Give us a chance, Anne. You and me. Is that asking', too much?'
No,' she whispered, barely able to catch her breath. He was gently stroking her palm with his thumb, sparking off electric tingles. The effect was mesmerizing. She couldn't shake her mind free of it.
His whole expression emanated a fervent need to convince as he said, 'I feel...'
A waiter interrupted, offering them menus. The moment was lost and Barbie could barely curb her frustration, sensing Nick had been about to reveal something important to her. As it was, he withdrew his hand and turned his attention to the waiter, who proceeded to rattle off 'The Specials' for tonight.
She was too distracted to hear them properly and when Nick asked, 'Do you fancy any of those?' she had to ask the waiter to go through them again.
Even then the food combinations he listed we confusing, unfamiliar. Haute cuisine had not featured largely in her life. Fashionable restaurants like this one were too expensive and she'd never had the time to take an interest in fancy cooking. Rather than re-veal her ignorance, she looked to Nick for help.
'What do you recommend?'
'Do you like seafood?'
'The barbecued calamari in oregano, coriander and lime, and the sole grilled with lemon grass butter are both excellent here.'
He rattled them off, obviously having no problem at all in remembering the ingredients and accepting them as a good mixture without question. He also clearly expected her to choose a starter and a main meal, regardless of cost.
'Is that what you're having?' she checked.
'Then I'll have it, too.' She just hoped the herbs and lemon grass stuff didn't turn her stomach. 'Wine, sir?'
'The Brown Brothers Chardonnay,' Nick answered without even glancing at the wine list. He smiled at Barbie. 'If that's all right with you.'
'Fine,' she quickly replied, though the Brown Brothers were a complete mystery to her. She and Sue bought wine in a cask from the supermarket. 'I won't be drinking much,' she warned. 'I'm driving.'
'I understand,' he replied, not voicing even the slightest protest or showing a trace of frustration.
Which relieved Barbie's inner turmoil over the bed and breakfast agenda. If seduction had been on Nick's mind, he would surely have said something like, 'A glass or two won't hurt.'
The waiter collected the menus they hadn't even glanced at, and departed, leaving them to themselves again. Relieved to have the meal-ordering over and done with, Barbie could once more think about what had transpired before the interruption.
She wished she could ask Nick what it was he felt, but decided it was up to him to continue the conversation. It might appear too forward, too anxious, to pursue it herself.
'Would you like some iced water?' he asked, picking up the jug on the table. 'Yes, please.'
He filled a glass for her, adding to the impression he would respect her wishes about the wine-drinking and not try to push her into doing anything she didn't really want. It served to make Barbie feel more comfortable with the situation, certainly less tense about his motives for pursuing a relationship with her. They sat back, studying each other, assessing where they were now. Nick looked satisfied, content for them simply to be together like this. He wore self- assurance as though it were ingrained, which it probably was given the success he'd made of his business. Maybe he'd always had it, an innate pat of his character, Barbie thought, remembering how he'd been a natural leader even when they were children in the old Wamberal neighborhood. Everyone had taken notice of what Nick suggested, what Nick decided, what Nick did. He created games. He was clever and brave and exciting to be with.
Was this just another exciting game to him?
Give us a chance. You and me.
It was silly to let doubts and fears get in the way.
You and me... magic words.
Even this much was a wish come true. She had to try for more, wherever it led.
Occupied with her inner thoughts, she hadn't noticed his expression change until he spoke. His words instantly shattered any peace of mind Barbie had attained.
'You remind me of someone I once knew.'
Light, musing words, but she caught the tension in his stillness, the concentrated weighing in his eyes, and an iron fist squeezed her heart.
Nick saw the shock hit her...the tightening of her face, the flare of angst in her eyes, the swift struggle for control... and any possible doubt was wiped from his mind.
Anne Shepherd was Barbie Lamb.
He should have put it together sooner—the deep-down sense of knowing her, the physical instincts she triggered, the intensity of feeling she projected, the passion, Sue Olsen calling her Barbie.
The passage of so many years had pushed his memories of her into the far background and the physical changes wrought by those same years had dazzled his vision. On top of which, the circumstances of their meeting again hadn't helped him see straight. But he was seeing straight now and he knew he was about to walk a tightrope where the wrong step might well mean death to any hope of the relationship he wanted with her.
He had to know what she was thinking, feeling, whether he had a real chance with her. Bad history, Leon had said, and he'd been spot-on. Except the bad history. in this case, was personal to him, not some anonymous rich guy. He was the one who had inflicted the hurt that needed soothing.
Her lashes swept down, veiling her telltale eyes as she leaned forward and picked up her glass of water, playing for time, struggling for composure. Her hand shook, lifting the glass to her lips. He watched the convulsive movement of her throat as she sipped, and knew she felt sick, as sick as he did at what he had done to her, while telling himself it was for the best. He didn't need to be told why she'd played the fairy princess as she had to him...the burning desire to interest and excite, to make him wish for what he had rejected, to tantalize him with the promise of it then walk away.
Was tonight about teasing him more before she slapped him in the face with it? When she put that glass down, would she be Barbie Lamb or Anne Shepherd?
Barbie sipped the iced water, using the glass to hide her face and its contents to cool the fever of uncertainties that gripped her. Was he beginning to recognize her? Reminding him of someone was not positive identification, she sternly told herself, forcing down the sick, panicky feeling. It might not be Barbie Lamb he was thinking of at all.
Everything within her recoiled from confronting the past. Not yet, her heart screamed. She couldn't bear it. She had to have this chance with him, free and clear of spoiling memories. Play for more time need dictated. He couldn't know for certain who she was.
Feeling slightly more composed, she lowered the glass and attempted a wry little smile. 'I'm not sure any woman likes to be told that.'
He was silent for a moment, seemingly slow in digesting the comment. Her nerves jangled, fear whispering he'd been waiting for some admission. Then to her intense relief he laughed and shook his head. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table, his eyes bathing her with warm reassurance as he answered her.
'I wasn't comparing. You shine alone, Anne. Believe me, I feel incredibly lucky that our paths have crossed.'
The fear of recognition receded. Her smile relaxed into pleasure at his compliment. 'Then how do I remind you of someone?' she teased, confident now that he hadn't made the connection.
'It's the eyes,' he said, nodding in confirmation of his observation as he looked directly at them.
'Such a clear light grey. Mostly there's a bit of blue or brown—hazel. I've only seen eyes like yours once before.'
Hers? Had he ever really noticed them back then? The need to know forced the question. 'So who shares them with me?'
He shrugged dismissively. 'It was a long time ago.
The memory just struck me. Where I grew up, there were lots of kids in the neighborhood and we hung around together. One of the girls had eyes like yours.'
That girl was me! she almost screamed at him. It was a struggle to contain the sudden violent surge of emotion as the hurt of being referred to as just a girl in a neighborhood gang seared every bit of common sense in her brain.
A wise person would probably let the matter drop, move on. After all, there was nothing to be gained by raking over the past and much to lose. Anne Shepherd was not one of the girls. She shone alone in Nick Armstrong's eyes.
But an old, old devil of torment writhed inside her, insisting on some release. The opening was there to probe exactly what Nick had thought of her in those days, without him even suspecting who she was. Painful it might be, but she couldn't let it go. The words tripped out, taking a dangerous path that was loaded with pitfalls.
'You must have a very clear memory of this girl. Was she special in some way?'
He smiled reminiscently. 'Yes, she was. It didn't matter how often the guys tried to chase her off, she was determinedly stuck to joining in whatever we did, regardless of how tough the challenge was. She wouldn't get left behind and never once cried or complained if she got hurt in the process. She followed us everywhere.'
Her chest tightened. Still she persisted on the path of knowledge, recklessly bent on filling out the picture of Nick's memory of her.
'Did you find her a pest?'
'No.' His expression became more seriously reflective. 'It's strange, looking back. She was fearless. Yet there was a terrible innocence in her fearlessness’s. Yet she made me want to protect her.'
'I can't imagine the character you've drawn would want protecting.'
His eyes flicked appreciation of her understanding. You're right. She had a fierce pride. But I was five years older so a certain weight of responsibility fell to me.'