk out so fast last night?’ she breathed back.

‘Why did you go dance with someone else?’

‘That bothered you?’ She leaned away and watched his face as he answered.

‘I don’t do commitment, Penny,’ he said honestly. ‘But I do do exclusive. And I do respect.’

She drew in a deep breath. ‘Ditto.’

He watched her just as close. No sign of the super-quick double blink that happened when she was doing a Pinocchio. Interesting. ‘All right, then, I’ll come with you tonight, if you agree to stay well away from any other men in the next week.’

‘I guess I can handle that,’ she said casually. But he could feel her pulse racing.

‘You better be sure.’ He grinned as her gaze stayed true.

‘I’m not promising anything else.’

‘We both know that’s not necessary,’ he drawled. ‘It’s already a given.’

‘This isn’t going to get complicated, Carter.’

He really shouldn’t feel that as a challenge. Anyway, he thought things were getting that touch more complicated with every passing second.

CHAPTER FIVE

PENNY hadn’t seen Matt in just over a year. She’d been in Tokyo then, slowly working her way back to the South Pacific after her years in Europe.

He’d changed—made that final step from boy to man. And he’d almost caught her out in her web of lies. She knew why he was here—it was the start of even less subtle pressure. Her parents’ wedding anniversary was coming up soon and they wanted a big celebration—one at home in New Zealand.

She couldn’t possibly attend.

She was hoping to save enough money to fly them to her for a holiday. They could afford it themselves of course, but she wanted it to be a gift from her. She wanted that to be enough because she didn’t want to have to go to them. The memories were brought to life there in that big house with their ancient, abundant orchard. The wall of trees linked their home to the property next door—Dan’s parents’ place.

She tried not to think about it and usually, on a day-to-day level, she succeeded. But Matt arriving out of the blue made everything flash in her head movie-montage style. It was almost seven years ago but sometimes felt as recent as yesterday. The darkness of those last few months at home encroached on her vision. And she remembered the estrangement from her family and friends as she’d got mired in a pit of grief and guilt.

She was out of it now. She was strong, she was happy, she was healthy. But the distance from them was still there—literally, emotionally. She didn’t think the bridge could ever be rebuilt. In truth, she didn’t want it to be.

And in her mind she saw him—as she always did—the day before he’d di

ed. She swiftly blanked the images, focused on pleating the square piece of memo paper she had in front of her. Her fingers neatly folded and creased, working on a displacement activity designed to restore calm.

Because she hadn’t coped with what had happened. It had impacted on the whole family and she’d made it worse. Bereavement had shattered the bonds and only by going away had she been able to recover. She needed them to know she was okay. But she couldn’t front up to them and prove it in person. Not there. She didn’t think she could ever face that place.

Carter couldn’t concentrate on the damn transactions. He kept wondering, wanting to know more. In the end he went upstairs and pulled a chair up next to hers. ‘We need to work on our story. For dinner tonight.’

She looked completely blank. She hadn’t thought this through that far, had she?

He leaned forward and angled for more information. ‘So how did we meet? How long have we been dating?’

She turned towards him, her eyes huge. ‘I don’t know. Can’t you make it up?’

‘You trust me to do that?’

Beneath her eyes were blue, bruised shadows. ‘Sure.’

He stared, on the one hand stupidly gratified, on the other uneasy. What had happened this afternoon to make her look so hurt and exhausted? He glanced at her desk. It was bare, save a folded paper crane—which was unexpected and frankly intriguing.


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