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Authors: Genevieve Gannon

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BOOK: Husband Hunters
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Clementine forced the muscles in her face to smile. ‘Yes’ was all she could manage.

Daniela shoved her playfully and told her she looked
bellissima
, too. ‘How’s your practice? I hear you’ve been seeing a lot of damaged married men.’

‘What?’ Clem stole another glance at Jason. ‘Who told you that?’

‘Melanie Sissowitz. She said you had helped her brother through a difficult divorce.’

‘Oh, yes, right … I seem to have a knack.’

‘Why? What did you think I meant?’ Dani’s eyes narrowed mischievously.

‘Nothing, it’s just … it’s so good to see you. How did we let it go so long without catching up?’

Daniela shook her head. ‘I don’t know. It’s unforgivable.’

‘I wish I’d caught you at the church.’

‘I didn’t go,’ Dani waved her hand dismissively. ‘I play in a Sunday-morning touch-rugby competition. It’s a farce anyway. Who is this man Mirabella’s marrying? He looks twice her age, three times her size, and we know it can’t be personality that has drawn them together, because he’s obviously four times smarter than she is.’

‘I think you might find the answer in the fact that he has about five times her net worth.’

‘There you have it,’ Dani rolled her eyes. ‘Let’s find our table. I need a drink.’

Mirabella had named all of the tables after precious gems, and decorated them accordingly. The bridal party sat at the diamond table, where diamantes cast rainbow prisms and everything sparkled with white light. The emerald table was green, the sapphire blue and so on for twenty-four tables. Clementine and Daniela were on the garnet table.

‘What does that tell you?’ Clem muttered.

The reception centre was at capacity, so it took them some time to pick their way to their table, which was all the way down the back of the room, practically blocking the doors to the kitchen. A man gripping a champagne bottle leaned on Dani’s shoulder as he tried to manoeuvre his way into the chair next to her. His hair was damp with perspiration, and his powder-blue suit was wrinkled.

‘Don’t you think you should ease up on the wine?’ his wife suggested. She was the shade and shape of a beetroot.

‘Why?’ the man drawled. ‘Mirabella expects me to embarrass her, and I don’t want to let her down.’

He rested his arm on the back of Daniela’s chair. The beetroot smacked her husband roughly with the starched napkin, then shot Dani a warning glare.

To Daniela’s left was a compact man in a tweed suit and green tie, who introduced himself as Patrick Bodenheimer. He was a botany professor at Sydney University and wore an iris in his buttonhole. Next to him was Mirabella’s Uncle Dominic. He wore a flashy tie, shiny shirt (greenish, the colour of nausea), slicked-back hair and a fog of aftershave.

‘How are you, sugar?’ he asked, winking at Clem from across the table. She turned her back to him, casting around the room to see where Jason was seated, and saw Amanda lowering herself into a chair at the sapphire table.

After the entrée the best man made a rousing speech. He was followed by Amanda Ceravic. Clem’s heart seized at the sight of her. Amanda’s voice tinkled like expensive jewellery. She said that Mirabella, in her infinite generosity, had asked that, since the couple was already so blessed, people should consider donating to a charitable trust in lieu of a gift. Clementine looked at the trestle table piled high with professionally-wrapped presents and thought that Mirabella was leaving her plea for philanthropy rather too late. However, the assembly met the request with modest applause as Amanda returned to her seat. Clem craned her neck. The chair beside Amanda was empty.

‘I’d like to show her my endowment.’ Uncle Dominic winked at the powder-blue man from across the table. The powder-puff gave a low wolf whistle. This carried on for five more minutes, with talk of them wanting to invest in Amanda’s assets, et cetera, et cetera.

‘Excuse me.’ Clementine stood and headed for the ladies’ room.

‘Clementine!’ Someone grabbed her arm. ‘I have to speak with you.’ It was Jason.

‘I can’t,’ she said, searching for Amanda out of the corner of her eye, and freeing herself from his grasp. ‘What if someone sees?’

‘It’s important.’ He looked at her pleadingly.

‘Not here,’ she whispered.

‘Okay, okay, come on.’ He took her hand and pulled her through a side door into a parking lot. The building was shrouded in trees. Standing by the exit they were hidden from view by manicured topiary bushes.

‘God, I’ve missed you,’ he said, falling onto her in an embrace. His hand slid into her hair and angled her face up toward his. She squeezed her eyes shut.

‘Jason, stop it,’ Clementine said, icily. ‘Your wife is inside.’

She tried to squirm out of his grip, but he held her tight. He kissed her neck. The night air was cold on her skin, and the touch of his lips against her collarbone was electric.

‘It’s over,’ he pleaded. ‘I swear. I’m only keeping up appearances for the wedding.’

‘No’ — she tore herself away — ‘I can’t.’

She pulled at the door, but it wouldn’t open, so she had to go back through the front entrance. Barging to the back of the room, she burst into the ladies’ where she locked herself in a cubicle. She wanted to cry.

Leaning against the stall wall, she took deep breaths. It felt as though her rib cage was shrinking and crushing her lungs. Swearing quietly, she tried to remember what she told her clients to do in similar situations. She took two more heaving breaths. After a few minutes she was ready to return to the table. She pushed open the cubical door roughly and stormed out.

‘Oh!’ Amanda Ceravic was startled. She had been leaning into the mirror re-applying some lip gloss. She looked at Clementine, but didn’t say anything.

‘Sorry,’ Clem mumbled, and ran some cold water over her hands. Amanda kept staring. Clementine dried her hands, then inspected her face. It was flushed. She dabbed her eyes with a wet hand-towel and tried to ignore Amanda, who was still watching her reflection.

‘Do I know you?’ Amanda asked, arching a perfect eyebrow.

Clementine gulped.

‘You look familiar,’ Amanda said slowly. Clem held her gaze, terrified. Could she see his fingerprints on her skin? Could she smell her husband’s cologne lingering in her hair? Clementine took a step backwards.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t know. Perhaps you recognise me from the engagement party?’ she lied. She hadn’t gone — it was yet another event that had been sacrificed for a night with Jason. Guilt burned in the pit of her stomach. She put her hand to her cheek to hide the blush.

‘Perhaps.’ Amanda sounded unconvinced. ‘I never forget a face, though.’ She turned away from the mirror to look directly at Clementine. ‘How do you know the bride?’ she demanded.

‘High school,’ Clem squared her shoulders, but her mouth was dry.

Amanda took a step toward her. Up close she was even more beautiful than Clementine had first thought. Her blue eyes had a remarkable lilac tint that was both mesmerising and unsettling. Or perhaps that was just her expression as she looked down at Clementine. Her lip was curled ever so slightly into the most lady-like of sneers.

‘You
do
know me. I saw you looking at me and my husband before. I’ll figure it out,’ Amanda stated flatly. Clem’s pulse skipped to double time. But then Amanda softened. ‘I’m a journalist — it’s my job to remember people,’ she teased, smiling.

Clementine smiled back, stiffly. ‘Well, I’d better be getting back to my table,’ she said, and left before Amanda had the chance to reply.

She was rushing to her table when she collided with someone.

‘Clem!’ She looked up.

‘Jason—’

‘Why did you run off like that?’

‘I—’

‘Clem?’ Amanda was behind them. ‘Do you two know each other?’

Clementine opened her mouth to deny it, but nothing came out. Jason was paralysed, too. They were like a pair of possums caught in the headlight of Amanda’s stare.

‘Well, I, eh …’ Jason stammered.

The realisation hit his wife. She raised a finger and opened her mouth. Time seemed to slow down, as it did before a violent crash in a film.

In a flash a tall blond man appeared by Clementine’s side. ‘Darling,’ he said, throwing an arm around her waist, ‘I just sent Jason to get you. I’ve been looking everywhere.’ He smiled at her and winked. Then he turned to Amanda. ‘Mandy, I see you’ve met my beautiful new girlfriend, Clementine.’ He gently pushed her forward by way of introduction.

‘Clementine?’ Amanda said suspiciously, as if she didn’t believe this was her name. ‘Damon, I had no idea you were seeing someone.’ She paused. ‘Why aren’t you sitting together?’

‘We haven’t been seeing each other very long,’ Clem blurted. ‘Mirabella didn’t know we were an item.’

Amanda put her hands on her hips. The father of the groom clinked his glass with his fork to announce the next round of speeches.

‘We had better sit down,’ Jason said, putting a hand on Damon and Amanda so as to herd them to the safety of the sapphire table.

‘Come and visit us after the last speech, darling,’ Damon said. Then he took Clementine by the shoulders, pulled her to him and kissed her firmly on the mouth.

‘Damon!’ Jason cried. Everyone turned to look at him. ‘Um, have a little decorum, will you?’ Then they returned to the sapphire table.

‘Wow! Who was that?’ Daniela asked when Clem sat down.

‘His name is Damon,’ she said, touching her lips. ‘It’s a long story.’

‘Ha! Clem and Damon? If you two were a celebrity couple they’d call you Clemon.’

‘No danger of that,’ Clementine said as she gratefully reached for the pear tart waiting for her on the table.

Chapter 2 Annabel
 

Annabel counted four sets of silicone breasts at her table of twelve. All were sprayed an unconvincing brick colour. They were matched with equally fake dye jobs in Swedish blonde, beach blonde, honey and platinum. She could practically recite the colour numbers: 101, 102, 107 … During her modelling years she had been them all. From ash to ebony, and everything in between. The uniform look of the women at her table was finished with Botox lips and a shellacking of gloss. They were talking about teeth-capping or teeth-whitening or something. Annabel sighed and stole the pear tart her neighbour had deserted, thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’

She used to love weddings. It was like being part of someone’s own personal fairy-tale. Boy meets girl. Boy finds the courage to send girl text message. Boy and girl have extravagant wedding and live happily ever after in Willoughby. And then there are the outfits: elegant Aurelio Costarella cocktail dresses, sweeping Jayson Brunsdon gowns, conceptual Ellery garments. Corsets so tight they make your eyes water. Shoes finer than Cinderella’s, purchased by women hoping for a happy ending of their own.

But this wedding represented something completely different.

‘I heard the dress cost $24,000,’ said one of the women.

‘No?!’

‘Yes! The lacework was all done by hand.’

Annabel swivelled in her chair to get another look at the bride. Mirabella had swapped the veil she had worn at the church for a tiara, and was holding court with an older gentleman in a military jacket and the man who reads the six o’clock news. Her crimson lips were the same colour as her hair. She caught Annabel’s eye, then looked quickly away. Mirabella Burbage-Jones didn’t like Annabel, and Annabel didn’t like Mirabella Burbage-Jones. But she had introduced the bride and groom, which apparently was worth a free plate of salmon.

‘You know who could use some lipo,’ said one of the half-silicone perma-babes on Annabel’s table. She nodded in the direction of the groom.

Humphrey Harrison McRae was affectionately known as Humpty because of his resemblance to the nursery-rhyme egg. He had a very big heart, but his generosity was prone to exploitation. Mirabella was the latest in a long line of millionaire-wannabes he picked up at places like Marble Bar and The Ivy, where they stuck to him like lint.

‘My Humpty is so clever,’ Mirabella would purr at every public opportunity, as she played with the ropes of pearls around her neck. Annabel was trying to believe that Mirabella truly cared for him. Humpty deserved love, which is why it infuriated her to hear the buzzards on the ruby table being so cruel behind his back.

‘He is lucky to have her,’ they said, picking all of the interesting bits off their food and eating the calorie-light bases.

‘She knows what she’s doing. She’s set for life now.’

‘She’s much better off now than when she was with that
teacher
.’

‘Did you see the difference in him since she’s been in the picture? The new haircut, the cologne … Let’s hope he doesn’t blow it.’

‘Ssh! Ssh!’ They hit each other with acrylic fingernails as he approached.

Humpty settled himself next to Annabel, beaming. Mirabella was swanning around the dance floor in her Chantilly lace, her champagne glass proffered in a sustained toast to herself, shouting things like ‘Daah-ling, have you met the Devlins?’ and ‘Oh, you must come to our summer house when it gets warmer — there’s plenty of room.’

He watched for a moment, the pride plain on his face, before turning to Annabel.

‘Annabel, the most beautiful woman in the room … ah, I m-mean the second most beautiful, of course.’

‘Well done, Humpty.’ She leaned over and gave him a kiss. ‘I hope you’re very happy together.’

He gave a satisfied sigh, then shuffled around to face her with a furrowed brow. ‘What about you? You look a bit forlorn. How’s your love life?’

‘Oh, you know me.’ She looked over his shoulder at the room full of men.

‘Don’t worry.’ Humpty pressed her knee gently. ‘He’s not here.’

She smiled weakly. ‘Thank you. You used to be such good friends—’

One of the perma-babes interrupted their conversation.

‘I haven’t seen you in any of the magazines for a while, Annabel,’ Veronica Bowers said. ‘Not modelling any more? It’s hard when your looks go, isn’t it?’ She screwed up her face like a squirrel that had bitten into something sour.

‘I’m in PR now, actually,’ Annabel said. ‘I run my own business.’

‘Aw,’ Veronica made a sympathetic noise. ‘Is that why you haven’t had time to find a husband?’

Annabel gave her an acid smile, then put a forkful of pear tart into her mouth to stop herself from saying something she’d regret.

‘Annabel’s business is her one true love,’ Humpty said, coming to the rescue.

Sweet Success was regarded as a rising star in the public relations world.

‘I work an eighty-hour week and it’s still less trouble than a man,’ Annabel said.

‘Well,’ said Veronica, standing, ‘look at
you
.’

Humpty leaned towards Annabel and lowered his voice. ‘Speaking of trouble, any word from—’

‘No.’ She reached for her wine glass. ‘I haven’t heard a peep out of Hunter since Christmas.’

‘Good.’

Hunter had been her only serious boyfriend. When they met she could tell he was not like all the others. Usually men would see her, lock onto their target, and charge over to attempt to sweep her off her feet. They were traders and she was just another commodity. They never asked her about herself. They just dropped their stats and made her an offer. Kyle, stockbroker, six foot two, thirty-four, $200k; Brenton, financial analyst, six foot four, thirty-six, $255k. They saw her as a trophy, and wanted to prove they were alpha-male enough to deserve something blonde and leggy. Hunter — Daniel Hunter, but everyone called him Hunter — had seemed different. At dinner parties he bragged about her career: the travel, the magazines shoots, the celebrities. But when she left modelling and her business started to take off, she noticed a change in his attitude. If she came home late after a long day he would be short-tempered and withdrawn, like a neglected animal.

‘What’s for dinner?’ he would ask, even though Annabel could hardly pour milk onto cereal without setting off the fire alarm.

Annabel quickly learned to tread carefully when he was in these moods. She would set her keys down and speak in an even tone. Like when you are backing away from a large dog baring its fangs: ‘There boy, good boy.’

‘Oh, Hunter,’ she’d say with as much breeziness as she could muster, ‘I wasn’t sure whether you had eaten. I’ll order something, shall I?’

That’s how she dealt with angry clients: don’t apologise, offer a solution.

At this point he would either slink off, because he had already had a steak at the Harbour Club, or he would pick a fight.

It got to the point that she felt nervous when she rode up the elevator at night. Walking into the hallway was like stepping into a lion’s den. He had a trip-wire temper. One false step and he would come at her: ‘Where have you been?’

If there was an empty Scotch glass on the kitchen bench, she knew she was in for a hard night.

He never hit her, he just got angry. Very angry. His growls would make the blood run cold in her veins.

It was her first big account that pushed him over the edge.

Annabel was flipping through the Sunday paper when she saw an article about a family-owned chain of bakeries called Rustica that was rumoured to be developing a line of supermarket products. The idea for the brand strategy came to her immediately. She called Rustica and asked to meet with them. The only slot they had available was Friday afternoon. It didn’t give her much time, but she agreed. Then she called her staff in for an emergency meeting. Her team was made up of a graduate named Ant, who wore braces and bow ties with precision, and the pragmatic Kathy, who had jumped ship from a fashion group that had given her an eating disorder.

They planned and drafted for hours. They were still at it at midnight.

‘Go home,’ Annabel told them, grateful to have found such dedicated souls. She worked for another two hours before heading off for a catnap and a shower. She returned at 6am with a fully-loaded carry tray from Esspressino.

By Wednesday night it began to look as though the pitch was coming together.

At 8.30pm Hunter called and asked if she would be free for a late-night supper at Longrain. He sounded sincere when he apologised for shouting at her earlier about her work hours.

‘Okay. That’s a nice idea,’ Annabel said, thinking: ‘I have been working late a lot. Perhaps if we made more time for each other, things will go back to the way they used to be.’

She slid her notes into her Prada bag. For the first time in a long while she was feeling good. But the traffic was surprisingly heavy for late on a Wednesday. ‘Perhaps try looping around Sussex Street,’ she tapped on the plastic protection shield that encased her taxi driver.

‘But then we will have to backtrack.’

‘Please, can we try? I’m going to be late.’

He changed lanes to do a U-turn. The light turned red. Annabel clenched her jaw.

‘Traffic is sometimes bad,’ she told herself. ‘He can’t blame you for that.’

As they neared the restaurant, the traffic grew more dense. Annabel considered climbing out and walking, but she had two large portfolios and a laptop with her.

‘Can we get through that laneway up ahead?’ She unclipped her belt and leaned forward.

‘No, miss. One way only.’

She bit her thumb nail and tried to harden her heart. She could feel her muscles tense, like her own protective shield going up around her.

Finally, finally they arrived at Longrain. Annabel looked at her watch: 10.05. Five minutes late.

Hunter was sitting at their favourite table with a bottle of rosé.

‘I’m sorry to keep you waiting—’ she began as she approached.

He pointed to his watch, but he was smiling. There was a long blue Tiffany’s box waiting at Annabel’s place setting. It was his apology. He stood up and leaned in for a kiss. She offered her cheek, but he took her face in his hands and pulled her lips to his.

‘No,
I’m
sorry,’ he said. ‘I know I’ve been a bit testy lately. It’s just that … I miss you. I’m really very proud of what you’re doing.’

The unexpected sincerity, coupled with Annabel’s exhaustion, loosened her armour.

‘Am I forgiven?’ he asked, squeezing her hand.

‘Yes.’ She put her arms around him and held him tight. As he hugged back, she felt her protective plates fall away. The beast was gone. Hunter had returned.

‘I hope you can still come to the Business Excellence Awards on Friday night,’ he said when their meals arrived. ‘I’m afraid it will be a bit of a bore, but there are a lot of wheels that need greasing if I want this promotion, and I could really use you by my side.’

She reached across the table and pressed his hand. ‘Of course.’

After the meal she felt revitalised. Part of her wanted to go back to the office and keep working. Instead she went home and made love to Hunter. It was the last time she slept before her meeting on Friday.

Rustica owner Peter Lombardi had white hair and a snowy colonel’s moustache. He looked like he belonged on a pizza box under bubble-script that read
Papa Giuseppe’s Pizza
. But he was a shrewd business man.

‘The Rustica bakery chain has never had the need for a PR service,’ he told Annabel. ‘I agreed to meet with you only because of your reputation.’

When her half-hour presentation was over, he was frowning.

‘It’s bold,’ she admitted, fanning out the designs for an ultra-modern packaging concept. ‘I just think the Italian farmhouse look has been overdone. And with a name like “Rustica” it’s what everyone would be expecting.’

After a long pause, he chuckled and shook his head.

‘I love it,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘I absolutely love it! I’m going to ask my son Phillip to call you on Monday. I’d like to get things moving right away.’

‘Of course,’ she smiled.

‘I’m very impressed, Ms Summers.’

On the way back to the office, Annabel picked up a bottle of champagne.

‘We got it!’ she shouted as she walked through the door, holding up the bubbles in victory. Kathy and Ant cheered, while Kathy fetched coffee mugs for the champagne.

‘Soon we’ll be able to buy proper champagne flutes,’ she said.

‘Start without me, there’s just one more thing I have to do,’ Annabel told them.

She went to her desk and quickly drafted a press release.

‘Stop working for five minutes and enjoy your success,’ said Kathy, handing her some champagne in a ‘World’s Best Boss’ mug.

‘You deserve a Nobel Prize in public relations,’ Ant declared. ‘Or a PR Emmy!’ Then he turned to Kathy. ‘Do they have PR awards?’

‘Awards …’ Annabel murmured. She had a feeling she had forgotten something. Then it hit her. ‘AWARDS! I have to go!’

‘What? Where?’ Ant’s face fell.

‘I promised Hunter I’d go to an awards night with him. Shit-shit-shit.’ She called a cab, while scooping up her handbag and pulling on her jacket. ‘Shit!’

Annabel asked the cab driver to wait outside their penthouse while she bolted upstairs and changed into her black Kate Sylvester dress. She didn’t have time to freshen her makeup or do her hair. Back in the car she pulled out her bun and tried to coax her mane into sitting flat.

‘Please hurry,’ she told the driver. ‘Please, please hurry.’

She saw Hunter almost as soon as she arrived at the awards ceremony. He was sitting at a table next to an empty seat. Annabel could tell he was furious. When he saw her, he shook his head. She slipped in quietly next to him. He looked her over and said through clenched teeth: ‘At the very least you could have made an effort with your appearance.’

She smiled back tightly, so as not to cause a scene.

‘I’m sorry. I got held up at work,’ she leaned over and whispered.

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