Enjoy this excerpt from my novel, House of Diamonds, a sweet, sparkling modern love tale about duelling jewelers. Will they ever work out what to do with an engagement ring?
Stella pushed the hair out of her eyes, stepped back and surveyed her stall, satisfaction surging through her. She’d done it. It was real!
Here beside a small street tree in the Oxford Street Mall in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, her stall was ablaze with her unique jewelry, each piece a product of her imagination and hard working fingers, and each piece in its place.
She glanced down at her soft cotton frock, dark blue with tiny red spots the exact red of her faux ruby drop earrings. Her simple summer outfit was such a welcome change from the office attire of dark skirts and jackets she’d worn for years. Yes. At last. Stellar, her own business, was ready to trade.
In the mild spring morning, the aroma of coffee wafted, mixing with the din of traffic and snippets of conversation in many languages. Stella pulled out her phone to record the moment, to send it to Jeannie to post on her new business’s Facebook and Instagram. As she snapped, a tall man in a distinguished, pale grey suit sprinted out of the closest building towards her.
The cut of his suit was perfect, the lapels slightly open to show a shirt the same blue as his eyes. Striking.
Her first customer?
No. He surveyed the mall like he owned the place. Frowning, he fixed her with his gaze, making her heart jump.
“We need you to move about twenty metres, up that way, if you wouldn’t mind,” he said. Smooth.
What? Move? Why would she move? She’d only just finished setting up. It had taken her months to prepare, and so much time just that morning, arranging her earrings and bracelets. What on earth could he mean?
“… just for a short time, thank you,” he said.
Her hackles rose. However handsome he might be, with that sun-kissed brown hair, and that way of smiling just on one side, as if life was a bit of joke as long as he was in control, he had no right to push her around.
“Actually, Mr …”
“Huntley. James Huntley.” He tipped his head back a little, indicating his connection with the three-storey building behind him, and she turned and read the ornate sign. Huntleys House of Diamonds.
Stella sighed. She didn’t reconfigure her whole life, resigning and moving here from Perth on the other side of the country, only to fall into the trap of obeying the next handsome man. No. She’d been there and done that. For too long. She’d been totally, pathetically, at the mercy of her boss Damian’s demands.
Obeying handsome men was a bad habit she’d finally kicked, hadn’t she?
This new Stella was strong and independent, she reminded herself. Stella now worked for herself, trusted only herself and obeyed only herself. She would no longer be told what to do by men who assumed she’d comply. So, whatever this man wanted, and however attractive he might be – and he was, quite attractive, every bit as good-looking as Damian, his hair more fair, and with a bit of a wave at the front, and those eyes – intense – she knew she had every right to stand her ground. And she would.
He waited expectantly, but she was only just ready to trade. With customers gathering, she needed to sell, sell, sell – and not waste another moment. Her licence to trade wasn’t a give away. It would take her months to pay back the loan she’d taken out to pay for it.
He lifted one hand up toward the side of her stack of display trays, as if to test his strength against its weight, to simply push her stall away. She could swear she saw his healthy bicep flex beneath that high quality pale grey woollen fabric.
How dare he! The flame of defiance inside her flashed fire. No. She would not be shoved away.
“Stella Rhys, Mr Huntley,” she answered, keeping her voice low and controlled, and extending her own hand to be shaken. His was smooth, the hand of a businessman, as cool as her own. It was a fine handshake, pleasant even.
Her mother would have fun reading this palm, she thought, smiling. It was a mistake. He must have interpreted her smile as acquiescence. Nodding and smiling in return, he held her hand just a moment longer than necessary.
“Thanks, so much, Stella. These stalls… There was nothing here for months, and suddenly you appear! Today of all days. It’s so good of you to move. Just for an hour or so.” He gave her the full blue gaze again and smiled.
For a moment Stella weakened, but she remembered the advice of Fritz, her nearest stallholder, who’d welcomed her to the mall only that morning.
“I’ve been here nearly thirty years, young lady,” Fritz had said. “Seen a thing or two in my time. Seen stalls come and seen them go. Can be tough out here on the mall. Don’t you let anyone push you around.”
Stella knew the terms of her licence. Thursday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm. Right here. So she lifted her sunglasses and fired back a dose of her own dark eyes – bright, quick and determined.
“Actually, James,” she began, amiably enough, with a hint of steel. She gestured at the small crowd gathering to admire her unusual brooches, rings, earrings and pendants, all laid out so temptingly in the bright sunshine. Her excitement ratcheted up a notch. Behind James, two older women, sisters perhaps, were pulling out their purses. Her first customers! It was James who needed to move, so she could trade.
“Look. This is my business, James – ‘Stellar,’” she continued, polite yet firm, her voice steady. “And I’m not moving it. Not at all. I don’t mean to be unreasonable; nothing personal; but as I see it, the Huntleys property boundary begins at the edge of your doorway. The mall here is public space, and this patch is mine.”
His smile froze. What was this?
“That’s right, isn’t it? Look. Here’s my permit. Nothing in it says I’m required to move. My licence is for six months, and my stall’s position is right here, right now. And as you can see, I need to look after my customers.”
“Come on, Ms Rhys, you wouldn’t mind helping out just this once, for half an hour or so; help me out here.”
The fire inside her ignited. She closed her eyes. Calmed herself. Opened them again.
“I thought I’d made myself clear, James. I do mind, and so I won’t move.” This time, her tone was pure ice, each word clearly articulated.
James conveyed his astonishment mildly, with raised eyebrows and a slight shrug.
She stared back, arms crossed. If it was a standoff, his stance wasn’t entirely hostile. Amused? A flicker of interest? Frustrated? Was there a flash of challenge? Admiration, even? He wasn’t like Damian – always controlling. James was sizing her up, those blue eyes drilling into her own.
Abruptly, he looked towards the street, where a cavalcade came into view, then answered his phone.
“Nicole? What’s that? Running early?” He turned away, ignoring Stella. His sudden indifference to her felt like a dismissal, a loss even. At any other time, she would have found this man interesting. Had there been something else behind the arrogance? A kind of decency?
Her heart still raced. Defiance had never come easily for her. But there was work to do, and she served her first customers, delighted to wrap each purchase in her tissue paper covered with stars.
Beyond the women extracting their credit cards, the crowd grew. A radio reporter arrived, testing the microphones, then a TV crew or two.
Suddenly, at the curb, a grey Rolls Royce pulled up. James strode towards it, swinging open the rear passenger door. An elegant woman emerged, statuesque in a tight, green satin dress, and James offered her his arm. They made a striking pair, she so willowy and he so handsome. He escorted her right into the mall, through the throng, towards his House of Diamonds.
“Antoinette!” “Heist!” The crowd called, pressing towards them, posing for selfies. Now Stella remembered where she’d seen the woman’s face. It was on billboards and buses all over town. This was Antoinette Lacy, star of the new film Heist, featuring the theft of a necklace of priceless diamonds.
Stella’s stall was directly between the car and Huntleys.
Antoinette and James oozed glamour as they strode along the mall, her languid arm draped through his. James could be a movie star, too, Stella thought.
What a stunt! Fancy hooking a VIP like Antoinette Lacy for your celebrity endorsement. She’d just won a string of awards. James Huntley had a few connections alright. No wonder he’d wanted her to move. They were walking towards his store. But her stall was right in the way.
Her heart kicked up another notch. Exciting! Stella was as intrigued as the rest of the crowd, their mobile phones up like antennae, the young and the older, curious business people grabbing a coffee, retirees at the edges, and a few others with shopping bags, strollers and toddlers. Two big men in black suits hovered, speaking into their ear pieces.
More reporters and media cameras appeared from nowhere and surged into action, all bent on capturing the smiles and actions of the rich and famous.
Directly before her stall, at the centre of the commotion, James and Antoinette paused. James extracted his arm and reached inside his suit coat. He pulled from his breast pocket something glittering like fire in the bright sunshine – it was the delectable diamond necklace featured in the film. All eyes upon them, James held it high for the cameras, then dribbled it, diamond by diamond, into Antoinette’s elegant hand as cameras whirred, clicked and binged.
It was PR genius, but there was a problem.
“No. No, James. Not there. Here.” A frazzled woman in a tight, mustard yellow suit arrived and tried to encourage the photographers and videographers to take the shot again. This must be Nicole. She saw at once the skirt was awry, Nicole’s mascara was smudged and the asymmetric streaked bob was not sitting quite right. Stella felt for her, remembering a few of her own wardrobe malfunctions from her old corporate life. Antoinette’s earlier than expected arrival must have caught Nicole out. Stella had often been responsible for events in her old job. She could tell this one was kicking off too soon.
Nicole obviously wanted a better angle, with the Huntley’s facade more clearly in the background. In that glaring mustard suit, Nicole pointed and pushed and pulled spectators and camera crews alike, clearing the way and directing them, trying to nuance the shot.
A camera operator backed into Stella’s stall, rocking her trays of necklaces and pendant earrings, which danced like miniature disco balls, dazzling the crowd.
Nicole tried to intervene. Too late.
Antoinette Lacy halted her leggy stride right there at Stella’s stall and was suddenly showing a deep interest, fingering her display of huge faux emerald drop earrings. They were eye catching, suspended within shiny wire secured with one of Stella’s characteristic Celtic knots. As they tumbled inside their tiny silvery cage, they shot out flashes of reflected sunlight, and the camera shutters clamoured in staccato.
“Please, take these,” Stella jerked into action herself. It was PR gold, right here at her humble stall. In a dream, she unpinned the dazzling pair that perfectly matched the green of Antoinette’s satin sheath dress.
As Stella handed them across, the star held them up for the cameras, which clicked again as Antoinette unleashed that famous, winning, movie star smile.
James froze, the priceless diamond necklace dangling from his outstretched hand, ignored.
“This way, Ms Lacy,” a furious Nicole hissed, firmly pulling Antoinette around Stella’s little stall towards Huntleys.
“Our other VIPs are dying to meet you, Ms Lacy. Inside, please. Media, this way!” Nicole’s call was as strained as her voice as she tried to usher reporters inside with the star. “Champagne’s on the third floor. Invitation only.”
The media and best-dressed members of the crowd followed them, but more and more people stopped at Stella’s stall, buying the same earrings Antoinette had admired.
Stella couldn’t trade quickly enough, cash, credit and sparkle trading hands faster than she ever could have imagined. She was elated. Her dream was coming true. Here she was, her own boss, making her living from creating beauty; and the customers just kept coming, spurred on by Antoinette’s star power, clustering, clamouring, all wanting Stellar jewelry.
Only one person seemed unimpressed. Stella glanced up from her customers to meet James’s icy stare. His eyes flashed fury right into hers. He turned on one heel and followed Antoinette and Nicole into his building.
The sun went behind a cloud.
Stella’s phone rang. She tried to ignore it, still trading fast, but there it went again. Jeannie? It was only as a woman with purple hair hesitated, trying to decide between the green earrings and some red ones, that Stella took a moment to answer it.
“What is it, Jeannie?”
“OMG!” Her sister, Jeannie, sounded pleased, and Stella relaxed a little.
“Jeannie, I’m flat out here. What is it?”
“Antoinette Lacy! Stella!”
“What do you mean, ‘what?’ You’ve done it. You’ve got it. You’ve already got 115 ‘likes.’ No, that’s just gone up. 143. 181. 221. Stella. OMG.”
“Look, I’m super busy here, Jeannie. I’ve got more customers than I can deal with right now. Can we talk later? Would you mind?”
With two children under three and a travelling husband, Jeannie was fond of a chat.
“311. No. Look. Incredible. It’s almost 400 now. This is insane, Stell. We’ve got to get your online purchasing up and running.”
“Thanks, Jeannie. Can you please just go ahead? I trust you. You know that. Go on. Go ahead.”
“Thanks, Stell! Can’t wait.”
Stella closed her eyes in gratitude for her sister, two years older and so generous. Without Jeannie, she simply wouldn’t be here, finally taking this chance on her dream future – to make real money creating her own jewelry. She couldn’t begin to count the ways Jeannie had helped her throughout childhood, and especially now. How many other sole traders had a sister with marketing skills, happy to run their social media and create their website? Stella beamed and held up a finger to two customers waiting to pay. “One moment, please,” she mimed.
“Great. Thanks. Stellar web sales coming up. Sensational, Stell. I knew you could do this!”
“Thanks, thanks. Thanks so much. Bye, Jeannie. Talk later.” Now was no time for a lengthy discussion. Customers were thrusting $50 notes and credit cards at her.
“Got any more of those green ones, the dangly ones?”
“Hey, that’s my pair!”
There was a minor tussle as customers fought over the last pair of green earrings on display. From now on, Stella would call them the “Antoinette earrings.”
She made seven instant friends by pulling out another tray of them. The customers, including the woman with purple hair, bought three pairs each.
“For my nieces. They love Antoinette. I love your stall!”
“Thank you, thank you.”
Stock was flying off the velvet trays. It was a frenzy. Never in her wildest dreams had Stella imagined her new venture would succeed so well. She’d taken a huge risk in setting up her own business, but as Jeannie had convinced her, there’d been a danger in not doing it, too.
She’d needed this fresh start. As the sales kept coming, Stella’s old life in Perth seemed a world away.
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