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“Thank you for the offer, but I decline,” Zoe said, trying to ignore the quivering in her stomach. Why the blasted man always had this effect on her, even over the phone, she didn’t know, but it was driving her crazy.
It was early December and she still had a lot of work to finish before the Christmas break. The last thing she had time for was talking to Dale Cavallo. She’d been working since early this morning and had been sending out quotes when his call came through and now she had to waste precious minutes with him.
“You don’t think your reaction is a tad childish?” Dale’s voice filled her ear, sending a tremble down her spine as it always did.
“Me, childish?” she snapped. “Childish is the perfect word to describe your behavior last Tuesday. You summoned me to meet you at the site of your new hotel in the middle of nowhere. I had to leave everything I was busy with and fly out there. And then? I was there for the entire day and you never once spoke to me! Your brother showed me around. Believe me, I got the message that the whole idea to use me as interior designer was not yours.”
“When exactly should I have talked to you?” Dale asked, his voice cool. “While you were yelling at my bother for some ridiculous reason or other, or when you sat sulking at lunch?”
Zoe inhaled sharply. She didn’t think of herself as a violent person, but if Dale were here, she would damn well clobber him! She didn’t want to work for him. He was just too damned arrogant, too sure of himself, too male, too bloody everything.
Clutching her phone with tense fingers, she counted to ten. Nope, she was still spitting fire. She tried to inhale again but couldn’t get any air through the stiffness in her throat. The man made her so mad!
“Let’s leave your brother and my sister out of this discussion,” she said, and tried to calm herself. She was not going to defend her actions. “I will not be able to do the interior decorating of your new hotel. Thank you for offering me the job; I hope you find someone else.”
And then she did something she had never done before. She slammed the phone down without saying good-bye.
Still steaming, she got up from behind her desk but before she could move, Susan, her second-in-charge in the business, poked her head around the door.
“Everything okay? Difficult client?”
Zoe tried a calming breath. “Something like that. Can I help?”
“Can we talk about the job in Paarl?” Susan asked, and Zoe nodded, showing Susan to the chair in front of her desk.
Usually, she was excited about new projects, and this new development near the beautiful town of Paarl was something she’d been dreaming of getting involved with. Drat the bloody Cavallos. Ever since her sister had met the oldest brother, they seemed to be everywhere.
Yes, they were all drool-worthy but, from the moment Dale Cavallo had pinned her down with his coffee-brown eyes in his mother’s restaurant in Cape Town, he’d managed to turn her into a babbling idiot.
That orchestrated lunch at Rosa’s had been one of her mother’s not-so-subtle attempts to get her sister Caitlin and Don Cavallo back together. Dale had phoned her just a day or so before with the offer to do the work for them and even over the phone he’d sounded surly. So, when he’d barely acknowledged her at the lunch, she hadn’t been surprised.
She had wanted to ignore him, but the minute their eyes met, something deep inside her had been touched, and she didn’t like the feeling.
It was as if her body had simply taken over her brain. Her heartbeat went up several notches, her hands were sweaty, her mouth dry. She had been so upset—never before had a man reduced her to such a state that she couldn’t see straight.
Yes, he was drop-dead gorgeous and very, very, very sexy. Whoever first coined the phrase tall, dark, and handsome had probably seen the Cavallo brothers together. But although she could acknowledge his brothers were also very attractive, very sexy, she didn’t respond to them in the same way.
Why her reaction to Dale was like that of a sex-starved spinster, she had no idea. At twenty-seven she was no spinster and okay, yes, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had sex, but she wasn’t starved, for goodness’ sake.
She simply had to ignore him, and now that she’d declined his offer, it was only a matter of time.
“What do you think?” Susan’s voice finally penetrated her thoughts.
Zoe leaned over and took the plan Susan held in front of her. She had work to do and thinking about Dale Cavallo making her weak in the knees was not helping. Oh, hell, that was not what she was thinking, was it? He irritated her, he was overbearing, and he was insufferable.
She had to try and remember that.
Two days later, Dale was still trying to figure out why he wasn’t more pleased with the whole outcome. He had so much work and he’d been in his office since early this morning, but he hadn’t been able to finish anything yet. Zoe Sutherland was on his mind and he was struggling to focus on his work.
She was right. It hadn’t been his idea to ask her to do the interior design and decorating of their new hotel. He grimaced. To tell the truth, since he’d met her, he didn’t have a rational thought in his body. Which was the single most important reason to steer clear of any involvement with the leggy brunette.
She’d turned him on even before he’d seen her for the first time. The sound of her voice over the phone had caught him completely off guard. His reaction disturbed him to such an extent he told his brother he wasn’t interested in working with her. He didn’t want to see the girl to whom the sexy, throaty voice belonged.
Getting seriously involved with a woman was simply not part of his future. So, when just the sound of a strange woman’s voice had him wondering about her, he knew to stay away.
He got up from behind his desk and walked to the big windows overlooking Cape Town. This hotel had been his first project when he’d joined his brothers in the business. When he’d seen this particular piece of land, he’d immediately been able to see the finished building in his mind’s eye—lots of glass to reflect the mountain, the sea, the blue skies.
The building had been a talking point in the architectural world. Since then, he’d tried to emulate the same feel in most of the other hotels he designed.
And he’d designed the hotel in such a way that guests would be able to experience the city’s two main attractions—Table Mountain, one of the new seven wonders of the modern world on the one side, and the harbor and the sea on the other.
But today, the mountain’s usual powerful and charismatic pull failed to enchant him like it usually did and he stared out towards the harbor, his gaze following a ship as it was leaving. He wished it was that easy to forget about Zoe.
It was an ordinary Sunday the first time he had seen her. His mother had invited them all for lunch at her restaurant. And there they were. All three Sutherland sisters and a friend, Dana, if he remembered correctly. All four of them stunning, but his eyes had zoomed in on just one of them. And he’d known even before they were introduced which sister she was. Zoe. The one with the voice.
He had seen Caitlin before and she was a stunner, so he should have expected her sisters to be as gorgeous. But he wasn’t prepared for Zoe. At all. She was wearing a simple turquoise top and a short, white skirt showed off her long, tanned legs. He was a leg-man, always had been. And Zoe’s legs had nearly brought him to his knees.
He didn’t remember much else about the day. Except sitting next to her, listening to her voice, absorbing her scent. He’d been like a lovesick schoolboy, for crying out loud. He’d walked away that day with every intention of staying away from her. She was the kind of woman who could ruin a man.
There was a knock on his door and his younger brother David walked into his office. They normally shared one big office, but they also each had a smaller one they used when they were seeing clients or when, like today, he didn’t need his brothers’ constant bantering.
“Don says Zoe declined your offer to do the interior of the hotel near the Kruger National Park?” David said.
Irritated, Dale shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea to use her to begin with. It was Don’s suggestion.”
“I hear she’s very good at what she does.”
“Well, I don’t trust strangers with my plans, so it’s just as well,” Dale said. “And you saw her at the site last week—she’s a bloody spitfire, and I don’t need that kind of aggravation in my life.”
David laughed. “Well, she thought Don was cheating on her sister—in her shoes, you’d react the same way. So, what’s really bothering you? That she’s too sexy?”
Dale quickly looked at his brother.
“Yes, I think she’s sexy, don’t you?” David grinned.
Dale opened his mouth to deny it but realized it would be useless. Zoe was stunningly beautiful. But he didn’t like the idea that his brother thought her sexy.
“Yes, she’s beautiful. All the more reason I’m happy she declined the offer.”
David cocked his head. “Is this because of that intern who worked for you early last year? What was her name again? Tammy, Sammy? The one who used your plans to enter a competition? The one you had a thing for?” He grinned.
Dale scowled. “Don’t remind me. I still can’t believe how gullible and foolish I’d been. I’d let myself be duped by a pair of baby blues and a dimple—not a mistake I intend to make again.”
When Tammy had asked to take the plans of a new hotel home with her, he hadn’t hesitated. She was working for them and, yes, he’d been sleeping with her.
Fortunately, a friend of his who had been on the selection committee of the competition recognized the plan as Dale’s work and contacted him. Dale had been in time to stop the process, but the whole incident left a bad taste in his mouth and left him distrustful of women in general and of people who wanted to use his work in particular.
David laughed. “It’s called lust, my dear brother, and that usually clouds the brain.”
“Don’t I know it. What that lesson taught me is to stay clear of career-driven, beautiful women who will do anything to advance themselves.”
“The Sutherland women are gorgeous, I have to agree, but I’ve heard very good things about Zoe’s firm,” David said. “I don’t think you can accuse her of sleeping her way to the top.”
“Look, just leave it, okay? I’m the architect and I’ve done all the interior decorating of our hotels up until now. I don’t see why I have to involve a stranger just because our brother is sleeping with her sister. And, yes, I know her firm is doing well, but frankly, power-hungry women scare the living daylights out of me. And I can’t help wondering—whose idea was it to offer her the job? Don’s or hers?”
“You’re not making any sense,” David said. “She declined your offer remember?”
“Yeah, probably after she realized she won’t be able to wrap me around her little finger.”
David slapped him on the back. “Sounds to me like that’s exactly what she’s been doing!” He grinned as he left the office.
Scowling, Dale stared after his brother. Damn it, he had to get this bloody woman out of his mind. He still remembered in vivid detail how she’d looked when she ripped into Don last week. Her sapphire eyes had been spitting fire, and all Dale could think about was how it would be to unleash all that passion in a bedroom. His bedroom.
That was the reason he’d ignored her for the rest of the day. Because speaking to her meant he had to look at her. And every time his eyes met hers, all he wanted to do was cart her off to the nearest bed. So, instead of being friendly, he’d behaved like an insufferable fool.
Restlessly, he stared at his phone while an idea kept swirling around in his head. Finally, he smiled and reached for the instrument. There was a way to get one particular Sutherland away from Cape Town and regular family meetings. Their new hotel in London was supposed to be his next project, but he had enough to keep him busy over here.
It would be very good exposure for Zoe’s firm and, most importantly, she’d be in another country. By the time she returned, he’d be over this silly thing he had for her, and life would return to normal.
Zoe sat up in bed and touched her cheeks. They were wet. She switched on the light and got out of bed. It was still very early, but she was not going to sleep again. Not after the dream she’d just had.
Fed up with herself, she walked towards the kitchen. She was twenty-seven, for goodness’ sake. Surely she should be over the fact her father had left them when she was still in school.
She put on the kettle, got out the coffee. It was this business with Dale that probably triggered the whole thing again. It left her unsettled.
Why, after all this time, she still remembered the day her dad had left, she didn’t know. They had all been doing homework and he’d called them to come and say good-bye. At first she thought he was going on one of his many trips. But that particular time the suitcase was much bigger, and his smile hadn’t quite reached his eyes.
She didn’t remember what he said. But she did remember how she felt—that somehow if she’d been different, if she’d been better, he would not have left.
Her phone rang. It was Hannah. Smiling, she answered. “Hi, Sis, it’s so nice to hear from you! Where are you?”
“Still in New York,” Hannah said.
“You sound tired.”
“That I am,” Hannah said. “Oh, my goodness, Zoe, I’m sorry. I only now realized the time. It must still be very early on your side of the world and you were probably still sleeping after a date with … who is the new man in your life again? Stephen? Is that the right name? Or is it Bruce? Or is Bruce the guy you dumped earlier this year? You go through them so quickly, I’m never sure,” Hannah teased.
“It could have been Stephen, I’m not sure. I’m not with anyone at the moment.”
“Hmm, so he lasted two whole months, if I’m not mistaken. You ditched him again before he could ditch you?”
Zoe sighed. “He was getting annoying.”
Hannah was quiet for a few seconds. “You never date a guy long enough to let him do the ditching.”
“We know firsthand that men don’t stick around, don’t we?”
“That is unfortunately true. Just don’t forget that you’re a beautiful, smart woman. Any man would be lucky to have you.”
Zoe looked down at herself and smiled. “Thank you for saying that, although if you could see me now…” She giggled.
“Send me a picture. I miss sitting around in pyjamas with my sisters,” Hannah said. “Anyway, I’m phoning to congratulate you. Caitlin seems to be still dating Don Cavallo and she tells me you’re going to do the interior decorating for the Cavallos’ new hotel. The one they’re planning to build near the Kruger National Park.”
“Well, then Caitlin hasn’t spoken to her boyfriend today. I’ve declined the offer.”
“Why would you do that? This is a great opportunity for you, Zoe.”
“There is no way I can work with him. He is just too damn annoying, too overbearing, too bossy, too… male.”
“Well, if you put it like that…” Hannah said, giggling.
“I love what I do and I’m at the point in my business where I can decide with whom I want to work. And I definitely don’t want to work with Dale Cavallo. Ever. But please, let’s talk about something else. So, will you be home for Christmas? We haven’t seen you in ages.”
Hannah laughed. “I’ve never heard someone change the topic so quickly. But okay, yes, I’m coming home for a week over Christmas. I haven’t seen you guys since…” She trailed off.
Zoe grimaced. Damn it, they couldn’t talk about anything without mentioning the bloody Cavallos. “When we had to sit through a lunch with the Cavallos at their mother’s restaurant. We all had to be nice to them because Caitlin liked the oldest one.”
“Don’t remind me,” Hannah growled. “If Caitlin decides to keep Don, we’ll probably be forced to do that often.”
They talked for a few more minutes before Caitlin said good-bye. Frowning, Zoe put down the phone. She had to try and get away for a while. Hannah was right—between their mother and Rosa, the Cavallos’ mother, hardly a week went by without a get-together of the two families. And if she wanted to get Dale Cavallo out of her mind, she had to find a reason not to see him.
All her instincts were warning her not to get involved with him in any way. The one time in her life she’d ignored these voices, she’d been hurt. Well, okay, her pride had probably been more hurt than anything else, but still.
She’d met George in college. He was captain of the varsity rugby team, handsome, and paid her just enough compliments to turn her head to mush.
When she’d decided to pay him a surprise visit and found him in bed with another woman, it had finally dawned on her—if her own father hadn’t even stayed with her, why would any other man find something in her to make him stay? So, after that disaster, she never dated a man for too long and she made sure she sent him on his way before he found a reason to leave her.
And normally, she’d forget the guy quickly. But something was telling her Dale Cavallo would not be so easy to put out of her mind. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him ever since she’d met him.
Fed up with herself and her thoughts, she grabbed her coffee and walked back to her room. Why was she still thinking about the damn man?
Susan walked into her office just as Zoe was putting the phone down. She wanted to jump up and down. What wonderful news on this beautiful morning.
Dramatically, Susan shaded her eyes. “Wow, what a brilliant smile! I haven’t seen you smiling like that in ages. Have you won the lottery?”
Zoe laughed. “Even better!” She pointed to the phone. “I just had a call from the spokesperson of a newly renovated hotel on the outskirts of London. He’s offered us the job to do the interior decorating for the whole hotel.”
“But that’s wonderful news, Zoe. Especially because you turned down the Cavallo’s offer to work on their hotels.” There was a hint of reproach in Susan’s voice.
Zoe ignored her. Susan had been stunned when Zoe had told her they would not be doing the Cavallo job. But fortunately, because it was her business, she didn’t have to explain her decisions.
“How did they know about us? One would think there are more than enough interior decorators in London.”
“I haven’t even asked, I was so happy with the offer,” Zoe said. “But you remember the smaller job we did there last year? They probably heard about us from them.”
“When do they want us to start? And who will you send?”
“I’ll be going myself,” Zoe said immediately. “They want us to start in the beginning of March next year.”
Zoe couldn’t stop smiling. She’d been looking for a chance to get away, and this was a great opportunity for her firm and also a lovely excuse not to have to do the Sutherland-Cavallo thing for a while. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
End of Excerpt