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Excerpt: Beneath the Veil of Paradise

‘May I buy you a drink?’

She liked the may, but she still shook her head. ‘No thanks.’ She hadn’t had a drink alone with a man in two years. Hadn’t done anything in two years but breathe and work and try to survive. This guy wasn’t about to make her change her ways.

‘You sure?’

She turned to him, folded her arms as she surveyed him. He really was annoyingly attractive. Warm brown eyes. Short dark hair. A chiseled jaw and those nice abs. His board shorts rode low on his hips, and his legs were long and powerful. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘are you even asking? I’d bet a hundred bucks I’m not your usual type.’ Just like he wasn’t hers.

‘Type cast me already?’

‘Easily.’

His mouth quirked slightly. ‘Well, you’re right, you’re not my usual type. Way too tall and you know,’ he gestured around her face, making Millie stiffen. ‘Severe. What’s with the hair?’

‘The hair?’ Instinctively and shamingly she reached up to touch her bobbed hair. ‘What about it?’

‘It’s scary. Like, Morticia Addams scary.’

‘Morticia Addams? Of the Addams Family? She had long hair.’ She could not believe they were discussing her hair, and in relation to a television show.

‘Did she? Well, maybe I’m thinking of someone else. Somebody with hair like yours. Really sharp cut.’ He made a chopping motion along his own jaw.

‘You’re being ridiculous. And offensive.’ Yet strangely she found herself smiling. She liked his honesty.

He raised his eyebrows. ‘So, dinner?’

‘I thought it was a drink.’

‘Based on the fact that you’re still talking to me, I upped the ante.’

And she laughed, reluctant, rusty, yet still. This annoying, arrogant, attractive man amused her somehow. When was the last time she’d actually laughed, had felt like laughing? And she was on vacation, admittedly enforced, but she had a whole week to kill. Seven days was looking like a long time from here. Why not amuse herself? Why not prove she really was moving on, just like her boss Jack had urged her to do? She gave a little decisive nod. ‘Okay to the drink only.’

‘Are you haggling?’

Interest flared. Deals she could do. ‘What’s your counter offer?’

He cocked his head, his gaze sweeping slowly over her once more. And she reacted to that gaze, a painful mix of attraction and alarm. Dread and desire. Hot and cold. A welter of emotions that penetrated her numbness, made her feel.

‘Drink, dinner, and a walk on the beach.’

Awareness pulsed with an electric jolt low in her belly. ‘You were supposed to offer something less, not more.’

His slow, wicked smile curled her toes. And other parts of her person, parts that hadn’t curled in a long time. ‘I know.’

She hesitated. She should back off, tell him to forget it, yet somehow now that felt like failure. She could handle him. She needed to be able to handle him.

‘Fine.’ She was agreeing because it was a challenge, not because she wanted to. She liked to set herself little challenges, tests of emotional and physical endurance. I can jog three miles in eighteen and a half minutes and not even be out of breath. I can look at this photo album for half an hour and not cry.

Smiling, he reached for the canvas she clutched to her chest. ‘Let me carry that for you.’

‘Chivalrous of you, but there’s no need.’ She strode over to the trash bin on the edge of the beach and tossed the canvas straight in. The paints, easel, and collapsible stool followed.

She didn’t look at him as she did it, but she felt herself flush. She was just being practical, but she could see how it might seem kind of… severe.

‘You are one scary lady.’

She glanced at him, eyebrows raised, everything prickling. ‘Are you still talking about my hair?’

‘The whole package. But don’t worry, I like it.’ He grinned, and she glared.

‘I wasn’t worried.’

‘The thing I like about you,’ he said as he strolled towards the bar, ‘is you’re so easy to rile.’

Millie had no answer to that one. She was acting touchy, but she felt touchy. She didn’t do beaches, or bars, or dates. She didn’t relax. For the last two years she had done nothing but work, and sunbathing on the beach with a paperback and Ipod was akin to having her fingernails pulled out one by one. At least that wouldn’t take a whole week.

The man—she realised she didn’t even know his name—had led her through the beachside bar to an artful arrangement of tables right on the sand. Each one was shaded by its own umbrella, with comfortable, cushioned chairs and a perfect view of the sea.

The waiter snapped right to attention, so Millie guessed the man was known around here. Probably a big spender. Trust fund baby or bond trader? Did it matter?

‘What’s your name?’ she asked as she sat across from him. He was gazing out at the sea, the orange streaks like vivid ribbons across the sky, with a strangely focused look. He snapped his attention back to her.

‘Chase.’

‘Chase.’ She gave a short laugh. ‘Sounds appropriate.’

‘Actually, I don’t generally do much chasing.’ He gave her a slow, oh-so-sexy smile that had annoyance flaring through her even as her toes—and other parts—curled again.

‘Charming, Chase. Do you practise that in the mirror?’

‘Practise what?’

‘Your smile.’

He laughed and leaned back in his chair. ‘Nope, never. But it must be a pretty nice smile, if you think I practise.’ He eyed her in consideration. ‘Although the more likely possibility is that you just think I’m an arrogant ass who’s far too full of himself.’

Now she laughed, in surprise. She hadn’t expected him to be so honest. ‘And I could probably tell you what you think of me.’

He arched one eyebrow. ‘And that is?’

‘Uptight prissy know-it-all who doesn’t know how to have a good time.’ As soon as she said the words, she regretted them. This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have.

‘Actually, I don’t think that.’ He remained relaxed, but his gaze swept over her searchingly, making Millie feel weirdly revealed. ‘Admittedly, on the surface, yes, I see it. Totally, to a tee. But underneath…’ She rolled her eyes, waiting for the come-on. Everything was a chat-up line to a guy like this. ‘You seem sad.’

Excerpt From: BENEATH THE VEIL by Kate Hewitt
Copyright © 2012 by Kate Hewitt
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved.

January 2008