Jessica Hart

A Whirlwind Engagement

Release Date: 2003

Josh and Bella have been friends for years, but suddenly Bella is starting to see “her Josh” in a very different light. She’s falling in love! It’s confusing enough but, worse, Josh has just asked her to be his pretend fiancée. Josh needs a stand-in fiancée to clinch a business deal. Bella finally agrees to play the part but after they spend a week on an exotic island pretending to be head over hells in love, the tension becomes almost unbearable! Especially when Josh starts to wonder if his best friend is pretending at all.

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She thought she was putting on a pretty good show of not having a care in the world, but it didn’t seem to fool Josh. Sometimes he knew her too well, thought Bella with an inward sigh, wishing he would stop asking if something was wrong. She didn’t want to tell him that she was feeling edgy and unsettled, because then he would ask why, and she didn’t know why.

Only that wasn’t quite true, was it? She did know.

It was something to do with way Aisling’s arrival on the scene had brought her up short. Something to do with looking across the table at that engagement dinner for Kate and realising that Josh was no longer the familiar, slightly geeky student she had known for so long.

For Bella, it had been like finding herself suddenly face to face with a stranger. There was nothing obvious about Josh. He had a quiet, ordinary face, ordinary blue-grey eyes, ordinary brown hair, she had always known that.

But she had never before noticed how he had thickened out and grown into his looks, or how the fourteen years they had known each other had given him a solid, reassuring presence and an air of calm competence that was impressive without being intimidating.

She had never noticed his mouth before or his hands or throat or that line of his jaw. Never noticed that he had a great body. He wasn’t exceptionally tall but he was lean and compactly muscled, and he moved with an easy, loose-limbed stride.

And now that she had noticed, Bella couldn’t stop noticing.

It made her uneasy. This was Josh. Her best friend, the one who had seen her through endless romantic ups and downs. She had cried on his shoulder and laughed and talked and hugged him without a thought for more than ten years now. He had seen her without her make-up, seen her tired and cross and sick and hungover, and she had taken him for granted. Being with Josh had been like being with Kate or Phoebe, as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.

But now, suddenly, she didn’t feel comfortable with him any more and she didn’t understand why. She just wanted to go back to the way things had been before.

Here he was now. Bella felt her nerves crisp as Josh came up to her in the marquee, and she took a steadying slug of champagne. He was the same old Josh he had always been. It was nonsense to think that anything had changed between them.

‘Are you OK?’ he said, eyeing her with concern.

‘Of course. Why?’

‘You seem a bit tense, that’s all. I wondered if you and Will might be having problems.’

‘I don’t know why you’re so determined that my relationship with Will is a disaster,’ said Bella, annoyed with him for hitting the nail so unerringly on the head. ‘What could be wrong? Will’s fantastic. He’s incredibly attractive, generous, clever, successful … ‘

And he was, she reminded herself with a kind of desperation. She had been mad about Will when she first met him. Why couldn’t she feel like that again?

‘I’m just missing him while he’s away,’ she offered, hoping that the explanation would stop Josh probing any further. ‘And the house feels very empty without Kate now.’

‘It must do.’ To her relief, Josh allowed himself to be diverted. ‘Are you going to stay there on your own?’

‘I think so. I only pay a token rent as it is. Phoebe doesn’t need the money – one of the many advantages of having a rich husband! – so I can afford to have the house to myself.’

‘I’m surprised you don’t move in with Will if he’s as perfect as you say he is,’ sniffed Josh. ‘Doesn’t he want to “commit”?’ he added, hooking sarcastic inverted commas around the word.

‘That’s good coming from you!’ said Bella, provoked out of her awkwardness. ‘You’ve never committed to anyone!’

‘I’m just waiting for the right woman,’ he said loftily.

‘No, you’re not,’ she said. ‘You’re scared to take a risk.’

Josh’s jaw dropped. ‘How can you say that, Bella?’

‘Yes, yes, I know that you’ve taken convoys through war zones and rescued people off mountains in blizzards and all that stuff,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

‘I know you’ve been in loads of dangerous situations,’ she went on, ‘but those are physical risks. Have you ever taken any other kind of risk?’

‘It was risky setting up my own company,’ said Josh, sounding a bit huffy.

Bella was unimpressed. ‘That was a financial risk. I’m talking about emotional risks.’

Josh hunched a shoulder. ‘You have to approach all risks the same way. Look at the situation logically, not emotionally, and balance the likelihood of possible outcomes.’

When he went all logical on her like that, Bella always wondered how on earth they had come to be friends. Mentally, she raised her eyes to heaven.

‘It just so happens that as far as relationships are concerned I’ve never been convinced that the risk was worth taking,’ he was saying, ‘but it’s not a question of being scared.’

The scared thing had obviously rankled.

‘We’re not all like you,’ he accused her, ‘investing everything in a relationship five minutes after you’ve met a man. You’d think experience would have taught you to keep something back, but no! You’re barely over one disastrous affair before you plunge into another one!’

‘Better that than dithering around on the edge forever, wondering if you might just have missed the chance of a perfect relationship,’ Bella retorted.

And that’s what you’ve got with Will, is it?’ Josh asked sceptically.

She lifted her chin defiantly. ‘I think so, yes.’

‘So why not live together?’

‘Because we’re both happy as we are. We’ve each got our own place to live and that means we can give each other some space. We all need that.’

Josh didn’t both to hide his disbelief. ‘You? You’re the most sociable person I know! I can’t see you hankering after your own space.’

‘Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you think you do,’ said Bella crossly. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to living on my own. I’ve been getting gradually used to it since Kate has been spending so much time with Finn and Alex, so it won’t be that different now. I might go back to sharing eventually,’ she conceded, ‘but it wouldn’t be the same. Where would I find someone I’d get on with as well as Phoebe and Kate?’

‘What about Aisling?’ said Josh casually.

Bella looked wary. What about Aisling?

‘She’s looking for somewhere to live at the moment,’ he explained. ‘And you’d be bound to get on. I’d have thought she’d be perfect for you.’

What planet was he living on? Bella stared at him in disbelief. He didn’t really see her and Aisling as bosom buddies, did he? Didn’t he know her at all?

‘I’m not sure we’ve got that much in common,’ she said carefully.

Josh looked surprised. ‘Don’t you? I think you’re very alike. Aisling’s in marketing and you’re in PR – they’re not that different as careers go, are they? And she’s a bit of a social butterfly, too.’

‘I thought she spent her whole time climbing mountains or knocking up rafts out of a couple of tin cans and a piece of string?’ said Bella a little sourly.

‘She’s got a lot of expedition experience,’ Josh agreed, ‘but she’s a good time girl like you on the side as well.’

Oh, right. So Aisling swung both ways. She could hack her way through a rainforest and wear lipstick. Bully for her. Bella took another slurp of champagne.

‘She’s not quite such a princess as you, though,’ Josh was adding with something less than his usual tact. ‘She doesn’t actually require somewhere to plug in her hairdryer when she’s camping!’

‘I’m not sure Tooting would be very convenient for Aisling,’ she said. ‘It’s not exactly handy for your office, is it?’

‘Aisling’s been trekking across the Sahara,’ Josh pointed out. ‘I don’t think she would find changing tubes a problem!’

Well, that put her in her place, thought Bella grumpily.

‘Yes, well, I’ll talk to Phoebe,’ she said without enthusiasm. ‘It’s her house, so it’s her decision really.’

‘Great,’ said Josh. ‘I’m sure Phoebe won’t mind.’

‘Where is Aisling, anyway?’ said Bella. She had to get to Phoebe before Josh did. There was no way she was going to share a house with Aisling.

Josh looked around the marquee, and pointed. ‘Over there, talking to Finn’s sister.’

As if she had heard him, Aisling looked over, and beckoned imperatively. In spite of being anxious to get rid of him so she could go and find Phoebe, Bella couldn’t believe it when Josh just went. He ought to have more pride, she thought crossly.

Still, now was her chance to grab Phoebe.

‘So you will say no, won’t you?’ she begged when she had dragged Phoebe away from Gib and poured the whole story into her ears.

‘If you want,’ said Phoebe, ‘but I don’t know what I’m going to say to Josh. I can’t think of any reason to object to Aisling. She seems very nice.’

‘I don’t like her,’ said Bella.

‘Why not?’

‘I just don’t,’ she said a little sulkily. ‘There’s a little too much of that bubbly Irish charm if you ask me. And I don’t think she’s right for Josh.’

Phoebe looked at her narrowly. ‘Are you sure you’re not just jealous?’

‘Jealous? Jealous?’ spluttered Bella, spilling most of the champagne in her outrage. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! I have never been jealous of Josh, you know that. I’ve always got on really well with all his girlfriends.’

‘Mmnn, but then none of them were at all like you.’

‘Nor is Aisling!’

‘Yes, she is. I’m sure that’s why you don’t like her. You’ve only got to look at her!’

Bella turned to stare across the marquee to where Aisling was snuggling up to Josh. She obviously couldn’t keep her hands off him. Josh would hate that, Bella thought disapprovingly. He was definitely a behind-closed-doors sort of man.

On the other hand, he wasn’t exactly fighting Aisling off, was he?

She looked away. ‘I’m nothing like Aisling,’ she told Phoebe. ‘She’s got red hair, for a start!’

‘OK, but change the colour of her hair and eyes, and what have you got? She’s ridiculously pretty, has legs up to her armpits, and that glamorous look that is just so different from Josh’s previous girlfriends. Admit it, Bella, she’s practically a clone!’

Bella wasn’t prepared to admit anything of the kind. ‘What, apart from looking completely different and having completely different personalities? I’d say all Aisling and I had in common was our gender! Josh is always telling me how practical she is and how she likes doing hearty things like climbing and camping.’

Phoebe shrugged. ‘Have it your own way.’

‘Anyway,’ Bella went on, a defensive edge to her voice, ‘Josh and I agreed a long time ago that we would just be friends. There’s no question of jealousy.’

‘Didn’t you ever find him attractive?’ asked Phoebe curiously, and try as she might, Bella couldn’t quite make herself meet her friends eyes.

‘He wasn’t my type,’ she said.

‘Do you think you were ever his?’

Had she been? For the first time Bella found herself wondering.

‘He never said, and anyway, he always seemed to have some outdoorsy girl who didn’t fuss about her hair or wear makeup or mind getting up at six to go pot-holing or whatever it was they used to do at weekends. Josh and I used to make each other laugh, and we had a great time doing that. We didn’t want to spoil it by sleeping together.

‘Besides,’ she added honestly, ‘he wasn’t at all attractive then. He was a bit thin and nerdy.’

Phoebe glanced across the marquee. ‘He’s changed,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ said Bella, following her gaze. Through the crowds, she could just glimpse Josh. The lean, compact figure was at once alien and utterly familiar.

He was talking to someone out of sight, but as she watched he threw back his head and laughed, and her stomach abruptly disappeared, as if she had stumbled unawares off the edge of an abyss. The sensation of falling was so intense that Bella had to close her eyes against a sickening wave of vertigo, and when she opened them again she felt dizzy and hollow inside.

‘Yes,’ she said again. ‘He has.’

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