Harlequin Blaze | Share
by Nina Marlowe
Sharp-tongued ghostwriter Claudia Nyman is getting serious. At least, that’s the plan until she’s hired by drop-dead gorgeous Daniel Cunningham, founder of grassroots travel company Atlas Adventure. Daniel may be a gentleman in the eyes of his employees, but his resolve seems to head directly to the nearest exit whenever he’s around Claudia.
Claudia vows to end their clandestine office relationship after a sizzling business trip to Buenos Aires, but Daniel isn’t prepared to give up that easily. Claudia is smart, talented and their chemistry is electrifying—so why is she always hiding in the shadows?
"I bet you anything your new boss is hot. Like, Outback Stallion hot. God, you’re so lucky!"
Claudia Nyman, balancing her phone on one shoulder and rifling through a small but scrupulously organised wardrobe, snickered at the predictability of her best friend’s comment.
"They’re never hot," she assured Kim, yanking out a soft black blazer and camisole. "And I didn’t interview for the position, so I haven’t even spoken to him yet. Only his assistant. Jack hooked me up."
"Is that Hunky Jack?"
Claudia rolled her eyes. "A pulse and a penis," was Kim’s motto, although it was never totally clear whether she was joking or not. "No, I think it was Dreamy Jack."
A pause. "I don’t remember a Dreamy Jack."
Claudia was impressed. "You actually remember these names? I was just kidding, it was Hunky Jack. Anyway, Jack did some design for this Atlas Adventure guy, who said he needed a writer, so Jack recommended me."
"Jack can recommend me any day – God, I’m even boring myself. Tell me more about the job. Are you nervous?"
"Weirdly, yeah," Claudia admitted, slipping on the camisole distractedly while negotiating the telephone handset. "I mean, it’s my last gig before the move. I think I’m kind of freaked out."
"Don’t remind me," moaned Kim. "I can’t believe you’re moving three hundred kilometres away. You’re a terrible friend, you know that?"
"Plus I haven’t worked in an actual brick and mortar office for years. And I bet everyone wears little vests with pockets all over them and pants made out of plastic."
Kim cackled with delight. "You’ll fit right in," she said, her tone gleefully unconvincing. "Look, don’t worry about it. You’re not there to scale cliff faces, you’re a writer. And maybe you’ll learn to like plastic pants!" She paused."I bet there’s at least one babe working there."
"Maybe," said Claudia, idling in front of the mirror and debating the likelihood of a forest-green silk skirt providing adequate office camouflage. It seemed unlikely. Most freelancers she knew worked in jeans, but Claudia couldn’t bring herself to do it. She enjoyed clothing, and while she knew it made her something of an anomaly, she just felt more comfortable in romantic blouses, vintage scarves and full skirts in beautiful fabrics.
"You need to broaden your hunk horizons. You haven’t been with anyone since Mitch."
"I slept with Evan a few times. Remember? That was fun! I like Evan."
"Evan was just an Mitch in Evan clothing! You need to try sleeping with someone who’s not skinny, nine foot tall and, like, a turn-of-the-century dandy."
Claudia started laughing. Kim’s words had a ring of truth: her predilection for a nice suit had led her to date an impressive string of foppish oddballs in the recent past. None of them had proved long term deals, but at least she had learned a lot about hydroponic gardening, bicycle maintenance and Proust.
"Maybe I have a type."
"Nah," Kim dismissed this idea immediately. "That’s not your type,"
"Well, what’s my type?"
"I’ll know it when I see it," her friend announced obtusely. "Anyway, I think it’s fine to be nervous. It’s not every day you start a new job."
"Well, it sort of is," Claudia countered, "that’s sort of what the whole freelancer thing is about." She glanced down at her watch."Look, I gotta roll. I’ll talk to you later."
Rapidly grooming her hair into a swingy ponytail and grabbing her favourite bag – a silver-white leather satchel that cost more than the rest of her wardrobe put together -she eyed herself in the mirror one last time. She doubted it was what they usually wore at Atlas Adventure, but it would have to do. Kim was right: she hadn’t been hired to be a white-water rafting, base-jumping outdoor guru. She was a ghostwriter; it hardly mattered if they didn’t like what they saw.
"Excuse me, are you Claudia Nyman ?"
As expected, she hadn’t exactly nailed the aesthetic, mused Claudia as she gazed around the Atlas Adventure foyer. Though not in the way she’d expected. The young woman who had just come down to greet her wore black drainpipe jeans and a paisley bandanna knotted around her short hair, which had been bleached and dyed a pale blue. The hair matched her feline eyes – made more feline by lashings of expertly-applied liquid eyeliner – almost perfectly. Claudia wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or intimidated.
"I’m Marina. I’m the one who’s been emailing you ten times a day. Sorry about that." She broke into a crooked, mischievous smile. "Come with me. Dan should be along in a few minutes. He told me to take you up to his office so he can meet you."
Claudia followed behind. The office was breezy and spacious, large windows providing views over the city. She approved of that. She’d never spent too much time in any one office, but she’d seen some crushingly oppressive ones in her time. This was much nicer.
"So you’re a ghostwriter?" said Marina chattily. "That’s so cool. I never realised ghostwriting was a real thing until Daniel told me. What I want to know is, how do you become a ghostwriter? Dan said I’d have to ask you because he didn’t know. I mean, do you do a course or something?"
Claudia launched into a well-rehearsed synopsis of her career path. "No, not really. I majored in English and Political Science at university, but that’s not essential. When I was studying I got a part-time job working for a local politician – I helped him out with letters to his constituents. He recommended me to some of his friends, and it sort of snowballed from there."
Suddenly halting at the end of the corridor, Marina pushed open a door and marched into a large office without knocking. "Take a seat," she advised. "Dan won’t be long now. So have you ever done any jobs that were really, like, insane?"
Claudia started laughing. "Well, not insane," she said, "but I’ve turned down some weird work before. One time I refused a job with a men’s magazine. They wanted me to write a monthly column about dirty tactics for seducing women. From a man’s point of view."
Marina was looking at her in delighted fascination when a tall, muscular red-haired man wearing cargo pants and an actual camouflage-print shirt strode confidently into the office. Claudia smiled inwardly, rising from her seat. "Mr Cunningham?" she asked, extending a hand.
Marina snorted with impolite laughter. The man looked at Claudia with interest. "Err, no, sorry,"he said, taking her hand regardless. "Afraid I’m just a pleb. Victor. Pleased to meet you. Are you our new writer?"
"I am. Claudia Nyman," she said. "Nice to meet you too."
"Victor’s in product development," said Marina brightly. "He’s always off inventing some new type of plastic, aren’t you, Victor?"
Victor flashed a quick smile at both women, the light catching a tiny silver stud in his ear. "Well, not entirely, Marina. I mostly work on making sure the plastics we use are high-quality, multi-functional and sustainable. Or not plastic at all, ideally."
"Oh, come on now! Where would you be without plastic?" sang Marina, unperturbed.
Victor laughed deeply. "I’m not going to answer that question," he said, but grinned appreciatively at the small girl all the same, an unspoken joke flashing between the two.
"Hey, boss! Victor is being petulant," called Marina, standing on tiptoes and looking over Victor’s shoulder toward the doorway. Claudia turned around and her stomach immediately flipped.
At odds with his employees, the man that entered the room was wearing a suit. A very well-made and mostly likely expensive suit, according to Claudia’s well-trained eye, a perfectly-pressed white shirt and a deep blue tie with a discreet stripe. His hair was somewhat less perfect: tousled, blackish-brown waves that were marginally longer than decorum would recommend.
He was criminally gorgeous.
Daniel Cunningham was easily the sexiest man who’d ever employed her. She wasn’t looking forward to telling Kim she’d been right.
"Claudia," he said, and her pulse leapt into her throat when he said her name. "Pleased to meet you."
He extended a hand, and she willed herself to maintain a sturdy handshake as she dazedly tried to place his accent. She had read on the company website that he was English, but there was a faint lilt that she didn’t recognise in his voice. Irish? Scottish?
"Delighted to meet you," managed Claudia, her mouth dry. She forced herself to hold his look, only to discover him studying her face intently.
"Delighted?" hooted Victor. "Didn’t I only get a ‘nice to meet you’? Oh, to be the CEO…"
A smile flickered onto Daniel’s face. "Victor, go back to your desk. Marina was right. You are being petulant."
Victor winked at Marina and swaggered out of the room, stopping by Daniel on his way out. "I just came up to let you know the legal eagles are done with the Breathemax stuff for now. I’ve got the papers whenever you want to see them."
Daniel nodded at Victor and shut the door behind him.
"He’s not being creepy by shutting the door," announced Marina helpfully, "but he has to do this if he wants to have a decent conversation with you. Otherwise people will just barge in and start talking. Like Victor. And honest to God, once Victor gets started, he never shuts up."
"Thank you, Marina," said Daniel, looking amused. "Would you both care to take a seat? He gestured Claudia to a seat in front of his desk, while Marina slouched off into an armchair near the doorway and curled up with a cell phone.
"Right. I’m told you’ve been writing professionally for a number of years."
She nodded, relaxing slightly. This was familiar territory. "That’s right. Nine years."
"What kind of writing?"
"A variety. I started out as a correspondence officer for a politician, but lately I’ve been a technical writer for a number of journals in addition to some casual work for web-based media. These comprise the bulk of my work," she recited, adding, "But I’ve done some more left-field assignments too."
"The odd long-form piece. And I’ve ghostwritten several novels for young adult fiction authors. Unfair parents, zombies, sleepovers, that sort of thing," she said, smiling to herself at the thought. She’d enjoyed those assignments, although she guessed that too many Super Mysteries and pizza parties might eventually take their toll on her sanity.
He laughed: a deep, luxurious laugh, resonating warmly through her chest and settling eventually between her legs. This was going well. He almost seemed to like her.
"Jack recommended you extremely highly, but he failed to mention you were so versatile," he said. "I’m sure we can find all sorts of uses for your talents."
Oh, no. The man had no business to be saying things like like that to her. Claudia felt a blush creep across her collarbone, and prayed he didn’t notice. She hadn’t realised it had been such a long time since she’d been exposed to an attractive man. Her body was behaving like it had never seen one before.
"I’d like to think so," she said.
"Have you seen our website, Claudia?" he asked.
"Of course." Preparation was 90% of the job.
He nodded approvingly. "Basically, PR are particularly emphatic that we should set up a blog. None of our competitors have one worth mentioning at this stage, and it would provide a reason for the high-volume Atlas customer to continue returning to our website. We’re still very much in the grassroots stage of the company, and the high-volume purchaser likes to feel that they have a stake in the company. They tend to be extremely invested in the product development, the company ethos, even, uh -" he paused, "the staff."
"So is this where I come in? Providing content?"
"Well, yes, more or less. I should probably mention here that they are also very insistent that it should be written in, uh, the voices of the Atlas team members. In particular, mine. An appeal-to-authority sort of thing." Daniel looked slightly embarrassed.
That made sense. He could probably convince her to buy a six-man tent with two metres of awning and a moisture-wicking groundsheet right now if he felt like it. She wondered why the PR team hadn’t insisted on putting a photo of him up on the website already.
"You don’t seem taken with the idea," she said.
"To be honest with you, I’m not," he said. "I mean, the blog makes perfect sense. It’s just that I feel slightly like a fraud for getting someone else to do the dirty work."
I don’t mind doing your dirty work. Oh, hell. It was as if Kim had taken up permanent residence in her brain.
"But as the PR team kindly reminded me, I lack both the talent and schedule to make that happen.So they told me to get a ghostwriter, and I hate to say that PR are always right," he sighed. "If I have one talent, it’s hiring people who are very good at their job. It’ll be the end of me."
Somehow she doubted that was Daniel Cunningham’s only talent. The man had rustled up an adventure travel company from scratch at the age of 26; he probably had more than one ace up his sleeve.
"So basically, I need you to pretend to be me." Claudia glanced at him. "I’m sorry," he added as an afterthought.
Claudia grinned. "Are you that bad?"
"I’m pretty bad," he said, his voice full of warning.
Claudia raised an eyebrow and he held her gaze, his mouth twitching. She could have sworn that heat was rising between them. Was Daniel Cunningham flirting with her? Was that even appropriate? At that moment she didn’t give a damn, although her eyes instinctively darted towards Marina who was curled up in an armchair, oblivious.
Daniel noticed the flick of her eyes towards the younger woman, and immediately the moment shattered as his features slid from amusement into a terse, professional mask.
"I think that’s all for now. If you don’t mind, I’m going to leave you in Marina’s very capable hands," he said, his assistant finally looking up from the chair where she had been texting frantically and throwing the two of them a glowing smile.
"I’ve arranged for you to meet with PR this afternoon to come up with a game plan, but in the meanwhile Marina will show you the ropes."
Any warmth in his tone had totally vanished. Claudia blinked, confused. Had she imagined that spark between them? Had she been flirting with him? A fresh flush of humiliation washed through her.
"Onward and upward!" said Marina, springing to her feet.
Claudia had flicked through more than her share of pulp romance novels where a wilted flower of a heroine tossed and turned at night, pondering why on earth a ruggedly handsome man should cause such mysterious reverberations through her delicate frame. Well, Claud was a big girl, and she was under no illusions. Daniel Cunningham was fucking hot, and it wasn’t hard to connect that to the warmth that stirred between her legs when he smiled at her.
With a unpleasant stab she imagined the kind of women he probably liked: the kind of leggy, tanned babes who were equally at ease in a ball gown or a pair of hiking boots. Claud had no doubt that she had plenty to offer, but she thought of herself as something of a niche package. She knew the sort of guy she appealed to: hip, intellectual, eccentric. The Mitches and Evans of the world. The sort of guy who appreciated a blunt fringe and a sharp tongue; the sort of guy with opinions on scotch, facial hair and Harold Pinter. She’d never once been with the sort of guy who wore a suit out of anything other than irony.
She cringed again at the thought of Daniel’s abrupt termination of their conversation, the darkness that had flashed across his expression. What a terrible start.
Onward and upward! , she thought as she and Marina paced the building.
"So, I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you here?" she offered, curious.
Marina lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone.
"To be honest, it’s a pretty sweet ride. You’ll like working here. Dan’s a weirdo, but he’s a great boss."
"How so?" Claudia asked, cautiously.
"Like, he’ll just kind of march in and announce that he’s taking us all to lunch, or that we need to have a brainstorming session in, like, the rainforest or something. But then sometimes he locks himself in the office for, like, a week and doesn’t really talk to anyone. He can be pretty moody."
That was only a mildly comforting thought.
"He’s cool, though. He doesn’t ask me to follow him around with a clipboard or anything like that. Sometimes I wish he would. He was off in Mauritius a few weeks ago; I could have handled that. A couple of times a year he gets me to come on a trip to help out or sends me off to a conference to broaden my horizons or expand my skill set or whatever but you know what, I think it’s more for my sake than his."
"So you don’t plan on sticking with admin?" said Claudia, making a weak effort to focus attention away from Daniel.
"No way! I mean, I really like my job. But Dan says I’d be good in tourism and hospitality, because I’m good with people," said Marina, a blush of pride creeping into her face. "He helped me get into a tourism course, so I’m studying part-time now. Which is pretty cool."
What was he, her surrogate father? "It sounds like he’s a good guy to work for."
"I was on kind of a bad path before I came here, to be honest," Marina confessed, and Claudia immediately felt a surge of affection for her. The younger woman had a disarmingly open quality that she couldn’t help but find endearing."I was mixed up in some stuff that probably wasn’t great for me. Dan and Vivienne really helped me out."
Vivienne. Was that his wife? Probably, she thought, her stomach swirling unpleasantly. She forced herself to pay attention to her surroundings.
The corridor they walked through was lined with photographs of mountains, beaches and exotic flora and fauna dotted with outdoorsy types looking obnoxiously wholesome and healthy. She was wondering whether they were stock photos until she spotted a huge canvas of Victor grinning in front of a banana tree, looking every inch a pirate with a large macaw perched on his shoulder and his earring glistening.
"Isn’t Victor a babe?" gushed Marina, navigating the conversation easily in a more light-hearted direction. "I’m crazy about him, but he’s so arrogant. Imagine how I feel having to walk past this every day."
Claudia laughed. It was a little like being accompanied by a teenaged Kim.
They continued down the corridor until Claudia stopped in her tracks. Daniel, on canvas.
The setting was a lush, mountainous landscape in front of a roadside hut selling crates of soft drinks. Daniel was looking completely at odds with the expensive suit she’d just seen him in, wearing a beat-up pair of jeans and a fitted black t-shirt hugging tanned, well-formed biceps. Claudia swallowed hard. His hair evidently hadn’t changed much â€“ slightly dishevelled, a cowlick flopping across his forehead â€“ but his jaw was dotted with stubble.
It wasn’t the hair that caused her to stop and stare, though. His arms were wrapped around a striking woman. She was equally casual in frayed denim shorts and a dirty yellow t-shirt, with long dark dreadlocks falling starkly across high, gleaming cheekbones. The two of them were laughing, their eyes glowing, looking nothing short of radiant.
"That’s Vivienne," said Marina matter-of-factly, noticing her stare. "She’s Daniel’s ex-girlfriend, in case you were wondering."
"Oh," said Claudia, searching for something to say, "it’s a nice photo."
"Oh, Vivienne’s a doll," said Marina blithely. "She got me this job in first place. She kinda helped Dan to set this place up, but last year she moved to Buenos Aires, of all places. She still works for us sometimes. We all miss her like crazy, but she’s so good at her job, it’s not fair to keep her here."
Well, at least she’s in South America. Claudia quickly stifled that uncharitable thought.
"That was taken in Peru a few years ago. I think it was just after they broke up," said Marina, walking off. Claudia stared hard at the photo for a second longer, then followed Marina down the corridor.
"So do they wear plastic pants?"
Claudia glanced around the bar where she and Kim were getting post-work drinks, making sure that no one from Atlas was lurking in a nearby booth. She doubted it, though. Somehow she couldn’t imagine Victor and his cargo pants perched on a pink powderpuff stool at Madame Poisson’s, the ultra-kitsch candy-striped bar which was decorated in loving parody of a French parlour.
"Mostly, no. But a couple of them do."
"What about your boss? Oh my god, I never even asked. Did he turn out to be hot?"
Claudia considered lying for a second, and immediately realised there was no point. Kim was a veritable soothsayer when it came to this stuff. "Kim, he’s fucking gorgeous. I can hardly speak when he enters the room. I’ve only been there for three days, and I have the world’s biggest crush on him."
Kim’s eyes were aglow. "Yesssss. I knew it. I knew it."
"Don’t get excited. He thinks I’m a huge jerk."
Kim gave her the mother of all skeptical looks.
"Something weird happened in our first meeting." Claudia recounted the miserable tale. "We were getting on so well and then he cooled right off. He hasn’t spoken to me since, except to say good morning."
Kim shrugged. "He’s employing you. He can’t go around telling you he’s a bad, bad boy who needs to be punished. He probably realised that a moment too late."
"So you think he was flirting with me?" She realised how pathetic she sounded, but Kim kindly ignored it.
"Why wouldn’t he be?"
"Because he’s my client. It would be unprofessional."
"Check and mate." Kim waggled a finger at her. "What’s he like?"
"Is he a Mitch? Or an Evan?" Kim laughed indulgently. "Listen to me, pretending like they’re two different people."
"Definitely not. There is no way in hell that this man has ever coordinated a Ingmar Bergman movie marathon."
"So he is a stallion!"
"No! I mean, I think he does rock climbing and stuff. But he’s a suit. I get the impression he’s a workaholic. And he has beautiful manners. And he’s English, and I never thought I was specifically turned on by English men but apparently I am because every time he says my name I go all floppy and feel like I can’t breathe." Claudia paused for air.
"Claudia," said Kim warningly. "He’s not a Hugh Grant type, is he?"
"No! What do you take me for?" Kim nodded approvingly at this. She had recently been burnt by a foppish Grant lookalike and was now unwilling to forgive the actor’s transgressions, cinematic or personal.
"What does he look like?"
Claudia closed her eyes for a second, imagining.
"I get it. Never mind. You should sleep with him. One last fling before you waltz off to the land of the old white man. Ask him out."
Claudia stared hard at Kim.
"Did you hear the bit where he completely cooled me out?"
Kim rolled her eyes. "Because he realised he was being inappropriate. We covered that."
"Look. I’m pretty sure I can’t ask out a client. Even if…" She trailed off, immediately aware that Kim would jump on this comment.
Sure enough, she took the bait. "Even if what?"
"Well, Daniel’s a businessman. I mean, he’s a CEO. And not, you know, the CEO of an artisanal hot sauce business. Atlas is business business. You know that’s not my type," Claudia explained weakly.
"Since when are guys who are fucking gorgeous not your type?" Kim didn’t require air quotes to convey her scorn.
"Fine." Claudia swirled her gin and violet cocktail irritably. "I don’t think he’d be interested in sleeping with me."
Kim raised her eyebrows.
"I’m not saying he’s out of my league! He’s just, you know. Different. We’re into different things."
"Well," said Kim, with the countenance of an old sage, "he sounds like the kind of guy who likes different things."
"Maybe," said Claudia darkly. She stood up to go to the toilet, and almost collided with a man with wavy blonde hair, a slick navy suit and a perfect square of a jawline. He was standing with three other men dressed almost identically and a sharp brunette in a short shift dress and blazer. For the most part the clientele of Madame Poisson’s was a fashionable, creative crowd, evenly divided between the up-and-coming and the down-and-out, but from time to time it pulled in curious packs of investment banker types.
He grabbed her by the shoulder to steady her, then looked her up and down and gave a dazzling white smile. Before he could speak Claudia apologised, then sped off to the bathroom. What was that? She could have sworn he’d been checking her out, and liked what he saw.
She eyed herself in the mirror. In spite of the two gin cocktails, she looked… nice. Clean, slightly flushed skin, brown hair in a neat fringed ponytail, wearing a bold floral dress with a snug bodice and flared skirt. She wasn’t going to beat herself up about her appearance, but comparing herself to the gazelle-limbed, dewy creature adjusting her lipstick next to her, she couldn’t help but feel surprised by the handsome blonde’s attention.
The gazelle flashed her a genuine, bewitching grin, noticing her glance. "I love your dress," she said warmly, then stalked out, leaving Claudia to ponder the mysteries of attraction on her own.
Kim hissed at her when she came back to her seat. "Did you know that man?"
"Yeah. The suit."
"No. I just bumped into him."
"He watched you all the way to the bathroom. I thought that gorgeous businessmen weren’t into you?"
"So did I," said Claudia. The blonde was sitting on the other side of the bar now, talking to the brunette woman, but his eyes were darting back to Claudia frequently enough for her to see that he wasn’t giving the conversation his undivided attention.
"Well," said Kim, raising her cocktail glass in salute, "now you know."
Claudia’s conversation with Kim gave her food for thought on Friday. She’d never thought of herself as anything less than self-confident: seducing Mitch and Evan had been a breeze, after all, although admittedly they had shown a certain eagerness to be seduced. How had she become hung up on the idea that she was only attractive to a certain type of man?
Her self-examination was interrupted by Victor’s entrance into the office.
"Who’s coming out for lunch?" he boomed over the din. "At the Claw and Arrow. Daniel told me to make a booking."
A chorus of assent rose from the desks and a bunch of hands shot up in the air while Victor rapidly counted the numbers. Claudia looked on with interest. She was pretty sure people didn’t usually get this excited about an office lunch.
Victor came over to her as people stood up from their desks, chattering.
"You should come to lunch too, Claud." Victor said. He’d slipped into the nickname with the same ease he did everything else. "Daniel asked me to check if you were available. Probably wants to talk over some blog stuff with you before he gets sucked into meetings." He paused. "Of course, he’ll end up paying for everybody. He always does."
She blanched. Was this an opportunity to redeem herself or a second chance at humiliation? "That’s totally unnecessary. But I’d be happy to come to lunch."
"Indubitably. What’s ours is yours. That’s the Cunningham way, m’lady," he said, his parody of Daniel’s accent comically inaccurate. "Shall we?" He offered her an arm. She grinned, took it, and immediately felt a set of dark eyes on her. Daniel had just walked into the office. He glanced at where her arm was linked with Victor’s, then looked away, his face impassive.
Great. At this rate he was going to think she was prone to flirting wildly with every man who spoke to her.
Marina insisted on occupying the seat next to her at lunch, bombarding her with questions about all the ghostwriting work she’d done. On her other side was Darren, who was certainly the most muscular human she had ever seen in her life. All Claudia had learnt about Darren so far was that he’d recently left behind his reign as a champion rock climber in Singapore to take on a role in product development at Atlas. Apparently he had a wicked sense of humour, but it must have been been lying under a few layers of muscle. She’d only heard him speak three sentences, and all of them were to the waiter.
"Before we begin," Daniel said, bringing the table to silence. "I’d like to make couple of announcements, and also to thank you all for your hard work."
"Do I need to get out my pad now?" called Marina from the other end of the table.
He looked at her in surprise. "What? No. This isn’t a a meeting. Just housekeeping." He continued. "Firstly, if you haven’t had a chance to introduce yourself to Claudia Nyman yet, please make her welcome. Claudia’s joining us for a little while to help us set up the blog."
Victor and Marina led everyone in a round of rowdy applause, and Daniel’s eyes briefly collided with hers. Claudia blushed furiously. She’d been getting a lot more attention than she was accustomed to lately. Was this what office lunches were always like?
"Next, as you all know, we’ll be launching the new range of Breathemax climbing gear a fortnight from today. As I’m sure he hasn’t let you forget, this is really Victor’s baby, and he’s done a stellar job on it."
Victor boomed with laughter and toasted himself generously.
"Lastly, I’ll be heading over to Buenos Aires in a month’s time for the South American launch. You all know the drill by now, and I don’t anticipate any problems. I suspect Marina can run the entire place on her own by now."
For once it was Marina’s turn to blush.
"I think that’s all, so I’ll shut up now. But thanks, guys. It’s been a good quarter."
Another cheer from the table, subdued by the arrival of food.
Claudia ate quietly, thinking about the unusual company dynamic. Atlas must be doing well if Daniel was springing for lunches like this. The staff still referred to it as a grassroots venture, but with storefronts across Australasia and plans for expansion into the Americas, she couldn’t tell if it still qualified. Still, there was admittedly something about the small Sydney headquarters that retained a low-key feel. A sense of community, perhaps. Even of family.
"Claud," called Victor from the other end of the table, "get over here." He gestured to an empty seat between himself and Daniel. She blinked, stood up and joined them.
"We need you to settle something for us," Daniel said. "We’re talking about travel writers. What do you know?"
She shrugged. "A little. I took a couple of units on it at university, but it’s been a while." That was an understatement, but she was reluctant to be caught out in a boast.
"You might be able to help us, then. Who wrote The Great Railway Bazaar?"
"It was Mark Twain," snorted Victor,"but Dan’s claiming it’s that guy who makes documentaries about porn stars. Which is chronologically impossible. Anyway, he says you’ll know the answer."
Claudia flicked a glance at Daniel. He rolled his eyes Victor-wards and smiled slightly. Relief flooded through her. Maybe things weren’t so awkward between them after all.
"Can’t you look it up?" she asked, amused and slightly smug. She did know the answer: for all the travel experience she lacked, her book collection held everything from old maritime diaries to PJ O’Rourke.
"We could," said Victor, "but we want to know if you know."
"Claudia knows," said Daniel. "Peter Theroux. That’s my answer."
Claudia grinned. "You’re both wrong, but Daniel is less wrong." Daniel arched his eyebrows at Victor wordlessly. "It’s Paul Theroux. Louis Theroux is the documentary maker. Peter Theroux is his father. And Paul is Peter’s brother."
Victor looked at her with admiration."Claud, you are sharp as a tack." He stood up. "I’m buying you a drink."
"I still have to work today," Claudia reminded him.
"Then I’m buying myself a drink."
"You still have to work today," Daniel said pointedly to Victor, but he was laughing. Victor strode off, leaving them more or less alone at the long table, isolated from the chatter.
"Have you travelled much?" Dan asked after a mercifully short pause, his tone a little more subdued.
Claudia had been dreading this question. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to travel. It was just that – well, she hadn’t. Not really. Three weeks in Thailand when she was still at university had whet her appetite, but since then it had never seemed like the right time. She’d been establishing herself as a writer, and visibility was important. Even as a ghostwriter. She’d been too scared to stop, even for a week or two.
"Well, not much, to be honest," she said. "I’ve just read a lot," she added, only half in jest.
He nodded. "Does it interest you?"
"Of course!" she said, and realised at once how defensive she sounded. "I guess I’ve made the mistake of waiting for the right time, though, and of course it’s never been the right time."
"There’s nothing wrong with that," said Daniel. He was looking at her closely.
"I guess so," she said, although she felt unconvinced. "I have to admit, seeing everyone’s photos at the office makes me think I’m well overdue."
He smiled at her. "You will, when the timing’s right," he said. "Sometimes it’s hard to get away."
She suddenly felt grateful to him: grateful that he understood, grateful for not jumping to conclusions, for not writing her off, and she smiled back.
"You don’t seem to have too much trouble," she pointed out.
"No," he said, "but I was had the opportunity to travel when I was young, and I think that made it easy for me."
That made sense. In the small town where Claudia had grown up, travelling overseas was about as common as going to the moon.
"Look, I need to apologise," he said, changing the subject. "I haven’t checked in with you all week. Is everything going alright?"
She nodded. "I’ve been shadowing Victor – he’s been taking me through the product development process. There’s a lot to get my head around from a technical standpoint, but it’s been pretty fascinating."
He looked skeptical. "Really?"
"Really! It’s good stuff."
Victor swaggered back to the table, pint glass in hand.
"Going to Max’s this afternoon?"
Daniel groaned. "I have to. He’s putting us up in BA. He demands my opinion."
"I could come with you," Victor offered.
"Not if you want to roll through the Breathemax changes."
"Oh, and I do," Victor retorted sarcastically, then immediately perked up. "You should take Claud with you. Show her how Atlas Adventure wheels and deals."
"I don’t wheel and deal with Max." Daniel flashed her an apologetic look. "Claudia, Max is a good friend of mine. He’s just set up a new rooftop pool complex at his hotel, and he’s asked me to take a look."
Of course Daniel was friends with hoteliers. That just made sense.
"Actually," mused Victor helpfully, "Claudia, didn’t you tell me yesterday that you were off to swim laps after work?"
She threw him a sidelong glance. That was true. But she wasn’t sure what Victor was getting at.
"You swim, Claudia?"
She nodded cautiously.
Daniel looked thoughtful.
"Perhaps you should come. If you’re available. I suppose it could be interesting. And I’m sure Max would welcome your feedback." He paused. "Although I draw the line at giving him any coverage."
A sick, excited flurry of butterflies rose from her feet to her ribcage.
"Uhh, sure." Claudia attempted bravado.
"Brilliant," he said, "do you live nearby?"
She nodded mutely.
"We can pick up a suit from your place on the way. If you like."
"Great," she said weakly, then excused herself back to her seat. Her legs felt shaky. She ate the rest of her meal in companionable silence with Darren, unable to look back in Daniel’s direction.
Back in his office, Daniel Cunningham was cursing the day he hired Victor Sharpe.
He was a busy man. He didn’t have time to take freelancers on completely unnecessary outings. Particularly not the new freelancer he’d spent most of the week trying to avoid.
Not that it was her fault. Claudia was… lovely. That was the word for it. Daniel had liked her the instant she entered his office. She was articulate and witty, with an immediate flair and obvious sense of independence that he admired. There was nothing so crazy about that. It was just a new energy. Like the excitement that bristled through him when his plane landed in a part of the world he’d never seen before.
Which didn’t explain the fact that he’d been flirting with her. In his office. In a meeting, with Marina present. As harmless as it had been, that one little moment had freaked him out. Daniel Cunningham knew from what felt like a lifetime of experience that business and pleasure were a bad mix.
Since breaking up with Vivienne, most of the women he’d slept with he’d met off-duty on his trips. Women who understood the sexual hunger stirred up by travelling alone, and who were as happy as he was to enjoy one another’s company for a short window, then part with the unspoken acknowledgement that they were unlikely to cross paths again. Daniel liked and respected the women he slept with, but judging by the lack of emotion he felt at the prospect of parting with his sexual partners, he couldn’t help but think that long-term companionship wasn’t for him.
He had a system, and it worked for him. That was why he’d shut down the flirtation as quickly as it had begun. That’s why he’d spent the rest of the week making sure Marina had him booked in for as many meetings as humanly possible.
Somehow, though, seeing Claudia arm in arm with Victor had sparked off a rare twitch of competition in him.
Daniel reserved a quiet loathing for men who made assumptions about women, who interpreted reticence as coquettishness, and polite warmth as an invitation. He refused to use his position as CEO to charm or coerce. He was determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps in that regard.
But he understood attraction, too. And when he looked at Claudia, well – he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t noticed the dark flash of her pupils, or the pink flush that radiated across her collarbone when they spoke. It had been there when Marina first brought her into his office, and again when they were alone at the Claw and Arrow. He didn’t want to read too much into it. But the sight of it sent desire clawing through his belly.
Which is why he’d let Victor trick him into taking her to Max’s hotel.
He groaned aloud, pushed a hand through his hair, and got back to work.
Claudia spent the next couple of hours working at lightspeed, fuelled by coffee and adrenalin. She had no idea if she’d be able to use any of the material she was coming up with, but it seemed to be the only alternative to sitting at her desk in a frazzled heap.
At 3.30 Daniel joined her at her desk. "Ready?" She glanced at him, trying to keep her expression neutral. He looked so at ease, her heart sank. Pure professionalism. She had no idea what else she’d been expecting.
Well, she’d done business with worse-looking men. "Ready," she said, folding up her laptop and flashing him as professional a smile as she could muster.
They were silent on the walk down to his car, Claudia gripped with fascination about the kind of car Daniel might have. She was fascinated by what kind of everything he might have. What brand of snowy-white shirt did he prefer? Did he have a pet? Did he have a girlfriend? What music did he listen to, and did he care about the speakers it were played on?
"We’re here," he announced.
A hybrid. Well, that wasn’t what she would have guessed, but it made sense.
The car smelled clean and leathery, almost new. "I don’t drive unless I have meetings out of the city," explained Daniel, the car shifting soundlessly into action, "and I live close to the office. Which way do I go?"
She gave him directions, relieved to have something to say.
"Max was the first friend I made when I moved to Australia," he said, pulling out of the building garage and into the Sydney afternoon traffic, "he’s a great hotelier."
"Do you usually stay in hotels when you travel?"
"Depends where I’m staying and what I’m doing there. If I have to work, yes. Otherwise, I prefer to try out whatever’s available. Homestay, huts, camping, friends of friends, hostels."
"Hostels?" Claudia grinned. There was something delightfully incongruous about the thought of Daniel slumped in a dorm room with a bunch of backpackers braiding each other’s hair.
"Not so much the ten-to-a-room dormitory ones any more – but occasionally. Last time I was in Colombia I paid a couple of dollars to sleep in a hammock on the beach. I thought it was the best decision I’d ever made until the mosquitos started eating me alive."
Claudia felt a twinge of longing. Why hadn’t she slept on any beaches in Colombia? She hadn’t been lying when she spoke to Daniel earlier: this job had flicked her wanderlust into overdrive. But she was starting to feel hopeful, too. Seeing how easily the Atlas staff bantered about travel plans made the prospect seem less threatening somehow.
Certainly it wasn’t hard to imagine Victor hacking his way through a jungle or Shonice – Atlas Adventure’s chief financial advisor and proud owner of the best set of calves Claudia had ever seen -clambering up a mountain. But then there was Ella, a wiry ex-dancer from the IT department who wore silky sack dresses and her red hair coiled on top of her head, and who talked about hiking in Greece with her baby daughter slung to her front. Or Vlad in PR who said his idea of a good time was lying on a beach in Vanuatu. "I work like a donkey every day! Why would I want to lug shit up a mountain on my holiday?"
"Did you want me to wait outside?" Shit. She hadn’t even stopped to consider the gravity of the situation: that they were going to her apartment. Where, taking Murphy’s Law into account, she inevitably had a pair of time-of-the-month underwear soaking in a bucket, or a box of half-eaten pad Thai sitting on her desk. She was glad he’d offered her an easy out.
Claudia was starting to find this whole business exhausting. Dizzy with excitement one second, plunged into despair the next, and her heart sent racing every five minutes or so. She considered claiming a sudden migraine. At least it would save her another round on this somewhat nauseating rollercoaster.
But if she went she’d get to see Daniel Cunningham splashing around without a shirt.
"Sure, I’ll only take a minute. Left at the next set of lights," she said, her eyes firmly on the road.
"This is something else."
Claudia stopped in her tracks. The lobby of the Shafto Hotel was decorated in bold black and white, full of angled columns and furniture, with giant plants erupting dramatically from planters in the walls. It was closer to a Stanley Kubrick film set than a home away from home, but Claudia liked that. Not every hotel needed to be the same.
The slender bearded employee behind the desk threw Daniel a friendly salute as he led Claudia to a tall elevator, black and mirrored and overrun with dangling ferns. The real money piece, though, was a chandelier shaped like a translucent glass jellyfish, which somehow succeeded in being both breathtaking and comical.
"Max oversees the interior decoration very carefully," Daniel informed Claudia as the elevator slid upward, "by which I mean he ends up doing most of it himself. Each of his hotels is completely different, but I can still pick his style a mile off. It’s very distinct."
"I can see that," said Claudia. Even if she had known where to find a jellyfish chandelier she wouldn’t necessarily have chosen it for her own apartment, but she thoroughly admired the gall of it. "He has a great eye for the ridiculous."
Daniel laughed appreciatively. "That’s an excellent way to put it." They stepped out of the elevator, and he led her along a white-carpeted corridor. He knocked on a door at the end.
A tall, angular man opened the door, his eyes shining, and clasped Daniel’s hand between his. He was wearing all black – narrow jeans, a tight black t-shirt, pointed leather shoes with chunky hardware – but around his wrist was a bracelet of matte pink silicon which somehow managed to look architectural and expensive.
"This is Claudia – she’s freelancing for us. She was just admiring your eye for the ridiculous," Daniel informed his friend.
Max broke into a warm smile and took her hand in his. "At last! Someone who gets it!" said Max. "Daniel’s been complaining about my style for years, the boring bastard."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "That’s not even remotely true," Claudia informed Max. "I’ve been hearing nothing but good things."
Max’s smile grew even bigger. "Come see the roof. You’re going to love it. It’s my best work." He paused and eyed Claudia’s bag. "You’ll want to change first. Let me show you the showers."
As he led them back to the elevators, Max chattered easily to Daniel about his plans for the launch. "It’s going to be gorgeous. Carly’s going to DJ – Motown, Northern soul, good stuff, you know, fun stuff. None of that godforsaken trap music that makes me feel like Father Time. I can’t wait. I feel like I haven’t thrown a party in years."
"A fortnight, then?" said Daniel innocently. Max offered Claudia a knowing smirk, then clasped her arm as they exited the elevator and steered her towards the women’s showers. "Straight through, sweetheart, then up the spiral stairs to your right once you’re done. We haven’t opened the roof to the public yet, so you have it all to yourself."
His tone was benign, but she could swear he winked at her as he walked off.
Claudia’s heart almost stopped when she stepped onto the roof garden. Three tiers of curved infinity pools, all of them fringed with such an array of foliage and flora that you could forget you were in the city.
A splash caught her attention, and Claudia noticed a muscular outline in the highest pool. She inhaled sharply, making her way towards him. Daniel appeared not to have noticed her. Good.
Claudia had vowed not to be self-conscious about her body, but her resolve wavered momentarily as she untied the short sarong she had slung over her swimsuit. She gave herself a quick pep-talk, closed her eyes and slipped it off, then took a deep breath and dived into the water.
When she surfaced, he was at the other end of the pool, eyeing her.
"That was an impressive dive."
"You saw it?"
He didn’t answer but dove underwater for a moment and emerged near her. Standing up in the shallower water, she could see him properly for the first time and, without warning, her thighs clenched in response.
He was beautiful.
He didn’t have the thick-set muscularity of Victor or Darren, but there was something about the lean, powerful elegance of Daniel’s build that appealed to her much more. With the late afternoon sunlight reflecting off his angles and the curves of his muscles, his broad shoulders and tapered waist, dark hair slicked down by the water, he looked like a god. Or a merman. She allowed herself to look for only a split second before tearing her eyes away and redirecting them to his face, but it was too late. He was burnt onto her retinas.
It hurt to think about how much she wanted him. She’d never been with a man with that kind of body. And the men she knew with that kind of body sure didn’t have that kind of face, that kind of voice, that kind of mind.
"So, how do you rate it?"
A perfect ten. She snapped to attention. "This is a great pool."
"Where do you usually swim?"
"At my local YMCA, and I have to tell you, it’s considerably more rife with disease than this."
He laughed. "Often?"
"Yeah, pretty often. I’ve been known to engage in other forms of exercise as often as once a year," – he rewarded her with another rich, deep laugh – "but I generally regret it. So I swim most days." She paused. "How about you?"
"Do you… swim? Work out?" She tried not to eye his physique.
"I go to the gym. More for my sanity than anything."
"How about the outdoorsy stuff?"
"You mean rock climbing, kayaking, that sort of thing?" She nodded. What else would she mean? "Well, I do that too. Mostly when I’m travelling, but sometimes on weekends. A lot of the guys at Atlas climb a few times during the week, but, ah"- his face cracked into a grin – "I need a break from them from time to time."
She laughed, thinking about Victor. "That seems reasonable."
"Want to race? You’ll beat me."
That was an odd suggestion. She considered, an idea flickering into her head. "Can I choose the stroke?"
He shrugged. "Sure."
"Butterfly?" he said. "I swear to God, Australians are the only people on earth who would deliberately invent a stroke that you have to be an athlete to attempt."
She shrugged. "It’s a difficult stroke. That’ll level the playing field."
He snorted. "You were the school butterfly champion, weren’t you." It wasn’t a question.
"Interschool champion," she clarified politely, "but I was only thirteen at the time."
He rolled his eyes. "Will you give me a head start?"
"Absolutely not," she said.
"Yes, you will," he said, and dove into the water, breaking into an easy fly stroke. Claudia watched him admiringly for a second, then launched herself after him.
Her jaunts at the YMCA had clearly paid off: she managed to catch him. Before she could overtake him, though, a sense of mischief flashed through her – the same sense of mischief that had come over every child in history who had ever competed in a swimming race. She reached for his ankle…
"Sabotage!" he yelped, pulling to a halt and treading water. "Vile and bloody sabotage. Claudia, I find this hard to believe."
She arranged her face into a beatific expression, ignoring the exhilaration that pooled in her limbs when he said her name. "Did you or did you not cheat first?"
"I was, to use your words, levelling the playing field."
"Oh!- " she cried, finally distracted by something other than him.He spun around to follow her gaze. "What is it?"
Off in the distance, over the Sydney Harbour, a bright orange light had jettisoned into the sky.
"A flare," she murmured.
Daniel silently surfaced underneath her, wrapping his arms around her legs, and lifted her up into the air onto his shoulders as if she were a little girl. She squeaked in surprise.
"Is that okay?"
His arms wrapped around her thighs, her thighs wrapped over his shoulders. Her groin pressed confusingly into his damp, strong neck. This was okay.
"Can you see where it came from?"
Her eyes had been closed, enjoying the intimate sensation of his voice vibrating through her. She flicked them open. "It’s a little boat. It looks okay, though. Maybe they set it off for fun. Or by mistake. There’s a bigger boat heading towards it. To help, I guess." She paused, admiring the ceaseless glitter of the water flanked by the Sydney Harbour Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other."You know, the view up here is incredible. I bet it’s magical when it gets darker."
"Max will be pleased."
"I think the show’s over, though," Claudia admitted. She reluctantly shuffled, loosening the grip of her thighs. Before she could tumble back into the water, though, he reached up, grabbed her by the waist, raised her in the air and placed her lightly down.
She spun around to look at him, her skin burning where he’d touched her.
"You’re strong," she said accusingly.
He modestly said nothing, but his mouth twitched.
This was not professional conduct. From either of them.
"Are you hungry?" he asked suddenly. "I should buy you dinner. There’s a great restaurant in the hotel." He paused. "I owe you one."
"For helping me win a bet with Victor."
She raised an eyebrow at this logic. "You didn’t really win. But he wasn’t even close."
His mouth quirked, small lines of amusement appearing around his mouth. Oh, God, it made something inside of her curl up with pleasure when he did that.
She looked at him long and hard.
"I suppose you’d better," she said. "I’ll consider it your apology for cheating in our race."
He looked at her once more: a long slow look that made her heat up all over, a ghost of a smile still on his face. "Consider it done."
Daniel stood in the shower, letting the steam roll over his limbs. Really, a cold shower was in demand, but he had a feeling it wasn’t likely to be any more effective than the supposed refreshment of the hotel pool.
He was a
man who liked to be in control of everything, but right now there was a
disturbance in his groin area that refused to be controlled by mind power
alone. Not that he didn’t have methods of dealing with it, he reasoned,
tentatively sliding a hand over the long warm shaft, which provided only a
little relief from the deep ache that resonated throughout his body.
His arousal was laced with a bitter strain of guilt, but at least they were off the clock now. And if he didn’t do this now, he was at risk of doing something really stupid. Like kissing her. Like asking her to come home with him. It seemed like every time he spoke to her, he wound up doing something he shouldn’t.
This was all he needed. A little light relief, and he could go back to being a damn professional.
He thought of her standing in the roof garden, illuminated just barely in the glow of the moonlight and the city. She had been staring across the expansive roof at the city lights, distant and lonely, and Daniel had to tear his gaze away. The straining in his swimming trunks had been in no way appropriate to the client-contractor relationship, and he had attempted to wipe the thought of her curved legs and small ankles from his imagination by diving back into the water for several short, sharp laps.
He exhaled now at the thought of her. The softness of her thighs draped over his shoulders, wrapped around his neck. Lord, the things he’d do to her if she were in here with him now. He’d love to stand her in front of the mirror while he dipped two fingers inside her, watch her face in reflection as she watched herself writhe.
She’d demand a creative lover, he imagined.
Well, that was fine. He wasn’t a writer, but God knows he had plenty of imagination to share with her.
Claudia, he breathed to himself, rubbing long hard strokes, which rapidly spilled over into pearl-white evidence of his most unprofessional behaviour.
Jesus. What the hell just happened?
Truth be told, Claudia wasn’t faring so well herself.
If she thought working with Daniel had challenged her libido, this was something else altogether. The combination of the soft, cool water and their brief physical contact had electrified her body into erotic confusion. Every fuse on the point of overloading.
Cautiously, she cupped her breast and ran a thumb across her nipple.
Oh, God. A
shudder ran over her entire body and she realised just how much tension she had
been carrying with her all day. She was going to have to finish this, and
quickly. She doubted Daniel would be thrilled to wait for her as she got
At least Max’s hotel was a nice place for it. The marbled, spacious shower was private enough that she could almost forget that what she was doing was not strictly within her job description.
A quick fantasy flashed into her head: a hotel room in a country a long way from here, humidity and neon lights and traffic sounds rising from the streets below, a fan spinning overhead. Daniel shirtless above her on the white sheets.
That was all it took. She closed her eyes and sank into the shower wall as wave after wave of merciful aftershocks pulsed hotly into her hand.
Flushed, having rapidly dried her hair with one of the top-of-the-range appliances supplied in the luxe hotel bathrooms and discreetly reapplied a coat of the mascara she kept in her handbag, Claudia left the bathroom. Daniel was leaning against a pillar waiting for her, looking slightly rumpled and utterly gorgeous in the same suit as he’d worn to work, his hair still damp. Was she just imagining it, or was he looking at her strangely? She knew that he couldn’t have known what she was doing, but she felt a faint trickle of panic regardless.
Unless he was doing the same thing, piped up her overactive imagination.
Daniel, jerking off in a hotel bathroom? It was hard to imagine. She smiled inwardly – actually, it wasn’t that hard when she set her mind to it.
"What’s so funny?" he asked, warily, noticing her change of expression.
"Nothing," said Claudia. "I’m starving. Let’s eat."
The restaurant was subtler than the rest of the Shafto, featuring a simple menu of modern Australian cuisine with a focus on local ingredients. It was dimly lit, full of couples talking in hushed tones, and featured minimal decor that drew attention to the landscape view provided by floor-to-ceiling windows.
"There’s a restaurant attached to the lobby that gets a lot rowdier than this one," Daniel said, "but I like it up here."
Claudia nodded. She did, too. She felt slightly resentful of the other couples in the room for spoiling the feeling she’d had on the roof – the feeling that she and Daniel had the entire world to themselves for the night – but she guessed that wasn’t entirely their fault.
He showed her to a table. "Have you always been a swimmer?"
Claudia nodded. "I grew up in a coastal town, so I spent a lot of my childhood at the beach. I mostly do lap swimming now, though. It’s very meditative. Great for writing."
"I read through your portfolio yesterday," Daniel said. She blinked. She hadn’t been expecting that. The contracts were well and truly signed already.
"I loved the excerpt about the lion tamers. The twins. I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty, but I looked up the extended article online. I thought it was wonderful."
She swallowed. That article was one of the few pieces she’d written for nothing but her own interest, one of only a handful of pieces she’d ever published under her own name. She’d started talking to the twins at a carnival and they’d immediately drawn her into their world, unused to their audience showing them any interest once the show was over.
She’d sacrificed four weeks without pay that summer to follow them on their tour of rural New South Wales. When the pitch was accepted by a respected long-form journal, the money she received barely covered a quarter of her expenses, but every inch of her knew it had been worth it.
"I loved writing that piece," she said quietly. "You don’t get that level of job satisfaction on every project. But it’s worth keeping an eye out for it."
"For the itch."
Did he intend for that to sound so dirty?
"Yeah," she said slowly, meeting his eyes, "for the itch."
That little moment was interrupted by Max, who approached the table with the bravado of a travelling plastic rose vendor.
"You found us," Daniel drawled. Claudia couldn’t tell whether he was happy about it or not.
"I own the place, Daniel, I have my spies. Sweetheart-" he turned to Claudia, "how did you enjoy my baby?"
Did he mean Daniel?
"How about the cycad collection?" Max continued. "I can tell you, darling," he hooted with laughter, "getting them up to the roof garden was quite the trial. I’m still having flashbacks. But worth it, don’t you think?"
Oh, right. The roof garden. "It was wonderful," she said truthfully. "I don’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed swimming so much."
"Claudia’s a very good swimmer," said Daniel to Max, but his eyes were on her and amusement played around his mouth.
"Is that so? Come to our launch party, darling. Make Dan bring you along."
With Max’s words, she realised that she’d completely forgotten about the issue of girlfriends, wives, and all of that. Well, she couldn’t imagine he had a wife, based on what she’d learnt so far. Even the most relaxed wife would presumably want to see her husband at some point between the endless rigmarole of Atlas Adventure, the gym, travel and taking contractors out on important swimming pool visits. Her eyes flickered over his fingers just in case – no, nothing.
And surely Max wouldn’t talk like this if he had a girlfriend. Would he?
She supposed Daniel could be gay, but her intuition rejected this possibility. Max and Daniel were talking rapidly now about some kind of new hotel venture. They clearly adored each other, but any flirtation in Max’s tone had dried up the instant they started talking business.
"Oh, listen to me!" Max cried, noticing her watching him, "I’m so sorry, Claudia. I must be boring you silly. Let me leave you two alone." He kissed Claudia on the cheek, gave Daniel a two-handed handshake and made his exit.
"How did you meet Max?" she asked Daniel. Their food arrived, but in spite of her claims of starvation Claudia barely paid attention to her seared barramundi and warrigal greens.
"Actually, it was on my flight over to Australia, when I first moved here," he said, smiling at the thought. "We were seated next to each other, and the instant we landed he insisted on cancelling my existing accommodation booking. Then he put me up at the Whittaker – that’s his flagship hotel – for a week, until I sorted out my own place. I still have no idea why, except that we hit it off. I didn’t have a company then – just a business plan and a backpack, really.â€?
"He’s very welcoming."
"He’s a great guy," said Daniel, "he really cares about his friends." He paused. "Why don’t you tell me more about yourself? Did you like growing up on the coast?"
"I liked the beach," she admitted, "but I didn’t love the town I came from. I was interested in plays and books and I felt like the only person in the world who was. Most of the books in the town library were autobiographies of football players." Claudia stopped suddenly, realising she was disclosing more personal information than necessary. â€œYou? You grew up in England, right?â€?
He nodded. "I did,â€? he said, â€œand I swear it was overcast for the first nine years of my life. I like to think that I would have been less of a brat if I’d grown up somewhere sunnier, but I’m sure I would have been just as bad."
Claudia grinned. "You were a brat? I find that hard to imagine."
"I was well on my way to juvenile detention," he said, his face serious. "It was only a matter of time before I moved on from property damage and petty theft to more serious stuff. I was an angry kid."
Claudia blinked, re-evaluating her image of Daniel as a well-groomed private schoolboy. "What changed?" She didn’t want to probe too deeply into his wayward past, but she was curious.
"Well, my mother took me on a trip to Australia when I was fifteen. She often left me at school or with my father while she went overseas, but I suppose she was worried to leave the country while I was so out of control. But the instant we landed, and especially the instant I saw Sydney Harbour" – he gestured out across the bay – "everything changed. I don’t think I’d ever seen so much colour in my life. My mother still talks about my face that day." He smiled to himself.
"Is that why you live in Sydney now?"
He nodded. "I’ve fallen in love with plenty of places since then. But this was the first place that showed me that there was another way to live. That it wasn’t all uniforms and accountants and rainy days. I still hated school after that trip, but I saw that my mother had worked out a way to live that allowed her to see the world. And I decided to try to create the same thing for myself."
"Did your dad travel too?"
"Oh, not a great deal," he said casually, but didn’t elaborate.
She didn’t push. "What about uni? You went to Cambridge, right?" She’d read that on his company bio.
He grimaced. "Yes, but I was hopeless at university."
"Really. Honestly, I think I only went as a way of apologising to my mother for being such a brat. I was burnt out on the education system and I already had a business plan, so I got in and out as quickly as I could. I wasn’t exactly the Footlights president."
It was strange, hearing this. It was a more complex portrait than the one she’d painted in her head, but a vastly more interesting one. Daniel, an angry teenager. Daniel, the reluctant college student. She wasn’t sure if it was more or less intimidating than the one she had in her head previously.
"How about you?" he asked. "Did you like studying?"
"I loved it. University was the first time I ever made friends that I could actually relate to."
"Were you a good student?"
She grinned. "Well, I loved getting into arguments in tutorials. And I loved doing my readings. But I had a tendency to get so sucked into them that I’d stay up until four in the morning. Which didn’t work so well when I had an essay due the next day. I got my best grades in my theatre units, because we spent half the time putting on half-baked postmodern Shakespeare adaptations."
"I can imagine that," he said, smiling.
"How about you? You said you weren’t in Footlights. How about the rowing team? Archery club?" She paused. "Debating? Croquet?"
He just laughed. â€œNot at all. I dropped down to part-time after my first year and worked two jobs. At a bank, and at a rockclimbing centre. It was the most boring period of my life, but I was saving money to get Atlas off the ground.â€?
At some point the waiter brought them coffee that she couldn’t remember ordering, which Daniel took as a cue to change the subject. "What made you take on the position at Atlas?" he asked, bringing the conversation back to her. "It sounds as if it’s a little different to the work you usually do."
grimaced. "Do you want the honest answer?â€?
â€œHit me with it.â€?
â€œJack told me that you pay well.â€?
Daniel burst into laughter. He didn’t seem at all bothered.
"You seem to have a real knack for writing about the arts. Is that your preferred area?"
She smiled tightly. Talking about this stuff made her uncomfortable. â€œNot especially.â€?
"Do you have work lined up after this?"
Claudia started playing with her coffee spoon.
"Yes," she said, "more or less. I haven’t finalised anything yet, but I’ve been offered a one-year contract with a political journal."
He narrowed his eyes. "You enjoy political correspondence?"
"I do," she said. And she did. It wasn’t always the work she found most stimulating, but it gave her a sense of being part of something. As much as she loved the frivolity of performance and the arts, she worried that she wasn’t doing herself any favours by wrapping herself up in it too tightly. There was something reassuringly solid about politics. "I think it’s very good publication, and it’ll be a great addition to my portfolio. I haven’t arranged the specifics yet, but the position will involve a move to Canberra." She swallowed hard.
Daniel was scrutinising her intently. "When do you commence?"
"Eight weeks from now."
His eyebrows shot up. "That’s soon."
She pressed her lips together. "It is. I really need to start getting organised. I haven’t even begun packing up my apartment yet."
"Well," he said, "the best of luck." He paused, something unreadable on his face. "Should I take you home?" he asked.
"Sure," she said, smiling, trying to not display her reluctance. "Thank you for dinner."
Daniel shrugged. "It was the least I could do."
"I should apologise," Daniel said, pulling in outside her apartment block. "I didn’t intend to keep you out for so long."
She flicked a look at the car clock. It was only eleven, but she was exhausted. She had just spent the entire evening talking to Daniel, and she still had absolutely no idea what was going on. Normally the men she saw asked her a little about herself, then held court with their opinions on Canadian post-punk or James Joyce until they went to bed together. Of course, she could hold her own perfectly well. And she enjoyed the ritual of sparring, the sense of talking one other into bed, the pleasure of mutual conquest.
But tonight, instead of arguing about ridiculous minutiae, she and Daniel spent the night telling each other – well, their life histories, more or less. None of the usual one-upmanship; oh, sure, he’d proposed a swimming race, but she didn’t think for a minute he’d had any intention of winning it.
Daniel wasn’t threatened by her, she realised. He didn’t insist on asserting his own intelligence at every turn. He didn’t feel the need to counter her stories with his own travel tales or business successes. And that made him a pleasure to talk to.
The strange thing was that he seemed to feel the same way. Otherwise, surely, he wouldn’t have asked her to dinner. Wouldn’t have lingered over coffee. Everything was pointing to mutual interest. She could recognise the signs. It was just that believing them was something different; something much scarier.
She took a deep breath.
"Daniel," Claudia forced herself to ask, "do you normally have this much of a getting-to-know-you session with your contractors? Or even your permanent employees?"
Daniel paused, his hands still on the wheel. He turned to look at her.
"No," he said slowly, "I suppose that I find you especially interesting."
Claudia swallowed. That sounded like a good thing, didn’t it?
"Claudia, I don’t want you to put you in an uncomfortable position," he continued. "I hope you know that your work with Atlas does not in any way hinge on us… getting to know each other."
"Ok," she said faintly. "I’ve been enjoying it, though."
The street light filtering in through the car window was dim, but she saw it: his pupils flaring darkly, unmistakably. "I’m glad to hear it."
She looked him directly in the eye, ignoring her hazardous heart rate. "I want to know more."
And then, surprising herself as much as him, she reached out and touched his face. Three fingers against his temple: a curious, intimate gesture.
For a second they stared at each other like neighbourhood cats, not blinking, neither daring to move. Then he reached up, clasped her hand and pulled it so that she came half-tumbling half-climbing across the glovebox into his lap, grabbing handfuls of her hair as he drew her to him, their mouths pressing together so hard she thought she would shatter. She could feel the warmth and hardness of him beneath her and adjusted herself over it instinctively, circling her hips, wanting to be closer. He tilted it towards her, pressing its warmth more tightly against her knickers, all the while sliding his tongue over hers and she moaned, a strange noise that she hardly associated with herself. He tilted his head back and moaned in response. She couldn’t believe how erotic the sound was. Daniel, all nice suits and nice hair and Cambridge and moss green eyes, making… animalian noises in the front seat of his own car. For her. He dragged his mouth across her cheek to her ear, taking her earlobe in his teeth and drawing it gently but insistently through them.
"Ah, Daniel," she panted, "I want…"
"Mmm?" he managed, wrapping his arms so tightly around her she felt as if she was swimming in him.
Her mind was blank, every part of her body lit up in contradicting desires. "Everything," she managed, and he growled into her ear with such intimacy that it reverberated throughout her body, from her nipples into her aching clitoris. She tilted her neck slowly in invitation as he trailed his mouth along it, her chest close against his so they could feel one another’s heat â€“ and then he stopped.
His voice made her snap her eyes open.
â€œWe should stop.â€?
Oh, God.Â What have I done?
Â She twisted off his lap back into the passenger seat, unable to speak. Had she misjudged things that badly?
â€œNot because…â€? He paused, seemingly lost for words. â€œJust because we’re working together. That’s all.â€?
â€œYes,â€? she said faintly, gathering her things. There was no way she could save face here. She was just going to have to deal with it as maturely as possible. â€œI’m so sorry, Daniel. I promise I’m not in the habit of doing this. Rest assured, it won’t happen again.â€? She opened the car door.
His tone was firmer this time. She turned to look at him.
â€œIt’s not because I don’t want to. Because I…â€? He exhaled, shaking his head. â€œI really fucking want to.â€?
Her heart skittered a little at that but she just looked at him, unsure of what to think.
â€œIt’s just that we can’t. It wouldn’t be fair. I’d be taking advantage of you.â€?
She nodded blankly, not really understanding his words. Her brain had gone numb. She just wanted to get out of there.
"Thank you. For dinner. And for taking me to Max’s hotel."
"I’ll see you next week, Claudia."
"See you next week." Claudia walked up the flight of stairs to her apartment, her legs shaky, almost straining a muscle in the effort to keep her head up, to not look back.
The instant Claudia got inside her apartment, she groaned aloud and sank to the floor.
She was miserable and humiliated, so wracked up with arousal she could hardly move, and worst of all, she had the whole weekend to think about it. The whole weekend to alternately mourn, cringe, lust and curse about the events of the day.
Every cell in her body had been singing at her to sleep with Daniel. She had finally convinced herself that the sparks of attraction between them were mutual. So why had he stopped? Because they worked together? Yeah, right. It wasn’t as if she was a permanent employee, and she was pretty sure hot-blooded men didn’t turn down the opportunity to sleep with women they were attracted to just because they worked together.
Getting up from the floor and flopping on her couch, she texted Kim. Just attempted to seduce boss. Went great until it went terribly. Talk soon. Claud xx. She threw her phone down, not expecting a reply until the morning. Kim usually had weekend plans. She flicked on her television mournfully, trying to distract herself from the lonely ache between her legs. Seemed like as good a time as any to watch the last half hour of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For the third time.
Ten minutes later, her phone buzzed. WHAT?! Are u home? Currently on worst date ever. Your daring act of seduction has inspired me 2 seize the day. If u r still up I’m making my excuses & catching a cab to your place.
She grinned in spite of herself. Yup. Come over xx.
Kim arrived with a bottle of cheap champagne.
"Who’s celebrating?" Claudia asked warily.
"We’re celebrating me not being on a date with that doofus anymore," said Kim. "Want a glass?"
Claudia had already grabbed two long-stemmed glasses from her small kitchen. "Will it help me forget what happened tonight?"
"Probably, but the effects are temporary. Was it that bad?"
"No," she said immediately, thinking of Daniel’s chest pressed against hers, then flushed.
Kim eyed her suspiciously. "Was it that good? Hang on, it’s after midnight! This wasn’t a happy hour hookup, was it? What were you even doing out with him?"
"Do you want the whole thing?"
"Well, why do you think I came over?"
Having summed up as quickly as she could for Kim – which wasn’t that quick, given Kim’s endless questioning and intermittent exclamations of horror and delight – Claudia broached the worst of her anxieties.
â€œWas I so awful that he had to stop? I mean, was he just kissing me to be polite?â€?
â€œDid he have an erection?â€?
â€œRock-solid,â€? she confirmed.
â€œWas his tongue in your mouth?â€?
â€œVery much so.â€?
Kim rolled her eyes lavishly.
â€œMaybe â€“ and I don’t use this term lightly when it comes to the weaselly sex â€“ but just maybe he was being honest with you. Maybe he really doesn’t want to take advantage of you.â€?
Claudia considered this. Reliving the story with Kim had given her a fresh perspective. Sure, he’d put a halt to proceedings â€“ but he’d also been flirting relentlessly with her. Besides, the front seat of his car wasn’t exactly the best place to explore any attraction between them.
If she still had a chance to do Daniel Cunningham, she may as well do him properly.
â€œHe did kind of initiate it. I mean, I initiated it. I think. But he pulled me onto his lap.â€?
â€œYou didn’t tell me that!â€?
â€œYou know what,â€? said Claudia, warming to her theme, â€œmaybe you’re right. Maybe he was trying to do the right thing. You know, he’s kind of a gentleman."
Kim looked suspicious.
"Not like a Hugh Grant gentleman! An actual gentleman."
"Oh, so a Mr. Darcy," said Kim knowledgeably, although Claudia was fairly certain she’d read neither Jane Austen nor Bridget Jones’ Diary. Kim worshipped Kurt Vonnegut, devoured cheap sci-fi and didn’t bother with much else. Unlike Claudia, she’d burnt out on books at university.
"Jesus, no! I don’t know. He’s very…" She thought about it. "I feel like goes out of his way to put me at ease."
"I guess that’s not very Mr. Darcy," Kim muttered.
"He’s always making sure that I’m alright. That’s he’s not overstepping any boundaries or making me uncomfortable. And he’s so sexy and he has this natural confidence but when he smiles… sometimes it’s like he’s almost shy. I’m getting hot just thinking about it."
"Cool off, cowgirl. Why don’t you go into his office first thing on Monday and confirm that you are a mature, consenting woman who can sleep with whomever she pleases? Ask him out. Then you can go back to his ye olde country manor or whatever and screw his brains out in the comfort of an actual bed."
Claudia blanched. "I told you. I can’t ask him out."
"That was before we established that you are in fact attractive to businessmen and before you dry-humped your employer in plain view of the street. You are a grown woman and perfectly capable of asking him out."
Claudia gave Kim a tremulous look. "I don’t know how."
Kim sighed, taking pity on her. "You’re never normally like this. I saw you with Mitch! You were like a cat batting around one of those mouse toys."
"I don’t know. Daniel makes me feel like I’m a little kid. I’m in awe of him, Kim, if you saw him you’d understand. He’s the best-looking man I’ve ever seen. You can’t just go around… seducing someone with a face like that. It goes against the natural order of things."
"Sounds like you already did."
â€œNot very well.â€?
"Nyman, think straight. He asked you out to go look at a swimming pool. Which is, I might add, only acceptable behaviour if you are literally the handsomest man in the entire world."
"He is," Claudia interjected helpfully.
"Then he asked you out to dinner. Then he drove you home and let you fondle him in his car before he remembered that he was your boss- which still didn’t stop him from telling you how bad he wished he could do you."
"I didn’t fondle him," said Claudia, but hearing it laid out in Kim’s dry tones made hope spring into her heart. "God, I hope you’re right. If I could have sex with him just once I’d be happy."
"No, you wouldn’t."
"Nope," she agreed. "I want to have loads of sex with him. Before I leave. Who knows what kind of men they have in Canberra?"
"Well, then," said Kim, "you’d better hop to it," and she poured them both another drink and told Claudia in skin-crawling detail about the worst date of her life.
When he’d arrived home the previous night Daniel hadn’t known whether to laugh, crawl into bed and stay there all weekend, or book a ticket on the first flight out of town. He’d compromised, opting to crawl into bed at least until morning.
Unfortunately, morning brought scant consolation. He’d awoken from turbulent sleep with a diamond-hard erection pressing against his briefs, and his to-do list held absolutely nothing of appeal. He pulled out his laptop and attempted to do some menial work, but even that was an exercise fraught with distraction.
The thing was, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed an evening so much. The day had started badly – that out-of-character flash of jealousy in the office when he’d seen Victor arm in arm with Claudia – but from there it had rapidly taken a turn for the better. He’d been cursing himself for issuing that peculiar invitation to the Shafto, but for the most part that had turned out much better than he’d expected.
As soon as Claudia had come into the Atlas Adventure offices, he could see how well they clicked. It was as if the air hummed whenever the two of them were in the room together. That kind of chemistry was perfect for business.
But as soon as they’d taken it out of the office, it was like the humming became music. He’d jumped out of aeroplanes, climbed mountains, abseiled off an assortment of global landmarks. So why was it that talking to Claudia felt like the most exciting thing he’d done in years?
Was he working too hard? Could he be lonely? He had no shortage of friends in Sydney: casual acquaintances and the Atlas team, but also closer friends like Max. But his conversations with Claudia felt as if they were filling a void he never even knew existed.
The fact that he’d enjoyed himself so much only made the weekend stretching out in front of him seem more interminable. He wished that he’d invited her home with him, that she was here now, that his house didn’t feel so paralysingly large, so fucking empty. He wished he hadn’t stopped.
So why had he?
Daniel didn’t intend to follow in his father’s footsteps. The last thing he wanted to do was coerce an employee into a situation that wasn’t in her best interest, and he couldn’t trust himself. Not around her.
Even if everything about Claudia’s body language told him that she was just as interested as he was. Even if her collarbone was flushed, her pupils glowing black, her mouth soft and yielding.
She was moving to Canberra in a matter of weeks. Would it really be such a risk? She seemed pretty focused on her career, and he highly doubted she was the kind of woman to confuse sex with something more meaningful. Of course, he didn’t mix business and pleasure. But this wouldn’t really be mixing them. More… overlapping.
Daniel put his laptop aside. There was no way he was getting any work done this morning.
To hell with it. If she was willing to overlap, so was he.
Claudia’s efforts to distract herself over the weekend hadn’t been enjoyable, exactly, but they had done the trick. Sort of. She’d made it through Saturday morning and afternoon tolerably enough, buoyed by her conversation with Kim, even getting some work done. Saturday night was looking rather more dire – what did Daniel do on Saturdays? Who did he see? – but mercifully she had plans with a former client visiting from Melbourne. Drinks and dinner took care of enough time that she only managed to spend an hour wallowing in confusion before she drifted off to sleep.
On Sunday morning she busied herself with some things she needed to do around the apartment. Actually, she’d needed to do them for several months, but had never found the inclination to do them until now. Claudia congratulated herself warmly as she put the finished touches on her freshly re-grouted shower. Perhaps sexual frustration had its uses after all.
By Sunday afternoon she was climbing the walls again. The combination of anticipation and boredom was driving her crazy. Claudia wasn’t prone to boredom. Growing up in a quiet town, she’d learned to occupy herself with great resourcefulness. Now she couldn’t remember the last time she didn’t have writing to do, new assignments to research, books she was engrossed in or friends she was well overdue to see. But she’d cleared her calendar in anticipation of the big move.
Evan called her at 4pm on Sunday, right on cue.
"Sophia Coppola double at the Clap. Do you want to come?"
It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Evan to invite her to the movies. They’d slept together a few times, and although the attraction had quickly waned, she still enjoyed his company.
"Definitely," she said. The perfect way to prevent herself from spending all night brainstorming ill-advised ways to ask Daniel out. The Seduction Gods were smiling on her. She saluted them.
The Clapham Cinemas were housed in a pink and grey art deco building that was all charm on the outside and an unrenovated hellhole on the inside. It had the dirtiest seats in town – hence the unflattering nickname of "the Clap" – but that didn’t put off the hordes who came along for the cheap Sunday double features.
"How’s work?" Evan asked once they were ensconced in the ticket queue. "Jack told me you were doing in-house for some kind of outdoor company."
"Yeah, Atlas Adventure. Work’s great. It’s a nice change, working around other people for once in my life. It’s even kind of fun being in an office."
"Whoa! Claud the Suit. Hard to imagine."
She grinned. "Look, I don’t exactly think I’d want to stay there forever. But it’s good to have a change of scenery."
He eyed her with professional interest. "A change from writing, or…?"
She wasn’t ready to tell Evan about Canberra yet. Even though it was starting to loom ominously close. "No, I still like writing. Just needed a change of subject. Good to pick up some new skills."
He nodded approvingly. "You’re good at this, Claud. All the other writers I know don’t bother thinking about this stuff. They’re all too busy writing their memoirs and shitty screenplays. Which is probably why you actually get hired."
As a freelance graphic designer, Evan knew a thing or two about working in an oversaturated market. He’d managed to scrape just about enough commercial work together to make a living, but he also worked around the clock and, as far as she knew, hadn’t had a real weekend in years. Claudia couldn’t remember him being this generous about her work back when they were seeing each other, but she appreciated it nonetheless. Six foot five, easygoing and rail-thin, wearing stylish glasses and a v-neck shirt that revealed a vulnerable sternum dusted with light hair, Evan was pretty gorgeous in his own way. She had noticed a few hip-looking girls in the queue check him out enviously.
"Anyway, you’re pretty well established now, and people know you work hard." he continued. "You could always drop your hours down, try something new on the side."
Most of her fellow writers harboured not-especially-secret ambitions of being an autobiographical novelist or lifestyle blogger. Secretly, that sort of thing drove her crazy â€“ every time she went out, every second person insisted on telling her about their book. They always sounded terrible, and whenever she would ask what they read, they would look bewildered or say, "Oh, you know, I don’t read so much these days." She was yet to see any of these masterpieces come to fruition.
That was part of the reason she wanted to move into political journalism. As much as she enjoyed arts writing, the minutiae was starting to drive her crazy. It was hard to feel like a serious writer when everyone around her was talking about how to secure blog sponsors and cultivate their personal brand. It would be nice to be writing about egotists instead of drinking with them.
In the meanwhile, she intended to enjoy this month at Atlas. In a professional sense, and, well. The other one. Hopefully.
Evan must have noticed something flash across her face. "So, are you seeing anyone at the moment?" he asked casually. Not too casually – she was pretty sure he was as blasÃ© about their thoroughly-resolved sexual tension as she was.
She turned pale. "Not exactly," she said, and one hundred images of a most non-blasÃ© nature immediately fired off in her head.
"Well, I’m not going to touch that with a ten foot pole," said Evan, smirking, and they descended into the dark movie theatre.
Monday morning she was a jittery mess. She had no plan of action whatsoever, and no idea what she would say if Daniel introduced the topic. Even worse, if he didn’t introduce the topic. Which would mean that she had to.
She had almost run late trying to work out what to wear. As tempting as it was to opt for full seductress mode, she decided today wasn’t the day to stray too far out of her comfort zone. In the end, she kept it simple: a modest shell dress in aquamarine crepe with a romantic bias-cut skirt. Wooden-soled nude sandals that elongated her legs, and a faceted wooden bangle to match. It wasn’t the most adventurous outfit she’d ever worn, but when she looked at herself in the mirror she decided she could honestly say she felt pretty.
As it happened, Daniel wasn’t in the office when she arrived. Nor did he arrive shortly after. This was no good for her nerves at all.
"No," she overheard Marina saying down the phone, "I’m afraid he’s in meetings until after lunch. Would you like me to pass on a message?"
It wasn’t until she got back from her lunch break and was settled back at her desk that she finally saw him.
"Claudia," he said, approaching her desk, his expression giving nothing away. "I’ve just received some proofs that Radhika had in mind for the blog." Radhika was the in-house photographer, a slight girl with a tendency to dart around the office like an insect when she wasn’t buried in photo-editing software. Her was face near-constantly obscured by the huge camera lens in front of it. "Could I have a word with you when you get a chance so we can discuss what to do with them?"
Claudia noticed both Victor and Marina were watching them, but Daniel gave nothing away. His body language was cool, reserved. She couldn’t work out whether he was going with this.
"That’s fine," she said, "can you give me ten minutes?"
He nodded, and disappeared back into his office. Claudia could sense Victor and Marina’s eyes still on her. She suppressed the urge to run to the bathroom and reapply makeup and perfume, kept her face as still as she possibly could, and wrapped up the paragraph she was working on.
She ignored the pulsing of adrenalin throughout her body as she knocked on the door of Daniel’s office.
"Ah, Claudia," he said casually, opening it. "Come and take a seat." He closed the door behind her. "I have the proofs here," he said, walking back over to his desk and picking up a large envelope. She felt the disappointment trickle through her limbs.
"I’m sure you know what to do with them."
She nodded. "Sure."
â€œRadhika’s uploaded them onto the shared drive, and Jeremie will be able to help you out if you need it.â€?
They stood there for a moment, looking at each other.
â€œYes?â€? His reply was quick. That was a good sign.
â€œI’m not sorry about Friday night.â€?
He went very still. â€œI’m not either.â€?
â€œAnd you wouldn’t have been taking advantage of me. I wanted it.â€? She paused, steadying herself. â€œI still do.â€?
â€œClaudia,â€? he said quietly, â€œwhat exactly are you proposing?â€?
â€œI’m not proposing anything,â€? she said, â€œso much as reminding you that I’m leaving Sydney in eight weeks. So if you want to get to know me, now’s the time.â€?
His eyes flashed. â€œI see.â€?
â€œYou see?â€? she said, a little sarcastically, gaining confidence.
His bottom lip, sensual and slightly full, twitched. â€œI appreciate you letting me know. I’m just considering what to do with this very useful information.â€?
â€œWould you like to come over for dinner tomorrow night?"
She nodded, flooded with luxurious relief. "Well, you know where my place is now. My apartment is on the second floor. Number six. Come around at 8."
Daniel nodded tightly, led her towards the door and stuck out a hand for her to shake. "A pleasure doing business with you," he said seriously, but a smile was still skirting the lines around his mouth, his hand lingering in hers. It was the only point of contact between them, but it felt as if every nerve in her body was suddenly located in her fingers and palm.
Instinctively Claudia took his hand and drew it to her face, delicately extracted his middle finger, slid it into her mouth and with closed eyes drew her teeth and lips gently along its length.
Daniel’s mouth opened involuntarily, his breath hitching.
"You are a witch, Claudia."
"I’m sorry," she said lightly, "I got carried away." She opened the door and walked back to her desk, giddy with lust and witchery. She sat down at her computer, trying to process what had just happened.
She had just administered a short course of oral sex to his finger. That was what had just happened.
"Excuse me, Claudia?"
She looked back, startled. Daniel was in his doorframe holding the envelope.
"You forgot the prints."
She returned cautiously. He pulled the door shut again behind her, gently pushed her against it and gave her a short, slow, openmouthed kiss so dirty that the sensation of it lapped between her legs. Then he slid the envelope into her hand and opened the door once more, forcing her out into the corridor where she took step after careful step towards her desk like a baby deer learning to walk.
Claudia spent the next 24 hours in something like a dream.
It was on. It was actually happening. The gamble had paid off.
So. Dinner. Well, at least it got him within decent proximity to her bed. Claudia wasn’t a bad cook, but she certainly didn’t have any particular natural talent for it. All she really had going for her was style. She didn’t know how to prepare a spatchcock, but she had a few tricks up her sleeve for cooking simple food that seemed more esoteric and difficult than it was.
She’d also learnt from going on enough mediocre dates that nothing killed the mood like stressing out about food. There was something particularly cringeworthy about sitting around at someone’s kitchen table while they swore at a jus that just refused to thicken, or made slumping excuses for their overly ambitious coq au vin. Claudia didn’t mind if the food was bad. She couldn’t forgive bad company.
"It’s pretty simple," she had told Kim more than once. "Prepare as much as you can in advance, choose a meal based on your ability to not fuck it up, and never cook anything on a date that you haven’t already cooked before."
"Simple for you, maybe," Kim had grumbled. "My imagination in the kitchen is non-existent. If I could have my way I would eat potatoes three meals a day. How could I possibly decide what to cook for someone else?"
Claudia shrugged. "Make really good potatoes."
She had to admit, it was harder to stay cool about this than it had been for the other guys she’d cooked for. Daniel had money, and he’d travelled extensively. He’d probably eaten food from some of the best restaurants in the world. But it was silly to try to compete with that. She’d just feed the man, and hope she wasn’t so bad at it that it would put him off taking her to bed.
She hadn’t bothered to prepare a dessert, rationalising that it just created unnecessary work and stress. If the dinner went well, they wouldn’t be thinking about having dessert, and if it went badly – well, she probably wouldn’t feel like dessert, and she certainly wouldn’t feel like serving it to him.
Claudia took one last look over her apartment. It was small, but in the two years she’d been living there she’d gradually turned it from a shabby rental into something that felt just about right. Right for now, at least, although if her book collection threatened to expand any more it could prove problematic. Her books were her pride and joy: the living room housed an eclectic assortment of bookshelves, mostly found at thrift stores and donated by friends, which were already overstuffed. She’d also acquired a number of climbing plants, relocated them into vintage ceramics, and had set them atop the bookshelves to allow tendrils to creep and grow over the shelves.
Claudia took a good long look at herself in the hallway mirror. She had changed into a faded marigold cotton sundress with thin straps that tied at the shoulder. She’d had it for years, but saw no reason to throw it out: it fit perfectly, the v-neck sitting nicely against her collarbone, the balletic midi skirt emphasising the curves of her ankles. She’d pinned her hair up loosely. She dared a quick grin at her reflection. Not bad, Nyman.
No shoes. She didn’t see the point in wearing shoes around her own apartment. Even if this was a date.
Was it a date? She guessed so. She didn’t know what else it could be. A sex appointment
Moving easily around the small kitchen, she grabbed plates and cutlery and set the table. She wasn’t going to bother with scented candles or any of that jazz. Vines of jasmine grew just outside her window, and on nights like this the heady scent flooded the apartment.
A knock at the door. Her heart went into overdrive. She flicked the apron she’d been wearing over a chair and opened the door.
"Come in," she said, attempting to smile, her mouth dry.
He looked so gorgeous she could weep. He was wearing jeans. Dark Levis and a linen button-up with rolled sleeves, exposing his lightly tanned forearms and a narrow V of chest. She wasn’t exactly sure why this was such a revelation. Perhaps because Daniel had the air of having been born in a suit; it was hard to imagine a time when he hadn’t worn them five days a week. No matter the reason, something about seeing him changed into fresh clothes – for her sake – made her heart sing.
"This is for you," he said, handing her a long bag. She looked inside: a bottle of red wine and a book.
"Booze and books! This is my kind of hostess gift," she said approvingly, drawing the book out of the bag to look at it: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupery.
"Have you read it already?" he asked. She shook her head, her eyes aglow, running her hands over the hardcover. "It’s probably my favourite piece of travel writing," Daniel continued.
She thumbed through the pages, phrases leaping out at her. "A crenellated fortress against the pure sky." "The whiteness of crushed sugar and green in puddles the colour of emeralds." "I love books," she sighed distractedly, absorbed.
He started laughing.
"I can see that, Claudia," he said, his eye line flicking towards the six groaning bookshelves and stacks of oversized volumes piling up on the floor.
She glanced up from the book and grinned. "Should I open the wine?" she asked casually, trying not to think about how long he was staying for, whether he’d driven, whether he was planning to drive home or catch a cab or – no, she was trying not to think about that.
"If you’d like. It’s a Malbec. I hope that’s okay with you."
"I’m much less particular about wine than I am about books," she said, "and the book was a great choice. Thank you."
A curious look flashed across his face. Was it relief? It was so difficult for her to imagine Daniel nervous. What did he have to be nervous about? He could have bought her the unauthorised biography of a retired football player and she would pawed through it for days.
She poured two glasses of the Malbec.
"To adventure," she said boldly, ignoring the slight trembling in her voice that she could only hope was indistinguishable to him.
He grinned. "To adventure." He raised his glass to hers, tapped it, then took a mouthful and swallowed. "Speaking of which. How’s your next adventure coming along?"
A slightly queasy sensation roiled in her stomach. "You mean Canberra?"
"Good," she said, then wavered. "Honestly, I’m feeling pretty nervous about it."
"That seems pretty natural. It’s a big move."
"I think so. I hope so."
"I guess you’ll be working under your own name in Canberra." She nodded. "That’s good, right?"
"Why wouldn’t it be? You’re a great writer. You deserve to take the credit for it."
She shrugged, not wanting to be rude, but feeling uncomfortable with the line of discussion. "I’m a competent writer, but so are half the people in Sydney."
"Claudia," Daniel said suddenly, "are you always so harsh on yourself?"
That was a strange question. She didn’t think she was. If anything, she was a realist. The world was full of writers. She knew she was adequate – better than adequate, if she was honest. But there would always be people with greater natural talents, people who worked harder, people who could step in and fill her shoes.
"Oh," she said lightly, "I have my off days, I guess, but they’re matched by the days where I’m convinced I’m a genius."
He laughed, but he looked unconvinced.
"How about you?" She was eager to change the subject. "How has your week at work been so far?"
He rolled his eyes. "It’s all meetings at the moment. Wall to wall until Friday. It’s probably my least favourite part of the job." He paused. "But I’m really hoping to get a couple of new products into manufacture before I have to head over to BA for the store launch, so it will be worth it."
She felt an unpleasant sting of jealousy. What would happen at the end of the month? She’d be finished at Atlas, packing to go work around the clock on a prestigious but admittedly unglamorous publication. Daniel would be in Buenos Aires, living it up, launching a new store. Probably working face to face with beautiful Vivienne.
"Tell me more about the launch," she said, trying to keep her face neutral.
"Vivienne has been managing it with a small team in Argentina."
"Vivienne’s your ex-partner?" It seemed disingenuous to pretend she hadn’t heard the campaign manager had once been involved with Daniel.
He glanced at her. "Yes, we broke up a few years ago. She’s done some contract work for us on and off since then." He didn’t clarify any further, and she didn’t probe. That was fine by her. Well, not fine fine, but she didn’t feel like hearing much more. "It was her idea to launch a shopfront in Buenos Aires. I wouldn’t have assumed there’d be much demand, but she was having trouble finding the kind of gear she was after locally, so she initiated some market research. A lot of tourists use BA as sort of a home base while they explore Patagonia, Iguacu, even Antarctica and the Amazon, and the options for buying or hiring gear are more limited once you get out of the major cities. So we’re going to try it out."
"You’ve been to South America before, then, I imagine?"
He nodded. "A couple of times. But I could always spend more time there, especially in Buenos Aires."
"Why?" she asked, curiously.
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "I don’t know if I can explain it, but it’s an intoxicating place. In winter it looks a little like Paris. In summer, it gets humid, and it’s almost otherworldly. It feels at once familiar and alien. There’s nowhere like it."
Claudia did a quick mental calculation. "It’ll be spring there when you arrive though, right?"
He nodded. "Luckily. Summer’s great, but it’s not easy to get work done when it’s 40 degrees and everyone around you is partying until eight in the morning."
Claudia grinned. "That sounds pretty good, actually."
"You’d love it," he promised, and she felt almost sick with longing.
Suddenly she remembered why they were here. "I suppose I’d better feed you, huh?" she said, mock-reluctantly.
He grinned. "Can I help?"
"It’s pretty much done," she said, "come talk to me while I finish up." Slinging the apron back over her neck, she quickly layered circles of dough onto a griddle pan and removed a tray from the oven. A rich, nuanced collection of aromas had spread through the kitchen.
"This looks spectacular," he commented, as Claudia scattered pomegranate seeds and freshly-ground spices over a roast aubergine.
"Oh, it’s nothing," she said carelessly, feeling more nervous than she wanted to admit, "it looks fancier than it is." She dished out two plates of food, squeezing a quick dash of lemon over the flatbreads. "Much like myself."
He laughed appreciatively.
"I’m looking forward to finding out whether that’s the truth."
Her ears were burning as she set the table.
"That was wonderful," he said, gesturing to his plate. "I mean it. Really great."
"Thank you," she said, trying to subdue her sense of skepticism. He had eaten it, she’d observed. And gone back for seconds. Damn sexy men with their freakish metabolisms.
His mouth twitched.
"The way you cook is a lot like the way you dress," he said, "which is a lot like the way you’ve decorated your apartment."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," he said, "everything is beautifully chosen and impeccably executed," he said, and a flushing, golden warmth rose up from her stomach to her throat.
"That’s a nice thing to say," she said, quietly. He looked at her closely for a minute, as if her were about to say something else, then didn’t. Instead he stood up, collected their plates before she had a chance and returned them to the kitchen. She heard the sound of a tap being turned on.
"Don’t you dare wash those dishes," she called. The tap stopped and Daniel re-emerged, looking amused. "I mean it," she said, attempting to sound stern. He shrugged and grinned.
"In that case, do you mind if I look at your books?" he asked.
"Go ahead," she said. She stood up, followed him across the room and perched cross-legged on an arm of her dark green sofa, wine glass in hand. She had a great view of his butt from here. God, the man could wear a pair of jeans. "Do you get much time to read?"
"Not at home," he said, "but I like to try to read local literature when I’m travelling. Or local authors, at least. Sometimes travel writing, and a bit of non-fiction for research."
"What was the last book you read?"
"Something by Bill Bryson. I forget the name."
"Do you ever see plays?" she asked on a whim.
He laughed, turning around from the bookshelves to look at her. "I think any interest I ever had in plays dissolved by the end of high school. It’s a shame, really. I remember liking Ibsen, but by the time I’d written my third essay about him the romance was dead." He was silent for a moment. "I think I’d actually enjoy the theatre now. But I’m out of the habit."
"It’s interesting," said Claudia. "I feel like I spent most of my childhood rebelling against the great outdoors. You know, I was desperate for something that felt like civilisation. But you did the opposite."
He looked thoughtful, then grinned. "I suppose so. And that’s why I’m such an uncivilised brute now."
She snorted with laughter.
"A problem, Claudia?"
Oh, she loved the way he said her name.
"You think you’re a brute?"
Daniel spun on his heel and walked towards her. He looked at her for a long moment, then reached out and tucked a hair behind her ear. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
"What am I, then, if not a brute?"
She laughed, more nervously than she would have liked.
"I don’t know if you’ll be happy to hear it, but I have this nagging suspicion you’re a gentleman."
"A gentleman." His tone was quiet. Almost sinister.
"That’s right," she said, with as much calmness as she could summon.
He looked hard into her eyes.
"You’re right, Claudia," he said. "I am a gentleman."
What was he doing? She tried to quieten her breathing.
He took her hand, closed his eyes, and kissed the inside of her wrist. Slowly, as if he’d been thinking about it all night.
"That’s why you’re going to set the terms for me," he said, his tone even, his thumb still tracing the sensitive skin of her wrist. "I want you to tell me exactly how you’d like me to fuck you tonight."
She couldn’t speak.
"As I am, as you say, a gentleman, it’s crucial to me that I fuck you in absolute deference to your needs and wants."
He turned her hand over and kissed each of her knuckles, slow sucking kisses that shouldn’t have felt as good as they did. The room was spinning.
"So tell me. What are your needs?"
"I need you to fuck me," she said, her voice faint.
He closed his eyes momentarily, then opened them, his face serious and kind. "And what do you want?"
"I want you to take off your shirt," she said, emboldened.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because you have a fucking great body," she hissed.
He laughed, and he took his shirt off.
Oh, she was spent on this man. His big arms and incredible shoulders, his giddying golden skin. His gorgeously thick, untidy hair, his dark green eyes blazing with lust. His navy jeans hanging off his hips loosely, and a light trail of hair leading up to his toned stomach.
"And your jeans."
Not taking his eyes off her for a second, he yanked off each of his shoes and socks, then slid his fingers across his belt buckle, undid the clasp and pulled his belt off. Claudia swallowed. Every pulse point in her body was coming alive, blood pounding in her throat and her fingertips and between her legs. She stared at the waistband of his jeans with longing, and he slipped his thumb into the fly and undid the first button, then pulled down the zipper, revealing a hint of dark curly hair that she felt a sudden and confusing urge to press her face against.
Daniel pushed the jeans down off his hips and stepped out of them. She tried not to stare in awe, but it was hard to ignore the sight of his strong thighs and beautiful, straining cock outlined in his white underwear.
"Come here," Claudia said, less commandingly this time.
She couldn’t contain herself anymore. She dug her finger in the waistband of his briefs and pulled him in towards her, uncrossing her legs and wrapping them around his waist. She felt him, stirring and hot, pressing urgently against her. "Ahh…," she sighed, and it reared in response. He picked her up off the sofa arm and set her on the ground, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her the same way he had in the front seat of his car. Tightly, fiercely, hungrily. Like he never wanted to stop.
Everything about him was hard and warm and he smelt like magic: grassy and peppery and slightly musky. Like a wet meadow. She had no idea what a wet meadow smelt like, but she couldn’t imagine it was unlike this.
"Let me show you my bedroom," she murmured, grabbing his hand, and practically ran across the corridor, dragging him behind.
She pulled down the zipper on the back of her yellow dress and yanked the ribbon ties on each shoulder undone in two swift motions. Daniel tugged the dress downward and it fell loosely to the floor. He took a moment to absorb the sight of her, standing there in her dusky cream lace underwear.
"Claudia," he said, drinking her in, "you are a vision."
He scooped her up in his arms and placed her on the bed, kissing her neck as the back of his fingers brushed a low, teasing pattern on her stomach. Feverishly, she arched her back and unclipped her bra strap, wriggling helpfully as he slipped the bra off each of her shoulders.
She felt liberated, beautiful, seduced, elevated by the sensation of the clean cotton against her back and the warm summer breeze across her chest, pouring in through the open window.
He drew her breast lightly into his palm, circling a thumb over her nipple, watching her face. She knew there was no point trying to hide the state she was in, her eyelids fluttering involuntarily, her mouth half-open. Still caressing her right breast, he bent down and kissed the soft white skin of the left again and again, making her writhe, until he finally placed his mouth over the nipple itself and lapped it with his tongue, and she cried out, the sensation at once exquisite and unendurable.
She clawed at his back, unable to take much more of that attention.
"This isn’t fair," she murmured, "I should be allowed to touch you too."
He growled, grabbed her hand and pressed it to his belly. His muscled torso was blazing hot and hard, and the feel of it sent a storm of butterflies loose between her legs. She rubbed her hand in a slow circle and he moaned beautifully, right on cue. She continued circling her hand but moved it downward, only a whisper away from the swell in his underwear.
She dared a look at his face. His head tilted back in pleasure, his mouth open, his hair even more mussed up than usual. She arched her back and kissed him, gently biting his full lower lip, flicking her tongue across his, slowly dragging her hand across him through the soft layer of fabric. The feel of it nearly made her cry: so full, so warm, so thick with desire. Soon, she reminded herself. For now she luxuriated in the feel of it under her hand, practically pulsating, and Daniel’s mouth against hers.
"Claudia," he hissed, pulling away from her, "this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said you were calling the shots."
She paused momentarily, torn between the pleasure of what she was doing and curiosity. Curiosity won out.
"What did you have in mind?" she asked, her voice coming out lower and huskier than she expected.
"Well," he said, flipping her over onto her back and pinning her to the bed, "I certainly didn’t plan on letting you do all the work." He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her between the breasts. She lay limp as a rag doll as he kissed her collarbone, her neck, her stomach, little stars of pleasure exploding through her body. He shuffled down the bed and, very slowly, very tenderly, pressed his mouth firmly to the apex of her thighs, kissing her through the lacy fabric of her underwear, making her cry out.
Daniel lifted his head back and exhaled at the sound. He drew himself up and kissed her on the mouth pre-emptively, sweetly, then moved back down her body and nuzzled her once more through her panties, the friction driving her wild. He slid her knickers off as she raised her torso and then her ankles to assist him. He placed his hands against her buttocks, attended to the soft, sensitive skin of her inner thighs, and administered a series of warm, sucking kisses that were moving dangerously close to her throbbing clitoris.
Her heart was battering against her ribs.
"Daniel," she said, "I think…"
He glanced up at her from between her legs, his eyes dreamy. Her heart contracted.
"I think you should come back up here," she said. "I’m going to come too quickly."
"You can come as quickly as you like," he said thickly, seemingly unwilling to stop.
"But your body is so incredible," she said, half-dazed, "I want to be able to touch you while I come."
He exhaled, hoisting himself next to her on the bed. "I want to taste you," he said, his eyes opaque, raking fingers across her collarbone. "I want to feel you come in my mouth."
Dirty talk coming from Daniel – Daniel, so well-spoken and respectful that it was practically pathological – it was enough to make her howl at the moon.
"If I get to call the shots, why do you get to decide who comes first?"
"I’m sorry. You’re right," he said darkly. There wasn’t an ounce of contrition in his voice. "I’m your slave from now on."
A shudder ran through her as she guided his hand down between her legs.
"Can’t you feel how wet I am?" she asked him, her eyes narrow with arousal. "Just think. It’s all your fault."
He closed his eyes, exhaled and spread her apart gently with his fingers, running them in circles around her clitoris. Waves of tingling pleasure radiated through her thighs and belly.
"Oh, God, Daniel," she whispered, "do you have any idea how close I am already?"
The pleasure spread into her breasts, her calves, her toes, her fingertips as his fingers teased and pressed and circled her. He watched her mouth as her breaths became harsher, her moans becoming involuntarily louder and more raw, then pressed his mouth to her nipple again, teasing its tip with his tongue.
He looked up at her, carefully, his fingers still tracing her wetness, then tucked aside her hair with his other hand and moved his mouth to her ear. She could feel his erection, hot and thick, pressing up against her thigh. She pushed a hand into his hair, clawing and kneading, so dizzy with wanting that she almost didn’t care if she hurt him.
"Is that good?"
She mewled in response.
"Are you excited?" His voice was deep and rough.
"Jesus Christ, yes. Yes. Yes." She was practically panting, restlessly shifting her hips over and over to increase the pressure of his touch on her aching clitoris.
He laughed softly, the vibrations running through her body. "Claudia, sweetheart, I want you to come for me."
That did it. Her whole body arched, her fingers clenching and Daniel’s voice warm in her ear, the orgasm erupted through her body and she thrust and writhed and cried out, not caring what she looked like, not caring about anything except for the devastating sea of feeling that threatened to drown every part of her body.
When she came out of the trance he was looking at her in what appeared to be, at least at that moment in time, absolute devotion.
"You’re a goddess," he said, "I could watch you come for hours."
A contraction that was partway between pleasure and pain clenched between her legs. She was slippery with wetness, moments away from wanting more. She glanced down at his underwear, sizing up the situation. A tickle of excitement twitched inside her.
"Stand up," she commanded.
He complied, watching her.
"Take off your underwear."
Giving her a long, slow and undeniably horny look, he stepped out of his briefs.
He was perfect. She didn’t know what else to call it. He was her fantasy, looking at her with so much open desire she felt like it could crack her in two.
She shuffled onto the side of the bed and sat with her legs dangling down. "Come closer."
Claudia placed her hands on the backs of his thighs and drew him into her, the long hard shaft pressing urgently against her breasts, and he tossed his head and gave a long, ragged moan. She splayed her hands over his buttocks, kissed his stomach, enjoying the sensation and the smell of him, musky and animal now.
She pulled him back onto the bed and on top of her, wrapping her legs around him, pulling him close and kissing him open-mouthed.
"Just a minute," she said, and reached into the top drawer of her bedside table, pulling out a condom and handing it to him.
"Claudia," he said, urgently, though he didn’t say anything else.
"I’m ready for you to fuck me now," she said. He moaned and bundled her into his arms, kissing her hard and senseless for a long moment, then tore open the packet and sheathed himself rapidly. He nudged his cock gently into her opening, teasing her, then eyed her.
"Yes," she whispered, "now, now, now – ohhhhhhhhhhh."
He slid inside her, fitting into her so warmly and thickly it was like a dream. Her ears were ringing and her fingertips felt as if they were emitting sparks.
"Daniel…" He glanced at her, but all she could do was nod.
He withdrew, then plunged into her again. Oh, she was obsessed with him. Utterly obsessed. Incredulous that this perfect specimen should be in bed with her. Blindsided by the surreality of having such a spectacle of masculinity making love to her. She felt incredible, somehow drunk with power and weak with lust both at once, dizzy with pleasure.
His pace increased, his body pressed so close to hers it was as if they were one, their breathing simultaneously becoming faster and heavier.
"Sweetheart," he murmured in her ear, "Oh, Claudia, I’m going to…"
The ringing in her ears at fever pitch, her vision exploding into kaleidoscopic shards, he bucked into her, coming long and hard, and they both cried out.
He folded her body into his as if the world was ending.
She lay with his arm around her, sweaty and warm, shaken by what had just happened, but her whole body heavy with satisfaction. She had known that sex with Daniel would be good. But the connection between them was beyond good. They’d been on a wavelength. Or maybe it was more like a taut wire, crackling with electricity.
She only hoped they hadn’t frazzled it, burnt the thing up too quickly. That the connection wasn’t spent, the mystery gone.
"Claudia," he said, exhaling into her hair, "you have destroyed me."
She rolled onto his chest, propping her chin on her fist, looking at him. "What do you mean?"
"I feel like I could sleep for a year." His eyes were soft, sleepy, and she felt a shot of powerful warmth run right through her. Probably oxytocin, tricking her into feeling a surplus of post-orgasmic affection. She had to admit that she hadn’t experienced quite such a surge of affection after going to bed with other men – but then, other men didn’t usually make her come like that.
"Well," she said, unable to resist the urge to run a hand through his hair, "you can sleep until the morning, at least."
"Mmmmmph," he said, wrapping his arms around her. "God, you’re beautiful."
She was almost sleepy now too, swaddled in the luxurious warmth of his arms as if she was something precious, something he didn’t want to let go of. She kissed his chest.
"Goodnight Daniel." She paused. "I’m glad you came over for dinner."
He opened his eyes and looked into hers one last time.
"I’m glad I came, too," he said, and gave her an unforgettable smile. "G’night, Claud."
So there it was. She’d had sex with Daniel Cunningham and it had been nothing short of earth shattering. He was like an alien, sent down to give her everything she’d never known she wanted in a lover. Now, she thought darkly, she could probably never go back to having regular sex with earth males ever again.
She was already worried he wouldn’t want to do it again.
Why was she always so pessimistic about this stuff? She imagined what Kim would say. Or, more to the point, she imagined Kim shaking her by the shoulders. Woman, did you not see the way he looked at you? Did you not listen to the way he talked to you? All signs point to Daniel Cunningham being crazy about you.
But too much hope made her nervous. Besides, she knew that any affair they had would have to be a short one. Partly because she was moving – but for the sake of her heart, too. Even if he wasn’t the type of guy she normally went for, it would be dangerously easy to get attached to Daniel Cunningham.
She looked over at him, his face buried in sleep, his chest rising and falling, feeling that oxytocin rush again.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, Nyman. Enjoy him while you can, and get some damn sleep.
She draped an arm over him, placed her hand on his chest and buried her face into his back, willing herself off into sleep.
"Claudia?" Daniel was murmuring, brushing a hair behind her ear. "I have to go now." She stirred. The room was flooded with golden light.
"Shit," she hissed, looking at the digital clock on her bedside table, then sighed with relief. "What? No, you don’t. It’s only 5am."
"I get up early on weekdays," he said sheepishly.
"What for?" she asked curiously. The sight of his lean, muscular chest wrapped in her cream bedsheets had snapped her out of sleep faster than a double espresso. "You’ve hardly slept."
"I go to the gym most mornings. And I was hoping to get some work done before I have to start heading off to meetings."
She flipped onto her side to look at him. "I guess this kind of body can’t just sustain itself," she said, smirking. "That’s a shame. I was hoping I’d get to fit in another bout of aerobics before you left."
"Well," he said, "I did say the ball was in your court."
She raised her eyebrows at him, excitement prickling through her again.
"We’re mixing our exercise metaphors."
"So," he continued, ignoring her, although there was amusement in his eyes, "if you insist, then it would hardly be gentlemanly of me to turn you down."
She lifted the blanket and found what she was hoping for. A gorgeous, perfectly tumescent morning erection. The sweetest sight in the world. She sighed dreamily, kissed his belly and crawled on top of him.
When she entered the Atlas offices the next morning, she half-expected something to be different. That everyone would know, somehow, just from looking at her, that she and Daniel had spent the night together. The night had felt so momentous, it was hard to imagine that she wasn’t somehow altered.
Of course, they didn’t.
She was glad he’d warned her that he would be in meetings all day. Between occasional fits of staring off into middle distance, and shuffling in her seat to enjoy the faint sensation of soreness lapping between her thighs, she actually managed to get some work done.
After work, Claudia joined Kim and some mutual friends for food in the city. Exhaustion was starting to creep in, but at least an early dinner meant she wouldn’t have to cook.
Kim drew her away from the main thrust of conversation to talk to her in a low voice.
"So, I Googled your man."
"What are you talking about?"
"Daniel Cunningham! I was bored at work, the endless resources of the information superhighway were at my fingertips, and curiosity got the better of me. Can you blame me? I found some pics, Claud, and he is dynamite. I have never wanted one of my friends to sleep with someone so much."
"I slept with him."
Kim’s eyes widened. "What? Already?!"
"Last night. He came over for dinner." She paused, seized by a twitch of mischief. "And then he came over my bedsheets."
It wasn’t wasn’t often she could outgross Kim.
"Claudia!" she squealed. "I don’t know whether to be disgusted or jealous. Let’s just say I’m impressed."
"I’m just kidding. Sort of. Well, he didn’t get anything on my sheets-"
"The perfect gentleman-" Kim interjected.
"-but we did sleep together. He stayed the night."
"I’m so jealous," said Kim, although her candid, excited face showed nothing of the sort. "Was it good?"
"It was the best." She was still dreamy.
"Was it weird shagging a businessman?"
Claudia had somehow forgotten about the whole CEO thing. She guessed it made sense that most men no longer seemed very businesslike once they took off their shirts. She shrugged. "Let’s just say he knew his business."
"Are you going to do it again?"
She thought about it, a flutter of anxiety and longing in her chest.
"I think so. I hope so. Once I recover."
"Ewww," said Kim happily.
A tall, energetic redhead interrupted their conversation. "Guys. Opening night is Saturday. Are you coming?" They had met Tamsin at university. She was now dividing her time between being one of the city’s most celebrated up-and-coming stage actresses and being treated like dog meat while working at a chic cafe, often by the same people who’d been members of her adoring audience the night before.
"Yeah, we’re coming," they chorused. Kim and Claudia had loyally seen their friend in a dizzying variety of plays – some electrifying, some outstandingly bad.
"I’m so relieved. Do you want me to try to get you comps? I’ll see if can get you comps."
They rolled their eyes.
"Don’t give us your tickets! You need to make money! And we want to come see you anyway!" said Claudia.
"Sell them on the internet or something!" Kim lambasted her.
"It’s a David Mamet, right? Don’t people actually go to see David Mamet plays?"
"It’s second-tier Mamet," Tamsin conceded. "We’ll probably shift some tickets on the night. But pre-sales haven’t been great."
Kim and Claudia both winced. That sounded about right. "Well, we’ll be there," Claudia reassured her.
Tamsin smiled relievedly, and Claudia felt for her. For all the ups and downs of ghostwriting, at least she got a reasonably steady stream of income from it. It almost seemed thankless to ask for more. She wasn’t doing so badly.
Victor approached her desk on Thursday.
"Wanna come rock climbing? I’m heading out with Shonice and Darren after lunch."
"I’m serious. Daniel’s suggestion. You don’t actually have to climb. He said you can write it up for the blog. We’re gonna see if Radhika can come too, to get some shots. I want to run some tests on the new products."
Claudia must have looked skeptical. "Don’t worry, they’re just shoes and gloves. I’m not trying out a new harness or anything like that. They’ve already been tested. And approved by the relevant climbing safety organisations. And they’ve gone through our legal team," he informed Claudia. "We could put them in stores tomorrow; they’re perfectly safe. But I want to make sure they’re perfect."
She nodded. She liked the way no one at Atlas seemed to be trying to make a quick buck. They wanted to make products that people could actually use, products with longevity.
"It’s about an hour out of the city. There’s a spot up the coast with some sweet little micro-crags. You live nearby, don’t you? We can stop by your place on the way and you can grab some things if you think you wanna give it a shot. You don’t have to decide until we get there, though. Totally up to you."
She decided not to bother asking what a micro-crag was. She was tickled by the idea of getting paid to, if not actually scale a rock face, at least spend the afternoon going on a road trip and getting out of town for a couple of hours. Arrogant and obnoxious as he enjoyed pretending to be, she enjoyed Victor’s company.
"Why not?" she said expansively. He smiled widely.
"That’s the spirit. We probably won’t get back until seven, though. Is that cool?"
"You’ve never climbed before, have you?"
Vlad from PR dropped in to talk about the blog before she left for the afternoon. He was flicking through her file approvingly when he stopped and starting reading something intently.
"We should use this. It’s gold."
"Oh," she said, looking over his shoulder, "Those are just notes." The handwritten page was headed by her scrawl: "LESSONS LEARNT AT THE CLAW AND ARROW". She’d jotted down a couple of paragraphs just in case she could use them later. She’d included the Louis/Paul/Peter Theroux confusion as well as some choice advice from Ella about getting into nightclubs while wearing hiking boots, and Shonice’s tips on having sex in a one-man tent at 4000 feet (Number One: Don’t.)
"Yeah, but we could do a piece from your perspective too. In fact…" He looked hard at her. "Maybe we should do the whole thing from your point of view. Fly on the wall. Maybe it’d be more effective to show what it’s like from an outsider’s perspective."
"I thought you wanted staff voices, the whole appeal-to-authority thing."
"Yeah, that was pretty good," said Vlad without a trace of humility, "but this is way better. I wasn’t expecting your work to be this funny. I mean, this stuff wasn’t even that funny at the time."
She ignored that back-handed compliment. "Won’t Daniel mind?"
He shrugged. "I’ll check with him, plus we’d better run it past everyone concerned. We’d just try out one or two pieces to begin with. Dan will like it though. You know what he’s like. Always with the transparency."
Something occurred to her. "My contract is only for a month. It’ll be harder to set up the blog for the future if it’s all in my voice."
Vlad’s face fell. "Oh, yeah, I didn’t think about that. Why don’t you stay longer?"
"I’m starting a new position in eight weeks. Interstate."
"Damn," he cursed. "Well, we’ll work it out. But it’s a shame you’re not sticking around."
Part of her had felt the same. Why did she feel so nauseated whenever she thought about Canberra? She hoped it wasn’t because of Daniel. Claudia had no intention of putting her work on hold for a man. It was probably just nerves at the thought of moving. Canberra was a beautiful town, but she was well aware her lifestyle there would be different to what it was in Sydney.
Well, that was fine. Maybe if she was less tempted by dinners and plays and gallery openings she’d become hyper-productive. Like a word-processing hermit. If that was what it took to get serious, that’s what she’d do.
Marina pouted as they headed out towards the elevators. "I can’t believe you’re going without me."
"How would we steer this ship without you, Marina?" Victor asked smoothly.
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "You have a point."
Claudia was quiet on the car trip. The views were gorgeous, and besides it was interesting to see how the others had interacted. She’d never been privy to office gossip before, but it seemed fairly warm-hearted in nature. Familial, even.
Besides, the subject of conversation had been both relevant and highly intriguing.
"El Jefe has been in high spirits lately," Darren observed. He’d finally started talking in her presence.
"He’s probably counting down the days to Argentina," Shonice shrugged. "I know I would be."
"Wonder if he and Viv are going to, uh, rekindle their romance."
Claudia felt like she’d been slapped in the face. She couldn’t believe how much Darren’s comment hurt her. Until now she’d been doing pretty well at ignoring the little stabs of jealousy she felt when the subject of Vivienne was raised. It was ridiculous: she’d be out of Atlas by then, anyway.
And whatever was between her and Daniel would be over.
Victor furrowed his brow, opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. "I strongly doubt that’s going to happen." He paused. "He just hasn’t been on the road for a while; he gets cagey. Don’t tell me you don’t."
Claudia found her voice. "Does Dan ever get really mad? He seems pretty relaxed to me, so far."
"Yeah," said Victor blandly, "He’s been in a pretty good mood since you’ve been on the scene." He flicked her a look in the rear view mirror. She immediately shifted her gaze back out the car window. Was he onto her? More pertinently, was it true? And if so, was Victor suggesting it was something to do with her?
Everyone else appeared to take his comment at face value. "He’s always nice to me," said Radhika in her melodious, quiet voice, "but sometimes I think he gets really grumpy. He shuts the door of his office and he doesn’t really want to see people."
Interesting. That was what Marina had said too.
"I’ve only ever seen him lose his shit once," said Darren, "when that asshole Rick wouldn’t leave Marina alone."
Shonice nodded vigorously. "I’d forgotten about that! Man, he really lost it."
"Some dirtbag who’d just joined the legal team was bugging Marina, always asking her out and creeping on her. She was doing a pretty good job of shaking him off on her own, but he was persistent." Victor’s expression was dark.
"Once Daniel found out, he went ballistic," Darren interjected. "The instant Marina went to lunch, he exploded at this creep. In front of the office. Fired him right then and there, obviously. No one had ever even heard him raise his voice before."
"Everyone was scared to talk for the rest of the day. It was terrifying."
"I mean, it wasn’t funny. The guy deserved everything he had coming to him."
"Of course, a couple of days later Marina bounces into the office like, "Hey, what happened to that Rick asshole? Did he quit? Boy, am I glad to see the back of that jag!" She had no idea what had happened." Darren laughed.
"I love Marina," Radhika said sweetly, "she’s so much fun. And she helped me find a flatmate."
"She’s a sweetheart," said Shonice, "but my God, she’s a handful."
"She’s just young," Victor said, and Claudia thought she detected a note of tenderness in his tone. Victor, a soft touch. Whoever would have guessed?
"Everyone seems pretty close," Claudia offered. "It’s nice. You don’t get this kind of work environment everywhere."
"Good leadership," said Victor tightly. His regard for Daniel was obvious. "Good leadership, and good hiring practises." He paused. "Apart from Rick. But at least Dan got rid of him quickly."
"It’s nice working for a company that’s not hell-bent on, you know, destroying the earth," said Shonice. The others nodded enthusiastically. "And the lunches are a nice touch." They snickered affirmatively.
Damn it. She’d better not hear anything else about this guy, or she was going to fall in love with him.
Claudia could hardly believe that this place existed less than an hour out of the heart of the city. A lush, shady little pocket of greenery and layered orange rocks, just tucked away from a tiny picturesque bay where modest tin boats floated. It felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. It occurred to her that she’d lived in Sydney for over a decade now. She’d explored it lovingly and thoroughly: she could name the best coffee shop on any given street, had been to every Shanghai dumpling house worth knowing about, and could recommend a licensed warehouse venue for an up-and-coming contemporary dance piece in a flash. And still she’d hardly ventured out of town.
She lay on a grassy patch, jotting down notes and watching the others get set up. She had changed into gym shorts and a tank, but she wasn’t sure how willing she was to climb. It was a beautiful afternoon, and for now she was happy to observe.
"How do the gloves feel?" Victor called to Shonice, who was scaling what appeared to be a precipitously-angled wall of rock with no apparent difficulty.
"Awesome," she yelled back. "Your last lot were pretty good, but these are better."
"How about the shoes?"
"Fantastic!" Shonice reached for a high grip. "I could wear ’em to bed."
An unmistakeable look of pride crossed over Victor’s face.
"Never thought I’d be a ladies’ shoe designer," he said, smirking. Darren rolled his eyes.
Claudia watched admiringly as Shonice swung herself easily up the rock face, every inch of her slender limbs accented with long cords of muscle. Shonice usually wore stylish suits to work, but right now she was making khaki shorts and a bandanna look good.
"She somehow makes that look both easy and impossible," Claudia observed.
"Shonice knows more about this stuff than anyone," Victor said. "That’s why Daniel lets her out on these trips."
"Hey!" Darren protested, "I arguably know a thing or two about rock-climbing myself."
"Yeah, but I’d hate to see you running the books," Shonice called out. "Claud, you could try this one out. It looks tough, but it’s a pretty decent beginners run."
"I’m skeptical," Claud muttered.
"It’ll still be hard, and you might not make it up the whole way," said Victor sensibly. "But it doesn’t matter if you don’t."
For some reason, that was reassuring. It was nice to know that failure was an option. She thought about it for a moment.
"Ok," she said.
The others applauded.
Victor and Shonice helped her into the gear, Victor explaining how it worked. Darren stood at the bottom, belaying. She felt reassured by his solid presence.
Much to her amazement, she managed three quarters of the crag slowly but steadily. All that swimming had definitely been paying off. She could sense the strain in her shoulders and abdominal muscles, but she felt strong. Resilient.
"I’m doing quite well, right?" she called gleefully. "Bet you guys didn’t expect me to get this far."
"One minute she’s all shy, the next she’s bragging her way to the top," Victor said incredulously.
"The Legend of Braggar Vance," said Darren in a stage-mutter.
Claudia started laughing, the rope shaking. "Darren, that’s so stupid."
"Don’t make her laugh," Shonice admonished, "it’ll make it harder."
"A Brags to Riches Tale," Darren said innocently.
She laughed harder, her abs hurting from the strain of holding her position.
"You know I wouldn’t be laughing at this if I wasn’t in a terrifying situation," she called over her shoulder.
"Pride comes before a fall," Victor mused loudly.
That did it. She straightened her face, summoned up her remaining energy and reached for the next hold in the rock, then the next. Darren remained blessedly silent. A muscle in her armpit felt dangerously close to cramping, but she hauled herself up to the last foothold just in time as everyone burst into whoops and applause.
"You wanna rappel down?" asked Shonice, who had been keeping watch at the top.
"Is that like abseiling?"
Shonice grinned. "You really are a rookie, huh? Same thing. Put one hand over the knot, there -" she gestured, and let the rope slide through the other. But go slow."
She let herself drift to the bottom, her feet intermittently tapping against the rock, enjoying the sensation.
"Well," said Darren critically, helping her out of the harness, "your technique really fell apart at the end."
She threw him a dirty look. "I wonder why."
"But," he said, "other than that, you did pretty good."
They exchanged a grin. "Thanks. That was fun." Truth be told, she was dangerously understating how much she’d enjoyed it. She felt heady with accomplishment.
"Dan’s going to be impressed," Darren added.
She did everything within her power not to blush and failed. Victor looked at her knowingly.
By Friday, any beneficial effects of her night with Daniel had been well and truly eroded by a new bout of sexual frustration. She was slightly sore from the rock-climbing, but if anything else that just added an extra layer to her irritation.
She wanted to get Daniel back into bed, and she wanted it now. There wasn’t time to waste.
She began by dressing for the occasion. Black lingerie. Sheer seamed stockings. A black pencil skirt, and a sheer black button-down blouse with a low-cut camisole underneath. Low pointed heels and dark red lipstick. The outfit wasn’t out of character, per se, and technically it was perfectly office-appropriate. But it was definitely designed for seduction.
She wanted Daniel to take one look at her and burst into flames.
She wasn’t surprised when he wasn’t in the office. Claudia knew perfectly well that if she sat around watching the door, chances were he’d end up caught in meetings all day yet again. The instant she grew absorbed in her work and actually started getting something done, he’d walk through the door. The Seduction Gods just worked that way. She decided to work on her write-up about Tuesday’s climbing session.
Once she’d knocked out a draft, she stood up, intending to talk to the website team about the piece. Daniel emerged from an elevator as she walked past, and her heart leapt immediately into her throat. Works every time, she thought.
"Good morning, Daniel," she said sweetly.
She saw his eyes run rapidly up and down over her body before he caught himself and met her gaze. "Claudia," he mumbled, and he looked slightly disturbed.
Good. She liked that Daniel was a gentleman. It made it all the more exciting when he was, well, a man.
She continued to IT, where the head consultant Ella and Jeremie, the handsome young French-Canadian intern, raved about her pieces and told her exactly how they planned to use it in the web collateral. She left the conversation with renewed excitement about the work. She liked working with everyone here. There was an energy and excitement that was infectious. People believed inÂ what they were doing, and that, she knew from experience, was rare. For half an hour or so, she’d been so involved in the discussion had even managed to forget about Daniel.
She returned to her desk to discover a note sitting on her desk.
Please see me when you get a chance. My next meeting is at 2.
She felt a sting of worry coupled with a jittery excitement. The tone was terse, but she couldn’t think of any issues he might have. Had the back-seamed stockings taken effect already? Why had he left a note? She supposed the one-line email wasn’t Daniel’s style, somehow.
She ran her thumb over the Post-it where his handwriting was. It gave her a strange thrill, touching his spidery, hurried scrawl.
Pathetic, Â said a little voice inside her head.
Daniel inhaled deeply, opened the door to his office and showed Claudia in.
"How are you?" he said. His heart was racing uncharacteristically fast.
Claudia smiled, looking relieved. "Well, thank you," she said easily. "The latest post is coming along smoothly."
"Good," said Daniel, and a silence followed.
He felt stupid. He had no reason for calling her into the office. The instant he’d seen her – that sheer black ensemble, seamed stockings – every part of his body had snapped to attention. The sight of her talking to Jeremie had caused a tiny part of him to fly into flames of rage. Of course, he was sensible enough to ignore that part of him: it was neither Claudia nor Jeremie’s fault that he was irrationally jealous of every man who’d ever spoken to her. But he hadn’t been sensible enough not to scribble that note and leave it on her desk.
He would have to wing it.
"Take off your shirt for me."
He hadn’t expected to say that.
"I’m sorry?" she said, but there was a flicker of something in her eyes that he recognised well. It sent a jolt through his body, finishing up in his cock, which was well and truly rearing into action.
She was as excited as he was.
"Take off your shirt," he repeated, and there was greater command in his voice this time.
To his shock and thrill, she acquiesced immediately, revealing a black bra that looked like it was made of leather. Another jolt shot straight from the chest, through his stomach and into his groin.
"Do you always wear this sort of lingerie in the workplace, Claudia?" he asked her curiously.
She looked at him boldly. "Only when I deem it appropriate," she responded defiantly.
He suppressed a smile.
"Very well. Now your skirt," he said.
She was wearing fully-fashioned stockings, leather-look panties, and a suspender belt. He stared at her, blinking, his gaze trapped on the endlessly soft skin of her inner thighs revealed between the tops of her stocking and her panties, before he managed to gather himself.
"I could look at you in that lingerie for a year. But unfortunately we won’t get very far that way. So I’ll have to ask you to take off the more crucial elements for me."
Thank God she was wearing it French style, the knickers over the top of the garter belt. If she’d elected for the more traditional style they would have been there unsnapping suspender clips for a week. Claudia slipped down the knickers and stepped out of them, leaving only the stockings and the belt. If she was self-conscious, she wasn’t showing it. Her hip was slightly cocked at an insouciant angle, her face dauntless and her soft eyes darker than usual.
"I’d like do something I’ve been thinking about more often than I’m comfortable with."
"What’s that?" she asked, and this time he identified a certain breathiness in her tone. Perhaps she was nervous after all. He felt an odd pang of affection at the thought.
"You’ll have to take some more instruction from me," he informed her. She nodded.
â€œDo you see my chair, Claudia?" He gestured to the luxurious black chair behind his desk.
"I’d like you to sit in it." Intense curiosity was darting across her face now, but she walked over to the chair and stood in front of it, pausing for a second –
"In the chair, please."
She perched on the cool leather and Daniel walked towards her. He tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.
"Claudia, you are lovely."
She made a slightly pained sound that amplified through him.
In one elegant movement, he fell to his knees in front of her, looking up at her.
"Would you open your legs for me?"
She opened her mouth for a second, then mutely obliged.
"And if you would, sit on the very edge of the chair.."
She shuffled to the edge of the seat, her legs spread, her breath caught in her throat.
He stroked along the tops of her stockings loosely with his thumbs and looked her deeply in the eyes.
"You look so beautiful sitting there. That’s perfect. Thank you."
She stared down at him, her eyes wild, her mouth slightly open. "What are we going to do?"
He closed his eyes at the question, letting it flood right through him.
"You’re going to sit right there, and I’m going to make love to you," he said, and pressed his mouth slowly to the hot, melting centre of her.
"Are you free at all this weekend?"
Daniel was looking at Claudia intently. She was still sitting on his chair, pulling up her stockings, half-spent. She had tooth marks in her hand where she’d bitten down so that she didn’t cry out.
She thought about his question for a moment. She wasn’t, not really. She and Evan were seeing another film after work – he was currently working through a hearty stack of preview passes that he received through his design work with magazines. She wondered whether Daniel would be bothered by the thought of her seeing films with her ex-boyfriend. If he was, she doubted he’d show it.
Her mother was in the city on Saturday, and Claudia had plans to meet her for lunch. As much as she would have loved to watch her mother’s face as she introduced her to Daniel, she decided it probably wasn’t exactly appropriate. Besides, she wouldn’t have been able to handle the subsequent ten years of hearing, "What happened to that Daniel? Now, he was a nice-looking man."
She wasn’t going to be short of distractions this weekend. But she still didn’t want to spend it without him. Not if she could help it. Not if he could give her another orgasm like that one.
"Do you want to come see a play on Saturday?"
She really needed to quit it with the impromptu invitations and start thinking these things through. Claudia loved watching Tamsin perform, but her friend had worked with some terrible scripts, and some even worse actors and directors. And if there was one thing more excruciating than sitting through a terrible play, it was sitting through a terrible play with a date you wanted to go to bed with.
His mouth twitched. "What play?"
"Speed-the-plow, at the Milkhouse. It opens Saturday night. My friend Tamsin is in it. It’s, you know, a professional production," she said hurriedly, then added, "although that’s no guarantee it will be good."
Daniel started laughing. "Really? Is your friend that bad?"
"No!" said Claudia, horrified. "She’s fantastic. Really. It’s just that there’s a lot of shitty plays in the world, and unfortunately I’ve seen all but six of them."
"Well, you should be almost safe, then. Statistically speaking."
"My friend Kim and I still reminisce fondly about the time we paid thirty five bucks to watch a guy set fire to a peanut." Daniel started laughing. "This is a David Mamet play, though, so probably no one will set fire to any legumes." She paused thoughtfully. "No guarantees though."
He was still laughing.
"Sure. Sounds good.â€?
She nodded. "Cool. I’ll grab tickets at lunch."
"Good," he said, his eyes still running over her as she buttoned her blouse. "Do you want to get dinner beforehand?"
A thrill raced through her, though she wasn’t sure why. The plan was to sleep with Daniel as much as possible, not dine with him all over town. "Sure," she said, "did you have anywhere in mind?"
"Do you like pasta?"
"Who doesn’t like pasta?" she asked, confused.
He grinned. "Just checking. I’ll pick you up."
"How’s that funny new job of yours? With the adventure company, was it?"
"Great," said Claudia, more enthusiastically than she intended. "Really interesting." She scraped her spoon along the surface of her coffee, then licked the foam off her spoon. Saturday had turned out to be a gorgeous day, the city sparkling in blue and gold. She was tingling with anticipation for the evening.
Claudia was close to her mother, but in the grand tradition of mothers everywhere Laura Nyman was nothing if not a worrier. She’d never quite come to terms with her daughter’s choice to spurn the glittering call of a law degree for the rather less secure work of a freelance writer.
Well, she’d be pleased about the position in Canberra. Once Claudia actually decided to tell her about it. Canberra wasn’t any further from her hometown than Sydney was, so it wasn’t as if Laura would be seeing less of her.
"Oh, good. You were always so good at English at school," Laura sighed. "You should really do something with your writing."
Claudia rolled her eyes in affectionate irritation. They’d definitely had this discussion at least one thousand times before.
"I’m paid to be a writer, Mum," she exhaled, "It’s my full-time job. That’s more than most writers can say. I’m not sure how much more you would have me do with it."
"Oh, you know what I mean. You should have your name on your work! You’re the one who wrote it."
Laura had never really grasped the concept of ghostwriting and tended to see it as tantamount to theft, convinced that Claudia was entirely unaware she was being hoodwinked.
"Maybe you’re right," Claudia said placidly, not willing to relive the conversation for the thousand and first time.
"Have you spoken to your father lately?"
Ugh. Perhaps she should have kept talking about her job.
"Not since the last time I spoke to you, no."
Truth be told, Claudia found it hard to talk to her father these days. He’d never been great on the phone: they’d always found much more to talk about in person. And since he never called her, she felt that she couldn’t be held entirely responsible for upholding their relationship. He was her father, after all.
She loved him. She missed him. But she wasn’t sure what their relationship was supposed to look like anymore, and she wasn’t sure how much he cared. Especially not while she was still ghostwriting.
"Do you have any new boyfriends?" said Laura, brightening.
Claudia looked into her flat white, pondering idly what would happen if she told her mother, "Well, I’m almost certainly going to have some fantastic sex tonight." That didn’t seem polite. On the other hand, whenever she failed to bring up a scrap of info regarding men, Laura liked to launch into the heartfelt "No matter whether you’re interested in men or women, you’re still my daughter and I’m very proud of you" talk. She’d always been a little perplexed by Claudia’s closeness to Kim.
She knew she was lucky to have a mother who cared. But she couldn’t quite stomach it today.
"I have a date tonight. But it’s not, uh, serious."
"Oh, you know," said Claudia vaguely, waving her hand. Laura looked confused, but to Claudia’s relief let it slide.
"How old is he?"
"Uhh, 35," said Claudia, plucking a number from the air. That seemed about right.
Laura gasped in horror.
"Mum, I’m 29, remember?"
"Oh, you are too," said Laura, her face softening. "I’d forgotten. Well, I suppose that’s reasonable. Where are you going?"
Claudia redirected the conversation into details about Tamsin’s latest play, grateful for the distraction. She loved Laura deeply, but the woman had a way of making her feel about twelve years old and desperately unaccomplished. And that was the last thing she wanted to feel right now.
Several hours later, Claudia was staring at herself in the mirror for what felt like the sixtieth time that week.
She looked damn good.
She wore a deep red dress in a subtle jacquard silk. The striking Bardot neckline sat insouciantly on the tips of her shoulders, emphasising her collarbone and bust, the boned bodice drawing her waist inward before flaring into a full skirt. It was more formal than was necessary for the Milkhouse, so she pulled a short black biker jacket over the top and loosened her hair over her shoulders. Perfect.
Daniel didn’t say anything when Claudia opened the door to her apartment, just looked at her for a moment. "Ready to go?"
Had she misjudged the outfit?, she wondered nervously. But he looked no less formal than she did – impossibly gorgeous in a grey suit and white shirt, his hair almost tidy. She nodded, and they walked quietly down to his car. Her heart was pounding so loudly she was surprised he couldn’t hear it.
He smiled as he opened the door for her and she relaxed a little.
"How has your weekend been so far?"
"Pretty good," she said, looking out the window. "My mother was up in the city today, so I had lunch with her today. It had been a while."
"Do your parents still live on the coast?"
Claudia shook her head. "My mother does. She and my dad split up just after I went to college. When I was eighteen. He’s living over in West Australia now, working in the mining industry. He’s an electrical engineer."
Somehow it still stung that he’d relocated without ever really talking to her about it. Things had never quite been the same after she’d discovered the reason for their parent’s split wasn’t quite as amicable as she’d assumed. Her father had met another woman, and while her mother never spoke to her about it, she certainly got the impression that he may not have been totally faithful to Laura. She’d tried to stay neutral on the matter – she was an adult, after all – but she wasn’t sure she’d ever be totally at ease with the fact that Laura was now alone while he was in a different state with his new girlfriend and her three children.
And then there was the fact that he’d never taken her writing seriously. Always trying to coerce her into medicine, or the sciences. Even Laura’s dreams of having a lawyer for a daughter weren’t practical enough for him. He never said anything to her personally, but she’d overheard him talking to Laura on more than one occasion. "She’s a smart girl. Why doesn’t she do something useful? The world doesn’t need more movie reviews, for God’s sake."
"She’s a good writer, love," Laura would say benignly. "She’s won all those awards." And her father would harrumph, hardly bothered to argue the point. That was even worse.
The thing was, she sort of agreed with him. Maybe not all the time. But more often than she’d like to admit.
Daniel glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Have your parents spent much time over here?" she asked, trying to change the subject before he could ask any more questions.
"Well," he said, ""From time to time. My mother still travels to Australia every couple of years." He paused. "Not really my father, though, no."
His tone was friendly, but Claudia could sense an uncharacteristic reticence in it. She was incredibly curious, although she was unwilling to probe. She certainly didn’t feel like unpacking her relatively uncomplicated family history for Daniel right now, and she couldn’t blame him if he didn’t want to do the same. Families were difficult.
He pulled into a long driveway in a street she didn’t quite recognise.
"I’m only a couple of blocks from the restaurant," he said, "so I thought perhaps we could walk there. If that’s okay with you."
She realised how far out of his way he’d come in order to pick him up and flushed.
"I’m sorry," she said, "I hadn’t realised you lived so close. I should have driven over to yours."
He smiled. "It was my pleasure," he said, "honestly."
She felt flustered, flummoxed even. Sometimes it seemed like – well, like he really liked her.
That’s because he obviously does, said the Kim on her shoulder, rolling her eyes.
After a short walk, Daniel led her into a laneway lit up by fairy lights. At one end, outside a hole-in-the-wall bar, people leaned against a wall decorated with street art, talking and smoking. At the other end of the long alley, people ate pasta from giant white bowls, scattered outside on crates and makeshift tables. Daniel showed her into a tiny, dark restaurant and led her to a small table, decorated with fresh flowers in a pale blue china jug and a half-melted glowing candle in a glass bottle.
"This looks gorgeous," she said, her face lit up. She loved discovering new places.
He grinned. "I like this place. I ate here once a week when I first moved into the neighbourhood."
The small, homely restaurant wasn’t the kind of place she’d imagined Daniel choosing. It was a world apart from Max’s slick offering at the Shafto. But he was, as she was discovering, a creature of contrasts. She liked that about him.
He ordered a bottle of wine and poured her a glass, but left his own empty.
"You know," she said, "you should have as much wine as you want. You don’t have to drive me home tonight." He glanced at her, a look of something she couldn’t recognise flashing in his eyes. "I can always catch a cab," she added, then immediately wished she hadn’t. She sounded defensive. And if they weren’t going to sleep together tonight, what were they doing?
"Besides," she amended, "I’d like to see your place." He nodded, his pupils dilated in the candlelight, and poured himself a glass of the beaded white wine. Their knees were touching lightly underneath the table, and the warm air smelt of blooming frangipanis and freshly torn basil. A surge of happiness pulsed through her, and she realised she couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere but here. Well, she was hoping to find herself buck-naked in Daniel’s apartment at some point tonight, but for now this was just about perfect.
The food was wonderful: packed with fresh, robust flavours and the satisfying, toothsome texture that only fresh pasta ever possessed.
"They have a garden out the back," explained Daniel, "and they grow most of their own stuff. They make just about everything in-house."
"You can tell," she said, dreamily, "this is fantastic."
He watched her, an unreadable look on his face.
"What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?" she asked him, feeling that urge again. The urge to turn him inside out with questions, to find out everything she possibly could about him.
"Well," he said, "it’s hard to imagine enjoying a meal more than the one you cooked the other night."
She rolled her eyes. "Let’s pretend for a minute that you’re not contractually obliged to say that, and leave that one out of the picture. What’s next in line?"
He looked at her curiously, but continued. "Probably the most memorable meal I had was at a dinner party in Tel Aviv, on Christmas Eve. A couple of years ago. I was travelling alone, but I’d made some friends when I was hiking earlier in the week, and they invited me to stay with them so I wouldn’t be alone at Christmas. They didn’t actually celebrate Christmas – they were just doing me a favour." He smiled at the memory. "I’m still not sure whether it was the food that was so good, or the company. It was just a potluck, nothing fancy, but every single dish somehow tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten."
"Do you usually travel alone?"
"These days? Generally, yes.".
"Do you get lonely?"
He glanced at her, his fork poised in midair.
"Not usually," he said, "but sometimes."
That was interesting. It was sort of – well, comforting, to know that Daniel got lonely on the road. Maybe he was an earthling, after all. A strange ache had opened up inside her. She wanted… what did she want? She wanted to be seated next to him at a dinner party full of strangers in Tel Aviv. She wanted to make sure he was never alone on Christmas.
She tossed her head rapidly, trying to shake off the thought. This crush was getting out of control. She needed to rein it in before it got dangerous.
But not tonight. It could wait until tomorrow. Then she’d take command over her emotions. Tonight she’d go with the flow. Enjoy herself.
"What about you?" he asked, "I can imagine your line of work gets pretty lonely."
She thought about it for a moment. "I suppose so, but I guess that’s just the nature of it. Luckily my work is also my hobby, so I can spend most of my spare time with friends."
"Do you like living alone?"
"Yeah, I guess I do. I like being able to do what I like when I like. I like being able to lie on my floor reading books and drinking iced coffee in my underwear all summer."
He was looking at her as if she was the most fascinating creature he’d ever encountered, the side of his mouth quirked in amusement.
A thought suddenly hit her. "You do live alone, don’t you?" She suddenly had a vision of him cohabiting with a sassy Californian blonde perpetually clad in a white bath towel, like two characters in a nineties sitcom. The thought was simultaneously entertaining and infuriating.
He laughed. "I haven’t lived with anyone else for years. I’ve unintentionally become kind of a loner, to be honest. More out of habit than choice."
Had he and Vivienne ever lived together? Where did he meet women? How often did he bring them home? She judiciously decided not to ask any of these questions. Suddenly, she remembered Radhika’s comment about Daniel shutting himself in the office.
He furrowed his eyebrows. "I can be, uh, a little terse on occasions."
"Really?" she asked, ""I haven’t seen any evidence of that. You’ve been perfectly delightful."
His lower lip twitched. God, it was sexy, the way he did that when he was trying to hold back a smile.
"I guess I’ve been on my best behaviour."
She swallowed hard, unable to decide whether to let that slide or to pursue it.
Fortune favours the bold, muttered a small voice in her head.
"How so?" she asked.
"Well," he said, slowly, "I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been somewhat disorientated by a new presence in the office lately."
She looked at him, blinking.
"You make it difficult for me to concentrate, Claudia," he continued casually, "which I would typically find extremely frustrating. But actually, I’ve been enjoying the distraction."
She opened her mouth slightly, then closed it again. Daniel took another forkful of pasta, his countenance relaxed.
This was going very well.
The Milkhouse was one of her favourite theatres, and Claudia was delighted to see it so filled with people. They’d turned out for the Mamet after all. Either that or Tamsin had arranged free tickets for half of Sydney.
To her incredible relief, the play was good. Actually good. Sharp, funny and dynamic. The dialogue-heavy script, simple sets and three-piece cast were perfectly suited to the intimate Milkhouse, and it was a delight to watch Tamsin matched with two more experienced actors who could hold their own. She was so absorbed that she forgot to worry about Daniel – but judging from the occasional appreciative rumblings of laughter she heard from his seat, he was enjoying it as much as she was.
At one point between scenes she glanced over at his gorgeous profile, humour lines creased around his mouth. He looked back over and caught her eye, then smiled and placed his hand over hers. They shared one long look, then returned to the play, and her entire being lit up. What were they, thirteen? Holding hands in a darkened theatre.
But the feeling of being with Daniel here, of sharing something she loved with him, flooded her with an almost painful sensation of warmth and longing.
Kim bounced up to them them in the lobby at interval.
"Holy mackerel, kiddo, you look spectacular." She looked Claudia up and down approvingly in a split second, then continued breathlessly, "Was it just me or was that actually good? Like, really good. Hi!" she said, turning and smiling broadly at Daniel.
"Daniel, this is Kim – I was telling you about her earlier. Kim, this is Daniel Cunningham. Daniel runs Atlas Adventure."
"Daniel? Nice to meet you." She shook his hand. "Glad to hear my reputation precedes me."
Claudia had to hand it to her. Kim’s performance was almost as impressive as Tamsin’s. It was almost as if Claudia hadn’t spent the last fortnight moaning about the guy to her friend.
"So, you’re enjoying it too?" he asked Kim warmly. "Your friend is wonderful."
Kim glowed loyally. "She’s a phenomenal babe, huh?"
Daniel looked slightly confused, but continued gamely. "The whole cast is great. They make it look easy. Which I’m sure it’s not."
"Oh, shit," blurted Kim, laughing, "I thought you meant Claudia."
Daniel turned to look at Claudia.
"Well," he said, not taking his eyes off her, "obviously, she’s a knockout."
Claudia blushed wildly, not sure who she was more embarrassed by.
Kim was grinning.
"We’ve seen Tamsin work with so many hacks," she said, mercifully changing the subject, "it’s a relief to see her in something that does her justice. Are you guys coming up to the lounge for drinks after? Tam told me to make sure you do."
Claudia blanched. She had no idea what to say. On one hand, part of her was anxious to take Daniel to bed as soon as possible. And she had no idea how he’d get on with Tamsin’s theatre crowd – some of whom, it seemed fair to say, occasionally verged on obnoxiousness.
On the other hand, she was desperately curious to see what he’d be like around them. She always enjoyed the post-show drinks. And, well, she wanted to show him off. What was the point of taking an irresistibly handsome man to bed if you never once got to celebrate him with an audience of your peers?
She glanced at him and shrugged questioningly. "I’m easy. How about you?"
"It’s still early," he ventured, something like mischief twinkling in his eyes. "We can fit in a drink. Unless you need to get to bed, Claudia."
Claudia ignored Kim, who was millimetres away from visibly itching in lascivious glee.
"Sure, we’ll come for a drink." She looked at Daniel pointedly. "We’ve got all night, after all."
That would serve Kim right. Although Claudia knew she’d be amused, not uncomfortable. She was lucky to have a best friend who so thoroughly championed her right to have interesting sex with gorgeous men.
"Brilliant!" said Kim, happily.
"How long have you known Kim for?" Daniel asked, as they entered the bar after the show.
"We met in our first year of university and it was love at first sight." It wasn’t far off the mark. They’d spent an entire tutorial exchanging discreet eye-rolls and impolite hand gestures over a particularly obnoxious fellow student, who insisted on holding court on Saussure for the entire class. As soon as they got out of class they had both sprinted out to the lawn and doubled over in laughter. Kim had asked Claudia if she wanted to go to the pub, and they’d spent the next six hours there. They’d been more or less inseparable ever since.
He grinned. "I bet you were hell-raisers."
"Yeah, kind of," she admitted. "We edited the student magazine together in our final year, and it was broadly agreed that the co-editorship was a rousing success until the day we got arrested."
His eyebrows shot up. "Claudia, I didn’t realise I had hired a felon. What the hell did you get arrested for?"
"Look, to be fair, it was only a misdemeanour."
"You’re burning me up here."
"We decided to do a nude centrefold to protest government cuts to higher education," she said, not without pride, "but for some reason campus security took issue with us doing the shoot in the reserve section of the School of Business library."
He started laughing, shaking his head.
"It wasn’t a very sexy centrefold," she added benignly, "we were both wearing paper masks of the Vice-Chancellor’s face and were covered in economics textbooks."
He snorted, still laughing heartily.
"Daniel, if you’re just going to snort at me I’m not sure why I bothered to come out with you." She attempted a deadpan but was laughing too now, buoyed by his mirth. She liked that he found her funny, that he laughed at her jokes. Some of the men she’d been out with acted like it would kill them to so much as smirk at her comments. "They’re terrified of what would happen if they actually admitted a woman was funnier than they were," Kim had once insisted, and Claudia often wondered if she was right.
"I should introduce Kim to Victor," Daniel pondered. "She’d give him a run for his money."
Well, there was an interesting thought. But not one she necessarily wanted to proceed with. She could imagine sparks flying easily enough, but it felt like something of a betrayal.
"You don’t think Victor and Marina have a, uh, connection?"
He looked momentarily stricken. "Victor… and Marina? Really? But she’s so young…"
He had a point, she supposed, although she had no idea how he’d missed the sparks between those two. How old was Victor? Her age, probably. She supposed he had about ten years on Marina.
"Well, maybe not," she conceded, "or maybe not yet, at least."
Daniel still looked faintly troubled.
"How long has Victor been working for the company?" she asked, changing the subject.
"He’s been there right from the start," said Daniel, "he was practically a kid when he came on board."
"You were practically a kid when you started it," she pointed out. 26, according to the Atlas website. He would have been gorgeous. Well, he was gorgeous now – probably more gorgeous, she imagined. She couldn’t picture a 26 year old with Daniel’s self-possession. But she would liked to have seen him, maybe a little skinnier and longer-haired, perhaps still growing into his long limbs.
It almost hurt her to imagine him: hustling, making deals, working around the clock. She felt a strange kind of jealousy: why hadn’t she had that kind of drive and entrepreneurship? Did he consider her unambitious in comparison? Was she unambitious?
"If we’re going down that path, that means you’re still practically a kid," he said, looking at her pointedly.
"You don’t know how old I am," she shot back.
"You’re 29," he said, smugly. "I have ways of knowing these things."
"Like if they’re printed on my resume. How old are you?"
"I’m 36," he said, watching her face. 36. That was a good age. And she hadn’t really lied to Laura, not by too much.
Tamsin ran up to Claudia and hugged her fiercely. "Thank you so much for coming."
"That was fantastic," said Claudia earnestly. "I mean it. Really fantastic. I laughed, I cried."
Tam stepped back, narrowing her eyes. "Wait, why’d you cry? It’s a comedy."
"When you were doing your curtain call," Claud explained, "and everyone was cheering for you. You know that shit makes me emotional."
Daniel started laughing.
"Oh! Tam, this Daniel. We work together. Daniel, this is Tamsin van Niekerk. The lady, the legend."
Tamsin gave him a devastating smile and took his hand. Claudia ignored the little lash of jealousy that sprayed through her stomach. Actors were all the same: they thrived on flirtation. She doubted Tam even noticed she was doing it.
"I thought you were fantastic, Tamsin. It was a great show," said Daniel kindly, putting his arm around Claudia and drawing her into his side, flooding her with warmth. "I’m going to the bar. Would either of you like a drink?" He kissed her hair, lightly, then released her.
"Claudia," Tamsin hissed the instant Daniel was out of earshot, "who’s the guy?"
"That’s Daniel," she said, dazedly.
"I’d gathered that," said Tam wryly. "He’s a client?"
"Annnnnd… you’re sleeping with him?"
Claudia tried and failed not to grin.
"Annnnnd… you’re crazy about each other and you’re going to fly off into a Tahitian sunset together, leaving me all alone to find the three remaining straight men in Sydney that you and Kim haven’t already dated?"
"What? No! We’re just sleeping together. Once my contracts ends, vamos – " she snapped her finger – "so does the shagging."
"That’s not really what vamos means," said Tamsin helpfully, "and why do you have to stop sleeping with him once your contract ends?" Her eyes widened, partly out of instinctive theatricality and partly out of genuine curiosity. "Oh my God. Do you have one of those thirty day sex contracts like in a kinky paperback?"
Claudia started laughing. "No! I mean, we don’t have stop seeing each other, I guess." Her face grew serious. "We probably will, that’s all. Once we’re not working together any more. You know how these things go."
She really needed to start telling people about Canberra. The list of people who didn’t know was getting uncomfortably long for her liking. Now wasn’t the time, though.
"Apparently I have no idea how these things go," said Tamsin blandly. "He looks like he’s crazy about you, though."
Why did people have to keep saying that? It just made things more difficult. Fortunately she didn’t have long to ruminate on that thought before Daniel arrived back with the drinks, Kim in tow.
"Dan was just telling me about how I can become a woman of adventure," she announced. She looked slightly tipsy.
"Do tell," Claudia said, raising an eyebrow at Daniel. He grinned at her, clearly amused.
"First I’m going to try stand-up paddle boarding. Apparently it’s not that difficult and I’ll meet lots of cute boys. She gesticulated expansively. "Apparently all you have to do is stand on a board and look as fabulous as possible. The boys just come scooting right over."
Claudia was amused. "Is that so, Daniel?"
"Close enough." His smile warmed her ribs.
She had no idea why she’d been concerned. Daniel was a natural with Tam’s crowd. In Claudia’s experience it could be a challenge to get actors to talk about anything other than themselves, but they were eating out of the palm of his hand – asking him about mountain-climbing escapades, trying to get tips on cheap European rail tickets. Probably the fact that he looked uncommonly handsome didn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, she’d found herself in deep conversation with the show’s costume technician, Craig. He was telling her about the shows he’d worked on – a Dusty Springfield tribute act; a half-baked diva on a cruise ship; a Scottish ballet company; a group of men who did unspeakable things with their penises and admittedly required very little in the way of costumes – each of which had her intermittently howling in laughter and covering her mouth in horror. Claudia loved hearing stories from the fringes of show business. The angles you didn’t often hear about.
"Would you be interested in talking to me a little more about this? I think it’d make a great piece. I mean, I’m not even sure I’d be able to find someone to publish it. But I might." The words were out before she had a chance to think about it. Daniel had reminded her how much she’d enjoyed writing the piece about the circus performers at dinner the other night, and that feeling had stuck in the forefront of her mind.
Craig looked delighted. "Definitely." He pulled out a card from his wallet and scribbled on it. She shook his hand dazedly, tingling with excitement at the prospect of having another personal project in the works.
Daniel caught her by the arm as she made her way back from the bar.
"Is Kim okay?"
Claudia looked over to where her friend was in the throes of an animated conversation with a captivated male. He was very young, very pretty, and very politely ignoring the tequila Kim was intermittently splashing on him. She was particularly effervescent tonight, buoyed by three margaritas, insisting on doing her best Richard III impression for anyone who’d listen. Claudia had witnessed this performance many times before and had to admit it was very impressive, but this wasn’t exactly the sort of crowd that enjoyed being out-performed.
"She should be fine. I don’t think she’s actually had that much, but Kim’s notoriously bad at holding her liquor. She doesn’t normally drink cocktails for, uh, this precise reason."
"The precise reason being that she does Richard III monologues?" Daniel clarified.
Claudia tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. "No, sometimes it’s King Lear. She got the lead role in our college production. Much to the chagrin of, you know, every single male who auditioned."
He laughed, his eyes dancing.
"So," she said, boldly, "do you want to go home?"
The dancing stopped as his eyes blackened. He turned his back slightly on the circle of conversation he’d been standing in, the two of them in their own private circle of light. A crease of a smile appeared around the side of his mouth.
"To your house?"
He narrowed his eyes dangerously. "Yes, Claudia."
The spell was broken as she spotted Kim with a fresh drink in her hand, slipping towards Tamsin’s director. She was, from the looks of things, about half a sonnet away from her next monologue. "Shit," Claudia hissed, "I should probably attend to that first."
"Why don’t we share a cab with her?" Daniel suggested quietly. She nodded and waded through the crowd.
"Kim! Time to go, baby doll. We’re sharing a ride," she announced, slinging an arm around her friend’s waist. Thankfully, Kim put up a minimum of fuss and allowed herself to be escorted out of the pub.
"Thank God you saved me. I’ve had it up to here with actors," she announced loudly as they left, causing at least two of them to swivel their heads at her. Kim fluttered a hand flirtatiously at them. "Goodnight, darlings."
Daniel had offered her the front seat of the taxi, but Kim insisted on crawling in between both of them in the back. "I need the company. Besides, I’m doing you a huge favour. By sitting in between you I’m essentially… I’m prolonging the sexual tension for you both." Her voice was thick. "Think about how this obstacle will improve the sex tonight. We’ll all laugh about it later. It’s like something from a fucking Hugh Grant film," she added darkly.
"I’m pretty sure that actually is something from a Hugh Grant film," said Claudia, and Daniel snorted with laughter.
"To think, Daniel. A couple weeks ago this little lady told me she was, quote unquote, not into businessmen."
Daniel looked at her, raising his eyebrows. She shrugged nonchalantly, but felt a flicker of nervousness. Kim was a loaded fucking gun right now.
"Don’t worry, though. She told me you’re the best-looking man she’s ever seen," said Kim snugly, curling her gangly body into a ball with her head on Daniel’s thigh and tucking her feet into Claudia’s lap.
Claudia slapped her hand to her face in embarrassment, but Daniel was laughing, his eyes sparkling in the dark, and she started laughing too. She supposed that Kim’s loyalty track record was pretty good. She could overlook this aberration.
"You smell like an angel, Dan," Kim announced, and promptly dropped into a deep and tranquil slumber for approximately thirty seconds before the taxi arrived at her flat.
Once they’d tucked Kim in and poured her a tall glass of water, they returned to the cab.
"So," he said cockily, "the best-looking man you’ve ever seen?"
"You probably shouldn’t make a point of listening to everything a drunk woman says," said Claudia coolly.
He raised an eyebrow at her.
She exhaled. "It’s true," she admitted, and his smile made heat flash through her.
"Claudia," he said, his voice a low purr, "coming from you, I have to say that feels pretty damn good."
He was making her squirm.
"Where to now?" asked the driver, pulling out onto the street.
Daniel gave his address. The light mood had already evaporated, replaced by a thick, deep tension. Maybe Kim had a point after all. They were silent for a few moments.
"I like your friends," he said gruffly, "but I like you even better."
That shouldn’t have sounded like dirty talk, but it felt like it.
"I like watching you with them," she replied carefully, "watching them lap up every little thing you say. And knowing that I’m the one who’s going home with you."
"That’s right, Claudia" he said evenly, his eyes black and his jaw tight. "How could I possibly think about going home with anyone else after seeing you in that dress?"
"So you like the dress after all." She hadn’t intended for that little insecurity to slip out.
"Claudia, the instant I saw you in that dress, I wanted to take you back inside your apartment and make love to you for a week."
She glanced nervously in the rear view mirror. The driver’s eyes were on the road. Daniel appeared to take no notice of him whatsoever, his gaze instead fixed solely on her. Every inch of her body felt as if it was prickling with blood.
"How far to your place from here?"
"Four minutes, give or take," said Daniel, a tiny light of amusement shining in his eyes.
She gave a drawn-out sigh.
"Don’t worry, sweetheart," he said, his tone gentle, "we’ll make up for it soon."
"Do you promise?" Her fingertips were tingling.
"I promise. We can stay up all night if you like."
She could feel herself growing slick between the legs, her clitoris swelling and aching, anticipation finally getting the better of her, and she mewled, very quietly.
He gave her the heartbreaking smile to end all heartbreaking smiles.
"You’re a very good girl."
Claudia had been burning with curiosity about what Daniel’s house would look like, but by the time she got inside she’d stopped caring. She spun around and pinned him to the door.
"You son of a bitch," she hissed, "why do you always get me riled up like that?"
He laughed, low and deep, the sound rumbling thrillingly through her body, and he pulled her close and kissed her hard, kneading her hair with his hands.
When they broke off he stroked her collarbone with his thumb, then traced the outline of her dress against the tops of her breasts. She shivered.
"Oh, sweetheart," he said, "I’ve been thinking about this all night."
Sweetheart. She couldn’t imagine allowing any other man to call her that. But from him it just sounded… incredible.
"Tell me what you thought about," she demanded.
"Well," he said, "I already told that when I first saw you, all I wanted to do was fuck you right there and then."
She nodded weakly, his fingers dipping inside the neckline of her dress and teasing the sensitive skin beneath. The boning of the dress made it unnecessary to wear a bra.
"And then in the car, when you were telling me about your day, I wanted to pull over in the goddamn emergency lane just so I could kiss you senseless."
His fingers were getting dangerously close to her nipple, his mouth near her hair. Every touch was making her clitoris pound in painful, urgent pleasure.
"When we were at the restaurant, you looked so gorgeous there in the candlelight that I thought long and hard about what we’d do when we came home. I thought about unzipping that beautiful dress so that I could look at your beautiful body. But first I thought about doing this."
He took her nipple between two fingers and pinched it, very gently, and she cried out.
"Just like that," he said softly, "so I could hear you make a sound just like that." He kissed her bare shoulders and the hollow in the base of her throat, then the tops of her breasts, his strong arm still tight around her waist, steadying her.
"What happened next?"
"Well – " he laughed grimly- "the play really was very good. It came very close to keeping my attention." He directed her, his arm still around her waist, to a large sofa in the middle of the room. She followed his lead, captivated, and he sat down next to her, dragging a thumb beneath her chin and tilting her head up towards his.
"But I admit I found myself thinking about the skin of your upper thighs, and how soft it must be, and how much I wanted to touch it."
She closed her eyes and moaned.
"When we were at the after party I fantasised briefly about eradicating the guy you were talking to from the face of the earth." His voice was low, ragged.
"Because I didn’t want anyone else to have you."
"Just you." Her voice was almost a whisper.
"Just me. I wanted you all to myself."
Why are we still talking? Claudia thought dazedly. But it wasn’t a complaint. Somehow the talking heightened everything, built her up into a sort of Dionysian frenzy. The perfect foreplay.
"At the very least, I wanted to barge my way into the conversation and show him that, if anyone was going to take you home, it was going to be me."
"But you didn’t."
"No, Claudia," he said quietly.
"Because… you’re a gentleman?"
He growled and rolled on top of her, pinning her wrists above her head with his left hand. He slid a hand underneath her skirt with his right, caressing the inside of her thigh, kissing her, his mouth hot against hers.
She was so wet, she was practically dissolving. She tried to shuffle her hips, directing his hand to the ache between her legs but he evaded her, his skilful touch almost painful.
"Somehow, Claudia," he muttered, "I fail to behave like a gentleman wherever you’re concerned."
He reached underneath her, unzipped her dress as she arched her back, then dragged it off her body. He pulled his jacket and shirt off as if they were burning him, and Claudia reached out for his belt.
"Shoes," he reminded her, amused.
"Always the damn shoes," she complained, and he laughed and slid them off smoothly, then redirected her hand to his belt. He slipped the grey trousers off, pulling something from the pocket as he did, and pressed his long, hard body against hers, kissing her. The pressure of it was exquisite. His cock was rock-solid, hot as lava, pushing urgently against her panties.
"Yes," she hissed, reaching down to touch it.
"Not yet." Daniel reached a hand into the elastic of her knickers, dipped two fingers inside, gently teasing her, and she cried out again and again. Oh, how did this feel so good? She couldn’t remember ever being so wet before. Not with other men, not left with her own fantasies. Something about Daniel switched on every part of her body.
Just when she thought she was about to explode, he drew his hand out of her underwear and rolled the fabric off her hips, then attended to his own briefs. Black this time, she observed dazedly. His cock sprang forth. Penises weren’t exactly supposed to be beautiful but knowing that it was going to be inside her soon somehow transformed it into the most gorgeous thing she’d ever seen, wreathed in his curled, masculine pubic hair.
"Please," she whispered, and Daniel tore open a condom that must have been in his trouser pocket. He rolled it up the length of his hardness and Claudia practically quaked with anticipation, running her own hands urgently over her thighs and belly, trying to sate herself temporarily. He looked down at her, his eyes black with lust, watching her writhe for him.
"Daniel," she said, her eyes wild, and he thrust into her.
He knelt down slightly as if he were receiving a knighthood, kissing the sensitive skin beneath her collarbone, and she tilted her head back in dizzy appreciation. Oh, she lived for this feeling. The almost panicked excitement of foreplay followed by the perfect calm as he entered her, thick and warm and throbbing with life, filling her.
No one had ever fit like this before. This closeness and ease. Like it was always meant to be this way.
"So," Daniel said, his arms wrapped around her as they lay on his sofa, "who was the guy you were talking to?"
Claudia glanced at him sideways. "You weren’t actually jealous, were you?"
He grinned. "Not really. I’m just curious."
"He’s a costume technician. I got his number because I thought he’d make a great interview."
"You’re going to do a piece on him? Another long-form one?"
Claudia thought about it. "I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to talk to him some more. I think there’s something there." She paused. "Can I look around your apartment?"
"Of course," he said, amused.
She stood up and observed the room properly for the first time. Most of the guys she’d slept with recently, the Evans and the Mitches, had a very specific aesthetic – furniture made out of recycled pallets, dusty record collections, bicycles hanging on walls next to Spanish theatrical posters for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d expected from Daniel, but this was somehow… different. Less modern, the furthest thing from a bachelor pad. She hadn’t exactly anticipated a Millers neon sign, but for some reason she’d at least pictured black leather sofas and a chrome bar.
This was more like – well, a home. Not faux-rustic or hyper-stylised modern. No elaborate industrial light fixtures or two-metre canvases of pop art nudes. Thank God.
It was beautiful. Floorboards, the navy leather sofa cracked and worn, two framed mappa mundi prints on the wall. An enviable wooden work desk pressed up against the wall, a slightly beaten-looking architect’s lamp on one side and an unfamiliar object on the other, interlocking brass rings sitting on an elegant wooden stand.
"That’s an armillary sphere," he said. "It’s an old astronomical device. The rings represent the great circles of Heaven." She glanced at him. He was smiling, watching her as she moved about his apartment. She was suddenly very aware that she was completely naked.
"It’s beautiful," she said, "where did you get it?"
"A market in Italy," he said. "I paid much more for it than I should have. Of course they’re not used any more, but I love the way they look."
The raw materials of the terrace house were wonderful – beams, exposed brick – but it didn’t look as if he’d gotten an interior designer in. It was fairly sparse, she supposed, but she couldn’t imagine Daniel as the kind of guy who spent a great deal of time trotting between antique stores on every weekend and sourcing fluffy throw rugs. It was more as if he’d collected things as he’d gone along. It was just… him.
She’d have installed a proper dining table and a few plants, she thought wryly, unable to stop herself, but otherwise it was perfect.
She wondered what his bedroom was like, a curiosity stemming as much from an interior decoration perspective as a lustful one. The throb between her legs hadn’t quite died down, but she supposed she should give Daniel a little time before she demanded more from him. Whose great idea was it that orgasms were supposed to be satisfying?, Claudia wondered. The first one always just made her want more.
She moved over to a large shelving unit, trying to distract herself. It was full of books – as he’d said, primarily books on travelling, geography and world history, plus an impressive collection of beaten-up National Geographics – but it also held a speaker system with a docked MP3 player.
"How about your music? Can I look through that?" she asked eagerly.
He shrugged. "Sure."
Claudia had thankfully graduated from the stage of her life where she thought that someone was definable by their taste in films and music, but she was still fascinated. She scrolled through the albums. Nothing too out of the ordinary – the occasional foreign name she didn’t recognise; a perfectly respectable collection. All the usual suspects: the Clash, Led Zeppelin, the Stone Roses.
She scrolled a little more, spotting a pattern. Bruce Springsteen, Nina Simone, Patti Smith, the Pogues, Paul Simon.
"What?" he called lazily.
"You like the storytellers, huh?"
She reeled off the list of names. "Interesting lyricists. Narrative songwriters. Either that or you’re a sixties tragic."
"Oh," he said, tickled, "I’d never thought of it like that before. But you’re absolutely right. Those are probably the artists I listen to most."
That was most interesting. He clearly could identify a good turn of phrase; maybe his appreciation of her writing held more water than she’d given it credit for.
"You Am I!" She spotted the band right down the bottom of the alphabetised collection. "Daniel, I am thoroughly impressed." The Sydney band was an institution: beloved by those in the know, but – to her mind, at least – woefully starved of recognition.
He grinned. "I have been living here for ten years, you know."
She realised that he would have moved to Sydney at the same time as her. Both starting a new life: her with university and new friends, him with a business plan and a room in Max’s hotel. Both stepping into the sunlight.
"Does Sydney feel like home to you?"
She walked over and sat back down next to him.
He looked thoughtful.
"I don’t know. I think so… no, I’m not sure."
She tilted her head quizzically.
"To be honest, I’m not totally sure what that feels like. I think going away to boarding school very young does that to you." He paused, "This is about as close as I’ve ever got, though."
"Your house is great."
"How come you don’t have a dining table?"
"This is quite the interrogation, Claudia."
She shrugged. "I’m curious. You’re interesting."
Creases appeared around his mouth.
"Well, I suppose I don’t, uh, "entertain" often."
She grinned at the thought of him in an barbecue apron, holding a spatula. "Do you cook?"
"I do," he said, "although not as well as you."
"Oh, I’m not actually a good cook," she said airily, "it’s all trickery and subterfuge."
"What’s that supposed to mean?" he asked, eyeing her.
She shrugged. "I think if you cook simply, and with a few really great ingredients, you can trick people into thinking your food is better than it really is."
He started laughing exasperatedly, shaking his head. "You realise that’s just… cooking… right? That’s not smoke and mirrors. That’s just cooking."
Perhaps he had a point.
"Claudia, you know about imposter syndrome, right?"
"Have you ever considered it might apply to you?"
She sighed, not wanting to have this conversation. She was here to wrap herself around a hot naked man, not to receive one of Kim’s pep talks. "Because I have a very realistic view of my strengths and limitations."
"I don’t think you do."
What was he talking about? How would he know?
"I think your writing is much, much better than you give it credit for."
That was easy for him to say. He wasn’t a writer; he wasn’t surrounded by a sea of comparable talents. He didn’t know how many people were out there in the scrap heap, doing the same thing she was. Sometimes it felt like every English class in history had a teacher in it telling one student that they were extra special, that they had a unique gift for writing, and now every single one of those students had graduated and was duking it out for the same handful of jobs as she was. And in their spare time, writing memoirs. Writing think-pieces. Writing musical librettos and television pilots and comedy monologues for late shows that would never make it to air.
"And I don’t think you’re aware of how intelligent you are."
Well, that wasn’t right. "I don’t think I’m unintelligent."
"That’s not what I was saying," he said dangerously, his eyes flashing. "Claudia, it’s up to you what you do with your talents. But I wish I knew how to convince you of how unique they are."
For some reason, hearing him say that made her eyes sting. She flicked her eyes downwards, trying to push back the rising lump in her throat. Crying in front of Daniel Cunningham was not on the damn agenda for tonight.
"It’s not just the work stuff," he said, softening. "It’s the stuff about the cooking. And the fact that you thought I could have found you anything other than utterly bewitching in that dress."
"That’s not imposter syndrome," she murmured.
"Perhaps not," he agreed, thumbing her cheekbone.
Trying to distract herself, her eye flicked towards an industrial-looking gunmetal espresso machine in his kitchen.
"Can I make coffee?" she said.
"Now? It’s after midnight."
She shrugged. "I’m a writer, Daniel. I am biologically immune to the effects of caffeine."
"What do you want?"
"Just an espresso would be great."
Daniel stood up and walked into the kitchen. She looked appreciatively at his hard, muscled back. He was an unholy vision. She could get used to this.
He pulled two espresso shots and set them on a coffee table next to the couch, along with two small glasses of sparkling water.
"You too?" she inquired, gesturing to the coffee.
"I figure I’ll be awake for awhile," he said, flicking her a glance.
A little bit of heat coloured her cheeks, but she ignored it. She drained the espresso in thirds, then reached for the water.
"You pull a nice shot."
He grinned. "Thanks. I got a friend to teach me his tricks when I was in Italy."
She was suddenly taken aback by the intimacy of the situation. Sitting on his couch at one in the morning, drinking coffee with a gorgeous man, both of them unclothed. She felt strangely unself-conscious, languorous and beautiful.
In fact, she felt – well, adult. That definitely wasn’t something she usually went around feeling. Quite the opposite. Perhaps Daniel had a point about the imposter syndrome, after all.
"Thanks for coming out tonight."
"Thanks for inviting me." He gestured to her to come closer. She crawled into him and he drew her close, her back pressing against his chest, the two of them half-lying together on the sofa. All warm skin and tangled limbs. He pressed his mouth down to the top of her head, making goosebumps spread all through her body.
"Mmmmmm," she murmured, "that’s good."
He rested his hand on her hipbone and idly stroked the bare skin.
"I love your body."
There was that old self-consciousness back again. She should have felt buoyed by his comment; instead she felt a flash of unpleasant disbelief. She knew she was supposed to be proud of her body, to love it for all its flaws, but sometimes that was easier said than done. A vision of Vivienne in that stupid picture at the Atlas office came into her head: her long, strong thighs, full bust and tight waist. Claudia had no hope of competing with that.
And now she felt guilty for not feeling empowered about her own body, for competing with other women. Damn, this whole femininity bag was a pain in the ass sometimes.
"Thank you," she said cautiously.
He kissed her neck, still stroking her hip, and her insecure thoughts were banished again. There was something about the way he was touching her and kissing her that made her feel light-headed. As if she was precious, delicate, beloved. As if all he cared about was her pleasure.
Although, judging from the stirring in his underwear, that wasn’t all he cared about.
He moved his hand up, teasing the sensitive skin of her stomach and ribs, circling just beneath her breasts, and she gasped.
"How’s that, sweetheart?" he murmured, his voice low. She gasped in response. "You want more, don’t you."
It wasn’t a question, but she felt reluctant to admit it nonetheless. She wriggled against his erection. "You certainly do."
He laughed, and the vibrations shot through her body.
"We’re not talking about me."
This was a different side of him to the one she usually saw. A sexy arrogance, a total awareness of the effect he had on her. Normally Daniel went out of his way to put her at ease. This side of him turned her on, but it made her nervous too.
"But you do want me," he continued.
She flipped over onto her stomach and narrowed her eyes at him theatrically.
"Is that so?"
"Why don’t you tell me how much you want me to make love to you again, Claudia?"
"Why should I?"
"Because I want you to," he said, his eyes flashing, running a thumb across her lower lip.
"You’re the boss," she said, rolling her eyes playfully at him.
He kissed her on the mouth, his hand in her hair.
"But you won’t deny me that, will you, sweetheart? I can see right here-" he swept his fingertips across the pink flush of her clavicle – "that you’re aroused."
She stared at him stubbornly, breathing hard. It was obvious enough that she wanted him, why was he making her say it?
"Claudia," he said, his tone perfectly even and silky, "I’m going to give you one last chance."
She rolled off him and looked at him out of the corner of her eye, her mouth twitching.
"Just take me to bed."
Daniel stood up: six foot three of perfection looming threateningly in front of her. It took all the self-control Claudia had to remain seated. He took one long, hard look down at her, as if sizing her up, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her easily upstairs. She didn’t resist, but relaxed into his arms in languorous anticipation. He’d let her off the hook.
A floor-to-ceiling window led out to a balcony. Apart from a stack of books on a table next to the bed, it was minimally decorated. The bed was made with military precision.
"How come you can make your bed so nicely but you don’t appear to own a hairbrush?" she said, her voice sounding distant to her own ears.
He laughed and set her down.
"There’s not usually someone as beautiful as you in my bed."
She didn’t get a chance to analyse that before he jumped on top of her.
Daniel couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so good. The nervous energy he’d been accumulating for months – which he realised now was partly pure libido – had dissipated, leaving in its wake a warm, sleepy glow. He was practically relaxed.
He realised with surprise that he’d never brought a woman back to this house before. Since moving in two years ago, he’d moved his sexual liaisons overseas so thoroughly that it hardly even occurred to him that he could bring someone back here.
If it hadn’t been for Claudia, he doubted he would have got around to it any time soon. He’d never worked too hard at seduction – truth be told, women usually pursued him. That suited him fine. After Vivienne, he preferred to be certain that he was doing the right thing by everyone concerned. And since he worked late so often, opportunities for women to pursue him were relatively scarce.
Something occurred to him.
"Hey, Claud," he muttered into her hair, unsure if she was still awake.
"You know I’m not actually your boss, right? I’m your client."
She laughed sleepily. "Is that what’s keeping you awake?"
"You’ve called me boss four times now. Not just in the bedroom."
"Mmmmm," she said peacefully, "You’re right. I’ll think about that in the morning."
Lying awake in Daniel’s bed on Sunday morning, Claudia’s head was racing.
Last night had been – well, it had been magical. From beginning to end. It was as if the lights had been brighter, the scents in the air stronger. Everything heightened.
Now, though, her spirits were dropping rapidly.
She needed to start planning her move soon, which meant an end to nights like last night – at least temporarily. Canberra had its own arts scene, but Claudia didn’t have a place in it yet. She wasn’t even sure she wanted one. She was going there to work. To take her writing seriously. She didn’t need to mess around with exhibitions and preview screenings forever.
Of course, moving also meant an end to Daniel.
Daniel leaned on his elbow, jaw in hand, and looked at her. "So. If you’re going to interview this costume technician, does that mean you’re planning to work on more personal projects?"
She shrugged. She felt less enthused about it in the light of day.
"I’m not sure. I probably won’t have time to work on anything of my own once I’m in Canberra. To be honest, it’s probably time I started concentrating on stuff that’s less…"
He looked at her.
"Less lightweight, I guess," she finished lamely.
His eyes narrowed.
"Did you consider the circus piece lightweight?"
"Sure. I guess so. You know what I mean. Throwaway stuff. Entertainment journalism, really."
Daniel shook his head. "I’d rather read one piece of your entertainment journalism than ten pieces of political hackery. I thought it was a beautiful piece, Claud. So did everyone I showed it to."
She swivelled to face him.
"Who did you show it to?"
He smothered a smile. "Oh, I just sent it to a couple of people at the office who were curious about your work. You don’t mind, do you? I mean, the link is on your website."
He had a point. She supposed she couldn’t be mad at him for driving a couple of extra clicks her way.
"Are you feeling any better about the move?"
"Ummm. Yes and no. I guess I’ve been too busy thinking about the logistics to really get excited. But I’m sure it’ll come."
"I’m really going to miss having sex with you," she said honestly.
"I’ll come visit you."
She grinned. "Is that so? It’s kind of hard to imagine international jetsetter Daniel Cunningham flying to Canberra for a quick lay."
He shrugged, a strange look on his face. "It’d be worth it."
She ignored the stabs of emotion she was feeling and eyed him solemnly. "I guess we’d better fit in some more before I go, though. Just to make sure."
Marina bounced up to her in the tea room on Monday. "Wanna come surfing with me and Rad this Saturday?"
Claudia snorted. "Do I look like I can surf?"
"Definitely not," said Marina happily, "that’s why we’re inviting you. We’re the only three women in this entire company who can’t surf. So we’re taking lessons on Saturday mornings."
I’m only part of the company for another two weeks, Claudia felt like saying, but she had so much affection for Marina that it was hard to decline.
Besides, she’d always thought it looked quite fun.
"Okay," she said, trying to keep a straight face.
Marina clapped her hands gleefully. "Yesss! I’ll email you all the details. I can’t believe you’re coming."
Neither can I. She wondered what the surfing was like in Canberra. Probably not great. She might have a bit more luck with rock-climbing.
Vlad came to speak with her on Tuesday. "Did Daniel speak to you about the website yet?"
She shook her head.
"Well, IT sent a couple of your posts live, and the response has been great already. Tonnes of engagement, tonnes of sharing. Better than they were hoping for."
Claudia felt a small thrill. She loved this part of the job. The part where, just for a moment, she could cast off the nagging anxiety that a trained monkey could do her work.
"The pieces are great, Claud," he enthused. "I think everyone just envisioned you’d be providing a boring overview of the product development process, you know, stuff for the weirdos who sit around on the website all day. But your shit is interesting. And funny. And that means it has reach."
She thought about that for a moment. She never really thought of humour as one of her talents as a writer. That had always been more Kim’s bag when they were working on the paper together. But she’d been getting a lot of feedback lately that suggested otherwise.
A memory suddenly flashed into her head: sitting in the student magazine office with Kim, lounging on a beanbag. Kim holding a pink Big Boss stick between her teeth like it was a cigar, her ankles crossed on the desk. Claudia had just said something that had caused Kim to erupt in a fit of giggles – though she had no recollection what.
"You know," Kim said, straightening her face "it’s a shame that you have to be the straight man in our partnership, just because I’m incapable of writing seriously. You’re much wittier than I am and no one even knows it."
Claudia had assumed Kim was just being kind, but in retrospect she realised that maybe she had a point. Kim was effortlessly creative in a way that drove their more ambitious friends crazy, but she had never really been the writer of the two.
"Still," Kim had continued thoughtfully, tapping the candy stick between her fingers, "I am the hustler. You probably couldn’t do this without me." Claudia grinned at the memory, feeling a surge of affection for her friend.
"Wake up, lady," Vlad had said, snapping his fingers at her. "If you’re leaving in a couple of weeks, we need to milk as much work out of you as we possibly can. You’ve got talent, baby."
She saluted him. "Onto it."
Victor came up to them. "Are you congratulating Claudia for breaking our website with her smear campaign against me?"
"You cleared the copy, buddy," said Vlad.
"Oh, yeah, I did too," said Victor cheerfully. "It’s great stuff, Claud. Even my mum called to ask me who wrote it. And then she berated me for not knowing who that handsome Louis Theroux fellow from all the documentaries was."
Claudia suppressed a smile at the thought of Victor being lambasted by his mother.
"Anyway," he continued. "Solid work. Solid, solid work."
"Thank you," said Victor, and tipped her with what was presumably an invisible bucket hat.
"Seriously, though, Claud. It’s great stuff."
Claudia was starting to wonder if no one at Atlas had ever read anything before. Shonice had to be the fifteenth person in a row to come up to Claudia’s desk and congratulate her. The piece was just a goofy list, nothing more, and she would have been embarrassed by the undeserved attention if it hadn’t seemed so sincere.
"Cheers," said Claudia. "I was just thinking about how this is my favourite part of the job."
Shonice laughed. "What, basking in glory?"
"Not so much that," said Claudia, "more just the fact that I get to feel capable for a moment or two."
Shonice looked hard at her.
"You know," she said, "I read your piece about those circus kids. Daniel sent it to me. The damn thing took me an hour to read, and do you know what I did when I finished?"
Claudia was wary.
"I got up, made a cup of coffee, went back to the start and read it again. I’m serious. It made me cry. Last time I cried was before that was Brokeback Mountain."
"I’m sorry," Claudia mumbled, unsure whether she was joking or not.
"Jesus Christ. After the rock climbing I was thinking you couldn’t be afraid of anything. Are you seriously telling me you don’t think you’re a good writer?"
"No-o-o-o," said Claudia cautiously, "I just have the odd moment of doubt."
"You know," Shonice continued, ignoring her. "you could really benefit from having a meeting with this woman. Mara Bergman. Daniel put me onto her in first place. She’s a professional development coach. But, you know, a clinical psychologist too. Not just some life coach hack. I’m gonna give you her card."
Claudia left the conversation feeling worse than when she’d begun it. That wasn’t unusual, though. The highs never lasted that long.
"Claud," called Daniel jovially as he passed her desk, "come talk to me about your blog posts."
Judging by his tone, this particular meeting wasn’t going to end in orgasm. She stood up and followed him.
"They’re great, obviously."
She flushed. Again. "Thank you. I’m glad they’ve picked up some traffic."
"And a sales spike. Well, we can’t really correlate it yet, but it looks good."
"Any thought as to how you want me to set up the blog for my successor? I can recommend some great writers who’d be interested in an in-house position. Even something part time."
"Sure. We can talk about that later, but I appreciate you giving it some thought for us." Why was he so reluctant to talk about the end of her contract? She wanted to sort it out, know what was happening, so she could enjoy their limited time together.
"Oh, by the way," he said. "I’m impressed."
He shuffled quickly through a pile on his desk and handed her a photograph.
Radhika must have taken it when they went rock climbing: it was of Claudia sitting back in the harness near the top of the crag, relaxed. She looked happy, healthy and kind of goofy, laughing radiantly at a distant point over her shoulder. She guessed it must have been the moment when Darren started making her laugh. The sun was sparkling in her eyes. It was a great photograph.
Claudia realised it had been a long time since she’d seen a photograph of herself where she wasn’t wearing a party dress or holding a cocktail. It wasn’t that she’d been in a rut, not exactly. She genuinely loved the perks of her job. But seeing how happy she looked in Radhika’s photograph – so fresh-faced, so adventurous – she could see that there were experiences she’d been missing out on, too.
He looked at her curiously. "Is everything ok?"
She struggled to keep her face neutral, surprised by this sudden rush of emotion. "I never expected to see myself looking so happy to be scaling a rock face," she joked, trying to keep her tone light.
"It suits you," he said. "How did you find it?"
She grinned, remembering, and set the photograph back down on his desk. "It was really fun. I mean, I can’t imagine myself doing it every weekend. And I was pretty hopeless at it. But it was fun."
"I doubt you were hopeless. Darren said you got the hang of it pretty quick."
What was he getting at? She hoped he wasn’t trying to convince her to take up rock-climbing as a hobby.
"He said you had great style," he continued, a gorgeous crease of a smile forming around the side of his mouth, "which sounds just about right. I’m impressed that you even managed to climb a rock with style."
She relaxed a little. It didn’t sound like he was trying coerce her into buying His ‘n’ Hers climbing gear. "I had a great time. Honestly, it made me wonder what else I’d been missing out on." She paused, trying to keep her face straight. "So I’m going surfing with Marina and Radhika this weekend."
His smile creased into a full-blown grin.
"You will never cease to impress me."
"Because I’m taking surfing lessons?"
"Because you’re brave."
That hit her straight in the solar plexus.
"Do you want to come to Buenos Aires?"
"Why?" Claudia couldn’t have described the feeling that was coming over her: halfway between paralysing anxiety and trickling excitement.
"To write for us. To promote the store opening. Not copywriting. You could write about whatever you wanted, as long as it was related somehow to Argentina. And travel."
She couldn’t do that. Could she?
"Obviously, we’d cover your hourly rate in addition to travel costs," he added, as if that was the reason for her hesitation.
"Won’t that be an unnecessary expense for the company?" she asked, still in shock.
Daniel shuffled in his seat. "I’ve spoken to Vivienne already, and while we could get someone local to do it, she doesn’t have any English-fluent contacts available in the time frame. We don’t really have the resources in BA to waste time scouting. I’ve told her about you, and she suggested we bring you over. You’re proven; you know the company now. And your work has increased web traffic already."
Claudia didn’t know what to say.
"Why don’t you think about it over the weekend?" he said. "It’s only for eight days. You can let Marina know on Monday, and she can sort out your flights. Or she’ll notify Viv if we need to source a local contractor."
She had no reason to say no. She didn’t know why she was hesitating, except for the fact that she was scared that if she spent eight days in Argentina with Daniel she might never be able to return to real life again. Scared of what it would mean. Scared that, once he got over there, Daniel would realise that he was still in love with Vivienne. Scared of falling in love with him, and him discovering that she was –
What? What was it she was afraid of him finding out?
"I’ll think about it," she said. But she didn’t know why. Her mind was already made up.
He loved Claudia.
That was the only rational explanation for it. For the fact that all he wanted to do was bring her over to Buenos Aires – to his mind, one of the most romantic cities in the world. The fact that he didn’t want to be away from her. Not even for ten days.
Radhika’s photograph had done it. He already knew that Claudia was witty, spirited and opinionated. He had already seen her in her comfort zone: barefoot in her apartment, her head thrown back in laughter in the theatre lobby, her body moving swiftly through the water at Max’s hotel. But seeing her up on the crag – something that must have been at least a little frightening and unfamiliar for her – she looked so brave and beautiful that his heart had contracted. He was the one who had suggested Victor take her along with them, but all of a sudden he felt hugely jealous that he hadn’t been there to share it with her.
He wanted to show her all the things he loved, and teach her to love them. He wanted her to take him to plays, to tell him exactly what she liked about pieces of art and music. He wanted them to show each other the worlds they’d constructed, all the things they’d been missing out on.
It had been a couple of years since he’d last been to Buenos Aires, and he’d been itching to get back. Now, the thought of it seemed almost hollow without her. If she came, he could show her everything he loved best about the city. The sprawling gardens and art museums, the dog walkers in Recoleta with twelve hounds apiece, the dark little coffee shops and the old men in stylish suits and hats who sat around drinking yerba mate, talking for hours. The way the city streets were bustling and alive at three in the morning, but faded to silence by seven.
It had been Vivienne’s suggestion to invite her. Vivienne, who knew what every intonation in his voice meant. He hadn’t told her that he and Claudia had been sleeping together, but he didn’t have to.
"I’m glad you found someone so suitable for the position," she had said, her voice heavy with meaning. "You really should bring her over for the launch, though. You could use someone like her."
He hadn’t bothered to check whether she meant professionally or personally.
Vivienne’s tone softened. "Flavia is great. She’s almost finished her Masters. Her niece is coming to stay next week."
His relationship with Vivienne was – well, unconventional. It had been even more unconventional when they were together. It had begun in a typical enough fashion: they’d met through Max, enjoyed one another’s company a great deal, and it had seemed only natural for them to date. She had been travelling through Australia at the time, but she was as enthused about his vision for Atlas as he was, and decided to pause her travels to help him implement a plan for the first expansion stage of the company. There was something he liked about having her as his partner-in-crime. It struck him as a fine mode of departure from his father’s habit of sleeping with secretaries.
The sparks between them had fairly rapidly died down into an easy companionship, but it seemed neither of them had minded. They were so absorbed in the work that they spent most of their days buried in paperwork and plans, mired in the excitement of researching and borrowing and analysis and hiring, going home so exhausted it wasn’t surprising they rarely found the time to make love.
It had taken him longer than it should have to realise that something in his relationship was all wrong. That their tempers were starting to fray more often. That Vivienne initially demanded more of his attention, then less, then none at all.
Daniel blamed himself for what had happened. If he’d been more attentive, less wrapped up in Atlas, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken it for granted that their relationship was lacking. Perhaps he wouldn’t have mistaken the exhilaration of a business venture for the thrill of intimacy. He couldn’t bear the thought that he’d hurt her, but he knew that he had.
Still, even now, he wasn’t willing to relinquish his hold on Atlas. He’d built something he was proud of. That was why, he suspected, he’d limited his relationships to short, self-contained affairs. He couldn’t trust himself not to get too wrapped up in his work, and he didn’t want to.
Which brought him back to Claudia. Claudia, with her style and her soft brown eyes, her inventiveness and courage and her razor-sharp mind. Claudia, who threatened to drag his attention away from his work for the first time in – well, the first time ever. Claudia, who had finally given him reason to realise he couldn’t go on as he had been – keeping to himself, avoiding potentially romantic situations, locking himself in his office when that nebulous, unidentifiable frustration threatened to overcome him.
Claudia, who for some infuriating reason seemed convinced that they were duty-bound to stop seeing each other the instant her contract ended.
He knew she was going to Canberra, and he didn’t care. Well he cared. Daniel had no intention of stopping her, but he didn’t see why that should stop him, either. It was only for a year, and the Sydney to Canberra trip wasn’t exactly a red-eye to LA. He could drive it in three hours or fly it in one, and he’d damn well get on a plane every Friday afternoon for 52 weeks if she’d let him.
He knew there was something else standing in her way, and he intended to find out what. If she truly didn’t want to be with him, if she was only after a casual fling – fine. He’d been burnt badly enough by Vivienne that he wanted to make sure he never ended up in a relationship with a woman that was anything short of electrifying. He had no desire to inflict that on either of them. If she wasn’t interested, he’d get over her. Somehow. Eventually.
At least, he supposed, he’d know that he was capable of love after all. Of being knocked off his feet. Of that exquisite, slightly painful sensation of simultaneously drowning and wanting to sink deeper.
But Claudia was clearly drawn to him, and the chemistry between them practically rattled their bones. It scared him, and it gave him hope.
She had to come to Buenos Aires. So that he could show her what they could be together.
"He asked you to go to Argentina?"
Claudia had been expecting a big reaction from Kim, but she was taken aback by her friend’s response. It was quieter, less elated, less scandalised than she’d been anticipating. More… well, more serious.
"So I can write up the store launch," she explained weakly. "Pretty cool, huh?"
"Claud, how much do you like him?"
Claudia swallowed. She didn’t really want to answer that.
"Well," she said, "he’s the best lay of my life."
Kim rolled her eyes. "It’s gone past that now, you realise. He’s not just an office shag anymore. He’s taking you on holiday."
"So? Now he’s a holiday shag."
Kim looked thoughtful. "You know, once I might have been able to believe that. But that was before I saw you guys at the Milkhouse. I mean, Tasmin was turning it on and he barely glanced at her. Takes a steely heart to ignore that little minx."
Claudia collapsed a little. "I’m really, really into him."
Kim was reproachfully silent.
"But I’m moving interstate," she continued forcefully. "I can’t be into him. I’m gonna go to Argentina, shag him out of my system, be heartbroken for a couple of weeks and then get my shit together."
"Is that what you want?"
She paused. It didn’t sound exactly like what she wanted. But that was because she was comparing the pleasure of being with Daniel now to the long-term benefit of the move.
"That’s what I want."
"Well," said Kim mildly, "I’m glad you’re putting your career first."
"I’m probably just being selfish, because I don’t want you to move. And because I want you to date Daniel so that I can look at him all the time."
"He does look great," Claudia conceded nobly, ignoring the churning in her stomach. "You should see him naked."
"Speaking of," said Kim, "I showed him our college centrefold at the Milkhouse the other night. I have it on my phone. Hope you don’t mind. I was kind of drunk."
"No shit," hissed Claudia, "what did he say?"
"He said he admired our incisive satire and dedication to higher education."
"That was my response, too," said Kim.
Daniel shut the door to his office behind her.
"Are you going to come?"
"I’m going to come."
He picked her up and spun her around and she laughed in surprise. She was still feeling a little dazed by the whole thing.
"What do I pack?" She suddenly realised she had no idea. "Will it be cold? Will everyone make fun of me if I bring a dress? Or jeans?"
He laughed. "I have no idea why everyone seems to think wearing jeans is a travelling faux pas. I mean, unless you’re hiking in the jungle. If you wear something at home, chances are you’ll wear it overseas."
Well, that made sense.
"I know this might sound counterintuitive, but I hate the idea that you have to buy a whole new set of clothes to travel. That’s why we don’t sell general apparel, only specialist stuff."
She looked at him with great interest. "I had no idea that was the rationale."
"It drives me crazy. Most travellers have no intention of mountain climbing or going on extended hikes. Why should they buy hiking boots just to walk around a city? I don’t want to make people feel like they have to do that." He rolled his eyes, his rant gathering pace. "What’s the point of buying an pair of ultra-lightweight trousers that make you into bait for tourist scams if you have to handwash them and hang them out on your little portable washing line every night? And heaven forbid you should venture into the city centre without your godforsaken walking poles."
Claudia grinned. He actually sounded pissed off.
"I don’t think I’ve ever heard you this riled up about something before."
He continued smoothly, unperturbed.
"All that crap makes people feel like travelling is beyond them. It’s undemocratic. And it’s the opposite of sustainable travel."
"I’ll pack a dress."
He smiled at her, his point made. "Good."
"It’ll be spring. It’s going to be beautiful. Ummm, bring a jacket. It might get cold at night, and there might be rain. But it’ll mostly be warm during the day." He paused. "And bring something to wear to the launch party! Unless you want to go shopping in Palermo."
The launch party. She had forgotten about that. This was going to be fun.
"So… what else do I need to do? What do you want me to prepare?"
He shrugged. "Bring your laptop, whatever you need to write. Give Marina your details for the booking. We’ll sort out the rest. She’s done this a million times before, it’ll only take her a few minutes."
"How is this work?" she said incredulously.
He grinned. "Sometimes I ask myself the same thing."
ONE WEEK LATER
Claudia tried to keep her eyes open, leaning her head on the window of the cab Daniel had arranged for them. This was too surreal to be true. Victor had claimed the front seat, his head resting against the window, a snore escaping every few minutes.
As they broached the outskirts of the city, she passed a sea of makeshift-looking houses made of scrap materials – sheets of tin and corrugated iron, loose bricks slapped together. She drew a breath in and realised how little she knew about Argentina’s history. Even its current affairs.
"Are you still awake?" Daniel murmured.
She nodded. "I just realised that everything I know about Argentina I learnt from Evita."
The shantytown transformed disturbingly quickly, shifting from cardboard and tarpaulin into a sea of ornate, eclectic European architecture.
Due to her late booking, she hadn’t been seated with Daniel and Victor on the flight, but she’d managed to entertain herself remarkably well. The novelty of flying was nowhere near wearing off for Claudia, and between staring out the window, tapping away at her laptop and sneaking in a nap she’d found plenty to occupy her thoughts. It was only now that she was starting to feel exhausted.
Profusions of violet jacarandas lined the streets, and green and white street signs in Spanish leapt out at her. It occurred dimly to her, through a haze of sleepiness, that they looked exactly like the ones in Australia except for the names. Av. Corrientes, Av. Rivadavia, Av. Belgrano, Av. Independencia. She wished she could speak Spanish. It seemed like a language for language lovers: clean, languorous syllables bound together in a sort of intuitive musicality. She’d attempted to listen to some basic Spanish podcasts in the previous week, but had to concede she didn’t exactly have enough time to pick up more than the basic salutations.
Claudia had to restrain herself from commenting on every building they passed, which seemed to be increasingly elaborate and gorgeous. Between the lush parks, imposing museums and art nouveau-style apartment complexes trailing with greenery, central Buenos Aires looked beautiful. Sydney had always felt to Claudia like a city made of glass and light. That was its charm. This was something else: a labyrinth, a city of secrets. She felt a strange, deep stirring of happiness. Eight days to explore – well, she’d be writing, but that was hardly a chore.
The cab driver dropped them off at a hotel in the city centre, and as Daniel checked them in Claudia eyed her surroundings with some relief. As much as she’d loved visiting the Shafto, she would have felt strange staying somewhere that ostentatious. Max’s venture into the Argentinian market was considerably more subtle. Her room was simple and spacious enough, with a small balcony overlooking a gorgeous green park and a desk in the corner. She put her bags down and eyed the crisp sheets and elegant white walls, sleepy and tingling with anticipation. Perfect. She could be very happy here.
She was just drying her hair after a much-needed shower, her eyes drooping with exhaustion, when Daniel knocked on her door.
"Hi," he said, quickly flicking his eyes across her white bathrobe, "we’re going to go out and grab some pizza. Are you exhausted, or do you want to come?"
She’d avoided eating junk food en route, knowing it would worsen any jetlag, and had been snacking on trail mix and lettuce-heavy airline salads as much as possible. The possibility of toasted cheese and refined carbs suddenly beckoned to her like a beautiful glowing light. "Oh my God. I’d murder someone for a pizza."
"You probably don’t have to do that," Daniel said calmly, "it’s only a block away. Oh, by the way. We’re going to catch up with Vivienne. She’s looking forward to meeting you."
Ughhh. Why did she have to meet Vivienne when she was floppy with tiredness? She looked like hell.
"I’ll be ready in five."
Claudia went into damage control mode. There wasn’t much she could do about her puffy eyes, but at least she’d had the sense to pack clothes that didn’t require ironing. She threw on dark jeans, ballet flats and a black linen button-down shirt and combed her hair. It was about the best she could do. She wished she could switch off the voice in her head that tried to convince her to compete with Vivienne, but it was certainly persistent.
The city was getting dark as they stepped out onto the streets, but it was bustling with people, chattering and outside cafes, patisseries and restaurants. Claudia was so tired she could hardly take it in, and it was a mercifully short walk before she was able to collapse into a seat at a diner-style restaurant that looked as if it hadn’t updated its decor since the 1950s. There was something immensely comforting about the green leather booths and barstools, the tin signs for unfamiliar alcohol brands that decorated the walls. She suspected they were not so much a vintage throwback as part of the original decor: they had a dusty look that certainly seemed authentic.
‘Viv," roared Victor over the din, standing up from his seat in the booth.
So, there she was. Vivienne. Twice as vibrant and beautiful as in the photo. Wearing white jeans, a tangle of silver necklaces and an oversized navy boatneck sweater, her dreadlocks wrapped in a low bun, she looked like an off-season ballerina. She flung her arms around Victor, who picked her up and swung her around, then Daniel, her body language less effusive but still warm and discomfortingly familiar. Claudia stood too, seized with admiration and envy, as well as the strange sensation of not knowing what to do or where to put her hands.
Vivienne quickly resolved her conundrum by sweeping forward and kissing each of her cheeks. "Claudia! I don’t know what these guys have said about me, but I’m Vivienne, and I love the stuff you’ve done for the website. It was just what we needed. I laughed so much at that story about the missing ropes. Of course I knew it was Victor straight away."
Claudia started laughing. "Oh, believe me," she said, "you’re a celebrity at the Sydney office. It’s good to meet you."
It actually was, she realised. The warmth Vivienne exuded was genuine. The anxiety she had been feeling about Daniel and his ex-partner reduced to a low simmer. As the food arrived and Vivienne chattered about the launch, about things that she was hoping they’d get a chance to do while they were in town, Claudia tried to pay attention but found herself slumping in her chair. Victor, too, was waning in enthusiasm, and for once seemed content to let someone else do the talking.
Claudia excused herself to the bathroom, almost delirious with sleepiness. She wondered briefly what Daniel had planned for tomorrow, whether she’d get to see any of the city, then thought with longing of the clean white sheets of her hotel room…
The sound of a crying baby and a mother cooing in Spanish jolted her back into reality. She had just fallen asleep on a toilet. That was a new one, Claudia thought wryly. Travelling really does expand your horizons.
"Well," said Claudia, returning to the booth, "I think I’ve achieved an all-time low." They looked at her with interest. "I just fell asleep on the toilet," she explained.
They started laughing appreciatively. It was, she knew, a goofy thing to have done. But she was determined not to try to compete with Vivienne. She seemed – well, she seemed like someone Claudia would like to get to know better.
"You poor thing," said Vivienne, kindly, "it can be a terrible flight."
"We’d better take you home," said Daniel, looking at her with a sudden tenderness that made her blush. She had no idea what their relationship was supposed to be while they were in Buenos Aires, but there was surely no way that Vivienne and Victor could fail to notice the way he was eyeing her. She felt at once embarrassed and warm at the prospect.
"Why don’t you get a late breakfast at the hotel with us tomorrow?" Daniel suggested to Vivienne. "It’s only eight now. Claud, if you get to bed soon, your body clock should just about be sorted by tomorrow morning."
"It’s probably a good thing you’re so tired now," yawned Victor, "you’ll probably avoid the worst of the jet lag."
She hardly heard. She was just about nodding off again.
Daniel had been right. When Claudia went down to the hotel lobby in the morning, she felt surprisingly rested. Or perhaps not so surprising – a quick look at the clock, and she realised she’d slept for an impressive thirteen hours, She found Daniel already there, sitting with Victor and Vivienne.
"Thank Christ for hotel buffets," said Victor, gesturing for her to sit down, "they know how to do a lot of things right in Argentina, but they have no idea what constitutes a decent breakfast."
Vivienne rolled her eyes.
"You know it’s not actually healthy or sensible to eat half a pig for breakfast every day, right?" She was drinking coffee and eating a couple of galletitas, tiny biscuits.
Victor clucked his tongue. "Why’d you even bother coming here, Viv?" he said, but his tone was congenial and Vivienne was laughing at him. Victor, Claudia had discovered, had a natural talent for making sworn enemies who adored him.
"How’s my girl doing?" said Vivienne, changing the subject.
"She’s a star," said Daniel loyally, and they exchanged an affectionate look. "She’s almost finished her course, and she pretends not to care but I know for a fact that she got a high distinction on her last assignment. I’m scared she’s going to take my job once she graduates."
Victor snorted. "She’s a walking hurricane."
Vivienne laughed, but she looked a little forlorn. "I miss her so badly, you have no idea. Give her a huge hug from me." She turned to Daniel. "And tell her to keep giving Victor hell. Keeps him on his toes."
Claudia finally realised they were talking about Marina. She didn’t understand the relationship that Marina had with Daniel, let alone Vivienne, but in spite of her interest something told her not to pry.
"Claudia, are you working tomorrow?" continued Vivienne. "Come out with me and Vic tonight! You have to party with us while you’re here. I’ve been hanging out for you guys to get here." Her face was aglow at the prospect.
Claudia glanced at Daniel. She wasn’t totally sure what he had in mind. "What’s the story, Dan?" She didn’t usually call him Dan. That had just slipped out. She supposed it was Vivienne and Victor’s influence.
"Why don’t you come check out the store with me today," Daniel suggested, "then take tomorrow off?"
"I don’t need the whole day off tomorrow if I go out tonight."
Victor chuckled. "Yes, you do."
Daniel was grinning. "You probably do." He sighed. "I wish I could come."
"Sure," said Claudia, starting to feel excited by the prospect, "sounds good."
"We’re going to Casa del Tambor," explained Vivienne, "you’re going to have so much fun. It’s touristy these days, but don’t worry, the locals still love it."
"What is it? A bar?"
"They’re a twenty-piece samba drumming band," said Vivienne, and Claudia raised her eyebrows. That wasn’t what she’d expected. "They throw a party every Tuesday night. They’re huge. They often sell out in advance, so I bought a bunch of tickets before you guys arrived just in case."
Claudia grinned, gave her a thumbs up and headed to the buffet. She had to admit Vivienne had a point about the Argentinean breakfasts, but she wasn’t about to let a complimentary breakfast slip through her fingers.
As Daniel threw open the French doors, Claudia drew in a breath. The new store looked fantastic.
Each Atlas store seemed to be designed to make the best possible use of its real estate. The flagship store in Sydney was enormous – a gorgeously renovated warehouse – with jarrah floorboards, exposed brick and skylights that highlighted the angled beams of the room.
This was not quite so mammoth in scale, but distinguished itself with whitewashed walls, ornate ceiling panels and pristine glass display cases. It looked more like a high-end fashion boutique than an outdoor store, but it was perfectly at home in chic Palermo.
"How do you like it?" she asked Daniel curiously. He was pacing around the store, carefully inspecting every display cabinet and fitting. He almost looked nervous.
He glanced at her. "How do you like it?" He paused, taking a deep breath. "It’s good, right?"
"It’s really good," she promised him. "It’s beautiful."
On impulse he kissed her. "Thank God you’re here. I get so nervous about this sort of thing, I can’t tell what’s good anymore."
She raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? Daniel Cunningham gets nervous, huh?"
"There are two things that keep me awake at night, Claudia. One is Atlas Adventure." He didn’t elaborate further.
"Should I ask?"
"Nope," he said, and kissed her again. "Thanks for coming with me. I think I can let myself relax now. Sort of."
"And what would relax you?" she asked, mock-suggestively, but he seemed to take her question seriously.
"Coffee," he said. "Want to go get some?"
One afternoon in, and Claudia was already in love with Buenos Aires.
Admittedly she hadn’t really ventured out of the more luxurious neighbourhoods yet, but what she’d seen had been wonderful. She’d walked down street after street of trellised apartment blocks, blooming jacarandas, independent boutiques and tiny bookstores. She had ducked into a fine arts museum to escape the sheen of midday humidity, only to discover herself wandering between works by Modigliani and Kandinsky. She’d even managed to order lunch in halting Spanish at a small corner cafe, and was inordinately proud of the achievement.
She was surprised how at ease she felt, alone in the streets of this unfamiliar city. Daniel’s advice had been good: with her dark hair and jeans, she couldn’t imagine she stood out as a tourist. Admittedly she’d been here for less than twenty-four hours, but this whole travelling business was starting to seem easier than she’d remembered. Claudia grinned to herself. All she needed was to keep Marina on hand for the rest of of her life, and this would be a breeze.
There was a line around the block when Claudia arrived at the venue with Victor and Vivienne that night, and the energy in the air was palpable.
"Are all these people tourists?" she said incredulously.
"No, not at all," said Vivienne. "The number of tourists has definitely increased over the last couple of years, but I’d say most are locals."
Claudia was impressed.
"Quilmes, por favor," she said to the bartender at the makeshift bar and locker. He expressionlessly pulled her a pint of the local beer in a red plastic cup. She felt a thrill go through her.
A week ago she was holed up in her apartment. Now she was in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, with scarcely an idea of how she’d get home if Victor and Vivienne abandoned her. Drinking local beer served by a grumpy Argentinian bartender. It felt wonderful.
Seventeen drummers wearing loose red shirts and trousers ran onstage, and the crowd erupted. The instant the ensemble started playing, Claudia involuntarily began to dance. The energy pulsating through the venue was almost visceral, the crowd all moving as one, like a swell. The drumming was spectacular – fast, feverish and utterly exciting, the polyrhythms so subtle and complex that there was no need for other other instruments or vocals to compliment it.
She was so swept up in the music that, for a while, she hardly noticed Victor and Vivienne. Vivienne’s eyes were closed, and she was dancing a sort of loose two-step that looked like it belonged in a reggae bar. It wasn’t what she’d expected, but it was curiously charming. And Victor – well, Victor was well and truly wrapped up in his own dancing, and whatever he lacked in grace he made up for in enthusiasm. If it weren’t for his blissful expression, his jumping and air-punching probably would have been terrifying.
At one point a pretty girl with a shaved undercut came up and hugged Vivienne, then opened into a rapid-fire conversation in Spanish. Neither of them stopped dancing for the duration of the conversation, bouncing on their toes as they yelled over the top of the music.
"Luisa invited us to the after-party," Vivienne shouted, as her friend departed. "Wanna go?" Victor gave two thumbs up, and Claudia broke into a smile. She couldn’t imagine what kind of after-party would follow this, but she was eager to find out.
Vivienne led them through a series of semi-suburban streets to the party. The house looked quiet enough from the outside, but once she got indoors Claudia could see flashing lights and an impressive PA system set up, as well as a makeshift bar made from a few crates and a plank of wood. A handwritten sign advertised beers for a donation. Luisa, Vivienne’s friend, took Claudia under her wing for a rapid-fire series of introductions. She was surprised by how many people seemed to speak English. It put her pathetic Spanish to shame.
"Claudia," said Luisa, gesturing to a tall, handsome couple, "this is Paula and Diego. They work with musicians – planning events, festivals, you know. Claudia is a writer in Australia."
Diego’s eyes lit up. "Australia!" He pronounced it the same way all the locals she’d met – emphasis on the first syllable, which he pronounced as "ow". "Ever go to the Big Day Out?"
The touring music festival had been a staple of the Australian music scene for years. She nodded. "A couple of times."
"The bands always talk about it," said Paula, her face serious and alight with curiosity. "They loved it. We haven’t made it to Australia yet."
"So you’re event planners? Do you do anything like the Big Day Out?"
They nodded vigorously, and launched into a series of stories about bands misbehaving and riders going wrong. They’d clearly been in the business for a while – they were a little older than most of the other partygoers – working on large-scale events, and knew the world of touring bands inside out. Claudia felt that same tickle she’d felt talking to Craig, the costume technician at the Milkhouse. There was a piece here, she had no doubt, and she wasn’t going to let this one get away.
"Would you be interested in letting me interview you both?" she asked them. "In person, or by email, whichever you prefer."
Diego and Paula glanced at each other. Claudia sensed their hesitation and launched into a brief explanation of her work, and to her surprise they started laughing.
"Oh!" said Diego, "that sounds great."
"We’ve been asked to do interviews before," explained Paula, grinning, "but usually because we have received noise complaints, or because some kid has thrown a television out of a window."
"This sounds much better," said Diego.
"Diego keeps notes from each tour," said Paula teasingly, "We just wrapped on a thirty day tour and he was scribbling in the diary every night. I think he was hoping someone might ask to write his biography one day."
Claudia’s eyes widened with anticipation. "That’s perfect. I bet we could use them."
Luisa came and tugged her arm as she was trading contact details with the couple. "Time for you to meet more people. I hope Diego and Paula aren’t boring you with their old rock and roll stories."
She grinned at them as Luisa dragged her to the dance floor, where Victor and Vivienne were reprising their moves from earlier in the evening.
All of a sudden, the music changed from Spanish punk and reggae to Cuban dance music. The men who had, mere seconds before, been hopping around shirtless in checked trousers, immediately swivelled into a fast, easy salsa step. It was, frankly, extraordinary to behold.
"I hate this part of the night," muttered Victor, and went to the bar. Claudia was just about to follow him when a man tapped her on the shoulder, asking her to dance.
"Ahhh – lo siento, soy de Australia," she explained confusedly, unsure whether that explained anything at all. "No, uh, salsa. En Australia." She was gesturing like an idiot. If she ever came back here, she was definitely learning Spanish.
He grinned broadly at her. "I teach you."
Actually, she quickly remembered, she had taken a salsa lesson before. Kim had once tricked her into joining their university’s social dancing society as an experiment in meeting guys, which had failed so spectacularly she’d blocked most of the lesson from her memory. It was coming back now, though. Claudia fell easily into the rhythm, and even managed to hold her own while he sent her on a simple spin, although his attempt to do a slightly more complex turn that involved passing her hands behind her back wasn’t so seamless.
She spotted Vivienne across the room, laughing and dancing breezily with a short, stocky man. She’d clearly picked up the basics since she’d been living here. It seemed that dancing was just a way of life in Argentina. Like learning to swim in Australia. Something everyone assumed you could do unless you told them you didn’t.
She wasn’t sure whether it was because they all wanted be the ones to teach the hopeless Australian, but she wasn’t left alone for the rest of the evening. It was almost a shame – she’d been enjoying her conversation with Diego and Paula so much, she wanted to talk to the rest of the people at the party. Or to dance with Vivienne and Victor some more – despite her obvious reservations, she was as drawn to Vivienne’s warmth and vivacity as everyone else seemed to be. Still, she supposed, there were worse things she could be than spinning from the arms of one good-looking Argentinian man to the next. She smiled to herself at the thought of what Kim would say if she heard Claudia’s complaints.
To think she’d questioned coming to Buenos Aires for so much as a moment. She couldn’t think of how she could possibly be having more fun than she was right now.
A prickle went down her neck as she felt a pair of eyes on her, and she searched the room rapidly. There he was. Daniel. Maybe she could be having more fun right now, after all. She grinned at him, doing her damnedest not to lose step as her dance partner slid his leg forward and back with hers, and he grinned back. She supposed he couldn’t exactly get jealous about her doing the salsa in Argentina.
Still, he strode over and muttered something to her partner – which she could only assume was the Spanish equivalent of, "Do you mind if I cut in?" The man nodded respectfully at them each in turn and headed to the bar.
Not missing a beat, Daniel glided into her grip and pushed her leg back with his on the beat. She didn’t know much about correct salsa form, but his looked elegant, effortless. Sexy. His thigh was hard and warm, his fingers curled around hers, his palm on her waist. Somehow it felt different with him than with all the other men. More intimate. More intense.
"I didn’t know you could dance," he said, his lower lip full and amused.
"I couldn’t an hour ago," she admitted.
He grinned. "I let you out of my sight for a minute and half the men in Argentina queue up to to give you lessons." But he was joking. He seemed to be in high spirits. "How was Casa?"
"Oh," she sighed, "it was so great. I don’t think I’m going to be able to move tomorrow. I’m glad I wore sensible shoes."
He looked down at her lavender high-top sneakers and grinned. "I’m not used to seeing you this casual. You look adorable."
Well, that was a compliment she didn’t get every day. She blushed, remembering how sweaty her hair must be and how pink her face probably was. She wasn’t the type who took on a charming glow when she exercised. Closer to a full body rash.
Still, Daniel was looking at her as if she was the most gorgeous thing he’d ever seen. He gripped her hands and pulled her closer. The pulse of the music was slowing into a looser, smokier rhythm. She was transfixed by the sensation of his thigh against hers and his hand, cupping the curve of her waist closely. It was bliss: his powerful chest agonisingly close to hers, the heat of of his… was that what she thought it was?
"Daniel," she muttered, so that only he could hear her, "do you have an erection." It wasn’t a question.
He laughed. "Shh," he whispered into her ear, "or everyone else will want one, too."
She rested her head against his chest, faint with happiness, her legs still keeping time, Daniel moving her across the floor.
After a disturbingly small amount of sleep Claudia woke early the next morning and, discovering that no one else seemed to be about, decided to go walking in the city. Apart from several older gentleman sitting outside a leather goods store who muttered a sly "Buenos dias, flaquita," as she passed, she was surprised to find the streets almost bare. A quick stroll revealed that she might have more trouble than expected finding a takeaway coffee. Taken though she was with the golden light that bounced off the buildings, after walking through the CBD and back she decided to head back to the hotel for a quick breakfast. There, at least, she knew she could get a cup of coffee. Without one she was unlikely to make it through until lunch.
Two medialunas â€“ Claudia was enchanted by the Argentinian term for their little croissants, translating to "half-moons" – and a cafe cortado later, she stepped back out into the street. Still close to empty, with a few stores just starting to open their doors. Extraordinary. Still, she’d dosed herself up with caffeine now and had no chance of getting back to sleep. She opened her guidebook quickly, attempting discretion â€“ she was no travel expert, but she wasn’t stupid enough to stare at a map in the middle of a near-empty street â€“ she decided to head into San Telmo, the artist’s district.
Settling into a cafe and ordering a cafe cortado, she pulled out her laptop. Before she could flick it open, though, she had a change of heart and placed it back in her bag, instead removing the leather notebook that she usually used for taking quick notes. If she came back here she’d use the laptop, but for today â€“ well, the notebook just felt right.
She sat there for nearly an hour, scrawling her heart out, before the waiter interrupted her.
"Si, por favor," she said, inclining her head slightly and accepting her third coffee of the day. Looking around her, the cafe was starting to murmur with life. Two women with long dark hair and vibrant, lovely faces, each carrying a baby in her arms, sat in the corner carrying on a low but visibly joyful conversation. An older man in a hat was staring out of the window, his chin in his hand, a Spanish copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea discarded on the table and an elegant briefcase at his seat. Outside a middle-aged woman glinting with jewellery stood impatiently on the footpath, a terrier on a leash sitting obediently at her feet.
A group of young men, about the same age as the waiter, sat in a booth, a couple of them throwing her soulful glances from time to time. She wasn’t sure if it was Argentina itself or just the effect that Daniel had on her, but since arriving she’d seen gorgeous men everywhere. None of whom were quite as interesting as Daniel, but she wasn’t averse to basking in their attentions a little.
It was nearly noon by the time she decided to continue on. Outside the cafe, she found the streets were finally bustling and boutiques selling handmade clothing were flinging open their doors. Market stalls were mushrooming along the footpaths, selling an eclectic variety of products. Between the wooden children’s toys, antique typewriters and kitschy bento boxes â€“ where exactly was she again? – she spotted a bored-looking man selling hats in the shape of animals. Spotting one that looked like a moose, with fluffy antlers and earflaps, she leapt on it immediately, thinking of Kim. It wasn’t exactly an authentic souvenir, but she had no doubt whatsoever that Kim would take perverse pleasure in wearing a moose hat.
She wandered into a large hangar of stalls selling antiques and curios, then realised that she hadn’t checked the cellphone that Marina had given her to use since leaving the hotel. She rifled through her bag, stricken. There was one unread text message.
Hi Claudia, are you okay? Sure you are â€“ just wanted to check. Dan.
Relieved that nothing was wrong, she quickly typed out a reply.
At San Telmo markets. Currently looking at chandeliers. Much glass. V. impressive. Did you need me back at the hotel?
She sent it and put the phone away, then put her hand up to a droplet of glass, staring at the way it cast rainbows across her fingers.
"We should get one for Victor."
Claudia almost jumped out of her skin, spinning around to look at the tall figure next to her.
"Jesus Christ, Daniel. How long have you been here for?"
"I spotted you about a second before you pulled out your phone."
"How did you know I was here? Are you a wizard?"
He grinned. "I didn’t know. I was going to suggest you meet me in San Telmo for lunch, but I guess I don’t need to."
"I’m starving," she realised.
After lunch in a small bar, Daniel led her down the street. "How do you like San Telmo so far?"
"I love it," she said honestly. "I love everywhere so far. It’s pathetic. I’m impressed by everything."
"The first time I came here was with my mother," said Daniel, "and I was about 12. I pretended I was bored out my mind." He paused. "I think I actually was a little bored. But I was probably just trying to get some attention."
"What’s your mother like?" she asked. She had been lulled into intimacy by the quietude of the bar.
"She’s very smart. Curious. She still enjoys life, and travelling, but I think she’s a little bitter. I remember her as being very affectionate when I was younger," he said, "but I suspect my dad drove that out of her." He thought about that for a moment. "I suppose he also drove her to travel, though. So it wasn’t all bad."
"How about your dad?" she ventured cautiously.
"My dad was always my role model for who I never wanted to be."
"Do you mind me asking about him?"
"No, it’s fine. I think I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I love him, but I’ve never liked him much." Daniel paused. "He was okay as a father, but he was a horrible husband. He cheated on my mother relentlessly. With his employees, mostly. I could never tell whether they went along with it because they were interested or because he was their boss and they didn’t know what else to do. It used to make me sick. My mum stopped caring after a while, but I never really did."
"That sounds tough."
"It wasn’t so bad."
He kissed her in a rough, brotherly sort of way on the forehead.
"How about you?"
"Daddy issues too," said Claudia wryly. "Well, not really. I get on okay with my dad. But I never got the impression he was terribly proud of me."
Daniel glanced at her. "I don’t know if you ever get the impression that people are proud of you. Or that you’re ever proud of yourself."
She swallowed hard and kept walking. "Do people ever really feel proud of themselves? After the age of fourteen, I mean?"
He didn’t say anything. Claudia stopped in front of a stand of old books.
"I wish I could read Spanish," said Claudia, running her hand across the pages. "Look at this cover. They’re so beautiful I want to buy a stack of them, just to look at."
Daniel took the book from her hand and placed it back on the shelf. Before she could say a word, he placed his hand around the small of her back and pulled her toward him, kissing her with such intensity, such open lust that it took her a good five seconds to remember where she was. She breathed a small and barely audible moan, and Daniel hummed a deep growl in response, his hand kneading her scalp, his knee pushing between her thighs.
The sun blazed down on her hair. She could smell spun sugar and tar rising from the street and hear strains of music from a tango display a block away, where tourists were dropping coins into an old violin case. Her heart was beating fast and erratically, matching the feet of the dancers clipping the hot road.
She pulled away for a second, trying her best not to pant, Daniel looking as if he was suffering every inch as much as she was. Barely opening his mouth, his pupils dilated, he spoke. "I’m going to die if I don’t take you to bed soon."
Praying that the man at the stall didn’t speak English or at the very least had poor hearing, she closed her eyes and let him kiss her dizzyingly over and over again, wrapping her hand in his beautiful hair and stroking his hipbone. "Take me," she gasped between kisses, "to bed. Anywhere you like."
"On the ground," he murmured in her ear, "on that rug over there."
A shudder went through her body. Daniel took her by the shoulders. "We’re going back to the hotel," he told her. He took her hand and paced her off down the street, her legs feeling like they were liable to collapse underneath her. A taxi came trundling from the opposite direction mercifully quickly and they both hailed at once, diving for the door.
"Hipolito Yrigoyen, por favor," said Daniel rapidly to the driver and ushered Claudia in, not taking his hand off her for a second. The instant they were both collapsed in the taxi he pulled an arm around her, drawing her next to him on the seat, pressing his mouth to hers again. He brought a hand up to the side of her face, rubbing her earlobe with his forefinger and thumb as he slid his tongue across hers in a long, slow, dirty kiss.
She’d never been so faint with lust in her life. She wasn’t sure what he’d do once he dipped his finger inside the cup of her bra. Mercifully, or perhaps cruelly, he was restraining himself from doing anything too visibly erotic in view of the taxi driver.
An image of his mouth closing over her nipple crossed her mind. She clenched her thighs together. Then the thought of his penis, warm with blood, tingling with nerves, sliding thickly inside her, replaced the first vision, and she had to stop herself from crying out loud.
"We’ll get there soon," he whispered to her, an uncanny echo of another taxi trip they’d shared. "I promise."
She bit his chin. He laughed and pulled her further into his lap. She could feel his warm cock rising big and hard against her.
She loved him so much it was like there was a songbird trapped in her ribs.
She couldn’t think about that now.
Once they got to the hotel they practically sprinted up the stairs to his room, hand in hand, breathy with anticipation. Daniel slammed the door behind him, pushed her against it and kissed her again.
"We should slow down," he said, drawing away from her, breathing heavily. "We have all afternoon."
"But I want you now."
He smiled a beautiful, wry smile.
"You’re so lovely."
She felt lovely, when he smiled at her like that.
"Come here," he said, taking her wrist and leading her into the centre of the room. He turned her to face the full-length mirror, standing behind her. Their eyes met in the mirror.
"Do you remember when we went to Max’s hotel?" he asked, unbuttoning her blouse. "You looked so beautiful that night. When I saw you standing in the moonlight in that swimsuit I was so aroused I didn’t know what to do."
She inhaled sharply, remembering the shower she’d taken afterwards.
"Did you touch yourself?" she asked him, realising immediately that he had.
He nodded quietly, circling his palm over her nipple.
"Oh, dear," she said quietly. "Did you get yourself off?"
"Yes, Claudia," he said, sliding his other hand across her stomach and rubbing it lazily in light circles, still moving his palm over her breast, "I got myself off. In the showers. It wasn’t my finest hour."
"Do you know," she said, gasping slightly for breath as he caressed her, "that I was doing the same thing."
He closed his eyes for just a second, tilting his neck backward like a horse scratching an itch.
"What were you thinking about?"
"I was imagining you fucking me on a hotel bed in Thailand."
"What were you thinking about?"
"I was thinking about you," he said, "and I was specifically thinking about how I wanted to stand you in front of a mirror, and use my fingers to pleasure you while you watched."
"Oh my God."
He was teasing her thighs now, frisking his fingers over that ultra-sensitive point that made her stomach flip.
"I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t get it out of my head."
"That’s what I’m going to do to you now, Claudia."
She grabbed his hand and drew it to her soft, swollen warmth, crying out as he made contact. He moaned, a throaty, animalistic sound that amplified the pleasure of his masculine hands inside her.
"Do you like it when I touch you like that?"
"Yes. Yes. Yes," she hissed, shifting in circles so she could feel his touch over every millimetre of her clitoris, unable to tear her eyes away from him in the mirror, the vision of his large, strong hands on her pale skin.
"Do you want to come now? Or do you want me to make you come the way I did in my office? Or do you want both?" he said, grasping her hair and kissing her on the mouth as his fingers relieved her.
She spiralled into ecstasy, her breaths shortening as the otherworldly prickling of orgasm coursed into her body, at first sparkling and electric, then thick and dreamy and slow as it drained into her limbs.
"Sorry," she murmured, her knees slackening a little beneath her.
"It’s alright," he said, "we have all afternoon. We may as well use it."
"Don’t you have work to do?"
He smiled at her so beautifully she could have been in heaven. "It’s siesta. Everyone’s doing what we’re doing."
Oh, this was perfect.
She felt more alive than she had in – well, just about ever. In this golden city, in the arms of this gorgeous man. It was like wading through a dream.
The painful part was that it couldn’t last. Not long now until she had to get ready to uproot her life to Canberra. Not that it would be such an uprooting. She could probably fit most of what she needed in one carload. But she’d miss her Sydney life, and she could no longer deny that she would miss Daniel. Not just for a week or two. She could see now that it was going to be harder to leave him than she’d anticipated.
But she would get used to it. This sort of love had to be a fantasy. They were playing parts. She was uncomfortably aware that the fact she was moving away was precisely why Daniel had allowed himself to get so wrapped up. The way the Atlas employees made it sound, he hadn’t had a serious relationship in years. Not since Vivienne.
He wrapped her in a robe and led her out to the balcony. They had spent the whole afternoon making love, and now the stars were coming out.
"Claudia," he said, "I know you’re leaving Sydney."
She didn’t reply. Was this it?
"But I want you to know that having you around has been the best thing that’s happened to me in years."
She looked at him, her heart beating fast. Did he mean that? How could he?
Why did she find it so hard to believe that he liked her?
"Thank you," she said, her voice close to a whisper.
He opened his mouth as if he was about to add something else, then closed it again. She didn’t pursue it. Of course there was nothing else to say. They were acting. That was all they were doing.
Everyone had turned it on for the launch.
Vivienne was wearing a frothy floor-length gold-yellow dress that made her dark, bare shoulders gleam in the moonlight. Her dreadlocks were piled on top of her head. She looked incredible, and this time Claudia couldn’t stop the inevitable rush of jealousy. But that wasn’t fair. Vivienne had been so lovely to her. She was part of the reason Claudia had such a good time in Buenos Aires. She wouldn’t forget the night at Casa del Tambor in a hurry.
Victor, meanwhile, was wearing a suit. An actual real life suit. She could hardly believe it. It didn’t even have camouflage-print lapels. She could really see what Marina was on about, she smirked to herself, admiring the way his broad shoulders filled out the sleeves. But then, she was a sucker for a man in a nice suit.
And then there was Daniel.
He was wearing a tux. Which seemed unfair, to begin with. When he’d collected her from her hotel room earlier that evening, they’d stared at each other for a solid five seconds without saying a word.
â€œYou look… extremely good. In that.â€? That was all she’d been able to manage.
â€œClaudia,â€? he’d returned, not tearing his eyes away from her, â€œsometimes you make my life very difficult.â€?
Her dress was sky blue with Grecian straps, braided detailing and an empire waist that spilled into a flowing skirt. It wasn’t overtly sexy, but it made her feel beautiful. She tied her hair into rough French braids and wrapped them into a loose chignon at the back of her neck, then pinned in some pretty white flowers she’d picked from the bouquet on the table. Perfect. With subdued silver heels and a vintage jet bead purse that she’d picked up at the San Telmo markets, she looked like – well, she wasn’t sure what. She looked like herself. The best version of herself, maybe. That was how she wanted to Daniel to see her. To remember her.
Her pulse was already racing, and she felt slightly giddy. She loved a party, and this looked set to be a good one. If only she could put aside the bleakness that seemed to be its inevitable flipside.
It felt like the entirety of the trip had been spent in that same dreamlike state she’d experienced the day she met Daniel in San Telmo. She’d spent every day exploring, writing, going to meetings, making love. Whenever he had time between meetings, Daniel had taken her to his favourite places in the city. Vacillating between the sheer romance of the city and the heavy sadness of knowing it was hurtling towards an endpoint.
This was, in a way, the end for her and Daniel. She figured they’d see each other before she went to Canberra, maybe even sleep together again. The bond they had now went deeper than an office romance. Much deeper. But they both knew that it had to end. Tonight would be a celebration of the work they’d done together. And of the great sex they’d had.
Vivienne had pulled together a great crowd. The party appeared to be full of photographers, interviewers, and an assortment of beautifully-dressed, happy-looking people. Claudia had no idea who most of them were, but fortunately most seemed to speak some English. She hadn’t been left alone for a moment all evening. She’d only just managed to slip away for a moment of her own, looking over the balcony.
She looked out over the bustling venue: a roof garden, putting her back in mind of that first date with Daniel. Was it a date? In retrospect, she supposed it was. There was still a part of her that couldn’t believe he’d asked her out at all. Right now he was deep in conversation with an unfamiliar bespectacled man, but he spotted her from a distance, flashed a smile and raised a champagne glass at her.
The city looked incredible from here. She loved Buenos Aires. She wished she could have seen more of it. Ventured outside the city. Spoken more Spanish. Learned more about the villas, the shantytowns on the outskirts â€“ she was well aware she’d seen a rarefied version of the city. She knew she would come back to Argentina some day. It hurt to realise that it would be without Daniel, but she would always be grateful to him for bringing her here.
â€œWhat’re you thinking about?â€?
She hadn’t noticed him curtail his conversation with the man in glasses, but he was suddenly next to her, looking out over the city.
"I was thinking about how much I love it here," she said honestly. "I’m so glad you gave me a chance to see it."
He slipped a hand into hers, looking down at her solemnly.
"I’m glad you could see it. It suits you."
Her heart was racing again. But to what end? There was nothing he could say that would make it okay between them. Part of her yearned to tell him how much he had come to mean to her â€“ but what would be the point? She envied his ability to enjoy the romance of their situation without, it seemed, being concerned about the fact that they were about to reach a stalemate.
"Since we went to the effort of throwing this party, I thought I’d better attempt to talk to some of the stakeholders. Unfortunately," he added, looking her up and down, "none of them are as beautiful as you, and they’re certainly not as interesting."
She attempted to smile.
"Shall we dance?â€?
He took her in his arms, moved her lightly to the music, and to her surprise her eyes filled with tears.
"Sweetheart," he whispered in her ear, "is everything alright?"
She pressed her head against his chest. This was too hard.
"Claudia, look at me."
It took a huge effort to tilt her face upward.
"I doubt this will come as a surprise. But it seems like as good a time as any to tell you."
What? That this was it â€“ that they wouldn’t see each other any more? She supposed she should be relieved that he was raising the subject, and not her. Instead she felt a dark mass of fear writhing in her stomach.
"Claud, I’ve had the best time of my life with you. I don’t know what’s happened to me in the last month, but you’ve made me feel like everything in my life has changed. For the better."
"I know what you mean," she said, quietly.
"I’m sure you know this already already, but I love you."
A nauseating wave of love and pain crashed through her.
"You too," she mumbled, as honestly as possible.
He gripped her wrist and pulled her in towards her, kissing her. Her heart ached. Oh, she was gone. She was totally spent on Daniel Cunningham. He was making a mess of her.
"I don’t want to lose you," he murmured into her ear.
Claudia opened her eyes. The city lights were blurring into streaky nebulae.
"Are you okay?"
"I’m not feeling great." Daniel’s look of concern forced her to add, "I think I’m tired. I’m going to take a breather."
"I’ll come with you," he said.
"No," she protested, "that’s fine. You need to wheel and deal."
She moved towards the ladies’ room as quickly as she could manage, steadying herself over the sink.
Claudia had no idea what she was going to tell him. That she wanted him to tell her not to move to Canberra? That she wished he could move the entire company headquarters there, so she never had to be without him?
None of that was right. But what was right? She just didn’t know.
Ten minutes passed, and she hadn’t come to a conclusion, but she realised she needed to make a reappearance at the party. Shaking her head rapidly, she splashed a little water onto her face and left the bathroom.
Stepping back out onto the roof garden, she made a quick loop around the balcony before she saw him.
"May I have this dance?" Daniel was saying to Vivienne.
An intolerable, stabbing pain shot through her entire body. She tried to tear her eyes away, but she couldn’t: Vivienne, glowing in yellow, smiling in Daniel’s arms, bathed in moonlight. Daniel tossing his head back with laughter.
She knew it didn’t matter. They were old friends, and their closeness was still apparent. She knew he wasn’t a psychopath; he wouldn’t tell her he loved her and then woo Vivienne within ten minutes of one another. But watching it was almost unendurable.
She’d never really believed that they could work together, and seeing this threw it all into perspective. She was a shadow player. A ghostwriter. She’d probably been an interesting distraction for Daniel. Something different to what he was used to; a holiday from himself. That was a desire she could understand. That was probably how he’d managed to convince himself that he loved her.
Once Claudia left for Canberra, he’d find another woman to dance with, to hold. Someone closer to Vivienne’s type. Someone who fit into the life he’d made for himself.
"Victor," she said, flagging him down, "I’m not feeling great. I’m going to bed. Can you tell everyone that I said goodnight?"
Victor narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure?"
Claudia muttered something in acquiescence and stumbled past him. She knew that Victor would tell Daniel straight away. There was a part of her that longed for him to come and talk to her.
But of course he wouldn’t. How could he? It was his launch party. His trip. His world. She’d just been given a chance to occupy it for a while. She flipped the â€œDo Not Disturbâ€? sign on her hotel room door, put in a pair of foam earplugs and went to bed.
Victor came up to Daniel as he spun Vivienne around on the dance floor.
"Hey boss. Claud’s not feeling too hot. She went to bed."
Daniel stared at him.
"Is she okay?"
Victor shrugged. "She looked fine. She said she just had a headache. Said to say goodnight to you guys." His expression was odd as he walked off.
Daniel knew that couldn’t be good.
"Shit," he muttered. "I hope she doesn’t think that you and I are… you know."
Vivienne shrugged. "Surely not. She knows I’m in a relationship, right?"
Daniel glanced at her.
"Daniel!" Vivienne cried, her broad-set eyes even wider than usual. "Claudia doesn’t know about Flavia? And you were dancing with me? Were you trying to give her a heart attack?" Her face was alight with exasperation.
He closed his eyes, feeling impossibly stupid. "I don’t know. I thought it wasn’t my position." He’d certainly been a little surprised when Vivienne told him that she was now in a relationship with a woman. But that was Vivienne’s style; she followed her intuition. He wasn’t sure how she’d got it so wrong with him.
"Dan, for God’s sake. I get that you’re trying to do the right thing. But there’s a difference between outing someone to their unsuspecting relative and telling the woman you love that their ex isn’t trying to yank you from their clutches."
He took a deep breath. This was Vivienne he was talking to. Maybe she could advise him.
"Claud is moving to Canberra. In a few weeks."
"Have you told her how you feel?"
"I just tried to. And now she’s gone."
"Oh, Dan. I’m sorry."
"Jesus, Vivienne." He pushed a hand back through his hair. "She did tell me she loved me."
"That’s good," Vivienne said encouragingly.
"But then she left."
"You know what, though, this is something. This is really something, Dan. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you pursue anyone before." She paused. "Hell, you barely raised a finger at me and I came running."
"I’m sorry, Viv. You deserved so much better from me."
"Are you going to apologise for that for the rest of your life? Daniel, I was there too. I could have left at any point. I was so excited by Atlas and everything; I didn’t see what was happening either." She paused. "It sucked at the time, but honestly, it wasn’t so bad. It worked out for the best. For both of us."
He grimaced. â€œSure. Things are going really great for me right now.â€?
â€œSo if she loves you, why do you think she freaked?â€?
"I don’t know. She never seems to trust me. She clams up whenever I try to tell her she’s smart, she’s beautiful, she’s talented."
Vivienne clucked her tongue. "It’s not gonna work if she can’t see that you’re crazy about her."
"I’m trying my best, Vivienne. I don’t know how many different ways I can tell her."
"I know, babe. But maybe it’s not you. Not right now."
The morning after the launch, Claudia packed her things quietly. She slipped out of her hotel room early, before Daniel had a chance to find her, and found a place to drink coffee and write. She was hammering away at the Buenos Aires blog posts, but her head really wasn’t in the right place for it. She didn’t know what she planned to say to Daniel when she saw him, but she didn’t know what good could possibly come out of it.
The glitter of the previous night had been woefully short-lived.
She’d only just had a chance to fall in love with Buenos Aires, and now she had to leave. She’d only just had a chance to fall in love with Daniel, and now she had to leave him, too. She didn’t know why she ever thought she’d be able to get out of this unscathed. Well, if she was honest, she’d never really believed that. But the inevitable pain had always been a distant event. Now it was here, more angular and bitter and heavy than she ever could have imagined it.
But what else could she have done? Sit mouselike at her desk at Atlas, pining after him every day? Even if she’d tried, she doubted it would have worked. They’d come together like an unstoppable force.
A tiny part of her had wondered if there was a way they could stay together. Maybe they could do long-distance. Maybe he’d drop everything and decide to move to Canberra. But all the possibilities she could think of seemed utterly child-like. Foolish. Daniel, conducting a long-distance love affair? She couldn’t exactly imagine him practising his best sexy webcam faces for a dirty Skype session. He was so busy as it was. He’d never get a chance to come visit. And he’d go away for business, and she’d hurt so much that the whole thing would fall apart.
All of this, too, assuming that he was interested in trying at all. Which he wouldn’t be. He was an adult; he wouldn’t have the time or inclination to mess around with that sort of juvenile, pining relationship. She was 29 years old and she still felt like a kid going away to college.
And all of this was before she’d seen him with Vivienne, which had disturbed her more deeply than she’d cared to admit.
Did she think Daniel was still in love with Vivienne? No, it wasn’t that, not exactly. She’d believed him when he said he loved her. That should have made this easier, should have put her in a position of power. Instead, she’d just felt more out-of-control than ever.
She returned to her room feeling worse than when she’d left, and lay on her bed attempting to read. She still had the unopened copy of Wind, Sand and Stars in her bag, but she couldn’t bring herself read that now. She’d picked up an English copy of American Psycho from a bookstore on Avenida Florida in anticipation of the flight home. That seemed more manageable.
There was a knock on the door.
"Are you almost ready to go?"
It was him. Her stomach gave a sickening lurch. She opened the door and nodded.
"Claudia," said Daniel, "we need to talk."
"Yes," she said. That was all she could manage.
He came in the room and sat down on her bed. "We’re not seated together on the flight, and I wanted to talk to you before we get back to Sydney."’
Say what? That he wished her well? That she’d been a great sport?
"You know that I have no feelings for Vivienne, right? She’s a great friend, but that’s all she’s been for years. And she’s in a long term relationship."
Claudia looked at him blearily.
"It’s a long story, which I’d like to tell you. At a better time than this."
A bleak sort of hope stirred in her, then flickered out. Vivienne had never really been a threat. That wasn’t the point. The point was that – well, he was capable of making her feel this bad. And she didn’t have time for that; she’d been messing around for too long. It was now or never. He’d understand that, if he really thought her writing was as good as he claimed. She couldn’t risk her career on someone who had the capacity to cause her so much pain.
"Okay," she said.
He eyed her warily. "Okay?"
"I don’t think we should see each other anymore, though."
He looked as if she’d punched him in the solar plexus. She hadn’t been expecting him to be surprised. Not like this.
She closed her eyes. "I just can’t see how it could possibly end well. For either of us."
He narrowed his eyes, scrutinising her. "Do you feel differently about me to the way you said did last night?"
"It’s not that." If only he knew.
"What is it?"
"I need to go to Canberra," she said numbly. She felt sick.
"Go to Canberra," he said, looking at her intently. "I’ll visit you every weekend if you want. I’ll fly you up to see me. I can work remotely if I need to, so we can spend time together. It’s only for a year."
Her head was pounding. Waves of nausea were rising inside her. "I can’t do that. You can’t do that."
"Because it’s crazy. Long distance doesn’t work. Everyone knows that."
"Who knows that?" Daniel’s jaw was tight. "Fucking Cosmo magazine?"
"Is that supposed to be a jab at me?"
Daniel stared at her. "What?"
"Because you don’t think I’m a serious writer." She had no idea whether she was being crazy or not. She felt crazy, but she couldn’t switch off the urge to… to somehow enact revenge on him. For making her fall in love with him. For teasing her, for making her think that this whole thing was possible.
Daniel tossed his head irritatedly. She’d never seen him angry before, and the knowledge that it was because of her gave her unpleasant chills. "No, Claudia. No. I don’t know how you could think that was what I meant. Have I ever expressed anything other than admiration for your work? Haven’t I told you to give yourself more credit for it? And I can tell you, it’s more than a little irritating that you keep throwing it back in my face." He pawed at his temple, pushing his hair back in frustration.
"I didn’t know you felt like that."
He shook his head rapidly.
"I don’t. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I just wish you could see yourself the way I see you."
She took a moment to inhale deeply, her breath jagged.
"If we’re together, my head will still be in Sydney with you. I’ll be sad and lonely and I won’t be able to work properly. And I need to make this work, Daniel."
"Why would you be sad and lonely if we see each other every weekend?"
"Because we won’t be able to see each other every weekend. You’ll have to go away for work. My contract could be extended. And even if we did see each other all the time you’d get sick of it. You’ll start wondering why you’re spending your weekends in a shitty flat instead of waterskiing or rock climbing or doing the sort of stuff you actually like to do. And then you’ll get sick of me, and then some day I’ll be interviewing a corrupt politician in a polyester suit and you’ll be off in some fantastic country and some beautiful fucking… skydiving instructor will look at you out of the corner of her eye, and you’ll find it easier than you ever imagined to forget that you’re even with me anymore."
She hadn’t known that was what she’d been fearing until she heard herself say the words.
"How could you possibly think that I would do that?" he said hotly. "What evidence have I ever given to suggest that would be the case?"
"I don’t know, Daniel," she said, weak with exasperation, unsure if it was directed at him or at herself. "Maybe it’s because you look like a Greek god. Because you founded an international corporation and I write 150-page novels about feisty babysitters. Because I’m not a serious writer and I’ve never even travelled anywhere until now. Because of women’s magazines making me think I’m not pretty enough, probably; I may as well throw that in, too. Because that’s what my dad did to my mum. I don’t know why. But I feel like I don’t deserve you, and I know that once you know me better you’re going to feel the same way, and I don’t want to watch that happen."
He closed his eyes and shook his head. He was livid, she was sure, but doing his best to internalise it. For her sake. Well, there it was. She was bound to sabotage the whole thing eventually, anyway. Better to get it over with now.
"Are you not talking because you know I’m right?" she said, hopping with anxiety, knowing she was on dangerous ground.
"No," he said. "Because I thought you had faith in me. Like I did in you."
"So did I," she said quietly.
He looked at her once more, his eyes filled with anger and sadness, then picked up her suitcase and took it down to the street. He hailed a cab and opened the door for her, and they drove away from the city in sad, exhausted silence.
SIX WEEKS LATER
As if drawn on by some invisible lure, Claudia hammered in the final words on the first draft of the piece.
It was good. Damn good. It could be the start of something really big. She felt a tickle of excitement and allowed it to wash over her briefly. It was the first whisper of positivity she’d felt in a while, and she didn’t expect it to last for long.
She stretched expansively and looked around her apartment. The bookshelves and overspilling ferns and piles of journals and novels all over the floor. Two takeout bento boxes on the kitchen table – she could start eating properly again now that the first flush of work was out of the way. The Sydney light dappled through the lace curtains onto the floor, a little more autumnal now but still warm and golden.
She’d pulled the plug on Canberra. Shut the whole thing down, and it surprised her how right it felt. Who was she kidding? Just because she was capable of political journalism – and she was capable, or they wouldn’t have offered her the job in first place – wasn’t a good reason to do it. Daniel had been right. There was nothing frivolous about doing the work that made your heart sing. The position in Canberra just wasn’t for her, for reasons that extended well beyond Daniel.
It was just a shame she’d had to lose him in order to find that out. It was more than a shame. It hurt her every day. She’d spent the last six weeks powered by a sense of dry, abject misery. She felt excruciatingly foolish every time she thought about her behaviour on that last day in Argentina. But she didn’t know what other options she’d had. It wasn’t Canberra that had been the problem at all, or Vivienne, or Daniel: it was all herself.
She’d used the number Shonice gave her for Mara, the career coach. She’d been reluctant, but who was she kidding? Losing Daniel, moving to another city practically to spite herself – it was as much of a wake-up call as she ever could have hoped to receive.
The instant she’d mentioned Atlas Adventure, Mara’s receptionist had immediately made room for her in the schedule. "Another one!" he’d said, "Mara will be happy. She loves working with you guys."
She didn’t bother to correct him.
Rather than the stern, efficient dynamo she’d been anticipating, Mara was observant and warm. So warm that Claudia actually cried in her first appointment, much to her embarrassment.
"You think this doesn’t happen all the time?" Mara had said kindly. "There are reasons we sabotage ourselves, and most of them have nothing to do with work."
"So what happens now? Are you going to make me call my dad and ask him to tell me he’s proud of me?"
"Well, I could," said Mara, "but I have a feeling it’s going to work better if we come up with a plan to help you feel proud of yourself."
Claudia knew she’d been lucky to have a project to throw herself into. She was miserable most of the time, but at least she was busy. She’d been staying up later and later each night to work on it, getting out of bed with the sun blazing through her window and dragging herself to the computer as soon as she was upright, eating hummus and crackers and half-flaccid carrot sticks for breakfast and lunch and ordering in food for dinner. She’d started drinking instant coffee. Instant. She’d refused to touch the stuff since university, but suddenly she was going through a jar a week.
She had sent her Buenos Aires pieces straight to the PR team within three days of arriving home, dashing them off her word processor as if they were burning her. Vlad had sent her a gushing email back, but she hadn’t had the heart to reply. She didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Buenos Aires than she had to right now, so wrapped up was it in her thoughts about Daniel. She’d revisit the experience when she was less tender. Still, flashes of it came back to her at unwelcome moments: the scent of coffee in the morning; standing on the balcony staring at the city lights; Daniel’s body wrapped around hers in the afternoon light.
A few days after she’d arrived home, she’d received a business card for an editor at Conquest magazine in an unmarked envelope, and realised that Daniel must have dropped it off. He was the one who recommended he submit a piece to them in first place. She was grateful, but she hadn’t attempted to contact him. His message – or lack thereof – was clear enough.
She went out for a drink with Victor and Marina a week later, at their urging. She had no idea how they’d found out she was still in town, but somehow they had. She’d found the idea incredibly unnerving, but it had been better than she’d expected to see them.
"So," Victor had said, "you haven’t seen El Jefe since you got back?"
"Oh, not yet," she said in a falsely bright tone, trying not to lower the mood.
"I’m sorry, kiddo," he said, and reached over to ruffle her hair.
"What do you mean?" A sea of horrible possibilities rose in her imagination, and she immediately wished she hadn’t left the house at all.
Victor shrugged. "Well, he’s back to locking himself in the office again. So I assume that he’s no longer privy to whatever white magic you were working on him."
She felt relief and a strange melancholy. She still felt a sense of wonder about the fact that – well, that perhaps she had an impact on him at all. But the thought of Daniel brooding over her wasn’t as pleasant as it might have been. She wanted him to be happy. Happily single, preferably, for now at least, but happy.
Marina piped up. "He told you about Vivienne, right? We were all hoping he’d tell you about Vivienne."
"What do you mean, all of you?"
Marina smirked and shrugged mysteriously. "What you need to understand is that Daniel was pretty cut up about the whole thing. I think he felt like he’d really messed her round, you know? Which wasn’t the case at all, but you know what Dan’s like, always the gentleman."
"How do you know?" said Victor with equal measures admiration and scorn. "You weren’t even there at the time."
"I’m front of house," said Marina, haughtily, "and Daniel says that means I know more about the company than he does. And it’s true. I still have to show him how to send emails sometimes."
This was all getting too much for Claudia. She changed the topic.
"How’s surfing?" She’d never got past the first lesson. Buenos Aires had happened, Daniel had happened, everything had happened.
Marina exhaled dreamily. "It’s the best. Radhika’s amazing at it. I’m still hopeless. But I’ve been practising my pop-up behind the desk when the office is quiet." She looked at Claudia hopefully. "Are you going to come back and do more lessons? If you come to the next few, you can probably still move up to the next level with me and Rad later in the year."
Claudia nodded, suddenly feeling a twinge of enthusiasm. "Yeah, okay. I think so. I’d like to."
There was, she realised, value in these things. Things that she wasn’t good at, things that didn’t come naturally to her. She would never be good at surfing. She would never be totally at ease. Which meant that the exercise ceased to be about achieving excellence, and instead became something different. Something about getting on the board after getting dumped for the millionth time, blowing the salt water out of her nose, turning the board around and paddling back out to sea. There was something to be proud of there.
Daniel Cunningham was at sea.
For perhaps the first time in his life, he didn’t have a plan and he didn’t know what to do about it.
Without Claudia around he was bored, listless and grumpy. He’d been snapping Darren and Victor’s heads off at every suggestion they made, and it was only thanks to what he dimly recognised as their generosity that they hadn’t escalated matters.
The irritability he had anticipated. What he hadn’t expected was this pervasive sense of sadness. Of loss. Of having let something precious slip between his fingers.
He’d never done so little work in his life. Thank God he’d trained his employees to hold down the fort without him.
Marina knocked on his door and entered his office, a long checklist in her hand.
"Sooooooo. Victor is bored and wants you to come up with something for him to do. Claud’s BA recaps went live a couple of days ago and Viv emailed to say that practically every customer she spoke to mentioned them – so if you wanted proof actual travellers read the blog, there it is." She looked at him expectantly, but he said nothing. "Jeremie asked me to ask you if you can approve some change to the thumbnails on the online shop – I have no idea what he’s talking about, but he’s emailed you some screenshots."
"I’ve told him he doesn’t need to get my approval for online material. Ella knows better than I do. She can approve it all."
Marina nodded. "Cool. I’m going to make an executive decision and consider this permission to tell him to stop being so pathetic."
He mustered up the closest thing to a smile that he could manage. "Where would I be without you, Marina?"
She snorted. "You say that like you’re the one who was in rehab."
It had been Vivienne’s idea to hire Marina in first place, three years ago now. She’d been volunteering at a methadone clinic at the time, and had insisted on bringing the girl in to meet Dan. Daniel had been wary, but as ever Viv’s intuition was faultless. Marina was painfully skinny, had been sleeping on the streets for a month and had black rings under her eyes. Teaching her not to swear at clients on the phone had been a full-time job at first. But she had paid them both back tenfold.
Marina made him want to be a better person. She embodied everything that was important about second chances.
Something occurred to him. "Have you spoken to Claudia lately?"
"Wouldn’t she be in Canberra by now?" Marina asked airily. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing. I thought I might see if she was available for a little additional work on the blog. But, uh, I forgot about the move." He groaned internally.
"Well," said Marina hastily, "she might not have gone yet. I mean, she never seemed all that into the idea, did she? Maybe you could call her and find out."
What was she talking about? Was this Marina-speak for the fact that Claudia was still in Sydney? And if so, what the hell did that mean? Had Canberra just been an elaborate excuse for Claudia to terminate their relationship? That didn’t seem like her style, but then again, perhaps he hadn’t known her as well as he’d thought.
Of course, it could just as well have been Marina being Marina. Daniel sunk his head into his hands as his assistant left the office. The initial thought of Claudia’s proximity had sent hope flaring through him, but he realised now that the alternative of Claudia nearby and unwilling to see him was twice as depressing as the idea of her making her own way in Canberra.
Claudia thought about her conversation with Marina and Victor long and hard that night. And the next night, and the night after that.
The stuff about Vivienne made sense. She didn’t bear him any grudge for that. She thought about what Marina had said. About Daniel feeling guilty about Vivienne, worried that he’d pushed her into something. That would explain a lot about Daniel now: his consideration, his carefulness. Hadn’t he been about to tell her something of the sort before they had the fight?
She still felt like her stomach was squirming with caterpillars whenever she thought about the fight. She never wanted to see Daniel angry again. He’d put himself out on the line for her, and she’d told him she didn’t want to be with him.
She’d been telling herself that if he had really loved her, he would fight for her. But that was bullshit. She would have hated that. Hated it. She hated it in romantic movies – the kind of passive-aggressive stalking that would see the hero being slapped with a restraining order if he wasn’t Bradley Cooper. Daniel wasn’t the kind of guy who would call nineteen times a day telling her she’d made a huge mistake, that he was the only guy for her. That was why she loved him.
Daniel made room for her. Because he respected her intelligence and trusted her decisions. Because he had faith in her.
She was lying on her couch in the heat, wearing denim shorts and a Pantera t-shirt and she looked like shit. She didn’t even like Pantera; it was just a shirt she’d borrowed from Kim one hungover morning and never given back. She brushed her hair, but she didn’t see much point in attending to the rest. If she put on makeup she’d probably just start crying and make a mess of it.
Claudia got in her car and drove over to Daniel’s house, her heart beating a fast, painful tattoo the whole way.
Daniel opened the door wearing crumpled jeans and a t-shirt. His eyes looked a little bleary, his hair mussed up. Had she woken him up? It was after 11pm, she remembered, and he usually got up at 5. She’d just assumed he’d be working late, like she was. She was totally out of kilter.
In spite of his sleep-ruffled face he was more beautiful than she’d remembered, and it took a sharp plunge of resolve for Claudia not to turn around and walk back to her car.
He narrowed his eyes slightly when he saw her.
"Hi," she said, her mouth feeling as if it was full of flour. Talking was an effort.
"Hi, Claud," he said. His tone was wary, but somehow he still managed to sound polite. Oh, she was nervous beyond belief.
"I understand if you don’t want to," she said, "but I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute."
He eyed her: not unkindly, but not saying anything. His jaw was tight.
"I wanted to apologise," she clarified in a rush, "because I was incredibly awful to you, and I’ve spent every day since regretting it."
"Oh, Claudia," he said, his face softening almost imperceptibly, "you weren’t awful."
"I was horrible," she said shakily, "I brought you a plant."
The very edge of his mouth quirked up slightly.
Claudia picked the brass pot up from the ground where she’d set it. She had bought the plant on a whim before they’d gone to Argentina, immediately imagining how it would look in Daniel’s apartment. She’d figured she could give it to him before she went to Canberra. A friendly, unemotional parting gift.
"It’s a philodendron," she said, as if that explained it, "it’s very hardy, so it should be able to survive your trips. Or you could just take it into the office. Vlad would probably take care of it."
He looked her up and down as she spoke, taking on board the Pantera t-shirt, her bare feet and uncharacteristically scraggly hair. "You’d better bring it inside."
He turned on his heel and led her indoors.
"Now, let’s take a look…"
Daniel took the plant from her and examined it.
"Try it on the open shelving near the French doors," she muttered, unable to help herself. He turned to look at her and raised an eyebrow, then placed the brass planter on the top shelf and stood back to observe. It was, as she’d anticipated, perfect, the heart-shaped leaves catching flashes of light and making the whole room come alive.
"I should have known," he said quietly, amused. "Thank you."
Why was he being so kind?
Because he is kind, she remembered, and the sudden flood of emotion that thought produced made tears spring into her eyes.
"Claudia," he said, glancing at her, "why don’t you come and sit down."
She nodded tightly and took a seat on his sofa. He sat a careful distance away from her on its other end. She tried not to think about the things they’d done on this sofa before.
"I wanted to apologise," she began, "because you never showed me anything but kindness and support. And I’m embarrassed by the way I chose to repay that. I tried to blame my own insecurities on you, and that’s a terrible thing to do to someone who was as good to me as you were."
He sat still, not speaking. His eyes were dark. Claudia forced herself to continue.
"You repeatedly earned my trust and I still told you that you weren’t worthy of it. Even though I can see now that I could have trusted you with anything. And I’m so fucking angry at myself."
"Anyway," she said, "I know I’m supposed to say that I’m sorry and that I wish you well for the future and be really gracious about it, and happy to leave. And I am happy to leave. Well, not happy. But I will leave. At some point."
"But first-" she swallowed hard, dreading what she was about to say and its inevitable repercussions – "I want you to know that I still want you. I want you so badly it’s burning me up. I wish I’d said it to your face on this sofa the last time I was here instead of pretending to be stubborn. I have a terrible feeling that telling you this is going to result in utter humiliation, but I need to do it, because you deserve to know how hard I fell in love with you."
She paused for breath, then continued.
"And I don’t want to be even a little bit vague about this, or leave any tiny shred of room for misunderstanding. I love you. Still. I love you so much it freaks me out. I can’t ever imagine not loving you. Because you’re so smart and so kind, and you make me go crazy in bed-" he burst into deep laughter at that, and she blinked, not sure how to take it, but continued, “-and every time I have a conversation with you I don’t want it to stop for at least the next fifty years, and I’ve never felt like that before, and I can’t pretend I don’t know what that means anymore.”
She blushed furiously, her pulse twitching in every extremity of her body.
"Claudia," said Daniel in a low, quiet voice, "do you have any idea how difficult the last few weeks have been for me?"
She tilted her head downward, her eyes stinging again. She hated that she’d hurt him. Hated it.
"Aren’t you supposed to be in Canberra?"
"I decided I was better suited to other work," she said defensively, then realised there was no need. "Honestly, you made me realise I was better suited to other work."
"So what other work have you been doing?"
"Well," she said shyly, "I’ve been following up on a bunch of leads for long-form pieces. I have some pitches that I’ve been putting aside for years. I think it’s time I actually followed through on them."
"Claud, that’s great."
"But the thing that’s been taking up most of my time was a long-form piece about Paula and Diego. I pitched it to Compass, and they’ve asked me to send across the full article. And I’m not sure, but I think it might be really good." She paused. "Thank you for dropping off their details."
"Of course. I’m proud of you."
She flushed. "I’m proud, too."
"Are you?" He was suddenly looking at her very closely.
She nodded. "I am. I feel really, really proud of the work I did on this. It wasn’t an easy piece for me to write, and I felt doubtful about it the whole time. But I kept writing."
"How did you do it?"
Claudia sensed that he was asking about more than just the piece.
"A few things. I – uh, I’ve been seeing Mara Bergman."
His eyebrows shot up. "Mara?"
She nodded. "Shonice told me about her. I admit I was skeptical at first. But she was fantastic. She’s given me a bunch of strategies, and obviously I have a long way to go, but I can tell they’ve helped a lot already."
He was still watching her closely. "Claud, that’s really, really great. Mara’s fantastic."
"And," she mumbled, "I thought about the fact that you’d said you had faith in me. And I realised that if I trusted in your honesty and your intelligence – which I do – then I had no choice but to accept that at least one person thought my work was worthwhile. And the fact that the person was you – well…"
"Claud," said Daniel intently, and his tone was so urgent that she forget about her tearful, puffy face and looked into his eyes. "Sweetheart, that’s all I needed to hear."
And he kissed her. Took her face into his hands and kissed her with so much feeling that she felt like her chest was going to explode, like the room was spinning, like her head was full of cartoon stars and golden chandelier fireworks.
When they finally stopped kissing – and it felt like it had been a long time – he took a long, hard look at her.
"Claudia, I love you. Of course I want to be with you."
"Oh, my God."
He started laughing. "That’s your response?"
"No, it’s just… Do you have any idea how much adrenaline is going through my body right now? I thought you were going to tell me never to come back here again. Oh my God, I’m so happy."
"Claud, I don’t ever want to be without you. Not if I can help it. I would have come to Canberra with you, if that was what it took. You only had to ask."
Part of her was still scared that she wasn’t good enough for him. That Daniel would lose interest in her. That wasn’t something she was going to shirk overnight. But she’d already pledged to herself that she would work on it: for herself, and for Daniel, if he’d let her.
"Daniel, I love you so much."
He closed his eyes briefly. "That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. That’s probably the best thing anyone has ever said to anyone."
"Well, I didn’t invent it," she said modestly.
"Sure," he said, his voice rough, "but you sound better and look better and smell better than anyone who’s ever said it before."
Claudia didn’t even try to stop the wave of pink from prickling over her body.
"This might be the greatest moment of my life," he continued thoughtfully, "and I’m annoyed at myself for wanting to ruin it by tearing your clothes off."
Claudia was incredulous. "How could that ruin anything?" She paused. "But how about a compromise?" Maintaining eye contact as much as possible, she slipped the Pantera shirt off and dropped it on the ground.
Daniel watched her as if she were the most perfect thing he’d ever seen.
"Do you like Pantera?"
"Does it matter?"
"No," he said, sliding his big arms around her and drawing her into him, "I just like knowing things about you."
"I don’t really know any Pantera."
"That’s a huge turn-on for me."
"Is it?" She wriggled against his mounting erection.
He growled. "It is now."
"You know," she added, gasping as his hands splayed over her ribs, teasing her, "I bought a ticket to Kolkata. The other day, at three in the morning. I think I was delusional from fourteen hours of drafting." She glanced up to monitor his expression.
"Really?" He looked shocked. "Kolkata?"
She nodded. She was sort of proud of herself for that, too.
"Just for a couple of weeks, in April. I was thinking of dragging Kim along," she said seriously, "but you can come instead if you want."
She was doing it again. Issuing one of those stupid, ill-thought-out invitations. That was something she and Daniel had in common, it seemed. It had always worked out okay in the past, though.
His eyes glinted. "Well," he said, "I was looking at going to Nepal in late April. Perhaps we could work something out. I could meet you there." He paused. "Or you could come to Nepal with me too."
Claudia’s heart leapt. "Let’s do it." She closed her eyes for just a second, letting the moment wash over her, her body flooded with happiness. Then she flicked them open. "I bet you could show me some pretty great restaurants in Nepal."
Daniel grinned, kissed her again and looked deeply into her eyes.
"I could show you lots of pretty great things in Nepal," he said, and took off his shirt.[candidate-vote-button button_text=”Vote for ‘Sleeping with Ghosts’!”]