Bittersweet Love(2)

By: Cathy Williams

‘Natalie?’ he finally asked, moving towards her, his hands in his pockets. He circled her, his green eyes amused as he inspected her with the thoroughness of a racehorse owner inspecting a horse. ‘You’ve changed.’ He continued to look at her, his brilliant eyes missing nothing, and she had the intensely uncomfortable feeling that she was being leisurely stripped by someone who was quite an expert at the procedure.

‘People tend to,’ Natalie said crisply, moving away from him and positioning herself closer to the door. ‘From time to time.’

‘Do they?’ He sounded as though this was a novel concept, but she could still see the amusement lurking there in the depths of his eyes and it irritated her. She had forgotten just how quickly he could get under her skin. ‘I haven’t,’ he pointed out, returning to his desk and gesturing for her to sit in the chair facing his.

‘You look much browner,’ Natalie said non-committally. ‘Was it very hot out there?’

‘Oh, very. And what was the weather like over here? Do tell.’ He leaned back and surveyed her from under his thick black lashes, his eyes flicking once again over her body, resting on the gentle swell of her breasts, which she had hitherto played down under muted, baggy clothes, as if he couldn’t quite get to grips with the transformation.

‘I’m merely trying to make small talk,’ Natalie said, frowning.

‘Don’t you think we’ve known each other too long for small talk?’

It was the sort of remark that, in different circum-stances, might well have sounded quite intimate, but here, in the clinical severity of his office, she knew what he meant. They had worked together for so long that they operated with the kind of familiarity that came to old, married couples.

‘Besides,’ he was saying, moving on from his offhand observation, ‘if we’re going to play that game, let’s at least talk about something slightly more interesting. Like what the hell has happened to you?’

‘Not a great deal,’ Natalie informed him, deliberately misunderstanding his question. ‘I’ve taken up squash and swimming. My sister has made me godmother to her little boy. And, of course, I’ve pretty much kept on top of the workload, you’ll be pleased to hear, although, as you suspected, that Grafton deal is proving trickier than was originally anticipated. But I discussed all that on the telephone with you a couple of days ago. The file is on my desk, if you’d care to see it.’

She rose to get it, too nervously conscious of his eyes on her to remain in the room any longer.

‘Sit down,’ he barked. ‘I haven’t laid eyes on you for six months, dammit, to find that you’ve gone and got yourself overhauled. You haven’t found yourself a man, by any chance, have you?’ There was a thread of suspicion in his voice.

Natalie gave him a look that would freeze water, and he laughed.

‘Good. I can’t afford to have you besotted with any man. There’s too much work on here at the moment for that little luxury. The Hong Kong operation is going to have a massive knock-on effect on our outlets over here.’

He began rooting through some paperwork on his desk and she glared at the downturned dark head. She had become quite accustomed to this trait of his. He would pick up a topic, explore it for a while, like a child with a plaything, and then when he was satisfied that there was nothing left to discover about it, or when it began to bore him, he would drop it without a backward glance.

It was how he treated the women in his life, and there were enough of them. Blonde, brunette, red-haired, all perfectly proportioned Barbie doll look-alikes who adorned his arm for just as long as he wanted them to, before boredom set in.

It never failed to amaze her that she had fallen in love with someone whose character she was quite capable of assassinating with a few easy strokes. How could anyone with a scrap of common sense actually love a man whose idea of involvement was a diamond necklace and a weekend in Rome, work permitting, and whose attitude to parting was a philosophical shrug of the shoulders?

Now, she thought acidly, he had sized up her transformation, made sure that it would not cause any ripples in her work life, and, that done, was quite content to get back to the business in hand.

For once, though, Natalie was not going to accept his change of direction with equanimity. Maybe six months of freedom from his engulfing, mesmeric personality had taken their toll in more ways than one after all.

She looked at him, her grey eyes level, and said coolly, ‘You can rest assured that the presence of a man in my life would not affect my work here in the slightest’