The Seduction Project
The Seduction Project
“You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
His sideways glance carried total exasperation. “If you think for one moment I’m going to let you back out now, then you have another think coming!”
“Yes, but if you don’t really want to....”
“Don’t want to?” he grated out. “I’m sitting here in agony, I want you so much. I’ve thought of nothing else all night!”
“Oh.” Molly was stunned, then thrilled by the dark frustration in his voice.
“Look, just in case you’re languishing under a misapprehension here,” Liam went on irritably, “it’s passion that sends men to bed with women, not compassion. I wanted you the moment I saw you.”
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The Seduction Project
TWENTY-FIVE today, Molly thought as she brushed her hair back from her high forehead and coiled its straight brown length on top of her head.
A quarter of a century.
Sighing, Molly inserted the first of six securing pins without having to look at what she was doing. She’d done her hair like this for the last few years. It was easy and practical and, above all, cheap. She needed every spare cent from her pay packet to make ends meet.
At last she glanced up into the vanity mirror and surveyed the finished product with a wry smile. There was no doubt she looked the stereotyped concept of a librarian through and through. Prim hairdo. Prissy blouse. Pleated skirt. All she needed was horn-rimmed glasses balancing on the end of her none too small nose to complete the staid image.
Molly had twenty-twenty vision, however. Which was unfortunate in some respects. How much kinder it would be, she imagined, to have a fuzzier reflection first thing every morning.
She suddenly saw herself looking in the bathroom mirror on her fiftieth birthday and nothing would have changed much, not even her hairstyle.
She would still be living at home with her mother.
She would still be plain.
And she would still be madly in love with Liam.
Her shudder was part despair, part self-disgust. For loving Liam was such a waste of time; such a waste of her life.
Molly knew he would never love her back.
She no longer clung to the teenage fantasy where Liam woke up one day and saw that his feelings for the girl next door had somehow miraculously changed overnight from platonic friendship to an all-consuming passion. By the time she turned twentyone, Molly had graduated from romantic to realist. Difficult to hold onto such a futile dream in the face of the type of girl Liam brought home with regular monotony.
‘Plain’ did not describe them. Neither did bluestocking, nor bookworm, as Molly had been labelled all her life. Liam’s girlfriends were better known for their bodies than their brains. He liked them tall and tanned, with long legs, lush breasts and hair which shimmered.
Molly told herself she had the right breasts, but nothing short of the rack was going to add four inches to her average height. And, while her hair was always clean and healthy, mousy brown just never seemed to shimmer.
So Molly had long since abandoned any romantic schoolgirl dreams when it came to Liam. Common sense told her he was a lost cause. Yet still she clung to the emotion of loving him, clung to it as a drowning man clung to the most tenuous lifeline. Why else was she living in this house which was far too big for just two people, and far too expensive?
Because Liam’s family lived next door, that was why. If Molly and her mother moved, she would never see him again. Never feel the joy—as bittersweet as it was—of having him drop in for a drink and a chat, as he did every once in a while.
Liam called her his best friend, but Molly knew she wasn’t really that. She was simply there, a convenience, a ready ear to listen and give him feedback on his latest computer game or graphic design idea.
A deep dismay momentarily filled her soul before it was abruptly banished by a surprising burst of anger. How could Liam be so blind? And so darned insensitive? And why did she have to go on wallowing in his lukewarm and highly one-sided version of their being ‘best friends’?
Best friends were supposed to share things, weren’t they? Where was the give and take in their relationship? Today was her birthday, damn it. But would he remember? Not on your nelly! The dynamic head of Ideas and Effects Pty Ltd couldn’t be expected to remember such trivia. He was far too busy running his excitingly successful business. Heck, he hardly had time to come home any more! She hadn’t sighted him since Christmas, a full two months back.
There would be no phone call. No card, let alone a present. Yet she’d shopped for hours to find him the right gift for his birthday last year. She’d even cooked him a cake!
‘Molly,’ her mother called out through the bathroom door. ‘What’s taking you so long in there? Your breakfast’s been on the table for a full five minutes.’
Breakfast that morning was a small glass of orange juice, one boiled egg, one thin slice of wholemeal toast, one teaspoon of margarine and black coffee. A big improvement on the minute bowl of cereal Molly usually ate.
Ever since her father had died of a heart attack two years before at the relatively young age of fifty-one, her mother had become obsessed with health and dietary matters. Nothing passed their lips these days that exceeded the strict fat and calorie limits which were now Ruth McCrae’s culinary bible.
This meant mealtimes held little joy for Molly, who had a chronically sweet tooth. She found it all a bit trying, yet could not deny that her once plump curves had benefited from this change of eating habits. She’d dropped two dress sizes and would now not shrink from going to the beach—if she hadn’t freckled like mad.
‘Wow!’ she exclaimed as she sat down at the kitchen table. ‘This looks really good.’
‘Well, it is your birthday, love,’ Ruth said. ‘I’m going to cook you a special dinner tonight as well.’
Molly could not help wondering what a ‘special’ dinner constituted these days. She’d bet it wasn’t baked pork with crackling and crispy roast potatoes, followed by a big chocolate cake and coffee with cream in it. ‘That’ll be nice, Mum,’ she said, and picked up her knife, ready to attack the boiled egg.
‘Aren’t you going to open your card?’ Ruth asked plaintively.
Molly could have kicked herself. She put down her knife and picked up the long white envelope propped against the fruit bowl. Inside was a sweetly sentimental card and a couple of lottery tickets which promised first prize of half a million dollars.
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t afford more,’ her mother said apologetically.
Molly glanced up with a bright smile. ‘Don’t be silly. This is great. I might win a fortune and then we could both go for a trip around the world.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. I like my home too much. But you could go, I suppose,’ she added hesitantly.
Molly could see that this idea did not sit well with her mother. Perhaps she was already regretting giving her daughter the chance—however slim—of becoming rich and possibly flying the nest.
Ruth McCrae was a naturally shy woman, who’d become even more reserved and reclusive since her husband’s death. She rarely left the house except to go shopping, and that was only down to the small local shopping centre which also housed the library branch where Molly worked. She had no close friends and lived for her house, her garden and her daughter.
Once in a while, Molly found her mother’s dependence on her stifling. But on the whole she accepted her fate without undue distress. She was, after all, her mother’s daughter, which meant she was a quiet, undemanding girl with few unsettling yearnings.
The only yearning which could disturb her dreams—as well as her equilibrium—was Liam. Even then, she’d learned to control her unrequited passion for him. Clearly, he’d never guessed what smouldered behind her cool green eyes whenever they looked upon his handsome face.
And he never would.
This realisation suddenly brought another stab of anger. But this time none of it was directed at Liam. All of it was channelled straight at herself.
You’re a fool, Molly! If it was one of your girlfriends pining after some man who was way out of their reach, you’d tell her to forget him and move on. It’s about time you took your own advice.
Forget Liam. Move on!
Molly picked her knife up again and sliced the top off her egg with one decisive stroke. That was going to be her from now on. Decisive.
And her first decision was to stop fantasising about Liam and move on!
MOLLY was standing at the library computer, running the wand over the first of the huge pile of returned books, when something caught her eye. Something bright and red.
She glanced up through the glass doors to see a shiny red car turning its brand-new nose into the empty parking space right outside the library.
It brought no flash of recognition, despite being a very memorable model. Not quite a sports car, it was still stylish and expensive-looking. A newcomer to the area, no doubt, not knowing that this particular library branch was closed to the public on a Wednesday morning.
Molly was about to return to the job at hand when the driver’s door opened and a heart-joltingly familiar head of hair came into view, gleaming golden under the summer sun.
Her heart leapt. So he had remembered her birthday. He’d even come in person. She could hardly believe it!
Her happiness knew no bounds as she watched him close the car door and stride up onto the pavement and across to the front doors. He smiled at her through the glass as he tap-tapped on the wooden frame.
‘Can’t they see we’re closed?’ Joan complained from where she was sitting at her desk, flipping through one of the new publisher catalogues. She could not see who was knocking. If she had, she would not be so anxious to send the unwanted visitor away. Joan might be a happily married thirty-three-year-old woman with three children, but she still had an eye for a good-looking man.
Liam was just that—and more. At thirty, he was in his physical prime, his elegant body in perfect tune with his equally elegant face. Six feet two inches tall, his lean frame made him look even taller, as did his choice of clothing. He had this thing for jackets, wearing them all year round.
In winter they ranged from soft suede numbers to tweedy sports coats. In summer he chose linen or lightweight wool in neutral colours, and teamed them with cool T-shirts during the day and silk shirts at night. Ties rarely graced his neck. In fact, Molly had never seen Liam dressed formally.
Today he was wearing stonewashed blue jeans, a navy T-shirt and a loose cream linen jacket with sleeves pushed up to the elbows. His streaky blond hair was longer than when she’d seen him last, falling to his ears from its side parting and flopping with its usual rakish charm across his high forehead. He looked slightly wind-blown and utterly gorgeous.
Molly immediately put her ‘moving on’ decision on hold for a good five years. Thirty, she decided anew, was soon enough to give up all hope.
The fact that Liam was standing where he was at this very moment had to give her some hope. Fancy him abandoning his precious business on a working day to drive the fifty miles from Sydney to Gosford, just to see her on her birthday.
‘For pity’s sake!’ Joan snapped when Liam knocked a second time. ‘Can’t they read? The library times are on the darned door!’
‘It’s someone I know,’ Molly said. ‘I’ll just go let him in.’
Joan jumped up from her desk. ‘But it’s almost...’ The sight of Liam’s handsome self stopped her in her tracks. ‘Mum. Yes, by all means let him in,’ she murmured, primping her glossy black waves as Molly hurried out from behind the reception desk and across the functional grey carpet.
Molly wasn’t worried that Liam would find Joan attractive. As pretty as she was, she was a married woman.
Liam believed in keeping his sex life simple.
‘One girl at a time,’ he’d once confided in Molly. ‘And never anyone else’s.’
It was a surprisingly conservative attitude in this day and age, especially coming from a man who looked like Liam, who had women throwing themselves at him all the time.
He had a similarly strict attitude to marriage. Only one per lifetime, which was why he’d always said he would not bother with marriage till he was in his thirties and financially secure. He didn’t want to make a mistake in finding his perfect partner.
‘In the meantime,’ he’d joked to her one day, ‘I’m having a lot of fun auditioning possible future candidates for the position of Mrs Liam Delaney.’
It had always terrified Molly that one of those future candidates might capture Liam’s love as well as his lust. Fortunately, that hadn’t happened, and Molly had taken heart from the failure of his various very beautiful girlfriends to last more than a few months.
But his latest was a bit of a worry. A statuesque blonde who went by the name of Roxy, she’d already lasted six months—a record for Liam. He’d even brought her home with him for the Christmas break, during which time Molly had had many opportunities to see Roxy’s physical assets. What she could do for a bikini was incomparable!
But I’m not going to think about Roxy right now, Molly told herself as she turned the key and swept open the door. Today is my birthday and my very best friend has come to celebrate it with me.
‘Liam!’ she exclaimed, smiling up into his dancing blue eyes.
‘Hi there, Moll. Sorry to interrupt. I know you’re working but I simply had to show you my new car. Picked it up this morning at one of those dealerships just the other side of Hornsby and couldn’t resist taking it for a spin. Before I knew it I was on the expressway and heading north. I was over the Hawkesbury Bridge before you could say boo, and was about to turn round when I thought, What the hell, Liam? You haven’t had a day off in ages. Drive up to Gosford and visit your mum.’
He smiled a rueful smile, showing perfect teeth and a charming dimple. ‘It wasn’t till I pulled into the driveway that I remembered today is her golf day. Took all the wind out of my sails, I can tell you. But no way was I going back to Sydney without showing someone. Naturally, I thought of you. So what do you think of it?’ And he waved in the direction of the car. ‘It’s one of the new Mazda Eunos 800s. The Miller Cycle version. Great red, isn’t it?’ he finished.
Every drop of joy drained out of Molly. Liam hadn’t come for her birthday. He’d come to show her a pathetic car. Worse, she hadn’t even been his first choice of viewer. She’d run a very poor second. As usual!
Something hard curled around her heart, setting it in concrete and trapping her love for him deep inside. Molly determined it would never see the light of day again. She glanced coldly over at the offending car and shrugged dismissively.
‘If you’ve seen one red car, Liam,’ she said coolly, ‘you’ve seen them all.’
There was no doubt he was taken aback by the icy indifference of her tone, for his eyebrows shot up and he stared at her with bewilderment in his beautiful blue eyes.
Molly was disgusted with herself for instantly feeling guilty. So much for her first foray into hating Liam! But she was determined not to weaken this time. Enough was enough.
‘You know me, Liam,’ she went on brusquely. ‘I’ve never been a car person.’
‘That’s because you’ve never learned to drive, Moll. You’d appreciate cars much more if you were ever behind the wheel. Come on, come for a short spin with me.’ He actually took her arm and began propelling her across the pavement.
‘Liam!’ she protested, wrenching her arm away from his hold and planting her sensible shoes firmly on the pavement. ‘I can’t. I’m at work.’
‘But the library’s not even open,’ he argued. ‘Surely they won’t miss you for a couple of minutes?’
‘That’s beside the point,’ she said sternly. ‘You might be your own boss, Liam, and can come and go as you please, but most people can’t, me included. Besides, it’s almost morning tea and I have to be here for that.’
The rest of the staff had all chipped in to buy her a cake. It was a tradition in the library whenever one of them had a birthday. No way was she going to run out on her real friends to indulge Liam’s ego.
‘I don’t see why,’ he said stubbornly.
No, you wouldn’t, Molly thought mutinously, and toyed with telling him, just so he could feel terrible for a full ten seconds.
The decision was taken out of her hands when Joan popped her head out the door.
‘Come on, birthday girl. Greg’s brought your cake along and all twenty-five candles are alight and waiting. So get in here and do the honours. You can bring your hunk of a friend, if you like,’ she added, looking Liam up and down with saucily admiring eyes. ‘We’ve more than enough cake for an extra mouth.’
Molly relished Liam’s groan. To give him some credit he did look suitably apologetic once Joan disappeared.
‘God, Moll, I had no idea it was your birthday. There I was, blathering away about my new car, and all that time you must have been thinking how damned selfish I was being.’
Frankly, she was enjoying his guilt. It had a deliciously soothing effect on her damaged pride. ‘That’s all right, Liam. I’m used to your not remembering my birthday.’
He winced anew. ‘Don’t make me feel any more rotten than I already do.’
Molly almost gave in. It was awfully hard to stay mad at Liam. He didn’t meon to be selfish. He was, unfortunately, the product of a doting mother and far too many God-given talents. Brains and beauty did not make for a modest, self-effacing kind of guy. Liam could be generous and charming when he set his mind to it, but in the main he was a self-absorbed individual who rarely saw beyond the end of his own classically shaped nose.
God knows why I love him so much, Molly thought irritably.
But then her eyes travelled slowly from his perfect face down over his perfect body, and every female cell she owned clamoured to be noticed back.
But the only expression in his eyes when he looked down at her was remorse. When he forcibly linked arms with her, she glared her frustration up to him.
‘Don’t be mad at me, Moll,’ he said with disarming softness.
‘I’m not mad at you,’ she returned stiffly.
‘Oh, yes, you are. And you have every right to be. But I’ll make it up to you tonight, if you’ll let me.’
‘Tonight?’ she echoed far too weakly.
‘Yes, tonight,’ he said firmly. ‘But for now I think your colleagues are waiting for you to blow out those twenty-five candles.’
With typical Liam confidence he steered her into the library and proceeded to charm everyone in the place. It annoyed Molly that he gave her openly curious workmates the impression he was a boyfriend of sorts. He even extracted her promise in Joan’s goggle-eyed presence to go out with him later that evening. She initially refused dinner—no way was she going to disappoint her mother—but grudgingly agreed to after-dinner coffee somewhere.
Molly told herself afterwards that she would never have agreed to go out with him at all if she’d been alone with him. She would have sent him on his way with a flea in his ear! She didn’t need his pity, or his guilt.
The moment his new red Mazda roared off up the road back in the direction of Sydney, Joan settled drily knowing eyes on her.
‘Well, you’re a dark horse, Molly, aren’t you?’ she said as they walked together back into the library. ‘I’ve always thought of you as a quiet little thing and all this time you had something like that on the side.’
Molly silently cursed Liam to hell. All he ever caused her was trouble and heartache. ‘Liam’s mother lives next door,’ she explained with more calm than she was feeling. ‘I’ve known Liam for years. We’re just good friends.’
‘Oh, sure. He drove all the way up from Sydney to wish you a happy birthday because you’re just good friends. You know what? I’ll bet you’re one of those girls who go home from the office at night, and perform one of those ten-second transformations. You know the type. Off come the glasses and the straitlaced clothes. Down comes the hair. On goes the sexy gear, make-up and perfume, and—whammo!—instant heat!’
Molly had to laugh. It would take more than ten seconds to transform her!
‘You can laugh,’ Joan scoffed. ‘But I’m no one’s fool. And you’re far prettier than you pretend to be. I always did wonder why you never seemed to be on the lookout for a fella. I was beginning to think all sorts of things till glamour boy arrived on the scene today. He gave me a case of instant heat, I can tell you. And I saw the way you looked at him when you didn’t think anyone was noticing. You’ve got it bad, Molly. I know the signs. So why haven’t I heard of this paragon of perfection before? Why all the mystery and secrecy? Is he married? A womaniser? A bad boy? Look, you can trust me with your deep dark secrets,’ she whispered. ‘I won’t tell anyone.’
Molly laughed a second time. ‘There’s nothing deep or dark to tell. I repeat...we’re just good friends. As I said before, Liam used to live next door. We went to school together, though not in the same class. He was doing his HSC when I was only in my first year.’
‘Well, there’s nothing remotely boy-next-door about him any more,’ came Joan’s dry remark. ‘He has city written all over him. Not to mention success.’
‘I’m well aware of that, believe me. I’m not blind. But there’s never been any romance between us, and there never will be. He has a steady girlfriend. Goes by the name of Roxy.’
‘Roxy,’ Joan repeated, her nose wrinkling. ‘Don’t tell me. She’s a stunning blonde with boobs to die for, hair down to her waist and legs up to her armpits.’
Molly was startled. ‘You know her?’
‘Nope. Just guessed. Men like your Liam always seem to have girls like that on their arm.’
‘He isn’t my Liam,’ Molly said tightly.
‘But you’d like him to be, wouldn’t you?’
Molly opened her mouth to deny it. But her tongue failed her when a thickness claimed it. Tears pricked at the back of her eyes.
What a concept. What an improbable, impossible, inconceivable, unachievable concept! To keep clinging to it was not only demeaning to her personally, but depressing in the extreme.
‘There was a time when I did,’ she said at last, her tone clipped and cold. ‘But not any more. I have better things to do with my life than pine for the impossible.’
‘Impossible? Why do you say it’s impossible?’
‘For pity’s sake, Joan, you’ve seen him. You yourself said men like Liam go for girls like Roxy, not mousy little things like me.’
‘You’d be far from mousy if you made the best of yourself. To be frank, Molly, a little make-up wouldn’t go astray. And an occasional visit to the hairdresser.’
Molly stiffened, despite the criticism striking home. ‘I wouldn’t want a man who didn’t love me for myself,’ she said sharply.
‘That’s rubbish and you know it! I’m an old married lady and I still have to work hard to keep my man. Now you listen to me, Molly. When Liam comes to take you out tonight, surprise him.’
‘Yes. Leave your hair down. Slap some make-up, on. Use a sexy perfume. Wear something which shows off that great little figure of yours.’
For a split second, Molly was buoyed up by Joan’s compliment on her figure. But then she thought of Roxy’s tall, voluptuous, sex-bomb body. . .and her momentary high was totally deflated.
‘I don’t have any sexy perfume,’ she muttered dispiritedly. She didn’t own much make-up either. But she wasn’t about to admit that.
Joan gave her an exasperated glare. ‘Then buy some at the chemist during your lunch-hour!’
Their library was in a small regional centre which boasted quite a few shops, a well-stocked chemist shop included.
Molly declined telling Joan that she only had five dollars in her purse. Sexy perfume was expensive, and she’d rather wear nothing than douse herself in a cheap scent.
Molly was actually contemplating asking Joan to lend her some money when reality returned with a rush. She could wear more make-up than a Japanese geisha and drown herself in the most exotic expensive perfume in the world and it would not make Liam fall in love with her. To think otherwise was ludicrous in the extreme, and belittling to his intelligence.
‘Thank you for your advice, Joan,’ she said with a return to common sense, ‘but I’d really rather just be myself. Now I’d better get back to these books.’
Molly resumed checking in the returns, blocking her mind to everything but the thought that at least she would not have to starve to death tonight after her mother’s special birthday meal. Liam could buy her something delicious and creamy to go with her after-dinner coffee.
She gave no more thought to Joan’s advice about make-up and perfume, till she arrived home late that afternoon and opened her carryall to find a paper parcel sitting on top of her house keys.
It contained a small but expensive-looking spray bottle of perfume.
And a note.
‘Happy birthday, darls!’ Joan had written in her usual extravagant hand. ‘This always works for me. Well...sometimes. Still, what have you got to lose? Go for it!’
Molly sprayed a tiny burst of perfume onto her wrist and lifted it to her nose. It was a wonderfully sensual smell, its heavy musk perfume bringing images of satin sheets and naked bodies and untold unknown delights.
Molly shook her head. To wear such a scent in Liam’s presence would be the ultimate self-torture.
And let’s face it, Molly, she told herself, wearing perfume—no matter how sensual—isn’t about to turn Liam into some kind of sex-crazed lunatic. With a girl like Roxy in tow, no doubt he has all the sex he can handle.
Molly glanced at the perfume’s name and almost laughed. Seductress, it was called. Good Lord. It would have to be a powerful potion to turn her into that!
It was a nice thought of Joan’s, but a total waste of time and money.
So was her advice. For Molly believed she did have something to lose. Her self-respect And possibly Liam’s friendship. She would not risk her relationship with him—such as it was—by acting differently or provocatively. He was an intelligent man and would surely notice if she climbed into his car wearing such an overpoweringly sexy scent.
No. She would not do it. Neither would she change her hairstyle, or put on more make-up, or scrounge through her limited wardrobe in some vain attempt to find something more figure-revealing.
Molly had her pride.
She shoved the perfume back in her bag and extracted her house key.
‘Is that you, dear?’ her mother called out as she pushed open the front door.
The smell of a roast dinner teased Molly’s nostrils as she made her way along the hall and into the kitchen. Not a pork smell. Chicken.
Naturally, came the rueful thought. Chicken carried the least fat and calorie count, provided the skin was removed. Which it would certainly be. She almost sighed when she also spied her mother wrapping the hoped-for crispy baked potatoes in foil.
Ruth glanced up and smiled at her daughter. ‘Have a good day, dear?’
‘Pretty good. Joan and the others bought me a birthday cake for morning tea.’
‘I hope you only had a small slice,’ her mother said, frowning. ‘I was going to get you a cake tonight but I thought it an extravagance when we can’t eat all of it.’
Molly suddenly felt like screaming. She turned away to hook her navy carryall over a chair, schooling her face into a more pleasant expression before turning back. ‘You’ll never guess who dropped in to see me this morning,’ she said brightly.
‘I can’t think. Who?’
‘Liam? You mean Liam Delaney?’
‘The one and the same.’ Molly declined telling her mother about the fiasco of his new car. ‘He was up this way today and asked me out tonight for my birthday.’
‘But I’m cooking you a special dinner tonight!’
‘I’ll be here for dinner, Mum. Liam isn’t picking me up till around eight.’
Ruth gave her daughter a sharp look. ‘You do realise he already has a girlfriend? A very beautiful one too, if I recall rightly.’
Molly controlled her growing irritation with difficulty. ‘I’m well aware of that, Mum, but we’re only going somewhere for coffee. Don’t forget Liam and I were friends long before Roxy came along.’
Ruth began to frown. ‘I still don’t know about this. I have an awful feeling it’s not a good idea.’
Molly came forward to give her mother a hug. ‘Mum, stop worrying. I’m a big girl now and quite capable of looking after myself. Besides, it’s not as though Liam is engaged or anything.’
Ruth’s head jerked back and she looked at her daughter with worried eyes. ‘You...you’re not going to do anything you shouldn’t do, Molly, are you?’
Molly was quite startled, and more than a little annoyed. ‘Such as what?’ It wasn’t as though she was about to leap into bed with the man. Not that she wouldn’t, if she ever had the chance. Making love with Liam was at the top of the list where her secret sexual fantasies were concerned. She was pretty sure, however, that she wasn’t even on Liam’s list.
‘I... don’t know exactly,’ her mother murmured. ‘You seem different tonight...’
Molly now thanked her lucky stars that she wasn’t attempting any kind of pathetic make-over tonight. She could just imagine what her mother would have said if she’d waltzed downstairs all dolled up and doused in Seductress.
‘Liam and I are just good friends, Mum,’ she repeated for what felt like the umpteenth time that day.
Molly was shocked when her mother looked at her the same way Joan had. ‘Come now, Molly,’ she said. ‘I’m your mother. I know exactly how you feel about that man.’
‘Yes...well, he doesn’t feel the same way about me, does he?’ came her taut reply.
‘No. And neither will he. Ever.’
Molly could not believe the pain her mother’s words brought her. It was one thing to tell herself there was no hope. Quite another to hear the futility of her dreams spoken aloud and with such crushing finality.
‘I realise that,’ she countered, her throat thick with hurt. ‘You don’t have to tell me.’
Molly just managed to sweep from the room before she burst into tears.
AT FIVE to eight, Molly was standing at her bedroom window, watching for Liam’s car. She doubted he would be late. Surprisingly, punctuality was now one of his virtues.
He hadn’t always been like that. When Molly had first met Liam, and he’d been a computer-mad adolescent of seventeen, she could not count the number of times he’d been late for things. Back then, he’d always been working on some computer-based project, becoming totally absorbed as soon as he sat down in front of the screen. Time had had little meaning for him once his concentration was focused on his latest game, or graphic design.
Every morning, Molly would wait anxiously outside his house for him to accompany her to school—a job he’d volunteered for when some bullies had started hassling her on the walk to school. Barely minutes before the school bell was due to ring, Liam would come dashing out, yelling for her to start running.
How she kept up with his long legs she would never know. But hero-worship made you do things your body was incapable of, although in that final year she was to share school with Liam she hadn’t yet reached puberty—or her fat phase—being only twelve. Somehow, she’d managed to stick to his shadow like glue all the way, down the hill then along the flat beside the railway, over the railway bridge, across the highway then up another hill to school, usually arriving in time but in a totally breathless state.
She would have to run home too, so that Liam could be sitting back down to his all-consuming hobby all the quicker. Although never interested in sport, Liam had been very fit in those days from running to and from school at full pelt. He still ran every day, jogging to and from work, apparently. He’d told her once that his best inspirations and ideas came while he was running.
Molly was about to turn away from the window when Liam’s bright red car came up the hill and turned into their driveway. Right on time! She shook her head in rueful acceptance that Liam had changed in many ways. He was no longer the forgetful boy next door. He was an exceptionally sharp businessman. Ambitious. Brilliant. Successful.
Way out of your league, Molly.
Sighing, she bent to switch off her bedside lamp, and was about to leave the room when she hesitated, walking back to where she could watch Liam, unobserved, from the now darkened window.
He sat there for several seconds, combing his hair. Though not with undue vanity. He didn’t even glance into the rear-vision or side-mirror, just swept the comb quickly through both sides and down the back before slipping it back into his jacket pocket.
At least in that Liam hadn’t changed. He’d never been vain about his looks, and still wasn’t. There was nothing of the peacock in him.
Yet, for all that, he did like to look good. Molly believed his sense of style came from his mother, who, though in her late fifties, was very young at heart and kept up to date with the latest trends and fashions. A writer and illustrator of children’s books, Babs Delaney had ably supported herself and her only son after her husband was killed in a rock-climbing accident when Liam was only twelve.
It suddenly occurred to Molly how similar her and Liam’s family backgrounds were. Both only children with widowed mothers.
But there the similarity ended. Babs Delaney was nothing like her own, timid mother. She was an outgoing personality with a wide range of friends and interests. She loved Liam to death but did not live her life through her son. She was encouraging, never clinging, a positive force, without a pessimistic or negative thought. She always said she wanted the best for her son, but that it was up to him to find what was best for himself.
It was no wonder Liam thought the world was his oyster; no wonder his business had been a great success. He’d even won an award a couple of years back as New South Wales Young Businessman of the Year and was often asked to be a motivating after-dinner speaker at various functions.
A quiver rippled down Molly’s spine as she watched the object of her secret obsession unfold his elegant frame from behind the wheel. He was dressed in the same blue jeans, navy top and cream linen jacket he’d been wearing earlier. He stretched as he stood up, and another deeper quiver reverberated all through her.
For the first time it struck Molly just how intensely sexual her love for Liam had become with the passing of the years. Her more innocent schoolgirl crush had long since graduated to a full-on physical passion, filled with needs and yearnings which would not be denied. More and more she dreamt of making love with Liam, rather than just loving him. She would lie in bed at night and think about what it would be like to kiss him and touch him; how he would look, naked and erect; how he would feel, deep inside her.
She blushed in the darkness, her blood pounding through her body, her head whirling with a wild mixture of shame and excitement. Was she wicked to think about such things?
She didn’t feel wicked. She felt driven and compelled, oblivious to everything but wanting Liam with a want that had no conscience, only the most merciless and agonising frustration. Oh, how she wished she were dazzlingly beautiful, with the sort of body no man could resist!
A bitter longing flooded Molly as she watched Liam stride confidently towards her front door, his golden head gleaming under the street lights. Her grip on the curtains tightened and inevitably her thoughts turned to the dreaded Roxy.
How often did Liam sleep with her? she wondered enviously. Molly knew he didn’t live with her, but that didn’t mean they didn’t share most of their nights either at his place or hers. Was she great in bed? came the added tormenting thought. Did she know all the tricks that a man would find irresistible? What was it she did to him that had kept Liam interested for six whole months?
Another awful possibility snuck into Molly’s mind, twisting her heart and her stomach. Surely he couldn’t love Roxy. Surely he wasn’t going to marry her? Surely not.
The front doorbell rang, the sound jarring Molly’s suddenly stretched nerves. She resisted rushing downstairs, her thoughts still simmering with resentment at the situation. She should not have agreed to go out with Liam tonight, not even for coffee. She was only torturing herself.
She heard her mother slide the door back from the family room then walk with small steps along the plastic strip which protected the hallway carpet. The front door creaked slightly on opening.
‘Hello, Liam,’ Ruth said with stiff politeness.
‘Hello, Mrs McCrae. You’re looking well.’
Molly listened to their small chat for a minute or two before gathering herself and coming downstairs, glad now that she hadn’t made a superhuman effort with her appearance. Even so, her mother looked her up and down as though searching for some hint of secret decadence.
Molly doubted if even the most devious mind could find anything to criticise in her knee-length black skirt and simple white knitted top, even if the latter did have a lacy design and pretty pearl buttons down the front. Her choice of jewellery could hardly give rise to speculation, either. The string of pearls her own parents had given her for her twenty-first birthday was conservative and sedate, as were the matching pearl earrings.
The rest of her was equally sedate. Skin-coloured pantyhose, medium height black pumps, hair up in its usual knot and no make-up on except coral lipstick. Even her underwear was sedate. But only Superman with his X-ray vision could see that. Not that the sight of her modest white crossover bra and cotton briefs would send any man’s heart aflutter.
Molly was at a loss to understand, then, why Liam himself frowned up at her as she came down the stairs. She had no illusions that he was struck by some previously untapped appreciation of her beauty. So why was he giving her the once-over with that slightly surprised look in his eyes?
Her curiosity was not satisfied till they were alone and walking along the curving front path towards his parked car.
‘You know, Moll,’ he said, ‘you’ve lost quite a bit of weight lately, haven’t you?’
Molly clenched her teeth down hard in her jaw. She’d been losing weight steadily for two years, and had been this size for at least three months. Hadn’t he even noticed before this moment? What about at Christmas, or earlier today, at the library?
No, of course not. For the last six months his eyes had all been for Roxy. And this morning he’d been all wrapped up in his stupid new car.
‘Not lately I haven’t,’ she replied coolly. ‘I’ve been this weight for quite a while.’
‘Oh? I didn’t notice.’
Tell me something new, Molly thought tartly. She felt piqued that there wasn’t the smallest change in him that she didn’t notice. She knew whenever he’d had his hair cut; when he’d bought a new jacket; when he’d changed women.
‘Are you sure Roxy won’t mind your taking me out tonight?’ she was driven to ask, barely controlling the lemony flavour in her voice.
‘Roxy and I are having a trial separation,’ he bit out.
‘Oh?’ Molly battled to look perfectly normal. Difficult when your stomach had just done a back-flip. ‘You have a fight or something?’
‘Or something,’ he muttered.
‘You don’t want to tell me about it?’
His smile was wry as he wrenched open the passenger door. ‘Not tonight, Moll. I don’t want to spoil my mood by thinking about women.’
‘But I’m a woman, Liam!’ she pointed out archly.
‘Yeah, but you’re different. I don’t really think of you like that. You’re my friend. Come on. Get in. I’m going to drive us out to Terrigal. It’s a lovely night for a walk along the beach.’
Which it was. Clear and warm, with stars sparkling in the night sky. A night for lovers.
Molly tried not to think about that. Masochism was not one of her vices.
Or maybe it was?
‘But I’m not dressed for the beach,’ she protested when Liam climbed in behind the wheel. ‘I have high heels and stockings on for one thing.’
‘You can take them off in the car,’ he suggested without turning a hair.
His indifference to her undressing in front of him was depressing in the extreme. She could just imagine what would happen if Roxy started stripping in the passenger seat, wriggling her pouty bottom while she unpeeled her stockings down those long, tanned legs of hers. Liam wouldn’t concentrate on his driving for long. Molly had an awful feeling that she could sit there stark naked in front of Liam and all he would do was ask her if she was cold!
Molly was saved from terminal depression by the lovely thought that dear Roxy seemed close to receiving her walking papers. Molly had hated her more than all of Liam’s other women. Perhaps because she was the most beautiful. And the most confident in her position as Liam’s girlfriend.
Molly’s mood lightened considerably just thinking about Roxy’s failure to be promoted to fiancée.
‘I hope you don’t think you’re going to worm your way out of buying me coffee!’ she told him while he reversed out of the driveway. ‘I was going to order a big rich slice of cake with it. You’ve no idea, Liam, what food Mum has been feeding me ever since Dad died. She’s become a “fat-free for ever” nutcase!’
‘No worse than having a mother who wants to feed you up,’ he countered drily. ‘Every time I come home, Mum says I’m getting too thin, then out come the chips and the pastries and God knows what else.’
‘You’re not too thin,’ Molly said. ‘You’re just right.’
He smiled over at her and her heart lurched. God, but he was heart-stoppingly handsome when he smiled.
‘You know, you’re good for me, Moll. You always say the right thing. And you always do the right thing,’ he added meaningfully. ‘You put me to shame today. I never remember your birthday and you always remember mine. So if you open the glove box in front of you there’s a little something there which I hope will make up for all those other forgotten occasions.
‘And don’t tell me I shouldn’t have,’ he went on before she could open her mouth. ‘And don’t tell me it’s too expensive. I can afford it. Fact is, I can afford pretty well whatever I want these days. That computer game I told you about some time back has just gone on the worldwide market and it’s going to make me a multimillionaire.’
‘Oh, Liam, that’s wonderful!’
‘Maybe,’ he said drily. ‘I’m beginning to find out being rich and successful isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Except when it comes to buying my best friend something really nice,’ he added with a warm smile. ‘Go on. Rip the paper off and open it up. I’m dying to see what you think of it.’
Molly did just that, and gasped. ‘Oh, Liam! You shouldn’t have.’
‘I thought I told you not to say that,’ he said ruefully. ‘Now, are you sure you like it? There were so many designs to choose from. I was in the jewellery shop for hours this afternoon trying to decide. In the end I settled for something simple, but solid. Like you.’
Molly tried to take his words as a compliment, but somehow some of the pleasure of his gift dissolved at that point. She lifted the heavy gold chain necklace from its green velvet bed, laying it across one palm while she slowly traced the heavy oval links with the index finger of her right hand.
Simple, but solid. Like me.
‘You don’t like it.’
Molly heard the disappointment in his voice and forced herself to throw him a bright smile. ‘Don’t be silly. I love it.’ When his attention returned to the oncoming traffic, her eyes continued to secretly caress him for several moments. How could I not love it? was the heart-catching reality. It’s from you, my darling. I will treasure it for the rest of my life.
Liam was frowning. ‘I hope you’re not just saying that.’
Molly found everything about the situation rather ironic. What would happen if she told him how she really felt about him? Knowing Liam, he would be terribly embarrassed. He hated complications in his life. He was a simple man at heart.
‘Would I lie to you?’ she quipped, though unable to keep the sardonic edge out of her voice.
He slanted her a rather bewildered look as though he’d never associated her with sarcasm before.
‘Hmm. I hope not. You were always a brutally honest kid. But right on the ball. Why else do you think I used to ask your opinion on things? Mum would just say everything I wanted to do was great. I needed someone who told me as it really was. Which you did. When I think of the time I might have wasted on some of those airy-fairy projects I came up with. You were always able to make me see what was worth working on, Moll; what would last.’
A pity you never asked my opinion on your lady-friends, Molly thought wryly. I could have told you all those females loved themselves too much to have much left over for anyone else. But then, it wasn’t love you wanted from them, was it, Liam?
Still, old habits die hard. What’s going to happen when you want a girl to love you, and whom you can truly love in return? You’ll never find the right wife, gravitating towards the wrong type of girl. The Roxys of this world are only out for what they can get. Whereas I...I would love you as no other woman could ever love you, my darling. Look at me, Liam. Can’t you see the love I bear you? Can’t you feel it?
‘Anyway, Moll,’ Liam went on, oblivious of Molly’s thoughts and feelings. ‘I hope that necklace goes some small way to making up for my thoughtlessness in the past. I know I’m a selfish bastard. But your friendship means a lot to me and I wouldn’t want you to think I never give you a moment’s thought, because I do.
‘Trouble is. . .’ He threw her a wry smile. ‘It’s usually only when I need your help. Or your advice. Or your opinion on a new car.’
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that point. Anger, however, came to the rescue. ‘And is that all tonight is, Liam?’ she snapped. ‘A test drive? Are you taking me all the way out to Terrigal just so you can get my opinion on your new car?’
‘God, no!’ He looked and sounded appalled. ‘No, that’s not it at all! Far from it. The thing is, I realised today down at the library that I never ask you about you. It added to my guilt, I can tell you. All these years and all we ever talk about is me. So tonight I want to hear all about you, Moll.’
‘Me?’ she echoed weakly.
‘Yes. You. I want to know what’s going on in your life these days. You could have knocked me over with a feather when that woman said you were twenty-five. It suddenly came to me that a girl as great as you should have been married by twenty-five. I began to wonder why you’re not. I wanted to ask you then and there but it was hardly appropriate. So I’m asking you now, Moll. Why haven’t you got a boyfriend?’
Molly was really stumped. What to say? What to tell him?
She busied herself putting the gold chain tidily into its case and slipping it into her purse, all the while trying to find the right lie to tell.
I just haven’t met the right man yet. . .
I’m waiting till Mum gets over Dad’s death...
I’d like to marry but the man I love doesn’t even know I’m alive in that sense...
The awkward silence grew till finally Liam shot her a shocked look. ‘Good God, Moll, you’re not, are you?’
MOLLY’S eyes rounded. And then she laughed. That was one excuse she’d never thought of.
‘No, I’m not gay.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘The problem. . .’ She considered her answer at some length, then decided excuse three carried a perverse kind of truth. Yet Liam—dear, sweet, blind Liam—would never guess. ‘The problem is... that I am in love with a man. But he just doesn’t love me back. In fact, he doesn’t know I’m even alive in a sexual sense.’
‘Why not?’ Liam demanded to know, apparently affronted by this mystery man’s lack of passion for his best friend.
Molly almost felt soothed by Liam’s chagrin on her behalf. ‘I guess I’m not his type, physically speaking. I’m not pretty enough.’
‘What rubbish! You’re very pretty.’
‘No, I’m not, Liam. But it’s nice of you to say so.’
Molly was grateful that Liam dropped the subject of her beauty. He scowled all through Gosford, not opening his mouth till they were on the Entrance Road and approaching Erina.
‘So who is this idiot?’ he flung at her. ‘Is he a local?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Do I know him?’
‘I should hope so.’
‘Did he go to our school?’
‘Yes. But that’s as much as I’m going to say.’
‘Our school...’ He frowned as he scoured his memory. ‘I can’t think who it could be. Still, there were over eight hundred kids in our school.’ He shook his head in frustration. ‘I’ve no idea. Look, just tell me who he is. Don’t keep me in suspense!’
‘Sorry, but I’m not telling you, or anyone else for that matter. I would find it embarrassing. Besides, it’s quite pointless my telling you who he is. I’ve pretty well accepted he’s not interested. Shortly, I aim to get on with my life, so you don’t have to worry, Liam. I don’t intend to suffer indefinitely.’
Liam mumbled and muttered all through Erina, swinging the car around the large roundabout and heading for Terrigal before he launched into another verbal attack against her mystery man. Molly found it amusing that he was railing against himself.
‘So! Does this splendid advertisement for feminine taste have a girlfriend?’
‘Actually, he’s between women at the moment.’
‘Had a lot of them, has he?’
‘And you love this inveterate ladies’ man?’
‘He takes my breath away.’
Liam pulled a face. ‘What is it about women that they always fall for the bad guys? He sounds positively awful!’
‘I don’t think he’s at all awful. And he’s been very successful, businesswise.’
Liam’s top lip curled into a sneer. ‘I suppose he’s good-looking.’
‘Drop-dead gorgeous,’ she agreed.
‘Handsome is as handsome does, you know,’ he growled, then muttered some more under his breath all the way to Terrigal.
Molly sat next to him in a self-satisfied silence. She hadn’t enjoyed herself so much in years. Perhaps she was playing with a double-edged sword, but if so it was worth the risk. She didn’t think the penny would drop for Liam. Meanwhile, she was experiencing a heady exhilaration in toying with the truth in this manner.
They came round the sweeping hillside corner which brought Terrigal beach into view and Molly sighed her pleasure at the sight. It was a pretty place during the day, but even more so at night, especially when it was cloudless, and the moon sent ribbons of silver rippling across the dark waters.
Tonight, the moonlight was strong, and the waves extra gentle as they lapped up onto the golden curve of sand. Some people were still swimming in the peaceful water. Many couples were sitting on the warm sand, arms around each other, or strolling along the beach, hand in hand. As Molly had thought earlier, it was a night for lovers.
Liam drove past the public car park at the bottom of the hill and along the narrow main street which flanked the beach, tall pines on the sea side, shops on the other. He eased into a space under a pine at the far end.
He snapped off his engine and swivelled in his seat to face Molly, a scowl on his handsome face. ‘It’s not Dennis Taylor, is it?’
Dennis Taylor was the only boy in Liam’s class who could rival him for looks and subsequent business acumen. As dark as Liam was fair, he had thick black wavy hair, heavy-lidded dark eyes and the body of a bouncer. He did not have Liam’s super intelligence or creative flair but he was a born salesman who’d gone into real estate after leaving school and done very well. He’d opened his own agency on the Central Coast a couple of years back and had recently expanded. Unmarried, he was a swinging bachelor type who played the field without mercy. He’d recently bought an acreage not far from Terrigal beach and built an orgy palace of a house, the rumoured activities therein supplying plenty of fuel for the local gossips.
Molly only knew Dennis as well as she did because his folks lived two doors up. He came to visit them quite often, and, Dennis being Dennis, he always waved at Molly if she was out the front watering or weeding the garden.
A couple of months back, he’d also knocked on the door and asked if she and her mother wanted to sell the house. Even after they’d said no, he’d left his business card then stayed talking to Molly for ages. He was one of those males who could not go past a female without proving he was God’s gift to women. His charm operated on automatic pilot.
Molly found him likeable enough, but shallow. It irked her that Liam should think she could be madly in love with him.
‘Well?’ he probed. ‘Is it?’
‘I’m sorry but I refuse to answer any such questions on the grounds they might incriminate me.’
Liam glowered at her. ‘You’re being damned difficult.’
‘I don’t think so. You might be my friend but there’s a limit to what I will tell you. And I think my love life is my own private business, don’t you? After all, when I asked you what had happened between you and Roxy, you wouldn’t tell me.’
‘Hmm. Fair enough. But if it is Dennis,’ he growled, ‘then I hope to hell you never get your heart’s desire. His reputation with women is appalling.’
Molly rolled her eyes. As if Dennis Taylor would take any serious notice of her anyway. That was as far-fetched as Liam doing so! Suddenly, she tired of this game. ‘If it will make you feel any better,’ she said wearily, ‘then it’s not Dennis. But please don’t come up with any more candidates. I’m not going to tell you and that’s that!’
‘You’ve really dug your heels in about this, haven’t you?’
‘You could say that,’ she pronounced, and crossed her arms with finality over her chest.
‘I had no idea you could be this stubborn.’
Her sideways glance carried a sardonic flavour. ‘There are quite a lot of things about me you don’t know, Liam.’
‘Mmm...I’m beginning to see that’s the case. And there I’ve been all these years, telling people what a sweet little thing you are. It seems Roxy might not have been altogether wrong.’
Molly bristled. ‘Oh? And what, pray tell, did dear Roxy say about me?’
‘She said you were a sly piece and she wouldn’t trust you as far as she could throw you.’
Molly’s blood pressure rose a few notches. ‘Humph! That’s the pot calling the kettle black!’
‘I take it you don’t like Roxy?’
‘You take it correctly.’
Molly almost launched into a tirade about vanity and superficiality and naked ambition, but pulled herself up just in time. There was little point in being vicious, now that the girl was possibly on the way out. Besides, the truth might sound too much like jealousy.
She managed a light shrug. ‘You can’t like everyone in this world. Some people just rub you up the wrong way right from the start.’
‘True. Okay, I won’t be a pain and press for more. Neither will I ask you any more embarrassing questions about Mr X. I’m just relieved it’s not Dennis. Come on, let’s go for that walk.’ He was out of the car before she could say Jack Robinson, bounding around the front to her side where he wrenched open the passenger door.
‘Do...do you think we could have our coffee first?’ she asked a little shakily when Liam took her hand and drew her upright out of the rather low-slung vehicle. Whilst she told herself it was sheer hunger causing her stomach to cramp suddenly, she rather suspected there was another cause, and extracted her hand from Liam’s as soon as she could.
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