I hold the phone away from my ear, wincing at the sound of Jack’s loud, exasperated voice.
“Jesus, Rocky! I don’t fucking believe you!”
“Mate, calm down,” I hiss, trying to placate him. I keep my voice low to avoid waking the woman beside me, in bed. The last thing I feel like dealing with right now is the whole morning-after scene; when you have to face the naked stranger you’re sharing a bed with, knowing the alcohol and sexual high of the night before are long gone and all you’re left with is morning breath, awkward conversation, and more often than not, a massive hangover. “I said I’ll be there, and I will. I still have plenty of time.” I glance around at my unfamiliar surroundings and hope to God I’m right. “Now stop worrying, and I’ll see you at your mum’s.” I quickly end the call before he has a chance to respond.
I heave out a sigh. Jack has every right to be pissed off. I’m a fucking idiot. I feel like shit, I don’t have a clue where I am, and I have less than an hour to get myself to Maggie’s all suited and booted.
Today of all days, I should be there for him, for the whole Harper family. I owe them that, at the very least, after everything they’ve done for me.
I sit back up and swing my legs off the side of the bed, groaning as a wave of nausea hits me. Swallowing it back, I scan the room for my clothes, locating my jeans on the floor and my shirt draped over a green chair in the corner. It reminds me of the one my old man used to sit in and evokes memories I don’t wish to dwell on.
I shove them to the back of my mind and lurch across the room, snatching my shirt up from the chair and the rest of my belongings from the floor before staggering over to the bathroom. I close the door softly behind me and briefly pause in front of the mirror, scowling at the reflection that meets my gaze; bloodshot eyes, dark circles and at least two days’ worth of stubble. Not only do I feel like shit, I also look like shit. Why the hell did I do it? I knew how important today was.
As I haul my leaden body into my clothes, the answer flashes in my mind like a neon sign. Because it’s your answer to all of life’s issues, Rocky! Get pissed and find some random woman to sleep with. Genius. And does it help? Does it clear your mind? Solve the problem? Like hell it does.
Retrieving my phone from the back pocket of my jeans, I set Google Maps to calculate my journey home, thankful that at least someone knows my “current location” because I certainly don’t. When the answer appears on the screen, I exhale in relief. I’m only twenty minutes from Chelsea. If I grab a cab, I can get home with enough time to spare for a much-needed shower and shave.
Without so much as a backwards glance towards the naked brunette sprawled across the bed, I hurry down the stairs and step out onto the street to hail a cab.
Just over an hour later, I’m entering the Harper’s house by the back door. I don’t bother knocking. Never do.
I find the kitchen unusually empty. Normally, it’s the busiest, and noisiest, place in the house, full of family and laughter, and more often than not, the delicious aroma of Maggie’s home baked creations. A wistful smile appears on my face as a string of happy memories flash through my mind, swiftly followed by an uncharacteristic pang of longing for the simpler, more carefree days of the past.
Jesus, Rockwell. Get a bloody grip.
I glance around me, noting the cellophane-wrapped plates on the table and the collection of wines, spirits and glasses assembled on the worktop. My eyes land on an unopened bottle of Jack before drifting up to the wall clock. Ten fifteen. Still too early, or perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances?
My silent deliberation is brought to an abrupt halt when Maggie Harper enters the kitchen, looking as elegant as always. However her expertly made-up face doesn’t quite succeed in hiding her puffy, red-rimmed eyes.
I quickly stride over to greet her, wrapping her petite frame in my arms and kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“Maggie.” My voice is gruff, as an unexpected wave of emotion rises to the surface. What the hell am I supposed to say to her? This situation is so far from my comfort zone that I need a bloody map to navigate my way around. Heartfelt words and serious conversations are definitely not my thing. Light-hearted, cheeky banter is more my forte but it’s obviously not appropriate today, and without it, I’m lost.
Maggie pulls back a little. She looks me in the eye and places a neatly manicured fingertip against my lips. “Don’t say anything. I know.”
My shoulders sag with relief as I pull her in for another wordless hug. It seems I’m off the hook… for now, at least.
When I finally release her, Maggie gives me a watery smile and brings her hand up to my cheek, giving it a gentle pat. “Sweetheart.” The whispered word holds a wealth of meaning. She clears her throat. “Why don’t you go and join the others in the living room?” I note her eyes are now brimming with tears, and I give her a grateful nod before doing as she asks.
In the hallway I pause, heaving out a sigh and raking both hands through my recently styled hair. Today is going to be bloody hard… on all of us.
Tom Harper’s death came as a complete shock to everyone who knew him. When he stepped down from his post as CEO of Harper Records he was full of exciting and energetic plans for his retirement. None of us imagined he’d be gone just two, short weeks later. Why would we? At sixty-three he was a fit and healthy guy with an obvious zest for life. A fatal heart attack just wasn’t in the cards.
Strolling into the living room, I’m immediately hit by the heavy atmosphere and subdued conversation. My eyes scan the occupants of the room. Tom’s two brothers and their wives are sitting on opposite sofas sipping tea from Maggie’s best china and chatting in low voices. Jack and Hannah, his girlfriend of the moment, are huddled together in an armchair, and his brother, Dan, is over by the fireplace talking to Maggie’s sister and her husband. There’s only one person in the room I can’t place, a woman standing over by the window who is staring out at the well-manicured garden beyond.
I thought I’d met all of the Harper family over the years but obviously not. I’d never forget meeting a leggy blonde with a figure like that.
I offer Jack a rueful smile and, when he responds with a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head, I know we’re good. Our friendship is a well-oiled machine. The two of us rarely fall out.
As I greet everyone else I know, making polite small talk, kissing cheeks and shaking hands, I find my gaze constantly flitting towards the mystery woman by the window.
I wonder who she is.
Guess there’s only one way to find out.
I make my approach, my eyes roaming her curves appreciatively and my thoughts veering towards the seriously inappropriate. Her simple black dress encases her shapely body to perfection, and I have no problem imagining her out of it with her long blonde hair cascading down her naked back.
I shake my head to clear the image from my mind. Now is definitely not the time for wayward thoughts like that. Later, however, when the funeral is over and we’ve all had a couple of drinks… well, that’s a different story. The prospect has my lips twitching with amusement.
However, that amusement instantly vanishes the moment her body twists towards me. My breath catches in my throat as her big, honey-coloured eyes meet my gaze and her lips curve up in greeting. I know I should smile in return… say something… introduce myself… but I seem to be incapable of doing so. My expression is frozen in place, and for once, I’m speechless. I think I’m in shock.
She’s fucking gorgeous.
“Hey, Rocky.” Her soft, accented voice triggers a spark of recognition, but it takes my stunned brain several seconds to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
Fuck. Now I really am in shock.
Why the hell didn’t I realise? I know I haven’t seen her for the past few years, but Jack and Dan both mentioned she was flying over for the funeral. I should have put two and two together.
Jesus Christ. My thoughts towards her have been totally inappropriate, on so many levels. One, she’s barely eighteen when I’m close to thirty. Two, I’m supposed to be here paying my respects to Tom, and I seriously doubt that lusting after his granddaughter would be considered very respectful. Three, I’ve known Eve all her life. And four, is the fact that her dad is a friend of mine, not to mention my boss.
Totally. Fucking. Inappropriate.
But it doesn’t stop me staring.
How the hell did little Eve Harper become this tall, blonde goddess in front of me? Last time I saw her she was still a kid, cute, but a bit gangly and awkward, with braces on her teeth, and owl-like eyes that peered at you from behind the lenses of her tortoiseshell glasses.
Her voice is soft as it cuts into my silent musing. “Rocky, you’re staring.” I see the ghost of a smile on her glossy lips, and my tongue involuntarily darts out and moistens my own, while my eyes remain firmly fixed on her luscious mouth. “Is there something on my face?”
With some difficulty, I force my eyes up to meet with hers. “I believe that’s my line,” I say, finally regaining the power of speech. When she was younger, Eve had a bit of a crush on me and whenever I caught her staring, I’d call her out on it by asking if there was something on my face. It appears to be payback time.
She cocks her head a little to the side. “It was your line but now it would appear to be mine. I guess times have changed.”
They’re not the only thing.
“Didn’t recognise you without the specs,” I say, the words leaving my mouth in a rush and with no forethought. Smooth, Rockwell, real smooth.
“I got contacts,” she replies. A small smile reveals perfectly straight, white teeth and no sign of any braces, but this time, I manage to keep the observation to myself.
“You look beautiful,” I breathe, my voice coming out way too low and husky for polite conversation.
A hand lands heavily on my shoulder and I flinch with a guilty start.
To my immense relief, my long-time friend appears oblivious to both my thoughts and the awkward exchange that’s just taken place. I guess he has more important things on his mind.
“The funeral cars are here,” he states in a sombre voice. “Mum says she wants you to travel with us.”
I glance up at him, blinking rapidly, like a mole emerging into the light. For the first time, I notice the strain etched into his face. The last few days have certainly taken their toll and I don’t suppose my overnight disappearing act helped any.
“Listen, tell Maggie I appreciate the offer, but I can’t. That car’s just for family.”
Jack’s fingers grip my shoulder a little tighter. “You are family,” he states gruffly. “Mum’s right. Dad would’ve wanted it.” His words are a timely reminder of how much the entire Harper family mean to me and they succeed in steering my wayward thoughts back on track. He clears his throat, and I quickly nod my acceptance of the offer, both of us keen to move the conversation on. We might live together and enjoy a friendship spanning more than two decades, but we’re not generally prone to emotional speeches or sharing our feelings. We’re more about the banter.
Jack and I became friends the day I moved into the house next door. The house had belonged to my recently deceased grandmother and it was a far cry from the modern city centre apartment my parents and I had just left. However a lack of money, and options, meant that Gran’s old house was our new home.
I’d hated it.
It had smelled of old people and boiled cabbage. Not only that, but the bedroom I’d been assigned was dominated by a huge, and quite frankly, scary mahogany wardrobe. I’d been convinced monsters were hiding in the thing.
Desperate to escape the confines of the house, I’d ventured outside to play in the garden. It was a bit of a jungle, full of brambles and overgrown shrubs, but it had made the ideal playground for a six-year-old boy with an active imagination. While I was out there, crawling commando-style through the undergrowth, I heard voices coming from the other side of the fence. So after finding a rusty old paint can to stand on, I peered over.
On the other side I discovered two boys, one about the same age as me and the other a few years older. As soon as they noticed me, they introduced themselves and asked if I wanted to join them. Naturally I said yes, and before long, I was spending more time on their side of the fence than my own.
I let out a sigh, wondering how differently my life might have turned out had I never moved into the house next door, had I never met the Harpers. Luckily, before I can begin to contemplate the alternatives, Dan returns and announces it’s time for us to leave.
I file out through the front door with the rest of the family and head towards a big, black saloon idling at the kerbside. A sombre looking man, dressed in a black morning suit, complete with top hat, opens the rear door and proceeds to stand on silent ceremony while each of us climbs in.
As I settle into the seat beside Jack, I’m mindful of all the opportunities his father gave me over the years; how much faith he showed in me. I close my eyes, feeling less than worthy, and make a silent vow to do better, to be a man Tom Harper would be proud of.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. If you’d like to read more, Beautiful Temptation is just 99c/99p or FREE on Kindle Unlimited. Just follow the links below.
© Olivia Adams 2017