The woman was gorgeous, definitely worth the ten thousand dollars Alex had paid to meet her. She wore her sable hair in an elegant chignon, showing off a long, slender neck and emphasizing aristocratic cheekbones. Her dress was a jewel-tone blue, deceptively simple—undoubtedly the work of some high-end designer. He knew she was thirty years old, but her beauty was of the timeless variety. Among the crowd of tables at the expansive café, she sat with the easy, upright posture that marked good breeding.
Excellent, Alex thought, observing her from just inside the glassed-in entry of the café. It would be nice to have something work out well today. The text message he’d earlier received from his teenage brother had been…oddly disturbing. “Not coming this weekend,” Liam had written. If Alex admitted to owning any feelings, he’d say they were hurt. In any case, he could now put that message out of his mind and concentrate on something more pleasant: his date tonight.
But before moving across the crowded café to meet her, Alex briefly touched his silk tie. It was the only show of nerves he ever allowed himself. The gesture reminded him that though he’d once bagged groceries for a living, today he was a professional who wore Italian tailoring. He could even afford to pay large sums to discreet matchmakers to find him the right sort of woman.
Lowering his hand, Alex started across the room.
She noticed his approach, looking up from the screen of her cell phone. Her eyes were a striking color, so deep a blue they were almost violet.
Meanwhile, her face expressed not one sliver of emotion, not even the conventional smile given when meeting someone for the first time.
“Veronica London?” Alex’s question was for the sake of form. The woman was the only person sitting alone in the café, and she looked exactly as the matchmaker, Addison James, had described her: a queen. Addison had explained to Alex that Veronica was another client of his and not one of the matchmaker’s abundant social connections. She was a widow looking for a male companion.
“Yes, and you must be Alex Wayland.” She set down her phone and extended her hand upward.
Even after eleven years of using the last name, hearing others address him by it still ruffled Alex.
“I am.” He took her hand briefly. Her skin was smooth, a little cool. With the contact, he felt the undeniable brush of sexual interest.
This was another positive sign. The relationship Alex intended to negotiate here was about sex, after all. Sex for both of them. That was Alex’s purpose in a nutshell. There’d be no exchange of money between them, none of the humiliation or other risks of directly paying for a consort. Rather, mutual physical benefit would be the coin for this association.
And it would be restricted to this physical. Alex didn’t want any deep emotional connection to be involved.
Debby, the last woman Alex had met this way, had understood these parameters to the last. Three months ago, she’d ended relations with Alex with the declaration that she was ready to move on with her life and look for someone to marry. She’d given no hint whatsoever that she might consider Alex a candidate for this new phase of her life.
Smart woman, Debby.
Standing at the table, Alex moved both hands to the back of the other wire-frame chair. “May I?”
Veronica London inclined her head. “Of course.”
Addison had admitted to Alex that Ms. London had not flat out told him she was interested in a sexual relationship, but the matchmaker had assured Alex this was nevertheless the case. Widows were often reticent about that, he had said.
On the positive side, Addison had assured Alex that Veronica had specifically noted she was not in the market for a spouse.
Alex wanted to hear the woman state as much from her own lips, however. And hear her admit her actual goal was the same as his: physical satisfaction. However, he understood that a number of social niceties had to be plowed through first. “Did you have any trouble getting here in the rain?” he asked as he sat down.
“Not at all. I live close by.”
Handy, Alex thought. His office was downtown. Should they enter a liaison, he could easily drop by after work for a pleasant romp before driving home. Of course, that assumed all went well. He hoped it would. Her full, throaty voice was as alluring as her eyes.
“Was the rain a problem for you?” Her face remained free of emotion, an elegant mask.
Alex knew his own face probably resembled hers in that regard. An ice cube he’d been called by those who’d known him over the past dozen years. He’d made a decision after leaving his childhood home. It was far safer for himself and the world around him if he took any emotion he might feel and surgically excised it. It was in aid of this procedure, in part, that he sought a steady diet of sex. The exercise helped in regulating and repressing unwanted emotion.
Without that repression, Alex feared he could be a dangerous man.
“My office is only a few blocks away,” Alex now explained.
“Ah yes, Addison James told me you’re an attorney. What sort of law do you practice?”
“Intellectual property. Basically, I acquire patents for technology companies.” This was the concise explanation Alex gave laymen. His tasks were somewhat more complex.
She tilted her head. “Sounds like high stakes.”
Alex was impressed by her perception. “Large sums of money are involved, yes.” He paused. “Addison did not mention if you were in a profession.”
“Not any mo—” Her lashes lowered a tiny amount. “That is, at present, I volunteer. A reading program for children, an old age home. I keep busy during the day.”
Her late husband must have left her well off. Alex appreciated this fact. It meant one less reason she might desire marriage.
Meanwhile, they were running out of small talk.
She raised her eyebrows. “I’m not sure how to do this, but I suppose there’s some fashion we can go about deciding whether or not we’d suit.”
Alex thought taking off each other’s clothes would be a good start, but she clearly wasn’t ready—or possibly even willing—to admit as much. Besides, under any circumstances a woman had to be coaxed.
Her gaze flicked briefly from his. “I don’t know if Addison told you that I’m a widow.” Two of her fingers played with the corner of the little napkin next to her cup of tea.
Alex nodded. “He said your husband died a little over a year ago. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She inclined her head. Meanwhile, her fingers folded over the corner of the napkin and pressed it flat. “I have no desire to remarry.”
Music to his ears. Especially the hint of passion with which she made this declaration—the only emotion she’d displayed yet. She was certain of the decision.
“But after a year of living on my own,” she continued, “I find myself…thinking it would be pleasant to have someone to accompany me sometimes, for various types of activities.”
It was possible she was talking about sex as one of those ‘activities,’ but Alex had no way of knowing. With a silent curse at the matchmaker for not nailing this down, Alex gave her his small, social smile and went fishing for the answer himself. “For what sort of activities would you like a companion?”
If she heard the subtle innuendo he put in his tone, she ignored it, waving a hand. “Oh, a variety. I like what you might call mild outdoor activities: short hikes, city walks, visiting botanical gardens. I also enjoy museums and attending classical music concerts.” She paused. “Does any of that sound amenable to you?”
Truthfully, Alex could probably stomach any the activities she’d mentioned. Some of them he actively enjoyed. It was the lack on her list of the one activity in which he was truly interested that frustrated him—and made him suspect the matchmaker had made an error here.
But in order to be sure, he sent out a more direct probe. “I enjoy outdoor walking. Of course, indoor activities can be…intriguing as well.”
She frowned as though confused. “I don’t know if ‘intriguing’ is quite the right word.”
She was not confused. In fact, her meaning was clear. She was not interested in sex. At all. Disappointing, but fortunately, not a great deal of Alex’s time had yet been wasted. He would simply go back to the matchmaker for another candidate, a woman who could replace the agreeable Debby. And, now that Alex thought about it, one who, with her cool affect, did not seem quite so much like looking into a mirror.
Common sense dictated Alex now bid Ms. London a pleasant goodbye.
But he couldn’t help recalling the text from his younger brother. Liam would not be flying up from California to visit him here in Seattle this weekend.
Alex had told himself he didn’t like the visits from his teenage brother. He’d thought he resented the intrusion of even this one member of the family he’d tried to leave behind in the small town where he’d grown up in California.
But despite that and despite a dozen years of practice in spending time alone, he felt a gaping hole in the coming weekend, a long span of time in which he wouldn’t know what to do and would have nobody with whom to do it.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to invite Veronica London to engage with him in some benign social activity this weekend. Perhaps it would lessen a loneliness he didn’t want to admit, no less feel.
On the other hand, he made it a rule to rely on logic rather than emotion. He couldn’t let Liam’s message cause him to disobey his own rule. The very idea he might do so was mildly alarming. Shifting in the wire-frame chair, he searched for the appropriate words to exit the situation.
Her gaze flicked back toward him, quick and perceptive. She knew he was about to reject her.
What he didn’t expect was the flash of triumph he then saw in her eyes.
Alex halted and half lowered his lashes. The budding alarm at his impulse to spend time with her faded. What did that flash of triumph mean? Apparently, she thought she’d won, somehow. For her, his rejection would be a victory.
Well, well, well. This revelation changed matters. He had to reconsider his earlier assumption. In fact, all of the little details he’d been noticing about her now came together in a completely different hypothesis.
Ms. London did want sex. She hadn’t told the matchmaker that, though, and she wasn’t admitting it now to Alex, for one significant reason. She was displeased by her own physical longings. She didn’t want to feel them.
In a word, she was ambivalent.
With his lashes still at half-mast, Alex drew in a deep, silent breath as he processed this new information. It changed the whole landscape. If she were ambivalent, then she was also a challenge.
His highly developed competitive instinct awoke. The situation was diverting. Yes, more than sufficiently so. In fact, the challenge would logically justify any possible chance of wasted time and ultimate disappointment.
Even better, taking the challenge meant he would not have to be alone all weekend.
Quickly recalculating, he crossed one knee over the other and leaned back in his seat. His decision now was not impulsive. It was thoroughly logical. “If you prefer outdoor activities,” he smoothly remarked, “I’ve been wanting to visit the tide pools on Whidbey Island.” In fact, he’d thought about bringing Liam there this weekend. Casually, of course, as an afterthought. He hadn’t actively planned to spend time with his youngest brother. Now he could use the same outing to test Ms. London and the true extent of her ambivalence. “Perhaps you’d be interested in going there with me on Saturday morning?”
In an eerie reflection of his own mannerism, Veronica half lowered her eyelids, hiding her true thoughts. Had he surprised her? Discomfited her? Alex found himself hoping he’d done both.
“Of course,” she answered. “It makes sense to have a try at this, at least one time. Doing so creates no sort of commitment.”
No, they each had the ability to go back to Addison for a new match if either of them decided this one was not agreeable. Addison worked on the basis of guaranteed satisfaction—it was how he justified his high fee.
“I’ll pick you up at nine,” Alex said. “If that’s not too early?”
A distinct challenge lit her own eyes as she looked back at him. “No, not too early at all.”
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