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Alexander West ignored the rapping on the shop door, the call for attention. The closed sign was up; Knickerbocker Gloria was out of business. End of story.
The accounts were a mess, the petty cash tin contained nothing but paper clips and he'd found a pile of unopened bills in the bottom drawer of the desk. All the classic signs of a small business going down the pan and Ria, with her fingers in her ears, singing la-la-la as the creditors closed in.
It was probably one of them at the door now. Some poor woman whose own cash flow was about to hit the skids hoping to catch her with some loose change in the till, which was why this wouldn't wait.
He topped up his mug with coffee, eased the ache in his shoulder and set about dealing with the pile of unopened bills.
There was no point in getting mad at Ria. This was his fault.
She'd promised him that she'd be more organised, not let things get out of hand. He was so sure that she'd learned her lesson, but maybe he'd just allowed himself to be convinced simply because he wanted it to be true.
She tried, he knew she did, and everything would be fine for a while, but then she'd hear something, see something and it would trigger her depression get her hopes up. Then, when they were dashed, she'd be ignoring everything, especially the scary brown envelopes. It didn't take long for a business to go off the rails.
He frowned. It was the same voice, but whoever it belonged to was no longer outside
'I've come to pick up the Jefferson order,' she called out. 'Don't disturb yourself if you're busy. I can find it.'
but inside, and helping herself to the stock.
He hauled himself out of the chair, took a short cut across the preparation roomscrubbed, gleaming and ready for a new day that was never going to comeand pushed open the door to the stockroom.
All he could see of the 'voice' was a pair of long, satin-smooth legs and a short skirt that rode up her thighs and stretched across a neat handful of backside. It was an unexpected pleasure in what was a very bad day and, in no hurry to halt her raid on the freezer, he leaned against the door making the most of the view.
She muttered something and reached further into its depths, balancing on one toe while extending the other towards him as if inviting him to admire the black suede shoe clinging to a long, slender foot. A high-heeled black suede shoe, cut away at the side and with a saucy bow on the toe. Very expensive, very sexy and designed to display a foot, an ankle, to perfection. He dutifully admired the ankle, the leg, a teasing glimpse of lacethat skirt was criminally shortand several inches of bare flesh where her top had slithered forward, at his leisure.
The combination of long legs and dark red skirt, sandwiched between cream silk and lace, reminded him of a cone filled with Ria's home-made raspberry ripple ice cream. It had been a while since he'd been within touching distance of temptation but now, recalling that perfect mix of fresh tangy fruit and creamy sweetness, he contemplated the idea of scooping her up and running his tongue along the narrow gap of golden skin at her waist.
'I've got the strawberry and cream gelato and the cupcakes, Ria.' Her voice, sexily breathless as she shifted containers, echoed from the depths of the freezer. 'And I've found the bread and honey ice cream. But there's no Earl Grey granita, champagne sorbet or cucumber ice cream.'
Cucumber ice cream?
No wonder Ria was in trouble.
He took a final, appreciative look at the endless legs and, calling the hormones to heel, said, 'If it's not there, then I'm sorry, you're out of luck.'
Sorrel Amery froze.
Metaphorically as well as literally. With her head deep in the freezer and nothing but a strappy silk camisole between her and frozen to death, she was already feeling the chill, but either Ria had the worst sore throat in history, or that was
She hauled herself out of its chilly depths and turned round.
She instinctively ran her hands down the back of a skirt that her younger sisterwith no appreciation of vintage fashionhad disparagingly dismissed as little more than a pelmet. It was, however, too late for modesty and on the point of demanding who the hell the man leaning against the prep-room door thought he was, she decided against it.
Silence was, according to some old Greek, a woman's best garment and, while it was not a notion she would generally subscribe to, hot blue eyes above a grin so wide that it would struggle to make it through the door were evidence enough that he'd been filling his boots with the view.
Whoever he was, she wasn't about to make his day by going all girly about it.
'Out of luck? What do mean, out of luck?' she demanded. 'Where's Ria?' Brisk and businesslike were her first line of defence in the face of a sexy male who thought all he had to do was smile and she'd be putty in his hands.
So wrongalthough the hand propping him up against the door frame had a workmanlike appearance: strong, broad and with deliciously long fingers that looked as if they'd know exactly what to do with putty
She shivered a little and the grin twitched at the corner of his mouth, suggesting that he knew exactly what she was thinking.
She was just cold. Really. She hadn't stopped to put on the cute, boxy little jacket that completed her ensemble. This wasn't a business meeting, but a quick in-and-out pick-up of stock.
While the jacket wouldn't have done anything for her legs, it would have covered her shoulders and kept her warm. And when she was wearing a suit, no matter how short the skirt, she felt in control. Important when you were young and female and battling to be taken seriously in a world that was, mostly, dominated by men.
But she didn't have to impress Ria and hadn't anticipated the freezer diving. Or the audience.
The man lounging against the door frame clearly didn't feel the need for armour of any kind, beyond the heavy stubble on his chin and thick brown hair that brushed his shoulders and flopped untidily around his face.
No suit for him. No jacket. Just a washed-out T-shirt stretched across wide shoulders, and a pair of shabby jeans moulded over powerful thighs. The sun streaks that brightened his hairand the kind of skin-deep tan that you didn't get from two weeks on a beachonly confirmed the impression that he didn't believe in wasting his time slaving over a hot desk, although the suggestion of bags under his eyes did suggest a heavy night-life.
'Ria's not here.' His voice, low and gravelly, lazy as his stance, vibrated softly against her breastbone, as if he'd reached out and grazed his knuckles slowly along its length. It stole her breath, circling softly before settling low in her belly and draining the strength from her legs. 'I'm taking care of things.'
She fumbled for the edge of the freezer, grasping it for support. 'Oh? And you are?' she asked, going for her 'woman in command of her environment' voice and falling miserably short. Fortunately, he didn't know that. As far as he knew, she always talked in that weirdly breathy way.
She blinked. 'You're the postcard man?'
'The what?' It was his turn to look confused, although, since he was already leaning against the door, he didn't need propping up.
'The postcard man,' she repeated, desperately wishing she'd kept her mouth shut, but the nickname had been startled out of her. For one thing he was younger than she'd expected. Really. Quite a lot younger. Ria wore her age well, but wasn't coy about it, describing her fortieth birthday as a moment of 'corset-loosening' liberation. Not that she'd ever needed a corset, or would have worn one if she had. 'That's what Nancy calls you,' she explained, in an attempt to distance herself from her surprised reaction. 'Ria's assistant? You send her postcards.'
'I send postcards to Nancy?' he asked, the teasing gleam in his eyes suggesting that he was perfectly aware of her discomfort and the reason for it.
'To Ria. Very occasionally,' she added. Having regained a modicum of control over her vocal cords, if nothing else, she wanted him to know that she wasn't impressed by him or his teasing.
It wasn't the frequency of their arrival that made the postcards memorable, but their effect. She'd once found Ria clutching one to her breast, tears running down her cheeks. She'd waved away her concern, claiming that it was hay fever. In November.
Only a lover, or a child, could evoke that kind of response. Alexander West was a lot younger than she'd expected, but he wasn't young enough to be her son, which left only one possibility, although in this instance it was a lover who was notable only by his absence. His cards, when they did arrive, were mostly of long white tropical beaches fringed with palm trees. The kind that evoked Hollywood-style dreams of exotic cocktails and barefoot walks along the edge of the shore with someone who looked just like Mr Postcard. Sitting at home in May-bridge, it was scarcely any wonder Ria was weeping.
'Once in a blue moon,' she added, in case he hadn't got the message.
Sorrel knew all about the kind of travelling man who took advantage of a warm-hearted woman before moving on, leaving her to pick up the pieces and carry on with her life. Her own father had been that kind of man, although he had never bothered with even the most occasional postcard. Forget moonsblue or any other colourhis visit was on the astronomical scale of Hal-ley's Comet. Once in a lifetime.
'A little more frequently than that, I believe,' he replied. 'Or were you using the term as a figure of speech rather than an astronomical event?' Fortunately, the question was rhetorical because, without waiting for an answer, he added, 'I'm not often in the vicinity of a post office.'
'You don't have to explain yourself to me,' she said, making an effort to get a grip, put some stiffeners in her knees.
Not at all.
'I'm glad to hear it.' West let go of the door and every cell in her body gave a little jumpof nervousness, excitement, anticipationbut he was only settling himself more comfortably, leaning his shoulder against the frame, crossing strong, sinewy arms and putting a dangerous strain on the stitches holding his T-shirt together.
'I thought perhaps you were attempting to make a point of some kind.'
'What?' Sorrel realised that she was holding her breath 'No,' she said, unable to look away as one of the stitches popped, then another, and the seam parted to reveal a glimpse of the golden flesh beneath. She swallowed. Hard. 'The frequency of your correspondence is none of my business.'
'I know that, but I was beginning to wonder if you did.' The gleam intensified and without warning she was feeling anything but cold. Her head might be saying, 'He is so not your type.' She did not do lust at first sight.
Her body wasn't listening.
It had tuned out her brain and was reaching out to him with fluttery little 'touch me' appeals from her pulse points, the tight betraying peaks of her breasts poking against the thin silk.
No, no, no, no, no!
She swallowed, straightened her spine, hoping that he'd put that down to the cold air swirling up from the open freezer. She continued to cling to it, not for support, but to stop herself from taking a step closer. Flinging herself at him. That was what her mother, who'd made a life's work of lust at first sight and had three fatherless daughters to show for it, would have done.
Since the age of seventeen, when that legacy had come back to bite her and break her teenage heart, she had made a point of doing the opposite of whatever her mother would do in any circumstance that involved a man. Especially avoiding the kind of rough-hewn men who, it seemed, could turn her head with a glance.
Sorrel had no idea what had brought Alexander West back to Maybridge, but from her own reaction it was obvious that his arrival was going to send Ria into a meltdown tizzy. Worse, it would cause no end of havoc to the running of Knickerbocker Gloria, which was balanced on the edge of chaos at the best of times. The knock-on effect was going to be the disruption of the business she was working so hard to turn into a highend event brand.
Presumably Ria's absence this morning meant that she was having a long lie-in to recover from the enthusiastic welcome home she'd given the prodigal on his return.
He looked pretty shattered, too, come to think of it.
Sorrel slammed the door shut on the images that thought evoked. It was going to take a lot more than a pair of wide, here-today-gone-tomorrow shoulders to impress her.
While her friends had been dating, she'd had an early reality check on the value of romance and had focused on her future, choosing the prosaic Business Management degree and vowing that she'd be a millionaire by the time she was twenty-five.
Any man who wanted her attention would have to match her in drive and ambition. He would also have to be well groomed, well dressed, focused on his career and, most important of all, stationary.
The first two could be fixed. The third would, inevitably, be a work in progress, but her entire life had been dominated by men who caused havoc when they were around and then disappeared leaving the women to pick up the pieces. The last was non-negotiable.
Alexander West struck out on every single point, she told herself as another stitch surrendered, producing a flutter of excitement just below her waist. Anticipation. Dangerous feelings that, before she knew it, could run out of control and wreck her lifeplan, no matter how firmly nailed down.
'What, exactly, are you doing here?' she demanded. If the cold air swirling around at her back wasn't enough to cool her down, all she had to do was remind herself that he belonged to Ria.
She was doing a pretty good job of cool and controlled, at least on the surface. Having faced down sceptical bank managers, sceptical marketing men and sceptical events organisers, she'd had plenty of practice keeping the surface calm even when her insides were churning. Right now hers felt as if a cloud of butterflies had moved in.
'That's none of your business, either.'
'Actually, it is. Ria supplies me with ice cream for my business and since she has apparently left you in charge for the day ' major stress on 'apparently' ' you should be aware that, while you are in a food-preparation area, you are required to wear a hat,' she continued, in an attempt to crush both him and the disturbing effect he and his worn-out seams were having on her concentration. 'And a white coat.'
A white coat would cover those shoulders and thighs and then she would be able to think straight.
'Since Knickerbocker Gloria is no longer in business,' he replied, 'that's not an issue.' Had he placed the slightest emphasis on knicker? He nodded in the direction of the cartons she had piled up on the table beside the freezer and said, 'If you'll be good enough to return the stock to the freezer, I'll see you off the premises.'