He asked carefully, ‘So, in light of the fact that you’d signed up with Leviathan Solutions, I’m a little curious as to why you seemed so eager to leave it after your first date?’
He saw how her whole body stiffened at that question. She turned around slowly, after putting the book she’d been looking at back on the shelf. He saw her clear reluctance to speak on her face and it fascinated him—he was used to women who had injected so much filler that they couldn’t emote more than a tense smile.
After a long moment when he thought she was going to deflect his question, she said tightly, ‘The truth is that I had no desire to join a dating agency. Someone decided to do it on my behalf.’
Ben’s curiosity shot up, but he schooled his expression. ‘Who would do such a thing?’
She sighed and came and sat down. Every move she made exuded that effortless casual elegance, even when she was tense.
She put her cup down and looked at Ben. ‘It was my father’s idea. He’s old-fashioned, and he’s determined to see me settled.’
She shut her mouth, as if she’d said too much. Ben could see that she was tempted to fold her arms, shut him out completely. It suddenly occurred to him as he took in her vaguely tortured expression...and when he recalled her reaction to, and subsequent tension during the charity auction...that she might actually be shy.
He leant forward. ‘I know you’re not gay—not after that kiss we shared... So what is it, Lia? Why don’t you want to date?’
She stood up again, agitated, and moved back over to the shelves, turning to face him. ‘Is it so hard to believe that a woman might not want her life to revolve around a man? That she might have ambitions of her own? In case you hadn’t heard, a revolution was fought and won a long time ago.’
Ben sat back, more and more intrigued by these buttons he was pushing. He drawled, ‘I’m no misogynist, Lia, and some would say there’s still a fight to be fought. But people—women in particular—can multitask, dating and working at the same time.’
Now she flushed. ‘I know that.’ She wrapped her arms around herself. ‘I just... My father shouldn’t have done that. Not after—’
She broke off abruptly and Ben sat forward again. ‘After what?’
She glanced away, her jaw tight. When she looked at him again after a moment, she said, ‘Well, it’s not as if you couldn’t find out easily enough.’ She lifted her chin. ‘I was engaged briefly. A year ago.’
‘Who was he?’ Ben asked sharply, hackles rising.
Lia came back around the couch and sat down, picking up her coffee again. ‘I met him at one of my father’s parties. He was a solicitor with a firm that my father’s legal team uses sometimes to take on extra work.’
Ben felt a surge of that same possessiveness he’d experienced when he’d seen Lia standing on that dais in front of everyone. ‘I wouldn’t have had you down as the wife of a mere lackey.’
Lia’s eyes sparked. ‘No? That just shows how much you don’t know about me, doesn’t it?’
Ben shrugged a shoulder. ‘I hardly know you, Lia, but I know you’re more than just corporate wife material. He would have stifled you to death.’ It surprised him that he did know this. And it made him wonder what on earth kind of marriage of convenience he had in mind, if not corporate.
He noticed then how she’d gone still. ‘That’s some leap to make when you hardly know me...’
Ben grimaced. ‘I owe you an apology. I was wrong about you. You’re not a princess, Lia. If you were you’d have been screaming and begging to get back to civilisation hours ago, and yet you’ve been perfectly happy here all day, looking after yourself. Esmé told me you made your lunch and cleaned up after yourself.’
She responded with a touch of wry defensiveness. ‘Making lunch and cleaning up hardly merits special congratulations. I’ve still had a more privileged upbringing than most people ever see in their lifetimes.’
‘But you’re not spoilt. Far from it.’
For a long time she said nothing, biting her lip. And then, finally, ‘No, not as you might have imagined at first. It’s been just my father and I since my parents divorced. I became his hostess from a young age and...and I think he overcompensated to make up for the separation. But I was never really comfortable with lavish gifts or things like that. Once he was happy, I was happy.’
Ben absorbed this nugget, acknowledging uncomfortably that he’d misjudged her again. He’d known Louis Ford was divorced, but not the particulars. He asked, ‘Where’s your mother now?’
Lia shrugged minutely and her face was carefully expressionless. Ben recognised it because he used that defence mechanism himself when someone asked too many questions about his past.
‘I think she’s in a Swiss château with husband number four. It’s hard to pin Estella down. I don’t see her often. When I was a teenager she would summon me periodically to whatever luxurious resort she was residing in at the time, usually when she was between husbands and in need of distraction.’
Ben felt a surge of irritation at this faceless woman, but he said lightly, ‘She sounds charming.’
Lia blinked at Ben and then put down her cup and stood up abruptly, taking him by surprise. He’d not even noticed that they’d got into a personal discussion, and he usually did his utmost to avoid straying into such territory with women.
He stood up too, just as she said, ‘It’s been a long day. I think I’ll go to bed.’
‘Of course.’ His gaze tracked her as she turned to leave the room, and then he made a split-second decision and said, ‘I thought that perhaps tomorrow I could give you a tour of Salvador. It’s a stunning city, and I’d like to make it up to you for leaving you to your own devices today.’