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Authors: Genevieve Gannon

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance

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BOOK: Husband Hunters
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It had never been her style to make waves. When makeup artists talked loudly about how to correct her greasy hair or sallow skin, she had always sat quietly. And Hunter. She had let him shout and intimidate her, all the time thinking that he was smarter. That he knew better. But this was not right. Jason had tricked Clem and he had just shown Annabel it had all been for the sake of a conquest. He had crushed her heart for sport.

I can’t let him get away with it, Annabel thought and charged outside.

In three steps she was behind him. She tapped his shoulder with short, sharp pokes. He turned and half-smiled. ‘Can I help you?’

Annabel felt a calm settle over her. She knew what to do.

‘I saw you looking at me, so I decided to come and introduce myself.’ She pulled her lips into a smirk.

Jason’s half-smile grew. He looked at the ground in an act of faux shyness, then raised his eyes. Annabel knew that trick. Clementine never had a chance.

‘Did you now?’

‘Yes, I thought I had better make myself known to you.’ Annabel stuck her hand out. ‘My name is Annabel Summers.’

He took her hand in his, but instead of shaking it, he held it, pressing it slightly. ‘Annabel.’

‘Yes,’ she smiled coyly. ‘My PR company has done a few jobs with your wife, Amanda.’

This was a lie, but she wanted to scare him. She saw a momentary flash of panic cross his face, but he righted it and changed tack.

‘Have you? Lucky you,’ he said, regaining his composure. He let go of her hand.

‘For a moment there I thought you were flirting with me,’ she said, keeping her voice playful.

Annabel saw that flash again, deep in his eyes. It was like a shadow drifting across the sun; an instant of fear that he had been caught out. He affected charm. ‘Now what would make you think that?’ he smiled again, but this time it was more guarded.

She looked to the man in tweed to Jason’s left, cleared her throat and spoke up.

‘Well, my friend Clementine Crosley told me you’re quite the ladies man.’ The men murmuring around them paused their conversations to listen.

Jason shifted. ‘Clementine?’

‘Yes, my dear friend Clementine. She’s inside. She warned me about you.’ Annabel waved her finger at him. She kept smiling, though. She wanted to keep him guessing.

The man in tweed smothered a grin with a sip of his martini.

Jason laughed dryly. ‘Clementine. She is a feisty one.’

‘She certainly is.’

Annabel took a step forward. Jason inched backwards. She cupped her hand to his ear and whispered: ‘I’d be very careful if I were you. I know every major food company in the city. If I was launching a food transportation logistics business, I’d watch who I upset.’

She turned on her heel and walked away. Her heart was bashing into her ribs. She collected a cocktail and drank quickly. She felt jittery. A trickle of margarita dribbled down her shirt-front.

‘Oh sugar,’ she ducked into the bathroom. She dabbed the spot and dried her hands, then stumbled back to the party. She jumped. Jason was in the passageway.

He still held his cigar by his side. A red ember burned in the dark. It dropped ash onto the carpet. His face was concealed, draped in shadow. Annabel’s chest tightened the way it used to when she was late coming home to Hunter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have provoked him, she thought.

But when he spoke, his voice was tense, soft and fearful.

‘You won’t—’ He cleared his throat and stepped into the light. He squinted. ‘Please, don’t say anything about the aff— About Clementine.’

‘Jason?’ A man’s voice followed them down the hallway. ‘Jason, what are you doing? You’ve had too much to drink, come back to the garden.’

It was the man in tweed.

‘Hang on, Patrick,’ Jason said. Annabel’s memory clicked: He’d been sitting with Belinda and Clementine at Mirabella’s wedding. She smiled faintly at him. He nodded.

Instead of leaving, Patrick advanced, still clutching his martini. He used it like a traffic warden’s baton to try to shoo Jason back to the grassed area. ‘Come on,’ he had a reassuring voice. Like a doctor. Or a kindly police sergeant.

‘In a minute,’ Jason said, without removing his gaze from Annabel.

Patrick looked to her for guidance. ‘It’s alright,’ she told him. The anger coursing through her was subsiding, leaving a residue of pity. The fear was gone.

She already knew she wasn’t going to say anything. Of course she wasn’t. Still, she hated him for his public show of innocence. She had wanted to strike at him, to leave him fretting.

Instead, she clenched her teeth and said no. ‘No, I won’t say anything.’

Jason’s face relaxed. He breathed out and nodded. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I don’t want my wife to find out.’

Anger blazed in Annabel’s chest. He didn’t care about Clementine. He was worried about his own skin.

He touched her arm — a gesture of thanks. For a second she lost her composure. She grabbed Patrick’s martini and threw it over Jason. Jason gaped, blinking through wet eyelashes. Then he slinked away.

‘Thanks,’ Annabel handed Patrick’s glass back to him.

‘For what?’

‘For coming to rescue me.’

Behind his glasses, his eyes were twinkling with amusement. ‘I would never make the mistake of thinking you needed rescuing,’ he said.

He was an unusual-looking man. Bookish and not very tall, yet lean. Annabel laughed, intoxicated by what she had just done.

‘Now,’ Patrick took her arm, ‘I believe you owe me a martini.’

Chapter 6 Daniela
 

There were two specimens: a larger one with a mane of blond curls combed back over his head, and a shorter, darker one with a furry face. Daniela had tracked them from the patio to the dessert table where they were grazing on trifle. Her ears were cocked forward like a dingo stalking prey. She was trying to catch what they were saying. She needed a chance to interject, like Annabel had instructed.

‘A quick interruption is a great way to start conversations with men you don’t know,’ Annabel had lectured over marinated octopus at Pucci. ‘Say they’re debating whether to buy red wine or white, all you have to do is say “rosé” and you’ve got an opening.’

Dani had first spotted them out by the pond, casually drinking. She had moved closer and heard them talking about fibre optics — something she knew nothing about. She lay in wait as they moved to the patio.

‘How’s your naked DSL?’ the taller one asked.

‘Good, mate,’ said the shorter.

Still not a subject Dani could talk about. She kept her head down as they walked inside to discuss hockey.

Come on, come on, she thought. Switch to rugby, or even AFL, something I know something about. She shadowed them as they moved towards the cakes.

‘I’m thinking of buying a boat.’

No.

‘I’ve got to replace my tow-bar.’

Boring.

‘Can you give me the name of that podiatrist you saw?’ the darker one said. ‘I need someone to look at my feet.’

That’ll do. Daniela pounced.

‘I have feet.’

Mannaggia!

The targets turned to look at her. She felt herself shrink.

‘I mean, I know a good podiatrist,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just overheard—’ She had no idea what she was saying, all she could think was she didn’t know a good podiatrist. ‘Um …’ she stammered. ‘Daniela—’ She stuck her hand out.

‘Daniela’s the podiatrist?’ the blond asked.

‘No, ha, I am.’

Inside Dani’s head, Clementine was yelling at her. Annabel was sympathetically shaking her head. But the bucks each extended a hand for her to shake.

‘Roger,’ said the first.

‘Paul,’ said the second.

Daniela’s eye travelled to their hands. Two gold bands were locked around their wedding fingers. Damn. These two were already in captivity.

‘Sorry,’ she said, shaking each hand. ‘I just remembered: Dr Smith relocated to Melbourne.’

‘Oh,’ said the blond. Then they scampered away.

Dani gathered up a handful of strawberries and ate them as she strolled around the Vaucluse party. She had failed the first husband-hunting task. She hadn’t spoken to one single
single
man all night. Outside, James was circulating with a profiterole tower. She watched him pluck one for himself and bite into it. It had been a stupid idea to attempt husband-hunting at his party anyway, she thought.

An hour later the crowd had thinned out. James was weaving between guests collecting paper plates and glasses. Daniela picked up some empty platters and took them to the kitchen. She watched James fill his arms with champagne bottles under the porch light. She found garbage bags in one of the drawers and took one out to him. He looked up and smiled.

‘Did you have a good night?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘I thought there’d be more people from work here, though.’

‘Um. Yeah. I decided not to invite anyone else.’

He picked up two cans of beer with one hand. One slipped. The dregs spilled on his shoes, making him swear under his breath.

‘Your friends both cleared out pretty early. You don’t mind them ditching you for men?’

‘They didn’t ditch me,’ she said.

‘You weren’t tempted to disappear with someone yourself?’

There was an unusual tone to James’s voice. Daniela picked up some paper plates sandwiched together with salmon dip.

‘No. What about you? No one of interest here for you tonight?’

He bent to pick up the bottles that had skittered onto the lawn. There were now only two people left with them outside, a man and woman, talking closely to each other. She was towering over him in heels. He lifted his finger and stroked the soft underside of her chin. James stood and looked at them.

‘I was surprised you brought your friends,’ he said.

‘Oh, I thought—’

‘It’s fine,’ he waved his hand.

‘You said the more the merrier—’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said. ‘I just thought … never mind. Thanks for helping me clean up. You didn’t have to.’ He took the bulging bag of bottles inside.

The effect of the night’s early drinks had worn off and Daniela was wide awake. She had an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach, as though she had swallowed something large and indigestible. Like an exhaust pipe.

When she got home, Simon was on the couch watching a World Cup re-run. The skeletal remains of a pizza lay in an open box on the coffee table.

‘Another fight with Liz?’ Dani asked.

‘I do live here, too, you know,’ he wailed in protest. ‘Can’t a man spend his Saturday night on his own couch in his own home?’

Daniela raised her eyebrows.

‘Yeah, she kicked me out.’

At first Gia had been horrified at the idea of Daniela living with a man out of wedlock. But she came around to the idea. She quite liked that there was someone strong around the house to protect her daughter from rapists and energy salesmen, and Daniela suspected her mother secretly hoped the relationship with Simon would develop into something more. She even caught Gia talking to her friends about ‘the lovely couch Daniela and Simon have’, perhaps to head off any judgement or pity they may have felt towards her for raising an un-marryable daughter.

The arrangement suited Dani, because it allowed her to save for a house deposit. Her picture of marriage wasn’t a steak-or-chicken dinner reception for two hundred people; it was her lying on a mattress with her husband in a completely unfurnished house, the floorboards stripped and the walls half-painted. They would both be wearing paint-spattered clothes, eating takeaways because the oven hadn’t arrived yet, drinking beer and listening to The Kinks.

When she was twelve years old her pa had bought her a Victorian-style dolls’ house, which she had duly remodelled using balsa wood and supermarket glue. Gia had yelled at her for ruining the gift. But Vincenzo had calmed Gia down until she contented herself with the idea that Dani’s desire to redecorate was a symptom of a domestic temperament. From a young age Daniela had preferred her brother’s Lego sets, Meccano and trucks to the dolls she was given. No doubt it was the moment Dani embraced the dolls’ house that Gia had begun to nurse fantasies of a house full of brown-eyed granddaughters. She even donated an old cameo brooch to act as a picture for one of the walls, and some foil chocolate moulds that Dani put in the kitchen to play the part of pots and pans.

She loved that house and collected miniature furnishings wherever she went. Garden sticks and flowers were potted in thimbles and turned into houseplants. A pretty duck-egg blue teacup became a spa for the bathroom. She made plasticine models of items she dreamed up but couldn’t get her hands on. All the while she planned what her real house would look like when she had her own family. This was the fantasy Simon’s rent was helping her achieve.

He spent most weekends at his girlfriend Liz’s house. Unfortunately, they seemed to be having problems, so Daniela was seeing more and more of him.

‘What did you do?’ she asked Simon. He had a thicket of very dark curls and wore black-framed glasses.

‘Why do you assume it was me?’ he said, wounded. He scratched one of his legs with a pizza crust.

‘Women’s intuition.’

He folded his arms. ‘She got upset because I said I wanted to sleep with someone else.’

‘Simon!’

‘She tricked me! We were talking about fantasies. She asked me if I ever thought about having a threesome. I thought maybe she’d be up for it, so I said it had crossed my mind once or twice. She asked me what type of women I fantasised about doing it with. I said nobody in particular. But she pressed me and I said, well, I’ve always been quite curious about Latino women. I’ve never been with one, and generally I find them quite attractive. Very sexy. She got all huffy because she’s clearly not Latino. Told me I should rack off to South America. Then we had a big row. I told her a thousand times that she was the only woman I wanted. Anyway, I thought we’d sorted it out. But then tonight, when I suggested we pick up some Mexican, she flew off the handle.’

Daniela felt a bit sorry for Simon. While she was sure the argument had been more nuanced than his retelling, it did sound as though Liz was being a touch unreasonable. On the other hand, he should have known better than to admit to noticing that women existed outside of his girlfriend. Particularly since Liz, with her wild blonde hair, big teeth and bony hips, was rather jealous and demonstrably non-Latino in appearance.

‘I don’t know, I really like Liz but I feel like I’m under attack all the time. Like I can’t do anything right.’

Dani reached for a piece of cheesy crust. But then Simon started scratching his toes with the pizza rind in his hand, and she thought better of it.

‘She’ll get over it,’ she said.

‘Then what? Am I going to put up with this for the rest of my life? Scared to say anything in case it gets me in trouble?’

‘This is an easy one,’ Dani told him. ‘She just wants to feel desired. She wanted to talk to you about fantasies, and then got jealous when another woman came up.’

Simon hollered: ‘But there is no other—’

‘I know, I know,’ she tried to calm him. ‘But some women can be very sensitive about sex and their desirability. Just let her know that she’s the one who drives you crazy.’

‘She drives me crazy alright.’

Dani went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. The irony of giving love advice to her flatmate before heading to her cold bed alone was not lost on her. When she walked back through the lounge room, Simon had forgotten his pizza-crust play-toy and the TV, and was hunched over his laptop searching the internet for vintage clothing patterns for lingerie. Dani smiled. His choice was perfect. Liz — who made her own clothes — would love it.

‘Good idea,’ she nodded encouragingly.

In bed she sent a text to Clementine and Annabel:
Brunch tomorrow? The Bourke Street Bakery in Surry Hills?

She woke to two enthusiastic replies.

The Bourke Street Bakery was a Sydney institution. Its unassuming brick shopfront was always being mobbed by young artsy types and fashionable couples carrying babies shod in organic cotton booties. The few precious tables on the footpath practically required property-ownership titles.

Miraculously, a family was leaving just as Daniela, Clementine and Annabel arrived.

‘Quick!’ Clementine shouted and pointed. Dani dived onto one of the stools and flung her jacket across another, saving it.

‘I’ll get the food, you guard the table,’ said Annabel judiciously.

She returned ten minutes later with a tray laden with pastries.

‘Thank heavens for small mercies after last night,’ said Clementine.

‘Mine was a disaster, too,’ sighed Annabel.

‘I can’t believe I ran into Jason. After what he did, I feel like he should be behind bars,’ Clementine reached for a plain croissant before changing her mind and picking up a chocolate-filled one. ‘Sometimes I fantasise about him being tried in court. I picture prosecutors in wigs itemising his crimes. Fraud, obtaining goods through deception, grievous emotional harm. Then the judge locks him up and awards me his Saab as punitive damages.’

Annabel was watching Clem closely. ‘So, you definitely don’t care about him any more?’ she asked. ‘You’re going to move on?’

‘Definitely,’ Clem nodded. This seemed to make Annabel happy. Dani searched her face. She had seen Annabel talking to Jason at the party. Twice. Why was she so concerned?

‘Well, my experiment failed,’ Annabel said. She held a coffee in one hand and a crescent-shaped pastry in the other.

‘What about that university professor you were talking to — Peter?’ said Dani.

‘Patrick.’

‘He seemed nice.’

‘Yes,’ Annabel said slowly. ‘He’s very interesting. And sweet.’

‘A potential target?’

‘No, gosh, no. He’s not marriage material.’

‘How did you end up, Dani?’ Clementine asked.

‘Yeah, why were you texting at two-thirty?’ Annabel asked. ‘Did you get lucky?’

‘And by “lucky” she means did a handsome architect ask you out to dinner?’

‘Oh no, I just hung around and helped James clean up.’

Annabel and Clementine looked at each other.

‘What?’

‘Firstly,’ Annabel pointed her fork at Daniela, ‘you obviously like each other.’

An uncomfortable thought squirmed to the surface of Dani’s consciousness. It was something she had asked herself over and over since uni. Why didn’t he want to be with her?

‘We’re just friends,’ she said. The friends sitting opposite her did not look convinced. Daniela picked at her pain au chocolat.

‘You should husband-hunt him.’ Annabel grabbed her arm. ‘He’d be perfect. That’s what this’— she used her fork to gesture at their little gathering — ‘is all about.’

‘We could help you,’ Clementine said encouragingly. ‘It’s been fifteen years since—’

‘He’s not interested in me,’ Daniela said. ‘Please can we … can we not talk about it.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Annabel. ‘You two seemed pretty cosy.’

‘Exactly, I’m like a comfortable old pair of jeans. Men always just see me as a friend.’

Dani gave Annabel a warning look. Sometimes her friend forgot they weren’t all ex-cover girls. Having men tumble to their knees as they passed was not the experience of most women.

‘Okay,’ said Clementine. ‘The party didn’t turn out as we’d planned. I, for one, would really love to go somewhere I’m not likely to run into Jason. I think we should hit the city next Friday night. The financial district. We need to track the men in their natural habitat.’

BOOK: Husband Hunters
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