'All right,' she said in a breathy little voice.
Relief and excitement brewed a heady cocktail. In coming with him she was giving up a certain control, gambling more than any game-player would. Or was she recklessly upping the stakes, driving the ride higher? Whatever her thinking, the ball was now in his court and he instantly determined on playing it hard.
'Have you had the apartment very long?' she asked.
'Two years.' Time enough to make it your home.'
She was curious about him, he realized, wanting to see. Wanting to judge? Putting him on further trial?
It's furnished to my taste, if that's what you mean, he answered, wondering if she'd make it into his bedroom, wanting her there, resolved on testing her wanting.
Did you use an interior decorator?'
No. I looked around, bought what appealed to me.'
'She nodded. 'I guess you wanted to please your own artistic eye.'
His heart thudded with the realization that she understood him even more than Leon did. His friend had' declared it a waste of time hunting for furniture. Let the experts do it, was his motto, and Nick couldn't deny they'd done a classy job on Leon's apartment.
Which was all very fine, Nick thought caustically, if she was treating him right.
She'd made the game, closing doors he'd given her more than one opportunity to open. There could be no real knowing of anyone when deliberate deception was in play. Nick felt he had every right to smash those doors down. He had to know where she was at, where she was coming from, where she wanted to be. There could be no going forward until that was settled and Nick wanted a future with her.
Barbie Lamb... the girl... the woman... lost and found.
Not to be lost again. Not without a fight.
'It's not far,' Nick said encouragingly.
Barbie's heart was galloping. Sue would undoubtedly say she was mad, accompanying him to his apartment. Too far, too fast. But he was holding her hand, taking her on his path, and she couldn't let go, couldn't break away, however far he intended to take her. The need to hold on to him was more compelling than any common sense arguments about how best to handle relationships. Besides this was different.
It would be impossible to keep her real identity hidden much longer. Since Nick had said Anne Shepherd shone as a uniquely special woman to him, it seemed paramount to use every possible minute in his company, finding out if he really meant it. Only" then would Barbie have the confidence to emerge as one and the same woman.
Seeing the home he'd chosen would also tell her more about him, she reasoned, although reason had little to do with the journey she was now taking. The hand gripping hers was irresistible, its warm, possessive strength belonging to Nick... Nick, wanting her. Never mind for what purpose or for how long. The waiting felt so good, Barbie would have walked any-where with him.
'Do you ever cook for yourself?' she asked, trying to sound natural, not so affected by his closeness and the invitation to even more closeness.
'Not much. The occasional breakfast.'
Bed and breakfast...
She clamped down on the spoiling thought, but lost the will to pursue any trivial conversation. The nervous excitement of being with Nick consumed her and his silence seemed to transmit the same inner intensity of feeling...an urgency to be alone with her, only with her.
She had no idea how far they walked along the colonnaded promenade, nor was she aware of any-thing they passed. It was as though she had stepped into a dream world where wishes could come true and she refused to consider a reality which might be different.
He steered her through a huge marble archway into a rotunda-like foyer that featured a grand staircase winding upwards.
'Do we climb that?' she asked, her voice echoing around the high emptiness, seeming to emphasize the abrupt cut-off from a public place.
'It only leads to floors of offices,' he answered briefly, drawing her towards an elevator set in the side wall.
The doors slid open the moment he hit the Up but ton. They stepped inside. Nick produced a security card from his shirt pocket and inserted it into a slot on the control board before pressing the number 8. The action indicated an exclusivity that only the very
rich could afford. An eighth-floor apartment, directly overlooking the harbor, would indeed be fairyland for her, Barbie thought.
Would Nick treat her like a princess... or would she be coming down to earth with a thump?
Again she pushed the question aside, determined on following his lead. She recalled him saying he'd felt protective of her, except that had been Barbie, not Anne. All the same, she did instinctively trust him not to do anything she didn't want. If there was any problem it probably lay in her own wanting.
Which hit her forcibly when they emerged from the fast-track elevator and he released her hand to unlock and open the door to his apartment. The loss of that small physical contact with him left her oddly bereft, as though it were vital to her sense of well-being.
For a moment the disconnection aroused a tremulous uncertainty about what she was doing. Then Nick opened the door and his eyes blazed at her, seeming to dare her to step inside.
Her heart turned over. It was like the old days...was she brave enough to keep up with him, do what he did, share the thrills and the spills?
Pride and the long-held desire for his approval compelled her feet forward. Lights were switched on and the vista of his spacious living area diminished the sense of entering dangerous ground. The immediate impact was warmly inviting and she walked on without any prompt, eager to see his private world, to match it to the man who now wanted her in his life.
'This is lovely, Nick!' she cried, eyeing the two long sofas which dominated the lounge area, relieved and happy to feel real pleasure in his choices.
There was nothing intimidating here. The sofas were upholstered in a forest-green velvet with a tiny brown sprig pattern which lent more interest. Scatter cushions in gold and brown and green dressed the thickly rolled armrests, and beautiful gold lamps stood on side tables, giving a lovely mellow light.
A large square coffee table with a polished parquet surface provided easy service for anyone seated on either sofa, and floor-to-ceiling curtains beyond it obviously hid a magnificent view. As she tried to imagine it, Nick strode past her and operated the cord that pulled the curtains apart.
Even at night, the sheer scope of it was breathtaking, the lights of the city climbing upwards from the harbour shores, the island of Fort Denison floodlit the moving lights of boats on the water.
'Oh!' she breathed in awed delight, instantly walking forward to see more. 'It must be marvelous to look out on this every day.'
'Yes. There's always something interesting happening on the harbour, liners coming in, yacht races, navy ships on the move.'
He was on the move, too, coming towards her, and his vibrant masculinity hit her anew, kicking her pulse into a faster beat. Suddenly he looked very aggressively male, the strong planes of his face gleaming more sharply in the lamplight, his eyes hooded, his body emanating deliberate purpose.
'I don't think you'll need this now,' he said, removing her wrap and dropping it on the end of the closest sofa.
His arm replaced it, curving around her shoulders and turning her as he gestured towards the dining area and the kitchen which had a bar separator from the rest of the living area and high stools where people could sit and converse with whomever was working behind it.
The open plan allows the view to be enjoyed from everywhere,' he pointed out. The fingers stroking her upper arm stilled and tensed as he added, 'You get a similar outlook from the master bedroom.
Come and see.'
She glanced up, sensing another underlying dare, a test of courage he would judge her on. His eyes briefly met hers; simmering with a challenge she didn't understand. Before she could sift it through her mind, he was propelling her along with him.
Hugged to his side, acutely conscious of his body heat and the muscular strength she was brushing against with each step they took, Barbie stopped seeing anything. She moved in a blur, the word, bedroom, pounding through her mind.
Wild fears and hopes leapt through her, causing nervous havoc. She didn't need to see the view again, but there was a terribly intimate attraction about being shown his bedroom, and somehow halting what was happening was not an option.
Another door was opened, lights switched on, and having swept her into this most private of all rooms,
Nick left her near the bed while he moved to the table on the other side of it and pressed a button on a console. The wall-length curtains on the far side of the room whooshed apart but Barbie was too distracted by the bed to look past it. She stood transfixed by the richly sensual temptation in front of her.
The top bedcover seemed to be made of softly glowing rows of sable fur, lushly inviting her to stroke it. Underneath was obviously a doona encased in stone-coloured raw silk. Piled against the bedhead were pillows in the same silk as well as of the dark brown fur, and even more stunning cushions in embroidered red velvet bordered by a leopard print.
'Is it real fur?' she asked, unable to stop herself from reaching out and running her hand over the thick, luxurious softness.
'It feels real.'
'Yes, it does. A high-quality fake.' He walked back towards her, an ironic twist to his lips, his eyes glittering with a savage kind of mockery. 'It looks right. It feels right. Good enough to fool anyone that it's real. But it is an artificial simulation. Like you...'
'...being a fairy princess. For children, you would seem very real, though in actuality you're a fake fantasy.'