What were the odds, really? Audra did a mental head shake as she wheeled her suitcase and computer bag into the lobby of the boutique hotel she’d picked for her getaway, for the very reason that it wasn’t one generally favored by the hordes of tourists coming to Monte Carlo to see or be seen and spend – or gamble – obscene amounts of money. A hotel, she’d imagined, where she could spend three days without having to engage with anyone unless she wanted to.
There was no mistaking those shoulders in the white linen shirt, the tan forearms showing where he’d rolled up his sleeves or the salt and pepper hair that, now that she got a good look at it from behind, was a little longer than what was strictly fashionable. Her gaze drifted south, the better to admire the fit of his black slacks across a truly admirable…
David Gray turned away from the registration desk with his card key. Seeing her he raised his eyebrows and smiled slowly at the blush rising up her neck, no doubt for getting caught checking out his rear end.
“Ms. Preston, this is an unexpected pleasure seeing you again so soon.”
“I am not stalking you,” she pointed her finger at him. And it wasn’t nerves causing that trickle of sweat to wind its way down the middle of her back either. It was the warm – hot! – mid-day air blowing through the open lobby off the sea. “It’s just a freak coincidence that we both chose this hotel.”
“Of course. I never thought otherwise,” Gray checked his watch. “We had nothing but coffee on the train. Why don’t you get settled in your room and join me for lunch in the café in – will 20 minutes suffice?”
In the taxi from the train station, Audra had wanted nothing more than to collapse on her bed at the hotel for an hour, but looking into his warm whiskey eyes could think of no plausible reason to turn down his invitation for a quick meal. There would be lots of alone time over the next few days, she told herself, she should take advantage of the company when it was offered. Or was she rationalizing?
“Sure, why not,” she shrugged and looked around the lobby to locate the entrance to the little café, its tables arranged on a terrace built out over the cliff that dropped off to the Mediterranean. Good God, what a view! “I’ll meet you back here as soon as I’ve freshened up. Will that do?”
Gray gave her a small salute and hiking his duffle over one of those shoulders turned to the elevator as Audra dragged her suitcase to the registration desk.
“Bon jour!” chirped the stylish brunette attending the desk.
“Hello,” Audra slid her credit card across the counter and wearily lifted her damp hair off her neck. “Checking in.”
Twenty-seven minutes later, she walked into the café, looking around for David Gray. He sat at a table in the sun, dark sunglasses hiding his gaze that was aimed out to sea. Audra looked down at her cotton sundress and espadrilles thinking she just didn’t have the sophistication required to sit at the same table with Gray.
She sighed and muttered, channeling her mother, “Whaddaya gonna do? Stand up straight, belly in,” and walked out onto the terrace.
“Ah, there you are!” His chiseled lips eased into a smile, one that she imagined reached his eyes – she slowed to bask in the first real pleasure she’d seen him show. He stood when she approached the table and pulled out the chair next to his so that she faced the view. “Did you find your room satisfactory?”
“Oh wow, yes!” She beamed and slid her sunglasses down from her head to shade her eyes. “French doors facing the sea…I have them wide open. The sheer curtains lift with the breeze – it’s incredible. I almost didn’t want to leave.”
“I’m flattered you could pull yourself away,” Gray picked up a chilled bottle of spring water and raised a questioning brow. She nodded gratefully and he poured. “What are your plans during your stay? Will you lounge at the pool, visit the sights or perhaps you’ll be spending time at the Casino?”
“All of the above, I hope. Maybe do some shopping, or,” she gathered up her shoulder length hair and fanned the back of her neck with it, “see if I can get an appointment somewhere for a haircut.” She muttered mainly to herself, “Got to be a salon on every corner.”
Behind the dark lenses she couldn’t tell if he was staring at her hair, some schmutz on her nose or looking past her altogether until he said, “It seems a pity to cut it, it’s … lush, such an unusual color … lovely really.”
“Thanks,” she dropped her hair and gulped some of her water to hide her reaction. “My brothers used to tease me mercilessly, calling me Tabby or Morris. That may not translate – Morris the Cat? Anyway, it’s terribly heavy, especially in this heat, and grows like kudzu. Well, I know that doesn’t translate.” She grimaced in apology making him laugh – a sound that sent the heat already tormenting her merrily along her nerves to fill all her dusty nooks and crannies.
Audra relaxed as they chatted and snacked on a dish of tiny Niçoise olives and waited for their late lunch to be served. She noticed that David Gray managed to avoid revealing much personal or professional information in answer to her questions, deftly turning them back around on her. Two could play that game, and she never discussed her IT consulting work with outsiders in any case, so their conversation, if you could call it that, began to resemble a high stakes chess match.
“Well, as delightful as this has been,” Audra leaned back in her chair and nudged the remnants of her salad away from her. “I’d hoped to take a walk into town this afternoon…if I can just sign for my charges,” she looked around for their server.
“It’s taken care of.”
Audra lowered her sunglasses to glare at him wishing she could see his eyes. He smiled, just the corners of his mouth turning up.
“That’s very thoughtful,” her tone implied something other. “Perhaps you’ll let me reciprocate?”
“Certainly. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” she agreed and gathered up her handbag, rising to find Gray had pulled back her chair. “Thank you,” she murmured, “for lunch and the company.”
“It has been a pleasure, Audra. Enjoy your walk.”
She smiled at herself as she walked away, adding a subtle swing to her gait, for imagining that he watched her as she left the café. “Get a grip, Audra Preston, you are so out of that league.”
When the Mercedes taxi dropped her back at her hotel late that afternoon, Audra felt like a different person from the exhausted woman of four hours ago – exhilarated from walking up and down steep streets, coming upon quaint squares adorned with prominent sculptures or meticulous rose gardens, soaking in the pace of the city while sitting on a park bench with a cold drink just people watching – it all had enchanted her.
As she flicked her fingers through the new, sassy layers in her hair, she also felt 10 pounds lighter. She halted at her reflection in the glass doors at the entry to the hotel and laughed a little breathlessly. Whoa, and yes, way different. But what better time or place to make a drastic change than now when she was on her own in a foreign city? She could be whoever she wanted to be with no one to second-guess her.
With that thought fresh in her mind, she stepped on the envelope that had been pushed under the door of her room. Her name was written in a bold hand on the outside. Inside, on thick hotel stationery:
If you’re game … I wondered if you’d care to join me
for dinner and a visit to the Casino this evening.
I’ll wait in the lobby bar until 7:30.