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After the Storm


Jewelle Moore


Copyright 2012 by Jewelle Moore


Smashwords Edition




Jewelle Moore




After the Storm




The persons and events portrayed in this work of fiction are the creations of the author, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental.


The text of this publication or any part thereof may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, storage in an information retrieval system, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher or author, except for brief quotes used in reviews.


Copyright © 2012 by Jewelle Moore

All Rights Reserved.


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CONTENTS


After the Storm

And the Rain

Comes the Calm

Epilogue

Author’s Note

Excerpt: Dance for the Billionaire 1&2

Excerpt: Reilly & Riordan (Dance for the Billionaire 3)


AFTER THE STORM

by

Jewelle Moore


Natalie Harding can’t believe that her absolutely gorgeous work colleague Stephano Romano is attracted to her. But after one unexpected, totally hot Friday evening encounter on her office desk of all places, she’s convinced that maybe he returns the feeling she’s harbored for him in the fifteen months they’ve worked together.


Her euphoria doesn’t last for long. The very next Monday she watches in shock as he kisses the young woman who drops him off to work at the office and then saunters in looking as though she’d kept him up all night.


Is there an innocent explanation for the kiss and Stephano’s bleary-eyed appearance? Did his father suffer chest pains and have to be rushed to the hospital where the doctors kept him in all night for close monitoring? Or is it just an excuse Stephano’s using to cover his night of pleasure with another woman?


After the Storm



Natalie Harding stood up, raised her arms over her head and gave a long, leisurely stretch to ease the aching muscles she’d held in the same position for the last three hours.

God, that feels so good!

A choking sound made her whip her head round and glance in surprise at her colleague Stephano Romano.

He was sitting at his desk across the room from her, looking startled and…aroused?

Shocked, she was paralyzed mid stretch as their eyes caught and held.

They were alone in the office. She’d stayed to finalize a report for their newest client, a gourmet baby food company who had turned to her employer, an elite market research agency, in desperation after its profits had fallen month after month in the last year. The agency worked with some of the largest firms in the UK as well as many prominent overseas firms. They dealt exclusively with companies with annual turnovers in excess of a million pounds and produced results time after and time.

Paul McCain, the company director kept the team to a maximum of ten members. Natalie had been incredibly lucky to be invited for an interview and even more so to be considered good enough to replace a valuable member of the team who was opting for early retirement. It had been sheer good fortune when the company director Paul, a close personal friend of Natalie’s project supervisor at university, had mentioned that he was losing one of his best employees. The lecturer had immediately recommended Natalie as a replacement.

She hadn’t heard of the company before being asked to attend the interview, but she had researched it thoroughly. She’d been apprehensive as she’d approached the company’s plush offices in Knightsbridge, but Paul soon put her at ease. He’d been blunt, telling her that ordinarily he wouldn’t consider hiring anyone with no previous experience but he’d been friends with the lecturer since they had themselves attended university and he trusted the other man’s judgment.

Paul had called her “striking” and she’d flinched inwardly, thinking that it was a polite way of saying that she wasn’t attractive, but later when she got to know him better, she’d understood that he had paid her one of his highest compliments. He believed in having a ‘presence’ and had told her to never underestimate the ability to command attention.

Her love of reading stood her in good stead as the job required a lot of research. She liked the intimacy of the team and the fact that they kept abreast of one another’s campaigns. If a team member fell ill or was unexpectedly absent, another team member could step in and deliver a planned presentation or continue work on an important project, if necessary.

They had busy work schedules, but it was a Friday night, so she’d been mildly surprised that Stephano had stayed late as well. All of their colleagues had left the office long before six, making straight for the nearby pub for a drink or several before heading off to whatever entertainments they had planned with wives, partners or friends.

Natalie didn’t have a date—hadn’t had one in almost five years—so she’d decided to finish the report while the exhaustive research she’d done all week was still fresh in her head.

If Stephano didn’t have a date it would surely be because he didn’t want one. He was gorgeous: 6’3” with wavy black hair, intense blue eyes, shoulders the width of a door and a body he kept in perfect condition by going to the gym regularly.

Suddenly it dawned on her that both her full breasts and ample behind were poking out suggestively while she held herself in the stretch position. Flustered, she dropped her arms and her left wrist hit the edge of her desk with a loud thud.

“Ouch,” she yelped in pain, sitting down abruptly and cradling it protectively in her other hand.

Cara?” Stephano was at her side in an instant, crouching beside her and taking her wrist gently in his large hands. He turned it over carefully to see if there was any serious injury.

Did he just call her ‘darling’? She didn’t understand Italian except for the few words she read in the romance novels she devoured by the dozen each month, but she was sure that the word was an endearment.

Whatever pain she’d been feeling vanished at the touch of his hands as they gently massaged her wrist. The feeling was quickly replaced by arousal, desire so strong she wanted to snatch her wrist away before he sensed it.

“I’m fi-fine now.” What was wrong with her voice? That husky, sultry sound couldn’t have come from her. No, that had to have been someone else!

“Are you sure, cara?”

Okay, he’d said it again. The first time she understood—shock made people act out of character—but the surprise was now over. He had examined her wrist and knew that she hadn’t done herself any lasting damage, so why was he still crouched there, his muscular thighs stretching the material of his blue jeans?

Suddenly he bent his head and kissed the pulse point at her inner wrist, his warm breath igniting the dormant scent pearls of the Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds perfume she’d used after her morning shower and sending a tantalizing hint of it her way.

Then he brushed his lips against her skin seductively.

Natalie gasped. This wasn’t really happening was it? Gorgeous British-Italian hunks don’t crouch before her and kiss her wrist in a manner which suggested they’d been just waiting for an opportunity to do so. No, this had to be a dream.

Still holding her wrist against his lips, Stephano lifted his head and glanced up at her.

The look of desire in his eyes sent a shiver through her. She tried to tear her gaze away knowing that she couldn’t mask her feelings with him this close, but his eyes held hers like a magnet, searching out the secrets of her soul.

And seeming to find the answer to his unspoken question, Stephano reached up, slipped his hand behind her neck and gently inclined her head downwards until their lips met.

Expecting the mere lip brushing she’d shared with her first and only lover Michael, Natalie was unprepared for the passion of Stephano’s kiss. His tongue immediately probed her full lips seeking entry. Once admitted it tangled with hers aggressively before delving deeper. Never before had she realized that kissing parodied the sex act, but as Stephano thrust his tongue deep into her mouth, Natalie had a vision of him thrusting himself just as deeply into her warmth.

More aroused than she had ever been by a kiss, she wrapped her arms around his neck, sliding her fingers up into his hair and kissing him back with all the pent-up longing she’d harbored in the fifteen months she’d been working closely with him.

The faint pop of a kneecap as it protested having to bear half of his weight and some of hers brought Natalie back to reality with a rude bump. Embarrassed, she tried to disentangle her limbs from his, but in a fluid movement and a demonstration of his phenomenal strength, Stephano straightened and lifted her onto the desk behind her.

The edge of her large, ergonomic keyboard pressed uncomfortably into her hip. She hastily pushed it out of the way as Stephano positioned himself between her legs and continued his assault on her senses.

Fridays were dress-down days, but for their prestigious quantitative market research agency that meant smart casual, so like him, she was wearing designer denim bottoms but a skirt instead of jeans. Her top had a simple, wrap-over bodice and fitted closely to her waist, emphasizing her hour-glass figure and calling attention to her shapely behind. But its sunny yellow color always brightened her mood, making her think of summer even on a cold winter’s day. This morning, feeling a little depressed that another weekend would find her at the local WHSmiths bookstore trawling their shelves for the romance her life lacked, she had decided at the very last minute to wear it. It was soft and feminine, unlike the ecru linen shirts she usually wore and she’d noticed a few of her colleagues eying her breasts sneakily from time to time all day. Any day but today she would have been wearing a tailored fitted skirt which wouldn’t have allowed Stephano access between her legs. All she could think as she wrapped her legs around his hips was, thank God, it’s Friday!

She explored his muscular shoulders and strong back as they continued the all-consuming kiss. She had thought about touching him often and had tried to imagine what his hard muscles would feel like under her fingers. She had even dreamed about it on occasion, but nothing was as glorious as the real thing. The soft material of his gray shirt allowed her to feel the smoothness of his skin beneath it. In repose his muscles were firm not hard as she’d imagined, but as he suddenly groaned deep in his throat, cupped her behind and pressed her harder against him, they tautened into cords of steel.

With her panties and his jeans between them she couldn’t accurately judge the size of his erection. It felt larger than she’d expected but she knew, and fervently hoped, that his underwear and jeans added to its bulk. What couldn’t be disguised though was its rigidity. ‘Rock-hard’ was a term she’d read often in romance and erotic romance novels in reference to a male protagonist’s erection and had thought it was a term bandied about by writers to make heroes sound better. Now she realized it could be an accurate description of a man in full arousal.

Stephano cupped her right breast and found her nipple already erect and distended. With a groan that somehow even sounded Italian, he finally broke the kiss as he slipped both the top and the lace cup of her bra aside to bare her breast to his gaze.

Bella. Bella, cara mia.” Instead of bending to it right away, Stephano held Natalie’s gaze for a few heart-stopping moments, making her squirm against his denim-covered crotch.

Impatiently, she tightened her fingers in his hair and urged his head downwards. He obediently let her bend him until he was a breath away from her aching, eagerly-waiting nipple and then took back control. For the next few seconds he let his breath waft over her already sensitized nipple, making it peak further, before drawing it between his teeth and nipping it into an even harder point.

“Suck it!” Natalie demanded, too desperate to care about seeming impatient.

She felt him smile against her flesh before he covered her nipple with his lips and did as she demanded.

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” The pleasure was so intense, Natalie almost pulled herself away. Grasping her head in both hands, she bit her lip to stop further moans escaping. When she had mastered the sensation, she glanced downwards and found him looking up at her.

He held her gaze as he slid his hand up her inner thigh and his finger under the gusset of her thong, as if ensuring she wanted to take things further.

“Yes,” she said simply and watched his eyes darken in response.

Finding her wet, Stephano groaned and circled her clitoris with his thumb as he slid the finger deep inside her. Her inner walls clutched at it eagerly and he groaned again, this time in anticipation, the sound coming from deep inside him like a growl.

“You’re so wet, cara,” he whispered against her lips as he quickly straightened and reached downwards to free himself.

He kissed her as he rubbed the head of his erection against her opening, letting the moisture at the tip mingle with her wetness before pressing himself inside her.

“Aw!” She tore her lips from his, her whole body tightening in shock as he breached her tightness.

“Easy, cara, easy,” he soothed, cupping her head and forcing her to look at him. He held himself still, not deepening his penetration as she slowly relaxed around him. “That’s it, baby.”

She didn’t realize that tears had instantly sprung to her eyes until he bent and kissed her eyelids.

Mea culpa,” he apologized.

“You really should warn a girl,” she retorted with a little more heat than she’d intended, feeling embarrassed she’d reacted so badly.

“I didn’t think you’d be so tight, cara,” he said apologetically, but his eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement.

Suddenly she saw the funny side too and chuckled softly. “I thought Italian Stallions were a myth.”

The laughter he had been valiantly trying to contain burst out of him in a rush.

“No stallion, cara, just a man,” he corrected.

Bending, he kissed her deeply, cupping her behind and pressing slowly but inexorably inside her to the hilt. Once again he held himself still, letting her stretch and soften around him before slowly withdrawing and then thrusting back inside her.

His mouth smothered her pleasure-filled moans as he quickened his thrust, but her fingernails digging into his flesh through his shirt told him that her pleasure wasn’t totally pain free. He should have exercised a little more patience, he scolded himself, but he’d lost his head the minute he’d taken her hand into his and felt her soft, smooth skin.

Hitching her a little higher, he covered her breast with his lips, drawing her nipple into his mouth and sucking on it firmly. As he felt her relax in response, he circled his hips as he continued to thrust, stimulating her g-spot and bringing her quickly to a shivering orgasm.

He followed immediately, having little choice but to come as her inner walls gripped him even more tightly, demanding its offering from his body.

***

As her breathing slowed, Natalie once again became aware of her surroundings. Stephano was standing in front of her. Her head was resting comfortably on his broad shoulder and…he was still buried inside her.

Oh God, had she just made love to a work colleague on her office desk?

She wished she could keep her blushing face hidden forever and not have to meet his eyes, but Stephano reached across to pluck a handful of tissues from the dispenser on her desk and straightened up. Holding the tissue in place, he eased himself slowly out of her. He hadn’t fully deflated and she winced as an unexpected frisson of pain flashed through her.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded but couldn’t lift her head. She was so embarrassed she wished she was a thousand miles away. Books never said anything about the reality of sex in unexpected places. People just had sex, straightened their clothing and then went about business as usual. If Stephano hadn’t had the foresight to have the tissues in place both her hastily-tucked up skirt and her desk would now be drenched. And yet, as grateful as she was that he’d had that foresight, it was a sobering reminder that he was a man with a vast sexual arsenal—one big enough for him to think clear headedly about practicalities only minutes after a seemingly explosive orgasm.

He tilted her head upwards and she was thankful that he couldn’t see the blood warming her cheeks. Because of her dark chocolate complexion few people realized how easily she blushed. She’d thought that she would grow out of the habit once she left her teens, but though she had attended assertiveness training and was no longer the painfully shy child she’d once been, she’d never been able to stop secretly blushing.

“Don’t be shy with me, cara.” His words made her feel even shyer because he was the first person in years to recognize that part of her since she had learned to mask it.

“I’m fine.” Shoring up all her inner reserves she forced herself to stare boldly back into his eyes, smile and pull his head down for a quick kiss—giving herself another minute to regain her equilibrium and become the cool, calm professional he knew her to be.

All too soon Stephano was pulling his lips away, regretfully it seemed, but pulling them away nevertheless and saying, “Sorry, cara, I have to go. I’m meeting friends from university and I have to rush home and grab a shower before the limo comes to pick me up.”

“Shit, is that the time?” Glancing up at the office clock, she feigned surprise, pushed him out of the way and jumped off the desk. ‘Jumped’ was a slight exaggeration—she wriggled off the end of the desk gingerly, trying not to wince as the movement set off aching pains in parts of her body she’d been unaware of until the present moment. “I have to go too!”

She rushed to the ladies’ bathroom, wishing that he’d be gone when she returned but knew him well enough to know that he was too much of a gentleman to leave without saying goodbye. Delaying her exit would make him realize that her earlier performance: the checking of the time; the feigned surprise; the lie about needing to leave urgently and then the rush to the bathroom, were all one big act to cover the fact that she had hoped the night would have ended differently—in his bed or hers, replete from a sumptuous meal they had cooked together or ordered in and several glasses of wine, continuing the lovemaking they’d started earlier, but this time at a slower pace.

After checking her reflection back and front in the full length mirror to ensure no evidence remained of their encounter except her kiss-swollen lips and over-bright eyes, Natalie left the bathroom.

The office was empty and though it was exactly what she’d desperately wanted, embarrassment flooded her from head to toe.

Slam, bam! she thought angrily as she marched to her desk and grabbed her purse. He hadn’t even had the decency to at least say, Thank you, Ma’am!

“Hope I didn’t keep you waiting.” Stephano’s voice startled her as she reached for her thick winter coat.

“No, I’ve just came back to the office myself,” she admitted, turning to face him with a smile of relief.

He held her coat open and she slid her arms quickly into the sleeves so she didn’t delay him further. As he reached for his, she noticed that he had fully repaired himself in the bathroom. He looked ready for a night on the town with the boys…or innocent enough to fool another woman into thinking all he’d done at the office today was work.

Natalie wondered a little resentfully if he had used the luxury handwash the agency supplied to wash away all traces of their earlier activity.

Quickly shrugging into his coat, Stephano took her into his arms and kissed her hungrily.

“Have a good weekend, cara.”

Weekend? It was only then that Natalie admitted to herself she’d hoped he’d suggest that they do something over the weekend. She hadn’t expected him to change the plans he’d made with his friends for the evening at the last minute, but surely he could find time for her no matter how busy his weekend was…unless he was spending it with another woman?

Quickly glancing around the office to ensure that all appliances had been switched off, Stephano indicated with his left hand that Natalie should precede him out of the office.

Head held high, she sashayed in front of him, deliberately moving her hips in a manner that overemphasized the slenderness of her waist in contrast to her hips.

This is what you could have been getting all night tonight! Her hips taunted. Your loss, buster!

As if he had received the message, Stephano groaned and wrapped his arms around her from behind, pressing himself against her.

“You have such a sexy bottom!”

Natalie smiled in triumph as she felt the imprint of his erection through their clothing.

Mission accomplished, she thought with a mean sense of satisfaction. I hope you’re thinking of me when you’re with someone else this weekend.

“I must go.” Slipping free she ran to the curb and hailed a conveniently-empty passing taxi.

Stephano stood at the unlocked office door, a look of surprise on his face, as she waved goodbye.

The feeling of triumph lasted only until the vehicle moved away from the curb. Perhaps he would have kissed her one last time before they parted. And as lame as it made her sound, knowing that he was probably on his way to meet another woman and not friends from university as he’d said, she would have still welcomed that kiss.

WHSmiths, here I come!

Natalie she sighed as she settled into a more comfortable position on the back seat of the taxi. Usually, she looked forward to the excitement of browsing the bookstore’s shelves, finding the most exciting romance novels and then spending the weekend reading. Occasionally she watched her favorite romance movies—old classics such as Splendor in the Grass and Breakfast at Tiffany’s or newer ones, Sleepless in Seattle, Love Actually and Never Been Kissed, which was the one she related to the most even though she had been kissed and wasn’t a virgin.

But nothing watched or read this weekend—no classic movie or interesting book—would eclipse what she’d shared with Stephano this evening.

***

Damn! Stephano swore as he hailed an empty taxi. Why did you have to choose to get married this weekend of all bloody weekends, Harry?

He and Natalie usually caught the Tube together from the nearby station, Knightsbridge. She then changed at Earl’s Court for the District Line to Fulham Broadway, while he continued on to Barons Court. Pressed for time this evening, he’d planned on taking a taxi with her to Earl’s Court, explaining why he was in such a rush as well as swapping mobile phone numbers on the way. She’d completely surprised him by jumping into the taxi. Needing to secure the building, he had been powerless to do anything but watch it drive away.

He had to get home, quickly have a shower and be ready with his overnight case and his ‘best man’ tuxedo when the Hummer limo arrived to collect him. He would have blown the guys and the stag night off, and traveled to Sheffield with his mother and father for the wedding tomorrow, if Harry’s bride-to-be Cheryl Jones hadn’t promised to ‘gut him like a chicken’ if he didn’t get her man to the church on time for the wedding. Having grown up with her and her two younger sisters, first in a shared house and then as a close family friend, Stephano knew how crazy the Jones sisters were. How the British-born Jamaican woman had fallen for Harry, a quiet Englishman and his best friend since university was beyond Stephano’s comprehension. Yet strangely, they complemented each other. Stephano knew firsthand that Cheryl wasn’t as ‘fierce’ as she liked to describe herself, but he didn’t want to run the risk of letting her down to see whether or not she meant her threat.

He had eagerly looked forward to Harry’s stag night and all the activities he and the guys had planned to pack into their weekend away from the capital. He had booked a room for himself for two nights and another for his parents for the night of the wedding only as his mother was keen to come back to London and her self-named restaurant, Antonietta’s, to cater for her regular Sunday diners. He had even contemplated paying for a third night’s stay at the hotel knowing that once he’d performed his duty to the groom he’d intended to have a great time, which may have necessitated an extra night’s stay at the hotel. He could have traveled from there straight to work on Monday morning.

Now the weekend had lost some of its appeal. Even though he wouldn’t have been able to see her over the weekend, it would have been good to have Natalie’s number to call her and ensure that she hadn’t suffered any ill-effects from their unrestrained sexual encounter.

He chuckled as he remembered her ‘Italian Stallion’ comment. It was flattering, but he knew he was no larger than average. What had become immediately apparent to him was the fact that although she wasn’t a virgin, she hadn’t been penetrated for some time. He should have aroused her more, he berated himself, used his fingers and his tongue to prepare her. Instead, as soon as he’d touched her slippery warmth he’d snapped and acted like a horny teenager. After months of waiting patiently for a sign, her nearness and her scent had intoxicated him. The only thing stopping him from pulling his hair out was the knowledge she hadn’t disguised the fact she’d enjoyed every minute as much as he had.

He couldn’t wait to get back to London and the office on Monday. He knew that he would be hard all day seeing her sitting just meters away from him. Many evenings as they shared the office by themselves, he’d fantasized about bending her over her desk and taking her from behind, her firm backside pressed up against him. He’d often had to banish his lecherous thoughts and bring himself firmly back under control before being able to rise from his seat.

Having had a dip in her honey pot, he knew that it would be nigh impossible to get any serious work done on Monday. All he would be thinking of is her baby-soft skin, her tantalizing perfume and her sweet, wet, near-virginal tightness.

He couldn’t wait to get her into bed, to explore her fully and taste her nectar.

Damn you and your bloody wedding, Harry!

***

Natalie gave herself a good talking to on the weekend. She wouldn’t let a past relationship poison the start of a new one. Although Stephano had previously mentioned a girlfriend in conversation with her and their colleagues, he hadn’t done so in recent months. She’d even overheard the guys teasing him about living with his mother only a few weeks ago. Instead of being embarrassed at the good-natured ribbing, he’d told the guys they were just jealous that he had a mamma who was the best cook in the world, who ensured that his clothes were taken for dry cleaning when needed and that the maid changed his sheets and cleaned his room for him. The guys had tasted the food at his mother’s rustic restaurant and after a few minutes’ consideration, most of them had agreed that there were much worse things than living at home with your parents at the age of twenty-eight.

And in all the months she’d worked with him, nothing in Stephano’s behavior indicated he was a liar. In fact, not long after joining the agency she had been stunned when Paul had wrongly praised Stephano in their monthly meeting for a successful project she had spent weeks working on tirelessly. Stephano had promptly corrected the misconception. Natalie had still been on her six-month probation and though she’d done enough to impress her immediate line manager, Alan Woods, Stephano giving her the credit she was due for the publicly successful project had cemented her position in the agency. Her permanent status was confirmed less than a week later and more than seven weeks before confirmation was due.

Stephano was the hottest looking guy in the office. Morgan Wells, another colleague, was perhaps better looking, but since he was openly and very proudly gay that gave Stephano the crown as far as Natalie was concerned. She had been a little in love with him from the day she’d started, but from the moment Stephano had raised his hand, interrupting the director’s speech to correct his facts, she’d gone from mildly interested to fully-blown infatuated. Most of her other colleagues would have wallowed in the man’s praise and given Natalie a perfunctory apology for stealing her thunder later, or perhaps not at all.

Stephano had probably been honest about going out with his friends, she decided as she took a seat at her desk the next Monday morning.

Except for the fact that her keyboard was pushed too far forward on her desk for her to use it comfortably and the empty tissue dispenser that she hastily refilled, there was nothing to indicate that she and Stephano had had sex on her desk.

I had sex on my desk!

Natalie still couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She didn’t believe in office romances, especially since she loved her job and wouldn’t want to leave when the relationship went sour. Staying in a job and seeing an ex-lover every day would be hard to endure—seeing that lover with someone new in the same office would be even harder. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have that problem as she was the only woman in the team of ten.

Unless he starts batting for the same team as Morgan, she thought with a smile.

She sobered as she checked the time on her computer and realized that it was after ten o’clock. Stephano should have been in the office by now.

The agency allowed flexible working and each of them did their required thirty-five hours around the ten-to-four core hours. An early bird by nature she had switched to a later working pattern when she’d realized that Stephano came in later in the morning and was usually the last to leave the office in the evening. But although he was often the last to arrive, he always arrived by ten, unless the Tube experienced severe delays.

Worried, she positioned her monitor so that she had a view of the road and the passengers exiting the Tube station while appearing to be focused on her computer screen. Her desk was in prime position in the office—most of her colleagues would swap desks in a heartbeat. She had inherited it from Mary O’Brien, her successor, a woman who had been the longest-serving member of staff before retiring early to go sailing around the world with her husband. Morgan had complained bitterly when Natalie had been given the best desk in the office, but Alan had insisted that as Mary’s replacement she was entitled to it. Morgan had ranted and raved for weeks, but Alan had remained unbending.

A sporty red car pulled up just outside her window and blocked her view of the station. Wanting to scream abuse at the driver, Natalie glanced angrily at the occupants instead, hoping that a dirty look would send them on their way. With a shock she recognized the back of Stephano’s head as he leaned over to kiss the female driver. It was a brief kiss, but Natalie was certain it had been on the lips. As he unfolded his length from the passenger seat with some difficulty, Natalie caught a glimpse of the beautiful, young black woman who smiled as she waved at him, then gunned the engine and drove off before the loitering parking attendant could issue her a ticket for stopping in the no-parking zone.

Numb with shock, Natalie quickly re-positioned her monitor and adjusted the blinds covering the window so that he wouldn’t know she had been looking out for him like a love-sick fool.

She should have known better than to doubt her first instincts. Alarm bells had immediately gone off when Stephano hadn’t as much as extended an invitation for a walk in the park over the weekend. She had gone home thinking that she’d been ‘laid and played’, but after reading the first of the three romance novels she’d finished over the weekend she’d been once again convinced that good men did exist and Stephano was one of them.

She’d come to work this morning eager to see him, to find out if he’d missed her as much as she’d missed him, hoping that he would admit that not one waking hour had passed without thoughts of her and the scorching sex they’d had.

She should have known that it was all too good to be true.

“Sorry, I’m late, guys,” Stephano apologized as he burst into the office. “Crazy weekend and then my father complained of chest pains last night and had to be rushed to hospital. Turns out he had a nap too soon after eating a large portion of my mum’s lasagna and had a bad case of heartburn.”

Yeah, right! She wanted to snort in derision but instead asked politely, “How’s he feeling now?”

“Much better, thanks,” Stephano replied, giving her a secret wink that she didn’t acknowledge. “They ran tests on him and finally released him this morning.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Their colleagues seemed to miss the sarcasm in her voice, but Stephano’s eyes narrowed as he took a seat behind his desk and looked across at her.

She ignored him, dipping her head and pretending to be engrossed in her work.

At lunch rather than go late with Stephano and two of their other colleagues as usual, she went early to a local wine bar with Morgan and grabbed a sandwich on her way back.

That evening, Morgan who usually left early had a project that was due the next morning. He stayed late to finish it and at half past five the office was empty except for the three of them. Several times Natalie saw Stephano glance in Morgan’s direction with ill-concealed annoyance. Normally she would have been annoyed too; she’d always thought of this time of the day as their special time. Just the thought of sitting close enough to see him, even if not touch him, had thrilled her. Often when she had gone to the bathroom to ready herself for the journey home by Tube, she’d found herself wet with longing.

Not today, though!

Morgan finally shut down his computer, grabbed his coat and threw them a hasty goodbye, saying that he had a blind date with a hot new guy.

Natalie felt both exhilarated and apprehensive being alone with Stephano again. Her heartbeat quickened and she wondered for a moment if she would have a heart attack as he quickly rounded his desk and stalked over to her.

“Natalia?”

It’s Natalie, she wanted to scream at him. The arrogance of the man thinking that he could come over and say her name with his sexy Italian voice in the same way he had called her ‘darling’.

“Yes,” she responded coolly, lifting her head and looking calmly into his eyes.

“Natalie?” he repeated. This time he got it right she noted—the ice dripping from her voice must have chilled him. He could have no idea how much money it had cost her in therapy and finally hypnosis to be able to call up her Ice Queen persona when she needed it. “Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be,” she responded innocently, widening her eyes in surprise at his question. She held the puzzled look just long enough for effect and then gasped as though all thoughts of the events three evenings ago had completely slipped her mind, “Oh, you mean about Friday evening?”

Words, she had discovered far too late in her physically abusive relationship with Michael, can sometimes hurt more than blows to the body. And worst than words, indifference.

“Stephano, it was fun,” she said airily as if sleeping with hunky work colleagues was something she did on a regular basis. “But let’s not repeat it.”

He stood silently looking down at her for long moments, his jaw clenching and unclenching. Her stomach fluttered nervously as she held his gaze, but strangely she didn’t feel fearful that he would resort to physical violence. Finally he reached out and cupped her jaw, running his thumb along the surface for a few bone-melting seconds before bending his head and kissing her softly.

“If that’s your decision, cara, I respect it,” he whispered as he straightened.

Yes, that’s my decision!, she wanted to scream at him. I deserve more than to always play second fiddle to another woman.

Instead she nodded, knowing if she opened her mouth she would tell him that she was willing to share him. Willing to once again become the secret lover she had been in Michael’s life because she’d been too tall, too dark, her hair too short to be seen on his arm. All she had been good for was sex when he’d needed it and to be a punching bag when he needed to let some steam off.

Stephano nodded in return, then turned abruptly and walked back to his desk.

Natalie kept her head bent, willing the tears not to fall as she heard him shut down his computer and grab his coat.

“I didn’t get any sleep last night. I need to go home and rest.” His voice was husky and he sounded suddenly exhausted. Even knowing that he’d worn himself out in another woman’s bed, she couldn’t stop her heart going out to him as he swayed slightly, looking about to collapse.

“Are you okay?” She stood up, about to go to him, but he shook his head and visibly pulled himself together.

“I’ll be fine once I get some sleep.” He walked quickly to the door, but turned when he got there to say, “Don’t stay too late, cara.

“I won’t,” she promised, once she’d swallowed the lump that had formed at the sound of the endearment, but he had already slipped through the door.

Poking a finger through the same blinds through which she’d earlier witnessed his arrival, she created a narrow gap and watched as he hailed an oncoming taxi. It was already occupied but in his tired state he’d probably not noticed that the yellow-for-hire sign had not been lit up. He was luckier with the second taxi which came by less than a minute later.

He hesitated before entering, turning to look back at the building twice before finally getting into the back of the vehicle. He’d never left her on her own in the building before. Though he was clearly worn out, he seemed as worried about leaving her alone as he’d been about collapsing from tiredness. There was little danger for her personal safety in the secure office, but her heart warmed at his concern as she stood gazing after the taxi long after it disappeared from view.

The tears she had been holding back all day ran silently down her face.

How could she live without the passion she’d had an exciting prelude to on Friday evening?

But how could she live with herself if she let him, or any man ever again, make her feel that she was only good enough to be a convenient booty call?

Five years had been a long time without being touched by a man; she couldn’t endure another five without being held.

Perhaps she wasn’t meant to have a love all of her own like other women.

She sighed as she finally turned away from the window and shut her computer down. Michael had been like a storm, raging out of control, his fists striking like lightning. She had survived him and come out stronger. Surely she was strong enough now to handle a polygamous relationship if it was all Stephano had to offer her. He was man enough for two women, she acknowledged with a shiver as she had a quick flashback of the way he’d filled her. She’d thought Michael sufficiently equipped. He’d been her first boyfriend so she’d had no basis for comparison, but now she wondered if along with his steroid abuse, he’d suffered from a feeling of inadequacy. He wasn’t a tall man at 5’6”, and she’d had no problem being three inches taller, but yet he’d seemed to feel the need to dominate her with brute strength.

It would be different with Stephano she knew. He would never leave her feeling like she was nothing, the way Michael had done in the last weeks of their relationship—forcing her down onto her knees to pleasure him, then cleaning himself off with a wash cloth and contemptuously discarding it onto her pristine bathroom floor before going home to the beautiful woman he was so proud of, the one who would never do anything as nasty as go down on him.

Sometimes the emptiness of Natalie’s life gnawed at her until she felt like screaming. Sharing Stephano with another woman wouldn’t be the perfect bliss she’d always longed for, but it would be better than what she had now…and a million times better than her nightmare relationship with Michael.

*****


And the Rain



Stephano punched his pillow, trying to mold it into a more comfortable position to finally get the sleep he desperately needed. It was of no use. It was his thoughts that were keeping him awake, not an uncomfortable pillow. Though he was exhausted, he kept playing the day’s events over and over in his head, trying to think what could have transpired between Friday evening and today to make Natalie act the way she’d done.

Harry’s wedding had gone surprisingly smoothly. Stephano had ensured that the groom was at the church on time, though the bride had then been fashionably late by almost an hour. There had been several fine-looking women at the reception and ordinarily he would have been open for a night of adult fun with a woman who was looking for the same. Instead he had behaved himself, anticipating his return to London and Natalie.

The bride’s youngest sister, Eva, had given him a lift back to London. A secondary school teacher, she had only been granted a day’s annual leave by the school’s head teacher and had taken it before the wedding to help with last minute preparations. They had arrived at his parents’ home to find his father lying on the sofa clutching his chest and his mother on the telephone so panicked she was talking to the emergency services operator in Italian and couldn’t make herself understood.

Eva had comforted his mother while he had quickly explained the situation and requested an ambulance. It had been a night of worry. He hadn’t known his father to be ill a day in his life except for having the occasional cold and twice the flu and seeing his mother upset and panicked had been hard for him. His parents shared a love he doubted he would ever find. It was impossible to think of one surviving without the other. It had been such an enormous relief when the doctor had given his father a clean bill of health with just a warning to cut back on spicy foods.

Eva, two weeks older and his best friend literally from birth, had called for updates throughout the night. Stephano had been grateful for her support. She had then risked the head teacher’s wrath by turning up at the hospital at eight this morning to drive him and his parents home. Though he had encouraged her to leave when they arrived at his parents’ house, she’d insisted on waiting until he’d showered and dressed to give him a lift to the office as it was on her way to school. Her first class didn’t start until eleven, she’d argued.

Thankfully his father had seemed his usual self when Stephano had arrived home from the office and looked none the worse for his hospital trip, though he’d complained to Stephano about the bland food his wife had prepared especially for him. She had reminded him that he had cleaned his plate.

Stephano had showered and tumbled into bed expecting to immediately fall asleep, but more than an hour later he was still wide awake.

Natalie’s behavior was totally out of character for the woman he thought he knew. She was an intensely private person and at first none of her colleagues had known if she was married or single. Some of the guys, attracted by her brains, good looks and sexy body had even speculated about her sexual orientation when she hadn’t been forthcoming about her relationship. Stephano had never thought that she was a lesbian—from the first there had been an unacknowledged sexual awareness between them. He’d often thought that he’d caught a look of interest in her eyes but it always faded before he could be certain.

When she’d started working for the company, he’d been living with his now ex-girlfriend. Renata’s possessiveness and lack of trust in him had soured their relationship, and convinced that Natalie hadn’t been seeing anyone at the time, he had waited, not wanting to immediately rush into another relationship without giving himself some time for reflection. But just as he had thought about making his move, he’d answered Natalie’s phone and spoken to a man with a deep voice and a much more pronounced Trinidadian accent than Natalie’s. The man had left no message, just said that he would see her at home later.

When he had informed her of the call, hoping that she’d shed some light on the man’s identity, she had just thanked him politely. The man had been equally tight-lipped months later when Stephano had answered her phone when she had stepped away from her desk to grab a cup of coffee, just saying to tell her Nathan had called.

Stephano had wanted to kick himself for not immediately grabbing her once he’d broken things off with Renata. Then last Thursday he had eavesdropped as Morgan had asked Natalie how she planned to spend her weekend. She would give her house a thorough clean on Saturday as usual, she’d replied, and attend an art exhibition with her brother Nathan and his fiancée on Sunday.

Nathan! Of course he’s her brother!

Stephano had realized belatedly that he’d missed the similarity of their names. He had been so stunned by the man saying that he would see Natalie at home later, his mind had conjured only one interpretation. On reflection he realized that Natalie’s accent did deepen when she was on her mobile phone talking to family members. Sometimes she called her parents ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. He’d chuckled silently when he’d first heard her do it, but he had somehow gotten used to the fact now.

He’d barely refrained from punching the air with glee on hearing that the man was not his competition. They both had busy weekends, so he would make his move on his return from Harry’s wedding, he’d decided. Then she had hurt her wrist and all his protective instincts had been awakened as he’d gone rushing to her aid.

He had never touched her silky skin before, except for a brief handshake on her first day of work and he had marveled at the texture, neither had he ever been close enough to smell her subtle perfume. It had gone to his head like wine, laying waste to all his plans.

He knew most women liked to be wined and dined, before having sex with a man. He hoped that Natalie didn’t feel cheap because he had done neither. Even though they knew each other pretty well as work colleagues, she was more reserved than any woman he’d ever dated. He’d prepared himself for the months of waiting before she slept with him, never anticipating the fire under her cool exterior.

He was still stunned that he hadn’t used protection. He no longer walked around with condoms in his back pockets as he had done as a teenager, but he ensured that he prepared if there was a likelihood that he would engage in sexual activity. But lust had hit him like a fist that Friday and at no point, from kissing Natalie’s wrist to coming harder than he had done in years, had he thought about protection.

Despite what she said, he knew that she’d wanted him as much as he wanted her. The proof had been there in her rapid response to his touch.

It would be tough, but he would back off a little and allow her some space, a chance to miss him a little. A week, no more than two, and then he was going in for the kill.

***

Natalie reached over, turned the radio on and grabbed the topmost of the pile of brand-new romance novels on her bedside table. She snuggled deeper under her vanilla-scented duvet, just leaving her face and her hand outside. It was cold and she needed her morning coffee, but she was too lazy to get up. The central heating would come on automatically in an hour, at eight. She needed to reduce her caffeine intake, anyway.

She re-read the blurb of the interracial romance novel before she turned it over and admired the picture of the couple on the cover. She had always loved the subgenre, but never in a million years had she imagined that she would contemplate one of her own. Sometimes the couples in the novels had to go through a lot for the sake of their love and she often wondered if she would be strong enough to make whatever sacrifice was needed for the sake of love. Things worked out in the end in romance novels, but it wouldn’t be that easy in real life. Not that what she and Stephano had shared could be termed a romance—it had been a shameful one-night fling that hadn’t even lasted the night.

It had felt like she was ripping her own heart out telling him that she wanted them to be ‘just friends’, but he had taken her decision well, embarrassingly so. They had been coolly polite with each other for the rest of the week. She had joined him and their usual group of colleagues for lunch when meetings hadn’t taken her out of the office, only because not doing so would have seemed odd and raised suspicions that were already heightened by her and Stephano’s less-than-usual warm camaraderie.

Forget Stephano, she rebuked herself and focused on the book again. She hoped that the description of the characters matched the cover. It was a silly peeve of hers, but she got annoyed when the picture on the cover looked nothing like the characters in the book. She knew it must be difficult to find stock art that matched the characters writers dreamed up in their heads, but sometimes publishers didn’t seem to even make an effort. She had even read books with sketched or painted covers that didn’t match the characters—that she found totally unacceptable! It probably meant that she needed a life, she acknowledged. After all, what did it matter if the characters looked nothing like the cover?

She opened the book carefully, trying not to crease the cover. The charity she donated the books to after reading were able to charge a little extra if the books were in good condition. Buying four new books each weekend, six if there was a bank holiday on the Monday was a guilty pleasure, but knowing the charity benefited and other readers were able to buy the books at a reduced price made her feel less guilty.

Yesterday she had done her household chores accompanied by music in an attempt not to think about Stephano. But later in the sauna, after a hectic and very enjoyable Zumba class, he was all she could think of. Slipping between crisp, clean bed sheets was usually the highlight of her Saturday, but all she thought of as she’d done it yesterday was how much better it would be having a hard body to snuggle up to instead of soft sheets.

She had awoken feeling refreshed and rested. With nowhere to go and all the time to get there, she decided to spend the morning in bed reading with the radio playing softly in the background, providing companionship of sorts.

Whitney Houston dead at 48…

It took several moments for the words to register in Natalie’s subconscious mind.

Did the announcer just say…?

Hastily, she reached over and turned up the radio.

The words the man was saying made no sense!

Whitney was too young. The same age almost as Natalie’s mother.

Throwing back the covers, she scrambled out of bed. Whitney was her mother’s favorite singer. The news would be a huge shock to her.

***

Taking a deep breath, Natalie opened her car door and got of the car on arriving at her parents’ three-bedroom house in Raynes Park. Whitney’s death was sobering. She’d never given a thought to her parents dying. Her mother was forty-seven and her father fifty-three. They were both healthy and she naturally assumed that they would live to ripe old ages as both sets of her grandparents did in Trinidad. Her parents had joint gym membership of the nearby private club and went there weekdays for an hour on the treadmill each morning at six. On weekends they went for a walk in the park instead.

“Hi, Daddy,” she greeted as she slipped off her shoes at the front door. He was sitting in his favorite recliner reading The Independent, which he would read from cover to cover before the end of the day. Sometimes she missed being a child, snuggled into his side as he read her stories from the newspaper. Most of it hadn’t made sense to her at the time but she’d loved the sound of his deep voice and the fact that his Trinidadian accent was more pronounced than normal when he read aloud.

“How’s my sugarplum?” He took off his reading glasses and raised his cheek for her kiss.

“I’m fine, Daddy. And you?” She laid her cheek against his and hugged him.

“I can’t complain,” he replied. By which he meant life was generally good and he had little to complain about.

“Is Mummy in the kitchen?”

“No, she’s upstairs somewhere.” Her father waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the stairs and went back to reading as Natalie turned to head up the stairs.

Her mother was lying on the covers, looking composed but Natalie could tell that she had been crying. Whitney’s My Love is Your Love was playing softly in the background. She turned her head as Natalie tapped on the open door and entered the bedroom.

“Did you hear?” The fact that her mother didn’t elaborate spoke volumes. Natalie suspected that she would break down if she said the words.

“Yes. That’s why I came over so early.”

Usually Natalie came over for lunch on Sunday. Her mother liked cooking a proper Sunday roast and complained that it was no fun just cooking for her and her husband. Nathan and his fiancée Folasade often joined them. When they did, her mother referred to it as a ‘Soul Food’ Sunday. The movie was another of her favorites and she complained bitterly that it didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

“This is why I always tell you to live your life to the full.” Her mother patted the covers and Natalie obediently lay on the bed next to her. It had been a long time since she’d been wrapped in her mother’s arms Natalie realized as they came around her and held her tight. With them lying down instead of standing, her five-inch height advantage over her mother disappeared. Feeling like a little girl again, she closed her eyes and luxuriated in the feeling and let go of her cares for a few precious seconds. “You never know which day will be your last.”

“I do enjoy my life, Mum.” She may not be partying every Saturday night, but she loved having the time to read at leisure.

“You don’t have a man. You don’t go anywhere. All you do is work and read those silly romance novels,” her mother chastised. “How are you going to find yourself a man if you don’t go out? And you can’t even find a man at work because they’re all white.”

“Actually, Mummy…” Natalie hadn’t come over with the intention of talking about Stephano, but as her mother had raised the subject, she decided to seek some advice. Her mother had lived on the island for the first twenty years of her life and though the population was predominantly African and Indian, the island was an eclectic mixture of races. “Did you ever date a man of another race when you lived in Trinidad?”

“No.” Her mother’s answer was immediate and not very encouraging. She turned to Natalie with a suspicious glint in her eye. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

Natalie could have evaded the question. What she and Stephano shared could still be chalked up to an indiscretion and brushed under the carpet.

“There is a guy at the office—”

“You said that you’re the only black person working there…so he’s white?”

“Yes, he’s white. His name’s Stephano. His parents are Italian, but he was born here.”

Her mother was silent for a moment.

“How old is he?”

“He’s twenty-eight.”

“At least he’s not a dirty old man.”

“Mum!”

“Look at Sybil’s daughter—living with a man old enough to be her grandfather!”

“Mum, David’s not old enough to be Sybil’s…” Her mother was right, but just barely as his eldest child was almost seventeen years older than his new lover. “Okay, he’s old enough to be her grandfather, but he’s not! And he loves her.”

“Of course, he loves her. What’s not for him to love? She’s young and beautiful. Why didn’t he marry her before asking her to shack up with him?”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to marry him!” Natalie retorted. Knowing Karen as she did, she was sure that the young woman planned on being a pampered mistress for a while before moving on.

“You think she prefers to live in sin with him?” Her mother made a dismissive sound. “He doesn’t want to have to give her half of his money if they get divorced. And why would he buy the whole cow when he could drink all the milk he wants?”


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