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Lissa had just reached the railing when she heard the footsteps behind her. Quickly turning, she sat on the bench in the shadows, hoping she couldn't be seen, just wanting five minutes' cool-down time.
She watched the approaching figure knowing full well she wasn't invisible and that he was heading right towards her. She didn't recognise him. She'd been at Franklin and Co. for five months now and knew everyone. Long legs wrapped in navy denim casually strode out with a grace that signalled a natural athlete. He was tall with dark hair. With the only light on the balcony being the thin streams escaping from the boardroom windows she couldn't see much more. She sighed, her heart sinking. Gina must have sent her friend Karl out to sit with her. Why was it that people thought set-ups were a good idea?
Unable to take her eyes off him she decided to ignore the tightening in her stomach and her promise to Gina to be 'open to possibilities'. Instead she would just get it over with. Tell it to him plain and then she could have some space again.
'Did Gina tell you I was out here?' She used her most decisive, not-to-be-messed-with tone.
'No.' She caught a flash of white teeth as he smiled in the darkness. He sat down next to her with a companionable nod, setting his glass beside him. He'd positioned himself across from her, at right angles. His face was in shadow and he was close, too close. His presence radiated out, his legs near hers and she caught a faint citrus scent. Lemon, fresh and cool.
'Look, I'm sorry,' she began, trying for kind yet firm. 'I don't know what Gina told you, but I'm really not interested.'
'Oh.' He paused. 'Really?' He sounded quite surprised. She took adeep breath and ploughed on, the words tumbling over each other in their rush to get out. 'It may seem hard to believe, what with everyone else so keen to get it on, but I'm really not looking for a bit of fun. I'm sure you are a great guy and all and you'll have no trouble finding someone else. Especially in there.' She emphasised by waving wildly at the window. 'After all, Gina says you're an amazing flirt.'
His sharp burst of laughter surprised her. Even more surprising was the way it resonated within her. It was deep, warm and dry.
'Does she? How nice of her.'He took a careful sip from his glass. 'But you know I don't think I want anybody else. Especially not "in there",' he mimicked her tone.
Her fingers tightened around the cool glass. She still felt hot and bothered and this interruption wasn't helping.
'Please yourself,' she said in resignation. 'But let's get one thing clear. It's not going to happen so we'll just chill, right?' She winced a little at her crabbiness, not intending to have spoken quite so baldly. She snatched a deep breath, trying to overcome it, but breathing properly seemed more tricky than usual when seated next to this guy.
'Suits me.' He was agreeable. 'Are you always this blunt?'
She frowned, her cheeks heating. 'Mmm. I'm sorry if you thought I was rude. I don't mean to be, but I don't want to have any misunderstandings.'
'OK.' He laughed, a shade too heartily for her liking.
She glanced at him, thinking he was pretty relaxed about being rejected from the outset. She could see a broad smile, an inviting smile. The kind of smile that made you want to smile right back and move closer to its warmth. She looked back to the windows and watched with cynical amusement as two consultants vied for Gina's attention. Lissa flicked a quick look sideways at Karl again, wishing Gina had warned her he was the most physically attractive man on the planet and not just a super flirt.
'Now that we have that settled,'he said easily, 'why not tell me something about yourself?'
'What do you want to know?' Lissa asked. She'd just shot the guy down before he'd had a chance to start his engine, she didn't need to be totally rude.
'I don't know.' He stretched out a leg. It crossed in front of hers, a barrier between her and the door. 'How about where in Australia you come from?'
'The South Island of New Zealand,' she replied coolly, trying not to admire the long leg before her.
'Sorry,' he chuckled. Again the sound reverberated within her, tingling her insides. 'Will you ever forgive me?'
She shrugged off the mistake and the sensations. 'It's OK. I'm not one of those Kiwis who has a fit at being mistaken for an Aussie.' She took a sip of her drink. Despite the chilly air she was no closer to cooling down. She sat for a minute and then leaned towards him with a conspiratorial smile. 'To tell you the truth, I still can't tell the difference between Irish and Scottish accents.'
'How shocking.' He leaned in towards her and for a moment she wondered what he was going to do. What she was going to do. His proximity knocked her breathing. 'Which am I?'
'Um ' She was taken aback. He didn't sound much like either. He sounded pretty BBC to her. 'Scottish?'
He inclined his head and sat back. 'Indeed.' She was feeling a little unnerved by the effect he was having on her. Unnerved by the fact she was sorry he'd just sat back. It was a dark, cool night and she felt warm and wobbly.
Gina popped into view again and Lissa watched as her face lit up as an unfamiliar man walked towards her.
'Oh, that must be the infamous Rory.'
Karl turned his head sharply and looked back through the window. 'Where?'
'With Gina.' Rory stood absorbed by Gina as she talked, her arms gesticulating wildly with her effervescent enthusiasm.
'Well,' said Lissa practically, 'I don't think she's going to have too much trouble, do you?'
'Trouble with what?' Karl looked back at Lissa. 'Rory,' she replied impatiently. 'She must have told you about him. He's just landed after a stint at the New York office. Come back as the youngest consultant ever to be promoted to partner. He's due to start tomorrow but there was a chance he might look in tonight. She's wearing the blue top specially.' She watched the couple for a while longer.
'I can't believe she thought she didn't stand a chance. I thought she hardly knew him. But he's obviously interested, don't you think? And so he shouldshe's amazing.'
'If you like that sort,' came the noncommittal response.
Lissa turned to him startled. 'She's a petite, natural blonde with amazing blue eyes and is totally vivacious.' She paused before adding with perverse pleasure, 'The only sort that doesn't like that doesn't like girls.'
'Ha!' he laughed softly. 'You think? I think many men might prefer tall, willowy types with big brown eyes and hair like golden honey.' Before she could stop him he reached out and touched a strand of her hair.
She stared, unable to move. Felt him gather a lock and tug gently. Crazily she wanted him to run his hand the length of it. What he'd said finally registered and she bit back a smile. She tried to ignore the tantalising quality in his voice. He'd just, very flatteringly, described her.
'Willowy?' she asked, amused. 'Uh-huh.Very graceful.'His fingers twirled the strands of hair. She took a deep breath. She was feeling no more comfortable. The whole purpose of her stroll onto the balcony was being sabotaged. He sure knew how to trot out a line. She pulled her hair free and decided to reiterate the position. 'I told you. You needn't bother.'
'It's no bother.'
He was watching her intently. She crossed her legs away from him and wiggled her foot. 'You know, he doesn't look anything like I imagined.'
'Hmm, I thought he'd be taller and more noticeable.' Her attention was wandering back to the presence beside her. He was definitely noticeable. She became acutely aware of his knee pressing against her leg. He must have moved nearer. It was warm and hard. She fidgeted and recrossed her legs.
'Why? How did she describe him to you?'
'Apparently, he's like God's gift.' Grateful for the diversion, she laughed and ticked the items off on her fingers. 'Tall, dark, handsome, great body, a tough boss, but one that they all admire.'She made a face. 'Sounds too good to be true doesn't he? This is the Gina version, of course. But the clincher is, and I'm quoting here, "when he looks at you, it's like you're the only person in the world. Amazing eyes."'
Her attention snapped to Karl beside her. She couldn't see his eyes at all clearly. The colour was impossible to tell in the shadow. Gina hadn't described them, she'd been more concerned with impressing on her that he'd be a lot of fun.
Lissa had the feeling he'd be more than fun and that was dangerous.
She switched back to her description of Rory. 'Apparently he's Mr Hard-To-Get. According to office legend, he has never had even the teeniest brush with any of the crew.'
'And that makes him hard to get?'
'Well, you know what this place is like, they're all over each other.' The flirty nature of the management consultancy where she was temping was legendary. It was staffed by about forty-five bright young things who were all athletic, artistic, intelligent and gorgeousfun after hours was standard.
'It's not that bad, is it?'
'No, probably not.' She giggled. 'It just seems like it. They're all such shocking flirts. Office affairs never end well. Too complicated.' Complicated being an understatementit was something she well knew, thanks to Grant. 'Then with Gina trying to set me up with you ' Her voice drifted.
'And what did she say about that?' He sounded very amused now.
She glanced at him and opted for the truth. 'That you were a gorgeous player who knows how to give a girl a good time.' Lissa felt a needle of guilt for so blithely repeating Gina's description but, sod it, Gina had meant it as a compliment and, frankly, the way things were going, she was absolutely right.
'And you're a girl who needs a good time?'
'Gina obviously thinks so,' she answered giving a rueful laugh. 'But actually no. When I want one, I'll find one myself, thanks all the same. She was concerned about you because you haven't been dating the last couple of months. She thought we'd be great for each other.'
'What, you haven't been dating either?'
She'd been thinking about ittrouble was the only people she met were co-workers and after Grant that was such a nogo. Precisely why Gina wanted to set her up with Karl for a farewell fling before she left the country. But Lissa was adamant the last thing she needed was to go out with a well-experienced flirt. Playing with fire and being the novice she was, it would only end in carnage. Slow and steady when someone safe appeared, that was the answer.
This guy wasn't safe. His knee was pressing against hers again and she could feel the warmth of him. She had the sudden desire to sit even closer to him, feel the length of his leg press against hers, not just his knee. That would be warm, she thought. Who was she kidding? It would be hot. He seemed to read her mind.
'Are you getting cold? We've been out here a while.'
She shook her head and answered quickly, 'I'm fine. Don't let me keep you, though, if you want to go back in,' she said sweetly, half hoping to get rid of him and half hoping he'd stay. He was amusing, and she had to admit she was quite enjoying the light flirtation. Nothing wrong with a little practice was there?
'No, I'm enjoying being out here. It's very refreshing. What is it you're drinking anyway?' He was looking at the contents of the glass dubiously.
'I'm not quite sure.' She studied the colour in the light. 'I think it might be an apple flavoured one.'
She could hear the yeuch in his tone. 'It's nice. Sweet.'
'And it's also lethal if you drink it too fast. How many have you had?'
She sat straighter. 'It's my second.'
'And have you had dinner?'
She bristled. She turned to face him full on. Both her knees knocked against his. She ignored the thrill shooting up her thighs and the naughty urge to part them. She tipped her head back instead and challenged him. 'Are you leading up to an invitation or are you implying that I'm tipsy? Either way, the answer is no.'
He turned and leaned forward, looking right back at her, their faces inches apart. She sucked in her breath sharply; the light from the window was full on his face and for the first time she could see him properly. Peripherally she took in a strong jaw and straight nose, but it was his eyes that captured her attention. They were the most amazing emerald green. She staredhad never seen eyes so vivid. It was some time before she remembered to blink. They were the kind of eyes you could drown in, wanted to drown in. Brilliantly coloured, glittering and warm.
'Is that so?' he drawled, a smirk lifting the corner of his gorgeous mouth.
Fascinated, she watched as his lips curved upwards. They were full and inviting. She became aware that she had leaned towards him further and abruptly pulled herself up. She swung back to face the window. Hell, maybe she was a bit tipsy, she certainly was feeling a bit dizzy. Impossible. She hadn't had much to drink, so it must be lack of food.
'Yes it is,'she said with asperity. 'Don't think you can bully me into a date because of anything Gina said.'
He leaned forward on the seat, put his head in his hands and laughed helplessly.
'Oh, stop,' she said witheringly, watching him half in disgust, half in amusement. 'It wasn't that funny.You're trying too hard and, I've told you, there's no point.'
His laughter didn't stop and she began to wonder if there was something in the joke she was missing. He was finding her just a little too amusing. Enough. She was finally starting to feel quite cold and experiencing urges she needed to control. Urges to get closer to a guy she knew to be a player. Summoning her dignity, she stood. 'Are you going to go back in now and party?' He smiled, rising as well.
She realised then just how tall he was. She was no midgetin these heels she was almost six feetyet he was a good couple of inches taller again. She had to look up to try to see into those fabulous eyes. Catching them looking at her so warmly, she immediately felt it best to look away, fast.
'Actually I think I'm going to go home.'
'Good idea,' he replied blandly. She glanced back up at him. There was no condescension apparent in his face, but her hackles rose regardless. She needed to get away from here. Correction, right away from him. Had she underestimated Gina's ability to matchmake or what? This guy made her pulse beat.
'It was nice to meet you at last, Karl. Have a good night.' She nodded at him politely and, without thinking, held her hand out to shake his. As soon as he took it she realised her mistake. The physical contact sent a bolt of electricity surging up her arm straight to her heart, causing it to contract. His grip was firm. His skin warm and dry. Another tremor ran through her. His grasp tightened and they stood linked, staring at each other. Her pulse picked up and she felt the flicker of excitement in her belly. She saw the recognition in his face. She jerked her hand out of his instantly, muttered a barely intelligible 'goodbye', and headed for the door.
He watched her step away from him. Should he have told her? Probably, but the temptation had proved too hard to resist, was still too hard to resist. He glanced down the now empty corridor and slipped inside, not turning towards the party as he ought, but heading for the stairs as quickly as possible. An attack of the lusts. Hadn't had one this severe in well, ever, he didn't think. Five minutes back on home soil and he was utterly tempted by a foreign Venus. He hit the ground floor unable to stop the smile as he stepped into the foyer.