Publish Date: November 2013
What if a bride couldn’t get the best man out of her mind?
Friends, Oliver and Audrey have met in Hong Kong for Christmas lunch every December 20 for the past five years and that one day a year they enjoy each other’s conversation and company as lunch turns into dinner and then supper. But, every year, the day is a challenge in self-discipline as Audrey spends time with the man who stood as Best Man at her wedding and who first caught her eye all those years before. But Oliver is totally out of her league and so she’s trained herself to ignore the swirling chemistry and just enjoy his friendship.
Audrey is the woman against whom Oliver measures all others and he’s almost given up on finding someone as bright, charming, down-to-earth and special as her. Her husband’s secrets plague him but he keeps them in order to keep Audrey in his life. December 20 has long been the day he needs to get him through the rest of the year.
But when Audrey turns up for their ritualistic lunch a widow hunting for answers, all the things they’d used to keep each other at a safe distance dissolve, leaving them both with nothing but the uncomfortable reality of the sizzling chemistry between them.
But these friends have been circling each other for way too long, and a single night of passion could ruin their unconventional friendship unless Oliver can get past the sins of his father and Audrey can learn to embrace herself for who she really is. Maybe then this perfect match can finally be together.
Copyright © 2013 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
His Until Midnight
December 20th, Four years ago
Qῑngtίng Restaurant, Hong Kong
AUDREY DEVANEY flopped against the back of the curved lounge and studied the pretty, oriental style cards in her hands. Not the best hand in the world but when you were playing for M&Ms and you tended to eat your stake as fast as it accumulated it was hard to take poker too seriously.
Though it was fun to pretend she knew what she was doing. Like some Vegas hotshot. And it wasn’t too hard to imagine that the extraordinary view of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour stretching out behind Oliver Harmer was really out the window of some casino high-roller’s room instead of a darkened, atmospheric restaurant festooned with pretty lanterns and baubles in rich, oriental colours.
Across from her, Oliver’s five o’clock shadow was designer perfect and an ever-present, unlit cigar poked out the corner of his grinning mouth—more gummed than smoked, out of respect for her and for the other patrons in the restaurant. It only felt like he bought the whole place out each Christmas, it wasn’t actually true. Though it was nice to imagine that they had the entire restaurant to themselves.
‘Thank you, again, for the gift,’ she murmured, letting the fringed silk ends of the cobalt scarf run between her fingers. ‘It’s stunning.’
‘You’re welcome. You should wear more blue.’
Audrey studied Oliver over her cards, wanting to ask but not entirely sure how to raise it. Maybe the best approach was the direct approach…
‘You know, you look pretty good for a man whose wedding just fell through.’
“Good” as in well. Not “good” as in gorgeous. Although, as always, the latter would certainly apply. All that dark hair, long lashes and tanned Australian skin…
He took his time considering his hand and then tossed three cards face-down onto the ornate carved table. ‘Dodged a bullet.’
That stopped her just as she might have discarded her own dud cards. ‘Really? Last Christmas it was all about how Tiffany might be “the one”.’
Not that she’d actually believed him at the time, but a year was the longest relationship she’d ever known him to have.
Maybe she was just in denial.
‘Turns out there was more than one “one” for Tiffany.’ The tiniest glimmer of hurt stained his eyes.
Oh, no. ‘Who called it off?’
His answer came fast and sure. ‘I did.’
Oliver Harmer was a perpetual bachelor. But he was also Shanghai’s most prized perpetual bachelor and so she couldn’t imagine the average woman he dated being too fast to throw away her luxury future.
But she knew from Blake how seriously Oliver felt about fidelity. Because of his philandering father. ‘I’m so sorry.’
He shrugged. ‘She was with someone when I met her; I was foolish to think that I’d get treated any different.’
Foolish perhaps, but he was only human to hope that he’d be special enough to change his girlfriend’s ways. And if ever there was a man worth changing for… Audrey dropped two cards onto the table and Oliver flicked her two replacements from the top of the pack with confident efficiency before taking three of his own.
‘What did she say when you confronted her?’ she murmured.
‘I didn’t see any purpose in having it out,’ he squeezed out past the cigar. ‘I just cut her loose.’
Without an explanation? ‘What if you were mistaken?’
The look he threw her would have withered his corporate opponents. ‘I checked. I wasn’t.’
“Checking” in Oliver’s world probably meant expensive private surveillance. So no, he wouldn’t have been wrong. ‘Where is she now?’
He shrugged. ‘Still on our honeymoon, I guess. I gave her an open credit card and wished her the best.’
‘You bought her off?’ she gaped.
‘I bought her forgiveness.’
‘And that worked?’
‘Tiffany never was one for labouring under regret for long.’
Lord, he had a talent for ferreting out the worst of women. Always beautiful, of course and—*cough*—agile, but utterly barren on the emotional front. To the point that she’d decided Oliver must prefer them that way. Except for the trace of genuine hurt that had flitted across his expression…
That didn’t fit with the man she thought she knew.
She studied the nothing hand in front of her and then tossed all five cards down on the table in an inelegant fold.
‘Why can’t you just meet a nice, normal woman?’ she despaired. ‘Shanghai’s a big city.’
He scooped the pile of bright M&Ms toward him—though not before she snaffled yet another one to eat—and set about reshuffling the cards. ‘Nice women tend to give me a wide berth. I can’t explain it.’
She snorted. ‘It would have nothing to do with your reputation.’
Hazel eyes locked on hers, speculative and challenging. Enough to tighten her chest a hint. ‘And what reputation is that?’
Ah…no. ‘I’m not going to feed your already massive ego, Oliver.’
Nor go anywhere near the female whispers she’d heard about Oliver “the Hammer” Harmer. Dangerous territory.
‘I thought we were friends!’ he protested.
‘You’re friends with my husband. I’m just his South-East Asian proxy.’
He grunted. ‘You only agree to our ritual Christmas catch-up for the cuisine, I suppose?’
She found his eyes—held them—and two tiny butterflies broke free in her chest. ‘I come for the wine, too.’
He snagged a small fistful of M&Ms and tossed them across the elegant, carved coffee table at her, heedless of those around them sharing the Christmas themed menu sixty storeys above Hong Kong.
Audrey scrabbled madly to pick them up. ‘Ugh. Isn’t that just like a squazillionaire. Throwing your money around like they’re chocolate drops.’
‘Play your hand,’ he griped. But there was a definite smile behind it. As there always was. Christmases between them were always full of humour, fast conversation and camaraderie.
At least on the surface.
Below the surface was a whole bunch of things that she didn’t let herself look at too closely. Appreciation. Respect. A great, aching admiration for his life and the choices he’d made and the courage with which he’d made them. Oliver Harmer was the freest human being she knew. And he lived a life most people would hunger for.
She certainly did from within the boundaries of her awkward marriage. It was hard not to esteem his choices.
And then below all of that… The ever-simmering attraction. She’d grown used to it now, because it was always there. And because she only had to deal with it once a year.
He was a good-looking man; charming and affable, easy to talk to, easy to like, well built, well-groomed, well-mannered, but not up himself or pretentious. Never too cool to toss a handful of chocolates in a fine restaurant.
But he’d also been Best Man at her wedding.
Blake’s oldest friend.
And he was pursued by women day in and day out. She would be two hundred percent mortified if Oliver ever got so much of a hint of the direction of her runaway thoughts—not the least because it would just inflate his already monumental ego—but also because she knew exactly what he’d do with the information.
Not a damned thing.
He would take it to his grave, and she would never fully know if that was because of his loyalty to Blake, his respect for her, or because something brewing between them was just so totally inconceivable that he’d chalk it up to an aberrant moment best never again spoken of.
Which was pretty much the right advice.
She wasn’t like the women he normally chose. Her finest day was the day of her wedding when she’d been called ‘striking’—and by Oliver, come to think of it, who always seemed to say the right thing at the right moment when she was on rocky emotional ground. She didn’t look as good as his women did in their finery and she didn’t move in the same circles and know the same people and laugh overly loud at the same stories. She wasn’t unattractive or dull or dim—she’d wager the entire pile of M&Ms in front of her on the fact that she could out-rank every one of them on a MENSA test—but she certainly didn’t turn heads when she was in the company of the beautiful people. She lacked that…stardust that they had.
That Oliver was coated-to-sparkling in.
And in all the years she’d known him, she’d flat out never seen him with someone less beautiful than he was.
Clearly some scientific principle of balance at work there.
And when even the laws of nature ruled you out…
‘Alright Cool Hand Luke,’ she said, ripping her thoughts back to safer territory. ‘Let’s get serious about this game.’