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?
|(Did you miss Chapter 1? Click here to find it and catch up!)|
The lunchtime rush on her brand new Bondi Junction stall was over. In the sudden lull, Stella watched a trio of birds on a lamp post. Two took flight, and one stayed put.
That had been her, that lone bird, more than a decade ago, when Jeannie and their mother had packed up again and left for Sydney. At 16, emboldened by a well-meaning teacher, Stella put her foot down and stayed on in Perth by herself – to her recent regret.
She’d accomplished some things she’d wanted, like enjoying a stable income and putting a halt to a life of constant change with their nomadic mother, but every gain had come at a cost.
Denying her natural creative talent, Stella ended up working in offices for more than a decade, her fingers busy on keyboards and telephones, far from her beloved needle-nose pliers. Worse, she’d fallen for Damian.
Jeannie knew her best. She saw it coming. Tried to warn her.
Awed by the realisation she could make her own decisions about where to live, Stella applied at a temp agency to become an office assistant, a job which freed her to continue creating her jewelry at night.
Yes, she’d wondered if she’d made a mistake the day Jeannie and Stella had packed yet again and actually moved out, but she’d been starting work in the city next day – paid work – and the exhilaration of running her own life, managing her own expenses and making her own decisions thrilled her.
Stella barely noticed she spent less and less time creating jewelry. Every few months, the agency found a new work placement for her, and then she’d scored a permanent position at WestMine with a spectacular salary. They’d even trained her, giving her time and funds to finish high school and gain tertiary qualifications in office management. Busy with evening classes, Stella left her creativity on the back burner.
Learning new skills, she gained more responsibility. It was only a matter of time before one of her bosses who’d left WestMine to run his own show headhunted her away to work with him at Exos, his new mining investment consultancy.
He’d been smooth alright. Damian Beaumont. She’d never forget the day he pulled up beside the curb when she was out at lunch.
“You,” he’d said, with those dark glasses and a perfect smile that reached right out through the open passenger side window, transfixed her and reeled her right in.
She should have known Damian’s world was too smooth to be real. She’d grown up being driven around in cars that blew head gaskets or with banged-up doors that wouldn’t open. Or if they did, they wouldn’t close. Once, when her mother Flame’s old car broke down on the way back from school, their mother simply bundled up the girls, collected the shopping bags from the trunk, and calmly told her daughters to grab their library books and school bags. They’d all just abandoned the car and walked away.
So, when Damian’s vehicle glided to the kerb in front of Stella showing not one speck of dirt, and that tinted window slid down without a sound, and there he was, suave, with a slight smile, in his designer sunglasses, Stella was swept off her feet and into the passenger seat without a backward glance. The door closed quietly on the city bustle. Stella was enveloped in a little capsule of Damian’s world that smelled of leather and money and expensive aftershave.
It took her a long time to question the source of Damian’s wealth and the way she was spending her life. Four long years.
First into the Exos office to ensure the water cooler was full, the air conditioning on and Damian’s appointment files in order, Stella always greeted her colleagues and his clients with efficient smiles. She would ask about their families and pets. Exos was growing quickly. Always sympathetic to newcomers from a childhood as the perpetual outsider, she went out of her way to ensure new staff felt welcome and knew where to find everything they needed, even the shoe repairers, dry cleaners and specialist shops. Stella was the one who fixed people’s staplers, sorted their printing and made sure the office ran as perfectly as Damian’s orthodontically corrected smile. Over time, she took on the brand management, admin and human resources, hiring more staff as Exos grew.
When Damian’s PA, Jacqui, left in a huff one day, it became Stella’s job to work more closely with him. He came to rely on her efficiency, showing his appreciation with his eyes and praise. Damian valued her. Respected her.
She loved his glances and smiles, striving to please him, needing that injection of joy only he could provide.
That year, Stella took charge of the office Christmas party, with the theme of winter wonderland. With almost forty staff, it would be their biggest ever.
“Watch out, Stell,” Jeannie counselled as Stella rang her for a chat one lunch time.
“What do you mean?”
“You realise you can’t start a sentence without saying ‘Damian’ first? It’s all ‘Damian this’ and ‘Damian that.’”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Is he some kind of father figure to you, Stell? Or have you got a crush on him? Just be careful, okay.”
The festive white tinsel and helium balloons bumped along the ceiling, pearly ones, trailing silver ribbons. The boardroom was pumping to schmaltzy Christmas music – Six White Boomers, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Stella’s colleagues gasped as they entered the room and were handed their salt-encrusted glasses with dry martinis, gin and tonics, champagne flutes or sparkling mineral water.
Damian loved her idea of the ice sculpture, a huge EXOS for the centre of the table. A sea of dry ice fog swirled around the platters of almost all-white foods. Oysters, salty white sweet potato wedges, onigiri, sushi, Japanese white rice treats, tofu selections and towers of sweets – meringues, marshmallows, and an enormous, creamy pavlova.
When Stella turned on the blue light, Damian, immaculate in his white suit, stepped forward into the hush to toast the company’s successful year.
Stella blushed as he lavished praise on the celebration. He didn’t name her. Instead, he stared at her, all of her, starting with her necklace, one she’d just finished, each pearl strung on its own silver wire, radiating from a silver choker.
Damian’s eyes were on her the whole night, and when she stayed back to clean up and he emerged from his office, they were alone together. Several martinis down, there was a kind of inevitability about him stepping in closer and grabbing her wrist.
Finally he was going to notice her matching bracelet, she thought, before he twisted her even closer and kissed her, hard.
She surrendered to the moment. Hadn’t she been half expecting this, half hoping for it? Jeannie was right. Stella was in love with the boss. Half the staff were. Damian had chosen her.
“What’s up, little sister?” When they hadn’t spoken throughout the week as usual, Jeannie phoned her.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t hold out on me, Stell. Something’s up. You’re in love, aren’t you? So, who’s the lucky guy? How was the Christmas party by the way?”
“Went well, thanks. The blue light was a great idea. Thank Matt, would you?”
“Sure will. So come on. Who’s the guy?”
“How’s your own Christmas prep, Jeannie? Tree?”
“Had to go for a tiny one, for the centre of the table. It’s just too risky with Lucy. Everything goes in her mouth. Can you imagine? Christmas is a nightmare! Everything’s new and different and shiny and it’s all either tin foil or plastic and breakable. When are we going to see you?”
“Not sure, really. Damian needs me.”
“That boss of yours. No. Stella. Don’t tell me it’s the boss. Are you sure about this guy?”
Her sister knew her too well.
“Gotta go, Jeannie.”
“Hey, don’t freeze me out here, Stell. Am I right?”
“It’s easy for you. You have Matt. Not all of us can find Mr Perfect. Besides, it’s not serious.”
“Not serious? Sex is serious, Stell.”
“Please. When did you get so pious, Jeannie? After our upbringing, I would have thought you’d have an open mind.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt, Stell. Guys like that. They’re into power. Do you want a fling, or do want a future? And the moment it’s over, your job will be, too. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
She did, at the time, anyway. But in the longer term, Jeannie was right. Damian Beaumont had it made. His efficient young PA accompanied on business trips out of town. Adjoining rooms.
A year passed and then another, and he was no closer to committing to any kind of formal future with her, beyond his vague allusions to “one day.” They’d worked together so easily and for so long that she rarely had a thought of her own. It was “Damian would like this” and “Damian will need that.” When visitors from the UK were expected, she’d book the restaurant for them without being asked. She even knew what table he’d want reserved.
Maybe it was another phone call from Jeannie that forced her to question what she was doing with her life.
“Coming over for your birthday, sis?”
“Yep. Your big one. Big three oh. The hill. We always said we’d celebrate it together… What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, Jeannie. There’s another meeting. In London.”
“Surely you don’t have to go this time. You can get leave can’t you? You do enough overtime.”
“I just don’t know, alright?” She hadn’t meant to snap at Jeannie. The truth was she knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted Damian to take her with him to London as he often did. And she wanted him to take her to dinner for her big birthday. Anywhere. Just the two of them. She could see it. He’d hold her hand in the candlelight and ask her to marry him. It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. Hadn’t she spent every waking minute for the past few years working for his every benefit?
Birthdays! Stella remembered every colleague’s birthday. She was a specialist in finding the right kind of big card for each person, furtively taking it around for everyone to sign. She’d buy their favourite cakes, even remembering who was “gluten free.” She was the one who washed up all those matching plates and forks when everyone else returned to their desks and meetings. If Exos staff felt appreciated, it was because of Stella’s efforts.
She could see what she was doing, and began to hate herself. She’d wait back every evening until she was the last to leave, waiting for Damian to give her that special smile of appreciation, or a touch on the arm, or sex in his office the way he liked it, in the dark, fast and thrilling.
Yes. Stella had every reason to think her thirtieth birthday with Damian in London might be special. She’d booked their flights and a suite in the Knightsbridge hotel near the head office, with another adjoining room for herself.
“Shall I book a restaurant as well, for the 16th?” she’d asked.
“Why’s that? Miles doesn’t fly in till the following evening. You know that.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised. Damian didn’t have access to her calendar, with its big thirtieth looming, and nothing much else. But she’d swallowed and dared to dream.
“I was wondering whether you might want to take me to dinner.”
“Hmmm?” He’d been checking his phone. Not that there was much need. Stella was right on top of his schedule.
“No. No time.”
So that was that. She stood in a London bookshop and stared at birthday cards, quietly crying, furious at herself for not telling him about her special day, for not insisting he acknowledge her as a human being, with her own needs beyond a pay packet and the calculated flash of his smile.
“You okay?” he asked her over the coffee she’d brought him at Heathrow Airport while they waited for their flight back to Australia. It wasn’t exactly a caring tone. More critical. He liked her best when she was smiling and agreeable, much as he liked a pristine bathroom. He was far too busy to enquire into the real state of her wellbeing.
Normally she would have smiled reassuringly. But something inside her had changed, had woken up, and refused to back down.
“I just turned thirty, Damian.”
“Commiserations. Welcome to the other side of the hill.” Then he asked whether she’d arranged a hire car for him back in Perth.
She should have known Damian wouldn’t rescue her, that the whole fantasy she’d built up about him caring for her, actually loving her, was just her own elaborate wishful thinking. All these years he’d let her think they might have a future together, he’d reaped all the benefits of her hopes.
“Ever thought of, you know…” Stella said, reaching for his hand. Their plane was delayed. It seemed as good a time as any to see where he thought their relationship might be going. But she hated the way her question made her sound. Needy. Pathetic. But she wanted some certainty, dammit. Friends were starting to settle down. She wanted his babies. What was so wrong with that?
Damian’s expression turned stony. He looked away from her, withdrew his hand.
He always did this. All those times she’d suggested she stay over, or invited him for dinner at her place. He always backed away. Always kept his options open. Refused to pin “one day” to an actual timeframe.
When her friend Bonnie from night school invited her to her housewarming when she and her boyfriend moved in together, Stella asked Damian along.
“No. You go,” he’d said. “I’ve got a dinner. Potential investor.”
Or that time she’d left some of her things in his spare bathroom for those rare nights she stayed over. He packaged them in a sealable plastic bag and dropped them on her desk.
“No need to leave your stuff lying around,” he’d said. “I’m sure you want these back.”
“Oh no …”
“You know me. I like things clean and tidy.”
“Shampoo is clean, Damian. It takes up hardly any space.”
He stormed off, telling her to get his tax advisor on the line, as if she and her feelings were an irritation.
Jeannie was scathing.
“Can’t you see what he’s doing, Stell? My heart aches for you.”
“What, Jeannie? He’s a clean freak. What’s wrong with that?”
“Oh, Stell. If he has that rule for all his girlfriends, you’ll never find out about each other.”
Was it true? Stella had Damian’s calendar. She checked it. He didn’t have time for any other girlfriends, did he? Unless “Alex” wasn’t really his personal fitness coach. And he did seem to have a number of inexplicable appointments at odd hours. She’d always thought he was at tanning clinics, or entertaining potential clients.
She decided to test him.
“Let’s move in together, Damian. It would make things so much simpler for us both, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm. I’ll give it some thought. Look, I need to get some statements out to our biggest investors today. How are you placed? Can you package them up for me?”
Later that week, she noticed Damian beam at the youngest office assistant, then wink at her when she’d brought him his coffee. She didn’t fawn. But she didn’t look unhappy with the attention. Damian did that to people. Charmed them. She remembered how eager she’d been to please him. Still was. Desperate for the fix of his approval.
Surely there was more in her life than this obsession with Damian. Jeannie was right. Stell’s every waking minute was consumed by ensuring his happiness, making his business successful, full of hopes for their future together.
That lunch time, she forced herself to go to a craft shop. She bought a sketch pad and began to sketch jewelry designs right there on her desk, an old passion from her school days that never failed to bring her joy – neglected for far too long.
Collecting the spare agendas after a board meeting, she absentmindedly squashed one of the empty coffee pods and noticed its potential for making jewelry. There and then she retrieved all of them she could find, took them home and began experimenting, excited by what she could make.
When she wore her new earrings to work the next day, Shamira, the accountant, admired them.
“Get another pay rise, Stella?” Shamira stared at her ears.
Stella laughed. “You like them? They’re yours!” She took them off and handed them over, explaining how they’d been destined for the boardroom bin the day before. She liked Shamira, one of her hires. She worked hard and was always ready to share her interesting herbal teas.
“No way. They’re beautiful. I’ll pay you for them.”
“No you won’t Shamira. You have no idea how thrilled I am that you like them.”
Stella left work at 5pm from then on, rushing home to create more jewelry. No longer would she wait around for Damian.
Before long, Damian’s kindnesses to the new assistant, Lexie, were ramping up. “Get yourself a pot plant,” she overheard him saying to Lexie one morning when she’d greeted him. He’d thrust a $50 note at her and waved away her attempt to return it.
Another time he sent Lexie down to Switzers to buy mints, insisting she keep the change. All these things, he’d done with Stella when she’d been new. Would Lexie fall for it, too?
Suddenly the contempt his old PA had shown Stella the day she’d replaced her began to make sense. She saw her relationship with Damian in a new and shocking light. How naive she’d been! He’d been grooming her, totally taking advantage. #MeToo, alright. It sickened her to think she’d always believed he genuinely cared for her. She must catch Lexie and warn her; let her know she didn’t have to put up with that way of behaving from anyone. Tell her she could keep a professional distance without appearing rude, and still keep her job.
Or was she just jealous? But what was “just” about jealousy? Could he replace her so easily? How dare he!
Her gut jacked up. It waged war with her. She rose from her ergonomically perfect chair and knocked on Damian’s door, entering and closing it behind her. Immersed in his computer screen, he ignored her.
“We need to talk.”
“Can it wait? This is important.”
“This is important, too.”
He sighed. Like a child interrupted from play. He gave her his exaggerated attention, as if she were an annoyance. Why had she never noticed that about him before? A petulance.
“Why did Jacqui leave? She was good at her job. You two seemed like a real team.”
“How many PAs have you had, Damian?”
“Three? Four? Why?”
“Did you sleep with all of us?”
“And when exactly did you move on from each of them? Was it when they started asking about their future?”
“Stella!” He pushed back his chair and stood, his full height a threat to her, but she stood her ground.
“You made me feel like you loved me, like the care and attention I’ve lavished on you all these years might be reciprocated. I’m feeling used, Damian. As if I’m as replaceable as your office chair.”
Damian was no fool. Stella had watched him in countless meetings, reading the room, hedging his bets, ensuring his survival no matter the issue. He was reading her now, flicking through his options, evaluating her worth to him, her expendability. It occurred to her she was behaving exactly like his previous PA. Why had she been so blind?
“So. After all I’ve done for you, Damian. What do you say?”
“Stella. What’s this about? We’ve been good for each other, haven’t we? You’ve had pay rises. You’ve travelled the world. ”
“A few airports. A few hotel rooms, Damian.”
“You’ve never complained before now. What is this? Do you need a holiday? Is that it?” Conciliatory.
Her face felt like stone. Maybe she did need a holiday. No. She simply wanted more than this, this fear she was temporary, that she’d be thrown over for the next pretty office assistant.
“How about marriage. It’s a normal progression, you know. It’s not unthinkable.”
“Look, let’s talk about this later. Not now. These things take time, Stella. You should know that.”
“One year, maybe. It’s been four.”
“We’ll discuss it later.”
Her heart pumped so hard it threatened to explode. Was this really happening? She could stay and be placated and they’d be having this conversation for the rest of her life. Or she could go.
“No. I don’t think so. I’m resigning, Damian. I’ll leave the keys in my top drawer.”
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